Sticks and Stones: An Oxford Flash Fiction Anthology
Words are powerful. Despite what the saying tells us, words have the power to hurt us, but they also have the power to heal us, too.
Sticks and Stones is a collection of sixty powerful stories from all around the world. In under 1000 words, they have the power to transport you, to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. They are the very greatest stories from a snapshot in time where people everywhere were looking to connect by returning to their words during a pandemic.
‘Sisters turn into tigers, babies are born as half-human, hybrid creatures. These authors seem conscious that the world is, simultaneously, stunned still and also becoming unrecognizable, and they attempt to capture it in the middle of that shape-shift.’
Kim Magowan, author of Undoing and The Light Source.
We are thrilled to launch the first Oxford Flash Fiction anthology 2021 this month, and you are invited! Celebrate with us for an evening of readings, prizes and more, with past judges, and the authors themselves.
Cornerlis Affre, Gayathiri Dhevi Appathurai, Holly Barratt, John Barron, Lydia Benson, Sharon Boyle, Benjamin Britworth, Lucas Cammack, Anthony Cartwright, Philip Charter, Kevin Cheeseman, Yvonne Clarke, Patrick Clarke, Marie Day, Michelle Donkin, Kim Donovan, Daniel Draper, Conor Duggan, Julie Evans, Richard Frost, Frances Gapper, Salah Golandami, Esther González, Brian Gully, Simon Harris, David Hartley, Paul Jackson, Talis Johnson, Holly Kybett Smith, David Lewis, Rosaleen Lynch, Niamh Mac Cabe, Clare Marsh, Sarah Martin, Lynsey May, Paddy McKenna, Sarah McPherson, David McVey, Louise Mills, Conor Montague, Thomas Moody, Linda Morse, Jenn Murray, Rose New, Audrey Niven, Ayemhenre Okosun, Hazel Osmond, Tracey-Anne Plater, E.E. Rhodes, Louis Rossi, Helen Rushworth, Elizabeth Smith, Brittany Terwilliger, Matthew Tucker, Kevin West, Susan Wigmore, Erik Wijkström, Helen Williams and G.A. Wolf.
Kiki learns that male alligators have permanent erections while she watches the Discovery Channel instead of grading five paragraph essays from her eighth graders who, among the boys, she also suspects have permanent erections. Over the many years she’s taught, she’s seen hundreds of boys adjust themselves, eyes darting around the room, checking to see if anyone noticed, or openly, without a hint of embarrassment. She has also on occasion watched a boy walk out of her classroom with a full-on tent and the mother in her has wanted to rush over and hand him a folder or a book to cover himself. Which, of course, she resists. Kiki should turn off the television and grade, but she just can’t bring herself to read another essay about The Hate You Give, a book she and her students love. Reading and discussing books with her students brings Kiki actual joy. Reading their writing is another beast altogether.
During mating, two flatworms, which Kiki has never heard of, engage in “penis fencing” in which they each try to stab each other with their two-headed penises. Yes, this is alarming and surprising to Kiki, but what really gets her, is the way the Discovery Channel describes what comes next, which is that whoever manages to penetrate first and inseminate the other wins.And the loser, their words, not hers, becomes the de facto mother. Kiki considers the flatworm’s hermaphroditic nature, what it might be like to have a penis alongside her vagina. Not interested. While she’s had her share of penises inside of her, sleeps beside a human with a penis, and has a child with a penis, she will always find them strange, and somewhat ugly. She realizes that if a man described a vagina this way, it would be viewed as misogynistic. Maybe she’s biased, but vaginas just seem more organic to the human body.
Kiki glances at the stack of essays beside her on the couch and feels slightly nauseated. She tells herself that it’s because there’s eighty of them, but also, her period is a couple of weeks late and she’s been putting off buying a pregnancy test. Kiki loves her son, but she is not interested in having another baby—she hated being pregnant, and she’s only ever wanted a single child. Lucas, her husband, is another story. “Two is perfect,” he keeps telling her. “Then they have each other.” Kiki won’t budge—even when they were dating, she made it clear that if she had children, it would only be one. Anders is four, a sweet, gentle little boy who loves animals and has the palate of an adult. She loves him more than anything in the world, which is why she only ever wanted one child. How could she possibly love another child as much as she loves Anders?
On television, a hen squawks and does its strange head-bobbing run across a farmyard, a fat rooster in hot pursuit. Kiki watches as the rooster, who, just for the record, seems both predatory and peremptory, mounts the hen. She knows she’s anthropomorphizing, and the rooster is just following his biological urges, but watching him mount that hen makes her mad. Some of that anger dissipates when the Aussie host of the show shares that a hen can eject up to eighty percent of an offending (again, their words, not hers) male’s sperm. She silently cheers on the hen, eject, eject, eject! Once again, the Discovery Channel disappoints when it underscores that this ejection of sperm allows for the possibility that the hen might be impregnated by a rooster at the top of the pecking order. Is it so impossible that a hen just doesn’t want to get impregnated yet again? The TV host did, after all, describe hens who eject sperm as enraged or possibly disappointed. Why assume she’s disappointed the rooster isn’t distinguished enough—too low in the pecking order? Why not focus on the possibility that the hen is enraged at the rooster’s audacity, at the prospect of laying another bunch of eggs, with the idea of being, yet again, an incubator?
Kiki clicks off the television and puts aside her stack of essays. She slings her purse over her shoulder and grabs her keys. At the pharmacy down the street, she selects two pregnancy tests. Sitting awkwardly on the toilet, trying to pee on the stick but not her hand—harder than it might sound—Kiki thinks about the flatworms, wonders if her husband would be so gung-ho about two kids if he lost their battle and became the de-facto mother.
The best flash rage on the page, and that’s what’s happening here. A rage against silence and men. Done so with wit, grace, and searing language. What’s so stunning about this piece is how the contempt is palatable on the page, which, just like a flatworm, digs more and more into you as you read. Nothing short of a delight.
The story was very cleverly structured. There were so many layers to it, and so many underlying emotions to what seemed like a very simple observation of a particular situation. I loved the voice, the structure and how it evoked all kinds of emotions in me while I was reading it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The day of the disappearance smells of citrus air freshener. Jimmy is nine. His younger sister, Clara, who likes to be the centre of attention, throws up on the way to the theatre and they are late taking their seats. The show is a magic show. The magician pulls a bunny from a hat, transforms an onion into a chocolate egg. When he asks for a volunteer, Jimmy’s mum pushes him to his feet.
At a dinner party when Jimmy is seven, the grown-ups are being loud as if the volume dial on their voices is turned up to a hundred. Jimmy is at the table being seen and not heard. He wishes he could be neither seen nor heard playing Tetris on his Amstrad computer. The grown-ups have acquired loud gestures to accompany their loud words. Uncle Tom, who is a friend-of-the-family uncle rather than a biological uncle, topples his red wine across the white tablecloth. Jimmy’s mum reacts in a heartbeat – ‘Smother it with salt.’
He is eighteen. It is happy hour at The Headless Hippo. Everyone from his corridor in halls is crowded around a small table and they are at the point of sharing secrets and showing off. A round has been bought – shots of Jägermeister. Jimmy upends his shot glass into a plant pot because he doesn’t need alcohol to make them stare like they stare at the guy who trips on a pool cue and smashes his head against the bar.
He has to draw his face in Year 8 art. Mr Ozaki takes Jimmy’s picture on a digital camera and Jimmy divides the print-out into 1cm squares, copies each square onto his sketchpad. His nose is two squares long. His forehead is five squares wide. His port-stain birthmark that sludges up from his neck across his cheek is three squares by six squares, even though he has angled his face to make it as small as possible. At the end of the lesson, Mr Ozaki insists everyone gather around to admire the quality of his work. They press in behind him and there is a snort, a sniggering. Jimmy feels a pulsing in his throat.
The day after he disappears, what he remembers most vividly is the pinch of salt the magician threw over his left shoulder and the swaying of his pocket watch. ‘Three, two, one – you’re under.’ He was inside a game of Tetris and he was broken into shapes. His left leg was an orange L. His stomach was a yellow square. It felt unusual to be broken up in this way, but not unfamiliar. His brain fizzed like 7Up at no longer being tethered to his face.
He is back from university for the Christmas holidays. Clara has a boyfriend with a Mazda MX-5. ‘Haven’t you got a girlfriend yet?’ asks Uncle Tom who is there because their dad says no one should be alone for Christmas. He has brought Châteauneuf du Pape. Over Christmas dinner, Clara asks, ‘Do you remember when you disappeared?’ Jimmy says he doesn’t, even though he thinks about that sensation of disappearing almost every day. Clara says, ‘We’ve got it on video.’ Uncle Tom says, ‘I have to see this.’ Jimmy excuses himself to his room because he has watched the video before and he has hated it, the way the audience gawps as he trudges past, the crackle of their laughter when the magician puts him under. He has hated it, hated it, hated it, right up until the point when he is no longer there, when the place where he was standing has become a perfect void.
On his tenth birthday, he steals a drum of Saxa salt from the local shop. Later that night, he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and mixes the salt with flour and water to make a paste. He dabs it on his cheek, around the edges of his birthmark, rubs a thin veil on top. He scoops it up. He smears it on. He pats it down until the salt paste covers everything. When he is done, he swivels his neck and, for a brief moment, he is satisfied. Then he peers deeper into the mirror, right into its depths, his face closer and closer to its shiny surface, and all of a sudden, his nose looks odd and his jaw is wrong, and he can still feel the birthmark, the whole burning lake of it, buried beneath the salt.
For perhaps the seventeenth time, he tries to replicate the disappearance. He sprays his room with citrus air freshener before positioning himself in front of the mirror and closing his eyes. He has a pinch of salt in his right hand, which he throws over his left shoulder. He says ‘Abracadabra’ imploringly beneath his breath. There is a state of drifting he remembers from the day he disappeared and he tries to conjure it, hears the magician’s voice counting down from three. It is working – he tries to convince himself it is working. He will lean forward and fall through the mirror. He will be floating. He will be in that Tetris dimension again, all the parts of him untethered as brightly coloured shapes.
Very poignant and full of emotional resonance. I loved the imagery and how it evoked all the
senses and made me really feel for the main character.
Perhaps the real magic of this piece is in how it leaves you feeling—waiting, wishing for enchantment. The language is so rich and vivid, constantly returning to the wound of being, of appearing. And just like a prayer or a spell, it repeats itself over and over again, until you also find yourself doing it.
I know you people think all dolphins are great, but believe me, Meg is a straight up asshole. I should know. I have to work with her every goddam day, swimming around this shitty lagoon in Key Largo, rickshawing tourists on our backs for two minutes a pop. Meg is a total fucking sell-out collaborator. It’s dolphins like her that keep the rest of us down.
See, I think most people wouldn’t keep this whole animals-as-servants system going if they knew how much we hated it. That’s exactly why I tried to organize a little wildcat strike last year. The plan was to get us all to stop mid-ride and take our passengers under for a few seconds—not enough to hurt anyone, but just to make it clear that we’re not down with this whole situation. We needed solidarity for the plan to work though, and of course Meg wasn’t on board. She’s a company girl.
When she said she wouldn’t do it, I almost whacked my tail into that fucked-up snout of hers. Charles held me back. It’s her ace, that crooked mouth. It doesn’t quite close, so it makes her look like she’s always smiling. That’s why she’s the favorite. Our handlers always have her do the introductory lap when people come in the lagoon because she makes it seem like we’re all so goddam happy to be here. Total bullshit.
And Meg takes advantage of her status. She gets first dibs on who she’ll carry because after that welcome lap, she’s allowed to go over and wait by whichever person she wants. Charles and I get stuck with the leftovers. Charles is a dumbass, so he doesn’t care, but it pisses me off every time because I understand how clever Meg is. She knows people. She can see into them. And it’s not just the embryos and the tumors and the broken bones she sees—we all can do that. Meg actually looks into their souls. She somehow can spot and avoid those super-clingy riders, the ones who pay to swim with a dolphin because they don’t have enough love in their life or something. It took me a long time to figure out that the hardest rides to give aren’t about the size or weight of the passenger—they’re about longing. And Meg always leaves those longing-ass motherfuckers for us. It’s like she’s got a seventh sense or something.
