Attention shoppers – it’s time to announce the winning story and shortlist for November’s Furious Fiction! This month’s criteria were:
- The story had to take place at a supermarket.
- The story's first sentence had to contain just two words.
- The story had to include something breaking.
When you have a challenge set in such an everyday setting as a supermarket, it’s important to be as original as possible. If you’re going to have a clean up in aisle 4, make sure it’s something interesting! As for breaking, we had breaking hearts, breaking water, breaking news and even breaking wind – but the most common were broken jars. (So many pasta sauce, jam or olive jars!)
Well done to all who entered and take a look below at the entries that we thought filled the trolley just that little bit higher in this supermarket sweep of storytelling… This month, humour was used to great effect and each shortlisted story had a wonderfully visual feel to it.
Congratulations to Christopher Morgan of Victoria, whose story was judged this month’s winner. Christopher can collect his $500 from the service desk or take a number at the deli counter… and you can read that winning story below, along with SIX other shortlisted stories.
HANDS UP by Christopher Morgan
“Hands Up! This is a robbery.”
“Are you sure?”
“What do you mean am I sure? Of course I’m sure. This is what I do for a living. I’m the Supermarket Robber. You’ve probably read about me.”
“Yes, I have read about you. My husband shows me the articles every time you rob somewhere. I’m sorry. I didn’t recognise you. Your identikit picture makes you look so much more…desperate.”
“Yes, I know. One of the failings of the job. You have to go with what they give you. They make me look worse than I am.”
The checkout woman looks at the robber.
“I’m sorry. I’m holding you up. You’re a busy man. Probably a lot of robbing to do. One thing though. You’ve come into a supermarket that is card only.”
“Really? No cash?”
The robber sighs.
“What’s happening to our community? It’s putting me out of business. And I don’t hurt anybody. I don’t scare anybody. Have I pointed a gun at you?”
“No. You haven’t. I don’t even know if you’ve got a gun.”
“Well I do. It’s not much of a gun, but it does the job.”
He pulls a revolver from his jacket.
“That’s all you need. My husband was a plumber. Before he retired. His tools were old and…sad. But they tightened up the pipes and bolts just as well as the new ones.”
“Now, let me see what we can do here. We’ve got no money…let me see…have you done your week’s shopping?”
“No, not yet. I do it on Thursdays when the specials appear.”
“Yep. One girl. Twelve years old. Good girl. Angry at me all the time. Doing well at school. Thinks she knows everything…”
“That’s right. You wait though. It’s not over yet.”
The robber turns and looks at the darkness outside.
“Why are you working this late shift? Surely, you’re a senior? Why aren’t you at home?”
“Husband snores. Make more money doing this shift. I like the quiet. I get to talk to people.”
“Well, that makes sense, I suppose. Still, it would be safer to be at home at this hour.”
“It would take a pretty tough thug to take me on. I’ve raised three children. Now why don’t you go and do your shopping. I’ll just stay here…unless you want me to help?”
“If you don’t mind, I would like your help. We can continue talking. I don’t have much to get.”
She moves away and knocks a cup that she had been drinking from. They both lunge for it, but it falls off the counter and smashes on the floor. Neither person says anything. They just look at each other with the look of the parent who is used to the business of things unexpectedly falling.
“Do you have bags?”
“I left them in the car. I’ll go and get them. Hold this for me.”
He hands her the gun.
What we loved:
This wasn’t the only supermarket robbery story this month, but it was one of the quirkiest stories we read. From the moment the robber has to convince the checkout woman he is the Supermarket Robber, we were hooked – with a tightly written realistic back-and-forth exchange that is pure joy to read. By subverting this normally angst-filled situation and having fun with it, this story comes up gold. A great mic-drop (gun drop?) ending too!
SOUP by Nikky Lee
The cashier blinked. “Excuse me, ma'am?”
“Newt’s tongue, lad. I’m not talking in riddles. Do you have it?”
“Um, er… I don’t think so.”
“Then why does your sign out the front say ‘Ingredients for Life’?”
“Because we’re a grocery store. We sell vegetables, fruit, organic produce, some vegan––”
“So, no newt’s tongue?”
“Not as far as I know, ma'am.”
“Well! That’s a bit of misleading advertising, isn’t it? You don’t know how long I’ve waited for a store like this? Three hundred and twenty-eight years.” Her bony finger prodded the counter with each word. “And now you tell me it’s a lie?”
“Sorry to disappoint, ma'am.” The cashier brightened. “Perhaps I can find you a substitute. What are you cooking?”
“An elixir of life. It’s a very precise recipe. You can’t go swapping the ingredients higgledy-piggledy.” She sighed and scanned her list. “At least tell me you have toe of frog.”
“Er, we have pig’s feet, you know, for soups.”
“Soup? Soup! This recipe is far more than soup. Look, is your father around? Mother? Anyone who might know what I’m on about?”
“There’s my manager. Do you mind waiting while I call her?”
“Call? Are you going to yodel her over? Go run and fetch her!”
Five minutes later.
“Hello miss, mrs …”
“Winifred. I’m Cathy, how can I help?”
“You’re the young man’s guardian?”
“…I guess you could say that. Bradley tells me you can’t find ingredients for a soup?”
“An elixir.” She flourished her shopping list. “I need newt’s tongue and toe of frog. Your store claims to have the ingredients for life, yet it seems rather lacking.”
“To be fair, those ingredients sound like they are hard to come by.”
“Of course they are! Witching was all the rage in the 1690s. All those imposters drained the supply, I had to sleep in the netherworld for three hundred years wait for the newt and frog populations to recover.”
“Oh, well I have some bad news about that.” At Winifred's pause, Cathy went on. “I’m not sure about newt’s, but many frog species are endangered. You won’t find–toe of frog was it– anywhere this side of 1700.”
“You’re saying I can’t get them from any store? Are you sure?”
“I’m studying environmental science, so, yes.”
“But, the elixir! My life’s work…” Winifred’s lip trembled. The list shook in her gnarled fingers. “All I wanted was to get rid of these wrinkles. Do you know what it’s like to be born with wrinkles?” A glance at Cathy’s face. “No, I don’t suppose you do. Clear skin was my dream… and it’s broken! Over. Snuffed out.”
“You know you can get a cream for wrinkles, right? My mum uses it. Works a treat.”
Winifred’s head popped up. “You can?! Where?”
“At the pharmacy just across the street.”
“Oh dark spirits bless you child, bless you!”
“Er, perhaps just a ‘thank you’ will do.”
What we liked:
Another example of humour used to great effect – with an unusual request laid over the top of this ordinary environment to give us this newt-out-of-water encounter. Again, excellent, believable dialogue makes this fun to read. (For the record, winning stories don’t always have to make us laugh – but these first two examples stood out this month for crafting it particularly well.) We hope the witch used ‘spell’ check!
PICKLE JUICE: A LOVE STORY by Terry Belleville
It burns. Pickle juice in an open wound.
Clifford had packed pickles on Aisle Three of the Central Food Mart for twenty-three years. To Clifford, it had become more joy than duty. It was art; his poetry of precision. No two bottles touched. Ever. The separation between them was exact. Not matter where you stood, when you looked up to the second top shelf on the south side of Aisle Three, every label was at the same angle.
But nobody had ever noticed his dedication. Or so he thought. It was not lost on Nanette in Deli, however. She had stood by silently for years watching Clifford stack the jars. She loved his patience, and she loved that when he climbed up and down the small wooden ladder, the thin, cotton, uniform pants would cling to his strong, masculine thighs. The casual walk-by had mellowed into more obvious interest. She would often pause at aisle end and say. “Nice work, Clifford.”
Clifford would smile, acknowledge her with a wave, and return to the task at hand. He loved the attention but always felt flustered, unsure of how to respond. She was the only one who ever admired his pickle stacking. He longed to speak to her, to tell her how much it meant to be appreciated, and how he loved the way her apron wrapped around her perky breasts, but how could he? He was a mere package stacker and she was second in charge of deli meats. So far above his station.
The second Thursday of November was pickle jar sale day at the Central Food mart. “Buy one jar of pickles and get one free!” It was madness. The most emotionally exhausting day of Clifford’s year. He took care to eat well and get plenty of rest. He knew what lay ahead.
