Monday, 10 February 2014

WWJ BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013 - The Results

1st prize in each category - £300
2nd prize in each category - £100
3rd prize in each category - £50

Short Story Category
Stories up to 2500 words


Runners up
The Clock by James Harding
Apprentice Pillar by Ralph Jackman
Recycled by Marie Gethins
Drop-Dead Gorgeous by Helen Laycock
The Road to Repair by Gail Jack

Judge’s report by David Haviland, fiction agent for the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency

It was a great pleasure to read this collection of extremely varied and impressive short stories, and very difficult to choose a winner from such a quality selection of new writing. It’s great to see such talent coming through.

It was also a particular pleasure to spend some time reading short stories, a format I don’t get to read as much as I’d like, given the publishing business’s almost total focus on the novel form, but short stories are a great medium for authors to play and experiment with different styles, voices and genres of storytelling.

Although the competition was extremely close, I felt Advertisement was a worthy winner. This is a shocking, graphic story of sex, death and madness, with a wonderfully unhinged and unreliable narrator. I love the way the author always keeps us guessing about what kind of world we’re in, and where this story is headed. There are lots of funny moments and lines, and a nice juxtaposition of the narrator’s nihilism and savagery with the po-faced self-absorption of Judith’s motivational mantras. The author also has a real knack for bringing characters to vivid life with very brief descriptions, or just a line or two of dialogue.

In second place, I chose Guests, a very different type of story. This is a powerful, emotional tale from an unusual viewpoint. Although this is clearly grown-up fiction, it’s written from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl, who faces the daunting prospect of having to host two strange girls in her home for the evening. The author does a wonderful job of evoking the confusion and uncertainty of childhood, and children’s potential for cruelty. The narrator remains credible despite being unusually sensitive and knowing – a difficult feat to pull off. And I love the resolution, in which we get a broader sense of a damaged family, and the mutual comfort they provide to one another.

My third choice was A Lonesome Snow Leopard, an absurd, comic riff on celebrity, art and social media. I really like the pace of this, the heightened sense of reality, and the tension between the poet’s vanity and the way the rest of the world sees him. And although the author pushes the story to absurd heights, it does have something to say about the world we live in, and the increasing superficiality of our culture.

Shorter Story Categories
Stories up to 1000 words


Runners up
Biological by KM Elkes
Is There Anything You’d Like to Say to the Person Who Donated this Food Parcel? by James Collett
The Baron’s Elixir by Mahsuda Snaith
Let Me Pay by Bren Gosling
Symbiosis by Mark Wilkinson

Judge’s report by Polly Courtney

Convincing, compelling and concise, Street Kids Don't Have Birthdays is an extremely enjoyable read. The characters are very credible and the descriptions of life on the streets of Tanzania - the glue, the vigilantes, the shallow sleep - transported me immediately to Easter's night spot with The Rapper and his boys. I was particularly impressed with the dialogue and can't help wondering whether the author has some experience of this world, either through travels or through research. Having written about an equivalent world on the streets of south London, I know how hard it is to portray lives of depravation with conviction and without being condescending or crass, but this writer has risen above such traps. When Mary entered the story, I became concerned about the possibility of a 'rescue' ending, but again, the author delivered, presenting a far more poignant and realistic scenario. I can see further possibilities for this story, including a full-length novel, and I'm sure I'm not the only reader who would like to know more about the world of Easter and the other boys who don't have birthdays.

The 'Pause and Rewind' of Sackcloth and Ashes made me do exactly that. I read the story four times and found new things to enjoy each time. The plot is cleverly thought through, the descriptions vivid, the theme intriguing. I love the way the mystery deepens as Damien investigates the DVD, leaving the reader guessing until the very end. The writing is very economical, with descriptions that add real colour: the curdling puddle, the levitating congregation, the chained doorways. I like to be shown what happens and not to have it spelled out for me; this story did exactly that.

Beneath the Arches is an incredibly moving piece of writing that reminds us, in just a few hundred words, of why we should have faith in mankind. It is cleverly written, revealing just enough at each stage to keep the reader completely hooked and offering a satisfying - if heart-breaking - conclusion. It is rare to see such expansive themes (homelessness and loss) tackled in short story format and there is always a risk of trivialisation in such an endeavour, but this is certainly not a problem in this case. The beautiful simplicity of the story and the emotive style made this a real pleasure to read.

