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Short Story Competition 2023 Amy Marie Montegriffo Overall Winner ‘Walking to School’

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

I'm up at six thirty. It's not by choice- my alarms are persistent- and it always takes forever to get
up and dressed. School technically starts at nine, but I walk, and leaving any time beyond eight
is too late. I grab my lunch and stuff it into my satchel before swinging it over my back. My body
groans, but I have to go. After all, I'm the teacher.

It's a long road to school, and it stretches in this cold. Headphones and music block out
the wind at least; my mismatched coat provides some relief from the sharp breeze that snakes
down my sleeves, even if my long cardigans awkwardly hang beneath my coat. Jumpers, no
matter how thick, are useless. This wind is so forceful I'll feel the cold seeping in through the
stitches. I'm going to have to stay mismatched and awkward a little longer.

The world is a soft grey, with watercolour lilac blurs. I taught a child who loved the sky.
She wouldn't work unless I showed her photos of the sunrise. I think of her whenever the
heavens glow pink.

Orange shimmers over the cemetery. I don't know who decided that it should be built in
the east. I want to thank them. I imagine bodies warming after freezing nights, stretching once
the light hits them first out of everyone in this city. Tired eyes blinking. The softest smiles in the
sunshine. My grandparents were always so cold before they died. Maybe they have some
warmth now. I held their hands softly, heating them in mine. Maybe if I kept them warm a little
longer they would have lived a little more. As I pass the gate to the cemetery and glance at the
burning sky, I think the same thing I do every day- / love you. Have a great day. I like to hope
every day is a great day after you've died.

Pass the church. Do the sign of the cross. Switch my phone back to my right hand.

Cemeteries are never scary. My sister says she feels nothing, that people are no longer
there. Part of me wishes I could feel like that. Part of me is relieved I don't. There's a peace
among the dead that you can't find anywhere else. They're grateful you're there. It was always
like that, even when they were alive. They were just so grateful you were visiting or calling. I
know I didn't call every day, but I hope I called enough so they know I loved them. I hope they

There's a snail crawling up the wall. It's smaller than the nail on my smallest finger and
brighter than the whitest pearl. I see him every day.

My grandfather used to show me where snails hid in the garden- big, ugly brown things,
and I loved them. I loved all the bugs. I loved tracking in dirt on bare feet and running through
the house and making cabinets shudder. I loved finding all the things my grandfather told me
about like books and keys and fencing swords. I don't think many children played with pebbles
or torches or stethoscopes, but those were my toys at his house. I would listen in the room
above my family, too little to sit at the table but old enough to press the stethoscope to the floor
and hear their voices float through the earpiece. My grandfather always thought I was clever. He
loved how much I could read. When he died, and I went upstairs to be with the books, I stroked
the spines he told me all about. I was born to read, and he gave me that.

I have to pause now. There are too many cars. No one knows how to use an indicator
around here. My grandmother used to pray for parking. Can you imagine that? But she always
got it. She always got the parking.

I teach at the school she taught at. All the teachers knew her. The school knows her. It's
not the same building, but she's there. In the painted house shields, in old photos and
documents. She said she designed the school badge and if someone tells me that's wrong then
I know they're a liar, because my grandmother always told me the truth. If nobody is in the
photocopying room I can crack open the old school records, pages and pages of her most
beautiful handwriting, the one she died with. I don't read the words. I become lost in her loops
and swirls, in how she sat me down the first day of middle school and made me perfect my
writing from a child's to an adult's. It's untidy but she gave it to me. I was born to write, and she
gave me that.

I push open the school door. My girl, the one who loves the sunrise, darts towards me for
a quick hug. She runs off before anyone else finds her. I haven't taught her for two years now.
As I'm walking down the corridor, I'm constantly questioned. Kids I haven't taught in years say
they missed me over the weekend. Maybe I was born to teach.

Maybe I was born to carry them. I was born to read and write and teach in their name. To
love music like my grandfathers, to create like my grandmothers. Baking bread and flipping
cards, the click of camera shutters and clack of needles. To brush colours like she did. To play
piano, even though his died before I was born. To hold my niece who holds her name. How can
they be dead when I carry their parts in my life, my mannerisms, my eyes? How can they be
dead when their legacy lies longer than the coldest road? How can they be dead when they
never left? How can I be anything but proud?

