The title of our competition this year was UNFINISHED. Winners were:
Poetry Debra Westlake
Fiction Gaelle Stark
Non-Fiction Danny Milne
Their winning entries are published here. Please note that ownership of the entries remains with the authors. Should anyone wish to use or reproduce this material, please contact the author through the PWC contacts page to obtain written permission.
UNFINISHED – (The Churston Twelve) by Debra Westlake
Was it a day like this day,
A plain day
When the pewter sea is still
When sea mist shrouds the common,
A reluctant sun
Shrugs off a fist of cloud, burns
Was it a day like this day,
The bracken crisped,
The bramble blackened on the branch
And hawthorn bare;
When a lone seagull forgets
That he can fly
And indignant cattle bellow
Of their loss?
Did the twelve boys of Churston,
Named on our cross,
Weep for their stark brothers
Of Flanders field,
Stripped of every pock-marked leaf,
Whose sentinel shadows
Of branch and twig
Did they long for the twisty path
Down to our cove,
Thick with mouldering leaves,
Roots deep in blood
Red soil, fecund with the falling,
Where their names were carved
With shaky hearts
As the shrill-screech lark called across
That troubled earth,
Did they mourn the hungry finch,
The singing thrush
And the insolent robin,
Who insist on life;
Who know no more
Unfinished by Gaelle Stark
I live a half-life, somewhere between what is real and what is not.
Half of the time I don’t know the difference. Half of the time I do.
Sometimes I am asleep and I think that I am awake. It can get very confusing.
There is a label that society has come up with for this condition. I hate labels. The doctor told me that I had one though.
Stephanie, you have post-traumatic stress disorder. He said.
This is when something terrible has happened to you and you can’t get rid of it from your mind. It haunts you; you relive it over and over. So perhaps you understand why I find it so hard to know if what is in front of me is true. Often I touch things, just to be certain they are there. I don’t touch people; they arrest you for that.
I don’t talk to anyone all that much if I’m honest. I find them exhausting. My friends so want to be pleased or to be flattered and I don’t have the energy. We make friends with those who make us feel good about ourselves, who listen to our little woes—not the complicated stuff, no-one wants that, those who we can have a laugh with on a Friday night.
But, I don’t want to go out. I don’t like the cinema because of the noise, same goes for shopping centres.
Generally I just drift along, lost in amongst all the other bodies, hoping no-one will notice me. It’s like I have my very own invisibility cloak. People actually look straight through me. It’s surprising how easy it is not to be seen if you try.
I am on my way back from therapy. It is close so I can walk. I like to feel the air on my cheeks. It burns when it is cold. Sensation is helpful
When I am with my therapist it is like I am not there. Like I am watching me in a television drama special, or an edgy piece of theatre at The Royal Court…
Starring Stephanie Sampson as Me
and introducing Dave as the Therapist.
Me: There is this memory that I have from when I must’ve been about twelve. I was stood in the kitchen doorway, but they didn’t notice me. I didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, I just watched. Such a nasty human desire; you get this weird adrenaline rush almost.
I don’t normally tell people about this, because I know they’ll think I’m sort of twisted or something. I bet you think I am, right?
Therapist: You obviously think so.
Me: Yeah. (shudders) Who wouldn’t?
I felt like a real coward, but I was scared of my father.
I didn’t cry.
I hardly ever cry so that wasn’t, like, odd or anything.
I hid on the stairs. We had this big high, solid bannister.
I counted in my head, until everything was normal again. I got to seventy-five.
The next time that it happened I got to one hundred and ten, but it was normally about seventy-five.
I never ever watched again though. I kept my eyes shut.
In the silence that followed I heard mum whimpering softly and my father’s heavy breath. A moment later the front door slammed.
I would always try to act like nothing had happened, because I knew that was what made mum happy. So I would always try and smile and stuff.
I mean, really, I hated that I didn’t protect her. I felt so angry, really, so angry…
Mum just wanted us to pretend that everything was fine.
He would bring her flowers afterwards and she always acted really pleased.
Look, Steph, look at the pretty roses.
Therapist: That sounds like it was horrible for you.
Me: I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. He never touched me.
I mean…I actually had a pretty good childhood: holidays, dinners, parties….
All this other stuff, it isn’t how I define myself as a person you see.
My dad and mum aren’t together any more, because my mum is dead. I don’t see the point in dressing nasty facts up, they are what they are.
He didn’t kill her if that’s what you’re thinking.
I was the one who found her. She was on the bathroom floor. She was pale, grey tinged at the edges of her face, and of her lips…She was rigid when I tried to hold her hand.
The coroner thought she had died at around half-past two that morning.
He said that she had taken an overdose of tranquillisers. I didn’t like to think of them cutting her up, like in CSI. It had to be done though, but I didn’t want to see her afterwards.
This all happened six months ago, although it could have been years. I had recently started university, and was living in halls. I had been a bit worried about leaving her on her own, but she had persuaded me to go.
You’ve got to live your life, flower. She said.
I chose a university that was close to home, in case she needed me. I used to call her three times a day. Once at breakfast time, once in the afternoon after lectures and once around dinnertime.
That particular day she hadn’t answered at breakfast. I had told myself not to be alarmed, I knew that he was away at a conference, and she was probably just in the shower. But then she didn’t answer in the afternoon and I started to panic.
I couldn’t sit still in my lecture on child development, so I got up and left. Everyone stared at me because I had been sat right at the back.
I drove home. It took me an hour. I went at seventy-five all the way. I kept thinking about counting on the stairs.
I have a photo of her by my bed, I took it on a family holiday to Wales. She is wearing a pink waterproof jacket. She is smiling. When I look it though I always see the greyish tinges, the open mouth.
