Our 2014 Short Story Competition Shortlist

A big thanks to all who entered our 2014 Short Story Competition.



We have now completed our final judging stage and George Hawthorn, our Short Story Judge, has selected the winning entries



Congratulations to everyone who made it onto the shortlist and, of course, our winners.



Winners



1st Place - Petra McQueen for "Hiroshima Shadows"



2nd Place - Penelope Randall for "Selling Out"



3rd Place - Carolyn Carter for "Letters to a Hermit"



4th Place - Sue Hoffman for "A Step in the Right Direction"



5th Place - Sharon Boyle for "An Angel in Dustville"



Other Shortlisted Entries



Mountain View - Tony Irvin

Toe Dipping - Simon Whaley

The Ferryman - Keith Rose

The North - Billy Wilson

Beyond Price - J Cooper

The Distant Waters - Jean Dorricott

Star Gazing With The Green Man - Lynne Voyce



2014 Short Story Competition

General Comments from George Hawthorn our 2014 Short Story Judge

Although I have entered a number of short story competitions this is the first one I have judged. I am confronted with a dozen short-listed contenders — but how to order them? All the stories are technically accomplished and their plots and themes interesting and wide-ranging. So really it comes down to which ones struck the loudest chords and resonated most with me during the preceding weeks.

I am reminded of the difficulty I had when choosing a colour to decorate my kitchen. I managed to narrow choice down to orange — something to startle me awake in the morning — but when I perused the paint colour cards I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of shades. Tangerine Twist seemed perfect but what about the promise of Delhi Bazaar? How would Sunflower Symphony compare to Sulphur Springs? Had I considered Havana Gold?

Reading these stories took me from the icy deep blue and green Newfoundland waters to the ochre and bronze of an autumn leaf-strewn London with the memory of malachite eyes. To a dahlia or is it a dandelion in a vibrant but memory-bound Kenya, through the grey nothingness of a CCTV monitor and out along a red murram road by the shore of Lake Victoria. From black Speedos on a tan body I followed an Orange Tip butterfly flutter flickering along Corncrake Drive…

As with the colour cards I did plenty of reshuffling and finally settled on the sequence below. Thank you to all the writers and congratulations to the winners.

1st Place – Petra McQueen for Hiroshima Shadows

Johnny lit a cigarette from the gas cooker and flung himself on the tatami, resting his back against the wall. He pointed at the painted wooden doll I’d put on the television. 'What the hell's that?'

'I bought it from the junk shop. Don’t you like it?'

He gave a smirk: 'You do know what it is, don't you?'

I stared at him, waiting for him to say something cutting.

'It's a Kokeshi,’ he said. ‘The Japanese use them to symbolise a child that’s died.'

I looked at him carefully to see if he was teasing and then, sure he wasn’t, looked back at the wooden doll. ‘Jesus. Really?’ I said.

Johnny laughed. The long deep laugh that I had to turn away from because it was too much like my brother’s. 'That’s so ironic,' he said. ‘Just in time for your little visit.’

‘Too bloody right.’ I picked the doll up, went to the kitchen, and flung it in the cupboard under the sink. I opened the fridge and rolled out one of the ‘Big Boys’: a two litre can of beer we’d bought from the vending machine in the street. It frothed as I poured it into the glasses.

When I returned, Johnny had opened the French windows and was on the balcony, sitting on one of the plastic chairs stained green with mould. In front of him, the suburbs of Hiroshima rose into the hills. The sun was setting. The city didn’t look pretty exactly, but rose tinted the concrete and glass, softening the view.

'You going out tonight?’ Johnny asked, as I handed him a glass.

I shrugged. I would, I knew, end up pissed in some seedy noodle-bar but I had no actual plans.

‘There’s some guy I’ve arranged to meet but he’s a Marine and it could be a set-up.’ He blew out a stream of smoke. ‘Come with me, would you? Pretend you’re my girl ‘til I know it’s okay.’

‘Sure,’ I said, glad to be asked. I owed Johnny. Big time. I told him everything and he never judged. We thought the same. He’d been here longer than me and so knew some Japanese, but, like me, and unlike some of the other teachers at the language school, he didn’t wet his pants over ikebana, fell asleep at Noh, and didn’t drool over a perfectly executed kanji.

For separate reasons, we’d wanted to escape and the job in Hiroshima was the first one that came up. I knew the city’s history – sure, who didn’t? But that didn’t seem to matter. Not at first. Anywhere was better than the nowhere place I’d been before.

The bloke who Johnny was going to meet turned out okay. He was less brutish and self-hating than some of the other gay Marines Johnny had hooked up with. I stayed with them until about four in the morning, then they sloped off to a love hotel. I rode my bike home. It was nearly daylight and people were on the street, brushing their steps, going to work. I felt like a ghost of the day before.

That afternoon, Johnny returned. Late. I was already sick from nerves and queasy from my hangover. He made it worse with his refusal to rush.

‘Come on! The visit’s in an hour.’ We’d taken to calling it a ‘visit’ in homage to the Japanese art of euphemism.

Johnny emerged from his bedroom wearing thick black eyeliner, and a pair of very tight trousers. ‘Let’s do this in style,’ he said. I rolled my eyes and looked at my long skirt, worn in case of examination. I wrapped it tight around my legs as we sat on the bus.

The quickest way to the clinic was a short cut through Peace Park. We marched over the green where once we’d been whistled at by a guard for playing a spontaneous game of football with some local kids. I could see the reason for his officious fury, but we’d forgotten for that short moment that it was a memorial park, forgotten the horror of a bomb so strong that only shadows survived.

We entered the clinic. We were three minutes late so were rushed through by the secretary. The doctor didn't register surprise at Johnny’s make-up. Maybe he thought all gaijin men dressed that way. They chatted in Japanese, laughing, as though I wasn’t there. Which suited me. During the scan, I didn’t look at the screen. They booked me in for a termination the next week.

