Celia Quartermain

I was born in Berlin, and grew up in the Army, moving from place to place.

All of the work I've done in my adult life has been in the worlds of media/entertainment/storytelling. I started in the office of the Anna Scher Children’s Theatre in Islington in the early 1980s’, leaving to move to a small Yorkshire village and have a family. When my four children were old enough, I went back to school and took a BA in English and Related Literature at the University of York. On leaving I spent a year as Assistant to the Editor on the Fish Friers’ Review magazine in Leeds, then being offered an unpaid internship in Covent Garden, moved into documentary making and spent ten years commuting between York and London. Over the years I have worked in production for all the major broadcasters and made documentary programmes, for both tv and radio, that have been shown around the world.

I started writing in 2006 and am currently working on my fifth novel. In 2020 I completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck.

Award Category
Screenplay Award Category
When Seph agrees to meet up with a friend she hasn’t seen for forty years, she anticipates a convivial evening of shared reminiscence. As the reunion unfolds, she finds herself trapped, and forced on a terrifying journey back to times and places that she had managed to forget she had ever been.
Collateral Damage
My Submission

How to tell the difference between a tickle and an itch? It’s a question I’ve been battling recently. What I know is that as soon as humanly possible we should be clear about which we are dealing with, because there’s a hierarchy at play here.

You may have thought that you just felt a leaf brush against your hand, but what if that little tickle was actually caused by a mosquito, or some other more venomous insect? It might be the start of an allergic reaction, or the beginnings of an infection of a hair follicle, or a scratch from your cat that’s turning septic. Or it may be that you suffer from psoriasis, and that the sensation on your hand is the onset of a massive flare-up that will ultimately engulf your whole body.

Either way, when you have an itch, you will also have an automatic, sometimes overpowering, impulse to scratch it. And with something like psoriasis, the irritation on your hands may get so unbearable that although you hold off, and hold off, eventually you will say to yourself, ‘just once, just for two seconds.’

And you’ll let yourself go.

You start to scratch. You rub your hands against each other, or over some rough fabric, and for the briefest of times you’re flooded with relief.

Then, at the very moment that the itch disappears, your hands become drenched in agony. You want to scream with pain, and holding your now claw-like hands apart like opposing magnets, you plunge them into icy water in search of a remedy and wish, beyond all wishing, as they throb uselessly at the end of your arms, that you had just put up with that itch.

But we don’t do that, do we? And why not? Isn’t it a natural symbiotic solution? You have an itch, and so you scratch it to make it disappear?

No. Absolutely not!

The reason we scratch a tickle, or an itch, is purely because scratching causes pain. And in the hierarchy of warning signals, pain trumps itching, hands down.

What we need to understand is that sometimes, in solving one problem, we may cause another, and the remedy we choose may leave us even more damaged than we were before.

But do we ever learn to leave things as they are, to put up with that minor irritation?


And, the only thing that years of scientific investigation have proved so far, is that a persistent chronic itch, much like a constant yearning to understand the past, is incredibly difficult to treat.

Chapter 1

The sound of tin wheels against the wet of the road was like crumpling brown paper as Seph’s trike rolled to a halt. She stopped under a streetlamp, still lit from the night before. In its glow, the black tarmac shone white, reminding the child of the toe-caps on her father’s boots after the batman had done his spit and polish. Those boots would sit on old newspaper on the side in the scullery for hours, sometimes for days, until Corporal Burns came.

Mottled, dark, and dull, they waited, mud-splattered from a route march, or exercise. Playing soldiers her mother called it.

When he did arrive, Burns would slip his whole hand into one half of the skulking black pair, to raise it from the work surface. Then, holding it at eye level, he would wipe the boot clean with a damp rag, whistling the Radetzky March as he did.

‘That’s because he’s from Scotland,’ Mum said. ‘There’s a lot of music there.’

When both boots were free of the worst, Burns would open the cupboard in front of his knees, and pull out the wooden housemaid’s tray that always travelled with them. In it, a collection of black and red polish tins stood, neatly regimented, up against a clutch of small brushes nestling, in pairs, inside a soft yellow duster.

For Seph’s father’s boots, Burns would choose the brushes with black stained bristles. Bristles that pushed into each other, and held each other so tightly that the rectangular wooden backs seemed to fuse, stuck together like a cream-filled biscuit.

Always meticulous, a surgeon preparing his implements, Burns would begin by easing those brushes apart. Then, he would lay them side by side on the work top before selecting one of the little tins and twisting its silver two-winged lever to separate the lid from the bottom half. Finally, he would place the tin beside the brushes and stand back, only for a couple of beats, before proceeding with his operation.

