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Category: Spring 2017

Spring 2017 Judge’s Report

If we thought arriving at a long-list of fifty-six stories from the 1,124 we received for our inaugural competition was difficult, it was nothing compared to choosing three stories from that long-list. Every one of those fifty-six stories would have been a worthy winner. If you’ve been following along as we’ve been publishing the long-listed stories, you probably have your own favourite. That’s great. We all have different tastes and our tastes change over time. There’s an element of luck involved in winning a writing competition. Not toss of a coin luck, but the kind of luck that means you put the right story in front of the right judge at the right time.

Here’s what we look for in great flash:

  • We like stories. The poetry of a piece is important, but something must happen. It doesn’t have to be much but don’t leave us asking, “So what?”
  • We like to have an emotional experience. We don’t want to be left a gibbering wreck at the end of every story but we do want to be moved in some way.
  • We like well-chosen words. They should be appropriate and consistent with the setting and character. We also like being surprised with original word use and unusual combinations. You’ve only got 360 words to play with. Choose them well.
  • We like room to think. Don’t give us it all on a plate. Make us work for it.
  • We like originality. It’s hard to be truly original but we like stories that offer a fresh perspective on a familiar topic.

And here’s why we chose the three flashes we did:

First Place

Barely Casting a Shadow by Alicia Bakewell

This flash stayed with us from the first time we read it. Each reread, and there have been many, offers something new.

What went wrong in this mother–son relationship that has led to this situation? We like how the contrasts of the son’s physical appearance echo the breakdown of the relationship: cherub lips versus dry, childlike eyes versus glassy and tired, pure white silk against an unwashed cheek.

The son’s fond memories and love for his mother are seemingly at odds with her coldness towards him (“Jesus loves you,” she writes in her letters. “But do you?” he wonders.) There’s a lot of backstory here that is only hinted at (“every little foil packet”, “the living room seems angry at his presence”) suggesting a much bigger story.

The author does a wonderful job of making us experience the same discomfort as the son. Our senses are overwhelmed by smells in the opening paragraph and later the streaming sunlight and dust particles and the chintzy sofa that enters his nightmare, the latter showing the son’s drug-induced delirium.

It would have been easy to have the son steal money from a drawer or an antique to sell and lead the story to a predictable close, bursting any sympathy we have for the character. Instead, he flees at his mother’s return and it is her that takes from him suggesting it is her selfishness or inability to forgive that is to blame for the breakdown of the relationship while all he longs for is “that same unknowable essence of home that he looks for in the folds of every little foil packet.”

We also learn the significance of the title at the close. Barely casting a shadow could refer literally to the emaciated body of the drug-addicted son or figuratively to the little significance he now has in his mother’s life. Beautiful, thought-provoking flash.

Second Place

Midsummer’s Eve by Ros Collins

Never open with a weather report, we’re told. But in this case, the weather is important to the story and is handled beautifully: the haar “knuckles into crannies and makes it easy to forage unnoticed.”

The mist adds a wonderful mystical atmosphere to this flash. It is almost folkloric with its descriptions of finding the baby under a blackcurrant bush and gifts of herbs as “blessings for the infant sprite.” The naivety of the superstitious locals, the contrasting cleverness of the main character, and the description of a lifestyle long forgotten give this flash an irresistible charm.

And who can resist an ‘aww’ moment when baby Sorrel tousles her mother’s hair and the look of delight when she receives a pea? We particularly like the occasions of the baby’s conception and birth described in sober terms in contrast to the overall mystical feel of this flash.

The ending raises a smile when you imagine the shock the captain is about to get when this smart girl tracks him down. The ending is particularly effective because it uses the motif of contrasting the mundane (“shoulder his responsibilities”) with the mystical (“end his days cursed on the high seas”) that runs through this excellent flash.

Third Place

Addendum to the Art Loss Register by Heather McQuillan

Many flash pieces aim to hit the emotional bullseye with tales of loss, grief, and despair. Huge subjects that are difficult to contain in the space of a flash. This flash deals with loss, but it’s a small loss—no one’s died—which allows a lighter treatment of the theme.

This flash makes us feel sympathy for a petty criminal (or underground artist depending on your point of view). We warm to the character because of the multiple obstacles he encounters: the wino dismissing his art, the policeman’s unveiled threat, and the ‘experts’ discussing his work as someone else’s, work he cares about so much he’s attached anthropomorphised emotions to it: “She sirened out to him . . . she wept at the stenciled-on signature.”

This piece has a strong sense of place with a great urban atmosphere, from the choice of name of the main character (Drexel) to the “oily orange” glow of the night, the “shipwrecked ribs of a shopping trolley” and “shadowed concrete canvas” of the underpass. Even the rhythm of this flash has a quickness to it, created with short sentences and clauses, that echos the breathlessness of the city.

The piece ends quietly with Drexel wavering “half-in, half-out of the shadows.” A perfect metaphor for his very existence.


