The Parracombe Prize

four people writing at home

Last autumn a small group of writers in Parracombe, both amateur and professional, decided to launch a short story competition. The village is unusual in that a population of less than 300 inhabitants has held an active book group for over twenty years and has several people involved in writing or in publishing services.

We felt there was space for a short story competition that wouldn’t penalise entries for punctuation errors or minor grammatical slips and that celebrated the skill of weaving a story for the joy of the reader. So, the Parracombe Prize was born.

We kept the entry fee as low as we felt we could and opened the competition to all. The stories have been a joy to read and, at the time of writing, there are still three weeks left for people to enter (closing date is 31st January 2021).

We will definitely be repeating this event.

How I didn’t find a Literary Agent

picture of unicorn

A quick check on Google confirmed my worst fears. There are almost half a billion returns for ‘unicorn’ and only 168 for ‘literary agents’. Does that mean that getting into a conversation with a unicorn is more likely than getting a literary agent to consider my latest novel? This was how I approached the process.

Stage 1 Before submitting any material I read through the sites of some 150 agencies. I checked the agents online profile, twitter feeds and video posts. I noted their likes and dislikes and checked the authors they represent.

Stage 2 The first three chapters of my novel were submitted, a query letter and a synopsis to a number of agents (all tailored to their individual specifications).

Stage 3 A couple of depressingly quick rejections ensued. I waited longer (quite a long time in fact) but heard nothing from the majority of them.

Stage 4 I repeated of stages 2 to 3 – several times.

Stage 5 A few more rejections – some polite, some formulaic and some friendly – but also a lot of silence.

In summary
It may be about ‘who you know’, but I hope it’s also about what you’ve written. My readers like my style and my stories, but my offerings simply don’t grab the attention of agents.

I’m sure that literary agents stand shoulder to shoulder in wanting to like your novel. I fear that I can write a popular novel, but get the pitch wrong when I am approaching agents – being on the autistic spectrum may be a problem here as my command of interpersonal relationships is learned rather than intuitive.

How to do Sex Properly

book cover for how to do sex properly

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was involved in this book (sometime in the early 1980s). I worked freelance for a book packager at the time. They would put a concept together and see if if they could get a publisher interested. The book concept would be sold before it had been fully written or illustrated. I would be involved in the design and concept stages and then, quite often, nothing would transpire.

This book was one such. It was written tongue-in-cheek (feel free to make up your own innuendos) and most of the illustrations of teddy bears and other soft toys were conceived immaculately by Colin Rowe. All the teddy bears would nowadays be offered trauma counselling, but back then they just had to get on with it.

How to do Sex Properly was a one-season wonder. It sold well I think, but soon disappeared from sight. Wind forward to the new millennium and it reappeared on Amazon – with excellent reviews. Soon after publication I received a letter from a Health Authority complimenting us on such a straightforward approach to sex education – this was never the intention. I don’t even own a copy now, but I know people who do.

A Point of View

cover design for a short story

I could try to explain but I doubt you’d get it. The thing is, you would want to know why and there is no why, there is no point to anything. That’s what people don’t understand, that nothing matters. Nothing you do will make any difference. That’s why I want to do this, that’s why I need to do this, to show you, to make you understand it doesn’t matter.

Today is not a special day. It’s not my birthday or anything like that. People always try to find an explanation, but they won’t find one because what they’re looking for doesn’t exist . That’s the whole point, there is nothing to understand. You see, we’re all nothing but worms grubbing through the earth, breeding more worms, eating what comes our way and leaving our shit behind.


It’s sunny today. My back is getting hot while I lay here. But I like being alone, I like that nobody knows where I am, this is my place, my view point. Nobody really cares where I am anyway, as long I’m not their problem. Nobody really cares about anyone.

They pretend, they make noises like they care, but they don’t, and I don’t. I don’t need their sympathy, their concern, their boring repetitive words of encouragement. I like it when they are a bit scared of me, worried about whether I’m going to do something, something they don’t expect. I can see the tension in their bodies, their readiness to jump, to escape. But when they go home they forget about me, they forget about everything. I’m going to make them remember me, make them wish they had listened. They will never forget me again.

I always feel at peace up here, comfortable, it’s my place now. On the roof there is nobody to tell me what to do, to look at me like I’m not one of them, like I’m not normal, a freak, an outsider, a waste of space, somebody they don’t want to acknowledge or talk to. Up here I am alone, I can be me, unjudged, unseen.


Did I tell you I have a new counsellor, she’s my third one. She talks to me like she knows me, like she understands me. She’s all crap, it’s her job to pretend like that, to pretend she cares. She goes home and forgets too. 

She always has to read her notes when I go to see her, flicking through the pages like she’s written down all the answers somewhere. I’m a file, a collection of words on sheets of paper to her. If I tore up the paper and threw it in the bin I’d still be there, but she wouldn’t know who I was. She doesn’t listen to what I say, only what she wants to hear, only what ticks the box she’s put me in.


