The Storyteller

Submitted into Contest #88 in response to: Write a fairy tale about an outsider trying to fit in.... view prompt

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Fiction


Do you want to hear one of my stories? I have a knack for knowing when people do, you know, and it rarely lets me down. But you’re looking a bit dubious, as if you think you probably would, but you’re not quite sure. Well, I think I know what’s bothering you. You’re not in the mood for something whimsical and fantastical, about beings you don’t know if you believe in and don’t know if you want to believe in, nor for my legends and myths and all that business. You want me to tell you a story that’s set in the real world. Very well, then!

I want you to travel back in time, but bear with me, not so terribly far back, not to realms of ancient history and to the borderline where you’re not quite sure if it’s history or just story. I only want you to go back forty years, not quite that even, and to a real building and not the kind that emerges from the mists or disappears into the sea. Oh, to be sure, it was old, but it was a sensible kind of old, a Victorian kind of old, with slight hints or earlier times and definite concessions to later ones.

It was the start of the Christmas term, 1982, and I was twelve years old, and I was starting at Heaton Grange Girls’ School.

I wasn’t meant to go there. I was meant to go to the local grammar school, but I was sick with the chicken pox on the day of the exam, and despite the best efforts of my teachers, I wasn’t allowed to take it at a later date, and they weren’t prepared to make an exception. So I spent a year at Robin House Secondary Modern. Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re expecting a horror story, you’re not going to get one. Though Mum and Dad raised me to have good manners and be well-behaved, I could hold my own well enough. I wasn’t bullied, and I even made a couple of new friends there. But I was so bored in most of the lessons. They just didn’t challenge me at all, and I wasn’t interested. I could either be top of the class with no trouble (in things like English or history) or was utterly useless and would never be anything else (in things like cookery).

Miss Crawley decided to intervene, and she raised the issue before my second term at Robin House was over. She was a retired school teacher, and held in some awe in the neighbourhood, though some thought her a bit of a snob. Anyway, she had been a teacher at Heaton Grange, and told Mum and Dad about a scholarship they had. “I’m sure that Lindsey would do very well in the exam and the education there is excellent,” they said.

Well, I had mixed feelings, I can tell you! I’d read my fair share of school stories, and quite liked them, but had never been one of those children who ached to go to boarding school. I didn’t think I’d be eaten up with home sickness and cry myself to sleep every night (after all, I’d been to Guides Camp several times!) but it didn’t enthral me either. Still, I knew a chance when I saw one, and told Mum and Dad that if they agreed to it, yes, I’d like to try for the scholarship.

I won’t say I passed it with totally flying colours. I know I must have done pretty badly on the maths papers as though I was quite good at arithmetic, I had never done algebra in my life before and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. But anyway, I passed, and was offered a full scholarship, despite my poor performance in maths. It even included the uniform. I later discovered that as private girls schools went, Heaton Grange was not unreasonable on the matter of uniform, it was in quite sensible colours of grey and maroon, and didn’t include things like boaters or special outfits for dancing.

Still, talk about going from one extreme to the other! I was about to say that I wasn’t bullied at Heaton Grange either, but that’s not really true. Oh, nobody slapped me or pinched me, or put nasty things in my bed, or in my desk. The words scholarship girl were never even mentioned, which of course doesn’t mean that they weren’t thought. I don’t even suppose they could really help it. When they talked about ponies, and holidays in a villa on Corfu, or the like, it wasn’t to make me feel small, not even showing off, it was just something they were used to and took for granted, and I didn’t. I was determined not to be ashamed of my family, and told them straight out that my Dad was a van driver, and if I recall aright, somebody said “Oh, how – interesting.” I could have told them it wasn’t not especially, it was being at people’s beck and call, and remember that was before the minimum wage.

But then I remembered that Dad had a way of making it SOUND interesting, and some of the stories he told were better than in any book. Mum used to shake her head and say he shouldn’t fill my head with nonsense, but I couldn’t have enough of them, and now I decided to take my chance! We were expected to be in our dormitories by nine, but as long as we didn’t make too much noise or appear tired the next day, were allowed a degree of latitude, though every so often some officious mistress or (more usually) prefect, got it in her head to enforce lights out. Not that lights out bothered me when I had a story to tell. In fact, it positively helped! I suppose I’d always known I had some flair for story telling, probably I’d inherited it from Dad, but now I came into my own. I was positively the Scheherezade of the Elizabeth Fry dormitory (they were all called after worthy women).

