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John McKenzie
Writing Competition
Organised by
Hawke’s Bay
English Teachers’
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 4.0 International License
Judge’s Biography 3
First Place 4
Runner-up Prose 6
Runner-up Poetry 7
Highly Commended 9
Highly Commended 10
Judge’s Comments 13
Roman Walewski
Lia Horsely
Ursula Lee
Judge’s Biography
DIANE COMER is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been
publishing creative non-fiction for over 25 years. Her work has been honoured in the
series The Best American Essays and with a fellowship from the National Endowment for
the Arts. She completed her doctorate on migration and the personal essay at the
University of Canterbury in 2014. She focuses on storytelling, one of the most elemental
ways to forge meaning and connection. She has taught creative and academic writing
workshops at universities in Sweden and the United States of America, as well as
community education courses in Christchurch.
First Place
Lia Horsely
Hastings Girls’ High School
The Scars of the Somme
Rising into the pale sky, clouds of white dot my vision. These clouds aren’t made of
water, they aren't untouchable. But like clouds, they might be floating. Somewhere, way
up high, these men may be watching. My fingertips graze the edge of one; one of so
many. Too many. The largest cross stands above the rest, like a commander to his
army. To this mass of white. It envelops me, wraps itself around the deepest corners of
my mind. Silence washes over my frozen body, gently losing me in a web of emotions. I
can’t breathe; let alone think. Can barely see; let alone feel. It’s like a photograph, not a
battlefield. All pristine and perfect. No trenches, no mud, no rain. Just distant poppies,
flooding my vision like a river of blood.
I’m told I’m the lucky one. The one who can stand here today and grieve over this
battle. For memory and reality to blur into a fog in my mind. In the beginning, I didn't
think I was so lucky. I simply didn't want to admit what had happened. I couldn't tell my
mother what I had seen, despite her endless nagging. And to fit into the life I had left?
Some parts of me just didn't want to. We were all so innocent, lost in our young naive
beliefs, and cravings for adventure. We wanted some excitement in our lives. Oh, if only
we’d known what fighting in a real war was like. Perhaps then I wouldn't be standing
here alone. Maybe these crosses wouldn't be the only thing I have left.
My medals grow heavy against my chest, too many memories swirling through my brain.
A dull ache begins to bloom inside me, twisting my focus.
So much noise.
“My rifle is heavy in my hands, heart pounding with every footstep. The bitter wind slices
through my coat, each gust screaming at me to keep moving. Bullets and water have
become almost indistinguishable, just icy needles soaring in the air above us. Both
deadly, both blinding. A frigid layer has formed over the mud, and it clings tightly to my
boots. “Wanna make this worse, huh?” Someone mutters from ahead, scuffing their heel
impatiently, and splashing us with soggy clumps. “Shut it,” the Captain commands, his
eyes still glued to the foggy horizon. The man - probably a new recruit - huffs, and
becomes silent. Every day I wonder what my Captain is really seeing, how he really
feels. Whether this pit of anxiety still haunts him after all this time.
Rob steps over something and keeps moving. I follow, treading over the body almost as
though it’s a log. But it's a body - a human being. I’m supposed to feel something. It’s
supposed to be horrible. And some small part of me still understands that. It knows that
death is wrong, and what I'm doing here is effectively murder. It is wrong. I shake my
head, focussing on the dangling toggles of Rob’s pack. Valiantly hoping that I can shake
all this away and go back to who I was. ‘Breathe.’ It feels like the war has broken our
spirits, and put our emotions back together in the wrong order.
“Get down!” I fall mechanically, ears straining for any sounds. “Advance.” I creep
forward, clenching my rifle in both hands. Shots erupt in the distance, a plume of smoke
filtering into the air. My nerve endings tingle, each muscle tensing with fear. Half the
platoon has taken cover in a ditch a couple of metres away. ‘Just three more shuffles,’ I
murmur. Suddenly a face pops up, shaking their head at us remaining few. We won’t fit.
A realisation washes over me: I’m going to die. This.. this is it. On an open plain covered
in mud. After all I’ve been through, I won’t come home. I won’t have children. A sharp
impact rips into my thoughts and resonates through my entire body. The excruciating
pain pins me to the spot, and my breath catches like a barb in my throat.
