HighlandLIT 2021 Writing Competition: Prizewinners
(The photo shows Bob Pegg with the two prizewinners to read in person on the night - on the left, Lillias Noble, 2nd prizewinner in the poetry category, and on the right Gina O'Brien, 3rd prizewinner in the prose category. The other prizewinners read over the Zoom link.)
We are delighted to showcase the winning pieces together with comments from Strathpeffer-based storyteller, songwriter and musician Bob Pegg who chose the winning entries and the highly commended pieces after an initial sifting by the HighlandLIT Committee. We're grateful to the Scottish Book Trust for supporting this event through Book Week Scotland funding.
Bob Pegg writes: HighlandLit Competition. A diverse selection - in both categories. I was looking for whatever made a story or a poem come alive; whatever seemed fresh, intriguing, unexpected, side-stepping convention. I also looked for evidence of craft, thoughtfulness about and around words, and layers of meaning that gradually revealed themselves on repeated readings. My choices are offered below, with a brief summary of why I liked them.
April in Harris by Lynn Valentine
Bog-soaked on Clisham, joking about lightning,
we’re the highest beings in the Outer Hebrides.
Not Paris this, our jackets not the latest in French
chic but suited to sitting on a hill, sharing a peece.
Would you rather sip a brandy under a striped awning’s
shade of a Parisian café? Or feel the warmth
of Heinz Cream of Tomato on your chapped lips?
And the pedestrians are crows and hares, beetles,
an eagle if we’re blessed. And the sun comes out for just a turn.
And the lochans line up—an emerald necklace fit for a lover.
And the land ripens with gold-soaked light.
Cold air hangs between us—we drink and drink
Bob Pegg writes: A delightful comparison of a real holiday on Harris with an imagined break in Paris, a place which for the writer has (I suppose) been made inaccessible by Covid restrictions. There’s lots to enjoy: the playfulness of the title; a charming pun in line 2; the animal pedestrians parading like characters in a 19th century cartoon; the sun portrayed as a boulevardier, taking a “turn” and so linking the two locations. Via food and drink we’re led from the mundane - “sharing a peece” (piece?), Heinz Cream of Tomato - to the visionary banquet of the last couple of lines. It’s a very satisfying poem which repays revisiting.
The (Very) last Glass of Champagne by Lillias Noble
Ice cold Moet through a bendy straw - tastes just as good.
We’d been travelling with a brain tumour for over nine years,
prognosis of two or three had fairly stoked our fears.
But ‘If you’re walking and talking, you can’t be dying!’
So no more Munros and no more flying,
But we lived our mantra for thousands of miles -
O’er mosses, waters, slaps and stiles - Pennine Way, French Camino…
On and on, one foot in front of the other, you can go far, slowly.
Then Lockdown came and speech went, facial expression too,
but 30 years together I could read your eyes, speak for you.
Hospice in Inverness? No thanks, Covid might mean I’d never see you again.
A hospital bed in our living room, right in the body of our kirk.
69th birthday, three days away and I’m on my knees urging you begging you please,
supportive nurse on either side - stand up, take your own weight if you possibly can.
But it’s no go - we’re scuppered, scunnered, now you won’t ever be out of bed again.
But a party! Lockdown busting, two old pals venture north from Glasgow.
You my honey propped up in bed ate lunch with relish and cake with gusto.
Then, despite the seizures making you shake, you sang, yes sang Happy Birthday,
Drank champagne through a straw and never ate or spoke again.
You died 10 days later - but what panache, what verve - what a celebration!
Bob Pegg writes: A story told in increasingly detailed, dramatic episodes, confronting the death of a loved partner head on, with some gentle humour and absolutely no sentimentality. The very first line effectively captures the attention with its incongruity, as well as obliquely establishing the idea of making the best of what you have - later expressed in “you can go far, slowly” - that persists to the end of the poem. The vernacular rhyming of the first half, carrying the reader through the couple’s resilience in the face of a dire prognosis, breaks down with Lockdown. As the situation worsens, the lines become longer and more rhythmically erratic, finally stumbling over “scuppered, scunnered”. But the party with the Glasgow pals restores elan, and brings us back to that “Ice cold Moet through a bendy straw” of the opening, and a celebration whose memory bubbles up, eclipsing the briefly touched on bleakness of the inevitable end.
