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Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition

 

 

 

  

 

  June 2019 Competition Winners are: - 

 

 

 

                                                                              First Prize:

 

                                                    Thomas Ross of Birmingham

                                                                                              for

                                         ‘Pro Patria Mori’

 

 

 

     Second Prize:

 

        Peter Hankins of Wallington

        for

      ‘Smile’

 

 

 

      Joint Third Prizes: 

  

  Leon Coleman of Manchester

 for

                                         ‘Silver Balloon’

 

                                                   and

 

                            P J Stephenson of Switzerland

                                                                                            for

                                     ‘The Vegetarian Spy’

 

    

                                                                                    ******

                        

 

 

 

 

 

                    ‘Pro Patria Mori’

 

                                                                                         by

 

                                                                       Thomas Ross

                        

 

The cloud came again it rolled toward me, each time it was darker, more threatening. It devoured me until I could see and think of nothing else.

Smack, there was a sharp pain in my cheek and the cloud was gone.

‘Shut up for God’s sake Joe, you stupid bastard’

Tom was shouting at me.

‘You have been sat in the dugout saying ‘I can’t do it again’ over and over. If any officer hears you are for it, good and proper. You know what happens to them that won’t go over the top. Just bottle it up like the rest of us. You and me are the lucky ones, we’ll see it through. We’ve lasted so far and it can’t go on much longer.

Four of us from our street had all joined up together, It was a big adventure, see the world for free. They didn’t tell us that the whole bloody German Army would be trying to kill us.  We all went through the training camp at Etaples, no trouble, we thought we were real soldiers then, especially me, Joe the rifle ace, ha some good that did me. Tom and me were the two that were left, Sid left us early on with half his head blown away and Mick just disappeared in no man’s land. In the two years we had been here Tom and me seemed charmed, while around us soldiers were dying, we were never even scratched

          I thought I was even luckier when the Lieutenant came down the trench asking who had won the shooting prize. He never knew my name and I never did find out his, lieutenants did not last long.

‘Come with me Wilson; the Captain wants to see you’.

‘What for, sir’

‘It’s a surprise and he’ll tell you himself’

It was a quarter mile trek on the duck boards to the Captain’s dug out where he sat smoking his pipe as though he had no care in the world. I should have suspected something.

‘Well Wilson you are a lucky man. They tell me you are a real marksman; I have just the job for you. Twelve marksmen from different regiments will be joining the squad. Pack your things; you will be out of the line for a week. There will be a full briefing 0600 tomorrow.

‘You lucky sod, a week out. Send us a postcard’ Tom said

 

At 0600 We were there a dozen of us, from all over, looking at each other wondering what was going on. The Captain arrived together with a Sargeant Major. We looked at each other this must be something special if a Sargeant Major was involved.

‘Attention’ shouted the Sargeant.

‘Sargeant Major Roberts will be in charge he will brief you and you will obey his instructions without question. Is that clear?’

‘Yes Sir’ echoed around the parade ground.

‘Stand at ease’, Roberts shouted ‘You have all been chosen for your skill at shooting. You are all the best in your units, but don’t let that give you any ideas above your station. And don’t ever forget you are all under my direct orders at all times, from now until the mission is finished and you are back with your regiments’.

I was beginning to wonder why this heavy stress on obeying orders, it was taken as a given in the army, why stress it. It didn’t bode well.

‘It is two miles to the railway station. Form file, shoulder arms, quick march. Left, left, left, right, left’.

It was early evening before we finally arrived. It turned out to be a French assembly area way back from the line. Roberts marched us straight through the camp through a sea of silent French soldiers, to a large barrack block on the edge of the woods.

‘This is your billet. You will not leave it until we march out tomorrow. Under no circumstances will you talk to anyone else. You will not leave this barracks until we march out at 0800. Breakfast will be brought to you and remember you will not, I repeat not talk to anyone. Is this clear?’

‘I said is this clear’

’Yes Sargeant’

I was the first time I had a comfortable bunk since we came to France but no one slept and when roll call came we were all up and ready.

Sure enough breakfast was brought in by French soldiers who gave us some strange looks but said not a word.

‘Attention’. It was Roberts in his best foghorn voice

’You will see rifles in the racks at the far end, each is numbered you will each take one and write your name by the number of your rifle on the sheet on that table. Some have live rounds and some have blanks. After you have carried out your duty there will be a check to see whether those of you with live rounds have hit the target. Take your rifle, form a line and march out on my order’.

‘Quick march, look to the front. I said eyes front. Halt, right turn, shoulder arms, aim.’

My knees wobbled, I went grey, there in front of us was a blind folded French soldier tied to a cross his feet on the floor, ankles tied to the upright, outstretched arms tied to the cross and on his chest a round target.

‘Fire’ shouted Roberts

Automatically we all fired before we could think about it. The soldier slumped against the upright, head forward, a blood red patch where the target had been.

‘Shoulder Arms, right turn, quick march left, left, left right left.’

Before it could sink in that we had shot and killed a defenceless soldier, one on our side, we were back in the barracks.

