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Entries for our own internal Writing Competition 2018


Lunch Break by Graham Sloper (1st prize winner)


Dennis picked up his rucksack at half past twelve and with a wave to his new colleague, who he thought might be called Sandra or possibly Sarah, walked out of the Requisitions Department of the Town Hall office where he had started work earlier that morning. It was a pleasant day and he was looking forward to a relaxing hour in Barrington Park, eating his lunch and reading his “Gaming Today” magazine.

Dennis chose a bench in front of a large rhododendron and opened his lunch box, using the lid as a makeshift plate on which he laid out sandwiches, crisps, fruit and a KitKat. He twisted the lid on his Coke Zero and got out his magazine, turning to an article titled “Virtual Sex, How Good Is It?” at the same time as taking a mouthful of sandwich.

Almost as soon as he started chewing, he became aware of something rustling in the bushes behind him.

“Psst,” a voice said. “Hey, you with the Coke.”

Dennis turned but could see nothing within the dense interior of the rhododendron and decided to ignore whatever it was. Returning to  the intricacies of “Virtual Sex”, he was halted again by an insistent voice from behind him.

“What have you got in your sandwiches?” it said.

Slightly rattled, Dennis stuttered, “Er, hummus and radish and, er guacamole and tomato, I think.” He lifted the corner of the sandwich to check.

“So, no meat then,” said the voice, clearly disappointed. “Can I have one anyway? The guacamole I think.”

“Why?” said Dennis indignantly. “Why on earth should I give you my lunch?”

“Well for one thing I’m starving, and if you don’t mind me saying so, you do have rather a lot. Should you be eating it all?”

Dennis felt a pang of guilt and glanced down at his waist. He knew that he needed to watch his weight. Perhaps the voice was right.

“Well, come out and I may give you one,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Why not? What are you doing in that bush anyway?”

“I’m naked.”

Dennis gulped. “Naked? Why are you naked?”

“Well, obviously because I haven’t got any clothes on.”

This was taking a bizarre turn thought Dennis. For a moment he contemplated his safety but so far the voice had shown no element of aggression.

“But why haven’t you got any clothes on?” he persisted. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon in a public park?”

“Because I took them off. Anyway are you going to give me a sandwich or not? If you are, put it on the grass behind you and don’t turn around.”

Relenting, Dennis placed the sandwich behind him and turned to face forward again. There was another rustle and then the sound of someone eating greedily.

“You still haven’t really explained why you’re naked.” Dennis said again.

“Well, if you really want to know, I’ve gone feral, if you know what that is. By the way, you have the worst taste in sandwiches I’ve ever come across. Still, needs must. Perhaps Ill try the hummus now.”

“So you mean like a wild cat,” said Dennis, ignoring the request.

“Yes, except of course I’m not actually a cat.”

“No, of course not. What do you eat then?”

“Well, I do sometimes fancy a rodent of some sort or a small bird but I’ve never had much luck catching them. So I usually get my food from those big bins they keep round the back of supermarkets. Frankly it’s shocking what they throw away. I’ve tried them all but I particularly like Asda’s selection.”

“Don’t you have a family?” asked Dennis. “Where do they think you are when you’re creeping around in the bushes for days at a time?”

“I really would like that other sandwich, you know. Are you sure you can’t spare it?”

“Well, I might,” replied Dennis. If you answer my question, you can have it.”

“Oh very well, although I’m sure other feral creatures don’t get interrogated like this just to get a mashed chick pea sandwich. If you must know, this week, they think that I’m at a sales conference in Worthing.”

Dennis contemplated this answer. He was quite enjoying this bizarre conversation in a strange way. Actually it was turning out to be rather more interesting than virtual sex, which he had decided after reading only a few lines, was probably not for him.

”So what actually is it that makes you think you’ve gone feral?” asked Dennis, rather curious by now.

“Not sure really, it just feels right. Creeping around naked probably feels as natural to me as walking in the park does to you. And when I’ve had enough to eat, I sometimes get this urge to curl up in a ball and purr.”

Dennis snorted at this last remark. This really did sound like so much rubbish. Looking down at his watch he saw that it was nearly half past one.

“I have to go,” he said. “I think perhaps you need to seek some professional help.”


Back in the office, Sandra (or was it Sarah) was sitting at her desk as he came in and gave him a smile.

“Nice lunch?” she asked cheerily.

“Well kind of. Actually, it was very odd,” Dennis replied. If you have a minute I’ll tell you…”


Later that afternoon a tall man walked in, with a bright smile.

“Afternoon my lovely,” he said. “And how is the star of all things requisitions on this fine afternoon.”

