Girl from Book of Life Marshall Cavendish (Tanya Shadrick’s collection)
Welcome to the first issue in Season One of
The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s theme concerns bedtime stories. Readers were invited to share tales of how and where their belief system formed. All responses are curated below.
Scissors slicing hair…
It was sitting in the chair of my grandmother’s beauty shoppe that I learned how her world worked and what was expected of me. I was nine years old.
At times I still hear the sound of the scissors slicing off my hair; I can see her. I’m watching her in the big square mirror all over again. She starts out slow, snipping away my long, thick, black hair.
The pair of scissors are relatively small and slender, but when she begins to snip faster and faster, the sound of metal slicing through hair filling the air, that slender pair of scissors might just as well be shears, one of those silver pairs with blades twice as wide and thick.
Snipping turns into shearing so quickly. I cringe every time I hear it, my shoulders hunching up towards my ears. I don’t want her to cut off my hair, and she doesn’t answer me when I ask why. She and my mother made the decision, talking in German as they always do when they don’t want me to know what they are speaking of.
I am used to her cutting my hair, but it is how she is cutting this time that makes me uneasy. Scared. She isn’t physically harming me; it’s her detachment, as if she is somewhere else, angry, like she is trying to get rid of something, something very bad. And I sit watching the long black ribbons of my hair fall to the floor, the tie of the vinyl apron wrapped around me scratching my neck.
It’s been over 30 years since the day I lost my hair, and I now know why my grandmother did it: it reminded her of my grandfather, the man my mother never knew, whose face she never saw, whose name she did not know up until four years ago. I don’t think my grandmother ever imagined that my mom would find him: my Sinti grandfather Georg, dark hair and sparkling eyes, from a family of musicians.
As a young child, I wished to be a borrower…
a tiny, sentinel-like, brave presence that would pilfer small objects from our family and feast like a Queen on a single gold-wrapped chocolate caramel.
I wanted to live with my parents but for them not to know I was still there; I felt that – at full child size – I was often a burden to them, rather than a source of interest and joy.
If I were small, I could live cosily in the airing cupboard where I kept my flower press. I could keep a close eye on the big wide world and alert a grown up to trouble, if needs be.
I had a route planned out through the house to the kitchen, with a mechanism of pulleys to snaffle food; a path through the rockery in the garden that would make for perfect borrower-sized adventures; a spot next to the robin hole (a hole in the hedge where our resident robin would nip in and out through the day) where I would set up a camp, complete with tiny campfire, where I would lie on my back and watch the stars come out.
When I later learned of the hearth faeries – the broonies and ùruisgs of Scotland – I felt instantly drawn to them, as if a fragment of my soul were some kind of hearth spirit, a tiny protector of home and heart. Larissa Reid
There were prayers before bed...
Three of us slept in the small bedroom, little girls. Each evening we knelt down, side by side, at the bed, and gave thanks to God for the day that had passed and our parents, brother and sisters, and the wonders of the world, in words that we didn’t understand. Heaven, hallowed, kingdom, fruit of thy womb, sinners, death all spoken rapidly so we could get to the end, to story time.
The lights were turned out and in the blackness D, my father, told us stories about other worlds. Arabian nights, Hannibal crossing the alps, families of donkeys, leprechauns in the mountains, some he read but most he made up. Together we went on adventures that were not possible in real life, to places that only existed in the stories.
Sometimes a story took several nights to tell, so the prayers the following night would be even quicker. He rarely talked about the past and, as there were six children in the house and we were so busy living, we didn’t reflect too much on the present. Instead I learned to value each and every moment, be it spent managing the ordinary or absorbing new experiences.
Sheila De Courcy
Strong, eccentric, flawed…
On my mother’s side, I was told about my great grandmother, a suffragette and fierce teetotaller who thought nothing of snatching alcoholic drinks out of people’s hands at parties. Her daughter, my grandmother, was the first in her family to go to university.
My paternal grandfather was by all accounts a charismatic but difficult character who demanded worship from the rest of the family. My father and his brother were expected to walk with him to the station every morning . They deeply resented this.
Quite how these stories formed me I am not sure but they did not cause me to shrink from life. Rather, they were, in an odd way, something to live up to, strong, eccentric, flawed characters who didn’t conform.
Two dads. I was different and I liked that, two lots of presents, right? Watchful, shy but with a fire in my belly, I longed for my daddy and remember crying on Sunday nights when he’d have dropped me home. Weekends with him were within the ‘sureness’ of my Nan’s house; bacon and sausages and endless bossing of my dad to play with my dollies and there’d be treats! It was wonderfully predictable and ‘safe’ is the word that springs to mind.
Home with mum and daddy number two is more blurry… younger brothers and that growing awareness of the ‘adult world’.
What’s really going on? What are you talking about? This from 5/6 years onwards is the dominant feeling I had as a child, a watchfulness that I have carried through my life and has almost certainly contributed to the risk averse part of my core.
