Text settings

In Competition No. 2384 you were asked to supply an extract from an imaginary translated novel which unwittingly conveys the utter boredom of simple agricultural life.

The great boring British novel in this genre is Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, recommended to the nation by the prime minister Stanley Baldwin and parodied soon after its publication (1925) by Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Set in darkest Shropshire, it is, according to my Reader’s Encyclopaedia, ‘a story of fierce, morose country people, in which Prudence Sarn, the narrator, finds a husband who appreciates her in spite of her harelip’. Having been a publisher, I have been subjected to many a ponderous tale of reindeer-herding Lapps and root-grubbing tribal folk, but this week I felt lapidated by turnips. It hurt — my own fault. The prizewinners below get £25 each, and John C.H. Mounsey has the extra fiver.

Heidi put her sheets through the mangle before raking the clinker from the stove. She ate some dry bread and began lacing her knee-length lederbooten. Criss-cross, criss-cross, back and forth, her fingers deftly threaded the thick greased cord until, barely ten minutes later, she was ready for the five-mile walk to round up the heifers. She smiled: tonight, dressed in her smocking top, she would be at the Cobblers’ Ball — what fun that would be! All the side-shows and brilliant entertainments: the cheese-sniffing contest, the display of hoes and billhooks, the yodelling marathon ...old Pietje would be there with his collection of bradawls and the Burgemeester would be presenting the prize for the biggest turnip. There was even talk of the fence around the village hall having been repainted — it might not even be dry yet! That would certainly be worth a look.

John C.H. Mounsey

Grigor is worrying about his goat — all day on the steppe he never spoke. There is still coldness between our families because of the matter of the mouldy hay. That was between my grandfather and Grigor’s great-uncle. The train passes on Tuesday and Friday. Today is Wednesday, so no train. When it passes, we pause in our work and watch it cross the vast plain. We lean on our hoes in silence. If Sergei is in high spirits, he may take off his work cap and wave it in an arc above his head. As it approaches, the train seems to move slowly and I get the idea that it could stop altogether, though of course it never has. Pavel the Tinker says that it once developed some kind of fault and actually stopped in Mishkin village. I should very much like to have seen that.

Andrew Brison

It seemed to Zdzislaw that the air was slightly warmer this morning. Perhaps the thaw would start soon; the animals hadn’t seen grass for months. He stood in the yard and thought. Supplies were low. He must arrange a trip to Zolkiewka — perhaps Wojciech would lend them his cart. But then Wanda would want to come, too, and she’d insist on visiting her sister. They’d only met last month — what more could they find to talk about? It was Anya, he was sure, who was behind Wanda’s recent complaints that she never had any new clothes. What did she need finery for? Would the chickens notice? Or the goats? Just a waste of money! Zdzislaw pulled his filthy sheepskin jacket closer around him and went to feed the animals. He hoped Wanda was cooking him a good breakfast. A man needed something to look forward to in this weather.

Virginia Price Evans

Elisabeta leaned back in the dumke, listening contentedly to the klop-klop of the horse’s hoofs (muffled in accordance with tradition) and the faint jingling of the harness bells, which called to mind the bells of S. Katerina’s Cathedral on that never-to-be-forgotten visit with her father, when she first wore blossom in her hair. How the seasons comforted one, she thought, with their repetitions of venerable chthonic patterns, old as the earth itself. The reaping. The harvest and its traditional dances. Then again the enfolding snow.

She could see old Piotr on his weekly round with his bag, limping past Szymorski’s broken gate. Her heart quickened. Was he carrying a letter for her? Had Fodr Pellessen found time in his turnip-digging to pen her a message? Might he be her partner at this year’s protka? She sat forward; the dumke swayed.

Gerard Benson

‘Never!’ bellowed Ivan. They were still arguing about the birds that Nicolai saw the previous week over Hanging Maids Wood. He claimed they were jackdaws, but Ivan insisted that they could not be. ‘I hear that the pedlar will be here soon,’ said Alexandra brightly. ‘Perhaps only another six weeks.’ ‘Lovely!’ cried Caterina. Then she blushed and mumbled, ‘I would like a new ribbon for my bonnet,’ but we all remembered her saying at Easter that the pedlar had smooth hands. Igor glared, left the table, and sulked by the fire for the rest of the evening. Grandfather, going out to close the hen-house, grumbled that the pedlar, turning up with his city manners every year, encouraged extravagance. He still worries that the mildew will spoil the barley as it did when he was a boy. It has rained now for a hundred days.

John Coutts

A chill east wind blew straight from the Urals, and Clever Erkan, inventor of the fingerless harvesting glove, which allowed the wearer to manipulate the topping knife more speedily, and the personal filter, with which a drinker could skim the floating detritus from his mug of beer, whistled as he passed the packing sheds. The skies above the boundless plain seemed to reflect his good humour. He had not felt so light-hearted since last year’s communal mushroom hunt. Today was Library Thursday and there was great excitement in the village. The van was making its monthly visit. Everyone chose a book, whether he could read or not. Erkan joined the queue early, for though there were usually enough to go round, latecomers were sometimes left with the state stock-market reports, or a presidential biography. He preferred the translated novels of Walter Scott, each of which he had read several times.

Anne Du Croz

No. 2387: Enter the villain

You are invited to provide a sketch of a villainous character on their first appearance in an imaginary novel. Maximum 150 words. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2387’ by 7 April.