Reader’s Choice: The Tunnel

The Tunnel

by CG Brik

Oh why, oh why am I alone so far away? Oh, my soul might die so far away. So I crawl and die, so I sing missing music. So my, so soul, so missing, so far away—

– so the American GI’s thoughts went. Nonsense? Maybe. But such is panic. Too far passed the turn in the fox hole to see the light of the entrance, his torch fell as he stumbled on a trou de loup, a booby trap, covered by a thin layer of grass, and a panji stick went through his palm. It could be a mine that’d be triggered once he tried to pull his mutilated hand off the barbed shaft. He heard something shuffling further down the tunnel.

Could be our guy. Or could be one of ours. Then he’s a fool. That’s enough. Or another point who drew short straw. Doesn’t change anything. Please don’t let it happen again.

Couldn’t be the enemy. The enemy would be waiting at the other end, pick off the leftover crew, wounded from the traps, disoriented from the light. That’d be the way. Then again, he might not. This shuffling might be him.

Have to risk a match. Trou de loup. Toodle-loo limbs. That pain.

He was a foxhole diver. Most soldiers didn’t survive more than two dives. Their psyche couldn’t handle more than five. He’d done fifteen. He was twenty-two. If he wasn’t in hell, this would be considered a miracle. Here, you’re a corpse plunger. With ‘success’ like that, he’d been forgiven several incidents of friendly fire.

First match burst quicker than a blink, left a red firefly. Dirt, blackness and cold metal gun. Feels like breathing through a sweaty sock. The tunnel continues turning. Couldn’t see the torch. Second match. A glimpse of wires. Or roots? Have to get closer to see. Or set it off. Seeing only memories, hearing only breath now, in the dark.

I miss Molly and the grass we smoked and the flowers in her hair I miss Coke in the back of a Chevy with Friday night lights and sticking up my thumb on a lonesome desert road just to find myself on a leather seat with a beautiful stranger, why oh why I got to be buried alive. Now. Now I’m a blood worm sweating fear ejaculating metal death teeth at farm children. Digested along guerra viscera.

More shuffling, closer now.

Last match. Twenty minutes earlier, the platoon had been ambushed, and they scattered, ran in the direction of the attack. One got hit by a shrapnel mine. Investigating closer, there were severed heads, defiled with other extremities. Be cool, it’s a tactic, it’s just a tactic, they get what gets us psychologically, it’s strategy, be cool. This helped very little. But maybe it was true, clearing away the pieces of their comrade and some sticks, they noticed a tunnel opening. Territorial infiltration. A maw of infestation. Work your magic they said, and he entered. See anything move, shoot.

Shh—

CG Brik is writing in San Antonio, TX.

Our Reader said:

The stream of consciousness captures the increasing sense of fear and danger.

Reader’s Choice: Underground

Underground

by Sheila Davie

Underground is moody
It sneaks around
Wrapping its tentacles
Far and wide.

It sulks
Below cities that never sleep
And frowns

It feels the coldness
Of corpses
Alone and forgotten

It hates
The fears
That daylight brings

And squints
In blinding sunshine
Fearing the yellow monster
Penetrating, penetrating

Then smiles
As anxious creatures
Check their young
Safe inside

Suddenly it churns and spews its guts
To give the brightest show on earth

It tastes
The blood
Of death

It will not, cannot, retreat
To the abyss
And gloats in awe
Of itself.

Sheila Davie is a member of Didcot Writers and divides her time between rural Oxfordshire and coastal Kent. A keen walker inspired by recent walks in the mud!

Our Reader said:

This poem is so vivid and rich, it makes the underground feel alive as I read.

Reader’s Choice: In the Tunnel

In the Tunnel

by Rose Little

I slipped through a gap in the fence beside the newsagents, slid down the bank towards the abandoned canal and searched for the entrance to the old tunnel. I’d heard about urban guerrillas, roaming underground New York, but who would have me, a weedy kid of 13, and anyway, this was England. I was okay on my own. It took me time to fight my way through the scratchy gorse bushes to the stone archway with the date carved over the top, 1789 – then I quickly slithered inside.

