APRIL ISSUE: Hands

Tanya Shadrick mending her old tweed coat
Tanya Shadrick mending her old tweed coat

Welcome to the second issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book. This month’s theme concerns hands: what have you made, mended or broken with yours?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.


April extract

Last weekend before treatment.

How I sat late evening in the red armchair beside Nye’s, begun upon a crochet blanket, new pastime by which I hoped to control myself and stay put, instead of running away fully and forever as it was now my urgent wish to do. The wool was orange like the binder twine Granny and other retired farmers used to fasten their gates and fences, and I tried to imagine myself likewise bound to my seat.

So restful, you knitting like that. What Nye said several times, even while my fingers whispered for me to throw open the front door and set feet free. But I knew what I’d see if I did: bright circle made by the last lamp on our small street – and beyond it? A dark in which I’d belong nowhere, to no one.

Old knot of fear and longing. Girl awake through so many country nights, too scared to run along lightless lanes and reach the help she needed.

How stuck I was still.

Whereas Nye, meanwhile? Intent on growth. Our tiny house filled by him with seedlings so our rooms had a new and thick greenhouse smell; every surface covered with trays and pots. His trouser pockets full of loose seed now whenever I emptied them for the washing machine. And such close attention he bent towards those plants – little, multiplying substitutes for the child that refused to take root. I offered to share their care, but he shook his head always, and continued alone. Back turned to me, our life.

Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 88-89). Orion. Kindle Edition.

Reader responses

Home from school, she watched as I practiced my handwriting.

‘You could be a hand model’, she said. I took it as a compliment, although others later tried to persuade me it was an insult. She knew how to give those, but never to me.

In the care home, an old bloke had threatened her. ‘You’re too old to punch a hole in a wet Echo‘, she scoffed, covering her fear.

That was as true for her now, hands crippled with arthritis. She liked to chat and knit, but neither small pleasure was on offer, shut in as she was with the demented, her hands as stiff as her whisky.

She would wait for my visits, threads of stories forming in a mind more active for being trapped in an unwilling body.

There was the time she made my cousin a pair of gloves from scraps of old wool, each finger a different colour. Soon they were all the rage. Children would turn up at her door, leftover wool in their pockets, asking for a pair to be made. All of them, making ends meet. She, a local hero.

I wanted to be as effortless as she had been, but every time I took up the needles, I counted each stitch as if it were a child, and I a worried teacher on a school trip. I wouldn’t know what to do if I lost one, so vigilance was key. I wanted to be as bold and as brave as her, but there are things that can’t be handed down so easily.

Laura

I grew up in a house with no books, no awareness of art except as something that ‘others’ did.

And yet I loved to draw and paint. I used discarded cardboard and cereal packets, as buying paper for a child to draw on was unthought of, unthinkable.

At 14 in the top stream of a grammar school I was told I had to give up art as a subject and do sciences instead. I was heartbroken. I would never be an artist now. But no one understood so I had to grieve quietly and coped by not picking up a pencil or brush for forty years.

Then I did a weekend course in drawing and found it was all still there. I’ve become pretty good but what is also still there is my family’s incomprehension, their refusal to see any worth in it. I got accepted for an MA and they sneered.

This time I chose the drawing and gave up the family.

[Editor’s note: you can see Stevie’s artwork over on instagram]

stevie

We walked through the dark fields, following the beam of my father’s torch, and scanned the small flock.

The light focused on one ewe, over by the ditch, and we headed in that direction. Even to my child’s eye, it was obvious that she was in some distress. I can still see the whites of her eyes rolling in the beam of light, and hear her ominous grunts.

‘She’s in trouble’, said my father. ‘Hold the lamp.’ I directed the torch as instructed, and my father examined the sheep.

‘The lamb is stuck and my hand won’t fit. I’m going to need your small hands here,’ he said.

Though I was a farming child, I was quite innocent and had never been involved in the birth of an animal – we only had sheep, who were generally trouble-free, and horses, who were usually taken away to the stud farm for the births. I had seen them being scanned, but no more than that. I had a general idea of the process, but wasn’t prepared for this.

Shining the torch on the sheep’s vagina, my father directed my hand. I initially baulked at the gory sight and sensation of the moist redness, but I understood that it was this or lose the lamb and maybe the sheep, and my father was patient. Thankfully, once my hand entered the birth canal, I quickly felt a leg, and followed my father’s guidance to find a second one and to pull straight outwards at first. Once the feet were out, my father took over and delivered the lamb hind legs first.

As he checked the mother and baby, I gazed in wonder at my small, mucus-covered hands, utterly awed by their contribution to the safe delivery of this little creature into the world.

