Thank you to participants at the Great Festival Flash Off Day, 28th October, who entered the ‘Signature’ writing challenge set by Jude to write a story prompted by the picture below, entitled ‘The Bachelor’, (1955) by artist William Kurelek. Diane Simmons, writer and co-director of National Flash Fiction Day, UK, who judged the competition, selected ‘What If’ by Kate Axeford as first prize and ‘Cinders’ by Ali McGrane and ‘The Shrinking’ by Sudha Balagopal as runners up. Scroll down to read each story, the authors’ bios and Diane’s comments. The winners receive books, BFFA competition entries and publication in the FFF anthology due in 2024. Next mini contest at our Festival online day on 25th November.
Diane wrote this in her general comments:
“This is a picture rich in detail – the kitchen is crammed with a large number of objects, but many entrants to the competition picked on the same objects to use as prompts or details in their flash, with the ‘Catholic Herald’, the boot, the man reading the newspaper and the darned sock being by far the most popular and the ‘Catholic Herald’ popping up in the majority of entries. This led to many stories having a similar theme. I think a good tip when writing from a visual prompt that other people will also be using, is to not go with the obvious and to discard your first idea, perhaps even your first half dozen.Thank you to everyone who entered the competition – I very much enjoyed reading all the stories and I am sure with a little tweaking, many could go on to do well elsewhere.”
First prize winner, Kate Axford
…the grime on Brian Willoughby’s window can’t stop the sun streaming into his kitchen, lighting up an advert in the Lonely Hearts’ columns, where naughty brunettes seek solvent gentlemen for no-strings fun, and respectable ladies with a GSOH seek romantic meals out and cosy nights in. But what if one line blows Brian’s mind?
Looking for my Starman Before the Next Star Dies.
And what if that message brings a hush to the babble, the torment that inhabits Brian Willoughby’s brain? A decades’ old haunting since that after school snog on the 14th of April, the day 4C’s teacher expounded how the galaxy brims with 100 billion stars, but just one star will die every year. The day Brian passed a note to cool Julie Barnes – Julie, with her eyeshadow and Bowie cassettes. The day Brian promised a Starman would wait after class.
And what if the next day an elated Starman hadn’t taken a pocket-knife out of his lunchbox and disobeyed his mother, by not peeling his apple? Instead, he carved his heart into the ink-stained pine of a classroom desk.
whilst Julie Barnes told the playground how kissing Brian Willoughby was like being licked by a toad, and despite every girl needing to kiss a few frogs before they find their handsome prince, she’d only kissed him for a bet.
And what if that shame hadn’t stalked Brian through the hell of his school years to the hell of middle-age? What if the voices that berate Brian daily, fraying at his mind like an un-darned sock – the voices of his parents, who died of indifference then left their money to the Cats Home – just stayed silent and let Brian believe in a Starman’s salvation?
And what if Brian’s niece, the one who never visits, doesn’t turn up with eyebrows stencilled into expressions of worry, knowing developers will sell a newly refurbished Flat 5, 3 Acacia Avenue for a six-figure sum because even in that part of town a neglected bachelor pad with a seven foot by five-foot kitchen is now termed a ‘bijoux’ apartment?
And what if a Starman, terrified at the prospect of being put in a ‘Home’, doesn’t pick up a bottle and swallow those pills? What if, instead, he picks up a pen and writes to that Lonely Heart, telling Julie Barnes everything – yes everything, Julie never knew about love.
Kate Axeford (she/ hers) is a social worker based in Brighton. She’s made appearances in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Bending Genres, Ellipsis Zine, Janus Lit, NFFD Anthology and Splonk and has been S/L for Bridport and L/L for Bath FFA and Reflex. Find her @KateAxeford / @kateaxeford.bsky.social
This flash has a strong beginning and a strong ending and is full of interesting detail and language. I loved the phrase: ‘Julie Barnes told the playground how kissing Brian Willoughby was like being licked by a toad’ – this took me right back to being a teenager and it’s so easy to imagine the effect this would have had on poor Brian – it’s a memory that still haunts him decades later. I also love the use of the word ‘snog’ and found it easy to picture Julie Barnes.
Runner up, Ali Mcgrane
Her face on the front page of his evening paper causes him to stop dead, to momentarily forget he’s already unscrewed the stopper from last night’s hot water bottle, and to dribble the cold contents into his waiting slipper. Like a fool.
