Friday, 19 September 2014

Latest news... just won first prize in the Penfro Book Festival Short Story Competition!

(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

I'm on the right receiving the prize from Jackie Biggs, Deputy Chair and Competition Organiser for the festival.  Thanks Jackie!

Commenting on the story (entitled Ingrid, Audrey and Jean), judge Maria Donovan said: "This is a short story perfectly in tune with itself. From its enigmatic title and first arresting image to the underlying themes of escape and belonging, it always keeps ahead of expectations. Calm, confident and disturbing: a treat to read and re-read."

The full text of the winning story is below:

Ingrid, Audrey and Jean

When I was sixteen, I saw a man fall out of the sky.  Then another.   And another.

I was sitting on a beach in Devon at the time.  Or Dorset. One of the clotted-cream, Enid-Blyton-for-grown-ups counties.  A ‘nice’ beach.  ‘Nice’ featured a lot in our lives back then.

I wasn’t supposed to be there.  I should have been somewhere infested by bleached, feral sun-gods, or pot-smoking beach-bums, along with other teenage girls.  Instead, there I was, reading ‘War and Peace’ – not Jackie Collins, or even ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’… sitting beside my mother.  Something else I shouldn’t have been doing.

I don’t know what made me look up.  A shadow?  A movement?   A sound?  A particularly tortuous paragraph in my book?  There were plenty of those.

‘Did you see that?’ I asked.


And what had I seen?  It had happened so quickly.  Perhaps I had been mistaken, and it was no more than the ramshackle tumbling of three crows across the cliff-face.
Or aliens.  We had heard of such things, even in our safe little corner of England.  Beings from other solar systems falling to Earth, intent on taking over our world - and our bodies. 

Angels?  But angels flew, didn’t they?   And were white.  Or gold.  Definitely not black… except, perhaps, for Satan.

And so I decided it must, indeed, be men.  But how could it have happened?  I had read, once, of a fridge falling from an aeroplane and landing on a solitary sheep in the middle of a field. The sheep died, of course.  I think it was in America. Or Australia. Perhaps these men had fallen from a plane, too.

I got up.  ‘I’m going for a walk.  To stretch my legs.’

Elsewhere on the planet, there was free-love and flower-power.  People wore embroidered cheese-cloth smocks, ponchos, kaftans – if they wore anything at all.  They decorated themselves with beads, bangles, petals, piercings.

My mother wore a twin set, even on the beach.  She sat upright on a chair, brought to her by a ‘man’.  She was fond of getting a ‘man’ to do things for her, as if, somehow, added together, they would make up for the one that was her missing husband.  Her shoes were her only concession to the sand – she wore sandals instead of her usual high-heels.  But, still, walking was not part of her holiday agenda.

So I was surprised when she put down her magazine, and began to rise from her chair.
‘There’s no need…’

But she had started following me, sashaying wildly, as if the unfamiliarity of her footwear made walking far more precarious than five-inch stilettos.

And now, some distance in front of us, we saw dark shapes scattered at the base of the cliff, and knew, somehow, that they weren’t rocks, or belongings abandoned by carefree swimmers.  They, too, were something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

Birds were beginning to gather around them.  And then there were shouts and cries, and people running from the other side of the cliff.  Sirens growing closer, louder. 

‘Come away,’ said my mother. It was the same way she spoke to me when I was younger, when we were in the park, perhaps, and came across something ‘not nice’. Couples kissing; rutting dogs;  so many unpalatable tableaux of suburban life, all with the potential to contaminate. Once, worst of all, a flasher. ‘Come away!  Don’t look!’

And I turned back with her, just as, back then, I hadn’t looked.  Because I knew, this time, at least, it really was something I didn’t want to see.

I found out what had happened in the newspaper.  There was no internet in those days. So no face-book tributes, twitter revelations, real-time photos taken by mobile phones.  As it was, the information was scant.  Enough, though, to tell me that it wasn’t a man I had seen – none of them were.   And they hadn’t fallen from the sky.  It was three girls, not much older than me.  They had jumped together from the top of the cliff.  I paused, then, in my reading.  Why?   It was the obvious question;  the only question.  Was it suicide?   Or did they think they could fly, like Icarus and Daedalus…fly off the edge into the beckoning blue yonder, and on towards the sun?  Or… what?   They had been living with a ‘family’ in a big house a few miles away.  The word ‘commune’ was mentioned.  And the word ‘cult.’  But the people in the house said the girls had been quite happy there, and were free to come and go as they pleased.  There was no need for them to escape.  There was no need for them to have done this.  ‘Escape’ was the word that stood out for me from all the others.  ‘Escape’ was the word I lingered on the most.

