Announcing the winners of the August/September Writing Challenge…
Cliffhangers are tricky things. They’re not quite climaxes because they have to withhold some vital outcome. So if your crew of bomb disposal experts are gathered round a ticking bomb, and the ticking stops… your cliffhanger works best if you end the scene then – and not after the bomb explodes (or doesn’t explode).
We had a tremendous response to our last writing challenge – more entries, in fact, than we’ve ever attracted before. Writers clearly like cliffhangers!
So it was more difficult than ever to select a winner from among the frontrunners. But in the end, we settled on…
Trumpets sound, drums roll…
Actually, we’re going to end with the winner, and start with the frontrunners…
Like Deidre Johnson’s beautifully self-contained short story which doesn’t win the prize because it’s a complete story! I urge you to read it, though, for the twist in the tail if nothing else.
Or Georgia Hardiman’s two stunning entries. In one of these she writes a sentence that deserves a medal all on its own. Here it is: “… I saw the walls of the room gradually open up, like the petals of a blown rose, and I could see outside, I could see the street and the rubble falling like rice at a wedding.” Her other entry, about a car colliding with a child, is so accurately observed it made my blood chill.
Neil Heath-Hartley’s miniature shows how little you need to write to set up a cliffie.
Jennifer de Klerk’s will be deeply resonant with armies of women, and features a cliffhanger that is if not omnipresent, then altogether too familiar for comfort.
Lawrence Mitchell wrote a great set-up for a cliffhanger – but then at the last moment pushed ahead when he might have held back. We thought if his narrator had not positively identified the woman in his story, he might have achieved more suspense.
Bindi Davies, in her wonderfully action-packed scene, might also have considered ending the scene just a sentence earlier, before it became plain what the outcome was.
But the outright winner for us was Vincent Pienaar with his very dense shoot-out thriller – although even here, a teensy weensy more restraint right at the end would have yielded a more suspenseful cliffhanger. But for tension, just the right balance of information on the one hand and restraint on the other, you win the laurels – and a literary assessment on 5000 words of your writing.
Congratulations, Vincent – and congratulations, too, on the publication of your novel, Too Many Tsunamis.
Read all the winning entires below:
“The trouble with you, Myrtle, is that you never take action, you always dither.”
I forced myself to take a yoga-breath before turning and smiling at Wallace. “How much sugar for you?”
“That’s another thing, you always ask the same questions, why can’t you remember that I take three?” My hand hovered over the sugar bowl. It was the reason I’d chosen antifreeze. No way he would taste it in his daily coffee-syrup. Honestly, three spoons of sugar is a crime against coffee.
I placed both mugs on the table and slid his over. The tinny soundtrack of “Fame” started playing. “Who calls this early? You’d better answer it but don’t take too long,” grumbled Wallace. I turned as I slid my thumb across the screen. I wouldn’t be able to hide my grin when I heard Peter’s voice.
I mumbled some telemarketing answers while Peter told me about all the things he’d do to me later. He loves making these calls with Wallace in the room. I almost come just listening.
“Just put it down,” whined Wallace, “you don’t have to be polite to these people, they might as well be robots.” I closed my eyes and pictured the outfit I’d wear to the funeral. Ending the call, I turned around, picked up a mug and took a swig. Hot sweet liquid filled my mouth and I tried desperately not to swallow.
“Mine was too hot, so I took yours instead – you don’t mind, do you?”
I grabbed the nearest children, still sitting at the table, about to eat the food I had prepared. ‘Federico!’ I yelled over the roar of the walls jolting, ‘Giorgio!’
Stefano was already up and over at the cot, huddling the babe, a bundle of rags in his pallid arms.
‘Get out! Get out!’ he screamed, his voice hysterically high like a girl’s.
I wanted to get out, I swear, but I was hanging onto the table which felt like the only safe place; and then slowly, slowly like a bad dream, I saw the walls of the room gradually open up, like the petals of a blown rose, and I could see outside, I could see the street and the rubble falling like rice at a wedding.
And I knew with terrible certainty I had to get out or die in that room.
The red and white plastic football bounced in slow motion across my field of vision. My right foot hit the brake pedal and crushed it down to the floor. I gripped the steering wheel fiercely, half closing my eyes instinctively, my muscles taut across my back and arms.
Time seemed to be reeling out like a fisherman’s spool, longer and longer, but it was only seconds, fractions of seconds even.
Just as I was beginning to think it would be ok, that I wasn’t going to hit anything or anyone, he leapt out in front of me.
I saw just a blur of legs, an orange t-shirt, the raised arm of a pedestrian, her mouth a large silent O.
And then I screamed.
Alone in my room, minding my own business, not paying much attention to anything around me. Just me, myself and I with my thought and privacy, then dad walked in!
Jennifer de Klerk: In the Pink – Perhaps
The walls are a cloying pink, the plush settees a deeper shade of rose and floral curtains waft by the windows. Glossy women’s magazines – Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Health and Beauty – are arranged on the glass-topped table and anonymous music murmurs. The reception desk is incongruous in its office veneer. White polystyrene cups match the prosaic water cooler.
I lean back in my corner trying to relax. A precaution, Dr Dave said, you’re getting older, it will be a useful benchmark. We need to be sure. You do examine your breasts regularly, don’t you?
Well, maybe. Sometimes. When I remember. Actually, not very often. I’m always afraid of what I might find.
It’s a dread that permeates the pretty-in-pink waiting room. It shows in stiff bodies, tight lips and downcast eyes. My breasts ache from being pummelled and squeezed into a vice. If there wasn’t anything wrong before, there probably is now, I think, perversely relishing my gallows humour. No need to worry. Remember Glenda, the terror in her eyes, and it was nothing, a globule of fat.
I shiver. Come on, it can’t be anything. The lump was so tiny I could barely feel it. Please no. Not chemotherapy. Not nausea and pain. Not mutilation. Surely, I don’t have to face life like a discarded doll, incomplete?
“Susie?” I look up. The receptionist with the perky pink bow is holding out an envelope. “You need to take this to your doctor.” I rise and accept it with trembling fingers.
It had been a long night, and the dust wasn’t helping Joe’s hangover. He finished his coffee and started making his way over to the Temple of Remembrance. This was his fifth time at Burning Man and it still made him feel like a kid at Christmas.
The Temple had always been his favourite installation. A meticulously crafted wooden structure dedicated to loved ones that had passed away or somehow just moved on in the maze of ordinary life. He usually loved the bedlam of the Burn, but the surrounding swirl of colour and chaos couldn’t rescue his thoughts from the deep hole they knew all too well.
As the temple loomed large in the desert, his thoughts turned slowly to Kelly. Her departure had left a crack in his world that no amount of drugs or alcohol could fill. He remembered those exquisitely beautiful eyes as she said good bye, softened even more to cushion the pain she was inadvertently delivering. But time moves on, supposedly healing but only in the most unforgiving way.
He walked through the arched entrance, familiar with the soft sobbing so characteristic of the Temple. There were a handful of people spread throughout the space, either writing their farewells on the walls or kneeling at lit candles in the central shrine.
And there in the corner, a soft and beautiful face burned into his heart from a happier time. With an unmistakably swollen belly.
“I thought you’d be here” she said.
“Tell me.” I’m on top of Pete, pinning one arm down. “Tell me the truth.” My neck constricts as he clutches desperately onto the knot of my tie. “You owe it to Sarah.” I nudge a knee into his sweaty groin.
“Okay, okay.” Pete’s toad eyes are bulging, and a dark wine stain spreads across his barrel chest. The train rocks and sways around a bend, wheels pounding on the tracks. We lurch closer towards the open door. “Get me back inside, for God’s sake.” His left leg is dangling off the edge of the carriage.
“Not before you tell me.”
“We argued, okay. But it was an accident, I swear.” Pete’s shoe scrabbles against the metal step as he tries to get a grip. “It could have been me who died.”
“But it wasn’t, was it?” I smell oil, mingled with the acrid scent of Pete’s fear.
“What were you arguing about? Dad’s will?”
A silver skirt slides up next to me. Jenny.
“No, no.” Pete’s eyes are focused on the tracks below. “It wasn’t the will.”
“What then?” I tighten my grip on his arm.
“Sarah?” My heart pounds in my throat. “What about Sarah?”
“Just that I fucked her.”
“You what?” Jenny’s voice is like broken glass.
Pete darts a startled glance at his wife. “It was no big deal. I reckon she wanted it.”
A swish of satin.
The train tilts around another bend. As I lose my grip, a scream shatters the night air.
In an action-movie a woman shrieks “he’s got a gun!” in a high-pitched voice evoking hysterical screaming from the entire crowd.Then Bruce Willis appears out of nowhere with a .44 Magnum in his hand and a determined smirk on his face. He shouts “get down!” and we all fall to the ground as well-rehearsed movie extras do.
But this wasn’t a movie.
The man in front of us turned to look at us and spoke in an irritated voice.
“C’mon bru, what the fuck’s the matter with you?” he said. I guessed that he hadn’t seen the weapon. Then I heard a gunshot. I heard Sharon shout something in what I thought was Xhosa but it could have been Tswana or Russian – Latin maybe – but then I heard her shout in pain. Then I heard another two gunshots, then more.
As Harry and I collapsed to the ground I heard the unmistakable roar of a skorokoro taxi with a leaking exhaust revving up followed by the grinding of an abused gearbox. I smelt the oily petrol fumes as the vehicle pulled off.
I wanted to say “stop that guy!” but something blurred my speech, something in my mouth that tasted like Cup-a-Soup before it’s mixed with boiling water.
I heard somebody say: “My God? What’s going on?”
I wanted to reply with, “what do you think asshole? Somebody came to kill us,” but I couldn’t speak.
I heard Harry’s voice. “How you doing, Chap?”
I tried to work out if he was concerned, frivolous or bleeding. Then I passed out.