Category Archives: Short Stories

News Flash In Manchester by Gillian Wellby (2nd place Apr20)

Ellie is on the train to her hometown of Manchester.  Courtesy of social media Ellie has been tracked down by little Ann Wheeler –  that is to say the daughter of little Ann Wheeler has tracked her down.  There is to be a  ‘This is your life’  style party  for Ann’s sixtieth birthday. Ellie has been invited along as the long lost school friend.

Ellie  is a small woman who tries to be invisible.  She does not like parties. She has agreed to go to this one because …because what?  Curiosity?  Something deeper?  She wears her straight brown hair with a side parting letting it fall over her damaged left eye. She dislikes talking about herself.  The questions are always the same.  Are you married? No I’m not married. Oh! Divorced? No. Not even divorced.  I am an unmarried spinster.   Oh well, people  say, no need for marriage these days.  Children then?  No . No children.  Really?  Not even an accident from a drunken one night stand. No. No accidents.  No one night stands.   Hah! A career woman then.  No. No career. Just a series of mundane office jobs.  Ellie has to  reassure people  that she is happy with her life.   Their expressions give them away.  How can you be happy with no man  and  no children. What else is there?

The train has arrived at Winchester. Ellie likes Winchester. Every year she has a weekend there, in December.   She once took a man-friend with her – she is not completely adverse to male company, but she found that having to consider someone else’s requirements was very wearing – waiting around while he took photographs.  Plus there was his endless talking…  talking about things he thought he knew about, but didn’t.

The train is approaching Basingstoke, rumbling her ever nearer to the party. Does pretty little Ann Wheeler know Ellie is coming she wonders.  Daughters don’t know all their mother secrets.  Ellie sighs.  Maybe she should pretend, just for tonight, that it had all worked out with her man-friend. She knows enough about him to talk about him. She could describe him as a reliable, solid man. She wouldn’t  use his real name though. She could not imagine herself ever marrying a man called Cedric.  Perhaps they’ve been married for years.  Divorced even. Yes. Divorced.  That would make it easier. She will tell pretty, clever  little Ann Wheeler she is a divorced woman who has chosen to have a few years single to take stock and decide what to do. She has spent too many years letting her husband have the limelight. Now she is deciding what to do next with her life. She might go travelling.  Perhaps she should invent a child too. Just the one. No need to make it too complicated.  Perhaps a son. Jake.  He’s been a bit of a wild child in his day. She doesn’t want a goody-goody son . She wonders why there is so much crime about these days because it would seem everyone she talks to tells her how wonderful  their  children are.   Pretty, clever, sneaky  little Ann Wheeler  has somehow managed to produce a loving thoughtful daughter.   Ellie’s son Jake will be a carpenter. No.  A plumber.  A manual trade cannot be looked down on, even in these days of digital, cybertronic codswallop.  Everyone still needs a plumber. Grandchildren? No. Keep it simple.  Just an ex-husband, she will call him Colin, a reliable, trustworthy name,  and a grown-up son that she doesn’t  see very often. He’s so busy. So busy … fixing pipes.

Ellie sees  Stafford  station approaching. She now has less than two hours to get used to being a mother and  a divorcee.  Why did we  split up she wonders.  Did Colin have an affair? Did I have an affair? No. None of that.  We just grew apart. You’re not the same person at fifty that you were at eighteen are you she will say.  She can see pretty, clever , sneaky, evil,  little Ann Wheeler nodding at this.

The train is leaving Stockport. The next station will be Manchester, Piccadilly . She has had quite a creative journey. All this mumbo -jumbo about  imaginary men and imaginary sons. What twaddle.  She is a spinster. She has a disfigured face.  People have to deal with the consequences of their actions.  Does she think about what life might have been like if she had not lost her eye.  Sometimes.  Definitely today.  Ellie tugs her case down from the luggage rack and makes her way onto the platform

Tonight, when it is her turn, and they say ‘and here, all the way from Bournemouth, is your childhood friend from fifty-five years ago’, Ellie will allow Ann a good look at her face before saying “Shall we talk about what happened to my eye  pretty, clever, sneaky, evil, guilty, little Ann Wheeler.”

Flip Flop by James Hancock (3rd place Apr20)

