Furious Fiction February 2019 winner and shortlist

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It was a bumper birthday bonanza this month – as a record number of more than 1100 writers submitted a story in Furious Fiction. Wow! Well done to all who entered.

A reminder of the criteria that we asked for this month:

  • Each story’s first sentence had to contain EXACTLY THREE WORDS.
  • Each story had to include A FIRST of some kind – open to interpretation.
  • Each story had to include A CANDLE.

We loved the imaginative three-words openings we received – really setting the tone for so many different stories. We also saw many creative ways to get a candle into a story and a variety of firsts.

But there can only be ONE first place, and this month that title goes to Shirley Kent of NSW. You can read Shirley’s story below, along with a bumper crop of shortlisted ones our judging panel selected for this month. Enjoy!


FEBRUARY 2019 WINNER

RUNAWAY by Shirley Kent

“Are you ready?”

The text arrives at 9pm. I am fully dressed under my doona, and have double-checked my backpack seven times.

They don’t know about the phone. Alex scored it for me and prepaid it. I can’t use my iPhone because I caught HER checking my messages.

“YES. You?”
“Yup. Got the keys, full tank of petrol, camping gear– the camper is OURS.”
“YES”
“Rondavoo at 3am.”

Spelling is not Alex’s strong point. But he has other talents. His family freaked out at the idea of him heading off to a music festival in the camper. He has a licence and the van is HIS so it was totally unfair.

That’s when we started planning our escape.

I can hear Her lecturing Katy in the kitchen. I imagine Katy’s eye rolls and the bored to death look she has perfected at fourteen. Apparently, she is burning the candle at both ends and will end up failing school, on drugs and working in fast food. Katy says “two out of three ain’t bad.” The sound of slamming doors signals the end of that encounter. I will miss Katy.

The house gradually settles into silence.

I can’t set my alarm. She has ears like a cat. I am too excited to sleep anyway.

Weird thing is I wouldn’t have met Alex if She hadn’t insisted on us doing cheese-making workshops. Mother/daughter bonding she said. Alex was as bored as me so while She and his sister learned the secrets of rennet and curds we got talking. We snuck out and hung out the back of the Community Centre with the smokers.

We met up at other times too, but I may have forgotten to mention that to her.

At first she said things like “It’s good there is someone your own age.”

Then yoga got cancelled and she walked in on us in the lounge room. We had most of our clothes still on but she lost it completely. Poor Alex had to get himself home shirtless and barefoot.

And I guess she will never learn how to make cheese.

Ever since, she has treated me as if I am incapable of making my own decisions. The latest is to not let me have the car alone “I can drive you anywhere you need to go”.

She has always been a control freak. I remember I used to think it was amusing. Until it was me being controlled.

It’s 3am now, the house is silent. I grab my gear and tiptoe outside. The camper is parked two houses down and Alex flashes the lights. I am running away from home for the first time in my life. I may not be back. I’ll send texts so She knows I am alive. After all, we are still mother and daughter.

If it works out, Alex and I might just keep travelling.

If we combine our pensions we can manage to live quite well.

What we loved:
A great way to test a short story’s value is that it gets more enjoyable when you read it again. It’s not always easy to do, but this delightful story of forbidden love takes us at first to what seems like a familiar territory, before dropping a truth bomb in the final line. The second read punches holes through the first – revealing a compact story laced with sneaky clues and a lesson in never making assumptions!


SHORTLISTED

ANNIVERSARY by Claire Qu

‘Tis the season. Long balmy evenings, lights in Fed Square. Across the way Flinders Station is a big, beautiful, buttery, baroque confection. A touch of the oriental, icing on the cake. Happy birthday, Jesus.

He looks smug in that porcelain cradle. The long-awaited son, sunny locks shading plump cheeks. Mary, beside him, lifts her blue eyes in a guileless shrug, like, I’m just as confused as you are. Still, there’s a little complacent tuck at the corner of her mouth. God’s chosen womb.

Someone’s watching me watch Mary. A woman.

No – it’s the nativity scene she’s staring at. Not staring; drinking in. Like it’s ambrosia and she’s starving.
Which she definitely is.

She turns to me desperately. Hollow black eyes, bruise blooming on a haggard brown cheek.

‘Spare any change, miss?’

I can’t, and I’m about to shake my head and hurry away, but then I remember it’s the season.

‘I’ve only got a tenner. I’ll buy you some food.’

