Last December AbeBooks invited its customers in the UK to enter a 1001-word writing contest in order to win a wonderful limited edition three-volume box-set of The Arabian Nights from Penguin. To enter, you had to write a short story exactly 1001 words in length and we received some wonderful tales of cunning, guile, weirdness and, of course, Arabian adventures.
Our winner was Robert Bonnett from North Yorkshire with an intriguing story set around a chess game in the harsh Russian winter. It’s a wonderful example of how conversation can carry a story. It was interesting to see so many budding writers of fiction among AbeBooks’ customers – non-fiction comprised less than 5% of the entries.
Thanks to everyone who entered. We will have plenty more great prizes to win during 2009. Check out Robert’s tale of chess and God and four other stories that caught our attention.
- Robert Bonnett from North Yorkshire – The Babushka Strategy
by Robert Bonnett
Yevgeny pinched his Queen’s head and slid her down the chessboard. ‘I’m going to prove to you that God exists,’ he said to the chubby man sitting opposite him.
‘You are?’ Nikolai laughed. ‘One atheist plans to tell another atheist that God exists? There is some reason that you’ve suddenly decided to tell me this, my friend?’
He didn’t wait for a reply. ‘Or, perhaps, the reason is here.’ He tapped the vodka bottle with a fingertip and then emptied the dregs into Yevgeny’s shot glass.
The Siberian wind howled with the wolves in the distance. Two Mosin-Nagant hunting rifles, old army issue but well maintained, wedged the cabin’s door shut against both evils. Fresh moss packed around the frame kept draughts out.
Thick cable ran from a tractor battery on the floor to a rusting samovar on the table. Nikolai turned it on and then looked at the board. He controlled the centre squares and the game, and his pile of captured pieces dwarfed Yevgeny’s. His radiant cheeks glowed like the potbellied cast-iron stove, which roared away in a stone fireplace alongside him.
‘That icon,’ Yevgeny said to him whilst nodding at a piece of wood nailed to the wall. Paint peeled from Christ’s face, splits in the timber spread through his hair and halo.
‘What of it?’
‘It belonged to my grandmother.’
Yevgeny fished his tobacco tin from the pocket of his musty leather jacket hanging on the corner of the bunk bed behind him. His own mix: half Ukrainian pipe tobacco, half Russian tea leaves. He offered a cigarette to Nikolai, who declined.
Fluffs of snow the colour of both men’s hair dabbed at the window. Candlelight danced a polka from a block of wax sitting in an enamel holder on the table.
‘She never lost her faith.’
Yevgeny lit his cigarette and threw the tin onto the rabbit-fur blanket, which smothered the lower berth.
‘Whilst the rest of my family knelt in front of a portrait of Lenin, she would draw a curtain across her part of the room and bring that icon out.’
He drew in a lungful of smoke. ‘I remember her so vividly. Everyone lit candles for Vladimir Ilyich, but she lit them for Jesus.’
‘Check.’ Nikolai interrupted the story, wiped the tip of his bulbous drinker’s nose with his sleeve and then gestured his friend to continue.
Yevgeny squinted at the board through cataract tainted eyes, and frowned. The furrows of his weathered face narrowed in concentration.
‘Of course, the state organs got her in the end, but not for her religious beliefs. They gave her ten years in a logging camp. Seventy two years old and they put her in a logging camp. And for what?’
A stack of logs, miniatures of the cabin’s tree trunk walls, dried beside the hearth. Nikolai added some to the stove, and then shrugged and waited for the answer.
‘I’ll tell you for what.’ A cloud of smoke lingered around Yevgeny’s lips as he spoke. ‘A neighbour overhead her whispering to my brother that things had been much better under the Tsar.’
He stubbed the cigarette out on the table, and then shovelled a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth from a small brass bowl. ‘We kept the icon safe for her by sticking a picture of The Great Leader on the back and hanging it the wrong way round.’ He spat a husk on the floor after every two or three words. Even a euphemism for Josef Stalin warranted contempt.
