Rows’ Flash Fiction – the stories

In September, we called out for flash fiction stories inspired by Chester’s Rows. We had a fantastic response, with more than 20 writers sending in powerful, beautiful and heartfelt short short-stories. You can read them all here.

If you want to know more about flash fiction, check out the University of Chester’s International Flash Fiction Association for loads of links, tips and a specially dedicated magazine.

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door by Steven Harris
He starts again. So far, that’s its fourth outing today and it’s only twenty past ten. His hat holds a derisory 37p and 10 cents. 

‘Ma, take these chains offa me’. And tune his guitar while you’re at it please Ma. And teach him some more bloody songs Ma, please

But it’s too late for that now, it’s been months. There’s only so much you can take. Up the cold stone stairs and onto the rows walks the stone cold killer. Exchanges a fleeting glance with the tight jawed jeweller. The barber and baker look anywhere but at him. The shoe shop has mysteriously closed for the day. 

The killer strides – relaxed, purposeful – past ambling window shoppers towards the corner by The Cross and slips something from his jacket pocket. 

The distraction on the opposite row goes like clockwork, heads snap towards the noise. Was that a scream? Those weeks of planning in cobwebbed storerooms paying off. 

It takes a few moments to notice the busker lying crumpled by his hat. 

The killer enters the bookshop, accepting the solemn, grateful nod and the envelope from behind the counter before the first scream breaks the glorious silence. Within an hour he’s on a plane. 

The baker closes his eyes, exhales and steps back into his shop. The barber sweeps his floor, humming to the radio. Sirens, distant then close. The policewoman eyes the jeweller as she climbs the rows. Her wink almost imperceptible. 

BLACK MAGIC by J Bronnert
You’ll find me in the Chester Rows. I’ve been retired for two centuries. I’m Jack, Jack Quicksilver.

I was a pickpocket by trade and fast, hence my name.  Coins, silver topped canes, silk kerchiefs, muffs on gold chains – all grist to my mill.  Nowadays coins are few and the only valuable a tile shaped thing that lights up.  Sometimes they’re pressed against an ear but usually in a pocket. They mean nothing to me.

Race days were best.  I’d work Bridge and Watergate Streets in my coat of pockets.  Today I’m invisible except to some in their cups who shake their heads.  They never remember.  Ladies wrinkle their noses in passing sniffing for the source of the smell.  It’s me of course.

Today as I walked up the steps to Eastgate Row near The Cross I passed a girl with chalk white face, lamp-black around dark eyes with purple stained lips.  She wore a spangled black net gown and calf length boots, her black hair tinted with green like a magpie’s wing.

I turned and followed her towards the clock.   She looked back in to my eyes and vanished.  I could hear shop signs creaking in the wind, see candlelight in windows, the smell of meat frying.  Shadows crept from corners deepening the twilight.

I searched the city ending up in the Boot Inn, chilled and half crazed.  I drank to forget but she was in my head, my heart, my very soul.  

Who was she?

Beneath the Canopies by Christine Collinson
From the tram’s open-top deck, I watch people on the Rows. It’s full of passengers below, not a spare seat even for one. A damp, grey cloud day. 

The bustle and blended voices drift to me as we trundle by. What are they searching for? A trinket for a loved one, a warm fireside rug, a silver candlestick, a pie for an empty belly, a stylish hatpin. Just a few words with another. Or an escape from somewhere else.

Drizzle is settling on my woollen coat and gloves. Diamond droplets, covering me from hat to boots. Now I envy the women and men beneath the canopies, sheltered from the autumn sky. I pull my brim down; sighing, recall my umbrella in the stand, languishing forgotten.

Just after the old cross, we make a stop. ‘Everybody off!’ On a whim, I hurry down the staircase and across the street. Up the stone steps and onto the Row. There I blend into the chattering throng; the keen buyers and idle wanderers.

The tram passes by on its way and I’m glad that I’m here, just as the rain begins to pound down. I even have a few spare coins in my purse. 

Now, what am I searching for?

Lunch by Sara Royle
‘Are you hungry?’

