Earlier this year, we asked you to submit your best flash fiction thrillers, set in Oxford. We had an overwhelming response, and it took us longer than we expected to sift through the entries. Now, though, we've chosen our five favourites, and collectively they impart a considerable bloodthirstiness on behalf of Oxonians, not altogether unrevealing!
Place is evoked wonderfully. The flickering, orange-lit windows of Keble seen from the University Parks on a damp autumnal night; the pale, cold reality of Magdalen Bridge on May Morning; a furnace-hot day in Jericho; a calm moment of skulduggery in the Old Bodleian. Murders abound, interspersed with the odd suicide. At least two tutors are implicated, with one story deliciously fantasising 'The Last Tutorial', as the Police come to cart him away from in front of his own students. In another case—and this is a pronounced sub-theme of several narratives—a female student wallops her 'seducing Tutor' with a huge wine bottle in the college cellar, ending whatever little game he thought he could play on her.
A huge thanks to everyone who participated, and hopefully enjoyed doing so. The five prizes, comprising five copies of the Pitkins Guide to Morse in Oxford are awarded in no particular order to: Julian Károlyi (St Peter's, 1990), Matthew Cox (St Peter's, 1991), Anne Marie Sowder (Kellogg College, 2010), Sarah Leavesley (nee James) (Trinity,1993) and Roland Javanaud (Worcester, 1971). You can read their winning entries below.
Death and the Reader
by Julian Károlyi (St Peter's, 1990)
I'm afraid, most perspicacious reader, that this story will end with a death, and all too soon as well. In fact, my impatient friend, and I hesitate to expose you to such brutality so early, it will be a murder. Naturally you are curious. Fear not for yourself, lovely companion. We have only a little time together but your safety is sacred to me. Oh doubting reader, I am a wholly reliable narrator.
Your beautiful eyes caress my words like a kiss. How could I hold you accountable for the inhuman restraints that have been imposed on us? 300 words! I use figures to save space, but really I should forget the count and fly instead on the sonorous languor of the hope spelled by 'albatross', to suggest a Baudelarian intonation. Would we could soar in the azure, become acquainted through a gentle rain of limpid adjectives, and ride the Cherwell’s suggestive swell. We would tussle in Magladen’s long grass, and I would leave you at dawn, swooning with the pleasure of our nocturnal sojourn, yet impatient for our joyous struggle to resume. A dolorous haze of the most alluring of fonts would roll one after another. What pleases you? Surely not Palatino? Can I tempt you with Aurora? We might spend a lifetime in each other’s company, wandering the Taylorian’s aisles, hunting the Blind Librarian.
What can I hope for now? Time’s wingèd chariot is about to run me down. Oh, unfaithful reader, it is you who will do murder, and I am your victim. Shocked? You have done it before, laid aside loving words, and killed narrators with disdain.
Just 25 words remain, now 22. Your attention is wandering, your eyes are drifting towards the Bodleian’s deep shelves. I forgive you... Remember me! I am dying, I...
Cutting Out Words
by Matthew Cox (St Peter's, 1991)
He'd been destroying books for months. Expensive historical works from the libraries of Oxford. Some nut with a researcher's pass, a green rucksack and a penknife. Five foot six, thin face, beard. And he looked just like his photofit when he finally walked into our reading room at the Bodleian.
We wasted precious minutes whispering to each other, still not entirely sure, and pointing at the police warning pinned behind our counter. Don't approach him under any circumstances. He'll be carrying a blade. Call 999 and wait.
We followed their instructions but the minutes ticked by too slowly.
Librarians aren't known for their aggression but my hands clenched into fists when he retrieved two works from the specialist shelves and carried them off to his isolated desk. What was that in his left hand? Did he just put something in his pocket? Where were the police sirens? If it was him, he wouldn't stay long. His previous attacks were quick dissections. He'd stolen pages from texts at the Radcliffe, gutting them like a butcher. Fled over the cobbles by Brasenose just minutes later.
But the frustration was overwhelming and suddenly I was creeping up the spiral staircase, moving slowly along the balcony above him. He had no idea I was there but, from my vantage point, his destructive handiwork was clear enough.
I scanned the shelves next to me and quietly slid out the biggest tome. Something more modern and resilient. It needed two hands to lift but only a gentle push to send it on its way. As I later read in the newspapers, he suffered concussion for three days. But there was something wholly satisfying about the dull thud that echoed up towards the high, stone ceiling. The sound of ancient scribes laughing their revenge.
by Anne Marie Sowder (Kellogg College, 2010)
A body of unknown race and unknown gender was found in Jericho on Saturday afternoon. The body was wrapped in an unidentified material and it was not then possible to determine even whether it was wearing shoes at the time of death, despite having been in the location for no more than three days.
