Short stories

1st Prize

Luna by Dreena Collins

Luna pokes her head between the clouds, smiles softly. She is tucked below Orion’s elbow, next to Eridanus. It is cosy there. Quiet.
Below, she sees Jess, walking the streets again. Luna has followed her progress each night since she returned. There were weeks when Jess did not walk. She stayed away, after it happened.
Luna pictured her, alone, at home. Showering. Sore. She was glad to see her out again. Walking. Thinking. Free. This was her place. She was Leo, the lion. Fierce. Self-assured. It did not become her to hide away.
Luna squeezed her eyes and tugged, contracting the air. She pulled, in, out, a concertina, an accordion, until Jess walked the path she wanted for her – a safe one.
Jess walked into the only coffee shop left open, to order a coffee, thick with silt and sugar. She sat near the window, watching crisp packets dance on the tarmac, the occasional taxi whizz by, aglow.
Luna was in a dream, pleased with this result. Happy to see Jess a little closer to herself, once more. She allowed herself a rare moment of relaxation. She allowed the Earth to move as it wished.
But then she was lifted as a needle and thread. Yanked.
Two streets away, Khaled was being chased. Three young men, angry running shoes smacking the streets in confident strides. Scorpio; Capricorn; Taurus at their worst. Khaled wore canvas footwear, no coat. He had nothing that they might want. Nothing. He was nothing. In three minutes, time they would catch him.
Two minutes fifty seconds.
Luna could not bear it. She pictured his nose, crumpled as eggshells, as a soft-shelled crab. Cancer. She saw the footprint on his cheek. Desperate, impetuous, she scooped up an empty tin and rattled it against the window of the cafe. Jess looked up.
Two minutes twenty-one.
Luna smacked the tin against the window again, until Jess came out to bin it, as she knew she would.
This was the moment Khaled rounded the corner, neck craned around to his assailants, to the goats, bulls, scorpions amongst men –one minute fifty-one seconds away. He almost careered into her. Even then, riddled with horror and anticipation, he apologised, staggered to avoid her. Khaled felt his left ankle turn and buckle as he did so. Luna winced for him. Prayed her plan would work.
Jess knew what was happening in an instant – saw the cold sweat on his bare arms, the terror in his eyes. She grabbed him, pulled him in through the door of the café, wordlessly. Took him deep into the coffee shop, to the stools up by the counter. Khaled limped, his panting descending into sobs, and as the three young men ran by the café, Luna forced herself to dim a little. To drop her shine.
They did not see him. They hurried on. They went into the depths of the dark and the night.
Luna was delighted; blew the clouds apart, throbbing and glowing with glee.
They sat and talked. It took him some time to snap away from the fear, but then Khaled told her stories of escape, of a journey peppered with vessels, danger, dreams. Jess listened, nodded, thought of her own bruises. Of hope.
And then, twenty minutes and forty-two seconds later, Khaled and Jess walked the streets home together. Their streets. Their home. Stars beneath stars, swathed in the light of the moon.