On summer days, melted pitch seeps through the grit which covers the roof, so I took an old piece of carpet up there to lie on. I always wear black, so marks from the pitch wouldn’t show that badly, but I’d know they were there. I wouldn’t like that.

There’s noise below me now. Not individual people, but lots of voices mixed up so you can make sense out them. Random white noise, it comes in waves, in ripples, up to where I am. It washes over me. Up here I’m safe, nobody knows I’m here. They won’t until it’s too late. Too late to run, too late to hide. Too late to live. You have to understand that I don’t hate anyone, not anyone in particular. No one person is special enough to hate. It’s the system, the collective, the whole nest of stupid little people doing the same shit every day, thinking they’re important, thinking their stuff is important

I don’t have friends. I don’t want friends. I don’t even care what anyone’s name is, there’s no point. We’re all here then we’re gone. Leaving more shit behind. 

I don’t why it feels so right today. It just felt right when I got up. I knew. I dressed, checked myself in the mirror in the hall. My mum said goodbye. She looks at me like she’s disappointed, like she’s always been disappointed.


The sun is really hot today, burning through my hoody, but I won’t take it off. The metal is cool against my fingers. There’s no sweat on my palms, no excitement, no fear. I often think I should feel something, but I don’t. Why should I?

The metal is smooth. My fingers close round it, a perfect fit as I let it settle it in my hand, pointing it at the one person who is the centre of attention. His name is Mike. He kicked my crutch away when I had a broken leg last year. He apologised, but he’d done it on purpose. I heard him call me a weirdo, a loser. He will be the first. People will know then that I’m not a loser.


The noise of a rifle is not as loud as everyone thinks it is. It’s more like a dry stick snapping underfoot. And bodies don’t recoil when they’re hit, they just kind slump where they are. It’s not like in the movies. I’ve seen my father shoot a deer. If the bullet hits their heart, or their head, they just kinda fall down where they are. It takes a while before the other deer know what’s has happened. They run, but then they stop. Pretty soon they start eating again, eating and shitting, just like people do.

 I’ll be cool, methodical. The metal barrel will lift in my hand with the recoil of every shot. I will choose, aim, fire, and repeat the sequence. It will take a few seconds before anyone realises what’s happening. Maybe when the second or third kid drops they’ll realise. But they won’t know where I am, what I can see, where they can hide. When they work it all out they’ll find me, but I’ll be dead too by then. If anyone had listened, maybe just one person believe in me, they would understand.


I still have to walk with a stick. My leg never healed well. It’s gunmetal grey, about the length of one of my father’s hunting rifles. It rests in my hand now, I sight along the length of it, practising, selecting targets, quietly correcting life. If it was a real rifle I wouldn’t feel any different, maybe my heart would beat faster, but I doubt it.


If you were where I am, if you could see through my eyes, all those ants scurrying below me, you’d maybe understand. You might see the world differently. Then you might understand my point of view.

Swim Wild, Swim Free

poster swim wild swim free

This poster was inspired by the Art Deco movement. One of my passions in as a young man was to swim wherever I could. Rivers, lakes, outdoor lidos, even a river pool in the Kakadu National Park in Australia. There is a rock pool at the top of Victoria Falls in Africa, but it was closed due to the river being in flood when I was there. I saw it, but wouldn’t have ventured in even without the warning sign.

This poster is available to purchase in two sizes. All prints are made to order and produced on a silk matt 170gsm paper. A visual guide to these is shown below:

poster sizes
buy on etsy button

A Date for Geoffrey

book cover for short story

Marcus sat on the edge of the bed and stretched his arms. He enjoyed a shudder that rippled through his shoulders. His body slumped, and his girlfriend emitted a grunt, turned over, and returned to her sleep. 

On the opposite pavement he saw the woman from number thirty-two taking her two miniature elephants for a walk. He checked his watch. She was more punctual than the old clock in the hall downstairs, which only then chimed seven times.

People used to be content with traditional pets. There had always been a few who kept snakes, lizards, spiders, but they never paraded them on the street. There were certainly no giant ants with gem-studded leather collars being taken for a walk in the park. He shuddered at the memory of one he had seen a few days before and a chill ran through his body.

It was Saturday. No real need for him to be up so early. He picked up the clothes he had worn the previous evening and crept out of the bedroom. The sun was already streaming through the bathroom window. He leaned both hands on the sink and assessed his reflection in the mirror. Forty-two tomorrow. The first flecks of grey were showing in his hair and he wondered whether he should dye it or let himself age gracefully. He sighed, aware that his life was drifting past and nothing ever changed.

Sally would probably stay in bed until noon if he didn’t wake her. At least he could have the place to himself for a few more hours, but first, Geoffrey had to be fed.

