Alexei peered around the corner of the ruined block. He quickly tucked his head back behind as a wave of bullets streamed past, slamming into the decrepit husk of a car. He turned back and aimed his rifle, firing at a small outpost of German soldiers. One of them slumped to the floor, while the others attempted to find cover. Alexei’s comrades ran out into the open with him and together they gunned down the whole squad. Alexei ran across the war-torn city looking for a captured solder who was being held nearby in a nearby building. A young German man ran from behind a wall and attempted to disarm Alexei. Alexei was quite an imposing man and simply grabbed the young boy and stabbed him with his bayonet. He was living the dream.
Alexei and his closest comrade, who he had known since he was a child, Vasily, ran ahead, attempting to remember the route they took during the night on their reconnaissance mission. Alexei stopped in his tracks, with the whole platoon pausing with him; the dust along the ground was shaking, and a low rumbling sound could be heard coming from both directions along the street. Two Panzer V German tanks rolled into view, surrounding the platoon. Alexei acted instinctively, pulling down the thick sheet of metal he carried as a makeshift shield. He ran towards one of the tanks, zigzagging his way along the road to avoid the artillery. Behind the tanks came infantry men, not too many but at least three times their numbers. Alexei jumped onto the front of the vehicle, placing a grenade in the turret. He jumped down and ran as fast as he could to a nearby building as the tank attempted to fire another shell, colliding with the grenade and destroying most of the front of the tank. A few Russian planes flew overhead, dropping bombs onto the German 6th army, who began to scatter as Alexei and his comrades shot them down. He was living the dream.
As the battle continued, Alexei had orders to continue his search for the Russian hostage. He ran into a nearby building as a German plane flew overhead, and sprinted across vacant side streets as the Germans focused their main efforts on the large Russian force. Vasily followed close behind, shooting the occasional German who would cross past them. Russian tanks had now shown up in the area and were causing the German’s quite a bit of trouble. Alexei approached a familiar building; it looked like an average block of flats, red brick walls and five or six stories high. The building was in fact a German outpost which Alexei had followed them to the previous night. He eased the front door open, being wary of any trip wires. Alexei and Vasily both stumbled into the building, heading to the stairwell. Vasily opened his bag and took out a radio. He turned it on and set the volume to the highest. After finding the right frequency, a classic lullaby from his childhood began to play, making both him and Vasily giggle, and while the radio itself was not very loud it echoed up the stairwell. Alexei heard muffled German voices. Two soldiers made their way down the stairs, who were quickly dispatched with by Alexei. He was living the dream.
Alexei and Vasily were about to make their way up the staircase when a shot rang, followed by another. Alexei looked down and hoped to see his own uniform soaked with blood, only finding the splatter from Vasily’s injury. He turned his head to see Vasily crumple to the floor, his brain matter rolling from his skull down to the floor. Alexei sprang into action, twisting round and gunning down the German soldier who had followed them inside. He went over to Vasily. The first shot had pierced through his chest, while the second ended his suffering and got him through the head. Alexei attempted to remove Vasily’s badge and medal to preserve them for his family; the medal had been shot through and had a large chip in the corner. He sat Vasily’s corpse up against the wall and tried to clear some of the blood off. Despite the war going on, and his mission to still complete, Alexei sat there and cried.
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“We are all familiar with the blood-soaked siege of Stalingrad, considered by war-historians as a turning point in Operation Barbarossa, when the advance of the hitherto invincible Wermacht was stymied. David’s story is an account of the daring exploits of two Russian soldiers who are fighting at close quarters with the invading German forces. Alexei and Vasily are brave, quixotic and dispassionate. They take on a tank, pick out individual German soldiers; they are fighting for their homeland. They are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice which Vasily does when he is shot in the chest and head. The description of Vasily’s cranium emptying itself is impressive without being morbid. Alexei does what he can to preserve his comrade’s memory by removing his chipped badge and medal. Each paragraph ends with the refrain, ‘he was living the dream’. For young soldiers, eager and proud, the intense fighting must have been intoxicating. They are fighting for mother Russia. The story has a poignant and sober ending. Many years later, in a home for war veterans, the reiterated dream has turned into a nightmare. The killings, explosions, the loss of a dear friend have all taken their toll. Poor Alexei, now 97 years old, is traumatised and breaks down regularly, still clutching Vasily’s damaged medal. This fast-paced, action-packed account of the blood-bath that was Stalingrad, is moving and disturbing. Its ending reminds us of the pity of war described in some of the more thrilling of Wilfred Owen’s war poems.”
Long he had been drifting there before the discovery of the body was for the coroner to determine later. His blouse had ripped on the splintered sides of the tub, the one they used to bathe the elephants, littered with the colourful shreds of his rainbow polka dots. His oversized, blood-red clown shoes were floating next to the body, comedic in another circumstance but no one was laughing now. In the clear light of dusk, further illuminated by the dazzling string lights of the circus tents, the corpse looked like a wax dummy, just another prop for the show.
