Inaction man

In Competition No. 2460 you were invited to submit a short story with the title ‘The Man Who Did Not’.

In Competition No. 2460 you were invited to submit a short story with the title ‘The Man Who Did Not’. This assignment gave you the opportunity to step into the shoes of the doomed young writer Konstantin in The Seagull (though, given his fate, you’d perhaps have chosen not to). Konstantin’s Uncle Sorin suggests the title of a short story which reeks of frustrated dreams and failed lives. In the Martin Crimp version now running at the National it is rendered as ‘The Man Who Did Not’, while Michael Frayn, in his adaptation, translates it as ‘The Man Who Wanted To’, which strikes me as marginally less bleak. The standard of the entry, though, was far from depressing. The prizewinners, printed below, get £30 each. The bonus fiver goes to Frank McDonald, whose story is heartening to those who, like Sorin, berate themselves for hovering on life’s sidelines.

Robert had visited the mountain many times, unsuccessfully seeking the wondrous portal. One day, when he went down the dusty path, he encountered a strange old man, dressed in a garment of faded colours. He was sitting on a bridge.

‘It’s not there,’ the old man said with a grin. ‘You’re wasting your time.’

‘You know what I’m looking for then?’ Robert asked sadly. ‘Why was I the ordinary boy who never got to see anything?’

‘Ordinary? You were hardly that. A hundred ordinary children passed through the portal. You are the man who did not.’

‘But why? It seems so cruel.’

The old man got down from the bridge, a twinkle in his eye.

‘Did you never wonder who would be the best person to tell the story?’

And with a jaunty wave he disappeared down the road into the sunlight.

Frank Mc Donald

The room was ready. Could this be the man for the job? He was shown to a chair and invited to sit. He did not. Like bullets the questions were fired in rapid succession.

Did he crave more than he already had? No, he did not. Did he adore material things? No, he did not. Did he ever show disrespect to his employer? No, he did not. Would he be prepared to work on Sundays if required? No, he would not. If the business expanded, would he agree to be relocated? No, he would not — his parents needed him. Did he have the necessary ‘killer instinct’ to trample on others in order to succeed at any cost? No, he did not. Would he risk an affair with a colleague’s wife to secure promotion? No, he would not. Did he ever steal other people’s ideas for his own advancement? No, he did not. Did he sometimes falsely blame others to save himself? No, he did not. Did he envy the lives and possessions of those who had been more successful than he had? No, he did not.

‘Well done!’ boomed a voice from above. ‘Congratulations, Moses, interview over: ten questions and ten good answers. The job is yours. Do not is what you must always do! Do you have any questions for us?’ No, he did not.

Alan Millard

Henry Pargeter did not use tobacco or alcohol. He did not employ profane or indecent language. He abjured self-abuse as well as fornication and never gambled. The moral instruction he had received from his pious mother guided his behaviour. This was exclusively based on the thou-shalt-not principle of the Ten Commandments, all of which Henry faithfully observed. He believed that clear and simple prohibitions aimed at restraining human weakness, rather than finely shaded reasoning, were the best guide to a virtuous life.

And Henry lived that life impeccably. He was no hypocrite, camouflaging secret vices with a deceitful show of public probity. Not once did he lie, cheat or steal. Any deliberate attempt to corrupt him was met with a resolute shake of the head. Casual temptations were just as firmly repudiated. Neighbours and friends lived in the aura of his unshakable integrity. In his home town, and beyond, he became a living touchstone of ethical perfection.

Sadly, Henry did not survive beyond early middle age. One of his few purely personal pleasures was gardening, and it was in a neatly maintained herbaceous border that his horrifically mutilated body was discovered one summer morning. Where the crocodile came from, nobody ever managed to explain; it slithered off with Henry’s left foot in its jaws before the emergency services could be summoned. But it is testimony to the profound feelings Henry aroused in his community that his death was commemorated by the grandest street parties since the coronation.

Basil Ransome-Davies

Now the serpent was more subtle than the other beasts, and he came unto the man and said: ‘Why not eat this lovely fruit?’ And Adam replied, saying: ‘No chance, Slimy. For this fruit is forbidden By Authority.’ And therefore he did not. And the serpent, having still a reputation for subtlety to keep up, thought unto himself. ‘Let us try the bint instead, for she looks like a softer touch.’ And he approached the woman with the selfsame spiel, and she did take the fruit and ate thereof. And when Eve was ejected from Paradise, Adam was permitted to stay, because she had eaten and he had not. And lo, in under a week he was bored, even out of his skull. And he did dodge the Cherub with the flaming sword and nipped over the wall and found Eve. For doing not had become burdensome to him.

Brian Murdoch

To say, as his citation does, that Slocombe worked at the Department for Interdepartmental Liaison is an overstatement little short of calumny. Certainly, he held a managerial position there, but if his door was proverbially always open, he was never to be found behind it. He was legendarily peripatetic, seeming to exist only between the various offices for which he abdicated responsibility, a shapeless jacket over the back of a chair his sole — frequently unreliable — promise of return. He produced, in a career spanning four decades, no work whatsoever, chairing meetings in absentia to preserve the natural circularity of unmediated argument. To his subordinates a rumour, to his peers an example, Slocombe was, to his superiors, an embarrassing reminder of departmental futility. In his final decade, they stopped sending him work altogether, enabling him to equalise input with output and qualify for the MBE he’d done paradoxically nothing to deserve.

Adrian Fry

No. 2463: Zeugmatic

You are invited to incorporate in a piece of plausible prose examples of the following terms (all clearly defined in dictionaries): oxymoron, personification, simile, hyperbole, archaism, periphrasis, solecism, paranomasia, alliteration, epizeuxis. Maximum 150 words. Please underline the examples. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2463’ by 28 September.