SHORT STORY COMPETITION WINNERS 2020 ADULT CATEGORY

22-Jun-2020


OVERALL WINNER

The Passion of Hristós
By Elena Scialtiel

There’s something in the olive groves. Doxa reckons it from the shifting shadows dappling the scorched soil, cracked by drought, like a maroon mosaic for the destitute that no tourist would waste time to go and see. Anyhow, what tourist would ever climb to Potamia, parched village in the middle of the island, which features no river other than in its nameshake, a village clustered a few metres from the frontier – and hundreds from the highway? Doxa feels there is a creature around. She senses it from the scent. A feral whiff: myrtle, garlic, and burrowed dirt. She fears it could be a boar, foraging for olives. Or worse, a Turkish soldier, seeking bucolic frolic beyond the barbed wire. Doxa scoops up her textbooks and the paltry leftovers from her packed lunch, and scrambles down the mule-track. A twig snaps behind her. She’s startled, but doesn’t stop or turn around. She hastens her steps, skidding in the gravel. ‘Wait, kori, wait…’ The appeal echoes ruggedly, and bounces from one gnarled back to the next, like the collared doves’ mating call. ‘Parakaló!’ Greek. Doxa stops. She doesn’t turn around. ‘Water…’ Doxa turns around. Gingerly. To a kneeling man, his grubby hands outstretched to her, hollow eyes and cheeks, unkempt beard, long greasy hair held back by a length of barbed wire, like a rustic misshapen crown. Doxa offers him her canteen, where just about a couple warm swigs are left. The man drinks avidly: ‘Thank you, sister.’ He carries a bulky rucksack. A long cardboard tube peeks out of its undone zip. Shotgun? Doxa jumps to her feet, pulls out her cell phone and dials the emergency number. No signal. ‘Please, I beg of you, do not hand me in.’ ‘Who are you?’ Doxa demands, in a shaky voice, while redialing. ‘My name is Hristós. I am a painter. At my last opening night, a few days ago, the police busted the gallery, sealed it off and arrested all invitees. I managed to escape. I took with me all the canvases I could salvage and carry. I ran to the border, and then I scoured it until I found a big enough tear in the net for me to crawl under. ‘I found it nearby. I dug a bit, snaked a bit, and eventually smuggled myself into Greek territory. But I am wanted all over Cyprus and mainland Turkey.’ Hristós! Avant-garde artist. Painter. Multimedia. And wooden installations. And he is right here, in front of her! Doxa, Arts & Humanities student at Larnaca University, knows him well. Who doesn’t? He is regularly splashed all over the Turkish front pages, always to be painted as the greatest villain, while regarded as a civil rights paladin by Greek Cypriots and by the European fine arts community. The Islamist regime has banned his artwork because reproducing the human form is hubris punishable with death. But Hristós is Greek. And Christian. His Gospel-inspired artwork expresses the human condition, today like two thousand years ago. The real Passion. ‘Can you walk, Hristós?’ Together, they hobble down to Potamia. Doxa’s mother is engaged in her private war against the splintered flaking front door, which has come off the hinges again. Sweat drips along her wrinkles: ‘Who is he?’ Doxa opens her mouth, but Hristós introduces himself: ‘The carpenter.’ Doxa’s mother menacingly brandishes the hammer at him. He gently takes it from her hands, and with a couple of well-aimed knocks, he fixes the hinges. He returns the hammer with a smile: ‘Now, a drop of olive oil…’ ‘Forget I’m paying you for just a three-second job!’ Doxa’s mother snarls. Doxa motions Hristós towards the modest interior of the whitewashed cube she calls home since birth: ‘Bread, olives and wine, like Odysseus?’ ‘Bread and wine, like Christ.’ Hristós corrects her. And after a pause: ‘I want to paint your portrait, Doxa.’ ‘Elefthería.’ Doxa corrects him. ‘Titled after your freedom.’

 

Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:

“Passion is an ambiguous word in English: it can mean extreme suffering; it can also refer to an upsurge of feeling, usually sexual or a consuming commitment to something.  All these meanings pervade our winning story, which is set in a divided Cyprus. A rustling among the olive groves alerts Doxa.  Whether it’s a wild boar or a Turkish soldier looking for quick sex, they both pose a threat to a young girl.  Just like Odysseus and Nausicaa, Hristós, famous Greek painter and civil rights activist, emerges from the shadows and addresses Doxa with the beautiful Greek word, parakaló, (please).  He is on the run from the Turks who have raided his latest exhibition.  His work is an affront to Muslim sensibilities.  He has also lobbied for civil rights.   These two activities have made him suspect in Turkish eyes. This story packs a great deal of meaning and references into a small space.  Persecuted Hristós himself echoes the title of Jesus, Christos; his ‘rustic misshapen crown’ is reminiscent of the crown of thorns.  Doxa means ‘glory’ in Greek and her welcoming of the fugitive is the young girl’s claim to glory.  The story combines the best in classical and Christian cultures.  Hristós quickly and deftly repairs a broken hinge in Doxa’s house.  This simple action is fraught with symbolic meaning: everything can swivel around a metaphorical hinge. The story ends with the Greek word for freedom: eleutheria. Hristós has gained personal and artistic freedom; Doxa has been freed from her fears to become the subject of the painter’s art; Doxa’s mother no longer has to worry about the wonky hinge!This is a marvellous story: innovative, sundrenched, with pungent Mediterranean smells, and an atmosphere of pastoral peace and the Christian message.  A story which truly deserves the first prize.”


RUNNER-UP

La Charlotte de l'Isle
By Rebecca Calderon

Philip left Notre-Dame with a heavy heart; Sally’s letter shoved angrily into his top pocket. Paris was cold and droplets of rain were dappling the pavements. He raised his jacket collar and strode towards nowhere in particular. Crossing Pont Saint-Louis he passed a crowd of tourists watching tango dancers. Everywhere seemed chaotic and noisy. His search for quiet took him down Rue St Louis en l'ile. It was dark and all the shops were closed. Nearing the end he noticed an antique shop with windows lit, but as he drew closer he saw it was a curious little tea room. Beside the entrance stood a wooden board in the shape of a voluptuous woman which read: La Charlotte de l'Isle. As he pushed open the door a bell tinkled and an attractive woman of Indian origin appeared from behind a velvet tasselled curtain and smiled, she was dressed in a floor-length black robe. The room had a fairytale quality, with gilt-framed mirrors and small marble-topped tables circled by spindle-backed chairs. From the ceiling hung carnival masks, marionettes and model aeroplanes. An upright piano was squeezed into this cacophony with sheet music open as if a performance had recently taken place or was about to. The glass counter displayed an array of tarts, cakes and many edible chocolate sculptures. A huge old-fashioned weighing scale took centre stage and the shelves behind held a collection of culinary copper moulds and large China tea caddies. Philip was asked if he wanted to sit down for ‘Madame’s special chocolate’ and before he had chance to ponder was ushered through an archway into a parlour. He was relieved to find he was not alone; a couple of students were in a corner and looked up briefly to nod their hellos. The menu was written by hand in exquisite script beneath a logo of a witch on a broomstick. Philip was in the mood for a stiff drink but opted for the ‘special chocolate’ with a slice of chocolate cake, the Indian woman raised her eyebrows at his suggestion and advised him to select a lemon tart instead, “This is your first time here, yes?” Philip obeyed and she swept away lustrously through a rear door. He perused the room while waiting, taking in an armoire adorned with novelty teapots and gnomes. He was about to reach for his pocket to re-read Sally’s letter when a beautiful young girl materialised as if by magic and placed a carafe of water at his table along with the lemon tart. Philip thought it odd to serve water with patisserie and stranger still to find such exotic women in what he’d always deemed to be the preserve of white French culture. The older woman (her mother perhaps?) returned with a silver tray on which stood a delicate cup and saucer with a pretty floral china jug full to the brim with dark liquid. Philip poured out the velvety substance and smelt the immediate aroma. His lips were thrilled by the texture and consistency. It was smooth but potent, almost narcotic. He had never tasted anything like this before and greedily drained his cup. He forked a small slice of cake into his eager mouth and alternated between further sips of the magical fluid. Phillip soon realised why the water was provided; these substances were too rich for the palate to take without rest. He was in no hurry and wondered whether to flick through one of the novels which he presumed were left there for the customers or to get out Sally’s letter. Sally wouldn’t have liked it here, she would have commented on the possibility of dust falling from the timeworn relics, she would have used words like ‘unhygienic’ and ‘creepy’, but Phillip felt uncannily at home in the little chocolate shop. Sally had ended it again, and no doubt Phillip would take her back when she needed him and the whole Pavlovian sequence would repeat itself. He felt he should pull himself together but Sally’s pull was stronger. The heady atmosphere coupled with what he’d consumed had an emotional effect and Philip suddenly felt tearful. He asked the students where the bathroom was and they pointed to the rear door. He fumbled though it and onto a narrow corridor which took him to an inner courtyard. His gaze was drawn to movement and he turned to see an ancient kitchen covered in blue and white delft tiles. Standing over a huge copper saucepan slowly turning a wooden spoon was a handsome woman of indeterminable age. She had a mass of dark grey curls piled on top of her head and wore the same long black robes as her colleague. She was elegant and intriguing, bohemian but regal. Her piercing blue eyes scanned Phillip then she uttered “Under the stairs” and went back to her stirring. Phillip walked home feeling fulfilled and serene. This establishment was somehow exclusive, not in the sense of class or means, but due to the nonchalance of the eccentric chocolatières. It was like their own private set of rooms which they may or may not let you enter, neither tourist nor business venture, it seemed solely for their own amusement. Philip became a regular at the Wednesday night shows. The large woman would play the piano while the other two worked the puppets. Original poetry was recited which told of exotic Indian adventures and wartime Parisian escapes, never once mentioning men. Phillip often wondered who Charlotte was; perhaps it was just a reference to the famous pudding? He never knew the names of the three women but they knew his. La Charlotte de l'Isle was Philip’s retreat from his bouts of depression, their chocolate was better than any drug. And one day he arrived after a period of absence to find the place empty, the note on the door read: “We have gone to the country to grow vegetables”. Nobody ever saw them again.


