Welcome to my first attempt at a recording of one of my stories. This one is actually a story within a story. It has been lifted out of a longer piece that I hope might one day become a book.
I have broken it down into three segments of approximately 20 minutes each. Over the next few days I’ll post both the audio, and the text, of each section as I complete them.
This story within a story is set in Africa, and is entitled Born out of a Storm. In it a wedding party is trapped by an unexpected cyclone in the lodge where they are celebrating. Some of the party have sheltered in the battered billiard room. A firedrum, lifted off the wet floor, and on to a pile of old tiles, gives off a little heat and light in one corner. We see the events unfold through the eyes of Rudd, the young manager. Tendai is his assistant.
(In the audio version below thunder marks the beginning and end of the episode.)
Born Out of a Storm – Episode 1
Rudd’s voice was loud against the rain.
“We need a storyteller …”
“Yes!” Marybelle shouted.
“No ways,” said Jacobus. “Come on, you know we’ve got enough problems without stories.”
Rudd saw the big man fold his arms across his chest, solid as a slab of rock.
“Too much reality to bother with more rubbish,” another male voice called.
Rain surged down on the roof. When it quieted, Rudd tried again.
“Stories are good man. Come on we must know a few. Tendai, aren’t you the one with the stories in the tea break?”
Tendai laughed and shook his head.
Wood smoke, unseen in the darkest corners of the room, smudged the air around those closest to the fire. Then the wind forced in through the broken door and swept the smoke away … but back it crept.
This storm is relentless. At least the fire drum is doing its job. Can feel the warmth from here. Fred and Bernard will have the best of it. Probably why they’re still alive. Love the flames. Even just the tips of them. Not great for the billiard table, but it’s better than freezing dark.
“Please Tendai. Just to take our minds off this storm, and the damage out there. Please, I’ve come all the way to Africa … there must be stories here. London’s packed with them.”
“Ah but …,” Tendai looked down at his boots. “We have stories, all the time, but a storyteller should know his audience. That is my problem here …”
“That’s no excuse,” Simi urged. “My teacher used to say stories go anywhere. They get inside. They change stuff.”
Rudd strained to catch the round edges of Simi’s accent.
Shut my eyes and I’d think she was white.
“Ah!” said Tendai and raised his head. “Then you have a story for us.”
‘No, no, no. That’s not what I meant. I’m hopeless at telling stories, but I’m a great audience. Try me … and the others can listen if they want.”
Rudd watched the gleaming eagerness of Simi, one half of her face in firelight, the other hidden.
If anyone can persuade him it will be her. Bet he can tell a good story. The staff here think so anyway. He’s got that kind of respect. And it’s not just that he’s tall and older than the rest of us. He’s dignified. They like him.
“I’ll listen,” said Marybelle.
“Me too. Old enough to be history but I could do with a story.”
Fred. Man was almost dead a few hours ago.
“I like stories,” said Bernard.
That will do it. Tendai likes that man. Plenty of authority, and he’s about two decades older. Still haven’t figured out how they know each other.
“Okay,” Tendai said, nodding at the older man. “There is one story.” Then he looked back at Simi. “You reminded me when you spoke of teachers.”
“Great,” said Simi.
Tendai rubbed his hands together slowly. Outside there was a bash of wind. It rattled above them and stirred the fire.
“My daughter told me this story while we waited for the bus last week.”
“Perfect,” said Simi. “How old is she?”
“Fifteen. She’s our last born, Precious. Her teacher told this story first. The teacher is an older woman, and the girls like her very much. I think it’s because she tells them too many stories.” Tendai smiled, eyes lost in thoughts of his daughter.
“Okay. Sounds good. Let’s have it then,” said Rudd.
Tendai began slowly. “This one is about a grandpa, an old man. And it is about a girl, a young girl. She is a bit like my Precious. Too clever. Ha!”
Tendai grinned lopsidedly, and rose to his feet. He walked slowly around the table, each step half-squelch, half-splash, and stopped in front of Fred. He bent slightly towards the hunched figure, cocooned in blanket like a silkworm.
“The grandpa in this story is not like these two,” he said, as he dipped his head first to Fred, and then to Bernard next to him. “These two gentlemen are good friends. One white, one black … old soldiers.” Then he took a step back, and turned to face those on the far side of the room. He raised his voice.
“This grandpa is a BIG man. We shall call him Grandpa. He too was a soldier when he was a younger man, and he does not forget that.”
Tendai spun round. Now he faced towards Jacobus, and had one fist clenched high. His voice grew louder, and his shadow jumped.
“Grandpa has arms like a baobab, and fists the size of gomos. Grandpa is not like Fred. Grandpa is a frightening man.”
