‘Gahnun on Shabbat’—the winner of the 2021 VS Pritchett Short Story Prize

February 05, 2022
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You’re here now, even though you could skip this part. You could get on the Thameslink, go straight to Luton, text Darren from Duty Free telling him that you tried but you bloody well couldn’t. But he probably won’t even reply. You push down the handle of the wheelie suitcase, light a rollie with shaking hands, and stare at the house from outside.

There are two lights on: the living room and kitchen. It’s just after 8pm which means Dad is passed out in front of the telly and Imma is in the kitchen rolling out the gahnun for Shabbat, her Zion Golan mix CD playing in the background.

In about two hours, just after the news comes on, Dad will stir from his nap on the sofa and announce he’s headed for bed.

Imma will say something like Yah haram, he’s overworked, or Misken, he gets no sleep.

He’ll say to her, why you always got to comment?

And she’ll go off, telling him: Why’ve I always got to be left here to work like a donkey? All falls on me. All on my head. Go—leave me. Go, sleep.

Wallah I will, he’ll say and leave her alone to complain to God in the kitchen.

The exact words are subject to change but the performance itself is as certain as Shabbat’s bread.

You sigh to yourself and reach for the doorbell. The door buzzes open almost at once. You kiss the mezuzah, wipe your shoes on the mat.


She’s started making the gahnun with the fan on. It used to be only in summer, but now she has it whirring even in winter, her headscarf fluttering in its path. She lights up when she sees you enter the kitchen.

A’youni, she says, What a surprise. I was just about to start making the gahnun. You eating with us on Shabbat?

Her manicured nails glisten with grease. She gives you her cheek, you kiss her hello, then sit down at the worktop beside her.

No, Imma. I’m going to Berlin.


Last-minute trip.

Why, what did you lose in Berlin?

Did I have to lose something?

It’s a bit out the blue, she says, taking a ball of dough from the six lined up on the side. She pours out some oil onto the worktop, smears it around, and flattens the ball into a disc. She stretches the dough from the middle out in a circular motion.

When’s your flight?



At two.

Did you do online check-in? she asks. Remember to do it, otherwise they charge. You know what happened to Shosh Taweela of Moshe?

You don’t know what happened to Shosh, but she starts most of her questions like this. She’ll say: Have you heard about Daniel of A’liza? or Did you know that Ofra from Kyverdale moved house? or some other bit of community gossip. And she’ll know that you don’t. But she’ll expect you to say no, then follow it up with a who, what, why, because without it the conversation can’t continue.

No. Why, what happened?

They charged her on her return from Milan. You know when she went to visit Gadi. Believe me, these airlines are only out for your money.

That would be the point.

Are you being clever? she asks. Eyebrows raised.

Where are you staying in Berlin, where is it? You have an address? How are are you planning on getting there?

Interrogation à la Ben Gurion airport security. All that remains for her to ask is if you packed your suitcase alone.

You list the answers as casually as possible. AirBnB. Central. Saved on my phone. Either U-bahn or personal jet, still undecided.

Jus’ be careful, she says, and reaches out for the margarine tub, scoops some out with her fingers.

Careful of what?

From people… from harm, she says, rubbing margarine on the dough stretched out like a scroll, open, beneath her.

You know where she’s headed, but you pretend that you don’t. Which sort of people?


I’m curious.

Adam jus’ be careful.

But Imma I don’t understand.

She loses her patience. Fuse shorter than yours.

Don’t annoy me, she says. I don’t need to teach you history.

Oh, you mean Nazis.

God forbid, she says.

It’s not 1939…

And what about the attack in Edgware last week? Jewish boy beaten up at bus stop. Misken, didn’t see it coming.

Good job I’m flying to Schönefeld not Edgware.


I don’t know what you want me to say? Yes, I’ll avoid the Nazis.

She lets out a sigh, long and drawn out.

I’m more worried about airport security to be honest.

Who are you even going with? she asks.

And then you’re reminded why you came here to start with.

Alone, you say and sink into silence.


