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'Decisions, Decisions' is a short story by Christie Cluett. It was published by Magic Oxygen Publishing after being shortlisted in the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize. There were over 800 submissions the year Christie entered. 10 stories made it into the anthology.
Magic Oxygen present a unique incentive to submit to their competition. In addition to offering generous cash prizes, they plant a tree for every entry received and supply the entrant with coordinates to it, should they want to visit it. At the time of writing, they have planted a Word Forest that's 11 times the size of Wembley Stadium. It's a great initiative.
Christie's story contains quite a lot of swearing. This is a subject matter I'm often asked about.
I think the use of profanity is subjective. However, when it's used to build character, rather than shock the reader, it can be very effective.
Christie has written about why she chose to use profanity in the story. She met some of the judges at the Magic Oxygen prize giving event, and has talked about those experiences too.
If you'd like to write for my blog, please check out my submission guidelines.
Lola was biting her fingernails with gusto, wishing she knew what to do. She was standing outside, looking at the rain. She gripped her umbrella as she stared at the covered bus-stop only feet away. Bus or walk? She pushed the left earphone deeper into her ear and wished she was back in her office. Outside was chaotic with decisions waiting to be made. Bus or walk? She was tapping her leg with a jittery finger. Bus or walk? It shouldn’t be this difficult.
She looked up from no-man’s land as the bus came around the corner. This was it, the moment to decide, but ‘what if’s’ were keeping her stuck to the floor.
What if the bus crashes, what if a drunk breathes on me, what if I fall in love with the bus driver, then we get married and have kids that I can’t love and fall into the arms of a passing stranger, who turns out to be a brother I never knew I had?
What if I walk and then catch the flu, then pneumonia? What if I’m pulled into the park and raped, or not raped? What if I get lost? What if I’m struck by lightning and get super-powers and all the responsibility that goes with them?
Decide, she screamed at herself, which didn’t help. The music in her ears was reaching a crescendo and her heart-rate with it. She told herself to calm down; took a deep breath and made a decision. Bus. She hurried over to the stop, her flimsy shoes splashing through puddles. As she stepped onto the bus, she smiled. Decision made. She reached into her bag for her purse but then the edges of her vision dimmed.
Damn it, she thought, as her periphery turned completely to black. She’d made the wrong decision. As the world went completely dark, and she began to fall, Lola wished she’d just walked.
“What the flying pig fuck, was that?” Harold. His face was close to purple again.
Lola was sat in a plastic office chair in front of Harold’s desk. The two furry green cubicle walls enclosed a small square, which was repeated ad infinitum across the floor of the massive building she was now in. This was the life counselling offices and it seemed her life counsellor wasn’t happy... again.
Harold was tall and looked too thin to be carrying the right quote of internal organs. He wore a moustache like he was hiding a secret, although it wasn’t thick enough to be hiding anything of consequence. His bony finger was jabbing in Lola’s direction.
“How hard is it, really, to not completely make such a shitting fuck-up of a mess of your own life? The bus?” Harold’s voice had peaked at a loud squeak. “The bus?”
“It was raining,” Lola said, prising the now silent earphones out of her ears.
“Right, right. It was raining,” Harold was nodding but not in a positive way. “Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you can do what you like. Sorry for stabbing that horse your honour, but it was raining. Sorry for murdering my entire family, but it was raining. Sorry for pushing the red button and wiping out of all humanity but it was raining.”
Lola looked at her feet, and wondered how it had gone wrong again. Harold stopped glaring at her for a moment and stood up. He continued to mutter as he turned his attention to the monitor behind the desk. A large screen took up most of the space with a horizontal slot next to it and a few small buttons.
“Desmond?” Harold voice was suddenly much softer.
The screen lit up from its background dim to reveal the words ‘Destiny Monitoring Device’.
“Hello Harold.” Desmond’s voice was female, soft and warm. The sound of it made Harold put a hand against the wall for support, which wobbled slightly under his weight.
He cleared his throat. “Desmond, can we have the results please?”
