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2016 Competition Winners
2016 Winning Entries
First Prize, Best Short Story
By Joao Rousa
Meal times are the kindest clocks. They divide the day, help keep us focused. We are fed two times a day and each one of us can’t wait to get our plate, even though the taste of the food leaves much to be desired. How I long for a thick juicy steak!
Anyway, let me introduce myself. I’m Benny, as the name and picture on my ‘room’ door states. Of course, it’s really just an extra-big cage. I’ve been here 2 years now and I’m not sure when I’m getting out.
Right opposite used to be my palaces room, he got out yesterday, lucky geezer. Now a new ones in there, pining away. His cheap coat looks like its been through plenty of homeless nights. When exercise time comes he’s going to wish he died younger than he is now. Just look at those eyes!
We’ve all been through pain, both outside and in here: betrayed, made to fight for our lives, chased down like monsters, kicked down and called names until nothing seems to matter. Sleep away your days, I try to tell him. Because in here sleep is the only escape.
When I dream I am always running, from what, I can never remember. There are trees and fields, mountains and rivers. I can taste the air, so fresh and cool, carrying with it the many scents of life. They say we are descended from a simpler race, no, a stronger and more noble tribe. Some of the ones here bear their features: a proud brow, piercing brown eyes, strong legs, chest and shoulders. They walk more slowly, pacing their rooms night and day, perhaps dreaming the same dreams. Running.
A bell sounds. Here it is: exercise time. The new one looks up. I don’t bother smiling.
One by one, the doors open. The guard on duty today never says anything but bad words. He’s the sort that finds power and strength only in attacking those who can’t fight back, and if they do well, lets just say things can get a lot worse.
Out into the sun, across the pavement, onto the grass, in a rush and swirl of bodies and faces. The fence keeps us from going very far. I look around and see the familiar gangs getting together, playing their dim-witted games. My spot, as always, remains unoccupied. It’s in the shade, out of the way. This is where I sit and watch and wait.
The newcomer zooms out, his head low. One look at the main gang seals his fate. They close in, faces fixed in the same twisted snarls. I blink and he’s down. After about half a minute they let him be. Probably in his toes that seemed more like a day. Coat torn, blood streaking his nose, he looks even worse than before. And he’s slinking over in my direction.
I consider flashing the evil smile that ensures I’m left alone, but his eyes make me reconsider. He sits nearby, licking his wounds. He’s a runt, a weakling; how he had the guts to stare at one of the Bigs is beyond me. Still, he’s learnt now. In here we all learn the hard way.
In my younger days I used to fight with the best of them. I used to roll in fields of gold, ruling a kingdom that seemed everlasting. No one dared look into my eyes, for fear of the fire that burned within. I was an athlete, an expert at pleasing who needed to be pleased.
That’s all gone now. I’ve got nothing to show for my former wealth, all my friends have left, even my family have disowned me. All for being too stupid and too proud.
Let me tell you another thing about this place. After a while, for the long-termers who no longer have any place in society, you are led away by ghosts. Not to freedom but to death. Yes, and Benny’s time is coming soon. Part of me wants it, and yet a part of me doesn’t.
Exercise time is over. Back to my cage.
I sit, watch, yawn, sleep.
Again the snowy fields stretch away to a setting sun. Running. I feel the others beside me, breathing hard, hearts pumping in synchrony, legs kicking white. We can sing to the moon, if only to catch the echoes of tomorrow. Something lies ahead; nothing lies behind. There is
More noise. It’s particularly vigorous this time, which can only mean one thing, a visitor has arrived.
I can see her now as I can’t refrain from joining the cacophony. She’s got long auburn hair, a kind face. I can’t believe she’s looking at me, can barely contain my excitement.
That ones got a history, as the stupid guard beside her says, it’s been here too long.
She smiles at me “Oh please let it be so”.
I’ll take him, she says, if only to make him happy.
Yes, yes, yes!
Are you sure? There’s a better Retriever over here.
No. I’m certain.
* * *
Out of the cage, along the corridor, enduring the envy of his former companions, Benny leaves for good. The woman beside him strokes his coat and says good words. He is happier than he can ever remember, with a great big doggy smile that will last the rest of his days.
Second Prize, Best Short Story
By Laura Cao
The train was already packed when I boarded. Hot and sweaty bodies were at every corner of Carriage 12, the air inside was damp and humid even though almost all the windows were open. Still, it was better than the 33-degree scorching heat outside. Who knew the weather in July could be this oven-like, especially as it’s England? I hurried forward, phone and ticket in one hand and a small travelling bag in the other. Thank goodness I had a sitting ticket! I would never be able to last standing for the whole journey home, which was five long and tiring hours.
Pushing past a crowd of chatting ladies, I found my seat, stuffed my bag into the overhead storage unit and plonked down on the soft fabric, giving a contented sigh. I was absolutely exhausted, having just taken a two-hour bus ride to the station and been in line for the train for what seemed like hours. Turning on my phone, I texted my best friend.
On the train! So tired, can’t wait to get home x
I watched the other passengers as we all waited for the train to leave the platform. Beside me was a burly man, most likely in his mid-forties, tucking into a huge chicken salad sandwich dripping with ketchup and what looked like mayonnaise or cheese sauce. Next to the wrapper was a large container holding a sizeable portion of rich and creamy chocolate cake. A few other passengers gave him looks of disgust but he was completely oblivious to their stares. He saw me eyeing the cake, though, and pulled it towards himself protectively.
