Competition Winners 2023
Flash Fiction Winner
What does a herring taste like?
At first the gull ignored the man. It landed to the left of where Harry sat on his usual bench, and strutted towards the swings. It pecked a fragment of paper on the grass, but found no satisfaction. It looked back towards the bench. Maybe Harry’s muttering had drawn its attention, but certainly the bird saw the man and acknowledged him, after a fashion.
They say that you should fix a gull with a hard stare if you want to keep it away from your chips or sandwich – but what to do if the gull turns its unblinking eye onto your ciggie, with the yellow-ringed envy of a tobacco fiend forced to kick the habit?
Can a gull digest tobacco? This one looked as though it might try, or, if it succeeded in taking Harry’s roll-up from his restless fingers, ask for a light, and give him lip if he declined.
Mind you, for all that it was on the cadge, gull was no down-and-out – chest plumage of fresh, white linen, back and wing feathers soft in toning greys. And somewhere in the city, among the chimney pots, it shared a secure nest with the family and friends that made up its colony.
Why, then, was gull away from its buddies? They wheeled above the river, mewing, while lonesome gull pottered in the park. Scouting? No need, with all that aerial reconnaissance. Foraging? Why here, with wasteful restaurants a stone’s throw away?
Perhaps the family was itself the problem, the shrieks of the youngsters wanting food or flying lessons; above all, their constant pestering for stories. ‘Tell us about the sea, Uncle Jim, the fishing boats, the seaweed, the smells, the nets, the dabs, the mackerel, the crabs, the eels… What does a herring taste like, Uncle? Tell us.’
Gull should never have let on that he had once flown to the estuary and out to the open sea; that he had dived through the spray off the breakers; that he had picked up a baby cod as it floundered on the smallest beach in the world. Inland in the city, his single outing to the old domain fostered the myth of Big Jim who had followed the trawlers, nested on cliffs, defended eggs against invading rats, and turned a rocky island white with guano.
Harry had never been to sea. Hercules transports had flown him to his deployments. His tales grew out of dry, dusty places, not storms and racing tides, and nobody clamoured to hear them. The few stories he insisted on telling, people could not bear to listen to, and turned away. The humour around improvised explosive devices and snipers is dark, funny only to those who have been there and seen too much. Bad taste – and not the kiddies’ idea of a story at all.
Usually Harry moved on at night, the park being tricky. But, by dusk, gull and man had grown easy with one another. As the bird kept an eye open, Harry fell asleep on dry leaves and soft grass in a dip in the ground between the swings and the boundary hedge.
Mary Melvin Geoghegan
No Idyll, Then
but, on certain days
when snow covered the field
in a thick white veil.
I could hop out the back door
and find evidence of other lives.
Shadowing, a line of freshly printed
bird or animal tracks.
Until the trail ended beyond –
mysteriously, at nothing
more than a suspicion
of some unseen creature
watching me from a nearby lair.
And yet, all the while
those tracks in the snow
and the fleeting apprehension
of some impending presence
promised another order.
Intersecting with mine and
and having nothing to do with it.
Short Story Winner
The White March
I close my eyes, then open them again. It’s worse when you close them, because then the only sensory effects that you get are the screaming of the engines and the dipping in your stomach as the plane tilts skywards, buffeting its way through the clouds. You’re alone with your fears, like when the dentist’s hovering over you with steel claws, or your breast is flattening on the mammograph anvil. I pick up my book and force myself to concentrate, reading the same paragraph over and over again until the words make sense. Then I focus on the photo of the baby’s face I’m using as a bookmark. My first grandchild. She’s already three months old and this is just the second time that I’ll see her.
We had gone together, Paolo and I, at the time of the birth, arriving just hours later. We hadn’t stayed long, though, as he had medical appointments scheduled back in Brussels, and I wanted to be by his side. Sophie and Martin seemed to be managing fine with the baby when we left.
I’m alert to every new sound, checking the reactions of the other passengers and the flight attendants. I wish I’d put on more deodorant. I can smell my armpits. I used to hold Paolo’s hand tightly at take-off and arrival, too tightly probably, but he never complained. How trivial to feel his loss in this way, the loss of his hand.
The trolley trundles down the aisle, and I prepare to catch the eye of the flight attendant just visible on the other side. I never used to mind flying, but everyone says the same thing: once you have children, you become aware of all the things that could harm them, things that you have no control over.
The attendant is speaking to a man sitting a few rows ahead. I can see his silver hair above the seat, and a navy-sleeved arm raised in argument. I shift uneasily and my heartbeat moves up a gear.
