Category Archives: Short Stories

Soldier Boy

by Tesni Jenkins
1st place, October 2020

Soldier-boy sat on the bottom step, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He watched his father tie his shoelaces with care, pulling them tight against his ankle before twisting them into loops. His shoes were boots, heavy, dark, and leather. Soldier-boy wore similar boots, only his were suede and a more yellow colour. Father’s face was one of concentration. He was that kind of man, the kind that cared as much about how well his boots were tied as he did about whether or not he was wearing any. The house was always orderly and always clean. When he’d said at school one time that Father liked to clean the house, Soldier-boy had been met with laughter, “What does your mother do then?” one boy had jeered. Soldier-boy had an answer, an answer he’d herd Father say jokingly before he kissed Mother on the cheek. “She messes it up.”

Soldier-boy wasn’t his real name, of course, but his real name was a lot more boring. He’d earnt the more exciting version from the old tin helmet he had been given by his Grandfather. It was dented in places, and the green paint was chipping away to reveal silver, but it was still a thing of beauty. “Soldier-boy” his Dad had called him when he’d worn the hat home, “Soldier-boy.” He’d told the kids at school that was his name now, the nice ones, not the ones who laughed, and when he showed them the helmet, they all agreed it was a fitting name. Father had finished getting ready and had slung his satchel over his shoulder. He held out his hand, and Soldier-boy lifted his helmet onto his head before taking it. Together they walked into the street, pausing only to lock the front door.

Perspective is a funny thing, and from the perspective of a child war was fascinating. It was black and white, good guys and the bad ones, simple. Soldier-boy knew they were good guys. His brother flew planes and he was a good guy. Mother helped build those planes and she was the best person he knew. She hadn’t known how to build planes before the war started, but after all the men who used to were sent away they taught her how. Her hands were more scratchy now, but that was the only difference building planes had made. She still came home and made her mess; potato peels and carrot tops across the kitchen counter, recipe cut-outs from magazines piled on the dinner table and her coat hung across the banisters, instead of on the hook where it belonged. Outwardly, her makeup was still the same, accept when she couldn’t find the right shade of red lipstick in shops, and had to opt for a lighter colour. Inwardly, she seemed the same too. She still read bedtime stories in the same thin, sweet voice, only now the reminders at bedtime included where his gas mask was and what to do if the house caught on fire.

War was also, from where Soldier-boy stood, cool. He’d seen the posters and heard the adverts on the radio about how brave all the men who went to war were. He’d even met a soldier on a train, years ago, who talked to him about his family and showed him his knife. The soldier was a young man, and handsome, with floppy brown hair and docile eyes. When Soldier-boy’s stop had arrived, he’d waved goodbye to the soldier, who raised his hand in return. Just raised it and kept it there, didn’t shake it. That was how Soldier-boy waved from then on, lifting his hand, holding it there for a moment, and then bringing it back down. Each time he did he felt jittery with excitement. His arm for a moment, he thought, felt like the arm of a man, the arm of a soldier.

They passed the corner store with the green sign and white doorframe and Father agreed they could go inside. He told Soldier-boy to pick out whichever sweets he wanted and rummaged around in his satchel for the ration tickets. The man who owned the shop had an old, round face and wispy grey hair. He had a grown-up son who was friends with Brother, and Soldier-boy asked him how he was. The shop owner nodded and smiled sadly, “He’s alive.” Soldier-boy was too young to understand the full weight of the shop owner’s answer. He saw it only as informative. If he had been older he would have noted the bitter sarcasm in the shop owner’s voice. He would have understood this as a jab at the authorities who had killed so many young shop owner’s sons that simply being alive was considered a notable state. But he didn’t, he only smiled and took his bag of rhubarb-and-custards from the counter.

Soldier-boy and Father sucked on a sweet each as they continued their walk. Mother was going to meet them at the station, Father said. Soldier-boy nodded, it would be nice to meet Mother at the station, but it would be sad that Brother wasn’t there. Brother was even cooler than soldiers, and now he was also a soldier he was double as cool. He had blonde hair, different from the rest of the family, and the same piercing blue eyes as Father. He was cool enough that when he was eighteen, a year before he had to leave to fly the planes, he’d had a girlfriend. She was nice, Soldier-boy thought she was probably the nicest girl in the world apart from his mother. She always wore knee-length skirts with patterns like strawberries on them. She would play scrabble with the family sometimes and would bring presents for them from the shop her father owned. When Brother had left, she still came around with these presents. She brought Soldier-boy a little model plane once, and she read him aloud a letter his brother had sent from France. She hurried off to the bathroom after she’d finished. Soldier-boy assumed she just needed to pee, but if he’d been more observant he would have seen the slight red in her cheeks when she came back. She was a nice girl.

Soldier-boy’s sweet was almost finished, and he found himself trying to save the final part of it, sticking it between his teeth to keep it out of the way of his tongue. The station was just one turn away now and was feeling less and less appealing with each step. He asked Father with a shaking voice whether he’d remembered to pack the model plane, to which Father said yes and placed a hand on Soldier-boy’s back. Soldier-boy’s legs turned jelly and he gripped Father’s arm as they shuffled around the final corner. Mother was there, her work clothes still on. She crouched and opened her arms wide.

