Today we showcase the winner and first runner-up from our Chronicle Short Story Contest run in partnership with Abergavenny Writing Festival.
The winner, Comfort and Joy by David Abbott, was chosen by all three judges, Chronicle editor, Gina Robertson, Writing Festival organiser, Lucie Parkin and writer and journalist, Bob Rogers as an introspective narrative with a local flavour applauded for its style, attention to detail and an ability to bring a character, flaws and all, realistically to life.
The runner-up, Lighten My Load by Gill Wakeley, takes us back to a time of local persecution, intolerance and fear which the judges felt captured the menace and turbulence of the period it was set in.
Many of the videos from this year’s online festival are still available to view by going to https://abergavennywritingfestival.com.
Comfort & Joy
The café I run is called Comfort and Joy.
I hate Christmas which must surely be behind the name of the café, you know, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and all that. Sure aren’t men always resting? And rarely gentle, or merry unless you mean stocious.
I don’t actually run the café but work a four hour shift each day bringing cheer to strangers and it’s a lot easier than doing it at home.
Plus my name badge: Jill, bringing comfort and joy, so it’s mandatory. The plastic screen that puts distance between me and the customers is reassuring and I wouldn’t mind one for the bedroom at home. Everyone wants to be together, to be closer, nearer at the moment. I want to be alone, distant and distanced.
After work, I march myself up Gilwern Hill in a fury. At the top it’s just me with the green, clumsy-flying woodpecker, the welsh mountain sheep and sometimes the wild horses. We acknowledge each other but no demands are made. I rub and smell the gauze and the heather and look down on the town and wish it well. In my bag are cabbage leaves for the sheep and sunflower hearts for the birds. I’d be frightened to get too close to the horses and don’t know for sure what they’d eat. A big, fat carrot maybe?
Folks say I’ve a lovely family and make a great mum, but what does that mean and how is it any reflection on me? Like, if the kids took to shooting up in Bailey Park and robbing from the indoor market would it be down to me? This turn of events seems unlikely – the girl is a dancer and the boy a dab hand on the xylophone. My eldest is in fact a fine dancer they say but I’ve stopped paying for classes and she was heartbroken. The money will buy me a pearl necklace. Fifty next year and not a single pearl to my name. Have I not done enough for them? And I’m jealous. There. I’ve said it. So pretty and carefree and praise lavished upon her for her pliés. We can’t afford the lessons and there’s an end to it.
The buses go such short distances from Abergavenny. If only they went longer distances so I could pack a bag and start over. Hereford is too close and I’ve a cousin there. But I could change buses and get to say, Bangor, a place no-one knows me. I’d change my name from Jill to Jacintha, take a studio apartment and set myself up as a childminder. Or a dog walker. Maybe a clairvoyant. Can you do that indoors at the moment? My own future is fine, I know it is. It’s just a blip. My friend, Carol, says she has, ‘spotted my decline’ and tells me to be mindful and look for small gifts. I don’t really know what that means but treated myself to some babybel cheeses which were unsatisfyingly tiny. I know for a fact Carol’s having an affair with the woman in the butcher’s shop, so is she really in a position to dish out advice? She says Christmas will sort me out and the break will do me good. Did any mother ever get a break at Christmas?
As a child, Boxing Day tea was the one meal a year my Dad had anything to do with and didn’t we know about it. I miss him. He taught me how to play Tawel Nos on the mouth organ. One day in the café a man came in who reminded me of my father. He smelt of diesel and peppermints. I gave him his coffee free and an extra loyalty stamp and his dog a bit of ham from the kitchen. He winked at me – the man not the dog – and I blushed. I tried to give him a slice of beetroot cake but he said, no thanks he didn’t hold with vegetables in cakes, and who’s to say he’s wrong.
