Unveiling the results of our December/January Writing Challenge
The winners of our December-January Writing Challenge are…
We had a great sheaf of entries for our Challenge which went like this:
Describe a seaside holiday house, from the perspective of a child who has arrived here to spend what he or she hopes will be an idyllic summer. Use all your senses. Don’t forget to use specific details, which are always more powerful and generalities and do not allow yourself any generic descriptors (beautiful, lovely, great, awesome).
Now describe the same house twenty years later, from the perspective of the same person – now adult. He or she experienced a traumatic event in the house during that childhood summer. Don’t describe or explain the event to us. You don’t even need to mention it. Simply show us what he or she notices about the house now.
The winner takes not only the laurels, but either a literary assessment of 5000 words of a manuscript in development – or a voucher to the value of R2 750 that can be redeemed against any one of our courses.
But there’s more than a prize at stake here. What entering our bi-monthly creative writing challenges give you is a chance to tackle something, not of your own devising (that makes it easier and, paradoxically, more difficult!) on a small canvas. It gives you the chance to take risks that you might be loath to in something more precisely your own. And it gives you a chance, in a small, focused way, to sharpen a very specific skill or technique.
And please do enter the next writing challenge! Remember, the winner gets a literary assessment of 5 000 words of a writing project she’s developing, or a voucher to the value of R2 750 which she can put towards any one of our writing courses.
Enough talk. Who won?
Well, it gives me great pleasure to tell you that Susan Bentley, who’s currently enrolled on our mentoring programme, won with her subtle, detailed and evocative response. What we admired about it is the careful and misleading set-up and the phrase that detonates at the end like a small but perfectly shaped explosive charge.
The runners up, in alphabetical order are:
Jane D’Abbs, for the subtlety and the density of her contrasts. We thought that the final reference to blood could easily have been omitted, such was the power of the preceding images.
Yvette Deschamps, for the beautifully balanced contrast between the child’s and the adult’s experience, with only the most oblique reference to the trauma that must have occurred.
Phil Flockton, for the sheer specificity and precision of his details, and for the fact that he holds back the identity of the person we assume was responsible for the trauma. (Restraint is a writer’s best friend.)
Karuna for the horror implicit in the final lines of her piece.
Sarah Stacey, for the simple clarity of her descriptions. And
Simon Winter for the (neatly balanced) shock of his final line.
And, of course, kudos go to everyone one of you who entered!
The thick, warm mud between his toes oozed up in soft worm shapes as he pulled the kayak towards the grass bank. The sunset colours had faded, sweet reed smells mingling with humid sea-salt air. Tarmac hot beneath his feet, he walked the few metres across the road to the cottage, smiling up at the family. They were clinking their glasses together up on the wooden balcony, and laughing at some joke. Smoke blew across his face as he neared the braai, sudden saliva building in his mouth at the anticipation of a coil of thick, juicy boerewors.
He’d forgotten how bland the upstairs bathroom was. White and silver. Generic. Icy, vicious little darts of water hit his body in the shower. He could feel his muscles taut and bunched under his skin. Grabbing a towel off the rail, he rubbed his head vigorously until, reflected in the mirror, shards of hair stood to attention on his head. His face looked expressionlessly back, and he narrowed his eyes. The heat of this place was oppressive. This was the only way to keep his mind sharp, this stripping down to naked, allowing the freezing water to drop his temperature below feeling.
He combed his hair carefully and then, just as carefully, put on clean jeans and a navy-blue button-down shirt. Leaving the bathroom, he moved purposefully down the passage, heading for the drinks table on the balcony. Graham, already there with his wine, smiled kindly at a guest. Fucking bastard.
Our holiday cottage is right on the beach. My room has a big window looking out over the sea. At night I hear the whales sing. Daddy says whales don’t sing. He’s wrong – I’ve heard them. They dance in the waves. Daddy says whales don’t dance, they swim – but I’ve seen them. I scribbled my name and drew whales on my bedroom wall. Daddy tried to scrub it off. “Sarah! You do that again and I’ll take away your crayons!” I didn’t believe him. Willy, the boy next door, said he would show me how to catch fish in the rock pools. Daddy says Willy is sneaky. He’s wrong. Willy’s my friend.
“Go back to the cottage,” says my therapist. She imagines it will help. “It burnt down in the fires of 2012.” “Well, in that case Sarah, I’d like you to draw it. It doesn’t have to be exact, just what you remember. Trust me, it’ll be therapeutic.” It took a bottle of red to open the sketchpad. The whiteness of the paper was annihilating. Yet, each press of the pencil generated snippets of forgotten memories. The floral lounge curtains, the smell and warmth of the kitchen woodstove, the smoothness of the verandah railings, the scrape of my bedroom window opening. A wave of nausea brings bile to my throat. The wine glass is almost empty. My hands shake. Red drops splash onto my sketch. Then I remember. Blood. There was so much blood.
She stands at the door, hand frozen on the door handle.
She can remember almost everything about the start of that holiday. The restlessness in the car. Are we there yet? And then how the rooms of the house didn’t fit together quite like the ones back at home. Run through a bedroom to get to the kitchen. Get outside by opening a passage door. Climb to the top of the rickety stairs. Can you find your way? Sunlight and warm, sandy floorboards. Sunscreen on her skin. Watermelon in the bath. Cousins. Then candlelight, and dancing to the rhythm of the summer rain drumming on the tin roof. Thrusting her head out the window to catch raindrops on her tongue. The comforting earthiness in the air wrapping itself around her, making her giddy with the scent of it.
