Bill Archer was a tall and very handsome man and strikingly dissimilar to his girlfriend Carlie Marston.
She was rather a plain looking girl. But then, she had the brightest sparkle in her eyes that suggested grit and determination hidden deep within their dark depths. Many within his family and friends’ circle scratched their heads and wondered what he had found in Carlie that had brought him to his knees. She wasn’t rich and she wasn’t pretty – at least pretty in the usual way that society considered girls pretty. She was pretty nice looking and well educated, that was all.
But they looked up at her in awe as well. Carlie was a writer. Though she wasn’t published yet, the very fact that someone could write, when many young people didn’t think it necessary to even read, unless it was a comic or a newspaper, made her in some manner awesome.
Bill himself often wondered about it himself. No matter which way he looked at it, she was always rational and reasonable, while he tended to be passionate and almost fanatical. She was quiet and thoughtful most of the time, and he was rather loquacious and sociable. But and Bill signed when he thought of it now, with that fantastic talent to write just about any kind of story, there was nothing to indicate that she wouldn’t go…wouldn’t have gone far.
Now it was highly unlikely...she would never be able to sit up straight again, let alone walk!
Only yesterday he had received a letter of appointment from a company overseas, inviting him to join their work force as a senior sales man; and the details of the pay had almost made him stagger. He felt his pocket now and briefly touched the letter.
It was either this job now or Carlie Marston there, lying immobile on a hospital bed after a terrible road accident.
She smiled at him and he wondered at her strength; he reached down, kissed her forehead and whispered:
“I’ll be back. I need to call home.”
With that he left the room quickly, swallowed back a painful catch and tried to blot out the image of the pale girl on a hospital bed with a book before her and a pen – what story would she write now?
He found a phone booth, and dialled the number to his home.
“Mum,” he said clearing his throat. “She won’t walk again. She’s paralysed from her hips down.”
“How sad,” said his mother as the touch of pity in her voice deepened to something akin to impatience. “Poor Carlie. Poor, poor Carlie.” Then she sighed deeply and added, and there was a strange hardness in her voice. “Bill, I cannot let you go through what I went through with Dad.”
“I don’t want to Mum,” he said softly. "Ever again."
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know Mum,” he replied. “I’ll think of something.”
Bill left the booth, sank into his car and smoked a cigarette, thinking. He remembered his dad had been a paraplegic as well and taking care of him had been back-breaking.
It took him four days of deliberation, of discussions with his mother, arguments with Tony, his best friend, and reading, and re-reading that letter. It took him four days to strap himself free of any guilt. He was 25, with a bright career ahead; and the appointment letter that he looked at again seemed to come alive before him.
To give him his due, he thought of Carlie too. He had fallen in love with her because of her keen sense of dignity, of respect for self as well as for others; he had been attracted to her because in her own subtle way, she had some hidden determination that made her stand out, and that added power to her personality.
He was never going to get one like Carlie again he realised. She was smart, intelligent, educated, and determined, and a talent that made heads turn. One always thought of writers as mere names on books – he actually knew someone who wrote!
But he made up his mind. It was Carlie or his future.
Bill Archer chose his future.
In a month, he was on a flight overseas to join his new workplace. He thought of Carlie as he settled back in his seat. Out there back home, Carlie Marston had most likely been discharged from hospital and was probably picking up the pieces of her shattered life. His friend Tony had offered to break the news to her, because he just couldn’t buck up the courage to do it himself.
And so, ended that chapter in Bill Archer’s life.
Life can pass you by in slow motion, or it can whizz by in a blink. Having settled into his job, Bill brought his mother over to stay with him, then married a girl he had known in college and settled down to what life had to offer.
But the recession happened and Bill Archer who had climbed the many ladders of success, lost his job and slid down the snake of downfall; coming through its belly and out from its rear, a lost man with the bleak prospect of having to start all over again.
At 44 now, with very little savings, because one usually thought of investments and pension only after one turned 40 or thereabouts, Bill had no one to turn to except his wife. She was now a rotund, unsightly woman before his eyes, with a huge double chin and eyes that appeared bigger and bulgier than ever, sparkling arrogantly within their folds of skin. An unemployed man at home, clinging to the apron strings of his mother is the most unattractive of all creatures on earth, and his wife had come to realise that. She distanced herself more and more from her husband, spitting contemptuously on him and at his unsuccessful attempts of finding permanent work. Odd jobs took up his time – repairing gables and kitchen pipes or painting a wall or a fence for a daily wage. Working a supermarket till or delivering post during the festive season when temporary work force was needed, also helped pay his keep, but he deeply felt the shame of it all.
To add to this disgrace, social media, accessible from a smart phone had now become the rage. Through this he had glimmerings into his friends’ lives and their successes and he felt cold and shrunken.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, he made it to a bar one evening and bought himself a stiff drink. Then he downed one more and then another and staggered home late, singing to himself and thinking of an old girlfriend.
By the end of that week, Bill Archer had looked at Carlie’s social media profile at least a hundred times.
He then sent her a small note and impatiently waited for a reply. When it came, weeks later, he had been exuberant, and yet strangely piqued. Carlie had been so in love with him; Carlie always put him first. Carlie never made him wait!
He replied immediately, asking how she was doing and if she was still writing; and if she could share a phone number so he could call and catch up.
Once again, her response took its own time. When it came, it was casual, easy and utterly astonishing!
“Writing and running,” she had messaged. “Here’s my book reveal video – I’m a published author now,” and this was followed by a three-minute film of a published book which carried her name, Carlie Marston displayed in bold font, “and here’s a picture of me, taken by my husband.”
Husband? His brow crinkled, but deep inside him he felt a squirm – some man had had the strength, the courage and overall, the unconditional love to stand by her when she couldn’t stand at all. Some man had had the grit to say "I do, till death do us part" to a girl crippled in a wheelchair.
But it was the picture that made him almost fall off his chair. It was the photo of a slim, athletic girl, in riding shorts and running shoes, smiling hugely as she held a bicycle high above her head in triumph after winning the second place in a duathlon, which she had taken part in.
And finally, the last message that came in before she blocked him out of even having the freedom to message her was:
“The doctor said I wouldn’t walk again. I didn’t.”
Bill Archer had to read that message two or three times before he could finally understand what she actually meant to convey. He desperately tried to reply to her, to get more information, to ask for her phone number again, to try to rekindle an old ember, but found to his mounting dismay that he couldn’t.
Carlie had ended that chapter in her life many, many years earlier. Her responses to Bill had been only final footnotes.
© Cindy Pereira
Winning Story: Contest #18
Sat at his console, Reuven could hear someone talking, a few stations up.
‘It’s just brilliant,’ the voice enthused. ‘The best thing ever. It truly is perfect.’ There was an edge to his voice, a boast.
Reuven glanced up the line at the owner of the voice and idly wondered what the “perfect” thing might be, but an in-coming, high-alert instruction took his attention back to his job and he quickly started working on a protocol.
On the sky train home, he donned his leisure glasses and selected the adverts stream appropriate to his income. The choices were dispiritingly mundane.
“Want to go back in time?” blared the first one. “Experience a pandemic. Queue up for toilet rolls, avoid other people, look at an empty sky.”
‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ he wondered. ‘And what were toilet rolls?’
The next assaulted his nostrils with the slightly, acid scent, of manufactured flowers. He could just about afford two blooms, but at least they would last a life-time, he supposed.
He selected the next income level stream. No better. It wasn’t until he had reached five streams above his income level, that the adverts became interesting.
Interesting, but way out of his reach.
Sighing to himself, he closed the adverts stream down and selected a random memory. And immediately wished he hadn’t.
His father was speaking.
