As promised we are publishing the stories written by the three winners and three runners up who together made up our six finalists
Bronwen Steele (Winner)
The little dragon shivered in the January cold. The small hole he slept in – he had once heard it called a mouse-hole – had absorbed the same damp, heavy chill as the rest of the old house.
Once he could have breathed a fire to life, but now his dragon-flame had shrunk so dull and deep within his chest that it felt almost as small and cold and heavy as the heart which sat next to it.
In the past, people living in the house had kept it warm. Now, there was seldom anyone there. When he woke shivering in the night, he simply went back to sleep. After all, he was used to the cold, and the silence, and the dark empty house.
He was used to being alone with his small failing flame and his small sad heart.
He just tried not to think about it.
The next morning, the house was warm.
Thick morning sunlight spilled through the entrance to the hole and the sound of shuffling paper from the room outside disturbed the quiet. He peeked out cautiously. A fire was roaring in the grate and a woman sat at the desk opposite him. Her back was to him, and he wondered what her face was like, whether it was stern or sad or kind. Curiosity and warmth – that delicious warmth which made him feel so comfortable – lured him – one foot, then another – from the hole. Silently, slowly, he crept round the side of the room. He had nearly glimpsed her face when she seemed to sense something. She turned and looked right at him and there was nowhere to hide.
“A – a dragon?” she stammered.
He nodded. He straightened his small scaly shoulders.
“Well,” she said. “Hello. I’m Cornelia.”
There was silence. A hot spark of shame ignited unexpectedly in his chest and he looked down.
“It-” His voice was so quiet and dry it could have been paper crackling. “It’s been so long since anyone used it… I can’t remember my name.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you anyway,” she said gently. “When I saw the advert, I thought this would be the perfect place to finish working on my book. I didn’t know I would be lucky enough to meet a dragon.”
I’m glad you came.” He looked up shyly. “It’s good to have someone in the house, and to have a fire going again.”
She glanced from him to the grate.
“Couldn’t you -” But she didn’t finish the sentence.
The spark in his chest flared till it hurt. Quickly, the dragon closed his eyes and took three slow breaths.
His father had taught him to do this when the fire welled until it burned, to push down the flames before they came scorching along his windpipe.
That was just after his mother left.
Before that, the little dragon had breathed fire all the time and it hadn’t hurt one bit. It had been big and bright and beautiful. Just like everything else.
He opened his eyes. He took a breath.
“What’s your book about?” he asked.
They fell into an easy rhythm. March arrived, then April.
Each morning, Cornelia drank coffee while he curled in a desk corner. She read to him from her manuscript, making notes and discussing changes. She was writing about a strange, foreign city and, as the days went on, he felt that he could almost see it, the sea-coloured spires and domes, the streets of water instead of stone, the pigeons – bigger than he was – and the ragged children who ran through its alleyways, dreaming in its shadows.
In the afternoons, he slept while Cornelia explored the city and looked at the cathedral.
Until one day the telephone rang as Cornelia was putting on her coat. He could hear her speaking in the hallway, muffled and agitated. Finally, she came back in.
“I have to go home,” she said. “Just for a couple of weeks.”
She glanced at the manuscript on the desk.
“I’ll leave it for you to read while I’m away,” she said. “I’ll be back on the twenty-second.”
She was gone by early evening.
The twenty-second came but Cornelia did not. It was a grey, mild, miserable day, and the little dragon waited anxiously, pacing the desk. When darkness settled, he went to bed with his heart cold.
The next morning, she still wasn’t there.
He stood and looked at the room, at the pages he had arranged carefully on the desk.
She wasn’t coming back.
A rage and pain so big he felt his body could not contain it grew in him. It grew until the little dragon felt that he must surely grow with it, bigger than the desk, bigger than the whole room, bigger than the street outside, bigger than the world itself. He must or his bones would break.
She wasn’t coming back.
He wanted Venice to burn until there was nothing.
The door opened but Cornelia stopped in the doorway. He stood on her desk in the midst of the ash that had been her carefully crafted world, her creation, her book.
I don’t care, he thought fiercely. But he couldn’t look at her. The fire in his chest burned and burned. Tears scalded his feet.
“I want my mother,” he said.
He began to weep harder.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Cornelia carried him outside for the first time in years and they sat together on the stone steps leading to the front door.
“It was only a copy, you know. For editing. The notes will be gone but the book remains. We do not have to start from the beginning again.”
She put her hand on his back.
“It will be alright,” she said.
Weak but determined, spring sunshine was breaking through. A slow, gentle warmth began to spread through him. At last, he looked up at his friend.
“I can remember my name,” he said.
Initials in her Heart – by Allegra Marland (Winner)
He’ll come. They promised him leave, so he’ll come. He’ll be there to see you enter this world.
You, sweet you, made with so much love, in a time of so much hate. Your arrival will silence the
sounds of war. And he’ll come from it, for you.
Gosh, is that you? That sharp, striking pain ripping up into my throat all the way from my waist?
Can that be you little one? You were so quiet before. So still. Be still now please. Be still and let
me talk to you.
Goodness, you again? Aren’t you head strong! Just. Like. Me.
“Mother I will not go to the Market. Not alone, NOT AGAIN. I’m too tired.” That’s how it began,
my staying in bed. I was tired. Oh. so. tired. One too many trips to the Market Square had tipped
me over the edge and into bed. My bed. My lovely, lofty bed. Only now I couldn’t seem to leave.
My ever elongating limbs wouldn’t let me. I simply could not seem to rise up and out of the
gorgeousness of the goose feathers. My head, you see, my head had started to thud, and my
limbs began to pulse. Like a heart beat radiating all over my body. And suddenly the room spun
round me and I was looking down at my bed, my blankets, my baby doll. “There they are, but
where am I?” I wondered as I floated above them all, spinning and spinning. How cold, how
quiet, how white they seemed, without me there to snuggle into. White. My favourite colour. The
colour of milk.
It is a feeling I have come to know oh. so. well. That floating. That thudding. Opening night at
The Gate Theatre – an ingenue in flight! But suddenly my heels headed over my head and I was
floating again. The same old thud nudging me out of my body and into… well I’ve never known
It is that feeling that told me you had come to be. Tucked away, deep inside me. The
phantomous dressing room faints returned after a longer than usual absence. You felt just like
Simon had. Warm, knowing, and cosy. Like my goose feathers from long ago. So I knew it was
you in there. Letting yourself in the front door and making yourself at home.
I’d done similar you see. Six years old, rat tat tatting on Edith’s door. Oh Edith. My saviour.
Blanket and baby doll hugged each other under my arm as I followed her through the bright
hallway. “HOME!” she hollered “For now at least…Let’s make a go of it ey?” The floating had
turned to falling and Mother said I wasn’t safe. The thumping wouldn’t stop you see and my
brother couldn’t catch it too. Two thudering floaters in one family wouldn’t do. So there was
Edith. My fairy godmother. I wasn’t always so sure I would survive it all. Wasn’t sure at all. But
Edith was. She didn’t give it a moment’s thought, so after a while neither did I.
As always she was right. I did survive didn’t I sweet one? I survived it all. For you, for Simon, for
him. And he will be here. Just hold on tight on this cold November night.
AHHHHHHYYEEEEEEEEEEEE… You’re coming already? But WAIT! IS HE HERE YET? HE IS
HERE ISN’T HE? HE WILL COME, HE SAID HE’D… AHHHHYYEEEEEEEEEEEEE YEEEE!!!!!!
Just like that! YOU! Perfect you. The sweetest and purest of forms. My you.
You flew out of me as a Robin, yes you heard me, a ROBIN! flew in. “Looking for someone” I
asked? He stared back at us, mother and child, from the window sill and I think I even saw him
smile. So maybe he did come after all, in the winged form of something else.
That darned old thud thud thud won’t leave me darling. Awfully boring now. I know it oh. so. well.
Since that six year old me was turned upside down exclaiming “Mother I can walk on the
ceiling!” It marked my last trip to market though, so something worked in my favour.
With Edith I tasted coffee. I tasted sugared almonds. I tasted grapes, and marzipan and marbled
chocolate birthday cake. But nothing compared to how much I loved her sweet Wilton milk. Our
daily dairy outing and the lick of creamy white delight on my upper lip sent shivers through me
and brought me back to life.
Lie here little one and drink my milk. Drink the milk of life. Drink as much as you possibly can. I’ll
see the thumping gets quieter. Then I’ll be able to hear you and see you better. Leave it to me
little one. I’ll clear up this pestering fuzziness.
I dream a while while you drink. I dream of walking to and from the Market square laden with
pales of milk. A little girl laden with the weight of what she loves. I stumble through the Close,
past those big wooden gates, the spire like a lighthouse glimmering before me as I go back and
forth and back and forth for more marvellous milk. But each time I get home my pales are
empty. Each time I am more tired, too tired to face the journey again, but I push on. I push and
push until finally I can no longer push and I drop the pales, I let them roll down the hill. I watch
them burst open and flood the river. The banks and the water meadows glisten with spilt milk.
Luminescent. Aglow. So it was there after all! I’d done my bit. I had managed on my own. I’d
collected what I’d been sent out for.
