I Remember When…

FRED 2A

Do you ever imagine yourself back in the past? I don’t mean hundreds of years ago. I mean ten or twenty years ago in your own lifetime. Sometimes when I want to remind myself that I’m actually on track and doing well I go back into my headspace and remember how I felt when

When I didn’t have my first book written.

When I stared at a blank page/computer screen and had no idea how to begin writing.

When I sat on Avalon Beach gazing towards a distant shore…America…and wishing I was there where stars and fortunes were made.

When I didn’t have my daughter.

When I wished life would start.

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Me at nineteen

I go back to my younger self and remember the hollow desperation and uncertainty that gnawed at me constantly. I used to imagine all manner of rescue scenarios involving perfect lovers and immaculate looks. I imagined that if I looked like Ava Gardner all of my problems would evaporate. I fantasised that a lover would arrive fully congniscent of my strengths and weaknesses and needs and aspirations and pave the way to happiness and success. I speculated that if I lived in America or England my talent would be celebrated and nurtured and supported.

I imagined that everybody else’s life was easier than mine and I fervently wished I was anybody else but me.

When I didn’t have my daughter.

I am twenty and newly arrived in London. My travelling companion, Jeanette, said I cried in my sleep the night we arrived. It didn’t surprise me. London was so beautiful, so shiny and so full of genius I doubted I would ever find my place in that metropolis. I didn’t have my daughter then and her spirit would have been watching and cheering me on but in those days I was deaf to angelic promptings. That came much later. Within a week of arriving in London, Jeanette got homesick and booked a flight back to Australia. So, I found a flat in Kilburn and set up house with my brother who had started to do extremely well in the world of time-share real estate. I got a job waitressing in a local Greek cafe and went for dozens of auditions. Over the next few months my brother and I seemed to run into Australian friends everywhere we went and many of them spent a night or two on our couch. My industry friends also started arriving, a succession of beautiful girls in the acting, singing and modelling world landed on our doorstep and couch surfed while they explored opportunities in London. My brother was in seventh heaven. I was riddled with even more self-doubt and rage at my inadequacies and the same old mantra looped in my head: If only I had spectacular looks, spectacular talent or a spectacular rescuer.

In the end London was too much for me and after a year I limped home to Australia and the balm of a mother and grandparents whose unflagging faith sustained me through another decade of not much happening.

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This photo was taken a year after I got back from London.

I can still see the hopelessness in my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I stared at a blank page/computer screen and had no idea how to begin writing.

Fast forward to my daughter.

Still failing at everything else I tried to do, acting, singing, writing, I none-the-less succeeded in giving birth to a Genevra at school aged 7 (2)beautiful child whose enthusiasm for life was infectious and soul-quenching. Throughout the empty years where every avenue terminated in a dead end, my daughter kept me grounded. Her observations – “Mummy, that spider is nervous” “That dog is sad” “Dolphins are clever” – kept me invested in the moment. For her sake I was determined to succeed, show her that a woman could beat the odds. For her sake, I hurdled my self-doubt and developed an attitude of nothing ventured, nothing gained, complete 180 degree turn from the girl who ran away from London. I began to take my writing seriously and as a consequence met that spectre called writers’ block. I spent many agonising hours staring at a blank page or computer screen hoping for inspiration. It took me moving to America to discover that inspiration flows from effort.

But before America…

Naming a demon comes at a cost. But eventually, I had to name the demon. Australia. Many an artist has come to the same conclusion – Australia is no friend to the artistically-inclined. It belittles, exhausts and overlooks its talented sons and daughters. The land of my birth suited me as long as I was filled with self-loathing but when I started to heal I came to loathe Australia and its insatiable appetite for mediocrity in the Arts.

When I sat on Avalon Beach gazing at a distant shore…America…and wishing I was there where stars and fortunes were made.

I remember the day I admitted to myself that I could not stay in Australia, that I had to go back and face the challenge of London or  make the giant leap to America. I felt sick with the realisation that my own country would never give me a chance to shine. It was so difficult because I had a nice life with my daughter. We lived in Sydney’s northern beaches: minimal rent, lots of friends. I had work that paid enough for us to live well, go out with friends and go on holidays. But I had no future and I knew it. I sat on Avalon Beach craving a way to reach that distant shore – America. And then on holiday in Hawaii I met the American dream – tall, stunning, blonde, surfie-musician-builder wearing white jeans and an apple-green silk shirt that matched his eyes. He looked like a cross between Brad Pitt and James Dean. We fell in love and he followed me back to Australia and then promised me America. My daughter and I landed on that longed-for shore in 1993.

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When I didn’t have my first book written.

However back on his own turf my knight in shining armour rusted dramatically. But America glittered and glowed and delivered everything I hoped it would. As my own star rose my marriage fell apart. But in spite of my ragged homelife, opportunities flowed in and my belief in myself grew apace. No longer riddled with self-doubt, America held up a mirror to a woman who was gifted, strong and beautiful and my headspace changed dramatically. But my home-life was deranged and becoming dangerous, the fights escalated to threatened violence and so my daughter and I limped back to Australia, once again to the balm and care of my patient mother. And I sank into another decade of despair in ancient, weather-beaten Australia which provided sanctuary in tandem with spiritual desolation. But in that arid space I wrote Catch the Moon, Mary and produced my first fully-fledged musical, Scheherazade.

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When I wished life would start.

Having at last beaten writers’ block and achieved excellence I believed success would follow as night the day. And so I waited. And waited. And when nothing much happened despair gripped again like winter chill. The space in my head was an icy chamber but in one corner a tiny flame flickered hope.

And then slowly but surely little bursts of applause from people I never dreamed I would meet or get to know. People from all over the world got in touch via Twitter or Facebook and talked about the impact of my book. They told me Catch the Moon, Mary made them think and cry and ultimately restored their faith in themselves just as my leading lady, Mary Granger had. My headspace began to fill with joy that I was able to make a difference through my words. Give hope where there was none, build bridges. The look in my eyes changed from blank to light. Where there had been a reflection of hopelessness now hope shone.

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When I go back to that mental space.

When I go back into that mental space I feel a cold wind, the familiar breath of hollow despair. I remember seeking a sign or a light or a way through to the promised land of success where I firmly believed happiness resided in fragrant drafts of confidence. The land of success would open up other shores, other opportunities. It always felt out of reach and slipping further away as if I had somehow coralled myself in a tiny boat with no oars, adrift and slave to the currents. I truly felt that powerless. Depression gripped like a vice.

 

 

But that flame…

That tiny flame warmed me enough to attempt my own rescue.

Naming the rescuer is as talismanic as naming the demon.

The rescuer’s name was excellence and excellence does not pursue. Excellence must be pursued and the more diligently you chase excellence the stronger your faith in yourself becomes. Your tiny boat suddenly sprouts oars and you can chart your course. I started charting my course when I gave up hoping for rescue and started focusing on my quest for excellence. sistine-chapel-ceiling-creation-of-adam-1510.jpg!Large

There are days…

But still there are days I fall back into the old ways. The light is dim and the rage is a pervasive gloaming. But I am a long way from the girl who cried in her sleep in London and I don’t ever want to go back to that lonely, faithless place in which I have no power and no oars.

Today I have four souls upon whom I can build my faith: my mother, my daughter, my granddaughter and…

 

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Mum in London in 2017 when we flew over for the reading of Catch the Moon, Mary and my musical, FRED at Tristan Bates Theatre.

My beautiful daughter, Genevra with the greatest gift of all, my grandaughter, Lily.

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                                                And now finally I have me!

April Showers

APRIL SHOWERS PRAISE ON FIELDS OF GRACE

FOG banner with coffeeWhat an extraordinary month April has been for me and more specifically for my book, Fields of Grace.

Fields of Grace by Wendy Waters

 

 

 

Fields of Grace was turned down by every publisher and agent I submitted it to over a period of ten years between 2010 and 2020 and now it has been voted best book of April by two independent reviewers.

 

 

 

 

 

The first acknowledgement came from London reviewer Rose Auburn who voted Fields of Grace one of two best reads in April.

 rose auburn link

@RoseAuburnBooks

Available from: amzn.to/3gXp4qy

Fields of Grace by Wendy Waters @wa_waters

Girl Tracy by Nerissa Martin  @JustNerissa  

The other reviewer was Peter Donnelly @theReadingDesk Ireland who voted Fields of Grace the best book of April.
The Reading Desk
The Reading Desk

The #BOTM choice for April 2021 by #ReadingDesk reviewers is, #FieldsOfGrace by

Two great runners-up: #TheMaidens by @AlexMichaelides
and #Hyde by @TheCraigRussell
peter donnelly's April book choice
And this is the field my book competed against.
Peter Donelly's April faves 2021
Suffice it to say I am reeling with the revelation that my book beat Where the Crawdads Sing, The Maiden, Hamnet and Hyde, books that have been supported by massive marketing campaigns. My book was self-published, unedited and rejected by publishers and agents for almost a decade. Believe me I am still coming to terms with the impact my book has made on two of the most respected reviewers in the UK. 
If there is a a moral to this story, it’s that you should never give up on yourself even though every avenue appears to be closed. Keep believing and keep persevering. Sometimes the world just has to catch up.
Added to this Sarah Sansom @theBookWhiskers voted Fields of Grace her favourite book of 2020!books-whiskers-logo-march-2021-1

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Sarah was nominated for The Sunshine Bloggers Award.

Q1. What was your favourite and least favourite book of 2020?

Gaarrrrghh!  Pulling out the biggest question first!  I’ve read so many brilliant books this year (which is why it’s taking me a long time to pull together my ‘5* reads of 2020’ blog article).  But I clearly have to give an answer so my favourite would be …

Fields of Grace by Wendy Waters
Fields of Grace by Wendy Waters

It is very emotionally involving, with a cast of characters so vivid and alive they felt like good friends within the first few chapters.  I adore Wendy’s lyrical style of writing; she’s a musician and this delightful talent flows lusciously into her prose.  If you’ve not read this book, I hugely recommend it … you’re in for a treat. If you want to find out more about Fields of Grace, this link will whizz you over to my review.

I am so grateful to Rose, Sarah and Peter for giving this story wings.

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Thank you to my friend Dean Micheal Rochford for an achingly beautiful cover. RIP my friend, gone but not forgotten.

Review by Peter Donnelly

HISTORICAL FICTION LITERARY FICTION

Fields of Grace – Wendy Waters

on
26 April 2021
Fields of Grace Book Cover
Title: Fields of Grace
Author: Wendy Waters
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Publisher: Independently Published
Release Date: 25 October 2019
Format: Paperback
Pages: 442

From the author of Catch The Moon, Mary comes this epic drama spanning seven decades. Set against a backdrop of war in 1930s’ Europe, Grace Fieldergill, a starry-eyed young actress from Devon, moves to London to pursue her dream of becoming a star. The lovable boarders of Wyncote House, a ladies-only establishment, take her under their collective wing and share her triumph when she is accepted into the brilliant young John Gielgud’s Company as Peggy Ashcroft’s understudy. When Peggy misses a show one night, Grace gets her chance. Watching her performance that evening are two people who will change her life forever, London’s most famous actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and a man whose love she never thought she could win.

