Edited by ‘What If YOU Spoke’ competition finalists from Libraries Unlimited.
We are four writers who submitted entries to the What If YOU Spoke? competition led by Libraries Unlimited in Devon in partnership with Pen to Print, the University of Exeter, Africa Writes and Literature Works as part of Exeter UNESCO City of Literature.
What If YOU Spoke? is all about giving people the chance to tell their story and have their voice heard – which, in these unsettling times, feels a significant thing! After taking part in a series of online masterclasses led by authors, poets, journalists and illustrators, we submitted pieces that were judged by a panel of experts in their field. The masterclasses are still available to access online for free and we’d encourage everyone to try them out.
Throughout the month of May, our showcases are presenting various winning and runner-up entries from the competition, alongside contributions submitted to Write On! directly. In this third showcase of the month, we – me, Olivia from Libraries Unlimited, and Sam, the author of Colours – respond to pieces that deal with pain and discomfort, only to find hope at the end. We also travel through time and space, from the details of very human pain and grief to an extra-terrestrial inter-species gathering in a time of war.
Sam’s story, Colours, was experimental. He’d never written in the first person before, let alone written a story without describing or naming any of the characters. He wanted to give it a go and see how/if the story would work with these differences.
Sam finds that inspiration strikes quite randomly. The idea for this story came to him as he was taking part in a Libraries Unlimited masterclass. An image came to mind of a city covered in a sprawling forest with big, colourful birds swooping through it. He didn’t know where the image came from but was inspired to explore it and see where it might lead.
This is what Sam himself has to say about it: “Colours is the (very unfinished) tale of a teenager living in a greyscale world; a world in which only they can see the true colours of reality.”
“They are for your mind, you – oh, please, you must take them!” I do not understand her unhappiness, nor what she is saying. What is wrong with my mind? I cannot bear to see her in such a state of distress; however, if taking these pills will make her happy once again, then I will take them. Whatever they are for. I tell her as such. Then I pop open the lid, tip a couple of small, white pills into my hand and I swallow them. They taste of… nothing. I do not mean they are flavourless; more that the flavour reminds me of nothing, of sheer and utter emptiness. A shudder passes through my body, following the pills as they make their way through my system. No sooner has the shudder left me when a great pain attacks the space behind my eyes. I clutch my face in agony and I scream. Through the scream, I can hear my mother’s tears, though they are faint and far away and… then it is gone. The pain has left me in the same way it introduced itself. Unexpectedly, and with great swiftness.
I lower my shaking hands and look up at my mother. Her eyes, though still tear-stained, look hopeful and she seems to be holding her breath. I go to ask her a question, but something stops me. Something is wrong. A great feeling of emptiness and despair wells up within the depths of me. Not within my body, but somewhere deeper and harder to reach or explain. Me. I slowly turn around to once again witness the sights of my balcony view, but this time I am scared. And I do not know why. I look up at the tree-covered buildings with their oversized nests overflowing with multicoloured eggs and everything is fine at first. But then a bird falls out of the sky. Just as it was swooping down to the nest I would assume was its own, it stops. Its wings fall limp and its lifeless body plummets down to the forest below… but it never reaches it. The bird dissolves into feathers long before it even touches the ground, and a breeze springs up from nowhere in particular, which carries the feathers away through the city. I cry out in despair at seeing something so beautiful die in such a horrible way, and cry even louder when another bird falls, and another! The birds are all dissolving! I do not know what to say or do! How can this be happening?!
Soon, a river of feathers is drifting its way along the silent breeze, swiftly winding between and over the city buildings, towards the glowing sunset in the west. I try to catch one as it floats by, but it crumbles into nothing at my touch. And now the trees are dying, too! Their leaves turning brown and falling off the branches to form a new river of their own, winding itself around the river of feathers. Within seconds, all the trees are skeletal, like the great bony hands of long-dead giants who had once tried to burst their way out of their skyscraper-shaped tombs. As the last remnants of the two rivers are swallowed by the setting sun, the trees fall off their buildings, making not a sound as they crumble to dust in the air. I look down and see that the forest below is gone now also, and my tears fall down to the bustling streets at the roots of the once beautiful city.
I look around me and I see the colours fading; the glowing sun has been replaced by clouds of grey, a grey that is reflected in the buildings below. It is as if the poor birds and trees had sustained the colours of the city, and in their leaving, they have taken their colour palette with them on their journey towards the setting sun. I turn to look at my mother and gasp in shock. Just like the skyscrapers, her face is entirely grey. And so are her clothes and her hair! She is comprised entirely of different shades, dull and drab. It is the one colour I have never liked. A sudden fear almost stops my heart beating. It feels as if my heart has almost frozen and is beating slowly, so very slowly, in an attempt to once again warm itself up and shake free of the frost and ice that is trying to encase it. I do not wish to look, but force myself to. I force my eyes to gaze down and a great sob escapes my throat as I see my hands and clothes are now greyscale. The only bit of colour still left in the world is the bright orange of the pill bottle. And even that fades to grey in a few moments.
