Thursday, 25 August 2011

2010 Short Story Competition Winners

It's that time of the year again (a little later perhaps than last year) and our Annual Short Story Competition is once more open for submissions So, to give you an idea of the fantastic quality of last year's entries, the winners of our 2010 competition are below ...

FIRST PLACE: George Was Dead by Janet Edwards

When George died, he was prepared for life to change a bit, but a lot of things still took him by surprise. The legal complications to start with. He was taken aback by the letter telling him that Lizzie wasn’t his wife any longer. They had gone through that marriage ceremony eighteen years ago, tied themselves together until death did them part, and now it had. The first successful resurrection process had been carried out a bare fourteen months ago, and legally speaking the issue was a complete mess, with a dozen test cases bouncing through the courts. Untangling it would take years, so as an interim measure the legal system was treating zombies as automatically divorced, and allocated marital assets accordingly.

“Well, it’s just a technical detail. We don’t have to let it change anything,” said Lizzie, tearing the letter in half and throwing it away.

Lizzie had been a tower of strength through the whole terrible business, and George was deeply grateful to her. She kept repeating that same phrase, that they didn’t have to let it change anything, but of course a lot of things about their relationship were different now. They didn’t sleep together any longer, since zombies didn’t sleep. They didn’t eat together any longer, since zombies didn’t eat. They didn’t have sex any longer, because zombies didn’t do that either.

In honesty, George didn’t miss a sex life very much. He didn’t admit it to Lizzie of course, but he had something far better now. Twice each day, he locked himself into his study, used the special lead to plug himself into the electrical socket, and the power surged through his body in the most intense and fulfilling of orgasms. He’d quickly given way to temptation, disobeyed the hospital instructions, and tried plugging himself in more often, but found it didn’t have the same effect unless the electricity in his body was at a low level. He was limited to experiencing that matchless thrill twice a day.

Despite Lizzie’s brave words, things had definitely changed, but George felt he could hardly complain. It was, after all, a lot better than staying dead. He had been extremely lucky that his body escaped the car crash without taking enough damage to prevent the resurrection. There were even a few advantages over being alive. Without the need for sleep, he had so much more time. He never got tired either. He finished the multitude of little repair jobs that had been waiting for years, spent hours leafing through his collection of books on steam railways, weeded the garden to perfection point, and put his name down on the waiting list for an allotment. Life, or in his case death, was generally pretty good.

It was precisely a month after his return to work, that George was called into Mr Hampden’s office.

“George,” said Mr Hampden, leaning back into the cushioned splendour of his executive chair. “I wanted to have a little chat with you. I wondered if you’d had any thoughts about the future. In the circumstances, the firm would be very sympathetic if you wanted to consider early retirement through ill health.”

“Early retirement,” said George, in shock. “I’m not even fifty yet. I’m not suffering ill health either.”

“You are however, not exactly...” Mr Hampden broke off tactfully.

“Alive.” George concluded the sentence bluntly. “You mean, you want to get rid of me.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” said Mr Hampden. “It’s true that some of your colleagues are a little uncomfortable around a... However, I’m sure they would adjust given time. When I suggest early retirement, I’m really thinking of you, George. After all, this whole resurrection process is so new. No-one knows how long the effects will last. I’m sure you want to make the most of the time left to you.”

George glared at the two faced hypocrite.

“Now, no-one is pushing you into anything, George, but it’s really in your best interests to be fully informed. Our pension advisor happens to have a gap in his schedule and will give you a little chat.”

George was firmly shuffled off into a meeting room, and a bald man in large glasses talked earnestly at him for an hour. It was, he was told, a golden opportunity. At the moment, resurrected individuals were able to take up their pensions, but at any moment pension companies might change their code of practice to prevent it.

“But I’ve paid into the pension fund for twenty six years,” said George indignantly. “I’m entitled to my pension. They can’t take that away.”

“It pains me to say it,” said the pension advisor cheerfully, “but you did die. Of course, if the pension companies do act to prevent zomb...., I mean resurrected individuals, taking up their pensions, then they would have to pay your nominated beneficiary the lump sum death in service payment and a widow’s pension. In your case that would be...”

“My wife,” said George.

