Many thanks to our judge, Michael Conley, for picking this quarter’s winners from the excellent stories he was sent. Congratulations to our winners and to all who were shortlisted and longlisted in this round.

Judge’s Report

First of all, thank you to Retreat West for giving me the opportunity to judge these fantastic pieces.  

I’ve been at the disappointed end of enough shortlists to know that it’s never very much consolation when the judge says how difficult it was – but now at least I know it’s true!  I came back to all ten of these stories several times during the period I’d set myself to make the judgement, deliberately returning to them in different moods and different times of the day.   I found myself changing my mind about my top three quite often and I do feel that I saw the value in all of them – hopefully your appearance on the shortlist in the first place is enough to convince you to keep sending these out – I feel sure they all belong in print somewhere! 

I chose the theme of Amok because for a while it was the alternative working title of my own debut short story collection, Flare and Falter.  I was really interested to see what other writers would do with a theme that I tend to often explore myself.  I’ve always liked stories about chaos, where the normal rules of the world are suspended. The shortlisted entries interpreted the theme in different ways and I enjoyed the magic of Uniform, the strong sense of voice in Love Letter To Dr Burns, the passion of The Running, the bitter-sweetness of All At Sea, the bleakness of Twenty Golden Notebooks, the romance of Double Fisherman’s Knot and the surprising twist of My Procrastination.  Thank you for letting me read them.

First Place: Skimmed Milk by Emily Harrison

This piece jumped out to me the first time I sat down to read the entries, and remained with me each subsequent time.  I liked how subtly it related to the amok theme – all of the chaos had already happened, and this was all about aftermath, the hard business of taking responsibility, tidying up, making things as right as they can be.  The ending was a small ray of light out of the story’s dark murk: uplifting without being sentimental or trite.  Lennie’s choice felt inevitable but not predictable and I loved her for it. 

And the style too: spare and uncompromising.  That pigeon, ugh.  My favourite thing was the thread of metaphors running through the piece, showing us Lennie’s temptation to let loose and run amok herself – to make the easy choice of cruelty or indifference instead of compassion – ‘if Lennie had a barb wire mouth’, ‘if Lennie had a tar heart’, ‘if Lennie had dust for a spine’.  These little moments provided a structure for the piece but also kept reminding us of how hard it can be to do selfless things. Finally, I admired the restraint of not (fully) revealing what had happened to Lennie’s own daughter – this absence at the heart of the story gave it all the more power.  Congratulations on a brilliant story.

Runner Up: Alan, On His Birthday by Mikki Aronoff

I need to make sure this report isn’t longer than the story itself!  I loved the brevity – it was something that made the piece stand out from the others immediately, but it didn’t feel like a gimmick or like the story was unfinished.  I loved the direct engagement with ‘amok’ and the playfulness of your choice of beaver antagonists.  How did they get into the amusement park? Why did they run amok? What did that look like, exactly?  I love that you didn’t tell me.  The beavers were running amok and I believed you.  I loved the ending.  I love how inappropriately inadequate his mother’s reaction was to realising she’d swapped him.  Poor Alan, on his birthday. Or maybe not?

Runner-Up: Bulkheaded Dragons by Maria Thomas

This story crackled with energy.  The dragons in the sky managed to be believably real and also a metaphor, and I really enjoyed the lushness of the fantasy-genre descriptive language there.  The descriptions of Andy and Sophie felt like a natural extension of the dragon-weather, and I believed in the lust between them – such a difficult thing to do well, but you managed it through the heavy repetition and the simplicity of the verbs and adjectives.  The dragon-weather also worked as a backdrop for Danny’s murderous rage, which you picked up through the clever doubling of the basalt rock.  This was a really finely wrought piece which impressed me more each time I returned to it – the balance of the weather, the lovers and the murderer was like a finely-tuned machine.  

Well done to the winners!

The next and final deadline for this quarterly competition is 30th December and it’s an open theme – just send us your best! See all the info here.

2022 is the last year that we are running this competition. We are launching the WestWord journal and will open for submissions for the month of January 2023. The theme for this submission period is VISION. We want your best micros, flashes and short stories for our new publishing venture! Get all the submission info here.

Yellow Isn’t Really Her Colour

Jenna stands in front of the mirror; her body marked by a black Sharpie pen and knows things are going to be different next year. Lines where her belly fat creases and folds, rings around her double E boobs and the wedge of underarm fat. The part where her thighs rub together, the skin raw and shiny. She’d like to draw a circle around her moon face but its Sunday night and work tomorrow. 

