The Story Ring

images ‘Hello, I’m Stella.’

I’m so used to introducing myself. It’s the first thing I do when I meet someone new – put the other person at ease first. I’m the Activities Co-ordinator at The Larches, a care home for elderly people. It’s a sprawling red-brick bungalow set in an untended garden. I used to work five days a week, now I’m only needed for three and, frankly, it’s hard to live off the reduced salary. I’m going to resign – I’ve written the letter already and have it in my bag. I’ve got no job to go to, but I quite fancy training to become a life coach. I’ll be self-employed and, hopefully, better off than I am now.

Aude – Audrey Simpson-Jones – is Care Home Manager at The Larches. She’s the one who decided that my working hours should be cut as part of last year’s Budget Efficiencies. Well, I’ve just about forgiven her for referring to me as ‘that coloured girl’ when I first started working here, but I can’t forgive her attitude towards the residents. Aude thinks as long as they are fed that’s good enough, as if they don’t need any sustenance for their brains. I sometimes wonder why she chose to work in the care profession in the first place.

I hold the Story Ring on the first Wednesday of each month. Me and a small group of the residents get together in the Activities Room to tell stories and reminisce. Today’s session would be the last before I leave The Larches.  I’ve decided I won’t mention it to the Storytellers, as I call them, until after the session.

I go to the Activities Room, unload my stuff on to the spare table near the window, and stop momentarily to watch two of the residents walking together in the rear garden. Maurice, tall and thin with a slight stoop, is talking to Lottie. He’s moving his hands as if he’s explaining something but I can tell tiny, bird-like Lottie isn’t listening. She’s gazing up at the branches of the trees as she walks.

The furniture in the Activities Room has already been set up for the Story Ring. The red leather chairs, high-backed and sturdy, are arranged in a semi-circle facing a blank white wall. The other walls are decorated with paintings and drawings created by the residents. I unfurl a poster and tack it to the wall, covering it with a plain sheet of paper. I place pens, pencils and paper on the table at the centre of the room, and then I’m ready.

I can hear the Storytellers making their way down the main corridor to the Activities Room, a mixture of voices complaining, babbling, and laughing. Sally and Aisleen, the Care Assistants, are with them.

‘Story time again!’ Sally says, in a sing-song voice.

‘Yes, story time, thank you nurse,’ a gruff male voice grumbles as the group enter the room. ‘Morning, Stella,’ Edwin says.

‘Morning Edwin!’ And for the benefit of those with slipping memories, ‘Hello everyone, I’m Stella.’

Lottie has come in from the garden. Her thin red lips – Lottie loves her lippy – utter barely-formed words, but I know she’s greeting me.

‘Hiya Lottie, good to see you,’ I say.

Jean waves at me before sitting down in her usual place: the chair closest to the door.

‘Good morning, my dear.’ That’s Euphemia, a proper posh Jamaican lady, always neatly turned out in a pleated skirt and pussy-bow blouse.

Sally and Aisleen help the frailest members of the group, Carole and Antonietta, to their seats. I thank them both as they leave, and close the blinds to protect sensitive eyes from the spring morning sunshine.

I explain to the Storytellers why we are here and what we are about to do. I love the whole ritual of it. Then I peel the blank sheet of paper away from the poster to reveal a picture of a small girl dressed like a 1980s career woman: padded-shoulder suit, designer glasses. She’s sitting at a desk in front of a boxy computer with a ‘phone in one hand, poised to make a call. I thought they might like it.

‘You can see it’s a little girl, can’t you? A right little career madam!’ Jean looks at me quite fiercely, but I carry on talking. ‘It’s funny. One minute we’re kids, the next we’re grown-ups. So the question for this morning’s Story Ring is: what did you want to be when you grew up?’

‘Well I didn’t want to be a girl, that’s for sure!’ Edwin grins.

‘Sorry, Edwin, I couldn’t find a picture of a little boy to match this one. But still, have a think.’

