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Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition

 

 

 

  

 

  September 2020 Competition Winners are: - 

 

 

 

First Prize:

 

Anthea Middleton of Edinburgh

for

‘Braecastle’

 

 

 

Second Prize:

 

Andrew Ball of Virginia, USA

for

‘Shy Persons Anonymous’

 

 

 

Third Prize:

 

Jimmy Webb of Benfleet

for

‘Limbic Street to Memory Lane. Romance of the Lost Souls

 

    

 

******

                        

 

 

‘Braecastle’

 

by

 

Anthea Middleton

                        

 

     

The halls were strangely empty. Like I’d arrived to work in the middle of the night by accident. I checked my watch – 8.45am. Can never be too sure in an Edinburgh winter of perpetual darkness. The florist wasn’t in yet. The printing company’s door was closed. I arrived at our office, half-expecting it to be locked. But no, the three working lights were on.

‘Morning Kate,’ Aidan called out from the small kitchenette. ‘Tea?’

‘Yes please.’ I shoved my bag unceremoniously under my desk.

‘The water isn’t getting cold,’ he said. ‘I’ve been running the tap for a minute now.’

‘Mains water is a luxury and we’re a start-up, remember. Mystery warm tank water is what gives our tea its distinctive flavour.’

‘Did you know the fire alarms don’t work on this floor either? And the downstairs toilets flooded?’

The door opened and Matt and Olivia walked in. Olivia – the company’s CEO – had eventually stopped trying to claim 1950s art deco school-office conversion was brimming with charm and character. About a year ago, when they’d found the body in the wasteland adjoining the grounds, she seemed to realise she was fooling no one. This was the cheapest office space in the cheapest area of Edinburgh. But we were a small, new company and our interactive history app wasn’t yet bringing in the millions Olivia had foreseen.

‘Quiet today, hm?’ Matt said, sitting down beside me and turning on his PC. He quickly changed the open Reddit tab to some complicated-looking code, checking behind him that Olivia wasn’t watching.

‘Yeah,’ said Aidan. ‘I thought I’d come in Saturday by accident.’

I fired up my own PC, closed my own Reddit tabs, and tried to remember what I’d been doing last. It was strangely hard to concentrate. ‘Mind if I open the blinds?’

There was a grumble of annoyance. No one liked opening the blinds because the sunlight shone on our screens and turned the office into a greenhouse by midday, no matter what time of year.

‘It’s too gloomy!’ I protested. ‘The daylight will do you all some good. It’s well known that an hour of natural light a day makes software developers tanned and outgoing.’

The daylight helped a little and the persistent wintery fog meant we could still see our monitors.

‘Ugh,’ Matt said suddenly. He picked up his keyboard to look closer, then showed me his fingertips. They were covered in black dust. ‘What is this? It’s on yours too.’ He pointed to my own fingers, which were coated with the same black dust. We cleaned them in the lukewarm water and dusted off the keyboards.

‘It’s on everything,’ I said, running my finger along the edge of my desk. ‘Maybe that’s why my throat hurts. We’re inhaling all this black dirt.’ I turned to Olivia. ‘Can you add this to my list of workplace safety concerns?’

She didn’t even look up. ‘Noted.’

When lunchtime came around, I got up to go to the vending machine in the lobby – accompanied with a list of orders. Because a four minute walk and a flight of stairs was too much, apparently.

Closing the door behind me, I turned around and jumped. There was a small boy – maybe 9 or 10, standing at the door to the stairwell. He was wearing an old-fashioned school uniform – dark green shorts, and a cap.

‘You okay?’ I asked. As I got closer, I realised he was staring at me, his large eyes wide, as though terrified. He didn’t answer. ‘Are you looking for the photographer? Gina Phillips?’ I ventured. She ran a kids photography studio down the hall from us and there were always sticky children and babies running up and down, much to our distress. But she did sometimes give us leftover sweets.

