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…

Life into Fiction – September 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by Paul Bryers

Well, what a busy competition, our adjudicator really had his work cut out choosing a top five this month. We congratulate all who took part in this month’s challenge. All our adjudicators always comment on the high standards of our writers. So everyone should be proud of their efforts. Keep writing. And if you didn’t win this time, there’s always next time.

Paul Bryers, British film director, screenwriter and fiction author was our adjudicator for our September Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words, write a fictional short story utilising factual events from
a real-life incident/experience.

And the winners are:

First Place – David Fenton with Scorpions

Second Place – Peter Duncan with Next Week

Third Place – John Quinn with Ridiculous

Highly Commended – Guy Caplin for Return to the Beach

Highly Commended – Nick Ryle Wright for Kooks

Paul’s adjudication process

First, I read them. Then I wrote a couple of stories myself to see what it was like to stick to this criteria. Then I read them again and pulled out the five I thought were the best – simply based on which ones I enjoyed most, and thought were best written.
Then I read them again applying the criteria of the brief. Obviously, the length – and whether I could perceive a narrative within those
extremely tight parameters. Was this a good story? Was it worth telling? Was it told well?
When it came to the appropriateness of the balance, I could only guess what was fact and what was fiction. I had no means of telling for sure. I had to believe that the writer mixed up some fiction with a fact-based story. Otherwise, what was the point of doing the exercise?
Believability of the fiction. I had to look at the whole thing as fiction and ask – is this believable? Most of the stories were. The ‘fact’ that I couldn’t tell fact from fiction in many cases showed how believable they were.
Imaginativeness. I interpreted this as the skill that was displayed in leaping
from fact into fiction – i.e. an imaginative fictitious storyline. Again, I had no means of knowing where fact stopped and imagination began. The seamlessness of the transition was part of the skill of the writing. In the case of Ridiculous, for instance, it’s relatively easy to see where the leap happens – and it is a very imaginative leap. In other cases the leap was much more subtle, so subtle in some cases I could not see it at all. In those cases I decided that the ‘imaginativeness’ I had to judge was in the imagination to see that this would make a good story in the first place, and the imagination to write it in a compelling fashion, so that it could be either a factual account of something that really happened, or a short story based on
real life.

First Place: Scorpions by David Fenton

I loved this story.
It is a beautiful, if infinitely sad story, so well told. Very economical, very
sparse, elusive, magical, sad. I didn’t get it at first and had to read it again. I think this is often the case with a really good short story. It is about memories – memories as Scorpions. It evoked a situation we are mostly familiar with – and so has that elusive Alan Bennett quality of reaching out to us, speaking to us about something very personal. – “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
It was very believable, particularly in its dialogue. Actually, this story had
more emphasis on dialogue than any of the others. It felt like a moment plucked from life – but with elements of fiction (at least I think so) that dramatize it, make it more significant than the actual event that inspired the story. I felt satisfied with it as a complete work in itself – and yet I was left wanting more. What happened to this couple? Do they stay together? It had that sense of a moment in a journey – on a holiday – when something fundamental happens and nothing is ever the same again. And yet, maybe it was.

We stopped a mile from the abandoned city, which wasn’t as impressive as the brochure promised. Just a smudge of sandstone wall against the desert.

‘Now you get off and walk,’ the guide said. 

Our camels were already kneeling. 

‘Why have we got to walk?’

It was 41 degrees and I was knackered. Judy’s face, swaddled in a hijab, was grey with dust and fatigue. 

He spat and pointed to the walls.

‘Brahmin city, no camels! You walk.’

It was no big thing, but it made me cross, all the same, talking to me like that. On the way there Judy kept looking back at him. 

‘What if he leaves us here?’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘I don’t know; because he hates us?’

‘You think he wants to kill paying customers?’

She didn’t answer.

The homes were surprisingly well kept, for a place that everyone had left a hundred years ago – walking out into the desert in the middle of the night for no known reason, never to return. 

We found plates in a kitchen, and a copper bowl filled with dust.

‘Don’t touch that,’ I said. ‘Scorpions.’  

But she picked it up, anyway, and tipped it out as if to prove a point.

‘Why do you always do that?’

‘What?’

‘The opposite to what I say?’

She just stood there, rubbing it with her fingertips, over and over again.

Later, when we had explored on our own, I found her at a hearth, hugging her knees. There were blown handprints on the wall; mother, father and a child… no, a baby. 

She was staring at them. I thought at first that she had been crying, but when she turned the look on her face startled me. 

‘Judy, what’s wrong?’

‘Scorpions,’ she said, and got up to go.


Second Place: Next Week by Peter Duncan

This was so well-written. The prose style was sparse, strong and compelling. The structure/framework of the story was satisfactorily neat. It was well wrapped up. You don’t need to know any more and yet it has that tantalising glimpse into so much more…
As storytelling goes it has that very satisfying cyclical shape – the first act is in a rattling underground train in a deserted night-time city, and the third act nears its conclusion with that reference to the narrator intending to write a poem about ‘catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city’ – but, then that infinitely sad, ‘All the poems I haven’t written… And never will.’ And I love the final exchange… Next week, I say, next week.
I don’t think it needed another line after that. We all know what he means.
This is the ultimate writer’s story. All that is locked in, all that will never be let out. I found this very moving. Very sad. But very encouraging at the same time. Very close call with the winner – almost a photo finish.

Liverpool in the Swinging Sixties. A dimly- lit rattling underground train smelling thickly of cigarette smoke pitches me up in a city centre that’s mostly dark and deserted. My footsteps echo around the empty street. The noise of drunken laughter behind a dilapidated boozer’s frosted windows. Ahead, the bombed-out church standing black against the fuzzy night sky. I turn a corner and see the familiar illuminated sign above the heavy door. 

