Short Story Competition 2013

Exeter Writers announces its 2013 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition.

In this fifth year of the competition, prizes have been increased to £500, £250 and £100 with an extra Devon Prize of £100. Entries are invited from all writers; the closing date is 31 March 2013.

See our Competition Page for full details and a downloadable entry form.

Richard Lee

Exeter Writers are lucky enough to have amongst their members Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society. Here he is receiving his ceremonial sword at the society's 2012 conference in London. Richard founded the Society in 1997 after trying to join it, only to find it didn’t exist. It is now an international body based in the US and UK. It's not surprising that at times we wonder if Richard exists.

The society aims to review all US and UK mainstream published titles, and as many other English language books as possible. It also runs competitions to discover new authors, conferences bringing authors and readers together, and it maintains Internet groups and lists.

Its site is www.historicalnovelsociety.org.

This Holey Life: book launch report

Launch of This Holey Life by Sophie Duffy
It's only a year since many of Exeter Writers raised a glass to Sophie at the Torbay Bookshop - see more images - for the launch of her award winning novel The Generation Game. Last week we were more than happy to do the same again for her second novel: This Holey Life, also published by Legend Press.

The story stars Vicky, struggling to come to terms with loss and her new role as a curate's wife. Her life is further turned upside down when her annoying big brother comes to stay bringing with him his son and his son's cello. Moving and funny by turn, Sophie's novel zips along. It is no surprise to see such illustrious endorsements on the cover.

Congratulations, Sophie. We're all looking forward to the next one now!

See www.sophieduffy.com for more background.

Vie Hebdomadaires

Vie Hebdomadaires is a collaborative weblog run by Varun Kothamachu at Exeter University, devoted to a year of week-in-the-life slots from guest writers worldwide. A number of its posts have been from bloggers on the Exeter arts and writing circuit.

One of our members, Clare Girvan, contributed from June 25th to July 1st: introduction / Ratatouille / Clare versus the literary world / Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours / Writing competitions / Mamma Mia! / Vissi d’arte / The last post).

Winners: short story competition 2011/12

Exeter Writers

Short Story Competition 2012 – The Results

The stories have been read and the judging is completed. We thank all of you who entered and commiserate with those who were not placed. There were four prizes this year – the usual first, second and third prizes, plus the Devon Prize. The winning stories can be read here (click the links) and we congratulate you all.

First prize
Driftwood by Jo Barker Scott

Second prize
Down came a blackbird by Tracy Fells

Third prize
The bites by Giovanna Iozzi

Devon prize
Long legged balloons by Andrew Lavender

Runners-up: (not in order of preference)
Five things by Mary Bonner
A head for heights by Ms S Golden
The memory of tall grass by Sarah Hegarty
Swollen by Giovanna Iozzi
Tyndrum gold rush by Ann Lilley

Driftwood: 1st in 2011/12 Competition

Driftwood
by Jo Barker Scott

‘British. Hey, British. Here.’
      People don’t want to get involved: who knows where it might end? And if they can avoid your gaze, it’s easier to ignore your troubles. But if you make someone see you, force her to look you in the eye, well, you open the door on her naked conscience, and then you can jab and poke at the twitching, reluctant thing until it yields.
      It’s all part of living in London, Karen explained. Stuff happens sometimes, on the train or the Tube, or on the street. But if you get into trouble, you must point to someone, one person, yell at him, YOU! In the suit, with the purple tie! Look at me! HELP ME! You individuate him, make him take personal responsibility for the decision to help, or not.
       Karen studied psychology at Goldsmiths, and lived in a particularly godforsaken part of New Cross. She’d had many opportunities to test her own advice.
       London, and Karen, are many miles away when the whisper from the shadow of the rocks reaches me; but still I understand immediately. I am being individuated.
       ‘British. Hey, British. Here.’
       A buzz of irritation like a fly at my ear. What is it about me that so conspicuously reveals my nationality? My hair and skin are as dark as any Spaniard’s, my bikini and sunglasses just as ordinary – what is it that gives me away? I lift my chin and peer into the shadows at the base of the cliff, the sun a white ache on the water behind me. The figure crouched in the rocks is difficult to see. I move into the shade, and there she is, folded between two green-bearded rocks hulking like bodyguards on either side of her. She is draggled and ragged, and her arms and legs show a pink tracery of cuts and scratches. The pale soles of her feet are puffy and corrugated, like the pages of a waterlogged book.
       I take a step backwards, and despise myself for the impulse to walk on. This is my time, a precious half hour alone while David and the kids dig tidal defences in the sand. I don’t need this.
       But Karen was right. It is much harder to look away once your eyes have met.
       The woman’s are intense black magnets that glint and stay me where I stand. These are not the exhausted, desperate eyes of a castaway. Or maybe they are. Maybe what I see is the determination, the extraordinary will, that must power her, that is the only way she could have made it here, to this shore, alive.
       I take off my sunglasses, crouch beside her. ‘Are you – all right?’ I don’t see how she can be, after what she must have been through, but it seems she is.
       ‘Thirsty.’
       ‘Oh. Yes, of course.’ That’s easy. ‘I have water, back at – can you walk? I can give you water.’ I help her stand, and she unfolds like a penknife, long limbs and sharp elbows. The skin of her arm feels dry and cool, satined by salt.
       She staggers, and pulls her arm away. ‘I can walk.’

Her name is Alice. David and I introduce ourselves with big awkward smiles, the same ones we use for meeting other holidaymakers. Yes, from England, London in fact. We prefer the Atlantic Coast to the Costa del Sol. Whereabouts have you come from?
       Over there, Alice says, waving loose-jointed fingers towards the sea. It is a clear day, and the face of the Rif, ridged like pleated steel, rises sheer on the other side of the Strait. On days like this, we often remark, you’d swear you could swim to it.
       ‘From Africa? You came from Africa? Morocco?’ David keeps his voice gentle, but I can hear the anxiety in it.
       ‘My country is Sierra Leone.’ She speaks slowly, articulating each word in full. She has drunk nearly a litre of water, gulping steadily while we tried not to stare. She is very black. Apart from the North African hawkers who trudge up and down the beach laden with dresses, or sunglasses, or leather goods, we have seen no black people here: no holidaymaking families, no women, no children. Alice, with her ashy limbs, the raggedy scraps of green dress that hang from her bony shoulders, and her fierce stare, is as out of place on this expensive stretch of golden sand as an astronaut would be, or a Victorian chimney sweep.
       ‘Did you – come with anyone else?’ I know what David is thinking. He’s remembering the photo that came up on Google when we were researching this place for holiday homes. Callous couple picnic on the sand while bodies rot in the sun. It couldn’t have been a real photo, we agreed. No-one would actually do that.
       ‘Many people, on a small boat. Lights, noise, in the dark. Fortunately I am an excellent swimmer.’
       ‘Alice, what will you do now? Do you know anyone here?’
       ‘Do you have food?’ We don’t. The boys have eaten it all. ‘Then I must go. Men will be coming.’ She gets to her feet slowly, pausing on the way up to find her balance.
       I look at David. He sees what I want to say, frowns at me. I frown back. What does he want us to do, smile and wave goodbye as she staggers away into the dunes? ‘Alice, you need food, clothes. Shoes. Let me help you.’