© Samuel Vaughan, 2022
17th February 2022 is a poem by Ray Miles, in which he describes the loss of a loved one – not a physical loss – but a loss experienced through illness, presumably dementia. Ray describes how, after a long period of pain, a new and more hopeful life begins to form and burst into song. While there’s a mixture of emotion, it’s hope that shines through. Words and creative expression are all part of the healing process. Of course, the loss is still real; just woven into a new reality. In Sam’s story, the protagonist is encouraged to take medication to dull mental dis-ease, and while there is momentary relief by way of numbness, life also loses its colour, vibrancy, and depth. By contrast, Ray tells his story of journeying through the grief and pain to find himself emerging, as if from a chrysalis.
17th February 2022
On this day a year ago, my true love went away.
The end of five long years of care, she could no longer stay.
I thought my life was over then, I was consumed by guilt
But friendly folk were there to help, and my new life was built.
We had been alone so long, I knew not where to turn.
The hands of others offered up, I had so much to learn.
Slowly, surely, I was saved from canyons of despair,
Lifted from the depths of hell, shown the clean fresh air
Of hope, a shining beacon, guiding me along
To find a new existence, one that’s filled with song.
My love, she lives; I see her still but gone is who she was;
My love is taken, slowly, surely, I know this because
A shell is left, my love is there, but locked inside that form,
Though she is safe and fed and cared for, clothed and kept quite warm.
All I can do is sit and watch as she slips far away;
Sometimes a glimpse of who she was, her spirit comes to play.
A window in her soul will open, just a little, just a crack
Enough to glimpse the one that was, then illness pulls her back,
And all the love I have for her pours out in that one time,
And then I leave, a broken man, once more to face the climb
Out of despair; an unlit road, one that’s dark and lonely.
The maelstrom of emotion fills my mind with sorrow, only
Now I’ve found I have new power, one that has been given,
A gift of words to heal a soul, one that has been riven
By pain. So I must write and write, the words flow unabated.
I cannot stop, I will not stop, and joy is now created
Where once was hurt, and in this way I can give some pleasure
To the world, give something back, something one could treasure
For days to come, a memory, a thing that brings a smile
To keep the worst of life at bay, if only for a while.
And now I finish off my verse with hope and no more sorrow,
And thoughts that may stay with you all, and bring you joy tomorrow.
© Ray Miles, 2022
Micro Stars by Claire Buss takes us in a completely different direction. We’re taken far from the often-harsh reality of human existence (on which Sam and Ray focus), to a futuristic sci-fi world. I love the different species we’re introduced to. Yet here, too, there is conflict. It reminds me that pain and discomfort can surface everywhere – even when we may think we’ve found a way of escaping it. Yet there is often a glimmer of hope, too, on the occasion of this inter-species gathering. There’s potential for common ground to be found, and in these politically unsettled times, I hope we don’t lose sight of that here on earth. Imagine what we might create if we come together and seek common ground!
X5634 looked around in contentment at the luxuriously appointed viewing platform. The lighting was muted, beverages were available to suit all palates, and a specialised air pod had been installed for the Cryptopians. Everyone else could manage the oxygen saturation. More or less. It was time for the guests to arrive. A discreet bong announced the first. The Andromedians were the most humanoid, given their proximity to the now-defunct Milky Way and their desperation to copy anything they considered vintage. The Bodellites had thankfully turned their giant scent markers off in deference to the multi-species gathering. A collection of luminous slime moulds were reverently wheeled in by their arboreal slaves. The Chigarians and Carmeleons entered at the same time, an attempt by X5634 to prevent any offence on either side; the two galaxies were currently at war. Faceless, scentless and mute servers floated around the honoured guests, offering beverages and edible delicacies. X5634 watched closely to make sure the servers had remembered which alien race could consume which apéritif. Guests had paid an exorbitant fee for this. It wouldn’t do to start the next uni-war over a social slight at the birth of the last star in the universe.
© Claire Buss, 2020
You can connect with Claire here: linktr.ee/clairebuss.
Sam leaves us with some food for thought…
“These works couldn’t be more different from each other… However, they all bear one striking similarity: Words! And a lot of them. Each of these pieces showcases just one of the many ways in which words can be wielded to spin a story, whether it be a fictional tale set in the depths of space, or the uncanny world of a city devoid of colour, or an emotional piece of poetry, delivering its rhymes and the messages that ride them straight into the heart of the reader.”
That’s it for this week!
To read the entries in full, visit Evolve at Libraries Unlimited: bit.ly/WIYS2022
Connect with Libraries Unlimited on Instagram: @librariesunlimited, on Twitter: @LibrariesUnLtd and on Facebook: @librariesunlimited.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! Showcase, please submit your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: pentoprint.org/get-involved/submit-to-write-on/
You can hear extracts from Showcase in our podcast. Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo or find us on Anchor FM.
If you or someone you know has been affected by issues covered in our pages, please see the relevant link below for information, advice and support: