Surrey Life Short Story Competition winner for 2019

St Martha's Church (c) Fiona Hackland, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

St Martha's Church (c) Fiona Hackland, Flickr (CC BY 2.0) - Credit: Archant

Following careful deliberation, the judges of our Readers’ Short Story Competition were unanimous in picking this intense thriller by Guildford resident Rachel Meade as our 2019 winner

Crack. Unmistakably a crack. But where was it coming from?

The mist was even heavier than when she’d left the car park. Then, she’d welcomed its cooling dankness after the stuffy heat of the car, looking forward to watching it swirl and dissipate as she climbed to the top of St Martha’s Hill.

On a fine morning, Emily felt she was in a secret world above the clouds at the summit, squinting into the sunlight, revelling in the warmth while fields and villages below remained cloaked in their dewy mantle.

Now, it was her enemy. And worse, the steep swathes of leaf-lined woodland created disorienting echoes, making it impossible to pinpoint the sound’s location (or that of the creature making it).

Simon hated her going out so early on her own. They’d rowed about it again this morning. His face was frustratingly impassive as he calmly explained the risks, imploring her to “stay safe”.

“It’s the 21st century,” was her parting shot. “Women won’t be frightened into staying home anymore! And get your own breakfast for once!”

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In truth, it was the solitude she most valued about this place: a respite from the cloying domesticity and his constant gaze. Initially, his steadiness had attracted her, but over the past year, his quiet confidence had mutated into suffocating complacency.

Sometimes, alone amongst the gnarled oaks with just the birdsong for company, Emily was freed from all sense of time. She imagined herself a prioress, trekking the Pilgrim’s Way, or a pagan getting ready to celebrate the harvest on the dancing rings near the summit.

But it was no time for fancies now. As she forced herself to breathe deeper, the icy air caught her chest. She willed oxygen into her lungs and propelled herself forward, her thighs screaming as she pounded forward and upwards.

“Thud, thud, thud, thud.” The sounds were growing louder. Emily tried to tell herself it was blood pulsating in her ears, but she could deny it no longer.

Someone or something was following her. Risking a furtive glimpse over her shoulder, she made out a gloomy figure approaching, backlit by pale yellow morning light.

She was shivering now. Sweat had soaked her, and the dawn air chilled her sodden clothes, taking much needed energy. She gasped again and sucked in air. The ground beneath her feet had changed.

This was good. Running on the sandy lower slope was impossibly hard going. Here, the footpath was firm loamy soil and it gave her an advantage. There were more trees here, and she felt their ancient presence as a comfort. Until the world turned upside down.

Landing with a sickening thump, Emily thought she had been caught by the creature. But scrabbling forward, reorientating herself, she could hear the thudding footsteps still a way behind.

A tree root was the culprit. Ignoring the stinging in her hands, she struggled to her feet. A sharp pain told her that she’d turned her ankle but she was back, running again.

The panic in her chest was overwhelming now and her mind raced too, seeking solace, flitting to the legends of St Martha and the hill itself.

Up ahead, the light was increasing and, as she pounded forward, she could see the outline of the church at the top of the hill. Thank goodness.

Relief was swiftly replaced with fear as it dawned on her, she had no plan! Instinct had taken over and she’d run with no thought of her destination. What now?

Her lungs constricted and her throat clamped shut. No option: she pushed on to the church, praying for sanctuary, Emily fumbled for the gate latch, flinging it shut behind her.

She floundered wildly through the graveyard, sliding across mossed tombs. “Please,” she begged. The heavy arched church door creaked open.

Casting her eyes round the gloom, she headed for the belltower steps, scarcely conscious of the scent of candles, wood and ancient books. The stone steps were uneven, and she pressed herself to the clammy wall, conscious of her unsteady ankle.

Nearly there. Onwards, onwards.

Finally reaching the top, she collapsed, huddled into a corner. In the stillness, she was acutely conscious of her rasping breath and the intense crushing pressure in her ribcage.

She felt in her pocket for her inhaler… “Creeeeeaak” Footsteps resounded on the flagstones as fear gripped her. Then it spoke.

“Darling, it’s just me. You forgot your inhaler, silly! It was on the table when you stormed out.” Relief flooded through Emily’s body. Simon! “Oh thank goodness! My chest’s so tight, I can’t get back to the car without it. I’m up here Simon, please come quick.”

Simon plodded steadily upwards holding the small blue tube of Ventolin in front of him. He peered at her through misted spectacles.

“What would you do without me?” he murmured, “how many times have I told you to stay safe?” “Darling” she cooed “and, what would I do without you?” “The sun’s out” she added softly “come onto the roof with me, the view will be amazing.”

Quietly, solemnly, they stepped out together onto the turreted roof of the tower, turning gently to face the sun. Emily wasn’t sure what happened next.

Was she seized by the spirit of the giant, or ghosts of pagan dancers?

The culmination of her fear, the aftermath of the run, or, quite simply, that she couldn’t bear his patronising voice one more time?

Whatever caused it, the force of Emily’s push sent Simon flying over the crenellations.

Momentarily, he was again a mysterious figure, dark against the golden sun as he soared then plummeted.

“I’ve told you, I can look after myself,” Emily yelled triumphantly. Gazing down exultantly, she felt immortal, timeless and fiercely alone…

Until she saw the small, blue inhaler, lying by Simon’s body, smashed into a hundred pieces.

Highly commended entries: Games Children Play by Christine Reeves, DNA by Alice Dunn, Fresh Air by Bethan Davies and The Singer Downstairs by Sharon Cochrane

Our 2020 short story competitions are still open for entries:

- Adult competition

- Kids’ competition

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