CWWL, Creative Writing Workshops London, run by Blackbird novelist Diane Chandler and Blackbird editor Stephanie Zia, is proud to announce the winners of the fourth annual writing competition.
by Lucie Wignarajah
by Liz Hagerty
3rd WHATEVER IT IS, I FORGIVE YOU
by Eliza Frayn
Joint 4th I'M STILL TALKING
by Nancy Maillie
Joint 4th WALKING OUT ON RELIGION
by Ann Wood
by Lucie Wignarajah
One for sorrow
A coral geranium sits in a pot on my mother’s windowsill.
The dark peat smells damp and warm, wholesome.
My childhood is rooted there, potted in soil,
in my parent’s hold.
My grandmother’s greenhouse holds various earthenware pots of magic,
Her big garden gloves make me look like a circus clown.
I feel embarrassed, dwarfed, silly. Do you like me Granny?
You don’t smile at me. You look cross.
I water the sweet peas, watching the mud pooling the edges.
I crunch one, popping it in my mouth, sweetness in sadness.
Two for joy
She is wearing a red skirt with a toothpaste white stripe squeezed through it.
Buttoned at the waist,
She starts her ritual,
warms the pot.
I smell home as boiling water meets the leaves.
They swirl and dance around in merry union,
swimming together in the water.
Finding their stillness, they sink into a warm dark bed.
She lifts the red pot and tilts the steaming spout,
There is nothing to fear in this moment.
Three for a girl
My newly washed school uniform hugs the warm padded boiler in anticipation of a new week,
pale pink sheets, flushed as cheeks, warm in the airing cupboard above it.
The smell of pine lingers from a draining Radox bath,
Small green flowers grow up the bedroom wall in a repeating pattern,
We sit on the edge of the white diamond stitched quilt.
I pray my fresh bright blood won’t stain it.
A wood pigeon coos gently outside, overhearing our hushed conversation.
Four for a boy
The day we bring you home it’s snowing, unusual for March.
We’ve been in the hospital together for seven long fragile nights in the intensive care unit.
I’ve wrapped you up in a soft blanket on top of all your layers and little knitted strawberry hat.
I sit next to you in the back seat.
Who switched the lights on in a world that was once dark?
I am suddenly filled with a sense of completeness.
I look out of the car window and see
the paternal high rise on my right,
the maternal red brick terrace on my left,
the flow of the city,
the sweep of the car lights and I’m lifted into the sky briefly.
I would do anything for you,
I look hard at your face.
I see generations of my family,
I think of Grandfather pulling a horse in a field,
Dad tending to a pile of books,
do these hands somehow guide him too?
I see Dad’s eyes looking up at me from his chair in the nursing home,
full of longing.
I can get back to you Dad.
I can see you again Daddy in this new boy.
The sky is the inside of a shell,
pale and soft as your new skin.
We carry you carefully from the car to the house,
like a Ming Vase into an auction.
We’ve been at the hospital for so many days that the pipes have frozen,
they choke and spit out water for our tea.
We sit together on the end of our bed,
you are lying between us.
I just can’t stop looking at you,
holding up your tiny hand which instinctively clutches my finger.
We must have sat like that for an hour,
both of us watching you sleep.
Your round belly rising and falling easily.
I’ll always bring you home.
You need never be alone again.
Five for silver
The silver car door is opened for me
I step out.
It is a relief to leave the interior which smells of tobacco and spearmint and has made me nauseous.
I walk on to the pavement and see the familiar shop window,
large square glass painted with gold letters which spell out my father’s name.
I’m only as tall as the wooden shelves outside which hold the cheaper paperbacks.
Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys.
I look down at my shoes,
red straps across red and white patterned socks.
Behind the glass,
he has displayed rare and antiquarian books,
large volumes of decorative art books
intricately illustrated Victorian children’s editions with gold edged pages.
Along the front of the window,
he has lined up a troupe of mechanical wind-up toys including an original 50s robot which I want to
play with, but never do.
Lights hang in the window like jewels.
Inside the shop,
the ceiling is painted Egyptian blue with a large white Victorian ceiling rose,
corniced around an ornate glass light.
If I look out of the double fronted Victorian building,
I can see the Tyne Bridge cast in black,
an iron monster with its jaws open,
but I am safe here between the rows of books.
I look up at the shelves,
there is a ladder on a runner which is propped against rows of leather-bound volumes of classics.
As a book ages,
the chemical compounds used—
begin to break down.
as they do,
they release volatile compounds—
the source of the smell.
A common smell of old books is a hint of vanilla.
There is no other smell which can take me back to him with such fragile force.
there is a large high-ceilinged room where he wraps and stocks his books,
there is a long table arranged with brown paper,
I stand at the edge of the table and pop a row of bubble wrap,
one bubble at a time.
There’s no other noise in the room,
no other children.
Six for gold
My body has seasons
Yesterday I was in winter
Despite the insistence of this nagging sun
My children wanted to roll up their trousers and walk through the fountain
I wanted to roll down the blinds and fold in
My body is an instrument
Yesterday it played too many chords
Out of time and out of tune
My nerves were screeching violins
We walked around the city looking for a gift your mother,
sugared almonds in pretty pink and virgin white,
six pastel de nate in a box,
golden tops with dark uneven spots like a leopard.
