… And we have a winner!
But before I name her, allow me to say that I think this challenge was actually one of the more difficult ones we’ve issued. Writing about death… and birth and despair… Well, it’s more or less an invitation to be maudlin. And yet it’s precisely what we need to avoid.
So the winner – and the entrants that Jo-Anne and I believe scored near bull’s-eyes – are those who steered clear of sentiment, and looked for ways of showing the emotions and the events that inspired them.
The winner is Lauren Smith. Her piece is about as tough and as self-insightful as you can get. It’s about love and death – but it deals with them with a kind of mordant, brutal honesty that holds mushy sentimentality totally at bay.
Kate cried when she told me she was pregnant. Her tears didn’t help – I still fought with her for hours. Then I left her. She wanted to keep it, so I did not want to keep her.
When her son Jaime was born, I sent flowers and a card: “I hope your men make you happy.” It was petty and spiteful and the only thing I’d enjoyed doing in the past nine months. I didn’t speak to Kate again for fourteen years. I can be such a bitch.
Then Jaime was killed hiking with Kate on a trail I loved and she loathed. She’d held on to me, she’d shared me with Jaime, and she’d lost him doing it. That made it harder to go back and apologise, but it felt easier when she hugged me and wished she hadn’t hurt me. She cried for Jaime, and it almost seemed like we’d returned to that final fight all those years ago. But with the chance of a better ending.
Later, in the warmth of her bed, I asked about Jaime’s father. I was feeling smug and vengeful. But Kate just laughed sadly. “He’s not possessive, Nora. He won’t be angry.” She squeezed my hand but didn’t look at me. “We could have been a family, the four of us.”
That, finally, unknotted my cold, twisted pride. My body unwound around hers and I stopped hating.
Lauren has chosen to redeem her book voucher prize at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.
We also both really liked Marilyn de Villiers’ piece, The Writer, which mixes black humour with a quite wonderful economy. I’m tempted to use her story as an example of how few words can be used to say so much.
“I don’t do melodrama.” Arnie shoved the papers at his agent and leaned back, his shirt buttons straining. He lit another cigarette.
Bridgette held his glare. “Arnie please. It’s what they want.”
“Did they actually read it? They must be fucking illiterates.” Arnie waved the book at her. “I don’t give a flying fuck what they want. This is supposed to be make people laugh. That’s what I do. I’m a funny guy. Now get the fuck out of here and tell them to go…”
Bridgette scooped up the papers and headed for the door. “Arnie, please …” She ducked as the book came flying past her head and sent the yellowing photograph of him with President George HW Bush crashing to the floor. “Just think about it. Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman.” She closed the door behind her.
Arnie lumbered across the room and cradled the book. He had sweated over it, word by painful word, a long labour of love. He couldn’t pop them out like he used to. At least the reviews were enthusiastic. “Arnold Green is back,” said The Times.
But comedy didn’t win Oscars. The producers wanted Oscars. And who was he kidding? Thanks to his soon-to-be ex, he needed this deal. He booted up his computer and ruthlessly dismembered his progeny, killing characters here; adding dollops of despair there; ignoring the pain in his heart.
It was Bridgette who found him. His widow accepted the Oscar on his behalf.
Honorable mentions: Frankie Francis, for her imaginative setting;
I clung to the protruding rock as yet another wave crashed over me, on its demolition path towards our village.
I will not release you! I silently called to the rock. My legs floated under me, protruding my extended belly higher out of the water. The waters broke, and as the contractions increased, my fingers dug deeper into the earth’s crust.
Another wave, another push, and I felt his head open my floating legs even wider.
Raw fingers dug deeper, my cry bellowed, now mingled with the first bellow of life, as the next wave hurled him against my face, ripping the cord from my body.
Another piecing scream and I released my rocky hold, in favour of holding my precious newborn, and together we trusted in life’s flow to deliver us from this tumultuous new tsunami pounding our Philippine coastline.
We crashed into more bodies, each on their own journey from their own hell.
‘Why did you call me Rocky?’ my son asked me many years later.
