We are pleased to present the winning entry in the genre of Short Fiction from our 2015 Creative Writing Competition, ‘Dad and the Romans’ by Diana Beharrell.
Reading this story was a simple pleasure for us editors. It has a graceful pace, and a strikes a warm and, at times, wistful note.
Our fiction judge thought that “‘Dad and the Romans’ offers a thoughtful contemplation of life and death through a depiction of a trip to some ruins by a father and son. It has a lovely shape and a good eye for detail and place description. There’s a layered depth and metaphorical richness to this understated story, which excels in showing rather than telling.”
Dad and the Romans
We are off for an outing, Dad and I. We have left the slice of a house on the Market Place, passing the pele tower, stony and windowless, standing close up to St Andrew’s. Passing the Blue Bell; passing the gracious homes of Victorian industrialists; passing the bungalows of the polite and the retired; and soon out of Corbridge entirely, finding the turning off the old Hexham Road and swinging left into the car park of the Roman site.
Dad points to the disabled parking bay near the entrance. There is only sixty pence off concessions, and Dad is very definite about requiring a guidebook. I push through the swing doors, holding them open for Dad to follow, and find the site spread out in front of us, reduced to its foundations. We can see little more than a two-dimensional outline, the stones pilfered long ago. Where the fence borders the site and separates it from the field beyond, the foundations disappear underground, and sheep are now grazing and lambs skitter in the early summer sunshine a foot or so above the Roman remains.
‘The trouble is, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to sit’, says Dad. He looks around. He stoops and has to peer up to see what is on offer here, straining like a tortoise sticking its head out from its shell.
‘No, look’, I say, ‘there at the end’.
He sets off for the bench, placing one foot carefully in front of the other and testing the ground first, as if he were walking a gangplank from boat to shore across a choppy sea.
We sit on the bench with the guidebook, which we consult together, trying to translate the stone outlines in front of us into buildings with a life and a purpose. From here we can see everything in a different perspective. Beyond us, but not too far beyond, we can see where Corbridge has moved a bit further down the Tyne, the church tower emerging from a jumble of roofs and trees. Upstream, in the opposite direction, steam rises from the chipboard factory just outside Hexham. Three grown men died in the river this past week, setting off to canoe from Hexham and getting no further than here before some unknown catastrophe overtook them and left them all tumbling in the currents. Now they too are part of the past, all gone.
‘I think I’ll go and take a walk’, I say after a bit. ‘Are you coming?’
‘No’, Dad replies, ‘I’m just going to stay here with the guidebook’.
Close to where Dad now sits studying the guidebook I see where several columns once supported a pediment. Beyond are the remains of a tank into which water used to flow, the overspilling water wearing away the lip over time and leaving huge grooves in the stone. At the far end of the site, beyond the fence, the rape is all out, the brightest possible yellow against the fresh greens of the trees and hedgerows. The smell of the rape sits sweetly in the spring air. The seasons are turning and turning, tumbling round and round like the water the in the Tyne.
I return down the thoroughfare through the centre of the site and stop at a flight of narrow steps which descends down into what was, the sign tells me, a strong room. Apart from this, it seems that they are just guessing at what all this used to be. It’s all blank and unreadable.
I return to the bench where Dad is still sitting.
‘So tell me something really interesting about this place’, I say to him.
He points to where the foundations make sinuous dips in the ground. ‘You see where the foundations seem to curve up and down – that’s where they’re collapsing into ditches which were made earlier. The Romans probably tried to fill them in but didn’t make a very good job of it’.
We sit in silence for a while, considering the view. I think back to all of us in the car going up to the Roman Wall at Housesteads. Mum smoking in the car, refusing to open the window, and pursing her lips at the thought of draughts. Nowhere country. Nobody has moved in since the Romans left and you can still see turf-covered mounds and hummocks where the Wall lies hidden in plain view. Now she is lying under the ground too in the cemetery at Heaton, further downstream. And here we are, Dad and I looking at Roman remains again.
‘How’s your chess going? Have you any matches coming up?’ I ask him.
‘Well, there’s the club championship. I’m doing quite well – I’ve got through to the quarter finals’. Dad grins.
‘And are you going to win?’ I ask.
‘Well, my next match is against the club captain. He’s just had a heart attack.’
‘Well, it might be kind to let him win’, I suggest.
‘Oh no’, Dad replies. ‘I don’t think that will be necessary. He’s been playing rather well recently’.
‘So are you going to win?’ I ask again.
‘It’s all a question of strategy’, he replies. I’ve always been good at the endgame. Most players don’t usually get as far as that – they go for a quick kill. So they don’t know what to do when there aren’t many pieces left on the board. But I just slowly chip away at my opponent’s position until the pieces are in a position where I know I can win.’
I can see that Dad has no intention of walking around, and indeed the Stanegate now looks rough and uneven to me, presenting a quantity of hazards which might be best avoided.
‘So how do you think you’ll do?’ I ask.
‘Well, I’m not the best player, but I might just win’. He smiles again.
We exit through the museum. Inside is a large and ornate Roman tombstone, celebrating the life and mourning the death of a young 25-year-old Roman soldier, dead, one presumes, rather further from home than the three men who had left their home in Prudhoe, just a few miles downstream from here, early last Sunday morning to canoe down to Wylam. Inside the museum too are lined up photographs of early excavations taking place in 1907, the more recently dead excavating the older dead. A couple are discussing the advantages of English Heritage membership.
‘Hometime, then?’ I say to Dad
‘Yes’, he replies, ‘I’ve got some homework to do before the next match. Some moves I want to study again.’
‘Surely you know it all by now’, I say, opening up the car and putting away the disabled badge.
‘Well, you’ve got a limited amount of time. The clock’s running. You need to make the right decisions, the right moves, quickly.’
We turn right onto the old road, back into Corbridge, back to the slice of house perched up above the Tyne, where we sit and watch the river tumbling by; with the steam from the chipboard factory rising towards Hexham.
‘I remember thinking the river was full last weekend’, Dad says. He looks down and pauses, letting out a long breath. ‘They just went out at the wrong time. They made a bad decision. Too late for them now.’
About the Author
Diana was born and brought up in Northumberland, but has lived in London for a long time. She has two sisters, two brothers, two adorable sons and a very nice husband. At the moment she is trying to work out how to tell stories and how to invent characters. This is much more difficult than she would have imagined, especially since she has been reading stories for around fifty years.
This concludes our 2015 Writing Competition. Many thanks to all who entered, and to our judges for their contribution. It is wonderful to be part of the Kingston University writing community, and to see so many active voices coming out of both the undergraduate and postgraduate programs.
Join us again next week for a return to our usual international programming, starting with a simple and evocative piece from an American poet.