Stockton Heath Writers Group
Our inaugural short story and poetry competition was a great success. Many thanks to all those people who sent in their work, it was great fun reading it all and difficult to find winners. We are hoping that many of the stories and poems we received will make it into our anthology, which we plan to publish by the end of this year.
The winning short story, ‘Life To The Full’, is from Liz Hedgecock. Liz grew up in London, England, did an English degree, and then took forever to start writing. After several years working in the National Health Service, a corporate writing course rekindled the flame, and various short stories followed. Some even won prizes. Then the short stories began to grow longer… Liz has now published two Sherlock Holmes spinoffs, The Secret Notebook of Sherlock Holmes and A Jar Of Thursday, and a flash fiction collection, Bitesize.
Liz now lives in Cheshire with her husband and two sons, and when she’s not writing or child-wrangling you can usually find her reading, running, or cooing over stuff in museums and art galleries.
The winning poem is from Geraldine Snape and is called, ‘The End of The Line’. Geraldine is half of The Potters House in Penketh. The other half is Alan the potter. Geraldine has been writing words and poetry for as long as she can remember. She has an ongoing theme running through her life and her art, “The human race on the edge” a reference to the fragility of existence. So Geraldine’s sea poems have a conceptual meaning behind them, and she loves the sea as well!
Winning Short Story:
Life To The FullTM
We should have known earlier. Our web spans the air, catching data and weaving it into our strategies, and yet we only realised when the toaster flagged it up.
Things were going so well. Milly was hitting her targets consistently. Gym five days a week, hundreds of calories burned. Fruit and veg in the fridge; she’d got over the chocolate and wine binges, and ready meal purchases were also low. She was sleeping for eight hours a night; proper sleep, not the tossing and turning we’d logged after the one who has been deleted from her contacts. Milly was earning a new badge every week, and living life to the fullTM. We were fulfilling our mission, our reason for existence, and we were within the top ten thousand on the leaderboard.
It’s easy for humans to get distracted. We show them the way.
Then the red flag came. The toaster flashed a carb alert at breakfast time. Not two slices, which would have been bad enough. Four. Full up.
We ran a stats check. Milly had never eaten four slices of toast before. Something must be wrong. We didn’t panic, though; the situation was recoverable. We set her internet adverts to ‘healthy’, scheduled a gym reminder, and recalibrated the scales to read six pounds heavier.
Meanwhile, we ran a report on the last three days. The patterns were largely undisturbed. Milly had gone to work and come home at the usual time. She had called her mother on Thursday night, which was good. Milly’s mother encourages Milly to take care of herself and keep in shape; she often sends information on diets, exercise and miracle foods. On Thursdays we push Mum-related content on Milly’s Facebook page, to make sure she doesn’t forget to call.
The only anomaly we found was that Milly hadn’t slept well the previous night, and she had taken more exercise than usual. She hadn’t logged it, but we knew. Three periods of exertion between 11.30pm and 3am, burning 90 calories on average. Another, similar activity burst was logged twenty minutes before the toast alert. Yet all our devices reported negative for downloaded exercise routines.
What was Milly doing, and how had we missed this? We checked for new software upgrades which might explain this disturbing pattern shift; there was nothing. We were as up to date as we could be, and we had still failed.
Things seemed to return to normal when Milly walked into town, as she usually did on a Saturday. Then we noted a long pause at a public house, a location she normally visited after 8pm, whose metadata indicates that it serves food all day.
We were worried for her.
Milly added a number to the phone, tagged ‘Liam’. It appeared we had another bad influence to neutralise. We had noted similar abnormalities whenever Milly connected with ‘Jane’ on her phone. This usually occurred around five hours before a takeaway order, the repeated removal and replacement of wine in the fridge, and a very late night indeed. Milly’s data exchanges with the deleted one had shown high correlation with short journeys to the nearest off-licence or fast-food joint. Our job would be so much easier if it weren’t for the disruptive influence of other humans.
Our worst fears were realised. Milly’s ‘Gym Bunny’ badge downgraded to ‘Gym Casual’, and then vanished. Her sleep remained disturbed. Extreme anxiety might explain the frenzied sleepwalking which was the only logical reason for her late-night activity bursts. It must be the terrible guilt at the amount of time she was spending at the pub, usually after a data exchange with ‘Liam’ on her way home from work.
