Stories For Survival 2021 – Adult Shortlist
Congratulations to our six shortlisted writers. The winner will be announced at our Awards evening at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday 18th November:
1. Caroline Blake
A really poignant account, captures that very familiar fleeting joy of an encounter on the road, told in a very intimate letter form.
A World Without You
I had already been there a week when we met. His opening line was something about if I showed him my tan marks, he would show me his. I was sat on the wall at the edge of the beach in Calpe, reading a book. I was going to tell him to do one and leave me alone, only in words that weren’t so polite. But when I looked up, I saw this gorgeous boy with the deepest blue eyes you have ever seen. He had the cutest freckles over his nose. I don’t think I have ever seen a boy with freckles before.
He sat down next to me. I didn’t object.
We ended up sitting on that wall for hours, just talking and looking out to sea and watching people on the beach. You know how much I love to do that.
He asked whether I had any brothers or sisters. I could have just said no and changed the subject. But I told him that I had a sister, but that you weren’t with us anymore. I told him all about you. It wasn’t awkward at all. He didn’t walk away. He just let me talk.
It felt nice to talk about you.
Then he bought us both an ice cream and, and a bottle of a Coke and we sat and watched the clouds racing across the sky, as though they were heading towards some beautiful place that we could only imagine. Heaven?
I kicked my legs against the wall and one of my flipflops fell down onto the beach. He jumped down, picked it up, shook the sand off it and put it back on my foot. “It fits!” he said.
I think that was the first time I had laughed since you went.
He told me I had cute feet. I tried to shake off the compliment and stop the blush from rising to the surface. If he noticed the pink in my cheeks, he didn’t say. He jumped back onto the wall next to me and took hold of my hand for the first time.
I feel sad that you won’t ever meet him. But I suppose I have to get used to that kind of thing happening.
A world without you.
On the first day we met, he walked me back to the villa when it was starting to go dark. He introduced himself to Mum and Dad. He even shook Dad’s hand. It was like something out of a Jane Austen book.
I spent most of the next day with him on the beach. We ate watermelon and pineapple for lunch from a boy who was selling slices of it from a basket on the beach. What a great job, walking up and down the beach all day selling fruit.
He walked me back the villa again but just as we got to the gate, he pushed me against the wall and kissed me. The most gentle and delicious kiss ever. It was so romantic. He put one hand on the side of my face and the other hand on the back of my neck.
When we managed to break away from each other, I wanted to run back to the villa, find you, grab your arm, pull you into my bedroom, jump on the bed and tell you all about it. You weren’t there.
But I know you can see him. Did you send him to me? Is that your job now? I wish I knew what you did up there.
I didn’t see him the next day. He was going on a boat trip with his friends. One of those where they pour Sangria down your throat from a big brown jug and have party games and make everyone take shots. I wouldn’t have wanted to go. Forced fun.
He sent messages and photos to me all day. He said there was no-one on the boat as pretty as me and he wished I was there. I told him to chill out and stop stalking me.
“Never,” he said.
The day after, he said he wanted to take me to dinner; a proper date. We went to a Spanish place called El Toro Blano. He ordered his steak rare. I had a paella. I would have preferred a burger, but can you imagine eating a burger in front of a boy? Absolutely not.
I wore your pale blue dress. The one with the tiny straps, that you would never let me borrow. You don’t mind do you?
He said I looked beautiful. No-one has ever said that to me before – apart from Mum and Dad, but that doesn’t count. I didn’t tell him that the dress was yours. I didn’t want him to judge me or think it was weird that I am wearing some of your clothes.
After our meal, he held my hand and we walked down to the promenade. We sat on a bench facing the sea and talked and kissed and talked and kissed, for hours.
I put my head on his shoulder and could have stayed there all night.
I was late back.
Dad phoned me at ten past midnight. I had promised him I would be back by twelve.
In Spanish time, it wasn’t late at all.
He ran with me all the way back to the villa and he said that when he is old and he looks back on his life, he will remember this night, running through the narrow streets, dodging people as they tumbled out of the bars, holding hands with the most gorgeous girl he had ever met.
We ran past a street vendor selling barbequed corn on the cob, dripping in butter and wrapped up in brown paper. The smell would have been enticing, in normal times. But I can’t eat sweetcorn anymore. I can’t help remembering that we had sweetcorn on the night you died.
Love Sophia x
2. Zoe Wilcken
A really thought-provoking piece with a clever, original angle, which feels particularly pertinent now as we begin to pine for some of the unexpected gifts bestowed by lockdown.
When the walls disappeared, we were in the kitchen making tea.
