Note: credit for the inspiration for this story goes to … the idea came too late for me to enter the competition, but – having had the idea – I had to write it anyway!

Agatha stood, alone, in the cold dark room. No-one was coming. No-one would ever come. She had been abandoned by that horrid Maria – mean, nasty, deceitful Maria, who had been so full of hugs and endearments when it suited her, but who’d just run like all the rest when she was called upon for support herself.

Such larks they’d had. Tea on the lawn, with cakes and scones and lemonade set out on the tartan rug. Walks in the woods, hunting for heffalumps – not that they ever found any, of course, there’s no such thing as a heffalump, but Maria had seen it in a book and was sure they would find one among the trees.

There had been others before Maria, but Agatha couldn’t remember them very clearly now. There was Anna, who had a limp, and Theresa who had been cross all the time, and Mary who was always sad, no matter how much Agatha tried to cheer her up. All gone, one before the other.

And now Maria had gone, too. Just because Agatha’s lovely dress had got dirty. It was Maria’s fault, anyway, throwing her into the air as they passed the pond. A trip, a slip, and a drop – and Agatha was in the muddy water with the fishes and the frogs and the weeds. It had felt like hours before Maria’s father came and fished Agatha out with a net. “Looks like she needs a bit of a wash,” he’d said.

But when Maria saw the crack on Agatha’s cheek, and the missing eye, she screamed and run away, which explained why Agatha now stood where she did. In a corner of the junk room, waiting for a repair that would never come.

She’d be sorry, that Maria.

Agatha considered her options. Meningitis? That had seen off Theresa, but it was one of Agatha’s rules that she never played the same trick twice. Scarlet fever? Hadn’t she used that for Anna? No, now she came to think of it, there had been that little accident involving a horse and cart. That had been fun, hearing how little crippled Anna hadn’t been able to jump out of the way quickly enough. No, it was Mary she’d seen off with the fever. Funny how she’d seemed almost happy at the end.

Something appropriate. What could it be?

A heffalump, that would be it. Not a real one, of course, but close enough. It was so easy to plant the idea of going to the zoo in her mother’s head. They’d have to drive that old car through the lion’s enclosure. Meals on wheels.

In a horrific accident today, a six-year-old girl was mauled to death by lions after her mother’s car caught fire in the lion enclosure at Longleat safari park. Faced with burning to death, Maria Murchison ran away and, despite attempts by rangers to rescue her, was caught and killed by Sofi, a five-year-old lioness.

New Zealand

Janet was minding her own business in the shower when there was an almighty bang from beneath her feet. The pump slammed to a halt, and the invigorating  torrent was suddenly reduced to a pathetic trickle. Worst of all, her hair was full of shampoo.

“Colin!” she screamed. “What’s happened to the shower?”

Colin, however, was in his cave, and wasn’t going to hear no matter how much noise she made. In his mind, he was in New Zealand, checking out an itinerary. So helpful, the people on Trip Advisor, and so many wonderful places he’d love to visit.

In the shower, Janet was now officially Cross. She shut off the insulting dribble, stepped out, and wrapped herself in a towel. The hair and the shampoo would have to wait. Where was that useless husband of hers, and why wasn’t he coming when she called? She stomped downstairs and poked her nose into each room in turn, but there was no sign of him. Of course, he must be in his shed. She should never have let him spend their money on that wretched office at the bottom of the garden: he spent so long in there with his knick-knacks and his computer, it was almost as if he were trying to avoid her.

She grabbed her mobile from the hall table and dialled his number. A gentle warble leaked out from the drawer just in front of her. Damn. There was nothing for it, she’d have to go out there and get him herself.

Meanwhile, back on Aotearoa, Colin was tramping across the wilderness like a hobbit in search of a ring. There were rivers to cross and redwood forests to conquer and mountains to climb, and he was on a mission. The air was fresh, tinged only with the sulphurous fumes of distant volcanic pits. The peak of Mount Tarawera soared above him, and a cool breeze stroked his face.

Then the door smashed open and an angry figure entered, wearing a white robe and with a monstrous foaming head. Was this a wraith, come to slay him and thwart his quest? In a flash, he spun around and wrenched the samurai sword from its holder on the wall behind his desk. And, with one mighty blow, he was free.

The Invitation

MemorialThe invitation is unremarkable: it’s the date that stands out.

Printed on embossed card, as if for a wedding. It specifies a hotel, in a nearby town, and a time. But not the event or the sender.

And the date is twenty years ahead.

You examine the envelope. No return address. You peer inside, poking into the corners in case the key to the puzzle is hiding in a crease or a fold. Nothing.

You try the internet; Google finds the place immediately. It looks normal, an old country house with columns beside a grand entrance, and weather-worn statues standing on fake battlements. Hotel and conference centre, swimming pool for guests.

They should know: you call, feeling foolish. Is there a booking? The girl on reception must think you are drunk, or mad. No, sir, we don’t have reservations more than two years away.

For no good reason, you put the details in your phone.

Time passes, but you faithfully carry your diary through many upgrades, and the event silently follows you.