I also learnt the art of subtle or not so subtle embroidery. Dad, to Mum’s disapproval and fascination, had told us about an old lady called Mrs Chambers who kept the ashes, not only of her late husband, but her parents too, on the window sill, lined up in their urns on the window sill with vases of flowers, real or artificial, between them. In Dad’s stories she sometimes spoke to them. In my stories, she got answers. Mr Chambers spoke in a clear, comforting sort of voice, but Mrs Chambers’ mother sounded querulous, and for some reason I gave her father a Scottish accent, though I had no logical reason to.

Can you imagine the thrill when there was an overawed silence, then a ripple of applause that was hurriedly hushed up as it might bring a mistress or a prefect running, and then – most precious sound of all – one voice piped up, “Lindsey, can you tell us another?” and others backed her up.

I obliged, though I told myself that I would have to ration more strictly in future! But I was positively basking, and I told them about the tree Dad had been asked to cut down, a gnarled old chestnut tree that was undermining the foundations of the house, but that he said he could hear screaming and pleading not to be cut down. Okay, what Dad had actually said was, “You could almost imagine you heard it screaming and pleading.”

Well, after that, life at Heaton Grange decidedly looked up! I had found what folk call my niche. Oh, to retreat to the titles of school stories, I was never going to be The Most Popular Girl in the Form, and had no especial wish to be, but there were definitely certain times of day (or night!) when I was the most popular girl in the DORM!

I had quite a cache of stories from Dad, and there were always more to add to them. He was the family letter writer, and often furnished me with new material entirely unprompted. I felt quite a warm glow when other girls told me that they’d miss me over the Christmas holidays. I knew they really meant they’d miss my stories, but I’d settle for that.

I was even spared the usual groans about Christmas stuff in January when I told the others about a haunted Christmas card. And yes, there was a grain of truth in it. Dad told me that a lady he was working for had been sent one of those “Musical Christmas Cards” and that its tinny rendition of Joy to the World refused to go silent when it was closed, but in my story it carried on after she had disposed of it, and let’s just say it was anything but joyful.

I was careful not to neglect my schoolwork, most of which I enjoyed anyway, though I never did quite see the point to algebra, and was gratified that even at Heaton Grange, I still ended the school year top of my form in English, though I had to work at it more than I had at Robin House.

There were always two worries, that my imagination would run dry, or that my schoolmates would tire of my stories. But there was no sign of either happening. Indeed, though I was always grateful to Dad for inspiration and story ideas, I came to rely on his accounts less. And my stories grew up with me and with the other girls. By the time we were fourteen and fifteen, and had our own little cubicles that were almost like having rooms of our own, they had taken on a decidedly more adult tone. Oh, I was careful, and never went overboard with the sex and violence. As I had discovered on the few occasions when we were caught out, late night story telling sessions were looked on with a degree of indulgence, but it was best to be careful. Not that Heaton Grange was one of those girls’ schools that made a big deal out of protecting us and purity of mind and all that. We all knew the facts of life from biology lessons before we were in our teens (some, me included, had known them before!) and the sky most definitely didn’t fall in if we were discovered to be reading Gone with the Wind or Forever Amber. Especially as we grew older, we most certainly weren’t expected to write nice little compositions and essays about flowers and virtue having its own reward.

We started to have career advice (of sorts) on our entry to the Sixth Form, though it had been discussed in a vague and general sense before, even though we were mercifully spared the What I want to be when I grow up assignments, which I often think are insults to six year olds, never mind teenagers. Mrs Blake, the head of the English department (and she didn’t have teacher’s pets, but I fancied that if she had, I’d have been one of them) seemed to work on the assumption that I wanted to follow in her footsteps. But I shook my head. “No, Mrs Blake. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a teacher ….”

“Damning with faint praise,” she said, a tad acerbically, but without malice.

