This week's title is Letter From America. The final entry time this week is 11pm (UK time) 28th October 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
Picks up phone. Dials. Rings. Waits.
Sips coffee. Yawns. Phone rings. Walks. Answers phone.
“Hey Elle, how’re you doing, hun?”
“Oh c’mon, it’s David.”
“David. British David. Long distance relationship David. The David that bought your first ice cream.”
Waits. Swallows. Sits down.
Gasps. Sips coffee. Exhales.
“I’ve been worried, Elle, you haven’t called in three weeks.”
“Well I, uh, I’ve been busy.”
“So how are things in New Haven?”
“Things are good, everything’s good.”
“Hey, do you remember those plans we had for you to move back over here and teach at Cambridge? I miss you, Elle.”
“Would you do that for me? It’d be as if we were never apart.”
Blinks. Taps feet. Cracks knuckles. Chews lip.
Closes eyes. Lowers phone. Sighs.
“Elle, I’ve gotta tell you. I bought plane tickets. New Haven to Cambridge. I even spoke to the guys at the uni and they’d love to have you teaching there.”
“Didn’t you get my letter?”
“Letters still exist?”
“No letters here.”
“Just… Please, when you get it, read. I…”
“Of course Elle, anything.”
“I’d just prefer it if–”
Phone flatlines. Freezes. Drops phone.
Hand trembles. Releases button. Puts phone down.
Bike outside. Click swoosh. Letter box opened.
Wipes eye. Straightens. Leaves for work.
Walks to front door. Stops. Picks up letter. Opens. Reads. Crashes. Falls. Breaks.
- Tauren: Hmmmm? interesting premise :)
- Novelist: Tauren, thank you for your note, chapter 1 is pasted below. More coming.
- Novelist: The man who had all the time in the world Chapter 1- (Chapter 2 is coming soon as a HoW entry) He unlocked the door to room 11 with some trepidation and was surprised to find it nicer than he imagined, when taking the stairwell and corridor into consideration. He entered a small hall side on so that a bedroom was the hall’s width in front and the lounge six feet to the right. In the bedroom he could see a room just shy of 11x8 feet, cosily lit with a standard lamp and furnished with a brass bed, book shelves and old style television on top of wooden drawers. Through the lounge doorway he could see a lamp lit on a pedal stall desk by the window. It was like he’d walked right in on someone’s life. He approached the doorway to the right. He could now see that the lounge had a galley kitchen at the left end and a bathroom entrance at the right hand corner. There was plenty of room to swing a cat but overall it was a compact set up perfect for a bachelor. He peeped through the makeshift curtain of the kitchen sash window, made from a bed sheet, down on to the urban road four stories below, glistening in the rain and artificial light. Out in the big wide world, there were always stones that lay unturned. Voyages that might end in shipwreck and captivity. Journeys that took one to the edge of endurance. There were friendships to be made and broken, precipices and passes unclimbed and untrodden. Drinks to be downed in God forsaken bars in sub-arctic cities. He could have known the intrigues of the harem and the wisdom of Amazonian plants. “I could have been a gun runner in Afghanistan,” he joked. With himself. But he knew, if one really can, that he was in a prison cell. Confined by a locked door, or poverty, or the condition of the mind. No matter, the fact of his incarceration was more important than the agent. Then the phone rang. He approached it with the cautious curiosity of a cat but didn’t answer. The answerphone kicked in. ‘YOU’VE REACHED THE VOICEMAIL OF JACK. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE OF ANY LENGTH AFTER THE BEEP. I’VE GOT ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.’ Then his eye was caught by the laptop on the desk. He sat on the squeaky chair in front of it and tapped a key. A message faded into view. WELCOME TO THE AFTERLIFE HOTEL. WE HOPE YOU LIKE YOUR ROOM. WE’VE FIXED IT UP JUST LIKE A PLACE YOU HAD IN ONE OF YOUR OTHER PROBABLE REALITIES. DUE TO CUTBACKS THERE WILL BE NO LIFE REVIEW. PLEASE COMPOSE A SUMMARY OF YOUR LIFE ON EARTH, AT YOUR LEISURE. WE’LL HAVE IT PRINTED OUT AND LAMINATED FOR YOU. ENJOY ETERNITY. BEST WISHES, THE BACKSTAGE CREW. TEL. __________ “Forever to think on my sins? Piece of cake, I’m a writer AND a Catholic,” Jack murmured. Then he looked up at the room again, as if seeing it anew. He put a Carpenters record on for a snatch, just to see if this was really happening. If the