Beginning, Middle, End (A Short Story Competition Entry)
OK, Judge. Let’s make a start.
The judge picks up yet another manuscript and reads the title: Beginning, Middle, End - A Short Story Competition Entry. He…
Damn! This is going to be harder than I thought. Just twenty words in (twenty-six if you count that first line) and already we’ve hit a problem. I don’t know your sex, do I, Judge? Don’t know if you’re man, woman, or something interesting in between. What do I call you? He? She? It?
Not that sex matters, in and of itself. Well, you know what I mean. Your sex doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. Same goes for colour, come to that: you could be black, white, or yellow with purple stripes for all I know. Don’t know how old you are, whether you’re ugly/good-looking, or what you smell like. And I don’t want to know, because none of that stuff is important, not here, not now, not in a story. And that’s all this is, after all. Just a story. Just a competition entry.
But one thing I do know - I won’t do the s/he thing, or (even worse) the alternating he/she business. I really hate that. It buggers up the flow, puts your sentences all out of joint. I’ll have to have a bit of a think and find a way around this Judge gender problem.
All right, then. Let’s see if we can keep you sexually neutral for the time being. Just on paper, you understand, just for fictional purposes. In real life, you do and be what you want, Judge. Live and let live, that’s my motto. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, and all that.
I wonder if second person would do the trick?
You pick up yet another manuscript and begin to read.
Yes, that’s promising. A sexless ‘you’. No offence meant. None taken, I hope.
From the very first words it’s obvious that this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill story. The writer’s addressing you directly, even though doing so is causing technical difficulties, and you can sense a peculiar kind of connection, almost as if there’s something happening just off the edge of the paper, or maybe just behind it. Just out of sight, anyway. If you weren’t a judge, if you weren’t so sophisticated, so intelligent, so mature, you’d probably find it all a tad spooky.
You suspect you’re being buttered up now, but that’s OK. What isn’t OK is the growing feeling that you’re being watched. It’s as if the writer’s eyes are floating somewhere beneath the lines of print. If you were to let your own eyes slip out of focus for a moment, you feel his face might suddenly bloom into 3-D solidity, rising towards you from the blur of text. You can imagine it bobbing about in a false space all of its own, hovering just above the page like those Magic Eye pictures that were all over the place a few years back.
There’s something written on the back of this sheet of paper, Judge. Go on, live a little. Take a look.
He’s talking to you again, saying he’s written something on the back of the page you’re reading. You turn over, take a look, but there’s nothing. Just blank paper. He’s a liar. You think about rejecting his story (if indeed it can be called a story) - dumping it onto the ever-growing no-hopers pile. But despite yourself you’re intrigued now. That’s exactly what he intended, of course. Just what he’s been hoping for. First rule in the book, hook your reader with the opening, then do whatever you can to keep him hooked.
You turn back and carry on reading. OK, writer, you think. I’ll give you a little longer.
You’re making a big mistake, Judge.
Oh yes, you’re starting to get the measure of him now. He’s playing mind games with you. Well, it’s different, anyway. And at least while you’re reading this, you’re not having to read another ‘My Life as a Cat’ story. You get one more of those, there’s a fair chance they’ll find you dead in the morning, a judge on judgement day, cold and pale in the bathtub with a pair of Sylvia Plath wrists.
You carry on reading.
You’re wishing now that his face would suddenly pop up out of the page so that you could see him. That’s if it is a him, of course. You can’t know, because the rules of the competition say no author’s name on the manuscript. So you have to guess his sex, just as he has to guess yours. But something about the style feels male to you. You decide he’s a he.
You imagine his world, his reality.
In your head, he’s sitting there at his computer, tapping away, thinking for a moment, tapping again. You wonder what his place looks like. Does he live in student squalor, tab-ends and greasy take-away trays scattered all over the living room floor? In the cold, grey morning, does he roll out of a bed that looks like a Tate installation, head straight for his outdated pc, and start writing before he’s even had his first coffee, so keen is he to squirt out his sticky thoughts? Or is he a semi-retired businessman who’s suddenly rediscovered a long-buried urge to write? Does he have a stockbroker house full of expensive Italian furniture, the latest top-of-the-range laptop, a nice BMW in the double garage and a couple of acres of garden with a paddock for the horses?