The crackle of ice breaking up on the lake outside echoed through the cabin. Yevgeny ignored it and nudged a pawn forward to protect his king. ‘She survived it. Ten years plus five in exile, but she survived it.’
‘So, you’re saying that God saved her?’
Nikolai said as he squeezed one of his bishops into a strong attacking position.
‘God?’ Yevgeny let his arthritic hand hover over the board and kneaded thumb and crooked forefinger above his remaining rook. ‘No, it wasn’t God that saved her.’
‘Then what?’ Nikolai asked, anticipating his friend’s next move.
‘Faith,’ Yevgeny said. He pulled his hand back before his skin made contact with the rook’s turrets. ‘Like many who survived the Gulag, she was a believer.’
He stretched and took hold of his knight farther down the board. Three squares to the left, one forward. He sat the piece down and said: ‘Checkmate.’
‘How the…?’ Nikolai mouthed the words in silence. A damp log hissed in the stove. A few minutes passed as he scrutinised the board for options. He shook his head in disbelief at Yevgeny’s surprise offensive, and, cursing under his breath, accepted defeat. He felled his king with the flick of a finger.
‘Congratulations, my friend,’ he said. ‘An admirable comeback.’
Still shaking his head at his own stupidity, he pulled another bottle of vodka from under the table and filled the glasses.
‘Na zdorovia!’ Yevgeny said and then necked the forty proof.
‘Cheers!’ Nikolai followed him. ‘But, my friend, you still haven’t proved the existence of God.’
‘Caissa.’ Yevgeny lit another cigarette. ‘The goddess of chess.’
‘I know who she is, but what of her?’
‘Caissa was with me during that last game, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘I would indeed. You really came out of nowhere with that last move. I’d have bet a can of calf’s foot jelly on my winning, but… I was paying more attention to what you were saying than what you were doing on the board.’
‘So you see, Nikolai, I have given you the proof I said I would. Caissa exists, you said so yourself. She’s a god, or rather a goddess, but nonetheless a god.’
Steam wheezed from the samovar. Nikolai pushed his shot glass into a small copper holder, and then filled it with the hot tea. ‘But what about the icon? Your grandmother and her time in the camps?’ He took a sip. ‘What have these to do with Caissa?’
‘Absolutely nothing,’ Yevgeny said, grinning.
My mates say I tell too many stories but when that bloke walked into the service station and held a gun at my head I went quiet for England.
“Open the till. And fill this up.” He pushed a plastic bag into my hand, his boss-eyed stare looking at me and the display of fag lighters on the counter. I started doing what he said. He’d picked the right night for a hold up. It might have been three o’clock on a Monday morning and completely dead out there on the moors, but there was enough in the till for a week’s takings.
“It’s not always this full,” I said, lifting out the notes.
“Shut it. Just keep filling the bag.”
I’d loaded the money in the till earlier, with Old Man Stones standing watch over me. His fag swag he called it. Every month he went to France, filled up his van with tax-free cigarettes and then sold them on to every man, woman and child he could. All profits went through the business, turning nicotine into petrol. Stones was proud of what he did. “Pay attention and you might learn something. That’s the problem with you lad, no initiative.”
I started telling Stones about how a bloke I’d got talking to in the pub wanted me to set up a multinational business with him but he cut me short.
“Give it a break lad. Listen, you see them smoke alarms up there?” I nodded. “Well if you start telling any tales about my fag swag here I’ll tie your balls to them.”
I finished stuffing all the notes in the bag. “Christ how much is there?” The face behind the gun was sweating. Meanwhile I was working on a story that just might frighten him off the money for good.
“You must have been watching the place,” I said. “It’s always jackpot night on Monday. But nobody’s ever dared take it before cos, you know.”
“Shut it.” Pause. “Cos what?”
“You know, Don Corleone. I don’t know his name.” I looked up at the doughy face. “Please don’t tell him I call him that.”
He grabbed the bag as I finished, but I could tell he wanted more.
“Last person who worked here ended up in the Tyne. Don’s psycho. That’s why nobody’s ever tried to hold up the place before. Well, not until tonight.”
His boss eyes squinted. Then he laughed. “Cobblers. Don Corleone.”