From where she stood, just outside the scullery door, Seph waited for this moment. She would draw in her breath as Burns pushed the first brush into the lump of black paste, waiting for the oily scent to creep its way into her nose.

Once his brush was fully loaded, Burns would scuff the bristles back and forth against the leather, strumming up a rhythm in time to his marching tune. Skimming the paste on with one brush, then buffing it off with the other. Freshening up the boots, one at time, and placing them back, to sit side by side on the surface when they were done.

At this point everything would change. Burns would pick up a golden yellow duster, the tune would shift seamlessly from the brisk march to a sad lilting melody, and in time to the music, Seph’s heart would swim up towards her throat, where it would sit, like a bruise, blocking her breath.

The soldier would inspect the cloth, carefully selecting a suitable spot. When he found it, he would wrap the fabric around his hand, so that the fresh bit covered the tip of the finger which stuck out of his fist like the beak of a yellow-headed bird. Next, he would rub the tip of that beak in tiny circles on top of the block of pungent paste and carefully, as if applying ointment to a wound, he would start to smear the soft stuff right across the toe end of the boot. Seph would stand still, watching. She loved this bit. The bit where the tip of his finger went round and round, tiny circles tickled onto the leather, over and over, fast as you like, no let up. The sound of the circles seemed to pull the poignant melody along, like pebbles in the rush of a stream. Then, when he was sure the toe surface was totally covered, Burns would draw breath. He would lift the toe of the boot up towards his face and – phffft – white bubbles would splat against the black matt surface and the circles and the whistling would begin again. Over and over, round and round, the soldier’s face holding the look of someone intent on restoring life to something that had died. Over and over, round and round, until suddenly there it was: the glint, the glistening sheen: like lacquer, like varnish, like magic.

Seph lifted her head and shook away the memory. Somewhere close a bird was singing. She looked up at the streetlamp’s lustre. The sky behind was nearly light, but not quite, and further along the road, the shape of her mother’s back was outlined, dark against grey. Not light enough for the colour of her deep pink coat to show itself yet, but the slope of her shoulders was familiar, and the dome of her head was clear. So clear that Seph could see strands of hair from her black fur hat as they shimmied in the early morning breeze, and behind her mother, Seph could just about make out the shape of Helen’s resentful body, as it lurked in the shadows. She would be cross. Helen was always cross, but on mornings like this one, everyone was cross.

Seph pushed down on her pedal. She felt the hard bar dig in to the rubber sole of her gumboot. The air was cold through the wool of her tights and the whole world smelled of someone else’s dog after a shoot. She bent her neck, to put in the extra effort, and as the trike edged away Seph could see dark brown leaves strewn beside the hedge, like seaweed on a shoreline.

It had always been difficult to get this trike moving, but it had been Seph’s for the whole year of this posting and she loved it. The trike had one wheel at the front and two at the back, each with a black rim and yellow metal centre that matched the yellow of the seat. The front wheel had pedals attached to it, and she knew it was only tricky until you got the front wheel to go round. Once that happened, the trike seemed to fly, her feet as much pulled on by the pedals as pushing them. She shifted her position and heaved against the red handlebars, raising her small body to give herself more purchase. One big push. Then the toes of her blue wellies went round and round, the tops of the boots rubbing at the skin on her calf as she jolted along, skipping over cracks in the tarmac.

‘Oouch!’ Sometimes, these days, her knee hit the red metal arc of the handlebars, and it hurt.

‘That’s why we aren’t taking you with us,’ she reminded herself as the front wheel bumped and dived down into a puddle. It brought her to a halt again. I’m getting too big now, she thought.

‘If we leave it in the house, some other little girl will get use out of it,’ her mother had said, knowing it wasn’t really the done thing to leave stuff behind. Who wants to find someone else’s rubbish when they move in to somewhere new?

‘Just one last ride and then we’ll put it in the cellar. Tuck it out of sight.’

Caught in the puddle, Seph reached out her legs. She placed each on either side of the dim water and pushed herself to standing. Bit by bit, the little girl edged the trike forward in the hole, and as the wheel turned she noticed how the ripples flowing backwards in the cloudy grey made the V-shape of geese across the sky.

‘Hurry up, Persephone!’ Her mother’s voice ran back along the road, from the front gate of the house, where she and Helen now stood, waiting.

‘The car will be here soon! Come on! Quick march!’

When she got to the house, Seph sat in the porch and pulled at her boots, trying to get them off. But they were tight, and her fingers thick with cold. And, even as warmth from the movement crept painfully back from the tips, her palms felt as if they weren’t her own.

Inside, boxes lined the hallway. Wooden tea chests, filled with their belongings, waiting for collection later in the day. The housemaid’s tray of shoe polish would be tucked in there somewhere. On the table in the dining room, rows of crockery sat ready for inspection, and upstairs, beds with stripy ticking pillows and regulation dark grey blankets, all neatly folded, waited for the handover.

