Creative Writing Ink Short Story Competition 2023 Winners, Runners-up and Shortlist
Congratulations to the winner, runners-up and shortlisted entrants of the Creative Writing Ink Short Story Competition 2023!
Let’s Say You Dance
A bar with a dancefloor.
Somewhere in Spain, Playa-something. Blinking slowly as the music pounds. You are seventeen and you shouldn’t be here.
Slip into a doze. Easy, delicious escape. A barge on your shoulder and you come to and you look around and you locate your friends. They are scattered. Two are clambering over the counter trying to buy drinks. Another two mingle with strangers. The final, the tallest, takes centre stage on the dancefloor, moving perfectly, as if doing something rehearsed. Girls cheer and whoop. You realise you have always despised him, this tall friend.
You shift your weight from side to side. Hands clasped together because it makes your shoulders broad and your demeanour casual and you don’t know what else to do with them. You had never been to a club or bar before this holiday. Nobody told you that you have to dance. You didn’t think that far ahead, though it seems quite obvious now.
You had hoped that alcohol would bring it out of you, whatever it was, that sacred necessary thing. But alcohol has only brought your attention to its absence, and you feel it as a void inside your soul.
And then there is the elephant in the room. Because let’s say you dance. Let’s say you can dance. And let’s say you dance with somebody. Well what then? Where do you go from there?
For months the prospect of sex has hung over you like some terrible exam you keep putting off. Next month you will be eighteen, and you must have had sex by eighteen. Otherwise there is some deficiency in you (which is a worrying thought, because you already suspect there are many deficiencies in you) and your chances of eradicating it are, tragically, even lower, and they keep lowering with every failed month. Then you are nineteen. Then, God-forbid, you are twenty, and you are lonely, and there is something seriously wrong with you.
The word virgin has recently started being thrown around school as an insult and you dread the day that it is levelled at you. But that day is surely coming. Three of your friends are no longer virgins. You can sense, sometimes, the word quivering at the edges of their lips when they are feeling playfully cruel, which is often, and you feel deeply, madly compelled to rob them of their leverage.
You are barged again. You turn and see a man with crazed eyes staring back at you. He is holding out a plastic cup and there is liquid soaked all over his sleeve. He pushes your chest and asks what your problem is.
“I’m sorry,” you say, though you’re not sure what for.
He shakes his head and scowls dismissively as if you are little more than a speck, indistinct from the booze on his sleeve. He turns back to his group. One of them, a girl in a leopard-print dress, squats down before him and grinds against his crotch.
An ache of disappointment. You had always imagined that you would act heroically in a confrontation. But you had never been truly confronted. And now you are cowering, and you are afraid, like a boy lost in a supermarket.
Your tall friend is dancing with a girl. She is blonde and pretty. They are holding each other’s hands, and sometimes they spill into each other’s arms. Your two friends at the bar are addressing a girl between them. You have lost the other two friends; they are somewhere in the throng of shifting bodies. The floor is sticky like velcro beneath your shoes. The air is smoky. In it there is a faint aroma of vomit, like fruity cheese.
You will leave this place on your own tonight.
You can already feel it materialising as a routine. You see your future like a stark grey wall. This will spill over into university, and it will roll into your twenties and beyond. You will go out with your friends. It will start off fun, and you will love them and everything in the world. But at some point the night will turn into a game, and it is a game you will never win because you don’t know how to play. And you will stand on the sidelines until it is time to go home.
You don’t have it in you to just talk to people, to introduce yourself with words or a glance or a nod, condense who you are into a charming, five-second billboard. And then of course there is the rejection. You know intuitively that it would kill you.
You don’t want to be seen. A day before the holiday, a spray of pimples announced themselves on your chin, and they burn now in their naked exposure. The sweat has turned your hair greasy, and it has separated into clumps over your forehead. You feel as though you look younger than everybody else. Yet at the same time there is this plundering wish for somebody to look at you, to make the first move, do all the work, lead you coolly and calmly to their bed like some kind and gentle spirit.
And what you do in their bed, well, try not to think about it. Just get it done. Don’t make a fool of yourself.