Picture: Spring by Takashi .M under CC BY 2.0
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Barely Casting a Shadow

SPRING 2017 FIRST PLACE

When he looks into the walnut edged mirror, he is forever six years old, trying on his mother’s wedding veil, cherub lips smudged with coral pink. Those still childlike eyes now glassy and tired, hair sweat-soaked and flecked with grey, he does a little twirl, dry lips curling into just the beginning of a smile. Beneath the mirror, he opens the drawer that has always been full of silk scarves. He takes a pure white one, lifts it to his unwashed cheek to test the softness of it then wraps it gently around his neck, as if bandaging a wound. It smells of her, that unrepeatable concoction of lavender, cigarettes, and something powdery and vague with no origin but her. It is that same unknowable essence of home that he looks for in the folds of every little foil packet.

On the wall, a framed prayer. “Jesus loves you,” she writes in her letters. “But do you?” he wonders.

The living room seems angry at his presence. Dust particles in the afternoon light become boulders and he raises two trembling hands in defence. Laceless brogues resting on the coffee table, he fixes himself a little something, just to take the edge off. She’ll be home soon. He buries his face into the flower garden of her sofa, dreams of orchids with vendettas and bad tempers, Venus fly traps big enough to swallow a human head. Dreams within the dream that he wakes with her cool hand pressed to his forehead and her voice—the tone of it, not the words it says—a soft, fragrant balm.

The trill of her keys sounds a warning. He quicksilvers away, barely casting a shadow as he jumps through the open window, landing on his feet, catlike. The white silk scarf is caught by the breeze, uncoiling from around his neck as if she has tried to snatch it back.


Flash Fiction by Alicia Bakewell
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Midsummer’s Eve

SPRING 2017 SECOND PLACE

The haar drifts across the fields. It knuckles into crannies and makes it easy to forage unnoticed, perfect for slipping into back gardens to plunder the riches of the soil. I fill my sack with knobbly carrots, hard-hearted cabbages, onions so large they’d burst their beds and—if I’m lucky—redcurrants that glisten like ruby pinheads in the swirling grey. Locals believe the mists shroud the souls of lost sailors. When they notice a missing pumpkin or a gap in their phalanx of leeks, they’ll likely put it down to roaming spirits.

I’d learnt my skills at Grandfather’s side; watched his arthritic fingers twist slender green beans from wigwams before filling his dampened pockets. Following a successful pillage, our caravan dripped with the scented vapour of soups and jam.

A tiny fist grasps my hair, and I smile, remembering Midsummer’s Eve. How, after one rosehip wine too many, my tale of finding this wee bairn beneath the blackcurrant bushes stilled the night. Gifts of trefoil, vervain and rue appeared on the wagon’s steps: blessings for the infant sprite.

Truth is, I spread my legs for the handsome captain of a ship moored by the quayside. Voluminous skirts and Grandfather’s failing eyesight allowed me to hide my growing belly. On the day my waters broke, I slipped into the long grass at the river’s edge to give birth like a forest animal. While my baby lay mewling on blood stained petticoats, I wiped away the vernix with leaves from a nearby clump of sorrel.

Sorrel—for what else could I have named her?—squirms in the shawl I’ve tied across my back. She’s hungry, so I reach for a tender pod dangling from tendrils. Her eyes widen as I pop a bright green pea between her rosy lips.

The mist is lifting, snatching my cover, and I should return. Grandfather will want his supper. Besides, this morning there was talk of a tall ship arriving with its cargo of tea. Tonight I’ll scour the inns for its captain; he’ll shoulder his responsibilities or end his days cursed on the high seas.


Flash Fiction by Ros Collins
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Addendum to the Art Loss Register

SPRING 2017 THIRD PLACE

Drexel relaxed in the beat of swiping inner seams of jeans as the heft of cans tapped a pattern against his spine. In the chill air of just-before-dawn, the route to the underpass glowed oily orange.

Warning came in a muted grunt. Without losing his beat, Drexel slung with his shoulder into the crosshatches of a wire fence. The resident wino, shrugged beneath a sketchy carpet, pointed around the next corner. When Drexel saw the policeman, sans smiley-face, and a huddle of folk with flash cameras hustling around his imperfect artwork, he tugged his hood further forward.

“Bugger Bansky,” muttered the drinker and then shuffled on, a yarn flailing loose from his carpet in a rat’s tail trail.

Drexel crouched beside the shipwrecked ribs of a shopping trolley, edged off his backpack and tucked its strap around a dislocated, disengaged wheel. He had no desire to be caught red-bagged and red-handed. He thrust paint-stained hands into his pockets and padded nearer.

“What’s up?” he asked the uniform, lifting his chin towards the underpass and those hipster types with their LED lamps and thick-rimmed specs.

“Famous artist or some crap. Now piss off before I mention trespass.”