TRACEY

dagga-dagga-dagga

 Yes, that is a very bad impersonation of a Spitfire aircraft attacking, all guns blazing. It is the sort of mimic a daft nine-year-old might deliver to annoy a teacher who may, or may not, have been a Spitfire pilot at some time in the past. This possibility really isn’t the actual point of the bad impersonation; an incendiary response from the teacher – let’s call him ‘Eric’, for that was indeed his name – is the modest ambition of the daft nine-year-old.

 

So, here’s the thing, I was that daft, very annoying, nine-year old. Rooted somewhere in the depths of this dark tale of wasted schooldays lies the genesis of a story I tell myself.

I tell myself that I am useless with my hands.

As I say whenever the question of home improvements arises: these are office hands, not DIY hands, gesturing with smooth palms and unblemished fingerprints as if to prove my point.

Was it really then, back in those long-distant schooldays, when the myth became a reality around which I shaped adulthood? Was the distraction technique for my Craft teacher an early blow in my fight (who was I fighting anyway) against the rigours of manual endeavour? 

I was SO annoying to Eric, the craft teacher, that there was no chance of me getting to use anything more than a blunt chisel, a tenon saw and a tiny bradawl. Without the tools, I was reduced to making a tray to offer my mother at the end of term. You will by now have surmised, correctly, that a tray is, in essence, a flat bit of wood (pre-cut by the craft teacher) and some beading glued on to act as the handles. That masterpiece mostly kept me out of mischief for a 10-week term. We won’t dwell on basketry class (in 1976) which was spent (usefully, I feel) learning all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody. Pottery class … the same sort of direction but without the end product of a memorised hit of the day – I am reasonably confident that the combination ashtray/pipe-stand I offered up to my father met its demise with the first sharp crack of briar against frail glazed clay.

Thus, our not-so intrepid hero enters adulthood with a firmly fixed notion that all crafts, the making of things with deft hands and a well-held tool, are beyond his competence. 

Perhaps this is how all our truths are born.

 We think them … they become so.

There is little to counter the notion.

Sure, there is the racing bike I stripped down, resprayed, and reassembled. It made the trip from the edge of Dartmoor – ironically, the first pedal stroke of which was from right outside the craft shop within which those bad Spitfire impersonations first echoed – all the way to Cognac and back again.

A succession of Airfix models, gently assembled, painted with an eye for detail; every ounce of value squeezed from a process funded by extremely limited pocket money.

Ah, yes, the exquisite tortellini I made on a week-long cookery class in these years during which I have started to imagine I might possess some creativity after all.

A few examples, and there’ll be more if I stretch my mind to it.

Here’s the weird thing though; when I pick up a pen or a pencil (in this hand which I believe to be clumsy and incapable), words flow. Of course, the words flow from my thoughts, my mind, my sub-conscious … but something guides the nib; something manipulates the tool so the words unfold. I wrote the outline for this piece by hand, confident in my ability to translate intention into well-crafted end product.

There was no hesitation.

No sense of ‘I can’t do this’.

Deft hands, well-turned phrase.

Maybe there’s more that can be done with my hands than I think possible. Perhaps it is not the ‘manual block’ I imagine it is; it is looking increasingly like a mental block.

It’s not the hands that matter, as such, it’s your belief in what they can do that counts.

BaRRIE THOMSON

The human hand has 17,000 touch receptors…

and the star nosed mole has 6 times that just on the tiny forward facing star, this star that never shines, never grants a wish, a full of feeling star.

Think of how my hands might explode when they picked a wildflower if they had this power. What would happen when they scratched my dog behind her ears, this dog full of dirt and bits of burdock and raucous joy? Would they leave imprints on the shell when I pull a warm, freshly laid egg from the nest box, slip it into my pocket, and soon after crack it open for my children’s breakfast? Maybe sing when they pick wild black raspberries and turn them into jam? Sizzle wiping away tears?

I like to think my hands, these hands that brown in the summer, short nails, no paint, plain hands, no taper to the fingers hands, the pointer finger a little pudgy compared to the rest, blue veins popping hands, hands supporting these fingers, these carved away fingers, would sigh with relief as they write my story, each ridge of a fingerprint like growth lines in a tree, another story to tell. Perhaps, on a good day, these hands would giggle with delight, with truth.

[Facts about touch receptors and the star nosed mole from Great Adaptations by Kenneth Catania.]

Sheila knell

So constant aren’t they, our hands?

We see them so very often, a look at or a glimpse. They are such a reminder of ourselves. What we’ve written, touched, held. How we’ve loved and how we’ve got through the days.

I never used to like mine. So critical of them – too old looking, too dry, too chubby. Nails too long or too short. Not a bad dislike, but no real affection there.

But I’ve changed my mind. Now I’ve grown to love the familiarity with them. What they’ve experienced.

That scar on the knuckle of my right index finger where I scraped the skin along the school radiator. At Y-Bont-Faen where I’d play in the toilets at play time, crawling on the floor to sneak under doors. Not really sure why, but we felt so naughty; me and my friends.

These same hands I type with now, they held on to Dad’s, Mum’s, Cousin Emma’s. They picked daisies, they made dens from sticks and moss and drew with felt pen on those pattern pads we all had in the 70s.

They’re a constant, aren’t they?

These days my Welsh-gold wedding ring feels a part of my left hand. The ring we chose in Cley that day amongst the paintings and the pottery. Feeling so adult as we admired the simplicity of the design, the choices we had.

They’ve also been pivotal in my many jobs. From the cook at the old people’s home to the teacher to the Camp America nurse and the nanny to Richard in 1985.

The most important though has been to hold my own beautiful boy. And now to reach up to his grown neck and hug him, to feel his back bigger than mine while I tiptoe to hug him.

Louise Stead

I pick up the needles and it all comes back…in, out, pull through, push the stitch off.

And I wonder why I’m so awkward, so clumsy, and how I will ever figure out how to knit the pattern backwards on the purl side, because I could never be like a Shetland lady and do it as easily as breathing.

And I try and I try, until one day I think: Why not put one colour in your left hand?

It feels all wrong but I persevere, pink on the left, green on the right, and suddenly the circle is closing, the tube is growing, a little clumsy but I’m getting there. And then I remember, or maybe I realise for the first time ever – my granny taught me to knit (or tried to). And she was right handed. She taught my mother too, and my mother was left handed, like me. My mother remembered the teacher coming around the class and taking her pen out of her left hand and putting it into her right, over and over.

Sometimes the problem isn’t us at all. It’s other people.

Miranda R Waterton

Touch

My fingers are barbs that cling onto my world, dig deep into its fabric and connect to its core. My fingers guide me in the dark; embrace the earth’s textures, slide over a myriad of surfaces and sense the dangers and pleasures that stream over my skin.

I feel through my fingers. ‘You have healing hands, Steve. The touch of an Angel.’ I have led a tactile life and without touch there is no nourishing of the soul. I have touched and been touched in return; not a fondle, fumble or a false stroke, but a feathery sweep of skin on skin. The faintest of touches that bristles the love layer.

A brief encounter with a stranger’s skin, a personal barrier and private space that has my therapist’s respect for the profound connectedness between us; the most intimate of human contact will need total trust and faith in the power of touch.

Me, a white-coated healer fixing that which was broken; a heart, a friendship, a stream of creativity; re-kindling a fire within that was quenched by sadness. My conducting-rod fingers pouring in the fullness of life, repairing and re-balancing. A thousand-finger cascade igniting a billion nerve cells, triggering a seventh heaven..

The skin becomes a sensory sieve, filtering the emotions; filleting out desire and arousal, leaving only a blissful landscape for the splendour of a transcendental moment to grow.

Can this really be so? Can a body be so fixed? Can fingers weald such power? Can the body be so easily persuaded? Yes! Yes! Yes! Something deep, profound and primordial bridges the skin divide and bonds after the slightest of touches.

It’s all alchemy, the fingers awaken the sparklets of sensation when unacquainted skin fuses with unacquainted skin.

Steve Harrison

After his eyes, it was his hands that I fell for.

Pressing my stubby fingers firmly along the edge of a table to increase my span, I would watch the silken skin slipping over neat knuckles to the tips of his slender fingers which effortlessly spread tobacco along the length of a fine cigarette paper. This he would then roll, lick and light with elegant precision.

In time we worked side by side. My right hand would move between thin black pens and thick white paper, while his soldered a circuit board or shaped the stamens of a Fuchsia bud, in silver.

His were hands that could turn any screw and mend the washing machine, stretch the thinnest dough for a pizza base and fillet a mackerel, build a tiny model of an enormous factory and ease the bellyache of a sick cat. Mine could play Philip Glass on the piano and sad tunes on the tin whistle, dye calico and shape it into dungarees, gild the Lord Chancellor’s carriage or restore a broken urn.

My freckled fingers sat comfortably in his strong hand.

When our children were little my hands held them to my breast, to my flesh, to safety as we crossed the city streets. He would sit them, in turn, on his right hand which he would raise slowly to the sky. There they would balance, like the torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty, surveying the world below.

This evening it is quiet; lightly rustling leaves, a small fire crackling, a supermoon rising. On the shore a curlew is calling as waves whisper against the sand. My hands are putting a new D string on my guitar. His hands are holding a penknife which he is using to fashion driftwood into the handle for a rake.

Sheila de courcy
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