March 2020 Competition Winners are: -
Jan Steer of Cilgerran
Mark deMeza of High Legh
‘A Plague Story’
Tony Oswick of Clacton-on-Sea
‘Who’s the Bastard Now?’
His life had always been precarious. From his squalid, sordid birth amongst the rotting detritus of a thousand cheap brick Victorian back-to-backs, through the grindingly austere and hungry years of the twenties, then the gasping, despairing thirties. until at last he stumbled into the protective embrace of the fleet. The brutal journey made through a fatherless childhood lived amongst the rats in the stinking Devonport slums, where life had not offered up the promise of a future, had armoured him against a bleak, hostile world. But even so, there were still moments, when tossed upon a wild and angry sea, that he craved the warmth of his mother’s affection. Times when he would have traded anything, even his soul perhaps, to rest his head once more upon her soft, warm bosom and seek out the calming reassurance of her melodic and rhythmical heartbeat.
He stretched out his neck feeling the lack of elasticity in each one of its hyper-extended muscles and with painful determination looked towards the greying horizon, trying to ascertain where the sky touched the sea. Somewhere overhead a gull was mocking him, its raucous and incessant screaming exploding inside his rapidly numbing brain. Suddenly blackness, total and absolute, overcame him. He lost consciousness.
Several seconds later, his eyes swollen and stinging from the sea’s salty kisses lazily fluttered open like hesitant shutters and the world flickered into vague view again. The deep green undulating and confused waves had begun to fling their icy crests skywards, only to be claimed by the unremitting, snowflake studded arctic wind now lashing angrily at his frozen cheeks.
The sea, he noticed, had begun to seethe and boil with the air escaping from the vessel’s torn hull. It was now massaging the lower end of his left leg. He watched it in a bemused way momentarily unsure of who the owner of the leg might be. Was it his? It didn’t look like his. He moved his toes violently about and he saw that the boot encasing them moved too. There it was then! The confirmation that he so urgently required. The foot, indeed, the leg, was his own!
His awareness of his surroundings grew sharper. He could see that his body had been thrown at the deck like a carelessly discarded rag doll and that he was sat propped haphazardly against the gently undulating metal plates of the smashed signal deck. His head was wedged upright and leaning against the port bulkhead stanchions. He absorbed the devastation around him, searching vainly for his other leg, the right one, which had inexplicably gone missing it seemed. But no. There it was. It was being securely held to the deck by the crushing weight of the heavy, steel, flag locker. This had been ripped from its deck mountings and hurled across the platform by the force of the explosion. Next to it and across from him lay Lofty Williams.
Leading Signalman Williams, most of him anyway, was lying prostrate. The tiny piece of head that remained was cradled in the purple-black remnants of his anti-flash hood, his congealed blood and ripped flesh combining in hideous kaleidoscopic splinters. His name was clearly visible stencilled in black paint onto the gas-mask haversack which remained attached to the back of his life-jacket belt hanging loosely around his shattered waist.
The ship began rolling heavily between the wave troughs, creaking and gasping for breath as she pitched and fell in the heavy Atlantic swell. The starboard signal yardarm now lay much closer to the sea’s surface than before and occasionally it dipped its solid metal finger beneath it, then rapidly withdrew it again as the ship rolled back the other way.
He looked at his stomach and saw the torn and chewed flesh of the ghastly sanguine wound that lay beneath his torn sea jersey, the halves of which lay fluttering wildly above his heavy serge bell bottoms.
Suddenly he remembered everything, seeing the recent events playing out behind his eyes in vivid detail and truly aware that the main character in this ghastly picture show was himself. He saw a fat, tea -coloured field dressing being pressed into the bloody and ragged crater of his wound by someone’s red washed fingers as he writhed and screamed in agony beneath them. Now he could see the second being applied over the first as that turned dark red, saturated with his blood.
