Following my first attempt at short story writing last week, I received plenty of feedback. Some was favourable, some not so, but it was all constructive, so thank you for that.
One comment that got me thinking was that I’d hardly stretched my imagination. OK, hands up – I admit I went for the tried and tested short-story-with-a-twist formula, and I don’t do formulaic. I’m a confirmed panster, for heaven’s sake!
For short story number two I’m going back to what I know. I have a title, a thought or two for the start (which may well change), and not a clue how it will end.
So here goes – roll up, roll up, it’s time for ‘The Race’…
“The Race is the stuff of myth and legend.”
Walking up a steep grassy slope in the company of the slimiest man I’ve ever met, I find myself wishing the stuff of myth and legend would confine itself to myth and legend.
“You are our honoured guest,” Slimeball continues. He sounds as though his mouth is full of – er – slime, I guess.
Then he smiles.
I wish he wouldn’t do that.
“Or should I say, Competitor?”
That’s got my attention.
“Oh no. I’m not competing in anything, mythical and legendary or otherwise.”
Slimeball looks baffled. One of his chins disappears into the sweaty pulp masquerading as his shirt collar.
“But it’s the Race,” he says as if that explains everything.
We crest the brow of the hill and I stare about in astonishment. There are crowds and crowds of people gathered either side of a deep canyon, mouths agape in anticipation. A collective “Ahh” goes up as we appear.
Slimeball spreads his fleshy hands wide and booms, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Competitor!”
In perfect unison, the crowd cheers. I crane my neck to see into the canyon. There’s a fast moving river at its base. With rocks. And…crocodiles? Not sure, but there are certainly teeth down there.
If that’s the Race Track, I want no part of it.
I turn on my heel and walk back down the hill.
Up the hill.
No, I’m sure I should be walking down it…
Why am I not surprised when I end up back at the canyon? The crowd cheers as if my walkout is all part of the fun.
Slimeball is waiting for me. I really wish he wouldn’t smile.
“My name is Slimeball,” he says.
“Yeah, I guessed that.”
“Now, the Race…”
“Look, Slimeball, what part of ‘no’ do you not understand? I. Am. Not. Your. Competitor.”
“Of course you are,” replies Slimeball complacently. “Oh, you’re worried about racing. You won’t race the Race…”
By George, I think he’s got it.
My relief is short lived.
“…The Race races you.”
“Slimeball, I really don’t want to do this…”
“Ms Competitor, may I ask you to go and stand on the bridge.”
My eyes follow the line of his fat pointing finger to a flimsy bridge spanning the canyon, groaning and quivering under the mass of sheep – I mean, spectators jostling for a prime spot.
No, I do mean sheep. They’ve all turned into sheep.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather watch from here,” I say. “In fact, I’d rather go home, but as you seem determined I’m to stay for this poxy race…”
“Poxy race! Poxy race!” chorus the sheep on the bridge. They’re ever so loud all of a sudden. Oh, that’ll be because I’m on the bridge with them.
“The Competitor has taken her place.” Slimeball’s voice echoes around the canyon. A greenish drool rolls down his chin. “Let the Race begin!”
I have a split second to realise the bridge is going to collapse before the bridge does just that.
There’s no sensation of falling. It’s more that the river races up to greet me, but by now nothing is surprising me in this topsy-turvy world. As the water and I meet, I realise the railing onto which I’m clinging so desperately still has a plank from the bridge attached to it. I have my very own water scooter. Woohoo!
OK, I can do this. Gripping the railing firmly with both hands, I successfully negotiate my way past the first of the rocks. Lean left to bear left, lean right to bear right. Easy peasy.
The river carries me at a speed I don’t even want to consider, but at least I am moving forward – something in Topsy-Turvy Land is actually doing what I expected it to do.
Relaxing into my race, I allow myself some time for reflection. The Race races me? Yeah, right! Watch and learn, Slimeball, watch and learn.
Hang on a minute, though, weren’t there teeth involved too? Glancing over my shoulder, I notice I’m the only competitor left in the Race. The starting line is clear – flotsam litters the water marking the exact point at which the bridge collapsed – but there’s no sign of the sheep. The teeth are there, though. Grinning.
Looks like the teeth consider lamb more of a delicacy than human.
I don’t have time to grieve for the sheep. Turning to face forward again, I see a colossal rock looming in front of me. Right in front, that is. In fact, I’m riding up the side of the wretched thing.
A jumble of instructions races through my brain.
Lower your centre of gravity.
Crouch down, you dolt! Hold on tight. Do not, I repeat, do NOT fall off…
I shoot up into the air, hollering my lungs out, then hit the water on the other side of the rock with perfect balance.
The sheep on the banks go wild. I raise a hand in triumph. At this moment in time, I’ll take any encouragement.
Hold on, rewind a little. The sheep on the banks? Sure enough, the forbidding rocky canyon has given way to grassy banks on either side of the river. Flowers are swaying in a gentle breeze. Sunshine sparkles on the water. Birds are tweeting. Sheep are tweeting (#competitorskijump).
I steer my water scooter to the left and drag it on to the bank with me. Slimeball is there, and he’s not smiling any more. (Small mercies, eh?)
“What are you doing?” he yells. “The Race has to carry on until it’s won.”
“Fine,” I reply, posing for a selfie with a group of young sheep (#competitorretires), “I’m withdrawing my entry.”
“You can’t withdraw your entry! The race has to carry on until it’s won.”
“Yeah, you said. So I must be the winner, being as everyone else has been eaten.”
A woman (or is it a vulture?) with shoulders hunched up to her ears and thin hooked nose is perching at the side of the river. I wonder if any carrion has managed to evade the teeth.
“I will, Ms Vulture.”
Slimeball turns to me, his expression grim. “The winner is the last competitor to die.”
“So that’s me then.”
Ms Vulture glares at me. I’m clearly far too alive for her taste. In fact, I seem to be far too alive for Slimeball’s taste too.
“No,” he spits. Literally. “You are not the winner until you die.”
“So as long as I’m alive, the Race is still going on.” I start to laugh. “Well unlucky, Slimeball, because I have no intention of dying in the foreseeable future.”
Slimeball turns to Ms Vulture for help, but she’s too busy scooping something unmentionable from the water.
“Have you ever thought of having a live winner?” I ask.
“#livewinner, #livewinner,” tweet the sheep.
Ms Vulture’s disgust is palpable.
“A live winner,” she hisses, “is against the rules.”
“And who makes the rules?”
“The Winner, of course.”
Slimeball looks at me as if I’m simple.
“So how can the Winner make the rules if the Winner’s dead?”
Back at ya, Slimeball.
“A live winner is unprecedented…”
“#livewinner.” The sheep aren’t giving up.
“Shut up,” roars Slimeball.
I love the fact the sheep are defying Slimeball, but it’s getting a little difficult to hold a conversation.
“Could you perhaps drop the volume a touch?” I ask them. #livewinner continues on a loop, but whispered.
The significance isn’t lost on me.
“Looks like the sheep are doing as I ask now, Slimeball.”
“Impossible.” Fat a-rippling, sweat pouring, Slimeball again looks to Ms Vulture for inspiration. Personally, I’d rather not risk seeing whatever it is she’s chewing on. “They only obey the Race Winner.”
“So how come they were obeying you…ah, you sneaky sod! A live winner isn’t unprecedented at all, is it.”
I beam round at the sheep.
“OK, back to full volume, guys. What do we want?”
“And who is that Live Winner?”
All of a sudden, Ms Vulture’s very interested in proceedings.
“Race rule,” she caws, waddling over from the riverbank and licking her lips at Slimeball, “number 5,048, as set by Slimeball in 1755: should the occasion arise that a new Live Winner is crowned, the previous Live Winner shall pay the forfeit…
“And the forfeit is?”
Did I really need to ask? “Careless, Slimeball,” I murmur.
“Din-dins,” says Ms Vulture, whipping a large napkin from her bag and eying Slimeball hungrily. Revolting though he is, I don’t actually want to see Slimeball die, and I certainly don’t want to witness what Ms Vulture has in mind.
“Hold on a minute. I’m the new Live Winner, so I make the rules. Scrub number 5,048. In fact, scrub the bloody lot of them. Two rules from now on. One, no one dies!”
Ms Vulture looks furious. A few teeth who have drifted over to listen in are clacking their dismay too. I fervently hope they stay in the river.
“Two, only willing competitors compete.”
Slimeball can’t contain himself any longer.
“That’s preposterous! No one will compete voluntarily. The Race will never be run again!”
“Jolly good, that means my rules will stay in place forever. The last Race has been won.”
Immediately #lastrace trends on Twitter.
Slimeball’s shoulders sag in defeat. Ms Vulture I’m sure would have voiced an opinion, but she’s foolishly trying to wrestle a piece of carrion from the teeth. There’s only likely to be one winner in that particular contest.
“Can I go home now?” I ask.
“Not until you’ve chosen your prize,” replies Slimeball with a sigh.
“Simple,” I reply with feeling, “I never, ever want to see this place again.”
As Topsy-Turvy Land plunges into darkness and the slurping, chomping sounds coming from the riverbank take sinister to a whole new level, I wish I’d thought a little more carefully about wording my request.