We are delighted to announce the winners of Lucent Dreaming’s 2021 Flash Fiction contest. The winning stories appear below, and will be published in our upcoming 10th issue next month. Highly commended stories will appear in issue 10 of Lucent Dreaming which is available to preorder.
Jeffrey Skinner, ‘Mission Creep’
Julia Clayton, ‘Dacre Must Fall’
Heather Cripps, ‘Lovable’
C J Raven, ‘Contemplations’
Hodan Essa, ‘Such a tragedy’
Julia Clayton, ‘Cafe Herakles’
Mission Creep by Jeffrey Skinner
When I woke my cross was turned wrong side out, silver to the world, gold inward. Must have been some dream I can’t remember, one from the genre of tumult and fire and whipped up clouds.
Art can do many things—sit, roll over, speak, piss. Even atone. We prefer shock and awe, of course, which doesn’t make it right, or left, above or below. Only an auction house thinks art is worth what it costs to make, or buy. Only demons short the futures of song. The huge wood sculpture in Chelsea continuously changed shape, but so slowly you couldn’t tell—the basic material remained the same—until it had become a different thing entirely. I liked that.
When my father retired he no longer understood the mission. This drive to the post office, I could see him thinking, this isn’t really a big deal. But I was still engaged, and did not understand the look on his face.
The philosopher opened his briefcase and took out a sheaf of papers and placed it on the lectern, squaring the corners. The subject of tonight’s talk is free will, he began. First we must distinguish what we mean by free, and what we mean by will. They are not words, but rather, flighty angels or abstractions, and must be brought to ground. Then we will discuss the new thing made by putting these freshly clipped wings together, and how that coupling affects the valence on either side, if you will. Then we’ll grab free, and will, bind them to the bed, and drain each of blood and plasma. Then scrub, until we can see clean through and they squeak, each of them separately, as we run a dry finger across their surfaces. We will posit god, and situate these terms within god’s body, and see if god sneezes or chokes or looks askance, or pauses even slightly in his step on the way to the next essential engagement. Then remove god and see if free will can survive an otherwise empty universe. Finally, we will add one man—and one man only—and attempt to track with as much precision and solicitude as we may, the ensuing chaos. Good night, I’ll say, in hopes that all of us leave the theater and journey home in silence, and sit a moment in the inmost room of our inmost house, and think, drink in hand or not, about the infinite delicate atrocities we have committed. Thank you for coming. You needn’t have.
Damien Hirst found an 18th century skull in a shop in Islington and paid to have it sectioned, cast in platinum, and reassembled. Then had the original teeth installed in the platinum skull, and hired jewelers to embed 8,601 diamonds, completely covering its surface. Finally, a pear-shaped pink diamond called Skull Star was placed in the center of the bejeweled forehead. “Celestial, almost” said a critic. Before the exhibit opening, Hirst took his mother to the gallery. “What will you do next, for the love of God?” she said. It was shown in an illuminated glass case, in darkened rooms. After a world tour—with stops in Amsterdam, Florence, London, Doha, and Oslo—For the Love of God sold for one hundred million pounds.
My father sat in a floating pool of light reading my poems. It was his actual chair, his lamp, my book. But all else in his living room had been erased, green-screened out. He was suspended inside a globe of stars and his local position was total darkness, except for the lamp. As we know, it is difficult to tell both direction and momentum without a point of reference— impossible, really. To me he appeared to be floating, though it might have been we were moving in the same direction at tremendous speed. Or, both of us were stationary. What do you think? I asked him. He lowered his reading glasses and closed the book. It’s good, what I understand of it, he said. My only regret is that you never joined Rotary. We really needed more people like you. With that he readjusted his glasses and went back to reading.
Something mute and woodsy intrudes: the bamboo branch with its clutch of spear-point feathers, swiping slowly down the dining room window.
I fell into the cross long ago. Then, was born. I’m talking about the cross at the center of the universe, the portal through which everyone enters. If you can’t sign on, I understand. I myself often wake up, thinking—it’s such a simple story, OMG! You really have to be an idiot, or a child. And then I ready myself once more, with determined look, ankle holstered M-1911, extra magazines, Kevlar skin, push-dagger neck knife, and my awesome, shimmering desire. Brothers and sisters, metaphor has covered us all with a light snow. It is everything we see and feel. But, here, take my literal hands. Put them somewhere next to your body and keep them with you, please. They are so cold, my literal hands.
Jeffrey Skinner’s most recent book, Chance Divine, won the Field Prize, and was published in 2017. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014, and in 2015 an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for literature. His work has appeared in many journals, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, POETRY, and Threepenny Review.
DACRE MUST FALL by Julia Clayton
I can’t remember where I read the quote ‘there’s nothing so invisible as a monument’, but it certainly applied to the statue in the neglected square outside my flat. It wasn’t one of those statues that people interacted with, dressing them in Everton shirts or Liverpool hats, like the Beatles at the Pier Head or the Antony Gormley men on Crosby Beach. Right through the whole Coronavirus pandemic I never once saw a facemask on it. There was something self-effacing about it, set back from the patchy lawn with predatory rhododendrons encroaching further each year. Nobody ever ventured close enough to read the moss-covered inscription on the plinth.