“Hello Gerry,” said Sandra/Sarah. “Gerry this is Dennis, he’s new. Dennis this is Gerry, our resident wag from internal audit.”

Gerry walked across the room and offered his hand. When he spoke his voice sounded vaguely familiar to Dennis.

“Good to meet you old chap. Welcome to the mysterious world of the borough council. You’ll love it here, won’t he Sandy?”

Turning round he walked across to Sandra’s desk.

“Sandra, can you send me the Harker file please? I need to get that finished off today. I can’t believe that it’s the beginning of April already.”

Behind him, Dennis heard Sandra give a loud snort.



The Burglary  by Philippa Shadrach Long  (3rd prize winner)


Kyle looked at the kitchen window. The top small one was open a little. He smiled and grasped the drainpipe with his right hand. He lifted his left leg as high as he could until he could just put the toe of his trainer on the small ledge. Taking a deep breath, he hauled himself up so that, with both toes on the sill, he could reach his arm through the top window and stretch down to pull up the catch to open the larger window. Deftly he pulled himself through and angled himself onto the draining board, pulling the window almost closed behind him. He stopped to quieten his breathing and listen for any sounds before sliding himself to the floor. He stood, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the interior after the lights of the landing. He had not been in this block before but the layout of all the flats on his sprawling estate were the same. He knew if he went straight across the hall he would enter the sitting room. He could case the place, take what he found and be out, without going near the two bedrooms at the rear, where he might disturb the occupant or occupants. He began to move slowly and silently sideways toward the door when his foot clattered against something.

   ‘Shit,’ he wore silently. He looked down to see a pet’s bowl of water kicked over. His heart was thumping in his chest and he stood frozen to the spot. Should he leg it? He strained to hear any movement from the back of the flat. He had just begun to relax when the hall light went on and with a short shuffling sound an old lady in a dressing-gown suddenly appeared in the doorway. Doris’s hand fumbled to her right until she reached the kitchen light and suddenly Kyle’s eyes were dazzled by the overhead fluorescent light. It all seemed to happen so fast he was still too shocked to move.

   ‘Is that you, Stu? You’re late tonight. What’s the time? I’d gone to bed and must have dozed off. Well, come on then, give your old Nan a kiss.’ Kyle stared at her soundlessly and saw that she was looking sightlessly into the middle of the room. Shit, she was blind! He calculated quickly: he could try and scramble back through the window, or rush past her to the front door but she might start screaming. The lights had been on in the flat next door. He might get caught.

   ‘Cat got your tongue, Stu? Not having a good day? What day is it, Stu? My old brain, I’m muddled see. Where’s that kiss then?’ She’s not just blind, thought Kyle, with some relief, she’s gone funny in the head like his Gran had. He could play along until he could get away, she wouldn’t know. He went over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, ‘Hullo Nan, how are you?’ The old woman patted his cheek.

   ‘That’s my boy, Stu. I’m all right now you’re here. How about our usual pot of tea and some toast for us both? Put that fan heater on and we’ll sit round the table like we always do and have a natter, eh?’ Doris shuffled to the kitchen table in the middle of the room and felt her way onto a chair. Kyle looked around at the small, neat space and saw the fan heater, a kettle, a bread-bin, a toaster and on a small tray with two cups and plates, jam and butter,  two knives and spoons. It was almost as if this batty old bird had been expecting this Stu. Christ, it was two o’ clock in the morning! She was definitely off her head but he was starving and cold. He wouldn’t half mind a warm-up and some tea and toast himself. He started to do as she had bid.

   ‘Well now, Stu, how are things? Have you left school yet? Oh no, silly me, I remember now, you’re doing you’re O Levels now, aren’t you?’ Kyle looked at her sharply, but she was still looking blindly somewhere to the left of his ear. How could she know that he also would have been doing his GCE’s if he hadn’t truanted and dropped out from the time he was fourteen? He had managed to stay below the radar ever since. The smell of the bread toasting was making him salivate. The heater was warming-up the room and the kettle was coming to the boil. It felt nice and cosy. Crazy!

   Kyle poured two cups of tea and put them on the table with the toast. He gently placed the old woman’s hand on the handle of the cup.

   ‘Plate of toast is next to it Nan − to the left.’

   ‘Thank you, darling.’ She brought the cup to her lips and took a sip before replacing it carefully down to the table again. All the while she was looking straight ahead to where Kyle was sitting, but her gaze was off kilter. It was a little creepy. ‘You work hard now, my boy. I’ve got high hopes for you. You’re such a lovely boy and so bright. Now you’ve put those troubles behind you, you’ll buckle down and go far. You mark my words.’ Troubles? Had her grandson gone off the rails like him then? Kyle wished he had a grandmother like this old biddy, someone to believe in him. His Gran had been a foul-mouthed drunk, even before she went doolally. His mother wasn’t much better. He wondered if this Stu had had a Dad − unlike him. He ate his toast greedily and took large swallows of the sweet tea.

   ‘I know it was that you were angry and hurt and you’d lost your way but that’s behind you now. Well done you for turning things around, my love. I know you’re a good boy at heart, always was and always will be. And remember, I love you, whatever you did and whatever you do.’ Kyle, to his horror, suddenly found his eyes pricking with tears. He realised he would like to continue sitting in this warm, neat room with this loving old woman forever.

   ‘So, tell me, my lovely, have you thought any more about what you want to do? Are you still thinking of medicine?’ Kyle nearly choked on his tea. Him −a doctor? What a laugh! He wanted to give her something though, so he said,

   ‘Maybe, Nan. It sounds a really good thing to do but I doubt I would ever be good enough to get into medical school.’

   ‘Nonsense! You work hard at those O Levels and then do the same with your A Levels and the sky’s the limit for you. You’ve always been a caring boy, Stu, I know you’d make a fine doctor. You just have to believe in yourself more, son. You have to have faith. There’s plenty of people out there who want to help, if only you’ll let them, darling. You just listen to your old Nan. I’ve not lived all these years without learning a thing or two about life.’

   ‘Okay, Nan. I’ll try,’ Kyle replied.

   ‘I’m sleepy, love. You’d better get off home now. I’ll see you tomorrow won’t I? Give us a kiss.’ Kyle crossed the table to kiss the old woman once again on her papery, cool cheek. ‘Let yourself out, Stu,’ she said, and he did −− this time by the front door. As he went through the door he saw her handbag on a table. His hand hovered on the door handle for a moment and then he swiftly closed the door behind him and went out into the night.

   Doris sat on at the kitchen table after the door clicked shut. She thought of Stuart and his troubled teenage years. Those evenings they had spent together had meant so much to them both, especially after her useless daughter had taken-in that pig to live with her. The pig had hated Stuart and Stuart had hated the pig. She knew it was silly but she still liked to lay out two plates and cups of an evening, in memory. Tonight she could almost have believed it was Stuart back again. She took her spectacles out of her pocket and stepped into the hall to check if her handbag was still there. It was. She smiled to herself. She had once played a blind woman in Rep at Blackpool years ago. It had come in useful tonight. She wondered if Stuart would pop-up to see her before Christmas but she knew he was so busy at Great Ormond Street.

   ‘Being a Consultant in the NHS these days, Nan, is no picnic,’ he would say.

She wondered what would happen to that boy who had come to rob her tonight.

She would never know that their brief encounter changed Kyle from that day on − and changed the course of his life.



The Mealticket Monologue by Neil O’Neil


A worried youth walks home from school. Biting his nails and running a hand through long blond hair. More than agitated.

He’s been crying. Soon to make an awful confession.

Brian is generally a good kid. His father left home 5 years ago, and he’s been trying to emulate him ever since. Make him proud, impress or win his attention. Which is partly why he’s in his current predicament.

Brian kicks a can in the gutter. It isn’t empty and the contents splatter his trousers.

 He despondently looks down at the damp patch.

Life isn’t so bad living with his mother. They have an honest and open relationship; but it’s not the same as having the understanding of a male in the house. Today he’s glad it’s his mother at home, she might actually believe him; even if she can’t put things right.

Hesitating he looks up at his block of flats, biting the last piece of nail from his thumb.

He enters the building but instead of taking the lift, even though somebody holds the door open for him, he lights a cigarette as he slowly takes the stairs. Half way up he stops and takes a creased photo from his school blazer. It is of him and his Dad having a beer down the pub. Brian flicks the photo through the stair railings. It flutters down in the humid air.

Gerry, Brian’s father, is a successful wide boy from the East End. Loving and caring when it suits him, which isn’t often enough.

Gerry has that charm, using men and woman alike, always looking for an opportunity or angle or just a bit of skirt to raise.

Gerry’s little enterprises have managed to keep Brian and his mom in relative comfort and neither mother or son have wanted for anything.


Gerry and his mom, Sally, remain friends after the divorce. Brian still hopes they’ll get back together but Gerry needs his freedom to work the angles and flirt the skirt. There is however one family rule that Gerry has installed in them both, even after the marital breakup. ’Family look out for each other no matter what’. Always tell the truth.

Sally is humming while washing and drying dishes. Freak out by Le Chic is playing on Radio Two. She is currently happy, contented and trying to throw some moves.

It was being truthful that split Gerry and Sally; when she asked him if he was screwing anyone, he told her the truth. Unfortunately, the truth was that it was with Sally’s sisters, both of them.

Brian has now climbed 10 flights of stairs and is out of breath as he stands in front of the door to the flat where he lives. The number on the door is 101.

He stubs his fag out, pops a tic tac, a quick spray of old spice and enters their cosy home.

Brian walks steels across the kitchen and turns the radio, making his mother jump in surprise. Before she can say anything, he holds both his hands out in defence and starts his monologue.


“Sit down Mom I need to tell you don’t  say anything until I’ve finished. I really need you to listen and be calm.”

Brian looks down ashamed.

“It’s a matter of life and death and I don’t need you freaking on me. Promise you’ll stay quiet until I’ve finished?”

Sally goes to speak, but sees the urgency in Brian so nods and sits down at the kitchen table, tea towel still in her hand. Brian sits at the other end of the table.

“When Dad was around – he continues - he always said the only way to get on in life was to think laterally. Think outside of the box he used to say. Always look for ways to turn things to your advantage. It seems to work for him...he’s always loaded.”

Sally has stopped drying her hands on the tea towel. She has relaxed a little as she thinks this purely a money problem, nothing to do with a life or death situation at all.

“Anyways I had this thing going at school with the dinner tickets. Each week you give me £10 to buy 5 dinner tickets. Some days I’d go without lunch to save two quid. But by late afternoon I am starving and ended up spending it on shit in the tuck shop.”

Sally admonishes him with her eyes. She doesn’t like him swearing. He ignores her and carries on.

“Then one day when I was skipping lunch I was hanging around out back by those huge kitchen garbage bins, waiting for everyone else to finish lunch.”

Sally is itching to say something, Brian raises a finger.

“I then noticed Mrs Carol coming out to the bins with a bag of rubbish. So I’m hiding down behind the bins as she tosses this rubbish bag into the bin. Anyway the old fart misses and the bag hits the ground, spilling everything on to the floor.”

Sally nods, being the understanding Mom.

“It’s then I notice the dinner tickets she’s collected each day are being dumped in the bins. So when she’s gone, I jump into the bin and retrieved the bag with the used dinner tickets. Wait...don’t say promised.”

Sally is stopped mid protest but settles back down, trying to act patiently, still certain this is a storm in a teacup.

“Now the problem is with Mealtickets, we have to write our names on the back of our ticket, so that it’s difficult to use them again or sell them to someone else. So for a few weeks I was able to get my own dinner tickets back, making £10 a week, and getting feed. Result!”

For a brief moment Brian is pleased with himself. His mother is looking at her nails waiting for her chance to reply. Brian returns to the severity of his dilemma.


“But I thought of Dad. Think laterally. How can I turn this to a bigger advantage?”

There is a beat in Brian’s monologue as he considers his Dad’s influence.


“So I speak with Jonesy and Patterson and ask them if they want to buy their dinner tickets back at £1 each. This way they save a pound, I make a pound and we all get fed. Within 2 weeks I had 8 people signed up to my scheme. So I am clearing £50 a week and looking to get some more customers.”

Brian hesitates. He has been practising this in his head for the last few hours, now the moment is here. He dives in.

“That was until today.”

Brian’s voice breaks; almost into a small cry. Sally now looks up from her nails. Noticing his fear.


“At afternoon break I make my way to the bins as usual and jumped inside to get the rubbish bag.”

Taking a deep breath and preparing himself, he shoots a look to his mother trying to prepare her for the worst.

“You know that girl who went missing yesterday, Tania Aldred?”

His mother nods solemnly, not understanding the connection, but understanding the pain of a missing child.


“Well her body’s in the garbage bin.”

Sally yelps and nearly erupts; wanting to have her say, but Brian rushes down the table puts both his hands up in front of her and shouts, whilst also starting to cry.

“Don’t say anything.... it gets far fucking worse.”

Sally is now dazed and frightened and involuntary sits down watching her son, with her hand over her mouth and the tears forming in her eyes. Brian needs to finish this.

“At first I was shocked. But Dads words came back ‘think laterally’, how can I turn this to my advantage?”

Brian points to his mother to stay still and listen; as he moves over to the window unable to look her in the face whilst he finishes his terrible confession.


“First thing I think about is how every guy in the school fancies Tania Aldred and would give their right arm to be able to touch or kiss her. No I didn’t kiss her. But I did lift her shirt and take a peek. It was then I got that fucking lateral thinking idea. I took out my iphone and started taking loads of pictures of her.”

We hear in the background Sally’s elbow hit the table and know her face is in her hands. She is audibly sobbing.


“I hadn’t decided how, but I was sure that they would fetch loads of dosh on the Internet. But Mom it gets far fucking worse.”

Brian turns round just as his mother raises up from the table not believing it can get worse. Their eyes meet. Brian is desperate.


“I lost my mobile on the bus.”

Sally doesn’t see the implication immediately.

“Mom I didn’t kill got to believe me.”


Blue Guitar  by Nick Hamlyn


“It’s a beautiful guitar! It’s a Gibson Les Paul - one of the first electric guitars made. It’s over a hundred years old!”

“I thought you’d know about it,” Art said.

“May I?” I asked, reaching out to pick the guitar up.

“Of course.”

I placed the fingers of my left hand cautiously on the fretboard, and struck the strings with my right. A blues phrase seemed to flow naturally and easily. Art was smiling.

“Like I said, it’s a beautiful guitar!” I was smiling too.

I played a few more notes. More blues. Then a whole verse - twelve bars. It seemed to be such appropriate music - almost as though the guitar knew what it was doing on its own.

I lay the guitar back down on the table.

“Of course, it needs to be played through an amplifier. Only then could anyone really tell how it plays. But it seems great.”

“You can do that,” Art said. “It’s yours.”

I was still looking at the guitar, still lost in admiration. I only half-heard what Art said and I was sure I had misunderstood.

“It’s yours,” Art repeated. “I want to give it to you.”

“What? You can’t mean that,” I stammered. “It’s worth a fortune!”

“Maybe. I don’t know. It was part of a legacy deal I carried out for someone. But it’s not worth anything to me, really. I don’t play.

“I can’t take it. It’s too much. You can sell it. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get for it!”

“It’s not too much. I owe you big time. You know that. I can never fully repay you. Please take the guitar - it needs someone who can make it come alive - it needs you!”



“OK. So it’s Guitar Instrumental - take one.”

The red light flashed and stayed on. The Hammond organ sounded three notes. Peter was standing with his eyes closed. His hands on the vintage guitar - a Les Paul - were as tender and as caring as if caressing a lover. Now he struck a single string and his middle finger on the fretboard pushed on it, rapidly applying pressure, and releasing, and applying pressure again, and releasing... A sustained tone, like an electrically charged flute, sang from the speaker of the amplifier placed behind him.

As the music came to an end, Peter still had his eyes closed, his hands on the guitar at rest. No-one said anything, until with a click, the control room microphone switched on.

“That was incredible, Peter,” the producer’s voice sounded. “That tone. The way you made the guitar cry out. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before!”

Peter opened his eyes and slid his hand along the guitar neck. He raised the guitar towards his face and gently kissed the headstock.



I plugged the guitar into my amplifier, then put it down, without playing a note. The guitar had a history - I knew that it must have. Only a limited quantity of this model was ever produced and it had always been expensive. The chances were that it had once been owned by a professional musician. Maybe more than one. A number was stamped on the back of the headstock. It was possible that this would be enough to discover the guitar’s past.



Gary picked up the guitar he had been given in the swap and played a few notes. Then he played a few more. It had a fabulous tone, he thought. No wonder these Gibsons had such a great reputation. He had very much got the better part of the deal. He played a verse, a blues, then two more. He wondered, if he was going to fully take ownership of this guitar, whether it was time for him to make a change in the music he played. He enjoyed hard rock, but it was a young man’s style. But the blues, on the other hand…



“Do you mean to tell me that you still haven’t played it?” Art sounded mystified.

“That’s why I called you over,” I replied. “I wanted to wait until I found out a bit more about this particular instrument. It seemed only right, to give it the respect.”

“OK. So what have you discovered? Was it worth the wait?”

“I think so, yes. The thing is, it turns out that this guitar has been played by two different musicians, both of them considerable names in their time. So I’m wondering if some of their personal magic could possibly have been transferred somehow. The guitar might remember what it managed to play underneath their fingers, how it used to sound.”

“And you’re hoping that the magic might rub off on you, is that it? You know that’s rubbish , don’t you? It was you that explained to me how it was the guitarists’ fingers that mattered. That the equipment they used was neither here nor there. You’ve said that to me often!”

“Yes, I know I have. But still, I can’t help wondering. This guitar is very special!”


I cradled the guitar in my hands, feeling its weight. The guitar was a treasure and the fact that it had managed to come to me was miraculous. So much remarkable music had resonated through the fine wood of its body and its neck. It seemed impossible that the instrument would not somehow remember what it had achieved. I switched on my amplifier, then connected the guitar lead and waited for the valves to warm up.

“What exactly are you expecting to happen?” Art asked. “Do you think that the guitar is going to take over and you’ll find yourself playing a brilliant version of Still Got The Blues or something?”

“No, not really. But maybe the guitar will help me to play the best I can. Maybe it will help me play better than I ever have.”

“We’ll see…”

I put my fingers on the fretboard, picked up my plectrum with the other hand, and I began to play. 


Walking the Camino by Rosemary Sturge


It’s raining. Not too cold though, and these coats they give us are pretty waterproof. Jake’s wearing his shorts, silly blighter. We park on Saint John’s Street next to the cemetery, open up the rear of the van and shoulder our sixteen kilo bags. Jake has a trolley as well.

‘See yer, Keith!’ he says, adjusting his i-pod and turning his back. ‘Half eleven I reckon. I’ve a fair few packets and sign-fors.’ His voice fades to a mumble as he tramps away down the slope.

I pause for a moment, take a deep breath, hitch up the bag. Take the first steps uphill towards Pilgrims Way, the start of my round. Makes me smile, every time I see that street name. I can hear my old Gran’s voice in my head, singing as she scoured the front step, ‘He who would valiant be, ’gainst all disaster,’ then I can’t remember the next six verses or whatever, but towards the finish her voice would get louder, and she’d belt out, ‘I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labour night and day, to be a pilgrim!’ Gran, who never went further than Skegness. She laboured night and day though. Six kids and she did her level best to bring them up right. Not her fault my Mum went off with a fella that worked the fairgrounds, and only came home again to dump me on Gran. Gran, who was really too old by then to take on a growing lad. So, I didn’t have the best of starts, but I’m not blaming anyone. The mess I made of my life was all my own doing.

Here it is, the start of Pilgrims Way, the start of today’s foot-slog. I feel as though I ought to have a cockle shell and a staff! Open up the sack and pull out the first bundle. I do this street criss-cross, odds and evens. It’s longish and winding. I’m going on to Pamplona Avenue and Burgos Drive, so I don’t want to double back. Two official looking letters for number four, an electricity bill for the old gal at five across the street. She won’t be happy about that. Not so many bills these days, I suppose most people have standing orders. Me, I’m still scrabbling for fifty pees to feed the meter in my tacky bed-sit.

As I plod along, I whistle through my teeth, ‘He who would valiant be,’ crossing and re-crossing my very own Camino. I’ve seen all the stuff about it on telly. The Camino di Santiago di Compostela, the Way of St James, the pilgrims’ road across the Pyrenees and into Spain. I’m not a religious type but I’d love to do it. Reckon I could too, after three years as a postie. I’m fit, if nothing else. Fit for nothing else is the general consensus.

Number twelve, letter from his son in Christchurch, New Zealand, gets one every two weeks or so. Yes, there he is, hovering in the porch out of the wet.

‘Morning, postie!’

‘Morning Mr French, not a good one is it? Here’s your letter, better than an income tax demand, eh?’

‘Much better!’ the old chap grins, clutching it to his skinny chest, and I grin back. First smile of the morning. It helps, it really does, even with the rain dripping off the end of my nose. I’m marching on, with a smile on my ugly mug and a song in my heart, ‘I’ll fear not what men say…’ What the magistrate said, what the probation officer said… but that’s all in the past. I did the crime, I’ve done the time. Four years clean, hey, and I’m in employment, right? I’m lucky they never found out all the stuff I did or Royal Mail wouldn’t have taken me on.

A package for number eighteen. Ring the bell, stand under the overhang out of the wet. Mrs Karen Foster. Her kid, Kenny, is in a wheelchair. The package is those extra big nappies for older kids that are incontinent. Poor little sod. And here he is, wheeling himself up behind her when she opens the door, bright eyes, big grin,

‘Hey, mister! I got a joke just for you. What do you get when you cross dog with an elephant?’

I shake my head. ‘Dunno mate, what do you get?’

Kenny’s laughing so hard and wheezing so much he can hardly get the answer out, ‘You get… you get a very nervous Postman!’

‘Oh, Kenny!’ sighs his Mum, ‘the minute your chest clears up it’s back to school for you,’ and to me, ‘Sorry about the juvenile humour.’

I laugh, ‘No worries! I’ll be telling that one back at the sorting office, Kenny!’

I won’t, of course. They’re a good crowd of lads and lassies, and maybe it’s my imagination that they look at me a bit sideways. Nobody’s ever said anything, but I wonder if they know. Probably not. I made a new start in a new town, and of course I’m older than most of them, so we haven’t much in common. I don’t even own an i-pod.

Whey hey, the day’s improving! The sky’s clearing and there’s a gleam of sun. An old timer I worked with when I first joined said to me, ‘When the weather’s good, Keith, it’s the best job in the world!’ I know what he meant. Sunlight on the newly opened cherry blossom in the garden at number thirty-three — it’s enough to gladden the heart. Two bills, several items of junk mail, and whoa! A summons. Ring the bell and stand well back! Court summonses we have to “deliver into the hands of the person summonsed, or to an address where you may reasonably believe he or she will receive it.” And the person summonsed isn’t usually eager to receive it. Can lead to a tricky encounter. Today, luckily, the addressee, a Mr Andrew MacBain, isn’t in. The door is answered by a nymph in a nightie (well, I think that’s what she’s nearly wearing), heavy-eyed and not even slightly interested.

Me, ‘Mr Andrew MacBain lives here?’

She, taking the envelope in a listless hand, ‘Yeah.’

People don’t realise it but their postie knows a lot about them, knows whose split up, who’s behind with their child support. They know what you’ve been buying on the internet to spice up your sex life or snort up your nose. Do we read your postcards? Of course we do! Lots of tips for holiday destinations if only I could afford them. I reckon they might be a better guide than Trip Advisor.

Shoulder the pack, pilgrim, and on you go. Couple of sign-fors next, and various holiday brochures and magazines that I’ll have to ram through the letter boxes. I’m well into my second bundle.

Uho, number forty-six. A letter from a solicitor and a red gas bill. Unbidden, another line from Gran’s hymn comes to mind, ‘No foe shall stay his might, though he with giants fight.’ Number forty-six has two enormous Alsatians and they aren’t always securely chained. If they’re out and about, give ’em a miss. That’s the advice from my supervisor.

Today the gate’s swinging open and so is the front door. No sign of dogs. Strange. Then I hear it, a loud belch. I look over the wall and there’s the householder, on his back, stark naked on the weed and dog-dirt strewn gravel. His huge pot belly rises and falls as though it might erupt like Mount Vesuvius.

Sensing my presence, his eyes squint open, ‘Wot yer got there, mate?

I dangle the post before his face, and he bursts into song, ‘Returrn to sender!

Address unknown, no such numberrrr…, no such zone…’ Considering he’s completely out of it on who-knows-what, he doesn’t do a bad Elvis impression. A short silence ensues, and then he says, ‘They took me dogs. Said they’re dangerous, gonna put ’em down. Shhould… shoulda put me down as well. Landlord’s gonna evict me.’ His eyes close and tears leak out and run down his cheeks.

I lay the post gently on Mount Vesuvius, murmuring, ‘Been there mate, been there,’ and walk on in my Royal Mail regulation trainers. Up and down the garden paths, closing the gates carefully behind me. Every day my feet hammer out the thoughts of what might have been. Of the booze and the pills I couldn’t leave alone. Of Cheryl and little Stevie dead in that mangled car wreck. Every day I carry my penance on my back.


‘He who would valiant be, ’gainst all disaster….’ The end is in sight. Around the next corner Pilgrims Way becomes Pamplona Avenue. I’ve walked my Camino one more time. The load may get lighter… but the road goes on.


The Cascade Sonata by Monica Withrington


“And the first prize goes to ...”

Applause rang around the auditorium as Francis, in a state of shock and bewilderment, rose from his seat and stumbled on to the stage, to receive the winner’s cup, cheque and a kiss from the wife of the competition’s patron.

“This will be the making of this young composer’s career,” said the commentator to the television audience, who had watched the marathon competition from their armchairs at home. Well, what else could he say, even if it meant stating the blindingly obvious? When Francis was later interviewed (‘How does winning make you feel?’ ‘Did you expect to win?’ ‘Where do you get your ideas?’), he chose not to explain the inspiration for the fourth movement - the allegretto – on which his coming first had seemed to hang. What did it matter, now, anyway?


Francis’s salary, as a peripatetic music teacher in a handful of London schools, only just covered the cost of rent and food, but otherwise, he lived the life of the penniless composer, only too familiar to his many predecessors: Mozart, Liszt and Beethoven, to name but a few. His rented bedsit in the run-down old house may not have been a garret, exactly, although it qualified as a home some would consider entirely suitable for a struggling young artist in most other ways: damp and mould discoloured the walls and he usually found it necessary to wear every garment he possessed against the chill; but the main problem was the tap in the ancient sink in the corner. It dripped, day and night, with a high-pitched ‘plink, plink’.

