Wherein we enter a short story competition…

….and lose. Sigh. But nonetheless, recorded here for posterity is Judith’s entry:
 
 

Beginning

Judith Crabb

 

I know about writing short stories. It’s like learning to ride a bike. Although it’s not much less than fifty years since I have written one, I haven’t forgotten. A short story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. When I was young, and being creative was something you did in English lessons in school, I interpreted being ‘creative’ as being ‘different’. So I tried out beginning with the end of the story, and ending with the beginning. My creativity was singularly unappreciated. Some of the responses were downright sarcastic.

I also interpreted ‘creative’ to mean fancy words. I had a stock list from which I flavoured my stories, so that the boiled egg of my prose would receive a quick squirt of Worcestershire sauce to liven it up a bit. This did not increase my popularity either. One year my teacher, bleary-eyed, no doubt from the reams of marked stories sitting on her desk, singled me out. I hoped she was about to express awe at the latter-day Katherine Mansfield she had discovered in her class, a pupil of whom she could speak, in her declining years, with pride and reverence. (As she was at least thirty, I didn’t expect that those years were very distant.) ‘Judith,’ she said, ‘if you ever use the word “malevolent” again I shall run screaming into the mulga.’ They may not have been her exact words, but that’s what she meant. I gather that, throughout the term, the word had been sprouting like a pustule on my otherwise unmemorable narrative endeavours.

I can see that this story has begun with digressions. I’m sure that can’t be right. It should begin in suburban Adelaide, in a car park belonging to the Salvation Army. The sheds and bins and fences sport the evidence of aesthetic challenge in the local youth; the Hall itself looks the architectural equivalent of a Big Mac, which is possibly why they leave it alone. I myself, true daughter of Adelaide that I am, prefer my religion with lashings of Gothic Revival, not the dollops of ketchup this building seems to suggest. I would choose to start in more inspiriting surroundings, but I am being as truthful as possible, although everyone knows that that may not make for a good story. Perhaps this is an example of our stories selecting us, not us our stories.

Every week the bitumen of the car park blooms with an unlikely efflorescence of furniture, bric-a-brac, clothing and books. On a hot and gritty day I line up with a cross-section of this Adelaide neighbourhood: Afghans, Africans, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Asians, Europeans, and a sprinkling of the Indigenous, in ages spanning the decades from infants in pushers to retirees on walking frames. In front of me is Wakako from Japan, who emigrated here in 1967, and behind me is a Scot, Lesley, an immigrant of barely eight years’ residence. Australians all, we are here to trawl through the boxes of donated goods. Many of the women are here for clothing, mounded on tarpaulins; many buy for extended family, many to supplement incomes by selling at trash and treasure markets. Technologically savvy young mothers sell on the internet. I come for the books. It is a cheerful place, a shining example of racial harmony if you need one. As we wait, our stories travel across time and place. Have I read Memoirs of a Geisha? Wakako prefers detective books, but she is here primarily for the clothing. We watch the weekly ritual. The trestle goes up, the cash register is positioned, the coffee is served for the volunteers. Let the show begin.

As I leave I catch a glimpse of Wakako holding up a pair of slacks and eyeing them speculatively, her diminutive form rising sprite-like from a sea of clothing. I leave with Youth by J.M. Coetzee. I walk home and, with tea and cake, sit down with the book, but I must not read it, because I find that J.M. Coetzee has also written Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Begin at the beginning. Next day the local library supplies what I need, and I discover that Boyhood is a kind of template for autobiographical writing, spare in content and unsparing in its analysis of the human condition. But… I discover in it what I believe to be a monstrous mistake! That hero of my childhood, Captain Oates – I can still visualize the Sanitarium swap card of his struggling against the blizzard as he staggers to his doom – is named ‘Titus’ Oates. No! Titus Oates was a foul villain, Lawrence Oates was a noble hero. Both Coetzee and I were children of the Empire (British, of course). Our history was the story of altruistic endeavour, or vile self-serving – it seemed easy once to tell the difference. Why, I ask in the letter I send Coetzee, has he not corrected this egregious error?

In 1958 I airmailed a letter to Enid Blyton. The letter included a subscription for membership of the Famous Five Club. I am still waiting for a reply and especially for the badge which will make me instantly recognisable to all other club members. Since then I have been somewhat reluctant to contact authors. However, most unexpectedly, and to my profound delight, J.M. Coetzee emails a reply: Captain Oates was called ‘Titus’ by his friends (English sense of humour). The other question I ask – Which novel by J.M. Coetzee should I read? – he, perhaps sedulously, but unsurprisingly, avoids answering. And so, at once, I decide to read them all. For someone who numbers among her favourite novels The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables this literary pilgrimage is likely to be a perilous journey. At the very least, it will be another story.

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