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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.

 

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. 

 

Second place: Skin by Daniel Draper

She was born with a caul, but at least she was human. At the birth I shut my eyes, terrified. The metallic smell of blood mixed with brine and earth under Sandra’s screams and I only opened them once I heard the midwife’s surprise. It was a surprise without horror. I’d never seen a caul before. It wrapped around her tiny head like a giant extra eyelid. If we rushed, our baby’s skin would peel off with it. The midwife sliced at the nostrils so our girl could breath and little white ridges of extra skin bunched together over her hair. I looked at Sandra. I thought, if she panics, you can panic. I had questions that were too personal to ask, even though I’d witnessed the birth. Sandra’s face was distant, reminding me of a church statue above salvation’s doors. She had blanched eyes, and her mouth was turned downwards, as if mourning. I’d never been happier.

The midwife cooed and gasped at the rarity of it, congratulating us like a judge on a baking show, marvelling at what we could rustle up given such unique ingredients. Roman lawyers would buy stolen cauls for luck, she said, joking that we should sell it. Neither of us laughed. Sandra gently held our miracle in one arm and in the other caressed the sleeve with its small slit, the only thing stopping our daughter from suffocating before she had a chance to open her eyes.

When the midwife insisted we keep it for posterity, Sandra’s eyes refocused, glistening as they met our daughters’. They were the same deep chestnut, and just as wet. Her newly uncovered cheeks were so full they threatened to evict her nose. Sandra told the midwife to get rid of it and I exhaled, unaware I’d been holding my breath.

We were married two summers ago. The wedding had been family only, taking place in the shallow lapping of the coast. It was sunset, long after the fishermen had gone home. She wore a sheer white dress and had shells in her salted hair, while I was wearing the tweed jacket that I’d tried on in a charity shop to make her laugh. We’d giggled amongst other people’s cast-offs and I told her I loved her for the first time.

Her brothers and mother had stepped out of their skins completely, pale and naked against the rocks, standing knee deep in the water. My mother had deemed it a power move on their part, which she matched with a hat that you could have set sail in. My brother officiated and we celebrated with a picnic on the rocks, my new in-laws doing their best to answer questions about life underwater as my family tried to explain what weddings meant to humans. Our fathers refused to come, their opposition being the only thing they had in common.

Sandra said they had always found the skin restrictive, but it was the only thing that would keep them warm in the depths. She didn’t like to talk about things from before us, and I certainly couldn’t visit, but every time she went I felt the goodbye pinch in my throat. What if she decided to stay? I could have hidden the skin, but that felt too cruel. We keep it preserved in seawater, by my surfing stuff in the garage.

We had no idea how pregnancy would work, and there was no chance of asking the doctor, but things were good. The inside of her changed as I had nightmares of baby seals screaming. I knew there were bones and a little heart in there as I lay my hand on her belly at night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the skin. The outside on the inside. Skin within skin under skin.

We brought her home and named her, and life went on. Sometimes I come home and Sandra is in the garage with the skin in her arms, the baby beside her. There’s a soft grief in the way she tells her stories that I can’t bear, so I leave them to it. She didn’t tell her parents about the baby. She said it was cruel to dangle a grandchild just out of their reach, even though I’d always said they were welcome to visit, particularly in the cold winters. Apparently I didn’t understand.

I tried to be romantic and booked a day off work without telling her. I made her breakfast and brought it to her in bed with the skin. I’ll take care of the baby, I told her, you go visit your folks for the day. Her head fell and she started a low hum that broke into a wail. I didn’t know what I’d done and she couldn’t stop screaming long enough to tell me. I took myself over to the moses basket, not wanting to panic the little one. She wiggled in my arms but stayed silent, listening to her mother’s heart breaking. I spent the day holding them both, alternating as needed, and fell asleep between them in exhaustion.

It was dark when Sandra woke me up. She was feeding the baby, her soft crying worse than the wailing. She told me her skin didn’t fit anymore. She couldn’t go back into the sea. She couldn’t feel currents and whirls of darkness surround her, and she couldn’t say goodbye to her mother or introduce our daughter. She’d been telling the stories as lullabies, watching pudgy fingers try grasp the skin, instinctively placing it over her tiny head. We’ll save the skin, I said, and when she was old enough, she could take it. Visit. Explain. It was fixable.

Before Sandra could explain why I was wrong, our daughter unlatched and gave us a gurgled smile as she slipped between waking and sleeping. Sandra beamed, and in my throat a hiccough of love bubbled and burst with such force that for a moment I was convinced I was drowning.


The author shows incredibly strong storytelling skills in building imagined worlds, drawing from folk traditions reminiscent of Zoe Gilbert’s ‘Folk’, and then ever so gently pulling us back into the real world of parenthood and the emotions it brings forth.

Selma Carvalho

‘Skin’ is a breathtakingly moving story with an extraordinary visceral beginning. The first line is irresistibly intriguing, and there’s wonder and beauty throughout. A vividly imaginative take on the sense of loss that can come as a woman sets aside her former self to embrace motherhood.

Judy Darley

Daniel Draper is a prize-winning writer from Derbyshire whose work is influenced by the uncanny and macabre of the everyday. If he isn’t writing or teaching, he’s probably on Twitter @MrDraperMaths.

 

The 2021 winter short-list

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

If your story is listed, please do not identify which story belongs to you, as the judges finalise the winners.

SHORT LISTED STORIES

  • A drag queen named Lipstick by Conor Duggan
  • Barking Mad by Richard Frost
  • Connie by Linda Morse
  • Fearful Symmetry by Holly Barratt
  • For the love of Plantains by Cornerlis Affre
  • Let’s pretend by E.E Rhodes
  • Milestones by Frances Gapper
  • No One’s Dream by Benjamin Britworth
  • Procrastination by Helen Rushworth
  • Ready the Heart by Lynsey May
  • Show your colours by Sarah McPherson
  • Skin by Daniel Draper
  • Some Small Change by Thomas Moody
  • Spent Matches by Tali’s Johnson
  • Sticks and Stones by Elizabeth Smith
  • The Mycologist by Louis Rossi
  • The Ocean he poured inside by Patrick Clarke
  • Tempus Ferriviaria by Kim Donovan

Many wonderful stories just missed the final list, which is why we want to offer a chance to win a free critique on your entry when you sign up to our mailing list.

Would you like another pair of eyes on your work? Would you like a closer look at your story and what may or may not be working? Writing is a craft, and we hope you will be inspired to keep going with a little extra help from us. Your next story, may just be our next winner.

Our next competition will be opening on the 1 May 2021. Soon, we will also be announcing more prizes as part of the summer competition. We will be providing more opportunities to win and more rewards for those who enter.

The 2021 winter long-list

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

Congratulations to the all the authors who reached the top 5% of entries in the Prize. 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 drag queen named Lipstik by Conor Duggan
  • Babalawo by Ayemhenre Okosun
  • Barking mad by Richard Frost
  • Burning Love by Marie Day
  • Connie by Linda Morse
  • Drone Dominion by George Honiball
  • Fearful symmetry by Holly Barratt
  • The ocean he poured inside by Patrick Clarke
  • Flashes by Conor Montague
  • For the love of plantains by Cornerlis Affre
  • Let’s pretend by Frances Gapper
  • Let’s pretend (2) by E.E. Rhodes
  • Milestones by Frances Gapper
  • Mornings were for milk by Jean Murray
  • My philosophical invention by Salah Golandami
  • My Broken Nose by Simon Harris
  • Nine hundred words on our transformations by David Hartley
  • No-one’s dream by Benjamin Britworth
  • Procrastination by Helen Rushworth
  • Rainbows in a jar by Abigail Johnson
  • Ready the heart by Lynsey May
  • Schrödinger’s Doves by Louise Mills
  • Show your colours by Sarah McPherson
  • Skin by Daniel Draper
  • Someone like you by Clare Marsh
  • Some small change by Thomas Moody
  • Something’s going on in the staircase by Esther González
  • Spent matches by Talis Johnson
  • Sticks and stones by Elizabeth Smith
  • Tempus Ferriviaria by Kim Donovan
  • The Longest day by Susan Wigmore
  • The lover by Paul Jackson
  • The mud by Michelle Donkin
  • The Mycologist by Louis Rossi
  • Virus by Rose New

We hope to have our shortlist for you next week, and our winners by 1 March.

Our next competition will be opening on the 1 May 2021. Soon, we will also be announcing more prizes as part of the summer competition, providing more opportunities to win and more rewards for those who enter.