2nd Prize

A Collision of Star Signs at the Rose and Crown   byMelanie Ross

Despite her misgivings, she had agreed to come along. She hadn’t bothered to change after work: why make an effort for something this silly in a local pub. Usually her austere work garb kept people away, anyway.
As the bell sounded, rows of paired-off people bravely attempted meaningful interaction for the length of an egg-timer. Curly russet hair, large features and nostrils that flared as he grinned and took her in. One gold earring; she usually despised piercings or any adornment, but she had to concede it worked on him. Shoulders straining at his shirt, demanding space. The people either side of him shrank a little, not that he noticed: all of his attention was on her.
She felt disarmed under his scrutiny: his bold stare seemed to swallow her in. She tried and failed to not play with a strand of hair that had escaped her hairband. She reminded herself she would usually feel disdain if not total contempt at such brazen ogling. Instead, she was surprised to recognise (if not quite accept) a thrill across her skin as his eyes landed on each section of her.
His eyes, as rich as turned soil, dug into her while her brain was saying, then screeching, ‘Leave, get away from this man: what about your 5-year plan?’
‘So, what are you in for?’ he said. He laughed a little at the double-meaning of his joke. Despite herself, she said, ‘30 years to life, all being well.’
She presumed the retort would put him off: no man wants a woman desperate for commitment, let alone something long-term. Instead, his eyes sparked with magma. His voice a growl, he said, ‘sharp and sultry – aren’t you the whole package?’
Confounded and entranced, she flushed as he laughed, but she didn’t feel mocked. She prided herself on dressing immaculately; her blouse and buttoned cardigan a shield, her scraped-back hair and glasses additional armour. But here he was, a dishevelled diametric against her sensibilities, admiring her. Something molten shifted beneath her glacial exterior; sensations and feelings unfurling that she had forbidden until phase one of her life plan was complete.
In an attempt to regain neutral ground, she shared her name and profession; eyes still roaring heat, he did the same.
Leaning in, he further reduced the space between them, and what should be a banal exchange grew intimate. Resolute, she ignored the images thundering in her mind, as she struggled to keep her attention on the ostensible small talk.
‘You camouflage yourself: why?’ He smiled at her indignant expression, undaunted.
‘Thankfully you didn’t wear red or I couldn’t have held myself responsible,’ he said, in a voice that was a rumble of hooves, a beat that thrummed at her. Even as she blushed raw, the buzzer sounded.
As he stood to move to the next table, she made her move. She didn’t fight the urge; instead, she took his hand, her thumb resting on his inner wrist. Her innate propriety melted into silky slivers, as time slowed around them. She felt his pulse racing under her touch, and smiled at the tide of blood in his cheeks.
She mouthed, ‘We’re leaving.’
It was his turn to look abashed as she pinned him with her stare. The greenest of glaciers smashing into earth as he nodded, trancelike.
Arms linked, they walked out together, strangers at the small tables gaping behind them.

3rd Prize

Wounded on the Beach by Rebecca Klassen

I watch my boyfriend from my towel as I trace hearts in the sand with my finger. He focuses on the rocks, treading carefully, carrying the green Paw Patrol bucket we found in the cupboard at the cottage. Skirting past a little girl, he lowers himself into the rockpool, the water around his knees. The sea breeze ruffles his hair, and I look out at the dark sea below the light grey sky. I pressed for us to go somewhere warm like Malta or Cyprus, but Will insisted on Woolacombe. He’s scared of flying. Typical Taurean; can’t be far from home.
Will makes his way to me. He’s smiling, his bucket heavy with water. I smile back, knowing that he wants me to be impressed with his findings. If it’s a starfish, I will run. I saw the underside of one once. Each of its appendages had an open mouth of teeth and suckers, prepared to never let go.
