Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Wave Cloud

Wave Cloud

by Jessica Joy

Consciousness tugs at the hem of my dream, an impatient child. I feel warm breath in my ear. The reality of another day seeps into my thoughts like an oil slick. It contaminates my dreamworld with sticky, smothering devastation.

“Mummy,” she whispers, her fingers stroking my cheek. I want to bury my face in the pillow until it suffocates me. But I open my eyes and smile at her.

She must be quiet in the mornings. I can sense her need to talk. She simmers like an old-fashioned kettle and I brace myself for the shrill whistle of all her thoughts. I bribe her with promises of my time. She skips out of the room. Squeaky voices of a cartoon crescendo and diminish as she fiddles with the TV remote.

I phone my mother. I have interrupted her. The rapier-point replies stab at my heart. I have no energy to parry. If I plead, she would concede to a couple of hours respite from the child. But I will not beg. I resent her inability to hear my silent screams for help behind the small talk. She’ll see me another day. More bribery with promises of time.

Dragging myself out of bed, I pull on some clothes and slouch into the kitchen. The cloying walls of the musty flat make it harder to fight the compulsion to go back to bed, curl up foetal in the warm embrace of a duvet and just listen to the ringing in my ears.

The child waits already dressed. Her expectation is palpable. Resigned, coat and keys in hand, we take the short walk to the beach.

The sea is calm and the smell of seaweed bitter and briny. Tiny waves glint in the sunlight and mimic the shine of the wet pebbles at the shoreline. The uniform ripples tease us. It is as though we could walk out, ankle-deep, for miles until the seabed drops away. I wonder how it would feel to invite the salty water into my lungs, like a welcome guest.

My child slips her warm hand into mine and points at a beautiful cloud formation, like waves, moving across the horizon.

I tell her the sea and the sky are best friends; such good friends, it’s hard to tell where the sea ends and the sky starts. Often, they wear matching outfits and sometimes their colours are so different yet so beautiful together; like today’s brown sea and grey sky.  Occasionally, they rage against each other with spits and blusters, but they never leave each other. They are always together on the horizon.

Today the sea was just too tired and the sky said to her, “Don’t worry, go back to sleep and I’ll make the waves for you.” And that’s what she’s doing. Lucky sea. To have a friend like that.

We crunch back up the beach, hand in hand.

“Mummy,” she says, “When I grow up, I’ll do the waves for you.”

I squeeze her hand.

Jessica Joy is a fantasy writer with stories (various genres) published in several anthologies. She has won Faber Academy’s Quickfic competition.

Our Reader said:

Beautiful, poignant, it feels very real. Well worth a read.

Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Saving Us

Saving Us

by Alyce Merry

The weather is disturbing. Winds whistle through the eaves. Thorns scrape at the rain-battered panes. I switch on a lamp and poke the fire. The clock ticks. I go back to reading.

The ticks stop.

The clock face is blurred by smoke but the fire is out. My book falls. A woman is in the inglenook. She takes her cloak off and wraps it round her head. Her eyes are dark with a warning that I know is for me. I feel hot with terror, until a draught chills my legs. The front door slams shut. John is back.

“How was your afternoon?”

I talk less these days. I choose a simple answer.

“OK. I went into the garden. Met the neighbour. Were you successful?”

“Yes! The archivist showed me the Grade II listing, and helped me with photocopying,” he gets out some plates, “will these do?”

I nod.

After supper we sit on the sofa, not touching.  John reads out loud: “1504. Richard Rogers allowed his thatch to burn. Fined xii d.”

She was trapped. I feel her suffocation in the smoke and cough.

John thuds my back sympathetically, “You all right?”

“Something in the air, that’s all.”

I shrug him away. He hears my cross voice but doesn’t know my thoughts.  I want to sink into his jumper and lock my arms around his chest, stretching them to meet. Only I remember why we came away, and the messages she sent him. There are dark clouds inside me as well as outside.

The neighbour is by her bonfire. I hope she won’t see me, but she does.

“Hello! Lovely morning after the storm, isn’t it?”

I say “Yes” and walk away to the sluggish brook. I lean over.

The neighbour’s wrong about the weather. Clouds swarm in, and red flashes light up the sky in the water.

I hear the woman in the inglenook call out, “Save me!” as I sink, meeting the wet below.

The neighbour pulls me out.

*

“You fell?” John asks later.

“I lost my balance. The neighbour said she heard me call out.”

“Good job,” he says, walking towards me, arms open.

I turn away. “I didn’t call, she’s just nosy. She must have been watching me.”

I’m on edge again.

John’s face clouds over. He looks sad. I want to stroke his face, but don’t.

*

I try to help Richard through the smoke again and again. I wake crying, wanting another chance to retrieve her.

John’s torch shines from the doorway.  I turn my face to the wall.  He will go. But he doesn’t. He lifts me up, murmuring, “Please, don’t cry, let me find you again. Let the past go.”

I don’t think the past ever goes. I think it’s saved. Maybe I can stop remembering it?

“Yes,” she whispers.

I let him think it was me whispering, and lie light as a cloud in his arms, floating up into heaven.

Alyce Merry: I have retired from teaching. I have two grown-up children and share home with husband, two cats and elderly parents.

Our Reader said:

This tale is chilling. Atmospheric and full of mystery. I like a good ghost story.

Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Nimbus Rentals

Nimbus Rentals

by Edwin J Staples

Bzt.

Welcome to Sky Jungle 2020.

Thank you for considering Cloud Rental from Nimbus.

I’m Leo Hunter. Not my real name. We choose new names when we rent on the Cloud.

My rent is one thousandth of what I was paying in Seattle. True! I paid four thousand a month. Nimbus is four – four dollars, for a spacious treehouse high above the savannah.

My rent goes toward server maintenance and electricity. The choice of world, avatar, pleasure partner – all included.

Speaking of partners, say hello to Kel Sprint. Beautiful, right? Kel, I’ll be right back. I’m going to take these folks on a quick tour. OK. Bye, honey.

Follow me, please.

A little about me: I left behind a body with a hundred worrisome ailments: obesity, diabetes, knee problems, angina. Here, our bodies are bits and bytes, and our brain activity is ninety per cent computer program. Just a tiny transmitter installed in the brain before the semi-freeze initiates. After that, worry-free!

Good question! No, you don’t have to pay for storing your old Earth-body; when I signed the waiver it was settled. Lots of technical language that boils down to, the body goes to scientific purposes after a standard life span of eighty years. And let me tell you, a year here feels much longer than it did in your old physical self.

Heh.

See the waterfall there, to the east? Let’s take a flight over to see it. Everyone join hands.

Whoosh!

Kind of scary at first, right? We’ll be there in about three minutes. That movement below us is a great herd of wildebeest, headed to drink at the river. The model for Sky Jungle is the country of Zambia, but virtualised with the climate of San Diego, California.

Perfection, right?

Yes! We could fly out into space if we want, but only as far as the moon.

If you choose premium you will select from three of over a hundred Nimbus Worlds that you may visit for free. Anything from Paleo Hunter Gather to Racecar Heaven.

Top of the falls. Notice there are no biting insects? And the cheetas don’t bother with us because Nimbus codes them to ignore bipeds. Go ahead and stand at the edge if you want. Heck, we can jump right over the falls, swim in the river below, and saunter right past a hippopotamus having a drink.

You can’t get hurt here! We can hike, climb, hunt, swim all we want. Millions of virtual acres of adventure, and only a few minutes a day of blackout, while our brains are used for processing.

No, I don’t know what. But it’s worth it to have all-

Waiver? As I said earlier-

No, I didn’t read the entire thing. They had me at Sky Jungle. Heh.

Regrets? Well one. My friend Steve was supposed to be here, and  I never-

Bzt, bzt, bzt. This concludes today’s tour. Thank you for considering Cloud Rental from Nimbus. Now returning to Sales World.

Edwin J Staples is an archivist/librarian who has been writing since age twelve. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Rachel.

Our Reader said:

What could happen if we spend too much time with our head in the cloud. Chilling, in a light-hearted way.

Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Cloud Moods

Cloud Moods

by Roshna Rusiniya

I stared at the box of coloured pencils in front of me, my eyebrows knitted together in focus. There were too many colours to choose from, I couldn’t make up my mind. Frustration grew inside me, both at myself and the art project that is due for submission in two days. How difficult is to make a drawing of clouds?

