Historical fiction


After careful deliberation from our judge Celia Brayfield, we would like to announce the winner and three runners-up of our Historical Fiction competition. 


Firstly, thanks again to everyone who entered - your entries have been a pleasure to read, particularly those ten who made the shortlist (click here if you haven't already seen it).

Now, without further ado, the winner of our competition is The Scirocco Winds by Ruba Abughaida. The three runners-up are Potsdamer Platz by Barbara Stevenson, All Earthly Things by Louise Morrish and The Cooperative by Rebecca Rouillard.

To read the winning entry and the entries of the runners-up, please see below. At the beginning of each entry, you'll see some commentary from Celia Brayfield, explaining what she enjoyed about the piece and why she chose it as a winner.


Winner - The Scirocco Winds by Ruba Abughaida

I'd like to choose The Scirocco Winds by Ruba Abughaida as the winner. I was delighted by the lyrical quality of this piece, and the way that the writer moved gracefully from the intimate domestic scenes of the narrator's birth and naming to the panoramic evocation of the political context of her life.   It's vivid, exciting writing, well balanced but at the same time full of energy.   And it promises an insight into a country and people who are often in the news but in spite of that little understood,  a perspective behind the headlines. - Celia


I was born on a day when the air misted and dripped with humidity and no one had the energy to name another baby girl. If it weren’t for my Aunt Khadijeh, who to the delight of her husband was only able to bring boys into the world, I would have wailed nameless, abandoned by the mid-­‐wife and my mother who turned to other things once I had arrived. I wonder how long I lay there without a name, fighting to be seen, the way around us Mount Lebanon was fighting to stay independent within the large spread of Ottoman hands. 

I know I must have cried waiting to find out who I would be. I have always needed certainty. I know now that my mother had feebly tried. 

“What do you want to name her?” She had asked my father.

 “I don’t care. Call her whatever you want to.”  My father had answered.

He had come into the room to look at me and to make sure that I wasn’t in fact a boy. I know now that he was holding two of my sisters in his lap. They liked to crawl into the extra piece of cloth that hung from his shirwal when he sat down. I wonder if he swung them slightly the way he did with me when I was old enough. I know that he didn’t stay for long, but I like to imagine him adjusting the tarboush on his head as he got up, the red tassels hanging over his face so that tiny wisps of breeze passed along, the way they did when he fanned the coals of  the sheesha he always liked to smoke in the evenings. 

Aunt Khadijeh saved me from being stamped as the sixth daughter, born to parents unlucky enough to have another girl in these times when boys were so needed. In her many re-tellings of the story, she described to me how she came into the bedroom with a tray of coffee and a vase of delicate jasmine blooms in her hands to find I had been placed on the far end of the bed. I imagine how the smell of cardamom and cloves, spicy and musky, would have expanded until they filled up the room, overtaking the jasmine balancing on its edges. She lifted me into her large arms, my small body wrapped in yellowed blankets passed down from five other girls, as she let me suckle on a coffee stained finger. The odour and subtle taste of the beans imprinting their effect on my small body, in place of my mother’s breast and her milk. My aunt immediately loved me as though she had been  the one who labored for two days to have me. While my mother slept in the darkness that was settling around the room, Aunt Khadijeh held me up to one of the candles, and named me after the winds that blow through the Mediterranean once a year. Knowing that I would get lost in the shuffle of girls, she claimed me as her favourite, marking me out as special to everyone from the very beginning. The eldest of eight children born to a mother that had been married twice at a time when finding one husband was considered a stroke of luck, my aunt’s words had power in the family. 

“Pay attention to her.” She would later say to my mother.

It was a familiar phrase that I heard repeated around me over the years. But I was not fazed by the lack of attention from my mother.

I received all that I needed in endless supplies from Aunt Khadijeh. While my sisters scrambled around me to be noticed for more than just taking care of each other, I was shown places and given things that no one else had the time or desire to show them. Like Mount Lebanon, I thrived in my isolation from my sisters, building strength reserves the way I saw my father doing while he spent hours drawing lines over the large maps that he studied so carefully. And with each passing year, the politics of the region trembled and throbbed along with the winds that moved through and we became more vulnerable to their shifts.

