First of all, I'd like to say a big thank you to Jude and her team for asking me to be the judge of this round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award. I judge a lot of flash fiction competitions, and I used to write a lot of flash fiction too (not so much now as I'm concentrating on novels, graphic novels and longer stories). It was a pleasure to read all of the 50 stories that made the long list and as ever it was a fascinating dip into the psyche of creative writers at this point in time. Some of the titles were tempting enough on their own; Fat Girls Have Fine Nails. Elephants In Flip Flops. Valentines Day At The Walrus Colony. Tupperware Genie. What on earth could these stories be about? I was drawn in immediately. On a sentence by sentence basis, there were lots of examples of great writing here by great writers. Yet, often these were the one that didn’t make it. The ones that did make the top twenty, and ultimately the top five, were the ones that allowed the story and the ideas to shine through above everything else.
The themes were diverse and it was hard to see a pattern. A man was drowning somewhere during the Vietnam war. A shadow escaped from its owner and became an entity in its own right. There were car park attendants with code names, someone was building a zen garden, a scientist was transferring memories from one marine snail to another. Someone was eating jugged hare, someone had burned everything they have found on the street where they live, a couple had sex in a tent while someone watched, there was a cockroach that could talk, a boy who eats blu tack, a car with a vinyl roof, children who broke into gardens at night, and a couple for whom kissing sounded like a moose chewing cud. A tiny aggressive nun made a school girl's life miserable. Undertakers ate Peach Melba and talked about plastic underpants. Hair lice gathered at the nape of a girls neck to smoke joints while they waited for cars to take them to other parts of the scalp. A woman kept her husband’s last breath in a balloon, a man’s moustache fell off and he discovered it had been false all the time. Baby rats spilled out of the punctured stomach of a shot rat. A hand severed in the woods acquired consciousness and a life of its own. I liked the detail in the story called Margate of a sign that says SPECIALS with nothing written underneath it. In this story there is also a museum of stale cakes, though not a real one. I think a real museum of stale cakes could be an interesting attraction for a small seaside town and might be worth developing into a bid to the heritage lottery fund or the arts council. Or probably both. All those bizarre and fascinating ideas. You could stitch them together and make one big story, and I think I would like it. The fever dreams of flash fiction writers.
I chose a top five, but it was very difficult, and I think that a different judge would have chosen an entirely different set of titles.
Extremities I liked this one because it put you right into the action and then later gave you some context and some background to the characters. A man’s hand is cut off in a logging accident, and the story lures you into a David Lynchian world where limbs are cheap and can be lost easily. Life goes on. But it is the ending that really makes this story special, as the narrator talks about her thoughts being less about the victim but more about the hand itself, lying there alone in the woods, its fingers grasping at nothing. It’s a powerful image and is almost supernatural in its effect. The reference to the phantom pains he feels after the hand has gone emphasises this uncanny aspect to the story. As well as this, the writer adds some fascinating details towards the end, about a failed ballet dancer and the fact that she has been stealing from her employers, which serve to thicken and deepen a story that is already rich. Well done.
The Undertakers' Jolly could have been just another story about how people in certain niche professions like to get together and talk jargon and enjoy work related banter and in-jokes. And it’s true we are fascinated by the idea of an undertaker and how that can be a regular job – dealing with death every day, while the rest of us struggle to deal with life. But it’s the ending which infects this story with a profound unease which the surprises you and makes the piece so powerful and worth a reread. When the wife of one of the undertakers goes outside to look at the sea she thinks about death as more poetic and existential experience, something which she wants to savour as a special thing, something apart from the day-to-day practicalities of choosing coffin-linings and plastic underpants and the correct face make-up for a particular corpse. She wants to melt back into nature in the way she feels she has melted out of it. This story leaves us with a strong sense of beauty and rapture quite at odds to the way the story is set up. What begins as a dark comedy of an undertakers life morphs into a rumination on the universe, the sea acting like the snow in Joyce’s The Dead
I wonder why I chose Northern Lights as third place? Because, like Extremities, it is another story about a piece of someone’s body being a talisman, and used in a voodoo, occult way to ward off bad things or give good luck. This time it is a tooth, and it dangles from the visor of a lorry in which the story teller has hitched a lift. The lorry driver says it’s his father’s tooth and he knocked it out in fight. We immediately think of Johnny Cash and A Boy Named Sue, father and son fighting in the mud and the blood. I like his idea that if the tooth had been left in the soil where he found it another evil father might have grown out of it like the fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, or the way the monster in Terminator Two can reform from just a drop of his essence left on the floor.
Strong, But Not Rough
I like the simplicity of Strong, But Not Rough and the teenage voice it is told in seems authentic. I like the way the story appears to be about nothing, yet a major event is buried in the texture of it, almost unseen. The other details of the plot are much more important to the teenagers at the time -- how they are perceived by other teenagers, who fancies who etc, and the things that happens around them, and to them – including a car crash – are simply not as important.
I like Shadow Broth because it has more of the feel of a prose poem and is all the better for it. We reach into this story and try to feel its shapes, try and work out what is going on, but it seems we can’t. Yet it has an effect on us and all little dips and rises in it are like music. We know we have been told something but we don't really know what, yet we feel it deeply, lying within us somewhere and perhaps we may never get it out.
Good luck to all the writers who entered.