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First place: Twenty-one Species of Fish Called Sardine by Rosaleen Lynch

Mam wants a mermaid instead of me and though I slip out of her like a fish in the birthing pool on a rainy day, I have no tail or scales, and I do not smell of the sea, and when Pa tries to give her this squalling too-many-limbed me, she tells him ‘Some cactuses don’t grow towards the light,’ but she doesn’t mind when I’m swaddled and even though she’s not got baby shoes or any clothes with legs, she does not go out to buy them and keeps me zipped up like a clam in sleeping-bag suits or wraps me in layers of long seaweed coloured shifts and smocks she ties with twine, and tells me ‘Scales are like if cactus spines were flat, or umbrellas closed when there’s no rain,’ and she does not encourage me to walk, so I sit with her as she tells me of her dream of Pa and her dancing on the boardwalk at Coney Island and she sings, ‘Somewhere beyond the sea…’ or I lie on my back or belly to slide across the floor, legs lost in the folds that follow, or I ride on Pa’s old skateboard with the scull and crossbones, a knot to stop hems getting caught, and I sail out the back door and down the garden path, like a minnow on a stream, and she calls me Guppy, Betta, or Angelfish and when she’s angry Sprat, and when the time comes for me to start nursery she puts it off, saying she doesn’t want to be left like a lone cactus on a dessert shore, me gone in the morning, Pa gone to security work at night and asleep in the day, until he comes to say goodbye to me out back, and stands in sunlight at the garden fence, hand over one eye to see, turning it into a telescope, to say ‘I spy a mermaid swimming in the bluebell sea,’ a bottle hanging from his other hand, uisce beatha, the water of life, company on the boat at night, that harbours the pirate radio-station, that Mam listens to, out of reach of the Gardai, the guardians of the peace, and when Pa’s gone Mam goes on the phone, requesting songs, laughing like she’s never done with Pa and waves from the bedroom window, the mermaid tail cactus he gave her on the sill and she looks past the field I’m in and down the hill to the sea, and the wind picks up, the net curtains fill like sail, and the air carries words of hers, like ‘freedom’, ‘escape’ and ‘yes’ and the wind vane turns and the white net curtain with it, to slap across Mam’s body and shroud her face, a ghost now standing in the window, as if all that’s left of her is the mermaid tail, and as I watch, I feel the bluebell sap stick my toes together, and I lie back in the grass and by my face in the bluebell sky hangs the first moon daisy which I pick and pluck the petals from to confirm I should spend that summer, weaving a mermaids tail from dried seaweed, seagrass, long grass and weeds to hide in the shed, to show Mam when we come home, from her first day of work and mine of school, where I spend the hours kicking off my shoes, the teacher complaining about spills and falls and other children copying me, until the floor is littered with shoes and he tells me to pick up every one and return them, and I do, to the fish tank that has lost its fish and watch the shoes swim, laces flailing in the bubbles coming from the fake plastic treasure chest, and Mam has to come from the canning factory to pick me up, smelling of sardines and oil, and says, ‘There are twenty-one species of fish called sardine,’ and asks why can’t I be one, as she lifts me up from the chair I was told to wait on, wrapping my duffle coat round my bare legs and feet, as she takes me to the car, and says, ‘The sea urchin cactus only wakes at sunset,’ and straps me in the front passenger seat and we drive, I can’t see where, but it’s not home, and the radio plays ‘This is the sea’ by the Water Boys and I fall asleep and wake in quiet until Mam’s car door opens to let in the sound of the seagulls and sea and closes, and I slip out of the seat belt and up on my knees to lean on the warm dashboard, and watch through the windscreen, what she calls cactus clouds with little pricks of rain, roll in, as she disappears as if she was never there, into the sea, the rain making the glass between us a blur, and I switch on the radio, the orange light of the dial like a little sunset in the dark of the car and I remember the sea urchin cactus Mam said only woke at sunset as I listen to the presenter announce a special request, from The Last Pirate to his treasures at home and ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ plays and dovetails into the traditional Irish song, ‘Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile’, O row, you are welcome home, making my neck prickle, and still leaning on the now cold dashboard, the skin on my arms goose-pimples and my legs go numb, as I wait for Mam to come out of the sea.  


I found this piece outstanding. The final image of the child at the ‘now cold dashboard’ stayed with me – I loved the push of the pace, the lyrical language and structure, the child’s view layered over the lives of the parents; the way the mother’s condition surfaces almost as though it were revealed by the sea, with intricate, telling detail. A rhythm and crescendo that felt like a sea-swept dirge.

Catherine McNamara

The voice is immediate and intimate. The language is lush. The pace is breathless. It rewards re-reading.

Adam Lowe

Wonderfully poetic and evocative and with great detail and atmosphere.  Strong voice and emotional resonance.

Dr Clare Morgan

Rosaleen Lynch is an Irish community worker and writer in the East End of London with words in lots of lovely places and can be found on Twitter @quotes_52 and 52Quotes.blogspot.com. 

