This week's title is Bequeath My Estate. The final entry time this week is 11pm (UK time) 9th December 2016. Predicted prize fund is £50!
6th October 2016
The winner! In the way of dress-shopping, I started at the beginning and read all the short-listed entries in the order presented and then ended up choosing the one I saw first - No. 2120.
Although quite long compared with other entries, it held my interest all the way through. I loved the way it was structured, with the name of the narrator’s next fling starting the paragraph about the relationship. ‘Caroline’ added something different in the mix which I felt was needed at that point, and the unexpected pregnancy occurred at the right time too so the reader didn’t have time to get bored with the seemingly never-ending stream of lovers. It was funny and insightful and flowed well throughout. A couple of times I thought I had worked out how it would end but I was wrong, and I’m glad I was wrong. The ending was satisfying as the young woman had clearly been searching for something and now felt she had found it with a kindred spirit.
Featured entries – both very strong contenders for first place
No. 2109 is a simple poem which says rather a lot about each person mentioned in it. The hurt of the boy who was picked last for sport, the mother who said it out loud, his classmates who laughed and the father who played the field in more ways than one. There is a real skill in bringing so much characterisation so concisely into a short poem. I think to try to have expanded it, or to have felt the need to explain further, would have taken off the sad edge that it had from beginning to end.
No. 2125: I loved this right from the first line. We hear a lot about Baby Boomers and I was interested to see how this would relate to Playing The Field. I had a feeling it wasn’t just going to be about having lots of boyfriends, and I am so glad it wasn’t. It went from a fast-forward reminiscence of a life lived expecting to ‘have it all’, to a soberer reflection of what she had actually had. When it is revealed that bereavement has set her free, she is old enough to see what choices she has now, and how the simple ones can be just as valuable as the life-decisions she made in the 1960s, and how they can be so liberating after years of being ‘hemmed in’ by social norms.
About the judge
Annie Weir is owner/manager of her own training company IVITA Learning. She published her first novel, 'Judith Wants to be Your Friend' this year, which traces the denouement of a 36 year old woman set on socialising, but with secrets to keep... Annie says the inspiration for the novel was a writing exercise during her MA in Creative Writing.
She lives in Cumbria with her husband and cat, and enjoys playing tennis, watching cricket and listening to The Archers.
They wait like inverted ghosts, creatures that believe their real lives can only begin now I’m gone. They think I didn’t know what I was saying or doing at the end, that any random instructions might be contained in this will. The dried prune solicitor duly informs them it was last changed two days before my death and there’s a collective intake of breath that buffets me.
I am aggrieved although they can’t know I’m now a series of dense, invisible cells hanging in roughly my old outline in the air. I would rather still be alive and in better control but this stage isn’t as bad as it sounds. Hour by hour my outline is straightening itself, the wire and flexibility of youth is repossessing my shape. The more my cells concentrate the more conscious I’m becoming of an unfamiliar emotion. It isn’t hope exactly, more a mixture of hope and certainty. I am getting surer and surer I did the right thing. It's a long time since I've felt such certainty.
The solicitor opens the envelope and I stare at the paper that emerges. Such a frail thing to carry so much emotion. Now that no one writes letters anymore it’s unusual for a piece of paper to have so much significance. I look at my youngest niece, Lily, the only one of them that ever wrote to me. Long, painfully correct letters with no life in them. They made me want to kill my brother and his wife who leant on her so heavily, crushed the breath out of the girl. Yet her letters also made me want to shake Lily and howl at her to grow some backbone. She is crying now as if I did shake her, not even looking at the room’s main focus, her face twisted with terrible emotions.
Why is Lily crying, can she know what's coming or is she grieving for what's lost? I know with absolute certainty that no one else here has shed a tear for me. In truth I don’t want all that weeping and gashing of teeth. I quite liked my wake that consisted of people I wasn’t particularly close to behaving outrageously. They were the sort who just top up their alcohol levels continually, a couple of glasses and a soggy vol-au-vent and they were well away. It was jolly though in a desperate kind of way. Lily was there, big rabbit eyes transfixed. It must have been her that organised it, going through my decaying address book last looked at fifteen years before.
