We're delighted to reveal the winner and two runner-up entries for our short story competition with Retreat West!
Jane Elmor – author of My Vintage Summer and Pictures Of You, and Creative Writing tutor for the Open University – has very kindly judged the competition, and selected the winning entries.
The overall winner receiving an exclusive free place on Retreat West's November retreat in West Bay, Dorset, benefitting from essential workshops led by Richard Skinner and Amanda Saint.
Both runners up will also be the lucky recipients of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2018, a Writers & Artists Writing Companion Guide of their choice, and a Retreat West Anthology of stories from the annual Retreat West Short Story Prize and Flash Fiction Prize.
Winning entry: Louise Taylor with Of Cabbages And Wreckers
Feedback from Jane Elmor:
I’ve chosen this for its unusual and intriguing premise – a modern/futuristic wrecking story. Focusing on a taut active scene, what I found particularly clever and gripping was the way excellent clues about the strange situation were dripped in throughout; the titles of the only books that have been saved, why the narrator’s parents choose whether their child should appear a boy or girl for reasons of safety, the disappearance of the cabbages in the garden and the dog – even though there wasn’t “a pick of meat on him” . . . This created a great tension, really holding my attention as I wondered, what’s happened in this place? What’s happening now? I found myself completely absorbed by this suspenseful story.
Scroll down to read Louise's story
Runners up: Mark Mayes with Watching It Go and Alexis Wolfe with Resume
Feedback from Jane Elmor on Mark's entry:
I like the way that what this was about, what was happening to the character, was gradually and subtly revealed. The narrator’s voice felt plausible and authentic, which I think was a very difficult thing to achieve in this premise – it seemed just right for the spirit of this man. His former life was shown in tiny glimpses that were just enough to give us all the backstory we needed to explain his situation. What made this a fully rounded story was the lovely use of other characters in the surroundings coming in and out of focus – echoing well the character’s sensations - so that despite the internal nature of the narration, the reader ultimately gets a bird’s eye view of the whole scene.
Scroll down to read Mark's story
Feedback from Jane Elmor on Alexis' entry:
There was some great use of language in this story – I really enjoyed the lovely touches of vocabulary and simile, which served to create an evocative sense of the setting of an off-season seaside town. The right tone was set - and I was immediately drawn in - by the early likeness of the sea meeting the horizon like a “dirty infinity pool”. The characterisation was also strong – the observations of the unknowing ‘applicants’ summoned them up clearly in my mind’s eye, and the main character was unveiled bit by bit so that we grew to understand what’s led her to this emotional state - and ultimately her extraordinary plan, finally revealed.
Scroll down to read Alexis' story
Many congratulations to Louise, Mark and Alexis, and thanks once again to all those who entered. Remember, if you're looking for another free writing competition with equally exciting prizes, be sure to visit our competition page.
About Retreat West
Retreat West was founded by novelist and short story writer, Amanda Saint, in 2012 and provides writing retreats, courses and competitions. So far some of the people that have worked with Retreat West on retreats, courses and competitions include Man-Booker Prize shortlisted author, Alison Moore; Richard & Judy Book Club author, Rowan Coleman; multi-award-winning short story writer, Vanessa Gebbie; Polari Prize winning-novelist and founder of the London Short Story Festival, Paul McVeigh; and the head of the Faber Academy’s fiction programme, novelist and poet, Richard Skinner.
Of Cabbages And Wreckers by Louise Taylor
There used to be wreckers along this coast, so Dad says. Years ago, before the estuary ran dry, the men would come out of their houses after dark to light a huge bonfire on top of the cliffs. Then they’d wait. Sooner or later, a ship always came, tacking eastwards instead of holding hard and safe for the south.
Dad knows these things because he had a book describing it all. A while ago, I wanted to look at it but it wasn’t one of the ones we’d saved. There are only two left now: Where There Is No Doctor and Foraging for Self-Sufficiency. They’ve even got rid of all the gardening books. Perhaps they did that morning we unbolted the door to find the garden stripped of even the last of the cabbages. Three days later, the dog was gone too. Mum wept, twisting his lead between her hands. ‘And there wasn’t even a pick of meat on him,’ she said.
I’d come to dislike the dog – he’d taken to snatching my food and barking at the wind – but, now, blundering in the blackness along the cliff top, I miss him. His paws knew this route well even without the wind-up torch Dad said we couldn’t bring. ‘But don’t we need light,’ I said, ‘to-’
He held a finger to his lips. ‘Once we leave the house, not a word.’