I don’t talk to my dad much. He calls me but I don’t often answer. I don’t want to blame him, to be so full of anger, but I can’t help it.
I am living with my Nan. We can remember mum together. She hates my dad, and won’t have him near the house, which makes it easier for me to avoid him. I realise that I sound unkind, but you weren’t there those times on the stairs.
I haven’t gone back to university. I am taking some time off. Although I’m not sure that I can ever go back there, or even that I want to go back there. I feel like I should never have gone away.
It sounds stupid, but I wish she hadn’t done it. I tell myself that it might have been an accident, that she might have been so desperate to sleep that she made a mistake. It could be true
But somehow I know it wasn’t. Mum was too clever to make that sort of mistake.
I’m not working so I spend my days helping my Nan around the house; cooking, cleaning, washing—anything to keep my mind occupied. I still see mum on the bathroom floor though. Over and over.
I try to read my textbooks, just on the off chance that I do decide to finish my degree but even they don’t offer a real distraction. I still see her. Over and over.
Give it some time. The doctor said.
You’re doing so well. Dave the Therapist said.
I’m so sorry. My dad said.
But I still see her, over and over, and over, and over…until I don’t know the difference between what is real and what is not.
UNFINISHED by Danny Milne
Was I taught by parents, raw from rationing, to always leave my plate clean? I’m sure I was, as were most of my generation. But that wasn’t the reason I bread-sponged every last bit. I simply loved food.
I ate books in the much the same way, a little too fast to truly enjoy them but fast enough to keep the story hot to the last mouthful. Although the analogy breaks down here, for when you consume a story the last mouthful is, or should be, the most delicious of the whole meal. It was the promise of this final exquisite burst of flavour that held me fast in the dullest of stories.
I ate whatever was put in front of me, oblivious to the quality – my mum, perfect in every other way, was a terrible cook. It was much the same with my reading material – a poor diet of pulp and pot boilers. But, because of my greed, the occasional masterpiece would find its way on to my plate and I could not refuse it. I would slow down, savour it, sometimes read it again and gradually my tastes would mature. The glutton gradually grew into a gourmet.
Ten or so years ago, my reading habits took a disturbing turn for the worse. I began to have trouble getting to the ends of books. Not just giving up after a few pages – everyone does that; some books just aren’t that good. No, I abandoned them a half to two thirds of the way through. I lost interest while I was still enjoying the flare and rhythm of the writing, while I was still fully immersed in the plot, after I had got to know the characters intimately, and had grown eager to know what was to happen in those last few delectable pages.
Was my palate becoming jaded? No, I was reading just as much, of a greater variety, and with just as much enthusiasm as in my youth.
Was it to do with my becoming a more experienced reader, realising how few conventional ways there are to finish a novel? No, I was still hungry for that final tying up of lose ends. It was the journey towards it that proved to be the problem.
Was it to do with my recent incarnation as an amateur writer, becoming aware of the improbable machinations and sleights of hand needed to coax a plot towards a satisfactory end? This often occurs in the last third of a book. No, a novice wonders at the skill and artistry of an experienced magician even if he knows how the trick is done.
Was that it? Was I just eager to explore all those different writing styles? Possibly, but, on its own, it’s not an adequate explanation.
Days have passed. I have found it hard to re-engage with this writing. That’s right; you guessed – about half to two thirds of the way through. I didn’t tell you about the novel, did I, simmering away on the back burner. I know how it’s going to end; I could almost write the whole last chapter. The characters are well rounded, the plot is coming together nicely but, dammit, the last part to the book eludes me. Hell! I’m not letting a mere essay get the better of me. I have no choice but to push through the barrier and continue.
Recently, after some intense self analysis, I found the explanation of this phenomenon. The main reason I avoid the last part of these stories is because I’m afraid of the last part of my story. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not afraid of the end. I know about death and mourning. My father was killed in a road accident when I was four and a half. An acceptance of mortality was burned deep into my developing psyche. It is the long slow journey towards the end that scares me.
Jenny, my wife, has had Parkinson’s Disease for some time now. A degenerative condition, it can only get worse and its progress is fairly predictable. The only variable is the speed with which this will happen. It can be microscopically slow or it can all unfold in a year or two. The miracle cures – stem cells and the like – are always ten years away; they were ten years away ten years ago and they will still be ten years from now. This is the reality we’ve had to learn to live with. I have survived by not thinking very hard about the future. Jenny must have drawn on other deeper resources for often she seems to cope better than me.
My father was stolen from us by a speeding jaguar, driven by an RAF officer. Him and his bicycle were carried a hundred yards on the bonnet – he hadn’t a chance. The driver was almost certainly inebriated; he had just left the NAAFI. It was many years before breathalysers, and we felt more generous towards alcoholic overindulgence then. After all, the war had just been won by a fat drunk in a boiler suit.
We’re on the same dark road now but with no one to blame this time. What took seconds will now take years. My wife stands helpless with an articulated lorry bearing down on her, feet super-glued to the tarmac. I stand by her side; it won’t hit me but I will witness the whole slow motion spectacle in every detail. In the meantime we have the leisure to look at our reflections in the shiny chrome bumpers. The driver too, we can see the colour of his eyes, the wart on his nose, the tattoo on his arm, his gold tooth, the fluffy dice dangling on the windscreen. If I wanted to, I could find out a lot more about him; we have books. Most of the time though, I choose to look the other way. I try not to let go of her hand though.
A mystery solved? Yes I suppose so. Does this mean that I’ll be able to finish those pesky books? Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been at the two thirds stage for ten years now, waiting patiently on my bedside table. Does it mean that the plot of my novel-in-progress will now stride smoothly and confidently down the home straight? It’s too early to tell. But I did finish this, didn’t I.