The tables in the shadowy basement are all taken, guys and girls in unisex beatnik dress: black roll-neck sweaters, striped tops, berets, some even wearing sunglasses (how can they see in all this gloom?). I thread my way to where he’s sitting, alone, hunched over a pint, wearing his shabby greatcoat as usual.

I still can’t believe we’re friends. A proper poet! Edits a poetry magazine: Allen Ginsberg sends him poems (Allen Ginsberg!). He reads his own stuff in this place, sometimes with Adrian Henri and Roger McGough. (That’s why I’m here tonight.) Lives in an attic (like poets are supposed to) in Canning Street.

And me? A sixth former at grammar school on the wrong side of the Mersey.

He looks up and smiles. I slide into a seat. ‘I’m on in a minute,’ he says. ‘Where’s the poem?’

He means the one I’m supposed to be writing. The one about someone like me catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city. Or maybe the one about glimpsing a beautiful girl on the ferry as dawn breaks over the Liver Building. Or maybe… All the poems I haven’t written. And never will.

‘Next week,’ I say. ‘Next week.’

‘Okay, next week.’ Brian Patten nods, wise enough even now to know that I’ll spend a lifetime not writing all the poems buried inside me. 

Third Place: Ridiculous by John Quinn

I liked this because it was a perfect ‘real life’ incident, commonplace even – a woman searching for something in the attic and turning up all kinds of memories.
We’ve all been there. Again, it evoked the quote in the History Boys (above) and then it made that sudden turn into fiction – even fantasy. It hints at far more than it contains – How did she get here? What was her illness? What is her life like? What is the relationship with her husband? It’s economical and well written and it has that elusive quality of making you want more.

It looked plain ridiculous, the gap where the hay wain’s wheel should have been. Celia had spent the whole morning, ‘The whole bloody morning,’ looking for the wheel. First it was a casual search, then a more methodical hunt and now she’d just completed an investigation whose thoroughness was based on watching a myriad of CSI programmes – she’d even considered wearing her Marigolds.

The search was a failure and Celia, alone in the loft, sat on a box of discarded vinyl: old albums and some singles unplayed for decades but with too much invested emotion to consign to the dump. Surrounded by piles of outgrown Babygro’s and the Scalextric set that had never really worked, she cried quietly and with restraint. ‘Why?’ she asked herself, ‘why bother? I don’t even like bloody jigsaws!’ It had been another of Martin’s ideas to ‘aid your recuperation, darling.’ He could be a patronising bastard.

‘Well,’ she dabbed at her eyes and tried to make her thoughts sound bright, ‘my fingertip trawl wasn’t a total waste of time. I found the missing keys, (under the mattress and now useless after the insurance paid for all the locks to be changed) and Martin’s ticket to last year’s FA Cup Final (at the bottom of the ornamental firewood basket, how did that happen?).’

The twinkle of the abandoned fairy wings reminded her of happier days, when Mollie refused to leave the house for playschool unless they were clipped onto her back. Now, fairy wings or no, Mollie wouldn’t be seen dead with her mother when home from Swansea Uni.

The wings were smaller than she remembered; more gossamer like and, well, radiant in the loft’s dusty light. Quickly and fractionally, like an eye blinks, the wings moved or beat or whatever wings do. ‘Ridiculous,’ Celia thought, until they beat again and flew up towards her. The fairy handed Celia the missing jigsaw piece. And was gone.

Highly Commended

Choosing two to commend was more difficult. After trying this for myself, I felt like commending them all – none of them are badly written, some are written very well indeed, and they all have some poignancy that makes you feel it was well worth doing. But these two I felt, just had the edge, on some of the others.

Return to the Beach by Guy Caplin

I chose this for the the leap of imagination from the memory of a beach to the D-Day landings.

Through the early morning haze, he could just make out the narrow white strip with the dunes behind.  Somehow the beach looked different as he approached from the sea. Now as an adult, he was returning to the scene of his childhood delights, but it seemed distinctly odd. He felt slightly sick and it wasn’t just the buffeting of the waves; he was apprehensive about returning to this special place. The sight of it brought back those childhood memories; the carefree days with his brother and sister, exploring the dunes, splashing in the shallows and playing with the local kids. Every year, their entire six weeks’ school holidays had been spent at their grandparents’ cottage within earshot of the waves breaking on the sand. But like all good things it had come to an end. 

It must have been five or six years ago that dad had persuaded his parents that living so far away was not a good idea, particularly at their age. Reluctantly they moved back to the village. Of course, he still visited the old folks frequently, but it wasn’t the same. Neither grandad nor grandma seemed as happy as they were at the beach. Given what had happened in the past few years, being close at hand was probably for the best. 

He stopped reminiscing and listened. The noise which had started half an hour ago was now deafening. The haze seen from a distance had been an illusion: thick acrid smoke hung above the beach. With a jolt, the boat ground to a stop and the ramp dropped into the shallows. Saying a silent prayer, he gripped his rifle and jumped into the water, already stained with the blood of his colleagues. The D Day landings had begun.


Kooks by Nick Ryle Wright

This one I chose because it uses a real-life incident – the death of David Bowie – to explore what I imagine is a fictitious relationship. It evokes that sense of a shared past – but no future.

You were about to leave forever when your phone alerted you to news of his death. How? you screamed, collapsing into my arms as the taxi idled just yards away. What could I say? That Ziggy Stardust had been human after all was as impossible for me to comprehend as it was for you.

Your departure now out of the question, we regathered your overladen bags and returned to the flat where I sat you down on the sofa as though you were merely a guest and placed Hunky Dory – your favourite – on the turntable.

This is crazy, you said. I should go.

Laying a blanket across your legs, I urged you to stay, plied you with hot chocolate and marshmallows.

We can’t do this, you insisted, your restlessness unabated.

