Character Agency – October 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by James Fuller

This month’s competition had our members tackling horror/suspense in recognition of the haunting Halloween season October brings. A fun challenge for those who took part.

James Fuller, author of fantasy, dark fiction, horror, dystopian, paranormal erotica, thrill and drama, was our adjudicator for our October Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Write a haunted house story, maximising character agency of the house as the protagonist.

And the winners are:

First Place – Jena Brown with Forever Mine

Second Place – Matt Gorgans with Claws in the Roots

Third Place – Natalie Morant with Haunted House

Highly Commended – Graham Steed for Beast

James’ adjudication process

James read all stories a couple of times taking into consideration typical stand out features of a writer employing good use of character agency, such as:

  • The house’s ability to do things such as,
    • make decisions from one conflict to another positive or negative which drive the story onward
    • take action
    • make choices with consequences
  • Ensure readers care about the main character, which in this situation should be the house.

First Place: Forever Mine by Jena Brown

This was what I expected to see more of in this competition, but this was truly the only one of its kind in the entries. It was dark, playful, intriguing, and made you want more, and could easily be turned into a much longer story.

You walk through the rooms, adrift in grief. Whispers haunting us both. They say I’m defective. Decrepit. That there’s something wrong with me. But you don’t listen. 

You never did.

I open the flue, and when the fire catches it flares to life. These winter nights are cold and you’re not eating like you should. The warmth pulls you into the room and you relax.

It’s easier to talk now. Just the two of us.

Your marriage wasn’t bad. I know that. But you were never happy. Not like you should have been. Perhaps it’s arrogant to say that. But it’s true.

You were distracted when we met. Toddlers wrapped around your feet, a wife demanding attention. But there was no mistaking the way your eyes lit up when you saw me. Even now they soften. You’ve always loved me. Your reassuring words kept me alive. Patiently waiting for this moment.

There were others. Before. Families I’ve nurtured. People I’ve loved. I was empty a long time when you came. I’ll be empty longer after you’re gone.

Though she hated me, I was merciful, letting warm water and invisible gas wrap her in an eternal embrace. You let them rip apart my walls, look for faulty pipes. But they didn’t find anything. They never will. It hurt. It hurts now, as you rip through floorboards. But for you, I endure, allowing only the faintest of gasps to escape through the walls. You muffle a scream at the desiccated bones you find. But they were before. And you are now. And now it’s too late.

With a happy sigh, I wrap my arms around you, cocooning you in wood. I repair the damage, silencing your sobs. We’re together now. Forever. The fire dies, and I sleep, waiting to love again.


Second Place: Claws in the Roots by Matt Gorgans

This was close to the direction I thought more would look like. It was creepy, dark, enticing and a twisted read. The premise of this story could easily be made into a full-length novel and, if cast and directed well, an amazing movie.

Ivan stumbled through the forest, each ragged breath like ice piercing his lungs. A strangled cry escaped his throat when he reached a clearing, finding a cottage surrounded by a low white fence.

Ivan dragged himself forward, clasping a bloody hand around a fencepost. He dropped his head to the snowy earth so his breaths could even.

Until he looked up and found his stare returned by the empty sockets of a skull. 

This wasn’t a fence at all. It was a boundary of spines and skulls, slack jaws frozen in agonized cries.

“Almost claimed by the woods, dearie?” An old woman’s voice questioned.

Ivan jumped, screaming in pain when his arm refused to budge from the fence. It was the bones. An energy pulsed from them, holding him in place.

“Best not to fight it,” the woman said, striding into view. She brushed snow from her cloak, meeting Ivan’s gaze with a hungry expression.

A crow crossed the moon, causing the pair to look skyward.

“Ah, right on time,” the woman snarled.

Raising her arms, the woman pulled the crow as if on a string. She reached for the cottage next, curling her gnarled fingers until the wooden boards rattled and broke free, soaring into the air.

The wind howled until Ivan, too, joined the frenzy of wooden boards and feathers whipping around him.

Then came the sound of cracking wood, of cracking bones. A painful merging. A swelling sensation. 

Transformation.

Ivan felt his new claws digging into the earth, rooted to the foundation: the crow, the house, his body—they were one now. He took a breath, causing his floorboards to creak in desperation.

“Why should Baba Yaga guard her house when her house can guard itself?” The woman climbed Ivan’s stairs like a grotesque lolling tongue.

Third Place: Haunted House by Natalie Morant

This was a fun story, building a sense of not a sinister nature from the house, but from the passed owner buried within, tormenting the spirit of the house itself. Flushed out and a little longer and this would have the makings of a solid novella.

The House creaked. After years of neglect, a huge effort was required to attract the attention of the visitors stood on the path.

The House needed them inside. As the clouds parted, it used a cracked window pane to focus rays of sunlight. For many months, tiny fragments of paper and fabric had been corralled by draughts into the hearth. Now, a chance to ignite them.

A glow expanded into a tentative flame and soon, wisps of smoke trailed upwards. 

“It’s haunted, of course.” Laughter.

If only, thought the house, that was something to laugh at. But having endured the screaming and shrieking of the mistress for so long, it was exhausted and desperate.

“I’d need to have a proper look with the builders before making a decision.”

Please! A proper look is exactly what’s needed. The house yearned for feet tramping across its wooden floorboards again. Tramping, pattering, skipping. Anything but the measured tread of the master who’d lived here before. 

“Look – smoke!”

The two men approached, stepping over fallen roof tiles. Early attempts to attract attention, but no one wanted to investigate banging doors or falling masonry or strange shadows.

The House froze in anticipation as the men climbed the steps and unlocked the door. 

They entered the back room and put out the flames. The smell of musty curtains mingled with the smoke. Laboriously, the House contracted its walls. Plaster crumbled from a crack beside the mantlepiece. The shorter man frowned and pushed a finger into the plaster. Then rapped the wall with his knuckles, testing the damage. Suddenly, a clod of plaster sheared off and shattered on the dusty floor. Now there was a substantial hole and the men stepped back, brushing dust from their trousers.

“There’s something in there.”

The shorter man peered in again. Initially, it was too dark to see anything, but abruptly he stepped back again.

“Call the police.”

Highly Commended: Beast by Graham Steed

This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.

The estate agent rang: ‘a characterful Victorian cottage in a highly sought-after village, skilfully modernised by developers’ and sold to them by the family of the previous occupant who’d died of heart failure- a snip, he thought, at 200 grand. So I bought it. No creepy cellar, no creaky staircase, no chard-ridden hearth: bright, clean, and modern throughout – though I couldn’t resist a visit to the local museum. The curator said the village was caught up in the agricultural riots of the 1830s caused by Enclosure. One of those executed for the destruction of threshing machines and cattle-maiming was found by the militia hiding in my cottage… 

* * *

 Two days after I moved in, I noticed a reddish discolouration on the walls. I asked my solicitor to check on the building guarantee. He rang back to say the builders had gone out of business. The discoloration continued to spread. A local surveyor said it was most likely water, but he was puzzled by the plaster’s red ooziness. He scraped off a sample promising to let me know, but never did.

I asked next door. The woman said her dad told her there was once a gibbet on the site, but she laughed it off, as ‘he was fond of his stories.’

