2012 Competition - Short Story

 

General Comments from Richard Gibney:

Whether the stories appear to have thriller like, plot based narratives or a more poetic tone, they are all compelling. The use of the second person – as either narrative voice or as a form of address that is rare in the form – is a refreshing element in some of the pieces.

There are reminiscences and flashbacks, with an emphasis on either warm nostalgia or traumatic past events. These memories are generally seminal points in the life of the narrator or the central character – but many of them appear ephemeral in the best possible senses, with a descriptive beauty transcending the events themselves.


1st Place – Kathryn Lund for “The Music Box”

It starts as all stories start, in that summer long
ago. I can smell it now if I close my eyes. Strange how smell is the strongest,
the last to leave us, the quickest to return at the slightest ghost. It comes
still, every time I close my eyes and breathe and remember. Dust and dryness,
shut up rooms and entombed polish. And you.

You override it all so strongly that I could almost
faint, that I could almost dare to turn around, to open my eyes and speak your
name.  But I do not turn; you are not
here, just my quiet room in the flat that overlooks the gardens. Me and my
books and a roomful of quiet to remember in. I do not need to close my eyes for
that yet I keep them closed anyway. I close out the light and the room and the
summer outside, I close out all but that summer long ago.

 It was the
queerest, oddest house I had ever been in. It was one of those summers of
thunderstorms and rain and heat that burns you deeper than your skin.

We were bored with the river and the garden. We
were bored as only children can be when the summer is long and full of sun but
your mind is full of all the things you think yourself too old for and all the
things the world thinks you still too young to do. So it was sort of a dare do
you see. A dare to climb the wall where it hid in the woodlands, a dare to pull
back the rusted, dying lock on the thirsty side gate and let in The Brothers
and a barking Rascal. Not the most defiant and dangerous as some dares go but
it had the thrill of the illicit, it had the greatness of a deed done when the
daring seems enormous in a young mind. How my heart beat, how my hands shook,
how I thought at every step of capture and of flight.

There were gardens given over to weeds and the
smell of cypress trees in noonday heat. There were sudden burst of colour and
an age of shade as we crept, hearts beating, through a wilderness of tangles
and old trees. There was The Brothers daring each other to call aloud, falling
over their breath, running ahead of the echo of their shouts in case it turned
on them and spoke. There were stone peacocks meshed in prisons of grass and
still my heat beat, still my mind flighted, still my fear raced ahead of my
feet.

It was Peter who saw you first, sitting by that
pool that now only fountained the sun and creepers. We thought you were a ghost
– isn’t that ironic when you haunt me so – we thought you were a ghost sat so
still. But then Rascal barked and you leapt up onto the fountain to avoid his
menace. It broke the spell of the moment but not of the place. What did we even
say to you, why can I not remember when I can remember that stone fish fountain
and the creepers and the sun? The courtyard was overgrown flagstones, the
house-stone was amber, the window paint once white. All that I can remember but
not what words we said. We agreed to go into the house. Of course we did, what
else are hot summers for when they are long ago? What dare can be left so half
completed? You had a school exercise book all thumbed and dogged that you
pushed rolled up into your pocket, you had pencil lead smudging all your
fingers and Rascal shut up when you stoked his overgrown head. You were magic.

It is so clear to me, so clear as I stand here and
breathe the smell of it; like it is just there on the other side of glass, like
I am standing on that veranda with the flaked French doors pressing their cold
panes against my nose again. It is right there, I can reach out, I can open the
door…

Dust and dryness, shut up rooms. Have I ever been
as terrified as when I stepped through that door into that vastness of ancient
air? Height and space and cobwebs and faces, faces, faces, a galaxy of faces
screaming my scream and exploding the supernova terror of my eye-light.

“Mirrors.” You spun me round so quickly I hit the
fabric of your chest, I breathed you.
“Mirrors, and cobwebs, that is all”. 
Were you ever frightened in that too-full empty place? I don’t think you
were, you just struck a match and held it up and made the mirrors dance. A
forever of mirrors, mirrors floor to ceiling, mirrors half lost in sheets that
were lost in rags. Mirrors reflecting brief match light or eaten away into the
darkness of mouldy galaxies. Mirrors smashed to jarring fragments on every pane,
on every wall.

“Must have been the ballroom” said Peter, grabbing
a hold of Rascal.

The dust was so thick you could scoop it up into
your hands. This didn’t feel like the death of years or of decades but of
centuries. The cobwebs hung like curtains of greying shadow hung out to age.
The floors groaned and woke up beneath our feet, creaking out their age and
then their silence. We came back again, first with torches and then with tools
to un-shutter the light. We forgot about the sun and the heat of summer.  Every room became our room; fireplaces and
running spaces, a kitchen still dressed with spider filled bottles and plates,
the playroom. That was the only door still locked in the house but you got us
through. You got us through using a hairpin and wire from your pocket, you were
magic; you found us a kingdom full of toys.

“Did they just forget it or something do you
think,” asked Mattie, opening up his eyes like Christmas morning once inside
the playroom door, “did they just pack it up and forget?” What did it matter?
It was our kingdom full of delights and we didn’t have to pretend here that we
thought ourselves too old. Some delights you will become a child again for
through your whole life. Delights like a wooden castle big enough to stand in,
soldiers by the armies and armies by the tins. Dolls and games and shelf upon
shelf of everything, a rocking horse so big it could take two. The box of
dressing up. That’s where I found it, pulling free a parasol and pirate hat, a
red army jacket with faded gold bands. My dress.

The Brothers weren’t too impressed with it, they
had the soldiers lined up and the castle besieged, but you put down the toy you
were holding and came to me. “Should have a party” you suggested, donning the
pirate hat and the gold and blood colonel’s coat, “the house would like to see
dancing again.”

It didn’t sound stupid the way you said it. So we
dressed The Brothers in crowns and highwaymen’s cloaks and we took the picnic
bags down to that room of the smashed mirrors. My heart beat harder than ever
in its life, harder than any dare done to date. Because even though you hadn’t
said it, this almost felt like the last step of the dare, the last dare ever
before the summer ended and could not be made to stay. I felt every breath like
a tremble, every step down the stairs like the one before a fall. Only there
was no falling, just The Brothers charging ahead for plates and Rascal barking
madly in his costume of flag and dust.

A room full of mirrors and a thousand thousand us.
The last step of the last dare, the greatest ever done.

A thousand thousand versions of me put down a
thousand thousand bags. The infinite numbers of you put down the box you had
brought to the dirty floor. Gold and wood, about as wide as yourself so your
arms bent out ahead in line with your body. A thousand thousand golden boxes
and you offered all of them to me.

“Music,” you explained and opened the box to where
a big gold cylinder scored with lines glistened in the heart. You wound up the
music box and I took your hand, laughing because you tipped your pirate hat and
bowed.

 And I danced
with you.

Dust and dryness and empty rooms. We never went
back the next day. You became part of a summer suddenly closed and over and
gone with no means to make it stay. It closes over me now, a memory, a feeling
of dust under the fingers, the smell of a house lost to the world. Where did
you go, I wonder, when that summer closed? What replaced that battered book
with its pages filled with the fleeting glances of sketches and sudden bright
birds? Where did what followed summer take you and would I find that when you
closed your eyes and breathed it led you always to the breath of me - as I am
led, always, back to the breath of you?

I search for your face, sometimes, amongst
strangers in the street. Faces with kind summers and with cruel, faces that
wear their winters or stay young with spring. I look for you in the sketches
hung on walls; I look for you and find only mirrors and cobwebs, and
reflections, and dust. I looked and found the world was full of reflections and
none of them were you. And yet I can believe. I can open my eyes to my book
lined flat, I can speak your name, I can turn. I can find you here in my quiet
room of odds and ends, clearing away a space in the half cluttered oddities of
so many seasons. I can take the deep breath, I can let go
of dust.

Because this morning I opened my door to find a
music box, its cylinder heart open and flaring in gold.

Wound up in the sunlight and ready to play.

What our judge, Richard Gibney said:

A postmodern fairytale. There is a nostalgic haze to the events here that can only come with time. An encounter that is the result of a dare during a summer long gone brings about the story’s centrepiece: A description of countless replications of a moment of joy, which
gives this scene a resonance beyond the four walls in which it is contained.

A cherished memory for the narrator and a wonderfully rendered piece.

About Kathryn:

At just turning 28, Kats love of writing began as a child with the devouring of books. However it wasn’t until her move from school to 6th Form College that she realised she enjoyed writing for herself, after she some friends formed a small creative writing group with the help of a teacher. Writing mainly poetry with some short creative writing pieces they ran informal reading and writing sessions and edited together some pamphlet style magazines to hand out around the college. In the years since Kat has continued writing poetry on and off and recently has moved into short story writing to challenge her long held belief that she ‘can not do plots.’ Her poem ‘On Nights Like This I Hear’ won second place in the 2010 Reading Borough Libraries Poetry Competition and ‘The Quiet Room’ recently came runner up in the Thynks Publications ‘Healing Poems’ Competition and will appear in a pamphlet at a later date via the publishers.


2nd PlaceLindsay Fisher forWhat May Be Heard At The Last

Samuel Trow is old now. Uncertain he is in his small and
smaller steps. He holds a stick to help him walk and leans on it more these
days. Even still, he stumbles sometimes and falls to the ground, as he does
today.

         Not for thefirst time then, Samuel Trow lies in the street, not moving. Pressed flat he
is, his face turned like he’s sleeping, like it was back when he was a boy and
the bodies of black-rag crows hung on the wire fences, wings spread wide, like
something sacrificed, and the grass in the fields grew taller than his
shoulders, and Samuel Trow fell to the ground then. Samuel and his mam, way
back.

         ‘Listen,’ she says, his mam’s voice still in his head though he is old. ‘Listen.’

         And they lay flat, mam and boy, ears cupped to the rocks and the stones, listening. Only,
Samuel did not know then what he was listening for. Not at first.

         On the hills opposite Samuel saw cows, part coal, part cloud. He heard them too, mournful
trumpets, far off, like they would sound if animals had funerals. He felt the
sun warm on his back, warm as leaning against his mam’s oven when she was
baking bread.

         ‘What do you hear?’ she asks Samuel.

         He heard only the cows and the quieter hum of bees, and the hiss and whisper of the wind in
the grass, and always the great wheel turning at the pithead. But he knew his
mam wanted more than that.

         Old now, Samuel Trow lies in the street, clutching after his stick, ear to the ground.
He hears the rumble of traffic passing in the next street and music leaking
from the dancehall opposite: a piano playing and a lady counting steps, her
voice raised. The dancehall doors are wide for air. Samuel hears it all.

         ‘The sound of girls dancing, Mam, that’s the sound I hear. On a wooden floor.
Twenty-eight pairs of feet in white socks. Not gentle in
their dancing, but something like small thunder.’

         That’s what Samuel Trow imagines he heard then. He lies there, grey in his beard and one
ear pressed to the road, listening. Maybe there are twenty-eight girls dancing, somewhere; in Samuel’s head there are.
His eyes are closed and he looks like he’s crying. No more dancing for him.

         ‘What else do you hear Samuel?’ his mam asks.

         ‘A roar,’ he said, ‘under the ground, like tigers or dragons.’

         ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I hear it.’

         Samuel Trow, boy and man, lets his imagination travel. He lay on the ground, next to his
flat mam, way back, listening to the sound of the world turning beneath them.
And Samuel threw up things just to see if it was what she might have heard.

         ‘A crack like something breaking. Like dry sticks snapping. Like the click of a teacher’s
fingers to wake someone sleeping in class, or the clap of his hands, or a ruler
breaking on the desk.’