In brother’s last letter he’d told Soldier-boy to brave, that this was his mission and he had to complete it to make sure the country was safe. Father had read the letter out when they sat around the table for dinner one evening, and he had echoed Brother’s words of encouragement throughout the week since.

Soldier-boy sank into his Mother’s arms, crying thick tears that landed on the shoulder of her shirt. Father crouched besides them both, taking one of Soldier-boy’s hands while Mother took the other. “This is your mission, Soldier-boy,” he said, “You have to go on this trip, and you have to stay alive. Britain is counting on you, Soldier-boy.”

He caught his breath, “Father, you have to make sure you keep tidying up the house while I’m gone, and Mother keep making a mess or he’ll have nothing to tidy.”

Father handed him the satchel, and he opened it, triple checking his plane was inside. It was there, along with all his other necessities and his bag of rhubarb and custards. He pushed his helmet further down his head, took a last look around the station and, with the help of a kind lady in a dark blue uniform, climbed up onto the train.

Winning

by Rachel Robbins
2nd place, October 2020

Dermot at 15

When people described Dermot, they started with the stutter.  He knew that when he walked into the classroom late one morning, that Chas had been doing an impression of him, but he let it pass.  He didn’t cause a scene or challenge him.  He knew that even if he had won a fight, he would be the loser for getting upset.

Dermot’s mates were in different streams, leaving him at the edge in Form time.  At the centre was friendship, joke telling, teasing, ease and comfort.  At the edge was the discomfort of not quite understanding the rules.  Crucially, there was the sense that you were not winning.

Just before Form Time, the boys would gather in the right-hand back corner of the classroom.  Girls were in smaller, hierarchical cliques around the room.  Dermot would laugh along at the jokes and sometimes try and tell one.  He was good at remembering scripts and could do, what he thought was, an excellent impression of Rik Mayall.  But he never got a big laugh like Chas.

At break time, he would find his old mates, Craig and Paolo. Paolo had a crush on Becky and had started a conversation with her angling to asking her out. It was going well, until Paolo blew it.  Becky disapproved of the discussion about Asians coming over here, buying up cheap clothes and selling them on the market. Dermot was clear.  It wasn’t racist.  He didn’t care about the colour of their skin, but they were taking jobs, undercutting quality and yes, sometimes they did smell a bit.  Becky didn’t respond, and just left.

That Saturday, however, he was winning.  Away from school, he had a small band of mates from his non-Catholic primary school on a different side of town and supporting the other football team.  The team that got him scoffed at the rest of the week. Huddled on Row D, a warm crowd against the chilly northern afternoon, the fourth goal was rapturous.  Cheering, jeering, hugging.  Dermot was winning and he liked it.

*

Dermot at 19

A-Levels having gone better than expected, here Dermot was, at a prestigious university, studying engineering.  The month before term started, just after his surprising A-Level results, his Dad had died.  Heart attack. The family took comfort in the hope that it must have been a quick death.

Dermot bumped into Becky on campus.  They hadn’t known they were both in the same city, but different courses.  Dermot didn’t understand the point of Philosophy and Politics.  They had smiled at each other and agreed to meet for a coffee.

When Dermot told Becky about his Dad, it got awkward.  He was used to it. She put her hand on his elbow and said, “I’m sorry”, and then ran out of words.  The conversation was banal. He tried to tease her about going vegetarian, but she didn’t rise to it.  She tried to tease him about how boring engineering sounds.  He also didn’t rise.  The only point of common ground was full fat milk.  Becky had discovered the joys of full fat milk at university because her parents always had skimmed.  Full fat was all you could get from the porters at her halls. And now she didn’t think she could go back.  She even made hot chocolate in a pan every night.  Dermot smiled and agreed.

They saw each other occasionally on campus. Becky always had some boy mooning over her.  He assumed that is how she saw him too, a boy who would fall for her, but she really wasn’t his type.  She was pretty and if she showed any interest he might, but she was weird.  She wore her hair too scruffy, rarely wore make up and her clothes were eccentric.  Still, good to see a familiar face.

*

Dermot at 33

Dermot was a father.  Baby Jessica was amazing, so beautiful.  He had been lucky to find Amy.  They shared a love of amateur dramatics. And this amazing woman had found him interesting too.  Not only had she agreed to marry him, she had had his baby.

Amy was a few years younger.  She had been shy when they first met, but came alive on the stage. She was slight and dark and easily overlooked.  She had delicate features, a little nose, deep eyes and a mouth just full enough to be called pouty.  The wedding had been a small affair.  Amy had looked stunning in a short white dress with a traditional veil.  The pictures outside the registry office show a beaming young woman and a doting older man.  Neither of them had big families but the AmDram crowd made up the congregation.  It was just a buffet for the evening do, with Terry (the Pantomime Dame) doing the DJing.  The cake had been the biggest extravagance.

The house was the perfect, modest, starter home and Dermot was practical enough to have decorated a pink nursery and assembled the cot.

Jessica looked so tiny in his arms.  Dermot was in love and he realised that this meant never letting this girl down.  When Jessica grabbed his finger and looked at him, he knew he was winning.

*

Dermot at 42

Facebook is a funny old thing.  Because of Facebook he was attending a lunch at Becky’s. She lived locally and a friend from school, Judith, was back in the country.  Becky was throwing a small get together in her back garden.  He was the only man invited.  The rest were mothers and children.  Becky had a daughter the same age as Jessica, Judith had a baby girl and Helena had two sons either side of Jessica and Becky’s daughter.