Seeking to hook you with raw emotion, I reminded you how, on our first date, your eyes lit up when you discovered that I too had journeyed to Somerset in 2000 to watch the great man perform. You smiled, said it was funny how our memories of that performance had become so hopelessly intertwined that it was impossible to say where yours began and mine ended.

Later, in the dark of the bedroom, I asked you where we’d gone wrong. We were both different now, you said. No longer the carefree kooks we’d once been. How cruel of life, I replied, to straighten us out and make us normal when we were having so much fun.

Time passed. I woke with a start, reached out for you. But it was too late.

By then the room was ablaze with crimson light, the birds’ grave and incessant melodies speaking only of your leaving, of how this time you wouldn’t be back.  

The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox

Winner of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and adjudicator of Hampshire Writers’ Society March competition Clare Gradidge tells us her story.

I’ve written stories as long as I can remember. As a child, if I wasn’t reading, I’d be writing. For many years writing was ‘just’ a hobby, but my dream was always to write something good enough to be published.

My first career as a nurse left little time for either reading or writing, except as part of the job. But when I took a break from nursing to bring up my family, I returned to my love of writing. In the years that followed, I had some short stories and poetry published, but my dream of being published as a novelist continued to elude me. So when I got the chance, late in life, to go to university in Winchester to study Creative Writing, I was thrilled. I took my BA degree, and then continued studying – and latterly teaching – the subject, being awarded my doctorate in 2018.

As part of my thesis, I wrote the historical crime novel which became The Unexpected Return. Then the question was, how to get it published? By chance, I saw details of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition online. Open for entries from unpublished authors, it was free to enter. I sent off the first 10,000 words as directed, and thought no more about it.

I was amazed – and delighted – when the email which told me I was one of a shortlist of five arrived. Bonnier Zaffre, the publishers, sent editorial suggestions to each of the shortlisters, and then we had six months to revise (or complete) our novels. I’d already finished mine, but I made some corrections in line with what they’d said before sending the whole novel off in December.

To my huge surprise, in January 2019 I heard I’d won. My soon-to-be editor, Katherine Armstrong, asked if I’d mind if they changed the title from Home to Roost to The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox. Did I mind? Of course not. I’d have written it in blood if they’d wanted me to!

A week later, I went to London to meet the publishers and the agent, Rowan Lawton, who’d agreed to represent me. I spent the whole day smiling, listening to people telling me how much they’d enjoyed my book.

Then the hard work began. All the editorial processes a book goes through before it is published had to be completed much quicker than usual, since the publication date had been set for August 2019.

Two rounds of line editing saw me rewrite sections of the novel to take out some story elements that the editorial team felt wouldn’t work for a commercial novel. This input was immensely valuable, and I was happy to comply with most of the suggestions, though at times I did dig in my heels! A final round of copy editing followed, and then I saw galley proofs before the book was sent to press.

The thrill of holding the first copies of my book in my hand was one of the best moments of my life – and though I never have got to meet Richard and Judy in person, I had the great pleasure of seeing my book promoted by them on Good Morning Britain, and watching it (briefly!) hit number 4 in Amazon’s best seller list.

What next? I’m working on a sequel, and though I don’t expect future developments of my career as a writer to be as exciting as winning the prize, I’m hoping that I’ll see another of my novels on the bookstands one day.

Report by L Nightingale

Congratulations Hampshire Winner – part two.

As Promised, part two of Louise Morrish’s competition win story. Last week Louise told us how she’d come up with the idea for the Coffin Club, entered it in the Daily Mail First Novel Competition…and won!

So Louise, you went to Penguin HQ in London and met up with Luigi Bonomi, your new agent and had lunch with Selina Walker your editor. How did it go?

It was the most incredible day of my life.

Some kind soul had chalked my name and THE COFFIN CLUB on the blackboard at Penguin Random House used to celebrate author’s book launches etc. I met with Selina first. Selina could not have been sweeter, she completely put me at ease. Then Luigi Bonomi arrived. I’d taken jars of honey from my beehives to give to them; they seemed quite surprised but pleased as well.

Selina introduced me to the rest of the Penguin team who had all amassed in the main office area, thirty or so young and trendy Londoners. The Prosecco was flowing and a glass was thrust into my hand. Selina gave a short speech about how they had found the winner of the Daily Mail First Novel competition, and here I was, and the Coffin Club was going to be a big success, and, and, and. And I just stood there beaming and thinking, pinch me someone, because this has to be a dream.

It sounds truly unbelievable! Then Selina turned to me and asked If I had anything to say to the team. Speaking to strangers like this is not something I’m comfortable with despite my day-to-day job involving standing up in front of classes of recalcitrant, heckling teenagers, talking to them about books and reading. But because the day felt so surreal, being guest of honour at Penguin HQ, I was absolutely fine and managed to stammer something about aspiring writers like me being so thankful for opportunities like this, and I thanked Penguin for producing such amazing books.

And lunch? Yes, it was then that the editorial changes were discussed. My plot of an old lady murderer wasn’t what had won me the competition. Selina wanted historical fiction, not crime fiction.

That’s what you would normally write, isn’t it?  Yes I write historical fiction based on real women who have achieved extraordinary things. My first novel was based on Dorothy Lawrence, a young woman who disguised herself as a soldier and fought in the trenches for ten days in World War One. My second novel is a fictional account of the life of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in the 1760s, again disguised as a man. But those manuscripts are still on my hard drive!

So, what of The Coffin Club?  Selina and I agreed that the majority of the novel would concentrate on supercentenarian, Betty Shepherd’s life in 1943 and her time in the Special Operations Executive.

What then?  I left London with a full heart, a massive smile on my face. And a new challenge – to rewrite my synopsis.

And that’s what you’ve done?  Yes, Selina and Luigi both agreed the changes. I have until the end of the year to produce a complete re-draft. Then Selina will edit it. After that, the complicated process of re-drafts, and all other things that need to happen for a book to be published will begin.

