The winner and runners-up from North & South’s Short, Short Story competition
Late last year, we invited you to compose a compelling and entertaining story in no more than 300 words. You did – in your hundreds – so thanks to all those who entered our flash fiction Short, Short Story competition.
Congratulations to the winner, Sue Kingham, for her poignant, skilfully structured piece “Swan Song”. Originality of voice and a distinctive writing style also marked our two runners-up: “The Lunchbox” by Zoë Meager and “Different Fathers” by Nod Ghosh. All three writers collect cash prizes ($400 to the winner, $150 to each runner-up) and elegant Cross pens. A book prize will be sent to Joyce Lobban for her highly commended entry.
We are also including our top picks for honourable mentions.
Swan Song by Sue Kingham
We were in Cairns for our third wedding anniversary when I heard about the attack on the white swans.
“Who’d do such a thing?” I asked Ben.
“Kids having a lark,” he replied, spitting toast crumbs across the tablecloth.
Later, floating in the hotel pool, I glided across the water and pictured the swans with scarlet stains on their breasts. After lunch Ben stayed in the bar while I browsed the covered market’s gift shops, stopping to watch a glassblower making miniature animals. I stretched my neck to see him twist a bulb of molten glass into the shape of a bird. On a whim, I bought myself one of his gilt-eyed swans. “Glass,” I confided to the craftsman, “is what you’re given for your third wedding anniversary.” Wondering if Ben would notice, I placed the swan on my bedside cabinet.
The following day, sitting on the bus travelling to the rainforest, I checked my phone for an update on the swans’ progress. I saw the bandaged birds, and despite the black hoods over their heads to keep them calm, their condition had deteriorated.
“Swans mate for life,” I said to Ben. “What’ll happen if one dies?”
He replied with a chuckle, “Guess one lucky bugger gets a second chance.”
That night I dreamt a long black hood was descending over me. I fought to be free. I must have thrashed about, for when I woke in the morning my glass swan lay shattered on the floor.
The Lunchbox by Zoe Meager
“Mum, how can you tell if a girl’s pretty?” Joseph drew circles on the floor with no crayon.
Mum turned her smile away, hid it with the dishes in the sink. “You just look at her, then you can tell.”
“The girl with all the boys around her at lunchtime?”
“She’s popular, that’s different.” Mum took off her hoodie and her slippers and put the heater on in the bedroom. It was time for Joseph to run upstairs. Upstairs at the neighbour’s, Joseph watched TV. The sound of the shower running downstairs cut in and out like rain fade. He ate triangles of Marmite sandwich that always tasted damp. Sometimes, when no one was around, he stood on the couch and watched out the window as Mum’s customers came and went.
At home time, Joseph knew when Mum’s boyfriend would be there. Malcolm had a voice that went through walls. It made Joseph go downstairs on his bum. Tonight Malcolm was boiling over with money, it spewed all out his pockets and he was bumping into the table and throwing the dollars at Mum but they only slid to the floor by her feet.
Mum didn’t move, only spoke. “I’ve left better men than you.”
Malcolm found a two dollar coin and threw it at her face. She whacked it away. It pinged off Joseph’s lunchbox so Mum went over to check all the lunch was gone. It was. He would always eat what he was given.
She took the lunchbox to the sink, pointed the dish brush at Malcolm and said, “We don’t want you here, alright? Just get out.”
When Malcolm was gone, Joseph reached his arms around Mum. With his head tipped back really far he could see her pretty face.
Different Fathers By Nod Ghosh
My older brother Derek liked Barry Manilow, though I was the one in the family known for telling lies.
Our mother was a ventriloquist with a puppet named Ruby. The act made Mum enough money to keep us fed. Ruby had no arms and a voice that could peel the skin off an onion.
Derek would date girls much younger than himself. I was older than some of his girlfriends, yet they would walk past me like I was a ghost, the little brother with no mates who should not be spoken to.
