This is an excerpt from Willoughby the Narrator. You can compare how well he told this story this story with the original version, published on Jemima’s blog as flash fiction, back in 2014.
Willoughby’s First Narrathon
When I look back on it, I realise that our arrival in Cabot was timed to perfection – although it was pure luck.
“Do you do lodgings?” we asked at every inn we saw.
“Full up” was the constant answer.
The port was busy, and you could understand the inns on the waterfront being full, so we tried ones up little lanes, up alleys—up huge long stone stairs with buildings that seemed to lean against each other as they tried not to slip down the hillside.
“Is it always this busy?” I asked in exasperation on the second night. We’d spent the first under a hay cart near the marketplace.
“Always at narrathon time. Even the sailors get here for it.” The barman was kind enough, just busy.
I found a beer-stained poster on the counter and showed it to Tatum. “We should go in for it.”
“We could, but we should go and watch it, at any rate. It lasts two days, after all.”
I checked with the barman—it started that afternoon. We joined the throng of people heading to the castle, and ended up perched up on a wall overlooking the main square inside.
That first afternoon and evening were for professional narrators. We watched and listened and admired, and criticised—which prompted some people to tell us to have a go ourselves, if we were so picky.
“Yes, of course. Tomorrow morning’s purely for you young upstarts who think it’s so easy you can do it.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s easy. I’m trying to learn, you see. Work out what works best. I admire them, really I do.” I stopped in case I was laying it on too thick.
“I’ll keep an eye out for you if you’re brave enough to enter.”
“How do I enter?”
“You can read, I take it?” He pointed to a corner of the square, where a sign on a tent read ‘Narrathon—Enter Here’.
“Shall we?” I asked Tatum.
“You can. You’re more confident than me. I’d have a go at a small place, but not here. Everyone’s here. Even the talent spotters.”
“Yes, the people who take on really good narrators and set up tours for them, advertise them, and make sure everyone comes to listen.”
“Would Champion Christopher have a talent spotter?”
“No, he’s a wall-runner. They just go round the circuit.”
“Where’s the next narrathon after here?”
Tatum started to answer but stopped as we noticed the stares people were giving us. The next narrator had started. We’d missed the announcement, but he was very old and we could hardly hear him.
Everyone had gone very quiet. I nudged Tatum, and we slipped over the back of the wall and returned into the square by the gate. I wanted to get to the tent, but the way was jammed with people listening to this old fogey.
“Just you wait till Arcturus has finished, youngster!” a tall brown-haired person hissed at me. I shrugged at Tatum, and we stood waiting. We couldn’t very well do anything else.
Arcturus barely spoke above a whisper, yet now that I’d stopped to listen, I could hear him okay. It wasn’t very good up on the wall, which made me think about acoustics. Arcturus spoke each word so clearly and distinctly that it echoed in your brain and wouldn’t leave until you’d absorbed it and savoured its meaning. His voice had a thin, reedy, wheezy tone, as if he laboured to get his breath, but when he spoke, he used all the air to make it count. He used even more sounds and voices than the other narrators had, when you got so you could listen to him. I started to realise why everyone was paying attention to him.
“And then the sun set, and darkness enfolded them all. And they waited for the rising of the moon, and floated up into the sky to join it, and were never seen by mortals again.” He finished to rapturous applause, and I joined in. Somehow his story had etched itself into my mind even though I’d missed half of it.
“That was wonderful,” I said to Tatum as we edged forward against the flow of traffic, struggling to get through to the Narrathon tent.
“Yes, he’s famous. Oh, excuse me,” he said to someone he’d upset. He nipped under the basket she was carrying to catch up with me. “We could see if he’s having a technical session.”
“A what?” I couldn’t hear him, as the crowd was so big and everyone was talking at once.
“See you at the tent!” Tatum called as a great wagon containing food for the evening separated us.
I more or less fell into the tent to get out of the crush.
“And here’s another enthusiast!” someone joked as I got to my feet and brushed myself off.
The last narrator was sitting in the corner, signing pieces of paper for people lined up and coming through another opening in the tent. “You’ll have to wait your turn, young man!”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise, no I wanted to see about tomorrow.” Stop blathering, I told myself.