the beautiful grey by Meg MacLeod
I had almost forgotten the grey
of a darkening sky
allowing the palest gleam of light
to silver the sea like mercury
a night curtain hides a solstice sun
and the drone of the sea fills the bay
as if reluctant to leave
the beautiful grey slips away
leaving a sliver of pale lemon in the east
where the sky needs mending
an invisible hand is slowly tacking it together
with a thread of rainbow rain
Bob Pegg writes:This has an appealing air of melancholy. The “drone of the sea” introduces, with effect, sound into a poem where the imagery is largely visual. There’s a musicality to many of the lines, which could work effectively as the lyrics to a song, and it would be interesting to see what a pairing between the writer and a musician might come up with. I like the way in which the final verse, with its unexpected introduction of the domestic (“where the sky needs mending”), provokes questions. Why does the sky need mending? Whose hand is it that plies the thread?
The Collection… by Meg MacLeod
A rag doll marked the beginning of a new life for the dark-haired child refugee who spoke only a few words of broken English. The package of gifts was kindly given by well-wishers. The child, Rachel, was a replica of the home made doll; tall and thin with ill fitting clothes and hair tied up in optimistic incongruous red ribbons, also gifted as part of the package.
Over the years Rachel collected more dolls to replenish her past naming them after her parents and siblings, her aunts and uncles.
Eventually she was no longer lonely and spoke to the dolls in her new language but not about the past.
Gawky and tall became elegant and graceful. She fell in love outside a faith consigned to the forgotten years.
A late snow fell on the 6th day of April, her wedding day, 1965. She gathered up her dress and ran laughing down the path. Her bridesmaids re-attached her veil securely giggling as she calmed her breathing in the outer porch of the church. She could hear organ music playing gently as the guests waited.
The veil clouded the space before her as she held the arm of her adopted father.
`Wait,` she whispered as snow blew in through the open doorway.
It had been snowing the day she had crawled through the wire, following the anonymous man blindly, trustingly, numb and terrified.
Why now? Why should she remember now?
`A warm room. A table set with food and wine. She recalls the taste of the bread, the strange reviving warmth of wine in her empty belly. The man is a priest, speaking urgently as he pushes her behind the heavy netted curtains. ‘Be still. be silent.’ He sits at the table eating.
She hears but cannot see. There are only shifting shadows through the net. Soldiers.
`Have you seen her?` Guns clatter, knocking against door frames and chairs.
`In this cold?. She will be dead by now.` The priest answers casually. `Here ..take some wine, help yourselves…..too cold to be out searching for a Jew…eat!
She stands still without breathing in the cold church porch. She struggles to see through the veil.
`Are you ok?` her father is asking.` Come. He is waiting for you.`
She hears the priest joking and laughing with the soldiers. Grateful for the warmth and excess of wine they forget to look for her and leave.
`I never knew his name…and I never saw him again.’ She spoke out loud, lifting the veil. `I never got the chance to thank him.`
Bob Pegg writes: Rachel’s journey from child refugee to young bride is grippingly conveyed in a series of short scenes, shuttling back and forth between present and past. A lot of ground is covered - dramatically, historically and emotionally - but the story feels quite self-contained and intimate. Past and present are linked by the falling of snow, one of a number of images which give the tale much of its strength - the red ribbons in the rag doll’s hair, the collection of dolls standing in for a lost family, a table set with bread and wine, the way the wedding veil chimes with the “heavy netted curtains”. I wanted to know what happened to Rachel after that wedding day, and could imagine the story, with its vivid imagery, as the blueprint for the script of a short film, or the starting point for a full length feature.
The Sheer Face of It by Brenda Lawrence
His clammy hands searched frantically amongst the jagged rocks. His feet dangled hopelessly brushing one against the other as if at a loose end. His broad, heavy body hung stiffly in limbo whilst his life flashed before him in an interlude of seconds.
‘Don’t look down,’ yelled a voice from above, ‘try steadying yourself with the rope then feel
for a firm foothold. I can see one from here, just to your left.’
Tom couldn’t move. He wasn’t convinced.
Jenny would be getting her hair done now. It promised to be a good night out. He said he’d be back before dusk. How would she deal with his unexplained absence? More to the point, what would the lads think if the boss missed their office do? Tom’s thoughts began racing.
‘Are you going to take all night?’ came the rude awakening from below. ‘For Pete’s sake get your act together or we’ll all be in danger of losing control.’
