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The Ninja Zombie Knitting Circle was first published by Writers’ Village in October 2012 after being short listed in their Autumn Short Story Competition. Prior to that, the story was short listed in issue 132 of Writers’ Forum magazine. It was also entered in the Sunday Times EFG Competition but failed to be shortlisted (stories in this competition can be previously published, as long as they are printed during the year the competition is run).
As a runner up, I won £50 and agreed to have my story published on the Writers' Village website. The runner up prize is not mentioned on the website, so receiving it was a nice surprise.
Below is the story along with the feedback and scoring I received from John Yeoman, the Writers’ Village competition judge, followed by my comments about the competition.
Heavy, infrequent droplets of rain began to pelt from an inky sky as Detective Inspector Eric Carter parked his car outside number seven, Cedar Walk. He ran under the overhang of the rickety wooden porch just as the deluge became biblical.
The large house was set back from the road, surrounded by tall trees which swayed in the stormy gusts of wind. For burglars, this secluded property offered an ideal location to work, concealed in the safety of shadow.
Carter looked at his watch. It was approaching his most coveted time of day. Deep night, he called it. Two until three a.m. A time regarded as late at night rather than early in the morning, when the drunks were retiring and the milkmen were rising. Most people slept through the glory that night had to offer. It was the time of day when Carter felt most alive. Tonight, the rain brought an extra depth to the dark. The night felt close, like a protective cloak about his shoulders.
Savouring the glorious taste of damp air and tree pollen, he rang the doorbell. It clanged. The door opened almost immediately, answered by the elderly lady who owned the house as if she had been anticipating his visit. She was wearing a flowery dress, worthy of prime position in an Oxfam shop window. Her slipper-boots were fluffy, her grey hair smart, her eyes glinting with what Carter took to be mischief.
‘I’m sorry to bother you at such an hour, Mrs Eckless.’
‘Inspector Carter, how nice to see you again, dear. Do come in.’
Carter walked into a dated but pristine hallway. The wallpaper and carpet were a swirling mass of flowery patterns and gaudy colours from the seventies. The skirting and ceiling shone white in contrast. He removed his coat and hung it on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.
‘I was worried I’d wake you, Mrs Eckless,’ he said.
‘Oh, there’s no danger of that on a Tuesday, my dear,’ the old lady replied. ‘And do stop being so formal. My name’s Ethel.’
Carter smiled his best policeman’s smile. It was appropriate for any occasion, be it pleasant, awkward or disagreeable. He liked to believe it was unreadable.
‘So what is it that keeps you up so late on a Tuesday?’ he asked.
‘The ninja zombie knitting circle. We meet every week without fail.’
There was a twinkle in Ethel’s eyes that Carter didn’t like. He’d been mistaken about mischief. It was a testing twinkle, like you find in the eyes of devout believers in God who are prying to see if you share their belief or if you need converting.
‘That’s an unusual name,’ said Carter, challenging his judgement. Had he simply misread a joke?
‘Not really,’ said Ethel. ‘You have to be a ninja or a zombie to join. Gladys is a ninja and Joan is a zombie.’
‘Which are you?’ asked Carter.
‘Oh, I’m a little bit of both, my love.’
Carter had a lot of experience with people. He could read them, ascertain underlying hints in their character from the way they said and did things. And he was particularly adept at spotting lies. In this instance he had no doubt about one thing. Ethel believed the words that tumbled from her tongue were the truth.
Up until this point, Carter would have readily accepted a cup of tea, had it been offered, and maybe some cake or homemade biscuits. The house was spotlessly clean, unusually so for a lady in her nineties with family who lived abroad. Cleanliness ticked one box in Carter’s list of rules for accepting hospitality. But the second box was mental stability. At the first sign of senility he would politely steer the conversation towards business, rather than doing his bit for community relations by risking imbibing poison via off milk or the dubious cake mixtures employed by the partially sighted and mentally unsound.
‘It sounds like a very unusual and exciting knitting circle,’ said Carter.
