Lucent Dreaming 2021 Poetry and Short Story Competition Winners Announced!

We are delighted to announce the winners of Lucent Dreaming’s 2021 Poetry and Short Story contests. The winning poems and short stories will appear below, and in our upcoming 10th issue. We would like to thank everyone who entered this year’s poetry and short story categories. We had a very difficult job narrowing down our top pieces in both categories. Our winning pieces comprise the judges’ favourites.

Poetry

1st Place

‘Martha, to herself’ by Kate Millar

Due to limited control of our formatting on posts, the formatting of the following poem is incorrect.

Martha, to herself

            I noticed it             

                (myself)

when I couldn’t find it

     I went to there to align

myself

            with nature

the sibilance of my breathing

the water tumbling over itself

the smell of dirt and water

      and the memory of wind

                 careful of

where to place

     my eyes

I searched for the sublime

           in the stone

        coming up for breath

           in the middle of the stream

in the –

  it wasn’t May yet

             the only colours I could

         find

       pale green

and brown        

but it kept forcing itself into my periphery

       I refused to see it

      the sleeping mudbank

dirt for flesh and dry grass for fur

a Coca-Cola can lodged in its hide

dusty grey tarpaulin like a fin in the sand.

I wasn’t demanding the river to

         revise itself

     but I sat there

willing

all the seeds of the earth to grow at once

      spell out some revelation

the trees were swollen pink with rain and the riverwater was not silver.

dull brown with rippling welts of reflected light

I don’t want to see

ugliness wedged into the earth

(myself)

someone once said that there was no difference

between looking at art

   or away from it,

but my contacts have dried out from staring

Photo of Kate Millar

Kate Millar is a final year student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, pursuing an MA (Hons) in English. She has also attended courses in creative writing at Harvard University. Her writing has received commendations and awards, including the Dan Hemingway Prize and the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. When not writing (or feeling guilty for not writing), Kate loves to paint, journal, and have existential chats with her friends. You can find her on Instagram @katepmillar. 

2nd Place

‘At the Mobile MRI Unit’ by Charlotte Murray

At the Mobile MRI Unit

the nurse takes my temperature before
I’m allowed in, scrunches her face
into a budding flower, then laughs
and says, well according to this you’re cold
enough to be clinically dead. 
I smile back. I could have told her that. 

I scan myself for metal, cataloguing
my bare ear lobes, my loose jumper
and leggings, unadorned by poppers, zips, 
necklace or rings. I feel oddly naked, 
basic, newly made, like a child again
without the armour of jewellery. 

On the table I am bland dough, suet 
coloured and lumpen, knees up, feet 
together, ready to slide into the oven 
and rise in its heat. I imagined beforehand
that I would be like a hero of old, 
descend to the underworld 

through a full moon shaped cave glowing 
with watery light, return with all the answers. 
But now I am here, moving, as much as I tell myself 
I’m in the posture we relax in at the end 
of a yoga class, all I can think of is a coffin 
vanishing behind the curtain. 

They asked me how I managed not to panic, 
how I remained still as a cadaver 
on a mortuary slab. I wondered why 
they thought dread built its nest in death, 
not in the unfathomable branches of pain 
red as a summer sunset.

Photo of Charlotte Murray

Charlotte is an archivist and emerging writer from West Yorkshire. She was shortlisted in Bangor Literary Journal’s Forty Words Competition 2021 and in the Lord Whisky Sanctuary Poetry Competition 2020, longlisted for the Dead Cat Poetry Prize 2021, and had two poems shortlisted and one longlisted in the Hive Young Writers’ Competition 2020. She has been published in CP Quarterly, Lucent Dreaming and the Mancunian Ways anthology (Fly on the Wall Press), and is due to be published in Bangor Literary Journal and the winnow. You can find her on Twitter @charlouwriter or Instagram @walking.with.words.

3rd Place

‘Gnats in May’ by Anna Powell

Due to limited control of our formatting on posts, the formatting of the following poem is incorrect.

Gnats in May 

Moving speckmist midges meet

                                                          airwater streamwarm filmskin force

                            divedancing drone scent larvaelayer lure 

                                  deathdodging beakscoop jawcrush

      males mouthless mating die

                                   swayswarming zigzag vortexswirl

          densecoretowersdarken

  DROP         

              spread                                 tensile                                                                                      

          t   h   i   n                                    s   t   r   e   t   c   h                               f   u   r   t   h   e   r                               

                                      wideweave                  risedip                 minglemesh

   netflicker          smokewisp        cloud 

  two sparks   hotfusing 

  livinglight   

Photo of Anna Powell

Anna, originally from Chorley, Lancashire, has lived on Anglesey for many years, where she helps to organise local experimental arts events. Retired from lecturing and research at Manchester Metropolitan University, Anna has returned to poetry with passion. She is especially interested in sensory experiment and ecopoetics and has published in Lucent Dreaming and Y Gog.

