Category Archives: Short Stories

Spitting Image by Gwenda Major (3rd place Oct19)

It’s weird but when people have been saying the same thing to you over and over for years, it’s really hard to remember when it first began. So I can only guess it must have started when I was about eleven or twelve.  It spooked me a bit at first – the way someone in the family would look at me, really look, as if they’d just seen me for the first time.   Then they’d say, “you know you’re the spitting image of your great-uncle Sam.” 

A few months ago Auntie Barbara and Uncle Frank came round for tea.  We hadn’t seen them for a while so when I opened the door Uncle Frank did a sort of double take, like they do in sitcoms.

“By God son, did anyone ever mention you look just like your great-uncle Sam?”

I nodded.  “Yeah often.  Mam’s in the kitchen – she says to go through.”

So at tea-time I thought I’d try and find out a bit more.  If I was someone’s double I wanted to know more about him.

“So why have I never met him, this great-uncle Sam?  Does he not live around here?”

There was a sudden lull in the conversation.  I caught Mam looking at Dad and then Auntie Barbara said, “Tell him Caz – the lad’s curious.  It’s only natural.”

If looks could kill, Auntie Barbara would have been laid out cold on the kitchen tiles by now.

“You haven’t met him Paul because he’s dead – Sam died when he was quite young, of meningitis.  He was only about twenty five and he was a joiner. Now who’d like another helping of lasagne?”

 

There’s an old suitcase in the cupboard under the stairs that’s full of jumbled up old photos. I waited until Mam and Dad were out one night, then I opened the cupboard door and wrestled my way past the vacuum and the garden chairs to find the suitcase.  Then I sat on the carpet in the living room and tipped all the photos out.  They were mostly black and white, some of them all cracked and folded.  Luckily Mam insists on writing on the back of photos so I shuffled through the piles until I found what I was looking for.  ‘Sam – Scarborough 1955’ – and there he was, a young man in an overcoat grinning at the camera with the Grand Hotel looming in the background.  I looked at him really closely.  It was absolutely true – he was the spitting image of me, or rather I was the spitting image of him.  It was uncanny – same nose, same chin, same eyes.

I kept sorting through the photos and came across another one, a close-up this time.  I stuffed all the other photos back into the suitcase and manoeuvred it back into the cupboard.  Then I took the two photos upstairs into the bathroom.  I held the close-up in front of the mirror and covered my mouth – same eyes.  Then I covered the top of my forehead – same mouth.  No wonder everybody stared.

 

I wasn’t having an easy time at school around then.  Not caring about football is a hanging offence around here.  I’ve got my own friends, don’t get me wrong but sometimes it gets to me, like when they sent me texts pretending Rachel Simons wanted to see my prick.  I didn’t fall for it of course.  Rachel Simons has never even glanced in my direction, let alone have designs on my private parts.  Sometimes there’s a few shoves, a foot stuck out in the corridor, a slap around the head, but mostly it’s just words and sniggers.  Big deal.

I always thought, if I had an older brother he’d stick up for me.  I wouldn’t have to put up with this rubbish.  But I haven’t.  Only Rosie my little sister and she’s only interested in being a princess.  So the next time someone shouted out ‘wanker’ as I walked past, I pretended my great-uncle Sam was walking along next to me.  It made me feel better, stronger somehow and I found myself whistling as I went along.

Another time I opened my locker and a pair of girl’s pants fell out.  I knew who’d put them there because I’d seen Dave Lorimer messing around a bit earlier on.  I could feel Sam behind me encouraging me, so I just walked straight up to Dave and hung the pink pants from one finger right in front of his nose.

“I believe these are yours” I said loudly and everyone snorted and sniggered when Dave went red as a poppy.

“Piss off” he said trying to win back ground but I’d already dropped the pants in front of him and walked off.  Result.

More and more I found Sam helped me out when things went wrong.

‘What would Sam do?’ I’d think and the answer would come to me.

Or I’d ask myself ‘what would Sam say now?’ and the snappy words I needed were there.

 

So when the careers guy asked me what I thought I’d like to do in the future I said without hesitation – “joiner.”

“Have you ever worked with wood before son?” he asked, sounding doubtful.

Of course I hadn’t – I’d given up CDT as soon as I could in Year 9. My A-level choices for the next year were sciences and IT so I could see why the guy was a bit puzzled.

“Maybe you should sign up for an evening class in woodwork before you make any big decisions.”

So I did – I enrolled at the local FE College for a course in joinery, once a week from seven to nine at night.  The minute I started to plane the first piece of wood it just felt so right.  I could feel Sam at my shoulder, looking on with pride at what I was doing.

All right we were only learning the basics but I couldn’t help starting to dream – I would become a famous furniture designer, making bespoke pieces for celebrities.  My name would be known throughout the country and when I was interviewed I would say I’d inherited my amazing skills from my great-uncle who had died at a tragically young age.  I would dedicate my first collection to Sam.

 

One weekend I went over to see Granddad.  I don’t see him very often because he lives over the other side of town and has a busy life with his bus trips and ballroom dancing and visits to the betting office.  He’s getting quite old now though and I definitely thought he looked frailer than the last time I’d seen him.

“I won’t be around much longer Paul,” he said cheerfully when I brought two mugs of tea through from his little kitchen.

“Don’t say that Granddad.  Anyway you’ve been saying it for years and you’re still here aren’t you?”

“You wait until you’re my age son.  It’s no laughing matter.” He popped a whole Jaffa cake in his mouth and grinned.  His usual party trick.

“Granddad?”

“What son?  It’s no good asking me for money because I haven’t got any.  I lost this morning.  Bloody horse didn’t even finish the course.”

“Sorry about that Granddad – anyway you know I wouldn’t ask you for money.  But what I did want to ask you was – what was your brother Sam like?”

It was like when you suddenly turn the sound off on the telly. Complete silence.  I realised I’d upset Granddad by making him think about his beloved brother and now he’d never forgive me.

Then very slowly and deliberately Granddad said, “Sam was a right – little – shit.”

“What do you mean Granddad?”

“Just what I say son.  He was a bad lot – shoplifting, drunkenness, always getting into fights.  And the girls – he couldn’t leave them alone but he had no respect for them.  He’d have ended up in prison mark my words.  In with a bad crowd he was.”

“But he died so young” I protested. I could see Sam’s face out of the corner of my eye.  He was smirking and I could swear he winked at me.

“Just as well for him he did die – otherwise someone would have killed him before long.”  Grandad took a swig of his tea.  “Now that’s enough.  I don’t talk about Sam as a rule.  And now you know why.”

 

I told the evening class tutor I wouldn’t be able to finish the course.  Then I brought the pieces of wood I’d been working on home and made a little bonfire in the back garden.  I watched the smoke curling up into the air, feeling empty and bleak.  Then I had another quick look at the close-up of Sam before I chucked it on the bonfire. For the first time I noticed that his eyes were closer together than mine and his mouth was definitely smaller.  Nothing like me at all really.

Brenda Has The Patience To Endure It by Joanne Leonard (1st place Jul19)

Brenda pulls the mop from side to side across the kitchenette floor, slapping it to the
kickboards on either side. It’s too wet, and she curses herself for not wringing it out enough in the first place, because now the floor won’t dry in time so she’ll have to give it another once over.

‘Morning, Brenda,’ says a voice behind her.

‘Morning, Malcolm,’ says Brenda. She stamps down on the foot pedal of the wringer,
leaning in to the mop handle to get as much water out as she can.

‘You ok this morning?’ Malcolm asks, barely pausing in his stride.

She smiles, keeping her teeth hidden. ‘Aye. You?’

‘Couldn’t be better,’ he says, and he walks off down the open plan into his office.

Brenda looks at her watch. He’s early, but not much, and she’s still got the toilets to
do. She’ll have to get a move on.

By nine o’clock she’s back at home, which is empty now. Her niece, Kelly, is staying
with her since she fell out with her parents again, this time about paying board. As Brenda said to her brother, ‘I can’t see her on the streets, not when I’ve got that room spare now.’ And because he couldn’t say anything about that without opening up a can of worms, Mark just grunted back that his daughter was a ‘bloody princess’. Brenda did not say out loud, ‘well it was you two who made her one’ because they’ve fallen out about it before, and Brenda cannot take Mark’s Denise braying on her door and shouting obscenities through the letterbox again. Kelly hands over eighty pounds a week, regular on a Thursday, and she’s never yet left her breakfast bowl unwashed for Brenda to deal with when she comes in.

Out of habit, Brenda takes the dishcloth and wipes over the spotless surfaces anyway.

She makes a cup of coffee, two sugars, and sits down on the couch to watch a bit of
telly. It’s an hour to This Morning, so she flicks through the channels all the way up and all the way down. She eats a couple of biscuits. She pauses at a documentary about tigers for ten minutes. It tells her tigers are solitary creatures, and that when the cubs are old enough they will leave their mother and never see her again. She watches the cubs play, and they are just like kittens, rolling and gently chewing each others’ ears. Their cat had had kittens when Brenda was nine, and she’d looked after them all summer, but after the holidays Brenda’s mam had started to give them all away. She said they were big enough, but they still looked tiny to Brenda.

After an hour of This Morning (hair extensions, simple pasta suppers, living alone in
your sixties) she gets back into her shoes and heads off to the pub. It’s good to have
something in the middle of the day.

“Oh hiya Bren,” says Susan, from her spot behind the bar, “I forgot you were
covering for Elaine. Any chance you could stay on an extra hour? Only we’ve got a big group from Petersons in.”

“Yeah,” says Brenda. “Can do.” In her head she begins to recalculate her time off in
between, and whether she’ll have time enough to go home again before she’s due at the
podiatrist’s.

It’s hot in the kitchen. Dave the chef is already shouting at whichever poor kid has
been desperate enough to take the job as his assistant. She can’t see who it is because they’re in the walk in fridge and Dave is filling the doorway, threatening to shut them in there.

“All right, Dave,” she calls, as she walks past to the sink in the corner.

Dave glances round at her. “Oh hiya Brenda. Where’s Elaine? You fillin’ in?”

“She’s in the Canaries.”

“Oh aye,” says Dave nodding. Then he turns back to the fridge, and starts shouting
again.

