Winner of Complex Characters Retreat

Thanks to everyone that sent in stories to win a place at the Creating Complex Characters Retreat taking place in Devon in March 2018. There were a surprising number of stories that had the same storyline about teenage pregnancy so Devon must have a reputation that I knew nothing about! The winner really stood out for taking a different approach, it’s humour, lightness of touch and the strength of the narrator’s voice.

Congratulations go to to Alexis Wolfe for her winning story, Target Weight, which you can read below.

I loved the way food imagery was layered throughout the whole piece to describe everything from the Devon countryside to fingers and shoes. Devon’s food and how we all envision the county as a place of picture perfect villages where everyone’s eating cream teas was nicely done. It really captured how we often aim for the wrong target to make us happy and I liked how the ending left me wondering if the narrator’s new target would be the right one or if she was seeking happiness in the wrong place again.

Target Weight by Alexis Wolfe

Stepping onto the scales, I’m hoping none of my ladies will arrive early and catch me in the act. I glance down at the numbers, leaping off again before they burn my eyes. That sticky toffee pudding last night was a big mistake.

I’m 9lbs over target now and according to Slender Seekers terms & conditions, should disclose this to Headquarters. But I’d risk losing my classes and there aren’t many jobs round here for slightly overweight fifty-something ladies.

Besides my classes are popular. The girls find me inspiring. Honiton was already sewn up by Beverley Brewer, diet coach when I lost five stone, so I make do with the out-of-town spots, villages with names like Ottery St Mary or Newtown Poppleford, quiet little places full of fuller figure ladies needing to shed a few pounds. Fridays, I travel down to Sidmouth on the coast, where there are plenty of folks who need to ease up on the fish and chips.

It’s been seven years now since my ‘vanishing’, the great disappearance of Elaine, prompted by the not-so-great disappearance of Gerald. But it’s getting harder to maintain. The weight creeps back on. Must be careful, else before long it will be bulging and pooling in my crevices, forming new creases.

I smooth down my floral dress. I aim for achievable glamour, but this dress, without tights, is pushing it for September. The Village Hall feels a little chilly. I check my displays, leaflets and Slender Seekers branded snacks. ‘Almond Fakewell’ is Ian’s favourite. Some of the Best Before dates are getting dangerously close, must make a concerted effort to flog those today.

Two regulars, Anita and Sharon shuffle in. Anita’s first in the weighing booth. Three pounds lost, she squeals. Smug cow. I give her congratulations and my brightest false smile.

Sharon’s full of disclaimers, her son’s wedding, her auntie’s birthday dinner at River Cottage. She hides her face behind her hands.

“Oh dear, a little set back Sharon, love” I say gently, my smile genuine.

“How bad is it Elaine?” She still can’t look. Her earrings dangle like bunches of grapes.

“Twelve stone five, love”

Sharon winces. “I knew it would be bad.”

It’s almost constant then, the stream of ladies, the losses and the gains. Giving encouraging squeezes to doughy upper arms. Legs shaped like twiglets, celery sticks, french sticks and drumsticks stepping on and off the scales until all verdicts have been delivered.

Time for my presentation. But still no sign of Ian. I glance at the two rows of chairs. Not a great turnout, usually we need three rows. I see the expectant faces of keen newbies and the less eager stalwarts chatting amongst themselves.

I cough loudly. “If I can have your attention, ladies?”

The room falls silent. ‘Snacks: The Alternatives’ is an easy speech, repeated often. I know it like the back of my hand. Three regulars slip out quietly. To be honest, Joyce probably should have stayed but I won’t judge.

Where is he? I think as I’m reeling off the healthy snacks ABC. His presence had become a stimulant, making my consultant speeches fizzle. Without him in my audience things feel flat. I list the benefits of the fruit and seed bars, hoping I might get shot of the last few. After a soul destroying Q&A – these women do not listen to a single thing I say – it’s over. In a flurry of hugs and waves the ladies vanish. I wait fifteen minutes extra, packing away slowly, giving him one last chance to show up. Nothing. The Pilates class start to arrive, I usually avoid seeing the teacher’s lithe body in her little pink leg warmers, it’s all rather dispiriting.

I clunk storage boxes into my purple Fiat and drive. Pausing at the village traffic lights, I wonder if Slender Seekers is ticking my boxes these days. I don’t need the money. The point was to maintain target and meet people after Gerald died. But I’m doing neither. These women aren’t my friends. They lose weight and leave, of course lots of them come back again. But we aren’t friends. And this crush – this Ian thing – is madness. I’m just starved of male company. Apparently his wife lost three stone and ran off with her personal trainer. Poor bloke. He’s not even my type, with his bad dress sense and those awful shoes, shaped like big Cornish pasties. But still, the heart feels what it feels.

The lights change and I pass the Jubilee clock in the village, 2.30pm, early for going home but I’ve forgotten my library books and already taken a ready-meal out to defrost so no reason to visit the supermarket.

The sign swings in the breeze as I descend the hill. I’ve passed this farm, on the outskirts of another quaint village, plenty of times before but the red and white cream teas sign has never been so tempting. Usually I keep my eyes on the road and ignore it. But today my willpower is already round my ankles, like a big pair of tummy toning knickers waiting to be kicked off towards the laundry basket. I pull into the car park but don’t climb out, resolving to have a sensible word with myself.

In the distance sheep dot the green hillside like sprinkles on a cupcake. The sun is high and glinting through the bramble hedgerow just beyond my window. It’s heavy with September fruit, within my grasp if I were to reach out. Plump juicy blackberries, colour of midnight, ripe for the picking. I think about sprinkling a few berries atop a low-fat yogurt and my recipe for a cheese-less cheesecake.

Then I remember brambling with Grandma, filling the circular indents inside an old egg box, how she made apple and blackberry crumble piled high with caramelised topping which would never have met Slender Seeker’s criteria for a healthy dessert. I think about blackberry jam, then raspberry jam. Inevitably strawberry jam and scones aren’t far behind. Every path, leading right here.

I choose the largest scone on the platter, but decline the clotted cream. It wasn’t necessary anyway, not with a 5mm thick wedge of real butter. A scone half is heading mouthward when I hear his voice behind me.

“That looks good”

I swing round. “Ian?!” What is he doing here?

“Hello Elaine! Mmmm, I’ll have one of those” he wanders over to the counter, the waitress looks up from scrolling her phone.

I quickly compose myself, wiping crumbs from my lap. He returns with two scones, jam and clotted cream. Naughty. “Been busy today?” I ask “Missed you at weigh-in.”

“Ahh, yes” Ian mutters “well, thing is… ” he pulls out the chair opposite me. “Okay to join you?”

I nod, watching him manoeuvre into the seat, he’s wearing a neatly ironed polo with shorts. Optimistic. Brown leather sandals with thick straps, in a lattice pattern, like the top of a pie.

“I planned to come …” Ian continued “but got cold feet” “Literally?” I laugh, tilting my head sideways to look under the table and pointing at his sandals. He chuckles. “I weighed myself at home this morning.”

I groan. “Ian! What do I always say?! What do I tell you all every week?” I knew it. No one takes any notice. “Only my scales can be relied on for accuracy! It’s best not to …”

“I know! I know!” he concedes “but anyway, I’d gained and just couldn’t face the tea and sympathy.”

I knew exactly what he meant. “So feeding your sorrows a Devonshire afternoon tea?” I tease.

“Exactly! And what’s your excuse?”

Our eyes meet. He looks away first. I raise my hands. “You got me” I smile. Then I tell him I’ve gained too. The words come tumbling out, unplanned. But now they are out on the table – like appetisers waiting to be picked over – I feel relieved. People like to be let into a secret, don’t they.

“So you gained a little Elaine” he shrugged.

“I’m the leader! I can’t be gaining, I’m supposed to be a role model.”

“Awww Elaine, come on, you’re human! Besides you still look lovely to me.”

There’s a brief silence.

“Perhaps it’s time I did something new?” I wonder aloud.

“What are you doing for the rest of the day?”

I shrug, it’s not worth mentioning the library or the ready-meal for one.

“We could walk off the scone, perhaps see a film?” he says.

“I’d love to!”

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I imagine his arm resting on the cinema seat behind me. The two of us sharing a large popcorn together. Maybe it’s not slenderness that I’m seeking. I notice he still wears his wedding ring and see how he twists it round nervously, fingers fat like sausages. I’ll get that ring off his finger, eventually.

I think I just found my new target.


About the author: Alexis Wolfe is a former TV Production Manager and Mum to three boys. She lives in Berkshire, England and is working on her first novel. When she’s not writing, she enjoys travelling and reading. Alexis was recently shortlisted in a Winchester Writers Festival contest and a runner-up in the Writers & Artists / Retreat West short story competition.


Congratulations again, Alexis. I look forward to meeting you at the retreat.

If you’d like to join us at the retreat to focus on creating characters that readers never forget then the early-bird booking rate is in place until 14th November 2017. Get all the info on the retreat here.