Earlier this year we asked you to submit short stories inspired by the following quote from William Shakespeare: “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5)
Our panel of judges enjoyed this year’s entries immensely and have now chosen a winner. Congratulations to Dave Loftus, who wins this year’s contest for his short story Give, a strikingly original, imaginative, funny and thought-provoking tale of an unusual event.
The judges felt strongly that two other authors deserved honourable mentions: Paul Ariss and Malcolm Terry.
Dave will receive a cheque for £100, and his story will also be published in an upcoming edition of Prescot Parish Magazine. Read the winning entry below:
By David Loftus
I first clocked the machine on Tuesday. It was a solid block – conifer-green – that stood the height of a man. Its corners were pleasingly rounded and almost the entirety of its surface consisted of mismatched rectangular panels, which gave it the appearance of a waffle. But its main feature – the only feature I should say – was on what I assumed to be the front. It was a wide, plastic cone, the kind you’d drop coins into at an automatic tollbooth, above which the word ‘GIVE’ was painted in bold red letters.
‘Was that there yesterday?’ I asked, nudging Stan, as we strolled past.
He shrugged and looked around. ‘Maybe it’s a toll for… something.’
It looked like ordinary street furniture, although its purpose was lost on us. I fished a five-pence piece from my pocket and tossed it into the mouth of the funnel. I had a wisecrack ready about having to now pay to use the pavement, but was startled when one of the small doors flew open and a jolly little clown puppet sprang out, like a jack-in-the-box. For a moment, nothing else happened, then it disappeared back into the machine and the door snapped shut.
‘Did you see that?’ Stan yelled. ‘Was it meant to do that?’
At the bus stop, I spotted a mother and son turn with intrigue at the sound of our excitement.
‘Shall I try another coin?’ I asked, delving again into my pocket. Cautiously, I looked around for the homeless man who had begged for change a few minutes prior, figuring I’d feel pretty guilty if he spotted me throwing away change I’d lied about not having. Stan scoured the surface of the machine for explanatory information, like a hashtag or one of those barcode things, but nothing revealed itself. Feeling rather flash, I flicked a pound coin into the machine’s mouth and, instead of the clown, was treated to some hidden speaker playing recorded applause and a card with the words ‘THANK YOU, STUART’ pinging out from a door on the end of a metal spring. I took the card and the spring reeled back in. The door snapped shut and the cheering stopped.
‘It knows your name!’ Stan hooted, as I looked around for a hidden camera. ‘That is weird.’
The mother and son moved closer. ‘Did you say it knew your name?’ she asked, prompting us to explain. She handed her son a handful of change from her purse. She was probably expecting him to throw in each coin separately, but instead he dropped the whole lot into the funnel with a rattling crash. At this windfall the machine came alive. There was a fanfare of trumpets and a burst of confetti fired out of the top, scaring away a pigeon. Between two telescoping rods, a banner clicked into place, thanking someone called Tom.
‘Look!’ the boy shouted, beaming. It was obviously his name.
By this point, several bystanders had gathered around. Some of them tried to prise open the machine’s doors, but after a lot of trial and error, it became obvious that throwing money into the funnel was the only action that would trigger a celebration; anything that wasn’t a coin or a banknote would be ejected from a grill on the back. No two celebrations were the same.
Numerous people paid and, without fail, the machine would know their names. I watched as people began uploading videos online, which in turn attracted even more strangers. Somebody messaged the council, who grumpily denied having anything to do with it.
There was a clear escalation in the machine’s spectacle, according to how much money was fed into it. As larger and larger quantities of cash were swallowed by the funnel, the machine would put on more and more of a show. Flags, balloons, sparklers, fireworks, neon lights and strange music all burst from various doors. A hundred pounds dropped in by a newspaper reporter made it hover thirty feet in the air like a glowing spaceship and boom out his name, before coming to land gently in the same spot.
The size of the crowd eventually persuaded me to head home, but I kept up with the curious goings-on via the local news. About nine o’clock, a washed-up celebrity who lived in the area announced online that he would drop one thousand pounds into the machine, just to see what it did. Famed for his extravagant attempts to reclaim the limelight, he was clearly euphoric when this stunt worked, and his visit to the machine was met with the gasps of a hushed crowd, who parted as if he was Moses. He made a short speech nobody listened to and then fed wads of notes into the funnel, provoking vociferous online controversy. At the scene, there was a smattering of applause and then everybody watched the machine with mouths agape.
Nothing happened. The cameras rolled for some time afterwards but then gave up. The crowd watched for a while longer, until the last drop of interest was lost, and then began to disperse. Instead of a parting interview, the celebrity got mocking laughter, with most eyewitnesses agreeing he’d been a bit of a bonehead. At some point in the night, vandals attacked the machine and broke it open. It was completely hollow.
It must have been around this time, judging from his interview on local news later that week, that the homeless man I’d brushed off went into his rucksack and – baffled yet elated – pulled out a fistful of banknotes.