So when a friend forwarded the ‘Dacre Must Fall’ post to me on Facebook, I thought there must be some mistake. But the photograph accompanying the post left no doubt that it was the statue in the square below: a middle-aged man, in marble, sporting mutton-chop whiskers and toga (presumably intended to convey more gravitas than a pair of trousers and a frock-coat), solemnly studying the contents of an open scroll which he held in his hands.
DACRE MUST FALL!
It’s time to educate yourselves, people! Edward Colston was just the start – now it’s time to decolonise our streets by ditching the statue of eighteenth-century slaver Thaddeus Dacre in Ambrose Square, Liverpool. As well as profiting from the labour of enslaved Africans on their St Kitts plantations, the Dacre family also owned several ships which were used to transport slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean.
I grew up round here, you know, surrounded by Dacre Library, Dacre Lane, Dacre Park (everyone called it ‘the Dazzie’), but they were just words: places you went without thinking about their names. Like most of the kids round here, I went to Dacre Primary School. Nobody ever told us how the school got its name; thinking back on it now, I don’t think we did anything about the history of the slave trade at primary school, even though we were surrounded by grand Georgian buildings built on its profits. Back then there wasn’t such a thing as Black History, not even Mary Seacole.
By the time I received the Facebook post, there were already plenty of comments calling for the statue to be pulled down and for all things Dacre to be re-named. Some people wanted to take immediate action by toppling the statue and dragging it down to the Mersey – a bit ambitious, as it’s nearly two miles from here to the river, although I suppose at least it’s all downhill. The statue had once used to feel like a familiar acquaintance when I glimpsed it from the window, like the people I’d nod to when I saw them out dog-walking or collecting their newspaper each morning, but now I understood what it represented it felt sinister, as if it were lurking with evil intent amid the dark, waxy leaves of the rhododendrons. I wondered what was on the scroll, but you couldn’t tell from ground level. On the third morning after I received the Facebook post, I looked out of my kitchen window and saw that someone had sprayed SLAVER across the statue’s plinth in bright yellow paint.
Things gained momentum: the Dacre Lane street sign was defaced, and the primary school said they would consult with parents about changing the school’s name. I attended a socially-distanced vigil in the square, clutching my thermos and my blanket. A curator from the Museum of Liverpool Life came to the vigil as well; she collected some of the banners and placards for the museum’s social history collection. There were a few attempts to pull the statue down from its plinth, but it’s much harder to topple a solid marble statue than a hollow bronze one. Somebody managed to smash off the marble scroll, though – it seemed to have some sort of design on it, maybe for a ship or a machine. The historian in me felt uncomfortable about the destruction of evidence from the past, but as a historian I also knew that this island has a long tradition of toppling statues, going all the way back to when Boudicca’s followers decapitated a bronze statue of the Emperor Claudius and chucked it in a river.
Gradually, however, the outrage over the statue subsided. The local branch of the Victorian Society issued a statement which said that although the city of Liverpool did indeed have many statues of people whose wealth derived from the slave-trade, the gentleman in Ambrose Square wasn’t one of them. It turned out that someone had bothered to read the inscription on the plinth: the statue commemorated a Thaddeus Dacres, a Lancashire mine-owner who appeared to have no connection with the slave-trade. The scroll the marble figure had been holding showed the design for the Dacres Pump, a revolutionary invention to suck bad air out of mine-workings.
One of the right-wing broadsheets ran a rather gloating feature about how the protestors (or ‘vandals’ in their wording) had got it wrong: they said that Thaddeus Dacres was one of the good guys, a Victorian philanthropist who’d built a model village for his workers at the Dangerous Corner colliery, complete with a Temperance bar, Library and Mechanics’ Institute. The article reported that the miners’ cottages were still there, now encrusted with porches and conservatories, and that the Mechanics’ Institute was now a tapas bar. The journalist even managed to find a villager who remembered going to the Mechanics’ Institute as a child; he said they used to cut all the racing pages out of the newspapers, to discourage gambling among the colliery workers.
Now if there’s one thing I like, it’s a model village – not the small-scale kind, but workers’ villages like Saltaire and Bournville and Port Sunlight. I consider myself something of an expert on Lancashire’s model villages, so I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of the one at Dangerous Corner. Scrolling through the online catalogue for the Liverpool Central Library, I discovered that they held a collection of papers relating to Thaddeus Dacres. My friend Roger, one of the archivists, said he’d get the Dacres papers out for me, but he warned me that there were sixteen large boxes’ worth.
