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2007 Short Story Competition Results

Sophie Seeney – 5-11 (Kent) winner
Alice Deane - 12-17(Kent) winner
Nicholas Reed - Adult (Kent) winner
Yuting Zhou -12-17(Category for Outside Kent) winner
Mrs. Gaenor Kirkby - Adult(Category for Outside Kent) winner

There was a story about a bicycle ride along the Leas with copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses saved from the Folkestone customs officers’ furnace in 1922 and one about thoughts wandering during an exam. There were journeys by train, boat, bus, road and plane - all sorts of journeys in all parts of the world. This year produced a bumper crop of entries on the theme of a journey for the Literary Festival short story competition. Apart from Kent, they came from Scotland, Devon, Yorkshire and many other places. Organised by the Friends of the Festival, the Folkestone Herald and Waterstones, it has become, as well, a truly international competition with entries from France, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. This year, It was also very heartening to have more entries for the younger age groups with schools in Dover, Deal and Folkestone participating. The judges – Sarah Fuller from Waterstone’s, Vitali Vitaliev, author and journalist and Chris Williams from the Folkestone Herald - read through well over a hundred and fifty stories. Help with the competition was also given by Angela Conyers, Brian and Eve McBride and Charlotte Harris.

The winners from Kent were Nicholas Reed in the Adult Group from Folkestone, Alice Deane, aged 16, from Folkestone (12-17 Group) and Sophie Seeney, aged 11 from Dover Grammar School for Girls (5-11 Group)

The winners from from outside Kent were Mrs Gaenor Kirkby in the Adult Group from Keighley, Yorkshire and Yuting Zhou from Wantage, Berkshire in 12-17 age group.

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Sophie Seeney (Dover Grammar School for Girls) was the winner of the age 5-11 section with her story “Like Pearls in the Water”:

Like Pearls in the Water
by Sophie Seeney

A girl named Tanesha lived in a small village in New Zealand with her mum. She loved to explore places with her best friend Jesha. They loved to go to different places and find things that they never found before. They would go to their mothers and show them what they found. They also said the objects would talk to them at night but no one ever believed them because they thought they were just kids and were messing about, but they weren’t

The next day dawned early for Tanesha and she was so excited in waiting for Jesha to come for them to go exploring again. But then Tanesha couldn’t wait any longer and she slipped on her sandals and went out without waiting for Jesha! She just ran off down the road and never even told her mum where she was going. She thought her mum wouldn’t mind… but was it the right thing to do?

Tanesha travelled through the darkened forest where she never went before and where the trees seemed to block out the light the more she moved in. Tanesha was almost out when suddenly she stopped in her tracks.

“Tanesha, Tanesha, Tanesha!”

Someone was calling her! She started to walk cautiously towards the deep voice.

“Tanesha, Tanesha, Tanesha!”

The noise carried on as if it was a broken record getting louder every time. Suddenly she stopped. She looked down. All she could see was a carved wooden shape without any eyes, like a rugby player with its tongue sticking out to make people scared of them. But Tanesha wasn’t scared of a wooden statue. She picked it up and pressed it against her ear. She heard the noise again but this time it said something else.

“Tanesha I want your eyes. Give them to me!”

Tanesha’s eyes were blue and green like the sea. Her mother said they were like pearls in water as the colours were all mixed. Tanesha looked at where the eyes should be on the statue. Was she dreaming or was it real and should Tanesha run all the way home to her mum and never look back and quit her days of exploring with Jesha! She knew it was the right and safest thing to do, but she didn’t do it. She just kept looking deep into the statue and felt its heartbeat go quicker and quicker. It was alive! Tanesha began to cry, her eyes closed and she fell to the ground as still as dead. The statue was still clenched in Tanesha’s hand with eyes… Just like pearls in the water.

© Sophie Seeney 2007

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Alice Deane (Folkestone) was the winner of the 12-17 (Kent) section with her story “Girl with Silver Fish”:

Girl with Silver Fish
by Alice Deane (Folkestone)

We were parked on the Leas, looking out to the sea, the grey English Channel, on thi

The pebbles stirred beneath Frances’s feet as she stared into the water, her long skirt hitched up to above her knee. Grey and cold, the stones were nudged downstream by the current, worn smooth by the years of travelling along with the steady flow. Frances cautiously stepped out into the streams’ centre, where the current was topped by the beginning of white foam. She nestled her feet into the stones, ensuring her toes had a secure footing before sinking her net into the water, gripping its handle to ensure it was not carried away. The water parted around the net, flicking onto her skirts, deepening the light cloth to navy. Frances sighed; her mother would guess she had been in the water.

