ON THE TRAIN TO CARRIGBAN © sophia wellbeloved
January 26, 2009
IN THE COUNTRYSIDE of my childhood, long ago, there was a small train with two carriages which jogged its way with its few passengers along the coast. Each Wednesday my mother lifted me into a carriage and set me with legs dangling into a corner seat. ‘Hold on, don’t move, and don’t talk to anyone’ she’d say, ‘ and Aunt Sara will collect you at Carrigban.’
Then the train would move off, but at the next station a woman in a lot of shawls, with bags would get on and start talking. I was afraid to say anything, but I nodded and shook my head for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ which in the beginning were the only communications I needed to have, with her.
The first time we were in the train together she said, ’Shall I tell you a story’ I nodded.
‘Will it be the one about eight pigs in a sty?’
I shook my head.
‘Or the one about the house that built itself.’ I didn’t like the idea of that.
‘Shall I tell you about Amos and his dog Luke?’
I nodded and she began.
‘This is the story of Amos, his dog Luke and the rope trick. Once there was a poor man Amos who had a dog Luke, that he wanted to teach tricks. ‘If you can learn these tricks’ said Amos, ‘we can travel and see the world together’.
To his amazement the dog replied ‘we can travel the world together anyway, even if I don’t learn the tricks’.
When he had recovered from shock Amos explained, ‘ we have no money and we need some so we can eat.’ He thought the dog was naïve.
‘What trick are you going to teach me asked Luke the dog?’ he was much intrigued despite himself.
‘You’ll learn to perform the rope trick, the first dog ever to climb the rope and disappear.’ Amos was a great fantasist, he had no idea how the rope trick worked, but he liked the idea of the dog working for him while he collected money and appreciation from applauding crowds.
The dog Luke thought about this and then said in a serious voice, ‘I could show you a much better trick than that.’ Privately he thought that Amos was an idiot who could never teach him anything, he wanted to run away from him.
‘Well show me this trick’ said Amos, and the dog set off at a trot with Amos following, soon the dog began to run and Amos fell behind, the dog Luke ran gleefully, savouring his freedom from a life time of performing rope tricks in village squares, soon Amos lost sight of him altogether.
‘After some hours the dog Luke stopped by a stream in a wood to drink and rest. While he was catching he breath he looked up.
‘What do you think he saw?’ asked the shawl woman. I shook my head, I had no idea.
‘He saw a rope hanging down from one of the trees.
‘Well this is a coincidence’ he said to himself, and put out a paw to touch the rope. Immediately the rope wound itself about his leg and began to pull him upwards into the tree, and then beyond the tree into a cloud where it suddenly released him. Luke sat comfortably on the cloud looking down at everything below him until it bumped into a mountain where he tumbled off and began to look around for something to eat. As he came round a rock he saw Amos sitting by a fire cooking something.
‘This really cannot be a coincidence’ said Luke to himself, he thought, ‘Amos must be a magician and he wants me to be his apprentice.’
‘That was a great trick you pulled off’ he said to Amos, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing it again’, he’d forgotten that he’d run away.
‘What trick was that?’
‘The rope pulling me into a tree and then into a cloud and letting me travel in comfort’ said Luke.
‘Nothing to do with me’, said Amos to himself, he thought ‘this dog is truly gifted, I must treasure him and he will lead me into a great life of adventure. Though I don’t want to be dragged up by my leg into trees and onto clouds’
‘Actually’ said Luke, having thought about it, ‘it was a bit sudden being pulled up like that, I don’t mind not doing it again’. He’d enjoyed it, but he worried about what might come next.
‘How kind he is’ thought Amos, ‘he realises that I would not enjoy his mode of travel.
‘So, shall we just set off to see the world without the rope trick?’ he asked Luke, and that is what they agreed to do.
With that, the train drew into Carrigban station and my aunt opened the door and lifted me out onto the platform.
THE NEXT WEDNESDAY I was excited, I wanted to see Mrs Shawl again, and looked out onto the platform for her when the train came into the first station. She was there and with even more bags bulging with things I couldn’t see and she had trouble squeezing herself through the door with them.
I smiled and smiled to show how glad I was to see her, and after she had settled herself and train had pulled away she said, as I’d hoped she would, ‘Shall I tell you a story?’
‘Will it be the one about the house that fell over a cliff?’
I shook my head.
‘Or the one about all the things I am carrying in my bag?’
I was tempted to find out what they were, but I couldn’t choose that story, so I shook my head again.
So, shall I tell you a bit more about Amos and the dog Luke?