Don’t want her drinking the money off. I’m slightly ashamed of the thought, but old prejudices die hard. No – better be safe. There’s a Maccas up the road. Cheap burger, even throw in some festive fries. Good deed done and dusted, shining conscience.

It’s not what she wanted, but she’s so hungry she accepts anyway.

Maccas is quiet, and I’ve got the grease-stained packets in my hands in no time. The woman stares at the linoleum as I shove them at her.

‘Thanks.’ Barely a mumble.

She struggles with herself for a minute and grabs my arm just as I’m about to leave. There’s a pained, pleading look in her eyes.

‘Can you buy me a prayer?’ Lines around her down-turned mouth.

‘What?’

‘Look, I appreciate this, miss, honest,’ – a shake of the burger – ‘but if you could get me one of them church candles … I’d be very grateful.’

I give her a long look. This is the kind of thing they warn you against.

Ah, to hell with it. It’s the season.

The inside of St Paul’s is calm and blue and gold. Quiet echoes up to the high, soft vaults. Like clouds. London grey for a London saint, smiling on his empire.

Beside the entrance is an alcove filled with sand and candles. Say a prayer for someone. So many winking lights of love. Wonder if they know.

I give the woman sixty cents and she drops it in the collection box. She lights a candle, and – carefully, carefully – nestles it in the sand.

I’m wondering what all this is about, when she pulls a photograph from her tattered shirt pocket and hands it to me. It’s her, younger, happy, cradling a tiny, wrinkled baby stuck with plastic tubes. I turn the picture over. There’s writing on the back.

‘Simone – December 25, 2017.’

The woman’s smile is wobbly. ‘She didn’t survive Christmas.’

We turn back to the candle. Its spark as brief as a human’s.

‘Happy first birthday, Simone.’

What we liked:
What ultimately ends in a heartbreaking first is set up very well by a realistic inner monologue, deliciously alliterative description (big, beautiful, buttery, baroque confection, anyone?) and some pithy observations about the everyday world. We are drawn in from that first location, our curiosity and the slowly unravelling story gently beckoning us to its respectful conclusion. Great use of 500 words.


SHORTLISTED

CHAPTER ONE by Berenice Allen

The tattooist blinked.

A ballerina, tutu-and-all had pushed through his front door and rushed to his front desk.

She moved as though she couldn’t help but dance, perhaps even it was hard for her to weigh herself down enough to keep contact with the floor. Her grace was incongruous with the heavy metal music.

Her arrival made him feel strange, shamed that she was surrounded by his walls full of skulls and death. He wanted to put his jacket over her and shepherd her out of this place. Then he felt more shame, his jacket stank of smoke, of more than one flavour in fact. That wouldn’t do.

‘I need a tattoo,’ she said.

Speechless, he shook his head. He couldn’t mark that peaches and cream skin. A first for him, he usually felt his art only improved things, with her it would be vandalism.

‘I need a tattoo,’ she repeated. She came round the counter and sat, pulling on his arm to do the same.
She pulled a napkin from her small bag and handed it to him.

‘I need this tattoo. I need you to do it.’

‘I can’t,’ he said.

‘Yes, you must. I dreamt it. It has to happen. And soon.’

‘There are other places. You don’t belong here.’

‘This is where it has to happen.’

‘This is crazy.’

She nodded. ‘People think I’m quite crazy but when I dream things, it means something. Please hurry up. I’ve got to get back and pretend I’ve been at practice.’

‘How old are you? I can’t tattoo a minor.’

She frowned. Her pout expressing a lifetime of people underestimating her age as she pulled her licence out and thrust it in his face. He took it and looked at date of birth. She was twenty-two.

‘Is this some Black Swan shit?’ He regretted swearing immediately. He wanted to take back every profanity he’d ever uttered in his life. He felt like he was tripping but knew he was sober.

She grew desperate. ‘Please, you don’t have to understand. All you need to do is your job. You tattoo people, ink me. Give me my candle and I’ll leave you in peace.’ She took her licence back and pulled out a wad of cash. ‘And obviously, I’m paying.’

The tattooist reluctantly scanned her artwork, took measurements and produced a template. When he started needling ink into her wrist, tears slid down his face and over the guns on his throat. He wiped his face when they started to splash down onto her skin.

‘No.’ She said. ‘This has to happen too. I don’t know why but this is part of it. Hurry up. Keep going.’

