Everyone called him Papa – that was how he was known in our part of the square. ‘Papa, the storyteller’, to give him his full, well-deserved title.
Whether the stories were as old as the hills, or maybe Papa himself, or even little ditties he made up on the spot; they were always the same thing, they were wonderful and they took us away from our own lives.
“Gather around children, gather around, push-up close to one another, I don’t want to have to shout,” he would say with the biggest grin I had ever seen.
We would all push in to the front, and in doing so, keep each other warm and for a few minutes we would forget where we were and get wrapped up in the warmth and colours of Papa’s stories.
They were as rich as cream, and as light as feathers. They made us laugh, always they made us laugh – that was the one and only rule of Papa: “these stories, my little blessed ones are to make you all happy in there,” and that is when he would point to his heart.
There are times in your life when something so terrible happens that you push it to the back of your mind. Then in the morning, when you awake, you are happy for the merest of seconds before you remember whatever it is you have experienced.
And so it was with Papa’s stories, when they were done, and only when they were done, I would suddenly remember where I was and immediately feel sad again.
It was the same for us all.
I remember Papa’s last story as if it were yesterday.
“Come close my little kinder. Closer still, we don’t want those others to hear our precious little stories,” and then we would all sit as close as our little frail bodies would allow.
“Can you all hear me?” and he’d put a hand to his ear.
“Yes!” we would all whisper.
“Then I shall begin. Once upon a long ago, there was a little child, a little strong boy by the name of Joseph.”
“That is my name,” said Joseph, who sat next to me, proudly.
“So it is, and much like you he was full of life itself. And this little strong boy decided to help the oldest woman who lived in their village. For they all lived in the highest of highest mountains and each of them had to help the other. The town was two days ride away and so everyone needed everyone else. The little boy knocked on the old lady’s door. He was nervous – for it was told that she was a witch. At first she shouted ‘go away’ because through the years, she had been tormented by some. But the little boy persisted and knocked the door again. This time the old lady, who some say was as old as the moon itself – opened the door. ‘What do you want?’ she asked and the little boy explained that he wanted to help. At first she was unsure but as she asked the boy to do more and more tasks, he seemed to enjoy all of it. ‘Why are you helping me?’ she asked. And the little boy explained that he had been taught that helping others was the only way to live. And so the boy came and helped the old lady, day after day, week after week. Then one day, the old lady said she would reward the little boy, who said it didn’t really matter as helping the lady was all that counted. But she insisted and she told him to close his eyes and in doing so, he could go anywhere he wanted. And sure enough, he closed his eyes and the next thing he knew, he was standing on top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Now children I want you to do the same,” Papa said to us all.
And sure enough we all kept her eyes tight closed and imagined the greatest of all places to be; and while we were doing this, the guards were waiting on Papa outside the hut and then they marched him to the showers.
We only found this out a little later.
Like the rest who took that walk, Papa never returned, but like the little boy, I still close my eyes and wish of somewhere else.
bobby stevenson 2017