Reader’s Choice: Volunteering


by David Hamilton

It’s simply fact: they’re compulsively dramatic. We heard sirens when they were still minutes away. Bathroom window, drainpipe, Sarie gone. I was pyjama-clad in bed by the time they smashed in.

‘Timothy Preston, under the Ethical Citizenship Act you are required to voluntarily accept State Custody.’

I volunteered, and went with them secretly frantic to know how Sarie had fared.


‘Anyone pulled in,’ I had been told, ‘is taken to the Counselling Lounge. After that, it’s back to your cell. If you’re just a random-selected victim of showboating, you stew there a week before you’re released. You know you’re there for serious probing if you’re recalled for a second Counselling Lounge session.’


‘Have the sofa, Tim, you’re entitled to feel comfortable in your local Counselling Lounge. Your accommodation okay?’

‘A bit chilly. And the meals seem small.’

‘Cold air helps us avoid contamination via the air conditioning unit. You weighed in two kilos over yu-har.’


‘EWHA. Ethical weight for height and age.’


‘Let’s start with your Induction Portfolio. Hmm! Pensioner’s Winter Fuel
Allowance sacrificed to contribute to Street Lighting. Voluntary duty with local Refuse and Trash Squad. Credit balance with Voluntary Income Levy enrolment. This is an excellent prole, Tim. Remarkably commendable citizenship! Anything you want to tell us?’

‘Nothing, Counsellor.’

‘Senior Counsellor. Are you sure there’s nothing?’

‘Yes, Senior Counsellor.’

‘There must be some reason for your voluntary presence in a Citizen Redemption Centre. Here’s an idea! Go back to your cosy guest suite and think deeply.’


Quick exchanges through hissing shower water is the only communication among ourselves we Voluntary Guests get.

‘Anyone new in heard anything from Europe?’

‘Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany have been consolidated into the Mid-Europe Ethical Federation. Spain and Portugal are now the Iberian Ethical Reformation. France is in limbo.’

‘Balkans, Baltics, Scandinavia, Low Countries – still holding out.’


My second day, at midnight, I was recalled to Counselling Lounge. A second session, just as I’d been warned about. I went, fearing the summons meant they knew I’d sheltered Sarie.

The visit was brief, then I was shivering in a dim street with steel gates clanging shut behind me.

Murky figures hustle me to deeper shadows. A gently-draped blanket quells my tremors. I gratefully sip brandy. Hearing crackles of static I joke, ‘Portable radio? Beware, I’m a perfect citizen obliged to report banned activities.’

‘Quiet, you marvellous old reprobate, I’m tuning in…’

The radio squawk-whispers, ‘…Voice Of Freedom. The organization Armed
Nomads Giving England Loyal Support has announced its reconnaissance flier, South African Lieutenant-Commander Sarie Bezuidenhout, downed over England, has evaded capture by so-called New English Ethical State and, aided by English underground, has reached her base in Norway. United States Congress has unanimously approved free issue of military supply to ANGELS, which is staffed by volunteers from English-speaking nations…’

‘What happened in there, Tim?’

‘Second call to Counselling Lounge was a false alarm. They only raided me because their computer suggested I’m too good to be true. They couldn’t fault me, though. Just said they’d watch me carefully in future.’

David Hamilton’s firm belief is, a story must entertain both writer and reader. Apologies for when I please only myself.

Another of David’s stories, Wagner in the Marsh, appears in Didcot Writers’ anthology of pieces on the theme of music, Compositions, available to buy here. [if this link isn’t live, check out our Publications page from the menu]

Our Reader said:

A whole new world and its passionate causes condensed into a few words.

Reader’s Choice: Let the Games Begin

Let the Games Begin

by Fia Coldwell

3am. She couldn’t remember what had woken her.
 She sat up. Just a bad dream? She strained her ears. No, there was a siren in the distance. She was about to growl at the injustice of life and go back to sleep, when she heard a creak.

She froze. Her arm was still suspended holding the corner of her blanket. She had no cats; she lived alone in a three-room apartment.
 Another creak.

She dropped the blanket and pulled herself into a foetal position.
 Two more creaks, each one closer than before.
 She wanted to scream, but stuffed her fist into her mouth. She’d done a self-defence class once, but how would she know where to punch the guy in the dark?

Light. The synapses in her brain finally started to ring. She put her hand to the switch.
There was a squeak as the door handle was pushed down.
 She hit the light. Nothing happened. Hit it again and again, but nothing. She swore. When had the light bulb died on her? She didn’t know.

The door started moving.
 She crawled off her bed. Hide or attack? Hide or attack? She repeated the phrase like a mantra. Had no idea what to do. She couldn’t remember any of the moves they’d taught her in class. Punch? Kick? Find a weapon?
 Who the hell was this person?

The door was now fully open. She thought she could see a foot in the opening, but it was too dark to make out anything. Hide or attack, she thought again.
 Attack, she decided, feeling the presence of someone enter her room. She had the advantage of knowing the place inside out, even in the dark.
 She pounced on him then. Or where she thought he’d been. She could barely catch herself before she hit the floor.
 Where had he gone? She spun around. Nothing moved.

Slowly, she picked herself off the floor. She couldn’t hear anything now. No creaking of floorboards, no breathing beside her. Nothing.

Her eyes wide, she scanned the darkness around her. Still nothing. Her hand moved to the light switch on the wall behind her. She counted to ten silently, then hit the switch, her other arm wildly lashing out defensively.
She had to blink a couple times to get used to the light. Her room looked a mess. She’d torn down her shoe rack in an attempt to catch the fall.

Her heart was beating faster than ever. Carefully, she checked the hall. Checked the other rooms. The bathroom. The kitchen. There was no one in her apartment.
 Her eyes found the note on her fridge, Call me when the visions return. This couldn’t be a vision. She’d seen the guy, no, felt him. Her door had opened.

She closed her eyes, heard her doctor saying her mind was playing games again. It wasn’t the first time.

When she opened her eyes again, they settled on a note she’d never seen before. Let the games begin.

Fia Coldwell: Psych student writing psychological suspense. Figures.

Our Reader said:

A nervy description of feelings with a menacing ending.

Reader’s Choice: Remains


by Jody Kish

Maggie’s heartbeat increased, beating like a drum in her chest. She wasn’t sure what she’d stumbled upon. She looked down with hesitant eyes, smelling a stench of something that foretold a life lost. An animal? It had to be. The alternative was too gruesome for her mind to wrap around. Slowly, she adjusted her booted foot, which had hit the mysterious object. The remains of what looked like a human jaw lay before her. Losing all sensibility, Maggie ran as fast as her trembling body could carry her down the wooded path. She had loved taking walks on their lush acreage, but, she vowed, never again.

Maggie’s vision was obstructed by the sudden onslaught of rain. Limbs reached out, fingers grabbing at her body and long, black hair. Her boots were sucked into the earth with each step she took, impeding her quick retreat. Covered in twigs, leaves and mud, she finally reached home. Maggie’s shaky hand turned the doorknob illuminated by the porch light, finding brief solace, and then running inside. Her muddy footprints followed. “Dad, Dad! There’s a… a…” Her words were lost in sobs.

“Maggie, what’s going on?” He brushed her tangled hair back from her face. He wrapped her in a thick fleece blanket. “Get near the fire. Are you alright?”

Ben looked at his dishevelled fourteen-year-old daughter and thought to himself, “Okay, she’s not injured.”

Her teeth chattered uncontrollably as she began telling her tale. Her dad listened intently while she explained what she’d seen. He promised to go to the spot early the next day before calling the police.

Formerly working for the FBI, Ben knew to take people’s concerns seriously. In the twenty years he’d been an agent, five bodies were discovered deep within the woods, silently waiting to tell their story to the scientists who painstakingly looked for evidence to bring closure for the families. Only three of the bodies had been properly identified, the others still waiting to find peace.

Ben had lost his wife to his long hours and obsession with unsolved cases. Then, he lost her permanently in a tragic car accident, his daughter being the sole survivor. Being Mr. Mom was far from the world he knew so well. He had a hard enough time being a dad! After giving up the FBI, Ben vowed to make up for the time he had lost with his daughter.

In the morning he went out to search for a body in the area she described. The stench of death was indeed in the air, but his older, wiser mind knew to look at all the evidence before any assumptions were made. A smile crinkled his lips upon seeing the remains of the rotting corpse his daughter had described—the deer’s jawbone exposed by her boot. With a sigh of relief, he went back to tell Maggie the news. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. This time.

