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The Birth Of The Baptist - by Fiona J. Mackintosh

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2018

Slide the 100 lire coin into the slot. Watch the lights flare, the fresco spring to life, Ghirlandaio’s pinks, blues, and greens. Watch your girl in denim shorts stare upward, lips parted, eyes roaming over the ancient stone wall. See her smile at St. Elizabeth reclining, at the wet nurse suckling the infant John the Baptist. And when the coin runs out and the chapel snaps back into darkness, know that you too are just the forerunner, that one day she’ll leave you in your own private wilderness with the taste of locusts and wild honey bitter in your mouth.

Pull - by Charmaine Wilkerson

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2018

When their fathers went to the cockfights in the next parish over, the girls begged rides from the neighbour boys. While their dads wiped flecks of blood from their faces, the girls left their shoes and dresses on the sand. While the boys watched, rapt and rigid, from the powdery shore, the girls plunged, heads first, into the warm saltwater, pulling through the waves, pulling through their fear of sharks, pulling through the sting of rays, pulling against lactic acid and breathing in gulps of their future as champions, their ticket away from this island.

A Nice Bit Of Linoleum - by Rachael Dunlop

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2018

The smell of lavender floor wax accompanies her out of the house. She’d rather have linoleum in the hall but parquet has more cachet, he says. She sniffs at her cardigan cuffs. She could have tucked them better into her housecoat this morning. At the greengrocer’s she runs a nail along the silky gills of a mushroom and inhales, longing for a life lived in the leaf-mould litter of a forest floor, peaty earth under her stockinged feet. Failing that, she thinks as she drops the mushroom into a torn-cornered paper bag, she’d settle for a nice bit of linoleum.

Fifth Grade - by Lisa Ferranti

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

Fifth grade was the year we giggled through the school nurse’s explanation of menstruation. The year boys were not separated from girls, and Jimmy M. fainted, fell at my feet. The year we ogled bare-breasted fertility statues at the art museum. Told we were forbidden to touch. I waited for the teacher to round the corner, pointed my finger a baby’s breath from the carved stone. I swung my hair, tried to catch Jimmy’s eye. Fifth grade was the year I learned to say without saying: Dare me? The year a blue-blazered security guard grabbed my arm.

Death Of A Friend - by Amanda O'Callaghan

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

When she met her gaze, that last time, she remembered the mouse. Once, standing on the back verandah, night sunk deep into the trees, she’d heard the sound of bird’s wings, wheeling close. She knew it was the owl; she’d seen it, days before, perched on the sheeny muscle of ghost gum, turning its domed head. But this time, she could see nothing. There was only the lethal fold of feathers, swooping down, close to the grass. Then, a tiny creature carried aloft, shrieking from its miniature lungs, the shape of its outrage borne away, beyond a pitiless moon.

Forgetting, Remembering - by Catherine Edmunds

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

The gulf between us is a river in spate. We nudge each other when the snoring becomes intolerable, but our arms remain empty.

You go up for an afternoon nap, and don’t come down again. The paramedics ask me my name. I don’t know any more.

Later, I iron all your shirts, your socks, ties, hats, documents; I iron the bedsheets and spray them with starch until the river has subsided. I lie on the hot, alien sheets and scorch my back and buttocks until I remember my name.

Things I Never Saw Again After You Dumped Me By Text Message - by Rebecca Field

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

My toothbrush. My spare contact lenses. That Bob Dylan album I lent you. The old Iron Maiden T-shirt you gave me to sleep in at your place. My Fight Club video. Your housemates, except for that one time I saw Dave in Fulton’s Frozen Foods and he blanked me. Your house cat – I wonder who fed him once I wasn’t there anymore. You in the morning with the shakes, thinking about your next drink. All the money I lent you to go out drinking without me. Best of all, that look my mother would give me when I mentioned you.

1990 - by Alan Beard

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

Girl in a Blockbusters smelling of Shake ‘n’ Vac, stares blankly in her soft plumpness and soft permed hair at the pop video playing. Vanilla Ice. She thinks of customers’ lives, their homes as they return last night’s film: Ghost, Petty Woman. Evenings ahead with her husband watching videos, maybe this boy who hangs around, chats to her between customers. Does she even like him? He has big brown eyes. He says put on heavy metal. Ugh, she says, not likely. She’s old fashioned, likes the Carpenters; the woman starved herself to death, but sang beautifully before she did.

Louise - by Elaine Dillon

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

The thunder that meant the end of summer sent us running inside, just as the rain started hissing on the path. Fat drops topped up the paddling pool.

We sat in the doorframe and dared Louise to do something we wouldn’t, for fear of a leathering.

She pulled off her swimsuit and exploded over the threshold. The grass licked her heels and her fine hair soaked dark against her back, as she sprinted towards the leylandii and launched herself through, like she was diving into a deep pool.

We sat with our mouths open and a towel across our laps.

White Lies - by Anita Goveas

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2018

It's a tradition for Block B, Mary Gee Hall to eat together every Sunday. The first week of the Easter holidays, there's only three students eating lentil spag bol.

Shaven-headed Angus and curvy-hipped Lei are touching feet under the table, and mumbling about their individual plans for the week to their kitchen-mate. Peony-faced Kate cries at wildlife documentaries and once filled Lei's bed with rose petals for Valentine's day.

Leicester University is teaching them essay-writing, what happens when you put a black sock in with your whites, and that what you don’t say is more important than what you do.

Fifth Grade - by Brianna Snow

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2017

We learn that there are tubes inside of us with sleeping babies. One day, boys will wake them up. The babies will grow, open our bodies, and fall out. Until then, we’ll bleed—a baby’s death each month. Ms. Miller sits at her desk in the back of the room while the video plays. We turn to her to see if this is true. She’s holding her stomach with both hands. We look down and do the same.

Geology Of A Girl - by Stephanie Hutton

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2017

Ella kept one pebble in her pocket and rubbed it down to sand, running the grains through her fingers. Stones sneaked in through holes in her shoes. Her legs turned to rock. She leant against the sisterhood of brick on the playground and watched girls skip together like lambs. A boulder weighed heavy in her stomach. She curled forwards by habit. Her head filled with the detritus of life.

A new girl started school in May with fire in her eyes. She whispered to Ella with aniseed breath ‘lava is liquid rock,’ then took her hand and ran.

As Liquid Is Poured - by Sherry Morris

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2017

I visit far-flung friends who possess a dancing bear and a well-stocked vodka cabinet. We sit around the kitchen table in our coats, watching my breath form clouds. ‘At least the shot glasses are chilled,’ my friend says.  I’m grateful for their hospitality and anticipate the warmth that begins in my belly and spreads outward. We drink to our health, sing melancholy tunes about lavender fog and eat dark bread. I no longer feel the cold. I will stay here. I won’t be missed there. There, people are replaced like vodka bottles. The bear twirls on hind legs and claps.

Brave - by by Catherine Edmunds

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

The man arrives in a car with dark windows. Father, who is brave, stands in the yard while the pigs squeal and run. The man pushes Father’s shoulder. The cockerel struts, the man raises his hand. Father shrinks.

I gather the others and we run down the stinking lane; I tell them Father’s play-acting, he’ll kill the man later. They like that. They’ve seen Father cut a squealer’s throat. I lead them away down to the mill race, into danger, but it’s just water, full of noise. Try to pick it up and it slips through your fingers. 

Mermaids - by by Sally Syson

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

The mermaids are much uglier than anyone had anticipated, slimy-haired and scabby with barnacles. They haul themselves up onto the sea wall, stinking like a barrel of prawns, and lie flashing their tits at passers-by. They snatch at the ankles of the small boys who dare to pelt them with chips and cans. Their language is appalling.

On Friday nights, when the promenade glistens with broken glass and the splintered remains of cocktail charms — pretty plastic mermaids in pink and green and blue — they retreat to the shoreline and gather along the water’s edge, hissing in the dark.

Fireflies In The Backyard - by by Kayla Pongrac

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

In the summertime, when these little roving lanterns covet my backyard, slicing their way through the darkness one flight at a time, I step outside and I extend my tongue, snowflake-style, so that I can jar and lid them inside my stomach. How I want to glow, too—how I want to become both the illuminated and the illuminator.

Fawn - by by Sacha Waldron

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

Taking the fawn had not been her initial intention. She was feeding it saltines from the palm of her hand, stroking his soft head. She liked the way his tongue felt on her skin. She was, she realised, running out of crackers and soon the deer would scamper off. Its run reminded her of a carousel – rising and falling.

She crouched down, opened her backpack and scattered some of the remaining crumbs inside. The fawn followed them. She zipped up her bag quickly. As she walked out of the park she could feel little hooves sticking awkwardly into her spine. 

Mango - by by Jennifer Harvey

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

Johnny tells me I’m sweeter than mango. He’s standing with his back against the wall, one foot up against the brickwork, like some fifties rebel.
Yeah? You like exotic fruit, Johnny? If I had the guts, I’d say this. Walk on by all sassy, like I owned him. Meet his gaze and wait for a reply.
Your move, Johnny.
But he made his move already. Watched me sat in the canteen, licking mango juice from my fingers.
One finger, two fingers, three fingers, four.
Smiling, ‘cos he knew it was him I was thinking of.

The In-Between Hour - by by Christina Taylor

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

While you sleep I’ll kiss all the boys I shouldn’t kiss and wear dresses that scream ‘You’re not going out in that!’
I’ll learn another language so I can talk about you behind your back. I’ll dye my hair blue then sneak out of the house to release the dogs. We’ll bark at the moon and set off car alarms.
In that hour I’ll skinny dip in the river and count the goose bumps on my arms. I’ll fly round the sun and eat cake for breakfast.
I’ll do all that but I’ll never say I love you.

The Smoking Circle - by by Alison Wassell

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2017

We lay in a circle on the field every afternoon, our heads together, school bags for pillows. She was the new girl, refusing to light up until we called her Goody Two Shoes. We stared at the clouds.
'What would you do if you only had a week to live?'' someone asked. She answered first.
'I'd write to everyone who’d hurt me. Tell them what I thought of them.'
She was the one who developed a forty a day habit. The letter came sealed with a lipstick kiss. I suppose we all got one. I shredded mine without reading it.

The Jumper - by Anne Patterson

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2016

I fell in love with a jumper last Christmas. A wool-nylon-mohair mix picked up after the Christmas do. On the bus home, I slipped it on. Mmm; aftershavy, inky, lagery with a touch of exercise. If it were a scent it would be ‘Office Party’. A group email might have led to a request to pop it into internal mail, so I hung on. I kept it in bed; close in winter; further away in summer; like a lover. This Christmas, I’ll wear it. Underneath I’ll wear nothing. If he asks for his jumper back I’ll give it to him.

A One-Word Yet Possibly Longer-Than-Necessary Personal Essay Dedicated to My Soon-to-Be Ex-Boyfriend Who Doesn't Believe Me When I Tell Him I Can Write Something This Short That Sums up Everything There Is to Say about Our Relationship, Our Future Together, and His Allegedly Legendary Sexual Organ - by Ingrid Jendrzejewski

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2016


Storm - by Gemma Govier

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2016

First there was the shock of soft raindrops on my cheeks and nose, then cold, damp shoulders, thighs, knees. I felt if I ran I could protect my warm skin. It even rained inside my mouth as I pushed against the wind. Finally, with misted glasses, I am sodden. My socks squelch in my shoes. I slow down my pace.

When you finally said you were leaving, I was calm. It's not being wet, you see, it's the process of getting wet.

Jessie Learns How To Keep A Secret - by by Alison Wassell

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

‘She’s a secret scribe,’ teased Jessie’s mother. Fuzzy and mellow from her first wine Jessie took poems from the box under her bed and offered them as a birthday gift. In the morning they lay in a pile beside her egg and soldiers. Jessie’s mother kissed the top of her head.

‘I liked the one about the old lady best,’ she said. This was how Jessie learned that no place is truly secret, nobody to be trusted. The old lady poem had not been among those offered.

Jessie keeps her poems in her head now, where they can’t be found.

Illumination - by Judi Walsh

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

It’s dark, and the bus is late. In the house opposite, the woman talks with big gestures. The man turns his glass, half a revolution at a time. He shouts and starts to leave. As he brushes past, she folds into her seat like she has a slow puncture. She wipes something from her face: a tear, or spittle perhaps? The bus arrives. “Oi, missy!” the driver shouts, and I flash my card at him, racing upstairs to the back. I just manage to see her, arms extended, mouthing something, no, singing something, twirling by herself.

When Words Aren't Enough - by Lucy Welch

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

He was like too many words crammed into a box. He'd come into the cafe every morning for breakfast with all those words tangled together behind his eyes. The P of Pain looping round the S bends in Loss, caught within the sharp angles of the A of Anger. He'd do the crossword and I'd imagine him looking through clues for the key to let the words out. He'd leave it behind, unfinished. One day we worked on it, all the staff, to the last square, and gave it back next morning. That was when he first sang for us.

Christmas - by James Watkins

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

First we dug a hole in the snow. Mama stepped into it naked; we filled snow back in around her feet. She put her arms out and Papa draped tinsel all around while I tied back her hair. We hung a bauble from each nipple and I looked for the fairy to tie to her hairband. I couldn't find it, but attached a small figurine of the Virgin Mary instead.
On Christmas Day, Tom Raye the competition judge declared that ours was certainly the most desirable tree and, according to Papa, had thought so every weeknight for the last month.

Always One - by Tracy Fells

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

There’s always one. The nutter on the bus. An old lady, with tight white curls like finger rolls, takes the seat behind you. She starts plaiting your hair. Bit of a cheek, you think. What if your religion prohibits plaits? What if hair plaiting sets off your narcolepsy? Her breath smells sweet like pineapple chunks. You twist round to point out how she needs a licence to do that, lady! She moves to another seat, but her fingers still fiddle at the back of your neck. The other passengers shift and stare, as if you’re the one.

Notes - by Elaine Marie McKay

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

She placed the first of them where he would see, then turned from the starkness of its expectation. Later, with taciturn understanding, he wrote on the square of paper in uncomplicated letters. DOOR.

In time, the house was a patchwork of butter-coloured spaces that he filled with the concrete of - FRIDGE, CHAIR, TELEPHONE, SANITARY TOWELS.

For him, scouring the chaos of domesticity, stripping it back to its very foundations so that it could be marked with simplicity, became soothing.

In the evenings, he relaxed, sitting close to her amongst their words, stroking her hair, drinking sweet tea from CUPS.

Energy Efficient, Extremely Slim, Easy to Install - by Ed Broom

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2016

Trap 3 rasps like Hitchens in hospital before I twig that he’s pulled the old cough ‘n’ flush and bounding off the blocks so I slam the bolt and make like Bolt and flick my belt to give him the Six Nations and I’m rinsing when he dead-legs me down on the tinned Ambrosia tiles but I weeble up to double pump his eyes with naturally derived lemon mint hand wash and Haystacks him into the unfavoured middle Armitage Shanks leaving yours truly to dress, wash and claim my rightful appointment with the Dyson Airblade VI. It’s a great drier.

Fly - by Rob Walton

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2015

I’m rushing to push my lunch box in to my bag when I see these two who must be flying a kite on the green triangle outside the school because she’s holding a length of string, showing him how to thread it through his fingers, but then I realise she’s teaching fly fishing with no river for miles and the nearest polluted anyway and I look again, and she’s reading him Ted Hughes and he’s hanging on every word as he casts better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and we all realise that rivers are just a bonus extra.

