Written by Laura Dockrill


Unleashing the Imagination

Today is the start of National Storytelling Week. So, Laura Dockrill’s talking the joys of story time.

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael

Miss Dutt was so old that sometimes I thought she had gone right the way back around again and was actually 12. She was so small and fragile and completely tiny that I often thought; that cannot be an adult.

She didn’t really have a job at primary school. But that’s the thing about primary schools. You just sort of see lots of people hanging about the whole time and think, ‘oh right, you’re here too are you? What we doing then?’ But, once a month or so, Miss Dutt, when she wasn’t occasionally mucking in as dinner lady or blowing the whistle in the playground, she would do story time with us in class. And, it was here, in this moment, that I learned that Miss Dutt was the wisest woman ever and was convinced that was an adult or, in fact, a wizard.

Possibly aged about 189, her face looked exactly identical to an overcooked omelette, far too speckled, eggy and patchy for a face. The skin, in general, could be mistaken for the chamois leather dad washed his transit with. You felt you could peel it off with two hands leaving behind a layer of light sponge. Her eyes always half closed, her mouth, no matter how wet it appeared, just clearly wasn’t for the rasping gasp of her always-a-second-away-from-death voice. She hugged, always, a browning clear glass mug, with half a swash of cold milky tea at the bottom, which she would envelope inside the bunched up bundle of flowered sari that she wore. Her dropping wilting boobies always split in half to make way for a little black leather handbag strap. And she fascinated me.

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael

She had two stories. The Blue Rose, her own wonderful (more sleepy) take on The Sword and The Stone/every other fairytale. It featured a princess looking for a ‘suitor’ (both of Miss Dutt’s stories were built around trying to find a ‘suitor’ as the central theme/objective, naturally.) Finding the right suitor was not as simple as it sounded. No, it wasn’t about kindness or intelligence or handsomeness or common ground or humour or money no…the destiny of the princess’s future husband’s fate was in the hands of the blue rose and which bloke could pluck it from the sleeping dragon’s back.

The second story was a similar premise. Once upon a time there was a princess on the search for a suitor. Many suitors had come from far and wide to the kingdom to ask for the princess’s hand in marriage. Basically, The Tree (three) Wags (bags) of Ffffesssstnuts (chestnuts) she drearily droned out – was about the King (heaven forbid the princess should choose herself) whittling down a long list of suitor semi-finalists to just three and rather than the princess just having a beer and a warm bowl of noodles with them, they must each go and fill a bag of Ffffesssstnuts. Whichever suitors bag came in heaviest could have the princess’s hand in marriage.

For me, both stories were fantastically gripping. Even when I knew what was going to happen, even when I knew she had told each story exhaustedly 17 times that week to every single class to the point she just closed her eyes and let her muttering lispy lips do all the work. Even though she never changed one single element to the sentences, the wording was so dull and bland and monotone. The delivery was so tired and antique and clunky. I just loved it. I just believed every single word she wove. And because Miss Dutt’s imagination was no longer present, both The Blue Rose and The Three Bags of Chestnuts provided blank empty canvases for my own imagination to paint free upon. I visualized everything.

Everybody in school hated it.

‘No. NOT The Blue Rose again!’ They would moan but I would sit, bum on mat, fingers crossed, toes crossed, legs crossed (I didn’t have a choice on that one) and think…Please, please let Miss Dutt tell us The Three Bags of Chestnuts, PLEASE tell us The Blue Rose. Because it was delightful nostalgia. Cosy free elongated floaty dreaminess and it didn’t matter to Miss Dutt. But it mattered to me. I remember both stories far more than those read to me from a book because those stories had come from Miss Dutt’s head and not from a book. And that, of course, meant they were real.

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Written by Laura Dockrill

Award Winning Laura Dockrill (best known for the Darcy Burdock series) writes, draws and talks.