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The First NAWG Open Poetry Competition 2012
Winner:- Andy Humphrey
You had the universal cure for colds,
welcoming wintry sniffles
with hot fried fish,
and a parting jar of Vick’s Vapo-Rub
to fend off the frost in my chest.
Little green pots
lined up over years
along my bedside table.
Tonight, I reach
for the last of your gifts.
Scrape the sides for the tingling gel,
smudge under nostrils, breathing in camphor
and the memory of you. Vapour
hazes my eyes, the way the sunlight
through half-closed curtains used to kiss
dust-motes, speckle the spines
of your library.
It’s blurry, too,
how I think I remember you:
bicycle clips, your gown
and that ridiculous cravat
you wore to church. I can’t quite hear
the chuckle of feigned dialects,
only half recall the story
of you spooning chillies in your coffee,
and the way you leaned your head
when you were praying.
The gel is ice-warm on my skin:
hot-water-bottled with aromas
of old books and candle wax,
the must of Imperial Leather
in the bristled embrace of your welcome.
I clutch the jar
like a relic, scrape out the last
of the ointment, smear, and inhale.
Second Prize: Tim Ellis
Our jags and spats and weekends lost to bliss
upstirred some murk. How quickly twenty years
can come down like a mist.
But high up in the fells the water’s clear
and all I want to keep with me is this:
a sweltering summer morning in The Lakes
after exams, with friends. We flop by a runnel
that sprints down Scafell Pike,
uniting with its ilk en-route to funnel
into Borrowdale. We stoop to slake
our well-earned thirst. I dither. Do I dare
put lips to this, risking water-borne bugs?
Someone is creased at my fear.
His laughter rattles round the rocks and crags
with wild disdain, a man unfazed by care.
Myself, I find the slog to the summit tough
but he’s a dynamo, foot-sure and able:
a suck on a spliff and he’s off,
the long route back to Seathwaite, over Great Gable.
All his life, too much was never enough.
We shoulder no baggage and bivvy beneath the stars.
My first red squirrel is picked out by his eye,
attuned to all that stirs
in ancients woods or soars in gaping skies.
We storm the hills and drain the lakeside bars.
But singing mountain streams are doomed to clot,
stagnating in a muddy estuary.
Tired old cities sit
piping flows of effluent out to sea
where adolescent aspirations rot.
And now I know he’s wrong: those tumbling streams
are rife with germs. I stumbled, bilious, half-blind.
We marched to different drums.
He raced ahead while I lagged far behind,
my backpack immense and chock with cumbersome dreams.
When I next climb the Pike I must rejoice
in waters beating boulders smooth, bawling
with sheer ebullient force,
glorious in the moment of their falling.
The rush and gush and gabble is his voice.
Third Prize: Suzy Miles
Out Of Tune
He’d taught her how to play. Now,
he watched his red head daughter,
flaming in June, rosin her bow;
her fingers slip on strings with the heat.
Soft embarrassed laughter through her battle
with Bach rang in his ears, as humming
her missing notes, he shipped out East
He watched, standing guard, sweating fingers
on the metal of a semi-automatic
as rifle fire timpani’d, discord cymbal-clashed
on each shuttered window; flats and sharps
arpeggio’d on ancient stone walls. Just one
snapped string had sent a hot, a bothered people
so far out of tune, no-one stopped to listen;
no conductor held his hand poised to re-define
the rhythm, stop this crazy jazz of war.
She watched her fevered father, shock-still
in his garden chair, conducting with his fingers
the blackbird’s high vibrato, bringing in the robin,
the skylark and the wren, to calm his mind
with harmony, quieten the cacophony
still clanging in his head; knowing,
if he begged her to rosin up the bow again,
he’d mither over missing notes now, cry
if she played Bach for him, cry
if she did not.
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The Second NAWG Open Short Story Competition 2012
Winner:- Veronica Bright
A GIFT FROM THE HORSE CHESTNUT TREE
There’s not much Davy’s teacher can tell Kylie that she doesn’t know already. It’s parents’ evening, just before half term, timed to reassure the adults that their child is settling well. Kylie sits outside the classroom with Davy on one side, and little Molly with her parents on the other. They have their wriggly baby with them too.
“He’s a bit of a Mummy’s boy at this time of day,” the mother says. It takes Kylie a moment to realise she isn’t having a dig at Davy. She gives a weak smile. She’s seen them at the swings. Molly is always so confident, running up the steps of the twisty slide, coming down yelping with joy, sitting, lying, even head first sometimes.
