Henshaw Press in social networks

Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition

 

 

 

                            

 

  June 2021 Competition Winners are: - 

 

 

 

First Prize:

 

Malcolm Allen of Auckland, New Zealand

for

‘The Fixer’

 

 

 

Second Prize:

 

Tony Oswick of Clacton-on-Sea

for

‘Family Matters’

 

 

 

 Third Prize:

 

Denny Jace of Telford

for

‘Child’s Play’

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

**********

                        

 

 

‘The Fixer’

 

by

 

Malcolm Allen

                        

 

 

I walked past where Murphy was sitting, still and quiet in the chair, tears dripping from his chin. “Don’t, please Steve,” he said.

         I pulled my small toiletries bag out from between the tools in my work bag and strode through to the adjacent bathroom. I switched on the light, harsh without a shade around it, locked the door behind me and looked into the mirror. My unshaved and haggard face reflected back at me; the eyes I saw were bloodshot and haunted.

          It was two days since Conwy had summoned me to his office and told me what he wanted me to do. Two days of stress, of not wanting to do his bidding – no, his orders. Days of anxiety and panic attacks when I alternately thought of doing it and the consequences of not doing it. I could not continue like this, but how to get out? Conwy had me. He could do anything he wanted; the man had no scruples and no compunction about causing mayhem and personal harm to me or anyone. If I ran, I would forever be looking behind me. I knew Conwy would never stop hunting for me.

          There had been no way to foresee this situation when I had started out in Conwy’s employment as a cocky eighteen-year-old; just a street-smart, petty-crime kid, coming from nothing. Trying to break into the big time. I had worked hard to be good at whatever he asked me to do whenever he asked. I had learned fast, done the best job I could, and risen rapidly in his organisation. Soon enough I had been his personal fixer. Anything he wanted, I could do it for him. And Conwy had paid me well for it. I had a talent for examining the circumstances of every individual I was told about and uncovering the best point of leverage.

          Sometimes that was money, and a carefully laid trail of financial records that only Conwy knew about. And me. 

          Sometimes it was a woman, or more often a young girl or boy, and several discreetly positioned hidden cameras set up in advance. And sometimes, especially with women, it was a threat to their family. Often, however, it was simply the way to get in, and the most efficient method to silence them quickly, brutally, finally. To kill them in such a way as to leave a clear message for the next-in-line, but nothing for the authorities, and certainly no trace back to Conwy himself.  

          But the brutal work I performed was now harming me, almost more than I harmed those I dealt with. The nightmares had started it, and then depression at not being able to extricate myself from Conwy’s influence. Then anxiety and panic attacks before some jobs. And now before every job.

          Hurriedly lifting the toilet lid, I vomited violently into the pan. My hands were shaking and I could feel cold sweat on my forehead and trickling down my collar. Afterward, leaning over the washbasin, I splashed cool water on my face.

          Opening my toiletry bag, I looked at the mirror again. I rolled up my shirt sleeve. My   hands trembled as I took the small syringe from the bag. I shakily held it upright and looked at it carefully before tapping the cylinder to be sure there were no air bubbles, then injected the Lorazepam into my upper arm muscle. When I had begun vomiting before every job, the tablets became useless.

          I swigged a mouthful of whisky from the silver hip flask that also nestled in the toiletry bag. The liquor burned as it hit the back of my throat, raw from retching.

          I could feel the drug take hold. The injection worked fast and would help keep me on an even keel until I finished the job. I looked at the mirror once more and then at my hands; the shaking slowed and eventually stopped. I held one of them up before my face. It turned steadily in the mirror until the palm faced me. My fingers curled down into a fist, and I clenched it tight and hard enough for my fingernails to leave marks. I took a deep breath in and relaxed it out. I opened the door.

          From the beginning, after I had tied and dragged him into one of Conwy’s warehouses, Murphy had begged me to let him go. That he had done nothing wrong.

          “What Isabel and I did was up to us. She’s twenty years old for Christ’s sake,” he blubbered. “Conwy’s got no right to do anything. Don’t do this, Steve.”

           I could see Murphy’s point; I even agreed with him. It just did not make any difference to what I had to do. That was how contracts work and I was contracted to Conwy. I told him.

