A monkey wrench, a fit of depression and a first edition of Bleak House

 In Writing Challenge

Thank you all for the wonderful entries to the December/January challenge. We asked you to combine a monkey wrench, a fit of depression and a first edition of Bleak House as cunningly and naturally as possible in a story of 250 words long.

The honours go to Tayla Kaplan for her wonderfully layered, tough but emotional elegy to a lost child.

There were many good entries this month – but here are the best of the best, in no particular order. Kevin Wilson for his laugh-out-loud take on a James Bond/Miss Moneypenny/M sequence; Darryl Boswell for his quite mysterious meander through the sort of second-hand bookstore we’d all love to stumble across and, in another submission, his great mix of bookishness and mayhem; Christine Bayly for her depiction of a down-and-out academic on the skids; Shirlane Douglas for an altogether surprising revelation concerning the inspiration for Bleak House; and Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen for her neat blend of fiction and meta-fiction.

Congratulations to all the winners. For her prize, Tayla gets a full literary assessment by Jo-Anne and Richard of a piece of writing of up to 1500 words long. Her literary report will include comments on structure, narrative, plot, point of view and characterisation.

And here are the winning stories:

Tayla Kaplan

If I block out the world, I hear you imitate (with the half-fledged skill of a garage teen but with a zealot’s passion) the “inimitable Dave Grohl”. The songs blurred together, save for choice phrases like “monkey wrench” and “big me”. The grammatical injustice of that phrase was enough to set my fingers twitching for my first edition of Bleak House that you so loved to mock. I caressed that book the way you did your guitar. Your fingers seemed too  delicate for the chords you strummed. Your skin-stretched face was never masked by the lengthy hair you grew to hide behind. We played everything you requested, by the way. Your funeral playlist accompanying your last words (beginning with Dear mum:) on the back of a receipt more valuable to me than that damned book and now I keep them both locked away, together. I began competing with your memory. Hair appointments cancelled via email to avoid empty condolences. Food allowed to rot away. I began to look more like you did before you left. A low victory.

“He was my child too, you know.”
I turn to him, allowing his words to hover, suspended, in the stale air. He continues, bravely.
“We could see someone. A therapist, maybe.”
I turn the corners of my mouth up briefly, pat his hand, and turn up the stereo to drown any more of his words.

“Don’t wanna be your monkey wrench
One more indecent accident
I’d rather leave than suffer this”

Licensed to Thrill by Kevin Wilson

The hat drifted across the room. It missed the stand and caught a cold London breeze sucking the last warm air through an open window.

“James!” Her champagne eyes brimmed, bubbled and flowed in sparkling streams over her demeanour.

“Morning, Moneypenny,” said Bond. His cruel mouth twitched. “My aim’s a bit off since …”

“Yes.” she said with an inflection of regret.

A voice boomed with authority from the door between offices. “When you’re done cavorting with my secretary, Bond, come through.”

Bond was not invited to sit.

“Two matters,” said M. “Firstly, because of damned Brexit associated cuts, we’re being shipped out to Bleak House.”

Bond frowned. “Never heard of the place, Sir, except in a Dickens novel.”

M slammed a weathered volume on his desk. “This first edition dating back to 1853 was found at a country cottage, so they named the place after the collection. Second point of business is the Spectre computer virus that took down British Intelligence for three days. We’ve tracked the source to a 15-year-old hacker in Sweden they call the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It will be up to you to take care of her. Let’s not have a repeat of the Penny Prostate debacle.”

Bond’s chin dropped to his chest. “With all due respect, Sir. It was unclear that she was a man.”

“Really?” The old bastard’s standard response. “Didn’t expect to get a monkey wrench down there, eh?”

Bond’s hand itched to rub his groin. In a momentary lapse of reason, he imagined an assignment to eliminate his boss. A double-tap to the head at close range would do.

“You can get the dossier from Moneypenny on the way out,” said M. “And Bond.”


“Hand back the book.”

Darryl Boswell

One small step into The Smokey Owl and a fit of depression gripped me. My sight was buggered.

Mercifully, Biography came to my rescue: Madeleine Albright caught my eye. I slid my hand down her spine and removed Madam Secretary from the shelf. I flicked through, looking only at the photo’s – familiar friends – then slipped her back in next to W H Auden.

I moved on down the aisle. Blood orange lips greeted me from behind a counter of tobacco and pipes at smoker’s corner. I paused for a few seconds to glance at the display of tobacco pipes against the wall. At least I was still able to distinguish between a Sherlock Holmes and Peace Pipe.

Turning to my right, I had to squeeze passed a stocky little man, comfortable in his Crocs, flipping through a box boldly labelled Antiquarian Postcards. Somewhere between Mystery & Mayhem and Skop, Skiet & Donner an almighty wham and clatter shattered the quiet in ye olde shoppe. Ohmygod, as Lipstick came belting along; scoot, scat, scram gave way to voertsek.

A boisterous Scottie wearing a tartan collar, in apparent hot pursuit of a fluffy tortoiseshell, had thrown monkey wrench into the library ambience, before both disappeared into the adjacent courtyard.

Time to skedaddle. At the exit, shock and alarm – a first edition of Bleak House – for sale and on auction – had gone AWOL.

Not a bleak house at all I mused as I removed the leash from my hoodie pocket and whistled for Jock.

