For the New Year, the last of the trio of the online festival days in the series, our festival director, Jude, set two writing challenges. In each of the previous days, writers had been asked to write a story based on a painting. All the paintings are of women. As well as the first writing challenge for this month, based on the woman baking in the kitchen (read the winners here) for this challenge she asked writers to compose a ‘triptych’ story of three paragraphs connecting all three women, in the paintings in some way. For an added challenge and connection between each, she asked writers to keep to five sentence paragraphs and to include the same five words in each paragraph.
Thanks again to all who entered this very exacting challenge and to Diane Simmons for judging. As in the previous challenge, prizes are entries to Bath Flash Fiction Award, books from Ad Hoc Fiction and publication in print in the Flash Fiction Festival Anthology, Vol 6. Linda Grierson-Irish won the challenge and Sharon Telfer and Debra A Daniel were runners up. Congratulations to all!
Diane’s general comments are here:
The challenge was to write a triptych using the paintings as prompts, with each flash being five sentences long and containing the words: waste, fortune, alone, reason and everyone. This proved to be a tricky challenge, with several entrants forgetting about the five sentences element. I was impressed though with the variety of stories written and the clever way many connected the women’s stories.
First Prize: Three Ways to Lose a Friend
This triptych contains some wonderful descriptions and phrases: ‘…puffed on pink cigarettes over freshly risen Victoria sponges…’ being a favourite and my appreciation of the stories increased with each reading. I particularly enjoyed the final story Annabelle and the last line was just perfect.”
Three Ways to Lose a Friend
Had the gravity of a balloon, an unreasonable expectation of heady orbits; a multi-sunned heart, like a supernova, spinning her soul. We wasted our lunch breaks, ourselves, lurched into the office every afternoon with spirits and ambition playing skittles in our heads. She said we’d never get fired, she knew too much about how our boss made his fortune. Her cheeks were pink with mistrust when he marched her between our desks that day, everyone stabbing at their typewriters as if they hadn’t seen. She left me alone in a box of stifled stars, waiting for her wild whirlwind of light to come back and soar me away, but that’s the thing about supernovas – gravity always wins.
Measured a proud eleven inches taller than me, puffed on pink cigarettes over freshly risen Victoria sponges in her multi-chaired kitchen, and hoisted me up when I collapsed with stomach cramps in front of everyone in our art class. Her babies kept coming and we were never alone anymore. It was a terrible misfortune, she would say, projecting over a carnival of professional squabbling. But you’ve got to move on, you’ll waste your life brooding over what might have been. In the end we found reasons not to stay in touch, the distance between us growing faster than her children.
You came to my first preview, even though you thought art was a waste of energy, like a full stop; said you liked living things that you could grow and nurture. When I returned from a long, lonely touring exhibition, all the flowers you planted were dying and so were you. We sat in your kitchen, you joking it was a good reason to buy new hats, fidgeting at defiant strands peeking out under a crocheted coal-dark poppy. You made me promise to tell everyone not to wear black, because it was always your colour and frankly you didn’t want to be upstaged in your big moment. You left a small fortune to an alpine plant society, and I started growing tulips, the nearest colour to black I could find.
Linda Grierson-Irish lives in Shropshire UK. Her stories have appeared in various lovely publications online and in print, been shortlisted twice for both the Bridport Prize and Bath Flash Award, nominated for Best Small Fictions, included on the BIFFY50 list, and received two honourable mentions for Best Microfictions. Linda is currently hatching a plan to leave her full-time job in HE to free up more time for creativity. You can find her via her website.
“I love the clarity and voice in this triptych and I felt in safe hands from the off. I found the image of the widow ordering two glasses of wine very moving, with the phrase ‘It’s something she has left of him…’ particularly affecting.”
She orders two glasses, though she’s drinking alone. She has set her back to the broad mirror – to watch the chatter she tells herself, knowing the real reason: she cannot bear the absences it reflects. The café shimmers with ghosts; everyone has lost someone.
She pours – one for herself, one for Frank: “May good fortune precede you, love walk with you, and good friends follow you.” It’s something she has left of him, this toast, when most was sucked into the waste of Amiens; it will be enough, she pledges, placing first her emptied glass then his upside down on the table, to walk her out of no man’s land.
