Once upon a time long ago letters were physical. Written correspondence meant pages of smooth paper impressed with swirls of ink, marked by whatever stains gave the writer away - tea, coffee, blood - and sullied with fingers that might have opened and closed the sheet a hundred times before sending. Mary always opened her letters with reverence, ignoring the whiff of perfume or stench of need, unfolding whatever papers were enclosed and reading aloud like a child. She improvised missing grammar or adjectives, got a feel for tone, the person, the truth. It was a habit that taxed co-workers, drove friends to despair, and had passengers on the Underground eying her with distrust. She read menus aloud, signposts, advertisements, food ingredients, the small print, the large print, needing to hear the words.
But none were as potent as the ones she searched for between the lines in the problem-filled letters addressed to Mother Mary.
When technology ended the enchantment - turning letters into monstrous, impersonal emails, slang, acronyms and emoticons - Mary, agony aunt for Loving Life! magazine, still read her mail aloud. She gave voice to the misspelt sexual deviations and unpunctuated emotional trauma on her computer screen, while deciding which six problems were worthy of featuring on the Mother Mary page. It was no easier distinguishing one sorrow from another. Should a sixteen-year-old bulimic get more attention than an obese father of four who can’t work and searches for love online? A page in a magazine was no space. Mary often found a theme; it might be a colour, blue and grey being common though splashes of red anger often burned the page. But finding answers for all the cries of help me and tell me what to do and stop me jumping came no easier with a shade.
“Stop reading that depressing stuff aloud!” yelled Brian-in-Advertising.
“Quit the suicide shit!” was Georgia-in-Editorial’s Monday lament.
“Must you keep singing that sorry song!” called Sharon-in-Accounts.
“Then help me help them!” cried Mary.
And so they did. Mary crafted her answers from the diverse experiences of colleagues, found verbs in their recollections of past heartache, nouns in their shared confession, alliteration in their united rant, and adjectives in their occasional wordlessness.
In sleep we face our fears, she told Keith The Theatre Fan who wrote that the best dreams he had were the ones in which he died. A common theme is death and in exploring your dark thoughts you give them life, Mary responded. In the magazine’s bumper Christmas edition she told Katrina in Hull who couldn’t remember, Look to the future and the past will present itself when it feels you’re ready. Vague answers to vague questions. Specific ones were somewhat easier. Ones like, what do I do about my nosy mother-in-law who says her cherry pie is better than mine? (“Lock her out,” said Brian-in-Advertising without pausing for breath) and, how can I keep my husband’s eyes from wandering to the busty teenager across the street? (“Buy a good bra,” said Georgia-in-Editorial, cupping one breast.)
The postal sack delivered daily to Mary’s desk shrank as email took over. Mary’s inbox then diminished as Internet forums took over. But the oh help me still found a way in.
On a Tuesday some years into the technological age Mary was interrupted halfway through an email from Embarrassed in Kent. It didn’t begin with a chair. It began with a towel fashioned in the shape of a giraffe that my mother made when I was ill as a child. That giraffe became my only friend. Then I pretended the fat, squidgy chair in my room was a jolly person. Now I only find happiness while in the velvet armchair in our living room, talking about the world. My sister came home early from her Support the Blind group yesterday and caught me kissing the chair arms and said I need help and now I - click, Suzanne the Features Editor closed the door, and her words, “Must you read that silliness aloud,” disturbed the gentle flow of narrative. “Jane wants you in her office, now.”
Editor Jane’s office belonged in the era of letters, when pastel paint was fresh not passé and fake Yucca plants considered the height of horticulture. Mary took a chair that wouldn’t be comfortable for any longer than ten minutes and thought for some reason of the first letter she’d ever received. In it Sue from Aberdeen had described how she couldn’t listen to certain music without vomiting. My father used to sit cross-legged with me in his lap and force me to learn the violin, an instrument he’d perfected. He’d expect me to play like him. When I couldn’t, because my fingers were only three-years-old, he discarded me. I never pleased him and he left when I was seven. Mary remembered all the stories - every chapter, every headline. She saw them now instead of the Loving Life! covers that decorated her editor’s wall like garish gravestones.
“You must’ve noticed your emails are becoming fewer and fewer,” said Jane, her hair twisted like a would-be-Rapunzal. “The internet’s plethora of how-to sites and home-made self-exploration renders the traditional agony aunt redundant, I’m afraid. They let Stella Stokes at Country Charm magazine go last week. Bladder weakness only fills so much space.”
Mary stroked one hand with the other as though it were a sheet of blank paper waiting for questions or answers. “Problems are still as urgent now as they always were even if letters are less,” she said.
“Maybe, but I cannot keep you, Mary. I’m sorry.”
People on the London Underground still enjoyed the physical as reading material. Book blurbs and newspaper headlines hid faces. Their pages turning irregularly and crudely and softly were a lullaby to Mary. She held the overhead rail of a half-empty carriage where passengers sat apart, each finding a chair not next to another person. As the coach swayed Mary held tight and took from her pocket a printed sheet. The last problem. The one she had started reading before Jane asked her to leave. Mary read. The prose wouldn’t stay in her head and escaped on tiptoe. The travellers quieted - silence was a domino that fell one and the next and the next, until Mary’s poetry was all that existed, interspersed by clanking steel and shrieking wheels. –don’t think I can find pleasure in real people again. Only chairs. Soft, round objects. How safe it feels to sit in one. I had to sit on the chair-arm at a busy family party and the uncle occupying the seat part kept moving suddenly and I shouted at him for being thoughtless. But with my sister’s judgement and her threatening to tell our mother I feel my only friend was never real and I’ll not find one again. A woman in a blood-red blouse shifted in her seat and gripped the arms as the juddering of the train rose through her body. When Mary stopped the silence continued.
“Don’t stop,” whispered an old lady with carrots cradled in her lap. The train slowed and the doors swished open for passengers, but no one stepped off. So Mary went on with the story. I’m sure every day you hear from people with much worse situations than mine - women who’ve lost children and men who’ve lost jobs and children who’ve lost everything. All I’ve lost is that feeling as a child of being completely safe. A chair won’t hurt me. Am I a lost cause? Mary lowered the sheet of paper and it fluttered with the vibration of her breath and the train’s speed. She read another story. Bedtime Stories for the Sleepless. Hear our nightly tale, which will carry you into dreamland between dusk and midnight. Magical words await your ears. Call 0890 664433. Happy-ever-afters are here.
“Well, that makes no sense,” said a man no longer hiding behind his well-worn paperback. “What about the girl who likes chairs?” asked the old woman.
“She’s reading that advert.” The woman in the blood-red blouse pointed to the poster above the window depicting a tousled child floating on a cloud, clutching a telephone. “It’s that helpline for lonely children. They read ‘em a story when their idle parents won’t. I see it every day and wonder what their happy ending is.”
Mary stayed on the train until the end. Then she walked home in the rain.
Once upon a time, long before Google and You Tube, Mary was a quiet child. Ssshhhed and hushed by a mother who rarely got up, she learned to walk without footsteps, eat without crunching, and read without moving her lips. “I can hear you!” bounced down the stairs and Mary covered her ears, squashing them until only blood and thoughts existed. She was a shadow to her mother’s sun. At her funeral Mary whispered lines she’d scribbled on the back of history homework to a row of lacklustre faces. “We can’t hear you, Mary,” said Uncle Hubert. Mum, I can’t see you now but I’ll always... “Louder, sing it, Mary,” said Uncle Hubert. ... hear you and I’ll miss the... “Louder!” ... reminders that I exist.
Now, with her role as Mother Mary redundant, she dimmed the lights and crawled under the patchwork throw on the sofa, hoping sleep was among the colours. It wasn’t. She picked up the telephone and after only three rings a drowsy voice said, “Bedtime Stories, what’s your favourite?”
Mary could have listed hundreds. There were tales she’d only ever heard in her head. There were books she read as a child where the illustrations inside were so noisy she’d shut the pages in a flash.
