2020 Story Comp Winning Entries

In Every Angel

by Michael Ranes

Father Ramshaw woke heavy in his bed, grey hair splayed round his head. A stranger, a woman, sat beside him. She was wearing a light coat and gloves, with a large spider brooch pinned over her heart. A small black handbag lay neatly on her lap. 

She began speaking in a low steady voice.

“Ah, you are awake, Father. Excellent, I prefer it so.” Her voice was crisp, polished.

Ramshaw tried to lift himself but his muscles would not obey. He remained rooted to the bed.

A gloved hand touched his arm. “Don’t strain to move. You will not be able to so it will only cause stress. Your eyes will see and you will be able to breathe and speak.”

Ramshaw stared. His mind felt disconnected from his body. His tongue was dry as sandpaper. His body numb. The woman continued.

 “I waited until we had time for our business, Father. A few days uninterrupted is so rare.”

All lay still in the house, only her single melodic voice disturbed the air.

As Ramshaw stared, the woman placed her handbag on the floor beside her feet then settled again.  “Well, I can’t be here long, so we best get on.”  

She hesitated a few seconds then leant in closer. “You don’t know yet but you are very sick. Your heart is not what it should be to keep a man alive. It could stop any time. I am concerned about that.”

Ramshaw struggled to speak. Through his coarse throat he managed a faint voice.

 “Who are you?”

 “Oh, always the first question.” She shook her head. “Who I am is not important though. I look like an old lady, but very few of us are what we seem. Perhaps, what I do matters more.”

“Which is…?”

“If anyone on my list is about to pass from this world, I intervene.”

“And I am on your list?”

“Yes, Father. Sadly, a very long list these days, but I enjoy my work, so no complaints.”

For the first time Ramshaw looked deep into her eyes. They were dark, lifeless.

The woman was speaking again.

“You have been on my list for a few years but I’ve been busy so only just got round to seeing you in person. Not ideal, but happily not too late, you are still with us.”

She smiled. 

“Why can’t I move?”

“It’s necessary, Father. Part of the healing process.”

“You are here to heal me?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then what?

She did not respond immediately, but looked into his eyes until they locked on hers. “You are not going to die today, Father. I am here to ensure.”

A hand reached out and touched his forehead. His breathing slowed. He was not able to smile, but a relief coursed through his body, washing him. 

Ramshaw’s heart softened its beat. “You’re an angel?”

She gave a little laugh. The room darkened. “Oh, you know how it is, Father. Angel. Demon. I flicker between the two.”

Seconds passed in silence with Ramshaw unsure how to respond. Then.

“You of all people should understand, Father.”

A shadow flitted across her face and, momentarily, a change crossed her features, something beyond a loss of light, something harsh, inhuman. Fire entered her eyes, then quelled in an instant and her face returned to a smile.

Ramshaw’s breath raced and his pupils dilated.

“I can’t simply let you die, Father. Not peacefully in your bed. I have a job to do.”  

She reached down, opened her handbag and took out a bundle of photos. Ramshaw followed her movements. The first photo, partly hidden by her gloved fingers, showed a young boy. It was a photo Ramshaw had seen before. His tongue dried in his throat.

She began spreading the photos over his body, looking at each one before placing it.

“They were so young.  Innocent and trusting, boys guilty of only childish misdemeanors.” She hesitated, looked hard into Ramshaw’s eyes. “Until they met you, Father.” 

Under her cold stare, Ramshaw found his voice. “They were adolescent boys confused by their budding sexuality, fantasizing. The church investigated, exonerated me.”

The woman’s eyes darkened and her mouth curled upward. A devil’s smile.

“God made weakness part of being human; he understands, forgives. But weakness is not obscenity. That is man-made. As is your church.” Her smile dropped. “So, don’t waste your words.”

Ramshaw’s throat clogged. 

She returned to placing the photos. “These will ensure your obscenities are clear to all.” Her voice was slow, steady. “So innocent, so damaged as they grew. And when they were brave enough to speak out, when they eventually screamed, no one heard did they, Father. You saw to that.”  

She had one last photo and held it in front of Ramshaw. A young boy sat on a choir pew, smiling. “Did he scream, Father?” He flitted his eyes away.

The woman laid the picture with the others then removed the glove from her right hand, put it in her pocket and lightly touched Ramshaw’s lips. His tongue froze, his voice disappeared.

She leaned back and sat still, silent, her face expressionless. The clock ticked five minutes. The room darkened as evening began to slip to night. A fly flew through the window, buzzed around their heads, then settled unsteadily on the lampshade above the bed. Ramshaw watched its flight.

After another minute, the woman spoke again.

“What do you know about blowflies, Father?”

Her eyes glanced to him motionless on the bed.

“Sorry, a rhetorical question. No need to answer.” Her voice held a spring in it now. “They are the first to arrive to a body, this is why I ask.”

The fly left the shade and spiraled down to the pillow beside Ramshaw’s head. The buzz loud in his ear. More flies flew through the windows and circled.

 “The first comers crawl into the tissue of the eyes, throat and other orifices to lay their eggs. The later ones push deeper into the body, infesting the internal organs. The flies don’t consume the flesh. They leave that to their larvae and to the crawling insects which follow.”

She stopped speaking to look into Ramshaw’s eyes.

“Such a nasty business.  I suppose the comfort lies in this being nature’s cleaning process and life has usually left the body before it begins.”

Ramshaw shifted his eyes. They were dull now, seemingly drained of life.

