Flash fiction competition: the shortlisted stories (1)

Comfortable Discomfort

by Emma Robertson

The silence between us bites harder than the local white wine on my tastebuds. I’m drinking far too quickly, not knowing what else to do with my hands. Joe shifts in his chair for the third time in less than a minute and looks out at the serenity of Lake Bled, a stunning vista that is, frankly, wasted on us tonight. The powdered sugar dusting on the mountains can’t sweeten the unpalatable truth: we have absolutely nothing to say to one another.

Joe pats his pocket; we’d promised to go without phones tonight. He retracts his hand quickly when he sees me looking, reaching for the bottle instead. The rattle from the ice bucket earns him some sharp side-eye from the hovering waitress for topping me up before she’d had chance to.

Before, we’d have shared a conspiratorial smile at that, back when we were a team; us against the world. Now, strangers within our own marriage, we’ve become the cliched sitting silently in restaurant types that we used to laugh at and vow to never become.

“What are you having?” Joe asks eventually.

“The fish platter.” I point at it on the menu.

“That’s for two people.”

“Oh.”

Joe pauses. “I don’t mind sharing the platter.”

“Do you even want fish?” I look at him, thinking don’t do me any favours. He half nods, half shrugs and we revert to silence.

We’d vowed to try and reconnect after the incident, using the conservatory savings to take a break somewhere peaceful. So far, Slovenia has been even more picturesque than I expected but the wonder of our surroundings only magnifies the distance between us.

“The hotel is charming,” I offer, seeing Joe fidget yet again.

He nods. “It really is.”

“Wonderful views.”

He opens his mouth to say something, then shuts it again.

When we’d checked into our cosy room in the eaves of the hotel, I’d felt the urge to jump up onto the bed and see the view from our tiny window in the sloping roof but I’d felt silly; I’m not myself with him anymore. It’s as if we have forgotten how to show any joy or spontaneity in front of one another. We’re on our best behaviour, polite and distant.

It’s awful.

I see Joe pat his pocket again and I sigh. “Just get your phone out, for God’s sake.”

His forehead creases. “What do you mean by that?”

“You clearly want to check your phone and you might as well.” I take another stinging swig of chilled wine. “It’s not like anything fun is happening here.”

He hesitates. “This isn’t… it’s not about her,” he says, avoiding my eyes. “I told you I wouldn’t contact her again.”

I freeze, inhaling sharply. “Don’t. Mention. Her.”

“Sorry.”

The waitress approaches and we order the fish platter for two. “Good choice,” she smiles, making a show of topping up the wine again.

Silence returns as she departs. Joe takes out his phone and I reach for my glass.

Emma Robertson is an inclusive dance tutor and writer from London, UK. Her first fiction pieces were published in late 2020 in the Pure Slush anthology Wrong Way Go Back and in Eastern Iowa Review’s Water issue. She has previously written articles connected with her teaching work for dance industry publications. She can be found on Twitter as @emmadancetrain

Sprats’ heads. Photo copyright Cath Barton

Flash fiction competition: THE WINNERS

Winner: Too Much Space to Dream by Isobel Copley

Runner-up: Nobody’s David by Katie Isham

Many congratulations to the winners and the other shortlisted writers, Emma Robertson and EE Rhodes. Isobel and Katie will each receive a book and all four writers will have their stories published here, starting tomorrow with Comfortable Discomfort by Emma Robertson and continuing daily until Sunday.

What made the winners stand out from the crowd were their original takes on the brief: they used the words I gave – ice, conservatory, roof and fish – in unobstrusive ways. Their stories were also those that have stayed most strongly in my mind.

I’ve offered to send short constructive feedback to any of the other entrants who request it. Most have, and I’ll be getting that feedback to them shortly. Here are a few general points. None of them are original and obviously these are just my opinions; a different judge in a different competition may see things differently.

