Saturday, 15 February 2014

A Living Ghost Story - authentically encountering a the oral tradition

Sally lived with Mother in a little cottage in a little village in a little county of a little island that people called Great. But Sally didn't know that; Sally just knew that she had to do what Mother told her and if she didn't, she'd get a smacked bottom and go to bed without supper.

Mother was a hard woman, but she did love her daughter, even though she didn't always know how to show it. One day when Sally came home, her mother presented her with a gift - a pair of soft, yellow, leather gloves.

"If you lose these, I'll kill you."

Sally loved those gloves like the sea loves the shore, like the stars love the night. She wore them to church every Sunday and wrapped them carefully in a square of linen and tucked them into her drawer every Sunday evening.

And so imagine her surprise when she left her pew one Sunday and found only one glove in her coat pocket. Her heart fluttered and her chest caught in panic.

Mother was furious. Sally searched the whole church, she scoured the graveyard, hunted through hedgerows and combed through the coppice. She knocked on the doors of her neighbours but no-one had seen a yellow, leather glove.

Then there was only one house she hadn't visited. At the end of the lane that lead out of the village and into the wild of the moorland was Old Father's house. He was rarely seen and often whispered about in the playground. As Sally walked nervously up to his front door, the sour scent of rotten leaves caught in her throat and she stumbled, as if her feet were willing her to turn back and run far from this strange, dilapidated dwelling.

Father opened the door with a grunt and a sneer. Behind him, his shelves were filled with porcelain faced dolls with empty, painted eyes.

"I've got your glove girl. You can have it back. But if you tell anyone I had it, I will come at midnight and my girls will get you."

Sally promised she would keep quiet and she danced delightedly back home with both her yellow gloves on.

When she got home, she forgot all about her promise and she told Mother everything. As she repeated the words of the Old Father it was as if she was hearing them for the first time. She burst into a frightened flood of tears.

Mother locked all the doors and barred all the windows. She sent Sally to bed and locked her bedroom door tight.

Sally sat in her bed, her blanket wrapped tightly around her, and wept. She wept as the clock ticked to ten o'clock. She sobbed as the clock tocked to eleven o'clock. She cried to the moon and the star and prayed for morning.

But instead of morning, Sally heard the church bells chime Midnight. There was a creak and a sound of china footsteps on wooden steps. Sally held her breath.

"Sally, I'm on the first step. I'm coming to get you," sang a high-pitched, thin voice.
"Sally, I'm on the second step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the third step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the fourth step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the fifth step. I'm coming to get you."
Sally could hear the soft thump of footfall on the wooden steps of the cottage.
"Sally, I'm on the sixth step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the seventh step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the eighth step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the ninth step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the tenth step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the eleventh step. I'm coming to get you."
"Sally, I'm on the twelfth step. I'm coming to get you."

"Sally, I'm at the door. I'm coming to get you."


The next morning when Mother unlocked Sally's bedroom door, she found the room deserted.

Lying on the bed was a blood-stained pair of yellow, leather gloves.

Encountering the Oral Tradition in a Secondary School

When I was 7 or 8, we told each other scary stories and I always got really scared. Whether it was the doll who climbed up the stairs carrying a kitchen knife singing her haunting song or the drip, drip, drip of the tap that wasn't the tap at all but the slow drip of blood from an old woman's dead dog, strung up by some unknown assailant (incidentally I have a clear memory of it being a West Highland Terrier in my imagination at least), these stories have stuck with me through my whole life. They were modern, contemporary tales, sometimes featuring Freddie Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street had recently come out and was being watched surreptitiously by some of my friend's older brothers and sisters) and often featuring hooked hands, mysterious radio reports of escaped prisoners and frequently featuring an unpleasant scarecrow or two.

A couple of days ago, as I flicked through Katherine Briggs' British Folk-Tales and Legends, imagine my surprise when I came across the story I have re-written above. The same shape, the same little rhyme, the same slow, rising climax to doom and death. Briggs' version was recorded first in Sheffield in 1897. But this isn't the only version of this tale - it seems they have been freaking out children and adults alike for many a-year.

I had this sudden and overwhelmingly satisfying sensation of being in a stream of story - of course as an oral storyteller I know I am always part of this stream, but this reached beyond being an adult and the discovery of storytelling as a contemporary revivalist movement back into St Pauls Primary School playground in 1992(ish). I had never read this story till February 2014 and yet I knew it - not because I had listened to a storyteller at one of the festivals or in a performance or at school, but thanks to the stream of orality that runs through childhood in game, song and story.

On the 13th February I had a great day at Oakmeeds Secondary School in Burgess Hill, creating ghost stories with Year 8s and I told them this tale. Kids who have been carrying iphones since they were out of diapers and have watched all manner of horror films carrying ratings way above their age; kids who live in the 21st Century and post their lives on facebook, snapchat and whatsapp; these same children piped up with 'I know a story just like that' and from the mouths of this new generation of children came the same stories that I heard when I was playing Red Rover and Tally-O, swapping POGS and singing songs by D-REAM (don't judge me too harshly). There were differences, slight alterations, some familiar pictures that floated from film into story, but as I left school that day I left knowing that whilst not many kids get to hear tales told in the traditional way, they are still telling those strange stories that form part of childhood's initiation into the great mysteries of the world, or at least the bloodthirsty mysteries of the world...

COPYRIGHT Abigail Palache (C) 17/02/2014

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly like a story I didn't actually hear when I was younger but one that I played out in my own imagination night after night, maybe it was the product of having a harsh mother and facing the wrath of her threats ... being an awkward and forgetful girl that I was when I was 8 or 9, I misplaced many a thing of importance and did other things I felt were quite innocent but my mother viewed as naughty, so perhaps that is why I was convinced that the clicks the cooling radiators made at night whilst I was in bed were the steps of a man coming slowly up the stairs to teach me a lesson .. its an archetypal tale that cuts much deeper than a ghost story I am sure ;)