Derek’s current wife is younger than his daughter.
Mother encouraged Derek’s Manilow obsession, bought him 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe when it wasn’t even his birthday.
Derek and I had different fathers, neither of whom we called Dad. We were brought up by a man named Hobson who had a liking for jerk chicken and showgirls. Hobson left when Derek was 12 and I was nine.
I have spent years of my life walking in Derek’s shadow, wearing his hand-me-downs, tying my ties the way he does, applying for jobs he leaves.
But I have never liked Barry Manilow.
Last week I heard “Copacabana” on the car radio and cried like a baby.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone who wasn’t me.
A Sense of Entitlement by Joyce Lobban
Warren had not phoned the Council.
He had not replied by mail, nor sent a text.
Anyway his mobile didn’t light up anymore since falling in the cat’s bowl.
Someone said to bury it in a bowl of rice, the phone, not the cat’s bowl, but he hadn’t had rice in the house since Esmee died in 1999. The little white grains reminded him of maggots and he’d never coped with maggots. He’d read somewhere that they were effective in cleaning infected wounds, but he’d rather lose a leg than have them creeping around in his flesh.
Sometimes Shi-anne the community nurse, who was younger than his granddaughter, reminded him of a maggot when she swabbed away at his ulcers. Not that she wore white.
Nurses didn’t anymore. There was something reassuring about a nurse in a white uniform, you knew they’d passed their exams.
Shi-anne, on the other hand, had a stud in her nose, rings on the edges of both ears, and a tattoo of a red rose on her left arm, none of which inspired confidence.
But she made a good cup of tea.
Warren turned up his hearing aid, it was almost four o’clock.
He could hear the truck at the end of the street.
The council letter had said in bold print to leave his rubbish by the road as they no longer paid their Rubbish Executives to run up steep driveways.
Warren had pondered how this could be done.
It took him several hours to edge the bin to the top of the slope, by pushing with his good foot, then letting it ricochet down to the road where it spewed out its contents with a satisfying crash.
The truck stopped. Warren smiled.
He’d paid his rates on time for years.
Bone Without a Grave by Nod Ghosh
I’ve stolen a thighbone because I don’t have one.
That’s not true. I have two, one in each leg. But I can’t touch those, see them, or hold them to my nose and smell them, like I can with Boney, my brother Brian’s skeleton.
Brian owns half a skeleton in addition to his own. I always want what my brother has, so I nicked a bone from the art-room at school. Brian’s skeleton is more than half, if you count Boney’s complete skull and backbone. It’s only got one arm and leg though. Brian has no idea where Boney comes from. He thinks I’m odd for asking. I wonder what will happen to my bones when I die.
Sometimes I put my Michael Jackson tape on, and dance with Boney’s backbone and leg, like we’re in Thriller.
“Come and lay the table,” Mum shouts.
“Okay,” I reply, but stay where I am and put my bone in front of Brian.
“What’s that?” he asks, not lifting his eyes from his medical books.
“It’s a femur,” I say, proud of the word. Brian scratches his chin.
“It’s an imitation,” he says. “Plastic. See here?” Brian points at a sticky-outy bit as if it says made in Taiwan on my thighbone. It doesn’t.
“It isn’t plastic.”
“Table!” Mum swipes my ear with the dishcloth. “Now.”
I lay knives, forks and spoons out, and think about the person my thighbone once belonged to. I wonder how they died, and whether they had a good life. They probably didn't die in a war. Wars tend to break bones.
Brian is very clever. He’s learning the names of the lumps and bumps on Boney’s knuckles. But he doesn't know about my bone.
He just can’t see it.
Trip by Steve Charters
Janine took the twins and went mid-week. David worked through. Seven Open Homes. Last night her terse text, skeletal, eviscerated: WTHR BD BRNG MNPLY. He left early Sunday.
The beach was three hours north, traffic sparse, WTHR overcast, MNPLY rattling. Dice. Plane. Racing car. Houses and hotels. Accumulation and loss. Repetitive straight, square laps.
