Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition






  December 2019 Competition Winners are: - 




                                                                       First Prize:


                                          John Bunting of South Godstone


                           ‘Blue Plates and Red Funnels’



Second Prize:


 Christine Kelly of Harefield


   ‘A Bunch of Blue Ribbons’




      Third Prize: 


   Steven Holding of Northampton


                                       ‘Sea, Swallow Me’











          ‘Blue Plates and Red Funnels’




                                                                            John Bunting




At least the whole town doesn’t stink of rotting fish like it used to, thought Jack as he eased his way through the jostling bargain hunters.  Down in the harbour, where his ship had docked last night, the air was misty and chill, but up here in the busy market place the warm breeze was full of fruits and spices and the new hope that sunny spring weather brings.  But Jack’s heart had no room for new hope, only his old, gnawing anger.

He walked on to the older, shabbier part of town and turned into Trafford Road.  He was ten paces in before he realised something was wrong.  He stood there confused, wondering if his memory had tricked him, but then he saw the park entrance.  He crossed over to it.  The park opened out behind a terrace of local shops and ran down the hill towards the harbour.  Not far in was an ancient, battered metal bench facing out to sea.  An old woman was hunched into one end of it.  Despite the warm day, she wore a threadbare, woollen overcoat and a scarf wrapped round her head and neck.  She was slumped forward, asleep.  Jack made his way over and stood in front of her, studying her carefully.  Unsure, he sat down at the other end of the bench to wait.  A few minutes later, the old woman stirred and raised her head.  When she saw Jack, she stared at him for a long time.  “You came back at last.”

“It would seem so,” Jack whispered to the sea.  

“I always hoped you would one day.  I still put out my blue plates for you every tea.”

“I’d forgotten about them.” 

“How did you know I’d be in the park?”

“I gambled.  I knew you used to like it here.”

             "Where is he?" interrupted Jack sharply, turning to face the old woman.

“Who?  Oh, I see, he’s long gone.”  The old woman sighed.  “Dead, I mean.  A few months after you left.”

“Only a few months!” gasped Jack.  “How?  No, don’t turn away, tell me!”

 The old woman seemed to shrink deeper into her coat.  “He fell down two flights of stairs and broke his neck.  That’s what the neighbours told the police, anyway.  They said he was drunk and missed his footing in the dark.  The police knew him well; they didn’t ask many questions.”

“But what actually happened?”  Jack glared at the old woman, his anger surfacing.  “Did you push him?”

“I told you,” she said nervously, “the neighbours said he fell.”  She paused, then said, “Can I ask you a question now?”

Jack grimaced.  “If you must.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Why I wonder?  Let me see: Cockroaches in my bed, a filthy, condemned tenement with one cold water tap on each landing and an outside toilet three floors down shared with thirty other families.  Every little boy’s dream home.”  Jack laughed bitterly.  “Oh, yes, my father beat his wife.”  He leaned forward.  “Why did he do that?”

“The war had left him a troubled man.  He needed to hit someone.”

“But that’s not the reason, is it Mum?  We both know it was your f—”

“Don’t call me Mum!” interrupted old woman.  She leaned forward, suddenly jolted into showing some spirit.  “You don’t have the right any more.  My name is Jess.”  She jabbed a finger at Jack.  “I can understand why you left, got away from all that;  I think at the time part of me was glad.  But I’ve heard nothing from you for more than thirty years and now, when you finally decide to come back, all you do is sit there and blame me for what happened.”  She shook her head angrily.  “Well you’re wrong, it wasn’t my fault it was his.”

“Are you sure… Jess?” pressed Jack.  “What about you and all those men you ‘entertained’ while he was down the pub?  Every night a different one.  In his bed!  Isn’t that why he was so troubled, why he hit you?”

 “No,” shouted Jess, “that’s not right.  He made me go with those men to get money.  He was a vicious, lazy slob.  If I refused, and believe me I tried to many times, he hit me and threatened you.  I would have done anything, and I mean anything, to keep you safe.”

“Ah, come on.”  Jack spat out the words.  “A lot of people struggled after the war.  The women didn’t prostitute themselves, they found other ways to get by.  Be honest with yourself for once, you were a common tart!” 

“I was not!” insisted Jess, defending herself resolutely.  “It was him, I had no choice.  Those were hard times, Jack, you’ve no idea.  I don’t want to talk about them any more.”

“I bet you don’t, but you can’t just brush them aside.  I’ve never forgiv—” 

“Stop!”  Jess held her hands up as if to push back Jack’s anger.  “You were only a child.  It’s not your forgiveness I need now, it’s your understanding.” 

Jack waved his arms in frustration and sat back.  A ship’s foghorn echoed around the town; an eerie, lonely sound that reminded Jack of when he used to watch the ships from this very bench.

“You always loved the ships,” sighed Jess, catching his thought.  Jack said nothing, not wanting to change the subject, but Jess kept going.  “You were twelve when you ran away; was it on a ship?” 

Jack nodded reluctantly.  “We were three days out before they found me.  It was one of those with the two red funnels.  They put me to work in the galley peeling potatoes.  It was a good life; fresh air, a clean, dry bunk and more food than I’d ever seen before.”

“Where did it take you?”

“Everywhere.  Africa, India, all around the world several times.  I saw so much, experienced so much.  And I was lucky; I finished up in Canada marrying the Captain’s daughter.  We still live there.”

“That’s nice.  Do you have a family?”

“Two teenage girls.  They’re my life.”

Jess glanced at Jack thoughtfully.  “And I’m sure you’d do anything to keep them safe.”

“Of course I would.”  Jack saw the flicker of a smile cross Jess’s face.  “Oh…”

“That’s right,” said Jess quietly, “of course you would.”  She moved a little closer to Jack.  “And what about me?  During all these years, have you ever thought about me?”

“I’ve tried not to.”  Jack shuffled uncomfortably.  “No, that came out wrong.  What I mean is the memories of what you did still hurt.  I wondered if I saw you again they’d...”  He shook his head.  “But I’m not sure they will.”  

 “They still hurt me, Jack; a lot.”  Jess looked him in the eye, challenging him.  “But they can’t be undone however much we want them to be.”

“I know.  But it’s difficult.”  Jack hesitated, almost not wanting to ask his next question for fear of the answer.  “How… I mean, how have you been since then?”

“Me?  Oh, I’ve survived.  After… him… I moved to Manchester for a couple of years but there was no work.  So I came back here and took up with a trawlerman; Silas.”

“Did you love him?”

Jess shrugged.  “I was faithful if that’s what you’re getting at.  He was a decent man and I’ve not met many of them.  Most men are only after one thing, but Silas respected me.”  She paused.  “I was grateful to him for that.  He got me a job gutting fish as it came off the trawlers.  I worked at the fish factory until it closed down.  Do you remember it?”

“I do.  You could smell it from miles away.  Where do you live now?”

Jess pointed to the tower block behind them.  “When I came back from Manchester the tenement had gone and that was there.  The Council put me in a flat looking out over the harbour.  There wasn’t a waiting list for them then, this area was so run down not many wanted to live here, but I didn’t mind.  It had everything I could want in a home; central heating, inside toilet, gas cooker.  I still live there.”


“When the trawlers went elsewhere, Silas was too old to go with them.”  Jess shook her head sadly and wiped a cheek with her scarf.  “He never really got over it.  He died eight years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you, Jack?  Nothing you’ve said so far makes me think that.” 

“I’m sorry about Silas.  He gave you a better life.”

“You’re right,” nodded Jess, “he did.  Although it was still a hard one.”  She glanced at Jack.  “Does that mean you understand about… the other things?” 

Jack shrugged.  “Not yet.”

 “Stay a while.  Perhaps, in time, you might.”

“I can’t.  My ship leaves on the tide this evening.  We only docked for an engine part.”

“There’ll be other ships.”

“No,” laughed Jack, “now you don’t understand.  It’s my ship; I’m the Captain.”  On cue, the mist over the harbour lifted.  “And there she is!  The one with the two red funnels.”

Jess smiled.  “Of course, the two red funnels.  Will you come back again?” 

“Jess, my life is in Canada.”

“Do your family know about me?  About those times?”

“Not really.”

Jack stood up to return a wayward football, relieved to break the moment.  When he went back to the bench, Jess was gathering up her coat.  “I think I’ll be going,” she said.

“Oh, right.  Is that it?  Have we finished?”

“It’s for the best, Jack.  We’ve said some harsh things to each other and it doesn’t seem as if we’re ever going to make our peace.  You’ve got your life in Canada and I’ve got mine here.”  She held out her hand.  “Help me up, please.”  As Jack did so, for the first time he saw properly what Jess’s hard life had done to her.  Her hand, all of her, was paper skin and bird-bone.  Her back was bent, and she was worn, insubstantial; as if she was fading away.  And it was then Jack realised that whatever had happened in the past, for whatever reason, and however much he resented it, there was no point, no future, in being angry with her any more.  He had to try. 

“Jess, before you go, there’s something I want you to say to you.”

“What is it?” 

“I’m going to try to understand.  That you did what you had to do.  That it was his fault, the men and the beatings, not yours.  I promise I'll try"..  I don’t know, perhaps in time I might.”

It seemed then to Jack that Jess stood a little straighter.  She pushed her scarf down off her head, lifted her face to the sun, and took a slow, deep breath of fresh spring air.  “That’s all I ask,” she smiled, “that you try.  That’s all I ask.”  And as she turned to walk away, she reached out and touched Jack’s arm.  “I’m still going to put out my blue plates for you, just in case.”  Jack watched her as she crossed the street to the tower block.  When she reached the front door, she turned and shouted, “You can call me Mum.”

              As he made his way back to the harbour, Jack thought about what he and Jess had said to each other, and of how much more still needed to be if they were ever to be reconciled.  And of how their lives might have been so different if… but there were so many ‘ifs’.  Boarding his ship, he looked up the hill to the tower block.  He thought of Jess, his Mum, putting out her blue plates every tea and sitting by her window, watching and hoping.  “I’ll try to understand,” he whispered, “perhaps, in time, I might.  Watch out for two red funnels.”






                     ‘A Bunch of Blue Ribbons’




                                                                       Christine Kelly





At first they thought she was deaf. She had no shoes on, no bag and no means of identification. She had some bruises and an x-ray revealed a recently broken wrist. They estimated her age to be in her early eighties. They called her Rose, after the bushes where she was found.

            There was no sign of a recent head injury and hearing tests showed only a mild  loss consistent with age. She could follow instructions but did not speak and could not write because of the broken wrist. Even with her limited ability to answer questions, it became clear that she had no memory of where she lived or if she had any family. The doctors made a provisional diagnosis of early dementia, although a brain scan showed no major changes.

            There were no reports of a missing person matching her description and no response to her photograph in the newspapers; initially the local ones, then the nationals.

            There was talk of finding her a place in a residential home once her wounds had healed.

            One night, when Rose had been in the hospital for just over three weeks, Anne-Marie, the night nurse, heard a sound coming from her room. She opened the door and stopped short. She beckoned to one of the other nurses. “Listen.”

             Rose was singing in her sleep. Much to their surprise, Rose's voice had a soft country burr. The voice was gentle and lilting, as if she were singing a lullaby.

             “Oh dear, what can the matter be,

            Dear, dear what can the matter be,

             Oh dear what can the matter be,

             Johnny's so long at the fair.”

             Each night Rose continued to sing the same rhyme, adding a little more to it each time.

            “He promised to buy me a pair of blue stockings,

             A pair of new garters that cost him but twopence,

             He promised to bring me a bunch of blue ribbons,

             To tie up my bonny brown hair.”

             When she reached that point, she woke up suddenly and started to cry. Anne-Marie took her hand.

            “Rose, Rose. It's all right. It's just a dream. You were having a dream.”

            The singing continued night after night but the rhyme didn't progress any further. Each time Rose woke at the same point, visibly upset. She found it increasingly difficult to get back to sleep and, as the nights progressed, was becoming more and more distraught.

            Finally Dr Kinsea, a clinical psychologist, asked Rose if she would be willing to be put under hypnosis. He explained that hypnosis was not used to recover memories as such, but it could get Rose past the point where she was becoming distressed.

            The following day Rose was guided through a relaxation technique, descending a set of stairs in her mind, until she reached a place where she felt comfortable and safe.

            “Look down at your feet. What do you see?”

            There was a long pause.

            “Brown boots.” Brown came out as 'broon'.

            “Tell me about the ground beneath you feet?”

