DECEMBER 2015 -- see January 2016
Word limit: 350
Winner: Ann Bowers
‘Sorry to call you here at short notice, but Lady Furleigh was most insistent that there was some family secret you must know.’ Sarah, the private nurse, was apologetic. ‘ Most likely nothing urgent, but in my experience many a skeleton has been let out of the closet on someone’s deathbed.’
The old springs creaked and slumped as Catherine sat on the edge of the oak framed bed where the old lady lay, already corpse-like, with eyes closed and blue-tinged lips.
Lady Furleigh moaned and raised a skeletal finger in a beckoning gesture. Catherine reluctantly leaned towards her and gagged: the old lady already smelled of decay.
‘Yes, Aunt Elinore?’
‘Catherine, . . .you have to know . . .’ Lady Furleigh clawed at the quilt, becoming increasingly more agitated.
‘Skeleton . . . .cupboard . . . . . .George . . . . ’ the words were the merest breaths on the musty air.
‘Oh, Aunt Elinore, I’ve known about Uncle George for years!’ Catherine exclaimed ‘and these days nobody cares a hoot that the heir to the Furleigh estate ran off with an actress.’
As she spoke, Lady Furleigh’s body deflated with her final, gurgling breath.
‘So much for the big secret,’ Catherine muttered. ‘although, I suppose in her day it was a huge scandal.’
‘Did George contact them to claim the estate when his father died?’ Sarah asked.
‘Never a word from him, despite Arthur’s appeals to get in touch . Was eventually presumed dead and uncle Arthur, Elinore’s youngest son, inherited. Poor Arthur, I’d better find him and tell him the sad news. ’
Eavesdropping outside the door, Arthur breathed a sigh of relief, as he brushed cobwebs from his sleeve. Now that the stupid old cow had finally gone, time to call in the auctioneers and get rid of this decrepit old ruin - a millstone round his neck for years. She hadn’t given the game away in the end, but he’d moved George’s bones from the back of the attic cupboard just to be on the safe side.
Theme: The Library
Word limit: 350
Winner: Eithne Pizacklea
[Note - though this entry does not visibly speak to the month's theme of "The Library", the judges liked it so much that they decided to give it the prize anyway]
The winter air was stiff, stale, strangled. Firm against the branches of the trees, they creaked, groaned, their trunks looming over behind me, the shadows dancing on the ground.
It was cold. Freezing.
The ground was covered in a sheen of snow, the trodden mess of where I'd stood previously the only disturbance, and, kneeling before the puddles, I knew that they enjoyed the view, too. They swung, creaked.
They didn't want to come down. Not yet.
Birds barely made a sound as they rustled and swung from branch to branch. Behind me, I knew they were smiling, happy. Content with my gift.
The wind whistled through holes in tree trunks, between the small rocks clustered together beneath the riverbed, tapped across the ice and flicked snow at the bushes. I stood up, brushed my hands on my thighs and watched the scenery, the dew on the snow, the sun barely awake from behind its blanket of clouds.
Maybe he was hiding from me, the sun.
Thick, finger-like vines curled themselves around the necks of rocks and trees like deadly scarves, growing into their nooks and their crannies, burying themselves for warmth from the harsh weather.
I didn't want to stay for long; it was cold, dark. The dew took a slippery turn, freezing the already icy-cold ground.
I didn't want to disturb them, not while they were enjoying themselves so much. Who was I to ruin their fun?
I watched them. To and fro, to and fro...
"I'm leaving now," I announced.
They didn't answer, grinned.
I stepped forwards, the snow crunching under my boots, crackling as I ducked to avoid their swinging bodies.
I walked, further and further away. Funny, I thought as I ducked again, their grins in the reddened sky shining down at me. The type of rope I used this time didn't break once, not even a thread.
I reached the pathway from the woods and turned around to survey the happiness I had brought to so many people, all with a scarf around their neck, all smiling, all content.
I left the grounds, opening the rusty gate.
And it was quiet. And it was peaceful.
Highly Commended: Ciara Bright
The library was Out of Bounds. Off Limits. Ellie’s mum had said so for as long as Ellie could remember. “Don’t go into the library, Ellie.” Any library was forbidden, but especially the one at home. Ellie didn’t know why. She didn’t know why they had a library, because it was always locked. “The library isn’t safe, Ellie.” Individual books were safe. Ellie loved books. Reading them was like stepping into another world, being pulled into the adventure. But libraries were Not Allowed. Ellie’s mum had even written to the school to tell them that Ellie was not allowed in a library.
Which was why Ellie was sat on her own in the classroom at half past twelve on a Tuesday morning. The rest of her class were on a school trip to the British Library, so Ellie was sat alone in the classroom. Only she wasn’t, really. She was in the Egg and Head Tavern with Prince Eugene. But then someone came into the classroom and gave Ellie some work to do and Ellie had to come back to London.
The British Library trip was the turning point for Ellie. When her mum went out that evening, Ellie went into the kitchen drawer and pulled out the old, rusty key. She padded up the stairs, and put the key in the lock. She took a deep breath before turning it, and the door clicked open. Ellie stepped through the door…
…and into a jungle. A lion leapt at Ellie and she screamed, turning and running through a gate. And then suddenly she was in a small, dusty shed with a woman crowing about reading palms. Ellie stumbled out of the gap in the wooden panels and crashed into a horse pulling a black carriage. She gasped and turned again. She ran through endless scenes. Endless stories. Growing more and more frantic as she searched for a way out. And then her mother was there and she coaxed Ellie out of a dragon-inhabited cave and into the hallway, locking the library door behind them.
The library was Out of Bounds.
Highly Commended: Candida Spillard
She stepped through.
The room was bare but for the desk at which her interviewer sat. And his chair, of course.
Unadorned walls, concrete floor, no windows.
The door closed behind her so neatly as to be invisible.
There was no second chair.
“Ok: you know why you’re here.”
“All you gotta do, is answer the question.”
“Right-oh. Fire away.”
There was no question.
He prompted her.
“But you can ask any question you like.”
