International Short Story Contest
Eighth short story contest winners
The Eighth International Short Story Contest closed on May 1, 2012. Deliberation over the final line-up of winners was long and hard, but by July 2012 the following successful entrants were announced:
Congratulations to Daithi Hogan of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, who wins £200 for his winning story, "The Promise". The story is published below.
Daithi Hogan is a Sheffielder of Irish ancestry. He started writing to explore issues prompted by the discovery of a wartime memoir written by his grandfather. The realisation that his true family heritage was far more diverse than he could ever have imagined has led him to question his concept of self identity to the extent that he is sometimes unsure whether he is any more real than the characters in his stories. He generally sees this as a good thing.
Ten special commendations go out to the following entrants (in no particular order):
- Stephen Atkinson, United Kingdom, "Cokum";
- James Rice, United Kingdom, "Taylor in Winter";
- Ryan Lee, United States, "A Down and Out Christmas";
- Meryl Moorhouse, United Kingdom, "Desmond";
- Vincent Wood, United Kingdom, "A Story of Two Heroin(e)s";
- David Mathews, United Kingdom, "Can I come and see you when you’re dead?";
- Paul Chiswick, United Kingdom, "Twelveheads Revisited";
- Clay Iles, United Kingdom, "Music Lessons";
- Elizabeth O'Herlihy, Ireland, "Number Forty-Five";
- Kristine Rothbury, Australia, "A Brilliant Life".
All eleven stories are available to read now in the firstwriter.com Eighth Short Story Anthology, which is available to download as an ebook from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and other Amazon outlets around the world.
The stories will also be published in issue 22 of firstwriter.magazine.
By Daithi Hogan
"Go on Molly – there’s a good girl."
The terrier pricked up her ears, but she just wasn’t having it, not here under the trees where no one would notice. She’d wait till later and drop one on the neighbours’ block paving, make him get the plastic bag out. He looked out across the reservoir, his breath misting in the autumn air. One last try.
"Go on girl – there you go."
Nothing. Just a sniff round the bottom of a tree. She’d have done it for Lisa, of course she would. He tried to remember how Lisa would have told her, that special tone she used, but he didn’t have it. Molly wasn’t really his dog, not at all, and from time to time she liked to remind him. He watched her for a moment, rooting amongst the dead leaves.
The night before he’d had this dream. They were flying out to Italy, back to the Dolomites where they’d once done that walking tour. They’d planned everything – well Lisa had. The maps; the guidebooks; the accommodation. He could see the brochures, the colours were really vivid. They were going to stay near Cristallo, walk the Ivano Dibona again. Maybe he’d even have a go at skiing like she’d always been on at him to do.
They’d taken a taxi to Gatwick, he thought it was Gatwick. It was bound to cost a fortune but she’d said not to worry. It was a long ride and she’d nodded off with her head on his shoulder like he remembered her doing in the evenings on their sofa. It was lovely together, a taxi ride – who would have thought it? It seemed a pity to wake her.
They’d gone through baggage checks and passport control and everything, really looking forward to it – they needed a holiday, couldn’t think why they’d left it so long. And then, just as they were boarding the 747 she’d remembered the dog. She’d said he couldn’t go with her – he had to stay to look after the dog. He hadn’t argued, how could he? But when he woke up he was crying. Again.
"Come on Molly – if you won’t go we’ll have to get back."
All those leaves, the mud. She was going to need a bath. And now she was barking at the tree. What had she smelled, a squirrel? With the fly tipping around here it was as likely to be a rat. Whatever it was it had had fair warning – for a small dog she had a remarkably loud bark. And she was strong.
"No chance," he said. "Pull all you like but you’re staying on that lead."
The only time he let her off now was in the garden. He didn’t need to learn that lesson twice. He let her bark till she got bored – there was no one else around – then he tugged her gently back on to the path.
