To Be Read at Dusk - The Winning Entries
We're delighted to publish the three stories which won our writing competition. Extracts from each story will feature as part of our exhibition 'To Be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts & the Supernatural.'
Well done to our three winners, and thank you to everyone who took part.
In no particular order:
1. Written by Kimberley Ballard
If Rose had to choose one favourite thing about her husband, it was the way he smelled. Like salt water. Sea spray. The product of spending every childhood summer in St Ives, bronzing his skin like a statue. He was a god. Her gorgeous, dark-haired Teddy.
Rose isn’t sure what he saw in return. In a mousy little shop assistant with clumsy hands and crooked teeth. Yet he had courted her diligently, the first blush of love binding them together like a red stitch. On the day they were married, Teddy’s smile had been blinding. He bathed everything around them in a momentary eclipse.
Now he lay dead on the parlour floor. All that golden skin turning blue.
They had only been married a month. One blissful month in the little house Teddy owned in East Finchley, buying second-hand furniture and tending to the garden. Enjoying dinners of pork chops and green beans with blueberry crumble for dessert. When Rose looked at Teddy across the table she thought, “This is what it means to be happy.”
Until one evening the dreaded phone call comes from the family home in Hampshire.
“Why haven’t you done it yet?” Rose’s mother asks.
“I can’t,” Rose says. “Teddy’s kind and good to me. Isn’t there another way?”
“It’s family tradition,” her mother replies. “You know the rules. The wife’s sacrifice. Will you be the first to break it?”
“Maybe I will,” Rose hisses, a vein of bitterness erupting inside her. “Maybe I don’t want anything to do with you or the family any longer.”
Silence. Then a reproach, as harsh as a slap. “You stupid girl. Make your choice, but don’t come crying to me when your love begins to rot.”
Rose hangs up, feeling fate close in like a hand around her throat. But she does as she’s told. In the end it’s easy anyway. Slipping the knife between Teddy’s ribs as he presses in for a goodnight kiss. At that moment she prays for him to fight back but he doesn’t. He succumbs to the knife as easily as he ever did her embrace.
Outside, under the waxy face of the full moon, all the women in the family are waiting for her. Her grandmother Tiger-Lily. Her favourite aunt, Saffron. Her cousin Babette. Long dead, but beautiful still. Rose isn’t surprised to see them. The exchange meant a full, abundant life, even beyond the cold clasp of the grave. The old gods were kind that way.
The women watch as she buries the man she loves, carding their wispy hands through her hair, their voices murmuring in tandem. Rose will be beautiful now, they promise. She’ll never know anything from this point but perfect health and happiness.
When Rose has finished burying the body, she goes inside. In the mirror the transformation is already taking place. Her hair grows lustrous and thick. Her cheeks bloom like rosy fruits. Her teeth blink white like stars. When her tears fall, they smell like seawater.
2. Written by Caitlin McKay
‘Sleeping people don’t need lights.’ Mother said as she turned down the lamp. She shut the nursery door, leaving Charlotte in darkness, save for the glow of the streetlights outside her window.
But the warm light held no comfort for Charlotte; it was a terrible reminder of the lamplighter who fell off his ladder, dashing himself to death on the cobbles below. She trembled under her bedsheets, clutching her doll, as the menacing yellow light seemed to leer at her. It cast a shadow on everything in the room, transforming the sweet-faced rocking horse into a grotesque beast upon the wall.
A sudden noise at her window broke the silence of the nursery.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
Fear shot through Charlotte and she ducked under the covers. Yet, curiosity proved the more powerful force and, trembling, she got out of bed. Charlotte tiptoed to the window, stroking her doll’s silky hair for comfort, her path lit by the street lamps.
She flung open the window sash with clammy hands-
The only life in the empty street below was the lurid glow of the street lamps winking back from the wet cobbles.
Relieved, Charlotte leaned over to close the window, but the doll slipped from her grip. With a cry, she watched as it tumbled down into the bushes below.
