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Congratulations to Nadine Wiltshire. Her short story The Visitor was crowned the winner of the inaugural Frinton Literary Festival Robert Bucke Short Story Prize. You can read her winning story below.  

 

Anka Troitsky's Secrets No More and Jonathan Palmer's Father of Three were the runners up for this year's competition, and the trio were able to meet global bestseller Adele Parks MBE at our Afternoon Tea event to receive their certificates.

The judging panel would like thank all of the amazing authors who submitted stories for 2023's Short Story Prize, which was based on the theme SECRETS. The standard was incredibly high, which made judging difficult - from creating a longlist, through shortlisting, and finally judging the shortlist to find the winning stories. All judging was anonymous. 

The Visitor by Nadine Wiltshire - 2023 winner

“Nanna’s here,” she sang, toddling into the garden.  Lily was now 20 months old, always cheerful and what I’d call an ‘old soul’, someone who’s been here before somehow.

“Nanny won’t be here for another few hours,” rushing through the house checking the front door in case she’d arrived early.

Her little steps behind me trying to catch up, “No no Nanna’s here, Nann - a”.

 

I turned and knelt down level to her angelic face, her blue eyes gazing into mine and held her tiny hands.

 

“Nanna’s here, she’s come to do some cleaning, she said you were too busy, busy,” flapping her arms about.

She was my Nanna who had passed away 18 months before Lily was born.  I missed her mischievous ways, ushering me into her cosy kitchen for a gossip and some homemade shortbread, then slipping a 10 pence piece into my hand and guiding me out the back door to go buy some penny sweets from the corner shop.  I smiled with the memory I held of her, always joyful and full of love. I’d always felt her presence since Lily was born, a touch on the shoulder or a warm breeze drift past. 

One night when Lily was a baby and wouldn’t settle I watched the baby gym swinging of its own accord and no explanation as to why.  The kettle would turn on when I was out of the room when I about to prepare her feeds.  One day I’d picked up some photographs that had been developed, back when that was a thing, still sealed I’d placed them on the dining table, later to find them splayed out across the floor ready for appraisal. 

“What was Nanna wearing today?” I ask Lily after being informed of her presence.

“She had a pretty green dress with flowers on it, she smelled like biscuits and her hair was very curly-whirly today,” twirling her fingers in her hair and getting in a knot.  Freeing her little fingers I put my finger to my lips and hushed, “Shhh she only visits you and me so this will be our little secret, but always tell me when she’s here, shhh,” attempting to make it sound like our secret game.

Giggling she whispered in my ear, “Okay, shhh”.

We had frequent visits from Nanna, mostly cleaning apparently, working full-time and being a single parent housework wasn’t my top priority.  One time I remember vividly it was a chilly Saturday evening in February, I was in the kitchen clearing away after dinner, getting ready to relax before bath and story time, cuddle and bed.  Lily was nearly three and still unaware of her gift and I was concern that if she spoke about it at nursery she may get teased, but thankfully she never did and it remained between ourselves.

 

Lily appeared in the doorway and I heard the now familiar, “Nanna’s here”. 

 

I gave my usual reply, “What’s she doing?” expecting the usual.

 

“She’s come to get your grandad,” and turned and wandered off with her favourite dolly in hand.  I froze and felt goose-bumps spread across my body and a cold rush envelop me.  I switched off the light and walked through to the lounge where she sat on the floor attempting to brush her dolly’s hair while dangling her upside down by her feet.

I curled up on the sofa resting my eyes for a few moments until the sound of the phone startled me.  I stared at the receiver knowing what was about to come.  Mum’s voice shaking and croaky, “I’m sorry, grandad has passed away, he died 20 minutes ago, I’m just ringing to let you know”.  We spoke for a few moments before she delivered the news to the rest of the family.  I had my own little messenger right here. 

 

Bath was quick, story time brief, but our cuddle was a little longer tonight, I closed my eyes and said a little prayer as I kissed my little one goodnight.

 

“I love you to the moon and back,” I breathed, watching her sleepy blue eyes gradually close.

As Lily grew older we shared stories but it was kept between the two of us as she began to realise maybe not everyone possessed this gift.  Now in her mid-20s, she called me one day, confused, telling me, “Nanna has been visiting and saying that all will be okay and she’s always here when I need her and to be strong, I don’t really understand what she means”.

 

“She’s just letting you know she’s always around, watching over you and looking out for you,” I reassured her the best I could.

As I put the phone down another headache loomed.  I’d been getting them frequently, work had been hectic and stressful lately.  I was tired and planned a restful weekend to recharge but the plan took another turn.

Lily called the next day to say she’d made some shortbread and would pop round in the afternoon.  Her shortbread was divine just like Nanna’s, melt in the mouth, buttery and delicious.  I warned her of my persistent headache but to let herself in and wake me if I’m asleep.

“Mum,” she called cheerfully as she entered the lounge where she found me laying on the floor.  Rushing to my side, dialling 999,

 

“Mum”.  Hazy fog, drifting in and out of consciousness.  Paramedics arrived, panic ensued.

In the background I could make out Lily’s strained, muffled voice, “No Nanna, no, you can’t, not now”.  Her face I could make out, tears running from her big blue eyes, “Mum,” she choked back, “Nanna’s here, she said she’s come to take you with her”.

 

“It’s okay I can see her too, it’s my time to go now, be strong, I love you to the moon and back,” I uttered.

 

“Visit me like Nanna,” she sobbed.

 

I looked into her eyes and nodded as Nanna took my hand and I whispered my last word, “Shhh”.

Secrets No More by Anka Troitsky

“My dad once told me that lying is “shouldn’t, but not mustn’t,”

but only in extreme cases. And I think that if you must lie,

then you absolutely need to tell someone about it.”

From a high school student's notebook.

Note in the margins. 2003

“Ding!” A notification on my mobile phone.

Things have changed over the past few years! Now, calling an interpreter to the hospital is an SMS message from the cursed agency. This year, most clients were from Ukraine.

Yesterday, I was in a maternity ward. A tiny Ukrainian girl was born, whose father is fighting in the war. Tomorrow, I will go on call for a second gastroscopy procedure for a handsome bloke from Kiev, and the day after tomorrow – to see a boy from Mariupol with diabetes. 

 

Who do we have today? They don’t give us a full name—just initials and a hospital number. Some K.M.

 

A bony man sat in the waiting room, blue eyes indifferent, voice weak. 

 

“Are you Russian?” he asked the first and quite expected question.

 

He had no intention of keeping up small talk. Painkillers have not helped for a long time. He sat tied in a knot and soon closed his eyes. 

When we were invited into the oncologist’s office, the doctor calmly turned the computer screen towards him. 

 

“I received the scan result this morning. Your liver cancer is terribly advanced. Why didn't you see your doctor earlier?” She asked with a strong accent.

 

“It didn’t hurt so much before,” K.M. answered grumpily, “You got it now, so treat it and prescribe something stronger.”

 

“Don't you understand?” She turned her beautiful eyes to me, “Please explain to the patient that he has about three months left without chemo. Or up to six, with it. He must choose what to do with this remaining time.”

 

I guess you can also get used to even bringing bad news. At that point, her words reached K.M., and he fell silent.

 

We left together, but he still had to wait for the hospital transport. He sat on a chair in the corridor.

 

“Do you have any relatives?” I asked, “Will you let them know?”

 

“Nah, no need.” He paused and suddenly turned to me. “This is not where I should be, treated for all this bullshit! I want to go home and fight for my Ukraine! Eh!” He waved his hand. “This war has been going on for a long time, and I was hoping they would help us and end it sooner.”

 

He hunched over again, closed his eyes and didn't move when I said goodbye.

 

On the same evening, I received another offer to attend his appointment a few days later. 

 

The next week turned out to be quite busy. Every call was seasoned with similar conversations in the waiting chairs. I usually listen more than I talk. I can discuss politics, but I try to be more professional. For example, I remained silent when one patient and his daughter argued about the definition of fascism, and another spoke to me about “harmful negativity in the news.”

 

I kept silent.

 

I knew it would cease as soon as they called us into the appointment room. If we were at a debate, I would... Actually, no. One of my favourite actresses said that the demagogue will always win in any argument. I agree. 

 

Sometimes, it's different. The other day, I was interpreting for a person who made me want to cry. I remember his words: “COVID has taken so many lives, but we tamed it. And this war will also end someday. The wounds will heal, the pain of loss will subside, the smartest will fix the crisis, and on the people of the whole world... a big and ugly scar will remain.”

 

There were two days left before K.M.'s appointment. 

 

But he did not come. I asked to check whether there were transport problems, but the receptionist found him in one of the wards in the neighbouring building. I poked my head in there, but the nurse just showed me the way because K.M. hadn’t much time left for the bureaucracy.

 

Since then, I visited him every time I come to this hospital. He became even bonier. The nurses recognised me and took advantage of his “best mate” to tell him something important. One day, when I arrived, they literally dragged me to him. For the first time, K.M. was glad to see me. He suffered and asked to be given something to speed up the inevitable process. 

 

They explained to him that they don’t help people die by law. All they can do is make him more comfortable and not try to save him when this very, as he called it, “process” begins.

 

I asked again while he was getting his injection, “Are you sure you don’t want to let your relatives know?”

 

“No. To hell with them. You better tell me what's happening. How's the counterattack going? I'm like in a barrel here.”

 

After the injection, K.M. sank back into the pillow, closed his eyes and breathed evenly.

 

I thought that he, as a person, was the most unpleasant of all my patients. He swore, was harsh, rude, taciturn, and was always reluctant to talk about himself. He was mocking, angry and capricious. In other words, not an angel. How the angels would behave if their insides were constantly burning... from pain or despair is still unknown. I, too, have no halo to judge.

 

The nurse nodded sympathetically and left.

 

I made up my mind, “So you didn’t hear? Ukraine won the war,” he opened his eyes, and I continued without a twitch, “It's over...”

 

He closed his eyes again, and a large drop rolled out from the corner of his eye, leaving a wet trail on his red skin. The eyebrows were still frowning, but the lips relaxed and even stretched a little. He fell asleep. Or fell into a coma, I couldn't tell. I left, and there was no one to visit the next day.

         

Lying is bad. But if you lied, then be sure to tell this secret to someone anyway.

June 2023.

Father of Three by Jonathan Palmer

Whatever his wife shouts from the front door, it’s just noise. A flat, monotonal, noise. Like every time she speaks to him. He opens his mouth but can only summon a croak. Tastes stale brandy. The front door slams.

He drops the paper onto the table and crosses to the window. Pauses, and retraces his steps. Turns the paper face down.

At the window, he hooks the curtain aside with a finger. Sees his wife frown and drop to her haunches, rubbing at the car’s front wing. He steps back and lets the curtain fall as she turns around.

If he was still looking, he’d see her check her watch, shake her head, hurry up the path, closing the gate behind her.

 

But he doesn’t. He remains frozen to the spot, back to the window, eyes screwed shut and mouth like it’s full of sawdust. Wonders how it ended up like this.

 

Why me?

 

The laptop stutters and whirs as it fires up. Tears blur his vision. A swipe smears wet across his face. A couple of clicks and the website fills the screen. Sniffs noisily. A fat teardrop explodes on his hand.

 

‘Essex Police are appealing for witnesses today after an apparent hit and run left a cyclist and dad of three fighting for his life. Daniel Robbins, 43 ...’

 

Slams the laptop shut. Doesn’t want to know his name.

 

It’s ok. He’s gonna be ok.