Darryl Boswell

She stands foursquare in the doorway of his study.

“Surfing the net again?”

Jack ignores this all too familiar refrain.

“Nothing better to do?” she persists.

The Smokey Owl in Broekielace BarnWe specialize in first editions…We have also established a reputation providing a search and order service for special requests.

He’s never heard of it before, but sounds worth a visit.

“You gonna wait for the tap in the kitchen to run dry before you fix it?”

First edition Bleak House by Charles Dickens 1867. Illustrated. Green hardcover. R4000. Binding attached but beginning to give. Minimal foxing. Small tear to the back.

Buy it now or best offer.

Rather steep.

“Day Zero’s coming. Sooner than you bloody well think!”

Dickens’s long novels first appeared either on their own as monthly installments, usually in blue-green wrappers and with two illustrations per installment, or as weekly installments in one of his own magazines…

Fascinating stuff. Didn’t know that. Jack leans back in his chair, and closes his eyes.

“Soon we won’t be able to flush our shit.”

She never lets up – enough to bring on the blues. What to do? He rises slowly from his chair, stretches, and then shuffles to his storeroom off the back stoep.

She follows him.

Jack comes out carrying a bobbejaan spanner, pauses and glares at her.

Wide-eyed, she takes a step back.

“What you gonna do with that thing?”

Judging Books by Christine Bayly

The abandoned house is as dark as my mood. I stumble. Something clatters on the marble floor. Cursing, I flash my torch to locate the offender. Dust particles curl, smoke-like, in its beam. A rusted monkey wrench.

I grin at its weight. Excellent. A solid piece like this’ll sell for a pretty penny. Pocketing it, I inspect the room.

A fireplace. Grand!

I shuffle over, lean an elbow on the stately mantelpiece, one hand gripping an imaginary cigar. A sweeping gesture brushes a book-lined shelf.

Ah, just the ticket!

The grate is soon full of crumpled pages. The precarious pile catches quickly. Ripping fast, I add entire chapters to the blaze. Then the cover which burns green, then blue.

An entire bookshelf! On a cold night like this… What luck!

I toss more books onto the blaze. Nicely warm, my mood lifts. The book I’m feeding to the fire falls open.

‘Ah. Dickens old friend.’ I recognise Bleak House instantly. Taught it ferociously before I hit the skids, empassioning my English Majors until, they too, became slaves to Dickens.

I reach for the half-jack in my pocket as I flip to the front to see what edition it is, straining to read the small print in the flickering light.

First Edition.

Bloody Hell!

And here I am burning it, instead of selling the damn thing.

At least there’s the monkey wrench.

I crack open the bottle and settle down to read what’s left of my favourite novel.

Shirlane Douglas

“What happened?”

Buildings lurched as a boy’s face came into focus. My head wouldn’t move.

“’Ee walked bang into tha’ ‘ansom,” his lips said. My eyes followed his finger to a lopsided carriage and a sullen horse.

“All ‘em papers are blowin’ to ‘ell sir.  I’ll catch ‘em for a bob? “

I propped myself up and surveyed the strewn chapters of my part-issue sinking into mud. A familiar wave of hopelessness washed over me. Bleak House be damned and this bleak writer with it. Heat prickled up my neck. This story has no heart and I can’t find it in my cheerless one. I turned to decline the offer, but the boy was already sweeping the crossing for a fine-shod gentleman.

His vigorous movements flicked a dirt pellet onto the carriage door and a florid-faced man rose up. An arm flashed and a coach wrench sailed through the air striking the boy’s back.  As he crumpled, the man strode over and began to pummel his head.

“Unhand him!” I leapt forward and plucked the boy from the ground. The man sneered, doffed his cap, and disappeared behind the carriage.

I set the boy down, but the shape of his bony ribs had stuck to my hands.

“What’s your name child?”

He turned away from my look of pity as he spoke it and I noticed a lavender sprig tucked in his torn buttonhole. I reached over and touched it.

“Ay then Jo, go catch those papers for me.”

Pills, prose & propriety by Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen


A female voice drifted up from my first edition of Bleak House. Believing my mind to be playing tricks on me, I placed my right ear firmly against the pages of the book.


This time the voice was more distinct, and I jerked back in surprise.

“What the Dickens?” I whispered.

“So sorry for disturbing you, madam, but might I bother you for a monkey wrench?”

Due to a fit of depression that had been plaguing me, I’d been on a course of anti-depressants for the past few months. I surmised, therefore, that the voice must be a fiction created by my tortured psyche. However, I felt compelled to answer. To do otherwise would’ve appeared rude.

“Um…yes… I do believe I’ve a monkey wrench somewhere. Might I ask what you need it for?”

“Yes, of course. I only wish to screw something tighter.”

“Oh? Right. Well, that seems perfectly plausible.”

Setting the book gently on the bedside table so as not to harm the woman inside, I got up slowly to search for the tool. I attempted to raise my right foot to step over the spilled bottle of vodka and a few of my pills scattered across the parquet floor; but only succeeded in gliding across the mess like a faltering figure skater. Tablets crunched underfoot, creating a vodka-pill paste.

Feeling dazed, I stammered: “What… is it… you wish to screw tighter?”

“Your grip on reality, dear,” taunted Lady Dedlock.

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