Shortest Story Category
Stories up to 250 words


Runners up
Tell Me a Secret by Alison Wassell
Your Account is in Arrears; Take Action Now by Justin N Davies
A Pointed Question by Brindley Hallam Dennis
Trumpet Dreams by Hilary McGrath
Little Legs by Julia Anderson

Judge’s report by Susan Jane Gilman
Every submission in this contest had some merit. Yet five, in particular were stand-outs to me, and I winnowed this down to three. In the end, I choose as the winners: 99 Red Balloons; Cockles; and Mustard Heart.

I selected these because each of these shorts had a poetry, an inherent plot, a keen emotional core, and a freshness to it. The stories felt complete – yet implied so much more. Each one surprised me in its own way.

99 Red Balloons managed to condense a whole novel into one page. The narrator paints an entire, horrific political situation – and an impoverished childhood – with a few elegiac phrases, and covers the trajectory of a small child becoming a drug smuggler out of desperation. I was impressed with how much territory and conflict was covered in such a small story – and how the speaker, whom the rest of the world will likely regard as a criminal, is so compelling. We understand exactly why she is doing what she is doing.

Cockles achieves something similar. It’s a harrowing portrait of immigrant workers falling victim to the tides. The scene and imagery are like nothing I’ve read before; it took me several reads to absorb the full horror of it. It also covers a distance between the shores of England and China, and between a desperate, drowning man and his devastated wife. There is a lot of narrative heavy-lifting and heartbreak achieved here with economy and lyricism.

Lastly, Mustard Heart is a more intimate and conventional story of the unrequited love that a deli-man feels for a drug-store worker; I like the very writing itself, and how such big emotions as love, lust, longing, and rejection are transmitted through the smallest of details: a sandwich, a glance, a secret message written with mustard, of all things. There is a sad humor here, too, and a visceral last line.

Good work, everyone!

The shortlists included:

Crazy Hazel by James Collett
Elephants in Flip-Flops by Julia Anderson
Into the Woods by Rebecca Kemp
Snag List by Barbara Leahy
A Poor, Empty Thing by Jason Jackson
Like Writing Letters to the Dead by Karen Jones
Barry by Lucinda Croft
The Collage of Acceptance by Jen Squire
The Witch Bottle by Jenny Knight
A Venue of Vultures by Teresa Leigh Judd
Car, Girls by Jason Jackson
Not Even Sex by Zoe Gilbert
Fear by Gosia Rokicka
The Philatelist by Lucy Shuttleworth
Three to Six Months by Janette Silverman
Dragon’s Breath by Lorna Riley
Water Wings by Marilyn Messenger
Rooftops by Sal Page
Crows by William Walker
The Language of Birds by Anne Corlett

Girl in Fish Bowl by Anna Beecher

The team at Words with JAM Towers would like to thank everyone who entered and all of our judges. If your name is listed above, we'll be in touch soon.

All the best,
JD Smith

Mustard Heart by L.A. Craig

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
3rd PRIZE WINNER (250 word category)

He works in a deli, draws mustard hearts, hides his feelings beneath sourdough, ciabatta, rye.

Esther, name pinned to her tunic, works at Health Mart, the bottle green uniform pulls the colour from her face. She has a grey kind of beauty. Her eyes are the blue they call petrol, not baby. Freckles skip across pale cheeks and cluster the bridge of her nose. 

To release her scraped back hair, feel its weight caress his grateful fingers.

She smiles her order: ham, Swiss, lettuce. Hands crossed against drab through the glass counter, a signet ring on her pinky.

Maybe he’ll write his own initials.

She turns her regal neck to look out to the street. This neck he will never trace with soft lips, but he can make her taste his kisses. He squeezes a diagonal line over the ham, Swiss, lettuce. It slides down the gloss surface of the cheese. He pulls another from the opposite corner. Wraps. Presents his affection.

Outside, a gorilla wears the same dark green. Esther nips the cigarette from his mouth, unwraps the wax paper, slow, like a striptease. The guy sees something in her eyes. He grabs both her wrists, she laughs, wrestles free for a second, then his paws, rough in her hair. A pinch in the ribs with her free hand, she knows his soft spot. He backs off. 

Esther holds the sandwich up to his face. Forces him to take a bite of someone else’s feelings.

Cockles by A.M. Hall

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
2nd PRIZE WINNER (250 word category)

Xin Yu stands on soft sand, net in hand. Jua Ren had told them to stay until dark, demanded high yields, assured them of the tides.

