Reader’s Choice: Blue Trousers

Blue Trousers

by Zoe Chater

It is 6am and the streets are dark and quiet. Starlings are squabbling over fresh worms, piercing the silence. In the main carpark of the hospital, a distressed young couple are vacating their car. They share worried glances as he unclasps the car seat that houses their screaming baby. Beyond the walls, there is no sense of time. Blue-tinged lights hum overhead and a perpetual flurry of staff fills the corridors. A nurse is scrutinising a patient’s care plan, her eyes dry and stinging.

A woman named Emma is following the blue stripe on the floor carefully, taking her back to her husband Tony’s ward. She is bringing him a stack of crossword puzzles to keep him occupied while he waits for surgery. He asked her to bring him something sweet. She has a Twix in her pocket but she thinks he isn’t allowed to eat it.

Tony is wearing a gown that has no back. He has not eaten or slept in 17 hours. Yesterday evening he refused the hospital food and now he is almost wishing he hadn’t. Almost. He catches sight of his wife and he is relieved. They will wait together there silently for hours and he won’t feel alone.

Tony is full of pain medication and is finding it hard to concentrate. He had a stabbing sensation in his lower back for months that just got worse until Emma rushed him to A and E. Yesterday, he and Emma found out why; he has “renal cell carcinoma”. He is having his kidney removed today.

It is 10.30am. All around the hospital, patients are whispering final sentiments to loved ones. “Take good care of my children.” “Never forget me.” “Promise that you will stay strong.” Tony unknowingly makes his last request. “Emma, will you bring my blue trousers?”

Emma understands. He wants better than his tatty jeans to come home in. The only problem is, in their 12 years of marriage she has never once seen him in a pair of blue trousers.

Back at home, she pulls items from their wardrobe, from drawers, from old boxes in the loft. She packs the car with every black pair she can find, in the hope that one of them is a subtle navy she hasn’t noticed. She packs his favourite brown corduroys just in case he changes his mind.

It is 12.30pm. Back at the hospital, Tony is uncomfortable. He doesn’t like hospitals. He doesn’t like being half naked and drowsy from morphine. The floral patterns on the curtains surrounding his bed are dancing and making him dizzy. In the day surgery unit, a surgeon is washing his hands methodically; nails to the palms, then fingers between fingers.

Emma, layers of clothing bundled into her arms, is following the blue stripe once again. As she approaches Tony she sees his face crumple softly. “I’m so sorry”, he is saying. It’s the drugs, the confusion. He misspoke before. He didn’t mean blue. He meant brown.

Zoe Chater is a secondary school physics teacher who likes to write fiction and poetry in her spare time.

Our Reader said:

This was a really interesting idea, and convincing story.

Reader’s Choice: Gramophones in Wishing Wells

Gramophones in Wishing Wells

by Richard Kemp

There are 734 wishing wells in the country according to the ghost of Thomas’ mother. She had a list of them plus a bag of small change and a map. Thomas had a car and six weeks of compassionate leave.

They stood at the edge of a courtyard with nothing for company except bald flowerbeds and a broken water fountain, wingless cherub, face down in the dust. Wishing well 734 stood in the centre, guarding the end of a pathway that looked as if someone had built it by referencing scraps of photos but left in all the tears. Thomas twirled the canvas bag of coins on his fingers as they walked. letting it slap the back of his hand before swinging back to hit his palm. The sound of mingling coins and gravel footsteps their companions.

Pounds and pence fell into his palm as they both peered into the darkness, greeting the familiar cloying smell of moss and darkness.

‘What if this one’s broken too?’

‘It won’t be,’ she said.

He dropped the money, put his arm around her shoulders as they watched it fall, his mother’s ghost’s murmuring hopes spiralled in pursuit. Thomas fastened rope to the winch and straddled the wall, knees bent and up to his shoulders like he was riding a child’s tricycle.

Thomas edged his way down. In the middle of the well was the gramophone. Its wood casing was faded, and the full bloom of the brass horn looked wilted and cold.

