Announcing Our Bold Types 2023 Winners!

Our 2023 Bold Types Scottish Women’s Creative Writing Competition marked the eleventh year of Scotland’s first free creative writing competition for women and we received loads of short stories and poems in response to this year’s theme of ‘Adventure’.

Our shortlisted writers read their work at our online Bold Types Creative Writing Showcase on Thursday 16th November in front of our wonderfully supportive and encouraging panel of judges: award-winning children’s author Maisie Chan, whose debut novel, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, won the Jhalak Prize in 2022; writer Kirsten MacQuarrie, whose work has been published by New Writing Scotland, Gutter Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Salon; and GWL’s own Librarian, Wendy Kirk. 

The panel had a tough time deliberating but we’re now delighted to announce that the winners of our Bold Types: Scottish Women’s Creative Writing Competition 2023 are Sophie Campbell and Sarah Messerschmidt. Sarah was the winner of our short story category with Whale and Sophie took the top spot in the poetry category with the poem Down The Road. Congratulations to Sophie and Sarah and to all of the other women who were bold and entered our competition.

Whale by Sarah Messerschmidt

For a period of months, I was in the habit of walking after dinner in one of two directions along a northern seacoast. A single footpath dictated my course, there was no other way, and so my regimen was peaceful and unchanging. I fancied I was growing intimate with the land I trod with dedication. 

I took my usual route early one evening, over a hill and past a small church. It was there, just beyond the ashen face of a small cliff, that I saw the body of a whale, clearly dead, floating among the rocks below. The tide was high, and the water, though gentle, was rocking the body, causing tendrils of flesh on the tail and detaching from the beak to sway. By chance, the whale bobbed next to the churchyard, as though awaiting a burial.

I advanced forward along the rocky ledge to get a closer look, breathing small murmurs of awe and fright: a garbled response, but above all one of veneration. I had never seen a creature so large. The wind threatened me as I glanced over the cliff, so I set my legs and held my collar close to my throat. From where I stood, I could see one glassy eye. It was set low on the formidable head and was disquietingly human. The blowhole was already puckering, caving in like a set of pale lips without teeth, and a thin stretch of skin exposed a painful network of veins trapped in the tail. The rest was a bloating and pink mass.

In the early days after its discovery, I went to visit the whale often. I watched its sallow carcass roll mildly in the tide or lie motionless on a bed of weeds and shell, the bulk of the felled body lending a new stillness to the already placid shore. I could not understand how the beast had washed up there, in that cove of blackened rock, but I was less curious about its origins than I was to examine the patterns of decay on its vulnerable flesh.

On each visit I charted new territories of tarnishing skin, an effect of the sun and the sea salt that left complex designs on the surface of the putrefying body. I felt myself mired to the unfortunate creature, pretending that my attentions were a kind of funerary rite. In my mind I discharged the whale from its earthly life, setting its spirit adrift to a world I could not yet know, while also admiring the rosy blush of its carcass and the ridging on the soft tissue of its belly. I was a protective companion: one morning I watched in anxious dread as an unleashed dog sniffed eagerly at my friend, risking damage. 

As the days went on, the whale’s waxen body grew more blistering and terrible. A foul smell began to carry into the pastures beyond the cove. Village people bolted their windows, tourists on walking holidays made complaints to the local council, grazing cows rolled their eyes in distress as the smell descended on us all in a blanket of rot. I continued to walk along this section of the coast carrying orange peel in my pockets, which I pressed desperately to my nose when I approached the overpowering stench. 

In the immediate vicinity, to encounter the whale was to enter into a cloud of its decay, though it was difficult to know where the worst of the smell lingered on any given day, based on the wind, and I found that its impact was sudden and jolting and impossible to avoid. It was a sour odour that settled into my clothes and hair, and seemed to line my lungs. On particularly warm days, when the sun was most unforgiving, I would run up the steep hill with my face sunk into the crease of my elbow. Once, I passed a fisherman wearing a dust mask. “Ripe,” he said. I bent over to heave.

Gossip began to spread in the village: what was responsible for this fatality, and who should be responsible now? The Coast Guard waived its authority, claiming that the body was a pollutant to open waters and could not be disposed of there. The proprietor of the only shop, a matronly character whose gruff exterior concealed her gentle affection for animals, told all who would listen that the whale would surely explode in the piercing sun. I pictured a cascade of festering meat sailing through the air, and splattering against shuttered windowpanes. 

As the whale’s body began to wear away or to be eaten by seabirds, village children commenced testing their bravery, setting each other dares for who could travel closest before fleeing from the reek. The older ones had started lobbing large objects over the side of the cliff, like stones and pieces of wood, which made a depression at the centre of the deflating body. The thing was gradually becoming a pile of stinking debris. 

The last time I visited the whale was after a night of wild rain, and shortly before I left for the city: my daily contemplations of death would soon be traded for the distracting bustle of urban life. The body was more shrunken now, and the smell had receded somewhat thanks to a pelting of heavy droplets, which enabled me to approach the whale more closely than before. Swarms of flies had taken up residence in the hide now tented over its hollowing corpse, from which a chalky skeleton emerged. While the insects frenzied, I bid the withered giant goodbye.

Like seasonal changes on the surrounding land, the whale was a marker of time passing. As the months had elapsed, the skin hung more limply over whitening bones, and the body sunk deeper into muddy sediment. The whale’s death had provoked an array of responses in us, and while we human onlookers both mourned and abused its mortal remains, the earth calmly swallowed her creation, returning it to dust.

Down the Road by Sophie Campbell

It’s here, in this soft space of haze before the day begins,

where the veil between our worlds is thin,

where the faeries retreat from nighttime mischief

and by trick of their lingering light through the hagstone,

I see you wielding the plough.

Calling on the shadows cast by the sun

and the rusty compass gauzed in your chest,

you navigate the landscape, harvesting for the next moon.

All with your back to me, giving away only a glint of silver hair.

If I stand still

and lace my fingers in the morning dew,

attune to the hum of the earth beneath me,

the airy whispers in the grass

and the sleepy trickle of morning birdsong,

maybe I’ll catch on a breath of wind

the incense of your tobacco smoke,

the gravel of your voice,

or your rhubarb melting in the pot,

the snap of it bubbling.

If I could teeter on the shimmer

at the edge of the world to meet you,

just for a minute,

maybe you’d be real again, flesh and blood.

But deep in dreamtime, you only ever smile

and say, “I’ll see you down the road.”

I have to remind myself:

you were never one for apparitions but still

you etch your fingerprints onto the veined petals

and stretch your limbs through the crackling roots

of the hydrangeas you planted for me.

The morning sun climbs now,

painting a fresh honeyed sky.

And again, you command these elements

to the north, east, south and west

to draw, nudge and steer me with a gentle hand

through the ebbs and flows of the seasons.

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