The first few boxes just contained domestic stuff: invoices for wine and items of taxidermy; plans for an art gallery at Thaddeus Dacres’s country house; an application for a coat of arms – pretty standard stuff for someone on the up in the 1850s. By the seventh box, however, alarm bells were beginning to ring: inside the box were a couple of bronze tokens stamped with the title ‘Dangerous Corner Colliery’ and the legend ex carbo lux. I’d seen similar things before and I realised that these were truck tokens, issued in lieu of wages, which could only be spent at the company shop in the village, a shop which would almost certainly be overpriced. Underneath the tokens I found a printed list of regulations controlling the lives of the residents in the village: no drinking, no political meetings, compulsory attendance at Chapel on Sundays. The final regulation tersely stated that if a man was killed or incapacitated whilst employed at the mine, his wife and children would no longer have the right to remain in their company-owned cottage.
The documents in the eighth box revealed that the air-pump had actually been invented by one of the colliery engineers, a Mr Rimmer. There was a string of solicitors’ letters threatening Mr Rimmer with the loss of his job, and eviction from his company house, unless he agreed to sign over the patent to Dacres in return for a negligible sum. I even found the statement he had been forced to sign, confirming that Dacres had invented the machine himself.
Roger said he was surprised how long I’d spent with the Dacres archive, as nobody had ever shown much interest in these documents before. He asked me if I’d found what I wanted. I told him that I hadn’t found what I expected to find.
On my way home from the Central Library I went into a car accessories shop and bought a can of red spray-paint. Then I went down to the square after midnight and I sprayed the word BASTARD onto the statue’s plinth.
Julia Clayton lives in Southport, Merseyside, and is now in her late fifties. After doing an MA course in Late Antique History and Palaeography (deciphering and dating ancient manuscripts) at King’s College London, she taught Classics and Ancient History for many years in a state-sector sixth form college. During her teaching career she became fascinated by sculpture as a public art form, and she continues to explore the afterlife of Greek sculpture – and current debates on the function of public sculpture – in her Classical Reception blog at http://classicalclayton.blogspot.com
In 2019 Julia completed an MA course in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. She is currently doing a PhD on the subject of invented artworks in fiction, including the paradox that invented artworks sometimes become tangible artworks when novels are adapted for film or television.
Lovable by Heather Cripps
My parents believe that when two people have sex their souls intertwine and they become one person. They think when you get to heaven, the person you had sex with is still part of you, for eternity, so you have to choose wisely. They pull bible verses out to back this up. They can pull bible verses out to back up anything.
I ask them over breakfast, “What happens if you go to hell? Or if one of you goes to hell and the other to heaven? Maybe your soul is ripped in two.”
My mother frowns into her mug of coffee.
“No honey, God would never do that to a person,” she says. She doesn’t give me an actual answer.
I wonder if they think he should though, as punishment, that if you pick the wrong person you deserve to be torn in half. My Dad kisses me on the top of the head as he usually does, says he loves me and then leaves for work.
“I like that we can talk about these things,” Mum says. I’ve heard her brag to her friends about this before, that she has fostered an open relationship with her daughter.
“She can tell me anything,” she says.
I wait until they go away for the weekend to go to dinner with this girl I’ve been texting more than you would text a friend. When we finish dinner, I’m disappointed until I realise that the house is dark and empty of people so I invite her back to mine.
We get into the hallway and I can hear her breathing behind me, tickling my neck, and we giggle for no reason and I want to keep the lights off but that would be weird. Flick. They’re on now and here is my house, shoes kicked over, dry mud on the carpet, family photos on the wall.
We make coffee even though its late and I show her a mug that says God doesn’t love you because you are lovable, he loves you because he is love and I say, “These are the kind of things we have in our house,” because I hope it will help her understand me more. She laughs and asks to have her coffee in that mug.
We sit on the sofa, our feet and legs tangled together and sip, the warm steam curling into our faces. Then I put my coffee down and crawl over her, kiss her soft coffee flavoured lips. While we are kissing, and her hands are in my hair, I knock over her mug with my feet.
I lead her upstairs. I kiss her as we walk backwards into my dark quiet room and my chest and my heart feel like they’re full of something like hot chocolate or melted marshmallows and I push out the thought that I can’t be this person, not usually, only now, and I kiss her back until I lose myself.
In the morning, we make coffee again and then she leaves because my parents are due home. Before she goes, I kiss her at the open door and I try not to hate myself for being anxious that they might turn up any second and find us, and I will lose ‘darling’ and breakfast and tea and ‘I love you.’
Instead, the house is empty again for a long time and I walk around it, put the kettle on and forget about it, put the pots in to soak and then forget about them. I find the coffee mug on its side on the floor, God doesn’t love you, God doesn’t love you, and the little bit of coffee that was in there has dribbled onto the carpet and stained.
I go back up to my bed, wanting to crawl into the rumpled covers and smell the sweat but instead I find another me, a second me, lying on a made bed, watching TV on the laptop and looking up at me like I’m the one who isn’t real. We stare at each other for a second and then I get into bed with her, putting my head against her shoulder and my arms around her waist, wishing more than anything we could melt into one. When I hear my parent’s car pull up, I know which one of us will get up and greet them.