October 2019 Competition Results: Claire Dyer – Adjudicator

The October competition was judged by novelist and poet, Claire Dyer.  The brief was to write a memory of being read to as a child.

And the winners were:

First Place:  Special Knight by Lynn Clements    

Second Place: The Final Half Hour by Peter Duncan

Third Place: The Ghosts in the Pages by Esther Fernandez-Florente       

Highly Commended: Read to Me by George Rodger 

Highly Commended: Bedtime by Linda Welch        

October winners
October winners: Esther Fernandez-Florente with Lynn Clements and George Rodger 

   Photo by Alex Carter

First Place: Special Knight by Lynn Clements    

He always came in the night, when he could. I snuggled down under my cherry pink, candlewick bed spread, pretending to be asleep. The door creaked…that’s when I couldn’t contain myself. My eyes would fly open and out of my mouth came, ‘another story pleeeeease.’ (Dad was a sucker for the soft soap). Inevitably there would be, ‘just one more,’ and I had him to myself.

Dad was away a lot during my childhood, so times spent with him were precious. The Gulf War and the Bosnian War interrupted my early years. Mum was often left with just me and my brother for company. She did her best to hold down a full-time job and bring us up proper, as she used to say but there wasn’t much time or energy for reading stories. And when dad was home she had her hands full. She worked extra hard to make him happier.

My dad loved myths and legends from the Egyptians and Greeks. He used to tell me about Amun Ra, king of the Gods and Osiris, who was chopped into pieces by his brother and how Icarus had his wings melted because he flew too close to the sun. He held the books open but didn’t turn many pages, yet the stories poured out. His voice was like drinking hot chocolate and my heart felt full. His eyes twinkled in the dim night light, and it was then he smiled most.

‘Special nights,’ I said at his funeral. He was forty-five. My brother nodded in his front row pew. Mum just bowed her head and shakily held onto her son’s hand. Cal read a poem that dad had taught him, about a knight in search of Eldorado. The gallant knight rode long and hard in his quest but couldn’t find what he was looking for. The poem then tells of a shadow falling over his heart as he realised Eldorado was unobtainable. It was then that we all wept.

Second Place: The Final Half Hour by Peter Duncan

The morning was for arithmetic and spelling (hopeless at one, a bit better at the other). After lunch it was music (no voice, terrible timing) or games (always the last to be picked). But in the final half hour of those long and long- ago days, something magical happened.

Mr Barlow wiped the blackboard, consigning forever a blur of words and numbers to my slowly lengthening past. Sitting on the edge of his desk now, he would pick up a battered paperback book and begin reading to us. Well, he was really reading just to me. Even after all these years I remember his voice: gentle and kind and carrying the promise of the story he was beginning to tell. Mr Barlow was always reading just to me.

I sat cross- legged on the polished wooden floor, barely noticing the others all around. Autumn turned to winter and then to spring and summer: the days outside the classroom windows gradually grew darker, then slowly lighter again. And all the while I listened enthralled to the most wonderful stories ever. I was in a city called Paris outsmarting thieves trying to get their hands on millions of francs. I was gazing into a rubbish- strewn chalk pit when I caught sight of a cave man. I was standing at the gates of the most marvellous chocolate factory the world had ever known.

Mr Barlow read on and I was in one of those wonderful other places. It didn’t matter that I was hopeless at arithmetic and not much better at spelling. It made no difference that I couldn’t sing and was always the last to be picked at games. Now I was somewhere else: Now I was in a story.

Third Place: The Ghosts in the Pages by Esther Fernandez-Florente

I don’t know whether I believe in ghosts but I know that a book can be haunted and, for me, memories of my parents fall out of the pages of certain books like old pressed flowers. What I remember most clearly is the cadence of their voices as they read books with me. The turn of a particular phrase is a twist of recollection, sharp as a paper cut. The one time I really and acutely miss either of them is when I find them between the leaves of a book.