I'm at my classroom now. I click on the lights. I hope we have a good day.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:

Amy Marie Montegriffo with Walking to School. This story is a meditative piece which weaves a strong bond between the living and the dead. Traditionally, cemeteries are forbidding places, where death seems to reign supreme. However, our teacher, the protagonist of our story, finds the cemetery she walks through on her way to school, a comforting and uplifting place. Here, she feels, the living, if sensitive and loving enough, can commune with those who were your nearest and dearest. She recalls holding her grandparents’ hands when they were dying. Surely, now, the coldness of death has been dissipated by the warm rays of the rising sun. Our teacher acknowledges a debt of gratitude to her grandparents. Grandfather’s odd collection of books, fencing swords and his stethoscope are now treasured objects, reminiscent of her beloved ‘grandpa.’ The speaker was also inspired by her grandmother’s example and followed her into teaching and became an avid reader and writer because of her.

It is gratifying and inspiring to see that in an age when we all seem to be hurtling into a precarious future, entangled in financial worries, suffering from failed relationships, aware of violent conflicts we can neither remedy or stop, Amy Marie has cast a loving, nostalgic glance at the past, thereby resurrecting old memories and fond recollections. The past here is recreated lovingly and gratefully and shown to permeate the present. She acknowledges the past lives on in the present and our lives are all the richer for it.

This piece is full of lyricism, poetry and deep feeling. Eliot’s bold statement comes to mind, ‘the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.’ Congratulations, Amy Marie.

Adult Category Winner Mike Nicholls ‘Arthur’s Antics’

An institutionalised Casanova, a Romeo, a libertine, the legend that is Arthur was the alpha male. More tenacious and unyielding than most of his peers, Arthur used the desire for a hierarchical structure within the company he kept, to his advantage.

Philandering and food were Arthur's main obsessions. He didn't know how many offspring he'd fathered. He didn't know how many calories he'd consumed. He simply had a female fetish and a yearning for food.

To maintain his figurehead status and role as the unelected commander of his throng, Arthur would
ensure daily acts of heroics.

Embezzlement of other people's belongings curried favour amongst his peer group. Taxis were his modus operandi to launch an unexpected assault. Younger members of the clan provided the distraction. Arthur homed in on his prey, a handbag, a holdall. His exit strategy was perfected by his athleticism, strong limbs, split second decision making, and fearless positioning.

Gang violence was common. Territorial warfare fought with bare knuckles intensified the unison within Arthur's tribe, their turf defended constantly with agility and guile.

Arthur's reign had begun in 2014 when on a rare foray outside his patch, he noticed that a rival clan
had vanished, an evaporation of enemies and an opportunity for his own grandeur. Bloodying himself from brambles and decaying wire fences, Arthur gathered his clique to make a public avowal of his Herculean task. "l have rid our neighbourhood of the antagonists" he declared adopting Churchillian splendour. With the fiefdom enlarged from his mythical act, Arthur was catapulted to immortal stardom.

Copulation was effortless, intimacy arduous. Arthur bore no remorse nor unilateral desire. Parenting in absentia was an accolade not a misdemeanour. Despite this, Arthur was generous with his time, coaching youngsters with survival and enrichment techniques akin to the Artful Dodger's nurturing of Oliver.

Arthur's day job was in tourism, hosting a site of historical significance. Surprisingly reliable and remarkably charming, Arthur dictated his own hours of work. He enchanted the unprepared visitors with his wide smile, inappropriate banter and erratic mannerisms. The free food and accommodation from his employer ensured his allegiance whilst the perk of private healthcare along with his physique meant that Arthur had never phoned in sick. Indeed, he probably didn't know how.

The Covid years had remodelled gang culture. Tourism died as Wuhan's export shuttered Arthur's
turf. Boredom and social deviant behaviour are inextricably linked. Furlough was manna from heaven for some, an incendiary ticking mental health time bomb for others. Arthur grappled with the monotony of time, the tedium of empty space and the apathy within his community.

