The Val Wood Prize 2016: Hull in 500 winner's stories


The Button-Box by Lynne Emmerson

It was made of rosewood, polished to a warm mirrored blush by the caresses of human hands across many generations. In its grain was trapped the gentle aroma of rapture, and faint ghosts of floral carvings twined around it. Bold brassy clasps hinted at the magical promise within.

Left during holidays with their grandmother, the two sisters had long hours in which to entertain themselves. Elizabeth had no TV and the radio was only turned on for news and Woman’s Hour. Nevertheless Elizabeth was always more of a mother to them than grandmother.

Elizabeth lived in a Victorian terraced house just off Holderness Road; the busy end. There was very little garden; you needed to catch a number 58 bus to East Park for greenness. Sometimes Elizabeth would pack a picnic and the three females would visit that wonderland of grass, trees, boating-lake and, best of all, the splashboat. They’d dare a scary ride, screaming as the boat plunged downwards from the tower into the water, scattering the resident ducks. Afterwards, still damp from the splash-wave, they would eat a Padgett’s ice-cream before going home for tea.

While it cooked Elizabeth would fetch the treasure box. There wasn’t any real treasure but it was full of strange and mysterious delights. Inside was a fortune of mundane bric-a-brac made exotic by the application of children’s imaginations: wood, ivory, mother of pearl, new-fangled plastic and shiny military metal; plain, patterned, hand-painted with rose or duck, just like the ones they’d fed, earlier. Others were intricately carved like lace, or faceted like crystal; every colour in the spectrum, and each evoking stories: tales of fantastic deeds and faraway places, some genuine, some make-believe. The best stories were of Elizabeth’s life told in buttons: “this shiny one was from your Grandfather’s army uniform,” or “this sparkly one was from the dress I wore to a tea dance when we were courting,” or “this tweed-covered one fastened the costume I wore for a Sunday walk on the pier,” and “this tiny pearl button was from my wedding dress. We married at St Columba’s on road. Ee! It was a lovely day.”

As the girls listened, feasting on toasted pikelets, they ran buttery fingers through the jingling contents, watching them trickle through the spaces between. These clusters of rainbow and lustre never failed to enchant. They would empty them onto the threadbare carpet to sort, in endless childish ways, whilst images and stories slipped in and out of the patterns they made. Later, they snuggled down between warm sheets blessed with lavender and Grandmother’s love.

Elizabeth’s gone now, joining her husband somewhere beyond the crumbling reality of her East Hull home. With the future unfolding without her, the now grown-up sisters walk away from St Columba’s, arm-in-arm, backs straight, and without speaking to any other mourners. Clasped tightly in the elder sister’s arms and rescued at last minute from house clearers; giving enormous comfort, and steeped in the culture of their past: is the rosewood button-box.

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