The first Cornish Writing Challenge ran from April-June, and drew in a variety of excellent short stories. Read on to find out more about runner-up Liz Carr, and read her submission, A Mere Mortal.
Liz Carr has been a writer and editor in higher education, for charities, and commercial organisations since 1990. She has also taught online writing to university staff who are non-professional writers, and been a non-fiction ghost-writer.
In 2012, one of her poems, On Debut, was shortlisted for the Australia Cricket Poetry Prize and published in the anthology. She has also organised and taken part in writers’ retreats in Cornwall for Fictionfire.
She can mostly be found on the A30 travelling between her home near Heathrow airport where she lives with her husband, and St Ives, where she keeps watch over two small cottages.
What inspired you to start writing?
I started writing when I was very young, inspired by the Bronte sisters and the tiny books they produced as children. I used to make my own. As a kid, books were my bribe. I had books instead of fireworks, books after doctors’ appointments, book tokens for presents and, of course, the weekly trip to the library. I’d stagger out with the maximum number allowed and I’d always finish them before they were due back.
I started getting serious about my creative writing about six years ago, then realised how little I knew. It’s definitely a lifelong quest.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Don’t be surprised when it gets ‘…difficult, difficult, lemon difficult’ (with thanks to In the Loop). I thought creative writing would be easy. I’d written material for years – for other people – so I presumed it would be the same thing but I’d just be making it up.
You are making it up, but it’s extraordinarily hard to match the brilliance and insight that’s in your head with the terrible, clichéd nonsense that ends up on the page. I’ve also realised that all writers experience this gap. Simon Mawer responded to me in a tweet, saying ‘hard writing makes easy reading.’ This is the best advice I’ve had, and it’s what I’d pass on.
Tell us more about A Mere Mortal. Where did the inspiration come from?
A Mere Mortal is loosely based on the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor. I had an idea of switching the sexes so that it’s a woman who comes to Cornwall to escape and finds Llyr, king of the sea. I imagined her life in an isolated cottage perched on the edge of the fictional hamlet, Pool Cove, which exists as the picture in the competition. Music and dance also inspire me, so they had to be included.
What is your connection to Cornwall?
Cornwall has been pulse throughout my life. We used to go to Newquay for holidays as my father was a keen surfer. About twenty years ago, I started coming to St Ives to stay with my dearest friend. Three years ago, my husband and I bought a tiny cottage in Lelant, and its next door neighbour the following year. I manage the rentals and get down there whenever I can. I find that little piece of Cornwall uplifting and it fuels my creativity.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a novel, set in 1975 Lancashire and Barbados. Racism, the desire for fame at any price, and organised crime all feature as themes. I’m plodding towards the end of the second draft! I’ve also got several ideas for shorter pieces lurking just below the surface and I expect them to make an appearance very soon.
What are you currently reading?
Her Husband’s Lover by Julia Crouch and No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary. They’re crime/psychological thrillers and both authors are part of the Killer Women group, which promotes women’s crime fiction. I’m also reading Into the Woods by John Yorke, a great book about why stories work and how we structure them.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Exploring new places – for some reason I’m drawn to islands; cooking and music. I’m also a great cricket fan, so in the summer the radio is switched between BBC R3 and Test Match Special.
Lastly, and most importantly, jam or cream first?
Ooh… always jam. It’s the Cornish way. But I’m non-traditional about the flavour. I prefer raspberry!
You can find Liz on Twitter: @elbowframe15. Read on for Liz’s excellent submission, A Mere Mortal.
It was the music that started it. That and the dancing.
She had left her old life in London behind. Intrusive and relentless. She needed a rest. To stop once and for all the exhaustion that started early in the morning, plagued every movement and never left her alone. Her new life was in Cornwall, with its clear light and healing sea.
The cottage sat between the tidepool and the Atlantic, on a long spit of rock that had managed to green itself, at least part way round the house. Solid square granite. It had two faces: during the day she used the rooms that faced the world; at night she looked seawards to the ocean which soughed and whispered to her.
Pool Cove formed an enclosed harbour, reminding her of the hurricane holes of the Caribbean. It folded around itself, protecting residents and boats from whatever was out there. The old wooden jetty stretched across the far end, doubling as a makeshift marina. Fishermen’s sheds crowded along its length. Nothing picturesque here. Modest dwellings clustered on the opposite side of the cove, but in her cottage, she was apart from them. From everyone.
She did mix. On her terms. There was a part-time seasonal job, selling locally-made arts and crafts to bemused tourists who had wandered into the hamlet by accident. Her music played in the shop and every day she selected composers who fitted her mood. Anyone from Bach to Britten, Mozart to Mahler; all found their way onto her playlists.
At home though, she favoured the quiet hypnotism of Gymnopédie No 1 by Erik Satie, which she played all the time. She kicked off her shoes and danced to the simple piano lines, enjoying the sensation of cool stone flags on bare feet.
Every evening she danced and rediscovered a love that had lain dormant for many years. She left the curtains open. There was no one to see her. Nothing but the occasional cry of a herring gull and waves, washing onto the pebbles below.