But what of ‘The Girl Within’? Emily Hancock’s book, read in adulthood, stirred a cloudiness surrounding that child. She never went; she’s absolutely there in the adventure-craving gobby drunken teenager, protesting for animal rights, searching for just cause to shout truth to power, and this survivor’s instinct, the refusal to lie down and be silent, a beautiful inheritance from my mother’s survival. The safety seeking I’ve craved has brought me wonderful gifts, I am able to give and receive love and I am hugely grateful. But to live, I must stir the pot and connect with that girl inside, where will she take me? I wonder…
It was a ritual that fired up my young, impressionable imagination. Five maternal aunties; a conspiracy of card-players were about to plunge into another table top drama. A memory etched in my mind.
Pennies, half pennies, thruppences and tanners were smashed down in the middle of the kitchen table so hard the Babysham bottles clinked and clanked, ringing out the start of the game. Voices cracked the air with expectation. I sucked hard on my sherbet lemon and focused on the players.
White sticks were passed round and set on fire, smoke blown across the table which grew into cumulus congestus cloud enveloping the entire table. I gazed across at them through a smoky haze; mystical figures, faces contorted with frowns, smirks and knowing nods. The local cigarette factory did well on Thursday nights (Pay day).
A second sherbet lemon was needed for the next part as cards sliced through the murky air like flying cleavers as shouts of ‘Bust!’ ‘Twist!’ ‘Deuce!’ ‘Flush!’ and ‘Diamond takes all!’ punctured holes through the mist. Glasses were drained, voices clashed, air crackled as cheeks reddened. Cards were slammed down in frustration. Howls and curses marched around the room giving orders.
To a chorus of
I’m out! Bugger, chairs were unceremoniously pushed back and toppled over and fingers jabbed into the air like red hot pokers. The winnings provocatively scraped into an eager pocket. The plunder would eventually end up back in the cigarette factory where my aunties earned it the week before.
Through the smoky haze, my crimson-lipped aunties, shining like beacons of hope shuffled the cards to a shout of ‘ Your deal!’ This was unforgettable theatre. They have all now been swallowed up by history, but wait for me in my dreamscapes.
In the beginning there were people. Neighbours in the courtyard, family across the street, neighbours queuing at the bakery, family across town, out of town guests staying with neighbours, out of town family the city folk plagued each time we ‘escaped the concrete jungle’. There were games, visits, jokes, parties, funerals, weddings, epic rows, epic meals, kids crawling under tables and running between the legs of giant dancers. Around one year old my parents went to a New Year’s Eve party and left me behind with grandma. Fists hitting freezing panes, tears searing my cheeks, I watched through the condensed window in disbelief as my parents melted into the gooey darkness. The first betrayal. Around two years old, a boy twice my age with sun bleached curls, of a place so far I couldn’t picture it, casually joined my games some torrid afternoons. He asked my hand in marriage soon – that is, he asked my parents! Neither him, so serious, nor them, so amused, cared what I thought. I thought I was, and indeed I was, ignored. Around three years old, I was made to sit under my parents’ gaze, under the arch of the gate, under a cardboard hanging from my neck: ‘I’ve been a bad girl again and my parents would like to swap me for a nice boy.’ I wasn’t sorry, I was fuming: if they didn’t want me, why should I want them?! A chap stopped by eventually, offering his boring son. I took his hand and started walking. The first step. As all the people slipped away, so did all the laughter, all the veil. Betrayals filled the space. I bent and bent and bent and walked a touch farther away most days. I’m still not far enough; my back still aches. Anonymous
They tried, these three women, my great-grandma, grandma and mom. They made sure I had pretty dresses for dances. They told me to go to college. They told me they loved their kids but not to have babies early, that it is a sacrifice, kids change everything. They told me there is a stuckness to having children. They told me not to marry the first person I had sex with. They told me to keep men guessing and that if I couldn’t be good then to remember the date. They told me my life could be different. They told me to stay thin, that men liked a flat belly. They told me men were the disease and the cure, necessary and ruinous, men cause whispers and startles and that what they don’t know won’t hurt them, fear is not respect but men don’t know that (would that matter?), men as means to an end, men cause the end, men control the end. Men are the dealers, women the gamblers. Women roll the dice and the house always wins. I learned to tuck and roll, to stop, drop and roll, roll with punches, roll with it, roll away, women as tumbling dice. Birds roll in dirt to clean their feathers. They roll their eggs during incubation. They roll their heads from heavy metal poisoning. It is hard to write of yourself in this way, where I fit into this, knowing they wanted it different for me, but some days I still feel stuck, the bird still sitting on a dead egg. I fear loss. I retreat. I harden. I go outside and walk but every walk is some sort of loop, a migratory return. Site attachment. Sheila Knell