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Category: Autumn 2017

Autumn 2017 Judge’s Report

This round, thanks go to Tim Stevenson who had the difficult task of picking three winners from a long-list of fifty stories. Here’s why he picked the stories he did:

The fifty stories that made this longlist for the Reflex prize demonstrated that the flash-fiction genre is alive, kicking, and as vibrant as ever. Flash-fiction is a challenge, not only because of its length, but also because the stories must be well written and satisfying in themselves. This is the art of knowing exactly what to leave out of a story without detracting from the subtlety of the prose.

In order for flash to be successful (in my mind at least) it is important that it meets the criteria of any good piece of short fiction, the feeling of time passing for a character, the change wrought in that character, the ability of the reader to extrapolate into the story’s wider world and see the hidden things that are only obliquely referenced, and the knowledge of what will happen after the story finishes. A full stop is rarely final, and the short form wields its power not from the sense of conclusion, but from the knowledge of possibility, the tantalising glimpse of what might happen next.

Which brings us to the winners.

First Place

Jimmy Choo Shoes by Shannon Savvas

The winner, Jimmy Choo Shoes, was a surprise. To be honest, the subject matter is not usually one that I enjoy in my appreciation of flash, however the lines in which the abduction of a child would have been described are, instead, missing; an elegant choice, made more powerful by being unsaid. Then there’s Cas. The character moves (or rather stumbles) through the story like a millennial hedonist, self-obsessed and careless, entitled and selfish. This is a lesson in consequences, of a history that allowed Cas to think it is acceptable to get blind drunk the night before, a blindness to the inevitable hangover that leaves her without paracetamol. And this is where the drama comes from—Cas’ annoyance at a seven-year-old’s whining.

But, surprisingly, this is not where it ends.

So many flash-fictions take the frame of a tragedy and create a prose poem, an eloquent shrine based on the stab of that event. Very often there is no drama, no consequence, and frankly, no story to be had.

Not this time.

Once the unsaid has happened, once the tragedy is passed (imagine the time it took, first the police, then the investigation, headlines in the papers, grief, anger, recrimination, a family divided, and finally a funeral) there is only one response from the now numbed Cas.

Crap.

And, like all good flash-fiction, even though the story ends, once she puts her Jimmy Choos on her feet we know what happens next.

Second Place

Stolen Hours by Sophie van Llewyn

In second place, Stolen Hours, takes subtlety to new heights. The tension from the simplicity of the interaction of Mara and the ‘secret service man’ is palpable, and (even though it is unsaid) there is a real sense of despair, resignation, and yet a quiet determination in Mara’s imprecise responses. The silent ‘yes’ she gestures sets the scene for the final paragraphs, the plan to escape disguised with the excesses of food, and the unsuspecting greed of her husband. Of course, her plan is already in motion, she has answered ‘yes’ to the secret service man’s question ‘Did he speak against the party’, so this Wednesday meal, the endless courses, the spices and deception, will undoubtedly be his last. Soon, there will be a knock at the door.

Third Place

Pandora’s Cat by Tracy Fells

In third place, Pandora’s Cat, impressed with its use of a familiar setup derailed by the discovery of a box in the woods. From this moment, the characters are picked apart, attitudes are laid bare and the bonds between them are tested and ultimately break. The Schrödinger allusion is very apt, and is woven further into the story than is apparent on first reading. The simplicity of the prose hides the deeper meanings well, a delicacy of touch I very much enjoyed.

About the Judge

Tim Stevenson is an award-winning flash-fiction writer, including the National Flash-Fiction 100-Word Prize for which he now acts as a permanent judge, and has also judged the Bridport Flash-Fiction Prize in 2016.

Three volumes of his work have been published: The Book of Small Changes (65 flash-fictions, 2014), On Cleanliness and Other Things (13 short stories, 2015), and Songs Without Music (52 flash-fictions, 2016).

He is currently working on a further flash collection, and a novel, and can be found either lecturing on the origin of ideas for stories, or staring absent-mindedly out of the window.

You can find him at www.timjstevenson.com, or follow him on Twitter @tallfiction.


Picture: hay bale by Jon Bunting under CC BY 2.0
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Jimmy Choo Shoes

AUTUMN 2017 FIRST PLACE

A crap year of scrimping. Penny-pinching nights in instead of out. No holidays. Forget the sales. Op shop buys. No Friday nights getting slaughtered with my mates. Finally, a new job. Pay day celebration. I deserved it, didn’t I? Credit card splurge. The coral-pink Jimmy Choo sandals and matching clutch are mine. Friday night, drinking, laughing, flaunting and flirting in my gorgeous fuck-me shoes before babysitting Maddy, and a promised rock-pooling Saturday, so Lori and Mark could have a weekend break before baby number two.