Judge Charlie Durante’s comments: 

“When we find ourselves marooned in the heart of a modern metropolis, coming upon a quiet, inviting and welcoming venue steadies the nerves, inspires our imagination and reconciles us to life’s vicissitudes.  This is Philip’s adventure on a cold, wet day in Paris.  Suffering from the recurring upheavals of his emotional life, and with nowhere to go in particular, he stumbles across a warm, boutique tea-room where he is served by two mysterious, exotic ladies.  The interior of the tea-room is replete with exquisite bric-a-brac: gilt-framed mirrors, marble-topped tables, carnival masks and marionettes.  The mellow atmosphere is generated by the artfully chosen objects, the mouth-watering patisserie, the rich chocolate, and the women who provide a personalised service.  The women seem inhabitants from a more civilized, more authentic, more native world, quite opposed to the dominant white French culture.  Have they come from some faraway French colony?  The magical venue is also the setting for poetry recitals, puppet shows and piano music.  Sally, Philip’s volatile girlfriend, would scorn such a place, with nooks and crannies, where dust and vermin can gather.  But it is precisely its bohemian, nonchalant feeling which appeals to Philip and assuages his depression.  Rebecca leaves the ladies who run the place anonymous and unexplained, thus adding to the air of mystery and magic which we find so seductive.  It is precisely this enigmatic atmosphere, the ritual elegance of the ladies’ actions, their sudden disappearance at the end which makes this story such a wonderful achievement.   Well done!”      


