March 2023 

competition winners


First Prize


Steve Burford of Malvern Link

‘Internal Monologue’



Second Prize


Richard Hooton of Ashton-under-Lyne




Third Prize


Sean McNicholl of Armagh

‘Finger Guns’




The March 2023 Shortlist


Finger Guns by Sean McNicholl of Armagh, Northern Ireland

Internal Monologue by Steve Burford of Malvern Link

The Reunion by Robert Greenop of Winchester

Bidden by Richard Hooton if Ashton-under-Lyne

Will and Testament by Sarah Hills of Leeds

The Art of Only Giving by Rachael Hill of Bristol


The March 2023 Longlist


Finger Guns by Sean McNicholl of Armagh, Northern Ireland

Internal Monologue by Steve Burford of Malvern Link

The Reunion by Robert Greenop of Winchester

Bidden by Richard Hooton if Ashton-under-Lyne

Missing by Gregor Szanto of Eastbourne

Irish Exit by Eddie Cunningham of London

For King and Conscience by Juliet Hill of Madrid, Spain

By the Fireplace by Michael Bateman-Lee of Horsham

Will and Testament by Sarah Hills of Leeds

The Art of Only Giving by Rachael Hill of Bristol




‘Internal Monologue’

Steve Burford 


I hope he comes over.


I hope he doesn’t come over.


I hope he does.


I hope he doesn’t.


Do it!


Don’t do it!


“All right?”


Darren looks up. He has to shield his eyes against the morning winter sun streaming from behind Matt, throwing his face into shadow. “All right.”


Matt stands there. It’s cold, so he's got his hands in his pockets, but he isn’t wearing his blazer of course, and his tie’s not done up. “All right if I sit down?” He jerks an elbow at the bench Darren’s sitting on. It makes the question casual, like he doesn’t give a stuff one way or the other.




“Suppose.” Why’re you asking?




Matt nods and drops himself onto the bench. The two boys sit there. Across the asphalt they can see their mates, and the thousand plus other kids who aren’t their mates, kicking balls, scarfing sandwiches, running, jumping, punching, doing all the things you have to do after a long morning of lessons with the prospect of even more to follow. After a couple of minutes of this, Matt finally speaks. “Wow,” he says.




Typical, thinks Darren. “Yeah, wow,” he says. He sits and waits for Matt to set the shape of his new world.




“Did you know you were going to do that?”


Not the question I was expecting. “Not really. I knew I was going to do it at some point. I didn’t know exactly when though.” Darren wrinkles his nose. “I suppose I was just waiting for the right time.”


Matt snorts. “And Monday morning, PSHE was your best bet?” 


“It was something ‘Personal’ and ‘Social’.”


“Not very ‘Healthy’.”


“Probably not very ‘Educational’ either. But we were talking about ‘relationships’. Seemed like the best time. I couldn’t have done it in Home Ec. Or French.” Darren thinks for a moment. “Definitely couldn’t have done it in French. I don’t know the words.”


“Je suis gay?” Matt suggests. “J’aime les garcons. Je suis un….”


“Me too.” Darren grins.


“Fuck off,” Matt says.


But he's not angry,” Darren thinks. At least, I don’t think he's angry. He could have been. He co8uld have been furious. He could have come over here to punch me in the face. Darren’s hands are in his pockets too. They’re balled into fists. Just in case.  


“You could have lied.”


“Like the rest of you?” Darren adopts a sing-song, falsetto. ‘What am I looking for in a girlfriend, Mr Taylor? Oh, someone I can respect and who’ll respect me.’” He mimes vomiting.


“Jayden wasn’t going to say that. He was dying to say….”


“I know what Jayden was dying to say. And so did Mr Taylor, which was why he didn’t ask him.” Darren shakes his head. “I dunno. Maybe if Taylor had said ‘partner’ I’d have fudged it. But he didn’t. He said ‘girlfriend’. ‘What are you looking for in a girlfriend?’ And I’m not.” He looks Matt straight in the eye. “Not now, not ever.” Over to you, mate.


Matt sits, thinking this through. “Fair play to him, though. Taylor took it in his stride.”


And he ducks, dives and avoids the subject. “They probably train them how to deal with that kind of thing in college.”


“Suppose.” Across the playground they see Jayden. It looks like he's punching a Year Seven boy. The boy doesn’t seem to mind. “Can’t imagine old Powell taking it so calmly.” The two lads take a moment to picture the crumbly Mr. Powell reacting to someone in his PSHE class outing himself. “Mind you, everyone says Powell’s gay himself.”


