Guest judge Cecilia Morreau said:
“It was a joy to read so many of these memoirs, so touchingly written, poignant and personal. To find a final group for the commended and winners was particularly tricky. Judging Memoir competitions cannot be a matter of comparing like for like but one of looking for writing style, characterisation, attention to detail and just that pull to read on.
“The subject matters addressed were wide and varied and made for genuinely interesting judging experience. Many memoirs involved childhood memories, some traumatic, some sad, some happy and humorous. Others were a depiction of adult difficulties, illness and war. Of course happy memories were in the mix, joy, childbirth, and some excellent comic elements. Many had a keen sense of time and place from the exotic to the familiar.
“Thanks to all that entered and I hope you enjoyed writing these memoirs as much as I enjoyed reading them.”
The Kiss of Life, by Wendy Potts
This piece opens as if it will be a love story but is far from it. The memoir is an account by a newly qualified doctor in a psychiatric hospital about her encounter with a young abused patient. The tragic and disturbing theme is written with sensitivity, an expert sense of pacing and a grim honesty. The use of the second person is deftly handled and, as a reader, I felt the story drew me right into the tragedy of the lost life.
The Storm, by Kathy Miles
The intricate weave of detail in The Storm is the superb pull of this story. The incident it depicts, an accident the long recovery, is almost secondary to the sheer sensuousness of the descriptions of the writer’s home, garden and the experience of the physical.
Up here, down there, by Eloise Williams
Up Here, Down There is wonderful piece written from a child’s point of view. The almost staccato style reflects the disjointedness of memory and the antagonistic nature of sibling rivalry and love. The incident depicted is small but the memoir encapsulates so much about the characters with the sparse sentences and the idiom of childhood.
SCROLL DOWN TO READ THE WINNING ENTRIES
Colours — Julia Ozanne, Anglesey
People Like Us – Caroline Anne Battison, Llechryd
Revenant – Diana Powell, Mathry
Becoming Enough – Yuhan Ong, Edinburgh
Dragon’s Breath – Pascale Palmer, Roxham, Norfolk
Eight Days in Mwanza – Jane Murray Bird, Edinburgh
Kathleen – Christine Clement-Green, Swindon
Kiss of Life
by Wendy Potts
We met in Edinburgh, that cold beautiful northern city I loved so much, all skylines and history. It was 1997. I was newly wed and newly qualified in my profession, you older and in yours for years. We only knew each other a few short weeks, but your memory still haunts me. Your face has faded with the years, I don’t even remember your name. But I remember the taste on your lips in that strange, failed kiss.
We met in one of those glorious monumental stone buildings that grace Edinburgh. Inspired by the death of the poet Robert Fergusson, enriched by the treatment of the war poets at nearby Craiglockhart, the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in Morningside is a triumph of early nineteenth century architecture. Founded with funds seized during the Jacobite rebellion, it has treated the mad, the sad and the bad for two centuries.
You came to us one night, talked down from a window ledge by the police. You told me your story the following morning, sitting in the tiny interview room. You were full of drugs, cocaine, heroin, whatever you could buy. Your story broken, incoherent, jumping. I couldn’t figure what was truth and what drug addled fiction. I didn’t realize then how badly broken you were, how much life had taken from you. I remember the smell of your clothes, cigarettes and vomit.
You told me you’d been sold, as a girl, to a man who’d locked you in the cupboard under the stairs. This was years before Harry Potter, and there was no magic in your cupboard. You’d come out for housework and sex, whenever the man and his two sons wanted something to use.
You were in that house for years, used and abused, til you escaped. Then you’d come north, hitch-hiked your way up the motorways to this beautiful cold northern city. Prostitution was your profession, paid for what had been taken so many times. Drugs your medicine, except they don’t work, for someone as broken as you. I prescribed your DFs whilst you sheltered with us. I felt dirty, like a drug dealer, but I wanted you to stay, seek sanctuary and try to heal. I never imagined that we would kiss before you left. And your clothes smelt of cigarettes and vomit.
