To celebrate the Coleford Festival of Words tenth anniversary
This anthology comprises the ten shortlisted entries to the Festival’s second writing competition. It was obvious that the competition should be themed ‘Ten’ given it’s our tenth anniversary. The Festival started in 2008 with the backing of the still-mourned Forest Bookshop. Over the past decade it has hosted national and local poets, comedians, television journalists, authors, musicians and story tellers - every one with a love of words.
The standard of entries to the competition was excellent, reflecting a deep well of talent here in the Forest of Dean - and, we have to admit, one or two from just across the Severn. The winners will be judged by international best selling author Andrew Taylor and announced on Saturday 7 July. In the meantime, enjoy this body of work, and feel free to pick your own favourites.
Table of Contents
‘Her final disguise’
‘I dedicate this story to my wonderful godmother 'Aunty Joan' who was my inspiration for this poem, and to all the anonymous elderly people who have such wonderful life stories to tell.’
In Room Ten, there is a woman
Sitting quietly in her chair
The sun peeps through the window,
Lights up her short white hair
Her swollen feet are resting
Upon a low foot stool
A ‘Mispah’ brooch upon her chest
Is her only jewel
Her glasses glint upon her face
Although her eyes are closed
Her hands at rest upon her lap
As she sat and dozed
Dreaming of the past gone by
When she was young and strong
Working on the local farm
The days were hard and long
Tommy was her sweetheart
They’d had so many plans
Although he’d been away at war
The church had read their banns
And then had come the telegram
Her world had fell apart
She had to face a life alone
And with a broken heart
She’d been so full of anger
That she’d signed up as a spy
An S.O.E. in London
The training had flown by
A night time crossing, to France by boat
Then inland to a town
Her task to find a secret
To bring the enemy down
And even in her fitful sleep
No further could she go
What she’d said and what she’d done
No one could ever know
Our boys had brought her safely back
Her debrief had gone well
If her information helped
Only time would tell
Several smaller missions came
And then the war was over
She celebrated with the troops
At that time in Dover
She moved back home
With her Mum and brother
Her heart full of Tommy
She wanted no other
She found a good job
And she made a good life
Contented and happy
Although not a wife
Lots of family and friends
A Godmother too
Active and busy
With so much to do
And so she slept on
Now frail and ill
Her room in the Nursing Home
Peaceful and still
No one had heard of all her brave deeds
Anonymous now, as she was back then
The little old lady
Who sleeps in Room Ten.
Fingers or toes are
mementos for counting.
Only a human inclination
and even then not everyone -
the Oksapmin in New Guinea
use twenty seven body parts to count with.
Computers prefer a base of two.
A decade is but one façade of time
with a human face, while most
of the quotidian flow
slips through our fingers,
Save for moments which
change us irretrievably; often recorded,
or in some way worked through.
didn’t have a Kodak with him,
looking down on Tintern Abbey.
And, blowing through,
ten thousand daffs
is a lot of bobbin’ flowers………
Did he also go walking through heaven?
Meaning, the Dean’s bluebell woods in May.
Through beech leaf-burst and fern fast unfurling?
In shade and sunlight, there’s the haze, and heady smell
of (at least) ten million bells………
Oh! No one’s counting!
‘Mad about potatoes’
Ten rows of ten makes one hundred. That seems an awful lot of potatoes for a small patch of ground. – Are you sure we’ll need them all? Couldn’t we plant five rows with ten spuds in each and give the rest away?
Don’t be silly, Darling. Just put them in the holes. You always have to complicate things. Why can’t you just do as I say?
I bite my tongue and do as he says, throwing the sprouting, shrivelled spuds into the holes he’s dug for them. They seem symbolic of our marriage, wrinkled and growing whiskers. He smiles at me, patronisingly. I pierce a potato deliberately with the fork.
Watch what you’re doing! You’re supposed to be covering them with soil, not digging them up
If you want something doing properly, do it yourself. I mouth the words as he gets on with the job. My heart is in Seahouses, where the waves rattle the stones retreating from the shore. It is mild here today. It never seems so at Seahouses. The sea boils angrily reflecting my mood, draining me of energy as the breakers rock the fishing boats anchored in the harbour. What wouldn’t I give to be there now?
