As Patrick Ness writes in ‘A Monster Calls’: ‘Stories are important […] They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.’
Dad knew the power of story. He loved nothing better than uniting a group with a laugh by telling a well-rehearsed joke or anecdote – even better if he could pull it off in another language. He would save up the memory of some funny incident that he had witnessed, or been party to, and retell it with embellishments and feigned accents. He knew how to hold his audience in the palm of his hand.
And he knew the importance of reading to us, his daughters. And how to read; bringing someone else’s story to life, lifting it off the printed page with empathy, dramatic tension, excitement, humour – and more of those accents. He knew when to pause, when to rush on at breakneck speed, when to stop for the night, making us beg him to read more, keeping us on tenterhooks for the next chapter.
Morning and evening, the Financial Times was his reading matter on his long commute in a grimy, sardine-tin-tight train. But the moment he walked through the door at the end of the day, that was when story time began.
When he read The Hobbit, I was there, with Bilbo, feeling the clamminess of Gollum’s cave and squirming at the horrible swallowing noise in the creature’s voice. When he read Kipling’s Just-So Stories I could smell that great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. When he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I could feel the fur coats and sense the change in the air, from the warmth of the wardrobe to the icy chill of a never-ending winter as Lucy passed through the portal into Narnia.
And then there were the fairy tales. My sister’s favourite was The Princess and the Pea. She was fascinated by the many mattresses on which the princess slept. (And she has always had a passion for peas, for some reason best known to herself.) Dad must have told her that story thousands of times and each time it would take on a different flavour in the telling.
My favourite was The Fisherman’s Wife – a strange tale of unhappiness and a deep dissatisfaction with life. For years, looking back, I had no idea why I loved it so much, other than having a need to hear, over and over, the lines, ‘Alice my wife, the bane of my life, has asked me to beg a boon of thee’. I liked the idea of a ‘boon’ – whatever that was – and let those words roll around deliciously in my mouth.
It wasn’t until Mum was spiralling downwards into depression, and ultimately psychosis, that I saw the real truth in the stories Dad had read to me as a child. By the time Mum was detained under the Mental Health Act, the witch’s curse was truly upon us. We were stuck in a fairytale: not the Disney sort where princesses swoon in the arms of chisel-jawed princes and every story is told in saccharine-sweet technicolour happiness. No. It was the kind where you find yourself locked in a tower, an impossible task set before you while panic and despair hang over you like an evil enchantment. Or the kind where you battle against thorns and branches, hacking your way through to the castle, only to find that everyone is asleep and you can’t wake them, however hard you try. Or the kind where a fisherman’s wife is stuck in a dark ditch and desperate to get out, but no matter what solutions are offered her, she seems incapable of seeing them for what they are, and so remains condemned to end her days in the dark ditch where she started.
When a psychologist finally gave Mum the diagnosis of Asperger’s I told him, ‘You have set us free – I feel as though I have been screaming inside a glass box for the past three years.’ Or a looming dark tower with no windows or stairs.
So yes, stories can be more important than anything. Sometimes they carry the truth better than anything else. And I will always be grateful to Dad for his gift of story to me.