There are times writing, when I remember a story someone has told me because it fits whatever convoluted point I’m trying to make. Often I go right ahead and recount it – a stich here, some beading there, a nip, a tuck, a little glue and glitter. Occasionally I stop and think: this is not my story; it belongs to someone else. Although not necessarily told in confidence, the account was probably shared without expectation of it being reproduced in a blog. I’ll weigh it up, sometimes pop it back into the bottom drawer, tuck it away for safekeeping. Perhaps the trail back to the originator was too clearly marked, or maybe the story is overly personal, needs a few more years’ distance. Yet, without story life is colourless, I would have no paint to splash on my blog. Our everyday exchanges (at least our meaningful ones) are built on story, and without it we don’t get to fully examine and understand life. Face to face stories, down the line stories, across the skype-miles stories, long and rambling email stories, whispered late at night under-the-cover stories. We reconnect with long lost friends and fuse momentarily with strangers through story. Life really isstranger than fiction, and, if we take time to listen, romance, thrillers, murder-mysteries, comedies, tragedies: they are all playing out before us in the most prosaic of places.
Last week I found stories in the Inner Hebrides. On the boat to Mull I sat beside a German lady, travelling alone. “Shall I take your picture?”I offered, as the boat sailed past Duart Castle. “That’s a great backdrop, if you stand just there, by the window.” She looped the camera from over her head and stood up. “Four hundred sixty photograph Scotland, and two me,”she said haltingly, pointing at herself for emphasis. I took four. We sat down and she carefully picked through the few words of English she had. Aged 18, she wanted to marry, but back then the age of majority in Germany was 21. Bypassing parental permission, she and her fiancé stole away to Glasgow where they married under more relaxed rules. “It is 50 years,”her eyes sparkled, “time to see Scotland again.” His death did not stop her from marking their golden anniversary. I left her with her trousseau of stories, hoping she had someone to share them with when she got home.
On Iona we took lunch in an upstairs room at the Abbey. Long tables and benches were set up, monastic refectory style, as visitors were offered a limited but wholesome menu: sweet corn chowder or carrot and coriander soup, served with thick slices of wholemeal bread followed by generous squares of flapjacks and shortbread. This time it was a man from Indiana with kind, sad eyes. He talked about his family fleeing the Highland Clearances, troubled, as if it had occurred last year. Said he was affected by being on the land where it happened, his feet touching the soil where his ancestors trod. Said he wished he hadn’t left it so late to visit. “It’s only two o’clock,”I said, deliberately misunderstanding him. I wanted to make his sad eyes smile. Queueing for the small ferry off the island, an older couple from Cairns told me they were nearing the end of a twelve-week tour: London, Sweden, Scotland, then back to London again to see their first grandson; nine months and already showing signs of walking. “It’s even farther when grandchildren arrive. Our boy married one of our own, another Aussie. They want to move back, but it’s hard to find work as well paid as London. Might be something coming up in Singapore – would make all the difference.” They made it sound like the suburbs, but I left them also rooting for the Singapore solution.
I thought about all three stories in bed that night, bidding farewell to the day. How strange it was I didn’t know any of their names but had been given a view into their life; their past, their hopes, their sorrow. We are, each of us, more immediately alive when tell our stories, more available to each other. We get new windows to gaze through and new places to visit without ever leaving our seat, we are taken up an unknown path into the mist. We might hear urgent, uncomfortable, unfamiliar stories and our only role is to listen, and, when the time is right, tell them over, keep them alive. Not gossip; it couldn’t be more different. The stories of others should never be told with envy or judgement or mockery, only to show care, wonder, interest and an appetite for more. Tell stories.