He shook his head and suddenly turned on his heel and ran back down the hallway – his footstep echoes bouncing off the walls. I had a sudden flash of the place as a school, rather than offices. Kids like him running up and down, preferably without the haunting look of sheer terror he’d given me.

 

‘We’ll run out of the old pound coins for that vending machine soon,’ Matt said, inhaling his chocolate bar at a frankly alarming rate.

‘Would it be outrageous to suggest they get a vending machine that takes legal tender?’ Aidan said to Olivia. She waved the question away with a look that suggested she had much more important things to be worrying about.

The door opened and we all looked up. There stood the little boy in the old school uniform. Again, in silence. Again, staring. Matt and I exchanged glances.

‘You alright, pal?’ Aidan walked over to him. ‘Are you looking for someone?’

The boy didn’t answer. He fidgeted with the end of his blazer.

Olivia stood up, brushing sandwich crumbs off her knees. ‘Are you parents around?’ she asked him. ‘Who are you here with?’

Silence.

‘How about I bring you down to reception?’ she said. She put her arm out, ready to guide him out the door. He shook his head furiously, turned and ran out the door – his cap falling off behind him.

She watched after him in bafflement.

‘I saw him earlier,’ I said. ‘I thought he was booked in with Gina, but he wouldn’t answer me either. I could go ask her.’

Olivia nodded so I followed him out. I knocked on Gina’s door and after some shuffling sounds, she answered – greeting me as ever with a sigh, as though her day could not get any worse.

‘What’s up, Kate?’

‘Are you doing a photography session with a little boy today? About 10? Old fashioned school uniform?’

Her face creased in confusion. ‘No, but I saw him too. I asked him if he was all right but he ran away. You don’t know who he is?’

I shrugged. ‘Nope. He ran away from us too.’

‘This is such a weird day. Have you noticed how quiet it is?’

‘Yeah, why is no one in? You’re the only other office open today. And it’s so dark.’

‘I swore I could smell smoke earlier. I looked all around though, and nothing. No one was in reception so I couldn’t ask.’

‘I’ll go down again, see if anyone’s there now. Maybe they know about the kid.’

 

Reception was in darkness. It was odd that they hadn’t put up a note. They usually did, when they decided to not bother showing up to work. I turned on the light and called out a pointless, ‘hello?’. When nobody answered, I went to leave but the picture on the wall caught my eye.

They had a framed photo of the day the school opened, in 1931. The title was ‘Braecastle P6’. Fifteen or so boys, wearing a school uniform. Shorts and caps.

This was stupid. I was definitely not going to look for the kid in this picture. I stepped away, towards the door. Then I turned back. I was definitely only looking at the picture out of an interest in history.

I scanned the image and felt my heart catch in my throat.

The boy, third from the left at the front. He was short compared to the rest. Big eyes. Skinny. They did look very similar

No. He could be any ten year old kid. This was hardly a high-def photo. All these boys looked virtually the same.

I took a photo of the picture with my phone. Not that I was going to spend the afternoon scrutinising it.

 

‘That’s definitely him.’ Aidan did little to put my mind at ease. ‘Look at the eyes! We have one hundred percent just seen a ghost child.’

Olivia grabbed the phone out of my hand and squinted at it. ‘You’re being ridiculous. They’re similar but the boy next to him is similar too. Don’t you all have actual work to do? We’ve been talking about this kid for the last fifteen minutes.’

‘Anyone mind if I open a window?’ Matt said. ‘I know it’s winter and we might get hypothermia, but it’s so stuffy in here.’

He was right. The air had a strange density. Maybe I could smell smoke, though I’d seen nothing on my walk to reception. No one objected to the open window.

‘I don’t want to alarm anyone,’ Aidan said, now back at his PC. ‘But I think you all need to look at this article right now. Sorry, Olivia. It’s not work-related.’

