Judge’s report on 27th Award by Michelle Elvy

Thanks very much to Michelle Elvy for all her work and great comments!

Winners and comments \
This was a rich set of flash fictions, and they required reading several times before the ones that stuck started to emerge – because so many were memorable. I kept thinking of the nurse on the ward, the boy in the car, the killing frost and the geraniums. I wondered about the coffee cup on the train, the gossiping crabs in the rock pool nursery.

The short list was made up of stories that sometimes circled and sometimes skewered the realities they examined. I was captivated by family drama, both loud and hushed; I was confronted by addiction and politics and cancer; I was swept away by imaginative dialogue, colourful, painted hearts and surprisingly observant seagulls. Some daring decisions were made, and I appreciated both the in-your-face approach to writing flash and the stories that required a gentle hand. Some reached, cleverly, to ideas and people familiar to us – faeries and rent hikes, Marlon Brando and Orson Welles – bringing them to the page with originality and flair. Some engaged parables and mystical imaginings. All of these decisions seemed deliberate, and the works on the short list delivered vivid imagery, sharp observation and carefully considered language. Some had beautifully memorable future-looking titles (‘The story we will one day never tire of telling you’) and some had wonderful images at the very end (‘her coat billowing behind her, like a galleon setting sail’).
And even as these flash fictions took on some heavy themes, there was also, sometimes, well placed – and much appreciated – humour. Perhaps just a hint, between breaths, but steady and sure.
A treasure of stories! I have so enjoyed considering the many virtues of all of them.

Highly Commended: The Bee
A story that delivers a whole lifetime in this small space, and brings remarkable detail – from the buzzing glory of angels to the everyday gleaming lawn mower. Here we have John and his entire family, and we see how life’s end may not result in a finality but is rather a moment in a series of intertwined moments. With such a simple title and point of focus at the start, the reader is tuned to nature’s precarious balance. This is a story that zooms in and out, with dynamic effect.

Highly Commended: Prognosis
A steady hand guides this story, and the second-person view connects the reader to a difficult moment, followed by the potential responses of anger, bafflement or denial. The reader sees this from the medical practitioner’s view, and we feel the push and pull between compassion and distance. All of this is delivered with care and close observation. There is tremendous feeling for the disorientation that occurs in the face of death, the tensions and intimacies, and some surprising moments. This is one of the gentlest stories I’ve read this season.

Third: On Friday Nights in May I Sit Quietly with a Friend

Reality delivered with a wry tone and a bit of magic. From the beginning, this is imaginative and expansive, looking beyond the park’s flitting insects and bounding dogs. The clever dialogue between narrator and faerie brings an original take to the internal sense of want and desire, and the bluebells as the central image, with their symbolic constancy, gratitude and love, sustains this sense of longing. There is a moment of wonderful humour as the flowers crumple in the narrator’s hands, and the faerie says, ‘Better keep trying’ – not a syrupy platitude about love but a matter of fact. Nature makes a soft backdrop – ‘the whisper of the leaves and ferns’ – but don’t be fooled: this is a marvellously delivered cautionary tale. And the last line is so effective, with its perfectly balanced phrasing and lingering question.

Second: Driving my Seven-Year Old Nephew to Visit His Mother at Reha
A story so delicately told, if you blink you might miss it. With deceptively simple language, this story brings us into the world of a young person and his reality, and how the narrator is coping, or not. As the banter between the young nephew and the narrator continues, the layers of their story unfold. This dialogue gives the story forward momentum, but also keeps us grounded in the world that matters most: the future of this young person. This story is a memorable contemplation of frailty and resilience, and the tenderness that may exist between us, despite unwanted circumstances and burdens. The voice holds a strong narrative style, bringing into focus the tragic reality of human fragility, and the paths that lead to places where we might have to consider our own lurking truths. Powerful and unforgettable.

First: A Cock Among the Bathers
So much to admire about this story! First, the forward-imagining sense of what will happen ‘tomorrow’. Second, the pacing – breathless and perfectly managed, maintaining a jaunty tone that uses repetition, imagery and play to keep us in the gallery, on the edge of our seats. Third, it’s a personal story with familiarity that pulls us into the space between the characters. This story is flash fiction fun, but it’s much, much more. Here we see a play on art – the very idea of an exhibition and what one might expect, or gain, from it. Here we are invited to frivolity and spectacle – the surface ‘look at me!’ moment that captivates and surprises (and maybe brings a flush to the cheeks). But this is also a summons to look again: there may be more here than meets the eye. The interplay between veneer and substance is built moment by moment. Besides all that, rich language and memorable phrasings add rhythm and pulse. I’ll not soon forget that ‘fur-tufted ass, cleft as a Cézannesque peach’. And I can still picture the retreat, with the operatic falsetto singing of love, or water. The title opens the scene among the bathers, and the last line is wonderfully surprising and satisfying.

Michelle Elvy, June, 2024.

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