December 2023 

competition results


First Prize

Limbo by Chrissy Peluola, Birmingham, UK


Second Prize
Bip by Duncan Gould, Twickenham, UK


Third Prize
Nipples, Coils and Compost by Andy Stew, Saltash, UK

The three stories will soon be added below! Enjoy!


The December 2023 Shortlist


Some New North by Peter Hanly, Ireland

Bip by Duncan Gould, Twickenham, UK

Nipples, Coils and Compost by Andy Stew, Saltash, UK

One Careful Owner by Sheila Gove, Sidmouth, UK

Us and Them by Neil Humphrey, Somerset, UK

Limbo by Chrissy Peluola, Birmingham, UK

Man's Best Friend by Julian Cadman, Lymington, UK


The December 2023 Longlist


Bip by Duncan Gould, Twickenham, UK

Hat, Coat, Gloves and matching Handbag by Erica Matlow, Staines upon Thames, UK

Limbo by Chrissy Peluola, Birmingham, UK

Man's Best Friend by Julian Cadman, Lymington, UK

Nipples, Coils and Compost by Andy Stew, Saltash, UK

One Careful Owner by Sheila Gove, Sidmouth, UK

Revivification by Dianne Bown-Wilson, Exeter, UK

Some New North by Peter Hanly, Ireland

Strangers in the Night by Kerri Simpson, Tyne and Wear, UK

The Little Girl and the Parsley by Desun Ryu, Bristol, UK

Us and Them by Neil Humphrey, Somerset, UK

What's In a Name by Jill Forrest, Dorchester, UK


Limbo by Chrissy Peluola 


Ben didn’t think he had done anything wrong, but it seemed like his body did. Something his nerves knew. It had been nine years, and the pacing of his heart could still override his sleep.


The first time, the fiftieth time, it didn’t seem to matter.


“When the baby comes out, they won’t be breathing,” Ben warned the new doctor who was shadowing him. They were both wearing blue scrubs. It was three in the afternoon and Ben’s scrubs were streaked with the dark smears of previous deliveries. He checked the new doctor’s badge for a second time, reminding himself of her name: Mariella. They waited under the operating theatre’s stage-lighting, minding the trolley they would use to resuscitate the baby. Despite her freckles, Mariella looked like Ben a few months ago, too much white around her pupils, neck muscles straining against pale skin, there was a tautness to her.


One of Mariella’s long black hairs had curled into a spiral on the white towels of the trolley. A heater hung over the trolley and warmed the towels. Ben held his latex-blue hands under it, feeling the heat gradually spread over his gloved knuckles. He always worried he would lift the newborn too high against the burning filaments of the trolley’s heater. Did it take a certain kind of person or a certain kind of training to tolerate this, he wondered. Could you train soldiers out of PTSD?


 “Why does she have to be knocked out?” asked Mariella, eyeing the very pregnant woman on the angled bed in the middle of the room.


The woman warily cradled her tummy with slim arms as the theatre staff milled around her. Her thin hospital gown tented over her swollen belly, pulling tight enough to mark out her belly button.


“She had a bad reaction to some of the drugs in the past, so she can’t have an epidural to numb the area,” Ben told the new doctor.


The mother ran her hands over the thick plait of hair running over her shoulder.


“Is that why the baby’s dad isn’t here?” asked Mariella, watching the mother’s every move.


“No relatives allowed when the mother is unconscious,” said a young midwife, who was lining a see-through cot with a roll of blue paper, smoothing it over the edges of the basin. Ben debated whether to tell Mariella that they usually only knocked the mother out in emergencies. The kind where the baby was going to die or get brain damage in the time it took to get an epidural in. Today the planned Caesarean section should be good preparation for Mariella, decided Ben, she could learn what to do when it wasn’t an emergency. Once Mariella had been supervised at four deliveries, she would need to handle things alone. Backup would be a phone call and two storeys away.


