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Watford Writers


 Writer's Block 2019 - Winners




By Mike Lansdown


Central Manchester – Easter 2018


The slam of a metal door closing echoes down the length of the vast, empty hall, quickly followed by another, then another, and another - like the sounds of a train being readied for departure.


But departure is the last thing the residents of this place will be expecting anytime soon: this is the lifers’ wing.


Lee Walker crosses the cell, climbs onto his bunk and punches his fist hard into the fabric of the thin pillow. A faded blue HMP Strangeways stamp ensures that in the unlikely event of it being taken, this particular piece of government linen will find its way back inside; as, indeed, will most of the prison’s current residents. An hour spent in the gym, Lee reflects, always improves his mood – allows the pent-up aggression a chance to escape, and is a safer bet than venting it on any one of the other lags, or prison officers, for whom he would gladly swing. Solitary (and he’s been there before) is not for him. He craves human company even if, in his view, some of those he is forced to share his accommodation with barely qualify for this particular epithet.                                                             He could do with the gym right now.

“You alright?”

It’s his new cellmate, Luke - ‘a right tosser.’

“Yeah.Why wouldn’t I be?”

Lee turns to face the wall.

“I got a right to a bit of peace ‘n quiet, ain’t I?”

“Just tryin’ to be civil, mate. Just thought you looked a bit stressed like, when you came in.”

Lee says nothing, lets the silence linger, then says, very slowly, “Never …call me… mate… again, Weasel. I’m Mr Walker. Understood?”

“Understood - Mr Walker.”

Then all goes silent again.

Lee closes his eyes and rests his head. Stressed? he thinks. I’m five years into a f’n life stretch, so yeah, I am feeling stressed. But he’s not going to admit it to the lowlife on the bottom bunk – it would be a sign of weakness, one that would pass like wildfire from the Weasel to any one of a dozen others who would then be at him before you could shout ‘knifing!’ Then every scumbag in the place would be after his position, thinking they could be top dog.




It’s a lunchtime, much like the fifteen hundred he’s already had the pleasure of, since walking through the gates five years ago. Feeding time at the zoo. A hundred inmates are lining the steel-grilled walkways, plates in their hands, feet shuffling edgily forward, wanting their daily chow. Lee joins them, noting the screws, nervous-looking, swinging keys on silver chains. Everything in this place is cold and hard, he thinks: from the furnishings right through to the people. He yawns and rolls his neck – he needs another hour in the gym. He pushes his way forward and the prisoners part – like…? A vague memory of a bible story he heard in the home drifts into his head - then somebody hits his plate on the wall demanding that the queue moves quicker and is ordered to shut-up by an officer as well as by the prisoners all around him. He scowls and does as he’s told. Lee eyeballs him, smirks, and mouths an exaggerated ‘wanker’. Another point scored.

Now it’s his turn - he’s at the serving hatch. Plate out, spoonful of mash, a ladle of something brown, and then he’s shuffling on. One of the kitchen workers – another prisoner - gives him a knowing smile. Could fancy him, or he may have gobbed in his food. You never can tell in this place. Just keep moving on. Lee starts to make his way to one of the long, melamine tables. Reminds him of being at school, a dark memory, bringing the hint of a twisted smile…

And then it happens.

 Something hits him from behind, hard, and he feels a searing jolt of pain, starting from his ear, making its way down his neck, across his shoulder, then along his arm and into his hand. His arm goes numb and he wonders if he has been tasered, but it just doesn’t add up – he hasn’t done anything. He turns around in time to catch another blow to the head, this time a straight punch, and recognises his assailant – McIntyre, undisputed king of the lower landing. He’s after my job, he thinks, and launches himself at the Scotsman. Then all hell lets loose. From everywhere there’s the urgent sound of heavy boots clanking on metal. Shouts and screams echo all around, filing his head with noise. He cannot think. McIntyre swings again and Lee grabs at his flailing arm.

“Yuh bastard!” the other man screams as Lee’s food hits him in the eyes. 

And then the force of arms pulling him backwards, the table coming up to meet his face, a ton of weight pinning him down, the feeling he cannot breathe.

And then it’s dark…




Lee’s eyes flicker – he’s unsure of where he is. A thick mist swirls inside his head. 

“Charging! Stand clear!” he thinks he hears, and then feels his body arching upwards towards the bright lights of the ceiling. Everything goes quiet.  

“Charging again! Stand clear!” and his body jolts rigid again. He is aware of his shirt, ripped at the front; of the cold pads pressing against his chest. I’m dying, he thinks; maybe I’m dead.




The next time he opens his eyes he is in bed reaching out shakily for a beaker, knocking it to the floor. His mouth is parched, his head still swimming. Slowly, he becomes aware of where he is, hears the machine beeping reassuringly by his side, feels the cool, clean, sheets and the plumpness of his pillow. He is not in his cell; he’s in the hospital wing. 

A nurse, attracted by the sound of water hitting the floor, comes to his side and picks up his wrist.

“Just relax, prisoner Walker, I’m just going to take your pulse.”


“No speaking for a few moments, please,” she tells him, then looks at her watch.  She’s leaning over him, so close he can smell her perfume. He notices the crisp, white uniform, the wisp of hair, falling, gently brushing her cheek. Then closing his eyes he slumps back, exhausted.

A few minutes later she is joined by a doctor, a man Lee recognises from the last time he was in the wing –  a bodged knife attack that left him shaken but largely unhurt, and his reputation further enhanced.

“Welcome back, Walker. How do you feel?”

Lee sees him staring down over the top of his pince-nez, tapping a clipboard with his biro.

“You had a close escape- we thought we’d lost you.”

Lee is confused and tries to speak. “Escape? Did I try to escape?”

“From what I understand,” says the doctor, scanning the notes, “you were engaged in a fight, in the dining area, collapsed, and suffered a cardiac arrest – a heart attack,” he explains. “So no - no escape, but you were this close to leaving this place, forever. Have you any family history. Father, mother, grandparent?”

“History? Don’t know doc. I was brought up in care.”

The doctor scribbles something.

“Drug user?”

“Done a bit, but only recreational use,” Lee lies.


“How did you guess?” Lee replies sardonically.

“Because, Mr Walker, your heart clearly shows the effects of your… ‘recreational’ use. The left-ventricle is distended, too big, and you are exhibiting a worrying degree of increased aortic stiffness resulting in a systolic that’s through the roof.”

Lee looks at him, uncomprehending.

“If we don’t do something, Mr Walker, you are going to die. In a nutshell, you need a new heart.”




Since the diagnosis, Lee has been spending more and more time on his bunk, so more time with The Weasel who rarely ventures beyond the confines of the cell. Lee lies on his back, contemplating a small brown stain on the ceiling. Sometimes, he thinks, it looks like a face, sometimes a leaf, and sometimes even…he lets out a long, deep sigh. Six months, and the wait for a donor goes on…and on, and on. ‘Doctor’s orders’ are fine for his heart but are really doing his nut in.

A voice breaks his reverie.

“So, I ‘eard you done someone wiv a shooter, Mr Walker?”

Luke has been trying to engage him in conversation all day. Finally, bored of the stain, he breaks.

“Yeah, you’re right…so what is it to you?”

“Nuffin’ Mr Walker. Me? I’m a knifer - and a lifer!” Luke adds brightly, pleased with the euphony. “Quieter; easier to hide; slips in yer pocket.”

“A fat lot of good it did! Still stuck in here, aintcha?”

Unseen below, Luke is picking away at his fingernail and mumbles his agreement. But, sensing he’s making headway, he pushes on. “So, who was it, Mr Walker, and why d’you do it?”

Lee shuts his eyes and allows his thoughts to drift back: to a dark winter’s afternoon, bright Christmas lights, the sparkling allure of a shop window…he decides to continue with his story. It’s got to be preferable to the stain.

“Well…” he takes a deep breath, “ it – she – was an old biddy. Owned a jeweller’s, in Wilmslow – y’know, where all the footballers, and their wives, live. Tidy little business, and the security - well, it was as ancient as her and her old man. Just too tempting, and they were asking for it.” 

“Needed the money, did ya?” 

“Who doesn’t, Weasel? But I had this habit, Charlie, and I was runnin’ low on funds. Figured it was easier than working, so I gave it a go.”

A long silence follows, broken only by loud screaming from somewhere at the far end of the landing – nothing new, nothing to get excited about.

“So…what ’appened?”

“What d’ya mean ‘What ’appened?’” Lee snaps? “I just told ya, didn’t I?” He rolls over and glares into the bunk below, feels his heart starting to race. “Why you askin’? And what more do ya need to know?”

Looking up from where he is lying, Luke holds up his hands, like a submissive dog, Lee thinks.

“Whoa! Nuffin’, Mr Walker, nuffin!”

“Yeah, well that’s all ya need to know. Got it?  End of,” says Lee, and goes back to staring at the stain. When am I gonna get the op? he thinks – the boredom will kill me before the heart does.




It’s been ten days since the operation and Lee is sitting up in bed. Rubbish on the TV, but better than listening to the Weasel drone on. His wrist is handcuffed to the bed-frame but apart from the scars, which can itch like hell, he’s comfortable.

“Don’t you ever get bored?” he asks the prison officer sitting opposite.

“What, in here? Nah, endless supply of magazines, fit nurses, and as much tea as you can stomach. Miss the food though.”

Lee raises his eyebrows and shakes his head.

The door opens and in comes Mr Chakrobati on his morning round.

“Ah, Mr Walker. How are we feeling today?”

Only half listening to Lee’s response he studies the clipboard at the end of the bed.

“Splendid, splendid. Well, the good news is that there appears to be no sign of rejection. The team did a grand job of matching, you know, and although the other man was somewhat older than you, you won’t be leaving the crease any day soon. We’ll be informing the prison authorities shortly. It’s time to go home – to free up the bed for someone who really needs it!” he says, jauntily, then says his goodbyes and leaves. 

Later that afternoon, Lee is walking, handcuffed to his warder, unsure that he really wants to ‘go home’.




He’s never been a religious man - the priests and nuns at the home knocked that out of him, early. But here he is, a month after the operation, waiting to meet the chaplain, a vase of plastic flowers and a Christmas decoration indicating that this is no ordinary prison room. The door buzzes and in comes Father Murphy - Lee starts to get out of his seat. 

“Sit down, son, no need to stand.”


The priest reaches out and Lee shakes his hand, the grip reassuringly firm.

“So, Lee isn’t it, how can I help? And you can drop the Father nonsense in here – it’s Sean.”

Lee sits forward on his chair, his hands clasped, almost as if in prayer. He looks at the kindly man sitting opposite him, casually dressed in a grey jumper and dark slacks, the tiny silver cross, pinned near his collar the only sign that he’s a man of God. He feels sure he’s seen him before...years ago, in a film about Chicago hoods, the soft Irish lilt serving only to deepen Lee’s conviction.

For once, he is tongue-tied. “I…um…where do I start?”

“At the beginning, Lee. We’ve got all the time in the world,” says the priest, and leans back in his chair.

An hour later and they are almost finished, two paper cups holding the cold dregs of the tea brought around by an orderly.

“So, you want to say thank-you. Is that right? You want to show your gratitude to the family of the deceased?”

Lee nods.

“And I wanna write them a letter. You know, sort of saying how much I appreciate it. It must’ve been hard, on them like, losing someone. And then, knowing his heart was going to be…” Lee trailed off.

“It would be an act of kindness,” Sean cuts in, “a reciprocal act of kindness, Lee, and one which I’m sure they would greatly value.”

“But I can’t write, Sean,” Lee blurts out, “I never learnt.”





The following day they are back in the same room, two more cups of strong tea on the table.

“Just start, and I’ll write what you tell me to,” says Sean, “and don’t worry about getting it wrong; we can tidy it up at the end.”

Lee starts.

Dear…fuck! I don’t know their names,” he says, and buries his face in his hands. “I don’t know their fuckin’ names!”

“Not a problem, Lee,” Sean says, his practised manner transitioning easily from bedside to coffee-table, “I’ll speak to the medical people at The Royal and I’ll write the names in for you. Now, please, carry on.”

Ten minutes later and they are done. He’s managed half a page; more than he’s written in a lifetime.

“So - how does that feel, Lee? To get that off your chest?”

“It feels good, Sean,” Lee says, then pauses. “And with the new heart, an’ all I feel…” he searches for the right word, “resurrected.  And I need to let them know what it means to me, you know, and that I get it - that it wasn’t easy for them, neither.”

“Quite, Lee, quite. And I am certain that they’ll be touched - that they’ll be greatly helped by your kind, brave, gesture.”

Lee feels his eyes welling up, his throat starting to tighten. Nobody’s ever spoken to him like this before. 

“You will make sure they get it, won’t you Sean?”

“I will, Lee, and if they’re local, I’ll even hand-deliver it myself. How’s that? Now, I must be off. There’s no rest for the wicked,” he says with a wink, and presses the button so they can go their separate ways.

As Lee walks back to his cell, he whispers a silent prayer.

He hardly notices that it’s lunchtime.


Wilmslow – Christmas 2018


Ray Winstanley draws the curtains against the gathering gloom and comes to sit next to his sister on the sofa. Both sit and look silently at the two faces staring down at them from behind the cards on the mantelpiece – a friendly couple, in their late fifties, a typical holiday snap, cradled in a silver heart-shaped frame. ‘Ron and Ivy -Together Again’ it says, engraved in neat letters along the bottom of the polished stand. He puts a brotherly arm around Pauline’s shoulders.

“He’d ’ave been pleased, you know - to know his death, his ’eart, meant someone else could go on living. That’s why he carried the card.‘Waste not, want not’ - that was his motto. Do you remember, when we were kids?”

“Aye, I do. And he was never the same, not since our mam died.” She wipes a tear from her eyes then stands and rearranges the mantelpiece, bringing the two urns closer together again. “It was the pointlessness, Ray, the violence of her end that really did for him, too. He wasn’t a big drinker before, and wouldn’t have dreamt of driving when he’d had too much. That man – that murderer – has the blood of two people on his hands: Mam and Dad!”

“Don’t go getting yourself upset again, Pauline. C’mon, sit down and I’ll go and make us a nice cup of tea.” says Ray, and starts to move towards the kitchen.

At that moment, the noise of the letterbox snapping shut, of something hitting the mat, draws their attention.

“Bit late for the post, in’t it Ray?”

“Never can tell these days, Sis. I’ll get it,” he says.

A minute later, Ray returns and is standing in front of the guttering fire, the letter-knife already starting to slice its way neatly through the brown paper envelope.

“That’s funny”, he says, “no stamp”, then squinting at the return address, “and who do we know in Strangeways?”







By John Ward




Jim Stafford was not a religious man. Not in any way. If pushed he would say he was Christian but he hardly knew what that meant. Around Christmas, he would join in the festivities and even sing the songs down the pub but for the rest of the year he wouldn't give religion a second thought. He wasn't against religion, he wasn't agnostic; it just never crossed his radar. As far as he knew, his friends were the same, though he had never discussed it with them. Except for Harry Bloom, his Jewish friend, who went to the Synagogue every Saturday.


So it came as a surprise to Jim that he was sitting in a room opposite a very old man with a long white beard and dressed in a white robe who had his hands clasped in front of him.


