It’s time to announce the winning story and shortlist for June’s Furious Fiction! This month, we did something quite different from previous months. A picture prompt. (The image of the dinner table above.)
There was just ONE criteria this month:
- Your story had to begin with the scene that you see in the picture.
- We suggested thinking about your story like a short film and that image being the “opening frame” that the viewer sees.
- And of course, as usual, the maximum word limit was 500 words.
We received hundreds of entries – and in the judging it became very clear that rather than using the image as a launch pad for any number of things, it may have served as a creative ball and chain for many entrants. Remember – this scene was simply how the story had to BEGIN. Beyond that, you didn’t have to give us a dinner party at all. Or that room. Or that woman.
That’s not to say that a story which dealt with a dinner party was ‘wrong’ – it was just harder to be original in that space. And it is interesting to note that many of the shortlisted stories stood out because they didn’t let the image lock them into a particular type of narrative.
Congratulations to Jacqueline Trott of NSW, whose story was judged this month’s winner. She pockets $500 and who knows, she might have a dinner party for a dozen guests to celebrate! You can read her winning story below, along with this month’s FOUR other shortlisted entries.
JASMINE AND MICKEY by Jacqueline Trott
It smelt good. It smelt really good. Jasmine kept her face hidden in the shadows, watching the light dance off the expensive glassware. It was a full table setting, with different sets of cutlery and candles. A woman dressed in immaculate black adjusted items ever so slightly, a half turn of a martini glass here, a re-creased serviette there. But it was the smell that kept Jasmine’s face glued to the window pane. Burgundy Avenue was her favourite route to take on her way home, simply to look at the houses and daydream. She would peek through windows to try to see signs of life. Were they really alive, in all their shininess and crispness? If Jasmine didn’t look through these windows, she would have guessed that these kinds of people only existed on TV.
Jasmine adjusted the bread roll hidden down her sweater. Each day she tried to shoplift her dinner in a different location to reduce her chances of being caught. Mickey had taught her that. She never felt bad toting stolen food back to the share house when she walked down Burgundy Avenue. “Its our right to keep the score even!” Mickey would say. Jasmine didn’t really know what he meant, but she never felt ashamed looking into the Burgundy Avenue houses. She had never even sat at a dining table. As a kid, Jasmine’s mum didn’t always come home and all the kids would go hungry. They were always hungry, at school and at home. When her Mum did show up, Jasmine and her siblings begged for food, only to be told “Stop your whining!” Jasmine learned never to complain, but she promised herself that she would grow up one day to be someone who always had dinner.
Jasmine pulled herself away from the smell of garlic and cream and wine oozing through the edges of the window panes. She pulled her thoughts from the families that lived in these houses. How they ate. How their children were tucked in at night, safe from harm. Jasmine at 27 years old still never complained about anything. She lived in an open house with Mickey where they welcomed strangers who needed a bed for the night. It was usually a dirty mattress on the floor without any sheets, but it was better than the street where they had all been before. Some of the addicts that come in to shoot up, they didn’t even know how to use a toilet. Or they didn’t care. But Jasmine and Mickey never judged. Crack houses had different rules.
The squatters would drink booze and sing off-key. They sometimes danced half naked on the roof. Jasmine and Mickey made sure they hugged every single person as family. “We make our own family Jaz,” Mickey would say almost every night. It was true. It wasn't perfect and didn't look like Burgundy Avenue, but Jasmine and Mickey were alive and they knew it… every hour of every day.
What we loved:
Four very purposeful and chunky paragraphs brought us some wonderfully descriptive vignettes that really made us feel like we too were on the outside looking in. While this wasn’t the only story to use this device, it was the way that it built such a rich story out of things that we couldn’t see in the picture, that resonated with us. The story was equal parts all about the image and nothing to do with the image, skating this line with delicate precision.
SUN AND MOON by Alison Woodhouse
You tell yourself you’re happy. You tell yourself if you say it enough, it will be true. You tell yourself to make an effort and the silverware shimmers from all your polishing and the glasses gleam. Your dinner table looks like a picture from an interiors magazine.
You tell yourself not to mind that your husband won’t notice, or comment on your new hairstyle or your black silk blouse. Black because you still miss your mother but you know not to keep talking about her.
You remind yourself that this moment, when your husband is getting changed and your children are in bed, is just for you. You’ve got everything looking perfect and then the guests will come and it will all be spoilt. You light the tall white candles and say a prayer, even though you stopped believing years ago.