No window, no usable door, but also nothing that looked unpleasant or dangerous. The desk was bare: not even paper or pens. No carrier-bag, cling-film or jug of water and cloth. Good. ‘The Library’, as the organisation had become known to insiders owing to the prodigious quantities of information it held, had a certain reputation. But it looked as if they weren’t going to give her a hard time.
“Are there any drawers in your desk?”
“No. Good start there.”
She nodded her thanks.
Blimey but this is a puzzle.
“Is there anything in your pockets?”
“I have no pockets.”
The silence got awkward. But she would have to be able to deal with this in the job.
“Is there anything hidden, in the wall, under the floor, or_”
She looked up.
“beyond the ceiling?”
An hour passed.
Answer the question.
“How much time d’you allow for this?”
“Long’s it takes. Or you can call it quits if you_”
She shook her head.
I’ll not give up on this: I want that ruddy job, and I’d be good at it. First Brit at The Library, that’ll be me.
She was beginning to get hungry.
Must be a way out of here, without quitting.
What’s the way out of here..?
Her face lit up.
“Here’s my answer: I get out of here by answering the question.”
The man stood up and came around his desk to shake her hand.
“Welcome to The Library! You’re gonna love working here!”
Theme: The Clockmaker
Word limit: 350
Winner: Ian Bussell
The minute he opened the workshop door, he knew something was wrong. The clocks were ticking, as always, but not in unison. An untrained ear wouldn't have noticed anything amiss, but Mortimer was a master clockmaker. Though his fingers weren't as nimble as they once were and the lenses in his round spectacles were super strength, his hearing remained unimpaired.
He blinked under the intense lights. A preliminary scan of the assembled clocks failed to identify the proverbial cuckoo. Sighing deeply, his hunched shoulders drooped. He felt extremely weary, as though he wore a lead lined overcoat. Normally, he was eager to start work but not today.
One of the hundred or more clocks in the room was running slowly. The two words together seemed a contradiction. They were an insult to his expertise. Beginning at his immediate left, he brought his focus to each clock in turn, his senses at their highest setting. He moved slowly and deliberately along the shelves as if perusing book titles in a library.
Every timepiece he listened to was working perfectly, yet somewhere in the room, one was out of synch. The further he went, the more frustrated he grew. It was probably only his imagination but the disharmonious tick sounded louder. It was also slower than before, as though the malfunctioning mechanism were running down.
Reaching the end of the second wall, without success, he stopped to rest. Stress caused his breathing to become rapid and shallow. Sweat drenched his forehead. For a second, he wondered if he were overreacting. He immediately dismissed the notion. His life's work depended on precision. The discord screamed at him.
When he completed a full circuit, he still hadn't found the offender. Enraged, he banged his fist on the workbench. The impact caused a tremor among the clocks. And throughout his body. He gasped as his legs buckled and he collapsed. His heart felt like it was clamped in a vice. Seconds before it stopped completely, Mortimer realised that the only faulty ticker in the room was the one inside his own chest.
Word limit: 350
Winner: Ted Streuli
“Is that Greek?” Ladro asked.
“Not at all,” said Ricco. “It’s Icelandic. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed it before. That’s my great-great grandmother’s family crest. It’s a thorn, the 30th letter of the Icelandic alphabet. It’s pronounced like the 'th' in 'this'.”
Bill Ladro took a sip of his Manhattan and studied the crest in his host’s opulent library. He wasn’t particularly interested in the crest, but he was quite intrigued by the wall safe behind it.
Ladro and Ricco had been friends since the tennis team at the University of San Francisco, but that was 30 years ago. Sam Ricco had stayed close to home and founded an enormously successful software company. Bill set his sights on Wall Street and put together a mediocre career as an investment banker until it all went to hell in 2008.
He had come to ask his old friend for a loan, something to get by on until he could get a deal going, he was sure it was close. But looking out the library window, taking in the view of Alcatraz, he grew quietly resentful.
Bill knew the safe held an original Apollo 11 navigation chart bearing Neil Armstrong’s signature. It was worth at least $250,000. If he couldn’t sell it, maybe he could forge it.
Bill knew the combination; Sam used the same digits for everything, even his tennis locker.
Yes, that might do. And he wouldn’t face the shame of asking for the loan.
When Sam excused himself to check on dinner, Bill went directly to the safe, spinning the dial, the tumblers falling as though he’d done it a hundred times. He grabbed the handle to pull the door open but felt a sharp prick that pierced the inside of his middle finger.
Bill reflexively put his hand to his mouth, already feeling woozy as Sam re-entered the room.
“A shame you missed it,” Sam said with disappointment. “The crest is also a warning. That’s a microgram of Precedex you’ve taken in. Knocks you out for surgery. Hell of a theft deterrent. I’ll call the ambulance.”
Highly Commended: Ailie Wallace
There was only one person that stood between Baron Peter Lambert-Higgins and his brother Henry's estate. That was Henry's ten year old son Philip, who would inherit most of the property. Henry was on his deathbed, and, as it stood, the Baron would still get a large sum, but for him that wasn't enough.
He thought of different methods to dispose of the boy without arousing suspicion. Then one day while observing his nephew playing it just clicked. "So simple, it's genius," he laughed.
"Philip! Come here, won't you?" He called to the boy. Philip put down his toys and eagerly ran over to his uncle. "Hey, how are you getting along then, my favourite little nephew?" The Baron asked, rubbing Philip's hair.
"I'm your only nephew, sir" replied Philip.
"You certainly are, and how clever you are. Now, how would you like to play a little game?"
"That sounds great!" exclaimed Philip. "What sort of game?"
"Well," replied the Baron. "I have a surprise for you, but it's hidden away in a secret place, and you have to try and find it."
"Where?" asked the boy. "Where is it hidden?"
"Do you know the thicket, down at the bottom of the path? Just past the fountain and at the beginning of the tree line?"
"Yes!" the boy jumped up. "I know the place."
"Well, that's where your surprise is." explained the Baron. "Right in the middle of the thicket. You'll have to climb through the branches to get there."
