Hello there, flash-fiction fans – and a very happy 2016 to you!
QuickFic returns tomorrow and we are pretty excited, let us tell you. But in the meantime, we’ve been having a look back over 2015 in order to decide our champion of champions. And we got pretty emosh about it to be honest. You lot are very talented.
As some of you know, QuickFic is a weekly writing competition. Each time, we give you a prompt and just five short hours in which to write us a 250 word story, and then we publish the winners on this here site. Last year we were sent an unbelievable amount of clever, funny, sinister and downright terrifying stuff. It was brilliant.
So here’s our 2015 highlights reel. It could easily be book-length, but we’ve managed to narrow it down to just a few of our favourites. Here they are, with their respective prompts.
Begin your montage music now.
Rox Nicholl (March)
2AM Tuesday morning. New moon and clouds obliterate any starlight. I don’t believe in new starts. I can’t. And yet …
Mara sleeps next to me. Her dream-kicks woke me again. The only time she ever cries is in her sleep. None of us tell her, because she’s not the only one.
I remember the little party my parents gave the night before I left. We laughed, and told stories, and they let me drink a little. For strength, my father said. Like he knew. But no father would send his daughter into this life. Not willingly. My mother gave me a small bag of food for the journey, hugged me, hope lighting her eyes.
“This is your one chance for freedom,” she said. I nodded, kissed her cold cheek.
Some freedom. I climb across the sleeping bodies to the ladder. I stand on a hand, but dare not whisper an apology. They know my voice. Sofia is at the ladder, holding her teddy bear. She’s too young to know to hide her tears. Some men like her better for that.
She reminds me of my sister.
Don’t think, just act.
I push her upwards, step by step. Below, bodies sprawl across the floor like corpses. It may not be much, but we understand each other. It’s still a home, of sorts. But the lady at the clinic slipped me a card yesterday. And Sofia deserves better. We stop at the door.
No more delays.
And we run.
April is the cruellest month
Petrina Hartland (April)
And when the dead come back, I hate this place more.
“But we will see Mama again? And Annie?” Davey asks of me, but what he asks ain’t what he means and so I can’t bring myself to tell him, yes.
Yes, we will see Mama with her hair all brushed back, the way I did for her, the way she liked it, ’cause a lady oughta be known by the way she keeps herself up, no matter what the good Lord sends by way of trial and tribulation.
Annie too, although her golden curls went before her, sacrificed to the fire and despair of the fever.
Davey’s too little to remember Michael in his blue sweater, that Mama knitted on the boat, ’cause didn’t they tell us winter would be cold here; cold enough to freeze the breath right out of your mouth, your words falling away like snowflakes to the bitter, iron dirt.
The first winter, with Michael, Mama said it was ungodly. Said the thought of him, out there in the woodshed was more than a person could expect to stand.
“Should I leave him out for the wolves, instead?” Pa’s snowflakes, etched from broken glass.
This last winter, with Annie, Mama made no complaint.
When Pa stands in the door of the cabin, all the snowflakes are gone from him and I see the treacherous earth that coats the edge of his shovel and I know that the thaw has come.
Stephen Quincey-Jones (May)
I’d like to say a few words.
Jonesy will be missed. I’ll never forget what he taught me the first day I arrived. We were in a dugout near Mametz Wood. There was a break in the shelling. He swung his drawstring haversack off his back and emptied its contents out onto the patch of dirt between us.
“What do you see?” he said,
“A few things,” I said, “Bayonet. Waterbottle. Groundsheet. Pack of fags. Hip flask. Wash kit. About eighty rounds of ammunition. Then there’s the haversack itself.”
“Right,” he said. “Now, which are the most important?”
“It’s got to be the bayonet and ammunition, hasn’t it?” I said.
“Nope,” he said. “Think more imaginative.”
I pondered for a minute. “Waterbottle and groundsheet?”
Jonesy shook his head. “I’ll tell you. Fags; soap; hip flask; and this,” he said, pulling the drawstring out of the neck of the bag.
“Could have fooled me,” I said. “Fags, soap and scotch are luxuries.”
Jonesy smiled, entertained by my innocence. “All them other things don’t mean nothing when you’re in a tight spot,” he said. “Look here. Fag ash purifies water for drinking. Soap’s good for lubricating a jammed rifle mechanism.”
“Drawstring?” I said.
“Strangulation,” he said. “Quick and quiet.”
I raised my eyebrows. “And the hipflask?”
“Most important of all,” he said.
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Disinfecting wounds. Making a poor man’s grenade.”
“No,” he said. “Not that.”
I frowned. “What then?” I said.
“Easy,” he said. “To forget.”
Jemima Warren (June)
He said that I’d need the umbrella for the rain. Instead, in that tucked in part of the coast where we spent the week, I carried it as a parasol. I wished I had a white cotton dress, and a dangling string of pearls. I wished I had a small leather-bound book too. I wanted to sit on the beach, sun-browned, content and idle, turning its gilt-edged pages.
The sun shone all day, as high and proud as his sureness about the weather had been, and as each day passed I found it harder to believe in the cold. Just as I shook out sand from the umbrella’s folds, I was expanding. I had been a closed in, spokey sort of a thing. In the sunshine I could be another thing altogether. I knew that if I said this out loud he would tell me – again – that metaphors suited people who couldn’t name the truth, who were too meek to say it aloud.
I laid the umbrella against my knees on the train home. It had probably come to me second-hand, like all knowledge tends to do. But now it stood for the things – all the other things – he’d told me that were wrong.
Sleeping Under The Stars
Anstey Spraggan (August)
“Can we live here forever, Daddy?” Nadya asks me. My fingers are curled round her tiny hand.
I pull the sleeping bag up under her chin. “We can stay a while.”
