Story postcard – Simi and the story (3)

Simi sits straight. All are silent and waiting. Only the door fidgets as Tonderai circles back towards them. He steps into the firelight and she sees his eyes reaching first one person, and then the next. He stops in front of Marybelle, and her big eyes glue anxiously on to his.

“Girl knows she has to be veeery careful,” he says as though speaking to Marybelle alone. “Uncle will do what he has to with his tools, but she must arrange it so the others do not see. Slowly, slowly is the way, for every day Snake lies under the big, high Table, and waits and watches. But each new morning Girl and Uncle grow their cunning, and their plan.”

Tonderai turns to the fire. Now Simi cannot see his face, and if he were to speak she would not hear him, for the door ups its fidget to a battering. As the wind gusts it smashes away any chance of story, and forces Tonderai back to his seat.

Simi tries to block out the wind. She stares at the fire, her mind full of Snake and Girl and Grandpa. Grandpa, old, greedy and feasting. She imagines his feasts, his food, and feels her own hunger for a hot meal.

A takeaway. Pizza perhaps. Plenty of mozarella. Something on Netflix. Anything. Strictly. Yes Strictly.

Finally, at last, she does not know after how long, the door quietens and Tonderai gets to his feet. He throws the last of the wood into the fire basket and turns to face them. He clears his throat.

“Girl’s plan is this. Now, instead of reading, reading, she will become the one who writes the stories. A Storyteller. One who looks in on the world, and out at the world. Then she will fly her stories through the windows on the pages of old notebooks. On pages that are not quite finished. Pages that she will fill, and then fold into paper aeroplanes to fly out to find readers.”

Tonderai raises his hand, and launches an aeroplane up into the air above Simi’s head. She watches the small plane lift away, her mind travelling each swoop as it sees the little craft arrow towards the outside.

“Girl is fortunate,” Tonderai continues, his eyes still fixed on the distance, “because these days Grandpa likes to open the windows, to allow the people outside his House of Stone to see him in full view. To hear him when he says that he is a most excellent ruler. To see that when he says these things, the Favourites at his Table nod their heads so hard that they almost off. That they shout so loud that the whole world must wonder at his brilliance. This is good. This makes Grandpa proud. So that is why he asks for the windows to be kept wide so that all may see him at his Table.”

Tonderai pulls his shoulders back, pushes his chest forward, and thrusts his chin up into the darkness. Then he turns slowly from side to side as though admiring himself in a mirror.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2023

Story postcard – Simi and the story (2)

“‘Yeeesss! Of course!’ Girl shouts and jumps. She is very excited.” Tonderai’s voice layers upwards like icing on a cake.  “Girl runs quickly to tell Uncle her plans. He nods and smiles. Then 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.”

Tonderai pauses, then begins again, slow and quiet, the words flattening like a rolling pin.

“Uncle says his work will go 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 not strong enough. But they will not tell. They are used to the shadows. It is where they feel safest. Where they buy and sell and try to survive. And they feel sure that Girl herself, will not tell Grandpa that they too know of the plan. And they are very busy. And they are too tired …”

Tonderai drags the last phrase across the floor. He leaves it there, then turns, slopes his shoulders forward, and begins to creep towards Simi. He lifts his knees, high and careful, one after the other. And as he does so, he whispers, his voice like a knife through a swarm of bees.

“But there is someone who will tell, and that is Snake. Girl is very, very frightened of Snake.”

Simi stiffens, hypnotised by Tonderai as he approaches. Then, with a sudden splash, he spins around. Still crouched low, he retraces his steps to the fire basket, and then on beyond to the other edge of the billiard table. As the dark cloaks around him, Simi can see only glimpses of his mackintosh, but she can still hear every word, soft and clear.

“Everyone is frightened of Snake for he is the guard at the foot of Grandpa’s Table. He is insidious.” The word whistles out through Tonderai’s teeth, once and then twice, as he looks around at his audience. “Snake is insidious. That is a good word for Snake. A very good word. That word is mine, not from Precious, not from ‘bus stop gogo’. Snake is insidious, and silent. So silent that even the shadows do not see him coming.”

As Tonderai circles the table, Simi hears each boot splash. When he reaches the furthest point from her, he raises his voice, for now the door has started to fret again.

 “Girl hopes, and the Ancestors before her hope, that Snake will not see the work she and Uncle do. That he will not even consider that it might be possible. She has to hope this for Girl knows that if Snake sees them, she and Uncle will be ‘disappeared’. Last week they took Itai, and now he is gone. Yesterday they took Kudzai, and all fear that she too will be lost, or returned with her tongue tied to her feet. Just their names makes Girl shiver.”

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2023

Story postcard – Simi and the story (1)

As the pause in the story lengthens, Simi struggles to stay calm. Her mind is battered by the rain’s constant raging, and she cannot understand the upbeat energy of the others in the room, their banter loud, then drowned, then loud again. She tries to soak up some strength from the shine of Marybelle, but still every storm crash shocks her, each one racing her pulse to its limit.

She looks across at Tonderai leaning on the table like an actor in the wings, waiting for the weather to leave the stage. The sight of his ease steadies her a little. She studies him, her panic retreating as she does. His gaze is down, his face hidden, his mackintosh polished by shadow and flame.

Like a root, she thinks. Holding us. Slowly she feels the tension begin to ease out of her shoulders, and pulls the blanket a little closer. Then she closes her eyes, and decides to count, to carry herself off to bed like a child. Back in her childhood home the throbbing shove of the wind becomes the sound of London buses rumbling beneath her bedroom window. They brake, squealing, then accelerate away, while others return to collect more passengers. She hears their voices outside – waiting, joking. Her list of numbers grows longer … the buses quieter … the passengers distant … and the dark deeper …

Suddenly she snaps upright, neck aching. She looks around. Tonderai is still there, but now he is by the fire basket, sparks lifting around him as a fresh log settles into position. The room feels expectant, poised now the rain is no more than needles, and the door still.

“Tonderai please, what does Girl do?” Marybelle calls, other voices joining her.

 “Yes, Tonderai. More story please.”

“We can hear you now.”

“What happens?”

“We are ready,” says Bernard.

Tonderai shakes his head as though to clear it. “Aha. The story.” He holds his hands out over the fire as the sparks turn to young flame. When he begins, his voice is low. “Girl thinks and thinks. What can she do? She thinks so much that the Women get worried. Is Girl sick? No. Girl tells them she is thinking. She tells them that 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 this is the truth. They know that Girl knows that this is her path. But what they do not know, is that this Girl is not one for paths mapped out for her by others.”

Simi watches Tonderai lean back on his heels, eyes closed, arms crossed. His voice begins to rise.

“So, Girl sits and thinks. She sits and thinks for day after day. While the Workers work, and Grandpa feasts, she is thinking. Then, one day … ” Tonderai opens his eyes, “Girl stands tall. Her frown is gone. She raises her arms and shouts, loud enough for all to hear. “Yess! I have a plan.'” Tonderai stands, arms stretched high above his head, palms open. “Yes!” he repeats, his exclamation ringing through Simi, chasing out her panic. Her world is now Girl’s world.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2023