by Angela Young
Part One, Thursday: Iris’s Story
I have come home, after a long and difficult journey.
I am at a storytelling festival but it isn’t the place, the mediaeval castle with its tiered lawns or the gloriously striped storytelling tents down on the jousting field that speak to me of home. It’s the way I feel when I tell stories, the way I feel when I hear stories. The ancient stories that will be told over the next few days sing to me and comfort me, sadden me and strengthen me and speak to my soul of home.
There are stories everywhere. When I was in Salem a man told me that when the nurse arrived to take him to the ECT block, she’d carried an umbrella. “To keep the snow from my head,” he’d said and he’d laughed. He told me how 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 the fresh snow because he’d wanted to see his own footprints on the way back.
“That’s the only important thing,” he’d said, and he’d laughed again and slapped his thigh. “Footprints.”
I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again. But I remember his beautiful smile, and I remember his laugh, and I remember his story which never did make me laugh.
And there are stories that elude us. One that eluded me for years was the way my mother died. All I knew was that I had been with her when she died, and that we were in Gloucester Road because she had just collected me from school. But my father would not talk about her at all so I never discovered what happened from him. I just knew that, somehow, I could have prevented her death. The idea haunted me. My father, on the other hand, behaved as if she had never existed and threw everything of hers away.
I salvaged the hospital bag full of her clothes from the dustbin, and the heavy “Carousel” records that they used to dance to. I hid them in my room and I cried when the smell from my mother’s lavender bag failed to comfort me, but I kept it under my pillow all the same.
One night I smelled smoke and I watched, from the stairs, as my father fed photographs of my mother into the fire. I longed to stop him but I was too frightened, and 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, in my head. I loved my schoolwork because I could lose myself in it and then, one winter evening, I heard my mother’s voice in my head. It was the most beautiful sound in all the world. She said my name, ‘Eereece’, the way no one else said it and I heard the smile in her voice as she said, ‘Remember, Eereece, that I shall always love you.’
I only heard my mother’s voice at night, but I heard her as clearly as if she was in my room. Sometimes she told me her stories and I would close my eyes and breathe in her vanilla and lavender smell. Sometimes, when I opened my eyes and realised she wasn’t there, an ache would spread inside me and my throat would feel as if it must break 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 in my room while I waited for my mother’s voice to return. But I never asked her how she died. I couldn’t bear to.
In the day, when my mother’s voice wasn’t with me, I was clumsy. I dropped things and broke them. I’d hidden her book of French fairy tales in my room and when I dropped it and the spine split, the ugly little goblin who lived in the corner of my room hissed out, “Fumble fingers, fumble fingers.”
My mother had always persuaded me that he wasn’t really there, that the corner was quite safe, but when I struggled to make it safe on my own I couldn’t. After she died it became the Corner I Never Went Into, and then the Corner I Was Terrified Of, the Corner from which the goblin hissed out, “Fumble fingers, fumble fingers,” over and over again. The Corner became the Corner That Began To Take Over My Room.
I dropped one of the records that I’d watched my parents dance to and it broke, and my father made me eat off an unbreakable melamine plate and drink from an unbreakable melamine cup that came free, from the garage. I hated them, but he wouldn’t let me use anything else.
One evening, when my mother’s lavender and vanilla smell filled my bedroom, I felt full of courage and I stood and faced the Corner. I told the goblin that I knew he didn’t really exist; I said I didn’t want to hear him again. I turned away, pleased with myself, and he didn’t say a word. But, as I pulled the eiderdown up under my chin, I heard him hiss such terrible words that my courage evaporated. His long, pale knobbly fingers stretched out towards me from the Corner and as I lay, terrified, in my bed he lisped, “‘Syour choice, Iris. ‘Scompletely your choice. But if I no longer exist then your mother no longer exists either. ‘Sup to you Iris. Choose.”
Of course there was no choice. I could not bear to lose my mother’s voice, it was the only thing about her that I didn’t have to hide from my father. He didn’t know I could hear her voice so he couldn’t take it away. He didn’t know about the goblin either. I couldn’t tell him anything and I knew, deep inside, that all he really wanted was for me to disappear.
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, but I survived that, and much else, because I could hear my mother’s voice. I wasn’t alone. I listened to her stories and I began to tell them to myself, and I often heard her say the words she’d said when my father asked her how she remembered so many stories by heart. “Just,” she’d said with her soft ‘j’, “just as long as I see the pictures, Edwin, I know the words will come.”
That is the way I lived as a child, and those are the things I have always remembered, but it was years before I remembered how my mother died. And even now, forty-three years later, I still hear my mother’s voice in my head, although hers is the only voice I hear now. I hear her say the words that are the key to storytelling, the words that remind me that as long as there are pictures the words will come. Even when new pictures turn up in the middle of a story, I know I must follow them. I have a trick that reminds me to do this: I dig my thumbnail into the pad of skin under my little finger as soon as a new picture forms. I do this so that I won’t give in and use words I know just because I’m afraid, just because I no longer know the terrain. I do this to remind myself that if I rush in with familiar words, words I’ve told the story with before, the heart goes out of the story and it dies.
Sometimes, when I’m about to tell a story, a different story appears like a film on fast-forward in my head and I have to tell that story. Sometimes it’s a story I haven’t told for ages; sometimes it’s a story I’ve forgotten I knew, but when that happens I dig my thumbnail in hard and I take a deep breath and I smile and I say that I will tell this story instead of the one the programme says I am about to tell, because it has turned up and asked to be told.
For weeks now I’ve practised my stories, without words, under my laburnum tree. I’ve closed my eyes and watched the pictures and, in the evenings, I’ve told the stories to Dick while he cooks our supper. And I’ve practised the stories at my local storytelling club. But now I’m here at the festival and, despite my practice, I have to admit I’m 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.
I force myself to remember that, last night, I sat with a group of storytellers in a pub. It was warm and the tobacco plants in the window box filled the night air with their heady scent. We swapped versions of stories and told jokes and hoped for fine weather and large audiences at the festival, and I remind myself that I was, and am, among friends. And I think about what the storyteller who sat next to me said. He said, as he raised his glass, “How do you make God laugh?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “How do you make God laugh?”
“Tell him your plans,” said the storyteller, and emptied his glass.
I thought about that and despite myself I smiled.
When I was a child I didn’t know about storytelling festivals. I didn’t know anyone who lived for stories the way I did. But now, at this festival, the very reason people come here is to tell and to hear stories. Even my room belongs in a story, high up as it is in the watchtower of the castle with a view that stretches for miles.
The air is clear, the sky is a limpid blue and the dark flat tops of two great Scots pines lean towards each other as if they’re in conversation. The sharp sweet smell of crushed lavender fills my room ‘ I’m still puzzled by it, I haven’t been able to find the lavender bags ‘ and, from my window, I can see the tiered lawns of the mediaeval garden that cascade down towards the Bristol Channel. The sun makes the Channel glitter but the sight cannot lift the sadness I suddenly feel as I touch the letter in my pocket, the letter that I carry with me everywhere. It is crumpled and stained and I no longer know whether it was smudged when I opened it, or whether my own tears smudged it as I read it. This is what it says:
It’s horrible what I’ve got to say but I’ve got to say it. I can’t come and see you again. Sorry.
PS: This is why. Because there’s nothing I can do and seeing you makes it all come back and then I’m completely useless. Even thinking about seeing you does it so the only way I can cope is if I don’t see you. Sorry. Even when I came with Charles I wasn’t much use, was I? So I can’t see you, Mum. I don’t know what else to say. Except sorry.
I should throw it away, but I can’t bear to.
It’s her birthday on Sunday, her thirtieth birthday. But I must not think about her. I have to keep all my thoughts about Vivie locked away like jewels in a box because if I don’t I can’t concentrate on anything else. I know that, but it’s difficult to stop. I haven’t seen her for six years and I long to hug her. I long to hear her voice. I long to see her.
She wrote me that letter when I was in The Abbey and Dick says I stab myself every time I read it and I should stop. He says the wounds will never heal that way. But it’s the only thing of Vivie’s that I have, so I keep it. And I read it every day because I am sure there is a clue in it that, one day, I will understand.
It’s my fault that she won’t see me. When I broke down she tried to mend me, but she was only a child. She tried to make me well, tried to care for me all by herself, tried to keep people away as I had made her promise. And now she is scarred, I know she is. I’ve written to tell her that I know, now, why it all happened and that I know, now, what she tried to do, and how impossible it was for her. But I can’t make her see me if she won’t, even though I long to see her every day. I can only wait, and hope that one fine day she will want to see me. I cannot plan for that day, but it will be a fine, fine day when it comes. If it comes.
In the meantime I have my stories, the stories I shall tell on Sunday, the day of Vivie’s birthday, and all the stories I have ever heard or dreamed up and told over the years.
And I have Dick.
My stories and the man who helped me rediscover my stories, they are my comfort now; they have brought me back home.