Once the picture was finished, he applied glad wrap to the area and sat back, wrecked. He searched his brain to provide the usual post-ink advice but she put a finger to his lips. ‘It’s okay, you already told me how to take care of it. Remember, I dreamt this.’

What we liked:
The first three words hooked us in even before the tutu came through the door. The scene that is set is so utterly juxtaposed that the blinking just describes it perfectly. What follows is a well-drawn (excuse the pun) exchange of two worlds colliding and, as the title seems to hint at, the beginning of something not fully revealed here. If there were a chapter two, we’d want to keep reading, that’s for sure!


SHORTLISTED

A SMALL PRICE TO PAY by Roslyn Keighery

Nobody knows me. I don’t have to look around furtively, like the guy who just entered ahead of me. The door swallows him and amalgamates with the wall again making a solid plane of steel. By the time I arrive, he’s being led away by the host. I look at the menu, even though I already know what I’ll order. The first time I came, I bought The Childhood Experience. I cried the whole time and had trouble concentrating for days afterwards.

The hostess returns.
“Welcome, Ms Maria. What services you liking today?”
“Hugs for 15 minutes today, thanks.”
I tap in my payment. $500.
“You like a man or woman?”
“Who’s on in that department?”
“Miss Jane and Mister Bruce are attending Hugs today, Madam.”
Bruce doesn’t give very good hugs. He has large hands though and does a great job on Face Cupping and Hand Holding, but he’s too lightweight for the hugs I like, so I opt for Jane.

I’m led right past the guy who came in before me. His eyes are closed and a female attendant is stroking the top of his arm with one hand and patting his shoulder with the other. She’ll probably switch sides soon. I study him. He looks athletic, like a sports person. No wonder he’s here. There’s been no humanity in competition sports since the 2030s. Just winning. I notice there’s a candle on the bench, and the simulator cat on his lap. He’s having the Comfort Package.

Jane greets me asks me if I’d like to sit or stand. I say I’d like to stand. She programs the timer and embraces me, but I can’t relax. It’s been four days since I was here last. I’ve been working in my apartment. Four days with no human contact. Not even to talk. Suddenly, a small, strange hiccup escapes me and Jane does something she’s never done before: she puts her hand up to the back of my head and whispers, “It is all okay, Ms Maria. Everything be okay”. I exhale deeply and enjoy the rest of my hug. Jane’d do well working in The Childhood Experience.

As I’m leaving, I try not to look at the man. But he opens his eyes, locks mine, and we stare indulgently at each other. He might be thinking what I’m thinking: we’re both so bloody hard up for human contact that we come here and pay for it. We should save our money and hold each other’s hands instead. Comfort each other. Hug each other. Nurture each other. Pat each other on the back. Cup each other’s faces with our hands. But as much as it thrills me, it terrifies me, so I pull my eyes away and he looks sad as I keep walking.

Jane sees me to the door, presses the button and the automatic British voice bids me farewell: “Thank you for visiting The Touch Café. We look forward to seeing you again soon.”

What we liked:
Even though this presents as a future or alternate reality, this story feels very relatable to our digital present. With no words wasted on back story, we are thrust into this reimagining of a day spa where the concept of natural human on human interaction is so foreign that it has become commoditised. A good example of active storytelling, with particular creativity in the services provided.


SHORTLISTED

GRANDPA by Paige

“What’s up, f#ckers?”

“Dad! We’ve talked about this, you can’t address your grandchildren that way.”

“We didn’t talk about it.”

“Yes we-”

“No, we talked about not calling them motherf#ckers.”

“I need you to keep the profanity to a minimum, they’re-”

“They’ve all got their earphones in! I could say, ‘who wants to help grandpa kill himself’ and none of them would even look up!”

“I do!”

The old man and his daughter start as the little girl runs down the hall.

“Shit.”
“Dad!”

“I’ll help you kill yourself Grandpa!”

The old man shakes his head, “That’s very kind of you, sweetheart, but-”

“When Crystal’s Grandma died last term, she got the day off school. I’d be the first one in my class to have a dead Grandpa.”

The old man pauses, his granddaughter looks at him eagerly.

“Okay, ah- if you wanna help me kiddo then come up to my office.”

The old man takes the stairs slower than usual, his granddaughter bouncing behind him. They stop at the first door on the right.

“Grandpa, offices have computers, this is the bathroom.”

