The winning entry is followed by the judge's report.
Friday Night Intersection
By Sue Grotherr, Calvary Christian College
“Five o’clock. Time to pack up and start the weekend,” Sarah announced as she logged off and shut down her computer.
She looked across at Jessica.
“Any plans for the weekend?” she asked.
“No, not really. Sleep, read, maybe do the markets on Sunday. Tim’s still away. He won’t be back until late next week.” She thought fleetingly of her mining engineer boyfriend and shut down the niggling thought of how much she was looking forward to a weekend without him and the implications of such a thought.
“Come on,” said Sarah. “Turn off that computer and I’ll walk to the station with you.”
“No, you go,’ replied Jessica, “I’ve got some work that James wants ready first thing Monday morning. I’ll stay and get it finished so that it’s not hanging over my head all weekend.”
“Well don’t work too late,” she warned, “I’ll see you on Monday.”
Scooping up her bag, she headed for the door, turned, waved a jaunty good-bye and was gone.
Jessica settled back to the work on her desk. She knew she had been lucky to land this job with such a prestigious law firm. Her uni grades hadn’t been that great but her work with the firm as a casual copy clerk had been enough for them to offer her a place in their graduate program. She worked steadily until she had the notes for James, her supervising lawyer, completed. She gathered up the papers and headed for his secretary’s desk. A quick look at the office clock told her it was almost seven o’clock.
“Not too bad,” she thought to herself. Provided she didn’t have to wait too long for a train, she would be home before eight. A lazy, indulgent weekend would be the reward for her Friday night diligence. She shut down her computer, slung her bag over her shoulder and headed for Central.
Joshua sat on a seat in the mall eating a fast food burger and slurping on a frozen coke. He watched the people around him – the Friday night mix of workers heading home, late night shoppers and those heading off to party. He identified with none of them. He sat alone, unconnected and isolated. The few passers-by who noticed him made a quick and brutal judgment – another disenchanted, resentful youth who thought the world owed him.
Joshua didn’t care. A childhood distinguished by neglect and abuse had left him with no illusions about the goodness of others. Nobody cared about him, nobody watched out for him. It was him against the world. His only constant companion was the anger compressed into a small, hard ball lodged deep inside him.
He stood up, leaving the remains of his meal on the seat. As he turned to join the Friday night throng, he felt a bump on his shoulder. He swung around. A young woman with long brown hair had accidentally tapped him with the bag slung over her shoulder.
‘Sorry,’ she murmured with a smile before continuing towards the pedestrian crossing.
Jessica had been focused on catching the green light and hadn’t noticed the unkempt young man move from the seat. The corner of her bag had nudged his shoulder. She had smiled politely and apologised, barely breaking her stride as she dashed for the light.
“Homeless guy by the look of him. How does that happen to people?” she wondered as she jostled her way across Edward Street and started the trudge up the hill to the station.
Joshua pondered on what to do with the evening. The Valley? Too packed with fancy clubbers on a Friday night. Stay in the mall? Too many police on a Friday night.
He decided to head for Redbank. Thommo and Georgie would be at the tavern. He’d catch up with them and see what the evening held from there. He made his way toward Central.
Jessica sank into a seat, thankful that she had to wait only a few minutes for a train. She took out her phone to check whether Tim had messaged her. She didn’t notice the young man she had bumped with her bag get into the carriage and move down the aisle.
Joshua had ducked through the ticket barrier behind another commuter. He couldn’t remember the last time he had paid for a ticket. Why pay, when you could ride for free? He had seen the train at the platform and pushing his way down the escalator, managed to jump on board just as the doors were closing. Joshua felt the tightly coiled ball in the pit of his stomach begin to fracture – the way it always did when he knew he had beaten the system. “Josh – 1; the world – 0,” he thought triumphantly. The cracks in the ball widened and tantalising wisps of anger transformed into invincibility seeped out.
He swaggered down the aisle and, suddenly, he saw her – the bitch who had hit him with her bag. Sitting there without a care in the world, checking her goddamned phone. Surprise turned to fury. She had hit him back there in the mall. Had pounded him with her bag. She deserved to be punished, she deserved to be hurt.
He noticed no-one else in the carriage – only the woman who had attacked him. She was no better than his mother, his stepfather, the schoolyard bullies – all those who had hit him and walked away unpunished. Well this time it wasn’t going to go unpunished. Someone was going to be taught a lesson. See how she like being used as a punching bag. He imagined her pleading as he held her on the ground. He knew she would – she would mewl and whimper like a helpless kitten. Not like him – he had learned very early in life never to cry, never to beg. Doing so only increased the pleasure for the one doing the thrashing.
“Next station is Taringa. Platform is on the right-hand side.”