He got you to meet him at Mandy’s café, the one in Seven Sisters, by the stairs to the Tube. 8am on a Saturday, an ungodly hour for a chat, but you agreed, inevitably, because it’s Darren.

Made your way from the party still mildly high on a medley of uppers. He saw the pictures, the stories, the comments, your night of debauchery down the A10.

You scattered a trail of digital crumbs, which isn’t your usual tactic, but it got his attention, didn’t it?

It’s why he sent that text asking to meet. It had to be. After a week of silence, suddenly it was: Meet me at Mandy’s?

Someone’s had fun? he said, as soon you’d sat yourself down in the caff.

Just a Friday night out.

Where did you just come from? he asked, eyes sizing you up.

Some warehouse in Manor House.

Oh yeah, I was planning to go.

Why didn’t you?

I was still hanging from Thursday’s afterwork drinks.

And then you both fell silent, unsure where to begin.

Sheepish looks, half-smiles. The waitress came round with his milky tea (two sugars), gave you an opportunity to tease him for his sweet tooth. You ordered one too (black, no sugar) and you both started talking about everything and nothing at once:

Workplace politics. Ronnie’s cocaine habit.

His housemate Hughesy still refusing to buy bog roll.

It’s not even Hughesy’s refusal, he said, but it’s his commitment to non-confrontation. He broke my favourite glass the other week. The one with the gold lines on the side. And it’s not a big deal, but he hasn’t even fessed up.

You knew the glass in question, you got them together at the Ikea in Edmonton. Almost smashed a set of six by the lifts, because he tried putting a hand through your hair and you flinched. Later he dropped you home in a mood, because public displays of affection were always a source of contention.

It’s just a glass, you said.

It’s not. It’s about being honest. It’s about admitting he broke it.

And you knew this perfectly well. Darren never liked pretences. Never politeness over honesty.

That’s why he wouldn’t sleep with you (that very first night) not until he’d ended it with Jake, even though they were only fucking on the side.

The minute he did, he was round in no time. Stood at your front door with some lemon haze and a bottle of gin. After that it was anything but a steady progression. First (proper) date lasted three nights, you returned home on Thursday morning in Monday night’s clothes. Skinny jeans and brogues and that awful ‘80s print shirt.

You’d spent the first year of uni exchanging nothing more than hello, avoided him like a colleague from HR on the Tube, even though you were round all the time, friends with all of his housemates.

Their living room sofa was a second home because after a sesh it was easier to crash than walk all the way home. That, and you hated your housemates.

He’d eventually cornered you at that basement party on Brudenell Terrace. Had you reciting your life story over a bottle of corner shop wine poured into plastic white cups. Then, the following weekend he took you out on the town.

Told you he’d be the wingman, the coach you never had. He showed you the bars, the pubs, the spaces you could be yourself and at ease.

But you never really were. Three years on, and it was still:


Internalised shame.

He could come up with a billion clever ways to say it, but the argument was always the same.

Anyways, forget Hughesy and glasses, he said fidgeting with a sugar sachet. He gave you a look that reminded you why you’d agreed to meet up.

Snippets of conversation floated in from the till—that’s two-eigh’y-nine, luv.



You asked him if he remembered that first night. Remember after you’d showed me the bars and the pubs? how I barged into your room, after you’d told me good night… I couldn’t sleep on the sofa and I came up for a lighter…

You omitted the part where you’d thought you’d made a mistake. Because he’d sat there propped up in bed with a confused look on his face. It was all okay once he’d laughed his gruff laugh. But until he did, you’d thought you’d messed up.

Jeans pocket on the chair, he’d said at the time.

And when you’d found it you lifted it in the air like the world’s biggest prize.

Anything else?

No. Just a lighter.

So why are you still stood there? He’d asked.

And you hadn’t known what to say. But your feet were stuck to the ground. He’d lifted the duvet aside, and you crawled in beside him smelling like cigarettes and Davidoff Cool Water. Hand still firmly clasping the lighter.

He wouldn’t do anything—because of Jake. So, you just laid there in bed, naked, cuddled up.

There at Mandy’s you would have done anything for a word or a look, an equivalent of lifting the duvet aside.

