May 2017 Competition Results – Margaret Graham

Many thanks to Tracy Baines for stepping in to announce the competition winners last evening.

The list seems endless, but briefly our May adjudicator, Margaret Graham, is a bestselling author (including plays and co-researching a television documentary), editor and feature writer for e-Frost magazine, creative writing mentor and tutor, and joint founder of the charity Words for the Wounded. In her spare time Margaret writes as Milly Adams.

The brief was to write ‘A scene involving a disabled character’ in 300 words. It was a delight to discover that Margaret found the three winning entries to our May competition ‘fresh to me, surprising, moving and works of clarity’, with the highly commended running close behind. Margaret mentioned that it was hard to choose the winners but they came through as they shone and resonated for her.

1st Place: Lynn Clements– Not That Colour, Jacko’s Story

2nd Place: Erica Evans – Dinner Date

3rd Place: Rosie Travers – Milestones

Highly Commended: Rosie Sutcliffe – Annie’s Song

Highly Commended: Ant Ridgeway – Reflections

1st Place: Not That Colour, Jacko’s Story by Lynn Clements

Margaret Graham: The writer grabs us by the throat and wham bam, we’re into Jacko’s world. We are in Jacko’s fortress, we witness his disengagement from the tears of his mother, the heart stopping safety he finds in colours, and finally, the security he finds in the colour of the official’s briefcase. It’s grey, so that is all right. He returns to counting the legs of the spider. Yes, he’s safe.

But of course, his autistic life is at a point of change. He isn’t safe – or is he? The official has been called after the incident involving Jacko. In his briefcase are papers that could lead him away from this safe world, into another. Will it be a place of safety, one which understands, which relieves his mother of pain? Or not?

The writer never tells us of Jacko’s actual condition, we find our way through his world using the map the writer has so cleverly devised. It is understated, composed of brevity, clarity, colours, numbers, objectivity and so cleverly emotionless. But though it is without obvious emotion we empathise with him, fear for him and hurt for his mother. Normal world, point of change, full of tension, and increasingly we understand, and want to know: what becomes of him?

Clever and deeply impressive writing. Can it be sustained beyond a short piece, that is the question? Would the writer have to remain in Jacko’s point of view or move to see the situation from those who ultimately take control?

As the pot hit the wall its lid broke. Red paint sploshed over nearby windows and pieces of fruit laid out on a plate. Jacko watched the faces of the adults as they turned towards him. They looked black. He wasn’t sure what they were going to do next, so he just stood and watched.

The next thing he remembered was his mother sitting behind the glass of the fat woman’s room. He wasn’t sure how she’d got in there and he was worried that she wouldn’t get out. He’d tried the door handle before and it didn’t move. He sat on the chair where he was told to sit, which was ok because it was blue. He watched his mother’s mouth open and close and the fat woman’s eyebrows move up and down. His mother stood up quickly and opened the door. Jacko thought she was very clever to know how to do that, when the handle didn’t work.

In the car on the way home the only sound he could hear was crying.

When he got home Jacko took his magnifying glass into the garden. He lay on his front in the long grass of the wild flower patch, which his mother had helped him sow. He looked for arachnids; he wanted to test his theory that he could find three different types of arachnids by the time his mother called him in for food.

He was still searching when a very tall man wearing glasses, with a bushy beard and hair sticking out of his ears came into the garden. His briefcase was grey, so that was ok. He heard the man say he was from The Educational Psychology Department. Jacko rolled onto his back holding a struggling spider. He counted its legs, to be safe.

2nd Place: Dinner Date by Erica Evans

Margaret Graham: A date which very early on raises enough questions for us to understand that there is more to this than meets the eye. It’s as though the camera is on the girl who seems to be the protagonist, and the man sitting opposite. The camera gradually draws away and we see that actually the date is between two others also around the table; two vulnerable people. The protagonist and the man opposite are in fact, carers, or the facilitators of the date. But will this lead to more for the carers?

Delicately written, clever touches – the replacement of the normal knife with one of plastic, the eye contact between the carers. Is it professional or could it be more? Normal world, point of change.

The restaurant has a romantic view, just right for a date. The sparkling nightscape is captivating but inside coy glances are being exchanged instead. Wine arrives. I put a straw into the glass and hold it to lips which fumble for the end, eyes still on their prize. I watch carefully, but discreetly, a skill I am still learning. Be there, but don’t be there. Don’t stare, don’t speak. The lips part, slaked, and smile. Not at me.

I cut the meat. Is it too big, too small? Was I too slow? Darren has already finished cutting his. I surreptitiously replace the silver fork with a plastic one. One that won’t grate on teeth clamped too hard. There is little conversation now, focus and effort mostly placed on eating without choking, without dropping morsels from mouths. A waitress appears and enquires about the food. I look down at the tablecloth, the question is not for me. When I look up Darren winks at me. I don’t respond. I’m here to drive the van, manoeuvre the chair, lift the fork. It’s not my date. It’s not yours either, Darren.

After dessert, Maisie looks at her arm and asks me a question. I can’t understand her and feel shame rise inside. I haven’t worked with her long enough, my ear isn’t yet tuned in to how she speaks. Joe sees my embarrassment and saves me.

‘Maisie said could you put her arm on the table, please.’

His speech is clearer and I comply. Joe reaches across to hold Maisie’s hand. She smiles at him again.

‘Please could you return in half an hour?’ asks Joe.

Darren and I are excused. He goes to smoke, I sip a cola at the bar. It’s not our date. It’s theirs.

3rd Place: Milestones by Rosie Travers

Margaret Graham: I find 2nd person difficult to sustain, and indeed to read for any length of time, but this worked. The piece ached with the loneliness of the mother bringing her small disabled child to a centre for the first time. The disablement is all that she can see. Another mother reaches out a hand, and her words lead to an understanding that of course her daughter is indeed that – a daughter, not just a disabled cypher. One day her daughter will of course care what colour her helmet is. The normal world was at a point of change.

