Thursday, 19 February 2015

WWJ BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014 - 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 Other Side of the Ocean by Sara Green
John’s Thing by John D Rutter
The Resemblance by Jeremy Hinchliff
My Friend Simon by Charlie Britten
Mother Knows Best by Ian Burton

The Engagement Ring by Charlotte Davis
Walghvogel by Clare Hawkins
Making Amends to a Fallen Angel by Lynne Voyce
A Wolf at the Door by Alan Shine
After Eight by Edward Sergeant
Canada by Rebecca Kemp
Paradise by Ken Elkes

Judge’s report by Emma Darwin

I hugely enjoyed reading such a variety of stories, and seeing real writing talent in action, and it’s always so hard to judge because I’m looking at so many different things. Some are objective: how well the writer’s decisions about tenses, point-of-view and psychic distance, the engineering of the plot, pace and structure serve the story. Some are semi-objective: is this a new idea to me, or a classic idea with something genuinely new to say about it? Is the voice compelling, are the settings vivid, are the characters the mixture of what-you’d-expect, and surprising, that people are in real life? Is the prose fizzing off the page or just quietly, freshly, exactly right for what the story’s saying? Some are largely subjective: did a story make me feel something, whether it was laugh, cry or think? Is it, for a change, not about death or ghosts?

And yet the stories which win are the ones which I read and forgot to notice how the writer had written it. All the writer’s choices suit what the story’s trying to be so well, that they work on me despite myself:  they turn me, as it were, back into a reader. So what is going on in the stories that succeeded in doing that? They’re all very different.

I gave first place to “I And The Village” not because it’s about a writer, but because it’s a beautifully-paced and structured close-up exploration, with a simple but very compelling voice which allows for lovely prose. There’s black humour too, and it avoids triteness in either despair or hope. It also uses visual art really well: it’s easy to use pictures and music as shorthand for emotion or theme, but harder to make them part of the forward-movement of the story itself, as is is here.

I gave second place to “The Last Days of the Minotaur” because it brought a lump to my throat, and because it isn’t really about death. It’s about life, it seems to me: about the loss of Eden as we grow up and grow old. It’s very fully imagined and beautifully written, but very disciplined in how it’s developed from the sources. It covers a lot of ground in terms of time, which, again, isn’t easy: too often either the “then” or the “now” of the story suffers, but here they work beautifully together.

It was a fight to the death between these two for first and second place, and Minotaur only lost because I didn’t feel the handling of the tenses quite worked.

Third place goes to “Marriage” partly because it made me laugh, and partly because even though the story is simple, it does what not all the stories formed by memories of the past quite manage. Without elaboration or heavy-handedness, the narrator’s voice and point of view give us a very strong sense of the life which followed this story of its beginning, and has formed his view of the past.

And finally, honourable mentions to “The Other Side of the Ocean”, and “John’s Thing”, both of which shared that essential, Tardis-quality with the prizewinners: that there’s far more inside than the outside, apparently, could possibly contain.

Shorter Story Category
Stories up to 1000 words


Runners up
Blood Relations by Anne Oatley
One by Paul Sheppard
All Her Tears by Catherine Edmunds
I Woman by Jen Squire
We, the Royal by Dan Micklethwaite

Gone by Anne Oatley
From the Back Streets of Havana by Jo Carroll
When Luck Runs Out by Susan Corfield
Leap of Faith by Tina Williams
The Collage of Acceptance by Jen Squire
Stopping by Woods by Sarah Steele
Park View Road by James Turner

Judge’s report by Sam Jordison

Special mention - Blood Relations
Handy Stop is a quality piece of fiction. It takes you right inside the head of its protagonist, enables you to think and see as he does, and to feel correspondingly uncomfortable about the world he inhabits. It has a sense of threat and danger as well as smart observation and comedy. It heads cleverly and nearly to a really good pay-off in the conclusion and seems like a really coherent, wonderfully complete whole.

Giraffe High felt familiar in theme and content - and yet the author brought real poignancy and fresh sadness to the story. It's touching and cleverly assembled and contains some memorable images and moments of quiet drama. In short, it struck a chord.

A Daniel is admirably strange and creepy. Some of the mechanics of the story may not have worked for me, but that didn't diminish from its disturbing effect and the quality of its humour and observation. It also has a quite brilliant final sentence that throws the rest of the story into yet darker relief.

Blood Relations is full of compassion and cruelty, lush in its imagery, and is smartly put together. It felt like an awful lot of time passed in a very short space and it was a story that could have done with 10,000 rather than 1,000 words, otherwise it might have edged into my top three.

