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 28th March 2022. Results will be announced on Tuesday 29th. Good luck everyone!
A Daughter Helps Her Father Think Outside the Box
Matchboxes stuck together form miniature chests, each drawer with a butterfly-clip handle. Thousands, millions of them. The work of a lifetime.
She opens a drawer. Something featherlight stirs the air then vanishes. She tries another. An impulse—delicate, long-neglected—jumps nerve-endings. This one’s stronger, stroboscopic, ricocheting off the basement walls, making her duck and squeal with delight. Here there’s colour, and again; a kaleidoscope ever shifting, tingling on her tongue, in her ears.
Her father’s ideas boxed and catalogued, safe from censure. Her father, in another box now, six feet down, his ideas like hungry animals released into the wild.
How Love Grows
A microscopic spore hitches a lift on a vagrant warbler to virgin territory. A friend’s cousin down for the holiday.
Laughing eyes and a touch to the back of your hand like rain on dormant loam.
A first time alone together; an exhibition you’d talked of and the propriety of afternoon tea. A fissured pod of enzymes detonated.
The tight-furled budding as he walked you home and took your face in his hands. The riotous spasm of blossom as the summer ends and you stand alone on the platform as the train eases him away and everything has changed.
Next Door to Grandad
Aged six, I first saw you. With yellow flowers, petals bright. A big heart. You were sixteen. ‘Gran, what’s it like to be sixteen?’ I’d asked.
I whispered new questions every week. Every year. Were you a big sister? Were you like the girls in my magazines? If I told you my problems, would you listen?
Three decades later, I think of you often, of how I’d once trace a small finger along the words as Gran unwrapped the weekly bouquet. And I wonder what had put you there, beneath that big grey heart of marble, next door to Granddad.
An Introduction to Some Common British Lichens
Dust lichen, you say. Powder stains my glove-tips, grey as trees, as fields, as sky. Your glass finds fragile empires in broken bark and stone.
Writing lichen. Your hands run gentle over birches, reading secret runes. The words mean nothing to me. Take off those gloves, you say.
Chalice lichen. I spot it first. You smile and pass the lens, warm from your grasp. Fairy-cups rise from moss, inviting me to drink.
Map lichen. We navigate terrains of ochre, mustard, gold. When your fingers brush mine, I know I am not lost.
Once, when I was small, my mother warned me that little girls who ate apple seeds ended up with trees growing inside their bellies.
I would lie awake at night, picturing a tiny sapling seeding inside my gut, reaching out green tendrils to cover my bones, grasp my lungs. I pictured starlings nesting in my ribcage, bees buzzing through my ears. I took to eating seeds by the fistful; apple cores and watermelons, pomegranates and needle-sharp oranges, waiting for that miraculous melding of girl and tree: a world in which Growing Up meant Taking Root.
Adulthood supplemented for twisting green
The Raven Haired Girl
Elena hacked at her hair, the weight of his body still lingering on her thighs. Feather light tresses fluttered to the floor in a conspiracy of midnight ravens.
‘Hair is a woman’s best feature,’ her Grandmother would often say. ‘Grow it long, men like long hair.’
He had woven searching fingers through soft silken strands drawing her tenderly to him. But he tightened his grip and held her firm when she wriggled beneath.
‘What have you done to your beautiful hair?’ her Grandmother cawed.
Elena surveyed the mournful black ravens dying at her feet, the weight of his body erased.
If I Am Lucky Enough to Grow Old
I’ll go to town without a bra, an umbrella or a care.
I’ll wear my pink spiky hair unfettered, strut into a bar alone and order a stiff whiskey, however that comes.
I’ll stroll home at night through the park with no keys, no whistle, no fear.
Until then I’ll watch my ps and qs and get my double-d cup professionally fitted.
I’ll mind my virginity until I find ‘the one’ and keep my head down like I’ve been told.
I’ll always get a taxi home, text the driver’s number to my mother and pin my knickers to my vest.
When the Season of New Life Comes Round Again
They stop at the pond on the way to school, gaping at globules of frogspawn, and her youngest asks, what is it? Babies, she says, touching her belly where now inside is just a space. And the next day when they stop there is still more: scores of tiny eyeballs watching them. But there won’t be enough room for them all, Mummy, whispers her wide-eyed daughter. She cannot speak. Returning home she finds a bucket – turns away as her husband reassures her, we did the right thing – and kneeling at the pond’s edge she scoops, makes space; hot tears blooming.
So Sorry About Neil’s Footprints
In your white crescent a man once rested, with a long chin. He smiled and winked, I waved back. Your lunar maria were cheese to me, warm in Spiderman pyjamas I watched you swell and wane, beyond reach, magic and truth in one. I could always rely on you, up there.
Immutable you may be, my trusty friend, though I am wiser now. I know how you work, you cannot hide. My science has given you names, it has left its mark, you have been explained.
I still watch you but I can’t see what I want to see anymore.
Kherson, Ukraine 24th February 2022
She reminded him of his grandmother and he smiled as she reached for his hand. It was the first time another human had touched his skin in weeks. He looked to see if the others were watching.
Sunflower seeds, put them in your pocket. She patted his side under the gun. Her face went taught. Then when we bury you under our soil the flowers will grow for everyone to see. He stepped back and she spat at his feet.
Snow spun against the towers. Somewhere north was his own bed, the laughter of his sisters and Sunday milk cake.
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