Apparently, this prohibition doesn’t apply to him. The wind is blowing a dark cloud away from the moon, and his lips are moving. ‘Path’s here. Follow me.’
Below us, the grey sea is sequined with the unexpected moonlight. It’s not exactly a wrecker’s moon. But it’s all we’ve got and so still we’re heading down this path that isn’t really a path anymore. It’s half-choked with gorse that dreadlocked volunteers with big gloves and bigger boots used to spend a week every spring hacking back. I used to see them on the beach sometimes, at the end of the day. They’d have lit a fire and would be sitting around it, drinking beer while someone strummed a guitar. I planned to join them, as soon as I was old enough. I even started learning the guitar.
My corduroys are withstanding the gorse snares all right but there’s a rrrrrppt as one of the spiky branches catches at Dad’s trousers. They’re the Italian wool ones, from his best suit, pretty much all he has left now. No-one wanted to buy them, back when we were still selling things.
There’s sand beneath my shoes. I scuff my heels into it, and feel the press of Dad’s hand on my arm. ‘You stay behind those rocks.’ His face is shadowed but his whisper is ragged with worry. ‘And, remember: don’t speak.’
It’s funny how they think I’ll be safe if I don’t say anything. They argued, more than once, about whether I should be boy or girl. Dad wanted to give me a buzz-cut and Mum wanted me in braids. Back and forth they argued the toss over which way would be safest when, truth is, how can it be either? Now, with my hair brushing my collar, I do as I’m told and go behind the rocks.
There are others here, too. Hunched and moving sideways, like crabs, they’re emerging from hidey-holes in the cliffs and depressions in the sand. A pile of rocks I hadn’t been able to place ignites with a pfftt! and throws sparks of scarlet and gold into the sky. Petrol. Someone still has petrol.
‘What if a ship doesn’t come?’ I’d asked Dad.
He zipped up his coat. ‘It will. There’s no other way.’
He means that the marshy estuary the sea has swollen to refill is the only way left to move anything that’s worth something to someone. Even so, I can’t believe it, not until, just as in some ghastly ghost story, some wraith of a vessel shapes itself into being on the charcoal-smudged horizon: a mast, sails, the whale-like body of the boat. It’s impossible to believe that whoever is steering has not seen the sandbank that lies ahead. But it’s moving with the wind, it’s sailing and I’m waiting, fists clenched, nails gouging little troughs in my palms, for the heave and splinter of timbers, and the rushing of the crab-men as they splash towards their prize. I don’t know what it is they are expecting but I’m hoping for food – meat, real bread or, please god, chocolate.
The boat – it’s far too small to be called a ship – rises with the tide, rises, falls and does not rise again. Its bow points skywards while the sand sucks at its prow. The waves break around it.
And now the crab-men are on the move. Incautious, they stand upright and run at the sea. The boat waits, quiet and still. I lick my lips, tasting chocolate.
A crrraackk, extending into a tattoo of red-orange noise, sends me flying, face-first, into the sand. I don’t even know if I’ve been hit but I squeeze my eyes closed and work at willing into existence sheets, blankets and a pair of curtains.
When, at last, I can hear only the sea’s shushing, I lift my head. The men are fallen shadows in the shallows, Dad surely among them, but the waves are still moving. They’re carrying something; it bobs up and down and, at first, I think it’s a head. Sourness fills my mouth and I spit the stuff onto the sand.
When the waves can carry the thing no further, I wriggle forwards, a land creature returning to the sea. My fingers make contact and I know it by touch: a cabbage.
It’s an absurd cargo but it’s all this beach and that sea are giving up. I roll the cabbage towards me and, clasping it to my chest, rise to a half-stand - and then I run as if the tide is not coming in behind me.
Watching It Go by Mark Mayes
If they saw me at all, they thought I was asleep or pissed. I heard them walking by, the couple.
Do you do reading, Bruce? These days, I mean.
I do read, but I only read on planes, and stuff.
Bruce, do you remember that time I was sick here? I’d swallowed a mouthful of seawater. I was sick, and you gave me the towel, and we dumped it in a bin.
I don’t hear what Bruce says because a seabird screeches right near me.
Don’t ask me how I know but I know Bruce won’t last the year. I can hear the cells in his body overworking. I can hear the blood complaining.
A night passes without event and now the light’s back. There’s sand on my lips and face. Stuck there like an itchy skin. I could do with a lolly or some lime cordial. No one wants to take me away. They’re letting me rot like an old fish. But I don’t smell myself. I only smell the sea. And I smell a trace of the memory of her touch from twenty years ago. I don’t know if I have hair anymore.
