Some of my stories are scrabbling through philosophical ideas that have perplexed me as I look at little fragments of life. Sometimes the philosophy tries to make sense of the fragments of life. Sometimes the fragments of life try to make sense of philosophy. Sometimes they are just little stories.
Two rough collections of stories I’m developing are Totterdown Tales, notes from two periods I spent living in this area of Victorian terraces balanced on the edge of a cliff looking over Bristol, and Notes from the Waiting Room.
I read a story at Spark London on Monday October 3rd, 2011, at the Canal Cafe Theatre in Little Venice. The theme of the stories that night is The Kindness of Strangers.
The podcast of the story is here: The Button at Spark London
A short version of the story is here:
The Laundry Maid and the Trouser Button
When my daughter was three months old, I travelled with her to Hanoi where her father was working. I had bought a pair of white trousers not long after her birth, which were rapidly becoming too large as the baby weight dropped off. I can sew, but was occupied with the baby and her five year old brother. I held up the over-large trousers with a nappy pin.
The maids who came to clean at the hotel and to take each day’s dirty laundry would enter the room without knocking – it’s just their way – showing no surprise, embarrassment or concern to find its occupants in any state of undress. They would rush in, smiling and clapping their hands and stretching them out to vie with each other to take the baby for a cuddle. They spoke little English. The language spoken was the universal language of admiring the baby and fussing over the small boy. ‘One boy! One girl! Very Good Mother!’ Of course I did not feel like a good mother. I was sad, exhausted and lonely.
One day the laundry maid entered as I was just doing up the nappy pin on my trousers. I hadn’t even any idea that she’d noticed this. But the next day, when the clean, pressed trousers were silently returned, there was a new button neatly sewn in place, in exactly the right spot.
Thank you, Vietnamese laundry lady, for your attention and your kindness. I remember your kindness still.
Another tiny story:
A life laid out in teaspoons
On one of our walks, we met the man who was born in the cemetery. He showed us the exact room on the upper floor of one of the large, grand sandstone lodge houses where he had come into the world: a room that looked out onto the vast acres of graves, some higgledly-piggedly and overgrown or even collapsing as the trees took over, some laid out precisely like the white identical war graves, neat and ordered. He told us about the parties that his father, the cemetery keeper, used to have at the house in the 1960s. These parties raved on until the early hours and passers-by going along the main road up to Bath would see in fright flashing lights emanating from what looked like a crypt and call the police in panic. ‘My dad would always send me to answer the door when the police came’, said the man with a sly smile. ‘My hair was like this even then’. ‘Like this’ meant very long, very tangled, the general demeanour assisted by a very long and even more dishevelled beard. ‘I’d open the door very slowly to them, poke my head out, say “Hello there” and invite them in’. The police never accepted the invitation to join the midnight revelry. The house was a ruin now, being restored as part of a project to renovate the whole of Arnos Vale Cemetery.
‘My mother bought ten bags of sugar every week’, the man told us. ‘People are upset when they come here.’ It wasn’t his mother’s job, but nonetheless, every day she made cup after cup of tea for the people who came to bury their dead. Warm sweet tea for the shock, paid for and provided with nothing other than goodness of heart, she poured from her pot the tea of human kindness; a dose of order and succour amongst the undergrowth of grief. I thought then, and still think now, that if all she had ever done in life was to make tea for those streaming in the cemetery gates with sadness in their hearts, this was a life well lived. A life laid out in teaspoons of sugar.
I read a second story at Spark London on the theme of ‘Back from the Brink’. The story tells about the year my father died, and my aunt died, and my aunt’s final gift to me: to ask me to do something for her, to read her eulogy.