Thank you again to everyone who entered this year’s competition and congratulations to our winners. We hope that you enjoyed writing your stories and that you also enjoy reading the three winning entries.
Judge’s Report – Fran Tracey
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to judge this year’s competition. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the shortlisted stories on the theme of ‘Choose a Season’. In fact the stories were as varied in theme and approach as the seasons themselves. Emotions ranging from sadness to acceptance, love to anger were all represented. There were incredibly strong voices and equally strong senses of time and place, interesting plot twists and excellent characterisation. The stories were all evocative and memorable, and all four seasons were represented. Some stories were snapshots of a moment in time and place, examining the events of childhood for example; others showed emotional growth and an understanding of how the past so often informs the present.
The theme “Choose a season’ was an interesting one, offering the writer great scope. The season could be a backdrop, a setting, or a character. It could influence the behaviour of the characters, or help shape the plot. Attributes we often associate with a particular season could be subverted, which some of the shortlisted writers chose to do. Many of these stories are effective in how they show their characters changing as seasons also change. And not always for the better! At times when reading the stories the ice made me tingle and shiver, or the warmth of the sun brought on a feeling of delicious lethargy…
It wasn’t easy to choose winners but I thought the most effective writing on the shortlist used – the chosen season to ‘show not tell’ the story, had strong plotting, excellent characterization and realistic dialogue (albeit internal in one case) – and these are the winning stories.
- 1st Place: Counting the Seasons
- 2nd Place: The Last Snow of Winter
- 3rd Place: A Nice Drop o’ Brandy
5 Runners Up: (in no particular order)
- Office Party
- A Little Time Left
- The Sound of Wolves
- The Apple Picker
The Winning Stories
What a powerful piece of writing this is, a tragedy with an incredibly strong voice; a monologue which is an excellent example of showing not telling. It starts out optimistically – “I love spring. It’s green. The promise of things to come.” We’re in the head of a man of habit, who cares for his sick wife, has worked on his allotment for thirty-two years and knows exactly how many steps he takes to get there each day. A man who doesn’t like his routine being disturbed, and likes a laugh with Barry at the corner shop. A man who assures us he’ll get things “sorted.” In a couple of hundred words or so we know this man. I love that. But is he a reliable narrator? When he discovers his beloved allotment is being eyed up by council officers holding clipboards, things take a sharp, dark turn. The manner in which the narrator reveals his contempt for foxes (and conflates them with council officials) was masterful. As the story reaches its conclusion the pace picks up and the narrator’s tone is increasingly stream of consciousness in nature as his fury with foxes and petty officialdom (and his responsibility for his wife) takes over and he begins repeating himself as though to convince himself he’s done the right thing. The right thing is to “read the rules and regs.” Breathlessly and effectively the sentences shorten to one and two words as we reach the climax. Then there’s the conclusion, a slower pace now, things are sorted; not spelt out, but sorted and we’re reminded again it’s spring. But things have changed. This is a finely crafted, subtle piece of writing. I love it.
Counting the Seasons
I love spring. It’s green. The promise of things to come. It’s all in there. I reckon it’s the best of the four. Especially down the plot. I’ve been going there forever. I’ve even counted the steps.
Two thousand one hundred and eighty six paces. That’s what it was from my front door to the
shackled gates of the allotment site. Every day for thirty two years. Over eleven thousands trips.
Millions of steps. Give or take.
It got me out of the house, lungsful of fresh air when the brewery wasn’t puffing out its malty clouds. It was my life. It actually took a few more paces – one hundred and eighty more if you’re counting – if I popped into Konvenience Korner for my bottle of semi-skimmed. Better off when it was on its sell by date. ‘Reduce it any more and it would disappear’ Barry always used to say. Then he always did his Paul Daniels impression with ‘And here’s the lovely Debbie.’ He worked there. Barry. Not Paul. He didn’t own it or owt, just worked there. Always there on a Wednesday. Good price reductions on a Wednesday. ‘Tomorrow’s cheese you’ve got there. That’s magic’. I like that Barry. Not a lot, but I like it.
Anyhow, it was on the two thousandth one hundredth and first pace when I first saw the kerfuffle. I only planned a quick turn of the site, check all was in order like, with it being spring and the start of the season, and back home. Had to be quick as she wasn’t so well at home you see. Needed me around. I had to get back to fetch and carry. Nowt fancy. Just two Ryvita with the marg spread thinly. No great mounds of the stuff. Too much gave her heartburn it did. Bang on one twenty five. Just after the news finished. A hot cross bun at three. Happy till five then. I was fine to nip out to the plot. But that bit of a to-do. Bit of a delay ahead. You don’t get them at an allotment site. Not ours.
I knew summat was really up when one of the five blokes on the public’s side of the gates had a clipboard. They’re bad news in my book. Clipboards belonged to youths in charity tee shirts. They get paid to ask you questions and get money from you down the precinct. I’ve seen them. And at the hospital. Clipboards. Hanging from the end of the bed or with the consultant fella. All spidery fingers, secretly scribbling long words. Lots of words but nothing ever said. Nothing I really understood. Not from my chair next to her bed. She never listened, just nodded and took everything they gave her. No questions asked.
But never clipboards at the allotment site. Clipboard-free sites they are. I should have put that in the rules and regs sheet posted on the notice board. The old un’s knew but the youngsters, the new ones, they didn’t. They all wanted to plan this and that. I wanted to tell ’em to take it easy, do what you feel’s right and just enjoy it. That’s the point in a way. Get away from all that planning and being watched. Everyone needs to getaway, to breathe without any worry. Even in the malty air. Clears the mind. Never failed to clear mine.
I heard the man with the clipboard say he was from the council and that he’d sent a letter.
Said summat about turfing us off so they could build houses. Not those exact words of course but that were the gist. Well that got the lads backs right up. We’ve all been there donkey’s years. Most of us. Best part of thirty two years me. An’ I weren’t the first. Houses on our site? You’ve got to be kidding. I were still four paces from them but I could see faces were scarlet and ready to explode. Volcanic. Didn’t seem fair really. Five of them, from the council, and one with a bleedin’ clipboard and a name tag swinging from a blue and white council ribbon round his neck. And just the three of
I listened to clipboard man. He went on about the ‘letters’, ‘consultations’, ‘meetings’, the chance to ‘oppose the proposals’. I heard him say we’ve had ‘plenty of opportunity’ and mentioned my name and summat about the letters again but his voice faded as I slipped through the gates and left them to it. They can’t get at us in here. Good fencing around the place. Kids still find holes in it though. We did the same in our day but never smashed things up. Not like the kids of today. Wreck ‘owt they will. I sorted them though.
I had to be quick. Had to get back. Ryvita at one twenty five. Our lads’ll see to the council lot. They won’t get in. Not unless they ask the kids. Or the rabbits. Or that fox that shits all over the place.
You see she sleeps well at night, doesn’t need me around really. Not once she’s had her pills. The ones the consultant said she needed. She nodded at him. The consultant. I used to say ‘any more and you’ll rattle’. Now that’s funny. Not a lot but it made her laugh. Or smile any road. We used to laugh a lot. In the early days. When we first met. Nowt else to do but make her laugh. I still see her eyes now. Laughing at me stupid faces and jokes. A smile’s good though. Now. So I when’s she’s all settled I can nip out, not for long or owt. Just a bit. At night. Maybe a brew, just as it’s getting dark. It’s really peaceful here at that time of night. As spring gets into summer. Proper light until nine ish. You can hear the road but the owl doesn’t mind. Must be in the hedge, I hear him most nights, waiting for mice. And rats. Plenty of them around. After the chicken food I bet. Just like the fox. I reckon it gets in where the kids have forced back the fencing. It does things like that. The fox. Skulking around, looking for holes, shitting and ripping at shed doors. Not any more. Not after I sorted it.
It was just the one brew that night. Just as I were finishing and flicking out the dregs onto me spuds when I saw him. Or her. It probably heard me but was as bold as brass. A right cocky thing. Right up to next door’s greenhouse. Sniffing at the door. Stupid beast hadn’t heard the chickens on the next plot. Chickens knew it was there right enough. I heard them getting flouncy. Fluffing up a bit. You know. They knew. Fox had all the time in the world. Until I spotted him. I only keep the air gun for emergencies. Just to scare. Things like the fox really. It’s funny how your eyes adapt to the dark. Maybe it was not turning the light on in the house when nipping out to the plot that did it. Got me used to the dark. That or me carrots. Didn’t want to wake her. Not that I would. Them pills would knock an elephant out. I used to tell her that. Got a smile sometimes. It won’t be coming back. Not that fox. Police came. Someone heard the shots. I was well gone. Back at home. Dark house but it were only a skulking, scratching, shitting fox.
It’s their land I suppose. The council. They have to rent it us though. ‘Statutory requirement’ is what it says on their leaflets down the town hall. I checked. Last time I paid the rent. Twenty five quid a year isn’t bad for peace and quiet. Their land though. And their fencing so they can do what they want.
I heard clipboard man thirty two paces away. He somehow got through. Not loud or anything, just him talking. On his phone. I spotted him see. Through the shed window. I get a great view out from there. I see everything going on. Clipboard, name tag on his ribbon and that phone. Not a place for phones this. You can hear things here. Maybe the road, sometimes the owl but always your thoughts. In your head. Your own voice talking softly. You can breathe here. You can taste the malt. Time to think. Not phones. I should have put that on the rules and regs. On the notice board. Their notice board but our rules and regs. We came up with them. ‘No planning, no phones’. Not many others. Not on the board any road.
I counted his steps. He were getting louder. Through the window. He stopped. Phone on ear, clipboard under arm, hand waving about. Why’s he talking so loud? It’s a place of peace and quiet this. Somewhere to think. Not like at home. Not much said but the breathing. The rasping, the
scratching. Take another pill for that noise will you. No laughing mind you. Not any more. Smiles are silent. He was looking at his clipboard as well. On his phone and at his clipboard. He was busy this one. Skulking around. Looking for summat.
I could see well enough. Cobwebs on the cracked glass but I could see him. Just another rat. Just another fox. Sniffing about. Wanting his own way. Wrecking things. Not caring about what it means to us. It’s taken a long time to get this place looking like this. Nearly thirty two years. Your place looking like we want it look. We did the work for you. And you wreck it.
I wasn’t having any of those letters they sent. They always got to me. Course they did. Always found me. Under the front window of the rules and regs notice board. Just stuck there. Flapping in the wind. Wet from the rain. Like me shirts on the line when I got back from here on a rainy day. Showery spring days. Nowt better than spring. ‘No letters’ I should have put on it. I always leave my phone at home. On silent. Best that way. Won’t wake her up. Not that it would after she took those pills. Always had messages but never replied. Guess they’d call again if it were important. Call again. In person. And he did. They did.
Fifteen paces away. End of my plot. Ten paces. I were counting. Looking at the path. Four. He didn’t see me. On my plot. Their plot. Twenty five quid a year. My work. Thirty two years.
Thousands of trips. Millions of steps. Near enough. Summer. No phones. No plans. Autumn. Winter. Breathe. Too much noise. They don’t care. More pills. She’ll rattle you know. They took her easy enough. Did what they said. But they won’t take owt else from me. It was too easy. They took her. Two paces. Fingers tighten. Rules and regs. He didn’t read the fucking rules and regs. Everyone
needs to read the rules and regs. Even the ones not there. One pace. Scratching and sniffing at the
door. Silent fucking smile. Her silent smile. Hand on the door handle. Open. Blinding light. Spring.
And that’s what got me here. Nowt on my patch but it’s all right. Proper meals at set times and everything. No out of date milk. Proper cheese. Nice. I miss Barry though. Good laugh was Barry. And the young ‘uns in here. They learn quickly as the seasons come and go. Spring is still my favourite. Even here. I’ll be back at my own soon enough. Two thousand one hundred and eighty days. To be precise. Few springs in that lot mind.
And don’t worry. She’ll be fine while I’m away. Once they find her.
The season is beautifully drawn in this story of tragedy, regret and, ultimately, forgiveness and redemption as spring waits in the wings at the end. “Shivers of ice veil the view from the window” – a sentence that sets the scene perfectly at the beginning. Winter is an emotion in this story, a symbol for the chill the narrator feels for her mother. Its excellent use of pathetic fallacy. The house in which this story is set was once the narrator’s home, it is still familiar, but a hostile place too, a place to which she has not returned for many years due to a tragic accident having taken place there. She attached blame to one person at the time of the accident and during the course of this story we watch as her anger melts, and she gains understanding of a bigger picture, seeing more than one point of view beyond her own understandably grief-stricken one. This is skilfully and deftly done. At the end the writer has left us still with sadness, but hope too, albeit belatedly. Despite finishing on a question this story is complete and satisfying. In fact, finishing on a question rounds it off nicely.
The Last Snow of Winter
There is a hint of nail varnish or pear drops, not unpleasant, but disturbing.
‘Do you think we should call 111?’ My sister, Anne, asks. Her lips are pinched. She is looking at her mother, I should say our mother, who is asleep in the mahogany bed. The room is smaller than I remember.
Shivers of ice veil the view from the window. Late February and snow is falling as if in a hurry to reach the ground before winter ends. A few inches of snow have covered the windscreen of my car in the short time I have been here. The patio that my father made from crazy paving is lost from sight. There is no sign of where the pond used to be.
I wipe a strand of hair from my face, surprised to find that my forehead is damp despite the unconquerable chill in the cottage. Every heat source has been deployed. There is an open fire in the hearth downstairs. The partial central heating is grinding away, its arthritic pipes creak and groan. An antiquated fan heater that requires continual adjustment to avoid cutting out, is recycling stale air around the bedroom. The cottage remains marble cold.
Anne turns to me. ‘They said the District Nurse would come out if she got worse.’
Deep ruts trench along the lane where a solitary tractor passed about half an hour ago. Snow snagged branches hang from the trees in the wood beyond the road. It will be some time before anyone can get here.
My mother is lying on her back. Her mouth is open. I can’t tell whether she is breathing or not. The arrowed creases on her forehead are softer than I remember, but then it is five years since I last saw her.
‘She’s peaceful,’ I say.
Anne walks over to the bed. She smoothes an invisible ruck in the duvet.
‘They’ve ordered a hospital bed. She hasn’t been up since Monday,’ Anne says. Her hand lingers on the duvet. ‘I’m so pleased that you’ve come, Linda.’ There are dark circles beneath her eyes. She bites her thumbnail just as she did when we were children.
I put my hand on her shoulder. ‘You look tired. Why don’t I make a cup of tea?’
She runs a jerky hand through her hair. She gives a hesitant nod. I follow her down the steep stairs. There is a familiar smell of wood smoke in the living room; a welcome change from the atmosphere upstairs. We don’t speak. Anne puts another log on the fire and sits in one of the armchairs.
The kitchen is much the same as it always was. The beige surfaces are more scratched; the brown units hang looser on their hinges. The dull colour makes it impossible to tell how clean it all is, but the lemon scent of kitchen spray suggests that Anne has been at work. The kettle is new. The drip from the cold tap has not been repaired. The snow is building up on the window sill. It has that grey look that puzzled me as a child.
I know where to find the teapot. The lid to the tea caddy is held on with a rubber band which snaps as I open it. The tea has an unpleasant smoky aroma.
Anne is hunched forwards, staring into the fire. She is unaware of me. I hand her a mug of tea and sit down opposite her. I steel myself to glance at the corner table. There is no sign of the framed photos that used to stand there.
‘I was so hoping you would come,’ Anne says, cradling the mug in her hands. Her tone is soft but cool. ‘It’s been such a long time.’
A log settles on the fire. Hungry flames leap at the fresh wood. ‘I promised myself I wouldn’t come back,’ I say.
Anne studies me, as if making her mind up about something.
‘You shouldn’t have treated her like that, Linda. She didn’t deserve it,’ she says.
I stare at her. ‘I don’t think this is the right time, do you?’
‘It wasn’t her fault, you know,’ she says. She turns the mug in her hands.
‘Of course it was her fault.’ I get up and stand by the window. I hug my arms around me. The snow has slowed. Cold air sluices through the badly fitting window. There is no sound from outside the cottage: no traffic, no birdsong. The garden is blanketed in snow. Drifts have covered most of the stone bench. There is a choking sensation in my throat. I feel sick. I put a hand on the window sill to steady myself. Five years have healed nothing.
There is a light clink as Anne places her mug on the hearth.
‘It was an accident,’ she says. Her voice is calm, measured. ‘She never forgave herself.’
I take a deep breath. The sick feeling remains.
‘She was more interested in her afternoon nap than looking after Jamie.’
A solitary crow hurries over the white landscape and into the gloom of the wood.
Anne stands up and leans against the mantelpiece.
‘She wasn’t well,’ she says quietly.
I bang my fist on the window sill. The window rattles in its frame.
‘Well that’s great,’ I say. ‘How convenient. The first refuge of the guilty; a way to avoid responsibility.’ My heart is pounding.
‘It’s true,’ Anne says. ‘It’s not easy to get the medication right; not at first. It was the start of…’ Her voice tails off. ‘She hadn’t been well for a while. You were too busy to notice.’
‘If she was that ill, why didn’t she say so at the time?’
‘Well what did you expect?’ Anne’s face is flushed. ‘She was hardly going to refuse, was she? You know what she’s like, she kept that sort of thing to herself. She did it for you. She didn’t want to let you down.’ She picks up the poker, and prods at the glowing coals. She turns again to face me. ‘Did you even ask if she was alright to have Jamie? You were so wrapped up in your precious career. Nothing else mattered.’ She waves the poker in front of her. ‘What was it? Let me see if I can remember? Oh yes, a client lunch in the West End in some swanky restaurant. You just took Mum for granted. You dumped on her all the time.’ She throws the poker onto the hearth. ‘So, if you want to blame someone, why not blame your client? Or Dad for keeping the damn stupid carp in the first place? Or the hot weather that meant doors were unlocked? Or Jamie for being a boy with a lot of curiosity?’ She takes a deep breath and glares at me. ‘Or how about shouldering some of the responsibility yourself for a change?’
‘I don’t need this,’ I say. ‘I only came back for you.’ I point my finger at her. ‘Because you asked.’ I walk into the hall and pick up my coat. Anne follows me.
‘That’s right,’ she says. ‘Walk away. Just walk away; like always.’ She stands with her arms crossed. Her eyes are cold and flinted. She watches as I put on my coat. ‘Don’t you think she blames herself for what happened?’ she says.
‘It’s too late for that,’ I say, as I open the door. A blast of cold air sweeps into the hall. I step outside, feeling the crump of the snow beneath my feet. I slam the door behind me. My vision is blurred. I stumble through deep drifts along what looks to be the path, but is, in any event the shortest route to my car.
The car starts, but the wipers can’t clear the snow from the rear window. I get out. Tears are cold on my face. Blindly I sweep the worst of the snow away with my hand and get back in. I try reversing, but the snow is too deep. The wheels spin uselessly. I am not going anywhere. I turn off the ignition and rest my head on the steering wheel. My eyes are burning. The tightness in my throat dissolves into a wail that I hear but can’t control.
The car door opens. ‘Come back inside.’ Anne is pale. She has no coat on and stands with her arms around her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I shouldn’t have said what I did.’ She crouches down and speaks more softly. ‘It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.’
My hands are welded to the steering wheel. I feel Anne take hold of my arm. We stumble back into the cottage. I slump in the chair by the fire. I feel…nothing. Anne kneels in front of me and takes my hand.
‘You have to remember that Mum didn’t only lose her grandson, she lost you too.’ She glances toward the hall and the stairs beyond. ‘And now we’re going to lose her.’
I stare at the hearth rug. It is pitted with dark black indentations where burning embers have escaped from the fire.
‘It’s why I asked you to come,’ Anne says. Her jaw tightens. ‘Before it’s too late.’
I remember her as a child: the first to share her sweets, the first to back down in a fight. I picture her with Jamie. The smile on his face when he saw her. I look down and see my tears darken the coat I am still wearing.
‘I don’t want it all to end this way,’ she says. ‘Not for her.’ She lets go of my hand. Neither of us says anything.
The leather of the armchair is warm from the heat of the fire. Breathless and disoriented, I close my eyes. The winter fades and I am sitting in an armchair warmed by the summer sun pouring into the lounge of the Crown Imperial Hotel. My mobile is pressed to my ear as I try to hear what Anne is saying. I hear the catch in her voice, but don’t understand the words. I am frozen, unable to move. I sense my breath, hot and ragged. As I open my eyes, I hear the chiming of a clock and the walls of the cottage reappear.
Anne stands up. ‘I’m just going to check upstairs,’ she says.
I hear the old floor boards creak as she goes into the bedroom. I go to the window and stare out at the garden. It is hard to picture it as it was five years ago. I force myself to look past the drifts that bury the stone bench to where the pond must have been. As a child the koi carp fascinated me. I spent hours watching them; their fins shivered as they weaved through the water; exotic colours flashed as they twisted and turned. I loved trailing my hands in the water and feeling their mouths nibble at my fingers. I used to know them all by name. I bite my lip. They were names I taught Jamie, as we sat by the edge of the pond, unable to take our eyes off them.
Anne appears at my side and looks out into the garden. ‘Mum had it filled in that summer. She planted red roses. You can just see the tips of the briars.’ She points to a collection of skeletal stems poking up through the snow. ‘There are hundreds of bulbs too: daffodils, tulips and irises.’ She looks up at the sky. ‘The daffodil shoots were up before the snow came. It made me think that Spring might be early this year.’
I turn to her. ‘How’s Mum,’ I ask.
‘She’s awake,’ Anne says. ‘Would you like to go up?’
This is a story with a Dickensian feel, nicely drawn characters, some clever use of irony and lovely period details. There’s fitting use of alliteration and pathetic fallacy at the beginning with the “biting blast of a stiff-stubbled starveling of a wind” setting the scene and we’re right there in Jack the Ripper’s London – dark, bleak and unwelcoming. There’s some sharp dialogue with wince-inducing moments and powerful metaphors to enhance the descriptions. Ellis’s wife urges him “not with the comb you use for the-“. Ellis is combing both the hair of corpses and his horses’ manes with the same comb. The sense of time and place is drawn vividly in this story and although it has a large cast the characters have depth. A sharp, dry wit also shines through. We are soon to learn that Jack the Ripper is not the only killer in London, there is one far closer to home in the world inhabited by the story’s characters. In saying a nice drop o’ brandy serves well to calm the nerves the writer gives us a lovely, satisfying, ironic ending.
A Nice Drop o’ Brandy
My stars, had there ever been such a wind? Such a biting blast of a stiff-stubbled starveling of a wind? Such a flashing slashing surgeon`s scalpel washing along the wharves and warehouses of the Thames?
`No, there hadn`t, not in my lifetime,` said George Moody, (Druggist and Dispensing Chemist ( Est. 1881), in the four-ale bar of the Dog and Partridge.
His younger brother, Ellis, ( Funeral Director and Coffin Maker Est.1885), was inclined to agree. `Good for business, mind. Nothing like an east wind for business. Fair cuts `em down, it does. I also hears poor Mr. Bellamy ain`t long for this world. So Doctor Cadwallader tells me – and he was a sober for a change.`
At this, the brothers fell to steak and kidney pudding and pints of porter. Jack the Ripper, they agreed, needed catching. As for Prime Minister the Marquis of Salisbury?
`Well,` George said, chewing on a twist of gristle, `I reckon I could do better, meself. Why, given half a chance, I`d go out to Africa, and shoot the bloomin` Fuzzy-Wuzzies dead. Blinkin` savages that`s what they are.` And that,` he insisted, lighting a penny cigar, `is a fact – and no bloomin` mistake!`
`Murder! `orrible murder! Evenin` Stan`ard, special edition…`
Clementine Bellamy, a thin dark wizened woman in a black bombazine dress, rustled from her husband`s bedside to the downstairs window of a shabby terraced house on Inkerman Row. On the street corner, the Moon and Stars public house was a blaze of light. She sniffed at this caterwauling cauldron of curses, and crossed herself against the sin of drunkenness. The shrill cry drifted nearer.
`Murder, Jack strikes again…murder…`
She crooked a bony black-nailed finger round the ragged lace curtains and rapped on the window. The newsboy ran across the street.
`Evenin` Stan`ard, missus? That`ll be a penny, if you please.`
The window rattled as she lifted it. Silently, her cold damp hand slithered out, slipped him a coin and snaked back into the darkness. The boy shivered, hitched up his paper-bag and limped away. He stood on the pavement outside the Moon and Stars. The barrow-boys would likely be fighting drunk by now, and with a bit of luck a penny or two – or even a silver sixpence – might be rolling in the gutter before long. He loosened his muffler.
`Evenin` Stan`ard, special edition. `Orrible murder…read all abaht it…`
The coal fire in the downstairs bedroom flickered Clementine Bellamy`s sharp-nosed shadow onto the wall as she took a medicine bottle and a spoon from the bedside table. She twisted the top off the bottle.
`Nice drop o` brandy, Albert, dear? Doctor says it`ll do you good. Just a drop or two, help settle your nerves.`
Albert Bellamy, his jaw a gaping drawbridge, raised his head a pitiful few inches off the grimy pillow. She poured a measure of cheap brandy on to a spoon and dribbled it into his mouth. His voice was a dry scraping rattle.
`It`s the pain, Clemmie, the awful pain…`
`Shall I read to you, Albert? Help take your mind off things.`
He closed his eyes. Albert had no book-learning, and to have his wife read to him was his particular pleasure. `If you would, my dear…`
She settled by the fire in her rocking-chair, and shook the pages of the newspaper. Her black cat opened a green emerald of an eye and purred.
`He`s been at it again,` she said in her cold thin voice. `Two of `em, Albert, he`s killed two of `em! He`s a regular rascal, ain`t he? I tell you straight, a respectable woman ain`t safe these days – though I doubts as how them two was respectable women. Fair gives me the shivers. ` She gave a slanted bitter smile at this, and flicked over a page. `Another drop o` brandy, Albert? Doctor`s orders, after all. That`s right, dear, lift your head and down the hatch it goes. Keep the cold out, you see if it don`t.`
During the winter, Albert Bellamy ebbed and flowed like the River Thames itself. He rallied for a while – only to fall back. For a time in October he was able to sit by the fire and listen to his wife read the Police Gazette. In November, he sank again. Dr Cadwallader prescribed more brandy and laudanum. Albert, crying for his mother, slipped away to his eternal rest as the first sleet of winter swirled along Inkerman Row.
A pale yellow sickle of a rising moon might have see a spindly black-clad figure flitting along the wet and windy streets of Islington that night; a tapping of bony knuckles on Ellis Moody`s window at midnight, brought a stout, dishevelled figure to the door.
`He`s gone, Mr. Moody,` wheedled Clementine Bellamy. `The good Lord`s taken my Albert at last. His suffering is over and Christmas only a month away.`
`I`ll be along, presently,` said the undertaker. `In the meantime you might open a window…`
Mrs. Bellamy slunk away into the night. Ellis Moody climbed the stairs to the attic and pounded on the apprentice-boy`s door. `Samuel,` he called, `Sammy, my lad. Wake up, we`ve a job on. Cheapest coffin you can find. Oh, and Sammy…`
`Yes, Mr. Moody?`
`Get the handcart ready.`
`This `ere new-fangled cremation? Don`t hold with it, tain`t natural,` said Ellis Moody, combing the corpse`s hair. `We was meant to be buried, says so in the Bible.` He gave a last stroke to the man`s silver quiff and put the comb in his pocket.
`Something else ain`t natural,` said his wife. `Colour of the late Mr. Bellamy. Poor blighter`s brown as a berry.`
`Ain`t he just?` said the undertaker. `Touch of Barrington`s Powder, that`ll sort him out.` He glanced at his half-hunter watch. `Anyway, spot of lunch with George…`
Ada Moody took her apron off and folded her hands on her hips. She knew her husband`s idea of `a spot of lunch`.
`And come back sober, Ellis. Don`t want you breathing beer over the mourners like as you did last week.`
`Right you are, my dear.`
Ellis Moody, shrugging on his overcoat and winding his scarf round his neck, slouched out of the funeral parlour by the back door. In the stable-yard, he spat on his handkerchief and rubbed at a grease-spot on the door of his shiny black coach. Satisfied with this, he looked up at the sound of Hercules and Champion stamping their dinner-plate hooves in the stalls. Ellis slipped inside the stable, took out the comb from his pocket and tugged it through Champion`s mane.
`There you are, my beauty,` he crooned. `Fit to pull the carriage of a king.`
`Ellis!` whined his wife from the doorway, `not with the comb you use for the-`
`All right, all right! Give a man some peace.` He slammed the yard door behind him and plodded down the street leaning into the bitter east wind. Dear God above us all, don`t that woman ever stop talking?
George Moody ushered his brother into the warm fug of his parlour, poured two pints of brown ale and dished out doorsteps of bread and cheese and pickled onions. Nothing might be heard, save the chomping of jaws and the swilling of beer. After a time, George brushed the crumbs from his weskit and wiped his moustache.
`How goes it. Ellis?` he asked.
`You heard `bout poor Mr. Bellamy? Passed away two nights ago. His missus knocked on my door, o` course.`
`It`s all money, Ellis – all due respect to the departed.`
`True enough – blimey, lovely drop o` beer is this – but there`s something not right.`
`How`d you mean, brother?`
`Colour of the late Mr. Bellamy gives cause for concern, as you might say.`
George Moody tugged a toothpick round his teeth, and ruminated.
`What perticler shade is the deceased?`
`Likes of a an old brown boot,` said his brother, lighting his pipe.
`That a fact? Hmm. Ellis, I smell a rat – fact is I smells a whole nest of `em.` He trundled into the shop and came back with a black leather-bound book; he spread it on the table and traced his finger down the page. His face dropped.
`Mrs. Bellamy`s signed for arsenic seven times this month. Wanted it to kill the weeds in her garden – she said.`
Ellis swallowed the last mouthful of brown ale. `George, I knows those houses on Inkerman Row – they ain`t got no gardens.`
There was a silence as the chemist peered at his brother. `Knock that pipe out, Ellis,` he said, `we need to see the late Mr. Bellamy – and quick.`
Ellis Moody laid the screwdriver on the table and opened the lid of the coffin.
`He`s white!` said George Moody. `You said as how he was dark.`
`That`s the Barrington`s Powder,` said the undertaker, `most efficacious. He`s dark enough if you know where to look.` He scraped a fingernail behind the cadaver’s ear. A thin brown line appeared.
`Oh, dear. Oh, dear, oh dear, oh me,` said the chemist. `Ellis?`
`You knows how to send one of them telegram things, don`t you?`
`Should hope so, George. It is eighteen eighty-eight, you know.`
`Well, send one to Scotland Yard. Tell `em to get a bloke round here a bit lively. Oh, and another thing, Ellis…`
`Cancel the funeral.`
The prison officer – he was a young man, and had never seen judicial death before, was to attend the hanging of Clementine Bellamy at eight o` clock that morning. It was already five minutes past seven. The hangman – he was a fat pudding-faced cove in a bowler hat and a herringbone overcoat, paid him a courtesy visit. Never can tell with these young `uns. Lot of `em ain`t got the stomach for it. They sat in the prison canteen. The hangman was pleased to impart his professional opinion.
`Poison, lad – that`s the woman`s way. Slow and sly, see. Takes weeks for the poor devils to die. Arsenic`s the favourite. Over the counter at the chemist, no questions asked. `
`How did they..?`
`Catch `er? Deceased was as brown as a workhouse teapot – classic sign of arsenical poisoning. O`course, she didn`t know that, did she?`
`What d`you reckon to her?`
`Clementine Bellamy? A downright bad `un! She sat and watched him suffer – likes of a cat playing with a mouse. Weeping and a-calling for his mother and crying with the pain of it all, poor soul.` He sipped at his tea. `Course it was all for the insurance money. Two hundred pounds, my boy. More`n I get in a year…`
The prison officer lit a cigarette. `What will happen? ` he said.
The hangman looked at his watch. `She`ll have breakfast. Then a few words of spiritual advice from the padre. Bit late for that if you ask me…`
`Why, then she`s going to swing, lad. I`ll see to that. Now, let`s be getting along. I need you to open that peep-hole in her cell, so`s I can get a look at her. Got to `ave the drop right, see.` He put his teacup down, and belched. `Anyway, young feller, you march `er in, and I`ll drop `er quick sharp. Ready, then? I got a baby-farmer at Pentonville straight after this job – and it looks like it`s coming on to snow.`
`Will they give her something? You know, before..?`
`Oh, yes,` said the hangman. `They`ll give her something, all right. A nice drop o`brandy. Just a drop or two, help settle her nerves…`
Office Party by Fudge Blue is a timely and topical tale set at Christmas, centering around the shenanigans that unfold at an office Christmas party. The story has strong and distinctive voices, opening with realistic dialogue between two men, one clearly deluded and with a touch of the Harvey Weinstein about him. Switching points of view works well in this story, especially Kirsty’s monologue, which raises the odd wry smile in addition to you as the reader feeling her pain. At times there was a bit of ‘head-hopping’ which could have been easily avoided and slipping from first to third person, which jarred a bit and slightly undermined the multiple viewpoint technique. Great ending though, with a strong last line.
Falling by Olympia This is an evocative story with some lovely period detail, this time from 1945. It is written in the present tense, which works especially well when seeing the world from a child’s point of view. You’re right there with Elsie and the bitter cold when she describes the “bottle tops…sticking up like little hats on the lumps of ice in the bottles.” Coldness permeates this story, not least in the approach of the bullies towards Elsie, (we see that bullying is not a modern phenomena, if we need any reminder) and the motif of the little girl in the red dress resonates throughout too. This is a nicely crafted story in which the past and present overlap, with a satisfying and ultimately uplifting twist ending.
A Little Time Left by Cat 100 is a story tinged with sadness, regret, love and hope. And memories too, although it’s set in the present with the main character’s teenage grandchildren seeking the Wi Fi code as soon as they arrive at the holiday cottage she hopes will be a sanctuary for them. The main character in this story is strongly written and three-dimensional. She’s wistful, hopeful, but honest. “I love these girls – more than I love their mother, a fact that shames me.” What a wonderful, truthful line. We root for her throughout the story as she attempts (and fails) to gain her granddaughters’ attention with old-fashioned treats. Great last line, but I found the granddaughters’ explanation for their behaviour doesn’t quite add up, and would have liked to see the chosen season play a bigger role in the story.
The Sound of Wolves by Jimmy Wilbow is a story with a vivid sense of place – Welsh Mountains – and a strong voice. The main character reminisces about his childhood when he hears the wind howl like wolves in the Preseli Mountains. The chosen season is winter and our narrator is working with his dad, a priest and the ‘big lads’ sent from a local anger-management class. How he gains the respect of these lads is nicely done and we are very much in the head of a young boy wanting to be part of the big boys’ gang, but also young enough at the end to be carried to bed by his dad. I thought this a beautifully drawn slice of life story with lovely dialogue and a superb use of dialect, but maybe a little short on plot.
The Apple Picker by Grizzelda Bear is a story set in autumn, and in the USA. The current year is 2001 and we flash back to the late 1960s with some nice period detail. Apples trigger memories for Sadie, now the owner of the family farm. Memories of love and loss, and of an unhappy marriage she entered into too young to a much older man, encouraged by her father’s financial needs. The Apple Picker paints a vivid picture of life on a farm for a young woman in the late 1960s. The ending, although maybe stretching credulity a little, raises some interesting ‘so what next…’ questions. A warm, evocative tale.
Fran worked as a professional librarian before becoming a full-time writer fifteen years ago. She writes regularly for Woman’s Weekly, My Weekly and other magazines both in the UK and internationally. Her first published story appeared in ‘You’ magazine in South Africa. She has won and been runner up in a number of national writing competitions and her work has featured in numerous anthologies, the most recent being ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, a charity anthology for ‘Make a Wish Foundation’ based upon the Ernest Hemmingway very short story.
Fran also writes under a pseudonym, and has had a novella and many stories traditionally published under her alter ego’s name.
She has judged a number of writing competitions and enjoys the always difficult task of deciding upon a winner.
Fran lives in West London with her family and her hobbies include eavesdropping and people-watching – for entirely professional reasons, naturally.