Announcing the Winners of the Wigtown Challenge
The Wigtown writing challenge is the culmination, for me, of two and a half years of anticipation. That’s how long Trish and I had to wait to take up our place as stewards of Booktown’s Open Book.
Our ten-day sojourn in Wigtown was marked by encounters with a range of open-hearted, generous people, from George, who welcomed us to the bookshop, to a number of local and visiting writers and illustrators including Helen and Mark, to Rosemary, the owner of the premises, who gave us a quick and freezing tour of the castle which inspired Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, to Stephen Byrne, the maker of miniature books, to Ben Please, one half of the Bookshop Band renowned for the songs they write about books and their performances at book shops and literary festivals, to Renita Boyle, a flamboyant local writer and storyteller, to Bob the whisky enthusiast, to booksellers Ruth and Joyce, and the rugby fanatic…
We arrived at The Open Book with a couple of boxes full of South African books generously supplied by Pan Macmillan, Modjaji Books, Penny Castle, Tracy Todd, Yvette Wilsenach, Gail Gilbride and our own Jo-Anne Richards. We graced the display windows with cunning arrangements of books and, over the course of our stay, promoted South African writers whenever we could, both in the shop and during the teaching encounters I had.
The Wigtown people we met (and some we imagined) formed the inspiration for our whimsical Basil and Bella in Booktown – and the spur to the Wigtown competition.
After which lengthy introduction, our winners:
In top place, for creating a truly memorable monologist, whose attitude veers from self-righteousness to defensiveness, from judgemental to doubt, and then back again to a slightly wonky self-righteousness, is Emily Lennox-Napier.
Runners up, in alphabetical order are:
Jenny Alence the whimsical absurdity of her invention.
Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen for a character who’ll linger in your memory as much for the extravagance of his appearance as for his doom-laden prophesy. (There’s a book there, Mitzi!)
Sal Carter for her evocation of love, regret and longing. (Favourite line: His curly hair, once Border Collie-black, was now pewter, but still wild and untamed. )
Bindi Davies for her unforgettable nun. Best line: The nun swishes past, smelling of diesel and stale sweat.
Georgia Hardiman, for her rather more diffident, but just as mysterious book-buyer, and
Alain Mackrill for his charming Mr Magoo-like character who mistakes the bookshop for a public house.
“Well, I had to say something. Of course I did. After all, perhaps she did not know. I mean, I knew. We all knew. The whole street was talking about it. The question was whether she knew. And, if she did, what was she proposing to do about it. I said as much to Brian when he came in from work. I told him that I would be telling her this very weekend. He got all hot and bothered about me poking my nose in. Not what I was doing at all. Sometimes, people need to be told. There is a part of them that wants to be told. None of us may like the experience, but they are better for it. Far be it from me to shirk my duty. That was what I said to him. It is a matter of duty, I said. He scoffed at that. Asked me what I knew about duty. Well. I told him I knew plenty. He said I was all pride. I told him that pride mattered when it was all you had. Pride is what keeps you going. Pride is what gets you up in the morning and keeps the house clean and your head high. Pride is what gets duty done. Nothing wrong with having pride and I don’t see why he should sneer at it. She could do with some more pride herself, come to that. So could he. He twisted his lip a bit at that and slithered off to the pub as soon as. That one. I found out later he had taken the good sugar bowl with him. No wonder he disliked pride: he couldn’t list it on e-bay so it must be worthless. He was in no position to judge anyone. She needs telling and there is no one else with the strength of character to do it but me.
And when I did, she had such nice manners on her. Like the Queen. She smiled and thanked me and offered me tea. I turned it down, of course. They say she did it straight after I left. Shut the bookshop and did it. And maybe she did. She had to be told, but there was no need to take it like she did. It shows a lack of character, acting like that. She never did have enough pride. Everyone says so.”
It was usual this time of year for the sky to loom dully, a volcanic cloud of grey, but today there was that edge of white light, signaling that it was extra cold out. Rick was alone in the shop and didn’t expect anybody. The day yawned eternal and boring and silent so that Rick started when the door opened and the bell was disturbed into an unnecessary clang.
The man stood stock still for a moment, adjusting to the inside climate and light. It was dimmer than it should be on account of one or two (maybe three) spent bulbs, (replacing of, being a constant on Rick’s to do list). In a series of robotic head jerks, the man seemed to get a sense of what was what, so that when Rick said, can I help you, the man turned wholeheartedly in his direction and bounded up to the counter.
He had a big head and a sort of short-armed pudginess that initially suggested youth, but given the crows feet that could be detected even behind his thick glasses, he seemed more like some weird failure to grow into himself. Loudly and urgently, he said: “Do you have a book called All About Tomatoes?”
