At the online Great Festival Flash Off online day, Jude gave a prompt based on this picture,’Reading in a Cafe’, painted in 1920, by American artist Jane Petersen, 1876-1965, an American Impressionist and Expressionist artist. Thanks to everyone who entered stories and many congratulations to the three winners. First prize, Sudha Balagopal and two runners-up Sara Hills and Cheryl Markosky. Thanks also to Diane Simmons our judge for the trio of festival days. Her comments and the stories and authors’ bios are posted below. The winner receives two books published by Ad Hoc Fiction, three free entries to Bath Flash Fiction Award, to be used at any time, and publication in paperback in a Flash Fiction Festival anthology. The runners up receive one book and both other prizes. There are two contests on our Saturday January 7th Great Festival New Year Flash Off. You can book here. Hope to see you there for more festival fun.
Diane’s General Comments
Again, I really loved the painting Jude provided as a prompt – it made me want to buy a chic hat and run away to Paris. As with the painting in the last festival competition, the latest prompt ‘Reading in a Cafe’ inspired all kinds of interesting and varied entries and the three very different stories I chose as winners reflect that variety. All the entries I read had something to commend them, but the ones I eventually chose (after a great deal of re-reading) were the ones that made me just a little envious that I’d not written them myself.
First prize by Sudha Balagopal
I’m sitting in the cafe
…when you interrupt my reading by tapping on the outside of your cup, fingers drumming an asynchronous beat―three times, pause, two times, pause, three times again―reminding me of the way you once ran your fingers along my spine, same pattern, same rhythm, and of course, I never asked you which song was married to that odd cadence, brain then drunk on the intense sweetness of your finger-tempo on my body, on the orchestra of sensation, because those were the times when we share-drank from the same receptacle, splash of milk and three heaping teaspoons of sugar adding density, but we don’t share much anymore, not tea, not coffee, not wine, not many lunches or dinners, which you prefer to take in London, in so-called elegant company, all of which I refuse to focus on, so I drain my cup, pinkie finger extended―a habit you instilled in this country mouse―while you stop tapping your fingers, moving on to caress the warm teapot, as if for sustenance, with the same hands that slid a ring onto my finger, your shifty eyes looking everywhere except at me, shiftiness that I didn’t study, because I wanted you and nothing else mattered, and besides, soaring, symphonic music played in my head when you came close, but come to think of it, you never mentioned music or melody or rhythm or any such thing when I slept next to you, arm across your chest, nose buried in the curve of your neck, and here you are now, clanking your spoon, stainless steel inside green ceramic, creating waves, until a swell cascades over the lip, pools on the table, your actions causing a slish-sloshing, again and again, with the same roughness I thought I liked as if they embodied manliness, passion, and yes, even love, believing you couldn’t have enough of me, until I found out about her, the person you visit and stay with in London, which is why I won’t acknowledge your agitation, why I refill my cup instead, why I find my interrupted line and get back to reading.
Bio: Sudha Balagopal is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including CRAFT, Split Lip, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction in 2021. She has work included in both Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, 2022. Her work is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50: 2019, 2021, longlisted 2022. She Find her on Twitter @authorsudha
I’m a great fan of a one sentence flash, especially when it is done as well as this one. Engaging from the off, cleverly using the title as the beginning of the story, I was drawn immediately into the story, not pausing until I’d finished. Full of rich detail, I particularly loved the phrase ‘so, I drain my cup, pinkie-extended finger – a habit you instilled…’
Runner up: Man Eater by Sara Hills
When you spy your sister June through the window of that Nouveau Egg place downtown, she doesn’t wave or smile back. She turns her sunny face to her companion, a man you know for certain isn’t her husband Carl, and not just because Carl is bald as a cue ball and this man has a thick mane, but everything about the way this man is caressing her naked hand tells you it’s still early. Tender.
Since when does June drink port at brunch? And why’s she wearing Granny’s old hat? You peer through the glass—yes, it’s that crushed velvet one from childhood—time faded, the little plump rose at the brim worn from tiny tugging hands.
June laughs, her shameful cheeks blazing, and though you can’t hear her through the thick glass, it feels like church bells all over again.
Is it your business if she’s cheating? If she and Carl had a fight, or worse? You’ve been too busy to call, too depressed since Tom left, too focused on tending your own wounds. Not wanting to impose. Not wanting to feel a failure.
You wave your arms at her, point at your head, give her a quizzical look.