“I do my best thinking on the shitter. We need a plan, you sit there, next to the toilet paper, and brainstorm.”

He sinks down onto the toilet lid, resting his chin in one hand. Silence.

“Grandpa, why do you want to kill yourself?”

“It’s kind of like…you know those fancy candles that your mum buys, with names like Unicorn Crap or whatever?”

“Yeah.”

“Think about those candles like life. Your candle isn’t even lit yet, and it smells great. My candle is so old that it’s just a puddle of melted wax on fire; it’s going to be thrown out soon and I want some say in how that happens. I don’t want to wake up one day in the garbage. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.”

The old man snorts and leans back against the toilet cistern.

“Grandpa, Bambi’s mum gets killed by a hunter.”

“I think we can come up with a less bloody plan.”

“In Frozen Anna’s parents drown.”

“Don’t love that either.”

“In Up, Ellie just falls asleep.”

“Bingo!”

The old man pushes himself up and walks into the hallway, “Alright, I’ll go and lie on my bed, you bring me the pills in the orange bottle from the bathroom cabinet, they’ll take me down big time.”

*

The little girl sticks her head through the banister, “Mum! We did it! Grandpa’s dead!”

The woman run up the stairs and into her father’s bedroom, bending over his prone body, “Oh my God, Dad!”

He doesn’t move. She shakes him by the shoulders.

He cracks an eye, “Shhh! They were breath mints. I don’t wanna ruin her show and tell. I’ll stay at your brother’s until Tuesday.”

“But-”

“Shh!”

“Hey, Mum? Grandpa said life was like a candle. When I tell my class, do you think I should say – “On Sunday my Grandfather’s flame was extinguished forever?”

“That sounds great, honey.”

What we liked:
We probably should have put “language warning” on this month’s selection – and Grandpa sits at the helm of this profanity ship. It’s quite simply a hilariously laugh-out-loud slice of life in this household where you tell it like it is. Well-paced and continuously zagging where other stories would zig make this a funny, acerbic read loaded with sparkling dialogue.


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Callena Rawlings

“…Burn in Hell!”

Father slams his hand down on the pulpit, a violent full stop to a fear-inducing monologue. Philip makes himself as small as he can, shrinking into his mother’s protective armpit. He hangs his head to avoid the pointed gaze of the angry man holding the congregation captive. He presses small fists to his eyes and phosphenes emerge as red flames dancing behind the silhouette of his father. The fear seeps into his lungs and he feels the familiar constriction, starts to gasp and cough. His mother responds, ushering him out of the church, and hurrying them toward their home. He sucks deeply on the puffer and waits for the fear to subside and the oxygen to replace it.

‘I’m not scared.’ Philip thinks to himself later, watching the tiny ribbon of red dance at the top of the slender stick. It stands, held vertically by the firm cardboard box which when pushed closed has magically drawn the match to attention. He is stretched out long on his bedroom floor, the musty orange carpet scratching at his bare legs which welt in response.

The smell of the match strike hangs in the air and Philip can feel the gentle constriction in his lungs. The window is open, making the curtains swing lazily and encouraging the descent of the flame. He tilts his head, trying to understand why the fire and smoke pull in different directions at different speeds. He slowly moves his candle toward the aging flame, watches the communication occur between them, the flame agreeing to clamber onto the white wick. Philip cups his hand around the new flame and rises awkwardly, making his way to his desk to place the candle gently in its holder.

He hears the chatter from the floor, small voices urgent and excited. New friends have been made. A happy little fire now burns in the matchbox. A frantic game of Chinese Whispers grows the flame. Philip moves closer to his fire, his first fire. He feels no fear, is surprised to find it devoid of demons. He cannot see hell in these diminutive flames.

His father’s words rise in the fountain of his mind. “Those who turn from God in their hearts and minds suffer the consequences! In this lifetime they will live in pain, illness and isolation. And in the next they will burn in hell!”

Curious, Philip steps closer to the fire which is starting a conversation with the curtains above. A brief hand-shake and the new friendship takes off. Philip’s giggle is loud in a room full of hushed flames. He reaches his hand out wanting to join the friendly crew connecting in his room. His lungs imitate a tiny fire engine, an almost imperceptible siren of wheeze.

His father’s voice knocks on the door of his mind, startling him. “Phillip. It’s time for bible study.” A beat, as fear enters. The little boy sees the demons now. They rise, licking the ceiling, friendship no longer on their mind.

