Thank you to all those who have entered our Short Story Competitions over the years. The standard of the entries is always exceptionally high so we are hosting all of the wonderful tales here. These stories are beautifully evocative and each unique in their own way. Please take time to read and enjoy them all.
Dragon Sanctuary Competition 2014
“Kirchran” By Ailsa Williamson
Dragon Name: Kirchran
Date of Birth: unknown but thought to be around 1602
Mini Biography: Kirchran, was rescued on the slopes of Ben Nevis, unusually far from her home. Due to her size and body shape this was thought to be the Alps in Southern France, although this has not been confirmed. She was found with large wounds on her back left hip and tail, spanning from the pelvic vertebrae until the sixth from the tip of her tail. These were large gashes, presumed at first made by another Draco Ignis, however close inspection by the Sanctuary’s dragon anatomy specialist, Professor John Westerly, found them to be nothing of the sort, but rather weapons of human design. Because the majority her wings were not damaged Kirchran had managed to escape her attacker, although it is amazing that she did with the amount of blood loss. The Sanctuary was placed on high alert when Kirchan came, as it was very soon obvious that she was heavily pregnant with eggs. A space was quickly made oustide, but near the Sanctuary, for her to create a nest and lay her three eggs there. After exhibiting the usual behaviours of Draco Ignis and burning the earth for the nest, Professor Westerly and the other researchers were satisfied upon her pyscological state. They took her into the darker, damper areas of the Sanctuary to imitate the tunnel conditions her species is used to and set about bringing her into a full recovery. Further reports around the presumed area of her origin gave stories of Witch-hunters and Monster-hunters, sent by the Spanish Inquisition to slay dragons that they see as being of Hell. Kirchran was kept in isololation under her injuries were healed enough, and then given the chance to be released. As it was she chose to stay within the Sanctuary, and despite not taking any interest in her three chicks who later hatched and grew into strong individuals, she became a favourite of the researchers. She did not bare any more eggs, although she did give strange signs of mourning when another Draco Ignis was brought into the Sanctuary two years later; a male who was extraordinary ill. He later died, and her low, strange behaviour, which included raising her head and baying out long sad bellows, suggests that he was her mate. He has been named “Romeo” for this reason.
I Certainly Hope the Title Isn’t Included in the Wordcount, Because Then I’d Never Make it
To think I only have a hundred words to tell you my story, a mere century of cunning concatenations of consonants, and of course, vowels. In fact, let me correct myself, it seems I have spilt a third of my allotted amount already, and to what end? To what end?
In fact, in fact! How can I even speak of an end, when I am already past the middle, and I have not yet reached the beginning! Ah, excuse my scattered brain, I can almost feel the air running through my head, what a waste! Now then, here’s what happened:
By Georgi Krastev
– So the trick is to always think like your enemy. You must go into their head, turn around and find all the reasons, all the logic that they follow. Then you must not waste a single second. Start the analysis, look for traps, act quickly and finish the job. Any questions?
A student raised a hand.
– Yes – said the lecturer.
– What will happen if we fail these steps?
– What do you think will happen… when you are now in a bomb disarming class…what a waste of brain!! That’s it for today, see you all next week!
By Mario Georgiev
Wonders of Technology
The sound of clockwork.
Hundreds of tiny machines, working in harmony, their tiny gears shining bright with a mild red hue.
Their creator’s eyes were wide open.
Were they scared or proud? It was hard to tell.
Since they hadn’t moved for years.
Like their creator.
The gears kept turning; must keep the parts alive.
Yet some were getting older, losing their rhythm.
Some were already broken, falling on the dusty floor.
Along with their creator’s old skin, muscle and fat.
But who needed these when you still had a living heart?
And tick-tock the heart beat.
Under the broken clockwork machine.
by Annita Chalka
He dragged the canvas from the easel.
“My God,” she gasped.
It was her, nude, with butterflies dancing around her body.
“Marry me, Amelia, or I promise I’ll never paint another picture.”
“John, you’re sick. You know I’m marrying Matt.”
“Amelia — “” But she was gone.
At least he still had her likeness. But he would keep his promise.
He wrapped his right hand in turpentine-soaked paint-rags, and struck the match.
Screaming, he stumbled into the painting, and set that blazing, too.
The butterflies flew , their wings blazing, which spiralled to the floor, as all dreams eventually must.
by Ross Van Gogh
Sound clogged by water, the metropolis above muffled in a bubble. It sounds so distant; the twinkling glow of dock lamps abstract into watery blurs, and buildings reduce to shapes – geometric patterns of black dabbled in a palette of watercolours. The tranquillity of death is interrupted by clammy seaweed, which tangles around my food. I wriggle it off, it drifts away, floating in empty limbo; but it is not seaweed, rather, a disintegrating plastic bag. I approach the bottom, residing by a rusty trolley. I realise now that I’m nothing but litter, dumped, forgotten, into the blanket of deep blue.
by Marcus Bechelli
The palaces are silent now, tombs mouldering in the desert. Along the walls creep remnants of heroes and gods, and out in the sand lingers a monolithic king, who presides in armless grandeur over his skeletal paradise. His shadow first fell in lost days.
With eyes of dull stone he saw. Saw glory, wonders, emperors, festivals, victories, staggering heights… stumbling decay, murder in the streets, the brutal end.
His gaze fell on me now, and as I sat by him I pondered his unknown name.
I left, feeling insignificant. Dust at the feet of forgotten colossi. This is our fate.
by Paul Inglis
I spilled ink over pages, enough to make you a book. I thought and scribbled until the letters floated just out of reach. The lines curled round and ate themselves. It didn’t look like anything for you, so I burned them. I took the sheets and bound them with a pretty red ribbon and burned them. I made a fire and dropped them sheet by sheet with a silent prayer. The flames curled round and consumed my frail lines. The sparks choked between the sheets, and turned the pages brittle and black. Perhaps the smoke will reach you.
by Katalina Watt
I Loved You in September
On the ground the rowan berries clot like rubies in the mud. I walk, hopeful, to the hospital. Evie said that you weren’t keeping down your food, but that you seemed happier somehow. I stopped to buy you flowers, but they only had white roses, which seemed too funereal.
Remember the faery-shrine we made when we were little?
In Botanic’s, I pass the place where it stood, the wind rustling the seedlings. The doctor phones with news. It is dark now, soft and serene.
Alone in the park, your figure ghosts my vision – the frailest membrane of a leaf.
by Maria Rose Sledmere
Summer Short Story Competition 2015
I drag my feet through silt and sand. The water is ice cold, my skin has no heat left, no warmth from within. My blood has stopped flowing. Stopped dead. The shredded nightdress, weighed down with seawater, hangs from my shoulders, where the grey skin is torn and crumpled. My hair, much of it torn out in chunks from my scalp, hangs down my back and sticks to my face.
I know that I’m dead. I have to be. I came into contact with the rudder of a ship, I drowned, I was dragged for miles by the riptides.
The light is soft and blue, like the hour or so before dawn. I find myself walking along a beach. I can’t feel any pain, though I think my arm is broken. I can feel no sensations whatsoever. I cannot even feel the sand under my feet as I walk, and I leave no footprints. I don’t know this place. The island is dark and shapeless. There are no signs of houses, no boats, no harbour. Just dark hills and a solitary path. So I follow the path.
I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what purpose a dead person could have. I think I am being led by nothing more than an instinct to move my limbs. I don’t even know if I could change my course if I tried. I don’t try. I just walk. Around me the fields of grass and reeds are moved by a swirling wind, the sound is muted and the sounds of the sea around are whisper soft. I feel scared, and yet I don’t understand what could be worse than dying. My greatest fear has happened: what is there left to be afraid of? And yet I am wondering, where is this place, and what is at the end of this path? I don’t understand how to think of this future, when I had thought my future had come to an end.
I realise that this must be the afterlife, but it makes me angry. If there is a life after death, it should be a destination, not another journey. Not another lonely walk through half-darkness, without purpose, propelled forward by the passage of time snapping at my heels. Where are the gates, where is the door, when will the clouds open? Or, where is the peace, and the dark and silence. Where is the end? And where are the rest of the dead? I’m not the only one. I’m not the only one.
The path goes on, the hills never change. The wind whistles and the sea whispers. The dawn never breaks, the sun never rises. Time is not passing. But still, my footsteps are carrying her somewhere, and now I see a convergence of paths. Ahead is a crossroads linking several other paths, they seem infinite. The landscape has no horizon, but the sky hangs above and the land stretches out below, and there are a hundred paths that meet in one great circle at the epicentre. I am terrified, even more afraid than I was when I saw my own death staring my in the face as I jumped from the bridge and plummeted into the cold, cold sea. I’m scared, but I keep walking. I walk toward the circle.
Now I see them. Now I see the other dead. They move slowly, and I can see that there is one traveller for every path. They all walk in the same manner, as though dragged down by some unseen weight. Some of them look alike – dressed the same, or wearing their hair the same, or they are of similar ages. Some are dressed in a white nightgown, white satin with a lace trim. It is the same gown I was wearing when I drowned. The one that is now clinging to me in tatters.