Pickle jars flew off the shelf. It wasn’t the empty spaces that hurt, it was people putting jars back at bad angles. Eleven minutes before closing and Clifford was up on his ladder for what he hoped would be the last time that day.
Nanette had skipped back and forth all day watching Clifford and his well-formed thighs. It almost became too much for her. “I love…. this,” she shouted.
“You do?” He turned to her, two jars in hand. How he had lived to hear those words. His sudden shift betrayed his balance, and he went tumbling to the floor. He and the pickle jars landed hard. Broken glass slashed his right arm, which was now awash with pickle juice.
Nanette rushed to Clifford and held him in her arms. She wrapped her apron around his wound. They were together. The blood didn’t matter now. “Oh, Clifford,” she said. “I have wanted to tell you this for so long, you are my meat department.”
“It burns,” he said.
“I know,” she said, and gently touched his brow. “Love is like that sometimes,” she said. “It burns.”
What we liked:
Nawwww, you’ve just gotta love these department-crossed lovers – ‘deli’-ghtful Nanette and Jar-Jar Clifford over in aisle three. A sweet tale told in a heartwarmingly old-fashioned way. We particularly loved how the stakes were upped with the revealing of pickle jar sale day – a big date on everyone’s calendar! “You are my meat department” might just be up there with “you had me at hello” and the final picture of Clifford clearly in pain while his new love softly misreads the situation is (half)priceless… (Nice foreshadowing too from first sentence to ending!)
(UNTITLED) by Ursula Franco
Fresh produce. Now, where is that damned list? She fishes it out of her back pocket. Pink ladies, pears, kiwis, mangoes, cantaloupe – wait a minute. Who is that? Her attention is drawn to one of the most handsome men she has seen in a very long time. What a barren and frustrating year it has been since her last romantic escapade with Tim from logistics. It is time to move on. “People paired up in concentration camps, you know”, her mother’s loving voice echoes in her head, “so how is it you can’t meet someone?” Shut up, mother. Focus on the hot dude.
Why couldn’t she meet someone at the supermarket? The man is just her type: tall, dark, handsome, breathing. And here he is, in front of her, making the most of his lung capacity. She watches as he lifts a pineapple to his nose and inhales deeply. She slides closer to the display of apples, directly in his line of sight. Is it her imagination or does he look straight at her as he performs his olfactory fruit test? Yes, she is sure of it! He sniffs again and smiles, as though he knows he has an interested audience. She is happy to play along, why not do something to break the tedium of shopping? A little flirtation to make melons less monotonous, oranges less ordinary. She slowly picks up an apple and also gives it a sniff. He is still watching, so she rubs it against her cheek. Yes, that might have been a smile.
He leans over to the mangoes, his head remaining in the same position, facing her, as he feels his way over the juicy specimens, gently massaging to test their firmness, seeming to hold her gaze all the while.
She feels a flush of warmth and excitement. Could this really be happening? A surge of bravado pulses through her. She looks for a banana. Ah, that one will do. With an assured movement, she slips the yellow fruit into her hand. He is still assessing the mangoes but finally finds one to his liking. Again, he lifts it to just under his nostrils and sniffs, an intoxicated smile spreading slowly across his very symmetrical and perfectly bearded face. All the while she is gently running her other hand down the length of the banana. He continues to smile and no, he couldn’t be! He starts to walk towards her. She can feel blood swilling in her ears as he gets closer, and closer. But then she registers: his eyes are fixated, not at her, but directly ahead.
She moves out of the way so as not to interfere with his guide dog and shoves the banana back on display.
What we liked:
This clumsy, hilariously fruity flirtation is introduced in such a way that you just need to see where this is going. (Which is ironic, as it turned out he couldn’t.) The inner workings of our protagonist’s mind as she stalks her ripe bounty are well written, combining alliteration and humour with descriptions that you can picture so well. Yet another story this month that we’d love to buy the short film rights to – for the banana scene alone! If Tim from logistics could see her now…
(UNTITLED) by KD Kells
It's cold. No, not cold. Freezing. I've been in here so long I'm starting to forget words. When was the last time I spoke? The memory of other people is fading, and talking a mere concept that once existed. There is nothing here but the frozen mountains and me.
