INCIDENT ON THE CENTRAL LINE – By Jeff Taylor
Congratulations Jeff. A cheque is on its way to you
I settle into the seat on the night train, and the carriage is nearly empty. I’ll get out at the Junction and then it’s just a short walk to the party. ‘Dress up as someone on the news recently’ was the theme and Suicide Bomb Guy seemed a cheap option. Half a dozen skinny bourbon and coke cans painted dynamite-grey, taped together, and I’ve got the six-pack abs that look the part. Then add a bunch of old phone wires and strap the whole shebang to my chest to complete the effect…
Yeah, bad taste, I know, but we’re students after all and we do bad taste. It’s a BYO party, so I can gradually dismantle my bomb and drink it during the evening.
There’s a couple of teenage girls wearing hijabs across from me. They look like sisters. The city is full of them. Refugees? Or exchange students here to learn English? Lovely faces. Dark expressive eyes. ‘Hi. Where are you from?’ I ask them, friendly like.
The older one shakes her head. ‘Sorry. No speak your country,’ in very broken English, then slides her eyes away. An easy out not to talk to strangers. I just smile, look down and play with my phone – the other fallback for avoiding conversation or eye-contact on public transport.
We’re ten minutes from the station when it happens. I somehow fumble, drop my phone and have to lean forward to pick it up. When I sit up, the atmosphere has frozen even more, and I realise. Shit! Bad decision now to wear my old bomber jacket, thinking it’ll add to my joke at the party, with nothing on my torso underneath but terror. Of course it has gaped, and the two innocents across from me have got a glimpse of my ‘bomb.’
‘No, no,’ I gesture desperately. ‘Party? Fancy dress?’
Their faces have morphed and collapsed, likely into some bad nightmares from their past lives. Their friendly eyes are now like number eight pool balls, before they quickly drop their heads, and shrink, rigid into their seats. I’m panicking. My only option now is that they remain petrified like that until I can bolt at the station, which is just five minutes away, thank goodness. I daren’t leave my seat. I need to stay right here and keep an eye on them.
What? Is the older one is messaging someone? Is that her fingers working inside the pocket of her long gown-thing? How do they do that so effortlessly without looking?
Thankfully, there should be no time for anyone to do anything. Just a few more minutes and I can bolt.
We’re there! I can feel the train slowing, and stand ready to run. The girls still won’t look up, and they’re gripping each other’s hands. Now we’ve stopped. It’s quiet. Then the train speaker crackles into life.
Emergency procedures are activated. All doors are secured. Please remain seated.
A dog barks somewhere.
THE HUSBAND – by Lisa Pegg
‘Don’t dawdle, Margaret, for God’s sake.’
Margaret shuffles behind her husband despondently, her face flushed. The shiny new walking boots she bought from the shiny new Go Outdoors shop keep rubbing shiny new blisters into her feet.
‘I told you not to buy those shoes,’ Keith snaps, emphasising random words in that annoying habit of his. He speeds up, oblivious to her pain. He waves the map over his shoulder like a man leading troops to war. ‘You knew we’d have miles to cover.’
Margaret bites her lip, says nothing. It isn’t as though they’re in a race. The walking group rendezvous is a quiet pub in Hathersage, not the London Marathon finish line.
Keith pushes his way through the trees as they descend the hill, not bothering to hold the branches back for her. Up ahead, sun-speckled tracks signal the halfway point.
She hesitates. Dare she ask? ‘Can we rest for a moment?’
‘What for?’ He halts, anyway and turns to face her as he reaches the track.
‘My legs are aching.’
He scoffs, giving her a look of disdain. She doesn’t think he’s ever given her an affectionate look.
‘It’s your own stupid fault for buying inappropriate shoes.’
‘I haven’t had a chance to bed them in.’
‘Wouldn’t be the first thing, would it?’ he jeers.
She often wonders how she ended up tied to such a bad-tempered man. As she stares at the top of his bald head, red from the sun, she feels a rush of shame. But then she thinks of Beth, their only daughter, who turns fifty this year. More than enough justification for her lifelong commitment to him. She sighs with the weight of an unplanned and unhappy marriage behind it.