Look at the rest of my relatives, all that’s left of a great dynasty. Such a bunch of weasels and ferrets jockeying for room at the front. Who’s managed to elbow their way into chief mourner position? I thought it would be my domineering brother and his awful bust on legs wife. My spoilt little sister must have polished her elbows for hours in order to get in there first. That coat she’s wearing came from my wardrobes, she must have been through the fur corpses and the strangled silks already.
It would serve her right if I’d done that mad old lady thing and left my estate to William, my little pug. Truth be told he was far more of a solace to me than the family ever were. But I’m no mad old lady, I was only forty-eight and William’s favoured foods are cheap. I have left the dog to Lily in the hope he will drive my brother mad. Lily will love William as much as her father will loathe him.
They are all holding their breath and it sucks me towards them, nearer than I care for, so I’m smelling their acrid need. I see close up the scars of greed. We have all lived badly because of our wealth. There was a time my brother could have made a mark for himself rather than becoming the reluctant custodian of the family home. That vast, damp pile has overwhelmed his decency, corroded his spirit, turned him into a caricature of his young, bright self. It pulls him into the earth every day he stays there.
My sparky little sister has snorted her inheritance and now she’s a twanging skeleton hopeful for a lethal dose of her preferred poison. She used to be the one who tended to the animals, cared for the estate workers, tried to make our monstrous parents see the world had moved on from keeping everybody beneath you with your foot on their throats. She tried but she failed and it destroyed her. She won’t be long behind me.
If I give my siblings money it will be the end of them. My brother won’t have to realise the family home is not sustainable, he will be tied to it for his remaining lifetime. My sister will buy her own, early death. I’m giving them nothing. The fortune isn't going to little Lily either who would get as damp blotted as her father and as crucified by self-doubt as me. She would never know any suitor’s true motivation but always suspect right past the big wedding, the honeymoon period, the day-to-day velvet-lined rut. I’m not doing that to her, all I’ve bequeathed is enough for William’s vet bills and for her to pursue her dreary dream of being a poet for another few years.
This is how I decided to bequeath my estate. Half and half to two men, almost strangers to the family now but one wasn’t once and the other won’t be in future. I’ve left half to my long-lost husband, wherever he might be. It’s an expensive sorry for not realising he really wasn’t after my money. Now he’s stayed away so long and asked for nothing my money’s after him instead. I think that will amuse him and might make up for those tortuous years when he tried so hard to cure my doubt.
The other half goes to Jake, Lily’s boyfriend. My brother treated Jake as if he was the worst kind of gold-digger – ironic given they have no gold to dig. He tried to poison Lily against Jake but, for once, she showed some spirit. She even hung one of Jake’s ghastly experimental canvasses in the hall of the family home. It didn’t last long but I loved the gesture. I like Jake although he’s something of an idiot. Let him deal with the money as he thinks best, he can't do worse than us.
My presence is shrinking now. I’m imploding like a black hole, folding back into a teenager, a child, a baby. I'm just able to see their expressions as the solicitor reads my wishes. Selfishly I wanted to register the horror on my brother and sister’s faces. I wanted to know if they'd realise I did it for their sakes. Instead my gaze is trapped by the flare of joy in Lily’s smile. It lifts me up and into something new before we are all gone.
- safemouse: In answer to Tauren: Um...maybe there’s no right answer but I tend to go for plot. For me, the advantage of a plot driven story- even within the maximum 2000 word confines- is that it's a more forgiving medium that creates a natural framework that human curiosity responds very well to and the contrasts in a plot and the fact that there’s more going on can be more satisfying than one long passage that is an extended thought or an exploration of a moment. Then the writing has to be really good to hold the reader's interest (and usually I don't think it is). As it happens, I was one of the markers on your Shopping Channel story. It wasn’t the most original of concepts, for me, but you hit the ground running with the way you tell that story, IMO. There’s no fat on it and no false beginning. It is very condensed, with an excellent economy of style which makes it a much smoother read than many things I see on HOW. (I see also that your latest is a tale written with great care. Had I marked it I can see it scoring in the 60s, it has no real twist (and you're maybe too much in Stephen King's shadow) but there are some really good little bits of drama. What it so often comes down to is good quality human observation. I liked the line, 'the comfortable silence of a couple who feel no need to fill silence with inane chatter'. Also, if you’re looking to please anyone, besides yourself, maybe look at the general aesthetic of the website and adjust accordingly. Really really good writing will usually shine through, I think, but I would suggest that merely good writing might lose out to something that happens to chime more with someone’s personal tastes, agenda, political outlook etc. That could work for or against you depending on who you're writing for. This is not a horror story website per se, likewise if I write anything that's too metaphysical or dark I know I'm probably going to pay the price...I wanted to say something else but I've forgotten what it was so I'll leave it there. Hope this helps.