As the new moon started its rise, she caught a flicker of something out of the corner of her eye. The bottom edge of the window was illuminated for the briefest moment. She checked. There was nothing. And yet she knew it was something. Or someone.
‘You imagined it, Mattie,’ said Jane, the shop’s owner, the next day.
‘Perhaps it was a boat.’ She was now feeling a bit foolish.
‘Well – serves you right for not closing the curtains. I wouldn’t want to be in that cottage on my tod with everything in full view.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing. Don’t look so worried. I’m just saying I wouldn’t like to be on my own stuck out there,’ Jane smiled. ‘I like being surrounded by people, is all.’
‘Well I’m enjoying being antisocial at the moment.’ She went back to sorting the cards.
The next evening, the Satie was on again. She wondered whether her visitor would reappear. It didn’t bother her – she was intrigued. There was a small sound outside, almost like the sea sighing. Maybe it was the sea. She turned the door knob as quietly as possible, inching the door open just enough to get one eye’s view.
Picked out against the quarter light and fuzzy-felt moon was a man standing with his back to the door. There was a luminous quality about him that made her blink.
‘May I help you?’ She stood square in the doorway.
‘I really hope so,’ he said as he turned around.
She had never seen anyone so beautiful. Pale turquoise eyes, shoulder length gold and silver hair. His clothes were strange: a loose tunic over a full-length garment that shimmered as he moved.
‘I have heard that lovely music for many evenings now and I have watched you dancing. I wanted to meet you,’ he said simply.
A breath caught in her throat. She swallowed it down. ‘Well. Hello then. I’m Mathilda Trewella’.
‘Good evening Mathilda Trewella. I’m Llyr.’ He inclined his head.
‘Mattie for short. Your name — is it Welsh?’ she said, immediately regretting giving voice to the naïve thought.
‘Actually, it is old Cornish.’ His smile reached inside her, filling her with warmth and fluidity like a hot summer sun on cold winter bones.
‘Would you like to come in?’ She stepped aside.
‘No. I am sorry I cannot. Maybe another time. For now it is enough that we have spoken.’ Llyr turned away and before she could say anything more, he had crossed the small patch of grass and disappeared into the thick darkness.
All next day she wondered about Llyr. Who was he? What was his interest in her? She asked around, but no one knew him, unusual for such a tight-knit Cornish village.
It was stuffy in the shop. Her clothes stuck to her and there was a damp patch in the middle of her back. The London headache came back. For once the afternoon dragged and she was desperate to get outside and away from the rhythmic clanking that accompanied moored fishing boats. She needed to cool down. A swim would help.
The sea calmed her. There was a freedom being in the water, weightless and floating on her back, watching birds wheeling and moving through the sky. She began to feel drowsy, rocked by the regular movement, when the surface of the of the water broke in a spray of sparkling drops. Llyr was there, beside her.
They swam together, floating when she grew tired, talking all the time, then moving together in a watery dance. A pair of sea creatures, gleaming and sleek. She barely registered the change from day to night. When she shivered slightly, Llyr wrapped himself round her until she felt warm again.
‘Mattie, come with me and see where I live,’ he whispered. As he held her, he dived. She started to panic, struggling to hold her breath. Being underwater scared her.
He whispered again. ‘Just calm yourself… everything will be all right. Trust me.’ How could that be?
Water rushed at her, sounds became muffled and she heard her own heartbeat. Seconds later they were in an underwater cave, carpeted in soft sand, fronded by ferns and kelp. She could breathe. Pulling away from Llyr, she turned to look at him properly. Was she was dreaming? He had a man’s body but a gleaming fish tail.
‘Welcome to my world – the world under the sea.’
Somewhere far off, she could hear ambient music. It was the Satie, but as she’d never heard it before, played on unknown stringed instruments.
‘Mattie Trewella, dance with me.’ Llyr swooped and dived, turned and danced. Graceful and beautiful in his element, gold and silver hair flying behind him. ‘Stay with me here,’ he cried as his tail flicked and flashed around her. ‘Stay and be my muse. We can make such music together.’
‘I can’t.’ She was laughing and crying at once, confused but exhilarated. ‘I want to, but how can I? I’m a mere mortal.’
Llyr paused beside her, stroking her forehead, while his other hand stroked her back. She let herself relax against his mesmerising hands. Her eyes started to close. She began to feel sleepy. So sleepy.
Something was shining through her closed eyes. The sun. She was sprawled in bed, tangled in the sheet. She put a hand up to her hair. It was damp and sea-salty. It really had happened.
No one believed her of course. Not even Jane, who embraced the alternative and the mystical.
‘You’d probably overdone the sun and had a crazy dream,’ she said.
But Mattie knew it was real – that Llyr was real.
They have been together for three moons now. He has been to her cottage since the first time, but not for long and only on the flood tide. The effort is too much for him. On the ebb tide, they go swimming, down into his world, his world of sea colours and unknowable music. His lovely world of tranquillity. She lives for those times.
When they are apart, he still speaks to her. If the sea is stormy, she knows Llyr is making music which is deep and low. If the sea is kind, his music is light and high. They say the fishermen know Llyr’s music.
Mattie has made a decision. Tonight she is going to stay with him. For ever. Down there is where she belongs.