She shakes her head, snorts at her sentimentality and pushes the door open. It’s all so small, shabby, so badly put together. The floorboards are dry and faded. There’s grit under her shoes. She avoids the bedroom, takes the stairs. Her footsteps are loud and hollow. Her face is set in the mask she’s worn for decades now. But as she reaches the top, she finds herself listening. Has it begun to rain, or is that a throbbing in her head? The window panes are dirty, smeared. She stares out, breathing shallowly, seeing nothing.
Wrack. How she loves that word. Wrack that gives life to countless beach hoppers, to the ibis that feed off them, and to the oystercatcher chicks that hide amongst the blades, stipes and holdfasts.
Memories come surfing in. How at first light she had paced the length of the broad shining balcony waiting for him to call up to her from his room’s stoep woken by the sun rising over Maanskynskop piercing his brilliant white shutters. Waited for him to take her childish hand (twice her size) the few steps to the beach where she had learnt so much. Heroditus named the sacred Ibis. Beach hoppers are segmented crustaceans. Oystercatchers mate for life and may live for 25 years.
She supposes it to be remotely possible that even now those could be the very same birds they had daily disturbed, perturbed.
The roof corner comes into sight. She had helped to paint it. Charcoal. She with a broad brush and he with a narrow “for detailing” (her father had probably been there too). Paint now faded to grey whisps. Those corrugated sheets now ragged eaves and jagged holes. The once cream weatherboard walls now stained, gang tagged. Horrible scrawled insults to him.
That balcony now collapsing. His stoep now tall weed. Those long upstairs windows missing (she’d helped him to polish them), smaller ones sharded. The mown lawns where she’d played (and layed alongside him) long gone to fynbos.
That playroom now rubble and fire-blackened beams.
Hudson launched out of the tired minivan, ready to play in the grown-up treehouse. It had the same wood slats as his den at home! Except this one was snuggled into the earth, tickled by long grasses. Its porch opened towards the never-ending water. A huge glass door invited in the warm, salty air. Hudson ran inside. The single room was full of space, with a bed and kitchenette hugging the walls. Ma was already filling the kettle, framed by sunlight dancing through a slim window. Dad came in with the bags, found a beer and settled on the porch. Hudson’s bare feet savoured the smooth honey-brown floors – he would be able to skid on these later; he had all summer!
Twenty years, and the house still crouches at the edge of the earth. Hudson pauses by the car, wary of the memories clawing at his breath. It must be done. He walks up the dirt path; the garden has withered in the drought. A few lantanas surround the house with vicious thorns. The porch won’t shelter him from the piercing wind. Hudson ducks his head and steps in. He will just get the knife and leave. The floorboards mutter with each step towards the kitchen. “Argh,” he grunts, as his shin catches the corner of the sagging bed. He slumps in the dim light. There were a thousand dark eyes on every face of this pine box, and they all watch him now, as they had watched him then.
The door stuck and then gave way, sending us tumbling, laughing into the kitchen. Tog bags and fishing nets sprawled onto the floor ahead of us. Through the back door, I could see Grandpa in his chair near the edge of the cliff. He’d be asleep.
I grabbed an apple as I passed the kitchen table laid for lunch. More food than all of us could eat. Gran could never resist a flower or a frill and she’d chosen her rosiest bedspread for us. Our bags bounced off the bed onto the floor. We left them there, kicked off our flipflops and headed out into the sunshine. I lifted my face and drew in a lungful of briny air.
Flakes of faded blue paint drifted to the ground as I wrestled the door open. The cottage, silent and abandoned, released the musty scent of mildewy linen, old wood and insect corpses. Light seeping through the fraying muslin curtains fell onto an overturned chair by the table.
I stepped over the threshold into the kitchen. I laid my handbag down on the sideboard next to the sink full of crockery. The trailing leaves and flowers had faded to shadows.
Seeing the rumpled sheets in our bedroom, my breath caught. The warped doors of the rickety wardrobe stood open, the shelves bare. I closed the doors as best I could and smoothed the sheets out on the bed. Dust eddied in a shaft of bright light. It felt wrong that the sun could still shine so brilliantly here.
Dad had no sooner unlocked the door of our rented beach shack than I pushed past him, pleasantly surprised by the warm aroma, like steam rising from hot tar after rain. A shaft of sunlight, slicing through a chink in the shutters, welcomed us. As Mom flung them open, they squealed in delight, eager to let the cooling ocean breeze waft past them. I jumped on to the bulky sofa and looked out of the window – and there was the shimmering ocean winking at me conspiratorially. I raced outside, relishing the sensation of sand squeezing between my toes, and ran to the water’s edge, licking my lips in anticipation. They tasted faintly of salt.
I nudged the weathered door ajar and hesitated, reluctant to wake the demons slumbering within. Yet I’d travelled so far, and had waited so long, determined to confront them once and for all. Inhaling deeply, I forced myself inside. Humid air hung oppressively. As I edged forward, dust particles, disturbed by my unexpected presence, thronged the shaft that penetrated the dingy interior. I didn’t dare open the shutters. As my pupils dilated, I took in the vaguely familiar furnishings, but avoided the corner where I knew the cringing sofa cowered. I became dimly aware of a dull, rhythmic throbbing in my temples. My tongue swelled, forcing my lips apart, leaving me no choice but to lick them. They tasted strongly of semen.