In the cluttered back room of a community centre, around a table boxed in with stacks of chairs and half-dismantled overhead projectors, a group of around a dozen people met once a week. Shy smiles, nods of recognition and bursts of friendly banter went along with notebooks being pulled out of backpacks and carrier bags, as the group settled in with cups of coffee and tea, bottles of water and juice, and a shared expectation of stories about to be told. The room went quiet. The facilitator – a woman with short fair hair and a look of always listening to something in the distance – said: “Good to see you all again. Has anyone brought a piece of writing they would like to read out?”  And two or three people always said – “yes”. A poem, a story, or a fragment of words – a message, straight from the horror of domestic violence, or the strange struggles of schizophrenia, or from some ordinary wonders – like love and hope.

After the words were read out – in voices of great variety – and the people in the cluttered room buzzed with tales of darkness and sunshine, rain, wind and far horizons, we took a short break. The support and solidarity for one another’s words had become as tangible in the room as standing together on a picket line, with snowflakes melting on our noses. Then, quietness again, as the facilitator placed on the table – a selection of items, chosen by her in the hope that they were keys to doors about to be imagined and opened by us. A cream phone: the old-fashioned kind with a dial and numbers. 1970s? Perhaps. A ticket stub, from the London Underground. A new roll of string. An ancient looking square of denim. “Right” said the facilitator. “Same as last week. We’ve got 10 minutes to write down whatever we think of when we look at these items. It can be a story. Or a poem. It doesn’t have to have any structure. It can be a few thoughts. A list of words. Anything is fine. Okay?” Around the table – confident nods, uncertain grins, and a bright gaze from a young woman already walking along a dark tunnel – deep beneath the streets of London. “Right. Let’s start.”

I’ve attended a few other writer’s groups, I even ran one for a while and I may do so again one day, but the group I sketched out here will always be for me: the first and the best. It was called Hilltown Horizons. At its’ meetings, I learned that we all have important stories to tell. All we need is a chance to tell them and other people to listen to us. We may astonish ourselves at how much we have to say. 

At a different group, years later, held one night a week for twelve weeks in a University, a group of around twenty people met and discussed ‘Life writing’. At one of the first meetings, our tutor said that no one there should think that you had to have a spectacular life before you have anything worth writing. We all have experience we can write about. I re-learned how true that is – by listening to several ordinary extraordinary women in the class and two men. Our prompts were a series of tasks, asking us to remember or imagine, to describe or argue, in a paragraph or a page or two.

The other day, I was walking up the Hilltown, and I noticed a man standing at his living room window. He was clutching a cheap mobile phone to his ear and speaking into it. Lines in his forehead suggested a high level of stress, also hinted at by the way he twisted a faded grey curtain with the fingers of his other hand. I  saw the man just for a few moments, and then I’d passed by. I couldn’t hear his words, so I don’t know his story. Yet, I imagined what it could be – instantly. He was on the phone to a benefits office about a payment which was delayed. He had to wait 45 minutes before he got through to speak to an official, and as I walked by him the man was being told on the phone that there was a problem with the man’s sickline, which the official called a ‘fit note’, and the man was advised to go back to his doctor and get a second ‘fit note’, because the first note had been lost in the post. And the man was worrying about – running out of electricity in his cold flat. And he was thinking of going to the Foodbank because he had no food in the fridge and none in his cupboards.  And, at his window, not seeing me passing by outside, and not seeing the winter sunlight, which was very bright, the man felt he was in a familiar elevator, going down too fast: sickeningly fast.

For several years, I worked on a frontline helping people whose lives very often involved being trapped in similar elevators, going down and down too quickly. The fear of it scarred many of them and killed some of them. It nearly ended me as well, but I was lucky in a few ways, and one of those ways was – I found that I could slow the elevator down by writing about it. I could even step out of it sometimes and walk around in the world outside the elevator, surprised I had survived. Hey, look -there’s sunlight! Wow, there’s snow! So, I wrote and wrote as if my life depended on it, which it sometimes did, and one of the things I wrote was a book. A book full of fictionalised stories about the kind of ordinary extraordinary people I’d met. I’m still trying to get it published.

Overall, I suppose – my own story is about never giving up, because there’s always more stories to be lived through and listened to and written.  So, my story is about people I love and a cat and chalking a rainbow on a garden wall and seeing it vanish after a few downpours of rain. And making a snowman with Isobel, and seeing the snowman vanish too, along with a garden full of snow. Whiteness gradually becoming patches of green. And then standing, early one morning after the snow has completely gone and the garden finally remembers how to be totally green again, and birds are singing their hearts out, and even the rowan tree, waiting on its’ leaves to grow again, looks much more contented, and Nergal is sitting at my feet, contemplating going out into this strange but familiar green world. And I look up at a pure blue sky, given the prize of great distance by whisps of white cloud. And it’s like – I’ve been buried under the snow for days and I’ve just this moment burst out into the air above a mountain range and I can see for miles, and I also see somewhere smaller and closer. And for a short while, it is all I can see. The cluttered back room of a community centre. A group of ordinary people, surviving together, thriving together. Telling each other – stories.   

Harvey Duke

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