‘You failed,’ he said tonelessly. He didn’t need to raise his voice to emphasis the point. He had a number of masks he could call on to help with his communication skills and he had chosen the “extremely disappointed” one. This was the one that kept his eyes focussed on the subject, his lips curled down and his nostrils flared. The mask had a small mal-function in it, which caused it to freeze for almost thirty seconds more than optimum response time. His father was trying to soft-boot it off, but it wasn’t working, so he was left looking like some sort of ferrety creature trying to out-stare his prey.
‘That’s what comes of buying seconds,’ Reuven thought, with some satisfaction.
However there was no satisfaction in knowing he had not made the required grade to get onto the World Education Program. So, instead of earning the highest world salary, he was stuck on level twenty-four, with level twenty-four advertising and a repetitive, level twenty-four life. There was absolutely nothing “perfect” about it.
The next day, queueing to pick up his personalised, vitamin lozenge, Reuven realised he was standing behind “Mr. Perfect”.
‘What a night! I was afraid I might have picked up a rogue implant and been infected with a false memory, but no, it was still there and it was real all right.’
Despite himself, Reuven craned his neck to listen.
‘And was it just as good as you’d remembered?’
‘Mate, it was so much better.’ His voice was strident. ‘You should get one.’
Having finished the lozenge, Reuven lay down on his assigned rotation bed and closed his eyes. Fifteen minutes later, his body having sloughed off a weeks-worth of aging, he sat up, walked over to the communal bench and inserted a re-hydration drip.
‘So what is it you’ve got that’s so perfect?’ he asked the man sitting next to him, his tone slightly contemptuous.
Galton, as his name turned out to be, needed no prompting.
Reuven vaguely recalled his father telling him about them. Apparently, long before the advent of World Consolidation Day, you could get them completely free. Of course you had to know where to go to get one and sometimes you had to take one from someone else. But generally, everyone had one. Then they started to mal-function. They became dysfunctional and eventually they ceased to exist, a bit like libraries.
But now, the World Central Government, realising how good they were, had brought back new, up-dated versions. But they were only available to purchase by those on level forty and above. Those who had been on the World Education Program. His failure pierced him all over again.
‘So how could you afford to buy one?’ Reuven asked, his resentment barely contained. Everyone knew everyone else’s grade, so it wasn’t an impolite question. It would have been different if he’d asked Galton where he had been born – that would have risked a brain scan check-up.
He had to buy an hour’s blind spot, his last one from his years allotment. He wasn’t sure if scrolling the Artizana web was an offence, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. Fifty minutes later he found the site Galton had told him about. He’d had to change his identity four times, each one costing him money he could ill afford. He had almost given up, when a dialogue box popped up:
‘Perfect Purchases – how can we help?’
He requested some sample plans and a bewildering array of options and price points poured into his lock-safe device. Switching on the de-coder, he quickly scanned the selection. There were five price points, or you could buy Seconds at discounted prices – ones that weren’t quite so perfect.
A vision of his father’s “Extremely Disappointed” mask flashed into his mind. He wouldn’t be choosing a Second.
A shimmering eye on the wall, indicated that the blind spot was about to run out, so Reuven quickly made his selection - price point three (the most popular according to the site), plus an accessory – and authorised the payment. A message immediately popped into his personal brain scanner.
‘Thank you for your order. We’ll let you know once your item(s) have been dispatched. Your estimated delivery date is indicated below.’
Three days later, another message:
‘Your order is on the way and can no longer be changed.’
It was getting closer.
‘Your bot will deliver your order today between 8.00 and 9.00. The World Central Government have authorised you to receive it at home.’
Reuven paced the floor. His lips kept acting totally out of character by turning upwards, followed by his eye-brows and then his shoulders. Odd noises popped out of his mouth un-bidden and his in-built heart monitor kept cutting in, to slow the excited organ down. At 8.00, the door monitor advised him that a delivery was outside. He opened the door.
‘Hello,’ said a soft voice.
The pretty woman had a baby in her arms and was holding the hand of a small child wearing a pink dress. A black dog lay at the child’s feet.
‘It’s lovely to meet you. We’re your perfect family.’
© Sue Buckingham
Winning Story: Contest #18
The hooded figures. They guard our village. People say they protect us, but all they do is harm. Every day, the damage gets worse; on the first day they stole someone’s car. On the next, it was a house set on fire to ‘apparently’ mark the death of the family who had previously lived there. A long time ago, a crime struck Pandona – our tiny village. Murder, I think. The village blamed this woman called Mary who used to work at the bakery just down my road. When the guards brought her into the forest to starve as punishment, the village thought they were heroes.
The woman was never seen again – but I don’t think she was even the murderer.
Many people after Mary have gone missing or were forced to leave their homes. No one even questions the guards’ decisions because we’re scared of the consequences. The townsfolk are blind when it comes to the fact that the hooded guards don’t protect us at all.
Today, however, was different.
The guards didn’t do their morning route. The only house they went to happened to be mine. I ran down the stairs and looked out of the window. Their shadows crept up the walls.
They knocked again.
Mother always tells me I should never open the door to the guards. That’s what all the parents tell their kids anyway. I froze. There was something about their hollow, tortured eyes that keep me awake every night. Looking out of the window now, one of the guard’s eyes were so blank, soulless, you could say. Cloaked by his black hood, there was no part of his body that was visible; his gloves were like spindling spider legs – one for each finger. This time the knock was harder, shaking the whole hallway. My father - Patrick ran down the creaky stairs, yawning (clearly, he had just woken up). Our stairs were very old because even though my parents didn’t like to admit it, we were quite poor.
“Get back, Luna. I’ll open the door and you’ll stay in the living room until I say otherwise.”
This is what he tells me every morning.
Reluctantly, I dragged myself into the living room and shut the door behind me.
I bent down and crawled into the cupboard on the left. From here, I could pull the latch on the wood down which opens to a skylit trapdoor. Pulling myself through it, I coughed at the amount of dust that had collected over the years. Rotten wood dug into my fingers as I reached for an arm hold. It was like scaling a chimney, but way harder. Finally, I reached the roof. The village spread out in front of me as the yellow, orange and pink sky splashed behind the houses, vibrantly. I sat there for a few minutes, watching the guards approach my father in the doorway. Despite them being just underneath me, I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
The closest guard cleared his throat and stepped forward, “How many times will we have to ask you until you come to your senses and hand over your child.”
“I don’t have a child,” Patrick snapped.
The woman to the right of him pulled her hood down further, as if she was afraid of Patrick recognising her. Yet again, the guards advanced on Patrick, close enough to the roof that I could finally hear what they were saying.
“We would bring your child to The Orphanage of Pandona, I’m sure you remember there?” she teased.
Father flinched, then his face went back to showing no emotion.
“We’ll be here tomorrow to pick the child up. Nine o’clock sharp or she won’t be the only one saying goodbye.”
They turned and left.
I was left on the roof for a while, the woman’s words ringing in my head – ‘I’m sure you remember it there.’ Did that mean father had been an orphan? Afterall, I’d never heard him mention his parents, he kept things like that to himself. Another thought circled my mind: what happened to the children whose parents didn’t hide or home school them like my parents did? How many children were already at the orphanage? I shook my head; the only way I could be legally brought to an orphanage was if my parents were dead. But maybe they just call it an orphanage when really it is just where they bring kids, even if their parents aren’t dead? That thought didn’t reassure me anymore than the last.
Evie ducked behind the jagged stairs. The other orphans watched in anticipation, through various different crooked doors. She bolted down the corridor as one of the guards ran after her. The candlelight he was holding illuminated the hallway and the remnants of picture frames hanging above him. A skidding sound echoed in the opposite direction.
Someone else was out of bed.
“Whoever is out there better come here now, or I am going to beat you until there is nothing left of your tiny hands. Do you hear me?” He roared, pulling down his black hood to reveal his face.
This time, Evie did as she was told, and stepped out into the light.
“Miss Knight, oh how I do love your little stunts at nighttime, however, this will be the last of them.”