Highly Commended

‘Breaking Ground’ by Jean Gillespie

‘Echolalia: Researching the Frankenstein Stage Play’ by Mollie Russell


Short Story

1st Place

‘Funeral Carriage’ by Joshua Doyle

Something has been calling me away from all the places that never deserved to be my home.  I remember that steady droning wail under the deafening demands of life back home.  The voice grew hoarse and faint before I found the courage to follow it and now I’m sitting in the rear seat of a passenger carriage belonging to some highly renowned railway.  The name of the railway eludes me, as does any recollection of my journey here.  Gone too is the voice.  Now there is only a jolting quiescence: the vengeful refusal of conversation from a lover who lost interest in what they wanted to say long before they stopped begging for an audience.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings but it will if I think about it too long, so I take a moment to investigate my surroundings instead.

Rows of green leather seats fill the carriage, each one as wide as the interior, and there is no walkway.  Still, the seats are occupied.  How could we have gotten to our seats without a walkway?  It only makes sense that we were suspended midair in a seated position while some beautifully synthesized machine assembled the prefabricated pieces of the carriage around us.  I imagine the process in my mind for a moment and, yes, it makes perfect sense.  Only the door at the head of the carriage challenges my theory; each passenger could have entered through it and climbed over the seats.  How silly though, because that door obviously serves as a way for railway employees to bring us refreshments.  It has no other purpose.  Comfort comes with these revelations and I finally stop worrying about how I came to be sitting in my seat.

It is only partial comfort, however, as I begin to suspect that something followed me here and it is possible that I boarded this train to avoid any further pursuit.  Briefly, I am made aware of its stalking presence as its form takes shape in my mind, manifesting itself as a large cat, a leopard perhaps, with blue fur.  I see through its eyes.  It crouches in nearby foliage, watching the door at the head of the carriage.  Our thoughts are linked in this moment and the beast understands that it cannot enter the door because it is for the serving of refreshments only.

Gently, the carriage bobs with the departure of the train and three women chirp and giggle excitedly in the seat ahead of me.  They are wearing coats that match their luggage, both of which are branded with the logo of an airline that I’m sure I’ve seen, but can’t quite recognize.  The design of the logo is unstable.  Its form is incoherent and begins shifting when I attempt to focus on it.  Sunlight strobes into the carriage as we roll beneath the porous canopy of the surrounding jungle.  Haunting and familiar scenery pours over me when I lean to look through the window.

Spaghetti, I think as the railways assume the twisting, multi-tiered composition of some highways I’ve seen in the past.  My carriage is positioned on the higher rails and through clearings in the canopy I see a patchwork of jungle and desert sprawling to the horizon.  Below, a thick mist laps at the monolithic stone pillars supporting each railway.  Various sub-layers of canopy ripple in the wind, briefly exposing the ramshackle and buildings of the city below.  The floor of the city is not visible and I’m not sure one even exists – just a bottomless tangle of steel, stone, vines, huts, fog.  Long-abandoned carriages litter several defunct rails, mechanical beasts left to lie where they died.  There are people here, too.  Sight of them is sparse, but I sense a bustling population of tourists and merchants pumping through the veins of the dense, verdant heart below.  This place, wherever it is, begins to seem like a roundabout journey on a steel track and suddenly I feel trapped in the where I was and where I’m going.  The train is nearing the edge of the city. I sink into my seat.

The women sitting ahead of me turn around and ask about my trip.  “It’s my second time taking the full trip on the railway,” I tell them.  Somehow, I know this to be true.  Buried somewhere deep in memory, that past tries to crawl out but I won’t let it coincide with my current journey.  Explanations of their sponsored travels ensue.  They say they are ‘influencers’ paid by airlines and social media platforms to photograph their travels and boast their exotic lifestyles on the internet.  Distributors of envy and unrealistic goals.  Scam artists as well, I conclude, when they disclose their scheme of finding mansions or beachfront properties for sale, pretending to be interested buyers, attending the auction events, and sneaking around the property to pose for photos.  I’m almost jealous, but such a lifestyle would not suit me because I am too honest or perhaps too cowardly.  Pondering which one is closer to the truth seems self-destructive, so I return to looking through the window and their voices fade.

Our conductor’s voice crackles through a speaker, directing our attention to the man in the abandoned carriage two rails over.  He is on his knees, grieving over a corpse which he bathes with handfuls of water.  The conductor sounds like a tour guide pointing out some scene that we should feel privileged to bear witness to.  I find his tone to be an offensive juxtaposition to the wrenching solemnity of the funerary ritual, but the other passengers photograph the scene with their phones.  Slipping into a panicked rage, my heart begins pulsating until the only sound I hear is my blood desperately trying to kick its way out of my eardrums.  Damn them, I think, I want off this train, please, dear gods.  In a short moment, the throbbing in my head is quelled by the whining of brakes as the train slows to a halt at a platform hobbling on bamboo stilts alongside the tracks.

…..

Standing on the platform, I watch the train disappear around a bend into the jungle, becoming immediately inaudible once it is out of sight.  It is raining now, though I don’t recall when the rain began or how I exited the train and everything around me is draped in silence.  Even the rain is mute.  Blue fur peaks through the wind-tugged leaves in a nearby tree.  Our senses fuse, and I can now hear the same distant weeping that the beast hears.  I follow the sound, making my way to the abandoned carriage, late for a funeral I was made aware of only moments ago.

Vines and moss have invaded the tracks I walk along but they shy away from my feet as I approach, then gently creep back into place at a safe distance behind me.  I am mesmerized by the process.  Even small flowers retract their petals completely, only to bloom again once I have passed and my footsteps are no longer a threat.  I feel somewhat guilty, as though I have caused a great disturbance for the timid flora that makes its home here, and I shamefully turn to witness their rebirth: hundreds of petals unfurling in spotty sunlight behind me, colors that can’t settle into a conceivable spectrum at first but finally come to rest in hues and tones I can make sense of.  I spot the blue leopard standing in the distance, frozen mid-step, following the very path I am walking, yet the plants have stayed fixed in their positions beneath its paws.  Vague outlines of vines and flowers seep through its fur and I am now aware that the beast is incorporeal – a shifting presence somewhere between this jungle and my own thoughts.  Fixing my gaze on the ghostly being, I begin walking backwards and it begins to follow me once more.  It keeps a strict distance and gives no sign of apprehending me.  I am confident it would have done so by now if it wished to.  I turn back around to discover that I am now standing at the door of the abandoned carriage, a door which I imagine was once used to serve refreshments, yet has not held such purpose since this carriage has come to rest here.  I reach for the handle and take a reassuring glance at the beast which still lags behind at a precise distance.  My fingers meet the rusted lever of the door and the weeping from inside falls silent.

…..

Inside the carriage –though not actually the inside of a carriage, but instead a small clearing in a forest with vastly different plant life from the jungle outside– I sit on a stump near the man and the body.  I have questions for him, and though the weeping I heard before has ceased, he seems to disregard my presence altogether.  He cups water in his hand from a nearby stream and lets it trickle from his fingers onto the body while lightly bathing it with the other hand.  Waiting in silence through the stranger’s mourning, I roll a cigarette with unidentifiable herbs and mosses scattered around my feet, though I have no intention of actually smoking it.

…..

“You must wake up,” I hear through a veil of half-sleep, “this part is important.”  His accent is foreign to me and he speaks softly, with a kind serenity that mimics the hospitality of the forest around us.  My eyes open and the mourning stranger is in front of me, leaning down in the dusty strands of daylight, smoking the cigarette I half-consciously rolled.  Smoke from the cigarette clings to his body and sinks to his ankles where it gathers and thickens instead of dissipating into the wind.  Beside the creek, the body lies on its back with its wrists and ankles bound in freshly harvested vines.  We lift the body and step into the creek as I become aware – for the first time on my journey – of my bare feet, which now rest on the smooth pebbles of the creek bed.  Smoke from the cigarette spreads across the creek’s surface as the stranger steps in and we lower the body into the water.  Fully submerged under the wispy layer of smoke, I do not see the body disintegrate but I feel the grainy, chilled water rush between my fingers and over my palms.

“Why was that so important?” I ask with my hands still in the water.  The sensation is calming and I swirl my hands under the water as the smoke begins to clear.

“Sometimes a person needs to be taught how to let go of their past,” he says.

“Was that my past?”

“No, that was mine. Sometimes it is comforting to have a little help when you let go,” he says as he smiles at me and swirls his hands around in the water before stepping out of the creek.  “Well,” he says after a long pause and turns his head toward the entrance, “I’ll leave you to it. Good luck.”

Stepping out of the creek, I look toward the entrance, instinctively following the stranger’s line of sight, and see the apparition of my past approaching.  As it gets closer I can sense its fatigue, and it can sense my submission to finally face it. To help it disappear.

Once it reaches me, the beast falls at my feet, collapsing into an exhausted heap on the smooth stones of the creek’s shore.  I kneel next to it and begin to run my fingers across its half-imaginary fur as I realize that my fearful obsession of it is the only reason it exists.  It is forced to follow me around, but only as a thought – an idea.  Powerless to help me in any present moment, and being blamed for the imagined shortcomings of my future.  At last, I excuse the beast from its presence here and its breathing slows to a stop. I begin weeping with joy, relief, and perhaps a little sadness just as a train full of tourists rolls by, two rails over.

Photo of Joshua Doyle

My name is Joshua Doyle and I was born in the United States. My educational background is in information technologies, but I abandoned that life some years ago in pursuit of deeper understandings of mysticism and consciousness. I keep a dream journal where my most vivid dreams are often the inspiration for my short stories. Surrealism and magical realism are my favorite genres, especially the works of Salman Rushdie.

2nd Place

‘Red In My Eyes’ by Lesley Reid

‘Miss?’

Red in my eyes. Finding it hard to see. Finding it hard to breathe. 

‘Miss?’

The voice is all around me. Light, but distant. I can’t see him. I can’t see anything. I’m in a bubble of red light and there is a tune playing. Something I heard long ago…

‘Is this your blood? Miss?’ 

His voice is hard. Hard enough to silence the music. 

A hand roughly grabs my face and wipes it. I can see him now; greying, fluorescent yellow safety vest, tense face, brow knotted and eyes wide with agitation. He’s staring at my face without looking at me

Beyond him. Ticket hall. Tottenham Court Road. Underground station. Yes! I was on the platform; westbound Central Line. Why am I in the ticket hall? Memories are in the wrong place, all jumbled and nonsensical. 

‘What happened?’ I mutter, but my voice isn’t mine. Words forming sounds that have no meaning to me.

‘Someone jumped. Hell of a mess. I think you were close. This isn’t your blood.’

The red clears. My eyes are open, but my face is wet and sticky. I wonder what kind of wipe he just used. I have sensitive skin. I must look a mess.

The ticket hall is packed with mainly bewildered, and a few irritated, faces. Heat rises from each of them like a ripple of invisible fire. Random thoughts converge in my already confused head as I look round. I wonder how long it’s been since they decorated this place. Wonder if anyone has noticed the obscene graffiti running up the side of the pillar opposite me. Or the man slumped in a corner apparently blissfully unaware of his surroundings – like he’s just drifted off to sleep in the sweltering heat of a weekday afternoon. 

Memories. 

I was in a hurry. I wanted to get home. I wanted to crack open a bottle of Pinot Noir and drink myself to sleep. My feet hurt in the new pair of heels that I’d bought to impress the CEO. The hot flushes were relentless. And I was just so tired of it all. I wanted to get home. 

I’d barely reached the platform – the train was coming – the noise – the sharp wash of cool air in the stifling heat – bodies pressed against each other so tightly you could smell the sweat. There was a girl with long, beautiful blonde hair staring at me and then –

… and then I saw you; pushing your way through the crowd like you had some right to be first on the train; like we didn’t exist. Your silky blouse that probably cost you a fortune was sweat stained with a filthy black mark running down the back. You turned to look at me; those superior eyes of yours shooting me a look that just made me want to punch you…

A red-faced man shouts from across the concourse as he bangs his head on a wall, his whole body shaking as a fresh trail of blood slips down his forehead. The man in the fluorescent vest tires of me and rushes over to his new patient.  He’s dwarfed by the other’s man size, but as he touches him on the shoulder, like a gigantic baby, the man crumples to his knees in floods of tears.

I want to get to my feet.

‘Miss? Miss?’

He’s young and rather attractive and for now the only thing he wants is my attention.

‘Take it easy,’ he says with a cheeky grin, steering me back down on to the cold floor. ‘What’s your name?’ He kneels before me.

‘Christina.’

‘Ok, Christina, how are you doing?’

I have a lot to say, but no energy to say it. There’s that tune in my head. So unfamiliar and yet I know I’ve heard it before…

It’s our song.

Our song? I don’t have an our song.

‘I’m going to ask you a few questions. Don’t worry if you can’t answer everything right now. We’ll cover all that later. I just need to sort the basics out first, all right? Do you have some identification? Bank cards or something?’

He picks up a cheap, bright pink thing with “Hello Kitty” written on it. 

‘That’s not mine,’ I tell him quickly.

He nods his head, but goes through the bag nevertheless. Despite being at least half my age, his eyes betray the attraction he is clearly feeling towards me. It’s been years since anyone looked at me that way; especially someone his age.

He’s not looking at you.

‘Anne Taylor,’ he says, holding a bank card, a knot of confusion shimmering across his brow. 

‘Told you it wasn’t my bag. My name’s Christina Gunnersen.’

He continues to rummage as I catch my fragmented reflection in the ticket barrier I’m leaning on. I don’t recognise the face streaked with dirt and dried blood. My eyes struggle to focus and for a split second there are two of me, the old familiar face converging with a younger one, rippling together like visions in a burning pyre. My hair is too long, too blonde. Too..

‘It’s quite usual to feel strange,’ he says, drawing me away from the unrecognizable face. ‘And a little disorientated after an incident like this. Do you have someone to call?’ 

I have a cat, a distant cousin I once met when I was seven and an ex-boyfriend who emigrated with his new, younger wife to Connecticut. I was too old to breed with.

Nick.

Who’s Nick? Mind searches. References. Nick… Nick… Nick… I don’t think I know a Nick… An image forms in my head, sneaking in like a guilty secret that you’ve attempted to erase too many times. He’s nothing special; tallish, slumping shoulders and a crooked smile that reminds me of a young Cliff Richard… Despite the fact that I am sure I have never seen this man before, he feels desperately familiar and for a second, I can actually smell his aftershave. Why are you in my head? My memories?

‘What happened to me?’ I ask him, this young man so desperate to help me.

‘I think you were too close. She fell. Or jumped. We’re not sure. You’ve most likely blacked it out…’ He continues to talk, but it’s just words tumbling from his mouth with less and less meaning the more he goes on.

‘What did she look like?’ I ask, cutting the flow dead.

‘I don’t know, Miss Taylor.’ 

‘That’s not my name.’

He flashes a driver’s licence at me. ‘That’s you? Don’t worry, like I said, a little disorientation is usual. I can call you Christina if you prefer that.’

I reach out and take the card from him, staring blankly at the little computerised image stuck on the plastic card – pretty, blonde and barely twenty-five. Girl on the platform.

The wave of nausea takes me completely by surprise as the station concourse starts to ripple beneath me, like someone picked it up and shook it out like a crumpled tablecloth. 

A hand gently grips my shoulder in a move that’s far too intimate and yet one he feels completely confident in making. Something’s not right with me. Inside me. I reach up to run my shaking fingers through my hair, surprised to find more there than I had this morning. Long blonde locks fan out in my fingers. I look back into the tarnished metal mirror beside me.