“Shall I decide for you, sweetheart?” asked the drowsy voice.
Mary said, “I’m not after a story. I’m not a child - I’m wondering how I might go about applying so I can tell them.”
The tired voice had a name - Jasmine - and she described how the helpline was desperate for readers, that despite placing twenty advertisements for natural storytellers in a variety of superstores and libraries they’d interviewed only twelve people in the last month, six of whom accepted, three of whom were now working seven evenings a week.
“There are probably fifty children to every storyteller we have and it’s increasing,” sighed Jasmine. “Parents work fifteen-hour days and don’t have time for Cinderella or Brer Rabbit. Most kids don’t even have a bookshelf now.”
“It’s such a wonderful idea - a story-line where children can hear fairytales.” Mary sat up in the semi-dark. “Who thought of it?”
“I think doctors got sick of prescribing sleeping pills for babies.”
“Bedtime Stories, what’s your favourite?” Mary spoke the line she’d practised in the mirror for two weeks, giving life to the words she’d watched others repeat in the private rooms of the Bedtime Stories for the Sleepless building, like a phrase stuck eternally in some internet search engine. Settling into the beanbag in the womb of the building - a small, carpeted booth - she realised with confusion that there were no books. The shelves were empty. The walls and the floor and the small coffee table were bare.
“I’ve heard all the stories and I’m tired of them.” The girl’s voice was high and Mary’s hopes sank. “Have you got any new ones?”
“What stories do you like?” she asked, scanning the floor where grey cord offered no inspiration, looking at the door like it might open onto a prologue.
“Ones I haven’t heard,” said the child.
Mary lifted the beanbag and looked underneath. Voices rose and fell in other booths, a tireless analogue Internet connection signal, trying and retrying, trying and retrying. The readers read and the sleepless listened. Not all the wakeful were children. During Mary’s training course Jasmine said that one caller was a grown man, Jamie, who rang from his sick-bed and liked to hear the story of Mr PinkWhistle or else he cried until long after midnight.
“Let’s see what stories we have,” said Mary, pausing as though selecting one. “What’s your name?”
“Ashleigh,” said the girl. “I’m seven.”
“Okay. Let’s see.” Mary recalled Jasmine’s suggestion that if a child had no clue what story they wanted then it was up to the reader to use their intuition and assess what genre or theme the youngster might enjoy based on clues given, like age, sex or intellect.
“So what’s the name of my story?” asked Ashleigh.
Mary opened her palms as though a book rested in them. “It’s called... it’s... Where Do Bedtime Stories Go After Midnight?” She waited for laughter or demands of an explanation or the dialling tone, half-hoping for respite from having to improvise a dream story for a squeaky seven-year-old.
“Will the story answer the question?” asked Ashleigh.
“I don’t know.”
“Haven’t you read it before?”
“No.” Mary looked at the lines criss-crossing her palm.
“What fun this will be.”
“Are you sitting comfortably, Ashleigh?”
“I’m in the rocking chair in mum’s room. I like to sway while I listen. How old are you, missus?”
“Forty-two.” Mary felt the weight of expectation in the next pause. Then with no books or pages or words, she read instead her palms.
Once upon a time, long ago, books were physical. The words inside the pages knew where to go and who to pair up with and so the stories were vivid and sensible and turned out well. The best ones didn’t even include pictures for they only stole from the words. These physical books lived very happily on shelves and in cupboards and beside children’s beds and-
“This isn’t much of a story,” squeaked Ashleigh. “There’re no people. You have to have people.”
“Oh. Yes, they’re coming, you just have to wait.” Mary spoke slowly, buying time until characters walked into her story.
One day, maybe three days into the story, the main girl, whose name was Katrina and who lived with a very kind mother and father who knew the importance of physical books and who introduced new ones every week... well, Katrina, woke one day very late in the morning and everything felt different, even before she opened her eyes-
“I know about that,” said Ashleigh.