There are pages that I can’t read without hearing my mother’s laughter bubbling up under particular words and sentences: in Saki’s short stories (especially ‘The Lumber Room’), Just William, “no harm just looking at it”, anything by Nancy Mitford.  She loved a descriptive passage too; we relished T. H. White’s evocation of Merlin’s study in The Sword in the Stone. ‘There was a real corkindrill hanging from the ceiling.’ (I’ve wanted one ever since, even after I knew what it was.)

With my father, it’s the reverence in his tone when he read poetry to me that remains. A dyslexic Fleet-Air-Arm veteran of the Second World War: he might well have been voted ‘man least likely to be found reading romantic poetry’ but that is often how I found him of an evening. He adored Byron.

‘And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,

Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!’

I can hear the awe in his voice: for words rather than God.

I read to my mother when she was dying, my father went too fast. I wanted her to hear my voice in the pages she taught me to love, as I wish my father had. Now the page is where I hear them best.

Highly Commended: Bedtime by Linda Welch

Every morning, Peter Tiggwigg trit-trotted past Mrs Goose’s toyshop on his way to school.  One day she called out to him.  ‘Peter Tiggywigg,’ she said …

How well I remember the opening line of that story, but after Mrs Goose’s call to Peter Tiggwigg my mind is blank.  Nestled in my father’s arms, snug and warm in my red Ladybird fleece dressing-gown, after my evening bath, I was already sleepy by the time he began the bedtime ritual.  His tone was quiet, not so animated that I would perk up at the story, but I remember he had different voices for the characters: Mrs Goose, prim and proper, with a slightly shrill manner – as an adult, I realize he modelled her on Aunty Wendy, still shrill, prim and proper at nearly 90.  Peter Tiggwigg, the schoolboy piglet, sounded cheeky and mischievous, a little like my brother although, over 50 years later, no-one could accuse him of either of those things.

More important than the stories themselves – from Tales of Peter Tiggywigg to Tales of the Riverbank – was the security and warmth of my father’s arms around me as we held the book together, turned the pages together, pointed to pictures and spelled out difficult words, and the utter certainty that reading me a bedtime story was the high point of his day, just as it was mine.

Long before the story was finished I would be asleep, and he would carry me up to bed and tuck the blankets around me.  He would leave the book on my bedside table, knowing that I would wake early and pick up where we had left off, carefully tracing with my fingertips the words we had read together.

I still can’t remember why Mrs Goose needed to speak to Peter Tiggywigg.

Highly Commended: Read to Me by George Rodger

Nobody read to me when I was a child.  No parent or older sibling sent me to sleep with a few pages of Enid Blyton. Even at five years old, I was sceptical that four kids and a parrot could save the world anyway.

So, I read to myself.

I left school at fifteen.  No job.  I had a bike which was stolen for me up in Barnet and I used to run errands for people who sometimes needed to avoid the attentions of the police.

One day I was knocked off my bike. A leg and both wrists broken, I was laid up in the trauma section in Tooting Hospital.

A hospital volunteer came to my bed and asked if I needed anything.  She was called Jacqui. I asked for a book to read.   She pursed her lips, thinking, and walked on. She returned later, laying a couple on the bed.  My arms and leg were in casts so I couldn’t turn the pages.  Jacqui, who looked early twenties, had watched her brother die, in this hospital, after a motorbike accident so she’d started volunteering on the wards. She picked a book up.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” She read.  The story was about the French Revolution. The book was finished by the end of the week. Next, she read a book that started “Call me Ishmael” and was about whaling.  By the time she finished reading it, I could wriggle my fingers under the casts.  Four books later, I was on my way home.

After a few days, Jacqui came to visit me at home where I was recuperating. I could see she liked me but she was six years older than me. Could she be looking for another broken body to grieve over?

“Can I do anything?” She said.

After a pause I asked, “Read to me?”

She smiled and sat down.

Ten years later we’re still together.

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