December 2015 Competition winners are-
First Prize: Jeff Drummond of the Wirral for- ‘Here nor There’
Judges were unable to decide between second and third in this competition so Joint Second Prizes have been awarded.
To: Lucy Brighton of Leeds for ‘Travellers Rest’
To: Rachel Sargeant of Gloucester for ‘Cutting Through’
The Judges would like to thank all those who entered the competition for the high standard of writing submitted. This was the strongest of all our competitions.
Here Nor There
I lurk on the landing and peer over the banister. I feel the rush of a warm summer air enter the house through the open front door and watch as she flounces in.
My senses are displaced momentarily… the sound of her heels on the laminate floor and the vision of her navy-skirted suit undulate through my consciousness like waves stroking a beach… her jovial laugh and inconsequential prattle echo as a ball would rattle around in a pin-ball machine.
She has two people in tow… two more prospective buyers… and I wonder, not for the first time who will gain financially from the sale of my house.
The air settles and I see the young couple clearly. The girl is holding the man’s hand and smiling. And he - he is taking in everything - his nose quivers like a rodent sensing the morning air. Most people did that on entering… and those who did rarely stayed long.
I enter the loft through the broken trap door; I do not want to be around when the couple are shown the bedrooms. Some detect my scent and turn their snouts to the heavens. They ask what it is. Flouncy-pants as usual recites the same answer – the house has been empty too long - it needs the windows open to let in the fresh air. ‘Why is it so cheap?’ they ask – ‘the owner wants a quick sale,’ is the reply. The owner - that’s a laugh. I want to tell them I am the owner, but I can’t.
A few people have asked for a peek in the loft and the steps in the back bedroom make it easy for them. I wish the confounded things weren’t there. All ask why there is no trap door. I could tell them, but again, I can’t.
I listen from my hiding place behind the old water tank – a tank now empty since I had the combination boiler installed. I hear the steps being hauled into place and watch as heads stretch into the darkness like meerkats. But with no floorboards they never venture far inside. I imagine they are looking for any sign of light through the old slate roof. I would like them to explore further, but I want them to buy the house – not flee it like the crew of a sinking ship.
They leave, and once again the house and I are at one in solitude.
Time passes swiftly as I drift in and out of consciousness. I never go out – not any more. Sometimes I settle in the front bedroom and watch the world go by through a grubby bay window. I see neighbours washing their cars - children playing in the close. They never see me. I watch for hours – or is it days? I really don’t know. Time is like the drifting sand on the surface of a vast desert, random and rebellious.
The key turns in the front door and I once again wait for flouncy-pant’s spiel. But no heels perpetrate an attack on my weakening senses. Intrigued, I move out of the room and peer over the banister.
It’s hard to describe the thrill I feel at seeing the last happy couple who viewed the house. I have no fluttering heart… no belly to fill with butterflies. But I do have an urge… and overpowering desire to have someone to live with me, someone other than the deceitful whore I married. And I know if I do everything just right my wife will pay for what she did to me… and that scheming, back-stabbing mate of mine… he will get his comeuppance too. And to think he was my best man.
The couple are unescorted. The girl has a tape measure; the man strokes his chin thoughtfully.
‘We could turn one of the bedrooms into a music room,’ I hear him say. His words come to my ears distantly dream-like. My hearing has never been good since the fall.
Again I retreat to the attic. I don’t want my presence felt – not yet.
Again, time flies in the blink of an imaginary eye. I remain in my spot behind the tank and hear the sound of work in the rooms below. The trap door has been fixed but it is not a problem, I can still get out.
Sometimes, I watch the new owners sleeping in the back bedroom. The man always becomes restless in my presence. His eyes twitch rapidly, and I can only wonder what effect I am having on his dreams.
All of my furniture and possessions are gone – all the things that the bitch left behind and did not want. Now the house doesn’t feel like mine anymore. Now it belongs to Jamie and Emma.
The front bedroom where my treacherous wife and I made love is now Jamie’s beloved music room, and I watch with interest as he builds and plays his acoustic guitars. His voice is evocative, reminding me of so many good years. His music would bring a tear to my eye... if I had one.Emma is so pretty, she dances into the room like porcelain on air while he plays. She sings beautifully, and I watch the flame of love intertwine. But with it comes a pang of envy to my restless soul. They have what I should have had, but I bear no malice.
Sometimes he would stop working if I filled his space. I would see his nostrils flare and sniff the air... his face crinkling into repulsion. He would march out of the room and breathe in the air on the landing, then he would press his nose to the air vent set into the blocked up fireplace. But he would always return to stand in front of me - peering into my space.
Today, he spoke whilst taking delicate shavings off the stem of a new guitar. He stopped working and spun in his chair... eyes wide with puzzled trepidation.
'Hello again' He said
I desperately want to say ‘hello’ back, but my existence is merely an echo of my former self.
I move away. He follows.
We are on the landing now… below the trap door. I effortlessly rise and watch him turn through three-sixty… his nostrils flutter like paper on a breeze.
He slowly paces back to the bedroom.
My descent is swift. He stops. Once again he detects my presence.
‘What are you?’ I hear him say. Tramlines grace his forehead, his head lies to one side.
A hand passes through me and I momentarily loose consciousness.
“Are you a ghost? Whatever you are you smell really bad.”
Again he follows my stinking scent to the landing. I rise again… slowly this time. He lifts his head and I see his eyes narrow. The hairs on the back of his neck bristle. His short cropped hair stands to attention.
He bolts for the stairs. I want to shout. I want to follow him but I can’t go down to the ground floor. I have willed myself to do so on many an occasion but I never get any further than the half-landing… It is out of bounds… I don’t know why.
I retreat to my water tank disgruntled and frustrated. I was so close that time. They would leave now… No one wants to live in a haunted house.
Time drifts, and light penetrates the darkness of my sanctuary - one beam of light followed by another - both flashing randomly into nooks and crannies. Jamie places planks of wood across the joists and climbs in.
“This is ridiculous,” I hear Emma grumble, her head and shoulders over the rim of the hatch.
“You could well be right, Emma, but this is something I have to do. Something is up here – the recurring dreams I have of climbing up here and waking with a chill down my spine must mean something.”
“But they’re just dreams, Jamie. The more you think that the house is haunted the more you will dream about it. You just have to get it out of your mind!”
“No. It’s more than that. Today I could feel a presence. And it stank… boy it stank so bad. A presence was definitely there… localised… right at my side. If I moved away into fresh air it followed me. I’m amazed you can’t smell anything.”
She rested her arms on the rim of the hatch and giggled. “Are you sure you hadn’t just farted?”
“Ha-ha, very funny.”
I emerge from behind the tank and wait as the dust rises from the insulation crammed in between the joists as he places the planks randomly to serve as stepping points. I will him not to fall through the ceiling - he is so close now.
He reaches the tank and shines the beam into the dry and rusty interior. I move toward him. His head jerks upright.
“It’s here now, Emma!”
“I’m sorry, I can’t smell anything.”
“You won’t from there; you’ll have to come here!”
I see her pained expression. “I can’t, I’m scared of falling through the ceiling. And I’ve never smelt anything before so I’m not going to now. I’ve told you, it’s all in your head.”
Her words enter my consciousness like a virus, only serving to weaken my link to the other side. The side I would still be on if I hadn’t been pushed through the open trap door. I have tried so many times to make contact with her but I always fail to brake down the barrier. She just continues with what she is doing, oblivious to my plight.
I move closer to Jamie.
“Please, Emma. It’s here now, stronger than ever!”
She sighed. “Oh, all right.”
Now at his side she sniffs the air. “I can’t smell anything but a rusty old tank. You’re going nuts.”
She moved out of my presence and then stopped. “That’s odd.” She shone the beam of her torch against the chimney. “Look at this, the mortar is a different colour on this part. And it’s harder too; the rest is all crumbly and white. And look at the bricks at the bottom; they don’t continue down through the floor like the bits each side of it.”
My vision blurs as they move through me, and time shifts once again.
Many people are in the house now. The trap door to my sanctuary is open and a festoon of electric light fills every nook and cranny. Stepping stone planks have been replaced with large boards and I remain well away in the lowest of spaces in fear of losing my hook on the real world to yet another disturbance of my being.
Every brick removed from the fake chimney by men in white overalls evokes more memories… dreadful images of my demise from the hollow depths of my mind.
I see myself falling… reaching for purchase. The memory plays back in slow motion. My limbs flaying. The ladder toppling. The trap door ripping from its hinges. The blood running down my face from the impact with the banister.
I see my wife tower above me. Something in her hand. Something heavy… a lump hammer.
‘Oh, my God… it’s a wrapped up body!’ I don’t know who said it. My memory and consciousness shatter.
More people are in the house now. Their images are obscure… their clothes dark. I can just make out the shape of a hammer as it is placed into a bag and sealed up. Everyone is talking but I can’t make out what is said; words are as hollow as my mind.
The vision dissipates, and time takes me away once again. But this time my world turns white. Calmness overwhelms me and a vision of traumatised faces form within a milky haze… best man and wife silently implore for forgiveness. Then they are gone.
The white fades to grey and grey to black.
“You see, I told you I would take you to Mablethorpe in my car eventually didn’t I?”
Closing the door behind her, I climbed into the driver’s seat and adjusted the mirrors; it had become second nature. I took a final breath and turned the ignition. This was going to be a difficult journey.
I eased out of the drive with the expertise of a pro even though I had only been driving a few short weeks. My mum usually joked that I could have shares in the DVLA by now, but today she said nothing. Despite the bright blue sky, the temperature in the car was cold; I turned up the heat and waited for the old fan to churn into action. The car had been a bargain. It had been one of the happiest days of my life when I handed over the £400 in an array of notes and received the keys. Despite being my hardest earned possession, it didn’t afford many luxuries such as heating or electric windows. In fact, one of the windows didn’t open at all. It didn’t matter. I smiled in her direction.
“We are on our way.”
I looked over at her, “Shall we put the radio on? It’s going to be a long drive?”
She didn’t mind the hours of tedium; Mablethorpe was her favourite place in the world. We had spent every year holidaying in the small seaside town for as long as I could remember and every year the journey had been traumatic to say the least. It started with a dilapidated train to Sheffield, followed by a connecting train to Skegness and finally a long, claustrophobic bus journey to Mablethorpe. I think I started learning to drive just so I wouldn’t have to endure that trip every June. If she could keep positive about that long haul, then I knew a few hours in the relative comfort of the car wouldn’t faze her.
Once we were on the motorway, the scenery changed from the picturesque views of our little village to the dull grey tarmac which stretched out endlessly in front of us. The motorway would take us almost all of the way there. I swallowed hard at the thought of arriving, at seeing the sea with its myriad of colours: sea life and undercurrents. A slide show of memories at that beach played in my mind. I could see myself a child again jumping over the waves and squealing with excitement. The old tin bucket abandoned next to a carefully constructed sand castle, a flag protruding proudly from the top. I could almost taste the salt water and the ever present crunch of sand.
Ring Ring. Wrenched from my memories, I blinked several times and focused on the phone in the holder affixed to the window. ‘Jake’ was blazoned on the screen. I could feel her eyes looking disapprovingly at me. Keeping my eyes focused on the road, I tried to pretend it wasn’t ringing as a scarlet rash spread from my chest to my cheeks. My knuckles whitened and I pressed a little firmer on the accelerator.
I knew I was an idiot for going back out with him and I didn’t need her telling me that. I didn’t need a lecture or it spelling out to me. I was a grown woman, I told myself. That’s why I had kept it a secret, not because I wanted to deceive her. Well there were no more secrets now.
“Look mum,” I began, “It’s complicated, ok. What happened with him and that Karen was a mistake. And you know it was really more her than him. I mean she practically stalked him.”
