The time has come. Author Roshi Fernando, guest judge for this year's spectacularly popular 'The Visit' short story competition, has chosen her winner. So without further ado, here we go....
The first runner up, who will receive a copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2014 is... 'A Visitor' by Kevin Franke.
Feedback from Roshi Fernando:
I loved this story: the concept was brilliant. A two foot tall Joanna Lumley rings the protagonist's doorbell one day, and comes to stay. The writer has a playful imagination, and the skills to people the story with good characterisation, setting it in a realistic scenario while telling the story in a spare, lightly humorous manner. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and felt it was beautifully carried until the penultimate sentence. We all struggle with bringing our stories to a close. Read endings, is my advice. Read good short stories - Ray Bradbury, for instance, would be a very good teacher for this writer. Read, and then copy. I don't mean plagiarise, I mean - find an ending that suits the story you are writing and use it to model your own ending. But good Lord, I loved this story.
Scroll down the page to read 'A Visitor' by Kevin Franke.
The second runner up, also receiving a copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2014 is....'Minute Music' by Amanda Oosthuizen.
Feedback from Roshi Fernando:
This too was an original concept, written with glimmers of humour which informed the depth, texture and solidity of the writing. A man goes to see a composer to buy some music for his wedding and a deep discussion is entered into, which seems to encompass all aspects of life. The structure of the story is complex, with many perspectives referred to at the same time: but the writer handles these effortlessly. This story struck me as being by someone who really does read. The writer absolutely understood how to write with a spare touch, while informing the texture of the story with interesting detail which made it feel real. I thoroughly admired this story. However, again, the ending needs to be worked on: a final editing would have made it perfect.
Scroll down the page to read 'Minute Music' by Amanda Oosthuizen
And this year's winner, who will receive a cheque for £500 and a place on an Arvon writing course is... 'The Visit' by Kate Sheehy.
Feedback from Roshi Fernando:
This is a beautiful piece, written with muscularity and a spareness of language. It is a poem story of a couple's visit to the beach. The poetry of the language makes it a rhythmic, pleasurable read. There are viscerally real moments, as if the writer was with the characters, noting down what was happening, as it happened. On my second reading, I fell in love with the guy, just from the description of the jaunty angle of his straw hat. The story is beautifully deceptive - the reader assumes they are people on a precious date, until 'matters crowd in'. I don't want to give away its ending, because this story does end well. It does everything well. It's a winner.
Scroll down the page to read 'The Visit' by Kate Sheehy.
Many congratulations to Kate, Amanda and Kevin and thank you to all those who entered. And as for the W&A Team? We turn our attention to our Writing Historical Fiction competition. We look forward to reading your entries!
Winner: 'The Visit' by Kate Sheehy:
she’s early, loitering at the edge of the car park
observing the middle distance
across the commuter’s cars, heat haze rises from shining metal bonnets
there he is, kicking his heels, smiling, straw hat, jaunty angle
parked in the drop-off,
the motor is running
her breath quickens, she feels her pulse racing, can’t quite look him in the eye.
We’ve got about an hour’s drive and then we can get a coffee
rolling hills, the barley sways, the sky is clear.
He gives a running commentary of landmarks on the familiar route
the tin scarecrow, the four legged stag
she feels herself let go, a sense of lightness,
out of the window to her left - the twinkling silvery blue, silent, spreading up to the haze of
they barrel along and then
they dip down and turn into a tiny lane, down and down, to the very edge
three or four cars are already parked
stepping out of the car she feel’s the heat again, the stillness,
the soft green beneath her feet
a little hut sells beach stuff; dusty, weathered boxes of toffee, faded postcards
nice cuppa tea
they sit at a table and watch everyone else
readying canoes, chatting dog walkers
A short walk down to the beach, she falls in step behind him, she loves that
they brush past ferns and gorse
a little stream chuckling down to the beach
and there they are
they flop down
she looks around, a handful of others to share with
strong baking sun, the tide sucks at the pebbles, the rhythm is hypnotic
So hot now, they have to get in the water,
the pebbles and rocks will be sharp on her feet
but the waves beckon
and then they’re in,
the shock of the cold!
then velvet, floating,
seaweed and brine
she views the world horizontally, water lapping her ears
she turns to make her way out, scrambles back up the beach, stretches out, the sun
warming her back,
he stays in much longer, mowing up and down
after a while he joins her, close to her, no need to talk, just being,
smiles and a gentle caress,
the waves, the rhythm
He has a time table in mind: it’s coming up to one o’ clock
they gather up their things and walk along the headland, a narrow track,
pausing occasionally they gaze out at grades of azure
birds perched on the weathered stumps, stretching their wings, basking
a few passers by, they drop hands and fall into single file,
then catch up again
he’ll always find something warm and witty to say,
gentle humour, a smile and a giggle
a short descent and there’s the pub
fish and chips, ice cream, lime soda - spiffing
not too busy on a weekday, they sit outside in the dappled shade
conversation at the tables around them
A little discussion now: work, systems, the youth of today, they don’t think quite the same,
she’s worrying that he’ll judge her for that
but that’s just her.
Its not important.
They saunter back, for more beach
They walk along and pause to gaze down at the lapping waves.
Has the tide come in? difficult to tell
Time to snooze now, just as he had predicted
voices flicker, footsteps crunch
the heat, she needs more sun cream
he strokes, she melts,
her eyes closed, she tells herself - keep this, keep it safe, always
their hearts are brimming, they lie back, smiling, moving closer
It doesn’t get any better than this, sublime
don’t look at your watch, not yet, just lie back, a little longer, a little more.
Then he finds his watch, journey times, calculating, counting the hours
They walk back to the car, footsteps now feel more solid
they climb up the chalky white lane, behind them now, the waves, the seagulls,
A different silence now as they drive back,
calculating, thinking of other stuff, matters are crowding in
most of the time she looks out of the window,
she keeps her arm stretched out towards him,
keeps him close
The traffic is heavy, he‘s clock watching, tense,
had not anticipated cars stacking up on the motorway
he tunes the radio into the traffic updates, maybe we should go a different way?
maybe it will clear,
he’s keeping to the plan
they’ve made it, they’re at the station, just in time
I should go then, don’t worry
No no, wait I’ll park up and come with you
you don’t have to
No I want to
A brief good bye in the end,
she’s a little awkward,
she rests her head against his chest
cherishes the moment
I love you,
that was fantastic
Thank you thank you, she texts from the train
Minutes later he walks in, supper’s on the table, kids are on the computer, wife in the garden gathering the salad leaves, she’s made the supper ahead, just needs warming through.
Easy. He takes his seat.
An hour later she too is back in her town, wandering along the high street, dazed, joyful.
Key in the front door, kids are on the computer,
She can pull something out of the freezer, no problem.
Everything is fine
Too good to be true.
She counts her blessings and longs for more .
That night she lies in bed with salty skin, the sounds of the beach washing over her.
Runner up: 'A Visitor' by Kevin Franke
She just turns up one day.
The door bell rings, I open the door, but I only notice her when I look down. Joanna Lumley: dark shades and headscarf, big red lips, framed by a pile-up of Louis Vuitton luggage. A black cab pulls away. ‘Hello Darling, how lovely to see you,’ she says, breezing past, heading straight up the stairs. It strikes me how tiny she is, two feet tall at the most; she reminds me of a Thunderbird puppet; only slightly bigger than the cat who is staring down from the top stair. I glance towards the street to check if anyone has seen her arrive. I pick up the pile of miniature designer luggage at my feet, a differently shaped leather truffle dangling from each of my fingers. I think: perhaps she’s having a breakdown; perhaps she’s on the run from the press.
I close the front door, stand at the bottom of the stairs, don’t quite know what to do. I can hear her in my bedroom. How did she even know where my bedroom is? I go up, climbing over the heap of unopened bills on the bottom step.
She is unpacking, putting clothes on hangers and hanging them from the edge of my desk, which she can just about reach. ‘Darling, would you mind terribly if I had a bath? I’m shattered, bloody desperate for a hot soak.’ She’s clutching a bottle of Jo Malone bath oil and pulls a scented candle from a bag.
I sit in the lounge and when she’s finished she joins me, sitting cross-legged on the floor by the sofa, wrapped in a tiny white dressing gown, and she starts manicuring her nails. She seems perfectly at ease but I feel awkward. ‘Are you hungry?’ I ask. ‘That would be lovely, Darling, thank you.’ I go to the kitchen and open the fridge: leftover prawn toast, ketchup, a bag of rotten salad. I suggest a take-away, selling it as a special treat rather than a necessity. ‘Lovely, Darling, what, sushi perhaps?’ ‘Sushi it is,’ I say, putting the local Indian and Chinese menus back in the drawer. We eat on the living room floor, she asks a lot of questions about me, but I find out almost nothing about her. The cat sits upright in front of the television, staring at us throughout our meal. I can’t remember the last time I had a friend over to the house.
And that’s that: Joanna Lumley is living at the bottom of my bed. She’s made her home in the red wicker basket the cat used to sleep in. She says it’s ever so comfortable but I struggle to understand why she would want to live at the bottom of my bed. I can always tell which room she’s in because the cat will be outside the door, squatting, his eyes downcast as if he’s either plotting murder or considering suicide. He has taken to shitting in the bedroom.
You couldn’t wish for anyone more charming to live at the bottom of your bed, however her smoking does bother me. I wake up to smoke-signals rising. ‘This is a non-smoking house,’ I tell her. ‘Of course it is, Darling,’ she says, gently stroking my left cheek with the back of her hand. One of my trainers is now an overflowing ashtray at the side of her basket-home. I empty it when she’s out.
She’s always perfectly turned out. New outfits appear all the time. A lot of whites, creams, with splashes of colour in the form of expensive-looking scarves. A burnt orange, a sunflower yellow, royal blue. I decide to iron a pile of my own clothes, which have been languishing in a heap on the floor for months, and soon it feels normal again to put on a fresh shirt every day.
We eat together; she loves having picnics on the bed. She brings out the tartan blanket she keeps folded away in an initial-engraved case, and we use the crystal champagne flutes which she keeps wrapped up in a silk Hermes scarf inside a red suede handbag. Or maybe it’s a wash bag? I’m not sure. I’ve never seen so many bags in my life. I’m expected to supply the champagne, always. One day I buy cava instead, to which she says nothing but her nose twitches briefly, which lets me know that this is not a suitable alternative. I go back to the Veuve after that, a much better fit. I’m spending quite a lot of money on champagne for Joanna Lumley, which ought to worry me, but when I’m in the shop my hand automatically reaches for the orange label. I cannot afford her lifestyle but I want to see her happy. I wonder whether I should ask her for some rent, she must have money, and I could do with the the cash, but I never do.
‘Yes it’s true.’
‘I don’t care what you think.’
‘No, just sometimes. She’ll be back soon.’
‘Meeting her agent, I think.’
‘Well, you all thought that anyway. I’m hanging up.’
My friends don’t believe me when I tell them that she often goes to meetings with her agent; she tells me she has an exciting new project on the go. ‘Please don’t tell anyone about it Darling, it’s all terribly hush-hush. You’re such a darling man.’
Scripts have piled up by the side of the sofa and next to the loo, leafed through and discarded. I ignored the first few, not wanting to overstep any boundaries, but I have started reading them now, and the very bad ones I throw away before she even gets to see them.
I sit in my grey cubicle at work, headset on, dreading the next call, wondering what it will be. Angry perhaps? Drunk? The people at the other end of the line seem to think I have the power to actually help them. I spend my days soothing people’s anger and I’m relieved to pull the headset off at six o’clock. When I get home from work she always asks about my day. She listens and it helps: the coming home to her, the champagne shared, the softness of her voice, her lightness.
Flowers arrive for her often. The local florist knows me by now and winks at me, and I catch the neighbour across the road peering through her kitchen window, gossiping away to someone in the background. Flowers again at number 92. I’m tempted to look at the cards that come with the flowers but I stop myself. Are they all from one person, from a man perhaps, or different men, or is this just normal for a famous person, to get flowers all the time? They all get the same reaction from her: ‘Oh how lovely, would you mind putting them in a vase for me, Darling?’ I used to have no vases, now I have seven, picked up at Poundland. No room without flowers these days.