Sally and Marcus had drifted into living together after they graduated. She had made it clear that she never intended to have children and didn’t believe in marriage. At twenty-two Marcus had shared her enthusiasm for a life fulfilled by a career and travel. Twenty years later they both recognised the hollowness that was never mentioned.

Geoffrey was calling from the garden. He hadn’t proved popular with their neighbours because he liked looking over the fence at them. Marcus had no idea why that would bother them as Geoffrey was completely harmless. Sally had set her heart on a miniature giraffe from the day she decided they should get a pet.

“They’re incredibly intelligent,” she told him. “And the new breeds can even vocalise their thoughts.”

“But they don’t really talk, do they? You shouldn’t believe the ads.”

Marcus offered half-hearted objections. He would have preferred a cat that might curl up on his lap in the evenings.

“Don’t be so boring,” Sally had said. “Cats shed hair everywhere and you have feed them meat. I don’t want any of that stuff in the house.”

“But they say giraffes need a partner. They pine if they’re alone.”

The morning air tasted like crisp lettuce when Marcus opened the back door. Geoffrey’s head was poking over the top half of the makeshift stable door on their garden shed.

“Morning Geoffrey, I bet you’re excited today?”

“Yeth,” came the clumsily voiced reply.

Although Geoffrey could talk, his vocabulary was severely limited, and his long tongue tended to spray saliva whenever he responded.

“Don’t fret, we’re not meeting her until later this morning, so plenty of time to get you looking your best.

Sally had made all the arrangements through an app she had downloaded. Petter – the dating app for animals. For someone so intelligent Sally often acted on impulse without thinking of the consequences. They had both tried to include Geoffrey in the selection process, but he had turned out to be too easy to please and wanted them to right-swipe every profile they showed him. Sally finally lost patience and judged his enthusiasm by how far his tongue hung out when she showed him a picture. On one occasion he had even tried to lick the screen. That was how she made her final choice.

Marcus hooked back both sections of the stable door and Geoffrey picked his way out into the garden, stretching his head up to its full extent and nuzzling Marcus’s neck.

“Why don’t you have some breakfast while I clear out your hay.”

“Kay,” he said, dampening Marcus’s collar with his tongue.

Geoffrey looked around the garden as if seeing it for the first time. His joy at noticing fresh young leaves on a favourite tree never failed to bring a smile to Marcus’s face. Over time Marcus had become quite good at recognising Geoffrey’s expressions and rather enjoyed the monosyllabic conversations they had. He felt that Geoffrey paid more attention to him than Sally.

Geoffrey was not much bigger than a dog, not counting the length of his neck, and easier to handle than an elephant would have been. Their garden backed onto the park and small gate gave them direct access. Marcus had finished clearing out Geoffrey’s shed and put all the used straw on the compost heap when Sally appeared at the back door. She was already dressed, in jeans and an old baggy sweatshirt. A mug of coffee held in both hands.

“We need to talk Marcus.”

“I’ve got to put some fresh hay down for Geoffrey then I’ll be in for breakfast.”

Sally didn’t say anything. She turned and went back into the kitchen. When he had finished, he found her sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the mug still encased by her hands. Marcus saw that she was holding it so tightly her knuckles had bleached.

“You okay?”

“I’m leaving. Today actually.”

Sally travelled quite a lot in her job as a corporate lawyer, but rarely at such short notice. 

“But it’s Saturday.”

“I’m leaving us, leaving you, leaving the house.” She barked a short laugh. “In fact, I’m leaving the country.”

“I don’t understand.”

Sally sighed and looked at him. She had her serious, professional face on, the one she used to explain aspects of her work that he could never quite grasp.

“You, me, it’s not been working for years. We’ve grown out of each other. You have a closer relationship with Geoffrey than you do with me.”

“That’s not fair. Geoffrey was your idea. You can’t blame me just because you got bored with him.”

Sally looked down at her mug and mumbled under her breath. “It’s not Geoffrey I’m bored with.”

She spoke so quietly that he almost missed it.

“That’s it then? No discussion, no…” He couldn’t think what to add. 

“I have a taxi coming in half an hour. My bags are packed, they’re in the spare room. You can have the house, the furniture, and Geoffrey. I’ll sort out the legal side when I get to New York.”

“New York?”

“I’ve been head hunted. Somebody wanted me. It’s all happened very fast. I had to decide what was best – for both of us.”

“Don’t I get a say in this? Don’t I get to put my case for the defence?”

“I’m not that sort of lawyer Marcus. You should know that after twenty years.”

Sally was looking over his shoulder, her face impassive. Marcus turned to see Geoffrey in the doorway. He wasn’t allowed in the house.

“Go. Now. Pleath.”

“You need to take him on his date.” Sally said.

“And I suppose you’ll be gone when I get back?”

Sally pushed an envelope towards Marcus. She put her house keys on top of it, complete with the penguin key ring he had bought her.

“I thought about leaving without saying anything. I didn’t want a scene.”