“Yeah, because they don’t like him.”




Another minute goes by.


“You have been lying though, haven’t you?” Matt doesn’t look at Darren while he says this. He keeps his eyes on Jayden, who’s moved on to a Year Eight boy now, snatching his basketball and refusing to give it back. “All this time, pretending you’re not, y’know….”




“…when actually, all the time, you were. Not that I blame you,” he adds quickly.


Yes, you do. “It’s not like that. I’ve not been lying. I’ve just… not been saying. It’s different.” Darren looks at Matt, trying to work out what he's thinking. It feels odd looking straight into his friend’s face, trying to read it rather than just see it. Time was, less than an hour ago in fact, he would have known what Matt was thinking because, nine times out of ten, it would have been what Darren was thinking anyway. Does it feel different for you, too?




Here it comes.


Matt shifts uncomfortably. It’s like he’s forgotten how to sit on a bench. “Do you fancy me, then?”


Darren keeps him hanging: he can’t help himself. Then, “No,” and he laughs.




“Not now, not ever.”


“Okay, okay.”


Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven….


“Why not?”


Faster than I expected. “Because. Because you’re Matt. You’re my best mate.” Aren’t you? “Because, it’d be weird. Like fancying a brother.” Again, the temptation is just too strong. “Now, if we were talking about your brother….”


Matt’s look of horror cracks Darren up. He yanks his hands out of his pockets and waves them in denial. “No, no, no. We are not going there.”


“Why not? He’s a looker is Kevin. And he's seventeen, so it’s not like it’d be illegal.” Abruptly, Darren sobers. “Actually, I suppose it would be, wouldn’t it? Me being fifteen. I’d be a criminal.” He raises his eyebrows. “Wow.”


“Stop pratting about,” says Matt, eager to move the conversation away from his family. “Is there anyone that you really do, y’know, fancy?” 


Darren puts his pleasure at winding Matt up, and his own newly-discovered legal anxieties to one side to focus on the question. “No-one actually real, no. Lots of guys off telly and films. That swimmer who’s gay. A couple of football players.”


“Yeah?” At the mention of football, Matt brightens. “Who?” Then he recollects himself. “Never mind.”


“It’s cool. They’re from City.”


Matt frowns. He’s not sure if Darren’s still taking the piss, or even if it’s a good thing that Darren’s staying loyal to their team. He presses on. “But, if you haven’t got…”


You can’t say it, can you?”


“I mean, if there isn’t anyone you…, you know, then… how do you know?”


“You haven’t got a girlfriend.”


“Yes I have!”


Darren folds his arms. “A quick fumble in the queue at Maccy D’s does not make Mia your girlfriend. And that’s what she said.”


Matt goes to retort, and for a second, Darren wishes he would, that they could let this conversation descend into familiar, comfortable banter. But we can’t, can we? Not until we’ve sorted this. If we can.


“I just know,” says Matt.


Darren nods. “Yeah. Me too.” Get it?


From the buildings across the yard come three piercing electronic notes: the summons back to lessons.


Now or never. Darren turns on the bench to face Matt. He's hunched over, staring at the gum-pocked tarmac as if it’s a maths problem he's trying to work out. “We still mates, then?” He’s pleased that his voice sounds level because his heart feels like it’s in his throat and is going to burst.


Matt looks up. “Suppose,” he says. He sounds surprised, perhaps by the question, perhaps by his answer. “I mean, it doesn’t really matter these days, does it?”


Not if you’re straight. But will you stay my mate when they start asking you why you’re hanging around with me? Will you stick up for me when they make jokes about ‘queers’ and ‘paedos’, even if I’m not there, or will you pretend you haven’t heard? Or will you join in? And when I do get a boyfriend…?


Suddenly, Darren wants to touch Matt, to hold or hug him. The strength of it almost takes his breath away. And it’s not because he fancies him but because he knows that Matt does mean what he’s saying, that he will try his hardest. And right now, Darren loves him for that. “No. It doesn’t really matter,” he says.


Matt stands. “I’m gonna go and get a quick baguette before Music. Coming?”


“In a minute.”


Darren remains sitting on the bench, watching his mate walk away from him and into the main school building. Step by step, he gets further away. Will we ever be that close again? Darren wonders.


He also wonders when he started talking to himself so much.  


