Competition Winners

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.

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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.

 

Winner: All About Me – Able Seaman Herbie

All About Me – Able Seaman ‘Herbie’

by Ian Hembrow

By the time they dug me out of that foul and freezing mud, I’d lain underground for 11 days. The German shell that buried me had killed all six of my mates, and turned our machine gun into a twisted torque of contorted metal. But somehow I’d survived.

‘Herbie’ everyone called me, but my real name was Howard – and I’d volunteered to do my bit in the fight against the Kaiser. Some said I was, as the saying went: ‘Somerset born, Somerset bred; strong in the arm and thick in the ’ead.’ But I knew what I was doing when I joined up as Navy Reservist at the start of the war. No one told me I’d end up fighting in France with the infantry though – I was a sailor!

The 16 months I spent away from the family farm, training, shipped to Calais on a misty morning in January 1917, and then convalescing from my injuries in Liverpool, was the only time I ever left the county I called home.

I wish I could say I was wounded in some heroic advance, but it wasn’t like that. By the time my Battalion got to the front, the Battle of the Somme had ground to a terrible icy stalemate – the dead of both sides still lying where they’d fallen in the previous summer’s slaughter, decaying in the dreadful tangle of wire and shell holes in No Man’s Land. We were sailors, but the days of naval skirmishes were over – this was now a war of attrition waged through the slog and suffering of thousands upon thousands of young men like me. So we fought – and died – as make-do soldiers.

I was trained as a horse-shoer, but never touched a horse from the moment I arrived in France. Instead, I formed part of a seven-man Lewis Gun team – an ugly and unwieldy weapon fed by heavy, plate-sized round magazines on the top. It was hard enough to fire the thing on the training ground, but in the filth of the frontline, with shrapnel and high-explosive bursting all around us and our hands numb from the cold, it was next to impossible.

Seven men for one gun – a First Gunner, loader (me) and five chaps to carry ammunition and spares. We sat shivering in a shell hole out in front of our own trenches to watch for enemy patrols, with just a single, soggy tarpaulin pulled over us to keep out the worst of the wind, rain and snow.

They said you never hear the shell that hits you coming, and so it was for me. One moment I was with my pals, and the next thing I knew was waking up at the Casualty Clearing Station two weeks later, with most of my fingers and toes frostbitten and gone.

A century later, for my grandchildren (who I barely met) and two great-grandsons (who I never met), this is pretty much all they know about me.

But they’re proud I did my bit.

Ian Hembrow: I’m an accidental writer. After years training people in business writing, I’ve turned to biographies and the occasional creative piece.

Our Reader said:

I felt that this had the perfect balance between the historical and the personal; a fitting tribute.

 

 

 

Our Reader for April

For our April theme, All About Me, our Reader was Rachel Waters – this post is all about her!

Like all the Readers this year, Rachel returned her choices in record-breaking time! Thank you for her time reading and considering each piece in this month’s competition.

Rachel Waters.jpg

Rachel Waters read English Language and Literature at The University of Manchester and now enjoys writing poems and stories in her spare time. She is a member of a local book group. She works at an after school club. She is married to artist, Grant Waters, and they have two children.

If you would be interested in being a Reader in another month (you don’t have to be a part of Didcot Writers), email Alice at didcotwriters@gmail.com to say why you’d be interested.

Winners for April – All about me

Our Reader has now finished reading all the entries and has selected one winner and five other choices, as follows:

Winner:
Able Seaman ‘Herbie’ , All about me, by Ian Hembrow

Choices (in alphabetical order):
And She Lives Happily Ever After, by Jody Kish
Finding the Light in the Dark, by Jan Brown
Sam’s Spot, by David Lewis Pogson
Spring, by Isabelle Dupuy
The Wild One, by Charles Osborne

Congratulations to all! Make sure you ‘Follow’ the site at didcotwriters.wordpress.com to receive the winning pieces into your inbox as they are published.

May’s competition theme is ‘springtime’, I look forward to seeing your entries.

Reader’s Choice: Memory lane

Memory lane

by C A Fisher

Stowing the heavy rucksack safely under her chair as she sat down, Sarah stared intently at the cafe door and reminded herself that there was nothing to be afraid of. Danny’s best friend Mike would drop him off here at twelve. All she had to do was remain calm, friendly and patient, and try not to take things too fast. It seemed mad, all of this anticipation just to have lunch with Danny (or Dan, as he now preferred). Sarah wondered if they’d ever be completely relaxed around each other again. Surely they would, with time? But it wouldn’t be the same.

