Short Story 2017 Winning Entries

First Prize: Giving Him Back – Valerie Bowes

‘There’s that little kid again,’ said Peter.

‘Where?’ Mara turned her head, and even Ginny looked up from the careful construction of a sandcastle.

‘Over there. See?’

Mara levelled her hand against the hot golden blaze of the sun and followed Peter’s pointing finger. She could see nothing but the blinding flicker of the sea at first, but then she spotted the small figure, insubstantial as a shadow.

‘Oh, yes. I see him.’

‘Why’s he got to come down this end?’ Peter grumbled.  ‘He’s got all the rest of the beach to play in. Why’s he got to come to our bit?’

‘Well, I don’t know, do I?’ Mara said. ‘Anyway, what’s the problem? He’s not doing any harm.’ She leaned forward to pat a crumbling bit of Ginny’s sandcastle back into shape. ‘Watch out, Ginny. Your wall’s falling down.’

‘Yes, but it’s not fair.’

‘Oh, leave him alone, Peter. He’s not bothering us.’

All the same, she couldn’t help wondering why the child had been allowed to stray so far from his mother. He was too small to be wandering about on his own. Anything could happen to him, she thought, with a faint twist of unease.

The boy stood watching them, his thumb jammed into his mouth, and Mara guessed him to be about two or three years old. She half lifted a hand to wave at him, then changed her mind. If they ignored him, he might go back to his mum. Peter was right; he shouldn’t be here.

‘Come on, let’s play football,’ she said, jumping up. ‘Want to play, Ginny?’

Ginny shook her head of fair curls and began to stick shells onto the sandy walls of her castle.

‘She’s too little, anyway,’ Peter said scornfully. ‘She’d only muck it up. Right, I’ll be striker. You be in goal.’

By the time Peter had scored twenty-seven goals, the boy had gone. Mara didn’t actually see him go, and it worried her a little. Perhaps she should have kept more of an eye on him.

It’s not your problem, she told herself sternly. Someone else should be looking after him. You’ve got Peter and Ginny. That’s enough to be getting on with. Her thoughts mimicked her mother’s words: I haven’t got eyes in the back of my head, you know.

‘Yes!’ Peter crowed as goal number twenty-eight soared past her ear, but she was getting bored and too tired to chase after the ball any more.

‘You get it,’ she called, flopping down beside Ginny. Peter grumped, but he trotted off. He dribbled the ball back, jinking and turning to leave imaginary opponents wrong-footed and helpless, and gave it an almighty thump.

‘And he scores!’ he yelled. The ball rose into the blue air, descended, and landed right on Ginny’s castle. The little girl broke into a crescendo of wails.

‘Oh, for goodness sake, Peter!’ Mara shouted. ‘Why couldn’t you kick it the other way? Now look what you’ve done! Ginny, shush, love. Never mind. We’ll build an even better one tomorrow.’

‘Don’t want tomorrow,’ Ginny hiccuped. ‘I want my mummy! Mara, I want my mummy!’

‘Don’t we all?’ Mara muttered. She heaved Ginny onto her hip with a struggle. The child was not that much smaller than herself, but Mara was the eldest and she felt responsible. ‘Come on, Pete. Time to go.’ She led the way up the sloping beach, and the children disappeared into the shifting dunes.

 

The sea had washed and ironed the beach ready for them. Ginny plumped herself down on the shining unblemished surface and started to ladle sand into her yellow battlemented bucket. Peter began his usual game of rolling down the sandhills, and Mara stretched herself out on the sun-warmed grains. She let the never-ending mutter of the waves lull her gently, and closed her eyes against the glare. The light did not change, rosy through the shutters of her eyelids, but the heat went out as though someone had switched it off.

She opened her eyes and sat up, shivering. The little boy was watching them from the edge of the sea.

‘I don’t believe it! It’s him again!’ Peter slid down the dune in a shower of sand to squat beside her. ‘Why doesn’t he bog off?’

‘Peter!’ Mara admonished sharply.

‘Well…’ Peter lifted a sulky shoulder.

Mara stared at the boy. It was odd, the way he kept appearing, and she found his wide-eyed solemn gaze distinctly unsettling.

‘He’s too little to be all the way down here on his own. I’m going to take him back and see if I can find his mummy.’

‘How can you?’ Peter said, doubtfully.

‘I don’t know, but I’ve got to try.’ She turned to look straight at him. ‘Haven’t I?’

‘S’pose.’ Peter wriggled his bare brown toes. ‘Mara? Do you think he’s…’

‘Shut it, Pete,’ Mara warned, with a nod in Ginny’s direction. Ginny was too young to understand. Perhaps she’d be frightened.

‘Yes, but …’ He subjected a piece of drying seaweed to a profound scrutiny. ‘Why does he keep coming here? Is it ’cos he’s….’

‘Not if I can help it!’ Mara snapped. Her mother would have said Over my dead body.

Peter sighed. ‘Want me to come with you?’

‘No, we can’t leave Ginny all on her own. You stay here. I won’t be long.’

She stood up and brushed sand off her shorts, then went towards the boy, holding out her hand invitingly.

‘Hello, I’m Mara. What’s your name?’ The boy took his thumb from his mouth, put both hands behind him and took a couple of steps backwards into the sea. Mara stopped. ‘Look, it’s OK. Come on, I’ll take you back. Let’s go and find your mummy, shall we?’

 

 

He stared at her a moment longer, then, to her relief, he came out of the water.  She held out her hand again, but he turned and ran away from her along the infinity of the beach. Mara jogged along a short distance behind, straining to keep him in view through the barrier of the shimmering heat haze.

A tinge of excitement flickered under her anxiety as music grew louder, thumping jerkily. Somewhere up ahead, caterpillars and ladybirds undulated around the small circle of the carousel, with a countermelody of bloops and pings from the amusement arcade where greedy machines gobbled coins and gave nothing more than  anticipation in return.

She lifted her nose and sniffed the seaside essence of candyfloss and hotdogs. Beyond the sun’s screening light, she knew that Frisbees flying-saucered through the air, mouths grew sticky with ice-cream and thirsty from too much pop. Down this end of the beach, there were windshields and towels and picnic baskets and families. This was where the boy belonged. Here, where children shrieked and mothers called.