Less than two quid for the park and ride (kids go free) and we’ve spent the morning browsing (never buying, unless it’s school shoes), both of us hating shopping but me too young to start protesting and mum too knackered to think of another Saturday activity.

Really, we’re here for lunch.

Up the steps off Bridge Street and into the Rows. Kids’ noses pressed up against the huge glass front, eyes-wide at unpronounceable patisserie that may as well be piped with ‘EAT ME’ lettering, flush young sweethearts stopping to ask ‘what about here?’; Diamond anniversary couples knowing there’s nowhere else.

Inside, sandwiches ordered (open-faced for mum, plain as they’ll do for me), ‘milky coffee’ and a no-bits orange juice. Brass everywhere, a gated lift that must go somewhere even better than the café, a pianist and a singer making my cheese on white taste as cosmopolitan as me and my Tammy Girl flares feel.

One day, the piano will be replaced with a gelato stand, the tables will make way for rows of midi skirts and overpriced scarves, I’ll get the train with mates instead of the park and ride with mum. But today, it’s Paris Brioche on a rammed Saturday afternoon; a trip back in time and across the Channel, an infiltration of the glamorous Cheshire set, le déjeuner avec ma mère (I’ve been going to French club) and the promise of a pastry.

Plates empty, bill paid, mint in mouth.‘Right, let’s go home.’

Love on the Rows by Nejmi Usta
To most people the rows were nothing more than architectural history, a period of the past and reminder of a world long gone, but for anyone who called Chester home, they knew better. If Chester was a person, and the Cathedral was its beating heart, then the rows were its distinguishable features, its dimples, and long lashes. 

Felix waited for Daisy, the cold breeze of October nipping at his ankles like a terrier. It must have been below zero, but his heart was working overtime and keeping him warm. The sky was quilted in a dark velvet, stars piercing through like sequins, setting the perfect scene. When he saw her walking up, he swallowed hard.  Her hair a waterfall of chocolate cascading over her shoulders, eyes piercing blue, kind not intimidating, and the smile that had dared him to love her all those years ago. Suddenly he felt 18 again, seeing her for the first time, plucking up the courage to ask her out. The rows had been such an important part of their lives. Where they had met, where they had shopped for furniture for their first home, where they had raised a glass to celebrate graduation and job promotions, and now the rows would witness this too. 

Felix got down on one knee, he promised to love her until they were old and grey, to bring her hot water bottles when she had a poorly tummy and make her laugh every day for the rest of their lives.

Glimpses by Ruth McKew
I step off the bustling street. Duck my head and disappear from view up the narrow steps. I get a new perspective, a view framed by the posts and railings. As I turn from the street I glimpse shoppers through windows, and a hallway as the owner slips out of the door. I can see the past in these ancient structures too. Layers of paint reveal ancient colours, there are shop signs one below another and coins lost between the floorboards. I imagine the smells of produce from long ago stalls, and hear the medieval pipers and the town crier over the music of the puppet man and the buskers. I watch from above, unseen by the present or the past.

Finding Refuge by Ruth McKew
I find shelter from the cold and wet as I dash up the narrow steps which are tucked in between the shops. I tread the familiar boards above the street, glancing to see if the shops have changed since I was last up here. 

“Tac, tac” I hear an unfamiliar language. 

A group talking and carrying their shopping bags eddy past me. I realise they’re Ukrainian. I smile at one lady as we pass. She does not return my smile. 

I can see in her eyes the story of her flight. 

The hurried packing of bags while their village is under fire. The fear as they leave behind what they know. The train journey as they flee across a country under attack. The waiting in an unfamiliar place. A flight to another country. Arriving to a language that is hard to fathom. Landing in a city where life carries on as if nothing is happening. The constant fear that the call from home is bad news. The paperwork needed just to exist and the search for a job. Maybe she will sleep better without the noise of explosions. Has she found our city to be a place of sanctuary? Will she find hope and welcome here, will she stay long enough for the streets and rows to become familiar.

One Friday by Christine Ryan
Jacob was eight when he first saw Jesus die.  He was holding his mother’s hand tightly but he still felt alone and very small.  There were people pressing all around him.

‘Has Jesus really died?’ he whispered and looked up at the people.  One lady heard him, she whispered back, ‘No, no of course not.’  Then his mother looked down and he could see tears in her eyes.  

