Winners: CIRCUS Themed Flash

Many thanks to our judge, Sherry Morris, for the brilliant prompt and for making the tough decision between the shortlisted stories; and well done to all our shortlisted writers. This is the first competition that features the new professional recording prize and you can now read and listen to the winning stories. The voice and sound artists have done a fantastic job!


  • An invitation arrives addressed to the woman in the ‘See Her Change From Beauty to Beast’ booth by Kinneson Lalor
  • Cirque de la Vie by Katherine Hetzel
  • Helen Joined the Circus by Tonia Markou
  • Inside the Magical World of Claudia Dawson by Denise Bayes
  • Like a kid in a candy store by Cheryl Markosky
  • Python Parlari by Kathy Hoyle
  • Russian Dolls by E. E. Rhodes
  • The Carousel by Andrea Stephenson
  • Tightwire by Ali McGrane
  • We all fall down, and get up again? by Katie Oliver

Retreat West Judge’s Report—Sherry Morris

I’d like to start by saying Thank you! to Amanda Saint and the Retreat West team for giving me the opportunity to choose the theme and select my favourite pieces in the latest quarterly contest. I couldn’t wait to see how writers handled the theme and I was not disappointed.

It was great fun to read this imaginative batch of shortlisted Circus stories and the variety was impressive. In addition to real circuses or aspects of them, there were metaphorical circuses that took place in supermarkets, classrooms, homes and brothels. A range of circus performers also made appearances. There were clowns and tightrope walkers, a spooky
carousel, trapeze artists and an enigmatic hooper. I really enjoyed the stories that portrayed people as animals.

I found it interesting that grief and regret were common themes. Many of the ten stories dealt with the loss of a sibling, baby or self. What struck me was that, regardless of subject matter or location, each piece had a turn of phrase, a line, or an image that ticked my ‘yes’ box—which made me think carefully about my top picks and read the stories over and over.

I applaud all the writers who submitted work and continue to be creative in these challenging times, and hope that the ones not published this time will be sent back out in the world to find homes. They all deserve them.

Right! It’s showtime, folks! On to the results! These are my top three circus stars.

First Prize: Python Parlari by Kathy Hoyle

What a deliciously dark and triumphant story! It was a firm favourite from my very first read. The writer seeds the story with strong word choices that underscore its darkness: the ‘desolate merry-go-round’, the ‘scent of congealed candy floss’, and the ‘dark mouth of the tent’ all work to show tone and mood. I was drawn in to this sinister circus life and delighted with its
perfect surprise ending. Python girl is the only girl in a man’s world, but don’t underestimate her—she is not a victim.

Each time I reached the end of the story, I let out a Hah! And then a Bwah-hah-hah. Just like the main character, this story shines like a gilded jewel and in its own way, is the most playful story of the bunch. An unexpected fun read that introduced me to the word parlari—which I’ve started researching.

Runner Up: The Carousel by Andrea Stephenson

What stood out for me in ‘The Carousel’ was mood. This story is eerie and creepy and it haunts me still. I shudder each time I read it. What this story also does well is create and build tension. From ‘When the animals started to go missing’ to the scene where we see ‘the platform was full,’ each paragraph ups the stakes. I love the collective we narrator and lines
like, ‘Ignoring the scratch of unease between our shoulder blades.’ The reader is left, like the we in the story, with no real answers, just a sense of dread ‘hovering at the edge of our dreams.

Runner Up: Cirque de la Vie by Katherine Heltzel

The structure of this piece is fabulous. It takes great skill to tell a story in only 266 words and those succinct headings make this piece stand out. Each one perfectly illustrates both circus and real life and I applaud (and envy) the writer’s cleverness. As I started the piece, I wondered how the writer would take me from Bat Out of Hell to the circus, but I needn’t have worried. This is a writer who is adept at craft—and has great musical taste to boot!

Many congratulations to Kathy, Andrea and Katherine!

The next themed flash competition judge is Ross Jeffrey and he’s chosen the theme THE UNCANNY. Deadline is 27th June so get writing!

Python Parlari

Kathy Hoyle

She coils and twists her lissome body. A glint of evening sunlight catches the sequins on her costume making her shine like a gilded jewel. Crimson letters swirl across the wooden board beside her, Part girl, part python! A phenomenon of nature!

