In response to the prompt “Whom Do I Admire” from Thanet Creative Writers

It was her cursive script handwriting I most admired to begin with. That curly, looping thing it seems that only Americans do. Sitting at the next desk to the new girl, I watched in awe as her exercise book filled up with fat, confident blue swirls, while mine was the scratchy, angular, backward-leaning smudge of a left-hander who never (to this day) mastered the art of the fountain pen.

Her dad was on a year’s secondment with the US Embassy. That was the only life she knew, she said, once we had got to the stage of sharing pink milkshakes in the arcade after school. Last year Dusseldorf; the year before, Buenos Aires. Always, until now, an International School, amongst her peers. But this year, in suburban Surrey, it had been deemed a good idea that she should attend the local girls’ Grammar, where she appeared like a vision in the desk next to me, all sun-blond hair and straight white teeth. The rest of us – frizzy fringes, pimples, NHS dentistry – hovered around like giddy moths to her pure flame, but it was me she chose.

Evenings supposedly sharing homework tasks were spent reading her collection of Judy Blume and S E Hinton paperbacks together and, later, raiding her mother’s bedside table for the shocking sexiness of Jacqueline Susann. We began to write our own stories, swapping after each paragraph like some kind of hormone-soaked game of consequences. I not only learned to copy her handwriting, I absorbed her voice. Witty, quick-paced, entertaining – my clunky dialogue and lumpen descriptions evolved, base metal into gold. By the end of the year, a casual reader could not have spotted any difference between the two authors of “Betrayal in Bora-Bora – a Romance by Shelly Marx and Valerie Boothby”.

There was just that one year. By the start of the new school year she was gone. Helsinki this time. I was entrusted with a box containing the many fat notebooks that made up BiBB, but I think my mum threw it out when I went off to Uni. (I hope she didn’t read them – if she did, she never said.)

We always stayed in touch by letter, and that cursive script on an envelope remained as familiar as my own hand. I’ve still got the photo of her and her handsome husband and their two boys on the beach at Bora-Bora, with “I finally made it!” written on the back. That was the year before the cancer came so fast and took her away with it.

I never married, never had a family, never made it to Bora-Bora, but my novels have been Booker shortlisted twice, among their other prizes, and sell well enough to keep me in comfort for the rest of my days. When people say of my writing, “it’s a gift” I smile and nod. You ask “whom do I admire?” It was the girl who gave this gift to me.

This is my entry for the competition.

4 Responses to “In response to the prompt “Whom Do I Admire” from Thanet Creative Writers”

  1. jessjoysite Says:

    Fay this is wonderful. It resonated on so many different levels. I had an exotic friend at primary who was teaching me Arabic at play times. She had beautiful writing and drew little pictures to help me. The frizzy fringes and NHS dentistry made me chuckle. And hormone-soaked consequences.
    I love the underlying bitter-sweetness to this story. Beautifully told.

  2. kentishramblerblog Says:

    Completely absorbing and I was convinced it was autobiographical, until the last paragraph made me wonder! I was right beside you in your description of that year as schoolgirls together – very compelling.

  3. ansteysp Says:

    I can’t believe this is made up! It’s so real and so emotive. I like that nothing is over-written or excessive but never becomes arcane. And then that EXQUISITE ending that made me actually cry. Beautiful.

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