 

Featured

The 2021 summer short-list

We are thrilled to announce our short-list for the summer Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021.

Congratulations to all of the authors who reached the list. If your story is listed, please do not identify which story belongs to you, as the judges are hard at work making their decisions. We will be contacting you soon regarding our end of year anthology.

SHORTLISTED STORIES

A Migration by Lydia Benson

All the times we could have eaten fish together by Ruth Bradshaw

Cliff walking by Barnaby Davis

Convalescence by Matthew Tucker

Dandelion & the trapeze event by Niamh MacCabe

Dog on balcony. No dog on balcony by Philip Carter

Every time I smell pineapple grilling by Brittany Terwilliger

Ice finger by Julie Evans

Masquerade Sarah Martin

Now you don’t Hazel Osmond

Profit and loss by Kevin Cheeseman

The wish by Kevin West

The wolf and the deer by Lucas Cammack

The Hornbeam’s lament by Helen Williams

The magical white canvas shoes by Gayathiri Dhevi Appathurai

Twenty-one species of fish called Sardine by Rosaleen Lynch

Two sugars by Audrey Niven

Was you going somewhere nice? by Anthony Cartwright

When the Monster is Hungry by Holly Kybett-Smith

Whiskey to milk by Tracey-anne Plater

Soon we will be announcing those behind the shortlist and longlist, and the winners!

Our next competition will be opening on the 1 November 2021. So if you don’t find yourself on this list, we hope you’ll try again in our next competition and keep crafting your gems.

Featured

The 2021 summer long-list

We are thrilled to announce our long-list for the summer Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021.

Congratulations to all of the authors who reached the list and for all those who entered this round. We saw a wonderful range of genres, topics and stories from all over the world and it was hugely competitive. Many wonderful stories just missed the final list. 

If your story is listed, please do not identify which story belongs to you, as the judges are hard at work making their decisions. We will be contacting you soon regarding our end of year anthology.

LONGLISTED STORIES

A Migration by Lydia Benson

All the times we could have eaten fish together by Ruth Bradshaw

Beauty by Georgia Cook

Blue by John Barron

Cliff walking by Barnaby Davis

Corvid epidemic cure by Sharon Boyle

Dandelion & the trapeze event by Niamh MacCabe

Dog on balcony. No dog on balcony by Philip Carter

Every time I smell pineapple grilling by Brittany Terwilliger

Where the happiness goes by Paddy McKenna

Ice finger by Julie Evans

Masquerade Sarah Martin

Mothers’ ruin by Yvonne Clarke

Now you don’t Hazel Osmond

Convalescence by Matthew Tucker

Profit and loss by Kevin Cheeseman

Rules for boys at play by Erik Wijkström

The favourite place G.A Wolf

The wish by Kevin West

The wolf and the deer by Lucas Cammack

The Hornbeam’s lament by Helen Williams

The magical white canvas shoes by Gayathiri Dhevi Appathurai

The twelve days of Christmas by David McVey

The workday by Brian Gully

Twenty-one species of fish called Sardine by Rosaleen Lynch

Two sugars by Audrey Niven

Was you going somewhere nice? by Anthony Cartwright

What goes around by David Lewis

Touch me again before I die by David Lewis

When the Monster is Hungry by Holly Kybett-Smith

Whiskey to milk by Tracey-anne Plater

In the next few weeks, we will be announcing our shortlist and then our winners.

So watch this space! 

Our next competition will be opening on the 1 November 2021. So if you don’t find yourself on this list, we hope you’ll try again in our next competition and keep crafting your gems.

Featured

Scar Tissue: Interview with competition judge Dr Clare Morgan

I was brought up in a passionate family, larger than life. There are positives and negatives in this, but passion and love in all its forms is something that has always fascinated me. My short story collection ‘An affair of the Heart’ looks to examine those topics in detail. My father was a talented musician, and a lover of poetry. My mother wrote short stories, and so I grew up surrounded by creativity. I was lucky to have had stories and poetry read to me, and songs sung to me, from an early age. 

I love to explore what motivates and drives another person. I was quite a shy child, so writing has always allowed me to explore other people’s narratives and uncover truths indirectly. I’ve travelled a lot and worked with poetry and people internationally, from UK to US to Tokyo and beyond, so have met a whole range of people who have inspired my writing and how I think about the world. 

Each story in An Affair of the Heart questions the apparently romantic title through its exploration of the enigmatic state of mind known as love. Desire and identity; displacement, emotional and geographical; the relationship between ambition, circumstances and emotion; the often difficult coexistence of passion and intellect; these are the subjects of the fifteen fascinating narratives.

Men and women reckon the worth of relationships past and present, from steamy New Orleans to urbane Paris, from metropolitan Chelsea to the industrial valleys and rural hinterlands of Wales. Frank and delicate, revelatory and secret Clare Morgan’s stories offer insights into human nature which are in turn punchily realistic and suggestively questioning.