          “It’s not personal,” I said. “Conwy said what I have to do. I don’t like it, but I’ve got to. You know what he’ll do otherwise. Anyway, Conwy wasn’t mad about the two of you, it’s what you did to her after. You took advantage. She’s his little girl, Murphy. What were you thinking?”

           I turned and opened my tool bag. I had been proud of this when Conwy had started me in his business and asked me to do my first job for him. That was when I had first put it together. Just an ordinary Puma-branded leather sport bag on the outside; I could carry it anywhere and it would go unnoticed. I had padded and reinforced and partitioned the interior to fit my tools exactly.

           But after years of solid use, this bag represented all the worst of me. I hated this work, and my tool bag, so much now that it was hard for me even to carry it, let alone to open it. Opening implied using and using was what I so despised now. I opened it anyway. 

           Murphy’s eyes bugged as he saw me lift out the mini blowtorch and screw a gas cannister into its base. I set this on the table next to my tool bag. I had found over the years that seeing some tools of my trade and anticipating what would happen could be more effective than using the tools.

           The mini cam came out next, and a small portable tripod. I set them up further away, where the view would be unobstructed. When I had Murphy sighted in the mini-cam’s little built-in screen, I adjusted for focus, lighting, and framing.

           “I gotta stream this to Conwy. You know why.”

           I pushed the record button. It did not matter that I would be streamed and recorded too, and clearly identifiable; Conwy had enough on me already that this could add nothing more serious if the authorities discovered it. Or if Conwy used it against me.

           Cable ties strapped Murphy to the chair. Those things are as near humanly unbreakable as anything gets. I doubt whoever invented them imagined they would be used as frequently to secure people as they were for keeping unruly wires bundled together. The chair was bolted to the concrete floor; this was one of Conwy’s special warehouses.

           “Sorry, Murphy,” I said. “I like you. We’ve been friends all the times we worked together. But I’ve got to.” 

           Walking back to my bag, I pulled a scalpel from it and put a handgun in my trousers’ waistband. I would not use the blowtorch yet; it was too much, too soon, later would be better. Conwy had specified his requirements clearly: a lot of pain, a lot of time, and to finish it in a way that showed what Murphy had gone through. Conwy told me I had to make it obvious to his other employees what would happen to any of them should they too misbehave. He insisted on absolute loyalty. I had to show he would deal severely with anything less.

           I looked again at Murphy. What the hell was I doing? Before Murphy, I had promised myself that I would stop this. I was done. And I had meant it. But then I thought of Conwy and what he would do if I quit. Conwy was not a forgiving man; Murphy was proof of that.

           I walked around to stand behind Murphy, pulled a gag tight into his mouth and tied it behind his head. He whimpered behind the cloth. I closed my eyes for a moment to think. Murphy screamed, muffled under the gag. Taking a deep breath, I made my decision. I pulled out the gun, pointed it, and shot directly at the camera. Murphy’s screaming stopped. He sobbed, his head hanging.

           The scalpel sliced through the plastic cable ties as if they were nothing.

           “Run,” I said to Murphy. “Get out before I change my mind. And don’t stop.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

 

 

‘Family Matters’

 

by

 

Tony Oswick

 

 

 

 

 7.20 am

 

I lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. I've been staring at the ceiling for the last hour.

          "Are you still worrying about today, Tim?" Her words are soft, soothing, encouraging. That's why I love her so much. Since I moved in with Lynda and her two young sons, my life has turned around.

          I ached for a drink last night but Lynda persuaded me not to. It was always my problem in the old days. That's why Marlene kicked me out. I've been dry for eight years but I so wanted a drink last night. It's not every day your daughter - your only daughter who you haven't seen for sixteen years - gets married.

          "I'm not sure I can go. Sixteen years is a long time. It's Becky's big day.  Would you want a stranger turning up uninvited at your wedding? And we're not even supposed to know she's getting married. What should I do, Lynda?"

          "You're not a stranger, you're Becky's father." Lynda strokes my hand. "Do what we agreed last night. Go to the church. Sit at the back - no-one will notice you. You don't have to talk to anyone. When the service is over, wait until everyone's left, slip out quietly and come back home." She puts on her mock scolding face. "But don't you dare have a drink."