Keith clicks his tongue, impatiently. ‘What on earth are you daydreaming about? I don’t know why I bother with you sometimes. Bloody useless, you are.’
She’s ignoring him for once, tilts her head to the sudden vibrating noise of wheels and metal and spitting gravel.
A train is coming.
Margaret catches up with the ramblers group half an hour later.
Danielle, the group leader, welcomes her warmly. ‘We thought we’d lost you! Where’s Keith?’
Margaret shakes her head and sits down, grateful to take the weight off her feet. Her palms sing where they slammed into her husband’s backpack and she is trembling. Her new boots no longer hurt, but she looks like she’s been dragged through a hedge, twigs and dirt stuck in her hair where she darted along the railway and through the woods. She feels oddly disconnected. Elated, almost.
‘Margaret? Everything okay?’ Danielle asks.
She nods, slowly, says: ‘Oh yes.’ A grin spreads across her face, a burst of happiness rushing through her. ‘Will someone buy me a drink?’
Danielle frowns a little but complies, disappears into the publ.
Margaret sighs. She suspects the police will come soon.
Until then she is going to savour a glass of wine, and the remainder of her life without her husband.
WAITING TO HAPPEN – by Ellen Evers
I hate my dad. My mistake was saying it in temper. Now I’m grounded and stuck in my room.
I drag my chair to the window and climb onto the sill. I can just see the tracks if I kneel in the corner.
When Dad said we were moving here I thought it would be like The Railway Children and it is definitely not. Living next to a railway line is the pits and I hate it. Dad’s got this thing about safety, preventing accidents especially near tracks. That’s what his job is here, stopping people, especially kids, from getting killed.
You’d think this would be popular wouldn’t you? But the first thing he did was to put anti-trespassing boards across the tracks. That was the shortcut from the estate to the park and playground where the kids go. It takes ages to go all the way round, and across busy roads. ‘Short-cuts cut short lives,’ he said at the assembly at school. I felt everyone’s eyes on me then.
It’s hard being the new kid at the best of times but when he did that, almost everyone turned on me. Not everyone, though. My friends from ballet were really kind, especially Nadia and Shireen. Before the boards were put down, they used to push their bikes over the tracks and come to call for me. When Dad found out he went mad and stopped me from meeting them.
‘It’s an accident waiting to happen, Dawn.’ He would try to explain and I would flounce off in a strop. He just didn’t understand. These were my only friends. Now the boards were down there was no chance.
It was after ballet when Nadia told me their plan. She’s a star, so brilliant on her points and clever with it. Using a bench to demonstrate, she showed me how they could use their ballet skills to pick their way across the anti-trespass boards.
‘Pimps,’ she grinned, ‘we’ll be over tomorrow night after tea. Meet you in the park at half six.’
And it’s almost that now. I should be able to see them if I lean out of the window. Dad had said I couldn’t go out because it’s getting late, but I’d lost it and screamed at him, instead of trying to talk him round. Good job he doesn’t know what we’ve been planning, he’d go ballistic.
I can see Nadia! She’s leading and Shireen’s following. Wow. They look like proper ballerinas as they flit across the boards. They’re on the last bank.
‘Nadia!’ I shout from my open window, not thinking. ‘Shireen!’
They both look up at the same time and somehow lose their footing, slipping between the planks.
Shireen is trying to pull Nadia up but she’s struggling. I’m screaming for Dad because I can hear the well-known sound of the 6:30 Manchester train as it hurtles towards us.
I close my eyes. I cannot bear it.
An accident waiting to happen.
ESCAPE – by Ro Linton
THE LAST TRAIN – by Vivienne Moles
2020 – in alphabetical order, the titles of the short listed stories are:
Only the story titles are listed to protect the anonymity of the authors.
A visit to Auntie Lou
Escape from Barnthwaite
Incident on the central line
Never lost with you
No blame on the driver
Off the beaten track
Take me there
The last train
The right side of the track
Waiting to happen
The winner and runner up will be announced in the next few weeks.
We had over 100 entries this year and the standard was exceptionally high. The judges had a hard task to choose the stories for the short list.