Do you want a cup of tea? I ask as he shovels soil over the spuds.
If you like.
I don’t like, but making it will give me some respite. I amble back to the house across the striped lawn, richly green after the rain. The apple blossom is falling now, the bluebells bleached of colour, daffodils shrivelled on their browning stalks – yellow succeeded by pale primroses, abundant in the hedgerows.
In the kitchen I fill the kettle, switch it on and wander outside again, round to the front of the cottage and into the lane. Four blackbirds fly past me, so close I can see the worms wriggling in their beaks. It is nesting time. I tell them not to be afraid of me but they ignore me anyway. My footsteps take me down the lane, across the stile, along the path that leads diagonally towards the river. My thoughts drift to Virginia Woolf with stones in her pockets – but I do not feel as she did. I will not do what she did. I’m walking away from an irritation, but I shall return. I shall benefit from my walk, take something uplifting home with me from the closeness with Nature. I look down at the ploughed red earth to where a dung beetle is struggling to right itself. I watch it pushing up against the ridge until it reaches tipping point and flips over onto its legs. The effort seems to have exhausted it.
I climb the next stile, turning to look back at the cottage, suddenly small and insignificant, thinking that it is like me – of not much account. The river flows ahead. Only one more field and I’ll be standing at its edge. I reach the stream and the uprooted willow tree, which forms a bridge across it. I stand and watch a dipper darting over the water, feeding on midges. A sudden flash of blue catches my eye – a brilliant tropical hue and I recognise it. This is the closest I’ve ever come to a kingfisher. They are aptly named. I am so bowled over by the experience that I turn and practically run all the way back to report my sighting.
In the kitchen I remember I was making tea, switch the kettle back on, put out two mugs, the one with the hare will be fine for him – the kingfisher for me. I go to the door to call him in and find him standing there.
Are you all right? He asks, a solicitous expression on his face.
I tell him about the kingfisher. I am excited, happy to share.
He looks at me, says – I saw you. I was worried. I thought I’d upset you.
I touch his face, stroke those familiar furrows, smoothing them out.
You won’t do anything silly, will you? – he says.
I lift my face to his, stand on tip-toe, but still I cannot reach his mouth. He bends and kisses me. I do love him and I would never do anything so final as he suspects I might – no matter how dysfunctional things get.
Let’s drink our tea in the garden – I say.
I’ll get it. – He says – Go and sit outside.
I am almost out of the door when he says – I was talking to the neighbour. He said if I’d got any spuds left over, he’d have them, but he only wanted ten.
– That’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
We both laugh and he says – Don’t bother to cook tonight. I’ll get fish and chips and we’ll eat it from the paper – no washing-up.
– Just like we did in Seahouses. – And the memories come flooding back.
But he has already gone to fetch the mugs and doesn’t hear me.
Joseph was a mudlarker once, a happy soul scouring for historical ephemera with a gaggle of friends on the banks of the dimpled Thames. Now, on a Sunday where he might have been chattering and sharing finds in a South Bank pub, he is flicking light switches on and off. Briefly, all those years ago, it had been three times only, as his mother lay dying in his front room in a grey London borough, her hand clammy and wizened to his touch like chicken skin.
It had leapt to ten, this compulsion, and now it exhausted him.
‘Something bad will happen if I do not comply,’ he mutters, to an empty room.
He repeats the phrase ten times and watches every bulb burn and die, then be reborn. His heart, at first a panicked bird in his chest, slows to the comforting rhythm of the finite count. Before too long, he will repeat the process. There is very little sound in the cottage; he is cocooned in rural silence. The sudden insistent rapping on the window startles him. The curtains are drawn, as they are all day, so trying not to move the material too dramatically, he peers out to see a crow, head cocked. The top portion of the window is slightly open.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Caw. Caw. Caw.
He does not like the number three, does not appreciate the bird contaminating his need for a certain number. He pulls at his sleeve, agitated, still looking at the intruder, who breaks his cawing to rap at the glass again. When the crow’s mouth opens it looks like velvet within, as if the creature is a toy. The crow is purer in hue than the starlings he usually sees, their black feathers shot through with hints of iridescent colour, like oil in a puddle. This black is ancient, primal and commanding.
He draws the curtains open, inviting challenge.
‘You can see me now, bird.’