They had been in town for hours.  Jacob had first seen Jesus near the Eastgate, he had been walking with a donkey.  There was a lot of noise, people were cheering and waving.  Then he had seen him on the Rows above the shops.  He seemed to be at a party, he was eating and drinking.  Jacob could see Jesus was not very happy, but he couldn’t understand what he was saying.

Then his Mum had taken his hand and they had hurried past the Cathedral.  Jacob saw three wooden crosses outside, he pulled at his Mum’s hand but she didn’t stop.

When Jacob saw Jesus again he was being pushed by the crowd.  Some men pulled him up the Town Hall steps. He was wearing something on his head which looked like a crown but there were red marks on his face and he looked as if he was crying.  People were shouting, ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’

Jacob looked at his mother, she was whispering, ‘No, no.’  

Then everyone went silent.  That’s when Jacob whispered, ‘Has Jesus really died?’

Above and Below by Nina Patterson
The girl is pressed against the stone, her body is shaking uncontrollably, and she tastes that familiar metallic tang.  She knows she will be safe here, but her body is not yet ready to believe this and remains vigilant.   She is hiding in an unused vault below the Rows, as is increasingly the way on Chester market days.   The grain fetched a good price today and she had eaten well for the first time in weeks. This false sense of security meant the first punch had caught her off guard.

She would spend the night alone in this forgotten crypt before returning to the farm tomorrow where a remorseful father and hungry younger siblings would be waiting. But for now, she closes her eyes and imagines a life spent wandering the shops above for a new dress or a sweet treat. The girl wonders if the lives of the rich and the poor will always be so unfair.He wakes in a shop doorway just below street level and finds his dreams again have been of a young girl in a dark and helpless place.   His thoughts are interrupted by a passer-by giving him a coffee as they head up the stairs onto the rows.  He wonders whether the dice of fate will always be cast so callously.  But most of all he wonders why nobody ever asks if he would prefer tea.

Favourite Time of Year by Chris Ritchieson
I shelter from the rain, enjoying my half-finished pastry before the weather makes it soggy. The fairly lights in the elevated shop windows are glittering, though the canopy of Christmas lights over the stone dazzle in comparison. A couple wander past on the rows, arms intertwined and bags in hand, like me enjoying the hinterland between the shops closing and the nightlife begun. They don’t notice me as I gaze out through the Rows railings and smell the delights the old city has to offer; spices and coffee, cakes and steaks. The Christmas markets fill the old squares and the restaurants will be busy, I still prefer the little independent places, they always have something different and they seem friendlier to my kind. It’s my favourite time of year and an evening to enjoy it all. My long nose twitches and with a flick of my red bushy tail I pad away in search of dinner.

Footsteps by Chris Ritchieson
As a child I walked the cobbles, marching in my sandals like a centurion to make believe battles. As a teen I sheltered on the Rows with friends, a tribe of Cestrian’s hiding from the sun, rain and adult gazes. First kisses, fancy meals, Christmas shopping, late night stumbles, the Rows were the black and white background to the moments that shaped me. No one knows, but sometimes I still imagine I’m a Roman marching, even if my hair is speckled with grey…

Seasons on the Rows by Chris Ritchieson
On the balmy summer afternoon when I first show her the Rows, early bistro diners meet bar bound revellers as the midsummer parade marches on Watergate. Eyes wide, she takes in the scene, admiring the monochrome facia in a sea of colour.

Autumn is in full flow when we return, shoppers hurry by with scarf wrapped necks as I kiss hers and we walk hand in hand past illuminated shop fronts. We whisper like teenagers, sharing secrets as the passers-by become set dressing.

In winter we take a photograph besides the cross, under a canopy of cobalt Christmas lights, committed to social media and joint Christmas Cards. Whilst she casts sideward glances at frosty jewellery shop windows, I pretend not to notice, rubbing my hands and shuffling cold feet.

Spring sees the restaurant tables return as do we, to moules and frites on the Rows would-be balcony. We people watch, one of her favourite pastimes, until I produce the jewellery box and her eyes are wide once more. Champagne corks pop though we prefer prosecco, I blush and she grins whilst the passers-by applaud.

