2019 Doris Gooderson Short Story – First Place

Playing by the Rules

By Barbara Young

The coppers came to the house quicker than I expected. A stern, frowny detective with a scraggly beard, wearing a shiny grey suit, and a woman in bulky uniform that made her look fat. I had to go to the station for an “informal chat”. Not sure what they meant but Mam always told us to say nowt to the coppers. They asked her to come with me but she had one of her headaches – she was pissed – so my social worker’s here instead. 

“Rose, could you tell us what happened down by the rockpools?” asks the policewoman with a smile.

I think she’s called Tracy, or maybe Macey, I wasn’t really listening when she told me. She’s trying to make me feel comfortable, make me think she’s my friend. She’s got the same cheesy smirk my social worker uses all the time.  

I take a swig from the can of Coke they gave me earlier. It’s warm and flat but the room is hot and stuffy and I’m thirsty. I can smell wee and disinfectant and my bare legs are sticking to the plastic chair. I don’t want to be here, answering their stupid questions. I want to be down on the beach, swimming, building sandcastles, then kicking them into a million bits of sandy nothing.

I shrug. “Me and Ellie were playing the game.”

“And how does that go?” The police woman taps a sharp fingernail against her lips. It reminds me of Mrs Williams, my maths teacher. She’s always angry and pretending not to be. She sighs a lot.

 “The rule game.” Mam would be mad if she knew I was answering, but she’s not here. “We always play that one.”

“Can you tell us about it?”

I don’t want to. It’s our game. But they’re not going to let me out of here if I just say nowt, cos there’s been a tragedy – there’re loads of them on the telly, people getting shot or stabbed to death, but I’ve never seen a real one before… unless you count Tibby, the cat, and that was just an accident, sort of.

“It was my turn. I said we had to find a live crab and take it around the headland, to the secret beach with the stream.” I raise a finger like Mam does when she tells us rules. “No shoes, the rocks are real sharp and they cut your feet like razor blades, and we had to hop on one leg.”

“And they were your rules?”

I pop my chewing gum. “I just said, didn’t I.”

“And Ellie was happy to play?”

“Course she was.”   

Ellie and me had played it a million times. We’re good at rules, Mam sets lots of them: don’t cry, don’t get in the way, don’t talk to her man friends, don’t tell the social… there’s loads more, but they’re always changing and it’s hard to keep track. If we break them, we get a thumping – that’s rule number one.

“Can you tell us how the game progressed?”

I glance at Fiona, my social worker, and she flashes that phoney smile and dips her head. “Rose, you’re safe here. We just want you tell us what happened on the beach. Between you and Ellie. We need to understand.”

“It was hot and we’d been in the sea. I’d learnt how to do a handstand in the water and Ellie wanted me to teach her. It’s not easy, cos the waves keep knocking you over, so you’ve got to time it just right, and you’ve got to hold your breath for ages. I’m good at that. Anyway, Ellie was rubbish and I’d been laughing at her and she was bubbling, she’s a bit of a cry baby. So, I thought I’d cheer her up with the game.”

“And was your mother with you?” asks the policewoman.

I splutter a laugh. She doesn’t know what Mam’s like. “No, she was in the caravan having her afternoon nap. Says it’s the fresh sea air but it’s just cos she’s been down the pub.”

The policewoman sits up straight and scribbles in her notebook. Probably something about neglected children and inappropriate parenting. I know the jargon; I’ve heard it often enough. Last summer we were in “respite foster care”, you pick up all the social work speak in a place like that. Still, the food was okay and they didn’t whack us.

“You were on your own?” She says it like it’s a crime, all tight face and thin lips.

“Ellie’s just six, but I’m twelve. Mam says that’s plenty old enough to be in charge.”

Fiona rubs a finger on the shoulder of her jacket. She’s dressed all posh today, probably because of the tragedy, she usually wears silly floaty skirts and floppy blouses. “Your mother has told me how good you are at looking after Ellie.”

What a pile of shite. Mam is always yelling at me, cos I play too rough. She’s always telling me that poor little Ellie is only six. She’s not the one who has to put up with a bairn trailing around after her, whining and snivelling.

I give Fiona my good girl smile. “I look out for Ellie. She’s my sister.”

The policewoman shoots Fiona a look. I think she’s narked cos she wants to do the talking. “I’m sure you do, Rose. Can you tell us what happened after you’d come out of the sea and started the game?”

“I found a crab straight away and I was miles ahead of Ellie. Sometimes Mam says I should let Ellie win, but what’s the point in that? Anyway, I’d cut my toe, it was bleeding a bit, so I sat down on a rock to have a look. It’s good to squeeze the blood, it stops infection and I like the taste. Anyway, when I looked up. Ellie was running across the rocks… running!” I shake my head and look the policewoman dead in the eye. “That’s against the rules.”

“And what happens when someone breaks the rules, Rose?”

“Mam says it’s rule number one. The person has to be punished.”

“And did you do that? Punish her?” This is a big question; I can tell because her eyes are all bright, she’s leaning towards me and her hands are clenched on the table. I think she’s a bit excited by it all. I know I am. When Ellie’s head hit the rock there was a crack like the biggest explosion on fireworks night and there was bright red blood everywhere, strings of it seeping into the water like a splattered jellyfish.

I stare down at the table and close my eyes tight, trying to squeeze out some tears. I know you’re supposed to be very upset when your sister has just died.

The End


Barbara Young is originally from Newcastle, now living in the wild heart of Northumberland where she enjoys spending time wandering the fells
with her two Border Collies and her horse. She started writing five years ago,
after retiring from both Social Services and small-scale organic farming. She
enjoys writing in different genres and her short stories and flash have found
success in a number of competitions including Writers Forum, Writing
Magazine, Scribble,
Grindstone and Cranked Anvil.