Before The guard could get his hands on her, Evie was gone. He looked down, only to find a letter addressed to him. Why did the girl have his letter? Without thinking twice, he ripped it open and skim-read the whole letter.
Deputy Head Guard,
It is my duty to inform you that we have another orphan. She is not actually an ‘orphan’ seeing as her parents are still very much alive. However, we can find her a place and I believe she would be a great contribute to your plan to collect every child in the village.
Someday, the children will know what we are doing for them.
As the other orphans went to bed, the guard blew out his candle and gave in for the day.
The next morning, a carriage pulled up outside the orphanage. I stepped out along with my mother and father.
I couldn’t believe this was happening.
My heart thumped against my ribcage like a caged bird about to be let free.
The only difference was, I was not just about to be let free. We were greeted by the guards; they lead us into the building. Past the ominous metal gate and through the creaky hallway.
“You need to say goodbye now,” mumbled the guard.
“Oh, ok…” I held back tears as I embraced my parents in a hug for what I hoped wasn’t the last time. My mother looked at me sadly as she and my father left the building. Three hours later, me, Evie and all the other orphans were having lunch when the guards rushed in.
Cries were heard from outside.
“The other village is here they’ve come to attack us!” She screamed.
Back outside, the metal gate was being locked and secured. By the front door, bars were being lowered so that no one could get in. All of the guards frantically bolted all the windows shut. The children of the orphanage screamed and ran around, but the attackers didn’t get in. For the children were all safely in the orphanage, it had been the guards’ plan all along. That day, the guards were real heroes, the orphans and children who didn’t have a protective home had been brought to the orphanage for protection from the rival village, knowing that they could’ve attacked any day, at any time.
The hooded guards. People now say they’re heroes, even if people had judged them before.
Because you can never judge people who quietly save the world.
Afterall, they tend to be all around us.
© Amy McCarthy
Winning Story: Contest #17
The night was cold and grim; the night had been cold and grim for some time. Wind howled between the eaves and under the door, sending great clouds of dust tumbling into the fireplace. It was a night of storms. A night of felled trees and clouds across the moon.
And I was huddled by the fire, watching my mother sew a blanket.
My mother sewed blankets of all shapes and kinds. Great heavy things they were, made of wool and sturdy stitching, adorned with every pattern imaginable. She’d sewn blankets for farmers and greengrocers, for the lord and lady up in their big house on the hill, for grieving widows and expectant mothers; it was said that everyone in town bought a blanket from my mother eventually, and she never refused a request.
This one was small and square, no larger than my baby brother’s bed upstairs, made of the richest, deepest indigo wool I had ever seen.
“What’s it going to be, Mama?” I asked, enraptured. For my brother’s birth, my mother had sewn herself a blanket of coarse emerald wool, zigzagged with grey thread fences and soft white sheep. I’d taken it out once, as she slept, and laid it carefully across the bedroom floor, watched an eternity of green roll out ahead of me, as if I were a bird floating above the fields outside town.
That was when I had fallen in love with my mother’s work.
“A very special blanket,” she replied.
I stared down at the deep blue wool, spotted with the first haphazard points of multicoloured thread.
“Who for?” I asked, wide eyed.
“A birth,” said my mother, and refused to be drawn on the subject. She never liked to speak of her creations before they were done, as if doing so might steal some vital spark of character.
The rest of that week I watched my mother sew her blanket, watched it sprout a cacophony of glistening needlepoint stars-- some red, some yellow, some twinkling baby blue-- laid out across the wool in great intricate swirls. I watched as she added buttons, added twinkling sequins, until, like magic, the entire night sky appeared beneath her deft fingers, rendered in perfect cotton miniature.
I ran my hands over the pattern, feeling each bump and lump of that tiny woolen galaxy, and waited with bated breath to see who it was for.
Usually the blanket’s new owner would arrive on our doorstep, flushed pink with cold and the long walk through the woods. My mother would unroll the blanket, and they would coo and whisper, wide-eyed at its fine stitches and swirls.
But this time there was no knock, the star-blanket’s new owner never arrived at our door. Instead, I awoke one night to the sound of someone moving about downstairs.
Quiet as a mouse, I crept to the landing and watched my mother slip out into the night, the galaxy blanket bundled carefully under her arm.
Seized with a fierce curiosity, I slipped on my shoes, ran to the door, and hurried after her. Down the garden path, out onto the lane, then a sudden swerve right, into the forests surrounding our cottage. The night was darkest here, threaded with sudden chills and whispering shadows. Things rustled in the undergrowth, and I wondered how my mother could possibly know where she was going; without a path, without a light. How she would ever find her way back.
Suddenly the trees ahead of us opened up, revealing a tiny woodland glade, deep within the forest. Moonlight lanced between the branches. The night sky circled overhead, dotted with stars.
My mother paused here, her hair whipped by the wind, the bundle tucked safely under her arm. She didn’t see me, crouched there in the shadows, my eyes wide, my heart pounding, but I saw every movement she made. Her breath steaming in the air.
The darkness shifted, and out of the night on the opposite side of the clearing stepped a woman. Tall and stern and handsome, she stood as insubstantial as shadow; her hair as black as night, her eyes the colour of constellations. The darkness pooled around her shoulders, trailing off between the trees in a great black cloak.
It was as if all the stars in the sky had conspired to reform themselves here, in this little glade, for the benefit of my mother.
Carefully, my mother set the bundle down on the grass at the woman’s feet and bowed her head. The woman returned the gesture; slowly, sedately, like a queen. There was no fear on my mother’s face, no expression at all on the woman’s, but it was as if an understanding had passed between them; a deep, wordless gratitude.
Something snapped in the dark behind me, my mother’s head turned in my direction, and I bolted for home. As I hurried through the woods, I realised what else had struck me about the night-woman, twinkling with stars and washed with swirling nebulas; she was very obviously pregnant.
Back in my bed, waiting for the gentle tread of my mother returning home, I stared at the ceiling and wondered what a child of the night would look like. If it would wail with the howling winds, or cause shooting stars to fall with its tantrums. If it would look small and pink and helpless, like my baby brother, or as gossamer-silver as a moonbeam; barely human at all.
I was certain, however, that it would surely be cold up there. Colder than snow, cold than the coldest night, even under the brightest moon.
A child more in need of a blanket than anyone.
My mother sewed blankets for everyone. Rich or poor, desperate or decadent, God or mortal. Whoever asked, she provided. And she never refused a birth.
© Georgia Cook
Winning Story: Contest #10
I flip the calendar page over. The big red cross is in sight now, but we still don’t use the garage. Nearly ten years we’ve been here, Keith, his dog Rusty, John and I. Rusty’s a funny old beast; born with one eye blue, the other green. They’re like glazed marbles now. He must be on his last legs.
Keith felted the dining room table up back in ninety-six so we could play Texas Hold’em for coppers or match sticks. None of them can read me for custard. Proper poker face. I keep my match sticks in a Tupperware box I found next to the sink.
He’s a good egg is Keith, terrible cook though. We met outside of Currys’ Electricals back in the winter of ninety-two. I had a terrible case of frostbite. He’d shared his blanket in exchange for some rolling papers. We stayed in touch, on the front-line.
We’ve a four-ring hob now, a power shower and a large television with five channels. Makes a change to have the sound up and I can’t say I miss watching all the shows at once through the glass. I took the master bedroom. The boys were more than happy to share the spare. I say boys, we’re all in our fifties now.
Jack pretty much keeps himself to himself. I’ve had more words out of the dog than out of ‘e. The fridge has got more to say. I’d forgotten how lush a chilled beer on the patio was in the heat of the summer. Hums like a rascal, that refrigerator. Instead of moving on down the street though, I just move into another room if it gets on me nerves.
