Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): When We Lost It

When We Lost It

Wherein the ‘fundamental change’ is loss.

by Nora Nadjarian

The time when my mother lost her wedding ring at the beach: it sank into the sand and we looked and looked and couldn’t find it.

The time I lost my virginity and had to hide the pain and everything, even the blood between my legs.

The time we lost the cat, meaning that the cat died because it was poisoned.

The time my nephew lost his tooth.

The time my father started losing his memory and asked more questions than he could handle.

The time my grandmother lost her vision and walked blindly down narrow alleys.

The time we lost a great leader.

The time I lost a library book and had to pay a fine.

The time I lost my mother tongue.

The time the world map lost a few of its countries.

The time we lost our freedom.

The time we lost our peace of mind and a piece of our mind.

The time the author lost the plot and started writing things we couldn’t follow.

The time they lost their job and their income.

The time a woman realised she’d lost her looks.

The time we lost a court case.

The time my friend lost her will to live.

The time a colleague lost a battle against illness.

The time we lost God.

Nora Nadjarian is an award-winning Cypriot poet and writer. She has had poetry and short fiction published internationally.

Our Reader said:

An unusual entry, I was moved by this catalogue of items lost. It offers a relatable mixture of personal and societal losses punctuating a person’s life. Reading it felt like an act of remembrance.

Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): Game Theory

Game Theory

by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal

I thought it was about the baby —
whether to bathe him now
or later. Instead, she said
she had to leave.

Okay, what time will you be back?

In contrast to her usual sheepish manner,
she practically screamed:

You don’t understand. I need to go for good.
Please don’t try to change my mind.

At the time I was shocked.
It made no sense until
decades later, when
I, too, fled,

having fathomed her leaving
was my cheater ex’s doing.
That wolf of a husband
had, no doubt, fancied
that nanny fair game.

Ruth Sabath Rosenthal is an internationally published poet with 6 books to her name. Ruth’s website: https://newyorkcitypoet.com

Our Reader said:

I really enjoyed the shift in perspective for the reader in this poem, as we are set up to think we are reading one story, and in an effective final stanza the true meaning is revealed.

The author gives us two “fundamental changes”: the change in the character’s life when she realises the truth, and the change in perspective provided by this last stanza.

Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): It’s All in the Mind

It’s All in the Mind

Way back in the mists of time, the medical world explored the brain intensively, too afraid of the complexities of the rest of the physical body, so modern medicine evolved and thrived around psychiatry, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, anything psycho, to the detriment of physical ailments.

by Jan Brown

She seethed as she left the surgery. It was that or cry. In the safety of her car, Sarah allowed herself the brief comfort of banging her head against the steering wheel before taking a deep breath, mentally giving herself a shake and heading home, teeth gritted.

She should have known. This happened too often so why return for more humiliation? It was obvious: she was in pain and needed professional help. She couldn’t fully grasp why they wouldn’t help her.

She felt like a time-waster. Attention-seeker, hypochondriac… it was implicit in the system. No one should be made to feel like that. Once again, she sensed her GP was out of his depth and simply didn’t know how to treat her when so few options were available.

Dr Franks had greeted her warmly. She’d picked at a nail, reluctant to meet his eye. A wave of shame flushed her face and she’d stumbled on her words, saying little of what she’d planned about the severe pains in her joints, which had been getting worse over the past months. When she tentatively mentioned arthritis, he warned her against self-diagnosis so she offered her hands for him to see. Of course there was nothing to see, it was all hidden pain, and he gave her aching joints only a cursory examination, much to her frustration. After a few generic questions, he concluded it should go away, given time.

When she’d asked about a referral, they reached the crux of the matter. Had it been an eating disorder, depression, there’d be an immediate referral for NHS two-week triage to get the right treatment quickly. But it was difficult with physical matters because there were so many variables and there just weren’t the resources. Yes, he could put her on a waiting list but it would be a good six months – by which time he hoped she’d be feeling better.

She didn’t share his optimism and dared to ask why things were so skewed towards mental health but she didn’t expect much of an answer. In fact, Dr Franks ignored the question, suggesting instead that she try paracetamol and warm baths. He even suggested mindfulness might help. After the usual exhortation to focus on exercise and good diet and a half-hearted invitation to return in three months if she didn’t feel any better, she retreated into her cocoon of misery.

This was exactly why she hadn’t come earlier. If she’d had a panic attack, she wouldn’t have hesitated, but doctors had no real idea how to handle physical conditions. The injustice made her despair. How ironic that, if she reached the end of her inner resources and resorted to drastic measures, she’d soon get admitted to hospital. It seemed like only then would someone listen.