Feu sacré

Fields of Grace is an absorbing novel, epic in its ability to build a compelling story around a leading character, and transport her life through years of adventure, drama and relationships, and arrive at a point on the final day of her life with profound secrets to reveal. Wendy Waters writes with such glorious purpose, she builds a story born from her love of theatre, music and literature, and delivered through her beautifully lyrical writing. She reminds me of the Robert Frost quote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” The passion in the story is told with such reverent love for the theatre, which prides itself on being a unique community keeping the outside world at the stage door. That’s not to say this is an obsequious account of theatre life that avows integrity and hugely talented actors, agents and producers. In fact, we are treated to the spectrum of machinations that we would expect from an environment where position feeds ego, popularity, envy and money, and also the creative, passionate and emotional side with an affinity towards colleagues.

In the world of the theatre, where everything has its moment and change is inevitable, as one play and cast gives way to the next, the precarious nature of love and relationships is explored with a wonderful quality of observational insight. The array of characters is used brilliantly to provide the depth and variation that relationships embrace, from deeply emotional to frivolous, from genuine love to fleeting infatuation, and from unrequited love to feu sacré (sacred fire – the fire that burns for one true mate).

Grace Fieldergill (pseudonym Grace Fielding) comes from a farm in Devon, she is a Cimbri – a person who believes in Druid lore and in certain lights she can see lost spirits. With a youthful exuberance of becoming a theatre star, she settles in Wyncote House, London, in Miss Dixon’s boarding home for young women, although the rule is already broken for the ageing Major. Georgina, Penelope, Julie and Grace become family, protective of each other, and supportive in times of need. Grace secures a position in John Gielgud’s theatre company as an understudy to Peggy Ashcroft. Grace’s moment comes when Peggy doesn’t make the show one evening and Grace grasps her understudy opportunity and is recognised for her natural talent by England’s leading agent, John Hopkins-Reimer. So beguiled was John that he offers her the chance to become the most popular and famous female actress around. The relationship between Grace and John is fascinating and speaks about love at so many levels.

With an opportunity for John to showcase Grace in more modern productions of plays, he plans a theatrical tour of France and Germany, being strategic with the World’s attention on Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. Although rumours about Germany’s treatment of Jews were starting to make the press and be discussed in many circles of power and influence. The artistic ambition mixed with personal threat finds a wonderful balance in Wendy’s writing and how the change of pace for Grace and Europe continues to grow in the tumultuous period leading up to the Second World War. The attention on them in Berlin was unfortunately not only for artistic reasons.

The narrative is told with an authentic tone that brings Grace’s world to life with the adventure facing her and the stark changes in Europe. Wendy Waters creates an outstanding story that touches on many levels of drama and intrigue. It is fascinating to meet household acting stars such as John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward etc. early in their careers, and an amusing moment where they say goodbye to David Niven as he takes the risk of heading to Hollywood to act in the movies. A decision they all think will backfire and have him back in London seeking work in the theatre again. I would highly recommend this book that crosses many genres including historical fiction, literary fiction, romance, and a touch of magical realism.

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This is a #review on Amazon by author of Elephants Never Lie. Such an honour!

Michelle5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderfully orchestrated story of love and ultimate betrayal

Reviewed in the United States on August 11, 2020

I could not put this book down! Mary’s story of grace that emerges through the cracks of trauma, is written in a unique, musical prose that bound me to the very end.

Mary is a traumatized and shy young woman who feeds the fairies in hopes that they will help her in return, to get through loneliness and the abuse from her father. Instead, she gets an archangel who is drawn to her, seemingly, because she is a musical genius, only to find out that the relationship goes much deeper and much farther back in history. It is a relationship between two souls that creates desperate longing when they are apart and also a rapturous draw toward each other when they are near.

Wendy Waters has done a superb job with this story and with its beautiful prose. Again, it’s a page-turner, and one I couldn’t put down. I highly recommend!

an authorly tribute to mothers & daughters

The extraordinary Sarah Sansom has created this superb Mother’s Day post on her site @TheBook’sWhiskers. Enjoy!!!

The Book's Whiskers

When the idea popped into my head to ask some of my favourite female authors how their mothers inspired their love of books, I had no idea what a fabulous response I’d get. This post is a tribute to my wonderful Mum, and the mothers of ten inspirational writers … in their own words.

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ALEXANDER – THE MUSICAL

A few updates since I first wrote this post.

Catch The Moon, Mary

Alexander square.

Logo Design by Dean Michael Rochford @DigiLuxEU – Art by Deano

NEWSFLASH: ALEXANDER will be featured on New Musicals Monday on 1st February.  Ryan Thornhill @thorhilltheatrespace (14) Thornhill Theatre Space | Facebook and Jean-Paul Yovanoff @MTR (14) Musical Theatre Radio | Facebook are working tirelessly to spotlight musical theatre writers who may be unfamiliar to you. Between them they are bringing brilliant new musicals to the world.

The link to Thornhill TheatreSpace New Musicals Monday is https://open.spotify.com/show/0Txud9SgySsD0iP4qWImzJ…

Thornhill Musical image

I spent a little over a decade writing and rewriting the “book” of my musical ALEXANDER, first from the POV of the soldier/conqueror/King of Macedonia and then from the POV of a tortured visionary whose lust for both power and enlightenment finally drove him to the excesses characteristic of dictators of every stripe and creed.

ALEXANDER‘S physical quest is well-known. In 334 BC, following in the footsteps and mindset…

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Catch the Moon, Mary – the journey

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CATCH THE MOON, MARY the journey from my laptop to the virtual shelves is a journey that reads like Author Interrupted at every turn, pathway blocked, DO NOT ENTER, GO BACK YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY and finally by taking THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED my tome has found its way home…or more precisely into your home.

But authors be warned: If you want to write something original be prepared for plebeian denigration.

CTTM Quote 2

I spent a decade refining Catch the Moon, Mary, the story Mary Granger, an eight-year-old musical genius who leaves dishes of honeyed bread on her windowsill for the elves in the hope they will bring her good luck. To block out the unwanted nocturnal visits of her drunken father, Mary imagines music, not just any music, full-blown symphonies that gateway fantasy worlds into which she escapes his vile attentions.

