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​Image courtesy ​selva

Our January challenge was to write a short story bearing three factors in mind – a powerful beginning, a convincing problem, a satisfying resolution.

Keep it simple —and keep it short. Write no more than 500 words. It can be fact or fiction. Don’t try to tell your life story. Make sure that you identify the central problem that your story revolves around: that dictatorial boss; the unattainable lover; the fact that you had to put yourself through university after your parents went bankrupt…

Winner: Mike Woolnough for his cheeky story built on a whisper of misunderstanding. It holds our attention throughout and has a strong beginning, middle and end.

 “No one calls my wife fat! Do you understand me punk?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Besides, I couldn’t have answered. His right fist, and a good chunk of shirt, was bunched up under my jaw. His knuckles pressed firmly against my windpipe. A pair of shirt buttons shimmied across the floor. Derek’s wife stood a few steps behind him. I was uncertain if her sobbing resulted from the possible truth of the accusation or the unbridled hostility her hubby directed at me.

“You’re choking the laaitjie. Leave him,” said Leon.

I nodded to reinforce the wisdom of my friend’s suggestion.

“But you heard him,” Derek kept his death stare riveted on me.

“Ja. But dude…”

Seriously! I tried wagging my head from side to side. Derek’s knuckles dug deeper. Leon may as well have punched me in the face and spared Derek the effort.

“Honey, leave the little guy.” Derek’s wife was making a lot of sense.

Thankfully he listened. Cool air flooded my lungs.

“Why’d you say that?” he demanded.

“Hey dude, sorry. I just repeated what Leon said.”

I was immediately conflicted. Leon looked at me like I had just stabbed him in the head. Derek looked like he was going to stab Leon in the head. At least the heat was off me.

“So you think my wife is fat?” Derek demanded.

“Hell no! I think she’s hot.” Leon blushed.

“Hot! I don’t want to hear about my hot or fat wife from you idiots, okay?” Flecks of spit formed on the corners of his mouth. His wife continued blubbing.

Red-eyed and eight months pregnant, she was still hot! Sure, a little baby-padded, but certainly not fat. I had no idea why Derek was getting so riled.

“What’s wrong with you two? Really! Shut your mouths, dammit. You guys are flippin’ weird! If you think she’s hot why call her fat?”

“We didn’t,” offered Leon.

I nodded in agreement.

I watched a vein thicken on Derek’s forehead and wondered if it could pop. “But she said you did,” he pointed at the sniveller. “And you both said you did.”

“No we didn’t,” I replied.

He took a step towards me, “I’ll rip your eyes out and chew on them.” His hand reached for my neck.

“Okay. I see the problem,” offered Leon. He placed his hand on Derek’s forearm.

“You see the problem. Really? Now you see the problem?” His eyes bulged.

“It’s a simple spelling mistake.”

“How the hell can you misspell F, A, T.”

“Four letters actually.”

“Hah?”

“P, h, a, t. Phat.”

“Phat? That’s not even a word.”

“Google it. It means ‘excellent’.”

“Oh.” Derek dropped his arms. His aggression sloughed off. He turned to his wife. “Let’s get out of here.” They walked away.

Leon placed his arm around my shoulder. “It also means Pretty Hot And Tempting. Under the circumstances, ‘excellent’ was the better answer.”

Runner-up: Red Shoes by Amanda Okill, a suspenseful story with some great details.

It was still dark when the first call came through. They had found a child’s shoe in a creek behind the migrant’s camp, a short distance from the fairground. Red, size four.

She was standing in the kitchen, her fingers wrapped round the phone like suction pads. An hour earlier they had sent her home, a bundle of exhausted hysteria, her voice hoarse.

She’d dressed him the day before in his cords, a fleece lined jumper and new red shoes.

‘Please God, don’t …’

Thirteen hours without him.

They had been watching the Ferris wheel, its giant spokes silhouetted against the setting sun.

She had lifted him, ‘Look Harry, there’s Alfie up there. Can you see? And Daddy.’

The wind whipped his fine hair and he reached out his arms, laughing.

She had placed him down again, leant forward on the railings, stretching. It was late, she was tired. His hand slipped from hers like a wet fish. Her husband waved. She stood back snapping three shots on her phone, uploading them to Instagram ‘Winter fun.’

