2023 Winning Stories

A Good Kid?

Pamela Gough

The boy let himself into the house, same as I’d seen him every day. I’d been watching him for a couple of weeks now. And his mum – works two jobs to make ends meet, poor cow. No dad, of course. I made enquiries – he’d not been around since the kid was a baby.

Just what we needed – a kid looking for something to belong to. About time to make my move, I thought. He walked the same way home every afternoon. I decided where I’d be. There was a patch of grass near a street corner; not big enough to be called a park, it was a bit of lawn with a bench and an overflowing rubbish bin.

Take it slowly, I thought, I need to get his trust. So, for about a week, I sat on that bench with a newspaper at the time he’d be coming past. The first couple of days, I just nodded as he went by.

Day three, and I ventured, ‘Alright mate?’

‘Yeah, thanks,’ he said. Nice polite kid, I thought.

It wasn’t until the end of the week that I said, ‘I bet you’d like to earn a bit of money.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’d help your mum, wouldn’t it? Bit of extra money coming in?’

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Well, I’ve got a little job for you.’

‘What sort of job?’

‘You just need to deliver a package for me.’

‘A package?’

‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing bad. Nice easy job, I’ll pay you well.’

The lad looked doubtful. Don’t lose him, I thought to myself.

‘Think of your mum. She could do with a bit extra, couldn’t she?’

He nodded. ‘But…’

‘It’s only a bit of weed. Soon be legal. My old mum’s got arthritis – it helps her.’

I could see the doubt leaving him. ‘My old mum’ does it every time. I haven’t seen her for years, could be dead for all I know, but she still comes in useful.

‘OK,’ he said. ‘What do you want me to do?’

I gave him the package, told him where and when to hand it over.

‘That’s all you have to do. Do it right, then be back here tomorrow for your money.’

The boy nodded, dead serious. I’ve got a good ‘un here, I thought.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I must be pretty low down the tree to be dealing direct with the courier. But sometimes, I like to get my hands dirty, see what’s really happening in my little empire.

The next day, he was back, his school bag swinging, his shoes scuffed and down at heel. I gave him a look – didn’t want him to get too cocky at the start.

I handed him his money and he said, ‘Do you want me to do that again?’

‘All in good time,’ I said. ‘I’ll let you know.’ The boy was hooked – you could tell by the way he looked at the money.

I didn’t go to the bench for a couple of days. It’s always good to let them stew a bit. When I did go, you could see the relief on his face. Same again – I gave him a package, then the money the next day. I knew I could use this one for bigger jobs, but it doesn’t do to rush things.

A few weeks in, and I decided the time was right to give the lad a promotion. That school he went to – they weren’t all kids from the sink estate like him. Some of  ’em had rich parents, got plenty of pocket money.

‘I don’t know…’ he said, when I suggested it to him.

‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘only a bit of weed. Harmless enough.’

There was still doubt in his eyes.

‘The money’s useful, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yeah.’ He looked down at the ground.

‘I’ll set up a meeting for you with another lad I know. You’ll like him. He’ll show you the ropes.’

So I did. Set up a meeting. Badger’s a bit weird, but not too frightening. He got his name because of the white stripe through his hair. Course, most of the kids he’s had to deal with have never seen a badger. One or two of  ’em might wonder about it, but they wouldn’t dare ask.

‘Take it easy,’ I said. ‘This one’s a good ‘un. Don’t want to lose him. Nice and slow.’

‘Yes, boss.’

I knew he’d do it right. He’s another good ‘un, despite his startling appearance.

I didn’t see the lad again, not for several months, but the reports I got back from Badger were good. The kid’d got quite a clientèle, and it was growing all the time. He was discreet – not a word Badger would use – and never kicked up a fuss. The model employee, in fact.

‘Sad, really,’ said Badger. ‘I think he just wants to feel he belongs.’

That was a bit rich, coming from Badger. He had nothing and nobody when I took him under my wing. Some of  ’em, like Badger, I think I’ve rescued ’em from a life of poverty, given ’em a sense of community. Doesn’t do to get sentimental, though, not in this job.

When the police came, I was surprised. I’d always been careful, covering my tracks really well. The only way they could have got on to me was if someone had betrayed me. That was when I realised – I’d been right, the little bastard really was a good kid.

The Right Prescription

Sue Hoffman

Gerry folded the newspaper and set it down on the coffee table. “Scroungers, the lot of them,” he declared.

Marge looked up from her jigsaw. “Scroungers?”

Gerry nodded. “Folk who turn up at food banks. Can’t possibly be short of food in this country. Probably spend all their benefits on beer and cigarettes, then claim they can’t feed their kids.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Gerry,” Marge said. “A lot of people are struggling these days.”

“Nonsense. Scroungers. That’s what I say.”

“We don’t know their circumstances, Gerry,” Marge pointed out gently. “Nothing’s ever just black or white. Life’s not like that.”

“Well it should be. Clear cut. One thing or the other.” He stood up. “Come on, Marge. We’re going out for lunch. Some of us can still pay our own way.”

Marge followed her husband out to the car.

“Frank Watson’s parked near our drive,” Gerry said as Marge climbed into the passenger seat. “Why can’t he park outside his own house?”