Shortest Story Category
Stories up to 250 words


Runners up
Cables by Joanne Fox
A Vision of Knighthood by Tina Williams
Mapped by Marie Gethins
The Panda by Filipa Komuro
Destruction by Will Ingrams

Bear-Dog by Denny Brown
Developments by Adrian Hall
The Lost by E. Lowri Woods
Fading Colours by Anne Elder
Enough to Wake the Dead by Richard Bond
Residue of Night by Terry Kerins
Clockwork by Russell Reader

Judge’s report by Debbie Young

Five highly polished, tightly told stories stood out for me from the shortlist, apparently written by authors who relish the slim word count rather than resenting short rations.

Flight Path
This tiny love story about an unexpected connection with a stranger layers sparse prose with carefully coordinated detail. The bright orange wall in the opening paragraph is echoed by the streetlight halfway through, then by potential flames sparked by the closing word. The fiery images shine like a Belisha beacon in fog, against the cold grey of the geese on a wintry afternoon, reminding the reader to be alert to sparks amidst the ash of humdrum everyday life.  I felt as if I’d read a painting, as much as a story.  The well-timed crescendo leaves the reader wondering not only about the outcome for the narrator and her “bird man”, but also about one’s own near misses in life.

When the Bees Died
By contrast, this story’s focus was on global catastrophe. In the post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy that follows the extinction of bees, the main character’s greatest treasure is “half a jar of honey” (a powerful refinement, adding that “half”). With the foresight of a latter-day Noah, a former beekeeper has created a nuclear-style bunker, in which he smugly takes advantage of his apparent status as sole survivor. The author pulls off the impressive technical challenge of presenting the story entirely in the second person, which intrigues us to wonder who, then, is telling the story. This memorable, subtly campaigning story will make me think twice before dismissing the latest bee-crisis report in the news.

From the opening paragraph, this story is full to bursting point of rich, multi-sensory imagery, piling on texture as it packs in reflections on mortality, triggered by the back-story of a copper plaque on a humble park bench. While grounded in prosaic references to pubs and Tupperware, the narrative soars by the end to philosophical heights, with echoes of John Donne’s assertion that “no man is an island”, with a potted version of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man implying that we will all eventually by returned to dust by the busily “churning worms” - fabulous phrase! - beneath the bench. All in just 250 words - wow!

Special mention and commendation also for “Cables”, a magical realist story about a daughter’s unusual coping strategy for dealing with her manipulative mother’s death, and “A Vision of Knighthood”, a playful historical fable whose delightful closing twist returns full circle to the opening line.


The team at Words with JAM Towers would like to thank everyone who entered and all of our judges. If you're a winner or a runner we'll be in touch soon.

All the best,
JD Smith

A Daniel by Moya Green

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
3rd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

Graham Longshaw lived with his mother; though he was not thinking of her as he sat on the bench by the bus stop. He was waiting for his latest subject to arrive, and if she didn’t come soon she would miss the bus. They would have to wait for the next one. She might notice him. Not that any of his subjects ever had.  A man who lived with his mother was not the sort people noticed.

Ah, here she came, trotting along on her high heels, her bag clutched to her chest like a shield. Graham boarded the bus after her and took the seat behind. He wrote the time in his notebook, under the entry for Subject 13: woman, early thirties, medium height, brown hair. She had dragged her hair back into a pony tail today. It needed washing.

He pulled his hat down over his forehead. This was a battered black object which had belonged to his father, and had hung on the hall stand ever since his death. Graham wore it for luck, not that his father had ever had much. As a disguise it was a bit feeble, but  it made him feel like a different person.

The subject was speaking on her phone. ‘No, I haven’t, not for ages . . . well, of course I’d tell you.’ She glanced round, as if checking for enemies. It was her habitual air of mild paranoia which had first attracted Graham’s attention. A woman with a secret, he’d thought.

‘If he bothers you again let me know ... don’t worry, I’m all right ... yes, really. Look, I’ve got to go.’

She rose and made for the exit, Graham close behind. When the bus had gone he followed her, being careful to hang back. Never shadow the suspect too closely, the manual had said, in case they rumble you. He had found the book in a charity shop, and thought, why not? Why shouldn’t he? More future in it than filling shelves at the Pound Shop, and that only part time. Not that he could have worked longer hours, with mother the way she was. She’d been worse lately. You didn’t need any qualifications, as long as you were observant. Of course he wasn’t ready yet, he needed more practice, but maybe one day, when mother  –

He halted abruptly at a corner. She had stopped halfway down a cul-de-sac, key in hand, by a door that opened straight off the street. The key turned, the door opened, she vanished.