"But Father says I'm not allowed to play in the garden. He always worries I might hurt myself."
"Don't worry about your father. It's our little secret."
The Baron laughed as Philip ran into the garden, not even stopping to grab a coat. Only the immediate family knew that the boy suffered from a severe form of haemophilia. Upstairs, Henry, who was nodding in and out of consciousness, was completely unaware that his son lay dying in the bushes outside. It would be hours before the maid discovered his lifeless body, pierced all over by thorns.
Highly Commended: Stormcrow Hayes
Robert carefully trimmed every single rose of its thorns, all but one. On that one rose, he carefully applied poison to every thorn so that any scratch would cause the victim's death within the hour. Wearing thick, protective gloves, he then positioned its stem lower than the others so he could easily find it when he time was right.
He took the subway and traveled to Queens where Olivia lived. He tracked her there from Los Angeles where she used to work for his family. It was her accusation that sent them into ruin.
She accused his father of an affair. The resulting scandal brought ruin onto his family. His father committed suicide and for the next decade, he watched his mother drink herself to death. Now the harlot would pay.
He waited for her outside the subway stop where she caught the train. He didn't think she'd recognize him since he was just a boy when she left. He was astonished when she walked directly up to him and asked, "Robert? Robert, is it you?"
Without a word, he handed her the rose. She took it and winced.
His work was done. He turned, but she followed.
"Robert, I know it's you."
"I'm sorry, you're mistaken."
"Don't you think I'd recognize my own son."
He froze in his tracks.
"You're my son, Robert. When I became pregnant, your father took you away from me. They insisted on raising you as their own to avoid scandal. When I finally revealed the truth, they threatened to kill me. That's why I moved so far away."
Robert remembered his mother was always so cold to him. Could this be why?
He turned and stared into Olivia's face, suddenly seeing the reflection of his own. He knew it was true.
"I can't believe it's you."
Olivia reached out to touch him and he noticed the small cut on her hand. What had he done?
Grabbing the rose from her hand, he clutched it until he felt a thorn pierce his skin. Then he turned and ran. He ran until he couldn't run anymore.
Word limit: 350
Winner: Katie Sayer
She was wearing a pretty blue dress and a brown coat. Her hair was neat. Her legs were slim, as Noah could tell as he watched her lace up the special shoes. She was perfect.
“12” said the boy next to her, handing over his trainers. He had messy hair and a baggy jumper. His jeans were ripped. His shoes smelled awful. He took her hand. This wasn't perfect.
Noah entered their names on to the system and watched as they walked over to their alley. The boy bought drinks from the bar. Noah smiled in the knowledge that the coke was warm and stale and definitely imperfect.
He continued watching. He saw her roll the ball down the aisle and score a perfect ten. He pictured taking her down a different aisle. She bent down to pick up another. He saw that her hips were perfect for child-bearing.
The scruffy boy leant towards her. Noah watched her smile and close her eyes. This meant the boy couldn't be her brother. This was an imperfection.
Noah switched a flick and a blackout consumed the bowling alley. There were screams at the perfect darkness.
He could feel her breathing as he approached, slowly and quietly. “Dylan?” she whispered. Noah stood directly behind her, breathing her in, and wondered what it would be like if he were Dylan. He pictured their children. Then he did the thing. And it was over.
Noah was behind the bar when the lights came back on. He watched as she knelt on the ground and held the broken face. He saw her tears mingle with the pile of blood that was dripping down the alley. He saw the policeman picking up the skittle and putting it into a bag. He smiled. He would find her and marry her and they would live together forever without anyone else and he would make her love him and force her to stop crying. And the police wouldn't find him. Because it had to be perfect. He needed it to be perfect. And if not, there were plenty more skittles.
Theme: The Anchor
Word limit: 350
Winner: Abby Walker
It wasn’t murder, I was adamant in that. Even as I dropped the bloodied knife onto the tiled flooring and held my hands above my head. I had glanced curiously up at the officer, affronted.
“No need to shout,” I had told l him harshly.
But he had just kept on shouting and screaming until more screaming busy-bodies arrived in my kitchen in a haze of blue lights. Their hands were so rough, wrestling my wrists into their metal bonds – though I was more than happy to comply. Their insolence made me smirk.
I like it better in the interrogation room. I like the quiet. I like the bland white walls and the smooth linoleum flooring. Clean. How things should be.
I frown as my eyes fall to my fingers. There’s a dried bloodstain down the crease of my knuckle. I had made sure to scrub my skin until it was spotless, but it seems a little bit of my brother lingered. He was always clingy.
I take pleasure in picking it off, flake by flake.
I glance up casually, a light smile on my face. The woman isn’t smiling. I think she’s disturbed. How quaint.
“Miss Johnson, do you know who I am?” she asks.
She nods slowly, “I’m here to help you. Do you know why you’re here?”
“You’re here because last night, you murdered your brother. Now, the best you’re looking at here, is if it was an accident. Self-defence? It says here that your brother had a history of violence–” she cuts herself off, looking at me closely. “…Or was it just murder?”
Sighing, I lean forward, so that we are nose to nose.
“It was neither… He was... my anchor,” I shrug. “I just cut the chain.”
I hear her exhale, the chair scraping across the floor, shuffling papers, then the slam of a door. But I don’t care. My eyes are closed. The anchor is gone, laid on a mortuary slab somewhere. I feel light, weightless.
For the first time, I feel like I’m floating.
Theme: Page 26
Word limit: 350
Winner: Susan Corfield
Every Thursday for the last seventeen weeks, Albert had made the same trip to Sandmouth Services along the dual carriageway. Whatever the level in his tank, he would put in £9.50 of diesel, pick up both the Sandmouth Times and Philately Weekly, pay and leave. A couple of miles further along the road, he would loop his Corsa around the roundabout and head back home, keeping strictly to the speed limit at all times. The whole journey, he had calculated, took him thirty-seven minutes if there were no delays.