“Your ex wife,” the pension advisor corrected him. “You are treated as divorced, remember.

That was the last straw. George glared at him. “My fiancé then,” he said, belligerently. “We intend to remarry immediately!”

“And the pension? The company has offered to allow you to retire on full pension. It’s a very generous offer, even without the issue of resurrected individuals being prevented from...”

“I’ll take it,” snarled George. “If I don’t retire, then I suppose they’ll find another way to get rid of me.”

The advisor pushed several papers across the desk towards him. “Please, sign here, here, and here.”

George signed, threw the ballpoint pen at the man, and stormed through the door into the main office. He looked around at the suited figures, sitting at regimented lines of desks. “You’ll all be happy to know that I’m leaving!”

They looked at him with startled faces, and then hastily turned back to their computer screens and pretended to work.

“Just remember though,” added George. “It may happen to you too. Just wait until you’re a zombie, and people don’t treat you as a human being any longer. See how you like it then!”

He left the building, remembered he hadn’t cleared his desk of personal items, and decided he would survive without the diary, box of tissues, and twenty five year service award.

Lizzie was startled to hear the news. “But... What will you do now that you’re retired?”

“We’re getting married again,” said George, “and going on an extended honeymoon. We’ll go out right now and make the arrangements.”

“Now?... I’ve got an appointment at the hairdresser at one thirty.”

“You will have your hair done in Paris,” said George, magnificently, and they set off for the registry office.

“You want to get married?” The woman with bouffant hair looked at them from behind the desk.

“No, I came here to buy a television licence.” George shook his head in exasperation. “What a stupid question. Of course we want to get married!”

“Well, you can’t,” said the woman, bluntly. “Our latest guidelines say that we can only perform marriage ceremonies for couples who are both alive or both dead.”

“That’s rampant discrimination.” George was incensed.

“I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. Rules are rules.” The woman stood up. “I’m now on my lunch break.”

George was prepared to make a scene, but Lizzie towed him firmly out into the street. “There’s no point in making a fuss, George. We can go to Paris anyway, whether we get married or not.”

They couldn’t. The travel agent was deeply apologetic. “Since you’re dead, your passport will no longer be valid, and until they sort out some sort of process for reapplying then...”

“We’ll go to Edinburgh then,” said Lizzie.

“But...” George was speechless at the injustice of it all.

“Now, George,” said Lizzie. “There’s no point in getting angry. It doesn’t matter where we go. We should be grateful that we can still do things together. If the accident had been a year ago, or done more damage to your body, then all I’d have left of you would be an urn of ashes.”

“I suppose you’re right.” George sighed.

So they went to Edinburgh for a week, and it rained solidly. They sat in the hotel room for seven long days, watching Scottish raindrops trickle down the window. By the time they returned home to Wolverhampton, George had made plans to fill the days and nights ahead. He would do an Open University degree. He would write his own book on steam railways. He would take up water colour painting and pottery. He would get his allotment and grow prize winning dahlias. Perhaps Lizzie would like to join him in these new plans, he thought.

Lizzie didn’t. She explained that she already had enough to fill her days. She was a volunteer driver for Help the Aged, she had two exercise classes, and she manned the till in the local Oxfam shop on Wednesdays and Fridays.

George accepted that, and life settled into a new routine. During the day, he dug, painted, and potted. During the night, he collected credits towards his degree and worked on his book. Each evening, he spent three hours watching television with Lizzie, except on Thursdays when she went to her music society meeting.

Digging the allotment was George’s favourite activity. He was untroubled by rain, cold, or fatigue, and found the repetitive labour soothing. He spent two hours every afternoon digging, and when his own patch of land had been dug to perfection, he offered to help the other allotment holders. They had regarded him with suspicion, but as one plot of neglected ground after another was methodically dug into neatness, George found himself not just tolerated but almost welcome. The thanks of the other allotment holders, and the occasional gift of spare plants, were a little embarrassing. He had a secret he could not share with them. The true reason he liked the digging was that the work drained his stored power and made the evening power recharge into a moment of ecstasy.