I dreamt about them that night. I dreamt about them every night. Three bodies spiralling through space.  Scarecrows cartwheeling downwards.  Scraggy crows metamorphosing into androgynous humans.

They were not nightmares, as such. I never woke afraid, crying out, covered in perspiration. 

After all, I had seen nothing horrible.  True, I had watched three young girls dying, but I hadn’t known it.  And there was no blood, or gore, or grey brain matter spattered on the rocks below for me to witness.  No.  My mother’s ‘come away’ had taken care of that.

In daytime, too, my thoughts would be full of them.  I wanted to know more – so much more than the newspaper had told me.

Did they speak to each other as they stood there?  Did any one of them have second thoughts?  All?  Did they hold hands?   Yes - in my dreams, at least, they always clutched each other tightly, before some silent, unanimous signal sent them running towards the edge and their doom.  And, at that final point of departure, suspended between solid ground and empty space, did they throw back their heads and laugh?

Round and round and round, variations of their final scene played through my head, like slides clicking from a film carousel.  So many possibilities – a detail might change here, a whole passage of dialogue could be rewritten there.   I swapped their faces around (for I had given them faces by then), interchanged with hairstyles and clothes, like a child’s paper-doll dressing game. And then I gave them new names.

For I decided I didn’t like the ones listed in the paper. They seemed too plain, too ordinary.  So I rechristened them Ingrid, Audrey and Jean. Famous movie-stars, when film was the ‘open sesame’ to a world of magic – even my mother had fallen under its spell;  it was her guilty pleasure.  Hollywood was a fairy-tale realm, and its actresses the princesses who ruled there. They were not like us.  And I didn’t want the girls to be ‘like us’ either.

How long was it before I realised the stars were not of my own choosing at all?  I had picked my mother’s favourites.  Actresses who also wore twin-sets, who had no scandal attached to them, who starred in tear-jerking dramas, or light romances.  But, by then, I had grown used to calling the girls these names.  It was too late to change.

In time, I left my dreams – and that day on the beach – behind.  The girls hadn’t died – I (and the newspaper) had been mistaken.  After all, it didn’t seem fair – they were so young, with so many years before them.  I wanted them to have lives.  So their faces became constant, and their personalities.  And I made up stories about their pasts, their futures, and, most of all, their present.  They were here, with me, now.  It seemed the least I could do.

One day, my mother heard me talking to Audrey.  She was my favourite – on that particular day, anyway.  I was telling her she ought to change her hair – ‘Get rid of the bun, Aude!’  Or she was telling me.  My mother stood in the doorway, and looked at us – me.  She said nothing, and after a while, just walked away.

That afternoon, I found a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table.  A big red asterisk was drawn by one of the headlines.  It was an article covering the inquest and coroner’s report of the girls’ deaths.  My mother had used her red pen to underline certain words, too.   Drugs;  hippies;  sex.

My mother had decided that jumping off a cliff was something that happened to ‘bad’ girls.   They were ‘not nice’.   And I shouldn’t be mixing with them.

I didn’t read the article.  I didn’t want to know more than I already did.  Which was more than enough.  Which was everything.

But, not long after that, I realised I was too old for imaginary friends.   I knew that’s what they were.  I should have had them long ago, when I was younger.  My mother might have welcomed them, then.   So I said ‘Goodbye’ to them – Ingrid, Audrey, and Jean – and wished them well.  And decided that they were real, instead.

It was around this time that I went to work in a dress-shop in town.   University was another ‘somewhere’ I was supposed to be (all that summer reading paying off, it seemed.)  But every time it was mentioned, my mother became unwell with some vague, unsubstantiated illness, and in the end, I just knew it wasn’t going to happen.

The shop was the kind that sold clothes like my mother wore.  It was a million miles away from Top Shop and Chelsea Girl;  a whole galaxy away from Biba.   But it could have been worse.  The staff were kind to me.  Every now and then, they would ask me if I would like to join them in a night out.   I always said ‘no’, explaining I had plans of my own.

‘It’s the cinema with Audrey tonight,’ I might say.