It’s funny how things turn out when you look back over twenty odd years. And they have been odd, for me at least. I’m the first to admit I made a mess of my youth. The bottle, red wine that is, never brought me said promises of unoaked, full bodied essence of the Rhone valley, just a divorce and the sack. I spent my forties in the stairwell of the NCP. Still chain the old coffin nails like it’s going out of fashion, mind.
We have our happy routines: Job Centre on a Monday, Wetherspoon’s on a Thursday,
kebabs on a Friday at the start of the month, then beans with a flipped egg to garnish when the giro runs dry. The boys keep the kitchen clean and I do the lounge. The bathroom is no man’s land; it’s functional but you wouldn’t want to be trapped in there for longer than needs be.
In and out.
I’ve fixed the place up a treat – put an extra bolt on the front and panelled up the back. When I first arrived, his bed was off the ground. Pine slats, medium-to-firm mattress and he had those Egyptian cotton sheets – the ones that hold the heat in. They were in need of a wash though, even by my standards.
As soon as I was in, I did what I needed to do, tossed my old sweater and jeans on the floor and used his shower gel. God, that water felt like liquid gold compared to the public toilet three-point sponging.
Washed away years of street life under the power-jet head, I did, that first night. It went cold at the end though - woke me up a treat. Penance for my sins I suppose. Slept like a log after.
He was a man of habit; I’ll give him that. He even folded his under-crackers. I’ve taken to a clean pair each day now we’ve figured out the washing machine. Once I’d got out and dried off, I bundled my old clothes into a ball and stuffed them in the bin. Then I slipped into something fancy; cashmere the label said, from Marks and Spencers. I had a good rummage in his wardrobe, my bottom half needed covering too. I remember thinking, given all that freedom of a job – an office worker of some sort perhaps - bricks and mortar, money, why would anyone choose five identical pairs of slacks?
Six foot on the nose I reckon, thirty-four-inch waist, on the right side of thirteen stone.
A good size for a grown man. Felt it too. Nearly did my back in when I moved him.
He drank good coffee; mind and his freezer was full of those ready meals you put in the microwave.
Couple of weeks later, once I’d worked my way through his comestibles, I had to nip out and get more supplies. Found a twenty in his wallet so I came back fully loaded, brought the boys back too. They’ve been here ever since.
When it arrives, I always open the post. It’s my gaff so I do the admin. Just a quick check, make sure the direct debits are still being collected.
Keith found a stash of notes in the bottom of the wardrobe - must’ve been about three grand or so. Old Roy must have been saving up for the apocalypse or something - should’ve used a bank, silly old boy. Since having a roof over my head, getting an account was easy as pie. Got me one of them cards too now mind. One with a pin-code.
We always make sure one of us is in. There’s honour among thieves, see. John doesn’t go out much anyway which is handy because Keith and myself love a brew or three down the Ring O’ Bells. One of us is always locked in. Just in case anyone snooping catches wind.
I keep looking at the red cross and I’m wondering which of them legal beagles I’m going to let handle this case. Got a few cards from my last trip downtown, I have. Put on his smartest suit I did, fits me a treat. Looks like royalty in it, I do.
We’re both size nine and a half so he gifted me some lovely leather penny loafers which are perfect for driving in. It’s my yard, so the boys and I’ve agreed - I get the Aston Martin and I’m keeping the keys to the garage. No questions asked. When I do nip out for a spin, I take his black leather driving gloves and waxed jacket from the hall and a handkerchief to hold over my nose - just to get it out of the garage.
No photos anywhere when I first arrived, except a sepia one in the hallway. Looks old as time, must be his parents or grandparents. Poor old chap can’t have had any family. That, our measurements and our schooling are the only similarities we’ve got, I guess. No one’s come after him anyway and he’s still paying all the bills.
He was a mean man and he died with little, yet he still had more than I. I saw him often, with his snide glares, passing me as I sat cap-in-hand outside of County Stores. Never gave me the time of day. We’d sat side-by-side at school, Roy Sneddon and I. We sat side-by-side in the register, so we were sat side-by-side in the class for five years at least. Five years of Sneddon’s sneaking eyes running up and down my answers every day. It was enough to drive a man crazy.
Following him home had been a doddle. He seemed oblivious to my presence. In fact, he seemed unaware of anything but his chest which he clutched like a wild rabbit as he entered his abode. Key in nook, I saw his humped frame launch through the door, as he fell into the hallway. I stood and watched.
Do I feel guilt I expect you’re wondering? Not at all. Death comes to us all, some a little sooner than nature intended. Carpe diem - our old school motto. If I hadn’t seized this opportunity, it’d just have rolled into the hands of the state.
Nearly ten years ago, from behind the hydrangea, I crept, carrying my worldly possessions on my back. Not another soul was watching as death swept his away. A rind of moon clung onto the midnight sky that night, smiling at me, giving me the signal, the go-ahead. I lunged over his sprawled carcass which lay blocking my new front door. The moon slid behind a blanket of cloud. I stood and I waited for total darkness to take over then I dragged him through.
Seventeen days and the law says this’ll all be mine.
I took the cane for him on more than one occasion; he always copied my schoolwork. Thing is, I was never a grass.
There’s a big red cross on the calendar this month and we still don’t use the garage.
© S.J. Townend
Winning Story: Contest #4
Oleg Antonyevich makes a detour through Kensington Gardens to pay homage to Princess Diana before he gets on the tube. He feels conspicuous in his grey Macintosh because there is no sign of rain. It is one of those rare, sunny March mornings celebrated by the English Romantics whose volumes of poetry he once kept hidden under his bed.
At Kensington Palace, Oleg meanders past beds of flowering bulbs listing their names in his head: Shelley’s hyacinths, Wordsworth’s daffodils, Coleridge’s snowdrops. Snowdrops. He shudders despite his coat and the unseasonably warm day. Podsnezhniki: it’s the name Russians give to the corpses of the homeless, alcoholics and political dissenters that emerge when the snow finally thaws in spring.
Oleg checks his old Raketa wristwatch - he always leaves his iPhone in the office when he goes out on one of his jaunts - and heads for Bayswater station, even though Notting Hill is closer. It’s a thirty-minute journey to his destination but it will take him the best part of two hours.
An hour later, Oleg has completed a loop of the Circle Line and is back where he started. It’s getting on for lunchtime and standing room only on the District Line. The train lurches as it leaves the station, jolting the passengers packed inside. Oleg grabs the overhead handrail to stop himself from slamming into the woman in the seat below.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ she says to the friend squashed in beside her. ‘Look at this, Liz.’ She nods in Oleg’s direction.
‘Ignore the dirty bastard, Janie.’
Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre: English roses transposed into poison ivy.
Oleg looks down. His coat has fallen open. The woman has spotted the bulge in his trousers and gotten the wrong end of the stick. He could explain - he wouldn’t be arrested, unlike at home - but instead he decides to get out at St James’s Park and walk the rest of the way.
In Parliament Square, police hold back protesters brandishing EU flags as a silver Jag sweeps through the gates in time for Prime Minister’s Questions. Oleg carries on to Westminster Bridge. Half way across, propped against the wall, a bunch of wilting lilies, wrapped in soggy cellophane, marks the spot where a terrorist ploughed his van into a group of tourists two years ago.
Poor old Brits, no wonder they’ve started harking back to the past like his countrymen; it’s natural when one feels under threat. Oleg scans the sea of strangers surging towards him for bulging burkas and unkempt beards knowing that just because he doesn’t spot any, it doesn’t mean that ISIS isn’t here.
His gaze drifts towards the Eye as he heads onto Westminster Bridge Road. It had been disconcerting returning to London after thirty-five years living in other European capitals and at home: the skyline had changed but so had the people.
A princess still resided at Kensington Palace and a woman PM at Number Ten but he’d met Kate Middleton and Teresa May and they were nothing like Diana or Margaret: the powerful combination of tradition and progressive thinking that had seduced him in the eighties had ebbed away; the thawed waters of the Cold War frozen back over.