There wasn’t long to dwell on these thoughts before the bell over the door tinkled and Mike led the nervous young man in, scanning the room through the shock of dark brown hair that obscured his left eye. Sarah caught their attention. Mike smiled at her before dismissing himself, patting Dan’s shoulder as he left. She stood up as Dan approached, her heart sinking considerably as she refrained from throwing her arms around him: he wasn’t ready for that yet.

“Hi,” she offered.

“Hi. Good to see you again.” Again. That hurt. Brave face.

“Did you have fun with Mike?”

“Yeah, he seems nice.”

“Great.”

She grinned and they sat down opposite each other.

“I chose this place because it’s normally pretty quiet and they do amazing milkshakes. Banana is your favourite. I thought it would make a change from the living room.”

“Thanks. It looks nice.”

With that, Dan gave a tentative smile, shuffled a bit in his chair and continued to play with the cuffs of his hoodie.

“We can stop any time you want to, of course.”

He nodded, avoiding eye contact.

“Thanks. I feel I’m more prepared now. I’ve had time to think, not that it changes much. Sorry about last time.”

“Don’t be sorry about anything. I can only imagine what it must feel like. It was a lot to take in all at once, I guess we got carried away.”

“It can’t be easy for you either. Any of you. Having to deal with me like this.”

“It’s been hard, especially for Mum, but we’ve got all the time in the world for you, Danny. Dan. And who knows, it might only be temporary.”

There was a brief silence as they independently, internally decided it probably wasn’t temporary. They’d stopped asking him if he remembered ‘this’ or ‘that’ as it was too distressing to confirm that he couldn’t. He’d not recalled a thing since the accident. Sarah heaved the rucksack onto her lap, removed three large photo albums and placed them on the table between herself and her younger brother, wiping the dust off the top one.

“I thought we’d go through our aunts, uncles, and cousins today. We did you and the immediate family last time.”

Sarah glanced at the approaching waitress and discreetly drew a deep breath, the first of many that afternoon.

“Shall we order now?”

C A Fisher: New to writing fiction, thought I’d give it a go!

Our Reader said:

An engaging and thoughtful portrayal of the changed relationship between siblings. The divide between internal thought and external expression was particularly well presented.

Reader’s Choice: Fries for Table Six

Fries for Table Six

by Zoe Chater

“Shall we order now?”

Emeline, a poised and immaculately dressed forty-seven-year-old with unnaturally white teeth, was carefully handling the menu like one might inspect the contents of a snotty tissue. She was trying to avoid stickiness making contact with the pads of her fingers.

“I mean, I’ll probably have the crab cakes as usual. Have you decided? Nora?”

Nora, fifty-five and slightly drowning in a vibrant pink trouser suit with matching shoes, clutched her empty flute ever tighter as she eyed the neighbouring table with distain.

“We should have ordered the bottle, Emmi, dear. Oh, won’t she do something?”

Nora, who had her menu open but had not yet glanced at it, held her gaze across the room. With one hand, she was polishing off her third prosecco, and with the other she was patting her chest dramatically as if trying to calm herself from some unseen terror.

“I mean, people are trying to eat for heaven’s sake. She doesn’t even seem bothered.”

“Nora, luvvie, let’s get some water for the table, I think. What would you like to eat?”

Across from the lunching women, Anna, the thirty-three-year-old nurse they were directing their glares toward, was sitting, expressionless, engaged in some kind of eyes-wide microsleep while her two children melted down in their own ways. The oldest, a girl, nearly seven, with ketchup on her face, was trying to drown out the unbearable din of her brother’s screams by gliding her finger over the surface of the skin on her arm, carefully seeking bumps and imperfections, picking at them once found until she bled in that spot, and then moving on to another. The bleeding would make everything quieter for a moment or two. Every so often her mother, still staring out at nothing in particular, would pat the girl’s hand down and away from the raw area of her arm, as if for the thousandth time that day.

The boy, ten months, was seemingly oblivious to the ad nauseum repetition of up-and-down bouncing his mother was attempting with her other arm. He was projectile-vomiting shrieks of terror because he couldn’t see his father’s face.

“I mean, honestly, Emmie, I don’t know why they let children in here. It ruins the ambience.” Nora said this very pointedly and at a good volume.