‘Check the needle,’ called his mother’s ghost.

Slowly, he pushed his finger into the stylus. It felt like a signal, a sign. An intrusive noise in a dream that reveals itself to be the doorbell or alarm clock. A sharp point pierced his skin, a small blip of pain.

He lowered the arm. Musty crackles and dull pops.

Low strings and baritone vocals trickled from the horn. Each note a droplet building to a flood, bouncing off the sides of the well, rising like hot air in cold. Thomas sat on the floor in the dark, his back against the brick. Laughter came from above. Not old and jagged like he was used to hearing, but new and colourful. It mixed with the notes, spilling into the courtyard to fill the gaps and spaces among the fallen walls and stagnant doorways before, like salt in water, it faded. Thomas waited until the final pops, crackles and scratches rested at his feet like silt.

Life wore its way back to normal for Thomas. Repetition indoctrinates the most unusual to be mundane. Every so often he finds a needle from an old gramophone. Tucked within creases or between cushions. Under the car seat or the back of cupboard. He puts them in a box hidden in a drawer. He found the last one in an old shoe. Number 733.

Richard Kemp writes short stories at a table in Essex under the watchful eye of his retired greyhound.

Our Reader said:

Interesting and original, I loved this concept.

 

Reader’s Choice: One Foot Forward

One Foot Forward

by Ryan Taylor

I breathe in, slowly. The sound of it echoes in my skull. The gently swaying branches around me dissect the sun into uneven blades of light that dance in the clearing of the jungle. Heat smothers my skin. It hugs me tight until more beads of sweat are squeezed from my body. I sigh. I had a feeling today would be the day. I thought of Jenkins. Had he felt this way at the end? At least I had been with him. I turn, peering through the lush, dense foliage around me. He had me. I have no one.

I apologise to him under my breath. It seems I would have to break my promise. His letter feels heavy in my jacket pocket. I lift it out with trembling fingers and unfurl it. His slanted words peer up at me. Jenkins had great handwriting, in another life he might’ve been a writer. Each gliding line was carefully drawn, every word picked to perfection. His attention to detail was immaculate, until it wasn’t.

I fold it in half and then fold it again. Then, taking the paper between my thumb and forefinger I hurl it into the bushes. I pray that someone finds it and completes what I couldn’t. His wife deserves to know what happened to him. His son too.

I think about my son. The way his head smelled as I held him in my arms. He would be four months old now. A stab of remorse pulsed through my stomach. He will never know me. I will never know him. I pray to every deity I can think of to watch over him. I wonder whether I’ll be able to watch him, wherever I end up. I hope so. A tear trickles from my eye and blends with the dirt on my cheeks. It stings. I cannot remember the last time I cried. I wonder whether he’ll laugh like I do, whether he’ll grow taller than me. I imagine how he will look as a young man on his wedding day. I sob like a child and stroke the grubby tears from my face. He’ll hate me for not being there. He’ll wonder who I was and what I was like. I tell him I love him, knowing that he’ll never hear it.

Tessa will care for him, of that I have no doubt. I think of her dimples and the sound of her voice when she sings. I picture her washing dishes by the window, looking out over the farm. I can smell her perfume, sweet yet sharp. I stroke her gentle skin and kiss her on the neck. I should’ve treated her better. I should’ve fixed the tap and the leaky roof. I should’ve stopped the drinking and the gambling. I should never have re-enlisted. I should’ve held her and loved her and never let her go.

My feet are starting to shake. Will it hurt? I hope it’ll be quick. It was for Jenkins. I take a deep breath and peer at the mine beneath my foot. My heart begins to falter. This is it.
I close my eyes and slowly lift my foot.

Ryan Taylor is 27, works full time for a publisher in Oxford and has recently completed a higher diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford University.

Our Reader said:

A poignant complete story, even the key elements of a character’s life in under 500 words.

Reader’s Choice

Hands

by Dan Earl

His hand slowly moved across the polished wooden casket leaving a faint trail of condensation which evaporated into nothingness. He paused at the head of the casket. A warm tear tumbled down his face, eventually reaching his jaw and dropping to nowhere.

Nodding to the funeral workers, he plopped down on the plastic seat and watched as they reverently lowered the casket until it disappeared from his view. Numbness filled his body as he watched the grass dance in the wind. His mind flooded with all of the lost promises of tomorrow. No more late night binge watching. No more vacations. No more her. His future stretched into a long hollow tube. Him, alone. His head collapsed into his hands. He shook with a sorrow extending to all that he is and could have been.

A small hand gently patted his thigh. Looking down at it through the space between his fingers, he placed his hand on top. His eyes moving from hand to wrist and from wrist to shoulder and face. He looked into azure eyes ringed with deep royal blue. Just like – . He cut off the thought. He desperately wanted to go on for her. But how? How could he go on like he promised.

***

His hand slowly moves across the polished metal which glimmers in the light coming in through the doorway. He pauses at the trigger. A warm tear cuts a strange angle from his cheek into his unkempt beard. He nods to himself, it is time. He carefully sits on the bed and raises the gun to his temple. A small shiver runs down his neck from the coldness of barrel on flesh.

Trying to fill his mind with nothing proves harder than he wants. His mind keeps flooding with all of the promises he had made to her, the girl with the pale blue eyes. No more Saturday morning binge watching. No more dancing in the living room. No more him. Her future stretches before him like an empty corridor. Her, alone. There would be others. Others who could fill that corridor, and should. He is broken. Useless. He knows it. She knows it. His eyes close tight as he draws in a deep breath.

A hand touches his. Opening his eyes, he sees her. The dull thud of metal as it hits carpet.

Dan Earl: I am Dan. I love to write words that have meaning.

Our Reader said:

Vivid sense impressions brought this to life, with an engaging story.

Reader’s Choice

This New Life

by Tanya Fillbrook

This new life is not for me. It will enrich and begin its course through dimensions; transient and overflowing with one aim; to renew the universe and release its suffering.

My last request will unite ‘minds of evil’ only to banish their greed forever.

That child, that animal will suffer no more.

I lie down here askew, without dignity and like an ’empty shell of nothing’ pondering about a perfect future, a future best for a fragmented world.

I envisage a world of hope as my eyes blink and flicker.

Pain without gain is nothing new, that’s true enough yet to inflict its toxic poisoning effect on those without voice just confusion angers my distorted mind.

I am dreaming or am I losing strength?

Am I here or am I defeated?

Who am I anyway?

The end is coming but it is not final, it is my last request to visualise my journey, unfolding through fading light.

I can hear the children laughing; happy and eager to learn about life itself abound those with life slipping and sliding.

I can see the animals calling and embellishing, reaching out to the natural environment free from destruction.

Though the human right of man has gone to pot.

I will hold the belief through to the next world that some human rights should be extinguished from this kingdom never to rekindle.

I will be no more yet my dying breath will creep closer to those that will hear it in waves and murmurs.

I am numb and content knowing this request will be turned to gold by creative hands.

My light is fading only for a richer one to shine brighter than any star!

Goodbye old world and welcome to the new, as my eyes close for the final curtain.

Tanya Fillbrook has been writing poetry/prose and short stories for many years. She has been published by pressreader/united press. Samples of work can be viewed at fillbrook.wixsite.com/tanyaswordywrites.

Our Reader said:

An interesting and grand take on the theme.

Reader’s Choice winner for March

The Last Request

by Steve Russell

“Can we have some clean towels in our room? The ones we have are filthy. My breakfast arrived two minutes late again this morning. Please make the kitchen staff aware that the customer is king.”

That was the first time they came but it was just the start of the whole blessed nightmare. Two weeks every year they came and stayed at our B&B in Falmouth and two weeks of every year our staff tried to make themselves invisible if they saw those two coming.

On one occasion the clouds were too cloudy. And another real gem was the sand on the beach. It didn’t look like the sand on the brochure. That was because they were looking at a brochure for the Costa Brava a previous guest had left.