So darling one, drink! There is plenty to go round. And don’t worry. He will be here soon. He’ll…
Oh look! Sweet one! Look! Look up to the window! The Robin! He’s still here, keeping an eye on
us. And as I slip away from you and all that surrounds us, the thud thud thud is no more
Clementine Ebel (Winner)
To the bravest woman I know
“Isn’t she glorious?” She asked, extending her arm towards the earth. I followed the line of her finger and smiled. “Perfect. She is absolutely perfect.” There, amidst the beds of wild leaves was a bold, scarlet face. A single livid eye stared out from orange petals that arched backwards towards the earth. Bending down, I parted its lids carefully, to reveal a thin and hairy tongue lying deep within. I crouched like that for several minutes, mesmerised by the flower’s violent beauty.
When I stood up, I realised Granny wasn’ there. Turning my head, I saw her tiny frame leaning into the garden wire. In her green corduroy trousers and Barbour jacket, she merged with the pines. Only her fine grey hair distinguished her from the leaves. As I approached, she began to speak without turning her face. “Every night I come here, and I say a prayer. Sometimes, I pray for you. Sometimes, I pray for Janey. But mostly, I thank him that we are still here, together, in this magical place.” I held my breath, not wanting her to stop. “My only fear”, she continued slowly, “is that, if anything should happen to me, what would he do? What would he do here, alone?”
A sharpness rose up, a mixture of gratitude and grief that swelled within my ribcage. “I must keep myself healthy for him. I must do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.” Her eyes hardened with determination. I had not seen that expression for several years…
We had been sitting outside the practice room for a few minutes before we heard the crack of the handle and Geneviève poked her head around the door.
“C’est bon. Entré”, she called before disappearing again.
I turned to Granny with a faint smile. “There’s Cruella”, I whispered.
I had already picked up my case and was shuffling towards the room when I felt her hand on top of mine.
“Don’t let her bully you”, she said and moving ahead of me, she swung the door open wide.
The girl in the room was a few years younger than me. Her long black hair fell over her cello, as she leant over its wooden belly to pull in the spike. She looked up at me briefly, grimacing slightly. From outside, I had heard sharp shouts, the “non, mais nons” we’d all grown familiar to, and heavy, exasperated sighs. Standing against the back wall with her arms pulled across her wide chest, Geneviève glanced towards my grandmother who had drawn up a chair by the door.
“C’est qui?” She asked, jolting her chin upwards. “Ta mère n’arrive pas?”
I had begun to stammer a few words when my grandmother stood up.
“I am Pippa’s grandmother. You can call me Mary.” She sat back down and lifted her handbag onto her knees. In one movement, she drew out a small book, opening it at the bookmark.
Geneviève raised an eyebrow. “Well, we are already running late.” Gesturing towards the case, she snapped, “get it out quickly and start with the études. You have, I hope, practiced them this time.”
I placed the thick yellow volume on the stand, which rocked under its weight. I had left my cahier at home and couldn’t remember which exercises she had asked me to prepare. Nervously, I turned the pages one by one, biding my time. In silence, she watched me over the rim of her glasses.
“Numéro treize?”, I ventured.
Non. In a rising voice she told me that we had never studied that exercise together. We had not started arpeggios at all. Had I opened the volume since last Saturday? Did I think she set them for fun? How would I ever fix my left hand if I didn’t do the études?
Just as she began her torrent of questions, I heard a book snap close. “Why are you shouting?” My grandmother broke in. Geneviève turned her head sharply. “I am not shouting.” “You are. You do not need to shout. Pippa can hear you perfectly well.” She said, folding her hands in her lap.
Geneviève pursed her lips. “Why come to my lesson if you have not practiced?” As she spoke, she turned back to me. “She will never be good if she doesn’t practice.”
“She will never be good if she is afraid.” She began, ignoring my agitated glances.
As we walked slowly along the vast, concrete tunnel leading towards Barbican station, she
turned to me. “There are some people who try to make others feel small. They feel the need to control others. You must not let them.”
As the final whisper of pink light sunk behind the trees, I returned to the kitchen, leaving her at the edge of the garden. For years, I had observed her evening ritual, as she emerged from the garage in her little white gardening shoes. At six o’clock, with small and precise steps, she would begin her steady approach towards the fence. First, she would trace a perfect circle around the goldfish pond before pausing at the bulbous hedges. She would drop her chin in apology for their brutal trimming. Once she had passed them, she moved up towards the fence, planting herself between the flower beds and the garden wire, where she would look out towards the river.
