Talking Paint

"Painting is silent poetry & poetry is painting that speaks." Plutarch

Poetry and Prose Prizes ~ Vivien Steels



I was very honoured to have been awarded the Quill & Parchment Award 2008 for my website by Sharmagne Leland-St John, their Editor-in-Chief and Sara Wadington, their Graphic Designer and Webmaster.   

 Thank you very much.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

After completing a course in Creative and Professional Writing at Nottingham University, I gained a Distinction in July 2010 collecting my award in December 2010.



First Prize

Falling for Jackie
Vivien Steels

Kowloon was frenetic but the room was silent as she entered wearing her white suit with black belt tied.  She could be mistaken for Chinese – eyes, skin, hair, small frame, but her appearance was deceptive.  She turned to her examiner.  He smiled, teeth white against tanned face, eyes crinkling with humour.  His black silk training trousers and T-shirt contrasted with the white, round-windowed room and her suit.
  “Do triple twist fall, land on front on mattress, feet near me.  I flip you to face mirror, then high kick chest, here.”  He mimed out the moves as he spoke.  “OK?”

She stood statue-still, centring herself, calming her excitement by focussing inwardly on a sequence of colours and images.
  “Go!”  She threw herself into the air, arms hugging her body while she rotated three times mid-air before the double mattress thumped her chest as she hit it flat out, feet extended and lifted slightly behind her.  They were grasped firmly by invisible hands, so she was flipped head over heels to face the mirrored wall opposite in front of which he now stood, hands held up towards his lowered face.  She launched herself up into the air with her left foot shooting her right foot up and out like a coiled spring released.  She landed perfectly in front of her examiner, who smiled again and nodded.

She noticed everything and knew everything about him – 5’ 9”, 160 lbs, Chinese, born on the 7th of April 1954 in Hong Kong, very handsome, Martial Arts expert, strong yet lithe and flexible, magical, the most famous film action hero in the world, stunt choreographer and creative designer, founder of the Jackie Chan Stuntmen Group, executor of the most creative and dangerous stunts, actor, director, producer and singer.  He laughed.
  “You fine.  You can join.  First job – make tea.  Simple things first, difficult later.  It is very nice meeting you.”

In Chinese folklore, if you have a secret you don’t want to tell anyone, you carve a hole in a tree, speak your secret, then seal it up with mud.  She had whispered her secret wish into a hole in the ninety year old pear tree at the bottom of her garden sixteen years ago when she was twelve, then sealed it up with earth and here she was falling for Jackie.

1st Prize - FAME Writing Competition - Portrait with a Pen (Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Nottingham/NCC - 2002)


Second Prize

A Festival of Books
Vivien Steels

Sun, mellow as cheese,
rolls gold over yellow stone bridge,
ducks revealing tail-curls,
beaks weed-wards,
as cycling lazily –
mailbag angled in basket –
the postman circles the village
with words from outside.

The bookshop, windows glazed
with latest covers and posters proclaiming
flings open its mouth
to welcome friend and stranger
as rows of shelves host
silent reams of printed paper,
bound, awaiting freedom,
to be lifted up, opened,
devoured by eyes soaking up sentences,
paper money swapped for streams of wisdom,
enticing novels, pregnant poems,
singing storybooks, travel tales,
transporting readers from village
to places dreamt of in a wider world.

2nd Prize - Lowdham Book Festival 2000 Poetry Competition
Published in Boloji 


Runner Up

Vivien Steels

He came to my café
On that sultry-hot day (I in my silk shift-dress)
For a long, cool drink.

In the soft, orange-scented courtyard
I sat down at my shaded table
And waited to be waited on.

He trailed his bronzed-shiny body down the marble steps,
Sat at the stone table nearby and rested his chin on his hand
Sipping lemon pressé (with vodka) softly
Through straight, white teeth into his languid body,

He was before me, shining,
And I, bewitched, waiting.