Here’s to the future?  Deadlines and word counts have become a part of my life. It doesn’t seem too overwhelming, at the moment and I’m sleeping ok.

Would you do it this way again?  My advice would be to enter as many writing competitions as you can because even if you never think in a million years that you’ll win, miracles can happen. This experience has taught me that you never know what is around the corner.

For the first time ever, when I tell my family I’m going to write, and please can they not disturb me for a few hours, unless of course the house is burning down, for the most part they leave me in peace.

And I no longer feel guilty.

Thank you, Louise for sharing your dream come true with us. I think your story has made us all smile.
Report by L Nightingale.

Congratulations Hampshire Winner

Have you noticed that there has been no rain or hideous weather on a Tuesday night since the Hampshire Writers’ Society monthly meetings have been cancelled? You’ll also be pleased to know that the Society will be running its monthly competitions as normal – ish! The details for all the competitions are contained on our website. To get you in the mood here’s the first instalment of Louise Morrish’s story. Louise has long been a member of the Hampshire Writers’ Society; in fact you may well have heard her writing as, on many an occasion, she’s been a monthly competition winner too.

Louise Morrish, member and winner of the Daily Mail first Novel Competition.

What was the competition?  The Daily Mail’s First Novel competition to find an unpublished, unrepresented, debut author. A friend told me about it back in January 2019.

And the prize?   A Penguin Random House publishing contract with a £20K advance, and representation by literary agency, LBA Books. All you had to do to enter was submit your first chapter, a 400 word synopsis and a short covering letter.

Is this your first novel?  I write historical fiction and have had a some very limited interest in the drafts of two novels, but nothing more and those drafts now languish on my hard drive. THE COFFIN CLUB was a new idea.

Where did you get such an intriguing idea?  Two ideas came to me at the same time but from different sources. I combined them to produce my story. The first came from my mum, who told me about a club in New Zealand that she’d read about called, The Coffin Club.

What is a Coffin Club?  Coffin clubs bring people together to discuss and prepare for death. Using photographs and artwork representing their lives and loves, members build and decorate their own coffins. One woman, for instance, has pasted a full-size photograph of Elvis Presley to the underside of her coffin lid – she’ll be able to lie for eternity beneath her heartthrob.

And the second idea? A friend told me how she’d recently met the fourth oldest person in Britain. Apparently, this 110 year old woman was not impressed; “she would prefer to be the oldest.” I mean, who wants to be the fourth?

What about your characters?  I created Betty Shepherd, a 110 year old supercentenarian, the fifth oldest person in Britain and also a member of Guildford’s exclusive Coffin Club. I gave her a live-in carer, Tali a young gay woman from Mauritius with complex issues of her own, and a nasty son, Leo who wants to put Betty in a care home.

But I felt that something was missing, I didn’t have that unique angle; that crucial spark of originality.

So, what happened?  I was out running one day, pondering the book and it came to me – Betty has a secret past. During research for my previous novels, I had come across references to war-time women being recruited into a clandestine organisation called The Special Operations Executive. What if Betty had been an SOE agent? She’d have been taught the art of silent killing. And then…what if she put those skills to use, bumping off her rivals at The Coffin Club? A killer plot!

So that’s what you sent to the Daily Mail’s First Novel Competition?  Yes, and then I forgot about it, for months.

Business as usual then?  I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing, at the University of Winchester, hoping to finish The Coffin Club as part of my dissertation. In the meantime, I plodded along writing bits here and there, in between work and family commitments whilst running ultra-marathons in my spare time. No panic or pressure, because I really had no hope of ever seeing any of my scribblings in print.

How long until you heard from the competition? It was October last year.

How did you find out? It was one evening after work; Luigi Bonomi, the Managing Director of LBA Books rang to tell me that I had been shortlisted.

How exciting must that have been? At that news, I had to sit down! Luigi then asked me some questions:

‘Was I represented by any agents?’

‘No.’

‘Had I published a novel before?’

‘No.’

‘Would I take editorial direction?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s what all authors say. Will you REALLY take suggestions?’

‘YES.’

And he said he’d be in touch again in 2 or 3 days with the result. Good luck.

So, you were left hanging? That must’ve been excruciating.  Two weeks passed. They were the slowest, most miserable two weeks of my life. I stopped sleeping properly and I kept my phone on me constantly; even at work. I work in a school – it’s actually a disciplinary issue to have your phone on you.

Did people keep bugging you for any update?  I had only told my mum, my husband, my three kids and one special writing buddy. All of them, I’d sworn to secrecy.

I really didn’t think that I’d win at all. But I did think that Luigi could at least tell me I had NOT won. I was actually very upset that no one had bothered to ring me back and so after 2 weeks of hearing nothing, I stopped carrying my phone on me at work.

Poor you! My Master’s had begun, so I concentrated on that.

And there was no sign of the competition at all? I was in the Martial Rose Library, on campus, searching for a text to use in my first assignment, when I spotted the book, BODY LANGUAGE by DESMOND MORRIS. I don’t usually believe in signs, but when I pulled it off the shelf, it fell open at a full page photograph of the oldest supercentenarian in the world – a 121 year old French woman.

The next day, I got the phone call telling me that The Coffin Club had won.

Luigi Bonomi, the Managing Director of LBA Books was now your agent. What’s he like? Luigi could not have been lovelier. He told me that of all the entries they had read, mine had been voted winner unanimously.

So, who were the other judges? The judges included FERN BRITTEN and PETER JAMES, as well as imprint of Penguin, Cornerstones’ editor, SELINA WALKER. I googled her; I couldn’t help it. Selina Walker edits such people as ANTHONY HOROWITZ, LISA JEWELL, HARLAN COBAN…and now she would be editing me.