Oleg walks through Lambeth’s streets, bandy legged from his swollen groin. Outside the Old Vic he spots two policemen and crosses the road. Having swapped their tunics and pointy hats for stab vests and flat caps, the Met’s bobbies look as menacing as Moscow’s Omonovtsy.
Oleg zigzags through stationary traffic back to the sunny side of the street. The chafing between his legs is no longer a discomfort but a reminder that there’s no need for his pessimistic mood: what he has in his underpants will make the world a better place.
He arrives at his destination.
It is typical of young Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely - Oleg loves a British military joke - to pick a location within easy walking distance of his office. The millennials are lazy, unlike the public schoolboys of yesteryear; or perhaps it’s just that the Brits no longer rate his work. Well, soon they will both have a chance to show their metal.
The door to the Premier Inn slides opens. Oleg saunters past the self-service check-in machines to the toilets at the back of the hotel restaurant whose name has changed since he was last here, from Blighty’s to Babushka’s. He is staggered - and impressed - that London’s chefs have managed to transform the watery borscht and greasy pirozhki of his spartan Soviet youth into trendy, mouth-watering dishes.
Oleg locks the far cubicle door, climbs onto the toilet seat and drops his trousers. He lifts the loose polystyrene ceiling tile above his head with one hand, takes the padded envelope from his underpants with the other and slides it into the roof space. He gets the sort of buzz he hasn’t had in decades, knowing this is big.
On his way out, Oleg ignores the young man, whose cardigan actually does fit rather nicely, washing his hands in the sink.
Outside, the weather has changed. It’s cool and cloudy, and Oleg is starving. He passes Starbucks and goes into the greasy spoon he likes on the corner of the street. As he tucks into his egg and bacon banjo - more military slang overheard in the corridors of the MOD - Oleg imagines Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely back at his desk in Vauxhall Cross, taking the memory stick from the envelope, inserting it into his computer. Calmly observing a scene of debauchery that would make most people flinch.
He looks around the café. Grey faces, hunched shoulders; the proletariat looks glum. Oleg drains his mug of tea, brewed until bitter, pushes back his chair and strides towards the counter, searching his pockets for his wallet.
‘Evryfink okay vif your meal?’
The accent sets Oleg’s heart racing but he retains his composure as he finds his wallet and looks up. The waitress is tall, slim, a brunette. She has the look of a supermodel and her nametag reads Melania. He hasn’t seen her before: she must be new.
Oleg pulls out a ten-pound note, changes his mind and gives the girl a twenty. Tells her to keep the change. Tells himself there’s no need to feel guilty. Collateral damage – like Melania, like the bystanders in Salisbury - is inevitable. His staff in the rezidentura will despise the betrayal but they understand the rules. Just as he understands what comes next: a false identity; a new address; a life looking over his shoulder waiting for the stab of an umbrella, the odd tasting cup of tea.
On the pavement, Oleg checks the Raketa passed on to him by his father the day he followed in his footsteps and joined the KGB. Cardigan-Fitznicely should be on the phone by now, making the arrangements. Oleg tightens the belt on his coat. Dark clouds have eclipsed the tip of the Shard and the temperature must have plummeted because he’s shivering.
He’s light-headed, wheezing too, by the time he reaches the rendezvous point at the wobbly lamppost on Westminster Bridge, but elation takes over as he spots the motor boat with a green Harrods bag tied to its mast powering down the Thames. The extraction plan has been reviewed many times over the past few years. He never dreamed it might actually be put into practice.
Oleg takes his off his coat - with relief because now he’s hot and sweaty - and climbs onto the parapet. A faraway voice shouts ‘no, don’t do it’ and he giggles. The whole of London would be singing God Save the Queen at the top of their voices if they knew what he was really up to.
The boat slows down. Psychedelic circles swirl before Oleg’s eyes. His heart pounds and his ears are ringing. His organs are shutting down. He might not even make it to the safe house where Katya will be waiting with the girls. The boat bobs on the water below. The captain looks up and salutes, signalling that he’s a hero and that it’s time to go.
Oleg dangles one foot over the edge. The sky is black with snow clouds. Soon, he too will be a podsnezhnika lying on the boat’s padded-out deck. He has no regrets. He’s sad about his family but glad about the rest. He trusts the Brits to use his kompromat to expose the world’s biggest threat to democracy: Russia’s greatest agent, Donald J Trump.
Oleg Antonyevich steps off the bridge.
© Anita Davie
Winning Story: Contest #1
Six more minutes and it would be time to make the drop-off. Harris sipped his coffee. It was stone cold. Disgusted, he pushed the mug away. How long had he sat there – an hour – more? He stole a look at his watch and noted with satisfaction that another minute had passed. Animated voices made him look up just as a group of young men wearing matching football shirts entered the cafeteria.
By the time they had seated themselves he was already bored with trying to figure out which team they supported. Aside from the newcomers, there were surprisingly few customers considering this was a busy motorway service station, albeit late at night. There were three young girls dressed in business suits, two families, a couple of truckers and three guys sitting alone. One of the men looked up and caught him staring. Harris quickly looked away but not before noticing the man’s distinctive blue jacket.
Was he the one?
His thoughts were disturbed by raucous laughter coming from the football supporters who were now eyeing up the young girls and passing audible judgment on their looks. A screech of chairs told him that the girls had had enough and to a chorus of wolf-whistles, they made for the exit. Before leaving, one of the girls turned to face the lads and waggled her little finger in the air. The outburst of indignation demonstrated that the significance of her gesture had not been wasted. Smirking, she hurried after her friends.
Grinning at her audacity Harris accidentally made eye contact with the man in the blue jacket and swiftly looked away noticing as he did so that another of the men was also looking his way.
Get a grip, they’re just bored and looking around like you.
He glanced at his watch. Two minutes to go.
You can’t back out now – she’s already dead.
He nervously fondled the briefcase handle. Inside was supposed to be five thousand pounds, the balance of the transaction, but it was actually full of newspapers. If things went as planned the man would go to his grave never knowing he’d been duped.
Ten thousand pounds! Was that all she was worth? The thought bothered him.
Harris pushed his chair back, wincing at the screeching noise.
One of the men who had been sitting alone immediately stood up and strode purposefully out of the cafeteria.
Harris watched him go and a few seconds later, followed him out, heading towards the lockers near the service station entrance. After checking that no one was watching, Harris placed the briefcase in locker 17, before placing the key on top of the lockers out of sight to passers-by. He then retreated to a predetermined hiding place away from c.c.t.v. coverage. As he turned he caught a glimpse of the man in the blue jacket, disappearing into the toilets opposite. He was now positive that he was the hitman.
All he had to do now was wait. The guy in the blue jacket would come out of the toilets and retrieve the case. Then Harris would follow him outside and take care of business. Then he was home dry.
As he waited, he gently caressed the gun concealed in his pocket. He had been alarmed at how easy it had been to hire a killer and then to buy a gun. No wonder violent crime was so rife! All it had taken was a few careful words in the right ears down at a pub known for attracting the wrong kind of clientele, and a guy called ‘Sharkey’ had arranged it all. Harris had paid him £2000 for the gun and as an introductory fee. He had also handed over £5000 for the hitman, the remaining £5000 to be paid tonight upon completion of the assignment.
The murder of my adulterous wife.
Sharkey hadn’t asked him why he wanted a gun when he was already hiring a hitman. Instead he had told him when and where to pick up his gun and had made the arrangements for the final money drop-off. That way, neither the killer nor he would ever get to see each other. It was better that way Sharkey had assured him. All Harris had to do was make sure he had a cast iron alibi.
Even now he couldn’t believe that Cathy had been unfaithful - again - but there was no denying it – on several occasions he’d witnessed the man coming out of his house and always on days when she thought he was working away. It was obvious she was having another affair.