The rockpool water has made his leg hair wavy, and I wonder if I can convince him to dry off and take me for a glass of wine out of the wind. I finished my paperback last night while he was on yet another work call, and I’m bored of people-watching. I’ve got gooseflesh.
‘Guess what I’ve found?’ he asks.
‘Show me.’
Instead of lowering the bucket so I can look inside, he puts his hand in and scoops something out. Putting the bucket down, he cups his find with both hands and brings it to my face, water dripping on my legs. I can’t remember if I’ve told him about my starfish phobia, and I lift my hand, ready to slap him away.
It’s a crab, flat and small, no bigger than a fifty pence coin. It doesn’t move, and I wonder if it’s dead. There’s a sheen to its shell, like it’s been polished.
‘It’s a crab,’ Will says.
‘Ahh.’ I sound like someone at a firework display. The more I look at it, the more it reminds me of a spider, all legs and scuttle. It moves, and Will holds it down with his thumb. It must be like being trapped under a tree trunk.
‘Want to take me to a bar?’ I ask Will. ‘I’ll settle for the Wetherspoons.’
‘Maybe later. Isn’t he a beauty?’ I’m about to agree when Will jerks his hand. ‘Dammit! Bloody blighter nipped me.’
‘Are you bleeding?’ I can’t see a mark on his hand.
‘There he is!’ Will points to my towel and I see the little crab, motionless near my toe.
‘Give me your book; I’m going to whack it.’
I’m surprised by the look on Will’s face. He’s staring at the crab, his nostrils flared, and his hand held out to me for the book. I see a man watching us. Despite the breeze, he’s just wearing shorts, and his mouth is open in silent laughter. I narrow my eyes at him. I can’t help it. I’m a typical Cancerian and I’m extremely protective of my relationships.
‘I finished my book yesterday. Just leave it alone. It’ll go away.’
He raises his foot and crashes his heel down on it. Clumps of wet sand scatter everywhere, and I think I hear the man in shorts laugh.
The crab’s legs are crooked, and one has snapped off completely. Its shell is shattered like the top of a crème brulee. I want to scold Will, but I’m aware of the shorts man watching us.
‘Let’s go for a drink, Will.’ I just want to get out of here.
‘I said maybe later.’ His phone rings. In his scramble to get it from his rucksack, he knocks over the bucket, spilling water onto my towel. It washes the dead crab into the sand. ‘Trish, hi. One sec, let me get some privacy.’
Will strides towards the sea as I stand to deal with the mess. I spot the crab, lying on its side. As I kick some sand over it the shorts man calls out.
‘Want me to help with the burial? I could say a few words.’
He’s smirking, and I find it impossible not to chuckle. ‘No thanks, I’m a bit shellshocked.’
He laughs, and I feel less angry about my soaking towel. ‘Aren’t you going in the water today? It’ll do you good?’
‘What? It’s freezing!’
‘Doesn’t bother me, but I’m an Aquarius. We love the water.’ We both look down to the shore, and among the paddling children we see Will pacing up and down. ‘Your man seems a bit stressed.’
I look the man over. He doesn’t look too dissimilar to Will. Longer legs, broader shoulders, and a beard. ‘Will’s always on the phone.’
‘What’s his job?’
I don’t know why I tell him the truth. ‘He works in insurance, but he’s stressed because he’s having an affair with a lady called Trish from his office, and I don’t think she likes him being away with me.’
The man sits up, sand dropping from his chest. In my head, I trace my fingers over the muscular definition in his stomach. He says, ‘You want to go for a drink, don’t you? Let me take you.’
I watch Will, his back to me, phone pressed to his ear. The waves approach him, and he steps back so he’s out of reach. I think about the crab, cracked and amputated beneath the sand, and the tide coming in, cementing its entombment.
I pick up my bag and towel. As I leave Will’s rucksack in the sand, I realise I don’t know the man’s name yet, but it doesn’t seem to matter as we walk together towards the promenade.

