by Martin Burtsyn

Runner-up, MHFGA short story competition 2020

August 1944
They’d motored down from London in the MG that day and managed to get to the coast by the late afternoon. One of his fellow officers in the Mess had told him about the magic beach and he’d decided to take Amelie there before he was shipped out. Just a few short days together and then he’d be gone for at least six months. He wanted something special for them both to remember.

He managed to find the turning and realising he couldn’t go any further stopped and turned off the engine listening to it popping as it cooled.

“Come on cheri, let’s explore – and bring the picnic basket.”

Before he could reply she’d grabbed her straw hat and was out of the car running down the rutted lane towards what he hoped would be the beach. Her blue summer dress floated behind her and the pale downy hair on her long brown legs glistened in the sun. He took off his cap and flying jacket and throwing them on the passenger seat picked up the picnic basket and made off after her. He could hear her laughter echoing through the woods and then it stopped. Feeling frantic he hurried on and turned a corner in the lane.

“Oh Tom, look, isn’t it marvellous?” She was standing at the edge of the wood looking across an unkempt lawn at a large Italianate-style house that stood gently crumbling at the other side.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, I wonder who lives there? What do you think, shall we knock on the door?” Amelie followed him up to the house but the front door was wide open hanging on its hinges and swaying gently in the breeze.

“It’s abandoned, it must be.”
“Looks like it, shall we go in?”
“We need to be careful, they’re probably rotten floorboards all over the place.”
“Maybe the owner abandoned it during the war. I imagine her sons went off to fight and didn’t come back and so she couldn’t face living there again.
“You’ve such an inventive imagination Amelie, perhaps you should write detective novels like Miss Christie.”

“Perhaps I will, but in French”
They laughed and went back out onto the lawn. Tom spread out the tartan blanket and Amelie unwrapped the sandwiches from their grease proof paper. They sat back to back munching and admiring the house.

“We should buy it Tom. After we’re married I mean. This house would be perfect for children, I want four by the way and one of the boys will be called Timothy. Have I already told you that? I can imagine us all growing up and old here, sitting out on the lawn on your English deckchairs eating cucumber sandwiches and watching the grandchildren climbing in the trees.”

“Will there be Pimms?”
“Mais non, champagne only” She laid her head on his shoulder and he smelled the summer sun in her hair and the lemon breath of her perfume as they sat watching the sun go down behind the house.

“One day, cherie, one day.”

August 2010

He’d motored down from London and was surprised how quickly it took him, he was there well before lunch. Somehow he managed to find the turning, he wasn’t quite sure how, but there was the lane again. He was relieved to see that it was paved now. He got out of the car his knees cracking as he did so and reached for his stick. The first few steps were painful as they always were but soon the pain eased and he walked slowly down the lane. Nothing had changed except the trees looked taller and he could hear the roar of the traffic from the motorway beyond.

When he rounded the corner he was amazed to see the house was still there. It was just as dilapidated as before though at some point in the past it had been repainted. He could see that the front door was shut and the grass was neater than he remembered. As he crossed the lawn, the door opened and a middle aged man came out. He would have been Timothy’s age.

“Hello, can I help you?”
“I’m not sure you can actually”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Do you know this house?”
“I should do.”


“My apologies. A long time ago my wife,” he paused and took a breath,” my wife and I stumbled across it and immediately fell in love with it. We planned to buy it and raise our family here.”


“Well, it just never worked out. It’s a lovely house though, isn’t it?”

And there they stood.

by John Reed

Runner-up, MHFGA short story competition 2020

One spring morning, at a time when people still looked at blue skies and said what lovely weather to each other, a man met an alien standing on the doorstep next to the bookshop at the corner of the high street. Something about the alien’s casual demeanour made the man stop and stare. They locked eyes. The feeling seemed mutual. He followed the alien, taking the stairs two at a time into a spacious, well-appointed flat: art on the walls, a coffee machine in the kitchen; within a few minutes, they were having beautiful, uninhibited sex over the top of one of the plush sofas. When it was over, they fell into the plump cushions below and the man gazed out of the windows at the cloudless sky.

At last he said: can I see you again?

The alien looked at him with its cat-like eyes.

I have to go, said the man, picturing his daughter packing her bag at the end of the school day. He followed the alien with his eyes as it walked over to the door; watching the cool, green back, he suddenly felt that each cell in his body had started to freeze over.
He forced himself to think of his daughter again: now grasping the bars of the school gates, looking out through them, the last child in the playground. Sitting up, he willed his lips to move – I have to go, he would plead, if necessary – but instead, a harsh dry sound exploded from his throat: ek ek ek ek.

I mustn’t panic, he thought, as the alien turned back towards him. ek ek ek ek said the alien softly, intimately, while the man looked down with terror at his new body.

