Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ In Passing

It could happen anywhere. Somebody is in need of directions. Yesterday it happened when Paul and I were on the top of the 159 bus on our way to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. In our seats at the front, we had good views of the vast crowds on Westminster Bridge, the gaggle of people at the end of Downing Street and, as we approached, the large number of people in Trafalgar Square.

I’d just finished retelling myself a mind-boggling little fact I learned while doing a research job for the Observer Magazine back in my early working life. It’s that before the statue of the man himself was raised to the top of Nelson’s Column, a dinner party was held on the plinth at the top. I’m not sure who the dinner was for,  presumably the architects and other top-noddies. But evidently there were proper chairs and a dining table properly laid with tablecloth, silver cutlery and no doubt crystal glasses.

On the top of the 159:

Suddenly that bit of idle musing was interrupted when the man who’d come to sit in the other seats at the front leaned across. ‘Is this centre?’ he asked us. Waving his hand at Trafalgar Square, he repeated his question.  ‘Is this central area?’ Momentarily my mind went puzooee. So many areas of London could qualify for being called central. Yet in so many ways Trafalgar Square fits the bill with its amazing view down to Westminster that you feel yourself seeing with Nelson’s eye. Also it’s where people gather after demonstrations and it’s  right next to Charing Cross and the point from which distances into and out of London are measured.

But it wasn’t Trafalgar Square that made it feel important to get the answer to the man’s question right. It was the man himself. He clearly needed to be sure of his way and as he told us his story – for somehow it can be possible to tell your story in a very few sentences – I felt his need for security in a wider sense too.

He was from Sweden, he said, but his English didn’t feel like Swedish-English. ‘Nurse,’ he said, ‘I am nurse,’ his pronunciation making the word sound more like the Welsh word, ‘nyrs’. Some of his friends had come to England. He would like to come here too. My immediate response was to nod and say, ‘We need nurses.’

You see, he was clearly not of Swedish ethnicity. He might have lived in Sweden since childhood. He might have arrived as a refugee. But I guess he or his family were originally from North Africa, maybe Libya. He had smooth light brown skin and very clear eyes and he gave out the sense that he was someone who could be trusted and would do his best to get things right. We answered him: ‘Yes, this is the centre.’ Then as he got up to get off the bus, and being obviously a careful man, he pointed at the 159 bus stop on the other side of Whitehall and said, ‘And for going back, that bus stop?’ ‘Yes,’ we said, the three of us smiling as he went to get off the bus.

At the Summer Exhibition:

It can happen anytime. Someone is in need of help. While we were in the Summer Exhibition – and what an amazing exhibition it is this year – something clattered onto the floor beside us. Paul bent down to pick up whatever it was and return it to the youngish bespectacled man who’d dropped it.  It’s hard to describe the immediate impression this young man gave. Like someone who has to be careful and yet does manage. As he thanked Paul for picking up what he’d dropped – it was a folded-up white stick – Paul immediately caught his South Wales accent and asked which part he was from.

So at once we were in conversation, he and me identifying where in Wales we’d grown up. Then he was saying how he’d always wanted to come to the Summer Exhibition and how very happy he was to be here now. You see, he went on to say, he’d had a stroke which had made him blind. Now he’d recovered quite a bit of his sight, he could enjoy art again. But with recovery had come something which had been identified as Charles Bonnet syndrome. This means that in the middle of things he is prone to have hallucinations, sometimes of things from his childhood, sometimes of things happening in the present moment.

I won’t forget the courage of that man. What he said of his condition reminded me of Eileen Colwell, our late great storytelling pioneer who, late in her very long life, also used to get such hallucinations, perhaps a person going past her window who really wasn’t there or children playing outside.

In tiny snippets, you can hear such a lot. Anywhere, anytime, you might encounter people in need of a little help. Anwhere, anytime you might be in such need yourself. It’s good to realise how we can make connections with each other. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes it happens just like that.

PS: A star map wouldn’t be any good for me: I’m hopeless at navigating at the best of times. But perhaps it can represent that sense of needing to find out where you are. As for the clock, well, it can speak for itself. Anywhere, any time …

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