Some Englishmen shout over, tapping wrists. They are ignored; more nets are filled. Xin Yu straightens up; he looks over wet ground at the sun as it slips below the horizon. Wet ground… water... the tide, the infamous Morecambe Bay tide, coming to meet them. He looks at his watch: the tide is earlier than Jua Ren had insisted, yet here it comes: quicker than horses, some say. Urgent calls, staccato shouts, orders are spat out.

The men begin running towards the distant lights of foreign homes. The sand sucks at their feet and sticks to their soles: controls them, slows them. The bitter water pocks their skin. Cramp sets in. Still they run. The sea is at Xin Yu’s knees now; the other men’s voices are quieter, directionless. The waves gulp at their shouts, snatch them from the salty air and drown them.

Xin Yu calls his wife; it is morning in Fujian when she answers. His words are runaway horses, endless hooves thumping out declarations and instructions. She listens, unable to break the stampede. When the hoof beats finally abate, she finds herself wailing to no one, to her husband’s sinking phone. The sea floods him with cold, with blackness. He feels hollow and then he feels full. Above him shines a doleful moon: drifting, lilting, and the colour of a cockle.

99 Red Balloons by Barbara Leahy

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
1st PRIZE WINNER (250 word category)

My father says if bad men come I must close my eyes and pretend I am far away in some safe place.  That way no bad memories.
I was eight: we had a party.  Banana peanut cake and mango fritters.  And a bunch of red balloons tied to our door.
Men come with knives.  In the morning my father is gone.
I blew out candles one by one.  We ate cake, rich and sweet.
Mamma is bleeding.  They force open her body, rattle her heart.  After, I hold her close and she cries.
We sang pop songs, played games.  I was sick on my dress and Mamma hugged me through the smell.
For years we are poor.  Mamma plucks flowers from air, sings old songs.     Doctors cost money.  One by one, I put the wax-coated bags into my mouth.  I must swallow many.
Cinnamon and ginger cake, spicy and moist.  So many good things hidden inside.
I feel sick but I am brave.  I imagine my father, far away in some safe place.  Maybe he left on a plane like this one.
Coconut ice-cream, cold and pure.  It slid down my throat like silk.
Clouds swallow us and the ground thumps hard.  This country is cold and dark.  Men come with questions and I am afraid.  Women search my bag and take my clothes.  They force open my body, rattle my heart.

I close my eyes.  Red balloons, tied to our door.  I feel them shrivel and harden inside me.

Beneath the Arches by Lindsay Bamfield

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
3rd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

This will be the last time. If he’s not here tonight, I’ll not come any more. I leave my car and pull my collar up around my ears as I walk through the freezing, sleety drizzle to the arches. The hunched figures, rough blankets wrapped around them, sit with their backs against the damp wall, carefully avoiding the rivulets of rain trickling down. He is not among them. There are only four tonight; perhaps some have found a bed in a shelter and others have somehow managed to find the fare for a long bus ride back to their families.

Since I left hospital I have been looking for him. Every night I tour the rough sleepers’ haunts. It’s now a year since the night when my life was torn apart. A year since I watched her die here beneath the arches. A year since I watched helplessly as her life ebbed away. We were separated by mere inches, yet she was out of reach. Unable to move or speak - I could barely breathe - I was trapped beneath the crushing weight. But I could see everything as I looked on impotently.

Did she know why I did not save her? Did she die wondering why I failed her?

They have warned me not to come here - that my quest is useless, that he is long gone, an unnamed, unidentified and unidentifiable man. An illegal, they said, a vagrant. They are probably right. He spoke no English. At least, not that night, not to her. Did he know I was still alive? That I watched his every move? Did he know that his every feature, every minute detail, is seared into my memory? That I can recall the words, every incomprehensible word, he uttered. He was the only one here that night. No others witnessed her death. Just him and me.

It was a passing driver who called for help. The shrieking sirens and flashing lights couldn’t drown my silent scream for help that arrived too late. The driver of the car who smashed into ours, crushing us, was dead. Dead drunk, dead - perhaps a kind of justice. But the man I seek is the other man, the nameless, homeless man in an alien country, the man with no means to summon help, who comforted her in the only language they had in common, the touch of his hand on hers so she was not alone when she died.  

