Spring Festival Short Story Competition 2021 – Overall Winner
Spring Festival Short Story Competition 2021
The Lemon Tree
Written by Anna Breen
She slowed as she walked past their old house, stopping to gaze at it, drinking in the purple of the jacaranda tree, the deep yellow of the façade, the creamy tones of the climbing roses by the gate. It seemed impossible that she had lived there once, in what now seemed like another life – her old life, her real life, before everything changed ….
She remembered wandering through the house alone on the day they finally left, through rooms that felt so familiar and yet so strange, so hollow now, bereft of their furnishings and empty of the people that had made them home. She remembered the salt sting of her tears at having to sell the house and felt again the surging terror at having to face the strange new life ahead, alone, without him. She had paused in the dining room, the echo of boisterous family meals ringing in her ears and gazed across the lawn to the wooden swing he had built for the children. In her mind’s eye she could still see their youngest swinging on it, higher, higher, her blonde hair lifting and falling with the motion, her carefree laughter floating on the summer air.
And she remembered how she had suddenly, desperately, needed to leave that house that was no longer theirs, to run away and hide where no one could reach her, or see her, or pity her. She remembered rushing to the door, banging it shut in her haste to get out, to get away, to escape from – what? Her happy past, or her unhappy present? From her memories, or from her fears for the future? She didn’t know, all she knew was that she had to get out, quickly, now. And then, she saw the lemon tree.
He had given it to her for their wedding anniversary some years before he died, and they had planted it together, so joyfully and hopefully, in the flowerbed by the gate. Yet it had not flourished there that poor little tree, had never given any lemons. It was small and spindly still, though full of lush, shiny leaves and at the sight of it her sudden haste changed to a rising rage. Maybe she had to leave the house, had to leave the lawn and the swing and the roses and all her old life there… but she was not leaving that little tree!
With no further thought she ran to it and grasping its narrow trunk, pulled on it hard, trying to wrench it from the soil. It did not budge, so falling to her knees she started digging, clawing at the soft earth with bare hands, trying to wrench it free, but still it barely moved. Looking around for something to dig with, she spotted a broken tile under a bush, probably left over from building the extension. With its jagged edge, she dug deeper around the base, exposing more of the wide-spread roots. She pulled again harder, tugging at the tree with all her strength, but though it shifted slightly, it would not release its tenacious grip on the earth. Suddenly frantic, she dug again, hacking and stabbing round the roots, accidentally slicing through some with the sharp tile, gasping and crying out with the effort, until, finally, it seemed to loosen slightly.
Standing up again, she planted both feet close to the trunk, clutching it low to the ground and pushing up hard with her legs, straining all the muscles in her thighs and her back and her arms, pulling, pulling with all her might, groaning with the effort. And then, at last, she had felt the tree relinquish its hold on the earth, heard it almost sigh as it released its grip, and she recalled how she had stood there for a long moment, panting, gulping victorious tears, clutching in her muddied hands the bare-rooted, spindly, sad little tree which had yet fought so desperately to stay in its home soil. And in that moment, she had felt a deep affinity with that poor little tree, understood that they were very much alike – dislocated, damaged, diminished, but, please God, not defeated! Please God, not beyond repair!
She had carried the tree to the car, gently, almost tenderly, suddenly reluctant to cause this vulnerable living thing any further pain, wrapping its poor, mutilated, roots in a plastic bag she found in the boot. It did not fit into the boot, so opening a back window, she had fed the root-bole through it and across the seat, leaving the glossy foliage poking bravely out of the window. Then slowly, carefully, so that the wind would not break its fragile branches or bruise its shiny leaves, she drove the little tree to the new, smaller house they had rented nearby …
Her thoughts returning to the present, she wondered how long she had been standing there outside their old house, remembering. Then she turned and strode purposefully away from it, towards that other house, the new house that had gathered them in all those years ago, had welcomed her, the children and the little wounded lemon tree into its friendly rooms and sunny garden and slowly, gently, almost imperceptibly, helped to heal their hurts. And though her children had now grown and gone, they came to visit her often, bringing their partners and their own children to fill her home and her heart, because they knew, as she did, that her life was now securely rooted in the soil of that house, her old memories and new hopes now safely settled within its sheltering walls.