The Sick Berth Attendant and Nobby Clark, the captain’s steward, had both held him forcefully to the deck once the fire had been extinguished and pumped some pain defying morphine into his contorted screaming body. He knew now why he felt so calm. But this relief from pain, this feeling of euphoria, would be very brief. He vaguely remembered someone scraping a space in the sooty grime clinging to his forehead with their finger and shouting at him that he was doing fine. They would have been marking him with an ‘M’ to show someone, anyone, that he had been morphine dosed. “Because that’s what you do lad”. He shouted out loudly to nobody at all mimicking his Chief Yeoman’s voice. After that he had willingly given way, spiralling into a bout of unconsciousness easily and slipping readily into the velvet blackness. And that was the first time.
So, this was how it was then. There could be no more morphine for him, not now. He doubted that there was still anyone left on board to administer it anyway.
He stared quizzically into his gaping stomach wound again with incredulity as if that obscene place was not part of his own torso and next at his trapped and mangled right leg. He now knew with a resigned certainty that he would not be leaving this ship again. He was going nowhere. His war was over. His brief affair with life was almost at an end. There would be no more ships for him. No more petty, naval rules to endure, no soddin’ officers. No watches to be kept and struggled blindly through. No more good times with the lads. No more girls. He would miss the girls.
He thought back to his time on the China station. The face of a slim, beautiful girl danced hazily before him, her long dark hair caressing his face lovingly. He’d had his pay stopped in punishment for some minor, naval misdemeanour; he couldn’t remember what exactly and she had helped support him with the money she earned from selling her body in the bar. He wondered if she still remembered him, then wondered if she ever had.
His next thoughts were for his mother, so proud of her son in his blue collar and sailor trousers and of the unquenchable sorrow that would settle on her when she eventually received the news about all this.
Leading Signalman Williams was afloat now, making his way over the guardrail and off the ship. His overalls had filled up with air giving his body a lumpy, bloated appearance. The weight of his sea boots was keeping his legs floating just out of sight below the surface. The copper wireless aerials, their glass insulators still intact, that had once run so tautly from the foremast to the main, were now lying limp and broken on the sea’s surface and they held the body fast momentarily until the rising sea gave a gigantic heave and swept it clear. Leading Signalman Williams continued his journey.
They had both been granted seventy-two hours leave passes prior to their ship’s departure and Lofty had taken him home to his parents’ house. They had welcomed him like a son, taking him in, giving him a bed and sharing their food and warmth with him. Their daughter had shared her warmth with him too but Lofty never knew. He would never know now. He watched him sail away into the distance.
The deck suddenly shuddered thunderously under him. It rose up, hesitated, then fell back into the sea’s embrace again. From somewhere aft there came a loud muffled roar as the boilers exploded breaking up the ship into two halves. The stern part fell away and sank rapidly.
All at once he was alone on an island, a cold metal island, that was sinking slowly below the sea. Dimly he could hear the frantic calling of the men in boats, the lucky ones, as they searched through the worsening weather with sore and damaged eyes for more survivors. He could hear too the screams of the wounded desperately trying to stay afloat somewhere, stay alive and he closed his eyes in sudden terror with the realisation of what was to come.
His wound was beginning to ache and burn again as the salt-water lapped at the ragged flesh and he stared wide-eyed into the place as the blood- soaked dressings floated clear. He continued looking on with detached curiosity as thin rivulets of red ran like boot laces through the bubbling water and danced uneasily about themselves in the filthy scum.
Ahead of him the ragged tail of the ship’s battle ensign, still hauled close-up at the masthead, lay uneasily against the oil-smeared surface of the ocean and he sensed that his end would not be far away.
He had slid further into the sea. It had risen to his neck and its icy ripples were now gently caressing his throat.
The brass fire hose nozzles fell from their bulkhead housings and began clanking their way over the deck towards the waiting sea. The spare signal lamp lenses followed and then the two Aldis lamps tumbled drunkenly after them.
A hundred gaudy signal flags littered what remained of the signal deck and a thousand saturated naval message pad sheets glued themselves to the metal screens surrounding him.
He was calmer now and resigned to the inevitability of his situation. He began to breathe with difficulty. The salt-water invaded his mouth, trickling intermittently over his teeth, insidiously dripping down into his throat and making him cough. He began to gurgle and gulp for air as the voices of the wounded grew quieter and then became almost imperceptible.