 It was Ben’s second year of working as a doctor. He had seen more emergencies than he would have liked on this placement, always at night, when every alarm on the ward was whirring. Within a minute, the labouring patient had their bed rails rammed into place. There was no waiting for porters to come. With four sets of hands on the bed frame, the mother would be launched up the corridors at a run, with the team trying not to smack the bed or the mother’s legs on their course. There were sets of double doors, corners and fire extinguishers to haul stiff wheels round.

Whilst the labour ward surgeons scrubbed their hands over wide metallic sinks, the baby doctor controlled what they could control: the arrangement of the towels, the pressures on the face mask, the height of the trolley. With the mother’s prayers silenced by anaesthetic, the baby doctor and the midwife would be the ones willing the baby to life. The job of a baby doctor was to stand vigil as the unborn’s oxygen levels trickled downwards, resisting the tension as the seconds ran into minutes. Their turn would come.


A lifeless baby wasn’t like a rag doll. Their arms were too substantial, with their skin pulled firm over the nook of the elbow. At once, too solid and too floppy. Mariella and the other new doctors didn’t know that yet, but they would soon. Then perhaps they would find, as Ben had, that the thought of mint-green corridors would drive their heartbeat surging into their ears.

“The drugs the mum gets, the baby gets too, so the baby will be knocked out at first,” Ben explained.


“Knocked out knocked out?” asked Mariella.


“The anaesthetic should only last a minute or two, but we need to breathe for the baby until they are breathing for themselves,” said Ben.


The Caesarean was progressing fast. Blue curtains were dropped around the firm mound of the patient’s tummy. Over this, polythene covered every surface of the mother. Two surgeons either side, faceless in masks and caps steadily exposed the womb as rivulets of blood trickled into the covers’ gutters.


The surgeons had made a hole in the womb. On either side, they pushed two bent fingers in and leant back with their full weight, stretching open an entrance. Mariella couldn’t keep the alarm off her face. The theatre staff leaned back on their heels, disinterested.


“Are you okay to give the baby the breaths once the baby’s out?” asked Ben.


Giving a nod, Marielle pulled her gloves taught against her fingers.


Sliding a hand into the womb’s entrance, the surgeon cupped a hand under the baby’s face and eased it out. Gripping the baby’s blood-matted face, the surgeon wrangled a small shoulder and arm free. Small gushes of clear liquid emptied out the womb after each part of the baby. There was no waiting now. The gelatine cord was split in a single cut, releasing a spurt of blood that rolled over the mother. Within seconds the baby was being sped across the theatre in the cot towards them.


Ben didn’t like the way the baby lolled in the hard plastic cot, arms flopping out straight, no bend. As he lifted the bowed back and tiny legs onto the trolley, he reminded himself that babies were always floppy at first with a general anaesthetic.


“This is normal,” said Ben firmly.


Using towels that had been laundered coarse, they quickly rubbed the baby clean of the gunk that caked each fold, over the chest, the soft belly, the creases of the eyes, the roll of the arms, the sticky helmet of fine damp hair. There was no cry, no gasp, no fluttering of the chest.


“The baby’s not breathing. Time to start the breaths,” said Ben.


With two shaky hands, Mariella cocooned the baby’s face with the rubber mask, counting the breaths that Ben gave with a mouthed one-two-three.


The baby’s skin was faintly yellow in the trolley’s beam. When Mariella lifted the mask, it left a white rim of pressure around the mouth. There was no response from the baby.


“And again,” said Ben, noticing that the baby’s arm stayed where it fell, no bend, no flex.


On the monitor, the baby had no heartbeat. Ben’s eyes kept flicking back to the monitor, but there was no beep and no wave. The monitor wasn’t detecting a pulse. This wasn’t supposed to happen. General anaesthetic wasn’t supposed to do this.


Pushing the end of his stethoscope onto the baby’s small chest, he listened.  Under the harsh whoosh of air forcing its way, the faint tapping of a heart was just audible. It was beating too slowly. Mariella was frozen in concentration, gripping the mask to the baby’s face. After five long breaths, the newborn hadn’t roused himself.