“The Ottoman rule will end soon. Maybe not in my lifetime but in my children’s lifetime or their children’s.” I heard my father say many times.

I know now that these words frightened my aunt. She had four boys already eager to listen to the beat of war that seemed to drum through the blood of most men in Mount Lebanon. She tried to change her brother’s mind with predictions of peace and prosperity but it was as though she was trying to reign in the currents of the Mediterranean Sea that circled around us. She would hold on to me even tighter, hoping that she could keep me from going anywhere with the sheer force of her love, but in naming me, she had marked my fate.

I fought against it at first, holding onto Aunt Khadijeh as hard as she held onto me. But the passing air streams whose names I carried were stronger, and they called to me once a year. Softly at first, only in whispers and hums, while they meandered through but then more loudly so that they throbbed inside my body keeping me restless. I could feel them pick up strength before they landed on our shores, urging me to move and I know now that I had no choice. No matter how much I tried to tether myself to the love of Aunt Khadijeh, all I did was prolong seeing the inevitable unravelling of my fate, when the outcome was always going to be the same. While Mount Lebanon cracked and disintegrated slowly around us and the wind currents rose, I came to understand that death, always present in between its appearances, had been uneasily letting us breathe.        


Runners-up

Potsdamer Platz by Barbara Stevenson 

An intriguing snapshot of Berlin in ferment on the eve of World War 1, seen through the uncomprehending eyes of a young woman who is trying to find her way in the strange city.    Substantial research is evident  in this piece which really told you what it was like to wander the streets. I liked the way the writer has created the young woman's viewpoint and emphasised her artist's eye, while also bringing the city alive in sensual description. - Celia


Chapter 1.

Along Tiergarten Strasse and past the zoo.

Anke repeated the directions. The park was on her right. It was stupid to have missed her stop. Busy sketching the sleeping gentleman opposite – the moustache and those eyebrows really did remind her of Bismarck – she only noticed the station name as the train pulled out. 

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

She stopped to smooth her heel. Her shoes were rubbing blisters into her skin.

‘Aagh.’

Anke started as the air was split by an inhuman screech. She steadied herself and gave a weak smile as the woman walking in front of her turned to make a face. The child clinging to her hand giggled.

Along Tiergarten Strasse and past the zoo.

Anke pictured camouflaged fur and feathers. She could feel scales and skin melding with stone and grass. Instead of a mangy bear biting at the bars of its cage she saw tones and textures, perfect for painting. What she hadn’t imagined was the awful smell, a cruel mix of rotten vegetables, fish heads and the fetid odour of sodden bedding. She shivered and pulled her coat tight. It was dark, threatening to rain. She fumbled in her pocket for the crumpled paper with the unfamiliar address scrawled across it in her mother’s handwriting.

56 Nuremberger Strasse.

It was fifty six – her mother repeated it as she wrote – although the number looked like thirty eight the way the paper was creased. The street couldn’t be far away.

‘Excuse me sir, do you know where Nuremberger Strasse is?’

The man pointed. He was in a hurry. In a hurry to drink away the memories of sodden trenches and dying comrades, Anke thought. He was wearing a battered trench coat against the January chill. Red raw skin bulged through the worn elbows. His right hand was missing three fingers. Kaiser Wilhem had promised them they couldn’t lose. Anke muttered a thanks and sped on. There were people about, citizens with business to attend to, but Anke thought twice about asking again for directions. A single female from out of town approaching strangers in the dark, what would her mother say? Perhaps at the next turning she would meet a respectable woman. The street lamp threw a dull shadow, but she could read the sign - Budapester Strasse. It was a main thoroughfare, but she was surprised at how busy it was. Silly, this was Berlin, four hundred kilometres from Bad Reichenhall.

‘Spare some marks for a wounded hero. Whatever you can, miss.’