I turn to the nearest traveller as our paths grow closer. I am looking into my own face, I see my own eyes grow wide with fear, like a reflection. She, the other me, is just as pale and just as dead as I am but her skin is clear and tight, her hair, though wet, it smooth and intact. She has no wounds on her body but four small incisions. Two on the wrists, two further up, just below the crease of the elbow. There is no blood, but the white nightgown she wears – not satin, just cotton – is stained pink and red. She’s not a perfect reflection. She’s too young. She’s only seventeen or eighteen. But those are my eyes gazing back in numb confusion from her face. My face. I try to open my mouth to speak, to ask the question, but the words will not leave my throat, and the younger me turns away.
I look to the other side and see an old woman, limping along her path. She is tall and slim, but bent, and her limbs look twisted, it looks like one of her legs is broken. A large wound on her head has left her downy grey hair matted with dark blood, and her face is bruised. The old woman won’t turn to look at me, but I see something familiar in the woman’s profile. Something in the nose and the chin, it reminds me of my mother. But it isn’t my mother – she’s too tall, and her features are too angular. I’m glad that it’s not her. As she walks, a ring glints on her finger. No – two rings. I look down at my own hand. My own hand is unrecognisable, the skin blue, bloated and lacerated. But my wedding and engagement rings are still intact and in place. A gold band and a diamond that gleams in the half light. The same jewel glints on the hand of the old woman.
I begin to understand that all the walkers of all the paths are myself. We are not all alike, but it is the same body and the same soul, the same look in the eyes, a look of quiet pleading. I know the look, and I know what it means. It is the look that comes when I ask ‘what’s left for me’ and the answer won’t come. And so I plead with my reflection in the mirror, I ask myself to be kind, not to push me onwards despite the nothing that I face. I ask for it all to stop, and something changes in the face in the mirror. She nods back at me, she is determined. She begins to make a plan. Six years ago, she takes a pair of scissors and she cuts into the plastic part of a safety razor. At first, she just wants to see if it is possible, but now she knows. She knows she can remove the tiny little blades, and that they don’t hurt much, but that they’re sharp enough. She runs a hot bath.
Forty years from now, she has just climbed to the top of the stairs. It was hard, and took her longer than it ever had before. Her limbs ache. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She’s afraid of her dreams, and she’s even more afraid of the moment when she wakes up, forgets what her life is, and then, slowly, remembers. She stands at the top of the stairs. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She turns around, and lets go of the bannister. She closes her eyes.
Three days ago, she has just got married. She’s on her honeymoon. She isn’t truly happy, but she has her place in the world now. She has her purpose. She waits in the hotel room, she waits for her husband to return, but he doesn’t come back. He doesn’t answer the phone. He’s packed up all his things. He’s left her a pile of money on the dresser, and a note that says ‘I’m sorry’. She walks along the motorway all night. She sees the sea, she sees the outline of the huge bridge through the fog. She walks along the edge of the road, finds her way to the middle of the bridge, climbs up the huge metal beams along the side, climbs over the wire fencing, stands balanced on the very edge, holding on. The sea looks cold, but she’s already cold. She’s been walking all night in just her satin nightdress. She lets go.
But there is one thing I don’t understand. Why do I wake up again? Why do I emerge from the water, why do I come here and why must I meet myself, a hundred more of me, a hundred deaths, and none of them at peace? I reach the centre of the circle. I am surrounded by myself, and they are all looking at me with those eyes that ask for it all to end. I want to be off this island, I want to get away from all the eyes watching me, from all the sadness, from all the wasted lives. I wanted death to be peaceful, to be an ending, but here I find only more fear, I see even less purpose, even less sense to existence. But there is no peace, just chaos, a void, and I haven’t returned here for I never belonged here. And it isn’t an ending because there will always be a path that I never took. Some of the paths lead to the same place, they lead here. But I wonder if there if there are others, paths that lead away from this place. I turn around, and look behind me. It is the first time I have ever turned back, looked over my shoulder. I can see the horizon. I can see the sand, and I can see where the water meets the sky, and where, in between, the sun is beginning to rise.
I run, back along the path. Hands grasp at me from all sides, voices cry out, they beg me not to return there, they beg me not to leave them. But this isn’t the place for me, or for any of them. They have to see that. They have to see that none of us belong here.
I reach the sea, and I swim. I swim and I see the sun rise. I go under. The water feels cold, it threatens to fill my lungs, but I am only underwater for a few moments. I am kicking my legs, I am feeling the blood rush to my limbs, life fighting in my veins. I emerge again, into fresh sunlight. I can still see the bridge, there above, looming. A boat is coming toward me, the driver blasts his horn. I swim sharply away as the boat turns, and comes to a halt. Hands pull me out of the water. I’m alive.
From Here to There
Vest, petticoat, stockings, handkerchiefs, slip, blouse, cardigan, comb, wellington boots, towel, soap, facecloth, toothbrush, shoes, plimsolls. Mackintosh, yes of course. Gas masks, gas masks, we mustn’t forget gas masks. Something to eat – I’ll make up some sandwiches for them – my darlings, would you like an apple to eat? I’ll pack away some biscuits too, they said the train journey would only last an hour and a half but goodness knows if the train will even be on time, I’ve heard they’re evacuating thousands of children today, the trains will surely be congested. And we don’t even know where they’ll be… Should we pack something warm for them- oh my goodness, I nearly forgot, Maisie, she can’t sleep without Maisie! I can’t think if I’ve forgotten anything, I’ve added everything on the list but it’s all practical, everything, they don’t know our children- Frances, would you like to take a book or two? Your choice, darling, whatever you wish. It’ll most likely be a farmer’s house you’re living in and I imagine they won’t have much time for libraries… Should I pack a toy or two, Peter will be dreadfully bored if he’s left to himself- but then- but then he’ll be in the country, won’t he, and it’ll be the novelty of a new family and a new life-
She burst out into loud, ragged sobs; gasping with shuddering breath. Sentences that were broken and stilted came from behind her hands and rivulets of salty tears quivered on her neck. Her husband grasped her arm wearily, his face tired and his jaw unshaven; and her mother instinctually bustled the children into the kitchen, her scarlet lips pinched.
She cried for a minute or so, her eyes swollen and red, her sandy hair glued to her wet cheek. But then she wiped her eyes hastily on her sleeve, because she was aware that her time was limited. A noise that was almost a whimper came out: ‘It won’t be for long, will it? Surely it cannot be for long?’
‘I only wish I knew.’
‘I could bear it if only I knew it would be for a short time.’
There was a pause they could not articulate.
A whisper, a plea: ‘Can’t we just- not take them? Will they notice? We can’t be the only ones.’
‘If the government advises evacuation to be the safest procedure then we must trust them. They know the risks.’ It was a mechanical response, spoken grimly. She caught the flicker of distress as it passed across his face.
‘But in the last war-‘
‘It’s different now. We need only look at recent events to understand that.’
She nodded; gulped; suppressed her sense of impending desolation and smiled, a smile that was all teeth and no eyes and all pain. She turned to the mirror, meticulously efficient in removing the tell-tales stains of weeping – the blotchy smears, the puffed eyes. Her hair was, as always, impeccably coiffed, its yellow waves expertly moulded, hat placed adroitly on top; her lipstick a becoming smudge of red; her peacock blue suit newly made to adorn her slim, graceful figure; her gloves a supple ivory leather. Her husband, usually so polished, looked meagre next to his polished wife; somehow smaller, quieter. Julia Williams – smart, successful literary editor from a smart, successful literary family – was nothing if not assiduous.
There were three children: Frances, Peter, little Elly. In the kitchen, Frances helped her grandmother to smear thick, colourful jam on bread, to wash the shiny red apples and plump strawberries. She tried to ignore the wriggling thought that there would be plenty of strawberries in the place where they were going, plenty of glossy blackberries and hairy raspberries and tiny blueberries with their inky dark juice, ripe and willing to be plucked. She fed Elly an oozing slice of apple crumble when her grandmother wasn’t looking, although she didn’t think Grandmother would mind. Not now. Not in the circumstances.
Their mother called and, so docile in this new era of bewildering change, they dutifully filed after their grandmother into the sitting room – a beloved room in a beloved house. The armchairs were podgy and welcoming, the mantelpiece littered with photographs of family jaunts to Cornwall and Wales. A fringed lamp, decorated with chinoiserie, stood slightly askew, a testament to the boisterous nature of Peter. The bookcases were stuffed: long-winded poems and exhilarating adventure stories jostled with eloquent novels and brightly coloured travel guides, documenting lands far away from the bustle and smoke of London. Now their suitcases, battered and worn and impossibly small, were sitting on the tough old rug, and Frances felt a sudden heaviness at the notion that she might not see the pretty blue-and-white vase or the pale yellow wallpaper in ever such a long time.