Kylie wonders what it would be like to have a partner to share everything with. Some-one to teach Davy how to play football. Perhaps that would help him to join in with the others more; not be so timid.
She sits, slightly hunched, and Davy snuggles up beside her.
The door of Miss Walker’s classroom opens, a family leaves, and Molly skips in ahead of her parents, almost dancing. The baby jigs up and down in his mother’s arms. Kylie watches them with a sense of hopelessness.
“Us next,” she says.
Kylie has spent all day remembering her own school days: struggling to concentrate, hopeless at maths. She never had an A for anything, never won a prize of any kind. She knows she isn’t much of a looker either; Conky, that girl kept calling her, because of her nose. And she didn’t really have scurvy like someone said. She remembers being rubbish at games. She hated PE, the changing rooms, the kit that hung off her thin frame, the heartiness of the netball team. Shivering on a frosty day.
She knew Nan had tried hard with her. She’d been a rough and ready, get-on-out-there-and-do-it, don’t-be-a-wimp, type of person. Loving, in her own way. Not some-one Kylie felt she could confide in, though. Till she had to. And of course her Nan stood by her. After all, it had happened before, to Kylie’s Mum, hadn’t it? History always repeats itself, Nan had said, folding her arms.
Someone sits down heavily in the seat beside her, an older woman Kylie recognises from the park. Davy peeps round at her, then snuggles into his mother’s side again.
“I hope she’s not going to take all night,” says the woman. “I’ve got more to do than sit here all evening.”
There’s nothing Kylie can say to that..
She feels the woman’s eyes upon her.
“You his sister?”
“No. His Mum.”
The woman swears, and Kylie blushes.
“How old were you when you had him?” she asks rudely.
The woman gives a deep bellow of laughter, along with a nudge that sends the flimsy girl almost shunting Davy off his seat.
Now it’s Davy’s turn for the woman’s inspection.
“Nice a nice little chap though, isn’t he?” The woman leans forward a bit.
“You know my Harry?”
“Speak up Davy. The lady’s talking to you.”
“I know Harry,” he says obediently.
“Is he a good boy at school?”
Kylie feels Davy’s hand gripping her arm. She knows he’s not sure what to say to this rather frightening lady. He flicks his eyes at her, and away again, away from the big face awaiting his answer.
“Forget it, kid.” Harry’s Gran leans back, arms folded mightily under her bosom, bracing herself for the forthcoming encounter with “this Miss Walker” as she calls her.
Molly’s family emerges from their interview. The little girl’s still dancing. They are all smiling. Kylie guessed they would be.
“Come on Davy,” she says quietly.
“Good luck,” booms Harry’s Gran, “and don’t be in there all night.”
Miss Walker smiles at Kylie and Davy as they come into her room. She offers them chairs; Davy presses himself into his mother’s side. Kylie sees the teacher every morning. She has to peel Davy away from her side, tears running down his cheeks.
“Well,” the teacher begins. She hesitates. “Davy is always well behaved. He’s a gentle boy.” She pauses. “He settles very quickly after you’ve left him. I know I’ve told you that before. You really mustn’t worry about him.”
Kylie thinks this is like telling her she mustn’t breathe, so she says nothing.
“Now, Davy, what do you like about school?”
“Tell the teacher,” says Kylie.
“Playtime and home-time,” says the small boy.
Miss Walker takes a deep breath.
“He’s having a lot of difficulty with his reading. Do you practise at home?”
“We’ve done a bit.”
“He really doesn’t know his letters. It would help to practise every day.”
“He gets very tired. By the evening he’s worn out. He… he doesn’t want to read. He says it’s too hard.”
“It is hard, Davy,” says Miss Walker, “but I want you to try. Will you do that please?”
Davy nods and says yes. He wants to please Miss Walker, he really does.
“Let’s show Mummy your books, shall we?”
Kylie smiles and nods, trying to soothe Davy’s apprehension. Her face changes as they turn the pages. It’s with sorrow that she sees the spindly letters that required so much effort. They seem to have spread themselves out into a series of squashed meaningless shapes; several look like frying pans; and that one is definitely like a dead tadpole. Davy’s drawings aren’t much better. His rocket’s banana’d across the sky, and the moon is like a blob of boiled cabbage. He looks away, ashamed.
