With the publication of The Dig on The Grim Collection, I find myself thinking about storytellers. The Dig was inspired by a storyteller in my own family, my great-uncle Leonard. I can’t say I spent a lot of time with Leonard, but my most vivid memories of him involve the stories he told. I remember him sitting in an aged yet comfortable looking chair in a living room filled with the kind of pictures and knick-knacks one accumulates during a life filled with family. Great-aunt Minnie busy elsewhere in the house. Leonard’s thick head of hair. My dad sitting off to the side and me uncomfortable around unfamiliar people. I don’t remember ever commenting on the tales woven or asking questions, but I certainly remember retelling those stories on the walk to school or on the playground, doing my best to remember the details for my equally young pals.
My favourite story and the one I remember most clearly involved a dream where Leonard saw the location of some buried treasure and upon waking knew where to go. And go he did. Shovel in hand. He dug and struck something deep in the sand but a ghostly hand emerged. He dropped shovel and ran. Some time later he returned but could no longer remember the spot.
That story stuck with me for more than 30 years and eventually became The Dig.
My dad added a lot of background lore to Leonard’s ability to vividly dream. Leonard’s father was the seventh son of the seventh son. That man could put a light-bulb in his mouth and his finger in an outlet and the bulb would light up. He disappeared for years only to return near the end of his life. I never questioned the truth of these tales. One doesn’t do that to stories such as this. I think I knew that even as a young lad. It’s a harder thing to do as an adult– not questioning the tales of storytellers. As an adult, we look for answers to help us understand the why of things, but with a story it is not the why that is important. The best storytellers know this.
There was another story Leonard told where, as a young man, he saw the devil perched on a neighbour’s house. The devil dropped into the shadows and disappeared when it noticed Leonard looking. I’ve got a comic script knocking around in my head based on that one.
Another storyteller from my youth was a neighbourhood friend of my father’s. Joe was his name and, to me, he seemed old even when I was in elementary school. I interviewed him once as part of a school project. We had to talk to an adult about what their childhood was like. I used this black tape recorder my sister had. It was the same tape recorder she and I used to record silly little programs we made up before I was even in school. I also used the tape recorder to record letters to a friend of mine that moved to another city. He did the same in return. I don’t remember the details of Joe’s answers, but I remember he came to the house and we did the recording in the basement. I also remember the quality of the recording was terrible. You could barely hear him on the playback even with the volume at its highest.
Later in life after we left and returned to Sydney, my dad took me to visit Joe. He was still in the same neighbourhood. Same darkly painted house with its immaculately cared for lawn and shrubbery. We sat out in the backyard. Dad and he talked and I listened. Dad was working for Brinks by this time and I remember Joe leaning intently forward and asking with quiet interest: “What does a million dollars look like?”
My dad and his brothers would tell stories of their youth, not naughty tales but definitely wild tales about kids fending for themselves and finding things to do as they wandered the city, of their own father and his brother– the aforementioned Leonard– running booze in the countryside and dealing cards at back-room poker games because none of the players trusted each other.
And, Murray, now also gone. The trucker. One summer when we were back on the East Coast visiting I found myself alone in the living room with Murray, and we got to talking about trucking, about what is trucked across country and across borders; about how cargo is tracked; about how truckers are sometimes robbed or even hijacked. It’s all locked away in my brain.
Stories to create other stories.