 “The trigger for the insects is the scent of death. Quite distinctive to them. Through God’s blessing I deliver this scent with my touch.”

Silence filled the room. The woman watched as a blowfly landed on Ramshaw’s lips.

 “Your heart is beating, Father, your lungs are breathing, your body is still warm. You are not dead. But insects are simple creatures. You hold the scent, so you are a carcass, nutrients for their young. It is a slow process despite their mass. At this temperature the larvae hatch in around twenty-four hours and begin eating. Then the beetles arrive.”

She hesitated to check Ramshaw was paying attention, saw the pleading in his eyes, then continued.

   “It’s surprising how much of you is consumed before your heart finally stops.”

   Their silence was drowned out by the buzzing of wings.

The woman listened for a few seconds then stood, replaced her glove and picked up her handbag.

“Well, mustn’t dither. There are others deserving of my attention.”

On reaching the door she looked back at Ramshaw laying in his bed, photos strewn over the covers. Flies swarmed around him, others crawled on his pillow and face. She smiled. “You will scream, Father. But no one will hear. I have seen to that.”


How to Fake a Heart Attack

(Drastic measures for drastic people)

by Richard Hooton

You may also be interested in our accompanying publications “How to Fake Happiness” and “How to Fake a Successful Lifestyle”.

Disclaimer: Please read this guidance carefully. Under no circumstances does the author accept any liability for the actions of others. Do not attempt whilst operating machinery or on medication that affects alertness or gives you the shits.

Stage 1: Scenario

Choosing the right situation is critical. Do not waste such a high-risk enterprise on an everyday occurrence. This is not to be deployed in order to miss school or get out of a work meeting or avoid kissing an unfavourable aunt. It should only be deployed in extreme situations, such as escaping an exam or pulling out of your wedding or if accused of a horrendous crime.

Stage 2: Technique

No amateur dramatics please. Do not clutch your chest, let out a bloodcurdling screech and throw yourself to the floor, floundering like a beached whale. You will not only look extremely stupid but will also lessen your chances of convincing others. No matter how much praise you received from Mrs Butterworth for that heartrending portrayal of the third shepherd in your primary school nativity, this is no time for reprising former glories. Subtlety is crucial. A heart attack begins gradually. The four key symptoms are nausea, dizziness, a cold sweat and a numb arm. Throw in a few precursors, such as pins and needles. If possible – where not deployed impulsively – mention earlier that day about the twinge troubling you. Laugh it off: ‘No, no, I’ll be fine, honest. It’s nothing to worry about.’ Display the odd grimace at strategic points when under observation: ‘Honestly, it’s just a muscle spasm.’ Then, when it’s time to deploy: stop still, hold your arm and don’t let go. When asked, mention the four key symptoms. Don’t ever say that you’re experiencing a heart attack; let those around you make the assumption. When they inevitably conclude: ‘Oh my God! She’s having a heart attack!’ mirror their look of abject horror. Implement a curious groaning noise. Slowly sink to your knees. Finally, collapse, just as your whole life has around you.

Stage 3: Preparation

If feasible, practice the elements of Stage 2 in order to perfect your performance. My former fiancé once told me how South African golfer Gary Player said: ‘The more I practice the luckier I get.’ So act out your death rattle while watching “This Morning with Phillip and Holly”, in between the ad breaks and boring bits, such as the holiday competition you’ll never win no matter how many times you enter pretending to be somebody else. Alternatively, just sit on your battered old couch munching Doritos Chilli Heatwave with a Sour Cream and Chives dip while muttering between the gobfuls of crispy deliciousness that luck is an abstract concept and it’ll either work out or it won’t.

P.S. My ex got a lot of practice in.

Step 4: Paramedics

By now, a loved one or passer-by should have phoned for an ambulance. This will present your first major hurdle: the paramedic. These guys know a heart attack when they see one, so be prepared. Remember to repeat the four key symptoms when questioned. Then act confused, looking as blank and pallid as a white wall. Struggle to recall where you are or even what your name is, which they’ll hopefully conclude is down to the lack of blood flow to your brain. If you have chosen to deploy this drastic measure to pull out of your nuptials, then the fact you’re lying on a sickly green stretcher in the pleated, tulle, sweetheart neckline dress that took you months to find, will ensure sympathy. Surprise will no doubt overwhelm their professional judgement and they won’t ask too many difficult questions. You’ll soon be in the back of that ambulance whizzing your way to A&E.

Step 5: Hospital

You’ve reached A&E and already you’re amazed at a) how far you’ve taken this and b) how gullible people are. At this point, you may briefly consider a career on the stage and regret having not enrolled for RADA following Mrs Butterworth’s breathless review. But wise up. This shit is about to get serious. Appear worried and frightened. And swallow the aspirin you’re given with a trembling hand.

Step 6: Question your life choices

You’re on a trolley in the biggest lift you’ve ever seen in your life, being escorted to the Acute Cardiac Care Unit (ACCU). If you’ve reached this stage then congratulations, this is going better than you could have ever imagined. But seriously, what the fuck are you doing? How’s it come to this? Now’s the time to look back over your life for the clues that you missed, like all those last-minute golfing holidays. And consider what you could have done differently. Perhaps if you’d followed your head not your heart and listened to your dad’s warnings about the scoundrel in the first place then you wouldn’t be in this situation. Maybe if you’d tried harder at college and actually done some studying, rather than trying to show off to Stevie Price by smoking in the quad and drinking cider in the park – why do you always fall for the bad boys? – you wouldn’t have flunked your A-Levels and your life would have followed a miraculous path to fulfilment, like Gwyneth Paltrow stepping through those sliding doors at just the right moment. Anyhow, it’s too late now.