“They’re having work done on the roof,” Marge said. “Beryl told me yesterday. I expect they need the space for the workmen’s lorries.”

 “Mess and noise,” said Gerry. “No consideration, some people. That’s what I say.”

“A bit of give and take wouldn’t go amiss, Gerald Banks,” Marge said. “What’s the matter with you lately? You never used to be this grumpy. If you go on like this it’ll be a trip to the doctor soon for some anti-depressants.”

Gerry glowered. “Don’t need anti-depressants.”

“For me, not for you!” Marge said.

The restaurant was busy but Gerry had no complaints about the service or the meal. He was not as sanguine about the other diners.

            “Should keep the kids under control,” he muttered as he and Marge prepared to leave.

“It’s the waitresses I feel sorry for. I suppose it’d be their fault if they spilled hot food on one

of those toddlers running round.”

“The notices do say it’s a family-friendly pub,” Marge said.

Gerry grunted. “Maybe we should try somewhere else next time.” He waved in the direction of a group of mothers with young children. “Food banks. Huh. Don’t see much evidence of poverty here. And those with kids should have their own area. Give us older diners a bit of peace.”

Marge took his arm and pulled him towards the door.  

“Here, mate,” said a deep voice.

Gerry turned back. A young man was holding out a spectacles’ case.

“You forgot your glasses.”

Gerry patted his jacket pocket. “No. Mine are in ­­– Oh. Thought they were in my pocket. Must have left them on the table.” He took the proffered case. “Thanks. Can’t do without these, I’m afraid. Thanks again.”

With Marge back at her jigsaw, Gerry put on his glasses and picked up his Gardeners’ World magazine.

“Marge,” he called. “Marge, these aren’t my specs.”

Marge wandered across the room. “Of course they’re yours. Look – it’s your case. And the frame’s the same. You wore them for driving back home, didn’t you?”

“Yes. They were all right then. But now–”

“They’re yours, Gerry. Stop fussing. I’ll go and make a cup of tea.”

Gerry put the glasses back on. He watched Marge walk out of the room. He looked at the pictures in the gardening magazine. They were not his glasses. The focus was fine and he could read the smallest print on the page; nevertheless, something was badly wrong. These lenses stole all colour. Marge’s green dress appeared black. The stunning photographs of the plants were monochrome. They were not his glasses. He took them off. His surroundings regained their normal aspect. Perplexed, Gerry experimented with the glasses and quickly confirmed his suspicions. Colour without them, monochrome when wearing them. This was a problem. He needed them for driving, for watching television and for reading. How could he do his daily crossword without his glasses? An odd thought surfaced: he could wear these strange spectacles for the crossword – it was black and white anyway. He laughed a bit hysterically.

“Here,” he said as Marge came in with the tea. “You try them.”

Marge set down the cups. “I can’t see through those.”

“Humour me, Marge.”

Marge peered through the lenses. “Everything’s blurred.”

“Of course it is. It’s my prescription. What else do you notice?”

Marge handed them back. “Nothing. Just blurry images. If they’re bothering you that much, ring the optician.” She took her tea and returned to her jigsaw.

It was strange, Gerry decided, how one could adapt to something as unusual as colour-stealing lenses. The optician, the doctor, Peter from next-door-but-one – everyone he’d approached – could find nothing abnormal about his eyes, his general health or the glasses. He hadn’t told anyone why he was concerned. They’d think he was going mad. He gave up asking and simply wore the glasses.

As the days passed, though, he found it took him longer and longer to see colour after removing his specs. He began to dread wearing them. What if everything became black and white forever? He’d always loved his garden with its profusion of colourful plants. He’d always taken delight in planting for bees and butterflies, and in watching the birds come to the feeders. Grey blue-tits and colourless goldfinches just weren’t right.

Calling to Marge that he was going out for a walk, he tucked the offending spectacles into his jacket pocket and set off up the road towards the local woods. The Harrison twins from the top house were standing by their gate, bickering.

“Tell him, Mr Banks,” said one of them.

Gerry thought it might be Tom but he couldn’t be sure. Tom usually wore a blue jumper whereas Sam preferred brown. The trouble was that, to Gerry, one jumper looked black and the other white, and he wasn’t even wearing his glasses.

            “Tell him what?” he asked.

“We should all be entitled to free school meals,” Tom said – if it was Tom.

“No one should have them free,” said the other twin. “The councils can’t afford it. Tell him, Mr Banks.”

Gerry stared at them. They were both so sure of themselves.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as that,” he said after a moment. “Perhaps it should depend on whether or not the families can afford to pay.”

He walked on, leaving them to their dispute. He had given, he reflected wryly, the kind of answer he’d have expected from Marge.

Gerry sat on the log bench in one of the small glades in the wood and tried to work out what was happening to him. Perhaps it was time to admit to Marge – and to the optician and the doctor – that something was badly wrong with his sight.

“Be careful what you wish for.”

Gerry looked up with a start. A young man was walking through the glade, his collie bounding ahead of him.

“Sorry,” said Gerry. “Did you say something?”

“What? No, mate. Nice day, though, isn’t it?”

He disappeared into the trees before Gerry could respond. Gerry hadn’t recognised the man, but there was something familiar about that voice, and he was sure the young man had spoken that clichéd warning.

