March 2017 Competition Winners are:-
First Prize: Sarah Jane Brown of Beverley for ‘Forgotten’
Second Prize: John North
of Birmingham for ‘The Friendly Red Brick Building’
Third Prize: Jennifer Richards of Whitstable for ‘The Trace of You’
The Judges would like to thank all those who entered the competition.
Sarah Jane Brown
Who did those shoes belong too? Grey. Flat. An old persons shoes. As she looked up unease pricked her skin, little darts, tingling, wary. Lucy scanned the room, the pristine marble fire place, the TV, strangely flat, sunbeam speckles of dust hazing mid-air and the photos, photos everywhere of people she vaguely recognised but couldn’t place.
A disquiet Lucy couldn’t identify, there was someone else in the room. He sat, casually as if he had every right to be there, staring at her, blue eyes piercing into brown.
“Want a cup of tea Luce?” His voice, raspy and thin. Lucy shuddered; he was old, very old, stumbling in his grandpa slippers.
“How did I get here?” Lucy’s throat felt narrow, her words weak.
“You’ve just been asleep. Hurry up Zoe’s coming to take you out.”
Lucy weighed up her options, jumbled thoughts battled for space and victory.
‘Just play along,’ they whispered, ‘you’ve been missing, someone must have taken you.’
“Yes please,” Lucy enunciated in her politest voice, unable to give this stranger a name.
Thick milky tea coated her mouth, doing nothing to lift the vagueness; something about her hands looked wrong, too big, as if they’d been pumped with water.
Heavy feet took the stairs, one by one, had she been drugged? Lucy was fast, a jumper of stairs, not a stumbler.
Footsteps shuffled behind her. “What are you doing?”
“I’ll help you get dressed Luce.”
“No! Get away from me, you pervert.” He shied away, wounded. Why was he watching her all the time, following her?
“I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here but don’t you lay one finger on me old man.”
“Lucy, it’s me, Will.”
Lucy pulled and tugged her clothes on but it was a stranger’s body, bigger, heavier, cracking joints and creaking bones. A dread hit her, had she died? A twinkly chime from below startled her, wheezed his way to the door.
“Come in Zoe, we’re just having a moment.” A faint memory of the upward roll of his eyes, flashed through, leaving just a niggle of familiar irritation. Perhaps she did know him?
Slices of conversation pierced the staircase air, two voices she now didn’t recognise. Try as she might, Lucy failed to find an emotional connection with anything around her. None of it made sense. Where she was? Who was she with? Disconcerted Lucy knew she should feel afraid, instead, it was as if she had been wrapped in cotton wool and just deposited. That was exactly it; she had been dropped here on a cushioned landing. Had she read somewhere that if you feel pain you’re not dead? Lucy pinched herself, yes she was definitely alive at the moment she was unsure if that was even a positive.
Zoe helped Lucy into the car. Why did she need help? Was she injured?
A pretty wooded area came into view, Zoe felt Lucy tense beside her, anticipation nudged at her anxiety, perhaps this would jog Lucy’s memory. Lucy steadied her breathing, why had they come here? A wood in the middle of nowhere? Feet crunched on the bright green crispy morning grass, leaving dewy flattened patches in their wake. So much space; Lucy felt an impulse to fling her arms wide and just take
off, just take off and weave dewy footprints in a trail across the virgin grass. To feel alive. There was nothing to stop her; except this foreign, slow, encumbered body.
“You okay today? You look flustered.”
“It’s that man Zoe, he won’t leave me alone, he keeps following me, watching me, all the time.”
“Well, who do you think he is?” There was a tremor in Zoe’s voice that Lucy couldn’t fathom.
“I don’t know, I think he’s my stepdad. I think I must have been missing. I don’t know that house; I don’t know how I got there.”
Zoë’s heart hit her stomach with a thud. “It’s Will, your husband.”
“But he’s an old man!”
Zoe tried to laugh but it was a raw cackle, “He is, he’s 84.”
“He can’t be my husband then! My husband’s young and good looking”
Zoe fumbled with her phone, “This is you two last week.”
“Aye that’s the man but who’s that old lass with him?”
“No! Well how old am I then?”
“78, just a spring chicken compared to Will.” There is was again, the awful cackle laugh.
“Never! How did I get so old? Who are the two young people?”
“Ah, they’re your grandchildren.”