Lights on the forecourt. A BMW drew up and a man got out. The face opposite me went white.
“Ask him yourself.”
He threw a glance at the car, then back at me. His shaking fingers held the gun at my forehead.
“You say anything and I’ll put your brains on that wall.” He shoved me out of the way and squatted down on the floor behind the till, focusing the gun at my head.
The driver came in. Sharp suit, immaculate even at three in the morning. Probably a business rep on his way home. As long as he just thought I was a weirdo or something my story might just hold up. “Evening again.” Mr BMW frowned, then handed me his credit card.
“You’ve not got any cash for me tonight then.”
“No, just put it on the card.”
“The police were in earlier.” Mr BMW flashed a smile to show that he’d heard, but wasn’t listening. “They were asking about who comes in here.”
The man with the gun was holding his breath.
“I think they’re after someone.”
Mr BMW raised his eyes to mine.
“I’m sorry sonny. What are you saying exactly?”
“The police. I think they’re onto something, you know.”
He filled his lungs with air and stretched. Then before I knew it he’d grabbed my collar and smashed my head into the lighters on the counter.
“The next time you see them you can tell them from me everything is legit. Every single bastard who works for me is legal.” He was pushing my head into the counter like he wanted to bury me through it, then lent forward to shout in my ear. “Do you understand me?” I tried to stand up, to distract him, but he’d already seen over the counter.
“What the… who’s that down there?”
My gun chum slowly rose to his feet, the gun in his hand now shaking all over the shop.
“I didn’t mean it. I didn’t know it was your money.”
My story was about to break and shatter. And I had a feeling my body might go the same way.
“What? What do you mean my money?”
“You’re not the boss… This isn’t Don Corleone?”
“I’ve got no idea what you’re…”
The barrel of the gun was suddenly pressing against my neck. “I am going to break your bones and feed them to you, you piece of…”
Mr BMW was round the counter now too. “Here. I’ll hold him down.”
I grabbed a lighter off the counter and flicked it on. The surprise of the flame stopped them for a second, then they both laughed.
“What, you’re going to singe us to death?” Mr BMW punched the lighter out of my hand, but it was enough. The smoke alarm had already kicked in, filling the empty night with its thin metallic whine.
The two men looked at each other, then the one behind me pushed his way out from the counter, holding the gun on both of us until he hit the door. Mr BMW turned to me. “You have never seen me before, ever.” That was fine by me.
Thirty seconds after that and the place was deserted, just the yellow pool of light on the forecourt and the darkness of the moors beyond.
That was the story I told Old Man Stones anyway. Two days later I drove out to the back of the garage and picked up the Tesco’s bag I’d left in the rabbit hole. That was the trouble with teenagers like me. No initiative.
by Steve Williams
The woman from the social was late. She had been due at two o'clock and it was now four, and Sidney new that she was not coming. He was going to have to take the rubbish out himself.
There were two black plastic bags, standing just inside the door of the flat. Sidney knew it was time to change the bags, because they were beginning to smell. He looked through the spy hole in his door. He could see most of the landing, two out of three of the other doors on this level, the top two steps of the stairs, the front of the broken lift, and the door to the rubbish room. Risky. He could not see down the stairs, and he could not see whether anybody was in the rubbish room. But he had been watching the rubbish room for nearly half an hour, his eye to the spy hole, his back now cramped from bending over to look out of the hole, his eye dry and sore, but at least he was fairly sure that there was nobody in there.
Sidney made his preparations. He changed out of his carpet slippers into his shoes, and put on a pair of woollen gloves. The three large bolts on the inside of his front door were quiet, well oiled, but he carefully looked through the spy hole after opening each one. Movement? He waited, not breathing, for long seconds, but there was no movement.
He took down the set of keys hanging just inside the door. Several deep breaths then he carefully inserted the first key into the top lock, making as little noise as possible. It was quiet, he greased the lock regularly, but not silent. He put his eye to the spy hole again, checking, then turned the key. Nothing. No movement outside the flat.
