The Story Teller by Rachael Preston
2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Rachael Preston made the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for The Story Teller.
You can read The Story Teller below.
"Stop telling stories," Mum would say. "Lies hurt people."
As if no one has ever used the truth as a stick to prod people, trip them with its bared roots. Stories are like wishes, I should have told her. Enchantments we spin to cocoon ourselves.
The facts: a damp October afternoon in 1974, the start of English chilblain weather. Uncle Terry sitting in his car across from Brown Muff & Co. department store on Market Street, waiting for Mum to finish work, an Embassy cigarette burning between his fingers. Which car? I couldn't say: was he in his Alfa Romeo phase? Jaguar? Or had he moved on to the Porsche? Our family joked that Uncle Terry changed cars every time the ashtrays were full.
But it's details that count. The details make this my version of Uncle Terry's story.
I see Mum stepping outside at her shift's end, knotting her headscarf beneath her chin, pulling on her brown leather gloves. She tosses her head back in laughter as two co-workers, also at their shift's end, tease her about her fancy fella and his flash car. She doesn't correct them but calls out her goodbyes, click-clicking across the road in that half-run women wearing heels use. Her tights — Marks & Spencer, American Tan — whoosh-whoosh in tandem. She's delighted to see her brother-in-law and flattered by the surprise of his visit and offer of a ride home. Uncle Terry flushes, grins. His gut churns.
Stories are like wishes, I should have told her. Enchantments we spin to cocoon ourselves.
The radio blares because Terry would rather the jokey mid-Atlantic tones of the Radio One DJs than the disquiet in his mind. Who wouldn't? When he leans to open the passenger door, a twangy guitar riff floats out, followed by the opening refrain of Terry Jacks' Seasons in the Sun. He lowers the volume and pats the passenger seat, leans in for a brotherly peck on the cheek before giving Mum his trademark chuckle, "hee hee," his smile revealing the tips of small even teeth, a flash of white in the ginger lawn of his beard. Uncle Terry was the only person I knew who actually said hee hee as he laughed, yet it never sounded corny or false.
"Hee hee. How are you, my love?"
She's fine — or is my Canadian sensibility colouring the scene? She's fine. Peachy keen. Hunky dory. She's a little giddy with no interminable bus ride to face. She can put the fare toward a new pair of tights, her next hairdresser's appointment. As for the extra time — she glances at the sky, wondering if the weather will hold — perhaps she can get started on the windows. Or will Terry want to come in? Stay for his tea? There aren't enough chops in the fridge. Sausages then. She can peel some more potatoes. Open a can of peas. She studies his face while he pulls into traffic.
"How's Pauline?" Mum asks.
"Good, love. She's good, yes." He points the car up the steep incline of Godwin Street.
Mum leans against the headrest, determined to enjoy the ride home, to accept Terry's, "I was just passing and thought of you." Bill's been cagey lately, and her nerves are jangly, her sleep thin as over-washed sheets. She wonders when Terry and Bill last spoke, if the brothers have spoken at all since Bill sold Terry his half of the partnership, but asking would be like inviting Bill into the car with them, and she pictures how the conversation would drift to the money, all gone now.
The light ambers and she closes her eyes, feeling the car slip backwards an inch or so as Terry releases the handbrake first and then the clutch. The engine growls as it engages. The climb out of Bradford, nestled in the foothills of the Pennines, is all steep gradients and switchback roads. Mum's neck is one long knot of muscle. She could do with a hot bath. Bill can get so wound up. That drawn-out business with the dodgy cheque and the policewoman has made matters worse, as, no doubt, has his insistence on defending himself. Likely the money for a solicitor would have had to come from Terry, and Bill's pride will brook no pity. She pulls off her gloves and rubs her fingers. Billy, Don't Be a Hero washes over her. She could get a headache thinking of things too hard.
They pass Morrisons Supermarket at the top of Westgate.
"You don't need anything, do you?" Terry asks, but he doesn't slow down. Maybe he doesn't mean it. Maybe he doesn't intend to stay for his tea, either. Which is a relief.
Whetley Hill's post-war terraces pass in a blur as they chat about the kids. Helen has a new piebald pony called Trixie. Kat should come over for a ride, stay the night. Philip too. Matthew has an airgun they could play with. Airgun? Mum laughs to cover her alarm.
Another toe-tapping favourite, Abba's Waterloo, winds out from the radio. Terry turns it up. "Hee hee." He grins. She'd sing along but feels shy in front of her brother-in-law. She doesn't know all the words, and the song doesn't suit her voice. But, if Mary Hopkin came on singing Both Sides Now, she might be tempted. Castles of ice cream on a loop in her head these days. The kids call it her hoovering song.
"Good to see you smiling."
The car hums past fish and chip shops, greengrocers, bakeries, pubs, acres of abandoned and decaying woollen mills. At every bookmaker's blank windows, she grows eyes in the back of her head scanning the streets for Bill's car. Terry speeds up as they approach busy Toller Lane and Mum's heart quickens. She wasn't with Bill at the time, but it's as if she's absorbed his story just as I've absorbed hers, fashioned it into memory, and whenever she passes Toller Lane Ladbrokes, she sees the man who has just left the bookie's shop ahead of her husband and stepped into the road; sees him struck first by one swerving car and then another. And then in the rear-view mirror in her mind she watches in horror as his body is tossed into the air a third and final time.