Something in the room was very wrong. The window was open and pretty lilac curtains fluttered in the breeze, and next to that waited Katrina’s favourite rocking chair. She often curled up there with Geoffrey the cat and her favourite physical book, which was about the universe. The pony posters were on the wall and the pens on the desk and the silk throw on the bed end. But where were the books?
“Was it a bad Santa Claus?” asked Ashleigh. “I bet it was.”
Katrina ran downstairs crying, “All the books are gone!” She ran from the kitchen to the dining room to the porch yelling, “Someone stole the books!” Someone had taken her parents too, for they were nowhere to be found. Geoffrey the cat’s bowl of food was untouched and father’s half-done crossword was on the table with a pen laid across it.
“Is this a real book with pictures and everything?” demanded Ashleigh. “I can’t hear pages moving and I’m really good at listening.”
Mary looked at her empty hands. “No pictures,” she said. “You have to make those.”
There was a gold card stuck to the fridge. With shaky, not-been-awake-long hands Katrina opened it and read the large, answery words. “The Answers Are In The Rocking Chair.” When she’d read the words they disappeared like frosty breath. So Katrina ran back upstairs and looked at the rocking chair with all new eyes. It was magic! It swayed gently in the breeze, an invitation. So Katrina sat on the cushioned seat and it moved her back and forth, back and forth, and the motion soothed and excited her. She heard all the answers. A voice whispered, “When you’re sitting here you can do anything.” Katrina clapped her hands and asked, “Anything? Play the violin maybe?” because she’d been having trouble finding the chords. “Even that,” said the chair.
“Wow, that would be cool,” said Ashleigh.
“What happened to the books, chair?” asked Katrina. “And my parents.” So the chair told her. Just after midnight, when everyone was sleeping a bad Santa Claus – one called Santa Claws because he had hooked nails and mean eyes - crept in and stole all the books. And all the mums and dads too, just for good measure. He uses the unappreciated books for wiping his big, bloated nose and eats the parents for supper with Branston pickle. “Why were the books taken?” asked Katrina. “Because you don’t read them aloud,” berated the magic chair. “You have to read the words out, big and loud.”
“I knew it!” cried Ashleigh. “You have to hear the words!”
Katrina loved her physical books but she always whispered the words under the covers or lined them up inside her head like clothes on the washing line, silent and dangly. Then the magic chair said, “If you don’t read them out loud Santa Claws will come after midnight and take the bedtime stories. Read them out, read them loud, begin now!”
“This is much than my CD stories,” said Ashleigh, very quietly. “I’ve listened to them over and over and the same thing keeps happening - Peter Pan never grows big and Stitch never learns.”
So without her books Katrina had to remember the words. She closed her eyes and rocked back and forth in the chair and let the words find their partners. She said aloud the story about the cat in the hat and the physical book appeared on the shelf. She chanted the tale of Peter Rabbit and that physical book jumped onto the bed. Mr Messy and Horrid Henry returned to the night table, their pages flying open and words jumping for joy. When all the books were home, Katrina’s mother and father came into the room looking rather ruffled and confused. “Did we just have a very long nap?” they asked. “Yes,” said Katrina. “But it’s long past midnight now, so let’s read a story.” And that’s what they did. Together, out loud. And every day after. And I think that’s the end.
Ashleigh cried, “Tell me it again.”
“But it must be dark now, it’s past nine.” The windowless booth gave Mary no view.
“Is it?” Ashleigh sounded agitated.
“It’s way past bedtime.” Mary remembered Jasmine’s advice that one story, if read well, should relax the sleepless child. So only one story per evening was permitted since staff were so few and needy children so great.
“I’d love to hear bedtime stories when I wake up in the morning,” said Ashleigh. “Are you here then? Stories make my mind go faster so I can’t sleep. If only I could have one with breakfast!”
“Where’s your mum?” asked Mary.
“On the computer.”
“Are you really only seven?”
“Yes - are you really only forty-two?”
Mary smiled. “Do you have books? Why don’t you read in bed until your mind slows down?”
“My books are boring,” said Ashleigh.