A bony hand groped towards her from beneath the lamp post. Anke didn’t stop to look at the beggar.

‘Too good for the likes of me are you?’ The man spat at her back.

The baying of the caged wolves was fading, but rising in Anke’s ears were harsher human voices. 

‘Spartacus Riots crushed. Buy your paper here.’

‘Matches, guaranteed to light first time.’

Everyone was going somewhere, doing something. Anke began to sense they were going the same way, doing the same thing. She felt alone in the crowd and held tight to her mother’s best hat.

‘Nuremberger Strasse? What business have you there?’ The policeman’s face was stern. His chin jutted out to meet her forehead. He fingered his belt.

‘I’m a stranger here. My father is a salt merchant in Bad Reichenhall. I have an introduction to family friends in Nuremberger Strasse.’

‘Bavarian.’ Anke could taste the contempt in his vowels. ‘You won’t get to Nuremberger Strasse tonight. I advise you to make other arrangements. Charlottenberg has hotels suitable for someone like yourself.’

‘Charlottenberg? I don’t know the city …’

The policeman stared through her to a group of men across the street dressed in workers’ uniforms, huddled together smoking rolled up horse manure.

‘You there, move on.’ The officer strode towards them. The men bristled, they’d taken enough orders. Their leader stubbed his roll-up underfoot and pulled himself up to face the policeman. Anke didn’t wait to see the outcome. She strode on, pulling up short to avoid walking into the wool-covered breasts of a Berlin matron.

‘They’ve got Rosa. They’re bringing her in now,’ the woman called across the street.

‘What’s that? Both of them, Rosa and Liebknecht?’ a man said.

‘At the regiment HQ, the Eden Hotel.’

‘On Nuremberger Strasse?’

Anke caught the name of the street. She tugged at the woman’s sleeve. ‘Are you going to Nuremberger Strasse? Would you mind if I came with you? I don’t know the city.’

The woman looked round. ‘You’re one to be out alone. You’re going to Nuremberger Strasse?’

‘I have friends there,’ Anke said.

‘Better stick with me dear.’

Anke did her best to stick to the woman, but she could have been a relative of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. With cries of ‘Rosa and Liebknecht’ and ‘Workers Unite’ she drew people from the street corners and cafés to rally behind her. Anke expected a troupe of zoo monkeys to fall in line. She was jostled shoulder to elbow with people vying to be at the head of the march.

‘Rosa, Rosa.’

Unshaven faces breathing alcohol and tobacco in her face blocked her view. Anke ducked to avoid being boxed on the nose by an arm in a patched up jacket sleeve reeking of oil. Noises buzzed in her ears, traffic sparking to a halt, honking, the subsequent swearing and threats. Anke was lifted from her feet, curling her toes to keep hold of her shoes as she was carried along. 


All Earthly Things by Louise Morrish  

Very adept storytelling in this, and a convincing recreation of a recruiting office during World War 1.  I liked the almost magical way the protagonist, a young woman who's pretending to be a young man,  takes comfort from the imagined presence of her brother.  The dialogue is crisp and authentic too and the reader is confidently led up to the reveal at the heart of the piece. - Celia


I, Mark Lawrence, swear by Almighty God, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in dutybound, honestly and faithfully defend his Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, in Person, Crown and dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of his Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me.

So help me God.

‘Name?’ The recruiting officer looks up at me. His eyes are the palest brown, like stones. Now, when I run this moment through my mind, I am sure that look said: ‘You are an imposter. I know precisely who you are. You fool no one.’ 

But the officer doesn’t say any of that. Instead, he says ‘come on, I haven’t got all day.’ He is not smiling. 

It feels like a pebble has lodged in my throat, and I have to swallow. I can’t speak. If I open my mouth, the truth will fall out, and I will never get to the Front. 

‘Your name, boy!’

Come on, Mary, says a familiar voice at my side. I turn my head and there he is. There Joe is, smiling me on.