Now what? Graham ambled down the street. At the end he stopped to write the house number down in his book. He had her address now. He could knock on her door - no, too soon for that. This was just a preliminary reconnaissance. He started back, paused at her window. It was shrouded in dingy net. He sensed rather than saw a hint of movement inside.

The door opened. ‘Who the hell are you?’

Graham stood, slack-jawed.

‘Selling something? If it’s double-glazing I don’t want it.’ She seemed bigger close to. ‘Hang on, you’ve been following me. Don’t say you haven’t, I spotted you at the bus stop. And yesterday, in the shop.’

‘I – ’

‘So what are you playing at?’

Graham swallowed. ‘I’m a detective,’ he said.

Her hand came up to cup her mouth. ‘Police? Has something happened?’ She glanced down the street. ‘Here, you’d better come in. They’ll all be looking.’

Inside, she lifted a tangle of tights and a slipper off the end of the sofa. ‘Sit down.’

He lowered himself into the space. Every flat surface in the room was covered with stuff. There was a faint smell of dirty clothes stashed in cupboards.

She picked up a mug half full of a murky liquid. ‘Want a coffee?’

‘No thanks.’

‘So what’s he been up to now?


‘I suppose he’s still giving this as his address. Well, for your information, he hasn’t lived here for six months, nearly. I’m not having you tearing the place apart either, not without a warrant. And shouldn’t you have a badge or something?’

‘I’ve got a card.’ He had, too, with more at home, courtesy of a free offer on the Internet. All printed with his professional name and everything.

‘Daniel Hunter, Private Investigator,’ she read. ‘The sneaky bastard! He put you onto me, didn’t he? What does he think you’ll find – that I’ve got another bloke? Chance would be a fine thing.  And what’s it got to do with him anyway? Tell him he can mind his own business.’

Her face twisted. Was she going to cry? Please don’t let her cry.

‘He’s got no right. I put up with enough while he was here, now he’s buggered off he can leave me alone.’

He felt her spittle on his face. Talk about a lion’s den. Though she was more stray cat than lioness. She had a spot coming on the side of her nose.

 ‘Harassment, this is, there’s a law against it.’

 She waved the mug dangerously close. Oh God, she was going to throw coffee all over him, how would he explain that to mother?

‘And you can piss off as well, Mr Daniel Private Dick. Tell that creep to stay away from me. I don’t want to see him or hear him again, ever. You tell him!’

The door slammed behind him. He took off his hat to wipe his forehead. It was time he got home anyway, mother would be fretting. He walked back along the street, Daniel slipping away from him with every step. By the time he reached the main road he was Graham again. Only he smiled, as he waited for the bus. She believed I was a proper detective, he thought. She really did. And in his chest there uncoiled a thin small worm of hope.

Copper by Jessica Gregory

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
3rd PRIZE WINNER (250 word category)

‘Gordon Edmund Davey’, etched in copper, clouding in the rain, muddying a once gleaming surface, inlays turning green. And the sodden wood that holds it softens through the seasons; polyester backs rub against the supports and slowly polish off the surface. Four legs sink into the soft park soil that relentlessly turns with churning worms.

For Gary and Sue had fundraised at work, for his memory, because he liked that place –  there every Sunday, all weathers.  A collection box at the pub. Gordon’s picture on the front. Took a while, but eventually the grumbling punters reluctantly pushed the change from bitters behind his grinning face.  And Sue cake-saled at the town hall. Her famous banana bread sweating on paper plates, stale by the evening, unsold portions carried home through the dusk and drizzle in a Tupperware box tucked safely under her arm.

They’d argue over inscriptions, sentimentalities and witticisms. Gary suggested a quote. Oscar Wilde maybe, but Sue said Gordon didn’t care for poofy writers anyway. In the end, it was just ‘In Memory of’, predictably. It is stamped into metal on a Monday and polished to perfection on a Tuesday. And Gary holds it and rocks it to and forth so its sunset hue glints at him. Ready to be set in wood and cast out to the weather; to gangs of kids who stub cigarettes out on his name; and couples who fumble under darkness; and solitary pensioners, their bodies resting on the memory of another.

When the Bees Died by Pauline Brown

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
2nd PRIZE WINNER (250 word category)

It isn’t your fault no one else can see what is coming. You could warn them, but know they’ll think you mad. Besides, you neither owe nor expect anything. And so you tell no one.