Through the open window she can hear the drone of Asif’s computer monitors in the flat downstairs. The flicker of his screens reflected in the glass. He works 24/7 in  IT support for an airline. There will be an accident somewhere in the world he says, if he doesn’t respond. She wonders when he eats. 

Outside, Hackney High Street is alive with Christmas lights, Poundland tinsel and the smell of burnt meat. She thinks about Juicy Burger, the Turkey Flame Grilled Whopper, and the boy with the paper crown who always gives her an extra side. No she won’t fall into that trap tonight. 

Instead she scrolls through her Kendall Jenner Insta feed, new pics of her in a tight yellow bondage dress and killer heels, her body wrapped up like sausage skin. Jenna makes a mental note that yellow is the new black. Kendall’s abs look tight and toned. Her butt cheeks pert. Jenna’s already decided that she’ll treat herself to a copycat dress on Boohoo, with next-day postage she’ll be wearing it by tomorrow. 

She finds herself at the counter of the Shell petrol station. The light flickers amber, but it’s still gloomy inside. The guy behind the counter who smells of dope, never  looks up from his phone porn, so she pushes the family bags of crisps and tubes of Pringles into her carrier bag, adds a tub of Carte D’Or ice cream from the freezer. Jenna has a Shell Go+ rewards card but doesn’t own a car. 

On Monday morning, the girls at L.A. Wealth Management all look wrecked from the weekend and drink fizzy Berocca. The fake Christmas tree on her desk has fake presents underneath it. Jenna’s boss is out of the office so she takes a long mid-morning break sitting in the disabled toilet where she can spread her legs wide. She eats a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Salted Caramel, lets the soft chewy sweetness sit in her cheeks. There’s another bar waiting in the pocket of her handbag, and she licks at the melting chocolate, sucks the soft caramel. Afterwards Jenna pushes the wrappers into the flap of the sanitary bin. Makes a show of drinking black tea when she gets back to the office. 

There’s a message from Greta on her phone inviting her to stay for Christmas but she deletes it. Jenna and Greta were Guinea pig girls. They shared a love of the furry creatures and Curly Wurly’s. Best friends until Greta went to the local college for ‘A’ levels and got a boyfriend. After that Jenna spent all her time in her room, watching ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians,’ on endless repeat and Kendall became the best friend she never had. They both love fashion, make up and Teen Vogue. When Kendall posts pics to Instagram, Jenna knows she posts them for her.

‘We’re all going out for Christmas drinks on Friday,’ Charlotte-from-accounts says. ‘Why don’t you come with us after work?’  Charlotte doesn’t say Jenna’s name because she’s unsure if its Jen, Jenny, or Gemma. 

Her boss lands in the office at ten to five and hands Jenna a thick wad of papers. Charlotte has already gone Christmas shopping and asked her to finish off her monthly report. Once the office is empty, Jenna can relax. The Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars are in the bottom of her handbag: Caramel, Whole Nut, Popping Candy. But first she pops open days numbered 8-25 on the office chocolate advent calendar and pushes them into her mouth in one go. 

Its nearly nine when she gets home, and Asif is smoking in the courtyard. He hands  her a parcel. ‘You sure do like clothes,’ he says. ‘Something to wear for a party?’ Jenna doesn’t answer. She can’t wait to unwrap the yellow bondage dress, to drape it around her neck and photograph it in the mirror. She imagines Kendall blowing her a kiss as she steps out of a limo. Her toned stomach and lean legs. Afterwards Jenna hangs the dress up in the cramped spare room, the wardrobe doors heaving with dresses, tops and trousers, boob tubes and halter necks, all size 6. Kendall’s size.

At Christmas drinks, there aren’t enough chairs and Jenna perches on a stool at the end of the table near the kitchen extraction fan. The girl’s voices remind her of the high pitched squeals of Guinea pigs. It’s too late before Jenna realises that the girls have all ordered small plates and when her Spaghetti Carbonara and garlic bread arrives, they’ve all finished eating. The girls watch her as she pushes a forkful of food into her mouth, tries to swallow. The table erupts with shrieks of laughter. Charlotte says that they found the empty advent calendar and hundreds of chocolate wrappers stuffed in a filing cabinet at the office. That there must be a  . Dean from the post room polishes off her food after Jenna slips away. 

She can’t wait to get home, to draw lines with her Sharpie pen across her belly and thighs. She’ll step out of one body and into a new one in the New Year, which looks just like Kendall’s.

Asif is waiting outside the flat. His voice is soft when he says, ‘Hi Jenna, you look nice.’ She’s had a couple of glasses of wine and Jenna wants to tell him that yellow isn’t really her colour. That she’d really like him to come for Christmas dinner. 

