Guest judge Jack Cooper received your entries with thanks, and attacks the tough job of judging - read here...
18th September 2018
Deciding on a theme for Hour of Writes is a tricky business. It must be precise enough to inspire writers to create pieces with clear connections to the theme, but broad enough that each entry will be unique. Of all things Attack And Receive could have been inspired by, it came from a playing card in the franchise that dominated my childhood: Yu-Gi-Oh. With such an aggressive phrase, I was hoping for war, embittered couples, and intrigue. I was delighted to find all this, alongside some whimsy.
I was immediately drawn to Entry 3155, which explores a situation too many of us will be familiar with. It reminds us that those who suffer from violence often turn to violence, that this cycle is not easily broken. Entry 3155 also shows that there can be a lot of power in simple language.
Entry 3160, Red Poppy Boy (gets what’s coming to him), has a lovely rhythm that drives the reader through a story of addiction and consequence. This can be seen especially in the second stanza, with: ‘an A1 stealer / all state receiver / a total syringe believer’. Successfully employing rhythm always makes a poem more compelling.
With Entry 3163, we see a regular structure and rhythm used to great effect. The images were very vivid, essential for communicating a story with such a degree of movement and as many changes in scene. I particularly enjoyed the shift in scale in:
‘Zipping through the midges and the dragonflies / We crest the spikes and fall into a murderous scrum’,
making the poem more dynamic and cinematic.
For me, Entry 3159 was the obvious winner. Gentle and concise, the piece takes us ‘inch by inch’ through a race. The poem is dense with imagery, and it is a credit to the author that they evoked such a strength of feeling in me with so few lines. I keep returning to:
‘The last water gone / Like legs / with nothing left / except blisters, cramp, / tiredness beyond enduring’,
drawn by its subtlety of rhythm and simplicity of language.
Thank you to everyone who entered. Judging this competition was a wonderful excuse to sit down, have a cup of tea, and immerse myself in varied poetry and prose. You each responded to the prompt differently, making this process an absolute pleasure. I hope you all continue to write great work for Hour of Writes, and for yourselves.
About The Judge
Jack Cooper works at the University of Oxford, in a laboratory that uses the sexual courtship of fruitflies as a model to understand core features of development and behaviour. His poetry has been longlisted for the National Poetry Competition, and shortlisted for The New Poets Prize and Segora Poetry Competition amongst others. Stephen King, Final Fantasy, and K-Pop are the great loves of his life.
Mohammed called me on Monday and asked if I could help. He didn't say Amanda* didn't know he was asking, although I suppose I should have realised. The client was due to be deported to India with her five year old son on 19 December so there wasn't much time.
The appointment was at 3 on Wednesday, so I said I would meet her at 2, and then changed it to 2.15 because I wanted to go to a lunchtime concert, but in the end I didn't make it to the concert anyway.
A couple of minutes after I arrived at the café, she turned up, with her young son and - unexpectedly Sarah from Salvation Army.
Of course she's not really called Sarah. I've called her Sarah because of Sister Sarah in
'Guys and Dolls'. She was there to look after the child, whose name I never did get, because there were more important things to discuss. Does that sound horrible? I expect it does. Horrible is who I am these days.
Indira - and of course she's not really called Indira, but I chose it after the former prime minister, and it contains the word 'India', which I think is a rather neat connection - was well dressed in a light raincoat, with beautiful dangling earrings. She wore a worried smile, nascent tears in her eyes.
I asked to see her papers and we talked about her asylum case, her spouse visa, why she couldn't go back to India, how her husband had repeatedly beaten her up in front of the child, how the first solicitor had ballsed up her case (my word: she was far too polite to ever say anything like that, an she probably didn't even realise that's what he'd done until Mohammed told her), and she cried when she said he'd refused to do her an appeal and she didn't know why.
I know why. Because there are lots of slime jobs out there who take on legal aid asylum cases and do next to nothing for the clients - remember, this is supposed to be fiction, so I can slag them off as much as I want - and collect the fee.
Then, when the Home Office refuse to grant asylum because the solicitor has done such a poor job, there's a window of just fourteen days to appeal. Fourteen days to find someone to stop the rest of your life falling off a cliff. And hardly any solicitors, even the decent ones, want to take appeals on, because it's just not worth the fees you get from legal aid. Assuming you can get legal aid. And if you can't, they might, just might, be willing to take your case to appeal if you pay them an arm and a leg.