You picture him working his story. You’ve written enough of these things yourself to know what it’s like – the endless sitting, hour after hour, trying to ignore outside distractions, picking the scabs off your experiences, mining your life-history for potential material, thinking you’d sell your soul for a better turn of phrase, a fresh opening, something new, something different.
Well, he’s found his different opening, if nothing else. But where’s he going from here, you wonder? What trick will he play next?
Yes, Judge, I was right. It works better in second person. But you’re still making a mistake.
Damn it! Just when you’re getting established, just when you’re starting to understand the dynamics of this thing, he pops up and breaks the fictive dream! ‘Yes, Judge… It works better in second person!’ He mixes his metaphors, goes OTT, dynamites the purple landscapes of imagination and draws aside the shifting curtains of his text. He stands up in front of you and starts mouthing off again!
Mouthing off? Mouthing off? I wouldn’t call it that, Judge-O. Look, you’ve just got the wrong end of the stick, that’s all. I need to set you straight.
You keep thinking of me as the writer, don’t you? Well don’t. I’m not the writer. I hate it when a reader make that assumption, and frankly, Judge, I’d expected better of you. Now shut up for a minute and listen.
You’re right about the fact that there’s a guy (and he is male, so well done) sitting in a room somewhere putting words down on paper – well, on a computer screen, actually. And I suppose, if you’re willing to stretch the meaning of the word, you could call him a writer. I mean, I wouldn’t, but you could. The important point, though, is this: I am not him. No, no, and no again, thank you very much.
I’m the narrator, that’s who I am. And a good job, too. What’s more, unlike the writer, I’m a woman. I’m all woman - and bloody proud of it!
To tell you the truth, if I was the writer (can you sense him now, sitting back, scratching his head, wondering if that was should be were?) if I were the writer, I wouldn’t be inflicting myself upon you like this. Nor upon anyone else, come to that. The sad fact is that even though I’ve worked in quite a few of his stories, he’s always been a bit of a disappointment to me. Nice enough bloke, I suppose, but he’s weak, depressed, full of self-doubt and internal contradictions. If I’m honest (and I know this won’t sound very attractive) I use him. Yes, that’s the only word for it. I use him, work him, get him to tap keys, create sentences. But no way are we one and the same. He’s just a tool: an old, time-worn spanner I sometimes use to twist the world’s nuts. If I could, I’d trade him in for a newer model; preferably an adjustable one. Or at least one that was better adjusted.
The weird thing is, he sees all of this exactly the other way around. He blunders about in some strange, laterally inverted universe, a mirror-world. He’s under the illusion that he created me, poor schnook. He thinks I’m the spanner and he’s the one doing all the twisting! Yeah, I know. Go figure.
Anyway, that makes three of us gathered around the campfire so far, Judge. You, me, and the writer. Time to bring on the rest of the cast. Time to introduce our protagonist!
You’ve guessed by now, I expect, but just in case you haven’t I’ll spell it out for you. Our mutual friend here intends to make you the protagonist, Judge. Isn’t that ridiculous? He seems to think that writing a competition piece in which the person judging is somehow made to become the central character allows him to say something deep and meaningful about life, the universe and everything. ‘Interrogating one’s sense of identity,’ he calls it. Load of bollocks, I call it. I’ve tried to get him to change his mind, but he just won’t listen.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘Do you want this thing to win a prize or don’t you?’
‘Of course I bloody well do!’
(He yells a lot when he’s under pressure. Swears, too. Artistic temperament, I suppose.)
‘Then take my advice and write a nice, simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Have a conventional protagonist and a conventional antagonist. Forget the unreliable narrator stuff, the shifting pov. Stop trying to be so arty-farty. Just tell ‘em a story, for Christ’s sake!’
