SHEFFIELD SHORT STORY COMPETITION FOR OFF THE SHELF
Here are some of the best stories from our 2016 short story competition. Should we do it again next year?
Santa Calling by Dave Buckley
Alex stopped for a breather and looked up at the canopy of the trees as flakes of snow started to fall. He listened. No-one following. The mugger’s last words rang in his ears: ‘I’ll know what you look like.’ He tried to pull the torn material together over his knee but the tear looked obvious and the blood was wet, not yet congealed. That wouldn’t look good in a job interview. Nor would his muddy jacket from when he’d been pushed over at the top of Frog Walk taking a short cut to Ecclesall Road. That’s when he’d run. His shaven headed assailant had laughed after him, ‘Now I’ve got your phone, let’s have your wallet.’
He hadn’t waited to say he didn’t have one. He might have been kicked in revenge. You were always punished for having nothing. By the police. By the government. By teachers. Nineteen , and what had he got to show? He hated being stupid, fat, and penniless. As he hid behind the cemetery gates, he tried to remember the text: 10 a.m.. Christmas shop. The Moor. Pete. If he could get to Ecclesall Road, he’d be among crowds. A limping run down Cemetery Avenue should see him safe.
Alex stood on The Moor scanning the wet afternoon crowd. Early December, and already snow. Drab snow, melting as soon as it hit the pavement. And it wasn’t that cold. Just too cold for someone who had no money and a thin zip up jacket. Join a Christmas adventure, said the ad., More than living wage. ‘They won’t want a fat sod like you,’ his dad had warned him.
A rasping voice by his left ear made him jump.
He nodded, tongue tied as usual when meeting someone new.
‘Is this how you always turn up for a new job?’
No. He’d never had the chance of a job before. But he knew Pete was looking at his torn jeans.
‘I tripped getting off the bus.’ He didn’t want to say he’d been mugged.
‘Never mind. When you’ve got some brass, you can buy yourself a car, eh?’
Alex doubted it. ‘What’s the job?’
‘Didn’t we say? You’re going to be Father Christmas at our new shop here. So, Merry Christmas,’ declared Pete, spreading his arms. Alex stared, wondering if he was mad. ‘Oh well,’ said Pete. ‘After me, HO HO HO.’
‘Ho ho ho,’ muttered Alex in a monotone.
‘That’ll do. We’re desperate. Tomorrow, here, eight o’ clock sharp, then.’
It was a job.
Pete called it a grotto, though all Alex saw were green sheets spread over boxes with spray frosting and bits of tinsel snaking over them, but if it worked for the kids, fine. At the end of a short approach was a hay bale.
‘Sit there,’ said Pete.
Alex squirmed, trying to make a comfortable nest for his bum. Santa’s red trousers were too thin for the prickly straw. ‘Any trouble, just shout. Robbo’s only outside,’ said Pete.
A thickset man with a security badge on his sleeve waited by the entrance to the grotto, looking in.
‘Are you expecting trouble?’ said Alex.
‘You get some rum’uns. But we love kiddies, don’t we, Robbo?’ Pete looked at Alex sternly. ‘And you’re here to make their day.’
The doors opened at nine, and soon a file of children was approaching Santa. It was lovely, Alex thought. These kids didn’t look down on him. And seeing the excitement in their eyes, he forgot he was sitting among boxes covered with sheets and tinsel, and felt he was in a grotto too. It was just nice to be liked. It wasn’t Alex they loved, it was Father Christmas. But he felt like Father Christmas.
A little girl slid from his knee clutching her pink wrapped present to be followed by a boy of about four with tramlines shaved into his hair. The children followed each other so thick and fast that he could only see the parents when he’d lifted the child up. He hoisted the boy onto his knee, looked up, and froze. His mugger. He was glad he was hidden behind his beard. He smiled at the little boy, surreptitiously checking his dad. Shaven head. Black jacket. Manchester United badge. Yes, it was him.