She rolled her eyes, but got up anyway and we all went over to his desk. I read the headline from a website of Edinburgh archive news articles: Timothy Cameron, 9, Dies Tragically in Classroom Accident. The picture – a small boy, with big eyes and messy brown hair, smiling slightly at the camera.

No one spoke as we read it over Aidan’s shoulder. Timothy Cameron had been running through the hall when he slipped and fell. He smacked his head on a concrete cabinet plinth and died instantly.

I felt my heart start to race.

It was all a coincidence. I looked at the others, willing them to be shaking their heads, mentally dismissing the whole thing as total nonsense. But no one was shaking their head. Matt bit his lip, and exchanged an uncertain glance with Olivia. Aidan was full-on gaping at the screen.

‘Is the window open?’ I said, coughing. ‘It’s so stuffy.’

The door creaked open. My chest tightened. Please don’t be at the door.

There stood the boy. Staring. ‘I forgot my cap,’ he said. He sounded like a normal child.

I went over to him, suddenly realising I was shaking slightly. I picked up the cap from the floor. It was dark green and slightly damp. As I handed it over, I jumped. It had left a red streak on my hand.

‘Is your name Timothy?’ Aidan said.

The boy fidgeted with the hat. ‘It’s busy today,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Lots of people. You. The lady down the hall. I haven’t seen this many people for a while. I’ve been on my own for ages. Except for that man who lives in the field.’

‘Is your name Timothy?’ Aidan said, again. His voice was harder now.

‘I don’t like the smoke though. That only started yesterday. I hope it goes away.’

‘What man?’ I asked. ‘What man lives in the field?’

He shrugged. ‘He showed up about a year ago. He sometimes come in for a chat. Mostly he stays out there though.’ The boy pointed out the window, to the wasteland.

‘Have you done something to the building, Timothy?’ Aidan asked.

The boy turned his head and looked straight at him. ‘No.’

‘Why are you here? Where are your parents?’ I said.

‘Why are you here?’ the boy said. ‘This is a school. You aren’t children.’

‘This isn’t a school, Timothy,’ I said. My voice cracked as I spoke. ‘These are offices now. This hasn’t been a school for twenty years.’

‘Of course it’s a school, silly,’ the boy said. ‘But even if you are adults it’s nice that you’re here now. I won’t be lonely anymore.’

 

It was an old building. The water was always warm. The toilets flooded.

And the fire alarm on our floor didn’t work.

 

 

 

******

 

‘Shy Persons Anonymous’

 

by

 

Andrew Ball

 

 

 

 

        “Welcome! Welcome to Shy Persons Anonymous. Come on in and sit down. There’s more room at the front here. There’s always plenty of room at the front. I think that’s everyone we’re expecting... Good! Now, if you’re looking for Alcoholics Anonymous, they’re meeting in the bar across the street... Well, don’t all laugh at once.”

            (Fat chance of that.)

            “Now, don’t get too comfortable, because in a minute I’m going to send all you shysters out of the room again...”

            (Was that supposed to be another joke? I should never have signed up for this program.)

            “... so that you can come back in dressed in your brand-new personalities. Remember: just because you feel pathologically shy does not mean that you need to act that way. Am I right, or am I right?”

            (Neither!)

            “Oh, and because this program is strictly anonymous, please collect your numbered ID tags as you come back in: pink tags for the women, blue tags for the men, and purple tags for the undecided... Just kidding! Out you go then, and come back in as new people!”

            (This was all a terrible mistake. I knew it! Shall I just keep on walking? Oh, god -- I’m going to be ‘M1’ now, am I? I wonder what sort of person he’ll turn out to be.)

            “Welcome! Welcome to Confident Persons Anonymous. There... You feel better already, don’t you? See how easy this is?”

            (If he tells me that today is the first day of the rest of my life, I’m out of here.)

            “Now, remember: today is the first day of the rest of your life, and what’s more, it’s never too late to live happily ever after.”

            (That’s it! I’m gone.)

            “Leaving us so soon, M1? In the wrong class, maybe? Or maybe it was something I said?”

