In 2010 I entered “Nightsafe” for Hawkesbury River Writers’ Round Robin # 32 Readability in-house competition which I was pleased to win. The following was the comments made by the President at the time, Rogi Moulton:
Round Robin #32 A Twist in the Tale!
Congratulations to all the entrants for a richly diverse and entertaining collection of stories. The aim was to write a tale with an unexpected ending and I think everyone achieved that very well – in some cases I could sense what kind of ending might pop up, but when it came to it I can’t say that any of the endings were actually expected! The voting was quite close between the top three places, but one entrant set the pace from the beginning, stayed ahead of the field and came out a clear winner –Robert Borg, with entry #4: “Nightsafe”. Well done! Please see the end of this document for the names of the writers who entered. – Rogi
At the end of my story you will find comments made by members: all offer great criticism, which although may sound negative, are in fact the most constructive of all as they high-light areas of improvement. This is something all writers aspire as it makes their work better.
Copyright © Robert L J Borg 2010
The streets were practically deserted as Claire left work and headed for the railway station at St. Leonards. The offices she worked at had been located on the North Shore for the past ten years, having previously been at Mascot, near the airport. Even though she lived in Petersham, which had been more convenient for her to travel to work at that time, the present office location was more pleasing than the industrial complex they had been before and therefore, she didn’t mind the extra travel time.
Having placed her magnetic strip ticket through the electronic barrier, Claire made her way onto the platform. The station was still busy with commuters, and several people milled around her. She glanced at her watch. It was six forty-five. She then looked at the train indicator board above her head. The next train was nine minutes away.
It seemed to take forever, but soon a black, grey and yellow Tangara train had pulled up alongside her and she stepped inside as soon as the electronic doors slid open. She sat down on one of the hard, uncomfortable seats by a window.
The journey to Central Station was pleasant at the best of times during day light hours, especially on the approaches of Sydney Harbour. At night, with the array of coloured lights on the various office buildings around the city displaying their company names in shades of blues and reds, the skyline was spectacular. With brightly lit ferries gliding on the water’s surface, as they crossed from one side of the harbour to the other, resembling tiny fireflies, the scene took on a magical ambience.
On arrival at Central Station Claire alighted from the carriage and made her way to the platform for the train which would take her to Petersham. It was a suburb of Sydney which grew up in the late eighteenth century, often referred to as Little Portugal, as the suburb’s residents were predominately from Southern Europe, particularly Portugal. It is graced with a pleasant mixture of modern and colonial architecture, consisting mainly of terraced housing giving it a European feel.
Claire stood at the centre of the platform reading the indicator board. When she was satisfied the next train would stop at her destination she turned to face the tracks. At her feet the edge of the platform was painted with a thick white line. On it, painted in reflective blue lettering, the words: “Nightsafe Area” stood out assuring passengers security when travelling alone at night.
When the train arrived, Claire was disappointed to see that it was one which had the older styled carriages. These were carriages which when travelling in summer, the air-conditioning never worked, and in winter the heaters were just as inadequate. She glanced at the top-level and saw it was empty. On the lower level were an elderly oriental couple and she decided to sit near them. They were surrounded by numerous packages and plastic carrier bags, most which were adorned with slogans in an oriental language which Claire assumed to be Mandarin. From these, the tops of various types of vegetables protruded and Claire wondered what delicious meals would be created by them. As she sat facing the front of the train she noticed there was yet another passenger in the carriage.
Sitting at the far end, facing her, was a man dressed in black and sporting wrap-around extremely dark sun glasses. Claire was always amused by people who wore sunglasses when it wasn’t sunny or at night! It was then she noticed what looked like a white stick, propped up near him, and she castigated herself at having such callous thoughts. She looked away, but it wasn’t long before her curiosity got the better of her, and she found herself studying him again. His skin appeared taut, as though made of wax. She could see his hands as they clutched a black briefcase, held on his lap as though it contained some precious treasure. They were large, powerful hands, and for no apparent reason they made her shudder, so she once again looked away.
The sound of boisterous voices coming from behind her made her catch her breath and she stole a glance at the man in black, as though seeking some reassurance he may protect her should anything bad eventuate.
“What d’you reckon, Ron?” a voice boomed out with malicious undertones.
“Yeah, Mate, I think you’re right!” laughing loudly in response, “the bloke was definitely gay!’
“Did you see his face when I pulled my knife on him?”
“What a prick!”
