And the winner of our tenth anniversary challenge is…
We had a bumper crop of excellent entries for our tenth anniversary challenge – and they kept on tumbling in until the very last moment, just minutes before deadline. In fact, our winning entry appeared in our email basket at ten minutes before the midnight guillotine descended.
The winner stands out above the rest for her very strong and distinctive voice, the sexiness while being humourous is not at all clunky, and the running gag that holds it all together. It is the work of Lynn Joffe, who has, she tells us, just won her Masters in creative writing at Wits, cum laude. We’re not surprised.
Lynn wins a place on our ten-day Writing Workout that kicks off on November 1.
We’ve selected three runners up. They are (in no particular order), Clive Goodchild-Brown, for his excellent Sean Connery imitation (and an energetic and funny story); Christine Bayly, for her character’s well-motivated change of heart; and Janice Leibowitz, for her love story with, shall we say, a spiritual dimension.
But there were more – many more! – that we’d like to commend. Again, in no particular order: Barbara Simmonds for her plangent take on anniversaries; Clare Manicom for her dialogue; Anita Powell for her assured voice, and dense layering; Raashida Khan for a character in determined and passionate denial; Priscilla Holmes for her cadences – and her surprise; Christine Bayly (again) for the cruelty of her antagonist and: Colleen Saunders for the cleverness of her conceit.
We’d meant to go to Venice when the weather was warmer; the city has a lugubrious tendency to shades of grey and even though you can skulk about in an anorak and thermal gloves, it’s better to travel by camper when it’s warmer. The trip had taken too long to plan, organising leave, arguing over destinations and we had missed the window of autumnal opportunity. We couldn’t go to Germany because of World War II, we couldn’t see Spain because of the Inquisition. Russia was out of the question. We couldn’t even do Portugal after I reminded Izzy that they, too, had evicted his ancestors.
We starved like rats on twenty rand a day, rationed our kosher ravioli and fucked like rattlesnakes. I was ravished on the Rialto, doodled at the Doge, laid in the Lido; by the time we got to gondolas, I’d been rubbed raw. I bore my honeymoon cystitis with fortitude on the Piazza del Marco and hardly heard a word of the tour guide’s pigeon-soaked monologue and Izzy’s hissed asides of “You see …” as he notched up one more atrocity on the tribal belt.
Having been deprived of any kind of erotica in the boxed-in blindness of his ghetto childhood, having sex on demand was a unique luxury for Izzy. He’d never seen other people schtupping in the flesh. In Izzy’s world, pinups had stars for nipples, TV had beeps for blasphemy, morality had been trampled underfoot and transgression erased from the public domain. Sex Manners for Men had to be smuggled into the country. Playboy was punishable by imprisonment. We imagined ourselves married forever, returning to Venice on our tenth, our twentieth, our thirtieth anniversary. These years were not to be. Izzy didn’t know the Inquisition had travelled this far north.
The runners up
For the Love of Father by Christine Bayly
The waterways were dirty and the gondolas were battered and worn, as tired as the men that punted them.
This was her tenth visit to the water-ridden city and she resented it as much as her first.
She waited, tapping impatiently on the wrought iron railing that prevented drunken visitors from falling into the oily water below.
This year she was going to tell him she wasn’t coming back again. Her well-planned speech had been rehearsed on the plane, and again in her hotel room this morning. She’d chosen her clothes carefully too. Elegant. Timeless. Classy. The clothes of a woman who knew her own mind.
She turned, just in time to watch him walking towards her. He looked older, shrunken, smaller than the last time they’d met. He clutched a small urn to his chest and walked carefully, his face tilted to the cobbles.
‘Mia! I brought Mom!’ He lifted the urn, smiling triumphantly.
The urn looked tatty. Dull. Its faded red as worn the gondolier suits that poled past them.
‘Ten years. Can you believe it? Since she left us at…’
‘…at the restaurant we’ll have lunch at. I know dad.’
He beamed at her.
‘We’re so looking forward to this. Venice. The three of us. Together again.’
Mia stared at her father, her careful speech dying on her lips.
Sighing, she pushed off the railing. ‘Let me carry mum, dad. We’ll start with our usual coffee on the piazza, where she died. Maybe we can even get the same table…’
“Saluti.” Our cocktail glasses clinked together, splashing martini onto the table. The ritual was the same as the previous five. Down the olive, down the martini, down the second olive and thump our glasses on the table.
Jason licked his lips and narrowed his eyes flirtatiously. “Sho, what’s yer name gorgeous?” His Connery accent was spot on.
“Pussy Galore.” I batted my eyelids.
He burst out laughing. “By George, I musht be in heaven.”
Muttering in Italian, our waiter gathered up the empty glasses and wiped the table.