William strode across the grassy slope running down from his house, heading for the line of thick maple trees, a vein of autumn colours amongst green fields, which obscured a small stream. He truly understood why his daughter adored this place; its peacefulness compared to the sooty grime of the growing cities was what first attracted him and his wife here. A place for him to paint, for her to raise their family. They had, however, been considering leaving, after their next child was born. His wife was not happy about it, but this place was simply too far from his work. He fought back a wave of emotion; there was not a choice any more, he would no longer be able to live in this place, not now.

He caught a glimpse of his daughter though the looming trees. In the centre of the stream, her sleeves rolled back, concentrated absolutely on the rush of the current around her legs.

A limp leaf, carried by the steam, caught on Frances’s leg. Gingerly she peeled it off, and then laid it flat on her hand, examining the streaks of red and orange along its veins. Her mother had brought her down to the stream every autumn for a final chance see the last of the trees turn before restricting her play area to the lawn and house. This had been the first summer she was allowed to go alone; her mother could not come as she had entered the last months of her confinement, and her father was busy, always busy. Maybe next year she could bring her new brother down to play.

William lent against a tree, contented for the moment to watch his daughter play. His wife would have been worried about Frances being out in the water alone; she was right to be, as the current was strong in places. He, however, had noticed what his wife had not; how his daughter’s hems and socks had become progressively browner throughout the summer, suggesting she had been paddling every day.

A sycamore seed spiralling down from the maple tree above him grazed Williams’s waistcoat, before falling to the ground. He scooped it off the ground, and absentmindedly bent off its springy wings, exposing its green innards. Autumn was his wife’s favourite season, with its trees flushed with colours and its sunsets tinged pink. It was ironic that it was its sudden cool spells that had had such a detrimental effect on her health.

Frances watched as the leaf continued its journey downstream, before turning her attentions back to her net. She carefully scanned the stones, looking for any sign of movement upstream. For a moment she thought she was being tricked by the dappled light filtering though from the trees above playing on the stones, but then, there it was again, that flash of silver. She gripped her net tighter, and in a moment it was caught. The little fish struggled within the grey netting, held just above the water, the light glinting of its silver scales.

Frances had now done this many times. She cautiously waded back to the bank, making sure she did not slip and the fish was briefly dipped in the water every few seconds. There was a rotund jar full of stream water already waiting on the bank, and she carefully tipped the fish inside.

She held the jar up and considered whether or not she should let this one go, as her mother always told her to, after they had admired it together. They don’t mind it in the jar, she said, but they prefer it in the stream. But Frances had an idea; her mother couldn’t come down to the stream this summer to see the fish, so instead Frances would bring the stream and fish to her.

William considered calling out to his daughter, summoning her back to the house, the purpose of his visit. But watching his daughter playing in the stream, he decided to give her a few more minutes. A few more minutes, before dragging her back to a house that would no longer be her home, a house full of midwives and doctors. He wondered what Frances was up to; perhaps catching a frog?

He considered going back to the house now, waiting a few hours until all the doctors had gone, so he could talk to his daughter about their future together properly in private. But it was too late now; Frances had looked up and seen him standing there.

‘Papa?’ she called, looking at him questioning. This was hers and her mother’s space. No place for him, he belonged in the house and his studio.

They walked up to the house together; Frances carefully held the bowl in front of her. Her father hadn’t even questioned it, she thought gleefully. She lifted the bowl closer to her face as they walked across the lawn. The water didn’t look as clear and sparking here, more murky and green. The fish swam in circles.

As they walked into the house, Frances felt her father suddenly grip her shoulder and bring her closer. Obligingly she clung to him, but she didn’t like his smell; turpentine and tobacco, the same smell as his studio, full of things she wasn’t allowed to touch.

William stood as the base of the stairs and called for his sister-in-law. She appeared, her face blotchy, and slowly descended the stairs.