- Tauren: A question?? Which is better, to write a story in broad strokes,necessitated by the word limit, expressing as much of the plot as possible; or focus in on one aspect of the story, minutely deconstructing the emotional conflict inherent within each character. Which would you, the reader prefer. A question I am forced to ask myself, what does the reader want? Until now I have written for myself, but here I am no longer writing for an audience of one, I am in fact, as well as deed, forced to consider what does the reader "You" want. One of the pieces of feedback I received on my latest entry suggested that "I think less plot and more evocation would have made it more powerful," which provoked this inquiry. So what I, "the writer" want to know is, which would you "the reader" prefer, a more complete, broad stroke story, or a more focused interrogation of a single moment? I would really appreciate some input on this, Thanks.
- Tauren: Hi Novelist, hows that second chapter going? Really intrigued on where you`re taking this.
- safemouse: I'm intrigued about those 'monumentally scary dreams', Seaside Scribbler...
- Tauren: If you Mark entries on a portable device/Tablet. Please read this: There appears to be a difference in how entries are displayed on portable devices compared to computers. When I checked the feedback for my entry in last weeks competition (The comfort zone) this morning, I was surprised to find a comment from one of the Markers that I had failed to use the apostrophe in the words he`d and I`d. As someone who finds it frustrating to read poorly punctuated entries myself I immediately rechecked the piece, and discovered to my mortification that it appeared that I had indeed failed to include the appropriate punctuation. However there seemed to be a smudge over the "d`s" and as I was at work on my tablet, I zoomed in, and found my errant apostrophes. I am not sure whether this is peculiar to android devices, (I don`t have an i anything, so if you have an ipad please let us know if it suffers from a similar problem) but the apostrophes appear as an accent over the letter, a teeny tiny accent at that. Whew! was I relieved. So if you`re marking on a tablet and the piece seems to be peculiarly punctuated, please, please, please, (Jesus that`s a lot of P`s:) take a closer look, they might be there after all. I presume Alison reads these notes, but in case she doesn't I`ll email her, though I doubt there is anything she can do about it.
I write to record the beginning of my end. End of life if not of living. My life as a choreographer. It is 1982; I am Li Jun … Jun to those who know and care about me; Master Li to my company. But I am master no more. I led the first visit to the West of a Chinese ballet company since … well, nobody is really sure. I am returning to my homeland, my home city after a brief meeting in Beijing, and being replaced by another – it doesn’t matter who. I am in disgrace. I fell in love.
It is ironic that I called my ballet Peony Autumn. The peony is a symbol of Spring, a metaphor for feminine beauty and reproduction … and it symbolizes peace. By autumn it has lost its colour, its flower; it has become withered, brittle … but hidden beneath its shrivelled dishevelment it is perennial. It is considered hard to grow but only if you do not have the will to make it grow.
If I had not accepted an invitation from a business acquaintance to attend a ballet and if I had not acceded to the pressure to attend the after-party I would never have met Li Jun. But there I was and so was he and he mistook me for someone else that he had been instructed to talk to. I had no idea who he was - a young man in a suit and tie; I assumed he was an administrator with the company. He was formal and self-effacing. And he had astonishing eyes.
If I could have foreseen what would happen I would have walked away then and there. That isn’t true; I would have recognised the desperation of his situation and tried anything – everything – to make it all happen differently. He was the artist. I was the audience; I think part of me assumed that this was just a fling to bring excitement to his new-found temporary freedom in the West. Or maybe that was just my rationalisation to try to deal with the feelings I had. He was young, after all.
