Flash Fiction Competition

Autumn 2022

The Propelling Pencil

Stories that move us forward

First prize : £80, Second prize £50, Third prize £20

The Results

We’re delighted to announce the winners of the Autumn 2022 Propelling Pencil Flash Fiction competition, judged by Electra Rhodes.
We had an outstanding collection of entries and the selected shortlist of ten all had something special to offer.

As Electra said, “It’s a total thrill to read a shortlist where on a given day, any of the stories might be a winner. All ten stories were vibrant, evocative, interesting, moving, and well crafted. Warmest congratulations to the three writers whose work has placed, to all the short- and long-listers, and to everyone who got work in. Writing at all in these times is an act of courage. I may not have had the chance to read all of you, but I very much appreciate your commitment all the same.”

First Place
Nine Charms by Sarah Royston
Second Place
Climbing the Gloucester Tree, Pemberton, WA by Maria Thomas
Third Place
Letters For Sam by Mark Thomson

You can read the winning stories and Judge’s comments below.

Thanks to everyone who took part – all our writers, our superb team of caring, genrous readers and to Electra Rhodes who made time and took great care in choosing our winners.

All proceeds of the competition have been donated to the Trussell Trust Food Bank charity. If you are reading this and would like to make a donation you can do so here.

And if you’re quick and donate at least £5 you can also book an Advent Feedback slot with Audrey, with the chance of winning a taster three month coaching programme too! Details here

You’re also most welcome to join us for the SubClub22 End of Year Bash where we will be celebrating everyone’s submission goals and glories over the past year. Electra will be our Special Guest and we hope to hear from some of our winners. Reserve your spot here.

Finally, SubClub23 – our quarterly coaching catch-up to make submission plans, knock spreadsheets into shape and generally cheer each other on in our endeavours to get our work out into the world – will be booking late December/early January. Watch this space!

First Place

Nine Charms by Sarah Royston

I. Charms against fire

Weave a circlet of straw.
You talk about the old ways as we walk out of town. Rites to save the harvest from blazing into ash. The hay is tinder, the clay is cracked with thirst. You brush a thunderbug from my shoulder and I shiver. We linger till the sky flames, melting our long shadows.

Gather mistletoe from an oak.
We stand on the ridge where larks used to sing. I dare not meet your flint-blue eyes. Careless sparks cost lives. I say, ‘I have to go,’ my throat dry as grass. My husband will be waiting. The moon is a sickle, cleaving my heart.

Whisper sacred words; draw sigils in the dust.
The ancient charms have lost their power. The straw’s too brittle to braid; the oaks fell long ago. This rain-starved earth is too hard to scratch. I can’t speak a blessing; your lips steal my prayer. When lightning sears the land, I’m defenceless. I burn.

II. Charms to protect a home

Hide a child’s shoe in the chimney-breast.
I don’t own a child’s shoe – I have to ask my sister. The tiny thing can’t fill the hollow space in the hearth. A hair-fine crack spreads to the ceiling. When I tell my husband, he says there’s nothing there. The fracture gapes and splits the floor.

Lay a hedge of rowan, holly and thorn.
I plant prickly saplings in the barren clay. They can’t block the sight of you, strolling with some girl. My hands bleed. You kiss the broken skin, murmur, ‘She means nothing.’ A wall of thorns is no defence if I open the gate.

Carve signs against fire on the door.
The rune-marks don’t stop me dreaming of Hell; don’t stop the burning in my mind. Embers rise to the rafters as I lie in your arms. The roof could catch light at any time, and everything fall down. I hold my breath and close my eyes.

III. Charms against poison

Wear a bezoar stone
It’s too late for ward-stones now. My blood is thick with desire and despair; you taste the acrid bane on my skin. His ring tightens, weighing down my hand. My swollen tongue is black as lies.

Crush the ashes of nine virtuous herbs.
His gaze burns like gall as he asks, ‘Where have you been?’ I try to answer, but a canker closes my throat. Words unspoken hang like smoke, stifling us both. I turn away to hide my smarting eyes.

Wash your wounds with holy water.
The well-springs are choked under concrete and contempt. The church is shut tight against breakers of locks and vows. No rain blesses this shattered earth, the charred wreck of my home. But saltwater cleanses wounds. As you walk away, I welcome its sting. Tears scald my cheeks and scour my tongue: bitter as healing, sweet as truth. Moonlight floods the charred fields and makes a silent river of the track. I kneel in ashes softer than new-fallen snow.