'Cut it out and have done with it,' said Johnny, as we came out of the clinic.

I hated that and opened my mouth the tell him to fuck off. But I found I was too tired and, besides, having an argument would have meant that I’d have to think about what I was doing.

We spent all that night drinking, and the nights that followed. Of course we did. At some point, I thought I saw the father of the baby but I couldn’t be sure and anyway what was there to say? On the night before the operation, Johnny went out on his own and came back early with some bloke. I took my futon onto the balcony to sleep. I told Johnny it was because I was too hot. But it was because I was jealous and wanted to take myself away from the laughter. Shouldn’t Johnny have been looking after me?

I lit a mosquito coil and looked up at the sky. It was deep grey. The city hummed and glowed. Without wanting to, knowing it would hurt, but unable to stop my tumbling thoughts, I wrote a letter to mum. My brother’s death was a bomb that had ripped us apart, exposed our bloody entrails, our worst thoughts and fears. By dying he had extinguished us all. After I calmed down, I wrote of students and temples, the heat and the mosquitoes. Finally, I told her about the abortion. As the night faded to day, I had the idea that I might actually write to mum if I could find out where she was living. Then I slept.

Johnny woke me. ‘Hey, sweetheart. Let's get this over with.'

I was silent as Johnny led me to the clinic and spoke for me at the desk. When they asked me to count up to ten on the operating table, I couldn’t remember the Japanese numbers and didn’t think to count in English.

I woke and Johnny was waiting for me in reception. After taking me to a café for a bowl of noodles – ‘Eat it! You’ll feel better’ - he took me back to the apartment and then he went to meet his new lover. Two months later, he decided to live with him. I cried for a whole afternoon.

I found a new flatmate. Before she arrived I thought I better tidy up: the place was a mess of cigarette butts and lager cans. Clearing out the crap under the sink, I found the kikeshi doll. I thought of what Johnny had said: it was a doll to remember a lost child. I stared at it for a moment, and then moved to put it back under the sink. But for some reason I hesitated – it was as though my body was responding to something I hadn’t yet thought, maybe never would. I took the doll to my room and, having no shelf, left it on the floor. For a few weeks it stayed there, sometimes covered by discarded clothes, sometimes upright in a tidied room.

The doll didn’t bother me. It wasn’t some kind of evil thing watching me (this isn’t that kind of story) rather I was aware of it. One day, flustered by my new flatmate – ‘That’s nice, why don’t you put it on the telly in the lounge?’ – I decided to throw it away. I even went so far as to put it in the bin. Changing my mind, I retrieved it, wrapped it in a plastic bag, and put it in a shoe box and wrapped it in brown paper.

On the way to the post office, I passed Peace Park. The monuments were strewn, as they always were, with paper chains made of a thousand origami cranes. They were bright in the sunshine, solid rainbows. The story was that a little girl, dying of radiation sickness, made a chain hoping that once she reached a thousand she would be granted life. She died before she finished.

It hurt to think about it. Just as it hurt to think of all those others who’d died. I went for a beer and was going to order another one when I looked at the brown parcel on the table, and decided to finish my mission. I went to the post office and posted the kikoshi. On the box was the address of my childhood home, the place where once my brother and my mum and I all lived the longest. I didn’t know anyone in the house, or even anyone in the village. But that was where the doll belonged.

Sometimes I think of it: the surprise of the house owner as she received an unwanted gift. Did she throw it away? Or is it in her living room, perhaps in the kitchen on the windowsill? When a friend remarks on it, does she laugh as she tells how the doll arrived unexpectedly, post-marked Hiroshima? And does she, late at night, think of possibilities, give the doll a story, a background, a life?

What our judge said about Hiroshima Shadows:

Hiroshima: a name indelibly linked with the explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb during the closing weeks of World War II. A name evocative of devastation and destruction, of a harrowing legacy. In this story the western narrator lives in the contemporary city and faces her own problems. She is modern and pragmatic but finds herself inspired by Hiroshima and Japanese tradition to take action.

This story, with its ever-present background shadows, successfully explores the ripples of events beyond our control, the vulnerability of relationships and the fragility of life.

 About Petra:

Petra McQueen is a writer and teacher, with an MA in Creative Writing. Her life-writing has appeared in The Guardian and You magazine. Her stories and poems have been widely published in  the UK and abroad. She lives in the farthest reaches of Essex with her wonderfully supportive family who suffer with grace her moody silences as she composes yet-to-be-written award-winning novels in her head.

 

 

 

2nd Place — Penelope Randall for Selling Out

The thing about clothes is, they’re spiteful. Duplicitous. They'll make your day and then trip you up.

Mirrors don’t help. Who is the fairest or most ridiculous of them all? It depends who’s looking. The girls in the fitting rooms here, they'll tell you royal blue is navy and any size jeans are fine, so long as you can wrench the zip shut.

I’ve been working at Banjo for five weeks and constantly handle items so toxic you might think the staff uniform should be a biohazard suit. Imagine footwear like these wedge mules with faux-alligator straps. Off-the-shoulder nylon shirts in cerise or kingfisher with belts of gilt chain, straight from my mother's dressing-up box, circa 1973. 

You have to be careful, dealing with clothes.

And then there's Ingrid. Eyes of a tired raccoon. Hair in buttery Barbie-nylon. Ingrid wields a razor-edged clipboard in the way that other supervisors – factory foremen, dinner ladies, circus ringmasters – might use a whistle, or a whip. Pick more strawberries, try the double backflip again, rehang another fifty horrible garments from the Returns rail. Ingrid works you hard, but she's fair, that's the general view. Question it at your peril.

“Mrs Thomas!” Ingrid won't call me by my first name. This singles me out, as if my being here at all isn't strange enough. She gestures towards the tills by the door, where there's a wisp of breeze. She's being kind. Ingrid is a big woman, but faster-moving than you'd expect so I have to hurry across from Footwear. She slides her electronic key into the machine and then I have to input a code. Ingrid got me this job - she lives next door to my mother and somehow bypassed the Online application process. I owe her. She gets me out of the house every morning.