Barry was a flip flop. Kid’s size eleven, regal blue, with white stripes and a slightly worn underside. He was the right, and his brother, Gary, was the left. Brothers, and similar in most ways, except for personality. Gary was your typical flip flop; laid back and quiet.
Barry was the opposite; excitable and talkative.The morning of the seaside day trip, Barry wouldn’t stop talking… packed in the car boot, yapping away at the sun lotion, Susan’s paperback romance novel and Arnold the beach ball.
“What if there are slushies? Oh, and ice cream. I had some ice cream land on me once. A big dollop. A plop on Jonathan’s flip flop.” Barry laughed. The other items in the bag weren’t amused, and Gary made an embarrassing sigh.
All the way there, Barry talked about fish and chips, seagulls, and the one time it was so windy he saw a beach ball roll off along the sand with people chasing after it. Probably never to be seen again. Arnold the beach ball told Barry to shut up! Barry didn’t shut up.
After an hour of Barry’s chatter they arrived, the car boot was unpacked, and Barry and Gary were set in place on Jonathan’s feet and introduced to pebbles and sand. Good times! Until the rain came. Two hours into the afternoon the skies turned grey and the heavens opened. It poured. Jonathan’s parents packed everything up as quickly as they could and ran back to the car. But they’d forgotten something. They’d forgotten Barry. In their haste, Barry had been overlooked and found himself alone on the sand. Barry was frightened.
The rain didn’t ease up for nearly an hour and by then the beach was deserted.
Unknown to Barry, Jonathan and his parents had driven to a restaurant, eaten burger and chips, and driven home. They wouldn’t realise Barry was missing until they unpacked the car boot, and by then it would be too late. Barry stared at the tide as it advanced ever closer.
Hours passed, and although the sun was out again, it was late in the day and high tide. Barry was picked up by a shallow water wave and carried off. Off to sea.
Barry had never been to sea before. He’d heard Philip snorkel talk about it, but hadn’t ever been out beyond the shallows. Never so far out that land couldn’t be seen, like now, floating further and further into the vast expanse of ocean. Barry thought his fear of being left alone would have amplified, or his lack of night-time experience might have made him freak out, but he was okay. Calm, just like the ocean waters. He was seeing this for what it was… a big adventure.
After three days of cooking in the hot sun and suffering a reasonable amount of salt water damage, Barry wasn’t as convinced this adventure was going to be anything more than a long game of count the seagull. Until there was land. Land at last. Barry was washed up on the sandy beach of a small island, late morning on the fourth day. An island without people. An island whose beach was dotted with objects similar to Barry. Washed up and forgotten. This was The Island Of Forgotten Things.
“What you looking at?” came the snappy and unfriendly welcome of a half chewed dog’s toy. As far as welcomes go, this was very unwelcoming.
“Hello, I’m Barry,” said Barry. “Can you tell me where I am, please?”
“The Island Of Forgotten Things,” the dog’s toy glared at Barry and made him feel uncomfortable. “Go and check in with Margaret.” The dog’s toy gestured to a deflated armband further up the beach.
Barry wasn’t the best reader of body language, but the dog’s toy looked like he wanted to hurt him, so Barry smiled and moved on. Maybe Margaret would be more willing to enlighten him on how things worked on the island, who was in charge, and the likelihood of him ever getting home again.
Margaret was much more pleasant, although incredibly dull and matter of fact. Barry needed to speak with the king, and was taken to him directly. An impressive figure, and fully understandable how he was elected ruler of the island, the king was nearly two metres of solid pine wood. A rowing boat oar. He stood tall and proud over all of his subjects.
“Welcome!” said the king in a booming voice. “We have been waiting for someone like you.”
Oh how special that made Barry feel. Until he knew the truth of it. He learned quickly that everything on the island is paired up with a similar item. They operated on the buddy system. Which would have been nice, except Barry’s partner was a bad-tempered wellington boot called, Gladys. Oh how Gladys moaned at Barry.
‘Sweep the shingle out of my way, Barry’. ‘We’re looking for snails, try to keep up, Barry’. ‘Pay attention, Barry’. ‘Stop talking, Barry’. Barry was miserable and decided that tonight, under cover of darkness, he would sneak off the island and leave grumpy Gladys and the other forgotten things behind him.
Before night there is dusk. A time when the sun has sunk and darkness is on the way, and at this time all islanders are expected to meet in the centre of the island, at the great clearing. Gladys made sure Barry and herself weren’t late. Over two hundred objects gathered around a low burning camp fire, and the king stood on a tree trunk to address his people.
“Once again, my friends, names have been taken from a hat, and one of you has been selected.” Everyone looked at each other, concerned, uneasy. Barry stopped chuckling with excitement and his smile dropped. From the looks on faces of those around him, selection wasn’t the reward Barry thought it was.
“The fire must never extinguish, and our supply of wood is limited. Tonight’s offering will be made by…” the king looked around at the dog’s toy which Barry had encountered this morning.
The dog’s toy stepped forward and cleared his throat, “Kenneth!”
A torn and faded baseball cap yelped in shock, and a pair of sunglasses next to the cap burst into tears.
“No wait!” the last words Kenneth the cap got to blurt out before a lifejacket grabbed him and threw him onto the fire. A dozen or so cuddly toys made excited yelping noises and gathered closer to the warm fire as Kenneth burned and the fire increased. Margaret consoled the sunglasses. Barry stared in horror. Kenneth was gone in sixty seconds.
As the crowd slowly dispersed, the king made a speech about greater sacrifice and everyone working together, but Barry wasn’t listening. Barry moved into the shadow of a nearby boulder, away from Gladys, and away from the other islanders.
That night Barry flopped his way back into the ocean and let the tide take him. Goodbye to The Island Of Forgotten Things. Goodbye to the evil king and his doomed subjects. And although he expected nightmares, Barry slept well as he floated further and further away. The moon shone and the stars twinkled in the sky, but Barry slept.
It was the next morning and Barry was awoken to the lifting sensation of being picked up. He was about to shout ‘weeeeee’, but stopped himself. He had been picked up by a little girl. A human. Once again, Barry was on the mainland, gathered up from a pebble beach by a happy-faced eight year old, whose smile widened as she examined Barry.
“I’ve got the perfect shell, Karen,” called a man from nearby. Karen’s dad held up a smooth and well-formed shell. Karen ran over to her dad, Barry in hand.
“Oh boy! That’s a beauty. Thanks dad!” Karen took the shell and added it, and Barry, to her bag. They joined the bag’s other occupants… Some dried seaweed, a small piece of driftwood, a bottle top, and the pincer of a crab. The pincer  freaked Barry out a little bit. Barry kept quiet.
Later that day, Karen placed all of the objects into a cardboard display box with words painted on the side… ‘Life’s A Beach’. Barry was part of a school homework project. Not ideal, but at least he was safe. He considered what his fate might have been if he’d stayed on the island, or what his brother Gary’s fate might be as a lone flip flop. Nobody keeps a single flip flop. One day the school projects would come home again, and Barry’s days would be numbered. He looked at the cat flap in Karen’s kitchen, and listened to the seagulls calling to each other overhead. The sea was nearby. When the time came, Barry would be ready… ready to escape, through the cat flap, and flop his way to the sea. Once again, he’d let the tide take him wherever it pleased. Take him across the ocean on another adventure.