‘Could you take Frances into the living room please?’ William asked quietly. She nodded and steered Frances away. William put one foot on the bottom stair as a doctor appeared from a door upstairs and beckoned him up.

Frances cautiously approached her aunt, who was sitting silently on the daybed. She sat down beside her.

‘Do you think Mama will let me keep it? I was wondering when I could go and take it to show her’ Frances questioned, gesturing to the fish bowl on her lap.

‘I don’t know Frances. It won’t live very long, you know. They don’t, fish. Do you understand that Frances, what happen when someone dies?’

Frances frowned

‘It’s only a fish, Aunty Jane. There are plenty in the stream’

‘I wasn’t really talking about the fish, my dear. Just go and put it over there on the table’

Frances instead approached the window, and watched as a black horse and carriage drew up, and men that she did not recognise get out, looking grave. She looked down at her fish, and for a moment she quietly contemplated it as it circled the bowl. She glanced up to see her father standing in the doorway, watching her.

‘Come on Frances. I need to talk to you about something very important. To do with your mother’

Frances looked back down at the fish, and understood.

© Alice Deane 2007

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Nicholas Reed (Folkestone) was the winner of the Adult (Kent) section with his story “Stranger in the Daytime”:

Stranger in the Daytime
by Nicholas Reed (Folkestone)

I was coming back from a trip to Colchester. Having made an early start, I decided to stop at the Thurrock Services for a coffee to ensure I kept awake before completing the long slog over the Dartford Bridge and back down to Folkestone. As I turned off the engine in the car park and got out of the car, a youngish man accosted me and asked if I was going to the next service station on the M25. I said I thought I was, on the way back south. “It’s just that I’m a diabetic, and I need to get to the next service station to get my insulin. If you wouldn’t mind dropping me there, I can pick up my insulin there: I do need to take it regularly.”

I paused. He was well-spoken, and reasonably well dressed, in a sort of green duffel coat and, I think, jeans. Not the fashionable sort of jeans, with holes in the knees and threads dangling down below. He was perfectly respectable, as far as I could see. Wore glasses too – might be a bit of an intellectual. That would make a change.

“Well,” I said, “I did want to stop to get a coffee here, but if you don’t mind waiting for 20 minutes, I’d be willing to help you.”

“OK. I’ll wait here - see you when you get back.”

So I went off to the café, had my coffee, and came back. He was still standing there, so I opened the door for him to get in the passenger seat, and we set off.

“I’m sorry to ask you for this favour, but if you hadn’t given me this lift, I don’t know how I could have got to the service station. It’s only a few miles down the road.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “I suppose if you’re really stuck, you could always go the police.”

“Ooh, I wouldn’t want to involve them”, he replied. “Really?” I thought.

After more general chat about nothing in particular, he said, “I’ve been finding things rather difficult recently. After I lost my job, my finances have been really tight.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Can’t you find another job in the same field?”

“Easier said than done,” he replied. ”I just need a bit of money to tide me over.”

“Well, I’m sure there’s a cash machine at the next service station.”

“It’s not as easy as that. I’ve used up all my credit, so I’m really stuck. Surely you could let me have 20 or 30 quid just to tide me over?”

At this point, I decided things had gone far enough. “Look, I agreed to give you a lift to the next services. I’m sure that once you’re there, you can get your insulin, and perhaps ask the police for help so you can complete your journey.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t trust the police. They might find out things you wouldn’t want them to find out.”

I decided not to ask him what he meant. “Look, he said, “are you sure you can’t lend me any money?” “Well,” I said, thinking rapidly and becoming aware I might be in a vulnerable situation, “I’m sure that if necessary I can find something to keep you going.”

“I’m glad about that,” he said. “I tell you, sometimes this diabetes give me really bad mood swings. I tried to kill myself last week.” “Oh really,” I said, struggling hard to keep panic out of my voice. “How did that happen?” I meant, of course, what triggered that wish? “Well, I’ve got this big knife, and I was going to slash my wrists.” I hoped he meant the knife was at home – I certainly didn’t want him to get it out to show me! But I also knew that someone considering violence to themselves might well be considering violence to others. Things were getting serious. If he did have his knife, and if I did not succeed in placating him, he could cut my throat at a junction, leap out, and leave the police with an unsolved crime and one body – mine.