“Another round, my good man.” Jason held up two fingers. “Shaken…”
“Si, si … shaken not stirred.” The waiter flicked his dishcloth.
The lights from the Grand Canal sparkled in Jason’s deep grey eyes. Osteria Bancogiro on a Friday night was the place to hang out. The tables were packed with trendy Venetians and some gaudily dressed Brits. A couple of Japanese lovebirds sucked face inside a passing gondola.
On our second date we’d watched Moonraker on his couch. He was a Connery man, while Roger Moore plucked my heart strings. We’d made a pact. If we survived ten years together, we’d celebrate in Venice.
He cupped his hand over mine. “Who would’ve thought? Connery and Moore, still an item.” He rolled his R’s. I prayed no Scots were within earshot.
The table alongside went silent. A girl whispered in her boyfriend’s ear.
Jason pointed toward the canal. “Do you shee what I shee?”
I turned, immediately spotting the lone speedboat knocking against the jetty.
“The key’s in the ignition. It’s Moonraker all over again.”
“Are you fucking insane?” I glanced around.
“Come on, the canal cops will never catch us.” He jumped up and ran laughing toward the speedboat.
“Fuck sake, Jason.” I straightened my tie and raced after him.
I can’t believe I’ve actually found my way back here! The one place I swore I’d never return to. I’m not even sure how it’s actually happened. I’ve felt so disconnected these past few months, not being able to settle to anything, or any one place. I suppose that’s what led me here: to Venice, where I promised myself I’d never revisit.
As I roam the familiar streets, I can’t help thinking: “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re making a complete fool of yourself, roaming these streets alone.” And indeed, it seems that in this City of Lovers I’m the only solitary individual, lost among the multitude of couples gazing wistfully into each other’s souls, oblivious to my gut-wrenching torment.
And suddenly there you are, sitting at an outside café! I quickly rush to hide behind a nearby pillar, but you wouldn’t see me anyway. You’re so absorbed in your Tiramisù, concentrating on the fork that is being ever so temptingly held to your open mouth by the beautiful, laughing goddess next to you. Her head is thrown back, chestnut tresses cascading down her back as your hand rests casually on her golden brown knee. She is unlike me in every way! Self-consciously, my hand reaches up to my cropped black hair. I cannot imagine myself ever being so joyfully uninhibited.
Do you even think of me? Can you begin to imagine the interminable suffering that I’ve endured? You seem to have shifted so seamlessly into an untroubled existence, sans me. And yet … here you are. You’ve come back to this place. I have to convince myself that it means something, that I still mean something.
You didn’t entirely forget me, because you’re back in Venice on the 10th anniversary of the day that I died here.
The concierge had sent up a bottle of prosecco by way of apology. The canal exit, he said, was closed, as workmen built another step and adjusted the doorway upwards. If we wanted a gondola we’d have to walk around this way and this way and this way, tracing his long finger in figure-eights over the map.
“It’s sinking,” he sang, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears, like, what can you do?
She was my mother’s idea.
“Raju, beta,” she said raising her floury hands between roti flips, “You don’t want to keep working working working forever.”
I don’t remember wanting that master’s, or the condo, or a new Honda every two years, either. But the disappointment and disgust in her face as she looked from Vik’s wasting limbs to my plump, useless ones — “there was only a 25 percent chance anyway,” my father repeated robotically, his fingers tightening on my shoulder — made me never want to cause that face again.
She was fine. Smart enough, an engineer. We talked programming as our mothers hovered over us offering tea and laddoos, which led our parents to conclude we had bonded over data structures and list comprehensions.
“So pretty, so fair,” my mother cooed. I agreed — better than I expected, but then, I did keep in pretty great shape.
On our wedding night, I attempted to explain.
Look, I said, the first boy will be Vikrant, and after that we can do whatever you want. My mother will come stay, you won’t have to do much.
She nodded, shivering under hands unaccustomed to hairless skin and limbs that gave even when tensed.
She waved away wine over dinner, hopeful.
“You don’t need to do that,” I said, thinking, you’re gonna need it, sweetheart.
I knew she had imagined vacations, bright children, paper, china, crystal, linens, silverware, wood, another diamond ring, pearls, silver, rubies … all the way to our deaths, within weeks of each other, surrounded by loving grandchildren.
The taut, goateed gondolier winked at us — no, I thought, at me.
We sailed past the hotel, and I watched the workmen seal up our hotel door brick by brick, closing off the light that poured in, in ways that would take years to show on the worn carpets.
It is a dark sitting room with small windows, made cosy by the woodburner. Over the fireplace hangs a large gloomy canvas of mist coming down over the Welsh mountains, and by the settee another painting of a dark church crypt in Venice. Our talented son-in-law excels in still life and landscapes on vast canvasses.
