Organised by the NGS in partnership with educational charity the English-Speaking Union and the Scottish Poetry Library, the competition invites everyone from established writers to primary school children to submit pieces of creative writing inspired by work in the NGS's collection
The Scotsman is the competition's media partner. Yesterday we printed the first three of this year's five winning entries – here, in the second part of our coverage of the competition, we are proud to present the final two…
Cat B, 12-15 years
WINNER: Annie Forbes
TITLE: If You Go Down To The Woods Today…
INSPIRED BY: Girl With Bears, by Wendy McMurdo in the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
SUSIE runs. A dinosaur is chasing her. Its claws skitter and crunch on the museum stairs and she can feel hot breath on her neck. She shrieks with laughter and clatters into the next room. She stops in her tracks. The imaginary monster is forgotten, and it stalks back to its exhibit, dragging its slithery tail down the steps.
There is a wet, shiny nose staring at her. Above it, a pair of tiny crinkly eyes, like currants, are buried in a mass of honey brown fur. Susie's thumb creeps up to her mouth. She stares at the thing in the case, and the thing stares back. A bear.
"Hey," murmurs the bear. Susie eyes him warily. He sneezes violently, wipes his eyes, and beckons to her.
"Come over here, kid."
He has a weary American drawl to his words. His voice is deep and syrupy, and he sounds like he has a blocked nose. Susie doesn't move. The bear begins to hum, and then to mutter under his breath:
"Look for the bare necessities,
The simple bare necessities,
Forget about your worries and your strife…"
The bear doesn't look like he's from The Jungle Book. His coat is shabby and he stares reproachfully up from under a furrowed brow. He's no Baloo. Susie edges forward, as if she is approaching a strange dog. She sinks to her knees, glancing at his paws. Paws the size of dustbin lids. The singing trails off as girl and bear study each other.
Susie sees a small ghost girl with blonde hair reflected in the glass. The girl is wearing Susie's favorite red jumper, and her black stamping boots. She imagines living with the bear, looking out at all the people visiting the museum. It would be hard to keep still all day, but the attendant would bring them bread and honey, and let them out after closing time. She wonders if her mum would come and see her sometimes.
"Where do you come from, bear?" whispers the girl. She places her palm to the cool glass, leaving a misty hand shape.
The bear looks up sharply, then he lowers his head and begins to trace a pattern on the dusty floor. His fur bristles and his hackles rise ever so slightly. He is remembering the last winter of his life, before he woke up to this eternal season of central heating and dust…
There isn't enough to eat and his children are starving and crying out for meat, so he crosses the bleak wastelands and heads for a huddle of concrete grey buildings. Human territory. He is big and fearless and ambling along with a swagger in his step. He starts to rummage around the dump on the outskirts of the town, searching for food. He gets lucky, and his paw is lodged in a vat of salted herrings when there is a shout, and a sour odor drifting in the air.
He raises his head, spattered with fish-scales. A man strides towards him, arm outstretched. The light winks off something metal concealed in the man's hand. A scorching hot taste explodes in the bear's throat, mixing with the salt tang of brine…
He coughs and raises his eyes from the floor. "Me? That takes me back. Alaska, little girl. Alaska. It's big and brutal and beautiful. The wind is cold, and the earth is black, and the air tastes like pine needles."
The girl breathes out. "Oh."
Her face is pressed right up to the glass, and her breath is making hot little clouds on the surface.
"My name is Susie. I'm from 37 Woodhill Road, Edinburgh, Scotland. EH14, 329. I have a yellow cat, and my door is blue."
The bear's eyes are twinkling. He sits on his haunches, facing the girl.
"Are you a dancing bear?" she asks.
The animal chuckles to himself, a sound like pebbles falling into a stream. Once, he was brushed and disinfected, and his door was left ajar …
A saggy, slightly moth-eaten bear waltzes drunkenly in a darkened museum. His belly hangs in pouches, like trousers a size too big, and he sways from side to side, eyes closed in ecstasy, shuffling round the empty halls and deserted exhibits. There's a solo trumpet and the tinkle of piano ringing out in his head as he slides discreetly down a banister. The bear collides with a display of ancient pottery, grooves beneath the bleached bones of a blue whale, and sashays past a troop of Roman soldiers who look on in envy. His claws click and slide on the polished floor. The air is stale, and he drinks it in like wine.