Allison Bergh for her Hitchcockian The Gift;
Ruth had always considered Robert the perfect husband. Children loved him. Extremely neat and a wonderful cook, he was also a tender caring lover. Robert was however no longer Ruth’s husband. She had meant to tell him in the beginning but it had been so long ago and her ugly secret had coiled within her scarred barren belly as deeply as her tiny foetus itself once had. Then it was too late. Angry and betrayed, Robert had left. For months Ruth’s depression had left her mind fuzzy and dark but, as the fog lifted, Ruth worked out a plan to get Robert back. Today was the day. First she would visit her dear friend, Anita, now heavily pregnant, at home for tea and cake and then she would make her way to Robert’s house a little further down the village.
It was a little after teatime when Ruth finally knocked on the wooden door of Robert’s little cottage in Thistle lane. Shadows were beginning to fall and, as Ruth stood on Robert’s gleaming steps, she stopped to wander if he would be home yet. She did hope so because she finally had what he so wanted. He would be so happy. They would be so happy. Then she noticed a tiny red droplet fall on the floor at her feet, and then another. Tightening her hold on the bundle in her arms, she slowly shook her head, “Not like my ever fastidious Robert”, she murmured, “not like him at all.”
Francois Steyn for her coolly-told Kalahari tale;
Afterwards, when referring to that endless winter, everyone spoke of the month with too many funerals. The month sorrow stole the tongues of the old Kalahari people and made the young ones shiver with horror.
The child was too close to Millie. His attachment to her was something people whispered about. As the years passed, he passed from under the blankets on Millie’s back to her hip and later to making his own footprints in the sand next to hers. At 11 years old, Kiga carried her bag while other boys played ball. At night he slept close to her in the small hut.
The man came from a place far away. He did not look like their people. He was tall, his hair very light and his eyes big and round. He spoke words that Kiga did not understand, but he spoke a language that Millie’s body understood only too well.
When her stomach started expanding like the growing moon, the man left. Again it was just Millie and Kiga – and the two things the man left inside Millie. The one was growing. They gave it a name. The other was eating away at Millie’s body. She did not give it a name.
The sun was high when they put her body into the sand with the stillborn one they called Mannetjie on her chest. People sang the song for the dead and went home. Kiga stayed. For five days Kiga stayed. He would lie face down on the fresh sand mound. He never cried.
On the sixth day when the sun was low, they found him hanging by his neck from the Camel thorn tree, his shadow slowly moving from the head to the foot end of the grave, and back again.
Gwendoline May for her tremblingly touching (but not sentimental) not-so-shaggy-dog tale, School Morning.
They were born into the cold of a school morning, with just enough light to see them coming out of Jinks’s body. Their newness made Cassie shiver.
Mother looked on, yawning. The rest of the family was buried under blankets and pillows. Her brothers already had dogs. A boy dog was what you were allowed.
Bitches were trouble.
Father, white spit caught at the corner of his snoring mouth, had pulled a face when she yanked his arm.
“Seen it all before, Cassie.”
Calves, lambs, puppies, babies. Was it always as bloody and sausage like as this?
The pen was really small and the straw thick. When they were all out, Mother picked up some mess. Cassie looked away. When she looked back, the puppies were grunting, squeaking, bumping into the sides of the pen and each other. They were blind still, eyes silver grey blue, like the handle of a spoon. They were trying to find their way to Jinks’s teats. Mother slapped her hand away when she tried to help them.
“Jinks won’t like your smell.”
She wanted to watch forever but Mother leant forward, frowning. One by one, she pulled each puppy from Jink’s teats, held it upside down. The puppies cried sadly until their mouths were back sucking.
Mother picked up the puppy in the corner of the pen, the one who wasn’t hungry or was just being polite. She held him for a long time.
“Cassie, I’m so sorry. The only boy dog is dead.”
Well done to all of you – as well as to everyone who entered. We always enjoy reading your stories – even if you don’t win a book or even a mention!
And remember: the more you write, the luckier you’ll become.