Across the yard, two Year Sevens chase each other round and round in circles, shrieking and laughing, making the most of the last few seconds of break. Darren remembers when he and Matt had been like that. It could have been yesterday. It was yesterday. He hadn’t used to talk to himself then. He hadn’t needed to. He’d had Matt. The young lads start thumping each other. It looks like it’s making them happy. Not much talking to themselves going on in those heads.


Darren stands, squares his shoulders, and begins the walk back into school. Time, literally, to face the music. He takes one last look at the giggling Year Sevens. Wankers!    




Richard Hooton



THE MAITRE D’ bows as I pass through The Holly’s arched doorway. I’ve a spring in my step as we curve the circular bar that dominates the dining room’s centre. Yesterday’s news was a real fillip. And Emily was on top form last night.


‘This way please, Mr Lavender.’


Air conditioning circulates a cool breeze and the tantalising aroma of roasted meats and spices. Well-heeled customers, sitting on stools upholstered in red leather, glance at me. I push my shoulders back. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue frolics in the background. We reach a table in the corner, overlooking the room. The Maitre D’ gives a theatrical arm swoop.


Roger Merrell’s already seated. Always first. Likes to give the impression you’ve kept him waiting. He stands. His navy suit is cut to perfection. Lean but jowly, a firmly knotted tie keeps loose folds of skin tucked under his shirt. I’ve never seen him dressed informally; brogues always polished. It makes me conscious of my open collar attire, just as his close shave makes my five o’clock shadow feel like stubble.


Roger holds out a paw, flashing whitened teeth.


‘Secretary of State.’ His sandpaper timbre fails to scrape the shine from the words. ‘How good of you to join me.’


Well, he did summon me. Ministers used to control these media moguls. Now he’s nicknamed Geppetto. Knowledge is power.


His handshake is vice tight and vigorous.


The Maitre D’ pulls out a chair. I sit and he drapes a linen napkin over my lap. Roger whispers something in the Maitre D’s ear, sending him on his way. Then retakes his seat, ramrod straight as a soldier. I smile at my host in the same way I do for his photographer’s cameras: a fixed but uneasy grin.


‘To what do I owe the pleasure, Roger?’


There’s always a catch.


‘Haven’t seen you for so long, Jason.’ From a certain angle, his wide smile makes him resemble a shark. ‘And to celebrate your promotion.’


It’s taken forever to climb the ladder to the high office of Business Secretary. Years of campaigning and lobbying, endless meetings and constituents’ complaints. Clambering and clinging to each rung; from sitting on select committees to bag carrying for the dourest of Ministers.


‘Always good to see you, Roger.’


Particularly as he owns four national newspapers and is the major shareholder and CEO of a satellite TV company.


Attached to the restaurant’s dark wooden panelling are Victorian portraits of the leading gentlemen in their fields: finance, medicine, literature. Moustached men in bowler hats, cravats and waistcoats. I feel a sense of belonging, the radiance of accomplishment, to be part of this esteemed company.


A pretty, gazelle-like waitress approaches carrying a bottle of wine. She presents it to Roger as if it’s jewellery before pouring an inch of deep ruby into a glass. Roger gives it a swirl. Sips.




The opinion is instant. The waitress fills our glasses solemnly. She positions the bottle on our table. A 1998 Château Haut-Brion, a grand classic; will have set Roger back a four figure sum. Should I be flattered or frightened?


The waitress sashays past. I can’t resist a glance at her derriere. Turning back, I find Roger watching me. His pugilistic face has more crests and crevices than a mountain landscape. Large, wire-rimmed spectacles seem designed to cover every angle of vision.


‘How’s business?’ I ask, smoothing my napkin.


His green eyes flit, taking in whatever’s happening behind me. ‘Difficult,’ he growls. ‘The board has differences of opinion.’


I lift my glass by the stem. The nose soars with rich, ripe blackberries and blueberries. I sip. Full-bodied, perfect balance and harmony on the palate. Notes of smoke and cherry liqueur in the finish. Delightful.


‘I need that controlling stake. If you…’


I raise an open-palmed hand. ‘You know I can no longer discuss that with you, Roger.’


Legal restrictions constrain media ownership. But only a takeover referred to the regulators by the Business Secretary will be scrutinised. I cannot be seen to be influenced.


Roger’s face stiffens. It feels as though the air conditioning has stopped. I glance around. The quirky stained glass windows let colourful diamonds of light cascade over us while shielding our presence from those outside.


The waitress bestows us with bowls: a light green consommé containing floating vegetation, rather reminiscent of my duck pond.


‘I took the liberty of ordering for us.’ Roger holds his spoon like a baton.


The waitress stares at me. I tilt my head, eyebrows raised. ‘Fancy a photo, dear?’


She averts her gaze. Scampers away.


A careful sup. The pea flavour at least has a refreshing mintiness.


‘It’s my company.’ Roger slurps rapid spoonfuls. ‘I built it, it’s mine by rights.’ He has no regard for the required manners. ‘It’s unfair, undignified, to be blocked from owning it outright.’


The restaurant’s busy but has sufficient space between tables to not be overheard. Media ownership has long been politically controversial. Even some of my colleagues agree with the opposition’s view that freedom of speech is enhanced by a plurality and diversity of editorial voices. It won’t do to get dragged into an argument.


‘I simply cannot discuss it.’ I smile in the way I do to my wife when averting a quarrel. ‘More than my job’s worth.’


Roger knows full well that the idea of one man controlling a large proportion of our nation’s newspaper and broadcasting interests is of huge public concern. Especially when that person takes such a close interest in his organisation’s political agenda – and claims to be able to sway elections.


Roger finishes his soup with a clattering spoon. I’m half-way through.


‘It’s unfortunate your predecessor had to resign.’ He wipes his mouth with his napkin. ‘But we had a duty to publish those stories.’


Heat prickles my neck. I don’t need reminding that the previous minister blocked his takeover bid – and paid a heavy price: career, marriage and family collapsing around him.


‘Yes, very unfortunate.’ Still, Vernon was foolish to declare war openly on Roger in a doomed bid to shore up liberal support. ‘Though everyone’s entitled to a private life.’


‘A private life is what people want when they’ve done something wrong.’


I finish my starter in silence. The waitress returns, pouring more wine with enough tremble to spill some, a growing red stain sullying the tablecloth’s white linen.


‘Careful, girl.’ Roger glares at her. ‘Have you any idea much each drop of that costs?’


‘So sorry, Sir.’ Her cheeks redden. She collects the bowls. Scurries off.


Roger’s features settle into thought. I know better than to interrupt. I enjoy the wine. Mustn’t let it go to my head. Light chatter flows around us, the occasional guffaw. Roger never laughs.


‘How’s the wife?’


‘Very well, thank you. Sends her love.’


‘Been married, what, twenty years?’


I nod while noticing a sweet little brass lamp on the table; so preferable to the long-burning candles they used to have, which end up a molten mess.


‘Must have been teenagers when you tied the knot.’ That smile is more dazzling than the cutlery.


‘You’re too kind, Roger.’ I run a hand through my hair. ‘Mid-twenties.’


The waitress serves our main course. Roger wields his steak knife, carving through the sirloin to expose flesh pink to the point of bloody.


‘Ahh.’ Roger scrutinises it. ‘Rare like me.’ He chews on a large chunk. ‘And the kids?’


The tender meat cuts easily. ‘Xander’s studying for GCSEs. Sophia thinks only of horses.’


‘Family matters.’ Juice squirts from an heirloom tomato that Roger’s slicing.


The wine matches the steak perfectly. ‘They mean everything to me.’


Roger skewers a piece of meat. ‘Along with the job.’


‘Especially the job.’


Roger’s quick with the knife. He’s almost devoured his steak. ‘How’s that new parliamentary assistant of yours doing?’


That heat returns, my neck febrile. I take a swallow of wine, it does go down very easily. ‘Emily’s performing brilliantly.’ I sample a triple-cooked chip, crisp and fluffy. ‘She’s a bright young thing.’


‘Heard a lot about that girl. She’ll go far.’


Best change the subject. ‘How’s your family?’


‘Good.’ Roger pauses. ‘Keeping in line.’ He consumes his last piece of meat. ‘Jack’s got some liberal ideas, bit disconcerting. Sawyer’s a chip off the old block.’


I feel the cool relief of a stricken pilot reaching safe ground. ‘No thoughts of retirement?’ Must be in his seventies now. His sons will be jockeying for position.


A bemused look. ‘Work is my life, Jason.’


I hadn’t noticed the waitress lingering. ‘Is everything to your satisfaction…’ – she carefully tops up our glasses – ‘…gentlemen?’