Place is fundamental to who and what I am. It was a defining feature as I grew up in the Welsh countryside and remains so. Place to me is about belonging, or the absence of belonging. It has always been interlinked with history and time, and family in complex ways. This is an important part of my next collection ‘Scar Tissue’ coming out in September 2022. The book has five sections: Space; Home; Away; Nowhere; and Somewhere. Like scar tissue in the flesh, it looks at where things divided and where – and if – they have grown back together. It looks at what is and what might have been.

You can turn a story over, a bit like a diamond,

and it catches the light in different ways.

Dr Clare Morgan

I love short fiction and how you can turn a story over a bit like a diamond, and it catches the light in different ways. It reflects so many truths at once, endlessly revealing to us something about ourselves and humanity. You can see the light shine off it from a variety of angles, giving different perspectives. But it’s important not to spell out too much, and to ensure that you leave room for the reader to undertake their own exploration. You need to give readers room to bring their own experiences, and not tell them what to think. 

Flash fiction is a challenging form. It needs a narrative drive along with an emotional resonance, intensely compressed. Every word counts and must carry appropriate weight. What doesn’t happen, and what isn’t said, has incredible importance. That seems to me to be a kind of truth to life too. The spaces and gaps, the questions we are left with. It’s how I experience the world and how I write about it. It also provides that much-needed resonance, which is a vital ingredient in short fiction.

As a writer and academic, I’m passionate about developing writers to express their own unique voice. The Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford, which I founded 16 years ago, has a global constituency. The range of people and experiences it attracts provides an enriching environment in which to learn as a writer and a reader. It’s vital that we encourage writers to develop their individual writerly voice, instead of trying to enforce some kind of market-driven conformity, which risks everyone sounding the same. Voice is crucial in fiction, and is something I shall enjoy looking out for when judging the competition. 

Good luck to everyone who entered!

Clare Morgan is a fiction writer and literary critic. Her most recent novel, A Book for All and None was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and shortlisted for the Author’s Club best novel award. Her short story collection An Affair of the Heart was published by Seren, and her new collection, Scar Tissue, is forthcoming with Seren in 2022. 

Her stories have been widely anthologized and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her book What Poetry Brings to Business was published by University of Michigan Press and her recent writing on the subject has featured in the Wall Street Journal, FastCompany, and Humanizing Business (Springer, 2021). She is founder and director of Oxford University’s creative writing programme and a Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford.


Featured

Primal Flash Fiction: Interview with competition judge Catherine McNamara

It’s very hard to write about happiness and much easier to write about loss (though I realise not everyone would agree). My collection ‘Love Stories for Hectic People’ started with the story ‘As Simple as Water’, which was probably the first true flash piece I ever wrote. I was facing a long difficult winter, so I decided that it would be the first note of a collection about all types of love – flawed, impulsive, enduring, jagged. The stories just tumbled out and I took inspiration from everywhere. 

For me, place is almost like a character, and can serve to bring the reader within the story, to give a sense of escape or enquiry. I’ve moved around a lot so location seeps into my work, but I’m very aware that use of place has to serve the story, not just be a colourful backdrop. It’s very hard to write anything original set in Venice, for example, so the story has to have legs; and though I lived for years in West Africa I am not from there, so place has to be used with awareness and respect – it has to be an authentic story and not just a telling. Displacement and movement are central to my work and have given me the slight remove that can help a writer observe and spin ideas.

For me, the excitement truly lies in the creation of characters I try to become, to enter their mindset and express their thoughts. I am forever listening to people and their stories, so watch out! 

The thirty-three flash fictions of Love Stories for Hectic People explore the alignment of beings that is love. There is love that is vulgar, love that knows no reason; there is love that cradles the act of living, love that springs through the cracks; love that is slaughtered.

These tales take place from Italy to Ghana to Greece and London and Tokyo, in grainy cities and muted hotel rooms; there is a Mafia murder, an ambulance rescue worker and a woman whose husband falls off a mountain. There is unchaste attraction and slippery, nuanced love; police violence and porn, and fishing too.

Winner of the Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection 2021

I live in a hard-won and stimulating environment in the countryside in north-eastern Italy. The house was a neglected unheated farmer’s house when we bought it. The area is damp and foggy in winter, with almost tropical humidity in the summer, so my writing zone shifts around the house according to the temperature. I used to have an art galley in Ghana so the house is full of inspiring sculptures and fabrics and photography.

First sentences need to be primal.

Catherine Macnamara

Flash fiction has trained me in getting to the point. The beauty of flash is that it’s a constant training session because of the exactitude and compression of the form, so you learn to edit your ideas as cleanly as your words. I knew my collection would be a raw book about the body, about our need for love and about its shape in various lives. I wrote the stories one after the other so was conscious of each piece bouncing off the last and something larger taking shape.