You dig a cesspit beneath your cellar; stack the floor above with water-filled jerrycans, the shelves with tinned food, candles, matches. You buy gas bottles and camping stoves – alternate days, different stores, to be sure you remain unnoticed. Feigning illness, you hoard and catalogue the medicines prescribed. As you close the bolts above your head, you clasp luxury to your chest: a half-filled jar of honey, eked from your hives.

When the alarm clock sounds your thousandth day, you emerge and take a trip into town, your boots grinding glass and slapping through sewage. Crusted carcasses buzz in a heat haze of silence. Grateful for the protection of your beekeeper’s suit, you crunch through the carnage of a hardware store and find yourself a face mask.

On your doorstep: a belly-swollen man clutching a blackened, days dead dog. Holding your breath, you step over and return to your lair.

You run a nail along your tins and make your selection. A pang, unfamiliar and uninvited, sends you to your door, but man and dog have melted into the gutter. Returning to your platter of asparagus and salmon, you pour wine and sit down to a candlelit dinner.

You are alone, and all there is left for you to do is eat.

Flight Path by Mandy Huggins

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
1st PRIZE WINNER (250 word category)

Beyond the pier I watch two men as they repaint the end wall of the new apartment block a startling orange.

‘It’s the geese,’  explains a voice behind me. ‘The block has been built in their established flight path. On a dull day, or in the half-light of dusk, the geese think the grey wall is sky, and they fly into it.’

I know that it’s you without turning round.

I have replayed that winter evening a hundred times. A goose had landed on the bridge, stunned after clipping a streetlight. As the skein flew on down the river, it staggered, bewildered, caged in by railings and relentless traffic. It had no runway.

You walked towards me and our eyes met. Without a word you took off your coat and threw it over the bird. We lifted it swiftly to the top of the railing, held it steady for only a moment, and then stood back. As it took off, its wings and underbelly were up-lit by the street lamps, aglimmer against the darkening sky. We smiled, suddenly a little awkward, and mumbled a few words before walking on.

Our flight paths momentarily crossed, our wing tips almost touched, but we did not collide. And since then I have thought of you often; my bird man. I have carried your voice in my head.

And when I turn I can see you have thought about me too. This time we will collide; even if to crash and burn.

Giraffe High by Ken Elkes

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
2nd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

My old man showed up one afternoon while I was playing in the front yard - I hadn’t seen him for a year. He was driving a old brown Cadillac I’d never seen before and had two black eyes and a busted nose. When he called me over and said we were taking a trip to the zoo, I looked back at the house, but he said: “Don’t worry about your mother.”

We rode along for a while, not saying nothing, until I couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“You look like a panda,” I said.

“Then I’ll fit right in at the zoo,” he said.  

We saw the monkeys first. After a while a little guy in a uniform came up and said there was no smoking allowed. My dad said no problem and dropped the cigarette right there.

“It’s still burning sir,” said the little guy.

Dad just turned around: “See these monkeys, son, keep watching, they like to sling their shit around.”

The little guy bent down then and took the cigarette away.

We went to see the giraffes next and dad swung me up on his shoulders so I could be giraffe-high, though I was too old, really, for all that. He said they had giants living round back that worked at night, washing the giraffe’s necks. All they ate were black jelly babies and cheese puffs. The really good ones, he said, got put on elephant duty, ironing their ears. 

That had me laughing so hard I nearly fell. I wrapped my arms round his head to hold on and my chin rested awhile on a warm piece of scalp where he was thinning out. We stayed like that until he whispered “ice-cream” and lowered me down.

When we got back home, my mother opened the door before I got up the path. She told me I’d want to get straight to my room.

They went at it a long time. After it quietened down I saw him out of my window, hauling the old cedar wardrobe from her bedroom across the front yard, gouging a trail through the grass.

He had made that wardrobe from wood he stole from the sawmill, working there with his brothers, right up until they closed the place down. Made the hinges in the workshop and polished it till the light bounced off of it like a diamond. Whenever him and mom went out dancing they would both have that sharp, sweet smell of cedar on their clothes.

That wardrobe was real big. Too big really for one person to lift, even my dad. I wanted to go out and help him, but I could hear mom in the kitchen, trying to be quiet. So I just stood on top of my toy box, nearly giraffe-high, hoping he’d see me waving.

It took a long time for him to get the wardrobe on the roof of that Cadillac. It must have scratched the paintwork real bad. And when he drove away one of the wardrobe doors that wasn’t lashed down so good flapped open on a broken hinge, but he didn’t stop.


The last time I saw my old man, he was kind of weathered looking and seemed taller, because he was so lean. Mom had passed not long after my step-dad and when I called to let dad know, he said he wanted to be there for the funeral. For old times sake.

We drove back from the cemetery in a line of cars, the windows wound down so he could smoke. We passed along by the old sawmill, though most of it had rusted and got swallowed up by new trees growing through the roof.

“When were you happiest dad?” I asked and he didn’t hesitate, pointed straight at the old place. He told me uncle Mike always said they used to looked like tramps coming down from there, covered in dust and pockets packed with sharp tools.

“Maybe tramps, but we were rich then, really,” he said.

He smiled then: “I guess I didn’t quite make it to washing giraffes necks and ironing elephants ears did I?”

When I took him to the bus station that night, he took his bag from the trunk and leaned down, pulled my head forward, put his palm right where my hair was starting to go, rested it there awhile.

“Some things you just can’t get away from,” he said.

It was only later, when I was in bed with Martha and it was dark and quiet except for little Ruben, gurgling on the baby monitor, that I remembered one time I had to go the hospital with a fever and dad took me.

I don’t know if it was the fever or not, but the way I remember it he was standing at the foot of my bed, telling the nurse in a quiet voice: “Please, just remember the boy he doesn’t like apricots, or porridge or rye bread.”

There was just me, the nurse, my dad, all looking down at his hands as he counted off the list with those thick, dusty fingers.

Handy Stop by Will Ingrams

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
1st PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

It's a big city-edge superstore, just off the motorway, and it supplies all my needs - paracetamol for that slight headache, a bottle of wine for tonight and a sandwich for lunch, all combined with a stretch of the legs and the essential bladder relief. A lot cheaper than motorway services, and equally convenient; the answer to a travelling man's prayers, no less, and every little helps.

Do other people have the sponge-soled shoe problem?  Two hundred yards across a wet car park fills the pores of my comfortable but reasonably smart black shoe soles so that when the first heel strikes smooth tiles enough water sqeezes out to lubricate a yard-long disaster slide.  I know this, and enter the supermarket gingerly, conscious of both the need for extreme caution and my dainty prat-like gait.  I mince to the toilets first - I really should drink a smaller cup of tea on driving mornings.  It's only a pee, but I wash my hands thoroughly - I'm looking forward to eating a sandwich and possibly a bag of Hula Hoops with these fingers.  There are unpleasant noises blasting from the closed cubicle behind me, so I'm hoping the Dyson Airblades will do their thing in the promised ten seconds, before the odour cloud hits.  Then, hands in the heat stream, mouth-breathing, I hear the clack of the cubicle catch and a big guy in a black Metallica teeshirt exits straight past me, long legs striding.  That bastard didn't wash his hands, unbelievably, after that noisesome dump!  That's just disgusting, especially in a foodstore!  Some people, eh?  I don't want to touch the door handle, obviously, so I'm glad that a slow old chap with a stick ambles in, pushing the door open from outside.  I wait, smilingly polite, as he edges round the resisting door and I catch it, shoe soles dry enough now to support a nifty elbow hook of the questionable edge, and achieve a germ-avoiding exit.  Worrying that the old boy might think that it's my stink he's walked into, but a denial would be unconvincing, as I know from experience.

The sandwiches are near the entrance, so I have to backtrack for my coronation chicken pack then walk the length of the central aisle to check on the wine offers.  There's an australian shiraz at half price so I get two bottles and head for the pharmacy section.  Turning out past the ready meals I see the black Metallica teeshirt, walking beside a blond woman pushing their toddler-topped trolley, with a little girl walking alongside.  The dirty bastard's got a family, as well as the foodstore to infect!  His jeans are definitely mucky but his wife looks neat and clean.  The kids are nicely turned out too, given that babies are always a bit sticky around the mouth.  The little girl wears frilly socks inside red shoes and a pink sparkly top with her blond hair just brushing the collar.  I turn right two aisles early for the pharmacy, just to avoid them.

Clutching two bottles of wine, my chicken sandwich and the tablets I'm heading for the tills, but then I remember I need to see if they have a cheap coffee maker.  I'm worried that my existing one is nearing the age when its heating element will suddenly fail.  The electrical appliances are with the flatscreen TVs beyond the food, and I search in vain for a drip coffee maker.  Disappointed, I head back towards the checkouts through the children's clothes racks.