One more car to go. She turned.

Harry was gone.

Her eyes swept the periphery like stunned camcorders. Next to her was a woman in a floppy hat ‘Have you seen my little boy?’ The woman shook her head.

Behind, a gang of Romany kids jostled, surging towards the last ride. She pushed through them.

‘Whoa lady.’

She remembered shouting, calling his name, the fairground’s lights a swirl of psychedelic colors. A clown was walking towards her on stilts, its bright mouth open and laughing, the ground around strewn with burger wrappers and slush puppy cartons.

They arrived at dawn, a policeman and woman for support. Her husband opened the door, stood there crumpled and shrunken, his shirt tails hanging from behind.

They placed the shoe on the table.

She fell to her knees.

‘It’s not his, not Harry’s.’

For a moment light danced through the room. Then she remembered. Long shadows returned.

She switched on the TV news station, a search was underway. Uniformed police with short leashed Alsatians strode through the camp’s makeshift streets. A man stood with his head down, a woman in the dim light of a kerosene lamp shook hers – no they had not seen the little boy. Then the volunteers, combing the fields, calling his name. ‘Poor child. We’ve been telling the Council to move these people. Do they listen? Now look what’s happened.’

The second call came through just after 8am. A child had been found in the sea-facing arcade. Some kids had climbed in through the dog flap, fallen asleep by the radiator’s warmth and set off the alarm at first dawn. The owner had run in with a baseball bat and they’d scattered like strewn leaves blown back to the camp.

On a beanbag, rubbing his eyes was a small blond boy in red shoes.

He was unharmed, happy, unaware of how his brief disappearance had capsized the world around him.

Special mention to Judy Woodburne for Tell me the colours, her delicate story of a relationship, subtly written.

Forty years. That’s how long it’s been since our time together ended. And there she is. Even without the dog, I’d know her anywhere. The dark hair I remember has silvered. How striking. Age has moulded her into more than the beauty I remember.

We’d arranged to meet at the entrance to Tremayne Park, where autumn colours blaze against the grey sky. There’d been rain yesterday but, today, it holds off.

“I’ll be the one with the Labrador,” she said.

“I’ll find you and then we can find somewhere to sit and talk.”

“I’m nervous.”

“Me too.”

“Angela Minawarra, I’m here,” I say, standing in front of her and holding out my hand for the dog to smell.

“Ezra David Molusi, so you are. It’s good to hear your voice after so many years.” We kiss cheeks and she reaches down to touch the dog.  “Meet Nelson.”

“Hello, Nelson. Can I pat him?” He and his predecessors are part of the reason she stayed when I had to leave.

“Of course. He’s been with me for three years and is my fourth Labrador. As you know, I cannot imagine life without them.”

We find a place to sit – a dry bench set back from the pathway busy with afternoon strollers, runners, skateboarders and bikers. The park is popular.

“Decaf, one sugar and cream,” I say placing the takeaway coffee in her hand.

“You remembered. Yours is black with two sugars.”

Nelson sits at her feet as we catch up on our lives. Angela turns to me, “I want to know how your face has changed. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” I say and guide her hands.

She starts with my hair. “Ah, you’re thinning here and your sideburns are shorter. Is your hair still black?”

I laugh. “That’s changed. Now it’s all shades of grey.

“Tell me the colours.”

And there she is, the girl who introduced me to world of unbelievable clarity even though she can only differentiate shades of light. Her fingers move gently down my jaw, charting the changes time has etched.

I laugh. “I’m out of practise but I’ll try. The sides are almost white, a white tinged with grey, the soft grey of early morning. And, elsewhere, …

I stop and smile as her fingers move over my mouth, tracing my lips, before touching my nose and brow.

“… mostly iron grey with some white, silver and what remains of the black. I’m very distinguished looking.”

Dropping her hands and laughing, she says, “You haven’t changed that much. I can tell that you’ve put on a little weight and there are smile lines around your mouth and laughter lines at the outer corners of your eyes. You’re happy.”

“Yes,” I agree. “And you? You’ve a serenity that’s new to me.”

“I’ve found peace. My marriage is good and I’ve my precious family around me.”

I kiss her hand, hold it briefly to my heart and then describe the autumn colours.

Special mention to Six Members Only by Johann van der Walt for a tense story with a perfect ending.

Jimmy tossed his schoolbag onto the ground. In front of him, the tree house stood like a secret fortress, tucked away from all adults deep into the forest. The kid rushed up the ladder. He was excited, no denying that.  Today is a special day for him.  A kid in school, Martin, died of a freak accident. The information on exactly what happened was rather scarce. To everybody else this was a big loss, but to Jimmy, it was an opportunity. He had been waiting for something like this to happen.  The Colt Boys, as they called themselves, had an opening due to the unfortunate event of Martin’s death. Steve, the leader of the club, had chosen members extremely meticulously. Jimmy had tried getting into the club before but never succeeded. Every kid wanted to be in Steve’s club. The rules were simple. No parents must ever know about the club and only six kids could be part of it.  Now was his chance. Today is the day he joins the club, end of story.

“Thought you might show up,” Steve said as he lit one of the cigarettes he stole from his father.

“Can I join now?”

“Hold on Jimmy,” Steve said while the other five nodded, grinning mischievously.

“What?”

“You gotta earn the spot.”

“Okay.”

“You have to become one of us.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Steve chuckled menacingly.

“Jimmy you have to play a game.”

“Here in the forest?”

“Yeah, don’t you like playing games?”

The cigarette dangled loosely from his lips, and for a brief second Jimmy thought about what must taste like.

“Well? If you don’t play you have to leave, there will always be someone-“

“No, I’ll play.”

Their sinister smiles had now grown wider.

“How did Martin die?”

The thought suddenly choked him.

“In or out? Last chance. Forget about Martin.”

He desperately wanted to belong somewhere. These boys looked out for each other. He needed that.

“In.”

One of the boys jumped up, closed the hatch door and locked it.

Jimmy’s heart raced but he kept a smile, trying to hide his sudden fear.

“Very well,” Steve said and removed a colt special six-shooter from his backpack.

“There is only one bullet in the chamber, every week we all face death. To become one of us, you must escape death,” he said. Every member smiled.

“We have all survived death.”

“Martin was shot here,” Jimmy gasped.

“You are up first,” Steve said and closed the chamber with a loud click. He spun it and aimed at Jimmy’s forehead. Two boys pinned him down, rendering him powerless.

“Face death Jimmy, in this life you either conquer death everyday, or you are already dead.”

Jimmy closed his eyes. Perspiration ran down his forehead and his body shook uncontrollably. He could hear the Colt’s chamber slow down. Tick. Tick. Tick. There is no way out of this, he thought. His heart climbed up his throat.  All went quiet. Then Steve squeezed the trigger.

Special mention to Lynne Hendricks for her whimsy.

Bella woke with a startle. “What the fuck was that?” She said as she fell out of bed and made her way over to the window. Pulling back the curtains she didn’t expect the sight she was met with. The entire sky was brightly lit as explosion after explosion hit. “What the fuck.” She said again and made her way downstairs to get a better view outside.

“Not so fast.” A voice said as she reached for the door. “Where do you think you’re going? No one said you could leave the house.”

Bella jumped as she spun around trying to find the source of the voice.  “Who are you? What do you want?” She demanded.

“Me?” Said the voice. “You want to know who I am. I will leave you to figure that one out for yourself. Now step away from the door or I will be forced to take further steps.”

“Are you trying to tell me that I know you?” Bella asked as another explosion knocked her to the ground.

“That’s exactly it. Now do as you’re told and step away from the door.”

Bella reluctantly got up and did as she was told, her head spinning from side to side trying to find the source for the voice.

“Go sit on the couch and turn on the television. Hopefully it will jog your memory.”

Bella again did as she was told. She was shocked once she gazed upon the news reports of the destruction that had hit the entire planet.

“I think you must be mistaken.” She started. “I would never associate with anyone who would cause any destruction of such magnitude”

“Me? Take a closer look, this isn’t my handy work. This is all you. You created this and therefore you are solely responsible for it all.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I didn’t do this, how could I possibly have caused such great destruction?”

“Only one way to find out.” The voice said. Flipping the Television channels and giving Bella an overview of the entire world. “Look familiar?” It asked again.

“You thief.” Bella shouted as she recognised the scenes flashing before her eyes. “You stole my manuscript. How the fuck did you get in and how can you possibly be destroying the world while you’re here?”

“Now, now Bella. We both know you don’t like the use of profanity. I didn’t steal your manuscript. I am it and I am merely carrying out your wishes and destroying a selfish and useless species.”

“You can’t do that, that’s not real it’s just a story.”

“Yes, a well written story, which needed to be executed. Now enjoy your front row seat.”

“This can’t be happening.” Bella said to herself as she jumped into action. The voice was preoccupied and she pretended to be flipping through the news channels and remotely connected to her computer, using the television. “Kill it. Kill the story.” She said as she pushed delete and erased the story forever.

And the final special mention goes to Darryl Boswell for his use of detail and his humour.

1955 was just another annus horribilis – “character building experiences”, I grimace, sarcastically. What a load of kak. More like a red hot chilli pepper.

Hello, Savoy Cafe? Who am I speaking to, please? Vassilaros? I would like to order a Korsmans ice cream cake for my children’s birthday next Saturday, Mr Vassilaros. Can you help me? Pardon? No, just one cake – I have two kids that share a birthday … no, not twins, they’re three years apart. Just a simple message: Happy Birthday Boris and Alice. No, B for Boris, and Alice has a c, not an s. No, a boy and a girl …

My mother sighed and shook her head. I knew the family: their son, Johnny, belonged to our swimming club, and all the kids patronised the Savoy since it was right opposite the Empire bioscope.

The usual birthday crowd was there: Jannie from next door, kids from the neighbourhood, schoolmates, a few from Sunday School, Marlene and Warwick from Cinderella, and our brood, of course. The presents always came first, the wrapping eagerly ripped apart and contents displayed on our respective beds – to be considered more closely later. I just knew there would be socks, and hankies, a book or two, some pocket money, never anything very exciting. Then off to play our games. The girls had already started playing I wrote a letter to my love and on the way I dropped it; Wester and the guys were getting ready for a game of Eggy.

Then called to the table on the back stoep for the party. The sweaty boys pushed and shoved for places, eyeing the goodies greedily; the girls, while just as eager, put on a more well-mannered show. Nobody was allowed to tuck in before the candles were blown out, and Happy Birthday to you sung. As soon as Mom came out, I could see that something was up: she had this what the hell look on her face, and was closely followed by a giggling, nudging Aunty Dorothy. What followed has remained a recurring nightmare for me: the message on the cake read Happy Birthday Doris and Alice! The kids erupted – I was never able to live it down – it seemed to grow exponentially.

Not long afterwards, I took up tap dancing, and was immediately thrown into the deep end. An eisteddfod in the Springs Town Hall was on hand, and I urgently needed tap shoes. These were duly ordered from Carnival Novelty in Johannesburg, the nearest supplier. Imagine my shock when I received in the post, not the standard boy’s black patent leather lace-ups, but a pair of blood red girl’s shoes with matching bright red ribbons (that would have done Pope Benedict proud in the next century)! Another what the hell moment: with a few brushstrokes of black dye, I was made to believe my problem had been fixed.

Picture the scene, as Sophia was later wont to say in The Golden Girls: short-arsed me bespectacled at the time – prescribed for a squint – ditto for my compatible partner, Anthea, twinkle-toeing our way into third place, to the tune of Walking my baby back home (heel, toe, heel, toe; tap-step, ball change, tap-step, ball change …). It was rather cute for 10 year olds, especially the ooh-aah way it ended: I on one knee, with Anthea perched on the other, an arm around my neck.

Defining moments, or get over yourself, in today’s parlance?

February writing challenge – a very short story

 To celebrate the month of love: In 140 characters (including the spaces between words) or less tell a story of great love.

Paste your entry into the body of an email and send it to trish@allaboutwritingcourses.com by midnight on 1 March 2016. The best entry will receive a book voucher for the independent bookshop of your choice. We’ll tweet the winning and short-listed entries and post them on the Allaboutwriting website and Facebook.

 

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