The third Crediton Short Story Competition was on the theme of
Alex Reece Abbott on using her 2017 prize
Like many children around the world, I grew up reading stories about Tarka the Otter (first published over ninety years ago, in 1927), so when I won the Crediton Short Story Prizeand a stay at the Lamb Inn in Sandford, I was thrilled to be coming to Devon. Appropriately enough, my story Entanglement, is all about creeks and foraging and fishing and memories.
Alex and Nick looking over The Lamb plans
The journey here [Sandford, Devon, March 2018] was an epic in itself – sub-zero all the way, frozen screen-wash, rain, sleet and snow. And a lot of ice. Roads closed, many cars broken down or abandoned on the roadsides, some crashed. A thick frosting of snow made the road-signs unreadable, and navigation became a case of sat-nav and blind instinct.
As I crossed the threshold of the Inn’s “warm bar” (complete with blazing log fire), I knew the trek had been worth it. I also realised that I’ve never stayed in a pub before, let alone a classic sixteenth-century coaching inn. Without getting all grockle on you, this place was serving pints two centuries before James Cook even hit the shores of my native New Zealand. Yes readers, my gob was smacked.
What an appropriate prize for a writer – I always find hotels and new locations inspiring. The Lamb Inn is atmospheric, welcoming, the best pub in Devon, ranking high on Sawday’s coveted charts and a community gastropub, serving local produce, beers and ciders – even a local brew called Otter. And, of course, the Inn is oozing stories and characters on both sides of the bar.
Big thanks to the Crediton Town Team who organise the competition, and Nick and Nat and the Lamb Inn team for their great hospitality and such a relaxing stay. And to Dave, for a classy cheese-board (paired perfectly with an Otter ale) and the world’s best rhubarb crème brulee.
It’s been an otterly inspiring experience.
Entanglement to be published in Riptide Journal 2018 (editor: Sally Flint)
More at www.alexreeceabbott.info or on Twitter @AlexReeceAbbott
2017 Competition Winners
WINNER: Entanglement by Alex Reece Abbott
Take the rackety, diesel train with your grandmother one overcast morning, after the rush-hour, when the tickets are cheap.
Get off in the boonies, and walk with her to a place she remembers from you don’t know when.
Listen to her explain why the weather is just right, how sun will drive them to shelter, how they choose only the cleanest places to live.
Swing her flax kete: sandwiches, two chunks of her dark Christmas cake, orange cordial, an old tea-towel, her line and spare fish-hooks, her favourite knife – sharpened for the occasion and wrapped in yesterday’s news – and an old jam jar stuffed with leathery pig liver, green from rotting in the warm spring for a couple of days.
Follow her. Through bracken and blackberries, down a narrow dirt track she knows. Come out at the edge of creek that you didn’t know existed.
A roving hunter and survivor of the Great Depression, she is always surveying, always gauging the potential yield of any fruit tree, any bramble, any body of water.
She nods. The dappled creek is flowing at just the right speed. Smooth stones nearby will do for your seats. She fossicks around the Creekside and comes back with a stout branch, from a storm-damaged, drooping ngaio.
“I’ve seen them take a duckling, quick as you like. Very intelligent,” she says. “Good at hiding. Under logs, along the riverbank, under boulders. They come out at night, mostly.”
Something so secretive, so stealthy and nocturnal only makes you more curious.
She reaches into her kete and passes you a brand new, hand-line. All yours, your prize for being grown-up-enough. A big girl. She warns you about entanglement, then shows you how to double-thread a chunk of the stinking, slimy liver onto your hook.
“Eels are strong and cunning and greedy, but they hunt by smell.” She winks. “This’ll bring ’em out alright.”
She is already settled on her rock, stick at her feet, her tough nylon line slicing the creek. “Eels hear everything,” she murmurs.
Wonder, why she would want to hunt and kill a creature she so clearly respects.
Sit still and quiet, determined that you will not put them off.
Gawp as they come, swarming and writhing for the stinking liver.
Know from her smile that she loves their fight.
You want to thank them. Reward them for coming so fast, for putting on a show. For being so strong.
Then one takes your grandmother’s bait.
Hunter turns hunted.
“Eh tuna, come here, you greedy so-and-so,” she says, completely calm.
Pray to the god of eels: snag her line on tree roots and reeds, slink beneath a safe boulder, make her give up now.
But, the eel does not know your grandmother. Bare feet wide apart, she stands, holding fast, strong and stubborn, guiding her prey away from any safe haven. Lets him fight on, thrashing until he tires into a feisty, fake performance that slows to a real, deep fatigue. He knows now: he cannot win.
With a flick of her arm, she hoists the exhausted eel from the water. The moment he lands beside you on the moist bank, he’s slithering and writhing towards the water, keen to make it home, keen to survive.
“See how strong he is? He’s brave, plenty of fight, eh tuna.” She examines him tenderly, then holds open his big mouth. “Look.”
Rows of small, sharp, white teeth make an arrow shape on his gaping upper jaw.
“Careful, those teeth are sharp as razors – he’ll have your hand off.”
Step back, nervous, bewitched, your eyes fixed on that slippery, beautiful monster.
Shiver. Tell her it’s because you’re standing in the shade.
“He’s a good one, alright. Look at that fat, silver belly. They can travel for miles on land.” The eel hears her and flicks his escape. “Quick, get me my ngaio stick.”
You obey, and she snatches it from your hand.
One hard hit on the tail-end. The eel stills. She points her stick. “Stunned him. Nerve endings there. No pain now.”
As you doubt this, she stabs him once at the back of his head with her sharp knife and swiftly finishes the job. She slits straight along the centre of his taut belly, and guts him.
Clucking her tongue, because he’s swallowed her bait, she retrieves her barbed silver hook from his gaping mouth, then washes it clean in the creek. She wraps her catch tight in a couple of dampened pages from the Courier.
Place the parcel in the shade.
She straightens her silver fish-hook, bent from the force of the eel’s last fight.
Proud and sick, accidentally catch an eel. Wonder whether the two fish are related.
She helps you land him on the muddy bank. He’s over a foot longer than her eel.
“Big,” she grunts. “Takes them a long time to grow that size.”
Your fish receives the same gentle, yet brutally effective despatch. Whistling, she threads a strip of flax though the gills of each eel, then knots it, a string for a slimy necklace.
“Plenty for us. Never take more than you need.” She winds up her line.
“Don’t turn your nose up, the other eels will get a good feed now,” she says, flicking all the innards back into the creek with her killing stick.
Ugh. Smart, sneaky, slimy, nocturnal, amphibious … and cannibals.
“What about the skin?” you say.
She shakes her head and puts the stick back under the ngaio tree. “The skin and the slime keep them fresh.”
Pack up, everything – even your rubbish – into in her big, battered kete. Put the wrapped eels on top, so they don’t bruise.
Turn for a last look.
It’s as if you were never there.
Take the rackety train home before the rush-hour, when the tickets are cheap, knowing the smell of diesel fumes will always remind you of this day.
Silently recite all the steps when catching an eel. Not listed in Every Girl’s Handbook but if you can remember them, you know that you can survive anywhere in the world.
Arrive home, neighbours spying and prying, wondering what you’ve been up to now.
Boil the water. Let the tea brew in the pot. Find her favourite cup, then add milk and pour till it turns the colour of rust.
See her rinse the serpents in her stainless steel kitchen-sink.
Touch the clean, shining eel-skin, feel fine sandpaper.
Stand back and watch her expertly peel off their coats like a couple of black socks.
Feel the thud of her sharpest knife, reducing the eels to white medallions on the thick, wooden chopping board.
Dust the flesh in pepper-speckled flour.
Hear the butter sizzling and bronzing, smelling sweet and nutty in the pan.
Set the table.
Eat the golden steaks with salt and lemon juice.
Chew with your eyes closed. They taste good. Really, they could just be any fish. Not the ones you saw a couple of hours ago, alive and swimming, wide-mouths grinning at you.
Then fighting for their lives. But now you’ve thought it, you can’t send that picture back to your memory bank.
Open one eye, see how happy she is that you’ve had this day together, and come home with a catch.
Understand, years later, when she is gone and most of the eels are gone too.
More than fishing for a good, free feed, she was hunting echoes of her past; sharing memories, making them fresh – journeys with other people, her own Maori childhood in the backblocks, where she first learned to fish. She was feasting on memories.
You haven’t fished for many moons. Proud and embarrassed that you cannot manage the killing.
Realise that where-ever you are, her lifelong gift reverberates; the memory she made for you of a good days eeling, entangled with her enduring sense of possibility.
Pass that wide, tidal, history-ridden river near your house.
Be seven again.
Wonder, what lurks in that muddy water, and what you might catch, if you were just to …
Second: The Apple and the Tree by Mary Sheehan
I had lots of questions.
The most trivial one was about that extra key on Dad’s keyring with the number 105 engraved into it… what did it open?
The other small question that niggled at me was… why was Dad on Wakefield Street on that fatal day? He had no obvious business there. It niggled because if he hadn’t been walking on that street at exactly that time he wouldn’t have been hit by the bus whose brakes suddenly failed.
Those were the trivial questions that echoed around my head when I wasn’t trying to frame the big ones… where had Dad’s life savings of upwards of a quarter of a million Euros disappeared to and how on earth was I to get back to a normal life when I missed him so much?
I’d sleepwalked through the weeks since his death. I got the twins up and out to school and sometimes they even got breakfast. I washed clothes when all of the clean ones ran out, but couldn’t summon the energy to iron them. My days were spent at Mam’s house and each evening I’d hug her goodbye and grab some ready meals or a takeaway on the way home. Kevin took over helping the twins with their homework and reading them their bedtime stories. He ate the ‘on the go’ food on the go and had his tea black when there was no milk in the fridge and he did it without complaint or fuss. He didn’t ask me when I was going back to work, even though I knew that the bills must be mounting up. From the back of my mind I felt an ocean of love for him that somehow couldn’t trickle past the mountain of grief that overwhelmed me.
Then I found something!
A few weeks after the funeral, I was sorting through Dad’s correspondence. Mam’s dyslexia and almost pathological distaste for paperwork had meant that Dad had dealt with all of their financial affairs; he’d even become an expert at copying her signature rather than disturb her. I was idly looking through Dad’s leather bound address book when I found the possible answers to two of the questions that had been plaguing me. Slipped between the addresses of Jonathon Sacks of Malahide and Kathleen Sullivan from Bray was an entry with a significant address… Apt 105, 10 Wakefield Street!!!
I dropped the book like it had bit me. Several deep breaths later enabled me to look at the address book again. There was no name attached to the address just the letter S. Now that wasn’t a mistake that the name had been omitted! Dad didn’t make those kinds of mistakes. Who the hell was S and why on earth had Dad wanted to keep his or her name a secret? I couldn’t let on to Mam about what I’d found, she’d had too many shocks recently. I’d have to look into this alone.
Maybe the answer to the missing money would be found at Wakefield Street too? Dad had been a senior partner at his office, on a good salary and he’d also inherited money a few years back when Gramps had died. Where had all the money gone?
Mam owned the family home, built by her own grandfather. Dad used to tend the big garden and was handy at the seemingly constant repair work that the rambling old house required. Now it was too big for her to manage on her own. She’d have to downsize.
This had been a telling blow to Mam’s health. With the threat of having to sell the house that had been in her family’s name for three generations, she couldn’t sleep and seemed to only function under a heavy dose of sedatives. The sooner I had answers, the sooner she might recover her old self.
I had to find this S person… this mistress or drug dealer or gambling creditor? These were the only things that I could imagine would siphon away a lifetime’s savings, but they were inconceivable of the man I had loved and respected all my life!
I had to learn the truth.
I was going to Wakefield Street.
‘Hah! The apple didn’t fall far from the tree!’ Mam said.
‘What on earth are you talking about? I’m just going out for an hour or two… on a personal matter.’
‘Just like your father… full of your secrets!’ She sniffed.
‘Did Dad have secrets?’
‘All those nights when he didn’t come home. Working late he said and didn’t want to disturb me, so he slept at the office! Huh! Did he think I came down in the last shower?’
‘But he did work long hours… didn’t he?’
‘Who knows? There’s no evidence for it in his bank account, that’s for sure!’
Her voice was echoing in my ears as I drove through the city to Wakefield Street. I had such a sick feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t imagine any scenario that would reflect well on Dad. Was I about to have all my happy memories of him tarnished by whatever ugly truth awaited me at apartment 105?
This Dublin inner city area was a far cry from the leafy suburb I’d just come from, but it was within walking distance of the shops and near the river, so had undergone massive re-development and was now a much sought after address by young professionals. Maybe S was an executive in Dad’s office?
I found parking around the corner from Wakefield Street, but it took me a few moments to steel myself before I could leave the car. Dad died on that street. I didn’t know the exact spot… didn’t want to know. Every muscle was tensed as I walked on to Wakefield Street expecting to be assailed by echoes of that tragic accident, but thankfully there was nothing. The sun still shone. From someone’s back garden a bird sang.
Number 10 was the last one on a terrace of four storied Georgian townhouses, with wide steps leading up to the grand front door. The polished brass plaque was engraved with the apartment numbers and names, but apartment number 105’s nameplate was blank. Damn! I’d been hoping for some clue to the illusive S, some way of preparing myself to meet her. I had convinced myself S was a woman.
I rang the bell, with no idea of what I was going to say to whoever answered.
Nothing happened. There was nobody home! It was just approaching lunchtime and I stood dithering trying to decide whether I should come back later or wait a bit when I noticed a woman walking up the street. She was clad in the ubiquitous office attire for young professionals of crisp white blouse, dark fitted trouser suit and killer heels. She was tall, blonde, slim and much younger than me. The blood rose to my face as an immediate and irrational dislike for this woman coursed through me and as she came nearer I was uncharitably glad to notice that she had bad skin. She pushed past me through the front door. It was unlocked!
I waited a moment before entering. The spacious lobby had a bank of post boxes to the right and a door leading to apartment number 102. An internal stairwell to the basement was where I guessed apartment 101 to be. I could hear a door being opened and shut down there. That must be where the blonde woman lived. I closed my eyes and gave silent thanks that she obviously wasn’t S.
I started up the stairs, running my hand lightly over the bannisters. Did they remember the touch of Dad’s hand? Were my footsteps echoes of his?
Apartment no 105 was at the very top. I knocked, but was greeted only with silence. I couldn’t face leaving this place with absolutely no answers, so before I could talk myself out of it, I took the key from my bag, inserted it into the lock and turned it. With a click the door swung inwards. I called ‘hello’ loudly, before stepping inside.
I found myself alone in a bedroom. The relief of having nobody there left me suddenly drained and I had to lean against the doorframe and close my eyes for a moment.
With the thought that somebody might come at any second, I opened my eyes. A double bed occupied the space directly opposite the entrance door with a single pine locker beside it. To the right of that was a comfortable looking armchair and a chest of drawers. The cream coloured walls were bare save for a single print over the bed of the almost touching hands detail from Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. Cherry timber floorboards added a warm touch to the room. This would have been the servant’s quarters in the old days, usually cramped places with little light. However the end wall had been replaced with floor to ceiling glass, which was curtained in billowy white muslin. The effect was pleasingly bright and airy.
There was another door to the left. Again I called ‘hello’ and knocked before opening. It led into a bathroom. I shook my head. This made no sense! This wasn’t living accommodation, with no kitchen, no wardrobe and no TV. It was more like a hotel room, just for sleeping in. Maybe S was married and rather than meet in a public place like a hotel, this apartment was rented for rendezvous? I couldn’t believe that of Dad though. I truly thought Dad loved Mam and besides he had such strong ideas on fidelity and loyalty. He had even voted ‘no’ in the divorce referendum. There must be some other answer.
I started searching. The bathroom cabinet yielded toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, shower gel (men’s), disposable razors and shaving foam. I couldn’t say if they were products that Dad used or not. He wasn’t fussy about brands.
The bedside locker contained a torch, a penknife and two books. I examined these with care. Herman Hesse’s ‘Narziss and Goldmund’ was a battered, much read edition that I knew Dad used to have in his study. Alistair MacLeod’s ‘Island’ was one I didn’t know, hadn’t read. The blurb on the back looked interesting.