‘Oh, it is, my dear, it is. Gladys and Joan are having a knit-off. We just lose track of time when we get going.’
The frenzied clack Carter could hear from behind the living room door suggested this particular knitting battle was likely to continue in rampant fashion until sunrise.
‘Would you like a nice warm cocoa, dear?’ asked Ethel ‘You must be freezing.’
‘No thank you, Ethel, I don’t want to intrude on your fun. I’m actually here because we’ve had a report of two burglaries in the area and a neighbour has reported suspicious activity outside your house.’
‘Do you think it’s those people I reported last week?’
‘I very much doubt it,’ replied Carter, remembering his previous visit. It turned out that the robbery Ethel Eckless had reported was of the daylight variety. She’d received a bill from her energy suppliers which she felt was impossibly large. At that time, Carter had assumed the old lady to be entertainingly eccentric rather than ten tubs of mental.
‘Did you manage to arrest them?’ Ethel asked.
‘British Gas? No.’
Ethel tutted. ‘It’s wicked what they do to my generation, wicked.’
Carter nodded sympathetically. ‘Is it OK if I take a look around the house?’
‘Yes, dear, yes. You do whatever you need to do. I’ll put the kettle on.’
‘There’s really no need.’
‘I insist, dear, I insist.’
She waddled off towards the kitchen. Carter decided to start upstairs. He was careful to make a thorough sweep of the house, looking in every room. It was no surprise that he found no one else in the property, no open windows, no broken locks. Just more wallpaper that would benefit from extinction and furniture that would make an antique dealer’s heart race. Using a step ladder he found in the third bedroom, he put his head into the loft and shone his torch around. All was quiet, save for the whistling of the wind around the eaves and the patter of raindrops on the tiles.
Back in the kitchen, he found the back door locked, the three point locking mechanism working perfectly. Again, all the windows were closed and locked. And next to the kettle was a steaming mug of cocoa, surrounded by an artistic arrangement of custard creams. He picked up the cocoa and moved back down the hallway before knocking on the living room door and opening it.
Inside, he found two elderly ladies sitting side by side on the sofa behind a whirlwind of knitting needles and brightly coloured wool. Arthritis seemed to have been thwarted by these two dextrous women. One wore a dress similar to Ethel’s. Her skin had a plastic look, as though she might be an animated Madame Tussaud’s waxwork. The other wore a black shinobi shozoko, complete with balaclava. Ethel was sitting in a chair opposite them with a stop watch in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. She looked up as Carter entered the room.
‘Ah, good, you found your cocoa, dear. That’ll warm you up.’
‘Yes, thank you.’
The other two women kept clacking away, ignoring him completely, their focus unbroken.
‘Any sign of a break in?’ asked Ethel.
‘No, nothing,’ said Carter. He eyed the lip of the mug in his hands. It was clean, with no sign of lipstick or tea stains. He decided to risk a sip, and then nodded at his host appreciatively. ‘Do you remember I looked around the house when I was here last week, gave it a quick safety inspection?’
‘Yes, dear,’ said Ethel, who had returned to studying the competition on the sofa intently. ‘That was very kind of you.’
Carter took a gulp of cocoa. ‘I remember noticing a particularly elegant necklace hanging from the mirror in your bedroom,’ he said.
‘Have you moved it?’
‘No, dear. It lives on the mirror. I never move it.’
‘I’m afraid it’s gone.’
The words Carter had spoken brought an instant end to the knit-off. The clacking and thrashing of needles stopped so abruptly that an eerie silence filled the room. Suddenly Carter had the full attention of the three women. There was something rather unnerving about their attentiveness, as though the scrutiny in their eyes might open doors in Carter’s mind that he’d prefer to remain shut.
‘Gone?’ said Ethel.
Carter nodded gravely.
‘I thought you said there was no sign of a break in? How can my necklace be missing if no one broke in?’
There was an accusing edge in Ethel’s voice which put Carter on edge. His gut was telling him there was something wrong with this situation, but he couldn’t quite decide what it was.
Carter licked his lips. ‘Have you had any roofing work done lately?’