It’s a challenge to write about sex because it is part of our intimate lives. But it’s always been prominent in my work as I feel it is so central to storytelling. I always have my eyes and ears open and therefore have a great reservoir of story material. I wanted it to be about adult lives, and how sex is folded through.

A great piece of flash fiction has to get under my skin and jar me slightly. I know from the first note if I am going to be intrigued – first sentences need to be primal. That doesn’t mean they have to be noisy or showy, but they have to strike a human chord within me. There are so many inspiring flash writers out there. I’m a great lover of language and restraint, so when someone gets this balance right, I’m a goner.

Good luck to everyone who has entered the competition and I can’t wait to read your stories!

Catherine McNamara is a short story and flash fiction writer, novelist, writing mentor and teacher, and UK Flash Fiction editor at Litro Magazine. Her flash/short fiction collection Love Stories for Hectic People won Best Short Story Collection the Saboteur Awards 2021 (UK). Her short story collection The Cartography of Others was praised by Hilary Mantel, finalist in the People’s Book Prize (UK), and won the Eyelands International Fiction Prize (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write and ended up in West Africa co-running a bar, working in Mogadishu and Milan along the way. Catherine hikes, grows cherries and runs writing retreats at her farmhouse in north-eastern Italy.


Second place: A Migration by Lydia Benson

In the beginning it was just you and me. Perhaps just me, from my perspective. You were the extension that was warm and singing. You were black hair and green eyes. 

At first, we were in the back room of the old Victorian house. You fed me in bed against the red wall, illuminated by the last of the evening sun. I was small, I was yours. 

You carried me to school, held me to your chest zipped up in your jacket like a baby bird. We walked up the big hill and chattered to one another over buses and cars and the sounds of the city. You dropped me off and I became one of them, in amongst it all, until I could leave. 

One day you gave me your cardigan to hold, to stop the tears. I smelt it for the rest of the journey. Soon after, it faded. You became a voice on the phone. You said you loved me infinity times a million. I sat on the stairs and tried to remember your smell. 

You had gone there to set things up. Far far away. You were finding work and a house. 

I was painting my nails glitter green and listening to techno with the au pair. Ramona. She shaved off her red curls and died the stubble blue. Ramona. Wild and young. She loved me and you weren’t there, so I drank it up. Ramona. We bathed together. She ran naked into the sea. 

Later, I was colouring in with the welfare officer, answering questions. She sat me down, handed me the paper. Draw a line, she said, fill the page with it. Then we coloured it in. Whilst I was reaching for pencils, trying to keep within the lines, she made me a little informant. It was fed back. 

Around that time, you came back to the city. To court. To answer questions. Then you won. 

We were suddenly in the silence. In the moon and stars and lambs in the fields. There was space then. You gave me my own room and we made friends at the church. Squeaky clean friends who shared their sweets. They were the parallel universe us: Irish parents, still together. I was small and grubby, faulty somehow. Loosened stitches and misshapen on a forgotten corner of the toy-shelf. Alone in a dark wood, overlooking a ravine. The sweets made me sick. 

Years passed. You worked all day and then the evenings. You lost your dad. You became quiet. Then withdrew. Piece by piece. 

Your eyes were veiled with cataracts of thought. 

Once a double-glazing salesman came over. You were his dream, vacant and looking for instant gratification. I sat with you on the threadbare sofa in the front room, cold in the blue light of winter, and listened to the pitch. He was right. He understood you. You did want us to be warm; you did want to spend less, eventually; you did want to do something that might help with the damp, the creeping black in the top corners of the rooms. He was bursting out of his buttons, eyeing me cautiously each time I said I wasn’t sure you had to decide right now, laughing and joking that I was a little adult already. You signed the papers. 

Darkness slipped in after that, more and more. You were barely there. You ploughed, unseeing, through pensioners in the street. They looked back at you disgusted or shocked, but you were somewhere else entirely and no-one could come with you. Panic fluttered around the edges of the house. I watched you in high alert, then sloped off to the woods to get high with the glow worms. 

You went off sick.

It was a different kind of space then. The sun came back in. 

In the mornings, you were home in the kitchen drinking coffee, listening to the radio. Unfurling. You told me about your childhood and cycling your Hi Ho Silver. You cried about your dad. 

We went to Barcelona, just you and me again. You got the dates wrong and I missed school, but we saw moonscapes and buses with standard lamps on, so it didn’t matter. We walked everywhere and drew everything and you talked. And listened. A little window. 

At eighteen, I left. You took me and we drove all the way with my life in the boot. I came back less and less, moved further away. When I remembered, I called you. From airports, from mountains, from ancient neon cities. Standing at phone booths, I touched number pads greasy from other fingers, and burnt under the sun of a different hemisphere as I filled you in. Sometimes you struggled to hear me over the racket of cicadas, or the fragments of strangers. I became the voice on the phone. And as time went on, I left bigger gaps in between.