I put one in my mouth, the sweetness of affection.
The cake box is decorated with an illustration -
reminds me of the intricate laced edge of my wedding veil,
what will it take to survive this union?
You look at me expectantly,
I regret my bitter thoughts.
Seven for a secret never to be told
“The seventh child of a seventh child”.
My grandmother Edie attributed this to her savant like ability and profound intuition.
An acute sensitivity to the visual and an affinity for words were striking.
This, and the chinking bottles of booze, have been passed down the familial line.
She was a keeper of secrets and shame.
I have a responsibility to cut the ancestral ribbon of trauma
that wraps around my family and weaves through generations.
The day she died
a cruel snow drift had trapped her in her home.
Alone and isolated,
the feeling was familiar.
I recall that day as exciting,
something to remember.
An adventure: The day we were snowed in.
The day my Mum warmed milk on the stove.
I put my dolls in order of size,
dressing and undressing them.
Granny might visit tomorrow.
The cotton mill behind our house,
a tombstone against the tumbling snow.
The dark hollow quarry hazardously icy.
Not far away in a neighbouring town where the slush was benevolent,
a baker took warm almond tarts from an oven and arranged them in a jolly window display.
My mother paced the floor,
The phone lines dead.
You came into the world like a cork from a bottle.
But I didn’t celebrate with champagne.
All the bottles that glitter behind the bar are not gold.
I’m no longer a magpie chasing a glinting glass.
We used to call you chaffinch.
Bobbing about and chirping sweetly.
I can open your cage and set you free.
I kneel on a prayer box carpeted with a tapestry of mauve,
fawn and mustard yellow and the pattern is left on my bare knees.
I pray for you to be free from the repeating loop-
Like a falcon released.
c. Lucie Wignarajah 2023
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission
by Liz Hagerty
‘Puedo tomar el desayuno?’ he asked at the hotel’s front desk, self-consciously unfamiliar with the language. His bill was paid. His suitcase stored by the bell-boy, ready for that evening’s flight home. Home. London. Stella. But that left him eight hours, almost a day. Plenty of time but, first, breakfast. He was being collected in half an hour. After that, who knows? The temperature was already rising and the fan above his head barely stirred the air.
The receptionist nodded him through a marble archway towards an empty sea of linen-covered tables. Too early for the small gaggle of foreigners staying at the hotel hoping to do business with the new military Junta; too expensive for most locals struggling with 350% inflation. Well, the honest ones.
Three waiters, immaculately white gloved, leapt forward to assist him, only adding to his embarrassment at asking for simple ‘Té y tostadas’. One held his chair, the second laid a hand-towel-sized serviette across his lap, the last elaborately set out too much cutlery and chinking, clinking crockery. His joints stiffened at their presence, all elbows and knees.
How Stella would laugh at the sight of him he thought as he ate. They’d met as university students when his only furniture was a beanbag and a mattress on the floor. She’d bought him two new mugs and an ashtray for his birthday that year. He’d felt awkward then, too. Her with her background. Him with his. But she stayed. And here he was, just five years on, being waited on hand and foot in one of the grandest hotels in South America. How the feck did that happen?
The waiter was scraping crumbs from the tablecloth in front of him with what grimly reminded him of a cut-throat razor, when Pablo arrived. ‘Sam, my friend! We must go. The car’s outside.’ Pablo’s English was perfect, a result of the young Argentine’s expensive public school education in England. He threw an arm around Sam’s shoulders as he guided him across the lobby.
It had been the strangest week, his first big business trip abroad seeking out contacts to lubricate the supply of souvenirs for the next football World Cup. If England made the final, there could be rich pickings. The military takeover had made communications difficult, which is why he was there in person. His firm couldn’t give a fig if Genghis Khan or Stalin was running the country if there was money to be made. But although the work had gone smoothly, he’d started to feel as if he was in some strange hall of mirrors: everything took on a different shape according to where you stood.
He had been treated with enormous courtesy, and his hosts had gone to lengths to set out their ‘English’ credentials. In many ways, Sam reflected, these men were able to appear more English than the English with their love of public schools and polo and private clubs. He even remembered families back home in Ireland like that; his father laboured on their estates.
Still, it was a relief to be able to mention that he was actually Irish without seeing the look in people’s eyes change. London was no longer the place to advertise his origins. Over the past three years, bombings on the mainland had brought anyone with a trace of Irish about them under suspicion. Not of being directly involved, of course, but of unconsciously sympathising. There was a slight stiffening of spines, a hardening around the eyes. Sometimes it was something more obvious, a conversation about bombing suddenly stopping, an insensitively bad joke starting: ‘An Englishman, an Irishman...’ Naturally, no one said anything outright.
Rather like here. In these men’s company you’d never know that the country was emerging from a coup d’état, certainly not what they felt about it. All was shiningly positive. Instead, it was his translator and guide, a sparky young woman nicknamed Concha, who unnerved him over coffees between meetings, with rumours of another, darker side. He’d told her a bit about himself. About Stella. Quite a lot about Stella, as if conjuring her into a third person sitting at the table. About his unexpected success at getting a good job. About how watching out for any ‘unattended bag’ on the London Underground was second nature, in case it was an IRA bomb.