‘You have two houses, that is right? A London house, and this Spain house.’ Alice interrupts me, swallows down the last bite of cold tortilla española. I realise I have been chattering.
       ‘Well, this is just a holiday home. We’re only here for three weeks in August.’ I cringe even as I say it. How must this sound to Alice? A house that stands empty forty-nine weeks of the year. I bite back the reciprocal enquiry. I can’t ask her about her home. It wouldn’t be tactful. Besides, it’s not any of my business.
       ‘You can give this house to me. Yes?’ Her eyes, burning blackly, fix on me.
       I laugh, weakly. ‘Ha ha! Yes! No! It doesn’t seem fair, does it?’ Looking past her to the patio I can see from the angle of David’s head that he is listening intently.
       ‘No. Have you worked so much harder than me, to deserve it?’
       Well – commuting, demanding clients, children. But – washing machines, supermarkets, childminders. Clean water. Flushing toilets. Perhaps it hasn’t been such hard work, after all.
       I frown, annoyed with myself. I’m assuming Alice comes from some dusty fly-blown village, but she speaks beautiful English, she is an excellent swimmer. She might come from the city. She might be a teacher, a lawyer.
       Alice’s eyelids are drooping now, her head hanging over the table.
       ‘You need to sleep, Alice. Let me find you something to wear. You can have our bed.’

I sleep poorly, hammocked sweating with David in the sagging middle of the sofa-bed. Startling awake from a doze sometime after midnight, I look into the hallway to see Alice in the doorway of the boys’ room, silhouetted by orange nightlight.
       I sit up, swing my legs over the side of the bed. David grunts and rolls into the dip. I pad across to Alice, who is carved and silent looking in, and touch her on the arm. She doesn’t react, and I wonder whether she is sleepwalking. Her eyes are fixed on the sleeping boys, her mouth half-open, as though she were drinking the air in the room. It is thick with the musty, salty smell of boys, their sweat, their breath, their damp fur. Tom lies curled around his teddy, his hair plastered to his forehead, the sheet twisted around his ankles. James, in the top bunk, lies on his back, one arm dangling over the side. I see new muscle definition there, and dark tufts at his armpit. Oh, but he isn’t even thirteen yet, it’s too soon, surely?
       I look back at Alice’s face, and for an instant I think she is screaming, but when I blink she is as impassive as before.
       She allows me to lead her back to bed. I can’t stop myself asking, this time. ‘Did – do you have children, Alice?’
       Her eyes drift up to mine, but whatever black light burned in them before has been extinguished. ‘Joseph. Short sleeves.’ She touches her fingertips to her upper arm, then to her wrist. ‘Charles. Long sleeves. They are gone now.’
       Two boys, like mine, one small, one tall. I feel my throat close, but I don’t want to cry in front of Alice. ‘I’m – I’m so sorry.’
       ‘Yes,’ she says, and rolls away from me. I can’t see her face, but I know her eyes are open, staring into the dark.

In the morning she is gone. At the foot of the bed the flip-flops I gave her, too small for her long feet anyway, rest neatly on top of the folded T-shirt she’d worn to bed.
       ‘She took nothing, David. I don’t think she even took a glass of water, or we’d have woken. She went into the dustbin for her rags to wear. I have clothes for her! I wanted to give her your shoes! I was going to fill the backpack with food and water!’
       David puts an arm around me and kisses my hair. He is relieved.

I waste no time when we arrive for this year’s holiday. I buy blankets in bulk at Hipercor, three for fifteen euros, and fill a trolley with processed, packaged food that will keep:  individually wrapped sweet rolls, pulses in jars, canned tuna. Oranges too, and juice boxes, and bottled water. At home I portion everything out into flimsy carrier bags, twelve of them. Twelve! What a miracle that would be.
       ‘Your encounter was unusual. We do not often see women from Sierra Leone,’ Rodrigo told me in his second email. ‘The war there ended eight years ago, but in the last year the panga men have started returning to the villages. They want the government to forget the rebellion and move on, and so they are killing off the reminders: the children missing arms or legs, and the women who remember.’
       Short sleeves, long sleeves.
       ‘Of the many thousands who attempt the crossing, perhaps one in a hundred will make it. Of the ones that do, the life that awaits them is uncertain at best, miserable in all probability. What drives them on? I have no idea. But I can tell you that these people are made of purest courage, and it is a privilege to help them. I am very pleased that you want to join us.’
       The moon is new tonight, so there will be little light on the beach. Rodrigo is taking the shift with me: the darkest night of August is one of the busiest of the year for the pateras, he says, but one of the last.  Come September, the weather shifts, making the crossing even more perilous, and he moves around the coast to Gibraltar and then on to the Canaries where the ‘driftwood’ washes up all through winter.

I understand why people don’t like to get involved. Every encounter with another human soul changes your own, even if it’s just a little bit, and people are conservative with their souls.
I look in on the boys before I leave. James is in the bottom bunk tonight, reading by the light of a pen torch. He looks up and sees me.
       ‘Good night, Mummy.’
       His voice is so deep. He is nearly fourteen.

© Jo Barker Scott, 2012

Down came a blackbird: 2nd in 2011/12 Competition

Down came a Blackbird
by Tracy Fells

Stumbling over the empty boot I almost tipped forward into the bundle of clothes. The clothes were still occupied. Ted Malt was right - an animal had crawled into the ditch to die. The sweet, stomach-wrenching stench of death rose up from the leaf litter. Screwing up my eyes I took in a quick gulp of air and pinched my nose tight.

***

The bumblebee’s sleepy hum coughed like a failing engine each time it ricocheted off the ceiling. Using the stiff bristles of the long handled broom I nudged the poor creature towards the open window and freedom.
      “Four and twenty blackbirds,” Molly sang from the kitchen table.
      Nana’s falsetto voice joined in the rhyme with her great-granddaughter, her pockmarked memory resurrecting the words on automatic pilot. Molly’s finger danced under the bold printed letters of the picture book where glossy black birds with golden beaks strained to fly free of their pastry cage. “Yuk, do people really bake birds in pies?” she asked me, wrinkling her nose.
      Molly’s eating habits were selective and chicken nuggets were her current favourite. But I knew she didn’t count chickens as birds. Outside on the patio a sprinkling of feathers caught my gaze, white thankfully, as if someone had plucked an angel. “People used to eat songbirds as a delicacy. Still do in some parts of the world,” I answered my daughter’s question. “And they really did put live birds in pies just so they would fly out when the pastry was cut.”
      Molly’s black eyes widened, she trusted me not to make stuff up, and then continued with her song, “When the pie was opened the birds began to sing.”
      Most likely a cat had successfully jumped one of the plump pigeons. I hoped the carcass had been carried off as I dreaded Molly stumbling across bits and pieces of a half-chewed corpse.
      Bird feeders hung listless from the arbour devoid of the usual feasting flurry of sparrows and finches. The seed speckled slabs of the patio were empty of ground gorging chaffinches and doves. The garden was deserted. Only the shrill staccato cry of a blackbird shrieked out a warning.
      He was calling me. His fanned tail flicked forward with each trill as he perched on the branch below the blue tits’ nest box.
      “What’s all the fuss?” I stood on the patio, hands on hips, and spoke aloud to the garden.
      Behind me the Hebe bush rustled. Turning I faced the sparrowhawk as it launched from ground level and shot straight up, a slate grey rocket firing into the cloudless sky. Its unfinished meal left abandoned. The heartless victim, a collared dove, lay on its back with stick legs pointing heavenward and chest cavity flirtatiously exposed.
      “Ugh, hope you’re going to clear that up,” a male voice said from the kitchen steps.

      The King was in his counting house

      “You’re home early.”
      “Pleased to see me?” Derek’s mouth twitched into a grin I’d once thought sexy.
      Nana’s chair by the window was empty. She always seemed to know when Derek was coming home. The door to Nana’s bedroom along the hall was already shut. Derek flopped down into her chair then dragged out the bundle of wool and needles from under his thighs.
      “Careful,” I said in my scolding Molly tone, “you’ll pull out her stitches.”
      “As if it mattered,” he growled letting the needle droop and watching the coils of woollen stitches unravel.
      Nana sat by the window, knitting, all day. After supper she’d shuffle back to her chair and pull apart the day’s work. She was our very own Penelope patiently weaving Laertes’ shroud. I shared this image with Derek, but he didn’t get the reference, didn’t laugh at my classical humour. Nana was simply stuck in a loop. Some days I prayed Nana had just wandered off into the dusty corridors of her mind, that she’d catch hold of the trailing thread and find her way back.
      Derek pulled me on to his lap. Unwashed fingers brushing tangled hair aside so he could kiss my neck. I tried hard not to flinch, but nor did I quiver at his touch. His other hand slipped up under my T-shirt to cup my breast. “Think you need to cut down on the snacking Simone.” His hot breath prickled on my skin as he squeezed too tight. “I’ve got to meet a guy about some work tonight, down the pub,” continued Derek. “Come with me – we can have a night out.”
      Pushing his hand away I glanced over to Molly. She was still reading at the table, raven black hair falling across her face. “I can’t. It’s too late to call a sitter for Molly.”
      “Your Nan’s not going anywhere.”
      “Nana can’t look after Molly, you know that.”
      “Then what’s the bloody point of her,” said Derek roughly pushing me off his lap. “Tell me, Simone, what’s she doing here?”
      “This is her house remember. We are living with her.”
      “And it’d better be worth it,” his voice slid lower to a hiss.
      “I’m Nana’s sole beneficiary. She’s promised the house to me when she’s gone.”
      “Yeah, but when will that be? She could go on for bleeding years in this state.” He picked up one of the knitting needles and jabbed it down, hard, into the curved arm of Nana’s chair. “I’m going to take a shower then I need to get off to meet this bloke. Don’t wait up.”
      The bumblebee had followed me back into the kitchen. Returning in its confused daze to continue with the head banging. Derek snatched up the broom and jabbed the handle up, like a spear, with violent precision. Molly squealed as orange-yellow gunk splattered the white plaster. Derek, unbothered about the resulting stain or the extinction of life, tossed his weapon towards me. I caught it.
      Later that evening, as Molly helped Nana wind up her wool, I shovelled the half eaten dove from the patio into a plastic bag. The birds were silent, lost within the foliage of the covering trees. I guessed the hawk could still be hunting since its last meal had been rudely interrupted.
      At breakfast I plaited Molly’s hair while she sucked up a bowl of honey-bleached cereal swollen by sugary milk. The other side of the kitchen door, through the grubby glass, my blackbird watched us. His shiny head cocked to one side. An ebony eye, a perfect orb, observed me from its gold-rimmed socket. Feathers all neatly aligned oily-black with a polished sheen, as if dipped in liquid midnight. Orange beak glinted like an unsheathed stiletto blade. This was a fertile male confidently strutting in his breeding plumage. Between broods he must now be posing for a new mate. The bird had already successfully fledged several offspring, continuing to feed them under the Hebe bushes or bringing the caramel and toffee spotted babies onto the step, until they finally braved the garden fence for pastures new. He was clearly ready to breed all over again. My blackbird was a good father, an ideal mate.
      The blackbird knew exactly where to stand on the step so the arc of the door swept past him without ruffling his perfect feathers. The creaking door announced my presence scaring the patio birds to flight. With a sharp clap the sumo waddling wood pigeons heaved their torsos to the boundary trees, while a twittering bundle of sparrows sped to a nearby bush. Tossing out raisins, his favourite treat, I spoke softly to the blackbird. I used his secret name; whispered so not even Molly could hear me.
      “You love that bleeding bird more than me.” Derek grabbed my waist. Stale perfume, not mine, clung to his skin. Once upon a time he would have showered as soon as he got home, cleansing himself of the other woman’s scent, washing away his sins before lying beside me. Last night he’d simply slipped into bed and enfolded me in her sickly stink.
      He already knew the answer to his question so I didn’t bother to respond. The blackbird hopped across the step to scoop up the remaining raisins. Derek shoved at the door swinging it backwards. The wind caught the door slamming it against the red brick wall of the house.
      I squealed in panic but the bird was alert and flitted safely out of danger. An angry trilling chirp trailed in his wake as he skimmed over the boundary fence towards the ditch.
      Derek had already pulled away from me as I cried out, “Careful! You could’ve hurt him.”
      Molly’s father blinked at me, then slipping on his sunglasses he said, “That guy wants to meet up again tonight. You know the bloke from the pub. Has some work for me. Don’t wait up.”
      Carpentry was Derek’s trade. Even when busy on a job he was always sniffing out the next one. Most of his business contracts were thrashed out down the pub, a good hunting ground, but I knew his prey wasn’t work. His eyes darted to the clock, not at me, as he tossed out the lie
.       Nana’s needles clicked together as she wound the wool, back and forth. Milky blue eyes watched Derek’s leather-clad back as he left the house, cracked lips counted out the stitches, moving in a silent rhythm that kept pace with the twisting needles.
      The next morning I woke alone. Derek’s side of the bed was becalmed, the sheets smooth and cool.
      Each day I slipped home from the office over my lunch-break to ensure Nana got something to eat. Two slices of bread were sitting in the toaster, cold and brown, where Nana had forgotten to collect and butter them. A mug full of stale tea squatted on the table beside her armchair. The same mug of tea I gave her just before I took Molly to school. The knitting had evolved to slump like a woolly flag across her lap.
      “He knocked for you,” Nana’s words crackled, dusty from lack of use.
      “Who? Did someone come to the door?”
      “You know,” she added a tut as a stitch escaped, “your friend.”
      There was no point in continuing this conversation as this ‘friend’ could have called months ago, yesterday or never at all. “I’ll make you a sandwich and a nice cup of tea.” My thoughts were already drifting elsewhere. To Molly and new school shoes. To Molly’s lying father.

       The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey

      “That’ll be your friend,” said Nana.
      And then the doorbell rang.
      The man on the doorstep was a head taller than me. Black, tightly curled hair framed his face. Straight, sharp nose balanced above a determined mouth. His tan was natural; an attribute of a life lived outdoors. He carried a jacket over his shoulder and I glimpsed the promise of muscle beneath the white shirt. I could smell warm earth, a hint of dew on morning grass, and sunshine on bare skin. A cliché stood before me – tall, dark and very handsome. But this man was not a stranger. There was a glint, a confident look that I recognised.
      Nana had recognised him too.
      This was my fantasy made flesh. My wish had been granted. Here was a good father for my family.
      I said his secret name – at first in my head and then out loud. The man’s lips parted, languid like the day unfolding, into a smile. He didn’t speak; just watched me with dark, knowing eyes.

      Sing a song of sixpence

      Derek didn’t come home. I called his mobile but couldn’t be bothered to leave a message. Somehow I’d always expected him to abandon us. He never called, not even to speak with Molly.
      I welcomed in my visitor, took him into our home. Molly soon became enthralled with this new man in our lives. She read fairytales and sang silly nursery rhymes as he cooked for us all, coaxing Molly to eat even the most exotic of dishes. Molly had a new favourite: spaghetti, coated in a thick creamy sauce, which she sucked up like a baby bird relishing its first worm. Even Nana resumed humming as she knitted, her fingers twirling back and forth. The woollen squares grew each day, put down peacefully at night, no longer picked apart and regurgitated.
      Each night he unpeeled my clothes, stripping me down to bare honesty, stroking calm fingers across waiting skin. I squealed and giggled in his expert hands. After making love he rarely slept at my side, instead sitting by the open window. Sleep came easily to me as my guard kept watch.
      One August morning my love stepped out onto the bedroom’s balcony. I stretched across the bed and mentally traced the muscles of his back with invisible fingers. He began to sing - a proud song of defiance, of conquest and possession. His voice resonated over the pristine lawns and hedgerows of suburbia, staking out his territory.
      Late afternoon I painted with Molly in the kitchen, Nana sat in her armchair knitting and humming, and as my love slept upstairs another visitor called.
      “Ted Malt,” said the man. He held out a fat hand with yellow stained fingers. “Our house backs onto yours, other side of the ditch.”       I had no choice but to shake his hand and offer my name in return. I tried focusing on his mouth as he talked, but felt his eyes dip to my cleavage, scouting between my breasts.
      “Think something’s crawled into the ditch – some animal, a fox or maybe a cat. We can’t face that end of the garden cos of the smell. Since it’s your responsibility,” he paused to tug at the belt slipping under his gut, “the ditch. Thought you should know. So you can sort it out.”
      Ted Malt winked and then departed, wheezing as he walked. Leaving me to investigate the contents of the boundary ditch.

      A pocket full of rye

      The ditch marked the boundary between the two houses. A tall fence enclosed a wildlife haven; where the access was via a drainage tunnel or the wooden door at the bottom of Nana’s garden. The door opened easily, as if the hinges had recently been oiled.

      Wasn’t that a dainty dish

      Rainwater had pooled on Derek’s leather jacket. I tugged on the collar, braced myself, ready to turn the body over.
      Derek had been dead for many weeks. Maybe he’d died on that very first night, the night he didn’t come home. The night I didn’t wait up.       His face was blackened by dirt and decay. Both eyes gouged, pierced by a sharp thin object. I couldn’t tell if the attack came before or after death or whether the weapon used had been natural or man-made. A blackbird’s beak was a killing tool, designed for stabbing into the earth.
      Nobody had missed this man. No colleague had asked after Derek or fretted from his absence. Death took him quietly and nobody cared.
      I called on Ted Malt to tell him he was right about the smell. “A fox,” I said, “not pretty, but I’ll clear it up.” I acknowledged the state of the ditch with its overgrown brambles and rotting rubbish. And then apologised in advance for the racket I was about to make with the petrol chainsaw. He offered to help, but the sudden appearance of his wife at the door swiftly changed his mind. “I can manage,” I said, smiling sweetly.
      Nana handed me a pile of tough, black bin bags from under the sink. The chainsaw was still in its box, another of Derek’s unused toys. Ridiculously heavy, I could only lift it for several minutes at a time. I dug out a pair of gardening gloves from the shed and trudged out to clear up the mess in the ditch.
      Autumn winds called my lover away. He had to leave us, but I knew he would return in the spring. When the frosts have melted and the worms start their ascent through the warming earth, he’d come back to us.
      I spoke his secret name as he rubbed his nose against my neck. His tongue tickled and I tried only to laugh. The taste of him was already fading when I heard his triumphant trill echo back across the garden.
      Molly gathered up the pile of pastel blue knitted garments that Nana had finished sewing, a teetering tower of woollen cardigans, hats and bootees all small enough to dress up Molly’s dolls and teddies.
      Nana slapped Molly away from the treasure. “No! They’re not for you to play with.” Her hand pressed against my belly. Nana said calmly, “He’s a good father Simone. He’ll return in time.”       I nodded.
      Nana was back in residence behind her eyes. She had followed the thread back to us. For several days she paced the house without the comfort of her daily work, but I quickly sourced a replacement needle and normal service was resumed. Nana was very particular about the size and weight of her knitting needles. Needles usually come as a pair, but I couldn’t possibly return the one I found beside Derek’s body. The grey metal had rusted out in the summer rain, clotting over the congealed, black blood.
      The fluffed up garden fledglings had grown into spiky, nagging adults. The brood survivors still called for their daily rations, but they’d become wary diners, heads bobbing and twitching, scanning for aerial attack. From the boundary fence the sparrowhawk surveyed the empty, swinging bird feeders. He could wait for their return.

© Tracy Fells, 2012

The Bites: 3rd in 2011/12 Competition

The Bites
by Giovanna Iozzi

He rotates my body round in the morning light.
      ‘Eighty,’ he says. ‘Eighty.’
      ‘Jesus.’
      I peer down. Some of the wheals are still blotches of pink, others have hatched tiny pus-filled eggs on my skin.
      ‘You're having a really bad reaction,’ Simon says.
      I feel a sharp tug of pleasure as his fingers probe. I’ve always enjoyed objective scrutiny, someone drawing me, someone cutting my hair. Right now I could be pinned under a microscope at his biology lab.
      ‘Mosquitoes love me,’ I say.
      ‘Hmm,’ he replies. ‘You know, only the females bite. They have a long, thin proboscis and they wait until they fill up completely. Even if you cut the nerve to their abdomen they keep sucking until they burst. It helps them lay eggs. They tend to like smells – isn’t your period on at the moment?’ He’s seen the pads in the bathroom, a surprising bleed after all these months.
      ‘Yes, but – Simon… -’
      Perhaps this isn’t the right time to ask my husband to be more romantic. He’s already pacing away down the hall of our holiday apartment, a white towel precise as origami around his waist. As usual, I find the faint disc of skin at the back of his crown. It’ll be camouflaged for years to come, so that any woman looking into his face will only see the thick-fringed hair, the still-bright hazel eyes.

‘I have bites – terrible bites….’ I tell the landlord, raking my arms.
      Carlo’s been sawing something. He’s wearing orange shorts and the grey hair on his chest has caught some sawdust. Smiling, he spreads his fingers to the hills of Cilento behind him as if I’m trying to blame him for nature’s pests.
      ‘I have net, five Euro,’ he tells me. ‘I have Jungle - it’s the best.’
      I notice the permanent nets on his windows and doors. Aaah. He disappears and comes back holding a net in one hand and repellent in the other.
      ‘How much for the Jungle?’ I ask.
      ‘Twenty Euros.’
      I shake my head, Simon would hate me to pay for something we could get for less than ten pounds at home. I know him too well, I think, as I cradle the net in my arms back to our room like a slightly grubby bridal veil.
      We’re staying in the holiday ‘village’ Santa Maria, two hours drive south of Naples. It has six white stone studios built round a swimming pool, palm trees, tropical flowers, steep banks covered in rosemary and lavender and the Tyrrhenian sea glistening in the distance. It’s nearly perfect.
      But after handing over the rest of the cash for our fortnight stay, we watched Carlo disappear into one of the rooms across the pool.
      ‘We wanted privacy, we’re normally very busy people,’ I cringed later at his door. We’d agreed not to even look at anything resembling work; no research papers, no notes for poems…
      ‘No worry, I will not disturb you. There will be quiet,’ Carlo told me. No one else had booked he said, in early September.

I’m scratching so much sometimes I bleed, disappearing into the bedroom and driving myself into a further frenzy of itching.
      ‘Marion, stop,’ Simon calls out.
      ‘I can’t believe I’m helping these bitches breed,’ I shout, falling onto the bed.
      On the ceiling is the hook holding our mosquito net. There are two other hooks further along by the window. I imagine freckled English women, hanging like human salamis, tautly bound in gauze, heads dangling, their brows twisting as they try to scratch themselves. My fingers twitch for pen and paper, to make a poem. Instead I place my hands under the small of my back to stop their restless scurrying.

Since the bites we haven’t had sex. Perhaps the moist Braille of my skin repels. It’s reasonable to expect that after so many years, we can express our lack of appetite at times. But it always feels better to be the one pushing the hand away.

In the sea I sway in the currents, cradled in the cool water. I look back at the the beach, the Italian couples on short trips from Naples. I’d expected to be intimidated by the women but despite their bikinis, (even the grannies wear these), their flesh shudders as they descend to the water.
      ‘When I was a teenager we went to the Amalfi coast and people looked like film stars on the beach,’ I tell Simon. ‘I'd suck in my stomach constantly. People here look like they enjoy eating.’
      ‘None of them are swimming. Why don’t they swim?’ Simon asks.
      It’s true they just stand, splashing small handfuls of water on themselves as if in a bath. A few swimmers, usually men, can be seen hurling their silver backs out of the water in the distance. A few times a day a man grabs his mate and staggers down to the sea with her while we watch. ‘It’s like Italian Shrek,’ mummers Simon. I laugh, he can always make me laugh.

There’s no Jungle spray in the local chemist and Simon’s Italian won’t stretch to ask for a foreign equivalent. In the end we settle on a bottle with a brutal looking mosquito on the front. It doesn’t work but at the end of the second week, a coastal wind blows in, the guidebook calls it the Bora Scura – the dark wind. Some afternoons the beaches are completely empty as the sand whips up like glass.
      The mosquitoes seem to vanish.
      I welcome the Bora. It rocks the net above our heads at night. I insist we keep it up in case a stray mosquito whines its way into the room. And it makes me feel like we’re young again, camping. We’d used the same ones years before, travelling in India.
      ‘Do you remember the hotel rooms?’ I whisper.
      ‘Yes, I remember,’ Simon says. Sex had been almost a sickness as we rocked together in the humidity - a dislocating puzzle of human parts. I would trace his profile with my finger, over the strong nose, the dip of his fulcrum where bubbles of sweat gathered. I’d lick them up.
      We’ll both be forty-seven next year and Simon says I’m turning into a nostalgia machine, constantly replaying early days together in bed twenty years ago. I can’t help it, the memories seem to grow in strength, feeding themselves.
      The first time we tried since I got the bites, Simon slackened in the dark heat of the room, a disarming melting under my fingers. Sometimes it’s better, it leaves us feeling that all is well. But this time, on hearing his final grunt, I pushed myself away, to use my own fingers. He reached out to stroke my face. You’re crying, he said.

Carlo appears at our door.
      ‘More guests arriving,’ he says.
      ‘Really, when?’ I ask.
      ‘Tonight.’
      ‘You said no one else had booked,’ Simon says.
      ‘Late reservation. No children, no worry.’
      Later there’s laughter.
      ‘What the hell are they up to,’ Simon says. As if they can hear, it goes quiet.

Normally I’d be in the water, but I make my way to the pool gingerly like a cat shaking its paws through wet puddles. There are our disturbers, a couple, perhaps a decade younger than us. Smiling, with white teeth.
      ‘Let’s keep our distance,’ I’d said. ‘I know it’s not their fault but...’
      But the plan to be cool and polite is sabotaged over the next few mornings; we’ve both been brought up to be nice and take part in conversations.
      Arto and Hanna are from Denmark. He teaches kids, she works in a web company. Hanna has an off-key timing to her words that seems to amuse Simon. He’s being ironic about her, the way he always is when he likes someone.
      In a way if she was just beautiful perhaps I could garner some superiority; the three slim volumes of my poetry, my teaching at the university and night schools.
      But she isn’t just beautiful.
      Morning swims now feature Hanna, already tanned and donning a protective sun hat (‘Sun damage is ageing me,’ she confesses), her neat body and bulging cleavage, her laughter, the hair shining down her back.
      ‘She’s lovely isn’t she?’ I say.
      ‘Who?’ says Simon.
      I’m too old for this.
      ‘Come on!’
      ‘Hanna, well yes she’s attractive in an obvious sort of way.’
      ‘She’s one of those women. They’re made in factories with different body parts slotted together – it doesn’t occur naturally you know.’

We become busier, turning into tourists, booking trips. Sea Caves! Together we study the photographs pinned up on the boat trip sign as if deciding which platter to choose at a cheap restaurant. Lapis Blue, Rose Pink, Gold - the ‘Gold’ cave one looks more like a shit colour. Taste the beauty with your eyes, is scrawled above the pictures.
      The small motor boat spends a long, dizzying time negotiating the coastal curve. I clutch the side, nauseated by the stink of motor oil, staring at the sea, dull green and viscous under the first cloudy day. The man motoring the boat wears an ill-fitting shirt over his round belly, a gold medal nestled in his chest hair. His eyes flit around hopefully, hunting for some visual satisfaction.
      There’s no obvious beauty in the first cave, the walls are splattered in orange and black fungal matter as if paint has been thrown at them. Simon dives into the milky turquoise water, his body flapping black into the depths.
      ‘Glorious,’ he says, resurfacing. ‘Stunning. Like it’s lit from below but it’s just the colour of the rock. You try.’ But I don’t feel like taking my sarong off.

The last cave is the yellow, ochre-coloured one.
      ‘Not gold,’ I murmur, ‘definitely not gold.’
      The boat man grunts, using his hands along the wall to edge us forward. He wobbles his torch into a corner and says, ‘Guarda il vecchio giovane…’
      ‘What’s he saying?’ I ask Simon.
            ‘He’s saying look at the old codgers…’
Directed by the light, my eyes find a cluster of yellowy-green stalagmites, two taller ones bent and deformed like aged figures. They’re slimy with moisture and have dark ragged holes for eyes and mouths. The man laughs for the first time and looks straight at me, showing the brown caramel of his teeth.
      ‘Tell him I want to get out of here,’ I say.

The next morning Simon’s side of the bed is empty. I step outside into the burning white morning wearing a polka-dot halter neck swimsuit. Simon hasn’t seen it yet.
      ‘Wow,’ says Hanna.
      ‘Lovely,’ says Simon. He’s in the pool with Arto.
      I sit beside Hanna and we watch the men. Simon’s doing more than his usual fifteen lengths. It’s now thirty, forty. He looks red, almost purple, and not for the first time I think of heart attacks, but any relief dissipates as I watch him absorbed in the sight of Hanna from the pool edge.
      I have tried to be attracted to Arto who despite thinning blond hair is handsome in a magazine sort of way. But we move politely together in the pool, turning at each end and never touching each other. And he always seems to have his attention focused elsewhere, namely on the efforts other men will go to entertain his wife.
      There are few men who stop me in my tracks but occasionally one will have an effect, perhaps younger, usually not, with a body dense and yet light on its feet. I remember a waiter in one of the pizza restaurants. Signora, he said, Che cosa vi piacerebbe? – What would I like to order? His eyes met mine in a steady way until I looked down at the menu. For a moment I felt tremulously alive. Not something losing its life blood. Not to be someone who’s ‘weathering well.’ I’m the same as I ever was, the seven-year-old me, discovering her first orgasm, legs thrown up against a bedroom wall in a oblong of burning sunlight.
      The wind subsides a few days before we leave and the sound of mosquitoes once again fills the air. On the last evening, Simon goes to settle up the deposit and when he doesn’t come back, I go searching for him. I see them before they spot me, Simon close to Hanna, reaching out to touch her back. Those probing professional fingers. They both turn at my cry.
      ‘I am bitten,’ Hanna says, ‘They attacked me!’
      ‘Carlo has Jungle repellent,’ Simon replies, with a strange tic of his head,       ‘We needed some anyway…’
      He strides past me to get it.
      ‘It’s twenty Euros,’ I call after him.
      ‘We will share the cost.’ Hanna says looking at my pocked arms and legs for the first time. ‘We women have sweet skin.’       I look up. High above our heads are millions of mosquitoes, lit up in great smoking clouds of gold.
      ‘Look,’ I say, smiling, ‘Look how many there are! They’re almost beautiful in this light.’ Hanna tilts her face upwards in horror. We wait in silence until Simon steps between us. With some energy, he pulls off the strap binding the bottle with his teeth.

© Giovanna Iozzi, 2012

Long Legged Balloons: Devon Prize in 2011/12 Competition

Long Legged Balloons
by Andrew Lavender

“Have a nice day at work,” Kevin said. His wife smiled and kissed him. It was the fifty fifth day he’d seen Felicity off with that comment since the redundancy.
      “You ought to go out, get some fresh air. There’s a Surrealism exhibition at the gallery and we need bread,” she said, and closed the door.
      Kevin poured milk onto his cornflakes. Where would he go for fresh air? The gallery’s indoors, that air isn’t fresh. Swimming pool air has chlorine, town’s full of exhaust fumes and Tesco full of other shoppers breath. Anyway he couldn’t just drop everything and go out. He had a routine. BBC Breakfast and then over to ITV for Jeremy Kyle. Coffee and a pack of Hula Hoops around ten thirty. Lunch was soup or a sandwich in time for Bargain Hunt. Afternoons were on the internet, first emails and then blogs. Technology ones for interest and financial ones to see where to invest the money he didn’t have. Finally a quick peruse of the local paper on-line, before he prepared tea. He didn’t have time for fresh air.
      Kevin picked up his bowl and mug walked into the lounge, settled down in his spot on the sofa and turned the television on.
      Kevin was still in his spot watching television that evening, when Felicity’s key scraped the outside of the lock as she located the hole. She barged into the lounge and put her briefcase down by the bookcase.
      “Usual hectic Monday,” Felicity said, undoing her coat, “I sacked someone. Rachel, software engineer, couldn’t get to work on time. You been out?”
      “It was raining,” Kevin said.
      Felicity slung her jacket over the arm of the chair. “She’s been late eight of the last ten days. It’s not the first time we’ve told her,” she said and sat on the chair to remove her boots, “verbal and written warnings already. No choice this time. You got the bread?”
      “Glass of wine?” Kevin asked. Felicity nodded and plonked herself on the sofa.
      “What’s for tea?”
      Kevin went to the kitchen, took a box from the freezer, pulled out a pizza and shoved it in the oven.
      “Did you know some of these hot air balloons are homemade,” Felicity said, indicating the television. She took the glass from Kevin. “I’d assumed you’d buy them from Balloon IKEA or something.”
      “Pizza will be ready in about ten minutes.”
      “Building your own balloon takes real effort, unlike your tea.”
      “I forgot the bread, with all the rain,” Kevin said.
      “For heaven’s sake Kevin. I asked you do one thing today, one thing. How am I supposed to have toast in the morning?”