Sometimes, at night, I think wild birds have been let loose in the house. Their heavy wings batter through the rooms until they rest messy in my rafters. I open the window to let in the air. The sky is indigo twilight. Flaming balls of orange ignite one by one. I see you. Small, white hair, green eyes. You look keenly around, taking everything in. You draw the sea. I’m glad you’re here, I want to say. 


Very strong, evocative, fine emotional detail, sense of complete life and emotional trajectory. Compressed but fully ‘there’. 

Dr Clare Morgan

A story told with tender detail, and an awareness of the spaces between people that extends through time. Fluid and touching language, a remarkable voice. 

Catherine McNamara

The last paragraph is what sealed it for me. It’s an almost magical realist relinquishing of the world that had been carefully built up so far, as if blurring like a mirage of memory.

Adam Lowe

Lydia is an emerging writer and illustrator, brought up in Cornwall and now based in a small, coastal town in the South-East. She is currently working on her first novel. Through writing and illustration, she explores memory and place.

 

Third place: …now you don’t by Hazel Osmond

They used to laugh about it before they went on. It was their warm-up and lucky routine.

She’d be contorting herself in some corner near the plug socket, coaxing her hair to twice its volume with a hot wand, and he’d take his wand out of its case and with a white, black, white wave over his baldness, command, ‘Abracadabra, give me a full head of curls.’ 

She’d wait a couple of beats before saying, ‘Not working, love. You tried putting a plug on it?’

She hadn’t minded how scruffy the dressing rooms were, although she didn’t like it so much when they had to share with other acts. Some of the men … well … you wouldn’t take your coat off in front of them. She kept hoping he’d tell everyone to get lost for half an hour while she changed, but it was always her heading to the loo with her frock and tiara.

‘You’ve been getting sawn in half for five years,’ he’d say. ‘How hard can it be to wrestle yourself into a dress in the toilet cubicle?’ 

Those were the glory days – she understands that now. She was in love with him and with standing on a stage and waiting for the curtains to draw back. She felt drunk on the sound of the applause; hugged by the warm lights. 

She could read the signs of a shiny, bright future in the way the rhinestones on her bodice sparkled; how he seemed broader and taller in his suit. 

‘Did you see that audience?’ he’d say, as they came off stage. ‘Had them in the palm of my hand – open mouthed, eyes out on stalks. And that ‘Ooh’ when I chopped open the apple and the diamond ring fell out. We can go all the way, I’m telling you. All the way.’

She didn’t mention the teenagers who looked bored; the old guy having a kip at the back of the stalls.

Now and again, she’d ask if she could do a couple of the tricks herself; she knew them well enough.

‘It’ll just confuse the punters,’ he said. ‘Let me do the magic. You do the pretty.’

Most of the time she didn’t mind. She loved to watch his hands when he was working; the graceful flourishes and spins. The shuffles and mis-direction. Funny really, because at home anything that called for dexterity, he struggled with – painting the skirting board without getting gloss on the wall; knocking in a nail. 

Touching her exactly how she liked to be touched.

On stage though, like a fish in water or a bird in the sky, he was in his element. A Master of Illusion. 

Rope tricks, coins pulled from amazed ears, levitation, the lady sawn in half, and, for the climax, two doves conjured out of a burning pan. 

He loved those doves. He’d coax them from their cage to perch on his finger. Blew gently on their breast feathers. Insisted on feeding them by hand.

‘If I was the jealous type …’ she’d say and pretend it was a joke because it was easier than thinking about how hard he could be on her if she missed a cue, or put on a few extra pounds.

The venues got smaller and the digs, shoddier. Their names slid down the bill. They were beaten in TV-inspired talent shows by young kids with unreliable voices, but tear-inducing back stories.

One night they went on before a troupe of male strippers and he came off stage fuming at the stuff the women had shouted at him. 

‘It’s just a bit of fun,’ she said in the dressing room and he pushed her so hard she stumbled and turned her ankle. In A&E he entertained the nurses by pulling cotton wool balls from their ears. 

She went back to working full-time and he diversified into children’s parties. Gave it up after their own kids were born because he didn’t have the patience – it was only a matter of time before a birthday boy or girl got backhanded.

  She realised it was curtain down, lights out when she found the dove cage out in the wheelie bin. 

‘Where are the doves?’ she’d asked, but he didn’t answer.

Now she’s the one conjuring up illusions. 

She holds his hand when they are out together. Smiles at her mother and tells her everything is fine. 

Pulls the wand from the tube of concealer and dabs it on her bruises. Makes them disappear before the kids wake up.


An unusual take on the waning of love and the ugliness of domestic violence, conveyed using lucid language and a skilfully conceived voice. The setting is beautifully balanced, with delicious detail serving to heighten the plight of the main character.

Catherine McNamara

Illusions and performance jostle against the crashing reality of domestic violence. Well wrought and realised.

Adam Lowe

Trajectory of an abusive relationship well evoked and the deterioration delicately done. Characters and situation come across fully. Pace and interest kept up, and the psychology sound.