Muttering in an accommodating fashion, Rick began the routine computer search. As he scrolled, he marvelled in his head that a book called All About Tomatoes existed, that a person had been propelled through this weather to find such and was now standing before him in child-like anticipation. The absurdity caused Rick to buckle involuntarily into a body-shaking laugh that he tried to curb by snatching a tissue and pressing it hard against his eyeballs. The convulsing didn’t stop, however. Worse, it became punctuated by stifled rasps as Rick failed to get a hold of himself. The man stared at him without judgment but a question was forming in his eyes.
The bell clanged and it was Beth. Soon she was next to the man, offering her help.
“Do you have a book called All About Onions?” he said.
Beth took up position behind the computer, dismissing Rick with a look of fierce, excoriating, disbelief.
As the spectre of his apparent cruelty dawned on him, Rick knew it was going to be impossible to explain. Time to get outta here, he resolved.
Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen
Clothed in garbage bags, feet swollen like water balloons, mud-matted dreadlocks, skin sun-ravaged and cloaked in dirt. His weathered face directed towards the sun; right cheek scrunched up like a broken blind, teeth exposed, his gnarled fist forming a fleshy telescope around his right eye. The homeless man stood across the road from The Book Lounge. I observed him in this position, hour after hour, day in and day out, for months on end.
What was he searching for?
While dusting bookshelves one Saturday, the tinkling of the bell above the door announced the arrival of a customer. A peculiar odour, a mixture of rotting leaves and the smell of the garden after a soaking rain, pinched my nose. The Cape Town sungazer stood framed in the doorway, blocking the light.
His eyes pinned me, so light-brown as to appear yellow; luminous. In only a few seconds they spoke to me of moments lived, both good and bad. I felt as though I had been stung by an electric eel, rooted to the spot, such was the intensity of his gaze. When I finally spoke, my voice sounded as though it were not mine, but rather a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“Can… can I help you with something?”
Ignoring me, he paced the bookshelves in a kind of caged frenzy until he suddenly came to an abrupt halt in the science-fiction section. He motioned me over, and pointed to a red hardcover book with a fiery sun dead center. Hundreds of creepy critters swarmed out of the bright yellow orb, resembling a just-hatched spider’s nest. Spindly legs and tiny bulbous bodies scuttled over each other, each one obsessed with its own survival.
I opened the book, and the face of the author stared up at me. The eyes unmistakable.
The homeless man pried his work from my paper-cut fingers, walked it over to the non-fiction shelf, and placed it gently as a baby amongst the other titles.
“There is more of them now.” He said. “We must be ready.”
I recognised the voice, warm, husky and just the slightest hint of an Afrikaans accent, before I saw him. It gave me goose bumps and a stabbing pain somewhere deep inside me.
I could see him from my office but he couldn’t see me. He’d put on weight and his face was quite jowly, but the sexy cleft in his chin was still visible. His curly hair, once Border-Collie-black, was now pewter, but still wild and untamed. Threads of silver speckled his fashionable three-day stubble. His fuchsia pink golf shirt was open at the neck and the turn-me-on growth that peeped through remained black. I got a glimpse of the mole nestled in his clavicle, and I thought of the dragon tattoo at the base of his spine. It must still be hiding there.
I greeted him and I felt my eyes widen when I saw the scar which ran from his eye to his chin. Then he smiled and it was lost in the crinkles around his eyes – a vivid blue – and the creases made by his wide smile. I could see the capped front tooth just a shade whiter than the rest. An old cycling injury.
I had difficulty breathing, why was he here in this remote part of England? None of our friends knew where I’d disappeared to. He’d filled my dreams with longing, regret and massive guilt for so long and here he was just feet away from me. Maybe the time had come, I took a deep breath and grasped the door handle. At that moment he lifted his index finger, pressed a button and his wheelchair rolled smoothly and swiftly out of the shop.
A deep rumbling reverberates through the walls. Putting down my chalk duster, I peer out of the rain-spattered window, all thoughts of rubbing out our dismal daily specials erased from my mind. “Look, Hazel. It’s a nun on a motorbike.”
“Put that hip flask away, Harry.” Coins jingle as Hazel sorts the cash register for the umpteenth time today. “No more whisky for you.”
A spray of muddy water sloshes across the pavement as the bike splutters to a stop right outside the shop. The nun squats astride the machine, her black robe hiked up, displaying stockinged legs like trussed hocks of ham.
“I think she’s coming in.”
A gust of wind swings the door back against the wall with a loud thwack, and she blows in, dark robes billowing. A chain dangles below her waist, its red beads like droplets of blood. At the end hangs a Zippo lighter, with a Celtic cross embossed on its pewter shell. I wrestle the door closed behind her.
“How can I help you, Ma’am?” Hazel titters nervously. “Or is it Sister?”
The nun swishes past, smelling of diesel and stale sweat. Hazel wrinkles her nose.