Be careful what you wish for. What had he wished for? Only that everything should be clear cut, one thing or the other, black or white.

The peaceful woods had suddenly lost their appeal. Gerry went home.

“Gerry,” Marge said as he stared morosely at his unfinished crossword, “I’ve just met the people who’ve bought the house next door.”

Gerry took off his glasses. “The house? Next door?”

“Now, Gerry, promise me you won’t be cross.”

“Cross? Why should I be cross?”

“They seem very pleasant,” Marge said. “It’s just that they’ve got four children and two dogs. I’m sure they won’t be too noisy. They seemed very well-behaved.”

“The children or the dogs?”

“Oh. Well, both, I suppose.”

Gerry paused for several seconds, considering his response, before saying, “I like dogs, Marge. You know that. As for the children – as long as they’re well-mannered I don’t mind them being there. They have to live somewhere.”

The next day, Gerry took Marge to the supermarket and didn’t complain once about the length of time or the cost of the shopping. He even let a harassed mother with two restless young children go ahead of them at the checkout. Back home, he called on Frank and Beryl to ask how the work was going and to invite them round for a cup of tea and a break from the noise. When the new neighbours moved in that afternoon, he took them a plant for their garden, along with some sweets for the children and munchy treats for the dogs.

“I’m trying,” Gerry said out loud to his drab garden a little later. “I’m really trying to change. Nothing’s ever as straightforward as it appears. I see that now. I want the shades back. I want the colours.”

“Gerry,” Marge called from the kitchen. “Come on. I’m taking you out for a meal to cheer you up. We’ll try that new café in the high street.”

Gerry opted for a sandwich and chips, and managed half the portion before pushing his plate away. Until these glasses had robbed him of colours, he’d never realised how much the enjoyment of food could depend on the look of the dish. Grey chips were not appetising.

“Here, sir,” said the waiter as Gerry and Marge headed out of the café. “You dropped your glasses.”

“No,” said Gerry. “Mine are – Oh. Thanks.” He had a strange sense of déjà vu. His heart started to pound. Sweat broke out on his forehead. He turned to look at the waiter but the young man was nowhere to be seen.

In the car, hands shaking, hardly daring to hope, Gerry put on the glasses. For a nasty moment he could notice no difference, then faint colours appeared, as if someone was painting the surroundings in pale watercolours. Gradually, the hues deepened.

“What’s the matter?” Marge asked. “Aren’t they your glasses?”

“They’re mine all right,” Gerry said. He took them off and dabbed at his damp eyes.  “They’re definitely mine.”


Sue Hoffman

“There’s a new lady in Room 13,” Rose said.

            I smiled. “13? She didn’t mind?”

            “Not in the least,” Rose said. “I told her Room 17 had become free since she’d booked herself in. I took her along to have a look but she said 13 had a better view of the park and she’d stick with that.”

            “Good for her. Rather her than me, though.”

            Rose laughed. “You’re a strange person, Sophie Lewis. You’ll tackle many a job here that others dislike. Awkward residents or visitors don’t bother you a bit. But superstitious? I’ve never known anyone as gullible as you!”

            “Not gullible, Rose. Just careful.” I gave her a gentle push. “Go home. I’ll sign in and then go and meet our new lady. See you tomorrow.”

            Rose picked up her coat and left the office as I signed the staff handover book. Several folders and a few handwritten notes lay on the table, awaiting my attention. Should I tackle the paperwork that had built up while I’d been on holiday? Should I read our new resident’s file or go and say hello? I’d always preferred dealing with people rather than papers, so I opted to wander round chatting to residents and other members of staff first. The new lady wasn’t in any of the lounges so I went upstairs to her room.

            The door was open and the woman was sitting by the window. She turned as I knocked and walked in.

            “Hello,” I said. “I’m…” I hesitated. There was something disturbingly familiar about her.

            “You’re Sophie Lewis,” she said.

I knew that voice. Where had I met her before? I glanced at the nameplate on the door. Mrs Edith Withanstrop. It was such an unusual name that there could be no doubt: this was the same Mrs Withanstrop I’d known over twenty years ago. I felt sick.


“Your turn,” Andy said, shoving me through the open gate.

            I was nine years old and I was out trick or treating. Andy was there, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed to go. Not that Andy was all that pleased. Apparently, it didn’t do much for a fourteen-year-old’s image to have his little sister tagging along.

             Mum had made him put a note through the neighbours’ doors a week beforehand so they could prepare for the onslaught or stick up their own note saying not to bother them, and she’d inspected the “tricks” he intended to use if no sweets were forthcoming.

            There were five of us in the gang: Andy, three of his friends, and me. Andy had the best costume – a really scary zombie outfit. I remember that I wore a black skirt, a black blazer that had belonged to Andy, a piece of velvety material for a cloak, and a pointed hat that Mum had made for me. Mum had used some of her make-up to paint a couple of scars on Andy and a few warts and whiskers on my face. Andy had wanted me to carry a broomstick but our yard brush didn’t look right and anyway it was too heavy.

