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.