The crow stops, curious eyes hard on Joseph.
‘I came out here, to this place, to be alone. Alone. Alone....’
He is repeating the word the uniform ten times. The crow’s mouth opens a little more. Is he laughing at him?
‘Go away you bastard!’ he shouts and the crow opens out his wings like a wizard’s cape, as if boasting his size and capacity for magic. But he stays, nearly overbalancing, wings momentarily scraping against the glass.
Joseph draws the curtains tight and thinks about whether he wants to start his counting routine again. Oddly, he finds he is not anxious. He is arguing with a crow and cannot work out if this amuses him or not. Maybe he is finally slipping into madness.
The creature has either seen his own glossy reflection, the handsome bird in mafia black, or he wants something. The bird table is bare, as always. Once he used to put out seed but would refill and count out loud again and again, until it spilled onto the floor and developed ugly sprouting piles. He is frightened of rats. Frightened of so many things.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The uneven number of taps on the window is disconcerting, but somehow these are the crow’s rules, so it is acceptable. The world outside the stillness of his house, where birds are in random formation, where weeds of indefinite number choke everything because he is unable to garden, is not a world he knows any more. He needs to stop the crow before the bird breaks the glass, and that will mean going out.
It takes his eyes a while to adjust to the interrogatory brightness. He expects the crow to fly away but the creature simply turns to stare, still perched on the window ledge. It is strange being outside at noon, still in his pyjamas and suddenly feeling foolish not to be dressed. They were red and white pyjamas once but now are pinkish and saggy. He catches his own reflection briefly and turns away.
‘Who’s going to judge me? The squirrels?’
The crow cackles, the wizard in bird form. Joseph does need to count now, so he rings the doorbell. The crow immediately shouts a protest. Loud. Louder. Clearly he does not like the bell. So despite his need, he stops at seven, shivering at the interruption to the routine.
He tries to go back into the house and the stale air hits him first, the dusty gloom of the curtained rooms, the miserable furniture and the signs of exhaustion and boredom in discarded cups and free newspapers tied with string in piles of ten. Outside, dandelions butter the lawn and tall aquilegias are everywhere.
‘Too many to count.’
Then the crow takes flight, the strong black wings a palpable sound in the warm air. It sits in the magnolia tree that has long lost its glory, carpeted below by wrinkled brown flowers. What does the crow think of him, he wonders? To walk, to walk to the gate should not be so bad. His crow seems to approve and gently rocks back and forth.
Joseph counts his steps and gets to glorious ten. Ten is a beautiful number, the straight- backed one accompanied by the perfect never-ending circle. Ten years old on the beach with his parents, where they dug their uneven-toothed terrier a cool hole in the sand. They built it up around him, the dog’s head looking comically out at them, appearing to the world like a dismembered head. How they laughed! Count to ten to find another perfect memory: his newborn daughter’s ten fingers and toes, nails like the tiniest of seashells.
He hasn’t cried for a while but stands midway up his path, unable to continue, sobbing. In the distance, where humanity lies, he can hear the sound of a chainsaw. If he closes his eyes and counts to ten like a child in a game, someone will surely come. They will help him to mudlark, to laugh, to be unchained.
The crow is still.
‘On the Road Jack’
I have loved stories since childhood. I have been lucky enough to spend my life teaching art skills, drawing and painting and making things. Now I sometimes write stories of my own.
Frida suddenly became 75. Her granddaughter told her that she wasn’t really old, she was beautiful and had a face like a peach. She wished she hadn’t asked for clarification.
Her Father, a difficult, rather wild and handsome man had died too early at 65. Her Mother had lived elegantly and patiently till the age of 95. There is a relevant calculation in there concerning averages and bucket lists.
Her Ford Fiesta, 3 years old, low mileage, bought from new stood dustily on the drive. I need to go on a journey, she thought, give her a good run, open up the throttle on a long straight and take her somewhere she’s never been before. This type of thought was not uncommon. Frida was not a discontent. She knew she had much to be thankful for. Sometimes she reminded herself that she could have been born in Aleppo or spent her life battling ill health. Instead, she had been married to a decent man and had three healthy children who had been raised in this very house. That life was now gone. Husband dead, children flown, three out of five of her close friends buried.