I was woken that night by a commotion in the attic: sharp commands, heavy marching steps, yells, screams. I called the police. They said my house had a ‘reputation’…

* * *

I called the estate agent. He thought the red ooziness was sticky, ‘like blood’. In its present state, only a developer might buy the house, and that for a song. So, I’ve gone on the offensive. I painted the walls Post Office Red to match the bloody oozings. I called an exorcist priest to rid the house of demons. I bought a crucifix and earplugs. A doctor has upped my medication. I’m treating my house as a beast, so, first, I must tame it…

Life into Fiction – September 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by Paul Bryers

Well, what a busy competition, our adjudicator really had his work cut out choosing a top five this month. We congratulate all who took part in this month’s challenge. All our adjudicators always comment on the high standards of our writers. So everyone should be proud of their efforts. Keep writing. And if you didn’t win this time, there’s always next time.

Paul Bryers, British film director, screenwriter and fiction author was our adjudicator for our September Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words, write a fictional short story utilising factual events from
a real-life incident/experience.

And the winners are:

First Place – David Fenton with Scorpions

Second Place – Peter Duncan with Next Week

Third Place – John Quinn with Ridiculous

Highly Commended – Guy Caplin for Return to the Beach

Highly Commended – Nick Ryle Wright for Kooks

Paul’s adjudication process

First, I read them. Then I wrote a couple of stories myself to see what it was like to stick to this criteria. Then I read them again and pulled out the five I thought were the best – simply based on which ones I enjoyed most, and thought were best written.
Then I read them again applying the criteria of the brief. Obviously, the length – and whether I could perceive a narrative within those
extremely tight parameters. Was this a good story? Was it worth telling? Was it told well?
When it came to the appropriateness of the balance, I could only guess what was fact and what was fiction. I had no means of telling for sure. I had to believe that the writer mixed up some fiction with a fact-based story. Otherwise, what was the point of doing the exercise?
Believability of the fiction. I had to look at the whole thing as fiction and ask – is this believable? Most of the stories were. The ‘fact’ that I couldn’t tell fact from fiction in many cases showed how believable they were.
Imaginativeness. I interpreted this as the skill that was displayed in leaping
from fact into fiction – i.e. an imaginative fictitious storyline. Again, I had no means of knowing where fact stopped and imagination began. The seamlessness of the transition was part of the skill of the writing. In the case of Ridiculous, for instance, it’s relatively easy to see where the leap happens – and it is a very imaginative leap. In other cases the leap was much more subtle, so subtle in some cases I could not see it at all. In those cases I decided that the ‘imaginativeness’ I had to judge was in the imagination to see that this would make a good story in the first place, and the imagination to write it in a compelling fashion, so that it could be either a factual account of something that really happened, or a short story based on
real life.

First Place: Scorpions by David Fenton

I loved this story.
It is a beautiful, if infinitely sad story, so well told. Very economical, very
sparse, elusive, magical, sad. I didn’t get it at first and had to read it again. I think this is often the case with a really good short story. It is about memories – memories as Scorpions. It evoked a situation we are mostly familiar with – and so has that elusive Alan Bennett quality of reaching out to us, speaking to us about something very personal. – “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
It was very believable, particularly in its dialogue. Actually, this story had
more emphasis on dialogue than any of the others. It felt like a moment plucked from life – but with elements of fiction (at least I think so) that dramatize it, make it more significant than the actual event that inspired the story. I felt satisfied with it as a complete work in itself – and yet I was left wanting more. What happened to this couple? Do they stay together? It had that sense of a moment in a journey – on a holiday – when something fundamental happens and nothing is ever the same again. And yet, maybe it was.

We stopped a mile from the abandoned city, which wasn’t as impressive as the brochure promised. Just a smudge of sandstone wall against the desert.

‘Now you get off and walk,’ the guide said. 

Our camels were already kneeling. 

‘Why have we got to walk?’

It was 41 degrees and I was knackered. Judy’s face, swaddled in a hijab, was grey with dust and fatigue. 

He spat and pointed to the walls.

‘Brahmin city, no camels! You walk.’

It was no big thing, but it made me cross, all the same, talking to me like that. On the way there Judy kept looking back at him. 

‘What if he leaves us here?’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘I don’t know; because he hates us?’

‘You think he wants to kill paying customers?’

She didn’t answer.

The homes were surprisingly well kept, for a place that everyone had left a hundred years ago – walking out into the desert in the middle of the night for no known reason, never to return. 

We found plates in a kitchen, and a copper bowl filled with dust.

‘Don’t touch that,’ I said. ‘Scorpions.’  

But she picked it up, anyway, and tipped it out as if to prove a point.

‘Why do you always do that?’

‘What?’

‘The opposite to what I say?’

She just stood there, rubbing it with her fingertips, over and over again.

Later, when we had explored on our own, I found her at a hearth, hugging her knees. There were blown handprints on the wall; mother, father and a child… no, a baby. 

She was staring at them. I thought at first that she had been crying, but when she turned the look on her face startled me. 

‘Judy, what’s wrong?’

‘Scorpions,’ she said, and got up to go.


Second Place: Next Week by Peter Duncan

This was so well-written. The prose style was sparse, strong and compelling. The structure/framework of the story was satisfactorily neat. It was well wrapped up. You don’t need to know any more and yet it has that tantalising glimpse into so much more…
As storytelling goes it has that very satisfying cyclical shape – the first act is in a rattling underground train in a deserted night-time city, and the third act nears its conclusion with that reference to the narrator intending to write a poem about ‘catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city’ – but, then that infinitely sad, ‘All the poems I haven’t written… And never will.’ And I love the final exchange… Next week, I say, next week.
I don’t think it needed another line after that. We all know what he means.
This is the ultimate writer’s story. All that is locked in, all that will never be let out. I found this very moving. Very sad. But very encouraging at the same time. Very close call with the winner – almost a photo finish.

Liverpool in the Swinging Sixties. A dimly- lit rattling underground train smelling thickly of cigarette smoke pitches me up in a city centre that’s mostly dark and deserted. My footsteps echo around the empty street. The noise of drunken laughter behind a dilapidated boozer’s frosted windows. Ahead, the bombed-out church standing black against the fuzzy night sky. I turn a corner and see the familiar illuminated sign above the heavy door. 

The tables in the shadowy basement are all taken, guys and girls in unisex beatnik dress: black roll-neck sweaters, striped tops, berets, some even wearing sunglasses (how can they see in all this gloom?). I thread my way to where he’s sitting, alone, hunched over a pint, wearing his shabby greatcoat as usual.

I still can’t believe we’re friends. A proper poet! Edits a poetry magazine: Allen Ginsberg sends him poems (Allen Ginsberg!). He reads his own stuff in this place, sometimes with Adrian Henri and Roger McGough. (That’s why I’m here tonight.) Lives in an attic (like poets are supposed to) in Canning Street.

And me? A sixth former at grammar school on the wrong side of the Mersey.

He looks up and smiles. I slide into a seat. ‘I’m on in a minute,’ he says. ‘Where’s the poem?’

He means the one I’m supposed to be writing. The one about someone like me catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city. Or maybe the one about glimpsing a beautiful girl on the ferry as dawn breaks over the Liver Building. Or maybe… All the poems I haven’t written. And never will.

‘Next week,’ I say. ‘Next week.’

‘Okay, next week.’ Brian Patten nods, wise enough even now to know that I’ll spend a lifetime not writing all the poems buried inside me. 

Third Place: Ridiculous by John Quinn

I liked this because it was a perfect ‘real life’ incident, commonplace even – a woman searching for something in the attic and turning up all kinds of memories.
We’ve all been there. Again, it evoked the quote in the History Boys (above) and then it made that sudden turn into fiction – even fantasy. It hints at far more than it contains – How did she get here? What was her illness? What is her life like? What is the relationship with her husband? It’s economical and well written and it has that elusive quality of making you want more.

It looked plain ridiculous, the gap where the hay wain’s wheel should have been. Celia had spent the whole morning, ‘The whole bloody morning,’ looking for the wheel. First it was a casual search, then a more methodical hunt and now she’d just completed an investigation whose thoroughness was based on watching a myriad of CSI programmes – she’d even considered wearing her Marigolds.

The search was a failure and Celia, alone in the loft, sat on a box of discarded vinyl: old albums and some singles unplayed for decades but with too much invested emotion to consign to the dump. Surrounded by piles of outgrown Babygro’s and the Scalextric set that had never really worked, she cried quietly and with restraint. ‘Why?’ she asked herself, ‘why bother? I don’t even like bloody jigsaws!’ It had been another of Martin’s ideas to ‘aid your recuperation, darling.’ He could be a patronising bastard.

‘Well,’ she dabbed at her eyes and tried to make her thoughts sound bright, ‘my fingertip trawl wasn’t a total waste of time. I found the missing keys, (under the mattress and now useless after the insurance paid for all the locks to be changed) and Martin’s ticket to last year’s FA Cup Final (at the bottom of the ornamental firewood basket, how did that happen?).’

The twinkle of the abandoned fairy wings reminded her of happier days, when Mollie refused to leave the house for playschool unless they were clipped onto her back. Now, fairy wings or no, Mollie wouldn’t be seen dead with her mother when home from Swansea Uni.

The wings were smaller than she remembered; more gossamer like and, well, radiant in the loft’s dusty light. Quickly and fractionally, like an eye blinks, the wings moved or beat or whatever wings do. ‘Ridiculous,’ Celia thought, until they beat again and flew up towards her. The fairy handed Celia the missing jigsaw piece. And was gone.

Highly Commended

Choosing two to commend was more difficult. After trying this for myself, I felt like commending them all – none of them are badly written, some are written very well indeed, and they all have some poignancy that makes you feel it was well worth doing. But these two I felt, just had the edge, on some of the others.

Return to the Beach by Guy Caplin

I chose this for the the leap of imagination from the memory of a beach to the D-Day landings.

Through the early morning haze, he could just make out the narrow white strip with the dunes behind.  Somehow the beach looked different as he approached from the sea. Now as an adult, he was returning to the scene of his childhood delights, but it seemed distinctly odd. He felt slightly sick and it wasn’t just the buffeting of the waves; he was apprehensive about returning to this special place. The sight of it brought back those childhood memories; the carefree days with his brother and sister, exploring the dunes, splashing in the shallows and playing with the local kids. Every year, their entire six weeks’ school holidays had been spent at their grandparents’ cottage within earshot of the waves breaking on the sand. But like all good things it had come to an end. 

It must have been five or six years ago that dad had persuaded his parents that living so far away was not a good idea, particularly at their age. Reluctantly they moved back to the village. Of course, he still visited the old folks frequently, but it wasn’t the same. Neither grandad nor grandma seemed as happy as they were at the beach. Given what had happened in the past few years, being close at hand was probably for the best. 

He stopped reminiscing and listened. The noise which had started half an hour ago was now deafening. The haze seen from a distance had been an illusion: thick acrid smoke hung above the beach. With a jolt, the boat ground to a stop and the ramp dropped into the shallows. Saying a silent prayer, he gripped his rifle and jumped into the water, already stained with the blood of his colleagues. The D Day landings had begun.


Kooks by Nick Ryle Wright

This one I chose because it uses a real-life incident – the death of David Bowie – to explore what I imagine is a fictitious relationship. It evokes that sense of a shared past – but no future.

You were about to leave forever when your phone alerted you to news of his death. How? you screamed, collapsing into my arms as the taxi idled just yards away. What could I say? That Ziggy Stardust had been human after all was as impossible for me to comprehend as it was for you.

Your departure now out of the question, we regathered your overladen bags and returned to the flat where I sat you down on the sofa as though you were merely a guest and placed Hunky Dory – your favourite – on the turntable.

This is crazy, you said. I should go.

Laying a blanket across your legs, I urged you to stay, plied you with hot chocolate and marshmallows.

We can’t do this, you insisted, your restlessness unabated.

Seeking to hook you with raw emotion, I reminded you how, on our first date, your eyes lit up when you discovered that I too had journeyed to Somerset in 2000 to watch the great man perform. You smiled, said it was funny how our memories of that performance had become so hopelessly intertwined that it was impossible to say where yours began and mine ended.

Later, in the dark of the bedroom, I asked you where we’d gone wrong. We were both different now, you said. No longer the carefree kooks we’d once been. How cruel of life, I replied, to straighten us out and make us normal when we were having so much fun.

Time passed. I woke with a start, reached out for you. But it was too late.

By then the room was ablaze with crimson light, the birds’ grave and incessant melodies speaking only of your leaving, of how this time you wouldn’t be back.  

The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox

Winner of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and adjudicator of Hampshire Writers’ Society March competition Clare Gradidge tells us her story.

I’ve written stories as long as I can remember. As a child, if I wasn’t reading, I’d be writing. For many years writing was ‘just’ a hobby, but my dream was always to write something good enough to be published.

My first career as a nurse left little time for either reading or writing, except as part of the job. But when I took a break from nursing to bring up my family, I returned to my love of writing. In the years that followed, I had some short stories and poetry published, but my dream of being published as a novelist continued to elude me. So when I got the chance, late in life, to go to university in Winchester to study Creative Writing, I was thrilled. I took my BA degree, and then continued studying – and latterly teaching – the subject, being awarded my doctorate in 2018.

As part of my thesis, I wrote the historical crime novel which became The Unexpected Return. Then the question was, how to get it published? By chance, I saw details of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition online. Open for entries from unpublished authors, it was free to enter. I sent off the first 10,000 words as directed, and thought no more about it.

I was amazed – and delighted – when the email which told me I was one of a shortlist of five arrived. Bonnier Zaffre, the publishers, sent editorial suggestions to each of the shortlisters, and then we had six months to revise (or complete) our novels. I’d already finished mine, but I made some corrections in line with what they’d said before sending the whole novel off in December.

To my huge surprise, in January 2019 I heard I’d won. My soon-to-be editor, Katherine Armstrong, asked if I’d mind if they changed the title from Home to Roost to The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox. Did I mind? Of course not. I’d have written it in blood if they’d wanted me to!

A week later, I went to London to meet the publishers and the agent, Rowan Lawton, who’d agreed to represent me. I spent the whole day smiling, listening to people telling me how much they’d enjoyed my book.

Then the hard work began. All the editorial processes a book goes through before it is published had to be completed much quicker than usual, since the publication date had been set for August 2019.

Two rounds of line editing saw me rewrite sections of the novel to take out some story elements that the editorial team felt wouldn’t work for a commercial novel. This input was immensely valuable, and I was happy to comply with most of the suggestions, though at times I did dig in my heels! A final round of copy editing followed, and then I saw galley proofs before the book was sent to press.

The thrill of holding the first copies of my book in my hand was one of the best moments of my life – and though I never have got to meet Richard and Judy in person, I had the great pleasure of seeing my book promoted by them on Good Morning Britain, and watching it (briefly!) hit number 4 in Amazon’s best seller list.

What next? I’m working on a sequel, and though I don’t expect future developments of my career as a writer to be as exciting as winning the prize, I’m hoping that I’ll see another of my novels on the bookstands one day.

Report by L Nightingale

Congratulations Hampshire Winner – part two.

As Promised, part two of Louise Morrish’s competition win story. Last week Louise told us how she’d come up with the idea for the Coffin Club, entered it in the Daily Mail First Novel Competition…and won!

So Louise, you went to Penguin HQ in London and met up with Luigi Bonomi, your new agent and had lunch with Selina Walker your editor. How did it go?

It was the most incredible day of my life.

Some kind soul had chalked my name and THE COFFIN CLUB on the blackboard at Penguin Random House used to celebrate author’s book launches etc. I met with Selina first. Selina could not have been sweeter, she completely put me at ease. Then Luigi Bonomi arrived. I’d taken jars of honey from my beehives to give to them; they seemed quite surprised but pleased as well.

Selina introduced me to the rest of the Penguin team who had all amassed in the main office area, thirty or so young and trendy Londoners. The Prosecco was flowing and a glass was thrust into my hand. Selina gave a short speech about how they had found the winner of the Daily Mail First Novel competition, and here I was, and the Coffin Club was going to be a big success, and, and, and. And I just stood there beaming and thinking, pinch me someone, because this has to be a dream.

It sounds truly unbelievable! Then Selina turned to me and asked If I had anything to say to the team. Speaking to strangers like this is not something I’m comfortable with despite my day-to-day job involving standing up in front of classes of recalcitrant, heckling teenagers, talking to them about books and reading. But because the day felt so surreal, being guest of honour at Penguin HQ, I was absolutely fine and managed to stammer something about aspiring writers like me being so thankful for opportunities like this, and I thanked Penguin for producing such amazing books.

And lunch? Yes, it was then that the editorial changes were discussed. My plot of an old lady murderer wasn’t what had won me the competition. Selina wanted historical fiction, not crime fiction.

That’s what you would normally write, isn’t it?  Yes I write historical fiction based on real women who have achieved extraordinary things. My first novel was based on Dorothy Lawrence, a young woman who disguised herself as a soldier and fought in the trenches for ten days in World War One. My second novel is a fictional account of the life of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in the 1760s, again disguised as a man. But those manuscripts are still on my hard drive!

So, what of The Coffin Club?  Selina and I agreed that the majority of the novel would concentrate on supercentenarian, Betty Shepherd’s life in 1943 and her time in the Special Operations Executive.

What then?  I left London with a full heart, a massive smile on my face. And a new challenge – to rewrite my synopsis.

And that’s what you’ve done?  Yes, Selina and Luigi both agreed the changes. I have until the end of the year to produce a complete re-draft. Then Selina will edit it. After that, the complicated process of re-drafts, and all other things that need to happen for a book to be published will begin.

Here’s to the future?  Deadlines and word counts have become a part of my life. It doesn’t seem too overwhelming, at the moment and I’m sleeping ok.

Would you do it this way again?  My advice would be to enter as many writing competitions as you can because even if you never think in a million years that you’ll win, miracles can happen. This experience has taught me that you never know what is around the corner.

For the first time ever, when I tell my family I’m going to write, and please can they not disturb me for a few hours, unless of course the house is burning down, for the most part they leave me in peace.

And I no longer feel guilty.

Thank you, Louise for sharing your dream come true with us. I think your story has made us all smile.
Report by L Nightingale.

Congratulations Hampshire Winner

Have you noticed that there has been no rain or hideous weather on a Tuesday night since the Hampshire Writers’ Society monthly meetings have been cancelled? You’ll also be pleased to know that the Society will be running its monthly competitions as normal – ish! The details for all the competitions are contained on our website. To get you in the mood here’s the first instalment of Louise Morrish’s story. Louise has long been a member of the Hampshire Writers’ Society; in fact you may well have heard her writing as, on many an occasion, she’s been a monthly competition winner too.

Louise Morrish, member and winner of the Daily Mail first Novel Competition.

What was the competition?  The Daily Mail’s First Novel competition to find an unpublished, unrepresented, debut author. A friend told me about it back in January 2019.

And the prize?   A Penguin Random House publishing contract with a £20K advance, and representation by literary agency, LBA Books. All you had to do to enter was submit your first chapter, a 400 word synopsis and a short covering letter.

Is this your first novel?  I write historical fiction and have had a some very limited interest in the drafts of two novels, but nothing more and those drafts now languish on my hard drive. THE COFFIN CLUB was a new idea.

Where did you get such an intriguing idea?  Two ideas came to me at the same time but from different sources. I combined them to produce my story. The first came from my mum, who told me about a club in New Zealand that she’d read about called, The Coffin Club.

What is a Coffin Club?  Coffin clubs bring people together to discuss and prepare for death. Using photographs and artwork representing their lives and loves, members build and decorate their own coffins. One woman, for instance, has pasted a full-size photograph of Elvis Presley to the underside of her coffin lid – she’ll be able to lie for eternity beneath her heartthrob.

And the second idea? A friend told me how she’d recently met the fourth oldest person in Britain. Apparently, this 110 year old woman was not impressed; “she would prefer to be the oldest.” I mean, who wants to be the fourth?

What about your characters?  I created Betty Shepherd, a 110 year old supercentenarian, the fifth oldest person in Britain and also a member of Guildford’s exclusive Coffin Club. I gave her a live-in carer, Tali a young gay woman from Mauritius with complex issues of her own, and a nasty son, Leo who wants to put Betty in a care home.

But I felt that something was missing, I didn’t have that unique angle; that crucial spark of originality.

So, what happened?  I was out running one day, pondering the book and it came to me – Betty has a secret past. During research for my previous novels, I had come across references to war-time women being recruited into a clandestine organisation called The Special Operations Executive. What if Betty had been an SOE agent? She’d have been taught the art of silent killing. And then…what if she put those skills to use, bumping off her rivals at The Coffin Club? A killer plot!

So that’s what you sent to the Daily Mail’s First Novel Competition?  Yes, and then I forgot about it, for months.

Business as usual then?  I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing, at the University of Winchester, hoping to finish The Coffin Club as part of my dissertation. In the meantime, I plodded along writing bits here and there, in between work and family commitments whilst running ultra-marathons in my spare time. No panic or pressure, because I really had no hope of ever seeing any of my scribblings in print.

How long until you heard from the competition? It was October last year.

How did you find out? It was one evening after work; Luigi Bonomi, the Managing Director of LBA Books rang to tell me that I had been shortlisted.

How exciting must that have been? At that news, I had to sit down! Luigi then asked me some questions:

‘Was I represented by any agents?’

‘No.’

‘Had I published a novel before?’

‘No.’

‘Would I take editorial direction?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s what all authors say. Will you REALLY take suggestions?’

‘YES.’

And he said he’d be in touch again in 2 or 3 days with the result. Good luck.

So, you were left hanging? That must’ve been excruciating.  Two weeks passed. They were the slowest, most miserable two weeks of my life. I stopped sleeping properly and I kept my phone on me constantly; even at work. I work in a school – it’s actually a disciplinary issue to have your phone on you.

Did people keep bugging you for any update?  I had only told my mum, my husband, my three kids and one special writing buddy. All of them, I’d sworn to secrecy.

I really didn’t think that I’d win at all. But I did think that Luigi could at least tell me I had NOT won. I was actually very upset that no one had bothered to ring me back and so after 2 weeks of hearing nothing, I stopped carrying my phone on me at work.

