Letter delivered, three decades too late.
Round and round I spin, with my arms stretched out at my sides, until I’m too dizzy to stand.
My body is like a magnet being drawn to the ground. I want to be sick but I am laughing too hard to muster the energy.
My children dance around me, their own laughter filled with the sounds of life and innocence.
I want to capture this moment and bask in it forever; to hold on to it for the rest of my days.
Give it a go, it said.
But I’m too scared, she said.
You’ll never know if you don’t try, it said.
I wish I had a crystal ball, she said.
Be brave, it said.
What if I fail, she said.
You never know – it might be the best thing to ever happen to you, they said.
I wish I had strength inside of me.
An ambition to fly away
into the sky above us.
To soar and to be free,
to wish and to dream
My assignment was to write a story with a maximum of 1,000 words, using specific prompts – an emotion plus an event.
Yeah Write said: “Writers will receive a combination of a mood or emotion and an event to include in their story. While neither needs to be the main focus of the story, both must be included in such a way as to be integral to the plot. There are no genre restrictions.”
I was placed in group 2 and given the prompts envy (emotion) and attend a funeral (event), and I wrote a short story entitled ‘Sticky Situation’.
I have included the judges’ feedback below and, as always, your feedback is very much welcomed.
* * *
Synopsis: When Martha visits her dear old friend Edith for afternoon tea she gets more than she expected. Can Martha finally get what she’s always wanted in order to become the person she’s always dreamed of being?
* * *
The last time Edith spoke, before she dropped down dead onto her kitchen floor, it was to tell her dear old friend Martha how shit her tea-making skills were.
While Martha used a spoon to anchor down the bag at the bottom of the mug, Edith always insisted on making a pot. She would cover it with a knitted cosy for at least ten minutes before pouring it into bone china cups sat on matching saucers.
“Philistine.” Edith spat the word at Martha, stuck her nose in the air, and ran a hand through her dark brown curls. Not a single strand was grey; impressive for an 82-year-old.
Martha was about to defend her brew-making ritual when Edith, without warning, fell face-down onto her cork tiles. Following a quick call to 999, she was scooped up by a couple of handsome paramedics and whisked away. Martha never did see her again. An aneurysm, they’d said.
“You poor thing! How are you holding up?” The strange voice brought Martha back into the room. She was at Edith’s funeral and her deceased friend’s son, Frank, had his hands clasped around one of her own.
“What’s that now?” She wasn’t sure what he was going on about.
“I said I’m so grateful to you for being there with mum when it happened. How are you coping?” He spoke slowly and loudly, assuming she was deaf like most people her age. She quickly hid a smile behind her tissue, fearful of a giggle-snort escaping her nose.
Although they’d been friends for a good couple of years, she’d never really liked Edith. In fact it was only because the two of them had become widows during the same week that the members of Little Snoring Women’s Institute insisted they became bosom buddies.
Martha knew from the get-go that she could never truly like Edith. It wasn’t just the way her brown-headed friend wore her pearl bracelet – always perfectly – but also how disgustingly rich she was. It wasn’t just the pearls either, she had lots of jewellery. Her late husband’s job meant he often travelled to exotic places and he would bring home lavish jewels and expensive perfumes. Martha’s dear Jim never had the money for fancy indulgences.
“Martha?” Frank was staring at her.
“What? Oh, sorry. Yes dear, yes it was such a shock. I still remember your mum’s exquisite Royal Doulton tea pot crashing to the floor when she fell. Beautiful china, old country rose pattern I think it was, splattered around her like blood. Awful mess it was. It took me ages to clean up.”
“Right. Well, thanks for that vivid description Martha – I think. Still, you’ll miss going over for your weekly get-togethers right? Mum talked so fondly of them.”
“Ah yes. Our get-togethers were the highlight of her week! She’d always get the posh biscuits out, the ones with the dark chocolate topping. My budget only ever stretched to plain digestives.”
“You had lovely conversations as well as biscuits though? Right?”
“Right,” Frank tried to hide his confusion. “Well I’d better get ready for my eulogy. Take care, Martha.” As he headed to the front of the room, someone tapped three times on the side of a champagne flute and everyone fell silent.