Marcus turned to tell Geoffrey to tell him to wait at the gate. He heard Sally’s chair squeak against the floor as she stood up.

“Goodbye Marcus.”

“So that’s it?”

Sally walked out into the hall, closing the kitchen door behind her. Marcus heard her carry her bags downstairs, it took two trips. The front door barely made a sound other than the latch springing back into its keep.

“Park. Pleath?”

Marcus distracted himself by brushing Geoffrey’s coat, who giggled in his throat every time the brush crept down the back of his spindly legs. Despite the shock of Sally’s departure, Marcus still found himself smiling at Geoffrey’s ticklishness. Maybe he hadn’t put up much of a fight because he knew, deep down, that she was right, their relationship had run its course. Maybe he was feeling disgruntled because she had been the one to act.

The hall clock struck eleven and Marcus checked his watch. He was late, only by a few minutes, but he hated being late. Quickly checking the front door was locked, he grabbed Sally’s keys off the table and fastened a collar round Geoffrey’s neck.

“Come on Geoffrey, or we’ll be late for your date.”

Geoffrey was straining at the leash as they left through the garden gate. He kept looking back at Marcus who was, by that point, jogging to keep up with him.

“Kwik. Pleath.”

The meeting was to be by the boating pond. Marcus was cursing that they would be late, hoping for Geoffrey’s sake that the other person would wait. He had left in such haste that he had forgotten his phone, but she should be easy to spot, not many people would be loitering in the park with a miniature giraffe in tow.

A woman was sitting on a bench by the pond, leaning back, head tilted up to the sun. A retractable lead allowed the object of Geoffrey’s desire to drink from the pond. Geoffrey made a low, sustained humming noise and the other giraffe looked up immediately. Marcus walked Geoffrey towards the bench and let go of his leash. He was pretty sure Geoffrey wasn’t going to run away.

“I’m sorry,” Marcus said to the girl on the bench. “I don’t know your name. My partner made all the arrangements.”

“Jenny,” she said, smiling. “You must be Marcus.”

“Yes. I don’t really know how this works, with Geoffrey and..?”

“She’s called Chelsea.”

Both of them looked at the two giraffes who had their necks almost looped round each other, bodies leaning together. Jenny looked back at Marcus.

“I guess we just see if they get along.”

“Well,” he said after a moment or two. “I think we know the answer to that one.”

Jenny sighed, and Marcus looked sideways at her. She was watching Chelsea and Geoffrey. Her eyes were dark pools of liquid. She was close to tears. Sally had often accused him of being over sentimental. He knew Jenny was upset about parting with Chelsea and his instinct was to give her a reassuring hug, but he didn’t know her well and feared offending her.

“You can come and see her whenever you want,” he took a breath, “or Geoffrey could maybe live with you and Chelsea?”

Marcus didn’t want to lose Geoffrey, he was the only stable thing in his life right now.

“Thank you for offering but it’s not possible right now. I have to move.”

“New job?”

“No,” she swallowed hard. “New life.”

Marcus nodded even though he wasn’t sure what she meant.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”

“No, it’s okay. I have plenty of time if you want to talk. And those two seem happy enough for the moment.”

“Thanks.” Sally took a deep breath and sighed. “I’ve had a shit month. I’ve split up with my boyfriend, or rather he split up with me.”

“Ah, I know that feeling.”

“I have to move to somewhere smaller, can’t afford the rent on the house by myself. So, it’s find somewhere cheaper, or move back with my parents – and at thirty-five that would not be a cool choice.”

“You could look for a house share.”

“I’ll put an ad in the local paper shall I?” Sally laughed and her face lit up. “Recently dumped woman and small giraffe looking for a bedroom and share of a garden.”

Marcus didn’t think before speaking.

“I’ve got a spare room.”

Geoffrey and Chelsea were looking at them. Both hummed softly.

The Last Train

book cover for short story

I first started commuting on the 8:31 some thirty years ago. They were an older style of commuter carriage then. Not the type you walk through from one end to the other, not even the type with a corridor connecting individual compartments. You entered each compartment by stepping up from the platform and there would be a bench facing the direction of travel, seating six people, and a corresponding one facing backwards. The four window seats were prized. Securing one of those meant you could stare out of the window and pretend that nobody else was there. You were also close to the door. I nearly always managed to get a window seat because the train was usually sparsely populated when it arrived at my station. Nowadays it’s different, always crowded, always a challenge.

Now there are open carriages, individual seats, tables shared by passengers and so much irritating noise. I no longer have a preference for where I sit, but I do try to avoid being near anyone with headphones. And when the train rattles into a tunnel, the lights come on – not always the case in the past. You could be thrown into darkness for what seemed like an eternity.

The vast majority of my fellow passengers don’t even notice me, I am invisible, just another lost soul on their daily commute.

