Echo Hall

By Virginia Moffatt

Three generations of women experience love, loss and conflict in times of war

Monday, 27 June 2016

NFFD 2016: The Results (2)

Here's the next selection of stories from my Writer-In-Residence day at Albion Beatnik.

Prompt number 4 came from Rachel, a friend of Deborah's who was passing by and came in for a cup of tea: the phrase ‘Designing with a Purpose’ drawn from a discussion about architecture.

4. Designing with a purpose.

The University was the newest of new, funded by a benevolent benefactor to whom money was no object. Desiring to leave a great legacy, she engaged the best architects, the best designers money would buy. Think big, be creative, was the only brief she provided, along with the limitless cash. After that she left them to it.

It was a dream job. Since money was no object, the architects had plenty of time to throw ideas around. They let their imaginations run wild, creating buildings that maximised space, and light. They spared no expense with materials – the best wood, glass and metal acquired to fulfil their vision.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And so they conspired to construct the perfect University, each department being created in the image of its occupants. The mathematicians liked to work alone all day before sharing ideas at afternoon tea. Consequently they were provided with single cubby holes that opened out into a lounge beneath a high glass ceiling reaching upwards to infinity. The Department of Government and Politics was built as a rotunda, whose wide corridors provided the perfect arena for lecturers to walk, talk and debate. The English Department was designed to maximise reading opportunities. It was filled with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, cafes with a constant supply of tea and cake and large comfy sofas around coffee tables to encourage fruitful literary discussions. The planning was perfect in every detail.

In fact the planning and thinking was so perfect, the project over-ran taking nearly a decade to reach completion. But at last, the University was ready. A sunny open day was filled with champagne and speeches, strawberries and cream teas. The benefactor, who was becoming increasingly frail smiled with relief that she had lived to see this day.  The press were amazed. The architects wept at the realisation of their artistic dreams.

The planning was perfect in every detail, except one for one vital component – the campus map was produced the wrong way round.

 ‘We can’t think in here’ cried the mathematicians finding themselves in the Media Department surrounded by multiple screens streaming five different programmes at once.

‘You’re not expecting us to exercise?’ said the English lecturers, bewildered by the running machines and climbing walls of the PE Department.

‘We can’t debate here,’ the politicians railed, faced with a row of computers in the IT suite.

Before beginning, it is always best if you plan perfectly.


Prompt 5 came from Ellie, who is an AB regular and had seen about the event on Facebook: drawn from a real newspaper story 'a 50 something grandmother fights crime in Afghanistan, riding a motorcycle'

5. Road Trip

Ellie sat on the side of the dusty road, her head hurt, and she wanted to cry. They had told her not to leave the city, but she had wanted so much to visit this part of Afghanistan, to relive grandma’s adventures. Now she had to admit to herself, she should have listened to the warnings. Just after the bus had set her down at the foot of this hill side village, the group of boys had swept past her, knocking her off her feet and taking her purse. She banged her head as she fell to the ground, her nose and mouth clogging with sand.  She rose coughing, to find they had disappeared down into the valley below, taking with them, her bus ticket and all the money she had brought with her.

What on earth was she going to do?   The tears began to fall. She was in the middle of nowhere, she knew no-one, her Arabic was basic and she had no idea how to get home. Her head hurt, her mouth was dry. What on earth was she going to do?

Well you can’t sit here all day, a voice said. She jumped. It sounded like grandma. There was no one around. Go up the hill and ask at the first house. Definitely grandma. She must be hallucinating, with the heat and the head wound, but she had never been able to disobey her grandmother and it beat sitting on the roadside feeling sorry for herself.

She climbed up the stony road. It was steep, and the day hot.  She was puffed and sweating by the time she reached the first house, a three storey building carved out of the hillside, surrounded by raggedy green shrubs. A motorbike was parked outside. She knocked on the door.

A woman in a hijab opened it. She took one look at Ellie, threw her hands up in the air, and brought her inside. In hesitant English, she asked what happened. Ellie explained.

‘You poor girl...’ she ushered Ellie into a stone room filled with low sofas covered in drapes and cushions. A little boy ran in, ‘Dari, go and get grandma.’  Ellie sat back as the woman, who was called Laila, fussed over her, cleaning her face, providing sweet mint tea. ‘Don’t worry, Mother will help,’ she said.

Presently the little boy returned with an older woman in long blue dress and a hijab.  Laila explained in Arabic what had happened. The woman listened with increasing fury, before turning to Ellie, hugging her and striding out of the house. A minute later the motorbike revved up and she disappeared off down the hillside.

‘Mother will sort it out,’ Laila said ‘Meanwhile you must rest.’

Ellie lay down and before she knew it she was asleep, thankful to have found a place of kindness and safety.

When she awoke, it was dusk, the sky outside a pale yellow blue. Hearing voices next door she wandered into the kitchen to find Laila and her mother preparing supper. There on the table were all her possessions.


‘We have no police...,’ says Laila, ‘So, my mother takes care of it.’

All’s well that ends well; Ellie can hear grandma’s voice as she sits down at the table. She smiles.

Grandmas of the world unite.


Prompt 6 was Vanessa's who was running out of the shop as she gave me: A man in a heavy raincoat looks down the road

6. About Time

Kevin stood at the edge of the driveway, turning his coat up against the drizzle. Where was she? Suzy had said they would be back by seven and it was already quarter past. He knew it was stupid to be standing out here; she’d be back soon, breathless and sorry with a long winded excuse about the bus breaking down, or one of the kids needing the toilet. And he would feel like an idiot for worrying so much.

But...he cannot help himself. Dorking is a long way away, and they left hours ago. What if they got lost on Box Hill? Or one of the children slipped and had an accident? What if they had ended up walking to the station along that dual carriageway, and Alice or Sam had run out into the road? What if Suzy had been taken ill and the children were alone and scared as darkness approached. His overactive imagination is infuriating, but he cannot help himself. What if? What if? What if?

He checks his watch again, seven thirty. Perhaps they are just now getting off the bus. Perhaps Suzy has got in a tangle with bags and too many children, and could do with some assistance. It will take his mind off his worry if he walks to the end of the road and has a look. He marches with purpose to the corner, arriving just as a bus thunders down the road. He looks to the bus stop hopefully. No sign of them. Nor are they on the next, or the one after that? Where are they?

At eight o’clock it occurs to him that she might ring the house. Wouldn’t it be better to go back and be near the phone? He rushes back down the street, races down the drive, and enters the house. The hallway is still and quiet. The rooms echo with emptiness. Shadows are falling.  He feels quite, quite alone. An hour late she has never been an hour late before. Should he phone the police? Is it time yet?

The house is getting dark, and the phone has not rung. Kevin feels too restless to stay inside. He takes himself out into the street again. Stands on the edge of the drive, peering down the road in the evening gloom. He is hot, bothered, anxious and afraid.  And one question is drumming in his head constantly. Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?


‘Oh no,’ says Vanessa as she looks out of the window.

‘What?’ asks Nell.

‘Mr Thomas is out in the road again. It is 25 degrees out there and he’s wearing a thick coat... You’d better call Jim.’ She leaves the house, crosses the road and approaches her neighbour.

‘Mr Thomas?’ she asks gently.

‘Where’s Suzy?’ he cries.

‘Suzy’s dead, Mr Thomas.’

‘What?’ He begins to weep quietly.

‘It was a long time ago. Come inside and I’ll fix you a nice cup of tea.’

Poor man, she thinks, as he allows her to take him into the house and settle him down.

Jim arrives half an hour later, full of anxious apologies.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ she says as she gets ready to leave. At the door, she turns. ‘Jim, I hate to say it, but this is the third episode this month. I think...’

He nods. ‘It’s time.’



Final three up as soon as they get written!


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