Flakes of a Fire

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Flakes of a Fire

Winning poems and short stories from the inaugural Aurora Poetry and Short Fiction Competition selected by judges Pascale Petit and Paul McVeigh Writing East Midlands

First published 2016 Writing East Midlands Competition, 49 Stoney St, The Lace Market, Nottingham NG1 1LX Tel: 0115 959 7929 info@writingeastmidlands.co.uk www.writingeastmidlands.co.uk Š Writing East Midlands and with the contributors, 2016 Design by Martin Parker at silbercow.co.uk


Contents 1st Prize Poetry: Kerry Darbishire – Living on Dreams 1st Prize Short Fiction: Peter Hitchen – The Space Between 2nd Prize Poetry: Roy Marshall – From the Book of Crow Etiquette 2nd Prize Short Fiction: L Fisher – Mika and Don’t She Hear the Sound of Grass Growing 3rd Prize Poetry: Peter Wallis – Poem in Which I Visit Addenbrooke’s, my Twin having had Brain Surgery for the Fourth Time 3rd Prize Short Fiction: Giselle Leeb – As You Follow

5 6 10 11

16 17

Stonewood Prize Poetry: Richard Goodson – Pine Short Fiction: Amy McCormack – Mountains

22 24

Highly Commended Poetry Charlotte Baldwin – Servants of the Loom Emma Harding – Untethered John D Kelly – Mushrooms for Breakfast Ali Thurm – It Only Takes Ten Minutes

28 29 30 32

Highly Commended Short Fiction Sarah Tinsley – Woven in Place Helen Wilber – Patrick and Mr Ralph

33 39

Commended Poetry Pat Borthwick – Being Jellyfish Joanne Dixon – Skegness Wake

45 46

Commended Short Fiction Jo Carroll – Mother Ganga K M Elkes – The Sound Wings Make

48 53

Kerry Darbishire 1st Prize Poetry: Living on Dreams Beyond the sitting boulder he stoops aching into the storm-flushed beck picking out bits of quartz for luck, calls them giants’ teeth sheared in battle. She hears the dogs scratting in the yard, boot scrape at the kitchen door – Sam wrapped in a scarf of moss and bracken rubbing and whistling into cracked hands his face the colour of Eden valley stone. Over steaming porridge, dogs tangled at his feet breathing like dragons, he bursts to tell her how, in one night turf pocketed all the hazel nuts, how buzzards above hedges of mist cried like feral cats, how rowans dripped blood beads to a handful of fieldfare, how ash and haws have risen like Birnam Wood – outnumbered gorse, how he’ll set to in Spring fix gutters, mend wall gaps. In learned silence she takes his jacket, shakes out the creased year, smell of swollen river, thorns, seed, spoor and hangs it back on the door pockets full.


Peter Hitchen 1st Prize Short Fiction: The Space Between The archaeologist’s wife put a couple of sticks into the firebox, blew a little and waited for signs of smoke. Breathless moments passed before the tinder caught, then more sticks and a little more blowing, stronger this time, and the stove was saved. She looked at the dwindled pile of fuel and hoped that there’d be enough to last until the rain eased. The noise on the croft’s corrugated tin roof had at first seemed thrilling, now it was just white noise. They arrived on the island in March, just before lambing. Late winter blizzards followed soon after, too sudden and furious for the ewes to be brought to shelter. Weeks later, when the becks turned into white torrents, the broad hill on which the croft stood was dotted with carcases that looked like lumps of snow that refused to melt. The image of them had stayed with her throughout the summer becoming part of a recurring dream in which she found herself scouring the hillside, the click of a hand-held tally counter recording the sodden, diminishing bundles. She wetted her fingers in the corner of one of the small windowpanes and flicked droplets onto the stove’s cast iron top; the beads became opalescent then evaporated until the only sign of their existence were white dots left behind in the dust. She filled a kettle at the sink. The study of Neolithic chambered cairns had been the focus of her husband’s post-doctoral research. Following the publication of a highly regarded paper in The Journal of Buried History he received confirmation that his application to conduct a 12-month field study had been approved. When the Shetland weather at last settled into summer he was able to begin work. He started by recording the external dimensions of the site using a pedometer and a 100m open-reel tape. Then he mapped the entire area with a grid 6

fabricated from avalanche probes cable-tied to metal spikes hammered into the ground. It had taken longer than expected but he’d managed to complete the open-air work during the best of the weather, now the shortening days were punctuated by frequent icy squalls that swept in across the white-flecked sea. His wife heard the kettle as she carried an armful of firewood across the bleached grass towards the house. She looked over the whale-backed horizon and pictured him searching alone in the cairn and knew how his hopes had lessened as the work continued; his creeping depression became an unacknowledged entity that sat between them during the long silences of their evenings. A sudden gust unbalanced her and got under the tarpaulin: if it wasn’t secured quickly the whole thing would be lost and the firewood soaked. She went to lift the kettle off the stove and then hurried back to find the sheet rattling like a broken blue sail. She grabbed the one secure corner and gathered the rest in armfuls until the wind had less influence, then she weighted the whole thing down with an upturned wheelbarrow and a couple of smooth boulders. As she set about rearranging it over the wood the wind eased a little and the light changed, casting the sea momentarily violet. She looked out over the headland and saw the ferry pushing through the white caps, the dip and rise of its bow just visible behind the spume. A paraffin storm lamp lighted the cairn’s main chamber. He finished recording the internal dimensions with a laser device and began to scrape at the floor with the side of a trowel. He collected a little pile of damp gritty material then used an artist’s brush on the drier subsurface. When he was certain that he hadn’t missed anything he marked the area off on a paper floor plan. She got her knitting needles, sat by the stove and pulled the straw basket of pure white Shetland wool yarn to the side of her chair and lifted out the piece that she’d been working on. It was almost finished. She drew the sides in and stitched them with a 7

darning needle leaving a small space unsewn. Over the weeks she’d gathered sheep’s wool that she’d found hooked on the fence or wind-blown into the angles of the dry stone wall. It had been washed and carded smooth and now she stuffed it into the hole that she’d left, working it into all the spaces, it began to take on the shape of a four-legged animal about the size of a child’s teddy bear. When it was full its head and legs flopped weightily and she finished off by sewing eyes, a nose and four black hooves. She made up the hole in the middle of its belly and tied off the wool before snipping it close. She shut her eyes and held her creation as a little girl might hug a precious doll. As her husband scraped, brushed and recorded he thought about the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister, a cairn that had lain undisturbed for millennia. Its discovery had taken Shetland’s prehistory in a completely new direction. The one he was excavating had been known about beyond living memory. Any artefacts that might have been left there by the island’s Neolithic ancestors had long since gone; his only hope of finding anything was by painstaking digging. He leaned against the chamber’s wall and listened to the hiss of the storm lamp. Every one of the lambs was dead. Bedraggled clumps of dirty white fleece, wool over bone littering the ground. She contoured across the hill from the dry stone wall to the post and wire fence, seventy yards at its narrowest, and tallied them with the clicker that she’d taken from his field-instruments box. That way she felt certain none would be missed; as she started back from the fence she saw another one. When she got to it she clicked the counter but then tarried as she noticed this corpse was less hollow, milk teeth still unexposed, its belly a paunch rather than an empty pocket. She bent to look more closely. He got out of bed and opened his laptop for light until he found the matches. The stovepipe fluted like a church organ, its habit when the wind was in the east. He opened the stove door to replace 8

the sound with a draught as the air in the kitchen was drawn upwards. He called his wife’s name. By some miracle the lamb was alive; it had survived for weeks underneath the snow while all the others had perished. She would be its saviour. She would nurture it back from the edge of nothing. She lay next to it, oblivious of the sodden ground, undid her coat, pulled up her woollen jumper and exposed her breasts. She drew the bundle close. He pulled his clothes and boots on, threw the hood of his coat up and set off with the storm lamp calling her name all the way to the crest of the hill, gasping he cast the lamp back and forth in the sleety wind. Nothing. He hurried on a little further and then saw her lying on her side, knees bent tight. When he got to her he was careful not to shock her from the half-sleep-trance that he’d grown used to. He took her hand, she got up and they walked back down the hill through the wild wind. n


Roy Marshall 2nd Prize Poetry: From the Book of Crow Etiquette To avoid association with a crow’s death feign a limp or otherwise disguise your gait when passing a crow funeral. In order to escape a scolding, don’t contest a crow’s right to your roof or disrupt its visceral business among fledglings and eggs. Crows have memories like wet tar, can recognize the white-stitched ribbon of a fruitful carrion road, the location of a yard from which a stone was thrown. Tame crows give pet names to their keepers; make of this what you will. Crows that are damaged or ill are often assisted by others, or else done in. Decades may pass before a widowed crow casts the cross of her shadow on a long abandoned farmyard. A murder might mob the one-time owner of a slingshot, now a grandfather in the park. Crows bring gifts to those who feed them, to children with no prejudice or fear of crows. You might not need a stash of broken necklaces, Airfix kit of sparrow bones, lens cap rinsed in a birdbath, nor a half heart locket, inscribed with ‘Best’. You may not wish for ‘friends’ to priest a garden fence or wall, who call before your alarm sounds and pick at your open dream.