And as she approached the house, the lemon tree, now grown tall and sturdy by the gate, seemed to wave a welcome, holding its glad, golden fruit towards her as if to say, ‘I am well here. You are well here now too. Together, we have survived.’
And looking up at her old friend, she reached for a large, luscious lemon, and smiled.
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“This is a mature meditation on the sense of rootedness, belonging and nostalgic yearning. A woman, recently widowed, recalls happy family days with her husband, children and her beloved home with the lemon tree which will symbolise her fulfilled married life and her attachment to home. A wedding anniversary present, the lemon tree had failed to flourish, withholding its lemons, seemingly unable to mirror her happy life with her husband and children. Now that a new phase in her life is about to begin, she realises she cannot abandon the tree and makes frantic efforts to uproot it and transplant it. It seems firmly rooted in the old home and will not budge. The writing acquires a poetic intensity as she realises the deep affinity that binds her to the tree: ‘they were very much alike-dislocated, damaged, diminished, but, please God, not defeated!’ The strong alliterative rhythm drives home the feeling of having lived through difficult times, but now emerging into the new life she will enjoy with her children and grandchildren in the smaller house she has moved to. The lemon tree embodies this late flowering of life, its ‘glad, golden fruit’ emblematic of natural flourishing and vital growth. The lemon tree reminds us of Yeats’ ‘O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer’ in ‘Among School Children’, a symbol of endurance and perseverance, beauty and grace. This is writing of a very high quality, measured, sober and understated. Well done!”
Brightness of Black
Written by Ishu Lakhiani
During the annual bird conference, Macau, Peacock, Swan, and Nightingale were seated on the stage. The peacock was the head of the conference and stood in its seat with all its majesty and glory. The crown on its head oozed bright colours and its slender neck craned higher every time a bird took the podium. All the birds offered beautiful pieces praising their beauty and the grandeur of their ancestry.
It was the nightingale that inaugurated the conference with its melodious song. All the birds shimmied and swayed with it. The Owl was the judge of the beauty contest. Followed by the nightingale, it was the swan that took up the stage.
The swan was the most beloved of all. Its shimmering white feathers, beautiful blue eyes, and sharp beak attracted everyone towards it. In the beauty contest, all the birds highlighted their beauty and skills. Up until now, the swan was the undisputed champion. It was pompous and vain. Of course, it had to be, not just the birds, even the humans held the swan m great rank. Look at their epic tale of the Ugly Duckling. The duckling had no respect or status as long as it was black. But the moment it turned into a beautiful white swan, everyone loved and worshipped it. Well, this was something swan had been boasting about every year and it needed to say something different this season.
“Why do you think you are the best’? What makes you say that?” All heads turned towards the croaky sound. It was the raven who had asked this question.
The swan took it as an insult and ignored the question. But when the Owl said, it had to answer the question to prove its worth, the Swan felt compelled to reply. “I am the most respected and beautiful of all. Not only the humans and fellow birds have confirmed this, even the religious scriptures call me the perfect one. I am the carriage of the Hindu Goddess of knowledge.”
The raven stated in its static voice, “But you are not the only one, even the Dove, Peacock, and Rooster are one of the many revered birds of different religions.”
The peacock craned its tall neck a little more making it appear extra-long, “What is it you want?” It came straight to the point.
The Raven looked down at its talons, and croaked again, “I want to enter the beauty contest!”
The entire field reverberated with various sounds of the birds. All of them laughed, booed, and hooted at once. The Raven stood its ground, undeterred by their derogatory comments.