After coffee he stretched his legs around the town. The municipal toilets squatted half-hidden behind unkempt flax, beyond a grey paved area with dangling swings and empty benches. He crossed the square.
Splattering at the urinal, he noticed between white tiles, vertical in the grouting and defying all attempts at obliteration, the traces of a message. Seeking contact. Imagine existence in a dead-end town like this.
There were road-works ahead so he took the B-road. The road less travelled.
Longer, but he knew the way. Undulating through regimented pines, crossing flat wet paddocks under heavy skies with intermittent reception, he drove onehanded, fiddling with a CD.
At the roadside, slight but sharp-shouldered, purple hoodie up against a shower, hopelessly optimistic in the middle of nowhere. Young. Young. Bored. Poor. Keen.
Back on the highway, alone. Back on track and smug with guilt. The implication of the boy’s last words hitting home: can I stay with you?
Locking the car, hunching his shoulders against the rain, against the twins’ shrieking, Janine’s thumping feet, he feels the week stretch endlessly ahead.
Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect Two Hundred Dollars.
One Night by Rita Stirling-Vincent
It was well after dark when we arrived at the campsite. The gleam of a buttery, full moon lit our way to the clearing amongst the totara trees. A young couple sat outside their tent, enjoying the stars in a clear night sky. There was a chill in the air. I shivered as I nodded acknowledgement to them.
Jules and I have tramped for many years. No words were needed as we set up camp. Our arrival had been delayed by an accident on the windy road to the walkway. A car had gone over a bluff into the icy depths of the lake. The brusque professionalism of emergency workers kept us waiting roadside.
Tired after walking at double speed to reach our campsite, I crawled through the tent flap and into my sleeping bag. Within moments, I was asleep.
Suddenly, I awoke with a jolt fighting the remnants of a vivid dream. Where was I? I don’t dream, but this was so real. My headlights had caught the shape of a young woman as I rounded a sharp bend. She looked up with such despair, I knew I had to stop.
“Are you okay?” She shook her head.
“What are you doing out here?” Tears streamed down her face. Still she didn’t speak. Comfortingly, I put an arm around her shoulders. That’s when I felt it – a jagged electric shock. I couldn’t move. She turned, placed her hands on my cheeks like a lover, and kissed me. Then, I was falling, backwards, into the dark waters below.
It was well after dark when we arrive at the campsite. A young couple sat outside their tent enjoying the clear night sky. I shivered as I nodded an acknowledgement to them. They looked like they had seen a ghost.
“I Didn’t…” by Roger Carson
enjoy my first day of school, but thought I would
learn the truth about Santa until I was eight even though a neighbourhood boy told me when I was six
understand that loving someone might not be enough
fancy the girls who fancied me. And vice versa
always mean to hurt the people I have, although sometimes I did
know a university flatmate was gay when we lived together and would have been a better friend if I had
ever really learn how to be a good friend
realise how loneliness is epidemic and we’re all dying in it
learn to swim when I was a boy because I kept breaking my arm
use my freedom when I had it the way I would if I had it again
perceive that others’ understanding might be greater than mine
want to be like my father, and always feared I was
get that my children would fear being like me
cry at the birth of my first child, but did at my fourth
see the world from another’s perspective when I had money in the bank
always spend as much as I could have on gifts
try very hard to run after a man I saw drop $100 on the ground
spend it on anything of importance
demand enough from some, and too much from others
always know which was which
read instructions before it was too late
have instructions for anything important
divine any of the great novels until too late
ever like how lonely I could be whilst surrounded by people I knew
mourn the passing of my youth
grasp where all the grownups went
envisage ever being a grown up, even though I became one. In human years anyway
comprehend it would go so fast
Paperwork by Kathryn van Beek
I’ve had problems with authority since the foot ulcer incident, but it was good of Graeme to take me on and I generally do what he tells me. I extract the documents from his outstretched hand.
