A man in a nightclub becomes fixated with a girl sporting a partially obscured ‘noughts and crosses’ tattoo peeking out of her dress. Overcome with the desire to find out which side won, he sets about attempting to seduce her.  But he is not the only one with an interest in the girl with the tattoo.


All the confidence I had begun this with was gone, but I resolved to finish what I had started. I gave an apologetic sigh and ventured out with, “Okay, It’s 0…?”

She laughed once more and shook her head. “Nope. An X.

X? That’s not a number.”

It’s the beginning of mine.”

You can’t have an X at the start of your number.”

I’m a woman of the world. Well travelled, so you’d need the international dialling code. So my number begins with +44.”

That’s a cross shape, a plus, it’s not an X.”

And it’s not 0 either.”

But the plus stands for another number. International numbers start with 00, so it is0.”

That’s dialling out. You’d need to dial in.”

But I live in the UK, so I could drop the international code and just dial the area code. So it’s still 0.”

Unless I live in the same area as you, then you can drop the area code too and just dial my number.”

Which is?”


Your number is not X! So, do youlive locally?”

Doesn’t everyone live locally?”

Look, stop teasing me. At least admit I was right with 0.”

It’s still X.”

You can’t have a telephone number that starts with X.”

Ex-directory, at least it is to you.”

Technically that’s an E.”

Which also isn’t 0.”

Okay, I give up. I’ve lost, I know.”

You really want a number off me?”


Have you got some paper?”

I fished out a receipt from a chemist and checked that all the items listed were either innocuous or vague before I handed it over along with a pen. She handed it back and it simply had a smiley face drawn on it.

What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

It’s an oh,” she said.


A cheery one.”

A cheery oh?”

That’s right, cheerio.”


I realised she still hadmy pen and so I started to push my way through the crowd after her, but quickly stopped myself. She had vanished and I had crossed the line of desperation a long way back. Bringing a pen to a nightclub felt a little sleazy anyway.

Only a week before, I had watched in awe as my friend Simon pulled off this same trick perfectly. It is his trick after all.

He said to a girl, “If I tell you the start of your name, the start of your age, the start of your favourite drink and the start of your phone number, then you can tell me the rest.”

When she agreed, he announced, “Your name begins with ‘Miss,’ your age starts with twenty-, you like ‘a nice glass of whatever,’ and your number starts with 0.”

And it had worked.

Trust me to try it out on someone tonight who said her name began ‘Ms.’ who was 30 and bitter about no longer being a twenty-something, who drank beer straight from the bottle and then refused to even admit her number started with 0 by spinning some international, ex-directory crap.

I stood in an oasis of defeat while everyone else in the club whooped and cheered in celebration. Celebrating the end of the week; celebrating the start of the weekend; celebrating the good things in life; celebrating the beer that’s helping them forget the bad things in life.

When you’re on the dance floor screaming louder than the amps and dancing to the pulse of the lights, you’re in the bubble. As soon as the bubble bursts, that’sit, you’re now outside it all. The swinging arms of the crowd become shutting barriers; the lights blind you and force you back; the deafening music becomes a solid wall of impenetrable sound.

It’s like you stop being one of the actors and turn into one of the film crew behind the scenes. You just have to stand back and watch in silence; the fake set slides away from you on wheels and you’re left in the dark shadows, waiting for the director to shout, ‘Cut!’ just so you can move again.

As soon as you step foot inside a club, you know that you have to keep in that bubble moment; keep drinking; keep dancing; keep mingling. Until one drink too many, exhausted from the dancing, you mingle beyond the last person in the club and fall outside the moment. Then it’s lost forever and you end up sitting next to a sleeping drunk or leaning against a pile of discarded coats.

I couldn’t go down like that. It was far too early to give up the fight yet.

I needed to distract myself from the edge of the bubble and linger in the hope that I’d get pulled back in.

I needed a beer.

I knew it was either a rapid intake of alcohol to wash my brain out or I’d start having a ‘there must be more than this’moment.

I couldn’t risk that happening. Once that thought kicks in then your whole life reboots and starts again. So far this year my longest life had been a month and a half. If I let that thought take hold then I knew I’d end up slumped in an armchair in the corner of some bedsit party full of strangers; too tired to enjoy it, too drunk to leave, and too sober to pass out.

A train of girls pulled out from the ladies toilets and Jimmy Chooed past me to various whistles from some train-spotters near the bar.

I noticed that the very cute guard carriage at the rear had a tattoo on her breast that was peeking out from her low cut dress. It looked like some Chinese symbol. As she drew level with me, I saw it was actually a game of noughts and crosses. This made me smile; she looked up at the right moment to find me smiling at her face rather than staring at her breasts.

She smiled back and pulled in at the bar a few people down from me.

Noughts and crosses?

I had seen cartoons of bored tattooists etching the game onto the backs of unsuspecting punters, but I had never seen an actual tattoo. A permanent piece of body art of such a futile, throwaway game.

The corner of the board was still securely behind the material of her dress; a woman of mystery. I wondered which side had won that game.

I turned back to the bar in search of the beer I had been in such great need of before the female express had derailed my thoughts.

I peeked at the drinks of the people either side of me in search of some inspiration. A Coke Zero was on my left; responsible driver. A Castlemaine XXXX on my right; the latest of many by the looks of it. He wouldn’t be walking before long, let alone driving anywhere.


A bit overkill for a noughts and crosses game.

I wondered again which side had won.

I leant forward to try and flag down a barman. Some tanked-up squaddies further down the bar were showing signs of plotting to occupy the dance floor. They had picked up a comatose casualty from an earlier tour of duty and were carrying him in on ‘Operation Dance-Floor Storm.’

No man gets left behind.

I refocused a little nearer and found myself smiling at the noughts and crosses board again.

The board looked bored.

I needed to know which side had won on that tattoo. It was trivial, but the thought that I might never know bugged me.

There was also some other guy from the far end of the bar that seemed to be staring at her… and then glaring at me. He was huge, built like an ox.


  • Paperback: 236 pages
  • Publication Date: 3 May 2012
  • Publisher: Labello Press
  • ISBN-10: 095723130X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0957231306


An eclectic and outstanding tumble of glittering new stories carefully selected from entries to our first annual lnternational Short Story competition. We present the Leonard A. Koval Memorial Prize winners for 2012 representing Ireland, the U.K., France, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.