         ‘What else, Samuel?’ she says.

         ‘I hear singing. Like there’s a band in town today. No, not a band. A choir of voices.
And one voice above the rest.’

         Samuel saw his mam smile then, such a smile as he’s carried with him through all the years
till now. He wears that smile himself some rare days. He wears it this day,
through the tears, lying still as a picture, eyes closed, and Samuel smiling
like his mam. And listening.

         ‘One voice above the rest,’ he said again, and he did not know why he said what he did.

         ‘That’s him,’ she tells Samuel. ‘That’s him. Always was a singer. Sweetest voice this side of
the hill. That’s your da, Samuel.’

         Old Samuel Trow hears music playing and maybe the small thunder of twenty eight girls
dancing and dragon’s roar, but what Samuel remembers is his mam thinking his da
was singing underground; the weight of stone slapped on stone and Samuel’s da
underneath, and he might’ve been singing, even though he’d been dead a year.
Samuel’s da, dead now more than fifty years, and Samuel’s still listening.

         At the time the judge pronounced it an accident, all those pitmen in the sealed dark and
all those men dead. An accident, the judge said, like falling in the street can
be an accident and no one’s to blame. But a man in the courtroom spoke out
against the judgement and called it ‘murder’. You could get away with murder
back then so maybe it was. The police took that outspoken man away. Then a
girl, tall, hair in plaits and her nose all freckles, eyes flashing, stood up
and said the same; and a woman with a basket of eggs; and Samuel’s grandfather,
spit in all his last words; and Samuel’s sister; and a boy with a temper so hot
he kicked the wooden benches and split the wood. Murder, they all said.

         So, Samuel Trow and his mam lay out on the hillside some days, hidden, listening to his
maybe-murdered da singing underground, like he once sang in front of the fire
at home, a glass of cloudy cider in one hand and God in his singing voice. Not
that Samuel really remembers his da singing, or the cider in a glass or the
fireside song or God. He thinks he does, sometimes, but not really. Samuel just
knows what his mam said about it. That’s what he remembers, and his mam’s face
when she told him, when she conjured up his underground da singing in their
front room, black from the coal, black like he was no more than shadow.

         Then a day arrived when Samuel was not a boy. Samuel the man was apprenticed to Thomas
Bishop, mason, hands as rough as unfinished stone, gravel in his voice and few
words to speak of. Hammer and chisel and gouge made music of sorts against
granite and marble all of Samuel’s young-man-days. ‘Carving what’s already
there in the stone,’ is what he told his mam. ‘Setting it free.’

         His mam smiled, that same smile.

         ‘First you have to listen,’ he told her. He thought she’d like that. ‘Listen to what the
stone’s telling you. Listen to what it is. Then you cut away what it isn’t.’

         Samuel learned how to hold the tools at first. Clumsy to start with he was, but patient.
Thomas Bishop was patient too, saying nothing, just showing him again. Then one
surprise-day Samuel found flowers in a stone shelf for the lintel of a fine
house. Stone-birds seen on gateposts soon after, and walls decorated over with
stone-ivy and stone-roses. And Thomas Bishop nodded at what Samuel did, gave
him bigger tasks to do. He put up with Samuel dancing round the uncarved stone
blocks, dancing like there was music to be heard, and Samuel holding his ear
close to the stone, straining to hear, like a lover might bend himself to his
sweetheart when a secret’s being told, like Samuel might be mad listening as he
did. Thomas Bishop shook his head, said nothing and turned away, because as
Samuel’s work became known Thomas Bishop’s order book filled up.

         Samuel could chisel birdsong, they said, and heartbeats and sighs, could give breath and
life to stone. Angels in the graveyard seemed to move, their wings ruffling as
if itching to fly from the place of the stone-dead into the place of the
living. Those stone-angels were Samuel’s. He was quickly known for what he did
– the wonders he took out of stone and made as soft as living form. 

         ‘I wants to carve when I’s a man,’ said the boys that came to watch Samuel at work, small
hands over their ears against the big noise of Samuel’s hammering. ‘That’s what
I wants.’

As for music or singing, for all his listening, the truth is that Samuel heard nothing in the stone, nothing
that he did not put there with his struck chisel and gouge – and that was something he kept from his mam.

Samuel married soon, a woman who put dead bees in her purse as a charm against spending, so that the money
in the bank might grow to be something. Her name was Margaret. She took Samuel
from his mam, as is the way, and Samuel danced after her, just like he danced
with the stone in Bishop’s yard, only with Margaret he thought he did hear music or calling. Margaret
dressed him in shirts of white and a blue tie that she fastened herself. His
shoes never carried a shine, though. Always silver or grey with stone dust, no
matter how much she polished them. No matter. Margaret made a great fuss over
the man and gave Samuel children at last: two dancing girls in white socks.

Years are quickly spent when a family is made. Samuel never
gave up the listening though. Margaret caught him sometimes, one ear pressed to
the stone wall of their house. Samuel heard the voice of BBC commentators
through the wall and made believe that it was the stentorian voice of his da
that he heard. There was singing from the small black and white television when
‘Wagon Train’ came on, and Samuel listened from the other room, singing heard
through stone, and he wondered then if that was what his mam had heard when she
lay on the ground, years back. Lies in the ground herself by this time,
Samuel’s mam, hearing nothing.

There came a time when Samuel
carved stone for the church: acanthus leaves unfurling at the top of tall
pillars, the faces of angels hidden in the leaves; Saints at prayer, too, he
carved, and animals in every corner, set in pairs, like he was chipping Noah’s
ark out of the stone. Then, where no one will ever see, something hid in the
dark: Samuel carved the face of a man on the underside of a slap of stone, the
man’s mouth open as though he was singing. Samuel bent close to hear the song
that was on this man’s fish-mouth lips. All he heard was the ringing of metal
hit against stone, hammer and chisel and gouge. Even when his tools were still
– and they are still now – and wrapped in oiled cloths and set in his
stonemason’s bag, even then Samuel heard the ringing.

