Winners Spring 2022

We’re delighted to announce the winners of the Spring 2022 Propelling Pencil Flash Fiction competition, judged by Emily Devane.

Whittling down our shorlist of 10 stories was a tough task, as Emily said, “It’s a great list – every single flash has something special in there.” Congratulations to our three winners.

First prize
Ceropegia Woodii by Anne Summerfield
Second prize
When The After came to stay by Rachel Canwell
Third prize
ambulance by Jo Clark

You can read the winning stories and Judge’s comments below. Thanks to all our entrants for a wonderful collection of stories to choose from. We are aiming to host a live online reading evening in May, so please check back for more information soon.

First Prize

Ceropegia Woodii by Anne Summerfield

Close-up of ceropegia-woodii heart shaped leaves

It can’t go in a packing box safely. Crumbling soil, long stems dangling and tangling. Desiccated leaves that are damaged by a gust of air not even birthday candle hard. I don’t want to carry it out specially but— She left it with me.

I remember her mentioning early on that she wanted a pet, a cat for preference, but with the tenancy agreement there was no chance, and so she said let’s get a plant instead like cats and plants were interchangeable and I said okay because I wanted her to be happy and we could look after it together, our plant baby, we could take turns with the secateurs and the tiny brass spray to keep the leaves fresh and perky.

On the same shopping trip she bought one of those indoor greenhouses, to grow herbs, she said, and I’d thought, I’m not the kind of person who has a garden, I’m so not, but here I am with a pot plant and a mini greenhouse to fill with parsley and basil and perhaps this is who I am now, someone who grows roots to put down roots and isn’t that the strangest, the oddest of things?

And for a time we shared our String of Hearts. Kept it on the bedroom window ledge and wondered about getting a web of macrame to hang it from. It grew fast but not strong, and then it stopped growing at all.

After she moved out, taking the greenhouse and its edible contents with her, I became single parent to a plant baby and I remembered how much I never wanted that.

Without her, Ceropegia Woodii hasn’t thrived. The leaves are dusty, torn and crisp. The stems were always thin and delicate but now they are so dry and fragile that it’s like the plant is making its own bed of straw to lie on. I wonder yet again if it’s worth trying to move the plant at all and if that was why she’d left it with me. She would have known it was dead long before I did.

My other things are nearly all packed. More than I have boxes for, but there are always carrier bags. I round up the last bits: pens and paper clips, open blisters of paracetamol, stray kitchen utensils, wet bottles of shampoo and shower gel. It would be so easy to pick up the plant by the pot and hurl it through the window to the street below. I could do that or make one extra trip to carry it down to the car separately, cradle it in my arms. I could learn how to take care of it, learn how to feed and nurture and trim the way she wanted me to. The surviving heart-shaped leaves are like full lips, smiling. This could be where I begin.

Emily says:
“This story is so beautifully structured around a moment of deciding what to do with a dying plant. The prose is quiet and elegant, and through the chosen details, so much of the character’s inner turmoil is revealed. The plant at the centre of the story becomes a whole lot more than a bunch of dry leaves in a pot. It stands as a symbol of a failed relationship, and as an opportunity for this character to learn about themselves, practise self-care and move forwards. I especially admired the line: ‘It grew fast but not strong, and then it stopped growing at all.’ I returned to this story for its hopeful ending; that last line is perfection. I want this character – and, of course, their plant baby – to thrive.”

Second Prize

When The After came to stay by Rachel Canwell

A dark kitchen table lit by a single lamp

When The After came to stay, it brought a cloying, wispy texture to our days. Like strands of spun sugar, it wrapped itself around the chair legs and tugged at our untidy pigtails each time we tried to push its unseen hands away.

The After invaded our mealtimes. Sitting, untroubled and uninvited at the kitchen table; sliding a filmy grease over sausages, eggs and chips. Until everything tasted of swamp, earthworms and the blackest part of the night.

The After closed our throats and stopped the words we occasionally tried to form, burning us from the inside out with the sounds that never came.

The After turned out our lights, curdled fresh milk and chased the cat away. The After followed us to school, hiding in our book bags, where it sat, knocking at our ankles during lessons. Before breaking our best pencils and firing them like arrows amongst our few remaining friends.

And as the three of us lay awake at night, stone-still in sagging beds, we heard The After slither blindly across the hall and lift the latch; before mingling seamlessly with our mother’s hidden tears and silent, creeping shame.

The After divided and fragmented us. Grabbing at our hands, sending us spinning in a thousand different ways. It whispered in our ears and wove its silky black ribbons through our dreams. Each story it told was handpicked, a bespoke, ebony fairytale of lost children and wicked shapeless things.

The After worried, gnawed, spat and chewed at the edges of our lives, until finally its point was made. And The After’s breath of blame that hovered, cloud-like near the ceiling, floated down and settled next to me.
For it was the spilling of my secrets that transformed The Before into The After.
And decided what we all became.

Emily says:
“I so admire this writer’s use of rhythm, and the repetition of ‘The After’, which seems to mimic the narrator’s circling thoughts in this breathless flash. The event which marks ‘The Before’ and ‘The After’ is not named, but we get hints through the mother’s shame and the child’s spilling of secrets and the telling of fairytales about ‘lost children and wicked shapeless things’. This story, it seems to me, is about how families and individuals deal with trauma. It’s a flash where the form, and the poetic specificity of the details, work together to create a story with a beating heart.”

Third Prize

ambulance by Jo Clark

Toy ambulance

there’s a nee-naw nee-nawin’ down t’road outside an jack halton thumps me cos we’re laikin’ toy cars in’t church playgroup, an i’ve got t’ambulance in me ’and an jack’s maungy cos t’real nee-naw ‘appened when i ’ad t’toy un, but then grandma picks me up early wi’ a face full o lines, more lines than she normally wears, an she says summat what makes t’playgroup lady go white, an t’lady sees me clutchin t’ambulance an says i can take it ’ome, an jack grabs for it, but she shushes ’im, an kneels down to stroke me cheek an pops t’ambulance in me pocket, an then i’m off down t’road, one ’and hurty-tight in grandma’s an t’other round t’ambulance in me pocket, an grandma’s walkin raight quick like it’s important to keep goin, so quick i daren’t ask where me mam is, an when we go past t’end o my street grandma tugs me along even faster, an when i look down t’street there’s a real ambulance at t’far end, wi lights an ambulance men an all, an it feels like summat big’s ’appening, summat grownup, but we don’t stop, an at ’ome grandad’s got sammy on ’is lap, an sammy’s fur’s damp but it weren’t rainin, an we get fish suppers from t’chippy for a treat, an grandma tucks me up in’t back bedroom, an i’m surprised cos me mam din’t say owt about a sleepover, but grandma’s face is all fierce lines again so i don’t ask, an she lets sammy sleep at t’bottom o’t bed, an when i wake in’t middle o’t night i can’t get back to sleep so i laik on’t raggy rug wi sammy an t’ambulance till mornin, wishin jack were ’ere to play an all, an just nee-nawin’ raight quiet so i don’t wake anyone

Emily says:
“This story is all about voice, and this one has such a ring of authenticity. We’re right there, clutching grandma’s hand, ‘hurty tight’, with one hand and ‘t’ambulance’ with the other. This writer uses sensory details that keep us in the moment as the story is revealed – and it’s a story that gives up more with each re-read. We spot clues which suggest what might have happened to this child’s mother – the kindnesses, the tense faces, the wet dog – and our hearts ache for this character, whose world, we suspect, is about to come crashing down.”