A perfect fit to be our September adjudicator was Anne Gibson, literary therapist to residential homes for the elderly. Our first competition in the 2017/18 season was to ‘Write about an elderly person performing one item from their bucket list’.
“I’d like to say what an enjoyable experience judging these entries has been, all of them varied and entertaining, and on a subject close to my heart as I regularly spend time as a volunteer visiting two care homes, and I am involved with the Alzheimer’s Society.
“What was I looking for? First and foremost, the entries needed to fulfil the brief. A few of them, though very good, did not in my humble opinion really do this. So I would urge all entrants to this sort of competition to first READ THE BRIEF!
“After that, it was about authenticity, inventiveness, and a good command of language. And a little twist at the end of the tale is the icing on the cake. It is SO nice when a word or a phrase makes you sit up and think “YESSS”! And even within such short entries there were moments when that happened. Lovely also to be made to laugh out loud, which did happen for me with several of the entries. With so few words allowed, it’s also very clever if the writer can make the title count.
“Picking out the 5 entries below was one thing, but much harder was having to place those 5 in ascending order.”
1st Place: Rosie Sutcliffe – A Drop in the Ocean
2nd Place: Rosie Travers – Taking the Plunge
3rd Place: Gill Hollands – To Fly
Highly Commended: John Quinn – That Wasn’t on the Bucket List!
Highly Commeded: Louise Morrish – The End
1st Place: A Drop in the Ocean by Rosie Sutcliffe
Anne Gibson: A vivid bit of writing, told in the first person. Without taking the reader away from a sense of really being “present” at the scene, the writer packed a surprising amount of heft into this short passage. No twist, no laughs, but very well imagined.
People have told me that at my age I should slow down, relax, enjoy an easy retirement, tend my garden and watch the world go by.
To these people I say, “I’m an octogenarian, I don’t have much time left on this earth, so I need to speed up not slow down and squeeze as much excitement out of each moment as possible.”
That is how I came to be off the coast of Mafia Island, Tanzania, in a RIB, rigid inflatable boat that means apparently. The RIB was hitting the choppy waves in a series of short, violent spanks that reverberated through my aged frame, causing me to wonder if I had indeed over-reached my capabilities this time.
I was making unsuccessful attempts to focus on the horizon when the skipper shouted and pointed ahead, slowing the boat to gently undulate towards a huge shadow beneath the waves.
The creature was massive, moving with a quiet grace and elegance alongside us now as I fumbled with snorkel, mask and fins and unceremoniously plopped into the water.
I was too exhilarated to feel fear, too awestruck to do anything other than take in the sheer magnificence of this beautiful creature. Zebra stripes decorated with leopard spots and sleek, sinuous lines, gliding past me with slow, powerful precision. The whale shark, largest fish in our oceans. Great gaping maw in broad head, with followers of fishes trailing in its wake, immensely strong, yet gentle and unthreatening, I, felt humbled and ashamed to be human.
It was just a few minutes before with slow, graceful swipes of it’s massive tail the creature powered away into the murk, leaving me small and insignificant, full of wonder.
At eighty my bucket list grows longer the more I tick off.
2nd Place: Taking the Plunge by Rosie Travers
Anne Gibson: I liked this very much. Told with a light touch and promising to be a conventional treatment of the brief in a conventional setting, but the last few lines revealed both a tragedy that had haunted the main character for most of her life, and a squaring up to this tragedy. I found it moving, tender but leavened with a touches of dry humour.
Grace hadn’t even heard of a bucket list until Bill had shown them his brother’s photographs.
‘Bunging jumping in New Zealand,’ he said. ‘What do you think? Something to cross off the list, eh?’
Grace wasn’t sure what to think at all.
‘What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do?’ Bill said, as he shuffled around the community lounge of Sunflower House, proudly regaling his brother’s exploits to anyone wide-awake enough to listen. ‘Nobody should die having regrets about things they haven’t done.’
Grace didn’t want to think about dying, but she had plenty of regrets, although missing out on the opportunity to dangle mid-air at the end of a long rope was not one of them.
Molly Atkins wanted to go to Disneyland, but she’d never get the medical insurance; Bob Davis wanted to ride a Harley Davidson, difficult with only one leg.
‘Gracie? What about you?’
Silence. She wasn’t going to tell them the one thing she regretted not doing the most. Like the others, she’d left it too late.
But that was the whole point of a bucket list wasn’t it? To reach the Pearly Gates and look St Peter in the eye and declare je regrette rien. It wasn’t too late. When she was re-united with Steven, when she could pinch his chubby cheeks, ruffle his halo of blonde hair, and admire his ethereal wings, she could tell him that if it ever happened again, that awful day on the beach, this time she could save him.
Taking the plunge, at her age. They’d call her daft. She didn’t even have a costume.
‘So Gracie,’ said Annie, her carer, ‘you want to go shopping?’
‘Yes please,’ Grace replied. ‘And then can we go to the leisure centre? I want to book a swimming lesson.’
3rd Place: To Fly by Gill Hollands
Anne Gibson: This totally fulfilled the brief. I liked the sense of affinity between the elderly woman and the young man, and the grandmother’s exhilaration was beautifully conveyed. There was some very nice writing in this short passage. “My face pleated, flapping in the wind like my suit” was particularly nice.
Birdsong swirled in the thin air above the canopy. I caught silver glints through the misty cloud far below.
