The winning entry is followed by the judge's report.
Camphor Laurel Summers
By Rosie McCrossin, Sandgate District State High School
The end of primary school smelt of melting bitumen and sweet after-rain. There had been eight summers of clingy school uniforms under the camphor laurel, wishing for these days which seemed to have come far too quickly. The class was a mix of half-cooked teenagers and children, mismatched and colliding with each other. The end of primary school was a strange awakening of razors, hushed whispers and bra shopping. A familiar world was collapsing under the weight of adulthood.
Clay club was established when the summer got too hot for the lady bugs on the camphor laurel tree to be collected. The supply of clay was found under a stone near the out of bounds area at the top of the oval; it was wet and soft and smelt of ancient rain. The stone wall under the camphor laurel became the clay club. All of that summer was spent creating tiny snakes, pots and dreams which dried in the sultry air of the classroom, stored carefully on tissues in the under-desk trays. All of that summer the clay hole was watered, precious liquid stored in water bottles, squeezed from hats, carried in lunch box containers. The popular girls laughed from the other side of the oval, flickers of envy flashing across their eyes. Eventually, though, everyone became bored with clay club. It only took one week for the clay hole to dry out.
Before their swimming lesson, they sit on the whitewashed grandstands, squinting at the too-blue pool. All girls. The teacher explains to them that if they have their periods she can take them out of swimming. She will put a tick next to their name. She smiles warmly as if she has just saved them from every possible embarrassment of burgeoning womanhood. Some girls giggle, others nod solemnly. In the changing room there is secrecy; towels, still patterned with the princesses and flowers of childhood, draped around as they change. Some still change openly in the corner, unaware of what is coming.
School camp comes that same summer. Many of the girls wear tight fitting clothes, which cling to their half-developed body parts. They separate themselves from the boys but their bodies betray their age. Yet for boys and girls alike this is a foreign and strange time, though they don’t admit it to themselves. They stumble, the way they always have, through camp activities, not admitting their enjoyment of these childish games, hiding the dull ache for the childhood they miss. On the last day they all jump into the dam. They are all laughing together, slippery fingers grabbing at finger and legs and toes through the pond weed. They are together, they are smiling, they are enjoying childhood in its purest form. It won’t ever be quite the same again.
At the end of that year they change the game they always played: the game of innocent fun where you asked questions to each other and traced the answer on another person’s back and they guessed whose answer it was. At the end of that year they make it something that combined their tiny knowledge of the adult world and their need to know more about it without explicitly asking each other. They run up and down the stone wall, which is still stained with clay. They giggle into the trunk of the camphor laurel, yellow and red ladybugs crawling along their faces, trying to compensate for the childhood that is disappearing. They laugh at things they don’t understand and feel somehow adult, making jokes about rose petals and the school principal.
They finish primary school together. They have the graduation at night time at the local bowls club, arranged by various mothers, who buzz like moths around a light bulb watching their daughters’ every move. The girls try to be adult in any way they can; they follow the conversations, dance and drink soft drink and talk. But there is something very childish about the event, about the way they feel, about the lost sandals and the way the boys throw lawn bowls at the toads on the floodlit grass, about the way the outfits, bought from adult shops, feel like dress ups. But they are happy and they dance on the neatly mown grass, falling and revealing flashes of childhood-pink underwear. Smiling. The night is perfect in its innocence.
By the time they finish high school not many of them remember the game rules or still have the delicate clay pots on their duchesses or can still imagine the smell of pond weed and happiness. They cannot remember the years they sat under the camphor laurel, sweaty and dirty and yet somehow more beautiful and clean than they are now. They could not remember the summers that changed them. It wasn’t adulthood like they had imagined it; they had dreamed of maturity, but the difficulties maturity brought seemed not to be worth the sacrifice of childhood innocence. As children they had held a hand towards the future, a hand stained with clay and grass and a love of life. They will grab for this hand far, far later in life, not understanding what they had wanted all those years ago. Not understanding why they had let the clay go dry.
President, English Teachers Association of Queensland
First Camphor Laurel Summers
Third The Nightmare Within
1 She didn’t believe in love
3 The Crystal
4 Clara Returns
A healthy crop of entries was received in this section this year. The quality was generally high and a good number of really quite effective stories had to be relegated to the discard pile even before the final stage of elimination which produced the prize winners. The subject matter was varied but there was a noticeable preference for material that could be aptly described as a tad macabre.
Most of the young authors involved had a very good grasp of the structure of an effective short narrative and were alive to the potential of the language to bring events, characters and settings to life in the reader’s mind. As was the case last year, the overall standard of adherence to the conventions of grammar, spelling and punctuation was pleasingly high and only a small number of lapses had managed to slip through the editing process.
Interestingly, the piece that I judged to be the most appealing breached what is usually offered as one of the standard guidelines for effective short narratives – that they should occupy only a limited time period. This one successfully spanned the years of primary and secondary school for a group of characters who were not sharply delineated as individuals. Structurally, it tended to be an interwoven series of vignettes rather than a more conventional plot line. This piece pushed the usual boundaries of this text type but did so very effectively.
The winning entry dealt evocatively with the important and universal theme of growing up and how some young people perhaps want to grow up too fast without fully appreciating the value of what they currently have. I was reminded of some of the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song from the 1970s, “Big Yellow Taxi” – “don’t it always seem to go; you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone