Competition Eleven Judges Report by JP Relph

20th September 2022

 

What a huge honour it was to be asked by Ian Rushton to judge this competition. I still see myself as a flash fiction novice, so this really has been quite special. And also terrifying! I must offer congratulations to all fifteen writers who made the longlist - it was such a varied selection and made my job very challenging.
Opening the anonymised stories, I felt the weight of what I was tasked with and made sure to give every one my full attention. I read out loud and repeatedly until the final five made themselves known to me. Relentless, they whispered in my ear when I wasn’t even looking at them. I was struck by the beautiful language used, the descriptions, the characterisation in so few words – and I do love to go “ooh” or “oof” at the end of a piece. All five gave me that, and then some. I’m sure they’ll do the same for you.
The shortlisted Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting gave me incredible characterisation in such a tight piece. A glimpse behind the closed doors of a seemingly normal domestic setting. I loved the use of the suitcase to show the differing characters of the parents – one quiet, calm and one dramatic - and how they are acting out a well-rehearsed play that always ends the same. I loved the lines: “We pushed away our breakfast plates” and “They won’t split,” “Neither of them has the guts.” Showing how much the children know this display of affection won’t last, is part of the play unfolding.
Also shortlisted was The Destroying Angel and, boy, I hoped from the title I was in for something mycological – and wasn’t disappointed. A story of coercive control told gently, with such subtle menace. A lovely, warm description of the kitchen – the heart of every home – which in this home, a cold, lonely place filled with loss and fear, is the setting of culinary retribution. A beautiful opening line and then: “You didn’t know I’d left the cottage. I didn’t ask if I could go” and bang, we know what we’re dealing with. Then the delicious contrast here: “I’ll be so distraught. I slide cold butter into the hot cast-iron pan your grandmother left you.” There’s the oof I wanted.
Highly commended Pumping at Piha had masterful scene setting and pacing. I was in that VW, barrelling to the sea, feeling the anticipation, the buzz; even feeling slightly cool! The surfing language is done beautifully. I particularly loved the breathless nature of the penultimate two paragraphs, which echoed the rush of the surf. A lovely poetic feel in places, such as “so white against the blue, blue water, and the black, black sand”. There was such a building of tension and emotion as I approached the final lines, was briefly halted by the scrumptious “in the sharp pang of possible loss, I love you” then the unexpected, heart wrenching finish which left me instantly wanting to read again.
The highly commended piece Dead Water plunged me straight into post-apocalyptic dystopia – a place I rather love to be. The word “craquelure” stopped me in my tracks (I had to Google, loved that I had to Google) what a beautiful description for something ugly, tragic and obviously treacherous. The use of language throughout – cracked, skeletal, brittle – echoed this character’s desperation, their devastating journey so far. The stroking of the dead sheep to find softness. The finding of water in such a cold place, the finding of life in such an unexpected place. A moment of light, of hope at the end. The much longed for caress. Much oof. This fantastic list was a standout for me “reciting words for rain like an enchantment: mizzle, drizzle, shower, squall; spitting, henting, hoying. Cats and dogs. Bucketing down.”
And so to Your Husband is a Crocodile Tonight, my choice for winner. An intriguing title pulled me in and I was there in the car with this beast, so well rendered in those opening lines, feeling the tension of the narrator as if a predator had me in its sights. The knowing descriptions of how he’ll behave at the party – hand on the small of your back - and the imagined scene in a bar, add to the cruelty of this character. I know him in those few words. I know him, and fear him. The storm describes the building pressure and tension as the end approaches, the need to dance in the rain, to tumble from the car. It left me kind of breathless and fearful. So many fantastic lines, but these stood out: “As if there’d never been gentle rubbing and bubbles in murky waters, as if you’d never twisted for hours on backseats” and “You can’t imagine he’s kind with them. You hope he doesn’t hurt them.” A journey filled with menace and madness, beautifully contained.

JP Relph