The screen changed once more to show Lola getting onto the bus. Time didn’t stop but continued forward. Lola watched and listened as Desmond, in her feminine tones, relayed what happened. “Lola gets on the number 70 bus and returns home. The next day the bus arrives as she’s leaving the house so she gets on. This continues until she takes the bus wherever she goes, whether it is raining or the weather is clement. She never walks anywhere. She puts on weight until she is overweight. Then she is obese. Then she is clinically obese. She eventually becomes depressed and embarrassed by her weight. She has to leave her job. Too embarrassed to go outside, she dies alone in her house at the age of 51. The local council have to get a crane to remove her corpse from the bedroom.” Desmond’s gentle tone gave the description a distinctly ominous feel. When it finished there was a faint whirring sound in the silence that remained.
Harold shouted into it. “Do you want to die alone, Lola? Do you?”
“No,” she said.
“Then don’t get the shitting bus, you imbecile,” Harold said, picking up a pen. “Where’s your book?”
Lola took the book with the word LIFE on the front out of her bag. It was a bit crumpled, which made her feel like even more of a failure. Harold flipped to a new page and uncapped his pen. He scribbled something down with a furious scratch and passed it back.
“Read it,” he said.
“11th May. Don’t get the shitting bus,” she read in a monotone, wishing Harold would fuck off and die.
“OK. Try not to make such a mess or I’ll come and do the fucking job properly for you. How hard can it be getting the life and times of bloody Lola Gallagher right?” Harold pressed Desmond’s button and the conversation was over.
Lola was standing outside, looking at the rain gush down from above. She gripped her umbrella as she stared at the covered bus-stop only feet away. Putting the umbrella up she stepped straight in a puddle that soaked her left sock and realised she didn’t understand life at all.
An hour later she reached her front door. It should only have taken 45 minutes but the decision whether or not to take the path through the park or to stop off at the supermarket had caused her significant trouble. Her mother had signed her up for life counselling services last month, but she wasn’t sure it was helping.
Lola sat down on the sofa, thinking this was probably a safe activity, and tried to relax. She considered the book on the coffee table that she was having difficulty getting into, or the pile of work she should probably read, or the TV that was sitting blank and quiet in front of her. Instead she stood up and went to look in the fridge. She was wondering whether cheese and peanut butter was an adequate meal when the doorbell rang. She looked at her watch and a shot of adrenalin punched her in the heart. 6:30pm on a Tuesday could only mean one thing.
Lola ran upstairs to her bedroom. Standing in front of the mirror she tried to make a quick assessment of her face. With no time for major reconstructive surgery she settled for a smear of lipstick, which she immediately wiped off. She pulled her hair back into a clip but then removed it when the doorbell rang again. She dithered for a moment or two more and then went to answer the door.
“Fish?” the man at the door said.
Lola’s heart jumped in her chest and she wondered what to say. Make it good. “Oh, hello,” she said, hoping to sound surprised and nonchalant, if that was even possible.
“Fish?” the man said again and Lola tried not to look at his forearms as he raised the white box of ice up slightly.
“Oh, fish. Well, what kind have you got?” She put a hand on her hip and then removed it instantly.
“Uh, halibut, cod, the rainbow trout’s alright, seabass...”
As the man continued Lola made a decision in her head. I won’t buy any fish. Lola didn’t like fish. She didn’t like the smell, nor the taste or the texture, but the amount of fish in her freezer had reached a critical stage. I won’t buy any more fish.
“So,” the fish-man said, “do you want any fish?”
Lola briefly thought that she should go and get her LIFE book, but then her mind froze.
“God, I love fish,” she said. “I’ll have the lot.”
The fish-man nodded just before the world went dark.
She opened her eyes and Harold was staring at her, with a look that meant to harm.
“What the fuck? What the shitting fuck? Fish again? Get out the book,” Harold said in apoplectic rage. “Get it out.”
Lola didn’t want to but she couldn’t help but do what she was told. That’s what got her here in the first place. A decision made by her over-bearing mother and now she was stuck in this cubicle, getting life lessons from the angriest man she’d ever met. Life was great. She pulled the book out and put it on the desk.