Rounding the corner of a bright display, I'm suddenly buffeted by a child running into my legs, and I only just manage to hold onto the second wine bottle - the box of headache pills falls to the floor.  It's the little blond girl in the pink sparkly top, and she's upset.  There are tears in her eyes and she backs away looking up at me.

'Hey, don't worry,' I say, smiling at her and crouching down.  I stand the two wine bottles on the edge of the display plinth.  'Have you lost your Mummy and Daddy?'

She nods and wipes her nose on a pink sleeve.  She is so tiny, so vulnerable.

'I can help you find them, I know what they look like.'  Then I get an idea that could just possibly make the world a safer place.  'Tell me, does your Mummy tell you to wash your hands when you've been to the toilet?'

She nods again, mouthing the word yes silently.

'Well,' I begin, but I decide this needs a more personal touch and start again.  'What's your name?  I'm Stuart.'

After a face-studying pause she says 'Lizzie,' quietly.

'Well, Lizzie, your Mummy is quite right.  You must always wash your hands when you've been to the toilet.  Otherwise you will get very poorly in your tummy.  It might ache a lot.'

Lizzie nods her head.  She knows this already.

'Well, I think your Daddy needs to be reminded about it, Lizzie.  Daddies know so many things that they sometimes forget a few of them.  Do you think you could tell him, every time you see him going into the toilet, that he really must wash his hands afterwards?'

Lizzie nods again and actually starts to say that she will, but at that point Metallica teeshirt hurries round the corner.  He spots Lizzie then looks at me and I stand up, backing away a step.  I don't want him to get the wrong idea.

'Lizzie!'  He says, 'We've been looking all over for you.  Where have you been?'

I notice, mouth-gapingly appalled, that he is holding a fresh baguette in his unwashed, hand; the right hand that, to me, appears to pulsate with deadly glowing bacteria.  He shifts the bread into his left as he advances towards me.

'Thanks mate.'  He says, smiling warmly, 'Thanks for looking after her.' 

He thrusts his right hand towards me, the bastard.  I know I have to shake it. 

Marriage by Robert Knox

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
3rd PRIZE WINNER (2500 word category)

After months of intrigue, careful planning, tense interviews with rigid parents, some tears, and more than a little ambivalence on the part of one of the principals, Penny and I were married by a criminal judge in her chambers, barely surviving a fiasco at the gates of the Nassau County Courthouse.

“We don’t just take people off the street, you know,” the Assistant Clerk of Courts told us.

The Assistant Clerk of Courts was a thin man with slicked back hair, a beige seersucker suit, and the defensive sneer of a middle-aged gangster with an inferiority complex. He looked more likely to offend the law than we did.

Penny stiffened at this figure of authority's callous and wholly unanticipated brush-off.

To her, we were hardly "off the street." We were dressed up for our big day. My teenage bride-to-be still liked to put her jeans aside occasionally and wear dresses. The one she wore this morning was off-white, a little tight and fashionably short. Not a mini; but straddling the line between respectable and every-male-eye fetching. Knowing me, the me that was, I probably neglected to comment on it.

I wore my best dress-up clothes, tied a colorful tie (not very well) and managed to comb my hair. But inwardly I was in my shell even before we were shocked.

To add to the looming disaster, a small posse of similarly attired friends of both sexes clumped into the clerk's office after us, the guys in paisley ties, the girls in colorful peasant dresses, ready to cavort on the courthouse lawn and shower us with rose petals. They had been "invited" to our "wedding," to use these terms loosely.

So here we were, the age's new people, on our way to changing everything in the dull brown used-up world we'd inherited from the older generation so that people like the assistant clerk, an aging greaser given a patronage job because his sister was married to a pol, would no longer exist. All we wanted from him was a bit of the old status-quo bureaucracy, a piece of paper, and here he was filling us up with his rules, showing us that we lacked decorum, that we lacked status and connections, and that exercising the little bit of authority life had given him was what he did. And making clear that the rules did not include special favors for self-important college hippies dressed up for Tomorrow Land.

"But we've got everything," Penny pleaded.

We had our properly authorized marriage certificate. We’d taken our blood tests. We were, finally, old enough. New York State required that a man be twenty-one to marry without parental consent; a woman a mere eighteen. I had turned twenty-one a week and a half before. Penny had reached her mark over a year ago.

The clerk shrugged and turned his back on us.

"So make an appointment," he called negligently, walking away.