We were watching the kettle in the corner of the room when it stopped being a corner altogether. And instead of the place where two walls meet, it became the place through which we could see Mary from next door, standing up from the toilet in a hurry, pulling up her trousers and looking about with a strange expression on her face. Wondering if it was a dream, we thought. And then we looked around, and there was Mr Das, on the other side of us, wearing jeans and no shirt. And Rosie, still in bed, head poking out over the duvet. Her face was so red we could see it glowing from the kitchen, a whole house away.
The first few days after the walls disappeared we were quiet. We spoke in almost-whispers, so as not to be heard. And we held towels around each other when we needed to get changed, and hid under blankets when we didn’t want to be seen. Which was often, in the first few days.
We glanced over at our neighbours, every now and then, after the walls had gone. Just to check that they were still there, or sometimes to see what they were doing. But mostly they were just doing Normal Things, like eating a bowl of cereal, or reading a book, or leaving for work.
And so it wasn’t long, only a few weeks, before we stopped paying attention to them. Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes we couldn’t help ourselves. Like when Rosie proposed to Mr Das. We all watched that. And then we pretended not to know when Rosie came round to tell us the next day. Just like we pretended not to hear them arguing over where they should live. Louder and louder, across the table and then all through the house, until Rosie hissed at him and pointed at us with her eyes. After that, they whisper-argued, like snakes.
But the next time they fought, I think they forgot about the walls, and we tasted every word. It didn’t matter by then, though. Everyone had done it at least once. So we just blocked our ears and turned the TV up, and tried not to listen.
It was around that time, after the walls had gone, that people started taking baths again. And we stopped bothering with the towel when we were getting dressed. I think we all just stopped caring. That invisible string that used to yank on the backs of our heads and tell us that Something was happening seemed to have gone. It wasn’t that it had snapped, or faded away. I think we just gradually realised that it had never really been there, to begin with.
And when the walls disappeared, the creatures came in. They made little homes inside ours, all the mice and the crickets, and the spiders and the birds. There were screams, at first, every now and then. And you’d know someone had found a beetle in their sock, or that a family of rats had made a home beneath their bed. It was like that for a while. And then one day I think we must have forgotten that we were ever afraid of them, each of us, one by one. Or maybe we just realised we didn’t actually mind sharing, not so much as we had supposed.
Anyway, there the creatures were, when the walls were gone. And there the screams weren’t, after a while.
Then there was the night that was worse than the screams. A sort of choking, gasping, broken noise that came from across the way. Like something was clutching at air, scraping at the sides of it, just barely holding on. And so we looked. And there was old Mr Grey, in his house, on his own. And there was his back, heaving with sobs. And there were his lungs, clawing for air, and his hands trying to hide it.
We looked at each other, all of us, across the street, and for a moment none of us moved. And then Mrs Peabody, the lady with the cats, got up from her chair that had been rocking her to sleep. And she shuffled across the way, slowly, quietly, and she sat down next to him for a bit. Just sat there and didn’t say a word.
A long time passed and nothing happened at all. And we watched. And then Mr Grey’s throat stopped constricting, just a little. Just enough for him to whisper quietly to her, something that might have been,
And then he whimpered, and his back shook silently, and she pulled him to her and she held him.
The next day, long after the walls had gone, Mr Grey baked rhubarb pies. We smelt them gently browning, and watched them, one by one, come piping hot from the oven. And then he beckoned us, and over we all went.
We ate the pies together, with little bowls and spoons, and vanilla ice cream on top, and greedy mouths that couldn’t wait for it to melt.
We stayed there into the night, playing games and eating food, and spilling out the edges of old Mr Grey’s house because there weren’t any walls to stop us. The next week we did it again, and the week after that. The pie-smell, and the house and the games and the night.
After the walls disappeared, Mary’s piano sailed through the street, loud and clear. And we danced, every now and then, as her nimble fingers crafted the air into feeling. It was almost like we had no choice, once the walls had gone. She was our piper and we were her children. And we were happy.
When the walls disappeared, we almost forgot that they had ever been there at all.
And then one day the walls came back, and it was sort of strange.
I wished they’d go away again.
3. Lucy Chard
An electrifying description of Sub-Saharan Africa, made personal by a minute, vivid, detailed focus on its sights, sounds and smells.
A World Without…
There’s something about it. The air. The sky. The animals. Even the dirt beneath your feet. There’s something about it. Close your eyes and take a deep lungful. Scrunch your toes into the earth. Listen for the sounds of the creatures all around you, try and pin point their origins. Breathe out. Open your eyes.
