Short Fiction ~ Oscar Windsor-Smith
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
He was levelling a floor of quick-drying cement when the sounds burst in through the open front door. A screech. A thump. A vehicle stopped, engine ticking, and then moved on. By the time he’d hobbled to the scene the killer had gone.
The cat lay lifeless in the road. There was no blood, only unnatural stillness and amazing clarity in frozen eyes. Oblivious to listeners or echoes from uncaring walls; aware only of incomprehensible loss, at last Richard screamed.
They’d met a year ago, he and the black and white cat, soon after Beatrice entered the hospice for the final time. They must have shared some similarity of spirit, because the cat – a rag-tag bruiser bearing countless scars from living wild – had rushed to Richard and he had welcomed the cat like old friends reunited. He’d named his new friend Buster.
Richard’s spade sliced through firm turf, glided deep through loamy earth to clay and clinked on flint, to create a decent resting-place. He laid the still-warm body on a fresh white towel embroidered at one corner with a heart in red silk. Swaddling the soft material tight around Buster, he lifted the cat to his chest and then lowered him into the earth.
All too aware of racing time, Richard swiftly refilled the grave. He took care though over levelling the earth and cleared away all trace of spoil; the way Beatrice would have liked. The way she would have liked. Strange, how he felt able now to face that thought.
Kneeling again, steel trowel in whitened fist, Richard’s arm swept back and forth, levelling and correcting, smoothing and re-smoothing the tiny craters that kept appearing in the surface.
Later, dry-eyed and exhausted, the floor perfect, Richard closed the door and plodded up the echoing stairs to collapse into their double bed and twilight thoughts of Beatrice.
Fresh as the evening breeze she’d stood, flower print dress fluttering, body swaying to music on a scratchy record booming from speakers in the church hall.
Unaware that Richard was standing in shadow she’d bent forward to something out of his line of sight, speaking soft words he could not make out. Intrigued he’d moved into the light. She’d started, unbent and revealed the object of her attention: a black and white cat.
'Oh! You made me jump,' she said.
'You had me worried, talking to yourself.'
‘I was talking to the cat,' she said, indicating where the animal had been.
'I see no cat,’ he’d replied. ‘But I'd like to take your picture.'
Was that really how they’d met or could this be another cruel trick of his aging brain? Photography had been his hobby back in the day when she had written poetry. If the memory was true he must have that picture somewhere.
Awake now, Richard got up and searched every cupboard, every album and every corner of the cottage. Hours later, defeated, he collapsed back in bed. Sleeping fitfully, he saw Beatrice again, sitting beside him in their living room, a cat on her lap, another at her feet.
'Perhaps all cats were human once,’ she said, ‘who knows what happens to the souls of the dead?'
‘Perhaps,’ he replied without conviction.
'You should try smiling at them,' she said. 'Smile and watch their eyes. Once you have their trust, they'll smile back.'
'Feline faces don’t have the muscles to smile,' he argued.
'I don't know about that,' she said, 'but smile they do, you take my word.'
He had tried smiling at cats, when he’d thought Beatrice wasn't looking, but he’d never received the shadow of a smile in return, or indeed the courtesy of any response at all for his trouble. Not until Buster.
Richard awoke to dawn light sidling down the bedroom wall. He eased his aching back off the bed and shuffled downstairs.
The door was ajar although he was certain he had shut it. Inside something wasn't right. There were marks in the dry cement; a line of small dents in his smooth floor, a cat's paw prints, heading toward a closed cupboard door.
Richard tested the sole of his slipper on the new surface. Satisfied, he tiptoed forward and opened the door. The cupboard was empty except for old lining paper but fragrant with perfume that was Beatrice. He lifted the lining paper and drew it to his face, inhaling memories of the girl in the flower print dress.
Something fluttered to the floor. Through cloudy eyes he saw an envelope lying on the fresh cement.
Richard picked it up, heart thumping, raised the flap and discovered two photographs cradled within a fold of pink notepaper. The first image recorded Beatrice standing, laughing, in the church hall doorway. The second he could not recall having taken; in fact, he felt quite sure he had not. But there, in the same church hall doorway, close up and centre frame, sat a large black and white cat. And it was smiling.