What we liked:
Another story that announced itself strongly with those first three words. This time, it’s asthmatic Philip who decides to give his much needed oxygen to his new friends, the flames. What plays out in a series of ‘conversations’ is a child’s view of this fiery first and we’re witnessing the beginnings of something that simply cannot end well! Great use of anthropomorphism throughout.


SHORTLISTED

INCONVENIENT BURGLAR by Belinda Oliver

He’d been watching. He’d watched their house for eight days in a row, to get a feel for their timing, their daily routines, their way of life. They left together in the mornings on weekdays, walking hand in hand down the long dirt road to the train station, where they caught the train to the city for work.

On the third day he’d caught the same train as them, even sat opposite them where he pretended to listen to music on his phone, when really he wasn’t. He sat there staring out the window with his headphones in, listening to them talk to another about the day ahead. They were going to be his first. He just knew it. He could feel it.

They caught the 6:03pm train home each night, which saw them get home at 7:12pm. If they stopped at the supermarket on the way home then it was 7:30pm. He wanted to make sure they were home when he broke in, so he’d made his plan for 11:45pm when he was sure they’d be asleep.

He’d come by earlier that afternoon when they were at work to check that the laundry door was still open. It was. He’d shaken his head and laughed to himself as it clicked shut. People were so trusting. Or forgetful. He wasn’t sure which one it was.

The time had come. It was now or never. He put his gloves on and turned the door handle ever so gently. Once inside he switched on his night vision goggles and put his plan into action.

He picked up a purple candle from the coffee table and put it in the oven.

He swapped the cat food tins in the pantry with tins of tuna and vice versa.

He emptied the salt shaker into the kitchen sink and refilled it with sugar.

He tiptoed down the hallway and into their bedroom, crept past their sleeping bodies and into their ensuite, where he collected their toothbrushes and mouthwash. He crept back to the kitchen and placed the toothbrushes in the cutlery basket in the dishwasher.

Next he went to the fridge and took out a bottle of soft drink. It hissed gently as he unscrewed the lid and poured the sugary liquid down the kitchen sink. He refilled the bottle with the mint green mouthwash and placed the bottle back in the fridge.

He wasn’t expecting to be caught. Especially by a cat. When it meowed at him he nearly jumped out of his skin and he knew he had to leave. It was too close. He didn’t know they had a cat. How had he missed that? Going forwards, he knew he’d have to deal with any pets in the first instance. He couldn’t afford any distractions, any disturbances to his plan.

As he locked the laundry door quietly behind him, he grinned to himself. The “Inconvenient Burglar” had struck for the first time. It would most definitely not be his last.

What we liked:
This third-person account grips you from those opening lines, as you can’t help but wonder what sinister conclusion or confrontation this is hurtling towards. With all the deftness of a thriller novel, we have the scene set and then at last, the intrusion. What follows is a bewildering laundry list that more than lives up to the story’s title. Maybe this is the same burglar who steals socks and pens?


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Krista Schade

I was lost.

I battered at the steering wheel in frustration, peering through the fogging windscreen as rain poured down the glass, turning house numbers into melted caricatures of their daylight selves.

I was late, I was lost and I was surely making a terrible first impression on my boyfriend’s family. Boyfriend, I marvelled. The word was delicious on my tongue, as he had been earlier today.

He insisted on facing the assembled masses of his tribe alone to spare me their scrutiny, however I already knew where they lived and planned to surprise them all.
But the weather had turned against me, and was washing the suburban facades into sameness as I drowned in frustration.

By the time I found the house and raced through the downpour to the timber front door I was sodden. Gone was the painstakingly styled hair and I shuddered to think where carefully placed mascara now sat.

I lifted the large brass knocker, smiling at the warm glow through the frosted window panes of the door, before knocking proudly. I may be a sight, but what a story to tell and retell their friends and family in the future. “Like a drowned rat, she was,” I imagined his father recalling foundly. He would probably pat me on the knee as he said it.

A slight, very pretty woman in stylish yoga pants and a fitted tee answered the door.

“Yes?” she asked. “Can I help you?” She peered behind me into the night. “Have you broken down somewhere?”

Her voice was kind, her demeanour caring and her hair – God it was gorgeous! If this was his sister I just knew we would become fast friends.