“Thank you all for coming. As many of you will remember mum loved her jam. There wasn’t a single summer when she didn’t go fruit picking. By winter, her pantry would be stuffed with every flavour imaginable. In fact, as I’m sure many of you will know, her jams were award-winning and she won many Little Snoring WI competitions with her culinary skills.”
Mumbling and tiny claps of agreement floated around the room. Everyone, expect Martha, joined in. She was too busy stuffing her face with scone.
“In fact her legend lives on today and if any of you have sampled either the Victoria Sponge cake or one of the scones then you have tasted her famous jam!”
Martha hurriedly reached for her tissue again and spat the contents of her mouth into it, frowning at one of Edith’s grandsons while he watched in disgust.
Even though Edith was dead, Martha struggled to admit to herself that her friend was the better jam producer. It didn’t matter that her body was barely stiff and cold in the ground, Martha wanted the secret recipe for the gorgeous gloopy goo. She knew Edith had stolen it from someone else anyway, so it wasn’t really hers in the first place. Martha was desperate to win the next Little Snoring WI Jam and Curd Competition. She’d waited for this day for far too long and now it was her turn to shine.
“So let’s raise a glass to mum, the best jam maker the world has ever known. To Edith!”
“To Edith!” the room chanted.
Martha knew Edith’s house was still empty. The family hadn’t had much luck selling it yet. If she was quick, she would have enough time to sneak out and back again before anyone noticed. Armed with her secret spare key, Martha turned to leave but was stopped by another of Edith’s relatives.
“She took it to the grave with her y’know,” it was the grandson – Danny or Dylan – something like that.
“Took what to the grave dear?”
“Her jam recipe.”
“Well yes. She’s dead, dear. She can’t tell you what’s in it now.”
“Duh! I know that. I meant the written copy.” Martha’s hands tingled and her arms went cold.
What do you mean?”
“I mean it was only written down in one place.” In unison, Martha and Danny-or-Dylan said: “In the back of the 1986 yellow pages.”
Martha already knew the answer before the question came out of her mouth, but she asked it anyway. “So where is it now?”
“Six-foot under,” Edith’s grandson pointed to the floor. “Buried with her.”
“Jammy cow…” Martha whispered, squeezing the tissue-covered, chewed-up scone in her hand.
Feedback from the Judges:
What the judges really liked about Sticky Situation:
- Excellent opening hook that pulls the reader in and sets expectations for the story.
- A delightful little story. The dialogue is charming. Especially creative use of envy.
- A few lingering punctuation issues make some phrases hitch instead of reading as smoothly as an understated dark comedy should.
- The ending left a little to be desired. Given Martha’s character and her envy, it would have been more effective if Martha was successful in stealing the recipe.
This is my round two entry for this year’s NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction writing challenge.
The challenge – as always – is to write one 1,000 word story, within 48 hours, based on a selection of prompts. I was given group 34:
This was a really exciting round for me this time as I have never written a Sci-Fi before. My husband absolutely loves this genre though so he was a massive help over the weekend. I really enjoyed my prompts and thought they opened up a whole world of opportunities.
You can read the final result below. I don’t know if it’s an original idea or not; In my head I was in love with the film Waterworld. I basically wanted to capture a snapshot of a moment in time for these two characters. I’m not sure if the ending has the impact I was after or not but either way I hope you enjoy reading it.
As always, honest feedback is welcomed. Also I apologise now for any typos – it’s always fun writing a story from scratch, with specific prompts, in just 48 hours!
Synopsis: They’ve survived the end of the world once before. But when the floods threaten to destroy their new home can this brother and sister make it with just a hot-air balloon to keep them alive?
* * *
As soon as I smelt the putrid sweat on Marthiana, I knew she had been fucked by Ridian. That night my sister couldn’t look me in the eye and later I heard her crying in the shower, washing her perfect scales until the water became tinged with blood. I wanted to punch him.
It was illegal for humans to sleep with our kind. The government had put a stop to it years ago after discovering deformities in the offspring. They had an unnatural sexual appetite for us though, so our bodies became useful objects to trade with – except Marthiana’s that is. It was the first time she’d done that.
“Hey Marthiana, how long have we been floating up here now?”
“Thirty days little brother.”
“Yeah. I’ve made a mark on the side of the basket every morning since we took off.”
“Oh, that’s what that is.”
“Well I’ve got to keep myself entertained somehow while you’re writing.”