Tiny, dark-eyed, dark-haired Concha had, in turn, told him how most people struggled, buying anything as it came into the shops as it would cost more in the afternoon, then bartering unwanted objects for food. She was working in Buenos Aires, 600 miles from her parents, in order to send money home. Anyone in a uniform just got tougher. There was even talk of young men, students mostly, who were seen going voluntarily into police stations by the front door and who simply didn’t return.
Despite or because of this, away from the meetings, his time with Concha was always a pleasure. She’d even suggested an evening at La Boca, The Mouth, district of Buenos Aires, as ‘something not to miss’. And she was right – bars and musicians crammed brightly painted wooden buildings that were little more than shacks lining dirt streets. After enough beers, Sam decided the dance floor was crowded enough to hide his beginner efforts at the tango. It was, he became aware, quite exciting holding Concha against his body and trying to match the Latin rhythms with some moves that felt vaguely ‘macho’. Eventually, back at the hotel he was tempted to say, ‘Fancy a coffee?’ to continue enjoying the drowsy, heavy, longing of having her close for a little longer. He’d forgotten the pleasurable fantasising that’s triggered by sensing you are attractive to a woman you hardly know.
They’d sat for a moment in the back of the cab, the unspoken question vibrating in the air, until she was the one who decided, kissing him on the cheek and saying: ‘Buenas noches, Irishman’. He felt a boozy mix of disappointment and relief.
It was Concha who the next day brought him Pablo’s invitation, waving away his stumbled apology. Pablo, the youngest son and junior partner of one of the most aristocratic businessmen he’d met, wondered if he had any spare time to spend out of town? Sam might find it interesting. Dress casual.
Sam assumed it was to schmooze him a bit, to improve the terms of the licences, a last-minute deal away from the competition. But it was also, Sam thought, an opportunity for him to see a little more of this curious country and, maybe, be a bit less of an idiot with Concha, so he said yes.
But as they headed to the car, Sam felt spooked as much by the oiled efficiency of therich as Concha’s tales of disappearances. He hoped his curiosity wasn’t about to kill the cat. There was no sign of Concha, just him and Pablo in the back of a curvaceous black car that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the 1940s’ gangster movies his parents used to watch from their sagging sofa.
They snaked smoothly between the brightly coloured buses packed with workers and school children, Pablo pointing out occasional landmarks, the Casa Rosada, on Plaza de Mayo, and the Recoleta Cemetery, its tombs like little marble houses and resting place of the still beloved Eva Peron, until they speeded up out into the countryside. As the sky got bigger, the air began to shimmer in the early December heat. Sam felt that lift in his diaphragm that he always felt when he left a city behind, as if he suddenly had more space to breathe.
The car swept on as the traffic thinned to be replaced by tractors hauling teetering loads of sugar cane, until they too fell away and the land opened up into a seemingly endless, treeless plain. ‘Welcome to the Pampas. From what Concha tells me I think you’ll enjoy it,’ said Pablo. He smiled slightly in Sam’s direction as he mentioned Concha’s name.
The words on the stone arch, through which they eventually turned off the road, read ‘La Galera’ and for the next mile or so they drove along a dirt road until buildings came into sight. Built of warm-pink sandstone, surrounded by pomegranate bushes and a cluster of trees, they melted into the surroundings. A shady verandah so deeply surrounded the house the sun couldn't possibly penetrate to the inner walls except at dawn and sunset. Sam understood why as soon as he climbed out of the car, now turned an even dust grey. The heat was like an extra weight on his shoulders.
Inside in the cool gloom of the house, every surface gleamed. Someone was winning the battle with the dust. A middle-aged man stepped forward with a tray of lemonade and a plate of sugar-dipped frozen grapes. ‘Ah, servants, that’l be it,’ Sam smiled inwardly, and thought of the flat he and Stella were doing up by Wandsworth Common in south London.
How easy it was to accept the hospitality of the rich while maybe sneering a little inside. And to fend off envy by telling yourself yours is the ‘real’ life, the life most people live. But that’s not true either. The life he and Stella lived – a place of their own, a car, friends for dinner and salaried jobs – was already way beyond the imaginations of the kids he’d gone to school with, the kids in hand-me down clothes and an equally handed down disrespect for any adult except maybe their Das with their thick leather belts.
‘Let’s have a drink, talk a little and have some lunch then you might like to take a look around,’ said Pablo.
But it wasn’t the conversation he’d been expecting. ‘Inflation is killing us,’ said the young businessman angrily, as they ate pieces of fall-off-the bone barbecued meat. ‘One government bribes its people by printing money, the next scares them half to death. It’s amazing how people just carry on. But eventually our fine new Government will need a fresh tactic. Probably picking on someone else – nothing like a common enemy to get everyone pulling together. I love Argentina, but which Argentina do I mean? At the turn of the century, just 70 years ago, this was one of the wealthiest, best-educated and fairest countries in the world…’
He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, this is not why I asked you to come. Concha and I wanted you to take home a real Argentine memory. She told me you used to ride?