Was The Coffin Club finished?  I’d only written five chapters. It was after the Daily Mail called me and conducted a half hour phone interview, a two hour photo shoot with photographer and make-up artist at my house the day after that – the article appeared in print and on their website the next day, the local press, and the Bookseller also ran articles; and then Twitter went a bit mad and everyone in my entire world knew. Suddenly, it struck me; this was real. I would actually have to write a whole book good enough for Penguin to publish. I stopped sleeping again. Then Selina Walker from penguin emailed to say hello and congratulate me…and she asked to see the rest of the novel!

Frantically, I checked the competition terms and conditions, it specifically said that the novel didn’t have to be complete. Fully expecting an email back saying: ‘Thanks, your first chapter was really good, but these are rubbish. We have changed our minds. You haven’t won after all.’ I sent off the five chapters, I wasn’t happy with them but then I never am.

So, what did Selina say? Several days passed before her email came. It said: ‘These are terrific. We have some suggestions. Please come to Penguin HQ in London on 4th November, we’ll celebrate your win, talk about any changes to the plot, and take you out to lunch at the Tate Britain.’

Part two of Louise’s story next week.

Report by L Nightingale.

March 2020 Competition Results – Adjudication by Dr. Claire Gradidge

“There were twenty one entries to this competition and I enjoyed reading them all!” adjudicator Dr. Claire Gradidge explained as she prepared to announce the winners of the March competition – write the beginning of a murder mystery set in the past.

Winner of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition in January 2019 and Associate Lecturer of Creative Writing at Winchester University, Claire summarised her adjudication experience saying:

Claire Gradidge - March 2020
Claire Gradidge announcing her adjudication

“A very many good ideas were aired, and a whole range of time frames – from Cro-Magnum P.I. through to the 1960s. Everyone had worked hard to ensure that the past setting and details worked to give a sense of authenticity to their work. Some were not so much beginnings as a tiny, twisty tale which felt complete in the allotted three hundred words, while others definitely had the feel of a potential longer story – and the hook to engage the reader’s imagination and make them want to read on.”

First place: Graham Steed for Alfred  of Africa

Second place: Angela Chadwick for Death of a Rebel

Third place: Peter Duncan for Betrayal

Highly Commended: Dominique Hackston for Who is Joe King

Highly Commended: Mark Eyles for The Nightingale Heart

March 2020 winners
Competitions winners L to R: Peter Duncan, Dominique Hackston, Mark Eyles and Angela Chadwick

 

First Place: Alfred of Africa by Graham Steed 

“I judged this the overall winner for a number of reasons. First, was the narrative style – the witness statement of Captain Cruso enables the writer to get across a lot of background detail in an interesting way. Second, was the way the Captain’s character and his relationship to the late Alfred is hinted at. There is an intriguing sense that not all the truth – or at least, not all the facts – are included in his statement. Whether Captain Cruso will turn out to be a reliable witness is something that made me want to know more! Thirdly, I thought the ‘hook’ at the end of the piece was well handled – the image of the drowned body of Alfred is deftly evoked and effective in suggesting both the mystery and the horror of his end.”

Statement to the Coroner by Captain J. J Cruso re the inquest at the Crown Hotel on the brutal murder of his faithful servant Alfred of Africa, given this day 26th June 1839.

I am now retired from the sea, but for 40 years I was a Master in the Merchant Service. I live in Island House close to where Ivy Lane meets the Bristol Road, along with my two daughters, Elizabeth and Jane, who moved in after their mother’s death. I can barely speak of it now, but until last week my constant companion and servant, Alfred, lived on the ground floor. The cook, gardener and stable hand live locally.

Last Friday, I sent Alfred to see the SS Great Britain at Bristol. I wanted him to describe that first all-iron vessel which proved Archimedes right – flotation does not depend on the material but only if water supports its hull-shaped weight.

Alfred did not return home. I could think of no reason he might be detained except he be injured, arrested or signed-on as crew to a West African trader.

To the rear of Island House is a small lake. It is my custom to row upon this lake if weather permits. On Tuesday afternoon after three days of rain a hot sun tempted me to my boat. I bailed out rainwater and rowed towards the wood which marks my eastern boundary. Pulling into the welcome shade of those trees, I shipped oars and cast a line with my little bamboo rod.

As my boat drifted in light airs, the rod began straining. I leaned forward to peer over the gunnel and there, as distant below the surface as I was above, I saw with horror not a fish but a face. Alfred’s face. And his eyes were open and his body in the posture of treading water, but he was under water, suspended in a watery vault, his mouth open…

 

Second Place: Death of a Rebel by Angela Chadwick

“Another very atmospheric piece full of well drawn description. As the narrator moves through the wharves of Boston Harbour, Mass. On a foggy evening in 1770, there is a definite sense of growing menace.   I liked the narrative voice – first person, present tense – which gave the piece immediacy and drew the reader into the story from the outset. A good, unexpected and gory ‘hook’ at the end of this extract!”

Boston, Massachusetts 1770

The fog slides in from the sea like some celestial crone drawing her tattered shawl closer, hiding the huddles of cargoes, muffling the incessant creaks and groans of the merchantmen riding at anchor. Long Wharf is deserted, all sensible men having sought shelter, leaving the world to the nefarious actors of the night, footpads and fools. And I’m no simpleton.

I move slowly, carefully avoiding the detritus of the day that litter the wharves, hazardous for the unwary, obscured as it is by the damp, white shroud. A stumble here could leave you dead in an instant, crushed by hulls undulating on the swell or frozen with the cold of the water. I walk faster once I’m on the solid surface of the street, the perils of horseshit and discarded entrails less than that of a knife in the dark. I’m well-armed and confident of my prowess against some half-starved vagabond but I’m already late and I can do without the delay.