Roger bats her away like a gnarled lion with a fly.


‘I’ve done a huge amount of good for this country. Bringing business and employment, investment and innovation. Keeping newspapers going, giving people a choice of channels and quality programmes.’


He’s certainly created an empire. His parents were nothing special; father a GP, mother a teacher. His father ruled with an iron rod, I’m told. Roger worked his way up through the newspaper industry until he could afford to own a local rag, then branched out, buying and selling. Eventually, he went national, snapping up titles.


‘And now I’m not even allowed to control what’s mine.’


Must be more than thirty years since Thatcher’s government allowed him to take over two broadsheets without referring it to the Monopolies and Merger Commission, even though he already owned two tabloids. An unprecedented merger rushed through in three days over fears the newspapers could close. A decision hotly criticised in Parliament and press. I later learnt the Minister at the time had been minded to refer, then mysteriously changed his mind. Roger’s now stronger than ever. And still wanting more.


‘Can’t you be satisfied with what you already have?’


He looks at me as if I’m speaking Japanese. What drives him? When so many men his age would be happy to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their success. Hard not to admire him really.


Leaning back, I quaff my wine, savouring its heady glow. Wonder if Emily’s available tonight?


A steely-eyed stare. ‘How’s the wife?’


He’s already asked after Susan. For a moment, I hope it’s a sign of forgetfulness. Possibly even the onset of dementia. But no. His mind remains razor sharp. An edge to the tone, a disconcerting twinkle in his eye. Sweat troubles my brow. Now I know where we’re going. Or rather, where he’s taking me.


I gulp some wine. It can’t drown the bad taste in my mouth.


‘Susan’s well.’ My tone is flat.


I glance at the paintings. An anxious Victorian glowers back. I push the remnants of my meal around my plate.


Roger scrunches his napkin. ‘I’m not having a dessert. Don’t like anything sweet.’ He downs his drink. ‘You help yourself, Jason.’ A glance at his Rolex. ‘Got to get going – another meeting at eight. I’ve already settled the bill. Don’t worry about that.’


At the bar, cocktail glasses hang upside down from a brass-tiled ceiling.


‘You’ll never retire, will you?’


He actually laughs. A deep, throaty chuckle. ‘I’ll keep buggering on until I drop, Jason. Then Sawyer will keep my legacy going.’ Roger stands. ‘Family matters.’


‘I couldn’t agree more,’ I mutter.


‘Knew we’d understand each other.’ Roger slaps me on the back. ‘Congratulations again. You’ll go far.’


I feel the echoing sting of his hand, like its presence remains. I flinch as if pulled by strings.


‘Nothing escapes me, Jason.’ Roger strolls away.


‘Anything else?’ The waitress looms over me with a sour expression. What’s she overheard?


I shake my head.


‘Thought I recognised you.’ She stares at my wedding ring, nose wrinkling. ‘I know Emily.’


I open my mouth. Think again.


She looks at Roger’s empty chair. ‘And his rival editor who dines here.’


Snorting, I toss my napkin onto my messy plate.


A smile dawns on her face. She sets about cleaning up the disorder.


My mind spinning with headlines, I trudge back down to Westminster.



'Finger Guns'

Sean McNicholl


 The bombs changed everything.


That’s when Mammy became petrified of us being killed.


Don’t get me wrong, she had always been worried about it, that’s just how life was in Belfast in the early Seventies. But after the car bombs went off on Bloody Friday she changed.


They’re the reason she shipped us off to live with her sister Elizabeth in south Armagh.


As if that was any safer. She didn’t seem to realise it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.


“The Fenians will have the town destroyed, better off hiding amongst them out in the sticks.” My father had said.


Christ, I fought tooth and nail to stay. I really did.


Belfast was my town, my land, my home. I wanted to fight to defend it, to defend our people and to defend the Crown, whatever that meant. Politics is difficult to understand when you’re eight. But I knew the Crown was ours and not theirs. The old men had told me so. We were right and they were Fenians.   I wanted to stay. But as a child your voice isn’t heard. And so, I was packed into the back of Aunty Lizzie’s Kadett and brought out to the country.


Now bear in mind, as a boy of eight I had never left Belfast. The only cow I’d ever seen was in a book up until we passed Lisburn. So to me, south Armagh seemed a magical place - a vast expanse of rolling green hills, coursed with rivers and streams that pooled in lakes. The Belfast streets and the Crown were soon forgotten.