Susan, a twenty-two-year-old who was in the final hour of her shift, wondered whether there would be anything ordered to table five today, other than prosecco. She had just finished clearing table six: one empty plate, one half-eaten burger and the remains of a basket of fries. She had caught the little girl placing one fry at a time into her mother’s mouth when the baby was wriggling earlier on. It had been the only time she’d seen the mother smile. Susan tried to catch her eye to smile at her as she placed the receipt tray on the table with a note scrawled on it: “You’ve got this, mommy.”

Zoe Chater: Zoe is a physics teacher by day and a star-gazing fiction-writing cat-loving mushroom enthusiast by night. She is a member of Didcot Writers.

Our Reader said:

Nicely observed characters and close action detail make this story relatable. Well set up for the poignant last line.

Reader’s Choice: Cocktails

Cocktails

by Susi J Smith

Carole plonked herself down in the restaurant’s corner booth, her black sequinned top sparkling, her mobile phone pressed to her ear. “Sadie’s up to something…Birthday drinks my arse!…Oh please, Betty’s a bitch, we all know it…Me? I’m only here for the cocktails. Shit, here she comes. Talk later.” Carole dropped her phone into her bag as Sadie arrived, a large bouquet and balloon blocking her face from view.

“Stick these out the way will you, Carole. Bloody things are going for my eyes.”

“You brought gifts?”

“Of course I brought gifts; it’s a birthday dinner.” Sadie sniffed. “Run to the corner shop before Betty…Bugger. Babe!”

Betty bounced in, black bob swinging as she sashayed to the table, arms outstretched. “Ladies! It’s been too long. Is that for me?”

Sadie smiled, handing her the balloon. “A birthday balloon for babelicious Betty’s big boozy bash.”

“Christ, the Poet L’Oreal is off already. Quick, get the drinks in,” Carole quipped, stuffing the coats in the corner.

“Oh, and flowers. Thank you Sadie; predictable but classic.”

Sadie scowled.

Carole picked up the drinks menu. “Anyone for cocktails?”

“Well, since you ask, I have a couple of tales.” Sadie sniggered “Turns out Tom’s packing more than expected. I nearly fell off the couch when he whipped it out.”

“Wait, who’s Tom? I thought it was Chris,” Carole quizzed.

“Oh please, Chris was three months ago.”

“Come on, Carole,” Betty beamed, “we don’t call her Slutty Sadie for nothing. She’s been very busy since then.”

“Not THAT busy. Let’s see, after Chris there was Ben, then Aiden, then James. This’ll be better with booze. And since it’s my bestie’s birthday I’m picking the first pitcher. Waitress, Woo woos!” Sadie shouted, snapping her fingers. “So…James. At his age I expected a good knowledge of anatomy, at least the basics, but he was useless. Scarier still, he was a gynaecologist! Swear to God I could have an actual bollock down there and he wouldn’t have seen anything unusual.”

The waitress arrived with the drinks.

Betty sipped her cocktail. “Bet he was better than my Roy; I’ve a better chance of reaching a climax with a boxset.”

“Oh, Roy’s not that bad.” Sadie said.

“Oh, and you’d know?” Carole cajoled. “You been there too, in your Tour De Todger?”

Sadie slurped, her face reddening.

Carole collapsed in a fit of giggles.

“Shut up, Carole.” Sadie snarled.

“It was a joke, Sadie. It’s not like you actually…”

The friends stared at each other.

“Shall we order now?” Carole suggested, burying her head in the menu.

Susi J Smith enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction.

Our Reader said:

Lively dialogue and characterisation make this an enjoyable and immersive read. Poet L’Oreal is genius. Very funny.

Reader’s Choice: Are We Monsters or Just Desensitised?

Are We Monsters or Just Desensitised?

by Jonathon Pantelis

You unlock your phone, hit that familiar icon, start scrolling. It’s the usual. Friends tagging each other in memes and videos, parents posting pictures of their babies, news outlets announcing another shooting, a wannabe rapper sponsored post asking you to check out their soundcloud. Yes, the usual.

Across the café table, your friend is talking about something, but you don’t know what. You haven’t been listening. A part of you wants to confess this, but that means your friend will start her story again, and that’s even worse.

You nod and smile.

Your mind begins to wander back to that meme you saw just a few minutes ago. It was stupid, but it makes you smile. Wasn’t there something else? Yes, that’s right: there are too many ads on social media these days. They are everywhere. There’s no room for actual content on your newsfeed anymore, just amateur artists trying to get the upper hand in a world saturated with talentless hacks, many with more money than they know what to do with.

“Are you even listening to me?” your friend asks.