It wasn’t self-pity that hovered; it was a great, flat, unknown horizon which stretched as far as the mind could think. It turned mornings grey, sucked the pleasure out of every invitation, every visitor. She longed to look forward to something. Some days the malaise was physical. She would feel frail, slightly nauseous, experience unexpected tears and all this together with a crushing, numbing lethargy.
The newspaper said 1st May. That was Labour Day and she remembered marching with her friends through London. Where had all the marchers gone? She finished her coffee, rinsed the cup, put it upside down on the draining board, went upstairs and packed a case.
Going somewhere nice? Billy asked, surprised at the rare request to ‘Fill her up’. “Up North”. Decision made.
Solihull, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds, Travelodge. Frida found the anonymous comfort a pleasure. It was restful to lie on the bed in a room with one unchallenging painting, one tray with kettle and sachets, 3 coffee, four tea, 4 milk and two tiny wrapped biscuits. There were clean towels, a hairdryer in a drawer and a wall mounted tv.
The next night was different, new place, new room and a hitchhiker, aimless as she, was sleeping quietly on the couch. Frida looked at his thin shoulders, his bare neck and his thick, youthful hair. She thought about the days when she would have looked at him differently, with expectation, when she would have knelt beside him, stroked his hair and felt his body. She would have wanted to lie with him and feel his breath. When did all that transform? When did she become able to look at beautiful men, sleeping close by and feel only a wish to nurture them. Not at 40, not at 50, not always at 60 she thought with some shame. Now she was safe from such pitfalls. She would include this boy in her journey, share some meals, buy him socks.
The next day he said he liked her music. They arrived in Scarborough at four and had tea and cake in a blue painted café. He told her a terrible joke and she laughed properly because she felt happy.
“Where next?” I don’t mind” The boy looked distracted. He may have wondered when this break from trouble would end. It was good to rest a while. Most of all he liked being in the car, watching the fields roll by, the ploughing, the animals and the big, joined up acres of arable. It was like a road movie where nothing much happened.
Frida remembered a place she had visited years before. She had been entranced there watching waves gradually wash over heads of iron men as they waded far out to sea.. She had been unable to leave until the last man drowned. She wanted to see them again, her survivors. She told the boy she had a plan and that he could join her if he wished. She promised a good day ahead and he accepted the invitation. Crosby was windswept and the long walk to the beach told nothing of what awaited. They sat together staring outwards. Sea washed around iron ankles, swirled round riveted waists and swelled over the top of those brave, monumental heads. Frida felt moved and fully alive. The boy said “This is the greatest thing I have ever witnessed” She loved the gravity of his words and felt she had travelled far in a few days.
“I’m going to France, do you want to come?” “How long for?” “Not long” “O.K. but I’ll need to come back” And so the random journey was questioned.
They ate silently on a late ferry from Dover. The swaying hum of the boat was unpleasant and Frida was unable to look out at the dark, hushed waves. Calais was grim, tattered remains of wrecked lives to be seen. The boy was talkative, told her his name was Jack, at school he was good at French and that he once had a girlfriend. He hadn’t been home for ages but probably would.
She rented a room outside Le Touquet, trees but no sea view. She read two English novels while he explored and once came back smelling of tobacco. He bought playing cards and taught her to play poker. One night they drank wine by the sea. He said he wanted to go home. “So do I” Frida said.
Driving through Dover he asked her to stop. “I’ll get out I know someone here” He leaned back into the car. “You are a lovely woman Frida, thank you” They smiled. “Safe journey”. “You too”
The house was the same. Must cut the grass. Window cleaner marked on the calendar for tomorrow, 10th May.
So, 10 Days that Shook her World . Frida’s very own Revolution.
‘Rice and Ruin’
‘Must be a wedding,’ Caitlin said, as another peel of church bells sounded out across the village.
‘Or nobody liked the person who just died.’ Her brother, Jake, shifted the box in his arms, which was filled with various sorts of plastic glasses.
Caitlin had, among other things, ten tins in a crate. She had insisted there was no need to take the car: it was only half a mile to their parents’ house. Now she was regretting it. They rounded the corner, meeting a steady flow of guests walking up to the church.
‘I bet they have no idea that they’ll have to get imaginative with tin in ten years time,’ Jake said.
‘You only knew three weeks ago.’