         Samuel Trow is old now. Margaret’s gone after his mam, and his two girls have danced
out of his reach. Samuel walks with a stick. The fields he once lay in have all
been burned, and years and years turned over, and the rusted pithead wheel is
so still it’s hard to believe it ever moved. Samuel Trow stumbles more than he
doesn’t and the path always rises to meet him. And lying there in the street he
turns his head, just enough he can hear the ground underneath him.

         ‘Are you alright, Mister?’ whispers a girl at his other ear. ‘Is it hurt you are,
maybe?’

         ‘Sh,’ says Samuel Trow, not brooking an interruption to what he hears, his eyes suddenly open and
bright like new buttons and a small crease at his brow so he can better
concentrate on the sound, snatching at it, before it passes, before it thins to
nothing, before he knows it’s just something in his head.

         ‘Squeeze my hand, Mister, if you can hear me.’

         Samuel Trow, old as hills, stone deaf as near as, his ear pressed to the cold ground, hears
singing. At the very last he hears singing, and maybe the singing is like something
he heard on the television long ago, but Samuel smiles thinking it sounds like
his da.

         ‘That’s his voice,’ says Samuel’s mam, in his head she does. ‘Sweetest voice this side of
the hill. That’s your da, Samuel Trow.’

         And the girl in the street sees the smile fixed on the old man’s face even as the light goes
from his eyes.


What our judge, Richard Gibney said:

Bookended with a fall on the street in the present, Samuel Trow’s life flashes before his eyes in a dreamlike fashion. The central character is an elderly, retired stonemason with a philosophy and a talent worthy of Michelangelo. The use of sound resonates throughout, with aural stimulation – imagined, real or remembered – punctuating the tale.


About Lindsay:

Lindsay Fisher writes when he can. He doesn't fully understand why he writes. He used to think he needed some great thing to say and this stopped him writing. Now he contents himself with telling stories and sometimes important things find their way into his words. 'What May Be Heard At The Last' says something about his own father and about father's generally and how we are always listening for our father's voice even when he is gone.


3rd PlaceMike Watson for “A Serenade Of Dreaming

       The river was as dark and silky as seal skin. All day they had explored the beaches and coves along the coast
and now, in their large, sleek boat, they sailed up the estuary. On a bend of
the river, where the current was slack, they dropped anchor and ate supper on deck.
Tall reeds grew in the shallows and, just beyond the grassy bank, there was a
clump of trees. And, it was from these trees that she made her appearance.

      It was the girl who spotted her first. The family stopped eating and watched the old lady making her way
along the bank. She was pulling a dark coloured shopping trolley. It bumped and
lurched along the uneven ground. One of the wheels was buckled and, on every
turn, it whined. Whined again and again like a trapped cat.

      Father wiped his mouth. Mother frowned. The boy was going to speak. The girl put a finger to her lips.
The old lady stopped opposite them on the grassy bank. She wore a long, grey
coat and black shoes. Her hair was the colour of sheep wool and her solemn face
had the emotion of a pencil drawing. Turning to her shopping trolley, she
unzipped the top and pulled out a plastic bag. The bag was white. It bulged. It
was full of lumps. In one quick, decisive movement the old lady shook out the
contents of the bag. Bread. All kinds of bread littered the ground: crusts,
slices, chunks, old loaves, rolls, buns. There was more bread scattered on the
grassy bank than could ever have been in the white plastic bag.

      Father jumped to his feet.

      “Hey!” he yelled waving his finger like a weapon, “you can’t do that!
Mother touched his arm,

      “Calm down,” she soothed, “it’s none of our business.”

The boy, spotting how red- angry his father was, folded his arms
tightly and grunted through pouted lips,

      “What a mess she’s making.”

And the girl....and the girl noticed the grass on the bank. It
trembled. It shivered. She blinked. She screamed long and loud. Mother joined
in. Father pulled his family close. Hopefully, he thought, there was enough
distance between the boat and the hundreds of rats now swarming around the old
woman’s feet.

      The creatures were large and small, young and old, brown and black, and whiskered and fast. From all
along the river bank hairy bodies popped out of holes and joined the feast.
There was no fighting or squabbling and there was no sharing either because
there was enough bread for all. Some sat on haunches and nibbled crusts. Some
clamped rolls in mouths and dashed off to quieter places. Some dragged old
loaves into holes and came back for more and more and more.

      And the family stood on the deck and gazed open mouthed at the wild circus in front of them. A continuous
activity of back and forth, of fur and claw, of leaps and run, of turn and
twist. Bread vanished down throats. Bread disappeared down holes. And as
quickly as they had appeared....the rats were gone. The old woman had not moved
from her place next to the shopping trolley. She wore a long, grey coat and
black shoes. Her hair was the colour of frost and beneath her twinkling eyes
was the birth of a smile.

      Father scratched his head,

      “Were they really rats?” He asked the world.

Mother lowered a hanky from her mouth,

      “It was like watching a
playground of children,” she said dreamily.

The boy, noticing how confused his father seemed, rapidly nodded his
head.

      “Definitely rats,” he
announced with authority.

And the girl....and the girl heard the little flag on top of the mast
snap, like somebody clicking a finger. A breeze was springing up. From the clump
of trees, just beyond the grassy bank, rose a sway of grey smoke. It drifted
towards the family on the boat. It grew darker and wider as it approached. The
little flag on top of the mast flapped and snapped as the gust from beating
wings grew stronger and stronger. The family protected their ears from the
chatter and clatter of a mighty flock of birds. Around the boat swirled the
birds like a huge dark lasso. Round and round it went until the flock descended
onto the grassy bank and feasted on the crumbs left behind by the rats.

      Rock still was the woman
amid the undulating tide of feather and squeak. Big birds with swollen chests
strutted. Tiny birds with darting beaks curtseyed. Fans of tails. Twigs of
legs. Gobble and peck. Swagger and hop.

