There was a sudden sense of flatness, of being dull, hearing my voice as an outsider. The service concluded and we stepped out into the chill November air. A week ago the sky had held different stars, the constellations had included the Southern Cross. Africa seemed a long, long way away from a winter’s night in the Irish Midlands; its colour and music fading like the sound of an old wireless set after the power had been switched off.
It is not that life in Ireland is not good, look at any United Nations measure of the quality of life and it remains exceedingly good; it is the pattern and predictability that sometimes become boring.
Italo Calvino’s ‘Marcovaldo’ leads an ordinary, dull, urban lifestyle but extraordinary things are allowed to happen, like the evening Marcovaldo gets lost in the fog looking for a tram home and wanders into an airport and inadvertently boards an aircraft and asks a fellow passenger if the tram is near his stop only to be told the next stop is thousands of miles hence. Sometimes a life closer to a Calvino plot would be more attractive than the predictably plain.
The option of changing the story is always there.
When our son was small, I remember the changing of stories began with Hans Christian Andersen. I remembered as I read it to him there would be no happy ending to The Tin Soldier. I remembered it from primary school, a story that I had found it very difficult to fathom. What was the point of the story of the poor tin soldier who had been through such experiences only for him to be thrown on the fire? I came to the closing paragraphs of the story:
At this moment one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and without rhyme or reason, threw him into the fire. No doubt the little goblin in the snuffbox was to blame for that. The tin soldier stood there, lighted up by the flame, and in the most horrible heat; but whether it was the heat of the real fire, or the warmth of his feelings, he did not know. He had lost all his gay colour; it might have been from his perilous journey, or it might have been from grief, who can tell?
He looked at the little maiden, and she looked at him; and he felt that he was melting away, but he still managed to keep himself erect, shouldering his gun bravely.
A door was suddenly opened, the draught caught the little dancer and she fluttered like a sylph, straight into the fire, to the soldier, blazed up and was gone!
By this time the soldier was reduced to a mere lump, and when the maid took away the ashes next morning she found him, in the shape of a small tin heart. All that was left of the dancer was her spangle, and that was burnt as black as a coal.
But I did not read the words on the page. I looked up and said, “The boy threw the tin soldier from the window and as the window was open, there was a gust of wind that caught the dancer and carried her out through the window as well. The wind blew and carried them upwards and far away until they landed in a wood together, far from anyone who could harm them and there they lived happily ever afterwards.” My son liked this ending; soon we dispensed with books altogether and wove our own tales of Thomas the Tank Engine and Fireman Sam and anyone else who caught our attention.
Changing stories, fictional or biographical, is a matter of will – whether it’s tin soldiers, Marcovaldo, or clear skied African nights: the tale can follow a different course.