Crap weather for a beach day especially after a long night, but a monumental hangover and no fags are easy in the face of a seven-year-old’s whining. Bloody bus stopped 500 meters past the mini-mart.

“Wait here. I’m going for sunscreen.” (Who said I wasn’t responsible?) And paracetamol. And cigarettes. I piled our gear on the sand. Maddy’s face screwed for another whinge. “Don’t. Ten minutes, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Don’t move.”

“Okay.”

“Promise?”

“Promise, Aunty Cas.”

Crap years of chips, vodkas and nicotine turned a ten-minute dash into fifteen. Twenty if I’m honest.

Crap weather for a funeral. Over the heads of our tight-lipped family, I call to my sister hugging her swollen tummy.

“Lori, please. She promised to wait.”

“Now you know, Cas. Seven-year-olds, like twenty-seven-year olds, don’t keep promises.”

Crap weather for the beach. Another wrong night. Wind whips my hair. Lager greases my vodka-stale mouth. No busybodies ask are you all right, dear? Shall I call someone? I crack the seal on another Smirnoff and pull my Jimmy Choos from the Asda bag. Cops sit warm and dry in their cars sipping Costa coffees and hoping for a quiet Saturday night. Dream on, boys. My fingers crackle the plastic bag of dolly mixture Les down the pub sold me. They cost me the clutch. I kept the shoes. Vodka washes down the pills. Swallow. Dammit. Swallow. More beer. Sand grits my eyes. I crumple the can, toss it (arrest me) with the others. Crowned by my salty arms, bony knees blot my tears to black pinging shadows. Courage.

Trainers off, amazing sandals on. A walk, a stumble. The ice-cold sea.


Flash Fiction by Shannon Savvas
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Stolen Hours

AUTUMN 2017 SECOND PLACE

Romania, 1976

Tuesday afternoons, Mara and the secret service man keep the appearances, while they steal hours from her husband’s schedule. She opens the door, invites him to come in— but only after he kisses her hand. She takes his hat and his coat, sniffing the sheepskin collar, imbibed with his aromas: tobacco, dust from the files he pushes around at work, his French cologne and a sweet note of Turkish delight. He slips in the armchair, begins to question her:

“Comrade, have you noticed suspicious activities in the past week? Did you receive any correspondence from abroad? Did your husband express his intention to leave the country? Did he speak against the Party?”

Her answers evade in small gestures, each of them a silent “yes”: she brews his coffee, lights his cigarettes, she unbuttons her blouse. Yet he never looks past the Mara made of burning flesh and porcelain bones. He never sees the one biting her nails at night until she draws blood, while her husband breathes slowly beside her. The one washing the tainted sheets with tears, because only tears escape from where the rest of her is trapped.

The next day, Mara cooks. She swapped a class with the gym teacher so she could arrive home an hour earlier, don her apron like a superhero’s cape, light the stove. On Wednesday afternoons, she never speaks to her husband; she’s too busy in the kitchen. She shoves one course after the other under his nose at dinnertime, hot, cold or steaming. Mousakas, meatballs in tomato sauce, schnitzels, borsch, spinach pies. She spices them with dry peppermint, cayenne, laurel and lies: her day was fine, she has nothing on her mind. She loves him.

Her husband gobbles it all, without bothering too much to chew.


Flash Fiction by Sophie van Llewyn
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Pandora’s Cat

AUTUMN 2017 THIRD PLACE

They found a box in the woods. Dave wanted to keep walking, but Julie stopped and knelt on the warm leaf litter.

“There’s something inside,” she said, rocking the cardboard with her finger. “Sounds like a cat.”

Dave had no desire to kneel beside her, he’d brought Gran’s tartan blanket for them to sit on when they reached the clearing—ever hopeful of it being, at last, his lucky day—and he wasn’t prepared to get that out right now.

“It could be Schrödinger’s cat,” he said, smirking. Julie squinted, her neat eyebrows arching so Dave launched into an eloquent summary of the theory he’d learned from Brian Cox off the telly.

“How can it be alive and dead at the same time? I can hear it mewing. It’s definitely alive.”

Brown tape had been pretty tightly bound around the box. The poor thing could be running out of air. “Have you got anything sharp, any nail scissors?”

Julie stood, clutching her handbag. “What if it’s dangerous? Something bad might happen if we open it.”

Dave tried to lighten the mood. “You’re thinking it could be Pandora’s Box then? We’d better hope it’s empty after all.”

“Why would Pandora put a cat in a box and leave it in the woods?”

Typical, thought Dave, for Julie to actually have a mate called Pandora. His mum’s “What do you see in that girl?” echoed round his head, chased by the image of Dad pulling out his golf sweater to mimic an ample bosom.

“We’d better take it home,” he said, bending to pick up the box, but Julie grabbed his arm.