He shakes the slipper into the sink and parks it on the floor in front of the stove to dry. Her face is still in his hand. With one foot cosied into the remaining slipper, and the other left bare, he lays the newspaper, gently, reverentially, next to his plate on the table. The plate boasts a single undercooked egg, singed toast, and a fried tomato edged in black. With his thumb, he absently strokes her monochrome image, over and over, until the touch is a scorch.
He allows himself to skim the headline, then the first sentence, and the next, until the letters tangle and untangle, reminding him of the way she’d squeeze onto a swing in the park, and twist, dancing round and round on her toes, the seat lifted higher and higher until she could go no further. The way she’d curl into herself as the chains uncoiled. The way laughter would explode from her mouth as the rebound jerked her back and forth.
In the beginning, it seemed both ordained and miraculous. The two of them finding each other like that. When she left he was so profoundly unravelled, he paid no attention to the outside world. Phone calls went unanswered, letters lay unopened. Even when confronted with the fact of his emptied bank account, he blamed himself. He’s surprised how angry he feels now. To not be the only fool.
His naked toes writhe and cramp. In agony, he stands and presses his foot to the cold floor, then rises on tiptoe, forcing the muscles to give. Soft groans escape him as pain flares and dulls.
Reseated, he pushes his food aside, and brings the small two-dimensional version of her face close to his own, until all he can smell is the print, all he can see is a blur, all he can hear is the firelighter crackle of the page in his trembling hand.
Ali McGrane is the author of novella-in-flash, The Listening Project (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2021). She has stories in Splonk, Fictive Dream, Ellipsis Zine, Janus Literary, Gone Lawn and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and Best Microfictions, and shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Find her @Ali_McGrane_UK and alimcgrane.com
There are some wonderful descriptions in the flash and I particularly liked the one of the woman on the swing, especially the sentence: ‘the way she’d curl into herself as the chains uncoiled.’ I felt such empathy with our protagonist – he was obviously very much in love with the woman who not only duped him, but others too.
Runner up, Sudha Balagopal
Remember, thirty years ago, you carried me over the threshold of a spacious house outside of Ocala, Florida?
Remember, we arranged our wedding gifts—the seldom-used pressure cooker on the top shelf, the sandwich-maker within easy access, the ridiculous measuring scale on the back wall, the cross from your nun-aunt across from the dining table? Remember, we painted the entire kitchen blue, the cabinets, the shelves, even the floor? Remember, our clothes became a memento, saved in a box, because the paint transferred when we rolled on the floor? Remember, we anointed our love in every room in the house?
Remember, two years later, I told you our home was narrowing, that it had lost some square footage? Remember, by then you’d taken to grunting your responses? Remember, I asked if that sound meant acknowledgment or dismissal? Remember, that was after Bill Clinton became president, and you were reading the newspaper—it’s what you still do ad infinitum, read the paper, read the paper, read the paper?
Remember, ten years later I told you a bedroom had disappeared, not because of the sinkholes we have in Florida—a depression in the ground caused by a collapse of the top layer—but that the room simply vanished? Remember, you said you hadn’t noticed? Remember, you kept your head buried in the newspaper and I shouted that you once told me you could sleep in a shoe-box? Remember, by then everyone had computers but you still read the papers and left sections strewn on the floor, stepping on them like they were area rugs?
Remember, I told you it was the last straw when we lost the living room and dining room? Remember, we jostle-crashed into each other, pointy elbows digging, knobby knees knocking at every turn—an intimacy we might have found titillating three decades ago? Remember, I screamed that I could stretch out my arms in the center of the room and touch the walls? Remember, we thump-bumped into each other and one of your shoes came off? Remember, I demanded to know if you needed any more proof there was absolutely no room in the house? Remember, you snorted and said the foot could remain naked because you weren’t going anywhere?
Of course, you’ll claim you don’t remember.
I won’t be around to remind you.
Sudha Balagopal’s writing appears in literary journals worldwide. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction in 2021. A full-length flash collection, Tiny Untruths, is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in 2024. She has had stories included in Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
The use of repetition works well in this engaging flash. I could feel the writer’s despair about her husband’s constant newspaper reading: ‘it’s what you still do ad infinitum, read the paper, read the paper, read the paper’. I very much enjoyed the description of the wedding presents and the surprise of the line: ‘Remember, our clothes became a memento, saved in a box, because the paint transferred when we rolled on the floor’ – this is a couple who were once in love.