A mechanical foxtrot seeps from a desolate merry-go-round. The scent of congealed candy floss permeates the air. There are no crowds tonight. No wide-eyed children or disapproving mothers, the biting wind has kept them away.

Her amber eyes flick toward the striped big top. A smattering of men in coats and caps huddle by the dark mouth of the tent, captivated by her father, resplendent in red. He is blathering his usual spiel. Three rounds, winner takes all!

A scrawny boy jumps onto the podium next to ‘Big Jim’. Her brother, Gus, scowls. He can’t run a book with odds like that. He likes to at least give the townies a show.

She pulls her shawl around her and trudges across the mud towards the tent. She catches the boy’s eye and winks. Good luck! The boy puffs out his chest and grins. Gus glares.

Standing in the shadows, she listens to the whispers.

It’s Bobby Grayson’s lad!

Aye, THE bobby Grayson.

They say the young un’s even better than his Pa.

More men arrive, waving notes, shouting odds. They teem into the tent and congregate around the makeshift boxing ring in the centre. The boy bounds into the ring. The men bray and holler. The frenzied scent of testosterone assaults her senses.

She feels a sharp tug on her hair and whips around. No women allowed!

Gus shoves her with his great bear hands.

Better to leave than to deal with his temper.


Father calls for his brandy. Big Jim and Harry the Furness. Ha! The little flyweight saw them both off.

The men sing the old songs, keening their loss. She sits on the steps of her caravan, amused by their lament.

The boy appears before her. She knew he would. He offers her a smoke, proudly tells her his name is Stanley Grayson. She glances around. No Gus.

In the ring, the boy’s size had fooled them all. He is much stronger than he looks. She knows that now. In an instant he has her pinned against the caravan, hand clamped tight across her mouth.

She feels his heart pumping. Her senses reel. For a brief moment, she resists, but she cannot help herself…

She strikes.

The boy is not the only one stronger than he looks. She coils and twists her powerful body. Her mouth waters at the exquisite sound of his bones cracking. There is no mercy. Her jaw expands and slowly, slowly she inches him into her throat, savouring the delectable tang of his fear.

Gus appears, brandy bottle swinging. His dark eyes flash with disgust, as the last of the boy disappears.

‘What will I tell father this time?’ he growls.

‘Tell him it’s time to move on,’ she replies.

This story won First Prize in the March 2021 CIRCUS Themed Flash Competition.

About the author: Kathy Hoyle writes Flash Fiction and Short Stories. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines including Spelk, Lunate, Cabinet of Heed and Ellipsiszine. She was awarded third prize in the HISSAC Flash Fiction Competition, received a Special Commendation in the Blinkpot Awards and has been both long and shortlisted in several other writing competitions. She is currently working on a Novella-in -Flash fuelled by jammy dodgers and tea.

Cirque de la Vie

Katherine Hetzel

Roll up, roll up, to the greatest show on earth!

We sit next to each other in the theatre. Two single strangers, with a shared love for Bat out of Hell. Chat during the interval as we eat our ice creams, and when the lights go up at the end of the performance, you say we ought to grab a drink together, talk the show over…

Riding bareback

One drink leads to another. And then back to your flat. And to making love to the sound of Meatloaf. Only one thing’s missing, but you say you know when to pull out…


What a frickin’ idiot I am. Two parallel blue lines. In a quest to fool the world, I paint a smile on my face while I wonder what to do next.


It’s what I want. Honest. I’m still swinging between excitement for the future and gut-wrenching terror for the same thing twenty times a day, but I’m holding on.


Work. Doctor. Work. Hospital. Scan. Work. Clinic. Blood test. Work. Ikea. Shopping. Work. Decorating. Clinic… How the hell am I supposed to get everything done to this deadline?


A lumbering body I don’t recognise any more. Thick ankles, swollen legs, and an expanding belly that stops me seeing my toes.

Human cannonball

“This one was keen to make an entrance. Shot out so fast, I needed my catcher’s mitt!”


And here you are. The controlling influence in this new world of ours. Small, perfectly formed, and with a pair of lungs to rival Meatloaf already. I’ll introduce you to him someday.

This story won the Runner-Up Prize in the March 2021 CIRCUS Themed Flash Competition.