Two kids hand me halter-neck tops with Yamaha designs in grey glitter. Best Friends. I take their debit cards and issue receipts they don't want.

 

Being here, I can confirm that what people crave is high-risk fashion. They get a buzz from the possibilities, wandering our aisles and pawing the rails; they pounce and hold things against themselves, craning for a mirror. You try not to laugh. It's hard to believe there's a customer for everything, even the purple spandex cropped cardigans - just sleeves really - and fleece micro shorts. There must be hygiene issues there. We also stock animal print bikinis in any size you like. A few people claim to have sold the largest ones, but there's no independent verification; Ingrid herself doesn't know how they leave the rack.

Maybe you'd just nick it, if you wanted a string bikini in XXL. Better to run the gauntlet of the store detective and Centre Security than approach the skinny kids on the tills.

After ten minutes Ingrid logs me off. The rush has melted away. 'There you go, Mrs Thomas.'

Lucy, I want to shout. My name is Lucy. At school we tried to avoid the kids finding out our first names, but they always did. At least I'm not Persephone or Willa. Some people just wouldn't ever become teachers. Mrs Balls. Mr Hiscock. Actually I've known both of those. Hard to imagine how they coped.

“A bit of a tidy-up on kiddies' knitwear. You and Marie.” I feel reprieved. Ingrid has the power to darken anyone's day by posting them to the fitting rooms or, worse, upstairs to review labelling on items so unattractive that they've failed successive promotions and are now destined for the Outlets.

“There'll be a Reorganisation next week,” Marie confides. She and I spend a brisk quarter-hour among the tiny cardigans and bootees and all-in-ones. We agree that it’s impossible to believe our own children were ever as small as this. We re-order the hangers. Newborn, 0-3 months, 3-6. Rifling through compacted time.

Marie lacks sunlight and confidence. Her son is struggling at primary school. She reads Harry Potter at bedtime and packs his lunchbox with fruit that he brings home uneaten. Persist, I want to tell her, but she doesn't ask. Like the others, she can't fathom why I'm here. A change, I've told everyone. Their looks suggest I'm suffering some obscure kind of breakdown, or martyrdom, possibly contagious.

There are topics you have to  avoid, with Marie. Boyfriends. Going Out. Marie lives with her own mum, who works nights at a call centre.

Clothes are so dangerous they can turn you into a cabbage.

Nathan's school trousers were too short and his jumper was too wide. His shirt was tucked-in. A jointed, stringy boy with shoulders that you longed to grab and wrench upward and back, about fifteen inches. Can't you see yourself? Nathan was jostled in the corridors. His lunch box was grabbed daily from his backpack – he never learned not to wear it like that, as if he was about to scale Everest – and booted around the floor in the Lower School toilets until its lid burst off and his sandwiches broke up into sad, naked chunks of bread and lettuce, soaking up God-knew-what from the concrete. Nathan's locker was opened and drenched in Red Bull because he never remembered to use the key.

You longed for Nathan to metamorphose into something hard and popular. With the potential for physical retribution – not buckets of pigs' blood exactly, but a bit of practice with a left hook behind the lockers. Like one of those bantamweight boxers who aren't weedy at all. Many of us imagined it, and hoped – but we only hoped. There's the guilt.

Nathan's parents had meetings with his Head of Year, who also taught PE and might have shown Nathan a few neat tricks with a fist . . . but didn't because it's not what we do. Nathan's case was passed to the Deputy Head (Pastoral Care), a doughy woman with her own office and a tiny teaching timetable. The Deputy Head (Pastoral Care) tackled Nathan's problem by putting him On Report. At the beginning of every lesson, every day and in full view of his tormentors, he had to hand a grey card to the teacher so that something could be written on it for Nathan  to take home and show his parents. Positive observations on Nathan's progress through the day. This would make them all feel better. They would know that Something was Being Done.

The day I quit was a Tuesday. Breaktime. Nathan was lying on the floor in Room 8, curled around his rucksack, his lunchbox beside him, stuffed with pharmacy cardboard and emptied blister packs. His mum's antidepressants. Beta blockers he'd been prescribed for anxiety. A cocktail of other stuff from his grandmother's bathroom. His report card in his hand, with This is All F***ing Crap flailed across the back in unrecognisable handwriting.

No-one seemed to know how Room 8 came to be locked with a pupil inside it. We all thought of the effect on a vulnerable child. Because he mightn't have decided. The pills might just have been there, in his bag, to carry around, for security.

Marie gives me a nudge. “It's that woman.”

I glance towards Ladieswear, although I know who she means. That woman, the way she says it. They all do, the staff here. It's not a large town and the story spread fast, although there are details that are known and some that aren't.

She has mustard hair, crinkled and split like shredded wheat. Her skin is apricot, every visible area the same. She could still be apricot-coloured if you sliced her in half and looked at the cross-section. There is a possibility she is made entirely from apricot-tinged clay, and animated electronically.

 She's holding up purple velvet leggings in size 6. This woman is tiny, particularly from the back, her legs might be fastened on by fine hinges. No visible muscle. She's looking around for an opinion.

“I found him,” I say to Marie. “The boy. Nathan.”

“You?” She's standing beside me with a little blue cardigan in one hand. It has three tiny buttons, shaped like ducks. No baseball logos or ugly slogans. Like real baby clothes. I wonder how it got past the Buyers.

“He was lying on the floor.” A fat slug of egg-yellow vomit was spreading across the new carpet tiles (Heather Green – we'd had a departmental meeting to establish everyone's colour choices) and a smear remained on his mouth.

“You.” Things are connecting in Marie's mind.

And then I'm walking towards her. Nathan's mother. I'm going to tell her not to buy the purple leggings, not to come in here any more. But she speaks first.