L Fisher 2nd Prize Short Fiction: Mika and Don’t She Hear the Sound of Grass Growing Mika broke sticks just for the fun of hearing them crack. Dry sticks, thick as the fingers of old men and crooked and brittle. And she’d tread on them in the wood or flex them in her hands or across her knee, and the sound of them breaking was like small gunfire. Everything quiet then and all the fearful wood waiting and watching and expecting more. And bottles, Mika threw them hard at stone-walls, just for the shriek and music of their breaking; and once she rolled a supermarket trolley into the canal for the clatter and splash that it made. All that, even before Mr Pituka. Momma said she was no good. She said Mika was daft as a brush, or two brushes. ‘Not the full shilling,’ momma said, ‘and not all there.’ Momma warned me to be careful with a girl like Mika or she’d break more than bottles or sticks. ‘You see if I’m not right.’ I didn’t always know what momma meant. Sometimes Mika stood in the street with her eyes closed and she was listening sharp as knives or pins or pinches, listening for every small noise underneath the bigger noises. Mika said she could tell the numbers of buses by the sounds their engines made and she could even tell the drivers from the shifting of the gears or the opening of the automatic doors. And she knew when Mr Pituka was out of his house, too, even if he was a long way off. Momma laughed when I told her about Mika saying that. ‘Everyone knows when Mr Pituka is out of his house,’ she said. ‘Aint no wonder in that. He slams his door loud as a thunder-clap and his cough is like the bark of an old dog and he sings church songs come rain or wind or shine.’ Mr Pituka’s as blind as lights out or cupboard dark. He walks 11

with a white stick, tip-tapping through his night-blank day, his head turned a little so it is like he is always looking at the sun, except his eyes behind black glasses are two milk white moons – like the eyes of fish when they are baked, like two white chocolate buttons – and Mr Pituka sees nothing. He came to our school one day and the teacher took his arm and sat him in a chair at the front of the class and facing us. Mr Pituka talked about how he ‘sees’ what is all around him, only his seeing is something different from our seeing. Mr Pituka ‘sees’ everything through the sounds that things make. He painted a remarkable picture of his world – our world, really. That’s when Mika started really listening to things. She said everywhere was a whole lot cleaner if you closed your eyes and all you had was listening. There were no scribbled swear words chalked on the walls and no dead birds pressed flat as paper in the street and no girl’s knee-socks had slipped to her ankles. Mika said the world was a whole lot more interesting too; but sometimes it was also a little sadder for there were holes in things, she said. ‘Holes?’ ‘Like birdsong when it is interrupted,’ Mika said, ‘or water running and the tap is suddenly turned off, or grass when it’s cut.’ ‘She’s all out to lunch, that Mika, and not the full picnic,’ momma said. ‘And nutty as a fruitcake and not right in the head.’ I didn’t know what Mika meant about the grass being cut. Momma didn’t know either. Mika said grass makes a sound when it grows, those tiny green blades shifting against each other – like the sound of cats when they rub up next to your legs, their curling and uncurling tails brushing your calves; like the intake of breath before a dive into deep water; and like a lover’s touch. Mika actually said that – ‘Like a lover’s touch.’ – and she stroked my cheek, just with the soft tips of her fingers, and I heard momma’s voice in my head saying over how I’d to take care for Mika’d break more than sticks and bottles one day. 12

‘Like the sound of a lover’s touch and grass is the same,’ Mika said. ‘Except when it is cut and it makes no sound at all then, not even the sound of weeping or bleeding.’ And Mika took me up to the airport once. I sat on the back of her bike, my skirt rucked and tucked into my pants and my arms wrapped round Mika’s middle. It was a breathless day and we laughed and shrieked like gulls, and Mika made me promise not to tell. ‘Swear,’ she said. ‘Swear on your momma’s life, on your own life. Swear to God. And cross your heart and spit on it.’ The promise was enough without the swearing or crossing or spitting, for I would never break a promise made to Mika. She once told me that everything makes a sound when it breaks and a different sound, and if ever I broke my promise not to tell then I was sure Mika would know for she would hear the sound, sharp as gunfire or snapping dry sticks. There’s a fence up at the airport that keeps you out and signs in letters big as shouting fixed to the fence so that it’s clear, but Mika knows where the fence has a break in it, where the chain-link is unwoven and unravelled in a jagged tear that snags like goblinfingers at your clothes and your hair if ever you dare to climb through. Mika threw her bike down, the front wheel spinning in the air, and she dipped her head like bowing and climbed through. I said I wasn’t sure. I said there were rules and reasons for rules and if we were caught then there’d be a price or hell to pay, for us and for our parents. Mika just shrugged and she said if I wanted to hear grass growing this was the place to come. ‘Grass growing,’ momma scoffed. ‘That Mika is round the twist and no mistake. Cuckoo daft she is, I tell you, and cracked in her head. Grass growing – whoever heard the like!’ But Mika was right and after, well, I never could tell – not momma and not anyone, for I had sworn not to. Mika was right about grass and the sounds that it makes. There 13

are patches of uncut grass on the other side of the airport fence and when we lay down in that grass, laying on our backs with the sky like a flat slab or a blanket pulled over us, it was as though we were in another place. Mika said we’d to close our eyes and listen. Between the roar of the planes – and they made my ears ring we were so close to them – there was a different sound: a silence at first that I thought was empty, as though it was the absence of sound, like church-quiet when the service is over and everyone is gone and the minister is gone, too, and maybe even God – a closedprayerbook quiet. ‘Really listen,’ hissed Mika. ‘With your eyes shut and every part of you still and not even breathing, really listen.’ And she was right – grass does make a sound, even beneath the buzz and saw of crickets or bees. It is the sound of undressing in the dark, the small rustle of cloth against the skin, like a sigh or a breath, or the sound of a kiss just before it is a kiss and it is first only breath on my cheek or my lips, or the sound of a touch when it is a caress, Mika’s hand laid gentle on the flat of my stomach. It really is all of those things and I swear to the truth of that, too. The airport security guard thought we were mad as sticks and he kept sucking and blowing air and shaking his head like he couldn’t believe it. He said we had put ourselves in danger, sure as eggs, and he would have to tell our parents if ever we were inside the fence again, or the authorities he would have to tell. Mika said his words were all scold and bark, but she said if you listened there was no bite in them. My heart was hammering and I could feel it beneath my blouse and maybe I could hear it, too. On the way back Mika sat me on the seat of her bike and she held the handlebars and pushed. She did not speak and neither did I. We did not need to. I put one arm across her shoulder and my hand caught in her hair and I did not look to untangle my fingers. The street was all lamp-lit yellow when we got home and Mika 14

helped me onto my feet. We were standing close like we were almost the one person and she reminded me of my promise not to tell and she kissed me to seal the deal. And there it was, when she pulled away and walked off to her end of the street – there was the breaking that momma had warned me about and it was my heart that broke then for I knew there would only be the one kiss and it was gone now and nothing left but the sound of the electricity humming through the lampposts and moths brushing their wings against the light and bats seeing the world like Mr Pituka. I never did climb through the torn fence again or lie under screaming planes or listen to airport grass growing. But Mika she kept on breaking things, to see the sound they made when they broke, she was used to that, and I think she continued to go up to the airport on her own, going when it was dark as pockets or blinks, and she lay down on the grass and listened. And momma said to me, for no reason I could understand, that hearts when they are broken mend again. ‘In time,’ she said, her words soft as whispers, and she smiled and nodded and stroked my hair and just maybe, I thought, she understood. And at night, even now, I undress in the near-dark of my room, the curtains drawn shut and streetlight leaking in through the gaps, the slip and sliver of gold, and I close my eyes, tight as fists clenched, so I can listen sharper, listening to kisses that never will be and Mika’s hand touching under my nightdress, and Mika swearing me not to tell; and I slowly lay me down on the bed, and I dream of grass growing, and cat-tails brushing the backs of my legs, and the breath just before kisses on my cheek and on my lips; and Mika I dream of, too, and the whole world breaking. ‘Hearts mend in time,’ momma said, and I just have to trust to that. n


Peter Wallis 3rd Prize Poetry: Poem in Which I Visit Addenbrooke’s, my Twin having had Brain Surgery for the Fourth Time It’s open visiting. I come again and again. I find him boxed in his bed like a new fountain pen; a doll in its packaging, bisque features the colour of dough, signed by the surgeon, above the hairline. One morning he wears the bedding like a chef’s uniform, another he’s a tortured Schiele drawing, or a piece of raw fish held out for approval. My meridian. My Rolex! My Victorian stick-pin. Your face on the pillow is a swab in a wound; a semibreve in a bar of its own.


