The Ghost Reader – runner up in the Frinton Literary Festival Short Story Competition – October 2021

This is where I died.  Not right in this spot, but here in the hospice book shop – mid-way down the aisle on the left.  I think back to that day.  A walk along the Greensward followed by my regular browse in the bookshop. I read prolifically but without method.  One week a romance, the next a crime novel, fiction, non-fiction – I read them all.  I love this shop – it provides my regular supply of second-hand books coupled with a sense of virtue as I donate to a local charity. 

Back to my death.  I remember arriving at ‘L’ Marina Lewycka.  I recognised her name – couldn’t pronounce it – but I recognised it.  I remembered that she once wrote a book about tractors – nice characters – I liked that one.   The book on the shelf was called the The Lubetkin Legacy and the cover looked promising.  I read the blurb on the back, then opened the book and looked inside.  There was a message.  I loved reading messages in second hand books .  This one was carefully written in fountain pen  “To Gloria.  Happy Birthday. I will always love you.  Fred.

I read the message again, confused.  The script was familiar, letters slanting off to the left.  That was my Fred’s writing.  I inhaled sharply and felt my shoulders tense.  Who the hell was Gloria!  And then I realised … That Gloria! Short skirt, too much cleavage, brassy Gloria from the Salon.   My heart broke with a peculiar crack.  Stopped dead – not another beat.  My body crumpled and my soul drifted up towards the bookshop ceiling where I hovered and watched as people crowded around.  I saw the ambulance arrive and then leave with my body on a stretcher. 

My disembodied self has been here for a few months and it has taken some adjusting.  For the first two weeks I tried to amass enough energy to leave the shop.  Every day I failed and I spent each evening weeping by the doorway.   I mourned for my old life, my walks on the beach, and those days sitting in my beach hut, cup of tea in hand, watching dog walkers or gazing out toward the horizon and listening to the sea.  But then I realised it was time to embrace my spirit-self and move on.

I discovered that there was fun to be had in ghosting on the day that  Gloria tottered in on her too-high heels, wearing one of my necklaces.  Bloody cheek I thought.  First my husband, then my jewellery and now my bookshop.  I stood behind her, and reached out to retrieve my necklace.  As my hand touched her sun-raddled neck she started. I touched again – goose bumps and a shiver that reverberated through her scrawny shoulders.  She felt her neck with acrylic nails, looked around, then shrugged and resumed her browsing.  This was war!  I looked around, found the biggest book I could lift and threw it at the back of her carefully coiffed head.  It struck hard and she let out a little yelp – more chihuahua than human.  I scrabbled at the books on the shelves around her sending them cascading into the floor.  By now she was screaming and the volunteers, disturbed by the commotion, gathered around. 

‘Madam!  You can’t do that to the books’

‘You have to leave the shop. Right now, or we will call the police.’ 

She was ushered out of the door, snivelling

“It wasn’t me!  I didn’t do it!”

The volunteers ejected her, ignoring her protestations. 

That foray into poltergeisting was fun – but rather exhausting, and caused irreparable damage to several books.  I realise that I am not that sort of spirit and have settled into a more sedate role as a ghost volunteer.  I have many duties – cataloguing books when the others have gone home and during opening hours I like keep an eye on the customers.  I have become the unofficial store detective, seeking out the light-fingered.  I see them off with cold touch and a rasping whisper ‘I can see you!  Put it back’ . 

Most of the time I am well behaved but I do have one guilty pleasure.  I regularly write inscriptions in the books that might appeal to Fred.

To Bert,  You are my only love.  Gloria.

To Frank. Thank you for another wonderful night.  Gloria.   

To Bill.  My love, I can’t wait to see you again.  Gloria

He hasn’t come in – probably too scared – it doesn’t matter.  The pleasure is in the writing and the hope that these messages will stir up some gossip. 

I realise that everything I need is right here.  Last week I walked the South West Coast Path with Raynor Winn and the week before journeyed along the Essex coast with Tom Bolton.  I learned how to sail in a weekend and am discovering more about marshland birds.  I lived in a shack with Kya, deep in the North Carolina marshland, near to the place where the Crawdads sing.  I searched for the Essex Serpent with Cora and then visited the coastlands Tanzania and Mexico with my guide from the Lonely Planet.   I read and I read, learning more each day, immersing myself in stories and exploring exotic and unusual locations around the world.  When my spirit rested here I assumed I was in limbo – waiting to be transported somewhere else.   But now I realise that I am destined to spend eternity here in Frinton-on-Sea.  I have just finished reading Thin Places: An Evangelical Journey Into Celtic Christianity and realise have arrived at my thin place – the place where heaven meets earth.  I am free! 

To read the shortlisted stories go to http://www.frintonliteraryfestival.co.uk/short-story-competition-2021/

Untitled – Shortlisted Furious Fiction July 2021

When Bert died suddenly in a freak gardening accident, Dorothy was inconsolable.  Their large secluded garden had been a shared passion, common ground for two very different people.  It was their place to be together, to make plans and nurture seedlings.  In the garden they would play, fling snails over the hedge giggling conspiratorially and then sit chatting and drinking tea.  The garden was not the same without Bert and that summer she put down her spade and retired back into the house. 

She needed to be busy and started to knit.  Baby booties, bonnets and cardigans, in pale pastels and soft wools.  All were donated to the local hospital. The nurses were thankful, but supply exceeded demand and as the pile of knitted goods accumulated the matron asked her to stop.  Dorothy diversified into cardigans, scarves and hats, and soon the whole village was kitted out.  