"Brothers and sisters, we can fight for fun or make peace with our adversaries. Eradicate the enemy or love our neighbour. Seek unity or spill blood" he pronounced. The aggressors saw no victory in peace. Theirs was the louder voice. However, with time an expanse of infinity, and suffrage granted to even the youngest of minors who could assemble themselves at the polling station, the quiet majority triumphed. Arthur was mandated to seek reconciliation and goodwill, to emancipate his brethren from daily threats of hostilities and belligerence from the neighbouring foes. Sovereignty of
Arthur's turf was non-negotiable. Cooperation and friendliness the target.

As a youngster, peace and love was the mantra of his then idol, John Lennon. But survival and stardom had overwhelmed Arthur's innermost emotional standpoints and a fierceness had engulfed him. Detaching these negative emotions unburdened his soul. However, could he deliver to his people?

Arthur's antagonist on the other side of the fence, the indiscernible, undetectable boundary dividing two communities of fellow anthropoids, was of equal stature. Muscle and vigour, potency and might, evenly balanced. A summit was approved by both sides and the spearheads of both packs assembled with their respective disciples. Arthur met Jonas, singing his favourite ballad to himself en route.

Christ, you know it ain't easy, You know how hard it can be, The way things are goin', They're going
to crucify me

Monotony had driven hostilities further as a form of entertainment. How could the tediousness of Covid be unwrapped to unravel a gift of diversion, distraction and amusement? Arthur knew that wealth creation and shared prosperity could be the trigger. Would Jonas work with, not against, his old foe, setting aside the history of sieges and resentment, intimidation and conflict? Would he work
towards collaboration and mutual understanding? Could Arthur's gang freely enter Jonas' turf? Would Jonas' contemporaries be welcomed into Arthur's patch?

Arthur had studied Eisenhower for his day job and knew that the mantra "for history does not long
entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid" from the president's inaugural speech, would
inspire his impending journey.

One summit led to another, the silence of progress deafening to his people.

Covid eased. Tourists returned.

Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, is the negotiating mantra. Arthur had stuck to his red lines, knew his concessions and Jonas' troupe were welcomed like brothers in arms, or perhaps we should more honestly state, apes in arms. The Windsor (Suspension Bridge) Framework would be Arthur's epitaph.

Arthur once again amused the holiday makers in his inimitable, mischievous manner. Jonas led excursions to deeper furrows. Their respective followers fleeced day-trippers of their worldly goods.

Life was good. Shared prosperity the present, not a figment of a distant imagination.

As the most gregarious, convivial, and beloved of the barbary macaques, and with a lifespan of duty to maintaining Gibraltar as British, Arthur Ape of Apes Den, Nature Reserve, Gibraltar, won the Mayors Award, before returning to his duty and the humblest of passions: sex, theft and tourism.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:

Mike Nicholls with Arthur’s Antics. Mike’s animal fable of gang rivalry, machismo and uninhibited sexual exploits, contains a masterly and acerbic commentary on contemporary affairs, the machinations of smug politicians and the lust for awards and medallions which has recently spread in our society.

Arthur is immoral, a hedonist, unscrupulous and wily. He seemingly leads a gang unopposed and wins the approval of others with a ‘wide smile, inappropriate banter and mannerisms.’ He is obviously quite a character and indulges his primary passions, eating and coupling, without restraint. Most of the time, as we read this enthralling narrative, we see Arthur as just another alpha male, but hints here and there, make us wonder if more is going on than meets the eye. References to Churchillian oratory, the Covid 19 pandemic, Eisenhower’s mantra and Oliver Twist, clearly point to another, deeper level of meaning. The protagonist may turn out to be just another pugnacious macaque, but Mike has cleverly used his story to comment incisively on our relations with Spain, our tourist product, and our fetishizing of medallions, and our panic over the pandemic and the agony of lockdown. This is writing in the hallowed tradition of satirical comment so prevalent and powerful in the eighteenth century and expressed so powerfully in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Mike’s story is in the tradition of the animal fable-brutal at times, ingenious in its many layers of meaning and brilliant in its conception. This is writing of a very high order and Mike richly deserves his place as the winner of this category.

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