- Holly Searle
- London, United Kingdom
- Holly Searle is a writer who was born in Westminster in the middle of London. She shares her birthday with Jarvis Cocker and David Seaman and like Jarvis Cocker she wears glasses but has nothing whatsoever in common with David Seaman. She is fascinated by words, people and their stories, and regularly spends hours fantasising about being offered a weekly column. She has a degree in Film and Television which she gained from Brunel University in 1997. She has been blessed with two quite remarkable children whom she adores. She enjoys the company of her friends and the circus that is life. Long Walk to Forever by Kurt Vonnegut is her favourite short story. She is the author of the published children's tale The Story of Balan Singh, and is currently working on her first book.
Sunday, 2 October 2011
When I was a child I adored The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. I still have a copy today and this was the inspiration behind The Story of Balan Singh.
When I was a child I adored The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. I still have a copy today and this was the inspiration behind The Story of Balan Singh.
A long time ago, long before you or I, or your Grandparents or mine were born, in a small remote village in India, there lived a man of called Balan Singh.
He was a quiet, shy, and retiring man who kept himself to himself.
The people of the small remote village paid him no mind and simply let him be.
They were a very peaceful community, who believed that each individual was as important as the next, and that they all played a part in his or her own way however big or small and that was all that mattered, and Balan Singh fitted in very well.
Balan Singh was very grateful to be part of such a community as it allowed him to be himself and to live a quiet life.
However, sometimes the course of true our destiny often has a way of finding roles for those who do not wish to be found. And so it was that on one summer's day, that it looked for, and found Balan Singh when he least expected it.
Balan Singh worked for the village laundry. The requirements of his job were very simple, and this suited his personality perfectly.
Each day he would sack a tied bundle of the clean linen into the basket on the front of his rickety old bicycle and then peddle his way to the house of the local dignitary, where he would present the bundle to Mina Sera, the head housekeeper. She would place the fresh linen to one side, and then present him with an equally sacked and tied bundle of rather smelly used linen, along with a sandwich and a smile.
After placing the linen and the sandwich into his now empty basket, he would return her smile and then peddle back on his rickety old bicycle to the village, where he would duly wash and dry the dirty load. He repeated this task every day of the week, except on Saturdays and Sundays, when he would take to his hammock and enjoy the motion of its gentle sway, whilst reading books about magicians and their fascinating trickery.
Balan Singh often thought that if he didn't wash linen, he would like to be a magician. But he kept this preposterous notion to himself.
His job didn't pay a huge amount, but it was enough to for him to live on and to enable him to read at least two books each month.
And of course there were Mina Sera's sandwiches and smiles.
They were worth more than all of the tea in India.
Now, on one particular summer's day, Balan was on his way to the local dignitary’s house to deliver the fresh linen to Mina Sera and to collect the dirty bundle, the sandwich, and of course her smile. However, as he approached the house he heard cries of commotion coming from its direction.
As he drew nearer he was greeted with the unusual scene of many of the household staff outside the house in the courtyard, all rushing about in a state of panic with their voices raised all looking and pointing towards something that was stuck in the giant tree that stood in front of the house in the courtyard.
Balan placed his bicycle next to the house and raised his outstretched hand to his forehead and looked up at the tree.
Now, the local dignitary Shalpa Runa who lived in the house had a mischievous and adventurous little boy called Pilau.
Pilau wasn't a naughty little boy, but he often found ways of testing the patience of his parents and the staff that ran the house.
And as Balan looked up at the tree on that summer's day, he wasn't particular shocked to see little Pilau sitting in the tallest point of the tree.
Balan also saw, that hanging down from the tree was a makeshift rope that had been constructed from pieces of linen, no doubt by the industrious Pilau. And lying at the foot of the giant tree was a broken ladder.
He saw at once that Pilau must have placed the ladder against the tree to enable the first leg of his climb. A climb that had been further aided by the linen rope, which the he had managed to secure to an upper branch.
The ladder must have broken as it had fallen away from the tree and had hit the ground.
Balan sighed as he looked at the scene. Pilau had gone too far this time. With no ladder, how would they ever be able to get him down from the tree?
Far below the tree the ladies of the household, including Mina Sera, cried in despair, for they didn't know if little Pilau would ever feel the earth beneath his feet ever again.
Would he have to live in the tree like a monkey they wondered if they didn't manager to think of a way to get him down?
Way up high in the tree little Pilau looked down at all the people he knew. He was so high up that they all looked like a colony of busy ants rushing about in different directions.
He saw the broken ladder far below, and felt a little worried as he didn't know how he was going to get down without it. He still had his linen rope, but it didn't quite reach to the ground which is why he had used the ladder in the first place.
