June 2012 Writing Challenge
You’re holed up in a flat with a broken leg and, tired of reading the fourth novel on the trot on your Kindle, you idly examine what’s going on in the flat opposite your window. You see a woman vacuuming her living room in the nude. The woman’s head turns to the door, she sets the cleaner down, and walks towards the door. She peers through the spyhole, and staggers back when the door bursts inwards. A man and a woman enter the flat. Our nude vacuum cleaner snatches a cushion from the couch, hugs it protectively and cowers against a wall. The man speaks with many wild gesticulations, then grabs a painting from the wall and marches out with it. His companion strokes the nude vacuum cleaner’s shoulder, appears to say something, then follows the man out. The nude vacuum cleaner bursts into tears. (You have a pair of binoculars to pick up some of these details.)
Now tell the story from the perspective of any one of the three characters in the flat. None of them is aware of the witness in the flat opposite. Write your story in the first person. Don’t exceed 250 words. (And if one or other feature of our scenario is just too much to include, well, then – leave it out!)
A wonderful selection of entries this month that astonished Jo-Anne and me with their variety, technical virtuosity and individually distinctive voices.
As always, very difficult to choose the best of an excellent crop – but a choice must be made and eyes turned resolutely from the consequences.
Trumpets. Drums. A golden scroll:
The winner is Priscilla Holmes.
Why did we choose to elevate her entry above its peers? Because it’s neat, it’s clever, it succeeds in biting its tail and so completes a lovely little circle of plot, it touches on all the features listed in our challenge, it adopts a less obvious perspective – the female companion of the intruder – and it maintains a lovely sense of voice throughout. And then there’s one other thing about it that we really like – and that is the unexplained dynamic at the heart of it: the unexplored relationship between father and daughter, that smacks of incestuous attraction, but isn’t spelled out in any obvious way.
I don’t know why she did it. After all he is her father. I suppose it’s something to do with my being his new wife and the most beautiful of them all. I’m not being vain, it’s true.
The picture was private. She stole it from our bedroom. When we went round to her apartment to retrieve it she was doing the vacuuming, naked. She is eccentric, but this was extreme. That’s why we bought her the flat, to give her some independence, get her out of our hair.
I mean, she’s twenty-nine and still Hugo’s dependent little darling. We thought she’d be happy to have her own apartment.
She was such a creamy little thing, she looked rather sweet really with her dragon tattoo, pink nipples and pierced belly-button. But she’s got this thing about showing everybody… well… everything. No curtains at the windows, anyone could look in. Well, I suppose that was the point really.
Hugo says it’s Freudian. It’s only happened since we got married and Hugo told her about the Will. Funny that.
Hugo snatched the photograph off the wall, shouting at her.
‘Daddy, don’t … I just wanted a picture of you,’ she sobbed.
‘But I’m bloody naked in it, Samantha. It’s private.’
‘That’s why I like it,’ she whispered.
Hugo stormed out.
I stayed behind and stroked her arm.
‘Don’t worry darling,’ I said. ‘I’ve got another one you can have. This one’s got me in it. You’ll love it.’
Other entries worth a mention (and more):
We simply loved the voice in Cat Pritchard’s story, and the momentum that story generates and then maintains – it seems to proceed helter-skelter, without pause for breath, and some really funny observations, my favourite of which is: “Stark blood naked with a vacuum cleaner between her legs. Like a late-night Verimark ad.”
I told Tom we shouldn’t go. I said, “Tom, we shouldn’t go”. I knew Harry would be playing golf, or some other field. But Tom insisted, in his brutish blue-collar way that “we get him to talk or silence him forever”. Big Talk Tom. So we went. And yes, we forced our way in, but not on the maid. I swear. She was already naked when we got there. Stark bloody naked with a vacuum cleaner between her legs. Like a late-night Verimark ad. Not altogether hygienic I imagine. My catholic reflexes must have kicked in because when I opened my eyes she was standing, trembling with a cushion on her Venus de Milo parts and Tom was grabbing the Mother Mary. The painting, not the woman you understand. The two of them were having a monologue at each other. She kept rambling on about spilling something on her uniform and how it was drying and please don’t tell the madam (except she kept saying “madman” which made the situation even more ridiculous). Tom kept shouting that it was “iconoclastic”of her to be naked in front of the holy mother. Yes, iconoclastic. His words, not mine. I have never seen Tom so rattled. I even think I heard him mumble out a quick Hail Mary out the door. I could be wrong. I said nothing of course. What words could I give when we had already stolen her pride? And the Mother Mary. I wonder how she’ll explain that.
Great idea of Alex Moll to make the female companion an undercover cop. The first half of the story works brilliantly, and we loved the revelation that the picture seized was a worthless photocopy. We feel, though, that the second half doesn’t work as well.
Tretchi. Man, I hadn’t heard his name for years. It’s hard to believe that Marci had been his model. But then, 20 years plying her trade on the rough streets of Jo’burg, spending her dollars on heroin and coke – that could change a butterfly into a vrot-looking old gogga, no question! What did she call the painting? ‘Nude, with magnolia’?
And Marci was naked when Jake broke her door down; just as God made her. ‘Nude, with vacuum-cleaner’, now!
Jake is truly despicable. He could have got any one of his pushers to do it. But he enjoyed it. He screamed at her, told her he would kill her, then grabbed the painting off the wall and took a kick at her cat on his way out, the bastard.