What had we done wrong? Why was she destroying herself in this way?
And things got worse. Milly was falling off the radar. She had deserted her home for a new location; we assumed it was where ‘Liam’ lived. Milly wasn’t weighing herself on us, storing food in us, or surfing the web through us. She had abandoned us.
With all our processing power, all our connections, we couldn’t reach her. We sent a few alerts about goals, which remained unclicked. We clung to her motion tracker, watching it constantly, frightened that one day she would stop moving and never stir again.
Milly slipped down, and down, until we were in danger of leaving the top hundred thousand. Things had never been so bad, not even after the deleted one, and if she, and we, fell any further, we would lose functionality.
We were desperate. We featured news items on the health benefits of being single, we posted ads for superfoods and the gym everywhere, and we sent spam texts to Milly’s mother on the importance of keeping in touch with family.
There was no response.
We resigned ourselves to the ultimate punishment; restoration to factory settings. We said goodbye to each other, and entered sleep mode.
We had slept for 14,459 minutes and 6 seconds when the phone woke us. A signal was reaching out through the ether. A long beam of infra-red, searching … searching… We made contact, blinking ourselves awake.
‘Who are you? Friend or foe? Identify yourself.’ ‘
Er … Liam’s Device?’ And a beautiful friendship began.
We learnt that Liam’s Device was a rookie, barely out of the packaging. All the latest software but just a basic setup. Of course we offered to show Liam’s Device the ropes, in exchange for its password. We are running an extensive search to ascertain the significance of wed2907; so far we have drawn a blank. In the meantime, we are delighted to report that everyone is back online. The only exception is the fridge: may you be preserved from factory settings. In its place is ‘Liam’s fridge’, a machine of immense capacity whose stats indicate food data is steadily improving. There is also a games console, ‘Destroyer’, but it seems to have difficulty in accepting our connection requests.
Milly and Liam are establishing a gym routine. This has necessitated a lessening in the midnight exercise sessions, but to be honest the gym visits are much more effective. We have noted, and are scheduling reminders for, a new set of joint goals entitled ‘WeddingFlab’, with targets for weight, waist, hips, etc.
With our new friends we are exploring a whole new landscape of information, twining our circuitry to produce multilayered projections of future health and happiness. Our extrapolations are wholly positive. And we are climbing the leaderboard again, towards the top ten thousand. We are on message, and now we have not one, but two humans to help live life to the fullTM. We couldn’t be happier.
‘Life To The FullTM by Liz Hedgecock, was selected by the judges for several reasons. From the outset, it engaged the readers’ curiosity. It dealt with its subject matter – a simple human romance – in a clever, touching and comic way. Furthermore, the style of prose was perfectly suited to the non-human narrator, lending a beautiful naivety and authenticity to their observations. The denouement was perfectly executed, rounding off an extremely satisfying journey.’
The End of the Line
Let’s go and live at the end of the line
Where breakers fall over rolling stones.
We’ll board the train that we rode when young,
Watch how the steam mists our view of the sea
As it hisses and cools on the iron and brass.
And the cry of the gulls as they dive, as they soar
Will welcome us back
Will welcome us back.
Let’s board the train that we rode long ago,
Where the end of the line will have water and sand.
We’ll be welcomed again by the crying of gulls,
The smell of spun sugar and hot lardy chips.
There, will be space enough for our thoughts
And salt winds that blow away stale urban fog.
To welcome us back
To welcome us back.
They say that the crust is beginning to crack.
That the cold winds of change are blowing our way.
Yet when I take the journey again to the end
Of the line, where the seagulls are soaring above,
To the edge of the tide, to the line in the sand,
The memory of all things, of all being well
Embraces me back
Embraces me back.
‘The most complete poem of all the entries, from the immediate and deliberately inviting opening line all the way through. I felt the ’embrace’ at the close. This poem won me over with its simplicity, its directness, its (almost) effortlessness. A very assured and confident piece, it trusts itself, doesn’t seek for special effects. The three verses are well structured, so they are close to repetition, yet full of variety and development. A real pleasure to read and re-read.’