Agonisingly slowly he began to slide noiselessly beneath the waves. Briefly he thought of his dear mother again and then nothing. else He was too busy drowning.
‘A Plague Story’
“Lord have mercy on your soul.” My voice trembled. It was true. The year was 1349. May 1349, and as the lilies and the irises were in flower, the Black Death had come and cast its shadow over the city of York.
I knew the dead man, Robert Armstrong, a carpenter who had been working on the building of the great Minster nearby. He was lying before me, staring into the distance. His wide, glassy eyes were sunk into emaciated sockets. His face was locked with an expression of open-mouthed fear, as if the pain and speed of his death had caught him by surprise. His clothes were soaked in the vomit and dark blood that travellers from London had warned us of. His shirt had been torn open allowing me to see two large buboes on his neck. I noticed that the ends of his fingers had turned black; his flesh dying before he had.
This was the first time I had seen the ravaging effects of the Pestilence that had swallowed up Europe, crossed the high seas to arrive in London and quickly swept across England. And now to York.
By the dim light of a tallow candle, I glanced around the room. The white walls had turned grey over time. I could smell sawdust as one would expect in the house of a carpenter, but there was also a heavy, acrid odour which I could not recognize. Over in the corner of the room, I saw the dead man’s wife, Alice and child, Edith. They huddled together, cowering. How old was Robert, I wondered? Twenty-five, thirty? As I looked down, I saw an old man. The pestilence had drained his blood, leaving his skin and flesh pale white and translucent. The Devil had stolen his soul and I could see the terror in his eyes as it had left him.
This man is a sinner, I reassured myself. Pope Clement had decreed that the Great Pestilence was Divine Wrath, sent down to cleanse this depraved world. Robert Armstrong had attended church services. Nonetheless, I was convinced that this man must have been practicing gluttony or avarice or lust. Some sort of debauchery had been in his life. We are all sinners. Abbot Thomas had fervently passed on the Pope’s message. Even us priests. We drink too much and have unsavoury thoughts. Some go beyond thoughts. All sinners must repent.
I saw no Bible by the bed, no cross on the wall. Perhaps Armstrong was not a true believer after all. Stupid man! Judging from the stories we had heard from London; half the population was being wiped out. Man was truly sinful.
I turned my head to his family and shook my head slowly. They both started to weep. The child burst forth to throw herself upon her father’s corpse.
“Do not come closer or you will die!” I shouted and held my arm up to block her way. I regretted my aggressive tone so added gently,
“My child. Your father has been very ill and may still be contagious. We do not want you to catch this horrible disease, do we?”
The girl stood totally still, a few steps from me. She had beautiful blue eyes that sparkled from the sullied skin on her face. Her tangled hair held strands of what looked like shining gold threads. In a dark and desperate world, her hair seemed to produce rays of angelic sunshine.
Edith returned to her mother. Both were wearing tatty and dirty smocks, almost blending in with the walls. I noticed that Alice wore a bonnet that was not tied, and Edith wore none at all.
“I have given him his last rites and forgiven him his sins,” I said, slowly rising.
“He must be moved,” I added.
His body was lighter than I had expected, but I was not a strong man. It was a thankless and humiliating experience to half drag, half carry the corpse of Robert Armstrong out of his own house whilst covering my mouth and nose with my cowl. Alice bore an expression of terrified bemusement. And who can blame her, I thought. A few days ago, her husband would have seemed to be perfectly healthy and today she watched as he was handled like a slab of meat. She shielded Edith’s eyes from this horror.
“I must go now. There will be others to minister to.” I was standing in the doorway and turned to see the two clinging to each other in the corner.
“You know that you cannot leave this house now. You have been exposed to the Pestilence,” I said.
“But we will die, Brother Oswald!” beseeched Alice, her hands held out imploringly.
I saw Edith’s eyes flicker with fear. I paused. These two were fit and strong. They showed no signs of the Black Death. It must have attacked the father and will have spared the innocent females. Yes, that is right, Robert Armstrong was the sole sinner in this household, I reassured myself.
