At this year’s Festival Finale, we were pleased to announce that the winner of the 2022 Prescot Festival Short Story Competition was Dave Loftus, for the entertainingly eccentric, smartly crafted comic tale Every Latent Foe. A third-time winner, Dave not only amused the judges but presented an original twist on this year’s theme ‘Of kings and queens and royal realms.’ His story is published below, and he receives a £100 prize.
The judges also felt that Emma Prior deserved an honourable mention for her story The Heavier Crown. Like Dave’s entry, it offered an alternative take on what it means to be a monarch and questioned whether being a royal is all it’s cracked up to be.
Every Latent Foe
By Dave Loftus
Arthur Custard first knew he was in trouble when he switched on the news and saw live helicopter footage of the King’s Guard advancing down his street. Knowing they’d finally come for him, his blood ran cold. He looked out his front window, at the ordinary houses opposite, and then flattened his face against the glass to see further down the street. But the soldiers hadn’t yet got to a point where they were visible. On both sides of the road, his neighbours had started to emerge, each hoping that they would be the one picked. But it was not their turn. It was Arthur’s turn. Overhead, the helicopter rattled.
With panic now tearing through his nervous system, Arthur scrambled upstairs and considered hiding under his bed, before realising this would be pointless. That would be the first place they’d look.
He crashed back downstairs, through his kitchen and tore through the back door and into the yard, startling a fat pigeon into the air. As he jumped over his back gate and sprinted down the alleyway, he could hear the raucous, echoing cheers of his neighbours; the soldiers were closing in. On Arthur’s television, the royal correspondent explained the intriguing historical context behind the day’s events to an empty living room.
Following the British Revolution, the monarchy had been peacefully abolished. After a few years, it had turned out that nobody wanted a presidency either, and so the Crown had been swiftly re-established. The only snag was that none of the living former royals – now eking out their lives on sun-drenched beaches – wanted anything more to do with Britain. And so a compromise had been reached. Going forward, as part of a mandatory public duty, the monarch would be plucked from the civilian population by lottery, and collected from their home by royal guardsmen festooned in scarlet jackets and bearskin caps.
‘Ollie!’ Arthur gasped, as he burst into the corner shop and almost collapsed onto the counter, drenched in sweat. ‘Please. You’ve got to help me. I’m the new king.’
Ollie’s eyes lit up, and he paused in his restocking the shelves of baked beans. ‘Really? That’s excellent news, mate. Well done.’
‘No,’ Arthur said, waving his hands and struggling to get his breath back. ‘It’s not like that.’ On the rack behind him, newspaper headlines speculated who the new monarch could be. ‘I don’t want to do it.’
‘Nonsense,’ Ollie said. ‘Who wouldn’t want to live a life of luxury? It’s everyone’s dream.’
‘It’s not mine,’ Arthur said, clutching his sides. ‘Please. The guards are probably at my house by now. Can you stash me somewhere?’
Over the years, a hallowed tradition had arisen, in which the royal selectee had to theatrically show reluctance, demonstrating their humility. ‘Oh, I understand now,’ said Ollie. ‘You’re just pretending, right?’
‘No!’ Arthur yelped, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. ‘Oh god, I shouldn’t have ignored all those letters. Why didn’t I escape to Gatwick when I had the chance?’
As he watched his friend unscrew the lid and glug noisily from the bottle, Ollie’s gaze hardened. He eyed Arthur suspiciously, and then looked past him to the open door, where July sunshine blazed. It would be lovely weather for a coronation.
‘Sure, mate,’ Ollie said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. ‘Go and hide upstairs. Mum’s the word.’
Arthur thanked him profusely and lumbered up the narrow, cluttered staircase at the back of the shop to a dark bedroom, where he hid himself in a wardrobe. Once, he’d got his breathing under control, he listened to the clapping and cheering grow louder outside, hinting that the soldiers were nearby. After a few more minutes, voices could be heard – muffled through the floorboards – as Ollie was questioned. Then, to Arthur’s eternal dismay, the sound of hobnail boots clomped up the stairs.
‘It’s your duty,’ Ollie said, as Arthur was dragged through the shop. Disgust was painted on his face. ‘You can’t turn your back on your duty.’
A week later, millions of people tuned in to watch their new king arrive at the doors of Westminster Abbey in a great golden carriage. Medals dripped from his chest A few eagle-eyed observers spotted how downcast he appeared to be, but took this to be nothing more than the humble craft of a master actor. Nobody noticed when his handcuffs were removed, or the firmness with which he was escorted to the Coronation Chair by a bruiser of a guard with a broken nose.
All that mattered, to the cheering crowds and the audience at home, was that, at long last, Britain had finally found its King Arthur.