There was a collective snicker around the class when the teacher announced that the theme for our art project was ‘cloud’. All of us, including me, thought the theme was more suitable for kindergarten than ninth grade. But now, sitting here, gazing at the sky for the past one hour, I am not ashamed to admit that my confidence is faltering a bit. It’s so easy to draw a bright blue sky with white fluffy clouds scattered all over, but that’s what everyone else will do. And the teacher specifically said the picture should be realistic and impactful or we won’t get an ‘A’.

Realistic and impactful – sounds a bit tricky!

Looking at the blushing evening sky, I wish my grandfather was still alive. One of my favourite childhood memories was of me visiting him during the summer holidays. He used to tell me that every single thing we see around us has a story to tell. If he were here, he would have had something to say about the mysterious orange clouds above me, blazing with fire one last time, before the darkness swallowed them.

I miss him.

I got up to leave; my heart heavy with disappointment as I couldn’t even draw one line.

When I reached home, dinner was on the table. Mum looked grumpy, which meant Dad was working late, again…. After quickly eating my dinner, I went up to my room, ready to call it a day.

 *

It’s nearly midnight and I am still awake, listening to my parents arguing in the bedroom next to mine. It has become kind of a nightly ritual recently. Dad comes home very late and Mum throws a fit. I overheard her telling my grandmother that she’s planning to divorce my dad. It would have made me upset one or two years back. But now, I am past caring.

Unable to return to sleep, I get up and walk over to my study table. After switching the desk lamp on, I spread out the drawing sheet on the table, pull up a chair and sit down.

After examining the colours for a moment, I take the black and grey pencils out, close the box, and start drawing.

Roshna Rusiniya is a homemaker and an aspiring writer, currently residing in Qatar.

This is the second time we’ve published Roshna’s work. You can read her story ‘Double-Edged’ here.

Our Reader said:

This sketches a picture of a day in a young person’s life, and paints their emotional state as they struggle to come to terms with growing up and independence. A very poetic piece of writing.

 

Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Cloud Animals

Cloud Animals

by Esther Amis-Hughes

Ivan was lying with Daniel on the trampoline and staring at the sky. It started because they were both exhausted from the jump-fight-tickle game, but now it was definitely Ivan’s best bit of trampolining. Daniel would lie his small head on Ivan’s stomach, arms flung to either side, in a picture of perfect relaxation that Ivan could not imagine he’d ever feel himself. Daniel loved the sky, and, just like snails, and walls, and grass, Ivan had started to rediscover the simple joy of looking properly at things.

‘Daddy, can you see that animal?’ One tiny finger pointed.

Ivan followed his gaze. Daniel saw so much, Ivan was desperate to join in, but nothing made him feel older than Daniel’s imagination.

‘A pig?’ Ivan guessed.

‘No, Daddy! Next to the pig, next to it, look there!’

Ivan squinted. He couldn’t see a bloody pig, let alone whatever its friend was.

‘Look, Daddy, it’s got a cute tail.’

‘Oh yeah!’ He played for time. ‘What noise do they make, clever clogs?’

‘Erm, hippity hop hop.’ Daniel was starting to get restless, ready to impersonate the hopping animal.

Ivan stared hard, willing himself to see.

‘Daddy…’ whined Daniel.

‘Oh, I see it!’ And he did. Right there next to the frumpy cloud (pig?), there was an unmistakable rabbit.

‘Yay! Oh, Daddy, can I have one? I’ll call it Clare.’ (Clare was Daniel’s childminder at his mum’s. Currently, everything was called Clare.)

Daniel elbowed Ivan’s stomach and launched to his feet, running and hopping round the trampoline.

‘Please, Daddy, I’ll love Clare so much, please, please?’

‘We’ll see, little man!’ But, he thought, why not? They can’t be too much effort.

Ivan researched rabbits. Turns out they were a big effort, the damn things seemed to have a death wish and were prone to eating everything in the garden (his raspberry bushes) and house (his broadband cable). But the memory of Daniel describing the cloud motivated him, and he bought and painted a secondhand hutch, and picked out a small brown bunny.

