Reading the pieces submitted for this inaugural Anglian Learning Writing Prize, I was reminded what a privilege it is to be trusted with someone else’s creative work. It is a brave thing to send that work out for other people to read, and in the case of a writing prize to know that only a small number can be selected for publication. So I want to begin by thanking everyone who entered — it was an absolute pleasure to read the work you submitted.

            The pieces that are published within this anthology represent what we felt were the strongest from among those received. What I mean by that is not necessarily the most polished writing, but that which proposes a distinct narrative ‘voice’ — a kind of pleasing difference in the style or tone of writing that can be incredibly hard to define, but which sets that piece apart from others. The stories selected here also    demonstrate their authors’ enviable ability to deftly describe and build an entire world for the reader — whether that be the otherworldly setting of a sentient library, a dusty, eerie landscape with a lone car passing through, or the comical yet sympathetic account of a family holiday — no mean feat when limited to 500 words.

            Gathered together these pieces also offer a unique snapshot of what really matters to young people today; what issues they care enough about to dedicate their own creative energies to. We did not set any themes for the prize, yet all the work received could be said to fall into one of three distinct categories: relationships, especially those involving loss or change, the natural world and the climate crisis, and the imagined future, anticipated in stories that are dystopian or sci-fi in style. We have resisted grouping the published pieces according to these themes but they will shine through as you read.

            Four overall winners were selected: Thammaiah Calappa, Isla Lindsell, Essie Opie, and Isobel Whitton. Each of their pieces is prefaced by a short note, which in fact is hardly needed, as it will be clear to any reader why these works merited particular distinction. So here I simply want to say congratulations to them; and to all the shortlisted entries featured within this wonderful anthology.

Freya Dean, Editor, Hinterland magazine

Head Writing Judge

Kettle’s Yard founder, Jim Ede, believed passionately that art and creativity was something as fundamental as breathing, and advocated for art as ‘a way of life’. The artwork and designs submitted by pupils for the first Anglian Learning Anthology all exemplified this belief entirely. Not only did they reflect the impact that creative writing can have on us as readers, transporting us to other worlds, perspectives and experiences, but also how words can inspire us to express this through other art forms. I hope the artwork you find throughout this publication provides you with a moment to pause and reflect upon what you have read here, and that you too make creativity a part of your way of life into the future. 

Karen Thomas, Community Manager, Kettle’s Yard 

Cover Design Judge

Winning Entry
Chinese Circus By Essie Opie, Year 10, The Netherhall School

“A fresh take on the classic dream story, we loved the way this piece blurred the boundaries between the real and the imagined. The vivid descriptions just sing out; and are beautifully undercut at the end when the writing seems to fade from glorious technicolour into black and white.”

I had found myself in the most surprising place. A shock to the senses, the ongoing sound of drums and music, the smell of sawdust and sweat from the performers. The circus had been running for decades in the back streets of Shanghai. ‘Unbelievable feats that will fill you with wonder and awe’, the poster had advertised. A large dark hall where the walls were not visible because of the dim light, and wooden benches nestled in the sawdust, which covered the floor and stage.

I had seated myself in the front row, waiting for it to begin; and as the room filled, the noise and excited chatter grew, and the place had the sort of stuffy air you find in a bus while it’s raining. The stage was packed with acrobats in bright outfits leaping across vast distances. They were people who had trained their entire life to be lion dancers, or so I was told by the woman next to me. She was smartly dressed and did not fit into the run-down surroundings in that part of the city, and her trip to the circus seemed almost like a chance to reminisce about her past.

Acrobats dressed as a lion sprung amazing distances through the air, moving from pole to pole three to four metres apart, almost as though they were actually one animal. Then came the actors, who fought in elaborate outfits with realistic swords creating an edge of danger. At one point I was dragged into the arena to demonstrate a stunt where an acrobat soared over my head — they had insisted I take my shoes off, which I was a little sceptical of at the time. But I eventually agreed to leave my tatty trainers by the stage, and it was only after I had left the circus and returned out onto the street that I remembered my shoes. Looking down, I realised I still had on the ones they had given me.

Cambridge was cold, and the sky was dirty grey that morning. I debated whether I should go for a run or get another half hour in bed. I decided I should run. It was good for me. I prepared to go, and as I went to put on my socks, I saw my tatty trainers and felt surprised, but I couldn’t remember why.

Winning Entry
I Don’t Like Tea
By Isla Linsdell, Year 9, Linton Village College

“This piece stood out for the way in which the author dealt so confidently with challenging subject matter; we admired the use of simple language to build a tense, unsettling scene with real attention to detail.”