Sackcloth and Ashes by Justin N Davies

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
2nd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

As he turns the key, Damien senses the handles of his carrier bag stretching towards terminal elasticity, which they reach as he slams the door behind him. Cursing both his landlord’s decision to tile rather than carpet the hallway, and his own to buy eggs for dinner, he rushes to the kitchen to grab a cloth and bucket.

Stooping to rescue his post from the curdling puddle of yolky Pinotage, Damien is reminded of an experiment his mother once demonstrated in which she mixed a can of coke with some milk. “That,” she’d declared, “is what happens in your tummy if you insist on drinking cola after breakfast.”

Discarding the junk mail, Damien is left holding a disintegrating manila envelope; its distinguishing marks have been washed away on the tide of coalesced liquids. He fishes out the contents, leaving the envelope seeping sticky pink blood into the sink.

He stares at the unmarked disc, chewing his toast and sipping his water. The post-it note has survived the deluge, having been attached to the DVD inside the plastic pocket. “We missed you at the funeral,” it says, “and thought this would help with the grieving process.

Initially, Damien is inclined to caution; as far as he knows, no-one has died and he feels reluctant to spoil what has, so far, been an above average week. Curiosity however, lures him to insert the disc into his player.

Almost immediately he pauses it, freezing the frame on a long-range shot of the altar; a simple coffin – oak, perhaps – lies surrounded by white lilies. Mourners, motionless in black, survey the scene.

Damien considers his post-work attire, deftly rearranging himself in his shorts whilst smoothing down his hair.  He then draws the curtains before settling back down on the sofa.

A priest approaches the lectern with solemn dignity and levitates the congregation to its feet with outstretched arms. It rises silently; eerily so, in fact. No nervous coughing or dropped hymn books; no introductory chords from a hidden organ. Damien fiddles with the remote; what he’s taken for respectful silence is, rather, the absence of a soundtrack. Instead, the action plays to the hum of the disc spinning within the machine, and to the expansion cracks of a slowly warming radiator.

The crowd are summoned to their feet twice more to sing soundless hymns; unfamiliar mourners - young, bravely stoic - approach the coffin to deliver their mute lessons to gravely nodding heads. Damien feels soothed by the rhythm; the collective movements of these strangers; their sombre gestures.

Finally, the camera turns to face its doleful subjects as they lip-sync a parting elegy.

“Hear our prayer,” they appear to say.

The picture blurs for an instant before zooming in and focusing on a dark-haired woman, standing tall, in an empty row, modestly elegant in a simple black dress. She fixes her mournful stare at the lens, full lips mouthing “Amen” before dropping her eyelids and head, causing a single tear to free-fall from her pale cheek.

Pause. Rewind.


Pause, Rewind.



In that split second, light from an unseen source refracts through the tear drop, filling the blackness of the frame with a diamond flash.

Damien reaches out and strokes her pixilated face, absorbing wavelets of static shivers from the screen.

He begins to search for clues, frame by frame, long into the night and beyond. Feigning sickness, he continues through the week, eating little, sleeping less; but a familiar face, or gesture, eludes him.

Damien makes enquiries.

‘We might as well be dead ourselves,’ says his mother, ‘the amount of times you bother to call.’

But no; there have been no reported deaths in the family.

Eventually, he speaks to the building’s other tenants. Have they lost someone? Missed a funeral? Do they recognise the handwriting?

‘Please,’ he says, ‘come and watch it; as my guest.’

Their wary faces shake hurriedly from chained doorways.

Undeterred, Damien delivers written invitations. He irons a shirt; digs out his grandfather’s jet cufflinks; but the neighbours don’t come. He watches alone, stiff in his sackcloth and ashes, whilst now-familiar, yet nameless faces sing their voiceless hymns and repeat their silent prayers. He stands with them; bows his head with them,
counting time by the muffled pulse in his ears.

At the last, Damien pauses.

Her liquid hazel eyes shimmer round ink-drop pupils.

‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘tell me what you know.’


Released from her spellbound stillness her lips begin to move.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


She drops her head; a single jewel falls from her cheek.

‘I’m here,’ he says, ‘I’m right here.’

Street Kids Don't Have Birthdays by Gill Sainsbury

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
1st PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

Darkness drops from the skies suddenly and with it the boys of Arusha gather at their night spots. Easter stumbles across the busy road, his glue fogged brain unaware of traffic. He somehow makes it to the steps of the stadium. His bed. Most of his crowd are there already, some big, some small. The streets have no age bar.