The monitor still wasn’t detecting much of a heartbeat. Ben lifted the baby’s arm and let it drop, noting its limp fall. He could feel his own heartbeat pounding through his chest now.


“Is this normal?” asked Mariella, her eyes wide with fear. Ben didn’t reply. The baby’s skin looked pale, but his eyelids were dusky. The sensor was only recording intermittently. Airway, breathing, heart rate, Ben recited to himself, focusing on the steady rhythm of breaths he was giving to the baby. The midwife continued rubbing each limb, tousling energy into them. The monitor was starting to detect a heartrate- lethargic beats that were far too slow.  Panic reared in Ben, as his grip on control slipped away.

Steeling his tone, Ben suggested he take over holding the mask now. He felt the squishy plastic in his grip and pressed it to the baby’s face.

Turning to one of the theatre staff he said, ‘Bleep my registrar. Please.’

The theatre team had started to realise that something bad was unfolding on the baby trolley. Staff edged closer, craning their necks to see beyond the huddle that surrounded the baby. Across the room, the unconscious mother dredged through darkness as they struggled to keep her baby this side of life. A few corridors away, the new father waited, checking the football scores on his phone.


Sweat beaded at Ben’s temples in the waves of heat radiating from the trolley’s heater. The midwife stood at his shoulder; her skin glowing in the gleam of the red-hot filaments.


“Have either of you ever given chest compressions to a baby before?” Ben asked, clamping the mask against the baby’s cheeks.


“No,” said the midwife.


“Only on a doll,” said Mariella.


Ben hoped his senior would be fast.


Despite the breaths, the oxygen levels weren’t improving. The heartrate was still low.


“Time to start chest compressions,” he nodded at the midwife, “I’ll keep the breaths going.”






Taking two fingers like a gun, the midwife jabbed them into the middle of the baby’s chest. The chest plunged and rebounded with each thrust. The midwife’s braids sprung around as her head rocked with each jab, eyes intent on the centre of the small chest. She looked at Ben. He nodded in response. Ben kept looking to the doors, hoping to see his senior walk through them. The baby’s eyelids glanced backwards to reveal glassy unseeing eyes. No-one is coming to save you, he realised.


Ben turned up the pressure on his mask and started giving more forceful breaths. Again and again, they pushed air in and let it flow out. He listened again to the heart’s faltering patter. Adjusting the face mask, he squeezed the baby’s jaw towards it, feeling the firm resistance of the baby’s cheeks and mouth under his hands.


“Any minute now,” he told Mariella.


There was one thing he hadn’t tried yet.


“Can someone pass me the laryngoscope?” he asked.


“What does it look like?” asked Mariella.


Ben tried to describe the laryngoscope’s metal handle and the long-curved edge, whilst he gripped the mask. The midwife threw the drawer of the trolley open and rummaged through. Using the sleeve of his top, Ben wiped the sweat trickling into his eye. Standing upright again, the midwife held an instrument aloft that looked like a curved metal claw. 


With a shaking hand, Ben removed the face mask, slipped the curved edge of the laryngoscope over the baby’s tongue, and pulled the jaw upwards to see the vocal cords. The dark tunnel of the baby’s throat was frothy with bubbles. As he tried to suction the bubbles out, the baby started to gag. The gag turned into a cough and then a weak cry. Startled hopeful, Ben pulled the laryngoscope out and watched. The midwife rubbed the baby with towels, urging him on. The mother slept on in her narcotic void. As the three of them hung over the baby, his fists started to clutch at his palms and his chubby knees drew in towards his belly. The baby’s cries became more forceful, as his face scrunched and reddened. Ben’s legs trembled as relief and adrenaline washed over him.


He couldn’t wait for this rotation to be over.



Bip by Duncan Gould 




Sometimes Evie actually wished someone would try and steal something, just to liven up the day.