* * *
The Dutroux scandal emerged in Brussels when I was pregnant with our second daughter. Sophie, our first, was a three-year-old toddler at the time. Riveted to the TV, I had watched the arrest of this man who, abetted by his wife, had abducted two small girls and kept them imprisoned in a basement. By the time the police found them, they had died.
They called it the Marche blanche, the White March. A huge demonstration in Brussels to protest against the police and the justice system for the way they’d botched the investigation. I was six months’ pregnant; I was determined to go on the march. Paolo had to work unexpectedly that Saturday. I had a rendezvous with some parents from the crèche near the métro station where the march would start. I bought some white balloons.
It was October, but mild. The métro was crowded and I would not push onto it with Sophie, so I waited for the next one, and then the next one. When we at last emerged, it was into a sea of white. No sign of the parents from the crèche. Oh well, I thought, we’re here now. I blew up a white balloon and tied a string to it, putting it in Sophie’s little fist, and we joined the throng.
Children dressed in white ran and skipped alongside me. People chattered in French and Flemish while I manoeuvred the buggy over potholes. I focused on why I was there: solidarity. Surely this would be of some comfort to the bereft parents, to see the thousands – hundreds of thousands as I found out later on the news – marching respectfully, wearing white for innocence. Marching with their children. What would they make of that? All those children, the same age as their lost daughters, not fully understanding what was going on, while their daughters had had their childhood stolen from them in one fell swoop.
The crowd swirled and eddied around me. I brushed some sweat from my brow. I felt a ringing in my ears. I’d forgotten to bring water. To the right of us was a small street, so I nudged through the marching bodies and up the street a little way, until I spotted a low windowsill where I could perch. Sophie had behaved herself beautifully all along, gazing at the other children and the crowds and holding tightly onto her white balloon, but now, looking round to see why we’d stopped, the balloon drifted off into the air. She began to protest.
I counted my breath in and counted it out again.
‘Don’t worry, Sophie, there are more at home, loads of balloons.’
‘Home!’ Sophie shouted. Her determined little character was already showing. ET home. If only there was a mothership to take me to safety. My own mother had died suddenly when I was twenty. I’d felt the absence more than ever when I was pregnant. Things should pass through generations; there should be a flow of knowledge, care and experience. That well was dry. Paolo’s parents lived in Italy so we saw them only once or twice a year. My mother-in-law was kind, but preoccupied with her career as a lecturer. I always felt that I had to put on a show when around them, a façade of being an efficient mother, knowing what exactly the baby wanted.
The door of the house where I sat opened and a man stepped out, halting suddenly on seeing me. He crossed the street towards a large saloon car, then turned around and came back.
Looking pointedly at my swollen belly, he said: ‘Ҫa va? Vous allez bien?’
My hand gripped the buggy tightly as I replied in French, I’m fine, thanks.
Then thinking that perhaps he didn’t like me sitting on his windowsill, I stood up and made to leave, but the light-headedness assailed me again, and I moved back to the sill and leaned against it.
‘I will get you some water,’ he said, unlocking the door and disappearing inside.
My thoughts spiralled. Perhaps he’d drug the water and then carry me inside, and what about Sophie… But each time I stood up, the dizziness returned. I reached in my bag, feeling reassured at the sight of my Nokia. I wanted to call Paolo and say, I’m feeling a bit dizzy. Come and get us. Then I realised that I didn’t know the name of this street.
The man returned with a bottle of Spa and a glass. He unscrewed the top – I noted that it was a new bottle not previously opened – and half-filled the glass.
‘And the little girl?’ he queried. I sipped the ice-cold water from the glass. I fumbled in the changing bag on the back of the buggy and extracted Sophie’s pink plastic training cup. The man filled it and I replaced the lid.
‘Lo-lo,’ said Sophie, stretching out her tiny paw.
Inadvertently, I caught the man’s eye, and we both smiled at the childish term. I had been astonished to learn at the crèche that toddlers had their own version of French. ‘Lo-lo’ was water, l’eau. ‘Dodo’ was sleep, dormir.
He was perhaps in his fifties, with silver-grey hair and tanned skin. He was dressed in dark trousers and a pale shirt, with a navy jacket on top. He looked decent, middle-class, well-educated. There was a time when we thought people like that could do no wrong.
* * *
The attendant raises her voice. ‘I’m afraid we only accept cards, sir. There’s nothing I can do about it.’ The seatbelt light switches on with a warning ring. I grip the arms of my seat and turn to the woman beside me, who continues reading her glossy magazine.
* * *
‘You were at the march?’ the man asked, pointing down the street where wave after wave of white shapes washed along the avenue.