Tom reluctantly hoisted himself up the ever twisting rope, his breath coming in short, laboured gasps.
‘Less time in front of the television and more exercise,’ his GP had prescribed.
Tom alas, hadn’t heeded the warning. Now there was a price to pay. He felt certain his life hung in the balance and what had he got to show for the last fifty years? All this emotion was getting him nowhere. He knew he had to snap out of it, get on with the task in hand.
He tried pulling himself onto a narrow ledge but his nerve went and he lost his balance. Down he plunged bypassing the spot he’d left barely a minute ago. Struggling to regain control, he waited for the repercussions bound to follow and didn’t they just!
‘Aw, c’mon man, lost your bottle?’
The rope tightened. Tom gulped miserably. He was only hearing what he already knew. What on earth possessed him to climb the rock face? He’d seen by the sheer face of it that he’d be in for a struggle. Mustering up every ounce of courage, he wiped the wetness from his brow and ignoring all further reprisals, began his final ascent.
‘Let’s be having you then.’ A weathered hand reached out and grabbed him. ‘Well done, you’re a man of unshakeable courage,’ the team leader reckoned, sporting a fixed sort of grin.
There was no doubt in Tom’s mind that the poor chap was nearing exhaustion; his face now a startling shade of crimson having had an extra body in tow. Clambouring well clear of the edge Tom paused, gazing downwards in a state of disbelief.
‘Trust you enjoyed your day with us,’ said the receptionist, handing him the last of his workforce’s gift vouchers. ‘Just the dry ski slope to go sir,’ she added, stifling a smile.
Tom winked, then turning up his collar hobbled out into the fresh air.
‘Some fiftieth birthday celebration that was,’ he snorted, glancing up at the sign flashing ‘INDOOR ACTIVITY CENTRE’.
Bob Pegg writes: The time scale of the story’s central event is brief - the few tense minutes it takes for Tom to descend the rock face. But by periodically revealing Tom’s thoughts, fears and recollections on the way, the writer incrementally creates a context which - a bit like a riddle - keeps the reader engaged in speculation and imagining until the final “twist”.
Rainbow Linings by Georgina O'Brien
A muted celebration this, no fanfare of trumpets here. As the people emerge from their homes, blinking into the sunlight, they see in their midst…..a wooden box; scent of cedar, no trimmings, no glitter, no golden lock. Just a white label with black writing, stark reminder, ‘Last Chance.’
Trembling fingers lift the lid to reveal a single rose wrapped in red tissue and the message
‘Red is for courage, the strength that you’ll need, to fight with all might for justice not greed.’
Beneath on a rustle of saffron tissue lie a bunch of marigolds, newly picked that morning, still retaining their musky pungent scent.
‘Orange is for creativity, zest and for fun, the need to adapt as you greet each new sun.’
The bright face of a sunflower is the next to burst out from its yellow wrapping.
‘Yellow is for cheerfulness, connection and trust, to meet despite difference an absolute must.’
The olive branch crackles dryly as it is lifted from its lining of verdant green tissue paper.
‘This is for peace, your greatest of needs, to solve problems by listening, not blaming for deeds.’
Hands reach down to gently release the Himalayan poppy from its bed of deep blue tissue.
The fluted edges of its delicate petals catch the last rays of the sun as the people wonder at its startling beauty.
‘Blue a reminder of sea and of sky that must be restored if you are to thrive.’
An aromatic scent is rising from the box now as indigo tissue is unwound from several stems of lavender tied with a silken ribbon. Each stem is crowned by a spike covered in petals.
‘Acceptance of feelings and time to express will be followed by calm, moving on from this mess.’
Deep within the final violet layer there is a single translucent gemstone. As each person present gazes into it the faces of eight billion others gaze back, and, in the depths of its core is the one word, ‘hope.’
‘New’ normal? There’s no going back.
The choices are ours now.
Bob Pegg writes: An ambitious piece that strives both to frame and to give solutions to the problems facing humanity after the devastation of Covid and with the prospect of the future devastation of the planet. The vivid images - the plain wooden box; the flowers, their wrappings, colours (and scents); the gemstone that offers hope - make me think that this story would work very effectively as the scenario for an animated film - using a grey palette punctuated by bursts of colour, with a score incorporating the verses in the story sung by individual voices and by a choir