The Lady in the Loft

Click here to edit subtitle

Authors Choice Winners


1st Place

For a Well Cool story of Goblins, Vampires & Witches

A G Williams : Carnival of Monsters


2nd Place

Cute, Scary, very very realistic

V K Murali: Doors


3rd Place

A Beautiful Haunting with great descriptive paragraphs and a Romeo & Juliet sadness

Kit Thornton: Tree of Ghosts


1st place
For a story that got our hearts pounding and adrenaline running!
Thaddeus English : Chasing the Past

2nd Place
For a sweet story that all the judges thought was too beautiful to let go by.
Milan Gammanpila : The Nightingale Queen

3rd Place
With a story people can relate to with a daring yet calm and smooth escape we chose
Andrew Campbell-Kearsey : Miniature Plastic Rectangles


We now have our winners for the June 2013 Competition 'Emotions'


First Place: Marium Umar

Beautiful, Sad, Brought most of the judges to tears. 'Painfully Beautiful' was indeed painfully beautiful.


Second Place: Maesa Hussein

Though a small piece it ancaptures such crushing feelings of despair, hopelesness. Reminding us that not all stories have a happy ending some end up cold and dark. 'Alone' captures the imagaination.


Third Place: Adele Rimington

'The Biscuit Burglar' Who would have thought of it. We ask for imagination and that's certainly what we fot here. With a lot of laughs and an entertaining plot this story simply rolls of the tongue.


I understand this was another difficult judging sensation. (I had to step aside for the actual judging in this round) I think the judges have chosen well. We have 3 amazing emotional imagainative pieces. I have updated the blog with a list of commendations, well done to all.



We have our winners for the March 2013 competition 'The Chase'


First Place: James Neale 

His is a cool, very imaginative, very exciting chase. Hidden Strength became a favorite with all the judges and was voted first place by popular opinion. Well Done James.


Second Place: Phillip Brewster

This is a funny piece about chasing down answers to the death of the poor little guys. I loved Something to Regret in the Morning and the judges were inclined to agree. Thanks for the laughs Phillip.


Third Place: Helen Owen

A beautiful story. Thoughts and memories captured perfectly. Regrets was eventually voted in third place after a heated debate over which of our 7 remaining favorites was the best.


Thank you to everyone who took part- check out the blog page for a list of commendations on the stories that stood out and made judging who was going to win a near impossible task.

First Place. Hidden Strength by James Neale

A trailing branch slapped Eldric across his face as he ran through the sparse wood. The resinous scent it released would have been pleasant in other circumstances but right now it was an irritation which distracted him from his headlong flight.

Despite the cooling shade of the trees Eldric was sweating freely. His arms were pumping rapidly as his eyes tracked across the ground enabling him to nimbly avoid the rocks and roots which tried to take advantage of any slip in concentration and send him sprawling to the floor.

His ears sought out the sound of pursuit in the tiny silences between breaths. Far too easily he heard it. The crashing sound of scores of unconcerned horsemen forcing their way through the wood shouting and joking, enjoying the hunt like he was some game animal, not a man.

Eldric knew that his time of steady running was over. He could not afford to be seen in this type of terrain he would be run down easily. With an unconscious expression of disgust he veered right and headed for the boggy ground and dense vegetation he had scouted out days ago with just this fear in mind.

His supple leather boots and close fitting green uniform were good for running in, but the weight of the hatchet with the bulky built in hand guard and his long dirk pulled at his hip making his gait awkward, and his short bow and quiver slapped at his back irritatingly.

The sound of pursuit was growing alarmingly clear as he reached the tangled foliage of the wet boggy ground. He knew from his previous exploration that the brambles he had just zagged between were the start of a mile long stretch of soft ground studded with fern and bramble. Difficult to run on, but worse for a mounted man with the horses extra weight. As the smell of trees was replaced by the unpleasant smell of damp decay he hoped that it would be enough of an advantage for him to win clear.

His thoughts turned backwards and he thought that had he scouted the enemy as carefully as he had scouted this route he may never have been spotted.

He had been observing the enemy as it marshalled on the last truly flat land before the woods gave way to the foot hills and there on in to the mountains. He estimated that by the sound and what he had seen as he began to flee that at least half the enemies light horse was following him. He knew that he was a prize worth taking. If the enemy could capture him and make him talk the secrets he could reveal could save hundreds if not thousands of his enemies lives and shorten their campaign by giving them the route through the mountains passes into his home country, avoiding the dead ends and endless ambushes and skirmishes that they would otherwise need to get through before finding the only viable pass.

At the thought of the 'persuasion' they would use to make him talk he felt a jolt of fear and his feet quickened involuntarily. He considered throwing away his weapons to lighten himself but he knew that should he escape pursuit he would need them to survive, and should he be caught he intended to fight so hard they had to kill him outright, he had no intention of being 'persuaded', he ran on.


Cohort commander Garth Hulkbridge thought he saw movement in the scrub in the far distance but he could not be sure it was the damn scout, it could be some other scurrying animal fleeing the approching hunters.

Garth looked pointedly at the lead tracker who had just straightened up after leaning down from his saddle to peer at some sign on the ground. The lead tracker nodded and made a satisfied sounding grunt. Garth motioned the horsemen onward, “Not too fast” he shouted. He wanted the scout exhausted and paralysed with terror by the time they finally encircled and captured him, it would make it so much easier to get what he wanted from him.

Garth was a hunter with nothing but disdain for his prey. He considered his quarry with a satisfied smile imagining how the peasants cloak of bravery had disappeared along with his hiding place. He imagined how exhausted the scout would be by now, his thighs would feel like burning snakes were squeezing his legs, his breath would be like that of a drowning man breaking the surface. He smiled at the thought of the scouts discomfort, it was nothing compared to what Garth would inflict on him before killing him once he was caught.

As Garth and his men entered the bog their pace slowed as brambles tugged at leather bound legs and the very ground seemed to suck on each hoof which trod on it. This began to irritate Garth and this irritation itself began to incense Garth. A single weak and insignificant scout should be beneath the notice of a strong important man like Garth. By rights Garth should have only dispatched a quarter as many men to run down the scout but Garths lust for the hunt and his urge to prove how weak the enemy were when brought face to face with a real man like him had been too strong to ignore and he had decided to pursue in person and such a personage had to have a sufficiently seemly escort.

The line of horsemen Garth had ordered strung out across the line of flight was becoming disjointed in this cloying terrain. Garth signalled to his Bannerman to order a 'close up'. The Bannerman blew a short command on the horn he carried. There was no need for quiet, they were the superior force in this area and a single scout or even a hundred scouts could not hope to beat the force bearing down on them. 'Soon' Garth thought 'we'll show you all how weak you are'.

He looked with pride at the troopers nearest to him. They were dressed in leather with light metal helmets and carried curved sabres on their hip and light lances in their hands. Their mounts were not armoured but were superbly well bred and conditioned.

Garth was the only one with a straight sword. It was really more suited to a heavy cavalry officer but Garth liked to show off his strength and prowess. On his back Garth carried a more ornate and stronger version of the round shield all his troopers carried.

The troopers uniforms had once been a gaudy red an yellow but had now faded to dirty brown and mustard colour, Garth didn't mind it showed their experience in the field.

Here and there among the troop favoured officers and men wore better armour or displayed expensive jewellery. Garth did not dissuade looting, it was the right of the strong to take what the weak could not hold, but he only allowed those he expressly approved of the flaunt their gains.

Weakness in any form disgusted Garth, he didn't care what the cause, if the weak didn't act to remedy it themselves then he would be as a doctor and excise the weakness from the world and his heavy sword was his surgeons scalpel.

He had been a soldier since he was 15 years old and in that time he had excised a lot of weakness but he considered he had only killed 5 'men'. Those 5 had all been knights and worthy of been counted, all the others were weak peasants who had simply been in his way.

Garth found himself surprised that the scout had run so fast for so long. Although, he reflected, fear lent the weak temporary strength but when it was gone all that remained was the fear, and in the scouts case pain.


Eldric was tiring but he knew he was along way from exhaustion. His usual need for stealth meant that he usually ran slower than his current pace but he was no stranger to days full of fast running. He hoped that his knowledge of the land and his own body would give him the advantage over the pursuing cavalry.

He had known he might not make it back, he had no death wish but he also knew the job needed doing or there was no hope. He had had sleepless nights before he set off and he had nearly succumbed to fears voice and turned back just before intercepting the enemy. He hadn't though and here he was. He was heading for the foothills and the safety they held. He knew that he had at least a mile of dangerously open and firm ground before he reached a safer place. In the open the horse had the advantage and the thought caused him to pick up speed but he knew it wouldn't be fast enough. He had to slow them some how.

Eldric spied what he was searching for shortly after the ground began to harden and the vegetation become more forgiving. He headed up the slight hill knowing that it would be all but irresistible for any pursuit to also climb the hill and get a clear view ahead.

Once on top he carefully emptied one of his thick leather pouches carefully sowing the summit and some of the side with miniature caltrops and hoping for a painful harvest.

The small spiked objects which always landed with a wicked point aimed upwards would, he hoped, slow the enemy, possibly injuring some but more importantly making the others slow down until they were certain that there were no more on the ground ahead.

Eldric carefully stowed the pouch as he jogged on before picking up speed as he ran down hill, shortening his stride to compensate for the steepness of the slope.

Up ahead he could see huge rocks raising from the grass and he felt his hopes growing likewise from the pall of fear he had fought so hard to ignore.

He increased his speed further, knowing that the need to conserve energy was no longer as important as making it to the rocks with sufficient lead.

As he ran the rocks didn't seem to get any closer but the shrill whiny of a horse and the fainter roar of a thrown rider seemed very close indeed. He had dared hoped that they were further behind and that escape was a real possibility but the noises were too close he had spent too much in getting so far. He refused to despair yet and pressed on, his breath coming in gasps rather than the steady deep breathing which he had used so far. He felt muscles in his calfs and hips tensing and aching with each step. He ran on.


Behind on the hill Garth was furious. Caltrops! His steely silence which his troopers knew showed how angry their leader was, for those who missed it, his clenched jaw and white hands gripping the reins with convulsive force were hint enough.

Garth looked at the fallen rider who was slowly staggering to his feet. His gaze took in the man’s horse, it would recover given time, the spike had been small and panicked the horse rather than injuring it. “Make your own way back” he spat, he turned to the other “dismount, men in front of horses, he can't have had many caltrops with him. Then get him GET HIM” Garths self control frayed as he shouted.

It was the work of minutes to clear the remaining traps and the lead tracker confirmed that not only were they heading in the right direction they were close.


Eldric ran on. He had stopped looking back some time ago but the urge to check how close his pursuers were was like a physical force trying to screw his head around. As he ran in to the increasingly rocky terrain it forced him to change course to avoid the rocks protruding from the ground, he ran frantic now towards a gap between two huge towering rocks.


Garths sword was out, although he had no intention of using it until after the scout had been made to talk. He could see the scout clearly. The scouts fear had blinded him to the fact that he had lost and Garth had won. As Garth urged his horse into a gallop he shouted “I WANT HIM ALIVE” He pulled level with the lead scout as they passed between two large rocks. As he passed the rocks his first thought was the scout was surrendering, he had turned to look at the charging cavalry his eyes strangely calm, but then he heard the hiss thump of arrows sinking into flesh. He yanked hard at his reins and turned to survey his now milling troops. He saw men in green on the rocks firing arrow after arrow into his men and other green clad fighters launching themselves off the rocks onto the rear most men, dragging them from their horses and hacking them to death with short axes. His men were fighting back but there was no cover from the driving rain of arrows and the men on foot were working as pairs to dismount his troopers before slaughtering them. He turned back to the scout that he had hunted for so long and was amazed to see he hadn't moved, he didn't feel the need to fight alongside the men who were saving his cowardly life. Then it hit him, an arrow in the side couldn't be more painful than the realization that of course he didn't feel the need to fight with the ambusher's, his job was done, he had led them here. One man had decimated the once proud light cavalry and more importantly his unit. He would not live to brag of his part, thought Garth as he spurred his horse forward and raising his sword.


Eldric saw the large cavalry man riding towards him and in one smooth movement he drew and threw his axe which took Garth high on the head killing him instantly. After retrieving his axe from the body Eldric surveyed the carnage which was all that was left of the ambush and then began stretching his legs, preparing for the long run home.


Second Place: Something to Regret in the Morning by Phillip Brewster

Harry Drake – Gumshoe for Hire.

Montagu Mackintosh M.I.C.E. (Retired).