Opposite me, separated by a small wooden foldup table, was a woman engrossed in the book she was reading. Maybe also in her mid-forties, she looked like those posh people probably still stuck in the early twentieth century, with immaculate hair tucked under a vintage hat and wearing a long floral dress. Next to her sat an elderly man with snowy hair and soft wrinkled skin. He was asleep and snoring softly, head leaning against the window.
I leaned back on my seat, closing my eyes. I was finally going home for the holidays. Being a first year student at university money didn’t come very easily so I was forced to work the night shift at a local diner, a job I will be ecstatic to quit. It was tiring work and had a meagre salary.
Sorry! Sorry, excuse me. Sorry, sorry. I opened my eyes to see a blustering woman stumbling down the aisle of the carriage. With two big suitcases by her side, a handbag and a cup of coffee, she was bumping into every possible person she could while apologizing profusely.
Bloody hell, I thought to myself. What a klutz.
Pillock, Sandwich Guy mumbled beside me while chewing vigorously, globs of god-knows-what-sauce dribbling down from the corners of him mouth. I was confused as to what he meant so I did a quick search on Google: Pillock, a stupid person.
How mean. But also true.
The carriage doors closed and the train lurched suddenly. Pillock stumbled forwards and some of her steaming coffee spilt onto the table in from of me and leaked over onto my phone. I pulled it back in horror.
Oh my god, I am so sorry! She exclaimed. She tried to dab the coffee from the table and my phone but backed away when I gave her a dirty stare, a warning to stay away. Fumbling through the back pocket of my jeans I managed to find a piece of clean tissue and began scrubbing furiously. Those kind of people irritated me a lot, the ones who were unorganised and unprepared and caused trouble for other people. I glanced at Pillock again. She was trying to lift both her suitcases up to the overhead storage, grunting and gasping as she pushed them inside. No one was making any move to help her, everyone was probably still huffy about their toes being squashed flat under the weight of her luggage.
After her cases eventually made it into storage, she gave a sigh of relief, took a look at her ticket and stood still for the first time after boarding the train. The intercom then sounded, Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Chiltern Railways. Please have your tickets ready for our ticket attendants who will be coming over to check them shortly. Have a great journey and thank you for travelling with Chiltern Railways.
Ticket in hand, I waited for the attendant to reach Carriage 12. A soft buzz of conversation spread throughout the second-class coach as everyone scrabbled around for their own tickets. The Elderly Man was also awake and was searching feebly for his own ticket. He gave weak grunts here and there as he did so, prompting Twentieth Century Woman to offer her assistance, which he gladly accepted. Sandwich Guy was now tucking into his massive slab of cake, giving me suspicious glances once every now and then.
There was a hushed, indistinct murmur from everyone as the ticketing attendant arrived. I wanted to be over with it as soon as possible, I was very tired and sleepy and I could fall asleep as soon as I closed my eyes. Hopefully Pillock or Sandwich Guy wouldn’t interrupt me. Elderly Man fell asleep again and Twentieth Century Woman’s head was stuck back into her book. I looked up at Pillock, sandwiched between a young woman and a tall framed man, both who had their backs to her. She shifted from one foot to the other, looking uncomfortable. I felt a bit sorry for her since her suitcases did all look really heavy.
Ma’am, can I see your ticket please? Pillock turned around to face the ticket attendant. Oh yes, here. The attendant took a look. Ma’am, do you know you have a sitting ticket? 29. That was where Elderly Man was sitting.
Oh yes, Pillock replied. She lowered her voice a bit. I just thought that the old man looked very tired, he probably won’tbe able to stand the whole way so I let him sleep there. It’s okay, I can stand. Healthy as a horse, I am. The attendant smiled and moved on. Twentieth Century Woman handed in her ticket swiftly without even looking up from her book. Elderly Man woke up and gave his too.
I have a standing ticket, he told the attendant in a gentle, wheezy voice. I’m just sitting here to rest for a moment, when the person comes I’ll give the seat to them.
I gave mine and Sandwich Guy also handed in his chocolate-and-ketchup-stained ticket.
I was surprised, frankly. About Pillock, I mean. I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover right? What made me feel so guilty is that I myself probably wouldn’t have given that old man my seat, I would’ve just thought about my own needs.
I nudged Pillock. Hey, I smiled, if you get too tired you can sit here for a while. She looked surprised. Oh no dear, that’s fine, she said, chuckling. I stood up. No, I insist.
She beamed at me broadly and sat down. We introduced ourselves and started chatting.
Meanwhile Sandwich Man rummaged through his travel bag, took out a bumper pack of crisps and started munching. The noise of his loud, crunching chewing and appreciative murmuring filled the whole of Carriage 12.
Third Prize, Best Short Story
By Anita Russell
How could he grip the wheel so lightly, yet still be able to see into the mist that haunted us? Whenever I felt threatened, whether in times of strife or uncertainty, my grip involuntarily tightened. It was an inherited instinct, perhaps a genetic one, but it entirely escaped his behaviour, as if he was more relaxed in danger. Maybe there was some internal battle raging inside that calm exterior, or maybe it was just that bottle he thought I did not know about, stashed beneath the seat.
[Anita’s story is too long to include here but we invite all those wishing to see the full version to email: email@example.com to receive a free copy]