          I smile. Last week, Lynda got my suit dry-cleaned, and bought me a white shirt and maroon tie. Dark red was always Becky's favourite colour. When she was five, she was asked to be her cousin's bridesmaid and her first question was, "Can I have a red dress, Mummy?" When Marlene told her the bridesmaids' dresses were blue, Becky was so upset she shut herself in her room for two hours.

          Now it's her wedding day. My little Becky, twenty-five years old and getting married today. Who would believe it? Where's the time gone? It seems only yesterday she was swooning over Boyzone and dancing around the living-room pretending to be Britney Spears. That was a life-time ago and I've missed all those in-between years. I can try to blame the drink but I know it's my own silly fault. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If only I could turn the clock back. Am I being selfish, wanting to be with her today?

          I sit up. "Yes, I am going. If I don't, I'll regret it for the rest of my life."

          "Good for you, Tim. I know you're doing the right thing. Now, get up and make yourself presentable. What time's your train?"

          What time's the train? What a question. Hasn't Lynda checked everything for me? Hasn't she already bought me a ticket? Hasn't she agreed to drive me to the station?

          "It's the 9.03 from New Street - which you know full well," and I laugh as I cuddle up to her. "What would I do without you, Lynda Brand?"

 

2.55pm

 

The church is filling up. I've been watching the guests go in. I'm standing under the yew tree in the churchyard, pretending to look at gravestones. It's just like Lynda said, no-one's taking any notice of me, they're all too busy with the excitement of the day. No-one's expecting me to be here, no-one's looking for me, no-one will even recognise me.

          The train was half-an-hour late but I still had time to get a bite to eat, stretch my legs and have a look around.  Boy, the place has certainly changed since I was last here. But Larkspur Park was still the same, the park where I bought Becky her first Mr Whippy ice cream which she dribbled down her dress, the park where she tumbled off the slide, grazed both her knees and I had to carry her sobbing all the way home, the park where we played chase and hide-and-seek and monsters and explorers. Before the trouble started.

           St Matthew's Church is only two hundred yards from the park. Lots of young people arrived early, Becky's friends I suppose, chatting and giggling, the girls in their designer dresses, the young men in their smart suits.

          A few minutes ago, I saw Marlene. Didn't recognise her at first. Perhaps it was the posh frock and flowery hat? I can't ever remember seeing her in a posh frock or flowery hat, even when we got married, although that was a rushed Register Office job. She was such a slim girl then.

          She turned up with two young men who I presumed were the groom and best man. One was chubby with ginger hair and a raucous laugh. I heard him tell Marlene, "If you weren't already spoken for, I'd ask you to marry me myself."

          That made Marlene chuckle. "Get away, you old flatterer," she said and jokingly punched his arm.

          "No, he's right, he told me yesterday he would've liked a double-wedding,"  said the other young man. He was slimmer, with a tanned complexion and dark hair.

          "Well it's tough luck, Nathan. He's too late. Anyway, one wedding's enough. You just make sure you say your promises right today," and she wiggled a finger at him.

          Almost everybody's in the church now. The Vicar's standing at the entrance ushering in the stragglers. "It's nearly three o'clock. If you'd like to take your seats, please. The bride will be here shortly."

          I hide behind the tree. I don't want Becky to see me.

          Her limousine's drawing up. The chauffeur's opening the door. Two little girls are getting out. They can't be very old, no more than five or six. Must be the bridesmaids. Dressed in dark red, of course. I wonder who they are?  

          And there's Becky. My Becky. She looks so grown-up but I would've recognised her anywhere. What's she saying to the bridesmaids? "Now be good girls for me. When we get to the church door and the music begins, just follow us in, like we did at practice. Okay?" My little Becky, she looks so beautiful. I feel like rushing up and shouting, "It's me, it's your Daddy. I'm here for you."

          But I don't. Of course, I don't.

          "They're lovely girls, Becky. They've been brought up properly. I'm so proud of you." It's a middle-aged man speaking. He's standing next to Becky and she's holding his arm. I suppose he's giving Becky away? Becky adored her Uncle Rob and I presumed he'd give her away. But that's not Rob.

          "I know, I'm so glad the girls are here to share today with Nathan and me." Becky stops, adjusts her dress and turns to the man. "Thanks for everything, Dad."