Everything had gone pretty well at first. We’d collected a tubful of sweets to share out and only played one prank on a neighbour who’d forgotten to buy any in for us. Andy and his friends scattered torn up toilet paper around her front garden. They thought it was hilarious. I laughed as well, but I thought it left a horrid mess.

“We’ll go home after this next one,” Andy said, giving me a shove along the path of the big house at the corner of our street.

“Better be careful, Sophie,” Tommy Skinner called as I walked towards the front door.

I turned back. “Why?”

He held his torch up to his face and grinned. “For one thing, we didn’t put a warning note through here. For another, this is Mrs Withanstrop’s house.”

“So?” I said, trying to sound braver than I felt. I’d seen Mrs Withanstrop around but hadn’t ever spoken to her.

            Tommy gave a ghostly chuckle. “She’s a witch.”

            I pretended I didn’t care that Mrs Withanstrop was a witch and I marched right up to the front door and rang the bell. It seemed ages before a light went on in the hall and I heard footsteps approaching.

            “Trick or treat?” I shouted as the door opened.

            When I glanced back for Andy, the boys were halfway down the street, laughing and waving.

            “Yes?” said Mrs Withanstrop. “What do you want?”

            The tone she used reminded me of Miss Parker, my headteacher, when you just knew you were in big trouble. It didn’t help that Mrs Withanstrop was dressed all in black and a huge black cat was folding itself around her ankles. In the bright light of the hall I could see its odd eyes – one green, the other blue.

            “I… er… I…” However hard I tried, no more words would come out.

            “Whatever it is you want,” Mrs Withanstrop said, “it had better be important. I heard about this nonsense your brother had planned and I told him yesterday he wasn’t to bother me.” She smiled, but it wasn’t a friendly smile.

            I opened my mouth again, intending to apologise, but only managed a sort of terrified squeak.

            “Well,” said Mrs Withanstrop, “don’t say you weren’t warned.” She bent down and picked up the cat. Then she shut the door.

            Tears streaming down my face, I raced after Andy.

“I hate you, Andy Lewis,” I yelled when I caught up to them. “I hate you too, Tommy Skinner. And you, Carl Jeffries. And you, Barry Smith. I hate you all.” I snatched off my hat and threw it at Andy. “I hate you most of all!”

            I headed towards our house but Andy stopped me just outside. He sent the others away and then he said he was sorry. He hadn’t realised I’d be so frightened. He thought Mrs Withanstrop was just a mean old woman and he didn’t believe for one minute she was really a witch. He promised he’d give me my fair share of the sweets and he’d buy me a present out of his next pocket money.  He also said he’d go and apologise personally to Mrs Withanstrop. He sounded sincere, but I knew at least part of it was that he didn’t want me telling Mum or Dad what had happened.

            I never did tell my parents about that night, and I really can’t remember whether or not Andy ever went to say he was sorry to Mrs Withanstrop. I do know that some very strange things happened. Every plant in the little section of garden that was mine was dug up that very night. Dad reckoned a fox had been in the garden but I was sure Mrs Withanstrop’s big black cat had done it. The next day, Andy’s homework went missing at his school and he was given a detention. A couple of days later, he came off his bike and broke his arm. Not long after that, a drunk driver knocked me down on the pavement near our local shops. I wasn’t badly hurt but it was a really nasty shock and the cuts and bruises took ages to heal.

            Tommy, Carl and Barry didn’t get off scot free, either.  Tommy and Carl collided during a football game. Tommy sprained his ankle and Carl banged his head when he fell. As for Barry, he developed an abscess on his tooth and had to have several visits to the dentist.

            I was convinced that Mrs Withanstrop was behind it all. I quite believed that she’d cursed Andy and me and the others, and I’m sure awful things would have kept on happening if she hadn’t decided to sell up and move away, taking the cat with her.

            Family life returned to normal, and Andy seemed to put the Halloween incident and its aftermath behind him, but Mrs Withanstrop had left her mark on me. I could never again walk under a ladder, spill salt, break a mirror or see a black cat crossing my path without panicking. Opening an umbrella indoors, crossing someone on the stairs or putting new shoes on the table became unthinkable. Seeing a single magpie could ruin a day for me, and anything to do with the number thirteen was definitely to be avoided if at all possible.


Standing in Room 13, facing Mrs Withanstrop, I felt nine years old all over again. Then common sense reasserted itself. She couldn’t have recognised me after so many years. Rose would have told her my shift was three till eleven and – silly me for worrying! – I was wearing my name badge.

            “It’s good to meet you,” I said, proud of the fact that my voice sounded steady.

            “Again,” said Mrs Withanstrop with that smile I recalled so vividly.

            “Again?” This time I don’t think I sounded as calm.

            “I never forget a face, or a name,” she said. “Anyway, my dear, you’re quite distinctive with those eyes of yours, aren’t you?”

            My eyes. One brown, one greeny-hazel. Heterochromia iridis. It isn’t a particularly rare occurrence in the animal kingdom but I tend to forget how unusual it is in humans. The difference in colour is only noticeable by anyone near me, so I don’t often find people staring at me in public.

            Speaking of staring, I know I stared at Mrs Withanstrop. She must have been only in her sixties when we’d last met, although she’d seemed old to me. Her hair was greyer now, of course, and her face and hands more lined, but other than that she didn’t look much different. I managed a few stuttering words of welcome and left her room.