Step 7: Go Method

So you’re lying in the ACCU, having faked a heart attack, surrounded by genuinely very ill people, all withered and ghostly in their darkest hour. At this stage, paranoia will set in. How can you not be found out? Stick to your doughnuts. You can’t back down now anyway, even if you wanted to, so just ride it out like a rollercoaster. The best actors are method. Think Brando, de Niro, Day-Lewis. They inhabit the character, live the role, believe the lie. Take inspiration from Mr Braithwaite in the next bed, whose favourite checked shirt they had to scissor through to get the defibrillator pads on and shock that old ticker back into its juddering beat. Follow his cues of staring into space so that you look lost and lonely too. All pale and anxious in the oversized, flimsy hospital gown that’s probably exposing your huge arse (to be honest, you’re just glad to be out of that pure white dress, left so muddied after the fall, that you’re now considering burning), who’s to know that you haven’t actually had a heart attack? Oh! Medical tests.

Step 8: Medical Tests

Obviously the blood test and ECG will show that your heart is functioning normally. There’s really no avoiding this. But there are ways around it. First, try questioning their reliability. ‘No machine is infallible,’ point out. ‘Those lie detector tests on Jeremy Kyle weren’t 100% accurate and we all know how that turned out.’ Possibly suggest a robot conspiracy. ‘They’re trying to fool everyone in order to kill us all.’ However, this could make you appear insane. A better alternative is to show how grateful you are to have not had a heart attack. ‘Thank God. I felt so awful. But not being a medic, how was I to know?’ A junior doctor, some spotty-faced toff fresh out of Oxford, could well mutter something about wasting valuable NHS resources. This will make you feel guilty. Under no circumstances should you tell him to ‘fuck right off’ and burst into tears. This could get you either sectioned or facing a hefty health bill. And no matter how good you are at Step 7, your mum will look at you in that way she does when she’s sussed you out (that guilt has spread all over your dumb, tell-tale face anyway) and she’ll say ‘Jennifer, what’s going on?’ because your Sunday name is still what she calls you when you’re in trouble and she’s always been able to see right through your bullshit.

Step 9: Confession

You can’t actually fake a heart attack. Not really. You didn’t think it would work, did you? Sorry, I should have made that clear from the start. Anyhow, it’s time to fess up. First, watch that tired and overworked junior doctor shuffle around in embarrassment when the silence between you and your mum stretches the length of the room, and feel bad about dragging him into your wreckage of a life. Then ask to speak to Mother in private. With a swish, colourless curtains will be pulled around your bed, though their fragility isn’t the seclusion you had in mind. ‘Why do you always take things too far?’ Mother might ask. Explain, in a voice as frail as Mr Braithwaite, how on the morning of your wedding day you found a pretty pink envelope in your fiancé’s sock drawer with an X on the front in his handwriting that you interpreted as a kiss. You realised immediately that he’d written you a love letter. So, all misty eyed, you decided to save its unveiling until in the limousine on your way to St Michael and All Angels Church in order to engrave such a special moment on your heart and boost your confidence right before walking down the aisle. And it really was such a lovely, heartfelt letter. Just not addressed to you.

Step 10: Hire a good lawyer

Step 11: Justification

The whole ward will fall silent, apart from your occasional sobs, as if the entire hospital is listening. But you need to explain everything. How, as you sat in that cold, elongated car in that heart-stopping moment, your whole life flashed before you as if you were drowning. How you didn’t know what to do. How stepping out of that limo was an out-of-body experience and you found yourself sleepwalking under the stone archway. But there was no way you could step inside that sacred church and face him. Not with everyone you know sitting there, dressed in their finest, all those eyes turning your way to consume you as your world falls apart. There was only one thing you could do. Perhaps cry even more as you say all this (though you won’t actually have any choice about that). Say something meaningless and stupid like: ‘a heart attack’s better than a broken heart.’ When you’ve both finished weeping, your mum might say, ‘you could’ve just got a message passed to me, Jenny, and I’d have dealt with it.’ Wonder why that never ever occurred to you. Eventually the doctor will pop his head around the curtain to say: ‘You’re discharged.’ ‘Good,’ tell him. ‘Because I’m feeling much better. What a wonderful hospital. Five out of five.’

Step 12: Aftermath

Return home and ask to be left alone so that you can savour the solace your empty house brings. Cry until you doubt there’s any moisture left in your body and you are now nothing but a grey husk. Wonder how you’ll ever trust anyone ever again. Replay over and over and over how your perfect day should have gone. Meanwhile, people you considered friends will whisper wicked words behind your back. Some, considering you unstable, will scrape you from their life faster than shit from a shoe.

Step 13: Recovery Rest. Kick him out. Be nice to yourself. Eat as many Doritos as you want now you don’t have to fit into a wedding dress. Consider revenge. Remember that retaining a sense of humour is vital in keeping grounded. Throw out all his golf clubs. Visit Mr Braithwaite. Decide that you had a lucky escape. Move on; that good lawyer will come in handy for the separation. Take your time: it could be several months before you can write about it. Just remember that you did your best and, actually, that’s all you should ever really do. And, above all else, know that hearts can heal.


UNTROUBLED WATERS                                                                       

We live with the awareness of an invisible, uncontrollable presence beneath us. Swollen rivers flood whole countries while others crackle with flames, and we worry about how a millimetre rise can drown a nation state. But water has to obey the same laws of gravity as the rest of us, and before it can rise it has to fall: from the sky to sources high in the mountains; from melting glaciers to the sea; from dams and reservoirs to cities where it’s casually used and then discarded, continuing its journey back into the ground.