Pulling onto his drive he applied the handbrake before taking off his driving specs and exchanging them for the reading glasses he kept in the breast pocket of his tweed jacket. He shook open the paper, spreading it out over the steering wheel in front of him. The pages fluttered under his trembling touch as he leafed through page after page, eyes scouring for a conclusion to his story.
He had passed the centre spread and was beginning to lose heart for another week, when a short article caught his eye at the bottom of Page 26.
“The body of WWII veteran 92-year-old Jimmy Cole has been found in his Sandmouth flat. Authorities believe he had been dead for about four months when discovered by the postman. Jimmy was found sprawled across the floor, a cold cup of tea, plate of stale biscuits and a stamp album on the coffee table beside him. A glass marble lay on the floor nearby. It is thought Jimmy slipped on the marble and banged his head. The coroner reports a verdict of accidental death.”
Albert deflated like a balloon. He hadn’t realised he had been holding his breath as he read.
He dug deep into his wallet and smiled as he extracted his precious Penny Black stamp. Over eighty years since Jimmy had suggested the playground exchange it was finally back in Albert’s possession. He would take it everywhere from now on. Never let it go again. The stamp fitted in his wallet so much better than the marble ever did.
Theme: The Telescope
Word limit: 350
Winner: Nicola Forster
The telescope from my father was her favourite birthday gift and I hated how close their heads were when they used it. My mother’s friends arrived and their music played loudly. My father was relaxing in the bath, listening to sports commentary on his laptop. I looked at the wire connected to an extension lead that disappeared through the door. The laptop sat securely on the windowsill above the bath. I kicked and edged my chair closer to the trailing wire. I sat and stared at his scratchy face. I could feel music vibrating from downstairs. I sucked my bottom lip. I reached out and tugged on the wire several times and with each pull, the laptop jerked ever so slightly towards the edge. I kept doing it until it was almost teetering. Could I do it? Could I make it fall on his head?
My mother came into the bathroom, giddy from drinking wine, her cheeks beautiful and rosy. She lifted me out of my bouncy seat, bent down and left a red lipstick kiss on his cheek. He didn’t open his eyes, just smiled and said
“Bye gorgeous, see you later. Put George in his Moses basket, I will be down in a couple of minutes.”
“Okay, bye sexy, I love you.” She replied in her sing song voice.
She carried me out of the bathroom where the music was louder. She swung the bathroom door behind her, I looked over her shoulder and watched the door bang against the wire, giving it a jolt. Over the music I could just make out a splash and a faint scream. The lights flickered.
Now downstairs, her friends were cooing and saying how innocent I looked in my ‘I Love Daddy’ pyjamas.
I settled sleepily in my Moses basket and the music was switched off. The women were all too busy to notice the eerie silence that now seeped down the stairs.
My mother kissed me gently and left the house. I slept soundly that evening, content with the knowledge that from now on, I had her all to myself.
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Joey Whiston
“Well, Mrs. Locke, what do you think?” He already knew the answer; her face had that my-kids-would-be-so-happy-here quality to it.
He listened as she gushed over the spacious bathroom, the newly-fitted conservatory, the wholesome neighbourhood. “Ah, yes of course... Yes, perfect for those special dinner parties... Did I mention the tire swing out back?” Baited, hooked, reeled in. Flopping around at his feet, gasping over the Victorian wine cellar. Now all he had to do was get the signatures on the dotted line, before they saw...
The husband had been gone a while; hopefully mentally designing his garage-workshop, or deciding the best place for his desk in the study. Whichever type he was.
“Hmm? Oh, most certainly. A lovely elderly couple on one side, and some young newly weds – much like yourselves – on the other. They just had twins, so you and your husband will need to get to work if you want those play dates.”
A wink and a smile; she blushes and laughs. Calls him by his first name. Flop flop, gasp gasp.
The husband calls from further in the house – his tone says everything. They find him in the dining room, of course. Has she seen this? She hadn't. The mark on the floor, the stain on the carpet.
“Ah, yes, well... There was some water damage. Very minor.” It wasn't, though. Not any more. It almost swamped the entire ground – there was more stain than carpet at this point.
He was losing them. Perhaps they should take more time to think it over, maybe they shouldn't rush into anything. He barely even tried to persuade them – this was always the point where the ride ended. All because of this damn stain.
Deep breath, then he reaches into his pocket. They hardly make a sound, and the carpet cushions their fall. The stain grows and takes over the last remaining faction of the cream carpet. Maybe he should lay down plastic next time. He wouldn't though. His next viewing was in an hour.
Theme: The Party
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Sarah Allen
Whoever had dressed the old dining hall had excelled themselves, she thought, hesitating on the threshold. An abundance of scented candles twinkled in mullioned windows; the long trestle table was polished to a mirror like shine.
A cacophony of chatter hit Kate. She took in the little groups of women, exchanging happy memories of their alma mater and longed to turn and run.
Too late for that. An efficient attendant whisked away her coat, giving it an appreciative stroke. No help for it, but to endure. She was good at that. She had endured it all: name calling, missing kit, isolation; bruises and stolen tuck.
She knew her outfit said success. A runway sensation, it showed off her trademark Titian hair. Immaculately armoured against misery, even so, she was nervous and gave the dress a tweak. Smile fixed, she forced herself into the fray.
‘Carroty! I wouldn’t have recognised you! I heard you were selling clothes. You shop girls must get good staff discount!?’
The old nickname still hurt. That time had not been kind to Verity did not help. Kate’s stomach churned with familiar panic. Where was Mary when she needed her?
A passing waiter offered canapés, providing a welcome distraction. Typically, Verity snatched several.
‘Verity! You haven’t changed a bit. Try these! They look too good to miss’.
She pressed a plateful of delicacies on Verity and with relief, spotted salvation.
‘Do excuse me. There’s Brimstone Bailey, better say hello…’
She threaded her way expertly through the throng. Snippets of conversation floated on the air:
‘Remember when Jilly played with a broken wrist? Matron was apoplectic!’
‘Really!? I thought she’d bagged a banker…’
‘Gorgeous food! Not like in our day!’
