Monthly comp – April 2020

About Forums Den of Writers Monthly Competition Monthly comp – April 2020


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    Bit different this time in an attempt to find beauty in our (confined) surroundings – look around the room you are in & find the oldest item (not counting people!). Now tell us something about it. Why is it precious, why have you kept it so long, who owned it before you… whatever.
    400 words. Hope it brings a little light. 🙂


    A Victorian Writing Box

    Crafted in walnut with brass trimmings and lined with deep blue leather, the box is labelled discreetly as being made by Cawston, a portable case maker of 27 Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly. I can only imagine its complete history and wonder whether it might have journeyed with its original owner in fine carriages from London to country estates for lengthy house party gatherings.
    It sits on a small antique mahogany sewing table which, I have been told, may have been an apprentice piece. They reside in close proximity to my modern desk and computer.
    Both were gifted when a maiden aunt on my husband’s side of the family died in the late 1970s. The box is special to me because of its connection with writing and my love of that art. Before the advent of emails I was a prolific paper and pen letter writer and still enjoy penning the occasional missive. Surely this box has been witness to numerous letters expressing love, excitement or sadness?
    The box is a handsome piece of craftsmanship, solid and somehow reassuring and yet possessing a beauty and elegance of form.
    It is home to my smaller notebooks, which, in turn, secrete words I occasionally revisit when seeking inspiration from my initial thoughts, storylines or general jottings if a particular work seems to have lost its way.
    The maiden aunt who bequeathed this box was an interesting person and perhaps a difficult one in her dotage, which is understandable for she had a troubled childhood and youth. It is believed the box was given to her by her foreign lodger during wartime and suspected that he was also her ‘gentleman friend’. It is good to think that she found special love and comfort in her life, if only for the duration.
    I am not sure that this rather prosaic account adequately describes why the writing box is special to me and why it remains in a prominent place in our home after so very many years, but I do know that I have experienced warm feelings as I have attempted to share its essence.
    I sincerely hope that this objet d’art will give pleasure in a similar way to whoever becomes its owner after I shuffle off this mortal coil.

    375 words


    Not the best poetry, but hey ho…

    It has no chain, though once it might,
    It’s on a shelf, mainly out of sight.
    I wound it up and heard it tick
    Then set the hands with a firmer click.
    Triangles mark the quarter hours
    and rectangles? The intervals and other hours.
    It’s made by Smiths, a British firm
    Not Timex, Rolex or another well known.
    It’s fairly plain, no other mark
    To say when it was given or bought
    A working watch for a working man
    And it remembers Grandad although I can’t.


    Bringing a little light

    I suspected, on reading the rules, if I did submit anything it would be something of a cheat, because there’s not a lot that’s actually old in itself in this room. Not much in the way of ‘things’ really, anywhere in the house (although I do have, in the loft, my great-grandfather’s two writing boxes such as Jill describes).

    I searched my mind for something old which qualified as precious and giving pleasure. Eventually lighted upon not something I own but have photographs of; photographs which enable me to recall the huge and humbling pleasure of holding in my hands, turning the ragged-edge, discoloured, holed and stained vellum pages of a Suffolk parish register, in which the first recorded marriage, on 4th June 1559, was that of my twelve-generations back maternal grandparents, John Poole and Edith Ffitts. Further – and even greater – pleasure was gained from knowing that their great-great-grandson Thomas was for forty years the Parish Clerk and took it upon himself to ink and re-ink the baptisms, marriages and burials if his own family.

    Much less of a cheat is another photograph. A carte de visite found in one of the nine photograph and postcard albums inherited from my paternal great-grandfather.

    As with so many of the photos it was un-named. My eventual, confident, identification of the couple depicted – his parents, John and Susannah Sutcliffe – came only after many years of poring over other family photos, of dating and compiling histories from registers, censuses and family recollection. Of researching the history of photography, which enabled me to date it the 1870s.

