Winners

October 2017 Judge’s Report
David Swann

As a boy, I loved a story about a football player whose team had just won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium. Sitting in the dressing room after the match, the player complained he'd lost a contact lens out on the pitch. One of his team-mates is supposed to have said, 'Well, this is our lucky day – why don't we go back out and find it?' According to the story, they did just that, and found the contact lens within moments!

I've never known whether the hunt for the lens ever happened, and I don't care – because the story's full of some weird ancient storytelling truth that I trust.

Now I often remember the tale when I'm entering writing competitions. The pitch at Wembley is vast, and success seems impossible.

Yet sometimes the luck is with us. Sometimes there's a glint in the grass.
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Rose McDonagh
October 2017 First Prize

Pony

by Rose McDonagh

“Look,” Declan said.

Joanna moved to the living room window, from which she could see the back green, the bright square of it.

“Oh,” she said. Her pony was munching grass under the washing-line.

“Bloody hell,” Declan said, “Some nutcase has gone and got themselves a horse.”

“Looks like it,” she said.

“What were they thinking?”

The thing was she’d pitied it, all plastered in mud and roped to a lamp post.

“Maybe they didn’t think, maybe they just did it,” she said.

The pony walked under a low-slung bath towel. Its shadow created a cut-out shape. Declan heaved the window open and let in the gentle sound of teeth tearing grass. “Idiots. They’ll not be able to keep it.”

“How’d you know?”

“You can’t keep a feckin horse in a shared garden.”

“It’s more a pony,” she said.

Dinner smells and radio noise rose from the other flats.

“How did they even get it here?”

It had clopped along the pavement. Only once stopping to eat questionable flowers. “I don’t know,” she said. Its forlornness had spoken to her of vocation.

“They’re expensive,” he said.

“Probably won’t cost more than a big dog.”

Declan turned to her. “You’re not going to start moaning at me for a bleeding dog again?”

“Honestly, no.”

“Good. I worry dogs lead to babies.” He pinched her arm, leaving a white patch.

“Ow. I’m over dogs and I’ll never get on to babies. I’ve got finer things to think about nowadays.”

They stepped away from the window and headed into their nook of a kitchen where nothing was cooking.

Out back, the pony shook its mane full of sun and its silhouette shivered. Other figures gathered at other windows. They gazed at it the way they would have gazed at a bonfire.

About the Author

Rose McDonagh was born in Edinburgh. She has had writing published by BBC Wildlife Magazine, Gutter, SmokeLong Quarterly, Fairfield Review, the Guardian online, The Eildon Tree, Brittle Star, The Nottingham Review and New Writing Scotland. She read at Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017 as part of their Story Shop programme. She currently works for two Scottish charities.

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Catherine Edmunds
October 2017 Second Prize

The Hierarchy of Substances

by Catherine Edmunds

Four barefoot kids walk down the road, sticks in their hands. They pause at the entrance to the mighty Elsecar Main Colliery, years before its 1983 closure; the early morning sun almost shines, despite the rain and leaden skies.

Tonight, the fire crackles. Outside, the trees strain against the night. The hierarchy of substances has been abolished, that’s what I tell my visitors. The whole world can be plasticized and we are become ‘plastiglomerate’. What’s that? they say, briefly interested. A new Anthropocene stone formed of melted plastic, debris and organic matter. We’re sinking beneath the rubble.

The boys are writing an essay: ‘How we lived then’. I tell them I’m not sure why we could never grow lupins. The boys roll their eyes. They’re not interested in lupins or sunflowers, only coal-grimy tragedies.

I love the fells, the falling dark; I love it when the pub is calling and nothing can get between you and that first pint, glorious and full of hope.

I’m bone tired now. Galaxy flowers hold entire universes on their petals, and agate crystals can look like tiny landscapes. The boys don’t want to hear this. When the winding gear fails, how long does it take to hit the ground? That’s what they want to know.

