Nottingham

Competitions

2015 National Short Story Competition Winners

Leigh has now completed the judging and we're delighted to announce the results. Thank you to everyone who entered and we wish you luck in future competitions and magazine submissions. The three winning stories are shown here and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.

All entrants will receive a few lines of feedback and marketing advice by e mail but, in the meantime, a few pointers if you're thinking of entering other competitions. Because our competition was aimed at new and less experienced writers, we were willing to overlook mistakes but other adjudicators will use any excuse to put the story into the 'no' pile without even reading it, especially if they receive a lot of entries. A few of the common mistakes were single line or one and a half line spacing, not numbering the pages, putting the author's real name on the pages, not using a pseudonym on the title page, not including a title page, going over the word count and not being a resident of the UK.

 

Winners

First Place

  • Getting Away by Robert Kibble

Second Place

  • Blessed by Michael Callaghan

Third Place

  • What the Tide Washed Up by Anne Crittenden

Runners Up

  • Salt by Christine Griffin
  • Sod's Law by Christine Griffin
  • Waiting for the Rainbow by Jacqueline Neat
  • Water: My Hell, My Heaven by Christopher Waring Hammonds
  • The Magical Water by Hazel Prior

 

Leigh Russell
BIO | Website

Leigh's Comments

First Place. Getting Away.

This is tense and convincing. I was really gripped by it and willing Dave to get home in time! The story line is simple, without relying on any gimmicks or 'clever' twists. The narrative opens with direct speech which takes the reader right into the scene. A sense of urgency is introduced subtly through the clipped speech, Sue checking her watch, and words like 'dash' and 'ran' and phrases like  'no time to reply' all building Dave's need to hurry.

Tom's thoughts are cleverly built in, without giving away who he is. He could be a child, someone who is mentally deficient, or an elderly person (which turns out to be the case). This allows the reader to speculate about Tom before he actually appears in the story. The physical description of Dave's tension is well done, as is our expectation that Dave is going to have a car accident. The problem when it occurs is not predictable.

The story would benefit from some close line editing. On page 4 'continued on' is clumsy, as is 'cursing his lack of jacket' on page 5. No one would ever say that, and the story is written in a conversational style. On page 5 too, 'you couldn't tell' jars slightly. It would work better to write 'he couldn't tell' when the whole story is written in the third person. Dashes are overused, and the stream of consciousness style sometimes spoils the flow of the writing when sentence structure is abandoned for no reason.

Overall this is a very skillful and effective story, deserving first place in the competition.

 

Second Place. Blessed

This is a complete story, tense, dramatic and original. The ending was clever and not altogether predictable. The idea is unusual and, although flawed, it is gripping. The writing is compact. A sense of place and situation are established very quickly and the present tense suits the story which is written with an almost Biblical feel.

It seems unlikely that the inhabitants of the settlement would be able to overpower the members of the other community who are healthier and stronger, and have electricity and so presumably more sophisticated weapons.

The writing needs careful editing. There are a lot of part sentences, which make the narrative very jerky for no apparent reason.  'He is afraid. As well he might be.' Why is that written as two sentences? Also, some of the wording is awkward. 'I remember the gone days' seems to be a deliberate attempt to write in an unusual style, presumably to make the point that this is set in the future. It doesn't really work, especially as the narrator points out that he is an old man and was alive before this dystopian future time arrived. Such stylistic quirks are a distraction and can be irritating for the reader.

Apart from those small quibbles, this is a powerful and haunting story.

 

Third Place. What the Tide Washed Up

With a clever neat plot, this is compact writing that covers a lot in few words. The twist at the end was unpredictable.  It's a powerful story with an ironic twist. More could have been made of the man with a ponytail being homophobic as it's not altogether clear why he is goading Jack in such a nasty way. The description of the gulls on the beach is a brilliant piece of writing.

Some line editing is needed. The opening sentence is clumsy. 'It was the hologram that caught his eye' could simply say, 'A hologram caught his eye.' Watch out for reiteration. In one sentence we learn it is 'too early for dog walkers,' and in the following sentence we are told it is 'just after dawn.' Avoid the word 'then' unless it is necessary.

Apart from a few small points of style, this is a masterly and clever story.

 

Runners Up

Salt
This has strong characterisation. It is skilful competent writing, but the twist with the ghost didn't quite work. After the initial shock, as the writer intended, the ending is then a bit of a letdown.

