This was our July 2016 writing challenge:
Unusual sunsets, dramatic landscapes, dreamy seascapes have all inspired us to want to capture their essence in words. But I’d hazard that what writers find the most inspiring are not vistas and breath-taking scenery – but words.
So this month we’re going to simply quote the famous opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea and then challenge you, not to match it, but to write a short story – 250 words maximum – inspired or suggested by it.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.”
And the winner is…
Lauren Smith for the clarity of her writing and strong characterisation in her powerful little story. Lauren has chosen the Book Lounge in Cape Town for her book voucher.
The runners-up include Clive Goodchild-Brown and Michael Jozefowicz for some fine writing and strong details, and Jenny Alence and Christine Coates for the creativity and strong arc of their stories.
Here are the winning entries:
Towards the end, I do nothing but visit every day. After the painful conversations, she lets me retreat into our favourite rants for a while. When I bring a worn, patched blanket my parents said she should lay across her aged knees, however, she scoffs and ceases to dither.
‘So.’ She stretches her legs, straightens her back. ‘A good death or cancer’s permanent defeat?’
I gulp my gin, eyeing her painkillers. She owns a ninth-floor apartment with a breathtaking view. Her fingers could tie Gordion knots.
I hide my hands in my pockets. ‘Why not do it yourself?’
She answers only when I meet her gaze. ‘I want your approval.’ Suddenly she’s papery-soft, like I’m told grandmothers are. ‘And your complicity.’
I scowl. ‘That’s unkind.’
‘Oh, fuck kindness. Is that what you’re doing here, being kind? Instead of being at work?’
‘Work would be easier.’
‘Staying alive is easier for me. For now. But it’s like getting out of bed for a shit job I don’t have the pluck to quit.’ I flinch and she catches my hand. ‘What we need, my boy, is the audacity to make hard decisions.’
A week later, I’m free to spend all day with her, binge-watching horror and eating Thai too good for me to afford now. I study her, and her unwavering poise steadies me. She’s fierce, even when fading and I have never admired anyone so much.
When I leave, I kiss her forehead and gently place the gun in her lap.
He straightened up onto shaky legs, saluting palm down. “Captain Finlayson, your Majesty. HMS Colossus at the ready.”
I matched his salute. “May I sit Captain?”
“At ease …” He slumped back into the wheelchair.
I sat on the edge of the sofa holding Granny’s bag. It was my final visit to collect her stuff.
“Course plotted through The North Sea. Von Tirpitz’s dreadnoughts won’t chase us down.” He coughed.
Every day I’d noticed him staring out of his ‘bay window’ bridge. The duck pond reflecting his blue sky ocean.
Twists of thread grew from his cuffs. Laces missing from gold epaulettes. His cap’s visor bent. “We sunk them at Jutland. We’ll sink them again.”
He pointed at the medals pinned onto his uniform. “For service to your Majesty.” He rubbed one in trembling fingers. “The Royal Decoration. Second only to the Victoria Cross.”
A nurse appeared. “Okay Captain, time to bunk down.”
She rolled him down the corridor whistling softly. I followed.
“Stop whistling it’ll blow up a storm.” He commanded.
“Nobody visits.” She whispered, turning into his Spartan quarters.
While she helped him into bed, I studied the framed newspaper photo of a man in a coat pinning a medal onto a young naval officer. The clip read: ‘Captain Walter Finlayson receives The Royal Decoration from King George for escorting his Majesty safely across the North Sea under German fire – 11 June 1917.’
“See you on tomorrow’s watch my Captain.” I buttoned my coat and saluted palm down.
Wind wails through the wreckage of a skiff on a forgotten beach. No footprints have disturbed the sand here in untold years. Only birds, riding the warm storms of summer, still alight here.
Waves roll in, pushing at the hull’s pitted wood. It sways to the ancient salted rhythm of the ocean but does not yield. The rough grain dreams of a time long since past when weathered hands steered it towards the horizon.
Foaming crescents pull at the sleeper until it wakes, creaking with sighs of lamentation. The aches of countless years flare along its joints in protest.
Scuff marks along its sides tell of a great battle long since fought and won. The agony of that immense struggle whispers faintly, stifled by the passage of time. Fragments of it thrash below the surface, eager to reveal themselves.
With one last tug the sea retreats. A piece of tattered sail uncovered by the current, discards yet more of its fabric, unfurles in an attempt to catch the wind.
Faded memories slick with nostalgia stir as it rises. The faint smell of sweat, the glint of something lost, a deep red like the sunset spilling upon its bow.
Revelation dawns upon its side then disappears behind a solitary cloud. Life leaves the skiff under that passing traveler. Only timber remains, abandoned upon a stretch of crushed shell. The brittle driftwood skeleton of an unfaltering keel, bleached bone-white by the sun.
They met at a building called Leafy Lane and their first conversation was about old Mrs Olsen’s plumbing. There was some sort of leak coming from her balcony and it was dripping onto the apartment below, where Ayanda lived.
“Really, Joe, I’m sick of it. This is the third time! What is the problem?”
“Frankly, Ayanda, it’s a puzzle. I’ve been in there myself and I don’t know where it’s coming from. I was just taking Anne there with me now to have another look.”
Joe was the new caretaker. Anne lived there and was also on the maintenance committee. This was the first complaint they were tackling together.
They went into the small elevator and he pressed 3. They chatted, wondering about the cause, taking each other in. He saw about Anne what everyone did, the skeletal delicacy under her loose black clothes, but also he saw the contrasting fullness of her lips and those merry eyes. Around his there were a lot of lines and bags underneath. She had heard about his recent loss.
Mrs Olsen called for them to come in and there she was, hosing down her plants, oblivious to the stream collecting at the little corner outlet. Joe chuckled with Mrs Olsen, telling about the mystery that had broken out. His arm was around her frail shoulders and there was delight in her giggle.
When Joe was gone, Anne remembered this as the moment he became framed in light.
Her Last and First Sunset by Christine Coates
She knew she was drowning. The water was up to the top of the car’s windows and she couldn’t open the door – or the windows. It had all happened so quickly – her eyes had been on the sunset, the swirling reds and oranges, then swerving for the dog, hitting the curb, the car flipping up into the air, swallow-diving into the icy river. Now it was all deep green; she sat there in her own private aquarium as her life flashed before her. She was overcome with regret. She’d never truly loved anyone – beyond her parents, she’d never loved, never given her heart to anyone, never watched a sunset with a man’s arms wrapped around; a man all of her own. And she was going to die – drown or suffocate and she was still a virgin.
“What a waste.” She said it out loud as if there was someone to hear her, in her lonely green grave. But then there was a tapping on the windscreen. An angel come so soon? And when she looked up there was a man in one of those red-and-black checked shirts you only saw on rednecks, not angels. His cheeks were puffed out with holding his breath. He was motioning to her to start the car, turn the ignition, open the window. And then she knew it – love had finally arrived, in the nick of time. She would live to see another sunset. She would not die untaken, unsullied.