It was determined an accident. Hatia, the herd’s matriarch, had pushed him into the water with her large elephant behind as he had been filling the tub for the pre-show bath. The area was deserted; the job of filling the tub was not envied as the elephants were known for unleashing harsh jets of water directly into their bathers’ face. The assumed culprit was found roaming near the tub, untethered for once, away from the packed but vibrantly painted cages of the rest of the herd. Her thick hide was uneven from welts of the bullhook and caked with blood, and she visibly tensed as the circus master approached. The circus master had found the pair of them, the first to uncover the clown’s bloated face plastered with a permanent look of surprise, interpreting a guilty conscience on the elephant’s expressionless face. The circus master called for help, attracting the attention of everyone in the surrounding tents with screams of ‘death’. A stream of colour approached the scene as the brightly dressed clowns and acrobats emerged from their tents, morbid curiosity drawing them forward.
A more observant inspector than the circus master would have realised the wooden step-ladder required for filling the tub was not propped against the side. There was no way the clown could have been accidentally pushed in. In fact, there was no reason for him to be there at all; it wasn’t his shift for the elephant bathing and he should have been preparing for the performance later that night. The crowd was too preoccupied to have noticed such a detail, or to notice that there was a small and worried face peering out from the edges of the mob, seemingly on the verge of tears.
It was Martina, a small and unassuming gymnast who had been fiercely training for a promotion to the tightrope act from her current position as ‘the person holding the hoop for the tigers’. Her petite frame was highlighted by the shiny tiger-print leotard she was wearing, the black stripes contrasting her deathly pale complexion. An expression of what seemed to be fear contorted her face, so similar to the one she wore during her encounters with the tigers. Her sleek blonde bun could be seen bobbing up and down trying to catch a glimpse of the body, but she was drowned out by the sea of people much taller than her. The circus master’s coarse tones, issuing affected instructions for the clean-up of the area, was all that could be heard over the racket of the crowd. A clown sauntered in front of her, twelve feet tall in his polished stilts, obscuring her view completely. Giving up, she scurried through the crowd, squeezing passed the bizarre caricatures of the circus until she reached the tub itself, halting in front of the circus master’s sparkly crimson coattails.
Looking down he dismissed Martina, continuing with his long and loud lament at having lost the star of his main act and the tragedy of having to clean up such a mess in his very own circus. The elephant would be punished for this, he assured the crowd. Clown murdered by trickster elephant gone rogue, the headlines would read. He was at a loss at how such a thing could occur under his very nose. But Martina’s nervous shaking distracted the circus master, as it was causing the shine of her leotard to reflect into his eye, so he impatiently took the girl by the shoulders and led her to his tent, making a big show of trying to comfort her.
The tent was the largest on the premises, save for the performing tent itself, and the red and white stripes caused a dizzying optical illusion which disoriented Martina. The inside of the tent was extravagantly furnished, with a tiger skin rug at the centre and a purple chaise-longue littered with empty bottles and cigarette ends, ruining the wholesome character presented to the paying audience. In the privacy of the tent, the circus master wiped the grief from his face, angrily spitting at Martina for her inability to act convincingly. She would blow their cover, he shrieked. His twisted smile looked menacing under the twinkling lights of the tent, as he reassured her of the genius of their plan. Regaining his composure, he reached for the electrified bullhook which would make the elephant pay for their crime. Leaving the tent, the circus master loudly complained about the inconvenience; they would need to find a new tub for the elephants.
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“We don’t usually associate the circus with the seamy world of crime. A clown, that personification of humour and sorrow, has been found drowned in the elephants’ bathing tub. Suspicion falls on Hatia, the herd’s matriarch, even though some circumstantial details make the elephant’s culpability unlikely. The whole scene has been masterminded by the circus master with the collusion of Martina the gymnast, who has been recently promoted. We are left in the dark as to the motive behind this senseless murder. Was there bad blood between the clown and the circus master? Is Martina’s complicity the price she had to pay for her promotion? But these considerations, though important, are brushed aside as our attention is absorbed by the very realistic picture of circus life and ambience created: the clown’s painted face, the over-sized shoes, the bright circus lights, the teeming crowd, Martina’s leotard. We are drawn into a make-believe world, which is described in convincing detail. The death of the clown becomes almost like a circus act: it appears to be what it isn’t. There is no animal behind the crime-it’s the result of human malice and connivance. This is writing of a high calibre and richly deserves recognition.”
I left the funeral early. I could not stand the thought of going back to Mrs. Clayborn’s for dried-up sandwiches, warm wine and the childhood memories rushing back. I decided to slip away at the end of the service and hoped nobody would notice.
I was driving on autopilot, ignoring my sat nav. Before I knew it, I had turned off the road and headed down a long bumpy drive. Eventually I reached the house, the house that brought back memories I was dreading.
