I woke up this morning to the exciting news that my story “Strung Along in Seaforth” had made it onto the British Science Fiction Award longlist for works published in 2023. The story was originally published in the prestigious Interzone magazine with wonderful illustrations by Vinayak Varma. who also made the longlist for his triptych illustrating the story (above).
This is the first time I’ve even made the first round of any of the writing awards and I’m so happy – this story took a long time to get the ending just right, but I’m genuinely proud of it and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Of course Interzone is a paid magazine, so many people considering nominating the story for the shortlist won’t be able to access it. I’m reprinting it below until the deadline on 20th February. You can also download a PDF with all of Vinayak’s wonderful art in the layout of the print magazine.
Interzone is undergoing a renaissance under new editor Gareth Jelley and has recently moved back to its old monthly publication schedule now as an ebook. New 12-issue subscriptions start with #297 and will also get free electronic versions of #294,295 and 296. Be there for Interzone 300!
And if you’re a member of the BSFA please consider voting for Seaforth in the short-story category and Vinayak in the art category to make the shortlist!
Tobias dressed the shop dummy in the skin of his late father and then carefully pinched and pulled until it was smooth and tight. Harold was to be his entry in Seaforth’s annual carnival and after the disappointment of last year he was determined to win. Not least because this would be his final chance: his father’s corpse would not last another year and he had no more close relatives left to enter with.
Over the past decade he had refined the art of preserving the family cadavers for the town’s Mannequin and Marionette Carnival. He had come close to attaining the grand prize, as well as the long-desired respect and acclaim of his peers, but never won.
For the preceding four years he had lost to old Elsie Higginbotham, pipped to the post for what were — to him — technicalities. Four years ago, his restoration of Aunt Mabel’s skin had been adjudged more “peaky” than Elsie’s winning mother-in-law, while two years after that the wig that he had used on Dennis — his older half-brother — had been declared inauthentic and synthetic, but what could he have done? Dennis’ hair had been irreversibly damaged by the fire.
Last year was a bigger disaster. His attempt to present a marionette dramatisation of cousin Peter’s first audition — Peter was a noted member of the local amateur dramatics society — had offended the panel of judges and Tobias finished outside the top five for the first time. Elsie’s presentation of her younger sister as a rather clichéd shepherdess had breezed to first place. Beaten again.
His humiliation, at first, brought despair, but then he had come up with a plan.
On the day before the carnival Tobias had nothing much left to do, but he could tell that something was missing. The skin was now fitting perfectly so what could it be? All morning he paced up and down in front of his father’s mannequin, and eventually decided that a new pocket square was required for the stylish old burgundy suit that he had chosen for it. The theme for this entry was simple: Tobias had reined in his wilder tendencies after last year’s disappointment, and his father would be presented as the town had known him — impeccably dressed, with a rakish air and a twinkle in his eye.
Bristling with creativity, Tobias rushed out of the cottage he’d once shared with his large family and took the fifteen-minute walk along the clifftops to the centre of Seaforth. He avoided encountering Elsie or one of her cronies, then spent a happy hour at Fancy’s Emporium finding the perfect green plaid to match the wine-coloured tweed.
To celebrate this success, he stopped by Old Hattie’s bakery and picked up an egg and cress sandwich. Hattie had a range of eggs and he chose the puffin, with the optional beak flakes. He took it to the pier by the harbour, where he sat and watched the corpse dredgers unloading their hauls.
“Ooh is that Tobias? Shouldn’t he be at home practising his sinew stitch?”
He shuddered. The voice belonged to Elsie Higginbotham herself. Sixty-three with a vicious silver bob of hair, and yet somehow she always reminded him of those mean children who had picked on him at Saint Bart-the-Butcher’s primary school.
“Wish the young man the best of luck. Be a good sport, sis.”
The second voice belonged to Olive Higginbotham, the winning entry in last year’s contest. Tobias turned and saw that Olive was wearing her shepherdess costume again. This was the final day of her reign as the queen of the carnival. Tomorrow she would take her place in the family mausoleum at last.