George was quietly content with his new life, until the day he came home two hours early from the allotment. He had been offered a small second hand greenhouse, and needed some tools to dismantle and move it from the far end of the allotments to his own plot. George went in through the back gate, took off his muddy boots to leave them on the back doorstep, and saw Lizzie kissing a strange man in the kitchen.

Stunned, George picked up his boots, fled back out of the garden, and trudged back to his allotment. He couldn’t believe this. He and Lizzie had always been so... so dependable. It wasn’t Lizzie’s fault, he thought. The problem was that they weren’t allowed to marry. Naturally that left her feeling...

The answer to that, and to all of the other frustrations, was suddenly clear to him. If Lizzie was a zombie too, then they would be able to marry. She wouldn’t get tired or need sleep, and she could join him in his night time studies. They could even share the erotic moments of recharging their power together. After Lizzie had experienced the thrill of plugging herself in to the electrical socket, she would no longer want to kiss strange men in the kitchen.

He left dealing with the greenhouse to another day, and spent hours digging as he considered ways to kill Lizzie. It had to be something that wouldn’t damage the body too much, and he needed to be able to get her to the hospital within three hours for the resurrection process to work. Drowning seemed relatively painless and could be arranged to look like an accident. Lizzie, of course, would be grateful to join him in death, but he didn’t want to have any silly problems with the police to spoil their happiness.

When his plans were complete, he carefully cleaned his spade and went home.

“Hello, George,” said Lizzie. “You’re back late today.” She was sitting at the kitchen table, eating dinner.

“Hello, Lizzie. I thought I’d spend a few extra hours digging today, because I have some plans for tomorrow.” He smiled at her, confident that she wouldn’t notice anything odd about his manner. Whenever zombies spoke or smiled, it was always a little wooden and stilted.

“What sort of plans?”

“The weather forecast says it should be nice tomorrow,” he said. “I thought perhaps you could skip your exercise class for once, and we could go for a walk somewhere. By the reservoir perhaps.”

“That sounds nice.” She took her empty plate over to put it in the dishwasher.

They sat and watched television for the next three hours, and then Lizzie started getting ready for bed, while George went into his study. He locked the door, and felt a thrill of anticipation as he approached the electrical socket. He had spent extra time digging today, and his power was very low. This recharge would be something very special. He opened his desk drawer, to take out the lead and plug himself in, and then frowned. The drawer was empty.

He looked round the room in confusion, checked the desk top, the floor by the electrical socket, and the shelves. The lead was nowhere to be seen. He searched further, remembering the time his watch had fallen down the back of the settee, but found nothing except a ten pence coin and a three year old shopping list.

His movements were slowing now, and he could not afford to delay any longer. He would have to face the embarrassment of phoning the hospital, confessing his carelessness, and asking for help. He reached into his jacket pocket for his phone, but his searching fingers found nothing.

He didn’t understand how he could have lost that too, but there was no time to worry about it. His power was dangerously low now, and he had to call Lizzie before he went into automatic shut down. He lurched over to unlock the door, but the key was missing. He shook his head in confusion, and turned the door handle, but it wouldn’t open.

“Lizzie!” he yelled. “Lizzie! I need you.”

“Yes, George.” Her voice was unexpectedly close. She must be just the other side of the door.

“Lizzie, call the hospital for help. I can’t find my power lead.”

“I’m sorry, George. I’m not planning to do that until the morning.”

“What? You have to get help now. More than three hours without power and I’ll really be dead.”

“That’s the idea,” said Lizzie. “Since we no longer sleep together, I naturally won’t discover you ran out of power until tomorrow. Everyone will understand.”

George swayed in shock. That almost sounded as if... No, he told himself, that couldn’t be right. “Lizzie, you aren’t really... You wouldn’t...”

“Yes, George, I would,” she replied calmly. “I’m murdering you. Again!”

SECOND PLACE: My Final Blog by Karen O’Connor 

1st April 2036

I should be typing this on my iPad. My fingers tapping the keypad, before sending out my latest gem of wisdom into the internet ether.

Instead, I’m scribbling this on a thin piece of paper, with a pencil stub, praying the page won’t get wet and my final blog vanish.

I should be making shrewd comments about the date, hoping the joke won’t be on me. Sad thing is, the joke’s on all of us these days.