He did the same with the second key in the second lock, eye glued to the spy hole. Again, nothing. So vulnerable, now, with only the Yale lock for protection. A kick, a shoulder, could easily open the flimsy Yale lock the council put on his door. That was why he had added the other locks. He waited for long, long seconds. No movement, no sound, nobody.
Carefully, silently, eye still rheumily glued to the spy hole, he put his hand on the inner brass handle of the Yale lock and turned it. It was completely silent. Sidney dismantled it, cleaned it, greased it, and oiled it every Sunday afternoon. It could not be quieter.
Completely intent on the landing through the spy hole, the hair on the back of Sidney's neck was standing up, he had completely stopped breathing, so vulnerable, so much danger. No movement, no sound, nobody.
Cautiously, he pulled the door wide open, all his senses sharp, alert, but there was nothing. This is it, he thought to himself, now or never. He reached into the hall, took a deep breath, grabbed the two black plastic bags and started to run. The noise, in the quiet of the hall, seemed overwhelming. The crackling of the plastic bags, the banging of his feet on the tiled landing floor, he began to moan, couldn't help himself, he was so afraid, so far from the safety of his front door, and knowing that his door was open and that he was getting further from it.
The door to the rubbish room was ajar but Sidney knew that it was stiff so he hit it with a shoulder at a shuffling run, barging it open, bouncing into the rubbish room, wrenching open the metal door to the rubbish chute which screeched deafeningly as he opened it, and now the moan was rising in pitch and in volume as he crammed the two bags into the chute at the same time and they were caught, and he couldn't get them in, and his chest was hurting and his voice was rising, and he was sure he heard steps on stairs, and he screamed, and he pushed the bags down the chute using brute force and terror, and his chest was thumping with pain and his arm was hurting and he was turning running from the room as the plastic bags made their noisy way down the chute, and he was screaming a keening babbling terrified noise as he ran limping across the landing, and could he see a shadow on the stairs, or was that his imagination, and yes, it was a shadow, he could see it from the corner of his eye, but he couldn't stop and check he was running, he was running for his open front door and then he was through, and slamming the door closed and locking the lock and pushing the dead bolts across, but he couldn't reach the third one, because his arm was hurting too much, and his chest was hurting too much, and somebody had turned the light off, and he was leaning on his arm, falling to his knees, leaning against the door, trying to breathe, trying to breathe.
Outside the door, on the tiled landing, he dimly heard footsteps. From behind the door there was knocking, and the doorbell was being pressed, but he smiled grimly, through his pain, knowing that he had disconnected the bell. Then a big dark pain opened in his chest and took him away.
Above his head the letterbox opened, and somebody peered through. "Mr Parker? Sidney? Are you there? I thought I heard you outside a minute ago? It's Marcy, from Social Services, I'm sorry I'm late. Mr Parker? Sidney? Hello?"
by Colin Neville
Sister Loyola saw him pinch the girl and moved like an adder. ‘Get up and stand out here, now!’
‘What for? I ain’t done nothing.’
‘I told you, get up now, How dare you defy me!’
Her patience snapped and she seized him by his collar. But he clung to the table, making the cutlery scatter. The nun’s strength gained in her fury and she dragged him upright. The boy was furious, ‘leave me alone, you old cow!’
‘What did you call me?’ The nun shook him and a button flew off his shirt.
‘Leave me, you old cow,’ and he kicked at her leg. She winced and the other children gasped in their horror and joy at the scene. She grabbed his hair and his struggles soon subsided.
‘You see this wicked boy? He’s going to hell - to hell.”
‘No I won’t. You will,’ he sobbed.
Sister Loyola marched him out and we did not see him again.
The school meal was served in the hall. About midday, the council van arrived and the gun-metal trays were unloaded. The two dinner ladies, Mrs Ashmore and Mrs Turner, would loosen the containers and the smell of mashed potatoes, meat and vegetables would creep along the lower corridor.
The children would troop in by classes and take their places by year. I was in the Middle Year, for I was nine. We would stand and pipe: ‘for what we are about to receive may The Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.’
