Winner: Norman Coburn - The Territorial
We fell in love with Normans voice and the undeniable feeling that something much larger was lurking just out of reach. His great storytelling, oddly sexually charged character engagement, and the twist at the end all coalesced as a piece of winning fiction.
1st Place - Open Prose Competition
I thought I’d always love the smell of fresh cut grass. Sweet, tangy, with rich overtones of warm summer day. But lately, I’m growing to hate it.
I watch him through a gap in the fence for a full ten minutes, uncertain what to do. Since I got in from work I’m aware he has been meticulously raking moss from his lawn, back and forward, up and down. He’s stroking the weed into neat piles and in a few minutes he’ll produce a long sharp blade and start manicuring the edges. He pauses his raking and draws his barrow a few inches closer to the fence, bending to scoop in gloved hands, the nearest pile of debris. He has his back to me, his jeans perhaps two sizes too big for him, drawn tight by a faded brown belt swamping his light frame. He bends again and a strip of pale white flesh appears between the belt and the faded pink jumper that must have been his mother’s. Each time he stands, his muttering is barely audible. “Fucking, fucking cats.”
I let him deposit his latest handful before I lean up on tip toes and call out. “Clive. Could I have a moment?”
He turns slowly and looks up at me, patting moss from his gloves, then depositing them in the barrow. “Sure,” he says. “I’ll come round.”
Stepping back into my house I can hear the familiar sound of his boots, scraping on the mat at his own back door. I’m a few seconds ahead of him, so I have time to slip down the corridor and flick the front door off its catch, then dart back to my kitchen. I’m boiling the kettle when I hear him enter, the wine glasses in the cupboard above my head tinkling as he heels the door closed. Little grunts as he stoops to take off his boots, his one reluctant concession to me.
“Tea or coffee,” I ask brightly as he draws a chair across the tiles.
“Coffee. Just the one sugar.”
I go noisily about my tasks, waiting to see if he notices. My internal jury counts down the seconds until I reach my verdict. The gavel falls and my silence points a lingering finger at the accused. Clive hates silence. “What’s up?” he says.
I’m pouring water into the cafetière, trying to keep the tremor out of my hands. “Oh,” I say, looking back over my shoulder. “I’m curious if you saw anyone poking around the house today?” I pick up the milk, slide my fingers into the handles of two mugs and carry them over to the table.
Clive’s picks at his jeans for a few moments, his head moving slowly in a deliberate arc, first left, then back to the right. “Can’t say I have. Why do you ask?”
I can keep indignation out of my voice, but it’s at a price, because I can feel my face harden. “I’ve had a delivery of something I wasn’t expecting.”
He looks up at me, as if he won’t speak again until I sit down.
“You were in the military, weren’t you?” I say, gripping the back of a chair.
He starts plucking grass off his jumper, letting the pieces fall to the floor. “Yeah,” he says. “Kinda. Two years in the territorials.”
“I hope you see why I ask,” I say.
“Never saw any action. Yomping in Snowdonia a lot of the time.”
He stops picking and finishes with three brisk sweeps across his chest. “Wh’as bugging you, woman?”
“Oh for pity’s sake Clive. This!” I thrust a forefinger at the solitary bullet. It’s sitting where I found it, upright on its cap, placed dead centre in the middle of the table.
He has a bored expression which does not change as he leans forward, snatching the bullet, turning it a few times between thumb and forefinger. “8.6mm calibre,” he says, weighing the thing in his hands for a few moments. He looks at my eyes and we study each other. “Lovely bit of kit. Longer and heavier than a regular bullet. More accurate over long distances.”
“And it’s sitting in my kitchen, why?”
He spreads out his hands but doesn’t speak.
I’m glaring at him now. “As far as I can tell, I’ve not had a break in. You’re the only person who has spare keys.” Fear and rage tug inside me, but rage wins. “Tell me Clive. Tell me right now or I’ll call the police.”
He looks away from me and lets out a deep sigh. “I’ve been thinking about what to do,” he says. He taps the table twice with tip of the bullet. “Let’s go upstairs. I’ll show you.”
“I really don’t think so, Clive.”
He looks at the coffee, steaming and un-poured. “It’ll be best for both of us this way.” My step backwards is involuntary. “You can’t be serious.”
He sets the bullet back on the table, steadying its base with his right index finger. Then slowly, purposefully, running the tip of his finger up the brass shaft and around the steel tip. “Tonight, two hours, maybe three. I’ll have this sorted.”
I start shaking my head. His response is to pick up the bullet and point it at me. “And your only part is to stop making a fuss and lend me your bedroom window.”
I hear the tremor in my voice. “What are going to do Clive?”
“You don’t need to take any part in it.”
Without responding he stands and walks back down the corridor. When his boots are back on he yanks the door open so hard it makes the whole house shake. The last words I hear before it slams shut are. “Fucking, fucking cats.”