He opened his mouth to deliver a crushing retort but stopped himself. He remembered his own final day with his father, talking to him while alive and then dead, and thought how different it was to talk to a corpse that was animated — thinking and speaking, alive and looking at him with those rheumy eyes. Olive’s eyes seemed… kind? That was unexpected. He had to look away. His father’s eyes were never kind, not for him. He bowed then, with a smile, wished Elsie the very best of Seaforth luck.
As he set off home, feeling magnanimous but also a touch disappointed that Olive had prevented him from cutting Elsie down to size with a single vicious line, he saw a familiar and younger member of the Higginbotham family stepping out of Fancy’s. It was Winifred Higginbotham, Elsie’s niece. He drank in her pert ringlets and coy nose, the line of her hips and the way her walk reminded him of spring grunions wiggling on the sands. He caught himself and stood stiff and still to let her pass. She nodded with half a smile, and he turned to watch her walk away. Elsie and Olive were still standing in the street, looking his way and tittering.
Tobias had transformed the cottage’s living room into a full workshop, as he did every year, replete with the family dummy, a modern sewing machine, and an array of scissors, shears, and knives for the difficult work of cutting fabric and flesh.
Harold was one of his trickier entries to the carnival. Either Tobias’ skill at flensing had grown rusty or old Harold’s skin had been far too thin. Sometimes a body could be preserved for many years and many contests, but he could tell that he would only have one chance with Harold, and after that, well, he’d have to marry if he wanted to enter the carnival again, for all of his relatives were now gone. The sinews he would traditionally have used as thread lacked the strength of a younger cadaver, and so he had reinforced the seams with yarn made from seal skin purchased at the docks. He had then covered the stitched body with the luxurious suit, which the pocket square set off beautifully. There was nothing to be done about the skin-splitting wound in Harold’s chest, but luckily it was an ingenious part of the contest entry.
He stood the body upright and stepped back to admire his handiwork. He titivated for a while, tweaking the cuffs of the shirt then refolding and adjusting the pocket square. When he began to comb his father’s luxurious beard, he found himself contemplating whether he had used exactly the right blend of albatross fat and cormorant guano to satisfy the judges. He was anxious. He had to stop.
Tobias left the room to draw a deep bath. The bathroom walls were decorated with daguerreotypes that showed family entries to the Seaforth carnival as far back as a century ago. He gazed at each one, reminded again that he was the inheritor of a great tradition. It was his duty to restore the family’s honour. He hoped he was worthy. He fingered the space where his father had always expected to place his own photograph, but Harold had never won the contest. “Higginbothams have bought the judges,” Harold would say after each defeat, and then one time, when he was especially in his cups, “They think they own that trophy because they started things, but mark my words, Tobias, our family was there too in the sacred grove in Northumberland. We looked into the hollow when they did. It’s our birthright as well. And our curse.”
Tobias soaked in the bath for a good hour and then moisturised his own skin with a blend of camomile, camphor, and skunk cabbage. If only his father had chosen to do the same while alive.
The Seaforth carnival and fete took place every April in the field above the puffin colony cliff. Bales of straw marked the boundaries of the different stalls, games and displays, and Tobias pushed his hard work around them to the contest area in an old shopping cart. He stopped to watch a young man dig deep in the tombola. The man gasped in delight when he drew out a mummified seagull. The best prize was a guillemot, Tobias knew, though it was another prize he had never won.
The next activity was the egg throwing challenge organised by the village school. Each year the most popular children lined up the least popular and charged a shilling to throw rotten gull eggs at them. The child most covered in the sticky mess was declared the lord or lady and would suffer assorted indignities until the next carnival. Tobias shuddered at his years as the lord of the yolk.
At the contest itself he found a glorious surprise, for Elsie had entered her sister for a second year running, risking near-certain disqualification for what he could only presume were sentimental reasons. No family member had ever been reanimated for a second year. The arrogance of the Higginbotham family!