I Want Someone Who Wants Me So Much They Don't Care About Grammar - by Laura Tansley

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2015

On a canker of a concrete wall in a ground-up grey car park the colour of chewed gum a lover paints in lower case ‘your nicer than my wife’ above the butt bumper of a blue Fiesta. Each morning it waggles its way out of the space like a preening duck presenting. And when the bay is empty I lie on the earth to feel the heat of tires, the smoked breath of exhaust fumes and high-humidity whispers.

A Weekend Away - by Diane Simmons

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2015

When I struggled off the train, you laughed, ‘You’ve brought rather a lot.’
In formal hall, I copied how others ate, tried not to grimace at the musty wine. At the theatre, you laughed when an actor spat into the audience. I tried to look like I thought it funny.
I tried to enjoy the beer you bought me in Trinity College bar, tried to like your boisterous friends, was pleased when one asked, ‘What are you reading?’
I didn’t understand why everyone laughed when I replied, ‘The new Ian Rankin.’
But when you laughed, I understood you.

Marks and Sparks - by Ian Shine

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

Her online dating profile said she was into M&S, so I proposed we meet up at our local shopping centre. I've been helping her with her dyslexia for a few months now, and she's been giving me the time of my life.

The Pacifist - by Nick Triplow

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

Old man Wilson, he calls himself a pacifist. Exchanges opinions and anecdotes for drinks at the Danny’s Bar: a cut price raconteur preaching non-violence. Last night I discovered he carried a loaded .38 in the pocket of his reefer. I said, ‘How d’you square it, this turn the other cheek shit, with the thirty-eight?’
He boot-heeled his cigarette, gave a smile that showed gaps where teeth used to be. ‘Wouldn’t feel right bein’ a pacifist without it.’
"But— "
He pulled it, cocked it and rested the business end against my forehead. ‘See son, how peaceful that makes you feel?’

A History Of Ants In The Sugar Bowl - by Julie Sawyer

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

“Little blighters are back again” Stan said. “Look” he added, finger stabbing the sugar bowl. Margo looked. “This‘ll teach ‘em” Stan muttered, pouring boiling water from the kettle into the frosted glass, grunting with satisfaction as a dozen or so agonised black forms caught mid-syrup. Margo imagined she could hear their tiny screams. “You’ll have to ant powder the place again” she said. Stan glared at the offending bowl and harrumphed, before stomping out to the shed. Touching the recently emptied matchbox in her pocket, Margo watched him go; knowing that she now had a whole afternoon to herself.

Spreading The Chaos - by Mark Newman

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

He is taking groceries into the house, an obedient little puppy; his wife directing him as if this is something that needs supervision.
Out the window she yells 'oi, shit brains. I've had the abortion, so screw you, have it all your way'.
He looks on with a bemused expression, a lost little boy, unsure which way to turn. His wife punches him on the shoulder; still he holds her gaze.
She winds the window up; gives a mock salute and drives away.
She has never seen this man before. This is just something she does; spreading the chaos.

Maturity - by Jude Higgins

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

I'll avoid sitting on cold flag stones, swimming on a full stomach, going out with wet hair, bringing lilacs into the house or trusting men whose eyebrows meet in the middle.
I'll wear a dress – sometimes heels, attend my degree ceremonies, get a proper job, stay married, have babies, cook roast dinners, celebrate Christmas, visit relatives, hold family gatherings, stop causing arguments. Be kind.
I'll do what I want, even if my mother wants it too.
Even if it makes me happy.

And A Bottle Of Rum - by Gareth Wilcock

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

"Then the Pirate Queen sliced my ribs with her cutlass and I fell to the deck as she left." He lifted his gown to show the gruesome scar to his niece
"So how did you get off your ship and into Papworth Hospital?"
"Glad you asked. Mermaids towed my ship to shore, and my parrot stole a mobile and called 999."
"Daddy says you had a double lung transplant, and you might be confused. Because of morphine."
Morphine, yes, but not confused. Just not ready to tell a child that he was breathing with treasure from a dead man's chest.

Stiff - by Joanna Campbell

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2015

When our Rose wouldn't put her arms in the sleeves of her best frock, Mam wept. Not just because of wanting Rose beautiful, but on account of the photographer charging by the minute.
“We’re up to a week’s housekeeping already,” Mam hissed, pinching Rose’s cheeks to raise a bloom.
I imagined four loaves, three quarts of milk and a string of prime sausage floating out the window.
Rose were right starchy-stiff. I couldn't twist her arm.
So I crouched behind and pushed my arms through her sleeves, lacing my fingers, just how our Mam wanted the corpse to look.

Never Let Me Go - by Cathy Lennon

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2014

First it was cartons and tins on the worktops, then newspapers on the stairs. Each window-sill sparkled with tin foil. He made me a necklace of ring-pulls and bottle tops. Like swans we perched on our bundles of rags and flattened boxes, smoothing the creases from wrappers. The hallway was Manhattan, a canyon of towering piles. Across the no man’s land in our bedroom our fingertips would touch, until one day they couldn’t anymore. From the other side, perplexed, he watched the tears slide down my face. He threw me two empty film canisters to catch them in.

Night-Time Knitting - by Roz Mascall

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2014

A gorilla is living in my cupboard. Every night, he swaggers onto my bed and waits for me to wake-up. I pretend to be asleep but hear his knitting needles clicking together. He is making a very long scarf for me. Squinting at him from under my blanket, I see his huge hairy hands scratch his scalp in disappointment. He looks sad. A pang of guilt hits me. I sit up and he hands me a ball of pink wool. His watery eyes meet my gaze. He is lonely. We lean against each other and knit until sunrise.

If I Kissed A Dragon Fish - by Tania Hershman

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2014

If kissed by a dragonfish, do not bite. If kissed by a dragonfish, make sure you are sitting. Do not worry during the kiss, before the kiss, or after. Do not worry about a scale or two between your teeth. The dragonfish's skin is armoured but its heart beats loud and soft. You will not forget the kiss. You will not forget the coolness of the dragonfish's breath inside your lungs. You will look down through the floor of glass and see nothing, swimming. You will part, like an ocean, and on your sea bed you will pearl.

Dare - by Simon Sylvester

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

Every day that summer, we played Dare. On hot afternoons we escaped the sun by hiding in the fort. We ate apples and counted pips and swapped secrets. We sat close, damp with sweat, bare skin sticking. She traced her fingers up my leg. Her fingertips whispered inside my thigh, and my breath caught in my throat.

She always chickened out. I taunted her, urging her higher, but she always chickened out before me.

When that summer was finished, we went back to school. We don’t really talk any more.

I heard she started playing Dare with boys.

The Star, Falling - by Morgan Downie

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

When his eyes grew so bad that he could no longer see the horizon he built an artificial one in his garden. Afterwards he persisted in a stubborn refusal to cross it in case he should fall off the edge of the world. Asked, on reflection, if he had realised his intention as a younger man, to live the brief and fiery life of a meteor, he looked out across the universe of his garden, to the wife he still loved indescribably and said,

‘I am a meteor, just moving very, very slowly.’

Sintra - by Parineeta Singh

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

I have followed you to this small town. I have walked the same cobblestones that you once trod on. I have stood on those hilltops in the mist you spoke of. I have felt it as smoke in my throat. The air I now exhale was the air you once breathed in. But this is not love; it is nowhere close to it. Love was the time when I put my ear to the flagstones listening for your footfall.

The Sponge Diver - by Danielle McLaughlin

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

They knew each other a month when he told her about his Greek grandfather who, as a young man, had been a sponge diver. She closed her eyes, saw a figure – lithe, tanned – dive naked from a boat in the blue Aegean. He surfaced, water glittering silver on his skin, as if a shoal of tiny fish had followed him.

Opening her eyes, she noticed how her lover was most unlike a sponge diver.

After it ended, she bought a sea sponge, yellow and pocked. She sat it on her desk at work, and thought about his grandfather.

Peppermint - by Jennifer Harvey

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

Afterwards, he thought about the gum stuck underneath the desk. It would still be there.

Every morning he watched as she slipped a finger in her mouth and prised it out, acting coy, though he knew she was aware of him.

Once, she’d looked him in the eye, stretched the gum between her teeth and let it snap, like a flirtatious wink.

He slid his fingers under the rim. It was still there.

Picking it loose, he popped it in his mouth.

It was fragrant, peppermint fresh. A taste of her he could keep and roll across his tongue.

The Invisible Girl - by Karl A Russell

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

It should have been an accident, Mel always thought. Something sciencey and catastrophic. Experimental bombs, or maybe the bite of an irradiated marmoset. That's how it used to happen in the comics anyway; A good dose of cosmic waves transformed you.

And everyone loved you.

Even the villains.

But there were no sciencey accidents in the real world. All it took to make Mel invisible was a split lip, or a black eye, or a few raised voices on a Saturday night, just after chucking out time.

And then, for just a little while, no-one could see her.

4am - by Angi Holden

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2014

I open the bedroom curtains.

Dawn seeps across the horizon. The long grass beneath the hive glistens with dew. Hand-trimming takes patience; this summer I’ve neglected the garden.

I straighten the sheet across your chest. The air cradles the sour milk and vinegar scent of the sickroom.

Downstairs, I fumble with the lock, step into the morning. My slippers absorb the damp. No matter, I have a task to perform. Before I call the doctor, your sister, our son.

I walk down the path, your black crepe bowtie dangling from my hand. There is news I must tell the bees.

A Handful - by Tim Stevenson

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2013

I thought he'd been in the river for a year, down amongst the roots and tumbling stones.

My mother told me otherwise.

On a bookshelf something remained.

She'd taken it from the crematorium, she said, and he's as useful around the house now as he ever was alive.

I wondered about the jar of grey ashes, which bit of him hadn't made it to the river: an ear, a nose, the hand that clenched his pipe?

Incomplete, my father flows away, and somewhere a fisherman eats his catch, picks grit from his teeth and thinks, inexplicably, about tobacco.

Spinning - by Oliver Barton

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2013

On Monday, Maisie started spinning. Not wool, but round and round. At coffee time, I said 'I'll not offer you a cup. You'll spill it.' She said 'It was them Dervishes set me off.' How she didn't come over all dizzy, I just don't know. At lunchtime, she stopped. Suddenly. And the world started spinning in the other direction, faster and faster. Everyone was sucked off in a gigantic cyclone, like down a cosmic plughole. Except Maisie, because she'd fallen over, and me, because I'd screwed my feet to the floor. You want to watch out for spin.

X - by Amy Mackelden

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2013

I live with every one of my ex-boyfriends. Stephen spends his time on the sofa, eating milk-less cereal and deleting my shows from the Sky box. Ted stays in the bedroom. Not to fuck, he just likes sleeping. Tim cooks, endlessly; mostly lasagne. Rob posts notes through the letterbox: Are you home? Are they gone yet? When am I getting a key? David reads Nietzsche in the armchair and Jack smokes in the tub, using my soap where he shouldn't.

Mum likes them all, and Dad says, "No rush. Like laptops and hard drives, it's good to keep a back-up."

Lost For Words - by Andrea Mullaney

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

When I was seven, my cousin Karin told me that words had a limit. You could only say each one a certain number of times - she couldn't remember how many, exactly - and then they ran out and you couldn't ever use it again. You would open your mouth but nothing would come out. I spent a week trying to find different ways of saying the most common words, like 'and' and 'the' and 'it,' terrified of being left speechless. Then my mum noticed and told me that Karin was only kidding. The relief I felt was - was -

Oh. Oh, no.

My Grandad Was Roy Rogers - by Anouska Huggins

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

My grandad was Roy Rogers.

Except without the horse.

But he did have a Dralon armchair, the same colour as a golden palomino. He galloped on the edge of it, to keep in time with Trigger, blowing smoke from the barrel of his fingertips, while his loosened braces, like a bridle, flanked his hips. Then he'd throw off his fake buckskin hat. It smelled of Brylcreem and the oil from his old motorbike and sidecar: the one that kapooshed louder than a six-shooter.

'Here, Bullet,' he would yodel.

But the dog would just ignore him. It only answered to Shep.

Dot To Dot Man - by Alison Wells

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

It was about midday last Saturday I saw this dot-to-dot man. Lucky for him the wife had asked me to whitewash over the graffiti on the front wall or I might never have seen him. Lucky I always put a pencil behind my ear for odd jobs.

His dots were numbered so it was easy to fill in the gaps. I got my pencil and joined him all together - 'though there was a tricky double back between fourteen and seventeen. When I got to the last number he went off on his way and I went back to my painting.

Slather - by Clare Kirwan

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

Even after a week of frying our startled nipples under the merciless sun, Madeleine was still going on about how important it was to protect yourself even on cloudy days, even when the wind is cool, and how we should all be slathering ourselves in Factor 30 the way she did, greasing every inch of herself until you could practically smell her coming along the beach without opening your eyes - so it was ironic really that when the waves pulled her down a third time and everyone reached for her pale, flailing limbs, she just slipped through our fingers.

The Gradual Discovery Of Loss - by Eva Holland

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

It was her shoes that I found first. They were waiting patiently on the stairs, the left a step higher than the right, as if they had simply slipped from her feet as she ran. I took off my shoes and set them beside hers. Next I found her dress: a lake of silk on the bathroom floor. I took my clothes off and dropped them on top of it. Lastly, I found the imprint of her body on the surface of our bed. I lay down where she had lain, fitting my limbs into the hollows of her absence.

All Light - by Alan Beard

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

The boy on the beach has his eyes closed and the chatter eddies at his ears. He thinks he's her boy-trap. He makes her sticky. The beach is rolling, the beach is swollen. Sea's froth breaks on bodies like music. I am a gull's cry. I am grass in the dunes. He's the sharpness, he's the light. Radio voices, he's a transmitter. She is a voice from a long way off and the colours brim through his opening lids, like all light trying to get in.

India - by Joanna Campbell

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2013

Gracie and me know when our Mam's sad.

"Shall we make tea?" Gracie's voice is like pan-pipes in a wood.

Mam hurts Gracie so much she can't cry. Just sinks down in the corner. There's a tea-stain the shape of a melting India on the wall. She traces it with her finger.

Mam leans against the back-door jamb with her cigarette.

We'll creep under the bed, to India. Red-hot, golden and cinnamon-spiced.

Except Gracie can't come, can she?

I'll lay strings of daisies tomorrow.

She kisses my bruises, those she can reach. Goodnight, Gracie. Thank you for holding me.

The Worst Head In The World - by Angela Readman

FIRST PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2012

Liam gave me his mother's head. I guess he was sick of carrying it around.

'It's just for a while,' he said, placing the jar on the drawers. In the dark, lips made budgie-like kissing sounds. We had a reason to screw loud.

Come morning, the head tutted, 'I WANT a doily.'

It frowned if I wasted chicken bones, or didn't ask Liam if he'd washed his hands.

When he went, Liam left the head behind. It wavers in the water, tells me I'm not good enough, nods when I iron seams in jeans.

Black Hole - by Daniel Carpenter

SECOND PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2012

There is a black hole above her house.

This swirling cosmic nothingness, ever expanding, tendrils reaching out across the sky. She does not know how it got there. She knows it's taking her things. She does not remember last Saturday. When she tries to explain it she can't. She wants to say, "There's a black hole above my house and it's stealing every memory I have ever treasured," but it is not the kind of sentence people understand.

The black hole expands, time collapses in on itself.

She discovers her twelve year old self in her attic.

Meredith - by Amy Mackelden

THIRD PRIZE - 100 Word Competition 2012

On Grey's Anatomy, everyone's slept with everybody, and although real life is complicated, I'm sure it's not that complicated, or if it is then everyone's fucking without me, doing it secretly, when I'm at Pilates, or sleeping between ten and eight.

New Shoes - by Jenny Adamthwaite

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

Dad wanted trainers.