Jessica put her phone away and closed her bag.
Joshua was watching her through hooded eyes.
“The bitch is getting out,” he thought, “just getting up and walking away as though slamming me with her bag means nothing.”
The ball splintered into shards of white hot anger. His world narrowed to one other single human being – the cow who had attacked him. A lifetime of pain and humiliation was about to be avenged. Joshua felt powerful, he felt strong, he felt good.
Jessica felt her usual frisson of nervousness as the train rounded the corner toward the station. She knew it was silly but, at night, the streets around the station were dark and quiet. Trees and shrubs provided safe hiding places for those seeking them. She always breathed a sigh of relief when she reached her front door.
The train pulled into the station. Jessica stepped on the platform and headed for the stairs. Two railway security officers stood at the top of the stairs. She smiled at them as she swiped her travel card across the sensor and started down the stairs.
Joshua followed her down the platform. His eyes saw nothing but the head of long brown hair swingling from side to side. He planned his next move. Follow her through the darkened, winding streets. Wait for the right moment. Grab her from behind. He could almost hear her choking for breath as his arm tightened around her neck. A smirk of sadistic pleasure rolled across his face. He was ready.
“I need to see your proof of purchase of travel, sir.” The sharp, controlled tone of the speaker caused Jessica to turn and see what the issue was. Surprised, she recognised the young man she had bumped with her bag in the mall. Apparently, he couldn’t produce a ticket.
Joshua froze. Tears of defeat and frustration pricked his eyes.
Jessica felt briefly sorry for the man cornered by the burly security guards.
‘Bummer of a way to start the weekend,’ she thought wryly as she skipped down the stairs and out into the crisp winter night.
Associate Professor Karen Moni
Although sometimes taught this way, there isn’t a formula for a good short story – there are some common elements but the whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts if the story is to work effectively. In this year’s collection of short stories submitted by teachers, many of the common elements were there but authors had difficulties pulling all of the threads together to create a story that was engaging, thought provoking, effective and well crafted. It was also clear, that in a couple of cases, the submitted stories has been created as exemplars for students – with an eye to ticking off all of the common elements. These exemplar stories were sometimes unwieldy – they creaked and sagged because the focus was on form rather than storytelling, and the overall effect was worthy rather than inspiring.
So what was done well? The more effective stories were certainly those that were set in familiar settings, or if in an exotic setting, that dealt with experiences and emotions that are understandable. In terms of plotting, the better stories were those with a narrow, tight focus on one incident or event. Those stories which attempted a historical focus, or covered a lifespan, were less engaging as they involved a lot of telling about context that reduced immediacy, and made the central theme harder to decipher. The stronger stories also kept the number of characters limited and focused on developing the characters through actions and direct speech rather than descriptions. The message here is more showing and less telling.
What needed to be done better – I’ll repeat my comments from last year in terms of historical and technical accuracy, if authors are setting their stories in the contexts of real events and people, then get the facts right. Edit carefully, every word counts and proof-read, proof-read, proof-read. Finally, this is a short story competition, and the focus should be on powerful storytelling rather than on technical features (it is technique in the service of storytelling, not the other way round)
First prize: Friday night intersection
Effective short stories have immediacy, tight plotting and structure, strong characters, a well-chosen setting, and carefully selected language. Pulling all of these together into an effective short story is indeed an art and the author of the winning story is to be congratulated for achieving this. Friday night intersection was a clear winner. It’s accomplished writing, from the clever title which frames the events and skilfully sketched characters, to the wry and ironic ending. It was engaging throughout and contained several unexpected twists before building to a tense climax and a satisfying ending.
Second prize: Ten perfect fingers, ten perfect toes
This story of impending parenthood is elegant in its symmetry. The author gives life to the characters through their interactions and actions during a significant event in their lives, creating empathy and sympathy for their situation. A very sad story beautifully told.
Third prize: Freedom
Atmospheric creation of the interior life of a vulnerable woman as she makes a critical decision about her life – the context of her decision and the difficulties of her life to this point are beautifully juxtaposed with her current poverty, and the title echoes as a poignant theme throughout the story. The climax of the story is particularly powerful writing, drawing together the threads of the story and the woman’s life.
Highly commended: The Driving lesson
The immediacy of this story is its strong point, we are caught in the middle of a situation, where the opportunity for a mother to connect with her son, beyond the everyday and banal, is lost as they struggle to communicate. A more focused ending would have strengthened this entry.
Highly Commended: Enemies from within
Enjoyable and skewed perspective on how parenthood can seem like an alien invasion. This idea is flagged early on, and although the metaphor is sustained throughout – it tends to drag and become repetitive as the story progresses- the story is almost at the upper word limit and would have been sharper and stronger if edited down.