Mara halted. Surely they’d realised the kid was missing? They must be searching for him. She’d brought him back to them, hadn’t she? He should be all right now. As if he had heard her thought, the boy paused, flung a fleeting glance over his shoulder, and dissolved into the haze.

Mara gazed at the spot where the boy had been and felt her heart tumble over in her chest. She’d hoped so much that her imagination had been running away with her, but she’d been right, all along. She turned round and walked back, slowly.

Peter had helped Ginny create a magnificent, towering edifice. They were just setting the last turret in position as Mara reached them.

‘Did you find his mum, then?’

‘No, but he went back.’ Mara sat cross-legged.

‘What’s it like there?’ Peter asked, with wistfulness in his voice.

‘Noisy,’ Mara said. ‘And smelly. It’s much better here.’

Peter rapped the bottom of the bucket with scientific skill and turned out a perfect battlement.

‘There you go, kiddo,’ he said with pride. ‘Come on, let’s get some water and fill up the moat.’

He handed Ginny the yellow pail and they ran off hand in hand, down to the sea’s edge. Mara absently carved windows into the blank walls, her thoughts elsewhere, but the echo of a commotion brought her to her feet, looking round. The heat-haze had thickened until it resembled a gleaming fog. Beyond its flickering sheen she could see no-one, but the screaming intensified.

‘Mara! Mara!’

That was Peter, his voice cracking with urgency. Mara ran, following the sound to where he stood, his arm around Ginny’s shoulders. She could see him trembling, and knew before he pointed. She raced past them, straight into the sea towards the small body that floated just out of reach. The waves lifted her momentarily off her feet but she steadied, flinging herself forward, grabbing for the white hand so tantalisingly near. She had to reach him. She just had to.

The hand was cold, but the little fingers curled around her own. It was not too late. Things were going to be different, this time.

All her instincts were to pull, to tug him onto the safety of the beach. She squeezed her eyes shut, and pushed with all her strength. The small fingers clutched desperately at hers, but she wriggled her hand free, feeling the boy drift away, beyond the reach of any second thoughts. Giving him back to the sea.

‘What did you do that for?’

Peter shoved his hands deep into his pockets and kicked at the rim of scum left by the waves as Mara wrung water from her hair and flung herself down on the smooth wet sand.  Ginny was already wandering back to the sandcastle and Peter jerked his head in her direction.

‘He’d have been company for her,’ he said.

But Mara was listening, her forehead on her knees and tears of mingled joy and sadness tumbling into the sand. She could hear so clearly, on the other side of the heat-haze, the motor of the approaching boat and the glad voices of those who lifted the boy from the calm, consuming sea.  

On either side of her, the flat, empty beach stretched into infinity. But at least there were still only three children on it. She heaved a resigned sigh and reached out a hand to clasp Peter’s.

‘Come on. Let’s go and help Ginny with her sandcastle. We can play football later, if you like.’

And the lifeguard, dizzy with thankfulness as he powered the inflatable back over the rocking water, counted in his head the children who had drowned here over the years, the ones they hadn’t been able to save: the boy; the little angel with the halo of candyfloss curls; and the ten-year-old with the unusual name that he could never remember.

Second Prize: Hara-kiri       – Richard Stephenson                         

Mike’s Wednesday had been pretty unexceptional really, right up until the moment Dave had asked for help committing suicide.

 

It had been late in the day, Mike had been freshening up in the toilets and emerged into the corridor to find Dave apparently waiting for him. Dave’s thin frame was held in a slightly stooped manner, as if he were bearing a heavy weight, his form hunched and beaten. It was a posture Dave had been wearing for a while now. He looked at Mike expectantly but seemed to have momentary trouble making his request.

 

“Mike, I…”

 

Mike was naturally suspicious, why had Dave sought to speak with him outside the office? Must be something he wanted to keep quiet. Mike was anxious not to become embroiled in office politics and Dave was hardly ‘Mister Popular’ at the moment. He was tempted to slice past – refuse to engage.

 

“I was, er…”

 

Looking into Dave’s sleepless eyes Mike felt a sudden surge of pity. Dave had made a catalogue of errors with an important account and lost the business, presumably to a rival company. He had since lost the respect of his co-workers and Mike realised that this was the reason he was keen to get away – he didn’t want to be found fraternising with Dave, apparently illicitly. Dave wore his shame like an open wound and Mike didn’t want to get contaminated by anything unpleasant that might spill from it.

 

“Mike… would you be my kaishakunin?” Dave finally blurted out.

 

This surprised Mike but it made sense now: the desire for discretion until the grand moment. But still, Dave must really be desperate. Being a kaishakunin was normally a privilege reserved for extremely close friends or blood relatives and though he and Dave had always been cordial towards each other, they had never been close, just regular colleagues.

 

Mike did the maths – being Dave’s number two for his ritual suicide did carry a responsibility; if he did it right he would help Dave reclaim his honour, it would count as a big plus in Mike’s favour. He could see it on his report now, ‘supportive of co-workers’.

 

Mike quickly agreed and the particulars were arranged, it would take place in the office at 17:00 the following day and Dave would bring the necessary swords: the short bladed wakizashi and the long bladed katana.

 

Returning to his desk, Mike mulled over Dave’s decision as he collated figures on a sales spreadsheet.

 

Was he overreacting? Probably not. The Murphy account had been a long term prospect and the mainstay of Andy Knowles’ campaign for higher bonuses – the whole office had been affected by the loss of this particular client and this had compounded Dave’s shame.

 

Mike tried to recall the proper procedure for hara-kiri as he imported data from the accounts software package. Wielding a katana is not like golf in that it is vitally important that you do not follow-through. Instead you must ‘check’ the blow, stopping the blade dead in mid-air. This was especially true of hara-kiri, Mike would have to administer the mercy blow deftly so that he left a piece of skin connecting Dave’s head to his body – it was terribly bad form for the head to be totally severed. It had been a long time, Mike suddenly realised, since he’d held a katana.

 

***

 

The city hummed like a vast machine. Mike was on his way to a tea bar on West Street called Infusions. The main bulb had blown on the neon sign in the window so that only the strip underlining the venue’s name was illuminated, a slender, slightly curved blade of blue neon. Inside Mike bought a pot of flowering jasmine tea – a whole dried flower in a glass teapot, sudden immersion causing the blossom to open like a wrist. He had discovered the place when he had been stood up on a date about six months ago. Until then the idea of a tea bar had seemed a little bizarre but he had liked the calm atmosphere, the antithesis of the rowdy beer crowd and had started coming here regularly. He suspected that a small piece of him was still waiting for that girl to walk in through the door.