When Daniel was delivered to him two weekends later, Ivan could barely contain himself. The impulsiveness of the cloud bunny decision had awoken a fizz of adventure in him. If he could decide a pet from a mere cloud, where else could the world take him and Dan?

Daniel trotted through, eager to see what his surprise was. Ivan opened the door to the garden, and proudly showed Daniel the rabbit. Clare was hunched up in the corner of her hutch looking unimpressed.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s Clare, the rabbit – remember, hop hop, with the tail? From the cloud, our last weekend, on the trampoline? You remember, Dan! Come and say hi to her.’

Daniel burst into fits of tears, which turned angry. Ivan tried to comfort him, his son’s broad capacity at emotional performance completely bewildered him at the best of times.

‘Daniel? Daniel?’

‘Daddy. Clare isn’t a bunny. Clare is a kangaroo!’

Esther Amis-Hughes: Mostly museums, music, Manchester United and my family.

Our Reader said:

Lovely interaction between father and child, and a twist in the tail that made it extra memorable.

Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Beyond the Clouds

Beyond the Clouds

by Alex Fraser

If I look over McKenzie’s shoulder I can see out of the window.  When it’s windy the glass shakes and rattles like an old washing machine. Today it’s cloudy and murky, dreich we call it up here. But above the cloud base there’s blue sky and  above that the blackness of space. There was a programme about it on the telly a few nights ago. The atmosphere is divided into layers – there’s the troposphere, the stratosphere – that’s where Concorde flies – the mesosphere and another one I can’t remember now…

“Fraser.”

Everyone’s talking about spaceflight and how amazing it is – and dangerous. And not just since Neil Armstrong landed on the moon last summer. Everyone’s obsessed by it, the charts are full of songs about spacemen, rocket ships, alien life. My favourite programme is The Sky at Night with Patrick Moore. I know it’s on late but Dad lets me…

“Fraser!”

“He’s going to blow a gasket in a minute,” Dawson hissed from behind me.

“Have you been listening to a word I’ve been saying, Fraser?”

“Sir, yes sir.” Double English on Friday mornings is so boring. Mr Paterson’s quite nice but I wish we didn’t have to read all that old stuff.

“Stop staring out of the window and concentrate, if you would be so kind.”

Nice but sarky.

“I wonder if they’ll make it, sir,” I said.

“Wonder if who’ll make it?”

“The astronauts, Apollo 13, sir.”

“What on earth does Apollo 13 have to do with the poems of William Wordsworth?”

“Sir,” interjected Blair in the front row, “perhaps Fraser is thinking that the universal themes of loss, death and abandonment in Wordsworth are relevant to the astronauts, given their predicament.”

There was some sniggering from the back row. Blair loved to stir it.

“At least someone was listening, thank you, Blair”

Nice, sarky but also oddly naive. He has no idea Blair is taking the piss.

Everyone thought Blair was a smarmy git, even some of the teachers. Mr Brown, who’s head of Economics, says that Blair is so smarmy he’ll probably be Prime Minister one day!

“Now, I want to move on to Wordsworth’s masterpiece, Tintern Abbey…”

Paterson droned on. Why couldn’t we have classes on something interesting like astronomy? What if Patrick Moore was teaching us? I’d pay attention then alright!

“Fraser, I won’t tell you again.”

“No sir, sorry, sir.”

“I want you to read out ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’ and then we’ll discuss the themes. Right, Fraser, off you go.”

That’s it, they’re on their own above the clouds, Jim Lovell and his crew, wandering back to earth at 17,000mph, likely to burn up on re-entry….”

I heard a long sigh. “In your own time, Fraser, in your own time.”

Alex Fraser is a writer of short stories and plays currently struggling with a part-written novel.

Alex Fraser’s short story ‘The Letter’ features in Didcot Writers’ most recent anthology, A Night at the Railway Inn, which you can read/buy here.

Our Reader said:

It just has this one line about Tony Blair, classic whimsy.

