For this month’s second Furious Fiction short story competition, we spun our judging chairs around and waited to let the notes you were belting out wash over us – with musically themed stories, 500 words or fewer. For the winner? A recording contrac– oops, no, we mean FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS CASH.
(Find out more about how our monthly Furious Fiction competition works.)
The rules each month are simple enough. We’ll give you some story parameters and you give us words. Here are the things we were after this month:
- The first word had to be MUSIC.
- The story had to feature singing at some point.
- The story had to include an invitation in some way.
Our judges read and re-read the hundreds of stories, compared notes, carried the 4 and divided by the number we first thought of, eventually arriving at this month’s shortlisted stories. And it’s congratulations to Alicia Bakewell, whose story “Ladies Only” was judged this month’s winner. Well done Alicia!
You can check out the winning story below, along with FIVE other shortlisted entries.
LADIES ONLY by Alicia Bakewell
Music helps you remember, wine helps you forget. You take a sip, turn on the radio. She’s still got the same slot, Sunday night lonely heart o’clock. Jazz, on the slow side, ladies only. It doesn’t seem she’s added to her record collection recently. She used to say all the good stuff’s already been made. You take a sip, try to pretend you’re hearing her for the first time. The on-air voice, syrupy and self-assured. Can’t help remembering how quickly it turned to a naggy mezzo-soprano when you came home too late or mentioned another girl. Names roll off her tongue – Billie, Sarah, Nina. Now who’s mentioning other girls then? She always loved them more than she loved you. You take a sip, smile in minor key.
They don’t know her like you do, the other half a dozen listeners. They don’t know that she doesn’t play much jazz at home. They don’t know that she sleeps in an old Patti Smith t-shirt with a hole over the left nipple that you tore with an errant fingernail. They don’t know that she won’t speak in the morning until she’s had two cups of coffee, no milk no sugar. Not a word. They don’t know that she tripped and broke her arm once, as you both ran through the city just before dawn, a couple of drunks singing that song about being hit by a double-decker bus. They don’t know that when it rains, her arm still aches. You take a sip, consider covering the mouthpiece with a handkerchief and requesting some Alice Coltrane.
She says there’s time for one more request. An invitation, a tease. You take a sip. She wants to hear from you. You take a sip. She doesn’t want to hear from you. It’s the daisy game in a glass. She loves you not, of course. Music, remembering, wine, forgetting. Tears, and you always expect them to be Cabernet coloured. Your hand inches toward the phone and you knock the bottle, just as Alice starts to play. Damn that sixth sense that doesn’t become null and void when the marriage does. Now the tears are Cabernet. You drag your fingers through them, paint a little tragedy on the tiles.
The wine you want to remember, the music you want to forget, because the music is her and she is the music and it’s so quiet in here now you’ve turned the radio off. It would take her about an hour to gather up her records, exchange a few words with the country and western fella on the next show, walk to her car in the dark, hit the back roads, come over here and tuck you in. You kiss the air, kiss her goodnight.
What we loved:
This slice-of-life read authentic from the first sentence – with a strong turn of phrase and descriptive style that painted such a vivid picture of love and loss. It took us down the spiral of alcohol, heartache and late-night radio – a kind of ‘halfway house’ for feelings that aren’t quite ready to let go. We flew through 450+ words in no time thanks to tight, purposeful writing.
THE BALLERINA IN THE BOX by M.T. Ellis
Music gently chimed from the little wooden box on the windowsill. The ballerina's tulle skirt sat perfectly horizontal as she spun in a wobbly circle.
I picked up the invitation and read it for the millionth time. My fingers shook with excitement as I placed it back in the envelope. She's gonna love it.
The ballerina continued to dance in time with the key turning in the back of the box. I liked the way the tiny plastic doll did what was expected of her.
I leaned the envelope against the pink music box. Gold curls embossed the edge of the white paper. A single word, Sarah, was printed in black ink.