 

As he watched the bloom in the teapot he contemplated the task he had accepted. When he’d returned home from work, he’d immediately looked out his set of swords, an heirloom passed down in complicated circumstances from his uncle. No doubt Dave had a similarly sentimental family connection to his swords, former property of some antiquated relative. Mike had found the weapon still sharp and surprisingly heavy and had practiced swinging it and stopping it. It required a lot of upper body strength to halt the blade halfway through its arc and after a while the exertion and the closeness of his small flat had combined to make him feel claustrophobic and he’d felt compelled to leave the confines of his open plan living room come kitchen / diner for the only slightly less confined street outside.

 

Mike paid up and left his tea half drunk, the wilted bloom suspended limply in the rapidly cooling water.

***

 

Thursday morning. Mike could barely concentrate on his spreadsheet – God only knew how Dave felt. They had passed in the doorway of the cloakroom that morning, Dave carrying a sports bag with the handle of a sword poking out of the top. The two had nodded at each other, an unspoken ‘a-OK’.

 

Lunchtime came and went. Mike wondered whether he should offer to have lunch with Dave, lest he should have to eat his last meal alone but Dave had dashed from the office at the stroke of 12:00, scurrying out of the door head down, hands in pockets. Mike had pushed his tasteless microwave noodles around their plastic pot but had eaten little.

 

As the time approached, they met as agreed in the cloakroom, Dave handing over the sheathed katana and, after briefly rooting about in his bag, a small envelope. Money? His will?

Mike pocketed the envelope and drew the elegantly curved blade from its scabbard.

“It’s sharp” said Dave.

Mike admired the inlay in the handle. “It’s beautiful” he said.

Dave smiled weakly.

 

All the arrangements had been made. Mr. Pennington had been alerted, Old Bob the caretaker was on stand-by and the accounts staff had been informed so that they could make their way down from upstairs, as per usual for office events: birthdays, retirements, suicides.

 

17:00 according to Mike’s watch. He was tempted to suggest they wait a few minutes, build up the anticipation in the waiting audience, amplify Dave’s big moment – but he didn’t want to draw out Dave’s suffering or worse still, give him time to lose his nerve. Dave tied on his belt, the wakizashi hanging from it. He bowed his head as if in prayer, gave an almost imperceptible shiver and stepped from the room. Mike followed respectfully a couple of paces behind, the katana slung from his own belt.

 

They entered the sales office, Dave striding purposefully through the assembled accounts and warehouse staff. He looked as confident as Mike had seen him in weeks, maybe months. Dave stopped a few paces in front of Mr. Pennington’s desk. The office manager’s stern features were unreadable – was there a trace of amusement playing about the corners of his mouth?

 

Dave’s hand rested on the hilt of his sword. He tried to speak, cleared his throat, tried again.

“I have brought shame on myself” his voice rose sharply as he spoke, “I would like to be allowed to reclaim my honour.”

 

There was a momentary pause before Mr. Pennington nodded solemnly.

 

Dave bowed, and started taking off his shirt. Mike drew the katana and stepped up behind Dave, slightly to the left in the correct manner. He stood, legs apart to brace himself and held the long blade aloft. Dave, now bare from the waist up, drew the wakizashi and sat cross legged on the towel helpfully laid down by Old Bob. He slowly, contemplatively, wrapped a cloth around the handle of the short sword so that he wouldn’t lose his grip and then placed another cloth on his lap. Mike was pleased that he’d planned ahead and they hadn’t been forced to use the Isle of Man tea towel from the kitchen. Everything was as it should be.

 

There was another pause.

 

The room waited.

 

Of the twenty or so people assembled, nobody moved.

 

Nobody breathed.

 

Dave inhaled sharply before plunging the short sword into his midsection with a slightly surprised staccato grunt. Mike was gratified to see that even under pressure, Dave was performing the cut correctly, left to right then up and round and slowly, agonisingly back in the opposite direction. Dave was shaking, shuddering with the effort, strangled, inhuman sounds starting to issue from between his clenched teeth. The collective will of the whole office spurred him on, “Come on Dave, you can do it”.

 

Suddenly, with a final grunt and then a hiss of relief Dave brought the blade round full circle to where it started and something dropped wetly into his lap. This was Mike’s cue. He drew back the sword and with all his strength swung it at Dave’s neck.

 

It was over in the click of a mouse, the flash of a speed camera.

 

The blow was good. As he withdrew the sword and started to clean the blade Mike could see that Dave’s head remained attached. Just.

 

There was a half hearted applause before everyone started wandering back to their desks.

 

Relief. Mike smiled shakily. Mr. Pennington nodded – it was subtle but it was there: good job.

 

Mike finished wiping the blade and sheathed it as Old Bob commenced the clean up.

 

Someone clapped a hand on Mike’s shoulder as he headed back toward his own desk. “Well done mate.”

 

Mike sat, slightly stunned by the adrenaline. He placed the sword on his desk and rooted for the envelope Dave had given him. He opened it with the letter opener his mother had sent him for his birthday, fashioned like a one quarter scale tantō.

 

Inside was a cheap thank you card:

To Mike,

Thanks.

Dave

[End]

 

Third Prize: Old – Marcia Woolf                                                                                       

“Grandma?”

“Yes, darling?”

“How do you know when someone is really old?”

Angela looked up from her magazine. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Daddy is older than me, isn’t he?  And you’re older than Daddy…”

“Yes, of course.”

“And if someone was older than you, would they be old?”

“Quite old, yes.”

“So someone who was older than that person, they would be really, really old?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“But if I just met that person, and didn’t know them, how would I know if they were really, really old or not?”

“Well, you could just ask them how old they were.”

“So how old is really old?”

“How old do you think?”

Maisie considered this for a moment. “Fifty-seven.”

Angela smiled. Fifty-seven must, indeed, seem really, really ancient to a five-year-old. “Well, Daddy is thirty-six.”

“Is he?”

“And I was twenty-three when I had Daddy, so that makes me fifty-nine now, so I must be really old!”

