Tag Archives: Short Story

Message in a Bottle

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Photograph by Bipolar Scotland

It’s been a few days since I was awarded 2nd place at the SMHAF writing awards and I’ve received so many kind words since. I promised you a link to my prize winning story, but I have something better, a link to all of the short listed pieces here.

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Photograph by Bipolar Scotland

I think you will agree that the judges must have had a difficult time deciding the three winning pieces because all twelve entries were excellent. I feel proud to have my work showcased with such talent and diversity.

There has been some excellent write up’s about the event, as well as photographs and even live streaming. If you are interested in any of the above, please visit SMHAF and BipolarScotland and like their pages, both organisations do fantastic work.

Thank you if you were able to come along and hear us read from our work, and thank you for your lovely comments about my story.

Finally, thank you to SMHAF and Bipolar Scotland for an amazing event, to Emma Pollock for performing on the night, to Ian Rankin for hosting the event and being an inspiration to us all, to the judges whose job it was to read through hundreds of pieces of work, to those brave enough to submit their work, to the short listed writers who were brave enough to have their work heard by an audience -regardless of who was reading -and finally to the readers who make the job of writing worthwhile.

Message in a Bottle

Alistair stands in a doorway on the corner of Admiralty Lane. The streets are quiet today. A cold air has swept up from the Forth keeping the locals indoors. He shivers and pulls his scarf up over his nose and his woollen hat over his ears. It’s four o’clock and there’s Claire sneaking out of the office again, that’ll be the third time this week. She walks briskly on the opposite side of the road. Alistair follows, keeping close to the old sandstone buildings. He ducks behind parked cars and stops briefly behind a white Winnebago when she slows. The wind whips her coat tails and they splay out behind her, allowing him the briefest moment to catch the slender silhouette of her body. She continues past the Ship Inn. He imagines, just for a second, that she’ll go in, sit by the log fire, order a glass of red, then call him to join her. But the thought passes as quickly as she does, and she doesn’t give the place where they first met a second glance. He falls back, watching her hurry along the coastal path then up toward the cliffs that overlook Ruby Bay. She crests the hill and disappears.
He runs to the beach. The boat is still banked in the sand where he left it. Untying the rope from the cleat, he steps in. The sea is calm, and his oars cut through the water leaving a trail of ripples. Bowing his head, he rows beyond the bay. He sees a fisherman cast his line, but it’s unlikely that anyone will know him out here.
He sees her standing on the cliff high above the sea. Her face, though partly shadowed, looks void of emotion. He feels a sickness in his stomach. There she is, one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed. He hates her, hates what she’s trying to do to them. Just then, she pulls a bottle from the inside pocket of her coat and throws it over the cliff. His eyes follow the bottle until it hits the water with a short splash. He waits until she’s gone, then rows towards it.

****

She stands in the shadow of an old oak tree. Over the cliff the grey sky has melted and spread like oil over the sea, with no end and no beginning. She watches his boat glide quickly through the water and feels pleased, she’s played him well. He’s a fast rower though.
She’d only found out recently that he could row. He’d spun her a yarn one day about almost drowning in a river when he was a boy, right after her best friend Craig and his husband Terry suggested they all go on a weekend cruise together. ‘But you’ll be safe on a cruise ship.’ She’d told him. ‘I don’t like boats.’ He snapped. ‘No, you mean you don’t like Craig.’ She’d always known it, but they’d never actually spoken about it. ‘You’re right. I don’t like the way he touches your arm when you’re having a conversation,’ Alistair told her, ‘and all the “in” jokes that you have with him. He should have married you.’ She tried to reason with her husband. ‘Craig’s gay,’ she laughed, ‘and we’ve been best friends since we were five.’ But Alistair shook his head. ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like how close you are to him.’ So, she’d declined Craig’s offer, telling him that she’d catch up with him soon.
She hasn’t seen Craig since, he won’t come to the house when Alistair is there, and Alistair is always there. That was eight months ago.

