This month on the Furious Fiction show, we asked contestants to conjure a short story out of thin air using the following criteria:
- Each story’s first and last words had to begin with J.
- Each story had to include a game being played.
- Each story had to include the phrase MISS/MISSED THE BOAT.
Out came the Scrabble, Monopoly and Chess boards (no doubt already handy after months of lockdown). Juniper berries mingled with Jacarandas in January, June and July and characters named James, Jane and Joe were suddenly in vogue. Boats were missed literally and figuratively from bathtubs to beaches. And through all the splashy J games, we found our winner. Congrats Martina Trgovcic of NSW, Australia.
Martina may be pocketing the prize, but all who ‘played the game’ this month and entered are winners in our eyes – and we’ve spotlighted a few of them below in our shortlist and longlisted entrants. Enjoy!
JUNE 2020 WINNER
UNTITLED by Martina Trgovcic
Just tell me she’s dead already, my eyes demand. The nurses laugh in the corner and pretend I don’t exist. I squint harder.
The waiting room is oversaturated in kitschy grandeur. It’s headache-inducing. A gold-framed waterfall painting hangs off-centre on the eggplant wall, surrounded by blutacked ‘Heart Wellness’ and ‘Flu Vaccine’ posters. The chandelier is too fluorescent to be charming. Mismatched armchairs that should’ve stayed in the 18th century are scattered about. An ornate fish tank burbles in the corner. The clownfish frown.
I flick through the worn magazines, settling on a 2004 Women’s Weekly with a half-finished crossword at the back. A barbie-pink glitter pen sits wedged between the double-spread. Pre-breakdown Lindsay Lohan stares at me from the corner of the page.
Beside me, twin girls with matching plastic tiaras shriek and giggle. They’re playing a game they call “And Then”, taking turns adding ridiculous plot twists to a made-up story. I wonder where their parents are.
A lightbulb starts to flicker. I tap the pen against Lindsay’s face. The crossword’s all wrong. Whoever started it just scribbled in whatever words fit. ‘Miss the boat’ is definitely not an idiom for ‘don’t give up’. And ‘hoe’ is not the answer to ‘tic-tac-___’. I shut the magazine and daydream of wine.
The twins’ story turns into a shitty Snow White retelling.
“Hey,” I turn. The girls jolt as if a gargoyle has spoken. “You know, Snow had a sister.”
They blink in unison. One’s lips purse. “No, she didn’t.”
I nod vigorously. “A step-sister. Her name was Ash.”
This, for some reason, is a more acceptable answer.
“As you know, Snow was the fairest girl in her kingdom.” I twinkle my fingers as if to conjure the tale to life. The girls tuck closer together. “But you know, when someone is that pretty, they find that they don’t have to be nice to others. And Snow wasn’t.”
One of the girls draws back. “That’s not right.”
I shrug. “Well, of course, you only know Snow’s side of the story.”
The other girl’s owl-eyes widen. “Was Ash the Evil Queen?”
“She was never evil.” I wink. “You see, Ash wasn’t as pretty as Snow, but she was kind. She was chosen to be Queen once their dad died. Snow was so jealous that—”
“She spread rumours?” the skeptical sister says. “To make everyone hate Ash?”
“Exactly.” I bop her button nose. “And because Snow was so pretty, everyone believed her.”
“What did Ash do?”
I sit back. “You tell me. What should Ash do?”
One girl yells, “Carve her heart out!” The other yells, “Give her a poison apple!” Their mouths stretch with delicious malice.
A doctor steps in. “Ashleigh?”
“Your sister’s ready to see you.”
I respond a heartbeat later than I should. “She’s awake?”
The doctor smiles. “Please follow me.”
“Oh.” I stand. “Okay.”
Something tugs at my sleeve. “Good luck,” the twins whisper. They giggle as if we share a private joke, eyes glittering like jewels.
What we loved:
Kicking off with a strong, enigmatic opening line, we’re immediately intrigued and on the hook – yet pulled instead into a well-dressed familiar setting. Here the scene plays out in real time and the narrative voice is strong, introducing us to an anti-hero brought to life through her actions and dialogue. There’s a mastery to writing a short story that can be pictured clearly as a film scene and this one nails it with active language and humour throughout. By the end, we’re as curious as the twins to find out how this dark fairytale may end.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPOTLIGHT by Marc Howard, Vic
Jogging slowly, Brett couldn’t really hear the crowd but he knew they must still be screaming.
When he’d sprinted off the field moments before, they’d been cheering and clapping. He could feel the walls of the tunnel vibrating from the stamping of their feet as he made his way wearily down into the bowels of the stadium.