One day when I get in from work I see her perched on the windowsill by the open kitchen window, wearing a flowing white linen suit, legs dangling, looking across the garden, the setting sun bathing her in a golden shimmer, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. I hesitate and stand by the door for a moment. I don’t say anything, she doesn’t notice me, I leave again. I walk to the end of the street, unsure what to do, not wanting to intrude, and also not knowing how to handle her tears. After thirty minutes I go back to the house, making a point of turning the key in the lock as loudly as possible, but she’s gone from the window. I find her on the bed knitting a scarf. ‘To keep you warm in the winter, Darling. This house must get awfully draughty.’ And the sweetness of this, tiny Jo Lums knitting me a scarf, already enormous compared to her, the undertaking of it. It makes me cry and laugh at the same time.
Amongst her possessions: a burgundy Smythson writing folder. Inside it, A4 pale blue sheets of paper, her name in elegant font across the top, plus a set of white blank cards, with envelopes, her initials in swirly lettering across the bottom. Mont Blanc pen. And she does use the stationery. She leaves me little notes, frequently, and I see her writing others, to whom I don’t know, but she takes great care writing them, pouring hours into them, always a quick squirt of perfume before closing the envelopes. She gets me to buy stamps and I post them. Her notes make me happy. Simple, often just reminders to get more shampoo (and she has expensive taste in that, too), but there is something special about them.
I wake up one morning and she is sat on the unused pillow next to me, her back leaning against the wall, and she’s looking at me, with her big deep brown eyes. She looks at me. ‘Morning Darling. You were having nightmares again.’ She slides down the pillow towards me and brushes my hair out of my face with her hand, dark red nails, perfectly manicured always. She strokes the top of my head. ‘There, there now, Darling, there, there.’ I notice the cat looking over at us from the window sill, contemplating this parallel universe in which he is no longer the only one getting petted. ‘I trust you Darling. You’re a kind man, so welcoming. You’ve not asked me questions, and you’ve helped me enormously.’ Her voice cracks for a moment, she looks away. We sit quietly on the bed together as the sun comes up and starts to warm the room.
She leaves one day while I’m at work. I find her bedding folded up neatly on top of the bed, the room aired to rid it of any stale smoke, and a note:
I hope you don’t mind.
An imprint of her red lips. I can smell her perfume. Alongside it a pile of envelopes: red-lettered reminders, long ignored by me, opened by her, a cheque with her signature left on top of them. I sit on the edge of my bed, looking down at the red basket, already reclaimed by the cat, curled up in it, opening his eyes briefly to squint at me knowingly: the intruder gone. For a moment I have an image of a Hello! magazine feature about Joanna Lumley, one of those ‘Stars in their Homes’ pieces. I picture a multi-page spread of her all dolled up, sexy yet classy, holding a glass of champagne, photographed living in some random bloke’s bedroom in an old cat basket at the bottom of his bed.
Runner up: 'Minute Music' by Amanda Oosthuizen
I’d often walked past the house, a large Victorian place with a monkey-puzzle tree in the front garden and a brass plate on the gate pillar stating his profession, composer.
I knocked three times. A minute later, a man in black glared at me around a half-opened door.
“I need some music.” I went straight to the point, hoping for a speedy transaction.
“Then you’ve come to the right place. How long?”
“It’s for a wedding,” I hedged.
He shook his flowing hair and ushered me inside with a deep sigh.
“We were going to use…” I glanced at Amy’s playlist on my ipod. “Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin’ or Pachelbel’s Canon.”
He tutted. “What’s she like, this girl you’re going to marry?”
“I like her.” I stressed the ‘I’.
He squinted at me, raised an eyebrow and poised his pen in mid air.
“Of course I love her.” My leg twitched uncomfortably.
He made a mark in his black notebook, which may not have been a tick.
“And where is this church? It is a church?”
“The thing is, and not many people realize it, with wedding music aisle length is important. Had you thought of that?” He gave a smug, little smile. I shook my head. “I thought not. How many pews?
“The usual.” I stammered.
“Is the bride going to wear a train?”
Amy was determined to go for the full caboose. “I think so,” I said.
“You see that can slow them down. Bridesmaids?”
I nodded. He made a series of ticks.
“How many? Ages?”
“Three. All adult.” Amy hadn’t wanted her sister’s toddlers in case they messed up. Maybe it’d lighten things up a bit, I’d said and for the first time I saw her nostrils flare and her eyes flash so she looked like a glorious dragoness about to vanquish a poor, hapless knight. I’d smiled innocently but she puckered her lips, sniffed and sucked on her pencil.