I have always been drawn to places with history, places no one goes anymore. ‘No!’ my parents shouted, when I had run ahead down the garden at Great Granny’s to investigate the old air-raid shelter, ‘You can’t go in, it’s not safe!’ I put it down to always having had a weak chest, I wasn’t allowed to take any risks, only medicine.

When they told me our new house had a canal running along behind I couldn’t wait to move in. I found it on the map, but I was younger then, and hadn’t spotted the word ‘derelict’. I was disappointed when I eventually saw the smooth grassy stretch, planted with flowers and tamed to a cycle track. And now here I was at last, only five miles further up, actually exploring the true canal, the neglected and forgotten part.

I had been prepared for mud and rubbish, but not for the cold and damp, the suffocating stale air and the complete darkness when my torch gave out. I cursed myself for not bringing my spare batteries. I touched the rocky side of the nearest wall and crept forwards, splashing through the water on the bottom. The gloopy sludge clung to my wellies making each step an effort. I could see nothing, but I had read that the tunnel was narrow and the roof low, and the navvies had had to lie on top of their cargo and ‘leg’ it onwards. I felt my way along as the drips from the roof fell with a dismal splat to the water below and wetted my head and shoulders.

I was startled by a roaring sound coming towards me, reminding me of the rushing sound of the falls we had seen in Disneyland on the Special Kids’ holiday. But this was no cute waterfall, it sounded like it meant business.

The map had shown me that the River Ray shared the same channel: could this be some kind of overflow? I turned round and ran for the entrance, but I couldn’t outdistance a flooding river. With the onslaught of icy water I was knocked off my feet and swirled along. I saw coloured lights in the blackness as I lost consciousness.

‘He’s coming round.’ It was my mother.  I was in my own bed and I opened my eyes to see the doctor. The relief in his voice was obvious: ‘We’ll try him on something less strong in future.’

Rose Little finds focusing on a theme every month a great inspiration and enjoys get-togethers with like-minded people at Didcot Writers.

Our Reader said:

I loved the sense of adventure this story this story invokes and how it played with my expectations.

Reader’s Choice: Sweet

Sweet

by Emma Cheung

Theo emptied his stomach onto the pavement after a tube journey that was a few minutes too unpleasant. He wiped the residue off his chin but then wasn’t sure what to do with it now that it was on his fingers. Wipe it on the jacket. He stood bent looking at the pavement and nothing else, arm stretched out to lean on the wall of the station. The pavement looks quite clean at this time of night. Could lie down and have a nap on the ground. Kip on the clean ground. Clean apart from the fresh vomit. Perhaps move away from the entrance of Warren Street and more towards the 88 bus stop. Newsagent by there where you once bought salt and vinegar crisps. Vinegar stench behind the eyes. He moved away from the fluorescent lights and passers-by then spat on the clean pavement to purge the staleness from his tongue.

Perhaps shouldn’t have drank that much at the corporate party. Don’t usually drink that much but it was all free. How much did Theo drink?

1xProsecco
1xGinLemonade
1xPinaColada
2xGinnTonic
4xPeroni
1xGinnTonic
1xPeroni

Yes, perhaps he shouldn’t have drunk that much. A small boy like him. Nothing plump about him. One of those silhouettes made out of negative space. Fingers shaped like bamboo. He spits again to rid the stale acid from his tongue but it does not go away. The pavement looks very clean in the light of this lamppost. Cross the road maybe. Home is across the road. He swills the puddle of bile from the back of his mouth. Hint of carrot and coriander soup. Fragrance of ferment and beneath all of that a slight sweetness. Sweetness weaves through the filth, a single thread of delicious pink among brown dirt cowboy. Sweet like pure. Sweet like her.

Sweet like strawberry jam and peaches juices. Cheeks full of honey nectar sweet. First love first touch first daffodil in springtime. Sweet like
“you
are
my
lucky
star”

warm like
“I
was
star-
struck”.

