The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring\Summer 2006 Results

Getting It Write

Copyright © Paul Sterling 2006

I am an author, and I have been writing for more than thirty decades, although the volume of my cultural production has progressed over the years, stimulated by the leaps and bounds of modern technology.

My first creations were born from two fingers poking at a wonderful Burroughs typewriter with a see-through body and a rear bell which rang to announce the imminent end of each line of my inspired texts. By the end of two hundred rings I knew that I was reaching the final paragraph of each work of art. I then moved up to a Hermes 2000 for a couple of years before the next step forward for mankind: my enormous talent began to emerge, word by word and electronically, on the little screen of a Panasonic typewriter.

With the advent of the Personal Computer and Windows, I reached a peak. I could write much, much more because it all sat on a thing called a hard disc and I could always go back and correct typing errors, spelling mistakes and other blunders. Many other authors, like me, saw the advantages of the system, and this is why popular writers can now produce in a few weeks a paperback weighing more than a kilogram.

I forgot to mention that my name is Jonathan Plodd, and yes, I will acknowledge the fact that you have probably never heard of me. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I only write short stories and they are not in great demand with a public which prefers watching Neighbours or Survivor to reading a book. Secondly, because I have never been published, as in mass printed and bound volume, but produced in limited and very exclusive editions. These are in the form of typed text, double-spaced in Times New Roman, generally on six to eight sheets of very fine pale yellow paper held together in one corner by a staple. I keep an original copy of each and I now have one hundred and eighty three stories in my collection.

No artist can survive without a public, and I am no different. When each new story is finished, copies go out to my avid and faithful readers: Mrs. Atkinson at the Post Office, John who mows my lawn once a month, the little blonde cashier at the service station, four ex-colleagues from the Department of Social Indifference and a few friends at the Green Valley Bowling Club. I have to admit that they are all a little shy, and I have to insist some times to find out if they have enjoyed my latest creation. Some of them even feel embarrassed to be receiving a free copy, realizing that they are building a collection which will doubtless be worth a fortune in a few years’ time. But I insist. Faithful readers are like gold to a talented author.

It was John Thomas who runs the Happy Handyman’s Hardware Store down in Lower Brampton who made an interesting suggestion. He thought that instead of offering free copies of each story to my devoted and fervent public, I should send them out to literary competitions across the nation. In this was, he explained, my work would become known across the country instead of being limited to readers in the Shire of Waggingduck.

It was a fabulous idea! I undertook some in depth research on the Internet and discovered a girl in Fremantle who had written a book listing all the short story competitions in Australia. I sent off a cheque for sixty-five dollars and received her publication in the mail. Like me, she was an exclusive author, although more up-market. She used pale blue paper, she typed in Arial Black and the pages were actually bound together with glue and assembled in a plastic cover.

There were literally dozens of competitions across the nation. Most seemed to be run by Guilds, Associations and Fellowships of other exclusive writers, while the more important ones were organized by local councils or daily newspapers. Some commemorated deceased writers; others were sponsored by manufacturers of cough syrup or Asian condiments. But they all had one aim, that of celebrating the enormous literary talent in this country, rejecting the pulp rubbish produced on Chinese presses and written by uncouth authors from across the oceans.

I hate those paperbacks whose covers depict a planter’s daughter with a gaping blouse throwing herself into the arms of a half-naked, muscle-rippling slave with titles such as Love in the Tobacco Shed or Steamy Nights in the Bayou. I believe in literature as an art, not a means of stimulating unhealthy lust!

The first year I spent over a hundred and fifty dollars in postage stamps and entry fees. The return was poor. The Night of the Blue Owl was commended by the Wobbling Bay Writers Club, My Life with Stephanie was short-listed for the Shaddock Dry Skin Ointment Annual Prize, and Mrs. Hamilton’s Birthday Cake received a third prize of ten dollars from the Little Piggleton Embroidery Association.

Fame and celebrity were eluding me but I continued to believe.

And then THE letter arrived. It was in a long cream-coloured envelope with City of Bangerwood in dark burgundy script in the top right-hand corner. My name and address were not handwritten but typed, confirming the opulent status of the sender. Inside were a printed flyer and a personal letter of invitation signed by Marie-Fabienne de Chateau-Brown, literary and pictorial arts manager. Mrs. Brown was suggesting that my presence would be vital on the 14th of June at seven in the evening when the City and its Councilors would be celebrating their annual arts festival at the end of which they would announce the winners of the various ‘expressive arts’ competitions.

To put it plainly, this was big stuff. I had written a short story especially for the competition all about a Gold Coast real estate agent who becomes a Buddhist monk, of which I had been quite proud. I knew that there would have been several hundred submissions in the ‘Open” category, and that competition was fierce. Did this personal invitation mean that my talent was to be recognized at last? Would Bricks to Prayer Wheels be the key to my success?

The Flyer was printed in four colours. It reminded the reader that the festival was sponsored by regional industries including a processor of sugar-free jam and a manufacturer of a three speed electronic toilet flusher. It recalled that because the City of Bangerwood included some of the most ethnically and culturally diverse suburbs of Melbourne, the festival drew large crowds of artists and critics from far-flung civilizations such as Adelaide and Wollongong. It boasted that the winner of the 1997 prize for free verse had been interviewed on ABC Radio. It confirmed that this year’s panel of judges included the sister of the brother-in-law of the lady who won the 2002 Bonker Prize for erotic literature; the Mayor’s wife, Ms de Chateau-Brown herself; the daughter of the producer of Jimmy Jams and a freelance art critic who was occasionally published by the Bangerwood Bugle.