            “Umm...”

            “Yes?”

            (Mumble mumble mumble.)

            “Would you please speak up so that we can all hear you?”

            “I said: ‘I’m sorry; I don’t do well in groups, or... (mumble mumble).’”

            “Last bit again, please; so we can all hear?”

            “I said: ‘...OR WITH PLATITUDES!’ I’m sorry, but this was all a big mistake.”

            “That’s very good! You must have taken this course before.”

            (Useless as that, is it?)

            “What was that?”

            “Nothing...”

            “Well then, why don’t you sit back down, give it a try, and if you still want to quit after the first session, I’ll refund half the course fee. The same goes for all of you. How’s that? Fair enough?”

            (Shit! How can I respond to something like that? If I walk out now, it’s like spitting in his face... the stupid jerk! Oh! That girl just smiled at me! First eye contact I’ve made with a woman in months! She’s quite cute, too. What’s her number? F something -- duh! Not F1; she looks likes she eats men for breakfast. F2, it looks like. Bet she’s attached. Still, what’ve I got to lose? This can’t get any worse.)

            “Right, then; let’s get started. By the time you finish this program, you will walk out of here as the confident, self-assured human beings that I know you all want to become. You’ll ask for raises when you deserve them, dates when you want them -- both without fearing rejection -- and you’ll feel comfortable walking into a room full of complete strangers at a cocktail party.”

            (And joining in their meaningless conversations? Sounds like utter hell! Out of the frying pan into the proverb. What the fuck am I doing here, anyway? When was I last invited to a cocktail party? Does anyone even give cocktail parties these days? None of my friends, that’s for sure... What friends? Oh, shit... What’s this jerk saying now?)

            “Is everyone okay with that?”

            (Shit! Okay with what?)

            “Yes, F2? You have a question?”

            “Umm.... Would you please go over that last bit again?”

            (Oh, bless you, F2! I think I’m in love...)

            “Of course I will. I said I’m going to assign each of you a partner, because I want you to do your homework in pairs. Okay?”

            (Homework? What homework?)

            “Some of you are probably saying to yourselves: ‘Homework? What homework?’  I know you’re all adults and I expect it’s been a while since you were in full-time education, but here’s the thing...”

            (Platitudes and trendy phrases? Ha! F2 rolled her eyes too! Homework partner? Snowball’s chance.)

            “Surveys have shown that the three things that shy people dread the most are, in order: public speaking, getting to know someone of whatever sex it is that attracts you, and revealing intimate personal details to complete strangers. Well, Shy Persons Anonymous will kill those three birds with one stone!”

            (Suicide?)

            “Your homework assignment will be to tell your partner how you lost your virginity... okay? And then, the next time we meet, you will each tell the class about the experience of sharing this intimate information with your partner. So, everyone will get to hear both versions. How does that sound?”

            (Christ Almighty! Are you kidding me? That sounds like sheer, unmitigated hell! Root canal surgery without anaesthetic. And there was I thinking this couldn’t get any worse. And what about those of us who... er... haven’t?)

            “If, by any remote chance, there’s anyone here who hasn’t yet had the pleasure, so to speak, then your story can, of course, be complete fiction. Who’s to know? The only rules are that it must be tasteful, realistic -- no aliens! -- and less than 2000 words. And remember: your partner will know if you embroider. Now, let’s get you paired off: M1 with F1...”

            (NO!)

            “No...”

            (No?)

            “Too predictable. Let me see: M1 with... F2, okay?”

            (Okay!)

 

                                                        ***

 

            “I thought you were really brave in there earlier this evening, M1.”

            “How so?”

            “When you nearly walked out, right at the start?”

            “The walking out bit was going to be easy; it’s what I do best. Deciding to stay was the hard part. The real me just kept on walking.”

            “So, who am I talking to?”

            “Beats me. Some anonymous confident person, I don’t think! Either that, or one of the Al Anon members, maybe. Where are they all, anyway? Weren’t they supposed to be meeting here?”