The shift goes quite quick. Having the big table in as well as all the regulars means there’s plenty to do: big steel pans, oven trays, nearly fifty plates all told, all the cutlery. It’s a bit like those meditations Kelly was going on about, some app she’s got on her phone, where you think about nothing for ten minutes and it calms you right down. She thinks of nothing for about five hours, filling and emptying and refilling the enormous sink, taking small pleasure in making enormous mountains of soap bubbles. At twenty past four she swings out back through the pub and decides she’ll just pop to the Spar to get a few bits for tea, because there’s not much point in trying to get home and get out again.

Caroline is on the till and asks Brenda how she’s doing.

“Fine,” says Brenda. “How’s your Peter?”

“Lazy gobshite hasn’t lifted a finger to look for work this week,” says Caroline. “Just
lies on the couch eating crisps and playing that stupid game. I’m getting a sore foot from kicking him up the arse but it does nowt. Bloody teenagers, eh?”

“Aye well,” says Brenda, packing her bags.

“Ee I shouldn’t be moaning at you,” Caroline says, going a bit pink. She briskly
changes the subject. “Your Kelly still at yours? I saw Denise down the town and she said she was in trouble?”

“She’s no bother,” says Brenda. “Nice to have the company.”

“Of course,” says Caroline, eyes down, as she hands over the change.

She’s at the podiatrist’s fifteen minutes early, and Diane, the receptionist, lets her
make a cup of tea while they both wait for the last appointment to finish. When his client is gone Mr Campbell pops his head round the door and asks if she can clean under the chairs in the waiting room, because it’s been a while. She says it’s no problem, and he tells her to finish her tea before she starts, no rush.

Once they’re gone she unlocks the cupboard in the hallway where they keep the
hoover and the mop, and the cleaning stuff. She starts, as she always does, in the treatment room, and works her way back to the door. In the toilet she finds a pair of abandoned navy socks, which she shoves straight into the rubbish. It’s not the first pair she’s found in there. She supposes they come in with a clean pair to put on, the way you try and clean your teeth right before the dentist, but it doesn’t explain why they leave the old ones on the floor.

In the waiting room she pulls out all the chairs into the middle of the room, hoovers
all the way around the edge, and then does the middle once they’re put right again. She’ll ask him about the extra fifteen minutes at the end of the week. He’ll be all right about it. She puts everything away, tugs the cupboard door to make sure it’s locked and heads back into the waiting room.

She turns all the lights off, and sits down in the receptionist’s chair. Diane always
keeps tissues on her desk. Brenda takes out her phone and goes into her videos, to find the one where Sam was drunk in the kitchen, trying to fry an egg.

She sees him ricochet off the kitchen wall into the cupboards, frying pan in hand.

She hears her own voice, bright with laughter, saying, “you’ll wreck my kitchen, ya
daft bugger!”

She sees him drop an egg straight onto the floor, and fall over when he tries to clean it
with kitchen paper.

She sees his face looking up into hers, sees him notice the phone. Watches him
pointing at her, saying “hey mam, you better not be filming this, like”, and then, “you’ll
delete it, won’t you, mam?”

Brenda takes her tissues with her when she goes. It’s nearly eight o’clock when she
gets in, because she walked the long way round, where the streets are better lit. As she pulls the front door shut she can hear the sound of the telly from the front room, and her neice calls out, “Hiya, Aunty Bren!”

She unzips her coat, and takes a litle breath, before she answers. “Hiya, pet.”

Hypogeal by Michele Seagrove (2nd place Jul19)

The loudspeaker crackles and all the passengers look up expectantly. I strain to hear but can only make out the muffled words: ‘Ealing Broadway’ and ‘delays’. I sigh.

‘Bloody hell,’ the man next to me says. ‘Always the same.’ The temperature in the subterranean world is stifling and sweat is beading on his forehead. I surreptitiously watch, fascinated, as a drop teeters on the end of his nose for a moment then falls to its death. The urge to escape is overwhelming but the platform is rapidly filling up and it’s impossible to push back against the increasing tide of bodies.

The overhead sign blinks. I wait. It finally comes to life and announces ten minutes until the next train. I feel myself drooping and shift aching feet. Will I survive that long? In ten minutes it will be like the front row at a concert down here. The prospect of standing in a crush on the train, my face pressing into a sweaty armpit, didn’t appeal one bit. Maybe if I stand at the front. More chance of getting a seat.

Nine minutes until the next train.

I’m powerless to avoid the inevitable and begin to drift down towards the end of the platform, weaving in and out of the crowd. From here, the train will speed past me, slowing down to a stop at the far end. I can hear distant rumbling from the yawning hole and peer hopefully into the blackness, but it’s coming from a different track. The movement pushes a hot gust of air down the labyrinth and provides slight relief from the oppressive heat, albeit temporarily. I’ll take every cloud.

Eight minutes.

I’ve been feeling this way for so long now it has become a habit. Ever since she was thrust into my arms – her perfect face waxy, like a doll – dark thoughts crash daily into my subconscious. An end to the effort of carrying on is becoming ever-enticing. Every morning and evening I am a mole, waiting for my metaphorical train to come. But I continue to stand on the platform, suffering in silence with all the other travellers. Once I reach my home station, I ascend into the light and begin to breathe again, having escaped Hades once more.

Seven minutes.

The heat from so many bodies washes over me and claustrophobia clutches at my heart. It beats in my ears, like a timpani drum.