    But what jolted the first inkling that this crystal-clear image of two serious-faced people in a studio on Blackpool (when they lived in Halifax) was some instinctive jolt of recognition of the angle and appearance of John’s left arm, which matched that of the man much earlier identified as John Sutcliffe (because he was standing outside his recognisable house taken with Susannah, shortly before 1899, the year in which Susannah died.

    Working all this out, seeing this couple so clearly, felt like the culmination of a twenty-year journey; an encapsulation of all that is valuable and exciting and life-affirming about family history research.

    Two years after this I began writing fiction, and gradually, time for family history leached away.

    [381 words]


    ‘Shall we pull down the blinds?’

    One of the things I took away from my mother’s house when she had to go into a care home, not long after our move to Wales in 2011, was a bread-knife. They don’t make ’em like this any more: it has a bone handle, smoothed from decades of use, and a finely serrated blade (in contrast to the great hacking teeth of the bread-knife we’d been using up to then), scratched but still glitteringly bright. On that blade is engraved what looks like a maker’s logo until you look closely. Then you see that it says CIS Newcastle Conference 1936.

    I have no idea what the connection was between the Newcastle conference of the Co-operative Insurance Society and a bread-knife, or how that knife came into my mother’s possession, but I do know that 1936 was the year my mother left school and began working for the CIS. Her father was a life-long socialist and a strong supporter of the Co-operative movement (which meant more then than it does now, when the Co-op is little more than another supermarket chain), and that may have had something to do with it.

    By her early twenties, at the height of World War II, she was working in their office in Gloucester, taking the train from Bristol, where she was born and raised. Also commuting from Bristol to Gloucester was a man seven years older, my father.

    Neither was very comfortable around the opposite sex. My mother had had to wear glasses from childhood, and was shy and inclined to over-weight. My father had once, in his youth, asked a girl out only for her to stand him up. Unswervingly honest and conscientious himself, he also had a mind that, once made up, set like concrete. He decided that girls weren’t to be trusted, and devoted his leisure time to sports and guzzling beer with his mates. ‘I suppose I probably missed out there,’ he once said to me in a rare unguarded moment, not long before he died.

    But something about this quiet, bespectacled young woman appealed to him. He didn’t rush into it: he’d ridden in the same carriage several times before he spoke to her. It was getting dark and time to hide the train’s lights from German bombers. ‘Shall we pull down the blinds?’ he said.

    That was the beginning of how I got to be here.

    399 words (phew!)


    A perfect fit

    When my yoga teacher organized a desert trek, I signed up immediately. Something in me wanted – needed – a week away from my life. Time off to think, read and write. I bought a new notebook and fountain pen, packed a few books and before I knew it a plane brought our group of 9 yogis to the Sahara.

    Between the full moon I couldn’t switch off, giant beetles scuttling about and the howling of jackals in the distance, I barely slept the first night. At dawn, I joined the Tunisian nomads sitting around a fire in native garb. One, Amor, offered me ‘kawa’. Never has coffee tasted so good.

    As we hiked into the desert and civilisation disappeared, the group bonded. First between the yogis, then with the nomads, the four men making sure we didn’t sit on scorpions, that we had daily fresh vegetables, and that we stayed in the shade of the dromedaries with perpetually-filled bottles of water. Temporarily released from my responsibilities as a wife and mother, I was just myself, a soul in the desert.

    During one trek, Amor spotted a small flint arrowhead and offered it to me. He’d no way of knowing that I’ve studied prehistoric tools for years, to the point of taking workshops to learn to make them. We spoke of the arrow the best we could despite the language barrier. A few kilometres later he stopped the seven-dromedary caravan and indicated a swath of tightly packed sand. Flint chips gleamed in the sun: remnants of prehistoric tool production.

    I spotted a palm-sized flint with a few bevelled edges and squatted to hold it, moving it around in my hand. I smiled at Amor: my fingers had wrapped around it perfectly. My thumb, index, major and ring-finger all nestled on pre-determined planes, leaving open a large edge for scraping. Between 3.3 million years ago, and the present, a person had made a tool that perfectly fit my hand.

