Short Story Competition 2022 Adult Category Winner Camilla Sykes ‘Ebb and Flow’
Freezing…. you're freezing cold and wet. A high-pitched drill rings inside your head.
Blue-black water rises and falls, tossing you from its crests to the troughs of hell.
Gnarling white teeth snap at you from all directions. A sharp pain is lodged in one of your shoulders - in this flicker of consciousness, you can't tell if it's the left or right. And there's a stinging sensation, like alcohol being poured over an open wound. You splutter and spew out a cocktail of saltwater and diesel.
How could you not bother with a lifejacket? You were drunk then, but you're raw- knuckle sober now. Pressure pounds at your skull. The swell thrusts you upwards, and through bleary eyes you see a distant row of lights on the shore. It could be Morocco or Spain. You turn around and the jutting rock of Gibraltar looms into your peripheral vision. Judging by its size, you know it's too far to swim. You must be out in the shipping lane, subject to the colliding currents between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Kicking and fraying, you wait for the next peak to see if an ocean liner is drawing up behind you, threatening to drag you under its steel bows and churn you into its propeller.
Instead, in the dim moonlight, you catch a glimpse of the dull-grey inflatable boat. It's upside down on the next rising wave. Then your memory kicks in - the tequila shots, your brother taking Valentina's hand and leading her outside, the woman you love, how the fury brewed inside you, how you could never let this go - betrayal of the most sinister kind. You recall grabbing the keys to his RIB and pelting out for a joyride, zigzagging across the Straights in the dead of night. The exhilaration of hurtling into the blackness in a super-turbo dinghy had blasted the circling vultures of self-pity from your mind until you'd spun the wheel into a lateral wave and capsized.
You swim towards the upturned boat. It's your only hope, and you have to reach it before the levante wind carries it further into the mouth of the Atlantic. Shooting pain renders your shoulder immobile. Your blood must be blending with the diesel-coated sea now. How long before the sharks smell it? They say sharks can detect blood from miles away. Although you've heard that killer whales are the main predators out here.
lcy saltwater blows into your face, making you choke. On the next rise, you can still see the RIB, the same distance ahead. Your Jordan I high tops are slowing you down. Drawing a knee to your chest, you fumble with the laces. The current pulls you under. You let go and try to force the shoe off with the other foot, but this only tightens the laces. Each second that passes puts the boat further away.
Panic wedges into your gut. Again, you tug at the laces, and this time manage to yank a cord that releases the knot. One foot is free. You clamour at the other lace until you can toe off that trainer as well. What if the shoes disturb a sleeping whale as they sink to the ocean floor? The thought propels your legs to kick harder and your good arm to thrash against the turbulent surf. But your muscles are stiff and slow to respond. Blades of cold cut into your thighs. You've heard it said that it only takes a
couple of hours for hyperthermia to fasten its grip on a body.
Rolling over, you change to backstroke. Above you, the sky is a picture of serenity. The half-moon smiles down on you, and you think of Valentina – the expression of bewilderment in her eyes as your brother led her away. She'd hate him as much as you if she knew you were fighting for your life because of his egotistical play for power. He'll never make it as a drug lord, that much you know. But if you survive tonight, you'll become a legend - an invincible hero.
Something slithers past your foot.
Or did it? Because you can't feel your feet. They're numb, like your fingers and cars. Diesel-laced saltwater lashes into your nostrils, and the current sweeps you under again. You come up gasping and haul oxygen into your lungs. Treading water, you try to get your bearings. Another wave throws you into a backwards somersault. The next time you open your eyes, you're high up, and you can see the far-off lights of Tangier... but not the RIB. You set your course regardless and kick madly towards the Atlantic. The wind must be blowing the boat faster than you can swim. If you could make a sail, it might work. You could use your tracksuit top, but the pain in your shoulder is unbearable.
The caterwaul of a seagull pierces through the rumbling noise of the wind and sea.
You didn't know birds flew out this far at night. You've seen the gulls viciously attack pigeons in Casemate's Square and pray this one hasn't come for you. The bleak realisation that you might not make it flashes in your mind like a strobe. The last thought you have before another wave curls over you is that you don't want Valentina to have to identify your body with the eyes pecked out.