‘And that was when the genius of a tin can pyramid was born.’
Caitlin adjusted her grip on the crate and smiled at the people ambling along the lane. There were a lot of stilettos about: she couldn’t imagine walking across a marble floor in them, let alone up a crumbling tarmac lane. Once they had passed the churchyard, she kept glancing back to the people milling around outside, chatting and laughing. Jake and Leah had asked their photographer to take candid pictures during their wedding day: those had been the best ones.
Their parents’ house appeared in front of them. It had been decided to hold Jake and Leah’s tenth anniversary party here: the garden was perfect for throwing balls at tin can pyramids, and the house was open plan.
Caitlin paused by the front gate and rested her box on the wall, watching a few stragglers beat the bride to the church. Shortly after, a Rolls Royce slid past. Caitlin peered into the back, to see if it was someone she knew.
‘Stop being nosy,’ Jake said.
‘Oh come on.’
They watched the bride emerge from the car, her white dress bright, even on the overcast day. There was a final peel of bells. Caitlin remembered Leah walking down the aisle to Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D Major’, once she had been persuaded that it wasn’t too worthy. The wedding party disappeared into the church.
‘Let’s get balloon-ing.’ Caitlin took his arm.
Jake was looking at the village hall, to the right of the church. It had been abandoned a couple of months after he and Leah’s wedding reception. Ivy had swallowed the structure, obscuring windows and welding the front door shut. Last winter a corner of roof had collapsed.
‘We were adamant on holding our party there. It seemed fitting after ten years.’ He shrugged. ‘Anyway...’
‘I didn’t see you running to save it.’ She gave him a sideways glance. ‘Or Leah.’
‘We couldn’t have done anything. It would have been a waste of time.’
‘No-one thought they could help. And now you’re all complaining there’s no hall.’
‘Those balloons won’t blow themselves up.’ Jake led the way into the back garden. They paused briefly to say hello to their parents.
Under the marquee was a packet of white balloons. Silver ‘10’s were stamped over them, although Leah had said they could pass for tin-coloured. By the time Caitlin had blown one up, Jake was already on his second. She watched him stare at the hall as he knotted a balloon. He noticed and she raised her eyebrows.
‘Come on then.’ He hurdled the low garden wall and urged her to do the same.
As she did, a stab of nostalgia hit her. They crossed the lane and walked over to the car park. Some kind of creeper had blanketed most of the gravel and more ivy had crawled up the stand of the notice board, reaching behind the Perspex. Caitlin examined the single piece of paper pinned inside: a thank you for a picnic basket from one villager to another. Jake was by the kitchen windows, looking inside. She joined him.
A couple of mugs remained on the worktop, and a ratty tea towel hung over a cupboard handle. A layer of dust covered everything and leaves were banked against the oven.
Jake walked around the perimeter of the hall. ‘Do you remember the party where the bouncy castle collapsed?’
‘Yes! That must be about thirty years ago. Mum and dad had to pick us all out of the folds of material.’
He pressed a foot against the corner of the building. The wood powdered beneath his shoe. ‘I didn’t mean to do that.’
Caitlin kicked away some dirt clogged around a drainpipe, revealing a shoeprint, forever embossed in concrete. She placed her own foot in it, discovering it fitted perfectly.
There had been a leak two days before the wedding reception. Looking back it seemed almost poetic: by December the committee had dissolved and the hall was closed. Caitlin only became aware when she returned the following February – by that time the place was falling into ruin.
The newlyweds emerged from the church, showered with confetti and rice as they walked down the path. The sun had burst through the clouds and the day was brightening up.
Jake looked at the hall. ‘It was good place to have, wasn’t it? Me and Leah have never been able to instil into the kids what they’re missing out on.’
Caitlin looked at him.
‘You know, on a day like this, I feel we could do something about it.’
‘It’s about keeping the community going,’ she looked up at the blue sky, ‘even when the weather turns bad. Like the ten year reset.’
Behind the wedding car, guests filtered down the lane to their own vehicles,
‘It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the seven year itch though.’ Jake folded his arms.
‘Granted. Nobody’s going to be making a film about it.’ She looked at him. ‘But you might get the hall back. That’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?’
‘Yes.’ He looked at his phone. ‘Leah and the kids are on their way. We’d better head back and look like we’re doing something practical.’
