Winner: Louise Taylor - The Thin Places (read it below)
Runner-up: The Not-so-human Soul - Rick Limentani
Winner: Mary Prior - United
Winner: Doors & Creature - Snickerdoodle
Lucy Underhill - Run
Shaun Baines - To Cheshire, With Love
Winner: Doors & Creature - A Creature
Runner-up: Airen Lang - Andrew
October 2017: Anna Haldane - The Silver Whisper
September 2017: Olivia Dunnett - Whistling Monster
August 2017: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
July 2017: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts
Read Louise Taylor's winning story below. Think you can do better? Then subscribe monthly - or pay a one-off entry fee - and send us YOUR story:
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Also shortlisted :
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream
You can read previous winners in our very first issue of Dark Tales right up to Volume 16:
THE THIN PLACES
by Louise Taylor
More than forty years ago, when I was a kid, Dolly and I liked playing in the graveyard of the bombed-out church behind Bold Street. The church roof was gone and streamers of ivy cascaded out of the glassless windows but the graveyard was like the aftermath of some crazy party: headstones smashed to bits or tilting at impossible angles. You could even, if you wanted, step down two or three feet into some of the graves. Trapdoors to the underworld, Dolly called them but I’d give her a shove and tell her to shut up. I could stand lots of things but not that sort of talk.
It rarely bothered her but she’d humour me, and so we’d turn to playing hide and seek or cartwheeling down the overgrown paths between the graves. When we were tired, we’d sit against one of the sturdier gravestones and share our butties while she told me about leprechauns, banshees and the puca. Though she was no more Irish than I was Welsh, she’d swap her Scouse accent for an Irish brogue like her mam’s and da’s for the telling of those tales.
After Dolly frightened us both with a story about how she’d heard a banshee shriek the night her grandfather died, we left banshees and the shapeshifting puca alone – but we hunted all over Liverpool 8 for a leprechaun. Dolly said they’d give us three wishes if we captured one. We looked with critical eyes at small men wearing anything green or red. "Too big," Dolly always ended up saying. "I expect they’ll be somewhere they can hide away."
One day, on our hands and knees, scouring the rocky nooks and crannies of the rose garden in Princes Park, I sat back on my heels and looked down at the grubby, grass-stained knees of my jeans. "I’m tired of leprechauns," I said. "Tell me a different story."
Dolly wiggled at a stone in a low wall, working it loose. "Well," she said, her head cocked to one side and hair all which ways, "I’ll have to be asking at home."
She could do that – ask at home – whenever she wanted because her da spent his days in front of the fire in the back room. In her house, it was her mam who kept food on the table and coins in the meter. Her da hadn’t worked since he lost a leg and most of his wedding tackle in an accident in the loading bay at St John’s market. "Thanks be to Jesus we only have Dolores to feed," her mam said more than once.
"Is it Jesus we have to be thanking?" her da would mutter. "There was me thinking it was Paddy Flanaghan’s tailgate."
The stone came free in a shower of dirt and earwigs. "Nothing in there," Dolly said, peering inside the hole. "All right. Let’s leave the leprechauns alone."
One afternoon Dolly wasn’t home when I knocked for her. "Will you ask her to meet me, if she’s back before teatime?" I said.
Dolly’s mam stood on the doorstep, arms clasped around a broom handle that rested against her flat chest. Her ankles bulged over the tops of her tartan slippers. "That young lady has an overdue appointment with this broom and a floor cloth before she goes anywhere." She sniffed. "And where are you going? That falling down church? It’s not safe - and I’ve told our Dolly that."
"Never mind," I said, backing down the short path to the pavement. Dolly’s mam scared me, and I sometimes wondered if Dolly would scare me too, when she grew up.
I went to the church anyway, hoping she’d show up. The afternoon was grey and salty with sea mist coming in up the Mersey. I shivered inside my cardigan as I spread my anorak on the ground next to Jonathan Hope (4th August 1878 – 14th October 1892, A Short Life Well Lived) and prepared to eke out five pence worth of pic ‘n’ mix from Woolworth’s.
I was down to one flying saucer and a single strawberry lace when, at last, Dolly came skidding up the path and flung herself down next to me. "You’ll never guess!"
