Saturday 23 July 2016

First prize winner in GW/FLF Short Story competition 2016.

The Sender of Second Chances by Anthea Morrison

Chock-a-block all the way down on the bus today so I’m upstairs.  Sun’s hot through the glass but best not take my coat off, I’ll be getting ripe underneath it and there’s stains on my dress won’t sponge off with cold water.  Place I’m staying in now, you have to be up with the larks and up for a fight if you want hot water, and I’m past that now.
Not much happening on the street down there – folk scurrying about with their heads down mostly.  Think who they might see if they’d only look up now and then - neighbour, friend, old lover.  Or a stranger with silver buttons on his coat, and a smile like summer.  Saw him pluck up the courage - come to the sea with me, he said, train to Margate; go on, you only live once.
You get the teenagers upstairs, flicking their hair, putting on a show, no idea the thousand different ways their lives might turn out.  Downstairs the mums battle their prams and kids, promising the moon to keep the peace.  Missed that boat years ago, but I keep a picture in my head of what could have been; a boy I like to think, with that same sunny smile.  Daft, I know.
Bus swings into a stop at Kennington Park, usual clatter of branches from the chestnut tree against the windows.  Young woman comes upstairs - something promising about this one, not plugged into her phone like most.  She has a proper look at people, gives me a smile instead of a wide berth and sits down in front of me.  Her eyes are grey and ever so clear, like the rock pool where we sat down at Margate, dipping our feet while we told each other everything we were, all that we wanted to be. The rock was warm and smooth under my feet when we kissed.
We lurch away up Kennington Road.  Driver yesterday kept sending the tots flying into everyone’s legs - miracle how some of them pass their test - I shot my arm out to catch one, human instinct, but the mum grabbed him off me quick as a stick, eyes wide. 
I don’t blame her.  The years haven’t been kind and nor has some of the company I’ve kept, grog included.  Thirty years and more since I sent him away, after the sand had gone cold under our feet and everyone else was going home. Make a mistake big as that, you stop trusting yourself to make decisions, just let life carry you.
Going round the corner at Lambeth, the woman in front has to grab the pole to stop herself being hurled off her seat by Stirling Moss down there.  Her hair’s dead straight, the colour of conkers, something like mine when I was a girl. 
Waterloo Bridge, and we’re almost full.  Last one to come up is a tall fella with a full beard, trimmed neat like his Brylcreemed hair.  A stillness about him, something solid.  He has a look down the bus and starts to turn back when he spots the last two empty seats, next to me or next to her – well, no prizes.
Got a good feeling about these two.  They clock each other just a bit longer than they need to as he sits down.  His eyes are set deep and his smile is slow, trace of an old sorrow in it, maybe.  I feel the spark, probably before they do.  She runs her hand down the side of her neck, smoothing her hair, and he straightens his shirt collar, first one side then the other.  I whip out my notepad and scribble, pencil shooting off the page as Stirling throws the bus round the corner at the Aldwych.  They turn towards each other again, not quite in time, and I can’t see from behind whether they’ve caught eyes, but I’ve been doing this for so long I pick up the smallest signs, and I see them lean a hair’s breadth closer.
The woman turns her face like she’s looking out the window, dabs something on her lips from a silver tube in her pocket, faces forward again with a little shake of that lovely hair. Go on, say something one of you, God love us!  But when the brakes get slammed on at Holborn Tube, he gets up slowly, flashing her a smile with a pound of regret in it before he disappears down the stairs.  She half rises, hitching her bag strap over her shoulder, but no.  She sinks down and sighs, twisting her hair round the fingers of her right hand.  No point telling her what I think, she’d smile politely and pull a book out of her bag.
Hundreds of missed chances like this every day, but I can’t be everywhere at once.  Sometimes people take the plunge afterwards and send a message into one of the free papers that get left all over the seats:  ‘To the girl on the District line with the blonde hair and the black coat’ –well that narrows it down – ‘I can’t stop thinking about you, please get in touch.’  That’s why I carry a notepad, so I can get all the details, so there can be no doubt.
Her coat’s the same colour as his all those years ago, silver buttons on the shoulders catching the moonlight after I sent him away down Margate seafront, slowly shaking his head.  I thought there’d be others could make me feel the same.  Didn’t know I’d fallen in love. 
I know the PO Box number by heart. I write out the rest of the message:  ‘To the woman on the No.59 to King’s Cross, Tuesday 1st October – chestnut hair, grey eyes, olive coat, amber earrings, and the man who sat next to her over Waterloo Bridge - red and black checked shirt, brown leather satchel, beard - I saw you both wondering What If?  Here is your second chance.’