Dr Clare Morgan

Hazel writes short stories, flash fiction and has had four romantic comedies published by Quercus. Her flash fiction has been shortlisted and longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and shortlisted in the Hastings Literary Festival.

 

New Voice Award: The Hornbeam’s lament by Helen Williams

Autumn 1901

The axes, saws and chains came that autumn. I was only 82 years old then. They cleared the land to build the house, removing the woodland around me with indecent haste. The sounds of the crashing branches as they felled my family haunt me still. Then, they stopped, and left me, a lone specimen marking the boundary between the lawned garden and the landscape beyond. 

I miss my siblings. I miss the competition to see who could grow tall enough to touch the sky and the feel of our roots mingling in the Kentish sandy soil. I learned to listen to the song of the trees from far away across the downs; the low undertones of the oaks and the sweet murmurings of the willows.

Summer 1902 

First I heard chatter and laughter from the house, then it came from the terrace getting closer each day. Suddenly he was by my side, tilting his curious face up towards my crown. ‘I am six’ he announced, ‘how old are you?’ Unexpectedly he wrapped his arms as far as they would reach around my trunk, pressing himself close against my mottled trunk. Taking care to mark the furthest spot with his fingertips he circled around me, repeating this manoeuvre three more times to measure my full circumference. Then he ran off, zigzagging across the lawn. 

No human had ever touched me before. I was accustomed to the squirrels scittering along my branches and the fluttering finches stealing my papery seeds, but this was exquisitely different. Over the next few days the boy returned, exploring my pleated leaves and delicately investigating my twisted bark.  

‘Stanley Michael Edward Dunmore! You come back here this very instant!’ the female in a long black skirt and lacey shirt shouted from the terrace. That was the first time he climbed up along my branches, pressing his back securely against my trunk. He stifled his giggling laugh so as not to give his location away. They could not find him, it was as if he had just disappeared.

Summer 1911

He was lying in a deckchair on the lawn, his arms folded, with a book shading his eyes from the ardent sun. He had grown into a tall, thin sapling, his hair now darkened to sandy brown. In the stillness of summer we both dozed and breathed deeply the shimmering air.

Winter 1914 

I had seen many winters but few felt as bleak as this, after days of ceaseless rain, the temperature dropped, bringing fitful snow flurries. He stood at the window, watching, waiting. We heard the men marching up the lane on their way to the docks We felt their boots stomping the ground like a pulse ebbing away.

Summer 1915 

We were so proud of him dressed in his uniform. His sister took photographs on the lawn. He stood tall and let my shadow rest gentle across his shoulder.

Spring 1916 

On those few precious days when he was home on leave, he would go out early and walk for hours; trying to muster peaceful sleep through exhaustion. I wanted to cradle him on my beams and hide him, but most days he would just pass me by. Finally, on that last morning, he climbed up into my branches once more. His khaki green drab amongst my fresh furled leaves. I knew he would look for my fellow hornbeams in France and that their familiar shape would give him comfort and protection if they could. He pulled a button from his tunic and placed it in the crook one of my branches.

Summer 1916 

The sounds of the guns grew louder from across the water and the murmurs of the petrified trees retreated as they were shattered and scattered by the artillery. 

After the telegram boy cycled away, I could hear the heartbreak spilling through the open terrace doors. It flowed across the lawn and down into my roots. I lashed my branches, whipping them around, flinging my accusations through the air towards the hornbeams of Delville Wood. The sighs came back on the wind like sobbing waves, ‘We fell, they fell. We fell, they fell.’ 

They could not find him. It was as if he had just disappeared. 

Spring 1962

She was a curious looking creature in flared trousers and a knitted waistcoat. She ran through the low gate at the edge of the lawn, letting it slap shut behind her. She hardly paused before reaching up to my lower branches, wedging her plimsoled feet against my trunk and pulling herself up. When she planted her small hands on my rough bark, I knew she would be the one. She settled high enough to be hidden from view under my crisp canopy.  

I could hear her Grandmother calling to her from the terrace. The girl found the button as she was climbing down. ‘Look Granny. Look what I found.’ The old woman peered at the blackened disc in the child’s hand. She recognised the insignia.

‘That belonged to my brother. The soldier in the photographs. He was lost, at Delville Wood, on the Somme. ’

Summer 1984

When she grew up, the little girl kept the promise I heard her make to her Granny that day; to find the boy who had first climbed the tree and mark his resting place. I knew that the naked trees had fallen in on him, as I had begged them to, protecting his lifeless body from further desecration by the relentless shells, but I never dreamed that it would take so long for them to find him. 

She told me the military had replanted Delville Wood, as a sacred monument, but, she confided, not with hornbeams.

Spring 2019

My roots mingle with the new trees that have grown up all around me. I am 200 years old now. I will not grow much taller, but at noon my shadow rests on the empty terrace and my branches can almost touch the sky.


I loved how the passage of time is recounted by the ancient tree, and how the pain of war and loss is described. The gentle voice seems to embody the great structure of the tree, an observant witness of the personal interludes of history, with characters that are visible and believable to the reader. A haunting and delicate piece.

