February/March Flash Fiction Challenge: And here are the winners…
This challenge – to write an intriguing opening to a novel – wrung wonderful response from you, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Vying for top position are two entries that would have me itching to turn the page. That’s what intrigue does: it creates suspense and raises our curiosity to unbearable levels.
After much debate, we decided to award the laurels to Kate Davy, for her chilling and deliciously ambiguous entry.
Second by a whisker is the shocker penned by Bonnie Espie. On another day, Bonnie, you might well have emerged top of the pile.
In a different genre entirely comes Azeeza Rawat’s opening. It works thanks to the accumulating power of detail.
Tariq Fensham’s opening hints at an entire dystopian world that any reader would want to find out more about.
Bindi Davies’s opening stanza is reminiscent of more than one of Ian Rankin’s murder mysteries: it, too, starts with the discovery of a body, and a scream, and is very nicely done.
Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen launches her novel with an intriguing discussion of something a character’s done that’s likely to provoke a dozen water cooler conversations – without identifying what his offense was.
And we can’t help mentioning a squad of other entries, each of which intrigues and draws us in to the stories to follow. Congratulations to Joanna Pickering, Charlee, Angela Pelobello, Carol Walljee, Amy Wilkes and Caroline Harmer.
Kate Davy wins a literary assessment on 5000 words of writing worth R2750 / £150 or a voucher to the same value to use on one of our courses or programmes.
Read the winning entries below, and check out our April/May challenge – currently open for entries! – on our blog.
Kate Thompson Davy
To be perfectly clear, I did not actually kill Martin. I merely thought about it… a lot.
Granted, that doesn’t sound much better. I have admittedly given disproportionate thought to how I’d dispose of his body if I had to. Which I don’t. Obviously.
I have nurtured this theory that I could put one past our police. I’ve read about lab backlogs, seen cops wander into a crime scene, sweaty and grabby. It’s all handwritten case files, and no digital database to speak of.
This, plus about 10 000 hours of true crime podcasts, means that I may have entertained the
theoretical puzzle of how to get away with murder. It’s merely a creative exercise – brain gym.
My current plan, if you’re interested, is to take advantage of the vast stretches of private game farms in the Eastern Cape. I like to drive the backroads there. It is scrub-and-sheep land. If the livestock could talk, they’d roll their Rs hard: tinned rrrrrrhubarb in crrrrrream.
You can’t speed, but with Algoa piping in the soft rock, you don’t want to. Then you take a bend, and see — sprouting on what passes for a verge here — a freaking phoenix has taken root. Aloe Ferox. Behind it another, and another. Thousands, all flowering in the dry winter and clumped together where the sun hits, like freckles.
Drive any route towards Grahamstown from 100kms out, and tell me you aren’t floored by those hills, aflame with aloes. I always am, when I’m singing along with Dolly and thinking, “If I chucked a limb per farm, and his severed head into this ravine, they’d never find the body…”
But, I really didn’t. He is dead, but only to me. We’re sure he ran away. Pretty sure, anyway.
Slimy brass-yellow clay sucks and clings to her shoes. She slips, splitting wide like a gymnast on the beam bar. She tastes the salt of snot in her wailing mouth. There’s still at least fifteen meters to go. He’s not helping at all. His hands are no longer rough and calloused but rather slithery and swollen like raw pork sausages. She snatches at his wrists to get better purchase. They advance together, one precious inch by precious inch.
It’s instinctive – she ducks as a flash of lightening illuminates the sky and prays that curtains are drawn against voyeurs leering in on their intimate awkward dance. His expression is one of tristesse. The pink of his tongue peeps erotically between his fleshy lips. His jowls ripple with every step they take. She lets go of his arms, he drops to his knees as if in prayer. His comb-over hangs long in a spidery tendril. She peels the drenched linen shirt from her back.
It’s downhill from here. He can make it on his own. It doesn’t take much, just a hoof on his rear.
He rolls, gathering speed. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but he garners clumps of cloying mud.
He teeters on the edge, then his ample body falls with a dead-weight splash into the shallow grave she’d dug.