“Mrs Thomas.”

I nod.

“He's doing a bit better, today.”

I nod again. Nathan has permanent brain damage. He doesn't recognise members of his family. The functions of several vital organs are carried out by machines. I have expressed sympathy in as many ways as I can summon. A thousand times in my mind I have reordered my breaktime round, so that the Maths Corridor came first. I have not spent five minutes ranting about coursework to my Head of Department. I have poured my scalding coffee down the sink.

“They haven't said when he can come home.”

“No.” Suddenly I'm wanting to tug at her hair, pull her head back sharply in front of a full-length mirror, make her look. I try to imagine teaching her a few basic manoeuvres. How to gouge her fingers into someone's eyes. To choose clothes that won't embarrass her children. To respond with the appropriate counter-buzzwords to any Deputy Head (Pastoral Care) who might be lurking in her future.

But I don't do any of that, and Nathan’s mother meets my glance, her eyes momentarily boiling. Then she looks away, withdraws her grasp and picks up a silver lamé evening purse.

“This is nice.” She’s questioning. I still hesitate but then I catch sight of an oversized plain brown PVC shoulder bag with steel fittings. It must weigh at least three pounds, empty. I swing it, experimentally.

“Do you think that would suit me?” she asks.

I smile. And smile. My mouth seems to be freezing into this thin position. From the far side of the shop comes the electronic beep of the tills. A  practised tattoo of purchasing beats out slow and irregular seconds. It might be monitoring the health of something.

I hold out the bag.

 

What our judge said about Selling Out:

Lucy, an educated and experienced woman has begun working in a fashion chain to the puzzlement of her younger fellow employees.  Her acerbic observations propel the story with a darkening wit: "… a little blue cardigan … had three tiny buttons, shaped like ducks. No baseball logos or ugly slogans. Like real baby clothes. I wonder how they got past the buyers." Clothes are often ridiculous, they are duplicitous, and Lucy knows they can be dangerous too.

Fashion and appearance are cleverly used to explore the seemingly ever-changing and wavering guidelines on childcare. A finely plotted story with concise and thought-provoking observation.

About Penelope:

Penelope Randall was born in Leicester. She grew up in Norfolk and Nottinghamshire and, for three teenage years, in the Bahamas. She read Engineering Science at Oxford University, then qualified as a teacher, and currently works as a tutor in science and maths. She is also a library assistant and volunteer room guide for the National Trust. She has always loved writing stories, and recent successes (and near-misses!) encourage her to hope that her novels may one day find a publisher. She lives in Oxfordshire.

 

 

 

3rd Place — Carolyn Carter for Letters To A Hermit

Dear Mr Hermeticus,

   I walked right by your house the other day but didn’t want to disturb you. I wish I’d knocked and stepped inside. You can tell a lot about a person by what’s lying around; on the arm of the chair for instance or the end of the bed. I expect you have an interesting table for candles and marmalade, pine cones and spoons. Any regrets?

   I was hoping for advice on the quiet life. A glimpse will be enough, I have a photographic memory. With your guidance I could start at the beginning and learn the pleasure of small things. I imagine you have little time for pleasure. Your mind is elsewhere, I can tell by the mushroom coloured paint peeling from your door. I could paint the door in return for the tips. Nothing flashy to draw attention to your situation; no red or purple gloss. White is best; clean and calming. What do you think?

   I could mix a shade if you have something in mind; do you carry colour in your head or would it get in the way? When I passed your house you were reading by the window and I discovered you were grey; even your hat. Have you always favoured grey, Mr.Hermeticus? You might find, if you choose to write back, I could change your mind about grey. I could change your mind about a lot of things.

   So, if it would interest you at all, if you could see any charm in it, would you leave a message in the corner of the window? There’s a small crevice, you probably haven’t noticed, but a letter would wedge very well. I could leave paper next time I’m passing and between us we could stop up the gap and you need never feel a draught again.

   Let me know about the paint and the tips. Left over ideas are always welcome.

Yours quietly,

Evie

 

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

Don’t feel pressured. A fledgling thought will do. I have plenty of my own, but yours will be professional, interesting. How long have you been in the business, now? As long as I’ve been passing and there were always rumours. What happened? Did you just come home and decide to stay? How do you arrange things? I need to know everything.

   It’s not easy being quiet. As soon as I sit down I wonder how you are and what you’re thinking . I’ve missed so much I’ll never catch up so I’m not a threat. I need advice on how you go about things. If you could spare an idea, share it with me and let it drift, it might turn into something extraordinary. You don’t have to enjoy it, but I think you will.

   Do the overcast mornings bother you? Try to concentrate on the tips and a colour for the door. By the time you receive this I might have a strategy of my own. It’s possible.

Yours silently,

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

I know I didn’t disturb you when I passed this morning because I didn’t see you, only the table as I pushed the letter into the space we agreed.

I was pleased about your table, so different from my own; four legs and a flat top but quite different. I like the way you’ve arranged things. The feather, was it swan? Egret? So white. The earthenware bowl looked sturdy and agreeable, the colour so creamy and luscious I thought of dairy churns.

I admired the daisies. How did you come by them? Not strolling in the pasture before dawn. It’s not your custom to leave the house and I wouldn’t interrupt business by sending flowers.

Is there someone disturbing you? Interfering ? Imposing ridiculous colours? Not orange or green I trust? One word from you, Mr.Hermeticus and I shall be calm. I could pass by at 7am if you feel like smiling.

Your eager apprentice,

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

Your curtains were drawn. Is that fair? I’m trying so hard to be agreeable but I need encouragement. A smile is unobtrusive, within your capabilities.

Have you decided on a colour for the door? I have a quiet paintbrush. I could be passing at 3pm tomorrow if that would suit.

I’ve been thinking about your daisies. Did the seeds drop down the chimney or float in on a breeze? Did you arrange the vase? It’s none of my business, just friendly concern. I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion but I’m going to try the back door tomorrow.

