The Gift of Tongues

Storytelling last night – Spooky Stories for Grown-Ups – with my friends Michelle and Ribs of Hand of Doom Productions. This is the story I wrote for the occasion.

 

The Gift of Tongues

The only thing that Leanne Simpson had learned at school was that life is boring. Lessons were boring; teachers were boring; boys were boring; even girls – talking of nothing but the grades they needed to get to university – were boring. Home, parents, it went without saying, were boring.

Everyone thought she was too clever for her own good.

          -You need to learn to bite your tongue, her form teacher would tell her; You’re so sharp one day you’ll cut yourself.

          -If I bite my tongue I’ll cut myself, Leanne replied; so it sounds the same either way.

Her only friend was Arestra, and together they made a cult of boredom. Arestra, who had no father, and a mother who worked night shifts, insisted that she had no other name but Arestra. She dressed in nothing but black, and had covered the walls and the windows of her room with sheets of black paper. There was nothing cool or attractive about her black clothes – a shapeless, man’s jumper that hung from her skinny shoulders down to her knees was typical. Once she had dabbed Flash bathroom cleaner behind her ears and been told ‘you smell nice’, so she had poured some into a perfume bottle and labelled it

                         Arestra

                   Eau de Mystère

 

Arestra was considered to be a bad influence on Leanne.

They sat in her black room in silence for as long as they could stand it.

           – Shall we make a suicide pact? Leanne once asked her.

Arestra shook her head.

          – No. Too interesting.

It was the coinage of a phrase they came to use constantly.

Leanne knew that this couldn’t go on, that real life would have to begin; but she didn’t know how to end it.

Arestra heard of a piece of music called Vexations.

          – It’s perfect, she told Leanne; it’s by someone called Erik Satie – Erik is spelt with a ‘k’ -and it lasts for 18 hours and 40 minutes, and it doesn’t change. At all. It’s just one thing that is repeated 840 times.

          – How did you hear about it?

          – I did a search- world’s most boring piece of music.

She had found a recording on which the pianist played the motif 40 times.

          – So we’ll play that 21 times and experience the whole thing as Monsieur Satie intended it. This will bore us out of our minds.

          – Yes, Leanne agreed; it will. I really think it will. Aren’t you scared?

They waited until Arestra’s mother had her next night shift.

          – It’s possible that we can do the whole 18 hours without her bothering us. She has a half-hour journey, a 10-hour shift, and then she has to sleep.

So, one Saturday evening in October, they took a jug of black coffee to Arestra’s room and closed the door.

          -Okay; what are the rules?

Leanne had thought about this.

          -We should call this event The Judgement of Boredom. We’ve never done anything this extreme; it’s the ultimate test. We might die of boredom or we might be transformed by boredom.

          -Transcendence! hissed Arestra.

          -Yes; so we have to give this everything. No talking- at all- but at the end of each cycle we make more coffee, use the bathroom-

          -If we need to.

          -Yes, if we need to.

          -I agree, said Arestra. Give me your hand.

She put their hands palm to palm and they looked into each other’s eyes.

          -Oh Leanne. What a friend you are. There can’t be another person in the whole world who would do this with me.

          – You smell nice, said Leanne.

At first Leanne sat still and was quiet. The music sounded like something that would be played at a funeral, but after the first several repetitions became so boring that she could hear nothing in it at all. Her mind was elsewhere, but that elsewhere was no more interesting. After about one hour, she became restless, but Arestra was so still that Leanne dared not move. She wanted to laugh, have a proper fit of giggles, but that too she suppressed. After they had listened to the record twice, she went to the bathroom and washed her face. She noticed that her pupils had shrunk almost to pinpricks. Still neither of them spoke.

Sometime during the third hour, Leanne rose to her feet and threw her head back and with her eyes closed began speaking rapidly:

          -shandalaka kondolon badibuallalla shilto shadakaladikaka

She went on :

          -bomrompapreea dupaknee urumurem.

She went on like this until she stopped and opened her eyes and looked at Arestra.

          -Glossolalia! Arestra hissed.

Leanne looked at her blankly.

          -Glossolalia. Speaking in tongues. What was it like?

          -It was like knowing the meaning of life but I could only say it in those words.

They abandoned the Satie and talked about the meaning of life. Neither of them could say what it was.

          -So what do you think? said Arestra; you said that this would be the judgement of boredom, so what is your judgement?

They answered in unison :

          -Too interesting!

Halloween was the most boring thing in existence. Everybody knew that. It was the epitome of boredom. Pumpkins, tuppenny witches’ hats, skulls. Last year Arestra and Leanne had made themselves sick eating a whole pumpkin each. This year Arestra decided that they should spend the night in the graveyard.