“What? I’ve got grandchildren? Aye that’s right, I remember them now, they’ve both grown into lovely young people, I’m so proud of them.” Lucy’s face shone, compliant with relief and love.
A smug glow of a self-satisfied parent eased into Zoes tense shoulders. “Yes, they’re turning out pretty well I guess,” she purred, basking in the warmth of a compliment.
Suspicion flicked like a whip into Lucy’s voice, “How do you know my grandchildren?”
“I’m their mum.”
A small brittle sound, part laugh, part disbelief escaped Lucy’s throat. “I hope you don’t mind me asking then but if you’re their mum, what are you to me?” There it was again, the politeness reserved for strangers, the Sunday voice.
A ball of fear and grief lodged in Zoe’s chest, cold, hard, tight, battling with speech and breath.
“I’m your daughter.”
“Are you sure? What, I’ve got a daughter as old as you?”
“Who do you think I look like?
“Well, you look like me mam but I know you can’t be her.” A deep lusty laugh surfaced, it grabbed Zoe and pulled her in, back into the warmth.
“You seem pretty okay for someone who doesn’t know where she is or who she’s with mum. Who did you think I was?”
“I thought you was one of those women that comes and takes me out sometimes.”
“At least you felt safe with me then?”
“Aye well I do quite like ya.”
“A complete unknown, just like a rolling stone, na, na, na, na, na.” Bob Dylan with the world’s two best backing singers blasted out, tension drained out of Zoe like an estuary emptying with the tide.
“So, I’m married to Will, I’ve got one daughter and two grandchildren?”
“Yep, you’ve nailed it mum.”
The front door felt lighter now Lucy remembered, the chintzy chair sagged under Will, the cushion familiar with the dent of his head.
“Hello Will love,” Will dabbed at the kiss mark on his cheek, a tear nestled in the corner of his eye, too manly to drop, “I’ve had a right laugh with our Zoe, but by I have missed ya.”
The front door closed quietly behind Zoe, Lucy was back well, for now anyway.
The Friendly Red Brick Building
Professor Tom Richards
First morning back, after the holiday, I was late as usual. Susan Tompkins, my secretary was already there. She had her office next to mine and as you would expect in a University Zoology Department there were plants everywhere. The Department was on the second floor of the Natural Sciences Building, the red brick one on the right as you come onto the campus. It’s an old building but comfortable and friendly.
‘Hello, good holiday?’ I asked. ‘You don’t look very sun tanned’
‘No I don’t feel so good’
‘I have some paracetamol somewhere in my desk, I get you a couple’
‘Thank you it’s just a bit of a cold. I was fine yesterday.’
By mid morning she looked very ill indeed, it did not look like a cold, so I sent her to the doctors; what ever she had I did not want her spreading it around the Department.
Dr. Mike Robson
I am one of the GPs at the University Surgery. That Monday when I arrived at the surgery, as I usually do, I had a quick look in the waiting room to see what the morning promised. There didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary just the usual sniffing and coughing. Susan was there with half a dozen others waiting patiently until their names were called. Susan was called eventually and in she came.
‘Sit down Mrs. Tompkins what seems to be the matter?’
‘I feel really awful, all achy as though I am getting flu.’
‘Let me have a look’
It appeared nothing untoward at first, flu was going around and we had had the usual influx of aching, sniffing patients. So expecting nothing more I felt her pulse, a little high but not unusually so, looked at her throat, a bit red and inflamed but again nothing out of the ordinary. Then she showed me her arm. It didn’t want to believe it. I had never seen it before, but I had certainly heard about it. I had to be professional, look calm, smile for God’s sake. Must not frighten her.
‘Have you been on holiday recently? These infections often come from there.’
‘No, just stayed at home.’
Oh no, it must be from around here. I haven’t seen any reports.
‘I will just get your records.’
I looked up Health Warnings on the screen, nothing. I dared not ask one of my partners to check my diagnosis I needed to quarantine her; and myself as well. How could I manage this? It suddenly hit me, what had I been thinking of, I could send e-mails. All the times I had cursed our new computer system and now there it was a life saver, perhaps.
Receptionists first, ‘Pat I have a patient who I think is very infectious Can you close the surgery, lock the doors and let no one in or out, that is absolutely no one, patients or staff, and cancel all appointments.’
Perhaps I over stressed it a bit but I was near panic myself. I forced myself to have another look at Mrs Tompkins’s throat.