She steps closer to the edge of the cliff to watch. Alistair reaches the bottle quickly. He pulls it from the water, holds it under his arm and pulls out the cork. The sky is darkening. He’ll struggle to read the gibberish she’d written anyway, besides, he isn’t wearing his glasses. He hadn’t worn them in over a year.
‘I can’t see a thing when I wear them, so what’s the point.’ He’d said and thrown them across the floor. It was a month after he’d been sacked from the gas board following an accusation of an affair between himself and a customer’s wife. Of course, he denied it. ‘I can’t afford a new pair, so I’ll do without.’ He folded his arms like a child. She offered to save to get him a new prescription, but he shook his head. ‘Keep your money,’ he said, ‘Besides, you’ll need it to pay the bills. Personally, with the lack of money coming in, I’d make cut backs. But seeing as you can’t live without your beloved Facebook, you’ll have to pay for the internet too.’ She ignored his snide comments for as long as she could. Then one day after work, she’d come home to find Alistair on her laptop looking through her online messages. ‘How dare you.’ She pulled the laptop from him. ‘Those are private messages between me and my friends.’ Alistair stood up and walked out of the room, not uttering a word. She’d spent the rest of the evening looking through all her messages to see if there was anything that he might misconstrue. About a week later, he called the phoneline provider and had the line cut off. ‘Because it’s a luxury we can’t afford.’

She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air. She winces at the sight of it burning and looks down at the scar on her right hand.
She’d been out for a drink with Kelly and Omar from work one Saturday afternoon. It was Omar’s fortieth birthday. Alistair had been invited along but he said he’d rather watch paint dry than go out with a bunch of accountants. An hour after she’d left, the texting began. ‘Is Omar your new best friend?’ and worse, ‘Will you be giving him a ‘SPECIAL’ present for his birthday.’ She tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went home. Music was blaring from the stereo when she arrived, and she could smell burning. Panicked, she ran into the living-room. The rug under her desk was on fire. An ashtray had fallen from the arm of the sofa and scattered on the floor. ‘Alistair. Fire!’ She screamed then ran into the kitchen and filled a basin of water. When she returned, her desk was on fire. Flames ripped through the wood, catching books and paper and all sorts. She threw the water. It barely touched the flames. She reached out to grab her precious memory box, but it was so hot it burned her hand and she dropped it. Suddenly, Alistair ran into the living-room. ‘Give me your phone,’ he yelled and grabbed it from her coat pocket. He dialled 999. The fire brigade saved most of the house, but she never saw her phone again. ‘Lost in the fire,’ Alistair said. ‘But you’ll have a note of your contacts anyway.’ Yes, in her diary, on her desk!
She watches him throw the empty bottle into the sea, then slips back into the shadows. She takes the quick route home. She’d discovered it about a month ago. That was the first time she’d realised that Alistair was following her. In her panic, she’d ran down the cliff and climbed a fence that lead into someone’s back garden. Luckily, when she reached the other side, she realised she was just a street away from her own. Since then she’d purposefully let him follow her to the cliff, just long enough to be one-hundred percent sure that it took him twelve minutes to get home. It only took her three. And with that certainty, she planned her escape.
She hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten at home, until one morning about three months ago. Alistair had begun insisting that she went home for lunch, and that morning was no exception. But he was in a particularly foul mood and she did something out of character, she lied. ‘The secretary is sick, so I’ll have to cover the phones.’ She needed space. So, that afternoon, she left the office, picked up a sandwich, and walked toward Ruby Bay. She used to come here with Alistair when they first started dating, when life was happy, when life wasn’t suffocating. She climbed the gravel slope to the cliff and sat. In the distance, the beach was busy with dog walkers and joggers. Seagulls swooped to the sand hoping for scraps. She sat on the grass, unwrapped her sandwich and opened her mouth to take a bite when she realised that she was crying. She put the sandwich back in its wrapper and went into her bag for a tissue. She pulled out a notebook too. That’s when she saw the empty bottle lying in the grass. I’m lonely. She wrote.

She pulls the backpack from the corner of her wardrobe, it was tucked under some winter clothes.

It was two weeks after she’d written the first note, rolled it into a tube and stuffed it into a bottle that she received her first letter at work. She really hadn’t expected it, and at first, she felt panicked. The sender, however, turned out to be a six-year-old girl who had found the bottle on the beach in Burnt Island. She’d drawn a picture of the beach with a big yellow sun in the sky and a red boat on the water. Attached to the picture was a note. You’re not alone, keep reaching, scrawled in adult handwriting. So, she did. She wrote note after note, rolled them up and tied pretty ribbon around them and popped each one into a glass bottle and sealed it with a cork. Then at lunch time, or if she could slip away early from work, she’d head to Ruby Bay to throw the bottles from the cliff. She felt free in those moments.

