Discover more from The Cure for Sleep with Tanya Shadrick
The Cure for Sleep: Gestures, Remembered
Season 2, 009: Share a story of a gone loved one - their particular gestures or habits; what those meant to you...
I set myself many tasks in writing The Cure for Sleep, and one of these was to use the memoir form - the story of myself - as a way to celebrate as many others lives as possible: ancestors, family, neighbours, other mothers with whom I shared the early child-rearing days, patients I scribed for at the hospice. To give many vivid glimpses of people who never had or never would write themselves. In so doing, I found myself thinking deeply of gestures: habits, skills or ways of being that were particular to them, and moving to me.
It’s a beautiful feeling, to spend time trying to find a form of words that can convey - in mere sentences - something as large as one’s love, respect or longing for another. I will never forget how it deepened my days, to spend two years on the three drafts of the book that so many of you have now spent time with - and which has been read too by some of the people I’ve described: my first teacher, my husband, my closest female friend, my mentor, his wife.
But it’s also a real challenge to one’s craft: to bring old gestures alive on the page; to balance clear descriptive language with the strong emotions that need to be evoked. One of the passages I found hardest to write was the one in which, at one level, I’m simply lighting a fire…
…and yet I’m making it in the home of a person I love and am losing. And while doing so, I’m remembering how Granny Shadrick (my other great gone love) used to lay a fire in her grate daily. I also needed the passage to show, in concentrated form, something of both my and my Other Love’s deep pasts - all the decades and family traditions we hadn’t shared with one another, meeting in later midlife as we had:
Alone there one cold day, I knelt to the old stove that was hard to keep going. Trying to tend it as Granny had her fire, always fond, slightly girlish, as if wooing it.
That same patient way she and other country folk would hold out handfuls of hay to an animal, or crusts for a garden bird, hoping for it to come; enjoying the slow and uncertain kindling of interest: how it was to care for that man who was finding it hard to decide his life.
I felt in the scuttle for the smallest bits of coat to sprinkle onto the sticks I’d lit, taking care not to overwhelm the wood that was still catching. Why could I not find the same restraint and pace with him?…Yes I must learn to hold back instead of always being this fool rushing in.
Putting my hands to my nose, I snuffed at the smoke on my fingertips. Smiled at what we’d been talking about over the phone earlier. Coal tar. What was it really? Why was it used to clean and cure? We’d been swapping memories of our childhood sick days, from being so ill always that autumn (as if even our immune systems were reluctant for us to become close). The bread poultices my mother made me wrap around bad throats; how his gave him crushed aspirin in a spoonful of malt extract.
Oh how old we both were. What I understood, all of a sudden, eyes stinging. Smoke. Longing. Loss. More past time spent apart than we could have as shared future.
Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp 250-251). Orion.
your invitation to write
In this holiday season, I invite you to spend quiet time likewise thinking about and paying tribute to a gone loved one at this same close level.
Share a story of their particular gestures or habits; what those meant to you. Have you found a way to keep them alive in your own seasonal rituals or daily ways of being?
This communal project I’ve created around The Cure For Sleep has - as you know - a commitment to strange true tales at its heart.
In that spirit - and in keeping with this month’s theme of gestures - I share a link to a piece written twenty years ago this very day for The Guardian’s Christmas Story slot: its author being another person whose life and gestures I included in my book.
He appears, briefly, midway in my story when I have finally achieved some late and local recognition as an artist, by creating a mile of writing by my town’s outdoor pool. At the point where I invoke his memory, I’m thinking of how it might be time to take no further risks to my reputation…
Better now, perhaps, to fade after this second and last summer into one of the town’s eccentrics who were spoken of with fondness not alarm. Like the gone-now university lecturer who went always along the same badger tracks for his daily walk - head full of Eliot and the Bible.
That man was Stephen Medcalf - and once upon a time he had a student called Ian McEwan: who many years later, and by then a renowned author, urged his old tutor to write for The Guardian.
A Light in the Darkness is the result: the story of a startling discovery this lifelong bachelor and man of habit made as he was walking home through our small Sussex town one night…
You can read more about Stephen Medcalf and his house on New Road in Lewes (street of my own first adult home, as described in The Cure for Sleep) at the Bible of British Taste.
explore the story archive
Desire, time, longing, friendship, regret, faith, promises . . .
There are now hundreds of thought-provoking true tales on these themes and more in The Cure for Sleep story archive.
I’ve spent the last few weeks redesigning how these words from our community members are showcased and celebrated on the book’s website.
Please do spend some time reading their memories and reflections - and then contribute yourself if you haven’t already! Many of those who have taken part have now gone on to wider publication, prizes, mentoring placements and even (in the case of Caro Giles) a memoir of their own. You can find out how to get involved here.
As a community fast approaching two thousand members, it’s my hope to receive stories from as many of you as possible!
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ask me a question…
If you have a question about The Cure for Sleep or writing more generally, do remember that I have an always-open thread for this on my Substack. I always try to give answers with links to further resources that might keep you good company in your own creative journey.