I knew I was sounding more and more ridiculous with every passing second. My voice had risen to a shrill pitch, almost a shriek. She wouldn’t buy that, not a chance and, truth be told, neither did I.
I hated to disappoint her. Like a lot of people, I had always sought my mother’s approval. And, for the most part, I’d had it: I’d done well at school; achieved good A levels; almost finished my degree and I had even managed to pass the elusive driving test. But Jake was a different story. He had always been a bone of contention between us.
‘He is too old for you’ she would say, ‘not good enough’.
I could feel tears starting to well in the corners of my eyes. I wished she would say something. I wished she would tell me that everything would be ok and that seeing him again wasn’t a terrible lapse in judgement. She didn’t. There was only silence.
I blinked hard in an attempt to keep the tears from escaping down my face. This was silly; I was an adult and I could date whoever I wanted. It was my life and I had to make my own decisions now. Trying to break the silence, I started to sing along to the tinny sounding song on the radio. Immediately, I felt a pang of guilt; the quiet was more appropriate.
Finally, after just over two hours, we approached the car park at the seafront near ‘our’ ice cream shop. We had always come to this ice cream shop as the first port of call on our holidays. At home, our entire staircase was covered with pictures of me at varying ages clutching the remnants of half-eaten ice creams outside this very shop. It stood alone on the seafront and the old, metal sign creaked precariously above the door.
I manoeuvred into a parking space, checking my mirrors diligently. It wasn’t really necessary as the car park was deserted save one lonely car. As I clambered out of the car, I felt the tension start to dissipate from my shoulders. The expanse of sky and sea that greeted my eyes was a welcome relief. I breathed deeply letting the air expand my lungs as far as they would go. Stretching out my arms to the sky, I felt acutely alive. My senses were alert and the smell of the doughnuts from the ice cream shop mixed with the sea salt was intoxicating.
“We’re here mum!”
The corners of my mouth twitched and instinctively my hand flew to my mouth as if keeping something trapped inside. Mablethorpe was still half asleep at this time of year; it would be another month or so before it roared into life. I was glad to have ‘our’ ice cream shop and ‘our’ spot on the beach to ourselves. And I knew my mum would be too. She didn’t really like it when throngs of people migrated to the beach on hot days and littered the sands with pop cans and discarded bread crusts. That’s why we usually came in June, before the schools broke up for the summer and a tirade of holiday makers invaded the town.
Luckily, the ice cream shop wasn’t perturbed by the empty beach and remained open all year round. The old shop keeper had once told my mum that they did a little bit of catering for parties which kept them going out of season. She would always spend a while chatting to him; by the time she returned with the ice creams, they had already started to run down the sides of the cone. When I was young, it used to annoy me and I would say she could ‘talk the hind leg off a donkey’. I mulled that phrase over in my mind for a moment before I opened the door to the shop. I turned to tell her what a funny old phrase it was but stopped. Maybe this wasn’t the time.
Hearing the familiar chime of the door, I stepped into the compact shop. The whole of the counter was a big fridge displaying an array of coloured ice creams.
“Hi there Georgia,” the proprietor smiled a toothless grin. My mum always said it was probably too much ice cream that had rotted his teeth. I smiled at the thought as I perused the offerings.
“A little early in the year for you isn’t it? Usually June?” I nodded without taking my eyes off the ice cream.
“I’ve just passed my test.” I replied, polite but not wanting to engage him much in further conversation.
It didn’t take me long to choose mum’s; she always had the same: chocolate orange with chocolate chips. I was a little more adventurous.
“Hmmmm, what is that one?” I pointed at a beige coloured ice cream with brown chunks in.
“It’s rum and raisin, new this year that one.”
I could almost taste it in my mouth. I was suddenly aware of how hungry I was. I couldn’t really remember the last time I had eaten.
“I’ll have that one.”
“Right you are.” He scooped the ice cream and held it out to me offering me a final gummy smile as I turned to the door.