Winner for Jan-Feb (cloud): a cloudy morning in the middle of June

a cloudy morning in the middle of June

by Hannah Oliver

she says, we have cherries today, arms wide, tossing them in the crate, up and down and rolling over one another like a tease. impossibly shiny, impossibly red. she isn’t saying this to me but I imagine that she is. I love the thought of their ephemerality, the very special today-ness of them, although I’ve never been here before.

one heavy layer of cloud, very low in the sky, is giving everything a close, dense feel, tinging the canal and the wood and the warehouses with a murky grey-green. and it is comfortably warm in the air, which after the winter even despite its increasing distance is still for me a constant wonder. sounds bounce back from the rippling water: the cherries, tumbling, the low thrum of the coffee machine. over my laptop screen, the people walking past are all walking alone, all without smiles but so languidly. it is an unusual sight for London, the slow-moving walk of the person with nowhere to be – head in the clouds, or relaxed in solitude

*

he says, here and my name as he pushes it to me, although he needn’t have, needn’t have remembered a name even, in my lone waiting state – the little glass tumbler of dirt-coloured liquid I have been listening to him grind effortlessly. and all the lacking smiles in the walkers-by are for the one he gives me as he does so. skewiff and chancing, for a thought we are both having, and both know will never be realised.

then he retreats back without looking, down the steps, wiping his tanned hands on the apron slung about his waist. back to the bar in the open air with its carefully waxed wood, where he will continue to use his hands all day.

*

and it feels so easy, suddenly, to be in the world. smells ripple out of the little café-kitchen with its hodge-podge shelves. abundances of eggs and spices and tomatoes on vines. she’s leaning over the blackboard where she handwrites, ‘cherries’. I imagine she is a hard worker, that she has a lot of stories, and is as tough and as soft as a nut.

what’s in the porridge?

walnuts, butter and muscovado sugar. she smiles as if she knows the onomatopoeic deliciousness of what she has just said; the lilting of her ‘butter’ as her tongue slides over her teeth, almost also melted.

I order the porridge. morning slots into itself like a series of jigsaw pieces, coincidentally and perfectly aligning, chink, chink, chink. if I came back another day, it would not be the same. everything hanging in the element of small surprises; the wonderfulness of not being in the office, unexpectedly feeling this in the exact, easy way that’s been yearned for. knowing that all the big moments and the little victories lead to this: being able to feel a fleeting contentness, on a warm Tuesday morning, in the middle of June.

Hannah Oliver works in TV and spends her spare time writing and going for “one drink”. Her writing has been featured in Crows Nest Zine, Northern Renewal, and the British Young Artists Association amongst others.

Our Reader said:

Why?
I was there.
In that café, on that morning.
By the third line I inhabited that wonderful, poetic, everyday world.
Gorgeous!

Our Reader for Jan-Feb (cloud)

This being the first of our two-month-long competitions, and being the first after New Year, we had SEVENTY-FIVE entries, which is more than ever before! Our Reader took this in his stride, and read all of them – though he had the option to share the job with someone else: we are very grateful for the time he gave us. (So far for our current theme ‘a fundamental change’, we’ve only had three entries. Clearly you’ve all had other more urgent things on your mind….)

Here’s a little more about our Reader, a member of Didcot Writers, David Hawkins.

David Hawkins - blank square.jpg

My name is David and I’m a Welshman living in Didcot.
I enjoy reading a lot, and I’m so happy Waterstones has decided to come to town.
I’m married to Sue and have two fully grown sons.
I enjoy the music of Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen.
I take size 10 shoes.
I have absolutely no qualification to judge writing competitions, so if I didn’t mention your piece, please don’t feel bad about it. I enjoyed reading them all.

The winning piece and six Reader’s Choice pieces will be published on this site on Mondays for the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy them!

Winners for Jan-Feb (cloud)

Thank you to everyone who entered our first competition of 2020. Now running every two months, we had more entries this time than ever before – there were 75 eligible entries (and a few that went way over the word limit and were therefore not considered).

And the winner is:
A Cloudy Morning in the Middle of June, by Hannah Oliver

With special mentions as Reader’s Choices going to:
Beyond the Clouds, by Alex Fraser
Cloud Animals, by Esther Amis-Hughes
Cloud Moods, by Roshna Rusiniya
Nimbus Rentals, by Edwin J Staples
Saving Us, by Alyce Merry
Wave Cloud, by Jessica Joy

Congratulations to all, and don’t forget to check out our theme for March-April, ‘a fundamental change’, at didcotwriters.wordpress.com. The winning pieces will be published on our site on Mondays.