THE COUNTER by Chris Cottom (3rd place, Apr21)

You love clacking the abacus beads across their frame, counting off the nights until Father Christmas comes.

You like the red ones best, the top row. The enemy are the blue ones, next row down. You play French and English, dead soldiers to the right, last-man-standing always a red-blooded Englishman.

You envy Griffin when he brings a pocket calculator to school from his father’s office. It’s as thick as your Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer and costs £200.

You buy a packet of index cards from the stationery counter at Woolworths to catalogue your record collection, with a running total of prices on the last card. You re-write the card in new pence well before Decimal Day, and use brussel sprouts to show your mother how half a guinea equals fifty-five new pence, halving just one sprout for illustrative purposes.

You log each brand of cigarette you sample, until a rogue Gauloise makes you heave your lunch through the train window as the 16:42 slows towards Surbiton.

In a free period after Double Physics you pass Carter your geometry set and ask him to check how far your hair extends below the collar of your blazer. You don’t tell him you used the ruler last night to measure your erection.

You make twenty new pence for each copy of International Times you sell outside Waterloo. You spend two hours and sell three copies.

With the cunning of Harry Palmer, you write ‘French Verbs’ on the cover of a new pocket notebook and chronicle your sexual conquests: date, name, how far, alcohol invested, underwear loosened, etc. By page four you’ve journeyed from humble fumble to full fuck.

You buy a postal order to purchase an anonymous gross of French letters from the Exchange & Mart to resell to hopeful fellow undergraduates at 200% margin, an example of entrepreneurship that your Principles of Economics textbook might call the opportunity cost of a distress purchase. You chicken out and send off instead for an RAF surplus greatcoat from Lawrence Corner in Euston, allowing twenty-eight days for delivery.

The Price Waterhouse university recruitment milk-round smoothies dazzle you with phrases like ‘fast-track’ and ‘equity partner’. You tell your girlfriend you’re joining its graduate training scheme and won’t be driving across America with her. She calls you a capitalist pig and sleeps with your best friend.

Your former best friend and your ex-girlfriend send you a postcard of the Grand Canyon, writing alternate words in different coloured ink. It’s on the mat when you get home after counting bins of offal on a week-long audit at a slaughterhouse outside Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

You discover SuperCalc and know your life will never be the same again.

You pay close attention to price inflation of double-fronted Edwardian villas in the Chiswick/Hammersmith borderland and cross-tabulate it against projected costs of a third child. Your wife fills a taxi with must-have new stuff from Mothercare. You check the receipt against the same items five years ago for Child One.

Your children groan from the back seat of the Granada when you challenge them to estimate campsite time of arrival based on your rolling average speed since your bleary-eyed disembarkation at Le Havre. You permit them to disregard the stop for croissants and café au lait scheduled for thirty-five minutes outside Versailles. You time them as they convert kilometres into miles and award them each a bonus point on their holiday star charts.

Your wife discovers your ‘French Verbs’ notebook in the attic and declares that it proves, if proof were needed, that single-sex schools are A Bad Thing. You assure her that, as a day-boy, you knew nothing of the dormitory shenanigans alleged by the red top newspapers to centre around your former classmate and recently disgraced one-time Tory leadership hopeful St John ‘Spanker’ Cunningham.

You use the password a***#ole to protect the spreadsheet you create to (a) log the occasions you believe your wife is unfaithful to you with the as yet unpublished twenty-seven-year-old Andalusian poet she met last summer on her Yoga Immersion Retreat outside Marrakesh and (b) calculate the resultant negative impact of these encounters on her likely alimony award. You select an acid green font to express ‘b’ as a ratio of ‘a’.

You email your solicitor your household accounts since your wedding day, including the honeymoon, expecting her to be impressed with the forensic granularity with which it quantifies the source funding (77.6% yours) for capital expenditure, holidays and casual items over £150. When she claims she can’t use this and suggests a 50/50 settlement, you fire her and appoint a man. He tells you the same thing.

When your first grandchild arrives, your ex-wife buys a Paddington Bear while her toy-boy lover the poet, still around and still unpublished, writes a haiku. Your scour the internet for an abacus with red beads on the top row, blue on the second. As you present it, your son tells you that kids now write computer code in Year 4.

At retirement you split your Amazon wish list into fiction and non-fiction. Without additions the fiction alone will require you to improve your words-per-minute by 42% and maintain reading-level eyesight to age 119.

Your daughter clears your house with her husband, ready for the new owners. You think she visits you in the nursing home twice as frequently as your other two children but you’re not quite sure, and you love each of them equally anyway. Opening her bag she tells you she’s found something and pulls out your abacus, its colours now a little faded. When she puts it on the table over the bed you resolve to live another ten days. Your fingers might be too arthritic even for the big-button mobile she got you, but you can still slide the beads, one each day. Maybe you’ll even get down to the blue ones, the Frenchies. But you’ll start at the top, with the reds. They’ve always been your favourites.

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