Each stroke of the calligraphy took me an age to master. I had practised on scrap paper before finally etching the words carefully onto the envelope. I had watched the ink seep slowly into the fibres of the paper.
Butterflies tingled at my insides as I thought of Sarah opening the envelope. I envisioned her blue eyes starting to glisten with the hint of a tear. I imagined her clutching the invitation to her chest as she declared that she'd love to accompany me.
The tiny ballerina's hands reached up towards the sunlight that bathed her through the window. I heard a door downstairs open. Sarah's home.
I could hear Sarah singing to herself as she climbed the stairs towards me. The ballerina slowed and the music waned; every beat seemed to take longer. I quickly turned the key and the ballerina sprang back to life. Everything was perfect again.
Sarah's singing turned into a scream as she opened the door. She stared directly at me. “What are you doing here?” Her soft features had morphed into that of a terrified rabbit who'd just encountered a fox. “You know I've taken out a restraining order.”
I slammed the music box shut, trapping the ballerina inside.
What we liked:
This drew us in and made us cheer for this devoted calligrapher – but dropping a few clues along the way (such as the helplessness of that spinning doll). Ultimately it had us holding our breath in anticipation of what turned out to be a cold slap in the face. Sometimes things aren’t always what they seem, and we were hooked right up until the ‘restrained’ ending!
FOR THE RECORD by Eleanor Ng
Music is a shapeshifter.
Our friendship is faint; it is fragile, and it is flimsy, and it is flourishing into something that we can no longer control. It is in the way that we speak, and the way that we laugh, and the way that everything around us diminishes into a growing frequency of desire; you have a way of taking me higher.
Music is a time traveller.
There are years between the times that we would meet again. From a written distance, to a quiet fading, to a guileless glance, to a hesitant greeting, to our inhibitions fleeting into intense chemistry that renders the smoothest release of rhapsody; I fall all over again. Each reunion is an elision formed by a delicate composition of love, of longing, of despair in wanting the wrong from right, the right from wanting: this is our requiem.
Music is an invitation.
Take this pill, you say to me. Take this pill, and take my hand; I will remain right here where we once began. There was no rhyme or reason to cause admittance of the rising iniquity on my part. But I take it anyway. It starts off simple; a gradual, calming transition of subdued illusions that depart themselves into a swell of intentions that would allow us to succumb to a sweet disposition of words, of rhythm, of lust in a seamlessly pitched algorithm.
Music is submission.
The shift in incline from verse to suggestion brings us into a common state of surrender. You touch, and you whisper, and you sigh, and you quiver against the sound of my voice and a sliver of hope that I am yours to keep, that I am yours to hold. I graze my lips against the promises that you utter, imploringly singing our sins into place, barely touching the surface of what we could be, what we so desperately wanted to be. God, your lips feel good. The progression of notes punctuates your silent pleading, like a broken record in haunting transgression. There is no need for a sentence; there is merely a word stuck on repeat:
But it is not enough. A word is never enough when the rest of the song belongs to another. The recurring refrain of lyrics unspoken and chances stolen will always be where they are meant to be, in a chorus of designed tragedy. You push me away. A confession between the mind and mention, the heart and rhythm, the possibilities that forge incisions into my soul, ripping me apart until everything I have of you becomes remnants of the lost and cold. I am as fragmented as you are insignificant. I am the sound of nothing in your voice of deceit.
You are deafening,
and I am mute.
What we liked:
Music is many things to many people, and this story managed to capture that in an aptly musical way. While some other entries simply defined music, this also wove a story – with an enjoyable rhythm and confident style throughout. We also liked that the verse, chorus and bridge structure seemed to resemble a song.
THE HITCHHIKER by Martin Lindsay
Music filled the car, thankfully ending the silence. Lonesome guitars twanged in crackly AM radio fidelity.
“So, do you often pick up hitchhikers?”