M.I.C.E stands for Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers. The retired for more money than sense, hopefully some of it heading my way.

We fingered each other’s business cards like we were examining unfamiliar biscuits before stuffing them away in a similar manner.

‘Well Mack, you want to show me where the bodies lay?’

He was a small man, as neat and tidy as a hospital bed. He had called me late the previous day after a twelve hour fret; his property vandalised, multiple deaths and how soon could I be there? I told him I sympathised but explained Murder by Moonlight wasn’t my bag which in turn meant a dragon’s-breath start. It was November, we were on the long winter road of endurance with only a Christmas pit-stop to look forward to before slogging on to spring.

The garden was big and private with a wall to make the Chinese jealous and metal gates-of-hell keeping faulty sat-nav’s at bay. The house was equally imposing, so square it made its owner look hip, with gravel drive that to keep weed-free in the growing season meant boon-time for the local employment office.

‘I found another one after I called, he was shot in the head’ he announced by way of making conversation.

It was the sort of news that had me marching as though I’d devoured a jar of strength-five coffee.

The back garden, like the front, was immaculate; not a single blade of grass out of place. All in all perfect — except for the dead body of course.

Mack had wisely left the latest where he’d been slain, hiding in a box-hedge; a touch of colour to an otherwise sombre scene.

‘May I?’

I stepped and bent to study victim number seven.

‘Careful!’ Mack cried.

You hear about them, and there are more of them than the authorities would have you believe; men, and women, who promote inanimate objects. Nutters for the most part though in today’s PC world it’s an unspoken comment. Personally I don’t mind so long as they pay with real money.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Peter.’

I reminded myself I needed to eat.

‘Well Peter, sorry about this but I’m going to have to examine you.’

Ballistics is an exact and measured science. A lot of expensive equipment, barrels of sand that isn’t really sand and tanks of water that have never known fish. In contrast I had my little finger, an invaluable tool I’m never without, which I used to explore the hole in Peter’s head.

Not very cylindrical, more of a cone shape. I removed my finger, sucked it clean and taking out my Detective’s Friend I investigated some tell-tale score marks. After a little while I put my magnifying glass away, returned Peter to the exact centre of his laser levelled plinth and hung a thoughtful look on my face.

‘Did he...’ Mack stalled, tried again. ‘I mean, was it... ?’

‘Quick?’ I nodded, lying. ‘Death was instantaneous. He wouldn’t have felt a thing.’

Always tell clients what they want to hear, it makes them more willing to pay.

It was a puzzle. Murders, for the most part, are crimes of passion; yet somehow I didn’t see little Peter fitting the profile. Or maybe I was being sizeist. Either way it was time to gather more clues.

‘Where are the rest?’

Mack led me to a shed across stepping-stones that kept us from drowning on an acre of lawn. There was a wreath on the door and inside laid out respectfully on crisp white linen were more bodies; colourful little chaps with cheeky faces despite their untimely demise. Made from plaster-of-Paris they had been lovingly created before being finished off by hand. Mack was not the sort of man who bought gnomes made from rough concrete and slapped by a paintbrush the size of a shovel.

‘They all met their end bravely’ Mack wailed as I began the grizzly task of forensic analysis.

First in line had taken a shot to the gut. A nasty, horrible, slow and very painful way to go.

The second had been lynched, the third vertebrae snapped followed by asphyxiation. The knot of the rope was ordinary and yielded nothing; the technique having been sold down from parent to child for generations.

‘Where was he found?’

‘Swinging from one of the porch hanging baskets.’

‘Where else.’ But it did tell me the perpetrator of the evil deeds watched westerns, seeing as it was an ingenious update on the old hanging tree. Just loop, pull and two small feet kick the air six feet from the ground. Six feet, not even my whole length but ten times the poor gnome’s height; a senseless over-the-top statement of power.

Stabbed in the heart. The third to go must have seen the face of his murderer but sadly no name scrawled in blood.

Disembowelment was the grisly end of gnome number four. Someone had too much time on their hands.

The fifth was interesting, he’d been poked in the eyes. Strictly speaking not a murder, so the gnome was faking it for reasons of his own. I promised him anonymity bent my ear to his lips but he had nothing to say.

I looked at the sixth in puzzlement, detecting no obvious sign.

‘Poison’ Mack supplied, indicating the small bottle on a nearby shelf with a skull and crossbones label. And, for those who still didn’t get the message, the words “Arsenic” in neat type.

‘I’ve seen enough’ I gagged and with my handkerchief stuffed in my mouth I bolted into the fresh air. A few minutes later I had myself under control and my handkerchief in my inside pocket, the one guaranteed to stop laugher escaping.

Mack joined me on the lawn as I began the painstaking process of examining the scene of the crime while asking the usual questions.

‘Do you have any enemies?’

It’s a dull life if you haven’t and he couldn’t think of anyone.

‘Seen any suspicious characters hanging around lately?’

The walls were un-scalable without a ladder or a talented gymnastics team. The flowerbeds, with their pointed stones that would make spring-planting look like a novelty balancing-game for drunks, were undisturbed and devoid of footprints.

There were more gnomes around the far side of the pond, peering worriedly out from behind John Lennon glasses or arming themselves with garden tools. One had his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual but I had no doubt he was fingering the card of a local mini-cab firm.

‘What do you think?’Mack’s voice spoke volumes; an A-Z of despair.

My first impression was that it was an inside job. Only, until I knew why, I was keeping mum as the floppy-hat brigade knowing full well that careless speculation ruins lives.

‘They went to the pub, got drunk and a fight broke out.’

A statement which didn’t increase my fee.

I retraced my steps back to a patio with its perfectly set flagstones trying to convince me I was in an eighties computer game and examined all with a scrutiny bordering on fanatical. No garden is perfect but Mack had risen admirably to the challenge.

‘You retired, when?’

It was time to do a little background check beyond the sanitised website of his former employers that still promoted his excellent attention-to-detail services in the vain hope customers wouldn’t depart in droves.

‘Last January. This is now my nine to five.’

I’d figured as much. He didn’t look the sort to take his pension pot and buy a long

coveted motorbike. Nor could I imagine him mixing it down at the local golf club; the high walls betrayed his fear of the outside world and the people it contained. But that aside I had to admire his guts in selecting gardening as a canvas on which to use his gold-plated slide-rule — in trying to bring Nature to heel.

‘But it’s not been the idyllic retreat from the hurly-burly you envisioned?’

‘Quite. If I was given to believing in the supernatural I’d say my garden was haunted. It seems little I do goes according to plan.’

‘Nature likes to blow raspberries,’ I agreed.

‘That I can accept, though I’ve had some very odd results indeed. But this’ he gestured to vacant places around the pond that belonged to the little people, ‘it’s not natural.’

My thoughts exactly. Someone had badly miscalculated this time around but the why still eluded me.

‘Anything else amiss?’

‘There was plenty going awry in the spring and summer months but no, not lately.’

‘You sure?’

A worried expression crossed his face, slid down his neck and produced a cardiac gallop. He looked at me with wild eyes and then at his garden.

‘Such as?’

I shrugged.

‘Just a thought. Who else lives here?’

‘Hannah, my wife.’

A wonderfully symmetrical name; it must have been love at the first palindrome dance. But had the love lasted?

One night of mayhem by person, or persons, unknown who could scale walls in a single bound without leaving a trace of their passing save for dead gnomes that never did anyone any harm. I had nothing on motive but means and opportunity were more obvious than a black cat in a snow storm. Within the privacy of my trenchcoat I girded my loins.

‘Okay Mack, take five while I give her the third degree.’

‘I’ve already asked, she doesn’t know anything.’

‘And I promised you the works, so sit down, put your feet up and rest easy in the knowledge Gumshoe Drake is on the case.’

He made a point of traversing a small creaking bridge marooned in a sea of green then selected a long wooden bench that promptly collapsed under his weight. Sometimes it’s nice to be right but occasionally it hurts — it was an inside job right enough, the bench was the clincher.

I left Mack to pick himself up and went in a long and winding search through the house, curious to see how half of the other half lived. All was spotless and geometrically sound until I found a door with a small plaque that read “Hannah’s Room” and a metaphorical slide-rule snapped in half and placed above the lintel.

Welcome to Bohemia, I thought, as I entered a room so crammed it made a working thimble look spacious. Everything a woman with a free bus pass could possibly desire; an artist’s corner, a hundred and one hobby magazines, a bookcase to rival a small library, two computers and a collection of comfortable chairs. Hannah was in one, plastic-bag knitting, watching me with eyes that, even after fifty years of marriage, still held secrets. She was taller than Mack, thinner with a calm face but only the first was down to evolutionary probability.

I dropped my hat onto a second chair, became comfortable on a third, proffered an introduction as to who, why, what then fired my salvo.

‘You’re a busy woman,’ most are in my experience, getting busier they aged, ‘so I won’t waste time on niceties. I know you did it.’

No reaction.

‘In time I bet I could prove it too, but first I’d like to know why?’

Her eyes left me for a minute to gaze out of the window at her husband, who was busy trying to solve the puzzle of his collapsed bench.

‘What was it, do you think?’ she asked, her voice as welcoming as freshly baked bread that didn’t fool me for a second.

‘Fretsaw woodworm would be my guess. What’s yours? Not that you need to guess.’ The hard line, no quarter given.

She gave a small sad smile, ‘I love my husband, Mr Drake. Do you believe me?’

I thought of the house, her acceptance of Mack’s predilection outside of her own space.

‘I’ll buy that, but it begs another question, why the abuse?’

‘I deny that accusation.’ She was calm on the outside, a woman accustomed to keeping secrets, but it was her insides that interested me. Liars survive by not being caught out, which meant avoiding a professional. But when confronted the adrenalin surges, the heart accelerates and whether they want to or not they blush ever so slightly.

‘In that case, where were you between the hours when your husband fell asleep the other night and when he woke? Sneaking downstairs in your dressing gown to snatch up a potato peeler to perform the dastardly deeds that precipitated my arrival? You were too random in your attack’ I criticized, ‘and the dead have a voice, if you know how to listen.’

‘My, what a fanciful imagination you have Mr Drake.’

But she was no longer as confident and serene as when I’d walked in.

‘I’d say the poison was premeditated except it looks like it was taken from a toy. Which grand-child isn’t getting the alternative Doctors and Nurses kit this Christmas?’

The pulse at her neck was going like a trip-hammer and there was a flicker of worry in her eyes, I had her on the ropes.

‘I could have the label fingerprinted’ I challenged and she crumpled.
‘My own stupid fault, silly of me to pick on his precious gnomes’ she sighed. ‘I regretted what I’d done the moment I woke.’

‘But by then it was too late,’ I prompted and she slowly nodded. ‘This wasn’t your first offence?’ More of a statement than a question.

‘Oh no,’ and a small smile emerged. ‘Actually I’ve been very imaginative, if I do say so myself.’

‘Spill the beans, sister.’

‘I regularly seed the drive with various exotic grasses. One time I planted carrots in the hanging baskets.’

Torment to a man like Mack whose creed was “a place for everything and everything in its place”.

‘Then there were the triffid plants.’

‘Sting you to death meat-eaters?’

She giggled at the thought of her husband trying to stay alive while mowing the lawn.

‘I moved plants about, as if they were migrating’ and it was my turn to smile. I imagined Mack coming out of a morning and seeing half his flowerbed caught in the act of making a break for the garden wall. He must have been scratching his head down to childhood memories.

As so often happens a person doesn’t chose a career, it chooses them. Mack was a civil engineer to his bones, transforming chaos into order; building ruler-straight roads, symmetrical roundabouts and perfect bridges.

‘Okay sister, now the biggie, why do it? Why disrupt his golden years?’

‘Because he has no other hobbies, few friends and I don’t want him to die.’ She looked me square in the eyes. ‘You think I’m being melodramatic? Have you any idea how many men on leaving a busy mentally challenging job die within twelve months of retirement?’

‘So that’s the deal, you’re saving him from boredom, slowing legs and ballooning-stomach syndrome.’

‘Exactly. It was easy in the spring and summer, but there’s not much happening now. Then two days ago he was so listless, so devoid of energy, that I panicked.’

She’d waited until Mack was asleep then assaulted his gnomes just as she had done his plants but forgetting that the little chaps were not organic; her attack could not be passed off as a random act of Nature. It wasn’t textbook but it was as good a confession as I was going to get.

‘Sister, that’s the best definition of love I’ve ever heard. But you need to raise your game, leave a little wiggle room.’

‘Footprints near the wall, I know’ she sighed. ‘But it was so cold, I was afraid of catching a chill.’

