Life into Fiction – September 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by Paul Bryers

Well, what a busy competition, our adjudicator really had his work cut out choosing a top five this month. We congratulate all who took part in this month’s challenge. All our adjudicators always comment on the high standards of our writers. So everyone should be proud of their efforts. Keep writing. And if you didn’t win this time, there’s always next time.

Paul Bryers, British film director, screenwriter and fiction author was our adjudicator for our September Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words, write a fictional short story utilising factual events from
a real-life incident/experience.

And the winners are:

First Place – David Fenton with Scorpions

Second Place – Peter Duncan with Next Week

Third Place – John Quinn with Ridiculous

Highly Commended – Guy Caplin for Return to the Beach

Highly Commended – Nick Ryle Wright for Kooks

Paul’s adjudication process

First, I read them. Then I wrote a couple of stories myself to see what it was like to stick to this criteria. Then I read them again and pulled out the five I thought were the best – simply based on which ones I enjoyed most, and thought were best written.
Then I read them again applying the criteria of the brief. Obviously, the length – and whether I could perceive a narrative within those
extremely tight parameters. Was this a good story? Was it worth telling? Was it told well?
When it came to the appropriateness of the balance, I could only guess what was fact and what was fiction. I had no means of telling for sure. I had to believe that the writer mixed up some fiction with a fact-based story. Otherwise, what was the point of doing the exercise?
Believability of the fiction. I had to look at the whole thing as fiction and ask – is this believable? Most of the stories were. The ‘fact’ that I couldn’t tell fact from fiction in many cases showed how believable they were.
Imaginativeness. I interpreted this as the skill that was displayed in leaping
from fact into fiction – i.e. an imaginative fictitious storyline. Again, I had no means of knowing where fact stopped and imagination began. The seamlessness of the transition was part of the skill of the writing. In the case of Ridiculous, for instance, it’s relatively easy to see where the leap happens – and it is a very imaginative leap. In other cases the leap was much more subtle, so subtle in some cases I could not see it at all. In those cases I decided that the ‘imaginativeness’ I had to judge was in the imagination to see that this would make a good story in the first place, and the imagination to write it in a compelling fashion, so that it could be either a factual account of something that really happened, or a short story based on
real life.

First Place: Scorpions by David Fenton

I loved this story.
It is a beautiful, if infinitely sad story, so well told. Very economical, very
sparse, elusive, magical, sad. I didn’t get it at first and had to read it again. I think this is often the case with a really good short story. It is about memories – memories as Scorpions. It evoked a situation we are mostly familiar with – and so has that elusive Alan Bennett quality of reaching out to us, speaking to us about something very personal. – “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
It was very believable, particularly in its dialogue. Actually, this story had
more emphasis on dialogue than any of the others. It felt like a moment plucked from life – but with elements of fiction (at least I think so) that dramatize it, make it more significant than the actual event that inspired the story. I felt satisfied with it as a complete work in itself – and yet I was left wanting more. What happened to this couple? Do they stay together? It had that sense of a moment in a journey – on a holiday – when something fundamental happens and nothing is ever the same again. And yet, maybe it was.

We stopped a mile from the abandoned city, which wasn’t as impressive as the brochure promised. Just a smudge of sandstone wall against the desert.

‘Now you get off and walk,’ the guide said. 

Our camels were already kneeling. 

‘Why have we got to walk?’

It was 41 degrees and I was knackered. Judy’s face, swaddled in a hijab, was grey with dust and fatigue. 

He spat and pointed to the walls.

‘Brahmin city, no camels! You walk.’

It was no big thing, but it made me cross, all the same, talking to me like that. On the way there Judy kept looking back at him. 

‘What if he leaves us here?’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘I don’t know; because he hates us?’

‘You think he wants to kill paying customers?’

She didn’t answer.

The homes were surprisingly well kept, for a place that everyone had left a hundred years ago – walking out into the desert in the middle of the night for no known reason, never to return. 

We found plates in a kitchen, and a copper bowl filled with dust.

‘Don’t touch that,’ I said. ‘Scorpions.’  

But she picked it up, anyway, and tipped it out as if to prove a point.

‘Why do you always do that?’

‘What?’

‘The opposite to what I say?’

She just stood there, rubbing it with her fingertips, over and over again.

Later, when we had explored on our own, I found her at a hearth, hugging her knees. There were blown handprints on the wall; mother, father and a child… no, a baby. 

She was staring at them. I thought at first that she had been crying, but when she turned the look on her face startled me. 

‘Judy, what’s wrong?’

‘Scorpions,’ she said, and got up to go.


Second Place: Next Week by Peter Duncan

This was so well-written. The prose style was sparse, strong and compelling. The structure/framework of the story was satisfactorily neat. It was well wrapped up. You don’t need to know any more and yet it has that tantalising glimpse into so much more…
As storytelling goes it has that very satisfying cyclical shape – the first act is in a rattling underground train in a deserted night-time city, and the third act nears its conclusion with that reference to the narrator intending to write a poem about ‘catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city’ – but, then that infinitely sad, ‘All the poems I haven’t written… And never will.’ And I love the final exchange… Next week, I say, next week.
I don’t think it needed another line after that. We all know what he means.
This is the ultimate writer’s story. All that is locked in, all that will never be let out. I found this very moving. Very sad. But very encouraging at the same time. Very close call with the winner – almost a photo finish.

Liverpool in the Swinging Sixties. A dimly- lit rattling underground train smelling thickly of cigarette smoke pitches me up in a city centre that’s mostly dark and deserted. My footsteps echo around the empty street. The noise of drunken laughter behind a dilapidated boozer’s frosted windows. Ahead, the bombed-out church standing black against the fuzzy night sky. I turn a corner and see the familiar illuminated sign above the heavy door. 

The tables in the shadowy basement are all taken, guys and girls in unisex beatnik dress: black roll-neck sweaters, striped tops, berets, some even wearing sunglasses (how can they see in all this gloom?). I thread my way to where he’s sitting, alone, hunched over a pint, wearing his shabby greatcoat as usual.

I still can’t believe we’re friends. A proper poet! Edits a poetry magazine: Allen Ginsberg sends him poems (Allen Ginsberg!). He reads his own stuff in this place, sometimes with Adrian Henri and Roger McGough. (That’s why I’m here tonight.) Lives in an attic (like poets are supposed to) in Canning Street.

And me? A sixth former at grammar school on the wrong side of the Mersey.

He looks up and smiles. I slide into a seat. ‘I’m on in a minute,’ he says. ‘Where’s the poem?’

He means the one I’m supposed to be writing. The one about someone like me catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city. Or maybe the one about glimpsing a beautiful girl on the ferry as dawn breaks over the Liver Building. Or maybe… All the poems I haven’t written. And never will.

‘Next week,’ I say. ‘Next week.’

‘Okay, next week.’ Brian Patten nods, wise enough even now to know that I’ll spend a lifetime not writing all the poems buried inside me. 

Third Place: Ridiculous by John Quinn

I liked this because it was a perfect ‘real life’ incident, commonplace even – a woman searching for something in the attic and turning up all kinds of memories.
We’ve all been there. Again, it evoked the quote in the History Boys (above) and then it made that sudden turn into fiction – even fantasy. It hints at far more than it contains – How did she get here? What was her illness? What is her life like? What is the relationship with her husband? It’s economical and well written and it has that elusive quality of making you want more.

It looked plain ridiculous, the gap where the hay wain’s wheel should have been. Celia had spent the whole morning, ‘The whole bloody morning,’ looking for the wheel. First it was a casual search, then a more methodical hunt and now she’d just completed an investigation whose thoroughness was based on watching a myriad of CSI programmes – she’d even considered wearing her Marigolds.

The search was a failure and Celia, alone in the loft, sat on a box of discarded vinyl: old albums and some singles unplayed for decades but with too much invested emotion to consign to the dump. Surrounded by piles of outgrown Babygro’s and the Scalextric set that had never really worked, she cried quietly and with restraint. ‘Why?’ she asked herself, ‘why bother? I don’t even like bloody jigsaws!’ It had been another of Martin’s ideas to ‘aid your recuperation, darling.’ He could be a patronising bastard.