            “Maybe the program was really successful and they all graduated already.”

            “Or not, and this bar wasn’t big enough to hold them all. Anyway, you know what changed my mind about leaving?”

            “No, what?”

            “It was when you smiled at me.”

            “I knew just how you were feeling, and I wanted to help.”

            “Well, you did; and thank you. And when you asked that jerk -- you know, our ‘Fearless Leader’? -- to repeat what he’d just said, I could have kissed you! I was thinking about something else, and I’d completely missed the partnering bit.”

            “I saw the look of panic cross your face...”

            “You did that for me?”

            “Well, I wasn’t completely clear about it myself; I was having trouble concentrating.”

            (Oh, she is majorly cute! Just look at that dimple when she smiles. Wish she’d do it more often.)

            “Do you suppose we can exchange our real names, or would that get us thrown out of the program?”

            “We can always hope so! I’m Peter, by the way.”

            “Hello Peter By-the-Way. I’m... I’m a train wreck waiting to happen.”

            “Well TW, what do your friends call you?”

            “What friends?”

            “Really? Well, this friend -- evidently your first, though I find that hard to believe -- is going to call you TW. Okay?”

            “Thank you, Peter.”

            (Wow! She didn’t call me Pete! That’s a first. Maybe she understands about shyness.) “Cheers, TW. How’s your wine?”

            “I’ve tasted worse. Oh, shit! How ungrateful is that? I’m so sorry. ’S what comes of trying to sound sophisticated.”

            “That bad, eh? I’m sorry.” (Hmm... Didn’t expect that. Dimples and honesty? What a combination! And a taste for wine, too?) “Look, TW. I know you’re probably busy or whatever, but... I’ve got some better stuff than this at home, and I live right around the corner.” (I can’t believe I just said that! To a girl? I bet she suddenly remembers a subsequent engagement. Probably needs to wash her hair.)

            “Maybe we could work on our presentations.”

            “Presentations?”

            “For the course? How we... you know.”

            (Shit! I’d forgotten the fucking presentations... Hey, that’s quite funny! Do I dare say it to her? No, I don’t think so. Oh, she’s lovely when she blushes like that!) “Er... Yes, okay. Why not?” (Could I sound any less enthusiastic if I tried? Jeez! What  is my problem?)

            “Why not?”

 

                                                       ***

 

            “Thanks for this wine, Peter. You’re right: this is much better. And your apartment is beautiful! Who decorated it for you?”

            “Thank you; I did it myself.” 

            “Really?”

            (Oh, god! She probably thinks I’m gay!) “My mother is an artist and I think I learned my colour sense from her.”

            “Yes, I see...”

            (Idiot! When you’re already in a hole, stop digging!) “I’m not gay or anything, TW... if that’s what you’re thinking.” (Did I really just blurt that out? Yup, that was a blurt all right. Shit! This is not going well.)

            “No, of course not; hadn’t crossed my mind. Well, actually it had, but I’m glad you’re not.”

            (Wow, she is honest! And she’s glad? That sounds promising, but maybe I should just let it pass; take it slowly.) “You know TW, I have no clue how I’m ever going to do our homework assignment. I’ve never been any good at making up stories.” (Oh, shit! Now what have I done? Just told her that I’m the last twenty-three-year-old male virgin on the planet, that’s what!)

            “You’d need to, would you?”

            “Need to what?”

            “To... er... to make it up?”

            “Oh... well... yes, I would, in fact.” (God, how embarrassing! Talk about revealing intimate personal details to complete strangers!) “I’ve always been shy, you know.”

            “Me too. I’m just no good at talking to guys, you know? Never know what to say. And without talking...”

            “Me neither... with girls, I mean.” (What? Is she a virgin too?) “It’s like brain-freeze sets in as soon as I meet a pretty girl.” (No! Now she’ll think I don’t think she’s pretty.) “Either that, or I say something completely crass... like I just did.” (Good save?)