Carpenters sounded the same this was real. He looked disconsolately at the meagre contents of the fridge and took a sip from a bottle of value sugarless cola and spat the contents in the sink. Then he took another look at it and tasted. “Hmm,” he said approvingly, having rapidly re-evaluated. “To Horace Holden,” he said. And took a swig. Horace Holden was one of Jack’s ‘go to’ people to propose an ironical toast to. He had to admit, the seamanship of Captains Bligh and Cook were second to none and for sheer stubbornness Shackleton deserved a handshake, but for services to sheer bad luck the American seafarer Horace got the cigar. For those who don’t know, Horace was not an out and out explorer but one by happenstance, who had an awfully rough time in Polynesia in 1832. Several times in Jack’s own life there seemed to be echoes of lessons in Horace’s odyssey, including his lack of success as an author. ‘And here’s to explorers everywhere- palace eunuchs, admirals and bearded hikers all,’ Jack thought, finishing the bottle. He considered himself one of their fraternity, having lived many years abroad. Having never long been settled in one place. ‘But as I am now detained here for the foreseeable, paradoxically I have the true freedom of this apartment, a wealth of unexplored choices. So I shall strike out to see things as I have never seen them. For the place I apparently spend so much time in is full of secrets, even to me, ‘ he added. As he had all the time he needed he was in no hurry, though. He made use of the facilities. ‘I once read that when you die at first the place you go to looks like Earth and you might even have a physical body as well. Complete with your normal bodily functions,’ he observed internally, and flushed. In the draw of the desk he found a dictaphone. He took that and some buttermints, then spoke aloud into the old-fashioned machine: “I don’t know who I’m talking to, but whoever I’m talking to: you’ve got to see this place. It’s my flat. My mess. I recognise it but I don’t,” he said with a chill and then his eyes darted from side to side. “I’m scoping this place out.” He began in the hall, dictaphone poised. “Like all great halls this is almost a room. Besides coat hooks it houses two dining chairs, a Casio keyboard and a book shelf complete with fascinating books no one reads cover to cover. The Japanese home keyboard is completely wasted on man with his temporal concerns, her average lifespan of a few score years. Its rhythm patterns and tones can normally only ever be fully exploited by some theoretical children who always brush their teeth before bed and ask nicely to leave the table. Worse, in this age of Facebook updates and smartphone notifications, what hope is there for its myriad capabilities? Sure, I’ve messed around with things like this but where was the enjoyment in that? Always having that awful feeling I had no time for it? Well that’s all going to change.” The phone rang again. Jack let it go. “Leave a message this time. Why don’t you?” Jack said. No message was. Jack looked more carefully at the books and resumed recording. “But it’s not just any hall. It’s mine and these are exactly the kind of books I would fill a shelf with. Judging by how random some of them are, I don’t doubt for a minute several came from charity stores. What with such titles as, THE DORLING KINDERSLEY ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS BOOK and POPULAR HOUSE PLANTS.“ ** “The bedroom is perfect for snug winter nights watching old VHS tapes. And no doubt, like many bedrooms there’s more to it than meets the eye. With any luck, my alter ego might have a sex toy or two stashed away somewhere.” He opened the drawers. Jack stopped and put the Dictaphone down. He could see the letters of a familiar magazine peeping out from under some clothes. “My God,” Jack said. “It can’t be,” as if he had found the cup of the Holy Grail. In fact, it was his first glamour magazine. A January 1990 issue that had apparently gone to press before the fall of Communism in Romania, so it was really late ’89. “How did this get here?” he asked. In another life he must have tracked it down and bought it off Ebay but in the one familiar to him he had clean forgotten it. He sank on to the side of the bed and slowly turned the pages. He couldn’t explain why but these girls were not exactly how he remembered them. His favourite model, ‘The girl next door’ didn’t seem to fill the page as she had in his memory. He was glad the