I laughed. “No,” I said shaking my head and releasing a stream of droplets. “I’m here to see Simon.”

Her look of puzzlement increased, and she called behind her “Si? Can you come here please.”

He looked gorgeous when he popped his head into the hallway laughing.

“I kind of have my hands full sweetheart.” He held aloft a cake covered in chocolate curls, with a circle of dancing candles atop it, but his smile dropped when he saw me.

“Katie? Shit. Fuck. I mean…,” he was uncharacteristically flustered and from somewhere in the next room a child’s voice cried out gleefully.

“Daddy said a BAAAAD word.”

Daddy? Sweetheart?

In an instant I was backing away from the door and into the rain. I stumbled blindly, berating myself with every stumbling step.

How could I have been so stupid? The unexplained absences and the text messages that went unanswered; it all made sense now. As I ran down the slippery footpath the horrible truth of Simon’s deception flashed into my soul as brightly as the lightning that split the sky above me.

I don’t know how long I ran, but eventually I was spent. I blinked away the last tears and peered around me, through the still thundering downpour.

Shit, I thought.

I was lost.

What we liked:
Some lovely rain-soaked descriptions set up this suburban dose of awkward. With just the knock of a door we get to witness the penny drop, as this particular woman (let’s call her Penny) stumbles away from sudden realisation. Nice use of repetition – albeit with different meanings – on the first and last line.


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Victoria Lock

Cantankerous old bitch. Of all the bitch varieties God in his wisdom had realised, she now knew she was of the old and cantankerous type. Marina took a long drag of her cigarette, feeling the smoke swirl down to her lungs.

That her only son should deliver the news of this classification was a wonder: he’d failed every English subject he’d ever taken. She let go through her nostrils. Steam rose from her coffee as sun filtered across the floor. Did he even know what the word meant?

No one tells you what a constant, shape-shifting punishment motherhood is.

“You get less for murder!” her husband used to joke. The sentence for serial murder wouldn’t bear comparison to motherhood. You couldn’t get away from it, even 36 years after the main event.

She and Joe had spent years wondering what they’d done to create the broken thing in their child.

She inhaled again, deeply. The scuff of footsteps and muffled voices floated through the door. They were early.

For half a minute she let the knocking hang in the air, enjoying the uncertainty it stirred in her visitors. Finally with a sigh, she stubbed out her cigarette and opened the door.

Peter was shifting uncomfortably on the doormat with a girl, young looking.

“Well, come in.” Marina shuffled back to the table.

“Mum, meet Carly.” She’d heard his voice take on so many timbres over the years. Today: nervous, shaken. She knew this one. He was going to ask for money again.

“Hi dear. Make yourself comfortable.”

As she filled the kettle she could sense the girl’s discomfort. She was here though wasn’t she? Silently complicit in the coming request.

Marina poured three cups of tea, while something solidified in her gut. This intrusion by the girl into her world was too much. She felt invaded. She sat down with her occupiers.

“Mum, I brought you something.” He pushed a wrinkled plastic bag towards her. “For your birthday, last week.”

It was like they’d never spoken that morning. Did he remember the phone call at all? Had she really raised a son who could curse at his mother like that and show up two hours later with a cheap scented candle, as if nothing had ever happened?

“Thanks love.” It wasn’t even wrapped.

He didn’t look well. Fidgety and pale. “Do you reckon you could lend me some cash?”

Marina looked at the man sitting in front of her. She could no longer see herself, see Joe, in him. She thought about all the ways they had tried to reach him, show him that he was safe and loved. She thought about the years of fighting, the worries, the wondering: did her generosity made her protector or abetter, leading him further down the rabbit hole?

Joe had been right. A line had to be drawn somewhere. She could almost feel his hand on her shoulder as she uttered the words for the first time in her life.

“Son, no.”

What we liked:
Any story that can get away with using the word “cantankerous” is a friend of ours. But this one backs it up with a surprisingly real and heartfelt take on the disappointment that accompanies motherhood. Brilliantly observed, it’s almost claustrophobic in its exchanges, before the somewhat triumphant and long overdue (albeit exhausted) “first” delivered in the final line. Real ‘fly on the wall’ stuff.


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Bernadette Santiago

Sweet and ripe. Like the mango we stole from your neighbour’s yard and ate on the beach, juice dripping down our arms. That is how I remember our summer.