HIGHLY COMMENDED

The Right Chemistry
By Jon Reyes

I desperately want, need and have to get this job! Everything depends on it. My marriage has been strained this past year and the children are suffering from our constant rowing. I’m crestfallen at the sight of the other three candidates. They are all younger and immaculately dressed, unlike me in my old, shiny suit. ‘Hi, I’m Chatterton,’ offering his hand, ‘Call me Andy.’ ‘James Shinton, pleased to meet you.’ ‘Those two old reprobates there are David Morgan wearing the blue suit and Simone Dawes who isn’t wearing a blue suit,’ he laughs heartily at his own joke. ‘Guys, this is James.’ ‘Don’t worry about us three,’ offers Simone, ‘we were at university together and always end up applying for the same job.’ ‘So, they seem like a good company to work for, eh? David asks. ‘Well, I believe they’re one of the top six pharmaceutical companies in the UK, 5% growth, four well know proprietary brands, prescription only medicines, 4.8% market share and spend a great deal on research, So, yes I’m very keen’ ‘Done your homework, I see,’ says Simone smiling. ‘Where are you now?’ David enquires. ‘Um, I’m not really…,’ I feel uneasy. ‘I mean, I was with Weller-Stevenson for eight years – the last two as Regional Sales Co-ordinator.’ ‘So, what made you leave?’ asks Andy. I look away from Andy’s penetrating eyes. ‘Well, the truth is I resigned after losing my driving license.’ I don’t want to go any further, but then I worry that they might think me a drunkard. ‘I knocked down an old lady.’ The look of disgust on their faces speaks volumes. I quickly emphasise, ‘I wasn’t speeding or drunk, you know. I just took my eyes off the road for a split second to look for an address, I was creeping along at ten miles an hour, I looked up one minute nothing, then she was there… she stepped out, just like that, there was nothing I could do.’ I feel my eyes moisten. ‘The old lady, was she alright?’ Simone is sincere. ‘No,’ I shake my head in shame, ‘she died later in hospital.’ I feel a trickle down my cheek. ‘I was banned for twelve months – driving without due care and attention.’ David checks his watch. ‘Five to two, they’ll start in a few minutes, probably alphabetical order – that’s the usual form.’ I look up and once again catch Andy’s eyes – full of sympathy. ‘So, James what have you been doing meantime? ‘Oh, this and that, worked in a supermarket, you know, filing shelves on the night-shift, you get paid double-time for unsociable hours’ I shrug my shoulders. ‘Rotten bad luck’ offers Simone. ‘A promising career blunted – but not totally ruined, eh.’ She grips my shoulder. We’re silent with our thoughts when an elegant woman enters.’ Andrew Chatterton, would you go in please?’ She says. Calls of “good luck” come from his two friends as Andy goes into the inner sanctum. ‘Did you go to university, James?’ asks David. Yes, I read Biochemistry at Warwick, did the first year and then my dad died.’ I let out a deep, mournful sigh as I feel my bottom lip tremble. ‘So I had to give up the idea of becoming an analytical chemist.’ I cover my face with a hand, ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘No need to apologise,’ comforts David. ‘Not had much luck, one way or another, have you?’ Simone chirped. I give a rueful snort and blow my nose. ‘You could say that.’ ‘So, you knocked down, gave up the life of an impoverished, happy student and joined the ranks of tax-payers, eh.’ Simone gets to her feel. It’ll be me next in, I think.’ Once again Miss Elegant is framed in the doorway. ‘Simone Dawes? Would you go through, please?’ Simone smoothes down her skirt before disappearing into the inner sanctum. ‘Haven’t seen Andy come out, there must be another door’, I muse. ‘Spect so’, says David. ‘I feel so nervous. First real interview and this is such a good company to work for and look at me, gone to pieces.’ I’m beginning to shake and feel it unfair coming up against these three, what chance do I have? ‘What did you put on your application form? You know, about leaving your last job – proper job I mean, not the supermarket.’ ‘I told the truth, disqualified from driving and unable to do my job.’ I sit back down and feel resigned to my fate. ‘Honestly being the best policy, eh?’ ‘I’ve always been too honest for my own good. I can’t re-write my history.’ ‘Good for you,’ patronises David. Miss Elegant reappears. ‘David Morgan? Would you go through, please?’ David rises and offers his hand, ‘Best of luck, nice meeting you.’ ‘Yeah, same to you.’ I watch anxiously as David, like the previous two, disappears into the inner sanctum. I have just told my life story to three complete strangers and the thought of re-telling it is filing me with dread. I feel nausea at the thought of the interview to come. I think of ways to say, “Sorry, I didn’t get the job.” I convince myself that I stand no chance of getting this job – not when there are three younger ex-graduates up against me. I need to compose myself before I go in. I clench my lips and turn to find Miss Elegant facing me. ‘James Shinton.’ She smiles, ‘would you go through please. They’re ready for you know.’ I move like a condemned man through to the inner sanctum. My jaw drops when I see Andy, Simone and David sitting behind a large highly polished table. They smile in unison before Andy speaks. ‘You’ll have to forgive our rather unorthodox interviewing methods, James we’d like to offer you the position of Sales Manager with Chatterton, Dawes and Morgan Pharmaceuticals – better known as CDM Pharmaceuticals.’ I remain silent as I try to take in the fact that ‘I’ve had my interview. 


Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:

“Job interviews are nerve-wracking.  You always feel you haven’t done   justice to yourself.  You forgot to mention a landmark achievement in your CV.  Jon’s story is an account of a job interview with a difference.  The novelty lies in the fact that the interview occurs unofficially and unnoticed while the candidates are waiting to be called into the interview room.  James Shinton, is a biochemist, and an honest and truthful person, who has lost his driving licence and consequently job, through no real fault of his own.  This is the reason he is applying for a new job.  The twist at the end is that the casual chat with the three other applicants for the same job is the interview.  With his guard down, James quietly reveals important aspects of his personality and career in front of a company of complete strangers.  His candid behaviour, modesty, and professional knowledge come across in the relaxed conversation with the other supposed applicants.  The other characters are cleverly differentiated.  Simone is encouraging and complimentary; David is inquisitive and interrogatory; Andrew friendly and jokey.  The conversation, which turns out to be the real interview, has the ring of authenticity.  The writer clearly shows an ability to handle colloquial speech, the give and take of conversation and the interaction between the protagonists.  A real joy to read.  Very highly commended indeed!”