“Yeah, and what was that smell?”
The mixture of vulgarity and laughter made Claire cringe. She felt sorry for the man they had obviously abused, tormented and attacked. She could sense herself begin to perspire; her breathing became shallower. She wondered if the man in black was really blind. Would he be able to help her?
“Hey. Steve! Take a look at this!”
The array of wolf whistles and crude remarks that followed confirmed her worse fears. She had been spotted. Within seconds three young men had surrounded her. Ron sat directly behind her, immediately toying with her long blonde hair. Claire leant forward, swinging around to confront him. Before she could say anything, Steve had pushed the back rest of the seat in front of her forward so that he could sit facing her. He promptly sat down grabbing her knees in the same movement, and proceeded in prising them apart. Claire yelped and tried to jump to her feet; but the third youth, who was still standing placed his hands on her shoulders and thrust her back down hard into the seat.
“And where d’you think you’re going?” he said viciously.
“Nice one, Dave!” echoed Ron as he pulled on her hair yet again. “You’re going nowhere.”
“Why don’t you get lost before I call the guard?” Claire stammered defiantly. She glanced over at the man in black; Dave followed her gaze and spotted the subject of her interest.
“What have we here? It’s not Johnny Cash is it?” He said venomously and stepped over to where the blind man was seated.
Dave looked down at the man noticing his sunglasses. “Hey! They’re Ray Bans!” He said, snatching them off the man’s face revealing two unsightly scars above the bridge of his nose and across his two eyes; a souvenir of the Vietnam War during the late 1960’s. On feeling the glasses being removed he instinctively lifted his left hand to stop them being taken. Dave slapped it away with the flat of the blade, its point nicking the tip of a finger, drawing blood. Then placing the glasses upon his own face, he picked up the white cane, turned towards his friends and lumbered down the aisle hitting the seats on either side with the cane, pretending to be blind. His friends roared with laughter, encouraging his antics.
Claire was disgusted and stole a look at the blind man, who now had his head down as though he were looking into his briefcase. She could see he had opened it as the lid was propped against the seat in front of him.
The oriental couple began to gather their parcels as the train began to slow approaching the next station. Without warning Dave discarded the white cane and lurched at them, knife in hand.
“Oh no you bloody don’t, you old bastards!” he screamed at them, preventing them from moving.
“Please, please. No trouble. Please?” The old man pleaded.
“Leave them alone!” Claire shouted.
The youth swung around.
“Or what? Call the guard?”
The three men laughed in unison.
“He won’t help! He’s too scared to come out here.” Dave scoffed, promptly sitting down near his friend facing her and placing his feet on the seat next the frightened woman.
“D’you reckon she’s wearing any knickers?” Dave crudely remarked.
“Why don’t you find out, Steve?” Ron taunted, pulling at Claire’s hair tighter, ensuring she wouldn’t be able to move.
As she felt hands on the inside of her thighs, she felt tears trickle down her face. Her assailant was grinning like a Cheshire cat, whilst looking over at Dave who had stood up to resume tormenting the oriental couple with his knife.
“Hey! Dave? D’you want some of this?” Steve smirked.
Claire lashed out with clenched fists, hitting him hard to the sides of the head as he had leant forward to look up her skirt.
“Ahh! You bitch!” he yelled looking up abruptly, facing her. His hands now moved to her throat and he began squeezing gently.
“I should kill you now, you bitch!”
Gagging for breath, Claire grabbed at his hands, digging her sharp finger nails into them, but a tug from behind made her slacken her grip.
No sooner was she pulled back, she heard a short muffled cough, followed by what felt like a butterfly wing stroking her cheek. Instantly the grip on her hair relaxed and Steve let go of her throat. The look of fear in his eyes made Claire glance around to see a small red dot appear on Ron’s forehead. His expression was one of total shock. The next few seconds seemed to last a lifetime as everything around her moved as though in slow motion. It was a surreal sensation. Two more “coughs” followed in quick succession and from Ron, her gaze fell upon Dave who had dropped his knife and was slowly crumbling to the floor with a similar red dot beneath his hairline. Even before he fell completely, she sensed Steve slumping over in his seat. Looking down at him, she could see blood oozing out of his mouth, nose and ears.
The oriental couple was hysterical as they quickly gathered their packages and made a move to escape.