‘Move along the platform,’ a guard shouts and some passengers shuffle a little, while others back up along the corridor behind, muttering in irritation at the delay to their journey. You can always spot the tourists. They huddle together like lost sheep, timorous eyes constantly on the alert for danger, unsure of the protocol.

Six minutes.

I step forwards so I can be first on board and the pull of the chasm assails me. I look down. Which is the live rail? Will it be an instant death or a painful, muscle-jerking end? The crowd closes in behind me and I can’t move. I swallow and, battening down panic, try to count slowly to ten, but my attention is arrested by the poster on the wall opposite. The baby in the picture taunts me. Reminders are everywhere.

Five minutes.

People are still coming in. When will the guards stop the influx? There is no room to breathe and the swell behind me sways, as one.

‘Stop pushing!’ an authoritarian woman orders over her shoulder. Maybe she’s a teacher. There’s no reply but there is a slight easing. She turns her attention back to her phone.

Four minutes.

The temperature climbs a notch. I feel faint. If I could escape I could walk home but I don’t know if I can walk that far. My strength is diminishing daily. I become aware of my handbag strap, diagonally positioned, digging into my shoulder and I hook a thumb into it to ease the pulling pain. I’m tired, so tired. I imagine lying down and closing my eyes.

Three minutes.

My eyes fly open. Can humans sleep standing up, like a horse? I pull a water bottle from my bag, take a swig of lukewarm water and pull a face. I’ll make a cool drink when I eventually get home. Then I remember there’s nothing in my studio flat. I hadn’t seen the point in stocking up if I wasn’t there to use it. It’s just me now. He left soon after the funeral and I’m alone with my thoughts.

Two minutes.

Shouting claims my attention. Everyone turns and crane periscope necks. Obscenities are being bandied about and I bite my lip as I stand on tip-toes, trying to see what’s happening. Like a wave, the pack suddenly parts, allowing the passage of two policemen dragging a scruffy young man. His shouts echo eerily along the corridors long after he’s gone and I wonder if the heat has become too much for him as well.

One minute.

My heart sinks lower than ever before and a wave of desperation engulfs me. I have to escape – I’m drowning. At last I hear a rumble in the tunnel and the mob get their elbows ready. A hot mistral blows into my face as I wait for the sense of doom to dissipate. It always has before. But it keeps hammering away at my psyche. The monster is coming for me.

Train approaching.

High-pitched screeching fills the air and white-hot sparks light up the darkness as the monster navigates the catacombs, a blinding light announcing its imminent arrival. In a tumultuous crescendo, it bursts out of the tunnel and I lean forwards to embrace it.

My hair whooshes upwards in a vortex and I feel the brush of the monster as it flies past my body, brakes squealing.

The doors open and I get on the train.

Reduce Reuse Recycle by Sonia Trickey (3rd place Jul19)

I go to Waitrose every Saturday morning to eye up the men I wish I’d married.

I leave my reusable, upcycled cup in the bike trailer and queue for a complementary flat white served in a single use waxy cup that will take longer to decompose than my still living corpse. Then I meander like an idling gondolier down the aisles, drifting between towering fridges of gourmet meals and deli-snacks, hooking baba ganoush and meat-free Moroccan lamb into my shopping trolley, eyeing the local talent, streaming Puccini through my bamboo earphones, basking in CO2 emissions.

Sweet hedonism.

A yellow-trousered blond with the ruddy complexion I associate with country shooting parties is piling hand-stretched pizzas into his basket along with pickled lemons and almond stuffed olives.  I admire his brogues, acorn calf uppers and a stitched leather sole but his wax jacket puts me off. It suggests a taciturn, agrarian quality, concealing a sort of D.H. Lawrencish predilection for coarseness in the bedroom. So I turn my attention to a grey haired man whose crisp checked shirt is pulling tightly across his shoulder blades. He lingers over the rump, the rib eye, the fillet, the minute, the marinated and the three for two offer. I enjoy both the care with which he selects his steak and his carelessness of the ethics surrounding red meat consumption. Perhaps he’s a director of a pharmaceutical company. In my fantasy life we married in our early thirties and our children are starting prep school. I’m getting my figure back, returning to work full-time and he’s keen to take the kids to rugby on a Saturday morning. He coaches the team; I shop in Waitrose. He drives an SUV; I train for a marathon, raising money for the local air ambulance.

A clean-shaven, six foot Anglo-African brushes past as I swing into fresh desserts. He’s wearing red ankle-grazing jeans and a blue padded jacket. He sizzles with privilege and class – maybe he owns a yacht moored in a sleepy seaside village where he plays cricket on the beach with our children and our labradoodle, Mags. I think of my actual children blessed with neither privilege nor class, or even a dog, who are probably not awake yet, dozing amidst the hormones and unwashed clothes that lurk on their bedroom floors.

My husband too will be in bed. He’s got depression which is a real illness, like flu, but left untreated festers into narcissism. I allow myself these thoughts in Waitrose: there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thoughts in Waitrose – it’s all just ‘thought’.

I pick up the coconut crème brûlée he likes. I’d pick some wine too but I daren’t since he took a viticulture course. We hoped it would help him to make friends (it didn’t) but it did give him another area of expertise with which to improve me. I drink prosecco in secret now. My Waitrose husband is a cheerful philistine: he thinks wine tasting is for sissies. Or sommeliers.

