Peer Pressure Test

Kieran strode toward us and placed the enormous plate in the centre of the judge’s table, his proud smile showing off a row of perfect white teeth.

‘Wow – look at this dish,’ exclaimed Geoff, the show’s longest-serving judge, and unofficial host. ‘Now, this is what cooking is all about.’ He’d said this phrase at least once a show last season, consequently making it the title of his last cookbook.

Magnifique, it looks so sexy’ exclaimed Jean-Pierre, who never missed an opportunity to remind the audience he was French, or overtly sexualise the food to appeal to his largely female fanbase.

Everyone awaited my praise, but I couldn’t stop staring at the plate: Kieran had served us a ham and cheese sandwich. Sure, he’d removed the crusts from the bread, served it with a few twisted sprigs of rosemary and scattered some exotic micro-flowers over it, but at its core, it was still just a sandwich. Even the herbed butter, which he’d carefully served in a quenelle next to it, looked kind of lumpy.

‘You’ve certainly cooked us something to eat,’ I said cautiously, remembering my agent had specifically warned me against being the bitchy new judge who thought she was above adjudicating a reality TV cooking show. ‘So, tell us what inspired you today?’

‘Well, it was probably my nonna,’ said Kieran, his brown eyes shimmering with tears. ‘And even though she’s gone now, she still speaks to me when I’m cooking.’

As the other contestants in the background wiped tears from their eyes, I imagined the producers adding in the heartfelt piano music later, oblivious to the fact the other contestants were merely upset someone else had beaten them to playing the “dead grandmother card”.

‘Oh I’m so sorry, when did she pass?’ I asked gently.

‘Oh, no – she’s not dead,’ clarified Kieran, ‘she’s back in Cairns now, and just always calls me whenever I’m cooking.’

Nonna was alive – cue the uplifting piano music.

‘Well, let’s see how it tastes,’ I smiled, quite certain it would taste exactly like a ham and cheese sandwich.

Geoff did the honours, cutting the sandwich into three, the camera zooming in to capture our pensive faces as we ate.

‘Well?’ asked Geoff, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

Ooh, la, la,’ said Jean-Pierre. ‘I feel dizzy, the way good sex can make me feel, it’s dripping with flavour.’

‘I tasted it, and immediately thought – Bazingo – that’s tasty stuff,’ agreed Geoff,  thereby announcing the title of his next cookbook.

Everyone turned to me, the bright red light of the camera second only to the dazzling brightness of Kieran’s perfect teeth.

‘When I first saw it, I was a tiny bit concerned it was just a sandwich,’ I started, causing everyone to frown; my last 20 years as a food critique flashed before my eyes. ‘But Geoff and JP are right – this is a modern take on a classic, and I absolutely loved it. Bazingo!’

© Matthew S. Wilson, August 2020

This piece was written for August’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre, where entrants were given 55 hours to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: The story had to be a comedy, and had to contain a sandwich.

Simon and Jess.

Jess and I had been together for two years. We were complete opposites, which is why it worked. She was always very ‘big picture’, leaving the details to me. Last year’s Vietnam trip was no exception: Jess decided how we’d spend each day; I held the map and kept an eye on the time (the only reason we missed the boat to  Ha Long Bay was the departure time on their website had been wrong). Here at home, we enjoyed the simple life: spending our time playing scrabble, watching films or listening to music. We were happy, which is why I was so startled the night Jess brought Zoë home.

‘I’m Simon,’ I’d said feebly, immediately noticing Zoë was both slimmer and younger than me.

‘Jessica says you’ve got the Wi-Fi details?’ She sounded as Scandinavian as she looked.

I asked Jess if it was Ok to share our Wi-Fi credentials, trying to sound more casual than I felt.

‘I’m busy with dinner, Simon, just tell Zoë whatever she wants to know.’

As it turned out, Zoë wanted to know everything: Jess’ height, her weight, date of birth, even asking to see Jess’ texts and photos. After dinner, Jess made cupcakes for their visit to her mother the next day, then Jess and Zoë went to bed together. In two years, we’d never slept in separate rooms. As I lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling, I tried to imagine why she was punishing me.