I had to shake myself and hurry on to the chest of drawers. A change of bed linen in the bottom drawer, two bath towels, two hand towels in the middle drawer and a plain white, man’s bathrobe, several pairs of socks and boxers in the top drawer… that was it! Although all of the items could belong to Dad, there was nothing that was definitely his either. More interestingly, there was not one feminine item there at all!
I crossed to the window, pulled back the curtains and stood transfixed. The view of the river was absolutely stunning. A sliding door led out onto a tiny balcony, just big enough for a single chair and a little round table. I sank down onto the chair. It was quiet save for the sigh of the wind over the rooftops and the cry of a seagull as it flew overhead with the sound of the city a gentle hum in the background. I sat there watching the play of light on the water and the birds swoop and circle until the shadows lengthened.
I should have told Kevin and Mam about it straight away, but I didn’t. I wanted to do some more investigating before I said anything to them. So I started going to the apartment at various times of the day in the hope of meeting the elusive S. I would wait there for an hour or so, sitting out on the balcony just listening to the wind… remembering Dad. This was not easy to fit into an already overcrowded time schedule especially when I went back to my shift work at the hospital.
On top of that, was the house move. That had been Mam’s idea.
Rather than selling her five-bedroomed house she’d suggested a house swap. Our two-bedroomed house was way too small for two adults, two kids, a dog and a hamster.
The house swap worked perfectly! Mam was nearer to the shops, the theatre and more accessible for her book club and morning coffee friends. She was much happier and relaxed and thankfully off all medication.
With the swap we got space! The twins got a bedroom each, which meant a lot less bickering between them. Kevin discovered a hitherto unknown love of gardening and he also had the smallest bedroom converted into an office where he was able to work from home two days a week. We kept Mam’s bedroom as it was and she came to visit every other weekend, which was great for her as she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren. It was also great for us… having an occasional live in babysitter! Kevin and I enjoyed more romantic dinners in restaurants in that time than we had had in the eight years since the twins were born!
It was great… really! Only it did mean that on top of everything else, I now had a huge amount of extra house to clean!
I would have had a total burn out if it hadn’t been for the Apartment. The odd stolen hour of peace and tranquillity there, rejuvenated me more than I would have thought possible. Then one night I actually slept there! I told Kevin I had a night shift at the hospital. I felt like a rat for my deception, but once I closed the apartment door behind me it was like being on holiday!
I’d brought a good bottle of Rioja, some cheese and olives. I sat out on the balcony sipping the wine, savouring the food and the evening. Wrapping myself in a blanket, I sat there until the sun went down and the street lights went on, watching the river flow and feeling the tensions of the recent past release and flow away into the night. I fell into bed and slept for ten hours straight. No snoring husband, no ‘up at the crack of dawn’ twins… it was bliss!
The next morning I felt so guilty that when I got back to the house, I launched into a cooking marathon. I prepared Kevin’s favourite dinner of Italian meatballs seasoned with fresh herbs from the garden and served with pan dried potato gnocchi, peas and a red wine jus. For afters I made a boozy Tiramisu, with Irish cream liquor mixed with the espresso and blended into the mascarpone. Ben’s favourite was a homemade pizza, topped with semi-sundried tomatoes, fresh basil and pineapple chunks followed by strawberry jelly and ice-cream. Jason, who has the most bazaar taste-buds of anyone I know, would get his favourite, a corned-beef and blackberry jam doorstopper sandwich and a banana milkshake! I decorated the table with colourful napkins made into animal shapes and big bunches of flowers from the garden. I had some Salsa music playing loudly when they arrived home.
‘What’s the occasion?’ Kevin asked frowning, while the twins squealed with delight.
‘Nothing special.’ I smiled. ‘I just wanted to treat you all.’
‘Didn’t you sleep?’ his concern was almost my undoing. I had to turn away to compose myself.
‘Yes, I slept great, this didn’t take long.’ Kevin accepted my words readily and I almost laughed at the irony of the situation. Previously I would have been miffed at how little he’d appreciated the hours of work necessary for preparing such a meal, whereas now I was more than grateful that he was totally unaware!