The swan sniggered and said insolently, “Give me one good reason why you
think you are my equal?”
“The color of our blood is the same,” came the reply.
“Cliched,” the swan faked a yawn.
The Raven fluttered its wings the way a wrestler warms up his body before the match. Swiftly with awe-inspiring grace it flew towards the podium and took the mic. The flight of its dark wings had already intimidated all the birds around. The Owl fixed its glasses, its expression was indecipherable.
“Dark is the color of truth,” Raven started, “Don’t look down at dark for you must all know that before we come to this bright beautiful world, we remained hidden in the dark warm cocoon of our mothers. Less than 5% of this universe is in light. The rest is in dark. Sixty-eight percent of the universe Is dark energy and twenty-seven percent is dark matter. All this
bright, light and luminosity you keep talking about, with just a snap of dark’s fingers, all this brightness will black out.”
“So, dark is actually bad?” Macau tried to come to Swan’s rescue.
The Raven shook his head slowly. Clearly, it was disappointed by the low IQ of this bird with loud colors.
“If you think giving out charity in the blackness of the night is bad then dark is bad. If you feel hiding true love in the dark recesses of one’s heart is bad and public display of emotion in front of flashing lights is good then I will definitely agree with you. If colour is the validation of beauty and confirms black is ugly then trust me, there is nothing beautiful on this earth. Anything that generates biasedness, prejudice, and arrogance, can never be good. Color discrimination and cruelty is not only a sin but it is absolutely sick. I am not here to prove how beautiful | am. I know who I am and I don’t feel proud for pride is one of the seven cardinal sins. But I do feel humbled for this beautiful life that I got.”
All the birds began to flap their wings in applause. The nightingale sent out musical kisses to the Raven. The Owl took off its glasses and looked at the young bird affectionately. And finally, the peacock stood up from its throne and went to the Raven. It said in a choked voice, “When I sit on that throne every day full of pride and crane my head higher and higher, it is not confidence but total insecurity. | want everyone to concentrate on my crown.
I do not want anyone to look at my ugly feet. We are all dented and demented, all of us have follies and foibles, but this does not mean we should look down upon others.”
“Or kill those who look different,” the Dove cried.
The conference of the birds dispersed. There were no winners, there were no losers. All the birds were allies and friends. The Swan tried to apologize but the generous Raven hugged it affectionately. The Owl recorded everything in its book and released it in the monthly magazine under the heading “Brightness of Black.”
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“The animal fable is a well-established genre. It goes back to Aesop; Chaucer wrote one called ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ and Persian literature has ‘The Conference of Birds’ by Farid Ud-Din Attar. Usually, the story takes the form of a gathering of birds, with very human characteristics, discussing some thorny issue. Brightness of Black follows this pattern but in an original and pleasing manner. The discussion is going swimmingly, with the birds playing their traditional roles: the swan convinced of its unrivalled beauty, the peacock proud and disdainful, the owl fussily learned and acting as judge of the contest, until the raven butts in with its croak! In spite of its black colour, universally considered a hideous hue, it wants to enter the contest. But the raven is not just a spoil sport: he is a moralist, full of hidden wisdom, against racial discrimination, and with a deep knowledge of dark matter and cosmic processes. There is a touch of Ted Hughes’ Crow about the raven, knowing, eloquent, and perspicacious, but without the violence or death wish. Even Edgar A Poe’s Raven, with his insistent ‘Nevermore,’ may also lie behind our raven. Towards the end of the story, we learn the raven’s teaching has not been in vain: the proud peacock acknowledges her insecurity and has learned humility. It’s a pity we don’t get to read the owl’s undoubtedly hilarious account of the proceedings in the monthly bird magazine! A delightful story, witty, well-written and wise. Well done!”