This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins a ticket to our next Flash Fest

About the author: Helen Kennedy is a Mancunian writer who is just completing her MA in Creative Writing in Oxford. Her flash and short fiction has been shortlisted for the Bristol Prize in 2022 and the Cambridge prize in 2021 as well as being featured in Flashflood 2022.

The Yew’s Embrace

There was a man dwelt by a churchyard, cradled within a thick-trunked yew. Dawn-fluttering roused him, as berry-smitten birds searched for red treasures and, at night, the wind sang lullabies across the wrinkled bark. The trunk warmed his winter shivers and the quiver of tiny needles cooled his summer brow.

His had been an angry life: berating ‘unworthy’ congregations, belittling the ‘close-fisted’ poor, sending the fear of God through the wretched meek. His red-edged eyes brimmed with spite; his plump cheeks swelled with pride; the tendons in his neck strained to keep his self-righteous head upon its shoulders.

When Christmas approached his forty-sixth year, he spurned its advances. Alms for the poor were gathered, but he couldn’t bear to look upon the grimy faces that clamoured for such meagre offerings.

At the churchyard gate, that Christmas Eve, he spied a young boy clipping a branch from the great yew’s coat.

“Hoi hoi! What devil’s work is here?”

The boy cowered – the branch really no more than a twig in his frost-touched fingers. “Begging your pardon, sir, it is a gift for my mother to hang at the hearth. I have nothing else to offer.”

Grabbing the branch, the man dashed the boy to the ground. “There! That’ll teach yer to steal from the Lord!”

But, as he raised his fist to beat the unresponsive child, he felt a sharp pain in his palm. Turning, he found the foliage had enveloped his hand, and now his arm itself sprouted needles. In confusion, he plucked the leaflets from his skin, but in their place, beads of blood formed bright red berries. 

When at last the boy revived, he found himself alone in the yew tree’s shadow.

The man still dwells by the churchyard – forever in the dark embrace of the tree. At Christmas, the children of the village cut small branches to hang above their hearths. They wonder at the rich red berries gleaming in the candlelight, and at the power and the danger they possess. 

And, later, when all candles are snuffed out, some say they hear weeping in the darkness.

This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins 6 Retreat West ebooks

About the author: Jen Rowe is an actor, improviser and writer. She lives in Sussex with her husband and, as yet, no dog.

Wrong Christmas

The preparations, she decided, were disappointing.  The wilting tree, tired in the humid degrees, sat limp under the scarce weight of the few chipped baubles and strings of balding tinsel, lack lustre in the hard, high December sun.

Determined, despite her parent’s disinterest, she carefully creased and folded tinfoil over cardboard stars, cut sharp spirals from milk bottle tops (poorly rinsed, homogenised) and liberally scattered glitter and glue.  

Still dissatisfied, she spent three dollars of hard-earned pocket money. Money earned by mowing half an acre of fast-growing lawn, ripe with dog shit. And on washing and wiping the dishes after tea, tying, and carrying the bleeding rubbish sacks down the long drive, past the bee buzzing bottle brushes and the flower beds she weeded of oxalis bulbs.  And on walking the dog and vacuuming his hair, to stop the yellow nylon carpet from hopping with fleas.

She spent three dollars on a golden, concertinaed banner.  ‘MERRY XMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR’ it shouted in brassy brilliance.  She stabbed it to the wall with blue plastic-coated pins.  It sagged, hung long like the tired summer afternoon, the macrocarpa resin, sticky on the air.

She yearned for snow and a buttoned-up coat.  Ice and fires and toast and candles.  The dawdling dusk emergence of twinkling lights, slow blooming, instead of the sudden death of sub-tropical nightfall, the needle pricking of sunburn, the persistent whine of mosquitoes.

Her family were indifferent to her efforts though her mother scolded her for wasting wrapping paper on empty boxes and cartons.  Told her she was greedy to imagine piles of presents. Think of the poor children who go without, she said.  

At the beach she made a snowman.  Piling damp sand into a heap and shaping it round and round again with her hands.  She used cockles for the eyes and a long pink turritella for the nose.  She stood back to appraise it. 

 Her brother stood by her; arms folded across his broadening chest.  He took off his sunnies and placed them over the cockle shell eyes.  He wedged his jandals at the curving bottom base, arranging them for nonchalance, one foot stepping forward, the other turned to the side.  He crowned the snow man with his sun hat, stuck a smoke in its mouth and stepped back alongside her.  

“That’s better I reckon,” he said.

She looked for a while at her sandy snowman, squat against the blue incoming tide.  