"I'd like to know I could run away," he said.

When the hospital bed lay empty, it gave us a moment's hope.

Sad Lover - by Jason Bagshaw

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

Beth and Alana had reservations at the restaurant in town. On the phone Beth said, 'I'll meet you at seven,' and Alana faked excitement and said, 'Can't wait.' Half past seven and the two of them were seated, ordering their drinks, listening to the piano of a popular composer coming through the speakers. 'It's Bach,' said Beth. 'I know,' Alana replied, but she knew it was Mozart and she wanted to break things off with her. 'I'm going to tell George everything,' said Beth and Alana cried inside. 'Good,' Alana said and hummed along to Mozart. To Bach.

She'll Leave You For A Man - by Kirsty Logan

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

You've always known it: that gleam, that glint, that licking of lips that means she is thinking about them. Men.

She thinks about them while smelling night jasmine, while rolling out pastry, while signing the bill for the waiter.

And so she will go. She will forget the shape of your hands.

But she will tire of her stubble-rashed chin, of long silences and calloused thumbs, of nothing to pillow her head.

So wait. Just wait.

New Build - by Clare O'Brian

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

There is no door to close. Just space, scaffolded, bathed in mud and builder's grit. The air rolls in, clouds of steam boiling from impervious stone, steel rods singing down into the sea.

I can already smell the tang of a fire burning at our bare hearth as the rain sweeps through the rafters. Our boys climb ladders lashed to girders, laugh at the water which sticks their shirts to their backs.

Around our house's heart the rooms are growing shells. Inside these plotted squares we'll live our story. The windows wait outside, roped against the wind.

Alterations - by Tim Stevenson

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

After the accident she came home rebuilt.

At breakfast, the platinum beneath her skin glows, pulsing with electricity, curiously alive.

I take some toast, spread butter. I see that there are no eggs in the pan.

She smiles, a mechanical lighthouse across the blue ocean of tablecloth. Her head turns smoothly towards the window, her warmth coming only from the sun.

I open my newspaper setting the pages full sail, seeking guidance in the new star of her unreadable face, in the night of her eyes.

Tonight I know I will not dream of her, only of the sea.

Relieving Makefing - by Alun Williams

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

The 06:17 from Nuneaton stops for three minutes outside Wembley on its approach to Euston. For one hundred and eighty seconds, Mafeking Jones sits open mouthed in his usual seat, staring at a naked woman, framed like a fallen Madonna at her open bedroom window.

No one else notices, no one else sees, perhaps because they are insularly wrapped up in newsprint tales of economic gloom and sporting deeds that have now passed to memory.

Mafeking is an accountant, a man of spreadsheets and numbers but for those three Wembley solitary minutes he's Michaelangelo in a Florentine dream.

First Person - by Martha Williams

HIGHLY COMMENDED - 100 Word Competition 2012

You lie within me, cupped and curled. You're in me, I'm in you; we're each other's inside out.

They count your fingers, toes, chromosomes... twice. My head spins.

Are you upside down?

They turn off the monitor. They speak in needles, numbers, and odds. I strum my fingers to your kicks.

They say, "If you... we have pills... the products of conception would..." They don't smile. My belly tightens.

Can you feel me? I'm your first person.

I say, "The products of conception, call them 'Emma'".

You lie still...

When you wake, you can call me 'Mum'.

Yearning - by Gail Aldwin

Holding the phone to his ear, he counts the rings. Claire answers on the fourth.
'Is your mother still there?' He doesn't wait for a greeting.
'She's taken the kids into town.'
'So that's more free childcare for you.'
'She offered,' Claire draws a breath.
'I'd look after your children anytime.You know I would. I've asked often enough.'
'Yeah, yeah.' Claire exhales and he guesses she's taken up smoking again.
'When your mother gets back, can you give me a call?'
'Fine.' The line goes dead.
'Fine.' He returns the handset to its cradle.
Sitting in the armchair, he stretches his legs. Settled for the afternoon, he watches the grey belly of sky through the window and he gropes behind the curtain. Finding the bottle he swirls it, watching the whisky lick the sides. There's enough to keep him going, for the rest of the day at least. In the tumbler grimy with fingerprints, he pours a large one. Titling the glass, he savours the peaty smell and his nose tweaks at the prospect of a good, steady slug. There's a nub of anaesthesia as he swallows and his shoulders relax. Smacking his lips as he downs the last drop, he nurses the glass between his fingers.With his eyelids sagging, the tension drifts.
The trill of the telephone wakes him but he doesn't answer. Instead he talks to the darkened room.
'Call yourself my daughter? You're a bloody bitch - you've been one since the day you were born.'

Mine - by Nicola Belte

"Jacques Froste, artiste consacre, excentrique extraordinaire," he says as he leads me in.
"Whatever," I reply.
I just want this over with.
I can't speak French. He doesn't speak English. It doesn't matter. I already know that he's the man for the job.
I take off my coat, my jumper, and my bra. He eyes me dispassionately, rolling a cigarette, nodding towards a rusty trolley in the middle of the room.
I climb onto it, and lie flat on my back, staring at the snowflakes on the ceiling. I shiver as he stands above me, securely tying my wrists to the sides of the trolley with thick, silver cord. He's done this before.
"Will I still be able to feel my toes?" I ask, feeling the panic rise as he knots the cord around my ankles. I wiggle them.
He nods, but he doesn't understand.
"Will it thaw, ever?" I ask, straining up, writhing in my bounds. Then I remember. I don't want it to. I settle back down, exhale, and I close my eyes.
I feel the tip of his brush glide between my breasts, and over my ribs. He hums as he paints, swirling circles on my chest, and I feel the cold seep through my skin, inching down, towards its target. My heart jolts, squirms, speeds up, fluttering like a lame baby bird caught in the crushing fist of winter. It chirps weakly, defiantly, and I think of love.
Kisses by a frozen lake. Slush on the stairs. His cold fingers in my mouth, to warm them up, his breath on my hips. Snow falling silently as we move. The world outside our room, unrecognisable, a fairytale.
But it doesn't work anymore. I know the ending. I open the window and the icicles shatter, and crack.
"Ok?" he asks, pausing.
"Yes, si, oui, ok, whatever," I say, nodding, "Go on."
He smiles, and bends over me, blue-tipped tongue poking out in concentration.
I think of black ice on the steps of a church. Tiny igloos of icing on a rich, rotten cake. A bridal choker; a web rimed with crystals of frost, on eBay: 99p. Worn once.
My heart slows, yields to the strokes of his brush, until finally; I can't feel it at all. Nothing. Numb. Mercifully.
I'm done.
I put on my bra, my jumper, my coat, and he hands me a scarf. Essential to keep warm, after the procedure.
I pay him with euros, not caring if I've worked it out right or not, and make my way out into the Parisian streets. I smile. The city of romance, and I feel not a thing.
I see couples around me, hugging and kissing, crying, and shouting, all handing over their emotions cheaply, clumsily, unaware of the cost, of the damage.
I tighten my scarf. I think of my heart, an exquisite winter diamond, encased in glass, glittering so brightly that it hurts the eyes. Untouchable. Now. Invaluable. Now. Mine.

A Fond Farewell - by Laura Besley

As I stare at myself in the mirror, I wonder if I'm doing the right thing. I struggle to make my tie lie flat, something my wife always did for me. But not today. Today I'm leaving her for a woman I've just met.

My whole working life I commuted to the city on the 7:42 train with a flask of tea and a home-made sandwich. One chilly Tuesday, I noticed a woman on the platform wearing a bright turquoise scarf. Mary would never wear that colour, I thought. She was taller than average, even in flat leather shoes. She had curly brown hair and wore dark-rimmed glasses. Once seated on the train she pulled out a Penguin classic and was totally absorbed until Waterloo station.

I hadn't picked up a novel since the days of obligation at grammar school, but that crisp evening I bought the same Penguin classic in the station bookshop. I saw her nearly every Tuesday for a year and bought all the books I watched her read. The shopkeeper soon knew to look out for me. My colleagues, unaccustomed to my reading, threw friendly jibes my way. My wife and I enjoyed debating the various characters and plots.

One Tuesday she wasn't on the train. Three or four weeks passed and I stopped looking for her. I realised I wasn't going to see her again. I began to choose my own books, but it wasn't the same, not knowing if she was engrossed in the same tales.

Years later, having recently moved to an unfamiliar part of town, I caught sight of her again. She was sitting at a wooden table sipping frothy coffee. Her face was rounder, her grey curly hair shorter; but essentially she was unchanged. Her eyes, despite their crow's feet, were still dark and intense behind her rimless glasses. How many words had they read since I last saw her?

"Are you enjoying it?" I said, nodding at her book. I showed her my identical copy.

"Yes, immensely." Her voice was deep, like melting chocolate.

"May I?" She nodded.

Slowly lowering myself into the seat opposite her, I added, "I think I prefer his last one though."

"Me too." She smiled.

"I'm Roger," I said, and held out my hand.

"Catherine." She took my hand. Her name is Catherine.

I grew to enjoy our weekly afternoon meetings. One day I asked her to dinner.

"That would be lovely," she said.

"Splendid!" I replied. "I know a nice little Italian place not far from here," realising I hadn't felt this happy in a long time.

Mary left me years ago when the cancer cells silenced her forever. God, I've missed her. Tonight, getting ready to meet Catherine for dinner, I'm finally able to leave my wife.

The Captain's Chair - by Chris Bissette

The rocking chair moved with a gentle roll, swayed slightly to the sides with each back and forth motion. When he closed his eyes and listened to the creak of the aged wood he could pretend he was back on deck. Especially in summer, when the nurses positioned him by the window so he could stare out at the sea, feel the sun hot on his face, taste the salt on the breeze.

He liked it here. There were no children. It was perfect. Almost.

His hook was wearing a groove in the arm of the chair where he scraped it every time he heard that infernal clock. If he could do something about that then he could enjoy his life in peace. For now, though, it was there, a constant reminder.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Human Consumption - by Natalie Bowers

Jo switched on her torch, leaned her shoulder against the door and shoved. Hot, putrid air puffed in her face. Gagging, she turned away. She would never get used that smell.

As she gulped down fresh air, Jo's gaze fell on the moonlit sign at the end of the gravel path: Welcome to Glade Garden Centre. Trees, Plants, Shrubs & Bulbs. Gift Shop & Café.

The café. If only she could eat there now.

'What would you like?' she would ask her little girl as they stood in front of the chiller, its glass shelves heaped with cakes and pastries. 'Toffee or Carrot?'

'Carrot,' her daughter would reply, eyes wide. 'And chocolate buttons!'

'Cake and chocolate?' Jo would roll her eyes and share a smile with the lady at the till. 'Go on then!'

Taking another deep breath, Jo shouldered the door wider and slipped inside. Once her eyes had adjusted to the dim light filtering through the corrugated plastic roof, she set off. The department she wanted wasn't far, and in twenty steps she was there.

Thank God! No one else had thought of it.

As she shone the beam around her, she greedily scanned the shelves stacked with Sunflower Hearts, Peanuts and Wild Bird Seed Mix. Clenching her torch between her teeth, she shook the rucksack from her shoulders and dropped to her knees. After yanking out her Bags for Life, she began stuffing them with as many packets of bird food as would fit, but as the label on one caught her eye she stopped.

It said: Not for human consumption.

With barely a shrug, Jo resumed packing. The latest fuel shortage and failure of the National Grid meant no one could afford to be fussy.

The Full Moon - by Cathy Bryant

Of course the sceptics are quite right. If Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, then who set up the camera to film him? The answer is Me. You didn't really think that those golden shining athletes, those poster boys for the Space Age, were the only ones who went up, do you? That they dusted the screens and made the meals and soothed the ego-clashes?

It was a great honour to be the first woman - the first person altogether, though no one has known about it up to now - to set foot there. Everyone focuses on that landing, but I tell you, for me the giant leap was the one my heart made when I first saw the Earth from space. So beautiful, and so serene. You'd think that nothing bad could ever happen there. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried, and I prayed that I'd get back there in one piece. But yeah, the landing, that's what everyone wants to hear about. That, and did we, you know, all confined together and all, did we - ?

Well that's a different story and I'm not going into details. I can't, legally - the Sun has bought the rights to that part. Suffice it to say that the landing wasn't the only 'first' of the journey, and all you really need to know is that zero-G isn't all it's cracked up to be. Leverage issues.

So, the landing. This is where it's a bit embarassing. You see, after all that time trying to land the ship safely and get down the ladder withoiut breaking the damn camera or an ankle and get used to the gravity and see what the hell I was doing in that helmet, I missed the significant touchdown completely. It wasn't until I had the camera ready to capture Neil doing his thing that it hit me - I was on the moon. The moon. That glowing thing in the sky that changes shape. The wobbles you can see on the film are me having an epiphany.

Many people say that that part of my account, missing the great moment and all, proves the truth of what I say. If I had made it up, it would be more dramatically perfect.

I did bring some moon rocks home with me, to prove it. I'd signed a million fifty-year confidentiality clauses which only expired recently, so I wanted something tangible, just for me. There - those whitish lumps on the table. Get them analysed and you'd find that they are not of this Earth. It's a little disappointing, though; to me they look like just any old rock that you might find up any old garden path. Still, the truth is the truth. Yes, they are for sale.

A Father's Hand - by Joanna Campbell

We always had fish and chips out of newspaper on Monday nights. I wondered if we still would. The hook had changed everything. We all spoke in wood language to him. And we did things for him now.

A breeze blurted through the window. Our Mary's balloons floated down from their string. The pink one flinched, threatening to sail outside. She squealed. Dad was nearest. He stood up fast. It was the first normal movement I had seen him make since they carried him out of the filleting-sheds.

"Get it Dad!" Mary cried.

Instinct made him use the hook where his right hand had been. I held my breath. Mum stood up, knocking cups over. "Let me do it, Reg," she said.

The hook curled around the string, kept a steady hold. It moved with grace. Dad's arm swung in a perfect arc back across the table to Mary.

Her smile came through. Her tears stayed put, shining until they were just grey salt on her cheek. And I thought I could smell rock-salmon and the bitter cut of vinegar through batter.

Mary took the balloon. I thought it looked even pinker, like dawn, in the dull light of that summer evening. She kissed the hook that brought it back to her.

Incompatible - by Rachel Carter

She said:
'I prefer the brain and the personality I have now to the one I had when I was younger...
What a shame the body I had when I was younger was better than the one I have now...'
She shrugged.
'But maybe the two were never compatible...'

He said:
'What a shame we can't go back in time.'

She said:
'I wouldn't go back even if I could,' and opened the empty suitcase onto the bed, satisfied she was doing the right thing.

The Weight And The Shape - by Josephine Corcoran

Maria knew exactly what she'd be wearing when she stepped up to collect the prestigious literary award. She had a tailored trouser suit, the colour of clotted cream, and she'd wear it with very high heels and a pearl choker. She'd sleep late that day and spend a long time in the bath with slices of cucumber on her eyes, listening to the drip of the tap and the sound of her name being mentioned on national radio.

She thought about this while she was standing in the stationery shop, looking at their collection of glossy, hardback notebooks with intricate, patterned covers. She bought one with swirls of green, purple and gold. She also chose a pen with an extra fine nib.

On the way home she noticed some wooden beads in the window of the local charity shop. They had been hand-polished in Mangalore, the shop assistant said. Maria thought that the pearl choker was probably too ostentatious anyway and bought the wooden beads. They looked like hard, burnished coffee beans. When she got home she tried them on with her trouser suit and was annoyed to realise that she must have put on some weight because the waistband dug into her and one of the pastel coloured buttons clattered to the floor as she turned in the mirror to look at her behind.