It was very quiet in the tree, apart from a troop of rather nosey chattering monkeys that were sitting in the tree next door staring at him. They were eating their lunch as they all starred. And Pilau sighed as he suddenly began to feel hungry and wished he could have some lunch as well.
Down below, the men of the household including Shalpa Runa, all scratched their heads and paced backwards and forwards and circled the trunk of the tree and the broken ladder. They discussed at great lengths how they were going to rescue the child.
And as the women worried and the men wondered, time passed by and soon the entire village had gathered in the courtyard to see the naughty boy in the tree and to think of a way of getting him down.
Other ladders were fetched, but they were too short. Ropes were thrown over the lower branches of the tree, but as soon as someone tried to climb up, the lower branches would break.
Someone even a suggested that a hot air balloon might solve the problem. They all agreed that this was a mighty fine idea, but as no one in the village owned one or knew of anyone that did, so this was out of the question.
And as they all thought hard about what to do, the day began to dwindle, and Pilau way up high in the tree, began to grow cold and tired and even hungrier. And the chattering monkeys carried on chattering and starring from the next tree. And Pilau looked at then, and they looked at him, and he began to wonder if he would have to resign himself to a life in the tree just like them.
Throughout the entire day Balan had watched all the commotion and had listened to all of the ideas. He had witnessed all of the attempts to rescue the child. All of a sudden he smiled and swiftly made his way towards the door of the room where he usually dropped off the dirty linen to Mina Sera.
There he saw all he needed. The pile of dirty linen and his waiting daily sandwich.
He picked up both items and then carried on into the house and found the stairs that took him up to the highest balcony that faced the tree, and the one next to it.
Balan put the linen down on the floor of the balcony and placed the sandwich to one side. He then started to make his own linen rope up out of the pile.
Pilau saw him arrived and waved at him and Balan smiled and waved back. And the all chattering monkeys turned to watch with great interest at Balan working away below them.
When he had finished making his linen rope, he unwrapped the sandwich and ate some of it. As he did this, one of the chattering monkeys made its way towards the balcony, passing Pilau on its way. Pilau watched as did the rest of the monkeys.
As the lone chattering monkey arrived at the balcony, Balan broke off a piece of the sandwich and gave it to him, at which point all of the other chattering monkeys began to chatter even louder. Whilst the monkey was distracted by the sandwich, Balan tied his linen rope to its tail, whilst keeping hold of the other end, and then watched with delight as the chattering monkey turned and made its way back to its tree with the piece of the sandwich in its hand, and the rope tied to its tail. He called out to Pilau to reach out for the rope as the chattering monkey passed him on its way back to its tree. Pilau did as he was told, and the chattering monkey returned to the rest of its group and duly shared the piece of sandwich.
For a brief moment, the chattering stopped.
Then Balan called to Pilau and instructed him to tie the monkey tail piece of rope, to his portion of rope, so that together they formed one. Once this had been done, Balan tied his end of the rope as tightly as he could around the balcony railing.
Balan then called to Pilau that he was coming to rescue him.
First he tested the rope. Then he removed his shoes and very cautiously stepped up on to the rope and carefully began to put one foot in front of the other with his arms outstretched.
None of the people saw Balan enter the house, take the dirty linen, or the sandwich that Mina Sera had left for him, but what they did see the rope appear as if by magic between the tree and the balcony, followed moments later by Balan walking on it, as he began his slow and careful climb towards the tree and Pilau.
A collective hush descended on the gathered crowd down below, and the chattering monkeys in the next tree stopped chattering, as all eyes looked up, and down at what Balan Singh was doing.
He carried on in this fashion very slowly onwards and upwards with all the concentration he could muster.
All the while the people below watched in silence for they did not want to break his concentration and they held their collective breath and willed him on, as he made his way towards the tree and Pilau.
Higher and higher he rose until at last he reached the tree. Pilau was so happy and glad to see him that his heart jumped for joy.
The people below let out a collective sigh. They were unable to hear the exchange between the two from such a great distance. But soon it was clear that Balan had instructed little Pilau to put his arms around his neck and to hold on to his back with all of his might.
Then with little Pilau holding on tight to him, Balan began the careful and cautious walk back along the linen rope towards the house.
The crowd below once again held its breath.
As he neared the balcony, a small girl in the crowd who was visiting from another village, broke the hushed silence and asked out loud “Who is that man and what is he doing?”
To which the crowd replied with smiles on their faces “ That is Balan Singh!”
Soon Pilau Runa was safely back in his parents arms. His mother cried tears of joy and his father the dignitary shook Balan Singh’s hand, until Balan though it might detach itself from his body.
Soon, everyday life in the village returned to normal.
