Thursday night was one of my highlights of the year as far as writing is concerned.
It was judgement day for the annual Fiction Competition at Walsall Writers’ Circle, and I had a terrible shock – I won!
It was an even bigger shock when, as judge and professional author Barbara Carr revealed before confirming the result, the standard of the other entries became clear.
She said she’d found it very difficult to judge because the quality of the stories presented by members had been so consistently high. She was quite right – this became apparent when everyone had the opportunity to read their stories out at the meeting.
They were a diverse bunch too – the set theme was ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’, and this was ably covered in everything from mainstream fiction to crime and even near-cyberpunk!
In my case I had decided to think out of my usual genre box, and went for a supernatural crime story set in Stratford-upon-Avon, entitled ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a wail’ – with less horror and more humour. Of course you can only do so much with a 1,500 word limit, but I found it a very interesting and enjoyable exercise.
The prize is due to be presented to me at next month’s WWC AGM meeting, where I will also be speaking about ‘WordPress for writers and bloggers’. Hopefully there will be a photo taken of the presentation, I will post it here in due course,
Finally, a few people have said they’d like to read my winning story, so I present it below – hope you enjoy it!
Where there’s a Will, there’s a wail… 1,499 words
It had been a tiring trip on the coach from London. Having been jammed into a window seat next to a large woman with an apparently inexhaustible supply of pies for more than a hundred miles, by the time I was finally able to stretch my legs in Stratford-upon-Avon I was not a happy bunny. Still, there was the weekend to look forward to before beginning my first duty at Rother Street Police Station on Monday.
A Detective Sergeant in the ‘Met, I’d been offered a transfer from the Yard to Stratford by a bright spark in the management who’d heard I was a “Shakespeare nut”. I wasn’t sure whether my colleagues were glad to see the back of me or not, but the calls of “Bugger off, Inspector Morse!” as I had left the station for the last time convinced me it was the right move.
I was staying at the White Swan, a fine old inn the Bard himself had probably frequented. After a meal and a good night’s sleep, I was up with the lark the next morning. I had a ticket for the evening performance of Macbeth by the RSC, but there was plenty of time to sightsee before then, so I decided to take a boat trip along the Avon to blow the cobwebs away.
Wandering through the quaint streets of Stratford, I eventually arrived at the river, and spied an elegant old steam launch tied up at a jetty. Handing over a fiver, I stepped aboard and headed up to the prow, sitting close to the pennant. It fluttered in the breeze as we pulled away, engine chugging, and headed downstream. The sun was shining, and all was right with the world.
Being early, there were not many passengers aboard the Viola, and while keeping my own peace I couldn’t help overhearing something of the excited conversation going on behind me. It was tricky to pick out words occasionally as the cheery old steamer was doing plenty of muttering of its own, but I could make out a family of (inevitably!) Americans, who were pointing breathlessly at this and that along the bank. As we passed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the youngest lady in the colonial party practically had an orgasm. From what I could make out, she was a theatre student back home in Boston. So she was on a pilgrimage of sorts. I expected I might see the family later, when I visited Will’s grave at the church of Holy Trinity, a short riverside walk from the theatre.
I leaned forward over the prow as the tower of Holy Trinity appeared through the trees to starboard, musing that the Bard himself would almost certainly have rowed these very waters, and might even have used some Elizabethan equivalent of the old chain ferry which was just pulling up on the opposite bank as we passed by. Closing my eyes I dreamed, for a moment, of that Stratford of old.
Suddenly there was one almighty thump and the scream of tortured bronze against iron. We’d caught the ferry chain in the prop. I didn’t notice much of this, however, as I lurched over the side, banging my head on the gunwale, and plunged into the murky waters beneath…
…I floated, as if in a dream, I know not for how long, then gradually rose towards the light until, gasping, I broke the surface. The Viola’s ‘captain’ was leaning over the side with a boat hook, and dragged me back aboard, full of apology, asking whether I was alright (I was shaken and soggy, but no matter, I’d been in worse scrapes than that). After a moment spent checking the prop, we headed back to the jetty, and I squelched my way down to the road, where I caught a taxi back to the inn and a welcoming hot bath.