Her music has a far reach, twining  the glittering pockmarked sky with tendrils of melody. One night a weary angel trapped in endless flight hears her music and flutters to her window. Breathing in her redemptive symphony, his light reignites and he devises a plan to inflame the spaces between the notes with a powerful subliminal message of hope that will awaken the comatose world. Fulfilled at last he will return home, bathed in glory … if the girl accepts his Faustian deal – fame, fortune and protection from her father in exchange for the sole rights to her music … and no questions asked.

CTTM Quote

I began writing Catch the Moon, Mary in 2001. In 2007 I won the Women’s Weekly/Penguin Short Story Contest and had the opportunity to present a completed manuscript to Penguin. Despite having been rejected by every literary agent in Australia the agents started calling me at that point. I offered them Catch the Moon, Mary but not one of them was interested. One very respected Australian Literary Agent who shall remain nameless called it the “oddest book they had ever read” another more optimistically said, “It’s brilliant but I can’t sell such an unusual story in this market.” And Penguin knocked it back.

So, once again, despite winning a major Lit Comp, I was on my own struggling to navigate a seemingly impenetrable market. Thank God for Preditors and Editors, my go-to for publishers open to unsolicited mss. I scoured the columns of P&Es and pitched to hundreds of publishers worldwide over the next seven years. Yes, you read that correctly, SEVEN YEARS. Every day my inbox was brimming with rejections if they bothered to answer at all.

Preditors and Editors – WritingCorner.com

Finally a small publisher in Scotland accepted the manuscript and published it 2015.

A word here about small publishers. Make sure they have a vigorous social-media-savvy intern on staff or your newly-published book will sink like a stone. Mine did. In the end I had to take the book back and self-publish because I realised I’d be better off working alone and pursuing every available avenue for raising awareness of my book as opposed to asking permission. Having said that, the publisher was arguably the most brilliant editor any publishing house could want and if one of the mainstream publishers wants to look at hiring her they’d be doing their authors a huge service.

So, my book was mine again and it fell to me to market it. I made all the rooky mistakes. Paying good money to bad publicists and worse reviewers for no results. And then I stumbled upon the #writingcommunity on Twitter who are remarkably supportive.

Then I had a series of lucky breaks.

I once met an agent in London who told me that everyone deserves two lucky breaks. I’ve had several but chief among them are the following:

  • In 2015 my friend Nigel Lewis, a lighting designer on the West End, gave his friend, Amanda Redman, a copy of my book and she included it in her favourite six books in the Express!

https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/779947/Actress-Amanda-Redman-favourite-books

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Book Review: Catch The Moon, Mary – The Book’s Whiskers (wordpress.com)Featured Image -- 1487 cropped-ctmm-cropped2.jpgCatch the Moon, Mary has attracted some extraordinary #5Star #reviews since 2015 and the mean, small-minded part of me takes a certain pleasure in the fact that the books chosen ahead of mine by Penguin and Harper-Collins between 2007-2010 have uniformly garnered only a handful of #5Star reviews and in one case only a few #3Star reviews. What they all lack is STORY and originality. I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to spin a good yarn. Stories endure. Wordsmith ability is essential. Put the two together and you have magic. Write your best story and wrap it up in words that cast a glamour and then do everything in your power to raise awareness of your work and you will succeed.

Failure is a word not a sentence!!

Finally here’s my advice to authors whether you’re traditionally published or self-published.

These Ten Things Will Inspire You
  1. Join Twitter and Instagram and post regularly. Get involved with the #writingcommunityofinstagram and the #writingcommunity on Twitter. They are so supportive!
  2. Approach #reviewers and offer them hard copies or e-copies of your book in exchange for an honest review.
  3. Remind friends & family to leave #reviews on #Amazon and #Goodreads and anywhere else your #book is sold.
  4. Vigorously #support other #writers
  5. Join the larger #bookclubs and post about other authors because most of them won’t allow #selfpromotion
  6. Find marketers like the fabulous Circle of Books – Authors & Readers Group circleofbooks.com and pay the tiny fee Sandro Mestre asks to vigorously promote your #book on social media.
  7. Blog if you’re not doing so already and write interesting articles. Better to write engaging posts infrequently than bore people stupid with trivia.
  8. Seek out #reviewers like The Reading Desk thereadingdesk.com and Sarah Sansom The Book’s Whiskers – Books ✦ Cats ✦ Gin ✦ Life is good! (wordpress.com) and Jules Mortimer littlemissnosleep.wordpress.com and Yecheilyah Books LLC yecheilyahysrayl.com and get yourself on their TBR list.
  9. Do Pods with people like Asha Kumar youtu.be/E5_jEsgIqDE and Vivian Moore facebook.com/vivianemoore. Both ladies are building a fantastic network on Twitter and raising awareness of so many authors. 
  10. Help other people. Every act of kindness will return to you tenfold!fairy

Short Stories 2021

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At the beginning of 2020 I decided to enter as many short story, essay and writing competitions as I could. In total I entered 17 comps and did not place in a single one including two book comps! I was sad and puzzled and began to wonder if my writing had slid badly since 2007 when I won the Women’s Weekly/Penguin Short Story Contest out of a field of 7.5k entries. Three years later in 2010 I placed second in the Wergle Flomp Humorous Poetry Comp with a parody on Lady of Shallot called the Wife of Lance Allot.

It’s disturbing and scary to fast-forward thirteen years, two published books and three musicals later to discover your writing no longer wins or shortlists in contests! It does beg the question – have I lost my edge? But the reviews my books, Catch the Moon, Mary and Fields of Grace have been glowing so it’s truly amazing that both books failed to even place in the UK Rubery Books Prize and a similar comp in America. It makes me wonder who’s judging and what the criteria is.