15th April 2036

Max thinks we should head into the countryside, more space, less disease. We could start that smallholding we always talked about.

I tried to seem enthusiastic, but my daily diet of fizzy drink and tiny portions of tinned food makes my thoughts fuzzy.

He talked about planting potatoes, having some chickens, making our own bread. My stomach growled in response. I doubted the chickens survived, and I’m not eating anything that’s been grown in the toxic ground. Doesn’t he remember the warnings from the Government, when we had one. Fallout for six months, soil and water toxicity for ten months. Only eat what’s canned or bottled, they said – that’s if you’re lucky enough to find anything.

The legions inside my mouth make me think that even that option isn’t safe.

23rd April 2036

It was sunny today. The light had a painful intensity, nipping and reddening any part of my exposed flesh, but it was bright and made me happier.

We moved this morning, packed up and off to find our rural idyll. Dorothy and Toto on the yellow brick road to who the hell knows. Max certainly doesn’t.

26th April 2036

I’m like a fashion model. Whip thin, all jutting hip and cheek bones. If I still had my digital scales I’m sure I’d weigh less than seven stone, and there’s not an inch of fat on me. I’ve even lost my boobs, they’re more like shrivelled flesh pocket flaps. If fashion houses still existed, I’d be front and centre, top of their list to hang luxuriant fabrics on, making the rest of the female population jealous as they reach for their diet shakes and fat rejection tablets. Fashion these days gets exciting if I can get a pair of my rancid pants clean.

10th May 2036

All this walking is becoming harder, and every day it takes us longer to reach our goal. Even Max is looking thin, and so old – I thought dating an older guy would be glamorous, but those furrows on his forehead just make me think of my dad.

I’d stupidly suggested it would be good to have a car.

“I think we’ve seen the last of the car.” He didn’t even try and hide his sarcasm.

I wanted to scream at him. I know it’s all our fault, we didn’t listen, we kept buying and polluting and fighting with each other, until it was too late.

Instead of screaming, I sat down, and opened one of the few remaining tins of fruit.

18th May 2036

A scary day, our food has gone. We have nothing to eat. I just want to give up. Max made soothing noises at me, but right now, I hate him. He’s supposed to be my provider. Where’s all his big talk about being the breadwinner? This isn’t the most frightening thing. This evening, I felt it move.

19th May 2036

It should never have happened. I’m too thin, no periods, no chance of a baby, right? Wrong. I’m sure it’s in there, fighting for life, taking my energy to keep itself going. I should love it, encourage my child, but instead I fear it and hate it for taking from me. What kind of monster will it be when it arrives, having sucked in nine months of polluted air and rancid food?

Today, I do love Max. He killed a rat and made a fire and we ate meat. It was tough and coarse, but it was food and I adored him for it.

22nd May 2036

I’m losing it, I’m so hungry and angry and today I properly hate Max. Why did he think the countryside would be a good place to go? I’m starving, miserable and all I see is mud, stupid, stunted, dead trees, and fields full of rotting crops. I miss my ready meals, my gym membership, my hybrid car, my vitamin supplements, my isotonic drinks and the internet – that would have solved all our problems, just hit the search button and it did the thinking for you.

And, if Max tells me one more time what the crop was and what we could have done if we’d just had some butter and a few herbs I think I’m going to kill him. It moved again tonight.

1st June 2036

We made a friend today. Judy, a pleasant middle aged woman, with beady eyes. We love her, she has food. She asked lots of questions, where we’re heading, who we know, where we sleep. We answered them all, as we filled our tiny stomachs with the best tasting stew ever. I ate until I felt sick, and then ate some more, just in case.

“I have a shed you can stay in.” These words were like magic to me. I love Judy even more than Max.

The shed is dry, with only a few biting insects, and I know I’m going to sleep all night. No nightmares, no strange noises. I think we’ve found our idyll.

15th June 2036

“What does she want?” This is Max’s favourite saying at the moment. He always worries about what people want from you, he reckons they’re just out for themselves. Well, they used to be. Now it’s different, it has to be. Besides, I love Judy, she can’t be after something. We’ve nothing to give.

“Trust her,” I told him. This feels like home, I want it to be perfect.