Written by James McNally
Stepping out onto the balcony, Joseph surveyed the landscape before him. Down below, an immense graveyard stretched out for half a kilometre, its hundreds of white slabs reflecting the early morning light, and its various altars, plinths, and figures casting shadows, eerie sundials charting the slow birth of the new day. Just beyond the graveyard, a runway, a great sharp and straight scission of asphalt cutting the vista in two, as if imposing itself —a symbol of momentum, ascending heights and vast energies — against the burial ground, with its quiet, restful depths. Beyond the runway stood an airport; beyond the airport, a city. Beyond the city, still, rolling hills, dotted with cream and ochre structures, little villages trailing up and down the grassy mounds. Finally, peaking beyond the hills the distant, yet looming presence of a mountain range.
“Good morning,” said Sarah, entering the kitchen, as Joseph returned inside from his survey of the expanse below. “Good morning,” he echoed back.
“What time is it?” She asked.
“I think around eight thirty.”
“Another day,” she sighed. “Actually, what day is it? I’ve been losing track.”
“Me too. I think it’s Wednesday. I have a conference call in about an hour if I remember right. I’m just waiting around for it. I haven’t much work to do before then.”
“Would you like a coffee?” Sarah asked. “It’ll make time go a little faster.”
“Will it make my meeting shorter?”
“I can’t guarantee that,” she smiled.
Sarah set about making coffee for the both of them, and they both stepped outside, each with a mug in hand.
“Is that true, by the way?” Joseph asked, “that thing you said about coffee.”
“Well it’s not that time moves faster, but our perception of it.” She replied. “I was reading about it yesterday. Something to do with pulses in the brain and clocks in the body. Caffeine speeds everything up; all those electrical signals in the brain increase in frequency and the circadian rhythm — you know, your heartbeat and other biological processes — it all speeds up. And your sense of time with it.”
“Apparently. Think of it like this.” Sarah began to slowly tap her fingernails on the railing of the balcony. “If your body clock is like this, things seem relaxed. Nothing’s happening. But if I start going like this—“ Sarah tapped the balcony faster and faster, “ —now suddenly it feels like everything’s moving quicker. Your body’s locked into the rhythm. It can be the rhythm of a heartbeat, a song, or anything really.” Then Sarah rapped both her hands against the balcony rail so quickly that it became difficult to differentiate each clanging reverberation from the next. “But if the rhythm speeds up too much,” she said, raising her voice above clattering din, “the sense of time disappears entirely. You don’t know where — when you are!” Joseph laughed at this frenetic display.
“You liked that, huh?.” Sarah removed her hands from the balcony and resumed sipping her coffee. Both returned their gaze to the variegated view in front of them. A flock of gulls hovered above the cemetery, squawking intermittently and gliding effortlessly on the breeze.
“What about them? What time is it for Mr Seagull?”
“Actually, | think the smaller animals see things a lot slower than we do. Time moves differently for them. The smaller, the slower.”
“I can’t imagine time moving any more slowly than this!”
“Ha. But then again they can be trained to count seconds, like we do. Rats, for example — they can learn to know when thirty or sixty have passed.”
“Maybe we’re not so different.” Joseph pondered. “In terms of training I mean.”
“Imagine life without watches or town clocks. Would we experience time differently if we hadn’t spent our lives becoming accustomed to the ticking away of hours and days?” “Maybe.” Sarah replied. “Speaking of which, how long has it been now, since this all started?”
“I don’t know. I’ve lost track. A few weeks —months— maybe?”
“Well perhaps there’s your answer. With nothing to mark the passing of time except the sun rising and setting, the occasional trip to the shops, and so on, your sense of it melts into an indistinguishable stream. Heck— imagine what it must have been like before we were ruled by clocks and calendars. All that mattered wasn’t if your meeting was on Monday or Tuesday but the seasons — times of warmth and times of cold; the time to sow seeds and the time to harvest, or the time to stockpile wood to keep fires burning so you didn’t freeze.” Sarah sighed wistfully. “Did time move faster, then, or did it move slower?”