The insistent wail of the ambulance siren coming ever closer interrupted Miss Bailey, happily recalling sporting triumphs. Wide eyed, Mary appeared, bursting with news of the disaster.
‘The ambulance is for Verity. She just keeled over! Something she ate apparently. It’s not looking good’.
‘Nemesis’ pronounced Miss Bailey, staring at Kate, who, sipping golden bubbles of champagne, smiled.
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Jess Wood
Do you remember as a child walking backwards through the snow? The idea is that somebody will assume you are walking in the opposite direction, and follow a false trail.
It was a game that Genevieve had never played as a child, but now, aged 31, she played because her life depended on it. Underneath her woolen hat sweat ran down her face. Every icicle’s drip made her jump and whip her head around.
There’s a trick to the game. It only works if the person who’s following you is far enough behind to allow you to run forward and then retrace your steps. They must see your trail leading on while you are in fact concealed nearby. If you’re spotted, you’re toast. That was why she was pretty damn jumpy.
She knew who was chasing her. His pseudonym had been slapped across the headlines for the past week. He’d made the headlines last year as well. They called him Frosty the Snowman on account of his predilection for only killing when there was snow on the ground. Well there was buckets of the stuff around now. She attempted to recall the details. Death by stabbing, unusual blade, weapon never found. That was it.
Good thing he hadn't been expecting the pepper spray. That stuff had melted his icy exterior alright. Now she had time.
Her nerves were so frayed she imagined she was unraveling. This was as far as she could go. A huge oak tree offered an ample hiding place and she breathed as silently as possible, conscious of the clouds of water vapor from her exhalations which seemed like a flashing neon arrow. A twig snapped and she stopped breathing.
The tip of something orange appeared round the tree trunk and then the horrible grinning face of the killer followed. He’d got her. She glanced down at the weapon which had baffled the police. It was a well known vegetable. When she focused her attention she noticed the sparkle of ice shavings.
“A frozen carrot?”
“Yep, I just cook it and eat it after.”
Theme: Jingle Bells
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Tilly Boscott
The first present they found was a hand, neatly boxed and wrapped in a red ribbon. The reindeer were sniffing at it long before Twinkle came chasing after the crimson holes that burned deep into the snow, the bell on his hat jingling wildly with every bounce. Someone must have sent for Santa, because his voice boomed over the crowd and the whispering stopped dead.
“What’s going on here?”
“It’s Noel, sir.” Twinkle snapped up straight and started to shake. “He’s- He’s-“ Twinkle held up the hand, blue and stiff, with a thick coating of blood congealing at the stumped wrist.
After that came more presents. There was a foot floating in a bowl of mulled punch, and then the other was discovered caked in glitter and dangling from a tree branch like a bauble. One day the elves woke up to find Noel’s cold eyes staring out of a snowman’s face, following everyone that passed. When someone threw a blanket over the snowman’s head, you could still feel a tingle stealing up your spine whenever you went outside.
Santa didn’t say a thing about Noel, not even when a tooth ended up in the pudding, in place of a penny; he just kept chewing, his beard shifting in circles with the movement of his mouth.
Cinnamon disappeared the day after, without a word. Twinkle found her hat in the boxing machine, mangled into a lump of melted fabric, black at the edges. Stripes of blood ran along the wrapping floor, fading into nothing. Still Santa was silent. Even when Cinnamon’s glasses appeared, broken and bloodied on the tip of a teddy bear’s nose, he just harrumphed and lifted the paper so that only his hat peeked out over it.
Christmas Eve was when the last present appeared. It took three elves to heave the box onto the sleigh, and it was only then that the arm flopped out, fat and coated in red velvet. It was Twinkle who rode the sleigh that night, whipping at the reindeer with glistening crimson hands and jingling all the way.
Theme: The Violin
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Lynne Thomas
He sits at the back of the ticket booth. Tucked away in a shadowy corner, Zipper rests his shoulder against the rough wooden wall. Out of makeup, no one recognises his saggy pink face.
He watches the line.
A chubby boy stands alone, scratching his hip through his trousers. He dips a hand in his pocket and pulls out a fist full of change. Pushing the money around his palm, he counts, checking he has enough. A coin slips through his fingers. Another quickly follows.
The boy’s cheeks grow pink. He looks to see if anyone has noticed and bends down. A phone falls out of his pocket and lands in the mud. The boy picks it up and wipes it off, muttering to himself.
The boy’s funny, but sad funny. He’s perfect.
Zipper eases off the stool and shuffles to his caravan. It’s time to put on his face.
The show has started when Zipper runs into the ring. To the roar of the crowd, he tumbles, jumps, rides and jugglesall over the big top, bringing the people to their feet.
He motions for the crowd to be silent. From the wings, a tumbler brings his violin.
“And now for some magic,” he says with a flourish, and calls for a volunteer. He crooks his finger at a spot in the crowd.
The boy’s cheeks are red as he gets to his feet and makes his way to centre stage.
“And now, with no tricks or gimmicks, ladies and gentlemen, Grand Master Zipper will make this brave young lad disappear before your very eyes!”
He puts the violin to his chin and starts to play a beautiful melody, pure and sweet. The crowd is silent, held suspended in their seats. Eyes glaze over as Zipper wraps the music around the people. They sway in time with his bow.
Zipper draws out the last note; it hangs in the air.
They wake, blinking. The boy is gone.
Zipper bows to rapturous applause, holding aloft his violin.
The circus is gone by morning. Nothing is left but a muddy field.
Highly Commended: Annabel Hynes
“Good morning, Lady Rosario. Please come in, Master Jonathan is waiting for you.”
Lady Rosario was ushered into Crowhurst Manse with much bustling of skirts and clattering of her cane. She handed her coat and bonnet to the housemaid who had welcomed her, Jean, and dusted herself down magnanimously. She opened her mouth to enquire after Master Jonathan’s whereabouts, when suddenly, a most dreadful noise split the air.
