Monthly competition – February 2020

About Forums Den of Writers Monthly Competition Monthly competition – February 2020

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    One of the novels I enjoyed reading in 2019 was The First Day by Phil Harrison. For the February competition please write a piece which depicts or refers to the first day of something – anything you like.

    It can be a complete story or the start of a longer one. Maximum 400 words but a shorter entry is fine.

    John S Alty

    I have two pieces nearly done but I don’t now which of them to enter. Maybe I’ll enter both, one under a pseudonym. Would that be cheating?


    Personally I think that would be fine, John. I can’t see anything in the rules against it. I don’t think you’d need a pseudonym either.

    But before you go ahead I’ll check with a higher authority. @daedalus – over to you, please!


    @libby I’m inclined to leave it up to the setter of the individual competition. I don’t see the harm in allowing one additional entry


    Many thanks, @daedalus.

    Having thought about it a bit more, I’m going to restrict entries to one per person.

    Although lots of competitions allow multiple entries I think that as the Den monthly competitions are small, double entries would skew the chance of winning too much in a double entrant’s favour. If several people were likely to post two entries it might not be a problem but I suspect most Denizens only want or have time to post one piece per month.

    I hope this is OK @johnalty. I’m delighted the competition has prompted two stories from you. I know they’ll both be good. If you’d like to post the second story elsewhere on the Den for feedback or just for us to enjoy, that would be great. Or save it up for another time.

    If Denizens feel it would be right in future to allow double entries in the competitions that is something to discuss but for this month we’ll stick to one per writer.


    I think that’s a good call @libby. Don’t want to inhibit anyone’s creativity, but you’re right about the increased possibility of success

    John S Alty

    No problem @Libby, it was a flippant remark on my part, not intended to be taken seriously.


    A good question though, John.


    It was. I have a bit of a confession actually – in the first Cloud monthly competition I ever entered, I got more than one flash of inspiration and asked if multiple entries were permitted. The competition setter said OK, but after my third entry, suggested that maybe enough was enough 🙂


    Bit of a confession from me – this lifted from current wip, otherwise I might not get one done. 400 words plus title.

    Returning from honeymoon (First day of the rest of their married life)

    They were on the A9, having just left the Kinross services, before Luke asked. ‘Your wedding present? When do I get to see it?’

    ‘Soon as we get home, I hope. The plan was Ivo would deliver it, Valerie let him in –‘

    Fran watched him struggle to not ask the next question. Took laughing pity, ‘Ivo did assure me “plain brown wrapper”, which I took to mean he’d at least cover it with cardboard. So Valerie won’t get to see it.’ Ivo had also advised her how best to hang it; offering to provide the necessary hooks. His sarcastic ‘Luke does own a hammer, I suppose?’ a tease with something darker – and historic – beneath,’ to which she’d replied, ‘I own a hammer. And a spirit level.’

    Arrived home, and not seeing it propped up in the sitting room, as expected, Fran went in search.

    Then the silence impinged. As she attempted to decipher it, there came a noise she did not recognise. From Luke. Distress? Had they been burgled? Interrupted a burglary? All was well in here … She walked to the bottom of the stairs to better hear. A … snuffle was it? A muffled cry for help?

    Silently she crept upstairs. Tip-toed into the bedroom.
    Hanging had not been necessary. Ivo had done it for her. Saw, as she had seen, there was only one place for it; on the wall opposite the bed, in the space between window and bathroom door.

    Luke sat on the end of the bed. A trickle of wetness on the left side of his face, glistened in the light from the window, she’d caught him in the act of using the back of his right hand to wipe a similar track from the other cheek.

    He was crying. With … with emotion. And probably, Fran guessed, with relief. God only knows what he’d been expecting!

    Seeing her he held his hand out. ‘It’s …‘ Voice clogged he stopped, sniffed, swallowed, tried again, ‘Fran, it’s … perfect. Wonderful. It’s you as I’ll … Fucking Christ, Fran, I never …’ Another rush of tears. He reached for, pulled her close, arm around her waist. Buried his face in her side, blotting wetness.

    Over his bent head she looked for the first time at the finished painting. And knew exactly why Ivo had done what he’d done that final night. To evoke that expression.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 3 months ago by Sandra.

    A brief reminder for potential participants that we’re half way through the month. Though as it’s a leap year we do get an extra day.