It's quieter underneath. Water seeps into your lungs. Opposing forces tug at you the current wrenching you down, while a loving presence lifts you upwards. You lull in a peaceful limbo between the living and the dead. The urge to fight dissipates and is replaced by a sense of bliss like you've never known. You succumb to a sweet persuasion to allow the consciousness to be withdrawn from your cells.
Floating higher and higher, you see your body, and the RIB a good fifty meters ahead. Then, as if in a dream, a radiant light beckons, and you willingly merge into its warm embrace.
Winner: Camilla Sykes with Ebb and Flow. Sibling rivalry between two drug traffickers has led our protagonist on a reckless spree out into the Straits on a RIB. The doomed joyride is fuelled by sexual rivalry and alcohol. But the boat capsizes and a frantic struggle for survival ensues. This is the heart of our narrative: an exciting, desperate attempt to survive alone, cold and lost in a welter of freezing water.
The story is expertly handled with powerful descriptions of the protagonist flailing about to remain afloat, battling against lethal hypothermia, avoiding predatory sharks and killer whales at the same time as he lunges forward to reach the capsized RIB.
Occasionally, and in order to emphasize the sheer horror of the experience, tranquil moments punctuate the narrative: the half-moon shines in the night sky, thoughts of Valentina cross his mind, until he slips into semi-consciousness as water engulfs his lungs.
The narrative is all the more effective because of the ambivalent ending. The radiant light could be a rescuing ship, the reflection of the moon, or the prelude to a post-mortem existence. Well done!
Adult Category Runner-Up
I'd been meaning to clear the boxes piled in the attic for years, but had always found an excuse for putting this off- "no time", "not a priority", "dust allergies", "cut finger" .... the list was never ending, but sometimes circumstances and 'needs must' take over and I finally couldn't put it off any longer.
So, here I was in an old pair of jeans and a motheaten jumper, sitting on the floor of the afore mentioned attic with one of the many boxes open in front of me. I'd chosen this one because I hoped it would ease me in gently, filled with scraps of study material, written ramblings, old letters and the such. I ploughed in, pulling things out, sorting everything into different piles, to throw away, to check or to keep, and was doing well (or at least the pile of 'to keep' was doing well!), until I found the poem.
Suddenly the years rolled away, and with the accompanying knots in the stomach, I was catapulted back to that summer of teenage angst, of upheaval and emotional confusion, of burgeoning adult hood seen through the fears and hopes of my still childlike filters. I sat back, leaning against the slanted beam and drifted away to those heady days of unfettered extremes and to that first awakening of the realisation that something was finishing and something new was beginning, and the consequent dread of change this brought me!
He erupted into my life in a cloud of second-hand impressions and overheard comments from those who already knew him. His arrival was eagerly anticipated and feted, endowed with all the qualities of a demi-god he appeared larger than life even before I met him. Hence, I was not blown away by my first sight of the rather squat, swarthy specimen that descended on our little cohort. There was nothing spectacular or remarkable about him - except for those eyes of deep velvet brown.
I didn't expect to be noticed, the dull little sister, inconspicuous and unassuming, watching from the fringes, hoping desperately for the courage to join the group yet dreading I'd be noticed. I'm not sure when I became aware that he was watching me too, but I was slowly drawn into his magnetic sphere hanging on his every word like all the others.
To think no thoughts was bad enough,
To think the wrong ones worse,
These things he said and I believed,
His effortless 'savoir faire' drew me in while at the same time irritating me, I didn't want to be pulled in following the others, I wanted to resist, to remain impervious to his effortless magnetism but gently, like a limp fish on a line, I was reeled in. From the fringes I watched the posturing, the circling and vying for his approbation and attention, the over loud laughs and the fawning comments, everyone wanted to be with him, to be him and yet, instinctively, I felt underlying currents of something uglier already brewing and, a little removed as I was, I watched and noted the slowly shifting attitudes.
It started unobtrusively, a discreet whispered aside, an almost inconspicuous flexing of a muscle, a testing of the ground, assessing how far to push, no one wanted to be the first one to break ranks and risk getting left out in the cold, dropped from one circle before a new one was formed, excluded from the inner cabal.