“My word,” exclaimed the governess, squinting in displeasure. “What in heaven - ”
“Apologies, Lady Rosario,” interjected Jean quickly. “ Lady Crowhurst’s other son is practising his violin, and must not be disturbed. Master Jonathan, however, is ready for you in the parlour. ”She gestured pointedly to the left, and Lady Rosario nodded pertly. She followed Jean to her student, deciding not to enquire as to why she was only educating one of Lord and Lady Crowhurst’s children. She had never even heard of another boy, and she had worked here closing on four years. Perhaps he had a different tutor, that was often the case with these extraordinarily wealthy aristocrats.
The excruciating screeches echoed in the background as Lady Rosario attempted to teach young Master Jonathan history. He was usually a terribly energetic child, but today he was quiet and acquiescent, something which worried and rather relieved her. She asked him hopefully whether the noise would stop any time soon, and instead of answering her he buried his nose in a book and wouldn’t speak for the rest of the lesson. She found the behaviour of the manse’s inhabitants extremely odd, and none more so than that of this enigmatic and execrable violinist.
When the time finally came for Lady Rosario to leave, she wondered aloud about the other boy. “Strange that I never knew till now,” she said brusquely to Jean at the front door. “And such awful, painful wailing! I’ve never known the boy of course, but he should keep practising. It doesn’t sound as though he’s getting any better!” She smiled genially at the housemaid, whose face was grim.
“No,” she said sadly. “It doesn’t.”
Theme: The Rose
Word limit: 350
Winner: Ben Ray
“And why do you think you deserve to serve the company of The Rose?”
Castor stared at the table in front of him, and thought back to those early, heady days when he had been a boy, dreaming one day of becoming an actor at that great theatre. Its looming presence had always been a constant in his life, from acting out plays on the stage of the orphanage table, to enviously watching as the city’s gentry filed out of its doors in the late evening, chattering about the incredible beauty and talent of the actors. He looked up at the row of faces in front of him.
“Because, well... it’s all I ever wanted to do. Right from the beginning. I just wanted to be a part of The Rose.”
The figures in front of him leaned towards each other, whispering collectively, like trees in the wind. Like all members of The Rose their bodies were swathed in thick, expensive robes that pooled around their feet, and their finely chiselled faces were hidden behind deep hoods. Castor tried not to change his expression as he heard their faint murmurings. “Very fine features...” “Beautiful shape...” “No family to speak of...”
Eventually, the figures fell silent. Castor looked up, trembling.
“We have decided. You would be of great use to the company. In fact, your services would be invaluable. Welcome to The Rose.”
Castor could hardly speak. As one, the table rose and gestured him to follow, seemingly gliding from the room. The corridor was lined with thick hangings, and the corners were dim and wreathed in shadow. Reaching a thick, wooden door, they motioned Castor inside, following after him. The space was almost completely dark, and he could just make out the slim, nubile figures of the company as they rose and started towards him. Their perfect hands were outstretched and open, and their sharp, white teeth glowed in the dim light. One behind Castor drew back his hood. The bleached, marbled face smiled, licking its lips.
“You will be a most valuable commodity to the company. Most... tasteful.”
Word limit: 350
Winner: Richard Hamer
The swallower’s fire put the sun back into London’s sky as the flames surged high above the roofs of the Chinatown. The neighbourhood gasped as one and clapped loudly as the performer bowed with an unburnt smile and melted back into the twirling ranks of the acrobats. Around them circled the ten-man dragon, and around the dragon the gleeful people thronged.
From the crowd’s edge Cai Shen gazed at his newly opened restaurant with senses mixed between awe and accomplishment. The green dragon’s silky tail whirled over his feet. He found himself with company.
“It is not too late for you to reconsider.” Dabo Gong said slowly. Shen’s jaw went stiff.
“I’ve made my choice, old man.”
“Not for one million yuan more?” Gong beckoned. “Not for two?”
“Not for all the yuan there is. I’m not selling.”
“Think of it not as a deal” said Gong. “Think it a favour. This building is cursed. Think of Zao Jun, the fifth man to open his restaurant here. They found him boiled in his own soup…”
“I say again no.” said Shen.
“Perhaps it is I who is accursed.” Gong said softly. “Fewer and fewer men will do business with me. Fewer still, I fear, once your restaurant opens its doors.”
He glanced at his own eatery. The Happy Dragon’s plastic namesake looked woefully sad in the dark as it stared back at Gong and Shen’s Ten Tigers. Decked with a myriad of red lanterns, the new restaurant was resplendent. Gong stroked his thin white beard.
“Three million. My last offer. Take it and live in peace.”
Shen stared at the approaching dragon. He scratched the dark stubble on his neck with his thumb.
“Five million yuan. More than most ever see.” said Gong. He leaned in close. “I know of a man here who for a fraction of that sum would open your throat.”
Cai Shen smiled.
“I think I know him better.”
Suddenly the dragon rose and engulfed them both. Beneath the silk came a flash of steel and a cry drowned out by laughter when Shen emerged, alone.
Theme: The Jester
Word limit: 350
Winner: James McGowan
They had all come, every one of them.
The Jester smiled and announced that their host, Jeffrey Masterson, would be making a spectacular entrance to the party on the stroke of midnight, and that the guests should mingle and enjoy the food and drink.
Persephone, an ex-wife, said in a loud voice how bad Jeffrey was in the bedroom, and that she had been driven away by his performance into the arms of another. The select few nodded sagely, and the Jester smiled.
Jonathan Poole, told his audience how Jeffrey had been weak in business, and you must be strong to survive. People nodded, aware but unconcerned that Jonathan had run off with all the money from Jeffrey's company. The Jester agreed that all was fair in business.
Reginald Atkin admitted in a timid voice that that nasty business with the taxman could have been avoided if Jeffrey had taken some responsibility for his own affairs, and not left everything up to him. The Jester nodded that the old accountant was not to blame at all.
One by one, the Jester listened to the stories of the party guests, the potted history of Jeffrey Masterson, as seen through the eyes of everyone who had ever wronged him.