      The family leaned against the rails of the
boat. They gaped like hungry chicks.

      From the swell of brown and
black on the grassy bank emerged a magpie. It flew to the shopping trolley and
perched on the handle. With two deft movements of its beak the magpie smoothed
down its feathers and then tapped with its baton-like tail. Tap, tap, tap, tap.
The flock of birds ceased feeding and, one by one, switched attention to the
magpie. For a couple of beats, the magpie observed them sternly waiting for absolute
silence. When it was satisfied, it tapped once with its tail and from every
chest and every beak there poured forth song that flooded the air. A sweet
chorus of meadows and pastures, of streams and mountains, wildflowers and
echoes. A serenade of dreaming.

      Father felt a tingle, mouse its way down his spine.

      “I can hear the sea,” he
giggled, “ blue against the sky....white against the cliffs.”

Mother tapped her feet and hummed.

      “I loved to dance,” she
sighed. “My feet were full of music.”

The boy’s skin tickled with kind nettles.

      “There are fireworks,” he
laughed, “and Christmas bells.”

And the girl....the girl saw the magpie tap twice on the shopping
trolley. As one, the flock of birds lifted into the sky with a draught of wings
and a trailing of legs. They flew off becoming, once more, a sway of grey smoke
and returned to the clump of trees just beyond the grassy bank.

      The lady had not moved. She
wore a long, grey coat and black shoes. Her hair was the colour of warm sand
and beneath glowing eyes were dimples in her pink cheeks.

      Father wanted to shout for more. Mother
wanted to applaud. The boy wished other people had shared with them the bird’s
performance. And the girl....the girl tasted a sweetness. A tongue tip of
honey. She pointed to the horizon. The sunset was glowing and rays of orange
and fire were shattering into multicoloured fractions. Segments of brilliance.
Triangles, patterns, polygons....all shifting, rearranging, sliding, glowing
flaring. And then....and then transforming and creating a stained glass window
framing the lady on the grassy bank.

      Before the family could even “ooh” or
“ahh” or breathe, the window silently erupted and fluttered into a vast cloud
of butterflies that spun and twirled in a pirouette of rainbows barely inches
above the ground. The beating of tiny wings caused a creamy white dust to steam
from the grass. Smaller than crumbs. Smaller than dots. It was a powder of
bread, so light and so delicate. Gently, it was herded by the butterflies
towards the river where it fell as a snowy shower onto the surface of the
water.

      The young lady next to the shopping
trolley wore a fine robe of silver with matching shoes. Her hair was the colour
of sunflowers and her smile twinkled as brightly as her diamond eyes. She was
radiance. She was star shine.

     Father reached for his wife’s hand. Mother
hugged the children. The boy wiped his cheek. And the girl....and the girl felt
the boat move. It tilted gently like a lovingly rocked cradle. The water rose
and fell as if breathing. In the water appeared dark, smooth heads, curved
backs and spear shaped fins. More fish than water. A seething mass rolled and
tumbled and devoured the powder of bread in a gulp and guzzle of seconds. All
gone. The fish and the old woman too.

      In the gathering gloom, the family could
hear the distant whine of the buckled wheel on the shopping trolley. It whined
and whined like a weeping puppy.

Eventually the sound
was swallowed by the dark clump of trees just beyond the grassy bank.

      On the table the supper had gone cold. A
night breeze trembled the sails and the small flag on top of the mast waved at
passing moths. Clouds shifted to reveal a crescent moon resting in a hammock
and the river was stretched and black as bat wings.

      Tomorrow, thought Father, we shall sail
down the coast. Maybe stop at the next harbour, thought Mother, there might be
a dance. Have fun fishing, thought the boy, catch some mackerel for supper.

And the girl....the
girl whispered....she whispered loud enough for everybody to look at her,

    “Let’s stay here.”

 
What our judge, Richard Gibney said:

Folkloric repetition in a poetic and inspired piece, with echoes of the traditions of European children’s lit and fantasy. Prochronistic elements such as a shopping trolley and a plastic
bag serve only to enhance.


About Mike:

Mike has been writing for many years and has had articles published in fishing, gardening and wine magazines. Since joining a local writing group, Mike has concentrated on short stories and poems and has been lucky enough to be a prize winner in numerous competitions.


4th PlacePenelope Randall forAnnunciation


If I turn my back for fifteen seconds and hold my breath, the bus will
come.

I shan't eat chocolate for a week, and I'll put half my pocket money in
the plaster Labrador outside the newsagent’s on Saturday morning, so the
dentist will let me out of his chair undrilled for another six months.

They’re still here in my
head, the daftest of those childhood sums. Arithmetic that tried to make sense
of the world. I'll say a long prayer for
starving people every night and then I’ll have golden princess hair.

Bartering with God.

It never worked. Even as
kids we knew that.

Trouble is, looking in the
mirror now, the face staring back at me is shadowed by this stuff. It's the
ghost of something that won’t go away. I find myself tempted all over again by
the promise of mad bargains because when there’s nothing else you just hang on.

I turn away from the glass.
These toilets are dirty. There’s grime on the vinyl behind the pedestals. The
chrome on the taps is rotted away, turned powdery green. You can see how bugs
thrive in places like this, how vulnerable people get sick with the kinds of
things they can’t beat. And the drugs don’t help any more, we’re always being
told that. In the furthest cubicle a woman is crying. You can hear everything
in here. Perhaps she had the appointment before mine.

Along the corridor Thomas
is waiting, slumped on his plastic chair.

The paper towel holder is
empty so I have to flap my hands in the air. I run my palms down my thighs,
moistening the denim. Staring at the mirror again, I am careful not to focus. If I don’t look, nothing will be there.
See? Another deal.

It's funny, really. The
notion that something I can do might have an effect, that I may not, despite
everything, be entirely helpless.

Ha ha.

