Competition Winners

Reader’s Choice: A Biting April Breeze

A Biting April Breeze

by Tessa Fenley

‘No more blind dates for me, Mum. Stop fussing, I’ll be fine.’ Joyce kills the call in a snit, trying to spot her daughter who is skipping along the embankment.

‘Don’t you just love it when the daffodils dance in the breeze?’ Joyce enthuses in spite of Lily’s harsh frown. Sunshine and flowers do not warrant unbridled cheerfulness in the world of eight-year-olds.

Comfortably settled at the Riverside Café, Lily decides this is the moment she has been waiting for. ‘Mummy, where does true love live?’

Joyce looks up from the menu. Momentarily flabbergasted, she searches her daughter’s face for clues on the origin of the question. ‘I’m not sure, pet. Where do you suspect it lives?’ Buying herself time, Joyce rummages in her Sunday morning brain for a sensible answer. ‘Let’s ask Daddy,’ Joyce suggests. ‘Shall we pick some daffodils and pay him a visit after breakfast?’

Lily’s Aries disposition rears its snappy head. She wants answers, not more questions. Daddy would not be any help. ‘The thing is, it’s urgent. Who else can we ask? Today.’

Joyce sighs at her daughter’s wilfulness, wondering how to redirect her attention to more suitable topics for pre-breakfast conversation. ‘Why don’t you decide what you want to eat?’

‘I’ll have the usual.’

Since he died, Lily invariably sticks to her daddy’s favourite: poached eggs on toast with smoked salmon.

‘Dad was my true love.’ Joyce offers.

‘Where did you two meet?’

‘At the library. It’s closed today, though.’

Lily feels increasingly exasperated. If only she could be honest with Mummy. ‘Daddy has been dead for a long time now.’

‘I suppose.’ Joyce says, taken aback by Lily’s matter-of-factness.

‘Maybe you should go out more. I could stay with nana. I don’t mind, honestly.’ Lily says.

‘Lily Beale, if you don’t tell me exactly what is going on, I will ground you for the rest of your life!’

Mortified, Lily lowers her gaze.

‘Out with it,’ Mummy orders.

‘I heard some teachers talking about you. They were mean. One of them said you had lost your good looks. They said you would never find a new man again. I wanted to defend you but I did not want to get in trouble.’

Stunned, Joyce gasps for air. Not trusting herself to speak, she chokes back her silly tears and reaches for Lily’s hand, squeezing it affectionately. She manages a grimace which is supposed to resemble a reassuring smile and orders breakfast.

‘Tell you what,’ Joyce says after they are finished, ‘why don’t you use the bathroom before we go and I’ll nip out for a sec.’

Outside the café, seeking shelter from the biting April breeze, Joyce calls her mother. Instead of agreeing to another blind date, as she intended, she falters and sobs while her mother listens and smothers her own tears as she tunes in to Joyce’s heart-wrenching despair. It finally dawns on her that there is no fertile soil in her daughter’s heart yet.

Tessa Fenley is currently finalizing her first detective novel. She lives by the sea which invariably inspires her work.

Tessa’s story ‘Love Equals Loss’ was selected as Reader’s Choice for our February competition this year, on the theme of confrontation. You can read it here.

Our Reader said –

An exercise in the power of brevity, this story explores the relationships between three generations of women in one short scene. Quite a feat!

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Reader’s Choice: A Spring in Her Step

A Spring in Her Step

by Ian Marshall

Her shadow rushes ahead or lags behind depending on the street lamps. The sun is minutes away from its scheduled morning appearance, hinting at the promise of warmth yet to come. She has been out all night and is now walking home. Her legs may be those of a teenager, but they are feeling the full effects of her soirée and she takes the opportunity to rest on a wooden bench. It is situated between the bus stop at the top of the hill and the small wood behind it. From this vantage point she can view most of the village.