“Yeah.  Yeah, you’re right.  It’s a shit load better,” she said.

This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins an email course of choice

About the author: Emily Macdonald was born in England but grew up in New Zealand. Fascinated by wine as a student, she has worked in the wine trade ever since. Now freelance, she writes short stories and flash. In writing and in wines she likes variety, persistence, and enough acidity to add bite.

Thou Art My Choice

As I thread ivy through the spinning-wheel, my thoughts drift again. His hand in mine, would it feel warm. His arms around my waist, would they feel strong. His lips upon mine, would they feel like wool. Snow is fluttering against the shutters; a harsh Yuletide draft is pushing beneath the door. I pull my shawl tighter around my shoulders.

The idle wheel, bedecked with greenery, allows us time to breathe before Twelfth Night. But this winter, I’m being pressed like dough. Nearly a whole year that Thomas has not made his intentions known. “You can’t stay in this house forever, Anne,” my mother had said, patting her swelling belly. Her seventh child is due and I, the eldest, need to move on. Marriage. Marriage or take my vows. “You’ve not grace enough to charm a village boy. Take yourself to St. Winifred’s, girl, before the next harvest.”

Thomas is my calling; of that I know. Like the early lark, it greets me each day as I wake. I’d first seen him at the well, muscles pulled taut with hauling a pail. As the months passed, our ways crossed more and more. After morning service, families lingered; we found a means to exchange pleasantries. Only, I never knew if the dance in my heart was mine alone.

“Anne! We need more wood fetching,” my mother calls from the kitchen. Distracted by tapping on the shutters, I peep out, see a gloved hand beckoning. I glance at my brothers, but they’re playing well enough. My sister, asleep in her crib by the fire, her holly-berry mouth puckered. I’m gone before she can ask again.

“Thomas!” I clamp my hand over my mouth.

“Sshhh!” He takes my arm, and we hurry away, boots stamping a dual path through the snow. 

“But where…?”

He leads me to a shrine, a simple alcove sheltering a bowing angel. Her stone eyes, downcast to her bare feet. “This belongs to St. Winifred’s, does it not?” I stifle a smile; he raises an eyebrow. “What of it, Anne? I just wanted us to be away, at last.”

“Well, it’s a lovely place, but…” He’s beaming at me and further words catch in my throat like snagged yarn.

Thomas holds out a posy ring, golden as sunrise. ‘Of Earthly joys thou art my choice,’ he says, slanting it to reveal etched words. Taking my hand, he glides it onto my finger. His arms around my waist, strong as pillars. “I wanted to see you smile like this, all these days.” Fresh snow is settling on us, thicker and thicker. He brushes a flake from my nose; I giggle like evensong. He kisses me then, and it’s not like I imagined, but velvet in place of wool. “Shall we wed in Spring?”

“As soon as the new shoots appear,” I reply, thinking of mother’s ugly, bulging middle. I will drop my ‘grace’ on her like a stone upon a toe. The rosemary garlands will shrivel, the bay leaves dry and curl. The promised scent of Spring will fade like our tracks through the snow. I won’t be there to dress the Yuletide house again.

“I’ll relish Christmas more than ever, my love,” he says, gathering me in a snow-swirl spin, a dance of us both. The bell of St. Winifred’s peals the hour and I laugh, high and clear, as new falling flakes conceal us from the world.

This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins tickets to 5 Zoom workshops in 2023

About the author: Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. Her first novella-in-flash was longlisted in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award 2022. Over the past four years, her work has been widely published in online journals and print anthologies. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.

The Santas

     A tiny Santa writhed on the floor, rustling its tinsel nest as it squealed its Christmas Eve agonies.

     “Josh,” Maureen whispered, “see what the Santa’s bringing you!”

     Her son gripped the controller tightly, eyes set on his PS35.    “Mum! Shhh!” 

     His screen beamed, Congratulations! Level 3! As he thumbed the middle button in just the same way he’d done a thousand times before. 

     Behind him, the foot-long pudgy-pink Santa, partially clothed in its red woollen coat, grunted and strained.

     “Come on love, it’s tradition.” Maureen squeezed Josh’s shoulder and stepped back, as though he were a particularly venomous snake. She wore a reindeer jumper whose nose no longer lit up since her son had purloined the battery for his headset weeks before. 

     Josh flinched at her touch, but deigned to glance over just as the Santa went rigid and something grew with unnatural speed in its belly. It hoo-ed and haa-ed, it’s little face scrunching with effort.

     Josh rolled his eyes and returned to ‘Insect Wars II’.

     The Santa made a noise like a rutting deer and Maureen sighed. “It’ll be dead in a few hours, love. You can play your game later.”