Yours peacefully,

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

Surprised to find the back door impenetrable. I could chop down the brambles if I had any implements. You could make things so much easier if you put your mind to it. Consider the wisdom of thorns and bolts and those great grey boulders about the place littering the garden and confusing people. There’s another side to you, Mr.Hermeticus.

Disappointed,

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

I’ve made arrangements and brought shears to begin with. We might need a skip. There may be some snipping but don’t disturb yourself, I’ll go at my own pace. I don’t like to think of you smothered in brambles and general verbiage. However long it takes I’ll master it. Any tips?

Pleased to be active,

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

We’re getting to the root of the problem now. I couldn’t let a few brambles decide what’s possible and what’s not, (a good idea of yours to leave out the weed killer.) Did you let it flow under the back door or was it a more determined action? The cuts are fading now. Just a small rash round the ankles which is irritating but a sign of progress I think.

    I couldn’t move the boulders, but I expect they’re of historical importance. I climbed over in the end.

   I’m disappointed about the brown door. I had in mind something a lot more – white. I’m getting towards the heart of you now. What do you think?

Yours in anticipation,

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

I wonder if we have anything in common at all. I’ll tell you about myself. I enjoy: problem solving, colour, woodland trees and bread. Regarding flowers; wood violets for preference but they’re hard to come by. Mushrooms; I’m against them, they’re over ambitious. You are the one fixed point in my life, Mr.Hermeticus, constant. I think of you now, quiet, calm and subtle in grey. Won’t you choose another colour? Something inspiring.

   Is there someone in your life apart from me? Does anyone read the meter? Who does the shopping? I expect you went on a spree the day before you closed the door. It’s the practicalities that interest me. Are there sacks of dry goods in the cellar? Artificial sweeteners in the attic, spices for special occasions? Do you unscrew the lids to get a drift of India? A waft of something unusual to encourage unruly thoughts? What do you do?

   It is possible to live on sips of water and the corners of a small loaf. Possible but not heart warming. What you need, Mr Hermeticus, is a meal. Not a banquet. I could bring a few ingredients. I’m a carefree cook, rumbustious but not haphazard. When did you last have a treacle pudding? Shall I refresh your memory? In return you can tell me what has been on your mind. I’ll bring custard and an after dinner mint.

   Communication is vital, Mr.Hermeticus. Hermits must generate ideas and answer challenging questions. This is not a time for subtlety. With lateral thinking, an ooze of camembert / chocolate treat of choice, you could conquer uncertainty with the answers to a few familiar questions. I could make notes.

 How do you recognise a good idea? Perhaps a small sample of whatever is on your mind right now would demonstrate the quality passing by.

   Treacle pudding then, custard in a white jug and a cloth for the table; pale lavender. One o’clock sharp. If you leave the door on the latch, I’ll set the table. I won’t be joining you, I have an inspirational plan.

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

I brought the jug, the custard, the cloth and a small treacle pudding. Just enough to coax you to the window. Tomorrow you must open the door. I’ll make fresh.

Yours with enlightenment. Perhaps.

Evie

 

Dear Mr.Hermeticus,

The plan is unusual; I will be truthful. I am wayward, jealous and ambushed by enthusiasms. I looked to you for order and a structured timetable. You intrigued me and I set myself the small distraction of distracting you. You are an honest man who deserves honesty.

I am not a treacle pudding kind of woman. Almost never cook. I don’t know why I suggested such a thing but while I was looking up a recipe and trying it out, there was time to reflect.

 I have forgotten to enjoy myself. Forgotten I have accomplishments and capabilities. Devoted as I am to you, I must make my own way and reject hand me down thoughts. Thank you for consistency, quietude and inspiration. I will surprise you with advice:

There is something about you; don’t waste it on trivialities. Forget mushrooms and boulders in the garden. Save your energy and startle yourself with grand ideas.

 Lighten up.

 It was good of you to take so much trouble. I couldn’t come in. I saw you smile and whisper as I passed this morning. Truthfully, it was too quiet to catch your words but as a sign of the friendship between us it was invaluable. Don’t worry about the tips, I’ll be courageous. Wayward may be remarkable.

I’m ready. Heart-warmed and mindful. Supplies in the loft: candles and matches, soups, dried milk, fruit juice and words. Nothing extravagant.

Treacle pudding on the doorstep. A success for a first attempt. Fresh custard on the window sill. Try the cloth, it’s an improving colour.

Your Evie –

Still as the quill of your silent pen.

What our judge said about Letters To A Hermit:

An epistolary short story where the letter writer, Evie, initially misrepresents herself in her quest to elicit knowledge from a hermit. She is eager and voluble but the recluse is not. Along the way Evie realises she must take a different approach.

A quirky and opinionated character pens these letters. “Mushrooms; I’m against them, they’re overly ambitious”. I found the voice intriguing.

 

About Carolyn:

Carolyn Carter lives in East Sussex where she enjoys the South Downs, new notebooks and old pens. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Chichester University and her work has been published in the Winchester Writers’ Conference Anthology 2012.  She belongs to an enthusiastic and supportive group of short story writers and is currently working on a novel and a collection of short fiction.

 

4th Place — Sue Hoffman for A Step In The Right Direction

This afternoon it is “creative writing”.

I call the children to sit round me on the carpet area and they watch intently as I delve into a deliberately deep bag and draw out a parcel, strangely shaped, wrapped in plain brown paper. I select Christina, the oldest in the class, to unwrap the mystery. (Age sometimes has its benefits, I tell the thirty-eight failed hopefuls.) She opens the package and holds aloft the peculiar object.

                “Well?” I say. No more than that.

                Hands fly up immediately.

                “It’s a slipper,” offers Heidi.

                “A shoe,” suggests Gareth.

“What do you notice?” I prompt.