2020 – unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, the judges for our competition have been unable to meet to read the stories. Hopefully (fingers-crossed) we should be able to announce the winner at the beginning of October.
2019 – Winner!
The winning story – ‘MIDNIGHT’ – is from Madeleine Williams.
Well done Madeleine.
The Runner-up story – ‘Vintage’ – is from Ramona Key.
In third place was – ‘Bus Stop’ – by Margaret Poulter
You can read the winner and runner-up stories here:
The creaking and whispering of trees set him on edge, Harry never liked going into the woods… especially not at midnight. He looked over at Sam, who seemed as calm as ever. His friend was flicking his torchlight over the pine needles and branches covering their path, manoeuvring himself to avoiding tripping. He couldn’t leave Sam. Besides, the other boys wouldn’t let him live it down if he ran home now. The torch’s beam flashed into a pair of eyes ahead of them, and he grabbed Sam’s arm in fear. “Oh my God, it’s only a fox!” Sam hissed at him. His heart was beating too fast in his chest. Suddenly, Sam pointed into the trees ahead of them. “There it is!” he whispered excitedly. Harry stared in the direction of Sam’s finger and saw it: the old, yellow school bus, now a faded grey and covered in dirt and leaves. Sam was already sprinting towards it; he had no choice but to follow.
As he reached out to wipe the grime from the closest window, Harry felt a shiver run through him. He didn’t want to be here, he wanted to be safe at home, under his duvet. He shot a glare at Sam for forcing him to come on his stupid mission, but Sam was too busy trying to wrench open the rusted door handle of the driver’s seat. “They say the bus rolled over three times before coming to a stop here. And by the time the police got here, the children and the driver had disappeared.” Sam whispered in his most dramatic voice. Harry rolled his eyes.
“Good evenin’ lads!” A voice said brightly from beside them. Both boys jumped and stared up at the old man leaning against a tree trunk, staring lovingly at the rusted shell of a bus. “Who are you?” Sam asked angrily, recovering his composure. “Well I’m the driver ain’t I?” The old man replied, taking a cigarette out his pocket and lighting it casually. The boys stared at each other, then at the man. The driver took a drag from his cigarette, then continued. “Nasty business this was, eh?” The boys blinked at him in horror. “So, you’ve been living in
the woods all these years?” Harry croaked. The driver laughed and began to walk around the bus, running his hands along it as though it were some beloved pet. “She’s still a beauty, eh?” he murmured, as if to himself. “Everyone thought you were dead!” Sam shouted in disbelief, following the driver behind the bus. They had both disappeared from sight. The windows were so filthy, Harry couldn’t see out the other side. “Sam wait, stay with me!” He shouted in panic, edging around the bus to peer around to the other side. There was nobody there. “Sam?!” He shouted, spinning around to check the surrounding woods, now black without the light of Sam’s torch. But he was completely alone, both the driver and his friend had vanished.
Marjorie cocked her rifle and fired another shot into the air. This time, a warning. Next time she’d take aim.
“Get off my property,” she shouted, cigarette flapping between her lips.
She saw Jim’s hands go up in truce as he slowly emerged from behind the dilapidated, hollowed out old bus which sat at the bottom of her driveway.
“Margerie, I just wanted to tell you we’ve had another enormous offer.”
“My land’s not for sale, Jim. I ain’t telling you again.”
“They’ll give you 2.5 million. C’mon Margerie, think of your retirement, or inheritance for your grandkids.”
Margerie cocked again and found Jim’s foot in the viewfinder. Her wrinkled, manicured finger teetered on the trigger, dancing with the tension as she followed Jim’s footsteps coming towards her up the drive. The thin line of smoke from her cigarette made her view hazy so she stubbed it out and pushed her leopard-print cloche hat back along her forehead in order to get a better shot. Jim’s hands were still in the air. He wore a polyester suit and cheap square-toed shoes, probably plastic as well. She hated plastic.
Margerie pulled the trigger and Jim’s feet sprung from the ground, as if by electric jolt.
“Jim I ain’t gonna move my hands from this trigger until I see your scrawny legs get off my land.”