The lights of the hostelries of King Street aid my endeavours and I arrive at my destination, The Salty Cod Oyster House, without mishap. The blast of noise and light is disorientating after the silence of the street and I stop in the entrance to get my bearings. Daniel entering the lions’ den.

In a corner, Samuel Adams is holding forth surrounded by his cronies, men of dubious loyalties and even less honour. He is a hideous, loathsome man, totally untrustworthy but an effective rabble-rouser. I skirt his band of miscreants and catch the eye of the barman; a barely imperceptible nod of his head indicating that my companion awaits in the back room.

I pause until Samuel’s loud guffaw draws attention, then I slip inside. I need not have hurried. One glance tells me he is dead, a stiletto still buried to the hilt in his eye.

 

Third Place:  Betrayal by Peter Duncan

“This piece has a really good sense of atmosphere. The opening line is dramatic, calling up the bleakness of the fenland setting. The contrast with the interior scene – the man, and his dogs by the fire – lends a sense of contrast and tension to the piece. My main problem with the piece was the title, which gave away too much, so the end was not the hook it might otherwise have been.” 

The wind, always the wind.

It blasted ceaselessly across the bleak fen from the icy sea five miles distant, a constant torment to the long low stone house that was his refuge. By day, when he was sitting close to the half- dead fire, it plumbed the chimney, ash dancing like snowflakes in the hearth. At night it invaded his dreams, woke and teased him into hours of doubt about what he had done.

His only companion here was the manservant, Tyler: a morose, heavy- faced man who barely spoke a word and had not once questioned his sudden appearance a week ago. And there were the dogs, of course: three pointers who curled up beside him on these endless dark evenings, the house trembling in the gale and Tyler clattering about at the oven in some dim recess off the hall. He looked down now with affection at the sleeping creatures. But these three have even tempers, he mused. They will be of little use when my enemies come searching for me, as they surely will.

The wind had eased a little. Above its low moaning he heard hooves on the courtyard cobbles, the whinny of his own stabled horse. He sat bolt upright. Who in God’s name would be calling at this hour? He reached for his weapon, suddenly realising that he had left it in the bedchamber. Call to Tyler, he thought. But the servant’s clattering had stopped. Where was the wretched man?

The door was pushed open. He sprang to his feet. ‘Good evening, Robert,’ said a familiar voice. Relief coursed through his body. It was only as the visitor approached and he saw the quick flash of steel that he realised, too late, he had been betrayed. The three dogs hardly stirred.

 

Highly Commended: Who is Joe King by Dominique Hackston

“The title really did set the mood – who indeed was Joe King, and what was his role in this tantalising opening? At first, it seems he is a hero, the rescuer of a small child he finds in terrible circumstances, but as the extract closes, the reader is left wondering. Could he be the murderer instead?
Third and second entries were very close indeed – much deliberation and heartsearching before I decided on the order!”

Joe shuffled around in the phone box. He rested the sleeping child against the directory on the metal shelf. He looked at his bloodied index finger as he slotted it into the nine, dialled it twice, then hesitated before dragging it round for the third time. He should have walked away, but he couldn’t have left the child alone with the dead woman.

‘Police please. … ‘I’d like to report a murder, … My name? Joe King … Oh for Christ’s sake … My name is Joseph King … no … Primrose Cottage, ‘bout 2 miles from Bramshaw … Because there’s blood everywhere and I couldn’t feel a pulse. … Don’t hang up.’

Joe impatiently jiggled the button to reconnect. Finally he redialled 999.

‘Police. … Yes, I spoke to you just now. … I was going to say, send a woman officer, please. There was a child in the house. … Of course not. …Here with me.’ He turned and peered into the darkness. ‘I’ll wait on the bench next to the phone box.’ The line went dead.

Shhh,’ the child whimpered as he pushed backwards against the heavy door. He knew the police would suspect him. ‘What idiot agrees to meet a lady at midnight?

He slipped a folded piece of paper from his inside pocket, eased his jacket off and wrapped it round the child. Then sat next to her.

“Heads, I stay, tails I go.” he whispered as he flipped a ha’penny. The coin glinted in the light of a match. He drew on a cigarette and unfolded the page he had torn from the same phone box less than two hours earlier. He struck another match and held it against the paper and watched as an orange flame devoured the circled ‘King, J.M. Primrose Cottage, Bramshaw 7263.

Highly Commended: The Nightingale Heart by Mark Eyles

“Set in Japan, the details of this story seemed well-researched. The idea of the living bird sewn up inside the corpse of a dead man evoked a real shudder of horror and hinted at a real threat to the young woman narrator and her sometime lover.”

Covered in cherry blossom, the man’s naked body was propped on a bench in the gardens. My lord, Mizuno Katsunari, daimyo of the Fukuyama Clan, was standing alone, looking at the corpse. He beckoned me over and pointed at flaps of skin sewn together under the ribs on the left. I now understood why I had been asked to bring my sewing kit.

That Mizuno-sama would want a woman to wash and prepare a body was no surprise; that he sent for his former concubine to deal with the corpse told me he wanted this kept secret. The body was lean, muscled and crisscrossed with scars. A wandering rōnin looking for work? A bandit?

Taking out scissors, I waited with head bowed. Mizuno-sama stepped back and I noticed the scarring on the stump of his little toe was still an angry red. I had sewn it up after he dropped his ceremonial katana while drinking sake with the shogun’s emissary.
As I bent over the body I let out a sharp cry. The man’s chest had moved, stitches straining. Mizuno-sama pushed me aside and leaned in to touch the cut. The skin moved again and he let out a puzzled grunt.

I cut away the stitches, reached down to put the fingers of both hands in the wound so I could pull it open. Maybe I’d find a magically beating heart? I felt scratching. Claws closed on one finger, piercing skin. I pulled my hand away and a blood soaked bundle of feathers came from a fleshy hollow. Broken wings dripping blood. A bird, barely living, dropped to the petalled grass, feebly shaking its head.