There are two regular travellers with whom I am particularly familiar. We have been taking the same train for years. We nod, acknowledging each other, rarely smile, rarely engage in conversation. What would we talk about now? The man is quite a lot older than me. When we did talk, in the early days, I was too nervous to ask his age, it would have seemed rude, intrusive. The other, a young lady, not much more than a girl really. Her name is Harriet and she always looks sad and lost. I would like to comfort her but I can’t breach the space between us and I fear a bond might be reestablished which I would only have to break again.

There was a woman knitting this morning, no more than thirty years old I would guess. Once this was a common sight, more so with older women. It has recently made something of a resurgence and her needles fascinate me in their complex repetitive dance.

The train will travel through eight stations before I disembark, at the third station, Falconwood, we never stop. I suppose there was once a wood there, where birds of prey were abundant. Now the ghosts of those birds only have a canopy of red, clay-tiled roofs to swoop and dive amid.

Just before the ninth station there is a long curving tunnel, after which the train bursts out of its artificial light and into the commotion of a platform crowded with grey people. I never travel as far as the ninth station, but I remember it well and have no reason to suspect that it has changed in any significant details.

It was fear of that sudden influx of people, of bodies pressed so close that you could smell the warmth radiating from their overcoats and every-day suits, of the knowledge that I would be trapped whether I remained seated or rose to offer my place to someone older, someone more deserving. It was fear of the small things in life that edged me towards my decision. 

Harriet is staring at me. I try to ignore her and study the woman knitting. I concentrate on the tapping of her plastic needles, the background rhythm to her journey. I can sense Harriet’s eyes on me even though my back is turned to her.


Her question is so simple, stark. It hurts me more than anything I have ever experienced. Maybe the fact that she has waited nearly a year to ask me has made it even more impossible to answer. Any answer would demand more words than I have, more words than she probably wants to hear. She needs a simple answer that I can’t supply, that doesn’t exist. I turn to her and see the sadness in her eyes.

“I had no choice.”

“I don’t understand. How you could leave us like that.”

“You are here too.”

“Only because of you.”

The train lurches. My stomach heaves in empathy. I move towards the side of the carriage. There is nothing I can say today, there is no time. The tunnel looms. Neither of us can see it but we both know it’s coming.

Harriet has moved too. We stand on opposite sides of the carriage facing each other. I have watched her leave me over two hundred times. I lost track of the precise count at some time and am grateful I did. It looks like she is leaning against the window, but her body turns and she falls through the glass and steel walls of the carriage. Nobody except myself and the old man see her depart.

He shakes his head slowly and looks at me, knowing the sequence of events. I used to wonder what had happened to that elderly man with his slightly soiled, wing-collared shirt and worn black suit. I have never asked him, maybe I will tomorrow. But then some things are best left unknown. I turn to face the window, waiting, but not for long. The carriage lets me through the present and in to my past.

Harriet is late for the the 8:31. She is always late, but always arrives before the train leaves. If she had only been later that day, late enough to miss the train, might things have been different? She looks straight at me and today I don’t turn away.

“Why?” she asks again.

Today I will search for the words, try to explain to my daughter why I left, why I had to do it. Time is on my side.

The Way Back

book cover for short story

Headlights were approaching. Emily stayed where she was, in the middle of the road. Under her bare feet the dark tarred surface was still warm from the heat of the day. If she didn’t move, if she kept still, maybe the car would hit her.

A sharp piece of stone cut into her heel. She scraped her foot against the ground. It wouldn’t shift. The car slowed, its lights dazzled her as it drew near, forcing her to lift one hand to her eyes. She turned her head to the side. 

“Are you all right miss?”

The words were for her, but the man didn’t get out of the car. She knew that her dress must be covered in Simon’s blood.

Emily sank to her knees. She lay down, closed her eyes and let the tension seep from her body. She had learned to do this many years before, to detach herself from the present. Someone touched her shoulder.

“Are you all right Miss?”

It would be the man from the car. She kept her eyes closed and let the darkness take hold of her, disappearing within herself.

Occasional muffled words seeped through the protective mist that surrounded her. ‘Appears healthy, late teens, steady pulse, no visible injuries’. She knew those words were describing her, but not describing who she was.

“My name is Alice. Can you tell me your name?”

The voice came from close by. There was a name, one that was buried in her past. It hadn’t belonged to her for some years.


Answer simply. That was the best way to let the mist protect her.

“How old are you Emily, do you have parents or relatives we could contact?”


Emily closed her eyes and withdrew again.

When she opened her eyes, it was morning. She must have been gone for hours. Emily turned her head to one side, away from the glare of a fluorescent light. The room was curtained, a curtained room in another larger room. There was the sound of other distant voices. A sharp scrape of metal on metal made her wince. She was used to silence. 

“Can you tell me where you live Emily? You did say your name is Emily?”

Where did she live? How do you describe where you live? “With Simon. In a house.”

Another voice. A man this time. “It might be better to wait, to allow Emily to rest a little longer.”

