Words in Colour

Continuing my theme of women stepping into their power, here’s a short story I wrote for a dear friend in Canberra. I didn’t realise I was writing it for her at the time. When I read the finished product, I saw that I’d explored the same themes my friend had been wrestling with her entire life. They weren’t issues I’d ever encountered myself, and she hadn’t spoken to me about her struggle in any detail, so the story was obviously for her.

It always amazes me how that happens.

Meredith stands at the door to her father’s library. She knows what waits inside. Sleek leather bindings, crisp white pages. Line after line of precious printed words. A treasure trove of books, collected over an old man’s lifetime. She’d like to pick them up, one by one, and throw them into the fire.

She catches herself. Her mouth is dry, her heart beating fast. It’s a blasphemous thought, a sacrilege. Her father would turn in his freshly dug grave.

Ruby, seven years old and fearless, calls to her from the window seat. ‘Mum,’ she calls. ‘I’ve found Alice. There’s a picture of her neck shooting up like a telescope.’

Meredith waits for her father’s booming voice. ‘You’re not to go in there. Libraries are for smart people.’ But there is no voice, only the hum of mourners in the kitchen upstairs, telling stories.

Summoning her courage, she steps into the darkened room. There hasn’t been a breeze in here in 45 years. She could open the window, but the books might crumble and she might crumble with them. For all her fear, for all her longing to destroy them, these paper monsters are all she has left of her father.

She looks around the room. One of her early paintings hangs on the wall, all dots and lines and angry swirls, before she learned the proper techniques, before she developed an acceptable style.

Beneath the painting sits an old armchair. When she was a little girl, her father would settle in the chair and let her curl in his lap. She would bury her face in his chest, breathing in the smoke from his pipe. In those days he read his cherished books aloud, laughing at her wide eyes. She begged for ‘Heidi’; he insisted on ‘The Hobbit’. Together they braved the Lonely Mountain and returned with the dragon’s gold.

It all ended when she started primary school. Her reports became bleak and hopeless. Her father said it didn’t matter, he was a late starter too, most brilliant people are, but his optimism faded as the years went by. She wanted to look at the pictures, the vivid colours, the dancing elves. Gently, he pointed to the text. She stumbled and stuttered, trying so hard to please him. 

At last, he threw up his hands. ‘You’re so dumb, Meredith,’ he said, his voice filled with wonder – that he, of all people, should have a child so stupid she couldn’t even read.

His disappointment followed her through high school, through endless depressing report cards. Meredith is not trying hard enough. Meredith is failing the most basic tasks.

She was good at solving puzzles, though, and scraping through exams. The teachers told her parents not to expect too much, she was never going to be an academic. Maybe she could get a job in a nice shop somewhere.

There were no more bedtime stories, no more cuddles in the armchair. Her father locked the library door. She wasn’t clever enough to appreciate his books, so there was no use sharing them with her.