On the third day after she registered for the Wolds Words poetry anthology contest, Natasha Redwood, began to wonder if she was up to it. True, she’d had some success with her poetry, and across a pretty broad spectrum, from a competition to write a lipogram (which she hadn’t known until she found out about the competition was a piece of writing completely omitting one letter of the alphabet – “Q” or “X” being somewhat easier than “A” or “E” (Natasha compromised and chose “V”- to an odd poem here and there about Christmas or dogs or sunsets (or even all three at once) for a women’s magazine. But an anthology was a different matter entirely from an odd poem here and there. By the time the third week after she registered for the competition came around, she was by no means sure this was a good idea, and by the time the third month dawned (with only one month before the deadline) she was on the point of forgetting it altogether and putting the £10 entrance fee (she generally didn’t entire contests with entry fees) down to experience. 

     But though Natasha wasn’t in a position when she could dismiss wasting £10 as irrelevant – there had been a time not that long ago when she didn’t have much more than that a week to live on – what niggled at her more than the waste of money was the time and effort she would have wasted. For she had, indeed, produced some poems. The remit for the anthology, whilst strict in terms of number and lines, was loose in terms of theme. The Great Outdoors was all that was required, and the website positively encouraged people to interpret it imaginatively. Just by means of setting herself a challenge, Natasha tried writing a lipogram about the sea omitting the letter “E”. This did not turn out to be a good idea. 

     Natasha decided to give herself a day off writing altogether, though she was well aware that the less you meant to think about something, the more you ended up thinking about it. And in the end she decided that she’d go the whole hog and have a weekend away. Oh, she didn’t go far, but she went down the coast from Lincolnshire to Norfolk, in other words, to a different county, and there was something symbolic about that. They didn’t really talk about wolds in Norfolk. They talked about broads instead. 

     Not surprisingly, Natasha was a great lover of bookshops, and especially of second hand ones, and especially of the kind that were untidy and not too methodical in their presentation. There were generally two aims in her mind when she went into a bookshop. One was to find books she hadn’t read by authors she loved, and the other was to discover new authors. Or as she liked to term them, new old authors. 

     Hidden among cookery books where such things as rennet and goose grease were writ large in the recipe, and guides to local landmarks in 1970s Technicolor, and a nice smattering of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts historical novels (to her disappointment, Natasha had read them all) there was a slim volume by one Bethany Mary Wilkinson, and the lettering on the spine told her that if was called …. yes The Great Outdoors! And somehow something told Natasha that though it might be in among the retro tourist guides, it was not a tourist guide. It was an anthology of poetry. Or at any rate, a collection of poems. 

     She was hard-pushed to work out if the volume were older than she first thought or newer than she first thought. The rather fuzzy frontispiece photograph of Bethany Mary Wilkinson showed a woman whom Natasha guessed to be in her late twenties, though it could have been older or younger, and dressed (though she was no expert on this) in the style of the late twenties of the previous centuries, though it was only a head and shoulders photograph, and she couldn’t see her headline. BMW (as Natasha had decided to name her, for convenience’s sake, and not because of any resemblance to an upmarket German motor car) had her hair bobbed, but probably more for convenience than as an act of rebellion, and was wearing a long tunic top. The picture was black and white, even with the tiniest tinge of sepia, but Natasha guessed that the top may well have been russet or dusky pink. BMW had very round, dark eyes, and just the hint of mischief in them. She wasn’t holding one of those elegant cigarette holders that even women who didn’t smoke seemed to use as a fashion accessory at the time, but Natasha was fairly sure that she owned one.

     Still, she thought, sitting down with her book on a bench on the market square – it was a warm, pleasant afternoon – she wasn’t there to indulge in theorising or fantasising about the dress and habits of a young lady almost a century ago. Come to think of it, what was she there for? She opened the book, relieved that, although somehow managing to be limp and slightly crackly at the same time, in the manner of old books, they seemed fairly intact and robust. Not at all surprisingly there was a dedication. To my darling Mother, and to my darling Victor. Now darling mother was self-evident, though it looked as if darling Father was no longer around when the book was published. Did he fall in the trenches, perhaps? Or would he have been too old. But who was Victor? Well, of course it could have been her husband, or her brother, but something told Natasha that had that been the case, she would have mentioned it. She was fashioning a romance in her mind. Then again, he could have been her pet dog!

