Epistolary Rom-Coms – May 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Della Galton

Creative Writing Tutor and Author of over 2,000 short stories and 15 novels, Della Galton donated her time to us this month to adjudicate our May competition with the competition brief of:

Write an epistolary rom-com in 300 words

I loved judging this competition. There was a fine selection of entries, several of which made me laugh. This made it tricky to narrow it down to just three.

Here is what I was looking for?

Does it work as a story and fit the criteria?
Does it make me laugh – as this was a romcom.
Did it have a great ending? Stories this short need to have a great ending in my opinion. Some of the ones that didn’t make it into the top three, fell down on the ending.
Was it well-structured and well written?
Stories this short also benefit from a great structure.
Does it fit the length, plot wise or is it too complicated and/or has too many characters? Stories this short can’t be too complicated.
And of course, does it have the X factor?

I think the top 3 definitely had the X Factor. But congratulations to everyone on a great bunch of stories.

And the winners are

First Place: Brenda Sedgwick with Complicated Love by Email

Second Place: Damon L. Wakes with An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Third Place: Sam Christie with The Misunderstanding

Highly Commended: John Quinn with Cue Swooning Music


First Place: Complicated Love by Email – Brenda Sedgwick

I did enjoy this. A well plotted story, written with a beautifully light touch. The last line made me laugh out loud. Thank you and congratulations.

Dear Paula, So sorry I didn’t make it for your birthday. Please forgive me. You know I love you and would have done anything to have been there. Don’t be mad at me, I am so busy at work. Let’s meet at your place next week. I’ll bring a special bottle. I’d come tomorrow, if I could. I’d do anything to be with you. Please reply asap.

Missing you so much, Harry xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


Dear Elizabeth, Are you free tonight. I’ve had a meeting cancelled. I’m so looking forward to our second date and wonder if we have the beginning of something very special? We met only yesterday but I can’t stop thinking about you. Please tell me we can meet. Your place perhaps? I’ll bring a special bottle. Do reply asap.

Missing you, Harry xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


Harry, Where were you Saturday night, I waited and waited for you and I haven’t heard from you since. My friends said I looked hot and you would have been totally captivated, just like you said you would be. Please tell me you didn’t forget?

Missing you Deborah xx


Dear Deborah, I would have called you. I’ve been sick and I left my phone at a friend’s house. I would have rung you if I could. I can’t stop thinking about you. I am so happy you want to meet up again. When I’ve caught up with my work load I want to see you. How about next week at your place? I’ll bring a special bottle.

Reply asap.

Harry xxxxx


Harry, I am not Elizabeth. I will not forgive you this time. Paula


Harry, Who the hell is Deborah. You love cheat. Elizabeth


Harry, Get the hell out of my life and take Paula and Elizabeth with you. Deborah

Second Place: An Offer You Can’t Refuse by Damon L. Wakes

This one really needs to be read on the page. I’m not sure it will translate as well when read aloud. But I thought it was very clever, very topical and very amusing.

From: b1gd1ckp1llz@b1gd1ckp1llz.com 

To: shannleo68@gmail.com 

Subject: 🍆🍆🍆3nl4rge you’re p33n!🍆🍆🍆 

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From: shannleo68@gmail.com 

To: b1gd1ckp1llz@b1gd1ckp1llz.com 

Subject: RE: 🍆🍆🍆3nl4rge you’re p33n!🍆🍆🍆 

Dear sir, 

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Or, you know, if this is B1gd1ckp1llz.com on the third floor of Unit 3, I’d settle for a box of donuts sent upstairs. 😉 

Shannon
 

From: b1gd1ckp1llz@b1gd1ckp1llz.com 

To: shannleo68@gmail.com 

Subject: RE: RE: 🍆🍆🍆3nl4rge you’re p33n!🍆🍆🍆 

Wait, same building? No way! What are the odds? 

Dave 

From: shannleo68@gmail.com 

To: b1gd1ckp1llz@b1gd1ckp1llz.com 

Subject: RE: RE: RE: 🍆🍆🍆3nl4rge you’re p33n!🍆🍆🍆 

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Shannon
 

From: b1gd1ckp1llz@b1gd1ckp1llz.com 

To: shannleo68@gmail.com 

Subject: RE: RE: 🍆🍆🍆3nl4rge you’re p33n!🍆🍆🍆 

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Dave 

From: shannleo68@gmail.com 

To: b1gd1ckp1llz@b1gd1ckp1llz.com 

Subject: RE: RE: RE: 🍆🍆🍆3nl4rge you’re p33n!🍆🍆🍆 

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Shannon 

Third Place: The Misunderstanding by Sam Christie

This tongue in cheek story was very amusing. A series of misunderstandings. Great imagery made me laugh out loud. Thank you.

The Misunderstanding  

Dear Miss Harris, 

I am, of course, writing to apologise for what can at best be described as an error of judgement, but at worst a catastrophic and shameful incident. 

You see, I am indeed a heating engineer and plumber, however, I am also the man that fixes the boiler. I lead a complex life negotiating euphemisms and nuanced turns of phrase that on occasion can rather tie me in knots. Largely I navigate this well, but on this occasion my compass was awry (which I suppose could equally be read euphemistically).  

I beg you to give thought to my quandary and the reason this terrible event transpired. Your voice, you see, with its forty a day husk, coupled with that half-amused delivery, meant that I misunderstood the context behind your saying, “make your way to the rear entrance and put some heat back into my life”.   

You may be able to see that the way you put this instruction was somewhat unconventional and could hardly be considered particularly technical or even professional; so as a result I became confused. What, I thought feverishly, is my purpose here? 

And I do understand how distressing it must have been to be confronted by a man in your kitchen wearing PVC overalls, especially given their see through design; but the trouble is that many of my customers like this outfit and have come to expect it. 

Anyway, now we have got the apology out of the way, I wondered if it would be at all possible to call round to pick up my tool bag that I dropped shortly before jumping out of the back window to avoid your rather excitable dog? I will be wearing standard plumbing attire this time around.  

Yours sincerely, 

John 

Highly Commended: Cue Swooning Music by John Quinn

A great idea to base a romcom on the original romcom, Bridget Jones. Yet you’ve also got an original slant. I loved the Helen Fielding references. ‘Tara and Mr Salata’ was funny. I also thought the PS was brilliant. Fab story. Well done.

Dear Ada, 

How’s the lotus-eating life in the South of France? Do I envy you the gorgeous weather, wonderful wine and outdoor pool? Of course, I bloody do! But you must be missing all the juicy gossip, so here goes. 

Well, OMG (if that’s still written), the last few months could have fizzed directly from the pages of a Helen Fielding novel! 

You recall Tara, that lovely teacher at the boys’ nursery? You must remember; dark hair, always too nice to keep a man for long… And Yiannis, the Greek geologist who gave up his career to nurse his wife before she died of breast cancer, what, four years ago?  

So, my always helpful hubby drags Yiannis along to the nursery’s fund-raising fete, where Tara is running the ‘hire a metal detector and find buried treasure’ stall and helpfully let slip where she’s hidden the coppers. Yiannis has a go and finds some coins. But not the staff-hidden variety, no! Bloody real bronze Roman coins that have sat undisturbed in the ground since, well, Nero was fiddling. 

Not only are the coins worth a small fortune but Tara and Yiannis instantly get along like gin and Fever-Tree – or, as helpful hubby said, ‘Tara and Mr Salata’. But he’s always been an idiot. 

Anyway, a court rules that the coins aren’t treasure trove: Tara insists the nursery should benefit but Yiannis demands the coins go to Breast Cancer Now. The pair have a shocking row and that’s the end of their burgeoning relationship. 

Until last week…  

Helpful hubby remembers an old school chum who’s made it BIG in Silicon Valley and whose kids actually went to the nursery. Mr BIG pays twice the coins’ value, so both school and charity will enjoy massive paydays! Unsurprisingly, the couple reunite; cue swooning music, energetic romantic clinch, weddings bells and thrown bouquet… 

Love 

Stacey & HH 

P.S. Might just send a copy of this to Ms Fielding for her next plot! 

Writing Dramatic, Intriguing Stories – April 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Matthew Harffy

Writer of action-packed historical fiction series, The Bernicia Chronicles, Matthew Harffy, in addition to letting our members in on some writing tips and secrets of series writing, he kindly agreed to adjudicate our competition.

The competition brief was:

An object uncovered in a dark alleyway turns out to be a bloody knife…
Write 300 words filled with drama and intrigue on the grisly discovery and/or aftermath.

The standard of writing was great in all the entries, making judging very difficult. It made me realise how incredibly hard it is to select winners in what is largely a subjective medium. After all, how one reacts to a piece of writing says as much, or even more, about the reader and their tastes, as about the writer and the quality of their work.

The selection of short pieces covered all kinds of genre, including horror, thriller, fantasy and science fiction. The pieces I have selected are all very different, but have a couple of things in common. Firstly, they all left me wanting to read more, to find out what happened next. The second thing they all have is perhaps the single most difficult achievement in writing: a distinct and assured voice, that puts the reader at ease and almost whispers, “Relax, I’ve got this”.

And the winners are

First Place: Howard Teece with The Sound of Music

Highly Commended:
Peter Duncan with The Sign
Sam Christie with Fever Dreams

First Place: The Sound of Music by Howard Teece

This piece stood out from the others because of its quirky style and its great use of dialogue. It reads almost like a screenplay, but manages to convey a lot of world-building into the wonderfully written conversation. In very few words, it creates a couple of moments of revelation and ends with a funny twist and a cliff-hanger. If this was the opening page of a novel, I’d read the whole thing.

Even in the dark of the tunnel, you could see the knife glinting at his feet. He picked it up. 

‘Is that…?’ I asked. 

‘Blood? There is a high certainty.’ 

‘What else do you know?’ 

‘You mean make of knife? Fingerprints? Type of blood? Whose blood?’ 

‘Yeah, that sort of thing.’ 

‘Do I have a lab jammed up my ass?’ 

‘Well, no, not exactly.’ I scratched the top of my head. ‘But.’ 