Jim stood hunched over, catching his breath for a moment before pushing his gelled hair back into place. Finally, he started to make his way down the gravel path, keeping his hands up all the while. By the time he reached his car he looked a shell of the former confident man who’d swaggered up to her house no less than ten minutes ago.
As Jim reversed away into the dust, Lucy emerged from the house, clad in Chanel pearls and a fur hat. The ice in her whiskey tumbler clinked as she walked with the uneven arthritic steps old age had gifted to her. She handed Margerie a cigarette and draped a fur stole over her shoulders.
“Here Margie you look cold, take this.”
“That was a close call.”
“He didn’t see inside that bus, did he?” Lucy said, lighting both of their cigarettes.
“No. I don’t think so.”
They walked towards the bus, two lifelong friends dressed to the nines and in the sunset of their lives. They peered through the dusty cracked windows of the vintage European relic. Inside lay no less than 50 suitcases, bursting at the seams with cash. Their husbands would have died another death if they saw what their wives had been up to these past few years.
“Think about our retirement,” said Marjorie, shaking her head. “Why would anyone wanna retire from having this much fun.”
It has been a really tough decision this year to choose the stories to make our short list. We had so many excellent entries we have decided, in addition to a first prize of £50, we will also be giving a prize of £25 to the runner-up.
2019 – In alphabetical order – the titles of the short listed stories are:
Only the story titles are listed to protect the anonymity of the authors.
My Old Friend Rocket
Sticks and Stones
The end of the Road
The Project, Unfinished
Where they lie
We had 74 entries
2018 – Winner!
This story is from Janette Owen who sent in two entries and whose other story came second! Well done indeed, Janette.
‘Dad’s News’ by Antony Dunford
‘My Daddy’ by Sally-Anne Crowther
‘The Word Unspoken’ by Peter Collins
‘Peculiar’ by Wayne Danting-Langdale
‘The Possessive Gene’ by Pamela Trudie Hodge
We had 41 entries.
Here is Janette’s story:
A Thread of Hope
I watched from the dormitory window while they handed my baby to strangers. They said I wasn’t a fit mother for my little girl, made in love but out of marriage. No name allowed to go with her, only a simple teddy – one I made from my maternity smock. My cries turned to screams as the nuns waved her away, crossing their hardened hearts while leaving mine in tatters.
The years passed, as they do, only mine without hope of ever setting eyes again on those which once looked up at mine, since my name had changed and I never discovered hers.
‘She’ll be fifty today,’ I told my son when he found me clutching the remnants of that old smock.
John joined me on the sofa, covering my hands with his. ‘You still have that old thing?’ he said, eyeing the floral fabric.
‘It’s all I have left of her.’
I expected John to tell me it was time I let go; that I had him at least. But he didn’t. Instead, he gently took the remnants of that old smock and run his hands over its threads as though he might make it speak.
‘Could I borrow this?’ he asked.
I never thought to question him or build up any hope. After all, nothing had ever come from hope before.
Yet here I was, thanks to John, waiting in the park café. Who would have believed a photo and a simple internet appeal could find her? I thought it fitting to see her come back to me from a window, since it was through one I saw her go.
Did she blame me? John said not. He said she was keen to come.
But how would I know her? Would she have my hair? My dimpled smile? Would she share my silly laugh?
My heart thumped each time a woman came into view. Fifty years she’d known another mother. Why should I presume to share anything with her? We might have nothing in common …
Though the woman who had just climbed out of a taxi was another who had fought to tame her wild locks, hers still boasting remnants of copper. We both clutched onto floral cloth while gazing through glass with questioning eyes.
Eyes that had a fleck of green, like mine.
Always was and ever will be.
You’d think I’d be bounding from my chair to the door, except I could barely stand. I couldn’t move my trembling arms to wipe the trickle of tears. Words froze in my throat.
A creak of hinges and barriers no longer kept us apart. She held up a thread-worn teddy, one blue button eye replaced by a brown. ‘Snap,’ she sniffed, eyeing the rags that I clutched
‘Snap,’ I sobbed, offering up the tatters like a broken-stemmed bouquet.
Tears mingled and arms entwined.
Those nuns, they tried to part us, but in the end blood proved thicker than bile.