Highly Commended

Sagittarius Lover by Audrey Tullet

Laura was working her way through the zodiac, lover-wise. She had spent fifteen years married to a Taurus. Provision for old age, accidents and rainy days had precluded spending on holidays, party clothes or any sort of fun. The substantial, detached house had good carpets, heavy curtains and solid furniture that would last. Laura had leapt over the wall of security on to a roller coaster of romantic love with a Leo, who had cast her aside when the affair no longer suited him.
Resolving to have nothing more to do with men, she threw all her energy into beautifying the tiny house and garden she bought following the divorce settlement. Bulbs burgeoned, clematis climbed, roses rambled. Vinyl matts in delicate pinks, blues and greens covered the walls. Light curtains billowed in the breeze. Bright pictures were lovingly chosen and hung.
The kitchen needed a complete refurbishment. The builder was lean and muscular with crisp, wavy hair that Laura felt she wanted to run her fingers through. For the first few days of his labours, she stayed in the garden or made frequent trips to the shops, but then the weather changed and it rained – hard.
‘Would you like another cup of tea’ she asked politely, for the fourth time that day.
‘Yes, please.’
Laura could have sat on the chair opposite him, but she sat on the sofa beside him. An Aries he turned out to be, impulsive and innovative. She had never realised sex could be such fun. Long after the kitchen was finished, Aries man would appear on her doorstep without warning, make love to her in any position, anywhere in the house, say, ‘Well, I’ve got to go,’ dress quickly, starting with his socks and depart as suddenly as he had arrived.
Laura developed a new hobby, the study of astrology. She was amazed to find how accurately the books portrayed the personalities of Taurus-man, Leo-man and Aries-man, as she had experienced them. She determined to research the other nine, star signs.
Virgo-man was impeccably groomed and an accomplished ballroom dancer – Laura had always wanted to improve her dancing skills. Very attentive – on the phone several times a day, wanting to know what she was doing, where she was going and what time she was coming back. Laura began to bristle with irritation. Virgo-man was not for her.
Scorpio-man was an airline pilot, balding and classy. The relationship consisted mainly of voicemail. His messages were smooth and self-assured, sounded as if they should begin with’ ‘This is your captain speaking.’ Laura gave up on the affair when she realised that, whereas she was aiming at one for each sign of the zodiac, he was well on the way to one in each of the world’s major cities.
Aquarius lover came in the form of a game-keeper whilst Laura was staying with an elderly aunt on the Scottish island of Islay. His love-making was rough and exhilarating. She overcame her aversion to the dirt under his fingernails but drew the line at being left alone in bed at 5 o’clock on Sunday mornings while Aquarius-man went out to shoot rabbits. One Sunday morning she just quietly up and left the cottage.
The Scottish aunt died, leaving Laura a windfall. She decided to visit her cousin in Australia. On the long flight back, she became increasingly conscious of a large man with a goatee beard and friendly, smiling eyes. It all began when his bulk obliterated her view as the queue shuffled forward to board the plane at Melbourne. Laura thought, ‘Gosh – he must be twice my size;’ she liked big men – they made her feel dainty. In the plane he sat  two rows in front of her across the aisle. Looking up from her Maeve Binchey, her eyes caught the fleshy shoulder, projecting over the edge of the seat and politely shifting out of the way of the stewardess with the drinks trolley. Laura thought that being in bed with him would be like making love to a sofa.
At Bangkok, although she had no money left to spend, Laura ventured round the duty-free boutiques. She spotted Big Man buying silk shirts, single malt whiskies and continuing on to the perfume shop. Later in the departure lounge she dozed off and Maeve Binchy slid with a plop to the floor.
‘Good book?’ he grinned as he returned it to her. ‘Fancy a drink?’
Three gin and tonics later she knew all about Dave’s trip to Uluru, the acoustics of Sydney Opera House and his next planned trip, to the Amazon rain forest.
‘Who’s all the perfume for? She indicated the bursting, duty-free carrier-bag.
‘My mum and my three sisters-in-law – I think they drink the stuff!’
At Heathrow they both got on the coach to Bristol – Dave only lived twenty miles from Laura. They sat together, chatting comfortably. Laura popped the all-important question,
‘So what star sign are you?’
After the third meal out, she invited him back for ‘coffee.’ And it wasn’t at all like making love to a sofa! The relationship rumbled easily along, meeting the odd pothole when Laura would ask where it was going. It was hard to get Dave to commit to a trip to the cinema, let alone anything long-term. His standard reply to any suggestion was, ‘Could do …’ They ate, drank, laughed and made love every weekend at his house or hers; any serious conversation with Sagittarius-man was impossible. Gifts from him were generous, thoughtfully-chosen and beautifully wrapped. Laura was happy.
‘So how long have you been bogged down with this Sagittarius guy?’ Laura and her friend, Bridget, tucked into plates of pasta in the new café bar at the top of town.
‘Nearly a year.’
‘I thought you were going for the full zodiac. You’ve only managed six signs so far. Don’t tell me you’re going to stick with him …’
‘Could do …’ Laura tipped back her chair and laughed.

All the Stars in Heaven Penny Ellis

The stars are glowing above me, each with its five, six or seven points, so close I feel I can almost reach out and touch them. That’s what they look like, but I know that stars are huge balls of gas giving out light and heat from immense fusion reactions. They are light years apart. But here I am floating, weightless, adrift in space surrounded by them. There’s no Sun nearby or planets and the patterns of the stars are not the ones I learned to recognise in pictures. It doesn’t matter. I can pick out my own constellations and give them names. There’s the cup with a handle of a ring of stars and the cat with a long curving tail. That rectangle of stars looks like a robot and over there, that’s a tree.
Space isn’t silent but I’m used to the sounds now: the hiss of the air line; the slurp of the pump; the beep-beep of the instrument panel. The cable connects me to the spaceship so I can stay and watch the stars for as long as I wish.
I have been watching them so long that they are starting to fade. Already some have disappeared. I feel sleepy. I am. . .

The change of tone from the monitor woke her. Instead of the regular pips there was a continuous squeal. It was dark, still night-time. She leapt from the chair. The screens were showing straight lines not regular, reassuring waves. The door swung open. Nurses and a doctor rushed in. They clustered around the bed, peering at the instruments.
She stood at the side looking at the little body under the covers. There was so little left of him now, he was almost weightless. The mask covered his face, tubes and wires linked him to the machines. But his eyes were still open, staring unblinking at the ceiling.
He so loved the stars. He had learned all the regular constellations, Orion, The Great Bear, Cassiopeia. He could point out the stars of his birth sign, Taurus, as well as the other signs of the Zodiac.
The real stars in the sky couldn’t be seen from his hospital bed so they’d put some phosphorescent stickers on the ceiling. Then they added more and more until the walls and ceiling were covered. By day, almost invisible, they absorbed energy from the artificial lighting and from the sunlight streaming through the window. Then at night when the lights were turned off, the blinds closed and the room empty but for him and her, they gave out their pale glow. They seemed to delight him, and he watched them until, before they dimmed, he fell asleep.
Now his eyes were open but unseeing. The machines continued their whine. The medical staff fussed but she knew it was in vain. He had gone from the sickly body that could not be repaired. Maybe, freed from the restrictions of life, he really was floating amongst the stars.