He gave me a stare, then turned his attention to the knife. He wiped a finger along it, collecting the blood. Then he held the finger to his nose, sniffed and sucked it clean. 

‘Deer. Fallow. Mature female. Three hours exposed to the air.’ 

‘Fresh?’ 

‘Three hours exposed. But yes, from a living animal, not a bottle.’ 

‘Where the hell do you get one of those? They’ve been extinct for over 100 years.’ 

‘This is not my problem,’ the android CSI said. 

‘No, that one’s on me.’ I walked back to my vehicle, trying to understand where someone could have got hold of an extinct animal, and why they’d have sliced into it. 

At the door to my transport, I turned to watch the mechanised tech examine the scene. The small light at the base of his neck glowed red to show recording was in progress. 

‘Hey, Robbo,’ I called. 

He turned toward me, and the light went out. 

‘I don’t need to see you test poop; we clear?’ 

‘It tastes like- ‘ 

‘Yeah. La la la. La la la.’ 

In the transport, I instructed the pilot to head back to base, then put a call through to my L1. 

‘And?’ 

‘It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer,’ I said, explaining what we’d found, knowing we had a problem.  

Guess who’s back in town. 

Highly Commended: The Sign by Peter Duncan

The sense of place is palpable in this piece. It feels like there is real meat on the bones of the characters and location, which is a feat in so few words. There is a real confidence in the archaic tone of the prose that makes the reader feel as if they are peeking into a moment of a longer story set in a richly-imagined world.

The bloodied knife was found lying in the shadows of God Forsook Alley by Jeremiah Dobson, night soil man. Later, some pondered whether different circumstances might have prevented the events that unfolded thereafter, and which had left the town in such a parlous state. What if the knife had been found by Watkin the beadle, or not discovered in an alley named God Forsook? What if it had actually lain beside a mortally injured body as by rights it should have?  

But fate had decreed that the certifiable fool Dobson should clap eyes on the lone blade, ‘dripping live with blood’ as he later testified, and carry it directly to the house of Reverend Doctor Wilfred Fairfax, who proclaimed to the astonished night soil man that the knife was a sign from our Creator Himself. 

‘Moreover,’ Doctor Fairfax declared to the assembled populace from the town hall steps the following noonday, ‘it is a sign long foreshadowed.’ He produced a leather-bound book and commenced reading. ‘In a Year of Our Lord close at hand,’ he intoned solemnly, ‘a bleeding knife will be found in the place God has foresaken, a portent of calamitous events such as will shake this wretched town to its very foundations.’ 

A clamour arose amongst the assembled. ‘What events? Tell us, Doctor Fairfax. What calamities?’ 

The Doctor descended the steps without another word, making all speed for his residence. In his library he replaced the volume of Dryden on the shelf at exactly the spot from which it had earlier been removed. The knife lay on his desk, blood- perhaps it really was blood- nicely congealed now. He wondered for a few moments how it had actually found its way to God Forsook. Then he turned his full attention to the careful planning of extortion. 

 

Highly Commended: Fever Dreams by Sam Christie

This piece has a fabulous, conversational style. It is immediate and relatable. While the prose is direct and clean, there are a couple of great metaphors used that elevate the writing.

Jane called them fever dreams. She always implied that I had them because of a guilty conscience. I mean I wouldn’t call myself a bad person, but there aren’t many people that don’t have the odd skeleton in the cupboard; so I suppose that could have been it.  

In truth I dreaded having one. I’d wake up in the morning panting and clawing at the covers, my mind circling like a plane waiting to land. I’d come down eventually after a few seconds, but I was in that holding pattern of horror for long enough to put my day out of whack.  

There was a plus side: I got the flood of relief knowing that I hadn’t hidden a body and that the police weren’t coming to get me. The details in the dream were abstract and surreal of course, but that dread, that sense that if the cops got on my scent then my life was over, drew out a mixture of guilt and a desire to reset back to a trouble free life.  

The nasty part of the dream was that I’d already done the deed. I couldn’t go back. Once you kill a person you can’t undo it and saying sorry is inadequate for obvious reasons. No, you kill a person and you have only one direction of travel. 

I usually had these dreams after a night out, my mind confused by boozing. This dream was no exception. I could remember nothing of the night. While I was brewing coffee and enjoying that solace after the storm there was a knock at the door. Loud. 

“Detective Sergeant Jones. We found a knife nearby in an alleyway. An acquaintance of yours is missing.” I looked to the left of the door and saw my coat covered in blood.    

Children’s Writing – March 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Amy Sparkes

Best-selling Children’s Author, and main Speaker for our March meeting, Amy Sparkes, generously gave her time further to our Society and agreed to adjudicate our children’s story writing competition.

The competition was open to entries of picture book, middle grade or young adult stories, so it was an opportunity for a wide range of entrants. The competition brief was to:

Write a children’s story in 500 words.
Theme: Ghosts
Genre: Any

And the winners are:

First Place – Damon L. Wakes with Small Possessions

Second Place – Valerie Powell with Real Ghosts Aren’t Scary

Third Place – Dominique Hackston with Just A Nightmare

Highly Commended – Darren Spink with This Story Consists of… MOSTLY GHOSTS

First Place: Small Possessions by Damon L. Wakes

An engaging read with a brilliant twist right at the end.

There was a presence in the house. When Eleanor left her little wooden rocking horse in the middle of the drawing room, she would find it in the cupboard. When she left her doll on the window seat, she would find it on the floor. Her mother told her that she should take better care of her possessions—if the rocking horse was broken, they could not simply go out and buy another—but it was not Eleanor who moved it, and it was not her mother either. 

In the daytime, she could hear footsteps and laughter; always out of sight. In the nighttime, she heard sobbing, always close by. The rocking horse and doll were moved up to the attic, and Eleanor followed them there. She spent her nights with one ear pressed to the floorboards, listening to the eerie noises below. 

At last, one night, Eleanor, found that simply hiding away and waiting was the scariest thing of all. She crept through the attic door and down the long, long staircase. She tiptoed back to her old room. She found it full of strange creatures with bulbous eyes, and curious figures sculpted of an eerie, flesh-coloured porcelain. But her attention did not dwell on these things, for in the corner of the room—huddled atop an unfamiliar bed—was a small form wreathed in blankets. 

The blankets shifted, and the face of a small girl—not like Eleanor—emerged. The eyes widened. Her skin grew white as she stared at her visitor. 

Eleanor simply stood there. Her skin was white already. 

“Why do you weep?” she asked at last, when it became apparent that the intruder in her house would not speak first. 

“Because I just moved here,” said the girl in the bed, “and now all my friends are a long way away.” 

“All my friends are far away too,” said Eleanor. “I’d like to move, but Daddy says we have unfinished business.” 

There was a long, sad silence. 

“Do you like Barbie?” asked the intruder, holding up a figure of porcelain flesh. 

Second Place: Real Ghosts Aren’t Scary by Valerie Powell

Heartwarming story with a nice twist and heartfelt message

I know all about ghosts. My sister used to tell me ghost stories and try to scare me. But I wasn’t scared. I knew she was making it all up. Because ghosts are nothing like the ones she described. 

The ghosts in Ellie’s stories were really creepy. They sneaked up on you when you least expected, always at night and usually in winter when it was dark and there was a storm raging. They made weird howling noises and could come in through thick walls and skeletal fingers could grab your neck. And they haunted old houses and dark lanes and lonely moors.   

Our gran lived in an old house down a dark lane across the moor and we used to go and stay with her sometimes. But there was nothing scary about Gran’s house. It was warm and cosy and she made scones and gingerbread, like a granny in a kid’s storybook. When we were in bed, my sister would make me listen to the creaks and groans that the house made when the wind was roaring round, and try to convince me it was a ghost. But of course, it wasn’t. 

And sometimes we would walk back to our house in the dark. It wasn’t far – just a few hundred metres – and we had our torches, but Ellie used to pretend every shadow was a ghost and every sound a weird banshee, coming to get us. I went along with it to please Ellie and those walks were fun. 

Gran went to chapel a lot and sometimes she took us with her. I didn’t really like chapel and I especially didn’t like the minister. He was scarier than any of Ellie’s ghosts, telling us we were all sinners and heading for eternal fire.  

I knew I did bad things sometimes – like hiding Ellie’s X-box when she refused to play with me, or interrupting her when she was texting her friends. But I didn’t think those things were real sinning, not like the sort the minister went on about. 

After Gran died, I was very sad. I missed her hugs – I liked Gran’s hugs long after I went off hugs from anyone else. Her house was empty for a bit and I used to go there to talk to her. Then it got knocked it down a big house was built instead. I felt really sad, worrying where Gran would go. 

Ellis stopped telling ghost stories after Gran died. Her stories had all been about bad ghosts, so I knew they weren’t real. Not like my ghost. My ghost is good, not scary at all. In fact, when I’m feeling scared – like when that bully from school tries to frighten me, my ghost makes me feel all strong and I tell him to back off – and it works! My ghost puts an arm round me when I’m feeling sad and tells me that everything’s okay. My ghost says it doesn’t matter about her house because she doesn’t need it anymore.  

 

Third Place: Just A Nightmare by Dominique Hackston

A gripping story in a gripping setting. It really drew you in.

 

Midnight finds Macy under the duvet with a torch and her favourite Famous Five book. Her cold feet inch up the bed until they steal the warmth from her thighs. Shivering, she switches off the torch, listens to make sure Rhea, the prefect, is asleep and pokes her head out. She gasps as frigid air hits her face.  

Stretching, she tucks up the corner of the curtain, then wrestles her dressing-gown from its hook and spreads it over her bed. She snuggles back under the covers, her slothful eyes staring at tiny crystals as they form around the corner of the pane. Funny, she thinks, as she drifts off, it shouldn’t freeze in May.  

Timmy, George, and Anne fill Macy’s dreams. They are huddled together while a storm whips around their tent. The howling wind morphs into Anne screaming. 

