Home Features The 2019 Dalkey Short Story First Prize Winner

The 2019 Dalkey Short Story First Prize Winner


by Louise Farr

The Therapist wants me to write about My Perfect Day.

“How many words?” I ask and he says it doesn’t matter, although he would prefer more than a sentence. My old English teacher Mr Mack would not be impressed because he always taught us to PLAN our work using a mind map and write four paragraphs which included an introduction and an ending. You had to write the date and your name at the top because Mackers was not a mind reader and there were 32 pupils in the class. If he had to do unpaid detective work on top of all that thankless marking then he would have a nervous breakdown and we would end up with sub teachers and word searches.

I know what my perfect day would be, I think. Not living in Ariel Unit, but unfortunately I’m stuck here because I’m a risk to myself and others and therefore they restricted my liberty. “I’m afraid you meet the criteria for a secure care order,” sighed the solicitor, pecking at her phone with her plastic nails. I flicked my lighter until she noticed me. “Phoenix, you’re not helping yourself. The judge says you’re a bright girl with a lot of potential.”  

Adults say this to everyone, as if it’s supposed to inspire us. I’m hardly the girl most likely to succeed, but I used to like school. I used to iron my uniform and shower every day and do my homework and raise my hand in class instead of SHOUTING OUT. I used to get a Well Done sticker that smelt like cola bottles. In my last foster home, they gave me sandwiches with inspirational post it notes.

Therapy homework is not like school. You have to fill in problem solving sheets and think about what you could do differently and how you feel about The Thing You Have Done. My Mum knows a lot about this but she doesn’t visit because she hasn’t left the house in three years in case she steps on a pavement crack and the world ends or the dog blows up. I want to tell her that these things might happen anyway although our dog looks pretty resilient and she might feel better with some vitamin D on her face but Drake says Don’t Upset Your Mother.

Drake is my Mum’s toy boy because he is 28 and ten years younger than her. He once told me he is extremely fertile and has super terminator sperm which put me right off my spicy curry pot noodle. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a sex pest or a predator but I don’t want my Mum having a mini Drake when she spends most days thinking the neighbours are KGB agents spying on her and poisoning the tap water. In fairness, if it wasn’t for Drake, she would probably end up in hospital again so I hope he doesn’t do a disappearing act. I would also miss Tupac his gangster dog who has social emotional and behavioural issues because he misses his previous lifestyle as a criminal accessory now that Drake’s given up his job as a paramilitary community representative to look after my Mum and my little sisters Heaven and Angel, who are basically the identical twins from The Shining.

I was born on The Twelfth of July. My Mum could smell burning tyres as they pulled me out with a pair of tongs like a chicken fillet from a deep fat fryer. She was already going to bible groups and fan girling over the pastor who used to be a Hell’s Angel and break people’s necks as a hobby until Jesus came to him in a vision and told him to buy a Ford Fiesta instead.

My Mum called me Phoenix which is a Born Again bird. My middle name is Frances after an old film about a beautiful Hollywood actress who goes mad and ends up in a psychiatric hospital having a lobotomy, which was what they used to do in the old days before they could sit on people and give them a jab in the bum. This is what happened to my Mum because her medication made her gain a tonne of weight on account of feeling hungry all the time, and if she could have eaten the furniture too then she would have. The nurses made tongue clicking sounds and the Doctors strongly advised her to co-operate or they would have to sign bits of paper which said that she could no longer say yes or no to anything. It was like prison she said, but she hadn’t committed a crime.

I’m here until I make some Significant Progress. There are separate houses named after Disney characters and giant beanbags and a school that everyone goes to on account of not wanting to lie in their suicide proof rooms thinking of how badly they’ve messed up their entire lives. It’s not like teenagers don’t make mistakes because our brains are fizzing and whizzing with hormones and impulsivity but not everyone likes the sound of Hell with its tongues of flame and the fiery pit.

My Mum writes me letters. She used to write a diary when she was younger and she’s glad she did because there are giant sink holes in her memory from medication or the time when they zapped the side of her head as a very last resort. She was in for eight months that time. That’s when I stopped messing about with matches and lighters and upped my game.

I had a Perfect Day once. It was last Summer, and it was bonfire season. There were protests and signs saying FIREWOOD HERE and the houses boarded up so they didn’t melt.  My Mum was very unwell said the doctor and we were looking at another Admission as soon as a bed was free, although I knew it would be the ambulance and the doctors and the police and the blue slip of paper that said that she didn’t have any choice.

Drake told me to Keep Out of Trouble because there was talk about it all Kicking Off and he didn’t want anyone Pointing the Finger. He had enough on his plate, he said, with my Mum walking the streets in her novelty slippers and singing hymns in her nighty. I could see the bonfire from our house. It grew and grew like the giant beanstalk until the men at the top looked like tiny stick figures climbing into the clouds.

I wanted my own Eleventh Night.

I thought about all the things I would burn like my old school report or my Mum’s medical records or my birth certificate that said Father Unknown. I dreamed about rising from the flames like a real life Phoenix. Like that Sinead O’Connor song my Mum used to listen to that said I will rise and I will learn.

I worked all day. Everyone thought I was helping like half a million other kids on the estate, trailing dead branches and empty vegetable crates to build a giant bird nest in the sky. There were high up hills behind our house and beyond the grey walls that said NORTH WINDS like a medieval fortress. That’s where I used to go when my Mum was talking to people who weren’t really there and the people from the church weren’t helping with their laying on of hands and speaking in tongues and saying that my Mother was a true disciple of Christ when really I wanted her to be watching The Great British Bake Off and baking cherry scones for the school fair.

No one could see me there. I shuffled on my belly through the nettles and the branches and the rotting leaves until I could almost stand up. I dragged in an old mattress and even a stove and some food that I kept in a waterproof box after watching a programme on The Discovery Channel that told you how to avoid being eaten by giant rats. Sometimes I slept there because the rain couldn’t get in and neither could a murderer or a pervert unless he was a dwarf with an electric saw. I had my kit too. I had Super Plus Tampax for tinder, and bone dry pinecones that crackled and popped in the white hot heat. I had petrol in a can and rags for soaking and a 24 pack of Sunny Jims. It was my toolbox, my tricks of the trade. I would have made a great serial killer.

The sky was smoked glass when I started building. The heat had broken new records that day and there were men with bare chests and girls in bra tops and red cheeked babies grizzling in prams. There were dogs panting on the pavement and abandoned in cars and passers-by swore and swung their fists. It was like the film we watched at school when The Capulets had a massive fight with the Montagues and the mad blood was stirring.

It was a tragedy said Mackers, which means everyone dies at the end.

That’s when my perfect day ended. I can’t remember what happened. I followed my plan and used my best materials and I covered my tracks. Maybe it was the heat or the dry ground or the wind blowing in the wrong direction. The fire didn’t do what it was told. The smoke was in my mouth and my eyes and it choked and burned like a million first cigarettes.

You can’t outrun a blaze, but I did. I’m a Phoenix.

I didn’t bother hiding it when I got home. My hair came out in handfuls where I touched it and my eyes were full of blood. Drake cracked me across the face and my sisters bellowed and bawled. My Mum was officially a missing person by then.

I think about her a lot in here. She sends me letters in my own crappy handwriting and bible verses scrawled out like messages from the dead. I tell myself that she’s safe in hospital counting out her smoking breaks until the afternoon turns to ashes, ready to be raked out for another day. They had a guard that night but he couldn’t stop her because she’d sprinkled herself in lighter fluid like it was holy water. She was smiling he said. Like a saint.

Your Mother was very unwell says the doctor.

Drake visits me sometimes. He shows me pictures of Tupac wearing football colours and my little sisters who live with a woman called Brenda who is a comforting mountain of waterfall cardigans and makes butterfly buns that have holes full of jam. “She’s in a better place now,” he says. He fumbles for his cigarettes and goes to find some fresh air. To borrow a light from a stranger.

I pull down my sleeve and feel the lighter snug in my fist. Click.


About the author:

Louise Farr is a teacher and writer from Bangor, Co Down.

In 2018, she was the winner of the Benedict Kiely Short Story Competition and The Trisha Ashley Award. In 2019, she was the winner of The Ink Tears Short Story Competition and was also a finalist in The Doolin Writers’ Weekend Short Story Competition. She won third prize in The 2019 TSS Flash 400 and was longlisted for The 2019 Bristol Short Story Prize and shortlisted for The 2019 Bridport Short Story Prize. Her first novel was shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Novel Prize.

One of her short stories appears in Still Worlds Turning, an anthology of short stories published by No Alibis Press in June 2019.


Tinder won first prize in the Dalkey Creates 2019 Short Story Writing Competition. The €1,000 prize money was awarded at a reception in The Magpie Inn, Dalkey on Friday November 29th 2019.

2019 Joint Runners Up

  • Plexiglass by Aoibheann McCann
  • The Swimming Pool by Laura-Blaise McDowell

2019 Shortlist

  • The Opposite of Rain by Jane Lavelle
  • Holding by Rebecca Collis
  • Mammy’s Mask by Niamh O’Reilly
  • Da’s Chair by Carol Farrelly
  • The Webbed Window by Pat McCusker
  • The Last Breath by Brid McGinley
  • Unsightly by Estelle Birdy
  • Keith and Jack’s Annual St Patrick’s Day Bar Crawl by Robert Kibble

For more details on the writing competition and to keep informed for 2020 announcements see: https://www.dalkeycreates.com/shortstorycompetition or follow