An unprecedentedly wet summer, the news bulletins were saying. Parts of the city were reported to be under water, but the three of them emerged as usual from their front door by the old bookshop. They walked in a line across the pavement, skirting around the puddles, the two aliens and their child, until someone else, another person or alien came the other way, when they would realign in single file. He saw that the humans were in a state of discomfort, mopping their brows and scratching red patches of skin. Since his own transformation, he had come to enjoy the hottest days of the summer and the freezing depths of the winter months the most; physical adaptability was a consolation to him. All the same, he envied the humans their sweating and their complaining. We appear to have gained control, he thought, as he did obsessively every day; but underneath, we’re still human – he/him, she/her, delete as appropriate, etc. etc. Just humans without tear ducts.

As they arrived at the bus stop, he saw that the thin plastic bench was already occupied by a young woman. Ears covered by black headphones, head bobbing, eyes heavily shadowed, she was painting her nails a shade of bright red directly underneath the screen of shifting adverts and practical information:

269, 3 minutes; 156, 4 minutes; MISSING, can you help?; MISSING, can you help?

Without looking up, the girl shifted her body along, making space. The three aliens sat, their child in the middle. He glanced surreptitiously at the profiles beside him: alien adult, alien child, human female. Was the slant of this girl’s chin familiar? His heart began to bang painfully. Underneath, we’re still human. Had his daughter and her mother really stayed in the same house all this time, had she continued at the same school with its dark Victorian brick buildings on that busy A-road? He carried on looking at her out of the corner of his vision. Could it be possibly be her, here, so self-contained and so nearly grown-up?

It was a busy morning; groups of people, aliens, shuffled past the bus stop, some poking their heads under the shelter, others slouched with bags by their feet, close by, waiting. The girl raised the lattice of her hands very slowly towards the daylight, blowing gently onto her nails. Was she…? Something in his heart seemed to be splintering, jagged ends moving towards his throat. Humans without tear ducts. He opened his mouth to cough – Ek ek ek ek – as the girl lowered her hands, pulling on her rucksack. The bus had arrived.

by John Crompton

Winner, MHFGA short story competition 2020

Michael took his Americano from the counter and sat down at a large table. The coffee was in a paper cup which was one of the many changes since March. Before then he usually had to share a table but now he usually had the station buffet to himself. This made it easier to have a look round the rather timeless surroundings of what had originally been called the general refreshment room. It was over 110 years old and judging by the sepia pictures on the wall the shape of the room had not changed since then, but obviously the fittings had been updated as had the refreshments on offer. What, he wondered, would a soldier returning from the trenches in 1918 have made of a flat white or a smoked cheese ciabatta. Would the coffee aroma have been as enticing back then? Probably – providing you could smell it for all the cigarette smoke of course.
As there was seldom anyone to talk to nowadays Michael would often imagine the events which the buffet had witnessed through the years both pleasant and unpleasant and those with an element of both such as lovers bidding each other a tearful farewell until the next time. Somehow it made him feel better when he considered the various adversities which previous customers had endured. There had been two world wars yet life had continued pretty much the same afterwards. So why should it be any different with Covid?

When Michael used the buffet on his way home in the evening there was often a spot of banter between the tables as to what excuse the announcer would come up with next to explain the train delays. His favourite was that the late running was due to earlier late running. He felt sorry for those less seasoned passengers around him who sat with a fixed half smile while keeping one eye on the monitors. 10 minutes late, 14 and then –“We are sorry to announce that the train was withdrawn from service at the previous station.” Different sort of passengers in the evening –barristers going back to London proud of the fact that they had persuaded the jury to make the right decision, actors who had passed their audition and were loudly repeating the good news to all and sundry on their phone and tipsy race goers dressed up to the nines in search of a final bottle of prosecco to enjoy on the train.

Back to the present morning. It was time for Michael’s connecting train and as was usually the case he struggled to find something original to say to the manager on his way out. The man was the only member of staff left now. Michael didn’t like to refer to what had happened to the others as he was only too well aware that the same fate probably awaited the manager too. Just as it had to everyone working in the rival buffet on the other side of the station and the pop up kiosks-which in recent years had appeared to cater for what he called the caffeine fiend in a hurry. The sort of person who had no trouble in striding along the platform talking into the mobile in one hand whilst sipping coffee from the cup in the other.

A few weeks later it was Michael’s first day back in the office after a short stint working from home. He was in good spirits and approached the buffet in keen anticipation of his Americano. He didn’t spot that the place was in semi darkness and it was only when he got to the door that he saw the notice which announced that the buffet was closed until further notice and thanking patrons for their custom and understanding. At first he thought the closure would only be temporary- perhaps to allow the manager to take a holiday. But then he noticed that the tables and chairs were stacked up as if in preparation for a visit by the administrators and his heart sank further when he spotted a spotlight above the open till to emphasise that it was empty. Ah well, he thought perhaps the rival buffet will have reopened. He set off towards the footbridge but then peered across the platforms and spotted someone trying in vain to open the café door.
So no coffee today, tomorrow or the next day. What would those soldiers returning from the trenches have made of that?