I started to think hard. Would there be any evidence who had done it? Hardly. If he disposed of the knife, there would be nothing to connect him with my dead body. He could even go on to do the whole thing again with someone else. Anyway, why was I worrying about whether he would get caught? It would not bring me back from death. Self-preservation was now the order of the day.

At this point we had left the motorway to turn off to the south-east. I knew that coming up shortly would be a large roundabout. It was my one chance to escape. I could, if I chose, simply stop at the side of the roundabout and ask him to get out. He might agree. Or he might hit me. Or he might get out the knife to “persuade” me to continue the ride.

As we came to the roundabout, I slowed down. It was now or never. On the other hand, by trying to get him to leave, I might provoke the very crisis I was trying to avoid. At least, if I took him to the next service station, I could let him out where there were lots of witnesses around. There would be none on the roundabout. It was just another 20 minutes to the services. I decided to carry on.

“What made you feel so depressed last week?” A foolish question really – I was just trying to keep the conversation going.

“Well, I’ve just split up with my girlfriend. I was thinking of topping her as well.” Hell – I should have dropped him at the last roundabout. This really was a lesson about picking up strangers. Mind you, it’s normally the driver one’s supposed to be wary of – not the passenger! But this one was an exception.

“I’m sure you’ll find another girlfriend soon enough”, I said, lying through my teeth. This man should have a public warning printed on him, I thought. We drove on in silence. I had now realised that the next service station, Clacketts Lane, would take us in a westerly direction, faraway from Folkestone. Nor can one get off the motorway there and turn round. Once you’re there, you have to drive a further 30 miles westwards before there’s anywhere to turn off, let alone turn round.

How had I got myself into this appalling situation? Too late now: the next stop was Clacketts Lane, as long as I could keep myself, and him, calm. If I protested that I wanted to turn off, that might just start him off again with his threatening language. Anyway, I couldn’t turn off. It was Clacketts Lane or oblivion. With that choice, I chose Clacketts Lane. I was reminded of Groucho Marx. “What’s it like being 85, Mr Marx?” “Not bad really – when you consider the alternative.”

I chose the alternative, and tried to keep the conversation going about life and the universe, but certainly not everything. Certain subjects were like the proverbial red rag. Girlfriends, his previous employers, his so-called friends. There were not many things he did not have a chip on his shoulder about.

It wasn’t 20 minutes to Clacketts Lane. More like thirty – a very long thirty minutes. Finally, Clacketts Lane came into view. Now, if he was going to insist on my giving him money, how much should I give? No. That wasn’t right. I had agreed to give him a lift. I had done so. I did not agree to give him money as well. Was this trip really for money anyway? Was he used to hitching lifts with strangers? Did they all get asked for money?

We pulled up. He opened his door and got out. “The cash machine is just over there,” I said, pointing.

He looked at me, then at the machine. He ignored both, then walked into the cafeteria inside the entrance and disappeared.

Had he invented his whole predicament? Did he simply want a lift, and had no problem with diabetes? Or was he on drugs rather than insulin? Was his dealer located at Clacketts Lane?

At least, now was my chance to escape. Drive off and leave him firmly behind. I still had 20 minutes on the motorway, before I could turn round, and head back towards Kent. I set off. I was safe.

But the next time a “respectable” stranger asks me to take pity on him I shall think a little bit longer, before allowing him into my car. Things are rarely as straightforward as most people think. Strangers in the night can be one thing. Strangers in the daylight can be worse.

© Nicholas Reed 2007

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Yuting Zhou (Wantage) was the winner of the 12-17 Category for Outside Kent:

The lullaby in a geographical distance
by Yuting Zhou (Wantage)

“Where’re we going?” she tilts her head. She always does that before she lights a cigarette.

“Just something I want to show you.”

The silence is ominous. Everybody turns in my direction at the sound of my presence, so quickly that I wonder if their necks were going to snap. Yes I am late alright. I apologise for my lateness and am permitted to enter the examination room. I find my seat with my name printed on the entire table and sit down, try not to make too much noise, without success I may add, as the joints of my new chair produce a squeaky, sad noise.

One question sheet and two pieces of answer paper are given to me. I take a sharpened pencil and am ready to crack on. The teacher who’s given me these smiles and whispers in my ear, “This is a Geography exam, so no maps are needed. Don’t panic, you still have plenty of time.”