‘Yes,’ Ethel replied. ‘As a matter of fact, a few days after your last visit, a young man came to my door and asked if I wanted a free roof inspection.’
‘Did you accept?’
‘I did, dear, I did. He had a look and said the roof was fine, but I had a few loose tiles. Seeing as he already had his ladder in place, would I like him to fix them.’
Carter nodded knowingly. This was the answer he knew he’d receive. ‘We’ve been tracking a burglar now for a while. Part of his MO-’
‘His what, dear?’
‘His MO, his modus operandi. Thieves develop a routine, a pattern which becomes consistent and identifies them.’
‘I see, Inspector Carter, I see.’
The way Ethel used his name made butterflies start flapping madly in Carter’s stomach, trying their damnedest to bust out using sheer force. Old ladies, even those with an interesting take on reality, should not seem this threatening. But there was an inexplicable tension in the room, and in Carter’s body. Over the years, he’d learned to rely on his instinct. It was seldom wrong. Right now it was screaming at him to get out. Rather than being abrupt, he decided to politely explain his theory, offer his cousin Keith’s services to fix the roof, and leave as quickly as he could.
‘A roofer always visits the property a few days before the robbery,’ said Carter. ‘They put fake tiles in place which are works of art, because they look completely real, but they actually create an easy to open doorway into your attic space. It just slides open at a touch.’
Ethel and Joan, the one who thought she was a zombie, gave each other a knowing glance. Ninja Gladys’s rheumy eyes were transfixed on Carter, glaring from behind her balaclava.
‘Then the robber waits for a particularly dark night, like tonight,’ Carter continued, ‘and climbs onto the roof, through the door into your loft, down the loft hatch, rifles through your things, takes what he wants and leaves the same way. I’ll bet that if I climb into your loft space and give it close inspection, I’ll find a door in the roof. I’m afraid you’ve been burgled by the Rooftop Phantom.’
‘Never trust a skinny cook,’ said Ethel Eckless.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Carter, thrown by the sudden retort. He felt like he was in a Monty Python sketch and the end looked like it was going to constitute a laugh at his expense. The laugh was likely to be realised using dark humour and some incredibly painful occurrence. He suddenly felt dizzy, his legs weak. He flopped back into an empty armchair, dropping his drink.
‘Fat cooks, now they like the food they prepare, dear,’ said Ethel, her bones clicking as she pulled herself out of her seat and waddled towards him. ‘You always know you’ll receive a good meal from a fat cook. But you can’t trust a skinny cook, dear. That’s why I poisoned your cocoa.’
‘Let me guess what happens next. You’ll suggest sending a roofer around, probably a friend of yours, who will charge me a very reasonable rate to fix my roof. Is that right, dear?’
Carter felt sick. He didn’t answer. He just sat there wondering if Ethel really had poisoned him. He’d totally misread her. How had he managed to be so far off the mark? This house call, which should have been routine, had just turned into a potentially life threatening situation.
‘You steal my necklace and then you make money out of me by fixing a roof that doesn’t need fixing. Twice. Once before you rob me, once after. Am I right?’ Ethel just motored on, not waiting for Carter’s reply. ‘I was suspicious after your last visit. There was something contrived about your offer of a safety check. And this proves me right. A policeman with all the answers, dear, he’s like a skinny cook. The story he tells is like a bad meal; tasteless and unpalatable. You’re tricky, but I see you, dear, I see you clearly. And your story is inedible.’
Carter felt anxiety crawling over his skin like an army of randy ants, nipping and biting as they went. Did Ethel Eckless plan to kill him? This was beginning to feel like a nightmare where everything had become sticky and some invisible force was clawing at him, slowing him down and making it impossible to scream.
‘Be a dear and empty your pockets, Inspector Carter.’
‘No,’ said Carter, giving his best policeman’s smile. This was ridiculous. He was an officer of the law. Why should he feel threatened by three old ladies who were jumping to conclusions? It’s not like they were drug dealers with guns. There was nothing to be scared of.