I clasp my hands together
as I return to the waiting room and take the seat beside Thomas. He’s reading a
copy of Practical Fishkeeping. He pats my knee but doesn’t speak. Thomas is
certain of what we should do. There’s an aura around him, so definite and
brittle that he might be made from glass. It’s like the old, living Thomas
can’t move in there any more, can’t breathe. I’ve watched him over these weeks,
the way he’s diminished through embracing the worst.  Thomas is confident of the information we
will receive today, even though he dreads it. Sometimes I can almost believe
that this new, shrunken, certain man is content.

If I did not have Thomas, I might have you. I squeeze my fingers and
cradle the tiny roundness in my belly. If
my husband becomes sick, you will be well. 
But things can’t work that way. You don’t give birth to a healthy
child by sacrificing its father. After a moment Thomas reaches an arm around my
shoulders and I try not to shrink away.

“You’ll be next.
Definitely.” One by one, all the other patients have taken their turns, except
for an older woman sitting alone on the other side of the room. She has
waist-length hair that's the pale grey of evening snow, and her ankles are so
badly swollen that all their shape is missing; you climb up straight from her
feet to the hem of her flowery print skirt. She is too old, surely, to be
pregnant. Asking for trouble, hisses
a superior voice inside my head. I recognise this. A need not to be at the very
bottom of the pile.

Just now the grey-haired
woman was talking to a girl, no more than a child really. A porter had pushed
her in here to wait and she was slumped in a wheelchair, wearing a white
hospital gown and an ugly pink housecoat. A drip stand rumbled along beside
her. She looked as if she’d been crying for days.

Later, when she was called,
the grey-haired woman spoke to her and the girl pushed her ponytail back behind
her shoulders and pressed her lips together. There was a quick flicker of
something in her eyes. The sobbing stopped.

I wondered what had been
said.

The woman is looking at me now. I
force my mouth into an acknowledgement, a sort of smile, and at the same time
release Thomas’ hand. There’s a length of loo paper balled in my fist. I have
to blow my nose often.

“They like to keep you
waiting.” The woman tips her head towards the closed door on the opposite side
of the corridor. “Playing at it.” There’s a slight accent, eastern European
perhaps, and laughter in her voice. I think it’s genuine amusement, not the kind
of barely-suppressed hysteria that breaks out in here from time to time. I
smile.

“Will you take a look?” She
holds out a letter headed with the Health Authority logo. I cross the room,
take the page from her. An identical letter to my own, except that this one
carries no name or address.

“They say I cannot have
received it like this.” The appointment time, too, is the same as mine. She
folds the page and slips it into the outside pocket of a leather bag the colour
of dried blood. Her voice is brisk. Quiet, but authoritative. “They say they
have no record. Now, tell me, how can that happen?”

“People typing rubbish into
a computer,” I offer. She smiles again.

“And you. Yourself.” She
pats the chair beside her and I sit down, not wanting to appear rude. I find I
don't mind being close to her. “You are coming to find out? Today?”

I nod. Today we find out. “All kinds of things.”

“He is not so keen, is he?”
She casts her eyes towards Thomas, who is once again sifting through the tatty
magazines on the corner table. Many of the covers feature huge glossy bellies
and porcelain smiles. Pregnancy, those bright pages proclaim, is a time for
hair salons and anti-cellulite cream.

“He’s bad with words. If there’s a problem,” I murmur, “he thinks we shouldn’t  continue.” I’m shocked at myself for saying
this. For weeks I didn’t believe it could be true.

Thomas, my husband, has
told me he is quite unable to devote himself to the care of an imperfect child. 

“And you? What do you think?”

“I don’t,” I confess to
this stranger. No hesitation. “I don’t think about it. That’s the  point.” I glance towards Thomas and know he
isn’t listening. “It’s something I daren’t imagine. I mean, the outcome.
Whether everything is all right, or whether it isn’t. Either way,” I finish,
trying to make myself clear.

The woman hasn’t replied.
“How about you?” I ask, hesitantly – for who is comfortable with questions in a
place like this? – “You’re here for -”

She presses her palms
together and then lifts them up to her lips. “Yes. I am here.” I'm not sure if
she's deliberately misunderstanding me. She holds out her arm and examines a
broad, mannish style of metal wristwatch. “Your turn soon.”

I glance towards Thomas,
who has stopped reading. He’s sitting perfectly still, staring at his knees,
and his body is bent forward slightly, a geometry that suggests trouble is
pushing down on him. The weight of things, I think. Why don’t these nasty cheap
chairs break apart under the loads people carry in here?

The door we’re waiting to
go through is painted green. It’s closed. The slot for the doctor’s name is
empty, although of course we all know what it should say. The man at the centre
of this small scruffy universe is Mr Anderson. A smooth-spoken demi-god, with
the power to raise you up or dash you to pieces. To give life or take it away, I think. Because it could, in the
end, amount to that.

“He will be getting ready for you,”
explains my companion. “You will see.” The prospect doesn’t sound frightening,
not the way she says it.

“Thomas can’t bear this,” I
whisper. “I mean, the idea of our child being limited. Little crooked smiles.
Almost holding his neck up. Managing a dribbly drink from a spouted beaker. For
always.” I remember the leaflets they gave us. About the condition the medics
suspect I’m carrying. The life expectancy of those babies. “Always might not be very long.”

“No child should die before the parents.”

But this one will, I think. If today goes badly, that’s exactly what will happen.

We’ve glimpsed inside the office now. My
companion says there’s another door, you don’t have to come out this way, past
everyone. I've noticed that, how you don't see people again once they've gone
in. It's a shivery thought.

Mr Anderson must be sitting at his desk, just out of view. You can hear the
rumbling tones of his great voice. A woman in a yellow overall brings his tray
of coffee and biscuits, a china cup and saucer and three big golden digestives
on a small pink plate. She might be wearing a little pinny and cap, I think.
The door closes.

Thomas has moved on to Mediterranean Property Buyer. Its cover is cobalt blue. Like
there’s never rain in the Med.