He’d stuck by her through her depression and her last affair and this was how she repaid him?
Harris had arranged an unnecessary meeting with a client close to where Sharkey had said to make the drop-off and had booked himself into a nearby hotel. His alibi. Then, under cover of darkness, he had left and driven down to this service station as arranged by Sharkey. He would do what was necessary and would then return to the hotel. He didn’t like loose ends and as far as he was concerned, this killer was a loose end. Sharkey too.
Lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed the arrival of the man at the lockers. To his surprise, it wasn’t the man in the blue jacket. Harris watched as the man retrieved the key and opened the locker. He quickly withdrew the briefcase before putting something inside the locker. Then, after locking it again and putting the key back where he found it, he hurried out towards the car park.
Harris knew that he should follow the man before he lost sight of him, but was curious to see what he had placed in the locker. Perhaps it was proof his wife was dead. Harris dashed to the locker and unlocked it. Inside were two words cut out of a newspaper and stuck to a piece of paper. ‘Job done’. Harris smiled as he scrunched the paper up and after stuffing it in a pocket, he hurried after the killer to tie up the first of the loose ends.
Unnoticed, the man in the blue jacket followed Harris out.
The tall car park lights offered only limited visibility through the driving rain and Harris was just starting to panic when he finally saw his quarry some fifty yards to his right, heading to a sparsely populated corner of the car park.
The man stopped outside a blue Mondeo, put the briefcase down and seemed to fumble for his keys.
Harris withdrew his gun and shouted to the man to turn as he quickly closed the distance between them. Then all hell broke loose. From seemingly everywhere, car lights suddenly dazzled him, and he instinctively raised an arm to protect his eyes. Several voices barked instructions warning him they were armed police and that he needed to drop his weapon immediately.
Still blinded by the lights, Harris moved his right arm slightly, drawing a further barrage of instructions. Panic-stricken Harris half-turned and as he did so his gun hand lowered. The air suddenly filled with the noise of gunfire and Harris dropped to the ground.
Instantly people swarmed around him shouting instructions. Somebody requested an ambulance while another secured his gun. Harris found himself staring up at the man in the blue jacket and the one who had collected the briefcase.
“Police, yes,” replied blue jacket.
Another face swam into view – Sharkey.
“Also police,” said blue jacket upon seeing Harris’ look of confusion.
Harris closed his eyes. “A set up?”
“You set yourself up, Harris, the moment you made contact with DC Price here.” Blue jacket nodded towards Sharkey.
“Then… my wife...”
“Alive, yes. Now don’t talk – an ambulance is on its way.”
The sound of a siren drawing nearer could now be heard but Harris knew that it was too late. As his life ebbed away, he couldn’t help but wonder who it was his wife was seeing. Strangely, he was pleased she was still alive. He still loved her.
A hundred miles away, Cathy Harris sat reading the private investigator’s report. She had been wrong. According to the investigator, her husband wasn’t having an affair after all, but he had met some very dubious people in a pub, though so far, he’d been unable to ascertain why. When he’d said he was working late, he invariably had been.
Cathy knew that her depression had caused her to become paranoid, to overreact. She had been looking for problems where there were none. Her suspicions were totally unfounded. He probably even had a perfectly good excuse for withdrawing £12,000.00 from the bank, reasons that had nothing to do with his busty new secretary.
Cathy looked at the bag containing her new silk lingerie and smiled. She had been wrong about her husband and would more than make it up to him when he got back from his business trip the next day.
© Jeff Jones
Winning Story: Contest #11
Agnes has a headache. The thick air presses her temples, her heavy-lidded eyes squint despite the lack of sun. She glances up, for the hundredth time that morning. Black clouds broil above the fields, frothing like a mad dog’s spit, resisting the wet wind tossing them across a purple sky to merge with the distant mountains. The wind is false, mild, non-wintry. Agnes crosses herself and returns to raking out the pig’s sty. The Devil has been let loose from Hell this morning. Her thoughts go to Evan, fishing on the river. He’s a farmer, not a fisherman, but the rare higher tide today has tempted him. Lamprey for our supper tonight, he told her with his big grin when he left in the darkness. The river will run fast. Agnes shivers. She never trusts the river. It might be called Severn these days but Agnes has heard the heathen Romans called the river Sabrina, worshipped her as a goddess and the Good Lord knows she’s every bit as temperamental as any goddess. Agnes crosses herself again.
She finishes her raking, slow and clumsy with her big belly, bloated with child. She throws fresh straw into the sty, refills the water trough. The pig crouches in a corner, tiny eyes watching her. It seems wary, as if Agnes is a stranger come to do it harm. Not yet, piggy, not yet.
Agnes presses one hand to her throbbing head, another to her belly, and returns the pig’s stare before waddling across the yard to the farmhouse. The hens cluck around her legs, fluffing their feathers. Agnes impatiently pushes the most persistent aside with her boot. They follow her inside, cackling as if their necks are about to be wrung. Agnes scowls. Their necks might well be wrung if they keep this up.
‘Lewis,’ she says to her six-year-old, and the oldest, ‘did you search all over for eggs? These idiot birds will have laid them in any hole or under any bush today.’
‘Yes, Ma.’ Lewis pokes the fire with a stick and reaches for the last of the wood piled by the hearth.
Agnes sighs, pulls her shawl tighter and peers into the cradle where baby Rhys sleeps. She strokes his fat pink cheek. A beautiful baby, quiet. An angel.
‘Where is Gwillim?’ Agnes says. ‘Is he fetching wood?’
Lewis shakes his head. ‘He wanted to go fishing with Da.’
A cold finger slides down the nape of Agnes’ neck. Gwillim is four, and fearless. ‘He’s gone to the river?’
‘Then you must fetch the wood while I find him. A storm is coming, a violent storm. He’ll be blown away if he’s caught out in it.’
She goes into the yard and looks up, again, at the sky. The wind pulls at her uncapped hair to send it swirling about her head like the swirling of lampreys in the river.
‘Stupid, stupid Evan,’ she mutters. ‘Stupid, stupid Gwillim’.
Her chest tightens and she runs into the wind, through the gate in the stone wall which protects her vegetables from the sheep, and along the path to the river.
She stops. Water races towards her. It covers the path and spreads to the left and the right, churning in a froth of brown and dirty white like storm waves on the seashore.
But it’s not the blue sea. Agnes recognises the colours of the river, which, it seems, reached its high tide and wasn’t content to stop. Instead it has swelled like Agnes’ stomach until it’s burst the non-too-sturdy defences meant to keep it to its own banks.
Evan? Gwillim? Agnes can’t breathe.
She steps forward, into the water, and is knocked to her backside. It rises, rises, and Agnes is pushed and dragged, straining to stand but her belly and her sodden skirts drag her, the river tumbling her like a stone. A sheep floats past, legs scrabbling, terror-wide eyes rolling. It bleats. There’s more bleating, the heartrending cries joining together to lift above the silence of the rising waters, to cut through the braying of the wind.
Agnes heaves against the water, pushes her arms forward and finds the stone wall. She pushes her shaking body against it and cries as loudly as the drowning sheep when the water churns through the gate, swift as a spring stream, and into the house.
The wind whips her thin voice away but Lewis is there, by the door, his knees submerged.
‘The table!’ Agnes yells, terror finally giving her strength to shout. ‘Climb on the table!’
Lewis nods, bright boy, while Agnes prays to God that the table, weighed down with Lewis and the iron pot Agnes had been about to fill with dinner, won’t float.
Rhys! The cradle is on the floor by the fire. It will float, and Lewis will grab it, hold it against the water, keep his baby brother safe. Agnes’ body shakes harder, and not from cold alone.
Her hands and feet grow numb, terror pounds her heart against her ribs, but still she clings to the wall. The water rises up her legs, to her waist, spilling over the stones to level itself either side of her fragile sanctuary.
