First Prize Winner
Five Staves and An Instant Louise G Cole
I am friend to the old five bar gate into our yard, and she to me as she holds back the world from my Grandparents’ place. It’s a time when childhood days pass long and quick, short and slow.
She is oak-beamed and seasoned heavy with age; I am the spindle-legged orphan brought to this wilderness for the solid calm, the reparation of the country.
I have no recollection of what brings me here. Whenever possible I wriggle away from my Grandmother’s gulping, moist-eyed hugs and we don’t talk about what has happened. I’m aware of conversations that stop when I enter the room, and the old people who are my grandparents’ friends who can’t quite look me in the eye. ‘Bless you,’ they murmur, clattering cups and saucers in trembling hands.
Outside, we get acquainted, the gate and I, as I clamber aboard and desolately swing to and fro until a commotion drawing near sends me back to the safe side. My sturdy friend leans solid at the push and shove of the neighbours’ slavering cows on their way to fresh pasture.
Curious, the cattle stop to look over at solemn little me. Big, big beasts with foul silage breath, doe eyes and jaunty yellow ear tags in matching pairs. They drool and snort and then lumber on, eventually passing on their way along the lane, urged forward by slinking, snapping dogs and a smirking farm-hand with a stick. ‘Hiya, Gorgeous!’ he shouts with a wink and a wave, and I hang my head to hide blazing cheeks. I know the black and white hounds are sheepdogs and these are cows, that much this city girl knows of country ways.
I register the unaccustomed all around: the nauseous reek of the farmyard, the steady drone of tractors in the fields beyond, the comfortable cluck of hens around my feet, rain that soaks rather than splashes. I feel vaguely uneasy, although I’m not sure why, unaware that the familiar sounds of traffic and trains, roaring crowds, the comfort of commotion is no longer available to me. Car horns and screeching tyres, revving engines and people moving, always moving. Up and down escalators, stepping in and out of lifts, jumping on and off buses, opening and closing car doors. Here is different; in one day I shall see only a single farm boy and his herd of cows.
It’s not long before winter calls and then I target her, my gate, with angry snowballs in fierce and deadly aim and she shudders and groans at their cold, brutal thud.
But she stands firm and eventually I am spent. I am not certain as to why I am so enraged; I don’t see the sad twitch of the curtains as my Grandmother looks on. “Happy Christmas?” I snarl, but the gate remains mute.
Eventually contrite, I return to festoon the five bars with guilty holly and ivy.
Tenderly, I brush away the weight of snow and scrape elaborate decorations in the frost across her length. I kick her bars, but gently now, to shower myriads of cold, frosted glitter across my lonely boots.
And at night, the gate croons to me as the wind tugs and rattles with threats to pull her beams from their sockets. I learn to take comfort in those distant creaks and cries as I nestle safe now, and almost cosy in the feathered eiderdown embrace of my Grandmother’s house. ‘There, there,’ my Grandmother rocks back and forth, listening too, anodyne endearments instead of explanations as an instant fades away.
And then the gate yawns wide for my grinning uncles in their roaring cars, as they skid by on their duty calls to toss me chocolate bars and knock, knock jokes.
They don’t know that we hear them, the gate and I, whispering how much I remind them of their dead sister, the one whose picture sits upon the mantelpiece, from a time when she was a golden curled toddler, balanced unsteady atop the same five bars. Below her stubby legs the wood was draped with dew-beaded spiders’ webs glittering in the early light of a day long gone. My Grandmother polishes the photo daily, sometime with her crumpled pink handkerchief; I hear her talk to the picture, but softly so I cannot make out the words.
And after dinner, when the uncles race away amid cheery waves and calls, their farewell tyres flick the gate and my Grandmother’s saddened legs with stinging sprays of gravel. Shoulders hunched, she turns back to the house seething with profanities I’m not supposed to hear regarding fast cars and the hapless youths that drive them. And there’s the hint for me of why I’m there.
I pull on the gate’s sturdy rope tether and loop it over the post to hold her steady, and we are shut off again from the outside world.
That is, until such time the postman calls, welcomed in with his bundles of thick letters, news and bills and more, sometimes fat, squashy brown parcels tied with string, nearly-new dresses and stripy sweaters from the skinny cousins in America that I only first met at the funeral. ‘They’re thinking of you,’ my Grandmother whispers, a faraway look upon her that I barely notice in the excitement of the new clothes.
And much, much later, when I am grown and moved away, I hear the yard has had a smart replacement, twin gates, all shiny black wrought iron scrolls and swirls. Before I’ve even seen them, I imagine these gates dark, silent, brooding. They will be stiff and unyielding, with no heart. I mean not to like them, but my Grandmother sounds proud: “It’s about time this old place got a facelift,” she says and I concede that they’re probably beautiful, regardless.
I hurry back for a promised weekend, to find my old oak gate abandoned in the hedgerow, uncomplaining, ragged, reduced to three bars and a bit. Dandelions poke their way past the razed planks and I pick a clock and blow, watching the parachuting seeds count time as they make their way across the grass.
Soon I shall be older than my mother was when she died, but still my Grandmother doesn’t talk to me about what happened. I don’t need the details anymore; it is enough that sometimes, in the confusion of an early morning encounter on the landing, or perhaps at the kitchen table when I burst in on her silent reveries, she calls me by my mother’s name and is then surprised to realize that I’m someone else.
Over the years, my thin scraps of recall have twisted and morphed into shadowy figures that patrol occasional dreams. Sometimes, at family gatherings, I am presented with snippets about a life I don’t remember, parents I don’t properly recollect. Photos blur the edges of genuine memory. I listen to chilling warnings about repressed memories, and I study learned texts, looking for likely outcomes. Yet I am determined to remain unafraid. After all, I was the lucky one, the survivor. I was the child who was pulled from the wreckage of a car crash, miraculously unharmed. The same collision that in an instant, mangled my parents and baby sister.
My poor old gate needs me now. I call my Grandfather, and laughing, he finds his toolbox and a saw. ‘Right so,’ he says, nodding. We search for a decent gap in the hedge beyond the yard, a sunny spot where my old gate can see out her days, and I help him to set her up, friend that I am, careless of splinters and broken fingernails as we work.
My Grandmother brings tea and buns and she stays to watch us work, making unhelpful suggestions that make us all laugh.
And all the while, I am safe in the knowledge that I don’t need to explain – they understand.
Because it was against these sun-warmed timbers I accepted my first kiss, pushed hard up against the gate, urgent and thrilled in my skimpy summer dress as the gate gave out a loud, protesting commentary in the stillness of the night.
We scurried to grease silence from her rusting hinges and next day, I was scolded by my Grandmother. Not for the short skirt or the lateness of the teenage day, not even for the kiss. She was mad because we had used up all her finest cooking oil.
And now, sometimes, we keep each other company, the gate and I, on idle days in summer, measuring time in the hum of bees and horse flies and the soft swish of the long grass at our feet, in sight of the smart new metal gates. We cling together, to and fro in silent bond, stirring with the breeze, both of us remembering there are things to forget.
Because long ago, once, just once, I heard the squeal of skidding tyres. I felt the crush of mangled metal, I tasted splashed blood, and smelt the acrid burn of lives changed in an instant.
Anne Corlett won the Third Prize with The Look Of Leaving
Julia Thorley won the Northamptonshire Prize with Scoring An Own Goal In Tennis