“Have a nice day at work,” Kevin said.
      “Get some bread. I don’t have time today,” she said, then kissed him.
      Kevin returned to his spot and ate his cornflakes. These days Felicity was always telling him to do something or go somewhere. It hadn’t been like that when they’d first met at Beechside Financial Systems. She was the slim blonde Human Resources Assistant all the desktop support officers talked about. Way out of his league. To his surprise Felicity asked him out two weeks and four days after he’d resolved her printer’s frozen spooling queue.
      Once together, Felicity encouraged him to fulfil his potential. They had a pact of a European city break when either of them got promoted. At Beechside Felicity had become Head of Human Resources and Kevin a project manager. They’d spent weekends in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Milan, Paris, Prague and Tallinn.
      That was until the meeting with the Finance Director five months ago, where he’d told Kevin they were upgrading the product set to scalable platforms with one hundred percent resilience via cloud based virtualisation services.

Felicity’s words from the previous night were unrequested echoes all through BBC Breakfast and into Jeremy Kyle. Despite the internet being an afternoon activity, he turned on the broadband, booted the laptop, and typed ‘how to build a hot air balloon’ into Google. In a third of a second, four million five hundred and seventy thousand results were displayed. Kevin clicked on the top link. By late afternoon he understood the history and principles of hot air ballooning, two books were on order from Amazon with guaranteed next day delivery and emails sent to the British Balloon & Airship Club, the Ballooning Federation of American and Firefly Balloons based in California. In addition, he registered online with Tesco and they’d had a delivery slot available that afternoon.

A scraping key indicated Felicity was back. “I’ve had Gladys from Accounts on at me all day, you remember her don’t you? Still mad as a hatter. Complains it’s discriminatory changing the department title to Management Accounts,” Felicity said, from the hallway, “What’s for tea?”
      “Tesco’s frozen Beef Cannelloni with garlic bread,” Kevin said.
      “You’ve been shopping. About time.”
      “I’ve followed your advice.”
      “You went to the Surrealism Exhibition?”
      “No. To build a balloon,” Kevin said.
      “I want to see the Dali original. I loved the Persistence of Memory sculpture we saw in London, so representative of modern life.”
      “There are plenty of places you can buy balloons from, or you can design and sew them yourself. It takes about ...”
      “How long till tea’s ready?”
      “One hundred and eighty hours.”
      “I’ll get changed then.”

“Have a nice day at work,” said Kevin.
      “You going out today,” said Felicity.
      “We’ll see,” he replied. Felicity kissed him and left the house.
Kevin picked up his breakfast and moved to the laptop. He’d downloaded some Excel based calculators yesterday to help determine balloon size. He rooted around the cupboard for a notepad to write down his conclusions. He could do it on Word, but, as a project manager, he was more comfortable with information in paper format. He found the empty black moleskine book Felicity bought home the day of the redundancy meeting, and he remembered her tears. She’d sat to the left of the Director during the meeting and kept her eyes on the floor. The Director fidgeted throughout the conversation, explaining how difficult the decision had been and how well respected Kevin was. However, this was cutting-edge technology and new graduates understood it.
      Re-training at Kevin’s age wasn’t sensible from a financial viewpoint. The Director said sorry again and turned to Felicity. She held out the envelope containing the notice of redundancy she’d signed that morning. He saw the tears in her eyes, but she didn’t cry until she got home. She gave him the moleskine book and said it was a blank canvas to fill with dreams and opportunities. They held onto each other all that night, not sure who was comforting who.
      For the next two days Kevin focussed on the balloon envelope, deciding on the shape, number of gores and whether to have bulbous, semi-smooth or flat. Jonny from Firefly Balloons replied with a catalogue and price list. Everything was noted down in the moleskine. On Thursday, Felicity arrived home to two bowls of microwaved chilli con carne.
      “Anything exciting today?” Kevin asked, as they sat down to eat.
      “Training managers on the appointment process. Ashanti, the apprentice, was with me. Doesn’t say much. Not surprising with that metal bar in her mouth,” Felicity said.
      “I’ve made a decision,” Kevin said.
      “You’re not having anything pierced,” Felicity replied.
      “I’ve decided to go with an eight gore bulbous tear drop. I know it’s not traditional, but I think it’s magical.”
      “You’re not getting a tattoo either.”
      “Talked it over with Jonny. He felt it was the right decision for my first one.”
      Felicity’s fork hovered above the chilli. “You’re first one! How many tattoos are you having? You know I don’t like them.”
      “I’m not getting a tattoo. I’m building a balloon. I told you yesterday. Just need to sort out colours,” Kevin said, picking up their plates. “Apple pie and custard for pud?”

Kevin viewed balloon images on Friday morning for ideas. He discounted single colour as lacking imagination, whilst multi-coloured versions were over the top. By lunchtime he’d settled on a yellow envelope with a black skirt and two horizontal black stripes. He called Jonny via Skype a little after three; they’d just opened. The design was straightforward to manufacture and Kevin took Jonny’s advice on material. Within half an hour they’d signed a contract by email. His envelope would go into production next week.
      Kevin turned his attention to the basket. He’d already decided on traditional wicker, modern aluminium didn’t look right. He began searching for a small open gondola on Ebay and the Zebedee list. The latter recommended by George, from the British Balloon & Airship Club, as an excellent place for second hand equipment. He’d got a good idea of the options, before he stopped to make boil in the bag haddock with white wine sauce.
      “Thank heavens that week is over,” Felicity said, as she entered the kitchen, “you had a good day?”
      “I’ve ordered the balloon.”
      “Fantastic, fish on Friday. Traditional,” Felicity said.
      “Yellow with black stripes and skirt.”
      “I hope we aren’t having chips, I had chips for lunch.”
      “It’s a one point three ounce ripstop nylon base fabric with a silicone coating. Little heavier, but the upside is zero porosity,” Kevin said. He took a green salad from the fridge.

Kevin spent the weekend hunting for baskets, burners and fuel tanks with the same enthusiasm he’d applied to his initial job search. Then he’d sent out CV’s, registered with recruitment agencies and read trade papers. No-one was interested. As a Recruitment Consultant told him, a forty two year old computer systems project manager is not ‘what the market wants at this time’, he should consider sales. Kevin wasn’t a salesman.
      After looking through various classified sections, he decided George had been right about the Zebedee list. Armed with the weekend’s research, Kevin went shopping on Monday morning. The ordered envelope had a ninety thousand cubic feet capacity, and would support a four person gondola. He found two Thunder and Colt wicker versions for sale. His preferred burner required a gimbal mount, piezo electric spark lighting and a whisper burner. By the time Felicity was on her way home, he’d sent off a number of email inquiries and paid for the envelope through PayPal.
      “Something smells good,” Felicity said, as she came through the front door.
      “Home made green Thai chicken curry.”
      “Sounds good. Sarah’s pregnant.”
      “The sauce came out of a jar and it’s boil in the bag rice, but you know what I mean,“ Kevin said, stirring the wok.
      “She hasn’t told anyone yet, but the floaty tops are fooling no-one. There’s a sweepstake on when she’s going to announce it.”
      “I registered my interest in some Cameron Mark Four Double Burners and two baskets, one with leather trim and the other with green suede.”
      “I’ve got Friday lunchtime.”

“Have a nice day at work,” Kevin shouted to Felicity from the table, whilst checking his emails. The guy selling the burner offered delivery later in the week, Kevin bought it immediately. The basket was more complicated, as neither seller was close. The brother of one had a van and agreed to drive it down for thirty pounds which clinched the deal.
      Kevin was pondering the lease or buy decision on fuel tanks, when an email arrived from Jonny. The envelope had gone into production, with an expected shipping date of Saturday.

Kevin spent the next three days sorting out the shed, making room for the future arrivals. He ordered a pair of brand new titanium fifteen gallon propane fuel tanks from Cameron Balloons. Second hand baskets and burners were fine, but he’d decided not to take any risks with the propane tanks.
      The first deliveries were due on Friday. The basket, burner and Tesco all came in the morning. The wicker basket was a set of tightly packed breaking waves. Its uniformity only spoilt by the odd broken strand, as if someone had removed a strip of the sea. Kevin ran his fingers over the smooth surface of the leather trim, absorbing the fear, excitement and sweat of its previous passengers. He got into the basket. Above him the frame formed a triangle without corners through which he could see a single cloud in the sky.
      The silver burners were cold to the touch and Kevin smelt the last flight lingering within the metallic coils and valves. He tapped the two pressure gauges. Nothing happened. He matched the valves with the pictures in the manual he’d downloaded. The one finger activated whisper valve. The blast valve and pilot light valve, both one finger operations too, but they also required a handle to be pushed. The cross flow valve was bigger; Kevin slipped his fingers around the t-shaped handle and turned it. He didn’t touch the piezo lighting mechanism in case the spark ignited fumes. He put the balloon components in the shed, padlocked the door and went inside to cook sausage, mash and onion gravy.
      After seeing Felicity off to work on the Monday, Kevin roamed around the house cleaning and tidying. Nothing to do on the balloon, except wait. He tried watching the television, but couldn’t stick any of the daytime programmes for more than a few minutes. He was restless and had an energy he couldn’t burn off. After a couple of hours of mooching, Kevin went out.

Over the next few days Kevin went for walks, swimming and to the pub. Felicity was greeted at night by roast chicken, pasta carbonara and mushroom risotto. The envelope arrived on Friday. Despite it being light weight material, it took two delivery men to carry it into the garden. Kevin opened the box and ran the tips of his fingers across the nylon. He wanted to see his envelope design, and cut the sides of the box away with a pair of scissors. With a couple of grunts, he slid the envelope onto the lawn and began to unfold it. By the third unfold Kevin was stood in Felicity’s rose bushes and the other end was hanging on the apple trees at the back of the garden, but neither the black skirt nor the parachute valve were visible.
      Cursing himself, he refolded. After twenty minutes of dragging and pushing, Kevin managed to get the envelope inside the shed. The need for unfolding space gnawed at him while he prepared salmon fishcakes.
      The weekend was spent trying to work out where to inflate the balloon. On Monday after rejecting all of his own ideas, Kevin called George. As well as the national representative, George was the local contact for British Balloon & Airship Club. In their email exchanges George had offered to give Kevin some piloting and safety training on his first flight. When Kevin described the lack of space issue to George, he laughed, and then suggested that local farmers were a good source of take off sites.
      Kevin watched a flock of birds swoop down onto the fields behind the estate, all after the treats unearthed by the combine. He realised he had a great take-off site minutes from the house and called the Farm Shop. After explaining his request to the shop worker, the shop manager and the farmer’s wife, he got the farmer’s mobile number. Kevin watched the farmer answer the phone from his window. The farmer wasn’t too keen, until Kevin offered the small financial compensation George had suggested. This changed the conversation. The farmer also offered his wife’s bacon sandwiches and supplies of coffee.

“So how’s your day been?” Felicity said, walking into the kitchen.
      “I went to the Surrealism Exhibition,” Kevin said.
      “Oh god. That looks good, what is it?”
      “Long Legged Elephants.”
      “For tea?” Felicity said.
      “The Dali picture. Long legged elephants. Tea is Thai Green Curry, made from scratch,” Kevin said, pointing to the dirty implements, “served with jasmine rice.”
      “It smells amazing darling,” Felicity said.
      Sunny days and warm nights were forecast for the rest of the week. Not a large amount of wind, but George felt it would be fine for the test flight. At seven thirty Thursday morning, Kevin received a text from George confirming that today would be inflation day.
      Felicity packed her laptop away, and slipped her feet into a pair of black stilettos. “I’m presenting the Recruitment and Retention Strategy to the Board today,” she said.
      “You’ll do fantastic and they’ll love it,” said Kevin, and then he kissed her. She stared at him for a few seconds.       “What?” Kevin said.
      “I’m not sure ... never mind. Have a good day.”
      George arrived at ten o’clock with a two man ground crew. All three helped Kevin carry the components to George’s van. They were interested in the Cameron Mark Four Double Burner which, in their opinion, was in fantastic condition and hadn’t done above a few hundred miles. Kevin directed George through the lanes to the farmer’s field, a route he’d driven a couple of times the previous day.
      The team unfolded the silky envelope, and laid it down like a field of instant rapeseed. Kevin began making copious notes in his moleskine pad, on every instruction or suggestion George issued. The crew brought over two inflation fans on red steel frames, and began the process of packing the cold ground air into the envelope. George and Kevin walked fifteen metres inside the balloon and watched the parachute’s Kevlar cord ascend. As the envelope reached three quarters full they climbed into the gondola and George encouraged Kevin to press the piezo button. Kevin watched through the triangular frame of the basket as the burners scorched and the taste of gas filled his mouth.

© Andrew Lavender, 2012