I took the ice cream out to the beach where I had left mum and my bag. I sat and looked at the sea, licking my ice cream with relish. It was calm; I was glad about that. Hanging low in the sky, the sun cast a watery light over the beach. The sea and the sand looked almost silver. Serene. Casting my eyes in both directions, the only other soul I spotted on the sand was the silhouette of a lone dog walker throwing a stick for a dog almost half the size of the man. “I wonder who is taking who for a walk?” I joked. The powder blue sky stretched out infinitely with only the occasional cloud to punctuate it. If it wasn’t so chilly, I could almost imagine it was a summer’s day. I pictured 21 happy holidays in my mind one after the other and smiled.
Eventually, after elongating the process, I finished my ice cream and turned to my mum,
“Are you ready?”
Carefully, I rolled up my trouser legs and took off my shoes and socks. I left them abandoned beside the shop. It was tradition that we always dipped our toes in the sea. My toes almost curled at the thought of it; I imagined the shock from the icy water and shuddered. I padded along the sand until I reached the water’s edge. Wet sand clung to my feet and felt like soggy Weetabix between my toes. Reaching out one foot tentatively towards the water, I wrapped my arms carefully around my precious cargo. I didn’t want to let go. I let out an audible gasp as my foot made contact with the glacial sea. Cold ricocheted up my body like a lightning bolt. I wondered if perhaps today wasn’t the right day; I thought maybe it was too cold. Even the tears tracing the contours of my face felt frozen.
I was just putting it off. The feeling of the hard metal in my hands was the only warmth I had left. With numb lips, I kissed the top of it. There was nowhere else she would rather be; I knew that. Slowly, I opened the urn and started to let her ashes fall into the murky water.
“I told you I would take you to Mablethorpe in my car eventually didn’t I?”
I whispered. I felt her voice in the wind,
“I never doubted you”.
Like homemade soup, the pool steams on a September morning. Michael could do with the water being cooler for training, but he never tires of the honey warmth growing up his thighs and on to his hips and chest as he lowers himself through the mist.
Out of the corner of his eye, he senses someone in the next lane looking at him. Although he’s used to it, it rattles him. The other swimmer must be new. How many sessions will it be before he stops gawping. He dips under the water and swims away, hoping the guy will go back to his own training.
He completes a warm-up and is soon in his stride. He’s home. Gone are all the knots that bug him: the nosey bloke in the next lane, the imminent pool closure, the stupid Sharks Squad idea. All gone, ebbed away. He presses on faster and becomes a human piston, tilting his elbows higher and piercing the water in front of him with the side of his hand. People talk about swimmers ploughing up the lane. He tills it, creating furrows of bow waves with his front crawl. As his arms sweep below his body in a lazy “s”, he can feel the lift of the water against his hands like air against wings. It isn’t just his own strength pushing him through; the water is working with him, carrying him forwards. Water is simple. If you slice it right, spear it like a javelin, it buoys you onwards. But if you slap it, it slaps you. Water doesn’t discriminate in any other way.
He lunges at the wall and pulls himself up to check the clock. He’s inside his personal best for 500metres, but it’s half his usual distance so no big deal. His shoulders and chest, warm from the exertion, prickle; the guy in the next lane has stopped swimming too.
Michael drops under the water and holds his breath. When he surfaces, the man - a boy really - is swimming up the lane. He’s lifting his head too high when he breathes but otherwise he’s doing a decent stroke. He’s a cut above the weekend wasters who usually bother Michael. If it hadn’t been for Sarah, he would have long since binned the Sunday sessions. Too many louts in cut off denim wanting to act the moron with him. But Sarah made him face them, take them on. "They’re all the same. Water slappers, the lot of them. Heads out of the water, tossing from side to side." They never stand a chance against Michael’s sleek lines. The same yob never tries it twice.
He used to say competitive swimming wasn’t for him. And yet those petty victories gave him a taste for it. The elation of hitting that end wall and then, eyes still thundering with blood and adrenaline, managing to make out that no other swimmer has hit it ahead of him.
A thought squirms through his body and his stroke loses its rhythm. Why did they have to ask him to coach the Sharks Squad? Haven’t there been enough breakthroughs in his life? Coaching would mean being on poolside. He told them straight he doesn’t coach. How can he?
He tips back his goggles and looks at the sky. The sun is stirring behind the clouds. Autumn won’t last beyond the morning; summer still owns the rest of the day. Why is the council closing this outdoor pool at the end of the week? He’ll have to go back to swimming in the indoor “drain”. The access is diabolical; the letter of the law not the spirit and it’s only a twenty-five metre pool.
That first winter he started swimming, he told Dad he wanted to give up until spring. He’d never master all the turns in such a short pool. Whenever he banged into the wall, the pain jabbed through his thighs and lasted for days. And the car park was too far away. The jagged air froze his hair before he got back to it. His dad’s response was simple: he gave him a woollen hat, and as for the turns, well…
He takes the length on his back, the continuous motion of his arms folding the water under him and propelling him onwards. At the end he twists to his front without slowing down, dips at the hip and emerges on his back to start the next length: the perfect tumble turn.
Sarah and the kids will miss the outdoor pool, too. They’ve had a great summer. The twins can manage a width now and Danny is out of arm-floats.
Michael was seventeen before he started swimming. One of Dad’s ideas, thrown up in desperation like all the other suggestions at that time.
“It’s time you got off your backside.”
He hated his dad then. How could someone who claimed to love him be so cruel? The first time, when he hit the water, his trunk sank to the bottom, dragging his head under. He came up coughing and retching. He wanted to make Dad sorry. He’d expected too much. But Dad stood there - watching him flail and claw - with his arms folded and face like glass, making no attempt to get him out.
Lads weren’t supposed to cry, not even lads like him. He’d lived, hadn’t he? What about the other two? So much for the “joy” of joy riding.
So he started swimming three times a week, not just the special session but public lane time too. Length after length he swam and length after length he bawled his eyes out. Everyone thought he’d found himself with his new hobby, but he just came to blub into chlorine.
He flips on to his front and throws his arms over his head. His hands push hard through the water, forming a keyhole shape below him. With a monumental effort, he throws his arms over the water again. Despite his upper body strength, butterfly always hammers him; no leg power for the shoulder lift. He said once he’d never manage it but he’s up to eight lengths now.
It was the same when he met Sarah. She asked him to be her training partner but he told her no. He didn’t train. How could he? But she kept on asking. And so lap on lap, her breaststroke paced by his crawl. She suggested coffee in the pool canteen, later the ground floor wine bar in town. And he mentioned dinner.
He tucks in his chin and hefts his arms clear of the water for the last thrust to the end. Years of practice have perfected his timing and his hands land lightly on the wall. He pushes his arms away in an arc through the air, forcing his body on to his back. He sets off slowly down the lane, moving both arms together over his head.
He’s relaxing into the cool-down when the lad in the next lane bobs up. Here we go. His shoulders stiffen, causing his arms to flatten. Even after all these years, whenever someone starts, he finds his skin tightening until it feels too small for him.
“I was wondering…” says the boy.
Michael takes a deep breath. That old chestnut I was wondering… How many times has it kicked off with that?
“I was wondering if you’d look at my crawl. Tell me what I need to do.”
The boy hasn’t realised. He’s just seen him speeding through the water like any other swimmer. Michael tells him about not lifting his chin to breathe.
The boy sets off and, following Michael’s instructions, keeps his head down on the water. His stroke improves and he completes the length at speed. Michael suggests some front crawl drills.
“Cheers,” the boy pants afterwards. “You’re a great coach.”
Coach? For a moment Michael feels like keeping up the pretence that the boy has assumed, but he waves to the lifeguard, pushes himself up and twists round to sit on the poolside. He stares down at the other swimmer, waiting for the look of revulsion to cross his face.
But the boy says, “I’ll get it for you.”
He hauls himself out of the water. He pushes his good foot to the ground and stands up, his arms outstretched to keep his balance. He limps to the lifeguard, dragging his withered leg, and returns, pushing Michael’s wheelchair, letting it support his weight.
“I’m in Sharks by the way. We’re looking for someone. So what do you reckon?”