Poor you! My Master’s had begun, so I concentrated on that.

And there was no sign of the competition at all? I was in the Martial Rose Library, on campus, searching for a text to use in my first assignment, when I spotted the book, BODY LANGUAGE by DESMOND MORRIS. I don’t usually believe in signs, but when I pulled it off the shelf, it fell open at a full page photograph of the oldest supercentenarian in the world – a 121 year old French woman.

The next day, I got the phone call telling me that The Coffin Club had won.

Luigi Bonomi, the Managing Director of LBA Books was now your agent. What’s he like? Luigi could not have been lovelier. He told me that of all the entries they had read, mine had been voted winner unanimously.

So, who were the other judges? The judges included FERN BRITTEN and PETER JAMES, as well as imprint of Penguin, Cornerstones’ editor, SELINA WALKER. I googled her; I couldn’t help it. Selina Walker edits such people as ANTHONY HOROWITZ, LISA JEWELL, HARLAN COBAN…and now she would be editing me.

Was The Coffin Club finished?  I’d only written five chapters. It was after the Daily Mail called me and conducted a half hour phone interview, a two hour photo shoot with photographer and make-up artist at my house the day after that – the article appeared in print and on their website the next day, the local press, and the Bookseller also ran articles; and then Twitter went a bit mad and everyone in my entire world knew. Suddenly, it struck me; this was real. I would actually have to write a whole book good enough for Penguin to publish. I stopped sleeping again. Then Selina Walker from penguin emailed to say hello and congratulate me…and she asked to see the rest of the novel!

Frantically, I checked the competition terms and conditions, it specifically said that the novel didn’t have to be complete. Fully expecting an email back saying: ‘Thanks, your first chapter was really good, but these are rubbish. We have changed our minds. You haven’t won after all.’ I sent off the five chapters, I wasn’t happy with them but then I never am.

So, what did Selina say? Several days passed before her email came. It said: ‘These are terrific. We have some suggestions. Please come to Penguin HQ in London on 4th November, we’ll celebrate your win, talk about any changes to the plot, and take you out to lunch at the Tate Britain.’

Part two of Louise’s story next week.

Report by L Nightingale.

This is Glenn’s Song – and this is why he loves it.

Our special guest at the next meeting of the Hampshire Writer’s Society will be Head of Department for English, Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Winchester, Glenn Fosbraey. You may remember that Glenn spoke to us back in 2016 when he waxed lyrical about his latest addition to the University – the degree on Popular Music. A month or so later, Glenn very kindly sent us his top five favourite song lyrics, explaining, in his very poetical way, why he liked and valued them so much. Still a huge fan of The Smiths, this is his favourite song of all and he tells us why.

‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ – The Smiths

It was on a gloomy winter’s afternoon at the age of fifteen, teenage angst and unrequited love in full-force, that I had my best Smiths experience. I had been infatuated with the band for a month or so by this point, started via a random purchase of Greatest Hits album Best 1 from the bargain bin at Woolworths, and I was ready to graduate to their masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. As I start the long walk back from HMV in town, I read the lyrics from the CD brochure and savour the anticipation of those words being set to music; hearing those first sounds coming out of the speakers; feeling the irresistible mixture of nerves and excitement as I get ever-closer to my house and CD player. At home, I close the bedroom door behind me and turn the lights off, cutting myself off from the bustle of family and TV downstairs, creating perfect Smiths-listening conditions. About half an hour in, I arrive at the penultimate track. ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’. I fall in love. The mixture of the everyday (‘driving in your car…’) with the philosophical (‘…a heavenly way to die’); the way Morrissey is able, in a couple of lines, to demonstrate the shyness, frustration, and confusion many teens encounter when faced with the objects of their desire (‘…and then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask’); the mixture of the ugly (‘and if a ten tonne truck kills the both of us…’) and the beautiful (‘…to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine’); it’s the slight pauses before the choruses kick in; the swirl of the strings in the choruses themselves; it’s Morrissey not quite being able to reach the highest note but not re-recording it, making the listener feel at one with him, as if it could be them in that vocal booth instead of him, missing perfection but making it somehow more perfect because of this; it’s the repetition of the title again and again in the outro. Love and loss, hope and despair, alienation and belonging, all crammed into four life-changing and life-affirming minutes. There is, indeed, a Light That Never Goes Out, and for me, it will always be this song, in that moment, on that CD player.

December 2019 Competition Results: Caroline Wintersgill – Adjudicator

The December competition was judged by editor, Caroline Wintersgill.  The brief was to write a 300 word novel pitch to an editor.

And the winners were:

First Place:  Jane Austen Pitch by Angela Chadwick    

Second Place: Icefall by Mark Eyles

Third Place: Dear Wolfy by Grant Taylor         

Highly Commended: Dear Mr Johnson (The Woman Who Does Not Exist) by Margaret Jennings

Highly Commended: Brexit, A Survivor’s Guide by Kate Loveridge          

December Competition Winners: Kate Loveridge, Angela Chadwick and Mark Eyles

Photograph by Summer Quigley

First Place: Jane Austen Pitch by Angela Chadwick

Dear Ms Wintersgill

I wonder if you, like me, are exhausted by the current crop of romance novels featuring endless numbers of kidnappings, where our poor, endangered heroine must flee in a state of some considerable disarray across wild and windswept moors or face the destruction of her simpering purity. Indeed, the fear and suspense leave me quite faint.

I believe today’s women no longer require brutish, unnatural acts to find passion.  My heroine is a modern woman herself. Civilised, educated and well-read, she is in charge of her future and refuses to settle for less than her worth.

My novel, Pride and Prejudice, is a romance, unique in its tone and construction. Might I venture to say it is a delightful take of the Enemies to Lovers trope. Written as a modern-day play on manners, the hero is the sort of man you could happily introduce to your parents without giving them undue concern for your future safety or prosperity. Initially abrasive, he does a good job of redeeming himself when he successfully saves the cat (in this case a foolish, naïve and headstrong girl – oh yes! There is a moral).

The villain is indeed villainous but (mostly) within the confines of the law. We do after all live in a society where young women of good family cannot just disappear without causing much consternation.

Written in a light, slightly humorous tone, this book is the first of many I can offer to you. Dare I say it, this novel is revolutionary. I believe its charm will be enduring and it will set the tone for the new century.

I, myself, am a woman of good character; a vicar’s daughter. With your help, maybe one day I can designate myself, published author.

Yours sincerely

Jane Austen

 

Second Place: Icefall by Mark Eyles 

Dear Caroline

I am pitching my first (100,000 word) book, Icefall, in a sci-fi space opera series. I’ve had a passion for writing my whole life and have been honing storytelling skills working as a video game designer and Principle Lecturer teaching game design and interactive storytelling. I have previously written series for 2000 AD (Wire Heads, PARAsites), weekly scripts for Sonic the Comic (including the popular Zonerunner series) and was published in Fear magazine. I have taught a creative writing evening class and recently worked on a transmedia storytelling project (Cursed City, Dark Tide).

Icefall pitch: “Planetary intelligences, flocking ships, star destroying music and quality assurance clash at an outpost built by deranged robots.”

Icefall brief synopsis: “Carrying out quality assurance on a new outpost, far along the Orion-Cygnis arm, should have been simple for Checkani NiFe. Unfortunately, she discovers the robot builders have created a deadly maze of overlapping cities on the icy planet. Struggling to survive and unlock the planet’s secrets she is hindered by a gender neutral 232-year-old, an autistic musical savant, an inept assassin, a clutch of bickering spaceships and a community of stoic squatters hiding fearful abilities. However, the greatest threat comes from an entirely different universe triggering events that change everything, forever.”

Set in 3134, Icefall is the first volume in a series that moves from planet to planet back along the Orion-Cygnis Arm of the galaxy towards the Earth. The second volume Rocksunsea is in preparation.

First three chapters and full synopsis attached.

I believe Icefall and subsequent books would be a good fit for your company. Inspired by Iain M. Banks, the milieu, style and characters of my books would complement your existing books. I am especially encouraged by seeing the authors you already represent and believe I have something new and fresh to offer.

Thank you for taking the time to consider Icefall and my future books.

Best regards

Mark

Third Place: Dear Wolfy by Grant Taylor

The Old Morgue

                                                                                                            Lower Upping

Saint Eadburh’s Day  2019

Dear Wolfy,

I know you won’t mind me calling you Wolfy. As my putative editor I feel our relationship is close enough now for me to address you by your first name and Dear Mr Wolfgang Nachtnebel-Leichenberg is a bit of a mouthful after all.

Anyway, here it is! I guess you weren’t expecting this manuscript so soon Wolfy – or perhaps at all – but Dolina, my tiny, difficult wife just loves it. Eleven false starts, sixteen complete rewrites and not forgetting the 2018 housefire that destroyed my PC and most of the village . . . oh, and the unfortunate business with that awful court ruling . . .  but I got there in the end Wolfy.  Eight hundred and ninety-two pages of toil, perspiration and burning the candle at the bottom. But I’m sure you will agree every word is worth it.

The title deserves some explanation. I know, I know, “I Must Have Been Conscious” is a tad obscure for most tastes, but as you become engrossed you will see the relevance. After all, our hero has his flaws, as do we all Wolfy, as do we all.

The illustrations are by my ancient mother. In her dwindling years I concede that her monstrous, detailed, black spiderwork has become a trifle bizarre but I can explain the connection between mother’s asymmetrical Rorschach and my zesty prose in footnotes if you think it’s needed.

Finally, subject matter. I know you favour Scandi-noir but ‘write about what you know’ has become my maxim since our last difficult conversation. So, you will understand why neurological encephalitozoonosis in small rodents it is Wolfy. Our hero must face his demons after all.

Humbly I commit my work to your expert scrutiny in the knowledge that your silent support will be as challenging as ever.

Let me know your thoughts.

The world waits.

Love,

P Hubert Fuffing (Percy).

Highly Commended: Dear Mr Johnson (The Woman Who Does Not Exist) by Margaret Jennings 

Dear Mr Johnson,

I am sending you the details of my new novel because research tells me that you very much enjoy the gothic horror traits that this story portrays. I also suspect that this book might be a good fit with your other publications.

This novella is a work of  literary fiction. A dark psychological horror story with strong gothic elements, The Woman Who Does Not Exist is written in the unique voice of the first person main character. It is a voice you will never have heard before. The Woman Who Does Not Exist will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you rethink your relationship with the world. It is a shorter, more accessible version of Steven King’s horror stories and will be instantly recognisable as a distinctive new voice.

In brief, a woman believes there is a space built into the home she has lived in since childhood, a space where evil lurks. What will happen when the room is opened up?

I have been writing for many years and have an MA in Creative Writing. The Woman Who Does Not Exist my fourth novel. I write poetry, short stories and have recently branched out into playwriting and screenwriting. My first poetry chapbook, ‘Killing the Dragons,’ has recently been published and received good reviews.

Short listed in the Bridport for flash fiction and long listed for the Bare fiction literary prize, my work has appeared in several anthologies and The Lighthouse magazine.

I  enjoy reading at literary events and supporting other writers in their writing.

I hope you enjoy reading The Woman Who Does Not Exist chapters I have sent to you,

with best wishes,

Francis Liitlewood

Highly Commended: Brexit, A Survivor’s Guide  by Kate Loveridge 

Dear Caroline,

I’m currently seeking a publisher for my debut, Brexit – A Survivor’s Guide.

For Brexiteers and Remainers alike, this self-help bible will harness the anger and frustration of those unsure of the future and riddled with fatigue, guiding them through the next 30 years of inter-governmental negotiations, creating the power of positive in all areas of their lives, including:

Health, Well-being:

Yoga for Brexiteers – perfecting the flexible extension

Coastal waking for Remainers – avoiding the cliff edge

101 yummy chlorinated chicken recipes

Relationships Coping with the intolerance of your nearest and dearest

Influence your family to your point of view

Working Life and Finance

Keeping your job as companies fail

Managing budgets as prices soar

Fashion of the Supreme Court

What the not so hidden meaning of Baroness Hale’s broaches tell us about the constitution

Holidays

A traveller’s country-by-country guide to 194 trade deals

Can’t get a visa or afford travel insurance? Embracing the staycation

The back roads – avoiding Brexit motorway chaos in Dover and Portsmouth

Hobbies

Introduction to genealogy – find long-lost Irish, French, German or Greek ancestors to facilitate your EU passport.

Failing that, our guide to romance includes a full list of dating websites – your ideal EU match awaits to secure your EU citizen’s rights.

And much, much, much, much, much, much more!

“The GREATEST book…reading it makes me the smartest ever.”                        D. Trump

Teresa May or may not read this guide, but one thing is certain, “Brexit means Brexit”.

I’m currently working on my second tome, “Twenty-First Century Lorry Parks of Kent and Hampshire”.

Having lived and worked harmoniously in Europe for 50 years, I’ve recently taken residence in Brexit Party MEP Nigel Farrage’s constituency. The roller coaster ride of the past 3 ½ years has driven me to submit this proposal to you Caroline.

The synopsis is attached for your perusal. If you can bear to hear any more of Brexit, please get in touch.

Yours sincerely

 

 

November 2019 Competition Results: Laura Williams – Adjudicator

The November competition was judged by literary agent, Laura Williams.  The brief was to write a creative piece entitled ‘The Waiting Room’.

And the winners were:

First Place:  On the Landing Stage by Peter Duncan    

Second Place: Smart Rooms by Nigel Luck

Third Place: The Room, Waiting by John Quinn        

Highly Commended: Waiting for the Word by Barbara Needham

Highly Commended: Teething Problems by Dominique Hackston          

November Competition winners, Barbara Needham, Nigel Luck, Peter Duncan, Dominique Hackston and John Quinn, with literary agent, Laura Williams

   Photo by David Eadsforth

First Place: On the Landing Stage by Peter Duncan

‘This is the ideal short story – a snapshot of a moment, leaving you satisfied but also imaging more.  A worthy winner!’

The bus drew to a halt. The driver turned off the engine. Jarred into movement by the brief silence I stumbled toward the doors, heaving the rucksack onto my shoulders. The driver glanced up, then went back to counting his fares.

The lights in the deserted ferry terminal shone pointlessly bright. Above the covered walkway leading down to the landing stage I saw familiar adverts for department stores and local newspapers, now oddly distorted by the brightness. The echo of my footsteps on the wooden boards carried too loudly all around. I had never been here so late before.

Out in the open again I faced the wide dark river, my senses caught by the wind coursing in from the sea and the rank smell of industrial estuary. The lights of the city were spread out all along the distant farther shore.