A bright, summers day in the back garden of Becky’s semi-detached and she had made pizzas, garlic bread and salad – all vegetarian, but still tasty.  She had also made a chocolate cake for desert served with strawberries.  Dermot had several helpings of both courses.  The children played together, despite never having met before.  There was a trampoline and a climbing frame for them to explore and some sort of game evolved around rescuing each other from the spiders in the den.

Dermot didn’t admit to the old classmates that his marriage was falling apart.  Amy was leaving him for a work colleague, someone Dermot had considered a friend.  He didn’t really blame her. It turned out, he didn’t know how to be a husband. He just wanted to be a dad. Amy had found him boring.

But here in the dappled sunlight of a leafy back garden, watching his beautiful daughter play, he could at least pretend for a while that he was winning.

*

Dermot at 48

Divorce was behind him and he had met Shelley.  She was very different to Amy. She was large, confident, glamourous and older.  Also divorced and with her family moved on, she now just needed like-minded company. Thank goodness he had found her, Dermot thought lying in the hospital bed.

Same age as his Dad when he had had a fatal heart attack, Dermot was recovering from a stroke. It wasn’t catastrophic.  He was struggling now, but was expected to recover his speech and most of his movement.  He was being well looked after, although he didn’t like the consultant. She was Portuguese and had a difficult accent and Dermot thought, a difficult attitude.  The nurses were great, even though many also had difficult accents. He would be going home via a rehabilitation centre where he would receive physiotherapy.  He was told to change his diet.  Dermot and Shelley were fond of eating out, sharing a bottle of wine, always choosing desert.

It was a battle, but he was going to win.

*

Dermot at 51

It had been a weird day.  His speech was wobbling again and the GP told him that his blood pressure had risen.  He was given a two-week sicknote.

He logged onto Facebook, to find Becky ranting again.  She was an academic now in a constant rage about ‘structural’ issues. (As an engineer, he was pretty certain she was misusing the word structural, to explain Brexit and women not achieving).  Today she was fuming about the underfunding of the NHS.  Apparently, her daughter had collapsed at school, but she was incredibly grateful for the care she had received and the paramedics who had attended.  He got that.  He knew he was still here, partly because of the care the NHS had provided, alongside Shelley and his own stubborn nature.  But he was annoyed by her tone.  She finished her rant by telling anyone on her Facebook timeline who had voted Tory to Fuck Off.

He commented – should I leave then?

She didn’t respond so, he unfriended her.  Of course, he sent a Friend Request straight back.  She hasn’t accepted it yet, but she will.   She was just a sore loser.

He had chosen the winning side.

A Summer Carol

by Guilherme Ribeiro
3rd place, October 2020

Dawn slaps him around a little. I’m awake! He shouts at the sun, accepting sweet numb nothing ain’t returning. I’m awake, he mumbles to himself as he slides off the park bench. Not a sliding off exactly, more of a ploy to trick gravity into gaining momentum with the purpose of standing up. He succeeds… Somewhat. He straightens his once red, now crusty brown overcoat, standing to attention. He shakes the slumber off. Coffee! Yes, a purpose.

The old man in the crusty coat ambles aimlessly, ignoring the layout of the park, scratching at his long white beard as he goes along. Grass, leaves, sticks creak under his feet. He sweats as the heat of summer blasts on, filling the early hours of the morning with dense hot air. An old mutt catches up with him, scratching under his snout. Hello old friend, what’s breakfast? The dog barks a rough snort in response. Hmm, that bad hey? Don’t worry, old Nic got himself a little liquid breakfast.

They find shade and Nic shakes the instant coffee into a mug, fills it up with malt liquor and stirs it with his finger. He splashes some on the floor. Here you go, don’t go sayin’ I don’t take care of you.

They sit there for a while, sipping coffee, keeping their minds from the unrelenting heat. Watching the dozens of birds toiling away at their day around the pond’s ecosystem.

Bloody birds. Mocking us with their flight. I used to fly you know. Yes, don’t give me that look, I used to fly real good. Fastest man in the world. You try getting to all continents within forty-eight hours. I thought so. The wife never much appreciated the job, did she? I could have taken her along, but that wasn’t the problem was it? Don’t look at me like that…

Huh… I know, I am a drunk slob, you’re right. You try only working two months a year. And the economy hasn’t been great, has it? Yeah, you should know. Dumb mutt.

The dog barks in disapproval.

Sorry, yeah, you smart alright.

They walk up to the pond and take a rest around its edge. His hands grab bits of grass and pebbles, rolling them in his hand, throwing them aimlessly in the general direction of the birds. His jaws work away, grinding, thoughtless.

Hey you, yes you, you big long necked duck. You a duck right? ‘Cause you’re dark. A swan would be white yes? You remind me of her, she also had a long neck.. She quacked plenty too.

“Nicky get off the sofa, Nicky dwarfs are a bad influence, Nicky you always stink of booze… Nicky if you want to keep reindeer you have to take care of them. Goddammit Nicholas! I am not burying one more malnourished ravenous reindeer…”

The dog looks at him.

I know… It gets too hot… Don’t look at me like that.