She rooted out her swimming costume and goggles and walked to her local swimming pool. While she swam, she composed her acceptance speech. She'd have to keep it simple but it would be nice to make the audience laugh. They'd raise their brandy glasses to her and reach for hand as she made her way back to her table. If it was a particularly witty speech she might be spotted by a TV executive and invited on to a late night Arts programme. A whole secondary career as a TV presenter would materialise. She wondered if TV presenters were given a clothes allowance. They seemed to have a lot of clothes. The money from the award would come in handy.

Swimming always made her hungry so she bought a slice of carrot cake from the bakery on the corner. She sat down at her desk to eat it and opened her new hardback notebook. It was the weight and the shape of a novel without any words.

The carrot cake clung to the roof her mouth and made her want a long, hot drink of tea. While she was in the kitchen she thought about the smooth, blank pages waiting for her and imagined the rapid scratch of the extra-fine black nib against the silky paper.

She thought some conker-brown boots, to match her beads, would be more arty than the very high heels. They'd make a sharp, positive sound as she strode confidently across the stage, beaming at the cheers and applause and the cameras. Maria beamed at her reflection in the kettle.

She took her tea back to her desk and picked up her pen. On the very first page of her notebook she wrote 'Maria knew exactly what she'd be wearing when she stepped up to collect the prestigious literary award'.

The Queen Of Sheba - by L.A.Craig

Home for Siobhan was a two-bed flat on the seventeenth floor of a council block with a mother who called herself housebound; a lifetime on her backside smoking thirty five a day, ankles wider than her knees, veins varicose, lifted under her skin like sand worms. Siobhan's mother sneered, that even if her sorry legs could carry her, she wouldn't want to be seen with her daughter. Looked like a bat in black rags, hair backcombed like a bird's nest and those ugly Morticia nails.

In the tepid world of Shady Pines the residents were grateful for Siobhan as their care assistant. Her biker boots were harsh against Maisie's yellow dress and gentleness, but Maisie loved to play with the silver buckles, Siobhan's foot up on her chair; Siobhan's bangles slipped from her arm onto Maisie's. Siobhan could persuade Ernest to turn his shirt the right way round by flashing her Bauhaus t-shirt. He would muss up his comb-over to look like Daniel Ash and giggle as Siobhan slipped his arms from inside-out sleeves. Siobhan's magnificent eye make-up made her the Queen of Sheba, according to Nadine, who had tried to copy it more than once. She'd repeat, every time, how she'd walked up the aisle in a gown that she could most certainly still fit into.

Siobhan was happy to let her mother continue to inhale her own death. Ignorant creature, trapped in her wallpapered cage. Her wisecracks never bothered Siobhan, she let them fall at her feet, simply stepped across them. Until last Wednesday.

Last Wednesday, Maisie passed away in her sleep Siobhan was told as she signed in for her morning shift. Her bangles chimed in a slump up her arm as she tried to stop the tears smudging her eyeliner. Last Wednesday evening Siobhan's mother wouldn't let up, called her fright face, vamp tramp, said she looked like she'd been dragged through a hedge then rolled in cow pat. Siobhan looked down at the names spat on the carpet, saw her mother's slippered feet; v-shaped cuts in the fabric for her swollen flesh to escape. Siobhan took her time, her mother wasn't going anywhere, slowly lifted a heavy boot, she let it hover for a second, maybe two, before she stamped it down hard on her mother's doughy foot.

As a black thumbnail pressed deep into gelatinous blue, Siobhan's mother kept her mouth tight shut.

Blown Away - by Sarah Crowley

You said go, enjoy yourself, and I did. You said go, and I went. When I got back you were gone.

Wind swirled crunches of leaves and tiny dirts. I leant into the air and as I walked perfume was blown from my skin. While I was sipping wine and talking, talking with old friends, you were leaving me.

You were packing away shine, gleam and spark. Emptying the cupboards of indulgences: freshly ground coffee beans, dark chocolate and cardamon pods. You were stealing comfort and ease as I swallowed another mouthful of slightly warm wine.

I was laughing, perhaps, as you darkened the light. I did laugh. It was maybe too loud to be real, but nonetheless. My friend squeezed my knee.

You wound in the wool, snipped the cotton, buttoned up your coat. I cut my evening short and hurried back to you. I told my friends how grateful I was but I had to go. The wind pushed me along the roads, assisting.

I entered the house and knew it was empty. Hollow.


You said go, enjoy yourself, and I tried to. When I got back you were gone.

Baker's Shop - by Peter Domican

Lara stood outside the shop in the New York snow, admiring the cakes in the window. The cakes were whole and perfect now but by closing time, the display would be bare; an ensemble of empty plates and solitary remaining slices.

Lara saw a couple at a table inside, flirting over coffee and pastries. It had been their table once, before the laughter had gone and the silences had grown longer. She felt the cold from the ground moving into her feet. She shivered and thought of Eric. Did it ever snow in LA?

Inspired by 'Baker Baker' - Tori Amos from the album Under the Pink (1994)

The Soldier Walks Like Light - by Helen Dring

He sleeps like he prays, lost and deep. He should be steeled, half awake and always ready but, instead, he slumbers like a man who sleeps with people he trusts with his life. He came a week before the others. He is thin, like a scholar who does not eat because he is too preoccupied with books and parchment. He should not be a soldier.

Clothilde says the man that hides at her house is much different, that he tears great chunks of meat with his teeth and swills down wine like it flows from a spring. Her man is a fighter, pure and bred. He sleeps with a knife in his hand and watches her when she goes to feed the chickens in case she is seeking out Roundheads to betray him to.

But our solider is silent. He nods meekly when we offer him food and nibbles on bread like a child. He reads until the early hours, his eyes straining in the dark. Once, when he saw me watching, he asked if I could read. When I shook my head, he took my finger and traced the shape of the letters on the page, reciting each one to me as he read. That's the closest any woman in my family has come to reading, that would-be soldier holding my hand as he turned the pages.

Tomorrow he moves to the church. The church, my father says, is the central point. There will be many others, ready to defend the King, to fight for God. I wish my soldier would stay, that we could hide him here forever. He could be my brother, or a cousin, or an orphan that we took in years ago. No-one need know. But there is a shame in avoiding battle, in running from the fight.

I closed my eyes as his footsteps walked away from our cottage. Farther up the hill, the church stands proud. His feet are light against the grass and I know, without looking, that he walks with his head held high.

The Roundheads will come with the dawn, and my soldier may not see the dusk.

You Light The Skies - by Rebecca Emin

Sometimes I sit and think of you, my periodic visitor; my temporary blinding light.

The anticipation of your visit is reminiscent of lighting the blue touch paper of a firework, then moving back to wait, wondering if anything will happen.

As the bell rings, the flame has caught. A whoosh inside me as I open the door and see your eyes dancing with mine from under your thick brown fringe.

I put the kettle on. We talk, and all around me I see stars. Your nearness evokes a spinning sensation in my head, like a Catherine wheel, whirring out of control.

Those micro-seconds when you hold me, the world lights up around me in a blast of starlight; momentarily beautiful.

But then you leave.

Darkness. Chilling air and a sense of loss.

The moment is over. It was never mine to begin with.

Lonely In Paradise - by Annie Evett

I scratch, irritated by the prickly heat, by the boredom; but mostly by the lack of hygiene I now cared about. Through squinted eyes over the horizon, I fancy I see a sail. Four full turns of the seasons and none have come any closer than to tantalise and tease me; make me scream till my throat is raw. All in desperate hope they see me. Lonely in paradise.

I stand and stretch, unwilling to seek the sail that by now disappeared; if it had ever been there. A dark hollow space grows within by chest; its creeping tendrils threatening to snake around my neck to strangle the last bastions of hope I harbour.

As the afternoons warmth withdraws I must set back to camp. Though nothing larger than I lives on the island; the jungles inky darkness with its strange smells and noises still frighten me. I furtively glance back out to sea, ready to accept the crushing blow of an undisturbed horizon.

Quicksilver threads it way throughout my body. The tiny sail is attached to a skiff. I rub my eyes and stare. Two figures sit bolt upright; nestled into the bosom of freedom.

The afternoon breeze brings them closer. The sail billows and strains like a fisherwomans undergarments. I flush at my vision of a voluptuous woman exposing her breeches.

A seagull screams in my ear and I scurry down the cliff track towards the beach. My heart hammers, not from exertion; but in fear, in excitement, in relief.

The waves suck at my legs as I splash outward towards the boat. I stop; catching my breath as I see the wind caressing a golden curl underneath a wide brimmed hat on the boat. Her pastel printed gown, starkly contrasts with his roughened jacket. They are still too far away to view their faces and have apparently have not yet seen me.

I flush. One woman between two men for an undermined amount of time on this island?. My strict Catholic upbringing tears at my morality.

I shout out a greeting, not knowing what to say first. The sheer giddiness of being able to converse with another human being makes my head swim. The two figures proudly face one another; oblivious to me, or to their impending landing.

A seabird swoops and lands beside the figures. Another chooses to perch on the gentlemans head. Their squawking quarrels are unheeded by the couple. A cold dread rises from my bowels.

I watch as the boat is swept by the waves onto the beach. The figures stare at one another; deaths eyes torn by seabirds. They are bound hand and foot with chain. Fingers are intertwined; shreds of legs still stretched out towards one another. Rope fixing them to their seats.

Lovers set adrift for crimes, now only shared by them.

By The River - by Vanessa Gebbie

It should have been easy for Simeon to say the words, 'I am dying'. To remind her that she had never loved him, so the words would hold no lasting fire. But they were too precious in his mouth to let them go. 'You have made me cold, Esther,' he said instead. 'You are late, Esther,' he said, then told her he had been waiting on the bank for too long. So long the river could have frozen over twice and he would not have noticed. Instead, his words became a boy's memories of running down hills, cutting paths through the tangle of rhododendrons, and perhaps it was the medication, or perhaps it was stardust, but he saw her against the sun, eyeless, just black space where her face should have been... what was her name, after all? Ellen? Emma? He could not look at her directly, against the sun. Instead, he kept talking about the river, telling her to go down to the edge, touch the water. 'Has it unfrozen now you are here? Take a look, would you? If it has, we could go swimming and throw water, perhaps? Just a game.Take off your coat, sit down.' But there was no sign of rivers freezing. The alders were still weighed with leaves, heavy after last night's rain, like the hair of some strange being trailing in the stream. It was trying to rain again. It was in the air. And he was wondering how long it had been since he did see her eyes - was it last night, when he had dreamed of pigs and ships, all the while eating bread, spied on by her - it had to be her - looking down from the wall, whispering against the rush of the river, for that had been in the dream too - I am disappointed, I am you. I am disappointed. He caught her thoughts, dream or no. 'I am not a monster,' he said. Told her there was no reason to fear him, just as there was no reason to fear the cold. As he spoke, he picked up a stone from the bank and shifted it in his fingers - 'Maybe it would be simpler to skip pebbles? and he looked up at her again, squinting, unable to quite see if she was looking back at him. He'd looked for pebbles, earlier, to kill time, but the only ones he found were not smooth, not the sort that fly easily. They were misshapen things, rough, as though all the years of the world and its spinning had not yet smoothed them Was she a mother or a lover? He couldn't quite recall, now. Wasn't sure how to address her, not now, and the ice was forming at the corner of his eye where the leaves touched the water. He could hear the crystals forming, the sound of the shifting meniscus dragging them away from each leaf. The dream perhaps, the sounds then, a cat stretched sleeping across a harp-string, a heart-string - and she had gone. Would he know the language of the angels when it was time? Would he be man or boy, then? When the angels let down their hair, would it be beauty or sex that played in his head? Would the songs then be the songs of princes, of kings, or of guttersnipes and kitchenmaids? To be sitting on the bank, now, alone, when there was nothing else. Just him, and the river, and the approaching ice. The rain, these misshapen pebbles, a little grass growing out of the mud back there, and the flash of a fish across the other side, out of reach, there, then gone. Like that. No love, no malice, just the cold of the water, the air, a fleeting cloud. That's all it is.

The Op - by Warren Glover

I felt a little strange that morning, although the doctors insisted everything was fine and the operation had been a success.

"Congratulations, Ms Jones," said the consultant.

It was then that I twigged something might be up.

"Ms? What are you on about? My name's Brian."

The consultant turned to the nurse. "It's Brenda, isn't it?"

The nurse looked down at my chart.

"Yes," she said.

"Well, Brenda, you can forget all about that worrisome appendage now."

"Appendage?" I said. "I was in for my appendix."

Jimmy Checks Out - by David Gullen

He'd caught a bullet.


Snatch! Just like that.

He'd seen it coming he told them later. He'd snatched that motherfucker right out of the air. Burned his palm but that was OK. Anyways, it wasn't a real bullet, it was a copy. Nice one, too.

How did Jimmy know? He knew because you couldn't do that with real bullets. You couldn't catch 'em.

Jimmy flipped the bullet, caught it, and slipped it into his pocket. Guy who fired it wouldn't mind. Guy like that, he'd have a whole bunch of bullets. He could spare a few.

The Mist - by David Hartley

I've hidden in the gap between the garage and the house, finding out how cold it really gets at night. Even in gloves my hands are numb; I try to warm them by squeezing the torch tightly. Across from me the front door - still, locked and bolted against the cold. Above that my window where I usually sit; yesterday and the day before and the day before and the day before, eyes on the street, ears primed on the door.

My Dad will leave before the sun gets up, before the mist descends, as quiet as he can so as not to wake me. But I'm always up. Peeking through the curtains I will watch him open the gate, cross the road and stride down Alvern Avenue, never looking back, never looking up and I never see his morning face. And every time, in the same spot, where Avenue meets Alvern Place, he stops and stoops and ties his lace; and then the mist descends. It falls off rooftops, wraps round houses, blurs the lights and covers the cars, trickles into roads, filling them in, and up along the Avenue to where my dad is stooped and grabs him, holds him and eats him whole, from head to foot and will not spit him out until...

...until the cat wakes up. Kit the cat leaves at the same time as Dad, darts away - will follow and report back later, with the mist still clinging to his fur in tiny drops of water.

A brave cat, a strong cat; he talks to me through whisker twitch and tail switch and by softly butting his head against my arm. He says; 'I saw his hat on a bench' or 'I saw his briefcase in the park' and 'I saw his footsteps in the grass.' Did you see my Dad, I'll ask, and he'll stretch, yawn, lick his lips and that means; 'It was too misty. I saw his hat, I saw his case, I saw his footsteps in the grass. Don't worry lad, he'll be back.' Then he tucks into a slumber curl while I watch through windows, drawing faces in the fogs I breathe upon the glass.

And when Kit wakes, I count to ten, and Dad appears, safe again and Kit trills a purred miaow, curves his back and stretches out; 'What did I say?' he seems to say, and I smile.

And the front door opens. And the case comes down. And the hat comes off. And the door clicks shut.

Mum gets up and kisses him, nods to me, nods to Kit and says;

'You were mist.'

And Mum says 'Yes.'

And Kit just purrs.

And Dad says 'Well now I'm back.'


But last night Kit died. Dad stayed home and the mist did not fall.

And now he's got to go again, and so must I.

That Damn Kerr - by Ian Hawley

I'm supposed to write something here, I'm sure I am, but for the life of me I can't think what.

It all started 365 days ago now, my inspiration started to fade and I lost the will to write. Words just didn't seem to work in my mind, my dreams stopped and my thoughts turned to jelly, well, a jelly like substance anyway, I would use a better word but, na, I can't be bothered.

