Crime Thriller – December 2021 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…

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.