‘Right lads fall out, rifles in the racks there’s bottles of rum over there help yourselves.’

 I was still in shock; I think we all were, we had been an execution squad. We could hear the rumbling sound of booing gathering pace outside no wonder they had brought us in from outside.

As we were drinking a French Officer came in with a sheet of paper which he gave to the Sargeant. He read it and said to all of us

‘All of you with live bullets hit the target, you will not be told who had the live rounds and so you will never know which of you shot this man. Everyone can think it was not them who shot him.’

‘What had he done Sargeant?’

‘He had been court martialled for desertion that’s all I know. Now drink up, pack your kit and let’s get out of here. Bring the bottles with you.’

Our lorry drove out of the camp to loud boos and shouts of murderers. at least that is what the French catcalls sounded like to me.

 

A week later I was back in the trenches as though nothing unusual had happened.

 ‘How was the holiday then you jammy buggar’ were Tom’s first words.

‘Can’t say.’

‘Come on we never had secrets between us’

‘Can’t say swore to keep it secret’

‘Right then keep it to yourself if that’s how it is’

I could see he was unhappy but thankfully he let it go and we got ready for the next big push.

Waiting, half our life was spent waiting to go over the top, this time it was two weeks before we got the order. We were going over the top at 0600 tomorrow morning.  I was in the dugout getting a last kip and watching a dark cloud lift over the horizon when Tom hit me hard across the face.

 ‘Wake up and for God’s sake shut up.’

‘Uh what’s that for’?

‘You kept on shouting ‘I can’t do it; I can’t do it. If the Sargeant hears you you are for it. Just keep quiet about it. Haven’t I told you, you and me are the lucky ones. Two years without a scratch and you even getting holidays. We are going to see this through so just keep quiet about going over the top’.

Good job Tom smacked me out of it for that was the first time I had seen the black cloud rolling toward me.

Perhaps Tom was right. The battalion attacked at dawn and got half way into no man’s land before we were pushed back with the usual casualties, again Tom and me were the lucky ones. Thankfully the black cloud had gone and not returned as we settled back into the usual pattern of brief attacks and retreats that seemed to be the way the war went on this bit of the front anyway.

Until, that is, I was told to report to the Captain.

‘At ease Private. I have just heard from headquarters that you have been promoted to Lance Corporal. Congratulations here are your stripes take them and sew them on.’

I told Tom the news.

‘Told you we were the lucky ones. You jammy sod a stripe, how do you do it’

I didn’t tell him one stripe for one man’s death. I wonder how many you have to murder to be a Brigadier, perhaps send a few thousand over the top in pointless attacks.

Roberts came for me again in two days time he said ‘0600 at the Captains tent’

Tom thought it great news I had been given another holiday.

That night was bad Tom shook me again as the black cloud rolled over me darker than ever. Wake up, wake up you bloody idiot if the Sargeant hears you are in real trouble.’

This time we were taken north towards Belgium.

 ‘You will take off and give to me any insignia on your clothes all regimental badges, medals any way you can be personally identified must be removed, they will be returned when the mission is over’. This was different.

At 0600 we assembled as before.  

 ‘Eyes forward, quick march, platoon halt, right turn.

’ I felt a shudder go through the group This time the man was in British uniform; he was one of our own.

‘Aim, Fire’

The soldier slumped against the post a red stain spreading across his chest.

‘Shoulder arms, right turn, quick march, left, left, left right left.

There was silence in the barracks when we returned, one of our own.

‘What had he done Sargeant?’

‘Deserted his post, Sentry duty, fell asleep and dropped his rifle’

We had all nodded off at some time. To shoot a man for that…’.

‘His job was to carry out orders not to cowardly let our comrades, King and Country down. Now get that rum down you Then we are off home.’

 

Back in the reserve trenches again Joe asked ‘What is going on every time you come back from these holidays you look knackered’.

I couldn’t tell him; it might have helped but I just said

 ‘Sorry can’t say’

The black cloud was with me all the time now, it never went away. It enveloped me, it was in me, it was devouring me. Every night I woke shouting ‘I can’t do it again’

If it had not been for Tom…..

Then the order came there would be another special mission at the end of the week and the cloud enfolded me and took me to itself.

‘I can’t do it’

‘Don’t be a bloody fool remember we are the lucky ones’

I was over the back of the trench running and running before Tom could catch me. I ran, ran, ran, running out of the black cloud. It followed but it couldn’t catch me now. I burst out laughing. That’s how they found me, in the middle of a shell hole, tears pouring down my face sobbing I can’t do it.

Now it is my turn to wear the target.

I hear it all

‘Quick march, left, left, left, right, left, right turn, aim, fire.’

 Now the cloud has gone, gone for ever.

 

 

                                                                                 ******

 

 

 

                                                                        ‘Smile’

 

                                                                                     by

 

                                                                      Peter Hankins

                        

 

 

 

They’ve got pictures of the inmates on all the doors … no, in an old folks place it’d be ‘residents’, wouldn’t it? I’d  better get that right.