Her eyes flick to the window then away, so you slap at the glass with your palm. “June! June! Hey!”
She ignores you, leans across the table and kisses that man, that hairy man who isn’t Carl, soft and slow, in full view of you and the other patrons—who are now, indeed, scowling, following your gaze from the palm-printed window to your sister—that slut, what is she playing at? She’d sooner eat a man like that than kiss one. Unhinge her jaw, and gulp. You’d bet your life on it.
You ignore the scowling faces. Steady yourself. Storm inside.
But wait, it’s not June, after all. It’s not Granny’s hat. It’s not even a rose—just a woman with hungry eyes and happy wind-chapped cheeks, wearing a bandana.
You blink once, twice, sit at an empty table. When the waiter comes, you order your own glass of port and, finally, ring your sister.
Bio: Sara Hills
Sara Hills is the author of The Evolution of Birds, winner of the 2022 Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection, and co-author of a collaborative novella-in-flash forthcoming with Ad Hoc Fiction in 2023. Her stories have won the QuietManDave Prize for flash nonfiction, the Retreat West quarterly prize, and been selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 and The Best Small Fictions. Her work is widely published in anthologies and magazines, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, Fractured Lit, Cease Cows, Flash Frog, Splonk, and Reckon Review. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.
Diane Simmons’ comments
The skill of the writer is evident here right from the start of the flash and the more I read this flash, the more I loved it. The descriptions are just wonderful (particularly of Carl) and I was right there with the writer, peering through the window. The final line is just perfect.
Runner up: Trip Advisor review: Starbucks Victor Hugo, 90 avenue Victor Hugo, 75116, Paris, France, VirginiaWoolf, East Sussex United Kingdom by Cheryl Markosky
Trip Advisor review: Starbucks Victor Hugo, 90 avenue Victor Hugo, 75116, Paris, France, VirginiaWoolf, East Sussex United Kingdom
€6.95 is a rip off, but I’m a sucker for a Grande Caramel Macchiato, especially after getting soaked in the rain in the Marais. About the same price as teensy coffees you get in those chic, awninged cafes on all the street corners, but you get several times the amount.
Barrista gets my name wrong – VIRGIN – on the side of the cup. I’m used to the frump-shaming of women.
Wi-fi connection dodgy in the back room, so sit in the front. Staff is charming. One gave me the wi-fi code and explained why a laptop’s better than a leather-bound manuscript.
A little crowded. No room for one’s own, but the avenue’s nice. Lots of flaneuring and en plein painting.
Mural on ceiling, chandelier and eau de nil walls very Bloomsbury. Exposed brick ugly. I prefer stone.
Plenty of camaraderie. A young American tourist eats with her hands, a new liberation for the modern world. Recommends the chocolate cheesecake muffin.
Music too loud for my liking. The young American gets someone to turn it down. She tells me about her home on the grey Missouri River, with root masses and woody debris. Where she earns a living wage, has clean bottled water.
I tell her about our cottage where Leonard tried to institutionalise me. My half sibling exploring my body, his gusts of passion, behaving little better than a brute. My first suicide attempt jumping out of a window. The second – 100 grams of barbital. Migraines, despair.
The young American says I have bipolar disorder. I wonder if it can be cured with laudanum, but the waiter says they’ve run out.
Purchase Starbucks Paris mug instead. And a lottery ticket. Luck of the draw.
I say au revoir to the young American. Walk to the Seine with cobblestones from the boulevard in my pockets. Dreaming of the River Ouse, ashes buried under an elm tree.
Bio Cheryl Markosky
Cheryl Markosky always wanted to be a lighthouse keeper, but it was tricky in the Rockies. So she became a TV producer and journalist. Canadian born, she now splits her time between England and the Caribbean. Cheryl’s work can be found in Ellipsis Zone, New Flash Fiction Freiw, Urban Tree FEsitval, The Cabinet of Heed, The Drabble, Janus Literary and National Flash Fiction Day and Flash Fiction Festival Day Anthologies. She recently won first prize in the Walk Listen Create flash fiction contest and was Highly Commended in the Mslexia flash fiction contest, 2022.
Comments by Diane Simmons
Told as a trip advisor review by Virginia Woolf, this is a clever and original flash. Full of humour, this made me chuckle several times. I particularly enjoyed the name on the Starbucks cup reference and it made me smile to think of Virginia Woolf tapping away on a laptop.