You couldn’t behave, on our ward, with its rules. Every society needs its rules, and ours were simple and strict. No street drugs. Not too many visitors at odd times, lurking in dark corners. Its hard, governing the world of the madhouse. Protecting the mad from those just bad, trying to lift the spirits of the sad. And ward 6 covered those dismal edge of city estates where the inner city had been swept out of view of the tourists. Less glorious psychosis and just more messy lives, drugs, hardship, alcohol and generations of bad decisions.
You couldn’t stick to just our drugs, and your pimp and dealer and so-called friends kept hanging around. Lots of new customers in the clinically insane. At your review we planned for your discharge. You wanted sanctuary, to stay and hide from your grim reality, but the days of the great bins have gone. You can hide for a while, try and get your life back on track, but you can’t stay forever, not enough beds. Gone are the days of fields and farms and workshops in asylums, where the truly broken could live out their days. Now the bins are emptied and its care in the community. Whatever the community and however little it cares.
You had a discharge date, though you didn’t want to go. The night before I was duty doctor. I liked nights on duty at the Royal Ed, nobody too ill, just strange conversations and usually enough sleep. I was in the office on the ward, chatting with colleagues when the alarm went off.
We ran next door, to where the nurse had found you on her drug round, hanging from the window frame. You’d tried the curtain rail round your bed first, but it had bent under your weight. Too obvious that one, designed to avoid suicides. So you’d moved to the window frame, and hanged yourself inches from the ground.
The nurse had cut you down, and started mouth-to-mouth. But its tiring, so we all had to help. And I was the doctor, so I took charge, its what we do. There’s no crash team in a psychiatric hospital, no medical registrar who knows what to do. I didn’t know we had a crash trolley til it turned up. No bag and mask on a psychiatric ward, designed for talking not death. So we kissed, kiss of life, and your lips tasted of cigarettes and vomit.
We shocked you on the floor of the ward, and your heart jumped back into life. And the ambulance turned up, took you off to a proper hospital, to intensive care. But your lips would never again draw their own breath, and the next morning they turned off your life support. I couldn’t get your taste from my lips. Cigarettes and vomit.
Your real friends came to our inquest. Told how you’d first come to them through a shelter, how you’d tried to get your life back on track. You’d lived with them for a while, when you had some hope, trying to make a new life. But you’d too many ghosts in your head, too many demons. Your boundaries were too fuzzy for a clear new life, and you’d gradually sunk further and further into the underworld. Your friends kept reaching out with their helping hands, but your life had been too broken for anyone to mend.
Many years have passed now, and I’ve heard many life stories, though none as sad and badly treated as yours. Your face has faded with the years, and I can’t even remember your name. But your taste still haunts me, from that failed last kiss. Cigarettes and vomit.
by Kathy Miles
Sometimes on a late summer evening I slip under the house where nobody can see me, and watch spiders spin webs across the metal bolts of the corner frame. It’s as if I’ve gone to ground like a fox or badger. I can hear the quiet tumble of acorns, wasps bumbling round spilt apples. But the earth smells only of itself: an old must scent, as if I’d dived headfirst into a chest of velvets and musky satins.
In January, the wind always snatches at this corner. A sea-wind, breath sour with salt and blown sand, it rushes up from the beach, gusting walkers off their feet, and crashes into the worn wooden slats and rain-stained windows. We had bought the house for the pond. Nobody wanted a timber-framed self-build, standing on its raised legs like an uneasy heron. The pond was large, clay-based, a silted pit of water choked with reeds and bamboo. But we saw damselflies darting across its surface, heard the husky croak of frogs deep in its heart. It was as if the water remembered us, had been waiting for our return. It felt like we were coming home. This particular January was a month of violent and unexpected storms. I knew this one was coming: rooks were agitated, sparrows cwtched up in little brown huddles in the beech. I looked at the way clouds scattered like frenzied sheep across the horizon, and ran to secure our doors and windows against the coming squall.