          -Hallowmas, she called it. It’s not what you think, she said, overriding Leanne’s objection that it sounded too interesting. Look at it this way: it’s Hallowmas and the dead walk abroad. Alternatively, we stay there all night and nothing happens. Which do you think is more likely? When we did that Satie thing, we expected it to be boring and it turned out interesting. This will be the other way around.

Leanne agreed and at half past eleven on the night of All Souls’ Eve they walked through the lych gate of the parish church. There had been no burials there for many years and the graves were higgledy-piggledy, with headstones at odd angles.

          -It would be funny, said Leanne, if we were lying here and were crushed by one of these stones falling on us.

          -It would be perfect, said Arestra; they’re the ultimate thing. Underneath this was somebody’s body – you know: Josiah somebody-or-other, seventeen-hundred-and-something, and he’s totally dead now; body all eaten up with worms. But the thing is his headstone is dead too- the words that told you about him have been worn away. Death death death all around.

Leanne lay prone on one of the graves.

          -It’s cold, she said. There’s only this slab of stone between me and the worms.

Arestra stretched herself supine on the grave next to Leanne’s.

          -I wonder if they can sense our bodies. I imagine them salivating underneath us waiting to get started.

Leanne giggled.

          -I bet you’re the only person this Halloween who’s worried about the worms more than the ghosts. It’s cold, she said again; I’m not sure how long I can do this for.

Nevertheless, she lay there motionless, cold and bored.

          – You see, said Arestra; I told you it would be boring. We should be lying here terrified every time we hear an owl hoot or leaves rustling; but in reality we’re talking about worms and how cold it is. If only you could talk in tongues again, something might happen.

Leanne moved her head so that she was looking down at the stone.

          – Can you hear me? she said in a spooky voice; live worms or dead humans, answer me. She pressed her face against the stone and began whispering rapidly.

Arestra said:

          -They’re not listening.

Then she stretched out on the grave again, looking at the darkness, picking out the branches of the yew tree and the clouds. She heard a noise like a shovelful of earth being tossed on the ground. She sat up. At first, she thought what she could hear was the sound of Leanne whispering, but it wasn’t that- it wasn’t coming from Leanne’s mouth, but from below her; more of a scraping or scratching sound. And then she saw, directly below Leanne’s face, a movement of the surface of the gravestone, and then an eruption of broken stone, and then something pushing through, through the break in the stone, the fingers and thumb of a hand – but a hand with no flesh on it, just the bones – reach up and into Leanne’s mouth. Her face was pulled against the stone; her hands were either side of her head, trying to pull it away; her legs and her body thrashed wildly.

Arestra jumped up and leaned over her. She too began trying to pull her head back.

          -Leanne; she screamed; what? O God.

Suddenly Leanne’s head was free. Her mouth and her jaw were loose, and blood was streaming out. Her eyes were wide and bright, as if they were torches. There was some earth and moss about her lips, and what looked like a worm, but it was mostly blood. Her tongue was missing.

Arestra screamed again; she was shaking; her whole body was shaking. She ran for help, back through the churchyard, through the lych gate, back into the streets and the street lights. She waved down a police car. By the time they returned, Leanne was lifeless. That was the end of Leanne Simpson. It took her entirely by surprise. She had never imagined that her life would end like this. Arestra screamed for a while, and then she cried a lot, pulling the heavy black jumper around herself. Now she too was feeling very cold.

Leanne Simpson was dead. It was impossible to discover what had happened. Arestra’s account of what she had seen was so incoherent, and the story itself so implausible, that nobody could believe that. The gravestone was unbroken; it looked as still and old as always. Her tongue was not found. On the other hand, what had happened to her was so shocking, so diabolical, that it could not be explained. For a time it was thought to have been a prank that went wrong. Arestra kept saying “It’s all my fault”, but no more. In the end no solution could be found and the coroner’s ruling was that she had suffered an unnatural death.

Arestra was admitted to a mental health ward and has not recovered or improved. She is cared for now under her real name, which is Pat Green.

Her mother has a new boyfriend. They buy lots of stuff online and have noisy rows. From time to time the authorities remind her of her daughter, but ‘I just make the right noises’, she has been heard to say; ‘and then they leave me alone’. She has become very fat and has had to stop working. She is able to make ends meet on her benefits and a small pension.

Remembrance

I have been neglecting this site- too busy organising a National Poetry Day event, and this week reading World War I poetry at one of the ‘Pages of the Sea’ workshops, leading up to the commemoration of the centenary of The Armistice. I love this poem called ‘The Send-Off’, by Wilfred Owen.

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way

To the siding-shed,

And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

 

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray

As men’s are, dead.

 

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp

Stood staring hard,

Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.

Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp

Winked to the guard.

 

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.

They were not ours:

We never heard to which front these were sent.

 

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant

Who gave them flowers.

 

Shall they return to beatings of great bells

In wild trainloads?

A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,

May creep back, silent, to village wells,

Up half-known roads