Does my whining smack of sour grapes? Certainly. Am I disappointed? Absolutely. Am I pee’d off? YES! Because winning a comp is sometimes an author’s ONLY income and if they are corrupt or nepotistic they don’t serve authors or literature. Comps charge a fee to enter. Not always a small fee either and IF they are just a cash cow for the judges their usefulness as a gateway for brilliant unrecognised authors is firmly closed.

So by speaking up now I am not only expressing my disappointment in missing out on ALL 17 comps but flagging a possible fouling of the pond. It may be that writing comps are no longer a viable avenue for raising awareness of good writers.

I for one will NEVER enter one again. So, rather than waste all my hard work I am going to post my short stories in a series of blogs starting with this one: IMELDA MACKEY OPENS A BOOK was entered in two Australian comps and missed out on both. It is based on a magnificent, quirky and fascinating teacher I had in Primary School. She is exactly as I describe her, a darling of a woman whose unmarried state and romantic nature was a direct result of losing her fiance in the war. Enjoy!

Gullivers Travels 2           IMELDA MACKEY OPENS A BOOK

Imelda Mackey placed the spine of Gulliver’s Travels on her desk and took the top right-hand corner of the front cover between her forefinger and thumb. She then pushed the cover down, applied a little pressure and laid it out flat on the desk perpendicular to the text. This exercise was repeated with the back cover leaving Jonathan Swift’s folio naked and in imminent danger of collapse but for Imelda’s bracing palms.

‘Now ladies, I will demonstrate the correct way to open a new book.’

The class of ten-year-olds feigned interest with varying degrees of success. Some stifled yawns, others scratched at imaginary itches, but most, indoctrinated by a rigid system of obedience since the age of five, submitted to the inevitable with eyes glazing over and fidgety fingers pressed firmly together.

One or two students were genuinely interested.

‘Now,’ said Imelda, with a conspiratorial glance at the class, ‘watch closely.’

She took a few leaves from the final chapter where the disillusioned and reclusive Gulliver, restored to England, finds solace in the company of his stabled horses, and carefully pressed the pages against the back cover before running her forefinger along the join where the leaves were glued to the spine.

‘Can everybody see what I’m doing? Up the back?’

Groans, sighs and nods.

‘Good, because I don’t want you to be disappointed later in life when your favourite book falls apart.’ She flashed a smile at the class. ‘Imagine reaching for a book you fell in love with in your youth only to find the pages missing somewhere between forty and death.’ She laughed at the tired old joke. Alone. ‘Well, you’re too young to understand. Let’s just say the pages fall out just before Prince Charming arrives.’ She looked down quickly. ‘And you miss him.’

A few sets of eyes drifted to the window through which tantalising glimpses of the playground could be seen, rows of benches under the Camphor Laurel trees where the girls ate little and big lunch, the patch of bitumen where they played Hula hoops and handball.

‘Did you know, ladies, that Jonathan Swift introduced the word ‘yahoo’ into the common language? We can all think of at least one yahoo now, can’t we?’

Silence, then a little arm shot up.

‘Yes, dear, you have a question?’

‘Yahoo is an email provider. How did Mr Gulliver know about it a hundred years ago?’

‘It was Mr Swift, dear. Gulliver is the character in his book, and it was almost three hundred years ago. Gulliver’s Travels was first published on 28 October 1726.’ Dates and details found traction in Imelda’s mind like flotsam and jetsam find gravitas in an unlived life. ‘When Jonathan Swift created the word yahoo, he used it to describe a rude, noisy, or violent person. One might say a barbarian or a philistine. We’ve all known one or two.’

A small hand drifted up uncertainly.

‘Yes dear?’

‘My father’s a philistine.’

Imelda looked up sharply. ‘Rosaria Ocampo, isn’t it?’

The girl nodded.

‘Your father’s a Filipino, dear. A very different thing. Very different indeed. Your father’s the local vicar, isn’t he?’

Rosaria blushed and tried to ignore the sniggers that issued from a claque of fashionable young ladies sitting together at the back of the class.

‘Is something amusing?’ Imelda glared at the bully girls whose faces acquired beatific expressions of innocence. ‘It’s a dreadful thing when people are persecuted for their religious beliefs. Dreadful. Of course, you’re all too young to remember the war but your grandparents will recall the abominations that took place in Germany.’

A hand shot up.

‘Yes dear.’

‘What abominations?’

Imelda gaped at the young girl in the second row. ‘You really have no idea?’

The child shook her head.

‘You must ask your parents. It’s not my place to fill your heads with such horror. Now watch what I’m doing here, ladies.’

Imelda took another handful of leaves from the front of the book where Irish publisher, George Faulkner, was credited with having printed a set of Swift’s works in 1735 that included Gulliver’s Travels.

‘Have you really never heard of Auschwitz?’ Imelda looked around the room. ‘No-one?’

One girl raised her hand very slowly.

‘Delia Engels, isn’t it?’

The child nodded.

Imelda had trouble remembering the children’s names. Forty years of teaching had left a melee of blurred impressions, parades of youth that marched through her days like mini-legions and infested her nights with a longing for children of her own. However, she had no trouble remembering children like Rosaria, Delia and Soon-lin upon whom she super-imposed an exotic heritage and a multi-lingual homelife.

‘What is it, Delia?’

The child hesitated for a moment. ‘My grandparents died in Auschwitz because they were Jewish.’ She glanced sympathetically at Rosaria. ‘So, I know what religious persecution feels like.’

All eyes turned to Imelda, who halted her dissection of Gulliver’s Travels somewhere around the place where Gulliver was fighting giant wasps and being carried to the roof by a monkey whilst simultaneously discussing the state of Europe with the King of Brobdingnag.

‘Life is –’ Imelda began.

The class waited, curious to hear how life was.

