by Nicola Slade
A vivid imagination is essential for a writer but sometimes it can be more of a curse than a blessing. Recently my husband had to have an eye operation and I drove home from the hospital working out how to rearrange the house for a blind person in case there was a disaster.
By the time I reached home the disaster had turned into a catastrophe and I had mentally written the order of service for the funeral, made a list of friends to be invited and got to the stage of wondering if I’d be up to doing the catering myself or whether to order platters ready-made from the local supermarket.
Later, I told two friends about this ridiculous flight and one of them looked very concerned, gave me a list of statistics about the unlikelihood of the operation going wrong and worried that I was under too much strain. The other friend, another writer, roared with laughter and said she had once ‘buried’ her entire family after a disaster and that her most pressing concern had been what to wear at the funeral. Drat, I hadn’t thought of that ...
Besides tangling myself up in unlikely disasters my imagination interferes with ordinary life in other ways. I realise that some of my memories can’t possibly be my own memories; I don’t mean that I’m haunted, far from it, but because I spent so much of my childhood with my grandmother, I have her memories too because she told me endless stories about her own and her mother’s youth.
For instance, apart from the possibility of reincarnation, I think it highly unlikely that I was involved in the Tay Bridge disaster in December 1879, when the newly-built railway bridge over the River Tay, at Dundee in Scotland, gave way with a great loss of life. My grandmother wasn’t there either, she was a three-week old baby in the south of England, but the lurid reports of the accident shocked my great-grandmother and she must have impressed this on her daughter — but to me, it’s as familiar as if I had been on the spot.
Similarly, I don’t actually recall the practical difficulties of wearing a crinoline and I’m quite sure my great-grandmother wasn’t wealthy enough to wear the very exaggerated styles, but she observed that it was almost impossible to enter a railway carriage in a modest manner, as the great hoop was liable to fly upwards. No, I wasn’t there of course, so how can I know how it felt to struggle with that mass of whalebone and fabric?
Closer to home, chronologically speaking, was the First World War. I can imagine as clearly as if I had been there, the trips my grandmother made to the beach near her home on England’s south coast. Never greatly interested in housework, Granny would pile as many babies and toddlers as she could muster, her own and neighbouring children, into her large pram, chuck in a loaf of bread and bottle of milk, along with a jar of jam, and wheel the ensemble down to the sea where they would picnic and listen to the guns across the Channel in France. I do know where that memory comes from for my mother vividly remembered being tucked in the foot of the pram, as a toddler, along with the next two babies in the family.
I love to read about people who, on being regressed under hypnosis, start speaking in ancient tongues and remembering past lives, but in view of this ‘temporal dislocation’ of mine I doubt if I would be convinced if I had a go at it. There is a theory that the brain stores every memory so how could I, an avid reader of historical novels since I was about seven, trust anything I dredged up under hypnosis? Speak in Norman French? Maybe, but then I would remember an exhibition in Winchester some years back, commemorating the Doomsday Book, when there was a voice-over speaking in the very same language. Wouldn’t that be what I remembered, rather than some past life of my own? And my brain isn’t just overflowing with my own memories, I have my maternal ancestors in there too, vying for space.
I don’t believe this is just a ‘writer thing’ though of course the imagination helps, but as it’s certainly not something I do consciously I suspect it’s much more a ‘woman’s thing’, a kind of atavism perhaps? Or is it simply because women tend to be the storytellers and the family experiences pass down through the distaff side? Whatever the explanation I’m absolutely certain I’m not the only woman haunted by her ancestral memories.
Nicola Slade was brought up in Poole, Dorset, England. She wrote children’s stories when her three children were growing up, moving onto short stories for several national magazines. Winning a story competition in Family Circle galvanised her into writing seriously and since then her stories and articles have been commissioned regularly. Scuba Dancing is her first novel. She lives with her husband near Winchester in Hampshire. For more information about Nicky and her work visit www.nicolaslade.com