You feel something like a punch in your ear. You turn around. It’s your friend, one of the two you lost, and he has been shouting at you. His mouth is moving but it’s like he’s behind a wall of glass. He tries to lean into your ear again but you push him away and he looks at you sad and wounded, big childish eyes; but the way he moves is so slow and clumsy and stilted you realise you hate his drunkenness. Or maybe not just his drunkenness.
He’s asking if you want a drink. You tell him yes. You don’t know what else you can say.
And when he leaves there is a gap in the crowd behind him, and this is when you see somebody, ten or so paces away, leaning by themselves against a pillar.
This person has big, square glasses, unfashionable glasses, and he is wearing a loose shirt. His chest is pale and his arms are long and skinny. He looks around the dancefloor with a kind of poetic detachment, and it stirs something in you, a longing, and if there is anybody in this place you wish to talk to it is him. You feel, somehow, an affinity. You take a step. You wait for him to notice you. The pillar behind him is mirrored and it gives the effect that he is both immersed in the sea of people and yet also perfectly severed from them.
But just as you are within calling distance you feel a hand on your shoulder that swivels you around.
You reel with panic and anger and this time you are ready to punch whoever has interfered with you. But you can’t. Because looking down at you with a big warm smile is your tall friend, and he is joined by two girls, one of them the blonde pretty one from earlier.
He leans towards your ear. “You alright?” he says.
He waits for your response. He fixes you with this look– and you realise that alcohol makes you realise things, and you see now that he always gives you this look, this kind of condescending, perplexed grin, as if he is oh so amused by your awkwardness. But these feelings are remote, and you forget them, just as you forget that you despise him, and you are giddy and you want to be liked.
“I’m good,” you say, though you can’t even hear your own voice; it’s as if you’re underwater.
“Listen,” he says in your ear. “These two are eager. I’ve done all the work.”
You nod. You look at the two girls. The second girl isn’t as pretty as her friend. She has dark hair and a round face. She reminds you of a primary school teacher.
“You take the bigger one,” your friend says. “She won’t leave me alone. And hey — thank me later. Don’t fumble this.”
He pulls away and smirks and presents you with his fist. You bump it with your own. Then he takes his girl by the arm and you watch them slip away into the crowd.
You are alone with your new friend. She looks at you and smiles shyly and then looks down at her feet.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” you say.
She is very close to you. You avoid her eyes. The spots on your chin throb like children screaming for attention and the music only seems to be getting louder.
But you are also enthralled; your breath comes out shallow and dry. It dawns on you, with sudden clarity, that this girl — whatever she looks like, and it’s not like she looks bad— might be the one to do it, to save you from all your fears. You are just like everybody else, now. A girl is looking at you. She wants to take you home.
A man at seventeen. A spasm of boldness, you reach out and hold her waist. She doesn’t stop you. Hands glide over fleshy sides. She moves her hips from side to side, in time with the music, so loud you cannot hear the words, and you mirror the way she moves. You suppose you are dancing. Your eyes lock. Faces still and intense.
A tap on your shoulder, and you turn and see your drunk friend, with his promised drink. You take it and thank him. He slaps your arm in celebration, babbles something proud and unclear, then wanders off on his way.
Guzzle the drink. Feel the exquisite sting of knock-off cola and cheap spirit.
The music and the lights and the people coalesce into one, then fade away, like so much paint spilling down the walls. It’s just you and her. A kind of animal greed glimmers in her eyes and her lips latch onto yours before you even know what is happening. Her tongue rummages inside your mouth, all wetness, the first taste of somebody else, the faint sourness of vodka and teeth and old stale chewing-gum.
There is a delay between sensation and thought, and when the first thoughts come they are not good. This feeling isn’t good. You want to stop and pull away; you feel yourself grimacing.
But you remember that you are now a man kissing a woman in a bar. This is all that matters.
So you kiss, and maybe it’s normal that nothing is happening, that you are oscillating between numbness and revulsion. Maybe it’s normal and maybe you’re just nervous and maybe you need to man the hell up. Remember that people are looking at you now with sad, desperate envy. You are playing their game and you are beating them at it.
Time melts away; your eyes are heavy and the songs keep hammering down. You could have been with her ten minutes or ten hours but before you know it she has you by the hand and she is leading you out of this place.
