Someone had, not unkindly, likened her to a reptile. No doubt about it there was something lizardlike in her deliberate searching out of sunny, sheltered spots, preferably away from the inquisitive eyes and intruding conversations of others. On this particular day, after a couple of hours reading in the garden, sunblushed was, she thought, a a more apt description!
The old man was the last in a long, proud line of storytellers, the art being passed done from father to son, uncle to nephew, generation after generation after generation. Women too were tellers of stories, though their tradition was different. Their stories of pain and pressure, of hope and happiness, of light and dark were shared behind closed doors, usually in the vicinity of the kitchen, or when they gathered to weave. Story telling lifted the drudgery, and helped the women of old come to life, secrets whispered from the grave, their memories held, shared, treasured.
There is a saying in Marrakech that “when a storyteller dies, a library burns.
The old man’s son was too feeble minded to hold the stories in his heart or head. His brother – long gone – had had no sons. There was no one to follow him.
His walk lost some of its former assurance. His steps were less sure. Yet all that changed as he stepped into the cafe. Men, young men, made way for him, and led him to the place of honour, the storyteller’s chair.
Silence fell. The waiters softly threw down their towels. Even the clock seemed to pause for breath.
The storyteller began.
“There was once a young storyteller who had learnt the art of storytelling fro his father, who had learnt it from his father. The young man learned the craft of holding a story I his heart, in his head and in his hand. He relished words, savouring them, and of helping the characters come alive. He sat here -where I sit today – evening after evening a conduit of cautionary tales, of exhilarating adventures, and best of all those Arabian tales from the desert.
Years passed and the young storyteller’s storytelling became so powerful that the listeners could feel the heat of the fire of the desert, experience the terror of the night and were freed to become part of the story, crying softly at the joy of the birth of a lamb and heaving a collective sigh of relief when tragedy was averted.
Then the storyteller reached his twilight years. He had no successor, no son, no nephew to whom he could pass on the tradition”, he continued. “There is a saying in Marrakech that “when a storyteller dies, a library burns.” And he wept, the crowd with him
There is a saying in Marrakech that “when a storyteller dies, a library burns ” a young voice whispered, “unless the storytellers tales are passed heart to heart to another, unless the storyteller bequeaths the tales to another, his kin, the library burns”. Taking a deep breath the storyteller’s granddaughter stepped forward, and sat at his feet, ready to learn his art.
She sat upright, in her specially commissioned armchair, slippered feet resting lightly on the floor. She looked again at the photograph in her hand. Motherhood had not turned out to be what she had expected.
The young woman in the picture, feisty, fashionable and fearlessly independent, was not her daughter, but her granddaughter. Three generations of women, and God willing a great-granddaughter some day.
She sat alone, surrounded by cards and flowers. Passing on the baton, blessing them both to leave had been hard, when what she longed for most of all was to sit and hold their hands.
One after another they posted, one selfie after the next. Facebook and twitter went wild, this was what going viral really meant, she thought.
It had started simply enough, a reaction to the flawless faces, groomed bodies, affluent costumes of the rich and famous on the night of the oscars. Would they dare to show themselves in public,as they really were, devoid of the trappings of applied beauty, she mused. Would she?
Almost without thinking she took a photo of herself, as she was at that very moment, and tweeted and posted the selfie, daring all in her sphere of influence to do likewise. Friend after friend, woman after woman, picked up the challenge: a grassroots act of rebellion against the need to put on a face was born.
The movement gained momentum. Suddenly, inexplicably, surprisingly, it shifted gear and changed direction. Women globally, at least from the richer western nations, began linking their small ‘just as I am’ act of rebellion to #nomakeupselfie, raising funds for Cancer Research and other charities. Still more joined, the cry picked up by men and boys too, de-gunking, leaving off the gel and other products. Groups of friends, coworkers, even entire management teams jumped in, and donations to good causes shot through the roof. A day to remember.
Without exception, albeit with a collective sigh, hands reached for the products once more. Shunned for one selfie, or at best one day, the petrochemical industry was firmly back in charge.
They sat in a room, in silence, not totally comfortable in themselves, or with each other, but in silence nonetheless, as a discipline,a deliberate act. They’d heard earlier of how the nuns in this convent observed silence during all meal times except one, the great feast on Easter Day. She for whom sharing life around the table was so vitally important, wondered what it would mean if all meals we’re taken in silence. Would that be confining or freeing? For sure more attention would be paid to unspoken gestures, to glances across the table and to the appearance of the food itself. Sound too would not go unnoticed, the signs, the clatter of cutlery the sighs, and the incessant bird song outside. Even the sense of smell would be heightened; an unpleasant whiff breaking through the lovely aroma of roast beef, or lemon tart.
But what was the point of the silence, the deliberate, intentional withholding of this particular form of communication, this way of sharing life?
One of the tasks for the day, their mission should they chose to accept it, was to draw up or revise a way of life. Would silent meals be part of the order of things, she wondered. What would be the pros or cons of doing so? What would that silence look like for her friend who lived alone? Or for herself for that matter. She, who all too often ate alone, because actually there was no real rhythm of eating together in her household, what gift would silence bring?