I settled back happily and she began.
‘One day not long after they had set off together they were in a small wood which they had seen from high up on the mountain, they’d decided to go through it, so that the dog Luke could chase things to eat and Amos might find nuts, it was the right time of year for them. They hadn’t eaten a lot because Amos had not brought much food with him, and the dog Luke who had grown nervous, was too busy wondering what Amos was going to do to him next. In fact it took quite a bit of courage for him to agree to go into the wood at all. ‘Everyone knows that woods are magical places, look at what happened to me last time I was in one’. He’d completely forgotten how lovely the ride on the cloud had been.
Amos thought ‘that dog knows how to go about things, I’ll leave it to him to find something to eat, I’m not too confident I could find the right kind of nuts.’ So they walked on. The dog Luke was apprehensive, always on the look out for dangling ropes. So they neither of then really looked for anything to eat and they got hungry and rather bad tempered.
‘Haven’t you found anything to eat yet’ said Amos crossly.
‘I can’t see anything in here’ said the dog Luke, ‘it’s too dark, we should go out into the sunlight where I can see’. It was a small wood and by now they should have been out the other side of it, but they were not.
Then they heard the sound of someone singing, and when they went towards the sound they saw it was a woman, they watched her and she was gathering leaves and roots and also nuts.
Don’t let’s go any further’ said Luke, ‘until we decide how to approach her’.
‘Very considerate, thought Amos, we don’t want to startle her.’ Shall we sing something ourselves?’ he asked ‘then she can get used to the idea of someone being here before we come into view.’
‘We should’ said the dog Luke, ‘let’s sing a cheerful duet’. But when they began to sing, the woman straightened up, looked around then took her sack and began to run through the trees. They followed her without really knowing what they would do or say when they caught up with her. Eventually, they came in sight of a small house which she ran into and closed the door behind her.
‘What shall we do now?’ Amos was too hungry to think well, ‘she didn’t look happy’.
‘It’s a test thought’ Luke, I’m meant to come up with a solution,’ he felt resentful because, he said to himself, ‘I was tricked into being an apprentice by this magician, and if I fail goodness knows what he will do to me.’
‘Let me talk to her’ he said to Amos, ‘I’ll soon wheedle some food out of her.’
So he approached the door and knocked gently on it. The woman looked out the window and saw a dog, she shouted at it to go away.
But the dog Luke sat down and waited, then he knocked on the door again. The woman came to the door.
‘I’ve told you to go away’ she said, ‘so go’, and she was about to close the door when the dog Luke spoke to her.
‘That man over there’, he said twisting his head in the direction of Amos, is a magician, if you don’t do what he wants he’ll make a rope dangle down and when you touch it the rope will curl around you and drag you who knows where and won’t let go till he tells it to. But don’t let on you know, because if you do he may trick you in an even more unpleasant way.’
‘Really’ said the woman, and began to laugh, ‘would he really? I’d love to be taken off somewhere, I’m absolutely fed up with being in this wood. Come inside and have something to eat.’
Luke trotted back to Amos and said ‘it’s alright, she wants to feed us, come on before she changes her mind, I’ve told her you’re a magician, but she’s not to mention it.’
‘This dog is worth his weight in gold’ Amos said to himself, and they went into the house.
Mrs Shawl stopped telling me the story and looked out the window. ‘I can’t finish telling you this story now’ she said, we’re nearly at your stop, but if you’re here next Wednesday I’ll tell you the rest of it then. Will you be on the train again next week?
I nodded as strongly as I could. When Aunt Sara opened the carriage door she smiled at Mrs Shawl and lifted me out onto the platform.
THE NEXT WEDNESDAY took some time to arrive and when it did it was raining, I had on my new boots which made a clonking sound when I swung them back under the seat. The window was wet and streaky, so when the train stopped I couldn’t see Mrs Shawl until the door opened and she pushed her bags onto the floor ahead of her and clambered in.
She shook her shawls out and drops of rain flew about the carriage, she patted her hair and pulled her skirt into place and sat down. Once the train was moving she seemed to see me for the first time, ‘there you are’ she said, as though I had only just arrived, she leaned back and said, ‘So shall we go on with what was happening to Amos, Luke and Sandra?’
I looked as questioningly as I could.
‘Sandra lives in the house in the woods, she is giving Amos and Luke some nettle and root soup, you remember?’
I nodded. I hadn’t known about her name, but in my mind I’d already seen what Sandra looked like, and I’d wondered if Mrs Shawl had looked like that when she was young.