“I’ll make you a cup of tea,” he says, leaving the room.
I don’t really want a cup of tea. I don’t even like tea. In fact, sometimes Mum says I’m not old enough for tea. She looks at me over her square spectacles and says —
‘You don’t want tea at your age, it’s much too sophisticated for a young girl like you,’ and then she laughs and flashes me a smile that makes me aware that she has just made a joke.
The streetlight bleeds in through the shutter and makes a faint pattern on the wall. He whistles as he makes my unwanted cup of tea.
“Any sugars?” he asks.
“Three please,” I reply, not sure how many sugars is a good amount of sweetness.
“Three? Are you sure? That’s a lot, darling.” I feel my cheeks go red.
“Two then, please.”
The conversation ends here. I’ve never talked to somebody like this before; Mum’s always been there to say the words for me.
He creeps back into the room. It is late. He has already said not to make too much noise because the neighbours are bound to complain. He places my cup of tea on the bedside table and it steams. Its heat is inviting, and I pick it up and take a sip. I do not like tea. I already knew that.

He sits down next to me on his bed. His room is nice but a little daunting. I have never liked red as a colour for walls, and the cupboards look like they are in need of repair. Rudely, I stare out of the gaps between the blinds onto the damp London street, wondering what kind of things happen at this time of night. However, unexpectedly, I then feel his hand slide onto mine. It is cold, much like my father’s was when I used to hold it on the way to church. I never go to church with my father anymore.

I soon realise that I am uncomfortable, so I pull away. He holds me tighter. Then he slides his cold paw up my arm. Goosebumps follow it like ashes from a fire. Then it travels up to my shoulder and squeezes me tight. I try to pull away but my attempt is only met with a firmer grip and seven lonely words.

“Don’t you want another sip of tea?”

Author’s note: “I Don’t Like Tea was inspired by a video we were shown on PSHE day at school earlier this year. In the video, the concept of a cup of tea is used to educate viewers on the topic of consent. It uses phrases such as, ‘If a person says they don’t want a cup of tea, then don’t make them one.’ The video is supposed to be light and slightly humorous, but I thought I’d use the association between tea and consent to create a darker, more ominous piece and to contrast such a normal everyday thing with a horrible and frightening situation.
My piece was also inspired by the uproar in discussions about the harassment of women following the death of Sarah Everard.”

Artificially, Snakes and Ladders
By Oren Charles Thorne, Year 8, Linton Village College

In making something, you need to have the ability to actually make it. In other cases, there is much more complicated theory behind it. Sometimes it’s not just as simple as thinking it through with a few formulae. Sometimes it’s a life’s work. In this case, I didn’t just want to see my biological friend playing Snakes and Ladders, but another consciousness doing the same thing, and one who I could still call by the same name.

I recall my rival ‘flesh and blood’ player in this game. She’d almost got to the finish line but her marker was sliding down the scales to a lower numeral, which I could easily have beaten. Instead, I insisted we replay. An idea had come into mind: how fast can Isabel get to the end of a round? So, we took our separate turns, awaiting our goal, and trying not to slide down any snakes. I must admit, Isabel was rather better at the game than I was, but, then again, I was half-focusing on the ‘brain-reading assessment’ that I had assigned myself. After a little while, my friend finished first. Okay, so what I got from that was that her determination greatly helped her in finishing. Imagine (I gazed outside) if an artificial machine could have this: determination. Sentient AI was out of the question in a middle-class household. Perhaps if I got future funding. A silly dream.

“Right”, said the professor, “What excites you about this childish game to the point of knocking on every proposed psychologist’s door in the British Isles?”
I smiled nervously and saw the latest paper written by a disgruntled contender for ‘annoying student’.
“You see, I made various simple assessments on a school friend to see how fast they got to the end of a round of Snakes and Ladders. A stupid test, but something that sparked me to get future funding from someone like you. What if we made a machine with the latest technology that could happily play a round of a board game?”
“I’m afraid, as amazing as that sounds, I’m a busy man.”

There it was. The first ever AI created with such human-like mental status, and which apparently regarded itself as ‘better than most respectable politicians’. In fact, this SAIOS (Sustained Artificial Intelligence Organisation System) advocated against democracy. I don’t recall ever mentioning Socrates, but something definitely got into those interconnecting head-wires.

