‘Write the First Page of a Memoir of a Real or Imaginary Person’
In the words of one of our guests, it was a shimmering evening with Lady Antonia Fraser. Lady Antonia was in conversation with John Miller who was also our adjudicator. A task he found very enjoyable but quite exacting with twenty-three entries.
1st Place: John Quinn, Trust and Tectonics
“The opening sentence immediately catches the attention, so the reader is interested in the denouement. Leaving the baby in the car may not have happened to the author, but his telling of the story has the ring of truth.”
In any important relationship there are surprises: incidents or moments that shift the tectonic plates of trust.
Some shifts make a relationship stronger. But, mostly, they open up fault lines of suspicion that have lain deep, buried and neglected for years.
I don’t mean those Grand Canyon types of things, like finding your partner is a drug dealer or a pimp. No, those will march trust to a dark swamp from where it rarely, if ever, returns.
I mean those subtle shifts that insert a coloured lens over the iris, forever tinting the blue of trust with a hint of danger red.
To us older men who are granted the privilege of fatherhood later in life, being a Dad is never taken for granted. In the most stressful of times, even as first teeth fight their way through red-raw guns accompanied by non-stop tears and screams, it is still the most prized of possession, to be taken out, polished and re-examined with wonderment.
As a new father galloping towards his 40s, I was no exception.
My frequent forays under the pretext of ‘giving Mum a rest’ saw baby Finn, me and pushchair cavorting down a pavement in the quite suburb of Fair Oak. Or, heaven, having Finn snuggled into his carry chair, strapped into the passenger seat and facing me as we explored Hampshire’s backwaters via its B roads.
We would return home, Finn and I, both normally shattered, and I would tell his Mum every last, boring moment of our trip. Finn’s every cough or sniffle were recounted in detail, every new sight reported upon, every person we met or said ‘hello’ to or any dog patted was proclaimed as if worthy of front-page news.
It was halfway through such a detailed account, as we drank tea from a pot I had just made and as my wife was about to demolish a shortbread with chocolate chips, that she uncharacteristically interrupted me.
‘Where is he?’ And then more loudly ‘Where is Finn?’
In a moment of time too short to measure, I realised where.
He was still strapped into his carry chair in the passenger seat of the Saab. And the Saab was in the locked garage in the garden.
I flew from the room without answering her question, grabbing the garage and car keys with a lying nonchalance as I went.
Sweat puddled and crazed thoughts invaded during that 20-yard epic journey.
Houdini could not have opened the locks quicker.
And what did I find? Silence. Broken only by the quiet and rhythmic breathing of our baby boy as he dozed and dreamt his little dreams.
Had I been more perceptive, a little more worldly in such things, I would have heard another noise: a low rumble of continents slowly but unmistakably colliding as tectonic plates of trust realigned.
I was never, actually, banned from taking out Finn alone again. It was more subtle and, therefore, unable to be challenged.
Before the shifting of deep plates, my ‘You put your feet up and I’ll push Finn around the park’ would be greeted with a warm smile and a gratitude kiss on the cheek. Now it was volleyed back by a quizzical look and ‘I’ll come, the fresh air will do me good!’
Over the years I would like to think I’ve proved myself to be a good, reliable and trustworthy parent. Proved that to my son, myself and, mostly, to my wife.
I’ve served my sentence.
Now Finn is 22. And if we inform his mum, my wife, that we are popping out for a small adventure together she no longer suggests joining us.
But her eyes lock on mine and that same quizzical look is arrowed toward me. And I know I’m still on probation. And always will be.
2nd Place: Celia Livesey (pseudonym Katie Rush), Suez
“An evocation of time and place that conjures up a child’s-eye view of Egypt in the Second World War. The word-pictures are vivid and totally convincing.”
Forget time travel, nothing takes you back to a place and time like smell! I grew up in ‘The City of Beauty and Enchantment’. That’s what the Egyptians called Ismailia but I can think of several alternative epithets for it. The curious mixture of delight and disgust between delicious street vendor smells and walking too near the banks of the ‘Sweet Water’ canal remain. Other things remain; I was a child caught up in war and my eyes were opened. Perhaps the catalyst that made me an avid writer by the time I was eight.
A tearful Nan came down to the docks to see us off from Southampton. I was barely more than a toddler. I had my fourth birthday on the boat, the SS Empire Orwell, and was given a fountain pen; prophetic or what!