            “I bet we’re the only two in the class, Peter. So, all the others will just know our accounts are complete fiction, and how embarrassing is that? How can you make something sound realistic if you’ve never...?”

            “Had the pleasure’, to quote our Fearless Leader?” (So, she is a virgin! Whaddya know?) “Beats me, TW. Well, there is one way. Umm... I don’t suppose...” (Do I dare?)

            “What?”

            “I don’t suppose we could... you know... like, join forces? Do you think that would be allowed?” (Bet she turns me down.)

            “Collaborate, you mean? Write a joint story? That’s brilliant! Then I could get the girl bits right and you could make the guy credible. They’d never guess.”

            “All right! How should we begin?”

 

                                                       ***

 

One week later...

 

            “Welcome back! Let’s see how you all got on with your homework. M1, why don’t you lead off? Come up here in front of the class and read us your story.”

            “Certainly; be happy to. You all should know that my new girlfriend and I... we created this story together. We’re calling it Shy Persons Anonymous.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

‘Limbic Street to Memory Lane.

 

Romance of the Lost Souls’

 

 

by

 

Jimmy Webb

 

 

 

At last, daylight. Calvin could breathe again. With his tie now loose, he threw an over-shoulder squint at the building, the institution that had swallowed him and so many others for years. Pastel halls, pastel people, all so very neutral. Mundane meetings with scribbling of notes, assessments, pens tapping on tea stained desks. Clock watching, people watching – anything to whittle away long days, rocking on chairs to their hearts discontent. Practiced jargon, practiced smiles, same faces, same chat. Urgh. There had to be more to life, away from the others. He knew he wasn’t the same as them, trapped in their routines, the daily grind.

 

He thought about Lacey, his only true friend there, and her offer of company as he stood banging the coffee machine. Yesterday’s Calvin would have accepted. Today’s Calvin wanted time alone.

 

A stroll through the park would help, where nature held onto existence, resisting the looming concrete. He could perch up in the shade with a coffee. A proper one with a fancy name. A Frappomaccochino or something. Not too hot, with a drop of honey, topped with a mysterious creamy swirl of deliciousness. And a bagel, or croissant maybe. Chocolate or apple oozing out with each bite.

 

        He escaped the grounds, gardens trying too hard to be pretty, like a face caked in makeup, a big cheesy smile, overly inviting, overly friendly.

 

        He took a moment at the road, Limbic Street, the divide between darkness and light.  The low hum of traffic already provided a reprieve. Reality passed back and forth on the fringes of his sanity. The world in motion.

 

At the park, he rubbed under his screwed-up nose, the freshly cut grass bringing both pleasure and discomfort. Slow controlled breathing, a walking meditation. Using the healing powers of nature, he tilted his head back to feel the midday sun and open breeze on his face, when Bam!

        ‘I’m so sorry. Are you okay?’ said the voice, soft, assuring, but that carried above the birdsong and duck squawk, the Mum chatter and baby talk.

 

        ‘No, no, I’m sorry. I should have been…’

 

        The two faces froze, brows furrowed.

 

        ‘Calvin?’

 

        ‘Jennifer? It’s so good to see you. What are you doing here?’

 

        ‘I live just past Fantasy, that nightclub, and I so needed a break from my computer screen. Wow. How strange. I’ve looked for you on social media.’

 

        ‘I don’t bother with that rubbish.’

 

        ‘Hmm, should’ve known. Hey, you got time for a catch up? There’s a bench over there with our names on.’

 

How could he resist his first love? His only love. The girl who moved to his town when they were twelve. The girl he secretly doted on throughout high school. The girl who eventually plucked him from the depths of the friend zone, when he lost his glasses and spots, and grew muscles.

 

 

Jennifer stroked Calvin’s cropped hair and said, ‘I miss those curls.’