“No, never,” said the driver, his first words since his awkward invitation of a lift. Another conversational abyss passed before he spoke further. “Do you often hitchhike?”
“No,” Jake replied. “Well, who does these days? Ted Bundy sort of ruined it for everyone.” He stopped short. It wasn’t really the topic for late night country highway driving. “Just backpacking,” he continued. “Misjudged the distance between towns.”
The driver continued staring ahead, sitting bolt-straight, hands tight upon the wheel. That couldn’t be comfortable.
“Thanks for picking me up,” Jake said as the song wound towards its melancholy conclusion. “Not many would nowadays.”
“No,” the driver said. “I mean, you hear the stories,” he added, still staring ahead. “Of drivers picking up hitchhikers, then… things happening.”
“Attacks. Robbery. …And worse.”
Jake swallowed. No it really wasn’t the topic for late night country highway driving. He couldn’t help a glance at his passenger door, checking it had an inside handle. After all, you hear the stories.
The radio station announced a request: Mack the Knife began weaving its gruesome tale.
Had the driver activated the central locking when they’d set off? Jake sat, now wondering just what that occasional clank from the back seat actually was. He’d told no one where he was going – no one to miss him if he never arrived.
Jake slid a hand slowly down his rucksack, wedged between his legs. A side pocket. He reached in for a potential weapon, then froze.
Had the driver noticed the movement? His knuckles had whitened on the steering wheel. Preparing to strike?
Jake’s searching fingers found something. Shit. He was about to find how sturdy his all-purpose plastic camping spoon could be.
The car decelerated. The driver’s breathing – sharp, shallow. Tensing for action.
Jake whipped out the spoon.
“Please don’t hurt me!” they pleaded in unison. The driver had tears in his eyes.
“What? No. Of course not.” Jake lowered the spoon in relief. “I was more terrified of you.”
Colour returning to faces as they chuckled at conclusions leapt to.
Jake settled back, nerves still aflutter.
The driver reached forward and changed radio stations. A bright pop song bounced out. “I love this one!” Hands tapping the wheel, he began singing along, only partially in tune.
“Okay…” Jake thought.
“You’re not singing,” the driver said, looking over.
Jake smiled and shook his head.
“You’re not singing,” the driver repeated.
Jake became aware that it wasn’t a question.
“The road. You’re not watching-…”
“You’re not singing!”
Mouth drying, Jake made faltering attempts to sing along, increasing in volume until the driver finally returned attention to the road.
The song drew to a close. The driver switched off the radio. Jake checked his door handle. Locked. Centrally.
“You’re not singing,” the driver said.
“You’re not singing!”
Jake could hold a tune, but for how long?
What we liked:
Dialogue can be tricky, but this did it particularly well – driving the story (literally!) through a realistic interplay that kept us interested like a long tennis rally. The mix of humour and foreboding was successful in careening us towards an ending that caught us off guard.
BLACK DUFFLE BAG by Hannah Roux
Music is playing from the car radio and the street is empty and the singer is singing a love-song (or is it a break-up song?) and you think about how many marriages that rock star had (was it four or five?) and whether or not they had children and about her boyfriends (the ones she didn’t marry) and how many there must have been (dozens and dozens coming in and out of the house at odd hours) and you watch the rain pounding onto the windscreen and the sheets of water turn the gums which line the street into grey-green smears on the glass. You think about how he invited you to dinner and it was a smart casual affair: jeans, a nice shirt, a Japanese restaurant, lip gloss, earrings, trying not to snort the Wasabi up your nose and looking at him with your eyes streaming and he asked about your parents, and you told the truth. Separated, for a few years now. You smiled to make it nothing – it was nothing – and you smiled to say ‘I’m loyal, not like them, I’m not a basket-case like them. Ask me out again, please ask me again’ and at the end of the evening you smiled, you’d had a good time. You said so. So did he.
