The latest assignment was to provide a (longer) sequel to the six-word story ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’.
Long before Twitter, so urban legend has it, Ernest Hemingway crafted this mini-masterpiece in response to a bet that he couldn’t write a novel in half a dozen words. This turned out to be a load of old cobblers — at least according to Frederick A. Wright who, in a 2012 essay, concluded that there was no evidence that Papa was responsible for the story. In fact, versions of it had been in circulation from 1906 (when Hemingway was seven years old).
Regardless of who wrote it, the challenge seemed to capture your imagination inspiring sequels that ranged far and wide, from Scandi noir to Conan Doyle. The winners, printed below, are rewarded with £30.
‘They bought it,’ said Myra.
‘Them,’ corrected Frank.
‘No, no, the idea. They fell for the suggestion that the littl’un was dead.’
‘You don’t say.’
‘So,’ Myra continued, ‘if we want to get shot of the car, say…’
‘…we suggest that family tragedy is behind it! Brilliant! Both owners have lost a leg in a car crash! Sale!’
‘Better a train crash, Frank. Don’t want them suspicious.’
‘For sale: a garden, never glimpsed.’
‘Blindness has struck! Not a dickybird, a tragedy, lawn untrodden! Ker-ching!’
The postman’s rap was vigorous: he had sacks of cheques for them, a measure of local, national and even international sympathy. And the cards, pastel pinks and blues, so sorry for their loss.
Their judge (who may or may not have been called Hemingway) was a literature graduate. ‘Implication is not actuality,’ he insisted. ‘Keep your millions.’
It was the begging letters that finished them.
I know golfers with every iron who never put in a round and gourmets whose kitchens are equipped with everything but food. Yet when I tell people that my wife and I have all the trappings of a child without the thing itself, they edge away.
Those unworn baby shoes started it. The advertisement was the first thing to interest my wife after we’d decided that our respective jobs running children’s charities would leave us no time for a family. If I wasn’t enthused at first — romper suits and feeding paraphernalia hardly excited paternal instinct — I came into my own decorating the nursery and choosing toys and games for the cupboard. People think we miss a lot but we’ve had tremendous fun buying a bucket and spade for the seaside, tickets for the pantomime.
‘And Christmas?’ people ask, gingerly. The presents pile up, beautifully wrapped yet unopened; it’s better to give than receive.
She passed the card across the desk. It wasn’t the kind of small ad to start a customer stampede. But so what? I was paid to investigate, not second-guess a client. Especially when trade was slow.
‘You say this was written by Hemingway?’ I asked.
‘That’s what I want you to prove.’
‘He used a typewriter. I looked it up.’
‘I can see there’s no throwing dust in your eyes, Mrs Arbogast. To level with you, it’s a tad out of my usual line —’
I stopped because her hands had begun raiding her purse. Her fingers crept out full of folding money.
She was a rich lady with a holy wish and I needed my phone reconnected. I could play her along, concoct a report and make two people happy. Face it — push come to shove, not even a principled PI can be moral every time.
D.I. Lund surveyed Nyhavn from the discomfort of an Ektorp Valhöll chair in her dark Trolles Gade flat. One candle lit the gloom, which was decidedly un-hyggelig. Nielsen’s bleak, menacing Fifth Symphony compounded her feeling of foreboding. Even her Carlsberg tasted bitter.
Outside, it was snowing heavily. The sky was black. What did it all mean? Notes selling unwanted baby shoes, Lego models of Kierkegaard, bodies mutilated…? Her mobile rang. It was Knut Knutsen.
‘Need to see this, Ma’am. We were ordering back the tide. Found another body.’
‘Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,’ Lund muttered, not for the first time.
‘No feet?’ She knew the answer.
‘No legs neither,’ double-negatived Knutsen. ‘But there’s more…’
Lund arrived at the Bridge, smiling grimly at probably the ugliest duckling in the world. Then she saw the body. Of course, no need for baby shoes. ‘It’s…!’ she gasped.
‘Yes, Ma’am. A little mermaid.’
They were the woman’s choice, as soft and pink as the satin men use for coffin linings. These are things of death, he told her. They are not for learning about the hard earth, how to walk tall and understand how the earth moves. They are not for learning cojones.
She had looked away at that.
He flicked his line over the water. It was good fishing. When he went home with his prize the shoes would be gone. She would have the money. Then she would cook and play with the child. She could play with the child until he was ready to walk with his strong bare feet, this child of his loins. Perhaps tonight they would move the earth.
It was not a big fish but it would do. He thrust it at her. The shoes, she said. You know your child, she is a girl. Remember.
Your next challenge, in honour of Muriel Spark, born 100 years ago, is to provide a poem entitled ‘The Ballad of [insert place name of your choice]’. Email entries of up to 16 lines to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 21 March, please.