Speaking of Love …
Here is the beginning:
I have come home, after a long and difficult journey. I travelled alone and it was some time before I realised I had arrived.
I am in Wales to tell my stories. My bedroom is high in the watchtower of a mediaeval castle and through the window I can see the tiered lawns that cascade down from the castle walls to the Bristol Channel. Pennants flutter from the tops of the striped storytelling tents on the jousting field.
I stood in one of those tents last night. It was cavernous and empty, but I sensed a thousand pairs of eyes and a thousand pairs of ears. I shuffled self-consciously onto the wooden stage and found that my head was too heavy to lift; my voice too reedy to carry. I had to force myself to breathe and it took me half an hour to find my voice. If that happens on Sunday my storytelling career will be stillborn. But people tell stories all the time.
When I was in Salem a man told me about a nurse who arrived to take him to the ECT block with an umbrella. ‘To keep the snow from my head,’ he said and he laughed. He told me that he and the nurse had walked side by side along the snow-covered path between snow-covered lawns, under the snow-laden trees. He told me he’d seen rabbit prints and deer prints in the snow, and the parallel prints of the patient and the nurse who’d gone before. He told me he’d walked in fresh snow because he wanted to see his own footprints on the way back. ‘That’s the only important thing,’ he said, and he slapped his thigh like an old-fashioned music hall entertainer. ‘Footprints.’
I don’t know what happened to him, but I’ll never forget his beautiful smile nor his story, which never made me laugh. People forget stories too. I forgot how my mother died. All I could remember was that I had been with her. And when my father refused to talk about her I knew that was my punishment because I had failed to prevent her death. He threw everything of hers away but I salvaged the hospital bag of her clothes from the dustbin, and I wrapped the heavy Carousel records that they used to dance to in my grey school cardigan and hid them in my room. I kept a lavender bag of hers under my pillow and one night I watched, through the bannisters, as my father fed photographs of my mother into the fire. I was too young to understand that he did what he did because he was locked in; all I knew was that I was locked out.
So I lived in my small upstairs room and had conversations with the characters in the books I read until, one winter evening, one of them replied. It said my name, ‘Eereece’, the way my mother said my name. And then I realised that it was my mother. ‘Remember, Eereece, that I shall always love you,’ she said, with a smile in her voice. I heard the smile too. She only came at night, but she came often. In the morning, when I opened my eyes and realised she wasn’t there, an ache would fill my throat until I was sure it would burst open. Even now if I smell burnt dust on an electric heater a lump forms in my throat and reminds me how I used to sit on the floor under the window, by the heater, and close my eyes and long for her to return. When she came she told me the stories she’d always told me, and sometimes we just talked. But I never asked her how she died because she always seemed so alive.
And then the goblin turned up. He came when I started to drop things. I broke one of the Carousel records that I’d watched my parents dance to and the spine of my mother’s collection of French fairytales split one night when it fell from my hands. The goblin hissed out, ‘Fumble fingers, fumble fingers’, every time I dropped something. He lived in a corner of my bedroom. It became The Corner I Was Terrified Of. One evening, when my mother’s lavender and vanilla smell filled my bedroom she told me that the goblin wasn’t there. She said he was just a figment of my imagination. So I stood and faced the Corner. I told the goblin he didn’t exist. I said I never wanted to hear his voice again. But as I pulled the eiderdown up under my chin I heard him hiss and I saw his long, pale cracked fingers stretch out towards me from the Corner. I heard him lisp, ‘’Syour choice, Iris. ’Scompletely your choice. But if I no longer exist then your mother no longer exists. ’Sup to you Iris. You choose.’
Of course there was no choice. My mother’s voice was as precious as my life because it was the only thing of hers that I didn’t have to hide from my father. He didn’t know I could hear her so he couldn’t take her away. He didn’t know about the goblin either. I couldn’t tell him anything and I knew, deep inside, that all he wanted was for me to disappear. He used to love the stories my mother told. He was as captivated as I was when she’d suddenly look up from her supper, or her sewing, and ask us if we knew that the best Parisian milliners were the ones who persuaded spiders to spin coloured webs for their embroidery threads. Or that the reason Gustave Eiffel ended up with beautifully latticed girders for his great Tower, instead of the solid ones he’d asked for, was that no one spoke the language of the Eiffelene trolls who’d mined the iron and made the great girders and brought them to Paris from Meurthe-et-Moselle. No one knew how to ask the trolls to stop work, so they hammered and struck at the iron until they thought their work was done.
We both knew that several days later she’d tell us a whole story about the milliners and their spiders, or about Gustave and the Eiffelene trolls and I know that my father looked forward to those stories just as much as I did. And I know that he loved my mother, the way he danced with her told me so; and I thought he loved me, but after she died he died too, inside. I realise now that the only way he could cope with her loss was by ignoring anyone or anything that reminded him of her, he could not tolerate them. But all I knew then was that he found me intolerable.
He painted my bitten nails with a pungent, brown liquid at night and pulled white mittens onto my hands and tied them with shiny white ribbons round my wrists. I only survived because I could hear my mother’s voice. As long as I could hear her I wasn’t alone. I listened to her stories and I began to tell them myself, on the way to school. And I often heard her say, ‘Just,’ she said it with a soft ‘j’, ‘just as long as you see the pictures, Eereece, the words will come.’
Even now, forty-three years later, I still hear my mother’s voice, although hers is the only voice I hear now. She reminds me to follow the pictures when I tell a story. And it’s always worked. As long as there are pictures in my head, the words come. Even when I see pictures that I’ve never seen before I know I must follow them. For weeks now I’ve watched the pictures from my stories travel beneath my eyelids and, in the evenings, I’ve given them words while Dick cooks our supper. I’ve told the stories at my local storytelling club and I’ve told them to myself on my long walks through Thetford Forest. But now I’m here at the festival and, despite all the pictures and all the words, I am very nervous. I remind myself that six years ago, at The Abbey, or at Salem years before that, I’d never have dreamt I could do this. I reassure myself that I’ve come a long way, that I can do it, that I have come home.