It’s moot now. She kicked my ass out. The neighbour you know? Some grizzly lumberjack apparently. I can’t compete with an industrious seal clubber, now can I? He’s apparently ‘friends’ with the polar bears too, yes, that old boxing club uptown. Punch a bear, get a fish. He got mauled once and she was all over him. Nic go fetch antiseptic, Nicholas warm towels! For Mr Muscle next door, now!

I hold no grudge dog, not at all. She’s much better off now, she is even happy, I hope.

But I ain’t changing ’cause I got kicked out am I? You know it. You ever change old dog? Nope. Exactly my point.

A small child runs around the pond, the park fills with tourists, families, babies crying and nice dogs doing their business and being all well behaved.

Until that moment he was alone, he thought, not one soul. Nothing but the dog, the feathers everywhere, the white specs veering away from the water and hovering in full speed, spreading tiny ripples as they go. Now his morning is over. The noise and the heat disturb him. He finds some vegetation where he can hide. Sleep. He dreams of a lumberjack playing go fish with a seal.

Right dog. I am off south. You coming? Gotta keep going. Some teens barbecuing nearby recognise him and invite him over. Is all good kids you go back to your thing. It’s no trouble really. Want a sausage? No, I am good, I got places to go. You kids have fun.

They give him a bottle of whiskey which they refuse to accept back. He thanks them, takes a large swig, shakes off the dirt around his trousers and gets going.

As he enjoys a sudden refreshing shade over him, a giant eagle stabs his shoulders with its claws and lifts him up to the sky.

Dog! dog! look, I am flying! I am finally flying! Hahahahah! Ha Aw, Aww!

The giant bird flaps around a bit until he decides on a direction.

Soooo, Mr Eagle, where do you think you taking me? The giant bird coos in response. Fine. He closes his eyes and embraces the breeze, the weightlessness, the joy of flight, the sobering pain in his shoulders.

The eagle lets him go. And he falls, and he smiles, now we are talking. Now he is free.

His body hits the ground with a crush. He can taste the impact. A bloody gargle is all he can muster, or he would be laughing hysterically.

Hahahah – aww – Fiiine – aw – Coughs – I will shape up. Is that OK with you, you stupid bird?

He lays there for a while, quietly. A rough whimper in the distance can be heard. Dog! Dog? Where are ya? Someone needs to scrape me off the floor, dog. Here you are. The dog licks the puddle of whiskey next to Nic’s body.

Dog… We making some changes around here… I made a decision. We’ moving to the south pole OK? I hear penguins are good neighbours. Plus, they better than reindeer at high speed travel. Don’t know how dog, do I? They just are.

Who will build toys? You really think people need more trash? Nah, I am out of that racket, the internal politics, the drugs… all them wild nights with half sized people.

Here’s what will work dog. I am gonna give people what they need to hear and make ’em hear it alright! That’s it. The dog lays on his back next to Nicholas. See, you warming to it. They watch the stars do their thing. “Tell people you appreciate them” “No, sequins ain’t good on a dinner dress” “Get off yer ass” “Leave your desk job” “Bangs do look good on you” “You are extraordinary” “Playful stylish sandals ain’t a thing” “Speak your mind” “Tell that one person you adore them, now” “Double denim was never a good look, and it ain’t starting now” that kind of thing.

Dog barks in approval.

Dog, can you get a doctor in the morning? Thanks, appreciate it.

Moth Woman by Sharon Boyle (1st place, Jul20)

The mirrors are back-chatting again, sliding in unwanted comments while reflecting for all they’re worth.

‘Give it a rest,’ I say to one over the mantelpiece as I pin the flower fascinator in my hair.

‘That’s enough,’ I tell another – bathroom – as I brush my teeth.

It sheeshes back. ‘Au natural? Jesus, if I could turn myself the wrong way round I would.’

The toothbrush hovers. The taxi will be here in ten minutes. I have time. It’s courage versus cowardice.

‘Cowardice all the way,’ booms the bedroom mirror cheerfully.

I buckle and pack a centimetre coat of foundation on my face before adding kaleidoscopic hues of makeup, so that my face is now indeed a made up version of the truth.

In the taxi I rummage for my purse wondering if I have enough for a tip when I spy myself in the compact mirror. ‘Acceptable,’ it whispers grudgingly.

I’m on my way to Cousin Lilith’s wedding – her fourth. Family rumour believes that Lilith is a honeymoon worshipper; an incurable dreamer; a silver-line thinker with no endurance. But I believe Lilith is neutralising the fact that the only other cousin, me, has never treated the family to a nuptial knees-up.

 

There is a scandal. It will be family gossip for weeks. At the ceremony Lilith refuses to say I do – instead she’s opts for I do hope so. Folks squint and shuffle. Someone cracks out a one-syllable laugh. The groom grins like a loon. The minister raises his eyes heavenwards and continues. Granny Hanagan, sitting in the front row, is apoplectic, her face turning heart-attack purple and her lips mouthing obscenities.

We manage to calm her down and change venue, setting to the serious business of abandoning all decorum on the dance floor. The lights dim and I relax, growing light on the bubbles of fake champagne. I’m sitting at the family table with those who know how to mollify the angsty:

Dad – you’re always beautiful to me.

Mum – inside there is a butterfly waiting to get out.

Aunt Lou – have you had laser treatment again?