He inclined his head, alert, as lizards do,
And stared at me vacantly, as lizards do,
And licked his tongue round full, red lips,
Then smiling, he drank some more, sticking his tongue out at me
On this holiday in flaming June.

And the voice in my head said
If he was a gentleman
He’d have come to my table, smiled, kissed my hand
And asked if he could join me.

But he had drunk enough that day
And putting the glass down, dreamily,
He licked his lips again,
Looked round like Apollo following the sun
And slowly, very slowly, withdrew
His lounge-lizard body back up the steps and out of view.

Pastiche of 'Snake' by D H Lawrence – runner-up in Write Like D H Lawrence Writing Competition – April 2005


Runner Up

A Thin Place
Vivien Steels

The air shone differently there.
As we wheeled in with sea birds
singing their shrill welcome against the wind,
their cries echoed from sharp cliffs.
Our boat carved waves clear as glass.

The retreat was a stone house.
No piped water, only a hand-pump
from an eternal spring welling up goodness
by the Mother stone;
no electricity, only candles
flicking their moonsoft illumination
around moving whitewashed walls;
no central heating, only gnarled logs
and peat turves offering warmth
with blue aromatic smoke;
no ready-made meals, only earth’s jewels
grown with the comfort of seasons,
and eggs from the wandering chickens,
fish from the swirling sea
cooked on an old leaded range;
no flushing toilet, only a closet
to sprinkle with sawdust and soil
to hide our tracks beyond the garden.

For this was a thin place close to eternity
where time was no more.
And we just were
with seals and sea, birds and sky,
hanging like stars in the vastness of the universe,
presided over by a God whose only pretext
was the love of creation.


Published in Reflections 53 - 2004 & title poem of the collection 'A Thin Place' - runner-up of the Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2012 - Thynks Publications (to be published)



The Referral of Mr Roberts
Vivien Steels

Aaron Roberts was angry.  He had been forced to get his own breakfast, as his wife, Emily, had to leave early for a ‘Help the Aged’ committee meeting in town.  His son, Digby, had earned a detention for rudeness.  (Where did he get it from?)  And his daughter, Debbie, had just finished with her latest boyfriend causing ripples of unrest and emotion through the usually tranquil house.

Mr Roberts was not used to doing things for himself.  As a consultant surgeon specialising in vascular surgery, he had promoted an uneasy arrogance not often seen in younger doctors.  His life had been one long privilege and he felt he had been singled out as someone special, with super intelligence and a direct line to God.  Not that he was a religious man.   Self reliance was his mantra.  He had excelled at public school, at Cambridge, then at Medical School, where he believed he was one of the chosen few.  He was good looking with strong brown hair and soft green eyes, but behind the friendly façade lurked a man, who was ill at ease with people.  He liked them best anaesthetised on his operating table where he was in charge and they did not utter a word.  He was infallible and they were mere patients.

That morning went from bad to worse.  His freshly laundered shirts were not hanging in his wardrobe, but swinging from the door handle of his closet still in their polythene covers.  The traffic to the hospital was atrocious, someone had had the audacity to use his personalised parking space, causing him to be late for that morning’s consultations and surgery, which meant he was late for his morning ward rounds with the junior doctors and subsequently seeing patients to be discharged.

* * *

Mrs Evie Grant was eighty five years old.  She had lost her husband, Rob, when she was forty five and had never remarried, although her son, Simon and daughter, Sylvie, had encouraged her to.  She had been fit and active until a few years ago when she had moved from her beloved home at 46 Carrington Gardens with a beautiful garden to a warden-aided, self-contained flat at The Beeches complex.  It was a lovely flat – much easier to maintain – but she didn’t have a green space all to herself.  Gardening was her passion and she made a point of decorating her flat with vases of cut flowers.  She could pretend it was her garden.