Max blathered on about her eyes and the way she stares at him. I ignored him. If he’s trying to make me jealous he’s failing. If I had to choose, I’d pick Judy over him any day.

26th June 2036

I’ve decided to tell. I trust Judy, she’s like the mother I always wanted, so different from the bulimic, perma-tanned version I vaguely remember.

I felt like a child with a dirty secret. I sat at her feet, by hands in my lap. I blurted it out, the word baby stuck in my throat like serrated glass.

“A new life, out of the ashes, life always rises,” she said. She’d stroked my hair and told me it would be ok. And that’s all I wanted to hear. Judy’s even had some medical training, which will come in handy, whatever I decide to do.

1st July 2036

I’m in shock, Max knows about the baby. He was furious, throwing things, shouting. I sat there, seething silently. I didn’t want this, he was just as much to blame as me, yet I’m the one who’s the problem.

“Get rid of it.” That was his advice, no debating, he wants it gone.

It’s an option I think about every day, but now it’s out in the open the thought chills me.

I’d tried to highlight that it was his responsibility too.

“We’re leaving,” was his response.

Did I ever love this pathetic impersonation of a man?

15th July 2036

Max decided this was his last day with me. I’m glad, thrilled to be free from his whining, pleading, pathetic arguments, and his juvenile fear of our protector. Now I’m free from him, I can see what Judy meant, he’s just jealous, resentful that a woman makes a better provider than him. Good to see sexism is alive and well on this rotten excuse for a planet. An hour after he’s gone, we celebrated girl power by having a blow out feast.

30th July 2036

I look pregnant! This is getting exciting and terrifying. Judy reckons I must be at least eight months gone. It’s so hard to tell, but she’s giving me extra food to help me and the baby grow. My baby, I hope it’s a girl.

13th August 2036

It’s the dead of night, and I’m prepared to admit that I sometimes miss Max. For all his metro sexual ways and his lack of any useful skills – what exactly was a High End Product Placement Advisor anyway - he could be fun and sweet, and would cuddle me when I woke up afraid.

I hope he’s safe and happy. I hope he doesn’t miss me, too much.

20th August 2036

I found Judy’s supplies today. She has a stack of salted meat in the back of the cottage she lives in. All chopped up and bagged. No wonder she’s still so plump and so happy to share, there’s enough to feed an army.

She caught me looking and told me to choose a joint for tonight.

22nd August 2036

It happened, in the early hours of the morning, I had my baby – it’s a girl. Judy was amazing. It felt like my insides were being pushed out, but it was so worth it. Best of all she seems healthy. Judy weighed her in her kitchen scales and she’s almost six pounds. I’ve decided to be hugely corny and name her Eve – you never know she could be the first woman to solve this horrible mess we’ve created.

25th August 2036

Today I found the shed door locked. And I’m on the inside. I called for Judy and I’m sure I heard her moving away but she didn’t come. I hope she’s not hurt.

26th August 2036

Still trapped inside, and getting hungry now. I tried to pull the door from its hinges, but the wood held. Where’s Judy? I really miss Max. Eve is getting restless, and I’m worried my milk will dry up without regular meals.

27th August 2036

Judy’s back! At least I think she is, food was pushed under the door. I spent ages banging on the door, but she didn’t come out and unlock it.

28th August 2036

I’m so tired, I slept for hours, all through the night and most of today, only managing to feed Eve twice. Maybe I’m getting sick. I got another meal.

29th August 2036

More exhaustion, can barely write a word.

30th August 2036

Judy came in today – she measured me and Eve up – but what for? I’m so tired, I almost don’t care.

1st September 2036

She’s dead, I killed her. She came in and tried to cut me up, like a butcher. I suddenly got the beady eyed bit that Max was always going on about. I think Max might be a bit of that salted meat I saw the other day.

I’ve got a cut on my arm from the cleaver, but I’m alive. Judy lost her footing and fell down, I saw my chance and grabbed the cleaver. It went through her skull so easily. I’m too scared to move right now – but I can’t leave Judy on the ground for long, it will bring the foxes and rats, and they love nothing more than a bit of human flesh. It seems they’re not the only one.