She is half-blinded by her hair, can hear nothing except wind and water and screaming sheep, but she turns her head, praying for a sight of Evan striding through the swirling muck, Gwillim on his shoulders.
What she sees instead is the cradle, and she is sick at the knowledge that the water inside the house has reached the window. Her baby son sails out of view and Agnes pushes herself along the wall, stone by stone.
Her feet barely touch the ground, the water eddies around her like a whirlpool sucking her into its depths.
If Evan were here, he could swim to the cradle. But Evan is on the river, in the river. With Gwillim. And Agnes can’t swim.
She clutches the stones and joins her screams to the cacophony of the sheep.
It’s near dark when the wind drops to tired squalls and the water recedes enough to let a trembling Agnes squelch to the mud-filled house. Lewis is there, crouched on the table with four fright-struck hens gathered tight against his legs. Agnes takes the boy, hens and all, in her shivering arms.
‘I couldn’t get to him, Ma.’ Lewis sobs into her chest.
‘I know, I know.’ Neither could Agnes. She knows Lewis’ pain.
‘Da?’ Lewis says. ‘Gwillim?’
Agnes shakes her head. ‘They will come if they come,’ she says and gulps back sobs for Lewis’ sake. ‘But now I have to see about the pig and the cow.’ She sets the boy and the hens on the floor, takes Lewis’ hand. It’s unspoken that she won’t leave him alone, not this time.
The cow is gone, but the pig is on the roof of its sty, lifted by the water, kept alive by the higher walls on three sides. It stares at Agnes with accusing tiny eyes. It had been right to be wary.
‘We have the pig still,’ Agnes says to Lewis.
‘And the hens I saved.’ He takes her hand and offers a trembling, fleeting, smile.
Agnes cups her free hand beneath her belly. She feels life there too.
© Cheryl Burman
Note: The Great Flood of 30 January 1607 devastated both sides of the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary with flooding as far as Gloucester. At least 500-1000 people and thousands of livestock perished.
Winning Story: Contest #6
My seat is hard and unforgiving, and no matter how much I wriggle, I can’t get comfortable. All part of the torture, I guess. No sense in worrying about the comfort of a condemned man.
I glance at the couple sat opposite me. They look pale and worried, a mirror image of myself no doubt. We briefly make eye contact but then look away, neither party willing to initiate a conversation, despite our shared fate. You never know who might be listening. Besides, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see one another again. Better to maintain a position of detached aloofness. If you build attachments in this place it will make their suffering more unbearable.
The couple’s two young children are playing contentedly at their feet, seemingly ignorant of what awaits them. Their parents must have decided not to tell them what was happening; I’d have done the same thing. It’s better that way, otherwise they could turn hysterical. All that screaming and crying could cause a panic that would ripple through the rest of us in no time. Then it could turn ugly. I must be strong. I must control my ever-rising tide of fear for the sake of the children if not myself.
A middle-aged woman with a stern angular face, her hair tied back in a severe bun, eyes us all suspiciously from behind her highly polished and organised desk. A stickler for rules and conformity no doubt. She has a mean look about her that suggests she doesn’t tolerate dissent. She’s seen it all before and knows what’s going through our minds. To her we’re just names on a list. Cattle. There is no compassion in those cold dark eyes.
Her menacing gaze turns in my direction and I quickly look away, not wishing to draw attention to myself. I stare off down the long sterile corridor opposite me. The passageway is painted magnolia with just a couple of abstract paintings punctuating its blank walls.
Our detention room is quiet save for the occasional telephone call which is efficiently answered within three rings by the woman behind the desk. Even when she is on the telephone, she is scrutinising us, watching for anything that might disturb the well-ordered environment which she oversees. Even the two children play quietly at their parents’ feet.
The tranquillity is suddenly broken by a child’s pitiful wailing from down the corridor. What are those monsters doing to her? Nobody says or does anything. We are all too frightened, too worried about our own well-being to intervene. It’s the way of society nowadays to look the other way.
A young girl of perhaps no more than ten years of age, comes scurrying down the corridor towards us, quickly followed by a distraught looking woman, presumably her mother. The woman grabs hold of the girl before she makes it to the door, tantalisingly close to freedom. She whispers something in the child’s ear and after offering an apologetic smile to those watching, leads her back down the corridor.
This time I briefly lock eyes with a middle-aged man sitting in front of me and to the left. We don’t speak but the look we exchange speaks volumes. He looks as terrified as me and ready to bolt. If I make a break for it, he’ll follow, I’m sure of it. Who knows, perhaps if enough of us make a move, some will get away. I wouldn’t want to be one of those left behind though. There’d be consequences.
Perhaps sensing our growing unease, the woman behind the desk stands and glowers in our direction. She is larger than I thought, and like an iceberg, most of her bulk was out of sight. She is formidable, intimidating and she knows it. She is not a woman to be tangled with. I quickly flick my gaze in her direction and then back, silently warning the frightened man who has his back to her. He surreptitiously turns to look. When he turns to face me again the colour has drained from his face.
Satisfied that she has cowed us into acquiescence, the woman sits back down sporting a smug grin. I smile as I imagine I can hear her chair groan in protest, but quickly stifle it. It wouldn’t do to look happy. She’d jump all over it in an instant. Nip it in the bud before it spread.
A pretty, young girl in a loose fitting and unflattering two-piece blue uniform comes marching purposefully down the corridor and without looking up from the clipboard she is carrying, calls out a name. It’s not mine. I breathe a sigh of relief as the man opposite me gets slowly up. His wife clings to his hand reluctant to let go, testing clipboard girl’s patience. The ogre behind the desk starts to once again ease her bulk out of the chair, perhaps sensing trouble.
The man smiles at his wife and gently pries open her fingers. Then after gently ruffling the hair of his son, he follows clipboard girl down the corridor without looking back. I try to smile reassuringly at his wife, but I can tell that my gesture is in vain. She knows what awaits him. What awaits us all. I admire her fortitude. When my turn comes, I hope I meet it with as much courage and dignity as her husband just did.
As if sensing her mother’s anguish, the young girl climbs onto her mother’s lap grasping a book she has picked up from the floor and asks her to read to her. Reluctantly the mother begins to read a story about a frog which couldn’t jump. Her voice is thick, laden with emotion, though her daughter doesn’t seem to notice. We all listen; it is something to pass the time and distract us. The woman behind the desk glares at the young mother, irked by this unexpected disturbance. Any louder and the mother will draw a swift and pitiless rebuke from the overseer.
Time drags. There aren’t many of us left. After the third reading of the story, much to everyone’s unspoken relief, the young girl finally gets bored and resumes her place on the floor next to her brother who is still playing with his action figure. Lost in his own fantasy world populated by superheroes and power-hungry villains, he is oblivious to what is going on around him.
Soon it’ll be my turn.
Some of those called have met their fate with courage. Others not so much. One man tried to run but didn’t get far. His wife caught him and persuaded him to come back. Perhaps she shamed him into staying, I don’t know. She was heavily pregnant and couldn’t run. No chivalry there, just a self-preservation instinct. Shamefaced, he had accompanied clipboard girl down the corridor unable to look any of us in the eye leaving his wife to face the looks of pity and understanding.
I turn and look at the heavily populated fish tank to my right, the occasional burst of air bubbles the only noise. After a few seconds one of the larger fish, an orange one with a thick black stripe encased within two narrower white stripes, approaches the side of the tank and seems to stare out at me. He is as much a prisoner here as I. How many people has he witnessed taken down that corridor of dread I wonder?
The sound of soft footsteps on the laminate flooring catches my attention. Clipboard girl has returned. I avert my eyes as she calls out a name. No one moves.
My nerve gives and I look up and find that from behind her desk, the fearsome woman is staring directly at me. Clipboard girl speaks again and this time I hear my name slowly enunciated. I reluctantly get to my feet.
