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Sport 7: Winter 1991

A Fairy Tale Disguised

A Fairy Tale Disguised

If any story I have told has the mark of social realism on it, it is certainly Memory, and in it I have told young readers a lot of truth I personally know about the metamorphosis of a rational human being replete with knowledge, memory and the power to make a cup of tea several times a day, into a demented old woman losing command of all the things in which self respect is traditionally established, and driven to wear a tea cosy instead of a hat.

For a number of years I was in charge of my aunt, and though my aunt and Sophie are not the same person, they are similar in many ways. Many of the happenings, many of the conversations in Memory are directly transposed from my life with my aunt, and if the story lacks the nastiness, the sheer fatigue of response involved in looking after a demented person, it is partly because, though those elements were present, they were not a commanding part of my life with aunt. Because I had a background of story to draw on she never lost her imaginative function. An English reviewer criticised the book because, somehow at the end, Sophie is tidied up rather too quickly, but there are two odd things about this tidying-up. One is that in the real world, once I indicated I needed help, I got a certain amount. The support services were good, partly because I was sufficiently well educated to know where to go and what sort of things to say, and also because I had page 19 been prepared to cope with quite a lot before I asked for support. A district nurse and a housekeeper appeared, once a week things were tidied up quite quickly. In between times things went downhill rapidly, but neither my aunt nor I bothered too much about a certain amount of squalor. The other odd thing is that because Memory is full of factual experiences which are readily recognisable, and because it touches on a condition that, in New Zealand at least, enjoys a reasonably high public profile at present, it may seem to be intended as a book of social realism. However, for me it is a fairy tale of a sort. The fantasy of earlier books of mine is still present, but in the imaginative subtext rather than explicit in any happenings in the story. Because that fantasy is a part of the truth of my own life I cannot truthfully omit it. I didn't set out to write a fairy tale, but in an effort to convey truthfully the quality of the experiences I had had, I found myself telling the story of a young man who, having quarrelled with his father, sets out into the world with no blessing and no money to make his fortune. He meets a strange old woman needing help ... a strange old woman who asks him a question, and, through giving her the help she needs, he answers the question and is strengthened by the answer. His response to her need determines the way he learns just as the kind responses of third sons or younger princes to the old people and animals they meet on their journeys result in them finding their fortunes.

These elements are recognisably fairy tale elements I think. Yet something like this fairy tale really happened in Christchurch once. A gang of rather derelict young people took over a house in which a demented old woman was living. Neighbours called in the social workers who found she was actually being looked after, though admittedly in a rough and ready fashion. She was being fed regularly and bathed, talked to and cared for. Her unlikely companions had grown fond of her, and after all there was no one else to look after her and nowhere for her to go, as all appropriate homes had waiting lists. I was told this story when I was already writing Memory by a social worker to whom I had described the book. And the first idea of the story came to me, as so many ideas do, from a haunting image seen from the window of a car in the early hours of the morning. Driving home through an empty city at about two a.m. I once saw an old man coming out of a supermarket car park pushing an empty trolley. The image stayed with me until I found a place for it.

Now I am not trying to suggest my story is true because it contains its page 20 share of irreducible facts, or even particularly good because of them. I mention the facts and associated anecdotes because they are eloquent in their own way, but just as much of the truth of this story, supposing it has any, lies in its form which seems to me to come from folktale, which has combined with many other things to give me a code by which to decipher experience. I used it in part to interpret my experiences with my aunt, so when I came to tell the truth, as it were, about those experiences, I could not do so without conscious and unconscious references to folktale. Memory has been described as tackling the subject of Alzheimer's disease, but it seems to me that it doesn't so much tackle it as recognise it, for the story is not in essence about Alzheimer's disease but about a magical encounter between two unlikely people, both of whom are possessed, in different ways, by a dissolving rationality. It is intended to be a serious story composed of many different sorts of truth, yet if I was asked to give a quick answer to the question 'Is it true?' I would have to say, 'No it isn't true.' All the same I have tried to make it tell part of the truth at least.

And so at last by fading paths I come back to a different sort of story ... to the shark who wanted all the swimming space to himself.