The pics are a nice touch – a shot of the wrinkly who lives behind each door.  Makes the corridor seem friendlier. The other thing about it is that if you’re a visitor the pics help reassure you that it really is Auntie Mabel you’re walking in on, not some unknown old man who might be on the lavvy - or God knows what. Not great pics, though. Cropped out of some family photo, run off on the shitty office printer using ordinary paper, and trimmed down with scissors.

I could do a professional job for them. I’m good at getting a smile out of the old ones. I can judge from their age whether to talk about Muffin the Mule on TV, or reach right back to Dick Barton, Special Agent. On the wireless.

I could do a good price. I might get follow-up orders.

Room number 26 does look a cut above the others; fresher, more modern. Apparently all the rooms are going to be done up eventually. Oops - someone in here! An old woman, sitting in a wheelchair. She looks like death warmed up, only not warmed up very much. I don’t know what she’s doing. Just sitting here with her hands folded in her lap, not reading or sleeping or watching the big new TV on the drawers to the left. Frowning at nothing.

“Hello!” I say, “Number twenty-six?”

The old lady dips her head in a minimal nod. Not the warmest welcome I’ve had. She’s got straight grey hair combed down from a parting on the left in a style that’s practical but not very flattering; she’s wearing a pale blouse and a clean beige cardigan; like sensible clothes someone else chose for her.

“I’m the photographer,” I say, “Come to do some pictures for the new brochure? My name’s Patrick. Patrick Cline.” I hold out my hand. With this generation, a handshake puts you on level status. It establishes that you haven’t come to take their dinner order or wipe their arses.

“Margaret Taylor,” she says,“You might as well call me ‘Meg’. They all do.”

“Thanks, Meg,” I say, “would it be OK if I took a few pictures?”

“Do as you like. It won’t bother me,” she says.

“Great,” I say, “If I could just move you over here…” I think for a moment about whether I could put her out in the corridor, or into the little en-suite shower room, but it isn’t really on, is it? Anyway, I need pics of the en-suite, so I’d have to move her again.

I’ve got what I need in no time. The room is smart in a rather cold, modern style. The old folks would probably prefer something chintzier with tablecloths and antimacassars, but the management’s priority is to avoid the rooms looking like one of those grotty places that smell of urine and disinfectant. This’ll come over really great, like a top class hotel.

“The dog’s bollocks,” I mutter without thinking.

“I’m sorry?” says the old lady.

“Sorry, Meg,” I say, “Talking to myself. Got to get some biscuits for my dog on the way home.” I don’t have a dog, but talking about your pet is always a good ice breaker. “I call him Snowy - like Dick Barton’s dog. You remember that?” I hum the theme tune; they love that.

“My father didn’t let us listen to the Light Programme,” says Meg, “but I think you’ll find that Snowy was a human being.”

Great. I wheel Meg back to her original position. While I’m waiting for the manager I notice a rolled-up old photograph on the drawers.

“Excuse me, Meg,” I say, “Is that an old school photograph? May I have a look at it?”

“Yes, if you like,” she says, looking up straight away.

It’s a tight scroll of thick paper, almost like card; probably came in a tube originally. I unroll it very carefully, and sure enough, it’s a long panorama of school-kids from long ago. They’ve been arranged into four rows in the traditional way. I guess it’s the whole school, in a single picture.

“They had special cameras for these, didn’t they?” I say,  “If you got onto one end, you could get photographed there, then run like hell down the back and get photographed again at the other end as if you were twins. No twins in this one, though.”

“You’d have had your ear clipped if you tried that,” says Meg.

“That’s you, isn’t it? Am I right?” I bring the scrolled up picture across to Meg and manage to hold it open while pointing at a little girl in the row sitting on chairs.

“Oh yes,” says Meg, actually smiling now, “that’s me.”

“Hey!” I say, “you were the prettiest girl in the school, weren’t you, eh?”

“Oh, nonsense,” says Meg. She doesn’t think it’s nonsense.

Nor do I. It isn’t so much that young Meg was exceptionally good-looking, though she was a pretty enough kid; it’s more that out of over two hundred faces, hers is the only one that’s really smiling right at you. A smile that draws you into a little conspiracy. She just loves the camera. She’s a real charmer; my whole idea of Meg turns around.

 “I reckon you’re naturally photogenic,” I venture – I say this a lot.

“Oh, no,” she says.

“I’ll prove it. Let me take one of you now.”

“All right,” she says, instantly.

I back away and aim the trusty old Canon DSLR at her. She clasps her hands at once, sits up straighter, looks right at me and gives me that same cheeky smile from seventy years earlier. Somewhere inside Meg the flame still burns; she’s still charmingly delighted to have her picture taken. You just can’t help smiling back.

I show her the result.

“Isn’t my hair dreadful?” she complains. “I ought to do something about it, I suppose.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Mr Cline… If I smarten myself up a bit, could you come back and take another picture next week? Not that this one of yours isn’t good, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, I feel.”

“Of course,” I say. “What, same time, same day? Absolutely. Just to mention… If we’re making a proper session of it, I’ll have to charge you something.”

“Oh, that’s alright. They took most of my money, but I made sure to keep some.”