“Calculating on the given facts, I’d say three-and-a-half minutes.” He snapped the notebook shut.
“I’ll take your word for it.” I sighed.
“We’re agreed then?”
I nodded. “If you say so. You’re the expert.”
I followed him up a broad staircase. The landing was spacious. I glanced through the arched window to a view of the moor bathed in sunshine.
“And I suppose you have musicians at your disposal?” he asked.
“Originally we thought CD.”
“But Amy has a new job in admin. at the Pavilion and the band persuaded her to use live music.”
He shoved one of the doors.
A bay window looked out to sea. Rain rattled the window panes.
“That’s odd, it’s sunny the other side of the road,” I said.
“It often does that. It’s to do with the sea and the moor. Displacement, juxtapositions, that sort of thing. Now, three-and-a-half minutes. I suppose it might include a fade-out.” He looked at me. “And then I suppose not.”
I met Amy whilst walking. I’m a river walker for the water board and Amy was on a ramble. She’d mistaken me for one of her local group who were hiking along the Itchen where I was noting the erosion caused by cattle in one of the meanders. I think she misread my waxed jacket and walking boots as appropriate designer gear rather than my work clothes. I thought she was as beautiful as a reed.
Impressive piles of sheet music lined the room.
“Three-and-a-half minutes, you say.”
“Or thereabouts.” I couldn’t resist.
“At a guess.”
“This is three-and-a-half, that is four-and-a-half.” He jabbed a bony finger at a three foot pile. “Over there by the piano we have the seven-and-three-quarters, only popular with the cathedral market.”
“Now you’ve made me think again.” I hid a smile.
“If it’s two-and-a-half you want then say so up front, it’s considerably cheaper.” He thumped the pile and clenched his fists. “Would you like to hear it?” He picked up a tattered handwritten copy. I suddenly had a concern.
“It’s not second-hand is it?”
“What do you mean? This is music we’re talking about. It improves with listening a few times. You’re the punter who was going to use Wagner.” He snorted and nodded a few times in amusement. “I mean to say.”
“It’s just that Amy doesn’t like me to buy second-hand stuff. I’ve been caught out before with a suit from Help the Aged. Amy wants a fresh start.”
“I certainly don’t think she’ll find it recognisable, if that’s what you’re worried about. This one has only been used five or six times and a couple of them were in Zagreb, the others in Geneva, Reykjavik and Tel Aviv.”
“If you’re sure.” If I could tell Amy that I’d organised the music, she’d be really impressed. Ever since she met the musicians there has been less talk of the wedding and too often she’d gone out after work and come back late to the flat.
“I’ll play it,” he said. “Sit down.”
“Why’s that? Is it long?” My shoulders shook.
“Three-and-a-half minutes.” He gave me a glare “It has been known to send some people to sleep.”
“The power of music,” I said.
He started to play a slow melody with a languid bass part that left the composer’s left hand waving in the air between chords. He swayed heavily from his waist occasionally lifting his body off the seat to reach from bass to treble.
“Have you ever considered playing it faster?” I asked when he’d finished.
“You know, upping the tempo.”
“The tempo, my boy, is, I assure you, exactly as it should be. If you’d checked your watch you’d have realised that it was exactly three-and-a-half minutes. If this is not the music for you, pass me that copy over there.” He pointed to a box. “I think you’ll like this.”
He crouched over the right end of the piano and, with his hands positioned claw-like over the keys, his fingers scurried over the keyboard like a spider. The music had me shaking with laughter to imagine Amy and her serious bridesmaids trying to walk down the aisle in time.
“Are you sure that’s three-and-a-half minutes?” I asked innocently wiping my eyes.
“What do you take me for?”
“I’m finding it difficult to decide. Do you have a favourite? One that you think I’ll really like or…”
He looked me up and down and frowned with his head on one side. I didn’t like the look on his face. I was falling into a trap.
“…or one that has proved popular.”
“This is bespoke music. If you want your common wedding march, then opt for the Wagner. But you don’t, that’s obvious or you would not have come knocking at my door. So, believe it or not, you must be a man of some individuality if not taste. Let me see.” He looked in another box and sighed.