God Bless them. All quaint phrases to euphemise the curdled blistering that covers the right side of my face. Au natural, I am half-Halloween girl, a phantom of my own opera, a one-woman freak show, but I shrug off these thoughts and ask Mum to dance, only to stop mid-rise. I spy with my portwine-stained eye Granny Hanagan standing behind the glass swing doors looking like Hannibal Lector in lipstick. She’s having a good gawp before entering the hall, deciding if the company is worth her precious while.  I dither as she opens the door. I could still make it to the dance floor but she sidles in, salutes Mum and plumps down in the chair vacated by dad who’s whooping it up to Chic’s Le Freak.

‘A frickin’ buffet?’ she declares, lifting her nose to indicate the food table. ‘No proper set meal? Wedding on the cheap, this.’

Granny Hanagan is a serial complainer; a teller of how things really are and who considers it her hobby – one practised and perfected. She stares at me.

‘Are you losing weight?’ she eventually asks.

‘Two pounds,’ I say.  ‘Surprised you recognise me.’

Her eyes narrow and she takes time to search underneath my smothered sham. When I can no longer bear her I escape to the bathroom where I too take time to stare at myself – my hobby. During my primary school years – the pre-cosmetic era – I sported a hairstyle that veiled my face like a set of curtains.

I tuck in strands that have come loose from my topknot and nod to my reflection that, yes, enough time has passed for Granny Hanagan to have found another target to torment. I’m about to leave when I hear a strange voice at the other end of the bathroom. A woman is peering into the wall-wide mirror.

Way too fat for that frock, doll.

My neck hairs prickle – the woman’s lips haven’t moved.

You look like a stuffed sausage.

The woman turns to me. ‘God, I look like a stuffed sausage in this thing.  I need to junk all mirrors.’

The dress is tight, I’ll give her that, bandaged round the middle. And red? Maybe not the best choice but she does have something else.

‘Fabulous tits,’ I say, winking.

 

Back at the table I’m careful not to catch Granny Hanagan’s eye but I do catch her whisper of, ‘What a spectacle.’

I have wiped off my make-up, that’s what she’s making a high-horsed commotion about.  I am no longer a butterfly, but its dun-hued, patchy-looking cousin, the moth.

‘You know,’ I say, ‘underneath your clear skin you have a tongue that is sticky and nasty, like flypaper. As a granddaughter, I am jilting you.’

To the tune of her gasps I take to the floor, waving to the curvy lady and passing Lilith and her husband, both giddy on gin and prudent promises of perhaps-forevers.

The disco lights glint and wink, telling me that I am indeed a spectacle. The mirrored walls scream that I’ll be tomorrow’s gossip. But like the moth that I am, I jig and whirl under the lure of flashing lights, thinking, I do hope so.

The Well by Andrew Stott (2nd place, Jul20)

The swallows fly into and out of the well. There must be a nest down there. Whyever else would they fly down into it? I have looked down over the top. There is mesh there, to prevent a human being falling in and falling to their doom, but there is a small hole in the mesh. I wonder if a swallow has picked it apart with its beak – broken in – entered the depths – the unknown. What is down there? What do they know that I don’t…

Sometimes, I stand there, at night, looking into the well. The black of the well is darker than everything else – you can’t even see the mesh. But it is there – protecting me – protecting me from a fall to my doom.

I look for them. I try to see the swallows. I try to see the nest. And then I switch my torch on and everything is illuminated – the mesh is bright and brown and clear. And I think I can see the reflections of water down below. I want to see the nest. I want to see the bright eyes of the chicks but I cannot make anything out. I call. And then they come at me. I fall back as the bats stream up from the well. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Going up in a huge column. The end of days. It has come. It is all over.

I stand beside the cooker and I watch my egg boil. It jitters around in there. There is a trace of white in the water. I pierced the end of the egg with the sharp point of my smallest knife. It is to release the pressure – to stop the egg from cracking when it enters the simmering water. It sometimes works. It has worked this time – the egg has not cracked. But there is still a small wisp of white from the hole. I look at it. It is like semen in water. I feel like I want to stick my fingers in and lift it out but that will scald my fingers and I will have to hold them under the cold tap – or – worse – take myself to A & E because my flesh is falling off.

Not a good idea.

I decide not to do it.

In the lounge I sit with my feet up on the pouf. I continue with my knitting. Knit one. Purl one. Knit one. Purl one. I keep going… I enjoy it. I turn the knitting counter and start on the next row.

Downton Abbey is being repeated on ITV and I like that. I keep waiting for Dame Maggie Smith to reappear. She is the only one I want to watch. The other ones bore me somehow. Knit one. Purl one. Knit one. Purl one.

I sit on the toilet and wait. Sometimes it takes ages. I eat too many eggs. I know that. But I like eggs. And wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you do everything that they tell you not to do? Why be like that? Why follow their rules? It is my life. I only want to be free.

In the bedroom I pick up the picture frame. I stare at him. He is not with me anymore. I love him. I feel like he is with me when my hands are on the picture. And then I feel this overwhelming sense of loss, and I curl up on the bed and I wrap myself into myself and I hold the pillow and I cry.