The mugger didn’t seem interested in his son. He was looking at his phone, Alex’s phone. Typical. Just like Alex’s dad. But the little boy seemed nice enough, poor thing.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Ronaldo.’ He didn’t look like a Ronaldo. His dad looked pure Sheffield. Then Alex twigged - named after a footballer. Alex felt Ronaldo slip his arms round his neck. It was odd. Most of the other kids sat there stiffly, shy and frozen with excitement.
‘So what would you like for Christmas?’said Alex.
The little arms tightened round his neck, as the boy’s lips brushed his ear. ‘A new dad.’
Alex felt tears prick his eyes. Ronaldo glanced nervously towards his father. Alex sensed his fear. Like his own. He was afraid, but perhaps Father Christmas wouldn’t be.
Ronaldo’s dad was tapping on his mobile. Correction, Alex’s mobile.
Alex murmured to Ronaldo, ‘Let’s phone my elves. Ask your dad if we can borrow that phone he’s using.’
Alex saw Pete watching, concerned. Ronaldo’s dad scowled as he let his son slip the phone from his fingers. Taking the mobile, Alex put it to his ear, stepped in front of the little boy, and faced the mugger. When no children could see, he quickly pulled his beard down.
Ronaldo’s dad turned and ran, pushing parents and children out of the way. Robbo barged past the infants being ushered away by parents, and tackled the mugger to the floor, wrenching the man’s arms behind his back. Pete followed closely behind. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ he said to the crowd as he fell upon the mugger’s kicking feet. ‘Anyone got a phone?’
Alex brandished his.
‘So phone the police,’ he gasped, as he fumbled with his victim’s legs. ‘Tell ‘em Santa’s calling.’
Urban Splash by Annie Swinburn
The pavements were wet and reflected the light of the street lamps. The only sound was Sam’s footsteps and those of another a short way behind. Sam slowed to remove his earphones, on hearing footsteps he stopped, so did those behind. A glass entrance door was wedged open, so he veered in and sprinted up the staircase. He stopped at the top, turned and waited. No-one there. Relieved he stood a while looking over the concrete balustrade into the dark below. He realised he was on the top level of streets in the sky. It was still on his mind after the pub quiz. ‘ What modernist, revolutionary, Sheffield City council house building project began in 1957?’ Park Hill Flats was his answer, his only right answer of the whole quiz. Sam stood a while fascinated, contemplating the brutalist concrete structures. He gazed down into the eerie silence at the rain filled skips and streets full of builder’s rubbish. The second phase of renovation by Urban Splash yet to begin on the next block. A mini conurbation of minimalist flats, art spaces and studios planned. They said it would complete the vision and revive a long gone sense of community spirit. His eyes narrowed in the dark, his pupils large as he peered across to the adjacent concrete shell. Was that a figure darting about in the shadows ricocheting in and out of sight? An urban fox came into view, bush straight parallel to the ground. Sleek and still, until startled it slunk away into the darkness. As Sam walked round the barely lit corridor his eyes were drawn across town to the lights from the tram interchange glowing in the nearby distance. His pupils round, still full as his brain adjusted to the new brighter stimulus. He felt spaced out from the MDMA he had taken earlier in the pub. The effects now kind of once removed. Sam had never felt quite like this before. A glow of well-being and confidence ran through him. He shifted his gaze from the bright city lights back towards the dark, moving round into the shadows searching again for the elusive figure. Eyes narrowed, he stared hard as his brain played little tricks. His ears tuned in now, sharpened, his senses heightened. A shadowy figure had re-emerged in the quiet. Sam’s newly tuned ears heard the padding of feet against wet walkways and walls, the slapping of limbs, skin on skin, intakes of breath, exhales blasting, sharp in the silent shadows. Sam stood mesmerised, his energy levels soaring in response to the vision of a dancer darting in the dark. Disappearing and reappearing. Panic rose as the fear of hallucinations crept over him. Then realisation hit.