“Yo Man, whadd’ya been doing today hey? You gotta shillings in dem pockets, I saw you hauling the metal today. Come on Easter show and share.” Jonah’s lanky frame jigs from side to side keeping a jerky rhythm with his words. He is The Rapper and possibly the oldest of this crew. No one knows for sure. Street kids don’t have birthdays.

Easter shuffles up the steps, one hand curled protectively around the sleeve of his grimy jacket which protects the plastic water bottle containing his glue, his other hand raises to The Rapper in a weak high five. His parched and cracked lips break to reveal a wide smile that tries to reach his filmy eyes but can’t quite make it. He slumps on the top step and is curled asleep in seconds, his free hand stretched up across his head protectively. If a kick from passing police should come his way, it may help. If the shunga / vigilantes should come to this side of town tonight then nothing will protect him. He is small, an easy target.

The Rapper looks at Easter fleetingly remembering his younger self, his muddled memory stirs alive, deep inside his mind, where there is still a few wisps of hope to cling to. He wanted to be a doctor. But hope is like clouds, forever moving and breaking up, hard to catch hold of.

He leaves Easter to sleep and turns his attentions to the rest of the crew, his body twitching and jerking ceaselessly as a life time of marijuana, glue and alcohol course through his veins. He spots a hint of plastic as he watches Philomoni’s massive hand attempts to disappear into his pocket. The Rapper smiles and ambles over to him his fingers clicking in time to his staccato beat.

“Yo Philo, de Big Man. Share, you share wid de Rapper. You knows you can an you knows I’ll care!”

The small baggie containing the cheap local gin reappears clumsily out of the Big Man’s pocket, he grins foolishly as he hands it over. Philomoni’s brain is as slow as his hulking frame.  He knows The Rapper will return it after taking a hearty slug and the others won’t bother him if he shares with The Rapper,

Teacher Mary, the Social Worker from the local children’s centre has arrived and she’s talking easily with the boys, she high fives and jostles with the best of them. Spotting the Rapper she playfully kick-boxes with him as he grins and highs fives her upheld hand. She spots Easter and is pleased, he was at the centre for three weeks but jumped the wall last weekend.

“Hey Easter, wake up little buddy, how’re you doing?”

Easter wakes instantly, alert to potential danger. You don’t sleep heavily on the streets, life is too cheap. His addled brain recognises Mary as a friend, she offers tea and bread but he shakes his head, mumbling incoherently. Glue is his sustenance. Teacher Mary sighs as she eases away, her heart is protected now, it simply cannot break anymore.

“Teacher, teacher,” The Rapper vies for her attention. “I wanna talk with you teacher.” They move away from the cluster of boys. Mary will always listen and Jonas keeps her informed of new boys on the streets.

“Easter wants to come back wid you Teacher, he good boy but the glue, it be getting him quick, so take him with you now Teacher.” The Rapper’s eyes seek Mary’s own and she reads the pain there, she sees the last tendrils of hope fading for this boy. As if sensing her thoughts he adds defensively. “I come next week Teacher, take Easter now.”

“Next week, Jonas,” she always uses his given name. “I’ll talk to Easter but you know the rules man. It’s an open door, it’s up to him.” She shrugs her shoulders.

Next week. She and he know, for Jonas the Rapper, next week never comes.

 “Hey Big Man, how about we get you some chai and maybe old Theo can find you a bit of bread. What says you Philo?” She moves towards the solitary Philomoni, she knows she is close with him, he is severely retarded and she knows the gin he’s pocketing comes from the proceeds of passive sex, which he gives easily and mostly freely.

 “When Easter wakes we’ll be in Theo’s, Jonas,” she grins widely and her eyes sparkle, she loves her job. “You know da rules man and I know you knows where Theo’s is.” She chuckles as she turns away from the steps, they all know Theo, God bless him, one of the few café’s happy to let her sit with the boys for hours over no more than a cup of sweet spicy chai. Her hand disappears into the warm giant cocoon of Philo’s.


The bus station is busy, same as always, Mary knows the score. She pushes her way through the crowd; she wants to get the fast bus. It’s going to be mighty crowded with Philo next to her and the Big Man’s not good in crowds. She knows without looking that his eyes are huge with terror, she can feel it as he crushes her hand in his.

Easter, unseen since last night, appears from nowhere and she smiles. Easter says nothing, grins and takes Philo’s free hand.

Two boys from the thousands on the streets of Tanzania go back with Mary, they’ll get cleaned up, counselling and start lessons. Easter’s bright; he could make graduation.