He went to stand. Nothing happened. His limbs simply didn’t respond. He tried again and noticed an emotionless smile resting on Ethel’s lips.
‘Have you really poisoned me?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes, dear. That’s why you can’t move. The paralysis will slowly creep up your neck. Soon, you’ll struggle to speak.’
‘This has gone far enough, Ethel. Call me an ambulance.’
Ethel didn’t move. Carter noticed that her eyes had become hardened and cool. Little icebergs had risen all over her personality like an ice age. Behind her, ninja Gladys rose from the sofa with an easy grace which belied her age. She moved towards him and began to go through his pockets. Of course, she found nothing.
‘We’ve been hunting this criminal for months now, Mrs Eckless, months,’ said Carter. ‘We’re so close to catching him. That’s because we’ve found answers after lots of police work. Really, we’re this close.’ He went to raise his arm, intending to indicate just how near they were by gesturing with thumb and forefinger held millimetres apart. He couldn’t move.
‘Go and look through his jacket, would you Joan?’ said Ethel.
Zombie Joan pushed herself up from the sofa and shuffled into the hall.
‘You’re not going to find anything,’ said Carter. ‘You’re making a huge mistake.’
Joan returned and shook her head. For the first time he noticed doubt in Ethel Eckless’s eyes. ‘You’re all going to be in lots of trouble,’ he said, using a calm voice filled with reason. ‘I’m just here to help you, Ethel. Please, call me an ambulance.’
He was about to go on when he noticed Gladys eyeing his shoes suspiciously. Carter felt dread’s icy fingers tickling his soul. Gladys bent down, untied his laces and pulled the shoes from his feet.
‘This is ridiculous, ladies,’ he said. ‘One of you has to call me a doctor.’
‘Do shut up, dear,’ said Ethel, managing to make four softly spoken words sound like a death threat. Doubt had vacated her eyes.
Gladys toyed with Carter’s shoes. After a few moments of studying them, the ninja placed her fingers around the heel of the left shoe, expertly locating the correct pressure points. The heel slid clear. Ethel’s necklace dropped from its hiding place to rest on the carpet, shimmering seductively. Carter had guessed it must be worth thousands. A tear welled in his eye. His instinct was overwhelming – his life had never been in so much jeopardy.
‘I have debts,’ he said. ‘My daughter, she’s ill. A policeman’s salary won’t cover my needs. I know it’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason why I acted in this appalling manner.’
‘You’re not good at lying, my love,’ said Ethel. ‘You gamble and you lose, because you think you have good poker eyes and an unreadable smile. You don’t, dear, not in the slightest.’
Carter realised he’d been caught, outwitted and outdone. He felt shocked and sickened. How had he been so blind? Surely he couldn’t be that easy to read, he’d been doing this for years. No, Ethel had just been lucky. He could still manipulate the situation and save himself.
‘Please forgive me,’ he said, satisfied with the emotion he’d driven behind these words, making them sound genuine. ‘I’m truly sorry for my actions.’
‘The problem with Joan being a zombie is finding her enough food,’ said Ethel. ‘Fresh brains are so hard to come by.’
‘Joan isn’t a zombie, Ethel,’ said Carter. His lips were tingling and he had to fight to speak. ‘Zombies don’t exist. Please, call an–’
‘And the problem with being part zombie myself,’ interrupted Ethel, ‘is that my ability to tell right from wrong has become blurred. It’s like a distant memory I can’t quite reach. But we do try to eat only those who deserve to be eaten.’
These women are mad, thought Carter. Totally and utterly lost.
Then he noticed Joan shuffling forwards, a small trickle of saliva on her waxy chin and a ravenous hunger in her dead eyes. She smiled, revealing black teeth and putrid gums.
‘No,’ he whispered.
‘You won’t feel a thing, dear,’ said Ethel. ‘The poison seems to be working a little too slowly, so Gladys will ensure you’re unconscious before Joan tucks in.’
True to the nightmare he found himself in, Carter tried to scream, but no sound came from his mouth. Gladys leant over him and applied pressure to his neck. The last thought of Eric Carter’s life surprised him.