    John S Alty

    New Day

    The smoke from cooking fires lay like a grey blanket over Alexandra township and a tangerine sun rose behind it, then burst clear and threw its warming mantle over the land. The windows of the high-rise buildings on the distant Johannesburg skyline glinted like slabs of molten gold. A typical autumn dawn on the highveld but this was not a typical day, it was the first day of a new future.

    Daniel and his mother stepped down from the bus and followed the other passengers towards the school playing fields, fields more dirt than grass. They joined the end of the line that led off into the distance, snaking towards the old tin-roofed school house sitting below the kopje. They exchanged greetings with those around them, made elaborate ritual handshakes and felt the hubbub of subdued excitement envelop them. The line shuffled forward, determined, unstoppable.

    As the hours passed, singing broke out, spread down the line and mother and son joined in, passed it along behind them. The line danced and toyi-toyied, moving to the rhythmic slap of feet on the hard-packed earth as it neared its destination.

    A sign painted in black letters hung over the door of the school house: Polling Station. When their turn came, Daniel and then his mother went in and made their choices. A cross; so simple to make, so hard won. Back outside, Daniel stood on the concrete stoep, raised his arms, fists clenched, and bellowed,
    Amandla!” (Power)
    And those in the line responded,
    Awethu!” (To us)
    Power to the people. It was 26 April, 1994.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 3 months ago by John S Alty.

    Dear All,

    A reminder for would-be or thinking-about-it monthly comp entrants that we’re six days from the end of the month on 29th February.


    Very little time this week, so throwing this one up before I read it again and spot all the errors!!

    Enter the darkness

    One hundred days, of which this is the first. We stand in snow that has crusted metallic overnight, not yet deep although that will come tomorrow, I think. It is eleven forty-five and we stand in a ragged line at the edge of the lake watching the eastern sky for a sun that will not come. Someone murmurs, a child laughs and is hushed, old uncle’s dogs begin to sing then whimper then stop, as if our own silence is contagious. This is the first day. It is a strange tradition, I always thought. To come and search for something that you know will not be there. Perhaps it began before we had calendars and computer modelled forecasts, swiss quartz demarcated time; back when we didn’t know, not for sure, when perhaps, just perhaps, hope might have been enough to make the sun stay.

    We watch the horizon bleed and where yesterday a slitted eye of sun blinked warily beneath purple clouds, today there are only the clouds and the bloody skyline. There is no end-point to this ceremony, if that is what it is. There is no song or sacrifice, feast or laughter that signals the end of the light and the beginning of the dark, or at least that signals the point at which we can leave, return to school or home or work. The children begin to chatter, first sly subvocals then covert laughter, the lady beside you coughs and people begin to drift away. The sun will not rise today, and will not rise for one hundred more days, and we turn away from the dying horizon as if we had not come and waited in the pre-dawn, lost-dawn indigo light.

    Old uncle’s sled-dogs begin to sing again, and this time do not hush, and more people leave as if the pack have summoned them, or awoken them. Teacher takes the children back to class, herding, passing out a fallen mitten and a scolding. The ice on the lake groans as a wind scrapes the shore, and we are the last ones here. This is the first day of the darkness; we hold hands and watch the sun fail to rise.


    A Spill of Tea

    I thought I’d bagged the prize of a lifetime when I landed my new job and the salary that came with it. The buzz about the café I’d worked at was great, but buzz didn’t pay bills, did it? Buzz didn’t afford a better flat, one I felt comfortable inviting friends back to; a holiday now and then. This new opportunity, it felt like wing-growth. Like freedom.
    … until I arrived to meet my new workmates and was met by looks ranging from apathy to open enmity. And then came the shout from the adjacent office, before I was shown to my seat. ‘If that’s the newby, set her straightening the mess the other one left. And tell her to make it quick – I’ve waited long enough.’
    Make it quick. That transpired to be my induction. That and no complaining; not even when, through lack of instruction, I was barked at for getting things wrong.
    And so it continued; every day, until it struck five and I could breathe again – at least until tomorrow.
    I came to hate tomorrows. They arrived quicker as each day passed; lurking round corners at the weekends, spoiling moods and events. Freedom? This was more like a jail term, and I didn’t feel like celebrating it with a swanky new flat, or a holiday, only to have to return.
    Mindful of my generous income, I held my tongue; bolstered my defences against the daily storms which, surprisingly, ended in a simple splash.
    Of tea.
    Spilled across the manager’s report as he stood breathing down my neck.
    I wheeled round to apologise, but ended up smacking away the finger he thrust at my chest, refusing to accept it was an accident. My anger flared when he drew up close, nose-to-nose.
    ‘Get out of my face!’ I growled.
    And I walked out, raising a finger in reply to his threats, and at the shaking heads of the losers who didn’t dare defy him. Losers like me – until today.
    Today. This glorious, first day of freedom; the dawning of my eyes being opened. Money was worthless without happiness, wasn’t it?
    My little flat felt that bit brighter when I returned home. As for friends, I could meet them anywhere – the café, perhaps, who were happy to take me back.
    Skint I might soon be, but daily smiles, they were priceless.