Jim took in his surroundings, twisting in his chair to look all around the room. He was fairly certain he had never been in this room before. It was bare of furnishings, comprising the wooden table at which he was seated, two wooden chairs on which he and the bearded man were sitting and nothing else. It looked to Jim just as he imagined an interrogation room would look, though, of course, he had never seen one. 


The only thing odd about the room was a large picture window along one whole side and the view would change every fifteen seconds or so, like the photograph frames you can buy.             


He swivelled back to face the man.


“Who are you? Where am I? How did I get here?” asked Jim.


The man spoke in a slow, deep voice.


“One question at a time please, Jim.”


“How do you know my name? Have we met before?”


“That’s two questions, Jim. You must try to be more patient.”


Jim was becoming irritated.


“Oh, must I? Well you’d better tell me what I’m doing here or I’m off.”


“That’s not possible, I’m afraid. We have to go through this interview to decide your future.”


“Decide my future? Is this a job interview? I haven’t applied for any job. I’m happy at the bakery.”


Jim had worked at the bakery for ten years. He liked it there. He didn’t have to think. He didn’t fancy the idea of thinking too much. He preferred to just do his job, collect his wages, and take as many buns and bread rolls as he wanted. Jim liked his buns, especially those with icing on the top, the Belgian Buns, or those with currants and sugar on top, the Chelsea Buns. In fact, he fancied one now.


He asked, “There’s no chance of a bun is there?”


“No. No buns,” said the man.


“Look, I’ve got to go. There’s a bun waiting for me at work.”


Jim tried to get up from the chair but he couldn’t. It was not like being glued to it; it was as if the chair and Jim had become as one.


He struggled a bit before asking, “What’s going on here? Who are you?”


“I go by many names.”


“Just one will do for now,” interrupted Jim.


“Alright. Some people call me Jehovah.”


Jim guffawed. “Yeah, right. Of course they do.”


“Or do you prefer Yahweh?”


“Not really. I have never heard that name.”


“Or God Almighty?”        


This stopped Jim in his tracks. He stared at the person sitting in front of him.


“Are you trying to tell me you are God Almighty?”


“Well, yes,” he said modestly.


“This is a dream, right? I’ve dreamt you up in my sleep.”


“No, Jim. This is really me. You may find that difficult to believe.”


“Dead right I do.”


“ Ah, now you’ve hit the nail on the head.”


“What do you mean?”


“You’re Dead… Right?”


Jim laughed again, a nervous laugh, but not for long.


He said, “What am I here for? Why are you seeing me?”


“So many questions you have. I interview everyone who dies to see if they are suitable for entry into my Kingdom of Heaven.”


“But you can’t possibly do that. There wouldn’t be enough time. There are thousands dying every day.”


“Ah, you’re wrong there. About the time, I mean, not the thousands dying. You see time is only a concept dreamt up by man. It doesn’t apply to me. Time is infinite.” 


Jim sat for a few minutes trying to understand and get his head around this information. These thoughts generated many more questions but Jim was not capable of putting them into words just yet.


When he was able to speak, he said, “So, are you telling me I have died?”


“Quite so.”


“How did that happen? I have no recollection.”


‘It’s usually better if you don’t. Nobody wants to remember their own death. Some are pretty gruesome and others cause much pain. Did you know that 100% of deaths are caused by lack of breath? No matter what else happens it’s the lack of breath that will kill you. Keep breathing and you’ll live. That’s my little joke.”


“I don’t think that’s funny.”


‘Sorry. I’ll tell you then. You were hit by a bus.”


“Good Lord.”


‘No, I wasn’t very good. I didn’t intervene.”


“You could have saved me?”


“Possibly but it’s not my policy and that’s beside the point.”


“No it isn’t. That’s my life you’re talking about.”


“If I saved everybody where would we be? Earth would be totally overcrowded.”


“Some say it is already.”


‘Look, Jim, this is all very pleasant talking to you but its not why you are here.”


‘You can’t leave me not knowing more details about how I died and how I got here, wherever ‘here’ may be. That’s not fair.”


“Did no one tell you that life isn’t fair? Or death, for that matter.       


I told you about the bus, didn’t I? You were waiting at the stop with your neighbour and friend, Mohammed Ali Shah, when the driver lost control and ran you down. Made a right mess on the pavement.”


Jim looked down at his clothes. They didn’t show any signs of blood or being run down by a bus.


“He’s not my friend,” says Jim.


“What did you say?”


“He’s not my friend, he just lives next door. Well, he used to. Did he die too?”


“Yes he did.”


“He’s not my friend. I hardly know him and I certainly don’t speak to him.”


“Why not?”


“He’s a Muslim. We have nothing in common.”


“Really? You live next door and catch the same bus. That’s two things you have in common. I’m sure there are must be more.”




“You know what I mean.”


“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”


“But your followers don’t care for Muslims. Didn’t the Bible say that?”


“I wrote the words that went into the Bible and I don’t recall that bit. Perhaps you can direct me towards the right place.”


Jim was beginning to feel out of his depth. Here he was arguing with God about the Bible.


“Do you have a Bible, Jim?”


He thought he’d better come clean as it was God he was telling.


“No. I’ve never read the Bible.”


At this very moment, who should walk past the big picture window but Mohammed Ali Shah. He saw Jim and waved then he saw God and waved almost feverishly and he had a broad grin.


Jim would have jumped up if the chair hadn’t been holding him tight. He was indignant.


“What the hell is he doing here? I thought you said this was to find out if I was suited to the Kingdom of Heaven.”


“So it is.”


“But he’s Muslim. What’s he doing here?”


‘Whoever said Muslims couldn’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven?”


“Well… I don’t know. Someone must have.”


“If it wasn’t me, Jim, who would it be?”


Jim was confused but then he had a thought.


“But they worship Allah, don’t they?”


“Ah, yes. That’s another one of my names.”


Jim stared at God then spoke slowly to make sure of what he was saying.


“So, you’re telling me that you are the figurehead for all the religions.”


“You sound as if you don’t believe me.”


“No. That is very difficult to believe.”


“There have been very few humans who have believed I created the whole of the universe in six days. Somehow I think they never will, so I’m not surprised at your doubt.”


“But they are not Christian.”




“The other religions.”


”Are you, Jim? Are you a Christian”


“What do you mean? Of course I’m Christian.”


“You’ve already told me that you don’t own a Bible or even read one and that you don’t consider your neighbour to be your friend. That doesn’t sound very Christian to me. Perhaps I should not consider you as a candidate for entry to my Kingdom. What do you think, Jim?”


“Wait a minute. Did you just say you were Allah too?”


‘That’s right.”


“How can you be both? They are different religions. Do you interview them when they die as well?”




“Dressed as you are now?’


‘No. I appear in the clothes and I adopt the appearance they expect me to. I see you are a little disbelieving. You don’t think that the creator of the universe can change his appearance?”


Jim was now feeling very twitchy. This interview was not going at


all well. This God person was clearly much more practised in debating and was tying Jim up with his clever arguments.


“What about Mohammed?” Jim said, pointing at the window, which now showed scenes of Cairo, followed by glimpses of Stockholm. “Is he trying to work his way in?”


“I don’t usually discuss individuals but, seeing as you ask, I saw Mohammed shortly before you as he passed away several minutes before you did. By the way, he has a Bible, which he reads and he considers you as a friend although you are a little distant. He seems like a good candidate for Heaven.”


“Whereas I am not, I suppose.”


“I haven’t said that have I? You may have a chance to redeem yourself.”




“We haven’t even touched on the subject of my ten commandments yet. I assume you have heard of them even though you profess to never reading the Bible, but do you follow my commandments?”




“From your hesitation I’m guessing the answer is no. You do not surprise me. Very few of the people I see have read them or if they did they have forgotten. The numbers of those who live their life by them are rare in the extreme. I won’t ask you which of them you have broken; maybe all of them, but you should think about it.


Mind you, I’ve been thinking of changing the wording and maybe downgrading them to suggestions. After all, how many nowadays have an ass that their neighbour may covet? Almost nobody takes any notice of ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ and even less ‘thou shalt not steal’.


“You seem to prefer the Muslim to the Christian.”


“Unfortunately, too many of your countrymen read and perpetuate the views which are printed in the daily media. That is where most of the hatred between the different religions is bred but they are unaware of the fact that there is only one arbiter and that is myself.”


“But the leaders of the religious groups…”


“You must get away from thinking of the religions. They are not important. What is important is whatever happens in your heart. That is all that matters.”


“Religion is not important?”


“You won’t find redemption in buildings; Churches, Mosques, Synagogues, you will only find redemption from within yourself, no matter how magnificent or humble the building may be.


Nobody is born with religion. It is a choice they make.”


“Some people would disagree.”


“Oh, it fulfils a purpose. It keeps the human race holding on to the idea that there is an afterlife that is worth striving for, something at the end of the rainbow, metaphorically. And there are some good songs to keep their spirits up and there is always someone to fight who doesn’t hold the same views as themselves. Have you noticed that humans like to fight even though they profess not to? Frankly, without the afterlife and without fighting what would be the point in them living at all? Ponder on that, Jim.”


“Is there an afterlife?”


“I’m sorry, Jim, as much as I am enjoying our discussion I have other people to see.”


“You said time wasn’t important.”


“Not to me but it is to them. Now, I like you Jim and I’m going to give you another chance but you have to work at it. Make sure there is love in your heart for all your fellow beings. Remember, that is all that matters. Now, who’s next on my list. Ah, Harry Bloom. I believe you know him.”


“No, not Harry as well. But he’s Jewish isn’t he? Why would he…?”


“I think we’ve covered that point? Goodbye Jim.”




Jim was standing at the bus stop. As usual, his next door neighbour, Mohammed Ali Shah, arrived a moment later. They nodded at each other,


Without knowing why, Jim said, “Your name is Mohammed isn’t it?”


Surprised at being spoken to by Jim, Mohammed said, “Yes, it is. Are you Jim? I heard your wife call you that the other day.”


Jim said, “The bus will be a few minutes yet. I’m just going to pop in to the bakers shop to buy a bun. I love buns. Would you like one?”


Even though Jim worked at a bakery he still couldn’t pass a bakers shop without fancying their buns.


“That would be very kind of you. I would like a bun too. Thank you.”


Jim felt strangely euphoric. Here he was talking to his neighbour, a Muslim, for the first time. Mohammed must have lived next door for at least six months and Jim had never spoken to him.


He was not to know, of course, that Mohammed was also euphoric. Rarely did any English people speak to him unless it was unavoidable.


And here they both were, going to share buns.


Once in the shop, Jim put his hand in his pocket to pull out some change. With the coins, out came a small card.




On one side it said:


                        ‘Whatever happens in your heart is all that matters’


On the reverse it said:


‘So teach me to number my days that I may get a heart of wisdom.’


                                                Psalm 90:12




“That’s strange,” said Jim. “Where did that come from?”


He showed the card to Mohammed.


“I found one like that in my jacket this morning,” he said. “I’ve no idea where it came from either.”


“Wise words though,” said Jim.


“They are,” agreed Mohammed.


As they exited the baker’s, their bus was arriving.


Instead of stopping, there was a screech of tyres as the bus swerved and mounted the pavement, destroying the bus shelter. They stood dumbfounded, realising that if they hadn’t gone for a bun this morning, they would have been crushed.


But they could see that someone was under the wheels.


Jim shouted, “Oh, no, not Harry.”      









Coals to Newcastle


By David Elliott.


“On today’s Radio-Tyneside news; we are outside Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, as Coroner, Nancy Downes asks for information on two un-identified heart attack victims….”


Phoebe Woodward leant across the gearstick. Long fingers, normally found twiddling with her auburn hair tweaked the in-car-entertainment. She skipped the news and filled the car with the soft Geordie folk tones of The Unthanks.


“That’s better. Thank you so much Freddie. What a wonderful birthday present; a singing weekend away with The Unthanks.” She blew a kiss, “you are such a brilliant boyfriend.”


Freddie Crozier’s tongue pushed his cheek out, as he practically veered across the A1.


Back on the straight and narrow, they drove through Longframlington where the Cheviot Hills, dusted with icing sugar, began their dispute with the cobalt horizon. Phoebe only had time to purr along to a couple more Unthanks tracks, before Freddie turned off the main road and climbed towards the snowline.


“Easy tiger,” Phoebe exclaimed as he overshot Eslington Hall’s gates.


“Look! An Unthanks singing retreat sign. It points down there.” Freddie flinched as Phoebe’s finger wagged the way towards the classical mansion turned amateur conservatoire, nuzzled above the River Aln. Freddie curved into Eslington’s courtyard and parked next to an old-fashioned petrol pump.


A dark-haired woman came out of the Estate Office stable door and waved.


“Welcome to Eslington. The Unthanks borrow our whole estate for the weekend and transform it into their own private Glastonbury. I’m Lady Linda but don’t let me tattle on, you’ll want settled.” Without any further ado she ushered them through the East Wing and up a doglegged oak staircase to the guest suites.


A gold runner tracked Freddie’s steps and continued to infinity along the upstairs hallway; perfectly matched to the golden-framed photographs that hung between each doorframe.






Coroner Nancy Downes held out a pot of Vicks Vapour-rub. Her thin lips smiled at the confusion in Detective Constable Anne Shaw’s deep blue eyes.


Nancy scooped a fingerful and smeared it across her top lip. “Helps mask the smell Pet – especialy as it’s your first time. don’t be ashamed, if you have to puke, just make it to the sink.”


Menthol filled the morgue as Nancy opened one of the body-bank’s stainless-steel doors and pulled out the cadaver. She loved these moments. A greenhorn DC and the second mysterious death in three weeks to consider.


“See - radio appeals do work. Turns out our guest is a thirty-six-year old male agricultural consultant. Collapsed jogging. Found by paramedics in full cardiac arrest, with recently vomited greeny-yellow bile on his lips. I’ve not come across that before.”


Y incision and sternum cracked, Nancy could now eavesdrop on his heart. “Pulmonary Artery clear – no clots.” She inserted her blue fingers into the valves and worked them perfectly to set the ligaments snapping under clinical light.


“God, it looks like the stringy cheese when you pull a slice of pizza.”


“Those, Detective Constable are the Heartstrings; the tendons that tug sixty odd times every minute.”


Anne, felt her own pulse; more ninety-five and flushed. She peered into the chest cavity, “any sign of foul play?”


Nancy gave the DC her best thin-lipped smile. “Natural causes; just like the other. Not a dicky-bird of foul play. No clogged arteries just a single giant rupture in the wall of the heart. He was as fit as a fiddle.”


“Where do we go next?” Anne asked, “Wait for toxicology?”


“That’s right Pet; we wait. Bloods, urine, vitreous humor, bile and stomach contents take time to analyse; this isn’t CSI where they solve six crimes before croissants and cigars. I’ll crunch the numbers; you dig his background.”




Freddie looked up at the bedroom’s ten-foot ceiling, all cornice and architrave. Even their en-suite was twice the size of his flat. Harmonious folk strains arose from the downstairs piano. He glanced out the bay window over the snow-covered lawn. In the far distance the estates herd of rare bread cattle were munching a silage repast, spread on a pristine white tablecloth. Below a robin landed on a vast planter and bobbed an icy greeting to its two attentive cherubs. Caught in the perfect rebounding light, Freddie grabbed his camera and snapped away. If he could add a few decent piccies of the singing; his master’s degree portfolio was in the bag.


He left the room and bumped into Lady Linda padding up the staircase.


“I love your photos. You should open a gallery.”


“Very kind. I took some of them but most are presents from the Duchess of Northumberland. Lady Jane’s so thoughtful. She has a wonderful eye; fits perfectly with her photography and gardening.”


“How about a joint venture?”


“That’s not a bad idea. We’ve always worked closely; some of our staff work here and at her place. Bit of a caring and sharing co-op. Bye the way, she’s just rung. Demands that you all sing at the Treehouse restaurant at Alnwick Castle tomorrow night – but I warn you, she’s more Glyndo to our Glasto.”


“Wow, Phoebe’s going to love that, I can’t sing though.” Freddie tapped his camera. “Just here for the paparazzi shots,” he then jumped the last of the staircase and cautiously poked his head into the withdrawing-room. Phoebe was in the middle of a scrum gathered around the maple grand piano and was passing sheet music around. Becky Unthank coughed, “one, two three,” and led the rehearsal.


He bought up his camera. Focus, snap, zoom shoot. He’d called it, the light was faultless. Outside one of the green fleeced, estate workers had left a trail across the snowy lawn and was tending the walled garden. As Freddie took the atmospheric shot, his camera, flash on automatic, pulsed; its flare instantaneously lost in the light-scape. He was going to nail that portfolio.




Next morning, Freddie was blown by the Beast from the East, through the front door of Barter books. The inside/outside temperature inversion instantly fogged his shades. He dug several layers, found a bend of his T-shirt and rubbed the lenses clean. 


“The largest second-hand bookshop in Britain,” should have been heaven.   But today he was having a mare. Sent by Phoebe into Alnwick to pick up throat pastilles, he’d nailed a puncture, which, Quick-fit needed three hours to fix.


The bookshop’s motto, boldly told him to “Keep calm and carry on.” As if!


He pushed his shades up onto his cropped head and looked at the shop plan. For love nor money, he couldn’t find the section he wanted.


“Where’s your photography books?” he asked the white-haired lady at the till.


“Shelf thirteen Hinney – with the craft, needlepoint and DIY,” she replied, her Geordie accent as sulphurous as the coal fires that heated the superannuated railway station.


Freddie wandered the platforms stacked deep with bookshelves and manuscripts of the antiquity of Dr Beeching himself. He found shelf thirteen as overhead, a toy train trundled through the canopy rafters. “No, no, no, got, no… maybe?” He nurdled out the tome that floated his boat, then meandered through the myriad books in the hope of finding a decent murder/mystery for bedtime.


“Try before you buy,” the sign read, so he bought a mocha from the station buffet, then sat on deep leather sofa at right angles to the fire. Sacks of coal -stamped produce of Russia lay ready for deployment – coals to Newcastle – that would never fire any train out of the station - especialy the toy one currently doing the rounds. Freddie opened Friths’ – A pictorial taste of the North East and critiqued photos of long departed mines and ships.


He bought the book first and then asked if he could shoot some pictures second.


The white-haired lady replied, “whey-aye,” without looking up from her Mills and Boon.


Freddie wandered back past the ticket office, there were some good perspectives he wanted to expose.


In the mirror above the fire he glimpsed a reflection of the white-haired lady look up and raise her perfectly threaded eyebrows.


 All over a few snaps. Whatever.




Nancy and Anne spoke simultaneously.


“Rock - paper - scissors?”


Nancy, with blunted scissors, graciously ushered Anne to tell first.


“He’s an agricultural engineer, allegedly from Belarus - no previous. But and this is the interesting thing, some of his workmates at the agricultural-institute put his accent a lot further east.”


Nancy nodded. “Died of asphyxiation.”


“Not a heart attack?”


“No, the myocardial infarction was bought on by paralysis. Something stopped him breathing and his heart went pop trying to cope.”




“Lab came up with nowt, so I sent my pal at Kew, a sample of that greeny-yellow stuff. She managed to isolate and identify a plant-based poison. Her tox-screen shows extracts of Gelsemium Elegans or Heartbreak Grass in the common vernacular. I would deduce that he ingested it. Tomato soup in his gut; garnished with sorrel and a sprinkle of poison herb.”


“Poison? Wait, is this another Salisbury?” Anne stepped sharply away from the autopsy table.


“It is Pet.”


Nancy opened the body-bank and rolled out another cadaver. Found floating in the Tyne; also suffered a massive heart attack bought on by heartbreak grass. What do you make of these?”


Anne mulled for a second, “Definitely Russian prison tattoos. What do they mean?”


“The important one is this dagger through the neck with the blood drops. It tells us he’s killed before; if we count the drops; at least four times. But why poison a killer?”


“Not Novichok then?” Anne edged closer to the door.


“No Pet! The same as muggins over there - Heartbreak Grass needs to be ingested. Oh, just to let you know. I sent off some mugshots and MI5 got involved. They’re on their way, so we best get our glad rags on.”


“Oh shit!” Was all Anne could summon. 




Freddie shook his camera at Alnwick Castle. “This is dog; too Harry Potter.”


“What’s up darling?”


“Phoebe, there’s nothing new here; it’s instantly recognisable as firebolt city. I need a different angle, something edgy.”


His girlfriend kissed his cheek, “well then tiger – I’ll meet you back at the restaurant – you go get em.”




Ten minutes later and Freddie was in deep conversation with the guide to Alnwick’s renown Poison Garden. No, he couldn’t talk to Lady Jane, she’d been called away, but the guide totally extolled Lady Jane’s concepts and gave pointers towards the more photogenic plants. Freddie walked through the ornate wrought iron gates and set up his camera behind the twisted steely frame of the ivy walk. A sign, “No touching, No sniffing, No cutting. These plants may kill!” made him laugh as he began to take frank photos in the lengthening shadows of the deadly plants and cautious; no-touchy-touchy visitors.




A single contralto soared from the Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house perched in the boughs of the forest and fluttered through the bare canopy. It amalgamated with altos, tenors and a deep bass in a near perfect fairy light harmony that stopped Freddie’s photoshoot dead in its tracks. He’d heard Phoebe sing in the University choir but this was something else. Folk songs that Freddie had never heard before, rung with the hardship of the pit, the impetuous sea, jealous love, unrequited love. All mournful, intimate - yet inspirational. Just like everyone squeezed in around the roaring fire at the centre of the treetop restaurant; he was captivated.


Phoebe smiled, all dimples; snap – in the can. She was stood between Becky and Rachael Unthank, he framed and took the shot. He checked the image. Perfect, he’d captured the pure essence and informality of the singing weekend and would be forever in Phoebe’s good books. Perhaps a few shots of the audience might reinforce the comradery lit bright in all those smiles.


The Unthanks themselves were now giving a mini concert. All Phoebe’s favourites – Man could those girls sing.




Freddie looked on in bewilderment as the waitress blanked their table and served the next in line. He hankered the posh scran, Northumberland Queen Scallops with cauliflower puree, prosciutto shards, red wine syrup and sorrel.


“Freddie can send you some of his photo’s. he’s so good. Rachael show him the ones on your phone. Phoebe beamed at her new Bessie.


Rachael Unthank held out her phone and let Freddie swish through the selfies. Sting and Jimmy Nail at the Sage; just to begin with.


“Don’t miss the ones from the Mercury’s.” Phoebe smiled, with a little huskiness to her voice that really suited.


Freddie groaned as The Coldplay, Adele and Radiohead flipped across the screen.


“I’d love the chance to move in those circles. I tell you what, I’ll be the Unthanks personal photo-journalist. Document your calling, just like John and Yoko did, only better.”


“For free?”


Freddie sensed an opportunity and raised his glass.


“Blimey; getting a bit lively.”


A man at the next table, started to jive.


“Dancing on the tables next.”


The guy did hit the table though not in the way Freddie had meant. He collapsed, hugged the table desperately; plates, eating irons and cruet all swept to the floor.


“Call an ambulance.”


“Fetch the defibrillator; mouth-to-mouth.”


Freddie made his way to the door; he vaguely remembered there being a defib outside somewhere, only one of the singers had beaten him to it. They rushed past shouting, “I’m a trained first aider!”


Best to keep out of the tumult, so he stayed outside, the freezing arctic air tight on his chest. The rope bridge that connected the restaurant to the treetop walk twinkled with hoar frost. Was it swinging just that ever so slightly?


“Anybody there? Need any help?”                   


Freddie’s tongue pushed out his cheek as he wobbled his way across shadowy thin air. He held his camera tight.


“Whoa.” The rope bridge began to shake. Footsteps accelerated towards him as the wooden slats bounced and strained the ropework.


A deeper shadow was upon him. Freddie stuck up an arm. His finger instinctively depressed the cameras shutter.




Light pulsed.


Light blinded.


There was a yank at the cameras strap, that almost ripped Freddie’s head off. He kicked blindly; no one was nicking his camera.


Freddie’s neck was on the rack; as a tug of war, his camera strap acting as the rope intensified. He threw a left hook haymaker into the darkness that connected with nowt and spun him to the boards. His dead weight wrenched the camera from his assailant’s grip.


“Freddie, where are you?” Phoebe’s irritated voice infiltrated the night…


“…Here,” he choked, gulped air. “See anyone?”


Phoebe shook her head.


The treetop walk was empty. The slow snaking undulations of the rope bridge the only remnants of the tussle.






Dumped from the investigation as soon as the spooks had turned up in Newcastle and sent to Alnwick Castle on a wild goose chase; DC Anne Shaw still wore a fury that not even her blue light run up the A1 could mollify.


She read the evidence jotted in her note book:


Jack Armstrong – age sixty-two – deceased - inexplicable heart-attack.


Vera MacDonald – Waitress. “I served his plate, the pass insisted it was a special for the bloke on table five. No, I didn’t see who put the plate on the pass. Yes, I messed up and served table six. What do you expect? Sixty covers in less than ten minutes, all on minimum wage.”


Cheryl McFaul – singing weekend attendee. “Nothing unusual in the restaurant - no wait – a couple talking heatedly in the car park. Arguing over photographs.”


Ian McFaul – husband of above - ditto. “Odd couple – silver-haired lady – gent wearing a dark fleece with a badge. Possibly a castle-employee?”


Anne frustratedly picked up the menu. She’d missed supper and the very words on the carte made her salivate. Mussels – her favourite, duck and port parfait and as for the scallops…” She looked back at the menu… “Oh Shite!” She scrambled and with fat fingers hit her phone’s speed-dial.


“Nancy, get here. Pronto!”




Nancy brushed the scallop with her biro. “It’s not sorrel.”


“Heartbreak Grass?”


Nancy nodded.


“I have another lead. Gentleman taking pictures had an attempted theft of his camera. The cavalry are downstairs in the orangery,” taking statements and checking ID’s.”


DC and Coroner walked over to a table where Freddie had set up his editing-suite.


“Please start at the beginning and work through,” ordered Nancy.


Freddie gave a running commentary, “Robin and Cherubs. Practice at the piano. Phoebe. More Phoebe. Moody footsteps.”


“Stop, who’s Green Fleece at the walled garden?”


“Estate worker?”


“Keep going.”


“Barter books. Harry Potter land. The Poison-garden gates…”


“Whooa! Stop right there.”


“Anne, Poison-garden? Talk to me.”


“I divvin’-nah.” Never been north of the wall before today.”


Nancy googled something on her phone. “Ah, I think we have the source of our toxin – Lady Jane’s pride and joy. If we carry on, I hope young Freddie here has caught our killer on film.”


“Digital imaging…”


Nancy ignored him, “go back, no, the one before... Who’s weeding the poison garden? That’s not weeding. Its Green Fleece again and he’s cutting heartbreak grass. You can tell by the yellow pointy flowers… can you zoom in on his face… damn just the back of his head.”


With rapid clicks of the mouse Freddie asked, “this any good?”


There, tugging at his camera strap, Green Fleece and his passport fit image; caught for prosperity.


“Bingo!” Nancy held up her phone and messaged the mugshot. “Nice work DC - bragging rights over MI5. That’ll teach them. Sending you, rather than checking themselves.”


“We’ve still missed something.” Anne looked at her notebook. “Back to the bookshop Freddie. Look, Green Fleece; who’s he’s talking to? There - the white-haired lady. White, or silver in the moonlight?”


Nancy’s phone pinged, “Canny lot MI5. Our man’s a GRU agent, Mikhail Dodichenkov; known associate of the two Salisbury muppets. They’ve informed border control.”


“Does he know the height of the castle?” Freddie flippantly asked.


“No! First built in ten-ninety-six if that helps.”


They all span to face the gruff Russian enunciation.


Anne stepped forwards, “Mikhail Dodichenkov, you are under….”


“Not today,” he countered and pulled a pistol from his fleece pocket.


Nancy looked around the empty restaurant.


“All safe and sound, downstairs. Just us. I make sure.”


“Mikhail, what do you want?”


“For people to stop taking pictures. You!” He jabbed the gun at Freddie. “Why you keep snapping me like paparazzi. Flash-flash, you everywhere! Worse than inept MI5 surveillance operative.”


Freddie’s jaw dropped. “Wrong time, right place? he mumbled.


Anne stepped in-between. “Mikhail. why so worried about being papped? What’ya hiding?”


“I hide everything. Escape Moscow’s testosterone and corruption. Go to ground in North-east, and fall in love with Rose; I want easy life, but I get found out. One former comrade tries to kill me; another re-recruit me after Salisbury fiasco. That was, how you say, complete cockup. Botched by incompetent buffoons, Novichok - sledgehammer to crack nut. They require my old school ways, Gelsemium subtlety… I need out. I need Rose.” Tears slipped down his slumped cheeks.


The white-haired lady from the bookshop rushed in from outside. “Divvin cry, Hinney.” She opened her arms. “He just wants to be pensioned off; to mess with his plants, grow some good. Honest; he’s reformed.”


“It’s true. As Rose says, I’ve changed my ways.”


Anne softly ordered, “then put the gun down Mikhail. No-one else needs to get hurt.”


Rose kissed his tears away. “That’s right Hinney, we can start afresh, just like we’ve talked about. Me in the bookshop, you with your plants.”


Mikhail looked to the ceiling. “I go soft. In old days, bang-bang-bang, all dead; me Soviet hero.”


Freddie shut his eyes.


Mikhail stared at Anne, beheld Rose... “Fuck Putin,” he spat… then laid the pistol down on the table.


Below, sirens screamed to a stop at the Castles ticket-booths, Anne snatched up the pistol and ushered Mikhail and Rose down the wooden staircase towards them.


“Canny photography young man.” Nancy surmised. “Thanks to you, Mikhail’s in for a long debrief.”


Freddie opened his eyes and gawked at Phoebe, he mouthed “Debrief?” she mouthed, “WTF?”




Freddie entered Newcastle University’s art gallery, his sweaty hand holding tight to Phoebe’s. His portfolio had a whole room to itself. Cherubs and Robin, Phoebe bookended between Unthanks, a pile of Russian coal sacks and Mikhail in a video-loop of the “treehouse-siege” as he liked to embellish; projected onto a whitewashed wall.


“How did you blag that video?” asked his Professor.


“Hit record on my camera, when it kicked-off and hoped for the best.”


“Well it worked. Should you be showing it?”


Freddie shrugged his shoulders. “What the Police divvin see their heart divvin feel.”


His Professor held out a hand, which Freddie tentatively shook.


“Congrats, you nailed a First. I love the composition of the Unthanks at the Mercury’s and the significance and definition of the toy train steaming out of the book tunnel. What gave you the inspiration?”


Freddie, tongue pushing cheek, hot-debriefed all his photographs.


“Just coals to Newcastle Proff; and me heart near burst getting them!”







 The Harrington Trophy 2018 Results


Watford Area Arts Forum – Harrington Trophy 2018 – Report by Short-Listing Judge Jan Moran Neil


100 – an excellent theme producing some excellent writing. A theme which encompassed the anniversary of the right for some women to vote, the end of the First World War, the Queen’s 100th birthday cards and long lives.


The best pieces were those that had an original angle on the theme. For example, 100 Brush Strokes in Hilary Bates’s ‘Hairbrush 100’. Or took an original slant on the aforementioned topics: men’s support of women’s right to vote in David Elliott’s ‘Deeds not Words’ and Jo Hopkinson’s ‘One Forgotten Voice’. There were some very good pieces which were discounted from the short list as they either didn’t reflect the theme or their link to the theme was tenuous and therefore slightly contrived.


Every writing competition has rules. One of them is a word count. So no matter how lovely the poem, if it wasn’t 300 words it has to be discounted. Read the rules, writers …


300-500 words is a tiny canvas. There were some wonderful synopses of what might become fully-blown memoirs and novels. A synopsis is, by its nature, a method of ‘telling’ the reader the story. There’s that old chestnut: ‘showing and telling’. The tiny canvas needs to ‘show’ and special mention should go to Paul White’s seriously humorous poem ‘The Life and Times of Aunty Flake’: an aptly christened central character whose long life is half-lived and finally falls victim at 99 to a popped champagne cork. Contrast this poem with Rob Summers’s protagonist who brings the cultivation and creation of of a 100 year old Chinese Bonsai tree to fruition in his purposeful life and in the short story ‘Bonsai’.


There was some great dialogue in many of the stories but by and large the spoken words needed to be attached to some saying phrases. It’s difficult on the small canvas to paint too many characters. When the reader has to quickly step across the threshold of the story, the speakers need to be as identifiable as possible. Brian Bold’s short story ‘Special Relationship’ was an interesting dialogue between Queen and Private Secretary and the clever title gives us an immediate idea of who the two characters are talking about!


Some of the stories had the most exquisite description but ‘something needs to happen’. There needs to be an inciting incident to set the story into motion. Gary Cole’s ‘The Hundredth Tale’ hooks the reader at once by giving the central character a dilemma. The theme in this ‘tale about a tale’ is working hard and the central character’s decision and ultimate action brings about her downfall. Much is achieved in this 500 words.


Finally there is that indescribable something which makes a piece of writing stand out and swing. It’s something Stephen King would call ‘rhythm’. Jan Rees’s ‘Soldier Boys’ is a poignant poetic tribute to a great uncle who died in the First World War 100 years ago. It has the beat of boots underneath its turf. And Andrea Neidle’s poem ‘Ode to Invention’ is a rattling and glorious tribute to the outstanding miracles of our last 100 years whilst Mike Lansdown’s ‘Into the Blue’s’ final line, Icarus and his fate, is a warning that our inventions may undo us. So let us take care for the coming generation’s 100 years.


I will finish as I started. 100: a great theme.


Jan Moran Neil www.janmoranneil.co.uk




Richard Harrington’s Comments


Soldier Boys

This beautifully written poem really struck a chord with me, as my father fought in the Second World War. I particularly liked the element of positively in the face of all the danger, and the idea of finding peace. 

The Hundredth Tale

This short story is uniquely written with a powerful message. I particularly liked the fairy tale element which made it a thoroughly satisfying read. 

Into The Blue

Beautifully descriptive with fantastic imagery and layers of symbolism. Wanted to read more! 

Special Relationship

A really interesting analysis of the special relationship. Thoroughly enjoyable read with well written dialogue. I could imagine this very conversation happening in Buckingham Palace! 

The Life & Times of Aunty Flake

An uplifting and thought provoking poem with great symmetry and a playful rhythm. 

Ode To Invention

An inspiring idea and an informative, interesting poem. It's fantastically written and works through what we've achieved in 100 years in a perfect chronological order. 

Hairbrush 100

I found this short story to be really unique, with a simple but effective layer of symbolism that really resonated with me. 

Deeds Not Words

A wonderfully written piece, with a great story line. I particularly liked that it was local and that there was a focus on women's suffrage. The last sentence was also very effective!

One Forgotten Voice

A truly powerful story that stuck with me. I liked the fact that the protagonist in this suffragette story was a man as it shows a different side to the campaign. Extremely well written and effective. 


This short story was a fascinating read that really draws you into another culture. I particularly liked the depth to the story, and the layers of symbolism. 



First Place


Deeds not words - David Elliott


Fred, head heavy from a late-night of cheap beer and cribbage in The Three Tuns, was awoken by a tumult below. Across the High Street at its meeting point with Loates Lane, print-boys hurriedly unloaded the bales of three-quarter printed Watford Observer’s, fresh in from Fleet Street. They could now apply the finishing touches – the front page – the local news.


Fred walked into his kitchen. Breakfast was laid out but his Wife was absent. A badly laid fire guttered and belched in the grate.


The sash-window jammed and needed Fred’s subtle nudge. Flapping away the smoke that clung to his shirt, he was met with answering waves from the purple, white and green banners of the Woman’s Social and Political Union branch that boldly challenged the Watford Observer’s propriety.


Half-hour later, Fred resplendent in his Postie uniform, loaded his postbag from the pigeon holes of the sorting office. An unusual green envelope caught his eye; verdant as the hope of his wife’s eyes. Shouldering his Royal Mail; Meeting Place, Lambs Yard and Swan Alley, he knew them intimately.


Leaving Queens Road, Fred turned up the High Street and worked up the odds. He stopped at the Observer delivering a bundle of treaties and grievances to Mr Peacock. Rumours abounded of a larger press and the whole paper being printed in Watford.


Fred doffed his cap as Mr P exchanged - last week’s headlines of arson at Chorleywood House - tonight’s fish and chip wrappers for today’s front page. “Second Suffragette arson attack: Croxley Green Railway Station destroyed! Police recover evidence.” A grainy picture of smoke wafting across a burnt-out platform accompanied.


A curtain twitched in the WSPU.


Load ever lightened; Fred turned around the Pond and worked back down the evens, past St Mary’s churchyard; entrenched in thought, he missed the first Blackthorn flowers of spring. His last delivery was the Police Station. The Kings Street Peelers were always good for a brew.


The Desk-Sergeant took an age before he opened the green envelope and opened and read the pure-white paper, regally inscribed with purple ink: “Deeds not Words”


“Where was this posted?”


“Postmarks Euston; last night’s collection.” 


The Desk-Sergeant picked up a muddied rail-ticket from his desk.


“Euston – Watford Junction return… Constable Jones,” he roared, “to the Junction. I want particulars from yesterday; every female who travelled from Euston!”


“Yes Sarge,” and Constable Jones vanished.


“Cuppa?” Fred asked.


“Maybe not,” he conceded, withering under the Desk-Sergeants stare.


Fred walked back to his flat, where he was met by his wife; pacing a still smoky kitchen.   


“Well then?” she demanded.


“Kitty, you’re in the pink. Coppers think one of your mob came down from Euston last night. Planting that ticket was a masterstroke.”  


His wife kissed him full on the lips. “Fred you darling. We will get suffrage; even if the sisterhood has to fight for another hundred years”


Fred smiled back, “with all your efforts Kitty, in a hundred years you’ll not just have the vote; I’ll wager there’ll even be a woman Prime-minister!”                                                                                                                                            




Second Place


Soldier Boys - Jan Rees




We are going on a journey, we are travelling to war

Going so much farther than we ever have before

And all for king and country, to stand for what is right

We are ready for adventure, we are ready for a fight


They came and took the horses, they will have to take their chance

They’ll be dragging guns and wagons to the battlefields of France

No more for them the farmyard and ploughing English soil

But heavy loads and little rest and hard relentless toil


The young ones in our village stepped forward to a man

We’ll stand or fall together, doing everything we can

We’ve had some basic training in a camp along the coast 

We can load and aim and fire a gun – they know what matters most


The town band played and flags were waved as we marched to the train 

And friends and families stood and cheered in the pouring rain

Tears were shed ‘midst struggling smiles as we pulled away

 But we knew we’d be the victors and come back again one day


On the Somme our hopes were crushed by loss and pain and fear

As boyhood friends fell one by one and death seemed very near

The bitter cold, the rats, the mud where men could not survive

But friendship warmed our shattered souls and kept our hopes alive


Day and night the noise went on, we longed for it to end

Every kind of devilment the enemy could send

The tremors underneath our feet at each exploding shell

The deadly crack of sniper fire whose target none could tell


And through it all we battled on and dreamed of that fine day

When guns would stop and birds would sing and we’d go home to   stay

And men would see the madness of the hell that we have known

And set aside their dreams of power to work for peace alone



In tribute to my great uncle – Arthur Beer – who was wounded at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and died a few days later in April 1917.                                                                    




Joint Third Place





















































































Joint Third Place


BONSAI- Rob Summers


Ho Ching, very, very old and utterly exhausted, slumped back as he finally completed the sacred task given to his grandfather one hundred and thirty years before.

'You are commanded by the Emperor,' the gorgeously robed Court Official had instructed his grandfather, 'to relinquish your position of horticulturist in the gardens of the Forbidden City and devote all of your experience and considerable botanical skills to creating a bonsai tree for the Imperial Royal Family. The tree is to have exactly one hundred buds on each of ten branches to represent the stars that look down on the Heavenly Kingdom and the ten immortals.'

Immediately, the family was sent to the remotest corner of the vast gardens and the long and painstaking decades of experimentation, cutting, grafting cross-pollinating and hard work had begun, eventually passing to the young Ho Ching.

And now, at the age of ninety three and without a single living relative, the task was finished and the Emperors personal command had been obeyed. Easing himself down onto his creaking knees he devoutly prayed to his honourable ancestors, offering his humble thanks for their spiritual support throughout the years. 

The next morning he loaded the wonderful little tree, its minute Cherry Blossom buds glinting in the sun's first rays, onto a tiny hand cart and began the long three day walk to the Royal Palace.

At first the traffic on the road had been light but late on the second day he had fearfully taken his precious cargo into the forest when the flow against him had become a torrent and it was in the darkness of that night, as he gazed in silent confusion at the angry red flames raging like a dragon above the distant Forbidden City, that the mounted soldier crashed through the undergrowth and came upon him.

'Where do you go old man?' he demanded, the tip of his stiletto-like lance an inch from Ho Ching's tiny nose.

The old man carefully explained and when he had finished the soldier slapped his leather glove across the mane of his pony and burst into laughter. 

'Have you not heard?' he roared. 'Are you blind? There has been a revolution and your precious, bonsai-loving royal family are finished! You have wasted your time, old man! Completely wasted your time!' 

The old man watched silently as the soldier, still laughing, raced off into the night. He stood thinking, slowly digesting the soldiers words, and then, very gently, lifted the little tree out of the cart and held it lovingly in his arms.

'Come,' he said and walked deep into the forest.

In a small clearing, he picked a spot that he was satisfied would receive the sun's warmth and light, and scraped a large bowl shape in the earth. Laying in it, he pulled the soft earth all around himself and the perfect little tree resting on his heart.

'My work shall live on,' he said and taking a last, peaceful breath, closed his tired, old eyes.







The Hundredth Tale - Gary Cole


 Jane Butcher, better known to her readers as Wallace Brearson, was the author of twenty or thirty novels (she had long lost count) and innumerable stories of the supernatural. Now, to mark twenty five years of her career, her publisher had announced the forthcoming publication of an omnibus edition of her short stories to be called 100 Tales from Beyond: The Ghost Stories of Wallace Brearson and had taken the liberty of announcing it to the press.  However, there was a small problem; she had written only ninety nine and for the first time in her life Jane discovered what it was like to suffer with writer's block. However, after a barren month of fretting she hit upon a solution.


Years back, a teenager had sent her a manuscript and asked Jane's opinion. The style was immature but the plot was decent enough. It concerned two brothers, the older of whom stole an original manuscript from the younger, had it published and claimed the work as his own. The fraternal dispute grew bitter and resulted in a duel in which the younger brother, the true author, died. The older brother became rich on the royalties but did not live long to enjoy his ill-gotten wealth. The ghost of his brother haunted him and a year from the day of the fateful duel, he fell from an upstairs window and died having been pursued by the vengeful spirit.


It took Jane several months to send a letter of encouragement to the aspiring author by which time, she later learned, the young writer had died of leukaemia. But now, bereft of an original idea, Jane made the decision to write the story of the brothers and claim it as her own. In due course the omnibus edition was published and her fans were particularly delighted with the hundredth tale, the newly penned Brothers of Caldbeck Hall.


Jane was back at the top of her game and for a time life went on as usual but one day sitting in a café she caught a young, pale-faced woman staring at her. The young woman seemed to mouth the word 'plagiarist'. Jane averted her eyes but when she looked again the woman was no longer there. She saw her again a few days later, standing on a street corner, but she disappeared when approached. At night Jane began to dream about the pale woman, heard that vile word whispered into her ear as she lay in bed. She began taking pills, stopped eating, started drinking, talked animatedly to someone who clearly was not there. She begged the spirit to leave her alone. Her friends pleaded with her to see a doctor but she refused. Acquaintances were not surprised but it made the front pages when, one year exactly after the publication of the omnibus, Jane Butcher, the renowned author Wallace Brearson, threw herself to her death from the top floor of her house. In her hand was the manuscript of the hundredth tale.









The Queen was sitting at her desk looking down the Mall, the lampposts bedecked with flags. As Big Ben struck 10am, she turned and smiled at her Private Secretary who entered with the State Papers at his appointed time. The Queen flicked through the documents and a bundle of sheets embossed with the Stars and Stripes flag caught her eye.

            “Is it this week we have the Americans coming? Are we happy with the arrangements?

            “We are Your Highness, though the US Ambassador wants to re-check every detail. The President is bringing half a battalion of support staff and several of his own vehicles. We are aiming to keep things simple and maintain the impression he is very welcome here. I hope the Americans don’t complicate the visit. We have the Grenadier Guards band playing the US Anthem on his arrival, followed by fervent flag waving on the Mall and the banquet at the Palace with all our high status regulars invited.”

            “He’s bringing his second wife isn’t he? Do we know much about her?”

            “Only she’s much younger than him and a lot better looking than the last one. No doubt she will try to out-dress you, so you should wear the Crown jewellery. She won’t be able to match that. The US press aren’t keen on her modern ways. Apparently, she drives herself around New York in an electric car.”

            “It doesn’t sound like she’s a horse woman. I don’t know what we’ll have to talk about.” The Queen allowed the Private Secretary to see her scowl.

            “The President may be difficult company too. They say the he’s not too well versed in our traditions. One of our politicians met him recently and commented that he seemed insensitive to his surroundings and his ideas were often nebulous. Also, I’m told he prefers the company of women to men so we might consider seating him next to one of our English Beauties.” The Private Secretary raised his eyebrows seeking approval.

            “Good idea. I hear his mother was born here, somewhere up north. I suppose I can ask him if she had any Royal blood and then let him entertain some other women.”

            “I think we have many ladies who would welcome the opportunity to express their views to this President. I’ll make the necessary arrangements.” The Private Secretary bowed and left the Queen to her own thoughts on the diplomacy ahead.         


Woodrow Wilson, the first incumbent US President to visit the UK, came here with his second wife, Edith Bolling, in 1918. They travelled by boat, visiting France first before landing in the UK at Dover. Queen Mary and King George V welcomed them at Charing Cross Station and gave their guests board and lodgings at Buckingham Palace. Later in the visit, the President travelled to Carlisle where his mother was born.

President Trump’s planned visit in July this year, will commerate a 100 years of US Presidential visits. It might be more memorable than the first.






Into the Blue - Mike Lansdown




Exhausted; the boy stops.


Below him, a thousand steps cut into the cold hard sides of the gorge. Above him, a hundred more, steep and narrow, disappearing into the deep blue of the clear Cretan sky.


A hundred more!


He bends and rubs his legs, willing them to keep pushing him upwards, away from the cool shadows of the valley floor, and far away from those that would have him dead. He thinks he hears voices, his father calling, asking him where he is, imploring him to wait at the canyon’s edge, but he knows he could have been mistaken, imagining things. Since the men came, he has not been thinking clearly, his mind bent on freedom and escape. The voices echo- from valley wall to valley wall, or just within his head; these days, he cannot tell. He rubs his legs some more.


The steps he climbs wind ever-upwards, white limestone smoothed by the feet of countless generations who from the dawn of time have made the self-same journey. Goatherds and their jangling flocks, happy sailors thankful to be returning to the safety of their homes, lonely pedlars, and brigands: all have faced the same steps, all have felt their legs burn in the shadow of the cliffs. And now, here he is, alone, his father’s only son, with a hundred steps to go.


He tries to stretch his arms, to relieve his burden, but the cleft he climbs is too tight, the sides hugging him close, hiding, protecting, closing in on him, threatening to suffocate…yes, all of these things. Like a friend who harbours dark intent.


Finally, his eyes draw level with the top of the rocky staircase. He pauses, looks down, and thinks he hears noises again-footsteps, voices, far below, but he cannot be certain. He struggles to clear the sweat which now pours down his face, like a waterfall, he thinks, cascading from the lip of the gorge in spring. At last, with one final effort, he steps out onto the rocky top of the valley side.


Immediately, he is hit by the slam of the midday heat and a barrage of sound as a million cicadas welcome him to their domain, saluting him as a true son of the island- and high above him dark shapes circle and wait, their fleeting shadows blocking out the sun for the instant it takes the eye to blink.


The boy looks into the endless blue, feeling the heat of the sun upon his face, craving now the cool caress of the zephyr from the west. Looking down he takes three short steps to the very edge of the world. Below him he sees the pines, the vineyards, the dun brown fields stretching away to the sparkle which is the distant sea. And through the haze he sees the prison, built by his father’s hands.


He raises his arms, takes one last breath, and steps forward, out into the void.


Icarus, Son of Daedalus, shall soar amongst the eagles.








Ode to Invention - Andrea Neidle


Who would have dreamt at the end of the war

what wonderful things we’d have in store?


In 1918, although unintended, 

the radio circuit was invented.


In 1919 what do you know - 

we then had short wave radio.


And at breakfast, what did we love most?

A cup of tea with pop up toast.


If your Tommy gun, invented in 1920,

went off for fun - we had Band Aid in plenty.


In 1923 cars on the road were a very rare sight,

but they still invented the traffic light.


Cinemagoers were in seventh heaven

When the talkies arrived in 27.


Antibiotics in 28 -

sadly, for many, came too late.


But thanks to Fleming and penicillin

most of us can carry on living.


From 39 to 45

we were lucky to survive.


Who was to know when the war began

the evil that man would do to man?


1947 made parents happy 

with the invention of the disposable nappy.


Health care was in a very bad state

till the NHS started in 48.


Hardly an invention, but nevertheless, 

where would we be with no NHS?


1950s rock music would not have gone far

without the first electric guitar.


And with your transistor in 52

you could take your music along with you.


In 53, Watson and Crick they say, 

discovered the secret to DNA 

and there was colour TV in the USA.


If your heart was dicky in 59

the Pacemaker was invented just in time.


Sex had never been much fun

till the pill came along in 61.


And things were moving on apace 

with Yuri Gagarin - first man in space.


In 67 you could have fun

eating your microwave dinner for one.


And then what joy in 69 -

man walked on the moon for the very first time.


That was also the year of Concorde’s first flight, 

and at that time its future looked bright.


In 73 we heard a new tone -

the ringing of the mobile phone.


No more having to sit in the hall, 

waiting to get that longed for call.


Now you could get that call in a show 

or anywhere you happened to go.


1n 78 the Browns got their wish -

a daughter conceived in a petri dish.


The CD player in 82 

replaced vinyl records for all but a few.


In 1990 we won’t forget

the invention of the internet. 

Thanks to Timothy Berners-Lee,

the World Wide Web changed history.


In 91 we could go far,

thanks to satnav in the car.


In 98 the world had a thrill,

with the invention of the little blue pill.


In 2010 Steve Jobs made us glad, 

with his invention of the Apple iPad.


Facebook too deserves a mention,

voted the most favourite invention.


It’s 2018. Let's shout hooray

for another invention - this poem today!


100 years of history -

without these inventions where would we be? 








Hairbrush One Hundred - Hilary Bates


Lot 100 caught my eye. It was a gorgeous Edwardian silver hairbrush just like one my grandmother used to have. It had the same picture of an exquisite lady encircled by an intricate garland of flowers embossed on the oval head, and an elegant, slender handle. Indeed, I could have sworn it was hers, except for the fact that most of her possessions had been destroyed in a house fire soon after she died.


It took me back to the time when I would sit on a hard, wooden chair in the corner of the back room and watch as she unravelled the long plait she put in at night, and brushed out her long, silky hair in front of the mirror over the fireplace. “I brush my hair 100 times every day,” she told me, and I would sound out the numbers for her, trying not to lose count. I secretly thought this was madness as a mere five or six brush strokes usually sufficed for my short bob, but there must have been some wisdom behind it as her long, grey locks were always soft and smooth. I had very little to remember Grandma by, so this antique souvenir with its just-about-attainable guide price was pulling me in, pleading to come home with me.


At the auction I took my seat on a rickety, old chair in the middle of the sale room. The tension built steadily as the porcelain and ceramic lots were snapped up until, after about an hour, bidding began on the silver. Invisible opponents online heightened the drama.


Dressed in his dark green apron and beige gloves, the steward brought out the hairbrush and displayed it to the roomful of eager hopefuls. The auctioneer began with a perky voice. “Lot 100 – a fine example of an Art Nouveau silver-backed hairbrush, hallmarked Chester 1904. Natural boar’s hair bristles. Who’ll start me at £25?” Silence. “Twenty then? Ten?” He searched the room with his index finger. My luck was in. Was nobody interested? I timidly raised my hand, my eyes riveted on the auctioneer’s face. “Thank you, Madam,” he nodded. “Any advance on ten?” A nanosecond’s hush. “Ah, we have interest online.” A torrent of bids poured in. “15, 18, 20, five, 30, five, 40 …,” until we were at £70 in less than ten seconds! “Any advance on £70?” With my heart thumping madly in my chest I put up my hand once more. “£80? Thank you, Madam.” The auctioneer’s gaze swiftly shifted to the back of the room. Someone had bid £90! I was already way over my budget, but I couldn’t let go. Silently beseeching the auctioneer to look at me, I boldly raised my hand again. “One hundred pounds! Any advance on one hundred pounds?” The room collectively held its breath. “Once, twice…” and in a beat came the staccato tap of the hammer. “Sold! One hundred pounds. Your number, Madam?” I held my card proudly aloft. “100.Thank you, Madam.”




One Forgotten Voice -  Jo Hopkinson




Fred sat in his cell. He was a prisoner in his mind, but not his body. They could do what they wanted to his body, and they had. His views and his mind they were free. His voice would be heard eventually. He may not see that day, but his children’s children would, He would not be silenced in deed. Anne was at home with the girls. She was as strong as him. But he preferred it was him. He prayed for their reconciliation.


            Yesterday there were six of them that tortured his body. Today he sat struggling to find an area of himself that was at peace. His eyes ached, his nose throbbed, and the inside of his throat was etched with the pain of the tube they had fed deep inside. Fred had never felt so many hands. On face and body. Firm and rough, holding his wrists, his ankles. Holding, gripping tightly. His jaw ached too. A pair of hands had forced his mouth open, locked it in place. 


            Fred lay on the only item in the room. The bed. He closed his eyes, blocking the pain, he found himself on a beach. There was Anne holding his hand. They walked carefree up to the sea. They stood and felt the sun on their faces. The warmth. Fred enjoyed the peacefulness as the waves rolled in rhythm in front of him. Alone now, he took slow steps toward the water, and as the waves got bigger, he released himself to the power of the water. An hour later, the prison doctor declared Fred dead, as his body lay on the prison bed.




            We admire and remember the achievements of the Suffragettes, and their tireless passion for the rights of women. Many of them endured suffering endlessly to gain an equal place in a world dominated and governed, made by men. But also out there campaigning for them too were decent men. We should also remember their forgotten voices.






































Watford Area Arts Forum Literature

Competition 2017 RESULTS



 Caution: Do Not Feed The Animals - Gary McLaren

My Daddy is the worst Magician in the world. Whenever he does a magic trick, it always goes horribly wrong.

    He once tried to make Buckingham Palace disappear and all that happened is that the Queen turned into a ferret for three days. Then there was the time he tried to make Grandad's car change colour and all that happened is that the car turned into a helicopter.

   So when I asked for something different for my school packed lunch, he said 'no problem, I'll just magic something up.' So I said 'Daddy, please please do not, use magic.' But Daddy didn't listen.

   When the time came to open my lunch box, it was empty. Lunch boxes without anything in them are against the school rules and the lunchtime supervisor, Miss Tibbs was really annoyed. But she was more annoyed with the fact that one elephant, one lion, one crocodile and two hyenas had suddenly appeared in the dining hall.

   Now wild animals on school premises are against the school rules. Miss Tibbs told the animals they were very naughty and would be sent to the Headmaster. Miss Tibbs got even more angry with the hyenas who would not stop laughing and Miss Tibbs does not allow happiness during the lunch hour.

   The crocodile decided to eat all the children's packed lunches and Miss Tibbs was really annoyed. But she was more annoyed with the fact the crocodile had eaten Mr Jones, the school caretaker who was just sweeping the floor.

   The lion burst into the Headmaster's office without knocking. The Headmaster, Mr Williams was having a very important meeting with a school inspector. It was most unfortunate that the school inspector was bending over to pick up his pen as the lion burst in. The hospital says the school inspector’s bottom will never be the same again. Bottom biting is against school rules and Mr Williams gave the crocodile double homework.

   The elephant sat on every chair in the school and had broken them all. Breaking school property is against the school rules and Mr Hills, the deputy Headmaster was really annoyed and told the elephant to get some glue and repair all the chairs. But Mr Hills was more annoyed with the fact that the elephant had sat on one of the cars in the car park. It was most unfortunate the car belonged to the school inspector.

   At the end of the day, the elephant, lion, crocodile and the two hyenas apologised to all the children and teachers for any problems they had caused. They also asked for the directions to the nearest zoo.

   When Daddy got home, he asked if I had enjoyed the mini animal fairy cakes in my lunch box, so I told him 'you really are the worst Magician in the world, but you are the best Daddy in the whole universe.'



The Quickening - Louise Broadbent

Blinking against the steady drizzle, Alison shifted to get a better view between the black chimney-like hats. As late as 1664 and they'd never hanged a witch in her village before. They'd never even tried one, but the wise-woman had floated.

Hands bound before her, the woman scanned the crowd from atop the stool. Suddenly her eyes locked on Alison's. She smiled, revealing her few rotten teeth. Unable to look away, all awareness of her surroundings faded, replaced by memories of her last visit...

*                      *                      *

'Oh it's you. Well, what is it? Another love potion, perhaps?'

Alison glanced behind her at the empty moor, then pushed into the wise-woman's home. Smoke from the crackling fire failed to cover the other strange smells. Plants, dead animals and who knew what else. She turned to the woman.

'That potion didn't work. I want my money back.'

The woman ran her eyes over Alison. 'Or perhaps it worked too well, but not in the way you wanted.'

Alison flushed.

'Your money won't help you. But I can.'

'I don't need your help.'

'No? You know they hang girls like you for killing their bastards.'

Fear gripped Alison's throat, stopping her breath.

The woman sighed then turned her back, busying herself with something.

'What are you–?'

'No sense bringing it into this world only to snuff it out, again. You need to be rid of it.' She ripped out some herbs and tossed them into a mortar then ground them with the pestle. 'Call me a witch, but they still come for my help,' she muttered.

'I didn't come here for–.'

'I know what you came here for, Girl. You're not the first and you won't be the last.'

Alison stared at the old woman's knobbly back, her body swaying with the strong, practised movement of her arm. Again, she felt the quickening. Despair at her situation threatened to overpower her.

'I...I won't pay. It's your fault, he–.'

'Won't pay?' The woman straightened and turned, her face terrible.

Alison backed away. 'It...it's your fault. He...That potion you gave me. He...'

The woman's hard eyes held Alison's for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, she softened. 'He hurt you, didn't he, my child?' She shook her head. 'I am sorry, but it isn't my fault. Love potions don't do anything, to tell the truth.'

'But you sold it to me.'

The woman shrugged. 'Have to make a living, don't I? Especially as I don't charge to help girls out of situations like yours.'

'You mean?'

'You heard me. Now sit there and let me finish.'

*                      *                      *

Even as the stool was kicked from beneath her feet , the woman continued to smile at Alison, and in that moment, she knew why.

It had been many months since she'd used the potion and passed that curse in a night of blood and pain, but that feeling was unmistakable. The quickening.

Fear gripped her throat. She was with child again.



Harry Porter and the Philosopher’s Throne - Paul White

Harry Porter slammed home the bolt of the toilet cubicle door and clutching the rabbit tightly to his chest sat down heavily on the cold, white porcelain.

‘Philistines,’ he muttered, ‘they wouldn’t know a decent magic act if it jumped up and sawed them in half.’   The two white doves perched on his shoulder cooed enthusiastically in agreement. ‘I mean, where else would I produce a rabbit from? I’m a magician, magicians produce rabbits from top hats, it’s what we do. Physically impossible to do what that woman at the front suggested anyway.’ He dabbed tissue at the countless ketchup stains on his cape. ‘And who in their right mind sees a drunk, volatile crowd and thinks, I know, I’ll give them free chips. I’ll arm them with hundreds of greasy missiles plus condiments so they can give a valid critique of every act.’ Buck the rabbit shifted uncomfortably as Harry’s grip grew ever tighter around his neck. ‘I just can’t believe it’s come to this, from second billing at St Albans Arena to the toilets of the Grimsden Working Men’s Club – the ‘Dignitas’ of the variety entertainment world.’

The creak of the Gents door opening broke his concentration and Buck gratefully gulped down his first oxygen in over thirty seconds. Heavy footsteps approached the cubicle, followed by a gruff, female voice calling out from under the door.

‘Harry, love, you in there? It’s me, Bianca, I’ve got your money.’ Harry quickly composed himself.

‘Er… yeh, Bianca, sorry about leaving the stage early, but…’

‘Ah, don’t worry about it, love, these things happen, I’ve knocked twenty quid off your fee anyway.’ Three ten pound notes slid into view under the cubicle door. ‘While we’re talking about your act, Harry, the committee have been chatting and… well… they think that maybe it’s time that we … um … call it a day. They want someone a bit edgier.’  

‘Edgier?’ Harry repeated

‘Yeh, you know,’ Bianca continued, ‘like that young magician off the tele, the one with the big hands. He made a herd of buffalo disappear last week.’

‘Not for thirty quid he didn’t.’

 ‘You know what I mean,’ Bianca said, her face appearing through a cloud of cigarette smoke at the bottom of the cubicle door. ‘These days the punters want excitement, Harry, rabbits in hats and wand waving, it’s all too old school, nobody believes in it anymore, nobody believes in you anymore Harry. Sorry, but, if you’ll excuse the pun, when the magic’s gone the magic’s gone.’ And with a throaty cough and a creak of the Gents door, so was Bianca.


It was several minutes before Harry stepped from the toilet cubicle. When he finally did it was with a defiant swirl of his ketchup-splattered cape and a fixed, unnerving smile.

 ‘So,’ he said, slowly raising his hands as a thousand golden needles arced from his fingertips and danced across the grubby, tiled walls, ‘the committee want edgy, do they?’ Buck the rabbit gulped again.



The Elixir of life - David Elliott

Before Boudicca, Brutus of Troy the eponymous King of Britain took as his wife the beautiful Water-Nymph Thame. They had three daughters, all born Naiads - true Water Goddesses.

As they came of age each were married, as tradition demanded, to a sacred spring beyond the deep ford in the north of their Father’s lands. The eldest Watta, on her wedding-day, crossed the ford and made home in an enchanted chalk cave. From here, her nuptial spring flowed into a natural hollow; the pond around which Watford grew.

Naiads especially favour the young and Watta, no exception, loves to confer her beatitudes and life affirming waters upon their rights of passage. Through the springs, a conduit flows between the siblings; Vera with the Roman camp to cherish and Ricci with her Three-Rivers. They oft speak; on how to protect and keep their catchment pure.

Always a running battle keeping up with Mother-Nature’s own foibles, Watta now had to contend with Watford’s printing and brewing trades. All-consuming they guzzled vast quantities of her untainted water; now premium amongst the induced industrial effluent and cholera. Her sisters urge her to morph from Goddess to eco-warrior. Time to clean up; set the residents straight. Time to enchant.

No toil and trouble, she knows what’s urgently required. A potion of magical cleansing properties made on Walpurgis-night. When applied on Mayday; guaranteed to restore vitality.

Watta knows exactly where to gather the enchanted ingredients. A peppery twist of watercress from Cashio, the whipped scent of Bluebells from the Dell-wood, a mushroom from beneath the Rookery Willows, a fig from the churchyard, berries from the Hollywell and a lutrine hair from a fisher of the Otterspool. As eldest, her mother had taught her and her alone, the secrets of the Elixir of life.

Now the Elixir is potent. Its constituents are blended, bought to a simmer; steeped. Then with an incantation passed from Dionysus, Watta sanctifies it before the innocents threading the Maypole. A single drop enthrals the whole year. Her only misfortune? When floods destroyed the watercress crop. To her horror, the borough rioted at the cancellation of the Kings Coronation. No Elixir - no panacea for civil-unrest or royal appendicitis.

Watta, endeavours to spread the Elixir equally. She used to sprinkle it beneath the feet of the Morris-men as they danced through Town, then mist it across the ink to keep the presses rolling smoothly. To consecrate the hops and barley, she’d dab Elixir behind the brewers’ ears. Hey-presto; Beer better than any from Burton!

Now Watta to this day still dances Intu Watford to meet her Beau, who shall-be-forever-known-as Harlequin. Catch their misty chequers transcend the propped-up façade of Charter Place. Here they rave the night away. For continuity, they bury a bio-degradable phial of Elixir deep in the new foundations and await the vibrant return of her youth to her town-centre. This tincture, effervescent, transcendent through the chalk, a spring of enlightenment.

The Elixir of Life.


The Witchfinder - Cynthia Marsh

The Innkeeper watched the man at the table as he scratched away at the parchment in the flickering candlelight.

He covered many sheets with his spidery script, only calling out when he needed water or a knife to sharpen his quill.

Making records of his latest interrogations no doubt, the Innkeeper thought as he clenched his fists.

The man allowed no other customers to enter. In a small room at the back, his assistant guarded the young woman they arrested earlier that day.

The Innkeeper was powerless as they dragged her through the tap room, even though her terrified eyes begged for his help. The afternoon hours passed slowly. He tried to drown out her screams as they put her to the question. He knew nightfall would bring no relief to the girl. They would force her to stay awake; do anything to make her confess.

He walked over to the table to collect the plate containing the remains of the man’s frugal meal.

‘I hate magic,’ the man announced. ‘I will root out witches wherever I find them. They must all be destroyed. Do you agree with me?’

The man’s eyes flared with cold hatred as he stared at the Innkeeper.

‘It’s not for the likes of me to say, I leave that to my betters. Let me fetch you a posset; something to warm you before you sleep.’

The Innkeeper went to pour thick amber fluid into his finest goblet.

The man eyed it with suspicion as it was set before him.

‘I will have no truck with herbs or potions,’ he growled. ‘They are Satan’s work.’

‘This is only the local mead; famous hereabouts.’

‘I have burned three hundred witches in my efforts to cleanse this land. If you are lying to me, you will soon be among them.’

He took a first cautious sip, then gulped the rest.

The man resumed writing. He ignored the soft plop as a glowing ember rolled out of the fire. He only turned when he heard the crackle of flames. His eyes widened as he saw a fiery path rumble towards him over the flagstones.

‘Innkeeper, douse this fire,’ he ordered.

The Innkeeper did not move from behind the bar.

The flames spread into a circle around the man’s table.

‘This is not a natural, this is sorcery,’ he screamed, unable to jump from his chair and escape.

The Innkeeper walked over and raised his hand.

‘You have persecuted too many innocents these past years, Witchfinder. Now it is your turn to burn.’

He dropped his hand and the flames roared up to engulf the man. He writhed and kicked, but could not break free of his fiery hell.

The next morning, the bravest of the villagers pushed the Inn door open. They found the blackened corpse, still sat at his table. His assistant lay strangled in the back room. Of the Innkeeper and the girl there was no sign. They were never seen again.


Wounds of the Fisher King - Cynthia Marsh

The railing was all that was between me and the river below.

How many times had I stood here? Tried to get up the nerve to jump? Something always stopped me. A glimmer of hope, a pang of guilt, or cowardice? I wanted out, but I didn’t want it to hurt.

As pulled off my jacket, something fell. It was my watch. I saw metal flash as it tumbled in a lazy spiral towards the water. I leaned over to catch it and lost my balance. I fell through cold air; my choice made for me.

I tensed for the painful impact; freezing water and a struggle to breathe, but there was nothing.

It was the cold of the granite floor that woke me. I pushed myself up and looked around the vast chamber. It was empty apart from a carved wooden throne and a small table with a plain gold chalice and a short dagger laid on it.   Sat on the throne was a wizened old man wrapped in a shabby crimson cloak, with the jewelled crown of a king on his matted grey hair.

I stumbled to my feet. He looked at me with weary contempt.

‘So, they have sent you to the Hall of the Fisher King? What makes you think you can heal me?’

As the old man spoke, he pulled his cloak aside to reveal a torn linen robe stained with blood from wounds to his side and groin.

‘They never stop bleeding. They have drained my strength and blighted my kingdom.’

I opened and closed my mouth like a confused goldfish. What was I supposed to say? Was I dead or dreaming?

‘Another idiot,’ the old man groaned. ‘The choice is simple. Do you give me to drink from the cup of life or kill me with the dagger?’

‘And you’re asking someone who fell off a bridge while deciding on whether to commit suicide? I wanted to be dead by now. My pain over.’

‘What do you know about suffering? I have lived with my wounds for over a thousand years,’ the Fisher King cried. ‘No crops grow; no life will come back to this kingdom unless you make the right choice. Hundreds have come before you. They all failed.’

I looked at the objects on the table, thinking the decision was simple. Then I turned to the old man. I saw pleading in his eyes. I knew what I had to do.

I grabbed the dagger from the table and, before I could hesitate, I plunged it into his heart.

‘Thank you,’ he said as his eyes closed for the last time.

As I pulled the knife out, drops of blood splashed on the floor. As they hit the smooth granite, green shoots and foliage exploded from the ruby warmth to fill the room. The kingdom was alive again.

Time to make another choice. Third time lucky? I picked up the cup of life and drank. 


WHITE BIRDS - Shane Dempsey

Augustus Quillion sighed with irritation as he spotted his son, supposedly safely below decks, squatting down between the mast and the forward hatch, playing with the wooden animals his mother had given him before they set sail. Quillion bitterly regretted his decision to take the boy on what should have been a simple diplomatic mission that had become a race for their lives as they were now being pursued by a trio of corsair ships.

Since the black sails appeared on the horizon, silhouetted against the dawn, like motes in a dragon’s eye, Quillion knew that he and the crew of the Seabird would soon have a fight on their hands. The Seabird, although a fine ship, was no match in terms of speed for the smaller corsair vessels. He could see them rise and fall in the swell of the storm that he, Chief Mage to the king, had created to keep them at bay.

 Quillion loved his son dearly, but was disappointed by his quiet, self-absorbed nature and his lack of magic. He thought a sea voyage might bring the boy out of himself; give him a spark, but here he was, playing with his toys, unconcerned by the rise and fall of the deck, or the shouts of the crew around him, seemingly oblivious to the danger they all faced and Quillion knew that at the end, he would sweep the decks with fire before he’d let a pirate take his son. So, Augustus Quillion, Kings-Mage and father, walked towards his son’s hiding place and held out his arms.

Suddenly, his world flashed white and he felt himself flying; a sorcerer on one of the pursuing ships, having seen the potential hidden in the boiling clouds used Quillions own lightning against him and the kings-Mage crashed to the deck, unconscious.

He awoke to the sounds of battle, the storm had vanished and now grappling hooks thudded onto the decks; drawing the ships closer. Quillion looked for his son and saw him still playing with his toys; waving a white, wooden bird about his head, then he heard a shout of ‘Oh god the sails!’. He looked up in horror as the sails shredded; breaking up into pieces a yard wide, then swirling away in the wind, as his son danced and twirled beside him. The pieces then transformed into large, white, seabirds, sweeping down, slicing through grapple ropes with their beaks, as he watched, his son swept his toy down , then around, while above him the birds did the same, until all the pirate ropes were cut. Now the ships own ropes unravelled, dancing in the air, like seaweed in a current, the birds flew down, grabbing strands of rope and between them lifted the ship from the water. Quilion wept as he realised the source of the spell, ‘My son’, he whispered ‘My son’, as the ship rose into the clouds and safety.


 Eiris - Angela Williams

The sky was a clear bright blue and the sun smiled warmly at us as we played. We ran from tree to tree picking the bluebells and knocking on all the barks until we came to Eiris the witch’s tree. Her tree stood alone. It was large and foreboding. The bark was a sickly grey instead of brown. All the other trees in the wood were dressed in a gown of green leaves except for hers. It was said that she was guardian of the woods and protected all the plants and animals there. If someone picked a flower she would hear it scream and feel its pain. The ground would lift and her tree would rise as she bellowed in anger and cast her spell on the grounds below. It was said she was responsible for the great floods of the noughties.

“Go on” Jim said. “I dare you to knock on her tree and tell her that you have picked her bluebells” I proceeded to shout. “The flowers don’t belong to you anyway you silly old hag”. We ran from the woods, down the mountain side towards the river. It looked very angry; we crossed the river and ran home as fast as we could under the angry grey sky which was turning darker by the second.

I cowered under my bed clothes as I listened to the roaring thunder and watched the sheets of yellow from the lashes of the witch’s whip. Eiris had set fire to the mountain and the sky. It gave an eerie red glow as it burnt. I wished I had not taunted her or picked her bluebells; how could I explain to everyone, that this was all my fault?

The next morning I rose full of fear and trepidation of what the day would bring; my parents seemed oblivious to the events of the night before and greeted me in their usual jovial manner. I ran out of the door grabbing the bluebells from the vase, as I went; I had to calm Eiris down before she burnt everything in sight. The thick grey smoke was everywhere. I made my way up to the woods where the angry river nearly swallowed me as I crossed it. Eiris could be hiding anywhere in this thick fog. I was feeling really scared. What if she jumped out and cast a spell on me or took me in her tree and never let me out again?

I slowly crept towards her tree and placed the bluebells back in the ground. To my amazement they began to grow. I looked up and noticed Eiris the witch’s tree was covered in a gown of green leaves, and the bark on her tree had changed to a chocolate brown. The thick grey fog disappeared, the sky changed its colour to a clear bright blue, and even the sun was smiling. Eiris had used her magic to create this enchanted garden.


Carnevale! - Mike Lansdown

Outside, the downpour, squally and sudden, emptied the square in seconds. The pavement-artists scurried for shelter as a flock of pigeons erupted, then wheeled up and around the column, turning slowly from black to white and back again. And Nelson himself seemed to pull his cocked hat down, just a little more firmly, over his one, good, eye.

I stood in front of the picture, a mere arm’s length away,only vaguely aware of a hailstone melting gradually between my collar and my neck. Taking my handkerchief I dabbed the water from my face, breathed deeply twice, then closed my eyes.

It was the shouting and the music I noticed first. From down below, where the canal stretched away along a horizon of domes, flags and golden palace roofs, the voices rose to meet me, coarse, mercantile and urgent. Gondolas vied for best positions, each small manoeuvre met with an explosion of gesticulating arms and a barrage of invective that carried easily across the smooth surface of the waterway. Then, from all around me, voices of a different cut-singing, mixing and matching the music of street performers and the carousing of revellers: all ages, all shapes, all sizes.


I looked down sharply to my left, my arm grasped by a child who leered and gurned as he performed for me a grotesque ballet; then whipped my eyes to the right as a hand ,uninvited, thrust itself into the pocket of my trousers. The eyes that met me stared deep into mine and the smell of stale wine suffused the short air between us. ‘Carnevale!’ said the mouth below the mask, silver, and adorned with long plumes of the same bright hue, as if this explained everything. Then she-then he-with lips the colour of rose petals, kissed me hard upon the cheeks before pirouetting into the throng, swirling, flowing, pouring across the bridge, disappearing into the Piazza San Marco. I steadied myself on the cool stone parapet, closed my eyes, and then was back…

‘Are you quite alright sir?’ It was a gallery security guard, his uniform dark-blue and crisp. ‘It’s just that you appear..,’ he looked at my face, ‘a little flushed.’

Allowing him to take me by the arm, I made my way to a hard bench in the middle of the floor, a student, sketchbook in hand, shoving up kindly as I sat down with a bump.

‘I’m fine,’ I assured the guard, ‘just feeling… a bit hot.’ I reached into my pocket for a handkerchief, silk, for visits to the gallery, but felt around in vain. It was not there, the pocket empty.

I sat, unspeaking, as the guard returned to his seat and the student resumed her drawing.


Now, I accept that time-travel is impossible, and I certainly don’t believe in magic.

But just for a moment.

Just maybe…


Secrets - Pauline Watson

“Pick that up, you dirty little toe rag.” The boys laughed, made a finger gesture at Sally, threw more litter around and ran off shouting, “Catch us if you can old woman.”

Sally Webb sat at her open front door, wishing her wheelchair could sprout wings. She’d give those little devils what for, if only her legs worked. Facing her was a piece of communal land. Rose bushes choked by weeds, cans and cigarette packets sandwiched between any remaining flowers. The upturned bench, long since vandalised, clung to secrets shared with her dear friend Joan. How dare she die and leave her!

                Chipping more paint as she backed into her flat, Sally wheeled into the bedroom. On the dresser was a wooden box carved with curious figures and markings. Her grandmother had been custodian of the box until her death, but many previous generations had felt its power. With shaking hands Sally took the key from around her neck, opened the box and removed the contents. During her ownership she had used the book once, and it didn’t work then. She was determined to try and improve what life she had left. Finding the correct page Sally read aloud the appropriate spell. Drained, she fell asleep.

                The other inhabitants of Yew Tree Close had exhausted their efforts with the Council. Except for grass mowing, nothing would be done, there was no money.   Things had to change. The local youths had hijacked the space, they were bored, nowhere else to go.

Annie Thomas at number twenty four had taken charge of the residents. A meeting was arranged for that evening. They decided it was time to act. Saturday night was the target.

The Council had prohibited the friends and neighbours to interfere. Undeterred, they filled the beds with bushes and flowers. Two vandal proof benches were securely anchored, all this achieved with minimal lighting and virtually in silence. 

“Tea up, and bacon butties for those that want.” Word spread quickly round the working party. Alf Robinson, unable to do manual work had provided an early breakfast. “Grand job everybody, it looks amazing. We’ll have to keep a watch out for those yobs, don’t want them to spoil it all.”

“Thought we’d ask them to help maintain it.” Kenny Cole had suddenly grown two heads. “give them something to do, help them gain some pride in a project.”

“You’ve got a point there Kenny, it might just work,” said Alf passing him another ketchup oozing sandwich.  

They all agreed that Annie was the best person to approach the lads, she was good with youngsters, had five boys of her own, all left home and doing well for themselves.

It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that Sally opened her front door. She gasped in astonishment at the vision before her.

“Oh my gawd, I actually made a magic spell work after all these years, granny would be so proud.”   More chipped paint materialised before Sally went to put the kettle on to celebrate.



Harrington Trophy Literature Competition  Results 2016

The Harrington Art and Literature competitions in conjunction with Watford Area Arts Forum form part of these celebrations and we were delighted to host the literature results event on Monday evening.  Linda Spurr, creative writing tutor had kindly shortlisted the entries to a top 10, which were then circulated to the three judges, Richard Harrington MP, Watford’s elected Mayor, Baroness Thornhill and Melanie Anglesey, Features Editor of The Watford Observer.  Following their results, a scoring system was put in place and the winning votes were cast.  At this stage all the entries were anonymous. 
On Monday evening nearly 30 people attended with apologies from some of the entrants, we were delighted that Linda was on hand to talk through the entries and provide comments.  
Below are the finalists with only the top three in place order:
Writer's BlockadeRob Summers1st
Curse.ComSally Campbell2nd
All the World's a StagePaul White3rd
Something WickedJan Rees 
Loyalty Binds MeCynthia Marsh 
The Bard's Watford SecretMike Conlan 
Living OpheliaCarolyn Storey 
A Tragedy of ErrorsTrevor Spinage 
The Lost FolioPenny Rowland 
Kiss Me Kate
Brian Bold
The entries will be on display in Watford Museum until the 25th June when a presentation will take place, the will also be published on the Watford Observer website.  Further displays by Watford Council to be confirmed.
Congratulations to everyone that took part, a very high standard this year. Thank you to the judges and to Richard Harrington for donating the cash prizes.

Winning Stories

First Place

Writer's Block - Rob Summers

With an anguished howl and explosive blot of ink young Will Shakespeare threw down his quill.

Pacing the floorboards of his lodgings he stopped in front of a mirror.

'A story!' he shouted at his reflection. 'I swear that if I possessed a great kingdom I would give it willingly for a story,..anything to unshackle me from this cursed Writer's Blockade.'

'Oh, do stop being such a great tart,Will.'

Ned Goodfellow,Will's childhood friend, yawned. 'You know as well as I that it will come, it always does.'


'No buts Will. I suggest you see me onto the Stratford coach and then go for a damned good drink and see what the morrow brings.'

After a drunken farewell, Will weaved through the busy streets of London on a midsummer's night. Halfway down a lane, in the warm dusk, a beautiful young girl was leaning from the balcony of a warehouse, whispering unheard words to a dark haired boy gazing adoringly up at her.

'Love's young dream,' a watching Will mused to himself and headed into a tavern where his advice was sought by Thomas Dogberry, the signwriter.

'I am commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh to paint the signage for his new tobacco and coffee shop,' Dogberry said. 'It is to be called 'Hubble Bubble' after all the infernal pipes and paraphernalia associated with this strange smoking practise. Now the problem is Will, are these words spelled with two B's or not two B's?

'Two B's or not to B's?' Will pondered the question before draining his tankard and banging it down on the bar. 'Unquestionably Thomas, it is two B's! Landlord!'

It was purple dark as he unsteadily left the tavern. Passing a courtyard he watched three drunken old crones stirring a great pot of steaming washing, their faces thrown into shape-shifting malevolent masks by the flickering shadows of their fire.

'Hubble bubble,' he giggled drunkenly as he continued. 'Hubble bubble... '

In Cheapside a man declared 'Kiss me Kate!' to his pretty companion as Will entered The Seven Stars where his friend Francis Bacon beckoned him.

'Will!    Come hither and lend me your ears,' he called. 'I have gossip!'

It was a stupendously drunk Will who collapsed into a deep, tempest of a dream that night.

At first he was in an enormous, bubbling cauldron crying out, 'A story, a story, my kingdom for a story!' whilst the three old crones stirred the great pot chanting, 'Hubble bubble, Hubble bubble...' and then silver moonlight fell like a silent curtain as the beautiful young girl on the balcony whispered down to him 'Will,Will, wherefore art thou Will?' and he was born aloft by two giant bees into her arms declaring 'Kiss me Kate!' but when she she leaned towards him her face transformed into one of the old crones, lips puckered and...

With a scream and a great bump Will fell out of bed. He lay there thinking.


And then William Shakespeare, picking up his quill, began to write.


Second Place

Curse.com - Sally Campbell

The day was foul. Although hidden away in their basement, the trolls could still sense the stormy air as another colleague skulked into the office.

 “They’re coming,” said the nondescript troll as he took his place at a workstation, “I saw them as I crossed the heath. They were looking murderous”.

The door crashed open and one hundred heads stood to frightened attention, each troll trying to look as inconspicuous as his neighbour. All three sisters stood there, their usually immaculate hair plastered across their faces and droplets of rain sliding down their taut skin.

“What are you looking at? Get back to work”.

It seemed to their employees that they spoke as one. They swept past their workers into a private office at the back of the room. The blinds were lowered. The door was slammed shut. The trolls were certain something was brewing.

The sisters were revelling in the power they’d assumed since the launch of Curse.com. It was a simple concept: “Your trouble, our toil”. They were the orchestrators of evil, generating wealth out of their clients’ cowardice. Even they had been surprised at the speed of success. The company already employed banks of trolls, hunched over screens, channelling their clients’ hatred.

They had to move quickly once they’d hunted down their prey. An abusive comment; a threat of violence; posting compromising photos – whatever would disturb or discredit their victim. It all depended on the product the client had ordered. Then, as quickly as they’d appeared, they would vanish, using their multiple identities to evade detection. They were visible only to their paymasters.

Masked by the blinds, the sisters scrabbled round nervously, pulling back hair and straightening suits in an effort to make themselves presentable.

“Call her up,” barked the eldest sister, “we’re already late”.

Seconds later the face of their Director appeared on a screen glowering over them from its position on the wall. “What’s kept you? Didn’t I say how important this was?”

Now sheepish, the sisters looked up at the screen. “There’s no time to waste. I’ve received the order and it’s our most ambitious yet.”

The sisters craned towards the screen, pricking up their ears. They absorbed every detail of what they were told. No notes were taken, no evidence left behind.

As the screen went to black the sisters exchanged gleeful looks, their minds already planning how they would spend the hefty commission this job would earn them. But this wasn’t a simple dose of hate administered to an unsuspecting victim. They needed to get under his skin, discover the dark impulses driving him. Only then would they be able to bend him to the will of their client.

Their eyes were overcome with a look of icy determination as they set to work, focussed on one thing only: the downfall of Macbeth.


Third Place

All The World’s a Stage…Paul White

 ‘Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.’                                                                                              Which, in a few words, sums up exactly why you don’t want your wife of twenty odd years taking up amateur dramatics. I mean what sort of answer is that? You’re fruitlessly rummaging about for some underwear on a cold, dark, November morning and you ask, quite reasonably, ‘where have you hidden my boxers?’ A simple enough question and one that prior to Susan being cast as the oldest ‘Juliet’ in town by the local am-dram society would have elicited a simple enough answer. But not now, oh no, now every sentence has to be delivered with a Shakespearean flourish and include so many ‘betwixts’ and ‘henceforths’ that a normal conversation proves nigh on impossible. Which begs the question, why does she think that I’ll understand it any better at 5 o’clock in the morning, when I’m stark naked and bent double over a chest of drawers?

Apparently Susan’s luvvie leanings are entirely my fault. It would seem, unbeknown to me, that the romance had somehow escaped from our marriage and she felt that an interest outside of our flat would ‘reignite the spark.’ Enter Justin, local am-dram director come smarmy chip shop owner and two large cod and a portion of fries later my wife is suddenly thirteen years of age again. Needless to say greasy Justin wasted no time in trying to inveigle himself and was soon battering my abilities as a husband with almost the same frequency as his fish. Culminating in a particularly nasty accusation that I was unsupportive of Susan’s acting aspirations, something I vehemently denied, mainly because I wasn’t even aware she had aspirations, acting or otherwise.

But, there comes a time when you have to fight fire with fire, or at the very least be prepared to get your matches out, and so one wet Wednesday evening, library book in hand, I stood beneath our balcony for over half an hour, loudly yondering to my Juliet about soft lights and broken windows. Not that she heard a word of it of course, not with us living on the eleventh floor, but as I always say, it’s the thought that counts. It certainly counted when Justin turned up halfway through my performance and challenged my interpretation of the part. I’ve got to say under the circumstances I thought a police caution was very fair considering the swelling on his nose. 

On the plus side, old Mrs Smith in Flat 2 thought my Romeo was wonderful and has taken to winking at me every time I see her, but then who knew her first name actually is Juliet? As for Susan, she’s talking to me again now and since greasy Justin has given up the director’s chair, I’ve taken a non-speaking role as third courtier from the left. Who knows, henceforth, maybe we can reignite that spark.                                                                                                                               ‘For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo’


 Other Shortlisted Stories


Something Wicked……Jan Rees

More sinned against than sinning, this was always known

She’d married him for love, but ended up alone.

He’d married her for money and cheated on her too

So when she had discovered this she pondered what to do.


Of course she could divorce him, but that would take some time

She couldn’t live with the pretence and so she turned to crime.

She could stab him, she could shoot him but couldn’t face the mess.

It had to be a method that he would never guess.

Something quick and easy, something swift and sure

So poison in his coffee and he would cheat no more.


Soon she was arrested, with forensics on the case

The evidence was damning, things moved at quite a pace.

More in sorrow than in anger the jury made their choice.

The foreman had the verdict, they had spoken with one voice.


The judge inclined to clemency, the sentence wasn’t life,

But still a certain price is owed by every vengeful wife.

The limits of her prison life sometimes drove her mad,

But thinking of it overall it really wasn’t bad.


She had time to read and study and took her first degree

And what she concentrated on was Ancient History.

She found it fascinating, and planned, on her release,

A trip to several ancient sites in Italy and Greece.


Meantime her new companions opened up her mind

Stony hearted villains of the bloody minded kind.

She often thought good riddance when returning to her cell

But no-one here could break her heart or make her life such hell.


She learned that many prisoners were victims just like her

But driven there by different tides, a different force majeure.

She listened to their stories and found them hard to take

Poverty and violence and people on the make.

Born into loveless families and no success at school

Small wonder that between them they had broken every rule.


All this set her thinking of what had brought her here

Her childhood was idyllic, not marred by debt or fear

Privilege and plenty, not hardship or abuse

It seemed her jealous anger was still her lone excuse.

The slings and arrows in her life were few and far between

Her marriage was the only blot upon a tranquil scene.


Her dreams of home and children had vanished with her crime

But perhaps her wealth could do some good while she served her time.

She set her lawyer straight to work, her mind was clear and firm

A half-way house she had in mind for those who’d served their term.


And in this way she found some peace, could sleep perchance to dream

Could contemplate her later years involved in her new scheme

And so she faced the days ahead, accepting of her fate

And thinking of the day that she’d walk through that open gate.


Loyalty Binds Me - Cynthia Marsh

I whimpered when he picked up his helmet and made to leave the tent.

He looked down and caressed my head.

‘Ralph’, he said to the youngest of his squires. ‘This hound will follow me if he is not tied up. I want you to stay and see he does not escape.’

‘Sire, I want to fight with you.’

Richard smiled at the boy’s disappointment.

I strained at the leash as I watched my master stride out into the harsh sunlight. Every muscle and sinew of my body ached to stay by his side, but I knew I must obey.

Ralph and I followed at a distance as Richard led his army to the top of a hill that looked down on where Tudor had amassed his troops.

I had never been close to a battle before. The air filled with the noise of cannon, screaming men and terrified horses. The copper tang of blood mingled with the stench of spilled guts in the warm air.

Ralph paled, no longer sorry he was forbidden to take part.

His grip on my leash loosened as men fell in the heavy fighting. Norfolk, leading Richard’s vanguard, pushed the enemy back but could go no further.

A trumpet rang out.

Richard spurred his horse, White Surrey, down the hill and led his men into the thick of the battle. He fought his way to within feet of where Tudor cowered, surrounded by his bodyguard.

Ralph moaned.

‘Betrayed! Why has Northumberland not attacked? Where is Stanley?’

I reared onto my hind legs as White Surrey fell, wounded. Richard staggered to his feet.

‘A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ he cried, as his knights strove to reach him.

I could wait no longer. I pulled free and raced down the hill; my eyes fixed on the crown on Richard’s helmet. I would not let anything or anyone stop me. He was fighting alone now; his companions all slain.

Seconds before I reached him, a sword sliced his shoulder. He dropped to his knees as the blows rained down. Even after he fell they slashed and tore; driven by their hate.

My master was dead. I stood over his body and howled. I wanted to rend the universe with the agony of my loss.

‘Get rid of that dog!’

Tudor walked towards me.

‘Like too many Englishmen, its loyalty is misplaced,’ he mocked.

I growled and bared my teeth. The soldiers kept back, until one swung a mace against my head.

Thrown off his body, I lay bleeding in the churned-up mud as Tudor grabbed the crown and placed it on his own head.

I was glad my vision blurred as they stripped his body and slung it naked over a horse.

My eyes closed. Every breath was torture; my body arched in pain.

Then a gentle hand stroked the bloodied fur away from my eyes.

‘Come, it’s time to go home,’ his familiar, beloved voice whispered in my ear.


The Bard’s Watford Secret - Mike Conlan

A sharp pain shot through my body as a hard object hit me between the shoulder blades. I fell to the ground and it was 10 minutes before I came round.

Panic swept over me… Shakespeare’s words had vanished.

24 hours earlier:

I was 24 years old, lanky with brown hair, bland features and a white collar shirt with blue chino trousers, the same age as Shakespeare in 1588. Unbeknown to me, I was walking into Watford in Shakespeare’s footsteps with my actor friends. Short on luck and money in the year of 2016, the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare's untimely demise.

I shared Shakespeare’s love of tragic, funny storytelling. I have no fancy quill but I have imagination, passion and a smartphone.

 My actor friends headed towards a Watford B&B. John, my best friend, asked me: “Are you coming with us?” 

I responded: “I’ll see you later. You know me, I love local graveyards.”

“Ok mate, no probs.”

After sitting for several hours against a brown headstone inscribed with “To my beloved Anne Marie Hathaway. Loved by all”, I heard the noise of shovels on soil. It was 1am and I was certain that burials were only carried out during daylight. One of the men in black whispered to the other: "I've found it?" The other man responded: "Let me see?" I then heard the sound of shovel on flesh and bone.

This sickening noise was something I'd only heard as a sound effect in a horror play. I retched and the tall man in black with the killer shovel looked right at me. He walked towards me menacingly. I ran from the St Mary’s Church graveyard like I'd never ran before. I lost him in the maze of Watford streets. 

I headed back to my B&B room. At 7am, I decided to head back to the graveyard to see what the tall man in black was looking for. I looked around the disturbed grave and saw a dirty piece of old looking paper. The body of the other man in black wasn’t there. I picked the paper up and started to read the scrawled, very old text. 

It read: "I’m in a pretty village and I like this place and willingly waste my time in it. People will make assumption that I was uneducated. They will look for other explanations, other imposters to explain my work. Whatever happens with my stories, they are mine. Don’t be fooled by wicked lies and untruths. To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. William Shakespeare.”

I fell to the ground in agony.

The tall man in black and William Shakespeare's words were gone.

I never told anyone. No one would have believed me. I knew the truth of Shakespeare and his time in our pretty Watford village.

And I remembered something scrawled on the tall man in black’s T-shirt. It read “Christopher Marlowe RULES OK.”


Living Ophelia - Carolyn Storey

 "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown...UGH," Paige threw her script aside. “Why can’t they talk proper English!?”

    She leaned to catch a glimpse of the performance.

    Katie Parsons as Queen Gertrude and Todd Benson as Hamlet were in the last stanzas of the Act.

    Paige turned to the full length mirror and ruffled her pink gown. Perfect. Paige tip-toed out, behind the big drawn curtains, (careful not to disturb the play going on in front

of them) and reached the bath sat in the centre of the stage. 

    Paige looked down at the still icy water and the colourful fake flowers bobbing on the surface. 

    She took a deep breath. Paige Hoxton was about to get her big starring moment...!

   “You’d better take your place-”

    Paige jumped to find horrid old drama teacher Miss Tovik behind her. She squirmed as Miss Tovik crept right up to her and narrowed her eyes. 

   “You are Ophelia,” she whispered. “Ophelia is heartbroken by Hamlet’s rejection. When she lays in  the river she is so consumed with sadness she becomes the water. And she drowns...very happily.”

    “Shut up,” Paige hissed. “All I want is to have everyone see me in a lush dress and looking totes

amaze. That’s the only reason I took part in this stupid ancient play-” 

    “Stupid play?” Miss Tovik seethed. “Shakespeare’s heroines are as relevant now as four hundred

years ago. Heartbreak is ALWAYS relevant. You young vain girls don’t know heartbreak. You have to know sadness to play Ophelia.”

   The crone pulled a silver cuff from her pocket and she shoved it onto Paige’s wrist.

 “This ought to help you embrace Ophelia,” she whispered resentfully.   “..Break a leg.” And she

smiled, then disappeared to the wings.

   Paige felt shaken. That was weird even for Miss Tovik. Paige looked at the silver cuff.

 “Weirdo witch.”

   Everything went quiet. This was it!

   Paige climbed into the bath and lay with her eyes closed, as directed.

   And she was pleasantly surprised to find the water was hot, not freezing!  

   She sighed as she enjoyed the warming sensation of the water encasing her and her gown


    “So fast they follow / your sister's drown'd, Laertes-“ Kate Parsons recited.

    Paige heard the audience babbling, enthralled. Right now her face was being projected onto the

back wall of the stage.

   Everyone in school would remember her for this. Paige Foxton as Ophelia. Paige tried not to smile!

    But then, Paige felt a tingling coming from the cuff.

    Suddenly, she felt unwell. Not sick, but some sort of...emptiness. From deep inside her soul.

    Then, Paige felt her head sinking. Her ears went under the water. The water crept over her

cheeks. And over her lips, and her nose. She was completely submerged. And she was sinking down still. 

    Perhaps she should move?

    But Paige didn’t want to move. This feeling inside her was so debilitating, and the water was so, so warm... No. She was quite happy to simply lay here...in the water.


 A Tragedy of Errors - Trevor Spinage

  ‘There you are, Will. I didn't know you frequented this ale house.'

‘Oh, hello, Dick. Yes, I come here sometimes when I need a bit of inspiration. But what are you doing here?'

'Looking for you,' said Dick. 'I was wondering how the new play is coming on. It must be nearly finished by now.’

'The new play, yes,' replied Will. He took a swig from his tankard. 'I'm afraid it’s not going very well at all, it’s nowhere near finished. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t written a single word.’

‘What!' exclaimed Dick. 'We're supposed to start rehearsals in five days’ time. I thought you had the whole plot worked out weeks ago.’

‘I did,' confirmed Will. 'That’s not where the difficulty lies. It’s the characters; or rather one of them in particular. You see, I was sitting in this very tavern last month trying to finalise the scenes of the play, but I couldn't concentrate because of the noise being made by a group of men at the next table. They had obviously had too much to drink. One of them was drunker than the rest and kept shouting for more ale. Then, much to the amusement of his friends, he let out the loudest burp I've ever heard. And that was it. I knew then that I had to include him as a character in the new play; a typical boozy Englishman. I even came with up a perfect name for him.’

Dick was puzzled. ‘So, what’s the problem?’

'Well, in the first place, the play isn’t set in England, is it?’

‘That’s true.' Dick thought for a minute. 'I know,' he said. 'Why not have him just visiting. He could be an Englishman abroad, there’s got to be plenty of scope for comedy there.’

Will shook his head. 'That brings up the other difficulty. The play is supposed to be a tragedy, not a comedy.'

'I'm sure you could squeeze one little light hearted scene in somewhere.'

‘I thought about that,' explained Will, 'but whichever way I try to fit him in it doesn’t work. He sticks out like a sore thumb. I can’t come up with any convincing dialogue he can have with the other characters or even think of a plausible explanation as to why he’s in Denmark in the first place.’

'Ok then, Will,' said an exasperated Dick, ‘it's obvious. Just leave him out. Put him into another play.’

‘I suppose that's the sensible thing to do, but I really don’t want to do that. He’s such a fun character with a really great name.’

‘What did you say you called him?’ enquired Dick.

‘Sir Toby Belch.’

‘Ah.' Dick smiled. 'I think I see your dilemma now. He'll never fit into the play with a name like that.’

‘I know,' sighed Will, ‘but I just can’t make my mind up. Should I include Toby Belch in Hamlet or should I leave him out? Toby or not Toby that is the question.’


The Lost Folio - Penelope Rowland

            There has always been a mystery as to where William Shakespeare was between the years of 1585 and 1592. Not only was this time lost, but it is probable that some papers were lost too.

            This folio, the draft of a story, was only found in April 2016. Buried under the ruins of our greatly-loved but now demolished Charter Place, it may offer an explanation.

            A traveller on the banks of a river looks up and down stream for a bridge.

            “ How shall I cross this river?” he grumbles shifting his heavy pack on to his shoulder. “I shall have to wade through it.”

The water seems shallow but his boots weigh him down; his cloak floats on the water. Suddenly, he slips into a deep pothole.

            “Why do they not repair the roads?” he complains as he stumbles forwards. “ I cannot feel the bottom,” His limbs are thrashing. “Help, help,” he calls frantically. “ Oh please, someone, deliver me from certain drowning.” 

A horseman gallops up to the water’s edge.

            “What ails thee traveller?“ he asks.

            “The water is deep and cold; my pack heavy; I cannot swim,” our traveller splutters.

The horseman leads his horse into the water and pulls the traveller to his feet.

Shaking the water off angrily, the traveller steps on to the firm opposite bank.

             “What treacherous water is this that nearly caused my undoing? What ford is this?”

            “What ford? Watford. “ Why does the horseman answer in riddles the traveller wonders.

                        “ I think you need some sustenance after your dunking,” the rescuer declares. “Let us sample some of this town’s well-renowned ale,” and they stagger up the gentle slope of the High Street passing timber houses to left and right.

            “This church, should I not go in and offer a thanksgiving for deliverance?” They bow their heads as they pass the door of St Mary’s.

            “A pint of ale first,” the rescuer points to the Saracen’s Head opposite the church.

            “I still have coins,” the traveller reaches for his wet purse. “But where in this town can I find a place to lay my weary head?” He glances at the charming alms-houses beside the church.

            “I know the very place,” the rescuer proclaims. “ I have room to spare at my own home. It is but a mile or so from here.”

            “What manner of place is yours?” the traveller asks anxiously.

            “I have new, fine rooms a plenty, fifty six in total. There’s even a brewery where we may continue to make merry,” his friend replies and leads him through parkland and orchard to the “fair and large” house at Cassiobury

Though Public House is buried beneath sad BHS,

St Mary’s Church with almshouses stands there still, oh yes.

So was it William Shakespeare who met that noble Lord,

And found a refuge when he crossed that ford?

Alas the potholes cause us still to swerve and slip

Whene’er through Watford we must take a trip.


Kiss Me Kate - Brian Bold

Andy decided no Valentine card was necessary this year. It wasn’t worth wasting money on a pointless gesture. His latest marriage, to Kate, had only a month to run and they’d already given each other five-star ratings. This parting, more than any other, would be such sweet sorrow, he’d miss her beauty, humour and minestrone soup. But business was business.

When Fixed-Term Marriages became legal, and traded on eBay’s dating site, Andy saw the attraction of limited committment. “Live Long and Love Many” was a compelling offer. Not for everyone, of course, but very popular with the younger generation. “Till death us do part” had a hollow ring now life expectancy was touching a hundred years.

For a while, Andy was a buyer and bought wives for looks and sex. Tinder and other dating apps made that easy. But he began to realise there was money to be made selling himself instead.

Passion, with chivalry, became the top marriage proposal, after the introduction of ex-partners’ comments on personal profiles. A string of positive reviews could inflate an eBay marriage price enormously. So Andy invested time in making himself attractive to mature women, with money, looking for a reliable lover.

I come to wive it wealthily in Watford

Initially, he sold annual marriages. They offered excitement and ended before the novelty wore off. Kate had been his first two-year marriage.

Although he worked out and was a Romeo in the bedroom, he needed to improve his gallantry skills. The Thoughtfulness App was a godsend when changing women so regularly. He never missed a birthday or anniversary. But more importantly, he was prompted to make unexpected romantic and thoughtful gestures. Without it, he wouldn’t have written poems, wore all the ties he was given or listened to his wives’ rants, occasionally. His “ideal-husband score” soared.

Now it was time to offer Andy Fairhead to the highest bidder again. His tender loving and considerate company would be available from April. He clicked onto his eBay account. No need to change the picture or his profile, they both worked a treat. But those glowing reviews were the real money in the bank.

Andy stared with horror at Kate’s new comment. His high rating, built over ten years, had been decimated by a Shakespearian quote.

Kate Smith: They do not love that do not show their love

“I spent two passionate years with this man. I loved him and thought he felt the same but he couldn’t even be bothered to send me a Valentine card.”

“Damn the woman,” Andy muttered, yet in his heart, he recognised his obsession with money had obscured the truth. He had found something more valuable with Kate.

He texted her with his own quote.

Kiss me, Kate, we shall be married on Sunday

Let’s wed again, this time forever.”

Or as long as your money lasts, the old Andy thought.



Watford Live! 2015 Richard Harrington

Literature and Art Challenge


1st Place - The Seeker

By Carolyn Storey

“Many people wish to see Faeries. All you need to do is BELIEVE, and they will appear.”

That was the opening line in Jake’s new book:  The Faerie Seekers’ Guidebook. Jake’s Grandad knew

he loved reading books about Magical beings. But this one – he told him - was the best yet: it could

teach you how to see Faeries!   

    “He’s eleven,” Jake’s Dad grumbled. “He’s starting secondary school soon, he should be doing

away with that rubbish.”

    “He’s still young,” said his Grandad, winking at Jake. “The faeries are drawn to those who are


     Now of course Jake, like everyone, knew that faeries can’t be real.

     But he couldn’t help wondering. What if they were?

     What if this book really could help him see the creatures he had always read about?

     There was only one thing for it – he was going to put his book to the test!    

     The next day, he put on his wellingtons and went traipsing straight over to the park! In the park was a rolling meadow with a hidden stream, which was surrounded by towering trees that reached over, making a leafy canopy roof. And the brambles had completely overgrown all along the banks. It made Jake feel like he was cocooned in an enchanted gully.  

      So Jake sat at the edge of the riverbank and drew in a deep breath.

     “Be silent, be still – BELIEVE.”

      As the minutes ticked by Jake was begging for something to appear.

      Like a Water Sprite suddenly jumping out of the murky river, or the beautiful Dryads –tree faeries – stepping out from tree trunks?  Or maybe, The Pan himself would pop out from the nettles?

      But two hours had passed, and nothing. 

Jake was getting impatient, hungry and he was feeling very chilly. He stared idly at the peaty water. There was no magic here, just an overgrown, unloved river.

     “Stupid.” He muttered. Who was he kidding? How could he be so pathetic at his age to believe a book could help people see faeries?  

      But then–

      A flicker! A flash!   

      Jake’s heart jumped. He could see it, hovering, dancing in the air behind the mess of brambles! A glimmering, shimmering blue!  – And... Orange too!

     And then it stopped, sitting on a branch, deep in the shadows.    

     Jake was stunned to the spot. He tried desperately to make out the thing between the branches, but it was just too far away, and it was too dark now!

      Jake reached for his phone to take a photo. -Oh no!  He’d switched it off!

      Jake couldn’t wait. Every second counted. He had to get a better look -

      And then, it was gone.

     That evening, as he trudged home across the meadows, Jake was utterly mystified.  He couldn’t stop asking himself:  Was that really what he thought he saw?

     “It had to be. I just had to.” Because there was one thing Jake definitely was sure of:  

      There’s NO such thing as “flashy- blue-glimmering-orange-birds” living by rivers in Britain.