The meal was my daily encounter with forces beyond my control. The potatoes were grey-white, but with silver translucent lumps that made the bile rise in my throat. If Mrs Turner was serving, I could say, ‘only a little, please’, and you would be spared. But Mrs Ashmore was spitefully generous, and you would be given a loud sermon on starving children in Africa. And the potatoes would thud onto the plate. While we ate, the duty nun would walk slowly up the centre of the hall silently saying her rosary.
At the end of the meal we would take our plates back to the serving table and attempt to dispose of the uneaten food. If Mrs Turner was near the waste bin you could usually scrape away the mess quickly and without her comments. Mrs Ashmore, however, if she spied waste, would say loudly, ‘wasting good food; a sin it is. Sister, don’t you agree?’
And the nun would break away from her prayers to tut-tut in agreement: ‘this is a venial sin, child’. And the child would nod in their shame. Sister Vincent or Sister Mary would usually leave it at that; but Sister Loyola was different. She did not recite her rosary, but would glide the hall slowly: ‘When you waste food, you throw God’s gift in his face. You insult the Almighty!’
Since the incident, the scene with the boy kept coming back to me and his defiance of the nun had sent a thrill through my heart. I had seen him after the incident in the shopping parade with his mum. He looked happy and swung on her hand. He was not wandering round cowed, with head bowed. What had happened to him? Whatever had happened, it did not seem to have destroyed his confidence or his life. His defiance had beckoned to another response toward life.
It was Monday, and PE before lunch, which usually left me giddy. My head still spinning after the exercises, I went into lunch and saw Mrs Ashmore alone with Sister Loyola. The warm room and smell of damp food made me chill with sick anticipation.
Mrs Ashmore served the food and I gazed at the grey and green mass. I tried a familiar strategy of crossing my eyes to blur the sight of it. I took a mouthful and found it mostly meat and greens. Encouraged, I swallowed but my fork encountered potato lumps and my stomach tightened. The first taste confirmed the worst and a stinging sickness rose to my mouth. I knew I could eat no more.
I watched Mrs Ashmore and the nun and waited for a break in their surveillance. I rose quickly with my plate and had almost made it to the waste bin when Mrs Ashmore spied my plate.
‘Waste! What waste, what sinful waste of good food!’
At this, Sister Loyola turned and came slowly toward me.
‘Pray tell me what are you doing?’
‘I’m very sorry, Sister. I can’t eat this today. It has lumps in the potato and I’m feeling sick after PE.’
She nodded slowly before half-turning to the now silent hall.
‘There will be no mortal sin of waste or pride in this school.’ She waited.
‘Sister I’m feeling sick. I don’t want to be sick on the table.’ The tears welled in my eyes. Her colour deepened and her eyes fixed on mine. She lowered her face and body into a curve, her eyes still locking on mine. ‘You will eat this food now,’ she said quietly, coldly into my face.
I remembered the boy’s defiance of her.
‘Yes, Sister.’ The room was hushed as I returned to the table. The children stared and the two women waited, Mrs Ashmore with hands on hips. I forked a mass of meat and greens into my mouth, chewed, swallowed, and at this the tension broke. Sister Loyola said loudly, ‘Now, the rest of you, get your pudding.’
The children pushed and scraped their way to the serving table. Sister Loyola intervened briefly to quell some shoving before returning to me. My head was bowed and my plate was empty now. She said in cold triumph, ‘now get your pudding’. I did what I was told and when the meal was finally over we chanted the usual prayer of thanks to God for his precious bounty.
Outside, I found a quiet place and emptied the slopping mass of potato quickly from my pocket and into a dark corner.
by Riccardo Lucchesi
At ten to three Tom Dunn's eyes snapped open. He stared into the darkness of his bedroom and knew that he was being watched. As sweat gathered in the small of his back he stared at a corner where the darkness was deeper, the shadow blacker. He could not move. An iciness spread through his arms and legs and he realised that he could no longer hear the soft breathing of his wife. Through his fear the question struck, am I dead?
The darkness stirred, seemed to take on the shape of a cloudy pillar and as he continued gazing he could just make out a kind of trembling in the thing, a sort of slow swirling as of liquid pitch turning slowly in a heated bucket.