In an unpretentious block of flats, in a small neighbourhood in a small European city, the water started its descent. The terracotta tiles on the roof were in good shape, as was the plumbing, so it could only have originated inside the top floor flat. If anyone had wanted to, there would have been time to stop it: before it pushed under the door and through the thick sisal mat, decorated with the head of a fierce-looking dog; and before it reached the stairwell and started rushing down the five flights of stairs. But there was silence in the flat.

The timid little terrier who lived there was nothing like the fierce dog on the mat, but he had caused far more problems than his size would suggest. There was pre-existing mutual loathing between the old lady and her downstairs neighbour, Carmen, who had a reputation for what some called plain speaking and others considered rude. This was exacerbated when the dog was diagnosed with a bladder problem and had to be taken out nine or ten times a day. The constant noise of doors opening and shutting, and the lift lurching up and down drove Carmen mad, and her threats became wilder and more absurd, until the old lady became genuinely frightened.

It wasn’t the sort of neighbourhood where dramatic events often occurred, though it had its own peculiarities. There was a man with a long black beard and blue eyes who sold avocados right in front of a major bank on the main road. Nobody was sure of his nationality and he spoke with a strange accent so he became known as Rasputin. Sometimes, when people tried to enter the bank, he would hold up a particularly big avocado and peel it in one movement with a flourish. Why? Nobody knew.

Two doors down from the old lady’s flat there was a bar that had only room for three people, pushed together as if they were strangers in a lift. They were towered over by an unusually tall bartender who made them feel so self-conscious that many lapsed into silence. Around the corner there was an egg shop which only opened on Thursdays and a Jehovah’s Witness church where smartly-dressed attendees would meet every day to discuss strategy.

The water from the old lady’s flat gathered momentum as it went down the marble stairs but it was a weekday and nobody was around to hear a dog barking when the water seeped under the door on the third floor. By the time it reached the second floor it had spread more widely beyond the stairs and into the structure of the building. A sleeping baby was woken by a series of cold drips from the ceiling and started to cry. Her father came out of the study, picked her up and took her back with him without looking up.

By this time the water had reached the entrance hall and pushed under the front door, Rasputin had sold his final avocado and was heading home. He waved to the tall bartender as he passed the tiny bar and carried on up the road for a few metres before realising he walking against a stream. The water had reached the street and he could see it cascading down the stairs inside the building. After frantically ringing a few doorbells he called the emergency services and went back to the bar to see if the tall bartender had a spare key.

He didn’t. But he did enjoy uninterrupted views of the mountains from an illegal terrace on the top floor of his building, and panicked at the thought that the police might try to gain access across his roof. So he suggested that one of them break the small pane of glass in the front door and try to crawl through and open it from the inside. He then went back inside to get a hammer.

While he waited, Rasputin heard singing and followed it to the Jehovah’s Witness church around the corner. Services were held in a large windowless room with children’s drawings on the wall and sticky linoleum tiles on the floor but God was present in the most unlikely of places. Rasputin brought two volunteers back with him and, with the help of the bartender’s hammer, they broke the glass. Just at that moment, a bald man with a tattoo of a snake up one arm and a baby under the other came slowly down the stairs, water rushing past him on both sides. He stood for a while, reluctant to let go of the railing, then clutching his baby close he waded to the front door and opened it. His feet crunched on the broken glass but the sound was lost in the running water.

Nobody knew what to do next. The water was now just below knee level in the entrance hall and running freely through the broken window onto the pavement outside.

The tattooed man confirmed that it was coming from the fifth floor but there was no sign of the old lady. One of the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggested that somebody should try to cut off the water and the power, but nobody knew how to do that, or even where to start. Besides, doing anything with electricity while standing in water was asking for trouble.

At this moment, Carmen from the fourth floor arrived. In spite of her outspokenness, which as far as she was concerned was the only way to survive in a world of imbeciles, people felt she was the best person to puncture the bubble of indecision they were trapped in. She pointed out that the man with the baby hadn’t been electrocuted and it was therefore safe to send an advance party upstairs while they waited for the emergency services. When the others refused to let her go herself, on account of her recent hip replacement, she reached into her handbag and took out a key which she announced was for the old lady’s flat. Nobody dared ask her why or how she had it.

Progress was being made. Rasputin felt he had no choice but to go, and he was joined by a representative from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the tattooed man. The three of them pushed through the water and began to climb the stairs, clinging to the metal railings and trying to stay upright. The tattooed man slipped a couple of times and Rasputin remembered too late that he’d put on his new shoes that morning. The nominated Jehovah’s Witness pushed ahead, still annoyed with herself for leaving her supply of leaflets in the church. Whatever they found upstairs, it was likely that someone would need spiritual help and a leaflet somehow seemed more professional.

When they reached the top floor, the water was pushing so hard under the door of the flat that the wood was beginning to buckle. They banged and shouted but there was no sound from inside other than the sound of running water. Holding on to Rasputin’s arm, the tattooed man unlocked and pushed it open with his shoulder. They were hit by an initial surge of water but they held on to each other and somehow managed to stay upright and go inside.

There was blood everywhere in the flat. It was on all the surfaces in the tiny kitchen. The door handles were slimy with it. In the bathroom, it was smeared all over the shower and in the washbasin. Globs of it were floating in the water. For a moment they all froze, their minds trying to process this new and horrific information. Then they remembered the water.