M W L S Morgan
It was very strange. Staring at the very thing that was going to kill you, but it wasn’t going to get her yet. She got up, taking several steps to a large screen, reaching up with her right hand, pinching her thumb and forefinger together over the image projected.
A door on the other side of the room popped opened and a man entered.
“The last evacuees away?” she asked, not looking away from the screen.
There was a silence, broken only by the occasional beep from a computer and the steady hum of the air circulation turbines. The Captain didn’t turn. The man stood by the door, head down, unsure of what to do next.
“It’s strange. The very thing which gave Humanity life, gave us the galaxy itself, would be the one to kill us.” She turned and, hands by her sides, walked over to a bench by the door. The man could see that her eyes were red and bloodshot. “How long?” she asked.
The man checked his watch. “Ten minutes, Captain.”
“Forget the ranks. There’s no point now.” Letting out a short sigh she sat down on the bench, and the man sat down next to her.
“You know..., umm...?”
“I’m Anaya. I’m from Singapore. You?”
“York, Ma’am. England.”
“Malcom. You know, I’m not supposed to be here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean; not here. I should be with my family. Not here.”
The last two words were only just above a whisper.
“Do you want me to get you a comm’ link, Ma’am?”
She just shook her head, eyes cast downward. “No, they’ve already gone.”
Malcolm looked over to the screen on the wall and sighed, saying quietly, “At least we won’t have to write a report.”
The sudden, unexpected reply of laughter shocked Malcolm. The laughter built up, becoming louder, more spasmodic before shifting into tearful convulsions.
“I don’t want to die...”
Malcolm shifted on the bench, glancing at the screen. What should he do? He didn’t know the Captain well enough. No-one did. She was a woman who spent almost every living moment at work. Her only other passion, ensuring her daughter would join the Fleet. “Continuing the tradition” she called it. Malcom laced his fingers together and rested his head on them.
“No one wants to die Ma’am.”
“I won’t be able to see her grow up.”
“At least she will. That’s more important. She’ll get to grow up, so will other children. Because of you.”
“But I won’t be there!”
The outburst shocked Malcolm, jerking his head up from his hands and looking at Anaya leaning back and staring at the ceiling.
“I won’t be there at her graduation, her first command, her.... Her life.”
“I, I can’t pretend to understand, Ma’am. If she’s like her mother, she’ll do all that and more.” Malcom placed a reassuring hand tentatively on her arm. “I think, well, you will inspire her to do even greater things than you could imagine.”
The Captain looked down from the ceiling, and from the first time, looked straight into Malcom’s eyes.
“How do you know?”
“Because... You helped save her, and millions more like her. You will be remembered as a saviour of mankind, and as her mother.”
A slight smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“You really think so, Malcolm?”
Malcom smiled back.
“Yes. I do, Ma’am.”
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Of course, I am.”
The Captain stood up, gesturing at Malcom to follow her, moved out of the room and into the corridor. Malcom rose to follow.
Moving through the passages, Malcom and Anaya passed several open doors, leading into storage bays, devoid of supplies. Others led into work stations or rec’ rooms, containing the few remaining members of crew. Most were sat silently, staring into space. Others weeping and embracing one another in a desperate, instinctive attempt to prevent the inevitable. Only when they reached the observation room did they see a body.
One wall of the observation deck was sprayed pink over the usual drab greys. A bench held the body of the ship’s chief weapons officer. His name was Marco, Malcom remembered. He was very proud of his son and would often tell whoever would listen about his life. Out of the window, Malcom could see the sun.
“I once would have just stared at the beauty of it all,” the Captain said.
“I still do.”
They both moved across the room to the bench closest to the window and sat in silence. Waiting. Anaya asked what Malcom was thinking about.
“I’m not sure.”
“I was wondering about what next.”
“No, just next.”
“I don’t think anyone can answer that.”
“Are you religious Malcom?”
Malcom paused. “Yes, but I can’t give you any answers.”
“Shouldn’t you be praying?”
“I would, but they took the Kaaba from Mecca.”
“But you’re still scared?”
“Of course, I am. Nothing is ever a certainty.”
Anaya sighed and rested her face in her hands. Malcom checked his watch again. Two minutes until they would all know for certain.