It doesn’t last long. I uncurl and lie down. I look at his bed, no longer occupied, over to the right of me. I imagine him there. I imagine his chest rising and falling. I imagine the little snores emanating from his mouth. A huge creature, a monolith. A creature from the deep. A beached whale, in the bed next to me, with the special bars that go up and down and the electronics that raise the back end of the bed, and the front end of the bed, on hydraulics. I think that is what they are called. You could squeeze him into all sorts of positions with those buttons. But usually you didn’t. You just raised the back and then gave him his pills, and then helped his feet find the floor. You put his hands on the walker and you helped him stand. You talked through with him which foot he was going to move next and where he was going to put it and – gradually – over time – over quite some time – he made it to the toilet. And then he was stuck. Because he couldn’t turn round. And just before you got him there it was all over and running down his legs and it was okay… it was nothing to worry about… just sit down… and once he was sitting down you got the shower head out of the shower connected to the really long hose and you washed him down until he was clean and he just saw you. He just looked at you. No longer really connected to anything else. A broken darling. A bird on the wing. A swallow heading down deep into the well – never to return.

There is life down there. I know it. The swallows are breeding life. You can see them during the day and you sit on the step in front of the patio. They fly into the well and they emerge from it. Is it the same swallow? Is it a mummy swallow? I don’t know. And I wish I did. I wish I could place my hand on it. I wish I could hold it. I wish I could see it.

I stare at the monkey puzzle. I like those trees with their crazy branches. I planted it twenty years ago. It is doing well.

I cut my nails. I snip off the hard bits of nail that I have softened by sitting my feet in a bowl of water for twenty minutes with the funny salt in it.

The nails I place on a piece of paper. I am still alive. I keep growing. Look at me grow. I have to keep cutting pieces off myself.

I didn’t think that I would still be alive – so long after he died. I still feel it. Why do I continue to exist? It doesn’t seem right. I treat each day as a gift. Because it is. There are no children in my nest. They have grown up and have left home. They come to visit sometimes. And I make them my roast lamb. They like it. They bring the mint sauce from Waitrose. The expensive one. It works really well.

How To Take An Inventory by Annalise Taylor (3rd place, Jul20)

Accuracy and efficiency are all. In order to be a successful Retail Inventory Associate you must be reliable and focused. Strong mental arithmetic will help you sail through the application process and before you know it, you will have been registered, with a navy polo shirt and name badge, and be awaiting notification of your first shift. It will be at an inconvenient time for most people, but this is what attracted you to the position in the first place. You think that you can find rapid change exhilarating and are sure you will enjoy the flexible hours and schedules.

Your first shift arrives. Fortunately, your mother is available to stay overnight with the children. The shift begins at 5pm so you need to leave home just after they return from school. They will be clingy but you will fob them off with ice cream and cartoons. You have been assured that so long as you are accurate and efficient as promised, you will be finished by 3am so you should be back before they get up. Once the count begins it must be completed. You cannot leave until it is finished. You will not fully appreciate the impact of those words until 3am the next day.

You arrive at the large supermarket’s back entrance and find the shift supervisor who issues you with a webbing holster and scanning gun. A more experienced Associate helps you put it on and explains how the scanner works. You have received training like everyone else but perhaps he feels the need to explain because you may just be old enough to be his mother. You are irritated but grudgingly relieved as the training hadn’t really sunk in.

‘No multi scans,’ the supervisor intones during the team briefing.

‘This is food not fashion,’ complains a young guy at the front. This boy wants the supervisor’s job – you can tell by the sharp lines shaven in his close-cut hair. He wants to trade in his polo for a real shirt with cuffs and a tie.

‘Yes Martin. But we are here on a recount and they want it thorough. No room for human error – that will not be a defence.They are looking to reduce their shrinkage and they need our inventory to do that. With all that in mind, welcome to our new Associates. Let’s have an accurate and efficient count. We all want to be in bed before sunrise.’

You head out onto the shop floor with the rest of the team and are relieved to be paired up with Martin. He knows what he’s doing and is surprisingly patient with you.

Your arms will soon adjust to the repeated movement of twisting a tin to locate the barcode, scanning the code, moving onto the next tin. You’ll be put on beans – entry level stuff. When you mis-hit a key Martin will help you delete your mistake. Intermittently the assistant supervisor, Holly, will download data from your handset to a central laptop. Like the rest of the staff she will appear to be twelve years old. Which is something your mother would say, but she genuinely looks like she should be in a school uniform, not dissimilar to the cheap, white shirt she has earnt the right to wear.

By midnight you will have had one fifteen minute toilet break. You will want to call your mum to check everything is alright but you won’t because she will be asleep in front of the telly. You have time for a wee, a drink of water and a Snickers bar from a vending machine out the back. You plan to pack sandwiches next time. You think of telling Gavin about all this; the annoying kids in charge, the arbitrary rules, the work that is mindless but not mindless enough, so you still need to concentrate on it. You will remember that Gavin is no longer home for you to share the day’s stories with. You will remember that if it wasn’t for Gavin, you wouldn’t need to be here. You would have tucked the kids in hours ago and be watching a documentary with a cup of tea and half a packet of biscuits. You would like to reduce the shrinkage in your life. You will consider taking an accurate and efficient inventory when your mind is your own.

When you return to the shop floor you will be sent back to Martin who has now moved onto the frozen vegetables. These are not the same as tins of beans, neatly stacked and regimented. These are freezing, floppy bags that need to be pushed to one side then scanned one packet at a time within the upright freezers.

