May 2018 Competition Results – Katie Espiner Adjudication

The May competition was judged by Katie Espiner, Managing Director of Orion Publishing.

The brief for this month’s competition was:

The first three hundred words of a novel for general women’s fiction

And the winners were:

First place: Seaheart by Louise Morrish

Second place: A Beautiful Noise by Sam Collins

Third place: Scrapbooking by Annie Gray

Highly commended: Marrying Mother by Rosie Travers

Highly commended: Lucky Lizzie by George Rodger

First place: Seaheart by Louise Morrish

“The writer does an excellent job of evoking both time and place in just a few paragraphs, also setting up a clear dilemma for the narrator and a real sense of intrigue for the reader. Really well done and tricky to manage in only 300 words.”

The baby sleeps at last, swaddled in the wicker basket, snug as an acorn tucked within a fold of earth. I cannot tear my eyes from the fragile curve of his head, the seashell whorl of his perfect ear. Though he slumbers, his tiny fingers grip my thumb with surprising strength, pulling at my heart.

An oak sapling requires no mother to nurse it, I tell myself, but still the tree must have light and soil and space in which to thrive. How can I hope that the Sisters of Charity, burdened with so many poor, unwanted children, will give my son the care he needs?

But I must have faith.

An icy wind rattles a loose windowpane and I rise to draw the drapes. Across the city, church bells toll, heralding the fast approaching night. Through the misted glass I watch the lamplighter making his way along the street. As he coaxes each lamp to life, I draw my shawl tighter, searching the flood of shadowed strangers hurrying home. But none possess John’s limping gait.

At the table, I light a candle and contemplate the items before me; an empty sachet stitched from a scrap of muslin, two dozen corked bottles filled with dried herbs I gathered in the summer, and lastly, but most importantly, the book. Though barely the size of my hand, the herbal is as solid as the chunks of drift wood smouldering in the hearth. Each rough-edged page is covered in dense script, and as I peer at the crabbed writing in the sallow candlelight, I breathe in a complex, comforting aroma of herbs and spices; the smell of my childhood. The herbal once belonged to my mother, and my grandmother before that; a treasury of curses and cures, passed down the female line.

The charm I seek for my son must keep him safe until, God willing, I return.

My eyes hunt out the first herb.

Dill: for protection.

And so it begins.

Second place: A Beautiful Noise by Sam Collins

“The writer has a lovely turn of phrase, and the reader is drawn in to the scene brilliantly – we want to know more about Pip straight away.”

The backfire echoed through Pip’s breastbone and he could still feel the tiny vibrations pulsing his body.  An unwelcome electricity, but not entirely unusual these days when he spent much of his time feeling as if he was plugged into a socket.  The daily low-level buzz through his muscles, the slight ache in his chest, the nagging doubt whether he really could control the movement of his limbs.

Pip stared down at his clenched fists and for a moment studied each finger as it uncurled from the lawnmower handlebars.  If he concentrated hard enough he could persuade himself that the slow release of tension was deliberate and invest enough significance in that to reassure him he was in control.  Perhaps then he would be able to breathe sufficient calm to deal with this crazy woman coming towards him waving a pencil case and a wooden spoon.

His life right this moment.  Tragedy and Farce.

‘Getting there Pip dear!’  Marilyn Harper called over the thunderous roar of the mower’s engine.  ‘Much better than yesterday, a few more hours and I’m sure we’ll be approaching satisfactory.’

It had been like this for two days, Mrs Harper standing on the sidelines of her front garden drop-kicking disapproval.  For the last hour or so her insistent commands had been doing battle with a spirited counter attack by that awful man from the Council,  prowling up and down the embankment in front of the house measuring wind speeds, scribbling in his notebook and insisting on quiet.   The whole village just seemed to be full of ‘men from the Council’ lately, and Pip despaired, yet again, what on earth was the matter with this place?  Why did they have to make such a bloody fuss about everything?  And, yet again, he had no idea what he was doing coming back to a place like this.

Until he reminded himself that choice was a luxury he had not yet earned.

Third place: Scrapbooking by Annie Gray

“There’s a terrific sense of place here, and a clear hook to keep the pages turning.”

Dee smeared a generous amount of superglue in a large cross on the back of the photo and pressed it against the lounge room wall. This was the last room and her arms ached with stretching around  five bedrooms, two bathrooms, study and halls. Montages were now fixed to every wall: her precious babies, holiday snaps from here in Australia and the UK, barbecues on the beach at Christmas. Despite the aircon thrumming at full power, sweat was damp in her hair.  She would not miss the heat.