The other thought I ponder in Waitrose is how to leave my husband. I have three options: the affair; the adult and responsible announcement; or raiding the joint account and escaping to South America.  The first and third are by far the most appealing options but I worry about the emotional cost for the kids.

I made a spreadsheet:

Time scale Children Moral High Ground Financial Net Gains Net losses
1 An affair 1 year Will blame me. Big trust issues Low Screwed in divorce by angry husband Romance. Kids money
2 Leaving like an adult 2 years + 30 being polite Will blame me. Child psychologist advised High Screwed in divorce by angry husband. Some freedom, kids. Money kids
3 Disappearing Immediate Will hate me. Lifelong anger and trust issues Low ? Freedom Kids
4 Staying Maybe 30 Will like me then hate me Average dysfunction Mid Comfortable Money, stability, kids. Some freedom

I’m currently working with option 4.

He was my age when we met. I think about that a lot in Waitrose too. I’m thirty-eight; the thought of pursuing a romantic liaison with a sixth former makes my stomach turn. And yet that’s the great romance of my life. He was my English teacher: wise, benign, ironic and smokin’ hot. What was he thinking? Actually, I know because he wrote a novel about it (still no publisher – Zoe Heller had already written it: “Better connected, a woman”). Here’s how it starts:

I’m not going to pretend that falling in love with Sophie was my finest hour as a teacher. I would have been the first to condemn this sort of predation in a colleague who was exploiting the craven naiveté of a student. But such are the vagaries of the human heart.

Craven naiveté.

When my hour of Waitrose is up, I head to the bike trailer into which I pack the groceries. I pour the dregs of the coffee into my upcycled cup which declaims: “Eat pussy, it’s vegan!”  – a humorous birthday present from my husband.

On the way home, I always detour into the beech woods where I spend a few moments transferring the precooked meals into containers from home and removing any plastic packaging from fruit and veg: we’re a supermarket free household.

Today, after I’ve disposed of the rubbish, I lie on the ground and look up through the trees. Sunlight filters through a rough tessellation of leaves which skitter in the breeze. Each leaf is haloed with soft fronds.

I lie there until I’m interrupted by the sound of laughter. A middle aged couple are passing through the gate. The man grapples with the woman and she pretends to enjoy it. It takes me a moment to understand what I’m seeing, but then it becomes clear.

A sun eclipse spills out from behind a cloud and floods the wood with light: the man is my depressed husband.

Everything is birdsong.

I climb onto my bike and freewheel down the hill.

Nothing but Ashes by Jason Jackson (3rd place Apr19)

It’s Friday, and she’s gone. They’ve talked – it’s all they’ve done for weeks, because words are what she’s good at – but now the house is quiet. On the table is the manuscript, her first novel, the final draft, the version everyone will see. It’s thinner than he expected, and on the cover is a small yellow post-it note. In blue pen, she’s written: Read it.

He remembers their first Christmas, the notebook he bought her. In the bottom right-hand corner of each page he drew a stickman. If you flicked through, the little man ran on the spot, did jumping-jacks, press-ups, stood up again, ran a little more and finally ended in a leap, arms aloft, suspended and grinning, on the last page.

He flicks through the manuscript, catching words and phrases here and there. He stops on page 65 and reads:

“…there are thrills in this world, and we should never forgive ourselves for missing the opportunity to live….

More blurred words until he gets to page 122:

“…the oranges, and they rolled across the floor, resting against his boot. She looked at him, and he lifted his foot, brought it down hard.”

He grimaces, remembering, and flicks forward to page 189, and this time a shock:

“…the fierce sting of the flat of his hand on her cheek, and the sun high above Kings College in a blameless blue sky…

He stops, dropping the pages as if they’re in flames. Cambridge. A day trip, summer, three years ago. His quick, predictable anger at some slight or other, and her laughter, taunting. There must have been something about the set of him, his stance, because she’d said, quietly and seriously. “Hit me, then. Go on. Hit me, Tom.”

And, of course, he hadn’t. God knows they’d fought many times. It’s what, in the end, had finished them. But there’d never been violence. They’d never come to blows.

He picks up the manuscript, flicks through pages, this time more slowly. He sees his name. He sees hers. First person. Past tense. He flicks to the beginning, reads the words: This book is dedicated to no-one other than myself.

He gets up, fetches a mug and some coffee, and as the kettle boils he thinks about a night, years ago now, on the beach near his parents’ old house. He thinks about how he’d taken her there, had wanted to show her the only place which meant anything to him. She’d been talking about travelling, about India, how they had see everything there was to see in the world, and eventually he put his hand up like a schoolboy.

She laughed. “Yes? What would you like to say?”

“I want to show you something. Something real.”

They drove for two hours, a radio phone-in filling the air between them. As they reached the coast, the dark twists of clouds caught the dancing lights from the fairground and he pointed to the black sea.

“Look,” he said.

They pulled over, and then they were both quiet for a moment.

“Let’s walk on the sand,” she said. “I want to feel it.”

