In mini- competition 5: Summer in…
There was a huge range of writing and several pieces vying for first place. We had a hard time trying to place the top four in any order – so hard that in the end we decided we’d publish all four in the next anthology (The Book of Euclid) Congratulations to Melissa Lee Houghton (Summer Decay), Joe Smith (Summer in South Africa), Rosalind Hudis (Summer in Powys) and Geraldine Clarkson (Our Dancing Day) whose pieces will be included in the spring anthology next year.
Congratulations also to very close runners-up: Lydia Harris (The Avon at Alveston Nearly Forms an Ox-bow Lake); Emily Greene (Summer in Rainy city (Flying Ant Day)) and Bonnie Thurston (Memory) whose work will appear on the website.
Several other pieces should also be highly commended – those by Graeme Buchanan, Jessica Wright, JoAnne Bauer, Tracey Iceton, Gina Challen, Judy Dinnen, Helen McWilliams, Rena Rossner, Jessica Kennerson, Polly Young, Gregory Bott and Kate Myers.
Joint First – 4 entries:
Our Dancing Day by Geraldine Clarkson
Bully sun blunt-pawing in play the occupants of the room, who try to shut him out with loopy window-blinds and will-power, and feel their blood pressure rise to meet him.
He was not like this, this hot, this—savage, when we set sail in tugged-ragwort meadows, spread-eagled with desire. Cool earth wobbled and throbbed beneath our bellies while he oversaw, benign. Like aeroplanes we swerved and tilted at him, intent on home but delighting in the flight, and dropping bombs of knowledge and confusion in laps of peers. He had a halo of tomorrow round him then. We courted him with buttercups; caught him with new coins. A coin flipped, and now, toying with our twig-bones, drawing out their marrow, he mocks our crêpe and rocks the house. We sardines parked in lines of Parker Knoll are sitting ducks for Bully Sun. Chummy nurses without touching come and go sealed in dreams. Our voices scarcely rouse them, though we shout. We’ve swapped tomorrows. They are lured. They flick the blinds up, suck them back. Gaze out. Their eyes tie in with secret trysts. Deliver us to immolation, take our place.
Summer in South Africa by Joe Smith
So there we were, having lunch to celebrate the rising of Christ. Less than a dozen of us sitting around a table in a mock Tuscan villa, the hills beyond arid and sloping, and through the tint of brown sunglasses looking like it could be Italy. But then the brilliant-white-clad waiter leans over to place some more drinks on the table, his eyes pale and red in his black face, his mouth opening to utter an almost silent word in deference as he brushes the arm of one of the women.
A while ago everyone was wearing sunglasses, standing away from the shelter of the parasols in the sun and talking and laughing while the same waiter moved silently between us, ignored. Everybody was talking and hiding behind their sunglasses and now that we’re not wearing them it’s all suddenly more interesting, as if we’re meeting each other for the first time, seeing each other’s eyes and having to rethink our judgments.
But I keep my sunglasses on. Perhaps by this people will leave my acquaintance with an unconscious impression of furtiveness on my part, not being able to see my eyes, staring at the smooth and lifeless lenses as they would the eye of a fish. But the truth is the sun is so bright here that if I took them off my eyes would hurt: that white African sun blasting off the pale walls of this counterfeit palace.
The waiter comes and goes with drinks and food and drinks and more food, all the time stooping to the table with the same terrible deference, ingrained or practised I don’t know, yet perhaps with an honest sadness. But not sad enough to make me think that it’s spoiling this afternoon, this great moment of Christ’s ascent from death, this wonderful day of celebration where all man must rejoice for the forgiveness of his sins and the mercy of heaven, this day of sunshine and laughter, of wine and the water flowing below in the ponds and the distant stream beyond.
Because to my left and beside me, in front of me and to my right there are beautiful women and good-looking men, and we’re all sat here already sated but ready for more. One of the women is still wearing her sunglasses and I find myself respecting her modesty, despite her strapless dress that reveals her neck and shoulders and a hint of the top of her breasts in a golden smoothness that looks like caramel ice cream. She is the most beautiful here and perhaps she knows this, but it does not show. I decide I’m not in love with her.
But I do fall in love when a stranger approaches, bringing with her a small girl whose eyes are already as hard as stone and with a face in astonishing and perfect proportions. What a beautiful thing! Like a jewel, like ivory, a little walking idol to spark in me a strange and alien impulse of greed, of a desire to somehow possess, to keep her for myself, and only myself as you would a stolen artwork.
‘What a beautiful girl,’ I say.
She looks up at me like lightning and then looks away pretending not to hear. She did hear and must press her face into her mother’s leg to hide her smile. And this deception, careful and childlike, is enough to dispel the illusion, and force forwards the fact that she is human, that somewhere there is flaw and stench, there will be occasions of cruelty, and that even now the crone in her patiently waits its chance to strike, is already around the eyes and lips of her mother.
