October 2015 Competition – Carolin Esser-Miles

Our thanks to Carolin for adjudicating the October competition. The winners, their pieces and Carolin’s comments are below.

Congratulations!

1st place Lest We Forget by Louise Morrish

2nd Place Ghost Train by Paul Beattie

3rd prize It Comes to Us All by Wendy Fitzgerald

 

1st place Lest We Forget by Louise Morrish

Carolin Esser-Miles: Lest we forget follows a slow pace, but one which is fitting for the dreary inevitability that imprisons both the narrator and his ghost. Both are beyond terror, and suspense is not what drives this story for the readers either. What makes this story special is that in all its horror and pain it is a story about forgiveness, and about letting go of the ghosts we can, by owning up, by giving up our defences and asking for help. Again, this is no story of bravery, but of nothing left to fight. And that makes it so human, so real. And in the middle of all that we find a miracle: forgiveness. But the story remains true. Some ghosts continue to haunt us no matter what we do. The story’s message is as profound as it is simple. Telling it in 300 words takes skill.

Last night the soldier came to me again, a vision in mud. I could hear his slow, rasping breaths, the sound louder than the gale outside rattling the window panes, and it was this that woke me. There he stood, in the shadows at the foot of my bed, dark and unmoving. The reek of the trenches came off him, a poisonous mix of rancid mud, rotting flesh, and the burnt tang of cordite. The smell caught at the back of my throat, familiar and dreadful, taking me straight back to that hell.

He didn’t speak, but he had no need to; we both knew the reason he came, every year, without fail. The events of that fateful day are seared on my brain, the sights we both witnessed burnt into my memory for ever more.

There was no need for words at all, German or English.

The match flame shook as I lit a candle. I knew I wouldn’t sleep again, and self-pity brought hot tears to my eyes. I was tired to my bones already, without this.

I think it must have been exhaustion that made me do what I did next. Now, in the pale light of a new morning, I truly can’t believe I had the nerve.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, my voice all but drowned by the soldier’s laboured breaths. ‘Forgive me, please.’

A silence fell; even the glass in the window ceased its rattle.

It was as though I had spoken a charm. His presence, that had filled my thoughts and dreams for so long, began to ebb away. Gradually, his form dissolved into the shadows, and the room threw off its strange chill.

Until all that remained was the sickly sour reek of the trenches.

But that, I fear, will never leave me.

 

2nd Place Ghost Train by Paul Beattie

Carolin Esser-Miles: One of the most suspenseful stories in the competition, Ghost Train plays with conventions in humorous way. The short sentence structures and frequent and quick shifts in perspective and train of thought of our preoccupied narrator prevent the reader from analysing too closely until the conceit is complete. What is particularly interesting is that the conceit, in fact, is again the classic stereotype which we all looked out for in the beginning and from which we got side tracked. A brief survey of readers highlights the effectiveness of the ending: a tongue in cheek acknowledgement – ‘Of course not’ – of what we should have known all along. He is the Kennington Ghost, and there he stays.

The red light stares stubbornly from the darkness, the glimmer picking out a few frames of the tunnel’s structure. Held in the Loop. You can be stuck here for hours waiting for a signal to release you. Well, it seems like it, buried somewhere deep on the Northern Line between Kennington and the Oval. Soon be heading back to Charing Cross and the shift’s end, nothing to do but wait. The old lags tease the youngsters about the Kennington ghosts; bodies unearthed when building the line, lost trackmen in the tunnels. All nonsense of course.

My shoulders stiffen; it’s just the muffled drumming of a train somewhere in the dark. The signal will change soon, it must. My palm, glued to the control leaver, is getting sweaty. It’s always warm down in the deep. No. It’s cold. I can see my breath in front of me. The heater must have packed up. Come on, come on. What’s taking so long? Damn the bloody signals!

What was that? A connecting door just slammed. Must have left it open when I checked my carriages were empty, the vibrations of that train must have made it shut. Hah! Kennington Ghost you old fool! Hang on, that was another door, closer. Surely I can’t have missed a passenger. Bloody hell it’s getting cold in here. Come on, change damn you!

That was the door to the last carriage, it had to be. Did I lock the driver’s door? There’s footsteps. Please change, please. Green! Oh thank you God! The brake won’t release, it’s jammed! I can’t move it, my hand keeps slipping off.

My door slams open…It’s Harry.

“Bloody hell Harry! I thought you were the Kennington Ghost!”

He doesn’t see me. Of course not, I’m the Kennington Ghost, and here I stay.

 

3rd prize It Comes to Us All by Wendy Fitzgerald

Carolin Esser-Miles: A lot of us tend to be rather melodramatic when it comes to death and ghosts. ‘It comes to us All’ acknowledges that – through capitalisation of the Big Words, through hints at a possible violent death. Its focus, however, stays firmly on the ordinary. Our waiting ghosts are not impatient ghosts. The emotions that prevail are acceptance and even a sense of peace, though maybe more that of a shared moment of respite between two attacks. The story is skilfully written and flows calmly and naturally. It is complete as it is, as a vignette, but it can equally lead into a short story or even a novel. Amongst all the clichés, this is a story of love, and it teaches us a valuable lesson, not through regret, but through example: How to live one’s life in the moment.

You’d think they’d hear us, as they pass through the graveyard; laying their flowers, indulging in their tears – oh, I suppose we’ve got rather blasé about it, but we’ve seen it so often, believe me!   But yes, it’s been a while since I stopped off here, pausing on my Way. We sit around, often on that very bench that you rest on, gossiping and bickering loudly about the injustices of Life.

That’s why I am still here. A spirit, a ghost – whatever you might like to call me – I still have burning issues. But today, Mrs Thomas and I are simply watching the grave-digger as he works.   Mrs Thomas is expecting her husband to join her soon, and then she can Pass properly. She simply could not bear to Leave without him. It never fails to astound me the deep and profound love that one human being can have for another – sometimes I feel it almost outweighs the hatred and evil that I so often saw in Life.

Mrs Thomas watches the earthly man at work, with some satisfaction. His burly arms wielding the spade; the sweat on his brow.   It won’t be long now. She tells me an anecdote about her wedding day, and I smile with her. I wish that mine had been so joyous – but I was Taken way before my time and won’t Rest until I see my worldly remains discovered – or at least see my fiancées lovely face again. Whatever you may have heard, we cannot avenge – but we can simply wait for our loved ones to catch us up.

The earthly man has finished his task; Mrs Thomas sits back, contented.

And now Mr Thomas stores his spade, washes his hands, and leaves unsuspectingly for home.

 

Commendation – Abominable by Louise Morrish

Carolin Esser-Miles: The story plays with the literary register of seafaring novels in the frame of Melville or Conrad well. A leisurely pace comes to a more intensified delivery just in time for a sudden realisation of an inescapable fate that grips the reader with cold, clammy hands around their throat.

Mr Jones, the Second Mate, swears blind he saw a ghost last night. At least, that’s what he claims. I must admit, it’s quite refreshing to have a new topic of conversation, as all the crew and scientists talk of at present are ice leads, and dwindling supplies, and seafaring superstitions. One such myth portends to the ghost Jones says he saw; if a ship’s bell rings of its own accord, somebody on board is destined to die.

This morning, Benson the surgeon had to give Jones a dose of chloral and bromide of potassium to calm him, he was that frightened after his shift. Jones was so worked up, in fact, that we nearly came to blows when I suggested that he may have imagined the incident. I will record what he told us, as accurately as my memory permits.

He was on his way to the bridge to begin midnight watch, when he heard a strange noise off the port bow, like a bairn crying and wailing. ‘It weren’t no seal made a sound like that,’ Jones said.

He looked out into the black, and as the moon slipped from behind a cloud he saw a figure, away on the ice. He watched as it floated nearer; a tall, grey-white creature. ‘Most definitely not a bear.’

This thing got to within feet of the ship, before simply vanishing, and then Jones heard the ship’s bell toll once, clear as day, but there was no wind last night.

And no one up on deck save himself.

Jones has vowed never to set foot on the ice after sundown, which is all very well to say now, but what happens when we can go no further in the ship and must take to the sledges?

What will he do then?

 

Commendation – Devotion by Gill Hollands

Carolin Esser-Miles: Devotion packs a very important message into 300 short words. It is a story about love, and about the right person being there to help and care.  It works because of exact timings, sketched hints and fitting clues. With just a little more space to help the reader follow through the various cognitive jumps this will be a very powerful story.

I peel open my eyes to twilight, the slide of shoes: whispers, beeping machines. I know that smell…

‘Don?’ My throat scratches.

I feel his cold hand take mine; smile up into his welling eyes. His voice had kept me going in the darkness, dragged me back from oblivion.

‘Ah! You’re awake! Welcome back!’ I jump. The nurse smiles down at me. ‘You’ve been in a coma for 9 weeks, since your accident. Do you remember anything?’

I shake my head, trying to claw through fog.

‘Well, don’t fret. It’ll come back in time.’ She scribbles a few notes on her clipboard. ‘I’ll tell Doctor you’re awake…’ She vanishes. Don squeezes my hand.

Before we can say a word, another nurse takes her place.

‘Let’s get you off all these wires and things, eh?’ She bustles around me. It’s all so exhausting…

Don makes a drink sign, sneaks out, rolling his eyes, blowing a kiss. I can still feel the touch of his fingers…

I sleep, as if I haven’t had enough. Don is always there when I surface, soothing, my rock. The doctors come and go, the nurses ever present. I seem never to have a moment to talk to him.

The children are there when I next wake, tearful. They take my hands in their warm ones.

‘They wanted us to tell you, Mum…’ My son stops, gulping.

‘You need to know… We lost Dad. Head trauma. It was quick. He didn’t suffer.’ My daughter’s eyes fill.

I stare up at them, confused.

‘But -’ I glance over at their father, standing by the door behind them. He nods.

‘They said it would help if you knew…’

‘He brought me back…’

Don blows kisses from the doorway, fading into the gloom.

It feels good not to weep alone.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “October 2015 Competition – Carolin Esser-Miles

  1. Hi Scratch,
    Yes, I’m just getting to grips with the new(ish) website. I previously put the competition results up but could never find them! Now I know how to do it properly…

    Like

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