‘Who’s a happy bunny!’ Ben crowed, before stuffing a slice of pizza into his mouth.
‘Yes, I am sweetie.’ I said softly. My life was chaotic, I was mother, wife, nurse, cook, cleaner and general dogsbody and somehow I’d also stepped into Dad’s shoes caring for Mam. It was a full, but very demanding life and I wouldn’t have been able to manage it at all if I didn’t have some time to myself… just to breathe. The apartment was my sanctuary.
I’ve finally come to my own answers about the apartment, be they right or wrong. I believe Dad bought it sometime in the Noughties as a financial investment, when property prices were relatively low and the banks not trustworthy. He’d probably originally intended to rent it out, but like me he had an exacting work life and at home he had the demands of a big house and garden. Mam needed to have plenty of life around her, so the house was always full of people visiting or staying for dinner whereas Dad loved a quiet space to read and listen to music. So I think he created a little haven for himself in Wakefield Street.
The apartment is probably in Mam’s name, seeing as its existence didn’t surface on Dad’s death. He’d probably signed her name on the purchase agreement. No doubt someday it will all come to light. When the bank account (again presumably in Mam’s name) that currently services the utility bills runs dry, someone will come knocking. I could’ve found out more if I’d dug deeper, but I didn’t want to disturb the one area of calm in my life… my haven of peace and tranquillity.
I don’t think there ever was ‘another’ woman in Dad’s life. I think the ‘S’ means the same thing to me as it did to Dad… S for sanctuary.
As Mam said, Dad and I are so alike. My actions echo his … the apple has not fallen far from the tree!
Third: Echoes from the Somme by Frances Colville
There are times when, above the crunch of the pebbles beneath her feet and the crash of waves breaking along the shoreline, she thinks she can hear the roar and thunder of the guns. There are times when the raucous mewing of the gulls turns into a cry for help from a million soldiers trapped in a war of attrition in the trenches of Belgium and Northern France. There are times when the horrifying noises of war seem to echo off the cliffs lining the beach and reverberate through her head until she wants to scream and scream and scream. She, and the women around her, are not supposed to know about these things; about the pain and suffering of the soldiers in the war, about the slaughter, the terror, the relentless noise. By common consent the boys hide the horrors when they are home on leave; they joke and laugh and talk of finishing off the Hun in short order. But she has read their letters and learned about their lives. She knows enough to see the numbness behind their smiles. She does not challenge them, of course she doesn’t, for she is afraid of what might happen; afraid that she might destroy their fragile strength. Like countless other sweethearts, sisters, wives and mothers across the country she plays the game as she is meant to play it.
Today, the first day of July 1916, there are no crashing waves and there is no noise; the sea is flat calm and the air still. It is not often like this and indeed she prefers it when the wind blows fiercely from the west, sending spray spiralling into the moist air. She likes to feel the power of the sea and she likes the way that, on some days, the thrill of battling against the wind and rain as she makes her way along the beach, can drive all other thoughts from her mind. Today there is no chance of such respite. Today the echoes are silent; ever-present but silent. Today, as she sits on the pebbles and stares out at the horizon, her mind is full of Harry and their future together. And then, because those thoughts make her fearful, she pushes them away and determinedly pulls out instead the memories of how it all began.
It began here on this very beach. A fitting place; for the beach has always been her refuge, the place she escapes to when everyday life becomes too dull or too frustrating. Earlier on that day, back in April 1915, she and everyone else in the village had attended Leonard’s funeral – Leonard, whom she had grown up with, who had pulled her pigtails at school, who had been one of the first to join up, and then one of the few whose body came home. The village had done him proud, had turned out in its entirety, but the sadness had been unbearable and she had crept away as soon as she could to seek refuge under the lee of the cliff. And there she had been struck by an overwhelming desire to play a bigger part in this terrible war, to do something to assuage the suffering of the soldiers, to provide some comfort for those who, like her brothers and childhood friends, had given up the lives they had always known, to face untold horrors on the battlefields of France and Belgium and Mesopotamia.