            The rest of my shift passed in something of a blur, and the Halloween party we held for the residents was more nightmare than fun as far as I was concerned. Those who were able to take part appeared to enjoy the “bob-apple” and “guess the ghost” games, but I was glad when it was finished and everyone was tucked up in bed.

            I was supposed to finish at eleven but, as usual, it was after half-past by the time I handed over to Peter and set off for home. It was a twenty-five-minute drive. The night was crisp and clear and the roads were quiet. I had time to think.

Had Mrs Withanstrop really caused those accidents when I was a child? The idea of having such powers quite appealed to me at present. I could leave superstitions to plague other people instead of letting such beliefs rule my life; and there were several acquaintances upon whom I’d love to exact revenge. Nothing serious: just the odd minor mishap. If I was like Mrs Withanstrop, I’d have to have a familiar, wouldn’t I? Perhaps a big, black cat such as the one that had belonged to her. The thought amused me and the knot of tension inside me began to dissolve. I even smiled as I drove down the unlit back road past the cemetery. It was all ridiculous, of course. There were no such things as witches, goblins, ghouls or any other such paranormal beings. It was time I put all this superstitious nonsense behind me. Mrs Withanstrop was just another elderly lady needing to come into a care home. She was no more a witch than I was.

            The church clock was striking midnight as I pulled onto my drive. I switched off the engine and bent down to pick up my bag from the floor in front of the passenger seat. I straightened up – and yelped in fright. A huge black cat was sitting on the bonnet, staring at me through the windscreen. In the glare of the security light I could see its odd eyes – one green, the other blue.

The Swimmer and The Queen

Natasha Derczynski

I pull the towel tight around me, shutting out the fierce wind that ripples the slate grey water ahead. People around me limber up, steadying themselves on the shoulders of partners and children, sharing nervous giggles and supportive back pats. A gun is fired. The elite swimmers dive in first, cutting neat lines across the loch like a shoal of minnow. Fifteen minutes pass before a voice crackles through the megaphone: All competitors for the 10k race head to the starting line. I draw a sharp breath in and drop the towel, letting the Scottish autumn air nip at my mottled arms. I shove the towel into my duffle bag and dig around for my goggles. My fingers pass over a woollen jumper, protein bars, keys…but no goggles. Two minutes until the 10k race. I empty the bag onto the pebbled shore, comb through its contents. It’s no good. The familiar tendrils of dread creep through me. This is a sign. I’m not ready. I look around for an escape. The crowd moves in a thick swarm towards the shoreline. Too late. I bundle my stuff away and walk with dead-weight legs to the water’s edge. Come on, woman, remember where you were two years ago today; in a saggy armchair having cisplatin blasted through your veins, chewing raw ginger to fend off the nausea. Buck up.

I smooth down my new swimming costume, a drop of sunshine yellow against a cloud of navy Speedos. An outward expression of joy to dredge it up from within, a gesture of peace after a bloody battle. Ovarian cancer was a nightmare cocooned, a horror slowly coiling out from within me, destruction where there should’ve been creation. So here I am in my yellow frills at the shoreline, letting the icy loch lick at my legs, feeling the vigour return to my body. I wince briefly as the water passes my scar then push my feet against the silty bed and launch.

The first kilometre is a busy scramble until the crowd thins out and people find their space. I transition to a steady front crawl. With each broad swoop of my arms and kick of my legs, my confidence grows. In glances I take in the rich green firs and spruces, the craggy rock faces and cool brown mountains enclosing the loch; a self-contained backdrop holding the horizon just out of reach. Mist mingles with weak light and casts the scene in a soft-focus haze. I am in deep, suspended between earth and sky, in control yet surrendered.

Further into the loch the water seems to thicken and darken, like syrup cooling on the surface of an ice cream. My limbs are stiffening so I tread water, waiting for the sensation to return. There’s no one else in sight. Douglas firs swallow me in shadow as I find myself floating into a marshy recess. I have drifted off-course. No matter. If I head back towards the centre I’ll find the route eventually. I launch myself away but something grips my ankle, holding me back. Looking down, I see that my leg is wrapped in feathery pondweed. I try to flick it away with pointed toes. It tangles them further. There’s nothing for it. I hold my breath and duck down, eyes open. Under the water I see that the usually delicate plant has wound itself into thick rope-like twists. I claw at the slippery fronds, but my well-trimmed nails can’t break the surface. I bend down, pull my foot to my mouth like a baby and open wide, tearing at the rope with my teeth. My mouth fills with a bitter, leafy taste. It works. I watch the weed-rope fall away, then dart back to the surface. I manage one gasping breath before I am trapped again. The weeds have somehow lassoed around my waist and yanked me back down. I scrabble, trying to find whatever is holding me back, a tree trunk or a rock weighing the rope down. I find nothing. The rope seems to disappear into the blue-green murk ahead. Another sharp tug at the rope tells me it’s attached to something living. A seal, or a freakishly strong fish. Before I can figure it out, I am dragged away, pulled along the loch bed by the mysterious force. I grab at stones and plants as we speed along, searching for something to hold. They all come loose, and I’m left with no choice but to be dragged. My strength ebbs away, shaded over with giddiness and fear. In the water ahead, clouded by movement, I see a flash of pale gold.