All those magazines are peddling lies. Things you can’t have.

Mr Anderson’s door opens. A
nurse is carrying a grey paper file. She says my name. My companion lays a hand
on my wrist. Her fingers are soft, dry, like they’ve been carved from a block
of face powder. I think that if I try to stand up my knees won’t support me. On
the other side of the room Thomas drops his magazine.

I can’t do this. I’m not sure if I’ve said the words out loud. Suddenly there’s an arm
under my shoulders, holding me up. What’s
your name? I ask her. The question’s in my head, and that’s where I hear
her voice, too. My eyes don’t seem to be focussing properly. I can’t see her
lips move.

I'm called Angela. She pronounces it Ann-gale-a. The German way.

I feel Thomas take my hand.
He squeezes, pressing into my palm. I think he’s trying to offer more but
doesn’t quite know how. But it’s Thomas who helps me move into the corridor.
Behind us the sun is shining into the waiting room, through the high,
metal-framed window. It makes the air soapy yellow. 

“Where’s Angela?” I ask him.

“Who?”

“That woman. I was talking to her.”

“I didn’t see anyone.”

Was Mediterranean Property
so absorbing? Typical Thomas. I manage a few more steps and the nurse is
ushering us past the green door, into The Presence. Mr Anderson leans forwards
over his desk, extends a well-pressed hand.

I hear Angela’s slow voice
in my head, again. You will see. You will see. I can still feel her touch
on my wrist. I find that I can actually breathe, and I keep on breathing, while
this man opens the folder in front of him and reads the tagged pages of notes
and lab sheets. Slowly. Playing out his authority. As we wait, Thomas’ fingers
weave in between mine. He used to do that a lot, long ago. My other hand lies
on my belly. As if, on our side of the desk, I’m holding the three of us together.
I think hard.

If I hang on, pull both of them close and don’t shut my eyes, it’ll be all right.

That’s not so stupid, is it? Not an impossible bargain?

Opposite us, Mr Anderson clears his throat.


What our judge, Richard Gibney said:

This compelling story’s beauty is in its ambiguity. From the title, we
can assume a happy ending, but we could just as easily deduce any
other. The tale could be construed as an overtly Christian parable,
but its explicit symbolism is far from preachy or judgmental. While
the ending is open to interpretation, also up to the reader is what
the story’s message is in an emotionally charged area of medicine,
health, society and ethics.


About Penelope:

Penelope Jane Randall read Engineering Science at Hertford College, Oxford, and has since worked as a teacher, civil servant, editor, playgroup assistant and needlecraft designer. Writing can be summed up as ‘three novels,  three agents, no luck with publishers’. Successes in competitions – including the Bridport longlist (twice), Asham shortlist, runner-up in the Jane Austen Short Story Award and
overall winner of the Wannabe a Writer Novel Writing Competition – usually keep her going. She lives and teaches in Manchester and is hoping to have more time for writing now her daughters are grown up.



5th PlaceIan Burton forSecret History of a Song


1/

McGill left the stage, guitar in hand, applause ringing through the
building. He shrank back down to normal size entering his dressing room and in
the hubbub of people waiting for him there was unable to hear what was being
said because his music had been so loud, so big.

Eventually, they all left.

It took a million refusals: no to this drink, to
that phone number, no to the new deal on the table or the almost bared breasts
of someone whose name he should remember…

But he sat patiently, knowing that they would all
run out shortly after the drink did. His fingers still caressed the neck of the
guitar and his inner eye kept catching glimpses of the next song, darting like
a fish through light and into dark.

The dressing room door clicked shut. He waited. The
almost-bared-breasts might come back but time passed safely. She must have
passed out somewhere or caught someone else in the lacy netting of her bra.

He un-hid a bottle of wine taped underneath the
dressing table chair and twisted the screw top open.

Red wine in a white plastic cup. But it slipped his
attention as the strings of the guitar now began to idle under his fingers.

Launch!

A simple riff, over and over. The hook was so good -
but where were the words? He continued fishing and waited patiently.

A shoal came along to dance in the ripple of his fingers and they leapt
so beautifully.  Mere words tried to
capture them and swam the rapid of his thoughts. He sang. He wrote them down
onto dry paper.

It had taken precisely an hour which was exactly the
amount of time it turned out there was before the caretaker came to check the
Dressing Room. “Beautiful song,” the man said, “don’t know that one.”

He smiled thinking ‘neither did I before now’.

In the dark cold of his car he thought, if she hears it she will know it’s for her
alone, she will know and she will find me.

He heard a quiet snuffle from the back seat. The
breasts were naked now but she must have passed out.

He started the engine.

2/

On the radio… “…the fastest
selling single ever, number one in a day, platinum in the first week…”

Shelley lay half awake, still in her school clothes
as the guitar found her dreams and the words called her softly awake.

But it wasn’t really the words so much as his voice
and its feelings, already their
feelings.

“Shelley, your tea is on the table.” Her mother’s
flat, emphatic words invited no response.

Awake, everything the same – her back pack spewing
books where she’d flung it - but the light outside was that little bit browner
on its journey to black. Inside her, everything had changed and was still
changing. The guitar and the words were all in memory-shreds and she had to put
them back together, had to hear that song again.  Who was he? In the song, he had wanted her to
look for him. He’d said she would know it was her he meant, just her.

It had to be McGill. All the girls had been going on
and on about this McGill and she’d pretended she knew all about him too… But
they’d got all their stuff about him from the internet and magazines whereas
she…

“Your - tea - is - on - the table!”

This was Security Alert Level Two. Her name had been
dropped from the Level One Alert and the disembodied voice of her mother was no
longer flat, it flexed with restraint. There were still three known levels yet
to come but Shelley decided not to risk even one more and got off the bed
reluctantly.