He paused for a moment to catch his breath, slumping against one of the grey concrete walls. The chill of the cement through his uniform came as blessed relief and he became distinctly aware of the sweat trickling down the small of his back.
He’d performed well tonight, giving his all to try to ignite the team and the sell-out home crowd. They’d responded to his efforts, pushing him to work harder than he had ever done before. Every jump was higher, every sprint faster but his body was paying the price now. His pulse was like the crashing of waves in his temples, his throat parched and his breathing ragged.
For a moment he started to see spots, swimming dizzily in his vision, but then he remembered his breathing mantra.
In through the nose. Hold. Out through the mouth. Control.
His high school coach had taught him the words years ago as he‘d struggled for breath during a particularly difficult training session. A small, gnarled wombat of a man, he had repeated the words over and over to Brett in his voice like broken glass until they were imprinted on his brain. Ever since, whenever he felt fatigue threatening to overwhelm him, he’d repeat his mantra.
It served him well over the years and now, as his head started to swim, he used them to calm the waves and control the insistent tattoo of his pulse.
He had barely regained his composure when a riot of sparkly blue and gold exploded into his blurry field of vision, accompanied by a muffled cacophony of laughter and squeals.
“Great job tonight, Buzz.”
Brett flashed a weak thumbs-up to the gaggle of cheerleaders as they trotted past on their way to the field, their excited chatter echoing hollowly down the passageway.
They have no idea who I am.
He resumed his progress down the tunnel, following the multi-coloured TV and electrical cables that snaked their way along the walls. The sound of his muddy football boots on the concrete floor made some of the members of the ground staff look up.
“Great game, Buzz!”
He nodded acknowledgement but kept walking until he reached his changing room. He smiled bitterly at the poster on his door promoting tonight’s match. His face would never appear as the superstar. He’d missed the boat on that, thanks to his damaged knees.
He sat down with a sigh and slowly took his head off.
He balanced it carefully on a bench. Buzz’s huge bulldog face sat there grinning back at Brett.
“You dreamed of being a star,” Buzz seemed to say to him, “but you’re just a mascot,” it jeered.
What we liked:
This well-titled portrait of a puppet past his prime takes place almost entirely – and intentionally – in the shadows of a stadium tunnel, nicely using its early descriptions to put you right there below the hum of the action. Our protagonist however is more pensive, reflecting in the darkness on his role in his team’s performance as we get an expertly narrated glimpse behind the scenes. For Brett, while several layers of padding and Buzz’s oversized foam head allows him to stay in the game, that same thing ensures he’ll always be separated from true crowd adulation.
JELLY-BABY JENGA by Emma Daniell, Qld
Janet lifted her head and desperately locked eyes with mine, across a circle of cross-legged young women, some dressed in skimpy active-wear, others in maternity clothes, most of whom were giggly and clearly awash with happy maternal hormones.
It was obvious my best friend was having just about as much fun as I was at this bleeding baby shower. Frankly, I’d rather have been home alone, listening to sad Leonard Cohen ballads and painting my toenails with anti-fungal treatment – whether they needed it or not.
I’d been to baby showers before – played all the silly games – but whoever organised this shower had surpassed all cringe-worthy expectations and taken the baby game thing to the next level.
Playing Jenga with jelly babies was some baby-brained woman’s ridiculous idea of fallacious fun and failed physics.
I was tempted at my turn, to scoop up the lot and shove them all in my mouth. At forty-four, if I can’t spit a baby out from one end, I might as well shove as many as possible in my mouth and fire them out like pellets at all the goo-gushing Mums and Mums-to-be. Alas – as the only childless women in the room – Janet and I could merely exchange furtive glances and pretend to smile and coo. Not only did I feel I’d missed the boat, but that if I did actually spit-the-baby-so-to-speak, I’d be totally jinxed.
What we liked:
We’ve all been at parties we didn’t want to be at before, and for Janet and our narrator, this one is just a little too awash with hormones. What unfolds is short, sweet and stacked with snappy descriptions in the vein of Kathy Lette – proof that you don’t need many words to vividly create a scene that plants the reader squarely in the middle of the narrative. Bonus points for the tonally perfect alliteration of ‘fallacious fun and failed physics’!
AWAKE by Carmen Cuskelly, Qld
‘Just treat him normally,’ said the boss.
‘Do not send flowers, cards or casseroles.’
‘It’s what he wants.’
‘Respect his wishes.’
‘He’s received a bad call from the referee, that is all.’
‘He doesn’t want to let the team down.’
‘He’ll be back.’
And he did come back. Almost.
When his eyebrows fell off, people didn’t even blink. They asked how he was settling back in to work, asked after his family. They ignored the shadow growing in his brain. It was easy to miss. Doctors had overlooked it many times.