    392 words (excl title)


    Shades of the Prison House

    Freddie worries about his snail as he trudges through the iron gates. Will she remember to give it the lettuce leaves? There’d been no time before they left what with packing his bag with pencils and crayons. And was there anything else he wanted to take? A toy? Something to play with the other children? No, he couldn’t take Patch? They’d discussed this already. Dogs aren’t allowed in school. No, she doesn’t know why but would he please get his coat on. They’re going to be late.

    He is a sensitive child despite his stolid appearance and a kind one. He knows today is important to her. She’s been counting down to it for the last few days with ‘only six more sleeps until you go to school’ and ‘you’ll be going to school tomorrow’ so he doesn’t argue.

    He waves her goodbye but she lingers so he turns away and heads through the crowds of children to a tree at the edge of the playground. A line of ants walk up and down its bark in single file. He watches them intently. How do they keep so close together? She is still by the gate when he looks up gesticulating at a group of children playing football. She wants him to join them. Was this one of the rules she’d spoken about? Like putting up your hand to speak. And hanging up your coat.

    By lunchtime – cottage pie and carrots and a cherry yoghurt – the worst of his fears have been realised. There’s no time to do anything in this place. As soon as he’s finished one task, another is handed out. He slows down. No point rushing because the work never dries up. Normally after lunch she puts her feet up, while he and Patch go into the garden. They check the holes in the flowerbeds to see if any new ones have appeared and gently stir the mud in the garden pond to wake the frogs. Today he learns a song about the alphabet and looks out of the window planning what he’ll do tomorrow.

    ‘How was your first day at school?’ she asks on the way home.

    He mutters something about books and songs and wonders if there’ll be time to look at the bug palace before tea when the meaning of what she’s said sinks in.

    ‘First day? You mean I have to go again?’

    400 words excluding title.


    Rachel agreed, in the end, to a bath.

    The water was hot. There were bubbles. The scent made her think of purple.

    She closed her eyes. Lowered herself, let her hands float, slid down until her head was under water. She let the breath go out of her and waited. Slowly, she pushed herself back up. Water dripped from her face, her hair. Steam billowed round her and there were long gaps between her breaths.

    She struggled into joggers and a jumper, went downstairs. In the living room, cards crowded every surface. Doves and angels, candles and rainbows and pastel-coloured hearts. Flowers stood in vases on the floor and the coffee table – white ones, mostly, and the scent was heavy and thick and sweet.

    It was a foreign land. She could not be here, with all this.

    ‘I’ll make some tea.’ Gail said.

    Rachel followed her into the kitchen, drank some tea and ate half a biscuit, but it was hard to swallow. Her throat was sore.

    Gail sat opposite and reached across the table, took Rachel’s hands in both of hers. Her skin was rough. The other half of the biscuit lay among a scatter of crumbs.

    ‘If there’s anything I can do…’ Gail said.

    ‘What? What can anyone possibly do?’

    ‘I mean – to help you get through this. I can pray with you, if you –’

    ‘I don’t want to get through it. I don’t want to…’

    Gail squeezed her hands, gently. Took a breath as if she was going to say something else, then changed her mind.

    Rachel yanked her hands away, pushed her chair back, sprang up from the table. Yelled, ‘I just want it not to have happened. I want her not to be dead. I want her back. I want her back.’ She burst from the room, across the hall, shoved her feet into trainers, fumbled at the front door handle and flung her way out. She ran across the road, through the estate and down the steps and she did not stop until she reached the sea defences. She threw herself face down on the beach and dug her fingers into the sand. Her mouth stretched and her jaw ached and the only way she could get her breath was to let it out in a high, keening wail. Over and over. On and on and on under the cold, white, sky.

    (Taken from current WIP – first day downstairs after her child’s body is found.)


    I really enjoyed these stories. Each one had a compelling premise, good narrative drive and strong writing. All were serious contenders. In these circumstances picking a winning comes down, in part at least, to personal preferences over and above the quality of the prose. The latter was high in all cases.