The Carousel

Andrea Stephenson

None of us saw it arrive. When I’d last looked, there was an empty field, stubbled with the remains of the harvest. Nobody could say who’d built it. But there it stood: an old-fashioned carousel, lovingly painted with a tented roof. In the centre were the brass pipes of an organ, but there was something missing. No horses pranced around this carousel. When it rotated, as it sometimes did, and the organ commenced its wailing, there was nothing to waltz to its tune.

We all went down to look. Sometimes in crowds, sometimes in couples – never alone. When it became clear that nobody was responsible for it, we tried to forget it. It was there. Never mentioned but hovering at the edge of our dreams. At ploughing time, the farmer worked around it, jumping out of his seat each time the organ moaned.

When the animals started to go missing, we put it down to bad luck. Ignoring the scratch of unease between our shoulder blades. There was no pattern: a pet dog here, a prize pig there, two mules from the end of the lane. We shook our heads in commiseration and kept a closer eye on the animals that were left.

But the day came when the organ started up and didn’t stop. We’d got used to ignoring the odd tune, as we ignored everything else about the thing in the field. Pretty soon the whole town was headed there, the organ a tuneless siren song. The wheat was full grown, so from a distance we could pretend there was nothing there. The nervous chatter died down the closer we got. We waded through the wheat, heedless of the stalks crushed beneath our boots.

The carousel was no longer empty. Prancing donkeys and leaping dogs, waddling pigs and shuffling sheep, stalking cats and a wobbling calf. The platform was full. Each creature was recognisable, but it wasn’t as it had been. What had been fur was now wood, what was skin was now paint. Each animal was beautifully rendered but each was driven through with a whittled pole and had a seat moulded to its back.

The organ faded into sobs and cries. The chatter rose up again into shouts and screams. People invaded the boardwalk, wrenched open the door to the organ, searching for hiding places the carousel didn’t have. No culprit could be found. There was talk of burning it down, smashing it to pieces, but that seemed disrespectful somehow, or too much like bad luck.

We wandered away in the end, because what else could we do? The carousel is still there. A little faded. Never mentioned. Hovering at the edge of our dreams. Sometimes people visit to pay their respects to the animals they once cared for. And once a year, when the wheat is full grown, the organ starts up its jaunty tune. It plays all day and all night, calling us to communion. We lock our doors and turn up the TV.

This story won the Runner-Up Prize in the March 2021 CIRCUS Themed Flash Competition.

About the author: Andrea Stephenson is a writer and libraries manager from the north east of England, where she lives with her wife and a Border Terrier. Her stories have been published in Popshot and Firewords magazines and in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. Inspired by nature, the coastline and the turn of the seasons, she writes about creativity, magic and nature at

Winners: 2021 First Chapter Competition

We are excited to reveal the results of our 2021 First Chapter competition and the winners chosen by Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press. Many congratulations to all who made the shortlist and to our winners!

Thanks to Sam for reading these 10 novel openings and making the tough final decision.


  • Bring Them to Light by Lou Kramskoy
  • Countdown by Clare Evans
  • Down Came a Blackbird by Julie Holden
  • Northern Boy by Iqbal Hussain
  • Sideslip by Dianne Bown-Wilson
  • The Grey Man by James Blair
  • The Limehouse Blues by Rod Cookson
  • The Mirador by Sally Skinner
  • The Slighting of Livia Rathbone by Kate Stratford
  • Wildwood by Sarah McPherson

First Place: Bring Them To The Light by Lou Kramskoy

Sam said: This chapter really surprised and impressed me.  It’s a striking and clever bit of writing. Starting off in the future tense is bold – but you carry it off. Writing about the effects of acid is also very difficult (and often goes very wrong!) – but again, you carry it off. Meanwhile, you provide really effective physical details like that steam coming off the teenage bodies in the cold. You generate a strong sense of bewilderment and anxiety around the boys – and do it mainly through effective physical description. And there’s a strong and growing sense of mystery and urgency about your story. I really wanted to read on.

Second Place: Down Came A Blackbird by Julie Holden

This is a gripping and tense opening. It’s vividly written with a strong sense of place and of your narrator’s troubled humanity. There’s a good sense of mystery and intrigue around what the narrator has to tell Adam – and a lot going on around the peripheries. I liked, for instance, the strong sense of discomfort generated by Karl. If I had to nitpick, I’d advise you to be careful  not to over-describe. Why does your narrator tell us that a table is “white metal”, for instance? I also liked the idea of the dead birds  – but careful not to push that metaphor too far.  I got a bit lost when you were tearing open a dead bird envelope.