‘I do not like the picture.’ Antonietta’s Italian accent is strong, despite living in Britain for many years. ‘She’s a little girl. Little girls do not work.’

‘But she’s playing, isn’t she?’ says Carole, smiling. ‘Playing at being grown-up.’

‘Yes, that is all,’ Euphemia agrees. ‘I like the picture.’

I say, ‘Imagine that’s you in the picture, being a kid, playing. What would you be?’

‘If I was in the picture I’d be looking after children. Me and Thomas, my brother, were sent away to Dorset during the war.’

‘Why, Carole?’ Antonietta asks. ‘Your parents did not want you?’

‘Oh no, nothing like that. We were evacuees, you see. Some children had a dreadful time, but I loved it. Aunt Myrtle and Uncle David were so kind, not strict like our own Mum and Dad. I wanted to be a nursery nurse.’

I ask Carole whether she ended up working with children.

‘No, Sula. I worked at Jones Brothers. Remember the big department store that used to be on the Holloway Road? I worked in the hats and gloves department for years, until it closed.’

Euphemia looks genuinely interested. ‘Did you enjoy your work, Carole?’

‘I didn’t mind it. It brought in extra money so that was good. What about you, Euphelia? It must have been quite different in Jamaica.’

Euphemia ignores Carole’s mispronunciation of her name. ‘No, not very different. I came here when I was young, nineteen years of age, in 1962.   I trained to become a nurse.’

‘So in that picture, you’d be wearing a saucy nurse’s outfit?’

Oh God, trust Edwin.

‘No!’ Euphemia says irritably. ‘I would be wearing a white wig, and be dressed in the gown of the law.’

I am so impressed. ‘You wanted to be a barrister? That’s great.’

‘Yes, except that in those days the law profession wasn’t open to the likes of us.’ Euphemia looks at me steadily as she says this.

‘Alright, Euph. Enough about you, what about me?’ Edwin pauses, winks, and looks at the others to see if they’re amused by his quip. ‘If I was in that picture I’d be a little boy surrounded by lions and tigers.’

‘They would eat you,’ Antonietta pointed out.

‘No, they’d be behind bars, like the wild beasts they are. Bit like me really.’

‘What do you mean, Edwin?’ I ask, although I can already guess.

‘I’d be a zoo keeper, of course!’ Then Edwin looks downcast. ‘But I ended up sweeping the streets, and when I lost that job I became a virtual down-and-out.’

‘Really?’ Carole looks appalled.

‘Yes. I’ve had a tragic life.’ Edwin turns to Carole, and at the other women, hoping for more sympathy. Then he looks at me. I raise my eyebrows. I’m sure he’s telling…stories.

‘But you persevered with life, and survived,’ Euphemia says. ‘That is admirable.’

‘Ha! Not really, girls. I’m having you on. Not lions and tigers. I worked with the penguins at London Zoo, Rockhoppers, mainly. Loved ’em. Best job in the world.’ Edwin succeeds in amusing himself.

Euphemia looks at him with disapproval. ‘Oh,’ is all she says.

Suddenly Lottie stands up, murmuring as she walks slowly towards the door. She opens it and leaves the room. I have to follow her.

‘Please excuse me while I check that Lottie is okay.’ I follow her down the corridor, but Aisleen reaches her first.

‘It’s okay, Stel, I’ll look after her,’ she calls. ‘Alright, Lottie?’ Aisleen gently takes Lottie’s arm and begins to talk quietly to her.

I return to the Activities Room feeling concerned and wondering whether Lottie is upset, but as I enter the room Jean is saying,

‘You’re not half as funny as you think you are.’ She turns to me. ‘Stella, Edwin is a disruptive influence.’

‘Least I’m not bolshie like you.’

Edwin and Jean always come to the Story Ring. They seem to want to be in the same room together, gently bickering.

‘Now, Edwin, let’s be respectful to one another. This is a chance to share and have some fun.’

‘I am having fun.’

‘Okay, well have fun kindly.