They took the crumbling steps at the far end of the promenade, steps he’d run up and down as a laughing child, steps he’d sat on with friends in his late teens, steps he’d crept to from his hot bedroom in the middle of sleepless summer nights in that long last year as his parents fell apart. He held her hand, and when they made it to the bottom of the steps, she pulled off her shoes.

“Come on. You too,” she said. “It’s not just about seeing.”

They went bare-foot to where the waves met the sand. When they walked in, the water was so cold it stopped their breath. They rolled up their jeans, and soon they were in up to their knees, the cold making them dance a strange kind of jig.

“Okay, turn around,” he said, and together they faced the shore.

The fairground lights played red and yellow and blue against the darkness, and the houses on the slow rise of the hill were reduced to the subdued glow of curtained windows.

“There are people there,” he said. “All that life.”

“I want to stand here and watch the lights go out one by one,” she said. “I want to watch the fairground go to sleep, the people in the houses too.” She turned to him. “I want it to be just us and the sea.”

He pulled her close and they kissed.

“It’s so cold,” she said.

“How long do you think we could stand here?”

“Let’s count,” she said. They measured the seconds quietly together, perfectly synchronised, and they lasted much longer in this than either of them thought they would.

Later, they walked the length of the beach, gathering wood to burn. They managed a meagre kind of fire, a lopsided pyramid no higher than their waists, but he set alight to some rags he found on the rocks near the promenade, and the driftwood caught the flames. The fire burned pale, a yellowing whiteness which drew them closer. She danced around the flames, and she was on fire, her hair, her waving arms.  He remembered a book he’d stolen from a library, a book about all the unexplained things in the world, and there’d been a photograph of the charred outline of a body on a street. Spontaneous combustion: how someone could be here one moment and then, suddenly, consumed by fire. All that was left was their ashes.

As she danced towards him, he held out his arms, aching to hold her and certain he would never let her go.

And now, at the table in the kitchen, blowing on his coffee and resting the mug against his cheek for the warmth, he reads the first page of the manuscript. It’s the first time he’s read anything she’s written. Years ago now they’d decided he’d be better as a supporter than a critic. What did he know about stories? About literature? So, he’d left her alone to write, and all those words had been secrets, all of that time her own.

But now she was gone, and she wanted share.

The first page told of a man with his name having sex with a woman with her name. The woman with her name was not thinking about the man with his name, but was thinking of a wolf – in fact, as things progressed, a pack of wolves – and these animals surrounded the naked, writhing woman, who was somehow now in a forest, and the wolves were circling, coming even closer, and there was their fur, and they were hungry so their ribs showed, and there were strings of saliva hanging from their opening jaws…

And then the woman with her name was finished, and the man with his name was grunting, his skin sheened with sweat, trying to finish too, but he was clumsy and he was pulling out and pulling at himself, and the woman with her name was turning her back…

He puts the manuscript back on the table, straightens the edges of the pages, takes the post-it note and crumples it into a ball.  He gets a pencil from the drawer and he sits back down at the table to read. As he finishes each page, he draws a stickman in the bottom right hand corner. At first the man is standing motionless, but as he finishes the pages – page after page – the man begins to be consumed by flames. They start at his feet, and the simple lines of the man’s expression seem to express surprise, but gradually, as the pages progress and more of the stickman is consumed by fire, he appears resigned, and then saddened, and, finally, in the last few pages, his face disappears in grey scribblings of flames, and there is nothing left of him other than a small, triangular pile of ash.

There’s a moment, after he closes the manuscript and straightens its edges, when he thinks of her. There is nothing left in the house that was hers, but he still has so many things to remind him.

A life together, or part of one at least.

He opens the window wide, takes the lighter from the drawer and the manuscript from the table. He stands at the sink and holds the pages above the flame. It’ll burn quickly, leaving nothing but ashes, and then he’ll begin.

A Black and White Summer by Alyson Hilbourne (2nd place Apr19)

In my hand is the black and white photo taken by Dad with his Box Brownie camera the last summer my family went to the beach. Behind me is the pier. Hovering in the shadow is a hazy figure.

The picture is black and white, but now the pier has been repainted and is garlanded with coloured flags while the new rides have flashing neon signs, which scream for attention. I wander across the sand, photo in hand, searching for where Dad took the shot.

My family went to the seaside every summer. We didn’t stay in the big hotels with names like ‘Grand’ or ‘Victoria’, but in one of the guesthouses to the south. It meant we had to walk each morning along the shore, Mam clutching towels and mats, Dad carrying the picnic and deck chairs and me with my tin bucket and spade.

“Don’t get wet,” Mam said as I drifted along the low tide line poking at seaweed with the toe of my shoe. The salt made a mark around my Clarks sandals and the leather crisped in the sun.

We would settle near the pier with the smell of fish and chips and candyfloss wafting towards us.

“Don’t go too deep,” Dad warned as I splashed in the shallows.

There were a lot of ‘don’ts’ at the beach.

After lunch, when Mam and Dad dozed in the sun, I escaped to the shadow land under the pier. Laughter and music floated down from above and I envied the people up there. I looked forward to the last day of the holiday, when for a treat, we would pay our entrance fee, ride the helter-skelter, push pennies in the slot machines and gorge on sugared almonds from a thrupenny twist.