When you step out into fresh nighttime heat an ache gnaws at your stomach, as if you have forgotten something essential and irretrievable. But you forget what you have forgotten and you soon forget even the ache. You’re in a taxi and she’s all over you. Hands everywhere. In this new privacy the novelty is wearing off. The ringing in your ears is frightening, and the quiet, tiled, lonely foreign streets that pass around you are frightening, and the idea of what might happen next is too frightening even to think about.
You are drifting in and out, your head barely above water. You come to and you are in an elevator that smells of fish. Then you’re in an apartment, glass bottles, takeaway boxes, the heady stench of perfume. Now you’re in a bedroom and now you’re on a bed. A ceiling fan whirls from above. Vaguely threatening. She is kissing you again. Inside you are a frenzy. But your body is so terribly slow, every movement like lugging a huge weight.
She pulls away. The room is dark but a greyish light comes in through the big balcony window and casts her face in its haze. Her makeup is pasty, lipstick smudged, her eyes drunk and innocent.
“You alright?” she says.
You nod almost ferociously. “I’m good,” you say. “I’m all good.”
“That’s good,” she says, and then she begins kissing your neck. It elicits nothing in you.
She pulls away again. “Do you think Sophie is ok?” she says.
You give the question some thought. “Yeah,” you say. “Of course.” You have no idea who Sophie is.
“Your friend is nice, isn’t he?” she asks. “She’ll be ok with him?”
“Oh,” you say, a little too loud, your leg slipping off the mattress. “Yeah. She’ll be ok. My friend is nice.”
She looks relieved. She starts kissing you again. “Good,” she says, between kisses. “I’m glad.”
You feel the guilt of telling a lie. You close your eyes, and you see your tall friend, and he is looking at you, in his way. You open your eyes and you see the girl’s face. It is strange and alien this close, scarcely a face at all, and it feels wrong, so wrong. But you have to keep going even though you know where it will lead.
“You’re so fit,” she says.
You kiss and kiss and kiss. You might as well be kissing your own arm. In you is the complete absence of arousal, a hollow vacancy, a pit of dread and shame and ineffectual wanting.
Eventually she says, “Are you sure you’re alright?” A hint of accusation in her voice.
“Yeah,” you say quickly, as if trying to snatch the question away from her.
“It’s just, we’ve been here a while,” she says.
“Yeah,” you say. You don’t know what else you can say.
“Do you want to get on top?”
No, no you don’t want to get on top. You want to disappear. But you find yourself clambering anyway.
And now, leaning over her, your hands planted on the mattress, arms shaking, you wait for something to happen. A twitch of desire. Something. But nothing comes. So you lean down and start to kiss her again.
You realise, soon, that her face is trembling. You recede from her. It’s what you feared. Her face is streaked wet and pink, and she is crying these sad, lonesome tears.
“Oh god,” you say, and you manoeuvre yourself so you are sitting next to her. You feel that you should touch her, some consoling gesture, but you don’t.
She covers her face. She shakes her head.
“What’s wrong?” you say.
“I knew it,” she says. “I just knew it.”
“Knew what?” you say. “Knew what?”
“Why would you like me?” she says. She uncovers her face, holds her hands out across her body. “Look at me. I’m not Sophie. Look at me.” Her voice melts into hacking tears and her eyes squeeze shut.
You realise, even in this messy, bleary stupor, that there has been some awful misunderstanding, and it is one you have no hope of ever articulating.
“No,” you say. “No, that’s not it at all.”
“I’m fat,” she barks. Her eyes are glazed over and unseeing and it is apparent that she is much drunker than you thought. “I’m fat, I’m fat.” You look down at this girl who is not even overweight and you see the pain in her and you see that she is barely older than you.
“You’re not,” you say.
“Then what is it?” she cries. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry,” though you’re not sure what for, and you regret saying anything at all.
You stand up. Her question rings in your mind.
What is it? What is wrong with you, after all?
You go over to the balcony. There is a gentle breeze. The night air is cool against your skin. You close your eyes— an easy, delicious escape. You think back. A bar with a dancefloor. The dancing, endless. And the people.
You wonder if he is still there. Leaning against the pillar, delicate and forlorn. You wonder if it is already too late.