I want to see my face, but I can’t. I want to look away, but my eyes don’t belong to me, anymore. They slip out of focus, intent on seeing something else. Blonde on the platform. I remember. 

I close my eyes and for a second I am back on that platform, pressing through the crowd to ensure my place on the approaching train. I want to get home. There she is with hair so bright it’s blinding in the artificially lit tunnel. I head towards her, before deftly side stepping her lithe, young frame and muscle in next to a man who thumbs his mobile. 

You looked small next to him. Insignificant. Like a shadow struggling to keep up with its owner. You kept walking, those expensive shoes of yours clattering on the platform and you didn’t stop…

The breeze rushes into the tunnel bringing a much needed flood of cool air across the waiting commuters. I see the lights, like giant’s eyes in the dark, speeding towards us and I turn, just a fraction of an inch to see her face. 

Looked straight at me…

Her eyes are wide, filled with confusion and horror and her face, her lovely young face…

You kept walking…

 … streaked in blood; red in her eyes. Whose blood is that?

 Yours

The scream isn’t mine. It’s hers; an alien sound filling my mouth and erupting with force into the air surrounding me. I can’t stop. The tunnel is huge and dark and swallowing me whole.

‘Shhhh… it’s alright. I’m here.’

Strong arms circle my waist. I’m not where I was. I’m somewhere else. Somewhere small and cramped. A flat? A house? It smells of vinegar, like a stale take-away has been sitting for hours untouched. I’m at a sink in a kitchen and there’s a salty taste in my mouth.

The man before me – Nick – who? His breath stinks and the closer he gets the more I want to vomit.

‘I’m here,’ he whispers into my neck. Kisses the bruise. ‘It’s alright.’

Me screaming now. The arms tighten around me, pulling me inwards. Pulling me into the nightmare that isn’t even mine.

My face smashes down into the shining metal tap that drips incessantly. 

Please, Christina…

I don’t know you.

Please…

The cold floor of ticket hall is both reassuring and terrifying. Hands pull me upwards. Young policeman’s hands. He’s whispering something to me, but I can’t hear him. I can only hear the wails of a blonde trapped in the nightmare of her own life. The bitter taste in my mouth signals the rush of adrenaline that’s pumping furiously through my veins as the realisation of what has happened hits home.

One stupid, blind moment of distraction and I forgot the edge. 

You kept walking…

If you hadn’t been flicking your hair like a shampoo advert, I would have stopped. 

I didn’t die…

Irrelevant.

It’s my life. You can’t steal it from me.

Watch me.

I’ve spent too many years being the bitch of the European Acquisitions Department to let some Barbie doll beat me into submission now. I can hear her screaming inside my head, thrashing about as if that’s going to do her some good. She hurls memories like impotent Molotov cocktails. 

I have so much more to offer than, you, Anne Taylor… 

Heart races. Her heart. Not mine. Does it matter? Beat feels stronger, not worn out and abused like mine. She never smoked. I can tell that as this chest expands effortlessly, unlike the faint, yet ever present rattle that used to accompany each breath.

Then she strikes. Just as I feel that space within, my mouth gapes wide expecting the rush of air to fill my perfect lungs, but it’s like I’ve been thrown into a vacuum. I want to reach inside and force them to expand, but all I can do is claw the air as I slip to the floor and wait for everything to stop.

You’ll kill us both… 

Yes… 

‘Miss Taylor? Anne?’

I’m on my back, mouth wide and limbs splayed out like a broken doll. A hand reaches behind my head, tips my skull and now I see the crowd of faces lined up like targets behind him, all waiting for more to gawp at. All with eyes wide in expectation.

Air fills my lungs as a heat touches my lips. More… more…  I see blue sky and feel the wind on my face. I’m flying, a world in beautiful synchronicity below me. I understand it all. Every little mistake. Every wrong move. My life is a landscape of near misses and wrong moves. I can do it again. I can do it right.

Despite the overwhelming desire not to co-operate, this body finally gives in, betraying their true owner as it fights for life and swears allegiance to me.

I smile at him, this young, good looking man who has not failed me. He smiles back, his hands still on my chest, oblivious to those who watch us. He believes he’s saved my life. He understands nothing.

‘Don’t move,’ he says. ‘I’ll get a paramedic.’

My right hand starts flapping like a dying fish in the hot sunshine and my head hurts. There’s a sharp pain above my ear that curves round both eyes like a thin wire band tightening slightly. Nausea rises in ever increasing waves as the station walls shudder and undulate like the Big Bad Wolf has puffed his last. I smell steel and oil burning together in one almighty inferno, sticking to the roof of my mouth and solidifying inside my nostrils. The sound of metal grinding on metal burns through my head like huge fists of fire. 

Please, Christina…

I’m in that silent zone you slip into moments after stepping off a plane, where you exist on a different frequency and the world feels like it’s moving in the opposite direction to you. 

We exist. Together. 

The hand signals its final gesture of defiance and then falls silent.

I exist. Without her.

Photo of Lesley Reid

Lesley is a Scot living just outside of London, England, where she runs a successful complementary therapy business. She alternates between reflexology, reiki, hypnotherapy and past life regression. Over the years she has also written for theatre and TV, spending several years creating and developing stories for various fantasy genre TV shows. More recently she started writing short fiction and is particularly drawn to the stories that slip between the cracks of reality and fantasy. 

