A special mention in the Bradt Independent travel writing competition

Today the six finalists for this year’s Bradt Independent travel writing competition were revealed. I wasn’t among them, but this year have received a “Special Mention” which is my best achievement so far after a few goes at entering this prestigious annual contest. See who’s made the cut here and then read my piece, which will feature in my “Hammond, Me” book next year.

Cornfields surround Hammond, IL

Cornfields surround Hammond, IL

Three little girls in Illinois

As I swung off the road and onto the gravel, I didn’t see those three little girls.

The country town, small enough to be considered no more than a village in Britain, was pretty much deserted. Surrounded by cornfields and bisected by a railroad that carried only freight, the only thing that crossed the faulted concrete of Hammond’s main street was dust. A few stray leaves hugged the kerb. Aside from a post office and a rough-looking bar, there was little evidence of business; that which was there appeared to be hanging on by the skin of its teeth.

Houses, mostly, lined the road. Some were humble and unkempt, paint flaking. Others, grand in comparison, had rocking chairs on wooden verandas and neat picket fences. A semi minus its trailer occupied one front yard, but the neighbours’ rusting cars indicated that not everyone here had a decent job.

I’d parked up to take a photo of the water tower. It had Hammond written on one side and bore a smiley face on the other, its optimism incongruous with the general feel of the place.

The water tower at Hammond, IL

The water tower at Hammond, IL

As I crossed the street, I heard a child crying. Immediately after, I heard an older child, exasperated, telling her to shut up. I glanced over to see there was also a third girl. She chose not to take sides, though her body language told me she was irritated by the interruption to her play time.

The little girl, whose age I guessed to be around five, looked to me for comfort, getting none from her big sister. “Lady, I hurt my knee.”

“Oh sweetheart,” I soothed, “what did you do?”

“She was runnin’ and fell over,” said the older, bossy sister, in a tone loaded with self-righteousness that told me it was her sister’s own fault and any sympathy I may have was misplaced.

More tears, increasingly agitated from the fear I would side with Bossy.

“Does it hurt?” I asked, already knowing the answer but keen to distract.

“Yes, it hurts a lot! Can you fix it?”

“Well, I have some Wet Wipes in my car over there, so I could certainly clean it up a bit,” I suggested, not knowing if Wet Wipes translated.

Bossy interjected. “We aren’t allowed to cross the road.” She spoke with a finality that suggested her kid sister didn’t deserve to anyway.

No traffic had passed while we’d been speaking.

“How about I go and get the Wet Wipes and you wait here?” Bossy looked suspicious and I was well aware that those kids probably shouldn’t be talking to strangers, even benevolent ones. To the little girl though, the tiny rivulet of congealing blood running from her knee was reason enough for her to trust me, even if it was going to get her in big trouble with her sister later.

I grabbed the wipes and a sticking plaster and hurried back. As I gently cleaned up the small cut and gently smoothed on the plaster, the sobs subsided and she began to chat.

“My name’s Chloe and these are my big sisters. Where are you from? You talk different.”

I told her, and she sounded impressed. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Eng-land,” she said, splitting the word in two.

Curiosity began to get the better of Bossy too. I fielded several questions before asking her whether Hammond was a good place to live.

“Yes.” She hung on the word, drawing it out for emphasis. “We have lots of friends here and we get to play in the street.”

I couldn’t help but think about some of the children I knew back home, complaining about how little there was to do in the large town in which we lived, with parks, cafes, clubs and all manner of distractions. We said our goodbyes and the three girls headed back down the street. I allowed myself a smile as I finally heard the middle child speak. “She was a kind lady”.

Life was simple in Hammond, and happiness came in the form of a plaster.

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