These quiet shifts, with too many well-behaved, middle class customers… That was the problem…




…with these damn self service check-outs…




Which she had to stand at the end of, ready to help…




…when someone had a problem, or couldn’t figure out how to use the machines…




Which was often…




Or when they tried to put a bloody out of date coupon through and she had to let them anyway just to keep the peace…




Which was often…




But…it was kind of handy being able to drift off into your thoughts.


Depending what your thoughts were, of course. Because they weren’t particularly pleasant ones for Evie today.  Her boyfriend Jack had broken up with her after six short weeks, when things had seemed to be going so well. That meant Evie, just twenty-one, was standing at the end of a row of self-service supermarket check-out machines - and finding herself unable to stop deeply dwelling on why Jack had broken up with her so… 






In fact work today - a really quiet shift - was a nightmare for Evie…




It was hours of time in her own head going over and over what she thought she could have done to stop him finishing with her…




…if anything would have worked...




…if anything could have stopped it…


“-Excuse me.”


Bang. Out of her thoughts and in an instant Evie went over to the self service checkout where the till of a slightly irate woman needed proof she was over twenty-one.


“I’ve been flashing my light for ages, asking for help.”


“I know the feeling…” thought Evie.




“I’m so sorry,” was what she said, and then, in an inspired moment: “Can I see some ID?”


The thirty something year old customer’s face melted like a calving iceberg.


“Really? Oh you are silly. I’m nearly 40.”


But it still made the woman’s day, of course. It worked every time - with some people at least. It was in fact Evie’s adroitness with diffusing customers and situations like these that had got her so many of these shifts, on the self service checkouts.  After all, everyone else hated them. But Evie was good at them, and she didn’t mind until now. Until Jack. And the break up…




Like what did he mean when he said that thing about her skin not long before they broke up? They were in her parents bathroom, naked, post coital, Adam and Eve after the apple - a rare opportunity as her parents were out. Her parents’ en suite had one of those tri-fold mirrors above the basin where you could look at yourself from three directions, and she had been looking at her face - largely unmade up, due to the activity which had just preceded it - when she had caught sight of Jack’s face looking at her in the right hand side of the tri-fold mirror. And as Jack had looked at her early twenty something, still slightly spot ravaged, skin, he had actually looked momentarily repulsed, she had thought. Her heart had quickened. Had he really not seen her out of makeup before? A nervous smile flickered over her face. Surely that couldn’t be an issue now - after what they had just done, just repeatedly, vigorously and gloriously… done?


But he had then said something about a spot cream that worked for him.
















What is it about men and advice?  Is it an instinctive - irritating - compulsion? The deep seated need to give unwanted advice? Evie wondered if men would have rushed up to Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination with a tip about a reasonably priced undertaker? Or would they have recommended an excellent rubbish clearance company after the Hindenburg disaster? Or a good lifeboat manufacturer just as they pulled the Titanic survivors out onto the SS Carpathia?


But either way, yes, Jack had looked at her and recommended a spot cream - and she had felt things had been different after that.


“Excuse me.”


Evie jumped half out of her (perfect) skin and dashed over to help another hapless customer pre-weigh his shopping bag.  Whoever invented these self service counters should be forced to do this role - watching over them - for eternity, Evie thought.  One hair on the scales and everything was the wrong weight. God, she hated that inventor almost as much as she hated Jack right now.




But could Jack really be that shallow? Surely there had to be something else? No one could be that intimate, that enraptured, that emotionally and physically conjoined one moment - and repulsed by a spot the next, could they? Ugly sexist thoughts slid round her mind like coiled snakes, suggesting that yes, indeed, he could be that shallow, that his attraction could be as transient as an outbreak of acne.


But surely that meant it wasn’t really a good relation…


“-Excuse me…”


Bloody Hell!  What is it about people and these self service tills!  It’s like an eight hour shift of trying to show your grandparents how to work their phones! How do these people get through a day without help!!


“Can I help you, Sir?”


“I hope so. It’s the voucher I have.”