            “Cobbles. 'ard. And straw.”

            “What are you wearing?”

            “Sunday dress. Forget-me-nots.”

            “Look up. What do you see?”

            “An archway.”

            “What can you see through the archway?”

            Rose started to cry.

            “Take a step back. Look around. Is anyone with you?”

            Rose's sobs intensified so Dr Kinsea guided her back to a safe place in her mind until she woke and opened her eyes.

            The sessions continued and, each time, Rose stopped by the arch.

            “Is the arch standing by itself or is it in a wall?”

            “It's in a wall. Like Henry's fort.”

            “Who's Henry?”

            “Becca's boy.”

            Dr Kinsea had an idea. “What does Henry call you?”


            “Is that your name?”

            Rose smiled. “No, ya dalcop.”

            As the sessions continued, Dr Kinsea began to do some research. Tante was Yiddish for aunt and dalcop was an old English insult but he had guessed that by Rose's tone.

            Each time Dr Kinsea guided Rose to the place in her mind where the arch was, she became upset. Instead, he tried a different approach.

            “What makes you happy?”

            “Milking the cows.”

            “Where are the cows?”

            “In the barn.”

            “And where is the barn?”

            “On our farm.”

            “What is the name of your farm?”


            “Is that your family name?”

            Rose didn't answer.

            “Tell me about the cows.”

            “I sing to 'em.”

            “What do you sing?”

            Rose started to sing. “Oh dear what can the matter be...”

            She continued until she reached the line 'To tie up my bonny brown hair'. There was a brief pause and, this time, she continued.

            “Oh dear, what can the matter be,

            Dear, dear what can the matter be,

             Oh dear what can the matter be,

             Johnny's so long at the fair.

             He promised to bring me a basket of posies,

             A garland of lilies, a garland of roses,

             A little straw hat to set off the blue ribbons,

             That tie up my bonny brown hair.”

            As she reached the end of the line, there was a catch in her voice and she started to cry.

            “Why are you sad? Why does this song make you sad?”


            “Is Georgie from the rhyme?”

            This made Rose smile. “No, dalcop. He's the plough boy.”

            “Tell me something about Georgie.”

            “His hair be soft.” Rose put a hand up to her mouth. “He's gone. He's gone.”

            She was too upset to continue.

            At the next session Dr Kinsea tried to guide Rose back to the archway “You are on the cobbles. Wearing your Sunday dress. The one with the forget-me-nots. Do you remember?”

            Rose nodded.

            “Look around. What can you see?”

            “He's trundling a hoop.”

            ”Who is?”

            “A boy.”

            “Do you know the boy?”


            “Stand still. The boy with the hoop has gone by. What can you see?

            “The Coram.”

            “What is The Coram?”

            Rose's lip began to tremble. Dr Kinsea tried to distract her before she became too upset.

            “Does Henry have a hoop?”

            “Course 'im do. 'im made it from the barrel.”

            Dr Kinsea couldn't find any record of a building called The Coram. He did discover a Thomas Coram, a philanthropist who was the creative force behind The Foundling Hospital, a charitable institution in London that took in abandoned infants. Mothers often left a memento with their baby – an item of clothing or a ribbon for example, and had the option of returning for their child, if their circumstances changed for the better. An illustration of the building showed arches in a curved wall, rather like a fort. So this could be 'The Coram'. The only problem was that the hospital opened in 1741 and moved to the country in the 1920s. Could Rose have regressed to a past life?         

            At the weekly team meeting to discuss Rose's care, Dr Faraday, the consultant in charge of the unit, was of the opinion that Rose's brain was making memories to replace the ones that were missing and that Dr Kinsea's approach was a waste of resources.

            At their next session, Dr Kinsea gently tried to coax more information from Rose.

She was able to describe the farm in detail, from the milking parlour to the rolling hills beyond. Her face lit up when she talked about her beloved cows but any mention of

Georgie brought tears.

            Dr Kinsea came to the next team meeting with his research so far. He had an illustration of The Foundling Hospital and evidence of a Wybeard's Farm in Buckinghamshire in the 1700s. Dr Faraday was unimpressed.

            “This shows us nothing beyond a vivid imagination. This ends today. Your skills are needed elsewhere. Rose will be transferred into residential care. Next patient.”