You rest your head against the steering wheel and underneath your skull the music pounds, the whole plastic covering of the car vibrating and trembling with it, and it’s a singer singing a break-up song (or is it a love-song?) and you turn up the volume to sing along. You can sing a love song and hear a love song and without bursting into tears, and you can go on a date and not think of them, and you can sing about love and you can smile. Your life is not their life. You can wonder – will we go out again? And will I see him old? And will our children have children? You can think all that, and never think of them, not once.
You stare at the rain on the window and you don’t think about the months that they sat each night on opposite ends of the sofa, hardly slept, slept some nights one on the sofa, one in bed, and the squabbling and the voices stiff with politeness, and the absence of dad on Christmas day and the words ‘your mother’ and ‘your father’ spoken like ‘infestation of fleas’ (as though they were no more now to each other than the second-degree relation – ‘he’s my daughter’s father’) and you don’t think about the hours on the train going back and forth with a black duffel bag filled with schoolbooks and no music playing.
The track ends. You open an umbrella, and take the black duffel bag from the seat next to you. The bag is heavy and the straps bite into your shoulders and you heave it up and plod slowly out into the rain.
What we liked:
A clever use of the 2nd person narration threw us immediately into the story – giving an instant and relatable stream of consciousness, punctuated with parentheses of occasional clarity. It’s hard to turn away – and the writing made us want to see where this one would go.
MIXTAPE by Phoebe Hogarth
Music makes me. Its warm orchestral melodies fill my heart. Sweet voices sing through my veins. Music is a constant in my cinematic existence.
I am the sum of the songs I have loved. Music has been in every first kiss, first date, break-up and anniversary; like a loyal friend, beside me through every memorable moment.
I have slow-danced with boys I thought I'd be with forever, and cried into my pillow after they dramatically declared we weren't meant for each other. I sang drunken karaoke with my girlfriends on holiday, raucous and improper. I met a man under strings of fairy lights and felt as though my world had changed forever. And I sat alone in our apartment drinking wine to my own solemn song after he left me.
Music can bring a moment so vividly to mind. R&B transports me to Vivian Harding's sweet 16th, kissing Tim Abrahams in the garage while a love song buzzed from the tinny CD player. It was my first kiss, and for the month that followed I was obsessed with Alicia Keys. When I hear rap music, I am in my Year 12 boyfriend's flashy sports car, with Kanye and Jay-Z blaring. I never liked rap, but to this day it reminds me of how nice he smelled whenever I was near him.
When I was twenty-three, I locked eyes with a handsome man while Kings of Leon soared through the speakers. That became our favourite story to tell, particularly at our engagement party. Soon after, he left me a sombre note on our kitchen table, and I never listened to Kings of Leon again.
It's six o'clock on a summer evening and my skin is humming. I'm cleaning out the apartment and starting anew. He collected his things yesterday when I was not here, and now everything else will go to the Salvation Army. The only thing I decide to keep is a wedding invitation we had mocked up in September. I place it delicately onto the coffee table and gaze at it for a minute. Then I pick it up and toss it into the bin with resolve. My brain has been a broken record, stuck on the same miserable moment. I will not replay it any longer.
The music you hear now is heady and warm like a strongly brewed green tea. It is a song you have not heard before. Full of emotion and somehow, full of comfort. It is like listening to all the words you have never been able to say. A montage of your most private thoughts flowing out in one sweet, strong melody. The music sets something off within you, something that soars, and you see things clearer than you have in a long time. That music is yours to keep, and nobody else's. It shines like copper in a beam of sun, and you feel brighter too. Hold onto that feeling, and don't let it go. Sing at the top of your lungs.
What we liked:
We liked the simple, honest insights and relatable experiences – a gentle celebration of music and memories, with an uplifting resolution. Glazed thick in nostalgia, these moments were random but never generic – specific flash points of memory, connected out of sequence and jumping here and there like neurons firing.
Think you could have done better?
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