          Dad? Christ! She's calling him Dad. Who the hell is he? Oh no? Marlene must've married again. I didn't know. Why should I know? And now Becky's calling him 'Dad'. This isn't right, Becky. Your Daddy's here. I'm here, Becky. I'm your Daddy.

 

11.35 pm

 

"You must be tired, Tim. Here, get this down you." Lynda hands me a black coffee in my favourite Aston Villa mug.

          "Tired? I'm absolutely shattered." I flop on the settee and put my arm around her.

          "So, how did it go? Tell all. Don't keep me in suspense."

          I'm not sure where to start. So much happened.

          "I nearly didn't go - into the church, that is. It was when I heard Becky calling Vic her 'Dad'. It was like someone had punched me in the stomach, chest and head, all at the same time."

          "Vic? Who's Vic?"

          "Oh, he's Marlene's new husband. I say 'new' husband but they've been married for thirteen and a half years. He seems a decent bloke. Apart from supporting Newcastle." I sip my coffee. 

          "But you saw Becky get married?"

          "Well, as I say, I nearly didn't go in but I thought to myself, I've come all this way so I'm damn well going in. I crept in the back while the organ was playing - no-one took a blind bit of notice of me - and slid into a seat in the corner. I tell you Lynda, it was a lovely service. My heart was pumping with pride. But I so wanted to be at the front, beside Becky."

          "I'm pleased you went." 

          "When the service was over, I stayed behind a pillar while everyone else left and there was just me in the church. I could hear them laughing and joking outside, taking the photographs, but I didn't dare go out. I just sat there. And do you know what, Lynda? I prayed. Well, not exactly prayed. Confessed."

          Lynda wants to speak but I carry on.

          "Seeing Becky made me realise what a fool I'd been. I've got you and the boys now - but I've no right to be so happy after all the bad things I've done."

          I feel tears welling up but I'm determined not to cry for a second time today.

          "Anyway, I was sitting there, with my head in my hands, when I felt a touch on the arm. I wasn't sure what it was. But when I looked up, I thought it was an angel."

          "An angel?"

          "Except it wasn't an angel. It was Becky in her white wedding dress, looking at me with those beautiful brown eyes and that happy smile. She bent down and whispered 'Hello Daddy, I'm glad you've come.' "

          Lynda's holding me now, comforting me, just as Becky held me and comforted me in St Matthew's Church this afternoon.

          "She said, 'I hoped you'd be here, Daddy. It wouldn't be the same without you'. There we were, just Becky and me. In my mind, I'd rehearsed what to say a million times - but now? What could I say to the daughter I hadn't seen for sixteen years? It came out as one word. 'Sorry'."

          "And then?"

          "Becky insisted I go back to the reception. I couldn't refuse, could I? I presume someone hadn't turned up because they found a place for me at one of the tables. I met Nathan, who seems a really pleasant guy, and his best friend James. And guess what? I'm a granddad! Holly and Sophie, Becky's two little girls, were the bridesmaids. Would you believe it? Even Marlene was civil."

          "Sounds like it went well."

          "But I'm still puzzled. How did Becky know I was in the church? Why did she invite me back to the reception without asking anyone else? And why was everyone so nice to me?"

          Lynda pulls away. "Well, you've done your confession today, Tim. Now I think it's time for mine. You see, everything wasn't quite as spontaneous as you think." She pauses and takes a deep breath. "You remember when Rob phoned to say he thought we ought to know Becky was getting married - but not to tell anyone he'd called?"

          I nod. It was kind of Rob to let us know about the wedding.

          "Well afterwards, I got in touch with Becky and, between us, we arranged everything. She didn't want to ask you directly - thought that might be too much - so she asked me to make sure you went. It was our little secret. I hope you don't mind?"

          So this had all been planned behind my back. "Lynda, do you mean ... " I'm almost lost for words. But not quite.

          I gently kiss her. "Lynda Brand - isn't it time we got married?"

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

‘Child’s Play’

 

 

by

 

Denny Jace

 

 

 The pram bounced and bobbed along. The pavement was uneven, and Debbie was rushing, aware of the rough ride the baby was getting, but she was quite sure that he wouldn’t wake. She’d swaddled him tight, then draped a loose thin sheet across him. It shielded his face, revealing only a few wisps of dark hair.