Ice nips at my bare arms, my fingers already blue. How long does it takes for frostbite to set in? Days? Hours? Minutes? I wasn’t prepared for this quest, I hadn’t been warned there would be such trials. Would I be the same man when I emerged? The monotony of my surrounds is maddening, a permafrost of greens with splashes of yellows and reds that stretch on forever. The treasure I seek is buried deep, if it exists at all.
My stomach growls, reminding me of how hungry I am. There had been the promise of food if I succeeded, a tantalising smell of sausages and barbequed onions as we’d passed through the double doors. Food would be my salvation. I can’t give up now.
I dig past kernels of gold layered in a fur of ice, and something brushes my hand. There is someone else in here with me. Another human.
He has been here longer than me, I can tell by his scraggly beard matted with frost, the ice-burnt tip of his nose. But there is a deep wisdom in his eyes. Maybe he is an oracle.
Maybe he is mad.
When he speaks, it is deep and rumbling like the cracking of a glacier. “You look lost, sonny. What are you looking for?”
The cold has made my lips dry, and I lick them, try to remember how to form words. “Peace. I’m looking for peace.”
He nods, stroking his beard. “Ah yes. Not an unusual request. Now let’s see, I’m sure I saw some just this morning.”
He rummages through a mountain to his left, digging far deeper than I would have had the courage to do, and I belatedly remember – “Wait, they need to be organic!”
He nods again, and with one sure movement, breaks through an eon of ice, releasing a parcel from its clutches.
“There you go.”
I can’t decipher the writing through the layer of frost that cakes it, but hints of green pods and a yellow sun peak through. He has found what I have been seeking for so long in seconds.
“No, I… thank you–”
I turn to see Sarah, Sarah! My light, my love – she’s come to free me from this icy hell.
She is staring at me, disbelief across her face. “Kevin, what on earth are you doing in the freezer?”
I step out, triumphant, and place the parcel in the trolley like the hard won prize it is. “Frozen peas.”
She shakes her head, weary. “Ok… well, can you get the milk next?”
A new quest. I set out once more and hope that one day, one day I will see home.
What we liked:
We all know someone like Kevin. Maybe it’s us. Making everyday things that little bit more dramatic. This story starts out that way, and if you didn’t know this month’s criteria was supermarket-set, it might take you a little longer to figure out that Kevin is not in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, but the frozen food section. Some powerful, epic descriptions gleefully complemented by the unimpressed Sarah. (Just one thing though – who WAS that other person in the freezer?) A fun peas of fiction.
THE INCIDENT by Joffing
“Code Red! Code red, Arthur. I got one!”
“Yeah? Okay, settle down. Take a breath. Where?”
“Fr…frozen meats. An old guy with a walking stick. Slipped a pork filet down his pants.”
“Awesome! You’re sure though? Y’ know we gotta be sure.”
“Yeah. He was real furtive like. Had it in his hand, turned away, and now there’s this bulge. I was up a ladder in pasta. Just about fell when I saw him do it. It’s, it’s…my first! I can’t believe it! Got such a shock I dropped a jar of lasagne sauce. It smashed.”
“Settle down, Ellie. Remember our training.”
“Yeah well. I’m sure he’s not gonna declare it. I mean, why stick a lump of freezing meat down there and not in his trolley?”
“Okay, okay. Description?”
“Old codger. Bald. Spectacles like beer glass bottoms.”
“What pants is he wearing? It’s usually loose trakkies, the elastic waist makes it easy?”
“That’s the thing, it’s weird. They’re Levis. Tight ones too. Yuk. I hate old people in those. There’s a real bulge. Yuk. A dead giveaway it is. Looks like bedroom slippers on his feet. And a brown cardigan.”
“Don’t judge too harshly, you’ll be old yourself one day, Ellie. Look rules say we gotta wait until he’s gone through checkout before we strike. They’re so cunning. He might claim that he brought it in with him, that it belongs to him.”
“It’ll still have our price sticker. Don’t think he could’ve removed it.”
“Okay, good. The other thing they say is they’ve put it down there to start thawing it out for their dinner. I’ve struck this one before. Then they say they forgot about it when they went through the till. Claim dementia.”