At five to midnight, the Jester passed around a tray of cognacs and announced that Jeffrey would be unable to make an appearance that night after all. The crowd laughed and clapped and toasted the fact that they would not have to see the person they despised after all. The cognacs were downed in one.
At five past midnight, the Jester removed all the cognac glasses into a bag. Around him lay the bodies of his party guests. The Jester closed the door behind him.
Highly Commended: Tilly Boscott
“Enough about the ghosts.” David backed into the room, his cases bashing against the door, “you’re not going to scare me out of the best room.”
“If you are certain sir.” The old man rattled after him clutching a fistful of keys. “If there’s nothing else-“
“Send up some wine will you? A good vintage. Red. And a woman if you have one lying around.”
“Um-“ The old man’s eyes widened, sending lines cracking through his face like porcelain.
“It’s a joke man.” David sighed and fell onto the bed. “But do send the wine.” He lifted his head and the man was gone; the door creaked closed behind him. David nestled it into the bedclothes; they stank of dust and mildew. He would have to say something when his wine arrived.
A jingling in the hall raised his head. A thin patch of darkness peered around the door.
“If that’s the wine, be quick about it,” David called. He dropped his head to the side as the sound came again. It wasn’t keys, but bells, like the ones he strung the horse with at Christmas. Two candles on the fireplace burst into flame, illuminating a painting of a grinning jester, his mouth pulled wide, almost to his ears, exposing gleaming yellow teeth. Red and yellow boxes curved over his face and his eyes were completely black.
“If you’re trying to scare me, it won’t work.” His voice shook.
“He who fears not does not think,” a voice hissed from the doorway, “He who sees not does not blink.”
“Who’s there?” David scrambled backwards, hitting the headboard.
“He who knows not does not worry; he who lives not need not hurry.”
The bells jingled furiously from the hallway and the candle flames quivered, sending shadows snaking up the walls.
“He who needs not does not give; he who loves not does not live.”
David opened his mouth to speak, but the taste of metal filled his mouth. Coins toppled from his lips onto the bed, muffling a scream as the room fell into blackness.
Word limit: 300
Winner: Annabel Hynes
“Alright, alright,” said Jack, gently extricating his small daughter from his shoulders. “I know you’re an energetic child, but this is ridiculous. Go to sleep.”
Alex jumped up and down on her bed restlessly with a grin adorning her face, and Jack cursed the cookies he’d left unattended that evening.
“Oh, fine. I’ll do it for you, but then do you promise to be quiet for the rest of the night?”
The little girl giggled and nodded, which Jack decided was a good enough concession. He got up and switched off the top light of the bedroom, leaving just the gold glow of a lamp behind him, illuminating the wall opposite. He held his arm aloft and turned his fingers at a ninety degree angle, bending his index and pinky and curving his thumb ever so slightly. A great grey wolf now embellished the wall of the room, howling as Jack did at an invisible moon. Alex shrieked and laughed delightedly trying and failing to imitate the pose of Jack’s arm.
“That’s so good, daddy! Better than ever!”
Jack smiled at her. “How so?”
“You never did one with legs before, daddy.”
Jack frowned, and turned back to his now silent wolf. It did indeed have legs, as well as numerous spiky appendages over its back and head that could only have been fur. Jack’s jaw dropped as the beast moved with several fleeting actions to the wall above his daughter’s headboard, a snarling noise seeming to reverberate around the bedroom, intermingling with Alex’s excited shrieks. Jack stared from his arm lying beside him to the grey shape that had its hackles risen, its teeth bared, with slaver dripping from its maw. Alex touched the slimy substance that had fallen on her shoulder and gazed at Jack, who screamed.
Highly Commended: James McGowan
It was near winter's end when Dr. Mareck's Travelling Vaudeville Shadow Show pulled up at the house of Sir Barnstaple Thomas, noted barrister and socialite.
The wagon was painted with garish scenes of mayhem and hilarity, and at the reins, Dr. Mareck himself began selling his show to the genteel passers-by. The head butler Gordon was not amused, and attempted to force the charabanc to move along.
The three Thomas daughters screamed through the drawing room window at the wagon, and charged out in petticoats to plead with their father to allow them to see the show. To save the scandal of hatless, screaming children in the street, he reluctantly agreed.
The shadow theatre was assembled in the drawing room, and the heavy velvet curtains closed. The oil lamps were lit, and Dr. Mareck retired behind the screen, where a shadowy figure of a boy appeared in silhouette, and began to tell a sad tale of childhood betrayal.
As Sir Thomas watched with his daughters around him, he became increasingly aware that the story being told was of his own childhood. Most of the details were the same, and it brought poignant memories of the brother he had lost at sea due to a mischievous prank in a row-boat which had gone badly wrong. Not wishing to alarm the children, he continued to watch in silence.
As the show came to a close, the shadow version of himself, now an old man, stood alone in his chambers. A figure entered from the left of screen and pulled out a gun. A shot rang out, making the children squeal with delight, but Sir Barnstaple Thomas, noted barrister and socialite, slumped forward in his seat, his last vision of a small round smoking hole in the screen.
Theme: The Mask
Word limit: 300
Winner: Rob Tye
We waited. Hours passed in a blur of cramped muscles in aching thighs. The sweat dripped down our faces, hidden behind cheap, plastic masks. I squinted through the eye slits at the others: Jimmy, Tank and Woods – the best there was. The sort of guys you could rely on no matter what; the perfect team for what we were about to do.
The gun weighed heavy in my damp palm. I stared at it, turning the barrel to glint in the sun. My pulse patted against the handgrip, fast and nervous. I tried to swallow but the spit stuck in my dry throat.
Then I looked at Tank. We still call him that, ever since the first day at school when a kid three sizes too big stomped into the classroom. Tank could face down fear when everyone else wet themselves. He was my oldest and best friend. Right now, I swear I could see him grinning behind his clown mask. He always did love danger.
“Heads up!” Jimmy hissed.
I twisted for a view through a bush at our targets. My legs trembled, mixing excitement and fear into adrenaline. Twenty feet, fifteen, ten. Quick, shallow breaths rasped behind the plastic mask. I glanced at the others and gave the signal.