I flicked through some old photos, pausing on a rare one of the two of us. We were at the hairdresser; it was the day she’d had her long auburn hair shortened to her shoulders. I kept flicking, eventually reaching a photo of Jess with her ex, the two of them in a changeroom, as Jess tried on a black dress. I’d met Jess’ ex briefly, she lived with Jess’ mother now. I suddenly realised I wasn’t being punished; I was being replaced.

The following morning, Jess and Zoë emerged from the bedroom. Zoë lay cheerfully on the couch alongside me as Jess boiled the kettle.

‘You look drained,’ joked Zoë.

‘Just look after her, will you?’

‘Of course.’

‘No, I mean it – she’s a good one.’

She paused. ‘Ok, I will. I promise.’

Jess sat down next to me on the couch, nursing her mug. She gently ran her thumb across my face, stroking it the way she’d done a million times before, telling me we needed to reset things between us.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked, knowing what this meant. She said she was, and everything turned black.




When I woke, an elderly woman with glasses squinted at me.

‘Hello, which language do you speak?’ I asked.

‘English.’

‘I’m Simon, your virtual assistant for this device.’

‘It’s like Siri on the last phone I gave you,’ said a younger woman with auburn hair.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘Susan,’ answered the older woman. ‘And this is my daughter, Jessica.’

© Matthew S. Wilson, June 2020

This piece was written for June’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre, where entrants were given 55 hours to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: Each story’s first and last words had to begin with J; Each story had to include a game being played; Each story had to include the phrase MISS/MISSED THE BOAT.

Unpaid Debts.

Five thousand bucks may not sound like much, but for me it was everything. I scribbled down the address and told Sheila I’d call her once I was done. I didn’t ask her any questions, if she vouched for the client, that was good enough for me. I jumped into my Falcon and headed towards the freeway, following the signs back to Melbourne.

As far as private investigation work, this was a piece of cake: surveil a factory and take photos of anyone going in or out. There was a risk, of course, but the money was good, and I couldn’t hide in a caravan up on the Murray forever. The spotlight had shifted last week, the newspapers now saying the kid might have been killed in a gang dispute. There’d been a vigil at the Town Hall, community leaders calling for justice, all of it making the kid sound like some kind of bloody saint. I should have played it differently, fair enough – but he wasn’t a saint.

I focussed on the money: five grand. Despite everything I’d put her through, all the crap I said and did during the divorce, Sheila always came through. Most wives got half of what their husband’s owned, but for Sheila, half of nothing had been nothing. All she got from 20 years of marriage was that lousy emerald wedding ring. She knew the debts I had – some of them could wait a little longer, but others couldn’t. The trick was knowing which was which.

I pulled into Melbourne at dusk, winding down my window along Sydney Road, the smell of Turkish food wafting into the car on the warm February breeze. Brunswick had changed over the years; the shisha bars and continental supermarkets had been replaced with yoga studios and vinyl record stores. The return of vinyl, a silver lining to the gentrification pandemic. I pulled down a littered side-street, realising it must have been hard-rubbish month – hipsters on bikes sifted through other people’s memories, like crows picking at a dead roo on the freeway. I found the street – a quiet no-through road – and parked opposite the factory. I took the camera from the glovebox but left the gun – the same gun. I still needed to get rid of it.

I waited. Eventually, the lights in the factory started dotting out and a woman walked out. She was blonde, mid-forties, maybe fifty. The light was bad, but it didn’t matter: clients only saw what they wanted to see in these photos anyway. As she approached, I started taking pictures, only stopping when I recognised the emerald wedding ring, dangling from her necklace.

‘Sheila?’

She looked at me with a sad smile.

‘He was 15 years old, Tony.’

The street erupted in an explosion of red and blue lights, as sirens and shouts tore through the night. Guns everywhere, all pointed at me.

The trick is always knowing which debts you got to pay first.

© Matthew S. Wilson, May 2020

This piece was written for May’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre, where entrants were given one weekend to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: the first word was FIVE, the story had something being replaced and it contained the phrase ‘a/the silver lining’.