“I believe Davy might need extra help,” says Miss Walker. “If it’s all right with you, I’ll set the ball rolling.”
Davy looks from his mother to his teacher, and back again.
Miss Walker tells them what it will entail. She makes it sound all right.
“A helpful adult working alongside Davy three or four hours a week might make all the difference,” she says. Kylie stares at her, willing it to be true.
“I’ve typed some notes out for you,” she says.
Kylie looks at her in a frightened kind of way.
“It’s all right,” says Miss Walker gently. “It’s a list, quite short, of ways you can help.” She offers the paper to the girl.
Kylie reacts as if she’s been asked to hold a snake. She feels Miss Walker’s eyes upon her. Davy takes her hand.
“I’ll do my best,” she promises.
“Is… is Davy good at anything?” asks Kylie.
“Everyone is good at something,” says Miss Walker. She sounds rather brisk. Kylie thinks their ten minutes must be up. She doesn’t want to be a nuisance.
“He will blossom given time, I’m sure,” says the teacher.
“Well, thank you,” says Kylie. She stands up. “Thank you both for coming along. See you tomorrow, Davy. Don’t forget, now. Practise that reading every day.”
The two go out together, holding hands, a pair of little grey shadows.
Kylie leads Davy past Harry’s Gran, who is heaving herself up. They go out through the school door, and back home across the park. Kylie wishes her Nan was still alive. She’d been a bit bossy, but she was always on Kylie’s side, always saw a way out of troubles, said every cloud has a silver lining.
Of course Kylie knows she isn’t alone in the world. She has her son, this clingy little boy who relies on her for so many things. Kylie thinks about her Nan. She used to be there when Davy woke up at night, screaming after a nightmare. Now there isn’t anyone else to sing him back to sleep. When he tumbles and falls, bangs his head, scrapes his elbow, it is entirely up to Kylie to make everything better. Davy was slow to walk and slow to talk, but Kylie didn’t mind. Not really. Not much.
She will do her best to help him learn to read. But the occasions she’s tried in the past have always shown up her own inadequacies. That’s the trouble. Kylie knows all about struggling to learn, to make sense of all those curls and lines and squiggles; and all the rest of it.
They cross the park, the thin girl and the small boy, the world big and threatening around them. When they reach the horse chestnut tree, Davy slips his hand out of his mother’s, stoops to pick up a conker. It lies in his hand, smooth and shiny and unspoilt. Davy strokes it gently. Then he holds it out.
“It’s a present for you,” he says. A small moment, but special. Like Davy.
Kylie smiles, bites her lip.
“Thank you,” she says.
There’s not much Davy’s teacher can tell Kylie about her son, that she doesn’t know already.
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The First NAWG Open Short Story Competition 2011
Winner:- Barbara Smith
There are many tales passed down through the generations of the selkies that swim in Scapa Flow. These are the shy, gentle creatures who are seals by day and shed their skins to become men and women by night. Over the years, Orkney story-tellers have gathered round their peat fires, while the shadows danced on low, smoke-blackened ceilings in the dim flickering light of oil lamps, recounting tales of fearsome storms, when the fury of the wind cracked ships on the rocks like eggshells and many brave sailors lost their lives. There were said to be mysterious creatures of nature living in the hidden depths of the ocean, some of which sidled crabwise up the beach on moonlit nights to devour anyone foolish enough to be abroad.
The boy, Assipattle, was a dreamer and spent many hours watching the grey seals basking in the sun on the rocks littering the beach below his parent’s cottage at low tide. As a child, he had listened to many legends recounted by his grandfather and although he found them fascinating, he knew they were far too outlandish to be true, and just nodded, while keeping his thoughts to himself when his grandfather told him that even though selkie nymphs were said to discard their skins and come ashore to live with men of the islands, they always returned to the sea.
One bright morning Assipattle sat on the wall above the beach, his legs dangling above the seaweed-strewn sand, waiting for his father and brothers to come down to the boat for a day’s fishing. The sun-dappled sea was still and calm, and the balls of orange and green plastic buoys marking the place where lobster pots lay on the seabed, hardly moved on the surface. A low grumble of sound caught his attention and he looked along the beach to where a huddle of black rocks were left partly exposed by the ebbing tide. A group of seals lay basking in the early sun, their grey coats shining as they ‘talked’ to each other like women in a queue at the Co-op check-out. He jumped down from the wall and walked towards them across the wet sand. Always curious, they turned to face him as he approached, then one by one they slid from the rocks into the sea and soon disappeared. All but one. A young seal stayed on her rock, eyes warily following his progress.