The last time I took somebody to see A, her solicitor had lied to her and told her she had no right of appeal. He'd waited until the twelfth day after receiving the decision to contact her. She insisted on seeing the decision letter, which turned out to say she did have the right to appeal. I went with her to see A and we got an appeal in, just in time, and although it failed, it then went further and in the end she got leave to remain.
However, and I hope this will make you smile:
One solicitor told me when I went to see him with a client that she was the last person to get support from their legal aid budget, because of the time of year, late March. He'd been uncharacteristically late for her appointment and looked harassed. Afterwards I worked out he'd been arguing with his finance department, that being paid was secondary to this woman getting the advice and support she needed, because she'd been through so much he couldn't let her down now. Perhaps he didn't get paid at all.
That was Ben.
We won and the client and her family are safe now.
Well done Ben.
That's his real name.
So we talked through her case which meant the solicitor's job would be easier. Indira could put the case clearly to the solicitor, because we'd just rehearsed it, and I could query anything she said which differed from what she'd told me beforehand. This would save time and ensure the solicitor was fully in the picture.
At 2.55pm we headed for A's office. It was good Sarah was looking after the little boy because he was a real livewire. I guess he'd picked up on Mum's anxiety. The solicitor - A - has a great office. There are two seating areas for appointments, off the main reception area, glasses in, with an etching of a map of the world on the glass. This meant Sarah could be with the child in a separate area, so we would be undisturbed, yet he could still see Mum and settle, which he eventually did.
'A' said yes, she would take the case. Everything needed to be ready by the end of Friday, so the fresh claim could be put in on the following Monday, just in time to prevent deportation. It was a favour to me, I think, that she took the case because most of her work is in other fields now, and she'd have to drop everything else to be able to do it. She knows we are on the same page when it comes to asylum. We're part of the protection racket. I like calling it that. To think it's a protection racket, trying to get the Home Office to keep within the law and do right by asylum seekers. The whole thing is a joke. Protecting people from a government body who ae supposed to be set up to protect them. A joke.
When we left Indira was smiling a different kind of smile and Sarah was promising whatever he was called ice cream for being such a good boy. Sarah's husband was going to pick them up and take Indira and the child home. I told Indira to prepare her statement for the solicitor an email it to me to check. Her English was good, but couldn't be expected to be good enough to present the case in the best possible light. This statement would be the basis of her claim.
She sent it to me at 12.30am on Thursday morning and I opened it around 7.20. We worked on it, together, using email and phone for about four hours, after which she was entirely satisfied it represented a true picture of what had happened to her, so she emailed it to A.
The following week, I was happily on holiday somewhere hot where the food is a lot better than I can cook. I emailed A and Indira to see how things had worked out. They had gone as planned: a fresh claim, refused two days later (oh, they can move fast can the Home Office when they want to!) and a judicial review successfully lodged, meaning the deportation had to be cancelled and Indira and her son could stay in the country for the time being.
You might well be thinking, well so what? If the Home Office decided she didn't have the right to stay here then she should let them deport her (or 'remove' her, as A preferred to put it). Well, I have to tell you that I know thousands of asylum seekers, and I wish I had a cherry for every time the Home Office refused an application and tried to make somebody leave who was later found to be entitled to stay. I'd have planted a cherry orchard by now.
Last night I went to the opera with Sarah, the first time we'd met up socially in a long time. Actually we didn't: we went to a live broadcast, but that's the best I can do these days.
The Queen of Spades by Tchaikowsky.
Sarah used to be an opera singer (must be a great asset to the Salvation Army now) and pointed out people she knew in the cast, so it was a fun night out for us. Brilliant. One of the main characters looked like Jeremy Corbyn, and there were a few bars about half way through where he came on brandishing a pistol and the music, twice, appeared to play his name in a rhythmic way which was hilarious.
(Don't worry if you don't get that - you need to be into classical music, really, and how can I expect that of you as well as having to read this boring piece?)
There were only about eight people in the audience, some of whom left at the interval, and when we spoke to the cinema owner she said we were the only people who'd liked it. No accounting for taste..... The singing was superb - and I'd made us non-alcoholic cocktails for the interval too - so it was the best night out I'd had for ages.
On the way back Sarah told me the Sally Ann had been given lots of artificial Christmas trees just before 25th and she and her husband had taken one to Indira's house and helped her dress it. She said Indira had never had a Christmas tree before, and I said, a bit tongue in cheek since I'm a humanist who avoids Christmas like the plague (and I like to stir things), 'That would be because she's not a Christian.'