“If there is one, do you think we’re even going to get there?” came the muffled Captain’s voice from inside her hands. “We fired on civilians.”
“If we hadn’t, more would have died. You didn’t kill them. Those bastards at Fleet command did, ordering ships approaching evacuee vessels to be destroyed.”
Anaya’s face remained neutral for several seconds, her eyes closed, and she began to weep. Malcom pulled his arms around his chest as if he was a child and cried until, in the distance, the sun began to swell, bathing the interior of the room a deep red. The Captain opened her eyes looking into Malcom’s eyes with the steadiest gaze the man had ever seen.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome, Ma’am.”
The Captain moved her hand up to shield her eyes, as the red-hot surface of the sun rushed out to meet them.
‘The Last Kid’
When you're the last of ten you're not raised by just your parents, you're raised by your siblings too. There's too much chaos, especially when mama didn't go more than two years without popping at least one out. You can't have one leader or just two in charge. It's about delegation.
'Luke, get everyone to the table.'
'Georgia, get the little ones ready for school.'
'Ashley, pick up the wailing one.'
Everyone (even me, the last one) has to pitch in. You're raised in an institution and you have to do what's right for it, which might explain how I ended up in this one, some twenty years later. Being tenth, it also explains why almost all of them underestimated me. Except for Billy.
We don't all have the same daddy. Don't act surprised, families much smaller have different daddies. Mama never married any of them. Said, 'Marriage didn't do Grandma no favours so I'll avoid it like the plague'. We all have mama's last name, so I don't know why Mrs Bailey didn't believe me and Chester were brothers. So what if he has Chinese eyes. He's the only one of us that doesn't share his daddy with anyone else. Well, no one else that he's met. Probably.
Maybe it's because we have so many different daddies between us that we're all so different. I know I'm where I am because of my daddy.
Eldest are Ashley and Austin. Mama didn't know she was having twins because she never saw a doctor. I bet it was on account of Grandma and her church going that she kept it secret. Grandma said, 'It was shock enough when a baby came flying out of her, but when a second one came out that was when my hair went white forever.'
I haven't seen a baby come out of anybody. Ashley said she saw me come out of mama and that she cried hard. Mama thought they were tears of joy. Ashley never told her it was because she felt her mind had been torn apart worse than mama was.
Ashley would talk to me a bit if Austin wasn't about, but when he was she'd only talk to him and he to her. I mean really talk, aside from crap like 'pass the butter, please' (God help you if you didn't say please). It was like they had important plans they were planning and you weren't a part of them. Mrs Bailey asked the class what 'being in love' meant once. I said 'it meant you were a twin.' That was the wrong answer. Austin and Ashley are both teachers too now, at the same middle school. Neither of them married. Maybe my answer wasn't so wrong.
Luke shares the same daddy as them. He works at a hospital. He's a nurse but he won't say it. Just says he fixes people. Guess he always wanted to fix mama. I get that.
Chester moved to a city on the east coast. I cried my eyes out the day he left, because I knew he'd never come back. Always said he didn't belong around here. Sends me a card every birthday and Christmas, always puts fifty bucks in it, even though I'm twenty. He works in a bank. He's got a family I've never met.
Georgia and Gretchen are the worst of the twins, because the plans they made were never secret. You knew about them as soon as they were happening to you. The closet you were locked in while they laughed outside and you screamed in the dark. The ghost stories they told you then banged on your window at night. But they never got in trouble, it was always you who got the blame. Twisted every word that came out of your mouth. They became lawyers, stripping their way through college. Georgia is suing Gretchen for having an affair with her husband. Mama finds it so funny. 'They caught the plague', she says.
Caroline and Jackson share a daddy with the twins, but they ain't twins themselves. Caroline was always Grandma's favourite, which is why she went to live with her, rather than stay with mama and my daddy. Always went with Grandma to church. Would you believe Caroline's a preacher now? I went to that church with them once. Never stirred me in that way, which might explain where I am.
Jackson joined the army. When I asked him why he said, 'What else am I going to do?' I didn't have an answer for that.