I look up away from this pair and out over the hills, that have been planted with lavender in places and vines in others. Did they move the earth itself to make it look like this? Perhaps they mounded it up higher and higher until it completely blocked the township that you see on the drive in: the rough and flapping abodes of the poor, where no doubt our waiter lives, as do the kitchen staff, the cleaners and porters. And going past the township there had been small boys selling sand-art in discarded bottles and jars, layers of different sediment placed (glued?) to make pictures or patterns to hawk to the white people passing through to the palace on the hill. Also, in the hot sun, and blazing white there had been a procession of men and women, singing a hymn and clapping and stepping, on their way to church and pumping a steady flow of harmony and what must have been a form of happiness into the air as they went, for they certainly sounded it. How is it in these poor and dirty places they manage to get white so white? The waiter is immaculate in his whiteness, he wears not a single crease or blemish.
‘George!’ a young voice cries. It is the little girl, and I turn to find her filled with happiness, because she has spotted the waiter. Has she made some mistake, in childish befuddlement taken him for one of her own house staff? The waiter straightens and turns, then extends his hand and with the palm downwards flaps his fingers against his palm. The girl runs to him and now she has a new leg against which to press her face. George pats her lightly on the head.
‘Isabel you must let George work,’ calls her mother.
She hugs his leg fiercely once more and then retreats, and I look up to see that George’s refined demeanour of sadness has left everything but his eyes, which – though filled with someone who seems to love him plainly – cannot quite forget and should not forget the bitterness of a nation that will be like a hemlock root in all that it makes for many years to come.
I turn away from George, and for a moment I imagine the scenario: that he was gardener or similar for the family, the family moved away abandoning all their staff to penury, and the mother would have struggled valiantly to find them employment elsewhere. It would have been a great stress for her, and poor old George ended up here, tending pale humans with alcohol, lest they wilt in the sun.
Or lucky George perhaps.
Beyond him and everyone the crickets and insects chirrup and whir, as they do anywhere I suppose, and when a warm breeze gusts the dry grasses sough against themselves. It does not matter that everything here is fake, not when you are drugged by what you imbibe, to become involved in a feast and worship worthy of ancients: that of the sun, universal and all-seeing, bright enough to make us hide our eyes.
Summer Decay by Melissa Lee-Houghton
I don’t remember much about those countries we travelled to, except that I was on so many drugs I practically sleep-walked. In Pompeii the summer heat dulled all the senses. It was so hot you couldn’t smell. You couldn’t taste anything but heat. You could see the heat rising and blurring and the ruins baking . The heat was deafening. We bought tart fresh lemonade from the only vendor there, gulped it down, couldn’t afford more than one. I was slow. I kept an image of you at the back of my mind like a crucible, my thoughts on fire. My own two hands wrestled and wrestled with one another. I didn’t want you. You kept account of the doses diligently. Of the syringes and blister packs and hard-to-open bottles. I thought about those unearthed bodies, if they’d suffered at all. Some were sleeping. I thought how lucky they were to die that way, unaware. Everywhere we went, tourists and cameras. And the pornographic paintings on the walls assured me that we were always depraved. You held my hand like I was going to get lost in the apocalyptic, restless archaeology. Like I would run like the stray dogs that roamed. Like I would wander until my heart packed in, all the way to Vesuvius, ready to climb. You held me back like a parent or priest, or an affliction. You put blisters on my feet. You scorched my hair. You gave me to the summer, you offered me up. And we both got burned.
Summer in Powys by Rosalind Hudis
Summer in Powys
We were driving over the border,
that tipping point of day when hills wash
into the skyline, and the last rinse
of low sun tells you there is still a handful
of time left to gather in the sight of cattle
steering towards a gate. It smelt like a festival,
smoke, hog-roast, and as darkness
lapped across them, field after field
spat and flickered with bonfires.
Except this was the cull. For hours, livestock
must have been whistled into pens
then shot, one by one between their ears.
As the line grew, the chemical telegram
of fear would have shipped from beast to beast
while their farmer stood on, everything
out of his hands and his exits
taped off, spelled with disinfectant.
We passed a yard of sheep
rigid on their backs, black
legs in the air like mechanical twigs,
the vet slow motioned in a protection suit,
as if sleep-walking through a film
where all the trees look burnt
and the sky is no longer a roof.
And to think like this
is to make anything permissible.
You told me how sheep trust
the call to be rounded up, won’t
sense that this is other than the next
pasture ahead. But that’s how we kill,
and it makes no difference that it’s summer,
the lenient time, chestnut trees
candled and over-arching, the rivers slow.
In line there is no season, only
the fall of hooves or feet
on tarmac, air pushing like a hand.
Memory by Bonnie Thurston
I am cooking rhubarb,
stirring the stringy
green glory of it.