     She opened the volume, not at the first page, but at random. That was something Natasha often did with books of poetry, or even short stories, though of course it didn’t work so well with a novel! 

     It seemed that BMW also turned her hand to writing about the sea. The poem she opened the book at was called The Morning Before the Morning.

It is the morning before the morning. The time when birds rise

in raucous, plaintive song, and swoop, and call,

their wing-beats echoing tide’s ebb and fall,

And morning before the morning skies

Reflect a thousand colours, shift, and drift and glow,

and bank and dance as still the moon, serene and silver spun

mirrors the gold of the stirring, insistent sun,

and clouds are anchored, tossed, by the wind and flow,

The morning before the morning. Time interpolated,

Time of moonlight, sunlight, birds in flight

and clouds in flux and everything awaited,

Morning before morning, it is no longer night,

it is something between, daily created,

and it is grey and gold and muted-bright.

Natasha felt an odd feeling, and didn’t know quite what to make of it. Like most people she liked to claim that she had never cheated in her life, but like most people, that wasn’t quite true. Still, somehow there were things that didn’t really count. Nobody had been done any harm or been put at a disadvantage by her smuggling an extra bottle of wine through Duty Free, and it probably hadn’t even been necessary to decant it into the cranberry juice bottle. She was probably one of the last generation to actually learn how to type at school – a skill she was still glad she had – and what had been the issue about taking one extra sheet of paper from the pile when she was doing a test alone in a classroom and her tabulation had turned out off-centre? 

     But there was a nagging little voice that told her this wouldn’t be the same thing at all. That it was outrageous she was even thinking about it, it was a moment’s madness that would pass. After all, though the Wolds World competition didn’t specify what type of poetry it wanted, looking at previous winners had told her that strict rhyming schemes certainly didn’t necessarily win Brownie Points. And who was to say, apart from anything else, that because she hadn’t heard of Bethany Mary Wilkinson, nobody else had?

     Well, there was a way of making at least halfway sure of that. Natasha told herself as she Googled that she almost hoped that she would discover the author was at least reasonably well known in some circles and that she would never get away with it. There was such a thing as being saved from yourself. But though she could find a few instances of the name, or variants of it, there was not so much as the mention of one line of verse.

     Was it self-published, she mused. Such things certainly existed in bygone days and, in fact, had not always been seen as a bad thing. After all, the Bronte sisters, no less, had paid for their first works to be printed. True, this was considerably after their time (if the outfit was anything to go by) but that probably made it more rather than less likely.

     I will at least have a look at another poem, thought Natasha. That can do no harm, and who knows, it might spur me to write one of my own that is inspired by it. Being inspired by something isn’t the same as plagiarism. She rather wished the P-word had not entered into her head, knowing that in literary circles it was definitely considered worse than plain, old-fashioned cheating. But nobody had said that Seamus Heaney was plagiarising when he did his version of Beowulf, or that Ted Hughes was with Metamorphoses. True, BMW was hardly on a par with the anonymous writer of Beowulf or with Ovid, and she was certainly no Hughes or Heaney, but it was the same principle. Wasn’t it?

     She opened another page at random and saw a poem called The Weather on the Wolds. You could call that another strange coincidence, or you could just say that Wolds was hardly an uncommon word in Lincolnshire, even if Tennyson, in The Lady of Shallot had made it migrate to mythical Cornwall. 