The pain in my breast won’t go away but you can’t see the GP for love nor money. Who would miss me? Not my daughter whose dreams of being a dancer are robbed for the sake of pearls. Maybe the lassie who sells the Big Issue outside the chemist would notice. I give her some money most days and she tells me that her dream is to be an opera singer. She wouldn’t notice me gone. I love my husband and kids. But they are always there. Could they not be shipped off somewhere like that fella who posted himself to Australia in a box? Just a couple of weeks of eating macaroni cheese and staying in bed and watching A Place in the Sun and I’d be grand.
On Christmas Eve I am going to slip out of the back door when everyone’s asleep and climb the hill. I’ll watch the night sky and drink vodka and be back to the house in time for end-of-the-bed stockings. I will put meat of some description in the oven. I will tell the daughter that we have booked her back into dance class, kiss the husband and stroke the head of the boy. I’ll get a doctor’s appointment in the new year and be more mindful. I don’t care for the Babybels. I might try a Kinder Surprise and keep the toy for the wee boy who comes in the café looking in need of a treat.
A woman’s work is never really done, is it.
Do you ever look up at the night sky at Christmas time? It’d make you weep with wonder.
And it’s tidings of comfort and joy Comfort and joy Oh tidings of comfort and joy.
Lighten my load - a tale from the past
Thomas Gunter sat hunched at the table set by the window to catch every glance of light.
Tears snail-traced down his face unchecked and unheeded.
This time of year, with its bonfires and burnings of Guy Fawkes, pierced him with memories of the damaging hatred towards people like him who kept the Old Faith.
He reflected miserably on what had happened, what is it now, six years ago? If he closed his eyes, he could see Father David in this room, celebrating mass with the small group of local people.
Father David returning to this house having comforted his flock with a visit, a sympathetic ear and a blessing.
Father David recommending charity and support for the poor, or for the recently bereaved, or for those in difficult circumstances. Even now, his own fury and feelings of incredulity were still as fresh as they had been when he heard the news that Father David had been arrested by that fanatic John Arnold, revelling in his clever action and his anti-Catholic hate.
Thomas had felt able, secure in the protection of the family name of Gunter, to visit Father David while he was imprisoned at Usk and give money to pay the gaoler for his comfort.
He pushed away his anger, shaking his head at himself, recalling Father David’s words of forgiveness.
Father David and other priests had been taken all the way to London to be questioned about the Popish Plot – but how could they know about something that was all a lie, a fabrication? He shook his head in disbelief.
They were brought back to further imprisonment while most people had hoped that it would just blow over.
He had forced himself go to the execution and, with the local people, held back the executioner until the hanging was complete.
But he could not bear to stay for the rest of the ritual punishment for treason.
Unable to contain his rage and anguish, he had pushed his way through the crowd.
Some touched his arm in sympathy, others were too busy trying to see what was happening to even notice him.
He found his horse and returned, with eyes stinging and lips compressed, back home to Abergavenny.
It was thanks to God that he had not fallen on the journey as he could hardly see where he was going and his horse, sensing his distress, had shied at every waving branch.
The days, weeks and months that followed had seemed endlessly filled with dark despair.
So many of their priests were killed, through the legal punishment for treason, or from fleeing through the malign weather of winter. Their flocks left to their own resources in the long years that followed.
It was hopeless to try and concentrate on business today. He pushed at his papers and some fell to the floor with its wide floorboards.
If only King Charles had died a little sooner…but that was a treasonous thought leading to the same death as Father David.
Now there was a Catholic King, James the second, on the throne.
Perhaps now, under King James, he could seek to support a priest again and welcome him into this room at the top of the house.
The last six years had been so hard with no priests daring to come into Monmouthshire after the priests had to flee from the Cwm, the blessed centre for their training, just over the border in Herefordshire.
He looked around the bare attic room, lit by the window overlooking the busy entrance road through the south gate of the town into Cross Street.
The room looked mean, neglected, and needed painting. He sat upright, feeling invigorated by looking forward with hope.
He would have the walls painted, have an altar piece of the Adoration – that would be an excellent painting for a chapel here. He could welcome a new priest here with the chapel as a memorial to those martyred. As he planned for a better future, he could feel enthusiasm and eagerness replacing his former heaviness and blackness of soul.