“Look,” I said. “I have removed the body. I will also take all these dirty sheets and rags away. They will be burnt.”
I sought to comfort them further.
“Pray to our Lord and he will protect you both.”
They watched in silence as I took hold of the door handle.
“May the Lord be with you!” I repeated as I pulled the door shut. But the words caught in my throat and became an inaudible mumble.
Outside, I had left an oak bucket on the threshold, containing red paint and a rustic wooden brush. I daubed a large cross on the door. Underneath I roughly wrote “May the Lord have mercy upon us.” The red paint dribbled down like seeping blood.
I looked up and down Stonegate. All the houses were similar, a mix of brick and timber framed. In the near distance, the growing Minster loomed over the city, its walls of freshly hewn cream limestone reflecting the sunshine and contrasting with the street, layered in brown filth from man and beast.
There were no other red crossed doors to be seen. There was a bucket outside a house around a furlong away. That must have been Brother Harold, I supposed. He was soon to paint his first cross, no doubt.
So much sin, Abbot Thomas had said. Sin lurked everywhere, tempting us with the devil’s work.
“Do not fear, the Great Pestilence has been wreaked upon us to punish the sinners of the world. Those with pure souls and hearts will not succumb,” he had intoned with such zeal that he almost seemed to be singing.
We brothers scurried back to our dark rooms like frightened rats. We buried our faces in our Bibles, scoured our minds for the slightest transgression that we might ever have committed and then chanted relentless prayers for forgiveness.
Abbot Thomas insisted that we brothers went into the city to take confessions and ease the path of sinners to heavenly salvation. The innocents would be granted protection by our Lord.
Within hours, red crosses had started to multiply like uncontrolled rabbits on the meadow. Even though St Mary’s Abbey lay beyond the city walls, we were not immune. Brother Harold lasted barely two days after painting his first cross. Abbot Thomas withdrew to his lodgings and we barely saw him thereafter. York truly became a vision of hell. My black cowl was spattered with splashes of red paint. It was pointless trying to wash it away as every day more paint was added.
Wooden carts were used to carry the dead and would rumble by, on their way to the plague pits which were already being dug outside the city walls, beyond Monk’s Gate. Once used for transporting hay, these carts were now harvesting the dead.
It was several days later when I was returning to St Mary’s for Vespers that I saw another cart coming towards me. The road narrowed, not granting me easy passing space. I stood with my back against a wall as the cart trundled past. I glanced down at the pile of bodies.
“Stop, stop!” I shouted at the cart puller.
The puller stopped and turned.
“What?” he asked dismissively. No doubt he was in a rush. Cart pullers were paid by the body. For those that survived, they would profit from the Pestilence.
Without responding, I leant over the cart’s wooden side panel.
Amongst the carelessly strewn limbs, I had glimpsed a lock of golden yellow hair. I moved a stray arm to the side and revealed a larger patch of hair. I tentatively moved the arm further revealing a smooth white forehead and partially shielded eyes. I pushed a little further and my stomach heaved uncontrollably. It was Edith.
“Sweet Jesus,” I said.
Those beautiful eyes had been transformed. Just like her father, the Great Pestilence had stolen her light, leaving behind weak blue pupils.
The cart puller stared at me for a second or two, then turned around and started to pull his human cargo towards its final destination. As he moved off, he turned his head and shouted,
“Priests! So much for your fuckin’ prayers!”
“But she is an innocent,” I whispered out loud. “She is a child. She cannot have sinned. All these children and babies. They are too young to have learnt the sins of mankind. My Lord, why do you take these perfect souls? They should be left to save mankind, not removed from it. How can you punish these angels with this terrifying death? How can you take them and not me?”
I felt my head begin to ache as I made my way towards St Mary’s. My thoughts brought no respite or clarity. The nearby Minster watched silently.
At Vespers that night, the brothers chanted solemnly and then we entered into contemplative prayer. However, for the first time since my ordination as a Benedictine monk, it was different when I fell to my knees.
I closed my eyes, but I did not pray. I could not.
‘Who’s the Bastard Now?’