I had three different hairbrushes, and they lay like corpses in a row, from shortest to longest, on the stone bathroom countertop. I grabbed the pale pink handle of the middle brush and started from “1”. Each stroke through my curly shoulder-length hair loosened the gnawing feeling in my stomach ever so slightly.
A pea-sized glob of toothpaste on the epicentre of my electric toothbrush. The bristles were slightly discoloured. I thumbed the button and started, pausing at the metallic taste in my mouth, but counting to “30” before I rinsed the crimson foam away and placed the toothbrush back in its position. I sighed, looking into the spotless mirror that stood like a daily accusation above the sink.
Everyone says that it is worth it in the end.
I padded back into my room and made my way towards the plate, seating myself stiffly before it. I peeled the sticky plastic wrap off the plate, folded it and carefully placed it in my lined bin. I am fat.
There were 14 slices of cucumber, 31 ribbons of lettuce and 12 chunks of salt and pepper chicken. I am ugly. The call for the next prayer sounded off in the distance, the melody drifting in through the open window. “Bismillah.” I mumbled to myself before plunging the first forkful of dry lettuce and skinless chicken into my mouth. I am unlovable.
“Oh my god……”
The sonographer’s voice was barely audible. She covered her mouth.
“What?” Kat grabbed Alex’s hand and leaned forward towards the screen, her head silhouetted by its glow. “You must respect… we need to know if there is something wrong…”
“What’s wrong? Please tell me! Don’t try to protect me……!” Alex’s instinctive, trembling hand was on her belly.
The sonographer placed the instrument in its cradle and snapped off her gloves. “I am so sorry, I should not have reacted like that, it was very unprofessional….” She fumbled with the controls and would not look at the two before her.
“Ok, dammit. What’s wrong?” Kat began to get up.
“It’s not life-threatening. I mean, it’s not a deformity….”
“Oh my god,” Kat sat down, ashen. “You mean it’s a…..”
“Boy?” Alex felt the crashing wave of horror smash her mind.
“Jesus Christ! How the hell did that happen?” Kat’s hands clutched her face. Fingers spread, she pushed her hair back.
Alex closed her eyes. “We were told it was 99.9% certain…. The permit…..”
“What the hell do we do?” Kat glared at the sonographer, who tore off the printout, handing it to Alex.
“I will put you in touch with our counsellors who can explain the options….. there are options….”
“Of course we know there are bloody options!” Kat was standing now, her hands still gripping her head.
“Stud, gigolo, trans, terminate……” Alex’s voice was quiet, resigned. “Can I go and pee now, please?”
Something’s not right.
The air’s too still. No breeze blowing off the sea. No scampering clouds. Even the palm trees shielding their ramshackle restaurant from the beach aren’t swaying as they usually are at this time of morning.
Lorena brushes away the feeling. She’s got too much to do. Those rich people from the lodges at the top of the dunes have left such a mess.
And where is Bill to help her?
She mops beer and rum-and-raspberry spills off plastic tables and wipes down chairs. Her armpits prickle with sweat and she pushes wiry curls off her forehead, tucking them beneath a stretchy headband. Waves lap gently in the bay, but otherwise there is silence.
Until the dogs start barking.
Lorena thrusts her damp cloth into the pocket of her apron and waddles across rough paving stones, past tyre swings and splintering seesaws, past rusted half-drums filled with tin cans. The barking is frenzied, and as she emerges from the row of palm trees out onto the wide expanse of beach, she sees them.
Tipsy and Hooch, Bill’s Jack Russells, burrowing in the sand alongside a pair of gulls, trotting and pecking at the water’s edge, next to a tangled pile of seaweed.
Hooch runs towards her with something in his mouth, his tail like a helicopter blade. He drops his gift in front of her and steps back, panting, pebble-brown eyes watching, waiting for praise.
The gulls scatter, cawing, as her scream rips through the still morning air.
Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen
Around the water cooler.
The newspaper separates my parents. My mom sits on the bed, hugging her knees to her chest. My dad is on his back, an arm slung over his eyes, like he’s already been defeated.