Maisie gaped up at her grandmother in amazement. “But you’re not really old!”

“Aren’t I? How can you tell?”

“Because really old people have grey hair and lots of wrinkles and they bend over like this…”She stood up and posed in an exaggeratedly stooped posture. “And they walk with a stick. And they have those things in their ears because they can’t hear.”

“Well, some do. But some people are old and you can’t really tell.”

Maisie thought again. “You must be able to tell somehow.”

Angela sighed.  “Well, yes, there is a way. But you mustn’t tell anyone if I tell you, because it’s a secret.”

Maisie’s face lit up.  She giggled and climbed up onto the garden seat next to her grandmother and wiggled along until she was as close as she could get without actually being in Angela’s lap.

“Tell me” she whispered.

Angela considered her angle of approach.  “Well, a good way to tell is that someone’s digestive tract slows down.”

“What’s a digevest…track ?”

“You know, don’t you, that when you eat something it goes down into your tummy?”

“Yes.”

“And then a while later it comes out again when you do a poo?”

Maisie giggled. “Yes.”

“Well, when people get old, it takes a very long time from when they eat their food to when it comes out as a poo.”

“Oh.”

“So what happens is that their food stays inside them for a long time. And it stays in there so long that it starts to smell horrible.”

“Yuck!” Maisie wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“And because it makes such a horrid smell, when they go to the lavatory and do a poo, the room smells really nasty when they come out.  It’s a very distinctive smell. Quite stale and sour.”

Maisie listened, fascinated.

“And because the food inside them smells, sometimes the smell comes up from their tummy and their breath smells the same way too.”

“Like a poo?”

“Quite a lot like it, yes.”

Maisie looked around the garden to check they were alone. “Thank you for telling me Grandma.”

“You’re welcome. But don’t forget what I said, not a word to anyone.”
Maisie pressed a finger to her lips.

 

At just after six o’clock, Nat and Claire returned from the funeral. Maisie heard the crunch of the car tyres coming onto the gravel drive and ran around the side of the house to the garden gate.

“Mummy! Daddy!”

Angela put down her trowel, stood up and went in through the back door to the kitchen.  She switched the kettle on.  Claire strolled in first, depositing her bag onto the kitchen table and kicking off her shoes underneath it.

“Hello. Has she behaved herself?”

“Yes! I have, haven’t I Grandma?”

Angela smiled. “Of course she has. No trouble at all.  How did it go?”

Nat stuck his head round the door.  “Oh, you know. Bit grim really.”

“Lots of people?”

“Hardly. Well, enough I suppose.”

Claire let Maisie climb onto her knee, and gave her an absent-minded cuddle, stroking a hand through the child’s fine, fair hair.  Angela poured the tea and cut slices of home-made fruitcake, crumbly and dark, which she arranged on an old willow-pattern plate.  It was the last remaining plate from her own mother’s dinner set, the glaze crackled and chipped from years of use, the patina of service.  Claire looked tired.  She picked at her cake, pushing it around as if to find its best side, half-heartedly conveying a few fragments to her mouth, chewing unenthusiastically, while Nat and his mother chattered good-naturedly to each other about the funeral: who had been there, and who not.  Who had mouthed the hymns, and who had sung lustily to fill the gaps.  Who had sobbed noisily throughout, and who had glowered in the corner, silent and resentful.

“Oh,” said Angela. “Really? Well, well.”

 

There was still warmth in the day, and the downing sun cast a long yellow beam through the open back door, picking up in its path every mote, every speck of dust and drifting dog hair on the uneven tiled floor.  Dog hair, though Treacle had breathed her last in April. Angela noticed the dust, but not enough to care. Housework could wait when there was gardening to be done. There was never enough summer, but always plenty of winter to go around, and that, in her mind, was the proper season to go hunting for dirt.

 

Maisie was tired too.  She lay listlessly against her mother’s shoulder, hearing but not understanding the adults’ talk of grief and disappointment and merciful release.  When the funeral was being arranged, her father had tried to explain to her about death, about sometimes people getting old and going on a long journey and not coming back, but it made no sense.  Maisie knew this was just a story that adults told children to fob them off.  She should have asked her Grandma, who never lied.

 

As the last of the sunlight fell to dusk Claire shook Maisie awake and guided her, protesting, up the stairs to bed.  Angela listened as she heard doors opening and closing, curtains being dragged together along their ancient rail, hot water banging through the echoing pipes, the old cistern filling and filling and filling, then its valve closing with a shudder.  Nat remained sitting by the kitchen table with her, tracing patterns with his finger on the faded cloth as he had traced them as a child.  Someone should turn on a light, he thought.  A pipistrel fluttered past the still-open door, less seen than heard, and English crickets sang their delicate evening song from somewhere beyond the lawn.   Things had fallen quiet upstairs, and soon Claire would tiptoe down again, pale faced against the encroaching night.

 

Angela said, “I don’t care, you know, what they all thought of me.  I didn’t want to go.”

Nat wandered over to the window and stared at his reflection in the blackness of the glass.  At last the air felt cooler.   He filled a tumbler from the tap, and drank it down in one.

“Is everything all right, with you and Claire?” asked Angela.   Nat continued to gaze out towards the garden.  He was thinking about their day together: how Claire had reached for his hand during the service and held it tight.   “Yes,” he said, “we’re fine.”

“Perhaps you should go away for a holiday together, just the two of you.  I can take care of Maisie.”

“There’s nothing wrong. We were just having a bad patch, that’s all. It’s not like we’re on the rocks.”

“No. I don’t suppose you are.”  Angela stood up and began to clear the cups and plates.  She was surprised when Nat let out a sob.  Gently she placed a hand on his arm and leaned towards him.  He towered over her, this son of hers, but he was still her boy.  The same ten-year-old who had stood silently in that same kitchen as his father told him, seriously, solemnly, man to man, that his parents were to divorce.

“What happened?” he pleaded.

Angela bowed her head. “We agreed not to talk about it.”

“For God’s sake. It was twenty-five years ago!  Why did he leave you? Why would neither of you ever tell me?  I’m not a child any more. Did you really hate him so much that you couldn’t even go to his funeral?”

For a moment she was tempted, but a promise was a promise.  “I have never lied to you, Nat. Never.”

“But you haven’t told me the truth either! Why can’t you tell me? Why would he never tell me?”

“Because – because some things are best kept between a man and a woman, between a husband and wife. You’ll find that out, Nat. Some things are better left in the past.”

Nat looked down at his mother.  She seemed very small and slender in the dark, and for once he saw her, not with the mind’s eye of memory but as just his mother, the woman who had always been there along with the house and the garden and the floral tablecloth and the willow-pattern plate; his mother, growing older, with her secrets rotting inside her.

 

They didn’t notice Claire standing at the bottom of the stairs, in the shadows, listening.

 

***

Highly Commended: Stranger, Stranger – Robert Kibble                                          

Where’d I put my damned ticket?  If only I could stick this flashing bloody cutlass somewhere I’d be more organised.  That or if I wasn’t so tired.  We’d be home by now if Fin hadn’t forgotten his sweets, or if I was hard-hearted enough just to tell him he’d lost them so tough luck, or if I wasn’t so skint that even three quid for sweets is too much.  Truth is we don’t have enough money to go out at all, but his Mum had promised him Peter Pan, so it had to be Peter Pan, every year, and Wimbledon had been the closest place doing it.

Of course the tickets are in the pocket I looked in first.  Always are, but hid from me first time.  I hand one to Fin, and then quickly swap when I see mine says “child” on it.  He’s ahead of me.  I adjust his drink in one of my overstuffed pockets to check it isn’t about to fall out.  There are nuts and raisins in the other – snacks which we’ll have because it’s going to be a late supper, especially if we miss the five-past train.  Come on, people – stop dawdling.

I get buffeted sideways by a fat woman pushing through.  Oh come on – this would be quicker if we all just queued.  What’s happening to this country if we can’t queue?

Fin’s just to the right now.  He’s going through the barrier in a second, so I’d best get through this one.  Another man tries to push in front of me, but I hold my place this time, pushing him back a little.  He gives me a nasty look as I slip my ticket into the barrier and get through.  He pushes me again when he emerges from the barrier behind me, and I drop the cutlass.

Leaning down to pick it up I lose sight of Fin for a second.  I spot him still behind the barrier, as if he too has been pushed out of his place.  I must teach him to be more forceful with queueing.  One time we were at a pizza demonstration and they offered the chance for children to make their own pizzas.  Fin was near the front, right next to where the queue began to form, but as he tried to get to the back of the queue it grew as fast as he moved.  He didn’t get to make pizza at all – they ran out of time.  He remembers that sometimes and wants to go back, but we can’t afford it anymore.  He doesn’t understand why, but knows it’s something about Mum.

Hang on – I can’t see him.

Where’s he gone?

I look around, getting hit by another overburdened Christmas shopper, but I can’t see him.

“Daddy!”

My parental instinct kicks in.  Even with all the noise, a parent knows their own child, and knows when they’re in trouble.  He was over there somewhere, way back behind the barriers.  I jump to see better, and catch a glimpse of him.  Some woman with blonde hair and a dark jacket is pulling him, but he saw me for a second.  Oh my God.  My brain turns into a machine.

I look at the entry barriers, but the queue there is way too long.  I run to the disabled gate, but there’s a wheelchair coming through.  I pull the chair through so it’s out of my way, and the man who was helping shouts at me.  He pushes me back and the gate closes behind him.  He says something about me being a bigot.

The barriers aren’t all that high, so I grab onto a broken one and leap up.  The cutlass falls once again.  I leave it lying on the ground, flashing pink and green.

Several people shout at me, but this time I don’t care how hard I push them away.  Fin’s over there, being led to the other exit.

He hasn’t shouted again.  Why not?

Shout boy, shout!

A man grabs me, and I shake my arm and try to get free, but he’s strong.

I look at him – he’s a ticket guard.  I shout, as quick as I can: “My son’s over there.  He’s been taken!”

“Look, sir, you can’t just jump the barriers.”

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”  I’m shouting into his face now.  I sense my right hand forming into a fist.  I’ve only got seconds.  It doesn’t matter how polite I ought to be.

“Please calm down, sir.”

My right hand draws back, and then gets stuck.  Someone else has grabbed it.  I turn, and see another guard.

“Right, come with us,” says the second man.

“Fin!” I shout, and struggle to get away.  They don’t let go.  Why don’t they understand?  They have to let me go.

Fin!

 

*          *          *

 

“Where’d I put my damned ticket?”

I always put it in my waistcoat pocket, but it isn’t there.  I’m too old to be coming into London, especially near Christmas, but I wanted that tea Sarah always liked so much.  It’s stupid, I know.  I’ll be on my own, but I still want to do everything the way she used to, making everything just so.  It feels important at Christmas.  Jake’s down in New Zealand with his family.  He asked me to come, but it’s too far to travel.  I’m getting too old.

I hear someone mutter a swear word and push me.  I’m standing at the top of the stairs, in the way.  Still can’t find that ticket.

I step sideways to get out of the throng of people.  So many people.  I don’t like being bumped around – I don’t want to have another fall.

It’s not in my jacket pocket either.  Where the devil is it?

Try the waistcoat pocket again.  Of course it’s there.  How didn’t I find it first time?

There’s so much noise.

A boy just ahead of me shouts “Daddy”.  He’s being dragged along by his mother.

Odd that he should turn and shout that, though.  His mother smacks him round the side of the head.  You’re not supposed to do that nowadays, although no one thought twice about it when I was young.  There was one time I couldn’t hear anything in one ear for days after being hit by my form master.  I’m a bit deaf in that ear now, come to think of it.

The boy looks properly shocked, like he hasn’t been smacked before.  He was really trying to get away for a second there.

His mother looks furious.  She’s probably tired too.  It’s hard if you have to drag a child along shopping, especially with all these people.

There’s something odd in the way he shouted.

I don’t entirely understand why, but it feels necessary to do something.  I lean out and grab the mother’s arm.

“Excuse me, but you shouldn’t hit a child like that.”

The boy looks up at me.  It looks like he’s about to speak.  His mother grabs his shoulders.  It looks like it’s hurting.  “What’s it got to do with you?”

“He doesn’t look very happy.”

“Staring at boys, are you?  Fucking paedo.”

She says the word paedo really loud, and people start staring.

“Let go of my fucking arm,” she adds.