We were silent for a moment as she contemplated a “should have done” while I mused on a “what can be done”.

‘In which case I figure someone climbed over the front gate. Gravel doesn’t hold evidence but I imagine their passing could be proved by scratched paintwork up one side of the gate and down the other.’

‘But I couldn’t, not with my hip.’

‘No, I guess not.’ I thought a while as I watched Mack take a tool-kit to his bench, determined to identify the design flaw. I’d been wrong, fretsaw woodworm wasn’t the cause, it was something subtle with a lot of love thrown in.

I tightened my shoe laces, stood and picked up my hat.

‘Thank you for a most interesting morning, I’ll be taking my leave now. I need to report my findings to your husband.’

She stared at me with worried eyes, until I winked.

‘I’ll let myself out, through the front door. I trust you’ll field any observations made by nosy neighbours?’


Third Place: Regrets by Helen Owen

“Tell me more about Jayden.” Dr Klein leant forward on his leather chair, a clipboard propped up on his knee. He had momentarily disregarded his pen, making a rare bit of eye contact with his unwilling patient. Jacob Eyres stared back contemptuously. Grinding his teeth, Jacob thought for a while. He had been seeing the Doctor since he was 9 years old. Now, aged 11, he despised these sessions as much as when he first entered the small, stuffy London office and was introduced to the wrinkled, balding figure. 

Jacob shuffled on the small sofa, staring at his red trainers. His laces weren’t knotted properly, he noticed. He busied himself for a while tying them properly. Once satisfied he finally risked looking up into the grey eyes of the doctor. “What about him?” 
“Who was he?”
“My brother.” Jacob responded, simply. He risked a glance at the clock. It was 3.27pm. He still had another excruciating 18 minutes with Dr Klein until his mum would return and take him home. It was a ritual they had repeated weekly for the past two years. Jacob was dropped off every Thursday at 3pm and would spend the subsequent 45 minutes being probed for information by the doctor, usually revolving around his brother Jayden. The first question the doctor asked was always, “How was school, today?” Jacob’s reply was the same each week – a satisfying “fine”. The doctor would then bade goodbye to Jacob’s mum and insist that Jacob sit on the same sofa.
“How old was he?”
“7 and a half.” Jacob replied. “I was the oldest.”
“Did you play together?” The doctor always asked this question.
“Yeah, all the time.” Jacob huffed and folded his arms across his body.
“Tell me what your favourite game was.” The doctor instructed.
“I already told you. Why do you write it down if you don’t remember?”
“I just need to make sure I have my facts straight, Jacob.” The doctor replied, patiently.
“We played chase, in the garden…” Jacob tailed off, a lump rising in his throat. He hated to think about Jayden. His eyes were wet. The doctor waited, silently.

“Don’t you want to redecorate?” Jacob asked in one of the first weeks he spoke to the docotr. The doctor laughed, his wrinkled skin creasing around his eyes.
“You don’t like my office, Jacob?” He replied, smirking.
“It’s not very fun.” Jacob responded, carefully, worried that the old man may become angry.
“What do you do for fun?”
“I play chase.”
“Who do you play with?”
“My brother.” That was the first time Jacob mentioned Jayden to the doctor.

“Jacob?” The doctor prodded, bringing Jacob’s thoughts back to the present. “What happened in the garden?”
“We were playing chase.” Jacob repeated. “Mummy called me in for dinner. Jayden wasn’t hungry.”
“What happened after dinner?” Jacob shuffled uncomfortably again. He had been inconsolable at the time and he hated thinking about it.
“I went back to the garden. I called out for Jayden.” In his mind, it was as clear as if it had been yesterday.

The cool evening wind whipped against his face. His mum looked out into the garden from the kitchen window where she stood doing the washing up. The light pouring out from within illuminated the garden. Jacob hopped happily down the patio steps and onto the grassy lawn.
“Jayden?” He called, into the darkness. Only the rustling of leaves answered his call. “Jayden?” Jacob called again, wandering further down the lawn. The light danced on the surface of the shimmering water in the bird bath. Jacob paused, looking about and squinting into the darkness. “Come out you scaredy-cat!” Jacob yelled into the darkness. Feeling a chill, Jacob turned around, deciding to return back inside. As he did so, Jayden jumped out from nowhere and pounced on Jacob, laughing manically as he did so.  Jacob yelled, frightened, turning around to look at his younger brother.
“I got you good!” He exclaimed, doubling up with laughter.
“I’ll get you good!” Jacob teased, now recovered from the shock. Jayden screeched as he turned on his heel and ran across the lawn. Jacob chased him, arms outstretched and face alight with mirth.

What happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. Jacob watched at the silhouette of Jayden fell in the darkness, landing with a splash in the pond, invisible in the darkness of the garden.  Jacob stopped in his tracks. “Jayden, get out of there! Mum will kill you.” He waited for a response. Hearing none, he stepped forward looking for any sign of movement.  “Jayden?” He asked, panic beginning to set in again. “Jayden!” He called again. Jacob jumped in the pond, reaching with his arms outstretched for the body of his brother to pull him to safety. Pond reeds closed around his arms as Jacob fumbled around in the darkness for his brother, all the while yelling his name.

“Then mummy pulled me out of the pond and said to let him go.” Tears now flowed freely down Jacob’s face as he stared past Dr Klein and out of a window where a bird sat perched on the ledge outside. “I never saw him again.” Jacob finished, shuddering. Dr Klein handed Jacob a box of tissues. He grabbed a handful and began to blot roughly at his face.
“Are you certain about this Jacob?” Dr Klein sighed. Jacob nodded slowly.  Dr Klein began to scrawl notes on his pad of paper. Jacob watched on, now feeling calmer after taking a few deep breaths.

A knock at the door interrupted the silence and told Jacob it was time to go home. He hopped up eagerly out of the chair as the heavy oak door opened. He ran to his mum and hugged her, relishing the softness of her embrace and the smell of her shampoo in her long her. 
“Mrs Eyres.” The doctor said, beckoning her into the room. Jacob lingered by the door, not wanting to stay any longer. “I think it’s time.” An expression of panic flitted across her face.
“Come and sit down Jacob.” She spoke softly. Jacob tentatively stepped back towards the sofa that he had learnt to despise before perching on the edge. This had never happened before. “We need to talk about Jayden. He’s not real. He was your imaginary friend when you were younger.”

Emotions First Place: Marium Umar: Painfully Beautiful

It was midnight and the whole house seemed at rest. In the great mansions, each and every door was closed. Sarah along with her husband lay quite on the bed. She was in pain. It was evident from her expressions. Saad, her husband was fast asleep, oblivious to the pain which swallowed his wife. She was expecting and the delivery date was of the current month. There had been preparations for the 'new guest' and along with the parents the grandparents were as active as children, wandering in and out of shops and getting hold of every beautiful baby thing they could lay their hands on. During the days, the home would be filled with exclamations of only one word; baby.

As Sarah lay on the bed, she clenched her fists hard, swallowing something with difficulty. It was a pain she had never experienced before. Her face went from red to pale as she abruptly sat on the bed. Before she could gather the energy to get up and visit the toilet, a wave of nausea hit her and she threw up. The muffles of pain together with the sobs woke Saad up who got immediately concerned. He helped his wife sit upright and gave her a glass of water. It was a caring gesture and Sarah felt better.

"Thank you! I feel bet ...," Sarah was saying but something hindered her speech. She could not breathe. Her face went white and Saad called his mother in her room, alarmed.

"Mama, Sarah is not feeling well, can you please come up," he said in one breathe.

His mother having had identified the situation asked Saad to call an ambulance immediately.

She reached the room and helped Sarah lie down. Sarah did not find comfort anywhere. She was in pain and now hot tears started to escape her eyes.

"Mama I..." she said but could continue no further.

The ambulance came and they helped Sarah into me. She was gasping for breath. Her face was as white as snow, her eyes watery. Saad could not bear the sight. His wife looked painfully beautiful and he gently held her hand.

Sarah was taken to the delivery room and all Saad could hear were cries. Cries of pain. He waited there for what seemed like ages, before a doctor came out, looking as pale as Sarah had.

"I am sorry," she said. That was it. Just three words and Saad's world crumbled to sand. He closed his eyes and having lost his balance, fell on the floor. His mother, tears rushing down her face, consoled him

"You have to be there for Sarah," his mother told him between sobs. “She needs you."

Sarah was shifted to a private room and Saad hesitated before he entered. As he entered, he stopped when he saw Sarah's face. An angel, a ghost, a fairy? He could not gather the word. She looked out of this world. Painfully beautiful, he thought.

Tears were pouring like diamonds from her eyes, her face as white as ever. She was completely lost. Lost in the pain of a mother's grieving heart. Something seemed to have clenched her soul as she lay there, holding a smiling face in her hand.

Saad went near and gasped when he saw 'his girl'. The baby was no less than an angel and an identical of her mother. With the eyes closed she, the angel seemed to be sleeping but in reality she was away. Far, far away from her grieving parents. She was dead. Saad couldn't bear the sight of his daughter lying motionless in his wife's arms. To him it all seemed like a dream. A very bad dream. A nightmare.

"She is beautiful," he said. "Painfully beautiful."

Sarah looked up and met her husband's eyes. There were tears running down their faces, their thoughts in the same line and their eyes speaking to each other. The pain in one’s heart opens to the other. Saad put his arms around his wife and his daughter. He put his thoughts aside and says, "I love you, both." And he meant it.

A sight so beautiful, filled with love could be accompanied with pain and agony? Nobody could even imagine. As they stood observing from the door, tears streamed down the eyes of the grandparents. The sight was truly, painfully beautiful. Their heart ached at the silence of the world around them, it ached for their children, and it ached for the beauty in pain. A beauty in dying. A beauty already dead. Painfully beautiful.


Emotions Second Place - Maesa Hussein - Alone


He was gone.

I was alone.

A sudden jerk pinned me to the ground. My saliva had turned into metallic tasting blood, as it seeped from my mouth. I could almost feel the shattered bone from my rib cage floating around in me. My head felt as if it contained a boulder. The strong odour of blood filled my nostrils. I eagerly tried to heave myself up but failed miserably. The cold from the stone floor numbed my chest but relived my slashed legs. This was the end for me. I needed help, and quick.

I could hear a moaning distance. Tears gushed from my scarlet coloured eyes. My sense-less, blue, hands and feet drooped of my limbs. My breath was becoming fainter by the second and my urgency to rest was getting un-bearable. I shut my sore eyes and wondered where I was and where he had gone. The thought of food made my stomach churn un-controllably. My ears ached like hell.

Chunks of rock hung un-securely from the domed ceiling as sharp stone began lightly showering me. My knee caps no longer felt attached to my legs. Suddenly I heard a faint voice and saw light. I was beginning to have hope, but the muffled voice soon turned into deep silence. My lips were shrivelled, split and battered. I tried to call for help but there was no reply but the echo of my own voice……

 

Third Place Adele Rimington The Biscuit Burglar 


I was born into the wrong family. Not that I would express this opinion openly. That would be far too dangerous. My family was different from most others. We had a family business that was unconventional and definitely not one most would want to inherit. No one earned a pay cheque, not because we were rich or lazy. We lived on our wits. We were professional thieves.

 

I was not born to be a thief. I was born to bake.

 

I started baking after our mum died. I was fourteen years old when I first picked up a whisk. No one else seemed to know what the kitchen was for. So, whilst Dad was busy turning his grief into anger and my brothers were toughening their outer carapaces, I dusted off the recipe books and began to cook. Cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, plaits, pretzels, macaroons, muffins, flapjacks, biscuits, nothing was too challenging for me. I worked my way through cookbooks like my dad and brothers did car manuals.

 

As the food began to appear on the table, no one said a word. Not even thank you. I should have hung an ‘Under New Management’ notice over the kitchen door because they treated it like a café, just as they had when Mum was alive. Perhaps cooking was my way of coping, sublimating my grief.

 

That was how it started.

 

Being a member of the Brash clan, stealing was not a choice, it was expected. I began marking jobs not by hit rates, but by the allocation of my baked goods. I was incapable of going to a job empty handed. It was a lesson our mother had taught us.

 

‘Never go to someone’s house without a gift.’ I took her at her word. No one knew what I was doing, at least, not for quite a while.

 

Driving to a job, if anyone said, ‘Can anyone smell baking in this van?’

 

I would say, ‘Yes! It’s just something I made for afterwards. In case we get hungry.’

 

‘You’re an ‘eadcase, Rob, you know that, don’t you?’ This was my younger brother. He called everyone an ‘eadcase, even though it was a term best suited to him.

 

What I didn’t tell them was that I always brought something extra. Something for us and something for the owners of the house we were about to break; a round of shortbread, a dozen chocolate chip cookies; it was my way of saying sorry.

 

We were good at our job. True professionals. Everyone knew their role and played it well. Brad, the eldest, he was the driver. He sat in the van whilst we went in. Dad and Trent, the youngest and man most likely to run the business after Dad, they were the real deal – the thieves with the lightest fingers. They did the selecting and the bagging up. My job was look out. I would watch for the occupant’s return. Some thieves leave a bottle or a broom on the door handle, something that they can hear if the targets come back unexpectedly. I am a far more efficient early warning system. I spot them the minute that they turn into the drive. Every extra second counts in our game.  

 

Dad and Trent never stay in the kitchen, not after they’ve checked for house keys and handbags. There’s never much worth taking in the kitchen. So, when they were upstairs or in the other rooms, that’s when I went to the kitchen with my baked offerings. Today I was leaving shortbread. Everyone likes shortbread. Last week it was muffins, the week before that, gingerbread. I was worried about the gingerbread. I worried that it might have made some people even angrier. Ginger was peppery. Not everyone is partial to ginger. I wanted them to feel at least a little compensated for the loss of their valuables.

 

I got the idea of making labels after I saw one of our hits on an episode of ‘Crimewatch’. Our jobs had been on before but they’d never caught us, they never even came close. They interviewed the ‘victims’ as they always refer to them, or worse, ‘innocent victims of opportunist thieves’. That annoyed me. One thing we were not was opportunists. Everything was carefully planned. So, ‘Crimewatch’ were in the kitchen, interviewing the householders, as I prefer to call them, and I noticed my calico bag of biscuits still there on the table. They hadn’t even seen them! This upset me. I had left them on the kitchen table in plain view. For them! Talk about a lack of gratitude! After that, I made sure each gift was labeled. In block letters, it said:

 

DEAR OCCUPANTS, PLEASE ACCEPT A GIFT OF HOMEMADE [INSERT NAME OF BAKED GOODS]. APOLOGIES FOR THE LOSS OF YOUR PERSONAL ITEMS.

 

Now there would be no doubt over my gift and its intention.

 

I began to see a recipe in everything. I made one about our work: eleven easy steps to housebreaking. It went like this:

 

For this burglary, you will need the following:

1 pair of gloves

1 torch

Dark-coloured clothing

Assorted tools: Crowbar, screwdriver or mallet (according to taste)

2-3 towels or tea towels (to muffle sound and wipe surfaces)

2-3 suitcases (you will find these inside the house, usually in the bedroom or box room, but have own set aside as backup)

1 broom or glass bottle (to place on the door handle)

Optional extra: front/back door key if available (try under doormat or plant pot.)

 

 

Method:

 

1.     Select your scene: pre-check the area you intend to visit. Choose your dwelling carefully, based on one more of the following: high fences or hedges, no other buildings overlooking property, an open or broken gate, single door lock, lack of security doors or a ‘beware of the dog’ sign. (Beware of dog sign = no house alarm)

 

2.     Once you have made your selection, ensure your targets are out of the house.

 

3.     Sift out the most vulnerable point of entry.

 

4.     If necessary, apply gloves or crowbar to disable security lights.

 

5.     Gain entry. This may require using tools, but if optional extra is available, add to keyhole now.

 

6.     In a separate location, ensure the driver is standing by.

 

7.     Add broom or glass bottle to door handle to allow for early warning of a likely disturbance.

 

8.     Using your gloves, gather up as many items as possible. Note: do this quickly to ensure a smooth finish. Use torch as required.

 

9.     Fold selected items carefully into suitcases and ensure the latches are well secured.

 

10.  Exit building as rapidly as possible, adding all ingredients to get-away vehicle.

 

11.  Leave scene to cool off for at least ten days.

 

 

That was the recipe we followed if all went to plan. Simplified, of course. But there were times when it was not so simple. Even the best in the business can make mistakes. This is the story of our last robbery. Nothing about it followed our family recipe.

 

First, our van wouldn’t start.

 

‘What’s wrong wiv the bleedin’ fing?’ This was Dad addressing Brad.

 

‘Bloody hell, Dad, ‘ow should I know?’

 

‘Well you’re the bleedin’ mechanic of the family.’

 

‘Yeah, Dad, a mechanic, not a bleedin’ magician!’

 

‘Biscuit anyone?’ I said. A biscuit with a cup of tea could solve anything in my mind. It was me who got the van to start. I don’t know how. Whilst everyone was eating my shortbread and sipping tea, I turned the key in the ignition and it fired.

 

‘Perhaps you’re not such an ‘eadcase after all,’ said Trent.

 

‘Well done, son.’ I think that was the most praise my dad had ever given me. It didn’t last long.

 

This job was my responsibility. I had cased out the house last week in the guise of a salesman but as usual, my heart wasn’t in it. I missed things, important details. I was too busy thinking about the shortbread I was going to bake later.

 

As soon as we arrived I sensed that something was awry but not wanting to tarnish the good impression I had made on Dad with the van, I kept my mouth shut. Besides, it would be okay. I had my labeled shortbread biscuits tucked firmly in my jacket.

 

The front door of the house had a security grille. I didn’t remember that from my earlier visit.

 

‘I fought you said this was an easy entry?’ said Dad, speaking through his balaclava.

 

I shrugged away my self-doubt and not wanting to lose face, I said, ‘We have to enter round the back. It’s much safer and we’re not overlooked.’ This seemed to appease my father and brother, but the sweat had already started to trickle down my cheek. It was only when we jumped the fence that I really started to worry. There was a dog, a small one, but with a very big bark, which it was now employing.

 

‘There’s a bleedin’ mutt!’ Dad was really angry now. He cocked his head to one side, which only meant one thing: he was sizing you up for a punch in the face. I liked small dogs, unlike my dad and brothers who preferred the larger, more solid arm and leg-removing breeds.

 

‘Silence it!’ spat Trent. Dad and Trent both looked at me. This was my job and it was up to me to fix it. My hands closed round the biscuits in my pocket. It was lucky I had thought to bring two batches. Breaking the shortbread triangles into pieces, I threw them down for the little Jack Russell, who immediately scoffed them. I doubted that shortbread was ideal for dogs, but what happened then was a surprise. The dog fell on its side and started snoring. At least it was quieter than barking.

 

‘’ave you killed it wiv your bloody biscuits?’ asked Dad.

 

‘No, I think he’s…well, he’s…’

 

‘What?’

 

‘He’s in a…sugar coma? They do have rather a lot of sugar.’ Dad pushed at the dog with his foot.

 

‘I don’t care as long as he ain’t barking. Let’s just get inside and get this over wiv.’ I made a mental note to adjust the sugar in the recipe for the next batch.

 

The backdoor was an easy access. I got one thing right. There was no security door and the lock was easy to jimmy. That was lucky because I knew I had led them to the wrong house. I wasn’t about to admit it, though.

 

We were in. Dad and Trent sprang into action and went upstairs. On the way up, Dad checked again.

 

‘Son, you definitely checked this place out, didn’t you? No surprises on the calendar or anyfing?’

 

‘Course, Dad!’ I lied. I was in too deep to change things now.

 

‘Good. Well, keep an eye, then.’

 

‘I will.’ I knew Dad didn’t really believe me. Trent was already upstairs, trashing his way through someone’s irreplaceable treasures. He didn’t care. He just wanted what he could sell. He was keener than me, keener than Dad or Brad too. Trent had a drug habit to feed. Dad appeared at the head of the stairs.

 

‘Rob! Where’re the suitcases? You said you’d done this place! Where the ‘ell are they?’

 

‘Err…not in the wardrobe?’ I hedged. Dad was spitting through his teeth in his lowered voice.

 

‘No! Try again. Where did you see them?’ I was starting to panic now. I wondered if honesty might not be the best policy.

 

‘Umm…well, I think I may have missed them.’

 

‘So, what you’re saying is, there aren’t any and you never bovered to point this out.’

 

I swallowed hard. ‘Well, I…’

 

‘Trent!’ Dad cut me off, not interested in what I had to say. ‘Stop looking.’ Dad turned his glittering eyes on me. ‘You! Get the bloody bags from the van. Now!!’ There was no point arguing with Dad. You just did as you were told. On my way back through the kitchen, I glanced around with my torch. It was instinctive. You always check your immediate surroundings for changes. The torchlight brushed over the kitchen calendar. If this had been the house we were supposed to be in now, the one I had actually scouted out, this would have been the first thing I would have checked. All the houses in this area looked similar. Big and flashy.

 

I found today’s date. There was something written there: ‘Twelve Angry Men’ 8pm Mercury Theatre’.  I wasn’t exactly from a household of thespians but even I could work out that tonight, our targets were at a show. I checked my watch. It was 11.30pm. How long did plays go for? It was then that I heard the sound of a car pulling up. Two seconds later, my phone began to vibrate and the following three things happened simultaneously:

 

1. Dad yelled my name, followed by a string of unrepeatable swear words.

 

2. Brad appeared at the kitchen window and started doing a vigorous mime, the gist of which appeared to be that the targets had just arrived home.

 

3. I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps on the driveway followed by a key turning in a lock.

 

There was only one thing left for me to do. As the unwitting occupants entered their dwelling and flicked on the hallway light, I fixed my brightest smile.

 

‘Surprise!’ I yelled. ‘You have been selected for ‘The Baker’s Dozen’, a new TV show which asks members of the public to taste test a range of home made products and give their verdict live on TV.’ I was banking on shock as the smokescreen to cover the fact that I had let myself into their home and there was no TV camera crew. Everyone liked being chosen, didn’t they? I hoped that this would give Dad and Trent enough time to get out of the house.

 

‘We’ve been what?’ said a bewildered middle-aged man, blinking at me in the harsh hallway light. I sharpened my smile.

 

‘Selected as contestants for a new TV show!’ Everyone wanted to be on the TV, didn’t they? ‘All you have to do is try my homemade shortbread! Close your eyes and open wide!’ Too surprised to argue, the middle-aged man and his presumed wife closed their eyes and allowed me to shove a shortbread triangle into his and her mouth. Luckily for me, shocked faces tended to lend themselves to open mouths quite naturally. Before their brains had time to register the strangeness of this situation, I had sprinted through the front door behind Dad and Trent and was back in the van.

 

Dad removed his balaclava and turned to me.

 

‘Rob, tell me again how you checked out that place?’ I knew this was not a general enquiry about process. There was nothing for it. I knew I had to come clean. Trent saved me the trouble.

 

‘It was the wrong bleedin’ house, wasn’t it? Say it!’ Trent was at his most dangerous when his voice was calm.

 

‘It was the wrong bleeding house,’ I repeated. ‘Sorry.’

 

When the tabloids coined the phrase ‘The Biscuit Burglar’ I knew I was in trouble. Of course, the family knew it was me. They weren’t stupid.

 

‘Biscuits? ‘ave you gone soft in the ‘ead or somefing?’ said Dad.

 

‘You’re an ‘eadcase!’ said Trent.

 

‘It was just a little acknowledgement. For our trouble. What’s the harm?’

 

‘What the ‘arm? What’s the ‘arm? DNA! Yours! All over the bloody biscuits!’ The vein in Dad’s head was bulging so I knew he was properly angry.   

 

‘I wear surgical gloves,’ I reassured them. Dad’s vein was about to pop.

 

‘How long’s this been going on?’

 

‘Biscuits and cakes! At every job! ‘ave you lost the plot?’ said Brad.

 

‘You’re an ‘eadcase,’ said Trent, never one to vary his phrasing. 

 

For the first time in our criminal history, the Brash clan was jittery. We laid low. Naturally, they allowed me to shoulder the blame for the fact that we were now the laughing stock of the entire criminal underworld.

 

It didn’t stop me baking. Neither did it stop my family from wolfing down my baked creations.

 

I saw the TV news. A middle-aged man was speaking to the camera, being interviewed outside a house I recognised.

 

‘I know we were victims of an attempted robbery, but the quality of the shortbread was amazing! I would really like the thief who made this to get in touch.’

 

Get in touch? I could barely believe my ears. It was a terrible risk, though. It could be a police trap. On the other hand, we didn’t actually take anything from his house. I was tired of being a thief and he really liked my shortbread…

 

‘Come in! Rob, is it? I just wanted to tell you in person. You are a wonderful baker. The shortbread we sampled simply melted in the mouth. It’s the reason I wanted to meet you. I was wondering, are you working at the moment?’