An unlistenable radio song came to an end – the
girls at school called them deaf songs because nobody who was cool could hear
them but suddenly her ears heard, “…the
fastest selling single ever, number one in a day, platinum in the first week…”

She sat on the edge of the bed, head in hands and
began to know everything as the guitar played through her feelings. The words
swam by, sparkling and weaving.

They were almost not words at all but a voice alone, talking to her
alone, a collage of feelings, coloured and dark.

Sacrilegiously, Security Alert Level Three kicked in
just as the song recital ended…

“You have less time than you think, madam…”

“I’m coming!” Her voice tried to sound definite and
reliable but wilted as the radio voice stole her ears…

“New McGill tour dates are being added all the time
so why not go online NOW to see if he’s coming to your town, check www…”

These words she remembered, these were just words,
no fear of forgetting these. She was always top in the exams and the girls at
school said ‘how do you remember all that boring stuff, Smelly Shelley?’ When
she wasn’t Smelly Shelly, she was the Ginger-Minger.

She could feel McGill’s song but not remember the
exact words, without the exact words – how could she sing?

Shelley rubbed her eyes.

The bedroom door flew open. “You haven’t even got changed yet, Shelley!” There
was no restraint in her mother’s eyes, none. 
“Get downstairs and eat your tea!”

Shelley trooped past her, half expecting a Roger
Federer style backhand swipe as she passed but that would have been a Code
Violation and there wasn’t a Security Level for that, yet.

The ‘tea’ on the table was fish, now cold in a
sticky sauce. A mound of salad ‘decorated’ the rest of the plate and there was
one tiny, tiny bread roll so
microscopic it would have made a scone feel proud of its height and girth.

The stream of her mother’s words, though quiet, was
so deafening she couldn’t hear them. A response was neither expected nor
required.

The TV in the lounge was boring out the news like a
drill. Her hands were slicing the microbe-roll and stacking the bottom half
with as much salad as she could cram onto it. Compression she had found crushed
the sour taste of the lettuce and gave the miserly onion a chance to flirt,
even if in passing, with her taste buds.

But then, from the t.v., “…the fastest selling single ever, number one in a day, platinum in the
first week…”

She was off her seat and into the lounge, the roll
in hand, her mother in tow still chiff-chaffing even as the sound of the guitar
grew up to swamp the news reader’s voice-over.

The voice of McGill came from the face of a young
man only just a little older than her with eyes dark and soul inspiring beneath
the random tousle of stage lit, glossy hair. Her mother’s chaff had dried up.
She was standing by Shelley’s side and when the exasperatingly short clip was
killed by the returning, grinning face of the newsreader, Shelley turned and
threatened, “Mum, I’m going out to buy that single, now.”

Her mother’s tight lips merely tightened Shelley’s
resolve and she was about to launch the hundred, hundred reasons why she had to go out when her mother’s tidal
speech slapped her.

“You’re going to do no such thing, young lady… because I am! I want
that song too. D’you think I’ve no feelings? And while I’m out you are going to
do the following in this exact order; eat your tea, have a shower, change, do
your homework…”

Shelley felt her jaw drop. For once Mum’s words were
not disabled, not ‘on mute’ and she heard her mother say, “you’ll catch fish if
you do that long enough, or the wind will change first and you’ll be stuck like
it.”

But then suddenly the hug, the hug, the so-longed
for hug.

“Go on then, get on with it, girl!” The husk to her
mother’s voice made her want to cry properly but it quickly sharpened to slice
away all thought of that, saying, “What’s this lad’s name anyway?”

“McGill” Shelley replied, wiping her eyes. “It’s
McGill.”

“I won’t be long but if your Dad gets home early and
wants his tea…”

To watch her mother reaching for the end of a
sentence was news in itself. The eloquent, Federer swish of her hand said it
all and they laughed.

The door slammed. The sound of the car struggling to
wake up but then barking out loud.  The
hum-drumming telly sounds. And, swimming beneath all that, the confident beat
of her heart.

3/

The concerts were different now. So many girls, women, grandmothers
even. Their boyfriends and husbands and partners all dragged along, stones on a
blonde beach.

McGill sat in the dressing room, surfing the chattery words and waiting
for the right wave to balance his own question on. And on the eventual crest,
“Did anyone see the red-head?”

“Is that a new film?”

“No,” said McGill sadly, losing the moment, “It’s a
person. I just sensed she was out there, that’s all.”

4/

McGill was caught in traffic. The lights were green but the gridlock
had no choice but to ignore it. On the radio: “it was announced today that McGill has lost his record deal with the
InterSplinter Record Group.  Just five
years ago his single, “The Search for You and Me” hit the number one spot in a
day and broke all records. He was philosophical when our reporter caught up
with him. ‘Hey it’s fine…’” McGill heard himself say on the radio. “’I’m not writing any more, so why would I
need a record company?”

He wanted to write but couldn’t. He jabbed the off
button.

In the gridlock just one movement, someone walking
towards the traffic lights, red hair bobbing. She turned to look and saw him.
Her eyes, the look in her eyes so knowing, so sure. She came walking down the
line of traffic, he unlocked the door and she got in without hesitation.

In the mirror of her eyes, the delight of
recognition, the yearning of love.

A small shoal of feelings emerged, attracted by the
sudden light and enlivened by the urge to swim the incredibly short distance
between them.


What our judge, Richard Gibney said:

An inventive description of song writing, with the fish imagery employed returning at the story’s end. The use of “alert levels” to represent the interactions between mother and daughter is vivid too. This story plays with the age old notions about love and destiny in a
modern setting.

About Ian:

Ian is a published novelist and short story writer. For his day job he’s Co-centre Manager of one of the biggest and busiest community centres on the south coast. He is also a creative writing tutor there. His Fiction Writers Workshop has been in continuous session, term by term, since 1988 and his students enjoy many successes. “Fiction is all about people. I’m a novelist at heart but I love to use short stories as a seed bed for ideas, character development and experimentation. “The Secret History of a Song” is one story in a mini-series exploring the theme of music.





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