We asked readers of our recent 52 Dates for Writers serialisation to submit a sample of work they had written after doing one of the writing dates in the book. Our favourite was by Lucy Corkhill, who was inspired by the date entitled ‘Assume an Alias’ in Stave VIII: ‘… Choose a particular time and day, and go about the day as you could reasonably expect one of your central characters to. Try to make all decisions, reactions and interactions as your character would…’
Lucy has won a literary consultancy package with 52 Dates for Writers author Claire Wingfield, during which they will discuss the outline for Unmasked, the working title of the novel the extract (featured below) is from.
First, Lucy introduces the extract and describes her experience of the date:
I somehow felt that I needed to inhabit the dawn world of my characters. They lived during a time when people had to get up early – to get fires burning, to get on with the many chores needed for the day to run smoothly – so dawn waking was part of their lives. This character, Arthur, was wounded during World War I and is living with a friend, Isobel, in her late aunt’s cottage in Scotland. This date invited me to really inhabit this quiet, contemplative time of day through my characters. I got up early to walk to the top of the hill behind our house, first in the ‘shoes’ of Isobel, and then in the ‘shoes’ of Arthur. This scene developed as I watched the sun rise over the South Downs behind our house. Dawn feels so intimate sometimes – and at other times I have my pre-schooler skipping along beside me – so I played with both, and decided Arthur’s daughter, Orla, would accompany him. Eventually I decided that dawn would be an opportunity for Arthur to make a kind of peace with the war and the loss of his mother – essentially a new start (for which dawn is an obvious metaphor). I wanted him to create some kind of ritual around that, so the building of the cairn developed. “Living out” Arthur’s experience meant being in his body, so connecting with the feel of his daughter’s hand in his prosthetic hand (he lost his right hand during the war) compared to his left, normal hand; and recognising that after surviving gas attacks he can still become breathless easily.
Arthur awoke suddenly in the early hours of the morning for reasons he couldn’t fathom. Though it came easier at night, sleep was still elusive at this hour. He lay awake for a while, listening to Isobel sleep-breathing beside him, and realised he wouldn’t sleep again. Dawn had not yet broken and he got up quietly and dressed in the semi-darkness.
Outside, the sky was flooded a pale pink. He walked out into the garden, between the rows of vegetables. The air smelt of new earth and damp, and it felt chill on his face. Dew soaked his trousers making the fabric cling to his skin. The day lay out like that, fresh and crisp as new sheets.
They began the climb up the mountain after breakfast, Orla beside him, her hand in his. ‘Can I hold your other hand, Papa?’ she asked and ran around to his other side. She took the prosthetic and held it, and they walked like that for a while.
Then she capered around to take up his left hand again. He relished the feeling of flesh against flesh, the connection of her hand in his.
The straps of his knapsack dug into his shoulders, though not in an unpleasant way. The dawning sun was warm enough, and a breeze blew across them. There was the smell of heather crumpled underfoot. Their progress was slow and meandering. They bent to look at creeping ivy flowers, and rabbit burrows. Gathered pebbles and small stones that lay scattered around them.
The old breathlessness overtook him now and then, although the climb wasn’t steep.
When they got to the top of the mountain, the scenery opened up below them. He was reminded of the copse at the farm, and a scene being unveiled from the morning mist. The memory – and a sense of the task that lay before him – choked at his throat.
‘Shall I start collecting big stones now, Papa?’
He turned away from the scenery. ‘Yes, let’s do that.’
They began gathering the stones from the grass around them. He helped Orla carry the bigger ones, and they began to arrange them in a circle about a foot across. They balanced the next layer of stones on top of the first layer, then began to add the stones they had carried up the mountain in their pockets. The stone tower grew. Birds trilled in the shrubbery around them.
As I lay each stone, I lay you to rest, he thought. And he thought it not just for his mother, but for all the men who had fallen. He thought of the difference of being buried there, in the putrid earth, man on man, hip bone to shoulder bone, shattered jaw to dismembered foot, to being buried here, in this clean, pure air with the purple mountains gathered round in solemnity.
Orla lay the last stone. It was pale grey, shot through with black streaks. A piece of history, millions of years of geology in her chubby child’s hands. He watched her place it on the top of the cairn of stones they’d built. She did it silently, looking up at him as if for validation. He was grateful for that, his solemn daughter, wise beyond her years. She did not chatter or wonder, but came to stand beside him looking out at the vista.
‘Do you think grandmother would like it here?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Very much.’
He took the letter from his jacket pocket, where it was pressed and creased into tight folds. The handwriting gave him pause, and flooded him suddenly with a sense of the tangible: his mother’s hands, cramped around a pen, pressing her thoughts onto paper. And then he took the matches from his pocket. The first few he lit blew out in the breeze and even when the paper caught, it blew out again, shivering to black edges with an orange frill. But when the paper caught the second time, he bent his wrist to let it catch and the flames surged up before he let it go. The ashes and molten bits of paper chased each other down the grass, and were caught by the wind, and blown away.
‘Rest in peace,’ he said.
The cairn stood pale and irregular against the horizon as they turned to walk back down the mountain. He wondered how many storms it would take before the stones were randomly tumbled back down the grass, free from man’s intervention. Perhaps only one. How many rainfalls and ploughings of French fields before the bones of men were jumbled up like old cutlery in the bottom of a drawer? Never mind, it was enough for now. It had been enough.
Orla didn’t speak as they made their way back to the cottage. She too seemed thoughtful. Perhaps I have frightened her with my pensiveness, he thought. As they came back across the grass banks behind the house, they saw Isobel attempting to pin washing to the line as it flapped vigorously against her. When she saw them, she raised her hand in greeting, smiling with a mouth full of pegs. Orla broke into a run and Isobel caught her, scooped the child up and held her close. Arthur stood at the open gate and watched the two of them, as easy together as mother and child.
Find out more about Lucy’s writing at www.lucycorkhill.com, and keep in touch with her on Twitter: @lucycorkhill. Congratulations, Lucy!
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