‘Yes, but … I felt dizzy…’
The man shrugged. ‘For all the good it will do…Where do you live?’
Without thinking, I mentioned the street.
‘I must pass near there to get to the motorway. I can give you a lift, if you want?’
‘It’s ok. I can get a taxi.’ I finished the water and stood up, swaying slightly.
‘It will take a long time for a taxi to get through, with the demonstration.’
I thought of the walk back to the métro station, and of having to call Paolo and get him out of work at a time when bosses were not so understanding about a father’s duties. I then did something that still puzzles and alarms me.
His car was parked just across the road, and I held Sophie as he folded the buggy and stowed it in the boot. Then he opened the rear door. ‘You’ll both be safer back here.’
I was about to call Paolo, but something stayed my hand. It would look as if I didn’t trust him, this stranger into whose car I was willingly stepping with my three-year-old child. I wondered about that afterwards, my reluctance to upset a stranger. It was a struggle to settle myself and Sophie in the back seat, one seatbelt between us. The man watched and then moved off, the large black saloon thrusting forward swiftly and silently. A heady scent filled the air, jasmine or gardenia, I wasn’t sure which, but it was tinged with a chemical aftertaste. I opened the car window slightly.
I removed my phone from my bag. Later on, for a long time, heat would suffuse me as I thought of myself in the back seat of that car, phone in hand, doing nothing. I caught the man’s eyes in the rear-view mirror and looked away quickly, taking in the posters on windows advertising the march, and the photos of the two tooth-gapped children.
It occurred to me, as I heard the click of the automatic locks, that accepting a lift from him, a stranger, was like Sophie accepting a lift from a stranger. I had done this in the company of a small child.
‘Do you have children?’ I asked, striving for normality. The seat belt was tight against my belly and I had one arm around Sophie. The houses flashing by were typical Brussels style, adorned with shapely bay windows protected by wrought-iron balustrades. It was all so ordinary.
* * *
The trolley is still blocked a few rows up. I swallow deliberately to moisturise my throat. I badly need some tea. The argument continues, as the attendant serves people on other side of the aisle.
‘Refusing cash is illegal,’ the man protests. His English is good, his accent Belgian. ‘You can’t do that.’
‘I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about it,’ the attendant is patient, but her tone has risen slightly.
I want to say, I’ll pay for your drink with my card. But I don’t want to see the man’s face.
* * *
The man said that he had two children, now grown up.
There was a brief silence.
‘In twenty years, you’ll wonder how it all passed so quickly, and if you should have done things differently.’
‘Is there something you would have done differently?’
‘They copy you, you see, even if you try to point them in a different direction. They end up making some of the mistakes you made yourself.’
The car bounded along, it seemed to me, travelling too fast down avenues and boulevards that were not familiar to me. But it couldn’t have been going that fast: there were buses and other cars; there were speed bumps, traffic lights. I caught sight of a street name I knew, and mentally traced our way back home, the streets we should take, and saw that he had missed a leftward turn. I put down my phone and rubbed my sweating palm on my jacket.
‘You should have taken avenue d’Auderghem back there.’ Such an effort, to make my voice stop shaking.
‘This is a shortcut,’ he replied, and I felt the car accelerate. I glanced at Sophie, who stared back, her eyes wide and a furrow on her tiny brow.
I had to remove my arm from Sophie’s shoulder to message Paolo. Punching in the right letter took three strikes on the Nokia, more even, as my fingers trembled. What to put? I’m in a car, with a stranger, with our daughter. I think he’s going the wrong way. I don’t know the make of the car or the numberplate. This would take ages. I would call him. To hell with his meeting. As I held the phone against my ear, I caught the man’s eyes again in the rear-view mirror. We stared at one another a fraction of a second too long. He swung the car off a roundabout onto a small street, and then turned left. I recognised it.
‘We’re on the next street, on the right,’ I pointed out, feeling lightheaded again as he manoeuvred the car into our street.
He exited the car and opened the back door for me. In my haste to get out, I tugged at the seatbelt, which stuck and then finally gave.
‘Mama home,’ Sophie said, pointing at the house.
‘Here you are.’ The man lifted the buggy from the boot.
‘Bye, papa,’ Sophie said, waving.
To Sophie, every man was a ‘papa’. Any man who appeared at the crèche was a father, there to pick up his child. I couldn’t help a nervous laugh, tightening my hold on Sophie.
* * *
The plane tilts downwards slightly; I can feel it in my ears. I think of Sophie’s face as we were leaving after the birth, the look that crossed it, that puzzled me at the time, but that I now think might have been a signal. I remember how awkward I had felt just bathing Sophie when she was a few days old.