In Beijing I was given choices. To deny love and be consigned to a teaching post in a remote town north west of Harbin, close to the Russian border or … some other unspecified alternative that would be found. Along with denying love I must also denounce it; nothing specific, you understand. I must simply make it clear that I was seduced and corrupted by Western decadence and had returned to China to save myself. I was put on the plane. I was met off the plane. I was driven to a nondescript government building for questioning.
Choice did not figure large in this swift turn of affairs. And with every step I longed for his touch on my body. To fall in love with a western woman would have been betrayal; to fall for a man was debauchery.
“I thought it was incredibly moving … and the staging was stunning … beautiful. Blending East and West was really clever … I’m not a ballet aficionado but …..my god, so much talent. The choreographer is clearly highly creative,” I declared.
“Thank you … I am so glad you enjoyed it. I will pass on your kind words to the dancers – and musicians.”
“Is the choreographer here? Please tell him I loved it.”
That’s when I realised he was rather more than an administrator. I felt stupid and shook my head. He smiled shyly.
“I am honoured by your compliment. Let me get you more wine”. I became conscious that some people were watching us, no doubt aware of who he was and equally unaware of who I was: a stranger, an audience member certainly, but not part of this world, not someone to be recognised and acknowledged. Perhaps they thought I was a sponsor – money.
As he handed me another glass from the table, he brushed his hand against mine and I saw in his eyes the connection that had been hiding since the moment of meeting, gliding secretly between us, encircling us, bringing us to the moment when the connection was unfolded before us. He saw it too.
In Beijing I was interrogated for three hours. Then there was silence for much longer. I sat on a chair and waited, ignored if I spoke. My request for water went unheeded. The room was grim, spare. Another official appeared and questioned me: personal details … name, province, where I studied, my degree, my work record. Then there was another long wait. Water and a little food arrived and then the ultimatum: I must deny – to the officer in charge – that there had ever been love between us. And publicly I must declare that I have returned home to further my political education and to turn my back upon the corrupt western decadence that had threatened my love for my homeland. Was I corrupted? Is it decadence?
He had told me of China’s history, of noblemen who had their male lovers, of how beautiful boys began with the Yellow Emperor. Such a long history, conveniently erased by the Cultural Revolution. I never knew. Others must have.
But, worse than anything … can I deny love? And my lover? Ten intoxicating days, a thousand secret moments, a million deceits in order to meet. His ingenuity exceeded mine.
Now I just wanted sleep.
We had been talking for perhaps twenty minutes or so. “One moment,” he said. He walked purposefully toward one of the auditorium staff, spoke briefly, hunched over and then quickly returned. He picked up a glass of wine; until that moment I hadn’t noticed that he didn’t have one. As he did so, he slyly deposited a piece of paper on the table and he nodded for me to take it, all the while looking around and smiling politely. Then he made a show of having to move on, talk to others, and left me standing there. Palming the paper, I looked down and read it. It was his hotel, and telephone number. Two words written underneath: Leave yours. I didn’t understand the subterfuge but assumed it was connected to his situation as a representative of his country as well as a visiting performer.
An hour later, he was deep in conversation with the principal dancer. Then he walked towards me swiftly and quietly as his friend tapped his glass to gain attention for the small speech of gratitude he was about to make. Jun stood next to me and tapped my fingers; I passed my phone number to him and he walked away. My heart was beating, racing, and I felt my throat tighten.
My phone rang.
“Pick me up … across the street from my hotel. A small shop on the corner.” And he hung up. It was 2am. I had been ready for bed.
I recall when I was younger – perhaps fourteen – going out to the small lake past the outskirts of the town where I lived, in the north eastern province near Dalian. It was beautiful: blue glass surrounded by the auburn sheen of autumn, the sunlight glinting on polished stones and the air warm and then chill. We went there swimming, my cousin and I.
