Short story: Dickens Fellowship competition winner is announced

The Eastbourne Dickens Fellowship, Dickens Writing Competition winner Jill Rutherford (L) receives her prize of a copy of 'A Christmas Carol' from Sheila Harper. E16048N
The Eastbourne Dickens Fellowship, Dickens Writing Competition winner Jill Rutherford (L) receives her prize of a copy of 'A Christmas Carol' from Sheila Harper. E16048N

THE EASTBOURNE Dickens Fellowship has announced the winner of its short story competition.

Jill Rutherford is an Eastbourne resident and member of several book clubs in the town and the winner of the competition held to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

On Monday she was presented with her two prizes, a £50 book token and a beautifully bound illustrated hardback edition of A Christmas Carol, at the monthly meeting of the town’s Dickens fellowship.

Her third prize is the publication of the short story on the Herald’s website.

The theme and title of the competition was A Tale of Two Cities and Jill, who has previously lived in Japan for seven years, chose Tokyo and London, comparing the lifestyles of two women living in the two sprawling cities.

Read her story, below.



by Jill Rutherford

Tokyo. 11th March 2011, 2.46pm (Japan time)

London. 11th March 2011, 5.46am (UK time)

The closely packed skyscrapers sway in unison – like embracing lovers – although that’s where the likeness ends. The buildings are unromantically built of glass, concrete, rivets and steel. But like many lovers, they have a secret. One that stops them from falling down in this country that has the dubious honour of being the most earthquake prone country in the world. Deep inside the buildings’ steel girders, giant coils of metal act as springs to take up the strain of an earthquake, enabling them to sway rather than crumple and fall down. Their technology is almost as advanced as the bodies of lovers. But not quite.

They are built with glass walls, and so close together that the workers can see each other in their different buildings. But this is Japan, and everyone is too busy to look at other workers moving earnestly and diligently about their work. Their serious faces giving the impression that the future of the world is in their hands. But they just work for insurance companies, banks, head offices and the like, although those workers dedicate their lives and loyalty to their company. Family and personal life takes second place here; for these are Tokyo workers, Tokyo people, Tokyo attitudes. Wonderful, garish, energetic, vibrant, colourful, frantic modern Tokyo; where people work a ten to twelve hour day with long hours of unpaid overtime the norm – even working their holidays to show loyalty to their company.

The earthquake hits at 2.46pm, Tokyo time, the longest and biggest quake since records began in Japan. How long does it last? A lifetime to the millions of people inside the thousands of skyscrapers, whose hearts beat a violent tattoo of fear.

In London, it’s 5.46am, the city is waking up to another day. The sky is dark. A different world, a different country, a different people altogether. London is lethargic, lightly controlled, relaxed compared to Tokyo. The buildings are mostly old, gracious and accommodating, from a bygone age that still lives today, playing their parts in the roundabout of past and present that is London.

The older office buildings have thick walls, and windows difficult to see through. The workers cannot see each other and enjoy privacy and security. Although, as in Tokyo, the modern buildings are built of glass, concrete, rivets and steel, they have no secret locked inside them; no giant coils of steel are necessary in static, immovable London.

No one will die in their office; workers are safe and secure as they work an eight hour day; watch the clock; expect to get paid for overtime, and usually love their families more than their jobs.

Skyscrapers still sway in Tokyo, as a severe aftershock hits minutes after the earthquake. The workers, men in their suits and ties and women in severe black jackets, skirts and sensible shoes crouch down on their knees or haunches and take shelter under their desks as office equipment bounce, smash and splinter around them.

Kumiko is twenty nine, a woman of beauty and intelligence, with an outgoing personality which she has to swallow every day at work. It’s not advisable for a young woman to be heard as well as seen. She’d probably get the sack, or at the very least, be ‘encouraged’ to leave. As a woman, she has no status, responsibility or chance of promotion. She’s an ‘O.L.’ – an ‘Office Lady’.

Someone to make the tea, file, do the drudge work, answer the phone and smile at visitors. Her good schools and university degree just mean that she is employed in an office rather than a shop, and maybe she will get a better class of husband. She gets no other benefit from it. She knows this is unfair, as is the fact that she is expected to leave soon to get married and start a family. Women over thirty are not encouraged to stay in work. Kumiko doesn’t want to get married. She has a boyfriend and they love each other. But she doesn’t want a life of sacrifice like her mother’s.

In London, another woman is starting her day. Julia is also twenty nine, attractive, bouncy and full of life. But she worries about reaching thirty. Unlike Kumiko, it’s not because she may be ‘encouraged’ to leave her job, but because she’s up for promotion to partner in her accounts firm. She’s good at her job but is concerned that she wants to start a family before she works her way into wrinkles and too much weight. Career and family can mix she tells herself.

She’s up early to make sure she looks her best because today is the day that she will find out if she’s made partner this year. She’s desperate for this promotion. It gives her more job protection and a better wage, all going towards her security when she starts her family. She feels this will be a red letter day. A day to remember.

Kumiko already knows that she will remember this day forever. She doesn’t want to die but thinks she might. The building is still swaying after the earthquake and aftershocks. Her boss says, “We’re on the thirtieth floor, we must get out. Let’s take the stairs and make a run for it.”