They checked the suitcases again and again, fretting over their paltry items. Elly clutched her threadbare doll, its hair newly brushed. Peter looked bored, dragging his feet impatiently. He complained loudly; Frances noticed her father’s face growing increasingly crumpled. She tried to be pleasant, chattering away as they were bundled into the car, her mother swivelling round in the front seat to smile at them brightly. Julia reached forward to tuck a loose chestnut strand of Elly’s hair behind her ear; Elly grinned in response, a lopsided smile that showed off her missing teeth.
They drove to the school, trundling along past endless rows of houses just like theirs, the gardens trimmed and manicured, the façades neat and orderly.
‘You wouldn’t even think there was a war on, to look at the streets!’ Julia tried to be blasé. Frances noted dense bags of sand dumped next to lampposts and a gaggle of small boys, shouting gleefully as they kicked a gas-mask box along the street. She decided not to mention such details.
The school was full, its red-brick exterior bulging with mothers and children, suitcases and bags, people trying to be brave. The gleaming black gates were crowded with incomers, the playground engulfed with queues and confusion, everything chaotic and disorderly. The headmistress distractedly shoved her glasses further up her nose, barking out names and numbers. There was a flurry, everywhere you looked. Mothers, anxious lines etching their faces, shepherded their children across the grounds; boys and girls of all descriptions, glum and wailing and beaming, pigtails and scrubbed faces and pinched noses. The noise was tumultuous, Frances thought, savouring the unfamiliar word. She saw her favourite teacher, gentle Miss Johns, nearly trip over a lost suitcase
They were directed to a queue; the children saw their friends, and the parents tried not to talk. Elly was oblivious, hugging her doll. The older children milled around, wary; wondering aloud where they would stay and what the people would be like. A continuous rumble of conversation, and the feeling, whether explicitly expressed or tacitly experienced, that surely, just surely, this could not last very long. Julia fussed over her children, smoothing down their coats, kissing them on their pale foreheads. There were a few husbands, in stylish suits, nodding to each other in their taciturn way. One boy waddled, swathed in all his clothes, dragging his case behind him.
Elly cried when they had to leave. She didn’t understand why – Julia grew frantic as she tried to explain, as she choked on her own inadequacy. ‘It’s dangerous here, darling- but we’ll come to visit as soon as we know where you are and remember, we will think about you every day- I will miss you all so much…’
‘I’ll write straight away, Mother,’ Frances promised solemnly. The sound of hysterical sobs pierced the muffled noise, a girl repeatedly protesting that she had not been naughty, she had not done anything wrong and so why were they sending her away? Peter scuffed his shoes against the ground, for once yielding to his mother’s bustling. One more kiss, and they were gone.
Snippets of a heated argument could be heard as they walked away – a mother loudly shrieking, refusing to part with her children. ‘Let’s keep them home, please, please, please-‘ Her husband was pleading desperately, his voice cracking. One child dragged her feet petulantly, refusing to move further. Whispers everywhere of where they would end up and what would happen. Turbulent emotion and continual strain and raised voices and sheer commotion, perpetual and palpable. They walked fast, gulping tears and striding onwards.
They sat in the car for a few minutes, Julia and Arthur holding each other.
It was a station that they had traversed many times before – there had been second-class train journeys across the country, transporting them to frolics in the frothy blue waves, and languid picnics in the country; sweets purchased at the newsagents round the corner and cheap paperbacks from the station. The vertiginous roof dwarfed the endless trains, painted a dull brown with grubby smudged windows and doors that jammed. Vague wisps of smoke hung in the air as the platforms below were crowded with people, Frances clutching the hands of her brother and sister as they navigated the mass, continuously craning for the familiar sight of Miss Johns’ distinctive hat. They reached the train, struggling. They were told to wait. She saw a woman, her belly big and round, and porters that ambled and a man, sleek in his official military uniform, and children aimlessly swinging pillowcases, their belongings clattering inside. ‘East End,’ a schoolfriend hissed disdainfully, and proceeded to loudly point out the lice apparently hopping about on their heads. A sea of people, jostling and sobbing and wondering. Peter began to fiddle with his name tag, worrying away at the rope. She scolded him unnecessarily.
‘I hope I get billeted in a manor house, Mother doesn’t want me to end up in some provincial village because she says it’ll taint my manners.’
‘I don’t mind, as long as they’re kind and don’t shout…’
‘I’ll be happy enough if they don’t get on at me to study arithmetic all day long!’
‘Or make me eat cabbage…’
‘Will we have school there?’
‘Of course we will, that’s why the teachers are coming with us too.’
‘Oh blast it, I rather thought we would get to run about fields all day!’
Frances asked quietly: ‘They will let brothers and sisters stay together, won’t they?’
Miss Johns smiled thinly, placing her hand carefully on Frances’ shoulder. ‘I think so, my dear, but in any case I won’t let you get separated. Mothers have enough worrying to do without their children staying in different houses.’
‘Do you know where we’re going?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t. There were rumours about Somerset…’
The train left at about one o’clock. Frances stared hard out of the windows, attempting to absorb every atom of the city she was leaving. She saw only a generic city landscape, but she pictured to herself the smart houses, the glamorous theatres with her glitzy, gaudy lights, the palatial museums teeming with priceless artefacts, an entire city steeped in history. She was wedged between Peter and Elly, oddly comforted by their warmth. The rows of dismal houses and coal-black factories, shrouded in smoke, gave way to fresh countryside, glowing with an autumnal burnish. Plumes of leaden smoke emanated from the train, streaming across the skyline, dissipating into the verdant fields and gurgling streams of southern England. Frances glimpsed cottages, crowned with bluebells and violets, and grazing cows meandering in the pale sunlight. One girl, who had never escaped the confines of the city, was visibly open-mouthed at the sheer expanse of green and yellow, a patchwork pattern hemmed in by leafy hedges.
The train grew uncomfortable after a time; the children grew hungry. The teachers were alternately soothing and irritable as two hours stretched into three. Elly fell asleep, her snuffled breathing rhythmic and hushed. Frances continued to read, flicking the pages absently as she heard Miss Campbell explain softly about her fiancé who had just signed up. She sounded fearful; she mentioned that her uncle had died in the last war, stabbed to death by a German.
They were glad to leave the train, when the time came. The journey had been cramped, everyone packed in such close quarters. The station was small, and the locals startled by the profusion of children that spilled out. They swarmed like bees, filling every inch of the landscape until all you could see was the wan sky and the pale sliver of moon hat had emerged before its time. Rustic, Frances would have called it. A brick chimney perched on top of a slanted roof, pearly smoke billowing and two gentlemen sat in the waiting-room beneath a complex map of the country, knobbly canes in their aged hands. The evacuees (for such as they now were) were greeted by a bespectacled woman, owlish and snappy, armed with an exhaustive list.
Elly yawned, tight little fists rubbing her eyes.
‘I can’t understand her accent,’ Peter said stoutly.
‘I know, it’s difficult to pick out the words.’
The village hall was draughty and spacious, decorated with lawn furniture and an outdated banner that announced the village flower show in pastel lettering. They stood, unobtrusively, in the corner, watching as the Thomson twins, ruddy and strong, were chosen first. Little Sarah Edgware, her tufty blonde hair an angelic halo, was selected by a discerning couple with a cherub-faced daughter; and Hannah Walton, the oldest at thirteen, was led away with a triumphant air to the house of a gentleman-farmer. They watched as the youngest, adorable and pliant, were preferred, and the poorer, with their shabby clothing, were shunned.
‘Will we ever get chosen?’ Frances asked, panicked.
A matronly woman, enveloped in a hesitant air, approached. She eyed them judiciously, taking in their fastidiously ironed clothes and delicately brushed hair.
‘My mother is a literary editor, and my father is a lawyer,’ Frances offered.
The woman was surprisingly polite. ‘My father was a lawyer too. I did always want three children…’ she said wistfully, glancing briefly at her husband.
‘We’ll be very clean, and we’ll help with whatever we can.’ Frances said.
The woman laughed, a merry, warming laugh. ‘I’m sure you will. My name is Mrs Nicholson. Would you like to come home with us?’
Elly nodded keenly, and they followed the woman across the hall, their heels clicking loudly. The path outside was cluttered with violently coloured flowers and haphazard weeds, startlingly vivid. As she glanced back, Frances saw the forlorn faces of those left, frightened and timid. Some were shy, darting back from the gaze of strangers, and others suggested themselves as investments, eager children who would assist the household with anything possible. The prospective foster parents circled the children, assessing them shrewdly. What would happen to those who were left? Frances didn’t know, and remembered to ask for her new address. She would write home as soon as she could.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, calmed her body and slowed her heart and then let go. This was the hard part, the initial contact, the most important stage… She reached out, her consciousness leaving her body, reaching for the one other mind she could feel. It was so bright, practically calling for her…
She reached out, reached out her tendrils of thought, reached out towards the other mind and… she was in. She breathed in deeply, revelling in the moment. This may have been her job, but there was nothing quite like sinking into another’s brain, full of unfamiliar thoughts and each one so different. Each one so unique. She gazed around her, at the colours and the chaotic movements and flurries of colour. This was what couldn’t be explained.