As her knitting gained momentum, she moved onto competitions and trialled her own designs.   Time to experiment, challenge knitting traditions and to explore the potential of wool as an artform.   Her nativity scene won first place in the Wivenhoe WI knitting competition.  Her beach scene, complete with beach huts, small figures playing on the sand and a frothing stormy sea, secured a win at the regional finals.  And now here she was at the nationals.

They provided a table for her display.  She asked if she could have a chair and after some discussion it was agreed that a chair was within the rules.  As Dorothy finalised her display, she realised that she had forgotten the knitted snails which were still in a bag in the boot of the car.  She hurried out to retrieve them.      

When she returned, the hall was buzzing with excited chatter.  Crowds milled around and the press photographer ordered people out of the way.  Giggles and smirks….‘Oh My!” 

“Well look at that!”

“Well, there’s a thing!” 

Mrs Hebblethwaite, the head judge looked flustered and perplexed.  She ushered Dorothy over to an ante-room.   

“We need to talk about your work”  

“Yes it is my Bert.  Large as life”.

“Your Bert, does not appear to be wearing clothes”

“No, he’d never wear clothes in the garden…”

“He has a penis!”

“Yes, he had a penis…about that size and shape.” 

Silence… exchanged glances… and then a response. 

“We, at the Women’s Institute, cannot allow you to display a knitted penis. It is pornographic! We would like you to take him away immediately!”

As Dorothy crossed the hall everyone looked in her direction, someone shouted “Well-done! Can you knit me one?”  Then applause. 

Dorothy smiled as she approached Bert, who was sitting with a tea-towel draped across his lap.  “Come on love”  she whispered as she gently lifted him, balanced him over one shoulder and carried him back out to the car. 

BALANCE – (Runner up – Create Nature Competition – University of Westminster – May 2021)

Cold rain splashing against my face, hair soaked and sticking to my head.  My body simultaneously cold from the biting wind and warm from the exertion of running.  Thud, thud, thud … foot following foot.  That regular rhythm and sense of being propelled endlessly forward.  I want to be calm, but serenity is not my strength,

You are sick – radiotherapy, chemotherapy, liquid food through a tube.  You are in pain… So much pain – exist in a diamorphine haze and sleep for 22 hours a day.  We are in lockdown, trapped in the house.  You sleep and I worry – unrelenting fear. At daybreak I quietly leave the house and run as fast as I can along inner-city streets.  Escape!

At first my chest is tight and I gasp for air. I sense the cold and feel my muscles awakening and aching.    Then I notice the park around me – breath and body begin to align.  The trees are emerging into spring, leaves unfurling, each day a little greener.  The rain stops, my pace slows as I feel the morning sun emerge, and gently touch my skin.  I become aware of birdsong – the harsh chatter of a magpie – that noisy, rasping front-man, backed by the melodies of blackbirds, thrushes and the coo of city pigeons.  A joyous avian chorus.  I feel tension melting away, and a growing resilience as each stride becomes effortless.  I smell the fresh damp grass and notice my footprints in the dew.   With each breath I relax, find space for my thoughts, feel my heart become lighter and my spirit lift.  Surrounded by nature I get things into perspective, become myself and feel joyful, alive.  My balance restored, I calmly jog back home. 

In the grotto

Longlisted Furious Fiction Competition December 2020

‘Not good enough!’   Words bellowed into my face as I sit at my work bench on the en`d of the production line.  It is freezing, my shoulders are hunched and my back aches.  We are well behind schedule and have toiled day and night for the past week.  With each exhale I see my misty breath rising around me.  The noise is deafening, clunking machinery, cheery Christmas songs and above it all comes a regular roar ‘Idiot!’ , ‘Wake Up!’.  One of my cheeks is ablaze, rose red, smarting from a slap delivered as my eyelids started to droop.  An unexpected and brutal slap that knocked me off my stool.  I feel broken, my normally nimble fingers have stiffened from the relentless task of attaching felt Santa hats onto the heads of cats.  Not real cats you understand – I am not a taxidermist or a vivisectionist.  These are Grotto Gift cats, compliant, clawless, cuddly plush fur, matching expressions and glass-eyes.  We work long hours in the Grotto and are given just enough food and water to keep us alive, just enough sleep to ensure that we can still produce these high quality gifts.

We came by invitation from the big man himself buoyed by tales of camaraderie and the opportunity to participate in a project to make the world a better place.  We would work at Grotto Gifts located in Siberia, right next to the North Pole.  We jumped at the chance to work with that cheery red-faced man, clean white beard, soft plump hands, all kindness, warmth and generosity.   How shocked we were to see high fences, barbed wire and heavily guarded gates when we arrived.  Immediately rounded up into work teams, separated from friends, our every-day clothes taken away and replaced by our prison uniforms, green tunics and pointed green caps.  Unable to walk outside, our movement restricted by felt boots with slippery soles and long curled up toes.

So here we are incarcerated in Santa’s sweat shop.  We shuffle from factory floor to dorm room, work without pay and receive regular beatings from Santa and his cronies.  The man is a fraud, his image fashioned by the marketing men of a multi-national company and spruced up once a year for public appearance.  He is, indeed, rotund and he does have a beard, but it is a filthy and foul-smelling, and his nose and cheeks are reddened by his copious consumption of brandy.   We are trying to resist, writing small handwritten notes, stashing them in our tunics, passing them palm to palm when no-one is looking.  Each day as we work we tuck them into those cuddly cats.   ‘Please help us! We elves are enslaved’, ‘Made by elf slave-labour’.   Every day we send out these entreaties and hope that one day someone will see our message, start to ask questions, and that we will be freed from this tyrant.