I put the flying saucer back into the paper bag and held it out to her. "Where’ve you been?"
She scrunched the bag into the palm of her hand. I wished I’d eaten that flying saucer after all. "It was the traffic. I had to wait at the bottom of Leece Street for ages. At first, I could see down into Bold Street: all the cars and people and buses, just like normal. Then a bus stopped and blocked my view. I dodged behind it and got across the road – but as I got to the top of Bold Street, I could see a barrier, like on a level crossing, sand bags piled up on the pavement and a big green lorry with canvas sides. A man in a khaki uniform and a funny-looking helmet jumped out of the back of it and started waving his arms about and shouting. “What are you doing here? Didn’t you see the signs? You can’t come through here.” Behind him, there was what looked like a fire engine and a group of men doing something with a hose and yelling something about there being no water." She stopped and drew in a big breath, and blew it out again with such a heavy sigh that it was almost like she was letting go of something more than air.
"So, there’s a fire," I said. "And you just didn’t notice until you crossed the road."
She shook her head and rummaged in the paper bag. "No," she said, pulling out the strawberry lace and licking along the length of it, cleaning off the sherbet that had spilled from the shattered flying saucer. "There wasn’t. I did what that man said. I went the long way around. Mind you, before I came here, I crept down that little alley and peeked out onto Bold Street. There was no truck, no men with a hose and no fire. Smell the air: there’s no smoke, is there?"
She looked at me, this queen of story-telling, her eyes wide and unblinking. I looked back at her, then tilted my face upwards and sniffed, loudly and deliberately, dog-like. "No smoke," I said, and giggled.
She crammed the strawberry lace into her mouth and smoothed her skirt with the flats of her hands, leaving powdery smears of sherbet on the blue nylon.
A moment later and we were both wriggling and giggling and dirtying our clothes on the damp ground, while just beyond our sight, traffic clattered along the nearby roads and, somewhere, a siren wailed.
A few days later, as we perched on a pair of gravestones, Dolly said, "What happened the other day, it got me thinking. Have I ever told you about the thin places?"
I jumped off my gravestone. "The what? Are they like slimming clubs? Mam might like to go. That “down with a bounce, with a bounce come up” woman on the telly in the mornings isn’t doing it for her. She’s put on five pounds since Christmas, she says."
"No," Dolly said, kicking her heels against Laura Morton (Went To Sleep, 14th January 1884). "Not diets. Gateways to another time….." She cleared her throat. "Past or future."
I stuck my fingers in my ears. "I’m not listening," I said, thinking she was going to start on about graves and trapdoors any minute.
She sprang off her own gravestone and pulled my hands away from my head. "No," she said. "It’s another Irish tale, like the leprechauns." She plopped to her knees and shuffled backwards until she was leaning against another stone (Harriet Edwards, 20th August 1906 – 3rd May 1941, Safe in the arms of Jesus). "Laura’s a bit wobbly. Sit here and I’ll tell you about it."
I shrugged and sat down, although I fancied that Harriet, too, was a little unsteady.
"The thin places are those places where the wall between our world and the eternal worlds – the past and the future - is weakest. Sometimes it’s like smoked glass and you can see through it. That’s when you see ghosts."
I dropped my chin into the small cleft between my knees, and reminded myself she was just repeating what her da had said.
"Sometimes it’s more like a net curtain. You can actually go through it and" – she’d dropped her voice so low I had to lift my head and lean towards her to hear what she was saying - "walk with the ghosts." Above us, in the bare branches of a yew, a blackbird opened its yellow beak and began to sing. Dolly glanced up at it. "Go through," she repeated. "That’s what I should have done. But next time I will. You’ll see."
Over the following few days, I waited, expecting Dolly to turn up with another tale of fire and hoses and shouting men. Then, early on Saturday evening, as I was thinking about shoving my brothers along the sofa, and settling down with a Wagon Wheel and The Two Ronnies, the doorbell rang.
Dolly tumbled inside like the door had been holding her up.
"Has it happened again?" I asked, steering her into the back room, away from my brothers’ waggling ears. "Did you see the fire?"
She shook her head but was so wobbly and unlike herself that I pulled out one of the chairs around the table and pushed her down onto it. "It was different," she said. "There weren’t any sandbags or fire engines, and all the buildings were where they should be….."