Every tap in the flat was open. In the bathroom the plugged basin overflowed into a wastepaper bin, in which in the water had created a type of papier mache before leaking through its metal mesh to the floor. In the shower an unhappy-looking aloe vera had been placed over the plughole. In the kitchen, the water overflowed from the sink in all directions, from a bread bin with a couple of soggy slices to a toaster which they all instinctively recoiled from before realising it was unplugged.

The tattooed man and the Jehovah’s Witness grabbed mops, buckets and set to work while Rasputin went into the sitting room. He waded over to the window and pulled up the blinds, and suddenly the room was full of birdsong. When Rasputin tried to describe the birds later, he said they were small, had feathers and were in a cage. His attention was elsewhere.

The old lady was lying under a rug on the sofa, unconscious but still breathing. Her wrists were stained with dried blood, almost the same colour as her hair and she was clutching her little dog. On a small wooden table beside her, and next to a black and white photo of a solemn family, there was a half-finished note written in an old fashioned script. Nobody wanted to read it.

Downstairs the crowd did what crowds do. They forgot about the water and started chatting about other things. The tall bartender decided to take advantage of the situation and went down to open up. Some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses went back to their service, leaving some leaflets on the bar just in case. They were still there three months later.

It was at this moment that the crowd heard sirens cutting out further down the road and two fire engines, one ambulance, one squad car, three police officers on motorbikes arrived and blocked the entire street. A paramedic shouted out of the window for a stretcher; a firefighter checked the electrics; and a police officer stopped everyone in their tracks by calling headquarters on her mobile and asking them to alert the Dead Animals Unit. Nobody, not even some of her colleagues, was aware such a department even existed.

When information about the old lady filtered down to the crowd outside they began to speculate wildly. Was it a genuine suicide, brought on by the death of her dog, a cry for help or an accident? Most importantly, why had she left the taps on?

Their theorising was halted by the appearance of one of the firefighters coming down the stairs with a blanket. Carmen decided she’d waited long enough and took advantage of the hiatus to make a break for it. The crowd watched her, as if in slow motion, as she slipped, grabbed the blanket and pulled it off to reveal a stiff little corpse. Nobody said a word.

On the landing upstairs, Rasputin could sense that one of the police officers was trying to remember where he’d seen him before, so he volunteered to give the first witness statement in order to clear up the business of the broken glass and get away before things got complicated. He was interrupted by a scream of rage from the floor below and, looking over the railings, he saw Carmen pushing past a torrent of water to get into her flat. And as the stretcher passed he swore he could see a smile on the old lady’s face.


THE ARTIST’S NEW BEGINNINGS

by Juliet Hill

The sad, pale young man sat nervously waiting for his name to be called.  Every fibre of his being strained to be part of this institution proving himself as the great artist he was destined to be in future.  It had taken a lot of courage to come here.

  He eyes strayed around these grand surroundings as the large, gilt clock ominously ticked away the minutes of his life.  Yes, he was only eighteen but genius could not afford to wait.

   He took in the severe stares from the aged gentlemen marooned in unflattering portraits for eternity.  They obviously did not approve of the slightly built young man from Linz who had come to take Vienna by storm.

  He let a half smile escape from his otherwise serious face.  Yes, he and his friend August had been very courageous to leave their hometown with very little money and travel into the Bohemian world of Vienna. However, he knew in his heart that one day he would change the face of Europe and be famous forever throughout the world.

  August very often used to chide him about his laziness, not rising until midday and making no attempt to find work.  However, he knew mundane work was not for him and as for lazy, was it his fault he was a creature of the night?  Driven by genius to stay up all night discussing not only art but also the wider issues facing Vienna.  He talked about the ageing Emperor Franz Josef and his corrupt ministers.  He had once had a glimpse of the doddering old man from a past age and wondered about life’s unfairness.

   How could such a man rule the vast Hapsburg Empire when he and others like him were destined to grind out an existence in poverty until their genius was recognised?

   He looked at his watch; the committee were late; this might be the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts but their timekeeping was abysmal.  He caught his reflection in the mirror and congratulated himself on his appearance.  Every inch the artist he thought and tonight when he visited the opera to celebrate his acceptance into this great institution, he would create the image of a perfect young man of leisure and sophistication.

The October weather was beginning to bite here in Vienna and he suddenly felt cold as he thought about his future.  Even he knew his money wouldn’t last forever.  He was also fully aware that this was the second time he had tried to gain acceptance at this institution.  He could not possibly be turned down a second time.

   He had spent long hours on his test drawings sparing no emotional investment in their execution.  He felt they showed true talent and he could not understand why he had not been automatically admitted. Now he was waiting to see if he would be allowed to sit the formal admittance exam.

   He sighed; he was getting angry with wasting time, waiting for what was a forgone conclusion.  Why did academics always have to drag everything out so much?  He was also thinking about when August had told him that he had little patience and a terrible temper. This combination was not always best for his future projects such as this one.  He did not want to get off to a bad start here.

 August had told him quite bluntly he had to stop screaming like a madman every time someone disagreed with him.  He was fed up of August complaining that he had many good ideas but never finished any of them.

   What did August know about having a mind so full of ideas that you had to move from one to the other quickly in case they deserted you?  He was also fed up of August because he had successfully gained entrance to the Vienna Conservatory and was studying music there, very successfully.

   That fact did not sit well on his shoulders.  He had already decided to move out of their lodgings before August returned from two months of military training.  Of course, he would leave no forwarding address.  His friend had served his purpose and that was that.