Dog races. Coming closer. A red setter. The friendly sort. It bounds over me. I’m just another rock to Benji. I know that’s his name cos the owner calls it. A young girl’s voice. Posh kinda. The dog retraces and sniffs at me, lets go a low whine. Lick my face, boy. Lick the sand away.
And so he lollops away.
This place isn’t much visited. Off-season, you sea, I mean see. Why I chose it, I suppose. If I could turn my head, I might see more of them. Those humans. I say them because I know I’m not them anymore, not really. Perhaps I never was.
It’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the landing. And here’s the thing. It didn’t. It was a very sad and low thump. And shock blocked off the pain receptors. I saw the rocks rushing past as I spun over myself. I saw the ground comically grinning at my approach. I saw a smile painted in the sand by some child’s finger. More likely a crab’s arduous journey. Whump. Shush.
I feel the memory of cold as from one eye I see my trouser leg ruffle in some fretful wind. But cold is a word only now, and I never feared words.
Geoffrey – we’re ready for you now.
Someone wants me. I know that voice. It’s my old maths teacher. The square root of this is that.
Geoff – time to let go.
Yes, Mum. She sounds young again, before that blasted illness got her. And the waves are so comforting at night. I must’ve turned my face a bit, for now I see tiny lights far out. Blue and green. They want me to leave all this repose – after finally finding it. But let me stay, I think, until I’m true ready.
Geoffrey – it’s time.
Okay, Dad. Is it time for bed? It’s comforting knowing I’ll be with them soon. But the waves want me here just a bit longer. And I’m yet to be found. The water won’t come back this far. Why don’t they see me? Where’s the stretcher and the sheet, and the forms to be filled? And my worldlies to be disposed of. I left things in apple pie order. I can’t go before I’m found. It wouldn’t be right. I was always a responsible man.
And I’ve just now spoken these words to the night wind, to then sense the engine on the height behind me. And eyes in the back of my head see the blue light spinning. Arcing over the darkened beach. Time zips, and then – voices. Feet.
Let’s get him on.
I’m being lifted but all I’m aware of is hands. I see hands as separated from bodies – like those mime artists in all black but for their pale hands. Funny. And the hands are gentler than ever I found in life. The stretcher is like a hammock. Luxury. My head rolls. They haven’t even proved I was dead. What happened to mouth-to-mouth? I brushed my teeth this morning, or that morning. It might’ve been years ago.
He’s a weight, isn’t he?
Look’s peaceful, though.
They grunt as I’m carted – we’re going up a slope. They’re earning their money tonight. I sense an ending waiting, for us all.
I’m still here, I say. I still feel you. A sheet gets put over my eyes. It smells like baking bread.
Why do they do it? says the Scottish one.
Get’s too much, I suppose.
The daily strain.
There’s a bloody phone up there. Samaritans. He coulda tried that.
Some people have used up all their calls.
Philosopher, you are.
We’re in the wagon now. One’s in the back with me. The other one’s driving. It’s just their job.
And then I know it’s up to me. I’m going anyway. It’s up to me to say it’s over. And so I mouth it beneath the face sheet. It’s over.
The man jumps back against the side of the ambulance, something falls down, hits him.
What is it? What’s going on back there?
He spoke. He just moved his mouth under the sheet.
Don’t mess about then. Check for signs.
As the sheet’s lifted I see him do it from the passenger seat. I don’t remember moving here. The side window’s open - refreshing. Forties tunes on the radio. I danced to that one once – with – with – it doesn’t matter.
No, must’ve been my imagination.
Running away with me – the driver sings.
And so, without a word, I slip out the side window into the blackness and rush of night, hover while the ambulance grows distant across fields, till it’s like a light out at sea. I watch its light until there’s nothing left.
Resume by Alexis Wolfe
The dawn mist lingers; spritzing my face as I run through our coastal town. At the foot of the hill, churned brown by last night’s storm, the sea meets the horizon like a dirty infinity pool.
I settle into a steady jog, springing up and down kerbs. Trainers squeaking. I’m not the first to navigate the seagull-shit splattered pavements today. Evidence on the doorsteps, the milkman has preceded me. Not every house has milk delivered, the holiday homes lie empty all winter, mocking those of us who are twenty-nine and still living at home, never saving enough for a deposit.