 

‘Well, no, sir, not exactly. Sorry, I don’t know your name.’

 

‘It’s Arthur,’ said the middle-aged man. ‘Arthur Kipling.’

 

I was born into the wrong family. Not that I would express this opinion openly. That would be far too dangerous. My family was different from most others, but perhaps not so different anymore. Brad was training to be a mechanic, Trent had gone back to college to do a Diploma in Applied Science with a chemistry specialism and Dad had retired. For the first time in his life, he could relax. No one made the vein in his head pop out any longer. Everyone was happy, doing what he enjoyed.

 

Me? Thanks to Arthur, I began my traineeship as a baker and now, I bake for one of the biggest companies in the world. But my shortbread recipe, that, I will take with me to the grave.


ESCAPE

1ST PLACE

CHASING THE PAST : THADDEUS ENGLISH


Andrea was crouching underneath the lecturer’s desk when she heard the voice of Dr Edgar. The slur in his speech could have been passed of as drunk but Andrea knew it was that damn artefact they found in three weeks ago. The trip went well and Andrea had noticed how beautiful it has seemed in the underground altar. Gilded with gold and with rubies encrusted in the chain, the head of the Archaeology of the University presumed it was worn by a priestess type in some forgotten tribe, their ancestry still undetermined.

 

The door to the lecture hall creeps open, squealing loudly as it does so. Andrea looks underneath the desk to see his boat-shoes; brown leather, scuffed from the furious running in the halls. Edgar begins to hum tapping his right foot. Andrea’s eyes are locked on his feet, and not even the hem of his chinos can be seen, just the tapping feet. The humming stops. Andrea tries to listen for breathing but doesn’t hear anything except for the beating of her own heart. ‘Idiot, he’s listening for your breathing’ she holds her hands over her mouth and closes her eyes, “He’ll go if he thinks no one is here.” She tries to assure herself. ‘The shoes’ darting her eyes open she looks under the desk, the shoes are still there. Andrea smiles but stops when she feels a warm heat on the back of her neck. Turning slowly she sees Edgar over her shoulder smiling with blood-stained teeth and bloodshot eyes encased in black eyelids, he is crouching and looking at her in disgusted glee, barefoot and insane. “I’ve…found… you.” his voice shrill and cracked. He slowly reaches his pale hand out, rubbing the back of his finger on her cheek, his grotesque smile still displaying the dying teeth housed in his rotting gums. “You… Shouldn’t… run.” He pulls out a stone dagger from his belt loop. He holds it up and examines the markings.

 

Andrea’s fear pushes through the roof, she tries to calm down while Edgar’s eyes are on the dagger and a voice inside her head is screaming ‘fly’. He has the weight advantage plus he is holding a knife. ‘Shoes’ the voice pipes up again. Looking down she sees his bare feet, decaying and blackened, the smell almost matches his vile breath… almost. Leaning back, Andrea puts her palms on the floor and rests back on her hands. Putting her heels on the wood of the lecture podium she uses all her strength and kicks her legs at full stretch hitting Edgar’s toes head on with the heels of her Dr Martins. A large cracking sound like popping corn fills the auditorium. Andrea scurries out of her hiding spot and bursts out of the doors, kicking Edgar’s shoes in the process. The echoes of Edgar’s screams follow her in the halls, she is glad it’s just his voice following. “Where’s the fire axe?” she mutters, no time for inner monologue or screaming voices. The end of the hallway holds nothing for her but mountains of pictures of academics and athletes littered on the wall. Standing out from the rest she sees Dr Edgar’s picture, smiling at her, not with the stained teeth she had just seen but beautiful pearly whites. “How can he come back?” she asked the picture. Andrea’s mind drifted back to the start of the ordeal when she was in the bathroom washing her hands she heard a scream, naturally she was curious. What she found was Edgar, sitting in the centre of the research lab with his white shirt bloodied and tucked lazily into his dark grey chinos crying and laughing. He looked up at Andrea with such anger it scared her to her core, twisting her gut in ways it shouldn’t ever be.

The squeaking door caught her attention bringing Andrea back to the present with a snap. “Stop daydreaming” she whimpers. Her back straightened. Her breathing quickened and Andrea turned to see her worst fear. Edgar stood in the hall. The light of the lecture hall casting a dark shadow on the right half of his face, his vile grin glowed throughout the darkness. He twiddled his toes; they clicked and clacked on the hard tiles of the hall. There was no pain on his face and Andrea betted he was numb to it.

The tests they did on the artefact showed there were high levels of both Copper and Cadmium. Andrea had hypothesised that the “Preistess-type” that Professor Argyle had supposed was in fact a sufferer of metal poisoning and having hallucinations and not visions or getting any special mental powers.

Dr Edgar was slowly dying, being poisoned quickly, the levels of toxic metal were reacting fast with him and Andrea needed to get the necklace off of him or find a way to break him of his hallucination. She was the only one who could save him… or stop him and neither was going to be easy. He had a newly found pain threshold which made one-to-one confrontation even less likely than Andrea had wanted to grapple before.

She turned and ran down the south corridor towards the Gymnasium. Edgar followed, the clicking clacking of his feet spurring Andrea on faster.

The swinging doors to the gymnasium were still flapping when Edgar arrived, his distended toes curled over like claws. Green bile dripping from his mouth, he peered through the porthole window of the door and sees only darkness. He pushes the door open and instinctively flicks the switch – his subconscious mind still active. The fluorescents flicker and buzz alight. The wide hall was empty, two basketball hoops either end of the waxed floor. The bleachers either side of the court usually full of eager college fans sit empty and silent. His sunken eyes scan the area before clacking across the gym making noise like a cat on sheet metal.

He grunts as he walks, the sounds are guttural and sound like a wheezing harpsichord. Underneath the left bleachers Andrea sits with her back to the wall. Her eyes locked on him again, making sure she sees his face - No repeat of the Lecture Hall. She may not get another chance to escape.

Holding an old discarded field hockey stick close to her chest she imagines what the stone dagger would feel like if Edgar ever got a chance to use it. Tears begin to stream down her face. Gritting her teeth and tensing her stomach Andrea muffles the cries inside herself. Edgar begins to examine the bleachers on the other side of the gym, his head tilted like a dog trying to listen for the front door, the bile still gushing from his putrid mouth. Andrea tries to think back to what was said about the hallucinations ‘from what we can determine the wearer was getting heavy amounts of copper and cadmium seeping through the skin, the longer the user wore it the quicker it got into the bloodstream.’ Argyle said, stroking his beard before continuing.

‘Of course it could just as well get into the skin just by holding it. We can’t say for sure until we uncover a specimen of someone who wore it, see the amounts in their system, what’s really worrying is the level of radiation of the site where we found it. If there was a second expedition we’d have to take Geiger Counters’

“Is it radiation poisoning as well?” she muttered.

Edgar turns to the left bleachers, his eroding ears prick up. Andrea stares into his eyes. The lovable Professor she worked with and who took her under his wing was dying beyond those eyes and there was no way of bringing him back, it was written on his face… he’d gone, he’d be dead by morning. It was up to Andrea to make sure she didn’t join him.

Click clack. “You… are… my sacrifice.” Edgar mutters as he passes the halfway point of the gym. Andrea stays locked with him, gripping the hockey stick tightly against her chest. Turning her footing ready for a lunge she squats forward. Her mind flashes back to the research lab where Professor Argyle hypothesised ‘The villagers spoke of an old man from some time ago, sixty maybe seventy years ago that claimed a “tribe” from even longer before that could see into the future but went mad with power, sorry went mad because of the power. They supposedly saw wars raging across the globe, fire reigning down over the islands. Seeing as this man was giving a secondary account, maybe even tertiary at best it would be wise to get more information. Apparently the tribe the old man spoke of killed themselves in a mass suicide to hide this… from what I could translate as “Power of the gods”. If in fact they did kill themselves, it would be the earliest recorded mass suicide in this country’s history. More than likely orchestrated by the priestess who wore this’

“Does he think he has the power of god?” she whispers as Edgar turns the corner of the bleachers, his right hand gripping the dagger tightly, his fingers are blackened and cracked with dried blood and puss staining the handle of the ceremonial dagger.

“Professor Edgar, please you have to listen to me. The necklace is killing you, killing me would not stop you from dying.” Andrea’s throat closes up. Edgar walks slowly, precisely, every step calculated perfectly even in his hallucinogenic state. “Die…” his black lips open to slur the word “You will…” Edgar licks his lips. A grey block drops from his degrading mouth. Another blackened tooth dead from the root, only a black, puss filled gap underneath his nose remains except for a single tooth jutting out of the gaping jaw, ‘surely staying in through sure will to live, much like Edgar’ Andrea thought, a clear thought in this situation shocked her, eyes still locked.

Now only three feet away Edgar smiles again, loosening his grip on the dagger he switches to his left hand. His right hand now nothing but bone and veins, almost decayed completely off his wrist like a weed dying out.

Andrea tenses her toes pressing them on the hardwood floor. An idea flashed in her mind “like a shotgun” holding her left arm up at an angle like a waiter resting a hand towel, Andrea puts the hockey stick onto it facing Edgar who stops for a moment, his grip tightening as he gets composure and lunges forward.

Andrea lunges in response, turning on her toes she plants her left foot down leaving her side-on with Edgar. Holding her left arm straight as her life depends on it she smashes her fist down on the handle of the hockey stick which flicked the end up like a see-saw. The curled end rises and crashes through the decaying jaw and neck muscles of Edgar, knocking the one remaining tooth out, the hockey stick protrudes out of his mouth like a half-swallowed egg while the rest hangs down making him look like a zombie rooster. Andrea scuffs her heels on the ground and begins her escape again. At the door she hears a scream, looking back she sees Edgar gripping the hockey stick with both hands. Leaning back to build up some torque Edgar arched his back down and rips the stick from his mouth. Andrea sees a black-green sludge hit the wood, her eyes can’t look away.

The monster that stood in Edgar’s place laughs at the floor and the smashed remains of the once solid square jaw of the youngest historian the university had employed lies at his feet. When he first met Andrea he had used the line I’m the youngest ‘fossil’ of the department. Andrea found that funny when they met, now she stood in fear of the actual decaying fossil standing not eight yards away with a determination to kill her in his grey eyes. Kicking the door open with her heel she bolts to the upper walkway of the university hoping the Art wing is open. Andrea hears grunts and clicking from the hallway when she gets to the stairwell, a cacophony of orange stone and red brick. On a hot summers day the bricks made it too hot to sit down. Looking down the deserted hall she sees Edgar. He is still grinning,

‘the monster was coming out’ she thought, it was the only way she could rationalize it but the truth was, as hard at it was, the truth was that underneath the puss and mucus and decaying body it was still Edgar running the show and that thought… that truth was what scared Andrea the most, that deep down, given the opportunity and chance, he would choose to kill her.

Composing herself she bounds the steps three at a time, turning at the top and running across the open balcony walkway to the doors of the Art wing, looking back for a moment to see Edgar’s progress. Alone, “good” she said, relieved. Wasting no time she runs to the door with her arms outstretched. The doors stop an inch off the hook knocking into Andrea’s head making her fall back onto the cold stone floor. There is a chain on the other side, padlocked and closed for the night. “Fuck” she said exasperated. Click, clack.

Andrea turned on the floor, knowing full well what would be standing over her. For the third time tonight Edgar stood over his prey, was it to be the final time? Andrea lunges forward but Edgar clubs her in the side of her head with the bloodied hockey stick. Gripping her head she pulls herself in the foetal position and rolls to the balcony ledge for some space. He swings down again; it hits the brickwork, knocking plaster over Andrea’s cowering frame.

She kicks out at anything she can, connecting with Edgar’s shin, a muffled crack echoes through the open walkway, powder spurts and puffs from his dirty chinos now stained through his puss and blood, his leg bends backwards and Edgar staggers, finally showing pain in his disappearing face. Andrea stands up and begins to move to the stairs. Still winded and sore. A clammy bony hand grips her throat and pushes her against the brick wall overhanging the enclosed courtyard. Andrea sees the gate on the fence is bolted shut. Her back being arched by the surprising strength of Edgar pushing with his one working hand, his right hand searching for the dagger, Andrea can feel the drowsiness starting and pain slowly numbing. ‘Not like this. Fucking hit him where he’ll definitely feel it’ lifting her knees up Andrea hits Edgar in the groin. A large visceral moan escapes the gaping hole that was once his mouth. The smell of rotting bread and salt hit Andrea as hard as the hockey stick had moments earlier. Blood trickles down her ear ‘concussion? No time to think about that,’ she thought as she struggles with his grip on her throat although loosened immensely, still strong enough to hold her back. Reaching her arms out, she claws at the open jaw line and gaping palette of her once mentor now monster. Finally grabbing something Andrea pulls tightly, the sharp angles of the object cut her hands. Looking down her nose she can see Edgar’s face begin to turn blue. She is holding the pendant in her hand the wire is twisted in her hand, digging into her palm, the beads and chains are slicing through his neck like she was slicing cheese with wire. The pendant came suddenly at her. Whipping through the dusty spine that held Edgar’s eroding cranium and rustled in her hand. Edgar crumbled to one knee and his head rolled down his spine like a ski jumper before rolling across the floor and hitting the far wall resting hauntingly against it facing Andrea, staring at her with the black holes of his eye sockets. She could almost hear him speak. “Andrea… Andrea, why are… the pendant.” A hand touches her forearm. Andrea screams.