You are probably wondering what made SAIOS so fantastic in the scientific community. The answer is: computronium. Once just theoretical artificial particles, they were now incredibly useful in the calculations to make the robot a ‘tin-can intellectual’. Unfortunately, not everyone is perfect. In trying to appreciate the sensations of driving a Ford Mustang, SAIOS drove straight in through a supermarket and had vital limbs cut off by the sharp edges of many a baked bean can lid. I don’t think that we’ll ever again quite see the like of the glorious Sustained Artificial Intelligence Organisation System.

Mòinteach [Moorland]
By Rose Sparrow, Year 10, Bottisham Village College

She had left only a quarter-hour ago, yet was already soaked to the bone. Water trickled over her eyes, seeking her thoughts, demanding undivided attention.

Above, the ashen, brooding heavens reminded her of how they had been only an hour ago, looking out from her window. Then, her only thought had been departure.
I have one choice alone.

Now, the rain seeped into her very soul, leaving her devoid of hope. A tumult of thunder was audible overhead as she stumbled, without thought of direction or destination, over the moss-covered moorland. Her single aim was to distance herself from that place.

I cannot think of it a second longer.
But her running was to no avail.

The scents of water-saturated moss and grasses bombarded her; she lay, a tangle of limbs swathed in a twisted skirt, on the earth a half-metre from the boulder of her downfall. For a fleeting second, as the downpour whipped her bare neck, she contemplated lying there indefinitely.

It seemed so wonderfully easy, to simply slip away…

Suddenly, the earth sighed a breath bursting with moisture, compelling her to press onwards.

Thankfully, she fell no more, so made good progress. The liquid bombardment continued to surge down from above, staining the land with its effects; mud was unavoidable, and soon it was crawling up her legs as a beast does upon prey. It sunk its jaws into her clothes — the pristine ivory cream was lost, replaced with a deep grey, mirroring the sky above. Cold wracked her very bones so that she was barely aware of anything else. Trembling, she staggered on blindly; one wrong step risked her being calf-deep in the mud. But this was a cunning lure for more naïve prey than her — she stayed afoot.

Soon, inattention to all aside her feet and the ground proved a dangerous decision. Terror surged in her veins, and beat on her brain, crying out a screech of desperation. She’d hit something; head aching from the collision, she wondered: am I dying?

No. Life’s paraphernalia remained too strong within her.

Blinded, seeing only darkness, she fingered the air ahead of her. Only a moment later, her hands grasped something impenetrable. A tree trunk. She must have collided with it. But no. She investigated further, feeling stone and, for a second, she gasped in despair: she must have come full circle to the very place she aimed to escape from. As she felt more attentively, her fingers clasped moss and ferns erupting from the crannies between the stones. A ruin? Safety?

She stumbled, sight regained at last, into the derelict shepherd’s lodgings. It was deserted. The place had been without life for an age: all that remained were the ghosts of a past community, imprinted on the place in semi-permanence through stone and mortar. Sinking down onto the grit-covered slabs, she encompassed the quilt of relief, facing her true fatigue.

Thunder exploded overhead and, still, inky black drops of lasting stain fell upon her neck as the water permeated the crumbling refuge.

The Mechanism
(Prologue) By Filipe Golin Year 10, Bottisham Village College

It was dark. The humidity made his shirt stick to his skin. A thick fog covered the passageway. The bitter air made his eyes sting, and the rough floorboard caused him to lose his step.

The light pattering of coolant produced a bass line to the complicated hissing and grinding of the Mechanism. His imagination filled the halls with orchestra. The piano had just started its solo — it was romantic-era, so the emotion and the dramatic crashing of the piano sent shivers down his spine. But this was long gone. No one had played a piano in years, if not decades.

He crawled through the maintenance ducts and the ventilation shafts, all over the entire Mechanism, fixing, working, maintaining. He was an engineer. The engineer’s job was to keep the Mechanism running, to keep it at full performance and make sure it didn’t explode. He knew how it worked. The ultimate goal was to heat water to over 100 degrees and push steam through a turbine. He didn’t know why it worked. There was a central room that was always locked. Many people before had tried to open it, but nothing seemed to work: hammers, blowtorches, iron blades. Nothing prevailed. It was futile.

He heard shouting down below him, deep in the vastness of the Mechanism. It was overly complex and easily simplified, but no one would change it. No one even dared. The music was picking up again. The violins upped their tempo and volume, a canon, a series of them. He imagined the sound echoing along the tunnel walls. The echo, the resonance. He was at peace. But just like that the dream was ripped away from him. The shouting was closer, calling his name.