There another loud shout down by the barriers.  The boy looks sideways, and then twists round.  He’s still being held firmly, but puts his hands together and throws his arms up between his mother’s in what looks like a martial-arts move.  She loses her grip for a second, and the boy runs.

His mother grabs at him, yanking her arm free of my grip, bashing my arm in the process.  That’s going to bruise.  Everything does, nowadays.

She looks over at where the boy has gone, and I’d have expected her to run after him, but she looks scared, and heads the other way.

I start after the boy, wondering if he’ll need some help, hoping no one else will shout anything abusive.

The crowd is dense, and I can only see glimpses of the boy’s blond hair, and hear him shout again: “Daddy”.

 

*          *          *

 

I’m still struggling with the guards when I hear him.  “Daddy.”

I take one deep breath and stop moving.  “That’s my son.”  I’m trying to sound calm.

“Where?”

“That shout.  He’s looking for me.  Fin!”  I shout as loud as I can, and people turn to stare.  I don’t care.  “FIN!”

There’s a shout back.  He’s close.

He runs through a gap between surprised shoppers.  He leaps up at me.  The guards are so shocked they let go.  I’m knocked back against a barrier by this beautiful boy, heavier than I can comfortably carry any more, throwing himself up at me.

I hold him, feeling his trembling heart against my chest even through his thick jacket.  It’s the most wonderful cuddle I’ve ever had.

 

I apologise to the guards for what I did, and explain.  There’s time and calm now Fin’s back.  They accept my apology.  An old man comes over, and Fin manages “woman”, “dragged me away”, “that man stopped her” which gives us enough of an idea what happened.  The guards’ interest perk up again, and they ask him to come with them to make a statement and check security footage.

He sounds sad as he says he doesn’t have anywhere he needs to be.  They want us to come too.  Fin accepts being put on the ground, but he’s holding my hand so tight it hurts.  I don’t mind, and I don’t ask him to loosen it.  I’m probably hurting his hand too.  He’s slightly ahead of me so I can watch him.  The world seems hazy outside of the two of us.  Nothing else matters.  Nothing else really exists.  It’s oddly quiet.

We get taken to a small office with dozens of screens.  The old man describes a forty-something slightly overweight blonde woman in a black jacket and blue jeans, and the guards start looking all over the screens, pressing buttons to make the pictures flash back and forth.

Fin looks over and shouts.  “There!  That’s her!”

The old man nods.  “Looks like her.”

There’s whispering into walkie-talkies, and only seconds later we see, on the screen, two policemen walk up to the woman and lead her away.

There is taking of names and addresses, including an exchange with the old man.  I mutter something about wanting to thank him.  But nothing is real except that I have Fin next to me.  I don’t feel anger or hatred.  Somewhere deep down I feel I should, but it’s not there.  Just relief.

 

The old man becomes William, and spends Christmas with us, even conjuring Fin a Christmas present from somewhere.  Pulling three crackers seems a lot more festive than two.

He apologises that he didn’t manage to find anything for me.  He doesn’t realise he already gave me the best present I’ve ever had.

 

Commended:

If Walls Could Talk – Pamela Trudie Hodge

“Just leave it in the porch here. It’ll be safe enough.” The landlady’s voice was warm and soft with a West Country burr. She had opened the inn door herself as he trudged up the path, wet as a seal, the moorland rain falling out of purple clouds.

“Come in by the fire,” she said. “At least I can offer you that although the electricity has gone down, I’m afraid.”

John stripped off his wet weather gear and dropped it beside his bike.

“I’ll see to that dreckly,” she smiled and led the way along the passage to the bar. The fire seemed to fill half a wall, huge logs burning brightly, flames licking the black throat of the chimney.

John stretched cold hands to the blaze for a moment and then sank on to the soft cushions of a settle. He was alone in the bar – not surprising on a night like this. He was lucky to have stumbled across the inn. He sat back comfortably and closed his eyes.

It was hard to believe that when he had left the B&B this morning the sun was shining brightly on the moor, lighting up the first of the purple heather. John reckoned he could get across the moor easily by nightfall. At mid-day he had sat in his shirtsleeves on a flat lump of granite to enjoy sandwiches and a flask of coffee but a couple of hours on, black clouds had stormed up sweeping the sun into oblivion. Prudently he had shrugged on his wet weather gear and only just in time. When the rain came it was like being under water. Gasping for breath John had to dismount and push his bike. There was nowhere to shelter, not a tree in sight, only short lengths of dry stone walling behind which sheep huddled.

It was as if night had fallen early with sudden claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. It was in one of those flashes that John spotted the roof of a building up ahead. It lay in a natural depression on the moor and at first he thought it was a cottage but then he heard the creaking of the inn sign as it bounced in the wind. John hadn’t seen an inn marked on his map. Maybe, in this appalling weather, he’d strayed from the track. It didn’t matter. Candlelight from a window gleamed a welcome.

John opened his eyes to see the landlady setting a tray down on the table.

“Tidn’t much,” she smiled. “Just rabbit stew and dumplings.”

“Thank you – er – -“

“Most folks calls me Demelza,” she said.

“John,” he pulled out a chair and sat down. The stew was delicious and was followed by crusty bread, soft cheese and rosy apples, glasses of strong beer sipped between mouthfuls.

Demelza took away their empty plates and returned with hot rum toddies and they sat companionably on either side of the fire. Somehow, in eating the meal together, the atmosphere had changed, grown intimate. John let his eyes roam over her. She was beautiful in a sultry, almost Spanish, way. Dark hair, unbraided, curled nearly to her waist, eyes almost as black as she, in turn, watched John. Now and then she leaned to the fire giving him chance to gaze more fully at her tanned throat, the depth of her exciting cleavage.

“Is there anyone who’d worry about you? Someone expecting you home? You’ll not get a signal on your mobile but the telephone’s on the bar there.” She held him with her eyes, flames from the candles sparking them with gold.

John thought about Anthea. Would she be worried? He doubted it. He’d secretly planned this trip for some days just to get away from her nagging. How did a marriage disintegrate in such a short time? He didn’t know but most evenings ended with a row, Anthea screeching, “get out and stay out” and him shrugging on his coat and slamming the door as he went to take refuge in the King’s Arms.  Always, of course, he’d had to slink back at closing time but that day, last Friday, he’d gone to the shed where the panniers on his bike were already packed, determined to have the weekend, at least, to himself in the clean, fresh air. Maybe longer. He could always ring in sick on Monday.