In the morning he has to be dragged back to his case, claws scratching grooves on the marble floor. His captor sweats and swears inside his uniform, muttering about practical jokes, wrestling with a stubborn stuffed bear, which seems to have a mind of its own …
"Of course not" the bear snickers, a sly smile rippling his furry jaws. "I have no-one to dance with. The bear beside me? She's stuffed. Can't you see that?" He waves a paw in front of the smaller animal's face. "See? Nothing. Nada. Sleeping beauty."
"Then, don't you have a friend?" Susie whispers. "I do. Her name is Karen and she can run round my house six times without stopping. Her hair is black, and she has braces, but her teeth are white. I don't think she talks to bears in museums. Especially real ones."
"To tell you the truth little girl, it gets pretty lonesome in here. Those jackals over there are plain crazy, and all the possum does is chew on his own tail. The critter's a loon.
"As for the owl, he just twists his head on his neck, round and round, and watches you with those big mournful eyes of his. The cheetah's a snob. Sometimes the whale talks to me, though. Well, he sings…"
Susie is listening to every word, entranced. She smiles shyly. She wonders if the bear could carry her like her dad used to, before she got too big. The bear's back is hunched and his fur sticks up in tufts. It would tickle her, she thinks. Like feathers in a pillow.
"Your fur needs a brush" she informs him. "It's all messy."
"Hey, I'm not a teddy bear, you know." The animal grins. He smudges his nose up to the glass, and it's his turn to leave a sticky heart-shaped print on the pristine surface. Museum attendants don't clean on the inside.
He steals a glance at Susie, who gazes up at him expectantly. She wants him to sing to her again.
A sigh swells in his chest. The girl has stirred memories deep inside of him, and homesickness churns in his gut. He misses everything …
A river rushes past his paws, its icy currents tugging him downstream. A cub wriggles and squeals as he closes his jaws gently round the scruff of its neck, dunks it under the water, and licks its fur into clean little spikes. Later, it cuffs at his ears with tiny paws. Revenge.
An osprey is calling across the ice, and the salmon are leaping. Steaming pink flesh, and honey-sweet blood bursting down his throat. Hot, vital fluid, flooding his veins. Pooling, congealing, healing. Coils of breath curling round his snout. A heartbeat in his chest. The sky. Stars…
A scar, roughly stitched like a seam, runs the length of the bear's body. He traces it with a claw. Susie looks on, wide-eyed. The ghost girl inside the glass is suddenly dwarfed by the hulking beast beside her. It could hurt her. It could gobble her up.
"Hey, goldilocks," smirks the bear. "Did you eat all my porridge?" He opens his wide, red-ridged mouth. White teeth emerge in a hollow, cavernous yawn of a laugh. The girl in the case taps hard on the glass, mouthing something to Susie. She can't get out. She's trapped.
The bear's laugh is warped by the shield of glass and it echoes out bitterly. His eyes are black slits of sorrow in a lopsided cage of a head. Susie flinches back and gets to her feet. Things that hide under the bed, in gun barrels and in grown-ups' heads, are hiding in the dead bear's eyes. She stumbles blindly, clawing tears from her eyes as she runs, abandoning her reflection. The ghost girl vanishes. The twinkle-eyed bear is left behind in the darkened room.
The museum is too big, and Susie is too small. The floor stretches for miles, and she's running, running…
…Straight into the arms of her mother.
"Hey Susie, what's wrong? Did you get lost?" Her mum envelopes her in a soft, perfumed hug. Safe. Susie sobs happily into her chest.
"Come on sweetie. You're a big, brave girl now. Come and see the giraffes."
Susie is clutching onto her mother's skirt, like she did when she was younger. The folds of material feel soft and comforting in her fingers. Everything is alright. She prattles away about Alaska to her mum. They did a project on it in school…
The bear watches Susie go. He cranes his neck, desperate not to lose sight of her. She rounds the corner and he's no longer a bear. It's a skin, stuffed with wire, wood and foam. It smells slightly of mothballs and preservative. A thin film of dust coats the cold surfaces of the two chips of glass lodged in its head.
Stuffed bears don't cry. They don't even blink, but like a painting, if you dig deep enough beneath their skin, you'll find a story. They can't sneeze or weep or dance or sing, but they can't forget, either. They're alive.