There is a knock on the door, and Sally comes in wheeling a trolley of tea and biscuits. When I started at The Larches, cakes and pastries were served at tea time. Now, there are only biscuits. Austerity elevenses, I suppose.

I’m so relieved when Aisleen re-appears with Lottie. She settles Lottie back into her seat and offers her some tea. Lottie refuses. She points towards the pens and paper left on the table, and I fetch them for her. She murmurs thanks, and begins to draw. I watch her hand move with seemingly choreographed grace across the page. It’s then I remember that Lottie was an artist, quite a successful one.

‘Oh, Lottie, that’s great.’ I sit down next to her. Head bowed, her grey bobbed hair swaying with each movement, Lottie carries on drawing and doesn’t look up.

When the clatter of cups and saucers slowly subsides. I’m about to resume the session when Antonietta asks loudly,

‘Are we starting again? I want to tell.’

The Storytellers say yes. They are ready.

Antonietta, so elegant even in her plain jumper, slacks and slippers, declares, ‘I would not be that girl. I wanted to get married and have a family. I am from Calabria in Southern Italy. I came to live in England with my husband in the ‘50s. Many Italians moved to Bedford for jobs in the brickworks, rebuilding after the war. I wanted children, but no children came. I needed something to do and I can cook so I opened a café, the first Italian café in Bedford. I became famous!’ She laughs. ‘Then I had a son, just one son. He runs the café now.’ Antonietta stops speaking, looking satisfied with herself.

I know the answer to this question, but I ask anyway. ‘What did you call the café, Antonietta?’

‘Antonietta’s Café, of course!’

The Storytellers laugh.

‘Antonietta, that is so interesting. My story is the opposite.’ Jean pauses, gathering her thoughts. ‘I always wanted to be a teacher, like my Father. I didn’t want to be stuck at home like my mother. I couldn’t understand why she put up with it.’

‘She was looking after you, no?’

‘Yes, but I just didn’t want to be like her.’

Jean seems agitated, so I try to calm her by referring back to the poster. ‘Did you play pretend-teacher when you were little, Jean?’

‘I did. But as I got older I became very serious about it. I passed my exams, and went to teacher training college. I qualified in 1970, I think, maybe 1960.’ Jean begins to look confused.

‘I bet you were a great teacher,’ I smile. Sometimes I have a feeling that Jean thinks I’m too shallow, a bit frivolous.

‘I like to think so. Anyway, my point is that when I got married I had to give up my career. I stopped teaching and had two children. By the time they were teenagers it was too late for me to re-enter the profession.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ I sense the regret in Jean’s voice, and it saddens me. ‘Well, you could say that you sort of had it all. A career and a family life!’ I say this a little too brightly.

Jean’s face reddens. ‘Had it all? That cliché! You have no idea what it was like for my generation of women. We didn’t have choices. Can you imagine that, Stella? Giving up your career because everyone thinks you should? You don’t know how lucky you are.’

I don’t know what to say. There’s no avoiding the fact that I deserved Jean’s outburst. I’d hoped that the Storytellers would remember what it’s like to be children, not dwell on unfulfilled ambitions. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen this subject. Lottie has stopped drawing and is listening, alert. Antonietta is watching, looking from Jean to me, sensing the tension. Euphemia rescues me.

‘Jean, I understand. Stella understands too, don’t you Stella? We all do.’

I nod gratefully. ‘I’m sorry, Jean.’

Jean doesn’t reply. She fidgets and looks out of the window.

There is silence. Edwin is looking at Jean with something like concern, and Carole has a worried smile on her face. I stand up, trying to reassert myself.

‘We’re nearly at the end of this month’s Story Ring. Do you have anything else to share?’

‘Nah. Thanks, Stella.’ Edwin beams a smile at me, and I really appreciate it.

‘Well, it’s great to see how our lives can become stories. Thanks everyone.’ That’s the best I can manage.

