It’s good to be reminded of why I was pushed into storytelling as, last night, four of us sat round the kitchen table, eating homemade pizza, drinking a glass of red wine or orange juice and talking. I was with my two sons and one of their friends. My youngest son was trying to persuade his friend to go inter-railing round Europe with him in the summer.
‘Will you tell us a story again’, his friend asked. I hesitated, as I’d shared the story I was working on now only a couple of nights before…when my youngest pepped up, ‘I’ll tell one…as long as you don’t mind ‘Manka and the Judge’ again. It’s one of the Irish teller’s…Laura, Lorraine…’ he sought the word. ‘Liz,’ I told him, ‘Liz Weir and do you know she has a Bothy, a hostel, in Antrim in Northern Ireland? It’s very close to the Giant’s Causeway and they tell stories there on a Friday night. I thought I was heading there for my summer holidays in the summer until…’
‘…mind me telling it again..?’ ‘No problem, son, go for it.’ Do you know how you can take a childish delight in hearing someone close retell a familiar story..? So, he told how Manka, a wise young woman from a poor family, after many trials gained a wealthy husband, swapping places with him to become the judge he was and keep his love. Although I’d heard it before, it was lovely to hear my son tell it again. I glanced at the clock…it was approaching 7.30. My eldest even asked a question to check a point of detail, listening to the story before he had to go. So, we were then three…I said, ’I could try one…it’s one I‘ve not told for ages…if you like? Go on then, ok? Well, this story is called ‘the Book of Stones’.
“A traveller comes to a beautiful village in the mountains. She is drawn to the churchyard and wanders around. On each gravestone there is a pile of stones. Some have very few and others loads. 1 Year, 6 months, 17days reads one…8 years, 6 months and 3 days the next…2 years, 9 months…she feels very sad because there are many children here. Something terrible must have happened. As she makes her way down the hill, she stops to talk with an old man of the village, asking him about the stones. He pulls up a chord from inside his collar. A book is tied on the end of it. We all keep these books, he told her, and every time we experience a kindness, we record it in the book and, when we die, everyone in the village collects a stone, one each for each kindness in their lives, placing it on the pile…”
I hadn’t pinged it, I knew, but I made it to the end and my son and his friend listened attentively, asking questions. ‘That’s one of Liz Weir’s too,’ I told them. We started to take it in turns when my son said, ‘I’ll tell ‘A Wee Lift’ and off he went.
“A stranger comes to visit an elderly farmer and his wife in their rundown cottage. They share their thin soup with him, according to the rules of hospitality. Just before he goes, he takes a bar of gold out of his coat pocket and gives it to the couple. ‘It may help you.’ They have all sorts of ideas about what to do with the gold but for now, anyway, decide to bury it under the earthen hearth for safekeeping. It gives them quite a buzz and they start to mend fences and paint the cottage. The chickens lay more eggs and the cows give a richer milk. Their circumstances pick up well and, time passes, the stranger knocks again on their door one evening just before tea. As the rules of hospitality require, they welcome him warmly and prepare a good meal for their guest – meat, potatoes, veg and gravy and a fruit crumble and custard for afters. ‘You have done well with the gold bar,’ he tells them. They look at each other. Then the husband goes to the fireplace and digs it up. ‘Actually, we didn’t use it. All we needed, you see, was a wee lift.’ ‘Then, can I ask you for the bar back…in case at the next place I call in at, there is someone else who needs a wee lift.’ And they returned the bar to the stranger with thanks and a smile.”