Every four weeks, when the landlord’s agent, the spidery Mr Clegg, called to collect the rent, Francis reminded him of the leaking tap. And every four weeks, the spidery Mr Clegg promised to ‘do something’ about it. Once, in a fit of frustration and rage, he had given the offending object such a mighty twist that his hand had ached for a month.

Tying a sock around it had proved to be merely a temporary solution.  Soon, the water had seeped through the thick cotton and down into the sink, once more, producing a hollow gurgling, like the ghostly laugh of a long-dead former tenant.

He had eventually learned to sleep through the irritation, discovering that it gave a peculiar sort of comfort in the lonely hours of the night. As the frequency of the drips increased, he put a jug under the tap, in order, he told himself, to preserve the planet’s resources by capturing some of the water for his first cup of tea in the morning.


News of a contest to discover a new piano sonata had been the spur to take what had amounted to his mere dabbling at the keyboard to a new level. Even if he didn’t win – and what were the chances of that happening? – his work would be ‘out there’, heard by millions on radio and TV. There was also the hope of a few commissions: he wouldn’t even turn his nose up at a film score: if writing film music had been good enough for Shostakovich, then it was good enough for Francis Rivers.

The first movement – the allegro – he had managed easily enough: a sparkling tune, that shimmered like sunlight on water, had been dancing around in his head for some weeks. He had merely to bring in a further, contrasting theme, the second subject, write the exposition, in which the two melodies were transformed, and repeat them in the recapitulation. Although he had not quite been able to create a strong contrast, he had devised a melody which worked well enough.

 The slow, second movement, the andante, had proved even less problematic, as it had simply grown out of the first. He’d allowed all his romantic thoughts of Miranda, the girl who occupied the bedsit on the floor above, and who had recently taken to greeting him on the landing as she passed his open door, to spill over in an emotional waterfall of sound. The technicalities, too, had fallen easily into place.

And as to the minuet, the third movement, he had written so many dance tunes in his life, for the amusement of his three sisters, that he was spoilt for choice.

It was the final allegretto which had really challenged him. He’d found that he’d used up all the possibilities and variations which his initial ideas had given him. He knew he had to finish the sonata with a flourish: no weak ending to give his audience a sense of anti-climax. He lay in bed, twisting and turning, the chances of falling asleep as elusive as that all-important finale.

Meanwhile, the deadline for submitting his entry was rushing towards him like a tide.

Damn that tap! The drip was coming faster still, interrupting the rhythms in his head.

 “Plink, plonk, plunk, plinkety-plonk.”

Francis rose on to one elbow and listened in the darkness. What was the stupid thing doing now?

“Plinkety-plunk, plonk, plonk, plink,” sang the water-drops as they hit the enamel.

“That’s it!” he shouted at the mottled ceiling. “My fourth movement!” And, simultaneously tugging at the string which turned on the light, and throwing off the duvet, he leaped up, hurried over to his desk and grabbed a pen and a sheet of manuscript paper, on which he set about translating the water drops into musical notation. Soon, he had captured the jaunty little tune, with its playful, irregular rhythm, in the spirit of his beloved Shostakovich – and a perfect contrast to his original themes.

By the time the sun had filtered through the thin curtains, the sonata – harmonies, discords and all - was finished. With the following week being Half Term, Francis was free to spend the first few days writing out a clean copy of the work, sustained at regular intervals by cups of coffee and light meals, courtesy of Miranda, who, he had discovered, ran a small consultancy from the attic room she called ‘home’.

Finally, with the blessing of the Head of Music at one of the school where he worked, he recorded his composition on to the sound equipment reserved for GCSE and A Level music exams, and transferred the result on to a CD. This he placed, along with the sheet music, in a padded envelope, which he sent on its way, First Class Registered Post, with barely a day left before the deadline.


When Francis and Miranda were married, a year after the competition had taken place, they swept up the aisle to the sound of the organ ringing with the fourth, joyous movement of his Cascade Sonata.

  The tenants in the house had been given notice, some months before, of its impending re-possession, and Francis had immediately put in a bid for it – the equivalent of his prize-money. As the commissions to write music for film and television, not to mention an opera, flooded in, he had the property restored to its original glory as a family home. Besides the necessary removal of lead piping and extensive re-wiring, the wall that divided his bedsit from the one next door had been taken down, thus creating a huge and magnificent master bedroom, complete with en-suite bathroom.

Having to part with the grubby old sink, with its leaky tap, was like rejecting an old friend, but, as Miranda consoled him, “It’s not good for the environment. And, anyway, you’d never find a washer to fit. It’s too old.” Instead, he allowed her to choose a state-of-the-art vanitary unit, with a modern, stand-alone, shiny new wash-basin. She opted for gold-plated taps.  They didn’t leak.