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.