There’d been that time, years ago when the depression had been bad, after the redundancy. Some days he couldn’t get dressed or even make a cup of tea. He knew now that he’d only stayed around because of Lisa. He’d have ended it if it hadn’t been for the fear of hurting her. He’d told her that he’d phoned the Samaritans. It had helped just to admit it to someone else, to actually say the words. She’d got him down the GP, once she’d realised. She worried about him when she was at work.
"I’d really miss you, you know."
The GP had been good, they were a good practice, referred him for therapy. Didn’t need the tablets in the end. That’s when they’d started running; endorphins, nature’s anti-depressants the therapist had called them. He wondered – was he depressed now? He didn’t think he was. Sad wasn’t depressed. Sad was normal.
Down by the Poacher’s Arms he picked up the track towards the golf course. They used to jog up here at one time, till the last time his Achilles tendon had flared up, then it was just walking. Lisa wouldn’t jog on her own, he felt bad about that, like he’d let her down. He was sure it was safe enough, but it was too quiet, lonely she’d said. He could see what she meant, lonely, but he liked that. Thought he did. The pub’s proper name was the Duke of Norfolk, but some chain had taken it over and decided it needed a change. Pointless.
He’d blamed himself when the test results had come through, for not reminding her before. The thing was, she was never at the doctor’s, not like him. She was the tough one. Maybe that was the problem – she should have been going for screening. She had been before they moved. He’d sort of assumed she still was. Had it been down to her to notify the hospital, or the GP? No one had seemed clear about that. He’d been ready to make a fuss about it, but she’d said to leave it. By then there were more important things. By then it was too late.
She could have had chemo, but only to slow it down – the specialist didn’t pretend there was any chance of a cure. That had been in March.
"I’m not having it," she’d said. "I’d rather enjoy the summer."
Molly trotted beside him, she was good on the lead, mostly. He knew he couldn’t have trained her. By the bridge he exchanged nods with a young guy walking a collie, talking on his mobile phone with one flap of his sheepskin hat flipped up. Business by the sound of it. Hassle. He wondered, should he have worn his own hat, it was cold enough? He knew what Lisa would have said.
The guy was at least thirty, did that count as young? Maggie growled but the collie wasn’t interested, the dog looked a lot more relaxed than his owner.
He zipped up the top of his fleece. His neck hadn’t been itching until then, but now he could feel the hair clippings down around his collar. It felt a bit sore, Mick hadn’t been as careful with the clippers as he usually was, too busy trying to persuade him that he ought to have his grey "blended in" – lots of blokes were having it done apparently. Mick had been cutting his hair for twenty years, don’t tell him he’d only just noticed he was going grey. Did he think he was planning to go out on the pull? He wasn’t.
That summer they’d talked about the Dolomites, of course they had, but in the event they’d only got to the lakes, the hotel in Keswick. Lisa had wanted the one they’d had for their honeymoon, but it was booked up. Secretly he’d been almost glad, he’d been afraid that would have been too much. For him, not her. He’d said "maybe next year" and she’d got angry with him, the only time, because they’d agreed that they wouldn’t pretend. She didn’t want that.
The first few days they’d just driven around. It had all come back to him as they’d reached Hardknott Pass, their first time up there– what a sky that had been. The stars above Wasdale, that tapestry of light and him explaining that the light took hundreds, thousands, of years to travel to earth, the whole sky as they saw it was just an illusion. They might all have blinked out and there was no way to tell, they were ghosts, images from the past. She wouldn’t have that; they were real – just look at them. Her passion had almost persuaded him. They’d wondered if there was some way of following the light back, of going back in time, following that beam of memory. If they tried hard enough.
This time there’d been a cruise on Coniston water, in the past they wouldn’t have bothered with that sort of thing but it was ok, had left them wondering why they hadn’t done it before. She’d written postcards for everyone they knew and posted them. And on the last day she’d insisted on climbing Cat Bells. He’d agreed, but only if she let him buy her some new boots, the new lightweight ones that were more like trainers. They’d been lucky with the weather, they’d had a bit of a view though there were clouds up on the high fells. "Nicer here today than up on Gable or Hellvelyn" he’d said, and meant it. When they’d got home she’d been straight on to the doctor’s to ask for stronger painkillers.
It was after they’d come back from the Lakes and there’d been talk of choices, of a hospice, that she’d just turned to him one day and said.
"You won’t do anything stupid, afterwards I mean?"
"Like what?" he’d said.
"You know what I mean."
But he hadn’t wanted to think about that.
A day or two later she’d rallied a bit and she mentioned her life insurance, saying that if he didn’t mind she was going to spend some of it in advance – run it up on the card and he could pay it off afterwards. She was going out on a spree, on her own she’d insisted, in a taxi. He’d encouraged her, told her to buy herself something nice.
"I could buy a sports car," she’d said, "or a few pairs of Jimmy Choos – knock ‘em dead in the hospice."
He’d half believed her, half wished she would spend it all, but she hadn’t. The taxi driver had appeared first with a load of bags and what looked like a big cushion. It turned out to be a dog bed. She’d got a dog. Not a puppy, a dog – from a shelter, with it’s own name, Molly. He hadn’t even thought she liked dogs.
"It’s alright,"’ she’d said. "She’s well trained – I just felt sorry for her."
worried about her, she’d been out so long. She could have brought a whole pack
of dogs home with her and he wouldn’t have complained. He hadn’t really thought
through the implications, not then. That had come later. With the promise.
"You’ll promise me you’ll look after her? Walk her every day?" Of course he’d promised. She knew he would. Even though the dog was a nuisance and got under his feet. From the start he’d called her "the dog", hadn’t called her Molly. Not back then. She was Lisa’s dog, not his. It took him a little while to work out that the dog wasn’t really for her at all.
In the end they didn’t need the hospice, she stayed at home. Lisa was brave, but very tired, it was all quicker than he’d expected. He wasn’t brave, though he tried. But he kept the promise, fed Molly, walked her, cleaned up after her. Some days, the first few weeks after the funeral, it was about all he did do. He could avoid the friends, the phone calls, but he couldn’t ignore Molly – she wouldn’t let him.
At the top of their road, Molly started sniffing round the neighbours’ gateposts – hadn’t he just known? He checked that he’d got the plastic bags, the special ones for dog shit, not the supermarket ones with the holes – now that had been a false economy. Another lesson he’d not needed twice. Bag it and bin it – it didn’t bother him now he trusted the bags. She’d be ready for her dinner next.
Lisa’s boots were still in the porch, next to his, the same ones she’d worn in the Lakes. He kept meaning to take them to a charity shop but he never did. All her clothes were gone, just photos and books left. Some stuff he’d taken to the tip, couldn’t bear to think of someone else having them. There was an incinerator up there, combined heat and power, he’d rather have that. But he wouldn’t take the boots. Sometimes it surprised him how small they were, tiny really, had she been that little?
Molly sniffed at the boots, gave a little whimper, looked around.
"I know you do girl, I know
you do. Me too." He patted her, then went to the kitchen and filled the kettle.
He’d feed Molly first, always did. Those big sacks of dog food, the dried stuff, he’d thought they’d never run out but he’d finished the next to last that morning. It wasn’t quite a year, not quite. Molly ran to the cupboard, to the last unopened bag.
"No – you stay there – you’re not opening it with your teeth!"
And as he picked it up he found the card beneath it, as she’d surely known he would.
It wasn’t so easy to read, her handwriting had been so shaky by then. Where had he been when she’d sneaked it into the cupboard?
"Thanks, for keeping your promise. Love you."
The kisses she’d drawn were shaky as well, more like asterixes, as if she’d had to have more than one try at each one. For a moment he just stood there, the bag in one hand, the card in the other; then he walked over towards Molly’s bowl and opened the bag.
He’d hardly looked at the picture as he’d picked it up, now he read the caption – "The Night Sky from Wasdale". He looked at the writing again, not asterixes, stars. Stars.
Between the tears he served Molly her food, but he was smiling.