‘Well, said Mrs Shawl, ‘When they’d finished the soup, Sandra said to Amos, ‘so, you are a magician.’
‘I told you not to mention that’ whispered the dog Luke.
Amos had no idea what to do, he was not a magician, but if the dog wanted to pretend he was one he would go along with it, after all Luke had found them the soup. So he smiled and said nothing.
‘Do some magic now,’ said Sandra.
‘This is challenging’ thought Luke, who just wanted to lie down for a bit and digest the soup.
‘He probably is doing magic right now, in fact I think he is doing it all the time, but you can’t always see it, that’s because it’s magic and invisible.’
‘It will need to be visible for me’ said Sandra looking stubborn, or I won’t be interested at all’.
‘That’s the best thing’, said the dog Luke, ‘it’s best not to be too interested or he’ll do something frightening to you’.
‘I’m not scared’ said Sandra, and she looked at both of them and waited.
‘Did you realise’ said Luke, ‘that, while we were outside he taught you to speak Dog and that is the language we are using now?
‘No,’ said Sandra.
Well, did you ever understand when dogs talked to you before? asked Luke. He was thinking ‘I hope Amos does something soon, I’m not sure how long I can keep on thinking of things to say to her’, on the other hand he was enjoying it. He thought, she makes very good soup and she is far more cheerful than Amos, so I wouldn’t object to her travelling with us.
Sandra looked thoughtful and took away the soup bowls, ‘What you say is true, I’ve never talked Dog before, this certainly is magic.’
While she was out of the room Luke got up and went round the table to Amos. ‘I don’t like this wood’, he said, ‘and I don’t think Sandra likes it either, let’s take her with us, we can all go and see the world together’.
But when Sandra came back, and they asked her to go with them she seemed to be doubtful, ‘I don’t know she said, ‘I need something to convince me that now is the right time to leave. Though I do dislike this house.’
Then there was a kind of rumbling sound, and jars started to fall off shelves and roll on the floor, and the books fell out of the bookcase and all the taps turned on and the windows flew open and the doors banged and the table they were sitting at jumped up and down.’
‘This house really doesn’t like you’ said Amos, wondering what was happening.
‘About time, Amos did something’ thought Luke, ‘it’s another language’ he said to Sandra, it’s House-ish, have you ever heard it before?’
‘Sometimes I thought I did’ said Sandra, ‘but this is more shouting than talking, it is an angry and uncomfortable house, so I’ll come away with you right now.
With that, as you will have guessed, the train came round the bend before Carrigban, and I knew I would have to wait another week before I heard what happened next.
When we were going along the platform I said to Aunt Sara, ‘Can you speak Dog?’
‘Certainly can’, she said, which surprised me.
‘WELL’, SAID MRS SHAWL the following Wednesday. ‘Where were we, or rather where were Sandra, Luke the Dog and Amos the unmagical magician?
I didn’t know, they could still be in the angry house.
As though she had heard my thought Mrs Shawl said, ‘they might still have been in the angry house, or even still be in the wood, but no, they’d set off in the late afternoon and by the evening were out of the wood and walking along by a small river.
‘What is the river saying’ Sandra asked Amos who didn’t know, but he thought ‘as a magician I ought to be able to speak river’, he tried to look as magical as possible while he wondered what to do.
‘Just be patient, said Luke the dog, ‘Amos is teaching you’, listen to the river as we walk along and gradually you will hear what it is saying.
It was a warm evening and the stars were coming out, it was lovely to be walking by the river and listening to it, so they stopped talking and walked along till they wanted a rest.
If they hadn’t had Sandra with them they would have had nothing to eat and nothing to sit on, but fortunately she had insisted on bringing food and made them carry some blankets to keep them warm when the chill of night descended.
The next morning walked on and told each other stories about their lives, saying more or less what had happened in some cases, but with a bit of pushing and pulling of events, a bit of shrinking and expanding, the way that people feel they must according to the time of day, the people they are telling it to and other reasons that we won’t ever know.’
I nodded. I knew that what people said had happened did not always seem to be what I thought had happened, it was a puzzle. Are there things we will never know? I ‘d never heard a grown up person say that, I’d thought that one day I would know everything, that I had to learn everything. Mrs Shawl waited for me to finish thinking, then she went on.
‘When the dog Luke had finished talking, Sandra said to him, ‘and have you seen that rope again, the one that pulled you up into the clouds?’
‘No, said Luke, ‘I don’t suppose I ever will, he looked nervously at Amos, who was walking along trying to think how to tell his own story, and as he had a lot of imagination, there were many ways that he could make it fascinating, including turning himself into a magician.