Used to ride? Suddenly, Sam was swept back to the soft green of Ireland and the small patchwork of fields near the centre of the village where the annual horse fair was held. There was always a few pence to be made on those days, showing off the horses to prospective buyers. He could remember the feel of the warm, round, barrel sides of the horses as he urged them into a reluctant trot or canter, his wellingtons making a slapping sound as he clapped his legs against their ribs. As the hours passed and the pubs kept serving, Sam would use every riding skill he had to make the horses look better. In fact, he’d often end up getting a fat tip from both sides in the deal, one for helping with the sale and the other for revealing such a late ‘bargain’. He’d learned to ride and to sell in that field.
Pablo led the way outside, to two horses tacked up with Spanish saddles and bridles. He nodded at Sam’s jeans and shoes, ‘Do you need to borrow some clothes?’
After bare legs and turned-down wellies? ‘No, thanks, I’ll be fine.’
They both swung up into the saddles, the stirrups set long so their legs were almost straight, Western style. ‘You’ll be fine on Arco, he’s been working the cattle all his life and knows the ropes – and the way home!’
Sam gathered up the reins in his left hand and felt the horse tense under him, taking its weight back ready for action. He leaned slightly, away from the veranda, and Arco moved a step with him. This was going to be a dream. Over the next three hours they rode across the Pampas, Pablo pointing out the extent of the estancia, to the river in one direction, a line of far distant trees and some buildings in the other. Riding Arco made Sam feel like a centaur. At times it felt as if he only had to think left or right and the horse reacted. With the surest of steps Arco missed the jagged open cracks in the dried earth and barely twitched an ear when the occasional armadillo scurried out of their way like a giant, pointy-nosed woodlouse. Home? thought Sam, as Arco skimmed the earth, this is what feeling at home is like.
Eventually they joined some workmen – a few, with weathered and deep-brown faces, bare feet and wearing broad, flat-brimmed hats, were like sepia pictures of the past – who were moving one of the cattle herds back towards the ranch. Occasionally someone would have to haul his horse back onto its haunches, to turn on its heels and leap after an escaping steer. No wonder Argentina produced the best polo ponies.
‘These men are not just our employees,’ explained Pablo. ‘Each of them owns a parcel of land. Otherwise, what would they do if they were unable to work? Live on hand-outs in Buenos Aires? That would destroy their souls. The original gauchos, the indigenous people, believed people’s roots go into the ground like any other plant and creature on earth. Nothing survives without that connection.
‘Anyway, bit by bit we on Galera are giving back land to the community. My grandfather started it. Maybe it will stop the countryside emptying its guts into the city. I’m hoping Concha will bring her family here, but she’s frightened that things will turn badly for her brothers if she does. So far, the Junta hasn’t caught on to what we’re doing, they’d call it subversive. Not quite cricket, as the English say. It’s either that or they think my family could be valuable to them.’
Nothing, nothing is at it seems, thought Sam. I’ve been here for five days and the world feels as unreal and fragile as sugar glass: a massive pretence of normality that we all join in.
Their return the house dragged his thoughts back to a more real reality, time: ‘I need to pick up my case from the hotel and get to the airport.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Pablo. ‘I’ll call Concha to get it and meet you there.’ They said goodbye at the car. ‘Hopefully see you at the World Cup,’ said Pablo. ‘Maybe football is the answer to the world’s ills, hermano.’
At the airport Sam barely had time to give Concha a hug of thanks, with its fleeting muscle memory of a moment of frisson and a deeper, sadder sense of the worries she carried. Soon his Aerolineas Argentinas flight had settled into its steady, sleep-inducing 13-hour hum towards Madrid and an early morning British Airways connection to Heathrow.
The moment he stepped out of Arrivals it was if he was breathing with another person’s lungs. From sun and wealth and struggle, big open spaces and cool marble, and warm hearts laced with cold fear, the plane had skidded down into a slushily grey December morning, the rush-hour cars’ lights making gleaming, wriggling lines of white and red on the wet roads into the city. Orderly cogs in a still apparently functional machine. Same world?
Stella was there to greet him, so familiar and strangely unfamiliar. As they kissed she suddenly sniffed and tilted her head back quizzically: ‘Horses? You got to ride again?’ However he tried to explain the way he’d felt a few hours previously wouldn't capture it: centred, alive, struck with awe, knowing the very things that made him, and people like him, fulfilled were what others wanted to trample. In the car Stella chatted about seeing a friend, a problem with a bill, a leaving do at work. No bad news; so little had changed in so few days apart.
At the flat he noticed the smell of fresh paint, the extra tidiness that comes from one person using a space rather than two. He felt as if he was struggling not to be aware of the surface of his skin, as if it was meeting new textures for the first time.
He put the suitcase on his, totally undisturbed, side of the bed and clicked it open to find the gifts he’d bought. A giant ostrich feather duster beautiful enough to adorn a Biba window, a string of pottery beads and an LP of tango music.
Stella stood beside him appreciating each of the gifts, turning them over in her hands, and then they both looked down at a last parcel, simply wrapped in a few sheets of the Buenos Aires Herald dated two days previously. His heart skipped, he didn’t recognise it. It weighed heavily in his hand. ‘Go on, what is it?’ prompted Stella. Slowly he pulled open the paper until lying in his hand was a piece of beautifully carved, moss-green onyx. Following the grain and shades of the translucent stone, he could see a waving mane, pricked ears and flared nostrils and leaning low on the horse’s shoulder a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat. In one hand he powerfully held the reins, while in the other swung three bolas, the gauchos’ famous tool of the cowboy trade. Concha must have slipped it into his bag when she brought it to the airport. And he knew what it meant. ‘It’s a souvenir from the Argentine soil,’ he improvised. ‘It’s to remind us to remember who we really are.’