Defeated, she fled through the waiting room, praying no one would notice her, fraud that she apparently was.

She would not cry.

Jan Brown enjoys toying with flash fiction and has had some success, which keeps her trying. You can read her past work published on this site as follows:

Finding the Light in the Dark – Reader’s Choice for our 2019 life-writing competition, ‘All About Me’

Once in a Lifetime – a flash fiction piece on the theme of ‘key’, from May 2018.

An Unforgivable Act of Generosity – a piece short fiction that also appeared in our 2018 anthology, Compositions, available to buy here.

Our Reader said:

I thought this was a really insightful premise. Its sheer implausibility, and the subsequent parallels with our own reality, serve to highlight the limitations of current attitudes towards mental health.

Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

Wherein unrequited love makes one fatally ill.

by Shehrazade Zafar-Arif

When Layla finished vomiting, the toilet bowl was swimming with flowers.

Her throat ached from choking out fat red petals and fine sharp thorns. Pebbles sank into the water, glittering in the harsh bathroom light like some macabre art installation.

She imagined vines ensnaring her organs, thorns stabbing her lungs – like the diagrams in biology textbooks, the silhouette of a garden growing in the body.

It had been inevitable. She belonged to the most at-risk demographic for unrequited love: twenties, single, living alone. She was destined to be another number in the death toll.

*

The NHS website advised: if you are suffering from Agape Distress Syndrome, see your GP. Symptoms include stomach pains, breathing difficulties, and vomiting plants, dirt and stones.

If you cough up blood, call 999 immediately. 

She left home feeling like Ophelia in her final scene, spitting out flowers and distributing them: there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…

*

A poster on the train showed a woman throwing up violets. ONE IN SEVEN PEOPLE SUFFER FROM ADS, it read, with a helpline number.

Funny, Layla thought, how it was always a woman in the awareness campaigns, when the disease itself didn’t discriminate. Everyone loved the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy coughed up thorns while confessing he loved Elizabeth, though back then they’d believed only weak men caught ADS. Flower Sickness, they’d called it. A pretty name.

Her stomach turned. Suddenly she was on her knees, coughing and spluttering, a shower of dirt and pebbles. Passengers gave her a wide berth, as if love was contagious.

*

Lying in her hospital bed, Layla thought about Renaissance paintings of Christ, petals dripping from his lips out of love for humanity. Reality was uglier. She was hooked to an IV drip, unable to eat on her own, on a cocktail of painkillers.

Her organs were failing, strangled by leaves and stems. Soon her lungs would stop functioning, and then her heart.

Layla glanced at her phone.

“Expecting someone?”

In the next bed, Ellie was reading a magazine; the cover model held a rose scandalously between her teeth. Social media was probably lambasting the appropriation.

“Aren’t you?” Layla retorted.

Ellie had woken up spitting leaves and realised that her husband had fallen out of love with her. He visited daily, would sit staring helplessly at Ellie as if willing himself: I love her. I love her. It was the only cure.

Prevention was the best precaution. People took antidepressants to dull the neurotransmitters in their brains that triggered love. There were villages in East Africa where adolescents were blindfolded until they married. Love was humanity’s biggest enemy.

She’d asked about the other possible cure. Unlikely, the doctors said.

Adrian hadn’t texted to ask after her. And here Layla was, dying over him. She willed herself with every fibre: I hate him. I hate him. 

For a moment, she dared to hope. Then she doubled over, gagging, and it landed in her hands: a perfectly formed, blood-stained orchid.

Shehrazade Zafar-Arif is an aspiring writer who grew up in Pakistan and moved to London to study English Literature.

Our Reader said:

This story was really in the spirit of the theme and the vivid, absurd imagery hammered home the aching and consuming pain of unrequited love.

Winner for March-April (Fundamental Change): It came from a far-off land

It came from a far-off land

Wherein covid-19 has reached the UK.

by Paul Chiswick

It came from a far-off land. Days after Christmas. You can’t see it, smell it, taste it. It can find you no matter where you are. It has a name, a name I’ve never heard before. One I will never forget as long as I live. If I live much longer. The experts who know about these things insist it is not to be taken lightly, not treated disrespectfully, certainly not ignored. The politicians (who are but children in the matter) sensing how headstrong Homo Sapiens can be, have instructed: stay home.

So I have. In my one-bedroom flat, high above the pitted tarmac and scorched grass. With my rescue terrier, Rambo, dodgy fridge, widescreen TV and Peter Kay. Lots of Peter Kay to make me laugh.