“Over here then,” called a female sitting at a desk. “Leave poor Arcturus to his fate. What’s your name and designation?”
“Designation? Oh, Willoughby of White Horse.” I hoped that was what she meant.
“White Horse, eh? That’s nice. Are you enjoying yourself here?”
“And what type of story will you tell?”
“Er, what do you mean by type?”
“The fantasy stories are going first, then the junior ones, then the morals, then the fairy stories, and then the parables. The history ones are after that, and we finish with the adventures.”
“Gee, how long does that all take?”
“All morning, and if you overstay your ten minutes you’ll be taken off. If you’re too boring or we can’t hear you, you’ll be taken off too. So… what’ll it be?”
I hesitated. Which story to use? It had to be one I was confident of, on this big stage. “‘Diamond Souls.’ It’s a kind of love story, but it’s why the stars are in the sky and where we go when we die.”
“Ooh. I’ve not heard that before. Let’s put you at the end of the fairy stories, as it sounds a bit like a parable, and there should be lots of people still listening.”
“Do people not listen?” What was the point if they didn’t?
“Fairy stories are very popular, but people often take a break for parables and come back for the adventures. Don’t worry, you’ll get an audience!” She smiled at me and handed me a number. “Give that to the announcer and be behind him at least four numbers ahead of time. There’s always the chance people won’t show up at the last moment. Don’t you drop out, either!” She glared at me, and I just grinned at her.
I turned around to leave and found Tatum behind me. “Well done,” he said. “I’ll steer you through, don’t worry. You just concentrate on your story. Did you ask about the technical?”
“The technical session… oh, never mind, let me.” He pushed past me and asked the organiser about a technical session with Arcturus.
“Yes, he’s doing one at sunset, in the library, but you have to be registered to speak tomorrow.”
“I’m with my friend Willoughby,” he told her, waving at me. I was still gazing at my number and wondering what I’d let myself in for. Could I back out?
“Oh, yes, well that’s all right. Take these tickets with you, and don’t be late.”
“Please could you tell me where the library is?”
The organiser pulled out a map and showed him how to get there. I was glad Tatum was taking charge of the details. It had suddenly become very important to me to do well.
We squeezed into the library with about twenty other people just before sunset.
Arcturus came in and told us a little about his life, how he’d told stories at his local castle and then been apprenticed to a narrator. He’d had fifty apprentices himself, and he wasn’t taking on any more, “so don’t ask!”
He gave us some tips about how to speak: use different voices for different characters, make sounds for the wind, and so on. Then he asked who was reading and who was doing stories from memory. One person said he was using notes, just cards to make sure he did all the right bits in the right order.
“Can we get any cards like that?” I whispered to Tatum. He shrugged.
Then Arcturus asked each of us to say the first lines of our story as if we were talking to the audience. That was very useful. He critiqued both what we said and how we said it. The time flew past.
“Just remember: your audience wants to enjoy your story. They want you to do well, and they know you are not professionals. They will forgive you for being nervous, even for losing your way. They’ll wait for you to find yourself again, but they won’t wait forever. If you find you’re completely lost, just say ‘and they lived happily ever after’, or something suitable like that, and bow and leave. It’s much better to make a confident exit than a fumbling, mumbling one. And we all get lost sometimes.
“Speak to your friends, but look around at the others from time to time. If your voice squeaks, smile, and breathe, and relax. You don’t have to do this, you know. You’re doing it because you want to, and because you want us to enjoy your story. Don’t rush, and speak up, so we can hear you. Good luck!”
By now I was nervous. Why on earth was I doing this?
Tatum took me off to get something to eat, but I just pushed my food around the plate, and eventually he ate it for me. I kept going over my story in my head.
“Come on,” he said, finishing his drink. “Let’s see if we can find a better place to sleep, and you can tell me your story again.”
Chapter 5: My First Narrathon
In which I tell the tale of ‘The Diamond Souls’
Just three others had turned up to tell fairy tales, so although I held number 15 in my hand, I was the tenth speaker of the morning. I’d listened to them all. The squeakers, the mumblers, the ones who got hopelessly lost. A few did a good job and got a proper round of applause, not just a sympathetic one.