photographs accorded her an amount of respect that now looked quaint but the shots still looked awkward. Most peculiarly, the room she was in had a bed and drawers closely resembling his. ** “Okay. Lounge. I have all the time in the world to look at the map. And when you really look at a map- for hours and hours and hours the reach of the white man cannot be in doubt,” Jack mused half-heartedly onto tape. “Oh, screw this. I’m going to do some writing.” ** He must have had writer’s block because it took a while. He managed to find a typewriter but wasn’t sure about paper. One drawer was stuffed full of it but he couldn’t type on it because it was already full of students’ unmarked homework. No, that was just a bad dream. He was starting to have them. There WAS unmarked homework, a lot of it, from when he was a teacher abroad; but that was not part of this alternative time line. He had been counting the days he had been there. Two weeks just to find some paper. He could see how when you had time you just filled it up. “Maybe I don’t want to write my life story. I might get sick of hearing my excuse-itus every day.” The phone rang. And rang. Jack didn’t answer. Why should he, if they weren’t prepared to leave a message? He wasn’t going to break the habit of a lifetime. Instead, he wrote his life report in three days, a self-imposed limit. Apart from the last chapter, that is. ‘The Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta remarked that, “Travelling leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller.” It can also cause verbal diarrhoea that alchemizes into the wise nectar of stony silence,’ Jack typed. ‘So let me be brief. Not much of interest happened on my last assignment. As you know, I was pretty well travelled by then. I’d been to North Korea to poke fun, I’d been arrested in Dar Al Salem and played the British passport card, I was stung by a jellyfish in Australia and cried like a baby. I’d also done six months in Kalamay, which is one of the most remote cities in China. So it was kind of annoying that they wanted me to come for an interview in Hohhot when a Skype call will normally suffice. But they insisted. Paid for my flight from Xi’an.” Jack sighed and took his glasses off. He looked around the flat. It always looked the same and yet different. Bottles moved. A new microwave oven appeared in place of an old one. New food appeared in the fridge. Cleaning products were topped up. It was like it was playing on some loop. He fell asleep again, this time, at his desk. He dreamt of the job interview at the last campus he worked on. Its pencil thin Scholar trees swaying in the breeze. Then awoke to a noise downstairs. A man was screaming. Hours later, maybe days, he still had his ear to the floor. It was hard to say but it seemed like there were two people downstairs and one was being coerced. The one being coerced was a woman. He got up and walked to the door. "No, it's not my concern," he said aloud. "And its not real." Then he paced around, knelt down and put his ear to the floor again. He banged his fist. "You shut up down there! Leave her alone." His eyes filled with helplessness. But downstairs they were laughing now. The phone rang. Jack picked up. “Afterlife? What kind of afterlife is this? he asked. “The afterlife is what you make it, Mr Soirant,” came the reply. And the line went dead.
- Tauren: Hi Safemouse, put up a note from your novelist account so we can find it.
- safemouse: My favourite poem on hour of writes is said the baby giraffe to the lion by Vanita 18 closely followed by featherlight by experimental. My favourite story is survive the jungle by Reba Kaye. I am dictating this on my iPad mini two so please don't mind punctuation errors et cetera
It would be a disadvantage in this line of work."
That is why you grew this moustache,
It hides the softness of a mouth,
Cuts short the frayings and brayings,
Tell-tale spittle, tongue trembles, all hidden.
It can curl itself this way and that,
Like the tail of a very masculine rat,
Under the brim of an 1860's hat,
And that will be that will be that will be that.
uhum, clears throat, "God save the Queen!"
Yet, sometimes in the evenings,
The firelight swerves off the tin of your cup.
And your brain starts to beat with a different kind of birdsong.
Searching for something else.
Something you don't quite know yet.
Onwards at any rate.
But no, you never feel loneliness.
The adventure is too great to allow for such,
Such mutterings of the heart.