I'm really going to die.
A gush of warm crimson blood cascades from my shoulder, and pools next to me. Bile
rises in my throat, and forms a bitter layer against my tongue---“
My shoulder is held in an iron grip and my eyes are screwed tightly shut. But I’m… alive?
Slowly I open my eyes and see the crosses and poppies once more. I sink down onto the
neatly trimmed grass and let go of my arm. Gingerly I caress the scar and let out a deep
The physical pain has gone away, but the mental wound; it will never heal.
Runner-up Prose
Roman Walewski
Napier Boys’ High School
The Change of the Wave
I feel the sweat dripping down my face, as I stack all the boards in the back of my car. I
pull down the visor and set off to Ocean Beach in pursuit of the perfect wave. The car
park is packed with large campervans and hatchback cars. I pull up into one of the last
spots but my tyres sink into the washed up scattered mountain terrain. I hop out of my
car and am greeted by the waves crashing and people talking. Parents nag their children
to put sunscreen on. All around me I smell fresh salt as well as the sweetness in the wax
on the boards. The sun sparkles in the sand while ladies lie out tanning and massive
waves break all along the beach. Before I can hurry down to the water, I shuffle around
to find my wax and make the hardest decision. What board should I bring? The sand
seeps through my toes and the water is surprisingly warm.
Duck dive after duck dive through the glassy, creamy waves, I paddle past a few
bleached hair groms and long bearded oldies. One grom in particular is taking the
steepest drops and shredding so hard. I finally manoeuvre myself out back and feel
excitement build inside me. A somewhat peaceful silence starts, as I wait for the next
humps to form in the distance. I see the next set form, and try to pick one to go for. I
skip the first wave, I skip the second, then I see it. The perfect wave. I feel the water
flying past my fingertips with white water forming from the speed of the board pushing
through the water as I paddle for the wave. Once up, I look back towards the beach
where all the kids are yelling. I make my way in, seeing the sandcastles get larger and
I feel the cold air whistle through my ears, as I pack more blankets than usual in the car.
The rain is pouring down. With all the windows securely rolled up, I set off to the
dangerous Ocean Beach to see if any perfect waves were forming even in this storm. The
window wipers zoom nonstop back and forth as they try to keep all the water off.
Arriving at the empty car park, my tyres submerge into the puddles. Trees lie to my left
and right. I hop out of the car which sucks the door open and my hair gets caught in the
wind. The waves boom over and over, getting louder and louder. Up and down the
beach, I notice the sand swirling in the air amongst a dark and scary sky. Eventually, I
find my thickest wetsuit and think again about going out in these gnarly conditions. The
sand flies into my eyes as I head out to the empty ocean. The water freezes my feet
instantly as I take my first steps into the drab, deep ocean. I paddle past daunting,
double overhead waves. I sit far out in the raging water. Regret builds. I shouldn’t be
out here. Every wave seems larger and larger and darker and darker. I finally ride one
wave but it feels unusual. Nothing but darkness surrounds me. All of a sudden, I fly off
my board and smack my face on the concrete-like water. I make my way in as rain
drizzles on my face.
Runner-up Poetry
Ursula Lee
Napier Girls’ High School
Woman in Yellow
Today, the grave swallowed my son whole,
The dirt forming a perfect opening as his coffin floated toward the ground.
Faceless men covered the hole with dirt,
The earth being restored once again,
Except for the five-year-old boy who now lay in the ground.
Panic within, the emptiness in my heart grew like a ravenous beast,
Fingernails gnawed to the bone as I think of the boy
Who I carried.
At birth, his delicate body cast in a harmless yellow tinge: Jaundice.
Yellow hands, yellow feet, yellow belly, yellow face.
The boy born yellow, who died yellow.
He grew up in an amber nursery room,
Drank lemonade, ate custard pie,
Favoured toys of canary coloured clowns, and banana scented stickers.
He smiled like pure sunshine,
Unrelenting sunshine,
A beaming face that challenged the billows of sadness in his presence.
But alas, the yellow fever came out of the blue,
The city of New Orleans under siege.
Perfect till naught, a blood-sucking assassin in the night.
Regardless of innocence, of youth,
It chose its target,
A killing shot.
The nausea came first, then the chills and fever.