Until, one day, you are looking at your schedule six months later, and there it is. Your curiosity is reawakened and you search online again. The hotel is closed now, and standing empty. There are no more clues.

The day arrives. Will you go, or not? Two o’clock, it says. It’s an hour’s journey: at ten to one, you depart, still uncommitted. At least you will have the option of being there. Not that you’ve decided to go.

You arrive in the deserted car park. The traffic was heavy; it’s nearly two, there is no time to think. You leave your car and head for the door. The clock in the tower above strikes the hour, and you glance up to see the statue, falling.

Memories are Made of This

221-Memorial-SWJane arrived early at the restaurant, and selected a table where she would have a good view of the entrance: she wanted to make sure that she saw Lizzie first, and didn’t want there to be any mistakes or confusion.

As she had expected, Lizzie was late: about ten minutes after one, she rolled up at the greeter’s desk, shopping bags in hand. Older, and possibly a little more substantially built than when they’d last met, but she’d have recognised that hair anywhere. “Frizzy Lizzie”, she’d been, and still was.

“Over here,” Jane called, waving and half-standing in the way that you do when you’re trapped behind a cast iron table that refuses to move. Lizzie waved back and came over to join her.

Initial greetings over, they got down to the serious business of catching up on over twenty years apart. Yes, Lizzie was married, two teenagers at home. No, Jane wasn’t any more, it hadn’t worked out, fortunately there were no kids.

“All those years gone by,” Lizzie said with a sigh. “Whatever happened to them?”

“Do you remember,” Jane said, sitting forward, “those dreadful English lessons with, what was her name, Miss Cartwright?”

“Miss Carter, I think, but yes, those ridiculous essays she made us write, and the way she made us laugh with her silly stories,” Lizzie said.

Jane frowned: “I don’t remember laughing very much, her jokes were just stupid. But you’re right, it was Carter, didn’t we call her ‘Miss Farter’?”

“You know, I think we did, aren’t teenagers dreadful? And what about that gorgeous Physics teacher, Mr Johnson? Didn’t we all have such a crush on him? I remember, one day, gazing into the distance while he was trying to demonstrate something, daydreaming about lying on a golden beach with him in a thoroughly indecent way, when he woke me up by asking me to explain what he’d been on about! I got into such a mess, I’m sure it put me off science for life.”

“I remember him,” Jane said, “he was a real creep. Kept looking at us like he was trying to undress us in his head, didn’t he get into trouble for messing about with one of the other girls, Millie or someone?”

“I’m not sure about that, I think Millie had a big thing for him and made something out of nothing,” Lizzie said.

At this point they were diverted by the arrival of their food and the rituals that occur between waiter and waitee, and they both took a moment to lose themselves in their plates.

It was Jane that surfaced first. “While I was waiting for you, I was trying to remember exactly when it was that we last met. Can you think when that was?”

Lizzie chewed on a piece of chicken for a moment, took a drink, and looked at her friend. “Do you really not remember?”

“I’m not sure. Was it a party or something?”

“We were at the pub,” Lizzie said. “A whole bunch of us, back from Uni for the Easter holiday. The King’s Head, it was then, I think it’s a Starbucks now.”

Jane screwed up her face, trying to bring back the image. “So who would have been there, then? Jo, Millie, Steve, Mike and Annie, Phil?”

“Not Millie, no, she’d moved away by then. But yes to the others, plus Ed, of course.”

“Oh, God, yes, I remember now. Ed was really nice, I fancied him something rotten, but he never took the hint,” Jane said. “Hang on a minute, wasn’t that the night that you got into some sort of trouble?”

“You could say that,” Lizzie said. “There were some squaddies in the other bar who got a bit above themselves when I went to the ladies. Ed had to come and rescue me, it all got a bit out of hand.”

Jane was still struggling to recall the details. “Now wait a minute, it’s coming back to me. That was the evening when I made a big play for Ed, and he just went off and left me, never came back. Didn’t even have the grace to say no, he just chickened out and disappeared. I was pretty miffed, I think. Bloody men, all the same – one sniff of a relationship and they’re off.”

Lizzie smiled. “You really didn’t get it, did you? He hadn’t run out on you, he was busy rescuing me. By the time we’d got it all sorted out, you’d pushed off and he thought he’d misread the signs from you. What made you go like that?”

“I don’t really remember, to be honest,” Jane said. “But I think it might have been that I was pissed off because he abandoned me while he did his knight-in-shining-armour thing for you. That’s been pretty much my experience of men – before and since.”

“He did try to get in touch with you, though. Didn’t you want to talk to him?” Lizzie asked.

“Maybe, but if some bloke had come pestering me after running off like that, I would probably have told him to get lost. You can’t trust them, you really can’t. Anyway, how come you know all this?” Jane asked.

“He was pretty cut up about it, missing out on you like that, especially when you wouldn’t return his calls. He blamed me for a while, then he blamed himself, then he finally got round to blaming the squaddies.”

“And then?”

“You can ask him yourself, he’ll be here in a minute,” Lizzie said.

Jane looked blank. “You mean…”

“That’s right,” Lizzie said with a grin, displaying the rings on her left hand.