One summer, long ago, while I was devouring a sandwich at my desk, a colleague brandished the local paper at me.
‘Something for you?’ she said.
Write us a short story, the paper challenged. There will be prizes.
At the time I composed occasional pieces for our staff magazine, but was procrastinating about getting down to serious writing. My friend was calling my bluff.
There is nothing like a deadline for concentrating the mind, but there were just a couple of weeks in which to produce an entry that wouldn’t embarrass me if it was ever published.
I scratched a head of hair, the colour of which, in those days, needed no help from Garnier Nutrisse. What the hell to write? Short of inspiration, I resorted to gathering random thoughts in the way one rustles-up a scratch supper from leftovers in the fridge.
The story had to be set in East Sussex or Kent. Should I write something about the famous Pantiles? About our regency past, with Beau Nash and goings-on at the Assembly Rooms? But wouldn’t lots of people do that?
Local but different was surely the answer.
My default position was to use what I knew. My husband rides and at that time often cantered across the glorious commons with which Tunbridge Wells and neighbouring Southborough are blessed. He owned a spirited grey mare, so I decided to put the two of them at the centre of my story. Calypso had a a mind of her own, so she became Madam. She also had an alarming tendency to spook. That morning I’d driven to work through the woods myself, car windows open, shivering in one of those eerie mists you can get at the end of summer.
So it had to be a ghost story, didn’t it? Everyone loves them.
And didn’t people say that a mere arrow’s flight from Southborough Common is the patch of land where Harold’s army camped the night before the battle of Hastings? Isn’t it still called Camp Field, in honour of the tradition?
I decided that mixing past and present was my answer, using that invaluable resource of the writer: What if…?? All I needed was a way to link 1066 with the end of the twentieth century (Yes, it was that long ago). It was then that I noticed a small ad in the paper for a metal detector. If an army in a hurry really did pass that way, wouldn’t they have dropped things? Might something unearthed from long ago conjure up a fleeting glimpse of a ghostly army?
Reader, to my surprise I won the competition. The prize was books from Waterstones, and a calligraphy set, but better than that was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I could one day become a proper writer.
I dragged up this recollection to encourage those thinking of entering our own current short story competition. Short of inspiration, I used things my husband had said about riding on the Common, the feistiness of his mare – who saw monstrous apparitions behind every bank of fern – and myths I’d heard about Harold’s having passed this way. Then I noticed that advertisement for a metal detector. Threw in my impressions of driving under the trees through wisps of fog. And wrote, and rewrote, until it was done.
So how is your story getting on? We are loving reading those already received, but hungry for more. No ghost stories yet – but we’d love to get some… Or a summer crime or murder, perhaps? Whatever your fertile writers’ minds can come up with, BUT YOU’VE ONLY GOT UNTIL SEPTEMBER 28th.