Rudd heard Tendai’s voice switch its rhythm. He had become the storyteller, the hypnotist. He splashed back towards Simi, and his voice dropped to matter-of-fact.
“Grandpa lives with his people in a House of Stone, and in this house there is a table, a very high, big table. Every day Grandpa sits at the head of the table and he feasts. Below the table, are the Women who run to and fro to bring him food.
There are many others who huddle at Grandpa’s feet, beside his big, shiny, expensive shoes. They are the Broken People, and with them are the old and the frail.
These Broken People, all they have is hope. Every day they hope they will not get stood on. Every day they hope for food. They hope for water. They hope for light. Sometimes, now and then, if they have not been squashed, these People get a little of what they hope for, but so little that it is only enough to remember what it should feel like to be alive … but no more. These are the good days.”
Tendai’s eyes swept the room. Rudd followed them around the crowd. On one side, almost lost in the dark beyond the fire, were the young friends of the bride and groom. They were damp but still excited. Then back round to the benches on his side, past the weary, aged outlines of Fred and Bernard to Simi and Marybelle, the pair of them somehow still cheerful, then on to Jacobus by the broken door. He saw that each person listened, trapped, whether they wanted to be or not, by Tendai’s web.
“Amongst the People are many, many Youth … too many. Every day they try to climb the legs of the table for they see that the good things are above them. The good things are with Grandpa, and they want to sit there too. They want feasts. They want fast cars. They want gold bars. They want shopping trips to London and Dubai. Sometimes those who try to climb are lucky, but mostly they are not. When they get tired of their climbing and their falling they stand back and they watch. But they do not give up. They do not want to live in the dust. No.”
Tendai turned back to face the younger group. Rudd glimpsed the gleam of eyes as they looked up at Tendai.
“These young men, and women, these Youth, they listen to Grandpa’s tales of war and they see the Favourites at the table beside him. They hear the Favourites shake their guns and cheer. They hear their talk of violence and its power, and now they too want to have guns. They see that guns will make them Favourites, and they want these, for they want the Women to run around them, and others to fall back when they come forward.”
Thunder rolled outside, and in the grey of its lightning Rudd saw Tendai turn to Marybelle, and place a finger on his lips.
“But,” he heard, as they waited for the booming to pass. “But,” Tendai began again, “ … there are those who do not like Grandpa, and one of these is a small person is not a boy so she does not receive the scraps from the table. She does not even get one taste. No. She must serve, and wait, and be most obedient if she is to receive anything at all. This small person is Girl … but this girl … eeesh,” he shook his head, “she is veeery clever. And, what is more, this girl has Ancestors of Fire in her blood, and these Ancestors they know a thing or two. They will not let her be pushed this way or that way by those who think they are mighty. No. This person, Girl, has the power from those who came before her to see what is right and what is wrong. And she cannot be still. She cannot do what she is told if it is not a good thing. She is strong, very strong. But …” Tendai paused. He dropped his voice. “Most do not see this, for she is only a girl.”
Girl. The word sat soft between them, then drowned as the storm bashed hard at the door. It sulked back, then crashed again. For minutes the whole room seemed to shake, and then it stopped.
“This Girl,” Tendai said. “She is a brave one, like my Precious.” He raised his voice. “Now, beneath Grandpa’s table there are schools. Some are shiny new for the children of the Favourites, but many, many other schools – the faraway schools in the faraway rural lands, where many do not even see them – are falling down. Such is the school that Girl must attend. But some days, many days, she cannot attend for the school is closed, for the teachers have no money to come to the classrooms to teach, and in the classrooms there are no books and no desks.”
Then, from deep in the shadows, Bernard spoke.
“She is right. This gogo is right. The schools where I am from, they are nothing now.”
Rudd saw the droop in Bernard’s shoulders, the slow shake of his head, as Tendai turned to face him.
“Aha,” Tendai said, “but this Girl, this very clever girl, knows what she must do. Every day she is reading, reading. Learning, learning, so that she may know more of the world and how it may be. And, she is lucky, for she has books. Someone, somewhere sends them to her place beneath the table. She does not know who sends them, but she does not mind, for at least she may read. And every day her reading gets stronger and stronger. She knows that this is good, so that is what she does.”
Tendai paused again, and walked with wet steps around to the far side of the billiard table. As his tall figure disappeared into the shadows Rudd felt the wind push in through the door again. Tendai’s voice lifted out of the dark beyond.
“As the days pass, Girl’s learning grows like a river. It grows wide and strong, like a river when the rains come. And the more she learns, the more she sees that what Grandpa does is wrong. She knows that if you are the leader it is not good to have Favourites. Favourites who carry guns. Favourites who grow fat like pigs. Favourites with golden pockets. Favourites who do not care that others starve while they feast.