Or ‘the four of us are going to Top Rank.’   Back in work, they would ask me how my night out had been.  ‘Great!’ I would say.  ‘We had fun!’  And we had.

Once the four of us even had a week’s holiday in Brighton, where the sun-gods and beach-bums lived.  I spent the whole seven days shut in my bedroom and, the day before returning to work, applied fake tan. 

‘How was Brighton?’ Marie asked.

‘Fantastic!   Fabulous!  Everything I hoped it would be!’

Then I met Joe.  He came into the shop one day, wanting a present for his sister.  I wanted to tell him he was in the wrong shop.  We got talking.  I didn’t mention Ingrid and Jean for the whole conversation.  Not even Audrey.  He asked me if I would like to go for a drink with him.  And I said ‘yes.’

I said ‘yes’, too, when he asked me to marry him.  I knew I shouldn’t have.  I knew it was asking for trouble. I just couldn’t quite see how.

For a while, everything went well.  Even my mother seemed happy, and liked Joe.  The girls disappeared.  I told any of the shop-staff who asked that they had moved away.  And, perhaps, if marriage could have happened without a wedding, it would have all stayed okay. But the day my mother and I went to choose my outfit, she said she was feeling unwell, and talked of her ‘old troubles’ returning.  The night before, Joe had been talking of the possibility of a new job the other side of the country.   And somehow, before I knew what had happened, I had chosen three dresses for my three bridesmaids.  I had given their exact measurements, and chosen the right colour for their complexions.  After all, I knew everything about them.  And, later, when Joe called, my mother took him aside, and said something to him. And after that, he didn’t call any more.

It’s my mother’s turn to go over the cliff, now.  It’s not the same beach – because, of course, I’ve never quite remembered where that was.   And she won’t somersault pell-mell over and over down to the bottom.  She may never even reach there.  The wind may catch her and send her up into the sky to be amongst the stars, or out over the sea, where she will float away.  Or, if she should reach the beach, she will be lost amongst a million particles of welcoming sand.   Dust to dust.

It doesn’t matter what happens.   I don’t care.  I won’t be coming back;  there will be no pilgrimages to pay my respects, visits to talk to her spirit.  She’s gone.  At last.  And that’s it.

I’ll walk back to the car, and drive away to a new life.  Who knows – I’m not so very old.  Anything could happen.

Besides, the girls are waiting for me there. Ingrid, Audrey and Jean.  All of them, still.  So I won’t be alone.  They’ll always be there for me.  We’ll always be there.  Together.

© Diana Powell 2014

(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Two pieces of good news in one week!

Between being shortlisted for the Penfro competition and the winning announcement, I learned that I’d won second prize in the Ifanca Helene James short story competition.

(For more about Helene and the competition, see )

Of course, this was very exciting – and welcome too, because I felt it would offer some consolation if I didn’t get placed in the Penfro.  And, to be honest, I didn’t think I would after seeing some of the names on the shortlist.

It’s quite a different story from ‘Ingrid, Audrey and Jean’ though both, by coincidence, happen to contain an ailing mother (nothing personal Mum!).  I wrote it a very long time ago but, as it’s set in Victorian times, that probably doesn’t matter.  I’ve always had a fondness for it, and do think it’s a well-crafted story.  And it won second prize!  Second place after Tyler Keevil – a prizewinning, well-published Canadian-Welsh writer.

Here’s my story – ‘Meeting Mr. Dickens’:

Rain.   Rain.   And more rain.   That much was true.   Fingers of moisture, clawing their insidious way through the crevices of the turrets.   Tear-drops splashing from leaf to leaf, leaden enough to reach the floor from even the top of the sequoias.   Spider-webs, turned into be-jewelled filigree, woven amongst the hedges.   Rain.   Water.   Dank.   Damp.   Everywhere, in everything.   Day after day, after day.   One week into the next.   Just as he wrote ...

Though it was nothing to him, nor to the master and mistress;  the lords, their ladies, and all the fashionable guests.   After all, he was there to entertain them - that was his purpose, rain or shine.   The  ‘Great Novelist’, come to act out his stories in the Long Gallery, for all the fine people to see.   But not us, who lived below stairs – or high above.   We could feel the crackles of excitement, hear the laughter and applause, sometimes catch a glimpse of a curious costume, dashing between doors.   But we could never go in;  not even I, the governess, who had read more of his books, who knew more of his meaning, than any of the grand ladies.   We must always be without.

Sometimes, too, we would come upon him, scribbling in corners, though we were instructed never to disturb him, and must turn hurriedly away.   Some said he was writing his next book and that we might be in it... or, if not us, the house, chosen for one of his grand locations.   We did not really care, not then.   It was not our affair.  All we wanted was for the rain to stop.   But on and on it went.

In the end, I could stand it no longer.   I had to get out.   I needed to breathe air, damp or not.   I needed to feel the trees, the grass against my legs.   I wanted to go down to the village, to see my family there.   I needed, most of all, to get away from this place, where I could never belong, too poor for the gentry, too ‘stuck up’ for those who served.

I chose not to go the quick way, past the church.   I wanted to be out longer, whatever the weather.   So I hastened through the laundry, and down onto the Yew Path.   It was sheltered there, both from the rain, and prying eyes.   It was a curious place, with looming, bulbous shapes on both sides.   Some of the household were afraid of it -  it had been there so long, according to the history of the house.   So much had taken place beneath it - and even more in rumour and imagination.   Was not yew the companion of death, they whispered?  But I liked it.   I liked that feeling of mystery, of strangeness. 

As I approached its end, I heard something ahead of me…some small noise, then a footstep.   I pressed myself into the hedge;  I did not want to be seen.   A shrouded form appeared at the end of the tunnel, barring my way to the iron gate that I must leave through.   It was a man, I thought, by the height, though it was difficult to tell, it being dusk, and still pouring with rain.   Then the figure turned towards me, and lifted the brim of his hat.   And I saw that it was the great novelist, come, perhaps, for his daily constitutional, of which, we knew, he was fond.

I wished he would go.   It was uncomfortable there, pricked by the yew, dampened by the rain.   Finally, he stepped aside, and I thought, if I moved quickly, I could run through the gate and down into the grove, before he noticed me.   Off I went, fast but silent.   Then, just as I pushed the gate behind me, he turned and looked right at me.   His face was white against the darkness, and I could see his body trembling, yet frozen to the ground.   Truly, he looked just as if he had seen a ghost.   I hesitated no longer, and disappeared into the trees.

I did not return to the Castle that night.   Indeed, I was gone for almost two weeks.   Reaching home, I found my mother ailing yet again – a chill this time, caught in all this dampness.   And she needed me to stay and nurse her, as I had done so often in the past.   When I was finally able to go back, I found the household plunged into mourning.   The master had died, leaving all desolate.   There were no more entertainments now.   All the guests had left, leaving us to our grief.   Now, we welcomed the rain and cold - they were a mirror without for our misery within.   The mist sunk low over the parapets, and buried us there.

It was not until some months later that our spirits, along with the sap of springtime, began to rise.   There was news come, exciting enough to lift the household from its gloom.   Mr. Dickens’s book was published, and the Castle was indeed in it – just as we had suspected, the model for one of the chief settings, a stately pile shrouded in perpetual rain.   Mrs. Ashbourne, our housekeeper, was particularly in a condition of pleasurable agitation, as her fictional counterpart had a significant role in the tale - though she knew, so she hastened to assure me, that a novel was only make-believe.   But the ghost story, the tale of the ghost belonging to the stately pile, was almost certainly true, for had not Mr. Dickens had his very own experience of it during his visit?

I knew the Castle had its phantoms.   A place so old, so touched by history was bound to have its share of uneasy spirits.    And during the War between families, it had been taken by force, and much blood spilt at its very gates.   There were winter nights, when, hearing the wind in the empty chimneys, the rain on the cobbles beneath, the children would huddle against me and beg me to tell them it was just the wicked elements, and not the sound of tormented souls.  

But of this ghost, this vision of Mr. Dickens, I had heard nothing.   I begged Mrs. Ashbourne to explain.  She, if anyone, would know.  

‘Well,’ she began, spreading her expansive folds into the corners of the rocking-chair, ‘it happened one rainy evening ... though all evenings were rainy, then.  You know how Mr. Dickens liked his walk, whatever the weather?  This day, he waited as long as he could, hoping the sky would clear, but it was of no use.   Still, he must go, so out he went, wrapped up in his cloak and hat, round the front walls, on to the end of the Yew Walk.   Here, he stopped, hoping to find shelter.   Suddenly, he heard a noise, coming from inside the hedge.   He was sure he could see a shape, a female form, but thought it must be his imagination.   But then ... then... a figure ran past him, the same woman, an apparition, through the gate without opening it, it seemed.   At that moment, she turned, and looked straight at him, only to disappear in front of his eyes...’