With each bag of mixed veg that you pull forward to be scanned you retrieve another memory of your life with Gavin. Tentative lunches in the university canteen. Late night study sessions where nothing academic was achieved. Sheltering from the rain in a Yorkshire pub. You will consider at what point you realised that you had nothing in common except an appetite for excellent sex. You will hate your former self who said that she found Gavin’s derision of her academic work refreshingly honest. Activating the scanner’s red light and high-pitched tone you will recall weekends away to naff locations that you both approached with irony but left with fantasies of belonging,formed in front of estate agents’ windows.You will realise that these memories are without value in that their recollection subtracts from your sense of self-worth.

When the twelve year old supervisor admonishes you for your inaccurate scanning of frozen peas you will contain your rage. When she says, ‘‘So will you be fast and accurate for the rest of the night?’ you will try to forget that it is now 3am and your hands are frozen from clawing through bags of frozen vegetables and that you just want to go home.

You will push from your mind how much you hate her. And her piercings. And each of her poorly tattooed eyebrows that don’t look like eyebrows, or tattoos for that matter. You will not point out to her that you have written a thesis on women’s body image or that you have given birth. Twice. And that you are now compensating for the unexplained absence of a father in your children’s lives. You will not care if these thoughts make you ageist or whatever the opposite of intersectional is.

You will simply say, ‘Yes, I will be both fast and accurate.’ You will feel as if you have sold a significant portion of your soul for the minimum wage.

You will realise that the scanner only reads barcodes that are there in front of it. It does not register the ghosts of products that were once on these shelves. You will consider your mother who has never mentioned her disapproval of Gavin from day one. You will think of the soft skin of your son’s chubby hands. You will feel the reassuring weight of your daughter pressing into your lap as she hands you a book to read.

You will finish your shift. You will hand in your scanner for the final upload. You will wait for the night bus, too tired to be scared. You will get home and send your mum to bed. You will set your alarm for two hours’ time. You will close your eyes and you will dream of numbers.

The Storyteller’s Gift by Alan Kennedy (1st place Apr20)

For the fourth time in five minutes, Jimmy Sanderson scrutinises the notice on the door, then his Mickey Mouse wristwatch. He sniffs his armpits, cups his hands to check his breath, licks a mint, rubs it over his underarm hair before popping the sweet into his mouth. He glares at the poster once more. A face from before his breakdown grins back.

‘After twenty years it’s embarrassing, they still put, ‘…winner of the Dunoon Burns poetry recital…’ I was only ten.’

‘Very cute you were too in your wee kilt and ginger curls. Remember to wind the show up early today as this room doubles as the dining hall.’ Bridie’s nostrils twitch. ‘Get a whiff of that. School dinners. Steak pie, caramel cake with custard. Takes you back. Remember Mrs Watson?’

The old familiar memory of the six-foot dinner lady looming over him while he choked on the powdery scoops of mashed potatoes only quickens his already racing pulse.

‘You’re not helping, Bridie.’

To distract himself, Jimmy counts the grease-coated tiles on the wall. He gets to two hundred before clutching his sister’s arm. ‘It’s not working. Let’s leg it before the brats arrive. I’ll phone in ill.’

‘You’re self-employed, silly. Anyway, we’re already here. What is it this time? Reading someone else’s mind?’

‘I don’t read – . No, this hot weather is making me dizzy.’

‘It’s fifteen degrees.’

‘Too hot for March. It’s not normal.’

‘Take off your duffle coat, your mittens and your beret, you daft bampot.’

‘What if I forget to put them …?’

‘Give them here, numpty. I’ll look after your stuff, as always. Just a week’s worth of shows, then you’re off for Easter. Shape up. The great horde is coming.’

A high-pitched throb of sixty twelve-year-olds gearing up to tear him apart charges the air. ‘Why did you accept this gig? I won’t – I can’t – I hate kids.’

Ignoring her brother’s tantrum, Bridie strokes his hair like when he used to see monsters behind the bedroom wardrobe. ‘Because you bring in a pile of cash for two songs and a story, sweet boy. Stop blubbering.  Think of what you did before. Flogging TV filter screens door-to-door. That was worth grumbling about.’

‘What if I pass out in this heat?’

‘For crying out loud! Please, change the record. You’re doing my head in. You’re cool. You’ve run this project for five years, why do you still lose it like that? You’re the best paid storyteller in the country.’

Outside the assembly room, the hum rises three semitones. Any minute now, they’ll unlatch the door and Jimmy Sanderson will transpose into his alter ego, Sandy Jameson, raconteur. Funny, spontaneous, guest artist at this school culture week.

His palms drip, his throat dries, his tongue sticks to his teeth, he forgets the first line of the story.

Jimmy brushes Bridie’s hand off. ‘Don’t you get it? It’s getting warmer. I can’t –’

‘James Eaton Sanderson. Catch a grip. You’ve acted out this play every day since the start of October. You could do it in a coma. Remember the stage fright coaching sessions. Breathe in for two, out for four. In for three, out for six … That’s my boy. Take a big slug of water from the jar on the table. Have you been to the lavatory?’

‘Three times.’

Bridie, her brother’s chauffeur since his seventh failed driving test, fiddles with the car keys. ‘Can’t work out why you don’t start a teaching diploma.’