Or… he’ll jump the wall again and be lost to the short life that is the streets.

Lonesome Snow Leopard by David McGrath

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
3rd PRIZE WINNER (2500 word category)

Inspiration hits him like a spray of shotgun pellets to the face. That’s good—he’ll use that in poem.

He writes all night in a chasm of creation. He is deeper than he has ever been, Marianas Trench deep. That’s good—he uses it straight away. No, he scribbles it out. Lake Baikal deep is better because as the deepest lake in the world, it is more suitable, as he feels his poems are isolated and not touching any other body of water that may also be deep.

He can barely contain himself.

He knows the poems are genius.

Really genius.

At 36 years of age, this is finally his time.

He prepares for his pièce de résistance. He has avoided the complicated theme of love up until now because he feels it is brandished about in this commercialistic society of ours, replaced with luv, the lemming-drones all luving their Starbucks coffee and luving Justin Timberlake. It is not the love he wants to say. It does not get close to the very Lake Baikal depth of his feelings. He wants his final verse to better Yeats, laying the cloths of heaven at Maud Gonne’s feet, asking her to thread softly. He wants to compare to a summer’s Day. He begins.

If love were a duck,

I would set my dogs of desire into the long grass to scare it from its hiding place.

As it took flight to safety, I would spray love with shotgun pellets to the face, unloading both barrels to make sure of the kill, and watch it fall to earth with a lifeless thump. I would rush to the scraggly, blood-soaked dead carcass of love so that the dogs did not tear it asunder. I would grab love by its webbed feet, bring it home, pluck its feathers and chop off its head off with my cleaver. I would rip loves’ entrails from its stomach, keep its liver for pate and eat its heart raw, sucking the blood through its vena cava. I would drench love in orange sauce, cook love to gas mark 5 for 35 minutes then share it with you.

He falls out of his chair, trembling, holding his wrist after the ferocious onslaught of creation. A paroxysm of emotion overcomes him. Maybe, he thinks, dying is the price he has to pay for genius, unappreciated in his time, remembered however, for the rest of eternity. He poses like an Adonis. He wants to leave a beautiful corpse. When he does not die, he pulls himself up to his bedroom window, opens it, takes a deep breath and shouts out into the cosmos, ‘I am all that is genius!’

‘Could Mr Genius please keep it down,’ Beatrice shouts. ‘I’ve work in the morning.’

He calls his collection, Life.

He cannot sleep.

He writes his bio—Roland Nicholas Shoemaker is a poet, a human and a lonesome snow leopard. It gives the bastards nothing and shrouds his persona in mystery.

Life is poorly received and misunderstood. The poetry publishers send standard rejection emails, saying not for us, wishing him the best on his endeavours. Only one is a non-template response. It is from Bloodaxe. It reads, Nice try, Jamie! I know it’s you. Haha! What you cooking me for dinner tonight?

A seething rage for publishers boils in his stomach. He calls their offices everyday and breaths down the line.

‘This is pathetic,’ says the lady at Faber & Faber.

‘You think you know it all,’ he says.

He decides he does not need them and prepares to self-publish, Life.

‘You want to leave the cover like this, love?’ asks the printer.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘exactly like that.’

‘There’s no name, no title, nothing—just blank? A white page cover?’

‘My first poem explains it.’

‘I see. All right, well, how many copies would you like, love?’

He wants to read her his poem on love to stop her brandishing the word about like she does.

‘Five thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven,’ he declares. It is the depth of Lake Baikal in feet.

Two weeks later he sits in his bedroom with 5,387 copies of Life beside him in 18 big, brown boxes. He charges for the biggest bookshop in the city.

‘How can freedom be a triceratops?’ the bookshop’s manager asks as he flicks through a copy.

‘Because it’s extinct,’ he says.

‘The cover’s just blank?’

‘The first poem explains that.’

‘Is this a hidden camera show?’ asks the manager, straightening his tie, looking around for the crew.

Roland has to be wrestled outside by a security guard. He spits on the bookshop window. Years from now, he thinks, people will tell this story.

He receives a lifetime ban from the bookshop. It notifies him that his four boxes can be picked up at the bookshop’s local police station. The email begins with Dear Lonesome Snow Leopard.

He considers cutting out his own tongue and posting it to the bookshop in response. It would be amazing publicity, artistic and bold. It would echo through the ages like a time-earthquake.