She checks her watch, Sheila should be here in fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven.
Shelia was the fifth person to reply to her message in a bottle. Up until then, she’d received some encouraging words, not to mention a fridge magnet, a leaflet for the Samaritans, and a postcard, but there was never a return address. Still, it was wonderful to feel connected. But with Sheila, it was different. I can help. She wrote in a letter. Please write back. It turned out Sheila was an elderly widow who ran a small B&B in Broughty Ferry. Her dog Millie had found the bottle on the beach one morning and dropped it at Sheila’s feet. They began writing to each other regularly and soon became friends. Then one day, during work hours, they met face to face. That’s when they began to make plans.

She pulls back the blinds. Two car headlights flash. From her rucksack, she takes out a glass bottle and places it on the coffee table. Then she pulls on her backpack and walks out the door. She only looks back once at the house that was once her home.

****

‘She’s slipped away again.’ Alistair moans. The last three times he’d rowed the boat as fast as he could, then ran all the way home, but he never caught up with her. By the time he’d reached home, she’d be in a change of clothes and with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘Were you at the library again?’ She’d ask. He would nod then go into the bathroom to calm down. But tonight, the sofa’s empty, the kettle’s cold and although the lights are on, she isn’t home. Then he notices it.
He pulls the cork out and tips the bottle. A thin roll of paper, held together by a gold wedding band, drops onto his lap. He unrolls the note.
‘Disconnected.’

Looking For Nora

This short story was published by Fairlight books on 13th November 2017. Click here to be redirected to their site.

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She pulled a bunch of ribbons from her jacket pocket, selected a red one, then squeezed it in the palm of her hand.
“I wish,” she said, and closed her eyes, “I wish that today will be the day that I find you.”
She took the ribbon to the large elm tree and tied it onto a low hanging branch. It flapped lazily in the breeze. From her backpack, she pulled out a folded handkerchief and unwrapped it. It held a rusty nail with a battered head, but with a newly sharpened tip. Crouching down to half her height, she traced her finger over the neatly carved lines already on the tree trunk. Nineteen lines for nineteen years, and the first, still as deep as the day her father helped her carve it. She pressed the nail into the bark, and tapped it with a large stone that she’d found by the loch. She carved line number twenty.
It was still early morning and the sky was a brilliant blue. She sat cross-legged on her sleeping bag, drinking strong coffee from the lid of her flask and let her eyes trail lazily over the rugged outlines of the Trossachs. A lone osprey flew from the east and soared over the wide loch, its white belly and black-tipped wings, mirrored in the still water.
“Look at the giant seagull Kim, look, look!”
Kim held her breath as it dipped its wings, swooping downwards and breaking the water with its claws.
“Did it steal a fish?”
Blinking hard, she sighed.
“Where are you Nora?”
The osprey was already back in flight by the time she shook off the memory, rising to the sky, before disappearing into the forest of Scots pines on the opposite bank. All that remained was a ripple in the calm.
She took the longer route to avoid the main campsite; weathered hill walkers tended to stray away from the paths and the noise of people. The terrain at the south side of Loch Chon was reasonably accessible, although rock scatterings hidden amongst the greenery at the foot of the hill could be tricky underfoot. She dug her trekking poles into the grass and took long strides, breathing in the smell of mulchy earth and sweet oily bog myrtle. It was late spring and the hills were alive with wildflowers. Smatterings of dog violets grew amongst the long grass that swished in the breeze. She paused to watch a woodman’s friend bat its tiny orange wings as it landed on the spike of a blue bugle.
“Is it a moth Kim?”
“I think it’s a butterfly.”
The valley led down to an old stone bridge, where twenty-one years earlier, she had found a little red shoe among the reeds. The shoe was still warm, perhaps from the sun that shone on its shiny patent surface, or perhaps from the foot of her five-year-old sister Nora, who was nowhere to be seen. She climbed onto the bridge, took off her backpack, and leant over, watching the reflection of her orange cagoule flickering in the stream.
“Count to fifty then come and find me.”
“Fifty is too long Nora.”
She bent forward and put her face into her hands. “One, two, three…” She said out loud.
“Are you playing hide and seek?”
Kim stood up, startled. A little girl, no more than five years old, stood beside her. Her eyes were red and her cheeks glistened with tears. She crouched down to the little girl’s height.
“Nora?”
“No, I’m Phoebe. Who are you?”
“Oh God.” She leaned against the bridge wall for support. “Sorry Phoebe, you gave me a fright. I’m Kim, where’s your Mum and Dad?” She stood back up and looked around but there was no one else in sight.
Phoebe began to cry. She held the sleeve of Kim’s cagoule while her little body shook.
“I got lost,” she sobbed, “I lost my Mummy.”