‘Life is –’ But in truth, Imelda had no idea what life was. Hers had been destroyed as thoroughly as Delia’s grandparents’ and by the same evil. ‘Perhaps Shakespeare said it best in The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”’

The class stared at her uncomprehending. A child had lost her grandparents to an evil so insidious it had hypnotised an entire nation and all she could offer was a piece of badinage.

‘I’m sorry Delia. Sometimes we just don’t have the answers.’ She cleared her throat, completed the splaying of Gulliver’s Travels until it lay spread-eagled on her desk. ‘And that’s how you open a new book. Now you try.’

A selection of paperbacks randomly chosen from the shelves were duly splayed with varying degrees of dexterity. Imelda watched impassively; fists pressed into her lap. Sometimes we just don’t have the answers. The same evil that had stolen Delia Engel’s grandparents had also stolen Daffyd.

When Daffyd volunteered in 1939 she had tried to talk him out of it.

‘You’re being self-sacrificing.’

‘I have to do my bit.’

‘Your bit of what? What do we owe England?’

‘Everything that makes us civilised.’

‘Slavery, poverty, taxes and injustice?’

She rarely ventured an opinion and Daffyd found it sweet.

‘You’re so pretty when you’re angry, Mellie. Listen, we can’t let old Hitler destroy everything we hold dear. Anyway, a bloke, a real bloke needs action.’

‘What do you mean a real bloke?’

He laughed. ‘A real man not one of your namby-pamby writers.’

‘Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman gave the world some of its finest prose.’

‘Real men don’t sit around describing flowers. Real men need action.’

And so, her beloved Daffyd went to Europe to fight Hitler with all the other real men and died in a foreign field twenty kilometres south of Paris with a German bullet lodged in his esophagus, choking on his own blood, unable to speak, unable to send a message back to her via the other real young man who held him while he bled to death.

‘Miss Mackey?’ The girl was staring at her, evidently waiting for an answer.

‘I’m sorry, dear, did you need something?’

‘I’ve broken this book.’

‘Which book is it, dear?’ Imelda hoped it wasn’t an Austen or a Bronte.

The girl held up the tattered remains of Dan Brown’s hubristic extrapolation of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code.

‘Never mind, dear, just pop it in the bin.’ The wreckage of that shockingly pedestrian piece of literature was a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of instruction.

They were going to marry when he returned from the war.

‘We’ll kick things off with a honeymoon in Paris,’ he’d said. ‘Before the little ones start arriving. Four would be nice, two girls and two boys. I’ll name the first boy Gerald after my Dad and the first girl Gennie after my Mum and you can name the other two.’

But there would be no Gerald or Gennie, no other children, no marriage and no honeymoon. Daffyd lay in a field in France, in a grave she would never see, never lay a wreath on, never kneel beside so she could trace his name with her fingers. She pulled her attention back from the imaginary grave in France to the library in Willoughby, a leafy suburb in modern 1980s Sydney.

‘Has everyone finished?’

Nods and splayed books all round.

‘Well done, ladies. Now why should we look after our books? Anybody?’

Eyes drifted to the window and the allure of the playground.

‘Because books hold worlds.’ No, that wasn’t quite it. ‘Books open up worlds.’ Yes, that was it. ‘Does anyone know what that means?’

Silence.

‘Shall we let Walt Whitman explain? “A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibility of their own souls.”’

The infinite possibilities of their own souls. Had Daffyd even considered the potential of his soul before sacrificing his body? Had he even considered the potential of their combined souls?

‘Ladies, what is Mr. Whitman promising the reader?’

A hand half-raised, retracted, raised again.

‘Yes dear.’

‘My parents say we don’t have souls. They say we’re just machines that live and die and then we’re spare parts – organs and eyes and stuff that gets used to help people live.’

How unimaginative. ‘Your parents are entitled to their beliefs. Everyone is. We’ve seen the tragic results of prejudice. But what are your thoughts, dear? They don’t have to be your parents’ ideas.’

‘My dog Spike died last year, and –’ She paused guiltily. ‘But my parents say –’

‘I know what your parents say. What do you say about Spike?’

The girl blushed. ‘I’ve seen his ghost.’

A few sniggers.

‘That’s enough of that. Go on, dear.’

‘I saw him walking down the street towards me, wagging his tail as if he was happy to see me and the other night he was in my room. I saw him.’

‘I believe you.’

She had seen Daffyd once, at dusk, the smell of rain in the air, shadows elongated and a purplish tinge in the clouds. It was that quiet time between rush hour and dinner when hardly anyone else is about. She was almost home when she noticed a man standing at the end of the street. He stood perfectly still, watching her as if – as if he waited for her. Closer still and she recognised his stance and the familiar tilt of his head and the clothes that belonged to another era, to the thirties.

‘Daffyd!’

He raised his hand and laughed, and she dropped her bag and ran to him. But when she reached him, he dissolved in a smear of mist and she was left standing alone on an empty street, tears streaming down her face.

‘I believe you, my dear. You did see Spike, but don’t worry your parents with it. Now we were discussing the relevance of books and how they can open worlds.’ She smiled at the girl who had seen her dog’s spirit. ‘Books may even reveal our own souls as Mr Walt Whitman said. I have seen Europe through books, and I’ve never left Australia.’

‘But how?’ It was little Delia. ‘Sorry Miss Mackey, I should have put my hand up.’

‘It’s alright, Delia. I’ve read about places I’d like to visit and through the writer’s descriptions I’ve imagined myself there, walking down those streets, dancing in those halls.’

Daffyd had planned their honeymoon. They would visit Paris, explore the wicked world of Montmartre where women preened, and men pimped, and Can-Can girls danced without pantaloons. Daffyd promised they would see the world, and voyeuristically observe all the sensuality and sin that she now explored alone between the covers of a book.

‘Miss Mackey?’ The child’s voice pulled her back from the lusty cabarets of Montmartre and into the sterile grey library in Willoughby.

‘Yes, dear?’ She blinked around the room in search of the face belonging to the voice.

