Looking for more in Your Stories?

Ghost Fruit and Other Stories

Author: Lynn Blair

My father kept an orange in the airing cupboard for thirty years. I have no idea what possessed him to do this, or what particular question he was trying to answer when he first popped it in, but occasionally, when I was growing up, he would bring out this shrivelled, brown husk with a little pride and tell me how many years it had been in there for. It was ugly and wondrous, an ordinary spectre that had grown and lived on this earth for years before I was born, and that spent its days being a dead, yet present, thing, existing amongst us as some weird scientific experiment conducted by my ever-curious father: the same father who was a piano tuner and drove to his customer’s houses in the Ayrshire countryside, steering the car with his knees, so that both hands were free to pour black tea from a flask and eat lunch on the go.

Is it any wonder then that I’ve grown up believing that it’s ordinary people who hold the best stories? Scotland is full of myths and heroes, but they don’t interest me in the same way that the anonymous people I pass in the street do. If we’re to understand anything about ourselves, it won’t be found in tales of mythical gods and water sprites, but nor will it be found in lazy portrayals of a feckless working class. The council estate I grew up on was not full of hard drinkers, violence and poverty. Instead, just like my dad, the people were hard working, inquisitive and creative, living their lives in peace and making the most of everything they had. Their stories are my hinterland; an unexpected gift that showed me that people are never quite what they seem.

My first local hero was my school janitor, a man I never saw wearing anything other than his blue overalls. To me, he was just someone who turned up with sawdust when someone was sick and occasionally gave us the good news that the boiler couldn’t cope with the cold that day and we’d all have to go home. I was sent to the tucked away room where he did goodness knows what, to fetch him for my teacher. And right there, he went from black and white to colour. He’d made a den. I was seven: I knew a den when I saw one and this was a beauty. Every windowsill was home to spider plants, tomato vines, chillies and peppers, the greenhouse he couldn’t otherwise afford. And on every old desk – and there were many – stood groups of statues, all of them a bland pinkish brown, and all about one foot high. He saw my face and nodded.

‘I made those.’

There were impassive, classical faces, a ballerina poised in arabesque, a centurion with a round shield, a Native American in full-feathered headdress. There were dozens of them, the detail magnificent, and every one of them whittled by Mr Wilson – an artist in every way – from standard council issue carbolic soap.

I learned later that he’d been a pupil at the school, frequently beaten by corporal punishment, which made his den and his prosaic choice of art material all the sweeter. I put his story in my imaginary backpack and think about it often. Use what you have. Make something from nothing.

I could never really understand our society’s obsession with celebrity so at university I chose to write my dissertation on it. Perhaps as an antidote I bundled myself into my charity shop coat and walked the streets, looking greedily into tenement windows. I’d walk at dusk when people were beginning to put on lights, but forgetting to close their blinds, hungry for glimpses of normal lives – a meal being cooked, someone watching TV or reading a book. Sometimes I’d spot an easel, or a guitar propped up against the wall, or a canoe being tied to the top of a mini. There were no heroes, only people muddling along, hand-making their lives from whatever they had, carving out space for joy.

I still gather stories, and I’m happy to use my imagination to fill in the blanks. In a cupboard full of otherwise homeless things, I have a collection of found writing, fragments of human life on scraps of paper, author’s unknown. I don’t know what to do with them yet, but I am compelled to pick them up when I find them, photograph them and keep them safe in a box. There’s the African letter found inside a second-hand book, describing with such poetry, the great bird that would carry people home to mourn the death of a loved one. In another, I found a note, hastily scribbled on a tiny square of paper, from a daughter thanking her parents for making such a wonderful weekend for her. There are shopping lists I’ve rescued from the bottom of trollies, describing needs quite specific to their authors. One is written in a hand so tiny I feel certain it has come from a fairy. Creative living is not always about statues and paintings, and these are not books or short stories, or works of inventive fiction. Yet I fall on these paper trails like treasure, remnants of disparate lives I’ll never know yet feel endlessly curious about.

In this year of Scotland’s stories, I wish you happiness in humble tales. The ordinary business of getting through the day takes originality and inventiveness, now more so than ever. Stories are how we share wisdom, feel less alone, make understanding deeper. They are how we come to understand that we are all so similar, but utterly unique and that those two things must sit side by side quite happily. I hope then, that you find a way to grow your own ghost fruit. And I hope others find a way to show you the glory in theirs.