Phyllis Gailey Literary Competition 2020 – 2nd Place

Posted April 2, 2020 by WI Staff in Event Reports

The following piece, written by Alma Sulters of Ahoghill WI, was awarded 2nd place in this year’s Phyllis Gailey Literary Competition.


As I Walked Out One Morning …

As the car came to a standstill outside my room, I was already waiting.  My two cases were packed and last-minute souvenirs hastily stowed in a rucksack.  It was with a mixture of sadness and anticipation that I took a quick look around to ensure that I had not left some essential item.  This indeed was hardly necessary as I had been ‘spring-cleaning’ my room for the past week.  The moment had at last come – I was leaving the school in France where I had been teaching for the past year and was going to catch the train to Paris where I would spend a couple of days before travelling home to Northern Ireland.  As I walked out that sunny June morning, I bade a fond farewell to the young people who had become my friends as well as pupils, and to the school to which I had become affectionately attached.

The car drove slowly down the long, steep lane from the dormitory and then past the school buildings.  I reflected on my arrival there about ten months previously.  I had been nervous and shy, not to mention anxious that I would be unable to understand or be understood in a foreign language.  I had never left home for such a long period before – in fact I had only once been to France, and that was with a group of English-speaking students.  It felt quite different to be alone, with the added responsibility of teaching English for fourteen hours each week.  The school itself was a large, sprawling building, much larger that I had imagined it would be.  I recalled my arrival there as I had a brief interview with the headmistress, a severe lady whose command of English was as scant as my French.

Although I had said my farewells to the teachers and pupils the day before, I stopped once more at the school, entered the foyer and glanced around the now-familiar classrooms, recalling the different groups of girls I had talked to there.  Well-behaved for the most part and eager to attain a high grade in examinations, they were on the whole a pleasure to teach.  My subject, conversational English, was not onerous and did not involve homework, and so provided them with a break from more demanding lessons.  I gazed fondly at the pleasant garden in front of the school where I had conversation classes in the fine weather.  The French find it difficult to pronounce ‘h’ in English and I recalled amusing moments as we practised saying ‘Henry’s hat’!

My next brief stop was the impressive square in the middle of town.  It offered a relaxing place to sit with cafes and bars around.  As it was quite early, shops were just opening up and the tempting aroma of coffee tickled my nose – I had acquired a taste for ‘café au lait’!  I had been a frequent customer at the cafes, especially one on the corner where the cheery owner always welcomed me.  He had a lively black Labrador who was also of a cheerful disposition – to the extent of licking up the dregs of the coffee cups!  I just hoped that his bustling wife who worked behind the counter gave the cups a thorough wash.  He was setting out tables and chairs as I passed and returned my farewell wave.

As we drove along the rambling ‘main’ street of the small town I reflected how I had travelled its length nearly every day. There was the usual variety of shops: there was the Monoprix where I had frequently supplemented my meagre school meals and there was the colourful patisserie which sold delicious cakes – expensive but a welcome treat.  Too soon we arrived at the station from which I had made several journeys to surround villages.

It was at the station that I was joined by the two English-speaking teachers who had become my close friends over the year.  One indeed was to become my husband a few years later!  They too felt somewhat nostalgic now that our little group was breaking up and we were leaving a cosy, undemanding lifestyle to face the real world.  But we still had a six-hour train journey to Paris which we passed in reminiscing about the amusing and embarrassing incidents of the year.  We had rambled over the delightful countryside and enjoyed Saturday picnics by the river which ran through narrow, spectacular gorges.  This was hill-walking country and we had done it justice, especially in the autumn and spring.  Fairly sparsely populated, the countryside offered a feeling of peace and tranquillity.

It was quite a shock to the system to arrive in the bustling capital after spending months in a sleepy town.  We deposited our luggage in the hotel where we would stay for the weekend and had a hurried meal.  Our aim was to see Paris ‘by night’.  We booked seats on the coach and with our enthusiastic guide and set off on one of the most famous night-tours.  Starting at the very heart of Paris, we gazed in admiration at the stately Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame Cathedral.  It was a whistle-stop tour which I did not fully appreciate as I felt tired after the day’s travelling, but I promised myself that I would visit the monuments in detail the next day.  I would spend more time at the famous sites and, as the weather promised to be fine, include a leisurely walk along the Seine.

As I got into bed with the steady hum of Paris traffic in my ears, I reflected on my journey since I had walked out that morning.  One chapter of my life had come to an end.  What would the future hold?


Written by Alma Suthers, Ahoghill WI.


Judge’s critique:

My childhood friend went to France to teach English and I enjoyed hearing stories of her time there.  It was lovely reading your piece of writing as it brought back those memories.  Ten months away from family is indeed long and yet your main protagonist relived all these memories from over that period of time in one morning.  It was lovely reading this piece and being taken on on the protagonist’s journey with her, meeting new friends, visiting new places, meeting the principal of the school, teaching conversational English and most importantly meeting the man she was to marry. The final paragraph was interesting and what appears to be a sad moment, when she is about to leave this chapter behind in her life, ends up being a happy, optimistic moment through the line ‘What would the future hold?’.  Knowing there was a developing love interest in the story I got the feeling this exciting chapter led onto another exciting chapter in the character’s life.”

(Miss Deirdre McCausland BA Hons, PGCE)


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