Congratulations to Abigail in Middle 5 for winning this year’s Novel Writing Competition for the Girls’ School.  You can watch the announcement of all the winners here and read Abigail’s winning entry below.



He’s trapped. The dark rises to meet his heaving chest, the dust settling into the cracks on his bloodied knuckles. He can hear his breath rasping, grating against his windpipe, the stone grating above his head. Where’s Ashley? She has to be here somewhere. She was right next to him. He tries to sit, but his head hits hard rock and he tastes his own fear.

‘Ash?’ He lets the scream tear from his chest, again and again, the shouts filling with desperation. He stops after five minutes. Either she isn’t here, or she can’t respond, and there’s no use in thinking about either of those possibilities until he’s able to help her. All he can think of, though, are the wells of fear in her eyes, the light swimming in those tears. She had known it was coming, had turned and dragged him to the lift, but the hailstorm of earth and stone had separated them, and then- well, nothing. Then he had woken up alone, swathed in darkness, trapped in what would probably be his coffin.

Is he sealed in, does he have enough oxygen? He has a granola bar in his pocket, or at least he did before the rockfall, so he won’t die of starvation any time soon- but he has no water. And dehydration is a far bigger problem. He brings his hand up to wipe the sweat from his forehead and brushes across the torch strapped there. He almost laughs in disbelief. How could he have forgotten? He fumbles for a moment, but manages to flip the switch. The beam flickers slightly, afraid to reveal the situation he’s in, but he is able to catch a glimpse of his surroundings. He’s in a small cave, a jigsaw of rocks forming a wall in front of him, the shelf of stone above him craggy, an inverted mountain range.

He only has a few seconds of clarity before the light shudders and dies. It must have been hit by a falling rock. His head swirls in agreement with this thought, sparks flashing before his eyes. Exhaustion tugs at him, and he is swept away in the river.


Chapter One

It was 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, and I was stood by the coffee pot, watching the tendrils of steam reaching tentatively from the kettle, only to dissipate into the stale air that filled the station. I was on yet another early coffee run for the officers in conference room two, fuelling their mysterious new case with caffeine. The station was alive with rumours over what this case could be- a kidnapping, a break-in, maybe a theft? There weren’t many crimes in Puddleton, and even the most basic B&E could send the twelve hardworking officers in the local police service into overdrive. It wasn’t that they enjoyed the crimes… no, that would be unprofessional. It was just a nice change from the usual patrol and parking fines. And this summer had been host to the highest crime spike since 2007.

The kettle let out a whine, and I quickly filled the cafetiere, placing the lid on. I’d let it strengthen for a few minutes. It was my second week of work experience, and I had finally perfected the coffee order. A thimble of black coffee for Detective Perez, strong enough to make an elephant jittery (‘I like them strong, thank you’). A huge, milky latte for Andrea, with a cheeky squirt of caramel syrup (‘or strawberry- surprise me, darling’), a cappuccino for Officer Goldstein (‘there’s chocolate powder behind Andrea’s syrup- our little secret- if anyone asks, it’s coffee powder’). And for my uncle, instant coffee (‘just a splash of milk, Elodie- none of that syrup or Goldstein’s chocolate rubbish, you hear me?’). I had once made the mistake of asking him if he wanted sugar in it, and had earned a look of pure disgust and a brief lecture on the purity of ‘untainted’ coffee.

I slowly pushed the filter down through the murky liquid, staring at the strip lighting above my head.  My mind was still furry with sleep, clogged with ideas. I had been up late last night, writing, and I had regretted it the moment my alarm went at six thirty. I continued to filter the coffee, trying to squash down my thoughts with the grains. Even I, the sort-of-intern, had had to come in early these last few days, to help out with the increased workload. With four officers focused on the new case, the rest of us had our work cut out  filling in for them. I could only file and shadow other officers, really, as I wasn’t a trained constable, but I still had to chip in in any way I could.

I didn’t mind. Summer holidays were always endless, a blur of mild heat and long evenings, pleasant but dull, and it was good to have something to do. Some work experience would look good on my CV too.

With the chipped, scarred mugs balanced on a tray, I made my way past Frank’s desk to the second conference room. Frank gave me a wave, and I nodded back, tray wobbling. Frank was a small, portly, balding man, with deep-set eyes that often flashed with supressed laughter. His face was softly creased, lines tracking every smile. He was my ‘commanding officer’ for the summer, doling out the jobs, and letting me sit in on the less important meetings. ‘Anything new today?’ I asked.

Frank shrugged. ‘More filing?’ I sighed and hoisted up a grin.

‘Eh, it’ll be alright. Want a coffee?’ It was Frank’s turn to sigh. He held up a dented thermos forlornly.

‘I’m alright. Jen made me one.’ His wife’s coffees were foul, but he was too afraid of her to say anything or try any other drink. I grimaced my condolences and continued winding my way between the small desks to the room where my uncle was sat with the others, pouring over evidence. They had barely left the office since the call had come in two days ago.