He stood by the straw bale marking the entrance so as to spy on the judges and the other entries. The judges this year were Miss Fundament, the ageless headmistress from the school, Reverent Fairfax, the prebendary of Seaforth chapel, and Mrs Jayne Tybalt, the local mortician. Tobias approved. The teacher and the clergyman were stalwarts of the judging, which rotated through the worthies of the town over the years, but were no friends to Elsie. The Tybalts were highly regarded and feared in the town, and old Titus Tybalt, Jayne’s grandfather, had allegedly been there in Northumberland too.
The other entries were a bore. Resolute Churlish, once the local constable, was truncheoning a protestor as if in a Punch and Judy show. He seemed the most likely rival, but Policeman-Punch’s nose and arm fell off at least twice, and the stains on the protestor’s banner suggested entrails. Jayne Tybalt would not stand for that, he was sure!
As another limb fell off Resolute’s corpse he had to look away. Staring into the crowd he caught a glimpse of Winnifred, sandwiched between the Braithwaite triplets. He thought she winked but couldn’t be sure. It made him feel a bit strange, almost queasy.
Tobias unloaded the shopping cart, setting the marionette opposite a mechanism he had constructed to accompany Harold earlier in the year. This automaton was his glorious surprise. It bore a delicious resemblance to Elsie that was most visible when it moved. He wound the great key in automa-Elsie’s back and began the performance in front of the judges and a throng of townspeople. A near-invisible thread made it seem as though his father puffed on his pipe. The spectators cooed at this, for old Harold had been a popular figure in the park, flirting in foul-mouthed hilarity with every passer-by.
Automa-Elsie wiggled her hips officiously and raised her hands in perpetual outrage. The automaton waggled her finger and tongue, chastising with a mime, then shuffled towards the old man-mannequin. She turned to the crowd and raised her finger to her lips. The crowd giggled. Tobias pulled another thread, and his father opened his mouth in obscene greeting, lowering the pipe to his side. Tobias had been drilled in ventriloquism when a child, and a string of obnoxious curses now seemed to fly from Harold’s mouth.
Another twitch of thread and the automaton rummaged in her handbag, pulling out a pair of knitting needles. Everybody knew Elsie and her knitting. Everyone knew everyone, after all, and always had.
One last big tug on the controls and automa-Elsie moved with sudden fury, pressing the needles deep into Harold’s chest, deep into the wound in Harold’s skin. A final tug on the strings laid bare the gaping murder wound that he had been unable and unwilling to mend.
The deliberations took some time, but Tobias did not worry. Young Barry Tweddle, creator of the policeman, looked suitably excited. He thought he had won, but he needed to learn professional needlework and embalming to keep his cadavers whole. His year would come.
As Tobias expected, Elsie was disqualified — the judges had no choice. Olive would remain alive only long enough to hand the trophy to the next winner, and the two old ladies hugged awkwardly as Miss Fundament the schoolmistress stood to announce the winner. Olive began to cry. Elsie looked furious. Tobias closed his eyes.
And opened them when he heard his name. This was finally his year! His photograph would eventually line a family bathroom in Seaforth! He dragged Harold over to the judges and shook their hands, lifting the grand prize, a set of golden ceremonial puppet-strings
Tobias couldn’t help grinning when Olive placed the crown on Harold’s head, instantly slumping to the ground, once more just a mannequin draped in decaying flesh and skin. It looked like sloppy work to Tobias, but the judges all began to cry, as did Elsie, and he wondered whether Olive was better loved in the town than he had realised. It seemed unlikely. Best to just get on with it. He glanced across to the subdued crowd and caught Winnifred theatrically dabbing a handkerchief to her eye. Emboldened, he threaded the prize strings through his father, grinning as he felt the old man jerk back to life.
As life returned to Harold he began to stand and stretch his arms out. He took in the judges, Elsie, and the audience of villagers, and reached slowly down to touch the needles protruding from his wound. Emotions started to return to his face – first confusion, then sadness as he examined the wound, and finally anger when he looked up at Elsie once again.