You couldn’t understand what this was like unless you’d experienced it. How could you explain the sensation of seeing smell and hearing colour, of feeling without your senses and without a physical body, to someone who had never left their own mind? How could you explain this beauty, this riot of colour, to someone who didn’t know such colours existed? This plane of existence was different, so different, and unless you’d actually experienced it, unless you’d been diving, there was no way of knowing. No way at all.
She reached out with hands that didn’t exist, feeling the soft touch of colours that weren’t there. The colours were muted, dulled by unconsciousness, but nevertheless it was beautiful. Nothing like the frantic activity of an active brain, but calm and soothing and yet still chaotic.
Colour everywhere around her, waves and currents and eddies of thought, flashes of dreams and hopes and ambitions and the darker, murkier fears and nightmares. But she was searching for one thing, searching for the one place where there was order in this chaos, and she couldn’t let the beauty around her distract her from her task.
So she waded through the sea of thoughts- the blue and purple and black and silver of this person’s sleeping mind… And then she found it. The memory bank. Millions of billions of threads connecting every memory that this person had ever had in their entire life. Even now, more were forming as she watched. A chaotic mess of colour and yet this was the only organised part to this mind. The rows of parallel threads, so so important.
She reached out and ran her non-existent-but-still-so-present fingers over the taut memory threads, each one murmuring as she touched it. She smiled at the cacophony the reverberated from them, each note ringing in her ear, singing in her heart. She never tired of this. These fragile threads which held so much and yet were so easily broken. She could see all the frayed threads, so near to breaking, so near to being lost forever. It wrenched her heart every time. All those memories, some no doubt important, so close to non-existence. And she could see the sad ends of threads that had already snapped, the memories they held, gone, never to be remembered again.
She shook herself, remembering her purpose, and, running her hands more firmly over the threads, she found her first target, and clearing her head, she concentrated, and snapped it. It shuddered in her hand and then there was a terrible sigh, filled with anguish and horror and loss. She grimaced, and continued.
Thousands of threads broke beneath her experienced hands, thousands of memories gone immediately. She ignored the sounds that emitted from the dying threads, ignored the horror emanating from all around her. The time for gazing at the beauty and mourning at the loss was gone, and she had a job to do.
She didn’t know how much time had passed when she had finished. Time was a fluid concept, this deep in the mind. But she could tell from the brightening of the colours behind her that she didn’t have long. The mind was waking up.
Carefully, she summoned to the surface a thought she had carried with her, and oh so cautiously she shaped this precious thought around a broken thread, delicately moulding it, this thing she had carried with her. It flexed and grew, and as she watched, it bound to another thread, and another, and another… She smiled. Job done.
Feeling only the slightest tinge of regret as she left behind her the ransacked memory bank, she made her way back through the mind, and, closing her eyes once more, she followed herself back to her own familiar mind, back to her own body, back to consciousness.
“Mission status?” came a voice.
She coughed, twitched her fingers, breathed in, and then said, in a voice that was only the tiniest bit hoarse, “A success, sir. Targeted memories erased, implant activated. Mission complete.”
I opened my eyes slowly, the light too bright.
“Hello,” someone said, and their voice was grating but somehow pleasant. “Tell me, my dear. Do you know who you are?”
I frowned, my mind curiously blank. “No.”
“Good. And do you know who I am?”
I smiled, a sense of certainty and righteousness filling me. “Yes. You are my leader. And I will follow you wherever you chose to go.”
The Many Moons of Jupiter
I was just five years old when my Dad first took me to see the stars. In the museum downtown they have this observatory room with a great glass ceiling displaying the night sky. A kind of visibility you can’t get in real life; you can’t help staring and staring for hours and hours, just staring at that bright jewellery case of stars. The blackness in the bashckground, that velvet sheet they use, seems deeper alongside the purplish blueish hues which streak behind the twinkling chips of silver. I would sit on the floor of the observatory and stare up at those stars until my neck hurt. There was a makeshift telescope too, which showed up tiny coloured planets. You could check everything you saw against The Book of Celestial Details which was lying open on the glass table. It gave me an immense satisfaction: checking up on those stars, learning the constellations.
It was always Dad that took me to the observatory. Saturday afternoons I was his responsibility, and the easiest thing – the thing I begged for – was to visit the museum. We would go out to lunch afterwards, me leading the way down the familiar streets with the bustling weekend crowd, people weaving in and out of each other like threads from a harlequin fabric, trailing smiles and shopping bags. We always went to the same cafe, where they sold chocolate milkshakes and beans on toast for a fiver.
Dad is a landscape gardener. He digs up piles of mud and lays down square rolls of soft grass and puts in fancy plants that people order from catalogues. He does things with precision: cutting up his food carefully, watching everything I do with his observant eye, following this kind of persistent rhythm. He hated if I got food around my mouth, if I made a mess of the salt shakers or the scraps of food I left on my plate. In the cafe he talked to me about school and how I was getting on and what I liked and if my friends ever got into trouble. One thing we never talked about was Mum. Dad didn’t know how to talk about Mum.
My favourite planet is Jupiter. The biggest planet in our solar system, made of flaming greys and yellows and oranges, patterned with swirling lines which sweep around its diameter. After the moon and Venus, Jupiter’s the brightest planet in the night sky. Of course, I’ve never seen it in real life, only the simulated museum version – the version that flashes up onscreen and floats around in orbit. I always dream of that beautiful hologram, but all those pixels get mixed in with the Saturday city buzz and the taste of milkshakes. I don’t know what I’d do if I stumbled upon it one day, walking in some clear crisp countryside and seeing it up in the real night sky. I think it’d be pretty scary, not very real at all. I always wonder about that giant spot, the storm that’s raged for centuries on its surface. I’ve zoomed in right close to that Giant Red Spot like I was looking into the eye of a god. It’s like my way of praying, staring into that spot, feeling very small as I read about its greatness.
In the cafe, Dad asks me about the future.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” he says. He asks me this just about every week, like he’s forgotten how I answered before. I have a list of things which I reel off for him: astronaut, astronomer, artist, builder.
“Artist? Builder?” he sounds confused. He doesn’t understand what I mean by that. I mean, I want to draw planets, to make planets come to life out of pencil and paper. I tell him I want to build things which will last like the planets, that will exist on the earth as the earth exists in the solar system. I can’t put it quite into words; it’s a feeling I have. Eternity. The rings, faint and reddish pale, that surround some of the planets – it’s sort of like that – the feeling drifts out to you, faint and pale. I wonder what it’s like to glide along one of those rings, feeling the chaos of gravity, shafts of light shooting right through you. Like playing Mario Kart, whizzing down a rainbow highway and picking up gold stars.
The problem is, I don’t think I’ll ever be an astronaut or an astronomer; I’m no good at maths.
Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever grow up at all, because Mum and Dad won’t let me.
“He doesn’t like toys anymore!” Mum shrieks at Dad when he buys me a train set for my birthday, or a Gamecube for Christmas. “He’s too old, for God’s sake!” She stares at me with her eyes on fire, wanting me to say something, to agree with her. Sometimes she throws plates or tips the dinner all over the floor, or literally shoves my father out the door. They fight over everything.
What’s confusing is that I can’t tell sometimes whether they’re making up or being mean; whether they hate each other or love each other. There is a small red wine stain on the carpet by the sofa, and I stare at it when they are arguing in the living room in front of me; I stare at it like it’s the Giant Red Spot of Jupiter. I want to dig my nails into the carpet and peel it off like a scab. They hurl swear words at each other, and Dad always shrinks into silence. It’s Mum who creates disorder, swirling her self around the room, her voice getting louder and louder. I sometimes have nightmares about this: the way she goes from shouting to crying, her red face blurring into something indistinct and terrible. I close my eyes and think of comets, shooting endlessly over the night sky.
She says I’m getting too old for museums.
“Help him with his homework instead,” she nags to Dad as we leave on Saturday mornings to get the bus into town. Her plea is lost to our backs as we step out of the house. Sometimes, late at night, I hear her come into my room and tuck me in. She stays there for a while, hanging over me and breathing softly – breathing warm tufts of fire. She touches my face and I pretend to be asleep as she slowly starts to cry, still stroking my cheek. All I want to do is shout: Mum, stop! but I can’t. I lie there, still as a shop floor dummy.
She listens to me sleeping, but she doesn’t listen to me talk about the things I like. She doesn’t listen to me when I talk about the sun and the solar system, the many moons of Jupiter. She just switches off, shutting you out with this kind of supernatural force.