The smell takes me straight
to Great Uncle Mark’s farm
where Grandma grew up,
her generation gathered;
the terror of being sent
early, small and alone
to the hen house
to steal breakfast eggs
from huge, terrifying birds;
awed laughter of Great Aunts
telling and re-telling the tale
of how their Granny hung
by the neck until dead
the cat that ate the chicks
warming by the stove;
boy cousins in the barn
hunting black snakes;
the men smoking
or chewing and spitting
off the flagstone porch
from which the long row
of rhubarb trailed off
toward the back pasture
and into this memory.
Summer in Rainy City Flying Ant Day by Emily Greene
When Deano kicked me out of the flat in Old Trafford to make way for his brother who’d just been thrown out by his third wife, it was Flying Ant Day. The bloody things crawled out from between the paving slabs and flew clumsy-like into my face and hair, having it off in the air like tiny Mile-Highers. Since when did ants grow big and get wings anyway? Deano said it’s all about being hot enough, the new queens leave the nest to set up on their own or something; all I know is that their giddy coming-of-age partying is bloody annoying. And since when was Deano an ant expert anyway?
So Deano gave me the big E and I packed my bag – a large red holdall, tatty round the edges, that Dad had bought me to heave my clothes back and forth between his and Mum’s the year he left – and half carried half dragged it into town – no money for the bus – to dump it on the green Formica desk-sill-type-thing at the Central Housing Office; it was what I’d seen Mum do the day we arrived in Manchester seven years before.
“I’ve got nowhere to live,” I said to the clerk, echoing Mum’s words exactly, except she’d said ‘we’ because she’d got me and my sister Steph (and our holdalls) in tow behind her on the brown gum-spotted carpet.
The clerk blinked nervously, eyeing my holdall, and pushing his glasses back up his nose even though they were about as far up as they could go.
“I’m not leaving til you find me somewhere to stay,” I said – quoting Mum again – and sitting down on the red plastic chair placed on the ‘client’ side of the booth.
The man coughed, blinked again, and then muttered something that I guess was along the lines of ‘wait here’ although I clearly wasn’t going anywhere and it was the opposite of what he wanted me to do. I leant back in the chair and folded my arms.
When Dad left, Mum hooked up with Ken.
Ken bought me and Steph jumbo hot dogs and raspberry ripple ice cream; Ken watched our hour-long dancing shows in the front room without complaining; and Ken’s best friend Marlon gave me a shoulder lift home from the Lord Mayor’s Show after I got winded on the bouncy castle at Battersea Park. It was a shame Ken turned out to be a nutter on the run from the law and we had to leave London in a hurry. We arrived in Manchester with a change of clothes, and a teddy bear each, all hurriedly stuffed into two holdalls.
Keeping my arms folded, I gave the housing office a look over. It hadn’t changed much in seven years.
The clerk returned with a pale green form.
“Ermm,” he said, holding tightly on to the form. “Haven’t you got any family you could stay with?”
Mum let my room the week I left for uni; Dad’s house in London was crammed with small children with spaghetti faces.
I’d jacked in university and started working the clubs after I failed my first year; you don’t find friends at the clubs, just useful people. Deano had been one of those – a dealer with a flat and a spare room.
“Do you have children?”
The clerk sighed.
“There are long waiting lists–– ”
“I don’t mind Moss Side.”
The clerk bit his lips together and stared at me. I glared back. It seemed to decide it; this was 1991 – the height of the shootings – and great swathes of Moss Side were boarded up. Empty. They wouldn’t turn down my rent money, I figured.
Either that or it was just too bloody hot to argue.
He slid the form across the desk.
“Fill this in.”
“Moss Side?” Mum said when I called her, sheltering from the ants in a phone box on Oxford Road and reversing charges, “I hope you know what you’re doing, darling.”
When I rang Dad, he just hissed through his teeth and said “Bloody hell, Emily”. I imagined him shaking his head and rubbing the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb. Then a flying ant dropped out of my hair on to the receiver.
“Yeurgh.” I pulled the phone away from me quickly.
“What’s that?” Dad’s voice squeaked from the ear piece.
“A bloody ant. Is it Flying Ant Day in London?”
“What?” There was wailing in the background. “Look, I’ve got to go. Just stay safe, alright?”
Outside the club that night, Deano laughed. “Hope ya got an angel,” he said in his nasal drawl, running his tattooed fingers over his lips – LOVE.
HATE was picking at his jeans agitatedly. “Got a spare fag?”
When I signed for the keys to Freetown Close it was blinding baking summer hot with the sky such a steely steady blue that it looked like it’d never known the constant pre-Christmas drizzle-mist or the unrelenting post-Christmas down-the-back-of-your-neck-sleet that’d played out over Rainy City in the eleven months or so since I put my name on the list.
Moss Side had to be the only place in the country where a nineteen year old with no dependants and no disabilities could get a council flat in under a year. Mum had got a flat quicker, but then she’d had two kids for pawns and even then we’d spent over a month in bed and breakfast secretly cooking our dinner on a single-ring primus that Mum had smuggled in.
I perched on the edge of the plastic ‘client’ chair – I was wearing shorts: bare legs with chair-print is not a good look – and waited. The air in the Moss Side housing-office was stale. Stifling. Behind me a queue of perspiring people fidgeted around on their own plastic chairs lined up against the wall. It was like sitting in some bad-trip nicotine-stained Sixties communal sauna except everyone was wearing clothes – thank bloody goodness.
The clerk came back with a form. He was sweating like cheese under his suit and his face was pretty much the colour of the red NOT on the ‘We do NOT tolerate physical or verbal abuse’ sign on the wall behind him. He pushed the form under the glass pane that separated us.
“Sign,” he said. Or at least I think that’s what he said as the glass between us was so thick that any chance of my hearing him or of me committing the aforementioned ‘verbal abuse’ would’ve been pretty much impossible.
I picked up the theft-proof pen-on-a-chain and signed the form. Then I pushed it back at him.
He did not.
He took an envelope from a drawer under his desk and pushed it under the glass.
I opened it.
Two brass Chubbs tied together – a brown card label marked ‘12’ hanging from the string – and a rent book.
“Master and spare.”
“Master and spare.”
I shook my head.
“Master and spare.”
“Oh never mind.” I stuffed the keys and the rent book into my shoulder-bag, realising what he’d said by the time I’d pushed my chair back and unstuck my shorts from my thighs.
“Thank you,” I said to the glass – I figured maybe he was good at lip-reading – and turned away as the next-in-line heaved himself out of his ‘waiting’ chair, peeling his damp trousers away from his buttocks.
Outside, in the eye-aching brightness of wall to wall 1960’s concrete, I put my hand in my bag and wrapped my fingers round my keys. The pavement of the precinct sparkled silver glitter in the sun. My keys. My home. Master and spare. My head spun with the thought of it.
I skipped down the steps and on to the street. A mirage rippled over the hot tarmac of Moss Lane in the distance back towards Old Trafford; a council mower swooshed circles round trees on the verge opposite; and, on the corner with Princess Parkway by the brewery, a reggae bass-line thumped from a battered Datsun waiting for the lights to change. I could smell dope and I could smell grass cuttings. I could smell the brewery and I could smell diesel fumes.
I didn’t have to put up with psychotic bail-jumpers.
I didn’t have to put up with snot-nosed kids.
I didn’t have to put up with addicts on the intercom at midnight.
It didn’t matter that I’d got no money, no friends, and my cupboards would be empty.
Today I set up on my own.
My keys. My home.
I stretched my arms out like wings and spun round and round on the fag-littered pavement, my shoulder-bag swinging like a counter-weight round me, til I got giddy as an ant on Flying Ant Day.
Mini- competition 4:
This competition attracted a huge postbag and some very inventive letters – everything from towel rails to letters from the end of the world featured with plenty in between. Whilst the content was nearly always engaging some of it suffered from not reading like a letter – if you want a fantastic example read Harrison Solow’sFelicity and Barbara Pym available in the non fiction section of the Cinnamon Press website. The use of long passages of direct speech or overly formal language in otherwise domestic situations often got in the way of creating the illusion of one side of a written conversation in many of the entries. Another thing to watch out for is cliché – if the language isn’t fresh the reader won’t remain hooked. And, of course, with a letter, the voice is essential – a twelve year old has sound twelve – as Samantha Woodward’s twelve-year-old Annie, writing to a ghost she wants to befriend, did.
The voice of Max Hawker’s care home manager to a son whose mother was being thrown out for unruly behaviour was beautifully handled, slightly stiff and pompous in her defensiveness, but inadvertently hilarious, as well as tragic as it dawns on the reader that the mother’s ‘bad’ behaviour is not ornery but a degenerative condition. Hazel Carlstein’s letter writer has a more wistful voice as the letter that is too late to reach its recipient unfolds its narrative whilst the voice of Lucy Hume’s ‘Coincidence’ writes to ‘Fate’ in wonderfully parodied legalese. Michele Wardall paints a comic picture in her letter from what should be a picture postcard beach, but is anything but in as a hurricane descends and Wendy French writes a letter that meanders between associations, echoing the theme of memory that is both powerful and fragile for her correspondent. Tiffany Haggith’s letter writer uses the form to utter a great existential cry that remains controlled and true and Tiffany’s mini-biography was equally well-written – perhaps we should have amini-biography writing competition? J
There were many letters that didn’t quite make it to the commended list, but contained a great deal of good writing – inevitably we had to make hard decisions and the competition was so good that there were also several letters that they might easily have been outright winners in a less competitive field. Helen Holmes’s ex-wife writing a letter of condolence to the new wife is dark and funny and beautifully controlled, while Gabriel Griffin’s letter from ‘AM’ to Samuel Butler conjures not only an exquisite sense of place, but also of melancholy yearning, lightly done. Tracey Iceton’s ‘Letter to Long Kesh’ not only evokes the voice of child in a perfectly pitched accent, but also tells a story as much between the lines as in them.
Once again we chose two first place winners, two very different, but accomplished pieces of writing.
Robin Lindsay Wilson’s ‘Letter to Neil’ is written as a poem with a rhythm that has liturgical force and a voice that sings off the page. The pulse of the poem is as insistent as the crafted language and the combination makes this emotionally affective without any cloying sentiment. Tricia Durdey’s letter from ‘Hedda’, sent from ‘Leliegracht, June 2nd 1943’ is a wonderful example of how powerful the epistolary form can be. The voice is authentic and the threat is subtle and layered, building to an almost unbearable pitch that is all the more powerful for what is not said. My temperature dropped as I read it and I was there, feeling the fear.
Thanks for well written, intriguing letters from: Miki Byrne, Hazel Carlstein, Anthony Costello, Wendy French, Rob Gemmell, Tiffany Haggith, Max Hawker, Lucy Hume, Julie Maclean, Kate Myers, Heather Price, Michele Wardall & Samantha Woodward.
And special thanks for superb reads that appear below from Gabriel Griffin, Helen Holmes & Tracey Iceton
And congratulations to the winners whose work appears below and will be included in the April 2013 anthology.
- Tricia Durdey
- Robin Lindsay Wilson
Tracey Iceton – A Letter to Long Kesh (later the Maze Prison)
Mammy says I’ve to be writing you now you’re away. She says you’ll be away a canny wee while and it’ll be doing us both good if I keep at the writing and tell you what’s happening so’s you don’t feel you’re missing much of anything.
At school we’ve been making Easter lilies from scraps of coloured paper and the like. You’d be thinking that was in art, I’m betting, but it was history. Mr MacDermott was asking if we knew what the lilies was for. I knew but I wasn’t liking to put my hand up and say so’s I didn’t. Michael O’Brien put his hand up. He’s a smartie-aleck, so he is. He telt the whole class the lilies was for the 1916 men, so’s we’d be remembering their sacrifice and the like. I knew all that right enough. I wished I put my hand up and said it instead but I didn’t like to, what with the things that’s been happening. So I didn’t. Later Mr MacDermott said it was alright. He said my lily was the best and asked me if I wanted a bit of tape to stick it on. I know you said we was to use pins so I asked him for a-one instead. He said aye and he’d be seeing about getting me one. So I can be a pinhead². Like you.
Roseleen was properly jealous, so she was. They didn’t make lilies. She’s all busy now with studying for her entries to St Mary’s. Mammy says she’s like to get in ‘cos she’s such a bright ‘un. I don’t know though. She’s been telling Mammy she’s away to study but I followed her last week and she wasn’t at all. She was meeting Rory O’Hanlon. I saw them snogging, so I did!
Mammy says come the summer she might see about taking us down to Granda’s but she’ll have to be fixing about the money first. Mr Macbride came yesterday and said he was hoping he’d be bringing us some soon. I heard her telling him not to be worrying about us. She said wasn’t it lucky for us that she had a wee job and a bit of something coming in and that others didn’t so they should be getting the first of it. She’s not wanting to be holding out her hand while you’re away. But still, if she gets the wee bit extra she’ll take us to see Granda.
Roseleen’s shouting me now, Da. I’ll have to go and sit with the baby. She’s away out to study, I don’t think! And Mammy’s not back from her shift until ten so’s I’ll be finishing this letter later.
I’m back, Da. Baby’s asleep. She’s nice and quiet when she’s sleeping. I wish she could be sleeping all the time, so I do. She makes a right racket when she’s hungry. Sure, she’ll be out-growing the squawking soon but I wish she’d hurry it up. Was I a noise wean like that, Da? Do you remember?
And haven’t I got the best news for you. I can’t believe I nearly forget to put it in. Haven’t I gotten into the footie team! I’m to be left-back, so I am. Mr Colbert said I’m a real talent and maybes if I stick at it and keep training and the like I’d be playing in the national team one day. That’d be grand. The national team! I’d be getting to fly all over the world and make a good living an’ all. Then I’d be getting you and Mammy a nice big house somewhere properly grand. Not on the Falls³. Maybe in Cork, near Granda. Think, Da, we’d be able to go climbing the hills and fishing at the beach and whatever we wanted all the time. Well, whenever I’s back from my latest international match, that is.
I’ve to be going now. It’s lights out, Mammy says. What time are they putting the lights out in the Kesh? Write me and let me know. Then I’ll be thinking of you going to sleep at the proper time. Also, what are they giving you for breakfast? And dinner? I hope the food’s not too shite (sorry) bad.
Well, bye for now. We’ve a big match next weekend so’s I can let you know if we’re winning or not next time I write.
P.S. Sure, it’s ‘cos of me that you’re away from us for such a time that there’s no end to it. I shouldn’t’ve shot that man. But he was in our house, Da, with his mask and his gun. Soon as I saw him I knew he was UVF. Sure, he was going to shoot us all. Maybes he was only looking for you, to shoot you but I wasn’t after letting him do that, Da. So I thought what would my da be doing now? And I ran and got the gun that I seen you putting away under the floorboards in the baby’s room and I pointed it at him and I pulled the trigger and I shot him. I wished you’d been there to be doing it. But you weren’t so’s I had to. I wasn’t meaning for you to take the blame. I’m not sorry I shot him, he’s the enemy, so he was. But I’m sorry you’ve copped for the blame. I’m sorry the Brits caught you up and now you’re away from us for a long time. I wished you could’ve kept at the running. But I’m not sorry I killed him. Mostly I’m sorry I can’t fucken write you I’m sorry. Now I can’t be sending you this letter. Sure, won’t I be starting it over in the morning.
Helen Holmes: Dear Stacey
I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to have a word after the funeral. There was a huge scrum by the door, and I had to dash off to an appointment with my solicitor. She’s a bit of a Rottweiler, so I daren’t be late!
I must say, I was filled with admiration for your organisational skills, particularly at this stressful time. I wouldn’t know where to start with such an elaborate ceremony. Sitting gazing at the Virgin Mary before the service started, I was remembering how Hugh used to rail against religion when we were younger (mumbo-jumbo, he called it). For as long as I knew him, he was adamant he wanted a green humanist burial. How things do change – your positive influence, obviously! The church looked an absolute picture with all those beautiful flowers. The smell of lilies mingled with incense was almost intoxicating.
You couldn’t be expected to know about Hugh’s aunt’s asthma. At least the ambulance came quickly. And there was no need for that young woman to make such a song and dance about her suit. We can get men on the moon, for heaven’s sake; surely we can get pollen stains out of cream linen. I know it was a Karen Millen suit, but you had enough on your plate, what with the Eulogy to deliver and the baby throwing up all over your mother. Some people are shockingly insensitive.
It must have been a great comfort that your family and friends were able to turn out in such large numbers. All those gorgeous children! How lovely for your four boys to have so many playmates. The little ones had great fun during the service, didn’t they? None of that stuffy, old-fashioned ‘children should be seen and not heard’ malarkey like we had in my day. You’re too young to remember that, of course. As the priest said, we were there to celebrate Hugh’s life, not mourn his passing. It’s a pity his death was so sudden. He would probably have welcomed the last rites, given his change of heart on religion. Let’s hope his conscience was clear. Anyway, the priest’s reassurance that God is merciful allowed us to envision dear Hugh in a better place. It’s a shame our envisioning was disrupted by the sound of smashing glass, but leaving breakables within reach of tiny hands is asking for trouble. The Church is as rich as Croesus, however much they plead poverty. Otherwise, how on earth could they afford antique crystal flagons in the first place? They probably won’t sue.
Obviously, the main purpose of this letter is to convey my sincere condolences, Stacey, but I’ll just get a couple of tedious practicalities out of the way. As you know, Hugh signed over Birchwood Hall and the family car to me as part of our divorce settlement. The remainder of his estate now passes to you, so I’ve arranged for his belongings to be delivered. Someone from Pickfords will give you a ring to fix a time. When Hugh moved out, I packed everything in boxes and stacked them in the garage, ready for him to collect. Of course, he had his hands full, what with your business problems, the repossession and the demands of a young family, so it’s not surprising that he never got round to it. I’ve got a double garage, anyway, and there was still room to squeeze the Lexus in, so please don’t feel too badly about it. I did remind Hugh gently from time to time when he popped in for a chat and a few drinks after work, but the poor soul always looked so exhausted I hadn’t the heart to put pressure on. I’m glad I didn’t, in the light of what’s happened. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. I used to try and shoo him home, but he said he only got in the way when you were putting the kids to bed.
There are rather a lot of boxes, I’m afraid. (My solicitor suggested sending you an invoice for storage and delivery, but that seemed a bit over the top, even by her standards!) You know what Hugh was like. He described himself as a collector. I think hoarder is a better word, though there may be the odd thing that’ll raise a few quid on eBay. You’ll find books, postcards, records, videos, corgi toys, train sets, wooden carvings, stamps and travel memorabilia. There are also the contents of his darkroom and mini-gym. It’s a pity he didn’t take his exercise equipment with him. I couldn’t help noticing he’d let himself go. With his family’s medical history, he should have been more disciplined, but self-control was never Hugh’s strong suit, was it? There are heaps of clothes and shoes, of course, and a drum-kit. Goodness knows where you’re going to stash it all in your little house. There isn’t even a garage, is there? I seem to remember Hugh complaining about having to de-ice the Mondeo. The boys might like the drum-kit.
One last thing before I forget. My solicitor was surprised to discover that Hugh had left significant investments in my name. Probably an oversight, like the boxes – we’ll never know now. The legal situation’s unambiguous, according to Ms Rottweiler: anything in my name is excluded from Hugh’s estate. Judging by the funeral arrangements, Hugh should have taken lessons from you. Clearly he couldn’t hold a candle to you on the organisational front! Too late now, sadly. I hope he kept his life-assurance policy up-to-date.
