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 22nd May 2023. Results will be announced on 23rd. Good luck everyone!
A Story as Old as the World
They came with fizz fizz bottles of American drinks, gas bubbles rising so fast your elders mistook those carbonated spheres for signs of life and tipped their contents into a bucket, shocked when the sticky brown river flowed without fish. They came with crisp crisp notes and phones that sang; they bemoaned the lack of signal and worshipped the Gods of WiFi, chasing the sun to the edge of the horizon by nightfall. Then they left. He came with a snap snap camera to trap the earth, sky and your smile, his bare bare skin daring you to stare back.
After the War
The house is crowded by your bulk and there’s a smell, as if you’ve brought the stench of war with you – the blood, guts, dust. The youngest, a baby when you were last home, won’t go near you, this stranger, her father. And when you touch her golden hair so different to yours she flinches and you smother the moment with a laugh that’s too loud. You need a drink. The front door bangs behind you making the curtains rise and fall like a breath held too long. And your wife gathers the children to her kissing away their tears.
My milk comes in like icy pins and needles, blooming in frozen pearls as I strain against the storm. I squint into white dusk, then duck into the shelter, where a heap of embers pulses faintly in a remote corner. I can’t let the fire go out. It waits to be tended, like a faithful heart in a vast world of ice. I stir it to life and eager rustling answers. I reach into shadow and lift a matted bundle into firelight. Tiny tusks spare my taut skin and the woolly mammoth drinks, mammal hearts thumping like a quickening ember.
She’s proud of her charity shop finds and her second-hand library. She walks or catches the bus. She uses up leftovers and shops for cheap cuts, has taught herself to darn, dye and make do.
When she left the money and ran, she didn’t mind arranging sprigs of wildflowers in a jam jar or saving coupons torn from the newspaper. She hasn’t missed the Michelin stars flutes of Champagne, or sun-drenched holidays abroad.
She lays a spare place at the table, crumples the unsullied side of bed, and knows it’s the fear she can’t change. Fear of never loving again.
Fourth Concubine of Lee Ah Seng, Head of How Fatt Tin Mining Kongsi, Taiping, Malaysia 1874
“Was he rough?” Second asks. Ling feels a bruise blossoming on her thigh, a musky heaviness in her groin. Yesterday he’d shown her the raintree, its foliage dipping into Lake Taiping like a woman washing her hair. How lucky, she’d thought, to have escaped Guangzhou for this powerful man.
Last night flashes – his foetid sweat, a slicing pain, grunting. “I expect sons,” he’d said, throwing her cheongsam at her.
“This will help,” Second hands her a pipe, sweet-smelling smoke snaking out. Ling inhales, floating back to the vast, verdant stretch of paddy fields, to a time when she was nobody.
It used to be your mountainous back looming over the stove, your impish wink, the cracked wooden spoon laden with rich brown stew seeking my mouth.
Then it was a clunk of the latch, the jangle of keys, your leather slippers shuffling and squeaking to find me in the darkness.
Then, the silent warmth of your hand as you guided me from space to space, up stairs and down, stopping me crashing into shapes with yelps I’ve long since forgotten.
Now there’s only one thing that tells me where I am.
Coffee, sawdust and smoke.
The sweet smell of you.
The projector shows two peppered moths; speckled white, coal black. Mrs Sullivan says pollution, adaption, camouflage. You stim the soft word moth in your mind.
Kiki McClain clacks her red talons against the desk, her supple body slack. Clack, clack, clack. You slack back against the hard, wooden chair. You blank your face to boredom. At the back, the pack of boys howl at a joke about Mrs Sullivan having moths up her crack. Kiki hisses a snigger. You snigger too. Moth, moth, moth, you say inside your head. Blank, back slack, snigger.
Tonight, you’ll paint your naked nails red
The Turning of the Tide
They say nothing ever happens in this town, but I have been stuck here long enough to know that the wind is changing. The other night, a lost tourist wandered into my bar and the stench of seaweed flowed behind him like a mantle. He ranted and cried, drank his whiskey straight. Said he saw Tiamat herself rise from the foam and trash of incoming tide, said we should all be running for the hills. I poured him one on the house. Wrapping my tentacles around the oak barrels, I wonder if the wretch made it to high ground alive.
Thoughts while in Flight
One, we gazed together across the frozen lake. Two, he enfolded me in what felt like a spontaneous hug. Three, he hoisted me, swung me around and launched me over the ice.
Key insight: so this was the reason he’d been weight training, carb loading and downing protein powder shakes.
While airborne, I readied myself for a splintery crash and/or hypothermic depths. But maintaining the trajectory, I flexed my limbs to avoid cramp. And reconsidered my opinion of divorce, previously a no-no.
The only thing I regretted losing was a pink scarf my mum gave me, soft as a cloud.
You were tightly woven fingers and tangled limbs, sweat-moist skin pulling apart like velcro. You were chip salt kisses in an unmade bed, tequila worms and lukewarm beer, cold morning pizza and powdered ash dusted around a coffee cup. You were lipstick a shade too dark, casting your teeth into yellowed moonstone. You were a captivating shadow in billowing smoke, a herbal scent, primal and earthy, you were patchouli incense and pot pourri. You were wine bottle candle holders dripping sperm-like wax onto the scratched polish of an old coffee table.
You were all I tried to be. But wasn’t.
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