“Is Simon dead?” Emily asked, turning to look at her interrogator and the man dressed in green scrubs. She’d seen people like that on television. She was in a hospital. 

Alice, the woman asking questions, was sat close to her bed, leaning forward, her fingers resting on the sheets. She had short black hair and was wearing a white shirt with black strips on both shoulders. She was a policewoman. She was pretty.

“Who is Simon? Is he your father?”

Emily didn’t answer, she frowned, wondering if that could be true.

“Can you tell us where Simon lives?”

“One hundred and twenty-seven steps.”

Alice’s thought for a moment. “Do you mean one hundred and twenty-steps from where you were found?”

Emily nodded. She wanted Alice to like her. “Is he dead?” she asked again.

“Will you excuse me a minute Emily. I just need to talk to someone.”

Emily heard Alice’s personal radio squeaking and stuttering the other side of the curtain. She knew they would find Simon. She was fairly certain that if he wasn’t dead when she left, he would be by now, although she didn’t know how long you could bleed and still survive. Alice came back to sit beside her again.

“We’re getting some people to see if they can find Simon. Is there anything you can tell me that might help us locate him?”

“He has a beard.”

He hadn’t always had a beard, but since he had been living in her part of the house he had grown one. A strange straggly, patchy thing. But at least it had partly obscured his pink fleshy lips.

“How long have you lived with Simon?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is he a relative, boyfriend, just someone you know?”

Emily needed to get everything in the right order – in case Simon was alive. She knew she had done something very bad.

“I didn’t know him until I lived with him.”

“How long ago did you meet?”

“I was six I think, I had a birthday party the day before, but it wasn’t actually my birthday.”

Alice’s fingers touched her arm and Emily flinched, pulling it away.

“I’m sorry Emily.”

“I’m not supposed to be touched without Simon’s permission.”

“I won’t do it again if you don’t want me to.”

” I don’t mind you touching me.”

Alice paused for a moment before resuming her questioning. Emily had never answered so many questions, never had to think so hard.

“So, you have lived with Simon in his house since you were six?”

“No. Simon lived in the house. I lived in the basement. I had a small garden too.”

“Where did you go to school?”

Emily didn’t answer immediately.

“Simon taught me. He said we were home schooling.”

Alice’s radio beeped and squawked again.

“Hang on a moment,” Alice said. She smiled at Emily and told her she needed to talk to the team, but that she wouldn’t be long.

Emily returned Alice’s smile. It was several minutes before Alice came back into the room.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Have they found Simon?”

Alice hesitated and bit her lip.

“They have found him, haven’t they? Is he dead.”

“You said you’ve lived with Simon since you were six?”

Emily nodded. Alice was sounding more serious than before. She didn’t lean forward when she took her seat again, didn’t extend a hand towards her.

“What was your relationship with Simon?”

“He took care of me.”

“Did you go out anywhere with him? Shopping maybe?”

“No. Simon did everything. He chose my clothes for me, cooked for me and he taught me too.”

Alice had taken out a notebook and was writing in it. She didn’t look up when she asked her next question.

“Can you tell me what happened before we found you?”

Emily looked down. Her hands were holding the sheet tight and her knuckles had turned white. When she spoke, it was so quietly that Alice leaned closer to hear her.

“He fell down the stairs.”

“That was today?”

“No. It was forty-three days ago.”

Emily explained how Simon had been bringing her lunch and somehow stumbled and fell on the stairs leading to the basement.

“He broke his leg,” she said. “I had to go upstairs to get painkillers for him. I was scared.”

“About going upstairs or about his leg?”

“I never go upstairs.”

“But you did this time?”

“He said we couldn’t call a doctor as he wouldn’t understand. Simon told me how to make a splint. He took painkillers and drank some whiskey and I made his leg straight.”

“And that was forty-three days ago?”

“Yes. I had to go upstairs a lot after that.”

“But you didn’t go outside?”

Emily shook her head.

“And Simon got better?”

“Yes. But I did all the cooking and Simon ordered food to be delivered. A man came with it.”

“Did he see you?”

 “I kept behind the door, made him leave it on the mat. He told me to sign my name with my finger. I’d never done that before.”

Alice kept writing things in her little book. When Emily glanced at her Alice was biting her lower lip so hard that there were small white patches where her teeth made dents.

“I watched television while I was upstairs.”

“Didn’t you have a television in the basement?”

“Simon recorded things for me on a tape cassette and I watched those. I liked being upstairs. There were so many things to watch on television.”

“Where did you sleep while Simon was recovering?”

“I slept in his bed. I liked the way the sun shone through the windows in the morning.”

“But you didn’t go outside? You didn’t try to escape?”


Alice looked up and the two of them studied each other in silence.

“I meant that you didn’t try to get away from Simon?”


Alice’s radio beeped. She glanced down at it and made a small grunt of exasperation.

“It’s my boss. I’m sorry, I have to talk to him.”