The gentle unfurling of butterfly wings
Morphed into menacing shadows,
Circling with vicious intent and talons,
In feathered guise, extended
I knew he hadn't sought or felt entitled to the attention and adulation, it was handed to him, but now those same people resented and begrudged the standing they had given him, wanting to wrench it from him but not sure how or with what they would replace it. He remained strong, visibly unaffected, but the eyes that before held nothing but open friendship now held something deeper and more inscrutable, as though evaluating their actions he understood exactly why this had to be. I watched, drawn ever deeper into the unfolding drama, compelled by those eyes that seemed to find me constantly.
The sharpened beaks no longer masked
With shrill discordance lunging,
Meeting stoic unmoving trust
With cacophonous zeal deriding
I moved forward, no longer so far out in the fringes, after all there was space now where others had moved off, and as I drew closer he turned, looked me straight in the eyes, and smiled. To my utter surprise, it wasn't a smile of regret or loss or sadness, it was one of warmth and fun, and as he saw my uncertainty, he threw back his head and laughed. A deep laugh full of unrestrained humour that rocked his body and made his eyes water, a laugh so contagious that soon I was laughing with him. He took my arm and led me away, the others looked after us not sure if they should follow, after all they were the ones pushing him away, he was supposed to be beaten, he was supposed to be trying to hang on to them, not leaving without a care in the world. They hoped he'd be crushed as they knocked him off the pedestal they'd placed him on, and as we left without a backward glance we felt their disconcerted eyes following us.
Completely lost in the reverie, the poem resting on my lap, I didn't notice a head popping up through the loft opening until a deep voice said "I see you've really made a dent in the clearing ...." and a pair of laughing brown eyes smiled into mine. I didn't need to read the rest, the unstructured and badly metred words just a memory now, I knew the ending and as I leant over and dropped a kiss on his nose I whispered,
Till of the god only a man was left.
Runner-up: Yvonne Sacarello with The Poem. Old things are consigned to the attic, forgotten and then re-discovered with a sense of amazement, nostalgia and yearning. The speaker, a woman, is sorting out odds and ends in her attic when she comes across a poem. She then constructs a moving narrative which both recreates a powerful emotional experience and at the same time serves as a commentary on the poem.
She recalls the encounter, when she was still young, unprepossessing and timid, with a man on whom everyone fawned, looked up to and praised. She remembers how the circle of admirers swirled around the stranger, apotheosising him and placing him on a pedestal. But the inevitable disenchantment ensued: the god has feet of clay and the friends are ‘morphed into menacing shadows;’ they have removed their masks to reveal ‘the sharpened beaks.’ It is then that she realises that the quondam hero has feelings for her. The unexpected ending confirms our suspicion that the diffident young woman and the demigod have ended up together.
The poem traces the metamorphosis which occurs among the so-called friends. Their ‘vicious intent’ when the ‘butterfly wings’ change into talons. The imagery conveys the nasty resentment behind the amiable exterior. This story is a very mature blending of poetry and prose.
Adult Category Highly Commended
‘The Radical Power Of A Song’
There's a song that weaved through her life long before her childhood had been extinguished. The song became the backdrop to the seventies alongside David Cassidy, bell-bottoms and fuzzy felt. She first heard it as an impressionable eight-year-old girl.
When recalling those days, she would picture her lanky self, perched at her bedroom window nestled amidst the olive-green shuttered balcony enjoying the last few moments of the Mediterranean sun. Her short dark hair dripping wet, pixie style and smelling of Johnson's shampoo, always parted to the left in celebration of her idol Twiggy. She would wear her soft pastel blue nightdress and pink furry slippers, a size too big, always a size too big. They were bought in anticipation of her progressing to the next size, she couldn't wait to grow up. Little did she know that in years to come, she would realise that growing up is severely overrated.
She would patiently wait for the retail world to shut down during the evening, then like magic, another world would awaken in those narrow-cobbled streets that were so familiar to her. The grown-up world of bars would open each night, and the busiest one stood right across the street from her three-storey block of flats, The Glorious Bar it was called, and there was nothing glorious about it.