‘I couldn’t tell you. All | know is that you only ever really notice time when you’ve a deadline
to meet, or when you’re bored.”
“Or both, in your case… speaking of which, what’s it now?”
“About ten past nine. I’d better get ready.”
“Really? Time really does fly.” She laughed, “maybe it was the coffee.”
“Or maybe it does with you.” Sarah kissed Joseph softly on the cheek and returned to her morning routine. Joseph once again paused to look out over the balcony. He thought of the mountains — the aeons of earthly movements their crests and valleys silently, sublimely expressed. He thought of the village-speckled hills and the multitude of flora and fauna contained within, each dancing along life’s course to its own tempo. He thought of the city and the airport, of the intertwining of time, space, and place. He thought of the graveyard — its solemn monuments etched with so many names and dates, some grand, some lowly, some crumbling away, and others bright and new, each marking one thing: the ultimate transience of all earthly things. Here his gaze remained for a few moments as an old poem about time came to mind. “In my beginning is my end,” he muttered to himself, “but soon
enough, a new beginning.”
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“Augustine of Hippo, much given to abstract thinking, admitted he was nonplussed when asked to define time. James has written a profound meditation on the concept of time, but he has cleverly avoided abstruse thinking by casting his exploration in the form of a dialogue between lovers. The story starts by setting the scene: early morning, a man and woman standing in a balcony, viewing the cemetery with its graves bathed in the early morning light, the shadows creating the effect of many sundials, the first reference to a primitive form of clock and quaint method of telling and recording time. Waiting for a conference in about an hour’s time, makes Joseph ask if having a coffee will make time go faster. It turns out his partner, Sarah, has a gift for metaphysical thinking and she launches into a disquisition on how our perception of time varies with our bodily rhythm and brain function. A good teacher, Sarah uses her finger tapping to convey her understanding of the way we perceive time as moving faster or more slowly. The story asks important questions about time in a very natural way: what would be our awareness of time if we had no instruments to measure it; would time flow indiscriminately if we had no time pieces; is there such a thing as absolute time if there were no human beings to experience it; are we time-bound? The story returns to the peace and quiet of the beginning: the cemetery where time seems to have stood still, where the transience of life has its ultimate resting place. With a glance at T S Eliot’s East Coker, ‘In my beginning is my end’, this very bold attempt to understand time comes to a wonderful close. James must be congratulated on this subtle, mature and philosophically challenging piece of writing.”
Missives to My Aunt Marg
Written by Andrew Kimberley
Missives to my Aunt Marg
Extract from ‘Epidemic 1981’
Monday 6th September 1981
My Dear Aunt Marg,
I am beside myself with worry and confusion. I have done the deed. I have fled from No 2, the pressure is too great. Pardon the pun but with gay abandon I have traversed half the country and I am now ensconced on a yacht in Southampton.
Please be advised that this is not the Royal Yacht Britannia, doesn’t the word yacht always conjure up wealth and prosperity. We are ‘itched up on the River Itchen. I can hear your condescension ‘why ever not the Hamble dear’, but where needs must.
The last few years, as you know, have been an absolute traumatic epoch and quite frankly have cut me to the bone. It has been enough to try to deal with the looks and sneers, I mean, why anyone would feel threatened by a gangly boy in peacock-blue drainpipes is beyond me. I did draw the line at a matching streak in my hair for fear of having the legs kicked from under me.
Coming out of the dark was beginning to make some sense and then, THIS!; A nightmare of global proportions. I read only yesterday that people will be dropping like flies should this not be nipped in the bud, or butt as they are so commonly talking of it. It is widely believed to have origins in the Congo, back in the twenties, when the chimpanzees decided to gift it to us humans. I’m very son-y, I know we have descended from these creatures, but the last time I looked in the mirror I appeared to look no more like an ape than Errol Flynn! I trust you will have greater knowledge of what went on in deepest Africa and you may be able to put me straight. Again, no pun intended!