Yesterday’s rain has left a load of mirrors on the pavement which reflect the sombre mood of an old lady as she totters towards the newsagents. A wheelie bin has spewed its contents across the street and now rests against a telephone pole. From the wood she can hear a chorus of birds discussing last night’s wind. High above, a skylark sings as if nothing happened. A passing car splashes through puddles rearranging them in her direction, but she foresaw what was to come and disappeared as easily as a magician’s assistant.

In the wood the beauty of a carpet of bluebells is offset by a box spring mattress crawling with bedbugs. It is headlined by the unlikely duo of tangled fairy lights and a broken tennis racket. A squirrel hurtles past, making her jump when it scoots vertically into the leafy canopy without any loss of momentum. The birds have so much to sing about this morning. Their lives must be full of excitement.

She turns into an opening where the daisies, still half asleep, observe a robin picking out a worm. A cherry tree stands almost naked surrounded by a controlled explosion of blossom. She looks up to see two blackbirds bookending the rooftops on a block of houses. Their never-ending songs provide the soundtrack of spring. A fresh web spun between the guttering and a drainpipe glitters as the initial rays of streaking sunlight finally arrives. A parade of ducklings follows their mother across the road like a string of feathered pearls doing their “Abbey Road” tribute.

She follows the double yellow lines down the hill, proceeding carefully as though the footpath is a balloon which might burst at any moment. Nearly home now she startles a starling into flight from a patch of primroses and she spots a snail scaling a small brick wall.

The wooden gate to the old cottage is off the latch. She slithers around it without stepping on the damp lawn. Meandering up to the front door she can see a light on in the kitchen. The old lady is awake. Even better, the smell of something cooking wafts across her nostrils. Is that fish? She bends her head down and with the top of it pushes open the cat flap to investigate.

Ian Marshall is feeling sorry for those with hay fever or taking exams who miss out on the best time of the year.

Ian’s story ‘Puckers’ was a Reader’s Choice piece for our June 2018 competition on the theme of toast, you can read it here.

Our Reader said –

The imagery in this piece is wonderful, and I love how it evokes a liminal landscape that straddles the divide between urban and rural, human and animal.

Winner for May: Of Love and Alcohol

Of Love and Alcohol

by Lioba Multer

I

I started drinking because a relationship went sour. Relationships are a big challenge for me.

I then hung out with a group of Indian Students. They were kind and happy people. I was trying to be a writer. I then had everything, nice clothes, a good job.

Drinking took me to a place, where I had never been. It made me forget, who I was. Lots of people I knew had feelings towards the same sex, without openly identifying as gay/ lesbian.

Did the alcoholics in my life help?

Of course I joined them, having nothing better to do than to numb my bewildered senses with alcohol. It took me a long time to struggle back to reality.

When I started at the Ohio State University, life was exciting and beautiful. Then I was indeed a Graduate Student to full rights. My first Christmas vacation at OSU I spent in a house as deep and quiet as a well.

In the morning the sun would glitter in the alley ways, as I was walking around the college town in that cold winter.

II

One day in spring I started to befriend a woman, who really did not like me. She was an alcoholic.

III

I had started rather harmlessly, me getting drunk around my girlfriend and her family.

Visitors from East Germany arrived, elegant intellectuals as if from another world.

IV

The girl, who lived in the void.

When I first started at OSU, I was offered a good life, but I did not know how to handle my feelings.

As a Teaching Assistant I felt pretty successful, meeting revolutionaries, who came up from South America.

Of course, coming from Germany I found the ill-clad female professor somewhat ludicrous. What a passage of grief, all of them, but compare to them, Helen was a complete disaster.

It did not help, that when you came, you entered a completely crazy place in turn.

That did not exclude me having met nice people here towards the beginning, except I did run into people who drank a lot. They were homosexuals.

Late winter nights with the Marxist Leninist study group were as much fueled by my alcoholism as by my desire to be elsewhere. I felt happy. I thought, finally something positive was happening in my life.

IV

Once, in my second year at OSU, we went to Toronto, Dave Caldwell, Bob Maier and me.

It always starts out nicely with a Woman to Woman conference. Even homophobia was part of the repertoire.