3rd September 2036

I’ve done it. Today, I finished cutting Judy up, and covered her in salt. She’s bagged and tagged like the rest of the meat. I felt sick as I began, but it’s not so bad once you don’t think about what you’re slicing into. I actually feel quite proud of myself, I’ve got my baby, my supplies, got rid of my pointless boyfriend and secured my own idyll. Now, if I can just work out how to encourage fresh supplies through the door I’ll be completely self sufficient.

THIRD PLACE: Omelette by Annalisa Crawford 

The café is quiet today. Just a little further along the road is a sign saying Roadworks starting 11/01/11 and lasting two weeks, so Josie thinks this must be why. Tucked away, down one of the main roads off this one, the hospital rises high over the other buildings. Josie, as she pushes open the door, glances over her shoulder at the grey imposition and shudders.

“Hello,” says the waitress behind the counter. “The usual?”

Josie has never had a usual before; never had a local pub where the bar staff poured her drink as soon as she walked through the door, never even had a regular newspaper, or a favourite Starbucks coffee. It makes her feel content, but at the same time it means she has been eating here too long as she bides her time between hospital visits.

“Yes. Please.”

“Just plain?”

Josie glances at the menu hanging on the wall. “Yes. Just plain. Thank you.” She walks to the table in the corner, opposite the large window. Her table. She slips her bag from her shoulder and sweeps her eyes across the paintings on the wall, noting the tiny price tags next to them; noticing them for the first time, which means she mustn’t be so distracted today.

“These are good. Whose are they?” she asks when the waitress brings the omelette, plain, salad garnish to the side, no chips.

“Mine,” the waitress mumbles turning pink.

“Do you sell many?”

She shakes her head. “No. But I don’t mind. I’d miss them if they weren’t here.”

“Hello,” says the waitress. “The usual?”

“Yes, please.” She hesitates, wondering whether she should make conversation. She did yesterday. So, is it expected today? Once there’s a connection, are you compelled to continue it? To be truthful, she doesn’t feel like talking; she wants to sink down into her own concerns. There’s an awkward moment, both women unsure what to do next, then they both drift in their separate directions: Josie to her table, the waitress to the kitchen.

Josie sits on her hands, feeling the warmth of her thighs bring a tingle to her frozen skin; she’s forgotten her gloves again, perhaps she should have them sewn inside her coat. That was Meg’s suggestion when she gave them to her for Christmas; Meg knows her too well. Josie sets her mobile on the table, so she can answer immediately if it rings. She sits on her hands and waits. The mobile doesn’t ring or beep. Which is good; she doesn’t want it to ring or beep; that would only bring bad news.

“Here you are.” The plate is presented – omelette, plain, salad garnish to the side, no chips – an exact copy of yesterday’s lunch, and the one before that, and the several before that.

“Thank you.” She stares at the plate.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Perhaps you’ve just had enough plain omelette?”

Josie looks surprised at the idea of another kind of omelette on her plate. She shakes her head. “I’ve been to visit a friend in hospital. She’s getting worse, not better. She was supposed to be coming home today. But she’s not well enough. I was supposed to bring her home today.” She stares down at the mobile, frowns, reaches out for it, then changes her mind. “I don’t want to go home without her.”

“How long have you known your friend?”

“Forty-three years and four months. We were at primary school together. We were supposed to grow old together.”

“You still might?”

Josie wipes a tear from her eye and smiles. “We still will,” she says defiantly. She picks up the fork and half-heartedly breaks off the first mouthful of omelette.

There’s a space on the wall. Yesterday there was a seascape on the wall opposite her; a beautiful red sunset, a yacht pushing off into the distance. A perfect scene, a perfect sea. Yesterday, Josie stared into the painting and imagined floating. Peacefully floating away.

“The painting’s gone,” says Josie, indicating the space, the wall faintly scarred with grime marking out where the frame was.

The waitress blushes. “I sold it.”

“Congratulations. I liked it. I’ll miss it.”

“Thank you. It was the first one I’ve sold.”

“Then you should do something special with the money.”

“I’ll probably just pay the rent.”

Josie looks across the room at the wall. The empty space feels ominous.

“How’s your friend?”

Josie shakes her head. “Not good.”

“Are you hungry today? Would you like your omelette?”