     A high-pitched ‘whooooo!?’ shot from the Santa’s nest.

     Josh eviscerated a giant cockroach with his Deathsabre and his avatar ascended to level 4. “I’m busy!”

     On the carpet, the smooth corners of something cube-like stretched the limits of the Santa’s stomach. Its tiny hands pushed desperately at the expanding object, forcing it down from under its ribs and towards its Present Sphincter. The scream rattled the ill-fitting windows of their small terraced house.

     “Aaah!” Maureen cooed. “The Magic of Christmas. Look, Joshy, it’s a big one!”

     Josh cursed as his avatar was eaten by a Dreg-muncher, but he turned to look all the same. The square package, recently ejected from the Santa’s lower orifice, lay drying in a puddle of gelatinous pink goo. It glistened next to the panting Santa who, even now, was staring with a mixture of horror and fascination as a new gift started to form in it’s miniscule gut.

     Mother read the label: 

“Have a great Christmas, Josh! Love Santa.”

     “Gross.” Josh waited for the present to dry then, picking it up between finger and thumb, tossed it under the tree with the others. Twelve presents glimmered against the fairy-lights. 

     He returned to the screen, as the Santa started squealing once more.

     Maureen returned to the solace of her room. She didn’t bother turning on the light, but sat in the darkness and thought of her own – happier – childhood christmases. 

     ‘Santa gives its life for us and every year the same,

If Santa doesn’t visit, then there’s only you to blame,’

She remembered her mother teaching her that rhyme when she was barely four. You had to want a Santa to come, or it wouldn’t climb out of its burrow. You had to keep traditions alive, her mother said. 

     But what had become of tradition? The turkey worship, the December fir tree hunts, the shaming of the virgins? These days, you could barely tell it was the festive season – children got presents whether they had a Santa or not, and she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had been divorced under the mistletoe.

     A blood-curdling scream rattled through the house.

     She smiled. At least you could rely on the Santas. They still crept out of the mud on Christmas eve, they still blinked wide-eyed into their one day lifecycle.


     She sighed, stood up and went back to the living room.

     “It’s gone wrong.” Josh didn’t look up, simply shrugged one shoulder towards the Santa. “It spoke.”

     Maureen laughed. “Don’t be silly, love, they don’t -”

     “Make stop!” A rasping voice whispered up at her.


     “But they can’t -”

     “Please, make stop.”

     “Yeah,” Josh mimicked, “make stop, make the stupid Santa stop talking.”

     Maureen stared in disbelief. “But Santas don’t…, they just… Santas don’t…” She peered into the tinsel nest now sweaty with blood and goo. The Santa lay panting, beaded in sweat, yet another present forming under its skin. It’s eyes were red; were those tears? As she leaned over, it peered up and reached out a tiny hand.

     “Help Santa?”

     Those eyes, they were so soft, so appealing.

     “Help?” She reached in and wiped its brow with her finger.

     “Oh for…” Josh ripped the cord out of the wall and snatched up his games system. “If you’re going to keep talking I’m going!” And he flounced out, kicking a present at the wall.

     “Food.” The Santa’s little hand grasped at the air.

     “Santa’s don’t… eat. You, you’re full of presents.”

     “Give food, we stop. Bread. Pleeeeaaase. Aaagh!” The next present was still growing. “Noooo!!!”

     Mother ran into the kitchen and flung open cupboards, the larder, the fridge. Santas could feel?? It was too horrible to contemplate. She threw things onto a plate – tomatoes, bread, cheese – and started out of the door. In the distance she could hear ‘bread, bread, hurry…’. She faltered. 

     Christmas morning, was just the same as always. Mother woke early, freed the fairies from the fairy-lights, gutted the pudding and, at ten o’clock, she buried the remains of the Santa in the garden. As usual, it’s little body had exploded with the pressure of bigger and bigger presents. 

     It’s tradition, she had told herself as she collected the bits of body that had flown farther afield. It’s tradition.

     She said it once more when Easter approached – as she stuffed eggs into the bunny and prepared the guest room for any dead relatives who rose again; on Mayday she mumbled it into her chest as they prepared to hang the pleading Morris Dancers; by Hallowe’en she could barely whisper it, as she rampaged through the graveyards with the screaming townsfolk.

     As Christmas eve came round again, the house remained undecorated. She left Josh to his video games, filled a plate with food, and waited in the garden for the Santa to emerge. 

This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins a 1-year Community Collaborator membership

About the author: Jen Rowe lives in Hassocks with her husband. She writes, teaches improvised comedy and is occasionally allowed on stage.