It was spring outside, the sun was shining. I could have fallen in love with anybody. How could I have been so wrong?

Lioba Multer was born in 1959 in Munich, Germany. Permanent resident of the United States; one book publication: The Fruit of Happiness, 1999. 

Our Reader said –

This story in fragments displays a perfect marriage of form and content. It’s inventive and full of pain and longing.

Our Reader for May

Some of you will recognise our Reader for May as Katherine Meehan, who MC’d at our springtime-themed poetry open mic on 1st May in Didcot. Thank you to her for spending the time reading this month’s entries.

photo of katie.jpg

Katherine Meehan lives in South Oxfordshire and spends her free time reading books about time and how to survive in the wilderness. She’s had several short stories published in in the States and she’s currently studying for an Mst in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. You can find her on Twitter @kmeehan.

If you’d like to be our Reader in a future month please email Alice via didcotwriters@gmail.com and tell us a bit about your writing experience and why you’d like to be involved.

Winners for May – ‘springtime’

Thank you to those who entered our May competition, themed ‘springtime‘. The results are in, so here are the winners:

Winner:
Of Love and Alcohol, by Lioba Multer

Reader’s Choices:
A Spring in Her Step, by Ian Marshall
A Biting April Breeze, by Tessa Fenley
April Wayside Blues, by Margaret Gallop
Bug, by John J. Galloway
Nature’s Reciprocity, by John Ludlam

Congratulations to all! If you ‘Follow’ the site at https://didcotwriters.wordpress.com/ you will receive the winning entries straight to your inbox as they are published.


As we did last year, rather than doing three 500-word competitions over the summer months, we’re going to do one 1,500-word competition – the theme is ‘museum‘, and the deadline is 31st August.

What is on display behind the glass? Where did these things come from originally? Who works in the offices upstairs? What happens when the gallery doors close? What object of yours accidentally becomes an acquisition? What has been lost in the archive?

You can send either one longer piece, or up to three shorter pieces in the same document. Entry details are at https://didcotwriters.wordpress.com/


If you’re local to Oxfordshire, don’t forget to check out our upcoming workshops and other events at bit.ly/didcotwriters-workshops.

If you want a bigger writing challenge, why not submit something for our new anthology, ‘A Night at the Railway Inn‘? – https://didcotwriters.wordpress.com/anthology/.

Reader’s Choice: The Wild One

The Wild One

by Charles Osborne

My name is Alexa Andreadis. I was born in Anogia, Crete.

After spending my formative years in London, I was drawn back, like the goddess Persephone, to my native Crete. I was heading up the gravelled mountain road on a souped-up Lefas-Ducati motorbike I had borrowed from my uncle in Heraklion. The mountainside was a colourful blur of chamomile, poppy, anemone, iris, and gladioli. I was a girl in black leather; a female Marlon Brando. The wind in my hair.

The engine roared between my legs. The Ducati pulsated. I revved the engine extra hard for the steep incline.  Up ahead, shadowy shapes blocked the road.

Mountain grit and rocks accompanied me in a whirl of dust and debris as I sailed over the edge. Legs, tight against the hot metal, throbbed. I gripped the handlebars tightly. I needed all my strength to keep the bike steady. As I floated down, like mythologic Diktynna, I could see, in the distance, neat rows of olive trees. Nearer, were tidy fields of vegetables. And directly below, a watery marsh. As I neared the ground astride the bike, still miraculously upright, feeding egrets, herons and spoonbills scattered in a flurry of white.

An ancient flat-bottomed boat neared. I was unceremoniously dragged from the muddy morass by huge men in brightly-patterned skirts and blouses. They spoke a language I did not understand. They seemed from another world; another time. My motorbike was hauled up by a rickety wooden crane mounted on one end of the boat. My rescuers stared at it in disbelief. I was laid against a stack of newly cut reeds. One of the men stared at me intently. He had clear blue-grey eyes. Around his wrists were gold bracelets. And around his neck was a solid patterned gold chain. He looked amazing; like an important leader or even a god. I was smitten.