When three extra holes were added to his belt they said he looked healthy. Tip-top.
‘The specialist opened his head, to put more brains back in,’ they joked.
And he laughed along with them. He was a good sport.
When he began to stare fearfully at his lunch they managed to stomach it for him, careful not to leave any crumbs behind. He chewed gratefully on nothing at all.
After his cheeks deflated like a ball, he found it difficult to muster enough breath to work.
A substitute was found. Someone to shadow him.
Sores made a play for his lip. A co-worker suggested they form a prayer circle. This person was booed. He didn’t want that kind of attention.
After many rounds, the shadow finally caught him by the heels, and he was stretchered off. The game was up.
Shock rippled through them like a Mexican wave.
‘We’ll send flowers, cards and casseroles,’ said the boss.
We should’ve said something, they thought. And they did. To his children. To his wife. To God. Their grief took on a killer instinct, competing for a podium. Nobody wanted to miss the boat.
At the wake they spoke about how alive he had been, now that he wasn’t. But somewhere in the backs of their skulls, something was growing.
They’d watched someone crumple, like an empty kit bag. Not just anybody. One of them.
And they’d helped to hide him in the scrum.
They tried acting normally. They tried running in reverse, but their shadows jackknifed.
What we liked:
While the majority of stories this month dealt with an actual game, this thought-provoking piece explored the social game of positivity that many of us play every day – described like an on field encounter. Here, after a strong opening stanza of directives, each paragraph smoothly transitions through time, documenting a deterioration through powerful use of imagery. With accessible, clear language, unnamed characters and familiar routines and actions, this story could be about anyone and everyone – which is, we sense, part of its plan – as a warning. A powerful final J word cements the piece.
GOD’S GAMES by Chloe Pile, Qld
June rolled around and the cold change brought with it no changes. No tenderness in her chest, no queasy feeling before breakfast, no dull headaches even. She had read so much about all the symptoms she lacked. She knew them all by heart. Sometimes she wondered if she imagined them in her mind. Willing her tiredness from staying up too late to morph into that bone numbing fatigue that a spike in hCG brought. In June she was as barren as she was in May. And April. And March. And all the months that came before that. She was going to miss the boat.
Even over the air conditioner and the closed windows she could hear the kids next door squealing and screaming out in their yard. She knew it would seem creepy if someone saw her when she watched them playing. But it was almost an irresistible urge to just get a glimpse of their funny little games. Today they were playing what looked like Brandy, high pitched protests from the little one pleading to change to something else. She never got a go is what she always said. She never got the big one is what she meant.
Sometimes their laughter would filter across the boundary and other times, like now, it would be torturous to hear the little one’s cries. The big one always picked on the little one. Over and over she kept pegging the ball at her from close range, the little one wailing for it to stop. It took all her might not to storm out there and demand she stop hurting her. Was it wrong to though? Truly, what sort of mother can hear her child crying and ignore it? Not the sort she would be, she knew. Couldn’t she just call out and tell her to cut it out? No. Creepy. It was creepy and she was childless. That childlessness afforded her no right to comment on those who weren’t less in the child department.
Smug. That’s what parents were. Bubbling under her guts was an irrational hatred of them all. None of them did as good a job as she knew she would do. It was so unfair. Why was her second bedroom empty still while the woman next door brought home a baby seemingly every other year? And then ignored them when they cried? And always drove off without the big one fully buckled into her car seat. And the toddler without a hat. And the baby’s toes always uncovered dangling from the pram even on cold days like today.
‘But you mustn’t play God’ is what her therapist told her when she continually pointed out these inequities appealing for some measure of sympathy and/or acknowledgement of her gut-wrenching suffering. No lady, God doesn’t play nice. In God’s games she never got a go. In God’s games she would be just as barren in July.
What we liked:
Presented as a stream of consciousness, this approach works well to convey the mournful longing of the protagonist. As others are bestowed with endless blessings, we see the result of her being forced to wait in the wings all these years and despair turning to bitter disapproval. The inner monologue narrative can be risky, but it has been treated with a careful hand here – paying off with its poignant undertone balancing the vivid details and constant questions. The opening and closing words are also well chosen in this month-by-month context.
PROJECT JAMES by S. Denford, NSW
James was not going to be the love of her life, but Sandy had a soft spot for him nonetheless. It’s true he lacked the charisma and energy of her previous partners but Sandy had learnt early on in life that there were many worse things than living with a kind and dependable, yet boring, man.
They had met at the shelter in March. Sandy was licking her wounds, recovering from a previous relationship, but she’d immediately liked the sound of his voice when he said her name. They’d taken it slow at first – afternoons at the park lying in the sun or, if James was feeling particularly energetic, they might play a game of frisbee.