“Who took your money?” I ask, “This place? Somerton House?”

“No, no,” she says, “though their fees are high enough. I mean my son… and my daughter. My son, Laurence, told me that the best way to avoid inheritance tax was to let him have everything right away. I gave him my house. He said the transfer would be just a formality; in practice the house would still be treated as mine, and I could go on living there for the rest of my life. Yet here I am, Patrick, and who do you suppose is living in my house? Laurence and his family.”

“Don’t you like it here?” I ask.

“How could I like it? Oh, it’s very good of its kind. It’s expensive. The people are capable and professional and even the food is passable, though they try to make you eat dinner at six o’clock so they can be sure of getting you into bed by nine at the latest, like children. No, very good of its kind. But what kind is that, Patrick? A warehouse for useless people. Like those storage places where you put that old armchair that’s broken and ugly, but you’re too sentimental to throw it on the bonfire.” She clenches her fists; she frowns. “Maybe they should have thrown me on the fire, burnt me up with Eric when he went, like the Indians used to do. Better than sitting here.

Before I’ve gathered my thoughts, there is a brisk knock on the door and the general manager comes in without waiting. She is a bustling, friendly woman, dressed in a green suit that could almost be a uniform, but isn’t.

“Ah, there you are!” she said, “Talking to Meg! Hello, Meg! All done?”

“Yep. See you next week, then?” I say to Meg. The manager leads me briskly back to the grand reception area.

“Did I hear you to say that you were coming back to see Meg?” she asks. I sense that I’m about to be gently discouraged, but I explain and take the opportunity to float my idea of doing better pictures for the doors.

“I’d offer ten percent of the fee to Somerton House, of course,” I say. The manager’s face shifts subtly.

“Yes,” she says, “some of our residents might like that. If you’re coming back next week we can have a chat about it?”

“Excellent!” I say, and we shake hands.

Next week I go along at the right time. I ring the bell at the reception desk and identify myself to the young woman who eventually appears.

“Ah, Mr Cline,” she says, “Our general manager would like a word.”

She shows me to a cluttered little office where the manager is comfortably installed.

“Do sit down,” she says, “There’s no easy way of saying this, Patrick; I’m afraid Meg Taylor passed away the day before yesterday. A stroke, quite sudden but peaceful.”

“God,” I say, “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s never easy to deal with, Patrick,” she says, “I’ve seen quite a few go in my time, of course, but believe me, it’s always hard. We’ll miss her.”

“Shame I never got to take that picture,” I say, “I think she was looking forward to it.”

“Oh yes, definitely,” she says, “One thing I want you to know is that I think you helped make her last days some of the happiest since she came here. She was after me all the time since you saw her, wanting me to get her a hairdresser – we had to take her out to one in the end, which is quite a business. Then she bought new clothes.  Three new dresses, and lots of other stuff. She really smartened herself up; she looks lovely…” I could tell she was thinking of Meg, beautifully presented, in the undertaker’s Chapel of Rest.

“I’m really sorry,” I say, “Can I send flowers?”

A little frown passes below the surface of Eileen’s face.

“That’s a lovely thought,” she says, “the thing is, I don’t think Meg’s children would like it. Meg’s son was here on Wednesday. He was not pleased about the money she was spending, and I’m afraid there was a bit of a row. Your name was mentioned. Now I know you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, Patrick, but just at the moment, I don’t think we’ll be able to go ahead with that project you suggested.”

“Oh. Shame,” I say, “Maybe think of it again in a while? I sent the brochure pics off to your designer, by the way. I assume I’m still going to get paid for those?”

“Oh, of course,” she says, “we really liked them.”

Of course they liked them.  The pics… look good. I’ve got a copy of the new brochure here; nicely laid out, with my pics given lots of space; they make the room look like a suite in Dubai. No worries about that. The real shocker is the one they’re using for the cover.

It’s Meg. They used the shot of her I took that day – I must have sent it on with the rest. There she is, sitting in her smart refurbished room, with that marvelous smile, like the best Granny anyone ever had. She looks so pleased. You’d want your beloved mother to have whatever she’s getting, to live wherever she lives. That smile sells the place effortlessly. Somerton House’s happiest inmate.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                   ******

 

 

 

 

                                                      ‘Silver Balloon’

 

                                                                                       by

 

                                                                    Leon Coleman

 

                        

I’m lying on my bunk, while Clive, my cellmate, sits on the toilet reading a newspaper. The bell rings: free association time. Three skinheads from the G wing turn up, covered in tattoos and scars.  One hangs back outside while the other two enter, shutting the door behind them.

 

One is tall and thin with a scrawny throat, his Adam’s apple the size of a golf ball bobbing up and down, he snarls like a pit-bull waiting for his cue. The other’s a hulk, thick, round and without a neck, concentrating as he wraps a cloth around his knuckles. Clive peers over the sport section, his pants still around his ankles. The duo give me a scowl, I turn away to face the wall. The sounds begin, bone on bone, then rubber on bone, but I don’t look. Clive doesn’t scream or call for help; instead he gasps for breath with each blow, beating down like a muffled drum, and then a dull thud, something hard hits the ground. 

