Suddenly a terrible commotion fell into the baby princess’s cradle, and the baby princess picked it up and chewed it. My mother won a guinea from the letters page of a well-known women’s magazine for those words of mine. That was back in the days when twenty-one shillings could buy you something worth having. I’ve no idea what she spent it on, but I hope it was something special, because nigh on sixty years later it may yet prove to have been the only time anyone ever made a penny piece from my love of words.
And oh, how I do love words. As a child, I lived in a world of books and dreams. The stories I wove were my imaginary friends, blissfully free of playground politicking. Fairy tales and Saturday excursions to the library with Dad fed the flames. Christmas stockings yielded Alice in Wonderland and Black Beauty, both here beside me as I write, despite all the upheavals of my later life. Next came Wish for a Pony, Jill’s Gymkhana and My Friend Flicka. No prizes for guessing what I longed for every Christmas then. Reality was never a patch on the treasures between their covers. Swallows and Amazons followed hard on their heels, alongside Jane Eyre and David Copperfield. In adolescence, I devoured Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer and Elizabeth Goudge. If I’d known those starry-eyed romantics were to carry at least part of the can for disasters to come would I have done different? Not for one moment.
My mind’s eye always conjures a tearful boy and a gipsy caravan, so I think it must’ve been in a long-forgotten book I first heard it. Sticks and stones may break my bones … Even as a naïve eight-year-old I knew the rest was a lie. I’d broken my wrist playing in the snow by then, and thus found out there were things in this world far worse than breaking a bone. The words of an angry parent for instance, or a playground bully. A broken bone will heal in weeks. A trampled dream can take a lifetime.
In a small town bank, with wood panelling and clerks who wear suits instead of uniforms, I’m waiting for a friend. Her children and two of mine are on the floor at my feet, squabbling quietly over toy cars. A mum I know less well wrestles a buggy through the door. Her loose toddler makes a beeline for the counter while she’s struggling, and pulls down a shower of paying-in slips.
The child squats and scrunches paper.
Stop that, now!
The mother grabs Rosie’s arm and yanks her to her feet.
You’re a pain in the a**e Rosie. Do you hear me? You’re nothing but a pain. What are you?
I will her to stop. She doesn’t, of course.
What are you?
Rosie sniffs. A tear slides down her cheek.
That’s right. You’re a pain in the a**e. Don’t you forget it.
Thirty years on I still think of Rosie sometimes. Maybe she’s forgotten the incident. Her mother has, likely as not. But words cut deep. We teach our children not to lie, then wonder why they grow up to think the words we threw in fits of temper are immutable truths.
Such wisdom I have about words, yet still I choose the wrong ones. It’s eight o’clock on Thursday morning. I’ve locked the front door and I’m picking up my bags when my neighbour emerges.
Good morning! How’s the world?
I’m a doting Granny, thus ‘nativity play’ and ‘yesterday’ trip out upon my tongue without a thought. Your average bull responds more sanguinely to a red rag. By the time I reach the lift he’s kicking up a right royal commotion, berating me on the evils of Christmas.
I’m neither a Christian, nor a capitalist …
Fair enough. I’m not going to call persecution, despite all attempts to convince me that Starbucks are undermining Jesus by not having snowmen on their festive takeaway cups this year. It’s when he starts on the iniquity of Food Banks I have to bite my tongue. The trouble is, I agree with him. Of course we shouldn’t have Food Banks. I’m ashamed to live in a country that’s regressed enough to need them. But the fact is there are people out there hungry, and they don’t have time to wait while we sort out the political morass. They need to eat now, not just five years down the line.
The anger’s deafening. He can’t hear a word I say. I know it’s not personal, but for a horrible moment, it takes me somewhere I never wanted to go again. I gave up fighting back so many years ago. There’s no point arguing with someone who doesn’t hear even his own words. Instead, that little woman in my head used to huddle in a corner and throw things at the walls while he hurled hatred at her. Never a broken bone. Not so much as a bruise. Such destruction, and all of it wrought with words. It wasn’t till a day or two ago I realised how obvious the wounds of it all once were. I met with an old friend at her fiftieth birthday party. We hadn’t seen each other since I walked away from him. Wow, she said. You look happy.
My neighbour knocks on my door when I get home. It takes guts to admit you’ve listened to yourself and not enjoyed what you heard. That’s a kind of courage I can live with. Mind you, I imagine if you’ve once faced down Iain Paisley, anything else is a stroll in the park. Now there was a man who liked nothing better than the commotion of his own words.
Despite it all, I love words with a passion hard to communicate by their use alone. I’ve known people ascribe quite terrifying cosmic powers to words. I’ve met name-it-and-claim-it Christians, who believe you have only to use the right words and God will be obliged to give you anything you want. Oh, such control over the creator of the universe. The same people will also tell you one careless word spoken from your cradle can ruin your life to the grave. Stuff that. It’s not a kind of power I’d ever want. I’m happy journeying through my universe of words. Mulling stories. Drowning in dreams. No more terrible commotions, and never the need to eat my words. If you want to join me for a mile or two, or more, you’ll be made welcome. Just be sure to bring along those seven-league boots. Baby princesses can throw a few surprises when they get to my age, especially ones who used to chew commotions.