‘I think that you may have something that is infectious and I have asked one of my colleagues to check something for me so that I can be sure about the diagnosis.. It may be a little time.’
‘That’s not a problem doctor I do not feel too good I don’t think that I will be going back to work today.’
Too right I thought. I hoped, I hoped I was wrong.
The phone rang; it was Sally, one of my partners.
‘What’s going on Mike? I have had Pat in here, nearly in tears, saying you want to lock us all in, and we can only talk to you by phone or e-mail.’
I said ‘I will send you an e-mail.’
I did not want to worry Mrs Tompkins by talking on the phone.
‘I just need to send an e-mail Mrs Tompkins to get some further information..’
‘What do you think it is doctor?’
‘I am not sure and need to be certain before I can prescribe any medicine.’
I sent Sally an e-mail and told her what I thought it was ’I hope I am wrong but its best to be safe so I will keep Mrs Tompkins in my room. Can I ask you to contact the Medical Officer and enforce the quarantine? I just hope I am wrong.’
Her reply was instant ’Will do. May our Gods be with us.’
I turned to Mrs Tompkins she was looking pale. There was nothing I could do now but hope
Sir John Clayton, Chief Medical Officer
Of course I remember that day. I was phoned mid – morning by Doctor Sinclair
‘Sir John as required I am informing you that we have a Class A medical emergency in progress and we have closed the surgery.’
I asked what do you think it is and then said ‘I will inform the Minister and get a team from the medical labs at Porton Down to you within the hour. Make sure that you keep it tight; any leak to the press would cause a national panic. I want reports every half hour and I will be with you in two hours from now.’
Dr. Sally Sinclair
I remember that awful, awful day when I had to announce the quarantine. I tried to soften it as much as possible, but I think what really quietened everyone was the sight of policemen standing outside the doors. The receptionists made tea and took it round while the office staff tried to identify everyone who could possibly have been a contact. All we could do was wait and hope. I never believed in a God but maybe now was the time for a prayer just in case. We were going to need all the help we could get. Pat was a real star; she took messages and made phone calls without actually saying what had happened. It seemed an eternity for all of us, but then it became really frightening when the men from Porton came in bright orange hazard suits. The silence was instant and tangible.
A little girl with one of the patients pointed and shouted ‘Moon men, moon men’. It broke the tension and there were a few nervous laughs. The Moon men went straight into Dr Robson’s room and. ten minutes later they came out carrying stretchers covered in plastic bubbles, Susan Tompkins in one and Mike in the other. As soon as they had gone out into the waiting ambulance the police locked the doors again and I went back to my own office feeling lost and useless.
The phone rang. ‘Hello, Clayton here, Porton have carried out tests in the ambulance and confirmed that your colleague was correct. His diagnosis was an excellent piece of work. Are you sure the patients have no idea what it is yet?’
‘We have told no-one, only Doctor Robson and I know.’
‘Good, let’s keep it that way for the time being, announcing it would not be helpful. We have identified a stock of vaccine nearby, in the University itself, the Biology Department. I know you understand but I must make it clear that everyone must be vaccinated, there must be no exceptions.’
‘Yes, I understand, everyone.’
‘After the vaccination these people will need to be quarantined. I will be with you in an hour and will explain the arrangements that have been made.’
‘How is Mike?’
‘I am pleased to say your colleague has already been vaccinated and is showing no signs of the illness.’
I was in the queue at the doctors waiting to book an appointment. I had my two year old, Amy, with me and was next in the queue when the receptionist had a phone call. Her face went white, never seen that before, and she started to run, stopped herself and walked to the door, took out a key and locked it. Everyone just looked at her and each other. Just at that moment Doctor Sinclair came out into the reception area.
‘I am afraid that no one is allowed in or out of the surgery. We have an emergency; I will read out the Legal Regulations under which we now have to operate.’
It was all in government language, lots of big words, passed me by, I was too busy keeping Amy quiet. Then the Doctor explained what it all meant in practice.
‘No-one, no-one is allowed in or out by law. A law which if broken is punishable by a prison sentence. This is not an exercise and is a real emergency.’
Well, everyone started to talk at once and ask questions.
‘What is it?’
‘An infectious disease has been diagnosed on the premises; we are not certain what it is so experts have been sent for and will be with us in about an hour. Until then I would ask you to be patient. In the meanwhile Pat will take any messages and make phone calls for you. Tea and coffee will be available if we can find enough cups.’