Until that day, I had always wondered why it was that every night she made her daily procession through the garden. Was she counting the cows? Or was she watching Mrs Birch drag her frail collie through the grass? I had understood it as the need for routine, a human tendency towards structures of time that carve up the day into neatly identifiable parts. I had never noticed the handful of irises nestled between the bushes, their wild and rare beauty shielded by the dense fans of leaves around them. They were entirely dependent on her love and care, and without her devotion, would cease entirely to exist.
By Alex Geaney (Runner-up)
To Elizabeth and Katherine
For being my Portman sisters,
And Zoe, for helping me to pay attention.
“I’ve got a text!” shouted Ava.
“Alright, Love Island,” replied Phoebe.
“Is it ‘good chat’?” asked Celia, “because that’s always the most important question.”
“He’s coming to fix it tomorrow, so the chat is ‘fire’ as far as I’m concerned. Working hot water is certainly the way to my heart.”
“That and brownies,” retorted Phoebe.
It had been three days since the three sisters had arrived at their new humble abode, Mompesson House. It had also been three days since Phoebe, Ava or Celia had encountered anything other than a frosty reception from the various taps and showers littering their sprawling, slightly dysfunctional, new digs.
“At least he’s on it and we don’t have to attempt another plumbing botch job like back at home,” said Ava.
“I think there’ll be plenty of other ‘botch jobs’ to be done to get this place up together, but we’ll get there,” replied Phoebe.
“I think it’ll be fun,” chimed Celia. “It’s a fresh start, a way to forget everything that happened at home.”
The three had tried and failed to force their former rurality to the recesses of their minds. It’s not that they didn’t love their village, more that their village had come to unlove them.
They maintained they knew nothing of Patrick’s disappearance.
No one believed them.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Phoebe reassured Ceila.
“No. We didn’t,” whispered Ava and Celia in tandem.
The three had been brought up in an ancient Irish community, one which to this day was barely more than a blemish on any map. Its name varied depending on who you asked, but the three had spent many content childhood years there, knowing who they were despite not being able to tell passers-by where they came from.
Brought up by their grandfather, Phoebe, Ava and Celia had always attracted a few looks here and there, but their youthful, unassuming optimism had kept them safely shielded from unspoken blows.
It wasn’t until the girls were a touch older, Phoebe ten, Ava seven, Celia five, that they thought to ask “where’s our mummy and daddy?”
Being a loving man of few words, their granddad simply said, “They’re gone.”
Knowing not to ask too many questions, the girls agreed that must mean that “mummy and daddy died.”
Many years later, long after their grandfather’s death, Phoebe, now twenty-three, Ava and Celia, had felt more than a few indiscrete utterings of ‘abort or abandon’ painfully penetrate their unprotected ears.
Still, life in the village was all they knew. People were pleasant enough, at least to their faces, and that was fine with them. They’d spent their whole lives happily relying on each other, Phoebe plaiting Ava’s short, black hair, teaching her sisters about the power of nature, Celia making the two laugh with her sensitive sarcasm and driving Ava mad with her messiness, and Ava teaching Phoebe how to care a little less about what people thought of her and reminding Celia that there was something to be said for using a chest of drawers.
Patrick had been something of a sympathetic friend to the girls. Against the community’s better judgement, he took the time to help them, often popping in to tend to something the three couldn’t, just as he would for others in the village.
For five years, all was well.
Until Patrick vanished.
Only a piece of his shirt was found in Phoebe, Ava and Celia’s garden.
That was enough to convict them.
“Do you reckon we’ll be safe here?” asked Celia, heaving one of the few filthy boxes inexplicably discarded by one of Mompesson’s historic inhabitants out from under the stairs.
“Yes,” replied Ava, “no one knows we’re here.”
“And no one would think to look for us in a house like this either,” said Phoebe.
“Good point. I have a feeling this place could be the making of us,” Celia tentatively shared.
“What makes you say that?” wondered Phoebe aloud.
“I just think we might make friends here,” replied Celia. “Like that woman in the coffee shop, she seemed cool.”
“The one with the scooter and the ‘I’m disabled, you can stop staring now’ t-shirt?” Ava replied.
“Yeah, her,” said Celia.
“Agreed”, said Ava.
“Do you reckon she’s local?” asked Phoebe.
“Probably,” replied Ava. “It’s not like we’ve moved to the most sprawling city on earth. Let’s be honest, this is a town with an inferiority complex masquerading as a cathedral.”
Phoebe and Celia laughed. You could always rely on Ava for cutting straight to the heart of anything with good humour.
“Well, whenever we next run into her, I say we buy her a hot chocolate or whatever it was she ordered,” announced Phoebe.