Without thinking, Charlotte ventured out of the nursery and into the wilderness of the sleeping house, the only light afforded by the rays coming through the glass at the top of the front door as she crept down the stairs. Every step creaked hideously as if crying out to any spectre lurking in the shadows, ‘Look, here she is! Come and get her!’
Slowly, Charlotte unlatched the front door. It moaned dreadfully upon its hinges, and her mind conjured up countless different grotesque figures that could be waiting on the doorstep, poised to snatch her away.
Quickly, Charlotte rustled through the bushes, looking over her shoulder all the time. Finally, she found the doll, relatively unharmed. Though its painted face cut a rather malevolent figure in the lamplight; the pretty smile became an unsettling grin.
Charlotte made to turn to the door, but was her stare was suddenly caught by the street lamps. Transfixed by the ghoulish yellow orbs hovering in an ever-thickening fog, she ventured into the street.
A shrill sound, at once melodic and terrible broke out.
Charlotte whirled around, but there was no one there. The whistling got louder.
She spun to her left. No one.
The sound was closer now. She spun to the right but saw nothing but thick fog.
Yet, as she peered closer into the abyss, the outline of a crooked shadow began to take shape. An acrid scent filled Charlotte’s nostrils, pungent, like oil or gas. Tears sprang to her eyes as she turned to run, but suddenly all the lamps extinguished.
In the darkness, a ghastly voice whispered in her ear, ‘Sleeping people don’t need lights.’
3. Written by Samantha Pope
Alison spots the ship in the bottle as soon as she walks into her hotel room. Triple-masted and fully rigged, she sails on a sea of blue clay; the intricate paintwork boasting a loving and skilful touch.
“What a beautiful ship!” she exclaims.
The Concierge, who is setting down her suitcase, freezes.
“The Misericordia,” Alison says.
“That shouldn’t be here.” He steps towards the bottle but Alison blocks his way.
“I want it to stay,” she insists.
“Many consider her … unlucky.”
“She and all her crew disappeared on her maiden expedition to the Arctic off the west coast of Greenland in 1813. Probably crushed by the pack ice.”
“Well, she can hardly hurt me, can she, inside a bottle?”
“She shouldn’t be here.” The Concierge’s tone is firm. “Let me take her away –”
“No!” Her vehemence shocks them both.
The Concierge slides his eyes to the ship, then back to Alison.
“As you wish.”
It is late when Alison returns to her room, sleepy after a long walk and a delicious supper. The light from the moon is so bright that she leaves the lamp off and wanders over to the ship.
She peers at the ship. There are dozens of tiny figures all over the main deck.
They weren’t there earlier.
She looks closer.
A multitude of glassy eyes stare at her, mouths gaping in terror.
She stumbles backwards towards the door, trying to calm her breathing.
It’s just a ship in a bottle.
Was it her imagination or the wine?
She approaches the bottle again, slower this time.
The deck is empty.
She goes to bed.
Splitting. Cracking. Breaking. Screaming.
Alison bolts upright. The ship is still caught in the moonlight.
Inside the bottle, the Misericordia is impaled on a tower of ice. The ship groans in agony. Tiny sailors are sliding off the masts and rigging into the sea.
“Lord, have mercy!” they scream.
The glass bottle shatters and what was a clay sea has become frigid water, gushing out endlessly. The miniature figures swell into life-sized, dying sailors, crowding around Alison.
She tries to get out of bed, to run to the door, but cold, wet sheets tie down her arms, her legs. A flailing sailor grabs her around the neck and pulls her back. She tries to scream but the brackish water fills her lungs with liquid ice.
She’s shivering, soaking, drowning. She sinks in a sea of sightless eyes.
“Miss? Miss! Are you all right?”
The Concierge forces the door open but he is too late.
The young woman lies in a tangle of bedsheets. Her eyes stare ahead, her mouth frozen in a rictus of terror. Her damp hair clings to her blue, bloated face and brine crusts her lips. The water that pools around her smells of salt and death.
The Misericordia sits in its bottle, its flag at half-mast.