After, he crunched over grunting from abdominal pains.
I stood at his bedside,
As useless as water on a grease fire,
Watching the yellow stain his skin as his liver started failing.
Death, the last stop on the train of suffering came swiftly,
ending all grunts, all screams, all moans of pain.
Gone were the days of laughter, of pure blissful joy.
Destroyed by the yellow.
Now I stand over his grave,
Wearing every piece of yellow I own:
A saffron shirt for the jaundice that greeted him with open arms
As his life began,
A mustard blazer for the lemon pie and sunshine smile
And an amber headband for the yellow fever that swept him away
As his life ended.
I walk away,
the emptiness growing still, threatening to
swallow me whole.
The fire greets me, its finger-like flames calls me.
I rip off the amber headband, toss it into the haunting heat
And watch the flames
Swallow it, burning it to dust.
I cleanse the house of all yellow,
every bit of
And bronze.
It all went into the eternal flames.
Including me.
We all go in,
Highly Commended
Sol Cerson
Napier Boys’ High School
The Cut
Thudd. Wind rushed between the heavy glass door and the heavier brick wall as they
meet behind me. Greeted by the strong scent of wax and worn leather, I make my way
across the crisp, white room to my designated seat. My body sinks into the chair like the
heavy door sunk back into its frame just moments before. My eyes meet a large mirror
that reflects the empty room behind me. A long brick wall detailed by a single row of
wooden pews, mountains of glossy magazines and a low constant buzz. Next to me is
another plump, leather chair sitting on a mat of freshly cut hair that keeps growing as
the razor keeps buzzing. My gaze is soon caught by another pair of eyes. Dilated, darting
eyes. The boy sits - motionless and white knuckled - in his chair but the expression on
his face speaks for itself. Unimpressed. Disappointed. Sheer disbelief. But still, the razor
keeps buzzing, the scissors keep chopping and the hair keeps falling. Suddenly, it hits
me. If the man made such a mess of the head next to me, what will he do to mine? Why
did I not go to my normal barber? Why am I still here?
Before I can answer my own question, I am taken away from this thought by a cold
metallic object on the back of my head and the same low constant buzz that was now
much, much closer. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets. My eyes dart and my hands
grip the chair a lot tighter than necessary. Hesitantly, I look to the mirror for assistance
and the expression on my face talks back with an answer almost as clear as the glass
door that I closed days ago, or so it felt. Unimpressed. Disappointed. Sheer disbelief. But
still, the razor keeps buzzing, the scissors keep chopping and the hair keeps falling. Why
did I not take the hints from the boy before me? Why did I decide to do this today? Why
am I still here?
This is it. Just moments before my childhood dreams are either fulfilled, or abandoned. I
sit in a low wooden chair in front of a coffee table. Surrounding the table are three more
chairs accompanied by three more nervous men each clasping a sheet of paper and
making last minute, minor adjustments to their appearance. After what seems like an
endless wait, my name is called. I stand, straighten my tie and proudly stride towards a
door at the end of the room. The door is big and blank, apart from a small bronze plaque
in the centre. “Latham Law Firm.”
Thump. Wind rushes between the heavy wood door and the heavier paneled wall as they
meet behind me.I am greeted by a similar scent, worn leather and stacked paper. I
make my way across the styled, warm room to my designated seat. My body sinks into
the chair just as it had the week before but now, my eyes meet those of a tall bearded
man in a black suit, but the look is not returned. Although I am looking straight into the
eyes of my soon to be boss, his eyes are aimed slightly above mine. The look of his face
is far too familiar. Unimpressed. Disappointed. Sheer disbelief. My interview was over
the second I sat in the plump leather chair a week ago. I hear a deep voice from the
man in front of me but I can not take it in, for my head is far too busy working at its own
questions. Will I really miss out on a job because of a haircut? Why did I get myself into
this situation? Why am I still here?
Highly Commended
Rytasha Sekhon
Hastings Girls’ High School
Rain. The sound of it filled my very existence. It permeated my clothes, my hair, my
skin. It flowed through my veins. It glanced off the leaves around me, skipping beneath
the cover of my wide brimmed hat to spit in my face. My torso had lost feeling. The
crushing weight of my pack had pushed my chest into the mud. The lenses of my
binoculars were splattered with raindrops, and yet I daren’t attempt to wipe them clean
lest I smudge them with dirt and render them unuseable. From my vantage point on a
cliff top I could see the whole surrounding area, from the banks of the swollen river to
the east, to the perimeter of the large fenced estate to the west. An airfield stretched
across the landscape, a dirty scar on the earth, an infected wound on the planet.