One of the hardest things in the world is to convey a meaning accurately from one mind to another.

Lewis Carroll

So if you don’t find yourself on this list, we hope you’ll try again in our next competition.

The Next Chapter

As the competition closes, we are proud to announce our judges for this round of the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize.


We have had hundreds of entries from all over the world including: India, Spain, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Czechia, Netherlands, Israel, South Africa, France, Nigeria, Finland, Ghana, United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and more. It has been our pleasure to offer dozens of free places too.

Competitions have the power to inspire, encourage, and elevate writers wherever they are on their journey. We hope it has provided writers with the stone they need to sharpen their tools. A way to improve their craft by providing motivation, a deadline, and opportunity.

Without further ado, we are thrilled to announce our judges:

You can find out more about our judges on our webpage.


Throughout February we will be reading your stories, and we will announce our long-listed entries in a few weeks time. In the final week, we will announce the winners of the prizes and the first place trophy. Those who have been long-listed will also be offered publication in our end-of-year digital anthology.

If you want to be the first to hear about the latest news, listings and results, then sign up to our mailing list below.

Join our mailing list

Deadline extension for free entries

We have extended our deadline for free entries until 25 January 2020.

We offer free entry to writers on a low/no-income or who receive Unemployment Benefits, Unemployment Insurance, Unemployment Compensation, or other state/authorised aid. We also provide free entries for students.

Did we miss something?

Whatever your circumstances, if the entry fee is a sticking-point and you won’t submit because of it, then please do get in touch. Our criteria is wide and we want everyone to have the chance to enter.

Have you already applied and waiting to hear back?

We have had some writers get in touch through our contact form, but our reply bounced-back. If you haven’t heard back from us, please get in touch again using our email address below.

Eligible applicants will be granted free entry on a first-come first-served basis and all applicants will be informed about the success of their application within a week. Only one free entry will be granted per applicant and you will be invited to submit via a new link in an email.  

To apply, email us at contact@oxfordflashfictionprize.com and include your name, email address, and a short statement detailing your eligibility for free entry. 

£1000 first prize

Thanks to a generous donation, we’re excited to announce that our first prize has increased to £1000. That’s right, £1000!

It has been a wonderful, early Christmas present for us here at the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize. We are hugely grateful to our benefactors for this opportunity, which we hope will inspire writers everywhere.

We’ve seen entries already coming in from all over the world, and we’re thrilled at the enthusiasm we’ve received, and can’t wait to begin reading them! There’s still plenty of time left to enter the competition, and for those lucky enough to be getting a break over the festive season, we hope you’ll be putting pen-to-paper (so to speak).

It’s going to be a challenging couple of weeks as we prepare ourselves for a possible lockdown in the new year, but creativity and writing can provide us with joy, peace and understanding. There aren’t many prizes in January, so we hope ours will spur you on to find a moment for yourself and write.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution to write more? Then pen your masterpiece in the next couple of weeks and send it in. We can’t wait to read your stories!

The Prize in a Pandemic

Oxford Flash Fiction Prize: Write yourself into history and become one of the greats

Here in one of the oldest towns, where the history of the English language can be traced back to its ancient streets, we want to celebrate one of the newest forms in literature – flash fiction – with an international bi-annual competition.

In times like these, we need stories more than ever to give us perspective, hope, escapism, motivation, and more. We believe competitions, such as ours, have the power to inspire, encourage, and elevate writers wherever they are on their journey.

We hope the prize provides writers like you with the stone you need to sharpen your tools. A way to improve your craft by providing motivation, a deadline, and opportunity. In the words of the famous Oxford author:

‘It is only by writing, not dreaming about it,

that we develop our own style.’

PD JAMES

We want to encourage writers from all backgrounds to enter the prize, to represent Oxford as it really is. We don’t care if you know Latin or if you’ve made up your own language, all we care about is great storytelling. Throw out the rule book, and look to the spires.

Our doors are open, so if you’re in need of a free entry, get in touch with us today.

We’ll be posting quotes and tips and keeping you up to date as the Prize progresses. So don’t forget to subscribe. We have lots of plans in the making, so watch this space.

You have 90 days until the deadline, so get crafting and feel inspired! To find out more about us, roam our website.

We’re still developing some of the finer details, so do bear with us.