“But I want to be a storyteller.”

“A writer, eh?” I didn’t correct her, as it would have seen pedantic and been pretty useless. “Well, that’s by no means impossible, Lindsey. You certainly have a way with words, and I gather your sessions in the dormitory are quite the success!” I was about to ask how she knew as she wasn’t one of the live-in staff, but had long since realised that teachers did just know things.

The sixth form meant liberation on two fronts. Though there was still a dress code (I don’t think they were much of a thing then, but ripped jeans would have been a no-go area!) we didn’t have to wear uniform, and contrary to the cliché, to me that was welcome, as I’d never found uniforms to be that much of a leveller. The second was that we were no longer in dormitories, but had rooms of our own. Well, not really of our own. We had to share. I may as well be honest, I wasn’t really happy about that, but I could tolerate it. My room-mate, Clemmie Rowe, was a harmless creature and though we never became bosom buddies, we got along well enough. The story sessions had both gained and lost members, and now took place in the sixth form common room. There had been great sadness in my life the previous year, as Dad had died, but though I mourned and missed him, I had long since ceased needing him in a practical sense as the source of my stories, though I did often tell stories about some kind of tradesman going to a house and finding something unexpected.

If you were to ask me how much I believed in the supernatural and the uncanny, the only honest answer I can give is that I don’t know. I certainly thought there were dimensions beyond the physical ones we could discern with our five regular senses, but also thought most hauntings and weird events could be logically explained. The best of both worlds, I suppose.

Generally, even with the creepy bedtime stories I told, I could fall asleep easily enough and though my dreams might sometimes be a bit weird, I wouldn’t call them nightmares. But that April night I just couldn’t settle. I tossed and turned, and had that feeling of being tired but wakeful, of certainly not being ill, but not being really well, either. Quietly, so as not to wake Clemmie (though how much was consideration and how much because I didn’t want her fussing over me I don’t know) I made my way to the common room, pausing to go to the kitchen and get that old stand-by, a glass of water, and decided I was far enough away from anyone else to put on the television. Great Girls (as Jane Eyre would have said) in the sixth form that we were, our television time wasn’t actually rationed, but I was still pretty sure that putting it on at 3 in the morning wouldn’t have been looked kindly on.

I hoped to find something anodyne enough to calm me down a bit, but interesting enough to hold my attention. But no, I switched it on and found it was one of those Unexplained programmes, that looked oddly dated even in the 80s, and are still being repeated today. Still, I thought, cynically, it might give me something I could adapt. The word plagiarise was one I determinedly repelled.

“Nobody has ever found a logical explanation for this,” the narrator said, in his menacingly soporific voice. “But it is said that the school is haunted by a ghostly figure only ever known as The Storyteller. She is said to be a scholarship girl, a lonely misfit who won her snobbish classmates over by telling them tales, mysterious, dark tales, too dark for a girl her age, in the dormitory in the watches of the night. But it came at a price, because, knowing or unknowing, the storyteller had signed a pact with a force beyond what can logically be explained, and now, with no choice, she is trapped in that school forever, and can never leave, and has to tell story after story, night after night, for all eternity.”

April 06, 2021 07:39

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4 comments

Roger Scypion
05:42 Feb 27, 2023

What an engaging story in the genre of the macabre. Written excellently with the twist at the end being magnificent. Kudos!

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WaterIsDeep :D
09:54 Apr 16, 2021

This is an amazing story. The plot of the characters is well carved and at the end, I almost forgot about the mention at the beginning! The twist at the end is satisfyingly spooky, and I love it. I would absolutely love it if you could make an expansion of this story. I understand if you can't but it's just so fantastic I want to know what happens next.

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Rachel Loughran
12:55 Apr 09, 2021

Another brilliant story! What a spooky twist ending, you've absolutely made me want to scroll back up and read it again now I know how it ends! Just one little edit in the line below: "But then I reminded that Dad had a way of making it SOUND interesting" I expect the intention was either 'remembered' or 'reminded myself'. Hope this helps! I loved this story!

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Deborah Mercer
05:23 Apr 11, 2021

Thanks for your kind words and sharp eyes! I will attend to the edit.

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