    I could have (should have?), left the scraper in the desert, but I couldn’t. Like the week in the desert, it was a perfect fit, and became the material reflection of the outer – and inner – voyages I’d taken. The Stone Age scraper sits on my desk, and I only have to put it in my hand to remember the closeness of our group and the powerful energy of those vast expanses of Saharan sand.

    400 words (excluding title)


    The Portrait

    In the mid 1980s I bought a Victorian water-colour portrait of a young woman: anonymous, unfinished, unsigned. In the window of a London antique shop the half-profile head and shoulders were almost life size but only her face was complete. I stood on the pavement and dithered. Did I like this picture?

    Part of the problem was her gaze. Downwards to somewhere beyond the oval frame, was it thoughtful or dully passive? What’s more she was dressed as a Roman, or perhaps an ancient Greek, and looking like a model for a painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The internet says Alma-Tadema’s oil paintings are regaining interest but to me those handsome heroes and attractive young women, grouped around pillars or Roman baths, will always be kitsch. The skies are so blue, the flowers so candy pink, the ethos too unappealing.

    I stopped on the pavement, undecided, probably as still as the portrait. Gold ribbon twice bound her dark curls, and a pencilled neckline implied a plain shift dress. The posture of her shoulders – the pencil outline continued – indicated one arm relaxed by her side, the other clasping something large. Cliché suggested a water pitcher. There was a strong hint of handmaiden, a bit player.

    Finances came into it; I’d be disingenuous to leave that out. The anonymity made the picture cheap so I gave it more thought. Not quite finished, her dark-brown brown curls were a little blurry, her neck’s skin tones were too flat for life. The balance of her head on her shoulders was perfect. The face – features, shadows and light-catching cheeks – were precise, delicate, and pale as if not getting enough sunlight. An artist’s model stuck in studios. The wash behind her was grey and looked rainy – quite London. She had a city pallor, a hint of hair on her top lip and shadows under her eyes. That decided me. She was real.

    In the years since then she has grown on me, especially now I spend more hours writing and therefore thinking. She is thinking too. And a painting interrupted, someone else’s work in progress or a project given up: a familiar part of creation. Then that message that this portrait, better than a finished picture, catches time in the moment work stopped. It’s my reminder that writing is about portraying time – its passing, its signifiers, its sense of a future pulling like a thread.

    398 words exc title

    Xander Michael

    *Contains foul language*

    Falling in Love Ten Years Ago

    ‘Fuck! I can’t be late again! If I miss this signing I can kiss any chance of promotion goodbye. Hell, I can probably kiss my job goodbye as well this time! So where the hell are my keys?’

    He frantically looked around his new apartment of half unpacked boxes and scattered belongings. Fredrick stopped in the hallway to catch his breath, closed his eyes and imagined last night when he came home. Yes, he was drunk again, but that never changed his routine. He raced back to the kitchen counter remembering the clink of metal on marble. Next to the counter was an open box of miscellaneous items. He squatted down, shoved his hand into the box and fished around back and forth.

    “OW! What the fuck?”

    He yanked his hand out of the box, then watched as a little dot of blood bubbled out of his middle finger. He nursed it in his mouth and dove back into the box with is other hand with a little more caution to find what pricked him. He found a small plastic bag marked with his ex-wife’s handwriting, “Alistair’s Baby Teeth.” Fredrick sat down on the floor leaning against the cupboards and tapped the teeth out into his palm. So small and still so sharp.

    Alistair was their cat that Janice got in the divorce. Ten years ago when Alistair arrived at their home from the breeder’s, he was only three months old. They watched him for hours exploring their love nest in upper Manhattan, sniffing every corner and cautiously approaching that other kitten in the front hall mirror. Fredrick smiled remembering Alistair walking sideways with arched back topped with orange fur standing straight up and his tail poofed out to make himself bigger than his reflection. At night he’d paw at the covers until Fredrick lifted them so he could curl up between his legs.

    But nothing was better than when Fredrick and his wife would settle on the couch and Alistair chose his lap over his wife’s to circle clockwise and then counter-clockwise until he found the right position for a cuddle. It was hard not to feel valued.