We end with a song, a Frank Sinatra number from my Story Ring compilation tape: You Make Me Feel So Young. It’s good to sway to. While we hold hands and sing, I decide there’s no way I’m telling the residents that I’m leaving. And Jean is right, I do have choices. I can respond to Aude’s vote of no confidence by leaving and becoming a life coach, trying to believe my own motivational platitudes and charging extortionate fees. Or I can stay for now, take more care in future, be the anti-Aude.

By the end of the song, I’ve made my decision. And just as we stop singing, the door opens and Maurice pops his head round the door.

‘I’m here for the stories. May I take a seat?’



African People

Sonia Hope school photo c.1975I am a librarian working in an academic library in the centre of London. The collection covers every possible subject that the university students might find useful: philosophy, psychology, business, marketing, oil and gas and banking, literature. I work two evenings a week, and this is when the mature, part-time students visit. One of the regulars is a petite woman, middle-aged but still youthful-looking. She has dark skin and angular features. She is friendly and talkative.

‘How’s the studying going?’ I ask. It’s late, and we both blink at each other under the harsh flourescent light.

‘Oh, you know,’ she says, and laughs, revealing perfect white teeth. I laugh with her.

‘I’m going to assume it’s all going well for you,’ I say.

She laughs a bit more. ‘I’m taking these out,’ she says, pushing a pile of books across the issue desk towards me and handing over her student card.

I really should have asked which course she is studying by now, two terms into the academic year, but I haven’t. Instead, I have merely found myself interested in the books that she borrows. Tonight, amongst the pile, there are books on African philosophy (we actually have books on African philosophy?) and a novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I remember how much I hated that book when I read it as part of my undergraduate degree, and how surprised my lecturer had been that I hated it. I scan the barcodes of each book and stamp them with a date set two weeks into the future. I look at the student’s face, now set in a serious expression as she waits for her books. I feel as if we are mirroring each other, dark faces opposite one another – hers more recently from Africa than mine, a product of centuries-old diasporic movement. My mind fleetingly recalls the scene in the Conrad novel in which Marlow encounters the enslaved Congolese people, ‘black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees […] nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation….’ [1] I want to say to her, don’t even bother with that book, but I don’t. I’m a librarian. I have to be neutral. Instead, I say, ‘due back in two weeks,’ and hand them over to her. ‘Take care. Don’t work too hard.’

She smiles, piles the books into a tote bag, and leaves.

Forty years earlier, my formal education began. I was four and a half years old when my family moved to Bedford, a town fifty miles from London where I was born. Everyone else in the reception class at my prospective school would be five. Mum had to persuade the headmaster to take me early. ‘She’s been at school in London since the age of four,’ Mum told the yellow-toothed, ferret-faced Mr Limmer. ‘Please take her’. Reluctantly, he accepted me into the school.

Goldington Green School was a red-brick Victorian building with a bold-faced clock staring out from its façade. It stood on one side of a busy main road which cut a swath of grey through the Green leading straight into Bedford Town Centre; Goldington Church stood on the other, ruined and crumbling to young eyes. The church was Gothic and cold, lifeless without its Sunday morning congregation.

The other children knew I was younger than them. They saw my hair in bunches, tied with red ribbons. Grey pleated skirt and v-neck jumper. Bright white blouse underneath. White knee-length socks and red t-strap Clarks shoes. Self-contained and nervous, I refused to give away words lightly.

There were seven of us, including my older sister, Susan. If we were lined up in a row like an identity parade and looked at through glass, there would be a row of small black faces: a face stony with defiance, a toothy, smiling face, a timid face, a face nervously turning away, others, childish and inscrutable. One of the seven was a little girl that the teachers thought I should be friends with. She was black, like me. Skinny and silent, like me. She had my Christian name and my mother’s maiden name, and for this reason I was highly suspicious of her. I decided to keep my distance. Sonia Fergusson and I would never be friends.

Now, I remember that Sonia Fergusson was quite dark-skinned. Smooth baby skin. Deep-brown, honest eyes. Distant, but related to me, somehow? That had been my anxiety.