Highly Commended: The Mirador by Sally Skinner

That’s a striking first sentence. It’s followed up with good physical descriptions and plenty of  tension. I got a sense of a narrator who isn’t entirely in control. And I liked the moving description of the mother. 


Countdown by Clare Evans

There are some really good human touches in this chapter, like the desire for a bacon bap. There were also some very nice descriptions – like Cooper wearing his story on his face. The story also felt like it could go in interesting directions. If you’re redrafting, I’d suggest thinking about whether the rational, considered thought stream of the narrator fits in with the wooziness she’s experiencing – and the fact that she’s giving birth…

Northern Boy by Iqbal Hussain

There’s lots of nice material in this chapter, building up a rich view of homelife for your young narrator. There are cute descriptions – I liked your narrator’s Tweety Pie t-shirt. There’s also some nice dialogue. “I’m ten years old” seemed like a very reasonable reply! I’d be interested to read more – although at this stage I am slightly concerned that the issues you’ve brought up feel quite familiar. I hope you can take this in an interesting new direction.

Sideslip by Dianne Bown-Wilson

Quickly we are plunged into a horrible, heart-breaking situation which you lay out clearly and effectively. There’s emotion, dread and guilt. There are some great images here too. (I liked “marshmallow-y”!) I’m not entirely sure about your first line (isn’t the answer “no one!). this piece would also be even stronger if you gave it a good  copy edit, thinking particularly about accuracy in word choice

The Grey Man by James Blair

This feels like it’s going to be a sincere and moving story with real social value. The scam you portray feels unjust and enraging. One thing you can usefully do to take it up a level, would be to give your writing a good copy edit, looking out especially for inaccuracy in word choice.

The Limehouse Blues by Rod Cookson

There’s a good attempt at humour and repartee here and some nice period details. I enjoyed the Nero Wolfe reference. There’s also a nice bit of intrigue – and having your narrator as the criminal feels like an interesting device. My redrafting advice would be to have faith in the humour of your material – you don’t need to push your jokes too far.

The Slighting Of Livia Rathbone by Kate Stratford

This is an interesting character study of an angry father with a good mystery surrounding Livia Rathbone and intrigue surrounding the question of what is being hidden from Edie. The prose is clear and there are some striking images. My general feeling it that your sentences work best when they’re straightforward and you don’t need to push too hard for effect.

Wildwood by Sarah McPherson

You’ve worked hard to develop a strong sense of place and a numinous atmosphere here. There are some nice descriptions and a sense of foreboding. I did however, think you might be able to trim out some of the adjectives and make this tighter still.

Winners: May 21 Monthly Micro

We read some amazing weird and wonderful stories for this month’s METAMORPHOSIS micro comp and have enjoyed them all.

In a competition judging first in the history of the comp, our panel unanimously agreed on the stories in first and second place! And the People’s Prize voting generated a resounding winner.

Well done to all who were shortlisted and congratulations to our winners!


  • A Change of Heart by Jennifer Battisti
  • Bin Day by P J Stephenson
  • Domestic Appliance by S. A. Greene
  • Holometabolous by Eleonora Balsano
  • Me and You by Frances Gapper
  • Paper Bird by E.E. Rhodes
  • Sad Song of the Backwards Selkie by Becky Tipper
  • The Swan Song by Alan Kennedy
  • The Year of Solitude by Salena Casha
  • Username: Butterfly by Karen Walker

First Prize Winner: Holometabolous by Eleonora Balsano

We loved the format, the language and the tone of this moving story of a failed mother/daughter relationship that captures a lifetime in so few words.

Second Prize Winner: Username: Butterfly by Karen Walker

We loved the soundscape, the lighthearted tone and the narrator’s determination to be as free as a butterfly!

People’s Prize Winner: Domestic Appliance by S. A. Greene

Many congratulations to all!

Eleonora wins £214 and Karen wins £143.

For the People’s Prize, S. A. wins a bundle of 3 paperbacks of her choice published by us!

We’ll be back on 7th June with next month’s prompt!