    Looking at those teeth, Fredrick found it hard to believe that Alastair had ever been so tiny. He missed him.

    A clink pulled him out of his reverie as his keys fell out of his pants pocket.

    398 excluding title

    Post Script – I have Ukko’s baby teeth in a plastic bag pinned to my cork board in my office. He is still with me and my husband, though he did scare us by almost dying in 2014 while I was at the Writing Festival in York. Drama queen!


    Thank-you all. I just realised as I logged on to write this that we talked about making these comps run over two months rather than one? I’ll stick to one month being as that was how I set it. So. These were all a delight to read. So many memories and things that resonated with me very powerfully. Anyway, on to my thoughts.

    I am very jealous of you having such a wonderful item. And gosh yes – how many stories must it contain! I feel like it is just sitting there, waiting to tell us. You are right – your words are very prosaic, but the power in the item speaks for itself.

    A poem! Yay! I love how utterly prosaic and factual it was up until that whopper of a last line. It made the emotion, the loss, hit me like a tonne of bricks. Made me well up, damn you & miss my own grandad!

    I am in awe of the depths of research you have done on your family, and so jealous of these photographs that tie you to your history so powerfully. You conveyed this lovely dichotomy of having that connection but still having so much unknown.

    This item was probably the most everyday, mundane object of the lot, and yet you manage to turn a breadknife into the nexus of the sweetest moment in the world! Wonderful, thank-you!

    Well you win on the oldest object! Wow, what a thing to have. And to have it resonate on two levels, both your own memories of an amazing experience, but also the sheer weight of human history. Such a sense of atmosphere in this little snippet, lovely stuff.

    This was a beautiful read. A fascinating blend of expert knowledge of the art and an esoteric resonance. I love the idea of her watching over you and reminding you that art is a voyage of discovery and a passing moment. Such a powerful image.

    Well done for sneaking in at the last! I love that you turned your own item into a fictional one and yet lost none of the immediacy. I have kitten teeth at the feet of a statue of Lakshmi (which incidentally is my oldest item currently!) and they are far too cute to throw away!

    So this is a strangely hard set to judge, and honestly I could just as happily have chosen any one of you, but I’ve got to go with @libby because I got such a wonderful, warm feeling for this incomplete, imperfect painting that still spoke so powerfully.

    I’m glad I set this challenge – it’s a weird time, and I’m both very grateful for the house and garden I have, and also feeling hemmed in, so to remember to look for the treasures we have within reach is nice, I think. So thank-you for showing me your everyday treasures, and well done all of you.


    Thank you Raine – both for setting such an interesting, informative and thought-provoking challenge, and for picking my favourite as winner. Well done Libby.

    • This reply was modified 2 years ago by Sandra.

    Well done, Libby! Loved your piece. Interesting to read the stories behind the objects from everyone.


    Well done, Libby – so full of intrigue and resonance – and thinks to Raine for setting such a thought-provoking theme that I was actually inspired to write something. Oh, and yes, that bread-knife is still in daily use.

    John S Alty

    Well done, Libby, thoroughly deserved.


    Thank you @Raine and everyone, this is a lovely surprise! I enjoyed the challenge of writing some non-fiction. I loved everyone else’s entries too. A captivating variety as always, and such good writing.

    I’ll go away now and think of a theme for the May competition.


    Thank you @Raine for the lovely feedback and for a comp idea that allowed us to think beyond our times, much needed at this point!
    Congratulations to @Libby, yours is beautifully written and a well-deserved win.
    Hapy May Day everyone!


    Congratulations, Libby. Well deserved – loved all the entries, but something about a mysterious ‘real life yet uncompleted sitter’ becoming a long lasting inspiration tugged at the heartstrings of fellow writers I think.


    Loved the entries this time round. Very well done Libby. Raine, great topic. Came so close to telling you about my green rug, but it wasn’t to be.


    I have to agree with Ath, they were a wonderful lot of entries this month. Congratulations to Libby and to everybody who took part. Fingers crossed I might get an entry in this month!

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