I lay on the grass looking up through the leaves when he emerged from the water, naked and glistening. His laughter woke me from my reverie and I turned to see him, squatting to pick small stones from the water’s edge. He leaned forward, his back towards me; I could see his most secret parts exposed: intimate and vulnerable. I gazed in astonishment and felt a burning desire to reach out and touch. I knew instantly it would be reaching into a mystery from which I could never return. Fear gripped me and I remained still, even as my body stirred, in thrall to this secret knowledge that awaited me beyond fear. He turned and glanced at my exposed arousal and laughed. Then he ran back into the water, saying nothing. I never mentioned it either. Not to anyone … apart from a middle-aged Englishman in a room in a house in Liverpool, some sixteen years later.
It was a profoundly beautiful autumn. There were no peonies.
“There’s a letter for you … here.” My day care visitor, Janice, smiled and handed it to me. I was reading a newspaper. “It’s been lying there all day. Have you not been through to the hall? A little exercise is good for you, you know.”
“I’ve been out to the garden … sat there a while. And the kitchen. I haven’t sat all day, Janice. And I’ve been reading.”
“It’s from China.”
“Your letter. Aren’t you going to open it? Have you got a friend there?”
I glanced down at the letter that I had ignored. Yes I have someone in China, I thought. From so long ago … twenty years.
“Do you want a cup of tea while you read it?” she said, kindly. “you look like you’ve seen a ghost, suddenly. I hope it’s good news.”
It couldn’t be good news, not after all this time. And how had he found me? It had to be from him. Who else? Why now? China had declared in 2001 that it’s no longer on the list of psychiatric disorders. Does that make it acceptable? Can he suddenly come out of his closet? Does he truly expect that I am waiting? After all this time?
“Aren’t you going to read it?” asked Janice.
In China, hiding one’s perversions isn’t difficult; finding a kindred spirit is. During my student years, I met an older man. He took care of me. He taught me. We were discreet. Nobody knew. He died and part of me did too. I kept it from his family.
I opened the letter slowly, staring at the paper.
“Dear esteemed sir,
I have been asked to write to you by my good friend Li Jun, with whom I have worked for the last twenty years. I know I can write to you in confidence and therefore hide nothing from you, as he has told me everything about your time together in England. We were close friends indeed … so close yet never true companions in the way that you were. Though I harboured longings for my dear friend for many of those years.
His dying wish was that I should write and explain that he could never return to the West or contact you. He was a prisoner – in a prison without bars. It was a prison of isolation, a prison of the spirit. The party officials would never have let him travel again. He wanted you to know. He hoped you remember the performance you attended of his great ballet. Since then he has been allowed to work as a teacher in a school far from anywhere. I enclose a poem he wrote for you … to remind you.
My respectful regards,
Wu Li Ping”
I dropped the letter onto the sofa and closed my eyes, holding back tears – of loss, of anger, of guilt, of regret. How many times had I assumed that he’d simply changed his mind and renewed his life in China? How often had I blamed him?
“You look like you’ve had a shock … not bad news?” Janice was in front of me with the tea. “Let’s get you to bed. Oh …. There’s a piece of paper here, look. It must have fallen out.” I looked at the poem. Suddenly I am very, very tired.
“Exquisite Peony …
Most noble of all blooms, beyond value …
Adorning imperial palaces of the Sui and Tang Dynasties …
My betrayal is complete.”
Last Week's Winner!
Winning entry by Nicholas Gill
I am summoned to the crumbling parental estate on an urgent mission. Bath-time has gone wrong. The old man needs lifting. His naked body is parked in the tub and cannot get enough purchase or lifting power to elevate. The various mats, handles, steps and supports have not been properly applied or utilised and we are returned to the primal fundamentals of younger lifting power.
Other relatives have heeded the distress call – sister and cousin are there, both experienced in the humane arts of child-rearing and parent-caring. Two sisters of mercy who regularly deal in the naked realm of bodies infantile and geriatric. So why me? Dear God, why me? I am the cerebral second son, he of the ivory tower, one who would much prefer to be incarnated as a Byzantine goblet than a thing of flesh.
It's because I'm a bloke. The old lady is insisting that it is my task in order to preserve the modesty of the old man. He's well down the road to Alzheimer oblivion and wouldn't really mind who hoiks him out of the tub, but the old lady's gimlet eye is pinning me like a sprawling butterfly to the arm chair as she shrieks at me to ascend the stairs to face my inner demons.
So up I go. The sisters of mercy are standing by waiting to receive the towel-shrouded Lazarus from the enamelled coffin. As with most traumatic moments, it goes by in a trance, the inner man departing to leave some memories to be dealt with at a stronger time. Of course I botch it and nearly injure the poor old fellow. But finally he is wrapped and upright so the women waiting outside can come into the bathroom to take over. Foolishly, I linger outside taking deep breaths. Suddenly the old man emerges naked save for his incontinence pants.
We read about the most terrible outcomes for human beings both historical and contemporary. Bodies have been burned at the stake, sliced apart, blown to pieces, vaporised, trashed in their millions. In an age of information even the most insensitive mind cannot help but be affected by the knowledge of what people do to each other. But these are only things on the printed page or tv screen. There must be a lot of fragile guys like me who would rather read about the worst horrors in the world than see their father in his clinical underwear.
Although his mind has gone I guess the old man's benign essence will remain until the day he finally departs. He is part of what has now become known as the Golden Generation – those too young to be chewed up by the last world war but old enough to have enjoyed the fruits of Keynes followed by the Big Give-away of Monetarism - decent teaching salaries with only moderate bureaucracy to hinder the dignified work, large affordable houses, nice pensions, early retirement and so to bed. He had the best of post-war culture, too – a time when the arts flourished in the abandonment of their Edwardian shackles but had not yet slipped into the terminal decline brought about by Arts Council Protectionism, Consumerism and the emergence of the Trash Culture.
It was a time when a moderately good poet might be published by Chatto, as he was. But was it all a bit too easy? For the last ten years or so of his cognitive life he seemed to spend a lot of time gazing at his hens at the end of the garden, perhaps removing himself from the stark ferocity of the wifely realm. In early retirement he had found himself at a bit of a loose end, like a schoolboy finding the gleefully-awaited summer holidays a bit too long. As a child I remember him sat in his study at composition in a cloud of Henri Wintermans cigar smoke, until the wife removed that little pleasure along with the bacon breakfasts and fish suppers. He was always gazing into the distance in search of a Good Line until finally he lost his thread and started to drift.
When sat on a bus with the youth of today plugged into their i-phones, I tend to return to the thoughts of H. G. Wells - my boy-hood Influence-in-Chief. The Time Traveller visits a world where the human race has evolved into two separate species – the effete but affectionate Eloi mess around in a seeming earthly paradise, but come bed-time are cannibalised by the Morlocks, the underground descendants of the working classes.
The internet could be the means by which the post-golden generation is pacified. Left with nothing to inherit, the only world remaining to them is the artificial paradise of endless gaming and deletable friendships, a world they are encouraged to inhabit by the wealthy 1% who treat them as disposable labour and click-bait.
When Trump-ets sound and the walls come tumbling down, will the nouveau-Eloi respond by casting off their shackles of unreality and building something more tangible in the old Green and Pleasant Land? After so much time spent in cyber-space, will they have the experience and psychic cohesion to cope with the coming crisis? Or will the Yankee Piper of the Dispossessed serenade bed-time for Humanity?
A few days later I am sat with my parents in their garden on a splendid, blazing autumn day. A good friend of mine is here with us, experiencing the on-set of a depressive episode. He is at that stage in the process where you experience a “pain so utter it swallows substance up” (Emily Dickinson). It is the sort of pain that people like my Dad always managed to avoid, being one who “as in a swoon goes safely where an open eye would drop him bone by bone”.
For a moment my friend's face fills with tears. The old man's face assumes an expression that I have not seen in it for a long time – a look of infinite concern.
“Don't...don't...there's no need to be so...it's a lovely day.”
And I recalled the last lines of The Time Machine:
“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers - shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle - to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”
Before you go to bed
listen to Aphex Twin;
not just any song,
but the Rhubarb hit.
Now let the air between your thoughts
become your only thought,
and let the fields somewhere afar
exist in your small room.
Your eyelids fall
as an embracing friend
and any troubled thought
becomes a friendly thought.
Tonight you win
because you sleep
among best friends.