So often my husband sat there on the settee lamenting the lack of light by which to read his newspaper.
Bitter sweet memories! I gaze at the crypt canvas copied from a postcard we had sent from Venice. It must have been….. Yes, it WAS all of ten years ago.
Now I’m all alone with my memories….. St.Mark’s square; the bells; the bridges;the churches and the grumpy gondolier who refused to sing. Yet we looked so happy in the gondola – we WERE so happy.
Now I’m alone, with this squeezing, tearing sensation – the aching of my heart.
One more church, the tourist guide advises – not one to be missed.
San Zaccharia, father of John the Baptist. Early 9th.century; Tombs of the early Doges; Ghosts of a hundred nuns who fled to the water-logged crypt to escape a fire. Bellini; Tintoretto’s nativity, whether of John the Baptist or Christ’s, uncertain. It is said that a Byzantine emperor gave the body of Zachariah to Venice.
These facts I readily forget, but not you, my love, not you, ever.
Carefully we descend to the dimly lit flooded crypt. Breathing in the damp air, we pick our way gingerly, treading and balancing on the strategically placed duckboards. All is quiet.
THEN my husband courteously steps aside to let a lady pass.
The cold water laps his ankles, covering his long toes in the thin sandals.
I smile; I grin; I giggle; I laugh out loud!
The Last Straw by Christine Bayly
The gondolier tipped his hat at us.
‘Loverbirds,’ he murmured as he settled my wife.
‘Ten years today,’ I affirmed. ‘We met on this river.’
A shadow crossed his face. ‘Lucy you.’
‘Yes. Lucky us. Lucky me.’
I squeezed my wife’s hand. The trip had been a surprise.
‘Do you mind if we open this?’ I raised the bottle of champagne I’d secretly packed.
‘Tom! You romantic old fool,’ Gwen grinned at me.
‘Romtic man. You lucy.’
Gwen winked at me as she pointed to her chest and mouthed ‘Me Lucy.’
‘Also me anniversary. Today. Ten years on this river.’ The man spat into the oily water. ‘Not so lucy. I wait long time for love. And better job.’ He scowled as he pushed off.
I smiled politely but didn’t respond. I didn’t want anything to sour this day.
‘Bloody gondola. Hate it. Hate foreigner.’ He spat again. The blob of saliva floated on the water like a freshly shucked oyster.
He glared at Gwen and I as we took a selfie with raised glasses.
‘Hate selfies,’ he grunted, smashing the glass out of Gwen’s hand with his pole.
He turned and whacked the glass out of my hand and then smacked his pole into my jaw.
‘Tom!’ Gwen lunged towards me and then jerked backwards as he jabbed her with his pole. She crashed into the dark water.
‘Gwen!’ I leapt in after her. The dark water smelt of diesel.
‘What the…’ she spluttered.
The gondolier waved the bottle of champagne.
‘TEN YEARS! For what? Nothing!’ he yelled furiously and hurled the bottle against a wall.
It shattered in a sparkling arc.
‘Well, at least we got a selfie,’ Gwen gasped as she began to laugh, raising a dripping phone above her head.
“Oh shit, I didn’t phone her either. Some of Mum’s friends called to say they’d remembered.” Mandy stirred her coffee forcing splashes onto the white cloth. “Bugger.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“What? Stir or swear?”
Samantha sipped with exaggerated care. “Swear so much of course. It’s not necessary.”
“Bloody well is, especially when I’ve disappointed Mum. I thought a What’s App would do, but clearly not.”
“Mmm, me too. She sounded upset when we talked today. Maybe we’re too sensitive – it’s ten years since Dad died, you’d think she was over the worst now. She is slowing down a bit now though, gets more emotional than before.”
“Yeah, I noticed when she came for lunch. Ten years? Shit it feels like last week sometimes.” Mandy grabbed a damp cloth to dab the mark. “Will it come out d’you think?”
“The coffee or Mum’s disappointment?”
“You’re being obtuse and you’re just trying to piss me off. The mark of course.”
“I’ll use that magic spray.” Sam flicked a crumb before placing it on the cake plate next to the dainty fork. “Why do people make a fuss of remembering the date someone died? I’d rather appreciate their lives, maybe celebrate their birthday. They’re dead – gone. Focus on the living instead.”
“Dunno – convention? I try to remember the first year so friends feel I care and haven’t forgotten their loss. It’s a bit random really.” Mandy’s jagged nails picked at the sweetener wrapper. “Who does your nails? They’re always elegant.”
“Salon down the road. Why?” Another crumb retrieved.
“Thought I’d get mine done before we go away.”
“Where you off to this time?”
“Croatia and Venice, we’re doing a package tour.” The wrapper now well and truly strangled. “Couldn’t exactly tell Mum that in her state today, could I?”
