Open Short Story Competition 2021 - Winner

Nathan Bailey

The Ballad of Cosmic Dave
Open Short Story Competition 2021


Nathan Bailey is a student and musician living in Manchester. He is currently studying for an MFA in creative writing at the Manchester Metropolitan University. He is 25 years old.

The Ballad of Cosmic Dave By Nathan Bailey

‘Yer can f—in stick it, then’, says Cosmic Dave. ‘I wouldn’t wanna drink in here anyway’.
This is a lie. Cosmic Dave would like a drink. He doesn’t really mind where. He quite likes it here sometimes too. Some of the balding, expensive IPA types sat at the bar have interesting deaths.
Dave briefly ponders offering the jumped up little sod behind the bar an olive branch, promising to sit politely and to keep his opinions to himself. Dave has opinions on a lot of things, but mainly he enjoys discussing (loudly, and often to no one) Manchester United, NASA conspiracy theories, and, after a few drops of the harder stuff, the precise layouts and atmospheres of pubs that aren’t there anymore. He doesn’t want to talk about the past today though. Today, he wants to look into the future.
After walking out of the pub, Dave spits once onto the pavement, zips up his parka and walks on towards the City Arms. He adjusts softly his greying fringe, recently re-Weller’d par excellence. The pavement is his. Give a man a parka and he will show you his true face. Dave feels at home on the pavements of Manchester, head bobbing, hair immaculate, strangers turning to look. Cosmic Dave, treading his boards. He’d spent a lot of his life like this. A lot of his life was in the past – the glorious mid-nineties, the music, the good gear, United. That was gone. Strutting about the cold and occasionally still cobbled streets of his own Manchester, however, this he could still do now as he did then. It felt the same. Bouncing headlong between his mam’s and the record shops, between the pubs and clubs, off to odd jobs, out of body experiences, sit-offs, three o’clock kick-offs and four day benders. This was life in the moment. Dave appreciates these moments more, now he can predict the future.
Perhaps predict is the wrong word.
Cosmic Dave has never really got to grips with what exactly is going on. He’s never managed to get anything immediately useful from what he sees. Many times he’s thought, in vain, of a way to come up with the result of next week away at Villa. Even vaguer, less important stuff, like finding out when exactly the bands are gonna stop being s*** and start being mega again. This has thus far proved to be outside of the mechanism of his particular gift. What he can do though, under certain precise conditions, such conditions of the kind he is searching for presently, is look at someone, really look them up and down, and see their fate. And under the real perfect conditions, the future fates of their descendants.
Dave finds the last part far more exciting. You might think that looking at someone and knowing their death would be the more useful of the two, but the one most meaningful death in Dave’s life, he did not predict, and does not wish to be reminded of. What’s more, is that being able to predict people’s deaths has really brought home to Dave the already predictable nature of them. Most people he looks at and foretells, you could look at and take a guess. They walk like Dave, heads aloft, kings of the road. And then they walk slower. And then they stop.
Seeing the people who come after us, who aren’t bobbing along Oldham Street already as Dave is now, but will be at some point, decades, maybe even a hundred years from now - that’s the real future. Dave can see it. And Dave is going to use this gift. You see, as a child, Dave wanted to be the first Mancunian to go into outer space. Unfortunately he f—ed about a bit too much in school, and didn’t get the O-levels for Astronaut. Once, in about 1994 during a particularly heavy session, he spun Second Coming and things got a bit hazy and he convinced himself that he could indeed see the earth from above, but other than that he’s realised the ship has probably sailed. However, with the help of his gift, he has a plan-B. And even if it means going to every pub in the city, every week, for the rest of his days, he’s going to do it. He’s going to find the future parents of the first Manc astronaut. He’s going to buy them a pint. And then he’s going to sit them down and ask them, politely, if they wouldn’t mind naming their child Dave.
He reaches the City Arms. It’s quiet. He begins exacting the required conditions. Two pints of bitter please mate. Dave has found that other drinks can work, but that the smooth and refreshing kiss of a pint of dark bitter creates a certain and desirable clarity of vision.
Three men are sitting at the bar. Unfortunately for Cosmic Dave, they are regulars. He knows their stories already. Their futures, like a lot of people that Dave meets, have given him a complete mistrust of supermarkets. In the future, supermarkets will be on the end of a great deal of mistrust. Dave looks over at the three men. Amrin, Amazon delivery Driver, dies at 75, pancreatic cancer. Peter, Bricklayer, dies aged 82, of a broken heart. Harold, postal sorting office manager, dies at 61, massive heart attack.
Dave does his second pint in three long swigs. He orders two more, and looks back across at the three men, and then years ahead of them. Akash, son of Amrin, assistant manager of a Tesco, dies aged 103, complications after hip replacement surgery. ‘Pete’, son of Peter, Viral Internet Content Producer, dies aged 34, suspected suicide. Amanda, daughter of Harold, Deputy Inspector for His Majesties Coast Guard Warrington, receives MBE for her services, dies aged 96, broncheal pnuemonia.
Dave knows all this already. He waits patiently in his favourite corner of the bar for more potential astronaut parents to arrive. None come as of yet. He knows he must retain optimal conditions, for the eventuality that today is indeed the day. He fiddles with the zip of his parka, orders two more pints of bitter, and relaxes.
Amrin, father of Akash, flicks him a ‘hello mate’. Whilst Cosmic Dave is returning the gesture, he leaps forward again. Sanvi, daughter of Akash, Asda Group Technology Consultant, dies aged 32, road traffic accident. Najma, Asda Customer Disobedience Officer, dies aged 26, KIA.
He looks over at the other two. The names become unclear in Dave’s sight. He thinks the last pint must’ve been the end of the barrel. After a couple more generations, bloody all of them work for supermarkets. Well, Harold’s lot seem to have done alright. His great, great, great grandson is only going to be a chief exec. Although to Dave’s confusion, the company is something called Zynthotax Dream Mining Corporation. This often worries Dave a great deal.
He downs his pint and orders another.
The Three men begin engaging in some small talk with Dave, mostly about the football. He entertains this, despite them being from the blue half. Little do they know, as they gloat about their team’s performance on the weekend, Dave is way ahead of them. He’s already at the bit where everyone is back to being Subsistence Farmers. As Dave begins to drain another glass, the lineages, first Harold’s, then Peter’s, run dry. There is nothing left for Dave to see but the sons and daughters of Amrin, toiling in the future fields.
Dave hits his last swig, and they’ve finally quit the farming game. Cosmic Dave has often considered what Amrin’s reaction would be to that particular double edged sword. Don’t worry mate, the good news is your lot survive the nuclear war! The bad news is that you’re great, great, great, great, great, great grandson still works for Amazon. Who knows, maybe he’s still a f—ing City supporter too.
At this point, the particular conditions needed for optimal foretelling have created rather sub-optimal conditions for the functioning of Cosmic Dave’s bladder. He is absolutely desperate for a slash.
Cosmic Dave gets up to take a piss when two girls in their early twenties walk into the City Arms. Trendy student types. Dave notices them. They have flared blue jeans and large fur lined jackets, and one girl has curly brown hair, 1970s, long at the back, short at the front. Like Cosmic Dave’s mother had, when he was a kid. She has the gold hooped earrings his mother had too, when he was sitting with her watching telly. When he was just a small boy and the future was unknown. Cosmic looks at her and cannot see the future, only the past. He walks up towards the two girls and slurs an ‘alright’ towards them. They laugh at him. The time traveller with the face of another, laughs with the laugh of Cosmic Dave’s mother. Her exact voice. Dave feels an unbearable weight of grief in his stomach. But he is afloat, drifting in thought, overcome – the cyclical nature of time, the mystery of space, the universality of death. Anything is possible. Everything is happening at once. Nothing will ever happen again. He wonders what weed will be like in the future. He thinks of his mother’s earrings, her smile in the light of the television, the brown curls framing her sacred face. His head spins. His vision blurs. Dave stumbles out of the pub. He tries to run, tries to turn, fails, and smacks his well trimmed head firmly on the pavement. Generations upon generations fly past Cosmic Dave in an instant. He sees the stars collapse. He sees the blackness at the end of time. Dave is surrounded by the end. Suspended in nothing.
There is only black.
Then something pricks holes out of the nothing, and something, a light, purer than the morning, the light shines through.
When Cosmic Dave wakes up tomorrow at the Royal Infirmary, he will decide that from now on, he’s going to live firmly in the present. Even if that means not going to the pub.

Judges Comments

Character and voice are gloriously combined in Nathan Bailey's Cosmic Dave, the winning entry in WM's Open Short Story Competition. With a confident swagger worthy of its parka-ed protagonist, the beautfully observed story of a Manchester mystic on a night on the lash expands into imaginative sttorytelling combining comedy, weirdness and poignancy, that spirals further and further out in overlapping layers until it comes down to earth with an end that echoes the beginning, with a reference to the pub.

The way the story moves along, containing all its myriad possibilities, is beautifully done. Is Dave a burned-out causualty of the hedonistic 1990s Mancester scene? Is he an urban mystic, with the ability to predict the future? Is he one of those annoying nightlife characters who invariably gets messy? As  Nathan voices him, in a third person so close it's like an interior monologue, we're given access to Dave's stream of consciousness thoughts without it being spelled out whether they're cosmic, or intoxicated, or a blend of both. It's wonderfully done.

The language used throughout the story adds streetwise poetics perfectly in keeping with Cosmic Dave's character. Standout gems like The time traveller with the face of another, laughs with the laugh of Cosmic Dave’s mother and Give a man a parka and he will show you his true face show the writer taking flight with their creation, using language to express an inner voice and sensibility that transcends the everyday.

Add the observational humour of the character and his situation - bone-dry, piss-taking, yet affectionate - and the layer of real humanity, and you're left with an original sotry, an unique voice and an outstanding winner.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the Open Short Story Competition was Christine Griffin, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Laura Besley, Oadby, Leicester; Peter Caunt, Harrogate, North Yorkshire; Ellen Evers, Congleton, Cheshire; Anita Goodfellow, Marlow, Buckinghamshire; Susannah Harrison, Brighton; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; Jayne MacCallum, Rode, Somerset; Bev Morris, Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire; Pete Pitman, Stapleford, Nottinghamshire; Tracey-Anne Plater, Braintree, Essex; Samantha Tindale, Uffington, Oxfordshire.