‘I expect there was only one,’ announced Luke loudly, as though he was talking to the rope itself and telling it not to appear.
‘Well I think I’ve spotted it’ said Sandra, ‘there’s a rope dangling down under that willow tree.’
The other two looked at her, and then at the tree, there was a rope there swaying invitingly.
‘Oh that’s not the rope that took me into the clouds’ said Luke the dog.
‘How do you know’ asked Sandra. ‘Do you speak Rope?’ They didn’t say anything, so she went on ‘I see you don’t, well I do, I’m going off to talk to it right now.’ and she disappeared under the arches of the willow branches.
‘Those two are numbskulls’ she said to herself, ‘goodness know what would happen to them if I wasn’t here.’
‘Hallo Rope, she said in a firm voice’.
‘No’, said the rope, and swung languidly. ‘No is the wrong answer to hallo’ said Sandra.
‘No’, said the rope again, ‘No, no, no’, it sounded miserable, ‘Poor Rope, said Sandra, ‘it’s depressed’, and she put out her hand to pat it in a comforting way. But of course, the moment she touched it the rope wrapped itself around her wrist and pulled her upwards.
Just then the train itself gave a jolt, and I had to hold onto the little ledge by the window, we were coming into the station. I looked hopefully at Mrs Shawl,
‘Next Wednesday’ she said as Aunt Sara opened the door, ‘Next Wednesday, I’ll be here’.
‘Do you speak bench? I ask Aunt Sara as we passed one, or flower-bed?’, I looked round for other things to ask her about. ‘I speak lunch’ she said, and hurried me along.
I SPENT THE NEXT WEEK thinking about Sandra and where the rope would have taken her, what she would have seen and how the three would all meet up again, I was sure that they would do. Wednesday arrived and I remember that yellow leaves with rusty patches from the chestnut trees were blown along the platform while we waited for the train.
When it came in there was a strange woman in the compartment, she was reading a book and had on a blue coat with large buttons. Strangely my mother did not give me her usual instructions. Instead, she said to the woman, ‘please keep an eye on my little girl, she’s being collected at Carrigban.’
Actually the woman kept both eyes on her book the whole way to the next station, so I had the chance to have a good look at her. I liked to do this with people we met on the road, or in shops, I imagined their lives and then later I’d talk about them with my brother. It was a kind of detective game, though we didn’t know about detectives then.
I’d settled a lot of her life by the time we drew into Mrs Shawl’s stop. She got on and was going to sit in her usual seat, but then changed her mind.
‘I’ll come and sit next to you’ she said, ‘that way we won’t disturb the reading lady’.
‘She’s keeping an eye on me’ I said, ‘ So she is,’ said Mrs Shawl, and the reading lady did not look up.
After her usual wriggle inside her shawls and skirt she began quietly.
‘You remember that Sandra was being pulled up by the rope into the willow tree?
‘There she goes’ said the dog Luke as Sandra re-appeared and shot upwards into the sky, and through a cloud.
‘She’s gone’, said Amos, ‘I liked her,’
‘She made good soup’ agreed Luke the dog. ‘Why did you let her disappear like that?’
‘I have my reasons’ said Amos, this was not true. He had no idea what was happening. He’d never believed Luke’s account of being dragged upwards into a cloud. ‘Shall we sit down and discuss what to do next?’
But after they’d been sitting for a while, they still couldn’t think of anything they ought to do. ‘Let’s walk said Luke’ and see the world just as we planned, if we follow the river it will take us to the sea, he got up and began to walk.
Amos picked up the blankets that Sandra had brought and put them over his shoulder, and they walked for an hour or so, and then the river bent around some rocks and they couldn’t stay on the bank, to their left they could see a village. ‘The river will flow through the village,’ said Amos, if we go there we’ll catch up with it again.
But Luke the dog was sniffing the ground and the air and running about, suddenly his head went up and he ran really fast down the path. When Amos looked he could see that Luke was running towards someone coming from the village. The dog ran backwards and forwards along the path until Amos could see that it was Sandra, and he felt extremely happy, he even began to walk a bit faster, almost running the blankets flapping on his back until they all met and sat on the ground to catch their breaths.
Sandra was looking extremely excited and pleased with herself, she had some current buns with her, from the village and some apples.
‘How did you get these?’ asked Amos, ‘Rope got them’, said Sandra, and it’s still with me, with us. She showed them that the rope, a fine silky one, was coiled around her arm.