‘Miss Mackey?’ The child repeated softly, uncertainly.

She turned slowly and looked at the little girl whose intense dark eyes were fixed on her face, a pretty, pale child with long brown hair worn in two braids.

‘Yes, dear?’

‘Is that as good as actually being there?’

She didn’t know. She’d never traveled. Her salary only just covered her board and food and the few luxuries she allowed herself – the occasional night at the pictures and her handmade shoes.

‘If you can go there, my dear, you must do so and risk the unknown like Gulliver did, even if it leaves you dissatisfied with home. Even if you end up talking to horses. Or living through books.’ She picked up Gulliver’s Travels and replaced it in her netting book-bag. ‘Close your books, ladies, and return them to the shelves. That’s enough for today.’

The class filed out chatting and laughing, but one girl lingered.

‘Yes Delia?’

‘What you said about life … I mean what Mr. Whitman said about life being for the soul, do you think it’s true?’ She did not wait for an answer but rushed on. ‘Because my grandparents paid someone to get my mother out of Germany and then they died in Auschwitz. My grandparents gave up their lives for my mother. Were they wrong to do that?’

‘No, dear, that’s love.’

‘But is dying so someone else can live right? My older brother wants to be a soldier and Mum and Dad are terrified he will die in some stupid war that has nothing to do with us. What about the soul and all those other possibilities Mr. Whitman talked about? It can’t be right to die for some cause you don’t believe in can it?’

No, it’s wrong in every sense of the word. Wrong.

‘It’s very noble, dear.’

‘But it makes my grandparents’ sacrifice a waste of time. They died so that our family could live.’

‘Your brother is living the way he wants to. Men want action, my dear.’

‘But that’s so selfish.’

Imelda twisted the old engagement ring on her wedding finger. ‘My fiancé died in France in 1942. He wanted to see action.’

Delia stared at her, eyes wide, curious. ‘Have you ever loved again, or didn’t you dare?’

‘Love is a powerful force, like a river flowing through the soul. We can’t stop loving even if we want to. The trick is allowing love to find another course.’

‘Have you, Miss? Have you found another course?’

‘I love my books and my students.’ She paused. ‘From a distance.’

‘What about another man?’

‘Goodness you do ask a lot of questions. No, Delia, there was only ever Daffyd, but had he lived who knows what we may have discovered about each other? I may have found myself talking to horses like Gulliver.’ She smiled. ‘You must have another class now, dear.’

The child looked at her with fervent pity. ‘I wish you had met someone else.’ And then she was gone, absorbed into the grey corridors that flowed like arteries through the cavernous old building that had been a jail, a hospital and now a school for girls.

Imelda put away the last of the books, picked up her bags and locked the Library door. Friday was an early day. No more classes scheduled after lunch. She could catch the 347 bus all the way into the city assured of a window seat where she could read undisturbed until she had to alight and catch the Clovelly bus home.

At 2.30pm Imelda Mackey was sitting at the bus stop on Willoughby Road, her bag clutched on her knee, a netting bag of books beside her on the bench. Had you happened to pass at that moment you would have seen a woman not quite of this era, her long grey hair coiled in two buns over her ears, flyaway tendrils restrained in nets the same shade of grey as her hair. Her mid-calf floral patterned dress may have been fashionable in the 40s but in the 80s it looks odd and shabby. A tall woman, she wears flat shoes like the slippers fairies wear in children’s picture books. They are made of a soft fabric, possibly silk, and they match the boldest flower on her printed dress. She has these shoes handmade in a variety of colours to match her wardrobe of dresses from the 40s. Her legs are thin and encased in thick stockings that gather in folds around her ankles. In her handbag she carries her bus-pass, red lipstick, and a photo of Daffyd. There may also be a monogrammed lace handkerchief.

If you happened to pass, you would almost certainly notice Imelda Mackey, but she would not notice you. She is lost in thought about Daffyd and the children she has taught over forty years, children who now merge into one child, a troubled little girl who wanted answers she can’t give.

‘Daffyd?’ Speaking his name out loud has the talismanic property of bringing his memory into sharp relief. ‘What would you have told her?’

‘You worry too much, Mellie. She’s not your kid.’ His advice has the hubris of his twenty-one-year-old self. ‘What are you reading?’

She fumbles in her netting bag and produces her treasured first edition of Gulliver’s Travels, her most precious possession.

‘Gulliver’s Travels.’

‘Not that old book again.’

‘Yes, this old book. Again.’ She has read it a hundred times or more but still can’t get enough of those magical adventures or a better understanding of the disillusioned man who emptied his remaining years and yearnings into the ears of his equine companions.

‘What are you looking for Mellie?’

‘Life, Daffyd.’

gullivers travels 6

The 347 bus stopped and Imelda gathered up her bags, boarded and took a seat by the window. She did not read as usual but instead watched the slip-streaming view, her thoughts looping around the question, “What is life?”

The shopfronts of Willoughby and Saint Leonards morphed into the mini-city skyscrapers of North Sydney which were swept away at Lavender Bay as if by a magician’s sleight of hand revealing the magnificent Harbour with its white-sailed Opera House and truncated foreshore. Daffyd never saw the city of Sydney become an international gem.

In the city she made her solitary way to Elizabeth Street to catch the Clovelly bus, still puzzling over life’s ultimate meaning. She was an incongruous note in the legions of power-suited businessmen and women who marched past her as impervious as they were to the convict-built architecture and two-hundred-year-old fig trees that embodied time in wounds of lichen, pigeon droppings and pollution.

When she reached Elizabeth Street she waited for the Clovelly bus, her thoughts having moved on to uncertainty about the correctness or otherwise of telling the girl who saw her dog’s spirit to lie to her parents, albeit by omission. If she and Daffyd had been blessed with children would she like some teacher telling them to keep secrets from her? No, definitely not. She resolved to have another talk with the girl and perhaps call a parent-teacher meeting with the parents to gently persuade them to allow their child her fantasies about her dog.

