SPEECH BY PETER MCGRATH, JUDGE OF WORD FEST TOOWOOMBA 2023 SHORT STORY COMPETITION
I wish to express my gratitude to Word Fest Toowoomba organisers for inviting me to judge the short story competition.
I am a teacher with over 40 years of experience in Australia and overseas, teaching a variety of senior English programmes to senior high school students, including teaching international Baccalaureate and O and A levels in international schools.
I have had the privilege of helping to inspire some of my students to take up writing and I have had a long history of also helping scrutinise manuscripts. I am very proud when young people have a passion for reading and even more proud when some of them have asked for my critique of their efforts. Two have recently had manuscripts published, one by the University of Queensland Press.
So, the chance to judge some short stories from this competition has been a great joy. In the space of no more than 1000 words, writers have allowed me to suspend disbelief, to immerse myself in texts which aim to move the reader and they have succeeded in spades.
I had and have no idea of the age, gender or background of any of the writers, but so many of them achieved success by making me respond emotionally. I wanted to laugh, to cry, to feel anger, empathy and love. The beauty of words is that they can immerse the reader so well.
Other writers chose to deal poignantly with the essence of the human condition, the passage from youth to old age, and symbolism figured so strongly in some of these.
Others chose to explore the power of friendship and the beauty of ‘belonging’.
Yet, others used the setting, particularly the Toowoomba region, to develop the setting to become a character.
The power of language and the passion it provoked in some epitomises the purpose of this festival – words are powerful tools, powerful weapons, and has the power to move and shake.
Other writers chose to show how deeply we can be immersed in a story and the lives of characters in a story.
And then there were the stories which were simple, beautiful, thought-provoking and real.
In my deliberations, I followed a straightforward set of criteria, but I also had to respond to the texts emotionally.
First Place, and a delightful, quiet short ‘short’ story goes to THE MAN WHO FORGOT HIS NANCY’S, a bittersweet story of ageing, memory loss and the toll it takes, but with a beautiful ending full of love.
Second Place goes to a short story about a young person who has enormous respect for words. HUNGER describes their passion from a young age and I am sure any writer or even avid reader will be able to relate to this highly metaphorical story.
I would like to add a JUDGE’S COMMENDATION to the subversive A PICTURE PAINTS A THOUSAND WORDS. Be provoked and be challenged by a person who will have you all arguing about subtle nuances of meaning in this text.
A Picture Paints a Thousand Words. By Anonymous
To all the people who submitted, I thank you. To the finalists, to which it was ‘whittled down’, you are all incredibly worthy and I hope I get a chance to read more of your work in the future.
They seeped out as I grew and as they floated by, I caught them in chubby hands, greedily gobbling them back up: seeping; eating; over and over. I was a child with no fear of consuming a word before I understood what it meant. While my father dreamily pondered what to do with such a child, cheerily drinking his warm beer at the pub, my mother wondered why I could not have shared the words with my older brother, who had none of the inclination or bone bearing words that I did.
My mother tried to help my brother. She acquired flash cards, with 100-point font in bold black letters printed on one side of the thin flimsy card, with a coloured image representing the word on the back. She diligently went around our home, sticking them to the associated physical item at a child’s eye level. As my brother toddled around our house, his eyes would slip and slide over the black markings, while I lay swaddled in a cot in the corner. She wasn’t to know that his eyes were not hungry for those black letters. Nothing tells you in advance about your children and their proclivities. His eyes and his mouth were hungry for bright toys and fun games and the tasty food our mother created.
My mother did not recognise my unusual hunger until I was a toddler, crawling around the house, chasing down the black marks like a scavenger hunt. I was oblivious when they fell in my wake but gurgled my delight when upon turning, discovered a horde. Where would the magical marks be next? My hunger was never sated, even when I found a bundle of unused cards in the toy box, and I tore through them excitedly. What magic these things contained, that explained themselves? Words appeared in my head, like a thought bubble in a cartoon. I imagine it to be like this, for the reality is that I have no memories of that time. No memories of my mother enunciating the words to me, or memories of using the cards, or roaming the house as I gathered my own regurgitated collection of slippery little letters.
The hunger for the words didn’t leave. In pre-school I devoured stories about a dragon living in a magical place called Puddle Lane. I leapt from blue boards, to green, to orange. I neither understood nor cared what the stage numbers, carefully labelled on the top right-hand corner on the cover, were supposed to mean. I ignored the children around me as I gorged on the words, going eagerly back and forth between the big box of magical word containers and my place on the mat on the floor, as the words piled up around me. All I cared about was more words and the way they made what appeared to be a television show in my head.