3rd Place

‘Human Balloon’ by Katy Wimhurst

Due to limited control of our formatting on posts, the formatting of the following story is incorrect.

I saw the first one while walking in Castle Park one sunny May morning. Dressed in jeans and a denim jacket; floating in the air just above a horse chestnut tree. She was upright, her slender arms opened a little each side, as if in half-arsed ballet pose; her face was tilted back a bit, staring skywards. From where I was, she looked youngish, twenty-something. Suspended in the air like that she seemed like something out of a Chagall painting or like a lost angel in denim. Why was she up there? 

I wondered if this would be a bit like the Fainters, the epidemic of fainting in town two years back, or the Hornies, the group of teenagers who sprouted little goat horns on their heads, a few years before that – my nephew Hamish, aged four at the time, had loved that. 

Three men in business suits were halted on the path ahead, one filming the woman on his phone, so I stopped behind them and stared up for a good few minutes. I hope she’s okay, I thought. 

Needing to get to work, I continued on.

That evening I got home late again. I was bored of my job; at forty-one, it was hardly my dream to be writing the promotional material for an upmarket condiments company. My boyfriend Samuel called me the ‘Exclusive Chutney Champion’, his joke, but I’d always hoped one day to be doing something that mattered, like PR for a wildlife or refugee charity. Of course the need to earn a living got in the way. 

Samuel was already in my kitchen conjuring up dinner. He didn’t live here, though we spent two or three nights a week together. We’d been together three years but for the last one it had felt to me like the relationship was drifting a bit. Local news was on the television in the living room, adjacent to the kitchen, a feature on the floating woman. The image of her had pressed itself into my mind, making me sad for some reason. ‘Have you seen this?’ I pointed to the television.

‘Good to see you too, Ellie.’ Samuel had cropped blonde hair, a pale round face and small circular metal glasses; he looked a bit like a clever moon though was neither lunar nor learned. 

‘Hey, you,’ I said with a sheepish smile. ‘This woman floating in Castle Park, though.’ I pointed again.

He glanced towards the screen. ‘Oh, that.’

‘Don’t you wonder about her?’

‘You’re not going to get worked up about her, are you, like you did about those Fainters?’

He wasn’t asking for his sake, not mine. I bit my tongue, well aware he wasn’t that much of an emotionally available boyfriend. At least he was an exceptional cook. ‘What’s for supper?’

‘Chicken and lime curry, wild rice, green salad and raspberry tart for pud. It’ll be ready in ten.’

‘Sounds good. I’ll go and have a shower.’ It was an excuse. Only home a few minutes and I already needed space.

Apart from the odd vox pop speculating on how the woman might survive up there, how she might drink or pee, local media quickly stopped paying her heed. Was this lack of concern or denial? Interest peaked again, though, several days later when a second woman appeared above another horse chestnut tree. This one was older, with short grey hair, funky red specs and a long dark skirt that billowed in the breeze. She also floated upright, her arms opened a bit each side, her chin slightly tilted up. It transpired she was a retired schoolteacher and her husband, who turned up in the park, sitting beneath her on a camping chair and refusing to budge, was interviewed by local news. ‘I’ve no idea why she’s up there like some human balloon,’ he exclaimed, his brow furrowed. 

        I spent a good fifteen minutes in the park mesmerised by the women. Neither acknowledged the other, nor indeed the spectators below. I couldn’t tell from where I stood if they were in a trance or just indifferent. 

Later, Samuel came round. ‘Did you see the second woman today?’ I asked.

‘A first woman is plenty enough for me,’ he joked. 

‘I meant the floating one in the park.’

‘Is there one?’

‘Yes, Sherlock.’ 

Ignoring my words, he drifted over to my bookcase, then lifted a book from it. ‘Why do you read this leftie stuff?’ He held up Capitalism And Bullshit Jobs.

Whenever I carped a bit at him, he always had to niggle back somehow. ‘Don’t start, please,’ I said. He was super confident in his political opinions, while I, even when the world had seemed more anchored than I found it these days, had room for doubt. I still loved his hesitant grey eyes, desperately trying to pin order in a world that probably didn’t have much, his food fanaticism, and the way he teased me, but we rubbed each other up the wrong way at times. I’d thought of ending things, but the worry of hurting him and losing his friendship stopped me.

‘The book was between Kafka and Hans Christian Anderson,’ he said. ‘Politics next to fairy tales. Can’t you keep anything in order?’ A teasing tone. 

‘Kafka isn’t a fairy tale.’

‘It’s still Grimm,’ he said, smiling at his own pun. 

The next weekend a total of four people were floating, the two women already there joined by a middle-aged woman and a thin young male. By now, people were taking to the media to try and explain the phenomenon. ‘It’s human evolution being taken to the next vibrational level,’ claimed some new age guru with an ankh pendant. I rolled my eyes. To me the Floaters didn’t look in spiritual contemplation: close ups of their faces on Youtube videos showed glazed expressions. 