Catherine McNamara

Time, place and change emerge as key themes through the anchoring image and point of view of the tree. A family epic in micro.

Adam Lowe

Helen Williams is a former accountant, who is slowly replacing her appreciation of numbers with a love for words. She was born in Wales but has spent most of her life living outside of the Principality, which explains her inherited love of rugby and singing loudly.

 

Third place: Sticks and stones by Elizabeth Smith

She spends every evening extricating words from where they’ve lodged beneath the surface of the skin. Most of the wounds are superficial and easily concealed. A few of the cuts are deeper and could probably do with a stitch or two, but she just sticks on a plaster and hopes that the blood won’t seep through. She tells no one. The extracted words are shut in a box beneath the bed. They whisper to her at night.

Some words go straight in and out, like a needle. Others are barbed and get stuck, or splinter into shards. The Ms and the Ws are the worst. Fragments emerge – inger, itch, hore – and she has to poke around in the wound to find the missing letters. One night she extracts man, then pulls forth an but the final Bloody W refuses to come. She puts the fragments she has removed, still coated in her blood, into the box. Eventually the skin closes over the rest of it, leaving a jagged scar which she conceals under long sleeves.

Occasionally someone will notice, even though the evidence is nearly always hidden. Her mum walks in on her once, unannounced, after a particularly bad day, then phones the school. But this only makes it worse. 

“They’ll grow out of it you know, it won’t last forever,” her mum tells her. As if she doesn’t still have the scars from her own school days. 

Her dad tells her to fight back, to arm herself with sticks and stones. What does he know? Her assailants are everywhere – the classroom, the corridors, her thoughts. Even under the watchful eye of the teacher they needle her. Sometimes the teacher joins in. She is a sitting target. She has tried feigning illness, lucky charms, and praying to God but her skin won’t grow any thicker; the words still penetrate her soft, yielding flesh. All she can do is draw out the venom, letter by letter, word by word, and hope no infection takes hold.

One day a new girl appears and is placed at the desk next to hers. 

“Look after Elaine, show her where everything is,” the teacher says.

She smiles shyly at the New Girl; the New Girl smiles shyly back. 

At lunchtime she takes the New Girl to the canteen. The New Girl is quiet but, after a while, begins to chat more freely. The New Girl has moved around a lot and now lives only a few streets away. Can they walk home together? Anything she asks, the New Girl agrees.

But afterwards, the others are waiting. There are only five minutes before the bell and an extra two waiting for the teacher, who is late, but they work fast – surrounding the New Girl within seconds. Seven minutes is all they need. Later, when she asks a question, the New Girl pretends not to hear. 

The New Girl comes to school the next day looking a bit less like herself and a bit more like them; swallowed up into the crowd of them at the start of the day and spat out at the gates. The New Girl never says anything hurtful, but the silence is nearly as bad.

And the words in the box grow, day by day. At night they come together – phrases become sentences, become paragraphs, become entire stories. Stories which narrate themselves. Stories she believes in.

Then, later, it could be weeks or months, it feels like years, she finds the New Girl waiting. It is as though they are back at day one. The New Girl follows her into the classroom, chatting about something she has done that weekend, as though they are friends. One of the others looks up as they enter, then returns to the huddle and says something which generates raucous laughter. The New Girl flushes deeply, and she thinks she sees the place the insult pierces before a sleeve is pulled down to hide it.

At lunchtime she prepares to make a quick getaway, as usual, when she feels a hand on her arm. 

“Do you want to go to the canteen with me?” the New Girl asks.

Her reply shoots out like a dart, thrown wildly, before she has time to consider what she is saying.

“What, you think I want to go anywhere with you! Bitch!”

Then the New Girl is gone and she senses the heat of the others, feels the warmth from their smiles, as they absorb her. 

Just like that, she is accepted. At lunchtime they take her in to town with them, during lessons she becomes the recipient of notes and gossip rather than the subject. One of them walks her to and from school. Her skin heals, the scars fade. She is invited to the cinema, parties, sleepovers – all she has ever imagined and more. All she has to do in return is sling more arrows; the deeper they penetrate, the greater the reward. She is good at it. 

Her mum congratulates her.

“See? I told you it would work out.”

But she is not so sure. At night she lies awake, thinking of insults to use the next day. The words collide in her mind and make monsters. Shadows appear under her eyes. Her skin begins to itch and break out. No amount of make-up can hide it. She starts to miss school – pretending to be ill, or just not turning up. But she is soon caught and can think of no alternative but to continue.  

One night, as she scratches in bed, she feels something hard beneath the skin. She turns on the light and faces herself in the full-length mirror. The itching intensifies. As she watches, the old wounds reopen like hungry, gaping mouths. Something dark and jagged emerges from freshly parted flesh. She takes it and automatically reaches for the box. Inside, the words lie silent and glistening. One by one, she begins to insert them into her skin. 