“Page 3,” Harold said, his voice at a simmering boil.
She turned the pages, knowing what was coming.
“Read it out,” he said. “Nice and loud.”
“Don’t buy any more fucking fish from the mother fucking fish man,” Lola said slowly.
“Do we have to go over this again?” Harold turned. “Desmond.”
The screen brightened. “Hello Harold,” the soft voice said.
Harold reached out a hand towards the screen for a second before dropping his hand. “Show her again, Jan... Desmond,” he said.
The screen changed but Lola didn’t bother looking. She’d heard it before. It always ended up with her fat, dying alone and being winched out of her house as a crowd with gaping mouths watched. She wondered if it wasn’t all inevitable anyway. She might as well eat the Kit-Kat in the bottom of her bag anyway.
As Desmond breathed her way through the scenario of Lola’s lonely death, Lola watched Harold watch the screen with glazed over eyes. He wasn’t paying any more attention than she was, but was just listening to the tone of Desmond’s voice. When the computer stopped, Harold turned slowly to face her, his expression confused for a moment like he’d forgotten where he’d placed something.
“You don’t know how good you’ve got it,” he said, in the most even tone she’d ever heard him use. “Knowing what’s around the corner, being able to stop it. You don’t know how lucky you are...”
Lola didn’t know what to say. “Sorry,” was what came out.
“Sorry? Sorry? Stop being sorry and take control of your life. The fish-man is never going to ask you out. What’s the plan, princess? Wait in your dismal little house and hope he’ll climb up your fucking hair, Rapunzel, with a fish under his arm? No. He’s not going to ask out the weird fucking fish lady who buys enough fish to supply a fucking fish restaurant every month, is he? No. Stop fucking it up.” Harold waved a hand at her in dismissal and she shut her eyes, wondering if she’d ever get it right.
Lola was standing outside, looking at the rain gush down from above. She opened the umbrella and stepped out, into a puddle that soaked her left sock. She didn’t walk through the park but walked the long way, fast, pumping her arms with purpose. She stopped at the supermarket and bought green things and carbohydrates that would release their sugars slowly. She chose brown over white and fresh over frozen. By the time she got home it was 7 o’clock and the fish-man had probably been and gone.
Lola put the carrier bags on the kitchen table and sighed. She turned the radio on for some company while she put the shopping away. When she’d finished she looked into the fridge, full of healthy food, and felt sure her life was on track now. She stood there for a while. The amount of food, the number of possible meals she could make, was making it difficult to make a decision.
Should I save the salmon for another day? What if I fancy chicken tomorrow? Do I like broad beans? What does couscous even go with?
A while later Lola sat down to a plate of chicken and couscous, accompanied by the far-off drone of a faceless DJ on the radio. She ate slowly, with a slight smile that was taped to her face. When she finished she washed up her plate, cutlery and frying pan, not letting it sit in the sink like a normal person, and then sat down to watch whatever was on TV. She got up a couple of times to jog on the spot for a minute, before sitting back down.
At 11 o’clock she turned off the TV and stood up. She locked the front door and went up to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She spent an extra minute, carefully brushing away from the gums, and even remembered to floss. Turning the light off in her bedroom and the upstairs hall, she went back downstairs. She plumped up the cushions, shook out the blanket and lay down on the sofa. She closed her eyes and the world went black.
“What the fuck are you doing? Watching you manage your life is like watching a dog try and juggle, a fucking retarded dog at that. Why are you sleeping on the sofa, like a fucking drunken hobo?”
“I thought if I slept downstairs then I wouldn’t have to be winched out of the upstairs.” She realised how ridiculous this sounded, but was still pretty happy with the decision.
“What? Sometimes it’s a wonder I haven’t stabbed myself to death with my paperclips. Do you think them dragging your bloated corpse out of the front door is any more of a success, sunshine?”
I don’t know what to do. Lola felt like crying, but then he would have won, LIFE would have won.