Sod's Law
This has effective description, although it was a bit predictable.

Waiting for the Rainbow
This is original with some good description but it is rather overwritten and could do with some careful editing to make the narrative flow more easily.

Water: My Hell, My Heaven
This is quite convincing and powerful writing, but is not really a story as there is no narrative development. It could be the basis for a story.

The Magical Water
I enjoyed this. It is amusing, with a convincing and engaging narrative voice. The plot is neat - although I'm not sure that any girl would admire a big pimple!

With best wishes
Leigh Russell

 

 

The Winning Stories

Click on a story to read...

First Place
Getting Away by Robert Kibble

"Bye, love. Thanks for the lift." Sue looked at her watch. "I need to dash." She jumped out of the car and ran into the station, holding her handbag above her head in a futile attempt to keep her hair dry.

Dave didn't have time to reply. As he watched her reach the station doors his mind ran through why she hadn't rung a taxi earlier on a busy Friday night, and how much of the snooker he was missing, and then back to Tom. It would have been an effort to wake him up and get him into the car, and it would have taken longer, but still - it was wrong to leave him. And from now until he got home, Dave knew that would be a constant worry.

There was a jam on the way out of the car park. The rain was so heavy, cars were having trouble seeing when the road was clear. It really was a horrible night. Dave waited his turn, trying to be calm, but found his fingers turning white, tightly gripping the steering wheel. "Come on, people," he said, quietly. "Come on."

 

I'm still tired. What woke me? I feel sore. I'm hungry. I want something to eat.

 

He knew it was bad to leave, but it should only have been half an hour. Sue wanted to get away for her girly weekend. She needed to get away, truth be told. The last few months had been hard. Tom wasn't easy to cope with. A weekend away would recharge her batteries, and Dave owed her that. It left him to cope alone, but he could do that. Just so long as he got home.

Just so long as Tom didn't wake up and panic, or get out.

Oh God. Get out.

Without thinking any more Dave pushed on his horn, willing the car in front of him to get out of the way. They were all turning right, into town, but they were all positioning themselves in the road so they blocked him. He was going left, out of town to the tiny village where they'd lived for the last few years.

The car ahead wiped its rear windscreen, and Dave could just see the woman's eyes looking back at him in the mirror. She looked upset.

"I'm sorry," said Dave, knowing his words wouldn't reach her. "But can you please get out of my way. I need to get home."

He knew it was wrong to come out and leave Tom, but surely just once...

 

Should there be someone here? I want food. Someone should bring me food.

 

The road ahead cleared and he moved forward, a bit too fast. He blamed the overly-sensitive clutch.

The road to the left was empty, and he sped up, turning the wipers onto double speed. It still didn't clear enough. He leaned forward to see better, and opened his window a crack to stop the car steaming up. A few hundred yards later and the streetlights stopped. Dave turned his lights to main beam, and then realised it only lit up the rain, so turned them back again and slowed down a little.

Another car turned out into the road and headed towards him. Dave slowed a bit more, concentrating on the cat's eyes in the middle of the road to make sure he was in the right place. If he looked up directly at the other car, he'd be blinded. He slowed more, and the car sped past, going way faster than he was.

Dave took a deep breath and sped up again. The glass of wine he'd had earlier, thinking he was settled, felt as if it was smothering his brain, dulling him. If Sue hadn't needed to go - really needed - he would have refused to drive. It was probably OK. One glass - that was OK, right? If only she'd rung up before the Friday evening rush.

He turned into the smaller road that led directly to his house. Only two miles to go, he thought, as he drove through a gigantic puddle. The spray either side reached up above the side windows, and the car slid a little. Dave changed down to second gear, and continued on.

 

No one is here. Where is she? I'm so hungry. I need to find her. I should shout. She will come.

 

One more dip between him and home. He could take the other road and go the higher way round, but it was only a couple of minutes now - he could make it home, and check that Tom was all right. Just check on him. Tom would still be asleep, of course. Everything would be fine. Just a couple of minutes.

A lake appeared in front of him where the road should have been. He tried to work out how deep it would be, but you couldn't tell in the darkness. Dave changed down to first gear and kept going, feeling the car straining against the water, producing a wash that burst up over the bonnet. It was all about keeping the revs up, and keeping the speed down. He knew that. He pushed on, keeping his foot half-down on the pedal, using the clutch now and again to get a full set of revs on. The car pushed forward, and he felt the slight change of incline as he reached the lowest point.