People were nosey, thinking they had some God given right to peer into a passing pram, stale breath spilling germs across precious cargo. She eliminated the risk, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t slow her pace.

She needed milk. Not for the baby, for her. For a cup of tea.  Last year, when Angela came round with her clip board and laminated lanyard, she’d twisted her face when the milk had run out and Debbie had to make her coffee black. Angela had made arrangements that day, to take Levi away; to rip a child from his mother’s arms. But Levi wasn’t in Debbie’s arms, he was soiled and stinking, strapped into a puschair on the lawn in the pouring rain. 

Losing her baby had stripped Debbie of the one thing that gave her purpose. The one thing she had created that was good. That was perfect. Except it wasn’t perfect because when Neil came round with his tins of beer and syringes of shit, they lost hours. Sometimes days. Levi cried in his cot, silent tears that Deborah didn’t hear. His tiny fingernails filled with grime that he scratched off his own skin.

‘It’s Respite Care Debbie,’ Angela said, ‘clean yourself up and you can get him back.’ And Debbie had cleaned herself up and got rid of Neil, but she still hadn’t got Levi.  Fighting for her son meant inviting Angela and Social Services back in. Snooping around her business, scoring her mother skills.

 

The high street was busy. Debbie aimed the pram at safe gaps, worming her way through the tide of Saturday afternoon shoppers. She was rushing, trying to outpace the tumbling shards of ice inside her belly. That awful feeling that you’ve forgotten something that’s just outside your minds reach. Although the feeling was the same, Debbie hadn’t forgotten anything. She had deliberately left Belle home alone. Ten minutes ago, it had seemed okay. What trouble could a three-year-old get in to in such a short space of time? Now she was panicking that ‘nipping out’ was a bad idea. Taking the baby out in the pram was straightforward, Belle was more difficult. Besides, she’d been so settled and engrossed in the TV that Debbie hadn’t wanted to disturb her. She’d kissed her goodbye, Belle had grinned, narrow pink lips revealing tiny white teeth. She was still in her pajama’s, pink unicorns running across her chest. Debbie couldn’t remember if she’d given her breakfast or not.

Ahead the crowds were bottlenecked, the only option was to cross the road. As she bumped the pram down the kerb the baby jolted, dislodging his sheet, his dummy falling out. Oh no. Oh no, please don’t cry. Debbie didn’t want a scene. It’s okay, its okay. She soothed the baby, reaching over the handle of the pram, stroking his face, tucking him in. In the background she could hear voices, raised and shouting. Urgent cries. Conflicting words. Stop! Move! Get out of the way! The pram was drifting away from her, pulling itself into the road. Into the path of a white van. She saw the drivers face creased up with horror. The sound of his screeching breaks ripped through the air. Debbie lunged after the pram, her limbs disobedient, delayed, as she waded through treacle thick terror. The collision was light, but enough to knock her and the pram sideways. The tarmac impacted her hip sending shockwaves through her pelvis, ricocheting through her spine and finally concluding as her head bashed against the ground.

The sky darked, a gathering crowd stealing the light. Debbie was on her knees, crawling, fingers splayed, searching. My baby. Where is he. Where’s my baby? The van driver was sitting on the kerb under someone’s jacket, his heavy head laying in his open palms. Other bystanders stretched out their arms towards Debbie, afraid, abating her, the feral animal thrashing around on the ground.

A man knelt beside her. ‘The ambulance is on its way love,’ he said.

‘No.’ Debbie cried, ‘I don’t want an ambulance. I want my baby. I want to go home. I have to get home.’

A powder blue piece of cloth flapped about in the corner of Debbie’s vison. She slid on her chest under the front bumper of the van. Stretched her arms until she felt the bulk of the baby. She pulled him gently towards her. He was still partially wrapped; he was cold, and he was still. Someone behind her was crying, sobbing loudly. Debbie cradled her son, wiped away the grit and dirt from his face, kissing him through her quiet tears. There was a hand then on her back, another linking her arm. People were helping her up. Sticking their noses in, looking at her. Looking at her baby. Judging her.

She shrugged them off, spinning herself away from them. Shielding the baby. They would not take him away from her. No one would. Not again. Not ever.