Beneath the pier however, was another world. The air was chill and drained of colour. It made me shiver but drew me in. The wrought iron legs that supported the boardwalk above were rusty and the concrete stanchions were stained orange and knobby with shells. Beyond this underworld the sea sparkled like crystals of sugar and the waves broke against the piles in a misty spray. This was my space.

I dug my spade into a pool of salt water at the base of a piling. A crab scuttled away.

“Whatcha doing?”

I jumped. A tanned lad with spiky hair, liquid brown eyes, a frayed sweater and faded shorts stepped round from the other side of the concrete.

“Nothing.” My face flushed. “What are you doing?”

He looked me straight in the eye and shrugged.

“Waiting for you.”

We played hide and seek, in and out of the spaces under the pier. He was good. I ran up and down checking around each piling but couldn’t find him until he wanted to be found.  As soon as my back was turned he disappeared into the dark and I had to search for ages before he calmly stepped out against the light and I could see him.

When it was time for me to go I emerged, blinking, on to the sand. He hung back under the pier. Mam and Dad were packing up the picnic and folding the towels ready for the walk back to the guesthouse. I turned and gave him a quick wave.  

Next day I waited anxiously for lunch to be over and Mam and Dad to drop off to sleep. The boy was waiting in the shadows. We stayed under the pier and he showed me the barnacles attached to the piles, anemones in the pools and we had a competition to find the longest razor shell. He washed pebbles so they gleamed like treasure. When he handed them to me I noticed his fingers were webbed.

“Where do you live?” I asked him on the third afternoon.

“Here,” he said, gesturing at the sea.

“In the water?”

“Of course.”

“Oh.” I didn’t argue, but gave him sidelong looks all afternoon. Was he winding me up?

When I had to leave I kept looking back hoping to see him go into the water.

On the last day I challenged him to prove it.

“Go on, show me.”

He shrugged but made his way down the sand between the barnacle-encased piles and into the sea. Without turning he splashed out. I waited, expecting him to come back but he didn’t. A few seconds later a seal bobbed up in the dark water amid the pilings.

“Sarah?” Mam’s voice echoed in the cavernous space. “We’re going on the pier now.”

I raced over to my parents. Breathless.

“I’ve seen a seal!”

“Really? Here, take your bucket and spade.”

“Sarah, pick up your shoes,” Dad said.

As we left all thoughts were driven from my mind by the excitement of the pier.

The following year we didn’t go to the beach. My parents had chosen Butlins for our holiday.

“So you can have some friends to play with,” Mam said.

When Dad died last year I cleared out the old photos from the attic. I showed Mam the picture of me on the beach with the pier in the background.

“Goodness,” said Mam, pointing at the outline lurking in the shadows. “Is that the dirty little pikey you played with?”

I frowned.

“He wasn’t a —“ I began, but I knew Mam wouldn’t understand.

Remembering that summer I’ve come back to visit. My husband and children have headed to the pier. The boys are excited and want to try the rides. They can’t understand why I’m drawn to explore the underworld when all the activity is up above.

I look at the photo and step into the shade where the outline of my friend stood in the photo. I stare at the murky swell lapping between the piles. Something dark is bobbing in the water and with a sudden jolt I realise a seal with liquid brown eyes is staring back at me from just beyond the breaking waves.

Horse Trading by Barbara Young (1st place Apr19)

“Good looking vanner you got there.” The old man wearing ratty jeans and a thin blue jumper curls gnarled, swollen fingers through Gerry’s long black mane. “I might know someone who’d be interested.”

“Don’t want to sell but…” I shrug. “Me mam’s not well, we’re stoppin’ in the town for now. Not much need for a vanner and she’s another mouth to feed.”

“In’t that the truth.” He dips his head. “I’m Cam.”

I return the gesture. “Layla.”

Nobody shakes hands anymore.

He runs practised hands down Gerry’s legs, slides his fingers in the side of her mouth and checks her teeth. “Not exactly a young’un.”

 “She’ll pull a fully loaded van, nay bother.”

Cam hitches an eyebrow. “What you lookin’ to barter?”

“I heard Miss Rosa’s the person to see for medicines.”

“She might be.”

“Where can I find her?”

“I’ll take you, but she drives a hard bargain.”

Following Cam through the crowds brings back memories of being a bairn – clinging on to Mam’s hand as bare-chested lads clattered through the streets astride fat black and white cobs, the meaty smell of hot dogs and burgers making my mouth water. There was a wild exciting energy everywhere, brightly dressed people trading jokes and insults as they touted their horses in the busy streets.

Now there’s just flat, grim determination. Thin, pale-faced men in drab threadbare clothes lead dull-coated, ribby horses through the crowds. Wide-eyed townsfolk try to hide their discomfort as they barter for the only form of transport available. The thin summer sun struggles to penetrate the soupy mist that shrouds the fairground.

I remember horses standing chest deep in the clear running waters of the River Eden, being washed down by laughing teenagers. Now, the river is a brown scummy trickle; unidentifiable lumps of rusted metal, plastic bags and an old bicycle lie abandoned on its murky bed. It stinks.  We follow the bank for a couple of hundred yards until we reach a grassy area where a group of shabby wagons with faded paintwork and rotten shafts are parked. Junkyard-thin dogs range among the rubbish, nosing for scraps.

Cam nods to a big red and green wagon in the centre. “That’s Rosa’s.”

