Many thanks to Jude Higgins for inviting me to judge this round of the award and to the Bath Flash readers who presented me with a long list filled with amazing stories. I loved every single one, so whittling down to twenty for a shortlist felt like an impossible task. I read and reread the stories, paced the house with them, read them aloud and finally thought I’d done it, but a quick tally showed I’d only reached the number 28. After a bit of screaming and exceedingly tough decisions, the top twenty emerged. That shortlist came on dog walks with me, took over my concentration when I was trying to watch TV, kept me company during my insomnia nights, and what excellent company.
As writers, we are manipulators – of thought, of mood, of emotion – but we have to hide our tricks from the reader. Flash fiction writers have to work even harder, to perform like close-up magicians, because there is nowhere to hide what we’re up to as we work to make readers feel the things we want them to. The twenty stories on the list made me cry, made me laugh, made me think, made me question, made me wish I had written them. I hated having to pare my list down even further, but it had to be done.
The stories that made me cry, that pulled my heart out of my chest, wrung it out and stuffed it back in there, were the ones I initially thought would fill most of the prize spots. But an odd thing happened – the more I read those stories (and I’ve read every story about twenty times now) the less power they held over me. That’s not a criticism – they are excellent stories – it’s just the effect of repeated reading, which is a pitfall of judging. I still love every one of those heart-breaking stories and look forward to reading them again in the anthology, with a bit of distance and armed with boxes of tissues. (Note: If everyone reads ‘A Journey Through an Old Dog’s Veins’ at the same time, we should issue a flood warning.)
I have been longlisted and shortlisted in the Bath Flash Award many times in the past, so please believe me when I say I know how disappointing it is not to make it to the prizes. I’d like to give honourable mentions to a few stories that only just missed being in the top five: My Husband Thinks He Knows Everything (hilarious), In Slow Motion (stunning use of pacing), Optimum Focal Length for (Family) Portraits (excellent structure), and Jack and the Fallen Giant – Albion Care Home, Sunday Visiting 2-5pm (a genuinely original dementia story).
The stories that stayed fresh on repeated readings were, for the most part, the ones that made me think, made me laugh or were simply unlike anything I’d read before, and here they are.
A Roadmap of Womanhood
This story was the first I read, and I had a feeling, from that first read, it would end up being my winner. I loved the concept of a woman’s whole life mapped out in a vein on her chest, loved the journey through time mirrored by the journey in the map. I found myself reading it again and again, finding new lines to love: ‘the place on her body where three babes have suckled, partners have fluttered their curious fingers and slid their passionate tongues.’ The beauty of that line is in stark contrast to the prosaic list of places like Frogmore and Epping Forest. There are harsh realities here, especially regarding aging and what is still deemed attractive and appropriate. And the ending, wishing for a U-turn, was poignant and beautiful. This flash is an absolute stunner.
I couldn’t get the image of Carrie out of my head. I could see her so clearly, imagined the black hole on her back as a tattoo, imagined staring into it. Although she is not the narrator, not the main character, it was her reactions to the man’s request, to his neglected house, to his final question that gripped me. But I did think of the man – what was he looking for? Is this a story of escape, or of giving up? Is it a story of lost love or seeking new possibilities? Will he, eventually, find what he thinks he needs? In the end, it felt like it could be all those things for the main character, but not for Carrie. Her weariness when she says that last line, ‘I’ve lost count.’ lands like a gut-punch. I doubt I’ll ever get her out of my head.
Grand Canyon Official Form 477D
I get annoyed that humour rarely wins prizes. We can all make people cry, but raising a smile is hard, raising a chuckle is harder and proper laugh out loud funny is a rare and special thing. I’ve read lots of break-up/reflecting on past relationship stories, but nothing quite like this. The surreal situation is wonderful – a woman on a trip, imagining she sees her ex being eaten by a bear or a clown, lovely touches like him being ‘so far down,’ perfect little hints dropped in about what kind of man he was – it’s excellent and I giggle every time I read the guide’s response about the correct form. An absolute joy to read and I’m so happy to be able to award a funny story a prize.
- Highly Commended
I felt so wrong-footed by this flash. It starts off feeling like a surreal dream until you realise you’re in the mind of someone suffering a post-traumatic stress episode. The constant allusions to drowning, the clues that are dropped – child’s arm band, orange windsock, the jacket puffed up in the water, the red rubber sandal of a six-year-old boy – ambush you and floor you. And that plaintive ending, to keep swimming, is quietly devastating.
The parallels between the two tales – this weekend father’s and Diego’s – is perfect, and his explanation for why things are the way they are to his sensitive, animal loving daughter is harsher than he means it to be, but he can think of nothing else to say, no other way to explain he and Diego’s plight except, ‘shit, none of this is perfect kiddo, you know how it is. Some bears end up in Alaskan rivers slapping salmon up in the air and some bears end up here. That’s just life..’ Great ending with all the caged animals hearing a free wolf howl in the distance.