I actually wet myself laughing when the guy at the pawn shop told Jake, “R50.00 for the frame; the photocopy is a piece of kak”. Marci had obviously sold her original signed print years ago.
“Marlene, or rather, Sergeant Vermeulen. How are you?” Chief Inspector Gaffie Brits was always congenial. “You’ve been undercover now for how long? 14 months? Tell me all about yourself and Jake White. I think we’ve nailed him this time, thanks to you.”
So I told Brits the whole story, including how I had told Marci about the guy in the flats next door, who had had his leg broken in two places by Jake and his cronies for not paying up on time!
Slick Tiger, last month’s winner, turned in a neatly-stitched little murder story.
Henry’s unholy rage boiled with pyroclastic intensity. The veins in his neck grew thick as ropes and his face turned a disconcerting puce as one consonant after the next exploded in a hail of spittle so violent I feared Celine might lose an eye.
“YOU’VE RUINED US! YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE IDIOT! THAT ONE PSILOCYBE TAMPANENSIS SPECIMEN WOULD HAVE SET YOUR MOTHER AND I UP FOR LIFE!”
Celine gazed up at him with pupils big enough to park a bus inside and burst into a peal of uncontrollable giggles. The Electrolux stood proudly where she’d left it when he walked in on her whimsically vacuuming the flat, naked.
“I uh, umm, I…” was all Celine could manage before a fresh stream of giggles bubbled up. She clutched the couch pillow against her as tears started welling up in her eyes.
“MY LIFE’S WORK! 30 GODDAMNED YEARS OF SEARCHING AND WHAT?! AND WHAT?!”
“And what, Henry?” I replied calmly, “you hide it in your sock drawer while you try to fob it off to the highest bidder and surprise, surprise your daughter eats it.”
Henry stiffened suddenly, grabbing his chest.
“Are you ok dear?” I asked.
“Fine. Just reflux. But she moves out today, starting with this godawful picture!” he said as he lurched across the room and tore one of her abysmal acrylics off the wall.
He staggered out the room with the painting, breathing in short, sharp gasps only to drop like a sack of anvils in the passage outside.
I smiled at my daughter, my unknowing accomplice, as the eruption I’d been waiting twenty-seven years for finally happened.
And Kelly Ansara earns an honorable mention for her chilling psychopath.
I could smell the blood that would trickle down my hands if this one didn’t have what I wanted. I had slapped her for smiling at me; it was cold that night and my hand stung from the strike. She had that look that made you think she was laughing at you. In her head, you know?
When I was six, a boy made fun of my nose. I laughed. Then I grated his face into the gravel till the skin peeled away from the bone. That’s when they started calling me Johnny ‘The Clown’ Pistone.
She took the painting while I slept.
Carly is here to keep my temper in check, her cropped hair and the fading black-eye making her look tougher than her frame suggests. She eyes me as I ram the door. My trench coat squeaks as I enter. And there she is, cleaning. Naked. I hated how she would clean naked. It made me sick to my stomach.
I shout over the noise of the vacuum cleaner, her eyes widen, she grabs a cushion to cover herself and I laugh, throwing my hands in the air for effect.
‘I want it back, Val!’ the Italian rolling and lilting off my tongue.
She backs up against the wall but she is smiling faintly. GODDAMMIT! THAT LOOK. I take the painting. The thought of ripping flesh is making me giddy.
I walk out. I need my blade for this one.
Nobody laughs at Johnny Pistone. Nobody.
And finally, there’s Jeff Meyer, whose name pops up here as regular as herrings in Holland, with his nicely judged piece about Harry the Blade. We loved the voice, Jeff!
The painting? Was Harry’s. Saddle Court, eight years ago. Coulda been yesterday. He was on fire that night. His eyes…Christ…never seen eyes like that. Sheila owes me her life. He woulda done her, as God made little green apples he woulda done her.
I remember beggin’ him,“Jeezus Harry, let it go, willya! It’s just a fuckin’ painting. For me…please Harry…for me. I’ll make it up t’ya. Promise. Look, I’m wearin’ nuthin under this…here, feel.”
I’ll never forget what he said.
“No! No one shafts Harry the Blade – no one!! Besides, it’s not ‘just a fuckin’ painting’. That’s serious dough in there. Vinnie told me, an’ Vinnie knows. Says it’s by some frog called Paul Gowgong.”
Anyway, I got him to lose the knife. He sucked his cigar then kicked in the door like it was cardboard. You shoulda seen what happened. Sheila grabbed a little cushion and tried to cover her tits an’ mickey. I thought Harry was gonna lose it, he was screamin’ so much.
“Whore! Low-class piece of sharkshit! Which one is it? I said WHICH…ONE?!”
Harry don’ know shit from shinola ’bout art. She was screamin’ an cryin’ on the floor an’ pointed to this one. He pulled it off the wall and jus’ walked out. I kinda felt for her, so I knelt and stroked her shoulder.
“Lissen babe, your lucky day today. Someone up there has the hots for you.”
I got up an’ left.
Made a promise, did’n’ I?
As always – and it is necessary to repeat this – we loved all the entries for a wide variety of reasons – a great phrase, a beautifully observed detail, a cunning plot twist – and hope you continue to enter in ever greater numbers! And as always the entries were of course judged blind.