It spoke to him in a voice not made by any mouth of flesh but the sound echoed in his mind as clear as any sound he had ever heard carried across a flat blue sea or over the still desert dunes.
Amin al-Hadi, thy seven years of joy are at an end.
Now there was only one reality, the man and the pillar of smoke, the djinn, gazing at one another in a dark room.
Amin al-Hadi, lying on on a pile of rotting sacks raised himself up on one elbow and looked into the slowly churning fog. He could only hear silence where before was the keening of his wife as she tried to quieten their sick child. His feelings were a mixture of terror and hope. No sound, only that cold clear voice in his head.
Amin al-Hadi, thy wish is granted.
No one remembered when Tom and Margaret Dunn and their little son, Tommy, had moved into the neighbourhood. They seemed to have lived there as long as anyone else had. And, of course, no one remembered a time when their neat little brick bungalow with the white door and windows had not been there. Any of the neighbours would have sworn that the little house on the corner had been there quite as long as any of the others in the housing estate.
The Dunn family were good neighbours. Never causing any trouble, always willing to lend a hand. Tom had a steady job at the chipboard factory and was secretary of the Angling Cub. Margaret was a member of the Craft and Knitting circle and Tommy was doing well at school.
He played with the Silver Band which occasionally gave concerts in the square playing Selections from the Classics. Some of the neighbours, though, thought that at Christmas Tom went overboard with his myriads of twinkling multi-coloured lights which made their house look like a fairytale palace.
The poor fisherman, Amin al-Hadi, had plunged into the depths of hopelessness that night. His nets had dragged in virtually nothing each day for months. The gaping rips had needed repair but how could he afford new cord when there was nothing to take to market? Three children had died, three little mounds in the dunes behind his hut where the wind blew without cease. Faridah, his wife, had long since stopped complaining about their situation and now resignedly searched the shoreline for whatever scraps might keep them and their surviving child alive and warm.
It was the darkness of the fisherman's despair that had called across the sands to the wandering spirit. Darkness calling to darkness. Despair calling to despair. That swirling of disembodied anguish, emptiness and hunger which is the desert Djinn impelled it towards the darkness of the man's soul as he cursed the God who had abandoned him and his loved ones. Amin al-Hadi cried into the night after his lost faith.
The pillar came to him and the bargain was quickly concluded, though it could hardly be called a bargain when one party did not know in full what would be required of him. The fisherman only knew that the Djinn had promised seven years of respite - a place of contentment, of asylum, of plenty. In exchange he would ask for the most precious jewel that the poor fisherman possessed.
The terms of that bargain had sunk below the surface of Tom's consciousness. Truth be told, all of his former life as a poor fisherman by Bahr al-'Arab had also been buried. For how can a man be truly happy when he knows the date of his joy's ending or can reflect on former wretchedness?
And the Djinn was faithful to his promise of undiluted happiness.
Now. I require thy son, Amin al-Hadi.
Tom's mind took frantic flight. Like a sparrow panicking in a cage it seemed to throw itself around in his skull, hurting, bruising itself, looking for an escape. Tom groaned aloud. Margaret stirred and then settled herself again.
Tom gazed into the pillar of black despair and saw again like answering like.
Take me, djinn, in place of my son, he essayed
Rejection was immediate, but love granted Tom inspiration. He had become aware of the horror of the Djinn's existence. Its desolate envy of the human.
Djinn, take my place. Let you become me and me become you.
Tom knew he had struck gold. The trembling of the pillar became a vibration of desire. To be embodied. To feel the world. To hear. To see. A tinge of colour seemed to enter that black smoke.
And so it was. The Djinn and Tom exchanged places
Life in the estate went on at its uneventful, placid pace. Margaret and Tommy were not aware of any change in Tom. Maybe Dad seemed to be a little bit kinder these days, a little more considerate, seemed to touch and hug them more. Their happiness was untroubled.Amin al-Hadi went howling into the wilderness that lies alongside this world to wander for anguished ages - a fleshless spirit - until the circumstances of time, place and person might redeem him and show him the way back to his humanity.