Your mind snaps out of its meandering and focuses on your friend. She’s been a good friend for a number of years. She’s seen you through some of your lowest times and some of your best. Valleys and mountains. Yes, she helped you out when your little dog had to be put down a year ago, and she was supportive when you got that new job you’d be eyeing forever. Not that it had lasted. Within a week, you’d known that the dream job was actually a nightmare. When had that happened? A couple of years ago, you think.

“Yes,” you say.

Your friend rolls her eyes. She whips out her phone, just as you did a minute ago. The familiar actions are carried out by her too: unlock, tap, scroll. Her eyebrows twitch upwards in shock after a moment, before settling back to their usual resting place a second later. She turns her phone around so you can see what she’d been reading.

“Did you see this?” she asks.

You study the post your friend wants you to read. Oh, that’s right: another shooting.

“Yes,” you say. “Although only twenty people died this time.”

Your friend nods contemplatively, her mouth contorting in thought. “Good point.” She takes her phone back and continues scrolling. A moment later, she exclaims, “Oh look.”

She shows you the phone screen again and this time there are bold colours and big block text. There’s a sale starting in one of your favourite stores. Your eyes light up. You’ve been waiting for a sale for what feels like forever. Now is your chance.

“We have to go,” you say.

“I agree,” your friend replies. “But we’ve got all day. Let’s eat first. I’m famished.”

“Shall we order now, then?” you ask, eager to hit the shops.

Jonathon Pantelis: I am a mathematician and am currently studying to be a high school teacher. I live in Adelaide, South Australia.

Our Reader said:

A well-crafted story about the dehumanising effect of social media. Interesting use of second person narration to implicate the reader.

Winner for March: The Meating

The Meating

by James Christie

“Shall we order now?” Charlie asked, “I’ve put together a menu for you to try some of our finer pieces if you’re ready?”

Jodi nodded hesitantly. She couldn’t believe she was actually here. It had taken months of persuading to convince Charlie he would be anonymous before he agreed to do this interview. He was exactly as she pictured him. Short greying hair, a gold chain hanging between the undone buttons at the top of his shirt, tattoos peeking out from under his cuffs, his smile hiding a certain menacing egotism. Altogether he was exactly the sort of person you’d expect to be running one of London’s underground meat restaurants. The décor in the small windowless warehouse was reminiscent of 1920s America. A lighthearted comparison to the prohibition perhaps, Jodi thought.

“So,” she began, “everyone will remember the ban coming in to place, so what made you decide to start selling meats?”

“I just don’t believe big brother should be allowed to control what we eat,” he answered confidently. “People have always eaten meat and no bunch of vegans is going to tell me I can’t do the same.”

Jodi jotted down his response as best she could, cursing herself for agreeing not to use her dictaphone.

“And where do you get it all from?”

“Actually, we butcher it all here, on site. That way it’s as fresh as we can get it.”

“But where does it come from?” she pressed. “There are no farms anymore are there?”

Charlie snorted, “Come on, sweetheart you can’t expect me to give away my secrets?”

“Fair enough,” she shrugged, hiding her disappointment. “And what do your patrons feel about the animals you kill? Anything?”

“I’ll be honest. Some of them love the idea of animals dying for their meal. Personally, I think, as long I keep my own hands clean, you know, out of sight out of mind.”

“But don’t you think people might be upset by what you are doing? The environmental as well as the emotional impact? Some argue there is no fundamental difference between animals and people.”

“Look around, sweetheart. We are booked up months in advance. I’m just giving the people back what they want.”

Jodi was starting to feel slightly sickened by the whole affair.

“Is it alright if I go to the bathroom before we go on?” she asked.

“Sure, last door on the left. Don’t be long though, the first course will be here soon.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled as she hurriedly tiptoed down the corridor.

Before she reached the toilet door, she spotted a no entry sign on the door opposite. She opened it cautiously. Inside was nothing more than a stack of freezer boxes. Curiously, the hand-written labels were all in parenthesis. She opened one labelled ‘Pork’ but quickly slammed it shut again.

“Well now you know,” said Charlie behind her.

“It’s…” she rasped in a strained whisper. “How can you….?”

“Like you said,” he interrupted with a shrug, “is there any real difference?”

James Christie: I am a scientist in Aberdeen, Scotland. I have only recently taken up writing for pleasure.

Our Reader said:

The story is engaging, well written and cleverly observed.  A skilful use of dialogue brings the characters to life in this imaginative and concise story. Loved the surprise ending.