Not long ago, my father told me what a problem I had caused. The school said I was consuming too many words and not sharing them with others, and worse, eating those that were years ahead of my peers’ tastes. What were they to do, he laughed, with a child like that?
I wanted to say, give the child more words. Words are recyclable, they could be shared, they should be shared. If I had known, I would have shared all the words when I was done with them.
The hunger was never sated. I ravaged my mother’s library. It was carefully curated between my room and my brother’s. I assume it was sorted between what my mother had hoped would attract my brother, and the more age-appropriate words in my room. They were from her childhood, set in another country and another lifetime that I would never live in. I tasted words from different places, homing in on an age and world I wish I might have lived in, with people I wished I knew. I was not particularly discerning, but I didn’t eat from a wide array either. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted those words again and again, written by those names I recognised. New names were to be viewed warily, until they conformed with what my hunger desired. I ferreted in the garden shed, searching amongst my mother’s and grandfather’s leftover library, which was neglected and left to grow musty, nibbled by mice, because all the words couldn’t be contained in the house. They dribbled and trailed out of the cardboard boxes, bent, creased, and mingling with the dead cockroaches and silverfish. Treasure was sometimes unearthed, rewards for a diligent search of images with names and words I recognised. My coveted prizes were carried back into the house and displayed to my mother with pride. Once my mother said to me, I am glad you like these. These words are from my life as a child. These were the words I ate long ago.
It is difficult to appreciate the words that make up a person when you are not living with them at the same age of consumption. With those words, I got to know my mother as I never had known her before. Words created long ago, coming forward through time. My mother no longer consumes the words, and I cling to those she left behind. I horde the last collection of words she was consuming, wondering if I will ever be brave enough to find out what they are, the crease holding her place forever between one word, one world, and the next.
I now feed the hunger and gobble down many other words because I know that time, and words, can disappear. Sometimes, I sit among old words, smelling the mouldering of vanilla and musk. I taste words again and again. I hope my hunger is never sated because that will mean it is the end. Unless I share my words.
A thin voice. An older voice, A little quavery. A little uncertain., but full of warmth and wonder at seeing a special thing for the first time.
“What is it called?”
She sighed to herself – inaudibly – as the anticipated question was asked.
They came here, to the Warby Ranges, every year. Had been coming without fail for, perhaps twenty. It was the wildflowers that brought them. Donkey orchids, and paper daisies; the nodding greenhoods and myriad of small flowers that made a walk through the dry forest of the plateau a special treat in the late Winter, and early Springtime.
These days, though, he always asked. Could never remember what he was seeing, as though everything was the first time. In some ways, it seemed that it was.
“It is a Nancy,” she said, her voice just a little flat in its tone. “An Early Nancy.”
The Warbies were a rugged attraction, with their scrubby trees and the preponderance of granite boulders. There was a wild edge to the litter and the scatter of the forest surrounding the tracks they walked that made each visit both, a small challenge and a spiritual renewal.
Spider orchids, and leopards. Delicate small things that made such a contrast to the rugged roughness of the boulders. A giant’s marbles, played with and then abandoned in a random scatter.
The walk, each year, was a slow ramble. There was never a rush to reach the end. Every breath inhaled the forest, and every step revealed a new delight. They would stop to admire and discuss each one. Bring what they saw to the other’s attention. Discuss them, amiably as they ambled.
And there were always more.
So many more of the little white flower with a spot – was it purple? – on each petal, making a kind of wheel within the perimeter of its petals. And each time, now, he would ask. Could never remember.
“What … what are these dear little things? I can never recall …”
She had learned – mostly – to be patient, though she could feel the stress – the distress – rising inside her with each new asking.
“They are Nancy’s, love. You know …”
And he would remember after the prompt.
Sometimes the trip became excruciating. Occasionally, it was unbearable and she had to turn away, just for a moment, to allow a tear to fall silently. A sniff and a tissue, then carry on as though nothing.
The Early Nancy’s were the commonest flower they would see on the walk. They were the one flower that he really should know, and he did not. Could not bring them into the front of his mind unless she spoke it. Could only see something pretty, each time, something that he would love to know the name of.
“What is that one, do you know, love? It is so familiar, but I can’t seem to …”
She allowed herself a short, frustrated breath.
“It’s an early one. “That’s all it is. It’s just an early.”
“I know. I know it now.”
He looked at her face, into her eyes. Spoke her name, then picked one small, white flower and held it out for her to take.