    I’ve added a few editorial points in my comments in the hope these are useful if you’re going to be developing the stories further. They’re only my opinions. As always with feedback, take what’s useful and ignore what isn’t.

    The winner I’ve chosen is New Day by @johnalty. There’s such an atmosphere of history and anticipation in a few lines. I loved the sense of place and the feeling of a world, or in this case a nation, beyond the page. In the final paragraph Daniel’s character starts coming to the fore. I felt this could be a complete story or the beginning of something longer

    If I have any quibbles they’re only that I couldn’t picture the ritual handshakes – a case here for show rather than tell – and the bracketed translations of amandla and awethu broke the spell a little. I can see the words need explanation; weaving clarification into the narrative would, I think have worked better. But these are small qualifications. The piece jumped off the page.

    Taking the other entries in order, in Sandra’s @sandradavies entry, I was hooked by Luke asking when he’d get to see the wedding present. My curiosity remained piqued throughout this scene. There was a good sense of place too. As an aside, I’m always keen on mentions of big A roads – the combination of the mundane and the specific that we’re all familiar with in real life. And this story comes across as subtle and well capable of depicting complicated relationships and emotions. Occasionally I felt the narrative became a little too cryptic, perhaps because this is part of a longer story.

    There’s more wonderful world building in Enter the Darkness by @raine. There’s a clear sense of a whole society, and the descriptions are so evocative that this piece could be a poem. I loved the premise – an event which is familiar but which, because of its significance, heralds a new period when happenings could be dictated by darkness. Who knows what might occur before they see the sun again. ‘We watch the horizon bleed,’ is wonderful. It captures the essence of the piece and conveys the point of view of a whole group of people, or the adults at least. I thought such a key phrase would benefit from being in a sentence on its own so the reader can savour it for a moment. Overall, there’s both a quietness and a sense of psychological complexity in this story. The writing captures the surface and the depths of life in one short piece.

    The protagonist in A Spill of Tea by @janette is immediately attractive and I was rooting for her right from the start, whatever the story was going to be. The style is relaxed but gets its points across in pithy phrases such as, ‘I came to hate tomorrow.’ Lovely, economical writing with a sharp moment of change and character development, and depiction of a ‘baddy.’ I also liked the title a lot. It has a sense of movement, of something problematic happening. As such I thought it made putting ‘Of tea’ in its own paragraph unnecessary. In general the whole thing felt very satisfying. As a small point, I thought the final sentence wasn’t need as the previous one made a very good ending to the story

    Shades of the Prison House – what a great title @janeshuff – was such a touching tale. The young boy was so well portrayed, there is a very effective twist at the end and the sentences were pleasingly tight too. The third paragraph in particular is so well written. The point that having no control of the pace of the day being a worry for a young child – well, anyone really – is an interesting one. If there’d been space I’d have enjoyed seeing that fear explored a bit more. But there was plenty to keep me interested – the unsympathetic mother, for instance. A very effective insight into a young child who loves nature more – presumably – than his fellow humans.

    Finally Hilary’s @hilary novel extract is wonderfully assured. The painful gap between Rachel’s grief and Gail’s inability to help her is so well portrayed, so life-like. I was with Rachel every moment as she tried to cope. In addition, the sensory details are excellent. I could smell the funereal lilies and feel the rush of fresh air when she went outside. A very small quibble is that I thought ‘Yelled’ was unnecessary and perhaps an exclamation mark at the end of ‘I just want it not to have happened’ would have marked the loss of control more emphatically. It could, perhaps, portray Rachel’s teetering on the edge of this awful abyss in a slightly more distinct way. But a very sensitive and restrained scene overall, beautifully written.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by Libby.
    • This reply was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by Libby.
    John S Alty

    Wow, thanks Libby! Well done to the other participants. I’ll think up some devilishly difficult competition for March and post later tomorrow.


    Well done John, and thank you Libby for a competition which led to so many brilliant stories – what richness!


    Well done @johnalty – much deserved. Perhaps writing two stories then being forced to choose is a sound strategy to adopt 😀 And Thankyou Libby for an intriguing challenge 🙂

    John S Alty

    Thank you Raine. Yes it turned out to be a pretty cunning ploy.


    Congratulations, John! Well done to all – and thanks to Libby for the comp and the perceptive comments.


    Congratulations, John, and thanks Libby for the challenge.

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