Hefting up the last box, Dee kicked open the door into the garden, causing a flock of cockatoos to scream as one black cloud into the sky. As she tipped the contents of the box into the bin, she caught flashes of faces as they tumbled from torn albums. Her daughter with the “my little pony” backpack – first day at Kindy, together feeding the crocodiles in Queensland, her younger self smiling in a wedding meringue of a dress,  gatherings with The Family….

She slammed the lid down and stared up at the windows on the top floor, all open with flynet ripped – to allow every redback and huntsman spider, bird or beast to enter. Not one cup, chair or bed left inside – shelled out.

“My home”, said Dee, pressing her fingers against the warm ochre wall.

Almost as an afterthought, she lit the fire in the dry grass of her garden – then drove away.

* * *

Sitting in their London flat, Emma watched the photos load onto his Facebook page, not his fake page but the real one with so many friends. As she reached for her mobile, she noticed her hands were trembling. A text from her sister – finally.

“What do you mean you’re on your way back?”, she gasped, “No Dee, I’ve booked a flight out – to you – tonight!”

Highly commended: Marrying Mother by Rosie Travers

“A great mother/daughter dynamic is introduced in just a few lines, which many readers will find very relatable!”

I thought I’d trained my mother not to phone after 10.30 pm. She might not need her beauty sleep but I certainly did.

It wasn’t a total surprise to be disturbed by the familiar ring tone. It was morning in San Diego – The Majestic Oceans would have just docked.  Pearl Gates was back on terra firma and in range of a satellite signal. It was inevitable that she would call. The lateness of the hour would have little resonance when she was bursting to the brim with Latin American anecdotes.

This particular cruise had been purely recreational. No need for me to act as chaperone to ensure she delivered her lecture schedule and subsequent sales pitch. In addition, eight weeks was far too long for me to be away from the office. Pearl Gates had two novellas due at her publishers before Christmas and so far she hadn’t dictated a word of either of them.  Instead I’d been regurgitating a couple of previous plotlines, hoping her critics wouldn’t complain too much about the recurring themes.

Not that it would worry my mother two hoots if they did. With nearly sixty bestselling novels under her belt she could afford to be blasé. She had a very loyal fan-base. There was comfort in the familiar. Pearl’s readers didn’t want surprises.

The phone continued to vibrate on the nightstand. The downside of not answering would be that it would continue to ring throughout the night. If I turned my phone off, she would call my brother, or even worse, rouse a neighbour.

I braced myself and picked up the phone. ‘Hi Mum, how was it? How was South America?’

She was as effusive as ever. ‘I’ve had a whale of time. Absolutely delightful, darling, but listen, you’ll never guess what…’

Highly commended: Lucky Lizzie by George Rodger

“The writer sensitively conjures the scene and the switch from past to present is handled beautifully.”

When she was four years old, Lizzie Brayshaw pushed her hand through some diamond-mesh fencing and into a tiger’s mouth. This tiger was no man-eater. Only half-grown, it had been transported from Lusaka Zoo, where they couldn’t afford to feed it. It lived in an enclosure the size of four tennis courts abutting the back of the farmhouse in Zambia where Lizzie’s family were visiting for a barbecue. She was pulled away before the astonished tiger realised that it was enjoying the taste of the warm blood that was trickling into its mouth.

They were beyond lucky in that Kitwe hospital hosted two Cuban microsurgeons on site that month, working on a Medical Diplomacy Aid Project. They lifted her hand from the bucket of disinfectant where it had been submerged during the headlong drive into town and stitched the wound with Harley Street precision before sending her home with an interesting scar and a lifelong story to tell.

* * *

Thirty years later and living in England, Elizabeth Bourne rubbed the faded scar on her wrist and watched her sons playing on the lawn through the open French windows. The lawn stretched down to the river, a hundred yards away. There was a background drone; the gardener manoeuvring the drive-on lawnmower around the trees that dotted the grounds. Andrew and Jack were up from boarding school. They were kicking a ball around and shouting but the mower’s engine dampened the noise.

She tried to concentrate on the novel she was reading but eventually put it down and surveyed the panelled drawing-room where she was sitting. For the daughter of an expatriate coppermineworker, she hadn’t done badly at all. After the tiger incident, she’d been christened “Lucky Lizzie” by her parents. Years later, when she’d landed the very eligible Metals Trader, Michael Bourne, following a blind date, she’d begun to believe the mythology herself.

Now she noticed idly that the mower had stopped and the boys’ clamour had suddenly ceased.

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