                Accustomed to my way of demanding information rather than simply disseminating it, they respond with alacrity and commendable detail. The shoe (or slipper) looks funny. It might be African, or Indian, or Chinese. It has a pointed toe and no heel. The sole is flat, brown leather. The top is embroidered, red, purple, green and gold, though the colours are not very clear. Inside, it is light brown, with red where your heel would go. There is pretty stitching, even inside it. It’s too big to be a child’s shoe.

                “What do you want to know about it?” I ask.

                The questions come like a blizzard or, more in keeping with the object under scrutiny, like a sandstorm.

                Where is it from? Whose is it? Why is it embroidered? What is it made of? Who wore it? Does the pattern mean anything? Is it comfy to wear? Is it old? Who made it? Were the colours brighter once? What size is it? Is it magical? Where is the other one?

                There’s slight hiatus after that last query as the children ponder its import and consider its implications.

                It is hard to stifle such enthusiasm, and doubly difficult to contend with so many eager hands that have to be ignored if there is to be any time for the requisite task.

                “Go back to your places,” I say, and back they go, chattering mainly (but not wholly, it has to be admitted) about the slipper (or shoe).

                Once settled, they turn expectant faces towards me. It is time for me to reveal all about the mysterious item.

                I do no such thing.

                For Eloise and Bethany, Frank, Jimmy and Jacob, I am a disappointment. They need certainty in their lives, to be reassured about what they already know and to have the surety that anything new will be explained in due course by the fount of knowledge at the front of the classroom. Oh, to be worthy of such belief! I steel myself against their tacit reproach. If necessary I will give them more guidance later (just a little or they will never see their own patterns in clouds).

                Robbie and Jane will need support too, though a recent breakthrough in trust gives me an inner glow of satisfaction. At least they will try now, without dread of ridicule or sanction. Not so with Michael. His innate fear of failure is still his greatest handicap. As for Priya, I can see already the gleam of eagerness in her dark eyes as she travels to the time and place where she will weave one of her well-crafted, enchanting tales.

                I point to the blackboard and read out their list of questions.

                “Use the questions to help you think of a story,” I say as I walk around the room and hand out appropriate story-planner sheets. “Use all of them if you want, or simply focus on one or two.”

                “Will you tell us about the slipper after we’ve done our stories?” Bethany wants to know.

                “It’s a shoe,” mutters Gareth, disdainfully.

                Making no rash promises, I set them to work, wishing some magical footwear could move me around in time to cope with listening to ideas, helping with spellings, arbitrating in disputes over copying – and comforting Mary’s unaccountably reawakened distress over her recently deceased rabbit.

                It is a long, slow, difficult process, this business of story writing. Not that the ideas are lacking, nor in most cases, anyway the will to succeed. No, the major impediment to the creative flow of my nine- and ten-year-old charges is simply that there are too many of them for me to give each one the attention he or she needs and deserves. Difficulties notwithstanding, we battle on together throughout the remainder of the lesson and, as the week progresses, we move from planning to drafting and finally to the finished articles that I take home with me to assess.

                Mixed feelings roil within me as I settle to my work. It is a joy journey with these children, my children for a year anyway. It is a privilege to have a part in the growth of the young minds and, truly, to read with interest their offerings. But daunting indeed is the prospect of the hours that will be consumed by the marking of these stories.

                I have the weekend ahead of me. I plough on.

                From experience, I deal the papers into three groups of expected outcome: poor either through want of requisite skills or sheer laziness; average usually both in content and level of spelling and grammar; and good satisfactory ideas and execution. David’s goes in this last pile because, even though his spelling is “atroshus”, he has a vivid imagination, wide vocabulary and an excellent sense of narrative.

                By turns, I pick a story from each stack and launch into marking mode, regretting even as I set green pen (so much kinder than old-fashioned red!) to paper that I cannot work alongside the children and discuss at length their work. Indicating faults the writer should have noticed, making written suggestions for future improvements and writing some encouraging, constructive comment at the conclusion of the essay can never compare for efficacy with being there. 

                Jaded I might be by the peripheries that turn this vocation to merely a job but, thankfully, I still find the children have the capacity to surprise and delight me with the freshness of their approach to life. And thus it turns out to be with these stories they have produced. Perhaps, as Danielle has written, the slipper was “bound in spell-craft” (where did she come by that phrase?) for some of the contributions amaze me.

                Ben, capable but unwilling to exert himself, has managed only one page. Nevertheless, two of his sentences shine out like beacon lamps to show his true potential: “A hasty glance round convinced me that no one was watching as I stuffed my eager feet into Master Marcel’s favourite footwear.” And later: “I stared in horrified fascination at my bare feet, wondering if they would forever remain pointed and patterned.”

                As always, aliens make their appearance in Billy’s story, but at least he has taken some note of the set theme for he tells how each foot of the seven-legged monsters from Alfa Cartooni (how do they walk with seven feet?) is clad in a pointed, decorated shoe, with jets at the heels to allow them to zoom over the ground. (Ah, that mystery is solved.)

                Convinced the papers have multiplied during my absence for a quick meal, I sigh and reach for the next story. Oh, blessed relief: Priya’s neat hand gives respite from the spidery scrawl of the last three tales. She has penned a fairytale in which a talking horse persuades a raven-haired princess to rescue his master who has been captured by the obligatory baddie. The villain, Priya explains, rules the neighbouring kingdom. His power over his poor, downtrodden subjects arises from the charmed shoes he wears, shoes he stole many years ago from the very person he now has confined in the palace dungeons. While the horse, imitating the voice of his master, lures the wicked ruler out of the room by tricking him into believing his captive has escaped, Princess Paravati finds the shoes in the bedchamber, puts them on, and stumbles (for the shoes, although magical, refuse to accommodate her dainty feet) down to free the imprisoned person. Cinderella-like, the shoes fit the young man like a glove (we must discuss mixed metaphors) as he is their true owner and the rightful sovereign of the land. The subsequent marriage of Princess Paravati and the rescued King Sagar serves to unite two warring countries. In a pleasing twist, Priya has the avoided a completely happily-ever-after conclusion by having the scoundrel escape.