I opened my eyes; I told my story. I was surrounded by medical staff. In the centre was a man who introduced himself as Doctor Galanis; he had the most amazing clear blue-grey eyes.

Doctor Galanis said I had been heavily sedated and that it was not unusual for patients under sedation to have vivid dreams. I had numerous cuts, lacerations and, grit-burns, together with a collapsed lung, three cracked ribs, and a broken pelvis. I was lucky to be alive. A mountain shepherd had witnessed the incident and called for help. Apparently, I had got frustrated with the shepherd’s goats blocking the road, had ridden back, turned the motorbike around, roared back up the slope at speed and, according to the shepherd, tried to accelerate up and over the goats as if, as he put it, I was Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

In my dreams I always wanted to marry a doctor, a doctor with clear grey-blue eyes. I never did. My dreams collapsed.

I was fined 100 euros for killing a goat.

Charles Osborne has had poetry and prose published in several small press publications.

Our Reader Said

I loved this romp of a piece, amazing how so much was fitted in, and it made me laugh.

Reader’s Choice: Spring

Spring

by Isabelle Dupuy

The blinds had been pulled down on one window but left half way up on the other. An entire rectangle of glass looked out into the darkness until a hint of dawn illuminated two trees. She woke up sore in her head and in her heart. Resigned, she sat up to go to the bathroom.

That’s when she saw the exposed window. The first thing she noticed was how neatly the blind had been pulled up. The frame looked even on all sides yet the blind hid the sash lock so that the window became a picture. Even the light was too sandy, too grey to penetrate inside the room but that delicacy gave a texture to what she could see so that the view looked contained and deep at the same time. The first tree, a solemn and smooth plane tree stretched its shaven branches out and up above the scope of her vision, like a flat-chested woman crying out for the sun. Behind it there was a young tree, she didn’t know what it was but it was covered with green fluttering life. The restlessness of its leaves and its thin branches meant there was wind out there, it blew out the sandy grey, and a stroke of blue appeared just above the green tree. What an amazing view. She wondered why she had never noticed it before.

She often woke up too early but then she’d sink deep into herself, searching an imaginary diary for all the things she hadn’t done, the people she hadn’t called, the work, always the work that could be more, better, easier. But no, it couldn’t be easier because she’d be exhausted by 2pm, and the only thing she’d be able to think about is sleep and how bad would it look if she just lay her head on her desk for ten minutes? Would anyone care? Does anyone care? She was just another anxious overwhelmed woman, unable to reconstruct alone her sense of security, of peace.

Or rather, she didn’t allow herself any rest, any peace. She was shipwrecked on an island with grey trees and had to struggle day and night not to be dissolved by the winter drizzle.

She propped herself a bit higher on her pillow. She didn’t try to turn on the light or to get up. She let that stroke of blue into her eyes, and she went ‘mmm’ as she felt the colour turn to hope in her mind. She never knew beauty could heal.

Morning came suddenly. He tugged at the duvet. He had turned away from her. She hesitated and moved closer so her lips could touch his skin. She slid her knees to nestle behind his. He groaned but he didn’t move. She then put her arm over the wall of his naked back. He took her hand and hugged it against his heart. That was the thing with him: even half asleep, he never ever pushed her away. One day she’d find it normal.

For now it still felt like a miracle.

Isabelle Dupuy: I am an Haitian immigrant who’s been living in London for twenty years. My first novel Living the Dream is coming out in November with Jacaranda Press

Our Reader said:

A thoughtful, descriptive insight into coming into consciousness from sleep, and of not taking love for granted.

Reader’s Choice: Sam’s Spot

Sam’s Spot

by David Lewis Pogson

I hope that you don’t mind me writing to you. We met years ago. Your brother Sam was my friend. You would have been five years old when I last saw you at your parents’ house. Sam and I were eighteen then. We’d gone through school together. I remember your curly hair and your bright blue eyes, exactly like his. You must have grown up to look like him.