Sophie’s wide-eyed stare in that man’s car comes back to me, like an image zooming on a screen. We had kept a close watch over her and her sister. Perhaps too close. We had driven to Italy every year on holiday, like many people in Belgium do, hardly ever taking the plane.
Sophie moved to Dublin to study, and remained there. Her sister, Bianca, is in Boston, doing a Master’s. I hardly know Sophie’s partner. I fear that I will hardly know my granddaughter.
As the plane continues its gentle descent, I curse myself for not responding to Sophie’s call, and going right back to her after the funeral. Now I am on edge, unable to wait to see her again, to hold my granddaughter in my arms, and see Bianca, who would come for the christening.
I realise that I haven’t been supervising our descent, holding my breath, my body tensed to help the plane down safely. We land with a gentle bump.
That was the last day I saw you look out across the door, the last time your ears pricked on seeing me walk up the path. I did not slip, up over your velvet grey muzzle, your frayed, old, blue headcollar, with the rusted buckle. Or lead you out, and feel you pull and prance and jerk your head up high, eager for release. Inside the gate, let loose, you did not swing around, head tossing, tail swishing, nostrils flared, before you leapt and bucked, all four off the ground, to welcome freedom or to warm yourself, of which, I was never quite sure.
In that spot of level ground, a few yards from the fence, you did not pace and paw and gather yourself in, and ballet bow, front legs first, to plop your heavy flanks onto the shallow bowl of earth you claimed for rolling. There were no white scurfy tufts left lying on the flattened clay, or puffs of snowflake hairs on the wind, where you used to stand and shake life back into your old bones.
This morning, I had no call to fork out loose hay to the field and curse when gusts of wind would send stray wisps across my clothes and rolling tendrils onto the lawn.
Nor did I hear your expectant whicker at the sound of the lid being lifted off the black feed bin, the crunch of the scoop and the balm of sweet molasses on the grain, as it fell like candied fruit into your red plastic feed bucket. Not today. You had no desire to lift your laminitic hoof to scrape and spark the rough concrete, while your velvet lips would curl and scuffle and nudge around the bucket, until no single grain escaped. Today, you could not eat. Like yesterday and the day before, when even the succulence of chopped up apples and carrots proffered on my hand could not tempt your failing organs back to working life.
There was no need to lean my shoulder into yours and draw my arm, slowly down, to squeeze gently on the feathers of your fetlock, for you were always willing and offered gladly, your upturned hoof, to let me pick the flat crescent moon of dried earth and odd solitary stone, lodged stubbornly between frog and metal shoe.
I didn’t have the heart to pass my hand through the leather strap of your body brush, to pull it softly, as I would, had it been any other day, down between your ears, and smooth and straighten your coarse white forelock. Another day, I might have pulled your mane or tidied up your tail, and happily teased apart, in the idle space of vacant thought, the knots and burrs of neglect.
But today, I could not bring myself to trace my fingers, one final time, across the familiar pattern of the whorl in the middle of your forehead, perfectly positioned, between your eyes – the sign of a good temperament, true horsemen say. And they are right.
I could not bear, this last time, to raise a dust from curry comb and dandy brush, circling against the grain of your thick staring, Cushings coat, or risk a careless swipe across your stifle, to invite your quick familiar nip, which, by mutual understanding over many years, has become more affection than offense.
Today, with phone in hand, I took this one last parting shot before I drove away, convincing myself that I could not be late for work. A lame excuse for cowardice.
I had made the call. Arrangements had been put in place. Friends, less emotionally invested and more accustomed to the grim process, bravely offered to be there. My Lady Liath would be comfortable in their company, I was assured. With judicious firmness and no weak display of tears, I was waved off before I’d meet the lorry on the drive. We were tough horsewomen, after all.
They led you down onto the cold hard gravel of the drive. It was easier there, they reckoned, less messy, to lift and load your dead weight.
No doubt, you smelt the knackery air from the raw grey sides of the tipper truck. I wonder did their morbid movements and grave talk instill in you a foreboding fear, making you want to rear, or pull and strain and toss your head and make the task more difficult than it already was.
They never told me any details. I never asked.
I was not there when the captive bolt was placed directly on your crown and gunshot pierced the still air of that December morning.
I was not there.
It is four years now and though grief of loss still visits from the black emptiness above your stable door, a thousand precious memories now come to fill that void. Time, indeed the healer.
Regret, however, is a different beast, that sits upon my shoulder and haunts and gnaws the flesh of my conscience down to the very bone of truth.
I was not there.