Suddenly Macy is awake. A skull-piercing shriek ricochets around the dormitory. She peers into the dark then grabs her torch. 

The beam passes from one girl to the next. A wave of dread prickles up Macy’s nape. Breath vapour hangs eerily over each pale face until the tiny spotlight hits Tash, who is sitting bolt upright; her two French plaits hanging down her back. 

In Macy’s shaking hand, the beam stutters onwards to Rhea’s bed. Matron’s there, she thinks, sighing with relief. Macy leans forward, her jaw drops, her eyebrows knit together. 

Tash turns, her now silent scream caught by her gaping mouth. She slithers out of bed, then charges up the dormitory. The torch goes flying as Tash dives headlong at Macy. 

‘Did you see?’ Tash whispers. 

Macy cannot answer. An image is searing itself into her every brain cell. 

Matron was not matron, but an old-fashioned nurse, who stood with Rhea floating at chest height. Rhea’s arms were stretched over her head as the nurse shackled her wrists to a gleaming ring that protruded from the wall. The same black wrought iron ring that Rhea hangs her dressing gown from.  

Macy hushes the sobbing Tash and takes a slow shuddering breath. Reaching up, she fumbles for the curtain and yanks it open. Moonlight floods in, shining its way down the length of the dormitory. Macy’s eyes follow the glow.  

She slumps with relief. ‘Just a nightmare,’ she says. ‘Just a nightmare.’ She cuddles and rocks the younger girl until they fall asleep. They wake to Rhea prodding them. 

‘Get dressed and stand facing the wall!’  Rhea shouts. ‘Inspection in five.’  

Within five minutes both girls are in their uniforms and standing at the end of the line. Despite her nose pointing to the wall; Macy watches Rhea out of the corner of her eye. Her skin tingles as her hairs stand on end. Rhea massages her wrists.  

Macy turns to check on Tash. She is white and wide-eyed, staring at the angry red welts that Rhea is trying to hide.  

Highly Commended: This Story Consists of… MOSTLY GHOSTS by Darren Spink

Brilliant scansion, tightly plotted and good fun.


Greenie the ghost has been learning to scare 

But scaring is harder when no-one is there 

So, Greenie creeps into a yard overgrown 

And finds little Ava, all tired and alone 

The window is open as Greenie comes creeping 

And tired little Ava has just started sleeping 

So, Greenie jumps in with a cry and a BOO 

But Ava sits calmly and says “Who are you?!” 

“I’m Greenie the ghost and I’ve come here to scare you!” 

“But Greenie” said Ava “I’m sleeping, how dare you! 

You’re not very spooky or scary or creepy, 

So, leave me alone as I’m grumpy and sleepy” 

But Greenie is cunning and jumps from the bed 

Then waits in the cupboard and calls his friend Red 

They jump out together and cry a loud BOO 

But ONE was not scary and neither was TWO! 

So, Greenie calls Pinky and Blackie and White 

As FIVE spooky ghosts give a scarier fright 

But Ava yawned “Greenie, you’ll have to give in.. 

I’ll never be scared and you’ll just never win” 

Greenie says “Right, I need TEN on my side.. 

We’ll each find a different location to hide… 

We’ll scream all together, the spookiest BOO 

And scared little Ava won’t know what to do!” 

But Ava once more wasn’t frightened or scared 

She stood on her bed and then promptly declared 

“Not even TWENTY would give me a fright 

So, take all your friends and get out of my sight!” 

And finally, Ava had quiet in bed 

But quiet can sometimes be scary instead 

The house became spooky, the yard overgrown 

And suddenly Ava was…. 

SCARED ON HER OWN! 

She covered her eyes and hid under the sheet 

With only the sound of her little heart beat 

And then with a whimper, she wearily cried 

“I wish I had someone to lay by my side” 

But what happened next was to Ava’s surprise 

As Greenie came back after hearing her cries 

“Maybe” thought Greenie “I won’t cry out BOO, 

To be a good friend is now what I should do” 

They lifted the covers and snuggled up tight 

And Greenie helped Ava sleep all through the night. 

Well, not every ghost can be scary and creepy 

A ghost can be friendly and help when you’re sleepy 

So, just when the quiet can scare you the most 

Imagine a snuggle with Greenie the ghost. 

Green Stories – February 2022 Meeting Competition Results, adjudicated by Denise Baden

For our February meeting competition, Author, creator of Green Stories Writing Competitions and Professor of Sustainable Business at the University of Southampton, Denise Baden kindly agreed to adjudicate.

Targeted to put green thinking caps on, considering both problems and solutions, the competition brief was to:

Write a story showing a green solution e.g. someone enjoying a low carbon activity/product/innovation or helping nature in some way. Things to consider:

•             what might a green/sustainable society might look like?

•             how might we get to a green/sustainable society?

•             smuggle green solutions/role models into a story.

And the winners are:

First Place – Sam Christie with The Incessant Interventions of Man

Second Place – Maggie Farran with The Reluctant Wedding Guest

Third Place – Diana Batten with The Magic Oven

Highly Commended – John K Miles with Oblivious

First Place: The Incessant Interventions of Man by Sam Christie

I loved the simplicity of this. A pet hate is enjoying a peaceful moment in the garden and then a strimmer starts up, drowning out the birdsong and hum of the bees. Even when walking in the hills and mountains, there always seems to be someone polluting the air with noise from a power tool. Nature likes to be left alone, so this spoke to me. A little more on the poetic beauty and calming effect of peace and nature sounds would further highlight the contrast.  

And the sun crept from behind the clouds, smiling and warming the backs of all the creatures; hardened and aching from the long winter months. The trees sighed in vapour, climbing from the highest branches. The birds tentatively chirped, then emboldened by the sound of others began to sing in choirs. Bees and wasps rode the rising air to dip into newly awakening flowers. A stillness hung in the burgeoning heat.

And then the men, for it is mostly men, middle aged and of comfortable build, jerked the starter cords on their various machines: the mowers, the strimmers, the chainsaws and hedge cutters. Great fires were built, forcing the worms from the moist earth, sending billowing smoke skywards and blackening the foliage.

And just like that the summer began.

Second Place: The Reluctant Wedding Guest by Maggie Farran

A perfect little gem, well-written and with one point to make – buying second hand clothes – and made clearly and well. I liked that the ease and benefits of shopping in charity shops was the focus, rather than alarming statistics of environmental impacts of fashion.

In January, Eve had looked at all the clothes spilling out of her wardrobe and made a resolution to stop buying any new clothes for one year. Her sister, Wendy had sprung the wedding invitation on her. 
‘It’s going to be a low-key affair, Eve, you don’t have to worry about buying a new outfit.’  

The trouble was that Eve really didn’t have anything remotely suitable. Her wardrobe mainly consisted of jeans and T-shirts. 

She cycled into Romsey, as it was likely to have charity shops stocked with up market cast offs. She tried Oxfam first and chose two promising looking dresses to try on. The first one was made of bright yellow silk. It fitted well but she decided she looked too much like a banana in it. The second one was a simple navy linen dress with big red buttons down the front. She stared into the mirror and couldn’t quite believe that it was her. She looked stylish but fun. She handed over ten pounds.  

Next, she went to the Cancer Research shop right next-door to the fish and chip shop. She found a red leather bag which matched the buttons on the dress. It had a long strap and lots of pockets. She looked at the shoes. They were all small sizes. She looked down at her size sevens and shrugged. She paid five pounds for the bag.  

She was starving but promised herself a portion of chips when she had found the shoes. 
She crossed her fingers as she crept into Age Concern. There in the corner she spied some red patent Doc Martens. They looked huge. She felt just like Cinderella as she tried them on. They fitted perfectly. She would go to the ball, but first she had an appointment at the chippy. 

Third Place: The Magic Oven by Diana Batten

This one is in my top three because it clearly shows examples of greener behaviours and also highlights the issue of modern goods not being made to last. I felt for the mum though, having had my own baking efforts ruthlessly criticised by my ungrateful sons!  

Mum likes watching ‘Bake Off’.  She isn’t very good at cooking though.  Her cakes are either burnt or raw in the middle.  When she made my birthday cake it went all wrong so she had to get one from the shop.  She blames the oven but Dad says she can’t cook. 

Yesterday was a bad day.  When I got up Dad  was shouting.  The kettle had broken so he couldn’t  make his coffee.  He is always in a bad mood if he doesn’t have coffee.  Then because he was angry Mum forgot to make my packed lunch properly. 

 It is ‘Green Week’ at school.  We have to think about the planet, even with things like our packed lunch.  Miss Williams checked our lunches to see whether we had done anything to stop climate change.  Bethany had brought an apple from her garden.  Josh’s sandwiches were wrapped in some funny wax stuff and Mia had a bamboo drinks bottle.  Mum had forgotten about the planet and put cling film on my sandwich and given me a packet of crisps and a cheese string. 

That night we had  fish and chips as Mum said  the stupid cooker had stopped working.  Nanny and Grandad don’t seem to break things.  Nanny is very old, she must be almost dead, but she has never broken her oven or burnt a cake.  She should go on Bake Off.    

We have got a new oven.  It looks just like Nanny’s but when Mum saw it she burst into tears and said it was old and horrible.  Dad said that it was built to last not like the modern rubbish and it was criminal to scrap it . 

Mum has made her first cake which isn’t burnt or raw.  The oven must be magic, just like Nanny’s. 

Highly Commended: Oblivious by John K Miles

I loved this. Mindless complicity is such an issue and this story illustrated it perfectly. I was a little worried about the comment on not having children. If we all lived within our planetary means, population wouldn’t be the issue it is. Also without children, our population will become top heavy with no young folk to look after the older people. I also worry that being green can become associated with a sense that the world would be better off without us – not good for our mental health!  Can I have four in my top three?  


The bubble bath looked luxurious; steaming hot and full to the brim. 
‘What’s the point in having a global meeting about saving the planet, then deciding not to save the planet?’ said Hugo, shouting through the ensuite door. Janet didn’t answer. The last few days had been like groundhog day; stuck together in Covid isolation, as the global conference on climate change drew to a close.  

Hugo dunked his bloated body into the sumptuous bath for approximately four minutes, before pulling the plug. 
‘Bloody politicians,’ he said,  standing up, red as a broiled lobster. He then set about meticulously brushing his teeth, with the tap running throughout.  

Janet took a deep breath. 
‘Aren’t you going to get dressed?’ 

‘When I’ve cooled down a bit love. It’s so damn hot in here.’ 
Well at least that was something they agreed on, she thought. Not that it stopped stop him leaving the heating on 24/7.  
‘Gawd, it looks cold outside,’ he said, pulling on a gaudy yellow T-shirt and matching shorts, before following Janet down three flights of draughty stairs to breakfast. 
‘Full fry up love,’ he said, clicking on the telly. 

Janet bit her tongue and lit all five burners on the range cooker. It was impossible to cook a Full English to Hugo’s specification on less. 
She sighed. 

‘YOU NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!’ said Hugo, screaming at the TV. ‘THE PLANET’S DYING!’ 
Meanwhile, the hobs burned and the food sizzled.  

Twenty minutes later it was ready and Hugo wolfed it down, looking out of the frosted window at his beloved gas guzzling Aston Martin parked in the drive. 
‘Can’t wait to drive that baby again,’ he said. 
‘Hugo?’ said Janet. 
‘What?’ said Hugo, looking back towards the TV. 
‘I’ve been thinking about ways to save the planet.’  

‘And?’ 
‘I’ve decided not to have children. And furthermore, I’d like a divorce.’ 

Crime Thriller – January Meeting 2022 Competition Results, Adjudication by Louisa Scarr

Louisa Scarr, author of the Butler and West crime thriller series, and speaker for our January meeting further donated her time to us over the Christmas period to adjudicate our December competition.

An opportunity to let our writers’ dark sides run riot, the brief this month was to:

Write a short piece from the point of view of the person committing the crime. What are they thinking and what might they have done? (300 words)

And the winners are:

First Place – Sam Knight with The Storm

Second Place – Martin J. White with Cadaver

Third Place – Natalie Morant with Desperate Measures

First Place: The Storm by Sam Knight

The author’s original writing style really stood out for me, almost poetic as it conjures up the feeling of the rain and the murder scene. I really liked the imagery – the juxtaposition of the innocent yellow duck sitting on the blood. And I could feel the emotion – the repercussions from the murder.

It had been a long time coming, this storm, sweeping in from the Atlantic. Bringing an end to eight summers of foreshore play, pine scented love, dreams cradled in midnight whispers. 

 At five minutes past one precisely, by the kitchen clock, silver blades, jagged edges, stab the wounded earth, again and again. And again. My own savage thoughts keep tearing my head apart. Black thunder muffles tap dancers hailing from Ireland, drum rolling conservatory glass. Roofs turn a darker shade of red. 

tipper tapper, 

tipper tapper,  

tipper tapper tip tap. 

God. How quickly everything had changed.  

I close my eyes and feel the deafening darkness invade the space in my secret world. Sudden silence. I stand up at the window and watch the wind pick up its skirt and race away across the rooftops. Wish I could escape like that.  

The last tipper tapper disappears. 

And then it came. I knew it would. One final climactic clap of thunder. No time to lose. I dash to the worktop and grab the meat knife. A drunk Sebastian is lying in the warm water, eyes closed. Three lightning strikes. That’s all it took. Never knew I had such strength. 

I cross the hall into the shower room. Hot water cascades over bruised arms, pinched nipples, between ivory thighs shown no regard for their beauty. Night after night after night. Standing in a cloud of steam I feel blood run down my thigh. I turn off the shower, but it will not stop dripping. 

tip, tap,  

tip, tap, 

tip, tap. 

Naked, I stumble into the bathroom. Sebastian is still lying there, but this time his eyes are wide open, a contorted grin looking up at me, a yellow duck floating onn blood. 

Bastard, I scream. You f-ing bastard. 

Now back into the kitchen. Cold water drips from the tap, pastelling the bloodstained towel.  

tip, tap, 

tip, tap, 

tip, tap… 

Stop. Stop. My head is bursting. Everything is too loud.  


Second Place: Cadaver House by Martin J. White

There are some wonderful descriptions in this story – the ghostly mist and the cat committing genocide. I like the concept of the story and the turn at the end. It left me asking questions and looking for more.

 

This would be the last time.  

            I had delivered the goods three times, and every time he was displeased.  

            ‘It has to be fresh!’ He complained. 

A slice of the moon offers a pale glow in the dark hours, and a ghostly mist strokes the damp ground like the long fingers of an old hag. I watch the cats’ eyes moving amongst the gravestones committing genocide on the resident rodents from behind a leprous yew tree.  

The two men I had been watching finally put their shovels over their shoulders and walk away from the freshly dug soil. I wait for the sound of the churchyard gate to close, and I move forward with my shovel and horse.  

It must be fresh; it must be male; it must be this and must that! Damn that Doctor! 

My hands bleed with every pass of the shovel, for this had been a task I commit regularly, and yet the bastard hasn’t paid me. This cadaver will be warm; I will demand double my price.  

Eventually, my shovel hits the hard coffin lid, the usual stench of rotten flesh being devoured by parasites is absent; this is exciting; tonight, I will drink like a king.  

Attaching rope around the handles of the coffin and to the saddle of my mare, I move her forward. The coffin easily comes out of the earth, sliding along the damp grass.  

Something is wrong? Why is the coffin so light? Please no, don’t let it be a child’s remains. My evening of rum and whores evaporites, and I decide to prize open the casket. 

Empty? Why would they bury an empty— 

I spin in time to see the shovel come towards my head, and I see my fate in the crazed, freakish face of the Doctor.  

Third Place: Desperate Measures by Natalie Morant

 The reveal that the killer is thirteen is nicely done here; it subverts our expectations and brings us something original away from a common ‘battered-wife’ theme.

I watched as Adam’s face screwed up in fury at a message on his phone and he hurled the whisky glass at the wall. Its poisoned contents dribbled to the floor. I’d failed again and he had been saved by his temper. I straightened from the keyhole and crept back to bed. 

I couldn’t afford another botched attempt. At some point Adam – I preferred to call him that – would guess what I was doing. Next time, the last time, I would use a more direct approach. The result would be death for him, or, almost certainly, death for me. 

Every evening while I cleared away the pans and plates from the dinner I’d cooked, Adam would fall asleep in front of the tv. If I made too much noise, he would wake up and shout at me. Then would come the invisible punches. I called them invisible because he would make sure, even though he was half drunk, that the bruises would be hidden under clothes. He did have self-control when he wanted to use it. 

That night, I padded carefully around the kitchen in my socked feet, like I always did. But instead of putting the sharp knives in the dishwasher, I picked up the longest and before I had time to lose courage, I walked up behind the armchair he was slumped in, reached over the top and plunged the knife into his chest. To be honest I was surprised how easy it was. His eyes opened for a second as the blood flowed out of him and that was it. At last, I’d done it.  

Now I live in a locked room, but I feel more free than I can remember. Do I have nightmares? No. Killing Adam was the best thing I’ve ever done. So far. After all, at thirteen years old I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. 

Epistolary Gossip – December 2021 Competition Results, Adjudication by Dr Cheryl Butler

Dr Cheryl Butler, playwright, author and historian, and speaker at our Christmas 2021 meeting, kindly agreed to be the adjudicator for our December Competition.

This month’s competition was one for those creative letter writers among us. The brief this month was:

Write a letter to a close relative with gossip about your mutual acquaintance. (300 words)

And the winners are:

First Place – John Quinn with Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Second Place – Martin J. White with Carfax House

Third Place – Graham Steed with Marooned

Highly Commended – Rob Stuart for Where’s George?

Highly Commended – Sam Christie for The Bengal Tiger

Cheryl’s opening adjudication comments:

The inspiration for the competition came from the theme for this evenings event, the writer Jane Austen is of course a novelist with an international reputation but she was also a an inveterate letter writer. Her letters are full of gossip about friends, neighbours and persons of interest, but also contain little creative vignettes often about her nearest and dearest. She also had a waspish wit, and if you are going to be insulted then being insulted by Jane Austen – in a recent Who Do You Think You Are programme, I was the local expert brought in to see if Joe Sugg was related to Jane Austen – for the programme sadly not – but we spent a happy hour laughing at the insults Miss Austen levelled at Joe’s 4 times great aunt. 

These were the topics and flourishes I was looking for in this competition. 

First Place: Barking Up the Wrong Tree by John Quinn

I loved the idea of the scandal (illegitimate children something of a feature in Austen novels, along with unsuitable partners) did not guess the twist until the PS so that is what just tipped the final decision in this writer’s favour – but it was very close between the top three  …

Anna,

I’ve fantastic news – take it as read that my family are as boringly healthy and predictable as ever, then we can skip the mundane and get straight to ‘the sandwich filling, not the boring bread,’ as Daddy used to say.

Lily is pregnant! You’re the first, other than the medic’s and Hubby Harry, to know. I’m not even sure Lily has realised the significance yet…

And this time we know who the father is! Well, there’s a bit of a tale to tell, for goodness sake. It was AI, artificial – no, not intelligence – insemination. The donor was chosen out of a catalogue – whatever next – beautiful, brainy and a boxer; what more could you ask for in a stud?

Given that AI gets rid of all that mucky, rather sordid side of procreating, there must be a downside, right? Well, there is – the scan has shown there isn’t going to be one little one, but three!!! Hubby Harry is worried (of course he bloody well is, when isn’t he?) that we won’t have enough room. I had to tell him straight, ‘She’s family, for God’s sake! What are we going to do, kick her out onto the street?’ He can be so lame at times.

Anyway, Lily is practically glowing: shiny hair, eating like a horse and sleeping for Britain. We’re going on long walks every day, either across the heather and around the golf course or, for a change, we jump into the Discovery, park up in the woods and have a proper ramble. As she gets bigger, we may have to be a little less ambitious, a walk around the green may have to suffice.

We’re now making plans – I wanted a birthing pool, but Lily prefers showers to baths, so that’s out of the question, but it’s definitely going to be a home birth.

Elle X ,

P.S. You’ve got first pick of the litter, if you’re still after a puppy?


Second Place: Carfax House by Martin J. White

A dark entry, pushing the upper boundaries of Middle Grade and turning the spirit of Christmas on its given the theme for my presentation, I had to applaud this nod to the Gothic, plus a hint of Netherfield Hall – so not quite Pride & Prejudice and Zombies  – but as Jane Austen was a huge fan of gothic novels which feature in her books and letters, a worthy entry 

Marigold Smythe 
River View House
Purfleet
East London

       Monday, November 7th, 1897 

       My dearest Anne, 

      I hope this letter finds you well and the children in good health? 

     Following up on my previous correspondence, I must enlighten you on the strangest of occurrences. As you may recall, I was delighted by the news that a distinguished Romanian businessman had purchased the neighbouring property Carfax House.  

As you know, this property is in disrepair and a blight on the neighbourhood. I trusted a new owner would invest in the property and resurrect it to its former glory. I anticipated conversing with the new owner, a well-travelled gentleman, intelligent and sophisticated.  

It has been a month since his arrival, and I am yet to cast my eyes upon him. My husband informs me, he has seen the gentleman leaving the house after nightfall, and what hour he returns remains a mystery. The house continues to be in a state of ill repair, and to make the matter worse, it appears he owns a pack of dogs that howl in the early hours and wake me from my slumber— 

Tuesday, November 8th, 1897 

I have endeavoured to learn this gentleman’s name and have discovered he is, in fact, a Count! This afternoon I posted a note through his door inviting him for supper this evening. I must say there was something off about the house. The dogs I mentioned before are nowhere to be seen, and there is foul odour radiating from the place that reminded me of that bloody iron smell in a butcher’s shop. It is nightfall here, and I must ready myself in case our guest arrives. The cook has made the most scrumptious garlic roasted poussin. I hope this will be satisfactory; I have no idea what Romain gentlemen eat? 

Our guest has arrived. I will write more about the encounter shortly; I am incredibly excited to finally meet this Transylvanian Count— 

Third Place: Marooned by Graham Steed

 I liked the family dynamic is this letter, again in Austen’s novels and in her real life there was constant speculation on who was going to inherit what, and the worthiness of participants of that inheritance. Often the Austen family were disappointed in their hopes, and then there is the showing up of the writer –reminded me of Emma getting caught out on Box Hill.

Hi Sis,  

There’s something strange going on with Sally. I don’t mean she’s seen the Light or run off with the milkman. Poor thing. Is it really five years since her Harry passed? Actually, I don’t think the word ‘poor’ really applies because I hear she has come into some money. I saw it on her Facebook page – well, she hinted anyway, and what’s more, hinted at inheritance! 

Yes, yes, you’ll call me an internet nosey parker. But, I’m curious. Sally is our step-sister and I thought that after Harry passed, she had no other family but us, and Father has made it clear that you, me, and her all benefit equally from his Will.  

Anyway, she’d replied to a Facebook friend: ‘Haven’t decided what to with the money yetSo unexpected! Perhaps a cruise?’ 

See! My Bill’s always saying, ‘Stop trunking, Liz,’ but that’s when I’m peering through the nets. And if sisters can’t gossip together, who can? But this is different. Bill and I promised we’d go on a cruise when Father passed, but he’s still too blinking healthy! 

Then, to add insult to injury, another post: I’m going to plant a tree for Edward. I’m so grateful. An uncle I never knew I had!’ 

Who the blazes is Uncle Edward? And Sally is going to benefit from Father’s Will as well? Cheek, I say. Sally’s had her pay out, but we’re still waiting! 

It’s keeping me awake at night and I’m back on the Andrews Liver salts and whenever I see an advert on the tele for cruises, I feel so achingly sad that I weep for warm Atlantic air, sea as blue as a mackerel skin, the comforting churn of engines – weep, because I’m still marooned in Bognor Regis!!! 

*    *    * 

Heavens… Sally’s sent me a post: Going to book a cruise, Sis. I want to repay the many kindnesses you’ve shown me, so I’m offering to pay for you to join me…  

Highly Commended: Where’s George? by Rob Stuart

Again, another gothic theme in this letter, this time with more of a Sweeney Todd motif. It had that Austen flight of fancy – though hers was related to imagining love affairs between improbable partners rather than novel ways of disposal.  

Dear Harriet,

Funny you should ask about George and Mary. I bumped into her the other day at the Food Bank where I volunteer two days a week. She was dropping off a great bundle of fresh sausages. You remember, her son gave her that sausage maker for Christmas. Alan, that is. Not Peter. He’s moved to Kazakhstan. Something about a problem with the tax people.

I haven’t seen him for ages. George, that is, not Peter. Mind you, he doesn’t come out much. Just stays at home and lets her run around after him. Between you and me and the bedpost, I think he’s usually three sheets to the wind by lunchtime. Never does a tap. Makes her run around after him, wait on him hand and foot.

She seems to be doing up the garden, digging up part of the lawn. I suppose she laying down a patio. He won’t help her, lazy bugger. My friend Joyce saw her in B&Q the other day, in the tool section. She was buying an axe. Funny thing is, there are no trees or bushes in her garden. Maybe she’ll plant some to go with the new patio.

She gave me a couple of pounds (in old money!) of her sausages which I cooked for our tea. I must say, she made a really good job of them. Henry ate four of them straight off and you know what he’s like with his food. She said she was off to drop some off at the care home, too. What is she like? An angel, that’s what. Bless.

Will I be seeing you over Christmas? I might have some of her bangers left!

Love

Jenny

Highly Commended: The Bengal Tiger by Sam Christie

This one made me think of Christmas, and of receiving gifts not quite the one on your Christmas list – Giles was brave, if potentially foolhardy in addressing his concerns, in Austen novels ungrateful sons, or those perceived as ungrateful, often find themselves cut out of the will of offended parents.

Dear Father, 

I write on a delicate matter. It is connected to the Bengal tiger skin (and partial head) that you entrusted to my care. I do recognise that it is something of a family heirloom, however this is 2021 and not 1946 and change is in the air. 

I would also point out that I did not shoot it and that I do not really approve of its demise. Now I do understand that Great Uncle Reggie saved you and your sister’s lives by his actions, which I still cannot fully believe since his hands didn’t stop shaking until after ‘tiffin’, but due to his choice of firearm, the skin itself has never been particularly pleasing. I find it hangs lazily and due to the quantity of holes looks a little like a furry colander with stripes. 

Generally, and as far as I understand such matters, it is customary to use a rifle in big game circles; but Reggie used a Bren Gun. As usual our family managed a first, but I feel this may be a first we might be tempted to forget.  

Of course the thing looks ridiculous in my bedsit and only the other day I managed to scare off a wonderful girl I had been courting as she also happened to be a vegetarian and a rather keen environmentalist. The thing looms. 

Mr Xi assures me that there will be little to no paperwork and has arranged to meet me under the A56 flyover near Little Sodbury tomorrow. Father, it is you that lives in the Cotswolds; I am a writer on Universal Credit. Mr Xi has offered me £10,000 and that is therefore that. 

I am relentlessly your son, 

Giles 

Imagine This! – November 2021 Competition Results, Adjudication by Yasmin Kane

Yasmin Kane, founder of Kane Literacy Agency not only came and spoke to the members about creativity and how to find it, but kindly agreed to adjudicate our November 2021 Competition.

Currently representing fiction authors for children, YA and adult genres, Yasmin wanted to set members the challenge of keeping an open brief and simply being free to create whatever they wanted. The brief was set as follows:

Imagine This… 300 words to let your imagination run riot! Think outside the box – it would be great to encompass universal themes and read a profoundly moving piece. I’m looking for something that will make me sit bolt upright!

And the winners are:

First Place – Natalie Morant with Let’s See

Second Place – Damon L. Wakes with The Merchant’s Tale

Third Place – Summer Quigley with Imaginarium

“This was such fun – I loved adjudicating and peering into some wonderful imaginations.”

Yasmin Kane on being a HWS competition judge

First Place: Let’s See by Natalie Morant

Stunning intro, immediately engages the reader. The protagonists have a mythical quality to them. Very thought provoking, unnerving and chilling as it is only a game… Needs to be read a couple of times to let it sink in as one tries to fathom which natural elements are running the show? I loved it.

Floodrush frowned at the card he had drawn, his forehead rippling as the horizontal waves of his expression jarred with the continuous flow of his face. He looked up at the others apologetically. 

“Global warming,” he said.  

“Ha! I knew it,” shrieked Howl. “There was bound to be a disaster card soon. We’ve been getting away with all sorts for the last few rounds.” He resembled nothing more than an Egyptian mummy, though his ragged strips were of many colours, blurring together as they fluttered around him. 

Lavana laughed. “I know why you are so cheerful, Howl. You want this game to end so we can start a new one. What say you, Bonechill? Shall we abandon this game with the humans and deal another set of species?” 

Bonechill considered the question, meeting Lavana’s eyes. She is, in fact, the only player he can comfortably look at. Floodrush and Howl make his head hurt with their constantly moving bodies, and he’s careful to restrict them to his peripheral vision. 

“I think we can still win.” Bonechill always spoke one syllable at a time.  

“So do I.” Lavana smiled and tilted her sinewy frame backwards, re-crossing her legs. Her change of position forced the others to adjust their own accordingly. Lavana’s skin glowed hot and her companions must ebb and flow to avoid being burned. 

“Okay with me,” said Howl, who was always happy to go along with a group decision. 

“You roll for the rate of warming then,” said Floodrush. Howl did. 

“0.2 degrees per decade,” he announced. 

The four of them leaned in towards the slowly spinning sphere, and Lavana touched the atmosphere gently with her fingertip. 

“I bet I was right though,” said Howl, good-naturedly. “I’d try the dinosaurs again.” 

“Well,” said Lavana. “Let’s see how the humans do.”


Second Place: The Merchant’s Tale by Damon L. Wakes

Beautiful allegorical storytelling, instantly visual and told in the simplest of manners. Makes the reader feel completely present in the scene. 

Imbibed with the true craftsmanship of storytelling.  I wanted to read on and on and on…

When the merchant found a holy man—marked as such by the tattoos upon his face—sitting in the dust by the roadside he stopped his cart to offer coin. 

However, the man held up his hands in refusal. “Save your drachmas,” he said. “I am merely a traveller, the same as you. I have renounced my vows. I follow no god—not anymore.” 

“I have a tale that might give you cause to reconsider,” said the merchant, settling down beside him. “Two years ago I was passing through this desert. My cart carried not earthenware or spices, but my own wife and children, for that was the year of the ash-storms in the north and we were seeking refuge from them.” 

“I remember those days,” said the traveller. “Many came to me for blessings before risking such a journey.” 

“And I should have done the same! My camel, it transpired, had been afflicted by the ash and died without warning. We could not complete the journey on foot, and had little water for so many. Soon it ran out, and we knew none of us would last the day.” 
“What did you do?” asked the traveller. 

“I prayed for water, and it rained for five days. Five days’ rain in the desert.” The merchant spread his arms across the dry expanse before them. 

There was a long pause. 

At last the traveller spoke: “Like you, I made that journey when the ash-storms came. Like you, I brought my wife and children.

My camel, like yours, died in the heat and like you I prayed when the water ran out.” 

The merchant’s face fell. “But when you prayed, it did not rain.” 

“No.” The traveller shook his head. “It rained for five days. But it rained five hours too late.” 
 

Third Place: Imaginarium by Summer Quigley

It leads one’s imagination into darkness or light – depending on what state of mind one is reading it from. This sums up the true craft of imagination – not just to imagine but to give others the gift of imagining.

Menowin metamorphosed – ringmaster, trapeze, magician – creating his own world of wonders. The buzz of the fair, the perfect backdrop for his own sensational show.

This is the moment the clown spotted him, spotted his imagination.

Menowin didn’t notice the clown at first, surprisingly silent in his approach, given his oversized shoes.

“You’re having fun,” came the gruff voice from behind.

Menowin froze for a moment, catching sight of his reflection in the wiggling wall of mirrors opposite, and the giant clown who towered above him.

“Errr.. yes…I was. But now my mum will be wondering where I am.” Menowin backed away.

“Don’t leave on my account. I noticed you playing. Your creativity made me smile. A special thing, a creative spark you know.”

Menowin paused… flattered.

“Where’s your parents?”

“Mum’s home. I should really get back.”

“Well, before you go, fancy a tour of the tent? I saw you looking.”

“No… no money, sorry.”

“That’s okay,” the gruff voice softened. “I’m Kooky. I’ll get you in. Let you in the side. Special VIP treatment.”

Every fibre in Menowin’s body knew he shouldn’t, but every fibre wished more than ever to see first hand, just once, the thrill of the circus.

Kooky continued, “And if we see the ringmasters, I’ll introduce you.”

Menowin looked over his shoulder. The crowds dissipated. If he didn’ t go with the clown now he may never get the chance again.  His mum couldn’t afford to take him. 

He bit his lip, looking down, hoping the grass had the answer. It didn’t.

“How about just a little peek under and then you decide,” and checking  no-one was nearby, Kooky raised the tent curtain with his shovel of a shoe.

A little peek couldn’t hurt. Menowin bent on all fours, tilting his head for a glimpse as something whizzed by in a cloud of colourful smoke. Menowin edged forward for a closer look. He was in… and the curtain dropped down behind him.

Highly Commended: A Good Report by Graham Steed

Tantalisingly puts the reader into the mind of a killer. It results in the reader feeling achingly sad and thinking oh, this is so clever.

Imagine this…a body on the tideline. Right by my deckchair spot. A woman’s body. I’m annoyed. Now I must trudge back up the hill and phone 999. 

‘…Hallo. I’m Norman. I’ve just found a body in Smugglers Cove…’ 

‘…Yes. It’s near the monastery…’ 

‘…No. Not accessible by vehicle…’ 

‘…I live on the hill. On sunny days I bring my deckchair down…’ 

‘…She must have floated in on the tide.’ 

*   *   * 

If you are watching, you will see I have not climbed the hill. I sit in my deckchair and dare to look at the woman.  

Dressed in jeans and a short black top which shows her midriff, her body is pawed by the incoming tide as if to wake it, but I’m in no doubt she is dead, for the dead lie differently from the sleeper: the dead are frozen in attitude, vacant, they lie in bad places – like this one, borne in, as I believe, on rising water during matins when the monks nearby rise and pray in darkness: Venite adoremus.  

*   *   * 

But I hesitate to call 999. 

 I need a good report because I know the inside of a prison cell… 

‘We want to interview you under caution, Norman, at the police station.’  

…so I’ll be cooperative, open, and honest. 

 Except every good point will be offset by a single bad point: me alone on a beach with a body. 

It is not for our sins we are punished, but for our crimes. 

*   *   * 

I swim with the body lying on my back. 

Where are we going?’ 

‘Where you came from.’ 

‘I was trying to escape.’ 

‘Who from?’ 

‘From you.’ 

‘You’ll always be my true love. 

‘And you mine.’ 

I let the body slip away. 

*   *   * 

I’m up early. I run to the hilltop. The beach and sea are clear. I wave to the helicopter flying overhead. 

I think I’ve got away with it. 

Don’t you? 

Highly Commended: The Soul App by Peter Duncan

Thought-provoking and compassionate.

It began with the drownings. Twelve young men in the English Channel, their flimsy inflatable capsized after being turned back from British territorial waters by the Coastguard. A football team plus reserve, Robarge thought, his mind flashing back a week and the return from the family villa in Languedoc. He’d slowed for a roundabout just before the ferry terminal at Caen, noticed some guys playing soccer on a patch of wasteland. Shouting, animated faces, a skilled tackle: for a few moments this long dull journey came alive. Migrants for sure, he’d reflected: their game a brief joyous escape from the deadly task of trying to reach an indifferent country.  

Had it been them? Was it these boys who’d drowned?  

He felt a sharp pain somewhere inside, almost unknown yet strangely familiar. 

Robarge was a successful software developer with many connections. It didn’t take long to gather those he needed for the project: biofeedback experts, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians. Religious leaders had been the most difficult to persuade, but eventually they joined too. Months of discussion, months more of development work.  

At last it was ready. To begin with the download rate was slow. Then a young Novice called Giulia from a convent near Rome posted a video on Instagram. It showed an image, at once mysterious and universal, on the screen of her mobile phone. The camera panned to Giulia’s spellbound face. A sharp gasp of amazement as the Novice recognised her own soul, eyes shining now with radiant light. 

The video went viral. Before long, millions were filled with that very same light. Mlllions became billions, and the whole world was suffused with the luminous wonder of souls finding healing and redemption for all the drowned and broken of the planet. 

Taking Revenge – April 2021 Competition Results, Adjudication by Louisa De Lange

Louisa De Lange, freelance copywriter and editor, and author of three thriller novels generously gave her time to adjudicate our April 2021 Competition.

For the thriller, crime, mystery and suspense authors and fans, Louisa suggested a revenge focused competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Describe a situation where someone has taken revenge. What was it for? How do they believe they were wronged?

And the winners are:

First Place – Joanne Dennison with Blood Moon

Second Place – John K Miles with Mistress of the Sea

Third Place – Moira Beckett with A Knock on the Door

Louisa said she enjoyed adjudicating and we hope you all enjoy the winning stories below.

First Place: Blood Moon by Joanne Dennison

I loved this story for its distinctive style and originality: it was clear from the beginning who the characters were, what they believed, and where their loyalties lay, but it wasn’t obvious about it. It made these distinctions subtly, without a wasted word. And at the end, I especially liked the way the tables are turned, that it’s the humans with the taste of blood in their mouth, howling at the moon.

‘You come home without the dog,’ you always joked, ‘then don’t bother to come home at all.’ And I’d laugh, reaching out to muss your hair in the way I knew made you crazy. ‘Get.’ you’d tell me, swiping my hand away, and Jack and I would get. We’d get ourselves to the park, or the match, or for a pint down the pub, where our gentle giant always got himself an ear scratch or a slurp of someone’s beer. 

Until the day the odds in the bookies’ window drew me in, just for a moment, and you’d beaten your fists into my chest and told me, ‘Get out’, an emptiness to your voice. And I’d got. I’d plastered the neighbourhood with pictures of Jack, the one you took of him the day we’d pulled him from the shelter.  I’d hounded the police and got a caution for telling the desk Sargent he was a complete arsehole and punching a hole in the wall by his head. 

I started hanging out in the seedier parts of town asking about dog fights and getting into plenty of my own; leads taking me to abandoned warehouses full of screaming men, watching dog after dog get torn apart. It made me sick to my stomach, but none of them were ever Jack. 

One night, coming in from taking a piss on some wanker’s Jag, a mean looking Rottweiler called Tiger stood in the ring surrounded by the baying crowd. A beat up, red bullmastiff was dragged in on a choke chain to face him. 

When I was pulled off the mountain of a man who’d held the chain around Jack’s neck, the guy was missing an ear and I had the taste of blood in my mouth. I grabbed Jack as the sound of police sirens sent everyone scattering, and we ran. We ran until we could run no more, howling at the moon as we made our way home to you. 


Second Place: Mistress of the Sea by John K Miles

A really well written story. Some wonderful imagery. As I was reading it I could clearly see the storm and the beach, almost feel the salt in the air. And I liked the double revenge aspect – after one act is carried out another retaliatory revenge occurs.

 
The forked lightning strobed across the rocky beach, exposing a snapshot of natural violence. A brutal storm under a purple sky, generating twenty foot waves that were ripping huge chunks of sedimentary rock away from the cliff.  

Seth made his way to the shrine, sideways rain washing away fresh tears, as he cursed the gods for the hand he’d been dealt. Deep set anger and grief spurred him on. He broke into a sprint, pushing through the wind, towards the tidal cave that housed the totem. 

‘Curse you!’ he said, as he reached the entrance, his hot temper directed at the manifest image of the goddess. The wooden statue stared back at him nonchalantly. 

‘You’ve taken everything from me! She was my life!’ 

Another streak of lightning ripped across the beach, lighting up the quartz gems which decorated the face of the ancient water deity. She was mocking him. Gloating. Impulsively, he unbuckled his axe and flew at the idol, desecrating it with short, powerful, relentless strokes. It took several minutes, but soon all that was left was the decapitated head of the goddess, lying face up in the wet sand. The remainder of the totem, had been smashed into hundreds of tiny fragments. For one brief moment Seth felt at peace. Revenge had been served. The goddess had drowned his love and now the price had been paid.  

His tears flowed freely. 

‘Why did you take her from me so soon?’ 

The mistress of the sea looked back at him with uncaring eyes, as a powerful wave crashed into the cave, lifting him off his feet. He was trapped. No escape. And as the full force of the ocean broke him against the cave wall, the head of the goddess was pulled back through the entrance into the deep. 

Third Place: A Knock on the Door by Moira Beckett

This was a beautifully clear, concise story. I liked the precise ending: we’re in no doubt about what’s going to happen and why.

The clock ticked. Sally’s thoughts tunnelled inward. 

The death of her beloved mother had meant abrupt removal  

to a children’s home, near the beautiful Manor where she had just started work.  

As she had blossomed into a pretty teenager, she became desperate to leave the home,   

dreading the heavy footsteps at night that stopped at her door. 

No-one would believe the word of a young girl, that’s what  

Mr G said, so she counted the months till she could leave. 

Training to be a nurse had offered a fresh start and she particularly enjoyed her work with  

the elderly, her surrogate family. 

The delicious aroma of coffee pulled Sally out of her reverie. She reviewed the night nurse’s  

notes.  

Mr Green had been restless again; luckily his sudden decline was giving no cause for  

concern.  

Just then, Vicky on reception rang.  “Mr Green’s nephew is here.” 

Minutes later, Sally was discussing her patient with Joe, who seemed to think his Uncle had  

been a paragon of virtue. 

 “All those years he looked after those homeless children. It’s good to know he’s being  

well looked after now. “ 

Sally nodded stiffly as though in agreement, but her face remained resolutely frozen, her  

mouth a tight line.  

 Just then, Mr Green’s bell rang, the red light blinking balefully at  

her.  

Taking the cold steel tray, laden with tablets and liquids, she walked down  

the hushed, carpeted hall. Sally knocked at his door. Of course, he was unable to 

speak, but it was still the polite thing to do.  

Entering the dimly lit room, an involuntary smile broke across her still attractive, lined face  

as she looked down at her patient, recognising the look of fear in his eyes. 

 “Time for your medicine now, Mr Green.” 

MG Christmas Story – December 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by Veronica Cossanteli

Veronica Cossanteli, author of dark, funny Middle Grade adventures for Chicken House, kindly agreed to be the adjudicator for our Nov/Dec Competition.

This month’s competition aimed to lighten the spirits and get us thinking about Christmas, turning Christmas music into Christmas stories for children. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Write a children’s MG story, taking inspiration from your favourite line from your favourite Christmas song.

And the winners are:

First Place – Gill Hollands with Not Even a Mouse

Second Place – Joanne Dennison with The Tiny Tale of the Deathless Girl

Third Place – Graham Steed with A Noisy Silent Night

Highly Commended – Natalie Morant for Lost

Veronica’s opening adjudication comments:

I have a profound admiration for anyone who can write a story in 300 words, so my congratulations go to all this month’s authors.

A short story is like a poem: every word must earn its keep. You can polish them, and polish them again, until every rough edge – every unnecessary syllable – is rubbed away and you are left with something that sparkles: a perfect jewel. But there is more to good fiction than elegance of style; there is also the soul of the story – the voice, the unexpected perspective, the something-undefined that brings it to life and hangs around in your head.

I loved reading all of these entries: some poignant, some heart-warming – and one distinctly disturbing! Faced with some difficult decisions, I looked for literary craftsmanship and originality. At the same time, I listened for the voices that stayed with me, whispering in my ear ….

Bravo to all. At the close of this strange year, your stories have given me a joyful beginning to the festive season so thank you – and Happy Christmas!

First Place: Not Even a Mouse by Gill Hollands

I was struck by the multi-sensory quality of this entry.

Finding him/herself accidentally displaced into the glare and blare of a human Christmas, the miniature protagonist misses the ‘sanctuary of frosted woods’ with the ‘tick of bats, the hum of moths’ – but this realm of giants, with its painful lights and raucous voices, is not without its gastronomic compensations …

A small animal’s world is full of whisker-twitching scents and sounds, as is the writing: truly a mouse-eye view of the world, reminiscent of Dick King Smith. As a good short story should, it merits several readings. First time around, I was so busy willing our mouse to safety, I missed the significance of the hoof prints outside…A beautiful lightness of touch throughout.

I wake, warm, twitching. I squirm my way out, flattening my whiskers. Outside, painful lights blink around me.

Puzzled, I scuttle along the familiar branch, crouch behind the needles at the end, sniffing. Orbs swing around me, twinkling in the glare. I don’t recognise the scent. It’s not forest air.

I hear voices, echoing. That sound still haunts me from my last ordeal in the giants’ realm. Breathless, I set my shaking paws on the needles, leaning out for a better view. Yep. Walls. I duck back into cover.

The voices grow loud. Shooting back to safety, the dangling balls dance around me. I dare not sleep now, curl there rigid, listening.

Finally, I push my nose out, hear a clatter. I freeze. The lights blink off around me. Silence falls. It’s almost like night in the forest, without the tick of bats, the hum of moths. I soak it in.

I know that smell!  Mouth watering, I follow the scent down to the floor, claws scrabbling.  Scaling a tricky table leg I wriggle over the edge. Success! I grab the cheese in both paws to gorge. Soon, I’m nibbling sugar plums, enormous biscuits too. The glass topples with a crash.

I flee back across the floor, zipping under cover. The door bangs open, flooding in light. A dog barks. I take my chance, darting between giant feet, the scream hurting my ears.

Outside I run, sucking in moonlit fresh air. It’s snowing. I don’t care, sliding on a belly fat and full of cheese.

I cross a double set of tracks among the hoofprints, back to the peaceful sanctuary of frosted woods, where no-one is stirring, except me…


Second Place: A Tiny Tale of the Deathless Girl by Joanne Dennison

A dark entry, pushing the upper boundaries of Middle Grade and turning the spirit of Christmas on its head! A Gothic gem, handled with a sinister subtlety that leaves the reader pondering unanswered questions. As a child, I would have found this deliciously unnerving; as an adult, I remain haunted by it. Read it if you dare; there’s a chance that you will never again hear the peal of church bells without the hairs lifting on the back of your neck ….

The bells were ringing out on Christmas Day, and the church glowed with candlelight. It glinted off the large silver key swinging at the Cardinal’s waist, as he delivered Midnight Mass to the townsfolk.

The girl in the Bell Tower pulled the ropes with such strength and speed that her long mane of dark hair flew out to the sides like a pair of black wings. An unnatural thirst burned at the back of her throat.

As the congregation departed, she listened for the key to turn in the lock, signalling her hour of freedom. She ran barefoot from the room and gulped down the ruby red liquid set out on the alter in a golden goblet. The empty drag in her stomach sated, she twirled down the aisles and cartwheeled around the font.

She froze as the door to the church creaked open.

A young boy slipped in from the cold, wearing nothing but rags. His face smeared with soot. He gasped as he turned, not having heard her approach. Her black eyes inches from his face.

The air from the open door spluttered the candles turning the girl’s gaze towards the falling flakes of snow.

‘I cannot pass the threshold,’ she told him, ‘unless another willingly takes my place.’

Yet he did not run, and let his hand be taken in hers. It felt even colder than her own, and they walked together to the tower.

‘Pull the bell once after I leave.’ she said indicating the rope.

He looked at the straw mattress and the book spread by its side, then back to her beautiful, bloodless face and nodded.

As she flew out of the church a lone bell tolled, and a large silver key locked the door to the tower.

The Cardinal rode home weighed down by a bursting bag of coins from the collection plate. He did not notice the horses’ ears prick or the dark shadow that swooped down from above.

Third Place: A Noisy Silent Night by Graham Steed

A story for Christmas 2020, this represents all the little things that will be lost and missed this year. Is it for today’s children? I hesitated over this, but Mrs Mackie comes immediately to life, with an endearingly rebellious spirit, and what child does not like to see a grown-up behaving unconventionally and triumphing over the bleak voice of reason? The early symptoms of dementia are sensitively implied and Mrs Mackie’s relationship with her son is masterfully sketched in two sentences. There is a lovely juxtaposition where she warbles ‘All is calm …’ while chaos breaks out across the street …

Mrs Mackie gets her carols, and goes happily to bed. A reader, young or old, would need a heart of stone not to be touched by this.

Mrs Mackie waits for children to knock at her door and sing Christmas Carols.  Her favourite carol is Silent Night, though she says the night Jesus was born was never silent: the angels burst upon the night with great singing, the shepherds go quickly to Bethlehem chattering all the way, Mary’s donkey in the stable hee-haws at all the fuss.

Mrs Mackie’s son puts up her tree and decorations and helps her make mince pies, but he is not happy. He tells her not to worry about the carol singers but to worry more about living alone in this ‘big old house.’

Mrs Mackie does not understand that this year, because of COVID-19, no carol singers are allowed.

A Christmas without carols?

Suddenly she remembers that in the front room is her father’s record player and a record case full of old records which are much larger than today’s disks.

She flicks through the record covers until she finds Christmas Carols sung by the Kings College Choir. She places the record on the turn table and, lifting the arm, lets the needle head sink gently onto the record.

All at once, Mrs Mackie hears the great choir in their grand church singing in her own living room. Filled with joy, she draws aside the heavy curtains, throws open the windows so everyone can hear, looks up at the silent

night with its bright and clear stars and sings along in her high, warbling voice: Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm… Curtains open across the street, doors open, voices call, dogs bark, somebody shouts.

The police knock at her door. They tell Mrs Mackie that Christmas Eve is the one night of the year when children must sleep. She gives them a plate of mince pies ‘for the lads at the station’, but when they go, she turns the volume up even louder!

Later, Mrs Mackie, pleased with her noisy silent night, sleeps happily and quietly…

Highly Commended: Lost by Natalie Morant

This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.

They should never have left the path. While they were collecting the holly and fir cones, more snow had fallen. At twelve years old, Luke had been trusted to look after his sister but he’d turned around and everywhere was white. Now it was dark, and Christmas Eve in this cave seemed the only option. It smelled damp, though the water running down the walls was frozen like stone. He kicked the earth. Hard as iron.

Lottie smiled bravely at him, but she was too young to have heard of hypothermia. The brown curls of hair poking from under her red hat shivered.

A thin, critical voice pierced Luke’s thoughts. “Should’ve stayed on the path.”

The children spun round, peering into the gloom.

“Don’t be mean. They’re only young.” 

Two small people materialised from the shadows and regarded the children solemnly.

“You’ve got funny ears,” said Lottie, matter-of-fact.

The shorter one rolled his eyes. “See, rude as well as brainless.” The taller one thumped him.

“We’re lost,” explained Lottie unnecessarily. 

“Let’s get you home then.”

“It’s miles.” 

“We know a short-cut,” winked Taller.  “Hold hands.” 

Lottie grabbed up the holly branches and stretched a mitten towards Shorter.

“Ugh,” he said. “And have we got to drag all that prickly stuff with us too?”

“It’s for Christmas.” Luke had finally found his tongue.

They made a circle, though Luke was so cold he couldn’t even feel his hands. He found his eyes closing without his permission. He saw sparkling lights through his eyelids and a tingling sensation travelled up from his toes. When his eyes opened again, they stood in their own front garden. The fire inside crackled brightly. Sausage rolls steamed on the table. 

Luke started to say thank-you, but Lottie spoke louder than him. “Do you know Father Christmas?”

Shorter gave a snort. “Told you they’d ask that.”

Taller thumped him again and they scampered off into the snow.

Character Agency – October 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by James Fuller

This month’s competition had our members tackling horror/suspense in recognition of the haunting Halloween season October brings. A fun challenge for those who took part.

James Fuller, author of fantasy, dark fiction, horror, dystopian, paranormal erotica, thrill and drama, was our adjudicator for our October Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Write a haunted house story, maximising character agency of the house as the protagonist.

And the winners are:

First Place – Jena Brown with Forever Mine

Second Place – Matt Gorgans with Claws in the Roots

Third Place – Natalie Morant with Haunted House

Highly Commended – Graham Steed for Beast

James’ adjudication process

James read all stories a couple of times taking into consideration typical stand out features of a writer employing good use of character agency, such as:

  • The house’s ability to do things such as,
    • make decisions from one conflict to another positive or negative which drive the story onward
    • take action
    • make choices with consequences
  • Ensure readers care about the main character, which in this situation should be the house.

First Place: Forever Mine by Jena Brown

This was what I expected to see more of in this competition, but this was truly the only one of its kind in the entries. It was dark, playful, intriguing, and made you want more, and could easily be turned into a much longer story.

You walk through the rooms, adrift in grief. Whispers haunting us both. They say I’m defective. Decrepit. That there’s something wrong with me. But you don’t listen. 

You never did.

I open the flue, and when the fire catches it flares to life. These winter nights are cold and you’re not eating like you should. The warmth pulls you into the room and you relax.

It’s easier to talk now. Just the two of us.

Your marriage wasn’t bad. I know that. But you were never happy. Not like you should have been. Perhaps it’s arrogant to say that. But it’s true.

You were distracted when we met. Toddlers wrapped around your feet, a wife demanding attention. But there was no mistaking the way your eyes lit up when you saw me. Even now they soften. You’ve always loved me. Your reassuring words kept me alive. Patiently waiting for this moment.

There were others. Before. Families I’ve nurtured. People I’ve loved. I was empty a long time when you came. I’ll be empty longer after you’re gone.

Though she hated me, I was merciful, letting warm water and invisible gas wrap her in an eternal embrace. You let them rip apart my walls, look for faulty pipes. But they didn’t find anything. They never will. It hurt. It hurts now, as you rip through floorboards. But for you, I endure, allowing only the faintest of gasps to escape through the walls. You muffle a scream at the desiccated bones you find. But they were before. And you are now. And now it’s too late.

With a happy sigh, I wrap my arms around you, cocooning you in wood. I repair the damage, silencing your sobs. We’re together now. Forever. The fire dies, and I sleep, waiting to love again.


Second Place: Claws in the Roots by Matt Gorgans

This was close to the direction I thought more would look like. It was creepy, dark, enticing and a twisted read. The premise of this story could easily be made into a full-length novel and, if cast and directed well, an amazing movie.

Ivan stumbled through the forest, each ragged breath like ice piercing his lungs. A strangled cry escaped his throat when he reached a clearing, finding a cottage surrounded by a low white fence.

Ivan dragged himself forward, clasping a bloody hand around a fencepost. He dropped his head to the snowy earth so his breaths could even.

Until he looked up and found his stare returned by the empty sockets of a skull. 

This wasn’t a fence at all. It was a boundary of spines and skulls, slack jaws frozen in agonized cries.

“Almost claimed by the woods, dearie?” An old woman’s voice questioned.

Ivan jumped, screaming in pain when his arm refused to budge from the fence. It was the bones. An energy pulsed from them, holding him in place.

“Best not to fight it,” the woman said, striding into view. She brushed snow from her cloak, meeting Ivan’s gaze with a hungry expression.

A crow crossed the moon, causing the pair to look skyward.

“Ah, right on time,” the woman snarled.

Raising her arms, the woman pulled the crow as if on a string. She reached for the cottage next, curling her gnarled fingers until the wooden boards rattled and broke free, soaring into the air.

The wind howled until Ivan, too, joined the frenzy of wooden boards and feathers whipping around him.

Then came the sound of cracking wood, of cracking bones. A painful merging. A swelling sensation. 

Transformation.

Ivan felt his new claws digging into the earth, rooted to the foundation: the crow, the house, his body—they were one now. He took a breath, causing his floorboards to creak in desperation.

“Why should Baba Yaga guard her house when her house can guard itself?” The woman climbed Ivan’s stairs like a grotesque lolling tongue.

Third Place: Haunted House by Natalie Morant

This was a fun story, building a sense of not a sinister nature from the house, but from the passed owner buried within, tormenting the spirit of the house itself. Flushed out and a little longer and this would have the makings of a solid novella.

The House creaked. After years of neglect, a huge effort was required to attract the attention of the visitors stood on the path.

The House needed them inside. As the clouds parted, it used a cracked window pane to focus rays of sunlight. For many months, tiny fragments of paper and fabric had been corralled by draughts into the hearth. Now, a chance to ignite them.

A glow expanded into a tentative flame and soon, wisps of smoke trailed upwards. 

“It’s haunted, of course.” Laughter.

If only, thought the house, that was something to laugh at. But having endured the screaming and shrieking of the mistress for so long, it was exhausted and desperate.

“I’d need to have a proper look with the builders before making a decision.”

Please! A proper look is exactly what’s needed. The house yearned for feet tramping across its wooden floorboards again. Tramping, pattering, skipping. Anything but the measured tread of the master who’d lived here before. 

“Look – smoke!”

The two men approached, stepping over fallen roof tiles. Early attempts to attract attention, but no one wanted to investigate banging doors or falling masonry or strange shadows.

The House froze in anticipation as the men climbed the steps and unlocked the door. 

They entered the back room and put out the flames. The smell of musty curtains mingled with the smoke. Laboriously, the House contracted its walls. Plaster crumbled from a crack beside the mantlepiece. The shorter man frowned and pushed a finger into the plaster. Then rapped the wall with his knuckles, testing the damage. Suddenly, a clod of plaster sheared off and shattered on the dusty floor. Now there was a substantial hole and the men stepped back, brushing dust from their trousers.

“There’s something in there.”

The shorter man peered in again. Initially, it was too dark to see anything, but abruptly he stepped back again.

“Call the police.”

Highly Commended: Beast by Graham Steed

This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.

The estate agent rang: ‘a characterful Victorian cottage in a highly sought-after village, skilfully modernised by developers’ and sold to them by the family of the previous occupant who’d died of heart failure- a snip, he thought, at 200 grand. So I bought it. No creepy cellar, no creaky staircase, no chard-ridden hearth: bright, clean, and modern throughout – though I couldn’t resist a visit to the local museum. The curator said the village was caught up in the agricultural riots of the 1830s caused by Enclosure. One of those executed for the destruction of threshing machines and cattle-maiming was found by the militia hiding in my cottage… 

* * *

 Two days after I moved in, I noticed a reddish discolouration on the walls. I asked my solicitor to check on the building guarantee. He rang back to say the builders had gone out of business. The discoloration continued to spread. A local surveyor said it was most likely water, but he was puzzled by the plaster’s red ooziness. He scraped off a sample promising to let me know, but never did.

I asked next door. The woman said her dad told her there was once a gibbet on the site, but she laughed it off, as ‘he was fond of his stories.’

I was woken that night by a commotion in the attic: sharp commands, heavy marching steps, yells, screams. I called the police. They said my house had a ‘reputation’…

* * *

I called the estate agent. He thought the red ooziness was sticky, ‘like blood’. In its present state, only a developer might buy the house, and that for a song. So, I’ve gone on the offensive. I painted the walls Post Office Red to match the bloody oozings. I called an exorcist priest to rid the house of demons. I bought a crucifix and earplugs. A doctor has upped my medication. I’m treating my house as a beast, so, first, I must tame it…