The boat was full of army wives – hogging two irons while my mother had to wait. I watched with interest when they were sick as we crossed the Bay of Biscay. On the last leg of our journey, my mother and I stood in silence at the rail as we passed the graveyard of ships at Tobruk. I hoped the place we were going was not the same.
But if Tobruk was empty and desolate, Port Said was the opposite; bustling, colourful, noisy, smelly and hot. Nothing prepared me for the assault on my senses. And the heat hit me like someone opening an oven door!
Dad was waiting to meet us. I turned away, embarrassed, as my parents kissed.
‘Katie, give Daddy a kiss,’ my mother urged.
I scowled. I barely knew this tall blond-haired man. He’d been in Burma when I was born and I’d been brought up by my mum and Nan; men were foreign.
A car took us to Ismailia along empty sand swept roads beside the Suez Canal. We overtook the odd camel being led by men in gellabiya or passed the occasional army truck going in the other direction but apart from that, the country seemed deserted.
Ismailia was different, it opened up like a flower in front of us – all tree lined streets, emerald green parks and scarlet flamboyant trees – it truly was ‘The City of Beauty and Enchantment’ – foreign, exotic, exciting.
Our apartment was in French Square on the second floor. It had large rooms with a verandah, mosquito nets over all the beds, and wonder of wonders, an icebox – with cockroaches. This was to be our home for the next four years, or so we thought…
3rd Place: Louise Morrish, Dorothy Lawrence – A Female Soldier in the First World War
“An imaginative re-creation of what it might have been like for an enterprising and brave young woman entering the war zone in France. One wants to know what happens next to her.”
It was June, 1915, and I was a young, female journalist, cycling alone into a war zone.
From England, I had sailed to Le Havre, my borrowed Hercules bicycle attracting more attention than the fact I was a lone woman, travelling without a chaperone. My big, white, linen bag, strapped to the handlebars, was stuffed with provisions: a spirit lamp, half a loaf of bread, two candles, matches, a saucepan and a bottle of precious water.
On reaching France, I had mounted my trusty steed, and made Paris in two days. The city was a scene of intense activity, the shops shuttered, Red Cross ambulances and army vehicles clogging the roads, the pavements swarming with green British troops and the shabby blue uniforms of the French poilus.
In a street café, my bicycle propped beside me, I had carefully selected my partner in crime; a kind faced Royal Engineer, one amongst thousands in France, and the only person, apart from my Editor, who would know my secret. It was easy to strike up a conversation, as we ate our egg and chips. ‘I want to get to the Front as a soldier,’ I had told the Royal Engineer, keeping my voice low, watching for his reaction. ‘Will you help me?’
He had blinked at me from behind wire spectacles, but to his credit, had not walked away. Now, why did a pretty little thing like me wish to do that, he wanted to know. Did I realise there was a War on?
I had to take a steadying breath, restraining my temper.
‘I’m a journalist,’ I had told him. ‘And I want to report the truth of the War.’ But our own war-correspondents can’t reach the Front, I went on to explain. Those big men, with their cars, and credentials, and ready cash, they can’t get beyond Amiens.
But what do you want me to do, the engineer had asked, his eyes huge behind his lenses. I was ready with my answer.
‘I first need a soldier’s uniform,’ I said. ‘And some bandages, and a pair of sharp scissors.’
After the longest silence, he had nodded. Later that day, clad in the garb of a Royal Engineer, my breasts bound tight, my hair cut short, I had pedalled away from Paris. Heading north, I had followed the rumble of the guns, the sound like distant thunder, growing ever nearer. That summer was one of the hottest in living memory, and I sweated beneath my strange khaki uniform, my head itching beneath the ill-fitting cap, wondering at my decision.
But I meant to get into the very thick of it. If I died in the attempt, well, that was the sacrifice I was willing to take.
Highly Commended: Linda Page, Remembering a Murmur
“A child’s mispronunciation of ‘memory’ leads into reflections on family traits as the years advance. It underlines the importance of memories for all of us.”
Highly Commended: Diana Batten, Fire and Sun
“An innocent lazy afternoon for a child is suddenly shattered by a fearsome explosion. The mood-changes are cleverly evoked.”
The prizes were signed copies of Lady Antonia’s book ‘My History: A Memoir of Growing Up’ and a Certificate of Adjudication by John Miller.
There was a really good response to this competition and Jim Livesey, competition secretary, thanked everyone who had entered.