Then there's Billy, then me. We share a daddy. All my siblings that still speak with me say our daddy was the worst one. But I already know that. I always saw him hurting mama, and how he never left. He's the reason I'm inside. Him and Billy. It was Billy's idea you see. He sold it to me, him being a cop. A crooked one. Said we could cover it up. He took mama out saying he'd pay for groceries. Daddy didn't mind that of course. Then I waited for him to fall asleep in front of the TV. I turned the gas on, leaving a pan of beans on the gas ring, and left. It was quick, which wasn't what he deserved. I got pinned though. Mama kept saying, 'But he never ate beans.' After all that man did to her she was still crying for him. It was all too close to looking like what it was. Not an accident. So Billy told me to own it as one. I hated him for that. The jury were lenient. Manslaughter. Billy's promised me an easy time in here. Early release on good behaviour. Hopefully.
Mama knows the truth. She ain't grateful, doesn't visit me. None of them do. Except Billy.
We're all part of an institution. And daddy didn't respect the institution of family. And they shouldn't have underestimated the tenth kid. The last kid.
‘The Ten Tests of Secret Love, or Hoping for Rejection’
Shortly after I first met her, I realised I had fallen in love with her. I knew that our love was impossible. A writer, like me, and married, like me, she knew nothing of this, and, even though I wanted to get to know her, I could never reveal my feelings.
I gave myself Ten Tests to prove I could keep my love a secret.
Test No.1 To be in the same room as her, and at the same time - without staring or fainting or needing to adjust my trousers.
Test No.2 To speak reasonably intelligently in her company without stammering, drying, gabbling, dribbling, projectile vomiting or sounding like a witless idiot.
Test No.3 To stop speaking in her company without appearing to be a witless idiot who has deliberately stopped speaking in her company out of some sort of ridiculous self- consciousness.
Test No.4 To send her a reasonably chummy, but definitely not affectionate, email.
Test No.5 To wait patiently for a reply, and not to send an email reminder every hour on the hour for the next 48 hours.
Test No.6 To read her email response (when it eventually arrived!) at least twelve times, and, without sounding like a witless idiot, reply to it.
Test No.7 To ask her to email me one of her extraordinary award-winning short stories.
Test No.8 When received, to read her extraordinary award-winning short story at least seventeen times, and to fully understand its complexities and nuances.
√ More or less accomplished.
Test No.9 To reply, saying nice things about her more or less understandable extraordinary award-winning short story and its complexities and nuances, without sounding like a witless idiot who only more or less understands it, and who is saying nice things just because I secretly love her.
Test No.10 – The Final Test To write a new short story about my secret love, submit it to the Coleford Festival of Words Short Story Competition and have it completely rejected, so that my secret love will never be revealed.
Ex-Father Don drives nine of us nobodies to scenic spots on Sundays. Peeping the horn to summon us from our terraces and blocks, or he’ll knock and wait for the hallway shuffle, the fearful yes, who is it? His offer of a day excursion rarely refused, we all squash into his Micra.
Has the service begun yet, Father? It has, Mrs Logan. Time for Holy Communion, says Mrs L, who never dares turn on her central heating, and we pass round the allsorts. I’ve got the pink jelly one, rejoices Jane Taylor, her mum’s carer until she died. Then you are blessed among women, says Father Don.
He veers off the chosen path and bumps down patched tarmac lanes, past the skeletons of burnt-out factories, till we reach a godforsaken acreage. Here we park up and share a Tupperware box of tuna sandwiches. We try to stifle our burps and worse things, effortful not to offend Father Don’s ex-congregants, his pious former flock. Present company includes Mr Fortinbras in his duffel, not good at relationships (but who among us will cast the first stone?) and myself, a collector of rubber items.
We sit with feet so still, bunnies creep from their scrub holes to nibble at weeds. A day given, says Father Don. Terrible to be shut up in church. Dear sisters and brother, let us praise the almighty as he/she descends behind our ancient burial ground (the dump). Rumpy-Pumpy is the true meaning of love, virginity an insult to human nature. But if you’re not getting any, we won’t criticise you.
A lovely sermon, Father, says Mrs Logan. Now remind me, why was it those shits at the Vatican defrocked you?
Heresy, says Father Don. He starts the engine. Who’ll join me in the confessional (a booth at the Crown & Anchor)? Pints for the ladies!
© 2018 - The works in this anthology remain the copyright of the various authors and the Coleford Festival of Words