                Jenny has produced a creditable narrative in which a family of field mice lose their home to the farmer’s combine harvester and struggle to survive until father mouse sees a pair of shoes left unattended while their owner paddles in a nearby stream. With the help of a friendly squirrel (or skwirle, as Jenny has put it), father mouse appropriates one of the shoes for a nest and thereby saves his family from being homeless. The unfortunate owner never does discover the fate of her lost shoe.

                Alex writes about seeing the shoes in an antique shop and buying them for his father who is so grateful that he takes Alex for a day out at the zoo. I have to choose the words sensitively for my remarks on his story. Alex’s parents separated just a month ago and his father has gone to live abroad.

                Gareth has written a lovely description of the slippers (or shoes), even comparing them to his own slippers and contrasting them with his school shoes and football boots. He has used plenty of adjectives and has managed pretty well with his punctuation. No story in sight, however. And Angela’s poem is quite effective on the whole. (Goes, shoes and does ought to rhyme, oughtn’t they?) It’s a pity they’ve both missed the point of the exercise. How did I overlook this at the planning stage?

                Onward, with trepidation, to Michael’s creased submission.       

                His spelling is poor and his handwriting ill-formed. Few full stops decorate his sentences and only three capital letters are in the correct positions, yet this once he has actually tried and, in my opinion, he has more than succeeded.

                There was only ever one shoe, Michael tells me. The shoemaker had intended to make a very special pair for his girlfriend as a present to give her on their wedding day. He sewed love into each pattern. He used purple because that is for royal people and she seemed like a princess to him. The green matched her beautiful eyes. Red was her favourite colour. Gold he chose for his feelings whenever he was with her. They never married. She died a week before the wedding day. The shoemaker put the shoe in a glass case and set aside his tools. It was the last shoe he ever made.

                This, I reflect, is what it is all about. It is the why I have not yet quit the chalk-face for sweeter climes.

                I gather all the papers into one large pile, with Michael’s on top. I pour a cool drink and wander out to sit in the sultry air of the evening garden and contemplate the gift of children.

                And what of the slipper itself?

                Its origins remain obscure. My father brought it back, presumably with its partner, from India after his tour of duty there in the nineteen-forties. I regret not having asked him about its provenance or its significance and I have absolutely no idea what happened to the other one. It is a fascinating object, all the same. Maybe Michael has found its truth or perhaps, if I ever find time to write it myself, there is yet another story to be told.

                I kick off my plain leather sandals and settle down to give it some serious thought.

 

 

What our judge said about A Step In The Right Direction:

A primary school teacher asks her class to write a story inspired by an item of footwear and then faces the task of assessing them for marking — potentially thirty-eight stories within a story!

I enjoyed this glimpse into the imperfect world of teaching, its travails and rewards. The “surprise and delight” the teacher feels is well communicated. And, of course, the stories, always the stories.

  About Sue:

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed writing stories, poems and articles. During my teaching career, I wrote scripts for school plays, poems for assemblies and various projects for my classes. I took a year out from teaching to study for my M.A. in Language Teaching and Learning. Now that I have retired, I still try to write as often as possible, although the dog, budgies and hamster take up much of my time!

 

I have had several short stories and two novels well-placed in national and international competitions. Thirteen of my short stories have been published in anthologies, newspapers, magazines or online. In May 2013 my fantasy novel “High King” was published by Circaidy Gregory Press. I am delighted that “A Step in the Right Direction” has reached fourth place in the Grace Dieu Writers’ Circle competition.

 

 

5th Place — Sharon Boyle for An Angel In Dustville

 

Mother hated Mrs Harper. Hated her with that simmering bitterness that doesn’t speak, just purses it lips together whenever That Harper Woman was mentioned. If someone were to say, “Mrs Harper is off with another man to see the new Dick Tracey film”, Mother’s lips would pucker and skew off to the side, followed by a mutter of “Poor Tommy.”  When pressed for a reason, she grizzled something about Mrs Harper’s questionable ways. She didn’t say the word slut, but the notion eddied round her talk.

Looking back, I can see Mother’s poor looks and mean upbringing encouraged her spite to flare up at anything that dared brighten her grey surroundings. Here was a woman who had actually enjoyed the war, from the glorification of nights in the shelter to the pride of knitting the entire family wardrobe, including my brother’s trousers. It’s no mystery why Father lived out his social life in the garden shed.

I, however, had nothing but admiration for Mrs Harper and wanted to have rolled hair and thick makeup like hers. Sometimes, when trailing after Mother in town, I would catch sight of my idol’s figure, full of sauce, marching the length of the High Street like she had a Veronica Lake walk-on part for some film noir. She looked smart in her fancy New Look outfit, ironed so sharp your eyes were drawn to the crease of cloth and pinched-to-death waist. The other townswomen still mooched around in war-wardrobe ensembles, but Betty Harper managed to concoct eye-popping, envy-gawping costumes of wonder. She topped them with huge sunglasses, behind which she took a good look at you and you just had to remember the tilt and hue of her eyes - a strange lilac that made you think of the great butterfly bush in the churchyard she strolled past every Sunday morning.

 

I stood behind Mrs Harper in the butcher’s one day, up close, absorbing her perfume. She turned and smiled till I backed away and started ferreting with the leaflets lying on the side counter. The rosy, sweating Mr Barrow was doing his best to appear charming as he fetched her ham. Mother always said that Mr Barrow being a butcher hinted at cannibalism.

“Ham again?” whistled Mr Barrow. 

There was just me in the queue and perhaps Mr Barrow thought he could be familiar with only a young girl’s ears listening in.

