14 September 2020

BBC National Short Story Awards 2020: ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Posted by Caleb Azumah Nelson

The fifteenth BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University revealed its shortlist on Friday 11 September, with stories exploring race, family politics, millennial relationships and inner-city life. We'll be posting extracts from all the shortlisted stories this week; first up is ‘Pray’ by British-Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson.

Pray for Autumn. Pray for Winter. Pray for Spring, for the days rain sneaks under raincoats and we might watch bare trees bear fruit. Pray for Summer to come and go without incident, this Summer where we rage as hot as the red sun at dusk. Pray the young man wasn’t your friend, or a friend of a friend. Pray the grief passes. Pray we learn what to do with this anger. Pray for Autumn. Pray for Winter. Pray it is too cold to venture outside. Pray we stay in our yards as the daylight fails, and hold those we love. Pray we are neither hunter, nor prey. Pray we forget, and we come and go as we please, spilling from yard to yard, touching one party only to touch the next. Pray we have forgotten before the first toke, that the smoke which fills our lungs and slows the brain is a pleasure, not a necessity. Pray we forget, but not for too long. Pray for Autumn. Pray for Winter. Pray for Spring. Pray we don’t suppress the fear. Pray the ache stops. Pray.

It is summer again, and it’s 2008. I’ve got my hoody on – the Black Nike one, with the metal tips swinging from the drawstrings. We all do, our hoods up because we don’t know when the skies might open over our heads.

In summer, we plot. We gather with no specific purpose. It’s a kind of protest, a reaching towards a freedom we don’t often encounter but believe we deserve. We go wherever this freedom can be housed, which tends to be in parks and open spaces, kicking a flat football across a caged play area, daring gravity to meet us as we commandeer swings or tiny merry-go-rounds. This year, we have been hanging out by the unmoving stream which runs around the back of Catford. We’re rarely less than five on these evenings, where the dying sunlight creeps towards us, dousing all in a pink glow. We eat and we drink. We wobble across the water’s edge, like we’re fearless.

‘Watch out, man, be easy!’ We can fault Rodney’s neuroses, his need for order and control, but never his outfit choice. He’s got Nike on too, hoody and the bottoms which taper towards the ankles, highlighting the white pair of Air Forces on his feet. He’s protesting at the crusty football we’re passing between us, and the flecks of dirt which fly with each touch.

‘Don’t be such a baby, it’s just a little dirt,’ Paul says, rolling the ball in his direction. Rodney lets out a little yelp, darting a short distance away, towards safety. We all fall about, Paul, Daniel, Eric, James, my older brother Christopher and myself, that kind of laughter which renders you breathless. A sullen Rodney perches on a bit of concrete, inspecting his trainers for dark spots.

‘You man have no respect,’ he says, sulking. ‘Treddin' on Thin Ice’.’

‘Rodney, come on, man. Come with something else, your dead bars,’ Eric says.

‘They’re not even mine.’

‘Nah, you’re right, fam. Your dead recycled bars.’

‘What you saying about Wiley? I’m East, bruv.’

‘Yeah but you’re in South now,’ says Christopher.

This, too, is a familiar routine. Rodney’s undying devotion to E‭3‬, Bow Road, and everything East; the rest of us, local, unrelenting, sure that South East is where our world begins and ends. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

This story is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 14 September; listen to it live at 3.30 p.m. or catch up online here. All of the shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now. The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on Tuesday 6 October in a special short story edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.