Drexel shifted himself into the shadowed concrete canvas and sidled closer. Harsh lights silhouetted his wan beauty. The missile-infant she cradled still suckled at her breast. She sirened out to him for the crimson-in-a-can that he’d abandoned, and she wept at the stenciled-on signature that stained her, that claimed her, for another.

A voice resonated by the agency of the underpass acoustics. “A deviation from his past work, a maturing. Pure genius!”

Drexel wavered half-in, half-out of the shadows.


Flash Fiction by Heather McQuillan
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The River in Her

The lobbyist said her cleavage was the best example of bipartisanship he’d ever seen. He pulled the skin between his lips like a milkshake through a straw until a blue vein surfaced. It was small at first, the length of a zebrafish, but she couldn’t see past it. The vein crossed out the words she read and wormed its way into her ramen. She tried to snuff it out with her thumbnail, but the vein grew longer and deeper until she could dip her whole hand into its river, followed by her arm, her head, herself.

By morning the waterline had risen behind her eyes so the only way she could move through the day was by floating along beside him. See, he said, you tried to resist me and my issues, but we’re great together. She flowed from bed to train to café to work and back again. When the lobbyist spoke, the water rushed between her ears and garbled his voice so it was easiest to let him do everything he asked of her.

She went on this way for weeks, wading in her body, the motion eroding her cells. With every step she made herself deeper and broader and colder, until he said he couldn’t touch bottom anymore or make it to shore. He said she had to save him. She said she would, so she picked him up. Then she carried him to the falls of herself and let go.


Flash Fiction by Jenn Hollmeyer
Picture: Earth by Moyan Brenn under CC BY 2.0
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The Way We Weren’t

A tire swing now, set far back in the yard, fresh scar of dirt under it, carved by child-size sneakers. Pansy faces, red and white, not black-and-blue, smiling from flower pots. Lawnmower in the carport, wheels caked with cuttings from an honest day’s work. A man whistling as he cleans.

White walls upstairs and down, intact, free of fist prints. The delicious absence of beer cans and cheap cigar smoke in the television room where a child plays. No tear stains on pillowcases. Closets serving their intended purpose; there is nothing and no one to hide from here.

Cake rising in the oven, not batter flung on the kitchen wall while a baby wails and a toddler screams and a dog cowers at the sight of a heavy boot. A woman singing because singing is good. Allowed. Kisses happen when this woman sings. Frying pans hang from a pegboard, clean and dry, void of menace. In this old house that used to be mine, with these new people and the way they are, frying pans are only used for cooking.


Flash Fiction by Christina Dalcher
Picture: Frying pans by Dan Grogan under CC BY 2.0
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Surrendering Camille

I’m Dot. Excuse my briskness—thinking on my feet, you know.

“Who are you? You can’t just pillage my stuff.”

That’s Rockford’s voice, not mine; as if I’d say ‘pillage.’ Or ‘stuff.’ I mean, come on; but it is my doorway and £925 per calendar month to move into a mess of his discarded possessions confers the right to be territorial. Only a profitable week of ebay selling had made the place liveable. C’est la vie.

Behaving reasonably wouldn’t help him. Accumulated pressure from another day hocking topaz jewellery to hello caller had kneaded me into a monster.

That said, I might have folded until his ‘You’ll realise I’m right’ smirk piqued me. I expect better from the handsome former owner of three pairs of Isabel Benenato trousers.

I deliver my mirror-proven, automatic smile. “I’m not sure I remember it.”

Behind me, Impersonation of Arrabbiata sauce simmers on the hob.

“I sense you want something from me.” I’ll admit he played that well.

“Describe.”

“About this big.” His palms slide away from each other in frustrated anti-piety. “Hardwood frame. Charcoals. A girl, glancing over her shoulder.” He’d sketched it, alright, that study in reckless beauty. I’d decided to name her Camille.

“Age?”

“What?”

“Her age?”

“Don’t know. Twenty? About your age.”

I knew what Camille would do.

Rockford selected the restaurant. God, he ate intently, wielding cutlery with sudden sweeps. I’d been envisaging wine-as-you-go. “Well?”

He crumpled his napkin onto his plate and lunged with a credit card at the waiter. “Well what?”

“Tell me about her.”

“Does it matter?”

Formalities of card, machine and number were attended to.

“Lover?”

“Once.”

“Then you forgot her whilst escaping rent arrears.”

“Cheap,” he muttered disdainfully.

I sensed I’d had my sport. “OK. I surrender.”

“So, Camille, may I please have the picture.”

Dot again, I slid it from my glossy, peony blossom tote bag.

Undoing clips, he liberated my charcoal life-coach from her frame, scrunched her, then dropped her unceremoniously for a gravy soak with the napkin.

An envelope had been stuffed behind the sketch.

“For that?”

“If you like the damned frame so much, Camille, take it.”

Reader, I didn’t.


Flash Fiction by Stephen Mander
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