In the white margin of the second photograph someone had written the words ‘Turn me over’ in blue ink. On the reverse, in the same ink and Beatrice’s distinctive hand, he read:
Please don’t break your heart
Endless time is on our side
Our love has nine lives
Oscar Windsor-Smith is an English writer from Merseyside, now resident in south Hertfordshire, UK, with fiction and non-fiction prose and a smattering of poetry published in diverse places, in print and online. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, most recently in the Departures anthology from Arachne Press. He graduated from the 4-year BA creative writing course at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2018, having specialised in screenwriting, but is returning to his first love, short and flash fiction.
Short Fiction ~ Hannah Mitchell
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
Eileen’s 83rd birthday was three days ago.
She celebrated it the same way she celebrated the last eight birthdays: by buying an iced bun from the bakers opposite and sitting on the bench by the pond to watch the ducklings swim behind their mamas. She threw the crumbs as far as she could despite her arthritis and, in turn, they chattered their bills and crowded her for more. She reached in her handbag for the bag of frozen peas. Eileen decided to stay by the pond awhile before visiting Johnny and then sitting by the television alone that night to watch Alexander Bradley referee the Quizzers against the Einsteins.
Johnny was Eileen’s husband and he was not dead. He lay in an institution, unblinking, his skin turning greyer day by day. Eileen visited him every day. But the only memory he had of her was when he looked at the black and white photograph of the two of them and murmured “they look happy”. And, every time, she would pat his withering hand and say “they are”. The nurse knew Eileen as a regular and escorted her in and out and greeted her by name. Over tea, Eileen would tell her the stories of Johnny and their marriage, as much as she could listen to, before leaving her alone with Johnny to take care of the other patients.
From across the pond, Eileen saw a pair of lovers, two young men, holding each other. They noticed her watching and ducked their heads. She wasn’t offended; she was saddened. The world still wasn’t there yet. She remembered her brother, Jacob, and finding letters from his lover after he died. Eileen’s mother had told everyone that Jacob was killed in action; Eileen knew he put a bullet through his head in the trenches. The diagnosis was shellshock but in those letters to Frederick, she knew that he couldn’t live with himself, in this cold world, where men like him were tortured and imprisoned. Frederick mourned for years over the man he could never marry. Jacob wrote how he wished for a better time, a utopia, where he could love his sweetheart, even if that world was Beyond. Eileen grew close to Freddy, he even proposed, but she accepted Johnny instead. They adored Freddy like a brother and, when he died in the 80s, Eileen wondered if he was reunited with Jacob and if they were happy and free now in the Beyond.
Johnny had said “They are.”
Eileen glanced at the young couple, who were still smiling and kissing, despite the world around them. She smiled at their bravery and adoration. She wanted to talk to them, offer her help to them, but couldn’t bear to break their hands apart for even a second like Jacob’s and Frederick’s had been. So, she reassured herself. In addition to all else she mumbled to herself, Eileen, over the next three days, kept muttering to Jacob “Are they happy even though the world isn’t there yet?” and she thought Jacob would answer, “They are”.
Before her solitary birthday dinner, Eileen went to visit Johnny. As usual the young nurse greeted her. She told both the nurse and Johnny about the bun, the ducks, the young couple, about Freddy and Jacob. Johnny stared at the ceiling the whole time then turned his head to the photograph. In his toothless slur, he said “They look happy.” Eileen squeezed his fingers. “They are.”
Three days after Eileen’s birthday, Johnny was dead. The photograph was shattered and his hand was resting on the table as if he had reached for it in his final breaths.
Eileen watched him being carted out of the institution, solemn, knowing that no one was left for her now. Her thoughts strayed to arthritis medication and her bed and her empty mantlepiece. She thought about how tired she was, how she needed a good, long sleep. She was so tired she could have slept forever. So, Eileen walked home.
When two nurses cleared Johnny’s room, they carefully picked up the photograph. They stared at it for quite some time, staring at the two young, happy people in their little, monochrome world.
“Wow, I wish I could love someone like that one day. They look really happy.”
“Yes,” said the nurse. “They were.”
Hannah Mitchell: I currently study English with Creative Writing (BA) at Leicester University. Although I have dreamed of being a writer for many years and have written for my own enjoyment, this is my first publication. It’s an honour for Strands Publishers to give me my first step into the writing world and I hope there’s more to come.
Short Fiction ~ Michael Pettifer
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
The Spiders’ International AGM over, Webster, Scooter – our American delegates - and I discuss the meeting and life in general. It had been a mundane annual bash though later in the year than normal due to the subtle yet profound environment changes that directly impacted our spider season. (I’m one of those small spiders that love spinning near trees, outside tables or umbrellas and other places that let me explore my creative options to spin my webs.)
Webster, never a chatty one, looked at Scooter who was sounding forth on those that had no idea of a spiders worth.
‘I mean, they just swat you away,’ said Scooter. ‘Tread on us or destroy our food source with the swipe of a brush. No respect or understanding for little things.’ Webster nodded in agreement and then shot a gossamer thread from a tree leaf into the breeze. He swung there, back and forth with a smile as he embraced natures free gift of wind.
Then he said: ‘You know Scooter, last week they came out with a water hose and blasted anything that looked web like in and around my terrace area. They missed my spot, I was there in the small hedge catching anything trying to fly through. They left the hedge alone. I just watched in horror as Blue, Parker and Jello got washed down the drain.’
‘Genocide, that’s what I call it,’ said Scooter. ‘Then they whinge about bugs, bites and why their veg. is being destroyed.’
‘Veg...tomatoes?’ said Webster.
‘Exactly,’ said Scooter.
I take a more nuanced view on things these days. They seem to have grasped the fact that nature offers free energy sources that can drive turbines and mills. Of course they also discover other truths about nature but then tend to shrug it off and quickly move on.
‘ You know,’ said Scooter. ‘They sometimes stop and notice the sun on our gossamer threads and the light blues, electric blues and other colours and just for a split second appreciate the skill in us being able to produce these wonders. Then, as if possessed by some demon, with a swipe of their hand our handiwork is destroyed.’
‘Terrible,’ said Webster.
‘Exactly,’ said Scooter.
Their comments made me think about the annual prizes given out at this year’s AGM. All the usual ones of course: Most beautiful web – that prize went to Muffet for the second year running – oh the symmetry - breath-taking. The longest gossamer thread went to Hunter – an unbelievable 3 metres long, and the colours! The best disguised web home went to Sonic who spent all season hidden behind the wing mirror of a BMW X4 – what a hoot! And the best story Web Sight went to Digger (...jeux de mots of course...he’s our English spider ... the English always have been good at spin.)
For me, I keep myself to myself these days. And though I sympathise with Webster and Scooter – both of whom get so wound up about things, I’m a bit more philosophical about life and them. I mean they never have had much time for things they cannot sell or commercialise and even less time for barely visible creatures that keep eco. systems ticking over.
We all hope of course, I hope, but they are very much of a NIMBY or ‘that’s not my problem’ mentality. I think what hurts most is when one of us is trod on or they smash us with some sort of ‘swat.’ I mean vacuum cleaners are an occupational hazard, but deliberate destruction of my co-spiders is of a different dimension. Is a spiders’ life so cheap? Is my life worth nothing being regarded as a pest subject to a house cleaning exercise and nothing else?
Well, having put the world to right, Webster and Scooter departed and I made my way back to my secret web. The wind had picked up but my gossamer mesh held firm pulsing with the ebb and flow of the wind. Fortunately the breeze had secured my dinner and, by the look of it, breakfast as well.
I wonder if my web will still be here tomorrow.
Michael Pettifer has an MA in screenwriting and an Honours degree in Chemistry. He writes flash fiction and short stories and is successful in International flash fiction competitions. Michael was raised near Stratford upon Avon and has a passion for the actors art and live theatre. He enjoys writing short plays for friends. When not writing he is using his word craft as a professionally qualified development specialist advising and supporting others reliant on written documentation and effective communication skills to further their career opportunities.
Short Fiction ~ Judith Segal
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
I come out of Harvey’s Ladies’ Fashion Emporium feeling very pleased with myself. One raincoat, two cardigans and two skirts, all half-price. In my jubilation, I almost trip over the young girl squatting in the doorway, sheltering from the rain. I’m afraid to say beggars are a common sight in our town. Rumour has it they come down from London drawn by the potential for rich pickings in our High Street.
I bend over the girl. ‘Would you like a sandwich? Or perhaps a coffee?’ I know you’re not supposed to give beggars money since they’ll only spend it on drugs.
She looks up at me, startled. My heart melts. She’s only young, late teens at most, the same age as my Catherine. She’s thin, painfully so, arms like – like matchsticks, and, I’m afraid to say, she smells. It’s clear neither she nor her clothes have been near cleaning products for some time.
‘No, thank you,’ she says in an accent I can’t place. ‘Is it very busy in there?’ She nods towards the shop.
‘Not very,’ I reply. ‘There isn’t much left on the sale rails. Most of the best stuff has gone.’
‘Might as well try somewhere else,’ she says, attempting to get up onto her feet and failing.
I take her arm to help her and am shocked by how weak she is.
‘That’s what comes of not eating properly,’ I say sternly. It’s what I used to tell Catherine when, aged thirteen, she’d bemoan her acne. She’d refuse my healthy, home-cooked supper and then gobble up a whole packet of biscuits.
‘It’s hard to find proper food,’ the girl says, holding onto my arm and straightening herself up with difficulty.
I refrain from reminding her of the proffered sandwich, and ask her her name. She mumbles something which I have to request her to repeat.
‘Angrita!’ I say, impressed. ‘Never heard that one before.’ I suppose her parents couldn’t decide between Angela with a hard g and Rita, and compromised by combining the two. ‘Now, where do you want to go?’
‘Where else has a sale?’ asks Angrita, still holding onto my arm.
‘Plenty of places. But what do you want to buy?’
She looks at me as though I’d asked her if she wanted to go to Timbuktu. I begin to wonder whether she’s all there or whether her brain has been fried. Catherine tells me it’s common knowledge among the local youth that amphetamines are freely available in the Town Hall car park and crack cocaine is sold openly on the steps behind the Baptist Church. Not, she hastens to assure me, that she’s ever had anything to do with either.
‘I don’t want to buy anything,’ Angrita replies. ‘It’s just that people get angry at sales. They find the exact dress they’ve always wanted at twenty pounds off but it’s a size too small, or the person in front of them buys the last half-price microwave.’
A woman bursts out of Harvey’s, sees the rain driving in horizontal spears and fumbles in her carrier bag for an umbrella.
‘Bloody weather,’ she says to us. ‘In August. And it’s so cold as well. I blame all those bloody vegans for having jackfruit jetted in from Java. All those carbon dioxide emissions. Why can’t they be happy with marrows like the rest of us?’
Angrita smiles sweetly at her.
‘I suppose it takes all sorts,’ says the woman, softening. She unfurls her umbrella. ‘The rain will please the gardeners at least.’ She marches off, holding the umbrella in front of her like a battering ram.
‘I feel a bit better now,’ says Angrita. ‘Oh bother, here comes that crazy vegan lady. Let’s duck round this corner.’
“That crazy vegan lady” is a fixture around our town, parading placards bearing slogans such as “Only Zombies Eat Flesh”. She arouses a lot of negative comments in local face-book pages by her habit of standing outside primary schools brandishing toy woolly baa-lambs and demanding to know of five-year olds why they eat such things.
‘What do you have against the crazy vegan lady?’ I ask Angrita, following her round the corner.
‘She’s just too angry for me,’ says Angrita. ‘Too much anger makes me ill.’
Oh dear, I think. Could this be another symptom of a fried brain?
I peep round the corner. ‘The vegan lady’s gone,’ I say. ‘SavePlenty has just opened a new butchery counter. I suppose she must be hovering outside, laying curses on all who enter.’
We emerge back onto the High Street. Suddenly Angrita grips my arm.
‘What’s that noise?’ she asks. ‘It sounds like people marching.’
‘That must be the People’s Park demonstration.’ I explain that the council have decided to make the little park next to the river into a wildflower meadow. Save on the cost of gardeners. A few sheep should keep the grass down.
‘Conservation and cost savings,’ says Angrita. ‘What a good idea.’
‘The good people of our town don’t think so,’ I say. ‘They want a polite park with regimented rows of geraniums bordered by lobelia, and perhaps a couple of well-behaved ducks on a pond. Somewhere nice where they can eat their sandwiches.’
‘Can’t they do that in a wildflower meadow?’
‘No. Sheep pellets. Bees. Miscellaneous creepy-crawlies.’
The noise of people protesting grows louder, and then there they are, coming over the brow of the hill at the top of the High Street and threatening to engulf us. They are waving banners and shouting slogans. “Save our Salvias!”, “Protect our Petunias!” The crazy vegan lady’s banner says “Stop The Exploitation Of Sheep!”
Angrita shrinks into the doorway of Smith’s The Stationers. ‘Too much anger! I can’t bear it!’
And before my eyes, she diffuses through the window, melts into a display of geometry sets and atlases, and is gone.
I shake my head in wonderment. And then I realise Angrita is not her name. It’s who she is. Or was. An anger eater.
Judith Segal began writing creative fiction after she retired from an academic career in Maths and Computing She has written a memoir which appeared in The London Magazine but this is her first purely fictional publication.
Short Fiction ~ Oliver J. Batchelor
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
The man blocking my way was small and scrawny but I could see straight away that he meant business. One hundred and thirty pounds of meanness and desperation. The glint of a knife in his hand revealed that the odds against me had suddenly shortened.
I had been stupid to take a short-cut down the badly lit back lane so late at night and now I was going to regret it. I keep myself fit but I’m no sprinter, besides, he had planned it well, waiting until I was more than half-way along the alley before he stepped out to confront me. Any attempt at escape was useless.
He advanced on me slowly, speaking out of the side of his mouth in a hoarse voice.
“Give me your money, phone and jewellery,” he rasped. “No fuss and it’s gonna end up being your lucky night. Any tricks and I’ll have to take a little bit extra from you in payment.” He laughed crazily. “You know what that means, pretty lady.”
I had a good idea what he had in mind but I wasn’t planning on finding out. At the same time, scared as I was, something inside of me baulked at handing over my money and the other things he wanted. It’s the inconvenience of losing your phone and bank cards that punks like him don’t seem to understand.
I was thinking on my feet but no plan came to mind so I reached into my pockets for my phone and wallet.
“Easy does it,” he barked, moving closer and flashing the blade threateningly. I backed up against the wall in response to his advance but he took that as a sign of resistance and thrust the knife towards me in a stabbing motion, too close for comfort. I raised my hands in submission.
“All right, all right,” I said, “You can have the damn money. I don’t have that much on me anyway.”
He came close to me again and I could smell his rancid breath and the stale sweat ingrained into his worn clothing. The pity I might have had for him if he’d been sleeping in a shop doorway or begging on the street was several worlds away.
I handed him my wallet. Greedily the man stripped it of its money and cards before throwing it on the ground. Grabbing my phone, he pocketed it, then grasped my hands checking for rings. I’d already removed the only one I was wearing in the hope that he wouldn’t search me - a small victory maybe, but I couldn’t resist trying. He made to reach for my neck but I beat him to it, pulling off my necklace and handing it over. The less he touched me, the better I’d feel.
“That’s the lot, I swear,” I said, trying to control the tremor in my voice.
He leered at me, licking his lips, which glistened in the shadowy half-light. “Hmm, too bad I’m in a hurry,” he said menacingly, leaving unfinished what he might otherwise have done. After a few moments in his private fantasy, he came to his senses and realised that he needed to get away.
“Just you stay there and keep your mouth shut until I’m out of sight, alright?” he ordered, with one last wave of the knife in my direction.
He started to walk away.
As he did so I began to whistle softly.
He turned and snarled at me. “You, just shut it, do you hear me? Shut it!”
I continued to whistle, emboldened by the fact that he didn’t come back. Besides, the tune I was whistling was a melodic thirteenth century German folk song, not a piercing whistle to attract attention.
As I whistled, a strange thing happened. First one, then several rats emerged from the shadows ahead of where my assailant was walking. They ran at him causing him to stop and lash out with his boots. More and more rats came from all sides of the lane, the ones at the front launching themselves at his legs and flailing arms. He turned back to me with a look of confusion on his face. I continued whistling.
He made to run, but in his attempt to get away from the rats, he stumbled on something and fell awkwardly, emitting a groan, followed by a deep sigh as he hit the ground. He lay still, the rats swarming all over his prostrate form.
I retrieved my wallet from where he had dropped it and walked slowly up the lane towards his body. As I did so, the rats backed off and I could see all too clearly what had happened. In his haste to escape from the rats’ attentions, he had tripped over a piece of garbage and fallen on his knife, stabbing himself through the heart. Too bad. Not what I’d planned, but you know what they say about people who live by the sword.
I reached into his pockets and took back my money, phone and broken necklace, noticing as I did so that one of my business cards had dropped to the ground. I picked it up and wiped the mud from the two-tone design to reveal my details. Piper Hamelin, Musician.
“He’s all yours, guys,” I said as I walked away, beginning to whistle once more. Turning, I took one last look at his body. It had become a seething mass of rats, on top of which a large old grey one looked at me, his muzzle and whiskers damp with fresh blood. I could swear that he gave me a wink before diving back into the fray for the best supper he’d had in months.
Oliver J Batchelor
A retired charity social worker, I live in Gateshead in North East England. I have loved writing most of my life but largely confined this to factual work. I wrote for a football fanzine for several years, had a book on drugs and addiction published in 2000 and co-authored several research reports. I started writing my first pieces of fiction during covid lockdown in 2020, completing a novel, a number of short stories and some flash fiction and I am currently working on a second novel. I have recently started an MA in Creative Writing.
Short Fiction ~ Pete Armstrong
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
My legs were heavy, whinging against a daily walk after two months summer vacation, so I took a quick breather on a bench at the far end of the forest. It was half way, not bad for the first day back. Percy stared up at me, aghast that I would do such a thing, tail drooping with disappointment. But then, resigned, he quickly reconnoitered the area and settled down himself. Might as well join 'em.
Trees wafted to and fro in the lightest of winds, ground soggy after recent skyfall, not a wisp of cloud surviving from yesterday's thick blanket. Birds serenaded each other from upper floor balconies but there was no sign of deer or anything else worth posting home about. There never is since we adopted Percy to join in our forest walks.
"I like this place, and could willingly waste my time in it."
I started at the interruption. A gentleman of the road had joined me on the bench, somehow I'd missed his entry from the wings. He contemplated me with smiling frown, mildly disappointed in the quality of dog walkers with whom he had to share his living quarters nowadays. Dirt lined the wrinkles around his eyes, he twitched mahogany-stained hands. I tried not to stare.
"That's Shakespeare isn't it? Twelfth Night, or As You Like It or something. Are you a fan?"
But he turned away to peruse the view offstage, his deep-set eyes preferring to focus on distance. Mine are like that too, a feature of middle age. Percy gave him a quick olfactory checkout and clearly approved. The heady brew of outdoor life and lots of it, which steamed from the chap's lower garments, apparently an improvement on the fabric conditioner and domestic sweat which petered out from mine. He settled down again at the feet of the new arrival, lingering in the reek, hardly shy in his preferences.
"There's a lot to be said for the outdoor life on a day like this," just casual chat, no harm in being friendly. "Do you know the forest well?"
"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."
"Right. I don't do much Shakespeare, I'm afraid, I prefer to read modern stuff."
Now he pivoted round, eyes burned up my petty views, hands flicked away the ashes. He pouted his lips and turned up a thin, straight nose. His opinion in sign language perhaps. There's no point getting shirty with tramps quoting classics but, of course, it's a pet topic of mine and I was drawn now.
"It's cool that you like him, but really! Shakespeare is an anachronism."
"Time is very slow for those who wait. Time is eternal." Each sibilant a studied hiss.
"Yeah right. In sports, in science, in everything measurable the best performances come from the modern age, but in classical art we keep hankering back centuries, but we really shouldn't. Judgement of his work is not literary analysis any more. It's just a personality cult, turning youngsters off literature by regurgitating irrelevant manuscripts on to them. There's so much good stuff written today that addresses the issues of our times. Any Pulitzer Prize book is a better read than a Shakespeare play. It's tragic that modern works aren't loved more dearly."
He scrabbled at his chin with soft hands. The beard was surprisingly well groomed considering the state of the trousers, clearly his had not been a rough life. Fallen on hard times recently, I suppose. Whatever his background, the boots which peeked out from under ragged trousers were those of a tramp: stained and worn, rough, patched, both ill-used and cherished. They had long roads behind them, no doubt, sights seen, yarns told. He had gangling limbs, profile of an adolescent stork against the back of the auditorium.
"You cannot call it love, for at your age the heyday in the blood is tame."
"OK. Sorry that I can't place your quotes. I still don't read Shakespeare. You should try Richard Powers' classic from couple of years back. Might make a change. I'm sure the library would have it."
He unfolded jerky legs and we stood up together, which caused Percy to jump up too and shake himself down hopefully. My new friend flexed his shoulders to warm up for the trek ahead of him, pushed a filthy hat to one side to scratch his head. Under it he was bald at the front, a gorse bush behind curled down to meet his shoulders. The eyes crinkled although moustache barely rippled, he raised an arm to the side of his head.
"Farewell." Then he turned and marched down the path we had come. I never saw a tramp who didn't march onwards with clear purpose. They lead busy lives.
I half shook a hand, rippled a wave towards his back.
"Farewell," I replied, "parting is such sweet sorrow."
Percy looked loth to let him go, puckered his nose to catch remnants of the rich stew that still flickered in the air, then he sighed and looked up at me. Stuck with the devil he knew. He wagged his tail in anticipation of new adventure, smells, rabbits and home. I waved his leash and grinned. Dog walking is definitely more fun now that I have an actual dog to join in.
"Come on then, last one home is a dead, white man," and we meandered off down the path, savouring the moments.
Pete lives on the shores of Lake Vänern in central Sweden. He spends his days in blue jeans looking after children, reading, writing and playing a little Bach on the guitar. He has been commended in many writing competitions, including LISP, Segora and New Millenium; and won a competition for Globe Soup. His work has appeared in numerous journals, notably Wells Street Journal, Strukturriss and Strands Magazine. He has also published a book of irreverent hiking anecdotes. On days off he hikes through Swedish skog, trying not to bump into moose. Again.
Short Fiction ~ Yvonne Clarke
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
I must have been about eight years old. Our new house overlooked the water meadows and beyond to the river. When they started building opposite us, we local kids were thrilled with the promise of new adventures. We used the exposed clay to make models, filling breeze-block shops with fingernail-sized fruit and cakes which we painted with modelling enamels stolen from my brother’s bedroom. House foundations became fishing boats; we walked the plank on builders’ ramps, imitated high-wire circus acts on pine floor joists and climbed Everest on the rudimentary walls. Upstairs was the bridge of a cruise ship. I wanted to be the ship’s captain, like my father. David, the boy next door, was the chief officer.
One evening, strange voices called us from the bridge. Had we been overrun by pirates? Did we have a mutiny on our hands?
The characteristic cat-piss smell of damp plaster merged with the stink of cigarette smoke. I felt like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, or Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as we stepped off the ladder onto the rudimentary upstairs floor, hearts pounding like waves on rocks.
Squinting through a fug of fag smoke we saw half a dozen youths perched like parrots on a pile of unlaid floorboards. They looked like the teddy boys who huddled together on street corners. Troublemakers, my dad always said. An amalgam of excitement and fear nailed us to the spot.
Peppering their sentences with profanities, they told us to sit down and asked us about our families. I didn’t know the meaning of their swear words, but I could tell they were bad. They asked about my dog who I had taken for a walk earlier that day. I relaxed. They must be OK if they like animals, I deduced with the naivety of a child, so I chattered animatedly about my yappy terrier, how my Dad had just taken him to the vet for an operation, how I wouldn’t see him until the next day.
They handed cigarettes to us. What good manners, I thought, although we handed them back. When it was our suppertime, they let us go, making us promise not to tell anyone about our meeting. The secret, like my guilt, remains with me to this day.
Everything of value was taken from my house that night, but what I remember most vividly was a half-eaten tin of Spam left on Mum’s prized dining table and the juices had eaten away at the varnish. Even if my dog hadn’t alerted us to the robbery he would have barked at the scent of Spam. What a coincidence, the police officer said, that our dog was not in the house that night.
The police told my parents they were still hunting for a gang who had escaped from a young offenders’ centre – they called it Borstal.
As soon as I could, I climbed the ladder again in the half-built house.
All that was left was a scattering of cigarette butts.
Yvonne has spent most of her life in the publishing industry, followed by teaching English as an Additional Language in secondary schools and 1:1 business English tutoring. She recently fell in love with the genre of flash fiction and short story writing and has had numerous pieces published online and in printed anthologies. She was a finalist in the 2019 London Independent Story Prize and won the Glittery Literary long short story prize Autumn 2021. She re-edits her work compulsively – old habits die hard!