“And now, I introduce you to Willoughby from Castle White Horse, and his story ‘Diamond Souls’!”
I stood on the fiddlesticks. Hundreds of pairs of eyes stared at me. Well, maybe a hundred eyes. There must have been a thousand there for Arcturus yesterday. I breathed. I smiled around at them. I began.
“We are all going to die!”
A few people shifted uneasily.
“Each and every one of us is going to die—sometime!” I grinned at everyone. “But not yet, I hope—well, at least not until I’ve finished my story.”
A few chuckles rippled through the audience.
“Have you ever thought of what happens to us after we die? Nobody knows for sure—except…,” I paused for effect, “the daughter of Aelred and Eowyn.
“You probably know the legend of Aelred, who fought the dragon. No one else had the courage to go to the dragon’s lair, and tell him stories for so long that his scales grew pale and his eyes grew dim. Who do you think taught him those stories, though?”
I stopped, wondering if I could get the audience to answer. Surely they knew this one.
“It was Eowyn, his wife, who taught him.” I wondered whether anyone was listening, but ploughed on.
“Their daughter Arwena was already a grown woman when Aelred was called to fight an ogre. Aelred and Eowyn packed for a long journey and left Arwena in charge of their people.
“‘Expect us when the cock crows three times in the night,’ Eowyn told Arwena, and they rode away.” I was sure I was supposed to say something poetic here, but the silence was wobbling my brain.
“Days passed, then weeks, then months. Winter froze the Vale of Murad, and Arwena wondered whether her parents were frozen too. There was no news, and the valley was cut off.
“Many moons passed, and Arwena got married, and her children were eight and six years old when a bird flew onto the roof of the castle one night and crowed three times. This was extraordinary since it was an oystercatcher, and they don’t crow!” I did my best imitation of an oystercatcher’s mournful peeping call.
“And Arwena called to the oystercatcher, ‘Why have you come? Where are my parents?’
“And the oystercatcher replied, ‘I have come to tell you of their fate and to help you find them in the sky.’
“‘Are they dead, then?’ asked Arwena.” Oops, I thought, I’m ahead of myself.
“‘They made friends with the ogre and persuaded him to leave the people alone. But they had to agree to go with him to his cave, to keep him company.’
“And Arwena asked if they were dead, then. And the oystercatcher continued, ‘The ogre promised that when they died they should travel so far away that they would turn into the diamonds we can see in the sky at night.’
“And Arwena asked, ‘Are my parents stars in the sky now?’
“‘Yes, they are diamond souls, studding the universe above us, watching over us and helping us live good and fruitful lives.’
“‘Where do I find them?’ Whoops.” I had used the wrong voice, the oystercatcher voice. “‘Where do I find them,’” I repeated in the higher voice I was using for Arwena.
“‘Look up, look up,’ echoed the oystercatcher’s call across the vale.
“And Arwena looked up and saw two stars fixed in the sky.” I looked up at clouds and remembered I was supposed to tell this story at night, preferably a starry one.
“So remember, if you are good, and true, and brave, and help others, you will have a diamond soul that becomes a new star and lives in the sky, watching over people and helping them find beauty and truth in their lives.” I finished in a rush. This was rubbish. I was rubbish.
I bowed to the audience, left, right, and centre, and backed off the fiddlesticks as fast as I could, although I suddenly realised they were applauding.
“Well done, youngster. Go back up, take another bow!” The announcer pushed me back onto the fiddlesticks, and I bowed again, smiling this time. I liked the applause. This was great! I glanced at the announcer, who waved me back down. “Don’t milk it, though,” he said sternly.
I backed away, feeling as light as a feather. It felt like I was floating. I felt great.
Tatum grabbed my elbow and steered me towards the drinks area. “Not bad. You left stuff out, though.”
“I know. It was so scary up there! But they liked it, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, although there hasn’t been much to like so far. I think your positive points were: one, we could hear you; two, you do a passable imitation of an oystercatcher; and three, the story more or less made sense. Oh, and four, you smiled at us.”
My shoulders were dragging me back down to the ground. “I was rubbish, then.”
Willoughby the Narrator, part of chs 4-5
© J M Pett 2017