Josie pauses. She thinks of her plain omelette; she thinks of Meg not getting better. “You know… maybe… could I have a mushroom one today, please?”

“Of course. I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

“Cheese omelette, please.”

“Good choice. That’s my favourite. I’ll throw in some chives, then it’ll be perfect. You seem happier today… your friend?”

“Meg’s doing well. Rallying, the doctor said.”

“That’s good news. She’s lucky to have you visiting so much. It must be helping her.”

Josie shrugs. “She’d do the same for me.”

It takes a few moments, sitting down, the smell of omelette wafting from the small kitchen, to realise there’s a new paining on the wall. Two old ladies sitting on a bench, laughing like school-girls.

“I put it there for you, for your friend.”

“You painted it for me?”

The waitress looks sheepish. “Well, no. I had it at home. But when you were talking about your friend the other day, I remembered it. I thought it would cheer you up.”

“Thank you.” Josie smiles, but it’s a thin, thoughtful smile. “That was such a lovely thing to do.” Her eyes are drawn back to the picture, lost in this world that might never happen. “It’s breast cancer, you see, what Meg has. She was in remission. But she’s…” Her voice shakes a little.

The waitress is unsure how to react. Hesitantly she reaches out and touches Josie’s arm. She moves away, clearing a table close by, not wanting to leave this poor woman, glancing back at her every so often

The café isn’t busy, not since the roadworks started – a few people are dotted here and there, either talking in couples or reading books or newspapers alone. Only Josie looks around, aware of her environment, opening herself up. She looks out of the window and notes the start of another downpour; she glances at the headline of the newspaper left behind by someone else. But her gaze returns to the picture on the wall again and again. There are tears bubbling, but she is smiling as well; a soft smile, a slow sad smile. She leaves the omelette half-eaten. She leaves the café.

The waitress watches the clock. At one o’clock she tells herself Josie is running late. At two o’clock she fears Josie’s friend has had a turn for the worse. And at three o’clock she convinces herself that she upset Josie too much by hanging the painting of the two old ladies. The waitress finds herself standing in front of it, imagining being sat on that bench with an old friend, oblivious to the world passing behind them.

When she painted it, she had no one in mind. The two friends had just appeared as if by magic, fully formed on the canvass. Now it seems intrinsically linked to Josie and her friend. And yet she wishes she’d never brought it in. She remains in front of her painting, trying to view it subjectively; almost amazed that something which could affect another person so much had come from her hand.

At five o’clock, as the waitress turn the OPEN sign to CLOSED, heavy rain is falling, car headlamps glisten off the road and people scurry past under hoods and umbrellas.

Today is Saturday. Saturdays are different; routines are different, the vibe is different. Fathers in their weekend disguise with their excited kids; friends meeting before a day’s shopping; lovers recovering from their romantic Friday night dinner. Everyone is light and happy, lingering over an extra coffee and sharing a slice of Death by Chocolate.

Josie doesn’t come in on Saturdays, so the waitress knows not to glance hopefully out of the window. A busy day. A non-stop day. The waitress coasts through, oblivious to the different people queuing behind each other, oddly oblivious to their stories. Nothing matters; she has been drained of curiosity.

The painting – untitled, but in her head now called Josie and Meg’s Happy Days – still hangs on the wall. She thought about taking it down, but it remains there for now. Why does it matter? Why does this woman, Josie, matter where so many other people who come in daily – and there are many – do not even register? She places two cups of coffee in front of two women with several shopping bags wedged on the chairs next to them, and can’t remember the last time she went shopping – or even had coffee – with a friend. She can’t remember the last time she saw a friend, other than at work, or passing in the street and dashing onwards with hurried promises to call. She never does. Never has time. Time doesn’t last forever, though, does it? Josie doesn’t have time.

She imagines herself lying in a hospital bed, linked up to wires and monitors, and wonders who would visit her.

* * *

Monday again. Another week. Another grey and miserable morning.

Josie stands in front of the painting, walking straight across to it rather than standing at the counter and ordering. She senses the waitress move across the café and stand next to her. She feels the warmth, the companionship.

“Can I buy it?”

“Um, Yes. Of course.”

“Isn’t it for sale? I thought you said they were all for sale.”