Jimmy blows out for ten. ‘Sis, I’d rather snog Mrs Watson.’

‘She’s dead.’

‘Exactly.’

Bridie tuts and turns to the entrance. ‘I’ll tell them to -.’

‘Wait… Ok.’

He blows into his ebony mouthpiece and starts the ritual, nestling the tasselled tartan bag under his right arm, his expert fingers covering the holes.

The small circular stage is bare apart from a tall stool on which Jimmy plants himself, both feet rooted on the varnished floorboards. With practised ease, the storyteller squeezes his right elbow towards his ribs.

When the double doors burst open, dozens of hormone-crazed youngsters storm in.

The howling wail of the bagpipes usually drowns out the kids’ yelling. Today is different. A volatile blend of full moon, last week of term along with an unexpected Cup triumph of the local third division team rockets the decibel level above that of the pipes.

The time-tested combination of bass drone tonic and fifth only harmonises the group if they can hear it. The skirl which loosened the bowels of enemy armies from Bannockburn to El Alamein has no effect on this shapeless mass of youthful exuberance.

When he read the headmistress’s e-mailed apology two days ago, he should have cancelled.

But Jimmy, up to his bald patch in bills, cannot afford to turn work down. Only a few months till the July recess, after which he’ll have to rely on busking round Europe for the summer. He needs this cash.

He scouts out the alpha kid, usually a boy. Pre-warned by one of the fraught, prematurely aged teachers, he learns the target’s name is Gerald Cartwright.

Big Gerry, as his followers call him, barges in, toppling over the younger kids like skittles, slaps two girls on their heads then lets rip a deafening burp, seasoning the already heady atmosphere with Gerald’s fried breakfast.

Bridie reaches for her mint scented Kleenex, grins and points him out to her brother. Gerry Cartwright is about to step down from his hero status.

As Jimmy coaxes more volume out of the four-pronged beast, his face puces up. Although their father and grandfather played bagpipes in two world wars, Jimmy brought discredit on his people by not joining the army but becoming a storyteller.

‘A showman,’ said his mother.

‘Damn cowardly show-off, more like,’ snarled his ex-army, pipe-major father, the only piper of his regiment to survive the D-day landings.

The adolescents sit, grouped in little cliques, conspiring how to mess up the show.

Every time Jimmy struggles to make them clap in time, they speed up as if at a football match. As the rhythmic breathing into the blowpipe subdues Jimmy’s panic attacks, he studies the throng round the bully, and breathes out for twelve. He is tuned up for the next stage.

The storyteller weighs up the mathematics of the youth. The statistics of his body. The pulsing of blood on his temple artery, the regularity of his hand gestures, the speed of his blinking, the inflection of his stupid guffaws.

Jimmy’s gift impressed even the late Staff Sergeant Sanderson in his final years, when his son helped him recall his darling Peggy despite his stage four dementia.

His eyes flicker at the identical frequency of the youngster’s, his head nods in the same rhythmic pattern, he plays a simple melody echoing young Cartwright’s chortle. The bellowing laughter cuts off like a shut tap.

As if blasted by lightning, the lad goes rigid. His jaw slackens. He latches onto the storyteller’s face. When Jimmy breathes slower, Gerry follows suit. Jimmy cocks his head to the left, the boy mirrors him.

Without losing eye contact, Jimmy trills a top C on the chanter, five hundred and twenty-three saw-like vibrations per second prise open Gerry’s cerebral synapses. Jimmy momentarily loosens his grip on the bag, Gerald Cartwright’s eyes snap wide open with the abrupt silence, until the renewed bass pulse cradles him like a mesmerised cobra.

Jimmy is in.

Inside the boy’s head.

Gerry Cartwright’s mind is a dizzying minefield of yells, curses, dodging blows. Memories of abuse mix with changes of foster families. Men unzipping their trousers mingle with mourning for his mother, killed by a drunk driver days before his fourth birthday.

No one else in the hall catches this exchange which hardly lasts two breath cycles, but Jimmy Sanderson tiptoes around the disjointed images with skilful care.

He selects Fanny Cartwright’s three most repeated expressions. A motherly tone whispers, ‘My little soldier,’ ‘Sweet child,’ ‘Curly burley.’ She coos, ‘I’m here with you, my love. Everything is magic in your life.’

Adopting Fanny’s breathy voice, Jimmy croons a lullaby from Gerry’s memories.

‘Ally bally ally bally bee,

 sitting on yer mammie’s knee…’

Baby Gerry stretches out his arms to be picked up. Balls of saliva roll down his wet chin. The class tutors can’t explain the boy’s behaviour nor the torrent of tears, nor the awed hush from his normally rowdy crew.

Jimmy loops the chorus ten times till Gerald Cartwright is cried out, then closes his eyes for three seconds, severing the link. Weeks have passed since he last used his gift, he’s out of practice.

A whimpering Gerald Cartwright slumps into his chair, humming his mother’s bedtime song, his head rested on his neighbour’s shoulder.

When Bridie gives her brother the prearranged signal, he presses harder on the bag. The instrument’s low growl spreads throughout the hall. Jimmy Sanderson observes the pacified, expectant faces of Gerry Cartwright’s gang and starts.

‘One day, in the North of Scotland…’