Fantasy short story competition - Winner

Michael Callaghan

The Girl I Knew Somewhere
Fantasy short story competition


Michael Callaghan is a lawyer living and working in Glasgow. He has had previous WM successes, including being runner-up in this year's open short story competition and winning the Swanwick Short Story Competition in 2018 and 2020 - for which he won a hugely enjoyable week at Swanwick Writers School during the summer. Amongst other successes he recently won the 2021 Scottish Arts Trust’s “Golden Hare” Award for Flash Fiction. He also has several stories included in the Trust’s various anthologies, including two in the recently published A Meal for the Man in Tails. He has his own writer's page at the Scottish Arts Trust where you can find out more about him.

The Girl I Knew Somewhere By Michael Callaghan

‘As you know, we’re moving tomorrow, Mr Henry.’
Mrs Devlin stands at my doorstep, hesitates, then continues talking.
‘With David retiring we’re moving to the coast to be nearer Jenny and her family. There’s a nice young couple moving in. And… we’ll miss you Mr Henry. We said a special prayer last night that you… be happy.’ And she smiles.
Special prayer. That do-goodery Christian piety of the Devlins had grated on me over the years. They seemed to view me as a lost, lonely old soul needing saved. Still, overall I didn’t really mind them. True, we’d had our past run-ins. Usually about their kids, Jenny and Tommy, kicking their balls into my garden or playing their loud screechy games outside my house. But as I stand there I get a sudden flash of memories. Of young Tommy shouting ‘Look Mister Hendry!’ from the top of my apple tree. Of Jenny proudly showing me the national gymnastics trophy she won when she was eleven. Of the cake they brought to my door for my sixtieth birthday.
But Jenny and Tommy had long since grown up and left home. And now their parents were leaving too.
‘Fine,’ I say. ‘Best of luck.’
And I shut the door. Bit abrupt, true, but I can feel a silly prickling behind my eyes. I don’t want Mrs Devlin to see that.
Anyway I have things to do. My arthritis has been flaring up badly and I need to phone the GP. So I pick up my phone (proper phone, proper buttons, connected to the wall with a proper cord) and dial.
‘Good morning, Mr Henry.’ A man’s voice.
I’m surprised at how quickly the phone is answered. And who is this? It’s not the usual snippy receptionist. How does he know my name? But of course phones nowadays can recognise incoming calls. My number must register on their database.
‘Hello. I’m…’ I don’t get any further.
‘Ah… yes.  I see you’ve been in pain for a while now, Mr Henry.’
Odd. This chap must be looking at my medical records as he’s talking.
‘Yes, arthritis…’
‘I’ll prescribe the necessary solution. Goodbye, Mr Henry.’
The phone disconnects. I stare at it. That was very strange. Who was that? What is he prescribing? How will I get it? As I’m wondering these things the doorbell rings again. Assuming it’s Mrs Devlin, I come back out and open the door. But there’s no-one there. Looking down, however, I see on the doormat a small, brown paper bag. I pick it up. On the outside it says, in black lettering:
‘Take Before Sleep And When Required.’
Inside I see several yellow pills, lying loose.
Are these from the surgery? How did they get here so quickly? And since when did a surgery deliver pills? And why is there no impossible-to-open bottle or silly twelve-page safety booklet?
Eventually, though, I forget about it. I try some pottering in the garden but my hands are so painful I have to stop. When it’s time for bed, I retrieve the bag of pills. At first I hesitate. But then I swallow one, and climb into bed. Usually it takes me ages to drop off but tonight I’m out like a light.
And I dream.
This is unusual. I never dream. But I’m in a park, watching a little girl on a swing. yelling to some unseen adult. She is a pretty little girl, with red hair, and bright grey-green eyes.
‘Higher… Higher…’ she cries. The adults, it seems, can’t hear her. Her cries get louder. I reach out, push. The little girl squeals in delight. I push again and…
I wake up. Again, this is unusual. I never normally wake up after I’m down. What’s more, I can’t get to sleep again. It’s the dream, I realise. It wasn’t particularly strange or frightening. But it seemed so… vivid. I could almost feel the rough dampness of the swing where I pushed.
Finally I remember the pills. They knocked me out first time. Why not again? Would it be dangerous to take another one?
But the bag said as and when required...
I go into the bathroom, swallow another one, then return to bed.
Like before, I’m out instantly. And, like before, I dream. But it’s not a little girl this time. There’s a young woman. She’s about eighteen. She isn’t just pretty. She’s beautiful. She’s at a disco of some sort, chatting with her friends. I’m watching her. How she brushes her hair back when she talks. How she leans forward when she is listening to someone. How she throws her head back when she laughs. And then something strange happens. In the dream she suddenly turns round and looks in my direction. Straight at me.
And I’m awake. My heart is thumping. I sit up. What is wrong with me? Dreaming about young women?  Probably confirms what everyone thinks about me. That I’m some creepy weirdo. But… there’s something else. Like before, it felt so… real. Of course, I know it wasn’t. But why did it give me such a shock when she looked at me?
I lie back, thinking about the young woman and the little girl. The young woman also had red hair. And her eyes were also greenish-grey. And I think:
It’s the same girl.
Which is absurd, I know. How can one non-existent little dream girl be the same as another non-existent older dream girl? But somehow it seems right. And I can’t stop thinking about them. Or her, as I now think of her.
I go to the bathroom, pick up the little bag. I’ve had two. Surely I shouldn’t?
But I swallow another one, go back to bed, and I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.
I’m in a cinema. She’s beside me, her face looking ahead, at the screen. She’s older now. Thirty? Thirty five? I almost gasp at how beautiful she is. And I feel, again, like… I’m there. In fact I feel more than that. It’s like I’m… connected to her.  I could reach out and touch her hair… that mesmerising curl of red and gold.  And then, I do… I reach out and touch her…
She gasps, puts her hand to her hair, and turns to me. Not in horror, or fear; an expression like:
It’s you…
And I’m awake. And I’m furious because I really wanted to stay in that place, with her. I don’t even try to get back to sleep this time. I go to the bathroom, take another pill, go back to bed, lay down, and: …
…There’s something wrong. She’s here. Older again, but here. But she’s in a hospital bed, attached to invasive drip lines. Machines bleep. Blue smocked figures flit around her. There are random shouts for more fluids, for test results, for machine readings. Instinctively I reach out, touch her hand, and, gently, squeeze her fingers. I murmur something, I don’t even know what – a prayer or a plea. And with a joy that makes my heart jolt, I feel those fingers squeeze back! It’s like an electric spark.
But the machines bleep frantically...someone calls for more blood...
A door slams. Not in her world. My world. I fight it. I want to stay. Be with her. But I can’t. The world fades. Dissolves before my eyes. And...
I’m awake. I hear the Devlin’s car revving, and I realise, that slam was them leaving for the last time.
I run to the bathroom. My hands shake as I pick up the bag. But in my haste it trembles and drops. The pills spill onto the sink. ‘No!’ I shout. I reach for them. But they dance around the plughole, then disappear from sight.
I clutch my face. But there’s nothing I can do. I stagger back to bed. Maybe I don’t need them, I think, desperately. Maybe...
Somehow I go back to sleep. But I have no more dreams, and wake at nine.
I phone the surgery immediately.
‘Greenburn Surgery.’ It’s the usual receptionist.
‘It’s George Henry. I need more of those painkillers you delivered yesterday.’
‘Pills we delivered Mr Henry?’ She laughs. ‘We don’t do that. You have to see a doctor and he’ll give you a prescription. We have appointments for Tuesday...?’
I hang up. I don’t know what’s going on. Is it some sort of practical joke? But it doesn’t feel like a practical joke.
For the rest of the morning I try to keep busy with household chores. But I feel an overwhelming sense of deflation and loss.
Then, just after eleven, the doorbell rings. And I suddenly think:
It was this time yesterday that the pills were delivered...
I run to the door. Throw it open.
It’s a young man. Earnest looking, in cardigan and black plastic glasses.
‘Good morning. Mr Henry, I believe? I realised you must be wondering about your new neighbour, so I came over immediately...’
It’s just the new owners. I’m a foolish old man. Going silly over a dream. The young man keeps talking but I tune him out. It’s only at the end that I listen again.
‘ I’ll just bring her over and introduce you.’
I’m confused. ‘Her? Your wife?’
He looks startled. ‘Wife? No! We’re not moving in. We were just handling the purchase. It’s Aunt Kate’s house. she is...’
I look. A woman is walking towards us, eyes down as she makes her way across the unfamiliar path, hand gripping the stick at her side. I see a determination I recognise.
‘She had a traffic accident ten years ago.’ whispers the young man. ‘Nearly didn’t make it. She swears her guardian angel pulled her through. Maybe she’s right. Also...’ He sighs. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but Aunt Kate can be... difficult. Set in her ways. She never married. Always said she was waiting for the right one. Never happened.’
He sighs, as if in exasperation at the oddities of the elderly.
She reaches us, and looks up. Right at me. Her eyes are grey-green and bright and fierce.
‘Aunt Kate,’ says the young man. ‘This is Mr...’
‘We’ve met.’ we say. 