He sleeps on the idea.

He calls an end to pounding the footpaths after the incident.

‘It is the problem with self-publishing. It puts creation on hold,’ he tells the marketer on the phone.

‘And so, you need publicity and a book launch?’ the marketer asks.

‘I need nothing,’ Roland says.

‘I’ll start again, sir. What would you like our company to do for you?’

‘I want you to sell my five thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven copies of my book.’

‘We arrange publicity and advertising, Mr Shoemaker. Can I call you Roland?’


‘For example, we don’t hit the streets with millions of cans of Coca-Cola and sell them to passers-by. We advertise it. We rent billboard space, organise launch parties and photo-shoots, buy column inches. We get Rihanna drinking a can of Coca-Cola. You know what I mean?’

Roland is forsaken and purged as he listens to the marketer speak. It is all part of the hypocrisy that Life demolishes. It is a conundrum. To get himself out there as a world-renowned poet he must use channels that his work attacks to the very core.

‘Mr Shoemaker, you still there, buddy?’

He feels like Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, rooting through that giant pile of triceratops droppings to prove to the stupid wardens that the dinosaurs do in fact eat the West Indian lilac.

‘You sir,’ he tells the marketer, ‘are lower on the evolutionary scale than tooth plaque.’

‘Step higher than poets at least,’ the marketer snaps back. The line goes dead.

‘Roland,’ says Beatrice. ‘Let’s go do something.’

‘I am in business meetings about my art. I am in anguish, I would be terrible company, pumkin.’

‘It could be worse, Roland. You’re not a starving baby in war-torn Africa.’

‘The starving babies in war-torn Africa have not got a thing on this pain I feel, Beatrice. I would prefer starvation!’

‘Why not try the Internet?’

For once, Beatrice proves useful. He will go viral.

He starts in the poetry forums to get it praised by the ones who know. The lemming-drones will soon follow. Life for sale, he writes. He offers, If Love Were a Duck as a free sampler of the type of poem Life offers.

The trolls go to town on him. He is surrounded on all sides by malicious keyboard ninjas who would not know poetry if it slapped them in the face with an Atlantic salmon.

This poem is the biggest atrocity to mankind I’ve ever witnessed—Auschwitz Survivor.  

This poet needs to be sprayed in the face with shotgun pellets!

I’ve taken 4 showers since I read this poem. It’s not coming off no matter how hard I scrub.

He cannot counter every comment that’s posted. There are just too many of them.

Twitterbot spam pops up on his computer screen the very moment when his wit was just about at its end.

A Twitterbot, says the Internet, is a…

‘Your dinner’s ready,’ Beatrice shouts from downstairs.

‘Aaaargh!’ he shouts back. He hangs the ‘Creating’ sign on his bedroom door and slams it.

A Twitterbot, says the Internet, is a program used to produce automated posts via the Twitter microblogging service.

The Twitterbot can get its hands dirty in the world of publicity leaving him free to create his follow-up to Life. He buys a Twitterbot programme right away and puts the printer on notice for another 10,000 copies.

He arranges the programme so that anytime somebody mentions the word ‘life’ on Twitter, his Twitterbot will direct them to buy his poetry. The programme also scrambles his IP address to avoid fines for spamming and reroutes all posts through Lithuania. The name, Prophet is already taken. He names his Twitterbot, Prophet5387, leaves the profile picture completely white and then sends it out into cyberspace.

He gets to work on the first poem of his new collection. He titles it, The Hag with the Self-imposed Bloodied Axe of Rejection.

He begins.

I am the Hag with the self-imposed bloodied axe of rejection.

It is a decent start. He goes downstairs for his dinner.

The next day, he takes a break from his second poem of the collection entitled, The Marketing Whore, and tries to check in on the progress of Prophet5387 but he cannot remember the password. He tries all of his usual’s—sacrificiallamb, misunderstood, nothingness. None of them work. He tries to access the Gmail account he used to create the Twitterbot. Again, he cannot remember the password. He uses his own Twitter account and searches for Prophet5387.

He cannot believe his eyes. It has attracted 2,011 followers in less than 24 hours. He checks on the sales of Life. Not one copy sold. Something is amiss, he thinks.

‘Beatrice!’ he bellows. ‘Beatrice!’

Beatrice climbs the stairs and peeks her head in the door.

‘Explain this to me. Explain. I cannot see. I’m blind. I do not know what is happening. What is happening?’