Giselle Leeb 3rd Prize Short Fiction: As You Follow It is a bold entrance. You cannot miss it, booming out its yellow lights and buxom barmaid cartoon, across from the magnificence of soaring glass. It has beer, beer, beer and other things besides, if you have the money. Down the stairs, out of the soft end-of-October rain and Halloween nearly over. You duck under the low arch, burly bouncers stopping you, pointing out a far bench, changing their minds, pointing out another, squeezing you in beside a quiet couple picking at something green, out of place among the shouting and singing, the plates of leftover Bratwurst and chips, the men standing and cheering on the boys in lederhosen, with their brass instruments, their paid smiles, to keep going and going and the long wooden trays of spirits, red shots lined up in sixes and twelves, and on one end a sparkler to set them going, to light the spirits before dawn, and they go down down down and light up the insides. And the felt hats all new-looking, hired, and the voices on and on, louder. It is ten o’clock and the jackets are thrown over chairs, over benches, forgotten, and what should hurt the ears is pure music through this veil of spirits. And the beer steins, two pints, the biggest glasses you have ever seen in London Town, all the way from Germany. It is almost the end of Oktoberfest and it is the thirty-first, the barmaids, white aprons streaked with fake blood, pushing through the cobwebs with more flaming trays as a group of men stand and they are going drink, drink, drink, as one of them holds a glass up to his lips and churns his throat, head back. And next to him you see a child, blue eyes and blond hair, fashionable short back and sides, and he is pointing his young 17

thumbs, beckoning the band closer, suggesting a song and clapping hard as it starts up. And him, him, him, he points. And he is too young to be here, you say to your friend. But the boy is swaggering, confident, he is dressed like the men, in tight-fitting, dark blue trousers, a pinstriped shirt, and he is happy, happy, he is pure joy this boy, this very young man. Perhaps he is with his dad, you say to your friend. But it is ten o’clock on Thursday in London Town and he is the brightest of them all. And when the spirits come again, he is plucking the sparkler from the tray and he is holding it in his teeth and sparks are flying from his mouth as he sweeps his head and they are cheering and laughing, they are ruffling his hair. And he must have had a few sneaky ones, you say, but the young can get drunk, so drunk, on pure joy, you think, and you remember how your cheeks shone without the help of anything when you too were young. And the band is beaming, they are all young too, but not as young as the confident boy. And he is pushing the spirits along the table, he is leaping up and changing places and steadying a big man in his seat as he lunges forward and crashes into the table and the spirits jolt and then are still. And the group stand to dance, swinging their arms to the music. And tonight it is Thursday, tonight they are men and the day is gone and they are held out of time in this place below the streetlevel, held in its swaying lights and merry shouting. And you cannot keep your eyes off this boy-man, you cannot believe that he can be so bold. You imagine him begging his dad to let him come. And his mother, you think, does she approve? You imagine him remembering this night forever in the future, the night he was one of the boys, the night the world first blazed with glory for him, the night he was a true man. But he plays his part so flawlessly, you cannot imagine a young boy like this, unless he is very drunk. And you look closer 18

and you see in front of him, in front of the spirits lined up, in front of the biggest glass of beer that you have ever seen, you see a glass of water. And you long to ask someone how old he is, but you hesitate to break the spell, you hesitate because Christmas has come early, you are in a magic place, you are remembering dancing all night before you ever drank a drop, you are remembering how pure the world is, you are remembering beauty and truth and how it was before you came to this place, to this theme bar for pleasure. And you are nearly done with your first pint and you find that you are tapping your foot to the oompah music, the corners of your mouth pulling up, and your friend is smiling as you both stare at the boy and it is too loud to speak, and you see the imp gesturing to the bar again, another tray arriving, another sparkler showering sparks from his mouth and you think he looks like an arrogant son of kings. He cannot possibly be a boy. And you nod at your friend and you point to a two pint beer stein on the next table and he signals the waiter—whose accent is in fact German—and you order two of the big glasses and you sit and watch the boy-child as they ruffle his hair, as one of them puts his arms around him, another slides him along the bench, for he is small and slender and light as a feather. And you long for a tray with a sparkler, but there are only two of you. And one of the men stands and, ‘Are you going, are you going?’ the elf shouts and you both hear his voice and it is a man’s voice and you think, finally, that he must be a man. And then his eyes catch yours and he is pointing at you and your friend and he comes round the table and he is laughing and he is slamming down two shots and his thumbs are pointing at the band and they strike up a song and you are both laughing, throwing back the red spirits, and when you look up the sparkler is in his mouth again and you feel as if your head is flying along 19

with the sparks and you are standing and dancing, you are standing with the young imp and he is shouting, play a song, play a song, and the music is inside your head and you are young again, you are at your first wedding, you are drunk, and you cannot believe that it has arrived, this life, the life you have waited for all those years while you were growing up. And the bell rings and the boy takes a sparkler. The men at the table are standing up and he is leading them out the door, shaking hands with the bouncers, and he is beckoning to you and your friend and you get up and follow, laughing and cheering as you stumble across the cobblestones, past Smithfield Market, all shuttered up, past Barts, gates locked, past the silent dome of St Paul’s, down to the river, to the mighty Thames. It is mild for the last day of October and the moon is bright and the tide is high, the waves swelling and full. And beside the river wall, the men light fags and you do too and you feel like you are in your past and you draw deep and the sparks are replaced by the moon flitting off the crests of the waves and you stare out at the stumps of the old bridge, the waves touching it with a kiss before they move under the new bridge next to it, and then on. And the lamps on the river Thames are burnishing your eyes, burning and burning your spirit-filled eyes. And you have tears in them now as you look at the young elf, laughing, laughing like quicksilver, and you watch him darting through the chattering men as they smoke fags and throw them into the dirty water. And he leaps onto the wall, laughing, bending over the waves, and they do not see him, they do not see him as they light their cigarettes and the moon swims in their eyes. And you look at the men and back at the wall and there is only a stone cherub sitting well above the tideline, its expression hidden from you, its chubby arm pointing towards the dark river behind it. And you go closer, you hesitate, but you haul yourself up and you lean on the stone shoulder, catching your breath, lighting another fag. 20

And you look into the water and you cannot take your eyes off your reflection, a boy in shirtsleeves, young and slender, bursting with pride and with joy, the sparkler in his mouth arching bright flashes over the swelling river. And you hesitate, you hesitate, but you follow him in, gasping with life at the freezing water, laughing as the bright light stretches, then folds itself below the spirited waves, laughing as you follow him down. Laughing, until you look up and now the light is dancing far above your head. And you reach for it, desperate, you kick up, but a small hand is dragging you into the dark and as you are pulled down, the waves whispering, the waves whispering and moving on. n


Richard Goodson Stonewood Prize Poetry: Pine Once, at dusk, from a summer train, I saw a burning car in a peachfuzzed cornfield. Two boys running away from it, laughing. In winter I saw that same car in a costume of snow sinking as if with the joy’s weight. I found out this: there’s no such thing as sin. Take last night, here in Festalemps: a white hair of lightning clove a pine clean in two. I held the man I’d stolen, as he held me. Equal thunder. Equal thievery. We were each other’s hot money. We were each other’s. In wads. Then we smelt black smouldering. Flesh. Not us. The pine.


This morning we walked to where it had split & burnt. Ants were making chains of themselves plundering too sneaking off with little lamps of resin. Since then it’s been little lamps of resin walking out of his nostrils, little lamps of resin walking out of his ears & lips, little lamps of resin walking out of every hole in his lit body.