Descending the endless ladders and chutes, he finally reached the exterior of the Mechanism. The rooms outside were of a white concrete, well lit and ventilated. He breathed a breath of air, and even if it was better than in the Mechanism, he could tell this was manufactured here. It smelt simple, and basic; the failed attempts to make it fresher only made it smell even more synthetic. Before descending once again into the main break rooms, he looked out of the window — darkness. A speckle of light here and there, an eternal night. He reached the break rooms, and a smell of food and people blasted through the door. There were two hundred and seventy-five people here, all manning the ship. On the far end of the rooms, past the grimy tables, were some stalls, with people handing out a beige sludge: lunch.

After the standard meal he decided to take a pause. The longest time he was allotted was 10 minutes. He was hesitant, but decided to finish his weekly relaxation time. He went up near the front, to the rooms behind the cockpit, and sat there for a bit, looking out of the few circular windows. He saw the blackness again. A few more specks. Stars. Planets. This was space.

Glowing Chalk
By William Murlis, Year 9, Sawston Village College

There is a man who drives along a road that hasn’t been used for a long time. He picks up hitchhikers along this road. He doesn’t travel alone. He has his wife alongside him on the desert road. They pick up hitchhikers out of a sense of kindness; it gives them purpose. The light is starting to fade. No hitchhikers tonight. He and his wife are the only life to be seen here. He keeps driving for several more miles, neither of them keen to return home yet.

The world feels empty to him in these hours. Suddenly out of nowhere a trail of white glowing dust somehow starts to blow across the middle of the road. It makes no sense to him, nor can his wife explain this unusual occurrence. They are irrationally scared of this unusual glowing dust.

Yet on they drive; the glowing dust still trails on with no direct source or link to help with the growing mystery. But the man is intrigued and drawn inexplicably to find out where it is coming from, and what this glowing dust is. Hours and miles seem to slip past, seemingly without meaning to the man now as he drives on, following the glow ahead in the darkness. His wife is confused, aware they are lost and drifting in the darkness.

The old man now seems obsessed by one objective — to find the source of this glowing dust. But his wife has had enough of this horrible experience so, in desperation, she opens the door while the car is still moving and begs her husband to stop and let her go. And so he does. She gets out of the car and starts walking back in the direction they have just come from, in the hope of finding her way back home. He drives on, almost oblivious to her now, the woman distraught by his actions. She bends to inspect the dust, hoping to find answers to her husband’s behaviour but, when she gets close enough to the ground, she finds the glowing dust isn’t dust — she rubs it against her fingers, pinching it. It is actually chalk.

The man is now edging closer to the source. He can feel it, a warmth like the sun. The man sees for himself the source of the glowing chalk. It is a huge glowing orb that has crash landed. The markings of a small burnt crater can be seen under the glowing orb. The man steps out of the car. He feels a strange sense of relief now that he seems to know he isn’t going home tonight. The orb needs him, and there is no way back now.

The Library
By Kinsha Dave, Year 11, Sawston Village College

Dust-shot sunlight entered the Library through the windows on the ceiling and walls, as if vibrant galaxies had shattered in fragments and now adorned the sequestered archive. The rays seemed to brush every crack, every crevice, and caressed each book, each title in an affectionate embrace: an eternal companion, always providing warmth and hope.

Murmurs and whispers, quiet and intimate enveloped the shelves in the athenaeum. The susurration was unified, a sinfonietta flawless in pitch and tone. Books lined the ledges and racks, threatening to spill onto the floor, grumbling in low voices like the ancient and weary souls they were. Some even did, adorning the cracked linoleum in wavering piles, their bickering and consequent shuffling always prevalent. Some cowered behind table legs and beneath shelves, intimidated by broader tomes and volumes with their pompous vats of information. Some were nestled comfortably with their respectable counterparts (sequels, prequels, etc.) and floated in a tranquil slumber.

Rani’s hopeful jaunt in the rain had gone from abysmal to downright depressing. She had always cherished the monsoon — it was exquisite, being outside in the rain while everyone else fussed inside; it was her solo rebellion against the world. The rhythmic sounds brought calm to the chaos of her mind. Drops filled her hands and she forgot the report due last Thursday. Pearls landed on her eyes and her breathing slowed; the overwhelming scent of mowed lawns wafted through her nose, and her harried list-making and timekeeping halted.

Clearly, this was not the case today. The rainfall was the pitiful kind, indecisive even — the moment she thought it would transform to a soothing blast, it ceased. The rain fell in gasps and flutters: an unswerving impermanent state. Nevertheless, she powered on; she had reserved books waiting for her.

As she rounded the corner, a peculiar feeling overtook her, an uneasiness coupled with…curiosity? Abruptly, she stopped in front of the decrepit building. She squinted adamantly at it, as if it would reveal something more than a brick wall.

It was titled so simply: Library. Blankly, she stared at the generic word. Library. How simple, and completely innocuous. Library.
Curiosity boundlessly piqued, she pushed the rusted handle and slipped in.

The bell jangled sharply, and for the first time in eons rang its euphonious melody. The sounds reverberated across the Library like echoes upon echoes. These mellifluous layers awakened the dozing books and startled the arguing into a shocked silence.

The woman stood in silent awe at the scene, mouth agape, head swivelling all around the antique structure. Wandering through each aisle, she reached out and assessed each book, inquisitively, and leafed through the pages with care, consuming their words voraciously.

The books also regarded her collectively, investigating this human who had stumbled upon their age-old home. They relished her nurture towards them; and her mind was so resolutely perceptive. Enveloping her in a synchronous sigh, a gentle breeze flew through their crinkling pages, and they embraced her in spirited bliss.
Finally, the Library had found its Librarian.

Mountain View
By Evan Dowzell, Year 7, Bottisham Village College

The wind blows hard in this enchanted place. I have been here for centuries, standing my ground. I fall asleep with a white blanket covering me that disappears when the days get warmer. I am a god reaching up high, hitting the thin atmosphere. Sometimes I wait and just look, looking far, far ahead of me in this magical land.

I see water and ice shining beautifully from the dazzling sun. That sun disappears when darkness comes. The sky, blue like the water below; but clouds cover it sometimes, especially when I have my white blanket with me. I tower over the emerald trees like a giant making his way across this enchanted place.

The wind flies past me again. I feel the most wonderful breeze and wondrous smell of fresh air. I am a mountain but sometimes feel dwarfed by the sky above. This enchanted place has green land like the emerald trees. It makes me feel happy and comforted; it makes me feel part of this magical world.

I do not understand something when I look miles beyond me. I see hard brick mountains like me, only smaller. There is grey ground instead of emerald green. I am scared that in the future I will no longer see my emerald trees and sparkling water that make me feel special.

By Sophie Palmer, Year 7, Linton Village College

“We’re going to die. We’re going to die. Oh, my god, help us!” Emily shrieked, grabbing onto me like I was her life ring.

“Breathe, while you still can.”
“Oh, my god! Oh, my god!”

The water was creeping upwards to our ankles; slowly approaching, like a tiger ready to pounce on its prey. It was ice-cold, and it hit my skin like knives.
I crawled over to Emily, so we could share body heat. She gasped at the warmth — or was it out of realisation that my wound had grown? My blood was rippling through the water, like a trail of red, staining our wet clothes.

Would this be my last day? My last minute? With Emily, in a cold, dark, small space? My last breath as I drown? I closed my eyes. It was comforting, like a cape of darkness taking me away to a space where there’s no hurt, yet no colours, but no fear, no hate. It almost took me away. Then I opened my eyes. The water was up to our necks.

My head exploded with my screams as the freezing temperature kicked in. Every inch of my body was on fire. Emily was screaming, or shouting. It became more clear every second. These moments were probably my last, I couldn’t help thinking.

“I thought you were dead. Oh, my god, don’t do that again! Talk to me! Oh, my god, talk to me!”

I wasn’t dead… Or had I been? No, I’m already dead. I’m a dead person standing.

“I’m here…I’m here,” I whispered shakily. My body was numb from the cold, and I felt like a block of ice floating on the waters of Antarctica. The water was rising — fast. We both pulled back our heads to breathe the remaining oxygen.

I could already imagine my lifeless body, like a mannequin, drifting in the water. My eyes motionless, my expression the last I had: gasping for air. The feeling of just wanting more air — gulping in water and just wishing you could breathe. It was enough to make me sick. Make me scared. I was about to realise it. My worst fear. Drowning…drowning to death.

“Listen. I have — I have a vision!” Emily gasped, looking like she’d just discovered what happens when you die. I nodded, showing her to carry on. She’d been having visions for the past few months, and they always were right. Not like we needed it anyway. We both knew what was going to happen next.

But her expression shifted. She frowned, but then it clicked. She stood motionless in fear.

“Emily. Emily, what is it? EMILY?”

She struggled for words, tongue twisting in her mouth. Then she looked at me, with the strangest expression. The water was past our ears now, but I could still see it in the corner of my eyes. She smiled.

Emily closed her eyes and whispered into my ear, her breath tickling my ear softly.

“He’s here.”