I’m playing with my mom’s hair, wondering what all the fuss is about. I only know that the long sighs escaping from my dad, and my mom’s wish to make herself small, have something to do with the paper.
“How can I face everyone at work, Patti?”
My mom frowns and stares at a corner of the room. Something she does when asked a question she’s reluctant to answer. “It’ll be water cooler gossip for a day. They’ll soon move onto something new.”
My dad’s arm lifts from his eyes in one swift movement. For a second I think he’s going to strike her, but then it falls to his side in a harmless lump. “This is so much more than water cooler gossip.”
She glances at her hands. Another tell. They are beautiful hands with the only sign of ageing, a slight liver spot between thumb and forefinger. “Well, Fred, I don’t know what to say. People will believe what’s written in the papers, true or not.”
My dad has that look in his grey eyes. The look I’ve seen just before the belt comes off to discipline my brothers. “Yes, but this time it’s true. Isn’t it?”
Her eyes drift to the corner. A boxer’s rest between bouts. “There’s no proof. They can’t prosecute.”
He was whistling as he unlocked the door to the 6th floor apartment, Sunday morning croissants in one hand, jangling set of keys in the other.
“Hello, you! Hope the coffee’s ready!” His words echoed strangely. He placed the croissants on the small table next to the front door, slipped off his boots and removed his damp coat. A chill hung in the air. He touched the radiator: cold.
“Bernadette? Aren’t you freezing? Anyway, you’re going to be happy, I went to your favourite bakery. The queue went round the block! Worth the wait though”.
The bookshelf in the entrance hall was empty. Where a large painting of a seascape had always decorated the wall, just the hook remained. “Odd”, he thought. He walked up to the closed bedroom door and pushed open the door. “Bernadette?”
The room was in semi-darkness, curtains drawn. Only a sliver of light escaped through the
window to rest on the wardrobe, door flung open, nothing inside. The bed stripped bare. He began to feel light-headed, his stomach tightened. Now he was running, first to the kitchen, then the bathroom. Everything had been cleared out.
He fumbled for his phone in his pocket, his hands clammy. He went into his contact list, scrolled to “Favourites” and dialled her number.
Almost immediately, a man’s voice came onto the line. “Mr Trent? This is Sergeant Anderson. We’re going to need to speak with you at the Oak Street police station.”
You know how best friends aren’t meant to kill you? Well, unfortunately, that isn’t the case for me.
It’s not like we don’t like each other! I mean, how would that even work, disliking your best friend?
I love my best friend. It’s just – she’s slightly, how do I put this? Different.
And really, there are no hard feelings, I always knew this would happen. Well obviously I didn’t know this, but I knew something would happen.
On this particular day I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. Catherine and I were walking across the park, enjoying the day, when out of nowhere she started glowing. It’s not like this is unusual for her. So I, of course, did what I normally do. Running 12 feet away, because the last time someone was within 12 feet of her when she glowed, they were instantly vaporized. I quite like not being vaporized, so I kept my distance. Catherine never gets insulted when I do, because, well, it is quite strange to have a magical death glow, is it not?
“Perhaps when you are done with your magical death glow, we can eat cake, since it is your birthday.” I smiled at her.
Now let me tell you, I was shocked at what happened next. Catherine ran over to me and gave me a hug. It isn’t that I don’t like hugs! It’s just – well, I was vaporized and that isn’t so good, is it?
So, here I am! Where I am? I’m not quite sure.
Anna was three when her grandmother told her the story about the bell that dangles above the door at the end of the hall. The door that she’s never seen the other side of. Anna doesn’t remember the exact details. She’s seven now.
Five whole years is a long time, and Anna is good at many things — drawing flowers and singing songs and getting Ed to laugh by tapping him on the nose, but remembering things is not one of them.
It’s just as well, her mother likes to say, her imagination doesn’t suffer for it.
Every day, Anna makes up a new story as if to replace the one her grandmother had shared.
Everyone will say it’s more fantastical than the last, and much better than grandmother’s besides.