It’s the wilderness of Sub Saharan Africa. That’s the key thing too, the wilderness. The wildness of it, the freedom and the space, the noise and the taste. It besieges your senses and gets deep into your bones; your soul. That’s what the wilderness of Africa does.
So let’s explore this world, let’s take a walk through the wilderness.
It’s hot, even though it’s still early in the day, once the sun is up it’s hot, if you are up early enough you see the birds lining the most exposed branches of the trees, puffing up their feathers, willing themselves to warm up. We’re a few hours past that now but you can’t yet see the mirages in the distance of heat waves rising off the baked earth. You can feel the warmth of it seeping into your skin, the energy it gives you is almost palpable. Taking a step, at first unsure – there’s so much to explore, where to start? But your feet carry you forward, it doesn’t matter where you go. Barefoot is the best way to walk in the wilderness, as you become absorbed in your surroundings you forget about any tiny little stones that dig into the soles of your feet, it’s all apart of the experience, it connects you to everything around you, and you swear you can start to feel the thrum of life right there through the ground, resonating inside of you, mingling with the beat of your own heart.
Now we’re covering some ground, moving across the open plain towards the edge of a cluster of trees, the shadows creating a contrast with the morning light slanting through the trunks looks inviting; interesting. As you get closer to the trees you start to hear a bird calling, wait, one bird? Or several birds? All different birds? At first it’s difficult to distinguish but, as you concentrate, picking out each note you can define the patterns more clearly, and slowly you start to see the songsmiths themselves in amongst the branches, they’ve been there the whole time but it’s only when you really look can you see them. You’ve got your eye in now though. You catch flashes of colour, a red face of a black-collared barbet and as you travel deeper into the trees the purple underbelly of a Knysna turaco, which swiftly disappears with a flick of a green wing, melting into the canopy. Staring up convinced you see it again you turn on the spot but nothing, just green leaves again. Suddenly a familiar smell hits you, but it’s out of place, where would you find popcorn in the wilderness? Well, you see you’ve stumbled across a male leopard’s morning route, scent marking – reinforcing his territory. You see the other signs now, scratch marks in the bark of a tree over there, new gouge marks cast over the scars of older ones; this is routinely trodden path.
Heart rate racing slightly more now you start to look around more intently as you walk, not blundering along with eyes lost in the canopy but searching between the trunks for anything more… surprising. The trees become more dense, thorny creepers sliding past your skin, catching slightly but you carry on, something drives you to get through the trees, to see what’s on the other side.
You feel more at one with the wilderness now, you can identify the bird calls just on the whisper of a song, you’ve registered the call of a group of baboons, just starting to play up a little, but they’re a way off.
Pushing through the trees now, eyes scanning for anything, your breath quickens and sweat starts to bead on your forehead as you become more aware that your field of vision is reducing, limited to just within a few trees in front of you, your senses are straining; heightened, this could be dangerous, you need to get out from these trees.
As quickly as the copse had surrounded you you’re out the other side, bursting through, you pause, looking back and catching your breath, hearing the blood rush humming through your ears. Almost like a rumble. No, that’s not you, the deep belly rumble feels like it could be coming from you though. You turn slowly to see what had been drawing through the trees and you’re greeted with a large oasis, the water shining and glassy. You see where the rumble came from now. A small herd of elephants stand at the waters edge, the largest – she must be the Matriarch – has taken a drink, she’s the one that is rumbling, encouraging the others to also quench their thirst. It’s all you can do to stand stock still and watch them. You don’t need to move closer, they are still unaware of you as you are blending into the background of the trees. You can see how they move, deliberately but with ease, they have a majesty that is both graceful and terrifying. You carefully sit down, you can watch them now, quietly, in their wilderness.
There’s something about it, in fact there’s a lot about it, and you don’t want to live in a world without…
4. Glyn Matthews
A really beautiful, powerful evocation of place, its vivid, arresting phrases precisely, poetically evoking atmosphere and mood.
When my turn comes
take me to the West, to “The Knoll”,
Barclodiad y Gawres,
where we used to stroll
around the stones
fashioned by ancients
and burnished by time,
embraced by the tumbling waves
of a Celtic sea,
sliding silver into a sunlit bay,
chided by gulls, rising on updrafts,
against a scudding sky.
blunder across the mound,
taking selfies against the light,
squinting and listening to the sound
of thunder from the rocks below.
Afraid to fall, they lean
into the white-lipped wind,
hair whipped across
half-baked, grinning faces,
then transported in an instant
to fair-weather friends.
With Neolithic grace,
I’ll nurse my bones and slow my pace,
feeling with blind eyes for ley-lines
that once played across the face
of this prehistoric land,
that stride between the stones,
waiting for silence
beneath the tumbling sky
and the yearning of the gulls,
above lonely promenades
and abandoned summer homes….
After all….Earth abides.
5. Cherie Magnus
A captivating account, full of fresh, evocative imagery to conjure the magic of those butterflies, “soft as whispers”.
A world without butterflies – The Monarch Milagro
Long before we see a glint of their orange wings, we hear them, hundreds of millions of them. What appear to be acres of trees in brilliant autumn foliage is instead the multitudes of butterflies roosting so thickly as to entirely hide the trees. Because it is warm and sunny at that moment, they are beginning to stir and fly and fill the air, thousands mating as they are mysteriously drawn here to do every year.
It was a cold and wet February in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, but the sidewalk sign under the arcade had announced MARIPOSAS! BUTTERFLIES! Curiosity made me climb the stairs to Tours Mexico Colonial to inquire, “What’s with the sign about butterflies? It’s the middle of winter. What butterflies?” As a fledgling expatriate in Mexico, I was curious about everything.
“That’s why we have the Monarch Butterfly Tour—to see them in their winter home before their migration back north,” Jaime the tour owner explained. “We can only visit from November to March.”
I had heard about the Monarchs resting in a particular tree the same time every year in Monterey, Northern California, on their way to Mexico, but even though I was from Los Angeles, I had never seen the famous phenomenon. “Sign me up,” I said.
That night a huge storm hit San Miguel and the neighboring highlands, the worst in many years. Streets flooded and the temperature dropped to below freezing.
When a few days later the morning dawned cold but bright, Jaime, a couple from Canada, and I set off on the three-hour drive to Michoacan and the butterfly sanctuary at 10,400 feet. As we climb up the Sierra Cinqua mountains, we pass through the old silver mining town of Angangeo, hung copiously with festive flags of laundry, since today is the first dry day in a long time.
No one really knows exactly why the Monarchs come to this part of the world every year to hibernate, but some people think that the butterflies are drawn to Sierra Cinqua because of programmed insect genetics. Others believe they are attracted by the magnetism of the minerals still in the earth, even after centuries of mining.
At last we arrive at the El Rosario Sanctuary, owned by indigenous groups with the mandate to protect and preserve. The biggest problem facing the conservation of the winter home of the Monarchs here in Mexico is the prevention of clandestine logging and deforestation. Felled trees are today’s money for family food; butterfly conservation is tomorrow’s lofty aspiration.
Jaime pays to park in what I suppose is a parking lot, but today it is just our one car in a field of mud after the torrential storms. As we get out and look around, a posse of horses and riders crests the hill—for rent in case we don’t feel up to the long trek to the Monarchs’ sanctuary way up in the pines.
Nevertheless we set off on foot with our guide, Maria Elena Mondragon Chavez, a tiny indigenous woman of 68, who leads us up the hill, through the piney woods, and over the snow for hours. A guide is necessary because the butterflies’ refuge changes according to the sun and winds, and it takes a specialist to find them. The insects have their favorite trees and foods (milkweed) and are carried from area to area in the forests by warm thermals. Guides insure that visitors don’t damage either the insects or any part of their haven.
The storm three days ago had wreaked havoc on the sanctuary—freezing cold and tree limbs breaking under the weight of heavy snow–and millions of Monarchs lie dead in the snow at our feet, creating a frozen carpet of orange and black. I see the butterflies everywhere, surrounding me below and above and filling the sky, and the world is a magical orange and black of movement. They light on us, on our faces, soft as whispers, cover our hair and gentle our breathing. Engulfed in swirling emotions and butterflies, I feel a wave of intense mutual love and connection to the infinite.
Our silence and awe and the quiet sound of millions and millions of wings beating turns the forest into a church, a holy mystic place of wonder, with tiny living fragments of stained glass knowing something that we don’t. Here is a wonder no one really understands, a mystery taking place each year for millennia that even scientists can’t figure out.
In another couple of months, the Monarchs will begin their annual 3,000 mile return flight north to their summer homes in Canada and the United States. For now they hang like clusters of Spanish moss from the fir trees high up in the mountains of Mexico, and then, when warmed by the sun, mate in the snow. As the males die, the females lay their eggs in the milkweed that sustains the Monarchs. Soon the caterpillars hatch to begin the cycle again with the flight north.
The ancient peoples of Mexico believe that each Monarch butterfly is the soul of a dead child. The butterfly is a Christian symbol for the Resurrection. There’s no doubt that their yearly 6,000 mile roundtrip migration to the same forests in highest Mexico is a mystery—and a miracle.
The vaqueros with the horses again appear through the trees as we, drained and weary, begin our descent. Jaime hikes down on foot with Maria Elena, but the Canadians and I mount our horses and set off through the snow, surrounded and serenaded by beating wings.
6. Rajesh Radhakrishna Tikam
Almost written as a fable in how the story unfolds, it paints a vivid picture.
A World Without Leopards.
It was the early 1950’s and my village in India was still surrounded by the dense jungle. The jungle had its music that always inspired me. Birds singing along with pattering rain, frogs interrupting sweet music with their offbeat noises, peacock stretching out his gorgeous dotted feathers to start a classical dance and mighty tigers roaring to remind everyone of their royal existence. It was a perfect pleasing surrounding until human greed gulped everything like a wildfire.
For all trees in the jungle, those were the frightening days. No one knew which tree would get sacrificed in the fire of human greed or which animal would drown in the ocean of human thirst. Enormous trees were not only cut down to create homes but few were burned because they were not beautiful enough to decorate pleasing gardens.
I can still listen to those silent screams of trees and the painful howling of animals. They believed that some miracle would save their forest, but nothing happened. Everything burned in the greed of human wildfire.
When this fire of human greed reached its peak and the jungle was disappearing like a river in drought, only one animal drew her sharp paws to challenge humans. She was a beautiful leopard with gorgeous dotted golden fur.
That gorgeous leopard was still there to show humans the stubbornness of the jungle. When there was not a single deer left in the forest to hunt, she wisely drew her paws on helpless dogs. No one knew when she was sneaking into a new town and where she was disappearing after hunting dogs. She was a ghost with frightening amber eyes and humans got scared to even step out in the darkness.
After a long game of hide and seek, finally, a battle sparked among human greed and helpless hunger. Each day a different trap was set to capture the rebellious leopard who denied human rules, but the result was the same, “She escaped again!” Disappointed humans used to shout like frustrated kids. “Oh! She is too fast.” They used to admire her skills in amazement. But unfortunately, each intelligence has its limit, swiftness exhausts with distance and hunger has its mistakes.
When humans realized that it was impossible to compete with a predator’s instinct of survival, they came up with a cowardly idea. Humans tried to poison her. I always wondered why she was risking her life to be around the nanny’s garden. She could have escaped with other leopards but yet she decided to challenge the greed of humans.
That night when she arrived in the nanny’s garden and jumped around the old mango branches, she discovered a dead goat lying beneath the old mango tree. The goat was poisoned. Her instinct knew there was something wrong but an irresistible hunger forced her to fall into a human trap.
With a few silent jumps, she quickly landed on the ground, grabbed the dead goat by the neck and returned among the mango branches. Coward humans were hiding behind bushes and were watching a dangerous yet honest animal satisfying her hunger.
As they predicted, soon her wild eyesight blurred and strong legs lost their strength. She was struggling to keep balance among the old mango branches. But before the humans could capture her, she again disappeared like a ghost and even death refused to help humans.
She was gone, the last soldier of this forest disappeared. Everyone was curious where the leopard went? For her golden fur, humans conducted several expeditions but failed. I was hoping for some miracle and wished to hear the good news of her safety, but Mother Nature was silent.
I asked clouds but they sneaked away without uttering a word. I asked the blowing wind to tell me about the brave leopard, but the wind was speechless too. She was so silent that I knew it’s a silence of tears; instead of answering, the wind carried two old mango leaves with her and blew towards the deep jungle.
As I followed those leaves, I realized the jungle was changing. Half of a forest was already gulped by a concrete jungle and the other half was being transformed into an artificial garden to keep the green garland alive. But this garland had no space for animals. Birds were welcomed but they too preferred to escape.
When those old leaves crossed a buzzing river and entered into the last remaining narrow forest, they sensed a fear. As if all animals knew this concrete jungle will soon gulp their new homes too. Suddenly the silent wind whirled around a bush and threw those tired leaves into a cave. I silently followed them and stepped into the cave.
Inside, I saw a gorgeous leopard with beautiful dotted golden fur, lying on the ground, battling to grasp as many breaths as she could. She wanted to live, only for her little cubs. For those little cubs, it was a normal night to annoy their mother before sleeping. They wished their mother would whirl her tail and they would fight to catch it, but her tail never whirled, it was motionless, silent and dead.
It’s been 11 years and the leopards around the world are still fighting for their existence. How the world would be without the beautiful leopards, I wonder again and again.
All entries will be published on our web site once the competition concludes.