I pinched her upper arm – only lightly, just enough to bring her back from wherever it was she was going in her head.
"Mam gave me some money. See?" She pulled out a purse on a string from under sweater, and shook it so I could hear the coins clink. "One pound fifty."
"My cousin Siobhan had her baby on Tuesday. Mam told me to go to Mothercare at the bottom of Bold Street and choose something nice. I was going to get one of those yellow shawls, the ones with the ducks on. You know."
I did. One of our favourite pastimes was lingering in front of Mothercare’s big windows, deciding what we’d buy for our own babies if we had them. "Yes," I said. "I remember it."
"Well I couldn’t find it, or the white one with sheep. It was so odd. I was sure I’d seen them in the window display so I thought I’d ask. But before I found a shop assistant, I had another look round. Honestly, some of the things in that place looked like they went out with Jesus’ flipflops. And then I saw a little rabbit, really soft it was….." She cleared her throat, and looked at the table, cluttered with dirty tea plates and the cress my youngest brother had pulled out of his egg sandwich. "Are those Wagon Wheels?"
"Yes. Have one. Just finish the story first."
She seemed a bit calmer with the biscuit waiting in her hand, although the nails of her other hand scratched at the foil until I could see lines of chocolate like veins. "I took it to the shop assistant and she rang it up on the till, saying, “It’s in the sale. Lucky you.” Then I gave her my money. It wasn’t notes but all coins." She jangled the purse again. "I gave her three fifty pees. But she just looked at my money and said, “What’s this? We don’t take play money. You need one shilling and fourpence.”" Dolly stopped and swallowed. When she opened her mouth again, her lips were wobbling.
"It’s all right." I put my arm around her. "Have the Wagon Wheel. That’ll make you feel better."
I waited, my arm still slung around her shoulders, until she’d eaten the biscuit. Then, because I had to know the rest of the story, I said, "You didn’t buy the rabbit?"
"Course I didn’t!" She flung my arm away and scrambled to her feet, brushing crumbs and scraps of tin foil onto the carpet. "I didn’t buy anything. How could I? My money was no good." Her eyes were wet but she wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Don’t you see? It happened again. I found one of the thin places."
In the front room, my brothers laughed, loudly and heartily, over the top of the TV audience.
After that, Dolly refused to go down Bold Street any more. When we went to the old church together, we’d take the back route, looping through a maze of little alleys, where rats burrowed through drifts of rubbish and we could play hopscotch over the skeletal remains of pigeons. Alone, I went the old way but neither the shops nor the pavement slabs ever shifted, and the people always seemed the same.
"Dolly’s missing. Have you seen her?" A green headscarf, tied at the chin, held Dolly’s mam’s face together.
From behind my half-open front door, I said, "No. Not today."
Her hands, skinny and red, clutched at my cardigan, hauling me towards her. "She went out to meet you. You must have seen her." Her voice was louder and shriller with each word, making me think of Dolly’s banshees. I was glad when my own mam appeared, wiping her hands on a tea towel, and asking what was wrong.
Half an hour later, Liverpool 8 swarmed with search parties. The women stamped on slippered feet into the street corner pubs, ferreting out the men to join the hunt. Young boys left their waste-ground bonfires and teenage girls, dressed and made-up for their evening out, linked arms and called out Dolly’s name.
They’d already searched the church but I went up there anyway, taking the back alley route I was sure Dolly would have taken. I wanted to run but the glare of the street lights didn’t penetrate the dark little path. Instead I tiptoed along, brushing past dustbins and steeling myself for the spongy crunch of bones. Were it not for fear of what I might find, I’d never have been so relieved to see that church. "If you’re there, God," I shouted at the burnt-out walls, "send her back."
The wind was up, and it took my words and turned them into something like a banshee’s scream. I turned and ran.
The neighbourhood was divided on what had happened to Dolly. "The girl’s run away," I heard one neighbour tell another. The local churches – both sorts - held prayer vigils, and the Pakistani lady in the corner shop, knowing I was Dolly’s friend, gave me a lollipop when I went in for the Echo.
Dolly was front page, of course. She’d have liked that, although not so much the picture her mam had supplied. In it, a seven-year old Dolly, with rabbit teeth too big for her mouth, stood in her Holy Communion whites. The photo was cropped so no one could see how Dolly had refused to change her running shoes for the heeled white Mary Janes her mam had spent half a day’s pay buying.
To the side of the photo was a caption that said, 'City Council in urgent safety talks'.
I read the accompanying article, my chest burning. It seemed that all sorts of busy-bodies wanted our small bombed-out church demolished. I knew what Dolly would have said. "What about the people buried there! What about us?"
Dolly’s mam was an unlikely ally when it came to the local campaign to protect the church. No matter that it was a Proddy church and that she’d never liked Dolly going there, the ruin was a link to her missing daughter. She used to go there sometimes. I’d come across her sitting on top of one or other of the gravestones (usually Edith Bright: To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die) or Henry Oscar Wallace: Follower of Ships, Stars and Dreams), like Dolly and I used to do. She was always dry-eyed but had the look of someone who didn’t have anywhere else to be. I left her to it if I found her there. After all, I felt Dolly beside me every time I saw a small man with a green tie or red jumper, or licked sherbet off a strawberry lace. Sometimes I even heard my friend whisper in my ear: "No, not him," or "Are you not saving some for me?"
Eventually, though no one could agree on what should happen to the site, the city council and church authorities had the church and its graveyard fenced off so no one could get in. Danger! Unstable Masonry said the signs. Someone covered one with a cartoon figure of a girl in a skirt and flyaway hair like Dolly’s raising her fist as a hail of rocks rained around her. Dolly’s mam died not long after. I imagined it was a relief for her, and didn’t go to the funeral, although I did wonder what was inscribed on her gravestone: I favoured “A weary traveller home at last” or “Peace Perfect Peace”.
Last week, all those decades after she went missing, and a month after the church was at last deconsecrated, the demolition crew found Dolly. She was six feet down in the graveyard, her bones mingling with those of Harriet Edwards. They only knew it was her because of the blue nylon skirt. "Nylon doesn’t rot, you see," someone said.
Questions were asked about how she could have been missed in the original search. One or two people even said how it was a crying shame the site hadn’t been levelled before Dolly was even born. Over the garden fence, while we were both pegging out laundry, my neighbour said, "Imagine being buried alive."
I shook out a pillowcase, made it snap in the air. "Who told you that?"
"What else could have happened? She was playing, and the grave collapsed underneath her."
"Who’s to say it’s even her! One skirt’s much like another. Half the girls in Toxteth wore something similar." I picked up my washing basket and strode up to the house, slamming the door.
Inside, I slipped on my jacket. Both house and garden seemed too small, too overlooked. I’d go into town for a coffee.
I got off the train at Central Station. The flow of Saturday afternoon shoppers took me up the escalators, past a couple of buskers and a fella selling the Echo. Outside, a newspaper under my arm, I crossed the road and spent five minutes trying on peculiar hats in Resurrection. It was the kind of shop where, once upon a time, Dolly and I would have pressed our noses flat against the window. "Buy it," I imagined her saying, as I tried on a futuristic cloche hat covered in what looked like tin foil.
I laughed out loud and put the hat back. "Yes?" I said to a pair of eye-rolling, sniggering teenage girls. I wanted to tell them how lucky they were to have each other but one of them was now twirling her forefinger to the side of her head so I left them alone.
Hovering in the shop doorway, I looked out. The pulse in my neck jumped once, twice, three times as I worked out that what I was seeing was not some clever marketing device: Bold Street was gone. In its place, a sandy moonscape stretched down to the vanished Mersey. Here and there, the metal skeletons of vehicles and crumbling piles of sun-shattered concrete erupted from the earth. A hot wind blew at my face and spattered me with grit. Behind me, music blasted out on the shop’s speakers, and those girls were still laughing. Their noise held me at bay, stopped me stepping backwards. Besides, out there, something was moving.
A flash of blue – a skirt, perhaps - a wild mass of dark hair and a face I thought I knew.
The thing, for it was a person, turned to look at me. Her face was reddened, and so too were the arms and the hands she was holding out towards me.
I took a breath, stepped out and let the thin place take me.
Copyright (c) Louise Taylor 2018