‘The First Page of a Historical Novel’
I’d like to start by giving a big thank you to Becky Bagnell for being our adjudicator. Of course Becky is no stranger to the HWS; her first visit was September 2012 when she was the judge for ‘Create an Amateur Detective Character’.
Becky founded the Lindsay Literary Agency in 2008. She has been a commissioning editor for Macmillian and worked alongside authors such as Max Hastings, Robert Service and John Simpson. The Lindsay Literary Agency represents a wide range of authors; Becky said that finding new authors and that all important initial publishing deal is what makes the agency tick.
1st Prize: Louise Taylor, The Gardener’s Boy
“This is a strong and confident piece of writing that engages the reader from the first sentence, offering multiple layers of complexity in the narrative. The touch, feel and taste of monkey nuts seems to pervade the entire page whilst at the same time disguising the sexual tension that lingers just beneath the surface.”
He waited by the side gate, the one that was beneath the head gardener’s dignity. A paper bag holding the remnants of sixpence’s-worth of monkey nuts was scrunched into his pocket and rested warmly against his thigh. Eva liked monkey nuts. She cracked the shells between her teeth and spat the pieces out onto the ground. None of the other young ladies did that.
Here she was. He heard the swish of her skirt and the soft clack as her feet kicked one stone into another. ‘Jack,’ she said, as she rounded the little bend in the path and saw him standing there, scuffing up clods of grass and earth as casually as he could manage. ‘Anyone would think you didn’t have work to do.’
He grinned with a mouth punctuated by as many gaps as teeth. ‘I’m turning over the mulch heaps, dontcha know?’
She winked. ‘Looks like hard labour.’
‘It is. Pa’s conked out in the greenhouse.’ He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out the paper bag. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘I saved these. Want some?’
He watched as she cracked the nuts between her teeth and used lips and tongue to send the pieces skittering to the ground. She was a good spitter; he’d like to see how far she could get a cherry stone. When she’d finished and had wiped away the tiny fragments of shell that clung to her lips and besprinkled her chin, he said, ‘Off home then?’
He wanted to ask to walk with her but he knew that wouldn’t do, even if she might have said yes. If only he hadn’t eaten so many nuts himself, she might have stayed a minute or two longer. But, just as if she’d read his mind, she looked at him with the sort of quizzical look in her eye that a magpie gets when it spots something shiny. She was about to share a confidence. His face flushed with excitement and he felt himself stand taller with the importance of it all. ‘What is it?’ he asked, watching as she picked up the books she’d placed on the edge of the path and hugged them to her with a kind of fierce possession.
‘I’m going to university,’ she said. ‘Cambridge. To Girton.’
2nd Prize: Elizabeth Wald, Sultan’s Shadow
“‘Sultan’s Shadow’ stood out from the others because of its exotic setting carefully portrayed through the use of small detail like the, ‘thin porcelain cup in its silver filigree holder’. The narrative is intriguing and full of suspense, I’d like to know what happens next!”
Isfahan, Persia 1888
When the sultan offers you a cup of coffee, etiquette demands you accept; but when you know the cup is poisoned, refusal is impossible.
This was the problem facing Mahmoud as he sat nervously on a pile of cushions amid the opulence of the sultan’s drawing room. It was a fine room but he had little time for it. Besides, he had seen it many times before and was only dimly aware of the lofty room with its creamy white marble and tall columns that soared to the ceiling.
They had eaten a fine supper with pleasant company. The other men had been friendly and the conversation had flowed as freely as the wine. Now then other guests had left and the two men were alone. The sultan called for fresh coffee and the kalyans, the water pipes, so that they could smoke and talk in peace.
But Mahmoud was not at peace. He looked at the thin porcelain cup in its silver filigree holder. The dark liquid within it rippled slightly, catching the light. He could imagine drinking it: thick and gritty with the consistency and flavour of sweetened mud. The poison, if it was present, would be totally undetectable, but he knew what to expect: the pain in the stomach, the vomiting, the distinctive smell of garlic on the breath. ‘Qajar coffee’ they called it, popularised by the royal family, with whom this was a favourite assassination method.
Now the second most powerful member of that family sat in front of him: the Zillu’s-Sultan, the Shah’s Shadow, and governor of southern Persia. And his dark, penetrating eyes were studying Mahmoud.
Mahmoud shifted uncomfortably, fingering the hose on his kalyan. A narrow band of sweat appeared on his upper lip. In a moment of absent-minded weakness, he wiped it away. Then, worried he had betrayed himself, he quickly drew on the pipe. The blue smoke hung in the air like a coiled snake before drifting upwards to the ceiling.
Yet still the sultan stared at him. The sultan’s mouth, fringed by a fashionably dyed blue-black moustache, widened into a slight smile. There was no doubt in Mahmoud’s mind now: the coffee was poisoned.
‘Well, are you going to drink your coffee?’ The sultan’s voice was edged with impatience.
The cup shook as Mahmoud picked it up with his thumb and forefinger and the dark liquid splashed over his hand. When the moment came, he drank quickly so that the tepid liquid slid down his throat without him even tasting it. Then he placed the cup down again, slowly and deliberately.
Now there was nothing left do except wait. Wait and wander if he would still be alive at midnight.
3rd Prize: Linda Welch, Hall of Mirrors
“The opening page is immediately redolent of its First World War setting using descriptive clues rather than spelling everything out. Very quickly the narrative opens up lots of questions for the reader making the story more compelling.”
Southampton was not the end of the line, but it was as far as Eleanor Woodford could afford to go. Picking up her basket and pulling her suitcase from the rack above her head, she moved slowly along the crowded carriage, trying to avoid the people who had been forced to stand in the aisles. She turned to apologise to the man whose foot she had trodden on and her heart seemed to stop for an instant when she saw that he was in uniform.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.
‘Don’t mention it!’ he laughed. ‘I’m sure I shall suffer more than a bruised foot where I’m going!’
Eleanor wanted to ask him which regiment he was going to join, where he would be stationed, did he know Anthony? but the guard was already slamming the doors shut, so she only had time to wish him luck before alighting. As the train pulled out of the station, she stood on the platform and watched the soldier, laughing with his friends. Give him my love, if you get to Flanders, she thought and, as if he had heard her, the soldier looked out of the window straight at her, smiled, and sketched a salute. As the train picked up speed, Eleanor lost sight of him, but she remained on the platform until it was deserted.
‘What the Dickens shall I do now?’ she wondered aloud.
It was one thing to walk into a public house on Anthony’s arm, quite another to enter one alone. Eleanor walked past the door seven times. Had it not started to snow she would doubtless have walked past it seven times more before the cold forced her inside.
Conversation stopped. Eleanor fought down the tears and walked up to the bar.
‘Yes?’ A woman in her middle years put down the glass she was polishing and looked at her with some disdain. Women alone in a public house invariably spelled trouble.
Highly Commended: Anne Eckersley, A Union Man
Highly Commended: Louise Morrish, All Earthly Things
The prizes were signed copies of Lady Carnarvon’s books, together with a signed Certificate of Adjudication by Becky Bagnell.
Becky said that she had really enjoyed doing the adjudication because all the entries were of such a high standard. Writing the first page of a novel is a very difficult task and many submissions are discarded because the writer doesn’t explain where the action is taking place or even identify the characters clearly, but Becky said that there were no such problems with any of the HWS entries.
The competition secretary, Jim Livesey thanked Becky for doing such a great job of adjudication and announced that the next competition will be at the start of the new season – Tuesday 9 September 2014 – The Stripe, Winchester.