The motivation to turn around was overcome by guilt as I remembered the little girl I used to babysit and how I had left her as a prisoner in her own home and her own mind. The old rusted car crept closer to the large castle-like doors and I contemplated going inside.
The last time I was here, she was screaming and scratching from the inside of her large bedroom, oblivious to the magnificent fireplace and old-fashioned dolls that surrounded her.
Standing waiting for the doorbell to be answered felt like an eternity, anxiety crept over me, giving shivers down my spine.
I pushed on the door slightly and was surprised when it opened, to reveal the old entrance hall. This place had always been permanently cold. No matter how many fires were lit, there was a constant draft, despite all the mullioned windows being closed shut. The antique furniture would creak without anybody even touching it; the old rusty latches on the internal doors were shut tight in most rooms of the house.
Being back filled me with dread, the hairs over my body stood to attention like soldiers, all I could think about was leaving and yet something compelled me to stay. I knew this place like the back of my hand, but something seemed different this time; it felt emptier, colder, like nobody had been here in years, my breathing became ragged as the damp air invaded my lungs and senses. Glimpses of imaginary figures in the darkness, the eyes you felt were always watching you, all seemed real in this moment.
I thought back to when she was in the house, splinters in her fingers as she would scratch the wooden doors, tears of fear racing down her rosy face, her heart thumping like it was on its last breath; I hoped she was ok now.; She was frail back then, a vulnerable little girl who deserved love and attention from her parents, instead they would lock her away If ever she was scared or in need of help, she was treated like a prisoner as she wasn’t the ‘perfect child’ her parents had always wanted.
She had often spoken about the voices she would hear or the constant paranoia she experienced being in the house and I, at this moment, felt just the same. Her parents told her she was imagining things, after all, she was very young at the time, and she would be 11 or 12 by now.
I was uncertain whether I should go any further into the creaky old house, but reluctantly I did, I had to visit her bedroom just one more time.
The creaking seemed to intensify as I got closer to the room I dreaded the most. I became more aware of every sound, my senses on high alert. Despite my nervous, slow walk, every step I took seemed to echo around the dark corridor.
As I approached the bedroom of the little girl, I noticed that the door was bolted shut from the outside, just as it had so often been in the past. Then I heard a familiar sound, a sound that sent a chill to my very core, my heart was beating faster as I listened to the familiar scratching that had haunted me for years.
I was not alone in this house, I could not be; these noises were far more than just the expansion of floorboards.
I looked again at the bolt on the door, it was rusty, as though it hadn’t been opened in years. It took all of my strength to force it open, to reveal the girl’s room inside. The room was exactly how it had been left five years ago, only it felt hollow, emptier and cooler than t=any other rooms I had entered.
I approached the bed and I notices photos sprawled all over it, photos that looked like they had been taken from an old polaroid camera, as I edged closer, I realised these photos weren’t just ordinary photos a child would take. To my shock, they were photos of me, photo after photo of all the times I had babysat for the girl.
I stared at the photos until my eyes forced me to finally blink. Something was not right about them; something was not right about how I looked; my face seemed without features, as though all life had been sucked out of me.
Suddenly, the door slammed shut making me jump out of my skin, I ran over to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked tight. I was stuck.
From behind me I could feel a draft from the fireplace, which was growing stringer and stronger like a hectic wind, picking up the photos and sending them flying around the room. As quickly as it started, the wind stopped, the photos fell to the floor and an eerie silence filled the room. A ghostly figure floated before my eyes, transparent of flesh and bones.
It was her. The girl.
My body felt detached, my feet could not feel the ground and my insides were churning.
‘I was lonely,’ she said, ‘with only your photos for company Now you can babysit me again,’ and she smiled sweetly.
As I turned to look at the barred windows and miles of thick woodland beyond, I realised this time it would be for an eternity.
I knew I would never leave this room alive.
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“Lucy’s opening paragraph prepares us for this horror story, full of suspense and unexplained happenings. The first sentence mentions a funeral which the narrator has left early. She is drawn back to a house where she used to babysit a girl who was cruelly treated by her parents. The babysitter had abandoned the girl and carries a burden of guilt as a consequence. The scratching of the little girl, the chill that pervades the house, the bolted door, the dark corridor, the heightened sensitivity to sounds, are all staple elements of the horror genre and were first explored by Edgar A Poe. The climax comes when the narrator enters the girl’s room to find a set of photographs of the narrator with a wan look and featureless face. A gust of wind is a prelude to the girl’s appearance. Is she a revenant? Has she been locked up all those years? Has she sucked the life out of the photographs of her babysitter? Is that the girl’s form of revenge for having been abandoned? Was it the girl’s funeral the narrator attended? These questions come pell-mell into our disturbed consciousness. They don’t require an answer, only an emotional engagement with the story which the eerie details and oppressive atmosphere provoke. This is very intelligent, mature writing-a pleasure to read and ponder.”