Turnstone by Nicki Parkins (1st place Jan20)

I brought the stone home from the beach. I often do that. There are so many beautiful stones and I end up bringing home too many. Then I have to perform triage and take most of them back to the beach, where I drop them among other beautiful stones and fight the urge to take home a new clutch.

This stone survived the triage. It’s not large – about the size and shape of my terminal thumb joint, which is small for a man’s. It’s mostly grey, but with a tinge of pink, because if you look closely the surface is covered with minute circular depressions where particles of sand lodge, the red sand that’s distinctive of this part of the coast. But the thing I love about this stone, the thing that made me pick it up and carry it home and that ensured it survived the triage, is the thin band of white quartz that bisects the grey at one end, like a factory-reject liquorice allsort.

I’m on the beach again, but today I’m not here to pick up stones. It’s raining, an enervating mizzle that coalesces into beads on my anorak and mists my glasses. I wipe them on my sleeve; the mist turns to a blur. I slip my hand into my pocket in search of a handkerchief and find the familiar knobble of the liquorice allsort stone. I rotate it between my fingertips, my thumb tracing the line of hard quartz that forms a ridge in the softer sandstone. There’s comfort in the repeated movement, a numbing of other sensations as my brain focuses on the eternal circle of quartz turning under my thumb.

I don’t mind the rain; it keeps the crowds away. A man in a waterproof walks a dog on a slack lead. Further along the bay, the head of a swimmer bobs between the waves; there’s always some fanatic who’s not deterred by the weather. Apart from that I see no-one. There are no surfers today in their sleek wetsuits because although it’s raining, there’s hardly any wind, so the waves are small. Even the holiday cottages on the seafront proclaim absence from blinded windows.

I’m glad there are no surfers. They’re everything I’m not. They play in the waves like seals; I can’t swim. They laugh and call to each other in strong, deep voices; my voice is thin and high, like a music track with the bass turned down. On sunny days the girls nudge each other and watch the surfers’ bodies with desire in their eyes. Nobody has ever wanted my body. Even I don’t want my body.

I walk down the slope of the beach, my boots crunching on the stones. The sea is brown, for although it’s calm now, there was a storm yesterday that churned up the red sand on the seabed. There’s just enough breeze to waft a salty tang on to my face. It’s a smell I feel I’ve known forever, from my earliest childhood holidays – or even before. I inhale a deep breath and lick salt from my lips. The low mood that is my constant companion lifts for a moment, rippling like a blanket shaken out across a bed; then it settles back down to its usual deadweight.

The stones at my feet are at their most beautiful today. The rain and the tide darken and enrich their colours: gold, silver, coral, purple, amber, onyx. They glow like sea anemones in a rock pool. I pick one up and watch the colour fade as it dries in the warmth of my hand, like life ebbing from an animate object as it transitions to inanimate. I drop the dead stone back on the beach. I’m not here today to collect stones.

The tide’s coming in. The waves gather and rise, then crash on to the shingle with a thud. A swirl of foam hisses towards me, then recedes with a noisy rattle. Another wave, higher this time, laps at my toes. Instinct tells me to step backwards, but I stand my ground. A few smaller wavelets, and then there’s a stronger one that washes right over my boots. A trickle of cold seeps into my socks.

The smell of the sea… why is it so evocative? It’s not as if those childhood memories of mine are happy ones. I was always the skinny, sunburnt kid who built sandcastles on his own, only to have the other boys come along and kick them to pieces. They’d run off laughing into the waves, knowing I couldn’t follow and didn’t have the bottle to attempt any kind of riposte anyway. Yet I love the smell of the sea. Doesn’t everyone? Perhaps it’s to do with origins. The sea, where life first emerged: a place of beginnings and endings, flow and ebb, setting out and return.

A small seabird with a brown back and white chest is dabbling along the tideline. It’s a turnstone, searching for marine grubs among the stones. As long as I’m still it’s happy to come quite close. Its dark, liquid eye looks kind; I imagine stroking the tiny soft feathers on its head. When I shift my position it retreats, orange legs skittering over the shingle, then resumes the behaviour for which it’s named. I’m saddened by its retreat but not surprised. There are patterns in life that you get used to.

The water is above my ankles now; the bottoms of my trousers are soaked. My feet aren’t cold any more, but there’s an icy ring creeping up each of my calves. I let my gaze roam far out over the water, all the way to the turquoise-tinged horizon. How deep is it out there? I imagine being surrounded by luminous green light that fades and darkens as I sink towards the bottom. A fragment of a poem: When that which drew from out the boundless deep / turns again home – I see the glimmering surface of the water receding above me, the fathomless darkness below.

