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!
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.
‘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.
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?’
‘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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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?’
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 –?
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?’
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.
Passed away on 15th January 1986 Aged 66
Late of Clovelly
No known relatives