Assipattle picked his way slowly across some slippery clumps of seaweed towards her rock, making sure that she could see him at each step of the way. The ebb tide would shortly leave her high and dry. He hummed softly as he neared her and could soon see why she hadn’t followed her kin into the sea. Her flippers were entangled in a strip of netting caught on a spur of the jutting rock. The strong nylon net must have tightened with each effort she made to free herself. She regarded him, resigned dark eyes pleading as she lay her muzzle on the rock. They eyed each other for long moments until she lifted her head and huffed at him. He called to her softly as he would to an upset child, and sang quietly, as his mother had sung to him when he was a child.
“Having a bit of bother?” he asked.
She stared at him.
“Want a hand?”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
The seal rolled on her side as if to show him where the hurt was, and he saw where the net had cut into her, and that the rock was red with her blood. He took a sheath knife from his pocket, his every move slow and purposeful. Leaning towards her he pulled out the blade, and slid it under the net. For a moment she pulled away from him, fear in her eyes. The net snapped apart as the pressure of the blade cut into the mesh.
“You’ll soon be free,” he said.
As the grip on her body eased she tentatively moved her flippers, testing their new-found freedom but making no attempt to back away from her rescuer.
He moved aside, but still she didn’t shift. He waited patiently for her to ease herself from the rock and slither down to the sea. Still she stayed. The boy thought her struggle against the net as it bit into her, must have exhausted the seal.
“Want a lift?” he asked, his voice low.
Again she huffed.
Gently he slid his hands beneath her body, lifting her until she rested on his strong chest. He carried her the few steps down to the sea and when he was waist deep in the
cold water he lowered his burden. At once she swam away into the deep waters of Scapa Flow.
His mother, Leona, was puzzled when he returned to the croft to change his wet clothes, but asked no questions. Her thoughts went back to a night sixteen years ago.
When Assipattle was born, the midwife had shaken her head and said:
“He’s a bonnie wee lad right enough, but he’s not…” She never finished the sentence, but it hadn’t seemed to matter at the time, and he had grown into a strong and cheerful boy. Though never quite as bright as his two elder brothers and a bit slow with reading, writing and arithmetic at the little village school, that didn’t seem to matter either, for he was kind and gentle and much loved by all the fishermen and crofters on the island.
His quietly- spoken mother, spun wool from her own sheep and knitted soft woollen jumpers for Assipattle’s father, Jonnie, and their three boys to wear under the thick oilskins worn when sailing out into the bay to pull up the lobster pots or heading out to deeper waters to fish. One after the other, Jonnie taught his boys the best place to throw out the nets and to haul them in full of the gleaming silver bounty from the sea.
During the weeks following his rescue of the seal, Assipattle thought much about the
fables he’d heard of the selkies though he knew they were conjured from the minds of story-tellers and had no foundation in truth. But still, a young man could dream… and he did. He called his seal Grace, remembering the poise of her lithe young body as she had disappeared into the sea. He remembered touching her smooth skin and the look she had given him from her coal black eyes before returning to her watery home.
Often when he went out alone to haul in the lobster pots, he noticed one or other of the green and orange buoys danced on the surface as if being tugged from below, and one day when the sun’s reflection was like slivers of a broken mirror on the surface of the sea, he dived beneath the waves. It was as he suspected, Grace, his seal friend, was tugging at the stout cord with the claws at the end of her flippers. As soon as she saw him she swam away, though not so fast that he could not catch up with her. For a while they played hide and seek in the sea like children, until Assipattle remembered what he was supposed to be doing and returned to the boat to pull in the lobster pots before heading home. His meetings with Grace gradually became an almost daily event and the young fisherman soon found he could spend more and more time beneath the waves without having to come to the surface to fill his lungs with cold salty air.
His mother saw that her youngest son had acquired a secret happiness and assumed he had met a lassie when drinking down at the Harbour Inn with his elder brothers, who were both soon to be married.
Then one bitterly cold evening, despite a threatening storm, Jonnie Trenabie and his sons headed their boat out into the phosphorescent waters of the fishing ground. The catch was good and they were well satisfied, but when they turned the boat for home the storm broke. The vessel was buffeted this way and that but she was a sturdy little craft and was soon safe in the lee of the harbour wall when a freak wave swept Assipattle from the deck.
