The leaves are falling from the London Planes. I always notice them. They are quite unmistakable – pointy-fingered leaves in clearly differentiated shades,
bright green, or the colour of lemon peel, or at most a light golden brown, like roast potatoes. And all the size of plates – tea plates, dessert plates, even dinner plates. His eye, as he walked down Kilmartin Road, scanned to find the biggest – and yet bigger – leaves upon the pavement and in the gutter between the parked cars. He longed to pick up the biggest he could find and take it home. That would be an autumn leaf.
Why am I writing about this, and what am I quoting?
The fall of the plane leaves always reminds me of my first experience of publication, and prize-winning (writing as Julia Widdows). It was a turning point on my path as a writer and such an exciting one.
One of the first short stories I ever submitted anywhere – or even showed to anyone – was chosen as a winner of the first Asham Award, a short story competition for new women writers. The story, Ami de Maison, was published in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail in an anthology called The Catch alongside specially commissioned work by well-known women writers. There was a prize-winners’ lunch at Glyndebourne, no less. There was a book launch. (This is so not the case with most short story competitions.) This was all heady stuff!*
In addition my story was one of only five from that award to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in their afternoon readings slot. It was beautifully edited and read and the first I knew about it was 2 days before the broadcast – the easiest piece of writing-for-radio I have ever experienced!
This story is also one of the few pieces of writing where I was fully aware of the inspiration at the start. I used to walk to work past a row of huge London Plane trees and every year in late October the pavement beneath them was awash with their leaves. They were so tempting – sometimes I’d risk embarrassment and pick up one or two of the best colours or the biggest leaves. I wondered about the sort of person who wanted to do the same but couldn’t quite bring themselves to. And so a character evolved.
It’s also that time of year – clocks have just gone back, evenings are dark but not yet too cold – when house windows are lit up, and curtains open, with little glowing scenes inside, like numerous passing free theatres. My character became a watcher; not a sinister one, just slightly sad and self-deluding. The story itself evolved.
The unmistakable patchy bark of the London plane
Then the title: I came across it in Alan Bennett’s Writing Home – ‘ami de maison’, meaning friend of the household, more or less. It was a new phrase to me and it captured the delusion perfectly. All three elements combined into a story I’m still fond of, even if maybe I wouldn’t write it in exactly the same way now.
So every autumn after the clocks go back I’m reminded of this particular story and this stage in my life. No other piece of writing I’ve done is so tightly linked to time and place.
*Did not lead to instant further publication, success, riches, fame etc! Would-be writers often think that once you’ve got your foot through the door somehow that door is wide open: rapid and predictable next steps in a writing career are inevitable or at least easier. (I did.) No, you’ve just got your foot in the door and your poor toes may well get squashed.