The letter and the enclosed flyer suggested that fame was knocking on my door. I realized that if I was to step up on the stage to receive my prize, in front of hundreds of whirring or flashing cameras, I had to look the part.

I went shopping in Fitzroy.

When I got home, six hours later, I was exhausted but satisfied. I locked the front door, took off my clothes and donned the attire which would make me both admired and admirable.

The beret was the large model popular with the Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees, the real Pyrenees, I mean. The knotted red neck scarf with white polka dots set off my pale complexion of a starving artist very nicely. The flannel tartan shirt was deliberately baggy, and partially hidden by a sheepskin waistcoat which was worn with the wool on the inside. The trousers were of chocolate-coloured corduroy, baggy at the knees and held up by a leather belt the buckle of which represented the face of a charging bull. Mustard-coloured pointed suede boots finished off the whole costume beautifully.

On the evening of the 14th June I drove to the South Bangerwood Elementary College where my success was to be celebrated. I had hoped to be able to park the bottle green Alfa Sud close to the entrance, but I had arrived too late and was forced to leave my little rust bucket in a dark and muddy road in front of the Church of United Worship. A large sign behind the fence announced to the passing heathen that ‘Jesus Saves’ and a non-believer had added with a spray can the suggestion that ‘Judas Keeps the Fly-Buys’.

A large group of female students was sprawled on the steps in front of the main door to the college. As I climbed between and over outstretched bodies clad in mini-kilts and ug-boots, I overheard them discussing the virtues of gold tipped Wellington Lights in packs of 40, married footballers and pre-menstrual stress. The entrance hall was packed and I was surprised to see so many dark-haired, middle-aged women wearing black dresses and pearl necklaces and remembered suddenly that this year the Council was offering a prize for female Greco-Australian writers. The smell of mothballs was overpowering and seemed to emanate from their male companions, many of whom were wearing blue pin-striped suits reminiscent of the late fifties.

The area devoted to nibblies and drinkies was disappointing. The dried biscuits were from Korea, the hummus dip was in a 5 litre plastic bucket, and drinks were limited to Cola, warm beer in cans and Chateau Cardboard Moselle.

A bespectacled intellectual of undetermined sex thrust a program into my hand and I feverishly sought my name among the winners. I saw that Reginald Glock had once again won the prize for the best sculpture and his work was exhibited in the entrance hall. It was simply two rusty nails knocked into a large piece of driftwood and was called ‘The Return of Francis Clayton’. I do not know who Mr. Clayton was or why he had bothered to come back at all. Raymond Castlebound’s painting of an empty beer bottle on a deserted jetty was attracting big crowds. It was entitled ‘Wistful Weekends on Whittlebay Wharf’‘and had won the prize for the Best Pictorial Expression of the Year. I walked into the theatre and noted that the four front rows of chairs bore the names of Very Important People, Local Dignitaries and Laureates. Casting discretion to the winds, I hunted feverishly, rushing up and down each row like a mad dog, but found my name nowhere.

I slipped behind a potted palm tree and hunted through the program feverishly. Until then, I had paid little attention to the fine print on the last page, believing that this would be devoted to those unrecognized workers and volunteers who had contributed to the success of this soirée, the electricians, tea ladies, plumbers and typists so often overlooked on the honours list.

I was wrong.

It actually listed all those short stories which had not received major awards or accolades, the ‘Highly Recommended’, the ‘Recommended’ and the ‘Interesting’ contributions. There were more than three hundred authors mentioned, and I was two-thirds of the way down the last list.

I was ‘interesting’. Interesting? Damn it, I’ll show them! I strode through the entrance hall, eyes blazing, forced my way through a pack of Greek widows, pushed the bespectacled intellectual out of my way and stepped over the school girls now discussing Fanny Forshaw’s new implants.

When I reached the little Alfa Sud, I threw my Basque beret into the mud and jumped on it four times. Then I leapt into my darling little rust bucket, and started off down the muddy road, wheels spinning and throwing mud over the ridiculous billboard erected by the imbeciles who thought they knew what Jesus was really doing. As if He would confide in some half-witted preacher from South Bangerwood!

When I reached home and my little study I cracked open a bottle of Chivas Regal I had put aside for my uncle’s future wake, served myself a handsome dose of golden liquid and booted up the 466DX with Intel© on board.

The document I opened was something I had not mentioned, even to my fervent admirers. It was my first novel, part of a series describing the adventures of a female detective from Finland. When it hit the bookshelves, later this year, Ms le Chateau-Brown would be on the phone begging me to be a judge at the next writing festival. I began to type with passion.

As Pirjo emerged from the smoked-herring-and-dumpling restaurant, it was three in the afternoon and darkness had already fallen. It was too gloomy for her to see the body of the illustrious nuclear scientist, lying in the ditch next to her Saab, a whaling harpoon through his throat. It was a corpse which would come back to haunt her, four months later, when it finally emerged from the melting arctic ice.’