Five years ago several vertebrae in her back had collapsed causing excruciating pain and leaving her unable to do much at all.  Her GP, Dr Danson, had prescribed a pain killer, which helped, but she was still left in severe pain with decreased mobility.  Then her right leg became numb. Tests at the hospital revealed a blockage, which could be difficult to operate on, due to Evie’s age, medical history of slight strokes and the fact that it was in an extremely awkward position.  Mr Tomkins, her consultant, had explained all this to her carefully and kindly. 

Not to be immobile, Evie bought a mobility scooter, practising on it by riding up and down the corridors at the Beeches supervised by her daughter, Sylvie.  When her left leg followed suit, Dr Danson referred Evie for more tests in hospital.
  “More tests.  I feel like a rat in a cage,” said Evie to her daughter that morning, when she arrived to take her mother.  Evie glanced at herself in the mirror.  She didn’t recognise the crumpled face, the fine white hair, the thin body, the curved back.  By the bed she had kept a double photo frame of herself and one of Rob when they were twenty four.  She thought about the time when they went to see the film ‘Waterloo Bridge’.  Rob had turned to her and said, “You look just like Vivien Leigh.”

Sylvie had rung the Ward Sister to enquire about the treatment and tests her mother had had while on Ward D14 the last three days.  “Would you like to see the consultant when you come to collect Mrs Grant?”
  “Yes, I would.  Thank you.”

Sylvie could see her mother’s slight frame stretched out on the bed.  Her smile lit up when Evie saw her.  She helped pack her bag and was told the wheelchair she required was at the Hospital Entrance and it needed a pound coin.  Her mother’s tablets had to be signed out by a doctor.  Around two o’clock Mr Roberts walked onto Ward D14.  He was not looking forward to meeting Mrs Grant’s daughter.  Relatives always asked infuriating questions, always wasted his time.
  “I’m Mr Roberts.  The Staff Nurse has told me you are very angry about your mother’s treatment and that you wanted to speak with me”.  Sylvie stared at Mr Roberts.  This was untrue.  She was not very angry.  She was just concerned that the Heparin she had been told her mother had been prescribed had never been administered in the three days she was on Ward D14.  And that she hadn’t had any tests.  Mr Roberts stared back at Sylvie.
  “She has had an ultrasound of her legs and they’re the same as three years ago.”
  “But three years ago she had no problem with her left leg.” 
  “I can’t remember having any tests.  Can I see the notes about that investigation?” asked Evie.  Reluctantly Mr Roberts went to get her file and Sylvie and her mother saw there were not any notes about the latest ultrasound.
  “They’re being typed up,” was all he would say.
  “She should never have been admitted to hospital in the first place and it was the collapsed vertebrae in her back causing the new leg problem in her left leg, nothing vascular.”  He then said to Sylvie.  “How old is she?” 
  “Mr Roberts, my mother is sitting right in front of you.  I think she would prefer being called Mrs Grant, rather than being referred to as ‘she’ all the time and she is quite capable of answering you herself – she’s not gaga!  As you can see from her notes, she’s eighty five.” 
  “Well, there you are then.”  There was an uneasy silence.
  “Do you mean that’s it then?  Eighty five.  Nothing to be done.  Too old.   Too insignificant.  I’ve just been reading an article about how doctors and consultants need to be trained in being kind and compassionate to people and that patients whose doctors were, healed more quickly and responded better to treatment.”  Mr Roberts face began to darken.  Veins in his neck started to bulge.
  “Can I ask why the medicine, Heparin, prescribed was never given to my mother while she was on this ward even though an injection appeared on her locker this morning and was then whisked away?”
  “It was taken away this morning, because she, I mean, Mrs Grant, was going home.  The Physiotherapist had got her walking again and feels she can walk quite well now.”
  “My mother has never stopped walking,” Sylvie pointed out.  “It was just that she was now having the same problem with her left leg as with her right.  She has always been very active and independent, and for her to go to her GP in the first place meant my mother must have been feeling extremely unwell.”
  “Ah, another thing,” interjected Mr Roberts addressing his next question directly to Evie.  “Why did you wait four days to see your GP when your left leg became very weak, if it was causing you such a problem?”  Sylvie could not believe a consultant was hectoring a patient so aggressively.  Evie replied immediately.
   “For one thing, Mr Roberts, it was over a weekend.  I couldn’t get through on the phone on the Monday 23rd July and on Tuesday 24th July I couldn’t get an appointment until the Wednesday 25th.  When I did see Dr Danson, she felt that it was right to refer me for further tests, as apparently there was barely a pulse in my left leg.  The City Hospital then referred me to this ward, as they felt I needed to be on a vascular ward.”  Mr Roberts turned away.  Sylvie decided on a direct approach.
  “Are you annoyed, Mr Roberts, because, as her daughter, I am bothering to ask questions about my mother’s treatment and am concerned about her?”  Mr Roberts glared at her.
  “The Sister will be along shortly to get your mother’s medicines checked out so you can go home.”
  “You can be very sure, Mr Roberts, I will be making a formal complaint about my mother’s treatment and your rudeness.”  Without another word he marched down the ward and disappeared through the double swing doors.

Mr Roberts had already been notified about another complaint from a couple on the same ward.   Mr Thomas had stipulated that because Mr Roberts had prevaricated for so long about his wife’s treatment, she had been forced to have her left leg amputated to the knee.  The Head of the Vascular Surgery Department, Mr McCarty, had warned him about his behaviour as a third complaint rolled in.
  “Nobody likes Mr Roberts.  He’s so evasive when you ask him any questions and he’s got a real God complex,” said Geoff Thomas, as the Sister eventually came to sort out Evie’s tablets.  “Hope you get on alright.  ‘Bye.’”  Sylvie had managed to find a wheelchair and wheeled her mother out of the ward with a sigh of relief.

The day could not get any worse.  Mr Roberts found his car clamped when he went to collect it that evening, even though he’d left a note on the windscreen explaining who he was.  Someone had scrawled, “Yeah, right.”   It had cost him £70 just to get home.  But something interesting was waiting for him.  Emily had put his mail in a pile on the hall table.  There, on the top, was the package from Emigrate to Australia. 
  “Who’s thinking of emigrating?” asked Emily laughing.
  “We are.”
  “Emigrating?  To Australia?  Are we?  You’ve never mentioned this before?”
  “Just want to get away.”
  “What’s happened?  I thought you liked this hospital.  You said it was a great improvement on St Paul’s.”
  “Well, I was wrong.  Where’s Digby?”
  “Not more complaints?”  Aaron Roberts sliced into his steak au poivre attacking it with clinical precision of a surgeon.  “Digby’s at his martial arts class.  He just made it after his detention.  Debbie’s on the phone trying to make it up with Morten.”  He raced through his meal.
  “Have a look at those brochures.  Must have a shower before I meet David.  Did you hang my clean shirts in the wardrobe?”

* * *

Mr Roberts sat outside the consultant’s room.  Mr Truman.  He had been having these headaches for months now, nearly a year.  He’d put it down to the move to Australia.  Digby was playing up.  Debbie was missing Morten and lived on her mobile phone, Emily hated the heat and flies and those complaints had managed to follow him overseas.  Dr Brett kept prescribing painkillers, but he knew there was something wrong.  Dr Brett dismissed him with a laugh.  “You need some R and R.  Just stress.  Overwork.  Get down to the beach.  Switch off a bit.”   Mr Roberts had eventually insisted on some tests and he’d been referred to Mr Truman.  Now he would know the results.
  “Ah, come in, Mr Roberts.  Sit down.”  Mr Truman kept his back to him.  He was sifting through a large brown envelope.
  “Have you got my results?”
  “Sorry, no.  Your results seem to have gone missing.  We need to do that MRI scan again.”
  “But it’s been three months.”
  “Sorry.  We need to book you in again.  See my secretary.  She’ll see you right.”
  “Do you think…”
  “I can’t speculate, Mr Roberts, without the scan results.  Now don’t worry.  We’ll see you soon.”

