At the beginning of the year, one of my crit groups decided to write down some things we wanted to achieve this year. One of mine was to be braver and put my writing out in the public eye. I have started to enter more competitions and had some small successes, but I have decided to go a step further. There is now a new page on my blog where I will put up some of the pieces I submitted for competition. That feels VERY brave to me!
When you live in an older house, you sometimes become aware of its previous life. It may be something substantial like removing a piece of board and finding a faded scrap of wallpaper chosen by a previous occupant, or lines inside a cupboard marking the passage of a child’s growth. Often it is more ephemeral. A glimpsed movement, seen from the corner of your eye, disappears as soon as your head is turned. The reek of boiled cabbage or the fragrant aroma of rich fruitcake, filling your nostrils with one breath and then leaving as you exhale, bears no relation to anything in your kitchen. Whispers, felt as vibration in the bone behind your ear rather than heard, convincing you that if you just tried a little harder you would know the speakers and, maybe, join their conversation.
Old things often carry their history with them. When they come into an older home, it is as if their stories blend with the spirit of the house to create something new. Adding more antiques to share their experiences makes the mix richer until, inevitably, they begin to make their presence known to the corporeal world.
In this old house where no children live, I saw a child. It was on the landing, its body angled away from me as it gazed through the open doorway adjacent to it. Soft blonde curls bounced lightly creating a halo around its head. It was perched on the edge of a small wooden chair in front of a half-sized desk.
Beyond the child in a small room I use as my study, sat the object of the child’s attention. The dappled light coming through the wisteria outside the window revealed few details, but I knew the person to be an adult woman by dint of her full skirts and swept up hair. The child was young, maybe four years old, dressed in old-fashioned rompers that gave no easy suggestion of gender. My subconscious said ‘her’ and told me the woman was the child’s mother. I believed it.
Mama – I was certain this woman had never been called Mum – had her head bent over the documents on her roll topped desk. Her hand moved across the pages, reached forward to dip a pen into an inkwell, then returned to the paper.
At her miniature desk, the child reached for a dark, wood framed board. A word from the stories of my youth leapt into my mind – a slate. In her other hand she grasped a piece of chalk. She watched her mother intently, copying her posture and, I was certain, imitating the expression of concentration on her face. When Mama dipped her pen, the child reached for a new chalk and continued to make marks on her board.
A breeze through the open window sent a floral scent toward me. Not the wisteria growing beyond but a smell that reminded me of grandmothers and face powder. Lilac? Lavender? No, Lilly-of-the-Valley.
Above the scratching of pen on paper and the squeak of chalk on slate, another sound came. The timeless peal of bells calling the faithful to Sunday worship. Mama raised her head and glanced out the window, a hand reaching for a cloth to clean her nib. With a sigh, she tidied her papers, closed the lid on the inkwell and rolled the lid of her desk shut. The snap of the lock closing was echoed by the clack of the child’s desk shutting.
Downstairs, the ting and ring of an old Bakelite telephone was followed by the claxon call of our modern handset. Irritated, I started for the top of the stairs. I glanced back, one hand on the banisters, but my visitors were gone.
Later I returned to the landing and examined the small desk and chair more closely. All the furniture was real. It had belonged to us in childhood or been purchased as a fitting addition to our home. I opened the desk lid, looking at the clutter that had accumulated over the years, then swivelled the little chair towards me. I had never sat on it, certain it would collapse under my weight. As it span beneath my hand, my finger snagged on a hidden catch. Surprised, I pulled back and the lid of the seat lifted with my hand to reveal a secret compartment. It was empty, apart from some childish scribble on the lid and, inscribed on the base, the names Susan and John. I wondered who they were. Was Susan the small child who had so recently sat on the chair’s battered burgundy cushion? Had a brother, John, been elsewhere, studying his Papa at work with the same intensity with which Susan had watched Mama?
I feel a responsibility to this family. They have given me a peek into their lives that I wish to repay. Maybe next time I visit a flea market or antique shop I should look for a new inkwell for Mama and a slate for Susan.
I was absolutely delighted to receive a Highly Commended from Beverley Birch with my first entry into a Hampshire Writers Society competition. It’s the last story on the page, but please read all the others before you scroll down to my piece. There are some great stories here. I have also added it to the Writing page of my blog, so you can look here if you would prefer.
Beverley Birch was shortlisted three times for the Branford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent and, as a prolific author, she was also nominated for the Carnegie medal. Hampshire Writers’ Society is most appreciative to Beverley, who graciously came to our rescue by agreeing to be our April adjudicator as well as our speaker. In return, our members managed to supply entries that made it difficult for her to choose the usual two highly commended places. The competition, ‘Write a children’s story, inspired by a well-known story for children’, meant that after choosing 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, Beverley was unable to decide and ended up choosing four additional pieces to praise.
1st Place: Cass Morgan – Mrs Bilious
2nd Place: Kristin Tridimas – A Koala Named Sydney
3rd Place: Matthew Cross – George and the Dragon
Highly Commended: Annie…
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This week I have been feeling a bit grumpy. It started last Saturday when, just as I was getting ready for bed, my wife discovered bulging walls and dripping water in the kitchen. Cue late night telephone calls to insurance company and British Gas (who maintain our hot and cold water systems). Also cue switching the off the water supply (after filling the kettle and a couple of buckets) and turning off the boiler. The electrical controls were in the same wall as the leak, as was the plug for the fridge freezer. Eleven o’clock saw two short, middle age women trying to re-position a large electrical appliance until the (surprisingly short) cable could go into another socket.
On Sunday the very nice man from Dyno-rod (on behalf of BG) came and found the source of the leak – the hot water tank in the airing cupboard. He managed to isolate it and restore running cold water to some parts of the house – all appropriate places, thank heavens. Since then we have had no central heating and only cold water from the taps. Hence, me being in a grump.
This morning, lying in bed under a warm duvet with extra heat generated by two dogs and one of the cats, I finished reading ‘My Name’s Not Friday’ by Jon Walter. It reminded me a little of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup, but with a lot less violence and a lot more religion. It was a good read. I put the book on my bedside cabinet and pulled my chilly hand back under the covers, tugging them up over my slightly icy nose, and had a serious word with myself.
I am not the first person not to have central heating. We certainly didn’t have it when I was a child. When I had my first home, heating was from a very dodgy gas fire and only in one room. Later, we only put the heat on when we could afford it. Now I am lucky enough to have the luxury of heat at the touch of a button and hot water whenever I turn the tap. Samuel and Solomon would have been delighted to have any sort of soft mattress or warm blanket during most of their stories. The idea of a full larder and a well stocked fridge-freezer would have been miraculous and heaven-sent. The freedom to visit any of those wonderful things without permission was a prospect only to be dreamed of.
You only have to turn on the news to see people who struggle to live their lives without things we in the western world consider to be basic – running water, fresh food, warm shelter. I walk the dogs and have time to enjoy the spring bulbs showing their faces to the sun without scanning the sky for planes carrying bombs or searching behind every hedge for aggressors with guns or knives.
So today I have given myself a swift kick up the mental backside, thrown on an extra layer and got on with things. It’s much easier to keep warm when you are doing something than when you are sat on your bum feeling sorry for yourself. With luck, this time tomorrow we will have heat and hot water back on tap but, if we don’t, I’m determined not to let Grumpy Kim back in.
A while ago Judith Heneghan posted something on Twitter – I can’t remember exactly what it was now – but it made me really miss being at college and studying for my MA. It wasn’t just the brilliant friends I’d made or the totally supportive critiques they gave. It wasn’t even the lectures and speakers. It was all of those, plus the driving impetus of having to produce some words every week and doing so as part of a writing community. I sent a tweet back, suggesting she set up a group or forum where graduates of Winchester’s Writing for Children MA could get in touch and maybe even meet up every once in a while. We both thought it was a great idea but, between the University and the Writing Festival, she couldn’t contribute more than support, encouragement and a few email addresses.
That’s how it started. I set up a closed Facebook group and called it Ex-Machina (EX-MA CHildren In Absentia) – probably not the best name, but it was all I could come up with at short notice. There seem to be some quite unusual groups with the same name. Oops! I added all the people I knew on Facebook who had completed the course and emailed the people Judith had suggested. A couple of posts later we are up to 16 members without really trying.
So – did you graduate from the University of Winchester with an MA in Writing for Children? Would you like to be in touch with other people who did the same course? If you are on Facebook, please ask to join us. If you avoid social media, please contact me via this blog and I’ll add you to an irregular email update.
I hope to make contact with some more of you over the coming months. Writing doesn’t need to be a solitary occupation.
… where does the time go?
I have received a notification from WordPress congratulating me on two years of blogging. Intellectually I know this to be correct – I started my blog as part of the Publishing Project module of the MA course. Emotionally, sometimes it feels like just last month and other times it’s more like a decade.
However long it’s been, I feel like a bit of a fraud. ‘Keep up the good blogging’ the notification said, making me study my fingers and shuffle my feet in shame. I’ve hardly been near my blog this year. The poor thing is fading away from lack of content and pining for attention.
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Source: The WoMentoring Project