We’re so excited to bring you the first shortlist of the year for this comp, which we all love so much! Well done to all who made the longlist and congrats to the writers of our shortlisted stories – no telling which is yours yet though!
Vote for your favourite from these 10 fab stories to win the surprise People’s Prize. Our judging team are busy re-reading to choose the winners of the cash prizes. Voting is open until 23.59 (UK time) on Monday 17th January 2022. Results will be announced on Tuesday 18th. Good luck everyone!
Here we put our feelings in bottles. It’s safer that way. No red hysteria exploding in the workplace. No blue paranoia sweating beneath the sheets. Our lives are as grey and still as midnight lakes.
No one knows where they keep the bottled feelings or how safely the feelings are stored. We whisper in the sanitised corners of our neat, efficient homes.
‘What if they decide to pop the corks?’
‘What if some radical smashes the bottles to prove a point?’
We don’t worry, of course, our feelings are bottled by experts, and we don’t know how to be afraid.
It was a shock to find membership of the club was not automatic: she’d put in the time, done the hard labour; it was natural, surely. She wore its livery nonetheless—the wrap-dresses, button-down shirts, its crossovers and flaps—in remembrance of the lightness of dreams, before life sank into its short, shallow grooves. Other mums draped themselves in milky muslin, like da Vinci Madonnas, as babies rested in the crooks of arms. But she had no words of explanation for the bottle in her hand, and nothing could conceal that red, scooped-out space beneath her ribs where failure thrived.
At thirteen Daniel was using telekinesis to lift bottles of beer, at sixteen he was making cars float in Donnelly’s scrapyard while squashing rats with a twitch of his eyebrows, blood scattered across the yard like a Jackson Pollock painting.
These days he mostly made spilt milk and bottles of formula float in mid-air, forming shapes and patterns like butterflies and unicorns to entertain Grace until she fell asleep.
When Grace was restless, he made her float around the nursery. He never forgot the gurgling sound of wonder and laughter she made when floating, like she was invisible and weightless.
He could make wine glasses sing with a fingertip and a bit of spit, the tone growing more melancholy as the drink went down.
He built tiny, perfect boats, using balsa and thread, slipping them magically into clear glass bottles.
Here’s the last ship-in-a-bottle he made. Inside it sits a minuscule old man, and a boy, and a bottle. And within that, is a speck of a ship.
This is my inheritance.
My face, my black suit, reflect in the glass, and I wish myself small enough to slide inside, board the ship and sail to wherever my grandpa is.
Manningtree, Essex 1645
Matthew Hopkins has uncovered evil in our midst ~ neighbours, once trusted, are now suspects. My milk has soured and the babe sickens, so I must save Eliza from their ill wishing. I take a small bottle, half fill it with pins, add a lock of Eliza’s downy hair, drops of her urine then stopper it with a cork. I stand by the open window to drip candle wax to seal it.
As I incant a powerful protection spell the Witchfinder General passes, retraces his steps, points his black gloved finger at me and his mouth forms the word ‘witch’.
One Bluebottle On A Windowsill
Funny how one dead bluebottle on a windowsill can change the very oxygen of a room. How it makes me light headed, heartsore and sick.
Just that one perfect imperfection on which to spin the story of a day.
It’s like a single footprint in freshly fallen snow. Like a chip in bone china. Or a smudge on the glass.
Like receipts in your pocket for a place we’ve never been. Like the shrill repetition of midnight calls. And dead phone lines. Like bumping, unexpectedly, into old friends.
Like lipstick on collars and unexpected delays.
And other reminders of you.
Open Day At The Bottle Factory – David Shows His Daughter The Place Where He Is God
David narrates the creation story. Sand, soda ash, limestone and cullet make liquid honey in a hell-hot furnace. He waves a proud arm at the end product, one made earlier, a multitude of milk bottles, ghosts of the terracotta army.
It is, he says, a triumph of man and machine, and he is the man who keeps it all going. Emma raises her sceptical eyebrows above her safety glasses. He shows her the stool where he sits. “Perhaps one day you’ll get a chair,” she says, watching him shrivel before her.
It will take her twenty years to be sorry.
Returning to Aleppo
Carim’s earliest memories of Aleppo were the bone-shaking cart ride, laughter-filled hours with Traders’ children, fathers haggling over bubbling narghiles with their writhing wisps of smoke.
His favourite memory, though, was the messages from Uri – hidden in a mousehole in a tiny, long-necked bottle.
But that was years ago, before sleeping with one eye open was normal. Surreal, to now stand in the abandoned rubble, daring to hope. The last message, never collected; the address of Uri’s Aunt to whom they’d fled.
Carim felt an unfamiliar stretch across his face. There, in the mousehole, was a tiny, long-necked bottle.
The Anatomist’s Bride
I am the fifth girl they have sent. The doctor cannot keep his servants. Or his wife, if the rumours are true.
Entry to his laboratory is forbidden, but as with Eve, my sin is curiosity. Locks, like pockets, are easily picked.
The stench of formalin. Strange instruments sharpened by lamplight, a workbench scrubbed bone-white, shelves of fat-bellied jars in shadow. I look closer and almost drop my lantern. A floating hand wears a gristle bracelet. Ink spill hair fanning out around a head. Lungs, liver, the plump pillow of a womb. Everything except a heart.
One jar stands empty.
Treading on Memory in the Bottles’ Graveyard
Blue glass is the rarest. She holds a cerulean piece, salt-pocked, sand-scoured. ‘A gem,’ she imagines her father say. Rainbow shards nestle in her bucket, collected on this bejewelled shore, this bottle graveyard below the abandoned pub. And out of the blue, she becomes that child — instructed to bring her father home — standing bathed in leaking light from the pub’s doorway, fug of smoke and stale air, while he sings, ‘I’ve Been a Wild Rover.’ She rattles the shards, tesserae in the mosaic of memory, and her father’s eyes sparkle across time, vivid as the blue glass in her hand.
Vote for your favourite in the form below. If you have any problems using the form you can also vote on this link: https://form.responster.com/jT9tPc