She shuffled her coat around until she was able to manouvuer the baby inside. Zipping it half closed, her other hand supporting his head. She could feel his face pressed against her chest, her heart beating through him. ‘Get away from me, all of you, piss off, leave us alone.’

Debbie staggered through the crowd, her precious bundle weighing heavy. She left the pram with its mangled wheel lying in the road. The polka dot lining displaced from the dented frame. She needed to get home to Belle, the urgency scraped her hollow. What if someone recognized her. Knew her name. Did she tell anyone her name? They would tell Social Services. Angela would come. Put crosses in boxes on her clipboard. She would take them both away. It was unbearable. She couldn’t breathe.

 

As Debbie pushed open her front door, she froze, right arm raised, fingers gripped around the key inside the lock. Her ears pricked; she tilted her head slightly as though doing so would further open the ear canal. The only sound from inside the house was the TV playing a children’s program. Jaunty, jolly, repetitive tunes. Relief spread like calming ointment, across her skin. Belle was safe.

She hobbled inside, double locking the door after her, sliding across the chain. The relief was palpable, she was home, it was all over. She would never put herself or the children through this again. She prayed that the baby wasn’t hurt, a hospital visit was not an option. All the questions, the probing, the looks. No, she would look after her children her way. A mother knows best.

She gently loosened her coat and eased the baby free. She stroked his dimpled chin and kissed his smooth cool forehead before walking into the lounge and laying him in his bouncy chair. He was so quiet, so still, but he remained well swaddled despite everything. Debbie had done well; she had protected him.

Belle was still lying on the sofa, the same bonny smile, bright eyes fixed on the TV. Debbie knelt in front of her, moving her face level with her daughter’s, catching her eye. ‘See Belle, I told you I wouldn’t be long. You are such a good girl for mummy. You know that don’t you?’ Belle smiled on. Not looking at her Mother.

‘How about chicken nuggets and then ice cream?’ Debbie said, her voice ‘sing-song’. She tickled Belle’s tummy, her little body unyielding, her ribs bold.

‘And how about you, my boy?’ Debbie swiveled on her knees to the baby in his bouncy chair that didn’t bounce. ‘A lovely warm bottle of mummies best milk.’

In the kitchen Debbie dug out some tins of beer that Neil had left, and she had hidden at the back of the pantry. Hidden from herself and hidden from Angela. But it had been such an awful day, her nerves were shot. Even now, grasping at ring-pull she could see her fingers tremble. She’d had such a shock; a hot toddy was what she needed. Or was that whiskey? Lager would suffice. Just the one, just to straighten her out.

 

Six cans down and under a weary cloak of fug, Debbie fell asleep on the kitchen floor. The chicken nuggets she had taken from the freezer, defrosted into slimy orange blobs. The ice-cream, now warm liquid, dribbled sticky mucus trails across the linoleum, grabbing onto the ends of Debbie’s splayed-out hair.

In the lounge the children didn’t move. They didn’t blink. They didn’t breathe. And inside their tiny plastic chests were empty cavities, with no hearts to beat.

 

 

*****

 

June 2021 Short List

 

In Bed with the Bishop by Hazel Whitehead of Bishops Waltham

Waiting by Fiona Riley of Swansea

The Fixer by Malcolm Allen of Auckland, New Zealand

Family Matters by Tony Oswick of Clacton-on-Sea

Child’s Play by Denny Jace of Telford

Familiar to Me Now by Bethany Headland of Burstwick

 

 

 

June 2021 Long List

 

In Bed with the Bishop by Hazel Whitehead of Bishops Waltham

I Used to Watch the Supermarket by Carey McKenzie of Buckfastleigh

Deceit Exposure by Christina Collins of Neath

Waiting by Fiona Riley of Swansea

Anyone by Ted Cohen of Huntington Woods, USA

The Fixer by Malcolm Allen of Auckland, New Zealand

Family Matters by Tony Oswick of Clacton-on-Sea

Moving On by Caroline Wright of Halifax

Child’s Play by Denny Jace of Telford

The Right to be Forgotten by Anne Kilminster of Shepperton

Familiar to Me Now by Bethany Headland of Burstwick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Print Print | Sitemap
Henshaw Press (inc Parlow Press)