Jody Kish is a proud nana who finds joy and inspiration in every moment of the day to play and write.

Our Reader said:

Well written and to the point.

Reader’s Choice: The Last Polo Bear

The Last Polo bear

by Rose Little

The last polar bear stood at the edge of the ocean. He sniffed the air landwards: an unfamiliar scent – danger, but far off. He continued casting towards the sea. When the moment was right he would launch himself into the waves in search of food.

A paw print in the snow thirty centimetres across – so the report was true! Elated after their fruitless day in the desolate wilderness, the two men scanned the featureless landscape. Despite their sun-visors the brilliant reflection seared their eyes. Greg glanced at Len, he had been so edgy lately since they had had to make a recce alone. The others were full of ’flu and confined to base. They hurried back to their snowmobile, Len driving, Greg riding pillion.

Cold and hungry but vigilant, the men rode on across the frozen white waste, mile upon at mile of snow-covered ice, raised at intervals into dunes. They had twenty-four hours’ daylight but they would have to return soon.
 Driving demanded Len’s attention but the stupefying glare caused his mind to wander. He saw himself as a child again, safe and warm at home with his favourite furry toy, Polo Bear – of course, that was where it all began, he was thinking ruefully, when a strange sight on the horizon startled them both.

‘What’s that!’ Len gasped, and the two-up veered sideways and stalled. ‘It’s nothing. You know – an illusion caused by ice crystals.’

Exhausted, both strained ahead, staring at the shimmering apparition of a coastline suspended in the air. They couldn’t be that near the coast? The bear must be close, and they were going to be the only humans to see it, the last polar bear. The team was here to capture it, rescue it, take it back to the zoo, preserve it in life and beyond.
Time was running out as they drove on.

‘What’s that noise?’ Len’s arms locked on the handlebars and Greg clutched the sides of his seat in shock.

‘Ground sea,’ he grunted, setting his jaw, while Len sat rigid.

The terrible noise thundered beneath them as the sea moved, the ice was thinner here than they had thought.

‘Do you want to turn back?’ Greg asked through gritted teeth. Len shook his head and held their course.

As they rounded another snowdune they saw the magnificent creature, ursus maritimus, still some way off, but in an empty landscape he stood out clearly: lord of his environment, straight and tall on the shrinking ice, facing the ocean. Len switched off. Undetected, they watched the almost motionless bear, for an interval without time.

The spell was broken when, horrified, they heard the cracking of splitting ice ahead of them. Len turned the snowmobile round and drove away fast towards base, leaving the bear on the ice-floe.

The polar bear sniffed once more landwards. The unfamiliar scent had receded and the danger had passed. False alarm. He turned and slid into the cold water, swimming strongly out to sea.

Rose Little is a long-time writer first-time competitor enjoying the inspiration from the group and the shortbread at Cornerstone, where they meet for ‘Shut up and Write’.

Another of Rose’s stories, Sixty Words a Minute, features in Didcot Writers’ anthology, The Most Normal Town in England, available to buy here. [if this link isn’t live, check out our Publications page, linked from the main menu]

Our Reader said:

The vivid evocation of the Arctic stayed in my mind. I enjoyed the use of a wide range of vocabulary.


Reader’s Choice: I am Here for You

I am Here for You

by Shirley Muir

There is no car
despite the dense rural dark
and the remote country lane
that meanders through it to the village.

She does not want to impose noise on this tranquil place.
She has feet and they have shoes,
one strong shoulder to sling a bag
(the other is damaged)

And clustered around the green freshly-painted mosque
are food shops with olives and white crumbly cheese
and twenty sorts of nuts.
And always the intoxicating smell of fresh warm bread.

In the shed, the blue bicycle leans patiently
against the grey powdery stone.
In the shadows by the back wall,
with its traffic of mice and spiders
that mate in spring or shelter from winter’s drenching storms,
the bicycle is grimy, oil-less, parched, doleful.

Last year, its moving parts black and lubricated,
it ferried farm eggs, juicy oranges, lush ruby tomatoes
and tiny cucumbers like fat green fingers,
all jumbled in the safety of its capacious basket.