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.
I’m Still Talking
by Nancy Maillie
The next act is about to begin. The curtains open to a small room behind an unremarkable door, of an unremarkable terrace house on an unremarkable street in Salford. Four of the cast are in view, the presence of the other two members apparent by the booming male voice and the responses of a lesser female vocal, both out of view but very present. The tension in the air is immediately apparent although it’s not known yet that the lives of the four children are about to drastically change. Little did they know that they would never again experience life how it had been. Or that, despite the constant fear and unpredictability that had been life as they had known it so far, the familiarity of that was so much more acceptable than what was about to come. Not one person caught up in that drama on that fateful day could have had any idea of the life that was about to be.
The scene playing out, was not unfamiliar. The cast of young children, centre stage, in front of the drab sofa that stretched from the door at the bottom of the stairs, across the room to the front door of the house. The simple sofa that would become indelibly imprinted on a young brain for many years to come. The younger two children were trying to occupy themselves, despite the shouting. The older two in a state of panic, as they hovered around the door to the stairs, knowing all too well that this scene could have an unfavourable outcome.
Then, the shouting stopped. An unfamiliar sequence of loud noises. Followed momentarily by silence. Was it over or was this just an interlude?
It turned out it was more than that, something very different was in the air. The door opened and the figure of a heavily pregnant women stumbled through, her hair dishevelled and her face flushed red. She reached out to gain some stability, leaning on the back of that drab sofa that until now had stood insignificant, just there, non- descript and unimportant. Now, it had become her support as she tried desperately to stand, despite the obvious impact of her flight from the landing to the ground floor. But it wasn’t support enough and her body slumped behind it as she plummeted out of sight. No longer a support, that ineffective sofa was now a barrier, a barrier that would never be overcome.
From that moment a darkness filled the room, broken only by weak streaks of sunlight fighting their way in, as if a spotlight for the dust particles dancing around in the air, trying to distract attention away from the tragedy unfolding in this ill -written drama called life.
Regardless of this being a long running drama, with each character having a familiar role to play, no-one expected that this scene, on this day, would end quite how it did. No one expected the twist in the plot that this drunken aggressive onslaught from the leading man, would end with the leading lady being written out of the play. A truly tragic scene that not only stole her life but also stole the life of the unborn child that she carried, and the innocence of all four children, unwilling witnesses to this ‘domestic incident’.
From that moment, in some way, a part of everyone in that room, playing out that scene, died. Tickets were bought for a rollercoaster ride, seats allocated with no option of refusal and no stopping however loud the screams. Nothing would ever truly make sense again.
Sadly, this was not a scene written as part of a gripping drama. This was in fact our life. I was halfway through my second year of existence and about to become part of a system that never truly saw me or knew me. I became a number, a file, a part of a caseload. An insignificant file that was easily passed over and forgotten. I spent the next five years not belonging anywhere. Dad’s love affair with alcohol saw us in and out of foster placements, left with family members or neighbours or home alone to fend for ourselves. Picked up and dropped, dependent on his inclination or desire to play the father role.
My age and impaired ability to process the events of Mum’s death meant that for the best part of my childhood, the cognitive narrative given to me of her death, never really resonated. They were words that I knew but never really accepted. I carried the vivid memory of that day, in that room, with that sofa and the confusion of the sudden loss, however, spent years stuck in denial and disbelief.
Until that is, I finally received details of her burial site. Information handed to me on a street corner, by my then social worker along with the information of Dad’s arrest and subsequent acquittal in connection to causing her demise. Up to that day I had spent twelve years searching faces in the crowds in the hopes that she would be there, searching for me, and on seeing me she would gather me up in her arms and claim me and I would finally wake up from this nightmare that had become my life.
My tiny body froze right there.
My legs motionless and still.
Like my whole body had ceased to work.
Except my ears. Attuned to the angry drill.
It was a noise often heard within these walls.
A 'normal' day I suppose.
And I had learnt by now, when anger lurks.
Comply. Do not oppose.
Even when the door flew wide.
And my saviour staggered through.
And my every fibre wanted in her arms.
Nothing would my body do.
As I watched her collapse to the floor.
Both our bodies left that world.
But when the little girl returned again.
Into chaos she was hurled.
And so began the fair ride.
Rollercoaster here I come.
Torn from all I knew as norm.
To borrow home, after home, after home.
In my years of training to work therapeutically with children from a background of trauma, I had to take the journey through my own trauma. This part of my story, making sense of it and coming to terms with it I think was for me the hardest. During that work I came to the realisation that if I allowed myself to grieve, I was also accepting that she was gone and giving up on the hope that she would one day be back to claim me. Which felt, for my abandoned little girl, who at that point I hadn’t truly discovered, like losing her all over again.
Something broke the day I lost you.
Something fragile deep inside.
I searched endlessly to find you.
A prize each day denied.
My whole world became dismantled.
I became no one overnight.