Who’d have thought that ninjas and zombies liked to knit?
The following words appear with kind permission of Dr John Yeoman, founder and judge of the Writers’ Village short story competition. John provides scoring and feedback to every entrant in the competition. The following words contain spoilers, so - for those of you who have skipped to this part - I’d suggest you read the story prior to reading this section!!
Comments: An immaculately crafted story that holds the reader's attention through every unexpected twist! Perhaps the only small thing that might be done to enhance it would be to locate it at a plausible hour. There seems to be no plot reason for having Carter visit the house at 3am but every reason for the reader to be perplexed. Why did Carter choose to make a routine visit at such an unseemly hour - or think he'd find an old lady awake at that time?
Bring the story forward to, say, 9pm!
You might also have Carter mention (or think) towards the start - somewhat cryptically - that he would not normally have made such a visit himself, having mysteries far more important on his hands. Hopefully, the reader will forget that allusion. But it will return with ironic force at the end. Carter has cracked his case! Those mystery disappearances in the area are now accounted for. But, alas, 'tis too late...
I hope these remarks, although brief, are helpful.
Dr John Yeoman
I had entered the Writers' Village competition once before (in the 2012 summer round of the competition), and received some excellent feedback on why my story, ‘The Day My Prayers Were Answered’, was not selected as one of the winners and how it could be improved (it scored 39/45). After receiving John’s constructive criticism, I altered the ending with his comments in mind, and have entered it into another competition. I will find out if it was successful next year. Watch this space...
This time, again, John’s comments are useful. In my mind, Carter had purposely chosen 3am, hoping to wake Ethel, assuming she’d be confused and therefore easier to trick. Maybe I could have made this clearer. This illustrates why constructive criticism, like John provides, is so valuable. You can always make stories better, sometimes by implementing very simple tweaks. I find that I often lose site of what those changes might be, as I become too close to the work to spot faults having read it so many times. Having other people read your work can help enormously.
The Writers’ Village competition is a quarterly short story prize run in the UK; there is a spring, summer, autumn and winter round. Judging is quick - winners are announced within a month. Currently, the competition has a 3,000 word limit. Writers’ Village offer a first prize of £500, a second prize of £250 and third prize of £100. Entries can be of any genre. Winners are published on the website (see The Ninja Zombie Knitting Circle on Writers’ Village).
Below are more comments about my experiences with the competition which I hope you’ll find useful:
In my humble opinion, the biggest benefit of this writing competition is its transparency. Every entrant receives a copy of the scoring that their story achieved, plus some additional comments to help improve their work. This is a lovely touch. It offers you extra insight into how you might win a prize in the competition in the future, as well as giving you advice on how to improve your existing work. I have no idea how John manages to read the 100’s of entries he receives in such a short space of time, let alone provide feedback on them all. But the fact that he does tells me he is passionate about writing and wants to offer help and advice to new writers.
Entry might seem a tad pricey at £12 when compared to a lot of other regular competitions, but a substantial prize pot is offered in every round, and EVERYONE receives feedback. When you take this into account, the entry fee seems far more reasonable!
Writers’ Village offer LOADS of writing advice on their blog. John writes a lot of the posts himself, but also publishes posts from guest authors - often successful writers - who offer advice based on their own experiences.
You can sign up and receive a free mini course on the website, packed with excellent writing advice, which is emailed to you in bite sized chunks at regular intervals. At the end of the free course, you are offered the opportunity to sign up for a more comprehensive paid version. The free version is well worth reading and gives you an excellent taster of what to expect from the paid version.
I like the frequency of the competition. I know, I’ve said it before about other regular competitions, but it means you don’t have to wait an age to submit again. Every three months you can enter new work and there’s a nice big pot of money up for grabs. That’s brilliant.
On top of offering cash prizes, Writers’ Village publish the winning stories on their website, so you can see what style John prefers. Research your market - it really does mean you have a much better chance of success.
Do you have a writing competition success story you’d like to share? Get in touch!