 

        ‘Too eighties,’ he quipped, praying she wouldn’t mention the balding. He then smirked at the wisp that still hung near her right eye, that she would tuck behind her ear. ‘The years have been kinder to you. You haven’t changed a bit. As beautiful as ever.’

 

        ‘Still a charmer, eh?’ she said, with a laugh that had always infected Calvin. She leaned closer. ‘Remember our first date? At Jasper’s Theme Park?’

 

        ‘How could I not? Such a shame it closed down.’

 

        ‘Yeah. That place holds so many childhood memories.’

 

        He held her gaze, and softly said, ‘I’m sorry.’

 

        ‘For what?’

 

        ‘The argument. Everything.’

 

        ‘No. I didn’t help matters.’

 

        ‘But I should’ve let it go. It was the stress from work. And I should have been concentrating. Watching where I was—’

 

        ‘We don’t have to talk about it,’ she said, resting her hand on his cheek.

 

Noise distracted him. Dogs barking. Laughing. People staring. Always staring. Talking, rushing, looking, walking, running, talking, looking, rushing. ‘Let’s go,’ he blurted, then took her hand and stood.

 

        ‘What? Where?’

 

        ‘Jaspers. Memory lane.’

 

Jennifer studied his face. He assumed it was to see if he was serious, but hoped it was more to just study his face.

 

‘Don’t you have to get back to—’

 

‘They won’t miss me.’

 

‘Is your car close?’

 

‘I haven’t driven since…. Besides, it’ll be a nice walk.’

 

 

Woodland wrapped around the small theme park, hiding it from the world. They crouched through a narrow archway of bramble to a hole in the chain-link fencing. Calvin crawled through first, then held the chain open for Jennifer.

 

‘I feel like a schoolgirl again,’ she giggled.

 

        Calvin stood tall, chest out, offering his arm. His best gentlemanly pose, and said, ‘Where to, my lady? The Big Wheel or the Dodgems? Or would a nice teddy from the coconut shy tickle your fancy? My treat.’

 

        ‘Ooh. You’re spoiling me. Hey, remember where we had our first kiss?’

 

        ‘Of course. Next to the Dodgems. Seems like yesterday.’ Jennifer’s suggestive nod needed no further prompts. ‘Your chariot awaits.’

 

        They walked in comfortable silence, absorbing their surroundings. Over the years, Hale Wood had almost digested Jasper’s Park. Overgrown trees blocked out sunlight. Roots cracked concrete and clung to objects, like they were feeding off the once-popular theme park, draining its life. Jasper’s ghosts were plain to see. Stalls stood uncovered, abandoned. Rides froze mid pose, long given up their anxious wait for the power to surge back on. Souls forever lost. Rigor mortis developed.

 

        Calvin touched Jennifer’s arm. ‘You okay?’

 

‘I’m a bit overwhelmed to be honest. I’m sad to see this place the way it is, but it’s like there’s a mystery to it. A romance. And I still have the same jittery feeling in my belly as when I came here as a kid. I bet you bring all the girls here.

        ‘Only the ones I bump into in the park who I fall in love with again.’ He winced inside. The Jennifer of old would have been a sucker for a line like that, but what if she changed? What if she cringed and made her excuses and left?

 

        ‘I never stopped loving you.’

 

        And there it was. He was back in a time when nothing else mattered, young and smitten. A time where he’d find those little notes in his sandwiches at work. The ones that evoked a content smile, but were too gushy to show witnessing colleagues. The unrushed walks to the cafe by the seafront every Sunday morning. How he would never begin eating meals without her sitting at the table, no matter where they were or who they were with, and how they always opened one present each on Christmas Eve; her wrapped in her Nan’s knitted blanket, all cosy. He never forgot the year she unwrapped the ring – a plastic one, only temporary of course – and her tears that washed away a life full of unacceptance, rejection. That ring did not leave her finger. If only he got round to replacing it. That would have eased his conscience when she left him that day. The day of the argument.