Judge Electra says: “I’m always captivated by a fractured narrative that pushes the boundary of the flash form, and this did that in spades. It demanded to be read several times and there’s something deeply satisfying about a piece that reveals more of itself on multiple engagements. This is beautifully layered and I had such a good time reading it, thinking about it, re-reading it and then thinking about it some more. I’m a bit of a fool for folklorish work too, so, it was irresistible to me in both form and theme. When it comes down to it though, form and theme aren’t worth a silver nutmeg if they’re missing the vital element of story. Fortunately, this piece had a rich and engaging story underpinning it too. I especially loved what wasn’t said, what was off the page, and what was between the lines. It’s a special kind of piece that uses all the spaces to such good effect. I’m still thinking about it and I hope once you read it, you will too.

Second Place

Climbing the Gloucester Tree, Pemberton, WA

by Maria Thomas

Starry sky and trees lit by a bonfire
Photo by Heiko Otto on Unsplash

The antiseptic aroma of eucalyptus is the first thing you notice. It’s just before dawn, the light gossamer, ground spongey underfoot. You follow the Leader until you arrive at a clearing; there are tables, benches and noticeboards made of wood, wooden stakes (for tying up dogs?). Would ya, could ya, should ya. It’s understandable to be nervous, the Leader says.

The scent of antiseptic is the first thing you notice.

The tree is enormous, 58 metres; giant, titan, a behemoth. Your neck crackles as you lean back to see the peak; it’s hidden by a canopy of leaves, its secrets safe for now.
The forest seems silent but, listening closely, you hear the scattergun of rodents in the undergrowth, the skittering of birds above. You listen more closely and now you can hear your own internal music – the hammer of your heart, the riptide of blood, the white-noise of your breath, in out, in out.

White-noise breath, in out, in out.

Your group have begun to climb, and you follow, ant-like, until you’re at the base, and the spiked spiral is before you. There are 153 pegs and the first you grasp is cool as you begin to climb, round and round, like a record baby. It reminds you of the spire in Chesterfield yanked crooked by the devil’s tail, as you twist and dislocate your way upwards. Your shoulder brushes the bark, callused and desiccated, cadaverous and grey.
You’re quite far from the ground now and the drop is dizzying. You imagine letting go, falling backwards, tumbling like an acrobat towards the forest floor. You begin to shake imperceptibly and hold the pegs more tightly as you continue to climb, continue to tremble, continue, continue, continue.

Callused and desiccated, cadaverous and grey.

Last night in the hostel, amidst the farts and snores of the group, you studied the tree’s history in a globe of torchlight. The first climber took six hours to reach the top! You wonder what he thought as he toiled, hand over fist, a pioneer, an explorer.
After that the tree was tamed; pegged, tidied and topped, used as a fire lookout. You wonder how it would feel to see cylinders of smoke, ash in your mouth, charred meat taste at the back of your throat.
The tree’s retired now, put out of service, decommissioned, redundant.

Mouthfuls of ashes and charred meat.

Only twenty percent of climbers reach the top. You feel as if you’re climbing to heaven and maybe, when you finally reach the platform, Mike might be there, and he’ll say, how long you’ve been, I’ve been waiting for you, and your last memories of him won’t smell of antiseptic and the taste of ashes, his hand won’t feel desiccated and cadaverous, you won’t be surrounded by the white-noise of a ventilator breathing for him, in out, in out.

You pull yourself through the gap and then you’re standing amidst scudding clouds. In the distance the sun yawns above the horizon.

Judge Electra says: “Such a rich and satisfying structure, and the kind of plotting and resolution that had me nodding along with enjoyment at the craft and technique as well as the narrative voice and intent. The final paragraphs are so pleasing as we come back round and all the threads are drawn together to make a satisfying whole. Not every ending has to echo its start but this piece did this and more, to great effect. Again, it deals with life after love, but it invigorates the genre and breathes new life into it, just as we feel the protagonist might also learn to live again. Super, super, super.”