Parkour in Park Hill flats, of course. Sam’s brain absorbed the reasoning. No hallucination. No psychedelic mind bender. It was real. Parkour. What a place to try it. Sam experienced a new bravado, an alien flash of courage that shocked him. He remembered the article explaining all the shit about Parkour and Free Running. It was simply about balance. Moving the body from one place to another using obstacles as aids by running, jumping and climbing with balance at the centre. A core of balance. He moved forward heel to toe, heel to toe as if balancing on an invisible line. ‘Perfect’ he said to himself. ’ Practise over’. Sam slotted the buds back into his ears. Music was better for concentration he thought. The muffled sounds of the streets below muted as Låpsley’s voice reached right into his soul. He could do it. He would do it. Concentrate.
Sam ran fast. A good speed considering but his grip was dicey in the glistening puddles. The sound of footsteps behind him again or maybe an echo of his own running feet on the empty corridor.
He launched himself side to side, part climbing up then down and up again reaching higher each time. He bounced off walls, stairs, railings, tumbling along as the adrenalin pumped. Sam buzzed with success at this late night adventure. Parkour on Park Hill past midnight. Him, Sam self-confessed nerd and muso moving with the free runners. His mates would never believe it. He wondered fleetingly if it was daft to try a new skill in the dark on a wet night after a little drug taking and a lot of drinking. He was no athlete, no street performer, no acrobat but maybe he could be, just this once. Music swept him along. Climbing, jumping he moved his body freely to the beats. Sam leapt up onto the balustrade and balanced there. He hopped down and ran full tilt to the left to the right, his body with a mind of its own. He turned bounced up and landed on the balustrade again. It was slippy, slidey but he stayed there with ease. Relaxed, comfortable he took out his phone and positioned for a selfie with the dazzle of the city lights behind him. Tram way below, passengers oblivious. Suddenly a face appeared alongside his in the screen. Hooded, sunken eyed with a rictus grin. Sam’s face beside it stared open mouthed. He held his breath, momentarily stunned, then turned to jump down, expecting to thump back onto the concrete corridor in a nanosecond. Instead he hovered in mid-air arm high with his phone flickering the image of his own horrified breathless face reflecting back like Munch’s Scream. He was surprised at how long it took him to drop. Låpsley seemed to be singing forever in his ears,
‘I walk close to the edge with this boy’ ‘I try to save him, save him.’
Sam lay, wonky and broken in the rain filled skip, water trickled down his face like tears. He felt nothing. His eyes open, he saw nothing. Låpsley silent, his earphones dangled. Ears free he heard the sound of footsteps running high up echoing away into the night.
A victim of modern brutalist architecture. An Urban Splash statistic.
Time Slip by Mel Green
Read more from Mel on her: website
Nearly three years since I last visited her… somehow I always knew it would come to this. Knew they’d take my precious child and show me her demise.
The serene luxury of the Hallamshire’s private penthouse ward wasn’t the backdrop I imagined though. I’d expected a more primitive and brutal scenario, like my incarceration. They’re messing with me, of course. Showing me what I’m missing before they send me back. Confusing me, lying probably, by saying this is my daughter. The last time I saw my precious green-eyed button-nosed little girl she was only 5. This woman, button-nosed I’ll grant you, comatose on the starched white hospital bed is…
“How old is she?” I ask my guard.
“She’s 112.” A nasal voice comes from the open door behind us. “The cryogenic anaesthesia is still burning out of her system, but she should be with us again in…” he squints at the screen hovering above her bed, “97 seconds.”
112? My daughter is 62 years older than me.
I move towards the window. 3 years for me, but 107 years since I was taken away from here. No wonder I didn’t recognised the cityscape, had no idea I’d come home. Sheffield has matured and changed as much as my alleged daughter.
Familiarity reawakens. The New Park Hill skyscraper still towers over the cityscape with its gleaming steel frame and coloured inserts, but it’s hundreds of floors tall now, stretching up to snatch at puffs of cloud passing by. It’s the daddy of the other metal and glass columns filling the city, reaching out in all directions, as far as Totley, Chapeltown and Oughtibridge by the look of it. None towards Beighton though. To the east urbanisation’s march has been halted by an opposing force. Sheffield is now a coastal town, global waters having risen as predicted.
Did Best achieve this? Is he still ruling over it as Chancellor of Middle England? Still silencing people by jettisoning them into the furthest reaches of space in the name of exploration? Observing me even now? My jaw tightens. I will not show him any weakness.
“When she hits consciousness she has 3 minutes,” the doctor says coolly, still focusing on his screen. 3 minutes? My heart skips, then pounds his countdown. “She’ll be here in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
The woman’s eyelids pop open and her jade irises swivel wildly before focusing. On me. Tearing the sinews of my hard heart apart like a loaf of freshly baked bread.
“Da?” Her voice is gravelly, but nothing would stop me recognising it out of billions in the universe.
“Anna,” I choke as my throat constricts so tightly I can hardly breathe.
She lifts a tired, wobbly hand towards me. I reach out to hold it, tears pricking my eyes at the simple unexpected pleasure of holding my daughter’s hand again. The forcefield cuffs binding my wrists stop me short.
“Free him.” I’m startled by her request and the confident authority in her voice. Before my eyes can flick to the guards to see their reaction, my hands buzz and move apart for the first time in weeks. How did she get them to do that? Is this all part of their game? A miniscule taste of freedom for a few minutes before taking it away again?
“I’m so glad they managed to bring you back, Da. They weren’t sure they could reach you, with the wormholes and space gennels still so unknown and dangerous. How are you?”
“Better for seeing you.”
“Seeing you again was all I ever wanted.” Her eyes flick up to the screen. 2½ minutes. “Even a glimpse of you in my last few seconds would have been enough.”
“Radiation sickness. You remember how much I loved being outside? Even when the solar flares started, it was a habit I could never break.”
“Why am I the only one here?”
“I’ve already said goodbye to everyone else. Ma lasted 20 years after you were convicted, but she missed you every day. We sent her stardust into space. She wanted to go where you’d gone.”
I nod, my throat now caught in a vice grip. I knew I’d never see my beautiful wife again, but the confirmation of her death is still a consuming blow. My son is surely dead as well.
“Rob’s alive though. He’ll be waiting for you downstairs when I’m gone. Between us we have so many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A huge family who can’t wait to meet you.” She squeezes my hand. “I’ve lived a long and productive life, Da, and now you will too.”
I shake my head in confusion and denial of her words. “I don’t think so lass. Life expectancy isn’t good on the prison, sorry, exploration ship.”
She frowns. “But you’re free, Da. They’ve told you that, haven’t they? You’re free.”
I shake my head again. “But Best?”
“Oh Da.” She bites her lip as tears leak out the sides of her eyes. “He was overthrown within a year of your exile. The Resistance proved your accusations against him and he was imprisoned for life. We thought your pardon had been granted immediately, but when I became Chancellor at 33 I discovered it had never been actioned.
“All this is thanks to you, Da.” She gestures towards the city outside. “Ma showed me and Rob your writing, your dreams, your plans. He became Business Secretary in the same election I got my Chancellorship and together we refocused the city’s businesses and manufacturing on titanium and space. Sheffield and its metalworking became great again.”
A beep signals her last 20 seconds. Tears cascade freely down my face, but I can’t speak.
“I love you, Da.” She smiles. “Live your life.”
Our eyes stay locked as her life support beeps again. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Her eyelids slide shut. Her hand relaxes in mine. She’s gone.
Live your life. Her words echo round in my head. I thought her mother and I gave her life, but she’s given life back to me, having lived her own so well. Time has slipped.
I kiss her fingers. “Sleep well, precious girl.”