flash fiction

‘Bloom’

This is the story that recently won the 2021 Bellingen Writers festival writing competition. It’s a piece of feminist political satire. Enjoy.

The five remaining competitors stood in a line on the lawn, cradling instant coffee cups and breathing out a collective cloud that mixed with the winter morning mist. An official drone zipped and hovered over the compound, just as it had done for the previous three days.

Sharlene looked down at her sweat-stained yellow ‘unisex’ tracksuit that was too wide in the shoulders and long in the legs, but too tight across the hips and bust. Clearly unisex meant ‘men’ with the label removed.

Since she arrived on Thursday, she had not been allowed to make contact with the outside world or to shower, and it was this second detail that bothered her the most on this final day of competition. She had woken that morning with patches of angry red chaffing on her thighs and in her arm pits and a strange yeasty smell she couldn’t quite explain. But a win today would see her secure pre-selection with the full endorsement of the Crooked Bay local government sub-branch; a win today would kick-start her political career. Her spring bud would finally come to bloom.

Yesterday she had won the penultimate challenge. The warehouse building at the side of the compound had been set up to look like a shopping mall. She had successfully filled her reusable bag with ethically produced items, returned a lost child to the help-desk, located a defibrillation machine and performed life-saving CPR on an elderly gentlemen and got back to the car in time for afternoon school pick-up. She even had time to apply red lipstick, and in the heady thrill of the win, she could hear the excited voices of the commentators and the film crew packaging sound bites to use in the publicity package. She felt as if she could win this.

The group were ushered towards the bottom of the compound, past the fence lined with thick sheets of black plastic. A group of organisers stood in close proximity, huddled around a cardboard box. The presence of the film crew signalled that this was indeed the site of the final challenge. A grey-haired man with a thick moustache and army boots ushered the competitors to form a line. In his arms were a stack of what looked like colouring books and he handed one to each competitor, along with a red pencil. He stepped back and in the click-flash of the cameras, addressed the group.

“This is your final challenge. It’s aptly called Policy Graveyard. One single wrong choice, one single error in political judgment, and your political career will be dead before it even starts. Frozen in the eternal winter suffered by candidates that no one will ever remember. But win, and you will already have a set of winning policies to take to the upcoming election.”

Sharlene smoothed down her tracksuit and took three deep breaths. She felt for the lipstick in her pocket as a rising sense of feverish excitement rose in her stomach and spread itself like thrush. Every sinew and surface of her body prickled with anticipation. She wanted this. Decision making under pressure. She could do this. Had to do this.

“You have ten minutes to complete the challenge. In your books are a series of ten gravestones, all representing potential policies. It’s a simple game of noughts and crosses. Cross out the policies you reject, circle the ones you support. Make a wrong choice and your political career ends today.”

The five competitors had a staggered start, one minute apart. Sharlene went last. As she dashed through the plastic covered gates, she could finally see what was on the other side. A path was marked out with arrows on the ground, and the large area was dotted with huge Styrofoam structures that looked like oversized clipboards. On each was taped a sheet of paper.

As she got closer to the first one, Sharlene could make out the words. One- FREE CHILDCARE- A tough one. In theory she supported it, but she knew that middle aged voters hated the idea of women mooching off the system. Men generally saw it as a women’s issue and struggled to find their own equivalent. She crossed it out. Two. CURFEW FOR TEENAGERS. Hmm. Circle. Three. COMPULSORY MILITARY BOOTCAMP FOR THE UNEMPLOYED. Smirk. Circle. Five, six, seven and eight were a series of centre right choices, no problems there. Nine. INCREASE THE RETIREMENT AGE TO 75. Okay, this was a challenge. She thought about her electorate. Lots were too young to care, lots had already retired. It was just the vocal 40-60s group she was worried about. She crossed it out. All that remained was number ten.

The final oversized novelty clipboard loomed before her. She could see on the oversized novelty clock that she had less than 60 seconds to make her final policy decision. QUOTAS TO ENSURE THE EQUAL REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT. Sharlene stopped and felt time slow down. She was a woman, so she wanted to circle it for herself and all the young women of the future. For them to attain the ripe autumn harvest of their struggles. But…she knew the arguments around merit and knew that endorsing it was a bad idea. She’d won these challenges fair and square. She could make ethical choices AND wear lipstick. She took her pencil and firmly crossed out the last policy on her list.

The other competitors were all laying exhausted on the grass, and the official came around to check their entries. Over the loudspeaker Sharlene could hear crackling and hissing and the reverb drilled into her frontal lobe.

“The successful candidate is Mitch Reynolds.” A murmur swept through the crowd. “And he will campaign for equal representation for men and women in government.”

Sharlene felt like she was suffocating in her unisex uniform. She felt the suffocating weight, like heavy woodsmoke in the dead of winter. On her skin the rash kept spreading like ill-informed votes across the map on election night.

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