Old Soldiers by Rhian Waller
Thomas spotted the other Centurion marching from the Cross, and gave a half-wave. Tom didn’t recognise him, but lots of tour companies employed ‘soldiers’ seasonally.  

Unlike Thomas, the newcomer wore his red-crested helmet rather than carrying it in the crook of his arm. Definitely a newbie, thought Tom, a veteran of a hundred city tours. His voice was hoarse from hours of shouting sin, sin, sin, dex, sin to a long, straggling snake of giggling schoolchildren, and he looked forward to a mug of builder’s tea, a biscuit, and his t-shirt and jeans. Only newbies were in love with the armour. A few weeks of inflexible greaves and skin-pinching sandals dampened the whole military authenticity thing.  

You could tell the tourists from the shoppers by their curiosity, and the Rows were full of Chester natives today, because nobody spared the advancing tour guide a glance.  

It was obviously a good costume. The lorica – armour – was battered but well-polished and his chest was hung with medallions.  

“Hey,” said Thomas as the Centurion neared, swinging his vitis latina, the cudgel that showed his status. Thomas carried a gladius. The kids were fascinated by swords.  

The Centurion raised his right arm so it was loosely parallel to the ground. 

“Ave!” he saluted, straight-faced.  

Thomas rolled his eyes. We’re off duty, you berk.  

As they passed, he twisted his head for one last, withering look at the other Roman, and saw him march through the steps leading up to the Rows and disappear.

Of Street and Sky by Rhian Waller
“The pig-swiven bastard stopped us, blast his eyes.” 

Wilburg gave the carpenter a hard stare as the rest of the city did business around them. 

“He what?”

“We were breaking ground when this lickspittle comes a-running to say the sale’s off.” 

Wilburg clenched fingers made strong by stirring, slinging and serving tuns of sweet ale and vats of sweeter mead. Her jaw moved as though she was grinding grain with her teeth. 

Hob Belloc, her nearest neighbour, had spat and shaken on a plot of land behind her tavern. Four years back, when she’d sat vigil for Good William, restraining tears and vomit all the endless night, Hob came with a marriage proposal. Long after, she remained widowed and he set about spitefully complaining to the Earl about loud laughter and lute music.  

She’d half-known their agreement would not stand, that he’d wait until the worst moment to break trust. She would fain have doings with him, but her livelihood was strangling between the bakery, the blacksmith and Belloc, and it sorely needed space.

Now good stone and timber lay sinking into the mud of Eastgate Street.  

For a moment, Wilburg knew despair. She’d laboured so long alone, brewing, balancing books and begging for credit. This would ruin her. 

She gazed at the pale sky over Chester’s roofs. God and heaven above, what could she do?  

Then she laughed.  

“Mistress?” said the carpenter.  

“Hob cannot hobble me. We will build upon Good William’s gift,” she said. “We will build up.”

THE FLOWERING by Angela Johnson
They were burying her in some far off land, and I was still here walking along the Eastgate rows. It might have all been a dream. Once she had been like my older sister, staying every weekend with us in Chester. A shrieking laughing girl jumped off the raised platforms where you look down on the street.

I followed her all round the streets of Chester, up and down the rows. On Bridge street row we rang a doorbell and ran away down a passage way off Watergate rows to a garden with a secret door that led to the street where we lived. But it must have been a dream because this place where I walked was a dream desolate place with shops boarded up and figures in black all sleeping in some shop doorway.

Once we’d raced down the steps, but now I had to cling to a rail and use my stick to keep my balance. The couple watching me said well done. But then I felt her hand in mine and we ran back up the steps together in our summer dresses, and all the shops flowered into life.

But it had to be a dream because somewhere a long way away people in black were burying my cousin, and I was walking slowly along Eastgate row, where so many shops had died, when a shrieking girl jumped out at me, and something came alive.

Treading the Boards by Rebecca Metcalfe
The ale-dark oak creaks under my boots as I make my way down Eastgate Row, and a Roman centurion steps out of Waterstones. Eagle-clad shield in one hand, plastic bag for life in the other, he marches off, although into which century it is hard to tell. His sandals make a scuffing sound against the unpolished wood as he goes on his way, and towards him a green man: his trainers shuffling, his leaves rustling, and his bells jingling as he pulls a phone out from somewhere within the holly. His Halloween-face-paint fingers begin to text, although whether he texts a friend in the modern world, or if ancient deities have found new means of communicating we will never know. He could be anyone under the ivy. So could the centurion under the armour. And we would never know.

From the street below, a crow ascends the narrow stairs, the recycled-tent framework of her wings getting stuck on the low ceiling as she reaches the top. She caws and bobs up and down in her squeaky black leather court shoes as she tries to free herself. She could be anyone under the feathers.

It is festival day in Chester. Performers are everywhere, and we could all be anyone. 

Untitled by Dave Sheekey
The same old sounds the same old sights, the  same old Friday Saturday night. From my apartment  on the  Rows I witness i it all, I am living above history but   my experience is  sociological  being akin to participant observation.  Stag and hen parties, clubbers   unbridled hedonism is all that matters, tomorrows hangover  awaits but for now  live in the moment.. Daytime the cross becomes a  window on the world, camera clicking tourists from west to east,  cameras hung from the  necks of tourists from across the pond and  China and Japan.  A gaggle of . visitors tread the boards as they wend their way along the  Rows , ,their guide  a Cestrian version of the pied piper of   Hamlyn.  Winter is coming  soon but on the   Rows  we are sheltered from the worst nature can throw at us.  Seasons come and seasons go but the  rows are timeless.

Saturday by Jade 
A crack of light glared in the distance. A cold breeze stroked her left cheek. It was dark, and the space was narrow. What day was it? 

She continued down the hard concrete path. A gentleman lingered at a doorway. As it opened, the warm air from inside drifted out briefly. She passed by, and as she did she smiled. The smell of warmth with a hint of ale. Now, it was quiet, almost silent. The space around her faded with each step. Connected to nothing but the ground beneath her. Then suddenly, it was loud. The space came rushing back, and time no longer stood still. She looked out down the concrete stairway. The light broke. The breeze crashed towards her. It was Saturday. 

Chester in the Rain by Jan Hancock
Summer in Chester. Blue skies, the city full of people shopping and sightseeing. They photograph the clock. Suddenly the rain comes. Heavy. Bouncing off the cobbles. The visitors cram under the city walls, they wait unmoving. They wait and they wait. I’m up the steep stairs and on the Rows in moments, barely damp. I watch the rain sheeting down, but I don’t get wet. I look in windows. I covet jewellery. I smell perfume floating up from the shop on the street below. I read the covers of books. I walk for an hour. I don’t get wet. I watch the people on the street below, waiting in doorways. They are trapped, they are not looking up. In their fear of getting wet, they have forgotten about the Rows. They don’t know that Chester is a city made for rainy days. They are tourists, but this is my home. 

Historic Chester by Christine Taylor
The mud and daub brown Tudor style house was demolished but rose again in the year of our Lord 1652 from the ancient rubble. Watergate Street, an old stone street meandered to Chester’s old port where Sir Francis Drake once sailed in majestic grace. Sir Walter Raleigh explorer may have hauled his vessel into the port in the time of Elizabeth 1. The now master owner dressed in perfect balance would oversee cargo from exotic places. He carried himself in the manner of wealth. 9, Watergate Street was haven for his daughter. A ragtag sailor carried a wooden chest inlaid with ivory and precious stones up the small dark staircase that proved no problem. In the seating area lit by flickering candles on beautifully polished oak panelling it was laid to rest. On opening the chest hidden within its bounds were yellow juicy lemons. The masters trade carried life. The plaque was prevalent in that era, so death was a disease bringing the beaked cart carriers to all the surroundings. The rows a two-tier structure where breaks were honed through so fire could be detected with no delay. Our fine masters house was a sanctuary filled with treasures even filling the court of Charles 11 from bounty overseas. Chester rows proclaims on facia board due to the owners safe keeping ‘God’s Providence is Mine Inheritance’. Why I hear comment? Because protection was the immune system that squeezed lemons gave. They were the father and daughter’s saviour.

