Flash Fiction

Fiona Perry June 2020 First Prize

Sea Change

by Fiona Perry

He arrives breathless with excitement, clutching a thick plastic bag bulging with shells. At the kitchen table, he points to the bag and tells me they fattened up over winter. At first, they settled as larvae on ropes, before growing to half the length of a thumb, ready to be stuffed like sausage meat into casings known as socks. The runt grouped with the runt, the alpha with the alpha to prevent unfair competition. I imagine it – the swaying of the long mesh tubes, the seething growth of it. I tell him all of this is wonderful, resisting the urge to remind him he is in fact dead. He smiles and asks me to pour vodka for us into his old reko tumblers which have appeared on my counter top. He says that once the molluscs reach full maturation, they are able to travel outside of the sock – by attaching a byssal thread from their beard to an anchor and then shortening it to move. He finds this both funny and moving. Soon afterwards, he says, the sock collapses into the centre of the column. Collapses into the centre of the column, he repeats. He wipes his mouth with his hand. I am standing beside the stove now, frying diced onion and garlic in the big pasta pot I misplaced years ago, into which I squirt tomato paste, let it sizzle, splash in vodka, warm water and cream. He tips the mussels from the bag into the pot, I sprinkle in sea salt and clamp on the lid. He explains that this is where he has been all along, looking after these creatures. His face soft like a monk’s, he announces he must leave after dinner because new larvae always require his attention out in the ocean.

About the Author

Fiona was born and brought up in Northern Ireland but has lived in England, Australia, and New Zealand. Her first collection of poetry, Alchemy, will be published by Turas Press (Dublin) in autumn 2020. Her short fiction was shortlisted in the Australian Morrison Mentoring Prize in 2014 and 2015. She contributed poetry to the Label Lit project for National Poetry Day (Ireland) 2019. A graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, and Lancaster University, she worked previously as an environmentalist in a unitary authority. She is currently a teacher, editor, and proofreader and lives with her family near Oxford.

share by email

Hannah Storm June 2020 Second Prize

The species of pangolin compromise their own order: Pholidota.

by Hannah Storm

Pholi - A folly is something stupid.

Dota - She’s learning phonics at school. This is how she would spell daughter.

He said I was fucking stupid. Ordered me to get rid of it. I cradled my belly’s soft shell as it grew.

‘Pangolin’ comes from the Malay ‘pengguling’, loosely meaning something that rolls up.

Later I stuffed into a rucksack all we needed to survive, hiding our future beneath my bed. I curled up by her cot.

Special glands near the pangolin’s anus secrete a pungent fluid as a defence mechanism.

Now the court toilet smells of the fear of losing my child.

That last night, he came home drunk. I’d not showered for two days between the feeding, burping, changing, rocking, cooking. He hissed at me when I begged him to be quiet.

You smell ripe. He tore at my clothes. Why can’t you make a fucking effort? Pinned me to the bed. Cried when he came. Then she cried too. By the time I had settled her, he was snoring. The room reeked of shame.

Pangolins are nocturnal animals. Their shells made of keratin the same substance as human hair and nails.

In the shower I scrubbed myself raw, let the water sear my scalp. Impossible to feel clean.

The mother curls up around the baby pangolin if she senses danger.

He left for work. Then we left. I clasped her to me, promising he would not hurt us again.

Now I hear my name, calling me to Court.

The endangered pangolin is the world’s most trafficked animal; its body parts are sold as a delicacy or used for their mythical healing properties.

When my daughter is older, I will teach her how to protect herself. One day I will explain what being endangered really means.

About the Author

Hannah has been a journalist for two decades, travelling the world and witnessing her fair share of love and loss. She writes flash fiction to pay tribute to the people she’s met and places she’s been, and creative non-fiction to process her own experiences. She's working on a memoir, a flash collection and is editing a novel. Now she is based in the UK with her husband and two children and is the director of a media charity as well as a journalism consultant.

share by email

Sam Payne June 2020 Third Prize

The Man You Didn’t Marry

by Sam Payne

The police meet you after your night shift at Sunshine Care to tell you they're concerned for your safety. They found the man you didn’t marry outside your house at four am. In his car, black bags, rope and a crowbar. They tell you they're sorry but they can't hold him.

The locksmith talks about Brexit as he rips out the deadbolt and replaces it with a shiny new one. When he leaves, you barge your shoulder into the door just to make sure it doesn’t give. But in the night you wake to the smell of Joop and the man you didn't marry is pushing his knuckles into your clavicle and telling you he loves you. His saliva gathers in the corners of his mouth and the white froth reminds you of tide bubbles and you focus on this as he throttles you. You lose consciousness and your body becomes a stingray slipping into saltwater.

You survive because you're lucky or at least that's what people say. You move cities, rent a different house every six months and clean everything continuously. You're happy that you have things in order. Until the therapist tells you perfectionism is a sign of unhealed trauma. When you get home, you throw Bolognese sauce at the walls, empty the cutlery drawer onto the lino and chuck your clothes out of the window until you're satisfied this chaos is proof that you're fine. But every time you sleep you're sinking into a cold, dark ocean. Submerging deeper and deeper, the saltwater strips your flesh until there's nothing left and when your skeleton rests on rippled sand, the man you didn't marry scoops you up. He polishes your bones until you shine like teeth and he keeps telling you he'll never ever let you go.

About the Author

Sam Payne lives in Devon, United Kingdom. She has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing and her work has appeared in various places including Spelk, Reflex Fiction and Popshot Quarterly. She tweets @skpaynewriting

share by email

Emily Harrison June 2020 Commended

Not Now, Universe

by Emily Harrison

I tell her about a guy who took me round the back of a fancy Soho restaurant once, to show me the lobsters in the tank holding claws. We are baffled by what men bother to plan for. I tell her I saw him again, weeks later, hanging around my favourite painting in The National Gallery. We laugh at the possibility that he’d been there all day. Maybe other days. I tell her what I was wearing. She nods slowly as she recalls the dress, brings her fingers to her mouth for a chef’s kiss. I tell her his flat was higher up than I expected, which was annoying because it meant running down dozens of flights of stairs. She does not interrupt me at this point because she knows where the story is headed. She winces when I tell her how he ripped my underwear off me by pulling them forcefully upwards. Amongst other things. It feels good to give her the details. I tell her how I walked home in the pissing rain, went past two separate karaoke bars where I could hear people murdering Hopelessly Devoted to You. How just before I got home, a man almost hit me with his car and then blew me a kiss. I tell her about this guy posting my underwear back to me a week later, and I’m crying in her arms before we can begin to discuss what a gesture as bold as that could possibly even mean.

About the Author

Emily Harrison is a poet and fiction writer based in London. Her poetry collection I Can’t Sleep ’cause My Bed’s On Fire is published with Burning Eye Books. She lives and teaches in Hackney.

share by email

Stephanie Carty June 2020 Commended

The Price of Gingerbread

by Stephanie Carty

My brother Hansel went missing. Father frowned into whisky. His wife rubbed kohl down her cheeks before posting selfies on Facebook.

Hansel said he’d spied a shack with walls made from bottles of cherry vodka in the marshlands. He liked to get high on hope. He’d have made a great spaniel, yapping about on the daily walk as if it might be different one time, as if paths weren’t already mapped out to always end in the same place.

But a twin is only a twin with a twin.

Through the squelch of mud, I tracked his route. The shack was set back in some trees. Columns of cigarette packets created beams to hold the structure upright. I could have sprinkled those white sticks along the path I’d walked but what was the point when nobody would search for us? Glass bottles arched across the roof. Leeching out of the place was a scent far heavier than father’s shirts, woody and dark. I sniffed until the sky spun.

Lights blinked around the door in green and red. I dug my fingers into a crevice to ease out a mobile phone but didn’t know the passcode.

After that, it’s hazy. Hansel and I were back together yet hardly there at all. There were fiery drinks poured straight from the rafters, sherbet to rub on our gums, pastilles that turned day to night. We giggled like the toddlers we’d been before father’s eyes were glazed by grief.

We’re not alone here but let’s not spoil the tale. Let’s not sour the sweet with flashbacks. None of it matters: the strangers, the pressing, the pain. We have the house and the house has us.

My brother reaches out to squeeze my hand. Then we turn to the walls and gorge ourselves.

About the Author

Stephanie Carty is a writer, trainer and NHS consultant clinical psychologist in Staffordshire, UK. Her debut novella Three Sisters of Stone was published May 2018 with Ellipsis Zine and won Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards 2019. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Award, Aesthetica Creative Writing Award and the Bridport Prize. She was a winner in Bath Flash Fiction Award, June, 2019. She writes psychological thrillers and is represented by Sheila Crowley at Curtis Brown.

share by email

Interview with Mary-Jane Holmes, Judge, March-June 2020.

Mary-Jane Holmes is a writer, teacher and editor based in the Durham Dales, UK. She has been published in such places as the Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018, and the Best Microfictions Anthology 2020 Her work can also be found in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Spelk, Cabinet of Heed, Flashback Fiction, Mslexia, Fictive Dream, The Lonely Crowd, and Prole amongst others. She is winner of the Mslexia Prize (2018), the Reflex Fiction prize (Autumn 2019) and the Dromineer Fiction Prize (2014).In 2017, she won the Bridport Poetry Prize and her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass was published by Pindrop Press in 2018. She is currently studying for a creative writing PhD at Newcastle University and she has an unpublished flash collection knocking about that was recently short-listed for the International Beverly Prize for Literature.
@emjayinthedale

  • You have been very successful in major competitions with your flash fiction over the last couple of years, winning both the Mslexia flash fiction competition and the Reflex Flash Fiction competition as well being listed and commended in other Awards most recently in the International Beverly Prize for Literature for a flash fiction collection. What do you enjoy about writing flash? And have you a favourite piece among your winners?
    I think flash fiction is one of the most flexible genres around given that it can occupy that liminal space between prose and poetry. It is also a place that can absorb risk and experimentation because of its brevity and of course it is a great discipline. I would urge anyone who wants to write in longer forms, to first cut their teeth on a genre that will teach them how concision and compression drive prose to be the best it can be. ‘No decorative humbugs’ as George Orwell said. Out of the pieces, that I have been lucky enough to have done well with, I think 'Down the Long Long Line' that will be in this year’s Best Microfiction Anthology is a favourite as it is very much tied with my PhD that deals with looking at history and the female voice.
  • You are a poet as well as a flash fiction writer. Do you find you can move easily between the two forms? Some people make a strong distinction between prose poetry and flash. Others don’t see much difference. Do you have a view on this? 
    I always set out knowing whether I am going to write either a poem or a flash fiction. There has never been anything I have written where I have thought - oh this isn’t a poem, it’s a piece of flash, so I must, on some level see a difference between the two forms although it is hard to pin that down. I suppose that something that has more narrative drive, suits flash fiction and perhaps that is where the distinction lies for me.
    • Which flash fiction writers do you currently enjoy reading? 
      Oh gosh - well pretty much all of the writers that Ad Hoc fiction published last year. Michael Loveday, Charmaine Wilkerson, Ken Elkes, Meg Pokrass. Amy Hempel is probably the writer that got me into considering the short form and Lydia Davies of course. There are many many others….
    • Teaching flash fiction is something you have done for many years, both single workshops, like at The Flash Fiction Festival in 2019 and longer courses. What do you like about teaching this form? In your longer courses, do you find that  there is a point where writers suddenly grasp what flash fiction is?
      I think that teaching flash fiction is ultimately so satisfying because it provides a writer with everything they need to know about narrative structure, style and the character’s dynamics of desire that are key to animating any story. Whether that writer wants to move to the longer form or not, the thing about flash is that the image rather than the idea (Nabakov said ‘all ideas are hogwash’)  drives the tension. Readers really only connect with the emotions a writer is trying to convey when the image is at the forefront, and students of flash fiction quickly understand this and use it to great advantage. If just starting out, this saves a lot of time realizing that summary and explanation aren’t as resonant as drama and action and that as writers our responsibility is to give just enough detail for the reader to build the picture and the story on their own. We want readers who actively participate in a story, not passive listeners being told everything, Flash Fiction is by far the best genre to learn this and to learn it quickly!
    • Have you got any up and coming workshops or courses, people can book on?
      I am really sorry to be missing this year’s Bristol Flash Fiction Festival but unfortunately it clashes with running the Casa Ana writing retreat in Granada, Spain which I facilitate two to three times a year. I have a new online Memoir Flash course that I will be running with Retreat West later in the year and I also run an online course with Fish Publishing Ireland which you can sign up to any time.
    • What makes a winning micro fiction for you?
      A great opening that will draw me in, after all in micro, we are finishing the story almost as we start it. After reading the story, I want to feel that the story’s ending was inevitable and yet surprising at the same time. That doesn’t mean that the ending needs to be nice and neat but I do want to say ‘Wow, of course!’ and not ‘where did that come from?’
    • Tips to help writers  create their best story of 300 words or under?  
      Zoom in on a single event;
      Begin in the middle of the action as close to the arc or climax of the story;
      Decide where your focus is – event, point-of-view, character?;
      Write using active voice and eliminate extraneous description;
      Remember that every word counts;
      Use a directive last sentence that gives narrative insight or opinion;
      Make rereads necessary or at least inviting;
      Close with a phrase that sends the reader back into the story;
      Know when you've made your point.
    share by email
  • Sharon Telfer February 2020 First Prize

    Eight spare bullets

    by Sharon Telfer

    1
    The front windows refuse to shut. The house droops, as after a stroke.
    They drink in the kitchen. Under the slanting floor, they catch the trickle of thaw.

    2
    Everything here is the northernmost. Town, church, store, pub. The last.
    She replays her field recording, bowhead whales, all booming fuzz and feedback.
    “Harmonics!” Erik applauds. “That’s freeform jazz.”
    The last blues festival.

    3
    He softens in her mouth. It’s okay, she whispers, though it’s not. She’ll be gone six weeks.
    From the boat, she had watched an iceberg tumble, head over heels, like a clumsy toddler. Not playing, but dying.
    Erik kisses her, has to go. Husky safari, tomorrow’s fresh batch of tourists.
    He kisses his dogs too. Erik loves his dogs.

    4
    Everything slides. The wooden stilts sink beneath the houses. A landslip buries the play park. The ground heaves the dead from their graves, sends coffins tobogganing down the road.
    She wakes. Remembers. Not a dream. Last summer.

    5
    Her breath freezes in her nostrils.
    Reindeer antlers heap by the roadside. They gleam in her torchlight, like bleached coral.

    6
    Time loses its way in the permanent dark. The once-white mountain looms black. Deep below, one million seeds – a world’s worth – lie buried. They called it the doomsday vault, fast as a dragon’s hoard. Nine years after opening, meltwater has already flooded in.

    7
    Beware of polar bears.
    A mother and cubs wandered down this street, past the last post office, the last chocolaterie.
    If you leave town, you must take a gun and eight spare bullets.

    8
    The plane spins her back into sunrise.
    She thumbs up a clip. Erik dancing with his dogs, a circling, shuffling waltz.
    At the northernmost, there are more polar bears than people. If you meet a bear, pull back quietly.

    About the Author

    Sharon Telfer won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in June 2016 with her story, ‘Terra Incognita’, and was commended in the February 2019 round. She has also won the Reflex Flash Fiction Prize (June 2018). Her stories were selected for the 2019 ‘BIFFY50’ and Best Microfiction 2019. She lives near York and was the New Writing North/Word Factory Northern Short Story Apprentice in 2018. She is an editor at FlashBack Fiction. She tweets @sharontelfer.

    share by email

    Simon Cowdroy February 2020 Second Prize

    The Dissolution Of Peter McCaffrey

    by Simon Cowdroy

    Heat-ravaged rivets explode off the corrugated iron roof of our milking shed like corks from shaken champagne bottles.

    A long drought wind scalds in from the north and the thermometer leaves 50 behind as pitiless gusts scour every nook of the farm. No easy pickings to be found; all that could be taken is long gone.

    Dad wasn’t a man you made a promise to lightly, his plea for me to stay burdened with the heft of eight generations. I crane my neck, spot his cross, remember the soil being so unyielding we used up all our dynamite. Not enough time or faith left over for funerals, so his pension cheque still ghosts in.

    I lost Annie to the highway a week back. No goodbyes, only the midnight creak of our front door, the bloom of liberated fuel as her car engine fired.

    Well rid of her two-faced grace, the lies that fell from those blue eyes as acid rain, but I can’t seem to shake that afternoon before she left. The brutal whisper of, ‘Pete, we’re in this together’, as my tired, fractured head folded into her shoulder.

    Joe at the Co-Op rings. The water tankers aren’t coming. He chews my ear about it being the start of Australia’s climate change but sure feels to me like we’re already at the end of everything.

    Three hundred cattle are all that remain and I’ve enough feed to get half through next week. The cull is almost a familiar dance now. I never remember grabbing my gun; never forget to keep a bullet in the chamber after it’s done.

    I’m not a brave man, and if soft bovine eyes ever boiled over in accusation it would unbind me. Turns out, their gratitude is what keeps me awake.

    About the Author

    Simon lives as part of a dog dominated family in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne, Australia. He returned to fiction in 2017 after a long absence and in 2018 two of his initial pieces of Flash Fiction were published in Bath Anthology Three (one of which was commended).In 2019 he joined @VirtualZine as editor/reader and can also be found tweeting away at @virtwriting (#VWG).
    His first crime novel,Cut of a Knife, was a Pitch Perfect finalist at Bloody Scotland in 2018. Described by a reviewer as ‘Dark, disturbing but startlingly humane’ this novel is currently out in the world looking for a home. His hobbies include writing, reading, the art of Caravaggio, lifting heavy objects and awful puns.

    share by email