Amy McCormack Stonewood Prize Short Fiction: Mountains Me gustas cuando callas y estas como distante I like it when you’re quiet. It’s as if you’d gone away. – Pablo Neruda

The first thing she said on the way back from the airport, adjusting the wing mirror, was that she’d never misuse the word mountain again. I replied, adjusting it back, that I’d never misuse the word love again either. Some months later we were told, sat either side of a table cross-armed, that when words failed us, as they fail everybody sometimes, we should have a stab at image. ‘Kilimanjaro’, I ventured once as I held her by then foreign body, our son gurgling at us through a speaker by the bed. ‘All this now, it’s like Kilimanjaro.’ I don’t reckon she got it. But then maybe she was asleep. Maria had been away to Chile on some retreat to enhance her research. When it comes to her I use some a lot now. I use some because very little of what she said, did or thought matters to my narrative anymore. Neruda, the writer was. Her research – ocean, pine trees, lust – was not far off all she ever thought about. Before Chile, after Chile. That’s how I’ve come to see it. I laugh now to think that I look at it the way she looked at those poems, ignoring in the end all but that which stood out. I deal in lines. Architects do: lines, angles and solids. Walls hold things in, screams, vases and the loudest secrets. Ten hours a day, bent over a table, I contain life. And she sits in libraries gently ripping it apart. The office I work out of is on the second floor of an old house, a 24

room my associate Graham and I climb up and into together like pilgrims each morning and slope down and out of each night alone to arm chairs, bath tubs and smokes. Graham never intended to be alone. I have known the man long enough to see that. He fell into loneliness like you stumble onto the train that stops at every station. You resign yourself because going back makes no real sense. When I watch Graham work sometimes, his posture deliberate, I realise his meticulousness comes from a different place to mine. After that drive back from the airport we went to bed; our darkened room thick with tavernas, rain storms and her voice beneath that, heavy and full. She spent her first winter in this country shaking Chile off. We used to sit in a corner of The Black Swan most nights in candlelight, a copy of The Times between us. In the candlelight her fingers ran across the print. I filled her with words. But she wanted more of them, started working behind the bar, wanted to swallow every punter’s story, a whole city of voices. So that she could be anybody, she said. Any given English person. She spoke staccato, worked so hard to strip from her voice traces she’d one day want back. She got them back, at some cost. ‘I want to go away again,’ she announced one evening with the chimes of the ten o’clock news. I didn’t need to ask where. The thought of her sitting alone in some tall room, wide eyed, trying to push Spanish back inside her troubled me. Some tall room. You see. That’s when our narratives split. She said she needed Neruda’s language alive, that she couldn’t hear it for carpets and fish pie suppers and Earl Grey tea. Between headlines I asked that she wait. Less than a month earlier she’d told me she felt unusual. She never could talk straight. Unusual, it soon turned out, was not all that open to interpretation. Unusual in fact meant a good few weeks pregnant and feeling it keenly. Slow in the coming this was but I stood taller from that day on. 25

It became imperative she live out that trip and days after the first scan and all that held for us she left. There were letters. Spanish stirred inside her, stronger than she’d allowed herself to remember. The forest stirred all that the city had left to fester. And of course, the boy stirred too. I kept the whole bundle of pages in a coat pocket: their reading a pause to days without rhythm. I got the plans out straight away. We had always said once we knew for certain we’d build the room in the garden. And every evening, sat between planks of wood, her cat treading white paint across the lawn, that’s what I did. And wondered, with every nail, what would remain. The morning she came back I left her sleeping and crept out to add the final panes of glass. Eventually she appeared at the bottom of the oak tree, swollen, utterly, and jubilant. She stood for a long time, holding hips first then stomach. I stood too still for too long. It was the first time I had seen her in the light. ‘My cave,’ she said. I carried her books out there, piled them high in my arms and walked across the garden, aware of her gaze upon my back. I laid down Persian rugs and padded her grandmother’s old chair with cushions. On pink evenings she lay stretched across the floor and read the lines she’d been working on. Me gustas quando callas. She asked me if I felt the music in them. Sometimes, mid-sentence, her eyes would widen slightly, then her mouth, and she’d place my hand on her stomach. ‘And that. Do you feel that?’ The truth was I couldn’t hear the music and I couldn’t feel the easy flush of joy that spread across cheek then collarbone whenever the child moved inside her. I couldn’t for trying. And for all it was about to be filled with new life the silence in that house then was near on insurmountable. It was she who warded it off, with a din, at a point when I mightn’t have. But she 26

was right. Neither of us needed to hear what nothing sounded like. By the time Samuel was born I could just about hear again. I needed to be able to hear. When she held him for the first time she whispered to him in Spanish. Something it seemed they’d long since agreed upon. Nothing could bring me into that fold; neither awkward words nor the gestures I’d imagined would come naturally. And that is how it remained. She filled every room with her and him. I made all the right noises. Only they weren’t the right noises. They weren’t their noises but mine. And by then they’d become so foreign in that house that I began to use them sparingly. That’s how we became reliant upon images. She carried Samuel everywhere in a sling against her chest. She rarely put him down, so that he seemed to hang between our every conversation like a silent thread. And silent he was, as a rule. Yet he cried on the evening they left. The paint peeled on the tree house. Rain fell. There were letters. The office I work out of is on the second floor of an old house, a room my associate Graham and I climb up and into together like pilgrims each morning and slope down and out of each night to arm chairs, bath tubs and smokes. n


Charlotte Baldwin Highly Commended Poetry: Servants of the Loom When the sky has been ripped open it is the birds who darn it back together again. After the lightning the stingfall of the monsoon, after the winds have quarrelled over a wild sea they take wing and needle beak, tugging cotton from cloud reels sealing tears with sure stitches. From the time the mountains lay dreaming on their beds of fire the birds have been guardians of the sky: embroiderers of the roof of our world, keepers of a pattern passed through the sheath of the egg, into the shuttle heart of each slowly feathering yolk-soul. In lapis warp on lupin weft they weave, buttonholing space for moon and star, knowing only the stitch in front of them. Ask a bird about its life and it will sing of crumb and worm, the rush of diving up the swathe; they are bound not to speak of the loom, but on a clear day, watch closely as they pick-stitch their paths and the silks catch the sunlight – you may not understand your place in the weave, but here and there between the clouds you will see flashes of the pattern. 28

Emma Harding Highly Commended Poetry: Untethered Lift begins so slowly, it takes seconds to register light-footed sensation, a giving up of groundedness. We all rise together – people, postboxes, litter, dogs on leads, newspapers launching like geese. Those on elevations quickly take the lead – window cleaners, crane drivers, gantry men; children float from roundabouts to grip parents’ hands, lovers rise in shocked embrace, cyclists pedal intent down sky lanes, skateboarders surf through trees, market traders abandon buoyant fruit and stalls, Evian-toting joggers unscrew their bottle-tops to watch liquid in ascension, fountain as sphere. Panic gives way to laughter, mid-air backslaps, hollahs, football chants, the exchange of scarves. We had thought ourselves fallen, weighted beyond hope, but here we are. And no one asks where we are headed.


John D Kelly Highly Commended Poetry: Mushrooms for Breakfast You were both so young and it was all still relatively clear, in those days. You almost wanted to eat that pristine sky – to let candy floss clouds, in the bluest of blue, melt sugary on the tip of your tongue. Later, you wanted to fly in it; and later still you wanted to reach out beyond it into outer space. You hoped that its raindrops would quench your thirst as you tholed it and longed for winter snowflakes to quell what felt like magma churning molten in the core of your knowing gut. She used to love the scent of wildflowers in meadows in clean air, and she would recall that you once dreamed of licking the yellow-green moon, and she would pretend to spoon into the golden yolk of an early breakfast sun; and you would drink hot sweet tea with honey, and her, as she read about the stars in tabloids, eating buttery toast and mushrooms, in bed together; and you prayed for the disappearance of missiles, drones, and the payloads of all the carpet-bombing war planes that you hoovered up in your nightmares, after you read the sanitized reports of slaughter in the broadsheets – in their lines of black and bloody words, like the flies that high-flying swifts suck up in vast quantities to help keep the sky clear, for mating ‘on the wing’.


Did you know that nightjars and low-flying bats hunt Death’s-head Hawk moths (with silent stealth) near the hives of sleeping bumble-bees and save them from losing their precious liquid caches of summer gold? All you ever wanted was to fly and breathe only the sweet the clear the heady, and enjoy the natural bold musky fragrances that used to hang in that ether; to inhale them all with her, while you still could; but fuck it – it’s over: you’re up here now, alone, above the moon, hermetically sealed; sitting in your tin can, as a Major Tom; and you see a vast ring of inedible, unbreathable mushrooms appear around her this morning, as if from nowhere, below you as if some innocent mycelium has sprouted overnight from under the blind earth, to the unbelievable surprise of everyone else but you; and you rue that she has no hand to hold and that you will have nowhere safe to land.


Ali Thurm Highly Commended Poetry: It Only Takes Ten Minutes In this place they’re burying my sister in the sand like an Egyptian mummy. The regular pat of plastic spade muffles breasts, belly, legs. Only her head is free, face open to the sky lips coated and dry with salt. She allows herself the luxury of fear may even pee in the sand. Nearby someone’s piling stones choosing the best ones, the right size weighing them in their hands. In this place they’re burying my sister in the sand burying her up to the neck, shrouding breasts, belly, legs. Only her head is free, face open to the sky lips coated and dry with salt hair covered by a scarf. She has to keep still, can’t move will wet herself, open her bowels. Nearby they’re piling stones choosing the best ones, the right size weighing them in their hands.