Praying that my trembling legs will support me, I follow clipboard girl down the corridor towards the sounds of torture and pain.
Halfway along the corridor I pass the mother and young girl from earlier. The girl looks up at me with tear-filled eyes. Her face appears swollen and she is clearly in discomfort. My heart breaks at the cruelty and pain they have inflicted upon her. I vow to go down fighting. I won’t make it easy for them.
Clipboard girl stops and extends her arm, inviting me to enter an open door, as if I have a choice. I take a deep breath, swallow nervously and enter.
Inside, another girl dressed in a similar uniform as clipboard girl, turns and smiles warmly, momentarily unsettling me. It must be some sort of psychological ploy to make their victims more malleable. Good cop bad cop.
She takes my coat and gestures towards a black leather reclining chair. Still smiling she tells me to take a seat and that the dentist will be with me shortly.
Nodding timidly, I do as I’m told and settle down to await my fate.
© Jeff Jones
Winning Story: Contest #2
As I awoke on New Year’s Day 2020, I felt my dreams scurrying away like mice to hide behind the wainscoting of my mind. In a moment of unusual clarity, it occurred to me that my thoughts were doing that more often of late, even when I was wide awake. A word, a name, a train of thought, would suddenly evaporate, leaving me helpless and grasping. I knew they were in there somewhere, hiding, but could I find them? Of course I couldn’t. There was no escaping the fact that my mind was beginning to wobble as I stumbled towards the finish line in the egg-and-spoon race of life.
The night before, I had gone to bed early, sober, and alone, but not without first filling my tea-kettle. This nightly routine had become a touchstone for me, a tiny act of faith that I would, in fact, survive the night and fancy a cup of tea in the morning. Over my breakfast bowl of Cornflakes, I pondered what was to be done. Single, superannuated, and skint, I found the future rather bleak. ‘I should marry a rich widow to keep me company in my old age,’ I thought. ‘Pity I don’t know any.’ The solution, when it came to me, seemed obvious: I’d write, and become rich and famous like J. K. Rowling. She must be worth a bob or two. After all, writing was just a matter of choosing the best words and putting them in the right order, wasn’t it? Piece of cake!
Flushed with enthusiasm for my new career, I cleared off the table in the kitchen -- hereinafter to be known as my garret -- and opened my laptop. Ah, the allure of a blank screen begging to be filled with my honeyed prose. Three days later it was still blank and still begging. It dawned on me then that mere words would not be enough to bring me the fame and fortune I craved; I needed a genre. All the best writers had a genre, but which one paid the most, pounds-per-word-wise? I concluded it must be ransom notes, but even I could see the drawback of seeking literary fame through writing ransom notes, however lucrative they might be. Also, I wasn’t sure that ransom notes were a recognized genre, as such.
The choice of genre wasn’t the only problem, either. I began to realize that in order to write, you actually needed to have an idea, something to write about, and I’ve never been that good with ideas -- my own, that is. Other people’s always seem better. Once again, the solution when it came to me was obvious: plagiarism. But that’s not as easy as it used to be. Back in the day (whenever that was), plagiarism could often pass undetected, but Google has changed all that. What I needed was a source of unpublished literary works to cannibalize.
And that was when I had my inspiration: I’d run a writing contest! Every month I’d offer a huge prize (that I had no intention of ever paying), charge a carefully-calculated entry fee (large enough to cover my rent and groceries, but not too big to discourage anyone from entering my contest), offer critiques (for an additional fee), and then sit back and let the stories and the money roll in. I’d take the best stories and submit them under my own name to other contests. What could possibly go wrong?
In no time at all, my money troubles were over. Every month, I posted the names of those talented writers who’d made the longlist, the shortlist, the runners-up and the grand prize-winner, names I picked at random from an old phone-book. The winning story titles I culled from the morning newspaper.
The part I enjoyed most was writing the critiques. Let me give you an example, one of which I’m particularly proud:
Dear Aspiring Author,
Thank you again for submitting your short story to our Fabulous Fiction contest. Regrettably however, I must correct my previous email telling you that you had won, the result of my inadvertently hitting ‘Reply All’. The statement on our website that ‘Every entrant will be a winner!’ was meant as hyperbole, not to be taken literally. Had you not missed the deadline and gone way over the word limit, I feel sure your story ‘Dead on Arrival’ would not have been. You should take a measure of encouragement from this.
Despite being forced to disqualify your entry, I accidentally read it in a distracted moment, and by way of an apology for my email error I would like to offer the following critique. Who knows? Maybe it will help you develop a more complete skill-set as a writer.
Opening sentence: There is a fine line between homage and plagiarism, but I feel the opening of your story -- ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ -- catchy though it is, falls on the wrong side of that line.
Style: Maybe you should strive to master a simpler narrative voice before tackling that of an Omniscient Narrator suffering from dementia.
Location: Victorian London! Well, there’s a novel idea for an exotic setting. /S
Characters: I feel the character of your protagonist ‘Tiny Tom,’ although developed in totally unexpected ways, is nonetheless somewhat derivative.
Plot: Convoluted plots are generally laudable, but yours was so twisted it left me feeling positively pretzelesque, or maybe even pretzellian. While the consequences of contracting COVID-19 (in Victorian times?) are varied in the extreme, the idea that the infection could enable Tiny Tom to win the Olympic decathlon gold medal is a trifle far-fetched, don’t you think? Surely recovering the use of his legs would have been sufficiently dramatic.
Proofreading: The importance of careful proofreading cannot be overstated. Did you really mean to write that after Tiny Tom’s success, his alcoholic parents turned their livers around.
Best wishes from all of us here in the editorial team at Fabulous Fiction, as we eagerly await your next submission.
As 2020 wore on -- and what a wearing year it was -- my competition went from strength to strength. Every month, more people sent me their best efforts and paid real money to receive their inevitable disappointment. Who knew there were so many masochists in the world? Meanwhile, my own submissions were beginning to achieve the recognition I felt they so richly deserved, providing me with a second, albeit modest, income stream. Those other contests were not nearly as lucrative as mine, the cheapskates. As I sent each story out into cyberspace, I felt as I had as a young lad when I pushed my model sailing yacht out into the middle of a boating pond. I began to care deeply about the fate of my recycled stories.
Then one day, the unimaginable happened (you can’t make this stuff up). Shortly before the deadline for the July contest, I received a submission that looked vaguely familiar. Sure enough, when I checked my records I found it was a story I’d sent to another contest just the month before, word for word, submitted back to me by an author I’d never heard of. I was incensed and outraged; what a nerve! Was there no honesty in the world anymore? I blamed Donald Trump, but that’s another story.
What should I do? Initially I tried to ignore it, but the injustice of having my work stolen -- well, you know what I mean -- was too much to bear; and it wasn’t even one of my best stories. I felt compelled to act. After several sleepless nights, I decided that for the next deadline of the scoundrel’s contest, I’d submit this story -- the one you’re reading right now -- unfinished though it was at the time. Subtle? I thought so.
I waited anxiously for the response, but my August deadline came and went with no submission from the fraud. Had I scared him off, perhaps? Then one of the other entrants’ names caught my eye: ‘Rich Widow’ had submitted a heart-rending story of isolation and loneliness, and her search for a soulmate with whom to spend her declining years. She described how the nightly routine of filling her tea-kettle before going to bed had become a touchstone for her, a tiny act of faith that she would, in fact, survive the night and fancy a cup of tea in the morning.
It’s cozy in our bubble. We work together in the garret, she at one end of the kitchen table, I at the other. Between us, we’ve already squeezed many of the other writing contests out of business. Our next target is Secret Attic, run by someone in the UK.
They say that those who live by the word will die by the word. Maybe we will, but no longer alone. Happy days.
© Andrew Ball
Winning Story: Contest #13
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards