A Mastermind finalist and a former postal worker feature among the shortlist for the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award.
Judges praised the five writers for their humanity, compassion and hope – and noted that more than a year of lockdowns had led to the works being focused on topics including kindness, memory, loss and longing.
Nominees for the award, which is celebrating 16 years, were announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on Friday.
Belfast-born Lucy Caldwell is shortlisted for the third time for All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story taken from her 2021 collection Intimacies, about a woman navigating a long-haul transatlantic flight with her 21-month-old daughter after a family loss.
Night Train by Georgina Harding was inspired by a sleeper train journey she took from Kyiv to Lviv in Ukraine, while novelist, playwright and screenwriter Rory Gleeson is nominated for Body Audit, about a group of boys at a residential camp.
Former postal worker and creative writing lecturer Danny Rhodes is tapped for Toadstone, the story of a lonely, awkward man who has become “obsolete in his own life”.
Meanwhile, journalist and non-fiction writer Richard Smyth features with Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast, which includes characters informed by his interest in classic Russian fiction – his specialist subject on Mastermind in 2008.
Di Speirs, editor of books at BBC Audio and judge of the award since its launch, said: “In a year when so many of us have been isolated and apart, the joy of these stories in which strangers offer comfort, and sometimes love, was notable.
“This year radio has played its part in providing companionship; these tales of unexpected encounters and kindnesses remind us of the importance of connection.
“Whether you hear them brought to life by the impressive cast of actors, or read them on the page, they serve as a reminder of the power of short fiction not only to entertain, but to enhance life and to widen horizons.”
All five stories will be broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds and published in an anthology produced by Comma Press.
The winning author will receive £15,000 with the four other shortlisted authors getting £600 each
Last year’s award went to Sarah Hall, who won for The Grotesques, a story set against a backdrop of privilege and inequality in a university town.
It was her second time winning the award.
The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on October 19 on Front Row.
– The BBC National Short Story Award shortlist:
All the People Were Mean and Bad by Lucy Caldwell
The Body Audit by Rory Gleeson
Night Train by Georgina Harding
Toadstone by Danny Rhodes
Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast by Richard Smyth