Penny's face filled with tears over the petty bureaucrat's insult.

She had planned this day for months. It was the payoff to a series of nervy calculations designed to get her out of her house and away from her control freak mother that included talking me into the idea, confronting her incredulous unconsenting parents, abjuring her childhood Roman Catholic faith, consummating the pairing in advance in a Yale dormitory with the aid of a see-through negligee (and a determined sense of humor); and, finally, researching the marriage laws of the entire Eastern seaboard until giving in to the strictures of the State of New York for logistical reasons.

So she was not about to take "no" from a court underling simply because she had neglected to make an appointment for an act that would determine the future course of her life -- as if she were going to the dentist to get her pearly whites shined up. Lawful marriage in a civil ceremony wasn't a consumer choice, she thought, it was a right.

Besides, our crowd of eager witnesses now spilled out of the assistant clerk’s doorway into the corridor after us. Unseen hands closed the door.

I stared at the bouquet of flowers in the hands of my former college roommate Dana.
I recognized these flowers. They had been bobbing in the sunshine on the courthouse lawn when we walked into the joint twenty minutes before.

"Flowers," Dana said hopefully, pointing the blossoms at me.

But his red-head's face turned redder when my stony response indicated a knowledge of their provenance.

A female office serf, squeezing past us in the hallway, harrumphed her displeasure at our presence. Humiliated by the greaser bureaucrat's rejection, I half expected somebody to charge us with misappropriation of public property.

Seething at having the door to the future closed in her face, Penny glanced at me for support, but wasn't surprised by my look of blank-faced withdrawal. Everything about this day, even the idea of people watching us get married -- an invasion of intimacy just short of inviting people to watch us have sex -- made me uptight. I did not make scenes; I preferred standing in a crowd and commenting wryly rather than striking poses on stage. Only in my daydreams did I tell off figures of authority (however much they looked like aging greasers), a failing I have often lamented.

So if anyone was going to save the day, her big day, the bride would have to be her own hero.

Fortunately Penny, the person among us with perhaps the least impressive social background, was also the only one of us who understood best how these games were played.

She bit her lip, sucked back her tears, and flipped through her mental rolodex for someone with pull. A light bloomed in eyes bluer than the flag irises Dana and friends had ripped off from the courtyard.

She whispered a name to me, and when I shrugged evasively, turned away, swung her straight hair back, knocked on the door and intruded once more, alone and with elbows out, on the hidebound clerk's office. Some motherly type took pity on her and allowed her to use a phone. She placed a call to a Hofstra College professor who was not only a good history teacher but turned out to have a judge in his pocket.

A few minutes later -- miraculously, like the deus e machina in the ancient comedy -- we got word that criminal court judge Alicia Bernstein would see us in her chambers at the next break in her hearings.

“Where’s Judge Bernstein’s chambers?” Penny asked the greaser clerk who had given us the bum's rush, failing to keep the smirk out of her voice.

Mr. Big left off scratching his armpits and pointed down the hallway.

“Better hurry,” he said, between bites of a custard doughnut. “She’s got a full docket today. "

The judge fit us in between armed robbery and criminal assault.

Dressed in her dark blue county robes, careful in speech and manner, an evidently fair-minded middle-aged woman – judicious, I thought, was just the word for her – Judge Bernstein told us that weddings weren’t usually her line, but she was willing to do a favor for “Sam,” the liberal history professor who kept one foot usefully in the present day.

The judge started a bit as our small horde of followers crowded into her chamber doorway; then sighed and waved them all in.

"Who are your witnesses?" she demanded, needing to cull this mob for somebody useful.
I singled out Dana and Penny called on Liz, another Long Island lass who was a friend to both of us.

"All right," the judge announced, opening a small black book and eyeing a wall clock, "let's get started."

The judge read a few dryly unspiritual sentences. Little poetry in civil law, I thought. Penny and I spoke our lines, brief affirmations of eternal devotion. It was "I will," I was surprised to learn, rather than "I do," my familiarity with the procedure being limited to pop songs and screen references.

And then the thing was over and done with before I knew it, finished in a New York minute. I remember feeling vaguely disappointed, after so lengthy a build-up, that the laws of eternity required so little in the way of ceremony.

Did we even remember to kiss?

The judge's pronouncement of our new legal status was followed by one of those foolish and terrible "now what?" moments.

After so much furtive arranging to get the deed done, we had no idea what to do with the various representatives of our separate lives gathered to wish us well in a judge's chambers

Good Judge Bernstein cleared her throat, signaling it was time for us to begin our new life together somewhere else.