Despite the bedraggled state I knew the bird immediately. I had heard its song in the early mornings when I drew water. Sayonakidori, the nightingale. I looked up at Mizuno-sama and our eyes locked. I had been his Sayonakidori when we sweated together on the tatami.

All photos by Alex Carter, Lexica Films
http://lexicafilms.wixsite.com/lexica/photography

This is Glenn’s Song – and this is why he loves it.

Our special guest at the next meeting of the Hampshire Writer’s Society will be Head of Department for English, Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Winchester, Glenn Fosbraey. You may remember that Glenn spoke to us back in 2016 when he waxed lyrical about his latest addition to the University – the degree on Popular Music. A month or so later, Glenn very kindly sent us his top five favourite song lyrics, explaining, in his very poetical way, why he liked and valued them so much. Still a huge fan of The Smiths, this is his favourite song of all and he tells us why.

‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ – The Smiths

It was on a gloomy winter’s afternoon at the age of fifteen, teenage angst and unrequited love in full-force, that I had my best Smiths experience. I had been infatuated with the band for a month or so by this point, started via a random purchase of Greatest Hits album Best 1 from the bargain bin at Woolworths, and I was ready to graduate to their masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. As I start the long walk back from HMV in town, I read the lyrics from the CD brochure and savour the anticipation of those words being set to music; hearing those first sounds coming out of the speakers; feeling the irresistible mixture of nerves and excitement as I get ever-closer to my house and CD player. At home, I close the bedroom door behind me and turn the lights off, cutting myself off from the bustle of family and TV downstairs, creating perfect Smiths-listening conditions. About half an hour in, I arrive at the penultimate track. ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’. I fall in love. The mixture of the everyday (‘driving in your car…’) with the philosophical (‘…a heavenly way to die’); the way Morrissey is able, in a couple of lines, to demonstrate the shyness, frustration, and confusion many teens encounter when faced with the objects of their desire (‘…and then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask’); the mixture of the ugly (‘and if a ten tonne truck kills the both of us…’) and the beautiful (‘…to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine’); it’s the slight pauses before the choruses kick in; the swirl of the strings in the choruses themselves; it’s Morrissey not quite being able to reach the highest note but not re-recording it, making the listener feel at one with him, as if it could be them in that vocal booth instead of him, missing perfection but making it somehow more perfect because of this; it’s the repetition of the title again and again in the outro. Love and loss, hope and despair, alienation and belonging, all crammed into four life-changing and life-affirming minutes. There is, indeed, a Light That Never Goes Out, and for me, it will always be this song, in that moment, on that CD player.

December 2019 Competition Results: Caroline Wintersgill – Adjudicator

The December competition was judged by editor, Caroline Wintersgill.  The brief was to write a 300 word novel pitch to an editor.

And the winners were:

First Place:  Jane Austen Pitch by Angela Chadwick    

Second Place: Icefall by Mark Eyles

Third Place: Dear Wolfy by Grant Taylor         

Highly Commended: Dear Mr Johnson (The Woman Who Does Not Exist) by Margaret Jennings

Highly Commended: Brexit, A Survivor’s Guide by Kate Loveridge          

December Competition Winners: Kate Loveridge, Angela Chadwick and Mark Eyles

Photograph by Summer Quigley

First Place: Jane Austen Pitch by Angela Chadwick

Dear Ms Wintersgill

I wonder if you, like me, are exhausted by the current crop of romance novels featuring endless numbers of kidnappings, where our poor, endangered heroine must flee in a state of some considerable disarray across wild and windswept moors or face the destruction of her simpering purity. Indeed, the fear and suspense leave me quite faint.

I believe today’s women no longer require brutish, unnatural acts to find passion.  My heroine is a modern woman herself. Civilised, educated and well-read, she is in charge of her future and refuses to settle for less than her worth.

My novel, Pride and Prejudice, is a romance, unique in its tone and construction. Might I venture to say it is a delightful take of the Enemies to Lovers trope. Written as a modern-day play on manners, the hero is the sort of man you could happily introduce to your parents without giving them undue concern for your future safety or prosperity. Initially abrasive, he does a good job of redeeming himself when he successfully saves the cat (in this case a foolish, naïve and headstrong girl – oh yes! There is a moral).

The villain is indeed villainous but (mostly) within the confines of the law. We do after all live in a society where young women of good family cannot just disappear without causing much consternation.

Written in a light, slightly humorous tone, this book is the first of many I can offer to you. Dare I say it, this novel is revolutionary. I believe its charm will be enduring and it will set the tone for the new century.

I, myself, am a woman of good character; a vicar’s daughter. With your help, maybe one day I can designate myself, published author.

Yours sincerely

Jane Austen

 

Second Place: Icefall by Mark Eyles 

Dear Caroline

I am pitching my first (100,000 word) book, Icefall, in a sci-fi space opera series. I’ve had a passion for writing my whole life and have been honing storytelling skills working as a video game designer and Principle Lecturer teaching game design and interactive storytelling. I have previously written series for 2000 AD (Wire Heads, PARAsites), weekly scripts for Sonic the Comic (including the popular Zonerunner series) and was published in Fear magazine. I have taught a creative writing evening class and recently worked on a transmedia storytelling project (Cursed City, Dark Tide).

Icefall pitch: “Planetary intelligences, flocking ships, star destroying music and quality assurance clash at an outpost built by deranged robots.”

Icefall brief synopsis: “Carrying out quality assurance on a new outpost, far along the Orion-Cygnis arm, should have been simple for Checkani NiFe. Unfortunately, she discovers the robot builders have created a deadly maze of overlapping cities on the icy planet. Struggling to survive and unlock the planet’s secrets she is hindered by a gender neutral 232-year-old, an autistic musical savant, an inept assassin, a clutch of bickering spaceships and a community of stoic squatters hiding fearful abilities. However, the greatest threat comes from an entirely different universe triggering events that change everything, forever.”