Sam and I caught the school bus together. We’d sit at the back so we could smoke and copy each other’s homework. We’d talk about girls, at least until he met Deborah and fell in love.

Do you know how he met her?  He sat behind her in the cinema and started chatting to her before the film started. Afterwards he walked her home. Then I saw less of him. I didn’t complain. It was obvious that they were suited to each other. She worked at a hairdressers that we passed on the walk from the bus terminus. He’d dash across the road to see her, give her a quick kiss and fix up his next date. I’d wait for him with our mates on the other side, whistling and shouting to embarrass him. He’d just laugh. He was happy.

I mentioned his hair. It was always that unruly mass of curls. Not even Deborah could do anything with it.  His crash helmet didn’t help. Once he’d bought his motorbike, so he could visit Deborah at nights, we both suffered from hairstyle failure. He made me wear Deborah’s helmet whenever I rode behind him to school. Sometimes on a Saturday night he’d drop me at the Disco Bar on his way to see her. We thought we were so cool on a motorbike, Sam wearing a suit and tie under his leathers, me with my jacket buttoned and collar up, trousers tucked into my socks and that crash helmet crushing my hair. He laughed when Deborah complained about the smear of Brylcreem around the inside rim. We thought we were cool but in reality we couldn’t have looked it.

I pass the little churchyard as I drive to work. His spot catches the sun sometimes. I stopped and saw your flowers. I always make a point of going during every World Cup tournament. Sam just missed the 1966 final. He’d have loved that game. I tell him what’s happening. He knows about Beckham’s injury and the great win over Argentina in this year’s tournament.  He’d have cursed that lucky Ronaldinho goal that eliminated England.

Nineteen was too young. And drowning whilst trying to save someone else’s life… well that was terrible. He should have come home from University instead of going on that summer canoeing course.

Anyway, that’s why I’m writing – to say that we still miss him too. Deborah sends her love. We often talk about Sam, especially now that our family has grown up and left and we have more time to sit and think.

David Lewis Pogson is a fiction writer for ACES ‘The Terrier’ magazine, and winner of the Cumbria Local History Federation Prize, Freerange Theatre Playframe, and MicrcosmsFic competitions.

Our Reader said:

With understated poignancy, this piece gently portrayed the grief felt when a young person is taken from us too soon.

 

Reader’s Choice: Finding the Light in the Dark

Finding the Light in the Dark

by Jan Brown

Me disappeared the moment the consultant gently proffered his diagnosis, mapping the year ahead. It wasn’t cowardice but sheer pragmatism: I needed qualities I didn’t possess to get through painful practicalities and imagined horrors, overwhelming discomforts and fears. This instinctive reaction made life bearable: cancer wasn’t happening to Me; it was happening to a woman I barely recognised, who’s preserved my sanity and my dignity.

I found myself using the full version of the name my parents bestowed on me, one I never liked and abandoned for a diminutive long ago. Precious possessions were laid aside so, in my cancer-free future, I could revert to things just as they’d been, untainted by clinics and cannulae and consultants. Off came my engagement ring, the gold chain my parents gave me, my favourite perfume. They await that moment when I regain my former life.

The new me was barely recognisable. An inveterate Googler, she opted for as few questions and as little knowledge as possible and respected the judgment of the specialists. She refused to search the internet, knowing that would only fuel disabling fear and doubts. Of what use is amateur knowledge when you’ve put yourself in the hands of experts? Trust never came naturally to Me. Now I trust implicitly.

The new me is angry, not at the disease, the faulty gene or the hormones, but at a world that encourages us to equate cancer with death. I didn’t consider death but I became a-woman-with-cancer, her every mood and every behaviour observed, analysed and advised on by well-intentioned friends more fearful than I. I determined to change this attitude. The little indignities no one warns you about became a source of entertainment and enlightenment. Message: it’s OK to laugh.

No one can prepare you for the phantom nipple sensation following mastectomy. The chemo trout pout is a sight to behold – free of charge and reversible. The torturous cold cap only protect your head from chemo-induced hair loss and wigs itch and slip so I’m content with my almost-transparent buzz-cut. Yet I’m devastated by the loss of my eye-lashes – and who’d have thought nasal hair was essential? I’ve joined the ranks of sniffing, snotty toddlers with no mum to tut and wipe my nose to make me respectable.