In my pocket, my fingers are still turning the stone. Animate turning inanimate; transient turning intransient. The rocks around here are hundreds of millions of years old. I can’t hold in my  head the idea of something surviving for that long. I’ve only existed for a few decades and I was worn to the quick long ago.

When the boys used to destroy my sandcastles, I’d wait till they were out of sight and I could no longer hear their jeering laughter. Then I’d pick up my bucket and spade and start to build another one. I’d build it even bigger and better than the first. Sometimes I’d build stones into it for strength, like the quartz at the heart of my sandstone. Often I’d have tears on my cheeks as I did so, but I always managed it, always built my new castle of sand.

The tough rock runs deep in the soft, even if you can’t always see it.

The turnstone is back. It’s joined by a second, then another two; soon there are more than I can count. They scamper back and forth in the surf, levering the stones aside with their bills to snap up whatever lies beneath. A large wave surges up to my knees. I take the stone out of my pocket and cradle it in my palm. The quartz has a silvery glint to it, even on this sunless afternoon. I close my fingers tight around it and turn for home.

The House Always Wins by Joe Bedford (2nd place Jan20)

The banknotes were transported in several large cases to the Bank of England. From them, a dozen batches were picked for inspection. Staff in rubber gloves examined the print, the watermark and the motion thread. From one inspector, the Chief Cashier took a note and held it idly up to the light.

A genuine, newly-printed £50 note: the ink freshly-pink, the Queen’s face staring out from light cotton, the Cashier’s signature, the crest of the Bank of England.

She replaced the note and walked on. It was re-bundled, delivered to a bank and loaded into a cash machine. When the note was withdrawn, it was hustled quickly into a wallet and shoved into the jacket pocket of an expensive suit. The suit, the wallet and its owner jumped onto a bus.

The money, crisp and anticipant, sped into circulation.

*

Khalid was broke and in desperate need of investment, but he knew that if anyone at the champagne mixer caught wind of that, his chances were slim. His course of action was instinctual – posture and denial.

He approached the businessmen in the centre of the room: bankers from Hong Kong. He met them with low bows. As they spoke, he sensed immediately that they could tell his laughter was false and that he needed something from them. He was exposed. His conquest wavered. Waiters drifted around offering free drinks. Khalid saw opportunity.

A waiter passed with a tray. Khalid stopped him with a prod against his chest. With the young man frozen on the spot, Khalid took the glasses of champagne one at a time and handed them out amongst the businessmen. Then, leaving the last glass on the tray, he took the £50 note slowly out of his wallet and stuffed it conspicuously into the waiter’s jacket.

When he turned back to the group, four glasses were raised towards him.

Then, he began his pitch.

*

The students in the kitchen had almost run out of booze. When volunteers for the shops were called for, Ramesh waited for Ayanna to lift her hand and then leapt off his chair to follow. Two other boys ambled with them to the door. They set off together. Ramesh sidled up to Ayanna.

Most of the beautiful women he knew were medical students with no free time. Since meeting Ayanna, Ramesh had spent most of his time trying to decide whether he stood a chance with her or not. She was incredibly beautiful and spoke five languages. He veered on the side of not.

He made jokes about his Indian heritage on the way to the shops. She laughed, but the two boys ahead of them seemed to be having more fun. As the boys entered the shop, Ramesh pointed Ayanna to the shop next door. It was cheaper. She seemed happy. They gathered up an armful of tonics and asked for two bottles of gin. With no idea whether he was being gentlemanly, or patronising, or cloying, Ramesh pushed her debit card away and reached into his pocket. He slid the £50 tip he’d received at work across the counter.

He didn’t dare look at her face, but he hoped, secretly, that she was smiling.

*

No one seemed more pleased with the new facade on Kwasi’s AfrikMart Global UK than the owner. Kwasi was so pleased that after the last screw was in place, he took the labourers around the merits of every single corner of the shop’s new signage, even the parts which had not been done to his specifications. He gave each worker a free beer to keep them there while he spoke, and made sure everybody faced towards the sign. As they finished up, he pointed out the shop next door.

The sign above Convenience Xchange now looked tacky and rotten. The wood had splintered at the edges and the paint was cracked. The photographs of fruit and vegetables by the entrance were faded and ugly.

Kwasi explained how easy it would be now to defeat his neighbour – ‘Kinaade. Nigerian bastard.’ The new sign, with the glamour of its glass and lighting, would surely mean the end of Convenience Xchange. The end of their rivalry. His neighbour Kinaade, leaning on the doorframe, heard everything.

Kwasi took the labourers’ bottles and paid the foreman in £50 notes from the till. When they’d left, he took one more look at his sign, then at the shop next door and laughed.

The street was his.

*

In Nicosia, Osman had been a musician. Since living in the UK, he had never become accustomed to the life of a workman. The bosses he found cruel, his colleagues dull. The work itself was so monotonous that he finished every day tired but still burning with impatience. At the bookies on payday, he struggled to find a distraction.

Nobody had bet on Sheffield to win and it was unlikely that anyone would. By the second half, the odds had risen to 18–1. But Osman was bored, utterly bored, and still relatively sober.

With his workmates loafing on the bench, he approached the desk with a £50 note – one day’s wage. Sheffield to win. One of the labourers overheard him, and he daydreamed through their chiding. He had planned to be a professional folk singer, like his father, but that had been put indefinitely on hold. If he won on Sheffield, that would give him the money for equipment, a demo, a chance to fly back to Cyprus. The dreams at least were not mundane. Their intangibility kept them somehow alive.

