Short story competition: Any other name

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►Read the shortlisted stories
Wuxi Plastic Surgery

“LISTEN to this!” she cried.

Cathy had long had the habit, in turns infuriating and endearing, of assuming he was ripe for interruption whenever she had the urge to share a newspaper snippet that she’d found.

She was sitting propped in the window seat, a cushion at her back, a coffee in one hand, and the cat nestled on her legs. There were plenty more snippets sure to follow as she was only on page four of the paper.

“Hmm…” Burl replied. He was deep in his own portion of the newspaper, very much focussed on the business pages.

“Listen. The headline is, ‘Shirls just want to have fun’.”

Burl raised an eyebrow. If he had been a cat, an ear may have flicked in Cathy’s direction.

“Next weekend, Newcastle will play host, it says, to hundreds of Shirleys from across Australia. The annual convention of the Shirley Group will kick off with a ‘meet and greet’ on Saturday, followed by a gala dinner and variety concert. Shirley van Rense, international bestselling author, will offer her witty observations about what it means to be a modern day Shirley.”

The other ear flicked. She had his attention now.

“Well?” Cathy went on.

“Good timing or what?”

She had a point. It sounded like this Shirley-fest in his own city was happening for a reason. Perhaps, it was time to come clean. He’d spent 40 years hiding from the burden his father had bequeathed him. His mother recalled, years later, that for the first couple of days after Burl was born she was too shocked, too exhausted, to raise an objection. She hadn’t had any strength to be the voice of reason.

So, before she knew it, the decision had been made. Burl’s father had issued the ultimate challenge.

Here you are, little one. Take this and do something with it.

Take what I bequeath and rise above it.

For the first five years it was no burden but, predictably, school became a nightmare. Other kids had plenty of fun at his expense – even some adults were downright cruel. What had his father been thinking to condemn him to this?

You can do it. Be strong. I know my gift will be good for you.

It was supposedly all about character building. But his parents had divorced when he was six and his sister just a baby, and thus his father had conveniently disappeared from their lives. If Burl’s character had been strengthened, his father wasn’t around to see it. And now Cathy was challenging him to confront his burden.

The next Saturday dawned grey and threatening. Sure enough, soon after breakfast the rain set in, heavy-dropped and persistent. Burl stood at the window seat staring at the dribbling pane dispiritedly.

“Don’t even think about it,” Cathy said as she came up behind him. “You’re going.”

He was tempted to invent back pain or even apathy, but Cathy was no flincher. She was on a mission and there was no getting around her when she was in this frame of mind.

Later that morning he found a car space near enough to the convention in the east end of town. He took his time, dragging the umbrella from under the back seat. This was going to be hard.

He made his way along the street to the venue, sheltering under his umbrella and dodging rain gushing over gutters. As expected, when he walked into the large room filled with middle-aged and elderly women, all eyes turned rapidly in his direction. What on earth was he doing here?

It was too late to turn around and he could feel Cathy’s presence prodding him in the back. Mustering every scrap of determination, he strode across to the registration desk.

The words had been going around in his head all week.

“I need to register,” he said. “My name’s Shirley. Shirley Redpath.”

Several sets of eyes blinked, before the efficiency of the event set in. The momentum of social introductions and questions carried him along from there. He ended up explaining himself several times, until it almost seemed the most natural thing in the world.

Despite his father’s determination to strengthen his son’s character with the challenge of Shirleydom, Burl had decided to call himself something else. One day when he was in grade four, a television program starring the old-style American actor Burl Ives had inspired him. “Burl” would be his name. A name redolent of Shirl and yet just about as masculine as a nine-year-old boy could imagine.

“What’s the collective noun for multiple Shirleys, do you think?” he asked Cathy when at last he made it home.

Cathy smiled up at him from her book. “A temple of Shirleys?”

“That’d be right. A temple of Shirleys. My spiritual home.”

Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in theNewcastle Heralduntil Friday, January 23.