Up until the Government’s final announcement, living on Earth had been good. Before our home planet – known here as Delta Seven – had become uninhabitable, a small group of survivors had managed to make contact with Earth’s dwindling numbers.
Humans invited us to join them, to be part of their way of life and become a community. When we arrived we were welcomed like heroes returning from war. It’s crazy how quickly things change.
“Still writing little brother?”
“Is there anything better to do in a hot-air balloon?”
“You should get some sleep.”
“I will. You know, Harrison always said it was important to preserve our history.”
My writing book was a present from my assigned human, Harrison. He told me to write down my thoughts because it would help me settle here quicker, but I really hadn’t bothered with it much before the floods came and we were forced into the sky.
It’s the reason Marthiana slept with Ridian in the first place. She’d traded her body to persuade the old pervert to give us his hot-air balloon. The drunk didn’t give a shit about the balloon though, or the other junk he hoarded in his back yard, he just wanted Marthiana. I wanted to explain to her that it didn’t have to be like that with humans, but she didn’t know about me and Harrison then.
After, she told me that Ridian had pulled off some of her back scales to keep them to stroke. He told her he wanted that to be the last thing he felt before the floods came.
“Do you think there are other survivors?”
“I don’t just mean humans Marthiana.”
“I know what you meant little brother. Keep positive.”
As predicted, the floods came in unprecedented amounts and as water levels began to rise, we launched our hot-air balloon.
It was so quiet and peaceful up above but it didn’t stop the roar of the waves following us or screams from humans vibrating in our ears. Then the wails from our own race came, drowning alongside the natives.
Marthiana and I spent two days watching the tides rise until they lapped around the tops of mountains, cities and memories now hidden forever under the sea, consumed in its big, greedy belly. So far we’ve managed to remain safe in this flying vessel, powered by the same Energy which destroyed the planet in the first place.
Harrison tried explaining it to me once but I was never good at science. It had something to do with Energy’s technology speeding up climate change and multiplying water molecules. Combined with massive errors during the moon’s drilling project, the Government had no choice but to announce the world’s end.
“You’re thinking about him again.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I do. You glow when you do.”
I’d always struggled to concentrate around Harrison during our mentoring sessions. It was his eyes. They grabbed me during the first moment I saw him. I wanted him. When he kissed me, it was like nothing I had ever experienced. On Delta Seven, sex wasn’t something that existed. It would have been considered an unnecessary luxury or fetish. On Earth, it was so much more than that. It was love.
Harrison had known they were coming for him. They called it Abuse of Power. He didn’t struggle when they arrested him but the guard pushed him to the ground anyway and smiled as he pressed his boot on his face, pinning him to the floor. I was held back by another, my muscles useless, and could do nothing but cry as they cuffed him and took him away. I didn’t see him again.
At the back of my book I keep a four leaf clover. It’s pressed and is the exact colour of my scales. Harrison slipped it inside the pages sometime during our final night together. With it he’d written ‘good luck’. Marthiana explained that it was an old human saying, meaning to give encouragement and hope.
“We’ve survived before so we can do it again.”
“Yeah. I know Marthiana.”
“It’s just figuring out how.”
“We’ll do it. We’ll get there.”
“Still got 51 days to work it out.”
“Sure sis, sure.”
I know Marthiana has been trying to think of a rescue plan since we took off in the balloon but the ideas are coming slower than usual to her.
I’ve done the math and it’s not looking great. Our bodies can survive for a total of 101 days without food and fluid. So far we’ve come across nothing and there has been no signs of life.
“I’m going to swim there.”
“How do you know if there’s anyone even there?”
“Let’s just lower the balloon onto the island.”
“Can’t risk it getting damaged. What if they shoot at us?”
“I don’t know little brother, I don’t know.”
It had been years since Jenny heard a saxophone being played like that.
The welcomed melody caught her attention long before she realised why, and with the boredom of the weekend settling in she sat on a bench to listen, delaying the walk home to an empty house.
Its deep sound radiated through an open window and poured its way through the fresh late autumn breeze, weaving its way around the bustle of the city.
If Eric had been here he would have sat beside her and held her hand while tapping his finger along with the music. He played them all – piano, guitar, even the drums occasionally – but the sax always had the ability to take him to the places his heart wanted to be. Places she never could.