The weather on the Wolds, nature at play

Four seasons woven in a day,

As gleaming gold and green filter through grey

Gentle rain turns to a dark-skied storm

and in a pink-tinged, purple pulsing dawn

the whiteness of a winter day is born

The weather on the Wolds, kaleidoscope

of foreboding interlaced with hope

as distant wave-sound reaches soft green slope

And tidal current ebbs and flows and roars

across the land, without a thought or pause

and fields of corn bloom, reaching to the shores

The weather on the Wolds, the interplay

of gleaming gold and green and banked cloud grey

and four seasons woven into a single day

Well, to say some of those rhymes are laboured would be the understatement of the year, thought Natasha, then she thought, yes, but she has finished not one, not two, but a whole collection of poems, and even if they are self-published (and the more she thought about it, the less she was inclined to believe it) that’s still considerably more than I have done. 

     It was not technically forbidden to discuss entries in any competition at the local writers’ group of which she was a member, but was supposed to be discouraged, especially when several of the members were entering the same competition. But she knew. Of course she knew. Laura Hellmann had produced so many poems she was struggling to decide which ones she was going to have to exclude from her entry. Robert Anderson had, he thought, invented an entirely new poetic form, and though of course he said it was probably pretentious and impractical and the judges would rightly toss his work to one side, his very modest mien made it plain that he thought he had made a discovery in the field of poetic metre that was at the very least on a par with the General Theory of Relativity. That was the thing with Robert. The more disarmingly modest he became, the more you knew that he was thinking the exact opposite.

     She kept her own counsel and decided that she probably much preferred BMW’s slightly laboured and artless verses to Robert’s great breakthrough.

     It would do no harm to at least see how some of those poems looked on screen, and to start to play with them, and transform them entirely into her own work. And as long as you were sitting in front of a screen and putting words on it, that counted as working at your own writing. Didn’t it?

     There was something vaguely satisfying about it, but she also knew she was time-wasting. Not that she was against a bit of time-wasting. 

     She decided to give herself a coffee break and watch a bit of TV. One of those shows that you could convince yourself were educational but didn’t exactly overtax the brain. It was a true crime one on the Yesterday channel and she was pretty sure she had seen it hundreds of times before, but then applied to virtually everything on the Yesterday channel and was part of its appeal. “Now we’ll look at the case of the Lincolnshire poet murderess,” said the announcer, in that silky voice that managed to inject just the right amount of menace, like the kind of teacher who was much loved but you didn’t want to cross. “We must try to imagine the scene in a sleepy village in that county reaching from the Wolds to the sea. Mrs Mary Bethany Fowler was, to all intents and purposes, a contented housewife, married to her one time childhood sweetheart, Victor, who was the village saddler, a trade that was dying out elsewhere but was still necessary and valued in Lincolnshire, but she was also a poet, writing under her maiden name. Frustratingly, all of her works are now out of print, though there are sure to be some nestling on the shelves of second hand bookshops, or languishing away in dusty attics. But this much is known, and is one of the all but forgotten crime stories of the early twentieth century. In that respectable, rural village that time seemed to have left behind, there were seething jealousies, and Mrs Fowler was not the only person who fancied herself a poet. One of her friends, Mrs Abigail Hart, was secretly eaten up with jealousy that Mrs Fowler had more poems published in the Parish Magazine than she did, and took her chance to copy one of her verses and pass it off as her own. But she made a fateful mistake. To this day nobody is sure if Mrs Fowler had a moment of madness, or if the passion and fury were there all along, beneath the quiet and conventional exterior. Mrs Hart came calling and acting as if nothing had happened, and Mrs Fowler took the bread knife to her. It is said that their servant girl, an unfortunate young woman called Martha, let out screams that were heard in the next village when she discovered what had happened and saw the gruesome sight, and that she was never the same again. Mrs Fowler’s only words, on being arrested were “Plagiarism should never pay”. She was committed to an asylum and her poor husband left the village and was never heard of again.”

     When Natasha looked at that picture again, she saw something latent in those eyes that was not mischief. Or at least, not in the sanitised sense the word is often used.

     She deleted the file and put the book under a pile of others. She didn’t win the competition and wasn’t even short listed. She wasn’t even that irritated that Robert did win.

     But sometimes, behind her chair, beside her bed, alongside her on the street, she saw a woman with very round dark eyes, wearing a dusky pink tunic.

November 05, 2020 07:22

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