‘It’s collective hysteria,’ a psychiatrist called Simon Westerly said – and Samuel tended to agree. The psychiatrist, concerned the hysteria would spread, asked to be lifted up on a crane to speak to the Floaters. I was glad when they didn’t acknowledge his presence. Then, on his advice, their feet were lassoed with rope and they were pulled very gently down to earth. Two put up no resistance; the other two struggled unsuccessfully, flapping their arms like frantic pigeons trying to escape a fox. Once back to earth they were bundled off in ambulances to hospital. I later learned that, following tests, medics proclaimed there to be nothing wrong with them except for some dehydration and a metabolism slowed to almost zero, which might explain how they had survived without nourishment. They were kept in hospital for a night, rehydrated and then returned home. The following day they were all back in the sky, with two more, too. I was secretly delighted.

‘We need more robust measures,’ said Simon Westerly who recommended the Floaters be pulled down again and then weighted with a heavy object until either they responded to antidepressants or somehow ‘snapped out of it’. The families of two agreed wholeheartedly but relatives of the others objected and an online campaign by the local Let Them Float On group on Facebook got over 14,000 signatures in a petition. The council conceded to public pressure to do nothing. I made the mistake of telling Samuel I’d signed it. 

‘Ellie! Don’t encourage them,’ he said.

‘They’re not doing anyone any harm.’

Around that time, my sleep became disrupted. I’d wake at 3am with adrenaline racing and feeling oddly disoriented. My juddery thoughts coalesced around the Floaters. Once when Samuel was beside me in bed, I woke him to ask for comfort. ‘I can’t sleep,’ I exclaimed.

‘Come here.’ He gave me a hug.

‘Thanks,’ I said, a tear in my eye.

He held me until he dropped off. 

I lay there staring into space, then extracted myself from Samuel’s arms, got up and ate a banana. Food was a comfort. I stared out the window at the orange streetlamp, wondering what was up. Should I end things with Samuel? Was that it? The sex was good – apart from his tendency to ramble on after he came about the problems in Ipswich Town FC’s midfield – but the relationship felt a bit like an empty van trundling down a motorway without a destination. God, that sounded like my life, too. It hadn’t always felt like this. When had things changed? 

The Floaters, growing in number, featured on the BBC and ITV. The Facebook group in support of them, which I was in, now had over 150,000 members nationally. Samuel joked that since there were now two dozen up there, it’d be good for them to actually do something, like play a game of volleyball in the air or do synchronised dancing. ‘Don’t you get a bit bored watching them just hang?’ he asked. 

‘No.’ I was spellbound by them when in Castle Park.

He frowned. ‘You think any of them have young kids?’ He had a seven-year-old daughter, Anna, who lived with his ex so this was something close to home.

‘On the Facebook page it says a few do.’

‘We should get your mum on the case. She’d sort them out.’ 

‘Hmm.’ Samuel often teased me about Mum, who still lived near Glasgow; he was well aware she had a mouth on her. Not keen on his Tory views, she had no reservation about telling him he was ‘talking bollocks’, though she did appreciate his jokiness and the Thai curries he cooked her. I missed my Scottish roots; I’d come south first to study and then to find work but my heart was still in the river Clyde and Loch Lomond.

A documentary about the Floaters screened on channel 4. Relatives and friends were interviewed, talking about how, before the floating, there’d been signs things weren’t right: bouts of moodiness, loss of appetite. I shivered as I watched it, and then wolfed down a Kitkat – at least my appetite was good.

Floating did seem infectious, at least in this town. Over the course of the next month, a total of thirty-seven people appeared in the air, all upright. Mostly women of various ages though a sprinkling of men, too. Some in compact clusters, others spread out in isolated units. Castle Park looked like a cross between a Magritte painting and a human balloon factory.

People in town were increasingly split into Pro- and Anti-Floaters and there were regular heated arguments at public meetings. One night some Antis broke into the park and spray-painted GET THE BLOODY LOT DOWN FOR CHRIST SAKE on the grass. In the local election an independent candidate stood on the basis of ‘dealing with the Floater problem’. He claimed he’d, ‘get ‘em down, lock ‘em up. They’re a public nuisance,’ Fortunately, he lost to the Greens. There was actually growing support for the Floaters: many in town, like me, thought they’d all eventually come down of their own free will, while the local council and retail businesses had realised money could be made from them as a tourist attraction in the meantime. 

Samuel, unimpressed by all the Floater Spotters who descended on the town from around the country and by those families who set up camp in the park to keep watch over their relatives, was Anti-Floater. ‘A walk in Castle Park used to be pleasant, now it’s an obstacle course,’ he said. ‘And how the hell do they eat and shit up there?’

‘I don’t think they do.’ I’d read a long discussion about that in the Facebook group. I pointed to a congregation of three elderly Floater women above an oak tree, almost a holy constellation. ‘Look! It’s a miracle.’

‘It’s incomprehensible.’ His lip curled in annoyance. ‘I’m going to buy those Tuscan sausages with fennel,’ he said. ‘Coming?’

‘Think I’ll stay here a bit.’

‘Okay. Be like that.’ He walked off.

I was left alone feeling irritated at him. 