Silence did not come naturally to this small group of people, but nonetheless it gifted them with opportunity to sit, to stop and reflect, and to remember. What intrigued her most, towards the end of this day of silence, was how attenuated she herself had become to every sound. The quiet closing of a door in a room beyond theirs, and in the room they were in, the rustle of papers, pages being turned, spectacle cases being opened and closed, and fidgeting bodies struggling to enter the spirit of silence to which they had voluntarily submitted for these few hours. And the constant tap,tap,tap of the text messages being read and scrolled through.
It was the phone call they’d all dreaded,but somehow never really prepared for. Mother was ill, much worse than before, and the carers could no longer cope.
She had not mellowed into a sweet little butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth old lady, her comments were as acidic as ever , carefully ladled up with an extra serving on the side. The manipulation was less effective of course, time and practise had made her daughter more adept as dodging the bullets and disarming the barbs before they hit their mark, but still her criticism stung, just as it was intended to; every comment carefully loaded and flung with amazing precision for an 85 year old . It came from years of practice.
This was a woman almost surely destined to die alone, with no kin beside her to ease her passing. No family member would authentically mourn her, though there would be guilt and regret. Most of all there would be great sadness for what might have been, and the mourning of hopes, dreams and love scorched before they came into blossom.
The question of how to provide care for her last days, months or even years was still to be taken. But the woman to whom this task now fell, could, finally, stand back and make an objective decision, detached enough to make the pragmatic choice, though the tears fell as she made the call.
The train arrived on time. Enough time for a quick hug, a fond farewell, and then the two friends were parted. Who could know if they would meet again, or under what circumstances. They had not quite arrived at the stage that life was taken for granted, but they were old enough to know that there were no guarantees. Wisdom had taught them to enjoy the moment, and to hold lightly the memories they shared. They looked back at those years fondly, but never with rose-tinted spectacles, they were way too pragmatic for that!
They’d laughed that day, over a rather ridiculous hat! Not even a real one, but one an artist had stuck on the then Princess of Wales, commemorating her arrival at Alnwick station in 1908, on a rare royal visit to the seat of the Percys of Northumberland. The only other woman in the scene, presumably the Duchess of Northumberland and and not the vicar’s wife, was wearing the most magnificent hat, the light and shade caught precisely by the artist, but Princess Mary’s, they’d tittered, “looked like a mauve blancmange!”‘ Which was a pity really, as the striking colours of her outfit, and the artist’s otherwise excellent use of light and perspective, made her and not the future king George V, the focal point.
They were sitting in what had been Alnwick station, before Beeching made his beastly cuts. Since then Alnmouth, on a much more recent royal visit -though no doubt once again linked with the Percys, had been renamed Alnmouth for Alnwick. Later that same day, the two friends stood on the platform, thankful for friendship which had spanned four decades (“can it really be that long?”), excited, but not fearful or daunted, about what the future would hold. There was no telling where, this side of heaven, these two friends would meet again. God willing, it would be in the not too distant future, and in Northumberland, for surely this was -and is – the most beautiful part of England.
Their eyes met across the crowded room, love at first sight. If they had been from another era they probably would not have got married, but their’s was the generation where marriage was of paramount importance, and so they walked down the aisle heads held high.
He moved into her house, and thinking ahead to those days when they would no longer be able to manage the stairs, had a stair lift fitted. He found that it came in jolly handy for taking up a cup of tea to his wife in the mornings.
She plonked herself at the antique table in the sitting room. The bay window really was an exquisite sun trap, too tempting to ignore. The former farmhouse remained a beehive of activity. If she chose to she could tune into the hustle and bustle of the working part of the house, the kitchen and beyond. All too soon she’d be drawn back there, allures by the delicious food she’d seen and smelt being prepared earlier, but for now she was holed up in this private sanctuary.
Book laid aside she looked round the room slowly. The dog too was in a sun trap of his own, curled up on the rug before the fire. Only last night there had been a roaring fire -three huge logs piled up, emoting heat that was so comfortable from the far side of the room, but toasting your thighs if you sat any closer. Now, mid morning, the light enabled her to look closer at the paintings, the portraits in particular firing her imagination. Those two girls paddling in the river. Who were they? What had caught their attention On the faraway bank?
On the easel there were two other portraits; a stunning young woman with piercing yet friendly blue eyes. There was something familiar about the face, perhaps the smile, or the casual way her head was tilted. The look reminded her of her friend, not surprising really, her friend, the artist, had captured her own daughter, in a sublime moment of joy. the event long forgotten. A little like their own school day memories – yet there at the tip of their fingers, waiting to be retrieved at the drop of a casual “do you remember…?” And they did!
She had a voice like a sergeant major, and adult woman after adult woman obeyed her commands. Ironic, as her instructions were not directed at them at all. “Front crawl, back crawl, breast stroke, choice, front crawl, back crawl, breast stroke, choice!” she bellowed. “24 lengths as fast as you can – now! Harry … Ben … Bex … George … – go! … go! … go …!”
One by one the children- looking stunned – jumped or dived in – and set off. The adult women too picked up their pace, kicking harder, pointing hands,bending elbows, squeezing feet together, just as the children were commanded. This was definitely the work out they needed, even if they hadn’t signed up for it. Twenty minutes later the three boys and the girl heard the ‘well done! you succeeded!’ and the women too felt validated because they too had been compelled to go the extra mile today.