Swimming underwater, everything is muffled. You push yourself down as hard as you can, but the water is always ahead of you, trying to pop you back up again. This was the other way round. I was trying to rise, but kept being gently pulled back. I felt like a mermaid floating in a wash of tide, sifted light scattering down to the ocean bed. Eventually I made it to the surface and discovered that the room had turned white, as if a fall of late snow had covered it all with a layer of peeling flakes. It was not a room I recognised. The only vividness came from the green lights on a monitor, which was attached to my arm, and bleeped wildly whenever I moved.
The storm. A fallen branch round a bend in the road, a moment’s inattention in my small red Fiesta. ‘You’ve broken your back,’ the doctor said. ‘Lucky you aren’t paralysed.’ He fiddled with the line going into my arm, and I was submerged again. Next time I woke, they laid down some basic rules. I was not to move, not to try and get up. After a week I had counted every tile on the ceiling, knew each curlicue of dust behind the door. I wanted to be home, missed my messy, ramshackled house, longed to hear the badger snuffling across the grass in evening darkness. After three months I was discharged, encased in a rock-hard carapace. They called it a ‘Minerva Jacket’: a plaster cast that enclosed my head, with a hole cut for my face to peer through, which ended uncomfortably on my hips. But at least I was home. At first, I simply lay on my bed, uncertain how to structure my day. I’d taken movement for granted: now, even getting out a chair took considerable effort. I stared into the garden, frustrated at all the things I couldn’t do. The flag irises were out, fringing the pond with purple flowers, and I could hear the blackbird’s litany in the trees. Spring was nearly over. I had been too long in bed.
I was amazed at how difficult walking had become. I moved sideways like a crab. My feet knew where they were going- after all, I had walked this lane so many times before- but refused to communicate this to my brain. I was terrified of falling. For how embarrassing would that be, to be found by another walker, lying like a beached turtle waiting to be up-ended? At first, I simply shuffled a short way down the road, and returned glad to be still upright. As the weeks progressed I grew bolder, until one day I triumphantly reached the beach. It wasn’t a proper beach; little more than an inlet where the cliffs parted, it was grubby and unstructured, scattered with razor-sharp rocks across its length. But it was my haven. I’d sit there reading, my back against the warm ribs of slate, with just couple of local fishermen for company. Young seals would come into the bay, cormorants and dippers fished from the headland. Above, horses grazed the coastal path, sheep littered like puffball mushrooms among the pale wild roses and swathes of red vetch.
It was mid-summer before the Minerva Jacket was finally removed. By then I was fretful at having to wear it, and the warmer weather had made it unbearably itchy. I was not prepared, however, for the feeling of vunerability when they took it off. I felt like an untethered
balloon, scared that a high wind would lift me off my feet and blow me far up into the sky. I’d also not bothered about my appearance whilst it was on, and now I felt the weight of that daily responsibility to make myself look normal. Now I was mobile again, there was much to do. The pond was clogged with duckweed, milfoil and algae coated the surface. The only way to remove it was to wade into the pond and drag it out in armfuls. Goldfish, alarmed, would leap out from the lilies, and I’d desperately try to hold onto my balance, memories of the plaster jacket not yet erased. It took me a good four days to clear it, to make the pond look as it had before the storm had come. And then I sat under the house, watched spiders spinning their thin delicate webs, shadows weave about the earth as sunlight burned down bright as a Shabbat candle.
Up here, down there
by Eloise Williams
It tasted like wrong and chalk and peas.
I spat it as far as I could, dribbling bits over my chin and wincing as the juice clawed the hollows of my cheek insides.
I’d never been able to resist a dare.
Eat an acorn.
Scrump an apple from a witch’s garden. Over the wall I go, fending off curses and hacking through invisible spells.
Ask if we can go there…
The lights thrum from up here. Swinging to the squeak of the kissing gate. The heat of the day locked deep inside the metal, blistering out and crackling under my thumbs. I have never been kissed. Not that way.
‘Someone died when the arm came off the Octopus.’