The entire department knew that something big must have had happened, but we just couldn’t gather enough intel to work out what was going on. I trawled through the news every morning, but I wasn’t able find anything in the radius of Puddleton that would require 18 hour days from our best detectives. I had been trying to find out as much as I could, sneaking glances at files and eavesdropping on conversations, but I still knew very little. To be entirely honest, I was impressed that my uncle had kept the case secret in such a close knit village. Gossip was a currency in Puddleton.

I pushed open the door to conference room two with my foot, tray just balanced on my left arm, right hand twisting the door knob. The room was small, the carpet a faded once-blue, the blinds bleached and dusty. I noticed a long dead bee lying forlornly on the sill. Beyond the windows was the parking lot, bright with fading flowers planted by the local council. Even the ornamental cactus on the filing cabinet was wilting in the summer heat. I passed round the coffees, unashamedly trying to catch a glimpse of the notes piled high of the table, though I failed to discover anything. ‘So, how’s it going?’ I nudged my uncle’s shoulder, trying to move his hand away from his notepad.

‘Thank you for the coffee, Elodie. I’ll see you later.’ He shrugged off my hand and closed his notebook, firmly.

‘Yeah, thanks for the coffee!’ beamed Andrea, already gulping down her latte. ‘You really are a lifesaver, sweetie.’ I smiled through my frustration and left with the tray, taking one last look over my shoulder as I opened the door. Goldstein was bent over a laptop, studying a video intently with deeply shadowed eyes. His glasses were slightly askew, his hair sticky with sweat. Perez was scanning a thick manila file, prickling with paperclips and frayed at the edges, slowly sipping her coffee. Her dark hair was twisted into an immaculate bun, her face refusing to betray any trace of the exhaustion that she must have been aching with. Anthea, a small woman with bouncy hair pulled into a loose low ponytail, was still chirpy, an old coffee stain on her shirt passing unnoticed as she furiously scribbled on a pad. Only my uncle was still, staring pensively out of the window, deep in thought, grey eyes unfocused, or perhaps focused on something I could not see.

I’ve always thought that lack of sleep brings out caricatures of people. When we’re tired, we put less effort into restraining our full personality. Here was the perfect study, the perfect opening scene- the four small-town detectives slaving over the impossible case, a case unknown to the other officers. The cheery young go-getter working hard to impress the boss on her first big crime. The suave lady’s man falling apart at the seams, unable to put together the pieces. The unflappable, hardened officer, refusing to let her emotions interfere with the case, ever the mask of professionalism. And the experienced inspector, putting together the timeline in his head, lining up the evidence, holding his team together as time ticked on and they got no further.

‘Elodie?’ My uncle’s voice shattered the synopsis building in my head. ‘Thank you for the coffee.’ I grinned awkwardly, and ducked out of the room.

Chapter Two

I have always wanted to create films. To weave together the threads that thread together childhoods and relationships, to build up the layers of character and plot and vision until I had something tangible, something real. So, I didn’t really know why my dad thought I should do my work experience at the local police station. I thought that maybe he needed a week to himself, and with the twins at my aunt’s he might actually get a shot at it. Balancing three children and a fifty-five hour working week was no small feat, and I had started to see him cracking, hairline fractures spidering across his calm demeanour.

But as I spent more and more time at my desk, a small one, stuffed between the sideboard a cracked, grubby window, I saw the oil well of characters and stories that this place truly was. The officers had lived through so much, been so instrumental in so many other lives, that talking to them, reading over their cases (however dull), was the best experience I could get. And now there was a case being hidden from the entire department, being worked upon tirelessly by a team of plucky officers and seasoned detectives. What more did I need?

So, I may have slightly exaggerated the drama of the situation. Perhaps the case we were all so excited about was in fact tax fraud, or local vandalism. But I was almost certain it wasn’t. Firstly, if it was something local, the entire village would have heard about it by now. Mrs Pritchard wasn’t one to deprive her neighbours of a good gossip. Or, if this was some corporation bending the truth on their tax forms or some low-level graffiti why was my uncle keeping it secret? Why would he have to spend so much time locked up in that musty old office, mainlining caffeine to stay on the job? There had to be something going on. Something bigger than graffiti or embezzlement. And it was almost my duty to find out what- to sniff out the story. If this wasn’t the makings of a good film, what was?

‘Dee?’ I heard Frank’s voice drifting through my furious scheming. ‘You done with those files?’

‘Oh, yeah, one second.’ I swore quietly, flicking through the paperwork as fast as I could, searching for errors. I had been daydreaming for at least fifteen minutes – time we didn’t currently have to spare. I stumbled over a box full of cleaning stuff and practically threw the files at Frank. ‘They’re all okay. Alphabetical order, right?’ Frank nodded, bemused.

‘Alphabetical order.’ He put his glasses on, rifling through the sheafs of paper. ‘Good job. Right, here’s the next batch.’ He handed me a pile that reached his eyebrows, and I frowned.

‘Ah, such fun.’ I muttered, wishing I was still on the coffee run. With a lurch of disgust and sympathy, I noticed a dead bug sandwiched between the top two files.