I look back at the officer. ‘Mark,’ I whisper. How strange it is, I find myself thinking, that the simple exchange of a letter can alter my whole identity.

The officer glares at me, his hard eyes lidded. ‘Mark what?’

‘Lawrence,’ I manage.

‘Age?’

This one is easy. ‘Twenty, sir.’ Not so far from the truth. The officer notes this down, his handwriting like a spider’s scratch across the page.

‘Sir…’ I start. 

He does not look up. ‘Take yourself over to that tent there.’ He points with his pen. ‘Uniform and medical.’

‘M-medical?’ I had not reckoned on a medical. I cannot move my feet.

‘Next!’

I find myself on the end of a winding queue of men. I stand behind a man so tall the top of my head is level with his shoulders. He does not turn, and I face the wall of his back.

I could walk away. No one would notice I had gone, I am no more than a single bee in this teeming hive of hundreds. I could slip away, go back to the rectory. Abort this lie before it’s properly born.

The line is slowly moving forward and there are men behind me now, a queue of solemn faces. I find myself searching for Joe again. But of course he is not here, he is somewhere else, somewhere in France. And I am here alone, my guts knotted so tight I can hardly stand. 

As the line shuffles forward, I pretend that Joe is next to me, his hand in mine. In my head I begin a story, his favourite of them all, and I hope he’s listening. The gods were ruled by Zeus, the god of the sky, I tell him, my mouth clamped shut. The man in front of me lights a cigarette and smoke drifts back over his shoulder. He was the father of the gods, and spoke in the thunder. I squeeze my fist tight, feeling my brother’s thin fingers twined with mine. Zeus had a jealous wife called Hera, and a lover called Leto. Leto was a very gracious deity but was hated by Hera for having seduced her husband. So when Leto became pregnant and Hera found out, she explicitly forbade any place under the sun to offer shelter to Leto. 

The man in front of me coughs, and smoke drifts into the sky. I sense Joe willing me to go on, Mary, go on.  So Leto wandered desperately and finally came to a tiny island, beaten by the waves and blown by the wind. Yet it was the only place willing to accept her. Joe loves this next part.  Here, on the island they called Delos, Leto gave birth to Artemis, the goddess of the moon. I feel my brother’s fingers grip tighter. She helped her mother bring forth her twin brother, Apollo, the moon god. Both could strike down people by shooting them with arrows of sickness. 

The familiar words of the story are a soothing balm, quenching the hot fear in my bowels. But the line is shuffling forwards, relentlessly, and now it is my turn. The medical tent is before me, a stern-faced nurse in the doorway, holding open the flap. 

My brother’s hand slips from mine, and the rest of the story turns to dust in my mind, as I step through into the darkness within.


The Cooperative by Rebecca Rouillard

This writer has courageously chosen to recreate a great historical figure, in this case Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium.  It's wonderfully imagined, and she is seen through the wondering eyes of a young boy brought by his father to her home. I liked the infernal implications in the descriptions of her laboratory in the garden shed and the all-pervading smells of the chemical process she had devised to isolate the element. - Celia


1907 - Sceaux, France

She was nothing like my maman; my maman had skin that was soft and smelled of lavender, her dresses shone like pearls, and her hair, when she let it down, hung to her waist in silken ringlets. Madame Curie smelled of the earth and fire and something sharp that burned inside my throat. Her clothes were dark, she wore an apron that was stained and the skin on her hands was red and cracked. Her hair was pulled back from her face but some of it was escaping in wisps. She smiled at me and her eyes were kind.

“Jean, a pleasure to meet you, I hope you are ready to learn?”

I looked down.

Papa pushed me forward. “Jean, answer Madame Curie.”

“Leave him Langevin, he is shy.” She indicated behind her, “Jean, this is my daughter.”

I had not noticed that there was a girl standing behind her.

“My name is Irène, I am eleven years old. How old are you?” she asked.

The girl had her mother’s eyes under severe, bushy eyebrows and a long nose that sloped down towards me.

I pushed my spectacles up, “Nine.”