Before her stand Professor Argyle and Edgar. (Edgar?)

“What’s going on?” She asks

“You dazed off into a trance. We were talking about the tribe the pendant might belong to, were you even listening? You’re supposed to be taking notes.” Argyle was fussing around the table looking at notes “Edgar, she’s your assistant if we can’t verify this by six you two stay tonight and figure it out.”

“Sure. It’ll be fun, right Andrea?” Edgar smiles and winks at Andrea. Her stomach turns. She mutters to herself.

“I have to go to the bathroom. Excuse me.” Andrea turns and pushes through the swing-doors of the Research Lab. (What the hell? He’s winking at me? He’s fucking dead and winking at me? What the hell?) Andrea pushes the bathroom door open and stares into the mirror. Her eyes beginning to look baggy, she sighs, the female staff at the university was sparse at the best of times. She’d hoped another woman would come in to talk to her. Just so she didn’t have to try so much. “Trivial thoughts, that’s good Andrea you keep calm and talk shit.” She said informing her reflection. Looking down at her watch she sees the time. ‘18:24 everywhere has shut; it’ll just be me and you’ she thought. A large scream comes from outside. “What?” Andrea tiptoes to the door and opens it slowly. The door to the Research lab swings open. Edgar walks out into the hall wearing the Pendant smiling, his eyes beginning to cloud over.

“Not again.” She utters. Edgar’s ears prick up. He stares at the crack in the door and into Andrea’s eyes.

“No… escape”

Andrea bursts out of the bathroom and runs down the hall with one thought on her mind. “…Survive”

 

The End

 

 2ND PLACE

THE NIGHTINGALE QUEEN: MILAN GAMMANPILA


Once upon a time there was a very rich king.  He would have been a very happy king as well if not for the fact that he had no queen to share his kingdom with.  Many of the kingdom’s women would have been delighted to marry the king but he did not really like any of them.  Indeed the king longed for a beautiful, exotic wife.  However, no woman fitting that description ever came his way and day by day the king got more sad.

 

One day a travelling minstrel who had heard of the king’s plight requested a meeting with the king. ‘Your Majesty, if you seek a queen to share your kingdom with I know of just the woman,’ he told the king. The king was very excited.  ‘Please tell me and I will reward you greatly,’ said the king leaning forward in his throne.

 

‘Well,’ began the minstrel, ‘on my travels I heard of many strange tales about a mysterious nightingale woman. The tales say that she is a nightingale and sings the sweetest songs known to man that can heal even the most broken of hearts but when a man captures her and takes her to live with him she will take the form of a beautiful woman.’

 

The king was delighted. ‘She sounds perfect,’ he said. ‘I had no idea that such a magical woman existed, I thought it was just folklore.  Please tell me where to find her and I will set off right now’.

‘The tales say to ride east for 16 days until you reach the place where the sun is setting,’ said the minstrel. ‘There you will come across a tree.  In this tree, on the topmost branch is the nightingale. You must capture her in a gold encrusted cage and take her to your palace.  But you must never let her out of the palace or she will return to the form of a nightingale and you will not be able to turn her back’.

‘Thank you, thank you so much!’ cried the exultant king. ‘You will be rewarded with gold and jewels beyond your wildest dreams!’ and with that the king set off on his horse into the night.

 

After 16 days the exhausted king finally reached the tree.  It was tall and dark and the leaves seemed to rustle with mystery.  Just like the minstrel said, there was a nightingale sitting on the top-most branch that was singing the most beautiful song the king had ever heard. His heart melted as he softly picked up the little bird and put it in his gold encrusted cage.

 

After another 16 days the king returned to the palace with the nightingale in it’s cage under his arm.  He walked into the palace, locked the doors, shut the windows and let the nightingale out of the cage.  Before the king’s amazed eyes the nightingale transformed into a breathtakingly beautiful young woman.  She was delicate and somehow unearthly with astonishingly bright eyes and the softest long brown hair. The king instantly lost his heart to her.  ‘You will be my Nightingale Queen,’ he said.

 

Over the next few days the king showered the nightingale queen with sparkling jewels, robes of the softest silk and the finest food.  Something was wrong though.  The queen was not happy.  She rarely smiled and the king started to worry.  Whatever he did, the sad look in her eyes would not go away.  ‘What is wrong my dear?’ the king asked anxiously.   ‘Please tell me what you want and you shall have it in an instant’.  In answer the queen would sigh and look mournfully out of the window.  When the queen did not cheer up after the first fourteen days of living in the palace the king was distraught.  ‘Why don’t you sing?’ asked the king.  ‘You used to love that when you were a nightingale.’

‘I sing when I am happy, when I am free,’ said the queen in her soft voice’.

 

The king wondered and wondered what to do.  He could not set her free because he loved her too much.  The next day the king ordered the kingdom’s best perfumiers to recreate the scents of the forest and spray them around the palace so that the queen would feel more at home.  He soon realised that this made the lost look in her eyes much worse and ordered them to stop.  The day after that the king ordered the royal gardeners to plant trees all around the palace.  When the queen came downstairs the king pointed at them all out of the window but the queen looked at them with such wistfulness and longing that the king ordered for them to be cut down.  On the third day the king ordered his servants to capture 20 nightingales and bring them back to the palace to see if that would make the queen happier.  However when she saw the birds in cages she wept and wept and the king ordered for them to be released.

 

Finally on the fourth day the king made a decision.  There was nothing he could do.  He could not stand the queen’s unhappiness any longer so he decided to set her free.  He called her down and threw open the palace doors.  ‘Go, you’re free,’ said the heartbroken king.  He watched as she stepped outside, turned back into a nightingale and flew joyfully into the sky.

 

That night the king went to bed with a great ache in his chest.  He did not think he would be able to get to sleep but when he got into bed he noticed the nightingale sitting on a branch on a tree just outside his window.  With a joyful cry the king ran to the window and flung it open but the bird hopped away. The king hastily shut the window and the bird promptly flew back.  The king, unsure what to do, got into bed.  That was when the nightingale started singing.  Each note was like tonic to the king’s sore heart.  The singing did not stop until the king had fallen soundly asleep.

 

Each night the nightingale came back and sang at the king’s window and each morning the king felt happier and happier.  Then one night the nightingale didn’t appear.  Instead of being sad the king was pleased.  He knew that she knew that he was fine now.

 

The king became a very wise king who was renowned for his gentleness and kindness.  Unlike kings from other kingdoms he was never controlling and went to great pains to make sure his people were always happy and always free.  He found a wife and they had many children together and the king was very content.  One thing that puzzled people however was that every night before bed the king would look out of his window and smile into the distance, eastwards, just towards where the sun was setting.  


3RD PLACE


MINIATURE PLASTIC RECTANGLES : ANDREW CAMPBELL-KEARSEY


He kicks an empty drinks can from the pavement into the gutter. He neither looks around for possible censure nor looks guilty about what his father would describe as ‘loutish behaviour’. The sound of aluminium against tarmac is a beautiful symphony to him.

His mother would call it ‘quite uncharacteristic’. His school reports told of an ‘ordered and orderly boy’.

Today he is free.

            It is a warm day. June teases everyone with the promise of a long hot summer. He discards his jacket and lays it on top of a bin bag of clothes that remains outside a charity shop. They are slow to open up today.

            He enters a sports shop and purchases the most incredibly neon-emblazoned trainers. He does not recognise the logo or even make sense of it.

“Would you like the box, sir?”

“No. I shall wear them, thanks.”

He ties the lime green laces and then disposes of his black, regulation shoes in the bin on the pavement.

            Next he visits a hairdresser. He has worn his hair the same way all his life – a left-side parting. He asks at the door about an appointment. He is in luck. They can fit him in now. The place is deserted and he is ushered towards one of the three vacant chairs.  “What style would you like?”

The possibility of choice baffles him. Magazines photographs are flicked in front of his face. He selects one, almost at random as he senses that to show no preference would be taken as bad manners.

The bleach made his eyes water. The face that greets him in the mirror is a stranger. The hairdresser is alarmed that her client may cry.

“It’s what you wanted. It’s just like the picture you chose”. She goes to retrieve the magazine as evidence. But he stops her by saying, “No, it’s good. I like it.” His father always tips so he does likewise.

The make-over is completed with low-slung jeans and a hoodie. Even his underwear is new to him this morning. The socks have someone else’s name on. The shop assistant assures him, the name is of a popular clothes designer. He takes his word for it.

It is now almost one o’clock. The bell would be rung soon to signal the end of the lunchtime break. He wouldn’t be there to hear it. He suddenly becomes aware of a hunger. A warm meal is regularly provided for him in the school canteen. Today he can choose. Choice is more than a novelty for him. It’s an exciting prospect. He must handle it carefully or it may be taken away from him.

He enjoys the meal. But he is still hungry and orders the same food again. The burger and fries taste so different from the suppers his mother serves. She calls him ‘my little guinea-pig’ the evening before one of their regular dinner parties. Naturally, the boy is not invited to these formal affairs. However he does taste the same food that the specially chosen guests savour. The evenings are set pieces for his father to do business. Influential dinner guests arrive, often chauffeured. The young man never has the opportunity to meet them or even to see them. He has so much revision and homework assignments.

On one such evening he needed a drink of milk. He made his way silently to the kitchen, waiting until after his mother had served her complicated dessert course. He could overhear snatches of conversation from the main dining-room. His mother, self-deprecating, “Just a simple pudding really, a recipe I found in an old cookery book”. His father’s comments were more disturbing. “Yes, just the one boy. Coming up to his ‘A’ level year. Five ‘A’ stars predicted. School seem to think he can have his pick of any college at Oxford or Cambridge.”

The milk sat heavily in his stomach that night. Or was it expectation?

*****

An eastern European woman cleans his table and takes away his tray. He smiles but she is busy tipping the food wrappers and unused serviettes into the bin. He wants to apologise that he would have done that but she has moved on to another table. He looks at his mobile phone screen. The missed calls are racking up. Fortunately he has set it to silent. The first was from school at 9.17am, then his mother. His father had even called around midday.

All morning he has been using his credit card his parents had given him for emergencies. The bill goes straight to his father. He is regularly questioned over the smallest items. He takes the Swiss army knife from his new jeans pocket. He cuts the shiny plastic card in half. His father has instilled into him the dangers of identity theft and fraudulent use of cards. He folds each half again with his hands. He has done this several times when he is interrupted.

“You OK?”

He is embarrassed. The waitress stands over him. She continues, “You are seated here very long time.”

“I’m sorry.” He gets up and scoops all the pieces of credit cards into his pocket. Outside he checks the time. He has been sitting in the fast food restaurant for forty minutes after finishing his meal. He goes to the cashpoint and withdraws as much as the machine will allow. His allowance has not been generous over the years. “The boy must learn the value of money, like I did” was his father’s mantra. However a decent amount had amassed in his account. He repeats the demolition job on his bank card. He returns to the shopping centre and places tiny, miniature, plastic rectangles in each of the bins at every corner.

He sees an appeal poster for unwanted mobile phones. He deposits it into a self-sealing plastic bag in the charity shop. He bins the SIM card.

*****

He may have been sitting in the park for hours. He used to rely on telling the time on his mobile. Watch straps irked him. He looks up and sees a young woman passing by.  It is the young woman from the fast food restaurant.

            “You do a lot of thinking. Or is it dreaming?”

            He looks puzzled. He is unaccustomed to her accent. She repeats herself and she smiles. He smiles back.

            “You look lost.”

            He doesn’t know how to reply. He doesn’t know how to describe himself.

She offers him a mug of tea at her flat. It is not far. He walks alongside her. He likes her stories about peculiar characters she serves and her temperamental boss. But most of all he is relieved of the need to share anything of himself. She does not expect anything from him. Her tales of her Lithuanian upbringing are enchanting. She is returning there in a few days. She has earned sufficient to continue her studies back home. She has saved up for an old car and intends to drive home with everything she has accumulated over the past two years.

            He is a good listener. She offers him the sofa for the night. He falls asleep easily. It is the best he has ever slept.

            In the morning she wakes him with a mug of tea. They sit on the sofa together and watch the breakfast news on television. The reporter talks of the growing concern about the probable kidnap of a local businessman’s son. The poignancy of the story is accentuated by the timing. Apparently he was taken on his way to school where he was due to sit his first ‘A’ level examination. He had a promising future ahead of him. The past tense is used already. It is weird to see his crying mother and grim-faced father on the screen. The boy’s school blazer has been found outside a charity shop. Substantial transactions have been made with the boy’s credit card on the day of his disappearance. Sniffer dogs are being used. His father has put up a substantial reward. A dark-haired school photograph from the previous year is shown. His sofa companion does not appear to see the resemblance.

            He accepts her invitation to travel with her. He needs to pay for his ferry ticket and food along the way himself. He shows her his wad of notes. She tells him that if he is not afraid of hard work, her brother always needs labourers for his building company. She tells him the work will make his muscles bigger. They both laugh. She says she will call him Popeye now. The pay is meagre but he would be assured of an income and somewhere to sleep.

They will leave in a few days. While she completes her last shift, he uses her laptop to calculate how many countries they will travel across. He enjoys mapping out their journey.

 He begins an email to his mother. But he deletes it.


AUTHORS CHOICE

1ST PLACE


A G WILLIAMS - CARNIVAL OF MONSTERS


Acarto made sure his hood was completely hiding his face, as the dragon flew over the heads of the spectators. The Carnival of Monsters was in town, and like many taverns, this one had offered them free lodgings in exchange for a performance.

The dragon was only an illusion, one of the many the Monster Carnies created to entertain people. The commentator looked like the son of a Sultan from a distant land, Acarto thought.

“And the terror of the night - the vampire,” he said in a dramatic whisper. He didn't need to raise his voice, as everyone was hanging onto his every word.

The dragon burst, and turned into a large bat-like monster.

Acarto smirked, and once again made sure his face was hidden. He doubted anyone around here would care about what he was, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself.

As he wasn't human, Acarto could clearly see the illusions for what they were. He could also see the crouching pixie who was casting them. Her blonde hair didn't quite hide her pointy ears, and her pupil-less green eyes were squinting with concentration. She made the vampire turn into a sea serpent.

“And finally,” said the commentator, “the now extinct scourge of the land – the orcs!”

Although nearly everyone in the room was too young to have ever seen a real orc, they still shuddered as the illusions marched by.

The orcs all disappeared, but a goblin pounced from nowhere onto the commentator's back. Everyone screamed in surprise, before they realise it was part of the show.

The commentator, goblin and pixie linked hands and bowed, getting rapturous applause.

As the crowd thinned, Acarto sidled over to the commentator, and whispered “I must speak with you.”

“My name is Acarto,” he said, when they were in the Carnies' lodgings. He pulled his hood back, revealing his pallid complexion and pointed ears. “I am a Loogaroo.”

“Aren't they a kind of servant for vampires?” said Trimble the pixie.

“Yes, slaves of vampires, created by them feeding their blood to a bat,” said Acarto.

“I hope our vampire monster didn't offend you?” said Trimble.

“It's fine, everyone knows vampires only turn like that when they kill for fun,” said Acarto. “I came to this tavern because I heard you were in town.”

“He's a fan!” said Kobalt the goblin.

“No, I think he wants help,” said Runewiz the commentator with a frown.

“That I do,” agreed Acarto. “I come from community of vampires, a village called Ardeal. The vampires there have all sworn themselves off human blood, instead using the herd of cows we have. But they're all in danger, as the shadows are leaving.”

“What'd you mean?” Kobalt asked.

“Ardeal is always covered in shadow,” Acarto explained, “so the vampires are always safe. But just before sundown today, the shadows started to fly away. If they're not returned before the morning, the vampires will all die.”

“What do you think caused it?” Runewiz asked. “Magic?”

“I think it's a witch,” said Acarto. “Do you know anything about them?”

“I know they trade their emotions and memories for magic powers,” said Trimble. “Usually because they want revenge for something.”

“Are there any shadows still in Ardeal?” Runewiz asked. “If they're still flowing, we could follow them to the witch.”

Ardeal was in a steep-sloped crater, surrounded on all sides by tall trees. And by a stroke of luck there was still a small trickle of darkness flowing from the cow enclosure.

It was heading to a wide gap in the trees almost directly opposite them, so they ran along the edge of the forest, just in time to see it flit through the gap.

“Look,” pointed Trimble.

Just within the forest, easily standing out among the normal duskiness, was a pulsating blob of pure black shadow, which was joined by the trickle they were following.

“The witch must be nearby,” said Trimble.

“Is there anyone there?” said Runewiz loudly. “Hello?”

“Hello,” returned a curt female voice. The shadow parted, and a woman stepped from within. She looked normal, apart from her pure black eyes. “My name is Witch Eva. I assume you're here to ask me what I'm doing with the shadows?”

“Well?” said Runewiz impatiently.

“I'm going to form an army of shadows,” she said coldly, and the writhing mass of darkness split into about thirty demonic shapes just for a second, before merging together again. “When the sun rises, we will raid the village. Tear the vampires apart in their homes, or drive them out into the sunlight to perish.”

“But why?” said Trimble. “They're no harm to anyone now!”

Witch Eva simply sneered, and disappeared back into her darkness.

“We should warn everyone in Ardeal to hide,” said Trimble.

“Has anything changed there recently?” Runewiz asked. “Have any of the vampires attacked a person, or anything?”

“No!” said Acarto. But he realised he denied it much too quickly, and in a resigned voice said, “you'd better come with me.”

The largest building in Ardeal was a small village hall of sorts, which had a couple of small jail cells. In one of those cells was a vampire, whose hands and feet were heavily cuffed, his face full of regret.

“His name is Poldori,” whispered Acarto.

“He sent you here to kill me, didn't he,” Poldori said sadly, looking at them through the bars. “I didn't mean to do it. The boy got separated from his mother, and I could smell...”

His voice broke off, and he looked away.

“What could you smell?” Trimble asked softly.

“He was dying,” said Poldori in a quiet voice. “Before I came to Ardeal, I would offer to save people from fatal illnesses or mortal wounds by giving them a life of vampirism... The boy didn't know he was dying, and the habit just kicked in.”

“His mother!” said Kobalt. “Witch Eva must be his mother, wanting revenge for her son!”

“What happened to the boy?” Runewiz asked.

“He was allowed to live in Ardeal,” said Acarto. “He had nowhere else to go.”

“Would seeing her son break the spell?” Runewiz asked.

“Well, kind of, maybe,” said Trimble awkwardly. “The way to beat a witch is to make her cry. Seeing her son may break the memory barriers and bring tears, but it would also break her powers and almost certainly kill her.”

“Rather than dying, maybe she could become a vampire too?” suggested Kobalt, looking at Poldori.

“I'll find the boy,” said Acarto, “and then let's visit Witch Eva.”

He was called Fred. He wasn't too happy about being used as a pawn to defeat his own mother. But he also didn't want her to be a witch, so he agreed to join them when they went back to the forest.

“There she is,” said Trimble.

Fred took a deep breath, and went over to his mother, whose back was turned as she was facing her mass of shadow. He cleared his throat.

“Who are you?” she sneered, glancing over her shoulder.

“Don't you remember me, mama?” asked Fred, in a sad voice.

“Mama... You were my son,” said Witch Eva indifferently. “Well, what do you want?”

“Is it true I was dying, mama?” Fred asked. “Why didn't you tell me?”

“I didn't want... I just thought...” she spluttered. Then she gulped, and tears seeped from her eyes. “I'm so sorry, Freddy!” she shouted.

The ball of darkness behind her burst, and flowed back to the village. She collapsed, and Fred managed to catch her before she hit the ground.

“I'm so sorry,” she said again, her eyes now the exact same shade of blue as Fred's. “I didn't want the rest of your life to be marred by knowing it would be so short. I'm sorry for stealing the shadows,” she said, turning to Acarto. “I was just so angry. Will I die?”

“You might,” said Acarto wretchedly, before he said, “but you could become a vampire.”

“I can't bite my own mother!” shouted Fred.

“Maybe Poldori can be forgiven if he bites Eva,” said Acarto, and sighed. “Not the ideal situation, but there it is.”

“Why would it be for you to decide?” asked Kobalt, as Runewiz picked Eva up gently. They started to walk back to the village hall.

“Are you in charge of Ardeal?” asked Trimble curiously.

“Yes, well spotted,” smiled Acarto, his eyes glistening. “My old master was killed for being a vampire. Usually a Loogaroo will disappear when their master dies, but for some reason I didn't. So I decided to make something of my life, and I built Ardeal as a place for vampires to live without seeking human blood. I was surprised by how many were up for it.”

“Fred, I'd like you to wait outside,” said Eva, when they reached the village hall. “I don't want you to see me getting bitten. And I want to talk to Poldori and Acarto about something.”

Fred nodded sadly.

“We could show you the Carnival while you wait,” said Trimble.

So Fred sat on a bench outside the village hall, a smile slowly working its way across his face as all manners of monsters flew around him. Before long, other vampires from Ardeal sat with him, and for the first time the Monster Carnies were having requests shouted at them.

At first they didn't know how to react - Trimble was clumsily creating whichever creatures were being shouted the loudest. But before long they found their groove, and Runewiz was giving improvised introductions to the various requested animals.

The show was running much longer than usual. Kobalt had done his “goblin surprise” moment, so he was now being chased by the monsters.

Fred was enjoying himself so much he forgot he was a vampire now, and thought nothing of it when his mother sat beside him, with a wet bandage clutched to her neck.

As the show finished very late, the Monster Carnies spent the night in the village hall. In the morning they found Ardeal was once more completely shaded, but as most vampires slept during the day they left as quietly as possible.

“Hey!” shouted a voice, just before they started to climb out of the crater.

Eva, Fred and Poldori caught up with them.

“Last night I spoke with Poldori and Acarto,” said Eva. “Poldori, Fred and I are going to travel around the country, and offer people who are dying the chance to come and live in Ardeal as a vampire.”

“Well, as long as you never force anyone,” said Trimble.

“So you've forgiven Poldori for biting Fred?” said Kobalt. “No more witching for you?”

“I'm grateful, now I've had a chance to think it over,” said Eva. “I think it's a great idea, and the more vampires who join Ardeal, the more likely vampires are to see how much better it is, and give up human blood.”

“Good idea,” smiled Trimble. “Do you want a ride? The back of our cart doesn't let any light in. We're going to a castle a long way away to entertain at a prince's birthday party. Plenty of places between here and there you could visit.”

“That would be great, thanks” smiled Eva.

From that day, the Monster Carnies dropped the vampire monster from their show, and vampires would travel for miles to live in Ardeal.



2ND PLACE
VK MURALI: DOORS

I was adopted. I never knew my real mother; rather, I knew her at one time but I left her side when I was too little to be able to remember. I loved my adopted family though. They were so kind to me. I ate well, I lived in a warm and comfortable house, and I got to stay up pretty late.

Let me tell you about my family real fast: First, there’s my mother. I never called her Mom or anything like that; I just called her by her first name. Janice. She didn’t mind at all though. I called her that for so long, I don’t think she even noticed. Anyhow, she was a very kind woman. I think that she is the one who recommended my adoption in the first place. Sometimes I would lay my head against her in front of the television and she would tickle my back with her nails. She is one of those Hollywood mothers.

Second, there’s Dad. His real name was Richard, but he never really liked me much so I began to refer to him as Dad in a desperate attempt to gain his affection. It didn’t work. I think that no matter what I called him, he would never love me as much as his own child. That’s understandable so I really didn’t press the matter. The most notable attribute of Dad was his unmoving sternness. He was not afraid to pop his children when they did something wrong. I found that out before I could use the restroom properly. He didn’t hesitate to spank me. Well, I’m in line and it’s because of his methods.

Lastly, is my sister. Little Emily was really young when I was adopted, so we were about the same age, but she was slightly older. I liked to think of her as my little sister, though. We got along better than any sibling could possibly get along. We would always stay up late together and just talk. Well, she did a lot of the talking; I mostly just listened because I loved her. It was a great setup that we had! We were short on bedrooms, so- because I didn’t want to sleep in the living room by myself when I was littler- I had a pallet set up for me next to her bed on the floor. This is where I have slept since. But it was cool with me because I enjoyed being with her and I had always felt pretty protective of my little sis.