It was lovingly told and I was completely drawn in, even though I can tell it too. When he’d finished, I clapped and his friend smiled. ‘I wish I could tell one,’ he said. ‘Well, you can. Of course, you can. We are all storytellers!’ We laughed. ‘Maybe, yes, I could tell one…’
In the pause, they started talking about inter-railing again. My son’s friend was not so sure. Then I said, ‘There’s the John Barleycorn story, you know, about the wheat…’ My son, who is a scientist looked at me ‘..I mean, the barley…’ and tried to piece together the story I’d transposed to modern day about an organic farmer, John, and the a large agrochemical company which offered him a fortune to let them select genes from his crops. But he and his family had been farming in the same community for years. They sold their produce at a fair price and had enough to live on. When John said no, things got rough. The company sent over a gang which lured him into a trap. They beat him up, pulled him apart and buried him in a shallow grave. Yet, months later, watching the news, there he was, the same young man, being interviewed about his organic crops in the South West of England. It couldn’t be…but they sent over another gang to make sure this time. They found John in his field where they bound him, they flogged him, they dragged him round his field at the back of a cart tied with ropes, cutting his flesh. They thrashed him and separated his bones. They threw his remains into a deep, deep pit and…several months later, the executive who had ordered these actions sat in a bar, 5am in the morning. He’d drunken too much, as was his habit these days. It’s true his company was now making enormous profits from the tight control they held over the grain markets. The tangible benefits he’d hoped for for poorer people around the world were slower to emerge. He looked up startled at the screen. There being interviewed on world-wide news was a young man, called John, who was growing top quality barleycorn in the south-west of England in an organic manner and selling it a fair price.”
‘The John Barleycorn tale is one of the oldest folk tales known in Britain, dating from the 12/13th centuries’, I told my two companions. ‘But how, why,’ they asked. ‘I don’t get it. They killed him…and he came back to life..? How can that happen..?’ I said, ‘ I know, it’s just a story…you have to put it in its context.’ ‘Resurrection, it’s about resurrection, death and rebirth, then..?’ ‘It’s about many things which you can take literally or consider as a image which resonates…’
Me and my son both tried to remember the story of Beowolf and Grendel. He’d told it to camera when he was about six years old, while I’d told it as the end piece of a storytelling course I’d been on a few years ago.
“Hrothgar sits forlorn in his Moot Hall, his warriors beaten and stripped out by the fearsome monster, Grendel; scaley, foulsmelling, with slivers of flesh clinging to bloodied razor teeth. Hrothgar, the King, had all but given up. The moot hall which had once sang to the music and words of battle and love lay dark and silent…till Beowolf came with his band of warriors.
The king gladly agreed to hold one more feast to celebrate past victories and the drums and horns once more played out across the forest to the lair where Grendel lay, licking her lips. Food and drink, she dragged her weighty bulk to the great oaken door and crashed through. The men were drunk and defenceless. She ate at her will, pulling arms and legs out of sockets and discarding the jagged frames against the walls. Beowolf had remained sober and had bided his time. He attacked the beast with all his strength and cunning, eventually after inflicting many bleeding cuts, forcing Grendel to retreat back to her hole, not to return.
The light returned to the King and his lands and they celebrated together one of the greatest victories of all.”
It had been a good evening. Where had the time gone? This was what I’d wanted to tell stories for. And to listen to them too. Nothing better. Maybe, I’ll tell stories to a group of people in a storytelling club one day but that’s not what I want. Sitting here, sharing stories together with friends and family, with time passing, life feels more complete. My son’s friend said again, ‘I’d like to tell one…’ But you can, we all can. But I didn’t expect him to…it takes time and practice…but he did. ‘I have one…’ And he told one about the Prophet Mohamed, how he’d turned his back on a privileged life and had lived simply and how when he died, his two closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar, had carried on his teachings in a similar way, despite many efforts to gain their support through bribery and corruption.’
‘I never knew,’ I said. ‘You need to tell these stories…the message of the Prophet is about peace and prayer and silence…everybody knows this, I said, don’t they? It’s the same message as Christianity and Judaism. It’s not about blowing people up and war. I ‘m glad you told your story. Come again and tell us more…share these stories with more people…’
Two hours had flashed by. We’d been lost in stories. I was so glad. This was how it must have been in the past and how it still is now. We’ve just lost the knack a little and need to get back practising. My son mentioned travelling around Europe again by rail. His friend looked unsure, ‘Islamophobia,’ he said, ‘there is so much of it about.’ ‘When I went by rail around Europe with Transalpino when I was younger than you two are now, I met with only goodness and kindness and generosity. I remember the Japanese young man who shared his bottle of water and packet of digestive biscuits with me when I realised at Trieste that it was two and half days to Sofia in Bulgaria, not one…Go, if you can, my friend, and share your stories and learn to tell others. It’s hard to live with fear when you meet so many good people on your travels.’
Enough for one evening! Here we were practising and lifting veils and building bridges and passing on our stories and sharing our light. What a lovely evening! Thanks, friends. Come again soon.