Then comes the sound of a door unlocking. Heavy, stumbling footsteps. You hear raised voices, a girl and a boy’s; and you recognise your tall friend’s laughter.
Into The Drinking Dark
Ten beers and unknown amounts of vodka made the world around Dottie a bit blurry. Her cheeks ached from laughing so hard. Springsteen pumped out the hi-fi in her living room. Bodies leaned against walls, sprawled on couches, filled every available space. The party was good. Life was good.
She slalomed her way into the kitchen – a good party always ended in the kitchen. Where the booze was. She poured herself another. The sharp taste of vodka made her suck in a breath through her teeth.
“You partying without me, my cowboy man?” said Dottie.
Her boyfriend Pete leaned on the counter, He scooched over and let her in. When he put his arm around her, the smell of his manly sweat had her tracing the muscles in his back with her fingernail.
“Tell you something,” a man called Eric who lived down the street said, “been here for over twenty years now and never drunked myself so hard as you drinked me. Never, never, Dottie. Trust me. Wha… What was I saying? Aye, that was the cookie. I’m so blasting sorry about what happened to your brother, Dots. I—”
“Can it with that chat,” said Dottie, closing her eyes, trying to block out the green beep, beep, beep in her mind. “Live for here. Live for now. That’s what Trevor would’ve said.”
“Sounds like a mighty fine toast to me,” said Pete, clinking his glass against hers.
They all laughed, drank, talked about how bairns didn’t know how to have a good time these days. Someone passed round a baggie with some pills. Without a pause, Dottie took one, playfully nibbled it between her front teeth, then chased it down by finishing her glass.
Pete dutifully took it and poured her another. He was always doing things like that. Such a gentleman. She couldn’t wait for tomorrow when they’d nurse their hangover by visiting the two horses they owned. They’d ride across a field and chase each other. Not a care in the world. Not a—
“What was that?” she said, squinting at a small shape darting about the living room.
She excused herself and pushed her way past a couple nearly humping against her living room wall. The shadow appeared in the corner of her vision. She followed it to the hallway.
“Chasing faeries again,” she whispered to herself, seeing the nimble shape scamper to the bottom of the stairs. “Chasing wee faeries again and again. Away, away, away, aw—”
It was a child. A sullen, almost skeletal thing. It turned to face her, its head down. A mop of tangled, raven-black hair covered most of its face.
“Where did you…” said Dottie, the words almost dripping off her tongue that felt two sizes to big all of a sudden.
“M-Mummy?” the boy said. “Your eyes look funny. Like big shiny pennies.”
“Mum? I’m not—” She ran a hand through her straw dry hair. The walls of the narrow hallway seemed to be crushing in on her, making it harder and harder to draw breath. The warble of Springsteen thrummed up her calves. “H-Harold?”
“Y-Yes, Mum. I couldn’t sleep. Too many musics go thump, thump in my covers.”
“Harold,” she repeated, hand covering her mouth.
She’d forgotten him. Easy as that. Her wee boy who slept up the stairs. Her wee boy who always slept up the stairs while she invited everybody into her home which she’d turned into good times central. How could she forget she was a mother? The answer touched an icy finger at the bottom of her stomach. Because she wanted to forget him, that’s why. She never wanted to fall pregnant with the man who fled town straight after.
“I’m sorry, my wee guy. Up to bed with you. Go on.”
“I need a cuddles in. I can’t hear my brain switching off. Why’s it have to be so loudy?”
She could sense the eyeballs crawling over her back. She grabbed Harold by his bony shoulders, twisted him around, then placed a palm on his lower back, guiding him up. “There’s my boy. Here we go. Up to bed. Forget about us below. Drown us out.”
What sick fate gave her responsibility for another life? Months from her brother’s crash when he’d fallen off his motorbike, the only things she felt she cared for were the mixers for the drinks. The feeling of being alive in the moment.
“Life is short,” he’d said, almost crushing her hand as he lay on the hospital bed, tubes, wires sticking out of him. Beeping machines. “Live for here. Live for now.”
She’d nodded, her tears taking away her ability to speak. Little did he know that Harold was quickening in her stomach. She remembered feeling sick to her bones when he’d said it, but she forced a smile.