 

He took her hand. The left one. He glanced at the Dodgems, then the ground, then with a knowing smile, held her gaze. ‘This is the spot.’

 

        They moved closer, and Calvin embraced her perfume and warm breath before he explored her mouth like it was their first kiss.

 

        ‘Well, you’ve certainly improved,’ Jennifer said, ‘been practising with anyone?’

 

        ‘Yeah, the mirror. Come on, I want to show you something.’

 

        ‘Hey, don’t get any ideas. I’m not that kind of girl.’ Her face didn’t mean it. And he would have loved to relive their wild passion, but didn’t want to ruin the moment. He wanted to savour it.

 

        He led her to a looking tower and pointed to the base.

 

        ‘What? You don’t think I’m climbing up there, do you?’

 

‘No, look closer.’ Various etchings decorated the wooden frame. One inside a neat heart read, JEN + CAL.

 

She gasped, ‘I don’t even remember doing that.’ She found a sharp stone on the floor, and underneath the heart etched, TOGETHER AGAIN.

 

        Calvin barely noticed. Staring into the distance, his hand tensed on hers. Jennifer tried to pull him closer, but he stayed rigid.

 

‘Look. They’ve come for me,’ he said, gesturing to a man and a woman. ‘Time’s flown. I must’ve been gone ages.’

 

‘Who’s come for you?’

 

He said nothing, thoughtful, seeking  for options. Maybe escape up the looking tower together, bolting the door shut, or pretend he hadn’t seen them, venture deeper into Jasper’s, and hold on to her for as long as possible.

 

‘I should head back,’ he sighed. Back to pastel walls and pastel faces, assessments, searching for light in dark places, friendly chats by day, alone with thoughts by night. Back to echoed wails of anguish and screams of laughter rolled into one. Back to the institution. ‘I don’t want this to end. Wanna walk with me?’

 

Jennifer glanced around Jasper’s. ‘I think I’d like to stay for a while, you know, reacquaint. We could meet tomorrow? Same place? Same time?’

 

The waiting man and woman kept their distance. A middle-aged man, kind-faced, forbearing, squinting into the afternoon sun, and a young lady, fresh out of Uni, yet to be hardened by the trials of life.

 

Calvin tightened his tie as he walked to them, turning to watch Jennifer go deeper into Jasper’s Park, candescent among its pallid ghosts.

 

The man grinned in sympathy to his glossy-eyed young colleague.

 

‘Does he meet her every day?’ she asked.

 

‘Every day.’

 

She smiled. But then it faded. ‘He was driving, wasn’t he?’

 

The man slowly nodded. ‘Yes. Heart breaking, isn’t it? Every patient has a story.’

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

The September 2020 Competition Short List 

 

 

About Time by Gordon Aindow of Preston

Amusia by Phil Cummins of Kildare, Ireland

Braecastle by Anthea Middleton of Edinburgh

                        Crocodiles by Janeen Samuel of Morgiana, Australia

Diamond Life by Dianne Bown-Wilson of Exeter

Limbic Street by Jimmy Webb of Benfleet

Shy Persons Anonymous by Andrew Ball of Virginia, USA

 

 

 

The September 2020 Competition Long List 

 

About Time by Gordon Aindow of Preston

Amusia by Phil Cummins of Kildare, Ireland

Braecastle by Anthea Middleton of Edinburgh

Choosing another Goodbye by Taria Karillion of Chester

Cleaning Day by Ray Kelly of Auckland, New Zealand

Crocodiles by Janeen Samuel of Morgiana, Australia

Diamond Life by Dianne Bown-Wilson of Exeter

Garden without End by Cheryl Buck of Nuneaton

Limbic Street by Jimmy Webb of Benfleet

Relief by Brian Ross of Aberdeen

Returning to Kerkyra by David Stephens of Brighton

Shy Persons Anonymous by Andrew Ball of Virginia, USA

To Fly with the Geese by Lucy Bignall of Adstock

Troops on a Plane by Chris Hyland of Birmingham

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