But I’m not so easily deterred. Our customer pauses in front of Local Interest and I sidle up to her. “Are you from these parts?” I try. “Or just passing through?”
She turns towards me, steampunk goggles still suctioned to her face, purple veins pulsing in her bulbous nose. “Blackfriars.” Her voice is a low growl and I’m almost sure I see an Adam’s apple bobbing beneath her white wimple.
Her grease-stained robe swishes across the blue carpet, towards Historical Fiction and Religion. Instead of stopping there, as I’d expected, she heads purposefully towards the back corner, where a haphazard stack of new arrivals awaits sorting and pricing.
“Is there something specific you’re looking for?”
She shakes her head as if trying to rid herself of a fly.
Retreating to the front desk, I perch on a stool next to Hazel. “They clearly don’t teach manners in nunneries. But maybe she’ll buy something.” The wall clock ticks.
“She did say Blackfriars, didn’t she?” Hazel’s staring at her laptop. “Google says it was disbanded centuries ago.”
A gust of cold air blows in and the door slams.
“Harry, what’s that smell?”
I look back towards the corner. A tendril of smoke is curling up towards the ceiling.
He slipped through the door as if afraid to touch it and stood in front of the cash desk, his hands moving incessantly, turning and squirming. Susan smiled at him reassuringly (she hoped) over the shoulder of the customer she had in front of her and said, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’
He didn’t turn to browse as customers usually did. He stayed there, balanced on one grubby white adidas shoe, waiting.
Finally, the woman left the shop, an expensive flowery scent in her wake. Susan came around the counter towards him, and noticed his left eyelid, flickering and fluttering like a neon tube.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I need these books.’ He shoved the piece of paper into her hands unceremoniously and started pulling out his wallet from his jacket pocket. Her eyes fell to the list in front of her.
The mysteries of the Kabbala.
Sorcery for the modern wizard.
Secret Chinese breathing techniques.
The list went on, tight precise black letters crammed together. Authors, publishers and isbns noted with mathematical precision.
She looked up at him, fighting to keep her face neutral.
She smiled, although she felt as if she were baring her teeth rather than emitting warmth. What if he were a charlatan, stealing people’s money by promising good luck or magic charms? Was it even ethical to sell him these books?
Suddenly receipts and business cards rained all over the floor around his feet as finally the wallet sprang free.
Susan knelt down to help him, and their arms brushed against each other. A sharp shock of static jumped between them. They both yelped in unison and leapt back, Susan smiled wryly at him but there was no answering smile, no camaraderie.
She moved away behind the relative security of the wooden counter and stapled the list into the order book.
He slid a slip of paper across the polished surface and she noted his nails, bitten down to the quick, the cuticles ragged and red.
‘Can I keep this?’
‘No, I need it bbbb….back,’ the word exploding from his mouth with a fine mist of spittle.
She took a deposit and told him she would be in touch. He left, slipping away as apologetically as he had come, leaving an acrid tang hanging in the air behind him.
When she looked out a second later, the street was empty.
This looks like a dope place. I’m sure they’ve got to serve alcohol here. I love day drinking on the beach. It’s nearly eleven. It’s the ‘break-my-sobriety’ hour of the day. I started earlier today though, those mimosas were delicious after breakfast.
I killed my Marlboro on the wooden banisters and whistled for Astro to follow me in. I swear if he were human, he’d make a worthy drunken conversationalist.
I attempted to read the sign on the door. Reading has never been my strong point. My eyesight lets me down at the best of times. I sounded it out to myself.
“Thee… ah… Open… ah… Nook.”
Astro tilted his long-snouted head at me questioningly but followed me in anyway. The brass bell at the door gave out a loud ring as I walked in. Do I have to buy everybody a round now? Shit, I hope not. I am way too broke for that.
The bar was empty except for the brunette behind where I presumed they hid their liquor. They must not have a legitimate trading license yet. I put on my game face and strode over to the bar counter, Astro in tow.
“Well, hello beautiful. I’ll have a 007 martini if you’re not too busy standing around looking incredible.” I gave her ‘the wink’. My work here is done. It’s only a matter of time before I get her number and free drinks. Charm will get you everywhere. Astro piped out a small bark of approval.
“I’m very familiar with all of Ian Fleming’s work and I’m pretty sure there is no book with that title in the series.” She smiled sweetly at me and returned her gaze to her romance novel.
Was this some kind of test? Was I supposed to respond in some way to that or give some kind of password? What a strange pub this is.
“Look, I really want to play your game right now but can I just get a drink and pay double. I promise I won’t give you problems.”
She raised her eyebrows at me and gave out into a small chuckle. She had lovely dimples.
“Row 5, shelf D level… mand number 211.” She just carried on reading without another word.
I found my way to the correct shelf. I picked up the book. A realisation hit me. The password must be in here. I read the cover… ‘Cocktails 101.’