“It’s okay Phoebe, don’t you worry. I can help you find her.”
“Will I be in big trouble?”
“No silly, you won’t be in trouble.” Kim took a tissue from her backpack and wiped Phoebe’s eyes. “Now blow your nose and we’ll find her together.” She held the tissue to the girl’s face and laughed when she blew a trumpet.
“Now, which way did you come?” She asked, pulling her backpack on.
Phoebe pointed her finger east and Kim figured she must have come from the campsite. It was a five-minute walk on flat land, and easy to find.
“Can I take your hand?” Phoebe asked. “I’m scared.”
“Sure.” She held it out and felt the tiny warm fingers grip hers.
They passed through a grove of elm trees, stepping over protruding roots and clumps of moss. The temperature dipped in the shade.
“How did you manage to get lost?”
“I was following the big seagull.” Phoebe said. “Did you see it?”
“Yeah I did. But that big bird was an osprey. They look a bit like seagulls but they’re bigger and prettier.”
“Offspray,” Phoebe giggled, “Off. Spray.”
“Osprey, aye.” Kim laughed.
They emerged from the grove and found the man-made gravel path that led to the campsite. Kim could see a group of walkers ascending a softer hill in the distance. The odd tent was dotted around the flat ground while others clung diagonally to the side of the hill. When she saw the loch glistening at the far end of the horizon, she knew they were close.
“Kim. Who were you playing hide and seek with?”
“Oh. I was just pretend playing. I used to play with my sister Nora, she was five.”
“I used to be five. I’m seven now,” she smiled showing a gap where her front tooth had fallen out, “How are you going to find her if you’re taking me to my Mummy?”
“I’ll find her,” Kim pressed her lips together, “One day.”
“But isn’t she too wee to be left alone?”
“She’s lost Phoebe.” Kim took a deep breath before continuing. “She’s been lost for a long, long time. I come here sometimes just to look.”
“My Grandad got lost. He was in a home. Mum said he went to heaven but I heard her telling my Auntie Kate on the phone that they lost him.”
“Oh.” Kim squeezed Phoebe’s hand.
“If people get lost then they can get found too, can’t they?”
“I guess.”
“I think they can.” She nodded her head. “My Grandad leaves me clues. Like one time when me and Mum were out walking Timmy, that’s my dog, and we found a card with a number eight and a heart on it…”
“Uh-huh.”
“Well, eight is the number of his old house, before he went to the home, and the heart is because he supported the Hearts.”
“That’s a brilliant clue. Maybe you could be a detective when you grow up.” Kim laughed.
“Aye, that’s what my Mum says.”
Phoebe’s little blonde bunches looked so much like Nora’s did on the day she disappeared.
“When I’m big, I could help you find your sister.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows.
“I’d like that.”
“Good. Does Nora leave you clues like Grandad does?”
“I’m not sure. I think so,” she said, “maybe I’m just too grown up to see them now.”
“How can you be too grown up to see clues?”
“You’re right Phoebe. Maybe I just forgot how to find them. Thank you for reminding me though.”
“You’re welcome.”

****

“Oh my God. Phoebe. Where on earth have you been?”
Kim stood by the door of the park ranger’s cabin. She smiled warmly as Phoebe’s mother ran towards them and scooped her daughter up into her arms.
“I got lost Mummy. I’m sorry but I was following an off spray, it’s like a big seagull you know, and then it flew away over the big mountain and then I didn’t know how to come back. But I found Kim.” She said, pointing at Kim who nodded her head. Phoebe’s mother mouthed a thank you and pulled her daughter in for another hug.
“You shouldn’t run off on your own. I’ve been worried sick.”
“It’s okay Mum, I only got a wee bit lost.”
“Well thank goodness you found Kim.”
“I know. She was playing hide and seek with Nora when I found her, but Nora got lost. Like Grandad.”
“Oh.” She lowered Phoebe to the floor and rubbed her hair. “Is your daughter lost Kim, do you need some help?”
“Twenty-one years ago, I’m afraid, and she was my sister.”
“I’m Kim, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for your family.”
“Yeah, it was. Mum passed away the following year and Dad never forgave himself for losing her.”
“Is your Dad with you?”
“Gone too. Four years ago.” Kim coughed and looked out of the window.
“Sorry Kim.”
“It’s okay, but thanks.” She felt her chest tighten. “I come back at the same time every year hoping to find something, you know…”
“Clues.” Phoebe interrupted.
“Yeah, clues.” Kim laughed.
“I don’t know how to thank you for finding this little rascal.” They both looked at Phoebe who stood with her tongue out. “I’m Sandra.”
Kim took Sandra’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you. She’s a good kid.”
“I’m so glad you found her, she tends to wander. I only nipped to the toilet, she must have run off.”
“Well, no harm done.” Kim smiled. “And it was Phoebe who found me, honestly. In fact, I think she might even have been sent as a clue.” She winked at Phoebe who clapped her hands in delight.
“Can I get you a coffee or something?” Sandra asked. “or a hot chocolate?”
“No thanks,” She said. “I need to get on, I’ve a bit of walking to do and I’m heading home tonight.”
“Please Kim.” Phoebe took her hand and pressed her face against it.
“Not just now,” She whispered, “I need to go looking for clues.”
“Oh aye,” she whispered back, “I hope you find some good ones.”
“Me too. Hey, maybe you could both come around to my tent after dinner. I’ll let you make a wish on my faerie tree.”
“You have a faerie tree?” Phoebe’s eyes opened wide. “Do faeries live in it?”
“Yes, they do. Now, do you have a ribbon?”
“Have I got a ribbon Mummy?”
“Erm, I don’t think so.” Sandra said.
“Don’t worry, you can have one of mine.” Kim smiled. “I’ll come by here at six.” She patted Phoebe on the head. “See you later detective.”