Instead, I became friends with a girl who was even smaller than I was. Her name was Rebecca Smith. Her freckles and short, streaky-blonde hair reminded me of Jodie Foster, film star of Freaky Friday and Bugsy Malone. Rebecca fascinated me. One of her arms was shorter than the other. Instead of having a hand with five fingers, Rebecca’s right arm ended in a soft, curved bump, with tiny wart-like buds of skin where her fingers might have been. I was impressed by her tom-boy verve. We plotted adventures that would take us to the farthest reaches of the school playing field. We were going to cycle the breadth of Bedfordshire on our Raleigh Fourteens.[2] Snails would be given holidays in shoe boxes and jars.

I knew Rebecca was a special person because eventually she was given a ‘bionic’ hand, like The Six Million Dollar Man. The prosthetic hand matched her pale skin minus the freckles, and as she showed it off in the playground I could see how seamlessly it attached to her arm. She only had to look at it, she said, and the fingers would move. Rebecca Smith became, in my eyes, truly heroic.

I was sitting next to her as usual in the school assembly when Mr Limmer told us that we were about to watch an interesting film. Short films were occasionally shown in assembly, usually to illustrate a particular religious message that Mr Limmer was attempting to convey. The lights in the hall were dimmed, the heavy red curtains drawn. All of us, children aged from five to eleven, sat cross-legged on the parquet floor expectantly, giggling and shushing each other. The reel-to-reel projector rattled into action. The film was old, crackling, black and white but also washed-out grey. We sat in the dark, trying to make sense of what we were seeing.

The film seemed to be about African people – at least I think they were African people. There were men and women, and some children. The people walked across arid land and then around a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofing, wearing little and baring, declaring the colour of their skin. Rebecca and I looked at each other. Even in a televisual world of suggestion and innuendo, full of Benny Hill and Carry On films, I knew this type of nakedness was different. It was without reason or context. It was obscene. Rebecca knew it. I knew it. The boys sitting around us, sniggering, knew it. They should cover up, shouldn’t they? But it’s hot there, isn’t it?

Then the camera’s eye shifted to a group of people engaged in what seemed to be a festival of dancing. First, the people danced in a circle, arms throwing invisible arcs in the air. Some of them, I was relieved to see, were wearing cloths around their waists that looked like tatty mini kilts. Suddenly, frighteningly, a tall figure wearing a grass skirt and a huge white mask, blank except for black-lined eye slits and expressionless black lips, leapt into view. He was holding grass swats in each hand and shook them up and down, reminding me of a Morris dancer flicking his handkerchiefs. Other figures wearing masks joined the tall one. The images were punctuated with commentary which made little sense to me: ‘The sense of mimicry is highly developed…acting as Native Police is a popular turn.’[3]

The spectacle seemed to go on for a very long time. Apparently, all of this had something to do with me, but I couldn’t work out what. When the film ended, the curtains were pulled open again, and the end of the reel snapped to a finish, I felt hot with shame. I could hear Mr Limmer talking, but the words reached my ears as heavy echoes, as if I were under water. I began to question my place in Goldington Green School, as a girl who lived in Goldington Green, Bedford, England, The World.

Forty years later, I am reading pithy one hundred and forty character messages on a small screen. One of them takes me back to forty years past, to that strange assembly sitting next to Rebecca Smith: ‘Bedford kids learn Traditional African Dance for School Play’.[4] I cannot believe what I am reading; the information collides with the memory I carry with me from that day. The article reports that the children learned the dances for a play based on the life of an Ashanti king. We had sat and watched a film about African people, encouraged to deny any connection to them.

Now, my old primary school is twinned with a school in Ghana.


April 2016.



[1] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness p.25

[2] A model of girl’s bicycle popular in the 1970s.

[3] Basden Collection 3: Africa Dances [film, 8mins. 45 secs.]

[4] ‘Bedford Kids Learn Traditional African Dance’, The Voice, 16 December 2015