Frank chuckled. ‘Well, you signed up for it. It’s more fun when you are qualified to solve the cases, not just order them. There was this one case, when I was in my early thirties, still in London then, where we were investigating this ‘garage’. Yeah- it was owned by this bloke- he wasn’t a mechanic- and he always had these properly suspicious guys delivering crates late at night. His accounts didn’t add up, a couple of neighbours had witnessed huge wadges of cash passing hands, so we planted a bug in the storage room…’ I had stopped listening. The bug! That dead bee on the windowsill in conference room two- I could use it to disguise a microphone, find out what my uncle was investigating. A plan began to form, a rising sandstorm, the pieces slowly coming together.

‘But in the end, we got him on a parking ticket, then wrung the information out of him in interrogation. That’s the dream, isn’t it? Bringing them to justice?’ I nodded absently, mind still whirring. 

‘Actually, Frank, could I take a break? Get some fresh air?’ Frank winced.

‘Well – actually we don’t have much time – we have to get these filed by -’ I smiled pleadingly. ‘Oh, fine. Be quick though.’

‘Of course. I’ll be back before you know it.’ I wound my way out from behind my desk, worming between the sideboard and the front of Chris’ desk. Chris looked up with a wide smile, the kind I imagined a crocodile would give its prey. He seemed to think it was charming.

‘Hey, Dee.’ He raised one eyebrow. I thought he looked like he was having stroke.

‘Chris.’ I gave him a nod, trying desperately to get through the impossibly small gap between his desk and the kitchen.

‘Been a while, hasn’t it?’ I gritted my teeth.

‘Talked to you this morning, Chris.’ Chris gave dry laugh.

‘Feels like longer, with all this paperwork. I signed up for action and justice, not filing. It’s my calling, you know?’ Chris looked off into the distance, eyes creased.

‘You’ve mentioned.’ I finally passed his desk, and began to make for the door.

‘But maybe I can still fulfil a calling today. Want to get a drink tonight?’ He grinned at me, and I groaned back, finally at the door.

Chris had been trying to drag me to a date for weeks. He was in my year at school, had also got a summer internship in the station, and was using every second of it to hound me.

I shook my head, clearing it of all annoyance. It was cooler out here, a soft summer breeze lifting my hair out of my eyes. It was easier to breathe without the mist of stress and coffee fumes that had filled the stuffy bullpen. The sky was rich and deep, the few clouds lonely and distant.

But I was wasting time. If I was going to follow this plan through, I needed every second I could get before Frank called me back to work. Tarmac slapping beneath my flipflops, I pulled a cloth from my pocket, swiped from the cleaning box. Quickly wiping at the other windows, I worked my way round to the conference room. I could just see the hunched form of my uncle through the blinds, hand to his nose in a gesture of pinched desperation. He could get so worked up about things, my uncle, turning every problem over and over until he could no longer hold it straight in his head. I rapped on the window, smiling loosely.

‘Hey, Uncle Ib?’ I waved furiously, and I saw Andrea tap my uncle on the shoulder with a frown. He turned around and sighed, clearly none too pleased to see my splintered face grinning through the gap in the blinds. I mimed opening the windows, and my uncle rolled his eyes, reluctantly complying. He could see I wasn’t going away.

‘What is it, Elodie?’ The words came out in a rushed breath, each one costing him a precious second.

‘Sorry, Uncle. I know how busy you all are, but I was just wiping down the windows, and… Well, I saw how dirty it was in there, and I thought I could tidy up a bit for you. You know – tidy desk, tidy mind?’

My uncle looked at me in disbelief. ‘You’re asking me to believe that Frank, in the middle of the busiest week this year, got you to clean the windows. We haven’t cleaned the windows in years, Elodie – years. What are you up to?’

I bit my lip, feigning dismay, pulling him in. ‘Um… well, I took the initiative, and decided to clean everything up a bit on my lunch break. You could ask Frank, he’d tell you I’m on a break. And then I saw you guys holed up in here, and thought that you could do with a fresh perspective, so I thought I would offer to give the room a once over, you know? I can be so quiet, you won’t know I’m there!’ I could hear myself rambling, and I went on, letting a slow smile cross my face. ‘Or, you could take lunch outside? And then you’d come back to beautifully clean desks, and be ready to go.’

Uncle Ibrahim looked at me, a small smile playing on his lips. ‘You know, you take after your mother. You can’t lie for toffee, can you? I know you’re not stupid. You can’t seriously think we’ll fall for this.’ I opened my mouth, about to speak, argue my case, but my uncle held up a hand, suppressing a laugh. ‘You know what, why don’t you give this room a clean. You’re right, we could all do with a break. You can come in and clean while we have our lunch. It’ll be good to chat. We’ll just put all the case stuff away.’ I gave a huff of disappointment, but once I had passed out of sight I let myself grin, buzzing with triumph. He hadn’t fallen for my first trap, but he had tripped right into the second net I’d baited. I hadn’t expected him to fall for the dumb girl act, but he’d reacted just right, just as I had hoped, twisting what he thought was my plan to ‘his advantage’.

People are so predictable.