Kumiko knows that this is very dangerous, that the stairs are the weakest link in a building and the most likely to collapse in a quake. She doesn’t want to be on them until the building stops swaying and the time between aftershocks lengthens. But she cannot go against her boss. She may lose her job if she speaks out. She’s always thought he was a stupid man, now she knows it for sure. He’s in a panic and cannot keep a level head. But how can she say that to him?

Her thoughts are cut dead by another severe aftershock and everyone dives under their desks again as their world is shaken about as if an angry giant is venting his temper by shaking them.

She’s terrified, and the sudden ringing of a mobile phone makes her jump like a jack ass. This is the first outside contact they’ve had as the system had gone down, overloaded by so many people trying to ring their loved ones at the same time. The phone is somewhere in amongst the rubble and a few brave souls start to search for it, but it’s a fruitless task and the ringing finally stops with the phone keeping its secret hiding place. A poignant sadness overtakes her and she feels they are alone in the world with all contact eradicated.

Julia is undecided about her clothes and twirls before her husband asking, “How’s this? Which one do you think is best?”

He rubs his eyes as he sits up in bed. “The red one,” he replies.

“The red one?” she repeats in surprise. “Do you really think so? Surely not!”

He’s bad tempered, “Well, you asked me and I’ve told you. The red one.”

Julia decides on the buttercup yellow. Bright and cheery just in case she doesn’t get the promotion. It will cheer her up.

Walking to the tube station she feels a trepidation for the day to come, but it’s a beautiful morning and she loves being up and out early before everyone else. There’s a promise of dawn on the horizon as she increases her pace. She takes for granted that the pavement stays firm beneath her feet as she worries about her promotion and her yet to be started family. She feels she has the weight of the world on her shoulders although she has no thoughts of death or destruction, her own or other peoples. Life and London are secure. The trains and buses run, even if they are late, and they don’t get squashed or damaged by earthquakes.

She’s lucky if only she knew it.

Another violent aftershock finally stops and Kumiko thinks her heart will too. It’s pumping fast and she’s panting. She’s afraid to come out from under her desk but her boss is speaking again, “We must take to the stairs now. Quickly everyone, let’s go.” No one moves and Kumiko thinks she must say something even if it costs her job.

If it’s a choice between her life or her job, she’ll chose her life.

She crawls out from under her desk and coughs, unsure of her voice. Her boss is close by. “Tanaka san, may I speak?” He looks surprised and raises his eyebrows, she takes this as assent before he changes his mind. “Tanaka san, as you know, staircases in buildings are its weakest link, we should not take the stairs until the aftershocks and swaying have abated.” He looks speechless and then a dark look covers his face.

“Thank you Miyamoto san,” he says in a low voice, giving her a threatening look. She thinks, he doesn’t know what to do. He’s panicking.

“I agree with Miyamoto san,” calls out another brave young woman, “It’s too dangerous to take the stairs.”

“You’re going against me?” the boss shouts. “You’ll do as your told or lose your position young woman, you too Miyamoto san.” His eyes are wild as he starts to walk towards the door to the stairs. Debris halts his progress as he catches his foot in some wiring. He swears and struggles to maintain his dignity as one of the other men stands up and says he is going with him.

“Get up all of you and follow us,” cries out her boss, desperate for credibility.

The young women of the office look at each other. What should they do? He is their boss. It is drummed into them from childhood that they have to respect authority. But to risk being killed?

Julia gets to the tube station and swears as she misses her train. “Damn, damn, damn. That’s a bad omen,” she chides herself as she walks in anger down the platform. One heel of her expensive high heeled shoes gets caught in a crack and breaks off. It’s a one in a million chance. It throws her onto the concrete, grazing her knees and elbow; ruining her buttercup yellow dress. A passerby helps her up as she starts to cry.

“Why? Oh why today?” she yells into the frigid air.

She gets up and decides she has to return home but is disappointed to find her husband has already left for work. She sits on the sofa and cries. She doesn’t know how lucky she is. She’s safe, she will not die.

“Why am I so unlucky,” she yells into the room in despair.

Kumiko and the other young women are saved from their bosses orders by yet another violent aftershock. They hide under their desks again as the last remaining ceiling panels and lights crash down upon them. Someone calls out, their voice cracking, “This is not a normal earthquake. Will it never end?”

Her boss shouts, “We should have left.” His voice catches and she knows he’s breaking down.

She decides to take charge. She doesn’t care anymore if she loses her job or her colleagues are shocked by her behaviour. She shouts out. “We must all stay here until the swaying stops. It is too dangerous to take the stairs.”

“Yes, we agree,” shout back many of her colleagues. Her boss swears as he reaches the door to the stairs and disappears.

It’s a long time before the aftershocks stop long enough for the building to cease its swaying. When it does, Kumiko and her colleagues make a run for the staircase and descend as fast as they can – before another aftershock hits.

They are fortunate and reach the street without mishap, praising the builders and the architect for their safety measures. There’s no sign of her boss, but all her colleagues are here.

They are alive.

She feels very lucky indeed.