When Alice left it was quiet. The noises from earlier had faded away, other than an occasional distant cough. She could hear Alice speaking but very little of it made any sense to Emily as she could only make out the odd word from whoever Alice was talking to. When Alice returned she paused at the foot of Emily’s bed.

“They’ve found Simon. He’s alive.”

“Is he going to be okay?”

“They can’t say. I don’t think we’ll know more until they get him here.”

“They’re bringing him to me?”

“Not to you, just to this hospital.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him, not even to hurt him.”

“I’m sorry Emily, but I’ve been told to caution you.”

Another policeman came into the room, he was thin and young and wouldn’t look directly at Emily. Alice then said a whole lot of stuff about writing down whatever Emily said, but she had been doing that already.

“Do you want a solicitor?”

Emily didn’t know what a solicitor was or why she would want one, so she said no. Her room was too crowded already.

“Now, can you tell me exactly what happened yesterday?”

“Simon was better, well, almost better. He used my broom as a crutch and was going to go upstairs again. He said we would be able to go back to how things were, to normal he said.”

“And you didn’t want to?”

“I liked being upstairs. I could look out the windows at people walking past and they couldn’t see me.”

“And that’s when Simon fell again?”

Emily dropped her head. Her fingers had pulled the bedsheets up under her chin and her voice was slightly muffled.

“I brought lunch down to him, tuna sandwiches. I put it on the table and when I turned around he was on the first step of the stairs. I asked him if I could come up too, but he said no, we had to go back to how things were. I grabbed the broom.”

“The one he was using as a crutch?”

“Yes. He pulled it away from me. I begged him to let me come up, but he said people would think I was a freak and it was better for me if I stayed downstairs.”

“So, he went upstairs and left you?”

“I didn’t want to stay down there alone. He was on the ninth step when I grabbed the broom again. I pulled it and got it away from him, but he grabbed the handrail and kept going.”

Alice was concentrating on writing and didn’t look at Emily. If she had, Alice would have seen a tear running down Emily’s cheek.

“I hit him, but he just shouted at me. I didn’t do it on purpose, but the broom got hooked around his ankle. He said he’d made a mistake bringing me home in the first place. He said I should have been my sister. I pulled on the broom. It was his good leg. He fell down the stairs. There was blood coming out of his head. I didn’t know what to do so I started walking.”

Alice stopped writing and looked at Emily.

“Emily, do you remember the name you had before you met Simon?”

Emily knew that person had disappeared many years ago but there was still a faint memory of another life. She whispered her reply hesitantly.

“John,” she said. “John Wells.”

Alice pushed a button on her radio and spoke quietly to whoever was there.

“Sergeant Alice Walker. I can confirm the patient’s identity as John Wells. If you inform his parents, I’ll meet them here?”

First Love

book cover for short story

Mary moved to a small village on the coast within a year of Vernon’s death. Her friends told her it was too soon, that she ought to wait and not make decisions so hastily but, if anything, she had waited too long.

They never had children and Vernon hadn’t been interested in identifying the cause or seeking a solution. In later years she was convinced that he thought more of his garden than he did of her. He treated the lawn with the attention he had conferred on her, when they were first wed, and fussed over his chrysanthemums with a tenderness of touch she had once enjoyed.

The town house was sold within days of putting it on the market and, once settled in her new cottage, Mary decided to take up painting again. She had the time, the freedom, and no one to belittle her attempts. She was free to express herself in ways that would previously have been criticised as frivolous.

Never having considered herself as particularly talented, despite two years at art college, Mary found the courage to contact a local art group. They met twice a week in an old chapel, now the community centre. The first time she walked through the doors she felt comfortable. The group was comprised mostly of women, but there were also three men there. They were quiet, almost apologetically so, and didn’t command the space as some men seemed to have done during her life.

The teacher, Sam, the woman Mary had spoken to on the telephone, welcomed her and made cursory introductions to a few of the other members, but soon excused herself in order to set up a still life on a central table. 

Only a few members of the art group positioned themselves to attempt to capture the rather dreary assembly of apples and pears spilling off a glass dish. Mary tucked herself away, near the back of the room, and turned the cover on her new pad of cartridge paper. The room had a high vaulted ceiling with dark beams against white plaster. The lower half of the walls were clad with rich pine planking, polished to a rich lustre by generations of women. She wondered whether it had always been women who gave rooms a sense of welcome and of cosiness.

Mary hesitated, not sure whether to attempt to draw the two people immediately in front of her, their backs hunched in concentration, or try to capture the sense of space in a room which was taller than it was wide. She knew she needed to make a mark, to break the spell that a pristine sheet of white paper presented.

No paint today, just pencils, soft pencils that would glide over the paper and react with the subtle texture of it. A line appeared, as if by its own volition, and she began to retreat from her surroundings, not really aware of what she was drawing, lost from the present to a place in her past where life had held promises, mysteries and passion. The spell was broken by a voice at her shoulder

“That’s excellent Mary?”