You fill the jugs with water and check on the food. The melon is diced and decorated with mint, the coq au vin is ready. You pour another glass of wine and tell yourself you’ve got it under control.
You try hard to be interesting. You’re the only one around the table who doesn’t leave the house to work. You make sure you smile when the man next to you makes a vulgar joke and you say yes when he offers you more wine. You’re impressed with how steady your hand is as you lift your glass.
You tell yourself these friends of his are your friends too. You tell yourself not to yawn. You excuse yourself to go and check on the children but you don’t go and check on the children. You take a bottle of wine from the kitchen and go into the garden. You go right to the bottom of the garden, by the river, where it’s dark and mossy under the willows and you look back at your house, blazing with light, and remind yourself this is what you always wanted.
You fall asleep out there on the lawn and don’t hear your husband calling.
You dream you're a child again and the cook takes you and your brother by the hand and shows you the pudding she’s made for your parents’ dinner party. A little pink house with white snow on the roof and green windows and a brown door and the handle is a nut. Your brother wanted to touch it but the cook wouldn’t let him then all the grown ups made such a mess of the beautiful dinner table and your brother cried and daddy was angry so you just took the little brown nut and popped it in your mouth.
You wake up and it’s very dark and you can’t think where you are but you wish you saw more of your brother.
You don’t want to go back inside. There's something small and hard stuck in your throat and you think it’s going to choke you.
What we liked:
The choice to use second person voice narration throughout is a bold one – and one that gives a welcome repetition and unique style to the piece. Yes, there is a dinner party, but it is merely a background player to the internal monologue and trip down memory lane that unfolds. A joy to read!
(UNTITLED) by Belinda Grant
“This next display is called ‘The Dinner Party’”.
The scene was elegant but homely. A white square table. Candlesticks and flowers. Napkins and cutlery. The water jugs looked like fat silver penguins, widening their mouths for fish.
It was ruled over by a single figure, dressed to host, her wax hand frozen on the lip of a butter dish. Preparing for guests that would never arrive.
A school group pressed up against the barrier chain, jostling for position. I hobbled to a spot behind the shortest boy.
The museum-guide wrinkled her nose at the chaos. She was my least favourite, all dates and details, and little flair or curiosity.
I tried to imagine it was real, that the bare centre would soon be filled with bread baskets and a few quality reds. For a moment I could smell the tannin.
“While dinners-parties were a staple throughout the 20th and very early 21st century, this setting has been recreated from a specific era. Notice the low hanging lights, the asymmetrical white plates. The different coloured chairs. Can anyone guess the decade this is from?”
Fifteen school kids stopped jostling and looked at her blankly.
After an awkward minute she continued.
“This was put together based on the cover feature of the 2018 summer edition of the “Beautiful Life” magazine. Each plate has been carefully hand-crafted out of real china to reflect the exact settings of the time.”
Lettie, you place the knife into the left prong of the fork like this. Perfect. Now put your hands onto your lap. That signals to the host that you are done with this course.
“What kind of dinner party to do you think it is?”
Even the nerdiest kids weren’t paying attention, so I put up my hand.
Grumpy-Guide raised her eyebrows. “I was asking the kids, Charlotte.”
Giggles reverberated around my elbows, but I was too old to care for the opinions of snotty kids.
“It is too formal for a family meal. It would probably have been a gathering of work colleagues, or perhaps relatives for a special occasion.”
“What did they eat back then?” the supervising teacher asked, nodding with feigned interest.
I didn’t listen to the answer. I closed my eyes and remembered. Arancini balls, the mozzarella stringing from hand to mouth. The crunch of a duck-fat roasted potato. Individual ramekins of bread-and-butter-pudding, full of fat sultanas and shining with apricot glaze. My brother and I laughing at Grandma as she used her cane to navigate the kitchen she insisted on maintaining. At her old-fashioned ways.
A security guard at the back mumbled to his friend.
“That’s her. The one with the cane. Here every week. Weirdo.”
It is a dying art Lettie. It seems strange to you, but this is something we can’t lose. Friends and family, gathering together. Showing love with our food and our time. If your generation doesn’t learn, it will all be lost.
“Follow me to our next exhibit, titled “Family story-time.’”
What we liked:
A wonderful example in taking a scene and creating an entirely different world for it to exist in! We really enjoyed the inventiveness of the location for this story and the various layers that build to a reveal of the narrating character. It balances the many threads well, tinged with nostalgia and tannins.
5 TO 8 by Jackie Zonneveld
Mrs. Thompson came to check on Mrs. Schmitt arranging flowers on the table. She thought that she should really check on how dinner was going, but she was pressed for time. Mrs. Thompson looked down to her wrist, but her watch wasn’t there.