Sarah ignored my dig and said Indira told her every morning she gets up and looks at that tree and it lifts her heart.
You asked what hope is: it's a Christmas tree that Indira doesn't want to take down.
*You may be thinking who's Amanda?
That's a story for another time...…...
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Last Week's Winner!
Winning entry by Alex Fleet
We pulled up near the massive front door and as Toby ran up the steps his Mum, my daughter Kathy, was there grinning from ear to ear. It was lovely to see them as Toby ran into her arms, had a great hug, then turned and ran back to me and hugged me too. “It’s super! It’s huge!” he shouted as he stood once again with big eyes sweeping from one end of the building to the other.
His Mum laughed. “It’s not all ours, Toby, we have just a little bit of it. There are lots of people live here, all of us in little houses built inside. You’ll probably see them other boys and girls, so just you keep an eye out and let me know if you see any!”
I don’t think Toby was interested in making friends at that point, he was just in awe of the size of the place. “It’s like a museum” he observed.
Yes, I pondered, it has a history, that’s for sure. It used to be a lunatic asylum, years ago. The nuthouse, it was called in those days. Now it had a more upmarket name, something which sounded as if it had been replanted here from an elegant London street.
We walked in through the great door and into the equally large hallway. Toby ran to the lift and pressed the button for the top floor, for that was where Jackie’s flat was. As we went up in the lift he and I smiled at each other, our secret smile, just between the two of us. Somehow at times we seemed to be the same person. We loved to wind up Toby’s Mum, because we seemed to communicate without words and she would stand there perplexed: “How do you two do that?” she would say exasperated, when we had agreed something to do together without a word being said.
I could feel the electricity sizzling between us strongly as we went up in the lift. I knelt down and we stared at each other, his eyes clear and blue, mine browned with age. He stepped forward and I held him close, feeling him tremble slightly with excitement.
The doors rattled open, the same steel doors from all those years ago, the ancient concertina type where you had to be careful not to get your fingers jammed between the rails when the door opened.
Toby looked at his Mum to confirm which way to go and ran along, counting the numbers on the doors, skidding to a stop outside his new home. Jackie let us in and Toby disappeared, but we could hear him whooping and shouting, his running feet echoing from room to room.
Soon he was reporting back: “It’s huge!” he said again. This was true: the ceilings were high, the rooms were big, the windows were big enough to stand in. Jackie and her boyfriend Sam had moved from a small terraced house in London when his company relocated and had then rented another small terraced house while they looked for somewhere to buy. They had moved in here over the last couple of days and Toby had stayed with me and we had some quality time together. Meanwhile, Toby had settled in well at his new school which was conveniently close. It was wonderful that they had moved here as I had been living nearby too, having inherited an aunt’s house which I had moved to a couple of years back. I used to live here. For a while. But that time was best forgotten.
Toby wolfed down a snack, then went exploring again. “Would you like to have a look outside, Toby?” his Mum asked.
Outside, the extensive lawns were laid with paths criss crossing from one end to the other, which kept Toby amused as he ran up and down them as fast as he could. “Can I cycle on these paths, Mum?”
After a while, Jackie looked at her watch and went in to start dinner. Sam would be arriving back from work in an hour’s time. Jackie’s work she could do anywhere, anytime: the marvels of the internet.
I stayed outside with Toby and he carried on exploring the woods below the lawned areas, hiding then jumping out as we walked around. There were trees to climb, paths circling round and round so he could run as fast as he could but still be in the same spot one minute later, which bemused him. It was lovely to see him, free and fast, enjoying the fresh air, as free as a bird. I felt my tension relaxing.
We went back to the flat, in time for Sam to arrive home. Toby hugged his Dad, then ran back to me and asked where all his toys were.
Jackie served up straight away though, and after a leisurely dinner Jackie got Toby into the huge bath, then afterwards handed him to me, wrapped in a snug warm white towel.
“Story?” she smiled at me. Toby nodded emphatically.
As I carried him along the hallway, Toby snuggled close to me. He was warm, with the scent of a clean towel and clean skin and Toby’s own delicate scent when his skin was close.
I put him down at his bedroom door and left him to clamber into bed while I just popped to the bathroom, still warm and steamy from Toby’s bath.