Darren, Berlin’s next weekend, you said to him. The AirBnB guy wants to know what time we get in?

But he wasn’t with you. He was somewhere else.


You tried to put a hand on his and paused. Too many hard hats and Hi-Vis vests.

He saw the hesitancy, how the hand jolted forward. And after all you’d recently been arguing about, it was like placing the evidence down on the table between you.

He looked straight ahead, shook his head slowly.

I’m sorry Adam, I meant what I said. It’s over. I won’t live like this anymore.


She senses something at once.

What is it? she says


She reads you like coffee in an upturned finjan.

You think I don’t know; she says.

Know what?

Something’s up. It’s written on your face, she says returning to the gahnun. She folds one side over, adds margarine, then folds the other over.

Darren used to call it going grey, which you never really understood, but you assumed was a northernism he’d picked up from his mum.

You take a deep breath. Imma.

Sit, you say.

What, sit? I’ve got to finish the gahnun. Who has time to sit?

I need to speak to you.

What about?

It’s like this, you say, but nothing comes out. Where do you even begin?

The room quietens down. Even Zion on the stereo seems to be listening.

You can’t lose momentum.

You lock eyes with her and say Imma. It comes out like a gurgle.

She looks at you, carefully.

Any minute now and you’ll cry, and that was never part of the plan.

She sizes you up with her eyes, assessing the situation.

You see a flicker.

Then it’s gone.

She slaps a hand to her forehead. All melodramatic like an Arabic musalsal.

Money! she shouts. I nearly forgot! Do you have money? Do you need money? she asks. But she’s not interested in your response.

Benzuuuuuuur, she hollers. The boy. He needs money!  Benzuuuuur!

She turns to you; God give me strength. He never answers when I need him.

I don’t need money.

It’s unbelievable, he’s always sleeping.

Imma. I don’t need money.

I think I need to take him to the doctors, she says. It’s like he has that sleeping problem my cousin Arnon had. Narsoslepsy. Narzkolepsy…

Her eyes spin about the room. Her performance unfinished.

Get my purse from on top, she says.


From the microwave, please e’ni.

You sigh.

Please, fadeti. Get it for me. You see the inside pocket? There should be a pound, take it.

What do I need a pound for?

Tzdakah… put in your pocket when you fly and as soon as you land tomorrow put it in a collection box.

Where am I going to find a charity box in Berlin?

Doesn’t matter where…give it to any charity. It’s to protect you like you’re going on a journey to give tzdakah.

She rolls up the gahnun and places it in the tin, reaching for a fresh ball of dough from the side.

You’ll understand when you have kids of your own, please God she says with a smile.

You watch her face, trace the contours of her wrinkles. You notice how she’s aged. How it just sort of crept up. You imagine the glow on her face receding. The tears. Her fears for something she only understands in negatives.



No children.

No wedding.

Who will light the candles on Shishi? Roll out gahnun for Shabbat?

You hear the questions that get under her skin, at the doorway to synagogue, at the tills at the grocers, at every wedding, bar-mitzvah and brit: When will he settle? When will he make you a Savta?

In his own time, please God, she’ll say in her best attempt at unconcerned.

You see it all, and you see it because I guess, we’re already here.

She knows that I was, that I am.

There was that time with the computer screen, and the history cache and the virus it caused. And she saw that text from that guy, and said point blank, I don’t ever want to see that again. And even before all of that, she still remembers the whispers in the playground, and the incident at the park. She pieced it together from Rahel and Zion and Avigdor of Nurit who heard it from A’liza’s son David. And she heard it every time someone said to her: Your boy is so gentle, Your boy is so soft.

She hands over a Tesco bag. Lahoh wraps with bisbas and egg, nayyem biscuits for afters. Something light for the flight, she says. They charge £5 for a packet of peanuts the size of my pinky.

I kiss her goodbye, she calls out safe flight, as I make my way down the corridor.

Behind me, the click of the lid of the gahnun tin, sealed and ready for baking.

Each year, Prospect partners with the Royal Society of Literature to award a fiction writer working in short stories. This year's winner is Leeor Ohayonfor Gahnun on Shabbat