I changed, then fell asleep in an armchair reading Macbeth. When I awoke, there was plenty of time before I needed to get to the theatre, so I had an early dinner and decided to take a leisurely walk along the riverside to Holy Trinity, for a look round the churchyard. By the time I was within sight of the church, however, the sky was beginning to cloud over, obscuring the rising Moon, and dusk began to slowly fall, like a stage curtain.
Since I was nearly there I decided to continue, despite the gathering gloom, and soak in the atmosphere. I picked my way carefully through the gravestones, shadows growing swiftly all about me. A furtive owl hooted, making me start for a moment.
As I reached the church doors, they appeared to be closed. The lights were off as far as I could see, which was disappointing, but then a flicker came and went through one of the high, stained-glass windows, breaking the beam of what I presumed to be a torch into a myriad of multi-coloured shards.
My natural copper’s suspicion piqued, I found the vestry entrance and could see the heavy oak door had been forced – no mean feat. It was slightly ajar, and beyond I could see more flickers of light slashing to and fro through the gloom. Faintly at first, then growing louder as I approached, there came the clang of iron and the harsh crack of splintering stone.
Wishing I had my police radio on me, I slowly pushed the door further open, slipping quietly into the darkened room. Outlined from time to time in the torchlight, I could just glimpse movement within the chancel and beyond. Shadowy figures were busily banging and scraping at the stones before the altar. I crept quietly out into the chancel.
“Hold on there – Police!” I shouted. Suddenly, Moon or no, I saw stars, as the shadows exploded behind me and a black-clad figure leaped out, catching me one hell of a wallop to the back of the head with an iron bar. All hell broke loose and as I fell forward, through the veil of pain I dimly glimpsed flashes of red light, smelled the stench of burning sulphur and heard plaintive wails of despair. Darkness reached out to take me in its arms…
After what seemed an eternity, my vision cleared and bright shafts of light in serried rows, flaring down from the great arched windows above, came slowly into focus. The ancient flagstones were hard and ice-cold against my back and, struggling to rise, I could see that the chancel was now lit by myriad guttering candles. There was no sign of the burglars at first glance, but the effects of their depredations were clearly illumined by the now ascendant Moon – William Shakespeare’s slab had been upturned, his dusty bones revealed within the dark pit beneath. A substantial crowbar lay next to a pickaxe amongst scattered fragments of stone.
One end of that crowbar was also spattered with blood – mine, I presumed.
Strangest of all were three sooty outlines, drawn shadow-like upon the chilly flagstones of the chancel. They were in the exact same spot as those dark figures I had glimpsed earlier, and a distinct whiff of brimstone yet lingered in the air.
“Ill met by Moonlight, eh?”
The boldly-spoken yet oddly quiet words seeped into my ears. A tintinnabulation of whispered laughter reverberated, or rather did not, as if from places beyond.
“He’s no Oberon, Master!”
“No, nor yet a Romeo – though he might make a passable Dogberry!”
[Laughter again, one deep bass voice above the rest.]
I could hear it clearly, though there was no echo; strange for a church.
There was a shimmer; the candles flared up, renewed. A cold wind that was not wind sliced through me, and a motley yet translucent crew materialised, all dressed in Elizabethan costume. Most were clearly Shakespearian characters, all but one who was, even more obviously, yet unbelievably, the great man himself…
“May I present myself, young sir. I hight one Will Shakespeare, you may I think have heard o’ me?”
Shivering, quivering, I could not help but glance toward the words engraved upon the Bard’s tombstone:
“Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.”
“Worry not, that curse be not for you, good Constable – not you who risked all to defend my poor old remains. ‘Twas for those three miscreants, now gone down to Hell. As for thee, thou art truly welcome, and invited any time to meet most cordially amongst our company. ‘Dost know aught of my plays?”
“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” I cried, falling back in a dead faint and, before colliding with the old, cold stones of Holy Trinity, I heard yet more fairy laughter, the cat-calls of long-dead thespians and one last Parthian shot from the Bard himself:
“I see that you do. Well met, friend. ‘Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’”