   As the day died outside it cast a dark shadow over his mind.  Suppose they did not accept him and he was once again cast adrift from his dream. He knew he could earn a meagre living selling picture postcards of Vienna’s famous landmarks; he was sure he could also paint posters for shop windows until he was recognised as a painter.   He also knew he could sell his paintings to Jewish shop owners who had already shown an interest.  So yes, if he had to he could get by until his genius was truly appreciated.

   The sun had now sunk over this vibrant city and soon the stream of Bohemians would grace the colourful cafes and smoky bars shaping tomorrow’s world with their artistic talent.  He would soon be joining them.

   The large oak door creaked open and he automatically stood to receive the committee members, ready to accept their congratulations.  So, he was somewhat nonplussed when a lowly clerk came towards him with an envelope.  He took it while the lowly clerk scurried away taking shelter behind the now locked door.  He stared at the paper in his hand; his future was encased in this cream envelope.

  His hands trembled as he tore the seal:

‘Dear Mr. A.Hitler,

   The committee has decided that you have an unfitness for painting and we will not offer you a place at our illustrious institution.’    The signature was unimportant. His heart pounded as his anger set his brain on fire.  His body shook with rage.  Damn these people he thought.  It was obviously time for new beginnings.  He would try his hand at politics; after all he had always been a good speaker. Yes, that was where he would make his mark in the world.


The Silent Pool

by Ruth Loten

Lily pressed a tissue to her lip, trying to stem the flow of blood. This was it. This time he was going to kill her. She’d never seen him so angry before. It never took much to set him off, but she’d asked for it this evening. She contradicted him in front of his friends, something that was definitely high on the list of things she should never do. Andrew didn’t like being told he was wrong and to embarrass him in front of his friends was unforgiveable. She hadn’t meant to and as soon as the words left her mouth she knew she would pay for them. She just hadn’t expected it to be this bad.

                Foolishly, she had assumed the punishment would come when they got back to her flat but when he said nothing as they got in the car, she allowed herself to hope that in the pleasant evening that followed her faux pas, he might have forgotten it. After all, he’d continued to pay her compliments and laughed at her jokes during dinner, even putting his arm around her as they sat talking in the living room with his friends. Instead, he was merely biding his time, giving her time to relax before exacting his revenge. He waited until they were on a deserted stretch of road, then stopped the car and yanked her door open.

                ‘Get out!’

                Lily obediently unclipped her seatbelt, wondering if he was simply going to abandon her at the side of the road. She was too slow in following his instructions though and his hand shot through the open door and hauled her out of the car by her hair. She whimpered in pain and fear, having learnt any extraneous show of emotion only made him angrier. Her head slammed into the roof of the car and she felt the skin below her eye split.

                ‘Bitch!’ He wiped the spit from his lips. ‘Feel. Clever. Now?’

Each word was accentuated by a blow across her face and through the haze of pain she was aware of a second stream of blood trickling down her chin.

She shook her head.

‘Who wrote Gone With The Wind?’

Now she was permitted to speak.

‘Margaret Bond.’

Another blow landed.

‘I can’t hear you. Margaret who?’

‘Bond.’

‘I knew I was right. Don’t mumble in future. And sort yourself out. You’re a proper mess. You could at least make an effort to look nice when we see my friends.’

With shaking hands, Lily re-pinned her hair and adjusted her dress. When she’d finished, Andrew gave her a cursory glance.

‘It’s a bit better, I suppose. Get in the car.’

He closed the door gently and resumed their journey.

‘Do you mind if I stay over tonight? I thought we could try that new place for breakfast tomorrow.’

Lily’s fingers tightened around her bag. He’s a psychopath. No wonder his first wife left him. She saw him clearly for the first time in the three months they’d been dating. His sob story about his wife had been a lie. He wasn’t the vulnerable, betrayed, broken man he’d made himself out to be. How had she ever believed him to be? His charm was all on the surface and it had blinded her to his faults, allowed her to believe him when he’d cried and apologised and promised never to hurt her again.

‘Of course,’ she said brightly. ‘Sounds lovely.’

If she was going to act, it had to be fast and it had to be unexpected. She had no doubt there was more planned once they got back to the flat and if he got her inside there’d be no escape. She needed to catch him unawares. Looking out of her window, she realised they were approaching a junction where there was a wooded area in which she might lose him. As he slowed the car to make the right-hand turn onto the A248, Lily unfastened her seatbelt, wrenched the car door open and rolled out onto the road. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder and blessing Andrew’s insistence that she wear flat shoes to avoid making him look short, she was off the tarmac and heading for the cover of the nearby woods almost before Andrew had managed to bring the car to a full stop. By the time he recovered from the shock of her escape, parked the car and set off in pursuit, she was plunging into the shelter of the trees. However, she knew his longer legs would catch her up before too long. All she could do was to get as far away as possible then find somewhere to hide and hope for the best.

Drawing in deep shuddering breaths that made her ribs ache, Lily skidded to a halt at the edge of the lake. Dammit. She’d forgotten how big The Silent Pool was. If she tried to go around the side there was a good chance Andrew would see her, but it was unthinkable to attempt to swim across it. Andrew was a non-swimmer so she’d be safe from him, but it was dark and she had no desire to leap from one risk of death to another. It was too cloudy for the moon to offer her any help and she didn’t trust her ability to find the other bank without it. Fighting off the rising panic, she pushed her way into the bushes and pulled the leaves back into place, hoping her dark dress would camouflage her if Andrew came this way.