“Do they have pictures in?”
“Don’t be silly. Why would they?”
Mary couldn’t think of any more sentences. The line in her story had been that the pictures stole from the words. So the child was wise.
“I can’t see pictures!” snapped Ashleigh. “I’m blind.”
Mary uncurled her legs and shifted. The beanbag suddenly lost its support.
“It’s not like totally dark,” said Ashleigh. “I’m not like blind blind. If I shut my eyes tight and look at those fluttery lights I see them. And I know when it’s morning-time but mum says my skin is sensitive. She’s silly. I hate lumpy-bumpy Braille books. I like to hear stories and I can’t hear them with my fingers.”
Mary closed her palms. “Have you always been blind, Ashleigh?”
“No. But I can’t remember when I wasn’t - mum said I could see a bit when I was born. My disease is these three big words I always forget. So does mum. She calls it LCA, which is funny cos it’s my name backwards, Ashleigh Colleen Ludlow. I’m not bothered. I’m only bothered that the stories on my CDs are boring. Sometimes I can hear how totally bored the person is reading them. You didn’t sound totally bored with your story. I liked your story. Are you here tomorrow night? Can I ring you again? Can you tell me if Katrina is still reading out loud like she should?”
“I’ll be here,” said Mary.
“Mum’s coming. I’m gonna be in big trouble. She thinks I’m in bed.” Mary heard a door click and another voice, a tired and resigned voice that demanded who Ashleigh was speaking on the phone with and told her to get to her room because it was nine-thirty.
“I’m talking to the story lady,” squeaked Ashleigh.
“How did you get the number for that?” asked the weary voice.
“I heard you telling Daddy,” squeaked Ashleigh. “You said it might help me sleep. So I remembered the number. Mum, I-”
The connection ended abruptly. Mary held the phone for a while and listened to nothingness. When team leader Jasmine peered around the door, she replaced the receiver.
“Where are the books?” Mary asked.
“This isn’t a story room.” Jasmine looked at the walls and beanbag as though seeing them for the first time.
“But there’s a phone. It rang, I answered.”
“It does but we don’t answer calls in here. This is the room where we escape when it gets too much. Didn’t I show you last week? This is the peace room but no one really uses it. ”
Mary had already decided it was where she would read her stories.
People on the Underground favoured technology that evening. They clicked open laptops, tapped into mobile phones and blackberries, listened to pounding tunes through headphones of iPods, part of another world.
After midnight the compartment settled into hush, each passenger still choosing a seat not in close proximity to another individual and keeping arms within the allocated space of their chair. Mary stood in the carriage centre, holding the railing and rocking and reading posters. Samaritans – things weighing on your mind? Feeling alone? Suicidal? Call today. Jesus Lives! He walks among the lost and needy and the sinners; just open your eyes and see him and you shall be saved! Relate, for all your relationship dilemmas. Talk to someone in confidence about the man who leaves your drawers in disarray and the woman who messes with your words! Jesus will return, open your eyes and see him! The woman who’d worn a blood-red blouse and was now dressed in white didn’t seek escape in text or email.
“I remember you,” she whispered to Mary. “Can I ask - the girl who liked the chair, is she okay? Did she get her happy ending?”
Mary glanced at the vacant seats on either side of the woman and at the poster for Bedtime Stories for the Sleepless above her head. It was now torn in two so the headless child on the cloud appeared to be a reversed cherub. Mary let go of the railing and opened her palms to read the words between the criss-crosses and lines and the train sashayed left to right, left to right, left to right, left to right, and the white-bloused woman wiped her eyes, and Mother Mary read all the bedtime stories.
About the Author: Louise writes to find out what happens. Her fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose and the Aesthetica Creative Works Competition, as well as shortlisting twice for the Bridport Prize. She is currently part of the Women Writers at Hull Truck Theatre, and her first play was performed there last year. Her novels – Maria in the Moon and The Mountain in My Shoe - are represented by Carol Macarthur at United Agents.
Image: (c) @Doug88888