A family’s testament of endurance in occupied Amsterdam
‘The Alphabet of Life’ by Rebecca Stonehill – second prize winner in our ‘Sense of Place’ Creative Writing Competition
13th December 2020
Rebecca Stonehill lives in Norwich with her husband and three children where she teaches creative writing for children. She is the author of three historical fiction novels and is currently working on her fourth. She loves reading, having family adventures, playing the piano, being in nature and, of course, travel.
The Alphabet of Life is a non-chronological journey through the forty-three years of her life. She has drawn on places and moments of her life that have helped to shape the mother, wife, writer and woman she is today.
The Alphabet of Life
I am standing in Plaza San Nicolas in the old Moorish district, the ochre-coloured roofs sloping away before me and the Alhambra Palace framed by snow-capped mountains. I breathe in deeply, emotion flooding me that these two years of teaching English and high-spirited living have come to an end and that I am to leave this city that has woven itself deep into my soul. Granada, I smile to myself, I’m not finished with you yet.
My baby is strapped to a carrier on my front and I’m grasping my toddler’s hand with a ferocity that makes her squirm, the midday sun bearing down on us. We’re waiting for an auto-rickshaw to take us to a bookshop we’ve been visiting since arriving here a few months previously for my husband’s job. But 100 Feet Road is busier than normal, buses, cars, bicycles, mango-piled carts and the odd cow careering along. No rickshaw is stopping and tension knots at the back of my throat. Suddenly, I realise my toddler has stuck out a hand and, like magic, a bright yellow rickshaw festooned with gaudy decorations hurtles to a halt. A beedi dangling from his lips, the driver hoots with laughter. Leaning forward, he pinches my toddler’s cheek. ‘Hello, baby.’ The ‘baby’ does not look amused and bats his hand away. ‘That’s the baby,’ she pouts, pointing to her sleeping sister. ‘Not me.’
I’m walking through our garden in my cotton dress. I’m bored, fidgety and hot and don’t want to play with my sister, she’s too small, and I don’t know where my brother is. I feel it fizzing in my nerve endings: that need to make mischief. I glance back over my shoulder, confirming that Mummy and Daddy aren’t in the kitchen. But then I remember that Daddy is off on one of his trips again. Starting at one end of the flower bed, I pick one after another until I have an enormous stockpile; not even the stems, just the heads. I stare at them, triumphant. But then, I look at the barren garden and panic. What if the flowers don’t grow back? I remember my friend telling me that if you wee on flowers they grow better. So I lift my dress and crouch, tears now streaming down with the exertion of it. Please, I tell the flowers, please grow back.
Fresher’s Year at University and life has changed: early morning rowing along the Wear as the mist rises, mingling with my frozen breath; sitting in lecture theatres and the vast library, hundreds of students bent over their books; walking along the Old Bailey’s cobbled streets. One afternoon, a friend tells me he has made an amazing discovery. ‘I don’t think we’re meant to be up here,’ he whispers as we creep along a tangle of corridors, squeezing through an upper-floor window and on to the roof. I gasp. For there before me is the whole city: the cathedral’s twin spires, the gleaming thread of river, the ancient stone bridges. We sit there in silent reverence, contemplating our futures.
My friend and I have escaped from the kibbutz for the weekend where we’re spending our gap year, a break in picking avocados at the crack of dawn. This mythical city has jumped from the pages of my schoolgirl Bible; we are staying in the Palestinian part beside the souk that hums with life and spices and fevered bargaining. We’re attracting a lot of attention and it’s exhilarating but exhausting. Back at the hostel, we head for the rooftop to be met by the intermingling, heady sounds of the Muslim muezzin, Jewish sundown prayers at the Wailing Wall and Christian Church bells ringing. Three faiths, one city. I close my eyes and wonder what it all means.
It’s not like primary school where you chat with the other mums at the school gates. Now, I drop my eldest off for her first day outside school and she barely glances back, backpack and strawberry blond curls bouncing until she vanishes into the swarming high school crowd. I sit there for a while in my car, staring after the space she’s left in her wake and blink back tears. The building that has swallowed my daughter is so grey and squat and impersonal; as uniform as the blue and black of her mandatory school wear. I wonder how it can possibly contain the range of her kaleidoscopic shades?
I can’t see my feet anymore and I move, penguin-like, towards the Chinese bridge that crosses to the water meadow. I’m eating a cornetto to stay cool in the heat, still cloying at 7pm. I take the same route as I have done every day of the heatwave as my belly ripens, the kicking becoming fiercer. But at least there’s a breeze here and I edge beneath a sycamore.
That’s when I feel the twinge, and I know right away that it’s time. I try not to panic, gobble up my ice cream and cross back over the bridge that will take me along the cobbled street towards home.
We’re met off the bus at a precipitous hairpin bend by some grinning youths, offering to carry our rucksacks up to the Air B n B. This is the most intrepid of our stays so far in India during the six months of what we call our ‘family gap year.’ Walking up the steep, rocky incline, my son tugs at my sleeve, gesturing towards the villagers who are standing on their roofs, staring in bewilderment.
