Celebrity Style

ELLE Talent Competition 2012

By Hannah Swerling

The standard of entries for this year's ELLE Talent Competition was higher than ever which makes us pretty excited about the new and the emerging writing talent out there.

Make sure you read Alice Blackhurst's winning entry in the January issue of ELLE on sale now.

And come back every week to read the entries from our four runners up.

Christina Bragg, 27, is a booking clerk for the NHS

Let me tell you about my first love.

My first love consists of twenty two ceramic plates and fourteen porcelain figurines. It smells of polished oak parquet floors and stove top coffee and feels like velvet armchairs caressed the wrong way. It sounds like an old fashioned dial up telephone. It is my grandmother’s apartment: five rooms, two balconies, on the third floor of a concrete tower block in a far away city.

It is not just walls and floors, but the objects within and the person to whom they belong that are so redolent. I could not speak to my grandmother; we never learnt each other’s language, something I have always regretted. Instead her possessions tell her story, rooted in that place.

We only ever stayed in summer. Six glorious weeks spent in my mother’s country. Literally a mother land. Virginia Woolf said, ‘We think back through our mothers if we are women.’ I look back and it seems that it is not just my grandmother's objects that I have inherited, but a more intangible inheritance expressed in chromosomes. We share the same diminutive stature, the same green toned eyes and a predilection for smoothing out paper bags. And a love for books. Books were everywhere in my grandmother’s apartment.

I spent those summers in stifling heat, sunshine forcing its way through closed shutters. No air conditioning here in Communist Croatia. I would be curled up reading, while my brother was desperate to play in the wrought iron playground, overlooked by the three grey towers. As children we didn’t care about peeling paint and political graffiti. Occasionally I acquiesced and we would sit on metal swings while my grandmother watched from her balcony filled with begonias. In the evenings we would gorge on the remainder of the watermelon, bought from a market at dawn and watch reruns of terrible American sitcoms, while she tickled our feet.

We always used to go to the park. A beautiful place with forests, lakes and a zoo. Ice cream, pony rides and the Reptile House. It was a quiet space away from all the trams, tooting car horns and heat. A long, tree lined avenue led up to a café where we would drink from tiny glass bottles of juice and the grown ups had beer on ice.

In our childhood years, although she was elderly, my grandmother seemed indestructible. She had a suit of armour: coiffured hair, elegant shoes, lipstick and Chanel No.5. But as we grew up we noticed small changes. Dentures the wrong way round and an increasing forgetfulness in her magnified, bespectacled eyes. It became more serious sounding; strokes, operations.

The result was a defeated old lady, who not only did not want to leave her apartment, but physically could not without the aid of a chair on wheels.

For a few years, summer was confined to that apartment, like my grandmother in her bed. We stayed there, enclosed in those walls, imprisoned with her. I became well acquainted with each individual plate and figurine: a Pierrot, a dairy maid and a ballerina, and the smell of Turkish coffee.

I started to look at photographs. The black and white pictures displayed around the apartment told the story of a beautiful girl and communicated what she could not. A picture of my grandmother in a bikini, in a rowing boat, smiling at an anonymous photographer. Another of her in a cotton poplin frock, sat on a rock, surrounded by unknown Roman ruins. And another on the top deck of a London bus, Big Ben just in view. There were later pictures posed in a studio with my mother, still a child, with ringletted hair. Always beautiful and smiling. This pictorial timeline, rendered in monochrome, edited out all the sadness and poverty.

Abandoned by her mother who had remarried, my grandmother grew up in a Nazi occupied city. She was impeccably dressed however, for her mother ran her own atelier and in the evenings when the door was closed to paying customers, she toiled away on toiles for my grandmother and her sister. When they were reunited after the war, poverty remained. A family of seven in an attic flat with a suicidal one eyed cat. In Winter it always snowed. But this is only what I learnt later.

Enough was enough. We returned some years later, in a different summer, to the park, with her in the wheelchair, ignoring her protestations. We knew it was the only place that could revive her. That small café was our outdoors sanctuary, it symbolised her liberty, where the apartment was her safety. And she still wore Chanel No.5.

She died in a Spring. We went back to the café in the park, because the apartment was too quiet and empty without her, despite all her plates and figurines. We sheltered under parasols from a raging thunderstorm. It was deserted.

After she died the apartment was sold. I have inherited some of her possessions, in which reside an indelible imprint of her memory. The stuffed, black feathered bird shot through with electric blue, who lived in the hall and whose beady eye followed you around, as if he might screech at the creak of a floorboard. Three paintings of eighteenth century ships. Two fur coats. And one black and white photograph in which her eyes are mine.

That you love your parents is a given. But my grandmother in her crazy, foreign apartment, with its knick knacks and oddities and her unknown language, was the first love I chose for myself. An old woman, her apartment and her park.

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