 

I turn towards them, only for a split second, Clive is lying on the floor rolled up in a foetal position with his pants now turned inside out. I cross my arms behind my head, and stare up at the elasticated straps on the mattress above, trying to appear relaxed, uninvolved, non-judgemental. This is perfectly normal, I keep telling myself, despite my guts saying otherwise.  My muscles twitch, my left pectoral throbs like the chest of a robin, then comes a tremble in my left leg, then my abdominals – all my body’s natural urge to move, to contract, anything but lie here as though nothing is happening, I tense my whole body and then relax, again and again.  A shiver escapes through one limb and then another.  I want to do something, to stop it, but what can I do? Normal rules don’t apply, not here. Look the other way, that’s how it is. On the outside you can stay out of their way, but here you can’t. In the yard, in the canteen, in the showers, accidents happen.

 

Two months down, there’s another fourteen to go. Choose your battles, it’s everyman for himself. Anyway, I’ve only shared my cell with Clive for the last week, I barely know him, and maybe he deserves it, it’s not for me to get involved. 

 

The muted sound of blows continue, after a heavy kick a black boot ricochets off upwards, scrawny wobbles nearly losing balance but the thuds recommence, though with less frequency and the heavy course breaths become louder. It strikes me just how much a body can absorb, how much a man can take: Clive is not a big man, maybe 5’ 10 or so, a little overweight.  A guy in E wing died last year from a single punch, if they finish Clive off it would have taken a lot more.

 

How much could I take?

 

Unable to stand it any longer, I close my eyes, and there I am, running down the lane on my way home from school: the individual leaves of the berry bushes, the sound of my books bouncing up and down in my rucksack with each stride, the sky grey and overcast as I scampered back before the rain.  I kicked a stone into the bush, it was a route I’d made countless times and I’d kicked a thousand stones along this path – and yet I’d not recalled this until now.

 

The shuddering thump of a direct kick to Clive’s head brings me back.  They continue the attack; their heavy breaths turn to panting, as they strike him again and again, the punches and kicks raining down. It seems to have gone on for hours, just when I think it would never end, they stop. How is he?

 

Clive seems no more a man than a mound of flesh on the ground. A strange snorting noise like that of a straw sucking the last drops of milkshake echoes off the walls. Unable to lie still any longer, I sit up.  The intruders’ snow-white faces are now beetroot red; stout leans forward holding his knees to catch his breath, with the look of satisfaction a man feels when a good day’s work has been done.  Scrawny admires his handiwork.

 

The bell sounds; it’s yard time, sixty minutes in the air. I stand up.

 

I glance at the hands of scrawny, his bony knuckles red with blood. I make my way towards the door and turn sideways to squeeze past him. Pulling the door open, I half expect a blow from behind. A hand taps my shoulder, I turn around and see scrawny, his pale face still flushing crimson, he puts his finger to his lips, and whispers ‘sussh,’ with a sneer before crossing his throat with the same finger.

 

Over the balcony I view the rest of the wing, everything is white, the bars, the walls, the ground, but this is no heaven. I make my way to the yard.

 

A breeze blows through my cotton shirt; my skin tingles. The sun hangs alone in a bare and cloudless sky. It’s the kind of day I loved as a kid, jumping on my bike and cycling for miles on end, to new places each day. It’s different now. My eyes search for signs of an outside world above twenty foot brick walls topped with barbed wire. I see a balloon, a foil bubble of helium floating over the yard, higher and higher. It causes quite a commotion, bunches of convicts looking up like children at a fireworks display. Some laugh while others watch in silence. I try my best to memorise it in detail, after all, in this place you need all the good memories you can get.

 

And then it is gone.

 

I ignore the faces of the walkers around me. Like zombies they shuffle along with no destination, lethargic and languid; their pasty sullen skin and gaunt faces repulse me. Do I look as bad as they do? In a way, I hope I do.

 

At least it’s not raining. You’re not allowed out if it is. Otherwise you only have an hour, so take your opportunity and get some air.  When I get out, I’ll never waste time staying indoors, I’ll be outside.

 

When it’s chucking down, we stay in the hall and gaze out through the Perspex into the yard, or sit around and listen to the sound of rain pounding the skylights above. With so much time and so little to do things come back. Yesterday, as it poured, I remembered standing in a doorway of a place I stayed in Bolivia, the rain thumping down on the corrugated iron roof of a hut, smoking a cigarette and watching a smouldering volcano in the distance, separated from me by lush green hills. Was that really fifteen years ago?

 

Time in this place flows like cement. Each day in here is like a lifetime spent staring at flecks of peeling paint on the wall, a lifetime of screams and shouts from other cells, a lifetime of compulsive paranoia that makes you feel sick. There’s not much to look forward to either. Food is plopped and splattered the same way as shit in this place.