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Second prize winner in GW/FLF Short Story competition 2016

The Wondwossi Hotel Bar by James Woolf

They visited her for years, this eccentric old aristocrat on the hillside; businessmen, tourists, journalists, teachers, and locals alike.
   As often as not, they came here to stop, to escape the thrum and turbulence of the city, and perhaps to have a conversation. Sometimes these conversations led to love affairs or business deals and occasionally to squalid fights on the terrace. Other interactions fizzled and were forgotten in moments.
   For when they are here, these patrons, standing tall on the varnished wooden floor, they are the hotel bar’s life blood, as if they’ve never existed elsewhere. But when they are gone, others step up immediately, chuntering between the white walls and cultural bric-a-brac, equally present and alive: they too become the place itself.
   Over there, a young boy sits with his father – in that corner, under the solemn painting of the two brothers. He drinks lemonade as a reward for his achievements at the chess table. His father, in Addis Ababa for a year on business, is repeating the history of this museum piece, built on the whim of an empress at the dawn of the twentieth century. But Oliver is eavesdropping on a young European couple, hoping to hear words of love, which will mean that they are having sex. Years from now, he will return to the Wondwossi Hotel and, in this same bar, will meet an academic from Jijiga. This woman, apparently with no agenda other than to speak with him, and to laugh, will join him at the night’s end in the four-poster bed in his high ceilinged room. And again, years later, when he sets out to find her, he’ll discover that she had become pregnant with his child.
   Yeneta, the new barman serves cheap draft beer to Oliver’s father. He’s concerned that his mental arithmetic skills may be insufficient for the job. He plans to study biology but will become distracted by friends, and then by a family, and will work at the Wondwossi for years to come. When asked about studying, he’ll say that people are his subject and that observing them is life’s greatest lesson. In a decade or so, Judy, whose conversation Oliver was straining to overhear, will also return. She’ll spend a week, sitting alone in the bar, consuming trashy novels, whilst trying to decide what to do with her life.
   Judy feels let down by her bicycling husband; and certainly, in the Wondwossi, many promises are made and just as many broken. Many pairs of roving eyes are noticed by Yeneta. He notices everything, in fact, until – returning home one wretched night – he is caught beneath the wheels of a motorcycle and never regains consciousness.
   Yeneta’s fate still awaits him when Oliver collides with Habesha in the hotel’s revolving doors. Oliver apologises and begins a conversation. The bar by now shows signs of shabbiness. Plaster falls from the white walls leaving gaps like pock-marked skin. It is though in many respects still a fine hotel. Ethiopian jazz plays once again in the club, after music all but died during the Red Terror. Oliver tells Habesha about his chess tournaments as a boy and how happy he is to be back after all this time. Habesha talks of a memory of riding with her father on their only camel to see her dying grandmother in a Jijiga hospital; her first visit away from their mud-hut to the city; her first sip of Coca Cola; her first sight of the university where she would work.
   You can see how they bring pieces of themselves, but how, mostly, their lives are left outside. Like Mitiku, who returns nightly for what seems like months with his friend Nega after the sudden death of Mitiku’s young bride. In this bar, she is neither named nor mentioned, because language can be stretched to cover the holes in people’s lives. But she is present in the looks that pass between the two old friends as they raise their glasses in their nightly journey towards oblivion.
   And they spot, but do not speak with, Judy, immersed in her week of intensive reading, although she does have a single conversation with Jared, an ex-soldier, and Yeneta clocks this, and also sees them stealing away from the bar together before Judy returns alone (within the hour).
   Over the years, so many thoughts unspoken. So many people kept waiting for dates by careless partners who will arrive and apologise so loudly and profusely that the very bar itself believes their words to be sincere. So many messages left on cell phones, or at the reception desk in the cavernous vestibule, including many for Judy from Jared (all of which naturally go unanswered).
   There were rumours, tensions of course, and everyone knew the potential capabilities of Al-Shabaab to strike in the heart of the capital. But nobody saw it coming in the way that it did.
   A newspaper with the headline RIP The Wondwossi lies face up in the rubble. Now in their fifties, standing in front of the ruins and attempting to understand what has happened, Oliver and Habesha feel as if this is already old news.
   They had seen the story of the series of strategic explosions which had taken out different parts of the historic hotel. They had watched it on television in their small Jijiga flat. They had acted as one and driven over to Addis Ababa the next day.
   The walls are collapsed. Historic artefacts destroyed. Oliver and Habesha know that thirty seven are dead and dozens more wounded.
   Their grown-up daughter, Lola, is with them. She is training to be a chemist and they have many hopes and fears for her future. They point to the entrance where they first met – “is that really the remains of the revolving door?” – and they hold hands, the three of them, they actually stand on that spot once again, but are moved on by a security man.
   “This site is not safe,” he says. “Please. Please move along.”

Monday 11 July 2016

Third prize winner in FLF/GW Short Story competition 2016.

