“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

Robert and Rabbit

He wrote the second half of the competition story out in the garden. When he stumbled across it on the website, it was the unfinished-ness of it that he couldn’t bear. He had never seen an unfinished story before. When you borrowed a book from the library it always has an ending, but this one seemed somehow screaming and bereft. He couldn’t bear it – it had to be mended, just as if he had gashed his hand and seen blood oozing from it he would have wrapped something round it, to plaster what was raw and suffering.

He printed it out and took it into the garden with his mug of tea, placing the tea carefully on the top of Rabbit’s hutch, unfastening the catch and opening the door, reaching in to stroke the silky ears. Responding to a familiar signal, Rabbit squeaked and lolloped out into the garden, disappearing by unhurried instalments into the uncut grass. Sitting on the kitchen chair, which he had dragged out through the patio door, taking advantage of the afternoon lull, when all that could be heard was the distant sound of children in the playground of the village school during their break, Robert began to read the short story so cruelly abandoned by Marius Hawkinge.

The story did not strike him as very good. It was about a young boy in the 1950s, train-spotting on the platform of a country station. He was waiting for a particular train although the story did not explain why. Quite a lot of not very interesting things happened in the story, which Robert found it difficult to concentrate on; a sparrow dropped onto the platform beside the boy and started pecking at crumbs; the stationmaster arrived and said a few words, warning the boy not to go too close to the edge of the platform; the signals changed, the signal arm clattered down, a bell rang, etcetera, etcetera.

Robert took in all these details, whilst finding them annoying. Some of them were actually wrong. Robert knew, because he read a lot of railway books, and his local library had the biggest collection of railway books in the country. The reference to green glass in the signal, for instance. Anybody who knew anything about railway signalling would know that lamp-glass was blue. It only appeared green when the lamplight was shining through it. And he’d got the signal arm going down, when it should have gone up.

Robert had never attempted to write a story before, but he knew from a lifetime of book-borrowing and his poor dead aunt’s passion for Agatha Christie novels that he would be expected to pick up this trail of irritating loose ends and give them some significance in the second half of the story – the bit that he would write. How, he wondered, could the famous playwright-person have given away his precious story, like leaving a baby on a doorstep. He supposed that the playwright must have been paid to supply it, but how could he? Leading on from that, Robert wondered if the playwright-person had actually attempted to finish the story himself. Surely he must have done, or how would he know it was finish-able?

Were there stories that couldn’t be finished, or could all stories be finished, no matter how unpromising their beginnings? Robert did not know, and presumed he would not know until he had tried. In the meantime a milk-scum had formed on the surface of his tea, and Rabbit had got under the wire into next door’s garden and was eating marigolds.

As he works, he becomes absorbed. He looks down at his hand, writing, sees the words taking shape at the end of the pencil, the pencil wearing down and needing to be sharpened, the crossings-out, the interjected thoughts, balloons and arrows scrawled on the blank page opposite – yet at no time does he have the sense that he is inventing anything. It is as if the story has been there all along: it just needed his brain, his arm, his fingers to bring it into the world. As he writes, the story tells him how it wants to end but, to the last word, he can’t be sure.

Looking up, he is astonished to see that the sun has gone down and a white flying-saucer of a moon is in the sky. He realises he is shivering, partly with excitement and partly because his back and shoulders are wet with dew. Rabbit has long since returned to his hutch of his own accord, and sits there now, chewing carrot-tops, his eyes focussed somewhere in the middle distance. As bats begin their dances in the gloaming, a ruminative happiness envelops them both.