 

I’ve not been in long but already the stench of prison is on my skin, a mix of piss, sweat, damp and boiled cabbage. It clings. I can’t wait to get out; if I get out. Inside, the air is charged, with testosterone and madness.  Some of the guys in here are mad – the sort that are really not right – but others put it on, and they’re the worst. They’ve spent so much time acting crazy, they’d be incapable of being any other way.

 

Collins approaches. ‘Fucking animals,’ he mutters under his breath as he glances at a group stood in one corner, their voices rise as they bounce excitedly with puffed up chests. They’re like school children in a playground, but here, there’s no Science after lunch and no home time at 15:30.

 

Clive could testify to that, if he’s alright. He took a right kicking. That snoring sound he made didn’t sound good, and he didn’t look to good either. What will I find when I get back? I take a deep breath and close my eyes, trying to slow it all down, especially the jack hammer pounding in my chest.   And it’s only Monday. I guess it’s going to be another long week. 

 

And now it’s time to go back.

 

My legs feel weak; meekly I climb the steel staircase of this hell hole. I pray Clive’s okay, I’m not sure for his sake or mine.

 

I push open the iron door.  Clive’s alone, sitting on a chair. His face is swollen and he has cuts on his brow; he’s sticking rolled up pieces of toilet paper up his nose.  A lump bulges on his forehead; his right eye is swollen shut. But taking everything into account he doesn’t look too bad.  I give him a nod, but don’t say anything, and neither does he.  I flop down on my bed and stare up at the bed above. Again.

 

When I first came down here after sentencing, I shared a cell with Dave.  He’s around ten years older than me, early fifties, I think. He was an old hand, and with me being a first timer he explained the rules – not the screws’ rules but the inmates’ rules.  ‘Rule number one, don’t be a grass,’ he’d said. ‘Rule number two, don’t be a grass.’ From the age of twenty, over several stints, Dave’s spent thirteen years inside, so he’s learned a thing or two.

 

There’s a knock on the door. Two screws enter, followed by the Governor.

 

‘Hello, Clive, everything okay?’ the Governor asks.

 

Clive ignores him and continues to nurse his face. 

 

‘Clive, the Governor’s speaking to you,’ the burly screw, with his arms crossed, bellows. 

 

Clive looks up, disinterested. ‘Yeah, I’m good. What do you want, Sir?’ he mumbles, his voice more nasal than usual.

 

The screw lurches forward to confront Clive but the Governor’s hand across his chest stops him.  The Governor turns to me. ‘Hello, Mike.’

 

‘Hi, Governor.’

 

‘How are you finding it here?’

 

‘Good, Sir.’

 

‘So, can you tell me what happened here? But before you answer, I want you to remember something: if you lie to me then you will be making things difficult for yourself. Do you understand?’

 

‘Yes, Sir.’

 

‘Tell me what happened.’

 

‘I don’t know, Sir.’

 

The Governor sighs, and then shakes his head, all the while keeping his hands behind his back, as though meeting the Queen.

 

Clive clears his throat. ‘I fell out of bed, Gov.’

 

‘Shut your mouth!’ the screw screams.

 

The Governor waits a moment. ‘Well, go on.’

 

Clive turns his gaze to me. I continue, ‘Well, Clive told me he was liable to fall out of bed, Sir, but I insisted on having the lower bunk. Anyway, he must have fallen off when I was in the yard.’

‘Clive?’ The governor glares. Clive shrugs his shoulders.

 

‘Is that all you’ve got to say, Mike?’

 

I clear my throat. ‘Well, if you think it will help, Sir, I’m happy for us to swap bunks.’

 

The screws and Governor storm out.

 

Clive smiles. ‘After I clear this shit, fancy a game of black jack?’

 

‘Yes, whenever you’re ready,’ I say. And as we play I tell him about the silver balloon. He asks me to describe it in as much detail as I can. And I’m happy to do so.

 

 

******

 

 

 

                                           ‘The Vegetarian Spy’

 

                                                                                           by

 

                                                                      P J Stephenson

 

The restaurant was as dilapidated as the damp, grey border town it sat in but the dusty chandelier and flaking oil paintings gave it an old-world charm. I was less keen about the gilded mirrors on every wall. Igor said he thought the reflections would help us spot any French surveillance. I thought they would make it easier for people to watch us. But I said nothing.

         He stood to shake my hand. We exchanged pleasantries and speculated on when the rain would stop while an old waiter in a shabby waistcoat hung my wet Barbour on a rack by the door.

          “How’s Viktor?” asked Igor, as we sat down.

          “I don’t know.”

          His short-cropped hair and jacket were dry. I wondered how long he’d been waiting for me.

          “Would you tell me if you did know?”

          “Probably not.”

          The waiter shuffled up to take our order. I went for the onion soup and an omelette. Igor asked for snails followed by steak tartare with pommes frites.

          “You’ve got to immerse yourself in the local culture, Charlie.”

          “You’ve forgotten that I’m vegetarian,” I said. “Uncooked steak isn’t my thing.”

          “A vegetarian spy. You must be the only one.”

          “I hate to see suffering in sentient beings.”

          Igor laughed, a curiously humourless gesture. “Then you’re in the wrong line of work.”

          “I’ve often been told that.”