Out of season, I head straight for the empty beach. In summer, it’s crowded with out-of-towners carving out territory, their multi-coloured windbreakers going up like fences. Even at sunrise, the beach is still pockmarked with old sandcastles, an outbreak of giant molehills. But in winter, when the tide’s out and the sand is compacted like an old bag of sugar, it’s perfect.
Reaching the pay and display car park alongside the beach, I spot him. Waiting. I assess him quickly, considering him for a job, for which he’s not applied.
I’ve seen this candidate before, same time, same bus stop. The wooden shelter reeking of fags and urine. Usually pacing back and forth, appearing mildly unhinged. Obstructing the whole pavement, his plumpness should have been shaken off in youth but lingered. Jogging closer I notice his battered trainers, one shoelace perilously undone, his pizza-like complexion, a gawky man-child, barely out of teenage years.
In his favour: his reliable routine. First bus to Truro, for the further education college perhaps. Me too, if my grades had been better. If Dad hadn’t vanished, leaving me helping Mum in the cafe, all hours. Mind you, early o’clock for college. Probably got to collect his medication at the big chemist.
It’d be easy to feign breathlessness, stop jogging, start a conversation. But does he have the wherewithal to take things to the next level?
Killing takes focus. Preparation.
The bus arrives, cascading puddle water onto the pavement. Pizza Face hops from foot to foot, awaiting the automatic door swoosh. Agitated enough to do it. Definitely strong enough, but not bright enough to get away with it. I cross him off my mental list.
They say if you want something done properly, do it yourself. This is the exception. A plethora of methods: razors, rivers, acids, drugs, guns, bridges, exhaust pipes, rope. Not to mention the cliffs, jagged rocks, swirling sea. I’ve thought about all those and more.
Nothing appeals. Getting someone else to do it seems the easiest option. My feet pound the pavement looking for the right man, or the right wrong man.
I run out onto the sand. The sound of the crashing waves, the rhythmic noise that beats below this town: it’s heartbeat, is immediately amplified. Low tide reveals vast sands, bigger than the biggest field you’ve ever seen. Lived here all my life, yet I’m still in awe.
I run parallel to the sea, heading for the furthest corner, where waves caress the cliffs. The trick is selecting a path firm enough to run without sinking. Too high up, dry sand churns underfoot; too close to the sea, you risk wet socks.
Another familiar figure ahead.
Sitting on a large rock, stick prodding the sand, bottle-shaped brown paper bag dangling in the other hand. He rises, staring out to sea. I’m almost upon him before he notices, my footfall drowned out by deafening waves.
“Good morning lassie!” He raises one arm and toasts me with the paper bag. Swaying, he leans on the rock to steady himself.
Other end of the scale; winter to Pizza Face’s summer. His face: red, blotchy and leathered, bulbous nose and burst blood vessels of the heavy drinker. Tartan pyjamas with anorak and wellies. I deliberately run closer, wanting him to smell my perfume, see beads of sweat on my upper lip. I’m rewarded with a cross-eyed stare, a waft of last night’s whisky.
Deep ridges etch the sand here, driftwood sails streams of water left behind as the tide moves out. Discarded cans and bottles litter one cave, debris of a teenage gathering. I’d hang out there before my mates grew up. Those with prospects escaped; leaving me here through long dead winters.
Running was the doctor’s idea. He wouldn’t hand over the pills until I’d tried exercising for a couple of weeks. Might help sleep patterns or lift your mood, he said. Wanker.
I reach the end of the bay, seagulls screech angrily from the cliffs. I circle back and my man is nowhere to be seen.
Our paths have only crossed twice in a fortnight. No rhythm to his daily walks, his life unstructured and on demand. I’ll adjust, depart later. Give him time to climb from the wreckage of last night’s revelries. But not so late that his invincibility has worn off.
My hair in a ponytail will aid his capture. Legs on autopilot but I’ll act exhausted; avoid the impression I’d out run him if he made a play for me. Dog walkers use the beach in winter, miniature figures near the car park, smoking and leaning against the No Dogs sign, but the caves are isolated enough for the main event.
Dank waterlogged caves, dark with shadows. Drag me in. Timed right, early Sunday morning no one would hear our scuffle. I don’t plan on screaming. Cliff face to press me up against, for additional traction when he tightens his grip on my throat.
In summer, children gather round the rock pools like campfires. The rocks glisten, strewn with green and black seaweed. Perfect place to dump my body, which will need to be found, I have relatives.
There’s a sudden shout.
“Keep running love.”
Startled, I swing round, stumble. There he is. Pissing in a crevice between the rock face, head craning over his shoulder, smirking.
This man I’m almost certain will take my life.