HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Flash Winners 2018

First Place: Soul Music by Kathryn Burke

Carol stood in the kitchen. She unpacked Granny Theresa’s shopping. Theresa smoked while Frank Sinatra sang.
‘Ol` Blue Eyes again, Gran? Easy listening.’
The cheek of her. Theresa would open Carol’s ears.

‘Think of some music. A classical composer.’
The bridge players put down their cards.
‘Beethoven.’ That was Anna.
‘Everyone knows him. I want music that’s challenging. Difficult. Carol must be shocked and impressed the next times she brings the shopping.’
‘Beethoven’s Late String Quartets. They’re challenging. Believe me.’
Anna had been a music teacher. She should know.

Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang Quartet sat in the CD player. Theresa was in her recline near the kitchen window. She stubbed out her cigarette and started on an almond slice. Smoking and sugar – her GP wouldn’t be pleased. But what could a girl do when sex and her husband had gone to the graveyard? And Sinatra was frowned on? She pressed play. This was music? This was the world’s greatest composer? She’d asked for something difficult and challenging but come on – Beethoven must have had a bad day. Well, she’d endure the caterwauling until Carol arrived. Pretend to look blissful. Sing Sinatra in her head. I Get a kick Out of You. She and Jimmy used to dance to that, smooching around the kitchen before they headed for bed. Theresa smiled. And died.

Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang Quartet was still playing when Carol and the shopping came through the kitchen door. Granny Theresa looked so happy, she told the rest of the family later. The sound must have touched something in her soul. And to think no one knew she was into classical music. She’d kept that dark.

They were all proud and impressed. Carol mentioned it again at the funeral. Granny Theresa had died listening to one of Beethoven’s late String Quartets. Anna and the bridge players sat, heads bowed, and smirked. They would say nothing.

Afterwards they held their own wake and played Frank Sinatra.

Second Place: Processing by Diane Simmons

Jake doesn’t quite get as far as typing in her name. But he almost does. As soon as he’s got his diving gear off and his mate’s handed him back his phone, his first thought is to text Becky, to tell her how great the experience was.
It’s the closest he’s got.
Sighing, he shoves his phone into his pocket, sits down on the beach with his friends and looks around. Phuket’s ridiculously beautiful and the dive had been extraordinary. Since they’d arrived at the resort, he’d watched his friends heading out most days, had listened to their tales about the fish they’d seen, the challenges involved. But he’d never quite dared to have a go. It seemed too risky. This morning though, he’d made himself get up early and book a lesson.
When his friends have all gone back into the sea for a swim, Jake takes out his phone, clicks on Becky’s name and scrolls back through the texts. He stops at a time two years ago when they were studying for their finals and planning their trip to India, but the messages go back further than that. Their whole relationship is recorded on his phone – apart from when they were travelling – there had been little need for phone communication then. Once they’d got back to Bath though there had been so much chat between them, so many things to organise – furniture from Ikea to choose, decisions over electricity providers, conversations over what to have for dinner. There are of course loving messages too and although they’re upsetting, it’s the planning for the future ones that make him cry.
The health texts don’t start until just after they moved into their flat. There’s just a scattering at first: the doctor’s concerns that Becky had picked up something in India, the jubilation when test after test comes back negative, the relief when she was finally diagnosed with coeliac disease giving them an answer for her drastic weight loss. Their naivety is difficult to read.
He stops scrolling when he realises he’s reached the texts from this time last year. There aren’t many, of course. He’d barely left Becky’s side and their conversations had all been real ones. But then those talks had dried up too once the morphine took hold.
The last text between them, Jake sent from the pub, just a week before Becky died. He’d not wanted to go out, but she’d demanded he take a break. The hour in the pub listening to his friend’s embarrassed chatter had been miserable, so he’d texted her, asked if she was awake. He’d known she wouldn’t reply, but it didn’t stop him looking.
It doesn’t stop him looking now.

Third Place: Peewit by Rob McInroy

They walked slowly, cresting the hill at the Hosh and walking alongside the Shaggie burn until they reached a hollow. Above was a light wood. The grass was wild, flattened into hummocks by the wind. The old man stopped.
“Hear that? Thon loud shriek? That’s a peewit.” He grabbed her arm, pointing. “Doon there, see?”
The bird was sitting on its nest, virtually hidden in rush grass. Only the brisk twisting of its neck and the glint from its eye gave it away. They crouched and watched.
“You have some eyes,” said Ash. “I’d never of seen that in a million years.”
“You’re no’ meant to. Keep themselves to themselves. They can be right show-offs, mind. You’ll see soon enough. The male winnae be far away.” The old man put his hand to his eyes and surveyed the skies. “There.”
They watched as a bird, black and white and green, swooped across the sky like a World War Two fighter ace, whooping all the time, a two-tone peewit – peewit.
“Mrs Peewit must get real bored, jes’ sittin’ around on those eggs all day, while he’s off havin’ fun.”
“Aye, she’ll be there for up to a month.”
“Shit. No way I’d do that.”
“I hate to tell you, but you’ll be at it nine months when it’s your time.”
“Not me. Ain’t havin’ no kids, noway.”
“You say that now. But you’ll get to an age when you want them, so they can do better than you. Get right what you got wrong.”
“Hey, didn’ you know? I’m perfect already.”
He smiled. “Thon peewit’s a very particular bird,” he said. “Want to see?”
Ash nodded and the old man stood up and beckoned to her to follow. He walked towards the peewit’s nest, hallooing and waving his arms until the bird finally, reluctantly, flew off.
There were three smallish blotchy brown eggs in the unguarded nest. He turned each round by ninety degrees. “Now, remember the position they’re in,” he said. They walked back to the top of the hollow and leaned against a silver birch and watched.
The peewit circled a couple of times and returned to its nest. It flitted around as though unable to settle. After a few moments it sat motionless once more, silent in splendid observance.
For a second time they approached and the bird rose again and swooped towards the wood.
“Now,” he said. “What do you see?”
It took Ash a moment, but then her frown turned to a smile. “It’s turned the eggs back again.”
“Aye, it always does. Cannae bear to sit on eggs if they’re no’ in the right position.” Ash laughed. “How did y’all learn things like that?”
“Just workin’ the land. D’you want these eggs for your breakfast?”
“No. I couldn’ bear to think of that poor momma bird comin’ back to an empty nest.” “You’re o’er soft,” said the old man, but he was secretly relieved. He couldn’t bear to think of it either.

Highly Commended: The Girl She Never Was by Karen Jones

Ailsa pushes back the blue tarpaulin, peeks out from behind the steel bench, rubs tired eyes with dirty fingers, stretches, turns her head this way and that, easing out tension in her neck. She looks around the empty train station. Even quieter than usual this early. The cleaner with his swishing, bristling machine was the last person she saw a few hours ago. Some places they gather her up to be thrown in the back-alley with the rest of the trash, but not him. The hum of the machine lulled her to sleep.
She looks at the clock. She can’t read or write, but she has learned about time in her fifteen years – how to tell it, fill it, lie about it. 6.30 am.
She stands, stamps feeling back into her legs, hugs herself through layers of clothes, throws her head back and shouts, “Hello!” Her greeting ricochets off tiled walls, bounces up to the domed ceiling and rushes back to her over and over again. She laughs.
She packs up her belongings: Three newspapers for blankets; two pairs of socks; a lipstick too pink for her pale face, but she likes the gold case it lives in; a plastic flower dropped from a wedding bouquet she found in the church doorway where she used to sleep, and an old broken radio. She puts her ID card – well, someone’s ID card, hers now – in her pocket.
Time to use the toilets before she’s visible enough for eviction. So quiet today, though. She soaks up the silence. Maybe a few moments to spare before the hurrying, harried hordes arrive. She takes off her boots, eases on an extra pair of socks, runs across the tiles until she’s built up enough momentum and then… she’s on ice, skating into the wall, pushing off again, twirling on one leg, hands above her head, her combat trousers and vests and T-shirts and jumpers and coat as weightless as a sequined leotard.
Mid-spin, she sees the package in the trashcan, stops, feet thumping together. The package glistens – silver paper embossed with bells and horseshoes and fastened with a white satin bow. Dizzy from twirling, she’s sure it’s moving, trembling, shimmering. She drops to all fours, crawls towards it, a street cat poised to pounce on her prey. She lifts it out, pulls it towards her and hugs its angles into her softness. So beautiful, so abandoned. Nobody wants it. She’ll have it. She pulls the bow.
She hears shouts coming from the archway. A dog barking. A cop yelling, “Don’t!” No way he can stop her. It’s hers now. She lifts the lid. No time for eyes to widen, no time for shock, no time to register noise or force. Tiny pieces of girl and package reach towards the dome before showering down and scattering like red confetti across the polished white tiles.
Her ID, the girl she never was, is all that’s left intact.