I shake my head, take out my aids, watch them mouthing murmurs of too soft words. I stop and walk backwards for a while. Four of us. Barefoot. Sticks in our hands.

About the Author

Catherine Edmunds was educated as a classical musician at Dartington College of Arts, and the National Centre for Orchestral Studies, Goldsmith’s College, London. After twenty years as a professional musician, she re-invented herself as an artist and writer. Her artwork includes book illustrations and TV appearances, and her written works include a poetry collection, four novels and a Holocaust memoir. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, four times shortlisted in the Bridport, and has been published in many journals, including The Frogmore Papers, Aesthetica, The Binnacle, Butchers’ Dog, and Ambit.

Find her on her website, or tweet her @cathyedmunds

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Matthew Gibson
October 2017 Third Prize

Not For Want Of Trying

by Matthew Gibson

THE Speaker. He would have to remember that.

"You need to study harder," said the tutor.

I will, promised Taimur. But it wasn't easy. It wasn't instinctive.

When the militia arrived at his village, their truck a satanic porcupine of weaponry, empty eyes spelling out their intentions as solemnly as a wedding vow, then it had been instinctive.

When his bus was stopped at the border, when every third passenger was taken out at gunpoint, he had known to keep his head bowed.

When he arrived at the coast, the sea-salt overwhelming, the waves unfamiliar, he had no doubt about his destination.

When the boat foundered, he knew to cling to the driftwood, knew to kick grasping hands away as their owners drowned around him.

When coastguard backs were turned, he leapt from the holding pen.

Waiting at the roadside for the one truck in 1000 to offer him a lift.

Picking out others like himself, following them to the camp at the edge of the sea.

Fashioning shelter from crates and sheets of corrugated iron. Knowing to study the lorries as they pulled in and out, waiting in line to cross the water.

Instinct when his time arrived, jumping aboard, curled between frozen boxes of shellfish.

Instinct to ignore the cold, to stay hidden, half breathing, half dead, as the ferry swayed gently and passengers laughed high above.

Sitting warm in the classroom, the air stale and safe, he had no idea how he had managed the journey.

Sitting warm in the classroom, he had no idea of the official title of the House of Commons’ chair.

"You need to study harder," said the tutor. “You need to put in some effort."

"Do you want to be in this country or not?"

About the Author

Matthew Gibson was born and brought up in London, where he lives with his partner and two cats. He studied English literature at university where he developed a love of the short story form. Now, several years later, he has decided to try his hand at his own. This is his first flash fiction win and his first published work.

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Alison Armstrong
October 2017 Commended

The Chameleon

by Alison Armstrong

Last night I dreamt of our house in Kosedere, way up on the mountainside. I was in the garden at the back, with the seven pomegranate trees. The fruits warmed, half way to ripeness, in the August sun. The evening breeze that fetched up from the bay and gave respite from the heat had not yet begun. It was the day you came back with the chameleon. You brought it back, like a trophy. By chance you had found it, you said, by the side of the road. It was dying. But, like a child, I was filled with the drama of your arrival, convinced that we could save it. I had never seen one before, not in the flesh. The perfect smallness of its form. I thought a chameleon should be bigger somehow, like an iguana. Its skin was rough and smooth in the same stroke – reptile skin – dotted relief. Was it extra delicate in its dying state? We put it on the low wall, near where the vines bush out for shade. It rested on its side in the white dust, no longer able to stand. We watched its breathing, quick and small. Its magnificent turning eye, still turning. The movement mechanical, some innate deep down thing? Its four tiny feet were sticking out from where we placed it. Opposable toes, half-curled, beginnings of an unmade grasp. In silence we stood, watching. Its tail, coiled round – unable to cling to branch, nor any thing, save itself. Its life slipping away quietly with each rapid breath. And, as your hand left mine, I watched its colour change from the brown of its arrival to the white of surrender. Or a last camouflage against the bleached pallor of stones?

Two complete colours in the space of one skin.

About the Author

I live and work (as a teacher and painter) near Lancaster with my two children​. I was born in Leeds and studied in Lancaster, Leeds and Cambridge. I have been writing for many years. This is the first time I have had any fiction published, in fact, the first time I have sent a piece of flash fiction anywhere. I won a Northern Writers' Award for fiction this year. I am seeking a publisher for my short-story collection and am writing a novel.

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Al Kratz
October 2017 Commended

What If Nothing Hurts Us More Than Imagination?

by Al Kratz

I finally went to see the doctor because it was easier than telling My Girl that I hadn't gone. It was easier than watching the disappointment grow. It was easier than admitting weakness. The ways she could move me were magical, but when the fire alarm sounded, I wished I had held my ground. I could just as easily die in a fire. These things happen all the time. I went to the doctor because My Girl had put her hands on me. She was magical that way too. But now on the ninth floor with a bunch of old people, stairs our only option, I thought, Oh great, are you happy now? You'll never get to touch me again. And then I thought, Come on, man. This isn’t all about you. Look at these people. What a loss we would be. And as if a wall of smoke had already done its deed, I had trouble breathing from the fifth floor down. She had put her hands on me, and I had asked her to say, O Captain! My Captain! But she just said, Shut up! This is serious! I went to the doctor because My Girl had felt something wrong. Right there in her beautiful hand, she had held a lump, small enough for fingers—my little life and pointless death. Or was it my little death and pointless life? What if it was just her imagination? What if it was the truth? I don’t know. After I opened the fire exit, after I felt alone in the parking lot, I caught my breath. I saw that I wasn’t alone. I saw everything I needed to see. These things happen all the time. The fire might have been a false alarm. I don't know. I didn’t stick around.

About the Author

Al Kratz lives in Indianola, Iowa with his fiancé, their three dogs, and any college kids that return to the nest. He is working on a short story collection and a novel. He writes fiction reviews for Alternating Current. He finished second in the February 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award, and his story in Jellyfish Review was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2017. This year, he has had work in Ellipsis Zine, Train, (b)OINK, and forthcoming in Bull.

He blogs at alkratz.blogspot.com and tweets @silverbackedG

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June 2017 Judge’s Report
Meg Pokrass

I could not believe how many powerful stories I read in the long list of fifty stories. It was very difficult to select the short list of twenty and then to choose the winners. I noticed that many stories involved a longing for lost innocence, equilibrium, and trust—a feeling that seems to be with us so much these days as the world becomes an increasingly chaotic place. What sensitive, strong voices you all have.

First Prize
Tying the Boats In 164 words, the shortest on the long list, 'Tying the Boats' is an elegant, masterful piece in which every word is essential. The author makes brilliant use of metaphor, yet her touch is gentle. The power in this story involves what is not said, which leaves the reader on-edge. We can't help but identify with the main character, who we see is in emotional danger.
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Amanda O’Callaghan
June 2017 First Prize

Tying the Boats

by Amanda O'Callaghan

A week after she married him, she cut her hair. The scissors made a hungry sound working their way through the curls.

“You cut your hair,” he said, when he came home. Nothing more.

She thought he might have said, “You cut off your beautiful hair,” but his mouth could not make the shape of beautiful, even then.

She kept the hair in a drawer. A great hank of it, bound together in two places with ribbon almost the same dark red. Sometimes, when she was searching in the big oak chest that she brought from home, she’d see it stretched against the back of the drawer, flattened into the joinery like a sleek, cowering animal.

Once, she lifted it out, held it up to the light to catch the last of its fading lustre. She weighed it in her hands. The hair was thick, substantial, heavy as the ropes they’d used when she was a girl, tying the boats when storms were coming.

About the Author

Amanda O’Callaghan’s short stories and flash fiction have been published and won awards in Australia, UK, and Ireland. A former advertising executive, she has a BA and MA in English from King’s College, London. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Queensland. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. More details and links to Amanda’s work can be found at www.amandaocallaghan.com

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Nod Ghosh
June 2017 Second Prize

The Cool Box

by Nod Ghosh

Ross opened the cool box and removed remnants of his wife's wedding gown, a pair of pliers, the telephone from his grandmother's hallway, a light moment, two books of paramount importance, his daughter's milk teeth, effervescent conversation and a piece of sky, the tenderness of his mother's bosom, the sweat of children running from parents shot by insurgents, a medley of vegetables, the disappearance of two American teenagers, refusal to use dental floss, a holiday in Tyneside, the temperamental nature of a wolf's disposition, his brother's charm, latex gloves, his drama teacher with the blood disorder who walked on crutches after bleeding into his knees, a deformed cactus, the visages of two cats, disparaging and cruel, an engineer's rule, Bach's cello suites No. 1-6, a Mexican wave, ten pins, all the reports he'd produced in the last hundred and fourteen months, a dinosaur tooth, non-iodised salt, a mission to eradicate multi-drug-resistant organisms, a punnet of strawberries, the plagiarism of fools, dormant mushroom spores, a glass table he had coveted but never bought, dielectric grease at three hundred and nineteen dollars for ten millilitres, a tablespoon, a symphony of simultaneous orgasms, cream, manufactured dreams available on-line, developmental delays, a red squirrel from France, two plastic wine-glasses, seven long-playing records he'd never owned, a tomato, mustard, meringue nests, soft cheese, a low-carb sandwich for Rita, and he still couldn't find the paper plates.

'Are you sure you packed them?' he asked.

Rita's hair blew across her eyes.

'Here they are.' She pulled out a pack wrapped in plastic. 'Honestly, I don't know what you were thinking. You seemed lost.'

An invisible comet may or may not have streaked across the sky.

'They were right in front of you'.

About the Author

Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Nod's work appears in anthologies: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Sleep is A Beautiful Colour (U.K. 2017 NFFD), Horizons2 (Top of the South NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various publications. Further details: www.nodghosh.com

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David Rhymes
June 2017 Third Prize

The Place We Live Before We Don’t

by David Rhymes

He sat by the window recalling everything; the new-born infant, toddler, son; the brother, friend and boyfriend; Janie’s date, her husband; Jack and Hannah’s dad; watching the bin men slot the wheelies on the cart. A bleating baby when his mam’s milk wouldn’t come. An empty belly raging, dozing in a pushchair, watching sparrows on the ledge, waiting for the microwave to heat the formula. The way the binmen always wore those bright flourescent uniforms during the day. The bin men they. At junior school, a rainy day inside; the warm fug of the form room; outside in the wintry half-light, crows; Mrs. Moncrieff, who wouldn’t give permission to turn on the lights; no quibbling boys, you know we must save electricity, we want to see the birds now, don’t we? Yes. And then the day that Angela was hit on Plessey bridge. Your sister in a coma at the QMC. Though things got better, slowly: by any reckoning it was just six weeks later she stood eating grapes at Daddy’s bedside, reeling out a stream of Knock-Knock jokes. But that shook us, till Grandad Albert shook us more, then Dad got sicker still and went. And Janie pregnant with our second then, with Jack, and little Hannah only three and toddling still, and I thought Mam would say that’s bad but I’ve got worse, I’ve got this thing, this what-do-you-call-it? The unthinkable, growing in me, a black crow roosting somewhere in my blood. And one day look it’ll flap out too big, and what comes finally to everyone at last will come to me, that big black crow that’s roosting somewhere in my blood. Well, yes, he thinks, it will. The signal beeper on the cart. The noisy bin men backing out. The place we live before we don’t.

About the Author

Born in Nottingham, David has a degree in English from the University of Warwick and an MA from the University of East Anglia. He lives with his wife and children in Eneriz, a village near Pamplona, Spain, where he works freelance as a language trainer, course writer and translator. He has written across many different forms, both poetry and prose, and is currently finishing a novel set in early Victorian Nottingham, based on the life of Bendigo, a champion bare knuckle boxer who later became a preacher.

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