I've just been listening to the wireless. It don't work well. Keeps on fizzing, been on the blink for ages. It belonged to the bloke who lived here before.
A posh geezer was reading the news. He was talking about Billy, said he was going to die. Tomorrow. "William Drummond’s execution will go ahead at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning at Pentonville Prison.” That's what the posh geezer said. Said it all natural-like, just as if he was talking about something simple like cornflakes or scrambled eggs or a pint down the pub. Bet he never had to scrimp like we did. He sounded like he still had a silver spoon stuck in his mouth. I’d stick it up his jacksie. He don’t care about Billy or people like us. I still can't believe it'll happen.
It’s strange listening about people you know. It’s been in all the papers, too. Ever since last February. Don’t seem real somehow. Ordinarily, you don’t think people on the wireless exist, they’re just names in someone’s imagination. But Jack Sparkes exists, existed. And Billy exists too. Until tomorrow. Bloody hell. How did it come to this?
He deserved it. Jack Sparkes was a bastard from the time he took his first breath. I knew him at school, I could read his future. I was three years older so he never bullied me but there were plenty who suffered. Jack Sparkes was into protection, even then. The teachers didn’t do nothing. Perhaps they were frightened of him? I know I was.
You might not think so but I care about Billy, honest I do. Everyone knew Billy couldn't have done it and I'm sure the cops knew it too. They found him kneeling over Jack’s body and there were Billy's dabs all over the knife. It was an open and shut case as far as they were concerned. They didn't care as long as they nicked someone. Billy protested he didn’t do it. Of course he didn't do it. Billy? A killer? Not on your life.
You see, Billy’s never been the brightest crayon in the box. At school the kids called him Simple Billy. It was easy for the cops to get into his head, the bastards. Knocked him about. He confessed, course he did. In the end, I expect he half-believed he did it.
That was always one of Billy’s problems. Easily led. He was in Jack’s class at school. That boy'd do whatever Jack told him. If Jack told him to cheek the teacher, Billy did. If Jack told him to nick sweets from the corner shop, Billy did. If Jack told him to rough someone up, Billy did. Thought it was a bit of fun, a way of getting Jack’s approval. Okay, every now and then Jack would give Billy a smack - and Billy didn’t seem to mind. But if anyone else hit Billy, Jack would give them a belting. Trouble was, Billy found it hard to make friends. He wanted to be liked. I hated the way Jack treated him but I couldn’t say nothing. Just like now.
In court, Billy took it all back. I was sure the jury would see the truth. Billy’s brief told him to say the cops had beaten the confession out of him but the jury - the bastards - didn’t believe the cops would do anything so nasty. They thought it was a smart-arse lawyer playing tricks.
Jack shouldn’t have treated Billy like his lap poodle. “Do this Billy, do that Billy, do the other Billy.” I tried to warn him but he never listened. When Jack left school and set up his business, he took Billy under his wing. Jack soon became the name in the neighbourhood. He got what he wanted and, if he didn’t, he had the muscle to sort things out. I hated Billy getting involved. I hated what Jack was doing to him.
It went on for a couple of years but then I heard Jack was doing drugs. I didn’t want Billy mixed up in it, course I didn't. Thieving and a bit of roughing-up was okay - but drugs? Drugs was big-time. Drugs was dangerous. That’s when I decided to say something to Jack.
Last February, it was. Cold and dark, a bit foggy too. We all lived in the same neck of the woods. One night I went round to see Jack. I'd had a couple of pints to calm my nerves, give me Dutch courage. But I was still scared of him, that’s why I took the knife. I just wanted him to leave Billy alone, you've got to believe me. If Mum was alive that’s what she would’ve wanted me to do, I know she would.
Jack got angry. Called me a bleeding pillock - and worse. "Who do you think you are coming round here? Don’t you know who I am?” All high and mighty he was. Of course I knew who he was. He was a violent bastard and I didn't want Billy getting involved in drugs.