Everything changed on a horrible Wednesday night. I was at home taking a nap when little Emily opened the front door. The sound of the door opening pulled me to a state of consciousness and I walked from the room down the hall to the living room. That’s when I first remembered it was Wednesday. I was never any good at keeping track of what day it was. Actually I’ll just go ahead and say it: My sense of time was HORRIBLE! But nevertheless, I knew it was Wednesday because Emily had just come home from her Church’s youth group gathering. She walked in the front door and hugged me, and then was followed in by Dad and Janice.

“You have a good nap?” Janice said teasingly as she ruffled up my hair. I just shook my head away and snorted in a manner that clearly expressed that I was teasing back with her.

“Don’t you snort at your mother like that!” said my father gruffly with authority. He shut the door behind him and hung up his coat.
“I was clearly joking…” I growled under my breath. He must not have heard me because I didn’t feel him smack me. Emily then proceeded to our room and I followed. She started telling me about her day. You know… usual teenage girl stuff. But I listened so that she would feel better. After her summary she suggested watching TV and I obliged and jumped onto the couch as she was going for the remote. She rolled her eyes at my little-brother-like immaturity and scooted me over and sat down. The TV turned on and we watched it together until the sun went down. Emily was the kind of girl that- instead of watching cartoons and soap operas- would rather watch Discovery and Animal Planet and Natural Geographic. I like those too so I didn’t mind. Actually, those were the only channels that can hold my attention.

So it got late and Janice walked up behind the sofa. “Emily it’s past your bed time. Turn off the television and go to your room. You too.” she pointed at me. Emily turned off the program we were watching grudgingly and stood up. She started down the hallway to our room. As I followed I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.

We went into our room and Emily turned off the light. Just as she did, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was out the window, but as soon as I redirected my line of sight to where the window was no longer in my peripheral vision, what it was that I thought I saw was gone. I still remained alert. For my sister’s sake.

I laid there in the darkness with nothing but the thin ray of light from the street lamp outside to illuminate the room. It wasn’t much. Time and time again I could have sworn that I heard subtle sounds just out the window… a twig break, leaves crunching, clothes jostling. And all the while I could smell a faint stench of sweat and blood. I kept my eyes open most of the night.

The sounds outside subsided and the smell left my nose. I began to feel at ease. My eyelids closed.

Not long after that, I heard a very loud crash on the other side of the house. I was up in an instant. “THERE’S SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE!” I barked with extreme adrenaline coursing through me. “Wake up!” I shrilly pleaded with Emily. She did, and as soon as I saw her sit up I ran to my parent’s room…

Dad was dead. His neck was splayed open and gaping as blood spilled out of it, off the bed, and onto the floor. I saw that the master bathroom’s door was closed and just before it- on the outside- was a man.

A man… I don’t feel comfortable calling it that.

He was very large and rugged. He turned around and saw me and that’s when I saw him accurately for the first time. I wont forget it. His eyes were large and beady and trapped with lust. He was styling a beard that was badly unkempt with blood dripping off. His clothes were dirty and his face was cold. Just then I noticed the same horrid smell of sweat and blood from earlier, but this time it was overwhelming.

He saw me. He saw me and grinned with a set of crooked yellow teeth. That smile threw me off. I thought that I was going to die, but then he turned back to the bathroom door completely unperturbed by my presence. I was terrified and didn’t no what to do. I just yelled and cried. I watched as he shouldered through door that was Mom’s only protection. I watched as he raised the large razor that he was carrying, but had obviously neglected to use properly. I watched as he sliced her open and tore her to shreds…

I then heard something; the last thing that I wanted to hear… It was Emily’s scream coming from behind me. The large monstrosity looked up from my butchered mother and stared at my little sister. I was distraught. He stood up and quickly started walking toward us. My sis turned and ran, and I was at a loss when he bypassed me and went straight after her. Why was she still in the house? Had she not assessed the situation and run? Apparently not, and now she was dead and I was alone.

I ran after them both. I expected the man to kill her as he had the rest of my family, but I was sadly mistaken. He grabbed her by the arm and jerked her as a way to make clear that he was in control. He dragged her through the house… I was making all of the noise I could now, hoping and praying that someone would come to my aid. He mustn’t take her. Not her.

As he passed me I backed against the wall and whimpered with terror, “Why?” He didn’t respond except by putting his free hand on my head while Emily screamed in the other and saying “Good boy.” He gave another crooked grin and a very cold, unnatural laugh. I followed him to the door where he dragged my helpless sister after him. He opened it, pulled her out, and slammed it shut behind him.

I am now sitting in the house with my mutilated adopted parents, shivering and whimpering with dismay. He’s out there with her. Doing who-knows-what to her, and I can’t do anything. I would if I could, but I can’t. I would chase after them in a heartbeat, but I can’t. I sit here, looking at the front door. I look down at my paws. If only I could open doors....



3RD PLACE
KIT THORNTON - TREE OF GHOSTS

Plick! Something small and hard fell on my head. Plick! There was another. They were acorns, and as I heard the merry tinkling laughter from high above me in the oak tree against which I sat, I knew that it was not by mischance that these acorns had fallen upon me. Thus began the strangest incident I have ever experienced in more than thirty years of walking in the hills and valleys around my home.

Early that morning I had set out on foot in the September sunshine determined to travel further than usual, to explore the valley beyond the mountain ridge that was normally the limit of my walks. I loved the scenery and the solitude; I rejoiced in the thought that, despite all the sadness and misery of the world beyond, here I was at one with the land, where little had changed in hundreds of years.

Eventually I reached the ridge and, pausing to sit on a rocky outcrop, I gazed in awe at the scene laid out before me. Row upon row of mountain ranges, each appearing a paler shade of grey than the one in front of it until, in the furthest distance, they blended seamlessly with the pastel sky. Directly below me the land fell away gradually to the valley floor through which meandered the silver thread of a river, and beside this river I could see several small copses, probably of oak, beech and alder. Even at this distance I could see the first tinges of autumn staining the topmost leaves of the trees a russet brown.

I was hot after the exertion of the climb up to the ridge and beginning to feel the pangs of hunger, so I rose from the rock and set off down the mountainside towards the nearest copse where I determined to rest beneath the shade of the trees and enjoy the packed lunch that I carried in the bag on my back.

As I approached the copse by an old track I noticed two black birds sitting together on the top rail of an old broken gate that was almost buried in a bramble thicket. My knowledge of birds and their recognition was, I had thought, fairly comprehensive, but these were strange and quite new to me. I was sure that they were doves, but of a jet-black colour, and as they watched me I formed the peculiar impression that they had been waiting for me. At that moment they rose from the gate and flew ahead of me along the track, soon vanishing amongst the trees.

In a while I came upon a huge oak standing solitary and majestic beside the river. This ancient tree dominated the small clearing in which it stood, but it offered shelter from the sun and so, with my face towards the river and my back against the massive trunk I settled down to enjoy my lunch. Plick! Plick! The acorns were bouncing off my head and I peered upwards into the branches trying to locate the source of the sweet laughter that accompanied this gentle bombardment.

I had no sense of danger or threat from whoever was hidden amongst the leaves so, my curiosity piqued, I left my backpack on the ground and began to climb the tree. Although not an experienced climber I had done some rock climbing in my younger days and the gnarled and knobbly bark of the oak’s huge trunk offered me plenty of hand and footholds. Yet the task proved tougher than I had expected and so my fingers burned as with aching limbs I flopped over the first branch, some thirty feet from the ground. My eyes were closed as I struggled to recover my breath, but my senses told me that I was not alone.

“Hello.” The soft voice was very close to me. “You’re the first to do that climb for many years.” Opening my eyes I saw a girl and a boy, of no more than seventeen or eighteen years, sitting together on another branch, maybe six feet from the one on which I now sprawled. I pulled myself up to a more comfortable position, back against the trunk and legs dangling each side of my sturdy branch. The girl was very pretty with long blonde hair and eyes of vivid blue; her friend was lithe and handsome, with fine features and soft brown curls falling to his shoulders. Both were wearing tunics of russet brown over leaf-green shirts. Perhaps their unusual dress should have made me feel surprised, nervous even, but at that moment everything seemed just as it should be. “Who are you?” I asked.

The boy spoke again, “I am William, and this is Eleanor, although everyone calls us Will and Ellie now.”

“We are ghosts,” said Ellie, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. “We don’t usually encourage visitors here, but we know that you are different and that you will not want to harm us.”

“Not that you could, of course,” added Will, “But life here is very peaceful with our friends and the many creatures that share this tree with us. We don’t want outsiders spoiling it.”

“Do you know that an old oak tree is often called ‘a garden in the forest’?” asked Ellie. “That’s because of the variety of different plants and creatures that depend upon it in one way or another. There are hundreds of kinds of lichens; fungus, mosses, ferns, ivy and even mistletoe-” Ellie smiled shyly, “and hundreds of different insects that live amongst them and in the bark of the tree. And then there are the birds that feed on the insects, and more birds and animals that eat the acorns. It’s our world.”

“Ellie, you talk too much,” said Will gently.

I was interested, of course, but I wanted to learn more about the strange young couple sitting side by side on the branch in front of me. Could they really be ghosts? They turned to look at each other when I asked my question, as if trying to decide how much of themselves they should share with this stranger who had stumbled into their world.

“Many, many years ago,” began Will, “Eleanor and William were sweethearts, but their families were feuding and so they had to keep their love secret. Whenever they could, they would slip away to meet at this tree. But there was no future for them; no hope.”

Ellie picked up the story. “So they planned a final tryst, one last meeting when hand-in-hand they danced three times around this old oak, and then they would be together forever.”

“The two families were very angry, each blaming the other, when the two bodies were found hanging from the tree,” continued Will. “But good came out of it in time; when the anger had subsided there followed acceptance, then reconciliation, and Eleanor and William were laid to rest together beneath this fine tree. Together forever.”

“But that was a long time ago,” said Ellie. “Our families are gone now, even our villages have gone; only a few stones to remind you that they were ever there.

“We could tell you so many tales,” Ellie went on, the sweet smile having returned to her face. “We are not the only ghosts hereabouts, but you will not see the others.”

It was Will’s turn again. “The oldest is a spirit messenger of Thor, the god of thunder. The oak is his tree, as we are often reminded when he sends lightning. It’s scary but we are protected, only the unrighteous have cause to fear the lightning here.”

“And another of our friends is the spirit of the mistletoe,” added Ellie. “He told us once about the goddess of love whose son was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. The tears she shed for her son became the white berries and since that day mistletoe means only love.” And again I saw Ellie’s shy smile.

And so we talked and talked, each speaking of our own different worlds, until it was time for me to go. We said our farewells but when I promised to return Ellie and Will suddenly became serious. “You will never return,” said Will.

“But we’ve had fun haven’t we?” added Ellie, smiling at me through the tears that had come to her blue eyes. “So you won’t forget your friends in the oak tree?”

“No, I shall never forget this day,” I said sadly as I began carefully to descend the gnarled trunk of the great tree.

Reaching the foot of the tree I looked back up to the branch to wave to my friends, but where they had been sitting were only two black doves. As I watched they flew up into the higher branches, away, out of sight amongst the leaves.

Striding back towards my home, my mind full of muddled thoughts about the strange events of the day, I met an old shepherd whom I had known for many years. After the usual greetings I asked him if he knew the ancient oak in the copse beside the river. “Yes, I remember it well from when I was a lad,” he replied. “I had first begun to tend the sheep in these hills and many times would shelter there, especially when there was thunder about. It always felt safe, but the great tree fell in a terrible storm, maybe twenty years ago it was, and people came to take away the timber.”

I was stunned, but I hid my surprise from the old shepherd. Perhaps he had misunderstood my description of the place, so I determined to return at the first opportunity.

I suppose I should have known that I would never again find the old oak tree. From a fine piece of oak wood that had long lain unneeded in my workshop I carved a marker post, and I inscribed upon it the words ‘In memory of Eleanor and William, my friends.’ This I set up on the exact spot where I knew the great tree had once stood. It was a stiff walk from my home, but often I would return to that spot in the valley to sit beside the river. Of course, there was no sign now of the ancient oak, except for my modest marker not the slightest hint of its once majestic presence dominating that small clearing. Yet always when I returned there I would find a small posy of flowers beside the marker post, with a fresh sprig of mistletoe, and never did I forget my friends from the tree of ghosts.

-- oOo --