Squeak to me by David Sejrup
It started with a squeak, it wasn’t a dramatic squeak, or a loud squeak, it wasn’t the type of squeak that you’d say “That was some squeak”. My foot hit that spot, as it rose up it was followed by the squeak.

Emma was possibly the first to hear the squeak, the year was 1322, it was the 1 October, she was wearing her blue birthday dress, she was only small and her foot was barely heavy enough but the squeak was there.

700 years of footsteps later and the Rows are still there, the stalls still there, the crypts, and shops are still there and if you happen to walk on just that spot. The squeak has gone, apparently that’s progress but if squeak‘s could talk, what a story it would have to tell.

Whispers in the night by David Sejrup
Come closer I want to tell you a story. I’m not asking for sympathy, maybe a little understanding. You could say I live on Chester Rows, my day starts as the last of the daylight residents start to leave. My first patrol is reassuring, everything in its place, I stick to the shadows and remain unseen.

I prefer the night shift people. If I’m feeling lonely, I’ll stand still and whisper in their ear. Watching the expression on their face, some puzzled, some dismissive, most don’t hear me at all.

Occasionally, very occasionally they do reply, but none know the answer to my whispered question.  I’m not the only lonely custodian of these stalls and corridors, I hear the young boy crying, occasionally, Sarah appears, after 200 years she is still not over being abandoned at the altar. Then there are Nathaniel, Charlotte and Brandon, they rarely move far from their Bridge Street cellar.

They say Chester is the most haunted city in the country, the next time you pass through the Rows, the next time you hear a whisper in your ear, listen and tell me who I am or who I was. 

Grandstand by David Sejrup
All the world’s a stage, a great writer once wrote. My grandstand view looks over Chester’s stage. The “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” proclamation is followed by a parade celebrating Midsummer.

From my balcony I’m face to face with a bowing giant leading his family. Now a dragon appears, smoke billowing from his nostrils. Another giant swoops in, a red devil. St Werburgh, Chester’s famous daughter with the power to resurrect her geese swirls by, following a rhythmic samba beat.

I’ve booked my front row balcony for a military parade, Chinese dragon and Diwali dancers. The world maybe a stage, but only Chester’s stage is flanked by the medieval Rows grandstand stalls.

The Expedition by David Sejrup
Cheese roll, packet of crisps and an apple, all the supplies a budding explorer needs. The expedition starts at the grand palace protected by an enormous statue, I don’t know what it is but   the figures seem friendly.

Sin, Sin, Sin, Dex Sin, I’m following the footsteps of Romans, will I see a gladiator or a centurion? There’s a bell ringing, what is this strange welcome, who is this brightly dressed person and what does he have to say?

But the adventure really starts with the climb, step by step, gripping the railing nearly there. Finally arriving at the start of the tunnel stretching as far as the eye can see. This is what the expedition was all about, scrambling onto the sloping wooden mountain, first run along the bottom then slowly head up, eventually reaching the top and peeking through to the busy street far below. Chester Rows and stalls?  No it’s a tunnel surrounded by a wooden mountain.

Joshua’s Dilemma by Stewart Shuttleworth
Young Joshua scrubbed the last of the boards as the light was lost over the November evening sky. He had joined his father in the shoppe only eight months before. Thomas, a giant of a man with a great bushy beard and the striped apron of the fleshmonger, was the Master of the Guild.  They were different, Joshua with a more sensitive nature, didn’t take to the carcasses, the blood, but felt he was doing his duty. After work he walked through the darkening city streets. The steps down from the Row led to the Watergate street.  Workshops echoed with sounds of hammering and shouting. He turned right at the Cross down the brightly lit streets where mercers sold victuals of all descriptions. The city was prospering, but where was he in it? He continued down towards the river, climbed onto the row before Gamul house, taking a narrow passageway. Knocking on the door he entered a room lit only by a tallow lamp. An old man, huddled over a bench was silver-smithing. At first the smith had been surprised by his interest, then showed him his trade. Now he worked on his own piece, his heart beating faster. Too soon the bells of St John’s rang seven; with a nod to the old man he rose for home. The following evening, lost in their tasks, they were startled by knocking at the door. The old man opened it and there stood Thomas… 