The bookie took the £50 and replaced it with a paper slip.

In front of the screen, Osman held the slip tightly, let the background noise fade, and hummed ‘Come on Sheffield, Come on Sheffield’ to a traditional Cypriot tune.

*

The street, empty an hour, suddenly clattered with footsteps. A voice mumbled in Afghan Persian – Abdur Zahir, loud and incoherent. Someone told him to ‘Shut it’ from a low window. He held his winnings under his shirt. He called back in English: ‘Beginner’s luck!’

A friend had told him there was a bar on this street with no windows, where the barmaids fucked the customers for money. He hadn’t been able to afford a drink for a month. He hadn’t slept in the same bed as his wife for a year. He tried to blot out the faces of his children as he wandered: Ashraf ten, Vida just six.

He stopped at the edge of a building and looked up. Images of women and drink rose in front of him. He ascended the stairs heavily as if his winnings wore him down. At the top of the stairs, he found a door with a board over the window. He knocked hard. A woman answered. He fell inside.

Abdur Zahir and his wife cried together openly on the floor. They held onto each other’s clothes and Abdur let the £50 notes spill out. They cried loudly, unquestioningly, and kneaded their shirts in their fists. Ashraf and Vida watched from a doorway.

Their family would make the rent.

*

The accountant seemed unable to explain to his client why the unpaid tax would cause her to foreclose on her mortgage. The landlady had let several flats already, and her father had told her there would ‘be no problems’.

The accountant left her in her dining room, undecipherable documents scattered on the table. Her name was on every one. She felt sick when she saw it. Shepa Begum – a failure. Shepa Begum – she’d tried to conquer the system. Shepa Begum had gambled and lost.

She walked to her cabinet and took out a whole drawer. Inside, duplicates of the Queen’s face smothered each other in a heap. She stuffed the notes into a carrier bag, bundled the documents into another. She cleared a space on the table and thought about what her father would say when he returned from Lahore.

It was a few hours till the banked opened. She started counting.

*

It was not the first time someone had brought in thousands of pounds in a carrier bag. The cashier took it unblinkingly and tipped it out on the desk.

He separated the notes into four piles. Then, he placed the fives into the money-counter, let them flutter through, replaced them with the tens, the twenties, the fifties. The batch of fifties was largest, almost £20,000. These were placed separately in a large sealable bag, dropped with the others into a cotton sack and taken to the vault.

Some of the fifties would be returned to the Bank of England for fraud inspection. The rest of them would rejoin the polymer notes in the cash machines.

Eventually, one of them, a few of them perhaps, would end up back in the Chief Cashier’s hand. She might lift one up to the light, glance fleetingly at her own signature on the front and then say ‘Two more!’ before slamming it finally on the bar.

Never Going Green by Sherry Morris (3rd place Jan20)

In Lesterville, we know the phrase Recycle, Reuse, and Reduce, we just choose to ignore it. Not because we’re against saving the planet, or don’t understand the plastic problem. We do. But when we hear or see that slogan, we think of Merin McCallister. And shiver.

 

She doesn’t live here anymore, and the house never sold. Removers came — a yard sale was never gonna work there — but there’s still stuff inside. I knew Merin, we weren’t kin-close, but we walked our babies together and talked like new moms do. She told me it was Martin who found the chair. I’m not saying it’s his fault what happened, I’m just saying it started there. Though, it must‘ve started long before.

 

They were the outdoorsy type, Merin and Martin, taking baby Ollie hiking nearly every weekend. She said the chair was a fair distance from the trail, lying on its front, deep in weeds and undergrowth, as if someone had tried to bury it. Covered in cobwebs, streaked with dark slime and wet leaves, two of its plastic white legs tilted skywards. The tray laid a short-flung distance away, half-sunk in bog ground. Martin, a handyman, proclaimed the chair in perfect condition.

If Merin felt uneasy reusing an abandoned highchair dumped miles from roads and homes, she never said. I’d like to think she was unsure. That when Martin said they’d take it home and clean it up, she shivered. But maybe as Martin wiped away a spread of slime, the baby gurgled and reached for it, making Martin say, “Two against one,” and she told herself the chill was just a passing cloud covering the sun.

She gave me a photo of the three of them. Ollie’s strapped in the chair while they stand on either side wearing big, stupid grins. I burned it.

 

Merin used an entire bottle of disinfectant on the chair, said it sparkled when she finished though plastic doesn’t sparkle. They all fell in love with that chair. Preferred it to the wooden one they got from her parents that cost $500. Especially Ollie. He cried when they took him out of it. He didn’t want to be in his playpen. Or his car seat. Or his bed. Or held in his mother’s arms. He just wanted that highchair.

“Teething,” Merin told me, “is rough.”

But it seemed like more than teething. Any toy with a face the boy chewed away.

Then there was the banging. Ollie with a spoon, or his sippy cup, against the tray. A jackhammer that went on for hours, giving Merin a headache and making Martin yell, then pound the counter. When Merin took away the spoon or cup, the look of pure hate on Ollie’s face chilled her blood, made her hands and head shake. He’d scream the scream of foxes in heat, a sound that made Merin think of babies being skinned alive. She’d give him back his jackhammer with trembling fingers.

She tried talking to Martin, to whisper-ask as they lay awake if he heard the noise even while Ollie slept. Was that why neither of them slept anymore though they were both beyond exhausted. But Martin had become brusque. Rarely showered, shaved or changed clothes. Their sex was rough now, painful and barely with consent. When she asked if he remembered to bring home milk, he threw a plate that smashed inches from her head.