“What time is it Mrs. Schmitt?” She asked anxiously.
“5 to 8 Mrs. Thompson.”
“I better get ready, they will be here soon.”
Mrs. Thompson scurried down the corridor to her room. She found her makeup case, put on her lipstick and combed her hair. She couldn’t remember the last time the whole family had been together. A birthday perhaps, or maybe there was a funeral.
Time must have been marching on. Mrs. Thompson returned to the dining room. She saw Mrs. Schmitt was now rearranging the cutlery.
“Maybe it was a good idea you took the flowers away. Allergies can get bad at this time of year.” Mrs. Schmitt just smiled and nodded.
“Do you think cook has finished yet? My nose is a bit stuffy and I can’t smell much right now. I do hope she will be finished in time.” She looked down to her watch and realised she still hadn’t put it on.
“What time is it Mrs. Schmitt?”
“5 to 8 Mrs. Thompson.”
“Not long then. I better get my watch.” She lifted her fingers to her ears and rubbed her lobes.
“Oh, My earrings. I feel naked without my pearl earrings. Mr. Thompson bought them for our anniversary you know.”
With that, she scurried back down the corridor to her room.
After several minutes searching, she found her earrings and put them on. Now she felt right, if only she could find her watch. She wandered up the corridor back to the dining room. Looking over the table, she could see that Mrs. Schmitt must have been changing the plates.
“Is Mr. Thompson home yet? We can’t sit down to dinner until he is here. Can you tell the children to hurry up and come down?” She looked around the room. There was something else, but she couldn’t remember right now.
“What time is it Mrs. Schmitt?”
“5 to 8 Mrs. Thompson.”
Mrs. Jones came shuffling down the corridor in her slippers and gown and parked her walker near the TV. Mrs. Thompson went and sat next to her and they chatted about the Betty Davis movie that was on and whether or not she was a better actress then Joan Crawford.
“Would you ladies like to go to bed now?” asked Nurse Schmitt.
Mrs. Thompson looked over at the clean and cleared dining table.
“What time is it?” asked Mrs. Thompson.
“It’s about 10:30.”
Mrs. Thompson regarded that fact for a moment. “What did we have for dinner?”
“Apricot Chicken and steamed vegetables. “
“Ah yes, that used to be one of Mr. Thompson’s favorites.” She smiled at the memory, and headed off to bed.
What we liked:
Ah, the dinner party that never was. Or was it? Confusion and ultimate sadness reigns in this well crafted evening tale, told in such a way that we too are bewildered much like poor Mrs Thompson. The repetition of names in the dialogue is normally an issue, but here it simply forms part of the dizzying spiral of a mind filled with blurred memories.
WINDOW by Julie Stevens
She’s there again. The department store window glowed in the shopping mall in the dark night of the city. She’d just taken down the window dressing curtain to reveal the new display to the world. It was a tasteful home décor set, a beautiful dinner party table using just the right amount of worn mismatched furniture within a New York loft space to give it that urban edge, so on trend this season.
He watched her add the last touches, making sure everything was in place. He could tell she was lost in her work, wanting it to be perfect and beautiful.
He leant against the shopping trolley full of his kit and sleeping bag and scratched his beard. He’d had a shower that morning at the shelter but couldn’t afford another night there. Tonight he would find a place between the tourist information kiosk and the rows of public seats to bed down on, lying on the bricks and tiles of the mall floor. He liked it there, still close enough to the long façade of the huge store to see what was going on, see the lights from the displays, the chic mannequins, the precious single bottle of perfume alone on a pedestal in its very own window. Plus her, setting up her table. She always calmed him down, looking so peaceful, intent on her arranging, dressed so well.
He knew what she looked like though at other times, when she was two or three people ahead of him in the soup kitchen’s queue. He also knew that she came to work at the department store in her earrings and corporate suit from the tent city. He knew she had only a hazy memory of setting a dining table in her own house, a vision from a long, long time ago.
She finished her work just then, gave the table one last look. She stood by the side exit door ready to leave the window space, one hand at the light switch. She looked out the window and caught his eye. She flicked the light off.
What we liked:
A compact nugget of a story that skilfully and mischievously subverts your expectations of what this scene is – no longer a matriarch in her family home, but a shop worker ending her shift. We discover we’re looking at a shop window display and that the woman has a very different life outside of work hours. A clever, efficiently delivered lesson in “all is not what it seems”.
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