Barely a Tale by Linda Shuttleworth
Blue Teddy and Harry Bear were getting fed up sitting in the car waiting for their family to come back.  Blue Teddy noticed the car window was slightly open. He and Harry squeezed their soft furry bodies through the gap and found themselves beside a busy road. Quickly they headed in the other direction and up some steps to a walkway above the ancient streets of Chester. What a relief, they thought, as they were able to walk unnoticed along the Rows. They saw Lowe’s shop full of shiny silver and were hypnotised. Then Harry began to read about Fifth Officer Harold Lowe of the doomed Titanic, the only officer to return in the lifeboat to look for survivors. Now, said Harry that is more precious than any silver!

The two bear friends continued along the Rows, avoiding feet, smiling and waving at the small children who noticed them. Eventually they reached Bollands Bakery and there in the window was the biggest cake they had ever seen, made for Queen Victoria’s wedding. Looking at it they realised how hungry they were.  They crept into the shop and into the window. Unseen, they began to eat their way through an enormous iced bun.

Much later they managed to find their way back to the car and squeeze in just before the family returned. When the children sat beside the bears they were puzzled to notice smudges of icing on their fur. What have they been up to…?

The Hand of God by Catherine Warner
It’s 1886 and McConnie’s Candles is the best shop on Chester rows. Shoppers throng to admire the waxen Noah’s ark and carousel in its window. Martin McConnie sees himself as God. Candle maker and bringer of light for twelve years, every house, pub and church in Chester lit with his creations. He feels proud of his finely tapered candles, and delights customers by moulding warm wax into elephants, giraffes and lions. 

If you walk past McConnie’s at night, you might see him mixing scents and dyes into vats and twisting wicks. Occasionally he holds his hands up to the wan light and remembers his dad mocking his sausage fingers or teachers hitting his stronger left hand or the school bullies bending back his fingers until he begged for mercy. Nobody imagined he would be capable of great art. 

Martin usually locks up past midnight, but tonight he finishes early. He stands uncertain in the doorway before slinking into the night’s shadows. Within the underbelly of Chester’s rows, he meets people like him, twitchy and unsavoury people who nobody loves, who ask no questions, and nobody ever reports missing. Like God, his hands can both create and destroy.  

Small steps by William C.H.
Walk, don’t run,’ my mum tells me. But the beams and balusters, the sloping floors and little steps, they’re too historical; I can’t resist charging along the narrow paths, crowded with shoppers, imagining a medieval world. I hop towards the railing and peek at the street below, swapping cars with horses, bins with barrels.

Of course, mum was swapping other things at that time: our house for a flat; savings for credit cards; marriage for grief. She snatches my wrist and brings her face close to mine: ‘I wish you’d just listen.’ Later, we’re sitting in the café and she’s calmed down, wearing a weary smile, as I prattle on in cartoon catchphrases. I eye up the cakes while she yearns for her coffee, for another small lift.

This was our monthly trip: no money to shop, but we’d wander the city and end with a treat. I ask her if she thinks queens used to visit here, but she doesn’t answer. Her hand shakes; her cup rattles. Under her breath she says, ‘no, no, no,‘ and I recognise the new glazed panic in her eyes. She gets up, and collects our things, repeating: ‘we’ve got to go.’

She almost leaves me behind, but stops and turns around. ‘What’s the matter?’ she says. Her face tells of too many nights alone, too many days saying ‘I’m fine.’ I step towards her, and put my hand into hers. Something heavy leaves her. I say, ‘you said to walk, mum — not run.’

The Extra-Magic Row by Christine Hyde
I’m late, I’m late.  For a very important date.  I run forward, trying to text apologies, trip over and smack my chin.  Getting to my feet, I notice a new alleyway, which I swear wasn’t there before.  It’s split down the middle.  One side dirty and puddly, wall broken and old.  The other is clean and sparkly with bright lights twinkling above.  