We met by the rockpools, your friends and mine. Strangers aren’t so strange when we’re all sixteen and high on hormones. I noticed you because your hair was long and curly and untameable. I noticed you because your smile was crooked, and your eyes were daring. But most of all, I noticed you because you wore confidence like a cape, and I wanted to steal some of it for myself.

We went to the movies, your friends and mine. You bought me popcorn, and you reached over in the darkness of the theatre and held my hand for the first time. You felt sturdy and sweaty, and I was so nervous that I watched the screen but missed the movie. Now when I smell popcorn I think of butter coated fingertips and your warm hand in mine.

We had lunch together, your friends and mine. We shared fish and chips beneath the tree by the beach, and you pulled me aside before you had to leave. You gave me my first kiss, then you grinned and ran away as if you were a child who stole a lolly from the corner store. Now when I sit beneath that tree I think of chicken salt and triumphant thieves.

We finally had an afternoon alone, without your friends and mine. I snuck you into my room and you declared your love for me. We borrowed my sister’s vanilla scented candle because we decided it would be romantic. Now when I taste vanilla I think of twisted sheets and tangled limbs, and a declaration of love so earnest that it brings a smile to my face even to this day.

We watched the sunset together, your friends and mine. Summer was setting, and it was time to say goodbye. Now when I enjoy the summer breeze I think of my first love and my first loss and all the firsts that happened in between.

I will remember our summer through rockpools and popcorn, fish and chips and candles, and a girl who showed me that I didn’t need to steal capes, because I had one of my own, if only I remembered to put it on.

What we liked:
Beautifully told tale of summer love that drips in descriptive language and achingly-real observations. Whether it was a desire to steal some of that cape of confidence for themself or the way they watched the screen but missed the movie, there is a genuine sense of first love, first loss and – thanks to the “now when I do this, I think of that” repetition – all the firsts that have taken place since. A short, sweet (like a mango) nostalgia fest.


SHORTLISTED

BUCKET LIST by Sharyn Swanepoel

Big deep breaths.

I replay the mantra over and over again as I adjust the fork of my pants. God they’re uncomfortable! I knew I should have gone up a size but they said they were supposed to be firm. Now I’m itching where I don’t want to itch. I look around to see if there’s somewhere I can go to be a bit more discreet. It looks like going back to my car is the only option. Should I just go home instead?
Focus. You can do this. You want to do this!

Do I really want to do this?
Yes.
No.
Yes. I’ve paid the money now, so I might as well.

Plus I have these fancy new shoes. The most expensive shoes I’ve ever owned. By far. The shock when the sales assistant read out the total. Socks, shoes, too tight shorts and a fancy drink thing cost how much?

Now here I am, with all those fancy new things, surrounded by dozens of others who look just like me. Anxious. Excited. Needing to nervous pee. Oh God, I better stop drinking all my water.

More and more bodies arrive, all scantily clad like me. Some look like they’ve been doing this forever. Their stuff looks well worn. Some of them look well worn too.

I’m surprised at how old some of them look. Did they start the same way as me? Seeing that one extra candle added to the cake? Realising those bucket list items were never going to complete themselves?

Looking through that list, written nineteen years ago, on the night of my twenty-first birthday, there was only one thing I could tick off. Get married. I didn’t have the foresight to include get divorced, otherwise I would have had two things to tick off. So much of that list was unobtainable now. Laughably so.

Travel the world. Ha! I’d been to Bali. Does that count?

Get a high-paying job. Well, that never eventuated either, otherwise travel the world would be ticked off too.

Have kids. Nope. Missed that boat too. Not for lack of trying.

Run a marathon. What the hell was I thinking then? What the hell was I thinking now?

The gun goes off and we all merge forward. That finish line is on my mind, keeping me motivated, moving, one foot in front of the other.

Big deep breaths.

What we liked:
With a story that announces itself as ‘Bucket List’ and the “breath-taking” opening it delivers, we’re really not sure where this one could go. And that’s a strength in this format – making us want to read on! Do they really want to do this? Yes. No. Yes. We’re right there inside their head as they contemplate this mystery list item. A well plotted “first”, nice fleeting use of the candle and as the event reveals itself (and many of us may relate to it!), we get a strong ending – the final shuffle forward perhaps a metaphor for life itself?

And speaking of strong endings, let’s finish this bumper collection with some big deep breaths of our own. Well done everyone who entered this month (and if you didn’t – see you next month!).


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