  • In a competition that gives you a prompt, or words to include, it’s always good to put aside your first idea, as many other people are likely to come up with something similar. Even put aside your second idea and see what’s waiting in the wings – it may surprise you.
  • A short piece of 500 words or fewer does not give you space for many characters. I’d recommend using a maximum of 3. Of course if you’re Dickens… But you’re not. Stick to a few.
  • Use the fact that your title is additional to your 500 words to make it work for you and enhance your story.
  • Start late and finish early. In other words, plunge straight into your story, no preamble. And finish in such a way that your readers can see the scene continuing to spool in their minds. Life is continuing, in one way or another, at the end of every story.

Come back tomorrow and on the following days to read the stories I selected.

Icicles – photo copyright Cath Barton

Flash fiction competition: the shortlist

In no particular order:

Comfortable discomfort by Emma Robertson

Too much space to dream by Isobel Copley

Nobody’s David by Katie Isham

The Melting Point by E E Rhodes

Congratulations all. The winner(s) will be announced on 10th February, together with some judge’s comments.

Ice Shards. Photo copyright Cath Barton

NEW Flash fiction competition

Write a story of no more than 500 words (not including the title) including the words:

ice

conservatory

roof

fish

Set your story in a country you’ve never visited.

Please abide by the usual content rules. If you are in any doubt as to what they are look at any other writing competition rules.

Send your story in the body of an email (no attachments please) to

cath.barton@talktalk.net

by 12 noon GMT on Sunday 31st January.

Please include your Twitter handle if you have one.

Shortlist announced 5th February

Winner(s) announced 10th February

FREE to enter.

Prizes: books (but I will only post within the UK, sorry.)

I will publish the winning stories here on my website.

Photo copyright Cath Barton

New Year’s Wishes: a story for our times

It took me a bit of fumbling to get the locker door open; I never can see well without my specs. But I seemed to have got the wrong locker. No clothes, and something else in there. Something yellow. Something squeaking.

‘What the–?’

More squeaking. High-pitched. ‘I’m your fairy duckling.’

I stepped back, rubbed my eyes. ‘Okay, so I suppose I get three wishes.’

‘Correct. Three wishes for the New Year. How did you guess?’

‘Cut the wisecracks. Where are my bloody clothes?’

‘Your wish is granted. Look on the bench.’

I whirled round, holding onto my towel as a girl walked past me. ‘Nice duckling,’ she said. I scowled at her. On the bench was a pile of clothes, covered in dried blood.

The duckling had jumped down from the locker and waddled across the changing room.

‘Okay, Mr Cute,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how you’re doing this, or who’s behind it, but it’s not funny. I need decent, dry clothes.’

‘Your wish is my command,’ squeaked the creature. It waved a little wand with one of its wings.

Now there was another pile of clothes on the bench.

‘These are women’s clothes,’ I said, picking up a pink skirt.

‘Yes, and they’re mine,’ said the girl who’d walked past before. ‘Get your hands off them. Why are you talking to yourself, anyway?’

‘I, I–’ I stuttered. ‘I’m not talking to myself,’ I said, firmly now. ‘I’m talking to the duckling. Where’s it gone? You saw it.’

‘Why don’t you sit down,’ she said, patting my hand. ‘I could fetch you a glass of water.’

‘Now you get off. And I don’t want to sit down.’ I was beginning to feel hysterical. ‘I want to get out of here.’

Which was how I found myself out on the street on an icy December day with only a towel round me, explaining to a police constable that no, this was not a New Year’s Eve prank and no, I did not need to be escorted anywhere, thank you and yes, I would go quietly.

I could have done better with my wishes. Much better. We’re in lockdown now. Gyms and swimming pools are closed. Pubs too. Just as well, my wife says, after the incident with the so-say duckling last New Year’s Eve.

I’ve just looked out of the window. There’s a yellow duckling on the path. Waving a magic wand. I’m drawing the curtains before it sees me. Time to pour a drink.

Cheers! And a Happy New Year!

Cath Barton

Image by Chris Franklin from Pixabay