Before this, before I started to lose my mind everything was fine. I was able to churn out a story maybe once a week, maybe twice on a good week. Now, well now I haven't really worked on anything for a year.

I had to sign a birthday card in work the other day at work. I just wrote my name as I didn't know what else to write. Each time I thought of something, it vanished, as though it had been stolen from my very... er... My very....

It took me a while to figure out what had happened, I came across it by mistake around two months ago, but I don't know what to do about it. I would, er, do something but I can't think of anything to do.

Damn it.

I was writing something, I'm sure I was. I bet it's happened again, that damn man. It's all his fault; he's the one to....

I'm supposed to write something here, I'm sure I am, but for the..... Damn.

I was going to write an email to him, begging him to stop. But, well, I couldn't think what to say.

It's his fault, that damn Calum Kerr fella.

A story each day for a year, it goes against...

365 stories...

There's nothing left for the rest of us to write...

Something To Eat - by Kevlin Henney

Red pesto, green pesto, black olive tapenade. Filigree sauce trails spiralled in from the edge, surrounding three halved cherry tomatoes standing guard around three razor slices of mozzarella di buffalla. Across the plate was a scatter of ground pepper, a rumour of truffle oil. Elegant. Suggestive. Insubstantial. Wilbur tried to focus on his starter.

"That'll be four fifty."

Three courses and as many calories later Wilbur found himself across the road. This was worth paying for. Orders of magnitude separated the guilt-drenched doner kebab now in his hands from the drawn-out bemuse bouche skulking in a corner of his stomach.

Red Socks - by Sarah Hilary

Here, I've dropped a stitch, turning the heel. Just for a second, I'm tempted to leave it. He won't see the hole. But by that same rule I may as well not knit a left sock.

I feel the warm weight of his foot, filling my hand. They've said he feels it too, itching, but that it won't last.

The Navy are bringing him home. I'm practising a big smile to greet the ship; my lips are cracking with the shape of it.

Here, I'll unpick the red wool stitches, every one, and turn the heel again until it's whole.

Meat - by Dan Holloway

A while back Elly from Games Perverts Play suggested I might start to put something together for a project she was working on about objectification. It sounded like a great idea, so close to the subjects I've worked on for so long, but when it came to the actual writing of it, I realised I didn't have the first clue how to get something sensible down on paper in less than a gazillion words. I played around, started things that got deleted, bounced things on twitter, e-mailed friends who might point me in the right direction - Penny, maybe, or Kirsty, or even Marc who might have some bonzo wheeze about how I could make it all about typography.


So in the end I swallowed my nerves and my pride and called Sadie.

When I was a primary school kid I'd always been a prodigious dreamer, a composer of scenarios about the girls in my class, or women I saw on the TV, at the cinema, in my mum's home shopping catalogues.

But, in the summer between primary and secondary school (for some weird reason that had to do with long division I was 10 rather than 11, which may or may not have anything to do with anything) Sadie was the first time I stepped the line between daydream and fantasy.

When she answered the phone her voice was kind of echoy. I told her why I was calling and asked if she minded me calling her about something so personal. She asked me why on earth I thought she would mind, and I told her she was the first girl I'd had those kind of thoughts about, that two years after the summer we'd spent hanging out, after a few dry runs with some topless playing cards someone had brought back from a field trip to France I'd closed my eyes in the bath and it was her face I saw the first time I came for real. I told her I'd stored up some of the best tits I'd seen on late night movies and pasted them onto her, just below her face, and I said I wasn't sure if me saying that kind of thing to her after all this time might make her feel weird.

She said she had no idea why I'd think something so ridiculous, what were the fantasies of some hormonal twelve year-old to her now she was in her 30s and that summer - and me - was so many lives away it might as well be an agony letter in a magazine I was reading to her. And besides, she'd cut her wrists open just before I called and the blood was swirling in the bathwater over her tits, and yes they were rather perky still, probably just like something from a late night film, and she found it rather amusing as she watched to imagine her blood was my cum.

I asked her if she had Skype or anything else like that so I could take a look and see if they'd turned out the way I'd imagined them, and she said I'd made do with my imagination till now, and I agreed, and she was right, what did I need a camera for when the picture was so clear.

Then she said she had something to ask me, so I told her to go ahead, and she said that after all the help she thought she'd given me getting off over the years, maybe I could do something for her. I said sure, and she said thank you, though by now it was getting hard to hear the exact words. I asked her what she wanted, and she said once she was gone if I was going to call the police or the hospital or whatever then before I did could I go round there don't worry the door's open and take a knife it's OK there are some really sharp ones in the kitchen drawer and find her and wash her down with cold water and take her out of the bath she hopes I've been working out but she's looked after herself and even if she's a dead weight she's not that much of a weight and lay her on the floor and open her legs and put the knife in the tender part of her groin and peel back some skin and any fat there might be though she's sure there won't be much because of the exercise and take out the thinnest sliver of muscle and put one hand on her tits and feed myself her flesh with the other.

I told her I didn't know, that was a lot to land on someone.

There was a noise, like coughing, or like paper tearing, and I asked her what it was and she said she was laughing, only by then she wasn't. She wasn't anything.

I sat with the phone to my ear listening to the not anything and wondering if I had enough for my piece and I could put it down yet.

Mother's Pride - by Susan Howe

She strolls in as cool as you like and says "Hello, Joan" as if we're old friends. She hands me a bunch of flowers. I hate lilies. So funereal.

Daniel's bobbing about behind her. I see she's already got him where she wants him.

"Come through," I say. "Dinner's waiting."

I can't imagine what's made them so late. They obviously haven't spent any time deciding what to wear. Shorts and open sandals on a Sunday!

She offers to help but Jim and I can manage when he's finished fawning. He wouldn't think she was so wonderful if he'd slaved over two dinners just because she's a vegetarian. Attention-seeking, that's all it is. Daniel won't be able to keep it up. One sniff of a bacon sandwich and that'll be it. I've got some rashers in the fridge.

I wish Jim would take that silly smile off his face. She's only talking about her job for goodness' sake. Anyone would think she was a brain surgeon, not a nurse.

She seems to like her broccoli bake, but Daniel keeps looking over at the joint then shutting his eyes. Poor love, he must be starving. I'll try and slip him some later, while Jim shows Her Highness round the garden. Listen to him! Who on earth wants to know about his stupid dahlias?

I'll clear the plates while they're yapping.

"That was delicious, Joan," she says.

Daniel smiles and nods but I can see he isn't happy.

I'll show her I know my boy. He'll love the pudding. It looks smashing even if I say it myself. Watch his face when I set it down.

Now what's the matter with her? Come on, missy. Spit it out.

"I'm sorry, Joan, but does it contain gelatine?" she says.

Well of course it contains gelatine! How else would you get it to stand up like that?

"Sorry, Mum. We can't eat it," Daniel says.

"What do you mean?" I say. I'm struggling to keep my voice down. "It's your favourite."

"I wish you'd listen, Mum -"

She puts her hand on his arm like she owns him.

"What Dan means is gelatine's made from animal bones."

I feel my blood pressure rising. If I'd wanted him called Dan I'd have christened him that myself! She's ruining him with her ridiculous ideas. I'm trying my best to make it a nice day and this is the thanks I get.

"It looks lovely, dear. I'll have some," Jim says, as if that's any damned use.

"How long have you been vegetarian?" he asks her.

"Only since I met Dan," she says. "He's really committed and I'm trying to support him."

Daniel leans over and plants a kiss on her cheek.

"Isn't she great?" he says.

Jim nods. He always was a rotten judge of character but she doesn't fool me.

I look her straight in the eye. She flinches. Her head tilts. Lips tighten. Now I think we understand each other.

"Coffee?" I say.

Water - by Holly Howitt

There was that time - do you remember it? - where the government said that we must share baths because the sea was evaporating, so we did, you and I, and you soaped my toes and I flannelled your back (most of the loofahs were dead by then) and we thought we were making a difference. Then we were told to drink our bath water as water was precious, and we did. You used that tall glass and I used the blue whisky one. It seemed somehow tastier then, like it looked on those adverts, in that blue glass. Finally we were told that we must only use water if it were to boil one or the other for supper, water being scarce. So I put you in that big pot that we used to put coal in when it still existed and I boiled you dry. After I'd ladled you out of the water, I washed my hair in your stock.

(From Dinner Time and Other Stories (Cinnamon Press, 2008)).

Behind A Floral Curtain - by Mikey Jackson

A true short story

Picture the scene. Me. Thirteen years of age. Fully clothed. Standing in a bath. Yes, that's right. A bath. Empty, by the way, just so you know. Cowering behind the shower curtain that completely cloaked the tub. Blue and white floral design, if anybody's interested. All alone in the communal bathroom of a Blackpool guesthouse.


Then a sound. The turning of a doorknob. Uh, oh. Did I not lock the door upon my arrival? No. I hadn't. In my frantic haste, I'd foolishly overlooked the obvious.


I heard the door open. Then unhurried, shuffling footsteps. I was a goner, for sure. The hunter had sought out his quarry. Any second now, the curtain would swish across, revealing the driest bather in the history of personal hygiene. Aside from the film of perspiration forming across my trembling brow, that is.

I waited.

And waited some more.

What was he doing? Prolonging my agony? The cad.

More noises. The brushing of material against skin. The light flumph of fatty flesh resting upon a plastic surface. Strange. I was sure I'd heard those exact sounds a million times before. But where?

I couldn't help myself. Curiosity was getting the better of me. Yes, I know it kills cats, but I don't much care for felines. I needed to know what was happening. So I peeked round the side of the curtain.

I soon wished I hadn't.

It wasn't my nemesis, after all. Didn't look anything like him. And now I knew where I'd heard those noises before. To my horror, not five feet away, sat an elderly woman. On the lavatory.

I recoiled, returning my eyes, my face, my everything behind the safety of the curtain. I swallowed hard. Oh, flibberdy-doodahs! What if I was discovered? I'd be branded a Peeping Tom. Hard evidence was stacking up against me. An adolescent boy, hidden behind a floral curtain, while some old granny relieves herself of afternoon tea. I could hardly say, 'It's not how it looks.'

I had to face facts.

I was doomed.

A family holiday in Blackpool seemed a good idea at the time. A pleasant little guesthouse, a few streets from the sea. Who could possibly ask for more?

I was a teenage lad. Just about. My brother was a year younger. We didn't relish the idea of hanging out with Mum and Dad in a dead guesthouse bar every evening. The prospect of sitting in silence, bored out of our skulls, while the old man supped his oh so adventurous half of brown ale and Mum polished off yet another whatever-she-was-having didn't exactly float the proverbial cross-channel ferry. Therefore, we figured we'd find our own company.

We were fortunate enough to come across fellow just-about teens. Two lads. Brothers, just like us. Same age, give or take a few months. There was a severe lack of excitement in the guesthouse, so we ventured outside, heading in the direction of the seafront. Two minutes walk at the most, apparently. Our pockets boasted ample spare change. Losing the lot in the slot machines sounded like fun.

One of the lads discovered a coat hanger in the road. How it came to be there was a complete mystery to us. He picked it up and jokingly inserted it in the back of his collar, just as it would be used to suspend the garment in a wardrobe. And then came the gag.

'Don't you ever get the feeling you've forgotten something?'

Oh, how we laughed.

The passing thug who was built like a brick WC (with token peroxide dollybird in tow) didn't seem to share our sense of humour.

'What did you call me?' he growled.

We all froze, wide-eyed and mute.

'I said, what did you call me?' He was a most persistent character.

A daunting predicament, yes, but one with a simple solution. Explain that we weren't actually talking about him. But things are never quite that simple when you're a quartet of just-about teenagers. So what did we do?

We legged it.

And guess what?

He chased us.

During the somewhat rapid return to the guesthouse, I'm sure we broke several world sprinting records. Only, we didn't stop to pick up the medals. The four of us barged recklessly through the entrance and scurried in all directions like spooked cockroaches. I decided to take the stairs. Up I raced, flight after flight, never once tiring of my pace. Until I reached that communal bathroom.

And hid behind the floral curtain.

Where I now stood waiting for a pensioner to quit paying her dues to the porcelain.

However, I soon began to realise that the quandary I faced was not as grim as first predicted. Better than being bludgeoned to death by a fist-happy psycho with an aversion towards coat hanger quips, surely. All I had to do was keep quiet. And not cough. Nor sneeze. Nor Heaven forbid, make strange noises in the posterior department. The old girl would be done in a moment. A quick tinkle and a flush, that's all. Then she'd leave and I'd be home and dry. Simple.

So I waited for the tinkle.

All I heard was a loud plop.

Oh, no! Disaster. Forced to listen to somebody five hundred times my age taking a number two. This was the stuff of nightmares.I closed my eyes. Gritted my teeth. Covered my ears with clammy palms. And waited for what seemed a thousand years.

Her eventual departure was met by a huge sigh of relief. I'd gotten away with it. Beaming brightly, I swished the curtain aside and stepped out of the room a free man.

I caught sight of the old lady on several occasions during that week. Each time, she would throw me a rather odd look.

Which begs the question.

Did she know?

I do hope not. For her sake as well as mine.

(From Dinner Time and Other Stories (Cinnamon Press, 2008)).

Lucifer - by Duncan Jones

Lucifer was sly. Lucifer was vicious. Lucifer was Amy's cat. The name and the cat came together in one package. This was no Tiddles, no triple barrelled Alberto-Cuddlington-Snuggles the Third. This truly was the feline Lucifer.

Shredded curtains, pulverised mice and mauled flowerbeds bore witness to his demonic power. True he could be cute. This was just to lure you in, draw you closer, get you within swiping distance. Just ask the Reverend Whitlock. (He of the blood stained dog collar).

Yet one day Lucifer met his match. Not that tabby from behind the Co op. Not some celebrity cat trainer from BBC Four. No. Miranda, age eight, sparkly hair slides and a permanent smile from two doors up.

Miranda knew nothing of Lucifer's track record, not even his name. Like the passage they always read at weddings, Miranda was patient, Miranda was kind. So when Lucifer spat at her, she thought he had something stuck in his throat and got him a saucer of cream. When Lucifer took a deadly clawed swipe at her nose she thought he was only being playful and tickled his tummy. Miranda even used her own pocket money to by Lucifer a collar.

Amy came home from work at the Chiropractors one day to find Lucifer with a sparkly pink collar. His once gleaming, scheming eyes were now like the scuffed and battered toes of an eight year old boy's school shoes. Lucifer looked forlornly up his owner, if he could speak he would have said "Mother take this clasp away from me".

Due to the attentions of Miranda Lucifer was never quite the same cat again, which was ironic because Miranda was an absolute bugger at Sunday school.

34th St. - by Benjamin Judge

When the girl on the F train yawned and swallowed the world it was not my world she swallowed but the actual world; stone, sea and all.

She was Italian. She had long black hair that danced to the train's movement and eyes the colour of burnt toffee. But this is not a love story. The girl on the F train did not swallow my heart when she yawned, she swallowed the earth.

She swallowed the F train, and the station, and the lines that stretched into the darkness. She swallowed the passengers and the driver, and the policeman stalking the platform. She sucked the skin off their bones. She clicked coins around her mouth like boiled sweets. She ate the flyers abandoned on the seats and the steel bolts that fixed advertising boards to the walls. She ate the air that sat, thick and pliant, between us. She ate the spirits that whispered in the gaps between meaning and nothing. She ate the earth and the heavens and the seas. She ate the past and the future. She swallowed the world.

She wore a green cardigan and a silver crucifix.

When she smiled the world flickered. A single butterfly emerged from a chrysalis behind my head rest. I watched it float out of the train and toward a chink of light in the station's broken ceiling. A portrait on the wall shed a golden tear.

