Well done to all who entered, to our longlisted writers and congratulations to the shortlisted writers of the stories below. No telling which is yours though!
Voting for the People’s Prize winner is now open until 23.59 (UK time) on Monday 28th June and the winners will be announced on Tuesday 29th. Good luck for the final round everyone!
A Pine Regrets
At the launch for the book that everyone is talking about – the one with the carving of ‘The Black Knight’ on the cover, hewn from a storm broken sycamore, or ash, maybe
(yeah, she’s my second cousin, but we’re not that close, so)
– his fans stand around chattering, with glasses of wine and canapés, aka finger food
(yeah, what about me? what about every branch and bough he’s sacrificed for the paper? books are simply wood-pulp cannibalism)
and someone says he’s bound to win an award as
(wait for it)
the intensely eco-sensitive
author of ‘The Guardian of The Trees’.
Diary of an Indignant Nine Year Old
He’s dead tall and lanky my brother. Today, he called me ‘our fat’. He thought he was hilarious. Me mam and dad didn’t stop him. He’s eleven our Jack and he plays with toy soldiers. He hides them in the garden – from the enemy he said. So, I called him weird. Mam told me off. Also, do you know what else? There’re hardly any photos of me as a baby. But there’s loads of him isn’t there. Mam says I wouldn’t sit still for photos. I bet that’s not true. I bet they just couldn’t be bothered taking any.
Her Five Layers, Whittled
The woods had walked her out, and she’d snapped. Her (bark) is worse, he tells their friends with a laugh that whittles.
Her (inner bark) nearly bites back.
Breaking a branch, he lectures on (cambium), putting that botany degree to good use. A formative layer giving rise to new growth, he says to them all. But really, to her.
She sees herself. A headful of mud, face of splinters. The kind that’s hard to love. Someone only a (sapwood).
Would she want more? At the core, she hears the reply. Yes, it says.
His DNA in the Dust
Luke grows up with a heart-shaped family who cuddle him, but they’re chunky and freckly not gangly and earthy-brown. When he asks why, their gentleness wills him on.
He hunts, discovers an aunt, then a cousin. Across the sky, Tunisia smells of heat and mandarins. He locates the tiny town and graveyard, walks through ordered rows of stones. His heart moves towards a cedar tree, crumples beneath its evergreen.
Twilight, moonlight and sunrise, these words squeeze breath from his chest: ‘Proud Young Father, Beloved Mother’.
His penknife blunts scratching dust and rubble off the headstones, filling his pockets and socks.
Hold the Sword Aloft to get into Character
‘It’s still acting,’ I tell her. Mum isn’t impressed by the palace or the drizzle, never mind the chainmail tunic and tights. This costume’s only justifiable if I’d landed a Shakespeare. Or Panto at a big regional.
Instead I’m Knight Three, defender of the right-hand turret. I embellish my role: ‘Kids storytelling sessions, facilitating sword drills.’
‘All that money on drama school,’ she scowls. I prod her stomach with my plastic dagger. ‘Even got pensions.’ I say and she narrows her eyes, eyes that hoped to see Broadway’s bright lights reflected in them by now. Eyes dark auditoriums of disappointment.
If You’re Trying This Hard to Salvage Your Marriage Should You Call It a Crusade?
A woodpecker could have made the hole in the tree, but there are none here and I’ve only seen them in cartoons.
We made this expedition – a sort of date-night by day – sitting beside each other in the car, facing forward, all the better to talk, but we don’t.
We don’t read the guide, wandering through the sculpture garden in the wrong direction, like prophets, or drunks.
I lie awake thinking how to spin this for the therapist. Is it communication? Forgiveness?
You sleep with your hands folded on your chest, holding love like a shield or maybe a sword.
In Which My Botanist Father Becomes a Tree
He used to know the Latin name for every flower and plant, Thymus – Thyme Creeping, Caragana Arborescens -Weeping Pea. Could tell every detail of a species from a single petal sample.
Now he calls them all ‘flower’, says the word slowly, giving it four syllables.
He resides in the nursing home, though it should be called the waiting home. He is planted outside every day, for air, for nature, for convenience.
He sits, wooden and wordless, gnarled limbs twisted, slippered feet deliberately dipping into cold earth, willing it to take him, wishing his rotten roots were shredded into soil.
Prayer to Maria Goretti, patron saint of inmates and rape victims
First, they came for the gnomes. Then the taste laws forbid all statuary.
Bone-sad, she stuffs Saint Maria in a sack and grooms her burial chamber next to a pixie clutching a fishing rod. Next to broken fairies, shattered infants and long-ago apparitions.
Her Terracotta Army could save the world. Defying the enemies of doilies, chunky-knit slippers and flamingo solar garden lights.
The saint is in lotus position, acquiring detachment through good deeds in previous lives. Oblivious to the damaged remains.
Please forgive me for my sins, she laments. Help me to be a better person. Amen.
She moves her cotton pyjamas and her book out of their bedroom whilst he is at work. She is done with the suffocating heat of his body, the snoring and the pawing, his stale morning breath and the ritual scratching of his balls.
Fine, he spits. But don’t expect me to live like a monk. The front door slams.
Her book lies beside a glass of water on the nightstand. The white sheets on the spare bed are slab-smooth and cool, inviting her to lie back and contemplate the silence. Later she sleeps and dreams of wombs and welcoming cloisters.
That’s What You Get
Even after I encase him in armour, I keep him near me. He was a hero, but when he stole my maidenhood he needed to pay. My servants wonder at the frivolity of entombing my plaything in my favourite tree. Now my knight is hidden in plain sight. I sneer at him on my daily walk through the gardens, sometimes I stroke his long sword to test if I get a reaction. Nothing. Even when I put my arms around his throat, like he put his around mine, he doesn’t gasp for air. He doesn’t move – and I move on.
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