“It is… they are. I just… I thought…”

Josie turns, curious, concerned.

The waitress blushes. “I thought I upset you, putting the picture up.”

Josie softens. “No. I love it. Meg’s dying. They’ve only given her a couple of weeks. I wanted to buy the painting for her. I wanted to show her how it will be, in my head.”

“I’m so sorry.” The waitress looks away. “It’s a present. Take it.”

“I couldn’t. Don’t you have rent to pay?” She gasps a small laugh, then notices the waitress’s earnest gaze. “Thank you.”

Josie stares at the board, although none of the options match how she’s feeling today. She wants colour; she wants to be uplifted. Peppers and spinach and tomato: colours of the rainbow filling her plate. She makes her request timidly, unsure whether she is required to adhere to the menu.

The waitress smiles. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Meg loved the painting, by the way.” Josie raises her voice slightly, so the waitress can hear her from the kitchen. She glances behind her to make sure the other diners aren’t disturbed by the noise. “We cried a lot.”

A head appears around the door. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, it was good. We said everything we needed to say. I think she’s ready now… prepared, you know.” Josie’s voice drifts away, her gaze softens. “She never had kids, she got divorced a few years ago and never met anyone else. Just existed alongside everyone else. Makes you wonder why she was here at all, doesn’t it?” Her face drops, horrified that such a thought could have entered her head.

“No,” says the waitress quickly. “She was here for you, and for all her other friends. And even for her ex-husband. As soon as you meet someone, you’ve affected them. You and me. We’ve made a difference to each other, even if we don’t realise it yet.”

Josie takes a long breath. “Well, I eat different types of omelette now.”

The waitress pauses, then smiles. “It’ll be ready in a moment. Take a seat.”

Josie plays with her mobile, pressing buttons to watch the screen light up. She waits for the call, hoping it won’t come. She checks to make sure the ringtone is audible. She stares at her reflection in the dark screen.

“Do you really believe what you said before, that we make a difference?” she asks when the omelette arrives.


“How have you made a difference?”

“That’s not for me to say.”

“But you think you have?”

“I know I have. I must have.” The waitress pauses, then sits down opposite Josie and rests her hands flat on the table. “When I was little – eight or nine – I used to scare myself by looking up at the stars. You could see hundreds, thousands. The more you looked, the more you could see. On really clear nights you could see the Milky Way. And the world seemed so small. And if the world was that small, I must be just a speck, smaller than a speck, totally insignificant in a universe I couldn’t even begin to understand. So I chose to believe that I do matter, that everyone matters.” The waitress shakes her head and laughs at herself. “And I do realise it makes absolutely no sense at all, before you say anything.” She stands and smoothes her apron. “Enjoy your meal.”

The waitress steps away awkwardly, pausing as though she’s going to say something else. She is rescued by a new customer entering the café. Josie watches her, smiling and laughing easily with this new person is a way she’s never done with Josie. Perhaps Josie encourages melancholy. Not always; she laughs with Meg. Meg forces her to laugh; even now, in agony in a hospital bed, she jokes with the nurses, reminisces with visitors, cheers others up when they are overcome by her imminent departure.

That’s the difference Meg has made to Josie. It’s a good difference. Without her humour, without her lightness, Josie fears she would have sunk low and never risen, fears her encompassing gift for worry and fear would have driven her into a deep depression. She fears she will sink low and never rise back up.

“Which one today?” asks the waitress, tempering her mood to match Josie’s.

“Just plain?” No, not plain; Meg asks her to describe her meals, now that she cannot eat – how could she make a plain omelette sound exciting? “No. Tuna. Please.”

“How’s Meg?”

Josie looks grim. She smiles weakly, but shakes her head. She cannot talk. She turns away and sits at her table, glancing out of the window briefly. She puts her head in her hands. The air feels heavy around her, pushing her down. She feels sick now; the smell of food cooking is churning her stomach. When the plate is set down in front of her, she simply looks at it.

And then, faintly at first, her mobile rings. She stares at the waitress, and the waitress stares back.


  1. George was dead is a genius piece of work as is My Final blog, love them both, well done guys that's some talented stuff right there!

  2. Great stories and beautifully written. Well done!