There’s no logic. Despised leg hair holds fast. Why? I’m bald as a coot above, alopecia front to back, pre-pubescent. The gravity that started wreaking havoc years ago is apparently ubiquitous: I see things I never expected to see again with one glance down. Women’s plumbing isn’t the best design but body hair has a role. Now, rivulets of pee choose random circuitous routes across my buttocks, free of control.

Radiotherapy looms. I’m cancer-free, chock-a-block full of poisons and immensely proud of myself. But I’m yearning to reclaim my body. I need my world to make sense again. Me will slip back, I hope to co-exist with the stand-in I don’t want to lose – because she turned this wimp into a warrior.

Jan Brown is rarely lost for words. She’s excited to get back to writing flash fiction now chemo-brain is loosening its hold.

Her story ‘An Unforgivable Act of Generosity’ was Reader’s Choice in the summer 2018 competition and can be read here, as well as being published in print in the music-themed anthology Compositions.

Our Reader said:

An insight into breast cancer, which highlighted all the unexpected results of the treatment in a frank way.

Reader’s Choice: And She Lives Happily Ever After

And She Lives Happily Ever After

by Jody Kish

A battle takes place every day within the shadows of my mind.

It is a silent struggle against good and evil that unless you really know my story, you will be unaware of its presence. And that’s okay. No one can really understand it by the mere sight of me – even my family.

I have a nemesis that occasionally wants to taunt me with its evil games. It will even go so far as to launch silent attacks that penetrate from within; slowly slithering down into my very being.

Its tendentious appetite for chaos is clear, and I refuse to participate.

But it’s always there. Waiting for an inopportune moment to launch an attack.

Look at me. You will see an average person; not give my appearance a second thought. You won’t see the hidden scars that are buried deep within. You won’t hear my tales of the struggles I endure on a daily basis. And that’s alright. I will fight this until my very last breath. It has played me unfairly for over thirty years and I am burdened with its wickedness forever.

It viciously disrupts nerve signals of the myelin in my brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It’s more of an irritation, really, that occasionally hinders my thoughts, mobility, and strength. And you would think that’s enough, but the doctors tell me I have over a dozen black holes in my brain. It sounds pretty serious, right? And it is.

I could be frightened by its presence. I should be.

But I’m not.

Like a valiant knight, I wear an impenetrable armour that must be polished daily. It’s called fortitude when confronted with obstacles – transforming apprehension into kick-ass confidence!

I have learned what makes me strong. My armour has grown quite thick.

You may ask how is it that I can deal with its onslaught so well? It hasn’t always been easy. After having it for so long, I refuse to play the game.

It’s as simple as that.

Can you believe it even has the audacity to try and steal my sight? Needless to say, my vision is compromised from the evilness it revels in. But I refuse to let it defeat my spirit, instead I counter it by  fulfilling another passion of mine – writing.

I may not be as talented at writing as I once was, (frustratingly, I forget the simplest rules of grammar and punctuation –  maybe lost in one of the black holes?) but writing has become a great outlet for me. What a wonderful way to express my thoughts and wage a war against a relentless nemesis and its curmudgeon-like demeanour.

Regardless of how I feel about its existence, it has become part of me. How uninteresting I would be without it.

On a final note, as I compose this narrative for you, I unfortunately suffer another assault from my enemy, multiple sclerosis. I don my heavy armour, and you guessed it: I keep writing, but with a vengeance.

Jody Kish: Learning everyday from the many obstacles faced in her life, Jody continues to surprise the ones around her; even herself.

Jody’s work has been Reader’s Choice twice before, for her stories ‘I Wanted to Tell her’ and ‘Remains’.

Our Reader said:

This brought into focus the reality of living with a severe health condition, unimaginable to many of us, and of persevering as a writer under extraordinary pressures.