Sometimes, on brave days, Girl shouts and stamps her feet, but Grandpa only laughs. And when Grandpa laughs the Favourites laugh too. They shout down to her that one day they will squash her like a cockroach.”
Rudd felt Tendai’s words flick over the hairs on his arms, and down the back of his neck. He sensed that he had turned to face towards him. As thunder cracked in the distance he heard the wet clump of boots walk back around the table. Then, closer now, a rough cough as Tendai cleared his voice. He began to speak again, loudly, his voice edged with steel.
“This is bad for trouble, for now the Favourites notice Girl. They want to catch her, to hang her like a mouse by her tail, and then to beat her so others may know how strong they are. They want others to see that it is best to go quiet and to go hungry. That it is better to never say that what Grandpa and his Favourites do is wrong.”
The rain began to pound on the roof, and Tendai raised his voice still more.
“Girl knows that Grandpa is too greedy, that he does not care for his people who live below. Girl sees that instead, he feasts and feasts. She sees that while he eats, the people must work to fix the House, to keep it tidy, to do this, to do that. Yet, however hard they work, still they do not eat. There is not enough to fill their stomachs, so that they too can grow to be strong. Girl is worried, for every day she sees the people get weaker and weaker, and she knows this is wrong.
But what can she do? She is only one girl.”
The question flew up to the roof loud and clear, then the rain tried to drown it, but could not.
“As the days turned to months and then to more months, Girl sees that being furious is no good. It does not make things better. But she knows also that now she must do something for if she does not, then who else will?”
Again the question hung in the air. Rudd’s eyes locked on to Tendai’s as he approached, then stopped so close to him that Rudd could smell the damp and the smoke in his clothes. He could almost touch him, could have put his hand out to still the wind flap of his mac. Tendai did not notice him. His eyes were on the floor, on the inch deep water that swept in through the door and seeped between them.
“What is worse for Girl,” he said without looking up, “is that her beloved Uncle is tired, very tired, and with every day that passes he gets weaker, and there are no doctors in the hospitals to help him. Uncle is not a well man, not a strong man, but he is worse now that he cannot find enough to eat. This is a problem for all the Broken People, but for Uncle the hardship is double, for his feet are twisted in. They have been like this since the day he was born. His toes face towards each other so much that they are almost stumps. Uncle can walk only on the outside bones, and this makes some of the Broken People afraid.”
Tendai hobbled away, his gumboots bent out awkwardly. He reached Simi and then turned back to face Fred and Bernard.
“Uncle, who cannot reach the Table, is a carver but he is sick for lack of care. There is no place to go to get well, and he has no money for food, for there are no visitors to buy his carvings. These days the visitors who used to buy his work do not like to come to Grandpa’s House of Stone.”
Tendai paused. There was a soft thud as a log collapsed in the drum. Sparks flared, drifted at their edges by the wind. Above them the rain hammered down the silence and held it there. Rudd felt the pause stretch over minutes … and then the rain lessened.
“What does Girl do Tendai?” Simi prompted.
There was no response. She called to him.
“Tendai, please,” she said more quietly, “what does Girl do?”
Tendai turned to face her. He shook his head as though to clear it, and then began the story once more.
“What can Girl do? How can she move Grandpa whose table fills the room? Girl thinks and thinks. She thinks so much that the Women get worried. Is she sick? No. Girl tells them she is thinking, and they must leave her alone. So they do, for they are too busy with their work to stop for long. Soon Girl will be married, and then she too, like them, will have no time to think. They know that, and Girl knows that is her path … but she is not one for paths, especially ones that are mapped out for her by others. So, Girl sits and thinks. She sits and thinks day after day while the Workers work, and Grandpa feasts.
Then, one day Girl jumps up. Her frown is gone. Her hands are on her hips. She shouts, loud as a lion …
‘Yess!’ Then she clenches her fists like this.”
Tendai raised both fists, and pumped them high.
“‘Yeeesss …Of course!’ Girl shouts and jumps. She is very excited. Quickly she runs to tell Uncle her plans. He nods and smiles. Next she runs to tell the Women. At first they are worried. Then they go to see Uncle and he tells them how careful he will be. He tells them that Grandpa will not even notice. It will be slowly, slowly. The Women frown. They are frightened of this plan, but they are too tired to stop it … besides they know it will never work.
They shuffle away. Their shoes broken. Their legs tired. They cannot help for they are no longer strong enough, but they will not tell. They are used to the shadows. It is where they feel safest, and they feel sure that Girl herself will not tell Grandpa that they know. And they are very busy.
But there is someone who will tell, and it is Snake. Girl is very, very frightened of Snake.”
The end of Episode One
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2021