Across the room, I see her mother’s face in shafts of light and candle shadow; she stopped crying months ago but she would now – if she still could – just from relief. It has taken our every last penny to get to this place but we have chosen wisely or – at least – with luck. We would never have found this marooned desert palace without help.
My wife and I sit next to each other, on the floor, and watch the children sleep.
The smashed patterned tiles are covered with tendrils of succulent plants and crumbling statues look coquettishly at the floor where beetles and spiders have claimed dominion. There is no electricity and the taps are dry but there are no men with guns, no roadside bombs.
“It feels like Heaven,” she says into the dark and a moth moves his brown wings across the night.
I check the vivid stitches in her leg. It is hard in the half light but my work is as neat as it was in the hospital, in our other life. “It’s another life,” she says sometimes and smiles, “better than no life.”
We are safe for now; a doctor, his architect wife, and their two frightened children sleeping in the dust.
It is another 4,000 kilometres to Calais.
The Good Neighbour
Thom Willis (September)
Seething-black snake-serpent in MY HOUSE keep your distance creature I know you I know where you slither-crawled from where you’ll get yourself back in to curled sleepless round your nest of rotted chalk eggshells hatching only dead cells.
Out from here meet me again on the road between our houses you have walked it on your belly so many times and I saw you saw you from the dew-drip hedge as you made for my door under my door through my door without me unlocking for you like you own my house my house is not your house but I pay you to live here in this torment here with you STARING from those broken splinter-starred windows every night every morning.
Tonight I will be in your house snake tonight I walk from tree to tree unfurling like the shadow tongue tasting your absence insisting on your presence as I in turn slip through that broken window pooling in the starlight listening to each hesitant creak of board and whistle-in of dream-breath.
I visit you tonight as a neighbour as a tenant as a spirit as a plaintiff as an ending to keep silent our agreement as the stairs drift in the night’s breeze I climb through feelings you will never have and bring you never-will-bes as your coils slacken round your end-night thoughts.
Ruth Goldsmith (October)
My son arrived before his time.
The nurse finishes hooking up the feeding tube, slender white fingers touching reddened skin. She looks down at my son. My tiny, fragile son.
“He’s got an old soul, this one,” she says. I nod, smile back, though I don’t know why. Words stopped meaning much a few days ago.
She rests her hand lightly on my shoulder before walking to the next incubator. I watch her move in rhythm with the beeps and sighs of the plastic and metal and electricity that keep him breathing, in and out. In and out. Keep breathing, in and out.
I go back to stroking his head with my thumb, willing him to feel me here, loving him.
My phone says it’s Thursday; 3.17am. My son’s been in the world for 219 hours and 43 minutes. There wasn’t much warning; a backache. Not unusual for six months gone. And then… And then.
They keep saying I should go home and sleep. How could I leave him alone in this box? What if he needed me? I doze in the chair. When Pete comes back in the mornings, I take a shower. It’s only round the corner, the shower. I’ll not go far away.
220 hours, 4 minutes.
The only words that mean anything now are the doctor’s words.
When he says, good prognosis. Healthy. Strong.
When he says, your son arrived before his time, but these days, he says, we can make that time back.
Alex James (December)
“A beauty, isn’t it? All the way from Lapland, apparently.” Her boss says, his tone suggesting that this was an extravagance too far even for the town council. He keeps talking even as she ascends out of his eye-line, then above the squat buildings of the town centre. The cherry picker trembles slightly as it lifts her up, like she is a stunned bird cradled in the things palm, a creature of hollow bones, infinitely fragile. Next to her, the star lies cradled in sackcloth, glinting on a pile of bricks.
A transplant, severed from the dark, close forests of home, where the only sound was the flutter of wings and the padded footsteps of miniature predators. Traffic blares below as a cyclist limps onto the pavement, dragging the warped skeleton of his bike behind him. Black, oily smoke congeals around the green mountain of the tree, tugging at the hairs in her throat.
She brushes her hand over the spindles, already drying out in the winter sun. You and me both, pal. Green needles tumble like dandruff to the tarmac below.
“Will you hurry up?” he shouts. “We’ve still got to string the lights after this.”
With exaggerated care, she places the star onto the iron spike driven into the tree’s crown. It slides into place, grinds and catches against some internal mechanism.
“Alright, all done. Get me down from here.” She yells, turning away. It’s so bright she can hardly bear to look at it.
All absolutely incredible stories. Reading through them again has made us feel a bit wibbly inside. WELL DONE, TEAM.
But here it is. The story that is our champion of champions. We loved it then and we love it now: BRAVO.
Henry Peplow (August)
After the rain, the desert smelled clean again. The scent of the Creosote bushes rolled down the track and swept over Francine. She let the honey-thick air embrace her.
She supposed people would find the station wagon, beached at the track’s edge, and wonder. No keys – she had flung them far into the scrub in case she’d changed her mind – an open door, plenty of fuel, a sat-nav set to nowhere. An empty baby seat.
The number plate would take them to an empty house on the sad side of Phoenix, with a back yard already yielding to the desert.
She left the comfort of the track, kicked off her trainers and walked barefoot, past the Saguaros and Agaves until she reached a clump of Joshua trees.
The empty house would take them to an abandoned job and to a small tragedy.
Francine laid a bundle in the shade.
The small tragedy would take them to a hospital and a missing woman. A grainy ghost on the security camera.
She scraped the ground with her hands, finding it cool beneath the desert’s skin. The sand crusted her hands where they bled.
The security footage would take them to a hospital car park, a woman with a bundle, running.
When the hole was deep enough, she rested the bundle in it. As she eased the sand back over she smoothed it flat, healing the scar.
Congratulations Henry, and well done everyone – it was a stellar year, and we cannot wait to see what you and your Muses come up with tomorrow morning.
Meet us back here at 9:50!