Shooter Flash: “The Oak” by Jennie Stevenson

“And this is you,” says Eva, showing me into my new home.

It’s pleasant enough – The Oaks is very upmarket – but we both know what it really is: death’s waiting room. My things, already delivered, are the pitiful sum of an entire life: trinkets, books, photo albums I haven’t opened in years. At least my wardrobe is a rainbow of velvets and silks.

A vase of spring flowers stands on the table, from Eva, and my eyes prick with tears. How long has it been – if ever – since someone gave me flowers?

There’s a soft thwock from outside: my flat, on the first floor, overlooks the tennis court. A man in tennis gear is exiting the court, an elderly woman on each arm, laughing. His hair is white, but his shoulders are broad, his arms still muscular and tanned. 

“Found the quarterback,” I murmur. The kind of guy who would never notice me.

Eva laughs. “That’s Tom. He’s quite popular with the ladies.” I bet.

My new doctor arrives. I notice Eva stealing glances at him as he checks over my medical records, and I don’t blame her – if I were a few years younger, I might have flirted with him myself.

They leave and the room feels empty. I need some air.


When I reach the huge oak in the centre of the retirement village, I stop to rest my aching hips on the bench curving around its trunk. A voice startles me: the jock, a ribbon of sandpaper between his fingers.

“Hi. I’m Tom.”

He’s carving ornate patterns on the arm of the bench: leaves, flowers, birds.

“Oh! It’s beautiful. You’re a woodworker?”

He smiles. “Used to be. Still am when my hands let me. You?”

“I’m… I used to be a travel writer.”

He sighs. “I would have loved to travel. What was your favourite place?”

I laugh. “I can’t choose. It would be like choosing a favourite child.”

“Tell me about them.” So I do. I tell him about haggling for spices in the crowded passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, the drifting cherry blossom in Kyoto in spring, the dizzying cliffs of the Italian riviera. After a while he stops carving, closes his eyes and listens so intently I think he’s fallen asleep.

When I’ve finished, he asks, “Do you play chess?” When I say no, he laughs and says he’ll teach me. “Same time tomorrow?”


His chess set is exquisite. “I’ll make you one too,” he tells me. “My shelves are full, and if I offer to make anything for the ladies here they’ll only get the wrong idea.” Subtext: he can offer one to me, because he couldn’t possibly be interested.

“No grandchildren?” I ask, lightly.

He sighs. “No. I never – met the right person. I was engaged once, but for the wrong reasons, so I broke it off. You?”

“No. Same.” Our eyes meet – a fleeting understanding? Or am I kidding myself?


As the branches above us turn green, he teaches me to play chess, and then he carves a set for me. I bring my photo albums, the pages sticking together, and show him places I’ve been and known and loved, and sometimes he carves and sometimes he just closes his eyes and listens. 

Then he brings his photographs to show me: cribs that will become family heirlooms, a bookcase for an eccentric professor, a couple of fiddles he made just for the challenge of it.

One day, we find a couple locked in an embrace on what I’ve come to think of as our bench: Eva and the doctor. I wink at her as they disappear toward the doctors’ quarters.


Eva stops by our bench a few weeks later, smiling as she looks from one to the other of us. Above, the leaves are just starting to turn.

I ask about the doctor and she tells us that they’ve split. “I want to focus on work… and honestly? He’s kind of a dick.” 

Tom laughs heartily, but after she’s gone, his mood turns. “Sex before marriage, career before a relationship… It’s a different world to the one where we grew up. Makes me wonder how things could have been different…” He sighs. “In the next life, I guess.”

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. I just want to believe I could have a do-over. It’s only when you get to the end you realise what really matters.”

“What would you do differently?”

He shrugs again. “Travel?” He places his hand next to mine, and my blood fizzes. “Be braver.” He slips his hand over mine, and my heart judders in my chest. “And I hope… I hope I would have met you sooner.”

I turn toward him, and our eyes meet, and then he kisses me. And I’m aware of everything and nothing: the thousand sighing leaves above us, his hand cupping my face, the solid bench beneath us and the beating of my heart. He breaks off and smiles at me. “Same time tomorrow?”