          As he tucked a napkin under his chin, I glanced at the mirror to my right. At the far end of the restaurant, a middle-aged woman in a shawl was reading a newspaper and sipping coffee. A quick look at the reflection over Igor’s shoulder revealed a short, thickset man in a blazer sitting three tables behind me. He stared at a smartphone propped against the pepper mill while tearing at a piece of chicken. The reflected light of a dozen chandelier bulbs shone on his bald pate.

          “I thought you British were always on time,” said Igor. He scratched his nose on the bump caused by an old break. Did he do that all the time, or only in front of me, the man who broke it?

          “I was waiting for the waiter to let me in,” I said. “I have an aversion to touching door handles these days.”

           “Very droll, Charlie. Very droll.”

            The waiter turned up the volume on the stereo. Stirring classical music bellowed through the speakers.

           “Ah, Mahler’s Fifth,” said Igor. “A fine symphony.”

            I pulled a face. “It’s not too Nazi for you?”

           “Charlie, the world’s changed. We no longer come out in a rash every time we’re exposed to something right wing. We’re a free-market economy now, you know.”

           “So I heard.” I rearranged my cutlery and looked up at my lunch partner.  “Igor, what are we doing here?”

           “The food’s excellent.”

           “You could have talked to one of my local colleagues. Why ask me to come all this way? We’re getting too old for this cloak and dagger stuff.”

            He held eye contact for the first time since we sat down.

           “Your so-called Paris Station leaks,” he said.

           “We have a mole?”

           “No, I’m not making any big revelation here. I’m simply saying data from your French office reaches Moscow.”

            We stopped talking while the old man served our entrees with trembling, liver-spotted hands. Igor ordered a bottle of Chablis without consulting me.

            I stirred a dollop of cream into my soup and said, “If you’re such a connoisseur of French cuisine, what do you think of this?”

            I pushed my bowl in his direction. He smiled wryly and ladled a spoonful into his mouth.

            “Very good.”

            The waiter brandished a bottle and opened it with great ceremony. Igor then went through an elaborate process of sniffing and swirling and swigging the wine. He drank a glass in one gulp then topped us both up as the old man retreated.

            I blew on my spoon and tasted my soup. Then I nodded over my shoulder towards the bald man.

            “Why did you bring Sasha?”

             Igor grasped a snail in a silver holder that resembled a pair of elaborate tongs and used a small fork to extract a tiny brown morsel of flesh from the shell. He popped it into his mouth and chewed.

             Finally he said, “I wasn’t aware you and Sasha were acquainted.”

           “He followed me around Geneva for a day last summer. As you well know.”                                               He raised an eyebrow. It could have meant ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’.  

           “He’s a hitman,” I said, matter-of-factly. “Why’s he here?”

           “Charlie, my friend is a harmless watcher. Insurance for me in a remote border town. He won’t bother you.”

           I took of a sip of water. The soup was too salty.

           “So, Igor, what are we doing? Did you bring me here just to tell me the GRU has a handle on our French operations?”

           “No. I’m explaining why I trust you more than your colleagues.” A gulp of wine. “Your Brussels team is much more efficient. I guess you need to grease the wheels of Brexit.”

           I laughed. “You really think MI6 has nothing better to do than spy on its European allies?”

           “I’m just saying you seem to be concentrating your best staff there.” He grabbed another mollusc.   “I’m sure you have a strong team in Washington now too.”

           “Very droll.” 

           He grinned like a schoolboy who’d just come top of the class in a maths test.

           The woman in the corner was now sipping Calvados while studying Sasha. The Russian hitman was still staring at his smartphone. Maybe he got a lot of emails.

           “But the question still stands,” I said. “What…?”

           “Yes, yes.” A wave of the snail holder before he put it down. The weird culinary device must have a name. Maybe I did need to make more of an effort.

           Igor reached down into a bag at his feet and pulled out a manila folder. As he flicked through the contents, in the mirror I saw the first page was an A4-sized photograph. My face had been captured at distance with a long lens. There was no sign of the beard I shaved off three days ago. He removed another photo and pushed it across the table towards me, tapping it with his forefinger. A man in a suit stood on a railway platform, talking into a smartphone. 

           “This is Khaled Dudin,” he said. “He’s Chechen. He’s worked his way through every sleazy group you can imagine. The illegal Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the Caucasus Emirate and now ISIS. He’s dangerous.” He snared another snail. “We want you to help us watch him.”

           I nodded but immediately feared my gesture looked like a ‘yes’.

           “He should be shot like every fucking terrorist,” Igor went on. “But, if you help us, we might be able to take out the whole cell.”

           I used a piece of bread to wipe my bowl, chewed it slowly then touched the napkin to my lips.

           “We’re done here,” I said.

           “What?” The wine glass was paused half-way to his mouth. “But you Brits are fighting ISIS too. Surely this is one area we can collaborate on?”

           “I don’t think so.” I tapped the photo. “We know this man by a different name. He’s not Chechen. He’s Ukrainian as you well know. He’s been stirring up trouble for your occupying thugs in the Crimea.” I dumped my napkin on the table. “Why would we restrict his activities? He should get a medal.”

           I caught the waiter’s eye in the mirror and signed in the air for the bill. I saw Sasha briefly register surprise then quickly feign interest in his phone.

           “Charlie, stay for the main course.” He showed me his palms. “Why do we have to end the meal this way?”

           “Because your request is unacceptable. And if that’s all you’ve got for me, I’m going home.”

           The waiter brought the bill and asked me if I wanted the main course.

           “Mettez mon omelette dans une baguette à emporter, s’il vous plait.” I threw a wad of Euros on the table.“Gardez la monnaie.”

           “Merci, monsieur.”

           “Charlie, let me expound more on our proposal.”

           “You have until my omelette sandwich arrives.”

           That eyebrow gesture again.

           “I’m sorry I upset you. Maybe we can sweeten the deal.” He gave me the cheeky grin I’d seen before. He looked suddenly like a boy again, but the school bully was about to mug me for my lunch money. The smile froze on his face.

           “I’m listening,” I said.

           “Well, if you help us with the Chechen, I’ll send Sasha back to Moscow.”

           I sipped my drink for the first time, swirling the cool liquid round my mouth. It was fruity and full-bodied. Igor always did have a taste for fine wines.

           “I should leave...”

           “Come on, Charlie, it’s a simple trade.” The pleading hand gesture again. “You were always up for a deal in the good old days.”

            “Those old days weren’t good, Igor.”

            Another touch of the nose. It was just for me.

            “But you know we’ll both be happier.”

            I took another sip of wine and set down my glass.

           “OK. In the spirit of collaboration between our two services, we’ll take the Ukrainian out of the picture, if you send Sasha somewhere he can’t bother us. I like the idea of him doing paperwork.”

           A glance in the mirror told me Sasha had heard his name over the music. He must have been straining to hear what we were talking about.

           The old man arrived with a baguette wrapped in paper and my damp Barbour. I stood and allowed him to hold my coat while I shrugged into it. I picked up my sandwich and shook Igor’s hand.

           “Tell your Pitbull to finish his dessert. If he follows me outside, I’ll shoot him.” I tapped my chest as if I had a pistol strapped to it.

           I did.

           “Charlie, you’re always so melodramatic.”

           “Goodbye Igor.”

           Outside, the street was deserted except for a grey taxi on the opposite side. A chill wind slapped my face with raindrops and sent a cigarette packet scurrying for a drain. I threw the sandwich in a bin, turned up my collar and hurried across the road. As soon as I jumped into the back seat, the driver gunned the engine and looked at me in the rear-view mirror.

           “Are you OK?” he said.

           “Yeah. We just finished a bit early.” I eyed the restaurant door but no-one emerged. “Drop me at the station and you can head back to Paris.”

           My colleague swung the car out into the street and gave me another glance.

           “Was it as we expected?”

           “Not quite. He brought Sasha with him.”

           “Shit.”

           “It was OK. He was acting as a bodyguard for the day.”

           We swerved down a side road.

           “So, what did Igor say?”

           “The GRU has recovered from the expulsions. They’ve identified and photographed most of our European agents – my mugshot was impressive and very recent. And they have full surveillance capability over our French operations.”

           “So, we’re back to where we were.”

           “Exactly. Except, they know the Ukrainian works for us.”

           “God. How?”

           “It's not important. But get this: if we extract him from Crimea they’ll withdraw Sasha to Moscow.”

           “Wow.”

           The driver threw the car into another tight turn.

           “Will Anne-Marie be OK on her own?” I said.

           “She’s not as frail as she looks. She’ll just make sure they go straight home.” He smiled. “That’s incredible news about Sasha.”

           “It is.”

           “And you’re sure they don’t know?”

           “If Igor knew, he’d have come alone and gloated.” I smiled at my reflection in the car window. “It’ll be interesting to see what Sasha can send us from the GRU’s headquarters.”

           We lapsed into silence. And as we wound our way through streets shining with rain, and the windscreen wipers scraped across the glass, I wondered if Igor was enjoying his raw beef.

 

 

 

 

 

The June 2019 Short List

 

 

                                   Pendle Meeting by Gordon Aindow

                                    Pro Patria Mori by Thomas Ross

                                     Silver Balloon by Leon Coleman

                                         Smile by Peter Hankins

                               The Vegetarian Spy by P J Stephenson

                                  Wayne’s Name by Hannah Retallick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pendl

 

 

 

 

 

The June 2019 Long List

 

 

                                          Addiction by Daniel Murphy

                                 Carly Learns to Fly by Richard Smith

                                  Pendle Meeting by Gordon Aindow

                                    Pro Patria Mori by Thomas Ross

                                      Say My Name by Lynne King

                                     Silver Balloon by Leon Coleman

                                          Smile by Peter Hankins

                                    Starting to Crack by K. A. Easton

                                      The Betting Slip by John Fooks

                              The Finest of Contagions by Tara Karillion

                                 The Vegetarian Spy by P J Stephenson

              

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

Wayne’s Name by Hannah Retallick

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