The books and stories of our childhood stay with us forever.
When myself and my brother were kids my mum read us a story that I’ve never forgotten. Except there’s one problem. Neither my mum nor my brother remember it. I’ve searched through the book shelves in my family home and done more than a few google and goodreads searches. And I can’t identify it.
But my mum did read it to us. I’m sure of it.
I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me identify the book so I’ve written out everything I remember here. Or, to be more accurate, here’s what I think I remember because memories are unreliable and, as the wag might add, particularly memories of the past.
I distinctly remember Mum reading it to us in our shared bedroom in rural Sligo. I must have been sitting on my brother’s bed as I remember facing the bedroom window. But then again I also remember the curtains open and rain lashing off the glass outside. Which doesn’t seem right. If it was night and miserable weather then the curtains would have been closed. Wouldn’t they?
I only remember hearing the story once once. Which is odd, because unless it was a library book, Mum would have left it with us so we could pore over it avidly and leave on the floor and walk over it. Both cherish it and destroy it, like kids do. Also I can’t be sure, but I don’t think it was a picture book. I don’t remember any drawings and I think I was old enough that I might have already grown out of picture books. Or maybe not, because who ever really grows out of picture books? Indeed, one of the joys of having children is rediscovering picture books.
But I digress.
All I know for sure is that we sat on each side of my mother. We snuggled against her and she read us a story that I’ve come to think of as titled, ‘A Stranger Calls’
One night, a lonely, scared boy was in his small bed in his small, neat home. He heard knocking at his front door. It was late at night so when he went down to the door he didn’t open it. Instead, he called out, ‘Hello? Who is it?’
So he called out. ‘Who is it?’
And he wondered who it might be outside. It couldn’t have been –
This is obviously my retelling of the story and not the original text, but I do remember there was some sort of repetition here. Something a little bit like that piece in ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ where it goes, ‘It can’t be the milkman, because he came this morning. And it can’t be the boy from the grocer, etc..’
Except in my book, unlike the Tiger, after the boy had discounted all options –
He resolved not to answer the door. In fact, he pulled across the chain and went back to bed and ignored the knocking until it stopped.
The next night the knocking began again and he went down to the door and again he called out, ‘Who is it?’
Again, no answer.
And he knew it couldn’t be –
Again that same list of possible visitors to rule out. I remember it as sing-song-y. I just don’t remember the tune.
He decided it was a stranger and he went back to bed.
The next day he put another lock on the door and bars on his windows.
That night the knocking began again.
The next day he put up a fence and a gate around his house.
That night that knocking began again.
The next day he built a wall around his house.
That night the knocking began again.
The next day –
You’ve got the idea by now. A one sided arms war ensues with the boy building up bigger and bigger barricades and the stranger always somehow managing to knock at his front door until –
One day the boy woke and his house was in darkness. The walls were so high he could no longer see the sky or the stars. He tried to leave but he had built his defences up so tall and strong that he was trapped. And there was no food left in his house. Or water.
That night the stranger knocked at his front door again.
Tired from lack of sleep, hungry from lack of food, pale from the lack of light, the boy ran to open the front door.
And welcomed the stranger inside.
That’s it. That’s all I remember. And while I often imagined what might have happened next, I still remember being jarred by that abrupt and inconclusive last line –
And welcomed the stranger inside.
At this point in this blog post I was planning to finish and ask you, dear reader, to help me identify it. Except I have to admit that in writing out what I remember, I’ve started to question my memories. As perhaps you have too.
I can’t help but notice the unmistakable comparisons with the aforementioned ‘Tiger Who Came to tea’ which was indeed read to me as a child. Repeatedly. As well as having the It’s not the… sections in common, both have something unknown at the front door wanting to come inside. Both also have a sense of threat – I do remember being scared by that tiger – although my story isn’t resolved with sausages, chips and ice cream.
Another less known but equally delightful children’s book that I had as a child and read till the spine fell apart was ‘Mr Mead and his Garden’ by John Vernon Lord. In it Mr Mead hates slugs and worms and snails so much that he throws them over his garden wall until they form a wall so high that the sun is blocked out. He’s held prisoner in a prison of his own creation. Sounds familiar, right?
Could my brain have taken very real memories that I have of my mother reading to Aelred and I in Sligo; combined it with a snapshot of Sligo weather; mixed in elements of two children’s books I loved; added some details all of my own; and perhaps in more recent years filched the title from the A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd; then wove all of these disparate strands into a wholly new memory that unfortunately never happened?
And if that’s true then it demands the question – why would my young brain invent a whole new children’s book? What’s in that imaginary book that was missing from the real ones?
Maybe the answer is in the book’s ending. Over those more difficult years while my family moved around and I found it hard to find my place in new schools, I frequently considering the story’s inscrutable ending and the mysterious stranger. I assumed that if the boy had welcomed the stranger inside, this was because the stranger turned out to be a friend of his. Or that the stranger had brought some food and water. Either way I imagined them eating and drinking companionably together. The next morning, I was sure they would have gone out to demolish the defences together. They’d tear everything down and let the sun and fresh air return. Maybe they even demolished the small, neat home in the process and built a new home for them both.
I often imagined the two of them living happily together forever, the little boy lonely no longer.
More recently though, this story brings to mind a poem I definitely didn’t read as a child. I heard it in my mid-twenties when I was grappling with burnout. It’s by the 13th Century Sufi mystic, Rumi and titled ‘The Guest House’ and has this distinctive section:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
We hear a lot about representation in children’s books these days and along with that there’s the idea that needs to be a book for every child, a book which tells the story that each child needs to hear. Maybe ‘A Stranger Calls’ was the story I needed to hear as a child during those years when things were a little more difficult than when I lived in Sligo. And as the story didn’t exist yet, I invented it.
I needed a story to tell me that a stranger could be a friend. And that those fears and other intense emotions that knocked on my door were to be welcomed in.
One thing that’s true is, whether real or imagined, the books and stories of our childhood stay with us forever and, even as grown ups, help us walk our journeys.
So thank god for children’s fiction.