Fuck you and fuck Desmond. You’re always telling me I’m wrong but you can’t ever tell me what’s right; which way to turn, what road to take, or what to eat for fucking dinner, because neither you nor your stupid computer with her stupid voice know. You don’t have any more of an idea than I do.
“What am I doing? Who fucking knows? Most of the time I’ll be halfway through the day before I’ve fully realised I managed to make it out of bed, and by then it seems too late to congratulate myself, but at least I’m fucking trying. You, you’re stuck in this building, in this tiny little cubicle talking to a computer, who is using your dead wife’s voice.”
Harold’s shade of purple faded a little, his face frozen.
“Did you think I didn’t know? I’m not the only one failing at life, am I? OK, so I might not be able to make the right decision most of the time. I admit that forgetting to put underwear on was a particular low point last week, but at least I’m out there, trying. You’ve just given up. I’d rather die fat, winched out of my house, than die in here with you and your depressing memories.”
Harold’s face had dropped and was almost a normal colour. His hands fell to his sides and he sat down heavily in his chair opposite her. He was silent, looking at the floor.
Shit. I’ve broken Harold. “Harold...”
He interrupted her. “Janet and I were only married three months before the accident. I heard her voice first, before I’d even seen her face, and I fell in love with her then.
“She was just driving home from work one evening. It was a Wednesday in June and she decided to go a different way home than normal. I don’t know why. I’ll never know. Someone swerved to avoid a child and behind them Janet drove into a tree. If she hadn’t decided to drive a different way, she’d still be here. Now I only have her voice, even if it is used by a computer called Desmond. It’s fucking better than nothing, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if it is,” Lola said, sitting down herself. “Perhaps it’s time to stop worrying about other people’s decisions and go and make some mistakes of your own.”
Harold didn’t look up.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Lola said. “I have to just do the best I can, without worrying if that bite of cheese is going to lead to my ultimate doom. Harold? Perhaps you should do the same.”
Harold stood up and turned away. He pressed one hand to the screen and said, “Desmond?”
Lola looked away, closing her eyes.
Lola was standing outside, looking at the rain gush down from above. She looked at the umbrella in her hand and then at the covered bus-stop only feet away.
Fuck this. It’s fucking raining.
She ran to the stop and waited under the shelter, hugging herself with a little smile on her face. The bus stopped and she climbed aboard, thinking about what she could do with her evening, the endless possibilities. She walked down the aisle of the bus, but then stopped suddenly next to a seat halfway down.
“Hello Lola,” Harold said, his moustache twitching.
“Hello Harold,” she said. Lola sat down next to him and they both stared straight ahead.
“What are we going to do now?” Lola asked, watching the houses pass by outside.
“Fuck knows,” Harold said.
Christie writes humorous fiction about odd people in normal situations, which are mainly based on the lovely loons that she calls friends (whether they like it or not) or oddballs that pop into her head and march about like they own the place.
She's co-founder of Stokes Croft Writers and has been short-listed by the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, Writers' Forum Short Story Competition & published by Mash Stories. She is also one of the regular judges of the ‘To Hull and Back’ Humorous Short Story Competition.
Christie is currently in the final editing stages of her first novel, a humorous literary book about an odd man’s struggle to be normal. In the meantime she's getting the stories in her head onto paper in the form of short stories. You can learn more on Christie's website.
Is your language offensive? Well, it depends who you are talking to, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t drop the c-bomb in front of my mum because her idea of rude is looking up ‘boob’ in the dictionary when she was at school, and well, she’s my mum. I do however tend to use slightly stronger words than boob amongst friends and acquaintances, but I probably wouldn’t if I was trying to impress someone. Then, I would be likely to just keep winking until they got the message.
So if you are trying to make a good impression with a story, i.e. impress judges and win a competition, then should you include swear words? The common sense answer and the one that first jumps to mind is, “Sure, as long as it’s justified,” but from my experience the truth is a little more complicated than that.