How amazing it would be, to escape among the stars! I watch the science channels and see the space ships and the shuttles hurtle away from earth. They always interview the astronauts after they’ve landed: How do you cope with not seeing your family for so long? Don’t you get lonely? What can you eat out there? but they never ask about the things Iwant to know:
Were you good at maths at school?
Do you need to do algebra to be an astronaut?
What is the square root of 395,691,324?
What do Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s Red Eye look like from Space?
I always turn off the tv when I see their smug faces, when they take off the space helmets like they think they’re in a movie. Plain old human faces are as boring as my parents’ arguing.
Nowadays, they fight about anything at all. I don’t understand it; they’re like kids – and even Dad shouts now. From the top of the stairs I watch them through the gaps in the banister, wishing I could go down there and make them stop, make them shut up as fast as a hurricane tears up a city.
“Don’t forget we love you son,” Dad always says afterwards, “no matter how Daddy and Mummy feel about each other.”
But he never answers when I ask if they are getting a Divorce. It’s like I’ve whispered a secret I’m supposed to keep quiet, the one special code word that holds us back from chaos.
Now that I’m older, we don’t go to museums anymore; we get lunch in the pub. Dad loves fish and chips and Fosters lager. He also loves the slots.
Saturday afternoons he stands in front of the puggies while I watch the bartenders pouring pints and count how many times they spill things. Sometimes I go over and watch him play: I like to see the flashing lights, the colourful fruit symbols glow as the slots fall into place. Simple, persistent, like the bubbles in a glass of lemonade. Dad buys the drinks and tells me to go sit down. It’s a weird thing, watching him at the slot machine; like he’s in control of everything, like he knows when the slots will align the way he wants them to. Often, he pounds on the plastic shell of the machine, curses. We walk home in the purple dusk, past the city shutting up, and he tells me about anything – a song on the radio, the size of his shoes, the hat his mother used to wear when he was a kid – anything but how much money he’s lost.
The other day, I found Jupiter in a textbook at school. I guess I haven’t really been thinking about planets and stars and space for awhile, and now it stood out from the glossy pages like a face smiling from the darkness. A familiar face.
This girl sitting next to me, Layla, leant over my shoulder.
“What’s that you’re looking at?” she asked in that bright, tinkly voice of hers.
“Jupiter,” I said. I ran my hand over the smooth page where the clouds patterned themselves across the surface, like the wisps and eddies of smoke leftover from a fire. In my head, I rehearsed the names of all the elements that drift on through those clouds:carbon, vapour, neon, sulphur.
“Is that your favourite planet?” Layla whispered, a lock of her hair spilling over my cheeks. I nodded.
“It’s the biggest planet there is. It’s so big it could swallow up all the other planets.”
“And one day you’ll live there like a king?” she smiled. She was teasing me.
“Nobody could ever live there, it’s too cold.” I closed the textbook.
After a while, I turned to look at Layla, thinking she would be facing the front again, watching the teacher scribbling sums on the board. But she was still looking at me. In her eyes I saw the glass darkness of another kind of space, where stars come forward like shoals of beautiful silver fish rising to the surface of the ocean. I glanced back at my paper and wrote down a perfect equation.
It was winter and after class she cornered me in the snowy playground and for fun I kissed her, just like that. Her lips were cold and wet with snowflakes and everything felt very still around us, like we were caught in a hullabaloo. It was all just luck really – that was the exciting part. I told her it’s a beautiful world and she laughed, like I had just said something funny and random from a movie. Like we’d made up the world ourselves and now we were powerful.
When I got home, all Dad said was: she’s left us. He looked around the room with this blank expression on his face, like the air itself was different, like something in the particles around him had changed. I poured a glass of milk and thought about it for awhile, but then I remembered the stars and the cool night sky that was only a few hours away, waiting with equations and gorgeous auroras. And yeah, I guess I felt okay.
Summer Short Story Competition 2016
Winner: The Return– By James Reynolds
Joint Runner-up: Frank the Window Washer– By Ollie Neal
Joint Runner-up: Oranges for Marmalade– By Maria Sledmere
The Return –By James Reynolds
Her grandmother had been wrong. It had been hours since she’d sat and dined at court; with no otherworldly restraint other than her desire to stay in this world, Girl had had no difficulty in stepping outside the faery ring. The knees of her trousers were dirtied from the crawling descent into Faeryland. The taste of warm biscuits lingered on her tongue as she wet her finger to retrieve the last remaining crumbs from her jumper. It had been dusk for some time, or so she thought, but in the early stars she saw the white beauty of the Queen, her gown, her skin, her tresses, all of a brilliant white; the stars, so many miles away, now seemed dull.
As she drew away from the faery circle, wandering her way back, she was drawn into the silence of the darkened park. Her heart beat with the music she had heard, recalling each footfall of each dance she had danced with the Prince.
O the Prince, how beautiful he had been. She had touched his soft golden hair, falling between her fingers like grains of sand- a moment of pleasure that is so quick and instant, you dig for more sand, just to feel such a burst of tricking peace again. Girl knew she had lost this for good.
Yet, as she passed on through the deserted playground, every sight and sound dwindled. All she knew now was memory: the memory of the notes she stepped to, the memory of the courtiers, the trooping fey whose silken wings reflected light, like the sunlight her grandfather had made dance on the ceiling. The farther she moved away, away from the ring, from the crowding trees and grass she’d soaked with milk, her elfin joy too gained distance. It wasn’t the same as waking up from a dream; the illusion of reality cast by the dream is spent as soon as you woke. It was more like looking at baby photos, the inkling of disbelief that you were that small, trying to recall what it had been to see with those eyes, to hear with those ears, to touch with those hands. Even if Girl could not remember, the photos showed truth, a truth that was crinkled and singed, and distorted with taped fragments.
To return, to even remember, would have been a sweet gift. The few traces she had left, that had been granted to her, came as swiftly as they fled, marred by her travelling deeper into the world. The creak of a chain of a swing turned her head; she thought, she hoped, to see some glittering orb, a friend from the ball, balancing on the seat. If the fey faces bled like ink meeting water, and the food that she ate had left her stomach groaning with emptiness, the music was the gift she would not relinquish to fogginess. Each tread on the path was metronomic, timing the melody she hummed to herself. When she passed a stranger, a man in rags dithering to himself, she was mute. Instead, she would hear the tune in the song of lonely blackbird. From the fence, it darted before her. Girl remembered the spiders’ webs the knights held on to, making reins for such a common garden bird, dressing it up and calling it a noble steed. Falling silent, she was left to take up the tune again, her most precious souvenir from her time with the fey.
As the mists of Faeryland were caged by the grasping hands of the mortal, fortified against even the most innocent of children’s inner eye, her departure from the trolls, their very being, was illuminated by lights flanking the wide road. For all their locks and keys, the makeshift wooden barriers pushed against her door, their swine-like eyes catching every movement, she had pushed open the back door, left the dwelling, without resistance or chase. She wondered if they had noticed the missing milk and biscuits, taken as treats for her faery friends. Even the hound that the trolls, chained to the wall, snarling through salivating fangs, had not impeded her fleeing. Shivering under the night’s cool pall, Girl imagined the beastly howls of humour that would erupt from the trolls, involuntary like a sneeze, should the hound take her in his jaws as he’d done before. The trace of punctured skin could been on her arm; the scar and stains of blood were all that remained. How she had loved that dress.
The road ahead disappeared into the darkness, the lights dim; even the stars, she thought, were too afraid to shed light on the home of the trolls. Day seemed merely to pass over their house, the trolls lounging in their infinitesimal gloom, the sun just another one of Girl’s daydreams. The stars she had decided were what she loved the most. Through the sable in front of her window, only the pinpoint gleam leaked through. They were the eyes of parents looking down on a beloved child; they were the figures of dancing faeries, sisters and daughters of the moon.
There was something deceptive in the stick-on-stars her grandmother had given to her at Christmas, their pointed angles and mimicry an almost insulting comparison to the Evening Star and her mate. Her descent into the faery court had incurred a silence that Girl had only felt in the nights when she alone was awake, the moon and stars shrouded. The touch of the Evening Star, a thumb kissing her forehead, was sacramental, an ethereal otherworldly baptism. Her body had quaked from within, undulating outwards like plunged into still clear water, the sensational rush of the first mouthful of the first ice-cream of the first hot day of summer.
No words had been uttered by the Evening Star, a distant coldness suitable to a star emanated from her garb. And yet her face, full of kindness that Girl had only seen in the embracing arms of another’s mother at the school gates, pressed warmly against her skin. To speak such a moment would be to shoot an arrow from the sky, never to be retrieved; to be silent was to keep her memories quivered.
Pulling back her fringe, Girl could trace the mark left by the Evening Star- a touch of warmth that with such light has embedded itself into every bone. It was a part of her, braided to her, a second soul, unable to be severed even by the trolls’ scissoring words. She had seen them before from the stairs, tearing the flesh and meat from bones, their hands slick with grease.
The blue lights of the will-o-the-wisps, fiery sentinels stationed before the trolls’ abode, overcame her like rushing water. The Prince, the ballroom, even the faery ring slid off of Girl, falling down into a nearby drain.
It was useless to pretend that she could go back, fight against the intermingling waters of memories and of dreams, to stumble blindly to the faery ring, to call down the Evening Star. Searching the skies, all the stars were obscured, great dark clouds extinguishing her last hope. Without the regimented mass and the saying of grace at dinner, Girl didn’t know what it was to pray, to beg for mercy, to plead for a single token of aid from something unhuman, faery or God. After all, is there really much difference? Real or true, malevolent or merciful, it didn’t matter; for as Girl began to be led to the lights of the wisps, her hands were clutched together, a single unknown act of prayer, whispering to the Evening Star. Who she prayed to did not matter; she was in the hands of the trolls once again. Her murmured wishes, like those of us all, had fallen on deaf ears.
With eyes drawn down, Girl grimaced at the grip of one of the trolls. On her shoulder she saw the red hues of her talons, the fingers crudely adorned with metal and gems, their splendour worn away under the troll’s possession. Below the drone of the exchange between the wisps and the trolls, other words passed between the trolls and their prey; that she would live as the troll’s ring, hidden until it could be poked and prodded, until Girl was too worn away- an ornament of a memory of something beautiful and cherished.
It was near darkness in the lair, the floor warped to an almost impassable nature by the debris. The blue lights began to fade, the last fractures of it blending with the artificial illumination from another room. A buzz, a low drone like the sound of a thousand wrathful bees, was Girl’s mocking fanfare as she was shoved to climb the stairs. Her ears were assaulted by the grotesque din of the trolls, words and food falling from their smirking mouths. How deeply wicked they now appeared, a distortion of all that was pure, a mockery of all that was fey. The voices of the fey were choral, each melody of speech held together by the lapping of water against stone and the aubade of young birds. The trolls’ voices had taken up this tune and bent it out of shape. The waters soiled, the stone thrown up as weapons, and within the caged troll hands, the bird uttered a squawk of fear. Such harsh unlovely sounds could not be shut out by Girl’s door, or by the pillow she covered her head with.
Her soul had grown weak, beaten by Girl’s endurance in the trolls’ hovel. To talk of this place as home, to call them ‘ma’ and ‘pa’, each admission pained her tongue, each confession was to chew on a nettle. It was an ache upon her to live as such, to survive on the trolls’ cast-offs, to breathe their air.
Home was what she had wanted above all else. She felt it, and the Evening Star had known it. In the fey land, she had thought to find it, yet she was pushed ever back towards her cell. Harder she squeezed her eyes shut, and more and more she wished she could return to, to remember, that ballroom, filled with gentle moon light and canopied by stars.
Carefully from her pocket, she drew the gift she had received from the Evening Star, knowing her dreams untold by earthy words. The berries had been warmed in her pocket, the juices beginning to run and stain. Girl held them close to inhale their perfume. One by one, she plucked them from their stalks, laying them by her side. Leaving only a running drop of juice, she brought the faery fruit to her mouth and swallowed. The troll sounds were like that of a lake’s surface, Girl now submerged, feeling a slow drag on her soul. Hands met hers, and eyes met hers. The berries had done their chore- they had brought her back to the ballroom.
**JOINT RUNNER UP**
Frank the Window Washer– By Ollie Neal
I always watch Frank scale the ladder every two weeks to clean the windows. I must say, I think it shame that an older man such as he should have to lug himself, step by step, up to the top bathroom, but it’s no doubt made easier on summer days like today. This time is no different. How slowly he ambles; I like to think whistling under his breath, too soft to permeate the glass between us, but enough to curl the corners of his mouth into that subtle grin he wears, which is most endearing in working, older men.
I especially love the way he takes his time to place his ladder. Really; marking his angle, his trajectory, stubbing the feet into the softened, morning-dewed grass, then wrapping his leathered and wrinkled knuckles around either side to commence his journey upwards. Step by step, each one serenely traversed. His eyes so intently, so lovingly surveying the next metal rung, as if saying a silent prayer of thanks for holding him up to the pleasure of such heights and employment. Such a man is Frank; I’m so sure of it. And for the moment, he leaves my view through the glass French doors that lead into the garden on his ascent. The percolator has brewed.
The next I am aware of his presence and his descent is the chapping of the ladders rhythmically against the stone-cast wall outside. It’s a grating sound, harsh, and the knocks come in beats, rather like clock-strikes. And stop. Two feet on ground he hoists the ladder from it’s support on the wall to rest on the grass. Look at how he smiles! Maybe it’s the joy of some old wisdom picked up from youthful follies. Perhaps proud he has avoided the superstition of working under ladder. Or is it walking under a ladder? I’m not sure. But the smile is a knowing smile. And with conscious habit, he starts to gather the tools hanging from his belt.
It’s funny now that I think that we are both behind our own screens. And should he wish to, Frank could cast a quick glimpse into the dining room, where I sit pouring over this story. But he doesn’t. And it suits him. For I know that he knows that whatever pleasures wait behind the glass for his eyes to grasp, he should not know any more joy than when his window wiper glides over the smooth surface, slicing through the trail of water and sudds his sponge has left. A surgeons knife has know no cleaner a cut. And with the pane finished he pulls out his ragged towel, the sort that every old man keeps in his tool-lined garage in a drawer next to the paint pots and brushes. He wraps it carefully around his finger, and traces the rubber lining, finishing his boarder with the content look of an artist that dabs his final highlight, or the author that pens his final line. The French doors have been cleaned.
I notice the heat coming through the glass now that Frank has moved his ladder; I heard that it was to be especially warm this week. So as Frank once again finds his mark and begins his journey once more, his feet now planted halfway up, I wave to him through the kitchen window. I seem to have caught him out. His brows fold downwards enquiringly, his head tilting ever so slightly to the side. And it is then that I ask him if he wants a glass of water. Not in the conventional way, you see. I don’t think he would have been able to understand what I was saying through the glass. No, rather, I held the imaginary glass of proposed water to my lips and had an imaginary sip before offering it to Frank.
He smiled, that same contented smile he gave to his ladder. And with a polite shake of the head, a wink, and a nod, he continued his journey up the ladder. I like to think I brightened his day a little. And as I sit here pouring my coffee, I wonder how many windows Frank shall shine a smile on today. It’s not even half nine yet. The day is bright, and by all accounts it shall keep sunning. I don’t like to think about the other things, like why does he have to work, does he have to because his wife’s sick and the pension just can’t support them both. Is he working so his grandkids can have a holiday, or a school uniform, or a meal on the table? I don’t like to think about these things. I just like to watch Frank, going about his day at one house, one window, one step at a time.
**JOINT RUNNER UP**
Oranges for Marmalade- By Maria Sledmere
“No, no, no, must get to the shop, can’t stop, can’t stop…”
You could only hear her if you were very close to her. From afar, there was only the distant rustle of her words, softly murmuring like an insect.
“Must get to the shop, must…”
You could see her fuss with the door of her bungalow, shuffling along the path out of the front garden and onto the pavement, never forgetting to close the gate. She was always careful with these details. Sometimes the cat was out, draped over the stump of wood where once there was a lilac tree, prowling around the unkempt lawn, or else sitting at the window, watching carefully as her mistress slowly made her way down the road.
It was a beautiful street, even by the city’s standards: a long, broad avenue of horse chestnuts, which shadowed the pavements and when the sun shone they cast dapples of green light on the concrete, clear and pretty as stained glass windows. In the autumn, conkers would gather in the ground, brown and gleaming amidst the fallen leaves, and the neighbourhood children came out in their droves to pilfer them. She had lived on this street for a very long time. Whole families had come and gone, homes were split into rented apartments, townhouses halved into bungalows. Only the corner shop remained at the end of the road, though it had changed hands a few times.
If you watched her for long enough, you would see the rhythm of her walking was most unusual. She stopped in fits and starts. She would halt in her step, standing as if suddenly finding herself tied to the ground, looking around her with a bewildered expression. If you were close enough, you could hear her tutting under her breath.
“Can’t stop, can’t stop.”
She attempted her stilted, aborted journey almost every day. So sad, she always seemed, picking her footsteps over the same old concrete. There was a frown on her face, etched deep into her skin. Her eyes, a watery green, always glazed over, or else were sharp and jolted and fearful.
This is the tree, the special tree which she stops at halfway on her journey. She knows there is something significant about the tree. Her fingers, sometimes, escape the cloak of their gloves and feel along the trunk; dry, brittle skin brushing upon the gnarled wood, whose bark came apart in dusty flakes. Somewhere on the tree two letters are carved: E + J. She winds her pointy finger up the J to where it stops. Sometimes, the sticky sap clings to her nail and later, in the shower perhaps, she will notice it and worry about where it came from.
Was this it? No. She is not here for the tree. She is never travelling towards the tree; it just so happens that she finds herself here again.
She always gets to a certain point in the walk where suddenly everything loses its clarity. She can no longer make sense of the shapes and colours. She does not recognise this street at all. Where am I? Where am I? The windows of buildings seem to stare down at her in mockery, circle-shaped and evil. She is running back through her memory, names and faces, names and faces and places. The East End street where her grandmother lived. Was it just like this? She remembers the ochre and gold of the bricks and the white window frames and the old men that would stand on street corners, at all hours of the day, staring aimlessly and smoking cigarettes.
Pull your stockings up, her mother used to scold. She would run around the streets, shooting marbles and playing with the boys, her stockings always half up, half down. She remembers them fondly, those stockings, the colour of a lilac sky, as her father used to joke. He was a secret poet, and he liked to mix words like his wife would mix the oranges and sugar for marmalade. Marmalade, her speciality, the milk of summer nourishment. The fruit comes all the way from Spain, as her father would say, slathering it over his toast. She remembers him reading the newspaper, stealing mischievous glances with butter-smeared lips as she mended the holes in her school blouses.
The sky was greying now, the weather turning. An umbrella: she should have brought an umbrella. The door to her bungalow was so far away now; there could be no turning back. She felt the panic rise like a sickness in her chest. Nobody could know how much she needed to urinate. There was a new desperation to her journey, as if somehow it was now life-threatening.
“Are you okay ma’am?” the woman in the business suit stops her car, rolls down the window. The woman leans her head out but she is already walking away, pacing in circles of confusion. “Are you lost?”
“I said, are you lost?”
“No, no, mustn’t stop, got to get to the shop.”
“Can I give you a lift?”
“No, no, it’s not far – the end of the road.”
“Are you sure? It’s no bother for me.”
“I must – must get to the end of the road. Good day to you.” She clutches her handbag tight to her chest, thinking how nosy people were, even these days. The car trundles reluctantly away and the street is quiet again. Very few commuters pass through here. It was only the locals who brought their cars to reside in the sleepy parking spots, draped with the luxuriant leaves of the chestnut trees.
There was something she had to get from the shop. What was it? She had lost it again, the slip of paper that she was supposed to carry around to help her remember.
“Something to get from the shop,” she mutters. A handful of kids, skiving from school, burst round the corner, their skateboards cracking loudly on the concrete like fireworks. She shivers with fright, looking up to the sky for an explanation. The kids whirl past her, laughing. They went from one end of the street and onto the next in less than a minute.
Her own children–how old were they now?
“Oh, hello Rosie,” she said once, greeting the little boy who was dragged into the living room by his harassed mother.
“Mum, it’s Robert. Robbie. Your grandson.”
“Robert? Oh, yes, a boy! Hello Robbie.” It happened every time. Every time it was like she was meeting them anew.
“Yes, this is Robbie, Mum,” she repeated, “Rosie’s…dead. Your daughter Rosie, she died out in Israel. Five years ago. Remember?”
“Rosie? Rosie what?” The same thing, every time. She died, she died. “What was she doing in, in Israel?” Sometimes the words would come back to her: It’s just something I have to do Mum, I have to find myself. What was it they had told her? Something about the desert, the collapsed sand dunes, all those foreign-sounding names that had swirled around in her head, loose and dead as the leaves picked up in an autumn breeze. The young folk, why was it they had to go away, what was it they thought they would find elsewhere?
There were always funerals. Funerals were as sure as the passing seasons. People were always dying; that was true enough. You put on a good spread and said your good will and life went on just the same.
“But my Rosie? How…my Rosie?”
“She was stranded, Mum, stranded. My sister and they flew her home in a box.” And her own daughter then, choking up in the living room, white knuckles rubbing her knees.
Stranded, like she was now, stuck on a traffic island in the middle of this suburban avenue where she had lived for twenty years, and the traffic coming and going so slow and intermittent, and still the thought of crossing terrified her and she was suddenly frozen and her hands were quivering like, like birds’ wings and she knew, she just knew there was someone in the window opposite watching her…
They had given her a necklace with a plastic button, an alarm that she was supposed to press when she needed help. She could picture it, hanging by the door, clicking against the glass as the draft blew in.
She could hear the buzz of a telephone.
The cry of the magpies outside her window.
The sound of her girls, laughing in the garden.
The thrum of the music from next-door.
The skateboards smashing the concrete.
It was all this deep, dark, churning cacophony. She knew she needed to keep moving, but her legs were stiffening, her joints seizing up, her bladder trembling. The rain was coming down now in cold speckles on her face.
Nobody in the street could know the secret strain of her journey. Each time she tried to cross the road, she saw her feet step off over a cliff and the car like a gush of coastal wind, ready to sweep her down to her death. All around her, this sea of sound, lashing and stirring.
She’d always thought of death as a kind of quiet, a restful transition from life into sleep. This was not death at all, this turmoil. The huge green chestnut leaves which bore upon her like so many hands, glinting wickedly with unforgiving light. The clouds clearing, then closing in again.
Her own daughter, and all the things she would have shown her. The special rules that kept families together, the various arts of living and loving and housekeeping. The things that you were supposed to be proud of. The little efforts to make everyday life somehow tangible, meaningful.
She’s left the stove on again.
Often, these days, she thought of herself in that anonymous third person.
She lost her glasses. Lost the handset for the telephone.
That anonymous third person, disorientated, mocking.
Life seemed more and more a journey in which you found yourself lost. You were not supposed to reach a destination, but merely immerse yourself in further confusion. The thought of it was almost a comfort.
She is less distressed. She is breathing properly and her hands stop shaking as she stuffs them in her pockets. As always, it is at this point in the road that she turns back, heads towards the house with the gate and the cat and the alarm by the window and the bathroom with the toilet and the living room where they told her that Rosie had died. It is always at this point that she gives up.
It is only later, at some unfixed time in the middle of the night, that she will wake up and remember the purpose of her journey. Maybe she is dreaming of her mother, sad and milky swollen dreams. Maybe she is dreaming of the quiet suburban street itself: the swaying leaves of the horse-chestnut trees, the conkers in autumn gleaming, the children on the green and the thrash of the skateboards and the way the world looked ten, twenty years ago, before she started forgetting…
Maybe she dreams of her own daughters, golden on the front lawn, singing and playing.
Always she awakes to that singular purpose, a child again, the glitch in her memory that always sticks like a scratch on a record: Oranges. I must buy oranges, to make marmalade. Oranges for marmalade.
Luggage Labels– By Heather Caldwell
“Please don’t go. ”
Henry had pleaded, choked up and holding back tears, he grabbed his father’s jacket, determined to hold him back. Billy sat in the kitchen with his mother, oblivious to the fact that the world as he knew it was getting torn apart. Henry’s father took hold of his son’s shoulders,
“You’re going to have to be brave, alright. For me and for Billy. He’s going to need you more than you need me. If the time comes and you have to leave home; you promise me that you’ll look after your bother.”
Henry’s lip trembled.
“But I don’t want you to leave!” He spluttered.
“I don’t want to leave either…but cheer up, we’ll be back before you know it.”
“And if you’re not?”
“Hey, I don’t want you thinking about that.”
The rest of the Smiths gathered at the door to wave goodbye as the truck rattled away along the lane. Henry stood in the chill dusk air that follows sunset. He stood there until the last traces of light left the sky had faded and night spread it’s inky cloak over the city. He turned his back on the road and head bowed, trudged into the house. Henry ran to his room and bolted the door. He didn’t want the others to see him cry.
The news came soon enough. All children in this area were to be evacuated to the country. Billy had been excited. He thought it was all a big adventure. He had never even left the city before. He couldn’t stop talking about it. Henry, on the other hand, hadn’t said much at all. When he heard the news, he went straight upstairs and packed. At meals he would eat and then leave for his room. Henry had been spending a lot of time in his room, isolated from everyone. It seemed like a good idea to be alone – now Henry wasn’t so sure.
Now he was at the station, about to be torn away from his city, his home and his mother, he wished that had had the chance to say goodbye properly. Billy detached his arms from around his mother’s neck and she dabbed at the young boy’s face with a handkerchief. Billy managed a little smile and latched onto Henry’s hand.
“Alright, boys, you’ll be good, won’t you? And you’ll be nice to whoever takes you in? Say please, and thank you, eat what they give you, and do your share of chores. Now here are your labels…”
Their mother reached into her bag and produced two brown luggage tags and handed them to the older boy,
“Don’t lose them. Put them on on the train. And keep hold of your luggage – I’ve packed everything you should need – but if you do need anything, write to me. Write to me as often as you can.” She wrapped her arms around Henry, “Promise me.”
“I promise, Mother.”
Billy was jumping up and down, tugging on his brother’s arm in an attempt to get a better look at the train. Billy grinned up at his brother but Henry only just managed a faint smile back. He wanted to be able to act normal for his little brother but his father’s last words kept coming back to him. Henry wasn’t old enough to remember the last war, but his father had been twelve when it broke out and he had told his older sons about it. Back then they thought the war would be over by Christmas. It was not.