“But you need to come in with me,” said Harold, snapping her out of the vivid memory.
She blinked away her thoughts. The boy before her came back into her vision like a creeping shadow. Like a ghost that had no business haunting her.
“In we go,” she sighed. “Come on. In bed now. That’s a good wee guy. Covers up. Tuck them in to your chinny, chin, chin.”
She leaned in, went to kiss his forehead, mistimed it and ended up clattering her teeth against him, drawing a yelped ow that stung at something deep within her.
“Okay,” she said, rubbing her front two teeth, unable to feel them. “Bye.”
“What, Harold? What is it? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“My cuddles. You said cuddles.”
She darted forward, slung her arms around him, let go, straightened. “Better?”
“I’m trying my best here, kiddo. I—”
“Story. Do Gruffalo story. Gruffalo!”
“A story? You want a fu… A story? You kidding me on? Place is rocking downstairs. No chance.”
“Aw, you never read me story.”
“Just you close your eyes and get yourself to sleep. Tell yourself your own story. That’s the best way. Not always gonna be here to do everything for you, you know.”
“You’re barely here now.”
She watched as he turned away from her. When she turned and took a few steps toward the door, his sniffles made her stop. She could feel her heart thumping in her ears. He was crying. Sobbing in a way that only little boys and girls know how. What a wee selfish bugger. Trying to make her give up the party to read a damned story.
She took the last few steps and closed the door behind her, making no effort to be quiet about it. The door cooled her back as she leaned her back against it, resting a hand on the golden doorknob. The world swam before her. Her blood screamed for more. More drink. More dance. More Pete. More anything.
The sobs. They drifted through the door, itching at her thoughts. She turned and set her forehead against the door. It wouldn’t be hard to read a story. Sit with him. Be there.
“Yo, Dottie. You coming down?” said a voice she didn’t even recognise. “It’s banging down here.”
She traced finger eights around her stomach, staring at the painted white door.
“Live for here,” she said. “Live for now.”
She turned and ran down the stairs toward the music, toward the party.
If she rules out dementia, parks autism for the moment and makes allowances for His Hearing, she is left with ADHD.
Though none of those is going to finish him off quickly.
Amy’s gold-coated Montblanc Classique circles the acronym on the white-white page of her Moleskine notebook. She is looking for a way to leave Desmond. That is not true. She is looking for a way to be minus Desmond.
‘Ich bin ein…how do you say?…chronic diagnoser’ she had diagnosed as she walked around the park this morning with her new friend Angelika from Pilates. The deal is that Amy must speak Deutsch and only Deutsch for half an hour and then repay Angelika with Kaffee und Kuchen at the playground café afterwards, at which point Amy is allowed to revert to English. She is big on Self-Improvement at the moment as she fears she may disappear if she doesn’t enlarge her life. But o dear god how has it come to this? She has nothing in common with Angelika but seems to have lost touch with everyone else. What is she for? Her children will disappear any minute now, her workload is laughable in its lightness, she is alone and shrinking.
It had been charming, at thirty-five, to be marrying a Silver Fox. She was marrying her father. She has had enough therapy and enough time on her hands, god knows, to have diagnosed that tired old trope. Twenty years on, Desmond is no longer a Silver Fox, more of a Balding Behemoth.
‘Ich brauche…I need to …I need …air.’
Angelika frowns, dim. She sinks the side of her fork carefully into a slice of buttercream-smothered carrot cake. ‘But we are in the park. Here is full of air.’
Amy moves the conversation to Angelika’s daughter who has just had IVF and is waiting to take a Schwangerhaftstest to see if the embryo has taken. Amy thinks: I need Air and Better Friends.
She also needs a solution to her problem. She twiddles her pen. If Desmond had dementia, things would be so much easier: Amy would need have no qualms about Helping Him On His Way. But he’s not demented and neither is he neurologically untypical. He just doesn’t listen:
‘I’ve fed the dog. I’m off out. See you later. Mwah.’
‘Jolly good. Shall I feed the dog?’
Amy reluctantly scratches out ‘ADHD.’
And then there are the children. Even if Desmond is an ageing, self-obsessed bore, he is still their father, and Edward and Daisy persist in feeling fond of him.