It is her very good fortune to be Mrs E.B. Snyder, and mind she don’t forget it. Everyone tells her, Ed, surely, but Ma too, Pastor Johns, clerks at the store, the bank. No reason on God’s good earth to hanker after some fancy name of her own when her husband’s given her a damn fine one. Waste and nonsense: in these hard times, she should be thankful for what she’s got.
While he’s at the sale, before the children come home, she overturns her bucket, steps up and stands alone in the back field, yelling like a crowd at the ballgame: Joanie May! Joanie May! My name is Joanie May!
Alone, at her own table with her own teapot in her own flat. Okay, the table’s a cast-off from the Hendersons, the teapot’s from a jumble sale, and it’s a glorified bedsit really, but the rent’s coming out of her brand-new bank account, in her very own name though the divorce isn’t final yet, and that’s reason enough to celebrate, even if it is only tea.
She had shocked everyone, herself included, abandoning it all – house, car, the security, Sandra! – out the door one cold night like the old song – goose-feather bed, new-wedded lord.
No more time to waste. She stands, on impulse swills her cup, peers into the scattered leaves to read what fortune her upended life will bring.
Sharon Telfer’s flash fiction has won prizes including the Bath Flash Fiction Award (twice) and the Reflex Fiction Prize. Her flash fiction collection, The Map Waits, is published by Reflex Press and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize She lives near York.
Runner-Up: ‘The Hat with the Crushed Rose’
“This tale of two very different sisters and their niece was an original take on the three paintings. In the final story, I thought placing the sisters out of shot (both working at the counter) was particularly clever – the woman at the table is not alone in the kitchen after all.”
Debra A Daniel
The Hat with the Crushed Rose
Eloise milked the cow, gathered eggs, scooped snow fallen from the morning sky so nothing would be wasted. Her hands, chapped and reddened from the unfortunate early freeze of late October, stung. Her gloves were missing, probably stolen for no good reason and crammed in the pocket of her sister’s coat. Cecilia was, no doubt, still sleeping alone in their bed while Eloise worked. Everyone said she should be done with Cecilia, but they didn’t understand how their past had determined their present, how their mother’s abandonment, their father’s death had carved their future where, always together, they’d carry on.
When he bent over her cup to read her leaves, the oracle, had foreseen it wrong, Cecilia’s future, Cecilia’s fortune. What could her know of her longings, her reasonings? His finger close to her face, he’d said the worse would come unless she became less of herself, more like her sister whom she refused to seep into any pot of tea she brewed, whom she’d left stirring the snow cream on the morning she’d stolen herself away from the house where they’d shared one mattress, lumped together, miserably alone. Now cheeks rouged, eyes defined by trouble and expectation, lips bowed wantonly red, Cecilia was glad to sip wine before noon rather than swallow the prediction of regret and waste. When he’d traced her palm lines with the pierce of his fingernail; he’d not known that Cecilia, wearing her mother’s hat with the crushed rose, would memorize the handwritten words in her mother’s journal, would dedicate herself to proving everyone wrong and claim her own future.
She’ll never understand them, her mother and her Aunt Eloise—the bickering, the insults, the unreasonable barbs. Claire is sick of it, their spite, how they waste no chance to unleash unhappiness. Now she sits alone at the table while they stand at the counter, heads bent over their old cookbook, arguing again about that final snowfall morning. She wonders why they stay together, those sisters of shared misfortune. Tonight, Claire will vanish, and everyone who knows them will not be surprised.
Bio Debra A Daniel has published two novellas-in-flash, A Family of Great Falls and The Roster, both from AdHoc Fiction. Other books are: Woman Commits Suicide in Dishwasher and poetry chapbooks, The Downward Turn of August and As Is. She is a Pushcart and Best Short Fictions nominee, has been long listed and shortlisted in many competitions, and has won The Los Angeles Review short fiction prize. She was twice named SC Arts Commission Poetry Fellow, won the Guy Owen Poetry Prize, as well as numerous awards from the Poetry Society of SC. Work has appeared in journals and anthologies including: With One Eye on the Cows, Things Left and Found by the Side of the Road, The Los Angeles Review, Fall Lines, Smokelong Quarterly, Kakalak, Emrys Journal, Pequin, Inkwell, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River, Gargoyle. She is retired from a career in teaching and now sings in a band with her husband and was once on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.