I nod to her and look down at the questions. In fact, I discover, there is only one question on the entire piece of paper. But I don’t know what it is. I don’t seem to be able to put the words together. I think I understand each one of them, but when they join together between punctuations, I am completely lost. I don’t get a grasp of the meanings. I don’t stand a chance. When it comes to reading individual sentences, I’m as helpless as hell.

Naturally, I look at people around me to see how they’re doing. All of them are concentrating on answering the question, wearing out the tips of their pencils on the paper, which produces a faint ruffling noise in the background. A thin boy looks up at me – I don’t see hostility or annoyance, and I don’t see friendliness either – but it seems that he has obtained inspiration for his answer from me, as he looks down and goes back to his paper again.

I play with my ear for a while, the left ear, in particular. I like to pick at the top of my ear where a piercing has put a hole through the cartilage. It’s an old wound. It never heals because I keep picking at it, and it never will if I continue. The hole keeps trying to grow back, but I keep scraping the scabs off to make sure it doesn’t do that. Sometimes it bleeds and my nail goes red. I suck at the finger tip. Maybe I should stop picking it. Maybe I should. Maybe one day I will. But I doubt it’s going to be anytime soon. It’s an old wound. It’s too late to be healed.

Four teachers walk ceaselessly in a circle of the room, making sure no one is cheating or has a chance to cheat. Three of them are my school teachers, but one of them I do not recognise. He simply looks like a teacher: short hair, clean shaven with glasses, non-descript tie and shirt. With a look like this, if he isn’t a teacher, he should damn well become one. They walk past me several times, oblivious to me, letting my ear continue to bleed.

Meanwhile, the taste of blood is keeping me awake from the drowsiness this room brings me. The tension has picked up since the teachers started walking around. Rather than squirming uneasily, I feel tired.

“Under the rules and regulations set up by the examination body, you’re now allowed a fifteen minute period break. The Geography exam will resume in fifteen minutes.”

The words unlocked us like skeleton keys. The fact that it’s only a “fifteen minutes” interim freedom doesn’t seem to spoil people’s spirit. They walk across to other people, laugh at jokes, and exchange answers. One or two people take a few gulps of water quietly in their seats. The unknown teacher comes to my direction.

“I would advise you to continue doing this exam paper whilst others have their break, just to make up for the time you lost by being late.”

So I remain in my seat. The noise around me is so loud that I can’t hear it, but I can feel the sinuous movement of my guts inside me, or even tapeworms, who knows.

I’m also paying attention to other people’s conversations, trying to get a grip of the answers. But all I hear is just three letters when the topic comes to the exam answers: BCA, CBA, ABC, BAC, any of those four combinations. Since I can’t read the question myself, I can only infer from the answers I hear, that it is a multi-choice question, also, it contains three options, and the order of the choices is important.

When I assure myself that I have heard correctly, I look down at the question sheet again. This time though, I am capable of understanding them again. My inference is confirmed. It is, indeed, a multi-choice question that contains three options.

The question goes like this: Provide the best solution for the following given situation: Arrange the items: A, an umbrella; B, a book; C, a cup, in these sections: a) Food Section; b) Sex Toy Special; c) Art Gallery. The arrangements you make must satisfy these two points: The items obtain the most attention from customers, and are sold the quickest.

To be honest, what result I get in Geography doesn’t matter at all. It won’t affect my over all qualifications, but still, I’m going to give my best shot...

“Now you have another forty-five minutes till the end of the exam. Starting now.”

On the blamelessly white paper I provide the reasons for my choices I have made in the best way I can. Explanations, or at least the good ones, should include technical geological terms and diagrams if appropriate to gain the maximum mark available, I recall my geography teacher saying. So I scour my memory of the words I learned, and read it over and over again in my head once I’ve written down something, making sure the punctuation and grammar are fine. I also rub out the inappropriate bits to satisfy my need of perfection. This is what’s good about pencils – mistakes can be erased and re-written. It is one of the few rare occasions where we get a chance to rectify our deeds in this world.

On a large scale, I think I’m done here. All I’ve got to do is wait till the exam finishes. I skim through my answers again:

A (c)     B (b)     C (a)

Reason for choices made: Coz I feel like it.