John looked at Demelza.

“No-one” he said. She smiled and picked up a candlestick.

“Bed, then? She asked. John nodded.

“I’ll get my things from the bike.”

“No need,” she smiled. “I’m giving you the best room in the inn. Everything provided.” Was it his imagination or did she emphasise ‘everything’. He hoped so.

The room was large, oak-beamed and dominated by a four-poster bed, the curtains dusky pink, the cover matching but stiff with exquisite embroidery. A fire burned in the grate, its flames making the shadows dance. John let out his breath in a huge sigh.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. Demelza smiled up at him.

“It’s old, this inn,” she said, “bin here forever I shouldn’t wonder. One time ‘twas a coaching inn. Still got a great barn out the back where the horses were stabled. Now it’s a sort of museum.”

She drew the curtains over the window and set the candle on a carved chest. At the door she turned.

“I wouldn’t lock the door if I were you, just in case there’s a fire,” and she raised one dark, expressive eyebrow.

A door on the far side of the room opened on to a surprisingly modern bathroom. John had a hot shower, patted on cologne and cleaned his teeth. Pyjamas were laid out on the bed together with a towelling robe. He ignored the pyjamas but slipped on the robe and picking up the candle made a tour of the room. All the furniture was black with age, a writing desk, wardrobe and chest of drawers but it was when he got to the far side of the room that he noticed the wallpaper. John held the candle high and stared in surprise. How strange. It seemed to be a collage of people. He looked more closely. Here was a woman in a crinoline. Up there a soldier in a red coat, faded with time. Faces on top of faces. Faces peering over the shoulder of the one in front even, down at the bottom, a young lad dressed as a punk with gold earrings and spikey green hair, quite a contrast to the one on his left who looked like a sea captain in an old fashioned uniform. How very odd and, if John were truthful, rather creepy. He put the candle back on the chest, took off the robe and climbed into bed.

He hadn’t long to wait. Demelza’s satin slippers made no sound as she walked towards him. Held for a moment between John and the candlelight, the silhouette of her perfect figure showed clearly through sea-green chiffon. John pulled aside the bed clothes and she slipped in beside him, winding her arms around his neck and drawing him to her.

John woke suddenly and for a moment couldn’t work out where he was. The candle still burned and the flames still licked up the wide chimney so he couldn’t have slept for long. He was alone but a depression in the space beside him and the faint evocative fragrance on the other pillow told him he had not been dreaming. He stretched and smiled and then – – – there it was again, the sound that had wakened him, a distant-seeming cry. He swung his legs out of bed and shrugged on the towelling robe and sat listening intently.

“Help me. John, please help me.” It was Demelza’s voice coming from the far side of the room. John snatched up the candle, held it high and called,

“Demelza. Where are you?”

“Here. Over here. Oh! Please hurry.” The sound was coming from the far wall. John hurried over holding the candle high. He stared, a prickle of fear tracing a cold  finger down his spine. The wall seemed to be alive in the dancing flame. All the faces he had seen earlier were jostling about, mouths opening and closing, hands reaching out and, in their midst, Demelza half absorbed by the wall. Even as John watched, horrified, she slid further in until only her face and one arm protruded.

Her eyes were terrified pools of darkness, one hand stretched imploringly towards him.

“John. Help me.”

He swiftly  set the candle on the floor, seized her hand and, with his feet braced against the wall, pulled as hard as he could but she slipped further in, dragging him after her. He tried to resist, struggling and screaming but, like deadly quicksand, the wall engulfed him. All around he could hear chatter, laughter, weeping. Looking out he could see the room, the four-poster bed, the fire still burning brightly. He felt Demelza’s hand slip from his and then watched in horror as she stepped lightly from the wall, stooped to pick up the candle, and left the room without a backward glance.

The morning dawned innocently as if to say, ‘Storm? What storm?’ Sun sparkled on gorse and newly washed heather. Sheep peacefully grazed.

Demelza packed John’s wet-weather gear into one of the panniers and pushed the bike over to the barn. The massive doors opened and sunshine poured in. She wheeled the bike to the far end  and pushed it into a rack which already held a racing bike, a sit-up-and-beg, a turquoise Raleigh and a penny farthing.

Walking back down the centre aisle, Demelza trailed her hands lovingly, leaving finger marks in the dust on a tractor, an American jeep, a governess cart, an MG in racing green, a haywain, a Roman chariot – – –

 

Parka Billy – Juliet Hill

Like a throwback to another century. That’s how she’d have described it if she’d read about the incident in the days when she still bought newspapers. The Victorian-slum brutality of the dispossessed turning their rage against each other she’d have said, if she was feeling articulate and wanted to show off. She’d never have thought herself capable of such savagery, but that was then, before she became a non-person. By the time she found herself grateful for a dry shop doorway or a half-eaten slice of pizza, everything which had been anchoring her to her previous comfortable existence had long since evaporated.

Doug had always said she was the strong one. Even after he left her for a sulky hairdresser barely out of school uniform, he maintained it was he who was weak. He just couldn’t help his feelings. She, on the other hand, would be fine, he was sure of it.

And she was for a while. She continued to work in the Town Hall until the redundancy; she continued to live in what had been their shared home until it was repossessed after months of uncertainty; she even continued to love her husband who she’d spy on from behind shelves of cereal in the supermarket, not quite believing that he was now happily shopping for three.

By then she was running out of sofas and friends and found she couldn’t stop crying. So she just left.

She couldn’t remember much about her first year on the street: cold and damp; smells that made her gag; names and faces merging into one endless dark night and freezing sunrise. The cold and damp never really left her but she soon became immune to the smells and the filth, and she survived. Begging, stealing, selling herself, selling others – you had to make the most of what you’d got or what you could get. She’d learned of the importance of making snap judgements about people: who to trust; who to ignore; who to approach. Whatever the transaction, it had to be fast; afterwards, their faces blurred into one barely remembered past encounter and it was time to move on.

But she couldn’t forget Billy. His smile, the way he flirted with strangers and wheedled or coaxed money out of them, his mad sense of humour after a few cans. He wore a huge Parka coat with a fur-lined hood and endless inner pockets from which he would fish out random credit cards or smartphones, always ready to trade. He was one of the usual faces in the usual haunts – airless soup kitchens, intimidating night shelters – but few people spoke or if they did it was more to themselves than to others. That was the way it was. She’d learned to keep her mouth shut and avoid eye contact with the majority.