He started to play. As the notes rattled around, I noticed the view. The rain still pelted on the east window whilst sunshine streamed from the west window. From the middle window, a rainbow shone into the room forming a multi-coloured puddle on the Persian rug. I couldn’t resist stepping into the rainbow allowing the colours to drift over my hands. I turned my fingers. It was as if I held the rainbow. I imagined Amy at the altar, entranced by the magic of the music, gazing into my eyes as she vowed to love me forever. It was difficult to get the eyes right. Somehow, they appeared scarily multi-coloured.
“What do you think? Is it what you’re looking for?” He played a final scurry of notes and hearty chord.
“I don’t know anymore,” I said. Maybe a cloud passed because the rainbow disappeared.
“It’s exactly three-and-a-half minutes. Top quality. You won’t get better.”
“It’s not that.”
He frowned. “Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. Buy one get one free.” He rummaged in another box.
“I’m definitely not planning to marry twice.”
“Heaven forbid. Aha...” He brought out another sheet. “I have here a two minute waltz, nothing fancy but I think you’ll enjoy it.”
He started to play and instantly, my index finger snapped onto the timer button on my watch. The music was upbeat, designed to lighten the spirit with a good hummable melody and nice, predictable harmonies. My foot tapped and my chin bobbed.
“One fifty-seven. Not bad,” I said when he’d finished.
“What!” He screeched. “Let me have a look at that.” He flapped his hand at my watch.
I showed him. “Don’t worry. It was a good tune, I enjoyed it.”
With his hands clasped his head, he looked at the watch. “One fifty-seven,” he gasped. “It’s always been two minutes. Every single time.”
“Never mind. It’s pretty close after all.” I hid a smile.
“Pretty close? Would you say that to the man who nearly broke the one hundred meter record? To the woman who married the nearly-right man? No.” He yelled. “No.” His face turned puce as he stressed each word. “It will not do.”
“It’s really not a problem and, it’s getting late. I ought to go.”
“Go and see your dear Amy and give her the less than accurate music, the one fifty-seven waltz, just a little slow. Maybe her three-and-a-quarter wedding march will leave her hurrying the last few steps down the aisle. Is that what you want? To start your married life with a woman in a panic, saying her vows with one eye on the clock in case the Daimler hasn’t arrived and the Salmon en Papillote is still in the fridge.”
“I don’t think it’s important, honestly.”
“Don’t think it’s important?” He spoke through gritted teeth and I didn’t like the look in his eye. “Well the question is, will she, your bride, think it important?”
I knew the answer to that. I’m happy with a plate of spaghetti on my lap and the football on telly but not Amy, she likes the table laid, serving spoons and conversation. If it’s casual dress that’s required, then casual dress is what Amy will wear but it’s not taken casually. I often wonder what she sees in me.
“You’re right,” I said. “What other kinds of music do you do?”
“Over here.” He shuffled through a cardboard box. “Somewhere, I have five minute music for capturing the heart of a beautiful girl. Tried and tested.”
“But you already have the love of your life.” He raised his chin and looked down his nose at me.
“I know but the thing is…” I hesitated. “Since Amy started the job at the Pavilion with all those musicians around, she’s lightened up a bit. Which is a good thing, obviously. but…You really think it will work?”
“You think your Amy is enjoying the company of these musicians a little too much?” He gave me a kindly smile and shook his head.
“Maybe.” I felt desolate.
“This will have the toughest, the most resilient heart eating straight out of your hand. Are you ready?”
I nodded and he began to play. I pictured Amy but not the one I saw everyday. This was a different Amy. One who cuddled on buses, who swam naked in rivers without checking the pollution level beforehand. One who didn’t object to kebab juice running up my sleeve. An Amy with whom I could share an ice cream without keeping to one side. An Amy who really had no interest in the musicians at the Pavilion but stared into my eyes like I was the best thing in the world. I listened to the rippling treble and the haunting bass and my heart held its own beat until he finished.
“That’s amazing,” I sighed. “I don’t know how to…”
“Use it carefully.” He parceled them up in gold paper with a silver flower, zipping his pen along a ribbon so it curled.
“Amy will love that.”
*This post was amended on Saturday 29 March due to an administrative error.