I rest my head on my folded arms and drift off to my own world. The light seems to be getting dimmer and dimmer – perhaps someone is turning the lights off one by one – maybe some one is trying to rescue the world by saving electricity, but I’m too tired to open my eyes and take a good look myself. If the lights are off, then they’re off; if people are dying, then people are dying; I don’t know. I don’t care. I can’t do anything about it so I don’t care.

I must have fallen fast asleep, for the next time I open my eyes, the room is empty. People have gone; the teachers, the hundreds of exam candidates, all but the unknown teacher and me myself. I can’t leave myself. The teacher, however, also stays behind for some reason. He is holding a baby in his arms with great care, humming a lullaby. His resonant voice gets softer and softer in the distance. The baby has a light velvet colour hair, like the colour of clouds when sun breaks through. The rhyme sounds very familiar. Perhaps someone had hummed the same lullaby when I was a baby. The humming is interrupted now and again by the changes of breath. He looks very relieved. The baby, I’m sure anybody can see as clearly as I do, is dead.

“You can go now, when you hand your paper to me. But apart from that, you’re free to go. So go. “He puts my paper aside, “So how did it go? Found it easy?”

“It’s ok.”

“You like talking to yourself, don’t you?” He says, putting the baby close to his cheek, “You’ve been talking for the last two hours.”

“You mean, I talk in my sleep?”

“No, not at all. You were awake. Your eyes were wide open.”

“But I didn’t see a thing and I thought I fell asleep. What you’re saying is my eyes were wide open but I didn’t see a thing, is it what you are saying?”

“Don’t we all?”

“What did I say?”

“Interesting things, as I see it. Maybe you don’t realise it, but you’re such an interesting person. You’re unique.”

I smile. “Thank you, I have to go now. By the way, what’s your baby’s name?”

“What baby?”

I smile again. I’ve asked too many questions. “Bye.”

“Farewell, my boy.”

“I’m not myself anymore, dear,” I mumble, not sure if she’s listening, “It’s not the first time… every now and again that lullaby he’s singing to that dead baby will come into my ears… It sounds like rain, from a place that has no geographical distance ….”

© Yuting Zhou 2007

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The Adult (Outside Kent) section was won by Mrs. Gaenor Kirkby (Keighley):

“Merry Christmas Mr Powell”
By Mrs. Gaenor Kirkby
The flash is short but intense. I can feel it burning straight through my eyelids and my eyeballs, tunnelling right into my brain. Ripples of excitement and fear are making me reel. My head is spinning, I’m holding my breath. I can feel the sweat making tracks down my back as the unrelenting sun continues to beat down, slowly turning my skin a deep Mediterranean brown. I’m waiting for the sound of the explosion to reach my ears. We have to wait for that and then count before we open our eyes. That’s when it will be safe, safe to look without the radiation harming us. But I can’t remember how many they told me to count to. And now it’s too late to ask………

When it comes the noise almost knocks me from my feet, I start to count, one, two, three……but I still can’t recall how many. Now my eyes are wide open. I’m staring at a huge mushrooming cloud like an inverted avalanche of snow. It’s rising and spreading, growing fast. A deadly creature that is slowly obliterating the distant view of Christmas Island. Steadily, it is covering all that is good. I can feel the dark, cold hand of death reaching out towards us. Yet, that towering white cloud is also a perfect sculptural form, growing and evolving against the purest blue canvas. Very conflicting visions you might say. Every single atom of my existence these days seems to be battling with something. Fighting the unknown. At war with something that cannot be seen and cannot be cured.

A sharp pain is ripping through the back of my leg and even though my eyes feel wide open, the terrifyingly beautiful scene in front of me is fading, dissipating before my very eyes……..

Now I don’t want to open my eyes. I know this place and I’m scared. I know where I am because I can hear them talking; always talking, sometimes about me, sometimes to me. In this place I am no longer who I want to be.

My name is Michael Powell. Who I am? Well that’s something I can’t really explain. At the moment I am sprawled on top of stark, white sheets, two women messing with my leg. The pain, as they wash and dress the ulcerated mass that seems to be part of me, is too much to bear.

“Bugger off!”

“Come on Michael, we’re just trying to help. We’re almost done now.”