Suddenly I am brought to a crashing halt against a jagged rock, then spun around by the weed-rope until everything is a kaleidoscope of blue and grey. I grow faint as my last breaths leak out. Another flash of gold whips past, then something is clamped over my nose and mouth. I clap a hand to it and feel the rough, geometric texture of coral, a cage-like structure over which a thin, translucent membrane is stretched. I tear the mask away and, in an instant, the final breath is sucked from my lungs. Blackness seeps like ink over my eyes. I sink slowly down. Something forces the cage-mask back over my mouth and holds it down. My breaths return, the darkness dissipates. This strange muzzle is keeping me alive. This second chance awakens a ferocious desire to live. Drawing up what strength I have left, I place my hands on the rope around my waist and pull hard. It’s no good. I watch a slender tail ripple between the fronds ahead and am pulled forward, still clawing at the rope.

After some time, we slow down and enter a tall, shadowy enclosure. A huge, spiralling rock structure stretches from the loch bed to the water’s surface. A grotto. Ragged stalactites hang down from deep-set ledges, dividing each row into sections like a battery cage. In the dark recesses I spy silvery, slow-moving shapes. Pale, almost-human faces emerge followed by narrow shoulders, sloping breasts and long torsos flowing down into gleaming, slim-hipped tails. Strips of torn fabric studded with pond flowers stretch across their bodies They watch me from the shadows, a hundred or more pairs of whiteless eyes. If I thought anyone could hear, I would scream.

I am yanked upwards by the rope and brought face to face with one of the creatures. Its eyes meet mine, an endless depth of violet iris with two quivering pupils within. Its mouth would be dainty, were it not for a deathlike grey-blue tinge and a cupid’s bow that comes to one sharp point. Its translucent skin catches the light with a pearlescent shimmer. There is a femininity to it, however eerie. It smiles with a composure that makes me feel rude for staring. It studies me for a moment then throws up an elongated arm. The creature casts its head back and I spot two wide slashes on either side of its neck. The crowd hiss excitedly. She is their queen. She lowers her arm. A smaller creature approaches and hands the queen a small blade. She slashes at the rope around my waist and the two green halves fall away. I pause, expecting another tangle of pondweed to ensnare me but it doesn’t come. I am free. I take my chance and dash down towards the bottom of the loch. I wriggle about looking desperately for a way out when something snatches me back. The smaller one, the servant, has caught the strap of my swimsuit between two pointed fingers. She catapults me back before the queen, whose mouth twitches in amusement. Another servant carries two large, slender objects. One is gently laid into the queen’s outstretched palm, the other thrust into my unready hand. We have each been given an ivory pole carved with three whetted prongs. Tridents. The queen holds hers aloft to fizzing cheers from the crowd and finally I understand, we are to fight. She draws it back, bows, then gestures for me to copy. I do, with heavy limbs.

The fight begins. She wastes no time, making two quick jabs at my chest. She dances about as I clutch a hand to my breast, watching blood cloud the water. The crowd begin to hum rhythmically now. I swipe blindly at the queen’s midriff, missing by several inches. She screeches with laughter then scratches at my leg with the tip of her spear. I reel back, looking desperately to the loch’s surface. Could I catch the attention of someone up there? Perhaps they’re already searching for me. Time is different down here, warped and refracted. The water suspends me like an anti-gravity machine, yet I can move at normal speed. The crowd chant wordlessly. I will die down here, I realise, unless I fight. I straighten my shoulders and grip the trident at its far end then send it arcing towards the queen like a javelin. It makes a small nick on her bony shoulder. I pull back then launch again. Another cut. Enraged, she flies up close and jabs at my stomach scar, sending a jet of anger through me. The part of my body I’ve fought so hard to love, protected so well. How dare she try and open it up again? A trickle of bloodied water leaks into my mask. The taste reminds me of the mouth sores I got from chemo, of poking my tongue into the tender, metallic-tasting craters even though it stung. That bitch. I stab her stomach in retaliation. Pulling back to assess the damage, I notice she has a scar of her own, smoother than mine but identical in shape and size. I swipe at it, which sends her into a frenzy. She spits bubbles, blurring my vision, then claws at my hair with her fingertips. The servant creature flurries into the arena, waving her arms in an ‘X.’ For a moment I think this means the battle is over, then I see the queen roll her eyes and take position again. The servant was signalling a foul. The fight continues.

After what feels like an eternity of stabs and swipes, our spears lock together. We jostle. The queen frees her weapon and points it at my throat. I do the same. We freeze. She reaches her spare hand to my face and pulls away the mask. Bored of fighting, she is toying with her prey, showing just how easily she can finish me off. Except she doesn’t. Instead, she closes her lips over mine and lets her breath flow into me. I surrender. Our lips move in a tender kiss. She wraps an arm round my waist, kicks her tail and suddenly we’re ascending through the grotto, swirling past the crowd. They break formation and flit wildly around us, dancing, hugging, laughing. Our lips are parted now yet I am breathing perfectly. I press my hands to my neck. Sure enough, I feel two even slits on either side. The servant floats up, takes our hands, and guides us out of the cave. We are taken to a kind of platform carved from rock, upon which sit two large thrones. The rest of the creatures have gathered around the steps, their faces turned warmly towards us. We sit. Something is passed through the crowd towards the servant. On two sealskin pillows she carries two gleaming fluorite crowns, purple and blue with tiny flecks of bright yellow. The queen lays a hand over my scar, and I don’t flinch. I look closer at our adoring crowd and the strips of fabric across their bodies. The shredded fragments of swimming costumes.

