Winners: CIRCUS Themed Flash

Many thanks to our judge, Sherry Morris, for the brilliant prompt and for making the tough decision between the shortlisted stories; and well done to all our shortlisted writers. This is the first competition that features the new professional recording prize and you can now read and listen to the winning stories. The voice and sound artists have done a fantastic job!


  • An invitation arrives addressed to the woman in the ‘See Her Change From Beauty to Beast’ booth by Kinneson Lalor
  • Cirque de la Vie by Katherine Hetzel
  • Helen Joined the Circus by Tonia Markou
  • Inside the Magical World of Claudia Dawson by Denise Bayes
  • Like a kid in a candy store by Cheryl Markosky
  • Python Parlari by Kathy Hoyle
  • Russian Dolls by E. E. Rhodes
  • The Carousel by Andrea Stephenson
  • Tightwire by Ali McGrane
  • We all fall down, and get up again? by Katie Oliver

Retreat West Judge’s Report—Sherry Morris

I’d like to start by saying Thank you! to Amanda Saint and the Retreat West team for giving me the opportunity to choose the theme and select my favourite pieces in the latest quarterly contest. I couldn’t wait to see how writers handled the theme and I was not disappointed.

It was great fun to read this imaginative batch of shortlisted Circus stories and the variety was impressive. In addition to real circuses or aspects of them, there were metaphorical circuses that took place in supermarkets, classrooms, homes and brothels. A range of circus performers also made appearances. There were clowns and tightrope walkers, a spooky
carousel, trapeze artists and an enigmatic hooper. I really enjoyed the stories that portrayed people as animals.

I found it interesting that grief and regret were common themes. Many of the ten stories dealt with the loss of a sibling, baby or self. What struck me was that, regardless of subject matter or location, each piece had a turn of phrase, a line, or an image that ticked my ‘yes’ box—which made me think carefully about my top picks and read the stories over and over.

I applaud all the writers who submitted work and continue to be creative in these challenging times, and hope that the ones not published this time will be sent back out in the world to find homes. They all deserve them.

Right! It’s showtime, folks! On to the results! These are my top three circus stars.

First Prize: Python Parlari by Kathy Hoyle

What a deliciously dark and triumphant story! It was a firm favourite from my very first read. The writer seeds the story with strong word choices that underscore its darkness: the ‘desolate merry-go-round’, the ‘scent of congealed candy floss’, and the ‘dark mouth of the tent’ all work to show tone and mood. I was drawn in to this sinister circus life and delighted with its
perfect surprise ending. Python girl is the only girl in a man’s world, but don’t underestimate her—she is not a victim.

Each time I reached the end of the story, I let out a Hah! And then a Bwah-hah-hah. Just like the main character, this story shines like a gilded jewel and in its own way, is the most playful story of the bunch. An unexpected fun read that introduced me to the word parlari—which I’ve started researching.

Runner Up: The Carousel by Andrea Stephenson

What stood out for me in ‘The Carousel’ was mood. This story is eerie and creepy and it haunts me still. I shudder each time I read it. What this story also does well is create and build tension. From ‘When the animals started to go missing’ to the scene where we see ‘the platform was full,’ each paragraph ups the stakes. I love the collective we narrator and lines
like, ‘Ignoring the scratch of unease between our shoulder blades.’ The reader is left, like the we in the story, with no real answers, just a sense of dread ‘hovering at the edge of our dreams.

Runner Up: Cirque de la Vie by Katherine Heltzel

The structure of this piece is fabulous. It takes great skill to tell a story in only 266 words and those succinct headings make this piece stand out. Each one perfectly illustrates both circus and real life and I applaud (and envy) the writer’s cleverness. As I started the piece, I wondered how the writer would take me from Bat Out of Hell to the circus, but I needn’t have worried. This is a writer who is adept at craft—and has great musical taste to boot!

Many congratulations to Kathy, Andrea and Katherine!

The next themed flash competition judge is Ross Jeffrey and he’s chosen the theme THE UNCANNY. Deadline is 27th June so get writing!