Creative Non-Fiction Competition - Runner Up

Mel Eldridge

Runner Up
Sands of Time
Creative Non-Fiction Competition


Mel Eldridge grew up in Hastings and has always enjoyed writing but he didn’t take it seriously until he retired. He spends most of his time writing novels for adults and children but when time permits enjoys writing memoir, short stories and flash fiction. He recently published his first Middle Grade children’s book. Retreat West and WriteTime have published his stories and he has been short isted in several competitions. This story was his first attempt at writing a non-fiction piece following a memoir writing course.


Sands of Time By Mel Eldridge

From day one I disappointed my mother. She said an ugly baby boy born with a black eye and a bruised nose wasn’t wanted. To add to her woes Ray my twelve years old cousin hung himself in his family garden shed. My chosen name, Rafael, sounded too much like Ray so with reluctance she changed it. My father never one to express a contrary opinion seemed happy. He sought a relaxed, quiet life, in touch with the natural world. My parents were opposites that attracted. Mother was forthright, tough, someone who wanted money, who faced the trials of making what little housekeeping my father gave her last throughout each month. She loved me I guess in her own way even though as a child she caned me and cleaned cuts with a nail brush. Tough love?
I’ve parked the car at the bottom of London Road, Hastings and walk across the seafront down onto the rippled wet sands. My cold hands are wrapped around a small two handled silver fishing trophy my father won in nineteen sixty-three. Inside nestles a portion of his ashes. My hand over the rim is reluctant to release the last physical part of him. The frigid south-east wind flaps my coat tails. Underneath I wear his old brown corduroy jacket with its smell of sweat and tobacco. Waves lap the shoreline three feet from my green wellington boots which sink gently into wet sand. Seagulls swoop and screech in the black winter sky that heralds the approach of snow from  across the English Channel. In an hour the moon will exert its influence to draw the sea in a fluid movement across the rippled sands to erase any evidence of my presence.
I pat the side pocket of the corduroy jacket. Within is my father’s battered green tobacco tin with the cigarettes he’d rolled before death snatched him. In the other pocket a half bottle of Lemon Hart Rum opened the last time we were fishing on the sands. He always brought cold bacon sandwiches to eat and poured coffee from a battered thermos into a plastic cup mixed with a splash of rum. That last night we were shadows, black against the sea, gazing at a star filled night sky where shooting stars left fleeting yellow trails.
I slide my hand away from the top of the cup. With a flick of the wrist the ashes are gone in an arc that drifts away like summer pollen. The cup follows, tossed into the sea. His ashes gone I trudge along the sand towards the Pier and the Old Town beyond. I imagine him once more leant against the pier railings beside his fishing rod. The old grease lined cap at a jaunty angle in the long black oilskin coat given to him by a navy friend.

At six years old, my father took me to Hastings Pier one Saturday on a beautiful calm October morning. The tide had ebbed to its lowest point to expose wet sand. We set our rods up in a corner with a view of the seafront across the sands and shingle to the ruins of Hastings Castle on the West Hill. On tip toe with my hands on the top of the blue railings I could see down into the shallow pool of water. My father gave me an old penny to throw into the sea as an offering to King Neptune for good luck. My Uncle George had lent me an old split cane rod with a wooden centre pin reel. I lobbed my lugworm baited hooks over the side into the sea. I caught a small dab, a flat oval shaped fish. My heart beat so fast with excitement I ran around in a circle then cast my baited hooks once more into the dark sandy pool. Soon the top of my rod began to twitch. The washing line peg with its spring and bell began to ring. The thought of what might be on the end of my line filled me with glee. I reeled in to discover a whiting, a long silver fish that glistened in the morning sunlight. I was hooked.

In front of me on the rippled sand a bait digger reminiscent of my father, pulls lugworm from freshly dug holes. Walkers are out with their dogs. A man in maroon trunks and a white swimming hat strides across the sand oblivious to the cold. He waves good morning then wades into the calm sea and swims away. In the harsh winter of nine-teen sixty-three the shoreline froze for fifty yards out to sea. Throughout the decade the Pier Angling Club held a Christmas Morning fishing competition. My father and I entered only once, in nineteen sixty-seven. I’d passed my driving test in the November, the same month  NASA launched Apollo 4 from the Kennedy Space Centre the first of the Saturn V Rockets that in nineteen sixty-nine took men to the moon. I’d bought a second-hand blue Morris 1000 Traveller with wood trim.

My father enjoyed digging his allotment. Each spring we visited Drapers the seed merchants in Silverhill, to buy early seed potatoes, Pentland Javelin, and Maris Piper. From the street one step led down onto wooden floorboards, the shop air was heavy with the smell of sack cloth, seeds, and bone meal. Just inside the door on the right six hessian sacks contained different varieties of early seed potatoes. We left  with two brown paper bags full.
On the way home we stopped at the fresh fish barrow. My father pointed to the white trays that contained large plaice with their orange spots, cod with a mottled body and a white lateral line. Others held sole and dabs. Charlie, in a brown stained overall, black wellington boots and an old cap, prepared the fish while his wife Mabel collected the money. My father chose a cod which Charlie filleted and wrapped in white chip shop paper. I carried the package home under my arm. My mother, not a fan of fish, cooked the fillets for our lunch with fresh cut chips fried in a blackened saucepan. She opened a tin of corned beef to eat with the fresh chips and a tomato.
The next morning, we set off down Vale Road to my father’s allotment adjacent to Alexandra Park. He carried an old tan two handled bag into which he’d placed the seed potatoes. My mother had relegated the bag to allotment use after I vomited into it one Sunday morning. As we walked my father held a spade and a rake on his shoulder. He wore old brown boots, thick brown corduroy trousers and a green pullover with brown patches at the elbows. At the allotments smoke drifted into the still spring morning from early season bonfires started by allotmenteers. Men were scattered across the allotments digging or pulling up used sprout or cabbage stalks and tossing them onto compost heaps where later in the year fat green marrows would grow.
 I watched him break the clods of earth with the heel of his boots then rake the soil into a fine tilth. I sat on an upturned grey metal bucket with the brown paper bags of seed potatoes beside me. With a knife I cut them in half then careful not to break the young purple shoots then placed them in an old chipped white enamel bowl ready to be planted. With the seed bed prepared we took a break. My father sat in an old rainbow striped deck chair, unscrewed the cup from the top of the yellow thermos flask then poured hot tea. After a welcome drink he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jersey and refilled the cup to hand to me. He rolled a cigarette with a Red Rizla paper while we discussed my progress at school, the school football team, and my trip to Wembley Stadium to watch England School Boys. With the cigarette paper filled with tobacco he rolled it deftly between his fingers then ran his tongue along the edge to seal it. With a flick of the silver Ronson lighter he lit the cigarette, inhaled the smoke, then exhaled a line of blue smoke into the crisp morning air.

The incoming tide has reached the beach in front of the Old Town. The first snowflakes have started to fall from leaden skies and my boots crunch across the shingle onto the seafront opposite George Street. Waiting for the bus I pull my coat tight around me against the frigid wind that blows the white snowflakes against me. The double decker bus arrives for my return journey to London Road. I climb the stairs to the top deck and sit on the front bench seat. Thick white snowflakes fall as the bus passes the pier. The fog of snow obscures the sand slowly swallowed by the incoming tide. Death like the tide on the sands has overwhelmed my parents to leave me with memories, good and bad, together with faded photographs. They are instants in time, a snapshot of lives lived and lost.

Judges Comments

Creative non-fiction, using creative writing techniques, is ideal for life-writing, and Mel Eldridge's 'Sands of Time', the runner-up in WM's Creative Non-Fiction Competition, is a very fine example.

Writing about a seaside visit where the narrator is scattering his father's ashes, Mel consciously blends present and past tenses: present for the memorial visit; past for the layers of memory recalled by the journey. It's beautifully done, building up a layered, complex portrait of a father, family life, long-gone experiences, all brought into sharp focus by the sorrowful task in hands.

From the beginning, Mel ensures that the reader understands that this excursion into the past will be complex, and more bitter than sweet. From day one I disappointed my mother, Mel writes. It's a brave start for a piece of work that's shot through with courage: in writing, Mel has gone there, using words to confront painful memories head on.

Most impressive of all is the quality of the prose in this layered account of an interleaved past and present. At times it's gritty, realistic and rawly candid, conjuring details that amplify everyday life and reflect the way that prosaic parts of the past become freighted with significance when they're looked back on. At other times, there is hard-won beauty to be found, and the writing is shot through with a poetic lyricism: That last night we were shadows, black against the sea. What a wonderful line, and what an excellent piece of writing it comes from.