The devil stirred deep within Evie’s bones. She couldn’t, could she?


“Can I take a look, Sir?” she said in an icy tone.


Dark thoughts stirred. Was it because he was male? From the tribe of Jack? A fellow penis bearer? Is that why, instead of the usual soft soap waffle, she gave him:


“I’m afraid it’s out of date, Sir. See?  It ran out last month. It’s very clearly marked.”


There!  Take that for the sisterhood you spot-criticiser!  Take that from the female fraternity for being a fellow penis wrangler!  Take your crappy coupon back to Jack and stuff it in his acne infested face!!


“Will there be anything else, Sir?”


A little crestfallen, the be-suited and booted man, over fifty, polite, educated, returned the 10p coupon to his pocket - to try at another store.




                 *                      *                      *


Still two hours of this largely quiet shift to go - and most of the self service tills were working perfectly. There WAS time to work this out in her mind, thought Evie. And she was really getting somewhere with Jack. It WAS the bathroom incident.  They had stood there naked, side by side, arm in arm, and she had never felt so close, so intimate with another human being - as they stood in her parents' en suite bathroom. Then…


“-Excuse me?”


For God's sake!  Can’t you see I’m working out a break-up here? Have you no emotional intelligence whatsoever?  Can you not operate a simple bloody self service till yourself..?


“Yes, madam?”


The woman looked for one moment like she might have had a coupon: rage began to surge up Evie’s back, bringing the hackles up on her neck like a werewolf about to defend its territory.


But no… Instead the woman simply said:


“Is it Evie?”


Reality flooded its way through Evie’s thoughts and the bipping madness. This woman knew her..!


…But she did not know this woman. Should she try to call security?


“You are Evie, aren’t you?” the woman repeated.


Crunch! The shock of a real personal connection barged into Evie’s inner circle of hell and jarred her to her bones. So she responded. She had to respond, respond to the slight, middle aged, smiling woman in front of her.




“I’m Jean.”




“Jack’s Mum.”


                                    *                      *                      *                      


It was an interesting cup of coffee. That was for sure. As they sat together in the supermarket’s little cafe, nursing two coffees, Jean, a small, kind, caring woman - still somewhat incongruously holding a basket with a few groceries in it - said she had recognised Evie from pictures on Jack’s phone. Many pictures.  She had heard about the abrupt end to the relationship and simply wanted to say she was sorry it hadn’t worked out. That she could imagine Evie would be really upset by the way it had ended so suddenly and that Jack had been really keen on her - she had seen the pictures to prove it. Indeed Jean was at pains to say she sympathised and knew how much it must have hurt Evie to be abruptly dropped like that.


Evie did everything in her power to stop it coming out, against the faint backdrop of ‘bips’ in the background. But in the end she couldn’t keep it in any longer:


“Was it the spots..?” she blurted out.


Jean’s face creased with kindness.


“No, dear…”


“Are you sure? Because he looked at me..?”


Evie began to explain about the bathroom mirror, the tri-fold - the bloody tri-fold… But Jean interrupted.


“He’s going abroad. He’s volunteering.  For two years. He leaves next week.”


After a pause where her whole life passed in front of her, Evie said:


“Well why didn’t the dickhead tell me that?”


No she didn’t. What Evie said instead was:




And the truth apparently was that Jack hadn’t been able to tell Evie the truth, because he thought he wouldn’t be able to go through with it face to face. That he cared too much about her and knew he’d change his mind if he tried to tell her in person the real reason.


Silence fell and absorbed the two women, like spot cream dissolving into young skin.


“So it wasn’t my spots? My appearance? And he liked me.”


“He more than liked you, Evie,” said Jean, warmly, “but he’s going abroad for two years - and he’s also young, like you. Too young to be tied down, perhaps.”


“Well why didn’t he just say that?”


Jean just shrugged.


“Search me.”


