In Competition No. 3220, you were invited to supply a newly discovered short story by a well-known 19th- or 20th-century poet.
In a distinguished entry, Nick MacKinnon’s tale — unearthed in Wendy Cope’s archive and featuring the poet herself and her alter ego Jake/Jason Strugnell — stood out; as did Brian Murdoch’s T.S. Eliot, showing his hard-boiled side. It was especially painful to separate winners from losers this week, but after much humming and hawing I have awarded £25 each to the six printed below. Honourable mentions go to runners-up Moray McGowan, R.M. Goddard, Joe Houlihan, Frank Upton and David Shields.
He walked with slow, ruminative steps past the wheelbarrow, its red paint glistening with memories of the rainstorm under the still overcast sky. The chickens, white-feathered and dim-witted, clucked and pecked as best they could. So much depended, he mused. So very much seemed to depend upon every minute detail of this scene, the rustic conveyance and the homely flock of domestic fowl.
Achieving the porch steps and back door, he entered the kitchen and had his way with the icebox, tugging it open and helping himself to the plump, smooth-skinned, purplish-red fruits inside. The wet plum-juice trickle down his chin was sweet, but with a tart, sour undernote to keep him alert. He and Herself often took care of business like this, so he knew just where to find the stub of pencil and scrap of notepaper. He’d compose a quick message and be on his way.
Chris O’Carroll/William Carlos Williams
There was a Ludlow ploughboy whose name I can’t recall; I am better with Latin declensions than with names. Perhaps I remember him on account of a shared appreciation of the cherry blossom thereabouts at which I once saw him wistfully glance, perhaps for the burnish of youth upon every movement of his athletic limbs at village cricket. We never spoke, he being habitually accompanied by boisterous contemporaries. Yet he must have sensed how painful I should find hearing of his fattening into middle age, marrying or acquiring spectacles, because, apropos an altercation with some village girl’s fiancé, he was sentenced and hung at the spring assizes. Upset, I buried myself in Latin texts; they buried him in unconsecrated earth. The day seldom passes I do not think of him, lithe and limber frame strung from those gallows. Some people, I invariably conclude, have all the luck.
Adrian Fry/A.E. Housman
Alfred J. Prufrock was getting old, and sometimes he felt as if he were viewing the entire world through the haze of anaesthesia as he lay on a hospital gurney watching the evening darken the sky. His teeth were so decayed that he did not dare to eat even a soft, ripe peach, and his pants were rolled to reveal the dry, papery skin of his wrinkled ankles. One day he wandered into a museum but could scarcely pay attention to the Michelangelo on display, all his attention focused on a group of women who came and went as they breathlessly marvelled at the dead artist’s brilliance. Among the women there was one in particular who made him feel young again. He approached her. ‘Let us go, then, you and I,’ he murmured. ‘If you weren’t so old,’ she answered, ‘I’d slap you.’ And then she walked away.
Robert Schechter/T.S. Eliot
He looked up, eyes charred, from the monstrous, mud-livid pit he was digging. A pallid child was watching him intently.
‘What’s that hole for, mister?’
‘Why, lad, it’s for the sowjers to take their rest, after a hard day’s slog in the slurry pits. I should watch your step or slush-sludge-sloosh, you’ll be up to your sweltering neck.’
‘But will they not drown, mister?’
The man paused and leaned on his spade. ‘The truth is,’ he replied, ‘the sowjers as drop in this cavernous hole will already be cold as old cinders, so their resting will be a relief.’
‘Will we sleep there soon?’ asked the pitiful boy.
‘Who wants to know?’ The digger lifted a hand to his forehead, shading his face.
‘I am your son, mister. I died the moment the grim guns blew away your brain-pan, and I have neither lived nor loved. Come…’.
Bill Greenwell/Wilfred Owen
‘They’re nowt but ballast…’ said the skipper’s wife. ‘Chuck ’em over the side.’ The old coaster groaned in the swell, but the knitting needles never slowed. A captain’s daughter with three sons at sea, she was as comfortable in that pitching, rolling wheelhouse as a rector’s wife in her drawing room.
The Captain kept an optimistic silence. It’d been a good run: the pig-lead had gone to church roofs on the marshes where an undying cold winter had accounted for the firewood, the ironware to a French caboteur off Hastings, and the road rails and coal were contracted to the Ventnor West extension. Nevertheless, their agent at Cowes came aboard looking glum: ‘The Boers are collapsing,’ he said. ‘The whole island’s set for victory pageants. Glasses, champers, beer, we’ve got. But what I’d give for 2,000 cheap tin trays.’
The Captain grinned: ‘Let’s try the hold,’ he said.
Nick Syrett/John Masefield
‘Pests! Vermin!’ muttered Joris. They were everywhere: all over the town, inside the houses and shops, in the street, by the river, squeaking and shrieking, eating anything they could get their little paws on. And the smell! It didn’t bear thinking what diseases they carried. What was to be done? he pondered. Was there a humane way to reduce their numbers? Yes, they were God’s creatures, and had a right to live in harmony with the rest of His creation — but did it have to be here? Joris took his concerns to the Council meeting, where the options were discussed at length. Eventually it was decided. They were to be dealt with in the same way as the rats. Their parents were to be informed of the good news in letters to be delivered first thing in the morning, as soon as the horses could be saddled up.
David Silverman/Robert Browning
No. 3223: anyone for dennis?
To mark Dennis the Menace’s 70th birthday you are invited to submit an acrostic poem in which the first letter of each line, read vertically, spells DENNIS AND GNASHER. Please email entries to email@example.com by midday on 27 October.
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