‘It is called Rope’ she said, ‘say hallo to it’.
Amos and Luke both said hallo politely, the rope said ‘NO’ in a loud sulky voice.
‘It never talked to me’ said Luke the dog.
‘Did you talk to it?’ asked Sandra.
‘No’ said Luke,
‘There you are’ said the rope uncoiling itself, ‘no is a perfectly good answer’.
‘It’s not a good answer to Hallo’ said Sandra. It’s been very unhappy’ she said, ‘but now its feeling better so it’s a bit tetchy, but it’s very clever. It just needed someone to talk to it’
The rope wriggled off Sandra’s arm and onto the grass, Luke began to play with it.
‘I can talk to you today’ I said to Mrs Shawl.
‘well, I am glad, I knew you could, because I heard you talking with your Aunt Sara.
‘Each day, I said, ‘when she put me on the train, my mother told me not to talk to anyone, but today she didn’t say it, because of the reading lady.’ We looked at her, she was still engrossed.
I said ‘Why did she tell me not to talk with anyone when there was no one to talk to, but when there was someone to talk to, she didn’t?’
Mrs Shawl didn’t seem to know, so I asked, ‘Is the rope really called Rope?’
‘And did it stay with Amos and Luke and Sandra, and go with them to the sea?’
‘Well, there is just time to tell you what happened next before we get to Carrigban.
Sandra explained that the Rope would like to tell them it’s story, ‘and it would be kind of you to listen’ this was on account of Rope being depressed. They weren’t much interested in the story, because they were on the move, the river had come back into view and they were now on its bank again, they simply wanted to walk.
‘Once’ said Rope, ‘I was a magician like you’, it waved towards Amos, and I am still a magician, only then I turned myself into a rope and now I can’t stop being one. Amos was interested, ‘and before I was a magician I was a dog’. Luke’s ears went up.
Rope’ whispered Sandra to it, it was coiled around her arm again, ‘you’re just making this up aren’t you?’.
‘No,’ said Rope untruthfully. ‘It’s rope anthropology, we know that our origins are canine and human, I can’t remember what I was before I became a dog. Though we do have a mythology that gives accounts of it.’
The reading lady, put her book away and got ready to leave the train, it was once more coming slowly into Carrigban.
‘Ah, said Mrs Shawl, ‘we’ll have to wait till next time to hear Rope’s story.
‘Don’t you know?’ I asked her.
‘Not until it tells me’, she said as Aunt Sara opened the door and lifted me down.
THE NEXT WEDNESDAY was a lovely day, the sky was full of birds and people looked in a good mood. My mother was in less of a rush than usual, and when she put me on the train she forgot to tell me not to talk to anyone.
The reading lady was not there and so I watched the sea come into and out of view between trees and houses until we got to Mrs Shawl’s stop.
She seemed to have fewer bags with her than usual and soon settled into her corner and smiled at me.
‘Has Rope started to tell you its story?’ I asked her.
‘Well, it has, ‘ said Mrs Shawl. ‘but it is a bit moody, it wants to tell about being twisted.’
I leaned back and waited.
‘All ropes are twisted’ said Rope in a lofty lecturing tone, the others went on walking. ‘We have no memory of it, and there are conflicting stories of how we were created. There are psychic ropes who receive messages from somewhere, through the air or the ether, I’m not one of those, and others who experience being untwisted, which is incomprehensible to most of us, usually they never recover from such experiences and have to remain coiled somewhere secluded because they become sensitive to noise.’ It sounded upset.
Amos became interested, at last something he knew about, ‘we could tell you how you were made’ he said helpfully.
‘Please don’t ‘ said Rope, ‘I begin to feel quite ill when people talk about that. I’ll unravel’ it said, sounding terrified and threatening at the same time.
‘Why do you grab people and take them up into clouds? asked Luke the dog.
‘It entertains me’ said Rope and offered nothing further.
‘You don’t have to tell us your story’ said Sandra, ‘not it you don’t want to’.
‘I could tell you the story of someone I captured and took for a cloud ride’ said Rope,
they all nodded encouragingly, and so it began.
‘ Mostly’, it said, I look for bored people, or dull unimaginative people to capture, they are the most shocked and surprised and they give off waves of emotion that I enjoy, but occasionally I have grabbed hold of people who really need to get away from where they are.’
Amos would have liked to ask something about this, but thought better of it, ‘now that it’s started he thought ‘we shouldn’t interrupt it.
‘One day, said Rope, ‘I was floating along when I saw a cloud of smoke, so I went into it to see what was happening. I saw a whole house on fire and at one of the windows I saw a boy who couldn’t get out, he was too high up to jump and he couldn’t go back because of the fire.