Set in 3134, Icefall is the first volume in a series that moves from planet to planet back along the Orion-Cygnis Arm of the galaxy towards the Earth. The second volume Rocksunsea is in preparation.

First three chapters and full synopsis attached.

I believe Icefall and subsequent books would be a good fit for your company. Inspired by Iain M. Banks, the milieu, style and characters of my books would complement your existing books. I am especially encouraged by seeing the authors you already represent and believe I have something new and fresh to offer.

Thank you for taking the time to consider Icefall and my future books.

Best regards

Mark

Third Place: Dear Wolfy by Grant Taylor

The Old Morgue

                                                                                                            Lower Upping

Saint Eadburh’s Day  2019

Dear Wolfy,

I know you won’t mind me calling you Wolfy. As my putative editor I feel our relationship is close enough now for me to address you by your first name and Dear Mr Wolfgang Nachtnebel-Leichenberg is a bit of a mouthful after all.

Anyway, here it is! I guess you weren’t expecting this manuscript so soon Wolfy – or perhaps at all – but Dolina, my tiny, difficult wife just loves it. Eleven false starts, sixteen complete rewrites and not forgetting the 2018 housefire that destroyed my PC and most of the village . . . oh, and the unfortunate business with that awful court ruling . . .  but I got there in the end Wolfy.  Eight hundred and ninety-two pages of toil, perspiration and burning the candle at the bottom. But I’m sure you will agree every word is worth it.

The title deserves some explanation. I know, I know, “I Must Have Been Conscious” is a tad obscure for most tastes, but as you become engrossed you will see the relevance. After all, our hero has his flaws, as do we all Wolfy, as do we all.

The illustrations are by my ancient mother. In her dwindling years I concede that her monstrous, detailed, black spiderwork has become a trifle bizarre but I can explain the connection between mother’s asymmetrical Rorschach and my zesty prose in footnotes if you think it’s needed.

Finally, subject matter. I know you favour Scandi-noir but ‘write about what you know’ has become my maxim since our last difficult conversation. So, you will understand why neurological encephalitozoonosis in small rodents it is Wolfy. Our hero must face his demons after all.

Humbly I commit my work to your expert scrutiny in the knowledge that your silent support will be as challenging as ever.

Let me know your thoughts.

The world waits.

Love,

P Hubert Fuffing (Percy).

Highly Commended: Dear Mr Johnson (The Woman Who Does Not Exist) by Margaret Jennings 

Dear Mr Johnson,

I am sending you the details of my new novel because research tells me that you very much enjoy the gothic horror traits that this story portrays. I also suspect that this book might be a good fit with your other publications.

This novella is a work of  literary fiction. A dark psychological horror story with strong gothic elements, The Woman Who Does Not Exist is written in the unique voice of the first person main character. It is a voice you will never have heard before. The Woman Who Does Not Exist will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you rethink your relationship with the world. It is a shorter, more accessible version of Steven King’s horror stories and will be instantly recognisable as a distinctive new voice.

In brief, a woman believes there is a space built into the home she has lived in since childhood, a space where evil lurks. What will happen when the room is opened up?

I have been writing for many years and have an MA in Creative Writing. The Woman Who Does Not Exist my fourth novel. I write poetry, short stories and have recently branched out into playwriting and screenwriting. My first poetry chapbook, ‘Killing the Dragons,’ has recently been published and received good reviews.

Short listed in the Bridport for flash fiction and long listed for the Bare fiction literary prize, my work has appeared in several anthologies and The Lighthouse magazine.

I  enjoy reading at literary events and supporting other writers in their writing.

I hope you enjoy reading The Woman Who Does Not Exist chapters I have sent to you,

with best wishes,

Francis Liitlewood

Highly Commended: Brexit, A Survivor’s Guide  by Kate Loveridge 

Dear Caroline,

I’m currently seeking a publisher for my debut, Brexit – A Survivor’s Guide.

For Brexiteers and Remainers alike, this self-help bible will harness the anger and frustration of those unsure of the future and riddled with fatigue, guiding them through the next 30 years of inter-governmental negotiations, creating the power of positive in all areas of their lives, including:

Health, Well-being:

Yoga for Brexiteers – perfecting the flexible extension

Coastal waking for Remainers – avoiding the cliff edge

101 yummy chlorinated chicken recipes

Relationships Coping with the intolerance of your nearest and dearest

Influence your family to your point of view

Working Life and Finance

Keeping your job as companies fail

Managing budgets as prices soar

Fashion of the Supreme Court

What the not so hidden meaning of Baroness Hale’s broaches tell us about the constitution

Holidays

A traveller’s country-by-country guide to 194 trade deals

Can’t get a visa or afford travel insurance? Embracing the staycation

The back roads – avoiding Brexit motorway chaos in Dover and Portsmouth

Hobbies

Introduction to genealogy – find long-lost Irish, French, German or Greek ancestors to facilitate your EU passport.

Failing that, our guide to romance includes a full list of dating websites – your ideal EU match awaits to secure your EU citizen’s rights.

And much, much, much, much, much, much more!

“The GREATEST book…reading it makes me the smartest ever.”                        D. Trump

Teresa May or may not read this guide, but one thing is certain, “Brexit means Brexit”.

I’m currently working on my second tome, “Twenty-First Century Lorry Parks of Kent and Hampshire”.

Having lived and worked harmoniously in Europe for 50 years, I’ve recently taken residence in Brexit Party MEP Nigel Farrage’s constituency. The roller coaster ride of the past 3 ½ years has driven me to submit this proposal to you Caroline.

The synopsis is attached for your perusal. If you can bear to hear any more of Brexit, please get in touch.

Yours sincerely