“I’ll take care of this paperwork.”
Stephanie Carter and her fiancé stand behind him. Stephanie’s glassy forehead, manicured nails and Duchess of Cambridge blow wave hint at a hefty disposable income, but I know she’s two million in the hole. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw her name in our files. Now I know a lot about Stephanie Carter.
I know her stay-at-home husband ran away with his mindfulness coach. I know he got the house and half the money. I know about the leaky home litigation. I know her fiancé’s a rich-lister, nearly retired. I can tell from looking that he’s another Type 2 diabetic. I know she hopes he doesn’t last long.
She doesn’t seem to remember me at all. Well, it has been two years. And she wouldn’t expect to see me at Hunton & Lord. I had to quit being a kindy teacher after the operation. Funny to think that it all came down to a paperwork issue. I thought I was on the waiting list for a follow-up appointment all those months, but my specialist had just forgotten to file the forms.
“I’ll pop the copies in the post,” I say.
Graeme nods. The photocopier is just a few metres away, but he knows I don’t like walking in front of clients. He guides them outside.
“Nice to see you Mr Feldner, Dr Carter.”
He retreats to his office and clicks the door shut. I pick up the wills, heave myself up and lurch across the room on my prosthetic leg. I turn on the shredder.
A Lost Friend by Caryn Hunt
Leaning back against the worn seat Jim closed his eyes and felt every pore of his weathered face soak in the sun. He’d come up here to the foot of the mountain often over the years.
His wife Jenny told him not to keep coming, that he must let it go. Easier said than done especially today; they’d all been friends since way back.
Looking up to the top he remembered that the weather had been good up there that day. They’d climbed to the glacier summit the day before, camped overnight and were due back at the base the next day. After a good cuppa mountain brew as the sun rose they started their descent, making good time of it too. With ice boots on and picks in hand they were able to navigate the tricky crevasses.
It was only an hour into the descent when Ron went down, slipped, his anchor that joined the two of them giving way. The scream shattered through the white and blue. Ron was gone, just like that.
Stretching his tired bones Jim grinned and gave thanks to his lost friend.
Well Ron it’s been fifty two years today. We sure had some fun and I’d do it all over again if I could. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d still love the way you’d instigate every adventure we ever had and I’d still be thankful you stood beside me when I married Jenny.
Breathing in the crisp mountain air, Jim walked back to his car with his mind clear enough to face another year without his best friend.
No not a thing Ron, especially of loosening the knots on your anchor line and watching you slide into the crevasse. Did you and Jenny really think I didn’t know what was going on?
The Frozen Bird by Stacey Riordan
It isn’t easy growing wings.
At first, you’re not even sure they’re there. Just small hard nubs perfectly spaced on your upper back.
There’s not a lot of pain. The discomfort is mainly psychological, knowing that something is wrong with you.
The nubs grow bigger and you try digging them out with a carving knife, but have no luck.
They are perfectly positioned over the joint where your shoulder blade meets your collar bone.
You whack them with wooden spoons to test their strength. It’s a satisfying feeling.
You wonder how they came to be in this exact spot. Was it a weakness inside you that gave way to their will, or are did they choose you to make you stronger?
The real pain begins when the individual feathers begin piercing your skin.
Like potatoes pushing through a colander, each individual spike breaks through and is joined by others, relentlessly pushing outwards.
You start to realise what they are.
Through the blood and bone and broken skin you start to see soft black feathers.
The wings, your wings, grow bigger. They become difficult to hide.
Pretty soon their size is unmanageable, they are fully formed. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Your wings are a part of you, you’re proud of what you created. Ashamed of what people will think.
You make the choice. Every day starts by binding them up like a rolled lamb roast.
But your wings have a mind of their own.
They desire to be used.
You find yourself dreaming of the day when they take you away.
But for now, you choose to stay in the dark and the cold, frozen like the leftovers from dinner.
This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.