This year it knows that one hand to brake
or one to grip the handlebars
and only one to steer
is not enough
(the other is damaged)

‘Buyurun*’, the bicycle says quietly, waiting,
its basket empty, save for silvery webs
and the droppings of baby mice.
It gathers dust and perhaps rust.
It hopes for her broken wrist to mend,
her frozen shoulder to thaw.

It wishes her walks to the village will become rides
instead of feet plodding the muddy tracks
that in spring are edged with swaying scarlet poppies
for bicycles and riders to admire slowly.

It hopes she will smile at the squadron of snails sliming over gravel after rain
or peek at an alert lizard basking, head lifted in brightness
near a handy chink in a wall.

In summer these gentle winding ways waft with the wings
of yellow, white and orange butterflies,
Tiger moths, buzzing honeybees and dragonflies.
The blue bicycle knows these things.

But today she walks past the shed
and trudges into the village,
her bag slung over the good shoulder.
‘Buyurun’, the bicycle whispers,
and its little bell tinkles in the gloom.

*Buyurun is Turkish for ‘Can I help you? I am here.’

Shirley Muir is a molecular biologist, tarot reader and student of Turkish. She spends some of her time in Turkey.

Our Reader said:

I liked the rich and subtle use of language and the gentle poignant feelings the poem conjured up.


Reader’s Choice Winner: Maybe Next Time

Maybe Next Time

by Ella Syverson

It’s Friday, and the night is young. You’ve finished studying, and are looking forward to finding some live music with your friends after you meet up at Hannah’s place. You hum to yourself as you stride down the empty street, shivering a bit in the sharp November air. It’s only when a car drives past that you catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of your eye, reflected in the car’s windshield. Just a guy. Another student, most likely. Suddenly self-conscious, you stop humming and pull out your phone to check your notifications. It’s dead. Dammit. You can borrow a charger from Hannah once you get to her dorm, though. You put your phone back in your pocket.

For no reason in particular, you glance over your shoulder and realize that the man is closer than he was before. And he’s crossed to your side of the street. A spike of adrenaline shoots through you and you begin to walk a little faster. You’re almost to Hannah’s. You look behind you again, he’s matched your pace and is closing the distance between you — less than half a block.

“Hey!” He calls out to you. You don’t answer. As you’ve been told, you grab your keys in your pocket, knowing that they wouldn’t be much help to you. You cut into an alley – it’s quicker to get into Hannah’s dorm from the back way – and he follows, and yells at you again.

“Hey, wait up!” You break into a run, but trip over an empty bottle and sprawl on the gravel. The man catches up to you, panting. He reaches out a hand, but you inch away and he pulls back, putting both his hands in the air in surrender. In one of them, he’s holding a down jacket.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you. Is this your jacket? I think you left it in the library.” You blink, the panic subsiding and you let out a strangled laugh.

“Oh. Yeah, that’s mine. Thanks.” Again, he offers you a hand, but you decline and scramble to your feet yourself, brushing dirt off your jeans. He hands you the jacket.

“Are you okay?” He asks. You nod, and turn away.
“Alright, um, have a good night then. Sorry again for scaring you.”

“No problem. Thanks for my jacket.” He leaves, and you let out a long, shaky breath. False alarm, you tell yourself. But internally you grimace, knowing next time, it might not be.

Ella Syverson: I’m a student at a project based high school where I can pursue my passions: creative writing and social justice.

Our Reader said:

This was a clear and vivid response to the words ‘False Alarm’. It was memorable, and summoned up the rising panic I feel about being followed. I enjoyed the little twist at the end.


Our Reader for October

Our Reader for October’s competition, themed ‘false alarm’ was Margaret Gallop.


Margaret enjoys teaching creative writing to children and now enjoys supporting adults in their writing as well and helping people to put their own stories into words.

About the winning story this month, Maybe Next Time, by Ella Syverson, our Reader said:

This was a clear and vivid response to the words ‘False Alarm’. It was memorable, and summoned up the rising panic I feel about being followed. I enjoyed the little twist at the end.

Competition Winners for October

Thank you to all those who entered our October competition, themed ‘False Alarm’. The stories have now been read, and the winners are:

Reader’s Choice Winner:
Maybe Next Time, by Ella Syverson

Other Choices:
I am here for you, by Shirley Muir
The Last Polo bear, by Rose Little
Remains, by Jody Kish
Let the games begin, by Fia Coldwell
Volunteering, by David Hamilton

Congratulations to all!