Towards the western end of the runway there was a small, two seater plane. A man
walked to and from it, loading boxes in the pouring rain. The sight of the rifle over his
shoulder removed any doubt from my mind. I was in the right place.
Much later, I felt that I’d seen all there was to see. An accurate range finder told me that
the plane had landed almost a kilometer away. I’d swept the land from horizon to
horizon, and every detail was etched into my memory. I shimmied back from the cliff
edge and regained my feet. My front was plastered with mud. I felt the strangest urge to
giggle, as I considered how long it would take to wash off.
I began the march back to base camp. As I walked, I contemplated my situation. As far
as I could tell, the perimeter of the estate was secure. Regular patrols swept the
fenceline, and cameras covered every inch of the surrounding marsh. There were very
few ways inside, even for a woman with my particular skillset. I lacked the required
equipment for any form of airborne entry, and didn’t have the necessary personnel to
scale a full frontal assault. Individual patrols could have been taken out swiftly and
silently, but they were spaced at such intervals that if any one team went silent it would
become evident to the security control. This was a classic technique that effectively ruled
out a close quarters assault, meaning my best option would be long distance shot. This
was not preferable; it would mean I had one chance to achieve my goal. Even a
suppressed shot would be noticed if it struck near the target.
I continued to ponder as I made my way through the jungle. The endless canopy above
me seemed to shimmer as it was constantly penetrated by the ceaseless rain. The
ground sucked at my boots as I left a trail of muddy prints behind me. As I went, I made
sure to snap the occasional twig, leave behind some strands of frayed clothing, and do
other such things to make it obvious of my passing. All the while, I glanced upward,
looking for a suitable place. When I finally found a location, I was miles off course. I
allowed myself a small smile of satisfaction. Perfect. Keeping my feet firmly in place, I
reached up and carefully took hold of a branch that was parallel to the ground. Once I
had a firm grip, I raised myself off the ground, making sure to leave my final prints crisp
and clear, before slowly shuffling along until I could reach the tree itself. Arms burning, I
swung my body into the canopy. From there, I directed myself back down to the ground,
away from my false trail, where my progress became much slower as I concealed every
movement I made. The journey home just became a whole lot longer.
Many hours later, I relaxed once more. The casual observer would not understand why I
had suddenly stopped walking. To them, I was in just another patch of jungle. However,
to me, this spot was the safest place in the world. Here, I was safer than in my own
home, because I had laid more false trails, set more traps, and generally concealed this
location more effectively than any other place in the world. There was physically no way
in or out. Every time that I came and went, I deactivated and reset multiple traps to
clear a safe path. Inside the perimeter was a safe water supply, a hidden covered
location where I could sleep, and enough caches of food, weapons and ammunition to
shake a stick at. It was my own little home away from home.
I woke after a brief time asleep, instantly alert, listening through the constant rain for
any sound of movement. I lay still for another five minutes, hearing everything around
me. Eventually, I rose, and began the initiation of the plan in my head. From its storage
in a hollow log I lifted a carbon fibre rifle, carefully avoiding knocking the sights out of
alignment. I checked each of its components individually, stripping its body of parts and
cleaning the accumulated mess of the forest from them. With careful precision I rebuilt
the rifle, until it resembled the sleek, lightweight weapon I knew. The two key parts that
I kept on my person would not meet the gun until they were required, but for now I
inspected them closely. The long, bulbous suppressor had become clogged with mud, but
each .408 round was clean and ready for use. Meticulously, I scoured the obstruction
from the suppressor, and stowed the items away once more.
On the move once more, I was less careful of hiding my trail. I had dispersed my
materials at camp, and left no evidence of my passing. There would be no need for me
to return. After several hours tearing my way through the undergrowth, I finally arrived
at my vantage point. My navigational skill had lead me directly to where I had lain prone
the day before. I set up next to the indentation my surveillance had left in the ground.