 

The last time I saw Merin, she looked like she’d just emerged from Hell. Eyes bugged and bloodshot, mascara and lipstick smudged and smeared around her face, hair dishevelled. I was sure she’d slept in those clothes and didn’t know she wore mismatched slippers.

Standing on my porch steps swaying, Ollie swaddled in a blanket and pressed tight against her chest, words rat-a-tatted from her mouth. Martin was missing. Three days now. He’d lunged at Ollie. Punched her out. She’d woke to find the chair knocked over, empty. Discovered Ollie in his bed, silent, his head a funny shape.

“Like Lumpty Dumpty,” she said cry-laughing.

I invited her in, but she wouldn’t come. Said she and Ollie were gonna take a little vacation. I asked to see Ollie but she shook her head, stepped back.

“A bad baby’s better than no baby,” she said.

A watery cry came from the bundle. There was an earthy smell. A spider scuttled from the blanket, then another, then a cluster burst from beneath the folds and scattered. Merin brushed them all away without blinking an eye.

For a moment, the blanket slipped. I saw Ollie’s face. And a forked tongue flick.

Merin saw me see, said it was time for them to go. Added the highchair was on the curb if anyone wanted it, still in perfect condition. It’d comforted Ollie after his fall, but Ollie didn’t need it anymore. He was—

I couldn’t catch her last word. It didn’t sound like ‘better’.

I watched as she walked to her minivan, ignored the car seat, and placed Ollie on a pillow inside a dog crate in the back, then drove away.

We found her vehicle in a ditch, a short distance outside town. Just her purse and the blanket inside. We speculated of course. Word went ‘round about her showing up on my porch. I held back from telling all I saw. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

Nobody heard from Merin again. The highchair sat outside their house for a week, too big for recycling or curb-side pick-up. Then it started appearing around town in odd spots: the bushes next to the community centre where new moms meet. Lined up alongside the park swings. In front of the Goodwill thrift shop. Eventually the chair disappeared. We all knew not to touch it, but we get out-of-towners passing through. They wouldn’t have known any better.

Since then, other pieces of furniture have popped up around town — there’s a bookcase leaning against a disused shed near the library over on Elm and a mirror standing coquettish in the alley next to the gym. The stuff is always in pristine condition. Always tempting to take. But I leave them. We all do.

This place is never going green. People have it firm in their minds why. At least I think they do. But I’ve started hearing something at night that sounds an awful lot like foxes.

Surface Tension by Andy Banks (1st place Oct19)

The sky was dying a red death when we eventually reached the swamp. We’d been
walking for so long that the village was nothing more than a huddled mass of black teeth jutting from the rolling hills behind us. I couldn’t even make out my house anymore.

“Could’ve just gone to the rec,” I grumbled.

“I told you,” replied Garry without looking back. “That’s not where it happened.”

The thin dirt track we had followed ever since leaving the road was turning boggy and
soon water was seeping into my trainers, soaking my socks. Tall, sticky reeds clung to my jeans and scratched at my neck like the sharp fingers of little children. My nose began to run and I had to leave slug trails on my sleeves to stop it running down my face. I imagined the look I’d have gotten from my Mum if she had seen me. She had probably already started cleaning dinner away by then. My stomach rumbled, angrily.

“Garry, come on, I’ve got to be back before half eight or Mum’ll –”

“Nearly there. Promise.”

The reed tips swayed above my eye-line. All I could see of Garry was a rustle of  yellow-green five or six paces ahead. A few moments more and the track had disappeared completely and we had to squelch our way through a thick bog. Above, birds drifted like insects floating on a pink sea. In the distance, I could just make out the dull roar of the motorway.

I thought about turning back; my nose was streaming, my feet were freezing and I was
itching so badly it felt like my back was covered in spiders. But I trusted Garry. He was in the year above me and was pretty much the coolest kid in school. I mean, there were others that smoked and did drugs and swore at teachers and stuff, but of all the kids that regularly turned up to school, Garry was the coolest. He had the blackest hair, straight as a nail and swept to the side into deft perfection. Something about the way he held himself – always moving, always in the centre of things – made him seem tall even though he was a little shorter than I was. He could make anyone laugh and everyone loved him, teachers and kids alike.

Why he hung out with me I have no idea. Maybe he found me funny; he was a lot more
intelligent than he let on, maybe even than he liked to admit. We fancied ourselves comedians. Once, in the week before the summer holidays when everyone else was playing outside, we found ourselves alone in the science block. Garry had written a sketch he wanted us to practice. The sketch was brilliant, involving two men making a business deal while pretending to be chickens, and ended with the two men shaking wings. I held out my hand but instead of taking it Garry reached up and drew his fingers through my hair. His eyes were full and round like warm little hazelnuts. He held his hand there for the briefest of moments and then he was laughing and kicking his backpack around the classroom like nothing had happened. That was back before his
mother had left. Suddenly, in the night, as if he and his father had only dreamt that she had been there at all. After that his hair was never quite as perfect and there were no more sketches. His eyes had become darker. I hated seeing him like that.

If Garry wanted to show me something I was sure it was worth all the wet feet and itchy skin in the world.

Still, it was getting dark. I was close to calling out to him to ask if he was sure he knew
where he was going when the reeds suddenly parted. We emerged onto the sticky banks of a green body of water too small to be a lake and too large to be a pond.