I’m woken by hammering on my door. The world outside is cold and grey, shrouded in fog.

Eva. She’s holding something in her hands, but it’s her eyes I notice first: they’re swollen and red.

“I’m sorry. This should get easier, but it never does. And I wanted to be the one to tell you.”

His huge heart: a massive heart attack.

“I think he would have wanted you to have this.” 

She hands me the object: a carving of two figures on a bench, hand in hand, their foreheads touching, one with broad shoulders and still-muscular arms. I see the sharp crease in my trousers, the scarf in my pocket, my neat goatee: how clearly he saw me. How much love went into this. How much time we wasted. And across the bottom, the flowing inscription: To Jack, until the next life. All my love, Tom.

*  *  *

Jennie Stevenson is an English graduate currently working as a freelance content writer. Born and brought up in the north of England, she now lives in southern Sweden with her husband, where they are comfortably outnumbered by their children and pets.

Shooter Flash: “Love in Transit” by Isabelle Spurway

I am on a train going from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki, reading a novel about an American infiltrator in Russia. Every now and then I look out of the window, wishing to see something interesting. We are driving along the edge of a forest and birch trees stand bunched up together, tall and thin, their narrow tops piercing through grey clouds. I scan the flashes of wilderness for a wolf, or a Siberian tiger, but instead there’s just trees and grass. Across the aisle is an old woman and opposite her a young man. She is about sixty and he is about twenty-five. They have struck up a conversation. He is in love. She is wary. It is going like this:

‘We walked around Petersburg all night then got breakfast in the morning. We spoke about everything.’

‘How did you meet her?’

‘In a bar. We got to talking about our situations.’

‘And what was her situation?’

‘She lived there.’

‘And you?’

‘I live in Helsinki, used to live in Russia. I am Russian.’

‘Why did you move?’

‘My mother died when I was young. I left for university in Finland.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It was tough for a while, but the universe looked after me.’

He sounds earnest. As if all he’s ever done is put his trust into something bigger than himself.

‘And led you to this girl, I presume.’


‘When will you see her again?’

‘I’m going back to Petersburg in two months’ time.’

‘And you’re sure it’s love?’

‘Yes. Yes, I’m sure it’s love.’

A good place to fall in love, Saint Petersburg. I imagine him declaring his feelings on Nevsky Prospekt, in the middle of the busy pavement, perhaps on Anichkov Bridge. Behind him beautiful buildings, pastel-coloured palaces. He says the words during the white night, tinged by the electric blue of dusk. 

I peek at the man. He has lovely brown hair and chiseled cheeks. He looks like the kind of person to fall in love during the night. More mysterious, more passionate. Falling in love during the daytime seems almost pathetic in comparison.

‘Be careful,’ the woman says.

I learnt earlier that she is from Israel. I wonder if anyone her age believes in falling in love after one night. Maybe she has fallen in love before, during night-time, and maybe her heart was broken. It is harder to see the old woman’s face; she is facing the same direction I am. I catch a glimpse of red hair, wispy and frail.

‘I’ve never been careful,’ says the man. 

Someone once told me that most Russians are careful, but maybe he has never been so when it comes to love. Maybe when love is real, nobody is careful.

He asks her about Israel now. She is travelling alone. She has always wanted to see Russia. She has read about it all her life. Israel is beautiful. Saint Petersburg is beautiful. Yes, I hope Finland is beautiful too. It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it? All these places, all these beautiful places…

The train rolls on and the old woman gets up to retrieve something from her bag, stored in the hold. I turn my head slightly, so that she’s in my periphery. I catch a glimpse of her face. She has a long, ragged scar that runs from her right eye to the bottom of her cheek.

It has started raining outside. We pass a lake and the water pounds down through the surface, making it ripple. We’ve just made it across the border. Every now and then a little wooden cabin appears in the middle of the trees. I spot one with a red front door and a pile of logs out front. As soon as we pass it the rain stops and the clouds begin to part slowly, waiting for the sun to shine through.  


Isabelle Spurway has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Kent and currently lives just outside London. She writes many of her stories during her commutes to and from the city and finds most of her inspiration in travel.