With a sinking heart, she heard him crashing through the foliage and willed herself to stay calm.

‘I can see you, Lily! You can’t outrun me. Just come back to the car and we can talk about this. I’m sorry I lost my temper.’

She held her breath, uncertain how close he was and prayed he was bluffing.

‘Sweetheart? I’m sorry. Please wait.’

His voice was nearer now. Lily felt something brush past her hiding place and stifled a gasp, but then Andrew appeared a little way off, his tone altered again.

‘Stupid girl. You’re trapped. There’s nowhere left to run, is there? Unless you’re planning to swim for it!’

Lily found a little gap in the leaves. Andrew wasn’t looking at her all all. He was staring at a spot at the edge of the lake.

‘Why did you run, Lily? I didn’t mean to get angry. Forgive me?’

Lily could just make out the dark figure of a woman at the water’s edge. Receiving no reply to his question, Andrew tried again.

‘Come back to the car, Lily. I won’t hurt you again, I promise.’

Still the figure made no denial of her identity. Instead, she turned and began wading out into the dark waters of the lake. With a shout – whether of fear or rage, Lily couldn’t tell – Andrew leapt across the remaining distance and strode into the water after her. The woman turned at the sound of splashing and it seemed to Lily, frozen to the spot, that she looked right at her. With an odd half smile, the woman turned and continued her path through the water, Andrew following closely behind her. His grasping fingers reached out to take hold of her arm and then suddenly he disappeared under the surface of the lake. Lily couldn’t prevent a squeak of alarm escaping and she waited for a moment, expecting him to rise, spluttering, but there was no sign of him.  The Silent Pool was true to its name once more and nothing marred its smooth facade.

Shaken, but unable to stop the wave of relief that washed over her, Lily shouldered her way into the open. Taking her phone out of her bag, she dialled the emergency number.

‘Hello? I need to report an accident.’

Once she was assured the police were on their way, her calm demeanour deserted her and shivers racked her body as she wondered how she was going to explain Andrew’s disappearance.

‘I don’t know who you are,’ she whispered into the silence, ‘But thank-you.’ There was no reply, just a gentle ripple that ran across the water.


The Anatomy of a Ticking Clock

by Ciara Mullaney

Emma wakes to ticking.

She burrows deeper into her covers at first, unwilling to give up the last tendrils of sleep. But eventually she relents and rolls over, reaching her hand out to hover over her alarm clock in anticipation of its impending ring. When nothing happens after a few seconds she cracks one eye open and peers at her clock. That’s weird; it’s not even 6am yet. That’s when she realises the ticking isn’t coming from her clock.

It’s in her head.

Her eyes widen in horror and her breath catches in her throat. Mind racing, she stumbles from her bed, blindly feeling along the wall until her hand closes around the door handle. She yanks it open and takes a staggering step into the hallway. This wasn’t supposed to happen now. Not yet. Not today.

She’s frightened, of course she is, but more than that she feels an overwhelming, indescribable rage burning inside her. This isn’t fair. It’s a cruel, sick joke of their world to put this kind of pressure on anyone; being forced to make a decision that could alter your world entirely and not knowing until after whether it will or not. It’s horrific.

Oh sure, sometimes the outcome is benign but does it really matter?

The ticking on its own is enough to drive anyone mad.

It starts somewhere in the centre of your skull; a click, click, click that’s not quite the same as that of a countdown clock but that’s what it is, really. It’s a countdown, warning you that at some point throughout your day you will encounter a decision that has the power to change the course of someone’s life forever.

She remembers the horror stories from her childhood – the cases where the sound has carried on for weeks on end, leaving people crippled with indecision and incapable of escaping the never-ending ticking. Or there are the people that have been haunted by the sound; the memory never truly leaving their mind so that an incessant tick, tick, tick follows them around wherever they go. More commonly, there are the people who simply can’t live with the consequences of their decision, left tortured by the lives they’ve inadvertently destroyed.

Emma stands in her hallway, shoulders back and hands trembling at her sides, bracing herself for a threat she can’t see. As tears prick at her eyes, she releases a choked off breath and clenches her fists, resolute.

The best thing she can do is carry out her day as normal. If she keeps everything the same then perhaps the choice will be clear when it’s presented to her. Right now, she doesn’t know what else she can do. Steeling herself, she pads down the hallway towards her bathroom, flinching when the ticking in her head taps in time with her footsteps.

She closes her eyes once she’s in the shower, trying to focus on the sound of the water gushing from the faucet to block out the noise but the ticking is always there, setting her teeth on edge and causing a horrible lump to form in her throat. She understands how people can become tormented by this. She’s only known the sound for fifteen minutes and already she feels like curling up on the floor and sobbing until it eventually stops.

It’s going to be harder than she thought to carry out her day as normal; she can already feel the niggling beginnings of a headache starting to form at her temple.

On her commute to work Emma can’t help the way her eyes dart around her as she walks the quiet streets, her gaze flitting from one sound to the next. The jogger that makes her gasp as he passes her out, the old man sitting at the newspaper stand calling out to passers-by, the woman walking towards her with a dog on its leash. Each one a noise she’s never paid any mind to on her morning journey before, yet each one sends a spike of fear through her veins.

Emma skirts around the woman and her dog, stepping towards the edge of the kerb. In her attempt to keep out of the way her right foot slips off the path, planting itself on the road. She’s about to right herself when a car horn suddenly blares behind her and she hears the sound of screeching tyres. She whips her head around in time to see a car swerving towards the footpath right where she’s standing and a frightful scream lodges in her throat.