1st Prize

The Stolen Horse by Adele Cordner

I was given a new pedestal at my foreign home,
blue eyes peered at me, puzzled at my pose,
small fingers poked into my open mouth,
stroked my rippled mane, my flared nostrils.

My keeper polished my skin until he saw
his white reflection in the sheen of my bronze
while the flames from his grate flickered
behind him. I heard him whisper words

to justify his actions. His lips pouted kisses
as he formed the sounds: coolie, war, opium,
but his eyes glistened with the poison
of revenge, empire, expansion and destruction.

He is long gone, the soldier that cut me
from the fountain, stole me from my place
amongst the twelve honoured creatures. He hid me
in a back room, years later, covered me in a cloth

after his granddaughter stuffed an apple
between my teeth, watched it rot, asked questions
about my origins which he did not answer, instead
showed her his medals and a monochrome photo

of the Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China.
Now, I am returned, auctioned, donated, my net worth
of many millions a paltry token of compensation
for the looting, the burning, the demise of a dynasty.

Since 1860, there is no palace of national treasures,
no zodiac fountain or gardens, just old ash feeding new trees.
I no longer tell time nor spout water, but at the museum,
reading my plaque, tears spill freely from my visitors’ brown eyes.

2nd Prize

Capricorn Man by Christine Griffin

Here in the sweating tropics he curses
through endless days of  jungle-cackle,
creaking fans, angry insect-droning.
The overpowering stench of oleander sickens him.
Hot winds blow red dust into every crevice,
streaking his sweat-soaked shirts.

He raves through steamy nights,
fearing the threatening buzz,
the slightest slit in his net prison.
Dawn brings no relief as another blistering sun
attacks the shutters, snakes round blinds,
forces the ugly stink of ylang ylang
into the Residence.

He longs for hoar-frost icing the hedgerows,
crisp shadows, clouds of breath filling the frosty air.
He aches for the tang of pine,
the smell of old leaves under skeleton trees.
He misses darkness, blackbirds stark in snow,
coal-black night skies, stars like scattered diamonds,
the clarity of a stripped down landscape,
the comfort of fur, wood fires, flickering candles.
Capricorn Man
he has winter in his bones.

3 rd Prize

Zodiacal Sign by Adam Cairns

McKenzie at the edge of the city.
When the last bus returns to the depot
he watches the floodlights die and darkness
spill from its sump. The sky is full of stars,
but no moon. He walks down to the chippy
looking up, humming a tune as he goes.
He knows The Plough, Orion at a guess,
but does better with the names of bars.

His chips come wrapped in an old newspaper.
There’s a horoscope with a drawn red line
under Libra. ‘Sunday you may prefer
something slower’. ‘Drink brandy over wine’.
‘Make time for the people you love’. Show her,
someone’s written. He takes it as a sign.

Highly commended

Prayer of the Zodiac Night 15th April 2022 by Karlostheunhappy

and only the soft treetops remain stroked by sun
(except for our Forest’s now gold crown – May Hill);
a pale full Spring moon has risen early to regard her sweet golden splendour
(whilst I scribble in a little notebook my full moon heart of loneliness) –
like scars of scowles –
but this Aries evening
not that torturing darkness
when, instead, the amber evening slumberlight slides to die and
kindly into moonglow
(and thankfulness) –

Hubble reads the stars by Mair De-Gare Pitt

Hubble looked up.
What did it see?
A sky dotted with      red 
space peppered with scattered suns
millions upon millions.
Omega Centauri
                                       170 light years across
                                                                       16,000 light years from Earth
                                                 Numbers too great to comprehend.

At its centre a giant black hole the weight of 40,000 suns

Hubble looked down
into the heart, brain, soul of each
millions upon millions.
                                                Numbers too great to comprehend.
What did it see?
A great black hole?
Or a shining star?