“I ain’t taking home some mangy stray. Don’t know who left it or why. We can pretend we didn’t see it—just walk straight past.”

Dave looked at her, really looked at her. Maybe it was his lucky day after all.

At his gran’s he handed back the tartan rug, still folded, and asked to borrow a sharp knife. Inside the box was a tabby kitten, fur damp and matted smelling like a stale, forgotten takeaway. “I’ll call you Pandora,” said Dave cupping the kitten with both hands.


Flash Fiction by Tracy Fells
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Cleaning

The old fart in Room 17 is becoming a problem. He does it even when his wife’s on the terrace, sweating, counting her rosaries. Clack-clack. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Ah, Mamma, what would you say if you could see me now? Four stringy children and a fat pig of a husband who belches triumphantly after every meal and snores all night. Clack-clack-clack.

It’s usually as I’m making the beds and she’s looking out to sea. Hospital corners. Pontus’s school project is to learn of other cultures so we fold towels into swans like his teacher says the Japanese do. Except in Room 17 I just do triangles—the swans take too long.

I smell his oiliness behind me and freeze. I am a sparrow, still and trembling. His saggy chicken arms claw at my apron, his toothless mouth waggles its wormy tongue at me. Clack. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

I dart away, holding the sheets like a shield. His eyes are full of water, tears spilling over the loose red rims, filling the wrinkles in his cheeks, dripping off his chin onto the floor tiles. Salt water, inside and out. Surrounding us. Swimming in it. Clack. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Drowning.

Amen.


Flash Fiction by Sarah Gillett
Picture: rosary by liz west under CC BY 2.0
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Water Baby

Rain hisses on the surface of the pool. When I watch you walk through the mist towards the starting blocks with your fists tucked under your chin and elbows hugging your ribcage, I have a vision of myself at your age. I remember standing on the brink, toes curled down over the edge, antelope legs goose-bumping, kneecaps quivering.

Later I remember reaching for you from my own body. You floated up to me through the warm waters of the birthing pool swirling with secretions from our two bodies. As I gazed into your eyes already open to embrace your first breath of air, I promised I would never make you to jump into the icy waters of that school pool and swim ten lengths until your head felt like it would explode with cold.

But today I watch your coiled anticipation, see your muscles flex with the pop of the pistol, watch those fingers I always thought would prefer the flow of a piano keyboard, cleave the water. As you kick away from the last tumble turn, a jelly of bubbles churns behind you. I know your lungs are bursting from the pump of your legs and the haul of your shoulders. I know when you twist your head to breathe you can see you are an arm’s length ahead of your nearest opponent, and my heart rate lifts with yours.

Your fingertips touch the wall before the others, and there is a moment where time is a vacuum as you gather yourself. The water catches up with you, and laps over the edge of the pool. You turn to the clock at the far end and your eyes open wide in wonder as you realise your victory and your achievement.

I let out the breath I have been holding for twelve years and know it is time to cut the cord.


Flash Fiction by Louise Mangos
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Postpartum

She’d mottled like a gull’s egg in the carrying of her, left the bairn newly birthed, howling in twitch grass by the river; returned to her wheel to draft wool skeins, skirts crusted brown, foot against the treadle, fast and even.

Her husband found it, batted the flies from the cord freshly cut, took the bawling bantling in his great flat palms and the babby calmed, took to suckling his knuckle still sweet with wood sap.

He pressed his wife to take the infant back, held her raw hands, once as smooth as corn-silk; called her harvest moon as he’d done summers ago in the stubble of the twelve-acre. But with each appeal, she plucked a sheaf of her hair and taking up her spindle, twisted the shafts to a silver ply that coiled like steel around her.

The child whined, beat the lattice of his ribs for love or hunger so he fossicked a horse bridle to hold her and that was how he worked—daughter hoyed across his back in quarry and field until spring, when driving his pony string from shoreline to pithead he unhitched the girl, for the bridle was needed for the journey; left her at her mother’s feet playing with the rovings that fell from her spinner, hoping her laughter might feather his wife’s heart.

When he returned, a hundred gold sovereigns lighting his wallet, a wattled crib swinging from his side, he found the farm deserted but tied from the spinning wheel, a noil of thread which he followed past alder groves and drying sheds to the banks of the river. There was his daughter at the water’s edge: naked, cough-kinked. He scooped her up, swaddled her as best he could but nothing, not even his knuckle dipped in bee-bread stemmed the crying.

Then he saw it: a shimmer of cloth caught in shingle on the bank. He unhooked it. So soft. Delicate as shell. Held to his cheek he heard it sigh something akin to the crepitation of hay, felt its weft of eye and limb upon him as he wrapped the child within it and lay her cooing in the crib.


Flash Fiction by Mary-Jane Holmes
Picture: Unravel by LaVladina under CC BY 2.0
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