Now that I’m locked down, I’ve become more observant, taking time to enjoy what I see from my window.

Like . . .

The sky. Cloudless blue and intact. Normally it’s crowded with aircraft leaving a web of white cotton vapour trails. The nurse tells me she hasn’t seen or heard a plane in weeks.

The birds. Collared doves, blackbirds, magpies and ravens chasing each other, flitting from penknifed ash to wild hawthorn to twisted oak. They’re a rare sight on this estate. The nurse tells me she’s never seen them as bright.

The river. Snaking through the nearby park, cutting it in two. A dumping ground for plastic bags and bottles, beer cans, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, and things too disgusting to mention. The nurse tells me she’s never seen it so clean, so self-healing.

Up here, the building has no opening windows. (The council fears the suicides, you see.) The air inside has become a little stale. I’d like to open the flat’s door, let in a little fresh air. Not for too long mind, you never know who might walk in. Not that anyone would now I’m self-isolating. The nurse tells me she’s never tasted such pure air outside.

I haven’t spoken to a neighbour for weeks. The nurse is the only person who talks to me. Short statements, simple answers. She’s from Glasgow. It’s hard to understand her through her white face mask. A bonny lass, as they say in those parts. A key worker.

Since it came, I’ve learned new words and phrases, ones that make me shiver with fear. I wish the nurse would put a reassuring arm around my shoulder, but she won’t. Not until the curve peaks.

Yesterday, the nurse said more that I have heard her say before. She said to every downside there is an upside. That this disease, terrible as it is, is giving humankind some overdue lessons. Vehicles have almost disappeared from the roads; children and parents are rediscovering each other; people are learning how to cook and entertain themselves; personal hygiene has become important; money and status don’t seem so significant anymore.

Then she coughed. A jagged, body-shaking cough.

She’s late. Two hours late.

I wonder where she can be?

Paul Chiswick: After two careers retired in 2009. Now writer of fiction and independent publisher helping others to publish their writing.

Our Reader said:

With the theme of “fundamental change”, it was not surprising to find so many stories expressing the one we are all currently living through. For me, this piece stood out among them as a gentle, understated snapshot of the story of the moment. We get a strong sense of the protagonist’s voice and their limited, second-hand experience through the eyes of the nurse.

Our Reader for March-April (Fundamental Change)

Our Reader for this competition is a regular participant at Didcot Writers:

Zoe

Dr Zoe Chater is a physics teacher and developingwriter. She writes poems and short stories and is working on a novel (slowly). She loves literary fiction and poetry with themes of science, loss and magical realism. She is on Twitter and Instagram @NervousNeutrino

This competition was a little different to normal. Rather than a straightforward word prompt, we asked authors to start with an interesting premise, where there was ‘a fundamental change’ – either to the setting, to their characters’ lives, or maybe even in the writer’s choice of point of view or their style of writing.

We came up with this theme long before all our lives were fundamentally changed by coronavirus, though the competition submission window came at the height of lockdown – so our Reader was blown away by the wide variety of subjects and ‘changes’ entrants wrote about. We hope you enjoy them!

Winners for Mar-April: ‘A Fundamental Change’

We are already part-way through June! Our current competition theme is ‘stranger‘, so do check out our guidelines if you have a story, poem, script, etc you’d like to submit before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, here are the winners from our March-April competition, themed ‘a fundamental change’ –

Winner:
It came from a far off land, by Paul Chiswick

Other Reader’s Choices:
The Language of Flowers, by Shehrazade Zafar-Arif
It’s All In The Mind, by Jan Brown
Game Theory, by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal
When We Lost It, by Nora Nadjarian

We have continued the trend of attracting more and more entrants for each competition, so welcome to all new participants, congratulations to those whose work was selected for publication, and thank you to our Reader for reading every entry and selecting their favourites.

The winning pieces will be published on our site on Mondays, along with a bio of the Reader and their reasons for choosing each piece, as usual. Follow this site (pop-up in the bottom right) to receive these straight to your inbox as they are published.

The current competition and the next one (July-Aug) will be the last two for which entries will be considered for our competitions anthology, which will be published in time for Christmas – so if you’d like your work to be included in the book, don’t forget to enter one (or more) of our competitions. Your first entry each time is always free, and you can enter more pieces for a fiver each – details are on the site.

Meanwhile you can check out our previous anthologies at bit.do/didcotwriters-publications, where you can also join our mailing list (on the contacts page) to find out about online events taking place.