18 October 2012

15 Minutes of Fame

You can tell how old this picture is just by looking at the owl-like spectacles. Yes, it is me.

The picture has hung on the wall at my WI for ages. It was in a frame but hardly anyone knew why it was there. Our soon-to-be-departed secretary reframed the picture and included an identifying note but now she wants the story on display as well. I am honoured that she thinks my work is worth recording for posterity ... I suppose it is part of the WI history vis-à-vis my local branch.

Every year National Federation of Women’s Institutes runs a creative writing competition which I won in 1998 with a story entitled A Man in my Life. The title was compulsory for all entrants, 171 in all.

The picture was taken at the Royal Albert Hall, when I was presented with the Lady Denman Cup by the then National Chairman, Eileen Meadmore. The year was 1998.  Credit goes to the actual Federation, whose name is inscribed on the cup, but the winner gets to keep the cup for a year as well as receiving high value book tokens as a prize.

This was the announcement in the WI magazine. The story was published a few months later. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, here it is.


The room is so quiet that if you stood outside the door you would suppose it to be unoccupied; but there is an abundance of sound: crackling firewood, squealing chair springs, the vibrating window when a plane takes wing, the tap of steel needles, and the expletives when I drop a stitch. You might hear these sounds if you listen hard but you would not see Jeffrey's wicked endeavours to make me lose count, my voice rising with each enumeration as I walk two fingers along the pin, determined to outwit the arm-waving comedian and cursing the misfortune of being saddled with an imbecilic brother. The mantel clock proclaims its own opinion, issuing dull thuds, which are supposed to be reverberating chimes. Two o'clock, and the rest of the day to get through. Even the fire-logs serve to emphasise the hour, a pair of charred timber chunks spilling to the hearth. I toe to safety the smithereens of charcoal and inhale the intoxicating smell of burning wood as I study the flames, remembering my youth, when Jeffrey persistently devised new ways to destroy my concentration and the strife at school when homework was inadequately completed.
The dreadful clacking of Jeffrey's dentures infiltrates the reverie, transporting me to present time like an exploding bomb. First I am ensconced in daydreams, then, suddenly, I encounter reality head-on. Unexpectedly, my brother's grinning countenance brings a swelling to my throat. Family features: grizzled hair, bristly brows and pointed nose, except that Jeffrey now has pendulous jowls, skin dark with liver-spots, and hazel eyes mottled with age. At eighty-five he should be past indulging in puerility, but it is too late for him to change and, anyway, I am fond of his desultory ribbing. Occasionally.
While he gazes at me in his silly fashion, I set the rocking chair in motion, anxious to start the next stage of the complicated pattern yet hesitant in case Jeffrey renews the struggle for power. He looks docile enough, sitting erect like a spectator waiting for the show to begin, but I never know when he will embark on another wild prank. In two minutes I could be despising him; in three, I could be storming to pack his bag and return him to the home from which I delivered him, beseeching the dear Lord to explain why a man in my life is so essential.
My confession might shock you. If you could witness this scene of cosy domesticity you might think I am satisfied with my life, that my days consist of snug tête-à-têtes and happy reminiscences or that the daily woman's duties give me ample time to knit and amuse my brother. But how can I expect her to clean the mess that incontinence affords, or supervise his eating, and encourage him to aim for his mouth instead of his shirt? And yet, on reflection, your assessment could be right. Beneath the grievances, you might detect a glimmer of the affection I feel, for despite intensifying bouts of wrath and irritation I love the old fool to pieces.
Pleased that Jeffrey has settled to read I resume my occupation. Pins clicking furiously, my thoughts roam the years, evoking instances of his outlandish behaviour. Though his impaired mental state drives me to distraction he can be enormously entertaining; like now, as he absorbs the printed word, contorting his lips and nose as if they are moulded from rubber.

In the shadow of a frivolous father and two ebullient brothers, Jeffrey grew vague and bewildered before his time. As a consequence he relied on me for support, seeing me as an island of sanity in the midst of a chaotic existence. That's why I never married. The concept of leaving my guileless brother to fend for himself was inconceivable, though lately I long to be free of obligation. Notwithstanding, the good days outweigh the bad. In fact, until the onset of true dementia, most were agreeable; funny even, if an old man's waywardness can so be called.   
As dotage accelerated, Jeffrey became quite adventurous. At seventy, equipped with his pensioner's pass, he toured the county for bargains. But his logic left much to be desired. He once travelled a distance to save twenty-pence on melon, then spent ten times that amount on chocolate. I still remember his gleeful look when he produced the melon and the box of chocolates, and my incredulity.
The fingers are flying now and the rocker's going like a swing as I call to mind that day we waited in Woolworths for our brother to end a discourse with a chum. Thirty minutes trudging round counters, failed attempts to resist Jeffrey's pestering at the photograph booth and the endless wait for obscure pictures. Secretly chuckling, I recall Jeffrey's restlessness and his entreaties for a go on the weighing machine - several times - for the sheer joy of cramming weight cards in his pockets, which on the journey home were distributed among the passengers on the bus, his laughter so infectious that the whole of the upper deck joined in.
My feeble eyes are filling up; it always happens when I reproduce the images of bygone days. A pity they couldn't stay the same.
You should see Jeffrey now, playing peek-a-boo around the Daily Mail. I pretend not to notice his buffoonery. I could curb him but he's been in enough trouble since the episode next door. Unbeknown to me, on the days when I allowed him out alone, he developed the custom of going in the neighbouring gate and walking into Miss Smedley's house demanding tea. Initially she humoured him with biscuits or a cake, but when he burst in and ordered tea and toasted soldiers, with no regard for her undressed state, she ceased to think it amusing. He's now on tight rein lest the woman carries out her threat to call the police.
The room is dimming now that the winter sun has disappeared, and the fire needs banking. The clock thumps its message home. Four o'clock, it says. Time for tea. My daydreaming has taken me to girlhood and back, through teen-years to adulthood. And Jeffrey's cardigan is almost done. If the Almighty is willing I will finish it tomorrow, that is if Jeffrey deigns to let me get on. But then I'd worry. Since silence is an alien characteristic I wouldn't know if he was behaving or indisposed. Oh, if you could see him playing his game, retreating behind the paper like a guilty schoolboy whenever he catches my eye. I cannot help sniggering at his expression, a fooled-you kind of look, the sort meted out when my counting goes completely awry. I am tempted to teach him a lesson and leave his cardigan sleeveless but I cannot succumb to spite. You see, he won't have many more birthday gifts, and I won't have the foolish fun that life with him has brought.
See his face, see the way he peers at me like the simpleton he is. My throat constricts at the sight of him. Dear God, don't take him yet. For my sake, give him a year or two more.


  1. I am not in the least surprised that you won an award for your writing Valerie - you are very, very talented! Your entry to the competition is superb!

  2. how very cool...was great to see the newspaper clipping and the pictures...that is awesome is a very cool story...

    did i miss something, i thought today was feline story day....hmmm...

    hope you enjoyed your 15 minutes....

  3. Ooooh Brian, the Capers are over, finished, done. I did put THE END at the end... smiles. Yes thank you, I did enjoy the 15 minutes.

  4. Thank you, Pearl. I was surprised to win because a couple of people said they preferred another story. I went through a bout of indecision but in the end was guided by a constructive writing tutor.

  5. *thunderous applause*

    Valerie, a HUGE congrats on receiving that muchly deserved award!

    You GO, girl!!!!

    Lovely photos and write-up in the paper!

    I have to say, it has been such a treasure to meet up with you in blogland; not only to connect as friends, but also to be exposed to your amazing talent as a writer. Truly, you have such a gift, as it is evident in your story, "A Man In My Life."

    OMG...I got tears in my eyes reading this! You captured so many levels of honest emotion in such a short story. And it was so evident of her love and devotion for brother, Jeffrey.

    " Dear God, don't take him yet. For my sake, give him a year or two more."

    Beautiful ending!

    Again, congrats, dear lady!

    Well done....X

  6. Wow... You shouldn't be surprised that you won, Valerie. That piece is amazing! Your writing is genius.

  7. Oh Wow, Ron, I'm overwhelmed by your praise. Thank you so much. I shall go off and bask in glory for a while, reliving the 15 minutes so to speak. For the record, I value your friendship too.

  8. Hi Lea, thank you so much. Nevertheless I was surprised. Even now, when I read a piece of my work I truly CANNOT believe I wrote it!

  9. Not surprising that you are award winning. A great story.

  10. What a lovely story! I'm so glad you won an award for it. You are soooo talented, Valerie. I really did enjoy this story. Reminds me of me and my 90 year old father. He's slipping fast.

  11. How wonderful Valerie. I can see why you won the award, your story was great. I do love your writing!

  12. Great story and post ...
    Glad you had the recognition..
    but you deserve more than 15 minutes,,
    fame may be fleeting, but your writing stays on forever...

    Weekend time... enjoy !!

  13. Such a great piece of writing..very well deserved award Valerie.. :)

    Take care

  14. Awwwwww....made me teary in a good way. It was the familiar descriptions of that child like play that rang true for me in life.

    Thanks for memories.
    And I'm glad they've kept the photo and added the story to recognize the achievement.

  15. Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!
    A worthy winner. I know it was the best of them all. I just know it!

  16. That was AWESOME! It's easy to see why you won. Really brought a happy tear to my eye with those last couple of lines. Very well done! Wish I could give you a trophy as well :-)

  17. Thank you, Banker Chick.

    Faye, heehee I'm prolonging the 15 minutes :O)

    Mel, it was actually fun to write the child-like play, even though it was a serious subject.

    Denise, thank you. I'm glad you enjoy reading my work.

    Thank you, John

    Hi Herman. Yes, they were quite emotional lines, but I had to end it on serious note.

  18. Thanks, Mona, and my prayers are with your father.

  19. A well-deserved honor, Val. You are supremely talented and thanks for sharing the details of the story with us. Have a great weekend.


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