‘When I got level with the window I dangled in front of him and of course he grabbed onto me and I carried him away, he was writhing and struggling, I had a difficult job to keep hold of him, I was really pleased to get him on the ground and back with his parents.’
Rope stopped talking.
‘And then? Said Sandra encouragingly,
‘and then what? added Luke,
‘and then nothing’, said Rope, ‘I was glad to say goodbye to him.’
‘I don’t think that’s a story’ said Luke, nothing really happened.
‘Rope did save his life’ said Amos reprovingly,
‘Well yes, said Sandra, and that was good of it, but as we don’t know the boy, not even his name, it doesn’t feel like a story.’
‘His name’ said Amos ‘is Derrick’. He looked at the others, and watched while their discontent faded away, he felt truly happy.
‘I used to know his father’, went on Amos, ‘we lived near each other, and Derrick used to come to me for lessons, when he grew up he became a sailor and for a while he was a pirate.’ Amos knew he could go on with the story of Derrick for hours, and the others would be happy listening to him, and he would be happy telling them everything that his imagination told him.
I wondered about Mrs Shawl, ‘I don’t know anything about you Mrs Shawl’, I said, ‘not even your real name’.
‘Mrs Shawl is the right name for me, and you do know something about me’ she said in a friendly way, and we needn’t know each other’s names in order to be interesting’.
‘People usually do want to know’ I said, thinking about it.
‘But the things that people usually want to know aren’t always interesting’.
This was certainly true, people wanted to know things like, ‘have you washed your teeth?’ and ‘do you know what time it is?’ when obviously they already knew about both the teeth and the time.
I was still thinking about this as the train drew up, and Aunt Sara opened the carriage door.
THE NEXT WEDNESDAY Aunt Sara was on holiday, and so I didn’t go to Carrigban. I stayed at home, and played outside in the garden which was on a steep slope going up the side of a hill. It overlooked the sea, the horseshoe harbour and the small green island you could row to, depending on the tides.
We’d been there once, with another mother, her children, and, I think, a man who did the rowing. I can’t remember them all now. There is a big hole in the ground which we went to look at, I suppose it’s the entrance to a cave. The other mother said that it might be the doorway to Atlantis, a continent that existed under the sea. She didn’t say it was that, she said that is what people believed. It sounded exciting, a complete continent underwater, but when we got there and I looked down into the darkness, there was a smell that came up, which I didn’t like. The island didn’t have sand round it, but sharp flat pieces of dark stone, so you couldn’t sit on it comfortably. It was cold and I remember someone saying that the weather was ‘blowing up’, there was a worry about getting back to land. Fortunately once we were home again and several days had passed, the island returned to being a beautiful place to look at, just as it had before we’d set foot upon it.
I sat on the top of the iron gates into our garden watching the occasional ship and the small boats. I thought about Derrick being rescued by Rope and growing up to be a sailor, and then according to Amos becoming a pirate. I tried to think of what might have happened to him, but I didn’t know anything about pirates, I wanted to know why his house had caught fire, and what had happened afterwards, where had he gone to live, did he have sisters and brothers, a father and mother?
Suddenly I saw Rope sitting beside me, well coiled loosely over the top of the gate. I had an idea.
‘NO’ I said very loudly.
‘Hallo’ said Rope, in an offhand, distant kind of way.
Rope took some persuading to tell me what it knew about the house that burnt down and where the family had gone.
‘The house didn’t really burn down completely, said Rope, ‘it just had a bad fire in the kitchen and they stayed living there’.
‘Oh, I said, ‘so they repainted the kitchen and got new cupboards. Did Amos help them?’
Rope was scornful, ‘Amos’ it said, ‘Amos is not the kind of person who is useful with his hands.’
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘I am experienced in knowing’ said Rope in that final voice that grown up people used when they didn’t want to be bothered explaining things, which was really most of the time.
I remember thinking how odd grown up people were, they lived in a different world from me, a much smaller world inside their minds which were shrunk and which they couldn’t get out of, and when I turned to Rope again, it had gone.
THE NEXT WEDNESDAY I went back to thinking these thoughts as I sat in the carriage. For the first time I was not certain that Mrs Shawl would get on at the next stop. But she did, and though we met many times after it, this was an exceptionally important day for me.
When she’d put down all the bags, I could see that she had a very small, grey curly haired dog with her. ‘I’m taking him to a friend’ said Mrs Shawl, ‘His name is Augustus’.
‘The friend or the dog?’ I asked, uncertain which of them was Augustus.
‘This is Augustus, my friend’s name is Gwen’. Augustus settled onto Mrs Shawl’s feet and fell asleep.
‘I did miss you last Wednesday’ I said, ‘but I found out some more of the story on my own’.
‘Tell me what you found’ said Mrs Shawl.
‘Well, I was wondering what happened to Derrick, and I couldn’t find out about him becoming a pirate because I don’t know anything about them, apart from pictures in books. I wanted to know what happened to him after the house burned down, I was worried that his parents or his sister, if he had one, would all be safe.
‘And were they?
‘They were. It turned out to be a fire in the kitchen, I know that because … Mrs Shawl,’ I wondered if I could tell her this, ‘because …’,
She was encouraging. ‘… because Rope came and coiled around the top of the gate I was sitting on.’
She nodded looking pleased and asked, ‘What colour was the kitchen?’
‘It was cream and green before the fire and had cupboards high up that were difficult to reach’, I said, and Derrick’s mother had never liked it, maybe that’s why it caught fire? Though I’m not sure about that, still, after the fire they had new cupboards, at the right height for reaching into them and the kitchen was painted yellow and had a new window, but I don’t know what was outside the window.’
‘Did Rope tell you about this?’
‘Not all of it, just about the fire, not what the kitchen was like afterwards, it also told me that Amos wasn’t ‘good with his hands’, and then while I was thinking about something it disappeared’.
‘Was Rope bad tempered? asked Mrs Shawl,
‘Not exactly, it pretends to know things, but won’t explain them. It doesn’t understand anything.’ I looked out the window and saw that the trees had lost their leaves, so we could see more of what was behind them, new houses and fields had come into view, new bits of the sea and sky.
When I looked back into the carriage, Mrs Shawl said ‘ what did you see outside the new kitchen window?’
‘Nothing, just blackness,’
‘Would you like to know what is out there?’
‘I’m not sure I do. There can’t be a window with nothing outside it and yet there it was’.
‘I expect you could find out if you want to, but if you don’t you could always see what happens inside the kitchen’.
I think it’s very, very, busy inside there,’ I said, having a vague feeling of a lot of people coming and going, ‘Do you know what happens in there?’
‘No’, said Mrs Shawl.
‘There isn’t any father’ I said, ‘perhaps he was away being a pirate and that is why Derrick wanted to go to sea and be one as well, though he was not the right kind of person to be one’.
While I was wondering about this Mrs Shawl began to look in one of her bags, Augustus woke up, looked around and then fell asleep again. She eventually found what she wanted it was something loosely wrapped inside a lot of crinkled grey paper without any string which she leaned over and gave me.
When I took off the paper , I could see it was a book, it had a soft, padded peacock blue cover, which had pictures of men with umbrellas walking over little bridges, and in between tiny trees, it was shiny and beautiful. I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t speak at all. I stroked it, turned it over and then after some time I opened it, it had beautiful cream pages, with nothing written on them at all.
‘I’ve had this book a long time,’ said Mrs Shawl, ‘ and now I’d like you to have it, will you look after it?’
I said I would, I was in awe of the book and the responsibility for looking after it.
‘Wrap it up again’ she found some string in one of her bags, ‘and tie it up and take it home and keep it safely’.
At that moment we drew in to Carrigban, and Aunt Sara appeared in the doorway. ‘Thank you’, I said, as I was lifted out, ‘next Wednesday’ said Mrs Shawl.
‘Is that a present for me?’ asked my aunt as we went along the platform, ‘No’ I said, and she didn’t ask any more about it.
THE NEXT DAY was fine and I was sent out into the garden to play, I climbed up to the top where there was a swing under some trees, and I was remembering Amos, the dog Luke, Sandra and the Rope all going along the river bank towards the sea, when suddenly a huge fish jumped out of the river and swallowed Rope, who had been wriggling and bouncing along on the ground playing chase with Luke. Then the fish dived down into the water and disappeared.
In a moment Luke the dog had also jumped in, Sandra and Amos stared after it.
‘No need to worry’ said Amos, ‘that dog is a genius, he can do anything, he’ll soon get Rope back.
‘I’m not worried’, said Sandra, ‘Rope is quite able to get itself out of anywhere, I just hope it returns in time for lunch’. She had got used to Rope always ‘finding’ things, sometimes in small gardens at the back of people’s houses, sometimes in their kitchens, and sometimes in shops in villages nearby.
Just then a small Pekinese came bounding round some bushes, it had a very high screechy bark, and snapped at their ankles.
‘Tell it to stop’ said Sandra to Amos, but the Peke took no notice.
‘Why isn’t it speaking Dog?’ asked Sandra, ‘we can’t understand it at all’, Amos thought quickly, ‘It’s foreign ’, he said ‘ and it speaks a foreign dog that we don’t know. I could learn it’, he suggested doubtfully and a bit nervously as the small dog kept advancing and they were backed up against a tree.
Then I heard my mother calling up to me, she wanted us to go shopping, so I had to leave all of them were they were, and scramble down towards her to get ready to go out.
I wanted to go back to thinking about them all, but I didn’t get a chance to go on with the story then, and when I did, something strange happened. What it was, though I didn’t have the words for it then, was that I learned the appalling necessity of abandoning plans, or the absolute necessity of overturning plans. Plans were rules in our house, but plans for stories obviously did not work in the same way. When I wanted to go back to Amos and Sandra, backed up against the tree, being barked at, I couldn’t find them. Nor could I find them a few moments further on in the story , because I’d somehow realized that they were all going to end up underwater and I didn’t know how they could breath.
I imagined, just now, that because all my thinking had gone into the breathing question, I would have had no energy left for the story, but again that is wrong. If the problem about the breathing had come up in the course of the story Luke or Amos would have found a way to breath, they weren’t going to let themselves drown, so I can see now that there were two kinds of things that stopped the story. One was the outside disturbance of my mother and the shopping and the other was my own doubts about the breathing question which came into existence separately from the story.
So, the next Wednesday , when Mrs Shawl had settled I was bursting to tell her what had happened.
‘I’ve lost Amos, Sandra, Luke the dog and Rope, I said, and I can’t find them.’
‘Oh’, said Mrs Shawl, ‘that is interesting, had you taken them over? Why did you, and where have you taken them?’
‘I wanted to know what happened next’ I explained, ‘I couldn’t wait till today’, and then I said what had happened.
What about Derrick?’ asked Mrs Shawl.
‘I wasn’t interested in him’ I admitted.
‘Well he was in Amos’s story, and he hadn’t got very far with it. What did you think about that Pekinese?’
‘Was he a foreign dog’
‘No, he was an English Pekinese, he spoke regular Dog, Luke just made up about Amos teaching Sandra Dog language, to convince her that Amos was a magician.
‘Then how did Luke learn to speak to us?’
‘His mother taught him, she was a remarkable dog herself’.
‘In a story’, she explained, ‘every time a person appears, or says something or does something, if you ask ‘why?’ hundreds of other stories will start off in you head, and you have to choose which one to follow. It’s like seeing many paths through the woods or across fields, but as each step creates new paths, you can always change direction.’
‘Rope doesn’t have to breathe’, I said, ‘so the fish could take him a long way down the river, going towards the sea, and the dog Luke could swim after them, then Rope Luke, Sandra and Amos would all have different stories for a while.’
‘They would meet again?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said ‘I know they would’.
Then, as it always did, the train arrived at Carrigban, but there was no Aunt Sara at the window. Mrs Shawl opened the door and looked out. ‘She’s just coming’ she said and lifted me down the steep step to the platform. The guard waited until she was back in the train and Aunt Sara had reached me before blowing his whistle.
AFTER THAT DAY there were many other Wednesdays, they rolled on as winter arrived and Mrs Shawl was even more bundled in clothes, but oddly, I seem to remember, carried fewer bags, then spring and the windows of the carriage were opened again, and the air came in full of sea and dampness and bird sound, and my hair flew about, and then summer which slowed everything down, and gave people better tempers.
During the journeys the stories would cross from one side of the carriage to another, sometimes she was telling me what happened and then sometimes I was telling the stories and she was asking questions. I found out that I need not think about the stories and what happened in them, but just keep on as though I were hearing them tell themselves to me.
‘Do stories ever end?’ I asked one day. She looked at me her eyes were questioning.
‘If you are not here, will the stories disappear?’
‘I don’t think so, you might stop listening to them for a while.’
‘But then they’ll start again?’ I wanted to be sure.
‘As soon as you listen to yourself, or to me, or to anyone at all, or if you listen to things, or to places, stories will talk to you’.
‘Wherever I am?’
‘Wherever you are’.
‘Really’ I said happily, questioning and answering at the same time, ‘really, really’.
‘Truly, really, really’ said Mrs Shawl laughing as we went round the familiar bend, and into the station at Carrigban.
© sophia wellbeloved