****

She climbed down the rocks blow the stone bridge. Gripping onto a dangling root, she lowered herself onto the pebbled bank and walked into the cold shadow of the bridge.
“Watch out for creepy crawlies.”
She ducked her head. The water echoed around her like whispers and she hunched her shoulders to her ears. She found the line she’d etched into a large rock the previous year and set down her backpack. Using the ends of her trekking poles, she flicked pebbles one by one into the water. After each plop, her eyes scanned the ground – searching. She got to her knees, cupping the stones in her hands, sifting through them with her thumbs, before throwing them into the stream.
“Where are you?”
She dug her fingers into sand and mud, scooping up wet clumps, and throwing them to the side.
“There must be something.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket. Just then, she saw the surface of a rounded piece of glass partially hidden in the dug-out hole. She pushed her finger into the mud and edged it out slowly, discovering a glass marble, cold, and smooth with green and yellow swirls through the centre. She washed the dirt off in the stream then rolled it around in the palm of her hand. Was it Nora’s?
“Come on Kim, play with me.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, searching her mind. Nora tugged her sleeve, blue eyes staring hopefully. Her pink freckled cheeks dimpled as she smiled. A smile that stretched over decades in Kim’s memory. The red velvet dress with white trim was as clear as the photograph in her purse. Shiny red patent shoes.
“Count to fifty and don’t peek.”
“One, two…”
Did Nora play with marbles?
“Three, four…”
I can’t remember.
“Five, six, seven…”
“Damn it!” She threw the marble into the stream and it barely made a splash.

****

The sun had begun to dip behind the mountains by the time Kim had led Sandra and Phoebe to her pitch. They stood beside the slow burning wood fire and Kim looked over the loch. It lay flat and still, reflecting sky and mountains and creating the illusion of endlessness.
“It’s like the sky is upside down.” Phoebe pointed.
“I think it looks like the edge of forever,” Kim said, “like you could walk right inside the belly of the world.”
“Forever-land.” Phoebe said. “Like Peter Pan.”
“That’s Never-Never land.” Kim laughed.
“It’s pretty though, isn’t it?” Sandra said and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Phoebe nodded.
“This is the best time for wishes.” Kim said, “It’s when the faeries come out to play. Come on.”
They walked up the stony bank. The oak tree stood alone on the grassy hill at the rear of Kim’s tent; its wide trunk topped by a full head of leafy branches.
“Where are the faeries?” Phoebe asked as she stepped into the shadow below the tree.
“You can’t see them, but listen.”
They huddled together, listening to the tree branches creak, and the leaves rustling gently.
“They whisper to one another,” Kim continued, “Can you hear them?”
“I think so.” Phoebe put her ear to the tree trunk. “What are they saying?”
“They’re waiting for your wish.” Sandra said.
“That’s right.” Kim smiled and took two pink ribbons from her pocket. She pulled down a long thin branch to Phoebe’s height, then held it while Sandra helped her daughter tie the first ribbon.
“Don’t let it go yet.” Kim said as she fastened her own ribbon to the branch. “Now make a wish.”
“You first.”
“Okay.” Kim took a deep breath. “I wish that one day I’ll find a great big clue that’ll help me find my Nora.”
“I wish,” Phoebe squeezed her eyes tight shut, “that my Grandad will look after her until you find her.”
Together they let go of their ribbons and watched as they flapped freely in the breeze.