Like so many other women throughout the land, she already knitted socks, rolled bandages, worked hard to grow extra vegetables in her garden. And she contributed eggs from her hens to the National Egg Collection. She liked to think of her wonderful fresh eggs providing nourishment for wounded soldiers in the hospitals in France. It was a good scheme to be part of. But what she did was not special enough. She needed to do more.
‘Penny for them Chrissie!’ a familiar voice interrupted her thoughts and she looked up to see her best friend Madge, the village school teacher.
‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded.
‘Looking for you of course. I was worried about you. Is it Leonard?’
‘Leonard – yes. But more than that. I’m so frustrated Madge. I want to be doing something useful, something to help us through this horrible war. Not just staying at home waiting for it to finish.’
‘Could you?’ Madge asked sitting down beside her. ‘Could you go off to nurse or drive?’
‘No – I asked Father the other day. He said it’s out of the question. Mother needs me here. And so does he, now that all three boys have gone to fight. He can’t do all the work on the farm by himself and neither of them want strangers coming in. He said my duty is here and he’s right, I know he is. But I wish he wasn’t.’
‘Well …’ Ever practical, Madge settled down to consider the problem ‘Then you’ll just have to think of a way to turn being here into an advantage. No, don’t glare at me like that. There’ll be something. We just need to work it out.’
They sat in companionable silence each lost in her own thoughts; Chrissie’s mind full of her three brothers, and Madge distracted by images of her sweetheart Albert who was somewhere in Belgium and whom she missed with all her heart.
‘You could personalise the eggs,’ she suggested suddenly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You could make sure the soldiers know the eggs come from you. Make them a bit special. You’d be showing those poor chaps that someone cares about them, that they haven’t been forgotten. What do you think?’
‘Well – it’s hardly going to change the world,’ Chrissie grumbled. ‘But it’s a start I suppose. I’ll think about it. Maybe.’
Madge smiled to herself, knowing that she would need to say no more. Chrissie was normally a very positive person, only very rarely resorting to the sort of grumbling she had given way to today. Once she had decided on something, she would move heaven and earth to make it happen. And what’s more, she would enjoy doing it.
So the idea took hold and within a week a batch of eggs had been sent off with her name and address on each one. And that was just the beginning. On some of the eggs, she painted intricate little pictures – flags, sprigs of heather, black cats. Anything she could think of which represented good luck or patriotism. Sometimes she added encouraging messages, sending her best wishes, urging the soldiers to take care, to look after themselves. As she got better at writing clearly and squeezing more words on to the egg shells, she even wrote short poems. Little by little, her life began to have purpose. She worked hard at the daily chores on the farm and in the house, supported her parents as well as she could, wrote long letters to her three brothers who were all serving overseas, did everything else the villagers asked of her to aid the war effort. But all of it was done with the ultimate aim of finding some time every day to concentrate on the eggs. And find it she did.
The first thank you letters from wounded soldiers who had been lucky enough to receive her eggs arrived in the post within a matter of weeks. And they just kept coming. Such wonderful letters: some sad, some cheerful; some containing little paintings or poems in return for hers; some which brightened her day and made her laugh out loud; some almost too much to bear so that she had to hide in the hen house or the wood shed until she could control her tears. Some of the sentences stuck in her mind, replaying themselves again and again until she felt she would never forget them as long as she lived. ‘I have a poisoned compound fracture just below the right knee joint. Am doing very well now and they expect to save my leg. I hope they do too.’ ‘I am not much good now as a piece of shell went through my lung & I have only one left now and I think I shall be in hospital for months yet if I get over it as the shell is still in me.’ ‘The scene is one of utter desolation, it gives you an idea of what would be the end of the world.’ ‘I have seen life and death, brave sturdy lads in the fullness of manhood marching to take their allotted places in the firing line. I have seen them come back.’
Many of the soldiers asked if she would reply to them. They were lonely, they said, and far from home. Some of them indeed came from Canada or Australia and rarely received letters, or so they told her. Many asked for a photograph. Some hoped for more. ‘I haven’t a young lady yet, but I should certainly like one. I am a rather nice looking young fellow of 22, which reminds me I should like to know your age when you write next’. She wrote back to him and told him that she was just a year younger. She tried to write back to as many of them as she could and certainly to all those who said they were lonely or who told her that no-one else wrote to them. She kept her letters as cheerful as possible, telling the soldiers about her life in Dorset, her work on the farm, humdrum little details which she hoped would amuse them. And she tried not to dwell on the hardships they were facing, for surely, she thought to herself, they knew far more about that than she did and she could not presume to understand what they were going through.
