Inspired? Get writing: Sweet as Sugar by Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, from edinburgh

Sweet As Sugar By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, from Edinburgh. runner-up in category D – adults. Inspiration: Spreading refined sugar before bagging, Glebe Sugar Refinery, Greenock, by George P Lewis

This was the month Iain didn’t write. He wrote as often as he could, and though the letters were sporadic it had never been more than two weeks between them. And now there was nothing.

Though she didn’t say anything about it, Mary was worried. Angela – who had known Mary since childhood – could see. Mary was always so genuinely happy, even through these past years. Now though, even as she smiled and laughed, and talked the same as she always had, some light in her eyes had dimmed.

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Iain and Mary had been dating since the end of school. They had gotten engaged just before the war broke out. It was when he left that Angela had suggested they get jobs. Most girls then were volunteering as nurses, but they had gotten the job in the sugar factory because it was nearby, and had spent the last three years spreading shovelfuls of sugar over the floor to air it out.

For the most part it had kept them occupied, and happy. But now Mary – who was supposed to be airing the sugar – was spreading it around on the floor in the same manner as a child spreads vegetables it doesn’t want to eat around its plate.

“Mary,” called out Angela, and her friend looked up. Angela carefully considered what she would say next, how she would phrase it. “Have you ever thought, I mean not like you would do it or anything, because of course you wouldn’t, but have you ever just thought…”

They talked as they worked together, quickly piling shovelfuls of sugar higher and higher. It seemed to Angela that Mary’s tongue was looser, that her eyes held the kindling of a spark they hadn’t held before. They had only been working for fifteen minutes, however, before Doris walked by.

If Doris was not universally reviled, it was only because the Universe was infinite. She was strict, and sour, and as she stared at the small progress Angela and Mary had so far made, the edges of her lips sank down, and Angela knew they were through.

“Doris,” Angela’s head whipped around as she heard Mary speak. “Have you ever thought, not that you would ever do it, because of course you wouldn’t, not in a million years, but have you ever just thought…”

And Doris picked up a shovel.

They had been working steadily for quite a while before a group of workers caught them. Oblivious of the time, they were caught unawares as the girls passed them on the way downstairs for lunch. Off-guard, the girls just stood, gaping at Doris, Angela and Mary’s handiwork. For a few brief moments, there was silence. It was Doris who broke it.

“Oh come on you lot,” she said roughly. “You know you’ve thought about it.”

And suddenly, everyone had a shovel.

By the end of the hour, the mountain of sugar was almost to the ceiling. At this point they had used up all the sugar on the floor, and had been running all over the factory, bringing in the grains from other rooms, leaving a trail of sweet crumbs behind them on the floor, a cheer going up as each bit was added to the pile.

“I think that’s about it,” said Angela finally, looking up at the gigantic white mound.

“All right then,” said one of the workers. “Who’s first?”

“Mary is,” said Angela, just as Mary cut in with “Angela.”

But in the end it was Mary who slipped and slid and finally managed to clamber her way up to the top of the pile. She sat on the very apex of the mountain, folded her skirt daintily between her legs, lifted her heels up, and pushed off.

She was silent as she slid down the pile, and Angela was fearful, having expected her to shout out in delight. When Mary reached the bottom she wiped her sleeve across her face, and Angela saw they were glittering. Then Mary’s face broke out into a grin and she turned to the other girls.

“You. Must. Try that.” She declared. So one by one, they did. Some screamed and shouted, others laughed, and some, like Mary, were silent.

Angela was one of the last to go. It was a strange feeling, sitting on top of the mound. It was, in fact, what everyone had thought of. It was the one thing you could not do. But now you were living in a world where people ordered your friends and family to far-away places, working in a factory when every day of your life for the past three years you had been made to show your pockets and shake out your dress. So you made a huge pile of sugar. So you sat on top of it. So you slid down.

And as you slid you thought of your brother, who had been one of the first to go, and one of the first who never came back. You thought about chocolate and how much you ached to eat just one simple square. You thought about gardening with your mother, and running home from school with Mary, and sitting down to eat together, as a family.

She reached the bottom almost crying but feeling strangely light. It seemed that crazy ideas engendered themselves because sliding down she had been struck by another. Grabbing a shovel she cut ahead of the line shouting “Make way, make way, woman with a shovel!” And dragging the shovel, she made the laborious climb up to the top.

In the moment before she jumped on the shovel she thought, very clearly “This is how I will die.” Then she was on the shovel, riding down the mountain, the handle firmly in her hands, and then she was at the bottom, laughing like a lunatic, several girls already in front of her, clamouring for the shovel so they could give it a try.

They left that day just like any other, having spread the sugar across the floor, and turning their pockets out and shaking their skirts as they walked out the door. But she remembered. Well after the war had ended and beyond the point where life had moved on.

She remembered it at odd moments, when she felt that life had somehow jumped the tracks, and then continued running down a completely new path. That – though she loved them dearly – she had married someone who had not been intended for her, had given birth to children that weren’t quite hers, and she now moved in strange circles.

They – none of them – understood, so she never even tried to tell the story. But whenever she and Mary had tea, she couldn’t help, as she dropped in the tiny cubes, betraying a small smile.