When the performance came to an end the instrument’s owner thrashed out scales; Warm tones repetitively penetrated the airwaves like melting chocolate oozing out of its wrapper after being in the sun too long. Jenny pulled her scarf tightly around her neck and sunk her hands deep into the sleeves of her coat.
It had been 40 years since Jenny had last seen her childhood sweetheart Eric. On the day he left for America she presented him with a painting of the two of them; Eric on a beach with his saxophone, while her younger self watched him from a rain-covered window. He asked her to sign it and promised to store it in his case.
Suddenly the music stopped. Jenny looked up to the window and saw a young, black-haired man putting the instrument away. With the impromptu show finished she stood up to leave but, as she turned, her ankle rolled and she fell to the ground.
“You alright down there?” a voice called. Apparently the young musician was fond of people-watching too.
“I’m alright, just a little sprain,” Jenny called back.
“Stay there. I’m coming down.”
She attempted to make a quick exit but ranging pain greeted her ankle like ice cream on a sensitive tooth. It didn’t take long for the stranger to reach her and despite the cold weather he appeared in jeans and a t-shirt.
“My mum used to be in St John’s so I know a little bit about sprains,” he grinned.
“If you can just help me get back onto the bench, I’ll be okay.”
“Well, I will stay with you for a bit. I’m Marcus.”
With youthful confidence Marcus helped her up, then knelt down to inspect the painting of blue and purple starting to develop across her ankle.
“You play beautifully by the way.”
“You were listening?”
“You’re very talented.”
“I had a good instructor,” he smiled. “Well the good news is your ankle isn’t seriously hurt but you will need to rest it. Live far away?”
“Not too far. I used to live in Essex with my husband John but he died a few months ago. I moved back to Norwich recently – it’s where I grew up. I live by Riverside now.” It felt nice to have someone to talk to. An unexpected aneurysm had taken John from her just days before his 64th birthday and it had been a while since she had enjoyed company. “How long have you been playing for?”
“Since I was a kid. My granddad was musical. He taught me.”
“I used to be friends with a saxophone player. He moved away though, to find fortune and fame I think,” Jenny laughed to herself. “We lost contact over the years.”
“Listen, you wait here. I’m just going to grab my stuff from the studio.”
With his coat now on, he returned holding a grubby brown saxophone case. “Shall I play you something?”
As he opened the case Jenny gasped. Inside was a very worn painting showing a man from another time with his saxophone and a woman gazing after him. In a corner the name Jennifer was signed.
“Jenny?” Marcus followed her eyes. “Oh… Jennifer.”
“Your granddad, what was his name?” She almost chocked on her words.
Marcus held the saxophone up to his mouth and started playing a tune she hadn’t heard in decades. As a tear rolled down her face she whispered “Jennifer’s Song”.
“It’s still his favourite,” Marcus said when he finished.
He took her hand. “Why don’t you rest that ankle at my house? It’s just round the corner. I might be able to talk granddad Eric into playing you a tune on the sax himself.”
The War was over.
Yesterday’s final minutes became irrelevant for you when your time stopped ticking. Cold hands, grasped tightly around my own, lost their strength and in that final moment sank to your sides.
The battle you had fought was finally lost. Age had won.
UPDATE: This personal essay won second place overall in Yeah Write’s Super Challenge.
My Round One entry ‘Labels’ and my Round Two entry ‘Confessions of a Reformed Diurnal-being‘ got me through to the finals where I competed against ten other writers. This time the assignment was to write either a personal or persuasive essay with a maximum of 1,000 words, using a specific prompt – the word ‘bemused’.
I wrote a personal essay entitled ‘Amy’.
I have included the judges’ feedback below and, as always, your feedback is very much welcomed.
It wasn’t until she was gone that I discovered life did not last forever.
Laughter generated from endless summers together, playing childish games of cops and robbers, hadn’t equipped me for death. The long, empty comedown in the days after Christmas, rejuvenated by swapping toys we didn’t like, would never happen again. All those conversations I’d had with her about what I would do when I grew-up became meaningless.
Nothing could have prepared me for the untimely death of my five-year-old cousin, Amy.
I knew she was ill. The hushed whispers and silences from adults when I walked into the kitchen to ask for juice told me far more than if they had just carried on talking. I guess it was when Amy lost her hair and had a feeding tube stuck up her nose and taped to her cheek, that I knew it was something serious.