This is not a love story.

Siren - by Alistair Keen

'Passengers for Feniton, please go to the front two carriages. That's the front two carriages for Feniton.'

Gabi stayed where she was. She was travelling to Exeter.

I wonder if he's there today.

With a squeal of brakes and a strange ticking noise the train slowed to a halt. Gabi glanced out of the window trying to be as casual as she could. Which was, of course, not casual at all. It had started as an almost imperceptible nod. Then they had gone through the smiling stage. Now they were at the waving and grinning stage; nearly every Friday on her way back from London. Gabi wondered what the next stage would be. In fact she thought of little else. 'Damn,' she muttered. He wasn't there. Gabi abandoned any pretence of being casual and stared out of the window scanning the garden. The immaculate lawn and borders. A vegetable patch of military precision.

He stepped out from behind the monkey puzzle tree. He looked up; looked straight at her. Gabi jumped and felt her face colour. His gaze made her feel fifteen again. Gabi's hands balled into fists, nails digging into her palms. She wanted to look away but his grin was like a beacon, almost magnetic.

He waved and pointed at the coffee mug in his right hand.

He's asking me over for a coffee!

Gabi gave him a thumbs up and abandoning any pretence of appearing cool, shoulder charged her way towards the front two carriages; handing off a pensioner in her eagerness. The guard scowled as she stepped from the train just in time.

As Gabi waited at the level crossing for her train to go through, a thought occurred.

He's only seen me from the waist up. Oh God.

She pulled her top down over her backside. She always wore long, loose tops. Gabi walked under the barriers, across the railway and into the village. The monkey puzzle tree in the rear garden signalled the location of the house. She stood outside and breathed deeply. 'Come on, what's the worse that can happen?'

She walked up the path. The front garden wasn't as tidy as the back. In fact it was overgrown. The door was open.

'Hello.' Gabi knocked on the door. 'Hello?' She stepped through the doorway and on to floor boards. 'Must be decorating...'

'Come through,' said a voice straight from the shipping forecast.

Another step.

The door slammed.

'Jeez!' Gabi giggled. 'Bloody wind.'

Her nose wrinkled. Hope that's not the coffee. She stepped inside the living room. Her feet squelched on the carpet. Stunned, she looked around the empty room. Peeling wallpaper and a mildewed ceiling. 'What the...?'

Her hypnosis snapped. She ran to the door. Stuck. Locked?

She reached the living room window in time to see him walk out of the gate. He ignored her frantic bangs on the window.

'Help, please help me!'

The commuters on the 1810 to Exeter tried to ignore the mad woman waving.

The Spark Of Inspiration - by Calum Kerr

I'm a writer, or at least I used to be. My first novel was short-listed for three prizes. My second won one and my third ended up on the '3 for 2' table in a chain of bookstores I'm sure you've heard of. And then... nothing. No fourth novel, no stories, no novellas or reviews. Nothing.

What happened? Well, I met someone and I fell in love. It was crazy and whirlwind. I lived the cliché. We met in a bar in a French hotel and were married within four weeks. I was so happy, so content, that the angst, the fear and the anger which had driven my writing just evaporated.

Two months after we were married she told me she was pregnant. Six years and two more children later and I still haven't written a word.

It's not that I didn't want to, you understand. Nor is it that I haven't even tried. I have, but nothing happens. In the past year, as the money I earned from my early success started drying up and we had to move to a smaller house and sell furniture to make ends meet, I've tried more and more. I've even taken a 'proper' job teaching Creative Writing in a university, but it hasn't solved the basic problem that I could no longer really call myself a 'writer'.

Then, last night, as I sat on the bus on the way home, the woman in front of me finished telling her friend some rambling anecdote with an aphorism that I had never heard before. 'Ah well,' she said, 'at least bad decisions make for good stories.'

I hadn't heard what her decisions were, so I couldn't judge the worth of her story, but the phrase wouldn't leave me. I laid awake next to Mathilde all night, the idea of bad decisions and good stories turning over and over in my mind.

At some point, I slept, and when I woke a conclusion had been reached without me even being aware of it.

This morning I went into my class, told them they were all crap and should become farmers or pharmacists but not writers, and I walked out. I went into my Head of Department's office and pissed in her waste-bin as she watched me, open-mouthed. I said nothing to her splutters of protest, merely zipped up and left. On my way back to the bus-stop I punched an old lady, stole her handbag, and ran. Once on the bus, I wrote a text to a putative mistress and sent it to my wife, leaving her in no doubt that I had been having an affair for a number of months. I know there was no doubt because of the empty wardrobes that I found when I returned home, and the note that she had left on the kitchen table.

Then, before coming in here to my office, I set fire to the curtains in the lounge. I can smell the smoke. I'm sure it's taken a good hold by now.

So, the first part of the plan has been taken care of, my computer is humming in front of me, and I'm ready. All I need to do now is wait for the good stories to come.

I hope they're quick.

(From 31 (Calum Kerr, 2011))

Soft Machine - by John F.King

Midlife now, I'm listening to the first LP I ever bought - snap, cackle, pop .

Dwelling on how I was forced to become a teacher 'cos I couldn't play piano like the band's keyboard player, you know the guy who wore sunglasses even in Ronnie's basement at 3 A.M.

My first girlfriend hated them but I loved her with magnanimity. Stuck together for a record 8 years but we broke up before the band did: musical differences.

What was their first and only single? I remember: 'Love Makes Sweet Music'

Reached 99 in the Melody Maker / Billboard top 100. Cool, wouldn't want a sell-out now would we, man. Only I get it, of course.

The time signatures were as crazy as the times - 13/4, 17/ 8.

They were never big in Vienna either.

Got F'ed up, funked up that is, 1980 if I recall rightly, same as we all did, nothing wrong in that.

Took the 90s to re-groove, different girl, 3/4 this time.

We were at evening dance classes in the windowless hall. Funny, bloke there, one of those types you can't make out how old they are, waltzes in, dances to his own tune, never takes his sunglasses off all evening. Funny that - in the windowless hall, in the middle of the evening, in the middle of the year, in the middle of -

Hungry Dogs, Dirty Puddings - by Clare Kirwan

She was the kind if girl who wasn't fussy where her shiraz came from, the kind a barge man wouldn't touch with his pole. But he'd got to the point where he was so hungry for someone to touch him this was no longer important. He found her, not in the gutter but wavering on the edge of it, with thin legs perched on ridiculous heels that made her unsteady as a young bird. He preferred more flesh on a woman - even her laughter was the brittle kind, but better than the eternal silence of his apartment.

She complained he didn't have a tv or any cigarettes. But she said she liked his music, was happy to take a tour through his collection of single malts and let him fuck her. Hungry dogs, his mother used to say, will eat dirty puddings. It was just difficult to tell at this stage who was the dog and who the pudding.

First published in 3:AM Magazine, 2013

Dark Days - by Andie M Long

Just a week ago I was sitting in this exact coffee shop with my friend, laughing and catching up, on a comfy brown leather sofa tasting the best coffee ever. Today I'm facing the coffee shop window looking above the writing on the window that is attempting to reach out and encourage economically challenged civilians to enter. I see murky clouds whizzing by, getting faster as the weather appears to get angrier, the sky turning a deep purple and the wind blowing the cafe canopy and driving the rain into the panes of glass. I stare, transfixed by the weather. My heart is beating so fast I feel the noise is rebounding around my body and hurting my own ears. The waitress brings my coffee and toast. I thank her but she doesn't seem to notice, the cafe is filling with people coming in from the rain and she has quickened her pace accordingly. I immediately take a sip of the dark, steaming coffee, even though I know it will burn my tongue. The burning sensation reaches right to the back of my throat and I embrace the fact that I am feeling something, even if its pain. The toast looks anaemically pale; as I take a bite, the texture of it turns to mush in my mouth, making me feel nauseous and I throw it back on the plate and push it away. The waitress switches on the lights in the cafe as it becomes too dark for customers to read their newspapers. I sigh in frustration as I felt at home in the dark, I think 'turn the lights back off'. The brightness makes me uncomfortable, as if everyone can look at me too closely and I feel my chest tighten and a need to escape. I get up hurriedly, leaving coins on the coffee stained table to pay for my breakfast and depart. People are cluttered around the entrance and huff and complain as I try to pass them. I think don't stand like skittles if you don't wish to be knocked.

I walk along the road, passing shops by. It's a week to Halloween and the windows are full of witches and skeletons. My hair whips back and forth across my face as I cross the street towards the bridge and I attempt to put it back behind my ears. A van stops to let me pass, actually being careful not to splash me, which makes a change. The van's design is obscured by dirt and I am so tempted to reach out my fingers and bring the colours back to life, but I decide not to bother as the dirt only returns, so what's the point? The clouds in the sky have moved over so that the bridge is cut in half, part in light, part in shade and it feels right to move over into the dark. I walk right to the end of the bridge and venture into the woods. The ground underneath my feet is slippery with sodden leaves. I feel sorry for them, once all green and majestic, proudly displayed on a tree, now dead and in the gutter. It shows how quickly it can all change. The branches of the trees are almost touching each other, reaching out with their skeletal arms. Directly above, a cloud seems to have formed the shape of his head, he who ruined everything, seems now to be watching me from the sky itself.

The further into the woods I walk, mist closes in around me, discombobulating me. I hear the tinkling of bells and think I must be imagining things or maybe it's water? A stream runs parallel to the woodland path. It's usually so relaxing to watch as it trickles along, yet today the water is coursing down. Temptation wins and I wander towards the sound. I stumble across a fallen tree, laid on its side. At one end of it sits a woman drinking from a champagne flute. She reminds me of the witches I've just passed in the shop window with her long dark hair and sour face, the side of her mouth is raised and I can't tell whether she's going to smile or sneer.

'Hello Alex,' she says and hands me a drink of my own. Anything could be in it, wine or poison. I don't care at this moment in time so drink it anyway. 'I've been waiting to meet you for such a long time.'

'What do you want?' I reply, but my words become lost as she pushes me into the stream.

The Vanishing - by Helena Mallett

Joey hates visiting Grandma, especially for Christmas. A dark old house in the middle of nowhere with her weird paintings of extraterrestrials smothering every wall; spooks him out a bit if he's honest.

Now there's a bloody power cut and the old girl's telling yet another of her alien stories. He's had enough; she's clearly off her rocker.

He steps outside to clear his head in the cold night air and is never seen again.

Love At First Sight - by Clive Martyn

The coffee shop was busy. Every table was full and most of the booths - mine was only one of a couple that had space. I took a sip of a cold cup of coffee and picked up the newspaper someone had left, only to put it down again, discovering the crossword had already been completed.

A woman sat down opposite me, putting down a fresh cup of tea.

"Okay?" she asked as she slid along the seat into the corner.

She was so beautiful, I momentarily lost the power of speech, barely managing a nod. My only thoughts were "of course you can sit there!"

She had a book with her - some thriller by an author I didn't recognize. I studied her subtly as she read it, engrossed. She had shoulder length straight black hair with a couple of lighter grey streaks - she must have been 45 or around that age, slighter older than I would have normally have gone for but her face - there was something angelic about her face.

I knew I had to say something.

"Good book?"

"Yep," she said looking up from it briefly. She smiled slightly and my heart skipped a beat. Smiling made her look younger, erasing the worry lines from around her eyes. Her gaze, all too quickly, returned to the book.

She was obviously not interested in a conversation. I tried to think of some good pick up lines but my mind failed me.

"Can I just say, you are stunning."

She looked up, appearing more annoyed than flattered, "Can we just sit here please? I would really just like to read my book."

I noticed the ring on her finger. She was married - probably why she wasn't interested.

"Of course. Sorry." I said.

She went back to reading.

"He's a lucky man."

Sighing she lowered her book again - "Sorry?"

"Your husband. He's a lucky man."

She smiled again, "Yes. Yes he is."

She returned to her book.

"My name's George." I said holding out my hand.

"Please, George, I just want to read my book okay?"

She didn't shake my hand so I just lowered it back down to the table. A minute or two went by in silence.

I carried on staring at her. I couldn't understand why I was so attracted to her but I knew that this was an opportunity that I couldn't let go by. I would hate myself if I didn't try.

"Look I'm really sorry, I know you just want to read your book, and you are married and everything but you are one of the most gorgeous people I have ever met - can I take you out for dinner or something?"

She looked at me sadly. "That's not possible, I'm afraid."

"Tell me your name at least."

Tears appeared in the corners of her eyes and she got up. With a voice thick with emotion she said, "Sorry, I can't do this."

She walked quickly to the door of the coffee shop, nearly colliding with someone as they walked in.

"Miss?" I called out, not caring that a couple of people were now staring at me, "Sorry! I didn't mean to upset you."

I could see her through the window, stood outside just by the door, crying.

"Shit!" I muttered to myself.

A waiter walked over and started cleaning the table, picking up two empty plates and my cold coffee.

"What's her problem?" I asked him pointing to the window.

"Yvonne? She comes in all the time - sad really her husband's in the care home over the road. He's got like Alzheimer's or something."

"Oh man, that's awful."


The coffee shop was busy. Every table was full and most of the booths - mine was only one of a couple that had space. I picked up the newspaper someone had left, only to put it down again, discovering the crossword had already been completed.

A beautiful woman walked up to my booth. She looked like she had been crying.

"George - it's time we went."

She was so beautiful I didn't argue and just stood up.

"Where are we going?" I asked before wondering how she knew my name.

Cupid And the String - by Tom Mason

Hunched in the corner of the room, his bony ribs scrape against his legs; sticks which fold awkwardly into grooves across his chest. He is a thin man. His grey skin stretches taunt across his bones, too small for his delicate frame. Straining at the corners.

But for the frenzied darting of his jaundice pupils, Cupid is completely still. His eyes roll around in their sockets, flinging themselves across the derelict room.

Before him, countless pieces of string stretch across the hall. The threads snake across the landscape, weaving in and around each other; a thick mesh of grey destinies which smothers the splintered, wooden floor and cobwebs up into the dark air.

Cupid has come to a decision.

His pupils dilate and he snaps his head up from his chest. The laboured breathing which crawls out from under his brown, chapped lips begins to quicken and, slowly, ever so slowly, he begins to uncurl his delicate frame.

A thin, toothless smile crawls across his scabbed face. He reaches for the pair of rusty scissors swaying from the leather belt across his waist and prepares to go to work.

Expecting The Moon To Tango - by Pauline Masurel

"Come doon y'daft wee hinnie and dance with me!"

He brandishes the rose. She beams serenely down from lofty height. Her silvery-blue skirts shine bright against the dim expectations of the sky. He shakes off his donkey jacket, slips fleetly across the car park, smooching frost-spangled silence in the crook of his arm.

One of these nights she will though, you can tell. She gazes longingly at dented snow. She'd love to dance, really she would, and after a sniff or two of whisky he's the only man alive who knows her secret.

"Don't be shy lassie," he croons, "I'll nae tell."

Firing Squad - by Samantha Memi

I'm stood in front of the firing squad, tied to a post. I recognize one of the soldiers. He and I had an affair just after I married. Surely he wouldn't shoot me. He'll pass a message to his friends: shoot over her head, and he'll fire his bullet so it ricochets off the wall and cuts through the ties that bind me to the post, and then I'll whistle and my trusty steed will race to me and I'll jump on his back and we'll escape.

A priest comes over. "Is there anything you want to confess?"

"It wasn't me father, I never committed adultery with any one ever. It was my husband, he was too fat to... he couldn't fulfil his conjugal duties."

"But you knew he was fat when you're married him."

"I thought he'd diet."


"I haven't done anything wrong."