As my preferred cross-legged stance was not possible given my location, I lowered
myself once more into the mud. Slowly, I screwed the suppressor onto the end of the
barrel, and slid each round into place in the magazine. Removing the protective caps on
either end of the sight, I prayed that they had stayed true during the movement to and
from the camp. As I gazed down on the land beneath me, I considered the range, the
wind and the terrain. And I breathed. In, out. In, out. Slowly, calmly, deliberately. After
fifteen minutes I was in the zone. My body was in perfect control. Every movement,
every thought, every heartbeat was in synch. All I needed now was a target. Ideally, this
would have been presented then at that given moment. Unfortunately, the way of the
world isn’t like that. So there I stayed, unmoving, for another thirty minutes.
Finally, I saw what I’d been waiting for. I needed all my self control to keep my body in
check. Small beads of sweat appeared on my face, but my heartbeat remained slow and
steady, my sight moving smoothly and slowly. Between the crosshairs he appeared. No
one else would wear a white suit in a rainforest. My target sat in the passenger side of a
jeep moving from the exterior fence of the estate. I followed the vehicle up the runway
until it reached the stopped plane. At this range, a shot would take nearly two full
seconds to reach the target. This meant that compensating for target movement, wind
direction and speed would all be essential to my success. As I watched, the pilot stepped
out from where he had been resting in the shade of his aircraft. The jeep came to a halt
next to him, and the man in the suit climbed out. The pilot began to say something to
the man, and I tightened my grip on the stock of the rifle. This was my chance. I saw
the suit tighten and crease as the man laughed, and I knew that if I didn’t take the shot
soon they would move on and my chance vanish. My heartbeat picked up again, and I
fought it down, struggling to suppress the instinctive release of adrenaline. As my pulse
settled once more, I centred the man in the suit between my crosshairs. He leaned
forward slightly, extended his hand, as if offering a handshake. In one fluid movement, I
moved the muzzle of the rifle fractionally, slowly released my breath, and squeezed the
Judge’s Comments
Overall Winner: Scars of the Somme
, Lia Horsely
Hastings Girls’ High School
I’m impressed a young woman a hundred years removed from the Battle of the Somme
captures both the initial and lasting horror of warfare. The story traces a powerful
narrative arc, remarkable for both its compression and immediacy, as well as its historic
and emotional accuracy. Horsely evokes survivor’s guilt, numbness, and abject terror as
we see the protagonist re-experience the trauma that left him alive ‘on an open plain
covered in mud.’ Throughout ‘Scars of the Somme’ bears powerful witness to the cost of
war for the individual soldier.
Winner Prose: The Change of the Wave
Roman Walewski
Napier Boys’ High School
The story juxtaposes a golden day surfing with a terrifying and no doubt foolhardy foray
onto the water during a storm on Ocean Beach.The surfer language, the sensual details,
the idyll of waiting for the perfect wave and riding it sparkle in the first half. The appeal
of this first thrilling ride sets up the pursuit of bigger waves during a storm. Here the
setting, tone, and ocean darken, as the waves and tension build. Good narrative speed
and vivid imagery throughout, with a keen sense of the ocean and surfing in two
different moods and settings.
Winner Poetry: Woman in Yellow
Ursula Lee
Napier Girls’ High School
Woman in Yellow
takes on the persona of a grieving mother who has lost her five-year-
old son to yellow fever. Love and death become embodied in the colour yellow as the
concrete imagery changes from benign and innocent to sinister and fatal. The mother’s
grief feels relentless and unsentimental as it builds to the poem’s scorching close.
Highly Commended: The Cut
Sol Cerson
Napier Boys’ High School
The Cut
is a very witty story set in a barber shop where the haircut goes awry with
disastrous consequences in the next scene a week later. The narrator’s engaging and
self-deprecating voice wins the reader’s sympathy in both chairs where he finds himself
the victim. Crisp details and narrative speed rip this right along.
Highly Commended: Rain
Rytasha Sekhon
Hastings Girls’ High School
is an ambitious premise, a sniper staking out a target in a jungle in some
unspecified country. Excellent depiction of both the physical and emotional landscapes,
with a good instinct for how to build narrative tension. The ending leaves one hanging,
wondering if the narrator’s careful planning paid off in the hit.