It wasn’t, as she had told Madge, ever going to change the world, let alone bring any kind of end to the dreadful war. But she did at last feel she was doing something useful, that bringing comfort to even a few of the wounded men was better than doing nothing at all. What’s more it brought comfort to her. Above all, it made her feel closer to her three brothers. She told herself that perhaps someone was showing them kindness as she was trying to do to others. And it filled her days in a way that working on the farm, or helping her mother, was never able to do. It was fun – though perhaps saying so or even thinking it, was a bit disrespectful to those poor wounded men.
But then the day came when it stopped being fun and became a much more serious matter. That was the day – towards the end of 1915 – when she received her first letter from Harry. He had been given one of her eggs, he told her, and he had adored the little painting of a black cat on one side of the egg, the good wishes for a speedy recovery on the other. He was not seriously wounded, just a bad bout of dysentery and he felt himself to be rather a fraud when there were so many more worthy candidates than him for one of her lovely eggs. But he had been the lucky one and he wanted her to know how much her kindness meant to him. Intrigued, and touched by his words, she wrote back straightaway and then he did too, and before she knew it they were corresponding regularly, exchanging thoughts and worries and longings for the future, and feeling as if they had known each other for ever.
They arranged to meet on his next leave and he planned to make his way down to her Dorset village by the sea, assuring her that he had no family or friends who had a greater claim on him than she did. She persuaded her parents to allow him to stay in their house as a guest and she talked endlessly to a patient Madge about where she was going to take him, what she would say to him. And then at almost the last moment, his leave was cancelled. All leave had been cancelled, he wrote, and there was nothing he could do about it, unfair though it was. Something was up, he was sure of that, something big and he had no doubt that she would hear of it soon enough. And meanwhile, they must hope that when it was over, he would be one of the first to be granted leave and they could finally see each other and make plans for their future together. Meanwhile, he would hold her photograph close to his chest and her words close to his heart. She was devastated, but knew there was nothing to be done.
Now she sits alone on this first day of July 1916 and watches a cormorant swoop across the bay, landing bat-winged on the rocks nearby, and in her heart she knows that it is all over, that something terrible has happened to Harry and that their plans for the future are as if they have never been. It will be months, because she is not next of kin, nor has ever even met him, before she finally learns that Harry was killed in the first hours of the attack on the Somme, his body never recovered. And after that all she has left are his letters and the echoes in her head.
NB the sections in italics are taken from an archive of First World War letters
Dr Sally Flint
Sally Flint is a published, award-winning writer. She lectures in creative writing and literature at the University of Exeter. She co-founded and co-edits Riptide Short Story Journal and Canto Poetry and works with ‘Stories Connect’ ‒ a project which helps people at vulnerable times in their lives ‘change their lives through literature’.
Her poetry collection Pieces of Us, (Worple Press), is available here: http://www.worplepress.com/pieces-of-us/
Geoff Fox taught children, student-teachers and practising teachers in schools and universities in the UK and abroad. In retirement, he helps to run the Crediton Arts Centre and works as a storyteller and role-player in local primary schools. He has written several books and continues to review and write about fiction and poetry published for young readers.
He was a judge for the Crediton Short Story Competition 2015 and 2016.
Andrew Davey is a chartered librarian who has worked in public libraries in Somerset, Wiltshire, New Zealand and Devon. For over 10 years he was the senior librarian at Exeter Central Library and helped to promote live literature including events with Hilary Mantel, Deborah Moggach and John Connolly, as well as local authors and the Exeter Poetry Festival.
He has a love of old books and helped organise and exhibit the libraries heritage collections. He has been involved in Crediton Community Bookshop since the early stages of the project as a volunteer and committee member and values its role of offering high quality books and customer service locally. Andrew believes a dynamic community bookshop can encourage a love of reading for everyone.