In the bathroom, it was quiet. Except for the tap. The dripping tap. I couldn’t wait to turn it off fully but in that half a minute the panic had risen. I had so had it under control. It had been a long time. But it started to come back, the forgotten but familiar feeling. I could feel my muscles tense and consciously had to make an effort to relax. I flushed the toilet, and with that came the faint scent of antiseptic that Jackie had used on the toilet. It was not her usual brand. This was different. This was . . . familiar. I felt my hear racing again. I closed my eyes. The smell was strong. My feet were cold on the tiled floor. The room was cold. I shivered.
I opened my eyes. It was Jackie’s bathroom, not the one I had flashed back to for a moment. I breathed deep and slow, calmed myself. Coughed. Walked out and into the hallway.
I could hear the muffled cries of a child in the next flat, through the thick Victorian walls. The hallway echoed as I walked along it. Toby’s room was at the end. The door was ajar. The light was not on. As I walked towards it, there was a slight luminescence and as I quietly arrived at the door, I saw it was from the moon shining in through the tall sash window.
Toby was there, at the window, staring up at the moon. His slim frame was in silhouette, the moon caressing his head and shoulders with its cold light.
He had shrugged off his bathtowel and stood there naked, how he went to bed in the summer.
I didn’t need to see him turn his head to hear him say quietly “Look at the moon.”
He was transfixed. I was transfixed. I was looking at him, at me those years ago. That had been me, those years ago, a little boy, seven, standing at the window, staring at the moon, naked because I had torn off the scratchy clothes they had dressed me in and driven me half mad by the dripping tap, the scratch of branches on the window, the noise of the other people screaming, the crush of smelly bodies in the corridor, the way people did different things to what they said and didn’t tell me, the noise, the touch of everything. They have a name for it now, they know what it is.
But I was proud that it had taken four people – four grown ups – to hold me down before they could tie me to the metal bedframe, still to carry on screaming and contorting and lunging and spitting and biting. Screaming animal screams, louder than any of the other inmates. Somehow, in the end, they got the needle into me though, and for a while everything went quiet.
To look at Toby was a help. He seemed so peaceful and quiet, just gazing up at the full moon.
I became aware of the crying child next door. For a couple of moments it was there in the background. Then, I realised it was me. In my memory. I was sure I was silent but my brain was crying out. My little boy memory.
Tonight, it would have to be a short story for Toby.
Actually it would need to be very short.
I felt my pulse rate quicken, I couldn’t control my breathing. Then, I thought, what if Toby picks up on this? That would be so wrong. I need to leave now, get out this room quick. Then, from Toby I heard a noise, a strange gasp I’d not heard before. I paused. He was still standing there, but I could see the tenseness in his body.
The scream from next door was louder. The scream in my head was louder. I remained quiet though, still. But as I watched Toby he turned, slowly, towards me. I ran towards him. Something was wrong.
Before he even saw me his eyes were wide, tortuous fear contorting his features. He knew. He knew. Or at least he didn’t know, he felt. He felt the horror of the place.
Suddenly I felt so guilty. I had never spoken of this place, to anyone, after we had moved away. Somehow I had managed to get out. Did the things they wanted me to, somehow. Got out. We moved away, never to return, till a couple of years ago. When I married, I never mentioned it. It was in the past, would stay there. I was concerned when I found that this was where Kathy, my daughter and Sam, and beautiful little Toby were going to live, but it was then such a lovely place for them, different. I would cope.
But here I am. And Toby, contorted, stiffened by fear. Finally his eyes found mine but they were unseeing. They looked through me, past me. He stood facing me now, his face in the dark, black shadow from the moon. I could not see his eyes, his expression.
But then, his tiny chest filled, his throat gargled and he screamed, a deep, agonising animal scream that sent icy chilling shivers down my spine and zapped my fingers and toes, made my hair stand up on my neck and then I too was overcome with uncontrollable sobbing and before I knew it I had taken in great gulps, sobbing gulps of air and together we screamed, screamed in the dark room, lit by the full, full moon.
This is not how he expected to feel
finding himself further from shore
that he can correct.
It’s almost a relief to be inside
this grey-water washing machine
on the spin cycle.
Its warm, dark clutches have him by the throat,
He’s a village drowned beneath friends’
better lives, mute taunts.
Trivia of his past days whizzes by
like strangers cars, rigid lines melt
nothing stays contained.
He’s shreds of being, piled thin strips upon
popped balloons, papier mache,
undone by water.