‘Oh!’ A hand caught my arm, making me jump. Gazing down from the rickety platform, I was closer to God than I’d ever been in 86 years.
‘You sure about this Nan? You can change your mind, you know.’ My grandson’s puppy dog eyes looked bigger than ever. He couldn’t feel my thundering euphoria.
‘I’ve wanted this all my life! It’s what I came all this way for.’ I grinned, mopping my forehead with a soggy tissue. ‘We’ve practised, haven’t we? Easy peasy!’
‘Well, if you’re sure…’ Sighing, he helped my stiff old legs into the suit, fastening the zips. ‘Wish I’d never told you my hobby.’
‘I’m glad you did. We have an affinity, you and I.’ I caught sight of an eagle circling below. ‘Look!’
‘Ready?’ He nodded, grinning, a flush of excitement on his cheekbones. ‘Let’s chase him!’
I stared over the edge, heart thumping, my legs suddenly quaking. I clamped my teeth together, pulling down the goggles.
Ben tipped us over the edge with a whoop. My heart stopped. I plummeted, breathless. My face pleated, flapping in the wind, like the suit. I recalled the wind chamber. Keep straight, spread out, relax. I dug deep.
The eagle’s cry rang above the roar of the wind. It was just below us, soaring effortless. As we began to glide, it came alongside, curious. I looked into its golden eyes, connected in my soul.
As the world spun and grew around us, my eagle followed until the parachutes snapped open, wrenching us upward. Then, we were thistledown, floating among spectacular views.
Bumping to land, the parachute shrouded me. Lying in the long grass laughing, I cried.
Highly Commended: That Wasn’t on the Bucket List! By John Quinn
Anne Gibson: An elderly widow fulfils a bucket list wish by going on a luxury cruise and in the process finds herself fulfilling a wish she never knew she had. This had a subtle twist, and was both tender and original.
Julie half-woke in her ‘deluxe balcony cabin with shared butler’ on the Queen Mary 2 and, in that lovely, unsettling space somewhere between sleep and consciousness, couldn’t quite recall the events that had brought her there.
Yes, she was sure she was on the liner, crossing the Atlantic, three days out of Southampton. And yes, she had booked the cruise to New York, finally fulfilling a promise she had made to herself as a teenager, oh-so long ago.
It was tragic that it took the death of husband Alan to make it happen: he ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ on a luxury liner full of ‘know-it-alls in their long frocks.’
She remembered the council’s pay-out for ‘death in service’ being very generous. And then feeling desperate that it took such an event to achieve her longed for, suppressed ambition: a life free from a man who had grown both boring and boorish.
She recalled the excitement of her adventure being replaced by the feeling of isolation once on board. How, in the restaurant, each beautifully presented dish was accompanied by intimidation from waiters and couples on her top table. How the only people who bothered to speak to her – no one made the effort to listen – were those showing-off their success or worldliness.
And last night, when she’d been brave enough to have a post-dinner cocktail alone in the bar, that nice lady, a divorcee wasn’t she, starting a conversation. Helen, that’s her name, also alone on the voyage.
Now, with the sun squinting around the blinds, more memories returned: God, how many different cocktails did we try; the barman politely asking us to quieten down so passengers could hear the quiz!
Julie didn’t jump when she felt Helen’s gentle touch on her shoulder or heard ‘Wake up, sleepy head.’
Highly Commended: The End by Louise Morrish
Anne Gibson: Humorous, original and very nicely told. I loved the sentence “The story of her long life was written on her body.” It genuinely made me laugh out loud at The End with a twist that was both funny, thought-provoking, tender and ultimately a little melancholy. To tick all those boxes is clever writing.
‘You’ll probably bruise,’ the young man said, his gently worried expression at odds with the vicious looking studs and spikes that pierced his face.
‘I’m a tough old boot,’ Maud replied. Besides, she thought, who would see her bruised behind? Only the undertaker, when the time came.
‘What made you want a tattoo now?’ the man asked, snapping on latex gloves.
‘Why not?’ Maud smiled. The story of her long life was written on her body, in all the wrinkles, grey hairs and stiff joints. The two short words she wanted inked on her buttocks were a last laugh.
‘Tattoos are on lots of people’s bucket lists,’ the man said, opening a packet of enormous needles. ‘You’re sure about this?’
Maud nodded. ‘Is mine the strangest request you’ve had?’
‘I’ve been asked to ink things you wouldn’t believe,’ the man muttered.
Oh, I think I would, Maud thought, as the man helped her lie down on the table. She had experienced more in her ninety-nine years than this boy would ever know.
True, she had never learned to swim, or ride a bike, or drive a car. But that hadn’t stopped her from living life to the full.
She felt the cold press of an antiseptic wipe on one cheek. ‘Now this might hurt…’ the man said, as the needle whirred.
Maud’s eyes closed at the first stab of pain. Her mind opened, memories tumbling free.
She had survived the Spanish flu epidemic, pneumonia and breast cancer; given birth to twin boys, in an air raid shelter, in the middle of a war; travelled the world, by plane, train, ship, even once by hot air balloon.
She had seen governments rise and fall; witnessed people make the same mistakes, over and again.
Now the story of her life was drawing to a close.
She was so tired.
Soon it would be time to close the book and sleep.
It didn’t take long for the man to finish inking…