Holding my queen’s hand, I look to the surface of the loch one last time. As the crown is placed on my head, I watch a sliver of light flicker, fade, then disappear into darkness.

The Farmer’s Wife and Her Dimpled Thighs

Genevieve Flintham

The floorboards seem to rise and go on forever. The trees were slain in 1922; some sort of three-headed mite has claimed them since. My feet have gone numb.

The doorbell sounds. Ben has set it up with a stupid tune. It whines through the air and reminds me why I hate him. I ignore it.

There she is. Pretty prom girl in a black and white dress, holding two of her best friends. Of course, I don’t see them anymore. One’s a lawyer now. The other’s MIA, by which I mean she isn’t on Facebook. I press my thumb against her face, removing her so that I’m the biggest failure in the glossy, disposable-camera rendering.

I pull my thumb away and a layer of sweat, promising my DNA, leaks against the missing girl’s face. She looks scarred and I wipe at the image, restoring her sixteen-year-old glory and flowing dress, the colour of pheasant blood drying on a garage floor.

Ben’s out hunting. That’s what made pheasants come to mind; he’s promised me something fancy tonight, a grouse, perhaps, pheasant, quail, whatever. He’ll pluck it to smithereens and I’ll scrub the garage floor. He’ll stuff globules of fatty butter under pimpled skin while I run rigid rosemary across my palm.

I sit back, stretch my legs out. The first picture was the warm-up, the launch into society, debutante, the first stumble down the stairs, the first fumble in the dark. I move the three girls aside. The blood girl still has a smudged face, which I try and ignore until it becomes too much and I have to turn her over.

Underneath is an article. Cross Country, promising, Rising Star, One to Watch. You saw it here first. County-level, build-her-up ready to smack-her-down, slap-your-lips, this is One to Watch.

She’s grainy but I had good hair that day. I don’t touch her in case my fingers, sweaty, clammy sausage-like things, need-to-lose-some-weight type things, are-there-finger-exercises type things, ruin the evidence.

This is what should have been. Look, I was fit. I had friends. I wore a black and white gown and someone flashed cameras in my face.

The doorbell sounds again, and the same whiny tune splits my head in two. My brain starts leaking out, so I zip my skull back up, holding the resentment like noxious oxygen, poison, swallow-it-down and divorce-isn’t-an-option.

We’re down a country lane, but that doesn’t stop Amazon. They know to leave it on the doorstep – always leave it on the doorstep – the foxes might tear it apart, but chances are the hunt’ll tear them apart first. Banned, my arse. You should see them galloping by, snares and flares and witchy tongues, hollow and gallowed and sallow-faced, pompous little pricks above the law, and who’s gonna fine them in a place like this? No one lives here; no man’s land; countryside and just me, sat here all day, waiting for Ben like a good little wife.

Outside our lone telephone wire rattles and a crow screams that dusk is coming. The cows have borne calves; they stutter around outside, milling down the country lanes, free from ropes. Their mothers lick the trees bare.

I could’ve been a runner. Olympics, one teacher told me. I’m wearing my sweatsuit-fabric shorts and I look at my thighs; oranges have smoother skin.

Reverently, I set the runner aside. She can face the ceiling. I lean back and the beam of the bed slices through my spine. I shift until it’s between knobble and bra strap. The crow caws again and I will it to be quiet. Shut up. I’m having a moment.

I can tell that the delivery driver’s still outside. It doesn’t take much to understand the countryside around here, to know that the crow isn’t just warning about dusk, but warning about strangers too. The crunch of a heel. The loud glare of a protective mother cow; the heifer on the floorboards, no offspring to her name.

I should’ve had kids. I wanted them, all those years ago. Fresh, ripe fruit to sink my teeth into; blood the same colour as mine; fingerprints with identical smudges clutching at my hair, back when it was thick. Little playthings to fill the house with noise, to chomp at the same floorboards as the mites, to splosh into potties and puddles, get-back-here and will-you-just-shut-up. Come-here-and-let-me-eat-that-little-hand.

I’m joking.

Ben didn’t want children. He said it like a disgusting word, like diarrhoea or incest. He never had a childhood, something about rolling big spiky mowers over fresh grass and sticking his arm up a cow, something about not being allowed to dream and inventing songs about freedom, as if he was in the underbelly of a ship. This is his time, he told me. This is his time to finally enjoy life.

The underwire in my left bra cup has shifted in the washing machine and it’s digging into the fleshy space between my ribs.

“Just leave it on the doorstep,” I shriek towards the window, as the incessant noise starts up again, trilling along the gnarled floorboards, creeping up my bare legs, prickling the hairs under my t-shirt tag. I shiver and rub the tag. The little plastic bone is still there, pierced through the polyester. I’d pull it off if I could; I’d ask someone to help me if there was anyone.