Paradise Lost by Colleen Saunders
When you suggested Venice, “for the romance”, I almost laughed. But I thought I’d give you one last chance. I’d start with 3 points. If you reach 6 you win, 0, it’s over. A gondola ride – 4. But the water is oily and the gondolier, fat – 2. The restaurant you choose is up a flight of slippery stairs above a gondola scrapyard! 1. But you explain that this restaurant has the best view of the setting sun on the lagoon – 2. Unfortunately there’s a fire somewhere and the sunset is obscured by smoke. Ok, I can’t blame you for that, so no points lost. Then you tell me that the fire is from a cinema and you ask if I realise it’s the 10th anniversary. Of what, I ask. When you say Cinema Paradiso I almost ditch my plan and give you 10 because you remember, but I must be strict, so it’s 3. The food is good and you order a whole jug of wine for just the two of us, and you’re up to 4. When the meal is done and you ask for a doggy bottle and they give it to you, I almost relent again, and you’re up to 5. Until I slip on the stairs and you don’t even help me – 4. It starts raining and you don’t offer me your jacket – 3. You’re on your phone – 2, hurrying ahead – 1, ignoring me. I take out my phone…
TRAGEDY FOR SOUTH AFRICAN COUPLE
Mystery surrounds the death of a South African couple on holiday in Venice who were both shot in what appears to be a double assassination. The last number dialled by both the man and the woman was that of a man suspected of being a mafia hitman.
Venice by Priscilla Holmes
‘So,’ he said, what about celebrating in Venice?’
‘What are we celebrating?’ I said.
‘Ten years since it happened, and you’re still here in every way.’
‘Every way, but one,’
‘You’ve overcome it so well, we’ll celebrate that.’
I thought of Venice, drenched in its golden light, the lapping of water, the calls of the gondoliers. Venice… a love letter to the world.
‘Will you show me everything?’
‘Of course, darling, ‘he said. ‘Of course.’
So we went.
The plane hurtled through the troposphere at six hundred miles per hour, all the way from London, there is turbulence, bulkheads shake, glasses tinkle. I’m so sound sensitive it hurts.
We check into the Flora, they swarm around us, saying nice things in Italian. I can smell a bakery. Loaves shuttle back and forth in my head.
Every roof top is crowned with golden angels, he says. The bells ring out waking us, calling us to get up and explore. A thousand rooftops, church domes, bell towers, palaces.
The air is sweet and warm. We can hear water everywhere, the wind ruffling its surface. Boats bumping.
We approach the Basilica, he holds me, painting pictures. The vast piazza, thronging with people. I feel my breath leave me, a flood of different sensations; the roar of space, sunlight on my face, the huge dome hovering over us, the crowds around us, panting, thronging.
He says, ‘The colours… so amazing; if all these bloody tourists would go away, it would be heaven here.’
‘We’re tourists too,” I say.
It’s the first time we’ve laughed for months.
That evening we eat tortellini on the Grand Canal; the sound of water lapping, my husband’s hand in mine, it’s a true celebration.
Is this Venice? Or a dream?
When you are blind, it doesn’t matter really.
You listening? Maria?’
Her eyes flitted to Frank’s face that she knew so well; loved so much. Her brow creased in concentration, noticing how it had changed. In the beginning, his eyes would light up when they rested on her, his loving smile adorably creasing his striking features, melting her heart.
‘You can’t be surprised?’ He was seated stiffly, looking alternatively in appeal and agitation.
Frank hadn’t noticed the brochures she had laid out on the glass-topped coffee table. They were colour coordinated and fanned out in a pretty pattern. She leaned forward until she was perched on the edge of the couch, her hands gripping the plush fabric on either side of her thighs. The flowers – a mix of different coloured carnations – had refused to fall nonchalantly in the pitcher. She had wanted a casual, whimsical bouquet, but it had not turned out the way she had hoped. Much like this conversation.
‘Venice. Venice for our ten-year anniversary.’ Maria picked up a glossy, printed brochure, opening it like a concertina.
‘I can’t … I no longer love you.’ His voice caught and he looked away.
‘Gondola rides, visiting St Mark’s Basilica, the Guggenheim Museum.’ Making love while listening to the water lapping against the canal-ways. That’s how they’d imagined it. Why had it changed for Frank?
’Don’t make this harder. Please. I can’t hurt you anymore.’
The aroma – a blend of thyme and sage tickled her nose, promising a juicy roast leg-of-lamb, wafted in from the kitchen. When had she stopped complementing Frank as harmoniously?
‘Sell the house. It’d be too costly to maintain, even with the generous settlement and maintenance I’m offering.’ Did this offer supersede promises of a lifetime together forever?
‘Dinner’s ready. We don’t want the roast drying out. I’ve made jacket potatoes – your favourite.’
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