He threw down the gauntlet

He threw down the gauntlet. First he paraded his finery, he touted his wares, teased them and then, he set a competition and waited. High up on his guardian throne, youthful, confident, he looked down at them and waited. Well, to be precise, he wrote while he waited. He wrote his stories, he wrote his articles, he wrote his comments. While they sweated and trembled and sharpened pencils and de-wormed computers. While they looked round with desperate intensity, lifting objects with words, pulling feelings with metaphors. While they picked their brains, and chewed their nails. While they read his shorts and his not very shorts, his books and his articles, trying to copy his style. He waited.

But not for long. For they sent him their texts, they catapulted their attachments, they emailed him their manuscripts in their thousands. They sent him their best, their not so best and their ugly. They showered him with words, pelted him with missives, they aged him with their enthusiasm. Until he was fed up, and sick to the bottom of his stomach. Until his eyes hurt and his brain drained. Nevertheless, he remembered his own beginnings. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. He gritted his teeth and read on, patiently. Still, he swore: never again. Never again.

Why did he do it in the first place? What possessed him? He keeps asking himself. Boredom? Like the King who lets it be known, whoever brings such and such treasure, slays this dragon, finds that trail, gets the princess? Sadism? As in I’ll make them sweat? Or interest? As in let me see what ideas they will come up with. Or simple loneliness? As in nobody writes to me? He wants to know what drove him to it. Seriously. Was it curiosity? As in let me see what the others out there are thinking? He scratches his head. And how is he going to judge them all? He sits back. Why, oh why? He stares at the screen; he stares. Will he ever know? Will he ever get to the bottom of it? He sighs. He decides to write a story about it. A short to enter in his own competition. A guardian angel joins the flock to be guarded. More to the point, a story to redeem himself. A short to begin again. He types: He threw down the . . .

This “short short” was one amongst several selected to be posted on the Guardian Unlimited website, for the 2004 “short short stories” competition judged by David Eggers. Sadly, it did not win!