The engine spluttered. He pushed down on the pedal, but it was no use. The sound of the car stopped.

"No. Please, no. Not today."

He turned the key, and felt a little water seep in under the door. The key did nothing.

Dave slammed his fists into the steering wheel again. He took his phone out, and swiped it. No signal.

"Shit, shit, shit."

There was nothing for it.

He pushed the handle on the door, and let the water flood in over his feet. Swivelling out he pushed his feet down into the foot-deep water. It was freezing.

As an afterthought he leaned back in and turned on the hazard lights, not that anyone else would be stupid enough to come along this road in this, unless they were in a four-by-four. He'd always taken the mickey out of the people with the Chelsea tractors, but not now. What he'd give for that.

Dave pulled his feet along through the water, following the line of the road with eyes wide open, staring into the blackness, cursing his lack of jacket. He was soaked through in seconds, but at least as he went along the water became shallower, until he was walking in waterlogged shoes but at least on dry land. Well, dry-ish land anyway.

He thought of Tom, wondering where he was, and kept going. He tried to run, but his feet wouldn't do it. He shivered as he walked, and he felt his shirt sticking to him, with the wind blowing past draining all the heat from his upper body.

 

I can't find anyone. Maybe she's outside. The door is locked. I can reach the key.

 

The turns of the road which were normally seconds apart took minutes, and it felt like an hour to get the last mile, until he could just see the house.

He wanted to make out the windows, and the lights, to check it was all as he'd left it. That was all that mattered. He could have a bath. He could throw the shoes away. He could phone the AA tomorrow and get the car pulled out. Just so long as Tom was where they'd left him.

Upstairs windows, lights were off.

Downstairs, one on, one off.

The door. It was dark, and Dave had to stare a couple of times, but there was something wrong.

It was open.

Oh God no.

Dave summoned every ounce of strength he had and began running, his legs trying to refuse, but being overruled by a now desperate heart, needing to get to that house. Perhaps it had only been seconds ago, he thought. Perhaps half an hour.

He raced up to the house and looked round. No sign. Perhaps Tom had simply found the key and opened the door. Perhaps he was still inside.

Dave shouted, and looked quickly in the downstairs room, where Tom had been sleeping. Gone.

He ran back out again, and started round the house. The side gate was open - he should have noticed that immediately. The garden was long, and led down to a stream - a stream which would by now be a torrent of water.

He pushed on again, now through mud. Surely Tom couldn't have made it out through this, and why would he stay out?

He ran down towards the stream, staring at the ground wondering if there were footprints or not. It was too dark and too slimy to tell.

He slipped and fell on his back, mud splattering over him as he turned and tried to get up again.

A deep breath, realising how numb his hands were as he tried to use them to stand, and he got back to his feet. "Tom!" he shouted.

 

Someone is shouting. I'm wet. I'm cold. I don't like this. I'm still hungry.

 

Dave didn't expect a response.

He half-ran half-crawled down to the bottom of the garden, and then saw him.

Dave almost fell to his knees as he saw the man, standing there, but kept upright enough to get to him. "Dad!"

"I was looking for Carol," said Tom.

Dave threw his arms round his father, his tears lost in the rain. As he held him he felt the shivering body, and wondered when he last hugged his father. Not since he was little.

 

A young man is holding me. He's warm. Where's Carol?

 

"Is Carol with you?"

Dave turned his father back towards the house, ignoring the question. His mother had been dead twelve years now.

"We need to get you warm."

The cold flooded over him, but he pushed on back towards the house, gently guiding Tom back into the house. He would need to be warmed up too, before Dave would have a chance to sneak up to the shower. Plus the mud would be all over the house from his racing round earlier.

Still, none of that mattered. Never again, he promised. Never again.

Second Place
Blessed by Michael Callaghan

The Worship is interrupted.

This has never happened before. Never. But it is happening now. I pause, mid prayer, as the Watcher runs into the square; pushing through the kneeling crowds, forcing his way up and past, until he reaches the altar. The priests rise as he approaches; all seven of us.

"There's an Unknown approaching" he says. "At the North Arch." His voice carries high and thin. "I came straight away."

He is afraid. As well he might be. He has disturbed Worship. The four Watchers are the only ones permitted to miss Worship. But this is because they should be at the Arches. Watching. But of course his fear is for more than that. If his words are true then we have a stranger - an Unknown - at the Settlement. We have had no Unknown for eleven years now, and a further three years for the one before that. Both of those had been alone; crawling, wretched, starving; begging to be allowed into our Settlement. They had been refused, of course - there was no benefit and significant danger to their being allowed in - and they had been given the mercy of a quick death. There had been none since. I had become sure that we were now the last. The last survivors of the Rain.

I sense the fear prickling through the crowd. They have all heard the Watcher's words. Who knows what this might mean? And their eyes turn to me. There is no leader in our Settlement - such a claim of superiority would be a sin against the New Ways - but it is to me that they look. Partly it is because I chair the Priests' Council. But more than that it is because I am old. I remember the gone days. Before the Rain.

I get up and step down from my place in the centre of the altar, through the crowd that parts as I walk, and make my way down towards the North Arch. I say nothing, letting myself think. Instead, I turn my eyes to the horizon.

The Rain falls in its steady sweep, down over our mountainside, as far as the eye can see, and beyond. There is no end to it. It covers everything; the forests and moors, hills and valleys; seas and desert; everything, everywhere, covered in its cold grey shroud. Sometimes I imagine I can sense the sun, where the cloud thins slightly, where the darkness lightens. But I never see it. No-one has seen the sun in a long, long time.

It has rained for as long as anyone can remember. Everyone except me, that is. I am sixty three now, and was just a boy when the Rain started. When it began, people were afraid. Many said the Old God was judging us, in the way he had before. The Clever Scientists said, no: it was because of changes in the climate caused by a tilting in the earth's orbit due to heavy comet debris, upsetting the delicate meteorological equilibrium. But by the end, no-one cared who was right. People were too taken up with sickening, drowning, dying. It wasn't normal rain. It was hard, discoloured; burning and destroying as it fell; spreading disease that couldn't be cured; driving men mad. Once, fourteen years after it started, the Rain stopped. It stopped for three full days. Everyone thanked the Old God; rejoiced, wept, prayed their thanks; only for the clouds to thicken and grow heavy and the Rain to fall again on the fourth day, worse than ever. It has never stopped again. It has killed nearly all of us. Only the young survived, which makes me special. At least the poison in the Rain has gone. It doesn't kill you by falling on you. It never stops. But it's clear.

I set off again, the Watcher hurrying beside me. It takes less than a minute to reach the Arch and when I get there I see the Unknown, a few yards outside, approaching the middle of the clearing that surrounds the Settlement. He seems to be alone, although I see him glancing around him, to the nearby woods.

There is something immediately odd about him, and I realise; he is not thin. Pale, yes - everyone is pale now, with no sun to burn us - but his arms and torso are broad, filled-out, and his face is fleshy, with even small folds of fat under his throat. No-one in our Settlement looks like that. With no sun and permanent winter, crops grow thin and scarce and muted. We are all undernourished, with clammy, blotched skin that stretches tight across our faces. We all have stooped postures, bad eyes, stick-like limbs. He looks - and it takes me a moment to find the word - healthy. But it is his clothes that I notice most. Firstly he wears a hood that protects his head from the rain. Coverings are forbidden in the Settlement - to use a covering is to defy the Rain. But what surprises me most is the lack of other protective clothing. None of our fighters would scout without wearing their chainmail to protect them, even though they have seen no living soul in over a. decade. Yet this man has made his way to us with nothing. His presence makes no sense to me. He is not the starving broken shell, weeping and pleading for help. But neither is he a fighter, backed by comrades, threatening and making demands, that our people have always feared.

I walk outside, through the high arched gateway. I hear the Watcher gasp behind me, seeing me leaving unprotected. But I ignore him. When I reach the Unknown, and see him up close, I see he is young; probably no more than twenty, if that.

"What do you want?" I say, before he can speak.

He smiles faintly, like I said something amusing. I don't like that smile, I think. Then he shakes his head.

"It's not what we want, Sir." His voice is soft, mumbled, so that even at a few feet I have to strain to hear him. Not a leader's voice, I think.

"It's what we can do. For you. We want ..." He hesitates. "We want to save..." He shakes his head again "...no, to help you. All of you."

He smiles again. Bigger smile, this time. His teeth are white and strong. No-one in the Settlement has good teeth.

I sit on the edge of one of the jutting rocks that mark the clearing, and gesture for him to sit by me. He does so. Then he motions down the mountain.

"I know this must seem strange to you. You probably don't even realise....But things are better now. We have structure. We have electricity back..."

"No. That's impossible..." The words snap out before I can stop them.

He nods. "It's true. The flood levels have subsided, even though the rains haven't stopped. We've... dragged ourselves up. We know you keep to yourselves here. You won't know what is happening. But things are being rebuilt. We've got hospitals, proper housing. We've even got schools, of sorts..."

Schools?

He gestures skywards. "We've learned to live with the rain. It hasn't beaten us. And..." he pauses, and I realise he has come to the point of this. Of why he has come here.

"We'd like you to join us. All of you."

I look up at the rain again. Letting it wash over my face, feeling its cold grip.

"Why are you alone?" I say.

For the first time he looks uncomfortable. And I realise: he hasn't been told to come. This is his idea. The others in his Settlement don't know.

He sighs. "Some of us wanted to approach you here. But others were... afraid."

"Afraid?"

"That you weren't..." He searches for the right word." ...ready."

"Ready?"

He nods. "They heard of how you treated strangers. How none have come back from here. And there were rumours of the type of place that this was. They thought it too much of a risk. So contact has been forbidden. But I knew...that that was wrong. That we had to help one another. I understood that you were probably just afraid. Like we were. But I knew that if I could talk to you, I could point out how there was no need to he afraid. You could join us. We could all keep building a new world, together, like there was...before...."

I nod. I think I understand. What he is saying, and what he is offering. An end to this. An end to our miserable, scrabbled out existence. To be part of something bigger and better. A world connected. Like it was before the Rain. I close my eyes again. I feel the Rain hammer on my head. It thuds into my skull, running down my forehead and into my eyes.

I open them again. It is a long time since any of ventured far outside the Settlement. But I know now that time is coming again.

"Where is your Settlement? How can we get there?"

I see the relief in his eyes.

He gestures in the distance and indicates behind him; north west, many miles hence; and he describes the route he had taken. Not too far, he says. Less than two days march.

"So you will come? You will join us. You will let us ...help you."

I nod again. "We will come."

His smile spreads, and he exhales. It has been worthwhile he is thinking. He took the risk and he was right. He holds out his hand in an old gesture that 1 thought had long gone, that I thought only I remembered. I grasp it. We shake, and he tries to pull away.

But I do not let go. Uncertain, still half smiling, he pulls again; harder his time. But I still don't let go. And with my left hand I pull out the axe that I keep strapped to my leg. His eyes open wide in terror when he sees what I am doing but he has no time to say anything. No time to even cry out.

Afterwards I let him drop. From the woods, some yards off, I hear a woman screaming - the companion that I knew was there, watching everything. I gesture to the Watcher behind me to go and fetch her. She makes no attempt to run. True enough, there would be no point. In any event, she is safe. There is no point killing a young woman. She will have her uses here.

On my return to the Council, I explain to the other priests what had happened. The Unknown had been delivering a message. We had to surrender, or face death, and we had until dawn to decide. Luckily I had managed to get him to give away the location of his Settlement and been able to overpower and kill him.

They nod, sad but understanding. They had hoped for something better. But at least harm has been averted. They are only grateful for my quick thinking. Now at least the Settlement can be saved.

Our fighters reach their Settlement before dawn breaks. I take no part in the cleansing. But I watch, as our men do their duty. I cannot help but shudder at how close I was to an end to this. I think back to the gone days; when I was nobody, with no power, with no respect from anyone. And I say another prayer of thanks for the Rain that blessed me; the Rain which gave me the status that had always been denied me,

And so I watch and listen, as my soldiers wield their swords. I listen to the screams of the dying. And I raise my face and feel the Rain on me again. Calming me. Soothing me. Making me new.

Third Place
What the Tide Washed Up by Anne Crittenden

It was the hologram that caught his eye, glinting in the early morning sun.

The credit card was on the sand, close to the water's edge. Nobody else was in sight, it being too early for dog walkers or joggers. No-one in their right mind would be on the beach just after dawn.

Jack Ferguson rubbed his hands together, trying to feel his fingers. Anyone watching might have mistaken the gesture for that of a miser finding a surprise pile of cash. Despite the cold, Jack was grateful now that the hostel had been full last night. If he had not slept under the pier, he would not have found the card, but there was a pulsating ache behind his temples and his mouth seemed to be full of cotton wool.

He bent down, peering at it; his father would have called it 'coveting'. Jack tried to shut out that voice, always telling him what he should not do. Then he picked up the card and put it in the pocket of his jeans.

He knew he should take it into the police station or hand it in to the bank. But it was a contactless card and he could use it to buy a few essentials before he was asked for a PIN. The loss might have been reported already but recent events had taught Jack to seize opportunities, not waste them. As soon as the shops opened he would buy breakfast and then a few cheap items of clothing. Anything less than £20 would be alright.

With a bit of luck, Jack thought, his life might be about to change for the better.

Inside the small rucksack he was carrying were his only possessions: a hand towel-once pale blue- that now resembled a hair shirt - and a change of clothes, now rank with stale aftershave and sweat.

Jack tried not to think about his prospects before he had abandoned the law degree after just a term. His father's response had been no surprise:

"You can't stick at anything, Jack! You give up at the first sign of difficulty! Well, I'm not supporting you. You're on your own!"

Jack could still picture his mother's face, silently begging him to swallow his pride, ask the tutor to take him back.

But Jack had stormed out of the house. That had been three weeks ago: now he had no phone, no money and little pride left.

The sea was rinsing the sand as herring gulls swooped down to forage for breakfast. Sentimentality gets you nowhere, he told himself. Survival is what counts.

In years to come, after he made his fortune, Jack could write his autobiography citing this time in his life as character-building, defining the person he would become. The idea amused him for a moment.

But his stomach ached with hunger and a rancid taste filled his mouth.

A café overlooking the beach was opening and Jack hurried inside. The card machine indicated that contactless cards were accepted so he ordered a full English breakfast with tea and toast. The bill came to £6.95. Jack held his breath as he placed the card next to the machine, waiting for the payment to register.

"That's ok, mate!" The man behind the counter said, without looking at him and passing the food order through to the kitchen.

When the steaming plate of fried bacon, egg, sausage and baked beans was placed in front of him, Jack offered silent thanks to the owner of the credit card. He told himself that this was just an act of charity. He would only buy a few essential items, then get rid of the card before he was caught with it.

After breakfast, Jack left the café and headed off towards the centre of town. He had tried not to eat too quickly, despite his ravenous hunger. His unkempt appearance was not unusual in this part of Brighton but his striking red hair and beard were more distinctive, harder to disguise.

In one of the department stores, he found a rail of sale items reduced to near-giveaway prices. He chose a dark blue fleece, a black sweatshirt and a t-shirt for twenty pounds. This time, Jack placed the card by the machine more nonchalantly. The pimply young assistant packaged the items robotically, handing the bag to Jack along with the receipt.

He had spent less than thirty pounds so far, but Jack did not know when he would be asked for a PIN. When that happened, he might feign loss of memory regarding the number, or he might just run.

Shower gel, paracetemol, toothpaste and a new toothbrush were the items he still needed, but Jack added a bottle of cheap cologne to bring the cost up to £19. This shop, one of a chain of discount stores, also took contactless cards. Jack was sure that he would be prompted for a PIN this time. He waited, eyes fixed on the tiny screen, as if it might suddenly emit a high-pitched screech and shout, 'Thief alert!'

But the machine accepted the card without a hitch. Hardly able to believe his good fortune, Jack took the items and headed back towards the pier. He would put the card back where he found it before anyone could link him with its theft.

As he was walking along the promenade, Jack was aware of blue flashing lights on several vehicles parked on the roadside.

He stopped, turning to walk away before they noticed him. Perhaps the café owner had called, reporting that a suspicious-looking yob had paid for breakfast with a contactless card, probably stolen. He might have given a description, mentioning Jack's distinctive colouring. Maybe, he had noticed the smell of unwashed skin too.

But the police, together with several paramedics, were on the sand by the water's edge, their attention focused on a lifeless body.

Part of the beach was cordoned off to keep busybodies away from the crime scene, if that was what it was. For a moment, Jack was intrigued until reality dawned, like a fist in the face. The card he had found, the card he had stolen, must belong to the person who had washed up on the shore. If he was linked with that body, the police would assume that he was responsible for the death.