He gave me a look that could have incinerated asbestos, stomped back to his desk in a huff and started pounding away at his keyboard. That’s when all that spooky stuff about you being watched came out. There’s really not much I can do about it, I’m afraid. I mean, I know I said that I’m the one in charge, but to be honest I wouldn’t trust me as far as I could throw myself. Like it or not, I am an unreliable narrator, and if he insists on sucking you into this story, on making you the protag, then that’s what you’re gonna be, Judge.
And as if things weren’t complicated enough, you’re not the only one with a dual role. I’ve got one, too. I’m not just the narrator. Oh no, that would be too simple, wouldn’t it? For some reason that only he understands (or at least he claims to understand it) I’m supposed to play the part of your antagonist.
‘Right,’ I said to him. ‘Fine. So what we’ve got here is a competition story in which you’ve made the judge the hero, and the narrator - reliable or otherwise - the baddy, yes?’
‘Yup,’ he said.
‘And you’ve put yourself in there too as a secondary character?’
‘You’ve got it,’ he said.
‘And the narrator is supposed to think that the writer is a figment of his own imagination?’
‘Of course! Can’t you see how deep all this is? Can’t you see what it’s saying?’
‘Well, no,’ I said. ‘As a matter of fact, I can’t. Why don’t you explain it to me?’
He wouldn’t, of course. I don’t think he can. To be honest, I think he’s finally lost it this time. I really do.
You know who I blame? You know who’s really behind all of this? It’s those miserable hacks who churn out all those ‘How To’ books. You know the kind of thing. ‘How to Create Meaningful Characters’, ‘How To Plot and Make a Million’ – crap like that. Our writer eats ‘em up.
He was reading some of that crud last night, curled up in bed with a spotlight on and just his curry-farts for company. Sometime after 2.00 am he turned to me and said:
‘You know, what these judges are looking for is a hook.’
Right. As if I hadn’t told him that a million times.
‘They want an intriguing opening, characters in action, dialogue.’
Jesus – just because he reads it in a book, it has to be so. I didn’t say anything. What’s the point? He never listens to me. I acted the sleeping narrator.
He carried on.
‘And your hero has to have a want: he has to want or need something really badly.’
Well, the fact is you’re the hero of this little tale, Judge. So why don’t you tell me, what is it that you want, that you really, really want?
You’ve had enough by now. In fact, you’ve had more than enough. You turn to the narrator, a rather attractive natural blonde of twenty-eight with a figure to die for, and you say:
‘What I really, really want is for this story to end. I’ve got a whole stack of entries to read through before I’m done and I’ve had enough of this one now.’
‘I thought so, Judge,’ says the narrator. ‘There’s just one tiny problem. If I’m the antagonist, my role is to stand in your way, isn’t it? I mean, that’s where the story-conflict comes from. I have to thwart your desire, make it impossible for you to satisfy your need.’
‘That’s the theory, yes,’ you say.
‘So I can’t allow this story to end, can I?’
You groan. ‘I suppose not,’ you say. Then a thought strikes you, and your spirits lift. ‘But on the other hand, this competition has a set word length, and your writer has just about reached it.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
You watch as the narrator, lost in thought, taps a finger against her full, sensual lips.
‘I’ve got a suggestion,’ she says.
‘You folks run this competition every year, don’t you?’
‘We do,’ you tell her.
‘OK, then – what if we finish this thing here, but treat it as a first instalment? I’ll get the writer to tack on a ‘to be continued’ line at the end, and he can submit the second part next year. That way, you get your want satisfied, don’t you? Wearing your protag hat, I mean.’
You consider the idea. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why it wouldn’t work. You nod enthusiastically.
‘Yes,’ you say. ‘And you, wearing your antagonist’s hat, still get to thwart me, because the story isn’t really over, is it? It’s merely part one of a serial. A neat solution. Well done.’
‘OK, then,’ says the narrator. ‘I’ll be off. You know, he’s already working on something else he wants me to narrate. Should be a bit less complicated, though, because he’s planning to submit it to Woman’s Weekly.’
‘I see,’ you say. ‘Well, good luck with that, then.’
‘Oh, there’s just one last thing,’ says the narrator.
‘Our writer wants to know if his story has won a prize.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ you say, reaching for another script.
(to be continued…)
Runner-Up in Cadenza Comp. Published in Issue No. 1