The priest left. An officer raised his sword. I looked at the firing squad, the boy I once loved. Then I saw another, and another. They smiled. I realised I had slept with all five of the firing squad. They raised their rifles and aimed. I closed my eyes. They fired. I waited. Nothing. I looked. The smoke was clearing. The firing squad lay dead.

My husband, the governor, walked over. "Any man you love, I'll kill."

"But you won't kill me."

"You're already dying. Your first lover had syphilis."

"But that's curable."

"Not in prison."

Good At This - by Leonie Milliner

'Thirty more mince pies then stitch up the bird,' she thinks. Gosh, she's hot.

'Down, please' she bellows to her children, and next door's children, and her sister's children. How many? Peppa Pig for the eleventh time. Daddy pig up the hill. She can recite it backwards. Don't they ever bore of it? Except the older ones are.

'Don't fight,' she shouts at them. 'I don't have time to make the mince pies and tidy-up and get to the station by six.'

'Cat's in,' cries Julie.

'My, it looks warm in there,' he thinks. Not just warm, but noisy; interesting, one child sat on another and three screaming, the mother looking flushed. He pads softly upstairs, seeks out the bed, under it. A strange smell, familiar.

'Coats on,' she shouts.

'Why?' the children object.

'I'm taking you home,' she says to next door's children, counting nine heads; eighteen shoes. 'Then we're going to get their Grandpa from the Totnes.'

The smell's strong now. It's intriguing. The noise downstairs is intensifying; they'll be gone soon.

'The mice!' she exclaims. If Grandpa thinks they have mice...she pushes the traps, the poison and the sticky boards between the bin and the Aga. If he thinks they have mice he'd be off and there are no more trains to London tonight. She'd have to drive. Never get the mince pies done. Not that they have mice. Good Lord no.

The house is silent. Everything is tense; poised. Breath subdued. A patter, a bristle of vermin. He is good at this, he thinks. His mother taught him well.

'Here we are Grandpa. Put your bags down. Henry will be home later, never finishes early. Julie, switch the on the hall light will you, that's a good girl?' She smiles. She always feels so awkward with him. Never anything to say.

She faces her damp, slightly messy kitchen, her turkey half-stuffed. Then they see it.

'My God,' says her father-in-law. It's the first thing, she thinks, he's said since she asked him if he'd had a good journey. 'Is that a mouse?'

'Meow,' he replies. Yes, he's good at this.

Hair - by Nora Nadjarian

Rapunzel's hair was so long she could hide her lover in it. When he fell asleep on her bed, she covered his chest with her long tresses, in case he was cold. She would often talk to him in bed by positioning her face in such a way that her hair fell like a shade round his head. He loved kissing her like this, when it felt as if they were the only two people in the world.

But when they got engaged and started going out with friends, it was a different story. "You should advertise shampoo on TV," said one of his mates. "Embodiment of body," said another. Other girls tried to say something nice but their compliments all came out sounding green and envious.

Rapunzel's fiancé started getting jealous of all the attention she got from other men. One night, while she was French braiding her hair, and he was pretending to read, he said: "You know, I've been thinking. When we were dating you needed your hair so you could pull me up into your room. Now we're engaged you don't need it any more."

"Are you suggesting I should shave it off?" she asked, without turning round to look at him.

"No, of course not," he said, without looking up from his book. "Maybe a bob..."

From that day on, they talked to one another without looking at each other. It was the beginning of the end of their relationship.

In The Nursery - by Marc Nash

The nursery is full of toys. Toys like in many households all over the world, that lie shunned and unloved. Empty-armed huggable animals with their faux fur bleached by the fierce embrace of the sun; pedal cars slew parked and collecting dust; games gutted for their batteries so as to muzzle their dissonant blare. But in this particular rumpus room, it isn't because the tots have grown weary of them.

The walls are brightly, nay gaily decorated with jungle beasts in primary colours. The hues of hope and innocence., somehow swallowed by the pall of malevolent gloom that hangs in the air.

Sucking in its walls like cheeks holding breath, is a Wendy house. Ideally a place of nesting, furnishing, empire building, it has now become a bolt-hole. A place to disappear from view. To fold up on oneself or to begin the covert tunnel to freedom. Pit props that can't be driven through unyielding concrete.

And overseeing it all, me. A giant, life-size (to a child) cuddly panda bear. Doleful black eyes by stitched design and in flayed tissue; being a constant locus of stubby-fingered gouges and small-fisted punches. One of my ears has been torn off and cannibalised to thwart restoration. Or any semblance of wholeness. My white pelt has been dulled by blood transference. Not from within, since I'm laced only with cotton padding, but from the multifarious child protagonists who assault themselves with one hand, even as they slam and cuff my fluffy abdomen with the other.

For I preside over a nursery for troubled children. Children observed in their behaviour behind one-way mirrors. Children who have to be taught how to play. Boy could I tell the Docs a thing or two. Since behind their glass partition, they can't hear what's whispered into both my good and my missing ear. The inner tormentors of these biddable kids, who let slip their visors and announce themselves to me with persecutory menace. The child's identity bartered away for beans at the slave auction that is this therapy room. So it remains my burden to bear all the stigmata of these benighted young souls, just like the priest in his Confessional.

Save the panda. Save the children.

Vincent In The Yellow House - by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

If I live in a crepuscular haze, he lives in the light. Funny, then, that I choose yellow: the colour of sun and butter, spring flowers and madness. And Gauguin revels in devilish reds.

A weak absinthe swirls my brain toward anger; I eye him.

'Why,' I say, 'did you put your own features on a painting of me?'

Gauguin frowns. 'Because all pictures are portraits of their makers,' he says.

I fling my absinthe - glass and all - at his head. He manhandles me from Café de la Gare, across the square to our yellow house. He puts me to bed and sleep muffles me at once.

'I apologise,' is my morning greeting, but I continue to watch him. He steps back from his easel.

'I'm going for a walk,' he says.

I follow, a razor tucked into my palm. On the Place Lamartine he turns to face me and I plunge the air with the razor. Gauguin runs away and I am immediately remorseful; he is my friend.

I return to the yellow house, where my squat and motherly portrait of the Virgin mocks me; she screams to my loneliness. Like some biblical traitor, I take my razor-blade and carve a slitch off my ear. I watch the red seep of blood mingle with the yellow paint on my palette. Then I wrap the ear-slice in newspaper, like a rasher of bacon, and take it to Rachel the street-walker. She is not pleased.

Gauguin leaves the yellow house after that and I have a spell in the asylum; safe from the Virgin, safe from the prostitute, safe from Gauguin, safe from yellow.

In Camera - by Clare O'Brien

I try to shine a light on you, and watch the photons drip from your hair. I spotlight the depths and make them manifest, but your voice darts up and away from the net I try to catch it in, your eyes defy the flash that pins them in the moment.

This light is not bright enough for you. I cannot capture you in this machine, steal your soul and fix it here. My heart howls out loud when you speak and I have known you for ever, but I cannot hold you, I cannot harvest you and I cannot keep you safe.

Magic Mirror - by Valerie O'Riordan

A bowl of ammonia mixed with a cup of cornflour. Jemma beat them with the wooden spoon.
Mel watched. She said, "That's it, look - the whatsit, the pneumonia, it's blending right in. I told yeh, yeh'll be Snow fuckin' White by dinner-time." She watched Jemma dollop the runny paste onto her cheeks and smear it in, rubber gloves dripping pale liquid onto the ground. Like bird shit. "Me brother won't know what hit him - look at yeh, the blushin' bride."
"My face feels like it's burning," said Jemma. Her eyes watered. "How long do I leave it?"
Mel lit a fag and inhaled. The smell of wee was awful. "Ah, well," she said. "Freckly skin like yours takes a real blast. If it's not dead sore, you're probably doin' it wrong."
Jemma nodded. The skin on her left cheekbone began to blister.
Mel smiled. "Aren't yeh just gorgeous?"

Flash Of Red - by Sal Page

No. That's not him. It's not even the same jacket. That red jacket's on the back of his bedroom door anyway. Been there twelve years. And he wouldn't be here. Scared of trains. Buses too. And dogs and lawn-mowers and rabbits. And butterflies, velvet curtains, postmen, cardboard egg boxes and anything red, except that jacket. Could he really have coped out there all this time? Would somebody help him?

'We just want to know,' That's our line; to the police, to neighbours and friends, to the television reporters. To each other. 'We just want to know.'

Actually, I don't want to know.

Uncle Henri - by Sylvia Petters

Everyone in the village was talking about the man who'd asked the little girl to accompany him to the park. Someone had heard Henri say: "Come with me." And they'd seen the little girl hesitate and then put her hand in his. They'd watched him go down the street and round the corner and when he was out of sight, they still saw him, hand in hand with the little blonde girl. They saw him lead her over behind the garden house in the far corner of the park and they saw him bend down, stroke her hair, unbutton her coat, untie her shoelaces. And it all became too much. So they called the police.

Henri yelled and the little girl screamed. Someone took her aside as they dragged him away. That was the last she saw of him. When he got out a few months later, he shot himself.

The little girl is grown up now. She sits and stares at old photos of her uncle Henri. She still blames herself for that day in the park. That blame has followed all her growing up. She couldn't understand then, not even now, what all the fuss was about. Shortly after they took Henri away, she'd noticed how her godfather, even her own father, wouldn't pick her up or hug her when other people were around. It was as if that sort of thing was suddenly forbidden, forever. She wanted hugs from those she loved, wanted the world to see.

Today she finds it hard to make contact. She fears that once she makes it, they'll take it away, like they took away her uncle Henri. They'd skirted the garden house, he'd opened the top button of her coat to give her more room to move, he'd fastened her laces, yelled here we go, he'd pushed her so high on her favourite swing that she'd screamed with delight. It had been the last happy day of her life.

Impact - by Dan Powell

The moment the sound becomes audible, Sam is dragging his feet to school, swinging his rucksack back and forth over the rough path through the field behind his house. A light in the sky burns towards him and the noise blossoms into a sustained boom that threatens to crack the sky. The meteorite, for that is what Sam later discovers it is, strikes him, slicing a scar into the back of his hand before knocking him down. He lands, dazed and utterly alive, staring at the pea sized rock that sits in a foot wide crater punched into the ground.

Years from now, Sam will hold his wife's hand and weep. He will cling to the weak pulse that resonates from palm to palm, squeezing tighter as if doing so will keep the old woman from leaving. It is then Sam's eyes will alight on his childhood scar and he will marvel that the impact of this moment hurts in so many more ways than his collision, so long ago, with a nugget of rock that fell upon him from space.

- from the charity anthology 100 Stories for Haiti (Bridge House Publishing, 2010)

Coffee Time In Paris - by Jaqueline Pye

There's a grubby teapot at Porte de Vanves fleamarket in Paris. I buy it; it might be silver. I order a coffee, then rub the teapot's grime with my finger. Green smoke starts to pour out of the spout, and forms a huge, smiling woman with baggy trousers, pointy slippers and folded arms.

"Bonjour, maitresse," she whispers seductively. Says her name is Jeannie, and she offers me three wishes. "That's easy," I giggle. "Make me petite, and adored by everyone, with a lifetime supply of yummy biscuits, please." Jeannie smirks. "C'est fait," she says.

"Wuff, wuff", is all I can say.

A Black Night - by Deborah Rickard

The hairs on my arm lift with the breeze; a haunting breath from the open window carrying night-scented stock from the black-shrouded garden. I smile, a self-indulgent smile, and submerge myself in the memory of his touch, his soft caress and his silken words whispered in my ear; "I love you." I hear his murmured promise; "I'll never leave." And beneath the cool cotton of the duvet, I wallow in the cashmere wrap of love.

I allow myself another indulgence and pull my arm back beneath the downy lightness and let my fingers meander across the mattress, slide over the sheet and negotiate the rucks and runnels made by our loving. My hand reaches the cold outer edges of my world.

He's not there.

My eyes snap open. But it doesn't help. The night is black, and besides, I know. I lie motionless and listen. I strain my ears.


I sit up and turn on the light. It doesn't help.

And then, the flick of a switch. Or was it the snitch of a latch? A cool breeze runs along the narrow hallway, lifting the hairs on my arms.

He's gone.

Don't - by Sarah Salway

One afternoon I went for a walk with another woman. We took my dog who seemed to prefer this other woman to me. It became a joke between us how Sol kept running up to her. 'It's lucky I'm not jealous,' I told the other woman as we walked, Sol keeping close to her side of the path. 'Perhaps you should be,' she said, but in a way that allowed me to laugh. It was only later on in the walk after we'd run out of things to talk about that I wondered what the other woman had meant being jealous. I would have asked her but she was bending down choosing a stick to throw. I thought of my husband who was always saying that I needed to play more with Sol. 'Don't!' I shouted at the other woman who suddenly paused with her arm up mid-throw. We stared at each other. She was one of those watcher types who always encouraged you to say more than you should. She was clever like that. I tried to remember what she had said about herself on this walk. Nothing. We walked back in silence, even Sol seemed subdued, and when we reached our crossroads, although she seemed as if she wanted to say something, she didn't. At home, I took Sol out in the garden and left him there. I needed to be on my own for a bit, but later, when I was upstairs in my husband's study, I caught sight of Sol sitting on the doorstep, shivering and waiting. I put the letter from the other woman back in the drawer of the desk and ran downstairs. 'Fetch,' I cried as I threw the stick again and again. Sol started to bark, to run round in circles with excitement. 'This is fun!' I shouted until we could pretend we believed it. When we were both exhausted, we went back into the house together. Sol rested his chin on my knee as I picked up the phone, his eyes looked into mine as I rang the other woman's number. When the other woman answered the phone, I just said one word. 'Don't.' But she knew what I meant. She was clever like that.

(From You Do Not Need Another Self-Help Book - from Pindrop Press, April 2012)

Robbed - by Valerie Sirr

So I watched the Cookstown100 and the camera and the whine of the bikes sped me down country roads like I was there. One of the riders did a highside - man and bike separated and crashed like two lovers after passion. He rolled and picked himself up.

I necked another Heineken picturing myself, helmet in hand, stepping up for my trophy. I finished off my beer then headed down the club.

I bumped into Hammy from Shorts.

He said, "Don't walk in with me. They'll think I'm goin' for a drink with me Da."

"Go and shite," I said.

A good night was had with the lads from the Tool Room where I was made redundant.

Sauntering past my ex's gaff knowing fine rightly my bike was in her fella's shed while they were away in Lanzarote, her eyes shrank me again: 'He did you a favour buyin' your bike.'

I was down that side passage, like a rat up a spout, cupping my hands on his dirty shed window in the moonlight. She's a looker, my bike, but I could see he hadn't washed or polished her.

I strapped on his crappy lid, fishing in my pocket for my spare key.

Braking and kicking her down the gears I peeled off the slip road and on to Shane's Hill. I blasted along the half-mile stretch of country lane, attacking each bend: correct entry speed, wee nudge of counter-steer. Leaning over, gliding through until the exit point, opening the throttle.

The back wheel squirmed and shot me out off one corner on to another bend. The sheer precision of it!

On up the hill the noise of the engine screamed through the throaty exhaust. I gagged from the stench of fertilizer in the air.

The blood banged in my ears when the rear tyre slid under me.

It gripped again.

The bike shuddered. She sent me bolt upright, hard and startling, lifting me up and over. Easy! I told myself and my limbs went loose. Let go, I told myself, but it was like being tasered. I was out of it.

I heard the impact - the bike ripping through hedge, the whack of my helmet on hard ground. I came to, lying on my back on the road like I'd landed in another life. The road shifted. It spun about me.

I closed my eyes and let go.