Lychee syrup lucky star seeping out of open skin. Can feel it on the tongue the thought of her. Almost as if the leftover vomit isn’t there. Remember that night I sat with her as she threw up after having too much to drink. Gagging hiccup, slight convulsion. Again and again until the real thing escaped her stretched parted lips. Epiphanic stream pouring itself into the sewer as I held her hair. Sick dripping, eyelids drooping. Licked it off her face, from her mouth into my mouth. Threads of salt-sargasso, estuary of marbled green. Honey sweet nectar dreams: the vomit of my love.

Theo could only see the pavement as he stood bent by the 88 bus stop. To see just grey but to taste it all. He threw up once more and proceeded swiftly home.

Emma Cheung is an English Literature student at UCL.

Our Reader said:

The sensations described are palpable thanks to the author’s poetic descriptions.

Reader’s Choice: The Beast Beneath

The Beast Beneath

by Claire Twinn

Rumours were flying around the zoo concerning a mysterious creature. Its strange thumping sound resonated everywhere and it had strewn a trail of dirt all over the place, yet no one had seen it.

“It can’t be anything nice if it creeps around at night,” Toucan said, clipping his curved beak together noisily to emphasise his point. “Like those blinking bats I had to live next door to a few years ago. They’d hang around upside down all day pretending to be cute, but at night they were evil!  Nicking all my fruit and gobbling up any poor moths who got in their way.”

Orang-utan sighed and picked at a flea on her chest. “It seems to be everywhere so I bet it’s not stuck in a cage like us.  Must be small enough to get through the bars.  Maybe it’s one of those rats that skulk around the bins?”

“I bet it’s that cat who lives in the zookeeper’s house. He’s always taunting me about how he goes hunting at night,” sighed Cougar as he paced up and down.

Marmoset nibbled nervously on a nut. “It was making a right racket last night. I reckon it’s one of those massive wild deer, like that gnu who died last year or that moose who went away and never came back. I don’t know what those humans are up to, but it’s not good. I swear they’ve given me less papaya than yesterday – they’re starving us, I tell you!”

“Oh Marmie, you say that every day. If you didn’t spend so much time running around you wouldn’t get so hungry all the time,” Sloth suggested.

“A great big bird landed on top of my prison last month and made a hell of a noise padding around. Told me she was a goose all the way from Canada, then she pooped on my head!” Quail quivered in indignation at the memory.

Capybara waved her paw at the mess outside their cages. “Look at all those piles of earth, it’s like something’s been making huge jumps and pushing all the soil up when it lands.  The only creature I ever saw who could jump like that was a kangaroo.”

The rumbling noise grew louder. “It’s coming closer! Help!” shrieked Meerkat, scuttling away.

A mountain of earth erupted in front of them. They watched aghast as an innocent worm wriggling past was sucked underground, gobbled up by the beast beneath. Worse still, the creature was burrowing closer and closer, spewing up a pathway of debris, heading straight for their cages.

“It’s going to suck us all up!” screeched Toucan, flapping frantically.

The tunnelling stopped just before their cages. The animals trembled as they awaited their fate. Meerkat held his breath for so long he passed out. After several minutes the tunnelling restarted, to their relief heading away.

“The ground’s too hard. It can’t get in just like we can’t get out,” Orang-utan grunted.

Everyone slept soundly that night, safe in their havens, dreaming no more of freedom.

(Inspired by the song ‘I am a mole and I live in a hole’.)

When not having to be grown-up, Claire Twinn loafs around on her boat writing silly or strange stories. She is a member of Didcot Writers.

Our Reader said:

A funny story told from an unusual perspective, this put a smile on my face.

Reader’s Choice Winner: Found on the Underground

Found on the Underground

by Alice Little

‘I’m just not sure you’ve got the go-getter spirit we’re after at CrowdFundIt.’

