Have you ever heard of a ‘Gagalomaleeter’? (gag.ah.lom.ah.leet.ah – since you ask).
They’re strange nocturnal animals, roughly the same size as a big fat cat, or an exceptionally large chinchilla. They have a long nose like an elephant’s trunk, and wings, because of course they can fly. They only fly backwards, and frequently bump in to lampposts and break them. Their extreme airspeed velocity, combined with their unusual direction of travel means that their rear-ends are prone to overheating and that is why gagalomaleeters are a well known cause of barn fires and other mischief.
Just not well known to everyone.
I’m not sure if I’m remembering all of that right. But I’d swear to you that that’s the way my Grandpa told it to me. He was my favourite person when I was little, because he had a knack for telling stories. He would tell me all about gagalomaleeters being the cause of much civic disruption. About the Werawe Tribe of Southern Africa – they’re really short and live in the long grass of the African plains and have to keep jumping up to see (“where are we? where are we?”). He would tell me strange and creepy stories about the Marie Celeste and the Bermuda Triangle and all sorts of other stuff which I’ve probably long since forgotten.
He was always smartly dressed, as I remember him, in the way that his generation always seemed to be. He was incredibly dignified and believed in doing things properly. I think that Grandpa and his stories are probably one of my earliest memories.
I say ‘probably’ because memory is a strange thing. Often what we think of as being our earliest memories are actually just things we’ve been told about which happened when we were very young. So in fact these memories are really just stories, stories in to which we have inserted ourselves. It’s not surprising that this happens, after all that’s how stories work. You hear the words and you imagine yourself in to the world which they’ve created. Memories are stories we tell to ourselves about the past. The future is the story in which we imagine ourselves.
Memory and imagination – that’s what your mind is made of. That’s the ethereal ‘you.’
For all the fantastical yarns that Grandpa told me there was one subject he never really spoke of, probably the one thing which had affected him most profoundly – the war. After all, a teenage boy flying a bomber plane back through thick fog on one engine would have seemed pretty incredulous compared to all the gagalomaleeters you care to mention.
My mum and my uncle can’t remember Grandpa ever really talking about his experiences in the war, I don’t think he ever spoke to me about it, but apparently he did tell my little brother something interesting…
Stevie only mentioned this recently but he said that one day Grandpa took hold of his finger and ran it down a thin, indented scar which ran down the length of the top of his skull. The scar, he told my brother, had come from a Nazi machine gun bullet which had come through the windshield of his plane, straight through his helmet and strafed right down the middle of his head.
My brother has never read a book, he’s not a massive fan of films, he likes to watch factual documentaries and sport. Some people just don’t have that part of the brain which allows them to suspend disbelieve and be transported in to a fictional world. They have to know that what they’re hearing is real, or at least some version of reality, otherwise it has no value to them. These people are rare. They don’t dwell so much in the nostalgia of the past or the fantasy of the future; they’re grounded in reality, they live in the moment. They’ll never be poets or authors, but I’d be willing to bet that they make the best soldiers.
I think maybe Grandpa might’ve known all of this, that’s why he had to tell my brother a real story, something just for him. If he’d told me I would’ve gone running off to tell mum and anyone else within earshot, because that’s what other story-tellers do. My brother is discreet, he didn’t even mention this to anyone until about twenty years after Grandpa died and I can imagine him at the time giving his own little salute and then quietly going back to his own business, the proud and loyal custodian of an incredible secret.
Towards the end of his life, Grandpa began to lose his stories.
He suffered two strokes which left him with a number of difficult side effects including a condition called Aphasia, which is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech. He knew the words he wanted to say, but his brain had other ideas and would insert completely random words instead. He didn’t seem to know that it was actually happening, so as long as you gave the appropriate reaction to something he’d said then he’d have no reason to think he’d spoken anything different to what he intended. Although I’m not entirely sure if that’s true. If you looked closely at his face you could just about make out a slight furrowing of the brow, a hint of sadness in his eyes as he tried to find the words.
Our earliest memories are stories. It is stories that make us who we are. It’s the telling of those stories to others which brings them to life. The nature of memory is such that we can never be sure if we are recalling something entirely accurately, so we learn to use language in order to fill in the gaps, that’s what story telling is. Then when you get old, Aphasia does the damned opposite. It fills in the gaps of all your stories with nonsense. It erodes your past and obfuscates your future. It takes away the function of language and the words you’ve always known how to use to communicate, to comfort, to convene.
It’s the saddest thing in the world to see someone lose their stories, to see them lose that ability to bring words to life… and life to words.
But in spite of all of that, stories do live on, as long as there are people to tell them. Just like I’m telling you about my Grandpa. Maybe it’s not a perfect recollection, but that’s not the point.
And of course, while we are young – we are all the heroes, and we only remember the good parts.
Rick White is a writer of short stories and creative non-fiction, as well as a novel which is currently taking forever. Rick’s work has been published in Storgy, The Writing Disorder and Vice Magazine. Rick is 34 and lives in Manchester with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a cavalier King Charles spaniel named Harry.