In the back of Aunty Lizzie’s Kadett I had been transported to a fairytale; south Armagh in late July.


It’s well known that country folk aren’t like city folk. I’d say that’s true across the world. Different surroundings birth different cultures. And Aunty Lizzie and my Mammy couldn’t have been further apart.


At home we would be allowed to play in our street, and in our street only, under the watchful eye of many’s a mammy.


But in south Armagh Aunty Lizzie would harry me out the door, calling after me to “only come home when you’re lost.”


And so it was, me the Belfast boy out to find my adventure in a fairytale.


Truth be told, it was a slow start, the back garden was enough of an adventure at the beginning. I was still a city boy.


But as the days crept to weeks, so my daring grew and soon neither fence nor brier could hold me.


I traversed ravines and forded stream. I saved damsels from their ash-tree towers and chased invisible villains down badger setts with my stick-ish rapier. I saw blue waves crash amongst the golden barley fields as I sailed the Atlantic and shot at German soldiers hiding amongst the flocks of sheep.


Until one day a stranger stood in the midst of my fairytale.


“Who are you?” he asked bluntly.


It’s a wonder how small talk isn’t necessary amongst children.


He startled me and I squinted into the early morning sun to see him. He was about my height, maybe a bit taller if I’m remembering him rightly, and he gave me a blank stare.


“Billy Anderson,” I answered.


“That sounds like a Proddy name,” he replied, “you a Prod?”


“I think so,” I said with uncertainty. I knew I was Presbyterian though I wasn’t sure if that made me a Prod. Some of the older kids on the street had said that that’s what the Fenians called us. So I guessed I was a Prod.


“Really!?” he said excitedly with widening eyes, “I’ve never seen a Prod before! ‘Cept for Paisley on the telly. You sorta talk like him too. Where are you from?”


I didn’t know who Paisley was but I wondered if he was a Presbyterian.




“Wow,” he said gleefully, “A Proddy from Belfast!”


I didn’t know how to answer so I just looked at my now-grass-stained shoes.


The wee boy thought for a moment.


“Why are you here?”


I shrugged the reply.


“Mammy thought it was too dangerous in Belfast with the bombs.”


“Does she not know there’s bombs here too?” He asked me as he braved a step closer.


I shrugged again.


“My name’s Pearse Murphy.” He said it formally, sticking out his hand like the old men did. I shook it obligingly.


He wrinkled his brow as he scanned the sun -touched horizon behind me.


“You’d need to watch yourself,” he attempted to mutter like an old man too, “there’s not many Prods round here. Is your Mammy here?”


I shook my head.


“She sent me live with my Aunty Lizzie.”


He thought for a moment and then nodded. He knew who she was.


“So is your daddy in Brits?”


“No. He works in a factory.” I answered.


“Oh,” he said a little taken aback, “I thought all Prods were in the Brits.”


“I don’t think they’re the same thing.” I said but in truth I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know exactly what a Prod was. “The Brits wear army clothes and carry guns. My daddy wears old clothes and doesn’t have a gun.”


“My daddy has a gun!” The boy exclaimed excitedly. “My daddy’s in the Provos! And when I grow up I’m going to be in the IRA too and I’ll be the head of the IRA and I’ll free Ireland!”


He pulled out finger guns and started shooting wildly.


“But the IRA are bad guys.” I answered as fear crept across me. He must be a bad boy. Fenians are the baddies. They don’t like the Crown.


“No they’re not!” he said heatedly, “You’re the bad guys! The Prods and the Brits!”


“But you blew up Belfast and killed all those people!” I said trying to stifle a childish sob like many children do when faced with confrontation they don’t understand.


“But you shot all those civ-civ-civ-ians. You shot all those men in Derry and they were just marching. Didn’t have guns or nothing. And you just shot them. Pew! Pew! Pew!”


He fired at me.


“I didn’t!” I cried barely holding back tears now.


He held a ceasefire and holstered his finger guns.


“You don’t need to cry,” he said to the ground as he pushed a stone under his toe.


An uncomfortable silence fell between us that’s not normally found in a fairytale.


“My uncle was shot by the Brits,” he said quietly, still focusing of the stone beneath his shoe, “Have you had anyone killed?”


He flicked his eyes up to me. I nodded.


“My uncle was blown up in Tyrone. He worked for the BBC.” I answered.


Rays of fear spread across me as a realisation began to dawn.