Two doorways….  One gorgeous, solid nutty oak.  I enter under the sign “Pop under the beams for your hopes and dreams”.  I cover my eyes as a glowing figure appears.  “So Madam, make a wish…. for the good of everyone…. I’ll tell you the outcome and you decide: keep or scrap”.  I jump right in “end all wars”.  “Done.   The world is now entirely ruled by China who walked into each country unopposed and systematically took over.” “Scrap!” I say, shocked and am unceremoniously dumped back in the alleyway.

Intrigued, I enter the second door.  “Fear all ye who enter here.”  An old crone shuffles towards me.  “Make a wish, this time just for you, then ditch or exit happily.” “Hmmm” I ponder.  I don’t want to make a mistake like my last wish…. What’s safest?  “Win the lottery” I reply.  She rubs her crooked nose. “You live alone in a large country mansion.  People chase you relentlessly for money.  You don’t do friends. Your solicitor, who you’re sure is swindling you, employs countless security guards.” 

“Ditch!” I say and sit up on the pavement.  The alleyway gone.

What the Rows taught me about time by Phil Stringer
If you know me, you know that I have no sense of time. All time is an approximation. I learnt this from time on the Rows, mainly from a stretch about (another approximation) six metres either side of the entrance to Browns. I was six or seven, going into Chester with my mum. Browns was her favourite shop. So, she would go into Browns saying just wait here, I’ll only be a few minutes. What a magical few minutes as I had the hustle and bustle of the Rows to myself. Wandering a little this way then that. The Rows taught me about people watching. It gave me a taste of independence. It taught me that a few minutes is any amount of time you want it to mean. 

The Spirit of Unrest by Clare Dudman
The first I saw of him was at the Saturnalia Parade. A little round devil of a man, he was, covered in red paint, marching in front of the Roman soldiers. A sign, someone told me, that everything was about to go topsy-turvy.   

After that I felt sure he was watching me. I’d catch a glimpse of him in every quiet, almost-forgotten place where there were more shadows than light: the stalls along Bridge Street West, for instance, or the balcony of Eastgate Street South. Sometimes I’d catch the sour whiff of him along an alleyway, or hear a snide chuckling if I missed my footing on the steps.  But then, yesterday at twilight, I spotted him full on.  He was up where all the pigeons roost along Leen Lane, shaking his head at me and tutting.  

‘What is it?’ I asked him. ‘Why are you here?’ 

Like any other sooth-sayer, he answered me only in riddles.  

‘Quick!’ he said, ‘Fill the streets with sound and busyness. There is still time.’ 

And then he climbed down from his perch and trotted back along the lane towards the bins.  And it was there, among the skips of old bookshops and office furniture, that I lost him.

Roman The Rows by Natalie Davies
When Julius awoke in 2022, the Deva he knew had been replaced. The new buildings were strung together by a series of boards. People strolled along them chattering amongst themselves. He bounded up the steps in confused fury. At the top was a more familiar sight; a window furnished with his things. He flourished his sword at the lady behind the desk and she wailed straight back.  

Once he had been ushered out, under threat of the po-lice, a herd of squealing children formed behind him. In an instant his old habits came back, they could be his own little legionaries.

Maybe this new home wasn’t too bad after all…

Coffee by Derek Carter
“I’m going to the Kardomah, fancy a coffee?” she said.
He looked round, “Pardon.”
She had a lovely smile and a twinkle in her eyes.
Bridge Street Row was bustling with shoppers that long long-ago Saturday and he was gazing in the shop window.
“I saw you looking at that camera, are going to buy it?” she said.
He couldn’t afford it.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Who was she, standing next to him smiling.  He didn’t know her.  Had she mistaken him for someone else?  She was wearing a long hippy-like Kaftan coat and a multi coloured bobble hat with a ‘Ban-the Bomb’ badge pinned to it..
“Come on, let’s go.”
They sat and talked and drank coffee for almost an hour until she suddenly stood up.
“Sorry, but I must go.  Same time, same place next Saturday?”
“Yes, Okay,” he remembers saying, a little bemused.
Next Saturday and for some Saturdays after they met at the same spot on the Rows and went for coffee to the Kardomah.
She was gorgeous, he’d never met a girl like her.
When she didn’t turn up one Saturday or the next and then no more, he was heartbroken.
Later he moved away from Chester but never forgot that special place on the Rows when his life could have been so different.

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