Writers respond to the RBSA Portrait Prize in flash fiction

Our blogger-in-residence Louise Palfreyman held a writing workshop at the Portrait Prize exhibition and collected creative responses to the artworks on show.

The workshop was attended by writers from across the region, some of whom are on the Writing West Midlands scheme Room 204.

Here’s a selection of the work produced, with thanks to the artists for providing the inspiration, and to the writers for attending…

Olga Dermott-Bond

Psalm 151

After Simon Davis, ‘Feral’ and ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’

And I wait.

I imagine her climbing out of the bedroom window into this darkness: the Diwali family portraits will have been taken, and she will still be dressed in skeins of jewellery, ornate rigging silvered, eyes anchored heavy with kohl, a wild horse etched into her side, sinews strained trying to keep up with her.

I feel clenched stone fists of the church wall tight against my back: it starts to rain, drops flecked with ambered lamppost light, and I wriggle toes that are beginning to drown in my trainers. 

The church poster proclaims in faded marker pen:

Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

My lips are cracked and I am still despairing of my own skin compared to hers; pale, freckled, as if I had been dictated in a rush – as if God had been distracted, leaving only a telegraph message for my body with all the details left out.  

My phone splutters, chokes on silent in my pocket, capsizing slowly against my hip. You are a stupid place to hide, I know, a beautiful shipwreck.

And I wait to swim towards her.  

I lean against the wet wall and the church becomes a huge boat: I sway with the first creak, the pews inside start to slide heavily from side to side, stained glass windows billow like masts until they are cracked by the weight of darkening water, the hymn books float open like moorhens’ nests.

Susan James


After Laura Ansty, ‘Passive’

‘In the corner,’ he says.

I stand where the wall creases, flattening my palms to the plaster. I imagine the satisfaction of pulling at loose paper curls.

‘Keep quiet.’

The floorboards sink to his step. Splinters press sharp to my skin. Pulling my elbow, he presses his mother’s prayer book into the flat of my palm.

‘The only thing,’ he says, ‘wants reading by you.’

I pass its leather-bound pages between my fingers and around the curve of my belly, holding it open in front of my eyes as if I am a pupil.

Daylight spears under the window’s cracks, growing to pools that warm my feet, and I am grateful for it, and I turn my head to tell him:

‘Ephesians five-twenty-two to thirty-three…’

but I am alone. He is gone. I pretend to be unmarried in his absence, but I am flesh of his flesh, and I feel him, even now, heavy as a cloak clipped at my throat and thrown over my shoulder.

I didn’t hear the tumble of the lock, but I hear the tumble of the prayer book as it thumps to the floor, and I find that I like the sound of its disobedience.

Louise Palfreyman


After Ruth Swain, ‘Lady with 2 Sticks’ 

I passed her in the lane and saw such beauty, such wisdom held in her face, that I wanted to stop, just to pass the time.

I felt a gentle blossoming inside, the unfurling that comes with the promise of kindness. I wanted to tell her my troubles, but I didn’t, and we passed each other, and I think she smiled. I didn’t smile back, and as my feet took me further from her, the old ache set in.

I couldn’t forget her, though, and she was still with me days later, as I lay awake waiting for the birds to sing and my life to start.

She was there, her raincoat bright with the moon, light singing up into her face.

Had I seen her at all? I couldn’t be sure, as she hovered before me now, looking for all the world, and for all my cares, like a saint.

Charmaine Russell


After Carl Grummett, ‘Introverted’

Something is tapping, scratching.

I want to shout, to know who or what is forcing cold fear through my veins, but I’d have to walk across the room, open the door and stage my attack.

My body is heavy. Has someone stolen in and glued me to my chair?

I shuffle across the room. The grime of neglect smears out from the corners of the window pane. I pull my sleeve over my hand and make a fist. I clear a small square in the centre of the glass and the light shocks my eyes until I shut them.  

I take a breath. I am ready to confront the intruder.

I see my tormenter: a cherry blossom branch beckoning me to celebrate the birth of a new spring and the joy of light.

I stand and walk back across the room, closing my eyes, quelling my fears in readiness for tomorrow.  

Mladena Edwards

Game of Death

After Annabel Thornton, ‘Dylan’ and Laura Ansty, ‘Passive’

I spy with my dark cold predator eyes – I see you.

Alone in my murderous labyrinth  – I’ll catch you.

You hug the cold damp walls and tame your gasping breath – but I hear you.

The whites of your terrified eyes draw me like beacons – I will attack you.

You can run – my Pretty – but you will not get the better of me.


I have you.

You struggle to escape – but your animated terror serves to fuel my exhilaration – I will break you.

The cry of pain is sounded.

You feel the twist of the blade inside you.

Your body contorts.

It bends.

It folds.

It falls.

It bleeds.

You lose.

#art #fineart #flashfiction #exhibition #storytelling

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