As the sun would bow out, and the dark would sneakily creep in, she would watch the comings and goings in her protected balcony and await the sound of the iron padlocks signalling opening time. The padlocks would creak noisily as the bartender opened the double doors to welcome the impatient customers already queuing up. She would never forget that irritating, creaking sound, and at the time, she would place her hands over her ears tightly to block out the noise. It never worked, and she subjected herself to the rigmarole of doors opening each night. Then she would wait patiently for the song to play.
Standing on tiptoes she would stretch out her neck to observe the thirsty men queuing up by the bar demanding alcoholic beverages, then each one would walk towards the jukebox trancelike, carrying their drink tightly as if their life depended on it. She was curious about adults' behaviour and couldn't quite understand their fascination with a frothy beverage drink that resembled urine, and probably tasted like it. She would watch it all unfold and listened out for the 'clink' sound as each punter would slot a shiny ten pence coin in the Jukebox, then Roberta Flack's haunting melody 'Killing me softly' would commence.
She enjoyed hearing the tune rise to her window, awaiting the chorus with anticipation, mouthing as many words as she had been able to memorise in the weeks prior. In years to come, she would close her eyes and upon hearing the tune, her memory would float back to her cosy bedroom, her spacesaving fold up bed and Pippi Longstocking duvet cover. Visions of her teenage sister entering their shared bedroom after returning from a late night out, walking clumsily in her ill-fitting platform boots, trying to sneak in quietly but failing abysmally at it.
Momentarily, she would feel a wave of sadness remembering the long goodbye she was subjected to in the hours before her brother set off to university. The dreaded phone call her father received after dark, leaving him bereft of a mother, and her of a grandmother, and she recalled the family bent over with sadness, receiving the news from afar. The memories would swim around her mind in a neverending pattern.
The song became a backdrop enveloping the family throughout the early years, and in her infantile brain, she would try to piece together the words of the song, to try to make sense of them. Who was killing who and why was he strumming her pain with his fingers?
The rank smell of alcohol emanating from the bar, together with the association of the song was a marriage that would haunt her for years, leading to an intolerance to alcohol. If she was ever unfortunate enough to be in the same vicinity as any spirits, the smell would bring her right back to that time, and images of the local drunk Paolo strutting out of that bar each night would emerge. She would flinch at the thought of him looking disorientated, walking from side to side, greasy hair in severe need of a haircut, swigging a beer bottle in his hand. She always peeped behind the net curtains, terrified that he would look up at the window and see her.
For five decades the song would come to her mind, and the heaviness that carried each of Roberta Flack's words would reverberate in her ears. By the time she would listen to the third chorus, her mood would drop to a filthy grey, but she would make herself listen, as the song had bore witness to her childhood and was the evidence that it had existed.
It was only years later she learnt the story that marked the song, a young female musician struggling to find the space where her voice and ideas would be respected and not used whenever it best suited the purpose of others. It held a meaning far beyond the reaches of the bar, it had not been a mere song, but a radical statement she learnt to live by.
She recalled when the Glorious Bar was demolished, it felt like a part of her early life crumbled too; and a few years on, the three-storey block of flats she had lived in was rebuilt into a Scandinavian mini market. Echos of her past were now only relegated to memory.
She no longer had the pink furry slippers or the pastel blue nightdress.
The only thing that would sustain her from that early period in her life would be that song.
Highly Commended: Michele Attias with The Radical Power of Song. A song, its melody and lyrics, can become lodged in our minds and evoke memories, reminiscences and deep feelings. A woman, now in her fifties or sixties, recalls the role played by the well-known seventies melody, ‘Killing me softly,’ in her life. The song weaves its way into her fondest memories: the death of her grandmother, her brother leaving for university, her elder sister tip-toeing into their shared bedroom late at night.
The first part of this bewitching story concentrates on re-creating the atmosphere in ‘The Glorious Bar’, the honky-tonk opposite her balcony: the creaking of the padlocks, the half-drunk punters gingerly transporting their urine-like beer to the jukebox and Paolo, befuddled, stumbling and reeking of alcohol.
But it is the song which makes the story so touching and humane. The mysterious lyrics exercise their fascination and become a commentary on her growing up and, when she leaves childish things behind, serves as an umbilical cord connecting her to her lost childhood. This is a very moving and beautifully written story.