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Short stories submitted for the LoveReading Very Short Story Award! Though they be but small they leave a mighty impression!
The sun wakes me. My room is peaceful in the unaccustomed warmth and light but, as I rise to walk to the window, I realize the familiar thud of remembrance has not arrived. For the first time I have woken already knowing you have gone. The valley is washed clean by the early spring sun. The last of the snow has been chased away leaving the freshly laundered fields soft and greenly glowing. I know there will still be pockets of snow, deep in clefts on the hills and under hedges where the sun can’t reach. ‘Snow bones,’ my granny called those remnants. ‘They’re here to remind you,’ she said, ‘the sun may be shining but never forget winter will come again.’ The hills around our highland valley are still in shadow for now. I can’t see our neighbour as he climbs the steep bank behind his farmhouse on his way to check the sheep, but I know he’s there. Only a handful of ewes still remain in the lambing sheds he tells me, despite this long, hard winter they have done well, and he hasn’t lost a single lamb. How well have I done? Well, like the sheep I’m still here. I’ve weathered the worst days I’ve ever known. My spirit as frozen as the land, my loss an icicle hammered deep into my core. I was glad when the road was blocked, when the powerline was down. All I wanted was silence to study my grief. No other voices to detract from my remembrance of yours. No other footsteps to drown out the sound of you stamping wellingtons by the door or shuffling carefully along the hall in your slippers. ‘You must come and stay with us mum,’ Connie had persisted when winter began to take its hold, ‘I’m so worried about you on your own in that deserted valley.’ I have neighbours’ I told her, ‘they watch out for me.’ ‘Oh mother,’ she would go on, her exasperation creeping through gaps in the telephone line, ‘John and Mary aren’t exactly next door!’ Maybe not, but I saw them each day even if it was just a long distance wave and I wasn’t leaving my home, our home for the last twenty years, just to ease anyone’s worries. On mornings like this we would have walked before breakfast, knowing how quickly the elements could change up here and so, before the mantle of peace under which I had woken, begins to crack, I go in search of coat and boots. I wrap up on top of my pyjamas, knowing if I stay to dress I might change my mind, and step out into the new day. The footpath that rises above our cottage has suffered through the last few months, and will need attending to. Perhaps I can find someone in the village to see to it. Finding it difficult to pick my way along it I think of nothing except making safe progress until I near the crest of the first ridge. The sun is racing me up the fell side although I do not need it now to keep warm. My limbs are stiff like a squirrel emerging from hibernation, but my body soon relaxes into the warmth of unaccustomed exertion. Reaching the stile I turn and sit. Looking over the view, just as it was all that time ago when we stopped here and knew we’d come home. We’d found the place we would spend our retirement. Last time I looked out from here you were next to me, the view familiar and safe. Now John’s sheep are on the same hillside and he is returning for his breakfast, as he does everyday. The willows below me are still bare of leaves but catkins hang hopefully dredging anything that passes with yellow dust. The hilltops dance in their ever changing colours and our house nestles into the landscape. The valley is the same one I have watched for twenty years but my perspective has changed, like a photographer who takes shots from a new angle and produces an entirely different view. I still recognize the beauty and tranquility of our valley but I see a path that will be difficult to maintain, elderly neighbours who will soon retire from farming and a lonely house squatting on the hillside. I realize I am ready to leave. ‘I’m sorry my love,’ I whisper to the sky, ‘it’s time for me to move on but all this will come with me, and you’ll still be with me every step of the way.’ As I stand I notice snowbones in the folds of rock below the wall and my grandmother’s words come back. I know that although my grief is thawing it will remain like snowbones in hidden folds of my heart until winter’s darkness comes for me too.