‘Well,’ she dabbed at her eyes and tried to make her thoughts sound bright, ‘my fingertip trawl wasn’t a total waste of time. I found the missing keys, (under the mattress and now useless after the insurance paid for all the locks to be changed) and Martin’s ticket to last year’s FA Cup Final (at the bottom of the ornamental firewood basket, how did that happen?).’

The twinkle of the abandoned fairy wings reminded her of happier days, when Mollie refused to leave the house for playschool unless they were clipped onto her back. Now, fairy wings or no, Mollie wouldn’t be seen dead with her mother when home from Swansea Uni.

The wings were smaller than she remembered; more gossamer like and, well, radiant in the loft’s dusty light. Quickly and fractionally, like an eye blinks, the wings moved or beat or whatever wings do. ‘Ridiculous,’ Celia thought, until they beat again and flew up towards her. The fairy handed Celia the missing jigsaw piece. And was gone.

Highly Commended

Choosing two to commend was more difficult. After trying this for myself, I felt like commending them all – none of them are badly written, some are written very well indeed, and they all have some poignancy that makes you feel it was well worth doing. But these two I felt, just had the edge, on some of the others.

Return to the Beach by Guy Caplin

I chose this for the the leap of imagination from the memory of a beach to the D-Day landings.

Through the early morning haze, he could just make out the narrow white strip with the dunes behind.  Somehow the beach looked different as he approached from the sea. Now as an adult, he was returning to the scene of his childhood delights, but it seemed distinctly odd. He felt slightly sick and it wasn’t just the buffeting of the waves; he was apprehensive about returning to this special place. The sight of it brought back those childhood memories; the carefree days with his brother and sister, exploring the dunes, splashing in the shallows and playing with the local kids. Every year, their entire six weeks’ school holidays had been spent at their grandparents’ cottage within earshot of the waves breaking on the sand. But like all good things it had come to an end. 

It must have been five or six years ago that dad had persuaded his parents that living so far away was not a good idea, particularly at their age. Reluctantly they moved back to the village. Of course, he still visited the old folks frequently, but it wasn’t the same. Neither grandad nor grandma seemed as happy as they were at the beach. Given what had happened in the past few years, being close at hand was probably for the best. 

He stopped reminiscing and listened. The noise which had started half an hour ago was now deafening. The haze seen from a distance had been an illusion: thick acrid smoke hung above the beach. With a jolt, the boat ground to a stop and the ramp dropped into the shallows. Saying a silent prayer, he gripped his rifle and jumped into the water, already stained with the blood of his colleagues. The D Day landings had begun.


Kooks by Nick Ryle Wright

This one I chose because it uses a real-life incident – the death of David Bowie – to explore what I imagine is a fictitious relationship. It evokes that sense of a shared past – but no future.

You were about to leave forever when your phone alerted you to news of his death. How? you screamed, collapsing into my arms as the taxi idled just yards away. What could I say? That Ziggy Stardust had been human after all was as impossible for me to comprehend as it was for you.

Your departure now out of the question, we regathered your overladen bags and returned to the flat where I sat you down on the sofa as though you were merely a guest and placed Hunky Dory – your favourite – on the turntable.

This is crazy, you said. I should go.

Laying a blanket across your legs, I urged you to stay, plied you with hot chocolate and marshmallows.

We can’t do this, you insisted, your restlessness unabated.

Seeking to hook you with raw emotion, I reminded you how, on our first date, your eyes lit up when you discovered that I too had journeyed to Somerset in 2000 to watch the great man perform. You smiled, said it was funny how our memories of that performance had become so hopelessly intertwined that it was impossible to say where yours began and mine ended.

Later, in the dark of the bedroom, I asked you where we’d gone wrong. We were both different now, you said. No longer the carefree kooks we’d once been. How cruel of life, I replied, to straighten us out and make us normal when we were having so much fun.

Time passed. I woke with a start, reached out for you. But it was too late.

By then the room was ablaze with crimson light, the birds’ grave and incessant melodies speaking only of your leaving, of how this time you wouldn’t be back.  

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