A strong swimmer, he was not alarmed, knowing that he could soon strike out and reach the safety of the beach. But beneath the commotion of the waves Grace was waiting for him. She slipped a warm seal skin round his shoulders, and as the tail of the skin wrapped around his feet, they swam away together back out into deep water.
“The lad seemed to be living in a world of his own before he disappeared,” his father remarked sadly to Leona one evening a few months later.
Leona nodded but she did not reply. In her heart she knew what the midwife had been going to say when she left the sentence unfinished:
“He’s a bonnie wee lad right enough, but he’s not one of us.”
For Leona knew her own great-grandmother had been a selkie who had chosen to stay by the side of her beloved human rather than to return to the sea.
E N D
Linda Lewis’ judging notes
When the National Association of Writers Groups talked about the possibility of running a short story competition to raise some much needed funds, I was very keen to get on board. I’d run my own competitions for the past two years and really enjoyed the process. I don’t think I will ever tire of reading other people’s short stories.
I offered to judge the competition to short list stage and was very pleased when the competition attracted almost two hundred and fifty entries. I read them in batches of ten at a time so that I remained fresh. The standard was so good, I had to be very strict with myself when it came to deciding which entries would be put to one side as possible short list contenders.
The high standard made reading the stories a real pleasure. I couldn’t help feeling sad each time a well written, well structured, generally good story didn’t make the short list because I had no way of letting the writer know how close they had come. If you entered but didn’t come anywhere, that DOES not mean your story wasn’t good, in fact I could imagine several stories that didn’t make the short list being published so don’t give up with your story – try it somewhere else. Judging is, by its very nature, highly subjective. A story that didn’t appeal to me might stand out as brilliant to somebody else. It’s all a matter of taste. I’d been asked to aim for a short list of approximately ten to twelve stories. I ended up with eleven. Those were sent off to the NAWG committee for them to make the final decision.
I was happy with the choices they made as all eleven stories were of a high standard. If it had been up to me, a different story might have taken first prize, but that’s the way it should be. That’s why it’s often useful to have the final decision made by a group of people.
Now for some general comments. I found that some entries were more anecdotal than fiction. It’s hard to explain what I mean in only a few words, but I’ll try. As a rule, stories need some kind of shape or structure. More often than not, that entails linking the ending, in some way at least, to the beginning.
When we’re telling a friend about something that actually happened, we can start anywhere we like but when writing a story, it’s often best to start and end in a similar place or at least with the same character. Also, it’s vital to bear in mind that simply because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will work as a piece of fiction. In life, things just happen and coincidences abound. In stories, events need to happen for a reason that the reader can follow.
Another problem that kept cropping up was a lack of focus. I like to know who the main character or characters are so that I know who I’m meant to empathise with or care about. Several stories began with one person, then changed to a different viewpoint, for no valid reason. This made them feel rather disjointed. Having a theme that runs through a story is another way to give the piece shape. Overall, the standard was high and you should feel proud, however well you did.
I’d like to end by thanking all the people who helped to publicise the competition, and everyone who entered. You helped to make the first NAWG Open Short Story competition a great success.
Sponsored and supported by The Berforts Group,
The First NAWG Open Short Story Competition
Closing Date: October 31st 2011
Full list of Shortlisted entrants and Prizewinners
First Prize: £250
Barbara Smith, Thames Valley Writers Circle – Tilehurst near Reading.
Second Prize: £100
Title:- Pleasure Zone,
Helen Kampfner. Spain.
Third Prize: £50
Title:- Losing Benjy,
Simon Vandervelde, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Title: – Shadow Tree,
Silvia Sbaraini, Canterbury.
Title: - A Wind Like a Bugle,
Janet Killeen, Forest Hill, London.
Title: - Last of the Sand Dragons,
Dan Purdue, Bewdley, Worcestershire.
Title: - The Clown,
Zinaca Nobis, Forest Hill, London.
Title: -Potato Waffles and Syrupy Socks,
Simon Whaley, Church Stretton.
Title: - Beer in Brown Bottles and Cigarettes,
Douglas Bruton, West Linton. Scotland.
Title: - Ripples,
Anne Powell, Hull.
Title: - Out of the Mouths of Babes,
Nicola Clemmit, Whitby, North Yorkshire.
Judging to short list by Linda Lewis – the successful short story writer and Writers Forum columnist. Finalists judged by the NAWG committee.