What’s in that fleshy space between your ribs? My spleen? If I rupture my spleen, fat chance that the hunt will save me, or Ben. He’ll be the first to let me die, upgrade me for a new model so that he can finally enjoy life. Just like I should’ve.

The next item in my little box, which has a picture of Paris on the outside even though I’ve never been and we can’t take a holiday because of the aforementioned cows and the bloody-needy goats and the less-needy pigs and the chickens-that-can-die-for-all-I-care, is a report card. I might’ve only been eleven, but they already saw it.

It. Her. The double life, the one frolicking in the infinite universe, carefree and thin and running and wearing gowns that drape along newly slain oak, her arms around lawyers and missing girls, her lungs big, big, BIG. My lungs are small, small, small, occupying the tiny space between my fatty spine and my ruptured spleen, used to staying silent all day, gasping a quick breath at the top of the stairs, watching as the farmhands move straw from pens like the sea making a gasp for beachy freedom.

They saw Her on my report card, every glimmer and glare, every piece of Promising – that word again, when I did stop becoming Promising and become Promised? Promised to Ben, to this life that never was, that never started, historically promised and never promising again – and terrible-at-maths, ha ha ha, and destined for great things in English, hooray, and Spunk – are they allowed to say that now? – and Sass and Joker.

I was the Joker; I would’ve torn my face apart to make the class laugh. I laugh now. The description of Her is so delightful that I lose myself, I pretend she lived. That she isn’t a Missing Woman.

If they ring that doorbell one more time, I will murder someone. The spring light has been eaten by the formidable floorboards and the moon is no doubt making a fuss. My child-hating husband with his illegitimate shotgun will be traipsing home soon, no doubt, a dribble of blood on his sleeve, perhaps some innards trailing along behind him, the Pied Piper of throttling and despair, impairing quail and dreams, no matter how quickly they run.

The wedding was beautiful, of course. We had it in the back garden. His family spilt across the aisle looking miserable that they’d been invited, wishing, no doubt, that they could be somewhere inside, somewhere where they weren’t accosted by wasps and the smells of dung. I had a friend come – Tracey, hairdresser, used to do my hair back when I bothered – but I didn’t need a bridesmaid; why would I need a Maid? I’ve got enough time on my hands.

Too much time, if anything. The days stretch on endlessly and they feel like the moment before it rains, which is my least favourite. The moment after it rains is my favourite; the smell is called Petrichor. There isn’t a word for the dangerous scent of a pre-rain atmosphere. Just run-inside-and-hope-for-the-best.

The final item in my little Paris box is a picture of my first boyfriend, Elliott. He’s some sort of chef now, or perhaps a restaurant manager, it’s hard to tell from his pictures. Sometimes he’s in a professional kitchen, all steel appliances, smudges on the walk-in fridge, and sometimes he’s posting restaurant offers, all two-for-one and kids-eat-free. He obviously likes kids; he lets them eat for free.

He’s kept his hair, and his teeth. He looks good. His skin used to be the colour of dust, but now it’s tanned, alive, as if he’s been on holiday. He’d be a good husband. He wouldn’t leave me alone all day; he’d probably insist that I come and work at the restaurant, chatting with customers, running around, patting the backs of well-dressed women. I’d be invited to a Book Club, no doubt.

A mother cow lets out a nasal snort and I sigh. They won’t go away. Why can’t they leave me to die in peace, to replace this woman with what should have been? Let Her haunt me; let Her fill me up until there’s no longer any room for regret.

“Fine, I’m coming,” I roar, surprised that my throat still works so well. The farmhands certainly don’t get much of it, apart from shovel-that-shit and I-hope-its-not-another-girl. I piece Her back together and close the lid, watching the Eiffel Tower as it sways and laughs at me. The telephone wire rattles outside; that’s the internet gone. Facebook will have to wait. Something to look forward to.

I leave the box of everything-that-could-have-been where it is; it’s enough to get to my feet in one piece without having an extension. The house is dark, but I don’t bother with the lights. She follows me down the stairs, laughing at what I have become. I don’t glance at the hallway mirror, but it follows me anyway.

I throw open the door, ready to murder a delivery driver and serve his jowls in a tasty pie, alongside a quail perhaps, but it’s a man and woman and they’re wearing hats and clean white collars. I’ve never seen such a white collar. I look at their collars as they ask to come inside. I think about asking them how they’ve done it, how they’ve kept them so clean, especially in their line of work.

I don’t want them to come in; the kitchen’s a mess. I haven’t cleaned in a decade. Ben stopped caring too. They tell me there’s been an accident, something about a shotgun backfiring or a bullet rebounding, they aren’t sure, and I laugh at them saying they aren’t sure, because it’s such a key thing to be sure about. Why come to my door if you aren’t sure? Go and make sure, and do-some-bloody-work. Dirty those collars, what-are-we-paying-you-for?

They say they are sure, actually, and then I’m seeing the floorboards again, dirtier than upstairs, eaten by three-headed mites, hard, forcing my lungs to grow big, big, BIG: breathe. Ben was my Everything. I was the luckiest woman alive. The floorboards seem to rise and go on forever.

Southport Writers' Circle