‘Don’t just leave those strewn all over Mrs Mop’s nice clean floor! Bring them over here so I can deal with them!’ Seph scrambled at the sound of her mother’s voice. She scooped up the boots and carried them, sliding her stockinged feet over the tiles, to where her mother stood, hair dishevelled, shirt untucked, beside a big box of rubbish.

Seph did try to keep her mother happy, but it was sometimes difficult to guess how.

The boots in her hands were wet and muddy and cold to the touch. Her mother’s face was flushed and blotchy. Seph held the boots up towards her, watching for any flinch of anger.

‘Bone idle, that’s what you are!’ Her mother snatched the boots and dropped them into the box. ‘Now, get your shoes on, and go and find your sister.’

Seph sat on the bottom of the stairs, buckling up her sandal. Her tongue touched her cheek in determination, fingers still stiff from the cold. She had just finished one shoe, and was about to start the other, when there was a sharp knock at the door. Her mother tutted, and strode across the hall to see who was there.

Seph peered round a packing case. A tall man in uniform was standing, straight-backed, in the doorway. His peaked cap shaded his eyes and he was looking over his shoulder as the sun crept into the garden. The minute the door opened he flipped his face around, standing to attention. Seph bit her lip. She hoped her mother would speak kindly to the man.

‘Driver, Ma’am.’ He saluted, looking straight in front of him.

‘Ok, Corporal Brown. We’re nearly ready. Just waiting for his lordship! Do you want to come in?’

‘Thank you, Ma’am, but I’ll stay with the car.’ And, as the soldier turned on the doorstep, he clicked his heels together, caught Seph’s eye, and winked.


‘Yes, little one?’

As the big black car pulled away from the house, gravel under the tyres groaned. On the back seat, Mother in her pink coat sat on one side of Seph, Helen on the other. Seph’s father, God-like in his smart uniform, sat in front, next to the driver.

Seph leaned forward. She wanted to watch the house as they moved through the gates and turned down the road.

‘Do girls ever join the Army, Dad?’

Her father, who had been looking through some papers, didn’t answer at first. Seph turned in her seat so she could keep the house in her sights as it slipped further and further away. Getting smaller and smaller, but still framed by the back window.

‘No, not really, darling. Not girls like you, anyway.’

And then they turned a corner, and the house was gone.

Her father looked up and glanced at the driver.

‘Do you know what they call them? Girls in the Army? They call them Lumpy Jumpers. You wouldn’t want to be called a Lumpy Jumper now, would you?’

Corporal Brown stayed silent beside him.

Seph knew her father didn’t expect a reply.

‘So, girls…’ he smiled and rubbed his hands as he turned to face them. ‘Here’s to the next big adventure!’

He reached into the back and patted Helen on her knee.

‘Well, Bulldumpy? Are you looking forward to sailing on a really big ship?’ Helen shrugged, uncomfortable in her tidy coat, and scowled. Father chuckled.

‘You’ll have to be on your best behaviour, the pair of you, or they’ll make you walk the plank.’

He sparkled. Never happier than moving on.

‘When will we get there? How many days?’ Seph asked.

‘Oooh, at least a week.’ Father smiled at the girls in the back. ‘But I hear there’s a swimming pool on board.’

‘Will they speak English?’ Seph was curious.

‘Well… yes. In a manner of speaking.’ Her father moved his head so he could catch her mother’s eye in secret collusion over what they wanted their daughters to know, and what they didn’t. ‘They get some of the words wrong, but you will be able to understand what they mean. More or less’

‘Have you heard where you are off to next, Corporal Brown?’ He said, turning back to face front as they approached the guardroom.

‘Not yet, sir.’ Seph watched as the driver didn’t take his eyes off the road or change his expression with his reply. ‘I know the Battalion is hoping for Aden. It would be good to see some real action.’

Her father nodded, man to man in that moment.

‘Well, I hope you hear soon, I’m sure you will.’

They slowed to pass the barrier, as soldiers on guard stood to attention. Uniforms immaculate, eyes straight ahead, rifles held against chests with left hands, right hands flashing in salute: pointed, rigid, and flat, while the little family swept through, hard on the tail of an easterly wind.

¡ ¡ ¡


Tony Durrant Mon, 12/09/2022 - 18:31

Writers (and directors) who tackle military detail often get it wrong, so, it is refreshing to read some super observations here, written by someone who knows how the Army works (or used to work. Father probably wouldn't risk the lumpy jumper reference in front of his driver these days).

I want to know what's going to happen to Persephone and was half expecting something to happen to her while out on the trike.