            Anne-Marie would miss Rose. Although she did not talk, in her waking hours at least, she was always cheerful and responsive in her own way. The staff had been asked not to discuss with Rose what had been said in Dr Kinsea's sessions but Anne-Marie was sure that her past life, if that was what it was, held a clue to Rose's identity.

            It was a week before Rose's discharge from the hospital and she was in a fitful sleep. Anne-Marie sat beside her and pressed the music player on her phone. There was no music, just the sound effect of some cows on a farm. She left it playing as she went about her work.

            As Rose slept, she started to sing as before.

            “Oh dear, what can the matter be...”

            Anne-Marie whispered gently. “Tell me about the farm.”

            Silence. Anne-Marie had no idea how to hypnotise Rose, as Dr Kinsea had done, but she was hoping she could get through to her while she slept. She got nothing beyond the same nursery rhyme. She tried mentioning Georgie's name but Rose became distressed.

            Anne-Marie wondered if Georgie had made Rose false promises, like the boy in the rhyme. She imagined Rose in her past life, alone and pregnant, unable to support a baby and with only one course of action open to her, to leave her precious boy at The Foundling Hospital.

            Ann-Marie continued to play the sound of the cows night after night. When the week was almost up, she was faced with a dilemma; to continue and risk upsetting Rose further or to press on. She made her choice. As Rose was slept, Anne-Marie gently took her hand. “Why were you at The Coram?”

          Rose pulled her hand away. After a brief pause she held out her arms in front of her and rocked them back and forth. As she did so, she started to cry, gently at first, then deep sobs, becoming more and more frequent, until she was so distressed, she was gasping for breath.

            Rose was transferred to Critical Care. She was diagnosed with acute respiratory distress but doctors were puzzled about the cause. Anne-Marie said nothing. She went to see Rose after her shift. She was semi-conscious. Her breathing was laboured. Anne-Marie took her hand. “Rose, I'm so sorry.”  Anne-Marie started to cry. As she held Rose's hand, she felt Rose's fingers tighten around hers. Rose opened her eyes and looked at Anne-Marie, “Who be Rose?” Then she started singing.

            “Oh dear, see how he's running,

             Oh dear, see how he's coming,

             Dear dear, see how he's running,

            Johnny's returned from the fair.”

            Anne-Marie put her mouth close to Rose's ear. “Did he come back? Did Georgie come back?”

            Rose struggled to speak but was so weak, she was barely audible.

            Anne-Marie considered the implications of this. Georgie had not only betrayed her but had returned after she had given her baby up. She stroked Rose's hair. “Did he know? Did Georgie know about the baby?”

            Again Rose tried to speak. Anne-Marie gave her a sip of water. Rose lay back on the bed, exhausted, but with a smile on her face. “'im was the baby.”


            “Georgie was my baby.”  There was a pause. “I fetched 'im home.” 

            Now Anne-Marie understood. Rose had given up her baby when she thought his father had left her but had been able to reclaim him when he returned home. Their son Georgie had worked on the farm. He was the plough boy.

            Rose passed away in the night. Anne-Marie was with her and, as she took her last breath, Anne-Marie finished the song.

            “He bought me a delicate basket of posies,

             A garland of lilies, a garland of roses,

            A little straw hat to set off the blue ribbons,

            That tie up my bonny brown hair.”

            Rose's true identity was never known. Anne-Marie paid a visit to the Foundling Museum and did find a record of a baby George R. W. Admitted June 1761 from The Parish of Chalfont Saint Peter Buckinghamshire. Mother's name unknown. There was a note with the baby 'Let particulare care be takeen of this child'. Tied to his bonnet was a small blue ribbon.









                        ‘Sea, Swallow Me’




                                                               Steven Holding



 A deserted off-season beach. The bulging battleship grey sky hints at a storm that has yet to materialise but is still most definitely in the post. Kate leans stiffly into the wind, orange cagoule sleeves flapping angrily like a thirsty dog’s tongue. At the water’s edge, the moist ground sucks at her feet, determined to steal away her wellington boots.

             So many things are conspicuous in their absence. No straining multi-coloured kites, chasing their freedom upon the kiss of the breeze. No sluggish, chugging sand train, carving up the land with the zigzag of its tyre tracks; no sunbathers to wave, no happy passengers to wave back.

             No heavy hand entwined with hers; calloused fingers reassuring with a gentle squeeze, emery cloth palm spelling out a lifetime of toil in Braille.

             The crash of each breaking wave speaks the name of the brother that will follow, and in her heart, Kate is grateful for the flecks of saltwater the ocean spits into the creases of her face. Even though there is no one to bear witness, it is easier to deny the presence of any tears that may be hiding amongst the confusion of sweat and sea spray.

             Staring towards the wavering horizon, her mind begins to sing songs of the simplicity of release; a teasing nursery rhyme of how easy it would be to say goodbye. For a fleeting moment, the lullaby nearly works it magic.

             Until the roar of the water screams out a reminder of the infinite. 

  It is just enough of a warning to pull her back from the edge.

  Kate is unsure of when the past revealed its true nature to her. Maybe shortly after his passing, when remembrance seemed to be the only avenue left open. Now, she recognises memories for what they are. An ocean, just like the foaming beast before her. A thing of beauty to gaze upon yet possessed of treacherous depths. This epiphany arrived with such stealth that the actual moment of realisation seemed to slip by her unnoticed; a lingering sense of constant melancholy being the only clear indication that something of significance had ever even occurred.

            The violin shriek of gulls overhead is startling, and the overwhelming sadness that accompanies them feels cold and unforgiving, snatching away her breath. For a second, she considers returning to the beaten up old mini to see if the tartan thermos abandoned upon the backseat has anything warm left in it. A fleeting scene of sandwiches shared in the front whilst peering through steamed windows flickers through her mind. She knows that she cannot go back.

            She wraps her arms across her chest, bloodshot eyes screwed tightly shut, questions reverberating around her tightening skull. When does one event become the next? When does sunshine become sorrow?

  Foolish, of course, to expect any kind of an answer.

             As sight is forsaken for sound, the unbearable ache she feels consumes her. The image she has of him is so real, so powerful, that it feels almost tangible; the desire to be in his presence once again for one final time screaming directly from the depths of her very soul. 

  She knows that she would give anything, make any sacrifice, to have him back. To have it all back.

  Everything they ever shared. Each moment, second, minute. Every day and every year.

  Shivering now, she becomes acutely aware of her quickening pulse, counting off each beat as it throbs beneath her breast. One, two, three, four….

             There are no more. A stab of momentary terror melts into wonder and Kate knows in that frozen moment that magic has happened. 

            She dares to open her eyes, summons up enough courage to slowly turn around. The sight that greets her is miraculous, and like all answered prayers, incomprehensible. He is not just there.

             He is everywhere.

             Stretching the length of the entire beach, disappearing out of sight over the curve of the sand dunes. He is there as he was in his very last moments, he is there as he was when they very first met.  Young man shoulder to shoulder with old, happy next to sad, healthy holding the hand of the sick. A million of him, then a million more, just as she wanted, just as she wished for.

            As each one of them softly speaks her name, a multitude of whispers become a chorus from the heavens, deafening her with its beauty.

            Dear God, thinks Kate, he’s smiling.

             And finally, she can let go.




                          December 2019 Short List


                           Sam Szanto of Twickenham for Don’t Refuse Me

                    John Bunting of Godstone for Blue Plates and Red Funnels

                                     Ann Wardell of Long Buckby for Trust

                        David Vernon of Australia for Portholes in My Coffin

                    Christine Kelly of Harefield for A Bunch of Blue Ribbons

                        Steven Holding of Northampton for Sea, Swallow Me



                               December 2019 Long List


                                  Sam Szanto of Twickenham for Don’t Refuse Me

                         John Bunting of Godstone for Blue Plates and Red Funnels

                                       Ann Wardell of Long Buckby for Trust

                            Dombhnall O’Sullivan of Switzerland for Porter’s Rock

                              David Vernon of Australia for Portholes in My Coffin

                           Christine Kelly of Harefield for A Bunch of Blue Ribbons

                                 Kevin Chant of Worcester for Traveller’s Checks

                                        Belinda Weir of Lancaster for Stuffed

                           Steven Holding of Northampton for Sea, Swallow Me

                                         Alex Dawes of London for Priest Hole

                                       Alex Dawes of London for Yellow Jacket











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