Amy hears Desmond come in from his run. She pushes her notebook under a recipe book, Ottolenghi’s SIMPLE – there’s an oxymoron, she thinks – just as Desmond huffs into the high-end Shaker kitchen, his knees bony above his dried-up shins. He waves at her (no breath to speak) and glugs noisily from a water bottle. He is fit and in good shape but – who knows? – if he overdoes it, maybe his heart…?
Amy has thought this through. If they divorce or separate, they will have to sell the house and share the proceeds which means Amy will only, in the current market, have £1.5million to spend on a flat. She doesn’t want to live in a flat. She spent thirty-five years living in flats and, besides, this house is Very Nice. It is big and comfortable and good-looking. If Desmond ‘dies’ the house stays put. Or rather, Amy stays put in the house. She will still have stairs and a garden and prestige. And Nice Neighbours: film directors, CEOs, musicians. Also, the children will have a proper family home to come back to when they visit, familiar surroundings, memories to comfort them for the loss of their Papa.
Amy can imagine sipping cocktails in the newly-decorated sitting-room with the Better Friends she will have acquired by then. Wealthy clients will flock to her refurbished study, paying eye-watering fees to sob into the extra-large, super-soft tissues in a box on the pretty 18th Century Italian carved wood and parcel gilt console table. Everything about her will be spacious: her rooms, her mind, her range, her glittering future and her fulfilling present.
She has never loved him. She persuaded herself she did at the beginning. But her heart knew better and, ironically, her instinctive reticence had lent her an allure. This was novel, and she was flattered by his view of her:
‘I love you, Amy, because you don’t need us to be joined at the hip. You don’t stifle me or cling like a limpet, and that allows me to see you at full-length – all of you. Ergo you see all of me. I love you for giving us that and I am sure that such a self-possessed woman, when she loves, loves freely and not desperately. It is beautiful.’
Amy had only ever loved desperately before Desmond but there was no need for him to know that. She had loved someone whose hairline behind his ears, lying flat on dewy olive skin, had brought to mind another love who had been her dead father’s double – and so on until every man was only ever a symbol of someone else.
At thirty-five she had entered the years of danger. Desmond represented safety and comfort, a chance to step off the hard, hard world. Irresistible.
A year into the marriage when Amy was pregnant with Edward, Desmond had mooted the possibility of living abroad. He had retired early.
‘But what about my career?’
Desmond had laughed, not unkindly. ‘What career?’
Those two words had burned through Amy, scorching, tunnelling deep beneath her skin.
When they met, she had been working as a psychotherapist in a big practice near Tower Bridge.
Desmond’s encouragement in those early days and, Amy must be honest, the safety net of his deep pockets, had given her the push to set up on her own. She had wanted to specialise in Toxic Masculinity. She was a fan of Grayson Perry: manhood must include vulnerability and the right not to know everything.
But she had misjudged. Few men cared to discuss their masculinity, toxic or otherwise, with a young woman. Her business bombed and she lost confidence.
That is when Desmond had let fly his corrosive two-word killer. Fizz, fizz, down they zigzag, those words, even today, burning through muscle, fat and bone.
Now, two decades later, How To Be A Man is all the rage, with beta males lining up to rend their garments and apologise for…well…pretty much everything. Another boat she has missed.
Edward’s birth had been closely followed by Daisy’s, and Amy dwindled into a wife. Occasionally there were workshops she was invited to run, or an article to write, her ‘little projects’ as Desmond called them. It is clear he had never believed in her capacity to succeed.
Words have consequences. Amy began to resent, then dislike, then hate her husband. Now she wants him gone. The slight distance he had valued so highly has become a gulf.
‘Why did you marry me, Amy?’ he asks her as they sit in bed, reading in their separate pools of lamplight.
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I’m deadly serious.’ He turns to her, closes his book, a history of Lancaster bombers. ‘Did you love me? Ever?’
Amy attempts a silvery laugh, looks away. Then she turns to him, smiles, opens her mouth to speak.
‘I have my answer,’ he says.
His eyes bore into her, dark, all-seeing. ‘Your silence tells me everything I need to know. I am not a fool, believe me.’
He puts his book on the table, switches off his lamp, turns away neatly and affects to sleep.