I send this letter with my sympathy, dear, and every good wish for the future. I’ve heard such a lot about you and the boys that I feel I know you intimately, even though we’ve never met. Hugh was a great raconteur, wasn’t he, especially after a glass or three of Shiraz? I’ll miss his visits. He could always make me laugh.
Gabriel Griffin: A letter to Samuel Butler
To: Samuel Butler, Esq.
15 Clifford’s Inn,
My dear Sam,
Last week I went on ‘our’ walk again.
You were with me, your presence so strongly felt that, although confined to your solitary lodgings, you must have been aware of taking again the antique way between the Holy Mountains, of breathing the air blown fresh over Monte Rosa’s glaciers, of the scents of pine on the high pass and that of linden in the village squares. Once again we walked the way and not merely to arrive at a destination. We are both seekers after something – but do we know what it is we seek?
We began, as you preferred, just after dawn. The night had resounded with the tumult of rain on the cobbles – did it wake you in your bed at the Leon d’Oro? Or the lake disturb you, the waves crashing rhythmically on the stone jetty of the square? Maybe you slept, the sounds resolved in your mind as Handel’s glorious music, or as a composition you would annotate in the morning?
No matter, before dawn the rain ceased and the May sky was busy with scudding clouds, letting fall shafts of sun that raced over the grey lake. From the summit of Monte Sacro we viewed the mountain pass we would traverse. Descending the winding way, we admired the ancient wisteria reaching high above the Wolf’s Alley. ‘Don’t you sometimes wish’, I said,’ that your lodgings had some pleasant garden in which to take a book on sunny days?’ But you replied that you were well content, a book is often itself a delightful garden in which to take ease.
At the water’s edge a small boat was ready, the boatman waiting. You remembered the woman – alas, long dead – who had rowed you so often across. ‘The good woman’, you said, ‘had never left the lake but once in her life – for her daughter’s wedding’. Who could blame her for being reluctant to leave such an amenable spot!
We soon arrived on the far shore, from whence the mule track to the mountain pass departed. The path wound up through woods of elder, hawthorn white with starry blossom, walnut and sweet chestnut. “Once called the bread of the poor,’ you told me, ‘The flour constituted their staple diet’.
A frugal diet, indeed! But you, too, are frugal in your way of living. As you once said, ‘The healthy stomach is nothing if not conservative. Few radicals have good digestions.’
The cuckoo sounded through the leaves. ‘Cuckoos are all right,’ you commented, ‘They sing in tune.’ You don’t approve the nightingale, saying it does not sing the diatonic scale, ‘A bird should either make no attempt to sing in tune or it should succeed in doing so.’ You said that larks were only for Wordsworth, as for you, you like rooks, they don’t pretend to sing in tune.
The way was steep and the tumbling river always further below. I had little breath when we arrived at the tiny village that clutched the mountain side high above the lake. We rested awhile by the church. You were struck always by the German influence you perceived: the steeple tall and pointed, linden trees in the churchyard. ‘And thatched roofs,’ you said, but these exist no more, the risk of fires ensured they were replaced by stone or tile.
A village woman, noting our weariness, offered us cherries from her basket. You recommended eating the best first, like grapes. ‘In this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last. If you eat the other way, you will not have a good grape in the lot.’ I laughed but perceived the wisdom in this.
Refreshed, we entered the woods. No sounds but water falling over rocks and the scuffle of our feet shifting stray stones. At the level of the torrent’s highest course, ‘Look!’ I said (did you hear me through the noise of London’s morning?) ‘A unicorn!’
No unicorn, but a roe deer, motionless on a large rock the other side of the stream. An albino, pure white, a rare sight indeed!
‘A symbol of Christ,’ I said. ‘For those who have faith.’ You commented, ‘You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.’
We continued on our way and a weary way it was. Ascending the steep path I was indeed fatigued and glad of your words, ‘If one is climbing a high mountain , nothing fatigues so much as casting upwards glances to the top, nothing encourages so much as casting downward glances. The top never seems to draw nearer; the paths that we have passed retreat rapidly.’ I looked down and took fresh heart.
At last we arrived at the summit and saw before us the Holy Mountain of Varallo overlooking its green valley. Our way was easy now, all in descent. As, indeed, you said, your way was now.
My heart was troubled at these words. Aware of my sadness, you consoled me, saying, ‘I am not one of those who have travelled along a set road towards an end that I have foreseen and desired to reach. I have made a succession of jaunts or pleasure trips from meadow to meadow, but no long journey unless life itself be reckoned so. Nevertheless, I have strayed into no field in which I have not found a flower that was worth the finding.’
‘At the end of this road,’ I asked you, ‘What shall we find?’
You replied, ‘Grace. Grace is best, for where grace is, love is not distant.’ And with these words you left me, each to continue the journey his own way.
So, too, my letter ends, for our ways part. I fear this letter will not reach you, Clifford’s Inn is no more, the rattle of carts replaced by the roar of motors. So be it, time will take us all.
Tricia Durdey: Letter to Kai
Leliegracht – June 2nd 1943
Kai – If only I could speak with you. There’s so little time left. I write these things quickly, hoping one day – if you survive – if I don’t – you’ll find my letter. This is how it has been since I saw you last –
Spier, a prominent Dutch Nazi, has asked me to teach him German. He already speaks it well enough but wants to ‘perfect his grammar’. I must go to his apartment on Marnix Straat twice a week. He has paid ahead. I try to tell myself that as his German teacher I am safe, and my work with the organisation is therefore more secure. But I am uneasy. No I am more than uneasy. I don’t like him. Not only because he’s a Nazi. I do not like the way he looks at me. There’s something grossly sensual about him. I can hardly breathe.
Last week he told me he has ‘researched my background.’ Why had I stopped dancing, he asked, why had I closed my dancing school. I said an old spinal injury made it too painful. ‘There is nothing wrong with your spine,’ he said. I looked him straight in the eye and said that the pain, when I danced, was excruciating. I had to stop and for this reason I must teach German instead. He laughed and ran his hand down my back. Afterwards I felt so low I wanted to crawl away and hide.
Today I am quite sure that young man in NSB uniform I told you about is spying on me. Most days he’s there, standing by the side of the canal, staring up at my window. Am I becoming neurotic? There are so many reasons to be afraid.
6th June – I couldn’t finish writing as Katje visited, and for an afternoon life was good again. She brought yellow roses from her garden. They smell so sweet still, there on the table. Then we pushed the furniture back and she danced and I forgot all my anxiety. You should see her now, Kai. She practises often, in her own room at home, and she’s become so strong, so free.
Today Spier told me that he knows everything about my background now. He knows I danced in Germany before the company escaped, and that I refused to join the Kultuurkamer. He knows I am far from being a Nazi. He looks me in the eye and tells me he has grown fond of me and will not betray me. Then he laughs. As I left he tried to touch me and I backed away, but he came close, breathing in my face.
Last night I woke with a shock and I knew with absolute certainty that there’s a connection between the NSB boy and Spier. I couldn’t sleep any longer. I got up and paced around my room. How much do they know? What do they know about the others in the organisation? Oh God how would I hold up if I was tortured? I have always been so afraid of physical pain. I would rather die than betray my friends. I could go into hiding but there is Benjamin to consider. Until he is safe I cannot go anywhere.
8th What Spier asked me to do yesterday was horrible. I seemed to disappear into a dark space where there was nothing. He told me to return today. I have to go back otherwise he’ll find me. Is there still time to escape? What to do to help Benjamin? The space behind the gable – would they find him there? I have written a letter to Katje in case the worst happens.
Or can I just let Spier do what he wants with me? How safe will that make us all, and for how long? I will hate my body, and never be able to dance again. Something has broken in me. Today I am afraid I will tell him how I despise everything about him. Then I know he will use his power. There may only be hours left.
I think of Katje and the delight in her dancing, her struggle to learn. It comforts me. I think of you Kai, my sweet, generous, beautiful Kai. How engrossed we were in our work, those days when we were free. These last months, without you, and without my beloved work, I have sometimes been so lonely I have not known myself.
If only I could hear your footsteps on the stairs again, if you were to walk through the door, and I could hear your voice calling me. Heaven is the life we once had. No other.
If you survive – if you find this letter – know that it’s our love for each other and our work that matters. In some way, whatever we must endure, this love is stronger. I am sure of this. My darling Kai.
Robin Lindsay Wilson: Letter to Neil
Letter to Neil
you think you have not loved me
but on Monday when you were dazzled
with white shirts and square cut ties
and taking your girlfriend to the zoo
you sent me a smile that I still wear
you think you have not cared for me
but on Tuesday you flung an empty bottle
into the wine dark Great Australian sky
and brought the Southern Cross to my lips
you think you do not know me
but on Wednesday you sent me a cheque
which I squandered on books and songs –
that’s what you sent it for – you said
you think you have not helped me
but on Thursday when you were plagued
with tardy in-laws and engine failure
you sent me fattening Macadamia nuts –
in a hard autumn they brought summer
you think that you have not been honest with me
but on Friday when you were lying to yourself
you dialed an envelope with your best wishes
and when I opened it I found another life
and a trace of the hurried faith I had lost
you think you have not been my brother
but on Saturday you skimmed a silver ring
across seven weary dawns to reach me –
on cloudy days the dawn still shines
on both sides of the scratched and dented rim
you think you have not forgiven me
but on Sunday you sent me your children –
they described your best-foot-forward life
with clear eyes straight backs and giggling –
they contained no desire to hurt or judge –
I trusted them to teach me hide-and-seek
Robin Lindsay Wilson