On the first Friday of every month, the Australian Writers Centre reveals a new set of story prompts. Writers have 55 hours to submit their best 500-word (or fewer) story.
THIS MONTH'S CRITERIA
“Jargon. Spelling. Where’s the argument?” Mr Lewis was known as the ‘muttering marker’, for obvious reasons, scrawling copious feedback in green ink. (Back in the day, all teachers marked with red pen, until it became unfashionable, so he used green pens instead.)
Mr Lewis was ‘old school’. Mid-seventies, but didn’t regret still working. He’d never seen the appeal of the grey army with their caravans and fishing rods. His daughter was scared he was going to miss the boat of a relaxing retirement. Kate couldn’t wait for her own retirement, but Mr Lewis had no interest in being a lonely retiree.
Every afternoon he would go home in his ancient but reliable Holden, take off his bow tie, make a cup of ‘real tea’ in his fine bone china cup and saucer, feed the cat and listen to opera while muttering through more marking.
It was early December. The rest of the school was winding down, exams were over, reports completed, and the promise of Christmas and holidays was tantalisingly close. Teachers played games with their students – variations on ‘who wants to be a millionaire’ - with tenuous links to subject areas. Students in Mr Lewis’ classes, however, were still writing essays, analysing poems, and writing creative pieces with a prompt.
Mr Lewis had been marking the creative pieces, disappointed in most, when he came across Sarah Maddock’s work. Sarah was one of those students who was invisible in the classroom. He pulled up her photo on the intranet. A nondescript student, compliant but not a ‘goody-two-shoes’. Capable. Quiet.
The prompt was “Disappointment and despair.” He read it slowly, carefully, his green pen poised. Yet, he struggled to mark it. It was poetic, moving, raw. He looked through his gradebook. Average student.
He reread the piece. It spoke to him. She articulated the disappointment of being adopted and the despair of never knowing her birth mother. Mr Lewis felt the pangs of grief gnaw at him. He read it through again, avoiding the themes, muttering that the sentence structure was sound, vocabulary appropriate. This did not seem like a piece of fiction. It was too personal. For once, Mr Lewis struggled with feedback.
No, it must be a work of fiction. Too far-fetched. He glanced at Sarah’s picture again. Light brown hair, slight build, freckles. She reminded him of someone, but couldn’t work out who.
The doorbell rang. It was his daughter Kate with some meals. Her own daughter, Jemma, had been a runaway teen but had returned and mellowed in womanhood. She had died suddenly last year just before her 30th birthday. Grief was a cruel companion.
Kate walked past the dining table, covered in papers and green pens, and froze, dropping the containers of food, staring at the computer.
Mr Lewis followed her gaze with dawning realisation. The resemblance. The spitting image of Kate’s late daughter. The runaway teen who’d returned and mellowed.
Mr Lewis picked up the green pen and wrote – Your mother’s name was Jemma.
Grateful to the Australian Writers Centre for sparking creativity each month with the Furious Fiction competition.