A Little of the Real Story - by Rachael Ball

Ahead of her talk at House of Illustration tonight, the acclaimed graphic novelist tells us about some of the personal origins of her latest book, Wolf...

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‘Sleep and Death, awful gods… the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and is kindly to men but the other has a heart of iron, whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast and he is hateful even to their deathless gods.’ - Hesiod on Thanatos

Dad and Hugo

Wolf has been waiting a number of years. It’s the story of father loss.

A fictional version… A once removed story.

My father died suddenly when I was 6. He was 36. My Mum was 37, my brothers 8 and 11. He had a heart attack in the night and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Gone.

A few years ago, I was talking about him to a friend and, whenever I went to say the word “Dad”, the word “Daddy” came out instead, totally involuntarily. The little child in me took over. I don’t even remember him very well, but I always missed him… or missed the idea of him.

A pocket of memories:

His knees, his hands playing his outsized guitar. He was a big tall man.

I remember him smoking a pipe. He had 2. One was carved into the face of a smiling Chinese man and the other had a skull in the bowl of the pipe.

He may even have whittled these himself.

I remember him tucking me into bed. He always stretched the sheets so tightly my head would pop out like a peach and I wouldn’t be able to move an inch. And then he’d kiss me on the forehead and go.

I remember being at Granma Devon’s, sitting on a yellow candlewick bedspread whilst he unpacked the suitcase.

I remember him running down the stairs when, aged 5, I’d decided to make them a tray of tea and tripped over whilst carrying it up the stairs. Tea pot and cups everywhere and he came running.

I remember him driving me to hospital when I fell off a swinging gate and went blind for an hour. When my vision returned, the first thing I could see was the back of his head.

He made stuff… a table-tennis table, a large wendy house. Everything was always made from the heaviest wood. He made us a spying gadget. A hand-held wooden box with mirrors at each end that enabled you to see round corners. One summer, he spent weeks building a large catamaran. We all took it down to the beach. We waded in the water a way and pushed it out to sea… I think I can remember standing in the shallows helping to guide it out a little with a small hand. Then watching it sink in the water right to the bottom. Too heavy…

He sang folk songs with Mum and they would harmonise. Somewhere there are recordings. He had a gentle voice. He collected songs he liked in a notebook. Each song written beautifully in inky script and guitar notation added along the side.

He was a handsome man and well liked. He had a PhD in rubber adhesion, beans were ‘fart pills’ and his favourite meal was a fry up. He used to split his shoes down the middle. He didn’t like having curly hair so he’d wet it and put his tweed flat cap on until it dried straight. He frequently wore black shades and, if he wasn’t smoking a pipe, he was probably smoking a cigarette.

And when he died Mum was so devastated she was sedated by the doctor for 2 weeks.

After that as a family we didn’t talk about Dad a lot.

He almost became the elephant in the room. 

And everyone got on with life.

Mum died 3 years ago, at 81, which has brought its own necessary pain.

I miss her very much.

The loss leaks down my pencil. She was a bloody good Mum.

And we were good friends too. She was enormously kind, but like most daughters, I could find her enormously annoying.

A few years ago, she left 2 fridge magnets behind after a visit:

One said, ‘God couldn’t be everywhere so he made Granma’s.’

And the 2nd… ‘When life gives you lemons grab tequila and salt.’

That kind of sums up my Mum… a hot light, warm and kind, funny, stoical, loving. She found joy in the ordinary and the extraordinary and was outrageously confident. She could be infuriating, but she was always loving. She could come out with the most curious statements and then move blithely on…

3 years ago, we sat chatting on her bed. A bed littered with books and newspapers. A pot of tea sat by the bed-side. We spent hours chatting there whenever I visited… and regularly when I was growing up. Our conversations were always like babbling brooks, meandering without end… One minute the topic was deep and important, the next it was postage stamps… infuriating… lovely.

Suddenly the river of words brought us to Dad’s death.

Just like that, she was there again, enveloped in her memories of how she felt when he died. Staring out the window… reliving it.

Mum and dad.

‘I would have thrown you all into the sea’, she said, all of a sudden. ‘If it would have brought him back.’

As a statement it had mythical proportions. Shocking words that described her devastation so well.

If this life had been a fairytale, us 3 would have been dropped into the sea. What next, I wonder? Would Dad have stepped out of the waves unscathed, heart healed? Then perhaps fate and magic would have conjured us out of the sea as well… sailing in a silver shell perhaps.

And then a family once more.

Instead Mum grieved, then put grief away, and became Mum and Dad rolled into one.

This story is about a family living with grief.

About people with a hole inside who learn to step around it.

About children growing up with loss.

A blood line dammed up.

This fairytale is emotion distilled. The real meaning caught somewhere between the words. Hugo is the mythical hero. A small knight thrown out of paradise into a labyrinth of sadness who stubbornly says, ‘No! I will not accept this DEATH thing!’

And rather than follow death’s laws he decides to bring Dad back.

He is Orpheus in the Underworld.

And for Hugo to be able to succeed in beating death, there would need to be some force of equal measure and mystery to Death itself. A force of unspeakable horror perhaps… a monster, a minotaur, a magical being, a suspected child murderer… A force such as the Wolf Man.

With his help Hugo could overcome the laws of time.

So, in facing the great monster, he is Theseus and the Minotaur, Red Riding Hood in the forest or the curious wife in Blue Beard’s house. Will he destroy or be destroyed? Will he win the ultimate prize if he can face his fears?

I used to feel we were all robbed when Dad died, and that he was robbed of his life… I felt angry and bereft for many years, I think.

But he lived, he was here.

We were lucky to have him when we did.

Joanna Macy puts it well, I think. ‘It’s OK for our hearts to be broken over the world. What else is a heart for? There’s a great intelligence there…’

So I’m going to close with some more Joanna Macy wisdom…

‘So I’m looking at my hand now as we talk. It’s got a lot of wrinkles because I’m 81 years old, but it’s linked to hands like this back through the ages. This hand is directly linked to hands that learned to reach and grasp and climb and push up on dry land and weave reeds into baskets. It has a fantastic history. Every particle and every atom in this hand goes back to the beginning of space- time. We’re part of that story… This moment you’re alive.’

My Mum would have nodded in agreement at that.