Judge’s report by Alison Woodhouse
It was an absolute honour to judge this competition again. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading and rereading the stories, whittling them down to a short short list. Placing in the top three comes down to such slight margins. Having said that, the flash fictions that have risen all shared a confidence, both in voice and story telling, that immediately appealed to me and improved on subsequent reading, where I found more layers of depth and subtlety. Amongst the other stories were some close misses, interesting structures and styles, so congratulations to all the authors who achieved the short list and to the prize winners.
First Prize: Baby Jesus
I fell for the voice when I read this story (knowing, pretend tough, vulnerable) and it continued to grow on me until I realised this was the one I always wanted to read again first when I opened the file. It’s deceptively simple, beginning with the act of ‘nicking’ something on a whim ‘because it fit in my pocket’, a baby Jesus from a Nativity scene, and plays out over the following six months. It’s the story of a Gran who is ill and possibly dying, a mother who struggles with a new baby, a soldier who died too young, a bride whose life was changed and a girl who sees too much and wants to help. The story is also laced with humour (such as the self justification, having stolen the baby Jesus, that the donkeys can get more of a ‘look in’ and Mary ‘looked relieved’) and cleverly segues straight into the real story about family, weaving all the strands into a coherent, satisfying whole. I also loved the deadpan realism of that brilliant final sentence.
Second Prize: Pumpkin
This story has a great opening image, the depiction of the mother smashing up the house (and her old life) barefoot, is so visceral. I admired the specific details and way objects and things were used to tell us about who these characters are; the stepdad with his neat circles of salted eggplant resting on kitchen paper, showing the reader he is not the hateful man the girl rails against; the mother ‘losing patience’ with her daughter’s rudeness, tells us she is no monster either. But the girl’s great sense of betrayal and her longing for the life she’s lost (that her mother would rather swing from the lampshades than return to!) is also tangible, in her mourning for picket fences and roast chicken dinners, which may seem superficial but represent stability and home. I was impressed by the way the author subtly invites us to see all three points of view and the use of second person is interesting here, the ‘you’ being a character within the story, so creating enough of a distance to give the reader more objectivity. The richness of description, specific objects and subtle interactions between characters made each subsequent reading a great pleasure.
Third prize: Number Anaphylaxis on the bus to Cowley
This is a strong story told at a slant, short paragraphs tracing the route of a journey. The narrator is obsessed (perhaps defensively) with numbers and facts but between the lines reveals neglect, abuse and a life in disarray. The structure and voice saves it from being entirely bleak, and there’s even room for a kind of stoic humour. The final paragraph hints at a darker interpretation, taking the reader back to the start to reinterpret what they’ve been told. I was impressed by the interweaving of interesting facts and moved by the narrator’s story (‘5.648 billion people in the world have a mobile phone but he’s the only person who ever rings me’).