The voice is kind, gentle and somehow caring, but I just want to be left, left alone to dream. I feel like a coward. I’ve seen so much and been through times of absolute hell. But still all the visions and distorted memories are preferable to the madness that is now eating away at the very core of my body. Attacking the very essence of my mind and soul.

“Piss off!”

I know they think it’s me shouting, but those words aren’t from me, those words are from the crumpled old man whose body now surrounds my thoughts like a prison.

“Calm down Michael, you don’t mean that. In a minute we’ll bring you a nice cuppa. Your wife phoned, she’ll be in later.”

Are they talking to me or the wreck of skin and bones that I see every time I properly open my eyes? Perhaps that wreck truly is me? I suppose it must be.

“There my lovely, all done.”

That’s all that they say to me, but in a guarded whisper the conversation continues. I can’t hear all of it, just odd words and disjointed phrases, ‘ worse’, ‘MRSA’, ‘antibiotics not working’, and most chilling of all, Huntington’s.

They leave the room and the door finally clicks shut. I disappear once more into my own world.

I’m collecting shells, placing them safely into the pockets of my RAF shorts. Some of them have tiny hermit crabs hiding inside them. In one of the larger pools of crystal clear water I stand and watch a small octopus. It disappears in a sudden defensive squirt of dark ink.

“Over here John!” I shout, laughing as I hurl lumps of damp white sand at him. He ducks and runs, grinning as we sprint around in the glorious shallows of blue coolness that surround the Island where we are based. Christmas Island…. 1956. Christmas seems a strange name for a place that is so very hot, so tropical that it is becoming hard to even remember what snow looks and feels like. It’s Christmas Day back home. Family, food and presents. All I’m missing is hearing the carols snaking their way out from within the fortified stone walls of York Minster. The warmth has gone. I’m cold and lonely. I’m there. Standing alone outside the immense building, just a child picking out the sounds of the majestic organ. Deciphering them from the rising and falling voices. The music is mesmerising, enthralling. I feel a single tear escape and slide effortlessly away…

“Michael? Are you awake?”

This voice is different, a soft, warm whisper. This voice takes me on a different journey; St. Luke’s Church, Eccleshill. I’m standing outside, the sun shining, but not

burning like on the Island. I feel slightly awkward; my suit doesn’t seem to quite fit. My stomach is churning like a whirl pool. It’s 1962, she is walking towards me, a radiant beauty. A dress as white as pure Christmas snow, her hair in contrast as red as fire ……

I try not to open my eyes, I just want to listen to her voice, listen and remember. I look back at the young man she married and cannot cope with knowing what she is now left with. A tired old shell with a broken mind.

When I finally look up, I see that she has arranged a small number of Christmas cards on the drawers by my bed. Pictures of fat smiling Santa’s, snow covered trees and rosy cheeked children with expectant expressions in their eyes. A small fibre-optic tree is flashing silently in the window. Its colours changing like my moods. I try to smile. I want to tell her everything. How I love her. How sorry I am. How I would do anything to be rid of the madness eating away at what is left of our life together.

She bends towards me and gently wipes my face. As I try to speak my mouth won’t form the words. Even though inside I am smiling, I can feel my lips hanging limply, my tongue protruding from within. She kisses me lightly on my forehead, brushing back the mop of wild silvery hair to do so.

“Bye Michael, I’ll be in again soon.”

I see her leaving, her hand reaching up to the door.

“Don’t go!”

But it’s too late, and once more the door clicks shut.

I sit and stare vacantly at the lights, trying to guess what colour will be next. The lights are becoming splintered and disjointed, blurring through a rain

splattered window. As I close my eyes the unshed tears escape and make tracks which follow the lines of time and pain etched deeply into my skin.

The door swishes open, I try to wipe away the tears. I don’t want their pity. My arms are heavy and useless, the muscles tired and wasted.

“It’s nearly Christmas Michael. Your wife told us you love the Minster and the carols. Well this is your lucky day because that’s where we’re going.”

Here I am. The echoing notes and voices swirl around. The floor beneath my feet vibrates. The sounds float and dance all around me and within me. The nurse beside me is holding my hand, smiling into my eyes. If only I could tell her how much happiness I am feeling. Right now I feel alive once more. My heart is racing. Inside this damaged husk I am free. Dancing, moving, and living once again.

“Merry Christmas Mr Powell.”

© Mrs. Gaenor Kirkby 2007

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