‘It was I who met him in the Hall, on his return, and he told me what had happened.   He was not especially shaken, being used to the carryings on of the spirit world, but said he must retire immediately, as he needed to put his experience into words - it was just the idea he was looking for to include in his book.   Next morning, he asked the Master to tell him all about the Castle and the Civil War, for he was sure the ghost was a Lady from that time, and said again that this was perfect material for his story.   Of course, with the Master’s passing, we had forgotten all about it, but now the Mistress has had word from  Mr. Dickens himself, and a copy of the book, and our ghost story is there, for everyone to see!’

Even as Mrs. Ashbourne spoke, a vague memory rose to the surface of my mind ... something I had not thought about since it happened.   ‘But when did this occur?’ I asked my informant now.   ‘How is it that I knew nothing of it?’    And her answer came, just as I expected.

‘It must have been when you were away, nursing your mother.   Indeed, now that I think of it, it was the very night you went from here, for, when Mr. Dickens entered, all bedraggled and flustered, and told me his tale, I momentarily feared that you, too, may have seen the ghost, and been sorely alarmed.   You did not see it, did you?’

It is as I would tell the children - the violence of the elements makes for unnatural imaginings.   Mist turns solid objects into diaphanous wraiths;  the howling wind becomes a banshee yell;  a chill draught turns into an invisible icy breath.   And so it is with the rain.   The driving rain at twilight masks and blurs, confuses.   Thus, one evening, in an ancient and eerie setting, the incessant deluge from the heavens turned a humble Victorian governess into the restless spirit of a Lady Cavalier.

And even as the laughter welled up in my throat, and my  ‘confession’ reached my lips, the words Mrs. Ashbourne was speaking penetrated my thoughts.

 ‘... and Mistress has told me to make ready for many guests, as the gentlemen of the Press have let it be known that they wish to come here, to write up the story for general distribution.   And the various spiritualist societies also wish to visit, in order to search for the ghost themselves.   Think, we shall be known throughout the land, as the place where Mr. Dickens saw a ghost!    But, best of all, this commotion has distracted Madam, and lifted her out of her grief - indeed, has given her some purpose to live.   And the poor children, too, have at last stopped their crying, and have shown themselves affected by something other than their father’s passing.   So thanks be to Mr. Dickens’s visitation!’

And I knew then, that, for the sake of the children, I must keep my own counsel, and never reveal that it was I who was Mr. Dickens’s ghost ...

It was as Mrs. Ashbourne prophesied.   Soon, the story of our haunting had spread far and wide, and we were overrun by people wanting to follow in the great author’s footsteps, and share, perhaps, his other-worldly encounter.   For there were many who knew him only for his ghosts, his spectacular spiritual creations of Christmas Past, Present and Future.   And now they could search for the real thing - no fictional apparitions spun out of words, but a spectre raised from a genuine experience ... or so they thought.   And, as the tale grew in the telling, the fame of the ghost grew throughout the land – and the repute of the author, too, knew no bounds, and his celebrity was unequalled in his time, and beyond.

It was only I who must fade into obscurity - I, who began it all.   For, soon,  my charges out-grew me, and I returned to the house in the village, to spend my years tending my still-ailing, but yet surviving, mother.   Strange, that the ethereal being should gain in substance, while I, its corporeal counterpart should disappear into nothingness ... 

It is summer now at the Castle.   The sun shines down day after day.   People mill around the parapet, gazing out at the view.   Men and women, clad in scant, unsettling garments, wander through the towers and halls, then follow the paths through the gardens, taking photos as they go.   They all stop at the end of the Yew tunnel, and look down at the iron gate.  Their tourist pamphlets tell them that this is the Ghost Walk, so called because it was here that Charles Dickens saw a Lady ghost.  They snap away, and converse excitedly, wondering, perhaps, was …is….there really such a phenomenon?   It is hard to think that such a venerable figure as the great novelist would invent such a thing.   I wander amongst the trees – yes, through my Yew Hedge, even – and try to speak to them.   But few, if any, see me.   And none will hear my words as anything more than the whisper of the breeze through the sequoias.   Besides, who am I, now, to tell them there is no such thing as ghosts?

© Diana Powell 2014

Anyway, my two successes in as many weeks prompted some thoughts about short stories and writing competitions in general.  More of this later...