I am Susan’s husband and the father of Tom and Joe. How can any of us ever forget April the Sixth? All was well until 11 o’clock when I got the phone call that changed our lives. Susan was seriously ill and they did not know what it was. I was to be collected from work and the boys from school and taken to a place called Porton where we would see Susan. The boys were distraught and I could tell them nothing, I knew nothing.
Another hour and we were at the doors of Porton. It was like a maximum security prison.
I hugged the boys and said ’Lets go and see Mum.’
We were taken into a large room where Susan was inside a giant plastic balloon. We could only talk to her by telephone because she might be infectious still. When she saw us she burst into tears and though I tried not to for the boys’ sake I did too.
‘How are you?
‘Very tired and very frightened.’ She said. ‘No one has told me anything. Since I came here I have just cried and cried, I must look a sight.’
I said ‘Don’t worry they are experts here, this is the best place to be. You will soon be home. The boys are fine and we will all be staying here until you are better.’
I loved her deeply and all I could find to say were clichés. There are times when words are just not enough. All I wanted to do was hug her but they would not let me and we were soon ushered out of the room.
Later a Mr. Clayton came to see me. He told me what the illness was. I couldn’t believe it, how, how had Susan caught it and did she know what it was? He said they did not know yet but they were investigating and no she did not know. I tried to reassure the boys and tell them she would soon be better, but I knew.
Mr Clayton said ‘Do you want to tell Susan?’
I just looked at him, numbness seemed to spread over me, I couldn’t speak I couldn’t move, tears just ran down my face.
He was very kind and said ‘I will tell her.’
To this day I have regretted that I was such a coward that I could not even do that. How could I ever forgive myself?
It is not only Monday the sixth, I remember, I also remember the even worse day, Friday the tenth, the day Susan died. She never woke up after seeing us that first time.
Sir John Clayton
We found a broken air duct from the biology research laboratory leading directly into Susan’s office on the floor above. Fortunately no one else was infected
Professor Tom Richards
Susan Tompkins my friend and colleague would be the last person in the world to die of smallpox caught in the building that was not so friendly after all
The Trace of You
‘Let’s run away.’
‘Come on, you know we need to leave, we have to get away from here.’
I stand up as the music starts, flattening down the creases in my black lace dress. My heels scrap against the wooden floor as Robbie Williams strains out ‘Angels’. You hated that song; your mum played it so much you said just hearing a second of it made you nauseous. Striding down the path between the pews, your mum’s stilettoes echo around the concrete Church. I feel faintly sick. The Church that you were so afraid would turn its back on you if they knew who you really were. That’s why I chose not to run. We didn’t have anything to run away from, like we were guilty of some sort of sin, when it was them who spouted more hatred than I had ever heard come from your lips. But it was too much for you; I should have known that. I think I already knew that.
You were right. We should have left. And now I’m surrounded by everyone telling me how much you meant to them when they never really knew you at all. I look down, my fingers tracing your lips on the black and white photograph chosen for the programme. A photo grabbed off your Facebook; it was probably the first one they found. No one knows it was me behind the camera that day. That you had slipped out to meet me in the woods behind your house. That we had spent the day dancing through the bluebells, me snapping polaroids of you twirling between the trees. It was dark when you interlaced your fingers with mine and muttered those words, promising me a life of just the two of us if we left now. I squeeze my eyes shut, willing myself back to that moment so that I could hold on to your hand again. This time I promise I’d never let it go.
Your mum sits down, her place in the front pew, mine in the back, everyone else following her lead, sliding noiselessly into their seats, all eyes fixed on the coffin covered with daises. Daisies for Daisy. Even though you would have preferred bluebells. I couldn’t even help plan a proper goodbye for you as no one knows who I am either. I’m just another damp-eyed person dressed in black. You wouldn’t know that I meant any more to you than any of the other blonde, blue-eyed girls decorating these pews. I hope these all aren’t ex’s, otherwise you definitely have some explaining to do. I let out a giggle, although it comes out more like a hiccup as tears choke my throat.
Your dad stumbles up to the pulpit, somehow managing to navigate the spiral staircase. You said you didn’t think you had ever seen him sober. He leans too close to the microphone, banging his lips against it as he starts to speak, spittle flecking the first row. Maybe it was good I wasn’t at the front after all.
‘TODAY,’ he began, before realising he was shouting and recoiling away. ‘Sorry, today, is the worst day of my, my life-e-e.’ He stumbles over his words, half of them slurred, and the rest barely coming out at all. ‘My.. Daisy… she was the… of my life… and a world not… is d-d-ark.. and she would… to see… all.. of..’
He continues spluttering into the microphone as I tune him out, knowing that any real message, a true tribute, would be absent from his speech. He would talk of love and life and how precious Daisy was to him, but no mention of the times he hurled abuse at her when her grades weren’t good enough, or the times he stole money from her mum and blamed Daisy, knowing what would happen next. Or even the time he beat her after he saw her kissing me outside the school.
He wouldn’t recognise me though. All he had spotted was long hair and boobs. It was enough. The rest didn’t matter. He had already condemned us. I wanted to scream and shout, to tear down the pictures of Daisy decorating the Church. They had all been blown up with the words ‘We Love You’ printed underneath, as if they could even understand what love is.
I close my eyes as a memory of her lying on the beach floods my mind; sunglasses pushing her ginger curls out of her face, revealing the freckles the summer sunshine scattered on her cheeks.
‘What are you reading?’ I heard myself ask, prodding her with my toes I had just been painting.
‘A love story,’ she said, smiling, ‘but it’s got nothing on ours.’
She leaned in to me as I felt myself catch my breath, tracing her silhouette with my fingers, pulling her closer to me.
‘Excuse me dear.’
My eyes flick open to see as an elderly lady pointing to the corners of her navy cardigan which I seemed to be sitting on. I mouth the word sorry, shuffling along the cold wooden bench as she pulls it free.
At the front of the Church a girl with a torrent of fiery red hair had replaced Daisy’s dad. Her scraped back ponytail revealed a pale face, blotchy from crying. Pippa. Daisy’s younger sister had always been her favourite family member, and therefore mine too. To Pippa, Daisy was her entire world, she copied everything she did. Joined the Drama class, took up surfing, even learned to ride a horse despite her fear. I remember the call when Daisy found out the horse had got spoked, leaving Pippa in hospital with a broken leg. The colour had drained from her face as her phone fell from her grip.
What a selfish idiot I had been. I hadn’t even spared a thought for Pippa; this must be destroying her. Daisy always wanted to tell her who she was, about me, but she said she never felt like she had the strength to do it. She said I was the brave one. Yet here I was, cowering at the back, watching a mum and dad grieve for a girl that never really existed. Pippa fell back into her seat, exhausted by the strain of relieving memories of Daisy. I squeeze the locket around my neck, opening the clasp to see a picture of the girl I love, her head tossed back laughing, the sunlight reflecting in her hair. Gently snapping the silver locket shut, I feel safer, just knowing Daisy was there.
‘Angels’ began playing again as we all stood up to the leave, walking out in an orderly queue as if we were leaving a School Assembly. I walk out of the gates as fast as I could, head down, avoiding the grave stones, being just one of the many mourning lovers who have stood where I did. Though at least they could grieve openly, say goodbye properly. I keep my head down, focusing on the blades of grass beneath my feet, feeling an odd satisfaction as they flatten under my shoe. I don’t realise I have backed into someone until I hear the familiar voice.
‘Ouch.’ I look up to see the red ponytail I had been staring at only minutes ago as it flicked from side to side as she stepped down from the pulpit. She has one dimple on the right side of her face. Just like Daisy.
‘I know you,’ Pippa says, her hazel eyes locking with mine, trying to read me.
‘I think you’re mistaken.’
I cast my eyes down, trying to avoid her questioning gaze. I turn to walk away but she places a hand on my arm. The gentlest of touches that I could easily break from, yet something keeps me rooted.
‘Please,’ she whispers, ‘I’ve seen you with Daisy, out in the woods, you two usually meet there.’
‘I guess we weren’t being as secret as we thought,’ I mumble, still not wanting to meet her eyes.
‘Daisy was there for me through everything, and today I watched our parents say goodbye to her without somehow saying anything at all. Nothing that really mattered anyway. I have to speak to someone who knows her, who cares about her like I do. Please, if that’s you, stay,’ Pippa said, her last words trembling as tears spill onto her cheeks. ‘
I’m here,’ I say weakly, grabbling for the words I should be saying. Her arms wrap me into a hug, my locket pressed between us. And in that moment, Daisy feels alive again.