Terror grips her before reason does, freezing her in place.

She can’t move.

She’s paralysed, rooted to the spot with her heart in her mouth.

This is it. This is her choice, inadvertent though it may be.

But at the last possible second the car veers back to the centre of the road, missing her by a hairsbreadth. She releases a shuddering breath, her shoulders concaving as tears blur her vision. That was it. That must’ve been it. She almost died but, miraculously, she’s still here. Surely all the torment was building up to this.

But as the ringing in her ears subsides, she hears it once again.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

She clenches her jaw and swallows down the desperate urge to cry.

She’s not done yet.

She spends the majority of her work day looking up other cases. Research has been conducted with thousands of subjects across dozens of countries, each of them recounting the day their choice was made. However there seems to be no correlation whatsoever between anybody’s accounts. No two days even sound remotely the same. The only similarity they all share is the description of the ticking.

By the time she’s able to clock out her stomach is in knots. As she’s leaving the office her phone rings, making her jump. She sighs when she recognises the caller – her brother. After a moment’s hesitation she answers but he starts rambling before she can even open her mouth.

“Hey, so you’ll never guess what happened to me today. I was waiting for the bus and there was this guy-“

“Alex,” she interrupts. She doesn’t mean for it to come out as a whisper but she can’t make herself speak any louder. “I can hear it.”

Alex stops speaking immediately and for a beat there’s only the sound of static on the other end of the line. “What?”

“I can hear it,” she repeats, glancing around anxiously in case anyone else is listening in. “It started this morning.”

Alex is quiet for a moment before he asks, “Does it sound like they describe it?”

She nods before she remembers he can’t see her. “It’s just constantly there, in the back of my head. I can’t ignore it or block it out. I feel like I’m losing my mind and it’s only been a few hours.”

“I’m coming over to you,” he says, his tone leaving no room for argument. “Are you on your way home from work now?”

“Yeah,” she tells him, casting a darting look around to check the road is clear before crossing to the other side. “I’ll be home in about ten minutes.”

“Okay, I’ll see you then,” he says. And then, more gently, “Try not to worry, Emma. It’ll be alright. Whatever it is, it’ll be alright.”

She hopes so.

“I’ll see you soon,” she replies before hanging up. She glances at the sky as she pockets her phone; dark clouds are beginning to form overhead and she can’t shake off the ominous feeling they elicit. She keeps her head down on the rest of her journey home, careful not to make eye contact with anyone and bunching her shoulders to avoid bumping into other pedestrians. She holds her coat close across her chest, her speed picking up in time with the wind. It’s only when her apartment building is in sight that she feels some of the anxiety in her stomach unfurl.

But as she reaches the crossing a number of things happen at once.

A car horn sounds like a warning bell once again, from a van this time, racing past as if the wind is carrying it away. It blows her hair across her face and she pushes it back behind her ears just in time to see a man tearing up the street outside her apartment building, knocking an unsuspecting woman to the ground. Her mind has hardly registered what she’s seeing when a scream suddenly rips through the air and there’s an almighty blast so strong it almost makes her knees give out.

And just like that, in the jump between one second and the next, the world is in turmoil.

She steadies herself and looks around frantically, blood rushing in her ears as she tries to find the source of all the commotion but smoke clouds the air down the street, making it impossible to see what caused the blast in the first place.

More screams follow the first and soon she sees people emerging from the smoke, rushing up the street away from whatever horror still lies hidden to her. Her eyes catch on a woman limping with a bloodied wound on her forehead when another booming crash thunders to her right, loud enough to make the ground shake as plumes of thick smoke shoot towards the sky.

Panic presses down on her chest and she realises this must be it. This chaos – whatever it is – must be the place where she makes her decision.

But what does she do?

She takes a tremulous breath, looking around her for some kind of sign but it’s too much. There’s too much happening. Her instincts tell her to help someone but there are too many people around her to even know how to begin to help. Or who, for that matter.

Her heartbeat hammers in her ears, rapping in time with the ticking, overwhelming her until she has to squeeze her eyes shut and clap her hands over her ears in an attempt to block it out. She just needs a second to think.

Opening her eyes, her gaze lands on her apartment building on the other side of the road.

A few minutes; that’s all she needs and she’ll make a decision.

Before she can change her mind she sprints across the street, hastily punching in the entrance code for her building and making a dash for the stairs. She doesn’t focus on anything else but getting to her apartment, using the bannister to pull herself along every time she trips on a step. It takes her three tries to get her key in the lock her hands are shaking so much but once it catches she lurches inside and slams the door closed behind her.

And all at once, the sound of carnage is muffled.

Her hands press against the closed door and she hangs her head, closing her eyes as she takes a steadying breath.

She’s barely had a moment to exhale when she’s stumbling backwards as the front door is being shoved open yet again.

“Emma!” Alex shouts, pushing his way inside. “I-“

Whatever he’s about to say is cut off by another tremendous explosion. It sounds as if it comes from right outside the window and sends a ripple through the foundations of the building, forcing them both to reach for something to hold onto.

The building shakes around them and her furniture begins to topple as crevices form in the ceiling, causing plaster to rain down above them. A whimper escapes her lips and she grips the edge of the bookcase tighter. They’re going to be crushed.

The ticking is becoming louder in her ears like a bomb waiting to go off inside her head. Alex stares at her with wide, bewildered eyes and she knows with a sickening moment of clarity that she’s not the only one hearing it anymore.

Then. Suddenly.

The ticking stops. Time’s up.