Vote for your favourite from these 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 24th July 2023. Results will be announced on 25th. Good luck everyone!
The Day After the Moon Landing, a Dry-eyed GI Bride Stands Next to an Open Casket in Clovis, New Mexico
The mortician has made him smile, so Sheila knows he’s definitely dead. She breathes in the smothering incense of lilies, catching a whiff of embalming fluid as her wailing, black-mantilla’d mother-in-law jostles her out of the way. No-one from England came.
She’s remembering how they met, crushed together in those drab village hall dances, Eddie spinning yarns in primary colours – cobalt skies, eternal sunshine, rich red earth. He gave her nylons and she said yes. They felt like silk. If only she’d known they were synthetic, so easily ripped to shreds.
High above, a plane flies east, heading for the ocean.
Because … their faces never betray how they really feel
The psychiatrist asks them to draw an animal they ‘identify with’.
Delores doesn’t want to draw. She wants to leave. But Ma has placed her here, and trapped folk do as they’re told.
She could draw an eagle to peck out Ma’s eyes; a boa to splinter Ma’s spine; a bull to smash Ma’s bones; a scorpion to barb, a hippo to squash, a bear to tear, a kangaroo to KO, an alligator to roll and sink and drown.
She draws a kitten.
‘Why a kitten, Delores?’
‘Because they’re sweet and wholesome like Ma says I should be.’
The Net Worth of Mary-Jane Casey
Mary-Jane has a daily allowance. Whatever remains at bedtime is hers and hers alone.
The first outgoing is at breakfast: milk-spilled uniforms spell school gate meltdowns, emergency loads of washing. By lunchtime she’ll be spent.
Afternoon expenses are forgotten gym kits, party reminders, the doctor saying it’s back. Must also account for coffee, cake, crying.
Dinner’s cindered lasagne is a mistake Mary-Jane cannot afford. She lets him have his way to claw back from red to black.
At night Mary-Jane balances the books on the bedroom ceiling. Forever indebted, always at a loss.
Such is the cost of loving crisis.
Study of an Empty Children’s Play Park After Summer Rain
There’s a creaking swing, swaying gently. Long metal slide glazed with rain. A climbing frame, its cargo net sagging.
She cartwheels in through the gate, backflips, lands it, skips to the swing, but he’s there, paws gripping chains. Fox-face, agate eyes gleaming beneath dark hood. Dirty jeans. She stands still. Uncertain.
‘She went to the park,’ her mother says, ‘to play, before dinner.’
The policemen nod, search, but there’s nothing; damp dandelion clocks and broad-leaved docks, lone swing, silver slide, wet climbing frame, cargo net dripping.
‘She went to the park,’ her mother says, ‘for half an hour, before dinner.’
Da Always Said He Would Take me Shrimping
Uncle Jim brought me once; he had this salt-stiff net, repaired with stitches like Mam’s arm that time. When I slipped he didn’t let me fall. I hauled my catch, feeling powerful as that sea-tasting wind. Those shrimps flipping about had so much life; Uncle Jim showed me how to grab the sopping mesh so they couldn’t escape. That made me queasy. They had spiteful jabby bits; could stick up for themselves. But they stopped writhing soon enough. I didn’t expect them to be grey as Da’s face on Sunday mornings. He’ll never get the chance to take me now.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend
She becomes my unwitting companion during fresher’s week. I watch her from my dorm window as she shivers under the shimmering streetlight. I gaze at the gleam of skin peeping through the rhombus ridges of her fish-netted thighs. She stands apart from the other girls. A loner too.
I keep watch as she enters the dirty slits of punter’s cars and check she returns to her orange spotlight. That’s what friends are for. To keep watch.
Some nights, I count the diamond holes in her tights and wonder, if she glanced up, would she see diamonds or holes in me.
How to tell my father I want to be an accountant
My father’s fingers are sequinned with the scales of his labour. On the quay, he ices his haul, the herrings’ eyes blank as amnesia.
The nets have trawled too long. This is a village of decline, of relics and rusted pots. I dream of cities landlocked in the bounty of concrete and glass. Where my fingers work the keys of different nets. Where data shoals like quicksilver across the continents. The haul of net profit.
My father stares at the desert dunes of sea, turns to me, tells me he already knows the last of the boats have come in.
Elsie Bickerstaffe’s Window
Mother judged other women by their nets, and Elsie Bickerstaffe’s naked windows told her all she needed to know. Elsie’s too-short skirts showed more than was decent as she leaned into the fishman’s van. She reeled him in with head-tilted smiles and the way she caressed his fingers when she took her change. Before long, he was slipping her extra fillets.
“That bay window’s like an aquarium” Mother said, peering through her snow-white nylon as Elsie wound octopus tentacles around her catch. Mother bought her fish from the market after that, and stopped wearing stockings and suspenders on Wednesday afternoons.
The Making of a Militant
She found the bird under the tree, dying, its leg broken by the netting. She shouted that she didn’t like cherries anyway. Her dad laughed, said it was just a sparrow, then went back to reading his paper.
The next day she took scissors from the kitchen drawer and dragged the heavy stepladder from the shed. She placed it under the tree.
Her mum found her on the lawn. By the time her dad got home, her leg was in plaster.
When she looked out of the window in the morning, she saw the netting had gone, and she smiled.
All the things Beth from the corner shop told me when she first saw my bruises:
Teach the bairn to get help!
I dangle Ollie’s tiny fingertip over the keypad. ‘Press nine three times and shout police if Daddy makes Mummy play sleeping lions.’
My boy’s scared of lions, but I tell him it’s the hunter he should fear.
Build a safety net!
Beth’s hidden our passports. Keeps a spare set of keys to my house. She gives me inflated receipts for the stuff I buy. I’ve enough money to last a month without him.
Keep your car fuelled!
Because when our day comes, my boy and me, we’re gonna sprint like cheetahs, never looking back!
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