‘Sticks and Stones’ is a dark fairytale of the heightened emotions and exquisite pain of adolescence. Beautifully crafted.

Judy Darley

This was another strong entry not only because of the extended metaphor of ‘words’ but also because of its narrative uncovering the cruelty of adolescence, its inherent contradictions, and its private world of inverted justice.

Selma Carvalho

Elizabeth Smith is a full-time mother and occasional writer. Her poetry has been published in Firewords Magazine. When she’s not chasing after her two young children she enjoys reading, running and daydreaming. She currently lives in Scotland. 

 

First place: Fearful Symmetry by Holly Barratt

I first met my sister when I was five. She was twice the size of a house cat, with a soft little bear-face, snowy whiskers and a baffled smile. She rolled over and stretched out her fluffy limbs. I instantly loved the pin cushion pads of her paws, and the wiggle of stripes as she shook herself out. She balance-walked up my body, rolled around on my belly, and then placed a paw on my nose. Her claws grazed my cheeks but I wasn’t hurt. My sister wouldn’t hurt me, ever. Her white throat moved up and down fast with either heartbeat or breathing, letting me know she was alive, alive. 

“Hello,” I whispered, so as not to wake Mum and Dad. We shouldn’t be playing at this time of night. My sister tilted her head then jumped onto the carpet, and batted at my red ball. I got out of bed, and rolled it across the room. She chased it, jumped on it, and attacked it with her teeth. It wrecked the ball but I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all. We played until the sun came up and she needed to go, because my sister is nocturnal. 

She visited me most nights. We played ball. We curled up close in bed and I put my hand on her side to feel her rise and fall. She tried not to scratch or bite me, but sometimes she drew blood just because that’s her nature. I never cried out or told her off because I knew she might never come back again. 

Before I was born, my sister was like me. There are photographs of us both in frames on the wall by the stairs. Until I was four there were more of her than of me. Now there are more of me than there are of her. The living room has only one photograph, which sits on a corner shelf behind the arm of the sofa. You only see it if you decide to look at it. She is like me and not like me. She has dark yellow hair that drags across her forehead and into her ice-cream. Her eyes are screwed up because it’s sunny and I can’t see what colour they are. Mum says her eyes were brown like mine. Her teeth are blunt and wonky, with a gap near the front. Her skin is tan, and she wears a yellow hat. The picture reminds me of sand. 

“The summer we lost her,” Mum told a visitor, before she went into the bathroom to be sick. 

When I was seven, I noticed my sister getting bigger. She moved slow, like wading through water. Her pounces were exclamation marks at the end of a strolling sentence. She yawned often: showing the length of her fangs. She looked dangerous and I was glad she was my sister. I felt safe around her. If she could draw blood on me, imagine what she could do to an enemy. 

“We don’t keep photographs from that day,” Mum told another visitor. “I deleted them all. I don’t want to remember her that way.” 

She had the picture in her lap. 

“It helps to talk about her. To talk about her, not about what happened to her. There’s no reason to relive that. I wouldn’t want to upset Lily. She never knew her sister, but we always wanted her to see the happy, beautiful girl she always was.” 

I spent nights with my sister, and by day I typed her name into the internet and read old newspaper articles. The articles asked questions: has the safari park improved safety? Is it right to keep beautiful wild animals in captivity? And there was a newer story, about someone else’s sister, a zookeeper in another country. 

My sister is full grown. She is bigger than me and can’t lie on the bed without her back legs hanging off, so she lies mainly on the floor, licking her huge claws. I see blood on them, but it isn’t mine, so I don’t know what she eats before she visits. Although I told her to be quiet, sometimes she can’t help but roar: she opens wide, her teeth like knives and the sound makes my bones vibrate. She makes the room stink of sugary pee, she leaves hairs on the carpet and she hurts me – she scraped a claw right down my left arm when I tried to hug her and it was so painful I thought I might faint. I wore long sleeves for weeks. The scar is ugly but I like to feel it and sometimes I want her to scar me more. My sister can’t talk at all and all I want her to tell me is what it feels like to be ripped apart. 


‘Fearful Symmetry’ is a story with a deliciously slow reveal. The author begins by raising question after question, but there’s a quiet confidence woven into the words that makes a peculiar scenario utterly believable. Much is left unanswered, and the ambiguity about what’s real and what’s imagined is crucial to the story’s success. Last lines are often particularly challenging to get right; in this case it’s perfectly devastating.

Judy Darley

This to me is the perfect flash fiction. It’s a story that grows, inventively morphing into something larger and curious, until the pain of the shadow-self emerges. The author has extraordinary control over sentence structure; the tautness of sentences creating a sense of urgency and yet their lyricism yields to poignancy. 

Selma Carvalho

Holly Barratt grew up in the East Midlands of England but now lives in Wales. She has been published by Leaf Books and was longlisted for the 2019 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Competition. She is currently working on a novel.