 Handing Gerry’s reins to him, I knock on the door.

No answer. I knock again, louder.

A slow thud of heavy footsteps and the door opens. Rosa is tall and well built, her blue-black hair falls in thick waves around her ruddy face. She’s dressed in a red and gold skirt with a purple shawl around her shoulders. Her eyes slide over my shoulder towards my horse. It’s the only currency she’s interested in.

“Useful lookin’ cuddy,” she says. “You sellin’?”

“If the price is right.” I shrug, feigning nonchalance. This is a dance and the steps are intricate.

“Come.” She jerks her head towards the inside of the van.

The living space is old style traveller-bright. The bench seats lining the walls are draped with vividly coloured throws. A dark hardwood table at the north end bears the scars of long use but gleams with years of tender care.

Settling at the table, Rosa directs me to the chair opposite with a casual hand. A delicate blue china teapot and two cups and saucers sit on the table. She carefully pours the tea, adding three sugars to each. I’m stunned by her casual use of the sweetener, but hide my surprise behind a blank face. She pushes a cup towards me with a small smile and I thank her with a nod. She will open negotiations.

“You have a name?” she asks skimming me with deep brown eyes.

“Layla.”

“Pretty name. And what can I do for you, Layla?”

“Medicine. Me mam’s sick.”

Rosa laughs. A great rolling barrel of sound that sets her jowls swinging. “Show me someone that’s healthy.”

“Heard tell you got antibiotics.”

She laughs again. “I got all sorts, but if your mam’s got the sickness, there’s nowt to be done.”

I glance at Cam who is hovering by the door “Cam, can you check on Gerry, she don’t take well to being tethered somewhere strange.”

He darts a glance at Rosa, she gives a curt nod and he scuttles down the steps.

Lifting my cup to my lips, I take a sip of the warm liquid, close my eyes and savour the sweetness.

Rosa stares at me, fingering the heavy gold chain around her neck. “Do I know you lass? You look familiar.”

I summon my best smile. “Long time no see Aunt Rosa.”

She slams her cup down on the table, brown liquid sloshing across the dark surface. “Jeez, you’re Dena’s bairn, as I live and breathe, little Layla Favell all grown up. You’ve got a look of your mam.” She bites her lip and gives her head a shake. “Did she send you here? Wanting forgiveness, after all these years. Well, nowts changed.” Her cheeks are flushed, one fist clenched, pale against the wooden table.

“I’m not here for forgiveness or for medication.” I rub a hand over my belly. “I need passage over the border.”

“You’re havin’ a laugh. The militia’s got patrols everywhere. If you want to try your luck over the hills – be my guest. It’s wild country, a young thing like you’ll not last five minutes.”

Leaning back in the chair, I rub my belly again. “I’ve got to try”

Rosa’s eyes fix on my stomach and she meets my gaze. “You’ve a bairn in there.”

“Aye. And I can’t stay south. If it’s immune, the militia will take it.” I shrug. “If it’s not it’ll not last the winter.”

“I heard tell last week they took three young lasses from Brampton who were with child.”

“Please, you’ve got to help us.”

“May I?” Rosa extends a hand and traces a finger over my belly. She murmurs some words in Romany. I don’t understand what she’s saying, but I do understand the light in her eyes and the smile on her lips. Nothing is more important to her than the bloodline.

“A Favell. Dear God, a wee lassie. I can feel it.” There are tears in her eyes.

“A girl? Are you sure? Mam said you’ve got the sight.” My eyes drift to the corner of the caravan where a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards lie side by side. Rosa is all Mam said she would be.

“Been blessed since I was born. Dena always was jealous of my gift.” Rosa pulls her hand away. “Who’s the daddy?”

“He’s gone. What matters is this one in here. Can you get us North?”

“You got the gene?”

I nod and roll up the sleeve of my denim jacket. “My skin’s clear. They tested me last year. Full immunity. I ran last week just before I was due to be zoned. They’re looking for me.”

“Seems your flash Gorga daddy was good for something besides bringing shame on our family.” She snorts and shakes her head. “Dena was a wild one but I never thought she’d marry an outsider – maybe she was lucky after all. I can get you North, my folk know the hills. Once you’re there you’ll be on your own but the Scots are fair and conditions are better there. You and the bairn will be safe.”

“Why do you stay?”

Sliding her shawl from her shoulder, she reveals deep red lesions on her upper arm. “They wouldn’t have me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Too late for sorry.” Rosa walks to the side table, picks up the Tarot cards and hands them to me. “Would you mind? Just a final check, before I commit myself.”

I shuffle the pack and lay it on the table. She picks up the cards up and spreads them in a fan. “Choose two.”

With trembling fingers I pick the first card and lay it face up on the table.

The Ace of Wands.

Rosa draws a sharp breath as I choose a second and lay it next to the first.

The Page of Cups.

The Tarot equivalent of two pink lines.

Rosa squeezes my shoulder. “My sight may not be as strong as it was but the cards never lie.”

I smile. The cloth around my middle has been carefully bound, it gives me a nicely rounded form. I offer a prayer of thanks to my Gorga father, an old school card sharp who taught me all he knew, and a silent promise to Rosa, that one day, when I am safe in the North, I will meet someone and bear a child with the name of Favell.

The family line will continue.