I spotted a weather boarded, dimly- lit cabin right at the end of the landing stage and began walking slowly towards it. Oily water slapped against the steel piles beneath me. The river night was all around. It felt for a few moments as if I was walking into oblivion.

I pushed at the door. Inside, nothing more than a long and heavily graffitied bench beneath a wide dirty window. The place smelled thickly of stale cigarette smoke. I laid my rucksack on the bench, sat down and gazed through the grimy salt- smattered window at the river and the city way beyond. Behind me was the place I could no longer call home: somewhere ahead was a destination I didn’t yet know. I sat in that cheerless room waiting for the ferry to arrive, held terribly between the life that had been and the one that was yet to come.

Second Place: Smart Rooms by Nigel Luck

‘This story is instantly intriguing and perfectly self-contained, with an original and clever concept.’

The problem with Smart Rooms was first recorded in the waiting room of a large hospital. Basic functions of these rooms were common across all, they could read people’s body temperature and adjust the heating or air conditioning accordingly. The more sophisticated could monitor occupants moods and make changes to improve their comfort.

Bathrooms could inform you when the shower had reached the optimum temperature thus avoiding the shock of a cold shower. Smart kitchens were able to do the majority of cooking or talk you through a recipe. Laundry rooms washed, dried and folded your clothes and even the playrooms were capable of putting away toys. It was noted that as a result injuries from Lego had been reduced by 100%.

The sensory detectors in these rooms were designed to read the needs and desires of their occupants and make adjustments in line with these.

Smart Rooms in large buildings were particularly sophisticated; Gym Rooms, swimming pools, restaurants and libraries were all equipped with multi functionality. Waiting rooms however were limited to adjusting room temperature, lighting, and occasionally playing easy listening music.

The difficulties in the Hospital waiting room began one afternoon in May when it deviated from the norm by instigating a game of charades with the waiting patients. It took the Hospital staff two hours to stop the game. Programmers were brought in and the problem was thought to be fixed. But the following week the waiting room compared a talent competition. Following activities included a mass game of hide and seek, a disco and a game of Sleeping Lions where the winner turned out to be dead.

It became apparent that while the resulting activities were direct responses to the occupants desire to alleviate the boredom of waiting, the Hospital deemed this type of behaviour inappropriate. The smart room function was turned off and Hospitals across the country reverted back to installing flickering fluorescent lights and torn magazines from the previous decade.

Third Place: The Room, Waiting by John Quinn

‘This story is so atmospheric and totally heartbreaking – a real achievement in so few words!’

The heavy brocade curtains defiantly stared out of the windows, inside their linings, beige and dull, remained mute. Only the slimmest shaft of sun evaded the room’s defences, momentarily and theatrically illuminating a small speck of Turkish rug or a plank of the once mirror-polished oak floor.

It was in these rare moments, when the interior of the music salon was dimly illuminated, that the room took a shallow breath, surveyed itself in its gloom and, reassured, settled back into a melancholy wait.

It noted the tuning fork, dust covered and slightly rusting, lying unloved and abandoned on the music stand. Even the metronome, that transmitter of time, could not recall when last it had been wound and allowed to sway and click and precisely and lovingly fulfil its destiny.

The Steinway, normally that proudest of grandest pianos, was relieved to have its out of tune embarrassment covered by dustsheets. Those sheets had last been respectfully lifted by blind Dr Cox, the piano tuner, but even his cane’s tap, tap, tap had been absent for more than a decade.

Since the riding accident Suzanne had been confined to bed or wheelchair and, out of respect or pity, no one had struck a chord or carried a tune in the room’s well-proportioned and once elegant interior. Bridy, the maid, had realised, several years ago, that dusting was pointless and had privately declared the room a no-go zone.

Now Jody, just five, tall enough to reach the room’s door handle and strong enough to turn it, clasped the brass knob. ‘Grandma, there’s a piano in here? I’m learning at school. I can play Chopsticks.’

Suzanne pushed hard down on the inner wheel rims of her chair to catch her mischievous grandchild. ‘Don’t go…’ But then she paused. Confused, Jody, turned to look at the grey-haired woman. ‘No, of course you can, darling. Turn the light on, be careful, I suspect it’s rather dusty after all these years.’

Highly Commended: Waiting for the Word by Barbara Needham

‘This is a very clever interpretation of the theme, and the author has been sophisticated in using the reader’s knowledge of history to fill in the blanks.’

There was a palpable sense of déjà vu. The Great Hall bustled with activity. Heralds in shining livery awaited their moment of glory, spitting into their trumpets. In a distant office, clerks eyed their copies of a royal proclamation. Complete … except for one important word.

Messages had reached Henry that events were underway in Greenwich. He waited, alternating between joyous anticipation and a sickening feeling he could not articulate. Hours went by. Restlessness gave way to anger. Why, in God’s name, was it all taking so long?

Henry was accustomed to being in control. Giving the orders. Making the decisions. He felt impotent and frustrated by lack of action. Blast those sycophantic courtiers surrounding him, who told him what they thought he wanted to hear. Blast those toadying cronies who were probably lining their pockets at his expense. And damn and blast all the soothsayers, prophets and priests who claimed in total confidence that, this time, he would have his wish granted. Not one of them dared to voice the question of what if…

Attendants sent for the court jester, but even his antics failed to lighten Henry’s mood.

The long-awaited deputation filed in. Henry’s heart sank as they bowed low. There were no smiling faces, no puffed up officials bursting to impart momentous news and no-one looked Henry in the eye. They were hesitant, muted and measured.

He prepared a trite answer to hide his overwhelming  disappointment.  When they had said their piece, he forced himself to ask about the welfare of the mother.

Henry made a perfunctory visit to the mewling infant, with her silky thatch of red hair. Meanwhile, clerks sharpened their quills and inserted the word princess into their documents.

Highly Commended: Teething Problems by Dominique Hackston

‘This story has a very funny and unexpected twist, which was well executed and neatly done.’

Bob sat next to his mother, his leg twitching. Silently he inspected every poster on the walls. Only one of them depicted looming torture. He twisted and untwisted the latest copy of Beano. Finally, his mother reached over and calmed his agitated leg.

“It’s only a check-up.”

“Do I have to?” he whimpered.

“Read your comic.”

Obediently he opened it but stared over the top at the huge perfect pearly smile opposite. ‘Bet she’s never had a filling’, he thought.  His eyes slid to the story below. Dennis and Gnasher were having a bad day at the doctors and got stuck in a window trying to escape. Bob ground his teeth and wondered why Dennis hadn’t tried the larger window.

“I need to er…” He stood.

“You’ve just been. Sit!”

He sat. Dennis could never have got into trouble with a mother like his, he lamented. Bob returned to his comic where Roger the Dodger was cleverly distracting an old man with a photo album while he crept past with a steaming apple pie.

Bob rose and rifled through the pile of publications.  He handed a glossy cookery magazine to his Mum, sat and waited for her to bury her head in a new recipe.

“Sit!” she hissed without lifting her eyes. “Lilly might see you?”

He checked the door and flopped onto the chair. An-hour-long five minutes later the dentist’s door opened.  Giggles tinkled as Lilly’s blonde curls bobbed towards him in her mother’s arms.

“Mummy thaid I can thit on your lap too, Daddy.”

“Did she now?” He set Lilly down and she toddled straight back to the dentist. He followed. In the doorway, Bob scooped-up the chuckling child. He scowled at his mother and his wife, firmly closed the door on them and plastered a smile of his face.

.

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.

September 2019 Competition Results: Ed Davey – Adjudicator

Firstly – congratulations to our winners of 200 year celebration of Keats’ Ode! 

First Place: The Picking Party by Colin Johnson

Second Place: The Coffin Walk by George Rodger

Third Place: An Imagined Letter to John Keats by Mark Eyles

Highly Commended: Autumn Ode by Gill Hollands

Highly Commended: To Swell the Gourd by Viv Smith

 

The September competition was judged by travel writer, journalist and novelist, Ed Davey.   The brief was to write a travel article in 300 words.

And the winners were:

First Place:  The Christmas Hippo by George Rodger    

Second Place: Cool Runnings Catamaran by Lynn Clement

Third Place: An Island of Contradictions by Frank Carver       

Highly Commended: The Bear by Rosie Sutcliffe  

Highly Commended: Viet Mong by David Lea       

George and Ed

Winner, George Rodger, with Tuesday’s speaker, Ed Davey.

   Photo by Alex Carter

First Place: The Christmas Hippo by George Rodger   

Hippo

The Christmas Hippo – a week spent at Royal Zambezi Lodge, Zambia

Groucho Marx said, “I woke up one morning in Africa, walked out of my tent and shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into them, I’ll never know”.

Here I was, in my pyjamas, outside a tent in Africa trying to shoot a hippo. With a camera. Despite being such massive, lens-filling icons, hippos are very shy creatures and when approached, tantalisingly show their heads and twitching semaphore ears before sinking from view. At night they come ashore to graze. I gave up and returned to bed. It was before dawn and we were spending Christmas in a tented unit in Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia.

The lodge’s slogan is “Where Luxury meets the Wild”. Leave the bar after dark and an armed guard escorts you to your tent. You never know what’s walking around the camp at night! Each riverfront unit is on stilts to cope with the rise and fall of the Zambezi. Raise your head from your cotton pillow in the morning and you look straight across the river to Zimbabwe, two kilometres away.

There are game drives in four-wheel drive vehicles daily although many people come to Royal Zambezi for the fishing. The King of the River is the Tigerfish. It rises out of the water like a Marlin, dancing on its tail as he tries to throw the hook. The Tiger is pure muscular aggression, from its broad tail to its terrifying mouth with teeth that are a Jurassic nightmare. It can remove an unwary angler’s finger and are fast enough to have caught low-flying birds.

By Christmas Day, I still hadn’t got near enough to a hippo to capture a really memorable photograph. We were drifting downstream on the boat when suddenly our guide whispered, “Hippos, right behind us” as a pod emerged out of the water into the fiery path of the sunset reflected on the river. I trained my camera and finally got one, mouth open, laughing.

And not a Marx Brother in sight.

Second Place:  Cool Runnings Catamaran by Lynn Clement   Cool runnings jpegThird Place: An Island of Contradictions by Frank Carver  

Weather information is online these days, so I am prepared for the 38-degree heat. The surprise is the altitude. I do not consider its elevation until we step from the plane in Salt Lake City. A lake as high as the top of Ben Nevis.

We drive for an hour through the city to the ragged edge of the street grid and finally the long curve of a causeway. Ahead a white and silver blur, salt flats blending into the lake edge. Beyond that, the hazy bulk of Antelope Island State Park. Gulls wheel above the salt water, seven hundred miles from the ocean.

A park ranger explains about geography, history and wildlife. “With the shrinking lake and the new causeway, it’s not really an island anymore.” The ranger taps the flint spearhead shape of the park on a scale model. “and the ‘antelopes’ are not antelopes, but closer to giraffes.”

From the beachside car park, the lake looks much further away. The path submerges in a low dune, but we carry on, each pace cracking a crisp layer of salt beneath our feet, crème brûlée in silver-grey.

Everything appears fuzzy near the waterline. Our movements disturb millions of tiny flies which swirl and disperse, never rising more than a few centimetres. They don’t bite but their patterns are mesmerising, shifting with every step.

We abandon shoes and socks without fear of rising tides, wade into the warm shallow water and pause, calf deep, enchanted by underwater clouds of pale brine shrimp which dance around our legs. Too salty for predatory fish, there’s nothing to keep the shrimps from multiplying. In front of us the Great Salt Lake shimmers into the distance. Behind, the parched brown spine of the island rises another thousand feet.

Highly Commended: The Bear by Rosie Sutclfife

The path wound between magnificent conifers, skirting the shoreline of the brackish lake, towards the large wooden shed. I hesitated at the entrance aware that this was the beginning of a twelve-hour vigil and like a diver about to plunge into deep water, I took a great gasp of fresh, pine scented air before lunging into the warm, musty darkness of the hide.

Finland was all about long forest treks, bracingly cold spring water, the thrill of venturing onto the no mans land fringe of the Russian border. The afternoon had passed with a ponderous circumnavigation of the lake by canoe, followed by a tentative five minutes in the sauna and even more tentative toe dipping in the lake. Now was to come the highlight of the trip, a night of midnight sun, or at least a dusk, followed rapidly by a dawn and with luck a sighting at some point of a European Brown Bear.

I sat motionless, eyes straining to catch that elusive glimpse of the great boreal ursus. Hooded crows, hardly seeming related to their malachite British cousins descended in flurries of frenetic activity as the hours passed. I grew stiff from staying motionless, like a Buddhist monk practising tranquillity ,  I reached a state of quiet stillness.

Suddenly, silently, a subtle parting of the bushes as a great bear emerged and padded towards the hide, strings of drool hanging from its expectant maw as nostrils flexing it sought the nuts and berries hidden to lure it to us.

A great wave of emotion pulsed through me, a kind of wild excitement rarely felt in adulthood, mixed with a powerful awe for this majestic creature. Breaking the stillness I reached for my camera to capture the moment. Too late. The bushes closed over his departing form. The memory embedded in my mind must suffice.

 

Highly Commended: Viet Mong by David Lea

We arrived at the entrance to Angkor Wat early one morning towards the end of our sixteen-day “Asian Adventures Guided Tour to Vietnam and Cambodia”. There were twenty-four of us, mostly late-middle-aged, mostly retired and mostly biddable and uncontentious. Over the previous two weeks we had shared tuk-tuks through the Hanoi traffic, visited Uncle Ho’s mausoleum and gone down the Viet Cong tunnels; we had shared imodium tablets, exchanged confidences and swapped biographies: we had bonded.

Affinities and preferences had been established and, each morning, there were unspoken manoeuvres as we made for the seats on the coach near our own special friends. Nobody wanted to sit next to John: six feet three or four and in his late sixties, he wore synthetic red shorts, luminous trainers and a Hanoi T-shirt.

That morning at Angkor, our guide, Saroath, was introducing us to the site when he was interrupted by John: ‘What’s a mong?’ he snorted, casting about for someone he could share the joke with.

‘Saroath was talking about monks, John. Over there by the steps.’ John’s wife pointed to the young monks in their robes.

‘I was raised by monks,’ said Saroath, although, again, what we actually heard was, ‘I was raised by mongs’.

A stifled giggle from John and an awkward silence.

Then someone asked, ‘Why were you brought up by monks?’

‘My parents died when I was three: the Khmer Rouge murdered them. It is not unusual.’

The next day, John decided against the optional tour to the floating village. His wife came with us, but John spent the day floating on his back in the hotel swimming pool. At the buffet breakfast the following morning, he glowed.

He shone. He radiated heat.

He was a bright and painful, sunburnt pink.

And the group bond was decidedly stronger.