Elsie pretended to be gracious through her tears. “Oh Harold,” she sobbed. “We were so sorry to hear that you had passed away, and it’s so lovely to have you back for one more year.” She glanced at the corpse of her sister and then dropped to her knees, inconsolable.
“Save it you vicious old hag!” his father growled. “My son has got you pegged. It was you that done me in with your knitting needles, and now he has brought me back to be a witness at your trial!”
Everyone began to shout at once. Some demanded the police, others cried out “Murderer!” with all the salacious glee they could muster. Some villagers shouted at Elsie, suddenly old and bewildered, while others demanded to inspect Harold’s wound.
Tobias stepped back from the chaos that ensued. He didn’t truly care. He had finally achieved Seaforth’s greatest honour. Except that he didn’t feel it. The crowd jostled him in their frenzy and he staggered backwards, bumping someone.
“Ooh Tobias, you do smell good. Skunk cabbage and sweat, two of my favourite things. I hope you’re going to reward me for encouraging Aunt Elsie not to try anything different this year?”
Winnifred pinched his bottom and he yelped, spinning round to find that she’d already moved on, walking briskly away from the carnival into the distance.
He heard Elsie trying to talk to his father. “Harold,” she said, “how we hated each other, but I never wanted this for you.”
Harold took his son for a celebratory pint at the pub. He struggled to walk with his new and stiff legs, but shook off all of Tobias’ assistance, and they reached The Puffin’s Beak long after all the seats were taken. Elsie had been escorted away by the community policeman and it seemed as though half the crowd had come straight to The Puffin. The rest were crammed into the bookmakers next door.
After a long wait at the bar Harold ordered two pints of Old Cormorant bitter and handed one to his son. Tobias had never before been allowed to accompany his father to the pub. He clinked glasses and waited for Harold to raise it to his lips.
“What do you think, Father?” he said, “The first in two generations to win, and something you never achieved.”
“Braggadocio does not suit you my boy,” Harold replied stiffly. “But yes, my plan was worth it just to finally get one over on that insufferable busy-body. All those years without our family taking its rightful turn, and not even one of our souls saved. That’s not what the ritual was about, not what Seaforth is about.
Harold looked at his son. “Just a shame it had to be you…” he sighed.
Tobias looked around at the other drinkers and imagined they seethed with jealousy and admiration. Most did not actually look up from their drinks, and there was an odd lack of conversation. He’d always remembered that Harold was a popular local figure, but maybe…
He cast his mind back to Harold’s words. “His plan?” Tobias clearly remembered putting it to his father shortly after last year’s defeat.
He drank some more ale, and then reached for the knitting needles in Harold’s chest. They were stuck hard so he wiggled them, hoping to pry them loose.
“Of course, a real son of mine would have won years ago, when Elsie was in her prime. I don’t know what your mother got up to, but I never thought of you as one of mine. Not like your cousin Oswald. If you’d really wanted to win badly enough, you should have murdered me years ago instead of waiting till this year.”
Tobias yanked the needles harder, twisting them, and was suddenly overwhelmed by the memory of exactly why he’d stabbed the old man in the first place, back in January. They had always needed a family cadaver and it really had been just a question of who killed whom first. At the time, drenched in blood, he had thought the gash in Harold’s chest unfeasibly large, but now he wished he’d made a bigger hole and really made him suffer before he killed him.
Winnifred was waiting for him by the bus stop at the edge of the village, two dainty sealskin suitcases by her toes.
“That’s it, Tobias, you’re free!” she said, embracing him so tightly that he could feel her nose pressing into his neck.
“Where should we go now that we can go anywhere?” he said.
“I’ve heard about a lovely little village in Switzerland called La Toussaint,” Winnfred replied. “They have their own carnival and everything. We can get married and this time it’ll be my turn to enter, my soul to save, just you see!”
Tobias wondered where she would find a relative to enter with in Switzerland, but then pushed it to the back of his mind as the bus arrived and she took his hand and led him aboard.