Gillian Haigh’s – A Year In Wales – Winner of the Richard Booth Prize for Non-Fiction, 2021.

Gill has kindly granted us permission to publish her winning non-fiction piece, A Year in Wales.

Our judge, Roland White commented that, (it was) “A fine, powerful piece of writing. A slightly unsettling cross between Laurie Lee and The Omen, what with its ghosts and buried razor blades, this is a vivid account of a year from the point of view of a young and apparently rather knowing little girl. The short, straightforward sentences not only enhance the drama but make the text more childlike.  

There were scenes that every parent will recognise, and humour in the very literal world of young children (“It’s a wireless”… “It’s not. I can see wires coming out of it”). 

The format did make me wonder whether this was really non-fiction, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt.

Gill, who now resides in London, has been delighted that her writing attained 1st place in our competition.

Without further delay, here it is.

A YEAR IN WALES by Gillian Haigh

It’s wintertime. 

There are no other houses, only this one. 

Before we lived here a lady pushed her little girl down the stairs then died of suicide in the pantry. The mummy says the little girl has probably gone to Heaven by now but the nasty lady who killed her has turned into a ghost and is still here. 

It’s cold when the coal’s all been burnt and there’s no light when the paraffin runs out and no water when the well freezes and no tea when the money’s gone. I don’t know what money is but when it’s gone the mummy gets sad and cries. 

The daddy and the mummy are drinking tea so the well must not be frozen and the fire must be burning and there must be money. 

The mummy rubs her belly. ‘I wonder if this one will be born in a caul.’

‘What’s a caul?’ I ask.

‘A bag that some babies come wrapped in,’ she says.

‘Why?’ I say.

But her eyes have gone away. 

‘Did I come wrapped in one?’ 

Her eyes come back. ‘Yes.’

‘How did I get out?’

‘I suppose the midwife got you out.’

‘What’s a midwife?’

‘You didn’t cry for twenty-four hours.’

‘Why?’

‘You were too clever. I should’ve kept the caul. You can sell them to sailors.’

‘Why do sailors want them?’

‘To protect them from drowning.’ Her eyes have gone away again.  

It’s springtime.

There are crocuses and I’m digging in the flower-bed. 

The big brother’s feeding the chickens from a bucket.  

The mummy’s in the kitchen, eating a cigarette.  

The soil feels soft and wet on my hands. 

Now something sharp has made a hole in my skin and the end of my finger’s hanging off.  

The big brother throws the bucket on the ground and calls for the daddy to come down off the roof.  

The chickens go ‘Qwup, qwup, qwup,’ and flutter over to get the chicken-food that’s spilled out of the bucket. 

Red blood is dripping onto the purple crocuses.

In the car, the mummy says: ‘How many times did I tell you not to bury your razor-blades in the flower-bed?’ The daddy doesn’t answer. He looks sad.

The doctor puts the end of my finger back on and says I am a brave girl. 

Now we’re back home again and the daddy lights all the paraffin lamps. 

It’s night-time and I’m in bed. The suicide-lady has come. She’s wearing a grey and orange shawl and shaking her finger at me. 

The nasty lady’s gone away to the pantry now but she’ll be back. She always comes back. 

It’s summertime

There are gooseberries and skylarks and dragon-flies by the river.

I hear the train coming so I run upstairs to wave. Our train runs on steam. Some trains run on electricity. Light comes from different things too. Our lamps need paraffin.  Our gramophone needs winding. So does the daddy’s car.

Yesterday I tried to wind up the gramophone but I scratched Bill Haley and the big brother said I was a clumsy oaf.

Now when I lean on the window to wave at the train, the window isn’t there. 

I’m flying. There’s the sky. And there are the trees. And there’s the ground. When I land I hear a slap and all the birds go quiet.  

The daddy’s driving me to the doctor. 

‘How many times have I told you not to leave the upstairs windows open?’ says the mummy. 

The daddy shouts. ‘I didn’t leave it open. It must have been you.’ 

The doctor has a magic camera that can see through skin.

‘Nothing’s broken,’ he says. ‘Amazing after falling twenty feet onto flag-stones. You must’ve bounced.’ He looks at my finger which is better now. ‘I think you’re accident prone.’ He moves his head round to look at the daddy and the mummy who are both eating cigarettes and looking sad.

There’s a box in the corner and voices are coming out of it. 

‘Are there people inside that box?’ I ask the doctor. 

The mummy chews on her cigarette. ‘Oh do stop asking stupid questions,’ she says. ‘It’s a wireless.’

It’s not though. I can see wires coming out of it.

When we get home the sky lights up and there’s a bang. ‘What’s that?’ I say.

‘A storm,’ says the daddy. ‘It’s caused by electricity in the air.’

‘Can we get some for the gramophone?’

The daddy’s laughing.  Now he’s crying. Grownups cry a lot. I think it’s the law.

It’s autumn-time. 

There are nuts on the trees and blackberries in the hedge. 

Yesterday we had a bonfire outside in the dark and daddy burnt a dolly called Guyfox.  I don’t know why.

Now its night-time again but the mummy’s not asleep. She’s standing in the garden with no shoes on, shouting at the daddy. ‘I can’t bear it,’ she says. ‘There’s nobody to talk to all day.’

‘You can talk to me,’ I say.

‘Go back to bed,’ she says.  

She looks at the daddy: ‘There’s no point in living. I’m going to throw myself under the train.’ 

Now she’s walking away, across the field.

‘You can’t,’ I shout. ‘The train only comes in the morning-time.’ 

The daddy picks me up and points to the stars, which all have names and are further away than Aberystwyth. 

‘Are there houses on those stars?’ I ask. ‘Do little girls live there?’

‘Quite possibly,’ says the daddy. ‘Nobody knows.’

The mummy’s reading a book and eating a cigarette.  The daddy’s at work. The big brother’s at school. 

‘How did the baby get inside your belly?’ I ask.

‘It’s too complicated for you to understand.’

‘When will it come out?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why?’

‘Oh do stop asking stupid questions.’  

The mummy gives me a biscuit and tells me to go outside and leave her in peace. 

It’s raining and my biscuit is getting wet. The friends are getting wet too but they don’t mind because they have warm furry coats. I pick one up and cuddle her. All the friends have red and yellow stuff leaking out of their eyes. It looks like jam and custard but it doesn’t taste sweet. 

The mummy comes out and shouts: ‘Leave those bloody rabbits alone. They’re all filthy with myxomatosis.’

It’s wintertime.

There’s snow everywhere. 

We’ve come to live in a different place.  I used to think our other house was the only one but there are hundreds here and other children too. 

A big boy called Gareth lives next door. He’s a friend I think. I’m not sure how you tell. The friends in the other house didn’t talk or have bicycles but Gareth does. Yesterday he taught me a song:

I lost my arm in the army

I lost my leg in the navy

I lost my cock in the butcher’s shop

And found it in the gravy.

‘What’s a cock?’ I ask the mummy.

‘A male chicken,’ she says.

Here in Aberaeron nearly everything’s different. Eggs come from shops, not chickens. Water comes from taps, not wells.  In the other place the paraffin lamps made nice bright holes in the darkness. Here there are switches that only the grownups can reach. The switches click and the light comes on.  But it’s not nice light. It’s big and bossy. It pushes itself into all the corners and hurts my eyes. It smells funny too. It smells of nothing.  

One thing’s the same though. The mummy still cries when there’s no money.

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About thehaywriters

The Hay Writers : a highly active & forward thinking writing group based in Hay-on-Wye, the world famous 'Town of Books'. ✍️ In 2019 we celebrated our 40th anniversary.
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