Sarah Tinsley Highly Commended Short Fiction: Woven in Place After one week I was tainted by it. A purple-stained bruise along my lower back. The older women had sit-up chairs, some with a foot lever. All I wanted was the slow stretch of a leg, the eking out of the foot, inch by inch, to unknit the cramp of hours crouched on the floor. In the bright yard, Aunty Uma taught me, the elegant flowing motion of the body, drawing it taut then releasing, slipping the shuttle through, rocking like you were on the sea, a beautiful stretch of fabric growing from your waist. The younger girls shoved to get close to mine, eager-sticky fingers prodding, looking underneath to see if it was a trick. If I had known where they would take me, I would not have hung them around me, a colourful boast, for when the man from the factory came. It was the flood that led us here, our home sunk in grey waters while we were at school. I arrived first, saw the sodden bodies, steered San’s small face away, told her they were lost, we would find them again. She stopped asking after a few weeks. On the second night, San slithered under my blankets, whimpering, half-asleep – the trailing scent of something had hung over her, dipped its fingers into her hair. After that, we slept with the spiders in the loft. I pretended that it was for her, to provide the shield of my older-sister body, but groping hands leached into my dreams too. In the morning, moisture was filigree on the webs. I made up stories of their last-night adventures, jewels stuck to their feet from dancing in bright halls before their morning return. Her eyes lightened with the sky. Then the factory man came. An honour, Uma said, her chins wobbling with pride. You have been chosen. She pulled me into 33

her foamy breasts. The others stayed, ranged in rows under green shadows, needle picking. Uma tucked banyan leaves into the back of my work trousers. I wasn’t sure why until the itchy back strap started to rub. Selected to sit in that stooped building, the grey walls wide and empty. The thread-dust buried itself everywhere. In the cracks of my hands, tangled in my hair, sharp in my lungs. When I dug the mess out it was bright – blues, greens, touches of yellow and gold. Choking on rainbows. I heard rumours of The Lady. You couldn’t hear the press of her feet until she was next to you, fingering your weft and checking for precision. She carried a knife. The tip of your finger, that’s all she would take. There was a locked chest in her office, where she dropped each pink stub at the end of the day. I had spent the morning tweaking the edges of the fixed-pattern design, little specks of colour that made the lines flow better, a softer shade of blue at the edge, so it smoothed out into the background. There was a scuttle behind me, then spidery hands crept over my threads. The Lady. Her high-proud head leaned in, nose close to my weave. The shuttle cracked to the floor, my legs buckled and I lost the tension. The fabric sagged. She didn’t look at me. Her hand patted at her sleeve, drawing something down, over her wrist. A blade. The glint of metal in the harsh nag of fluorescent lights. She flashed it over to my left hand, darting quick, I didn’t move. Then she laughed. The flutter of it was aimed over my head. I looked around, up, into soft cow eyes. This must be Mister. He was tall, square lines in his shoulders. Something like amusement or kindness flushed his face. ‘This is splendid.’ Mister stroked the piece I finished yesterday, waiting to be collected on the rack next to me. ‘You finally have some competition, no?’ He turned away, did not see the shadow that crept over her face. She drew a line around the top of my finger, then slashed down, severing each connection of my weft. 34

The material sighed away from the frame, a dead thing wilting. ‘Cost out of pay.’ She spoke lightly, as if paying me a compliment. I didn’t move until the whistle went. When I arrived home, there was an iron smudge on my hand. Uma caught me washing it away. She made me tea, an occasion usually reserved for birthdays. We sat and sipped under the tree, watching the green shadows seep over the ground. ‘So lovely.’ Uma waved her hands at the branches. ‘But from what?’ She dug at the base of it with a stick. Among the roots was a husk, white and gnarled. ‘A little seed wafts over on the breeze. So small. Roots dip into the bark of the first tree. A scratch, easy to ignore. Soon it bites and strangles, sucking out life. Now it is tall and high, with delicious fruit. But where is the first tree?’ She tapped the twisted thing. It was hollow. After that day, I tried to be invisible, wore the extra-large size so it hung loose, awkward in the blooming of womanly things underneath. I pictured my gangly frame with the huge pillowbreasts of Uma, large cushions on a spindly chair. I ignored the tug of my fingers when they wanted to elaborate on a wasted square. The strap was the silk sandpaper hands of San, clutched around me in sleep after I cared for the blisters that grew like mushrooms between her fingers from the picking of needles. If I earned enough, she wouldn’t have to work. She could go to school. For almost a month, it worked. My head was bowed over when she walked past, my weave identical. When I arrived home I had no time to bathe, so a thin carpet of colour grew on the floor around me. San drew patterns in it, traced the feet of dancing spiders. Then the Special Visitor arrived. We had to gather outside, leave the looms for a whole hour. The news buzzed around the cold walls. A pay rise, a promotion, a little more time to eat. We gathered in the sun, shuffling the sleeves of our tunics up to wash our skin in sunshine. The man was pale and fleshy, perched 35

on two wool boxes, not quite straight, so they wobbled each time he flung his arms out. ‘Splendid to be here!’ His hips swayed, arms rotating like a dance. ‘This factory is our most productive!’ He shifted his knees, bouncing from side to side. ‘We are looking for a unique design!’ He leaned back, elbows pushing against the air. I concentrated on keeping a bored mask. Better to look miserable, and keep my roots in the ground. The Lady’s design would win, I could resume my place once this teetering man had left. ‘Entries are anonymous!’ A sigh rippled through us. She silenced us with a glance. A picture was bubbling out; spiralling webs, emerald spiders with diamond shoes. I could make it at night. For San. No-one would know it was me. In celebration, we were given the rest of the day off. Summer was starting to drip from the trees. I took San to the river. Our skin sang in the water, clouds of dust dragged from my hair by the current. Water spiralled from her small hands, crystallised by the sun. I didn’t notice them approach. The Lady and Mister. They must have been so hot in their stuffy clothes. My toes were dipped in the water, my arms stretched behind me. I gathered my body in my arms, lowered my head. She swept past in a thrum of bracelets, a pang of scent. Still he stood there, took one step towards me. ‘Well,’ he said, lifting the waist of his trousers, a sheen on his cheeks. His eyes flittered over me. I gripped my elbows, a shield from his attention. There was a red-apple stain on his cheeks. A slap of cold water hit my cheek. I drove my legs into the water and chased her, squealing, pressing away the image of his rubbery lips. I felt the tug of attention from the bank, but caught only a flash of movement behind the screen of rushes. The next morning, a wooden chair was in my working place. Mister stood up on the balcony, watching me. A risky gift, but I couldn’t deny the groan of my muscles. I should have seen the 36

darkness in her face when she walked past, fitted under his arm like a decoration. Each night, I stayed late. The Special Visitor had left a trove, the colours gilded and glimmering, for anyone to use. Others stayed too, our shared vigil. They stashed these designs in their loose cotton boxes, hiding them under the fluff. Once they left, she crept out and looked at them, picking at those which displeased her. I was always the last to leave, my bulky design hidden under my shabby tunic. It grew. The pattern bled from my fingers, looping flowers around the webs, a bee trailing out its pollen in a loop of yellow. San’s favourite colour was orange. I blended it with purple, hemmed it in with blue, nestled it in the heart of creamy petals and flashed it on the wings of butterflies. The grey walls forgotten, each loop and turn on the warp bloomed into imaginings – San reading to me next to a soft bed, Uma and I talking like old women, the grace of my fingers transformed into our safety. ‘It’s beautiful.’ It was the Lady. Her silken steps hadn’t reached my ears. If I got up, the tension would release and my creation would spew out into a muddle of colours. She stroked my cheek with her nail. ‘It’s for my sister.’ She tipped her head, reading the lie in my face. Recognition, that we carried the same pride in our work. One hand patted up her sleeve. She would cut it away, ruin it. ‘You can say it’s yours,’ I said. ‘Enter it in the competition. Say you made it.’ I forced my lips into a smile. Uma said I looked persuasive, that was why she had taken us in when there was no more space. Her fingers groped towards it, the knife peeping from her sleeve. It would be shredded, ruined. ‘Please.’ She stopped, running the blunt side against the edge of the frame. ‘Yes,’ she said, pulling away. ‘I will come back.’ 37

It was hard to concentrate. My fingers fluttered, more determined now. It would be hung up, a poster on the notice board, in the local paper. I could keep the knowledge of it inside. San would know, when she saw the spiralling webs. It was almost finished. I twisted the edges, creating a soft fringe of white. Then I pulled it back through, making twisted stars along the edge, a dash of silver. The warehouse was empty. It would be dawn soon. In here it was dulled, but outside the sun would shout its brilliance. Just a few minutes to wait, to show this beautiful thing to the clouds. On my shoulder, a light touch, like the prickle of a spider’s legs.

OFFICIAL NOTICE: We regret to inform JOYFABRIC INC. workers that an Accident occurred on the 25th July. A weaver was strangled by her own loom. Outside regulation hours, medical assistance cannot be given to staff. Please leave the floor at the sound of the whistle. Safety training is scheduled for next week.

THE JOY OF FABRIC (TM): The new CIRCURINA (TM) design produced by our manager is the competition winner. All staff to produce a copy of the design shown here. Extra orange thread will be provided. n


Helen Wilber Highly Commended Short Fiction: Patrick and Mr Ralph Patrick knows that they are talking about him, deep in the bowels of the school, in that static, unreal time after the three o’clock bell. He doesn’t mind. He sits alone in the empty classroom. The afternoon sun streams through the sash windows, catching dust in its trail, just like the beam from the back of the cinema when he saw Toy Story. The sun makes him feel like he is being slowly microwaved. Patrick knows that his mum will come and get him when they have finished talking. He listens for her footsteps. He hears the distant jangling of keys and ladies’ voices, shouting to one other. He has a rough idea what the conversation will be. It is probably about his behaviour. But hopefully it isn’t about the stealing. He hasn’t been caught for that, yet. A young teacher pops her head around the door. Patrick knows that she is guarding him. Perhaps she thinks he is like a bomb that could go bang at any time? He knows anyway that she doesn’t trust him. He wonders how this can be possible when she doesn’t even know him. He wonders if she suspects that he is the one who stole her sandwiches. Even if she does, she certainly doesn’t know about the mini Christmas tree he borrowed from the windowsill. After a long time, Patrick hears his mum’s footsteps. She appears in the doorframe, almost filling it. He notices the fat on her arms. It wobbles like the jelly he had for school dinner. He slips out of his seat. She doesn’t wait for him. They don’t speak on the way home. When they get to the house, Patrick pads upstairs to his bedroom. It is as hot as a car in summer. He goes over to his table where the Transformers are fighting a two-day Stickle Brick war with a ramshackle army of Star Wars 39

figures and McDonald’s happy meal toys. Vroom! A camouflaged aeroplane flies over the battle, dropping a barrage of marbles from its undercarriage. Bam bam bam. The pilot is caught in a wave of gas and is forced to eject. He bails out onto the bed and moments later his plane crashes into the bedroom wall. Close shave, old boy! A dinosaur appears out of nowhere and scoops the pilot into his razor-toothed mouth. ‘Shit!’ the pilot says. The dinosaur drags him behind a pillow and eats him. Patrick thoughtfully picks up the marbles and puts them in the biscuit tin under his bed. The tin is full of special things: coins, old keys, new keys, dead batteries, a milk tooth and other treasure. Suddenly he thinks of Mr. Ralph. Mr. Ralph was a hand puppet that Kev, someone that used to live with them, gave to his sister. Patrick isn’t sure when, but he thinks it was a long time ago. His mum was nicer then. Patrick loved Mr Ralph. He was always stealing and doing naughty things. Sometimes Kev and Mr Ralph would mess about when they were all having their tea. That was when they used to sit around the table with the place mats with the big, old-fashioned cars on them. Things would often go missing when Mr Ralph was around; odd chips, a fish finger here and there. Kev always blamed Mr Ralph but Patrick always knew it was him. Kev didn’t even bother hiding the food in his mouth. When Kev left, Mr Ralph came to live in Patrick’s room. He got much naughtier then. Eventually his sister’s boyfriend tortured and killed Mr Ralph. He threw the body on the roof of the house next door. Patrick chucked stones at Mr Ralph for ages to try to knock him down, but the woman next door threatened to call the police so he stopped. After that Mr Ralph disappeared. Patrick grabs the dinosaur and heads down the stairs. One, two, buckle my shoe, bump bump bump … mind the eighth step young man, it activates the trap door! He enters the front room. It is the room underneath his, and it too is boiling hot. The telly is blaring. 40

How come his sister always gets to choose the programme? Patrick’s mum comes into the room. ‘I’m stuck in the kitchen making our tea, and you, you lazy sod, can’t even be bothered to butter some bread!’ She aims a half-hearted swipe at Patrick’s sister Sally who is lolling on the settee. ‘I’m too bloody hot!’ shouts Sally, emphasizing the ‘t’ in hot. She turns to her mum. ‘Can’t we open the windows?’ she stares sulkily back at the TV. ‘No, we can’t!’ her mum replies. ‘We can’t open the windows because some idiot has lost the window key!’ The dinosaur in Patrick’s hand jumps onto the back of the settee. ‘Boing boing’ he goes. He jumps from the settee onto Sally’s head and she screams at Patrick. The dinosaur tells Patrick that there is not much going on in here. They decide to go outside. They go along the pavement together, keeping their eyes open for money and good stones. The next day, Patrick enters the school playground. He wishes that he had brought the dinosaur. He doesn’t bother looking for anyone to play with. There is no point. Patrick wonders whether he will be able to make people laugh today. He remembers how good he had felt when Jack dared him to drink the dirty paint pot water when the teacher’s back was turned. Jack had passed him the milky pink liquid and Patrick had downed it in one as his classmates looked on, shocked and impressed. When Patrick looked at himself in the mirror in the boys’ toilets, his teeth had turned pink like they did on the day the dentist visited and got them all to chew those funny little pink sweets. Today the playground is quiet. It is still early. Patrick wonders why he is always early or late but never on time. A speeding, red coat runs past him and hits him on the head. It’s Steven! Patrick has noticed that Steven plays with him when there are not many others around, but then sometimes deserts him as the playground fills up. Never mind that though. He races after his friend, 41

finally catching him at the mobile classroom that the babies use. ‘Hey Patrick, do you want to see something?’ says Steven. He punches Patrick on the arm. But it doesn’t hurt. Steven then disappears into the bushes at the side of the playground. He emerges seconds later with the body of an old digital watch. The watch is missing its strap. Patrick is impressed. ‘Let’s smash it and see what’s inside?’ he suggests. He tries to grab the watch from Steven. ‘I’ll do it!’ Steven turns his back, clutching the watch jealously. Kneeling down, he smashes it on the concrete floor a couple of times. The plastic watch shatters and a small battery falls out. Patrick grabs it quickly. ‘Battery!’ he yells. He looks at his friend. ‘If you put this on your tongue, it gives you an electric shock,’ he says. ‘Go on then!’ says Steven. ‘I dare you!’ Patrick gingerly sticks the silver battery on his tongue. His hands fly to his throat. ‘Argh, Argh! It’s killing me!’ he shouts, his arms and legs flailing wildly. Steven stares. Patrick measures his friend with his eyes. He obviously needs to try harder. ‘I even dare eat this,’ he says provocatively. ‘I will if you want?’ Steven looks worried. ‘No Patrick, don’t! It might give you an electric shock in your tummy!’ he says. ‘No, it won’t’ sys Patrick. ‘It will give me max power!’ Patrick pops his hand to his mouth and throws back his head like his mum when she is taking her pills. Defiantly, he pops his eyes at Steven and sticks out his tongue. He then sets off across the playground, making his best motorbike noise. His arms grip invisible handlebars. Eventually, Patrick looks back at his friend. Steven is looking around for someone else to play with. Patrick takes the battery from his mouth and slips it into his trouser pocket, the one without the hole. 42

Inside the classroom, Patrick takes his place on his table. He shares it with a boy whose name he doesn’t know because he is hardly ever there and a stinky girl who is called Andrea but asks everyone to call her Andy because she likes it better. Andy is standing very close to the teacher’s assistant Miss Jane. ‘My mum made me this top!’ she tells Miss Jane. Patrick scowls. Liar, he observes. He notices that her t-shirt has a picture of the Spice Girls on. Sally used to like the Spice Girls but now she hates them, especially the noisy ginger one. Miss Jane is pretending to be interested. Patrick can tell that she isn’t though. He can always tell this about people. ‘I see,’ says Miss Jane. ‘How is your mum, anyway?’ she asks. Andy sidles closer, ‘She’s alright,’ she says. ‘But she keeps fighting with my Dad about the puppy.’ Patrick smirks. He knows there is no puppy. Let’s see what Miss Jane says. ‘The puppy has eaten my mum’s friendship ring. He did it by accident, the puppy I mean, because my mum put the ring on the side next to where we put the Winnalot while she was washing up. The dog ate the food on the side because he was being naughty. But he got mixed up and ate the ring as well. My mum says when me Dad walks the dog he has to look in his poo in case it comes out there. She has given him some rubber gloves so he can get it out of the poo, if he sees it. ‘Ok,’ says Miss Jane. ‘The ring is from Argos by the way,’ says Andy. Patrick wonders if Andy has taken the ring. He looks at her fingers. They are dirty but there is no ring. He wonders whether he could persuade his mum to get them a puppy. They could call him Mr Ralph. The teacher stops the lesson ten minutes from the end of the school day. Patrick carries the wobbling paper model he has been working on over to her desk. He has based it on the house next door. He puts it down amongst the other structures. He surveys them critically. His is by far the best. He has even drawn the little 43

geraniums in the windows, and Mr Ralph’s body on the roof. Nobody else’s model comes close. The teacher asks him about his work and he shows her the little windows. She seems pleased. ‘You’re very observant, Patrick!’ she laughs. Patrick is not sure why she is laughing but he is pleased that she likes it. When he gets home, the house is hotter than ever. Patrick goes upstairs to check on the dinosaur and to look in his treasure tin. He pops Steven’s battery in the tin and takes out a tiny key. Then he goes downstairs. His mum passes him his tea on a tray. Patrick sits down next to his sister. When nobody is looking, he slips the key out of his pocket and slides it under the lip of his plate. Good job he chose the pocket without the hole. Patrick is a hero. He has found the tiny metal key for the window locks. It was lying just under the mat in the bathroom he explains. It’s a good job he’s so observant. His mum opens the windows and a cool breeze blows through the house. Sally turns the telly down, so it isn’t so deafening, and they all watch Art Attack. The summer holidays are only a week away. n


Pat Borthwick Commended Poetry: Being Jellyfish I imagined being a jellyfish once. I’d hold out my skirts to float on the tides, my long legs like a ballerina’s en point. I loved it in moonlight – an empty sea, except for hundreds of us. The moon must have had a magnificent view. At the same time each year, we’d pirouette in a column of water – a sheltered bay or the open mouth of a cave, flaunt frilly skirts with trails of silk ribbons. We’d drift and flash delicate colours from luminous rings inside our hoods. I dreamt I could swim all round the moon squinnying down to call Look, I’m here! to a sea filled with jellyfish back on Earth. Picture those upturned faces patterning tides. I wanted to hear what stories the moon told of Houston. Houston’s a word difficult to pronounce through rubbery lips and I’ve no tongue to help my enunciation. I’m hearing trawler men swap stories about aliens as they net something huge which must have splashed down through the stars landing here in the peaks and troughs of my night sweats. 45

Joanne Dixon Commended Poetry: Skegness Wake A burgundy membrane drapes from its insides and a chainsaw settles in the sand where we toy with the flapping cordon, study the scratch-marks on a box-shaped head, an amputated jawbone and its conical teeth. Graffiti on the carcass vents: ‘MANS FAULT’ but the woman next to me isn’t so sure. She quizzes the pathologist (resting his back against a 4x4 labelled www.ukstrandings.org) who can’t answer her yet, walks into the sea, green waders braced up to his armpits. Waist deep, he rinses salt water over the blood -spatter on his face. An oily odour binds to the fibres of my gloves. There’s two more at Gibraltar Point, so I join the column drawn there and back, calves burning in the back-slide of the shingle. A Jack Russell, off-the-lead, sniffs


at fluids pooling underneath the flukes and parents of children skipping school raise their iPads, frame-up trophy shots. Back on the promenade, I post my gloves in a bin by the red and blue outside-tables reserved only for customers of Terry’s Fish ‘N’ Chips.


Jo Carroll Commended Short Fiction: Mother Ganga I lean against wooden railings. Below, at the foot of a flight of pinkstoned steps, the body of a man is burning on a pyre of sweet wood. I can make out the blackened curve of a shoulder blade. The air is choked with smoke, with incense, with the putrid stink of the River Ganges. I turn to a flurry in the street behind me. I press against the railings to make room for six men carrying a body swathed in glorious gold and scarlet that glitters in the Indian sunlight. They hustle down the steps to the river. Gently, so gently, they lay the body beside the black water. A broad man cups his hands and drizzles trickles from the river into the mouth of the corpse. They hoist the body once more and slip it onto a heap of wood. One brandishes a giant taper to bring the edifice ablaze. The ghat is alive with men. Dark men, who smell of bodies and spices and sweat. They take no notice of my pale skin, nor my gender, though I know that such ceremonies are out of bounds for Indian women. Tourists – here I count myself a tourist – become invisible in the midst of so much grief. I am uncomfortable at these burning ghats in Varanasi. Pilgrims swarm by the waterside. Groups of young men revel in a Ganges party. Old men, coughing, dip themselves three times into the water and splash handfuls over their heads and thin chests. Strong men scrub clothes in the rancid waters. The city is thick with spirituality. Not the spirituality of churches or temples, confined, defined. Here it is in the marigolds sold by small boys, in the sting of incense, in the ashen sadhus that wander the ghats, in the cows and water buffalo and goats and dogs that shuffle in the rubbish. I pause beside the public burning of the dead. I am drawn to the incongruity of it, to the isolation of death colliding with the 48

clamour of tourists. For among the mourning men I always find a phalanx of visitors, in shorts and t-shirts and pink skin, their cameras clicking. Two men beside me console each other. I move away. They do not demand privacy but their weeping disquiets me. Then a tall man – I notice him as he is unusually tall for North India – shoulders a pathway through the crowd. In his arms, wrapped in rags, is the body of a baby. One small foot has escaped its shabby wrappings; there is a tiny ring on the big toe. The man stumbles down the steps to the river. I cannot see his face. I watch as he crouches, dips his hands in the brackish water and dribbles it along the body of the child. He bends over, pulls back the swaddling and drops a tender kiss on the stony forehead. He pauses, holds the body close to him. Then, returning to the water, he slides the tiny form into the river. It bobs for a moment, nudging against the river’s flotsam, and then sinks beyond his reach. He makes his way back up the steps. No-one has spoken to him. Noone has touched him. I turn away. Five thousand miles away – or it could be five million for all the real contact we have – my son is preparing for the arrival of his own baby. My first grandchild. I cannot imagine him, my son, a man who spent his childhood with me on the sands of Zanzibar, in the temples of Vietnam, in the barrios of Venezuela. Travelling is what I do, teaching when the money runs low and exploring the rest of the time. There is nothing except my passport to link me with England; no living parents or siblings, no school friends, no lovers. If I must trawl memories I find only dim images of a frozen childhood. Plenty to run away from. I wasn’t the only one running, in the early seventies. The main thing that separates me from many of my contemporaries is that I didn’t get round to going home. Now I cannot understand the lure of permanence. Of mortgages. 49

Of income tax. Of nine-to-five. I have, occasionally, been asked to justify this peripatetic life to passing tourists who engaged in chit-chat in bars, or to temporary employers. Often there was unspoken (oh, sometimes it was spoken) criticism: this was the way to bring up a child? He ate well; had friends to play with; discovered self-reliance. It was my hand he held when he began to toddle. He learned about flexibility and tolerance. He understood his own good fortune. He was educated – I was not that bad a mother that I neglected his schooling. The British Council is surprisingly helpful to itinerant parents. When the time came we stayed in Bangkok long enough for him to manage exams. Then off he went, back to the old country, to university. To study something mysterious like marine biology. He met his wife there. I am sure she is a lovely woman. She probably goes to the hairdresser’s and wears lipstick. They have bought a house. I expect they have an air freshener in the loo. I am being unfair. I have never met her. They married with a fanfare that I couldn’t understand. They sent me photographs. I sent them batik from Indonesia. My son wrote emails in which the hidden word was ‘family’. For the first time I wondered if he resented his unorthodox upbringing. I looked for a conversation but ran out of vocabulary. I replied with emails in which the hidden word was ‘love.’ We have made different decisions with our lives. Now they are to have a baby. In three weeks. In a spotless hospital with nurses and doctors and pain relief. Special care units. I do not know if they want a boy or a girl, or if it matters. I begin to imagine a girl. Perhaps they will name her Flora. Her skin will be flushed. Her hands will be wrinkled; they have been in water for too long. She will smell of powder and her mother will smell of milk. In less than six weeks she will smile. Soon she will giggle and toddle and climb the stairs. She may have long fingers 50

and play the piano like Mozart before she is five. Maybe I will buy her a pony. I had not expected her to feel so far away. She will not end her days in the Ganges. The next morning I rise early. I have arranged to join tourists in a boat trip down the river at dawn. I generally try to avoid such escapades, but can never resist the lure of the Ganges at daybreak. My tuk tuk is waiting. The sky is still dark as we hurtle through the cramped streets of the Old City, upsetting bowls of vegetables that women are arranging in the market. Frightened chickens squawk their rage as we race by. We screech to a halt at the top of the ghats. I totter down and clamber into a small boat. It rocks slightly as we settle and I cling to the side for a moment to keep my balance. The benches are damp; my skirt will stink of the river by the end of the trip. There are five of us. Introductions are trivial, unnecessary words. We drift in silence broken only by the steady plash, plash of an oar. The sky hints of early morning glow. The river is dressed in eerie purple, but the buildings are still shrouded in the night. A small boy clambers from boat to boat, selling tiny saucers each containing a flickering candle surrounded by marigolds. ‘Give the candle to Mother Ganga. Think of those you love and ask the river for her blessings.’ Nobody barters. My tiny candle flickers, blows in the slightest breeze. It needs the cup of my hand to protect it, and then steadies, a brave little flame, ready for its river journey. I lean over the side of the boat and slide my candle in its bed of marigolds onto the surface of the water. Suddenly I am reluctant to let it go, fight to keep it close to the boat as we float eastwards. It feels too dangerous to leave it to the mercy of the river. As the candle slips away I whisper the quietest of prayers, ‘Look after my baby, Mother Ganga. Look after my baby.’ 51

My stomach knots, an unfamiliar, throbbing knotting. I find myself weeping. Not gulping sobs, but tears that dribble down my cheeks, looking for a way home. I let them search without the dignity of a tissue. The boat drifts. But my candle is still lit, still bobbing along. It is in a swarm of other candles. And it is alone. My little candle nods on its way down the Ganges, past the ghats, past the dead baby, to the sea. That is when I know, with unsettling clarity, that one candle is not enough. Its bobbing light might never reach the delivery rooms of England. Never reach my Flora with her skin and her fingers and her pony. Mother Ganga speeds the dying on their journey to a new incarnation. My baby is not dying. She will take her place in her world, a world which – crazily I know – I share with her. Mother Ganga cares for her dead. She inspires the living. She has uncovered feelings in me that I had assumed impossible. I cannot be there every day of her life but right now I ache to be near her, this unknown grandchild of mine. An incongruous ache that takes over every inch of me. I am strange grandmother material: I cannot knit little cardigans; I do not like cocoa. But I can remember how to change a nappy. I can hold hands at the zoo and talk about confrontations with tigers. I can tell stories. I will buy a woolly Ganesh at the airport. I shall keep her away from the river. n


K M Elkes Commended Short Fiction: The Sound Wings Make The bird trapped in the chimney got to all of us after a while, scrabbling and scratching like a flutter of hands in our guts. Jacob suffered the worst. After three days of it he stole a ladder and climbed to the roof, thinking he could reach the bird. Maybe pull it free. Maybe kill it. Either way, we considered his heroism a beautiful act. We were sliding down the back end of a week spent blazing through our muster of narcotics and booze when the noises began. There had already been the usual sort of calamities. I had sliced my thumb pad fashioning ninja throwing stars out of tin cans. And Francis, spider-leg-thin Francis, had gone to fetch food two days earlier (with cash we had fished from the lining of old coats and the guts of sofas) but not returned. We surmised he had fallen in with a worse crowd. The rest of us weren’t inclined to form a search party – the world outside felt too tight and too sharp. Though the room smelled bad, sour and fungal, we all agreed it was best to stay put and ride the whole trip out. It was daytime, probably morning, when we heard the bird for the first time – wings drumming a hard rhythm that made us cock our ears like dogs. Then a lump of something black skittered down the chimney. We jumped and screamed into each other’s faces until Beth braved the hearth. She picked at the lump with the tips of her fingers, as if it were hot, then picked it up. ‘Chimney crust. There’s something up there,’ she said, lying down in front of the fireplace and turning the black shard in her hands. After that the shudder of bone and feather flew down the chimney for us while the hours came and went. We turned edgy when it stopped, then relieved and angry when it started again. 53

Finally Jacob grunted out of his chair, stumbled across the room and shook his head and shoulders up the flue like a cave explorer. We heard the sound of his lighter flick on. ‘I can see way up! It’s definitely a bird,’ he said. ‘What kind?’ asked Beth. Jacob came back to us like he’d been half-cremated. His eyes were white in his blackened face, two mushrooms budding through dark soil. In his fingers were a couple of feathers, battered and sooty at the tips. He handed them to Beth who twirled them awhile. ‘I would say pigeon,’ she said. ‘Or maybe dove. The poor thing.’ She shuffled over to the fireplace, lay down next to Jacob and began to coo up the chimney. Jacob loved Beth. That much was clear from the way he watched her daily ritual, stripping paint from her fingernails, the smell of acetone giving us a pep. When her nails were clean and clear, she would admire them for a while, fingers splayed, then shake a bottle of polish and begin the job of reapplying colour with a slow, slow sweep of her brush. Jacob would hold himself still through the whole process, as if he had forgotten to breath and then after the final coating over the long nail on her little finger, he would deflate, like some exorcism had been performed. Only then would he would fall asleep. We opened some bottles and theorized for a long time how we could get that bird out of the chimney. Lighting a fire seemed too cruel and a chimney sweep would cost money. Beth searched on her phone to find found how long the bird would live if we did nothing. A few days, internet experts told us. The bird would starve or get so dehydrated it would die and fall down the chimney. So we waited on , longing for the soft noise of a body landing in the grate. When we woke, the bird was moving again, no rhythm now, the sound more distant, slower. I imagined its wings thick and heavy with soot, its thin pink legs itching around to find a perch. There was talk of gathering our last energy and moving across 54

to the other room, even though it was cold there and damp because one of the windows had got smashed somehow and the repairs had been abandoned and lay in the front garden. None of us moved. Instead we coiled and wound ourselves deep and waited for the noise to come. Why doesn’t it just go out the way it came,’ said Jacob. He had taken to licking at the long strands of moustache hair that curled into his mouth whenever he wanted Beth to start on her nails. ‘It gets curious, falls, then it finds a ledge,’ said Beth. ‘Then maybe it gets confused about which way to fly. What is up or down? ‘Up,’ said Jacob with his eyes closed. ‘There’s no room to get its wings going properly,’ I said. ‘Wings,’ said Jacob, licking, licking. He finally cracked when we woke up on the third day and the bird was still skittling soot and bits of brick down the chimney that bounced around the grate. Beth sat in front of the fireplace, cooing between tears. ‘Enough. It’s time!’ shouted Jacob. He kicked open the kitchen door and grappled his way over the wall into the neighbouring yard. We moved to the window, keen to see what developed. Nothing did for a while, and then a ladder come slowly over the fence and dropped into yard. Jacob scrambled back over the fence himself, dropping in the mud of the flowerbeds, breathing hard. Then he got up and banged on the window, leaving mud smears on the glass. ‘Come and help me,’ he shouted. ‘This is it!’ We found an old cap from the dead man who had once lived in the house. We put it on Jacob’s head, to shade his eyes from the unexpected sun. Beth found a net, one used to scoop fish from an aquarium, under the sink in the kitchen and pushed that into Jacob’s belt. He stood at the bottom of the ladder while we tied his shoelaces, double knots. 55

‘I’ll not prolong this,’ Jacob said. Then he stepped onto the ladder and we could see he was shaking. ‘That thing’s going to fly or die.’ ‘Save us,’ said Beth. We shaded our eyes as he climbed, it was the first clear day in an age, the sky a massive blue and Jacob looked as if he were climbing right up into the sun. At the top of the ladder he paused, saying something that we could not hear. When he hitched his leg over the gutters, he slipped. Muddy hands don’t grip. We had laid out some of the sofa cushions for just such a thing, but he fell the wrong way and broke himself. He moaned once and a track of blood leaked from his nose. There was no question of calling an ambulance, so we hauled him into the car and drove to the hospital. As we pulled into the car park, Beth said we should stop and check him, before we went in. ‘Check him for what?’ I said. ‘You know, check him.’ ‘He’s not dead.’ ‘But check him.’ I went through his pockets. Jacob had the saddest wallet in the world. There wasn’t much leather to it and it was stuffed full of old paper, frayed at the edges, pay slips from when he was working, notes he had made that made no sense. There was a creased picture of Haley, who used to be part of us too, but had gone. I slipped the picture into my pocket because we had been close. There was no money. I put the wallet back. The clean-whites told us he had fractured his skull, broken a wrist, his clavicle, some ribs. It was touch and go, they said. The next 24 hours were crucial. As she was speaking I saw one of the nurses had a mole on her upper lip and I wanted nothing else but to pluck it off her skin and put it in my mouth. We hung around awhile next to his bed. He didn’t look like 56

Jacob. He was cleaned up and smelt of hospital, though there was still soot under his fingernails. We took it in turns to hold his hand. I woke up and it was night and Beth had gone. I went to the chapel and found her there. The place smelled of something dark, like church layered over with blood smells and cleaning solution. There was a stained glass window against a wall, with a bulb behind to light it. ‘Do you think he’ll fight?’ she whispered. ‘Who, Jacob? No. I think this is it for him.’ ‘Is there someone here who can cast out the un-wellness in my soul?’ said Beth out loud. Then she lay down on the pew and I did the same, so the tops of our heads were touching. ‘I think death is like a unchained dog,’ I said. I could smell the greasy wax smell of candles in the chapel. ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, you see a dog and you think, he’s far away, no problem, and then boom, he begins to run and you think, there’s no way he can be that fast, but he is.’ Then we began to laugh and it felt like the first time ever and we couldn’t stop until someone with a lanyard and a uniform came in and said we should leave. When we got back to Jacob’s room they said that there was no change and that we should come back tomorrow. Back home it was day again. We had forgotten about the pigeon. Beth crawled into the fireplace and looked up, but said she could not see anything. We thought maybe we had imagined it all along. But we knew it was real. So I pushed a coat up the chimney to block it off, then sat down to watch Beth clean and paint her nails. As I began to fall asleep, I thought about the bird gazing at the sky, feeling the rain coming in. And I thought about the way it would open its beak, hopeful again, but only get a few drops for its parched, black throat. n


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