Heather Chapman – ‘Tableau with Sea Breeze and Salt Crown’

“Inventive, menacing and precisely weird. It maturely withholds the rotten mystery at its core, and so (indefinitely) extends its imaginative reach.” – Will Harris, Forward Prize-winning poet and Orwell Youth Prize judge 2023

Scroll to the end of the page for an interview between Heather and 2020 Orwell Youth Prize runner up, Noah Robinson.

On my first day working for the Dean, he takes me to the theatre. It is late November, a warm  evening, and I dry my sweating palms on my suit jacket while he poses for photos outside the  building. Groups snatch at his sleeve, hold cameras skyward. His smile clicks on and off, bright white  in the camera flare, fading in the following dark.

Inside the theatre and away from the crowds, he slings an arm round my shoulders, leading me to  our seats in the first-class box.

“Sorry about that! A necessary evil, I suppose.” He laughs, the sound like something carefully  distilled, concocted and measured.

“Do all the new servants come here, with you?”

“Yes. It’s something of a tradition. I adore the theatre – but you’ll know that already, of course. I talk  about it a lot in my –” he gestures, vaguely. “Television appearances. Interviews. Can’t shut up about  it!”

His arm felt heavy, weighted around my shoulders and pressing down. The sheer presence of him  made the days when I had only seen him through a screen or newspaper feel distant. A flurry of  memories, blurred and ragged – his face, the shard of his grin, posing in front of a new salt factory,  red ribbon hooked in the jaws of a pair of silver scissors. Me, later, applying for the position I now held, filling out the application at my kitchen table whilst my mother trimmed her sunflower plants.  It was almost the end of my time at university; I was nervous about jobs, and tired of the constant  rhythm of what next what next which rattled constantly in my mind. The Dean was calling for a new  ‘family member’, they called it, and it paid better than anything else I could find. I filled in my name on his dotted line, whilst my mother tied the sunflower stems to wooden stakes with the ribbons she  used to tie her hair. I hadn’t expected to get the position. It was only when I was opening the  acceptance letter, seeing my own name written on the same page as the Dean’s red ink signature  scrawl, that I realised I didn’t know if I even wanted to get it.

Now, in our seats, the lights go down. The Dean clutches at my arm, grinning like a child. In the  darkness, just the glint of his incisors fractals bright white. A figure steps from the wings. As they  walk forward to centre stage, a spotlight flicks on. The actor stands wreathed in a gold cloak,  bleeding light. A crown of crystals sits on their golden head. For a moment, they pause. Beside me, I  hear the Dean take a breath, exactly the same time the actor’s inhale rushes through their  microphone and fills the theatre. They exhale, slowly. Then the play begins.

The story unfurls. The plot is easy to follow – predictable. Scenery moves on and off the stage,  dragged silently by figures in black, bare feet padding across the ground. Enormous wooden waves,  painted sapphire blue, wheel onstage to the sound of violins. The crowned figure stretches out his  hands, and the waves cleave apart, and beside me Dean gasps, the sound like a knife through the  dark.

Sitting hunched in my seat, his hand on my wrist, and image rises in my mind. I picture the rest of my  days in the court – how I would flatten myself into metaphor. I would be the quiet servant, head  bowed; a simile for obedience, for wide-eyed rapture, as I passed him his golden suit jacket in the  mornings, watching him in the mirror, kneeling to tie his shoelaces.

The play is long. I cross and uncross my ankles. My hands itch. I crack the knuckles of my right hand  and the sound is like a gunshot. Beside me, the Dean turns. I look away, instantly, instinctually. In my  lap, my hands lie like something stunned, some twitching abstract piece of life separate from my

own. I think, briefly, silently, of my mothers’ hands, wrist deep in compost, cradling a seedling in her  palms. Beside me, Dean raises a finger to his lips. I look away.

Interval. The Dean sat next to me, eating popcorn out of a striped box. Glossed with caramel, the  kernels looked like lumps of gold.

“Go on, try it. I insist. Sea salt flavour.”

I take one. The sugar sticks to the inside of my mouth, glossing my teeth. I picture, involuntarily, myself gold-covered, cocooned in liquid gold, studded with jewels of sea salt. Mummified, then  consumed.

The play ends predictably. The figure in the golden crown stands centre stage, a smoke machine  stirring the golden air. The sapphire waves flatten and recede. I sit upright, picking at the skin on my  bottom lip. At the play’s conclusion, the crowned figure comes to the front to bow. The lights rise,  and the Dean stands with them, applauding. His smile is violent in its intensity. I can count the glint  of each tooth, see the twinned clots of gold studded into each back molar. When I pull my hands  from my mouth to applaud, a jewel of blood wavers on the pad of my forefinger from my lip. Crushed  in the beat of the applause, it spreads down my finger, pressed between my hands. My lips sting in  the cold night. The very air tastes of salt.

The Dean leads me out of the theatre by the arm, strolling through the shock of cameras, unblinking  under the explosion of their flares. He insists we walk back to the manor along the beach.

“Isn’t it beautiful,” he says, gesturing towards the oil-dark ocean, gnawing at the greyed sand. I think  of the many words he names the ocean in his television broadcasts. Gorgeous, he says, standing  before a new, glistening warehouse. Breathtaking, he said, as a tractor pours rubbish into the  ground. And now, beautiful, as he stands in front of me, smiling. I watch the waves, black in the  darkness of his stretched-out shadow, as they fold and crumple over his footprints. Slowly, the tide  drags them back, retreating back over the sand. But still the scars of his footprints stand out, un erased, pressed into the earth.

We asked previous winners and runners up of the Orwell Youth Prize to interview the 2023 cohort about their Orwell Youth Prize writing. Below, 2020 runner-up, Noah Robinson, interviews 2023 runner-up, Heather Chapman, about form, setting, metaphor, and political writing:

Noah: Your writing style and language has a powerful overt poetic and visceral quality, enticing the reader through the prose. How did you come to find this form?

Heather: I really enjoy reading and writing poetry as well as prose, so I think I am inspired by the more abstract language and style of this form. I like to combine and embed specific imagery on a line or word level into the broader exploration of plot which a short story allows.

Noah: I feel the piece is gripped by this fixation around salt. Was there any particular reason for this choice? It feels so centrally connected to the setting, gathering in everything that the characters touch and the entire world that you have created.

Heather: I saw salt as a sort of bridge between the natural and human worlds – in some ways it is something embedded in the environment: in rock and crystal form, or in the sea. However, it is also an everyday piece of human life. I took it as an example of a fragment of nature’s wildness and ferocity that has almost been ‘domesticated’ by the figure of the Dean; a part of his broader corrosion of the environment.

Noah: As with the best political writing, its meaning is expertly disguised behind metaphor. Were there any particular themes or present issues that motivated you to write the piece?

Heather: I think I was broadly interested in issues surrounding the environment, and how questions of power and corruption are wrapped up in climate change. I was also interested in exploring the theatrical side of politics: often current events feel so wrapped up in performance and artifice, so I thought it would be interesting to represent this literally through a theatre performance.

Heather Chapman is a senior runner up in The Orwell Youth Prize 2023