Well, apart from the fact that Mina Sera became Mina Singh and now spent her weekends in the hammock with her husband, where they gently swayed while reading.
And now all the ladders in the village were locked away in a shed.
And all the chattering monkeys still chattered in the tree next to the giant one in the courtyard apart from when they were being fed each morning and evening by Pilau and his parents.
And Pilau never climbed another tree.
And time passed and the story of Balan Singh’s remarkable rescue of Pilau soon spread from one village to another, care of that small girl. And then across the whole of India and eventually the rest of the world.
And to this very day whenever a similar feat on a tightrope occurs, for whatever reason, those that witness it will always exclaim in amazement “Look at that person, they’re balancing!”
And so the moral of this story is that although you may be happy to be part of the audience, sometimes destiny, mischievous children, chattering monkeys and smiles, might decide otherwise.
The idea for the following short story Hands was inspired by a combination of two factors; Max Bygraves and my love of hands and their own personal history which is often overlooked.
Now he was retired, Joseph Culloty wondered how he ever managed to work a fifty hour week with so much going on in his life, although he was glad that he was, retired that is.
Martha had woken him with a kiss this morning and he embraced it and her as he always had and did with the wholehearted knowledge that he still had the woman he loved, in his arms, in his life and in their bed.
As usual Martha had left him with a further kiss and a cup of tea in bed as she was off out to meet their youngest daughter Ruby for lunch.
Joseph liked the fact that Martha was able to spend time with their daughter and that they enjoyed their time together, it made him smile.
He drunk his tea and listened to the silence in the house. The air still held a trace of Martha’s scent that formed the trail of her momentary former presence before leaving for the day. He liked that as well.
He moved his body from beneath the cover of the duvet and stood up and stretched his arms above his head and felt the twinge of sleep’s stiffness in his back. He didn’t for one moment think this might be his age as at fifty-five he didn’t feel old, he felt lucky.
Today he intended to finish his latest project.
Being retired at a younger age had afforded him choices that had made all of his working life worthwhile.
It was a pleasure not to be confined by time or a train timetable (or in a train for that matter), gridlocked in traffic or held hostage by harsh weather conditions that had always made his commute home a nightmare.
No, he’d finished those chapters of his life and had managed to turn down the corner of a page just past the half way point of his own personal novel.
No, not old at fifty-five, but just beginning to explore the heart of the story, where all the threads of his narrative had started to join up and the conclusion was still a mystery and a far off destination.
In the bathroom he studied his naked reflection in the mirror. Even though the unnatural light was a flattering ally, he took this into consideration whilst making his inspection and came to conclude that he wasn’t in too bad a condition. His body was still toned and defined rather than an out of control heap. A closer look at his face revealed a network of lines and creases. Distinguished Martha called it laughing at his vanity, weather-worn he thought, laughing at himself. He could do with a shave, but decided that as he didn’t need to and because he quite liked his dark rural appearance and the fact that Martha had vocalized her own appreciation of it, by making that “Grrrrrrr” noise as she rubbed her face against his in bed earlier that morning confirmed his decision. “Grrrrrrrr” he said to his reflection.
He showered and dressed and made his way downstairs to the kitchen where he made himself another cup of tea. He had been a coffee drinker once, but now he found that he preferred tea. It was less urgent and intrusive somehow.
He looked out the kitchen window at the day and liked the lush greenery of the garden and the peace it generated.
With his mug in hand, he opened the kitchen door and commenced his now route to work as he crossed the garden and arrived at the door of his humble work shop that he had built for moments such as this.
As he opened the door he was greeted with the familiar warm smell of wood and sawdust (or tree snow as Ruby had called it when she was little).It was a dry and embracing smell that was both friendly and tactile towards him and his senses.
He placed his mug on his work bench and switched on the radio.
For years he had designed and overseen the construction of buildings as an architect for so many people. Mostly they had been domestic. Other people’s visions of the space that they wanted to inhabit. He had taken pride in most of what he had achieved for them, but he would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that some jobs had been taken on purely for monetary gain.
He drunk some of his tea and considered what he needed to do today. In the background the radio filled the vacuum of movement and created what he like to think of as an unobtrusive assistance.
This was interrupted by the sound of the cat flap as Moss made his way into the workshop and jumped up onto the workbench.
“Hello fat cat” Joe said stroking him as the cat made its way to his usual spot and sat down. Moss was a good workshop companion, quiet and non judgemental but not without wages. Joe had a packet of biscuits on a shelf above his workbench from which he sourced half a digestive for the expectant Moss. He dipped it in his tea so that it was soft and easy for the cat to consume.