David Weller, a North Shore kid -- in Long Island terms that meant closer to the Jay Gatsby side of things than to the modest subdivisions where people like my parents "moved out" after World War II -- stepped forward to save the day by inviting everybody over to his family's "place" where we could hang out by the pool and drink green champagne.

Another new experience, I thought with a grateful, but ambivalent sigh. It wasn't enough to get married this fine June morning. I had lived twenty-one years without dipping a toe in anybody's "built-in" pool. Green champagne?

The next phase of our secret manipulations to rescue Penny from the bed and board of her "old-think" blue-collar parents kicked in.

To transport Penny and her fat suitcase up to a sublet in New Haven I had borrowed my father's car, a reasonably reliable but oversized Dodge, giving him some story about a day trip. We persuaded a younger friend of ours (Larry) to drive the car back and leave it in front of the house, under cover of deception. Unfortunately, Larry collided with a toll booth on the way back to Long Island and blew his cover by having to explain the incident to my father, as youthful honesty required. Honesty did not however extend to explaining to Dad where the hell I was. He then hightailed it off on foot, refusing the offer of a ride from my father -- one of the most decent people I've ever known, even though he too was an old-fashioned, conventional thinker who would fail to understand why we couldn't wait a year for me to graduate before we got married.

Penny's call, Dad. Chick couldn't wait.

That evening Penny and I walked to a telegraph office, a surprise to me that such things existed, to send telegrams to our parents, because neither of us wanted to spoil the day with a difficult long-distance phone call.

Our telegrams began: "Congratulations are in order to Mr. and Mrs...."

My poor parents. 

I still cringe remembering how callous youth can be.

The party wasn't over. More college friends found their way over to our new place, the sublet apartment in the nice part of town we got because it belonged to a good-hearted Yalie who didn't need it until fall and embraced our New Day way of thinking by casually reducing
the rent to zero. Although this last assortment of friends had chosen not to go all the way to Long Island to spend a few minutes in a courthouse, a reasonable enough decision, they figured the least they could do to mark the great event was hang out in our place and get us stoned for a few hours.

I had never figured out how to mix my loose-living, doper college friends with my old life in modest, ordinary-people Long Island, the principal representation of which was now my wife. My friends hadn't figured out yet how to relate to people who had just got married, a mind-blowing idea so far away from their own understanding of life it might be happening in another galaxy. And they didn't really know anything about Penny except she was a chick who wanted to tie the knot even though she wasn't knocked up. In this respect their attitude mirrored that of my parents exactly.

Nevertheless, probably because none of us figured out how to relate to my new status as a married man, the evening stretched on awkwardly long. The last two of these friends fell asleep on the living room floor, no doubt because it took less energy than to get up and walk home. Penny had long before excused herself to go the bedroom and try out the double mattress we had "borrowed" from a Yale dorm and installed on the floor there.

With my friends asleep, the apartment grew quiet. Penny emerged at last from the bedroom, wearing my brown bathrobe in deference to our visitors. She looked around the room -- a last cigarette burning in the ashtray, the scatter of empty soda cans and snack plates, two bodies crashed out on the floor -- and asked, "Is that cool?"

'Cool' covered a myriad of unspecified issues, from official (would the landlord mind?) to personal.

But her look plainly said, If this is your idea of romantic, it's certainly not mine.

I shrugged. I had no opinions. I remembered having some once, but where did they go?

"You want to come to bed?" she said.

But I hadn't decided whether it was "cool" to wake up my stoned out friends and make them go home, or let them sleep there undisturbed. It would be easier to leave them there in the hope that they would wake themselves up in a while, recognize the redundancy of their presence, and take themselves home.

"Not yet," I said. 

But the sleepers did not wake. I smoked more cigarettes until I got tired at last of sitting there in the silence of my new status, which felt less like a youthful embrace of freedom than an age-old paralysis. I turned off the lights and slipped away to the bedroom. My bride was, of course, already asleep.

I told myself this was not a conventional wedding night -- after all, we had already done the deed -- and decided not to wake her. It occurred to me to wonder, however, what two people said to one another after they said "I will." Or how to begin.

We slept back to back that first conjugal night. I didn't lie awake too long thinking about it, but I was beginning to suspect that all the planning we had done to get ourselves married without her parents' consent, and all the luck we enjoyed (and the pluck Penny demonstrated) in getting the civil authorities to play nice even though we hadn't followed their rules, was really the easy part. The hard part was just beginning.