I wrote ‘Decisions, Decisions’ based on the idea of needing a life counsellor and the ‘what if’ of the ability to stop your life as you were about to make a stupid decision. The first draft was a little flat but came alive when I thought more about the counsellor’s personality and motivation. Making him angry at bad decisions and missed opportunities gave the story depth, a satisfying ending and his colourful swearing a funny tilt, or so I thought.
Now, I admit it, I find swearing funny. Not in every context. Not if used in anger, in my face with pointing fingers. Then I’d be likely to just cry. But a good placed swear word can turn many a phrase into something gloriously funny. However, not everyone is of this opinion, as I soon found out.
As with all my stories, once they are in some semblance of readability I’ll turn to my trusty writers’ group for an honest blast of critique. They didn’t disappoint and the results were really interesting.
The first comment was (and I’m paraphrasing), “I didn’t like it. There was far too much swearing and I didn’t get the ending.”
The negative voice in my head was triumphant, suspecting it was shit, however it was soon proved wrong with the next. “I loved it. Don’t change anything.” I got these two critiques one after the other, which is likely why I remember it so well. The rest of the comments lingered somewhere around the positive end of the spectrum, but it was the negative that gave me pause for thought.
Now, I think that a story that can divide people is one that shouldn’t be messed with. I want my writing to evoke emotions and feelings and I’d rather some people loved it and others hated it, than no one had feelings either way. “Meh,” is failure for me.
My advice? Get a group of people around you, who you can trust to give you their honest opinion, an opinion that you respect. Make sure that group is diverse of age, background, taste and writing style so that you receive a range of opinions, which you can listen to or ignore as you choose. However, if they are all saying the same thing, then they are probably right and that sentence/paragraph/character/ending needs rethinking.
Anyway, heartened by the polarising I submitted ‘Decisions, Decisions’ to the Magic Oxygen Short Story Award. Before I did, I read it through again, considered the swearing, but was happy that it was within keeping with the story and it would be a very different beast if I took it out.
I submitted and then I forgot. I like to forget that I’ve even entered competitions, so that my ego isn’t bruised when I don’t hear anything back. So I was surprised and delighted to discover I’d made the short list for Magic Oxygen. Perhaps proof that swearing won’t hinder you in competitions, or perhaps not…
Pleased as punch, I attended the announcement of the Magic Oxygen Award. Now, let’s get the mystery out of the way… I didn’t win. I didn’t come second or third, but I still made the short list.
What can we conclude from this? Not much on its own. There will be many reasons I didn’t win, but ultimately it would have come down to the judges liking other stories better than mine. That’s the name of the game, but after the announcement, talking to some of the judges I got a little bit more insight.
Two of them sought me out to tell me how much they liked my story, a nice nicety, but one said something interesting, along the lines of, “That much swearing did make me think.” The anonymous judge didn’t completely finish their thought and being me, I didn’t ask, but I think I got what she meant. Could you have a winning story that had the potential to offend people? Could you risk having a winning story that represented your competition and you as judge with something as definitively divisive as rampant swearing?
I’m not saying I would have won if there hadn’t been swearing. I’m just saying that it’s possibly something they considered alongside a lot of other factors.
Is swearing worth it if you are trying to win a short story competition? This is where the answer likely gets a little annoying: it depends. It depends if you are writing a story specifically for a competition and the only purpose of that story is to win that competition, then I’d say, don’t, as there is a chance that swear words could put off one judge and knock you off that top spot, or not even get you into contention. Just a chance.
If, however, you’ve written a story that includes swearing because it’s integral to character and you are confident it enhances the story, then stick to your guns. You should win a competition with your writing, not what you think a judge wants to read. That’s just what I bloody think anyway.
I'd like to say a big thank you to Christie for sharing her experiences on my blog.
If you found this helpful, you might like my book, 'How to Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money'. It contains an entire section on the use of swearing and profanity, using one of my published horror stories as a case study. The competition judge that published the story has also contributed to the book, talking about her feelings on the use of swearing in stories.
If you have had a short story published and would like to share your experiences with my readers, please review my submission guidelines.