I thought I had finally gotten the best of her one day last month. Charles was getting examined by the veterinarians, so it was just me and Meg. They put two morons in the lagoon right at the edge, a man and a woman. I spotted the woman’s cancer before Meg did. The lady’s insides were completely full, and I know those sick ones are the absolute worst. They are needy-times-ten, living out their bucket list, gripping you heavily as they try to look deeply into your eyes. I always feel like they’re pulling me to the bottom with them, and I wanted no part of it with this woman. Before the trainer could whistle for Meg’s parade lap, I hightailed it over to the man, cutting in front of Meg.
The trainers got the guy latched on to me and then they got the woman on Meg and we started the ride. I laughed to myself for the whole two minutes, even though Meg didn’t seem to be having a particularly hard time. I figured maybe the woman was Buddhist or something and at peace with her own impending doom.
When the ride was over, I dropped my guy and swam away, but Meg wouldn’t let the woman out of the water. The lady had let go of Meg’s dorsal and was hanging on to the edge, but instead of swimming away, Meg had turned around and just kept nuzzling the woman’s belly with her janky-ass snout. I thought Meg was just trying to be cute, angling for more fish, but when she gave me the side eye, I should have known she was playing three-dimensional chess while I was playing checkers.
The trainer finally pulled Meg off and gave his usual spiel to the lady about how dolphins are like swimming MRIs. He told her about the time one of our colleagues kept poking at the wife of a newly married couple until the bride finally had to admit she was pregnant and hadn’t yet told her husband.
The trainer told Meg’s passenger that she should go get an ultrasound, just in case, a line which usually gets a laugh from women in their fifties. This time he got crickets. The couple didn’t say a word, just looked at each other. I figured they were too polite to tell the trainer that the woman was dying because it would have made him feel like the shithead he actually is. But I was completely wrong.
This morning, the couple came back with TV cameras and everything. Turned out, they hadn’t known about the tumors, but because of one terrific dolphin, it looks like they caught the cancer in time. Everyone’s making a huge deal about what a hero Meg is and about the special bond between our two species.
Special bond, my ass.
Meg is over by the side of the lagoon, and they’re filming her doing stupid tricks and letting Tumor Woman pet her and give her kisses. She’s getting a boatload of extra fish for it, and Charles is hanging around, hoping for some scraps.
And me? I’m just swimming circles at the far end, trying to plot my fucking escape.
Devious. Refreshing. Snarky. And, above all else, FUN. Humor isn’t always nuanced but it is here, and you simply cannot wait to follow more devilish dolphin adventures.
Loved the candid voice of the dolphin! It was surprising, funny and I found the point of view refreshing. It’s not easy to do ‘funny’ in flash and I thought this piece achieved it nicely!
As soon as my fuddled brain tasted the stale alcohol of the beer, the sirens began. They screamed one long note, which tore the silence of the night apart.
I sat still, head half-cocked, listening. As usual Dad’s pub was full to bursting with locals who had all been dancing and singing to high heavens, but somehow the air siren had broken through and silenced them.
They stood like statues before dashing out as fast as they could. Dad and I watched them go, before turning back to what we were doing, him cleaning the bar; me drinking my pint.
I had wanted to drown my sorrows and forget about death for tonight. But when I was still halfway through my pint, the door was unexpectedly wrenched open.
A woman came bursting in, breathless and red in the face, eyes searching wildly.
She was hunched over and under her robes I could make out a great lump on her back. ‘Please.’ She wheezed. ‘I need a midwife!’
Dad and I looked at each other. ‘Our Jen here is a midwife,’ he said, eventually.
‘Please.’ The old woman pulled at me with her claws, ‘You must come, my niece needs help.’
‘Now hang on Missus.’ Dad said raising his dirty paw. ‘Yeh can’t just take her out there.
‘No Dad, it’s fine.’
He still protested as we made it out of the pub. The old dear took me through the streets without so much as an upward glance at the sky, as if she isn’t aware of the approaching planes and their bombs.
It’s funny, I thought I knew these streets inside out, but as I followed her, we went through alleyways and side streets I didn’t recognise. Eventually, when I decided that I was completely lost when she stopped in front of a slum. Or at least I assumed it was a slum. The house was big enough to have once been owned by one of the swanks of the city. However, it looked so old now it was practically falling down. Boards were propping it up and when she pulled me inside, I could still hear even over the noise, the house creak deeply.