I became aware of feeling odd, as if a subtle gap had levered open between me and the world. It wasn’t that everything seemed a full-on hallucination; more like both the material world and me felt a little more unreal. I didn’t feel depressed and coped fine with the basics: went to work, did my chores, saw Samuel, watched my nephew Hamish play rounders for his school, chatted to Mum on the phone about the dismal state of UK politics. But I’d become a self I no longer fully understood drifting through an environment I no longer entirely recognised; a small hazy cloud within a large hazy sky. I kept trying to shake myself out of this state – in fact, started jogging, which amused Samuel – but even when the feeling went for a few days, it then resettled.

I’d always taken over an hour in the morning on workdays to dress, style my hair and put on makeup, but started getting up half an hour later and just splashing on foundation and eyeliner. I went to charity shops, odd for me, buying a few sweat tops and jog pants when I usually wore smart Next or White Stuff outfits. 

‘This new fashion sense: sporty or sofa slouchy?’ Samuel asked. ‘Actually, I like it.’

I wasn’t sure what I was aiming at; wearing such clothes just felt comforting.

I’d had fleeting times feeling like this before. On my 40th birthday the previous year, I’d had my sister and close friends over for a small party, a few kids there, too, including Hamish. Samuel had kindly spent the best part of a week preparing all kinds of dishes and had even surprised me on the night with a chocolate mousse cake shaped like a butterfly. Partly for his sake, I’d chatted and smiled, pretending to have fun while inside feeling lost, as if giving a poor performance in some amateur dramatic theatre of life. At one point I’d retreated to the bathroom, stared in the mirror. At the bob dyed the colour of new pennies, the copper lipstick, the few crow’s feet gathered at the corners of the wide hazel eyes. Who the hell’s this? I’d wondered. My mind had flitted to Hamish: I couldn’t have kids myself due to a hysterectomy in my early 30s following ovarian cancer. I’d thought I’d come to terms with that and wasn’t sure I’d have wanted children with Samuel anyway; maybe it still affected me.

One day, I mentioned feeling odd in an edited way to Samuel. 

‘Don’t worry. You’ll be fine,’ he said, turning on the television for the Ipswich Town football match.

I felt like hitting him.

Only in the park, mesmerised by the Floaters, did I feel vaguely okay. Not exactly ‘me’, whoever that was, but not lost either. Staring at those Floaters, lyrics from an old 80s tune would loop through my head: ‘More than this, you know there’s nothing.’

A local man who made Youtube videos about the Floaters noticed that the original schoolteacher woman had vanished from the air. The Facebook group was awash with rumours: some said she’d been dragged down somehow by her family at night and stuck in a psychiatric institution; a few said she’d floated off into space; but her husband posted that she’d just had enough of being up there and had returned to earth without a fuss and now didn’t want any publicity, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, I spent more time in the park, lying on the grass, staring up. Floater Fan Girls – those (mainly women) who hung about for ages in the park – became a thing; some would even identify particularly with one Floater and dress like her or him. Hamish, the only person I knew well who also liked to watch Floaters, asked me to take him with me to the park on Sundays. ‘They look like those angels, don’t they, Aunty Ellie, only without wings or halos,’ he’d say, beside me on the grass. My sister wasn’t keen on our outings. ‘If you want to take him out, go to the zoo instead,’ she insisted. 

On two mornings, having become transfixed by the Floaters, I was fifteen minutes late for work. The second time I got an earful from my manager. ‘This isn’t like you,’ she said. ‘What’s wrong, Ellie? The last copy you sent me had major typos in it, too.’

Normally polite at work, I was tempted to tell her where to go. ’Sorry. It… won’t happen again.’ Probably a lie. 

Two days on, Samuel insisted I stop going to the park. ‘For God’s sake. You’re becoming addicted.’

‘Stop being melodramatic.’ I walked out, slamming the door behind me. In the communal car park outside I burst into tears, sobbing for a good ten minutes. I wasn’t sure why.

One early evening, staring up at a tight cluster of Floaters, I realised: what relief it would be to be up there. For a time at least. 

Suddenly, my body felt lighter, as if gravity had been partially switched off. A curious sensation like my veins ballooning gently with air. I’d taken off and was drifting slowly up and up. I wasn’t that surprised. It wasn’t exhilarating, more a sense of release, as if an argument begun years back had resolved effortlessly. Buoyed rather than overjoyed.

i’m not happy           

 neither am i sad or anxious 

 it’s chilly at night, wind tussles my hair   

occasionally a crow perches on my shoulder

 i miss curries, wine, hot baths, little else

 i still don’t feel real but who cares

 what’s real anyway? one day

 i’ll return, for now 

  i’m just 

  f        

  l      

o      

   a  

     t    

 i       

 n   

    g

Photo of Katy Wimhurst

Katy Wimhurst’s first collection of short stories, Snapshots of the Apocalypse, is to be published by Fly on the Wall Press in 2022. Her fiction has been published in various magazines and anthologies including Writers’ Forum, Cafe Irreal, Ouen Press, and ShooterLit. Her visual poetry has been published in magazines like Ric Journal, Dreampop Press, 3am and Babel Board. She suffers from the illness M.E.

Highly Commended

‘Pepper’s Gameshow’ by Victoria K. Gonzales

Highly commended pieces won’t appear online until after they are published in issue 10.

Lucent Dreaming’s 2021 Flash Fiction contest is open for free and paid entries until 31st August 2021.

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