Occasionally they’d drive to the beach café. James would grab a coffee, Sandy preferred water, then they’d wander along the deserted beach to the headland. The sound of the crashing waves excited Sandy; to her the beach smelt of freedom and tasted of possibility. She loved the novelty of exploring the salty rock pools and feeling the cool, wet sand underfoot. Unfortunately James didn’t share her passion and would wander along silently, lost in his thoughts.
Soon the leaves changed colour, blanketing the grass in the park. James became reluctant to leave the house and they stopped playing frisbee and visiting the beach. Sandy questioned whether she should leave him. Did James actually enjoy her company? It was difficult to tell. He wasn’t an affectionate man, aside from an occasional hug, but he did seem to take comfort in lying with her on the lounge, their warm bodies nestled together.
The only time she saw him really laugh was when he watched those insipid dog videos on the computer. He could spend hours sitting in front of that little screen, grinning and chuckling to himself. So Sandy decided to try to use those tactics to arouse his attention.
Tilting her head engagingly and raising her ears when he spoke to her, elicited little reaction from James, apart from a confused, arched eyebrow. For a moment she considered begging for food, but that was just embarrassing. Finally, swallowing her pride, she decided to go for it by running around in circles attempting to catch her own tail. But it seemed she had missed the boat on learning that particular party trick. Instead of amusing James and bringing them closer together, her trick had back-fired, giving James a smelly mess to clean up after she’d lost her dinner on the lounge room carpet.
No, James may not be the love of her life, but he needed her. She decided she would stay, to lick his hand when he overslept in the morning, to be his frisbee partner and to teach him to love the beach. James had rescued her and now it was her turn to rescue him. She was well-equipped to be his best friend and while he didn’t know it, he would be her Project James.
What we liked:
Flipping the typical owner-pet relationship on its head, this story is cleverly told from Sandy’s perspective throughout and her struggles with whether or not to keep her rescue human. We learn the nature of the relationship fairly early, making it less of a twist and more a gentle turn as the story softly pads instead of walks its way to a hopeful conclusion. There is a lovely sincerity to this piece – warm hearted and relatable without a single line of dialogue.
Congrats to the following longlisted stories this month. It might seem like a long list but it’s also from more than 1500 entries, so you’re definitely on the right track…
THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- UNTITLED by Nikhil Mathew, NSW
- SECOND-HAND WISHES by Salvatore Pesaturo, SA
- UNTITLED by Elizabeth Yarbakhsh, ACT
- UNTITLED by Kacie Errington, USA
- MAP CHANGE by Jackson Ryan, NSW
- BOOM by Hardeep Dhanoa, NSW
- SHOTS IN THE DARK by Lillian Thai, NSW
- PLAYTIME by Nathan Nuzum, Vic
- RIDDLE WRITER by James Piskorz, NSW
- SINGING SANTA by Barb Kelly, Vic
- UNTITLED by Wendy Yung, ACT
- WHAT IS A WOMAN SCORNED? by Jodie Woodward, Qld
- JITTERBUG by Kate Gordon, Tas
- THE SIXTH DAY by Alf Dean, WA
- JACKS by Janeen Samuel, Vic
- CHARACTER 101 by Jane Rowley, NSW
- GO FISH by Hannah Whiteoak, UK
- JESUS HAS AN INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT by Olivia Farag, NSW
- BLADDER VS BLABBER by Charles Duncan, Qld
- GAME OF TRASH by Terry Malone, NSW
- TRAIL OF JEWELS by Dettra Rose, NSW
- JAPAN by Georgina Love, NSW
- UNO! By Keely Fleming, NSW
- BATTLESHIPS by Kelly Sweeney, NZ
- BATTLESHIP by Vicky Symonds, SA
- LAST GAME by Dead Carcosa, USA
- THE PROGRAMMER by Lincoln Devlin, USA
- EVEN THE JELLYFISH by Holly Rae Garcia, USA
- RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE by JJ Andrews, NSW
- JOY by Sarah Swarbrick, NSW
- A SHIT STORY by Thomas Bailey, Vic
- SAFE PLACES by Cindy Mititelu, NSW
- A WARNING by Bailey Green, Vic
- DOUBLE TAP by Liz Walkenhorst, Vic
- TWO TRUTHS, ONE LIE by Toria Wills, UK
- FATE’S GAMBIT by Samuel Smith, Qld
- THE PLAN by Sonya Eberhart, WA
- JELLYFISH by Jo McClelland-Phillips, NSW
- THE BLUFF by Jade Raykovski, Vic
- WAVE by Jack Caulfield, THE NETHERLANDS
- THE TASK by Roslyn Keighery, Vic