She spoke to Billy in her second year on the street. She didn’t really know why. Maybe she was sick of having to trust strangers but keep her distance from a familiar face. Not that she tried to get too close or prise much information out of him. He never spoke of his past and she took her cue from that, skating over details of her own descent from respected professional to whatever it was she was now. What did it matter after all? Talking about something, putting it into words and saying it out loud only made it real again. She’d learnt to think of her past life as she would a series of vague childhood memories, never quite sure they’d happened. From now on she and Billy were what they were, and dwelling on the past was as pointless as thinking about the future. Sheltered by nothing more than a flattened cardboard box or a flimsy plastic sheet, she finally felt safe. There were ugly, frightening nights when they were spat on by rich drunks or kicked by poor ones but they had each other. She didn’t have to be the strong one anymore.

But the night Billy died he’d decided to ignore one of their unspoken rules and look more than one day ahead. He’d been in great spirits all day, downing White Lightning and talking of whatever came into his head, making her laugh with nonsense about weddings and walking into the sunset. Maybe the booze had somehow convinced him that now was the time to make a serious gesture. They had a future in spite of the chaos and filth surrounding them.

‘What do you reckon? Katerina?’

It wasn’t her real name. Her real name was short and functional but she’d always liked Katerina.

‘Kat, come on, we could do it. We could get off the street. I’ve got a bit of cash. It’d be like in the movies – a new life.’

And she tried to believe him. She downed a few more cans herself and willed herself to believe it. She looked at her surroundings: a dripping railway arch; a filthy mattress and stained blankets; the shopping trolley they’d used to transport their belongings from the last place. Surely there was a way out of this. They could put everything back in the trolley and move on to something better. Wasn’t that how Doug felt when he left her?

But the grubby ring that Billy extracted from one of his hidden inner pockets was already hers. It was her wedding ring, the one she’d brought with her, thinking she could sell it. She looked at the tarnished gold, pretending to admire it, pretending to be drunkenly overwhelmed at his gesture but really checking the inside for the initials that she already knew would be there.

She remembered how it felt to wear it all the time, a constant reminder of her settled status and place in the world. She’d secretly liked Doug calling her the missus and even after the divorce she’d avoided taking the final step of removing it.

That night it had slipped off easily. There was no need for threats or violence; she could hardly function for terror and shock, let alone resist the two wiry men who appeared from nowhere and took everything she had. Was one of them Billy? She wasn’t able to say.

Afterwards, she’d sat in a bus shelter, punching the reinforced plastic until her knuckles bled, still hitting it hours later as the streets filled with commuters. It was the last time she let her emotions get the upper hand. Since then she’d swallowed her anger and kept it comatose with cheap alcohol. It lay low, a tight mass somewhere in her gut, zipped in and held by strength of will.

But now Billy was staring at her, waiting. She looked again at the ring and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Parka Billy was offering her a ring, her own stolen ring. The anger and fear of that first night pushed the breath from her lungs and she felt a prickling sensation in her scarred knuckles.

‘Where did you get that?’

‘What the hell does it matter? Some drunk bitch dropped it and now it’s yours.’

Then he laughed.

She did nothing at first. She waited until the sun was beginning to rise and the cold was receding from her muscles before she made a move. Billy was lying on the mattress, still in his parka and clutching an empty can. From time to time his fingers gently stroked its smooth side and he would murmur something inaudible. I bet he’s always been able to drop off anywhere, she thought.

There was a broken brick lying beside him as if daring her to pick it up. She’d seen it before. Now she held it and tested its weight, just to give herself a moment, but the tight mass of anger inside her had already been released. She could feel it scorching her intestines and rising in her throat and she knew she wouldn’t be able to breathe if this poisonous sludge reached her mouth. So she swung her arm and used the momentum to hit the side of Billy’s head.

There was no crack of broken bone, just a dull thud followed by the metallic sound of Billy’s empty can rolling across the cobbles until it came to a standstill. She stood in silence for a moment and then lifted her arm to hit him again, only this time she found it much harder to see where she was aiming. The outline of Billy’s head was beginning to blur into a composite of swirling faces, all of them bloody and snarling, and she stumbled backwards into the dripping wall and slid down it to land in a fetid puddle. Billy was still moving.

For weeks afterwards she could still see the brick, with blood and hair clotted onto the one sharp edge. She woke with it still in her hand and looked over at Billy’s face. There was no surprise or pain, just contentment, peace even. The White Lightning had done its work long before she laid the first blow. She took the coat from his limp body, never one to waste anything, and waited for him to die, listening to his final breaths as carefully as if they were his final words.

After that she stopped speaking. It was her third year on the street. She’d sit in Billy’s coat with her cans and watch shoppers and commuters pass by as if she was seeing them on a screen, speeded-up silent movie inhabitants of a place she didn’t live in anymore. People who she didn’t always recognise urged her to search the coat, its inner lining and endless pockets, but she would shake her head in silence, unable to explain to herself let alone to others why she couldn’t. Passers-by would wonder if this mad-looking bag lady was going to make it through another winter and they’d give her money while trying to avoid her vacant stare.

But Billy had friends, or people who claimed they were friends, and they hadn’t forgotten him. They might not remember much but they weren’t going to forget the possibilities of Billy’s coat. So now she had to force herself to concentrate on places to avoid, people who might know of her, how she might be described or spoken of, even though she couldn’t always remember why. She didn’t really know what she looked like any more. One day she caught sight of herself in a shop window and didn’t recognise the red-faced old woman with an empty expression and an oversized parka. That wasn’t her. So she stopped looking.

But she always had the coat. At the back of her mind she had the idea that it wasn’t hers, that she was looking after it for someone else but she couldn’t remember who. In rare, lucid moments she would see herself stealing it from a dead man and shudder at her own brutality. Was that really her? But the memory would leave as quickly as it had arrived and she would stop caring. It didn’t matter.

Billy’s friends came for her on the coldest night of the year. She said nothing. What was the point of trying? She handed the parka over as quickly as she’d given away her wedding ring, but this time her anger seemed to have dissipated and she just felt an emptiness.

She didn’t make it through another winter without Billy’s parka.