 

Walks to the sink and runs the tap. The water is cold on his face and helps clear his mind. Picks up the phone. Listens to the dial tone. It’s impatient, challenging him to make the call. The handset is slippery in his hand. Puts the phone down and runs his palms against his trousers. Back to the laptop. Refreshes the page. Website still the same. Daniel still in ICU. Thinks about refreshing again.

Schrodinger’s Daniel. As long as I don’t refresh the page, he’s alive.

 

Shakes his head to quieten his mind.

 

This is bloody stupid!

 

He marches to the phone with a strength of purpose he doesn’t feel. Lifts it to his ear. Deep breath. A bead of sweat traces from his hairline, down his cheek. The phone bursts into life. A shrill, high-pitched pealing. Makes him jump.

 

He waits. It continues to scream at him. Gives in.

 

“… Hello?”

 

“What happened with the car?” His wife. “Why didn’t you say something?”

 

He doesn’t speak. His breath is heavy down the line.

 

“Lee? You there?”

 

Closes his eyes. “I .. I hit a fox.”

 

“Bloody idiot. You know we’ve got a five-hundred-pound excess?”

 

He swallows. He knows what he must do but the words escape him.

 

Her voice softens. “Lee? Are you ok?”

 

The phone goes back into the cradle, and he returns to the computer. No change with Daniel Robbins, 43-year-old father of three.

Considers calling his oldest friend, Matthew, a senior policeman. Friends since school. But he knows what he’d say. Can even hear the words in his voice. Also, wouldn’t want to compromise him.

 

No. This is all on him.

 

Why just drive off like that you bloody fool?!?

 

He takes the phone into the conservatory. Closes the door behind him. Takes a seat in his reading chair and sinks into it, head slumping back. The chair sighs. Chubby clouds chase each other across a darkening sky. Birds wheel in a dogfight high above. Next door’s cat leaps onto the fence and stares at him accusingly.

 

A storm is coming.

 

The phone rings again, the small screen announcing his wife. Lets it fall into his lap. The call goes to voicemail. Her message broadcast through the house. It strikes him how difficult it is to tell where the beep ends, and his wife begins.

 

I MUST HAVE DRIVEN HARWICH ROAD A THOUSAND TIMES!!

 

Fear turns to anger. He strides back into the kitchen, phone clattering to the floor.

 

Stabs at the laptop with a pointed finger. No change. He opens another tab.

 

‘What is the sentence for vehicular manslaughter?’ Presses return.

 

The page is soon filled with accident reports. Closes the tab. He’d rather not know.

 

He can feel the newspaper calling to him. Slowly, he turns it over and Daniel Robbins, 43-year-old father of three looks back. He’s tanned, sitting on a sunbed around a pool, toasting the photographer with a beer. Warm almond eyes, softened with laughter lines. Hair, running to salt and pepper, swept back. A friendly face. Next to him on the sunbed is a dog-eared paperback and a pair of bright-red armbands.

 

Father of three.

 

Imagines the family. Waiting for news in a brightly lit corridor. Hanging onto each other, faces streaked with tears. Eyes red. A door opens. They all turn in unison, faces open and expectant ...

 

Once more, the ringing phone saves him from his thoughts. He drops the paper and rubs his face. The voice, fresh after the tone, he doesn’t recognise.

 

“Mr Garland? This is DC Berry from Clacton CID … Can you please give me a call on ...”

 

He doesn’t wait to hear the number. Runs to the conservatory but the call is finished by the time he finds the phone under his chair.

Blood throbs in his temples. Fear tickles the back of his throat. Lurches to the window. A police car slows outside his house.

This time he walks back to the laptop, limbs suddenly heavy. A crushing tiredness descends. Before he refreshes the screen, he knows what he’s going to find.

 

But he does it anyway.

 

He lowers his head into his hands. Fingers threaded through thinning hair. A new weight pushing down on his chest. Blue strobe flashes on the ceiling. Tries to ignore the knocking on the front door.

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