Judges Comments

We're a big fan of the genre-crossing elements of Michael Callaghan's The Girl I Knew Somewhere, the winner of WM's competition for fantasy short stories, which belongs in the same camp as Audrey Niffenegger's glorious The Time Traveller's Wife.

A mashup of love story, fantasy, fairy tale and magic realism, there are many lovely, unexpected elements in this original, imaginative tale. Michael wisely never explains where the pills came from or who brought them, or how or why his two elderly lovers might have shared a lifelong romance in a parallel dimension. Confident in his execution and delivery, he leaves it for the reader to take the story's logic on trust, and accept this strange, touching tale entirely on its own terms.

Part of the way he achieves this suspension of disbelief is in the way the story is grounded in a wholly convincing everyday world - but the blend of ordinary and extraordinary makes for a delightful fantasy, and an outstanding winner.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the fantasy short story competition was Catherine Talbot, Plymouth, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull; Steve Burford, Malvern Link, Worcestershire; Joe Butler, London N4; Lynne Collis, Lyminge, Kent; Antony Crossley, Chobham, Surrey; Rebecca Kershaw, Epworth, North Lincolnshire; Katherine Searle, Sandhurst, Berkshire; Sarah Turner, Rayleigh, Essex; Lisa Wilshire, Redruth, Cornwall.