Trembling, Claire glanced up at the man in black; the expression on his face revealed no sign of blindness and there was a thin smile on his lips. In the same instance he was unscrewing a long metal-looking tube from what looked like the barrel of a gun. She watched as he closed the brief case, stood up, holding it in his right hand. He then walked down the carriage to where Dave was lying. Retrieving the sunglasses and wiping blood off them using Dave’s T-shirt, he replaced them on his own face. Then picking up the cane from the floor he calmly made for the carriage doors.
Claire could hear screaming in the background and realised it was her own voice. The train had stopped. New passengers boarding the train were confronted with the carnage and raised the alarm.
Through teary eyes Claire glanced out of the window searching for the mysterious gunman. She vaguely caught sight of him briskly walking towards the exit on the platform and disappearing into the darkness.
Bev: I was with Claire the moment she was at St Leonards. The story identifies and captures all the characters personalities. The beginning has an easy pace to it until the men enter the carriage. It quickly accelerates until WHAM giving us the ending that was required. I have to comment on paragraph 5. The history of Petersham is irrelevant to the storyline, for me it spoilt a great story.
Lynette: A gripping tale cleverly narrated, building up to a real climax.
Julianne : I have given this tale my third highest vote. I found this story to be a rip-rollicking yarn, quite readable. I feel that the piece could have been tightened up with some editing. You have made your story too ‘wordy’ and sometimes ‘less’ is ‘more’ when it comes to ease of comprehension. Also watch sentence structure. (See the last sentence, Para 4.) If I may give an example of editing: Para 4: “During the daylight hours, the journey by train to Central Station is striking, especially the southbound approach to the city over the Harbour Bridge. At night, the office blocks come alive. Their vivid signage, illuminate the skyline with dazzling colours of blues and reds thus transporting the scene from striking to positively spectacular.” (The writer cannot automatically assume that the reader is intimately familiar with the geographical location. As is in the words of a popular song….
(‘You have to spell it out’). This reader was getting just a little bit confounded with our protagonist’s travels from St. Leonards to Central Station. It’s all a little bit too wordy. Once again, stressing the need to Edit! Edit! Edit; with a view to simple comprehension, thus ‘readability’. If I may give another example of editing: Para 4 last sentence: “The brightly lit ferries seem to glide like tiny fire flies across the surface of the water, creating a truly magical ambiance.” The metaphor is slightly inappropriate (I tend to think of ‘fire flies’ as flitting rather than gliding and ferries gliding rather than flitting), but it’s acceptable as a means of evoking a romantic aura. This story is well worth thorough editing and I enjoyed it very much.
Meryl: Good tight writing. Very readable. Good twist, though a little predictable after the war was mentioned. Making it later in the night would give it even more menace.
Christine: A tense little tale, one with a justified although rather horrifying end.
Hugh: Initially the language seemed wordy and laboured. Some sentences seemed too long and awkward for good readability. However, the pace built up nicely as the sentences became shorter. Was this the writer’s intention? If so it worked. I became totally involved in the story so readability improved out of sight. Maybe the last sentence could have been dropped for greater “sting”.
Ian: A lot of crisp action-oriented story telling with background and scene information blended well. The tension was increasing as the story unfolded. The impact of the last few moments could have been heightened with very few sentences revealing the truth about him, as he disappeared quickly into the night. Perhaps a hint this was yet another success for this vigilante. And we were never really quite sure until the very end .. the best kind of twist.
Alan: The wild west shoot ’em up ending didn’t match the captivating build up phase of this very nicely written story so perhaps a more plausible (and perhaps more twisting) way for a blind person to assist Claire could be devised?
Rogi: A terrific story, extremely well written, and highly readable. It flowed easily and I wanted to know what would happen. One word struck me as not quite right: when Claire hits Steve and he gets angry and calls her a bitch, he squeezes her throat “gently” – I wondered if “roughly” might be more realistic. Also I’d like to query the moment when Claire looks at the blind man and wonders if he is really blind and whether he can help her. This seems to me to be forecasting the ending. Why would she even doubt if his blindness was real? Although I didn’t know exactly what would happen at the end, it didn’t really surprise me when it turned out the man wasn’t blind, because of this early clue or signpost to the twist that was coming. But I don’t want these comments to detract from the story, I found it most enjoyable to read.
I have been thinking about building on this short story and making it into a novel – perhaps one day Alexander Grant may find the time to do just that. In the meantime he is taking a rest after completing “The Sword and the Rose” and is planning his next novel “Out of the Darkness”.
RLB – Tomewriter