Mrs Harper’s slow, soft voice rested easily in the air. “I am indeed. This is my last chore before going back to the house and flicking round a duster. I like to keep busy, busy, busy.” She sighed and removed her sunglasses to rummage in an embroidered purse, expensive looking and probably a gift from one of her gentleman friends.

“My Jane goes berserk whenever we’ve got visitors coming. Spends half the day gutting the place. Have to go out and get the papers or she’d have me roped in.” Mr Barrow held out a cupped paw in which Mrs Harper let her ration book drop.

She watched as he tore out the coupons and then, giving him her full lilac attention, she whispered, “I never dust any piece of furniture higher than my tallest friend.” She took the book and ham and left through the tinkling door, chaperoned by Mr Barrow’s beady eyes.

I mentally filed away this wonderful bit of housewifery. Later, when I suggested it to Mother, leaving out the source, she snorted and called me a clarty bugger and who the hell did I think I was? Lady Bloody Muck?

Mother loved housework. She shouted daily to me and my sister to come join her in the grand task of cleaning the house, like she was recruiting for some domestic agency and had to train us up. At six years old I could trit trot round the front room with a deft hand on the sweeper and an eye on the lookout for heathen dust. 

Dust was Mother’s adversary and she would take to lifting up some piece of furniture, like the piano stool and point in horror, “Jesus, would you look at that dirt.” Usually it would be one fairy-light dust ball having the nerve to wisp about. But Mother barked at me as if I had collected the dust, rolled it up and positioned it under the piano stool myself.

I wondered how many dust balls Mrs Harper had in her house. She probably cultivated them, laughing at the scarf-headed, tutting women of our town doing their best to rid the entire world of grime.

 

But then came that awful day. I was standing behind The Sunflower counter, staring into nothing, just watching the grainy dust glide around in the sunlight. The Sunflower was my Saturday job; a brown Formica café for those who liked their tea tepid and meringues powdery. The jingle jangle of the door popped my trance and I glanced up to see the gorgeous Mrs Harper and a man friend bursting in like kaleidoscopic movie stars. She was wearing sunglasses and a belted, primrose dress, her arm hooked into his. Heads in the café lifted to see the cause of jollity and I saw Mrs Barrow stiffen and cross her strong forearms. But the glamour couple didn’t care. For they were in step, laughing wide into each other’s mouths. Mrs Harper removed her glasses and laughed up into her friend’s face. He brushed away an invisible speck from her cheek. And then it happened.

I wanted to rewind time and stop them from entering the café; to hold up a hand and say, for the love of God, don’t step foot in the place. But I had to watch as Mrs Harper’s smile faltered and her eyes crinkled at the smirking, porky Mrs Barrow. If I had listened closely enough perhaps I would’ve heard her china ear drums shatter from the impact of those words. 

The echo of dirty, filthy whore circled round the café. It was not whispered, but trumpeted strongly enough to carry the town’s vitriol against those with slack morals.

Mrs Barrow turned to her friend and continued to sneer, “She’s really let her standards drop after Tommy. Well seeing Mrs Harpy doesn’t have a proper job,” going all sarcastic at the word proper.

An instant flare of rage sparked in me. I wanted to shout out and defend my glossy heroine who knew how to be easy on the housework and heavy on the fun. Instead, I rattled out cups and saucers, thinking to drown out further poisonous words, but Mrs Barrow upped her volume and boomed to her friend, as if the two of them were on a theatre stage, “The war took the best. And the rest of us should remember that and behave accordingly. Not,” another crank on the volume knob, “carrying on with anything in trousers!”

“She does visit his grave, Jane. Every week,” sopranoed out the mousey companion, mortified at being dragged into the performance. Mrs Barrow shushed her with an informative piece on how Certain Suspect People acquired black-market rationing books. By the time she finished the newsflash, the entire café was throbbing in anticipation.

I wanted Mrs Harper to look up and see me behind the counter, to see that I was ready to serve and to compliment her and ask how her night with the ham went. But she looked stiff, wondering herself what the next scene would be. Then she caught my eager smile and mustered herself. Her spine straightened and giving me a slight nod, she sat at the nearest empty table. This caused Mrs Barrow to pause in her righteousness, her jowls jittering to a halt. And before she could spill out more muck, I marched to Mrs Harper’s table with my notepad to take her order and reassure her that even whores were welcome at The Sunflower.

But as I approached, the young man shook his head just slightly at Mrs Harper. He was not for sitting down. Instead, he glanced at his shoes before shrugging and starting to edge backwards. He gave her a last look before clanging through the door and nipping across the street without looking either way.

I was ready with my pen, willing her to stay valiant. But this time she did not see my smile, nor hear my inquiry about the social evening. Her shoulders wilted and I stood, pen poised and useless. The hands that rarely took a turn at housework, hid her lilac eyes like shutters, before pulling away to reveal a wide, soundless scream.

And when she started to howl like an abandoned dog, we all turned electrified. Even Mrs Barrow sat rigid in shock, gawping at her handiwork, listening to the sound ebb away to nothing.

When the cafe was empty of mortified customers and a distressed Mrs Harper sat numb and subdued at the table, I wondered if the flashes of bright clothes or flirtatious High Street hirpling would also fade to nothing. And as I turned the sign to Closed, I looked at Mrs Harper and imagined her sitting in her house, crumpled like she was now, with only dust balls for company.

 

What our judge said about An Angel In Dustville:

The post-World War II era is deftly defined in this story seen from a young person’s viewpoint. It is a time of charged emotions, loss and rationing but the narrator is still full of a young girl’s inclination to passion and fun.

I liked the concise and caustic characterization:  “Mother always said that Mr Barrow being a butcher hinted at cannibalism”. The ever-present conflict between generations about what is important and what is trivial is well drawn.

About Sharon:

Sharon has been writing short stories for five years now and while the first attempts were eyewateringly wince-worthy, a few of her latest efforts have been placed in, among other publications, Writers’ Forum, Earlyworks and The Yellow Room.

 

 

 

















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