The voice of the teacher made her start. Mary hadn’t been thinking about what she was drawing, but on the paper in front of her was the face of a young man, one she recognised even though something about the nose wasn’t quite right.

“It looks very much like Peter Duncan. Have you bumped into him at the pub?”

Mary didn’t know who Peter was. The face before her had been buried in her memory for fifty years. It was David, a boy she had dated and fallen in love with when she was sixteen years old. He moved away with his parents when his father was offered a promotion. For a few months they had exchanged letters, but the interval between each communication lengthened. He never replied to her last letter. She had enclosed a drawing of him and a pressed flower, a silly gesture from a teenage girl that had probably made both him, and his new friends, laugh. What would a boy do with a dead flower and a sketch drawn by a teenage girl.

The comment from Sam drew others to her drawing. Mary wanted to cover it with her hand, but she hesitated, and then it was too late. She let her fingers rest on the table.

“It does look like Peter,” said a woman she thought was called Anne. “You must have met him?”

“It’s just a face I imagined,” Mary whispered.

Everyone agreed that it was an astonishing likeness of Peter and someone said that she must show it to David.

“David?” She repeated. Her breath snagged.

“David owns the Three Ducks. Peter is his son, he’s around at weekends sometimes with his partner. You must have seen him there.”

Mary hadn’t been in the village pub. She had no objection to alcohol and enjoyed a glass of white wine, but Vernon had not been one for socialising and the idea of going into a pub by herself was unthinkable.

“Oh, I couldn’t. I don’t even know him.”

“Come with me,” Anne said, “We can pop in today. I often go there for lunch after class.”

Mary wasn’t sure but found herself accepting.

She put the drawing to one side, thinking about David and where his life might have taken him. Would they have stayed together had he not moved away? Might they have married, had children? 

After a cup of tea and biscuits, Mary made an attempt at capturing the still life, but it didn’t offer inspiration and her efforts were stilted and awkward. The portrait she had half-finished remained tucked in the back of her pad.

Four of them headed for the pub at lunchtime, after the class has disbanded. Anne had given her no chance to refuse and Martin and Jayne were equally enthusiastic to see David’s reaction. All were certain that there was a striking resemblance to Peter in her drawing. 

“Has David owned the pub for a long time?” Mary asked.

“He was there when I moved into the village,” Jayne said.

The other two confessed to being incomers too later additions to the village than David.

“There’s not that many locals left,” Anne said. “David’s not from round here either, but I know he must have bought the place over twenty years ago, because Peter went to the local primary school.”

“And Peter’s mother?” Mary asked.

“As far as I know they split up when Peter was quite small, but neither of them ever mention her. I don’t think she moved here with David.”

When they entered the Three Ducks there was a man with thinning grey hair behind the bar. He had his back to them but had heard the door open and could see who it was in the mirrored glass behind the bottles.

“I’ll be with you in a moment ladies,” he called cheerfully. Only when he turned did he notice Martin. “Sorry old chap, didn’t spot you there amongst the lunch brigade.” 

It wasn’t the boy Mary remembered and had drawn, but the man he had become. Behind his shoulder, propped on a shelf, was a small frame that held, behind glass, a pencil sketch and a dried flower. So many years had passed, but the flower had retained some of its colour, hinting at a life that might have been or, hopefully, one that had merely been delayed.

Late Male

book cover for short story

My phone pinged with a message. I expected it to be a friend, checking in after David’s funeral.

‘Hello Lauren. You think you’ve got away with it, don’t you?’

It was David, but it couldn’t be, we’d just cremated him. Someone had hacked his account.

‘Who is this?’

‘Did you really think you could murder me and not be caught?’

Nobody knew what had really happened other than me and David, and he was dead.

‘David’s death was an accident. Stop this cruel joke now or I’ll report you to the police.’

They police had questioned me, maybe suspected me, but I claimed never to have taken the tiller before, that I was confused, that I was trying to stop the boat. Putting it into reverse was judged by the coroner as an accident. 

‘I saw you looking at me, you knew what you were doing.’

‘You’re not David. Please stop this.’

‘Would the police have believed you if they knew you spent every childhood holiday on a canal boat?’

My stomach lurched. My childhood and my father’s abuse was a closed book. I spoke to nobody about it, other than David, I had trusted him, until he made a joke of it that day, one he paid for with his life.

‘Whoever you are you’re crazy.’

‘Not crazy, but I am angry. And you’ve made one mistake.’

‘You can’t be David, you’re dead.’

‘You still have those photographs.’

I should have burned them. Photographs of me as a teenager, at the tiller, threading my father’s narrow boat into a lock.

I’ve emailed Detective Connery. He knows where the photographs are.

There was a knock on the front door. I looked through the window and Detective Connery was outside, with three other officers.

“Open the door please, Mrs Baker.”