And do you ever doubt?
Do your prayers ever sound hollow when you pronounce them into the humidity of a landscape which isn't your own?
Doesn't the hugeness of the sky and trudging of the miles make your own country seem smaller?
Or is your country still a gilded box which must be filled,
A frame which must be fitted over other people's houses?
Do you look at other people's kings and leaders,
And see your own sovereign's vision reflected in their greedy eyes?
Your pen bobs in a perpetual chicken scratch after truth.
But, look, aren't the pages of your notebook beginning to crumble?
Pores of ink laden paper tumbling back into the red earth.
And do you ever look at these un-baptised children playing on the banks of an un-baptised river and think that God must love them anyway,
Or else that there is no God?
Last Week's Winner!
Winning entry by Doug
The beach is quiet, almost empty even in the high season. But music drifts along the sands from small shacks scattered along the back of the beach. Each shack has its own ice-filled tray at the front, displaying the fish caught on the beach that day; orange snapper, silvery pike, blue lobsters. Tourists sit on plastic chairs and drink arak and murmur into the night.
One evening a tiny boat drifted around into the cove from the east. It was drifting, powered by no sail or motor. The arrival caused alarm among the few evening surfers when it was noticed that an arm, thin and dark and frail, hung listlessly over the low side of the craft and trailed fingers in the water. They guided the boat around the rock to the beach, where a small crowd helped drag it ashore. The lips of the man inside, cracked and white, and the crust of parched saliva around his mouth, told of terrible dehydration. They brought him water from the shacks, and white rice. Three or four people attended to him. An American held the man’s head in his lap as shack workers poured water into his mouth and over his chin, and another cleaned sores on his legs and torso. He tried to keep the alarm in his eyes out of his voice as he cooed softly and soothingly to the man from the sea. Around them, the crowd remained. They stood and watched in silence because nobody wanted to disturb the man as he was dying and nobody knew how to leave.
The destruction wrought by the ocean was in evidence all over him. Countless wounds had opened up over his body, and the edges had been turned grey and purple by the salt water. His brown skin seemed covered with a fine pale dust, which shimmered from his body when disturbed before settling again. His deeply lined face was emaciated and drained of colour, as if no blood flowed beneath his skin. White hair flowed freely over his shoulders and his white moustache grew over his mouth and into his long beard. His eyelids remained closed, but behind them his eyes twitched and flicked restlessly. They continued to water him into the night while the doctor was called, and slowly, eventually, his yellow eyes opened.
He looked vaguely at the faces that hovered over him, and blinked slowly as if his eyelids gummed together anew each time. After a time he eased himself up and hooked his arms around his knees and sat silent, facing the ocean. They began to question him, the Sri Lankans in Sinhala and the American, helplessly, in English. They beseeched and begged him to tell them where he came from, why he came, how he had lived, even his name. The doctor listened to his heart and took his temperature and asked him if he hurt and where. The noise of their voices mingled with the music and chatter of the night, but did not disturb the little sphere of silence around the man from the sea. He sat and stared at the waves which glittered silver now in the dim light from the crescent moon.
He was still there at dawn. He had sat there all night accompanied by the three men who had attended to him, and who had stayed after the doctor had left and after the crowd had realised that the man from the sea would not die. One of the men from the shack brought rice and sweet tea, and they ate as the sun rose warm and red. The man from the sea used sandy fingers to roll the rice into little balls, which he passed into his mouth to chew slowly. All the time he stared at the sea. The others ate more quickly, but just as silently. When the sun began to burn more fiercely they erected a parasol, and throughout the day the four men continued to sit together, in silence and without knowing why. In the evening the silence was broken by the man from the sea. When he spoke it was in lilting English, in an accent unfamiliar to both the Sri Lankans and the American, and in a voice deep and solemn and cracked by the sea. ‘I am a fisherman,’ he said.
‘My boat was a small one. We were three. We fished for tuna in the deep waters. We had been at sea a long time. The fishing was good, and the fish boxes were full to bursting. We should have come home. But the fishing was so good that we wanted to take more.