“Where’s your daddy?” I asked quickly looking ‘round, expecting to find myself staring down the nozzle of gun.


Pearse had lost interest in the stone and was now kicking at dandelions.


“Long Kesh,” he said as he lifted a yellow head from the stalk with a swift swipe.


“Where’s that?”


“You know, the jail? Where they sent all the daddies last year.”


But I didn’t know.


“My daddy isn’t in Long Kesh,” I said nervously.


He shrugged his answer.


“All the daddies around here are. All the Catholic daddies. The Brits turned up in the middle of the night and took them all away.”


I didn’t know what to say. My daddy was at home. He wasn’t in Long Kesh. None of the daddies in my street were in Long Kesh.


“Did he kill someone?” I asked.


It’s a wonder how tact isn’t necessary amongst children.


The rest of the dandelions were spared as Pearse tore his attention from them.


“Do you want to go see my treehouse?” He asked running the sleeve of his jumper across his eyes.


“Ok,” I replied and we set off together across the field where the Germans had been hiding just moments ago.


And so we spent the summer as two boys should, out in our fairytale, in the world we crafted far from reality under the south Armagh sun.


Some days the treehouse would be the centre of operations as we fought off invisible baddies, other days it was our home as a violent storm threatened to blow it away underneath a clear blue sky. We crossed continents within the span of a few hundred yards and touched down on the moon by the river’s bank.


Our only time spent as enemies was when we were cops and robbers and our little finger guns sought each other in innocent play.


He showed me things not known to the old men of Belfast; the cry of a pheasant startled by young huntsmen, the sanctity of the fairy tree, the clotted slobber of frogspawn as young fingers probed.


My mind was opened to a new world that summer. A world that at the time seemed to stretch into eternity beneath the late summer sun.


But all worlds and eternities end when you’re a child. My own was harkened by the hum of a Kadett engine ready to take me back to the September streets of Belfast and another school year.


Our goodbyes were brief and void of sorrow, as they should be to a child, too young to understand parting.




“Bye bye.”


Simple words and a wave as the car door closed on our young friendship.


And soon Pearse and his world was just a memory I would tell my teacher and classmates about.


Twelve summers had come and passed before I heard of Pearse again, the bombs and bullet ever more frequent, the furrows of division deepened by the rains of hatred; Belfast in the 1980s.


I was sitting as a passenger in my fathers Ford Cortina as we headed home from another dry day at the factory, the radio droning just above the engine. He highered it up as he did every day when the repetitive bleeps announced the beginning of the news .


“Welcome to BBC Radio Ulster, it’s six o’clock, the headlines. An IRA gunman has been shot dead in south Armagh. The custom workers strike continues into a third day. And Allied Carpets has been damaged again in a bomb attack.”


I continued to pick at the dirt that had crawled beneath my nails. Same old life. Same old news.


“The RUC have confirmed an IRA gunman has been shot dead outside Cullyhanna in South Armagh. The incident happened when a vehicle refused to stop at an army checkpoint. The assailant was shot as he attempted to flee. He has been named locally as Pearse Murphy. The trade union leader for the custom workers-“


My heart dropped at the mention of his name. I stopped picking.


I looked to my father as he grunted something under his breath that sounded like “good riddance”. I said nothing.


The sun peeked out from between the clouds, the same sun that shone down on our fairytale all those years ago.


A surge of tears threatened as memories of the little boy surface.


I looked down at my hands again and holstered my little finger guns.





The March 2023 Shortlist


Finger Guns by Sean McNicholl of Armagh, Northern Ireland

Internal Monologue by Steve Burford of Malvern Link

The Reunion by Robert Greenop of Winchester

Bidden by Richard Hooton if Ashton-under-Lyne

Will and Testament by Sarah Hills of Leeds

The Art of Only Giving by Rachael Hill of Bristol


The March 2023 Longlist


Finger Guns by Sean McNicholl of Armagh, Northern Ireland

Internal Monologue by Steve Burford of Malvern Link

The Reunion by Robert Greenop of Winchester

Bidden by Richard Hooton if Ashton-under-Lyne

Missing by Gregor Szanto of Eastbourne

Irish Exit by Eddie Cunningham of London

For King and Conscience by Juliet Hill of Madrid, Spain

By the Fireplace by Michael Bateman-Lee of Horsham

Will and Testament by Sarah Hills of Leeds

The Art of Only Giving by Rachael Hill of Bristol

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