“Definitely,” agreed Celia. “She seems to have a lot to say and I want to hear it.”
“I wonder where she got the t-shirt,” pondered Ava.
“Maybe she made it? She had a sort of ‘arty’ vibe about her. Trust me, I have a radar that quietly alerts me whenever my fellow creative spirits are near,” replied Celia.
“If she did that is the definition of making a statement,” said Phoebe.
“One that more people need to take note of too,” Ava resolutely agreed.
A sudden coughing fit from Celia interrupted them, who emerged from a murky mist having made the unwise decision to disturb the dusty contents of the box nearest her.
“Only you could add to the chaos of relocation,” Ava tormented.
“What? This looked interesting,” replied Celia.
“Is it a diary?” asked Phoebe.
“Definitely. ‘This diary belongs to The Portman sisters.’ Once upon a time this must have been theirs. They’ve taken it in turns to write an entry each.”
“Maybe this is Mompesson’s way of telling us to do the same,” said Phoebe.
“Let’s do it,” said Ava, “if the past month has taught us anything, it’s to always keep a record of your movements.”
A Single Heartbeat
Inspired by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke
Laboured breathing until
A shuddering breaths echo
Accompanies the clasping of a small hand
Tears spilling out of eyes
As curtains are drawn.
A mothers-tired sobs
Traverse the halls
And despite her efforts
There remain three children.
A son for a daughter
That none of her words can bargain back.
That none of his money can buy.
And so she goes on
For her science, her Wilton Circle,
Her poetry and psalms,
To continue to write
Amongst these men
Knowing that one day she will follow that heartbeat.
By Tiegan James (Runner-up)
The Unexpected Sapper by Amy Hammett (runner up)
My transformation is complete. I stand in the dusty damp cottage looking at myself in a faded mirror. Here I am— Private Denis Smith. What I see is a boyish Tommy looking back at me wearing the uniform of the Royal Engineers. The outfit is quite tight around the hips and the chest, unlike it would have been on the slim figure of the soldiers who provided me with the garments. It is winter and I have been wearing very little clothing in order to transform myself quickly with little evidence of my crime, and now I have donned these layers my body has finally started to warm up.
The bandages over my body made the fit tighter, but they were necessary to disguise the typical curves of a woman’s form. My long hair had been nervously cut off and shaved by a military policeman, who had become aware of my intentions to join the fighting, but supported me nonetheless. Since then, I have been wearing a hat to disguise my new hairstyle, and although my hat was removed once, I managed to talk my way out of the situation- after all why couldn’t a woman sport a short cut?
Underneath these layers of deception is the full body of a young woman. One, which only a few hours ago, held great interest for the soldiers at the front. It had crossed my mind that I might draw attention to myself as a lone English woman travelling in France, but one that I did not consider to its fullest extent when I left. I have only had one incident of a man acting indecent to me but I fought him off, then made a swift escape on my bicycle. On reflection, a journey from England to France, and across to Albert, should have been fraught with dangers for a woman travelling on her own, from both allies and enemies, but instead I focused on the dangers for the soldiers that were present on the front.
The Lancaster Regiment had noticed me in my female guise cycling past them and some pursued, calling for me to return, but a friendly older engineer found me and hid me from them in a dugout. I told him my plan and he, although thinking I was mad, agreed to assist me. Dear Tom knew I had the uniform and told me to stay in the dugout, but within an hour the fleas residing there had bitten my body to shreds, so I snuck into this nearby abandoned house to wait for the night. The plan is that I should wait in the dugout for the darkness to descend and then Tom would collect me as the regiment passed me. He had warned me not to come into this house in case I was discovered by looters, but I just couldn’t compete with those nasty biting insects any longer.
I am surprised by the number of men who were willing to put themselves at risk of arrest for helping me- from cutting my hair to acquiring me a passport. I will be forever grateful to them, but I can’t help but wonder how they can be so sure that I wasn’t a spy? If I were, then they would have been arrested and shot for treason! Luckily for me they took me at my word that I was doing it because I wanted to record what was happening at the front.
Tired of writing dull articles and unable to pen my own name, I set out with my mission to get first-hand knowledge of the war for people back home. I have every determination to succeed, but I honestly didn’t think I would get to this point! I had thought I could report on the fighting by just being in France, but it became clear that I needed to get in the thick of it to stand any chance of becoming a true journalist. Despite the risk of being discovered or outed dogging me on my journey, I have reached the front and cannot turn back now. I will do my bit and assist in any way I can, but I will not kill.
Far from that dear old cathedral city of Salisbury where I spent my childhood, it is now time to return to that the flea infested dugout, and under the cover of darkness wait to join these men in the fight