The two women looked round at the gently swarming store, silently communing with each other in a connection that stretched back to the dawn of time; and then Evie looked over at her own little perch at the end of the self service tills.


“I’d better get back to work,” said Evie, getting to her feet, “but thanks.”


“It’s nothing, dear,” said Jean as she got to her feet too,“but perhaps you could help me with scanning my shopping if I need it?”


And so the two women walked side by side back to the tills, through the now bustling store, to where Evie took her place at the head of the self service tills, but not before deeply and warmly embracing Jean, and wiping a tear away from her own eye.


“Thanks again, Jean. It means a lot.”


"Don’t worry about it."


And Jean walked back to one of the self service machines and started to scan the few items in her shopping basket, watched by Evie.




Suddenly a thought struck Evie like a thunderbolt, as she saw the half empty basket in Jean’s hands.


“You didn't come here to shop, did you? You came here deliberately to see me, didn’t you, Jean? To help me.”


Jean nodded as she bipped.


“Yes, dear. You see I knew you worked here. He told me all about you…"


Jean continued as she scanned her items.


"...And I know how it feels when things don't make sense. From bitter experience. You were owed an explanation."


Evie smiled warmly at Jean as Jean went back to scanning her shopping…


Before Jean slowly drew out…


…a coupon.


Evie looked at Jean…


…Jean looked at Evie…


Evie looked at the coupon in Jean’s hand…


…Jean looked up at Evie…


Evie strode purposefully over to Jean…


“I think it might be out of date,” said Jean, sheepishly.


It is out of date,” said Evie. “Months ago.”


Evie tapped her ID into the machine.


“But let me override the till and put that one through for you, Madam…”





Nipples, Coils and Compost by Andy Stew


The ink wasn’t running smoothly. Robina gave her fountain pen a shake and was rewarded by a messy blob of royal blue on the sleeve of her blouse. A biro would have been much more practical but she loved the flow of Quink onto the paper. She only used her stainless steel and gold Sonnet for signing prescriptions and death certificates. It was worth all the hassle of occasional blots as it added a flourish to an otherwise tedious task, and she loved the feel of the barrel between her fingers.


Mrs Haycroft entered the consulting room with her teenage son Gregory following morosely behind. He reminded Robina of a burdened donkey being led down a steep path on Santorini, an island she had enjoyed in the company of hedonistic Rory Riddleston three summers ago. She realised she was starting to entertain unsettling memories of sex in the Cyclades, and shook herself back to the here and now. Rory was long gone out of her life. Mrs Haycroft sat on one of two chairs on the other side of the consulting room desk while her son stood self-consciously behind the other.


“Do have a seat, Rory.”


“His name’s Gregory, Dr Jones.”


“I’m so sorry, Mrs Haycroft. Confusing him with another patient. Do have a seat, Gregory.” The youth dragged the chair backwards and settled on it so he was sitting directly behind his mother.  “What can I do for you, Mrs Haycroft?”


“I’m worried that someone has been putting things in his drinks at school. Either that or he’s been to one of these gender realignment clinics without telling us.”


Robina studied Hilary Haycroft. Mrs H was in her early forties, wearing a green anorak done up to the neck and dark blue chinos. She had no make-up on. Her eyes darted from Robina to the wall behind and back again.


“What do you think someone’s been putting in his drinks?”


“Hormones. He says he’s growing breasts.”


Robina heard a groan coming from behind Mrs Haycroft. Either that was Gregory suffering agonies of embarrassment or his mother was an accomplished ventriloquist.


“How old is Gregory?”


“Thirteen. And a bit.”


“Hello, Gregory.” Robina addressed her remarks into the air behind the boy’s mother.




“If you bring your chair round here, I can get a better look at you,” said Robina using her kind and caring voice.


With a lot of shuffling and grunting the ungainly lad reappeared beside his mother. He achieved this whilst remaining seated and scraping the chair along the ground. He wore a grey school blazer and a chaotically knotted grey and yellow tie. His face was decorated with scattered acne clusters.