Henry’s thoughts were interrupted by a shrill whistle and a booming voice that called, “All aboard!” Henry hugged his mother goodbye and Billy dragged him onto the train. They found an empty cabin and entered. Henry stuck his out of the window as the train began to pull away from the station.
“Look after your brother!” his mother called. He waved until she was out of sight then pulled his head back inside. Billy. Was that all that people cared about, that Billy was safe? Henry loved his brother and he knew that Billy needed more attention than he did. His father had said it to, look after your brother.
“But who will look after me?” Henry thought darkly. He would never admit it to anyone but Henry was terrified by the whole idea of this war. Sometimes he just wanted to scream and cry but he couldn’t. He had to keep silent. Henry looked out of the window and watched the city shrink and vanish in billowing clouds of steam.
Peter– Callum MacDonald
The train is slowly leaving York, crawling out of the glass and iron arches and submerging itself in the cloudless sky; an inverted azure ocean out of reach to us mere mortal beings. Picking up speed, I am now leaving the picturesque city behind me as I thunder through the green flats and naked streams that make up the Yorkshire countryside. It doesn’t take me long before I finish the book I have been reading since I left Glasgow five hours earlier (‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen), so now I place it on the table in front of me and I admire my surroundings. The yellow fireball in the sky is in full bloom and its rays are seeping through the windows; I am half expecting to see a group of seraphim illuminated in this heavenly glow, but alas this is not the case. I can, however, see hundreds of individual dust particles in the light, dancing and swaying together to some lush sonata which I am unable to hear.
After spending four years of university life in Scotland, the journey back home no longer phases me. I still remember quaking with fear and anxiety the first day I left Doncaster for Glasgow, but now it has become second nature. I do like the journey; especially the part between Edinburgh and Newcastle which takes you alongside the Northumbrian coast. The rugged coastline coated in green; the foaming waves tumbling over one another as they hug the rocks; the Brobdingnagian expanse of the sea heading out towards Denmark and the wider world, making me wish that I could grow a pair of angelic wings and soar into that mystic horizon; the cute coastal towns made of stone, filling me with senses of awe and mystique. This is all a pleasant reminder that the UK is actually quite pretty in certain parts.
Unfortunately, there is a single black cloud eclipsing the sun within my mind. For during my return to Doncaster, I shall have to say goodbye to one of my old compadres. Peter. I can still remember what happened when my mum rang me to tell me that he had passed away. It was a few weeks prior; I was in my room, jotting out some potential answers to a maths assignment whilst simultaneously trying to avoid tearing my hair out in the process, when I received a phone call from home. It began with the usual pleasantries of my mother asking me how I was, how my work was getting along and so on and so forth. And then she told me about Peter’s demise. Upon hearing this news, I felt numb inside. A few tears began to form in my eyes, but I was too trapped in a stasis of shock to feel much else. The warmth was slowly being sapped from my fingers and the sounds of the world started to fade away.
I knew Peter from primary school, since we were both cherubic five years olds. Pretty much everyone in my year group was friendly with one another. I went to school in a small village called Barnburgh, which is a relatively close knit community like most villages round where I grew up. There was a small proportion of our year, myself included, who came from outside Barnburgh and its Siamese twin Harlington, but we all found it rather painless to ingratiate ourselves with everyone else. I do have a lot of happy memories from back then; the games we’d play; the times we’d visit each others houses; the parties and sleepovers we all had; the innocent and carefree time before we had to endure any real responsibilities. Unfortunately, I did lose contact with a lot of my friends from back then after I left Barnburgh and went to a different secondary school to my peers; however, I did reconnect with a number of them in later years, but mainly just those who joined me at Hall Cross when I was seventeen.
My last memory of Peter was when I was eighteen. One of our mutual friends, James, wanted to jam with me in the music room after school, and I hastily took up the chance. He then contacted Peter and asked if he wanted to join us. Sure enough, after the final bell had sounded, James and I walked to the main reception and there we saw Peter. After a few minutes of smiling and greeting after what had felt like an age of separation. I remember the three of us laughing, chatting and sharing with each other the music that we all liked. We did occasionally play some music; Peter was a stellar guitar player and he had a great singing voice; I was mediocre at both of these musical aspects and I had a rather basic knowledge of playing drums; when I say basic knowledge, I mean it wasn’t the cacophony that I had initially feared. I can’t remember what James did; he probably just sat there looking cool; a talent which, for me, is about as easy as scaling a wall with just my teeth. I wish I knew what his secret was. Sadly, this moment of bliss had to end eventually; the three of us said our goodbyes in the car park and Peter drove off on his scooter whilst James and I gradually made our way to the bus station. That was the last I ever saw of Peter. Despite that final moment together, when I try and think of him, I still picture him as he was at eleven years old. I still see him with his strawberry blond hair, his smile which emanated warmth and friendliness, his slightly slender figure and the high-pitched effeminate voice that all guys have when they are at primary school.
I wish this was but a solitary smear on an otherwise impeccable canvas; an insignificant crack on a flawless vase. Alas, this is not the first time that I have had one of my friends die way before their time. Three of my old rugby friends died prior to Peter. All three of them were the victims of quad bike accidents, and it has been suggested that Peter’s death was linked to a bike accident that he had in the past. Someone up there has a really sick sense of irony. You never get used to it. No matter how much you contemplate such nightmarish scenarios, and no matter how much prior experience you have, nothing can compare you to the empty feeling inside that hits you with a hammer blow when one of your old friends dies. Aside from the usual feelings of sadness and grief, the strongest emotions I got in these circumstances have been frustration and anger. Frustration at the individuals for taking risks that could have been avoided. Anger at myself for not making enough of an effort to keep in touch and spend time with my pals before they died. I never seem to learn, and the realisation always hits me when it is far too bloody late! All I have now are my memories, but those are starting to become somewhat unreliable. As I try to dig into the furthest recesses of my mind during this train journey, there is a permanent fog which infects the part of my brain that deals with memories; the further back I go, the fog thickens and the level of entropy inside my fragile mind increases exponentially.
I look outside of the train window and I can see the cooling towers looming in the distance. I can never remember which power station I’m looking at exactly. Ferrybridge? Eggborough? Drax? Whichever ones they are, my heart always brightens whenever these industrial giants meet my eyes. It is a sign that I am very shortly entering South Yorkshire. It is a sign that I am nearly home. I get up from my seat and I gather up my things. On this journey, I have brought my laptop, my rucksack filled with books and notepads and a small bag of clothes. I slowly trudge my way through the train car, muttering constant apologies to people as I inevitably bump into them with my belongings. Finally I reach the door, drop my things and watch the world speed by through the small cabin window. It is clear that we have finally reached some form of human settlement as the train passes through Arksey and Bentley. I have to admit, this part of the journey is not the most aesthetically pleasing. As you look outside, you can see old terraced housing, what I assume is either a junkyard or a car rental place, an abundance of rusted metal fencing and some warehouses which look like they were abandoned many years ago. I have been told that this part of the world used to be somewhat affluent ‘back in t’day’, back when this area had a thriving mining and manufacturing sector. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell looking at the town today. Don’t get me wrong, Doncaster is not a bad place and I had a good childhood here; the village where my family live was and is something of a tranquil paradise. However, whenever I walk through these streets, encountering people sporting vacant eyes and filthy tracksuits floating through life with no meaning or purpose, I can’t help thinking that this town is a comatose patient who is waiting for the inevitable moment when the life support machine is switched off for good.
Soon enough, I can see the majesty of Doncaster Minster and its spires reaching into the heavens, and the not so glamorous behemoths of Doncaster College and Frenchgate Shopping Centre. The train begins to slow down before finally coming to a halt inside the station. I press the ‘Open’ button as soon as it flashes, and the doors slide open with a hiss. I grab my things and step out onto the platform. It takes me a few seconds to become acclimatised to my surroundings; to the red brick station which, if you discount the modern day elements and surrounding architecture, almost looks like you have stepped into somewhere positively Victorian. Once I have my bearings, I look around the hectic sea of people looking for a vital focal point. Eventually, after a minute or so, I spot a ray of light; I spot a hint of colour amongst the grey mass of many individuals rushing off inside their own bubbles. I can see my mum walking towards me along the platform. I can see her dark shoulder length hair; her warm smile as she sees me and waves; that general aura that she has which fills my heart with joy every time I set eyes on her. As soon as the crowd between us vanishes, she runs towards me with her arms outstretched and we embrace. She clings on to me tight, as if she is afraid of losing me forever if she lets go. As I cling on to her, my feeling of fragility increases. These are the small moments in life which I shall forever cherish; who knows when the time will come for either one of us to have a vital jigsaw piece ripped out of our bodies. If anyone was to glance in our general direction, they would see two porcelain figures holding each other close as the train behind them sneaks away at a snail’s pace, before it picks up speed and begins hurtling towards Newark.