Third Place

Letters For Sam by Mark Thomson

man stands of a cliff looking out across blue sea
Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

So at about five in the morning, Jack set off from his and picked everyone up one by one. Harry first, then Sophie. Then they stopped by mine. And he drove all the way to South Point with the sun breaking over the motorway.

Mostly in silence, even Harry. Not even any music, until there was about half an hour left and then the playlist went on.

I forgot to say there was also a tea and a buttie break, and a little stretch of the legs.

‘You look like death,’ I told Harry in the queue.

‘I’m hanging,’ he said. ‘But don’t tell Jack. I know we weren’t supposed to go out last night but I couldn’t help it. I knew you wouldn’t care, anyway.’

It helped explain how he’d managed to keep so quiet though.

It was about seven by the time the car had pulled up, the sun risen and a beautiful blue sky. A glorious view of the water. Salty, sea air that hit you like a brick and ‘Miss You,’ on the stereo. You couldn’t have wrote it better.

‘Anyone fancy chips?’ asked Harry.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ said Jack. ‘They won’t be open at this time. And we’re not there yet anyway.’

And everyone reached for their sweaters and jackets and trudged down to the sand and along the seafront, still in silence until…

‘I can’t do it,’ Sophie said.

‘But we agreed,’ said Jack. ‘And we’ve come all this way.’

‘I know, I know. I’ve tried, I’ve really tried. And I so want to do it for him, you know I do. But I just can’t.’

Jack was trying to be nice about it, but he also wanted it done with before it got too much for him. So he said ‘Give it here then. We’ll meet you back at the car if you like.’

‘You know I love you,’ I told her.

‘I love you too,’ she said, And she passed Jack her letter and they carried on. Just him and Harry now. Along the tide, onto the rocks, and then the clifftop. The wind was blowing like mad up there, cutting into their faces and it was dead loud, but they wrapped their jackets around them and kept on going.

‘When do we stop?’ shouted Harry.

‘You know when,’ said Jack.

‘Here’s fine lads,’ I told them. ‘Don’t kill yourselves on my behalf for god’s sake.’

But they couldn’t hear me and so they kept on going. Until they reached the very top.

Harry was crying by now. And I thought it was just the hangover but then Jack wiped away a tear and all.

‘Come on lads,’ I told them.

‘We wanted to do this for you, mate,’ Jack said. ‘We love you; we miss you, we’re sorry.’

‘You’ve got nothing to be sorry about, you daft sod.’

‘Do we read the letters now?’ Harry said.

‘Just give them here,’ I told them.

And they watched them blow into the wind.

Judge Electra says: “I absolutely loved the voice in this, the use of dialogue to propel the narrative forwards, and the characterisation. Like several of the pieces on the shortlist the eternal theme of death and what happens to those left behind is at the heart of the story, but the approach is fresh and lively. I felt like I understood the world they all inhabited and the relationships they had enjoyed. The writing was deft and headed surely towards a satisfying denouement. Lovely stuff.”

Guest Judge Electra Rhodes

Electra Rhodes is an archaeologist, who lives in Hertfordshire. Her prose is widely published in a range of journals and collections. Recent work appears in the Parthian Press anthology – ‘An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century’, in the Fly on The Wall Press anthology – ‘Demos Rising’, and in the ‘Fuel Flash’ anthology. She’s one of The London Library’s ‘Emerging Writers’ for 2022/23, working on an intersectional biography of the British landscape. She co-leads Friday Flashing for Retreat West, teaches CNF for The Crow Collective, and runs workshops at literary festivals across the U.K. Find her on Twitter @electra_rhodes

Shortlisted Stories

An olfactory response to loss or how to process a memory when your heart is broken
Celtic knots
Climbing the Gloucester Tree, Pemberton, WA
Five turns from my Grandmother’s Scrabble set
Letters for Sam
Nine charms
Our gift from Gaetano
The elephant man

Longlisted Stories

An olfactory response to loss or how to process a memory when your heart is broken
Celtic knots
Climbing the Gloucester Tree, Pemberton, WA
Dead Cert
Eurydice Changes Her Name
Five turns from my grandmother’s Scrabble set
Letters for Sam
Milk oozing from their C cup
Nine charms
Nineteen, twenty my plate’s empty
Our gift from Gaetano
Soul cleanse
Summer nights
The day before Lois clears her desk
The elephant man
The things they said about my father
Wombat in August