But the shop is shut, the shutters down. She knows him: he won’t speak to her for days.
Seriously. Laudanum? Sleeping pills? She would never smother someone with a pillow; imagine not being able to breathe! And nothing violent, nothing with blood. Amy is a pacifist, an animal-loving flexitarian, and generally judged to be a Pleasant Person.
Amy is so pleasant that she volunteers sometimes at a foodbank. She has the time after all (‘what career?’).
One of the volunteers she works with, Nick, tells her his father ended his life. A retired vet, he knew what to take. He left notes for Anyone It May Concern, giving assurances that no-one else was implicated.
‘How? How? How did he do it?’ Amy asks, eyes shining as she clutches a crate of about-to-go-out-of-date crumpets. ‘I mean…’ She reddens. ‘How awful for you.’
Nick moves ever so slightly away and gives her a side-eye.
She regroups. ‘That’s what I’d want to do if I ever got…you know…dementia or something. I’d love to have a cyanide capsule hidden in a pen top.’
‘Well, wouldn’t you?’ She bridles but remembers she is Pleasant, so smiles, sending the crate along the rollers of the conveyor belt and turning to rip polythene off a caseload of juice cartons. ‘What would you do if you thought you were losing a wheel? Arsenic?’
‘Whisky and sleeping pills probably. Easy to get the pills online.’
Amy lays the individual cartons in layered rows of four, doing her best to look fascinated by her task and indifferent about Ways To Make Someone Die.
As soon as she’s home she looks up sleeping pills on Amazon and, while she’s at it, pestle and mortar sets.
She could do a Date Night on Friday: candles and champagne, and scatter ground pills in Desmond’s half of everything. That would be easy as she likes to dish up in the kitchen. Maybe a salmon mousse to start and – oh yes! – Eton mess for pudding. Ground pills could pass for pleasantly granular meringue.
If Heaven is a thing, she reasons, Amy is sending Desmond to a better place. A little ahead of time but so what? What did he have to live for anyway? The children would move away and visit twice a year and, as for grandchildren, Edward thought it irresponsible to bring children into the world and Daisy would probably do the modern thing of waiting until she was forty, panic, then have twins at forty-four.
Desmond would have been dead by then anyway, so Amy is simply giving him a head start – and saving them both from living in flats.
She looks at the sullen lump beside her and goes to sleep.
She is right. Desmond barely acknowledges her for the next few days, leaving the house without telling her where he’s off to, or shutting himself in the study, preparing snacks to eat alone. This won’t do.
On Friday morning, she decides to negotiate a peace.
‘Desmond…are you awake?’
She lays a hand on his duvet-covered shoulder.
‘I know you’re awake. Please talk to me.’
God, he’s a moody bastard. How long does he plan to go on blanking her?
She withdraws her hand, goes downstairs, brings up two mugs of tea.
‘I’ve made tea.’
Self-righteous prig! What about ‘thank you’?
‘Desmond!’ She pulls at the duvet and turns him to face her.
He is dead. Completely dead. His dead eyes stare at her from his slack, grey face.
She screams, scrambles off the bed, runs to the landing, slams the door on the horror.
A massive stroke. Without any help from her. Mister Independent.
He has changed his will and left her a modest allowance, enough to rent a small flat in the suburbs.
The house belongs to the children and she must quit it.
She should have made her move sooner. Or lied more quickly when confronted.
Silence has consequences.
A month later, surrounded by packing boxes, her future gone, she casts about for a life belt.
She looks at her phone on the floor, picks it up. It feels heavy.
She taps a number. Perhaps Angelika might fancy Kaffee und Kuchen and a little walk.
Natalie Ní Chaoimh – My Heart Will Go On
Julia Paillier – Learning A Foreign Language
Sharon Braley – Dinosaur
Timothy Wardle – A Passion For Full Cream Milk
Jenny Gray – The Little Red Horse
Una McCaffrey – The Fall
Celia Esteban Serna – Bread And Love
Harriet Connides – The Doom
Glyn Matthews – Henry
Priscilla Yeung – Orion’s Belt
Paul Hodgson – The Cockerel’s Tale
Thank you to everyone who took part in our Short Story Competition this year!