"Would you like a glass of water?" the man asks. He's in his mid-forties, balding, with a round face and ruddy, wine-stained cheeks. Dressed smartly in a blue suit, with a pink pocket-square that perfectly matches his silk tie, he's the sort of bloke you'd expect to see being escorted out of Royal Ascot after a rowdy stag do, not interviewing candidates for an entry-level position at a second-rate recruitment firm. "I'm fine, thank you." "Wonderful," he says, taking a seat across the desk from me. He rests his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers together as if in silent prayer. Don't bother, I think, no one up there's listening. I spent hours yesterday begging God to break my leg so I wouldn't have to come here this morning, and for what? The beardy old git couldn't even stretch to a measly twisted ankle. "Shall we begin?" No. No. Definitely not. Nope. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes and dance around naked in front of my old secondary school teachers. I smile. "I'd love to." "Brilliant. First off, can you tell me why you applied for the role?" Well, call me crazy, but I always dreamt of not going bankrupt before the tender age of twenty five. Unrealistic, I know, but when I forked out nine grand a year for my university degree, I was hoping I'd be able to find a decent job afterwards. As it is, I graduated thirteen months ago and, out of the approximately seven trillion interviews I've endured since, the only job I've managed to secure isn't exactly the sort of high-powered, glass ceiling-smashing role I was aiming for. I won't tell you which company I currently work for, but let's just say that if I had the words 'Do you want fries with that?' tattooed directly onto my forehead, it would save me a whole heap of time and hassle. "I want a career that will challenge and stimulate me, where I'll constantly be striving for better and where no two days are the same," I explain, repeating the well-worn line. Well-worn lie, you mean. You want a fast-paced, stressful job about as much as you want to go on a second date with the rat-owning yodelling-enthusiast you met on Tinder last week. "That's good to hear. The work we do here is very varied. Sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming. Are you confident you'll be able to keep up?" Not in the slightest. I'll probably have a meltdown in the staff toilets before my second week is out. "Absolutely." "Great. Although, I should warn you, sometimes we're so rushed off our feet that we don't have time to stop for lunch. Will that be an issue for you?" Will intentionally starving myself be an issue? What's next? Denying me access to fresh water? Daylight? Toilet breaks? Why not just stick a dirty bucket underneath my desk and be done with it, you Dickensian, workhouse-owning tyrant! I blink slowly. "Not at all." "Work here starts at seven a.m. and finishes at six p.m.; most of our staff wake up around five to ensure they get here on time - you know what travelling across London can be like. Is that all right?" How on earth did you manage to bag yourself a career in recruitment? That's what I want to know. Because, right now, you're making this job sound about as appealing as rabies-flavoured ice-cream with a side-helping of sewerage sauce. "That's fine. I've always been an early riser." Have you heck! For the first twenty-one years of your life, you thought the day started at eleven a.m.; it used to drive Mum bananas. "And the salary isn't a problem? I know twenty-one thousand doesn't always stretch that far in the capital." You don't say? And here I was thinking I'd be able to holiday in the Maldives this year. Better cancel that private jet, hey? "No, but I've always been thrifty." Always been skint, more like. "Excellent, and where do you see yourself in three years' time?" I hate this question. "Um..." The man smiles encouragingly. "It's okay. Take your time." Can I take three years? Because, honestly, I really don't have a clue. I look into the future and all I see is this gaping black chasm of uncertainty and fear and stomach-churning anxiety, and I think, is this it? Is this adulthood? Because, if it is, I seriously regret wasting so much of my childhood longing to grow up. "Um..." Hey, get it together! I'm the one who's supposed to muck this up for us, not you. Quick, say something vague and ambitious-sounding. He'll love that; his sort always do. I swallow thickly, composing myself. "I see myself having progressed through the ranks. Long-term career growth is very important to me, and I believe your company will enable me to unlock my full potential." Phew, nailed it! "Very good," he says, getting to his feet. He shakes my hand. "Well, thank you for coming in to see us today. We'll be in touch. Before you go, is there anything you'd like to ask me?" Can you give me the job? Don't worry, I'm only kidding. Mostly. But, seriously, I'll do anything. What about if I slept with you, would you give it to me then? No? Too risky? Bloody Me Too movement, spoiling it for everyone else. You know, sometimes I wish I'd been born in the nineteen-thirties. My gran's never had to work a day in her life. She married my granddad and he took care of everything. That's how it was back then. Can we go back to that, do you think? God, I'm a terrible feminist. I don't mean it. It's just that this is all so much harder than I thought it would be. So, can I have the awful job that I don't really want, please? I stand up, shaking my head as I plaster on a smile. "No, thank you. I'm good."
Enough was enough. In the bleary rays of the morning, Joe decided to stop being a victim. Simple. He’d stop being one of the faceless untouchables, a stinking body that made everyone avert their gaze. Today the tables would turn. He would be his own master, take control of his own destiny. Gone were the traces of the suppressed, small child quaking at school; the wary glances, ears attuned to any movement along the corridor. ‘Make sure you’re not alone,’ they’d whispered. ‘Don’t upset them’. ‘Watch out for Mr Johnson, he’s the worst.’ The teachers, honourable men, cast their eyes over the new intake each year, assessing each boy. ‘Corporal punishment is character building,’ they brayed, and the parents agreed. After all it had never done them any harm. Some punishments were worse than others. When Mr Johnson discovered Murphy, the school put on a brave face. ‘Don’t know why this happened.’ ‘Top boy, but prone to depression.’ With Murphy gone, who would be the next favourite? Joe had never been able to tell anyone. His supportive parents thought he was just becoming a typical, moody teenager. He repressed his personality, made himself less attractive. Stopped washing. Greasy hair. Discovered ways to cover the hurt. Drugs. Alcohol, glue. Anything to make school a distant memory. Now Joe staggered to his feet as his body screamed off the frozen night and the pounding from the Special Brew. He looked down at himself. Doc Martens, stained jeans and the obligatory great coat. How different from the over-perfumed butterflies that clacked past him. But today he’d change his life, choose a new path, make something of himself. He struggled with the cafe door. The heat and smell from fried bacon hit him and he inhaled deeply. How many times in the past had he used smells to fill his stomach, to act as food for the day? Joe weaved his way carefully to the counter, conscious of the grimaces he received as people turned away, holding their breath. Ordering a mug of tea, white, three sugars, he rooted in his pocket for some change. He looked at the assistant. ‘I’ve only got 50p.’ The Chinese girl about his age with neat, black hair framing her face looked squarely at him, weighing him up. She glanced behind at a man who gave her a quick nod. ‘No charge today, it’s on the house.’ A mug of tea and a bacon sandwich appeared on a clean tray. ‘Take it.’ Joe gave her a questioning look, but she nudged it towards him and moved on to the next customer. He grabbed the tray and sat as far away from other customers as he could. For the first time in as long as he could remember he felt a fluttering of happiness. The resolution he had felt on waking strengthened with the fortune of the food. A simple bacon sarnie. He hunched over the plate and breathed in deeply. Peeling the slices apart, he considered the greasy rasher, the melted margarine, the soggy white bread and he smiled. His stomach lurched as he added ketchup and made the sandwich whole again. One small bite and his senses roared. He began to chew, feeling the different textures with his tongue. He swallowed and felt alive, hopeful. A new dawn. A better life from now on as long as he was strong, resolute, made his own decisions. He picked up the mug, the ceramic burning his hand. Outside the sun played hide and seek, one minute glancing off shiny hair, the next making the busy street frown. He sipped at the scorching tea, burning the roof of his mouth, appreciating the sensation. As he drank, he started to imagine his new life. Where should he start? Shower and new clothes would be good. He’d find a job, somewhere to stay, an identity. The Chinese girl hovered close by. Joe looked up at her. ‘Thank you. I will get your money, I just need...’ he ran out of words. She smiled at him and he felt that she could see inside him, beyond the stench and dirt. ‘You will meet my father.’ Joe frowned. He pulled his fingers through his rough hair and looked down at his broken nails and calloused hands. He sighed. Payback time. ‘Back there. We need someone for washing up. Now.’ Joe’s head jerked. This was different. A job offer? ‘Really, I...’ ‘It’s what he does,’ she shrugged, ‘help people. Like you. You need to get cleaned up.’ ‘I can’t, I have no...’ ‘Door to the right. Storeroom. Clothes and shower. Go.’ She started to walk away then turned. ‘And don’t let him down. My father. He’s a good man. An honourable man.’ He watched her walk back towards the kitchen. From behind the counter the girl stared at him. Tapping her watch face she jerked her head towards the storeroom. Joe stood up and took a deep breath. Coming to a decision, he walked between the tables and chairs, bumping into a suit on the way and, managing to lift a wallet, headed for the sun.
Once upon a time there was a woodcutter and her husband who lived in a small, dark house in the middle of a large, dark forest. Mariel and Theo were content with their lives, working hard during the day and sleeping soundly and dreamlessly at night. In time two children were born, raven haired girls with bright bird-like eyes. They could speak from an early age, sing-song voices that caused Theo to wince and feel uneasy. Theo confided in Mariel who admitted she felt the same. ‘What if they’re not really our children,’ she whispered. ‘Maybe they’re changelings?’ Neither could fully explain why the girls so unsettled them. Perhaps it was their refusal to accept their baptismal names. The girls insisted on being called Blackbird and Crow. They were obstinate about what they wore too. Nothing fussy or frilly. No ribbons or bows. Nothing shiny or sweet. Instead they chose the colours and textures of the forest at midnight. Velvets ink-black as the sky. Silks and cotton shot through with silver threads and embroidered with tiny silver stars. Blackbird and Crow were happier at night than during the day. Aged seven they’d silently slip out of the house while their parents slept and run about the forest. They were sure footed as they raced between ancient oaks and elms, past sprawling banks of bramble and over twisted tangled roots that writhed like snakes on uneven ground. As the months passed the girls went further from home. By the time autumn rolled around and the forest floor was ankle deep in russet and gold leaves they’d go as far as the very edges of the forest. Beyond, for the first time, they saw a world where trees were sparser, where fields bordered by hedges were empty of everything but a single crop or were simply grassland, occupied by drowsy sheep or horses. Blackbird and Crow were curious to see a cluster of houses grouped around a carved stone cross. There must be dozens of people, they marvelled. What would they be like? Woodcutters like Mariel? Skilful at baking and tending the vegetable garden like Theo? The girls grew bolder as autumn fell away into winter. Sharp frosts left the leaves brittle as old bones and dusted with white. They crackled underfoot as Blackbird and Crow silently, stealthily crept away from the safety of the forest and toward the houses. Standing on tip toes they rubbed ice from the windows, trying to see beyond slivers of gaps in curtains or through moth holes. Sometimes they caught glimpses of people huddled under heaped blankets and quilts, only their heads visible. It was then Blackbird and Crow understood something they hadn’t known before. Something that hadn’t happened with either Mariel or Theo. The woodcutter’s daughters realised they could enter the minds of those sleeping people. They could ease themselves into their dreams and observe what was being imagined. Blackbird discovered the fat, doughy skinned baker, who snuffled like a pig in its sty dreamt of swimming, dipping and gliding through river water sleek as an otter. His paper-thin wife, hair scraped up into a sparse bun, dreamt of turning her husband on a spit, basting him with goose fat as his skin browned and he took on the appearance of a roasting chicken. Crow sidled into the dreams of a young woman whose hair was twisted into dozens of tiny fish tail plaits. In her imagination the young woman became a young man, a gentil parfait knight in shining armour who recited poetry and fought a dragon with equal skill and grace. Crow felt sorry for the dragon, a splendid fire breathing creature with scarlet eyes and sulphurous yellow breath. It was then Blackbird and Crow understood something else. They couldn’t just observe dreams. They could influence them. They were able to change happy endings to sad ones, dreams into nightmares. This made the woodcutter’s daughters smile. Crow caused the dragon to bite into the armour-clad knight, crunching on his metal carapace like it was a walnut shell. As blood shot out of the knight’s wounds the young woman awoke with a jolt, sitting upright, mouth open in a shocked ‘Oh!’. Blackbird froze over the river in which the baker swam. In her mind’s eye she watched him throw his body against the ice ceiling, flailing and gulping in water, desperately trying to break through and breathe air. Then she had him land like a hooked fish on the floor of the kitchen where his wife turned the roasting spit. Blackbird and Crow took such pleasure in their meddling they grew to resent returning to their forest home before sunrise each day. It irritated and, after a while, angered them that Mariel and Theo never dreamed. ‘They sleep like the dead,’ Crow told her sister. ‘Maybe they should be,’ Blackbird said. And so, once upon a night, the woodcutter’s daughters stole into their parents bedroom with Mariel’s freshly sharpened axe. Its blade gleamed like the moonlight that shone through the open window. With two perfectly judged strokes the heads of their mother and father were distanced from their bodies. Fingers twitched, eyelids fluttered, then all was still. Blood pooled sticky red on the flannelette sheets as Blackbird and Crow took what they could carry. Coins, rings, books, china tea cups and hat boxes. Possessions gathered, they left the house that was no longer their home, setting out without a backward glance or a sign of a troubled conscience.
“Go ahead, take it.” Aubrey hesitated, embarrassed that the man had caught her fishing in the coin return of the vending machine at the Lamplighter Motel where she lived in with her mom. Aubrey had gone coin-return fishing as soon as she got off the school bus. She was hungry and hoped to find a stray quarter. There were five quarters in her purple backpack from the Goodwill store. Another would be enough for two candy bars. They would be her supper in case her mom didn’t come back until late. Not only had the man seen her reach into the coin return without putting any coins in, he’d seen her eyeing the candy bar wrapped in pink foil. SWEET TREAT was written across the wrapper in sparkly silver letters. It plopped into the tray, as if by magic, as she approached. Aubrey never heard of Sweet Treat before, but it was candy, and it was free. She was about to push her hand through the flap and grab it, when the man stepped out from behind the Snak-O-Matic. Aubrey thought the man could be anywhere between thirty and forty. He was clean-shaven, with neatly trimmed black hair and light brown skin. She thought he might be Hispanic, like Mr. Perez, her math teacher, or possibly Italian, like Gino, who worked in the pizza parlor down the street and who called her mom bella. Gino had a big belly and friendly brown eyes with laugh lines around them. This man’s eyes were brown and friendly, like Gino’s, but unlike Gino, he looked like he worked out. He wore neatly pressed olive green cotton pants with a matching green shirt – also neatly pressed -- tucked into them. Stitched in white thread over the breast pocket of his shirt was Stranger. Aubrey considered her options. Should she scoot past or reach in and grab the candy? As if he’d read her mind, the man pointed to the word that was stitched over his pocket. “They say, ‘never take candy from strangers,’ and now here’s a guy with ‘Stranger’ on his shirt, offering you candy. You’re thinking, ‘Uh-oh! Run like a bunny!’Am I right?” “Yeah,” Aubrey said hesitantly. She looked around, hoping to see Sandi Gutierrez or one of the other housekeepers appear pushing a cart filled with dirty sheets and towels and cleaning supplies. No luck. The scratched and dented metal doors on either side of the hallway, many of them tagged with gang graffiti, were all closed. Aubrey and the man were alone. The man made no move to grab her and throw her in the back of a van, or to unzip his pants and show her his junk, but she still wasn’t sure if she should talk to him. Maybe he was only pretending to be nice and when her guard was down the kidnapping or the unzipping (or both) would commence. “Stranger’s my name, Ethan Stranger, to be precise. I stock candy in vending machines, like this bad boy here.” He gave the Snak-O-Matic an affectionate pat, the kind a cowboy would give his horse. “These old fellows go back to the nineteen-seventies, the days of Pac-Man, water beds, and disco. You’ve got a real antique here, a groovy blast from the past.” Aubrey smiled. Ethan Stranger was funny. He didn’t seem crazy, like the men who hung out at the park where she sometimes played. Those men had straggly beards and wore dirty clothes. Their eyes were either dull, as if they’d checked out of life long ago and were just marking time until they died, or they held a glittering, cagey expression, as if they were in on a secret that the rest of the world didn’t know and they weren’t about to share. Sometimes they shouted about Jesus or space aliens. Audrey decided Ethan Stranger was like her teachers: a normal grown-up who had a job, an enviable one in this case, putting him in charge of a supply of candy.He jerked his chin at the candy bar lying in the machine’s trough, waiting for someone to claim it. “Go ahead; Snak-O-Matic wants you to have it. It would hurt his feelings if you didn’t take it.” “Okay, thanks.” Aubrey reached in and scooped up the candy. “Don’t thank me; thank Snak-O-Matic.” “Thanks, Snak-O-Matic,” she told it, with a giggle. “You’re welcome, young lady,” Ethan rumbled in a comically deep voice, making her giggle again. She put the candy in the pocket of her denim jacket and turned to go. “Bye, I have to do my homework.” “Aren’t you going to eat your candy?” He raised his eyebrows enquiringly. Aubrey fingered the candy bar in her pocket, feeling the wrapper crackle. She was pretty hungry. “Okay.” She unwrapped it and took a bite. Ethan Stranger watched her as she chewed. This was the part he liked best: seeing them change. He never knew what form the change would take. Sometimes the kids who ate Sweet Treats turned into cockroaches, sometimes they turned into spiders. Sometimes they turned into silverfish or earwigs or snails. You never knew what would happen, that was the exciting part. Grey fur sprouted from Aubrey’s face. Her nose elongated, her eyes turning solid black. She shrank down into her clothes, leaving them lying jumbled on the hallway’s cheap indoor-outdoor carpeting. Seconds later, a mouse darted out from one leg of the jeans and slipped beneath the Snak-O-Matic. There was crunch as a mousetrap snapped shut. Ethan Strange was undisturbed by Aubrey demise. It was the change he liked; what happened to them afterwards didn’t interest him. He picked up the clothes and sneakers and backpack and tossed them into a canvas-sided bin in the laundry room. Then he set off, whistling, down the hallway. He had time for one more stop before he knocked off for the day. School was out and there would be hungry kids in the mood for candy. The End
5.25pm on Tuesday. Five minutes to go until the end of the working day. Five minutes until I, along with the majority of the UK head off to start my week-break. It’s been ten years since we adopted a four day week in this country. Working Wednesday’s is a thing of the past since we added ‘hump day’ to Saturday and Sunday downtime. Not that it’s truly downtime though. Not really. Not at all. My name is Myles Parker. I’m 29 years old, I live with my partner Amy, I average 20k steps a day and my Social Stats are tracking at +5%. I work for a small media agency DDF&J based in London and it’s no exaggeration to say that next week my life will change for ever. This is true in every sense, but in 2040, living in the UK the same is true for anyone turning 30. Freedom after all is a small price to pay for ruling the world. With record economic growth, the highest GDP in recorded history and more cultural influence than before the fall of the British Empire, the UK is at the very top of her game. How did we get there? In a word - Sport. Since we combined all four countries of the UK into Team GB, we are the first nation to simultaneously hold the Football, Rugby and Cricket World Cups - male and female versions. For the last three years, all European Club Tournament winners in football have come from Blighty and Team GB topped the medals board at the 2036 Saudi Olympics. We’ve also retained the Ashes and Ryder Cup for the last six years and hold the unified World Boxing Championship belts at three weights. So how did we get here? After Brexit the UK fell into disarray. Nobody seemed to predict that a small island nation with limited natural resources and no discernible USP’s might struggle on the world stage having bitten the hand that fed her so aggressively. Recession followed as did, ironically, unemployment. Turns out most people didn’t actually want many of the jobs that those foreigners had been so nefariously stealing. Automation ran riot. Cabbies were replaced by driverless cars; the high street all but disappeared with delivery drones taking over the skyline. Once freed from the shackles of Europe, the UK that remained didn’t have much of an identity left. Then Max Bairstow came along. PM extraordinaire. A hybrid of Blair and Beckham at their most charming, popular and persuasive. He ran his campaign on Making Britain Great Again - sound familiar? Well the new bit, the clever bit was that he doubled down on Sport. It started innocuously enough – increased government spending on sport, mandatory PT throughout all levels of education. Soon sport had taken over 75% of the national curriculum. Anyone under 30 was no longer allowed to drink or smoke and was required to wear a Fitbit every day, achieving at least 15k steps whilst participating in three forms of organised sport. The UK would regain her place on the world stage through medals and trophies. The starting point was to create an army of super athletes, hence the health regime. However it soon became apparent that being fit provides no guarantee of sporting talent. That’s when mandatory spectatorship and encouragement was brought in. Everyone in the UK is now required to watch at least 30 hours of sport per week. Viewing is monitored by TV companies with fines handed out to anyone who does not make their weekly quota. Next Facebook and Opta created the Spectator Encouragement Results algorithm. This identified the correlation between sporting success and viewing figures. In fact it went further, highlighting the positive impact that social media has on a nations’ sporting success. Bairstow used this to enforce compulsory Social Stats, a measurement which is updated and shared every day; mine is 900/750/50. The first figure represents how many people you follow, the second how many follow you and the third your average daily posts and shares. Again, if you drop below the target for your demographic you’ll be hit with a fine. When sporting success started to follow and with so much action taking place on Wednesday’s, the government shortened the working week so that we could dedicate ourselves to sport uninterrupted for three full days. Now I must decide which games Amy and I are going to watch tomorrow, which ones we will second screen and which ones to post about. My friend Chris will also be coming round as he has the misfortune of living near Lords Cricket Ground and it’s scheduled to rain tomorrow. This means the wind machines will be switched on to move the clouds from over the pitch to over Chris’s home. That’s right, not even Mother Nature can derail our nations sporting progress anymore! Still, we’ll get a chance in between the sport to plan my birthday. The government cites 30 years of age as the point at which professional sports may no longer be achieved if not already attained. Ridiculous of course as most people who turn pro do so in their teens, but as we are constantly told it keeps the nation healthy and a Healthy Nation is a Wealthy Nation. Chris is already 30 and so can drink legally as can Amy. I’ve had the occasional illicit beverage but it’s not worth the risk with random blood tests now so prevalent. Turning 30 also signifies the end of mandatory organised sport, plus with the removal of my Fitbit, for the first time in my life the only person watching my weight will be me. Everyone jokes that your 30th birthday adds three years to your life as you go from 29 to ‘Thirty Free’. I’ll still have Social Stats to hit and who knows what new laws may be round the corner, but from next week at least, I’ll be happy to just be a fan. #GoTeamGB #Number1 #UKWorldChampions
Rachel stood on her balcony in the sky as she liked to think of it and had her final, ever, morning coffee and fag. She looked out over London and then down the thirty floors. It had always been her consolation. If things got too much she could just step over the edge and that would be that. She backed off the balcony just in case she was tempted and went in to the nearly empty sitting room. She’d almost done it when she’d got the first letter telling her that they were pulling down the tower block. Then a letter was pushed through her door inviting her to a residents meeting. They were getting together to make sure they were given good alternatives. No-one trusted the council to be fair about it. The invitation took her a lot of thought because she’d hardly had anything to do with anyone since she’d moved in. Now she hardly went out at all. How had it got to this? She’d had a life once and then it just vanished. Feeling nervous she went to the meeting. No-one looked at her strangely or asked her anything. All she’d done that time was take the cup of tea offered and sat down at the back on her own. At the next meeting a nice looking woman spoke to her. She said she’d come from Jamaica and had been so glad to be given the flat eventually after living in awful rented places. The flat had given her sanctuary too. Bella lived on the floor above so for the next meeting she called on the way down and they went together. Rachel knew that she hadn’t shared much about herself. It made her feel awkward and she’d decided not to go to the next one and even pretended she wasn’t in when Bella knocked. When she ignored the knock though it made her feel bad too, so she did go and told Bella she’d left early to go the shop first. After that it took another twelve months before both of them were offered a bungalow in a place for older people. Bella was excited about it but Rachel wasn’t so sure. The balcony in the sky still had its attraction although not so much nowadays. She walked in to the kitchen to wash her cup and pack it. The radio was going to be the last to go. As usual it was on Radio 2 and she heard the disc jockey announce the ‘Where are They Now’ programme. Suddenly she heard ‘One Day Last Summer’ being played. His one and only hit before alchohol and cocaine had put them both on the streets. This was the first time in over thirty years that she’d been able to listen to it. In the last years it had hardly ever been played but if she even thought she’d heard a bit of it she’d change the station quickly. This time it was different though. It took her right back to the people she blamed for getting her hooked on drugs; but did that really matter now? She’d spent a good part of her life blaming other people and herself for all sorts of catastrophes, but she’d got the opportunity of a new life and friends. At nearly seventy maybe she could start over. Bella knocked for the last ever residents meeting. She’d got a cake and Rachel had said she wasn’t good at baking but she’d bring some nibbles. Everyone was contributing so they could have a party. Most people were satisfied with the options they’d been given and even though they were sad at leaving the tower block, the general consensus was that it hadn’t really been much of a community. The specially built retirement accommodation that many of them were going too offered a lot that they didn’t have here; new friends, things to join in on (only if they wanted to – no pressure), everything brand new so they didn’t even have to take old furniture if they didn’t want to. Bella knocked again. Oh dear, she thought, I hope we’re not going to have this again. She turned away but turned back for one last try and noticed that the door wasn’t locked. Pushing it open slightly she called out ‘Rachel, Rachel’. No reply so she went in to the small hallway and looked in to the kitchen, No Rachel, so she went on to the living room and noticed the balcony door was open. No sign of her. A noise behind made her turn, relieved that it must be Rachel, and there was a man standing smiling at her uncertainly. ‘Who are you?’ Bella asked annoyed at the tremble in her voice. ‘It’s me Bella’ the man looked tearfully at her. ‘I was thinking that this was the start of a new life and that I could, finally, maybe, be the real me’. ‘What do you mean?’ Bella almost shouted. ‘Oh Bella. It’s been my whole life since I was I was four. I always, always, felt like I was a boy. I’ve never told anyone. Sometimes I’d buy male clothes and dress up here in the flat. I don’t understand it and don’t know why but I just feel right like this.’ Bella’s gaze became glazed but she didn’t turn away. There was a long thoughtful pause. ‘If you don’t like it I won’t come to the meeting and I’ll take one of the other places I was offered instead.’ Rachel was crying now. Bella walked towards her and Rachel moved to one side so she could leave but Bella grabbed hold of her and hugged her tight. ‘No’ she said ‘If this is right for you why should I or anyone else have anything to say about it’ she paused. ‘Have you got those nibbles because we’d better get going. Don’t want to miss the fun. I’ll tell you about my Uncle Dave on the way.
I’ve vowed do it when the last leaf falls. There are still three clinging on- brown, desiccated, wizened things. At night time they take on a different appearance. The cherry tree burns in the orange glow of a streetlight. On the tip of a low branch two leaves overlap, a third hangs below, silhouetted against the sky. A black crow. A black crow waiting for me to act. I’ll know when it happens. Within a few hours at any rate. I don’t go out much anymore and the tree is just outside the front window. I like it best in May when it’s a cloud of pink blossom afloat on the lawn. A present for my birthday every year. The tree doesn’t forget. I didn’t plant it but I did nurture it from young. I cut the stake that was strangling its trunk; I removed the vines that wound like veins along its branches. I cut it back in the summer to encourage new growth and I raked its leaves in the autumn. And now it’s home to the crow, the crow that shivers and rustles in the breeze. Everything’s prepared but it’s good to have a deadline to work to. I’ve moved a table under the front window so I can keep watch. I eat there and work there. To borrow a cliché- it’s my window on the world. There’s a huge tree in my neighbour’s garden that dwarfs my little cherry. It’s a scots pine- a slender, straight trunk four stories high and a crown that at night looks like the ace of clubs. The big birds roost there- the magpies, the pigeons and the collared doves. Down here tiny sparrows, robins and yellow finches balance precariously on branches thin and crooked like witch’s fingers and then flit away. Leaving my black crow alone. There was a strong wind last night and I feared the worst. The crow has lost a wing. Two leaves remain and when they are gone I will make the phone call. The call that marks the end or the beginning. You can look at it both ways. At night I see foxes and a hedgehog now and again. I tap on the window and the fox freezes. It moves, I tap and it freezes again. A cruel game. Am I afraid like my fox? There are birds in my belly and I do not eat. This morning I dragged Daddy’s old armchair closer to the window. I can sleep in there with a blanket and a pillow. And continue my vigil. The contraction continues. It has been raining all day. I fear that the remaining leaves will become soaked and heavy. Dead, wet leaves lie black around the base of the tree like a pool of blood. I count the time by the rain as it drips from the blocked gutter above the bedroom. The water falls past my window and splashes into the rose border. Only the roses have long since died and no amount of water will revive them. Inside the stems they are as dry as old bones. One good thing- with the heating off there is no condensation to impede my view. People pass. The postman passes by. My tree doesn’t hide me in the leafless months. Do they see me here? A little girl did. She was wearing a red coat buttoned up against the cold. She waved a tiny hand. Her mother pulled her away before I could wave back. Are they frightened of my face behind the window? And now only the tail of my crow remains. One leaf left. Bills are paid. Bags are packed. I wait. I watch. It blew a gale again during the long night. I listened to the evergreens whooshing like pebbles in the tide. The little cherry bent and shook, swayed and bowed. But as long as I watched, the leaf clung on. Like the tree, I too am wavering. The feverish thoughts of the night. I could set a new deadline; perhaps when the first snowflake lands or, looking further ahead, when the first bud forms. Or when the cuckoo calls or when the clocks go forward again or… I missed it! The leaf has fallen, my crow has flown. My heart goes BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM. Mustn’t think. Pick up the phone. Hand trembling. Ring the number. Blood in my ears. Ring ring. I can still call it off. Ring ring. I’ll give it six rings and then hang up. Ring. “Hello.” A man’s voice. Foreign. “I’m ready.”
I still don’t know to this day why I did it, but I was only five years old at the time so I was not to know the anguish I caused. Summer had arrived and we had made our yearly family trip down to the Devon coast to stay with my grandparents. My grandparents lived in an imposing Georgian seafront apartment. On arriving there I couldn’t wait to run up the stairs to see them. The entrance hall was always dark and I loved the feel of the ebony handrail winding up the stairs, the musky smell and the sense of mystery, as I never knew who lived in the other apartments. What I most loved about my grandparents’ apartment were the ornaments. The grotesque, yet fascinating jugs on the shelves lining the stairs, the ornate golden tea trolley with the flowered biscuit barrel, the cut glass vases on the side board, my grandmothers’ silver-backed hair brushes on the dressing table. But what I most liked was the conch. A massive shell, nearly as big as my head that sat on the table in the hall. From what I could remember it had always been there. None of the adults ever looked at it as they walked by, but I was entranced by it. From the outside it looked like a normal shell, bumpy and white, but inside it revealed a silvery grey, pearly interior, the hues of mauve reflecting in the light. Pressed to my ear the whooshing sound was almost deafening, I could hear the seagulls swooping over the white-crested waves. The sound became an escape for me where, oblivious to the adults around me, my dreams started, my dreams of going far away, perhaps on a boat or to become a lighthouse keeper on a rocky crevice out at sea. One day I was sitting on the plush hall carpet with the conch pressed to my ear. The sound of the waves, hissing and tumbling, suddenly became more high-pitched. With a desperate urge, I knew that somehow I needed to be out of the apartment, down the stairs and gasping the fresh salty sea air. Before I knew it I had opened the apartment door and was in the dark stairwell, gripping the conch in one hand and groping for the balustrade with the other, to carefully descend onto the street below. “Are you lost?” Suddenly the voice came out of nowhere. My eyes tried to focus and saw the shadowy outline of a stooped elderly woman in a flowery apron. The same grey curly hair as my grandmother but older and more wrinkled. “No” I replied hastily, trying to push my way past her down the stairs. “Have you come for tea then?” The next thing I knew I was sitting at a kitchen table in an apartment virtually identical to that of my grandparents, but with strangely different furniture and curtains. On the table in front of me was a teapot enshrined in a knitted tea cosy and an array of plates piled high with cakes and biscuits. I had never seen anything like it. “How do you like your tea?” asked the old lady sitting opposite me. She seemed friendly and quite happy to have me with her, as though it was the most normal thing in the world. “Can I have some more Battenberg cake please?” I was salivating with hunger and started stuffing a scone into my mouth, the strawberry jam oozing out of the side of my mouth. “What’s your name then?” asked the old lady, passing me a slice of cake. “Lou” “What do you want to be when you’re older?” “A lighthouse keeper” “I used to live in a lighthouse, I did. I was married to a lighthouse keeper. Can you believe it? Love of my life he was. He wrote poetry you know. Walked about all the time with no clothes on! Scandalous!” I sat there, my eyes open wide in awe. “Lou! Lou! Are you in there? Police! Open up!” a cacophony of voices outside the apartment. Someone was banging fiercely on the door. The old woman was screaming. I put my hands over my ears trying to dull out all the noise. I rose quickly from the chair, dragging the table cloth with my leg, my face was wet from sobbing. A plate crashed onto the floor. I ran straight to the door, reaching up and fumbling with the handle. My eyes were blurred, but I could just make out my grandparents hovering behind my parents, holding each other, my mother screaming and crying uncontrollably at the same time. whilst my father was trying to restrain her. A tall, dark-haired policeman stood in front of them, swooped me up into his arms. My mother was shrieking hysterically: “How dare you! How dare you take my daughter! You silly, stupid old woman! You kidnapper!” “Why did you do it Lou, run away? We were so worried” said my father, taking me from the arms of the policeman. I looked down at the floor. I really didn’t know how to answer him. “I don’t know” I started to cry silently as he embraced me. “I think it was the conch”. The conch! Suddenly I noticed it was missing. No longer was it sitting on the hall table. I started to panic. Had somebody moved it? Or had it been stolen? Suddenly I remembered. Now that so many years have passed I often wonder about the old lady. What happened to her in the end? Nobody ever spoke of her again and I never dared ask my parents. Nonetheless, I am reassured that I left the conch with her. If I close my eyes I can imagine her pressing it against her ear, rocking backwards and forwards in her armchair, listening to the waves lapping against the shore, smelling the salty air, the putrid stench of seaweed. Listening for her love in the lighthouse.
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