Our heartbeats once connected.
Now forever out of sight.
You gifted me with my first breath.
You held my dreams within your hands.
My life ended when I lost you.
And no one understands.
The years that followed Mum’s death were filled with unpredictability, fear, chaos, and abandonment. We moved from the unremarkable little terrace house to an equally unremarkable maisonette. If I close my eyes, I can still see the little yellow Formica table pushed up against the wall in the tiny kitchen, surrounded by the four mid-century modern chairs. I remember the half net curtain at the window next to the sink and the thick stench of cigarette smoke that was part of the décor and part of Dads presence.
One of my few positive memories of Dad being around was centred around this very table. The day when he had made us boiled egg and ‘soldiers’ and he was laughing with my brother about me calling them ‘sholdiers’.
The eldest of Mums children didn’t move with us, she was instead taken in by my mother’s older sister and her family. I learnt in later years, from my uncle, that a verbal deal had been struck between my Aunty and my Mother. The deal was that should anything happen to my Mother, my Aunty would promise to take the eldest sibling in. I remember the great sadness I felt when I heard that, thinking about how much fear my Mother must have lived with. Almost as if she had received a death sentence and was planning for after what felt like an anticipated almost inevitable outcome.
After Mums death, Dad was arrested on suspicion of causing the ‘domestic incident’, and the promise was honoured. We three younger members of the cast were shipped off to a convent in Liverpool, only to be returned two weeks later to the care of the man suspected of causing the violent demise of our safety net. Back to the charge of a man who could barely take care of himself.
For the next scene in this farcical play, the curtains rise to three young children sat around a table in a café, empty plates before them. The two younger toddlers seemingly being watched over by their slightly older sibling, whilst the café owner looked on with growing concern. It had been some time since the smartly dressed man, well presented in his suit and tie and his crisp white shirt, whom she assumed was the caretaker of these stray children, had bought them food and then left. It had been so long in fact that, as the night began to draw in, questions of whether anyone was, in fact, going to return to collect these little packages, were hanging in the air.
Eventually the door opened, and a man walked in. He first approached the café owner, engaged in a muffled conversation, both looking over to the children then back at each other, eventually taking the action he had been called there to do. A very kindly man, in an equally smart but very different suit and riding in a blue and white carriage. He was in fact responding to a call from the concerned café owner who was waiting to close shop, coming to transport these three unwanted strays to the police station. Exit stage left as the curtains drops on the three being ushered out into the waiting car, and all involved hoping that whoever is writing this sorry tale has written in a happy twist.
A quick change of scenery and the curtain again rises. The audience is invited to look in on the events unfolding in the police station. The smart suited caretaker has been located and brought to be reunited with his children. The youngest has clambered onto his knee and muttered “mucky beer again” whilst notes were being written on how ‘clean and well fed’ the children appeared although duly noting that the youngest had a head that was infested with lice. Despite protesting in his inebriated state that he was unable to cope and wanted the children to be taken into care, the decision was made that they should all return to the ‘safety’ of their home. For now, at least.
At this point it would have been approximately three months after Mums death, a little while before I entered my third year of experiencing this unenviable journey through life. Dad’s pattern of parenthood started to take root, and a dance of ‘Shall I shan’t I, Can I can’t I’ ensued. A dance that lasted for the next four years. Dad was the only one who knew the steps, we just fumbled our way through hoping we got somewhere, somehow and we might reach that place relatively unscathed.
Before we saw this year out, we had experienced two temporary foster placements with the three of us still being together in at least one of them. The first has no pleasant memories and if it taught me anything it was that relationship with adults in the role of carer, was more threatening than being left alone. My brother was physically admonished within the first couple of hours for his actions of showing how brave and daring he was; our bedroom had a locked door (something that became a running theme in later placements), physical punishment for childhood behaviours was a regular occurrence and if one was being punished the other children in the house were lined up to watch. A visit from a social worker resulted in an entry on our files that highlighted concerns that I appeared afraid to talk, the female carer didn’t leave us alone with her. Apparently when I did talk, it shed light on the fact that I had seemingly taken on the responsibility for my Dads wellbeing and for managing his drinking and consumption of medicines. After three months, we returned to his care, now armed with the knowledge that adults truly are uncaring and threatening.
At a later point the second eldest sibling, not Dad’s child, was also taken to become a part of my Aunt’s little family unit, leaving my brother and myself to continue the journey with Dad. For years as a child, I really struggled with the ‘Why’ of life. Why did it have to be my Mum that died? If Mum had to die, why did we have to have the Dad that we did, why couldn’t we have had a good one? Why didn’t any of the family want us? Why wasn’t I enough? Why wasn’t I loved? Why did we have to keep moving? Why didn’t anyone care? In time I came to the belief; it was because of me. I wasn’t worthy of love. I just wasn’t enough.
c. Nancy Maillie 2023
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission
Walking Out On Religion
by Ann Wood
I’d given B my best spaniel eyes, “Shall we go and see the Pope in Heaton Park, first ever Pope to visit Britain and all that?” Forms of entertainment on our dates usually featured music concerts, so I acknowledged his somewhat confused brow. “We’d spend a night together under the stars…” I said, eagerly awaiting a response.
Sold! to the naive teenage boy in the glasses.
The things we do for love, eh?
The next big ask was getting this plan approved by Dad. I was just shy of turning 15 and couldn’t quite believe Dad agreed to let me stay out all night with my first boyfriend. He didn’t even utter his usual “Don’t bring any trouble home” mantra as I left the house. Maybe he figured we couldn’t get up to much in the company of 250,000 worshippers with celestial parents looking on.
* * *
B and I had both done time in the House of God and I was still being made to enter. B had been raised a catholic and had attended a catholic school but lapsed immediately after starting at art college. I was a mashup of Methodist and Church of England, who wore a tiny silver crucifix and had a fascination for the Turin Shroud. I also loved the whole theatre of religion, its unfathomable rituals and grisly iconography. One image that influenced my early years was a poster-sized print of The Broad and Narrow Way, hung in a heavy set, wooden frame at the top of the stairs. Its title is a quote from a verse in the gospel of Matthew and our copy was claimed by my mum from her former home after my maternal grandmother died. I remember there was some foxing at the edges and it looked well-travelled and its original owner must have paid quite a sum for the frame. There was a paragraph of italicised text about the artist at the bottom and have since learned it is German in origin from the late 1800s. The image depicts a forked road, with each path divided by a rocky gorge, with the left, wider and more ambling and the right with steeper, narrow ascents. Only two wooden bridges allow freedom of access to join or leave either path as they wend their way up the picture to the unmistakeable final destinations of Heaven and Hell, detailed at the top. This illustrated map is littered with moral symbolism and biblical annotations. I looked up a few as a child but soon lost interest, as the words meant nothing to me. However, I loved the green of the dramatic landscape and use of blue within the picture and was attracted to the symbols of the rainbow and the watchful, triangular eye in the centre, between trumpeting angels and Armageddon. Looking back, it is clear why as a teen, I preferred posters for my bedroom wall by surrealist Salvador Dali and science fiction/fantasy artists like HR Geiger and Rodney Matthews, over ones of the latest pop-singer heart throbs. As a child, I sometimes mulled over which of the paths people were on. My parents for example, were both regular Church goers so could be on the steeper path, yet they both loved the theatre, music and TV and radio shows not to mention the odd glass of homemade wine. Theatrical entertainment and drinking were both clearly portrayed on the broader path so did that mean they were hell-bound? I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the initial discussion around the prospect of bringing this beast into the house. Not only did Mum want to keep it but it ended up being displayed blatantly on the wall visitors approached and had to pass to use the bathroom. The ‘little room’ was next door, marked by a porcelain tile on the door, painted with roses and the words “Yer Tis”. The sign originated from a giftshop on a family holiday to the West Country and appealed to my parents’ cheeky sense of humour. Mum came from a family of practical jokers and had an impressive back-catalogue of antics, one being making a sandwich for an unsuspecting farm visitor using beautifully sliced up pieces of soap instead of cheese. Then as a young adult, she used to escape through the bedroom window to go dancing in the nearby village.
As the picture was put in place, I tried to read my parents’ thoughts. I sensed some derision in their tones around the stark choice between “Way of Perdition” and “Way of Salvation.” I also never fully understood their wry smiles over the Sunday Train, which was pictured just below Hell. Their behaviour could be classed as devilish and unchristian by some, so with fresh eyes on the evidence, I can only conclude the picture hung there with a big dose of irony. I know my Dad had no desire to keep it after mum died in 1979 and it then disappeared from our lives.
After my brother went to university in 1981, my deep conversations with Dad began and one day I said, “Why do we have to go to Church?"
He replied without hesitation, “There is something [special] about being part of a large group or congregation.”
I listened and tried to marry up this response with understanding random messages on noticeboards outside churches at the time, claiming ‘He is risen’ or ‘He is coming’. I used to get mildly triggered by the weird use of grammar or else my inner voice would pipe up wanting answers to the questions, “Is he, if so where, when and how?”
Dad’s rationale for attending church irritated me as it made no sense. In fact, it made me more frustrated at the prospect of having to go, especially as my older brother was living away and free of this chore. However, although Dad’s no longer around for me to confirm my theory, I think I get it now. I think back at the number of Dad’s police colleagues who popped in for a brew and a chat at our house. The house was filled with their huge, uniformed presence and the vaguely medical smell of the Police Station. Helmets were casually left in the hallway while the sounds of deep voices and crackling radios escaped from the front room. I remember Dad saying it was often hard to make friends outside the police, so maybe the church was another safe social activity for him, where he would be accepted. It was also an opportunity to express himself through singing, something he had loved doing as a choirboy growing up.
In contrast, mum’s side were more towards the Cromwellian variety of church goers. Aside from the Methodist decree of abstinence from alcohol, her parents banned singing on Sunday, except of course in chapel services, which had to be attended in both the morning and evening. All things considered, being the product of a parenting style falling firmly between the law abiding Thin Blue Line and piety, I would not be out of place at the Pope’s gig and could do guilt as well as anyone else.