“Okay. Hang on, hang on. I’ve been following him and he looks like he’s heading out now. Coming round the confectionery right towards you and you should see him…now! See him? The old guy with the Super-Jumbo toilet paper pack and nothing else in the trolley? By the crisps…now…now!”
‘Aha. Yep, got him.”
“Don’t look! Ah, there’s Clive! He’s duty manager today. Phew, thank Goodness! Hey Clive!”
“Eleanor, what’s up?”
“See that old guy at the till right now, Clive? No! Don’t make it obvious! Look surreptitiously! There, he didn’t declare it! He’s got a premium free range pork fillet down the front of his trousers. See it? That bulge?”
“A pork fillet, eh? Well, well. You okay Eleanor? You look real white and shaky.”
“I’m just about having a heart attack. It’s my first. I called up Arthur and he’s positioned himself by the exit. See? He’s waving? Next to the notice board?”
“Yep, I see him. Stay calm, love. Excellent work. Well done! You’ll get support after the emergency de-briefing meeting. HR will be there and there’s counselling available. The firm is very supportive in these situations. Okay. We need reinforcements for this. Gimme your phone, Eleanor? Thanks. Right…is that security? George? South exit, Dude, pronto! We gotta code red!”
What we liked:
There definitely was a strong streak of quirkiness in this month’s top entries, and this one is no exception – with store security on the slow-pursuit of the man with a pork fillet down his pants. What elevates this story is the clever dialogue-only approach (note the absence of any omnipotent narration) and deft touch applied to multiple people “on the line” as they each report in and update the unfolding situation. Great example of dialogue in a short story.
LATE SHOPPING by Doug Hamilton
The voice was a whisper. Tom Alexander turned to see a grubby-looking child, a girl no more than eight, surely too young to be alone in a supermarket this late at night. He looked at his watch. Almost eleven. The only other person he'd seen was the weary young man on check-out.
“Your parents? They're coming?”
Tom shook his head. Remarkable what kids got up to, and even more remarkable how casual some adults could be.
“Don't do that,” he said, “it's very late for you to be out.”
“I see things.”
“So do I.”
Tom bit his tongue. He was so tired he'd been on the verge of mentioning what he thought he'd seen through his home telescope the previous night.
“My name's Eva,” said the girl.
This was becoming stranger by the moment. Exchanging names with a waif. Where on earth were these people?
“Are you buying things?” she asked.
“Well yes I am. I'm buying coffee to help me stay awake while I watch the stars.”
“Can I have an ice-cream? Mum didn't get me one.”
That was more like it. A bit cheeky, but OK.
“I can do that, but you have to tell me where your mum and dad have got to. You really shouldn't be here by yourself at this time of night. Do you know their mobile number?”
“I can't see them any more. They went away with the others.”
That didn't really make sense and Tom was starting to feel quite uneasy. The last thing he needed was to be stuck with a lost kid, particularly if she had problems of some sort. He couldn't just leave her though, not when it seemed as though her parents were completely irresponsible. Perhaps he should call the police. He took the mobile out of his pocket.
“Don't make a noise,” said Eva.
It was only then Tom realised they'd both been whispering. He smiled to think supermarkets could have that sort of effect late at night. The silence, the glaring lights, the empty aisles.
“I'm just going to call somebody,” he said.
“Don't. You have to hide too. Please.”
Eva suddenly looked terrified and Tom took a step back, bumping into the shelf behind him.
“Oh shit,” he said, as a jar of jam fell and smashed on the floor. He took another involuntary step and realised he was standing in a sticky, glass-filled mess. What a ridiculous way to finish the day.
“You made a noise,” said Eva urgently.
Tom felt something strange, like a sudden drop in air pressure. His ears popped and he looked around, startled to see the aisle was full of shoppers. Eva was whispering again.
“That's good,” said Tom, “they'll be able to take you home.”
“They're not here for me.”
What we liked:
Seemed only fair after a selection of lighter stories that we end on an equally great example that doesn’t care for your laughs thank you very much. It’s late and star-gazer Tom is really quite out of his depth in this “Sixth Sense meets ET meets Supermarket Sweep” story. The narrative table is set simply (with some small clues), the dialogue with Eva is urgent and haunting, and we can just sense we’re building up to something. The final line is that something. Cut to black…