Or maybe Mum isn't thinking this at all. Possibly she's sleepy, lulled by warmth from the heater and, if it's raining, the rhythmic swish of the wipers.
A right turn at Ling Bob pub and into the picturesque village of Wilsden where we live. Only we don't live in the picturesque village part but rather the new housing division at the far end. Terry pulls up the driveway and turns off the engine. He's driven Mum all the way home without telling her the real reason he picked her up. As they sit chatting, Mum sees the time she's saved not taking the bus dwindle to nothing. What must the neighbours think? Terry glides from one topic to another, all smiles and cues to laugh. It's beginning to feel like being with Bill's mother. Mum's cheeks ache with the strain of smiling, a headache warns at her temples. Terry's telling her a story yonks old about the two of them working the fairground rides at Shipley Glen when they were kids, and how Uncle John chased Bill off after he caught him stealing from the penny arcades. When Bill reappeared two days later, he bragged at having survived by stealing a carcass from the lion's cage and kipping in the barn with the donkeys. Bill always told Mum he'd run to his Nana's where she'd cooked all his vegetables in sugar and even let him spoon the crystals straight from the bowl into his mouth. But neither story rings true to her because sugar was rationed for years after the war, and what kid would eat raw meat?
Mum stares at the rock garden, her stomach quiffy. Is she coming down with something? Was that slice of stand pie she had for dinner too far past its sell-by? Terry drones on.
Let me go, for heaven's sakes.
But he doesn't, and so she invites him in for coffee. I have to believe by that point Mum has twigged that something is amiss. The way Uncle Terry described it to me, he was still laughing and cracking jokes and Mum was laughing along with him. But Uncle Terry's stories are always gilded affairs, and I know my mum better than that.
The way Uncle Terry described it to me, he was still laughing and cracking jokes and Mum was laughing along with him. But Uncle Terry's stories are always gilded affairs, and I know my mum better than that.
I see her walk to the door in her black slacks and black patent leather shoes, her pale grey and white belted three-quarter length raincoat. Which is completely wrong, because Brown Muff & Co. required their staff wear brown and cream, and the women wore skirts, never slacks. Remember her tights? American Tan. Whoosh-whoosh. But I need to paint a stronger, more carefree portrait. Someone has to look after her.
The wind fetches down from the fields that back onto the house, blowing her red curls about. Auburn. (See how I've discarded her head scarf? Tossed it to the wind. Whoosh.) I'd forgotten just how red her hair was until I happened on an old photo album. There's a photograph of Mum and me and Philip taken on my Girl Guide camping trip. Grandma and Granddad had driven Mum and Philip out to Sheffield for visitors' day. We're standing outside the tent I shared with three other guides. I'm 13, and barely recovered from a disastrous Purdy haircut. Philip is still a little boy in a brown jumper with a thatch of straw-blonde hair. Mum, her arms around the two of us, is the focal point of the picture. How young and slim and pretty she is. And that hair! I stared in amazement, trying to reconcile the rich vivid redness with my memories. Once my aunt showed me a photograph of my dad taken around the same time. He was standing on a rock in the middle of a swirling river somewhere in Canada. Gaunt and pale, his eyes haunted and bruised looking.
Terry finishes his coffee, rinses his mug and sets it on the draining board to give his hands something to do. He avoids looking towards the dining-room door, closed since the Bailiff's visit last year. He feels sick. I feel sick. A knot twisted up high in my stomach.
"Bill's gone, you know."
"Gone, what do you mean he's gone?"
"He's gone to Canada."
"Canada? What on earth's he doing in Canada?" But she knows. The way she's known ever since she first saw Terry sitting in his car on Market Street. Bill's gone.
"When?" Her mouth a weak and ugly slash in her face. I know that mouth because it's my mouth too.
"I took him to the airport this morning."
She doesn't ask if he's left a letter for her, or I won't let her ask because I don't want to hurt her any more than he already has.
I see her face folded up all tight on itself, but I can't imagine what she felt. I don't want to. Terry, the Judas, bought my dad a one-way ticket out of trouble. And now he's fulfilled his secondary obligation and broken the news to his sister-in-law. Time to get going before the school bus deposits my brother at the bottom of Florence Avenue, before I finish my paper route.
My childhood stopped at the edges of this gaping dad's-abandoned-us-for-Canada wound. We left pretty Wilsden soon afterwards and moved in first with my grandparents and from there to a squat, ugly flat amidst skinheads, glue-sniffers and Saturday-night beatings. Mum found full-time work and Philip began thieving for Malcolm Royal. When, two years later, I also needed to run to Canada — traitor — to live with my dad, Uncle Terry took me to the airport. And if I were looking for symmetry and a neat ending, I would tell you that it was here, driving in his red Porsche Targa with the radio on, where Uncle Terry told me his story.
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About Rachael Preston
Rachael Preston is the author of three novels: Tent of Blue, The Wind Seller and The Fishers of Paradise. In 2016, The Fishers of Paradise was honoured with a Project Bookmark Canada plaque. Rachael taught creative writing for more than a decade at Sheridan and Mohawk Colleges in Ontario. She now lives on Vancouver Island where she works part-time at an independent bookstore, runs the occasional writing workshop and walks her dog, mostly in the forest.
The winner of the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.