‘The last time we lowered the net, the water looked so beautiful. I remember asking my oarsman what colour it was because I couldn’t say myself. He did not answer because he was watching the lines. We had something too big in the net. All three of us leaned over the edge to see as it came close to the surface. What we saw was no fish or shark or whale. Just a shadow, endlessly big. It filled the sea as far as I could see. At last we saw its eyes. Huge black eyes, like a shark, even blacker in the centre, and looking at us. Then it turned and dived. We didn’t have time to cut the lines. Maybe we did, but we were too afraid to move. It pulled the boat under and tore her to pieces like paper.
‘I thought I would drown. For a long time I could not see the surface, only the shadow beating its tail as it dragged the boat downwards, and us with it. And when I saw the surface it was so far away. I watched the sunbeams for some moments, reaching through the sea like spears. It took all my strength even to try and make for it.
‘When I broke the surface, I was alone. Not even a board of my boat to be seen, and no sign of my crew. No land. I dared not look down, but there was no comfort in looking up. The sun was low and the sky was clouding over. The last rays of the evening lit the clouds like the heart of a fire. It was beautiful, but I cried as I watched. I was so afraid as the light died. There was no moon, no stars. The night was as black as the eyes of the monster underneath me. I could only listen as the waters heaved and splashed around me. I swelled the ocean with my tears that night.
‘I screamed when I felt sand beneath my feet. I waded for an eternity until I heard waves breaking on a shore, and another eternity until I found a beach. Once again that black night came alive with noise, land noises now of rustling trees and baying animals, both a comfort and a threat. I curled up and thought of my boat and my drowned friends and my mother.
‘I opened my eyes to see faces, like I saw yours when I awoke on this beach. Such beautiful and terrifying faces, with the darkest skin decorated with white ink. I could not run nor scream. I was too afraid. But they spoke to each other so softly, in a language that sounded like song, that I was soothed. Perhaps they took me for an explorer. They brought me fish to eat and coconut water to drink, and they beckoned me to follow them. I was afraid to leave the beach, but to stay was worse. They lead me through dense forest to an enormous clearing filled with small huts and hammocks and animal pens. In the centre smoked a huge fire, around which had been hung fish of all sizes, and land animals too, smoking and spitting. They lead me to a bed of palm leaves, and laid me down. I slept and slept, slept away all my terrors and sorrows and memories of the monster.
‘I don’t know how long I stayed. They did not mark time and neither did I. I learned that these were the gentlest people I have known. I had no desire to leave. I watched as they fished with spears and tried to learn. I watched as they built with earth and wood, and hunted with arrows. I listened to the music of their language, and of their instruments. I could have stayed with them and been happy there.
‘The children fell sick first. They began to sweat in the night, and to cough like their bodies were bursting. They were given brewed leaves to drink, and moss was laid on their burning foreheads. The adults began to succumb too, the strongest with the weakest. None could be helped, and none lived. I watched so many as they died, and I tended the last of them myself. Within a week I was left alone again on an island of bodies. There were too many to bury, too many even for the sea to swallow.
‘I returned to the beach and appealed to the stars for the strength to die, for the plague that I had brought to the people to take me as well, but the stars offered no response. I begged them for the courage walk into the sea, or to open my veins with the spears of the dead, but they offered me only cowardice, guilt and grief. That boat is one of theirs. I took it and pushed out to sea, and lay back and tried to flood it with tears. My heart broke once more when I opened my eyes here to find myself alive.’
With that, the great explorer fell silent. None of the three men in attendance spoke. After a time, one by one, they stood and walked away, for none of them could speak for fear of sharing his burden. For many years the silent man from the sea remained on the beach, and they brought him water to drink and rice to eat. One morning, after a night on which the stars were brighter than anyone could remember, he was no longer there.
Pushing through hydrangeas
And old galvanised sheets
Leaving behind wasps in watery bottles
A once great estate
Marrying under its exotic heart shaped leaves
When we were 8
Our wedding feast
And odd shaped pears
Booty taken from behind the brick walled orchard
Our flag of conquest
A striped red teeshirt
Billowing on top