Jo’s mouth is an O. She smells of banana and summer sick. Her legs are bubbled with nettle stings and the hem of her homemade dress is bramble-frayed. It’s already been a too long day. A dog day and I’m weary.
Even though she’s younger she is stubborn as hell. Her bottom lip protrudes almost as far as the travelling fair she so wants to visit.
I don’t care. I don’t really have feelings of guilt too much. My sister crying is as natural as breathing.
My turn to dare her.
Sarah hangs from her sticky fist. A rictus grin and nail varnish eyeshadow dangling. Her plastic feet drag on the path like my sister’s sandals.
‘I’m not allowed.’ Jo has doubtful eyes, torn somewhere between the candyfloss-pink deliciousness at the foot of the hill and the ballooning image of my livid parents as they swell into the dark figures of little girl nightmares.
‘Sissy.’ One word is enough.
I set fire to the conifer tree when we nicked one of Dad’s fags.
I slithered a slowworm down my throat.
I climbed that railing without impaling myself.
I am nothing but reproach.
‘And you’re too old for a dolly.’ I make this come out in a mocking baby voice.
Let her do the dirty work for once. I’ll stay here and decide how I can make myself morph into Molly Ringwald by buying flowery tights and pixie boots. I’ll hang here and plan my marriage to Daniel-san. I’ll write to him and tell him how much I respect him as an actor, then he’ll think I don’t fancy him, so he’ll propose.
Jo can go and do the begging stuff.
I know it’s wrong.
I know it’s wrong but I’m so fed up with being me. Everything’s my fault. I’m the bad example. I’m the one she has to look up to. Even when she does things first I’m always the one to blame.
The wind turns at this moment. From a zephyr to a sharp night sting.
Jo disappears into the gathering gloam. Sarah leaves a trail in the dust where one foot reaches the path. If Jo carries on dragging her this way Sarah will end up dolly dead or footless.
Carnies are down there waiting for us. Gold-toothed and smoking. Hair gelled and adult. They hold excitement, snogging and waltzers in their hands.
I have spotty leggings on. My thighs are fat. I’m nervous as hell and I pass a little fart. Mam tells me ladies never fart. They only ever blow off.
The grass is scorched and stinks up here where someone set it alight. Glass shatters sparkle and white dog poo crumbles.
I want to start my period to be like Catherine Farrell. I swing and squeak the gate. Not that I think it will help.
The dark is purple and full as it grows. Grasshoppers drone down to sleep. History looms at the top of the hill as an ancient, broken windmill with my grandfather’s initials scratched in stone. The future throbs at the bottom reaching out to me with tentacles of Duran Duran and promises of not being bullied on Monday if I’m cool enough to be there.
I am caught between directions of all kinds.
Jo hasn’t come back.
She has angel kisses in beautiful places on her small snub nose. I have huge blobby blobs on my conk. She has round doe eyes in amber brown. I have small dull khaki slits. She has a kiss curl. I have a fringe that’s straighter than a ruler line.
Something’s happened to her.
She’s been snatched by the man in the royal-blue Maxi who hung out by the park taking photos to develop in a blood red cellar so he can choose his victims.
I imagine his meat-pie sweat face and his fidgeting fat-sausage fingers. His breath comes in onion gasps while Sarah lies face down on the backseat too afraid to watch and unable to close her eyes for lack of closing eyelids.
Fear is boiling and juddered with panic.
I wish my parents dead in some unlikely way so that I can orphaned. When I get home I want to be greeted by Daddy Warbucks not by Daddy War.
I wish myself dead, but in a nice way, not death by Maxi Man. Tragically though. Then drifted out to sea with a million floating candles.
Jo is dead for sure.
I still want to go to the fair.
I’m in an invisible box. Captured there by rules.
I clank the gate against the other world and walk home to the real one quickly. Hoping that I’ll be swallowed in a time-warp and never make it there, but rushing, rushing, rushing just the same.
Feet hammering against the known and unknown.
Knowing I will die when I get home.
Not knowing that my sister will one day find my letter to Karate Kid and post it up on Facebook.
Revenge is best served very cold indeed.