So in the late afternoon on a balmy, spring bank holiday in 1982, B and I started on our journey to Heaton Park and entered through the iron gates, unhindered by ticket touts and the now ever-present security checks and beeping QR codes. We were soon soaking up the festival vibe, making our way through all demographics of humanity, who were milling about chatting and laughing in the sunshine. We were some distance from the action but it was easy to make out what resembled a giant, white petrol station styled forecourt rising high above the crowd, accessible by three impressive flights of white steps. Had we been allowed to venture further forward, we’d have seen these staircases were flanked with beds of white, scented flowers and trestle tables covered in crisp white linen. Beyond these were line upon line of chairs for hundreds of random ecumenical personnel, protected by a significant police presence. Tomorrow groups of priests in black robes and nuns in grey veils would eagerly head towards their seats like imprinted goslings drawn towards their mother.
There were surprisingly few tents and most of the crowd sat on patterned, picnic blankets laden with flasks and Tupperware containers, bulging with freshly made sandwiches. We gingerly tottered our way through smiley family groups busily establishing their territory before we settled down on our anoraks to talk idly about the event, the meaning of life and take in our first taste of freedom away from parents. By the time a pink sunset gave way to a clear indigo sky, we had finished up all our meagre supplies. It was at this point, the cool grass and moist air began a stealth campaign to extract the heat from our bodies. We snuggled in close as voices in the darkness became reduced to near whispers and yet, all I could hear was my own inner voice shouting, “WHY THE HELL DID I NOT THINK TO BRING A BLANKET, MORE FOOD, MONEY, TOILET ROLL, EVEN A BOOK!”
During the night we made one journey, staggering through the darkness to find a toilet and then alternated between sleeping and clock-watching before dawn finally broke on a night of a thousand yawns. I stood up to take a photo and pressed fingertips hard into my left eyebrow, in a feeble attempt to snuff out the flicker of a migraine. Filled with gratitude for the warmth of the morning, which started to coax blood gently back into my extremities as I stretched and shook out the stiffness from muscles and joints.
Others who had survived the night were up and about and we began to tune into nearby conversations about stage times and a possible setlist. At around 8 AM, the roar of a helicopter alerted the crowd to start cheering and screaming as if the Beatles had reformed. Thousands of small souvenir flags with Vatican insignia were waved enthusiastically as the bespoke, open topped, white Leyland truck, eased its way towards the stage.
“Thank God for that,” I say.
B grinned back but any attempt to soften my face was by now futile.
We watched as figures, dressed head to toe in white, began amassing on the podium like gods on Mount Olympus. I could see the white cassock, short shoulder cape and skull cap, as the main man gestured with open hands to the adoring crowd, his arms outstretched. I took out my camera again.
Accessorised now with mitre and crosier, Pope John Paul II began to speak and the crowd quickly fell silent. As his words rang out through the impressive PA system, I looked around at the people gathered and sensed the love in the room. After about 15 mins, I started to grow fidgety and stare evermore downward, finding an interest in my feet as they pawed at the grass.
Another 20 or so minutes passed so I turned to B and said, “I’m starving, shall we go?”
He nodded and we grabbed our stuff, respectfully making our way to the exit in silence, passing by fixed stares and clutched rosaries.
I have no regrets about going to see the Pope that day and later recorded the occasion as ‘JPII’ in white thread, among the many band names on my embroidered jeans. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience, maybe I was simply trying to do something my dead mother would have endorsed. Having said that, she may have disapproved. Her family with its blend of harsh Methodist and Victorian values, were suspicious of Catholicism and disdainfully referred to her older brother’s union with his Roman Catholic wife as a “mixed marriage.”
Maybe I expected to gain a kind of spiritual awakening but it felt just like every other church service I had attended, where I felt nothing and passed the time miming hymn lyrics in the wrong order. Another nail in the coffin of religious identity came when Dad passed away less than 10 years later. It was probably shortly after that when I decided not to associate with any form of religion at all. My love of art has however taken me into many churches and art galleries to appreciate stunning architecture and religious paintings. I have even recently bought a 1000-piece jigsaw of The Broad and Narrow Way so I can study its composition in more detail. I regard it now with a strange affection and even though aspects of my lifestyle, like an appreciation of music and theatre, sit more on its broader path, I’m indifferent to its polarised message and biblical references. Although I would argue there should be a handrail of nuance situated somewhere in the middle ground as there should be in other modern ideologies like politics and gender.
My own family had an initial look of confusion bordering on concern and worry that I had lost my mind when they saw the jigsaw but they have now accepted its back story. My daughter knows the picture is part of her family history and her mother’s and possibly grandmother’s macabre interest in religious art. However, she inwardly despairs of her parents’ papal regard. She recently became aware that in 1987, five years’ after my visit to Heaton Park, her Dad attended a specially organised event in Rome and within 20 minutes, had walked out on the very same Pope.
c. Ann Wood 2023
All rights reserved. No part to be reproduced without permission
Thanks to all who shared their stories with us, we thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Entries are always anonymous until the final arguments between the judges are over and the winners chosen. As writers ourselves, we are always intrigued and amazed at how subjective the process really is. The 'It's just one opinion' line that is part of most rejection letters, really is only that.
With much thanks to this year's guest judge, Wilma Ferguson and administrator Maddie Chandler.
There will be another competition and party in the summer of 2024. Open only to the students and ex-students of CWWL. For more information, and details of October 2023 workshops in Chiswick, London W4, please see the Creative Writing Workshops London website.