‘Calm down my little cabbage. Tell me what’s going on.’

‘I told this wretched Twitterbot to tweet a link to my book anytime someone mentions the word ‘life’ on Twitter. It has amounted thousands of followers and yet not one of them has bought my book. What’s going on?’

‘So, when someone says the word life, is it? On this website?’

‘Yes, yes, the Twitterbot automatically tweets a link to my poetry on their conversation. Try to keep up, Beatrice.’

‘Well, it doesn’t seem to be talking about your poetry.’

‘What is it talking about?’

He takes back control of the mouse to investigate.

The first tweet was, What am I doing tomorrow? I’ll know tomorrow when I’m doing it.

It posted it on a host of other Twitterbot conversations and they automatically retweeted it.

The second tweet was, Get your hands off me.

The third tweet was, Drink it in.

‘It’s tweeting random phrases that it plucks out of cyberspace. I’ve programmed it incorrectly. Blast it!’

He phones Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and demands to be reissued a new password so that he can change the settings. They are no help. They cannot condone Twitterbots. He phones Google and argues with a machine for two hours. It is no use. He tries to write a poem about it but he is too forlorn.  His once-blooming imagination feels like a barren, furrowed field.

‘Apox,’ he cries. ‘Apox!’

Prophet5387 tweets, Delve deep distracted divers.

Six thousand people enter into a conversation beneath the tweet as to what it means. Internet forums explode in speculation. Someone mentions it is the exact depth of Lake Baikal in feet. Baikal becomes a trendy synonym for a deep and insightful idea. Prophet5387 gets all the credit.

‘Apox!’ Roland cries.

The next day, there are Prophet5387 t-shirts and merchandise on sale all over the web.

In one month, Prophet5387 accumulates six million followers and is given a weekly ten minute segment on the Ellen show.

The Poet of our times, writes Time Magazine, is shrouded in mystery. But who is the creator of the Twitterbot Prophet5387 and does it matter? As it uses all our voices, does it represent mankind’s voice as one voice?

He phones Time Magazine.

‘Hello. I am the creator of Prophet5387,’ Roland says.

‘Really?’ the receptionist says.


‘You promise?’


‘This is incredible. I thought it was the thousands of others who have called saying they were the creator of Prophet5387 but now that you say it’s really, really you, this is fantastic. I’ll send out the news crews right away.’

‘Are you being sarcastic?’ Roland asks. The line goes dead.

Prophet5387 tweets, Gaza.

The next day, the president of Israel offers peace talks with representatives from Palestine. There is genuine progress made towards peace in the Middle East.

The lemming-drones all wait on Prophet5387’s hourly, automated tweets. They make newspaper headlines around the world. Twitter compiles its tweets in a book. It sells by the tanker-load. The proceeds all go to the starving babies in war-torn Africa.

Prophet5387 tweets, I am a fad.

The people of the world wholeheartedly agree that Prophet5387 is most certainly not a fad as a result. The 14th of April is declared Prophet5387 Day worldwide. Prophet5387, a poet that will never die, they say.

People speculate as to whether Prophet5387 should be declared a God if not, the God.

Roland can hardly take much more. He must tell the world of the monster he has created.

He does what anyone with something important to say does and goes to an internet forum.

Prophet5387 is nothing but an algorithm, he writes.

It is not real. It has never felt wet grass beneath its bare feet in the cold dawn. It has never loved, never felt, never been. It does not know beauty or pain. You people are like the Pacific Islanders of the Second World War, watching the planes come across the sky and declaring them Gods! God does not create us in his image. We create God in ours! You foolish people. You fools! Here, I can be as random as Prophet5387 if you want! Ride giraffes in the washing machine! Get down the ladder and drink tea! Be damage!

Three million keyboard ninjas set on him like rabid dogs.

He calls Beatrice. He needs some emotional support.

‘I’m going to Russia, Roland,’ she says, holding two suitcases in the doorway. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you.’


‘To Lake Baikal. A commune has started up there to spread the teachings of Prophet5387. I’m sorry.’

‘When will you be back my love?’

‘I don’t know. I’m starting a new life, Roland. Without you in it. I’m sorry. I’ve been healed by the words of Prophet5387.’

‘It’s not real!’ Roland shouts. ‘It’s an algorithm! Nothing more!’

‘Well, I think the white profile picture clearly makes reference to that, Roland,’ Beatrice says.

Roland faints from the stress of it all.