I came back. Heaviness. Then panic. Then pain. I moved my hands, then my feet, my arms, my legs. I pushed at the base of my helmet. My hand kept missing. I heard a guy say,

"Leave it, man. The ambulance will be here soon."

People stood about. I was feeling a bit high.

One wee lad pointed his phone at me, saying, "He went over the top! Like somethin' on Moto GP!"

I felt young when he said that. I felt like my head had been cleaned out with degreaser, making room for someone better - A contender.

Charles Marmaduke - by Joanna Sterling

The box arrived in the post. It had been packed well by the agent, no sign of damage. The moment he was alone Charles cut the string, unwrapped the brown paper and carefully lifted out the glass jar. He held it up to the light. The amber liquid within glowed, swirled and pulsated. Following the instructions on the hand written label pasted to the jar, Charles lit a candle and melted the seal. He eased the stopper gently off, there was a hissing sound as wisps of vapour began to escape. With the jar open Charles could smell the sour odour of the elixir. In one gulp it was swallowed. His throat burnt, he bent double as the cramp took hold of his stomach. It felt as if the elixir was boiling within him. He was not worried, the instructions warned this would happen. For one terrible moment he thought he might vomit and all would be wasted. His guts calmed. Now dozens of hammers hitting his skull, up and down from the nape of his neck to the bridge of his nose. Then the thunder began inside his head, building from his temple inwards to the very core of his mind. With one final convulsion of every limb he collapsed to the floor. It was done.

Charles stretched out on the Persian rug and flicked his bushy ginger tail.

A Hole That Cannot Be Filled - by Christian Stretton

There's a KrispyKreme donut store a block from my apartment. It's a part of my morning routine that I pick up a paper then make my way to KrispyKreme for a coffee and a donut. It's not classy, I know, but the coffee is actually pretty good, and it's cheaper than Starbucks. So anyway, the other morning (about a month ago) I'm sitting in my usual seat, slurping my way through my usual latte, minding my own business. As I finish the coffee, I pick up the napkin to wipe my mouth. As I do, I notice something written in blue pen on the napkin. I unfold it and sure enough, scrawled on there is the message: 'Yum! KrispyKreme donuts - now also available in Styrofoam flavour.'

'That's weird,' I think. But, y'know, B.C. is full of weird people, so I think no more about it. About four days later, the same thing: I finish my donut, pick up the napkin and notice the blue ink. Again, I open up the napkin, and there inside is the message: 'You look amazing today! Beige is absolutely your colour.'

Now, this is odd, because this time the message did seem directed at me. When I look down to check what I'm wearing, sure enough I've teamed up a pair of light-brown cargo pants with a tan t-shirt. It did look kind of beige, and kind of wrong. But who the hell is watching me, and then writing messages in napkins for me to read? It made me feel kind of paranoid, if you want to know the truth. So now I'm at the stage where every morning, I'm still making my way to KrispyKreme, but I'm flicking through the napkins in advance of picking one up, and I'm eyeing everyone in the store suspiciously - the counter staff, the people eating in there - everyone. I could just go somewhere else for my coffee, I know, but to be honest, I'm kind of hoping that it'll happen again. For three weeks, nothing. Then this morning, I'm sat there just finishing the dregs of my coffee, when I realise I haven't pre-screened my napkin. I open up the tissue-paper and there inside is the most bespoke message yet. Inside the napkin, I swear to God, it says 'The emptiness you feel inside since she left you is permanent. This is a hole that cannot be filled with donuts.'

Right? So I'm thinking: 'Fuck!' I'm looking frantically around the store and I see a young guy over by the counter, and the guy parts the pile of fresh napkins in the middle, slips another napkin in there, and then turns to leave. As he walks out of the door, he glances over in my direction, but sees that I'm still watching him, so switches his gaze, and pushes his way out of the store. So now I'm faced with a dilemma. I'm convinced that this is the guy, but what do I do? My instinct is to go after him, but then if I catch him, what then?

Before I know what I've done I'm up out of my seat, and out the door in pursuit. I see him there, walking down 72nd. For a while, I just stay behind him, taking it all in, wondering what I'm going to say. He's a young white guy, tall with a gangly gait and messy hair. As he walks, he's coughing and sniffing. He seems completely oblivious to me following him. As he gets to the corner of 72nd and 116th Street I shout 'Hey!' at him and he turns round.

'Are you messing with me? You think that's funny? Leaving stupid little messages for me? Grow up!'

'I don't know what you're talking about man. Maybe you've got me mixed up with someone else.'

I try to measure his reaction, but he does seem kind of genuine. He looks confused, and a little hurt. He makes this move where he reverses away from me, then slowly turns down 116th St. glancing behind him and wiping his nose as he goes.

So I'm thinking 'Damn!' That was probably the guy, but what can I do? He says he didn't do it, and I don't really have any proof that he did. So I turn back around, and start making my way to the bus-stop to get to work. Only when I'm actually on the bus does it occur to me: as I saw the guy walk away, he threw a tissue (or it could have been a napkin) on the floor. And I'm thinking 'It's another message,' then, 'No, no, it's probably nothing. But it could be another message...'

In the end, I have to find out. I get off the bus, and walk the four blocks back to where I left him. I'm scouring the sidewalk, trying to find this goddamn piece of tissue paper, which is probably nothing, and which is making me late for work. Eventually, I see a KrispyKreme napkin blowing in the breeze by a garage door. I run over and snatch it, hesitating before I open it, imagining that it's going to contain some perfect pearl of wisdom that will answer everything.

In fact, it contains a pearl of the guy's snot. He just blew his nose on it. But the weird thing is, I don't just drop it immediately, I stare at it, and for the longest time, I imagine that the green streaks form a picture: a perfect likeness of your face. And I think: 'It's another clue!'

May Day - by Stella Turner

"May day, May day," shouts my Granddad.

My Nana looks up from her knitting. Her forehead looks all crinkly, she's frowning like she tells me not to. If the wind changes Charlie you'll stay like it.

"Yes Granddad" I nod knowingly in his direction. "It's May day today " I know this because each day in writing practise we have to write the date and today my teacher Miss Woods was telling us all about the May pole and how years ago people danced around it on May Day and she'd show us pictures tomorrow.

My Granddad starts taping one of his fingers on the arm of his chair in a pattern. He looks really upset and my Nana puts her knitting down and goes over to him. She puts her hand over his tapping finger and says "its okay Seaman Brooks, the ships are on their way". Granddad stops tapping and Nana smiles.

Tomorrow I'll ask Miss Woods what ships have to do with May Day.

Drop Dead Gorgeous - by Lisa Vooght

Eliza's story was one of a thousand; good family, prospective husband in the form of a neighboring farmer's son. Along came a handsome soldier, with every intention of keeping her, whether as wife of mistress we will never know. Having run off with him in the dead of night, and succumbed to his charm and his uniform, she soon found herself stranded in London lodgings when his regiment was posted overseas.

There were no positions anywhere. The city was overcrowded, filled with ex-soldiers, ex-shopgirls, ex-maidservants, subsisting on gin and what adulterated foodstuffs could be had for pennies. The gaols were filled with "disorderly girls" awaiting Transportation To Parts Beyond the Seas or death for stealing the master's silver.

Eliza was determined not to join the ranks of the prostitutes, currently being driven like cattle by peace officers from the city into the outskirts and back again. To lift her skirts in a filthy alley - no, she would rather seek solace in the Thames with the others who washed up with unremarked regularity. With the little money remaining, Eliza determined to win her way back into the world by the one avenue which remained - turning the tables and compelling a man to succumb to her charms instead. A trip to the linendrapers produced enough goods (both bought and secreted beneath her petticoats) to fabricate an emerald-shaded gown worthy of looks, sighs - and with any luck, invitations.

The current craze for all things green (particularly Scheele's)* suited Eliza admirably, with her brilliant red hair swept high and a few loose ringlets fetchingly arranged so as to draw the eye to her bosom. When she appeared at her cousin's birthday ball, every woman's tongue wagged and every man's gaze was fixed on her luminous eyes - or perhaps, a smidgen below. All were willing to to dance, of course, but most attempted to take liberties with the fallen woman so happily appearing in their very dull midst. It appeared that the only invitations forthcoming would be in secret gardens rather than back alleyways. The dress was successful in one respect; it worked its vengeance upon the male guests (although exacting its toll on the wearer as well) while they danced together in a poisonous cloud. As Eliza swooned in the heat and disappointment, the men's eyes reddened and their heads pounded. An early departure was in order for most; they wrapped up well, sealing in the arsenic particles for their families at home to enjoy.

As for Eliza, she and the dress were welcomed and soothed to sleep by Father Thames, who gathers all of his children to him no matter what their station in life, and renders them all equal in the end.

Flash - by Alison Wells

Emily and Eddie were baiting lightning on the quay, and it was forked. Across the bay the flashes lit up midnight townlands in isolated glimpses as if God with torches was looking for his keys in the eternal driveway. Here. There. This way a bit. Further back.

When the breeze still had air in it they knew they were okay. They wore t-shirts and jeans and Emily felt the solid beam of his arm around the outside of hers. He felt the seam of her jeans against his thigh, he leaned down and kissed the edge of her hair. Her calves lick curl lifted, shook and died. When the thunder smothered them they knew they were chancing it. They kissed completely. At the end of the quay the wires crackled. All Emily wanted to do was swim, dive-bomb off the pier and sink in, watch the lightning experimentally dance on top of the water.

Eddie was leaving at the end of the summer. He was filled up with love for her; he just didn't know he had to do anything with it. She was loathe to count the days. Her Dali calendar was disgruntled by her apparent indifference. But there was a lot you could ascertain from the periphery. Time was flashing by.

If her father was the air traffic controller and her mum was the girl who delivered the sandwiches and coffee then she fell below the radar. Emily flipped the axis of 24/7 and slept in a honeyed bed, roamed the black night with confidence and fervour. But if it were the other way around and her mother was the mistress of flights and near misses then she was sussed and she strung out the summer with Eddie under the heavy lidded gaze of her mother's restless vigilance.

But they did the beer on the beach after dark. One of the lads, giant limbs, small head, acted the flasher for the whitehead bus tour sea front promenaders. He used hen party props, chocolate penises melting in the humidity. They collected tuts and shaking heads and the odd raucous cackle. They slid into clubs once in a while when the rain drove them inside. When midnight passed, in the tribal stomping, she lit up her phone and it was already August. Eddie was slouched in a corner on a slope of coats. She found his hand and she made him dance. There was no rain here only sweat, brine and coffee.

Emily found out she was epileptic on the dance floor. The strobe lighting sent her into a spinning fit, flit, flit; flashbacks of dream sequences and recent dalliances.

When she awoke she was cold, shudder huddling while the world switched on again, in portions, vision, feeling, sound. She had become a small creature at the bottom of a mountain of human concern. The dance music was still playing; drumbeat dissonance, out of time with the trotting of her heart.

Three weeks later the gang wanted to know if they were going to cut her brain in half. Someone else asked if that would make her schizophrenic. They were on the beach again and the nights came quicker now, her mother's shift had lengthened and the fact of epilepsy added a high note to her voice when she said see you later to Emily. Across the bay the lighthouse spun, flashed, there, gone, there, gone.

Eddie was leaving tomorrow. Emily pressed into his biking leathers. He was going to take her for a drive somewhere but he hadn't decided yet. They were going to stay out all night. She didn't care. Her mother could jump. You only had one life and this was it.

They went into the mountains. The bike roared and so did the wind. Eddie sang something but the sound was swallowed whole. They paused for a view of the city, like stars they said; but the stars were meek in comparison. They went further until the string behind them broke; they went on like a prayer without rosary beads.

It was just them. Turned this way, at the crest there was no city. There was gorse, stones. They sat on granite. His-her hands found warm places. In his silence was the remembrance of his voice. In her stillness was the echo of her fervour. She drifted into him and thought it could be the epilepsy. He drunk her in and thought of nothing.

They saw flashes, out of the black; ripples of light, undulations snaking the sky. The aurora borealis this far south, they weren't meant to be there.

In the morning they went home, the cold in their bones and the light in their heads. Her father was up early on a ladder fixing the flashing. Her mother was drowning in coffee. She hadn't slept. Her fury was thunder and Emily felt it overhead. But all she could see were scenes, flashes of her and Eddie, on a beach, on a mountain, dancing like one person in the club. Then him on his own, driving away till whenever.

Butler - by Eunice Yeates

Here's the kitchen. Here, turn left.

Before me is a kitchen so compact I don't believe we'll both fit, so I stay standing stupidly in the hallway. Alice in Wonderland, I'm thinking. Adam looks briefly at me over his shoulder and enters, whistling some part of an aria.

I picture him viewing the apartment with an estate agent called Janice or Pam. All jewellery and master keys jangling, Janice/Pam would have gestured grandly to the left, intoning the galley kitchen. Maybe the property market trick-speak worked. Maybe the nautical reference charmed him into forgiving such cramped quarters. More likely, he just wasn't paying attention. At any rate, he now owns the smallest kitchen I've ever seen and, undeniably, the messiest. Hey, Adam, your little galley kitchen looks shipwrecked. But I don't say this aloud.

In a quest for teacups, he's excavating a sink of spectacularly dirty dishes. I'm someone who loses sleep if a butter-knife is out of place. "One! Two!" he's calling triumphantly, waving a pair of chipped enamel mugs in my direction. I can't help laughing. He's utterly unabashed by his kitchen chaos. It's liberating in a way that I suddenly envy.

The tap is on at a trickle and he gives each mug a slapdash rinse. "Tea, you wanted tea?" Now he's rifling through cupboards and drawers, peering into storage jars, scratching his head with a soup spoon. "Let's have coffee instead, and look, I found some posh biscotti miraculously unopened." "Certainly," I say, uncertainly; then I see the lidless jar of instant, its dull granules in tragic clumps. "Do you have any wine?" I ask, a little too quickly.

Adam brightens and makes a performance of pivoting to face the tiny fridge from which he produces a half-bottle of Sauternes.

Adam Butler, with your filthy kitchenette and your camping crockery, your congealed coffee, and your fancy dessert wine: pour.

Autum Leaves - by Debbie Young

Carefree, my daughter Laura and I are kicking up autumn leaves in the park when an elderly lady approaches, holding out a silver coin.

"I just found this shilling on the ground, dear. I'm giving it to you to bring you good luck."

Laura does not realise that shillings haven't been legal tender for forty years. This coin is a modern ten pence piece.

"Thank you," says Laura.

Smiling back, the old lady moves on.

"She will need more luck in her autumn than you do in yours," I murmur.

We are kinder to the leaves on our way home.

At The Weekend - by Diane Simmons

In the late 1970s, Karen worked in a life insurance office in Manchester during the week. On Saturdays, she helped out behind the counter in her dad’s butcher’s shop. Sometimes, on Sundays, she did some slaughtering.

Scrawny and bossy, the girls in her office didn’t bother with her much, but she longed to be included on their man-hunting nights out in town and gossipy chats in the toilets.

If she’d not been so desperate to impress, to be included, her workmates might never have found out about her weekend activities. Faced one Monday morning with a pile of life insurance proposals, she came across one from a butcher and laughed loudly when she read in the risk manual that the job was hazardous.  ‘Nothing to it,’ she announced to the office. ‘A quick shot between the eyes and that’s it.’

As she boasted of her slaughtering prowess, her work mates pulled faces, but she didn’t notice. Thrilled with the attention, she carried on bragging, ignoring the squeals and gasps as she described shooting a cow for the first time and of being instructed how to prepare it for sale in the shop.

In the canteen that lunchtime, some of the girls avoided their normal Monday sausage and chips.

Everyone avoided her table.