Logan remembered Michelle’s words as he sat on the Underground going home. She had turned him down for promotion, and let him know that there was no point re-applying. He would remain a junior salesman.

He glanced around the empty carriage. There was rubbish everywhere. He idly picked up an umbrella. He couldn’t get it to collapse fully – that was probably why it had been left behind. A second umbrella, this one with ripped canvas, was rolling about on the floor, and among what he had assumed were just newspaper pages he found a cracked vase, presumably dumped when the newspaper hadn’t proved enough protection.

Logan took these three items to the ticket desk, which was closed. He shrugged at the cleaner, who responded, ‘Is all broken? Then no one wants.’

Logan didn’t like to throw the things away and, with nothing better to do that weekend, he set about repairing them – if he could make good the damage he could sell them on.

The closing mechanism was damaged on the first umbrella, so he took the slide from the second and used it to fix the first. The second umbrella, he stripped the canvas from entirely (he could use it to patch his tent), and papier-mâchéd the frame. He spray-painted it, and listed it on Etsy as a trendy wall decoration. It sold before he’d even finished mending the vase, which he then also painted and listed as upcycled glass art.

On Monday, coming home from work, he kept an eye out for further discarded items, and by the end of the day he had a shoe with a broken heel (which he made into a jewellery stand), a stained cushion (which he washed and made a new cover for), and a briefcase with a broken handle (which he mended). By the end of the week his first items had netted him over sixty pounds; the following week’s haul raised over two hundred. By the end of the month he was making more from repairing and repurposing left-behind items than he was at the crowdfunding company. And Michelle had said he lacked entrepreneurial spirit! He showed her.

He could make a real go of this, he thought. He used his staff account to set up his own crowdfunding page, and within a fortnight had raised enough money to rent a workshop space and tools. He took out ads encouraging people to bring him what they saw as junk, and to buy items they regarded as vintage, craft, or designer.

Six months later, a woman smiled uneasily at him across his workbench.

‘Michelle! What a… lovely surprise.’

‘I came down to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I should have promoted you after all,’ she said. ‘Imagine what you could have done if you’d stayed at the company.’

‘If I’d stayed at the company,’ Logan replied pointedly, ‘I’d still be a junior salesman.’

Alice Little is a writer of short and long fiction, and runs workshops for Didcot Writers. Find out more at alicelittle.co.uk/fiction, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @littleamiss.

Our Reader said:

An uplifting story about opportunities appearing where least expected. The ending was incredibly satisfying!

Our Reader for January

Our Reader for January’s competition, themed ‘underground’ was Sarah Byrne. Sarah returned her winning choices to us in less than 48 hours, which sets a record!

Sarah Byrne.png

Sarah is a film and theatre researcher who also writes speculative fiction and has had a number of short stories published in anthologies.

About being our Reader, Sarah said:

I found this quite difficult as there were loads of good stories and poems and quite a varied approach to the theme. I’ve tried to pick a wide selection of styles and genres!

Follow this site at didcotwriters.wordpress.com to receive the winning pieces straight to your inbox on Mondays and Fridays.

Winners for January (Underground)

Many thanks to those who entered our January competition, themed Underground, and to our Reader this month. The Reader has made incredibly fast work of choosing the winning pieces, and they are:

Reader’s Choice:
Found on the Underground, by Alice Little

Other choices:
The Beast Beneath, by Claire Twinn
Sweet, by Emma Cheung
In the Tunnel, by Rose Little
Underground, by Sheila Davie
The Tunnel, by CG Brik

Congratulations to all!

These pieces will be published on Mondays and Fridays over the coming weeks, so Follow the blog at didcotwriters.wordpress.com to receive them straight to your inbox each time.

If you would like to be a Reader for our competition in a future month, please email didcotwriters@gmail.com. The entries are read anonymously, and it takes just a few hours, as close to the start of the month as possible.

Our theme for February is ‘confrontation’; and don’t forget to send your short stories for our next print anthology, ‘First Contact’: didcotwriters.wordpress.com/anthology.