  The headaches got worse.  When he woke up he vomited, then felt somewhat better for a while but bending, exercising or coughing would cause a sudden return of excruciating pain.  He found surgery a complete trial.  His vision was now affected and he had to go on paid leave.  One Saturday, while he was watching a surfing programme, he lost consciousness.  Emily phoned for an ambulance.  Mr Truman came to see him in hospital.
  “It’s not good.  You have a tumour on your brain stem.”
  “But you can operate?” asked Emily, holding her husband’s hand.
  “We might have been able to if it had been caught early, but it’s too big.”  He turned his back on his patient to talk to Emily.  “He could have radiation therapy, but we feel this wouldn’t help him.”
  “Excuse me, but I’m the patient and I’m lying here,” said Mr Roberts angrily.
  “Also personality changes are to be expected, Mrs Roberts.”
  “Oh, he’s always been grumpy,” said Emily.

Mr Roberts was now in a side ward.  He knew he was dying.  His treatment had been far from good.  He reflected on his life.  He wished he’d been kinder.  He remembered a quote by Philo of Alexandria he’d learned in school.  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.”  It made sense to him now.  His eyes flickered with double vision and tears welled up.  He had never cried.  The night sent its stars through the thin curtains.  His eyes closed and he sank into sleep. 

He was flying and the aeroplane was about to land.   He could see the swathes of white cloud swirling below and felt that strange lurch as the plane began to descend.  The airport lounge was strangely designed – like the hub of a wheel with spokes of corridors leading off in all directions.  He felt lost but one person came to greet him.  It was Mr Turner, an old man who used to live in the house at the bottom of the cul-de-sac when they lived in England.  Mr Roberts had once returned his collie to him, when it nearly got run over by a joy rider. 
  “Just come to meet you, Mr Roberts,” said Mr Turner.  “Need to take you to the screen room.”
  “The screen room?”
 “Yes, it’s where you’ll see the film.”
  “What film?  I don’t want to see a film.  Where am I?”
  “All in good time, sir.  Come with me.” He ushered Mr Roberts along a corridor opposite and popped into a room halfway down.  “You just wait in there and someone will be in to see to you.”

Mr Roberts stared at the room.  It was like a cinema, but had only a few seats in front of a huge screen.  He sat down in the middle one.  As he watched the screen it started to fizz.  Swirls and kaleidoscopes of colour drew his attention.  The screen gradually cleared and he could make out scenes now.  There he was walking into the teaching hospital where he used to work.  Mr McCarty was talking to him in his office.  The door opened and a steady stream of former patients from England and Australia formed a line ending with Susie Thomas, who walked in on both legs and Evie Grant, who followed walking slowly and steadily.  They stared at him.  He knew what they were thinking.  He couldn’t look anymore.  His eyes turned to the floor.  The screen disappeared and instead a group of silver-haired people were sitting behind a long table discussing a document in front of them.  They were dressed in long cloaks of various colours and had medallions round their necks with strange symbols on.
  “I’m sorry,” mumbled Mr Roberts.  The figures stopped talking and glanced at him.
  “What did you say?”  asked the figure in the middle.
  “I’m sorry.”
  “What are you sorry for?”
  “I’m sorry for not being kind to my patients.  I’m sorry for being arrogant.  I’m sorry for not being a better doctor.”
  “We know you are and we note these apologies.  The next time you have a life as a doctor you will remember to treat your patients with compassion.”

* * *

The ward orderly opened the curtains and a shaft of sunlight touched his eyes.  He knew he would not live much longer but he felt at peace.  That afternoon Emily remarked how different he was.
  “Personality changes are to be expected,” he said laughing.


Published in Silver Scribes Tell Tales - a collection of short stories from New Writers UK (New Generation Publishing 2013) & the prize-giving of books to the final twenty authors was at Gedling Book Festival - 14th July 2013