He pushed me towards the door, shouting and cursing, "Get out of here you freaking poofter before I give you a good hiding." That’s when I saw red. Well, wouldn't you? He wasn’t expecting the knife. That’s the only reason he didn’t get me first. One blow to the stomach. In the guts. It felt good, real good. Fast and deep it was. Jack clung on to my coat and I could see the fear in his eyes. That was good, too. When he slumped to the floor, I saw him dripping in his own blood. That was good as well. He wouldn’t get at Billy any more.
It was all a bit of a blur after that. I dropped the knife and scarpered out the back door, down the alley. 'Cos it was dark and foggy, I got home without being seen, thank God. My heart was pumping, pumping harder than it'd ever done in my life. Couldn’t think straight. I’d never done nothing like that before. Had a few more drinks that night. Several more.
Next morning my head felt like putty. Got woken by Sammy Thompson hammering on the door. “Roy, have you heard? It’s Billy. The cops have got him.”
Silly little fool! How was I to know Billy would go round to Jack’s house after I’d left?
It all came out in court. Billy had knocked at Jack’s door, got no answer, and looked through a chink in the curtains. The light was still on. Billy saw Jack lying in a pool of blood and, being loyal Billy, bashed the door down. That’s where the cops found him, kneeling beside Jack’s body with a knife in his hand. Some nosey neighbour had heard the noise of the door being smashed and dialled 999.
I did visit Billy a couple of times in the nick. “Don’t worry son, you’re innocent," I told him." You were good mates with Jack, they won’t believe you did it, you’ve never been in serious trouble before.” The words came out but my insides were churning. I tell you, I couldn't look him in the face. But what else could I do? If they nabbed me for Jack’s murder, they’d hang me for sure. But not Billy, not Simple Billy. I never believed they'd hang him.
Oh God, if only he hadn't gone round to see Jack. Hadn't broken in. Hadn't stayed. If only ...
The cops interviewed a load of us after it all blew up but no-one ever suspected me. I knew Billy didn’t do it and I was sure the cops, the judge, the jury - someone - would see sense. And, even if they found him guilty, surely they wouldn't hang him? Prison, yes, but not the drop. Not for Simple Billy.
The posh geezer on the wireless said the Home Secretary hadn't found a reason to over-turn the sentence. So Billy, poor sod, is going to be hanged. By his neck. Until dead. Tomorrow at nine. That’s in fifteen hours' time. Billy’s got another fifteen hours to live. I wonder what he’s feeling now? He must be shit-scared, poor kid. I want to go and see him, honest I do. But how can I?
I suppose if I'd come forward sooner it might’ve been different. Could've blustered my way out of it. Made up a story about Jack threatening me, attacking me, and me having to kill him in self-defence. I’ve thought those thoughts every hour of every day for the last eight months. Over and over, ever since it happened. But the longer things have gone on, the harder it’s become. The more people would hate me, wouldn't they?
Oh bloody hell, that poor kid. I don't know how I'm going to get through tonight. And not just tonight. How am I going to get through the rest of my life?
Last night I prayed to Mum. I swear I saw her looking down on me. She was talking to me. "What are you doing to your kid brother?" she said. “He’s taking the rap. How could you do it?”
She was right.
Who’s the bastard now?
March 2020 Short List
A Plague Story by Mark deMeza of High Legh
The Cleaner by M.J. Deacon of East Kilbride
The Mistake by Patricia McBride of Cambridge
Personal Injury by Jan Steer of Cilgerran
Subjugation the Play by Richard Hooton of Ashton-under-Lyne
Who's the Bastard Now? byTony Oswick of Clacton-on-Sea
March 2020 Long List
A Plague Story by Mark deMeza of High Legh
Coffee Ghosts by Alastair Chisholm of Edinburgh
The Cleaner by M.J. Deacon of East Kilbride
The Mistake by Patricia McBride of Cambridge
Personal Injury by Jan Steer of Cilgerran
Acts of Love between Burma and Leeds by Alyn Hine of Romford
Subjugation the Play by Richard Hooton of Ashton-under-Lyne
To the Rescue by Barbara Young of Otterburn
Boy in Café by Delphine Seddon of Theydon Bois
Dyad by Joan D. Revitt of Plymouth