WINNER: Jamie Arnaud
TITLE: The Plot
INSPIRED BY: Fabula by El Greco
UNLIKE most monkeys I have always been intrigued by flames; my life is intertwined with them as they dance between the glow of golden yellow and streaks of fiery orange, bringing life to darkness.
My first master was a flame thrower who travelled from fair to fair in northern Italy. At the command of a tinkling bell, I was taught to take a candle and set some torches alight and give them to my master, who would juggle them skilfully. The onlookers would reward him with rapturous applause and I would be sent round to collect money in a velvet cap.
My second owner, Master Rizzio, was also a wanderer. He had seen my tricks and had bought me for a handsome sum. Soon we boarded a vessel in Genoa and sailed from the temperate Liguria to the chilly port of Leith in Scotland.
After a few weeks of unemployment and living in cold lodgings in and around Edinburgh, news came that Queen Mary needed a singer to join her trio of minstrels. Master Rizzio secured an audience in the palace. In the presence of the queen he sang a medley of French and Italian songs in his fine bass voice and accompanied himself on the lute. I was welcomed onto the queen's lap, admired and stroked. We were given fine quarters in Holyrood and our lives were transformed. Soon we became favourites in the queen's inner circle.
Master Rizzio was eager to show off his new position in court but, I must say, he never neglected me and always groomed me and gave me tasty morsels like juicy plums and roasted nuts to eat.
We began to spend evenings in the company of the queen and her maid servants in the small room beside her bed chamber. The conversation was light-hearted and punctuated with sessions of music and card playing. The queen was now pregnant. She liked to cradle me in her arms like her baby-to-be and ruffle the white fur under my chin. I would be allowed to practise my flame trick. At the command of a royal finger and then the sound of a bell, I would clamber up the curtains, candle in paw, and light the sconces to the delight of all. It was a very good life.
One evening in March when we were in our usual good spirits, the door opened. Her Majesty's husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and other men entered the room. I jumped from my master's lap and scuttled under the banquet table. I heard a heated conversation. I saw my master's feet as he clung to the skirt of Queen Mary. A dagger was thrust down into his chest. He was dragged across the floor to the bedchamber beyond. I heard a dull thud as a lifeless body tumbled down the stairs.
The queen was sobbing uncontrollably, her body was shaking. I emerged from my hiding place and was greeted with great emotion. For a long time she held me tight, rocking to and fro. We were as one, united in our shock and sorrow.
That night she smuggled me under the folds of her cloak, and we escaped from the palace. My nomadic life began again. My daily routine changed. There was little merriment now. My new mistress the queen kept me close. I was, I think, a precious memento of my master and of happier days.
In time we moved to the safety of Edinburgh Castle. The rooms were bleaker and less homely than the palace. Come the summer, hearts lifted with the birth of the baby prince. A period of happy activity replaced the melancholy.
To me it seemed that the queen had forgiven her husband for his part in the murder of my master, for at the news of him falling ill, she left for Glasgow where he had fled, to nurse him back to health. The two returned to the capital, she to Prince James and me in the castle and he to comfortable lodgings in the old Provost's house at Kirk o' Fields.
It was to that house that I was taken on a dark February night, almost a year after the death of my dear Master Rizzio. The company was mostly unfamiliar, a group of men with low, secretive voices. I was set on the shoulder of a young man, and with an older companion at our side.
We crept towards the house carrying two casks of gunpowder. A piece of torch paper was lit to bring a little light into the dark courtyard. The door was forced open and we entered the house. With silent footsteps we made our way to a small room. The three of us huddled round the flame of the torchlight. The faces of my guardians glowed in concentration. The flickering light was magnetic. A small candle was withdrawn from a pouch. With a trembling hand and a gentle puff of breath, the candle flame was kindled. I watched transfixed.
The young man caught my gaze, I was given the candle. He lifted his finger in a familiar command. I suddenly realised I had a part to play. The sense of anxiety was transmitted to me. I felt scared. I dreaded the sound of the bell. The two men departed. I was alone.
The bell rang. I did not move. I had no audience to play to. No applause. No caresses. Seconds passed. The bell rang again. It was louder this time.
There was a movement above and I heard Lord Darnley's voice as he called to his menservants. The silence was broken. I raised the candle and lit the fuse which spat crackles as its harsh white flame hissed towards the caskets.