“I’m sure this is nothing to worry about. Why don’t you get onto the examination couch over there and take your jacket, tie and shirt off?  You can draw the curtains round so you have some privacy. Let me know when you’re ready.”


After what seemed to Robina like enough time for him to have had a bath and read a short novel, Gregory’s breaking voice warbled. “Ready.”

Robina parted the curtains and smiled to ease his anxiety. She closed the drapes behind her. He blushed deeply. She rubbed her hands together to warm them and hoped he didn’t misinterpret this considerate act as her rubbing her hands with glee. He winced as she examined around both his nipples, screwing his eyelids tightly together to avoid seeing what was going on.


“You have a tiny lump behind both nipples. Fifty percent of boys get these little swellings during puberty. It’s due to changes in the levels of hormones in your body; all part of growing up. It’s perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. The little bumps will be gone in a few months.”


“So, I’m not growing boobs?”


“Definitely not.”


He opened his eyes. “And I won’t have to wear a bra?”


Robina shook her head.


“Should he have a mammogram, Doctor? Just to make sure it’s nothing serious.”


Doctor and patient turned as one to see Mrs Haycroft poking her head through the curtains. Gregory placed his hands over his nipples.


“Absolutely not needed, but I am happy to check Gregory’s chest again in a few months’ time just to reassure you both.”


“As long as you’re sure, Doctor. How long have you been qualified?”


“I’m older than I look, Mrs Haycroft. Gregory, would you like something to help with those spots. What are you using at the moment?”


Before the teenager could answer his mother spoke. “Clearasil. He gets through so many bottles I think he must be drinking it.”


“Slip your things back on, Gregory, and come and have a seat. I’ll give you a booklet to read about acne and I’ll prescribe some antibiotics to kill the bacteria that are making the spots worse, plus a cream to rub in at night so your skin is less oily.”


After Gregory and his mother had left the room, Bathsheba brought a coffee in for Robina.


“Milk with no sugar,” the receptionist said, plonking the mug down so hard on the desk that some of its contents splashed out.


“Thanks. You’re very kind.”


“We like to look after our locum doctors, just to make sure they come back again. That’s a beautiful pen. I’ve never seen one like it. Was it a present?”


“Yes. From me to me. And as we’re exchanging compliments, Bathsheba, that’s a lovely dress you’re wearing. The colours are stunning. It really suits your skin tone.”


The receptionist beamed. “Most surgeries make you wear a uniform, but Dr Greenskin says he doesn’t care how we’re dressed as long as we don’t turn up in just our undies. I’ll tell your next patient to come in. It’s Mr Priggis. He usually comes to discuss his wife.”


Robina wasn’t sure how Bathsheba knew what Mr Priggis was going to talk about as consultations were supposed to be confidential, but decided it was better not to ask if she wanted to keep getting brought mugs of coffee.

Alan Priggis walked in. He looked in his mid-forties with a paunch peeking over his belt. He pulled up a chair and, leaning both elbows on the desk, looked steadily into Robina’s eyes. “I’m here to talk about my wife.” He had a blue and white hooped too-tight rugby shirt on, with his thinning locks carefully brushed over a receding hairline.


“Does Mrs Priggis know you’re here?”


“She thinks I’m at the garden centre buying peat-free compost.”




“It’s better for the planet. Peat bogs store carbon, oodles of it. The equivalent of twenty years of industrial carbon is stored in British peat bogs. If you dig them up, all that carbon gets released into the atmosphere. Ecological disaster.”


“About your wife…”


“Also, peat bogs are home to a huge number of flora and fauna including snipes, butterflies and dragonflies.”


“You were here to talk about your wife?”


“What? Oh, yes, I’m worried about her.  I think she may be depressed.”


“What makes you think that?”


“She’s gone off sex. Says she can’t be bothered. Going on for months.”


“Any other signs of depression?”


“Only if I mention moving myself out of the spare room back to our double bed.”


“How are things otherwise between you?”




“Your wife might find it helpful to come in for a chat. Do you think she’d agree to see me?  Unfortunately, it’s not easy getting appointments at the moment.”


“You’re not bloody kidding. I waited a month for this one. I’ll see what she says. Don’t tell her I’ve been in to see you.” 


After Alan Priggis had departed, Bathsheba came bustling in to retrieve Robina’s empty mug.


“Mrs Priggis is coming in to see you this afternoon.”


“Bloody hell! That was quick.”


“Not really. She made the appointment a month ago. Enjoy your lunch break. You’ve got ten minutes before afternoon surgery starts. You could nip to the garage on the corner. They sell what they claim are sandwiches.”

Ten minutes later Robina was back behind her consulting desk. She pressed the stiff intercom button that connected her to the seething waiting room, having to depress it forcibly several times before she heard the howling banshee screech that confirmed it was functioning. Waves of ferocious heartburn swept across her stomach as a result of rapid wolfing down of tuna and sweetcorn wedged between sheets of what tasted like soggy cardboard. Using her London Underground mind-the-gap voice she summoned Mrs Barbara Priggis to come and join her in consulting room number three.  As the door swung open, a sonorous burp escaped Robina’s lips.


“I’m so sorry, Mrs Priggis. I’ve eaten something that’s disagreed with me.”


“I know how you feel. My husband’s always disagreeing with me.”


Mrs Priggis had a no-nonsense air about her. Not a hair out of place and no hint of depressive illness. Her tailored aquamarine jacket and skirt accentuated her womanly shape whilst suggesting she shopped at John


Lewis rather than M&S.


Robina hiccupped. Several times. “What can I do for you?”


“I’d like to have a coil fitted.”


Following her conversation earlier with Alan Priggis, this statement took Robina by surprise. Then she thought about it. Of course, a fear of pregnancy could easily have an adverse effect on libido.


“Do you have any(hiccup) children, Mrs Priggis?”


“Two. Ten and eight.”


“And how old are you now?”




“Looking at your notes (hiccup) I see you used to take the oral contraceptive pill.”


“Didn’t suit me. Put on weight and got awful migraines, in spite of trying several different ones. Had a go with the cap after that but it was a devil trying to get it in the right position, and it kept jumping out of me like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. So, then we used rubbers.”


Robina decided she needed to proceed carefully. “Do you have (hiccup hiccup) intercourse regularly?”


“Depends what you mean by regularly. When I can, is the honest answer. How often do you have intercourse, Dr Jones?”


Robina tried not to look rattled. Not often enough at the moment; in fact, not at all this year. At least the shock of Mrs Priggis’ repost had banished her hiccups. “I need to check it’s safe to fit you with an intrauterine device.

Have you ever had an ectopic pregnancy?”


“Not as far as I know.”


“Or any pelvic infections?”


“Just the odd bit of thrush, but nothing more serious than that.”


“I’m going to give you a leaflet to take home that will tell you all about the different types of coil. It should answer any questions you have. I’m family planning trained so I could fit it for you but we’d need to set aside time which we don’t have today.”


“Do you believe my body is mine to do with as I wish?”




The patient’s brow furrowed. “This is all confidential, isn’t it?”


“Of course. As are all consultations.”


“Good. I don’t want my husband to know about this.” She wheeled round

and departed clutching her leaflet.


“You don’t want…”  started Robina, her words falling on empty air as the proverbial penny dropped with a virtual clatter. Mrs Priggis was having an affair. If her husband consulted Robina again about his wife’s loss of libido what on earth could she say to the man? Perhaps she could steer their conversation towards peat-free compost.


Bathsheba came in with yet another mug of coffee. “That Barbara Priggis, she’s having it off with Ben Nicholls at the post office. I expect that why she wants you to fit her with a coil.”


“Are you a mind reader, Bathsheba?”


“No. You left the intercom switched on. I forgot to warn you about that button. Everyone in the waiting room was listening and, until you turn it off, they still are.”




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