The body was partially unearthed near the play yard on Great Clarendon. Those searching for leads found one early. A handwritten sign in a nearby car window read, “Lying Granny Needs God.”
Saturday’s afternoon temperature was 44.
Forty-four is also the number of years that Ruth Abbett, a pensioner and the district’s longest-serving volunteer weather observer, has been recording the temperature, rain, and snow. She plans to keep it up for 65 years in total, stopping on her 92nd birthday. Her long-standing feud with her neighbor, Mr. Hagedorn, notwithstanding, Ruth records the weather from her terraced house’s rear garden each day at 12:00 pm. Randy has frequented his adjoining garden every day at the same time for the past ten years, since he retired as chartered accountant. He is currently living out of his car, pending the approval of a temporary permission to re-occupy his dwelling that he hopes to have granted by Building Control Services.
His condemned property still houses five fish tanks, two canaries, and four cats. The used and mineral-rich fish tank water collects in the little yard in gallon jugs, painter’s trays, and open buckets for use watering his plants. It is unknown whether the plants, cats, and birds are being watered in his absence.
Sunday’s afternoon temperature was 46.5.
The Last Heartbeat
by Sarah Leavesley (nee James) (Trinity, 1993)
“Because you're gorgeous…”
The radio on the windowsill is silent. But Lynn can hear Babybird’s song in her head, as her finger presses the camera button. And then again, clicking the square of the bedroom, the body flatlined on the floor.
“Take it slowly.” She remembers the textbook guidelines, how Tim taught her to look from every angle. To see landscapes, horizons, faces. Or not faces, not in this job. Focus on something else instead.
Little Clarendon Street at dusk: shadows sidling up the stairs, Tim’s laughter… How inappropriate, Lynn shivers. Through the windscreen or lens, this city of waking spires has always pierced skyline dreams.
She ignores the police officers, repeats the crime scene instructions in her head like a mantra. Her first corpse! The lens shakes; her hand on the camera as unsteady as when she opens a car door. The flashbacks always in parts, as if old negatives hacked up into jagged pieces: the moon that night; Tim’s ale-heavy breath; her body awkward-angled between the car gearstick, dashboard and his hand on her thigh; his crushing weight; the air tight in her throat…
“I’m sorry, Lynn, I’m sorry.” The dead man is talking now in Tim’s voice. “I didn’t mean… I thought you wanted this!”
No! No, no, no!
Every click of the camera is a shout inside her.
“Okay, I’m done.”
Lynn steps back from the body, and the pool of blood unspooling his last reel of film. Already it is drying to rust – just a corpse waiting to be bagged, an incident to be filed.
The chief coroner’s job now, not that he will find anything but another suicide, Lynn thinks, as she closes the door on Tim’s song.
“…I'd do anything for you.”
The Tobacco Murders
by Roland Javanaud (Worcester, 1971)
On a damp evening in November 1973, Jim Romarity made his way across the University Parks after a day in the English Faculty library researching material for his extended essay on Sherlock Holmes and tobacco. He had discovered that only four of the sixty tales failed to mention tobacco! He himself was a non-smoker.
It was very dark in the Parks (the only visible light coming some way off from the windows of his own college, Keble) and the soft leaves underfoot sent out a heavy odour of late autumn. Unable in the gloom to make out even his own feet, he suddenly felt one of them jar against what he recognised at once must be a human body. Using his hands for eyes, he realised from the beard that this was a man and from the body’s coldness and rigidity that the man was dead. Out of a greatcoat pocket, which he was surprised to find himself exploring, he took a pipe and a stuffed tobacco pouch, which, also to his surprise, he put in his own pocket.
Back at college, he reported his discovery but police searches later that evening and the following morning revealed nothing. Jim’s extended efforts to identify the dead man were equally unsuccessful. He did, however, identify the tobacco and, once having sampled it, repeatedly replenished the pouch in the years ahead.
After finals nothing brought Jim back to Oxford until November 2013, when, as he walked across the Parks in the dark, a heavy blow to the side of his head knocked him to the ground. The distant lights of Keble were just enough for him to make out the face of the young man who was riffling through his pockets. “So it was you – I mean, me” he said.
Image from Oxford University Images