Walking onto the pier where he could get a clearer view of what was happening, Jack replayed the events of the night before in his head. He could remember going to the hostel, having a meal. When they told him the beds were all taken, had he lost his temper, as he usually did?

He remembered coming down to the beach. The pier was open until late and the bars were cheap here. Someone must have bought him drinks, perhaps that was how he had spent the last of his money, but the only lucid memory was of waking up on the stones underneath the pier.

"Hello again!"

The voice belonged to a young man, about Jack's age. His neck and hands were embellished with tattoos, his long matted hair tied in a ponytail.

"Sorry, I don't remember you. Have we met?"

"I was here last night and so were you. I saw the guy who bought drinks for you. You left together."

He paused. Jack was aware of a sickly-sweet smell that clung to him; cannabis.

"I don't know what you're talking about!"

"You see what the tide washed up?"

Jack nodded.

"I think that must be the guy you were with, the one you left with around eleven. The police will be asking for information soon. I think they'll be fascinated by what I have to tell them."

For a moment it seemed as if Jack was watching a film with himself in the starring role. This man was suggesting that Jack was a murderer. The idea would have been completely ludicrous if he could remember what had actually happened.

"There are at least three of us who saw you with him, you know. If you have no alibi..." He left the sentence unfinished, watching with evident satisfaction as Jack turned pale.

Putting his hand into his pocket again, Jack fingered the credit card; surely it must belong to the dead man. Perhaps it had fallen out of his wallet when he ended up in the sea. But as Jack wrestled with that idea, he realised how unlikely that was. Then, to his horror, he guessed the truth: the real murderer had set him up. It didn't matter whether Jack had actually been with this man because three people were prepared to say that he had. What was undeniable was that he had picked up the credit card which someone must have planted. His greed, his desire for more, had meant that he still had that card.

"I can't believe you came back! You could've scarpered before the police arrived."

He was baiting Jack now. "Do you usually go with the older ones? Perhaps you're not fussy as long as they pay!"

"I'm not gay and I'm not a rent boy, if that's what you're insinuating!" Jack's high-pitched shouting was attracting too much attention as he suppressed the urge to punch Tattoo Man in the face.

"Whatever you say. I'm not bothered- it takes all sorts. But if you murdered that old man..."

Desperate to get away, Jack shoved past him. He hurried towards the end of the pier, to get a better look at the body. If Tattoo Man's version of events was correct, Jack ought to recognise something about this man. Perhaps he had been wearing distinctive clothing; maybe his face was memorable in some way.

But the police were erecting a tent around the body, so the forensic team could work while the tide was still going out.

Suddenly, Jack saw Tattoo Man on the sand, deep in conversation with one of the police officers. As he spoke, he was pointing in Jack's direction.

There was no point in running. That would only confirm his guilt. When he was questioned, Jack would tell them that he had no clear memory of events from the previous night, which would sound pathetic. They would provide a duty solicitor for him but what could they do to help him?

As the police officer was making his way along the pier, Jack fumbled in his pocket for the stolen credit card. He had not noticed the name until now: K Hargreaves. Keith or Kevin? That's who it must be.

The officer was looking him in the eye.

"Sir, we have reason to believe that you met with a Mr Ian Ferguson last evening. Is that correct?"

Jack looked at him incredulously. "Ian Ferguson? Dad? Is that body my dad?"

"He needs to be formally identified, but evidence from his wallet suggests that it is."

As Jack looked in horror at the body of his father, lying by the water, he had a sudden, vivid memory of the night before.

When they told him the hostel was full, Jack drifted down to the pier. He had enough money to buy one drink, but then the drinking games began. He was lucky, winning drinks from other people.

And then his father turned up. Apparently, he had been to all the likely haunts looking for Jack, planning to take him home, try to sort things out. Jack had refused to listen but his father followed him off the pier and down to the beach. Vague images jangled in his head, but Jack remembered pushing his father away before he blacked out, slumping onto the pebbles. His father was clutching his chest, falling forward...

And Jack had done nothing.

They had been under the pier so no-one else would have seen what happened. A post-mortem should show that Ian Ferguson died of natural causes, but Jack knew that he might as well have killed his father deliberately.

And the credit card was just something the tide washed up.

 

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