Garry appeared next to me with a wide smile. “Check it out!”

“It stinks!” I covered my nose with a snotty sleeve. The water was stagnant and covered in a thick film of dark green algae and half-decomposed reeds. There couldn’t be anything living in it; it choked your breath just to be near it.

“Nah, it’s fine. Come on, let’s get in!”

A flock of gulls burst into the air, squawking madly as Garry took his shirt off and sprang forward to wade into the dark water. His pale skin shone in the dying light and I watched him for a moment as he drew in a long breath, readying himself to duck under.

“God, Garry, please don’t!” I squealed.

“Why? What’s the matter?”

A blizzard of gnats sprang at me and I danced about in a fit of disgust. “Why the hell did
you bring me here, Garry? It’s horrible!”

Garry spread his arms as wide as they would go. “This is where it happened!”

My feet were sodden and I had begun to shiver. My teeth chattered madly. I could feel
my bottom lip turning blue like it always did in the swimming pool. “Where what bloody
happened? Will you just tell me?!”

Garry lowered his arms and looked confused for a moment. “This is where he killed
her,” he said finally, as if it were something I should already know.

I stared at him, my body suddenly tense.

“Don’t tell me you don’t remember. That girl from the other school who disappeared last year? What was her name? Mandy? Milly?”

The reeds bent around us as if craning to hear. “Molly,” I whispered.

“Molly! That’s it, Molly! This is where she was drowned. This is where he drowned
her! In this pond! Isn’t that cool?!” Garry brought his hands down with a splash to punctuate his point.

“Why are you saying that?”

“I told you. That Molly girl. This is where she-“

“Why would you make up something like that? That’s … that’s disgusting.”

“What? I’m not making it up!”

“Yes, you are Garry. You know how I know? Because no one knows what happened to
that girl. She just … dissapeared!”

“What?! Shut up! Everyone knows.”

“No, they don’t. My mum’s church still pray’s for her to be found safe and alive.

Garry raised an eyebrow.

“God, sorry. I didn’t mean to mention my Mu-“

“You go to church?” snorted Garry.

“That’s it. Come on, get out. I don’t know what you’re doing but it’s not funny.”

Garry bobbed slowly backwards into deeper water. “She’s under here somewhere,” he
said, almost to himself. “All messed up and stuff. You can feel it in the water. It’s like a …
tingling. Come on, get in.” He drifted onto his back, his flat stomach bobbing as he drifted through the algae, leaving a dark shadowy trail in his wake.

“Why do you keep saying that? I’ve had enough, I’m going home.” I released my feet
one at a time from the bog and turned to storm away.

“Are you calling my Dad a liar?”

I turned back to find Garry standing in the water up to his knees, his trousers clinging
tightly to him. The tips of his hair were wet. Dirty water trailed slug-like down his neck
towards his chest.

“Your Dad? Your Dad told you she was here?”

“Yeah. And now you’re calling my Dad a liar.’

“No, I’m-“ My blood ran cold. “What exactly did your Dad say to you, Garry?”

Garry’s body relaxed a little, his shoulders dropping, his brow unfurrowing. “He just said that that Mindy girl-“

“Molly.”

“Yeah. He said she was dragged here and was held under the water until she drowned
and then her body was weighed down with rocks in the pockets of her dress so she wouldn’t float.” He stared at the deeper water behind him. “Bet we could find her if we looked.”

The moon appeared from behind a cloud, pale and sorry in the darkening sky.

“Garry, I – “ My mouth was so dry it was difficult to speak. “I’m going home. I’ll see
you … tomorrow. I guess.”

“No need to go, mate,” replied Garry. He was floating on his back again, smiling up at
the moon. “It’s all sorted. We’ll give you a lift home. It’s fine.”

“We?’ I asked in barely more than a whisper.

“Yeah. My Dad said he’d meet us here.”

The sky was a cold shade of violet, abandoned by birds. The air was still, stagnant. My
lips began to tremble as I turned back to the labyrinth of reeds and from somewhere deep within their midst I heard the squelch of boots in mud.

When Death Calls by Claire Wilson (2nd place Oct19)

‘I remembered the nail clippers, mum.’ 

If she had the strength to look down and see the state her fingernails had gotten into, she would have been mortified.  If she heard me, she didn’t flinch.  Not so much as a quiver of her eyelids. 

I tended to her nails as she slept.  It gave me something to do.  She was always asleep these days.  My friend had warned me, as soon as she starts refusing food and drink and sleeping all the time, that’s when you know the end is near. 

If the end really was near, then at least she would meet God with clean fingernails.  It was all I could do for her now. 

I had to keep myself thinking, keep myself useful like that or else I would feel the pain.  And I couldn’t allow myself to feel the pain, not until she was gone.  Right now, I had to be there for her. 

There was only me and my older sister left.  The cancer had claimed dad a few years ago as it had claimed both sets of grandparents when Susie, my sister and me were still young.  That’s why I’m not a mother at 37 years of age.  I didn’t want any children of mine to have to watch me die a slow painful death from that terrible affliction.  Because it was inevitable, wasn’t it?  Grandparents and now parents.  That’s how me and Susie will go.  It’s just a matter of time really.

Mum looked better now that her nails were trimmed.  I put the clippers back in my bag, replacing them with a bottle of hand cream.  Squirting a tiny bit on my fingertips, I massaged her hands before I massaged her feet.  Meanwhile, she slept. 