There were about a dozen of them in there. All women, all old and all hunched over with great lumps on their backs. They were all anxiously crowding around a woman lying in the middle of the room. Just one look at her and I knew she was in the advanced stages of labour, given how weakly she cried out and how red and sticky her face was. I paused in the doorway, marvelling how old she looked despite her condition.
One of the women yanked me over, and began to beg I help her. ‘It’s stuck!’ Another said, ‘we think it’s stuck!’
My brain was still muddled from the alcohol and the bazar situation. I started to slowly feel her swollen grey belly and then check her birth canal to see how much progress had been made.
While I was doing this, the mother began to groan and complain. ‘Another one! They’re coming again! I can’t lie here. Help, please unbound me! I need to be off my back!’
What happened next, I will never forget.
Two of the women pulled up the mother and began to unbind something on her back. At first, I heard only the gentlest of rustling, like a mouse nesting in straw. And then with a swoosh they were free. Two enormous pearl grey wings, which arched and swooped in the air before settling around the mother’s back. She groaned again, this time from relief.
I could only stare at the wings, completely dumb with wonder at them. I never knew, never thought, that something like this could ever exist.
One of the older women yelled at me to hurry. Another contraction was coming, and it was clear now the baby was indeed stuck. I began to search frantically for my pliers in my medical bag, however, when I tried to pull the baby out, I couldn’t get a purchase on the body. I had to use my hands. I pushed them inside her, searching blindly for a head. A slippery object met me, half in and half out of its mother. My fingers slipped twice but then, by some miracle, I got a hold of it and pulled it free.
The world was silent as I looked at the grey thing in my hands. An egg? One of the women snatched it from me and gave it to the mother, who laughed and cried as she held it. ‘Thank you, oh thank you.’ She breathed.
A cheer erupted in the room. The women laughed and danced and hugged me while I stood stunned, my eyes never leaving the egg.
We ought to have been listening. We should have heard the plane above us. We didn’t hear the bomb fall down on us, but I felt it when the ceiling fell in, only just realising what had happened as ancient bricks and plaster rained down on us.
I don’t know how I was able to wake up but somehow, I did. I blinked the dust away from my eyes as I sat up. The house was gone, flattened by the bomb. I sat up weakly, scattering bricks and, I realised sickeningly, body parts of the women too, including their beautiful wings.
I stood up and at once became aware of the noise. A gargled kind of shriek. I pulled myself over and found the egg. The shell had cracked from the impact so that I could see in the grey dawn light the baby within.
It wailed at me, like every other baby I had helped bring into the world.
I reached over and held it in my arms. I picked a fragment of shell from its cheek before slowly looking up at the sky.
Not many stories have tenderness, heart—and you wouldn’t expect to see this in a flash about a winged woman giving birth to an egg, But it’s there—in the chaos of war. And the descriptions are dazzling, focusing on transforming the “other” into something beautiful and mythic, in something worth saving.
Great imagery and I loved the haunting atmosphere, a sense of unease. Loved how all the events unfolded to the unexpected ending.
We are thrilled to announce our long-list for the winter Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2022.
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 and for those we have permission to email – we will be letting you know!
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.
A Summoning Spell
About his bike
Am I Human
Daisy Bradley, Fake Santa and Ballerina Barbie
Essential Oils for Sleepless Nights
Every Seventh Wave
He Doesn’t Know It Yet
How To Cultivate A Thankful And Happy Mindset
Little Washerwoman of Wilaghmore
Portrait of the Dead
The De Facto Mother
The Elephant who came for tea
The Last Testament of Robert Winter
The Matryoshka’s Smile
The Misremembered Youth of Geraldine Bean
The Salt Trick
The Scarsdale Bequest
What’s been said about slate
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 June 2022. So if you don’t find yourself on this list, we hope you’ll try again in our next competition and keep crafting.
Hard-hitting Flash: Interview with competition judge Susmita Bhattacharya
Each place has its own identity, heritage, culture, but there is one thread that runs through them all – and that is humanity. Wherever we are in the world, we are all affected, to different degrees I’m sure, by emotions, relationships to people, place, history, and attachment. I have been very fortunate to have lived in and visited many places around the world. Whichever place I visit, I want to know the people, the food, the art, the history and this seeps into my writing.