Moss waited patiently while Joe went through this tried and tested means of consideration and then ate it and helped himself to a drink of water from the bowl on the window sill that the workbench rested against, then looked at Joe hopefully. “Maybe later eh?” Joe said to him and Moss sat down and blinked at him in acknowledgement of this offer.
Set for the day, Joe turned his attention to the item that rested on the floor. No one knew what he was making. It was something he had wanted to do from the moment his eldest daughter Grace had announced she was expecting his and Martha’s first grandchild.
Martha had asked him if he was working on a private commission “Of sorts” he had responded and winked at her. She was as curious as the cat that watched over him now, but not as easily distracted by a digestive biscuit. “I don’t want to show you until it is finished” he had offered her. Unlike Moss, Martha had given him a blank look and hadn’t blinked at all.
As he finished his tea, his attention was taken by the radio and his face broke into a smile as he lent over and turned it up a little. Laughing he said “Well I’ll be Moss!” The cat’s ears twitched at the mention of its name (and probably in the hope of further biscuits) as Max Bygraves deep nasal tones sang out from the radio.
“You need hands to hold someone you care for…you need hands to show that you’re sincere..”
Joe hadn’t heard this song in years. He stood and listened and was transfixed. Not by the vaudevillian production it conjured up, but by the song and the memories associated with it that he had long since forgotten.
He saw his father clearly singing and comically miming the actions of the words to him when he had been a small boy.
“…When you feel nobody wants to know you, you need hands to brush away the tears”
Both of them laughing while his mother protested telling his father not to get him all hyped up before his bedtime. His father had ignored her and had dealt with her jovial protests by taking her in hand (literally) and had made her dance with him which had made a small Joe laugh even more as his parents took a turn around the kitchen floor. His mother had laughed as well and telling his father to behave himself with a smile on her face as well as in her dance steps.
“When you hold a brand new baby..you need tender hands to guide them on their way”
Joe looked down at his hands and thought about his babies; Grace, Hannah and Ruby. He called them his three muses and Martha had asked “And what does that make me?” “Why a Goddess of course” he had replied. “Charmer!” She had said laughing.
He held his hands up and inspected them. Just like his face they had a used look about them, but they had worked hard for him and the thought suddenly occurred to him that they were also a record of his history so far.
“You need hands to thank the Lord for living and giving us this day..Let’s dance ladies and gentlemen”
It was a profound thought that moved him. They had held his mother’s hand to and from school until he was old enough to be aware of the childish nature of this action. The thought sadden him as he would give anything to feel her hand in his once more.
“You need hands to show the world you’re happy..and you need hands when you have to stop the bus”
Happy hands, when had his hands been happy? When he had held Martha’s for the first time and then placed a ring on her finger after she had agreed to marry him. When he had rested them lovingly on her huge pregnant belly (more than once) and had held his babies proudly for the entire world to see. They had built sandcastles in the summer (sandy hands) and snowmen in the winter (icy hands).
They had placed reassuring plasters on the cuts of his crying children, they had taken photographs, written postcards to his parents while he travel and dialled numbers from far away telephones to let his loved ones know he was safe. They had worn gloves (how many?) for warmth and safety; they had learnt to tie his own laces with pride as well teaching his children how to tie theirs. They had wound up watches and clocks and had, on request, zipped up his wife’s dress for numerous special occasions as well as having to unzip them again, he smiled.
The had defended him and had demonstrated his frustrations over the years, they had signed cheques and paid bills, had removed splinters, drawn up plans, driven cars, decorated Christmas trees, pushed prams, peeled potatoes, painted walls. They had given away his daughters to their soon-to-be husbands.
“But the hands we love so dear are the hands we love to hear…are the hands you give to us”
They had certainly shown his appreciation over the years. He had always found clapping a primitive sort of action. They had clapped at speeches (some deserved, some not) at graduations and at the end of expensive productions as well as his children’s various school nativities.
“Everybody, are the hands that you give, Everybody, that’s nice, thank you, Thank you ladies and gentlemen, thank you”
The song ended and Joe leant over his workbench and turned the radio down.
“Thank you Max” he said. Moss stirred at the sound of his voice and Joe blinked at him.
He turned his attention to the unfinished object on the floor and moved towards it and trailed his hand across its finished surfaces. It felt smooth and satisfying to touch. Once he had waxed it, the crib would be finished.
Joe was pleased with it, pleased with what he had produced and all he had achieved. He imagined Grace’s new baby sleeping in the crib and thought about its own tiny hands and its mother’s gently rocking it to sleep.
He turned back to his workbench and reached for the tin of wax that was on the shelf and placed it on the bench. Then he gave a grateful Moss another piece of biscuit and set about his task while the spirit of Max Bygraves lingered in the workshop and his heart.