Now I’m a Fish by Sal Page

I hear his feet on the jetty. There he is; hands on knees, peering into the water.
‘Stacey? Are you there? Can you hear me?’
I’m well camouflaged here among the dappled water-shadows. I slip between the ticklish waterweeds to wait at a safe distance, wondering what he’s got to say for himself.
‘Okay. You win. From now on, no more staying out all night.’
Huh! Bet that wouldn’t last more than a week. Two mates with a flimsy reason to celebrate and he’d be off with his best shirt tucked into his jeans.
‘I’ll be a new man. Even put a wash on occasionally.’
Occasionally? Half the stuff’s his. Greasy boiler suits. All those towels. And t-shirts dumped in the hamper after only an hour’s wearing.
‘And I’ll remember to put out the bins, rather than wait to be reminded.’
That would be something. I hate the way he turns me into a nag.
But what do I care of such mundane, land-bound matters? I’ve left all that behind. These days I settle for quiet hours on the pebbly lake-bed, letting the cool water ripple over me.
Life is lovely now I’m a fish. I twist my body to admire my new rainbow iridescent scales. My fins grow stronger each day. I own every single drop of this lake. I’ve forgotten what breathing’s like. So much better than that time I was a bird. Water is safer and quieter than air. But then he found me and talked me back down. I should’ve stayed higher and gone further.
He’s sitting on the jetty. His toes dip into the water. I always liked his toes.
‘Your boss called. They need you back. He can’t hold the job open much longer. What should I say?’
Of course. They’d have to employ some other mug to open up in the mornings and take in the deliveries. I bet the cases of tinned stuff were piling up in the yard and no one else bothered to flatten the boxes for recycling like I did.
Like I used to. I shake my head to banish these irrelevant work-thoughts.
‘Stacey? Are you there? Or am I just a fool talking to a lake?’
This makes my giggle. A few bubble-pearls escape from my mouth and shoot up to the surface.
‘I’ve looked everywhere for those light bulbs. Where did you put them? I have to go up to bed in the dark. On my own.’
I told him several times where those bulbs were. I wish he hadn’t said that last bit though. Bed. I do sort of miss our bed. The lake-bed isn’t quite the same. I miss waking on a Sunday, knowing we don’t have to be anywhere all day. I miss his feet warming mine on cold mornings.
Down here I never have to be anywhere and I don’t feel the cold. I wake when the sunlight filters through the water, banishing the shadows I’ve rested in all night. I swim to the surface to feast on the small flies that gather there. Those flies are surprisingly delicious. A few gobbles and gulps and I’m done. No preparation. No washing up. And to think I used to plan meals, go to the market every day and follow recipes.
‘Instead of just watching cooking programmes, I’ll make dinner.’
He must’ve read my mind. He used to make me laugh, criticising the chef’s choice of ingredients and presentation style. Acting the big old expert even though he only ever made cheese on toast. Just last month I had to get up and switch the grill off while he lay snoring on the sofa.
‘And I’m sorry about that time … you know …’
I know what he’s referring to. He’d been drinking all day and night. I should have left him alone. I know he felt bad when he saw the bruises on my cheek and arm.
‘But you came back then.’
Yes. My week as a bird was so hard. The air currents scared me. Here, the other fish just leave me alone. Not like those birds with their screeches and sharp beaks.
‘It won’t happen again, Stace. Tell me you believe me.’
I peer upwards. He’s letting down a line. Something on the end of it plunges through the surface of the water above me. I inch-swim towards it. Caught in silver light-ripples, it glints as it drifts into my eye-line.
A diamond. My tough little fish-stomach does a flip of excitement. I recall the box of chocolates he persuaded the bird-me home with. I fell for them.
But this is something else.
‘I know this is what you want, Stacey. Come on.’
I gulp. The ring’s beautiful. Exactly what I would’ve chosen for myself.
‘Please come back. I love you, Stace.’
He loves me? He never said that before.
My gills prickle and my fish-eyes add a few more drops of water to the lake. I glance up at his feet dangling above me. He still has those calluses on his heels. I once told him he had beautiful feet. It made him blush. They’re still beautiful, despite the rough skin. I wish I had hands still, so I could reach out and touch them.  I’ve told him over and over to keep using that cream. I even offered to put it on for him but he waved me away like I was making a fuss.
‘So are you going to stop sulking now? Come back where you belong?’
Sulking? Is that what I’m doing? It doesn’t feel like sulking. It feels wonderful. The water on my fish-body is smooth as silk. I wonder if I’ll ever stop marvelling at how beautiful it feels.
And … back where I belong?
No way.
I belong in the water.
I flick my new tail and, knowing I leave a trail of silvery bubbles in my wake but not looking back to see them for once, head for the deeper part of the lake.