The Clovelly bus rumbled in and once again she secured a window-seat. Again, she did not read but watched the slip-streaming view, her thoughts puzzling over the unresolved issues of her life like a jigsaw with one piece missing. Was Daffyd selfish wanting to see action? Or was he noble sacrificing his life in a war that prevented an even worse disaster? And then that most dreadful question of all with its horrifying implications of waste.

Life is –?

What?

At the corner of Clovelly Road and Keith Street she alighted and walked the three blocks to the Boarding House that was once a Ladies Only establishment, but which had since moved with the times and been converted to a genderless hostel. Before entering the building, she looked up to the end of the street where she had once seen Daffyd’s ghost. Of course, she knew she had imagined him out of longing and loneliness but still, it was worth checking even though reason told her Daffyd was never coming back in any form and all the dreams they had shared and the adventures they had planned had long been packed away in a box marked, “Almost”.

Nobody noticed Imelda Mackey as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. She was such a clockwork presence, predictable enough in her comings and goings to set a watch by. Even her occasional outings to a movie could be marked in a calendar, every second Friday of the month. She let herself into her tiny room on the seaward side of the building, a room she had rented since 1946. The current owners’ parents told their offspring Imelda Mackey was part of their inheritance, the first paying guest and now their longest resident. Of course, the rent had increased since the 40s but Imelda’s had been scaled to match her salary because the previous owners felt superstitiously that if something were to happen to Imelda Mackey it may have the same repercussions as shooting an albatross at sea. The business would sink.

Imelda put her handbag on the dresser and her netting bag of books on her bedside table. Orderliness was essential in a room this size and a life this size, where everything had just enough space to coexist. A single bed took up the entire left-hand wall, a small wardrobe stood perpendicular to a bookshelf, a tiny bathroom shared its plumbing with an adjacent kitchenette. The carefully appointed room reflected the regime chiseled out of the flat plane of Imelda’s predictable life.

As was her habit she popped the kettle on, made a pot of tea and sat at a small table next to the window to watch the sea darken from emerald green to indigo as the sun set behind the vast featureless red planes of central and western Australia. Usually this contemplation of the dissolving day settled her thoughts.

But not today.

Life is –? What?

Unable to relax she washed up her cup and teapot and put them away. Then she did something unusual. She took the door-key out of her handbag and placed it on the table by the window. Then she walked out of her room without her handbag, leaving the door unlocked. When she left the Ladies Only Boarding House which was now a unisex hostel it was that quiet time of day between rush hour and dinner when nobody much is about so it’s little wonder no-one noticed the woman who looked as if she came from another era walking vaguely along the streets of Clovelly.

Her wandering took her to Waverley Cemetery where she drifted between the rows of angels, stopping every so often to read the inscription on a grave, the lifespan, occupation and loved ones left behind.

‘So, this is where it ends,’ she said. ‘A life can be summed up in five lines. A beginning and an ending, a handful of beloved relatives but what of the years, days and minutes in between? What is life?’ She looked around the acres of captioned graves. ‘Does anyone know? Anyone?’

Silence.

She wandered on until she reached the cliff edge where Australia stopped, and the sea took over. For an hour she studied the horizon, speculating about the world beyond, the sin and sensuality and strangeness that she and Daffyd planned to explore voyeuristically. She stood there until the sea cradled a silver barque of moon and the stars popped to light like candles at a mass. A hint of fragrance, subtle as a fleeting memory, passed her by unnoticed. But she did not miss the carnival of perfumes that followed, swarming her senses like bees. She tipped her head back, inhaling the fragrances as one might imbibe a symphony. A garden of flowers, their perfumes woven together like threads in a tapestry. Compelled by the wonder of the exquisite unknown she kicked off her handmade slippers, removed her stockings, and barefoot tasted grass with her toes for the first time since childhood. It felt cool and springy, possessed of life. She pulled her floral dress over her head and dropped it, the air licking her bare skin with myriad cool tongues, salt-tanged and sweetened with floral fragrance. Under cover of dark she slipped out of her bra and silk undies and stood unadorned with only the spectral angels, the moon and the dead witness to her nakedness.

‘Life is –’

Something as grand and risky as embarking on Gulliver’s Travels or as small as dropping your clothes by the sea.

Life is taking an unknown turn or choosing a different path.

Life is ever-changing, Delia.

Imelda remained standing on the cliff, the air caressing her immaculate flesh, her sights tuned to another time, until the stroke of midnight, registered in a million households by a million clocks and faceless computers, and in that bewitching moment her vigilance was rewarded with the appearance of a galleon on the horizon and she recognised the single greatest longing of her life and the only man with whom she could realistically share it.

He stood on deck, beckoning. ‘Come to me, Imelda! It’s a leap of faith.’

She hesitated and he laughed.

‘Come now, Imelda. Life is risk.’

And armed with the truth at last, she leapt from the cliff’s edge, a thousand groundhog days and empty nights flashing before her eyes, her mind coiling around a single hope, at last I will live. The sea rose to embrace her, but she never felt that kiss of death. Her soul flew like a gull to an ancient galleon hovering on the edge of eternity and when she alighted on deck gently as a seabird’s purchase he took her in his arms, sanctifying her nakedness in a vivifying embrace, and she dropped all the fears, concerns and restraints of her unlived life.

‘You are –?’ she began.

‘Gulliver!’ He laughed. ‘But you know this already.’

Imelda knew it. Of course, she knew it. Her life was always going to end this way, in Gulliver’s arms, embarked on Gulliver’s Travels.

There was a small notice in the Obituary section of the Sydney Morning Herald that weekend.

Mackey, Imelda

Passed away on 15th January 1986 Aged 66

Late of Clovelly

No known relatives

gullivers travels 7