It had been good of the nurses to find her a private room.  That way, no one would have to feel uncomfortable visiting their loved ones while the elderly lady in the next bed became weaker and weaker. 

When the nurses offered Susie and me a cot bed to sleep on, we jumped at the chance.  No one ever deserved to die alone.  We took the days in 12-hour shifts.  They assured us there was only weeks left.  Two at most.  Susie was here from 8 am to 8 pm and I took the nights.  Susie had been stupid enough to have kids, Ethan and Chloe, and needed to be home for them.

Being with mum was like having a full-time job.  I had one of those too, so the arrangements suited us both.  The nurses were always encouraging us to go for a cup of tea, but we couldn’t.  What if something happened and we had left her here alone?  The thought made me shudder. 

My neck hurt from lying on the hard cot bed.  After the first long, cold night I had to bring in my dressing gown, wrapping it tight against my body. 

I sat back on the faded leather chair next to mum’s bed, admiring my handiwork.  It would be easier when a bed became available in a hospice.  At least that way, all the visitors were in the same boat – visiting a dying loved one. 

They say it smells better in the hospice. 

I washed my hands in the sink after I’d finished applying the cream.  The green paper towel felt rough against my hands. The bin made a loud clunking noise as I opened it up to put the used paper towel in.

‘Hello, who’s there?’ cried mum. 

‘It’s just me, mum – it’s Sally.’ 

I was immediately by her side.  The pain medication was making her hallucinate, seeing shadows that weren’t there. 

‘That man,’ she cried, ‘he’s back.’

I looked up at the door as a shadow passed in my peripheral vision.  There was no one there.  The room looked out into the car park below. 

‘It’s ok, mum.  It’s just the nurses,’ I soothed. 

‘No,’ she cried, becoming frustrated.  I stroked her hair, trying to calm her down. 

‘Shhh.’ 

The auxiliary nurse waddled in with the tea and coffee trolley.

‘Tea, Mrs Hunter?’ she asked as she stopped at the end of the bed.  ‘I’ve got in some lovely digestive biscuits.’

‘Go on, mum.  Have a cup of tea.’ 

She shook her head.  ‘No thanks.’  In an attempted whisper, she said, ‘they poisoned my tea last night.’ 

I looked up at the nurse, my face flushed with embarrassment.  ‘I’m terribly sorry, it’s the medication…’

‘Don’t worry love.  I’ve been accused of worse.’ 

She had the good grace to smile about it before offering again, cajoling mum into taking a hot drink. 

‘No, get out.’ 

‘Calm down, mum, she’s going.’ 

‘Good.  She thinks I’m stupid.  She slinks in here every night and tries to put poison in my food and in the water jug.  But I see her.’

I looked at the nurse’s retreating back.  She wasn’t the size to slink about anywhere but it was best to keep quiet until the nurse was gone. 

‘Don’t worry, mum.  I’m staying here tonight.  I’ll look after your food and your water.’ 

I could have murdered a cup of tea, but it would have upset mum even further.  I’d made that mistake the night before. 

‘Will you keep the bad man out?’ she whispered, making eye contact with me for the first time in days. 

‘Of course, I will,’ I replied, humouring her.  It was the easiest way. 

‘He wants to take me away but I’m not ready yet.’ 

‘Ok.’ 

A gust of wind blew in the open window, making all the Get Well Soon cards fly off from the bedside cabinet and the shelf above her bed. 

Startled, I bent down to pick them up. 

‘He doesn’t like me talking about him.  He did that to frighten you.’ 

My skin prickled at her words. 

‘Don’t worry, mum.  I won’t let him get you,’ I repeated. 

‘He has no skin on his face.  It’s just bone.  Don’t let him take me.’ 

I had been here less than an hour but already I knew I was going to be in for a long night.  Once I’d picked up the cards, I went over and closed the window ensuring it was closed tight. 

‘I won’t let him take you anywhere, mum,’ I said automatically. 

The gust of wind had left mum’s room feeling like an ice box.  Shivering against the cold, I grabbed my things to go into the bathroom to change into my nightclothes, leaving the door open so I could listen out for her. 

Maybe if mum fell asleep again, I could bother the nurses for a cup of tea, I thought to myself as I brushed my teeth.  I folded up my day clothes and stuffed them into my rucksack.  Putting on my fleece dressing gown provided me with little comfort.  

‘I’m dying, aren’t I?’ asked mum when I emerged from the small bathroom. 

‘No, don’t be silly,’ I lied. 

Susie and I both agreed we wouldn’t tell mum just how bad her illness was.  Instead, we would pretend she was getting better. 

‘I think I’m dying,’ she continued, ‘Your dad’s waiting for me at the end of the bed.’ 

My eyes were immediately drawn there.  Despite my thick pyjamas, the cold air continued to attack my skin. 

‘He’s keeping the bad man away,’ she mumbled.  I looked over at her.  Her eyes were opening and closing, fighting sleep.  ‘The bad man wants me though.  He likes the look of me.’ 

‘Go to dad,’ I encouraged her, unable to prevent the tears from falling down my face.  There was an electrical charge to the room, like when you walk into a room where there’s a TV on mute. 

‘Go on, mum.  It’s time to go.  Just let go.’

It didn’t take long. 

I looked down at her face.

She was gone.  But her last words would haunt me for a long time.

‘Be careful, Sally.  He likes the look of you too.’