The last time I saw her she was going to a hospital too far for me to visit.
One morning soon after, my parents picked me up early from a sleepover at my nanny’s house. I usually spent the weekends there, wasting away the early Saturday mornings of my youth in front of the television, eating toast cut into animal shapes. I walked home in my pyjamas, hugging my cuddly toy dog, Woof.
Strangely, I had to try and hold back a giggle when they told me she had died.
I put this down to nerves. At 10 years old I didn’t know how to receive this information. Death seemed too final to be real. Seeing all those sad faces, strong faces, hidden behind hands or tissues, it just excelled the pressure I felt inside me. The pain radiated into my jaw as I tried to hold back the laughter. I made my excuses and left the room as quickly as possibly. That’s when the tears came.
* * *
It had only been about a month or two since Amy died when my parents noticed a large, bald gap running down the middle of my scalp from my forehead to the top of my skull. The bareness was so soft to touch, like babies’ skin or peaches. I liked it. I knew there were other hidden patches, but I didn’t tell them.
It got worse and eventually I was made to go to see a doctor.
I asked him if I had leukaemia like Amy. He explained that it was the chemotherapy which made her lose her hair, not the cancer. I was diagnosed with alopecia, the trauma from the funeral given as the cause. The doctor sent me on my way with a sugar-free lollipop, prescribing time as my only healer.
It was my mum who first caught me hiding upstairs, pulling it out.
I think she had suspected something wasn’t quite right when she couldn’t find the evidence of my thinning locks in the brush. She still washed it for me and was
confused why the plughole in the bath wasn’t blocked with the amount I was losing so quickly. By this point I had lost half a head of hair.
It took a long time to start growing back again.
Where thick, pretty plaits once donned my head, two bemused braids now hung limp against my face. They whispered into my ear and taunted me about my weird obsession. It didn’t matter how strange I looked, the anxiety would grow inside of me until I plucked away at my scalp like a butcher with a chicken. I loved to hear the snap of it as I ripped the root from my scalp.
It would take me ages to find the perfect strand, but perfection only lasts so long.
I soon started to panic that I would not have any hair left. The baldness didn’t bother me – I knew Amy had been brave enough to cope with it – it was the thought of having nothing left to pull out. Eventually I scared myself enough to stop. I was lucky.
I still have bad days with it. I still have bad weeks.
Physically trichotillomania has left me with a small, remaining bald patch at the back of my head, no bigger than a large coin. It’s still a challenge not to sit and pull until there is nothing left. Sometimes it’s completely out of control yet often I feel it’s the only thing I am in control of.
I no longer want to be ashamed.
Instead what I want is to be able to visit different hairdressers without embarrassment or brush my hair with confidence, in front of strangers. I no longer want to fear revealing a strange type of nakedness, but also a compulsion I don’t quite yet know how to tackle myself.
My cousin lost more than her hair twenty years ago. Now it’s time for me to be brave.
Feedback from the judges:
What the judges really liked about ‘Amy’:
- The ability to relate early childhood experiences to present day works well here.
- Good job pacing and weaving together the two stories here.
- Good transitions and use of descriptive imagery and language.
- The incorporation of “bemused” is clever and effective in your essay’s theme.
Where the judges found room for improvement:
- There are details within the essay that do not add to the story and serve as more of a distraction.
- Many of your sentences seem to be reaching for a complexity that is out of the range of your voice – you have a lovely tone when you stick to simple phrasing and the essay would have benefited from spending more time there.
- This essay would benefit from more show and less tell. There’s lots of powerful moments that could be depicted as scenes that would pull the reader in even more.
- Shifting some of the telling in the essay to description would strengthen the imagery and help the reader relate more fully.
by Emma Donoghue
* * * * *
When I started reading this I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the story was told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view.
The narrative of the book is unnervingly realistic and I was instantly drawn into their little world – Room. Donoghue has brought this space to life by beautiful details, such as making an eggshell snake and giving life to inanimate objects.
The strengths and weaknesses of Ma – his mother – easily resonate with any one who has experienced being a parent. The need to protect your children, the struggles of parenthood, and the constant battle to make sure they have the best in life, makes this novel work on so many levels.
This is a great read for anyone looking for something they can easily get absorbed into and also for writers who like finding interesting details in the smallest of things.
Overall this book is so much bigger than just a room.