I now begin to understand your comments on the slave trade and how the bullies used their safety in numbers to browbeat these poor souls. To blame a minority is cowardly and quite frankly boils my blood and has me in hot sweats. At this point I think it prudent to change the subject for fear of bringing on a coronary.
I do hope you can now comprehend my ‘flee-dom’ a little more. Apart from this impending doom I am absolutely fine with my new abode. Last month I answered an advertisement in the local rag for a position with that very same journal. I am no journalist but I can make a decent cup of tea and basically that is what they are asking for. The actual words did not pertain to a skivvy but in effect that it is what they are looking for. The interview is this coming Friday so I thought I would don my best sports jacket and have my Marigolds and chamois in my inside pocket should they want a demo. I never dally on my Grammar school education when there are floors to scrub and pots to wash.
Friday 10th September 1981
Aunt, forgive me for putting down my pen at such a crucial juncture. I am post-interview with an inner exuberance that I must quell before I burst. I think they actually liked me! I was greeted at the top of the creaky staircase by a somewhat underwhelming lady with hornrimmed specs and what looked like a rather badly finished crimplene frock. Her shampoo and set with the varicose rinse was slightly unkempt and wouldn’t have gone down well with your WI trustees. A sweet smile and an awkward gesticulation and I was seated outside the director’s office.
The odour of bygone days, dampness and tobacco gave way to an all too familiar, engulfing mist that assured me that there was at least one friend of Dorothy in the room. With a short glance at my inquisitors it was quite evident who the purveyor was; a gentleman of a certain age, with a daily-decreasing comb-over and a lurid green, paisley scarf. He obviously wasn’t the fashion editor, more likely to be the Agony Aunt, I thought.
As you are well aware I am no shrinking violet so when I was asked to say a few words about myself there was no stopping me. My effervescence seemed to be received, on the whole, with positive amusement. There were raised eyebrows at my somewhat pathetic examination results; even more quizzically so when they tried to associate these with the calibre of the school I had attended. I didn’t feel it was an appropriate time to entertain them with my narratives of purple bruises and relentless mental torture. The result of which had laid partclaim to such wretched grades.
Fortunately I was in luck. The job is as an assistant to the editor of their arts page and the comb-over guy is that said editor. I waxed lyrically of the intricate beading of Christian Lacroix and the up and coming men’s couture from Mugler as if it were my given tongue. There was no mention of donning Marigolds and I think they liked my reaction to the mention of making a brew.
At least I had someone to share my experience with. Teddy, my dearest friend and now my landlord welcomed me home with such enthusiasm; no sneering father that’s for sure. I very much hope that i my next missive I shall be able to report a victory in the career stakes. I would love to think I will celebrate with Bolli and oysters but I fear it more likely to be PG and a ham sarnie. I am living rent free at present but as you know I am no ligger and I shall endeavour to reward Teddy with some sort of appreciation. Just to put your mind at rest that will not be in the shape of some sort of lewd act. It is not at all like that.
I shall leave it there M, TTFN
Judge Charlie Durante’s comments:
“As I read this epistolary story, I could almost hear Aunt Marg chuckling in background. With such a humorous, cheeky and observant gay nephew she must look forward eagerly every day to the arrival of the post! Adam has fled the circumambient homophobia and has holed up in a boat in Southampton. From there he regales his aunt with his camp observations about his job prospects, his obsession with expensive, exclusive haute couture, his hilarious version of the origin and spread of the Aids epidemic, his poor academic achievement, and his relationship with Teddy, his landlord. All this is spiced with snide remarks about people, their foibles and his determination to secure a more promising career. The language is richly colloquial, full of puns, and pregnant with innuendoes. The judges were splitting their sides with laughter, even though they could detect a more sombre aspect to the narrative with references to bullying in school and the incomprehension gay people have faced until quite recently. This is a superb story-deliciously funny, effervescent and hugely enjoyable.”