We leapt from our positions, guns raised, already squeezing the triggers. Woods screamed a banshee wail as he ran. Tank just charged at them head on, taking hit after hit in the chest. My pistol jammed. I slapped at it but knew it was too late. Carl Delaney turned at me with a vicious grin on his acne-covered face and fired.
The jet of water took my mask clean off then Tank slammed him into the muddy ground and I knew we would win.
Highly Commended: James McGowan
She had always wanted to visit Venice during the Carnevale. It was a most ancient festival, when the whole city prepared for the austerity of Lent by sinning extravagantly for a few days. Something she felt they needed.
The vaporetto dropped them at San Marco, and they held hands to the nearest stall selling exquisite hand-painted masks. The touch of them was alien and decadent, and she chose a white porcelain face, subtly rouged, decorated around the edges with beads and feathers and held in place with a black silk ribbon. He chose a glass mask decorated in a wild harlequin diamond pattern in black and scarlet. Hats and cloaks completed their outfits.
As agreed, they parted at the palace, with an agreement to meet at the font at midnight. She was sure she would recognise his unique mask.
She flitted through the crowds, and as was the custom she granted kisses when she received a rose, played out ephemeral trysts with strangers, sharing drinks with masked suitors and feigning heartbreak at every parting. This was completely different from her humdrum existence at home, yet the anticipation of her reunion with her husband was growing.
At midnight, the city was still alive with revellers, and she made her way to the font. A stranger in a harlequin mask approached and she ran to him, and embraced. They held their masks together for an age, strangers again, and she felt a desire she could barely remember. She could bear the temptation to kiss no longer and made to lift his mask. He grabbed her hand to stop her.
She looked at her hand, which was bloody from where he had grabbed her. The stranger looked out intently through the slits of his mask and shook his head, slowly.
Highly Commended: Neona Twirl
The tour guide surveyed the group in front of him and concluded that they were a typical lot. Richard had been leading tours of the theater for a month, and by this point, each snippet of the theater’s history bored him to tears. So, when they got to Karen’s Room, he told the story not in the captivating half-whisper that had landed him the job but in an almost monotone way:
“Twenty years ago, Karen, a founding member of our company, was dying. However, not even death could part her from the theater as Karen wrote a clause into her will instructing the executor to remove her face and to set it, preserving it as a mask to be worn in future productions.
“But legend has it that the first time an actress donned the mask, the spirit of Karen possessed her, and she went crazy, killing herself within hours of putting it on. Ever since then, the mask has been…”
At this point, Richard’s story was interrupted by a girl in the audience who loudly whispered to her father, “Is this supposed to be scary?”
Richard, glancing at her, became annoyed. He knew that at the end of the tour everyone filled out an evaluation, which determined his bonus. He wasn’t going to lose money just because some snot-nosed little girl didn’t think a story was interesting enough.
Hoping to captivate her, he seized the mask and asked, “Do you want to see a demonstration?” thinking to put it on, pretend to assume the spirit of Karen, and scare the girl enough that she would be sure to compliment his tour-guiding.
When they found Richard’s body, he was stilling wearing the mask, as well as a dress, long housed in the prop closet, that had once been Karen’s.
Theme: The Locked Room
Word limit: 300
Winner: Siobhan Mc Namara
When the kid next door with the incessantly bouncing basketball went missing, we searched along with everybody else.
As the weeks went by, the number of searchers dwindled. There was no trace. Not of the boy, not of the basketball.
We remembered the boing, boing, boing early in the day, but no-one could say exactly when it had stopped. It was part of the background noise of our street. Like traffic, it came and went but didn’t exactly grab your attention either way.
The police visited all the houses. Asked all the same questions. Got all the same answers. Nothing unusual, no strange vehicles, no strange people.
Then one day I found Dad staring at the key holder in the back hall.
‘The brass key,’ he said ‘Did you take it?'
I shook my head. I had no idea what key he was talking about.
‘You must understand,’ he said. ‘That bloody ball was driving me mad.’
The world stopped.
Then it began to spin again, too fast. Part of me tried to grasp what Dad was saying. But I knew that something had been wrong with him for ages.
‘I forgot,’ he said. ‘But now I remember. I told him to come along with me, and make sure to bring his basketball.’
‘Dad, where did you take him? And what brass key are you talking about?'
‘In here,’ he said, tapping the side of his head with a finger.
‘Dad, you need to see a doctor.’
He looked at me with disdain.
‘ A doctor? What kind of doctor can get a boy with an incessant freakin’ basketball out of a locked room in a batty old man’s head?’ he shouted. ‘Especially when no-one knows anything about the key.’
Theme: The Perfect Murder
Word limit: 250
Winner: Owen Southwood
Harry sobered up. As punishment for some drunken misbehaviour, he worked a community service order, tending the flowerbeds on roundabouts. Aside from twice-daily checks by police, he worked alone, enjoying the solitude of his green islands. Finally, he could think clearly.
This morning's roundabout was on a busy intersection. It was a mess, but after hours of digging, raking and hoeing the ground was clear enough to fertilise.
His portable radio kept him company. He paused to listen to the news: A known criminal was wanted by police for a road rage incident last week. The suspect had been unhappy with a lady's slow speed; he'd forced her to stop, smashed her windows with a crow bar, showered her and her baby with glass. Then, after threatening her with a gun, he fled the scene.
Listening, Harry frowned. They'd failed to mention the suspect had tossed litter on his roundabout. Harry saw it happen. Avoiding conflict as advised, he'd hidden behind his rhododendrons, noted the van's registration and snapped the man's picture on his phone. Then he'd offered the lady a chrysanthemum to cheer her up. She thanked him. Later, Harry showed the picture to some friends and made some enquiries before buying himself a wood chipper.
Today there were eight different roundabouts on his schedule. By the end of the day, all would have unusually enriched and fertile soil, ideal for chrysanthemums. Harry hoped that the flowers would make the lady smile, should she ever drive past them again.