You take a deep breath and push open the door. It is a relief not to have to explain. The receptionist already has Olivia’s paperwork.

‘Come on through,’ she says.

The walls are painted in soft muted colours. You’d imagined something vivid to provide stimulation, bright murals in primary colours. You’d expected to encounter a cacophony of noise but everything here is quiet, subdued.

There are other children in the sensory room. You lay Olivia onto a beanbag beside the bubble tube. Fibre optic patterns spiral across the soft foam floor.

When Olivia was born you counted fingers, toes. Her tiny body was perfect. Her blue eyes flickered open; she saw you, you know she did. She jerked at a sudden sound. She could hear. She mewled like a tiny kitten. She had a voice.

They warned you about the implications. You drew on resources and discovered a gritty determination. Milestones would be reached; it was just a question of adapting the criteria.

‘How old is your little girl?’ one of the other mums asks. Her daughter is wearing a flamingo pink helmet. They’ve already told you Olivia will need one of those when she’s older. The other mum, her name is Kerry, immediately knows what you are thinking. ‘They come in all sorts of colours,’ she says. ‘Just see it as a fashion accessory, like choosing shoes and bags.’

‘Right now, it’s hard to imagine Olivia choosing shoes and bags.’ The words come out all wrong. You don’t mean to sound churlish, ungrateful. Positive thinking is sometimes a lonely journey.

‘Of course she will. She’s a girl, isn’t she?’ Kerry says.

Light reflects like dancing sunbeams from the disco ball on the ceiling. Olivia’s lips curl, revealing one of her gummy smiles. You reach for Kerry’s out-stretched hand.

Highly Commended: Annie’s Song by Rosie Sutcliffe

Margaret Graham: This moved me because of the initial loss of the anticipated life, the unfairness of a bolt from the blue – a stroke, followed by the loss of hope, the disappearance of those who were once friends in the face of such a change, such disability. But then, one of those friends finds the key to bring back hope, and holds out a hand. Music as therapy, but it is friendship that really brings this return of hope, and the remembrance that the stroke patient is actually a person: she is on the point of believing this again. Lovely and warm. Will they win the singing competition? A win that would actually be much more than a mere competition win.

In the grand scheme of things this was not how I’d envisaged my retirement. Within a week of finishing work I’d planned long, challenging walks in National Parks, booked a trip to Italy, joined a reading group, enrolled in a photography class and with some trepidation begun singing in my local choir. Within six months of this I’d been smitten down by a stroke, the right side of my body no longer obeyed my brain, a process I’d never given much thought to previously.

Patting at a sliver of drool with my good hand I slowly resumed the laborious process of spooning vegetable soup into my reluctant mouth. The chunks of vegetable frightened me, the whole swallowing process was a dangerous skill that had taken weeks to relearn.

‘Eat up, Annie,’ one of the carers trilled, ‘you’ve got some visitors this afternoon.’

I couldn’t answer her rotund retreating form as the sounds that emanated from my mouth bore no relation to the words in my head. Visitors were a scarce resource, little huddled groups of my friends sitting, awkwardly fidgeting. I had so little to offer a conversation now. I felt burned by their embarrassment.

Visits dwindled. So what did the carer mean? Was this some unpleasant euphemism for an impending medical procedure?

Fears were allayed when Jenny from choir strode into the residents’ lounge, complete with keyboard and a dozen choir members.

‘We’ve missed you, Annie,’ she explained simply.

The room was soon pulsating with peaks and troughs of well known and loved favourites and it wasn’t until I saw Jenny smiling through tears that I realised I was singing too, proper words, in tune. Music, medium to my brain.

Next month we are performing Annie’s Song in a national competition. I think we might just win.

Highly Commended: Reflections by Ant Ridgeway

Margaret Graham: Again, the loss of the anticipated life, and the reflections it brings. An IED causes life changing injuries, and from the depths of self-pity the patient, a soldier, reflects on his trite remarks to those similarly injured. Remarks that were superficial, and without understanding. Now he understands and feels himself sinking as hope leaves. But then, reflections on the life of his disabled son inspires him to re-assess and aspire to the same quiet courage. It brings him to a point of change. Inspiring and worthy.

Bang… I was able bodied until the land mine exploded taking my legs with it.

I’m lying in my hospital bed feeling very sorry for myself.

What will the future hold for me now? One minute fit and healthy. The next, only half of me.

My career in the Army has been distinguished. I have a medal for bravery but nothing prepared me for this.

I thought I was invincible. Had a reputation for dismantling incendiaries without incident. Fearless Phil they called me.

It doesn’t help remembering some of my contemporaries with worse injuries than mine. Those minus arms, legs, blinded and with horrific facial scars. I remember thinking I wouldn’t let it happen to me. I cringe when I think of the way I spoke to them.

‘Never mind, old chap. You’ll pull through.’ The pity I felt.

I have a disabled son. If Mike were here now he would understand perhaps what I am going through. He’s been disabled since birth and most of his life he’s been in his wheelchair. Can’t do much without help.

So what the hell gives me the right to feel so bloody gloomy?

At least I have known what it was like to be able to walk, be independent. He’s never had that experience. You know what though; he’s the most positive, cheerful person you could ever meet. He’s out and about most days. People love him. He has this amazing ability to make people smile, feel good about themselves. Never feels as if life isn’t worth living.

Thinking about him, puts things into perspective. Right. I’m re-evaluating my situation. Starting with my rehabilitation next week, I’ll do everything I’m asked to do and more.

I’m going to make Mike proud. Together, we’ll show the world just who we are.

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