My mouth was sticky and I was longing for a glass of water. It had been a long journey from Paris, I’d been nervous and, as I climbed out of Papa’s automobile, I had vomited on the road.

“Come, I will show you the schoolroom.” Irène turned and walked out of the room.

“There you go,” Madame Curie said to Papa as we left, “I am confident our experiment will be a success.”

It was not as nice as our house, the hallway was narrow and the carpet was faded and threadbare in patches, but it was full of fascinating objects; we passed a mahogany cabinet with glass doors, containing rock specimens and small brass instruments. There was a picture of a man in a frame on top of the cabinet.

“That is my Papa,” said Irène, “he is dead; he was knocked over by a horse in the street.”

I did not know what to say about this. “Do you miss him?”

“Yes, but I need to concentrate on my schooling, that is what Papa would have wanted. I am to be a scientist like Papa and Maman.”

She started to climb the steep staircase at the end of the hallway.

“I want to be scientist too,” I called after her. 

She pushed open the first door on the left at the top of the stairs and I walked in behind her. It was a large, light room with high ceilings and a long table in the centre of the room. There was an arrangement of fruit and flowers in a bowl on the table. The room smelled of wax and lemons.

“This is the school room,” she said, “I had a lesson with the drawing master this morning.”

I walked over to the window and looked out; Papa and Madame Curie were walking across the lawn towards an old shed at the bottom of the garden.

“Do you want to see Maman’s laboratory?” Irène asked, smiling at me for the first time.

“Yes, I am not allowed in Papa’s rooms.”

“Come on.”

As we walked into the garden Madame Curie beckoned us from the doorway of the shed. We hurried over to her. 

“You may come in but don’t touch anything. Your education may as well begin, though the others have not arrived yet.”

Irène led the way; behind her I took a tentative step into the shed. It smelled like Madame Curie—earthy but also a little acrid and dangerous. At first it looked like an ordinary garden shed; a place you might store vegetables. It was gloomy but there were some dusty glass panels in the roof that dimly illuminated a table in the centre of the shed. As my eyes became accustomed to the shadows I saw that there were other tables and some shelves that were littered with instruments, flasks and piles of paper. There was small trunk in the middle of the central table, Madame Curie carefully dragged it closer to the edge and unlocked it with a key that hung on a chain around her neck. I craned my neck to see what was inside. Irène looked smug—she obviously knew the secret of the box. Papa grinned at me and motioned me towards the table, I crept a bit closer. Madame Curie raised the lid slowly and lifted out a vial. She lifted it up into the air and, keeping her eyes on her treasure, asked, “Do you know what this is, Jean?”

“No,” I couldn’t see anything.

“Look closer.”

There were a few small, white crystals in the bottom of the bottle. “It looks like salt.” I ventured.

“Very good Jean, Irène?”

Irène stepped up next to me. “It’s Radium salt.”

“Good Irène, and the name of the compound?”

“Radium Chloride.”

“Yes, well done. Now, my dear, will you pull the drapes? Langevin, would you mind? Jean, could you shut the door, please?”

Papa helped Irène to pull across and secure a screen that blocked out the daylight. As the last sliver of sun was extinguished we were momentarily enveloped in blackness, but then I became aware of a strange blue-green glow. It reminded me of the way the sun looked shining through the stained-glass windows at Notre Dame. I looked around for another window but then I realised that the glow was coming from the centre of the room itself. It was coming from Madame Curie’s crystals. I was entranced, it was the most mysterious and wonderful thing I had ever seen. As she held the glass vial in front of her face Madame Curie no longer looked like a dull widow or a tired, worn scientist. In the blue-green radiance her skin shone with an unearthly lustre, her eyes glittered, her wispy hair floated and framed her like a halo—she looked like a sorceress.


Overall, I was delighted with the range of styles and periods in this entry to a very popular competition.   I travelled from pre-Christian Judea to post-war England  in the company of writers who clearly loved the challenge of recreating the past and making our ancestors come alive on the page. - Celia


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