But Anna can’t tell if it’s true or not.
Her grandmother doesn’t mind, as long as she doesn’t forget the important parts: The bell, and how it has not rang, and the door which has never been opened.
These two things she keeps in her mind always.
Until she doesn’t.
But by then, Anna is twenty-three; standing in the kitchen of her late grandmother’s house, squinting at a foreclosure notice, and wondering what that noise at the end of the hall is.
The door swung open and hit the wall with a thud, drawing Thandi’s attention to the tall, imposing, stranger who stood framed in the doorway.
He paused as if scanning the room to select the best seat, studiously ignoring the interested eyes fixed on him, before striding on long legs to occupy the seat at the head of the boardroom table.
Stifling a gasp, Thandi returned her gaze to the laptop screen in front of her, smiling inwardly at the dressing-down she envisaged would ensue when the chairman arrived to find his seat occupied.
Feeling the hairs on the back of her neck rise, Thandi looked up to find him staring at her with unconcealed interest. Her green eyes locked with his before she dropped her gaze, hoping he would look elsewhere.
At that very moment she heard the chairman’s voice utter a final, “See that it’s done, please” as he terminated the call and entered the room.
Thandi leaned back into her seat and folded her arms to prepare to enjoy the scene.
Uttering a perfunctory, “Good morning everyone,” he scanned the room and strode to the
interloper with outstretched hand, his face beaming delightedly.
‘You made it, you rascal!’
The rascal threw his head back and laughed, stood up to shake hands and leaned forward for the brief hug.
‘Glad to have you on board.’
At this statement, Thandi exhaled her disappointment at being deprived of witnessing the
expected dressing down.
What he said next caused a unanimous gasp
Joe was translucent. Not in a way that meant you could see the snaking of bright veins as they twisted through his limbs. And not in a way that meant that the midday sun would cause a shock of pink to shimmer painfully across his body if exposed.
Joe was solid, but his skin did not look as if it could house all the heavy organs that weighted his insipid body. He was of human form and shape and size, yet he looked to be an illusion – an apparition that people shifted away from or furtively tried to stick a hand through, connecting with a hard rib or shoulder blade that would not yield.
Even though sharp gasps and whispers of “Ghost!” followed his every move, and older women would scream, scattering their belongings to the floor as they grasped their powdery cheeks, he was real, an almost near-finished rendition of a human.
Joe had parents and a birth certificate and photos from the day he was born that showed a mother who was crying and a father whose mouth gaped crookedly across his overly gruff face.
But no one looked at these photos that proved Joe’s existence. They were tucked into the back of the boxes that crowded a cabinet; reams of paper dedicated solely to the fact that he had undergone more medical procedures than a common lab rat.
‘So what do you think, Elaine?’
‘Breastfeeding. Vegan or not?’
Elaine gulped. The scrape of chairs across the stripped boards had ceased along with the friendly chat and silence seemed to be hovering on her reply. Desperately, she looked around for some inspiration – anything – but found nothing in the expectant faces, a circle of foldaway chairs, hessian curtains sashaying in front of open windows, distant tree covered hilltops.
‘Well to be honest, I’ve never really thought about it’.
Immediately, she recognised her error. To be not sure, one way or another, was presumably acceptable, even desirable, but never even to have considered it?
She stumbled on. ‘I mean, does it depend on what the mother’s been eating? If she’s vegan, then presumably yes. But if not….’ she tailed off.
Her new neighbour, Chrissie, had already turned up on her doorstep with a welcome gift of some stodgy cookies and an invite to the monthly meeting. Now she shifted a naked baby from one breast to the other, leant forward and smiled encouragingly, like a teacher with a particularly dull child. A man to her left crossed his legs, which she’d already noted were encased in tie-dye loon pants, and was looking at her with undisguised amazement. Others seemed to be avoiding eye contact. It was beginning to feel like an AA meeting. ‘My name’s Elaine and I’m addicted to communal living’. Not for the first time, Elaine wondered whether moving into this community had been some ghastly mistake.