Why they kept coming back year after flipping year astounded me but come they did.

Matilda, my wife, was busy preparing for the evening meal one day when Mr “Nothing is ever right” came into the kitchen.

“Are you aware that the food hygiene regulations require that a hairnet be worn when working within a kitchen of this sort?” says he.

Now, Matilda is usually a very calm and gentle person and, on this occasion, I believe she went above and beyond, as they say.

“Perfectly aware of the rules, but thank you for the reminder, sir” she says. “Which is why I must ask you to leave the kitchen please.”

Nothing happened so Matilda repeated her request.

“I am the guest here, and, as such would expect at least a modicum of respect from the staff,” he replied.

“Well, respectfully, get out of my kitchen with your grubby hands and no hairnet,” Matilda answered, softly, almost bursting her boiler whilst trying not to lose her rag with the old git.

“I have never been so insulted in my whole life,” the pain grumbled, as he headed back to the lounge.

“You must have been,” Matilda replied, loudly, to the back of his beige tank top and bald head.

By evening Matilda had forgotten about the earlier confrontation, but old misery guts hadn’t.

He sent his piece of prime steak back to the kitchen, complaining that is was more like shoe leather than meat.

I was waiting on the table of another guest when our waitress, Jenny, came flying back out of the door to the kitchen with a plate not far behind.

“Mr Ray,” she said. “I think you are needed in the kitchen.”

Matilda screamed for me to get in the kitchen, Immediately.

In a tone full of malevolence she told me to go upstairs and pack their cases, because, either they left or she would.

“Now, just try and calm down a touch, sweetheart,” I said. “They are leaving on Saturday, so just last a couple of more days.”

Their meals were returned to them but with an extra touch, a heavy dusting of powdered laxatives.

Perhaps their last request?

Steve Russell is a member of The Writers Block writing group in Hilton, near Derby. 68 years old, Retired. Ever Hopeful.

Our Reader said:

This story won because it was witty and genuinely entertaining. It’s a good example of what can be done with flash fiction. We’re given a complete story that suggests more than it directly tells us.

March’s Reader

Thank you to everyone who entered March’s competition on the theme ‘the last request’: we are slowly growing and this month had 22 entries. According to our Reader (and we would all agree) the quality this month was very high, and our Reader had a tough job choosing the winner and other pieces for publication.

The winners were announce at the start of the week: you can read the post here.

Our Reader for February was Mark Lewis:

2. Mark Lewis.jpg

Mark Lewis has been teaching Creative Writing workshops at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot since it opened in 2010. He has had over 25 short stories published, several stage scripts performed and poetry published. He is working on several novels. For more information have a look at syntheticscribe.wordpress.com.

Of February’s winning story, Their Last Request, by Steve Russell, Mark said:

This story won because it was witty and genuinely entertaining. It’s a good example of what can be done with flash fiction. We’re given a complete story that suggests more than it directly tells us.

The winning story and all the other Reader’s Choice pieces for the month, together with brief comments from Mark, will be published on this site during April. ‘Follow’ to site using the link in the bottom right to receive the pieces direct to your inbox when they are published.

March’s competition winners

The time has come to announce our winning piece and other Reader’s Choice pieces from March’s competition –

Winner:
Their Last Request, by Steve Russell

Other Reader’s Choices, in no particular order:
This New Life, by Tanya Fillbrook
Hands, by Dan Earl
One Food Forward, by Ryan Taylor
Gramophones in Wishing Wells, by Richard Kemp
Blue Trousers, by Zoe Chater

These pieces will be published in full on our website over the coming month. ‘Follow’ this site using the link in the bottom right corner to receive them straight into your inbox.

Congratulations and thanks to all who gave their time and sent their work in to our March competition.

For April we have an image prompt, which you can view here, along with all the guidelines for how to enter the competition.

If you would be interested in being our Reader in a later month, please email Alice indicating which month you would like to be considered for. You don’t have to be based in Didcot – the only requirement is that you don’t enter your own work in the month for which you are a Reader!