For me, the place is not just about the setting, but about how the place relates to the character, how to both react to each other. The same place can mean opposite things to two characters – place is how one perceives and experiences it.
After travelling around the world, I’ve found that even if we don’t speak the language of the people, we can still connect. For example, I was sailing with my husband on oil tankers when we visited Brazil in the early 2000s. Both of us spoke a handful of words in Portuguese – we didn’t have smartphone or Google Translate! I had a little Portuguese guidebook, which was of no use because I couldn’t find the right word at the right time! But our ship’s agent took us out for a meal even though he didn’t know English, and we didn’t know Portuguese. Yet, through sign language, broken sentences and lots of smiles and laughter, we managed to communicate and have a wonderful evening together. This was an important lesson for me. I’m not a very political person, but I’ve been aware of the worrying political scenario around the world, and how such things affect the common people.
A parrot takes on the voice of a dead husband. Two women in search of god and marriage learn what it means to love. A man living in exile writes home. From Mumbai to Venice, Cardiff to Singapore, this collection of stories of love and loneliness in the urban landscape are delicately nuanced and sprinkled generously with sharp observation of the human condition.
A captivating first collection which introduces us to a powerful new voice.
“Graceful, poignant and beautifully wrought – a masterful debut.” Angela Readman
“These triumphant, sharp eyed humorous stories mark the arrival of an intriguing new voice; tender, poignant and wry.” Irenosen Okojie
“A winning collection. These stories are delicately shaped around sharp and tender moments rendered in rich, vivid prose.” Mahesh Rao
Flash fiction is hard-hitting, in your face, something that is rooted in reality, but exhibited in a very different way. And yet, it makes the viewer react to it, to think about it. I like to compare it to Tracey Emin’s art installation, My Bed. It is not traditional art that we’re used to seeing in museums and art galleries, where the novel compares to a big Rembrandt painting – so much detail, you can see the intricacy of the lacework on a collar, the fabric of the gown, the shine of the curls in the hair. The short story is like that of Picasso’s surrealism period paintings – graphic in style, maybe disjointed but you can still see the structure, the form and interpret it the way you want. I love all forms, and I think each form has a particular process, structure, message and audience.
A great flash piece will have some sort of reaction from me. It doesn’t need to be punchy, or have a massive twist at the end, but it should take me on an unexpected journey, make me see and feel images and emotions differently. I think the element of surprise is important – the revelation is important. It could be a loud bang or a quiet reveal, it doesn’t matter. It must make me stop on my tracks and think about it, and really feel for the characters in the narrative.
I love reading stories that leave room for interpretation, giving them a lingering quality that stays with the reader. I don’t let go of a narrative easily. I love reflecting on a story or a film I’ve been engaged with for weeks, thinking about the character/s, why they made the choices, what happened to them, or what could happen to them after the story has ended on the page or screen. I want the reader to care for my characters in the same way, to think about them and imagine what would happen to them after the story has ended.
I’m working on a novel at the moment – it’s going along at a slow and steady pace. But it’s important to write in your own time, in your own pace, and don’t compare yourself to others. I like deadlines, because I have to really get down to it and submit on time. I have a day job and a hectic family life with three cats and a dog, and human members too! So every day throws up new challenges. I’m also writing a lot more poetry these days, and working on a novella-in-flash, which is something I am very excited about.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born writer. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015) was long-listed for the Word to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018) won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019) and was a finalist for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Prize, 2019. Her short stories have been featured on BBC Radio 4. She teaches creative writing at Winchester University, facilitates the ArtfulScribe Mayflower Young Writers programme in Southampton and has been involved in several Mayflower 400 projects in 2020. She was a mentor on Dahlia Publishing’s The Middle Way Mentoring Project. She was also the Writer-in-Residence at the Word Factory, London in 2021. You can find her on Twitter: @Susmitatweets.
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.
The voice is immediate and intimate. The language is lush. The pace is breathless. It rewards re-reading.
Wonderfully poetic and evocative and with great detail and atmosphere. Strong voice and emotional resonance.
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. Paloma. She shaved off her red curls and died the stubble blue. Paloma. Wild and young. She loved me and you weren’t there, so I drank it up. Paloma. 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 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.
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.