It isn’t until we reach the top that I turn back to look at the rugged mountain range framing the valley. ‘You’re the first white people most of these villagers have seen,’ our host tells us. ‘Welcome.’
‘Teşekkürler.’ I try out the Turkish word for thank you as breakfast is laid out in the shady courtyard of our hotel. The word in my mouth tastes as exotic as the tiny black salted olives and warm sesame bread and saying ‘husband’ to the man who sits opposite me, the man I married two days ago. The waiter grins and vanishes before returning with thick black coffee, so bitter it makes my eyes smart.
I lean back in contentment and smile at my husband. He smiles back, eyes twinkling and I let my head drop back, staring up through the Persian silk tree canopy. Married, I think. I am married.
From the walls of the Mehrangarh Fort, all I can see is a swirling sea of dusty blue from the buildings below. I’m in India, fresh out of University and unsure of my next steps, deferring to voluntary work and travel to guide me. But in the fort’s shadow, I pass a palm reader clad in turban, baggy white trousers and pointed shoes who claims the answers are already there, in my hand. He peers intently, spinning stories: You love writing, he whispers. I frown. How does he know? Three children, one you will lose. I feel discomfort prickling. I want to leave but he’s still grasping my hand in his.
Six months pregnant: my four year old walks beside me and my two year old is in the buggy. As we trudge along the unfamiliar, flashing-neon streets, towering skyscrapers and frenetic markets, the sky is a thick blanket of muggy grey and I just wish it would rain; anything to break this heat.
Eyjafjallajökul Volcano has erupted en route from Vietnam to London; one hour in Hong Kong has turned into five days and BA don’t know when they can get us back. My huband has to work and I can’t stay in the courtesy hotel room any longer so we walk, me and my girls and my bump, sweat pouring down our foreheads. When will we be home?
Women in brightly woven huipils and black braided hair walk up the hill selling their wares: Pan de banane! Pan de chocolate! I slept badly the previous night in my lakeside guesthouse, firmly on Guatemala’s tourist trail and am feeling bad-tempered. All I want right now is to get on that bus and leave; yes, even if it means sharing it with chickens and goats and evangelists.
And that’s when he comes to sit down next to me at the bus stop, another gringo like me. He has tight, sandy curls and when I glance at him, his blue eyes glint. It’s bizarre, but he doesn’t feel like a stranger.
My father and I eat breakfast beneath a swathe of bougainvillea, cypress trees etched on the horizon. It’s so good to see him, but he’s aged. He’s not well, though he’d like to believe he’ll last forever.
As the distant Mediterranean scent reaches me on this hilltop village, I sip at my coffee, luxuriating in the February morning’s warmth. The next day, I’ll be heading to Seville to teach English and If I’d known this would be the final time of seeing him, would I have changed anything about that last morning? No, I wouldn’t. A swallow swoops down and I smile at Dad.
Nine years old and I’m hopping from one foot to the other, for I’m in America – America! Daddy’s birthplace and land of dreams where I’m certain most people you see on the streets must be famous movie stars. I’m perplexed when I don’t see any. But when we reach the bottom of the Twin Towers, my mouth falls open as I gape up at the shiny steel glinting in the sunlight. We’re heading up to Tower Two’s observatory on the 110th floor and it makes me giddy just to think of it. From up there, I’ll be able to spot a movie star, surely?
Dust devils whirl up from the baked earth and as the sun sinks, the mountains glow crimson. We’re staying in bandas, simple wooden huts, and now that the day has emptied of heat, we can walk. My six year old tears off her top and whoops with the sheer, exuberant joy of the wilderness’s vastness. In her crocs and bright kanga shorts she runs, past a hoopoe settling in an acacia branch, past a Maasai herding cattle. And we gaze and laugh, feeling too that joy of being alive and living in Africa.
We’ve stared at the Al-Khazneh Treasury for a long time, carved into sandstone mountain. Our guide tells us about a viewpoint, pointing up a winding track above the canyon. It’s a long, hot climb and my friend and I stop frequently to rest and drink. But it’s worth it: from up here we see the Jordanian desert rippling away and a piper begins to play from somewhere below us, the sound carrying and echoing across the valley. The mournful beauty of it takes my breath away and a tear steals down my cheek. I’m nineteen and in a strange, inarticulable way, I realise how much life there is to live.
I don’t want to be here anymore. When I first arrived, age eleven, I did. I loved the imposing buildings, huge lawn that stretched down to the athletics pitch and quiet woodland fringed with rhododendron. But now, three years on, I don’t want to be here. It’s too much: the musty cloakroom smell and the taste of boiled cabbage; the disappointment when incoming letters don’t have my name on them and the inability to get away from the constant throng of girls who are everywhere, all the time. I write separate letters to Mum and Dad and I say, please can I leave? Please?
My nine month old is swaddled to my front in a wrap-around sling. Finally, here in the market’s bustle, filled with spice pyramids and flat, circular bread, she’s fallen asleep. An old woman in a djellaba walks past, spots the chubby hand sticking out from the sling and clucks.
We always vowed we’d keep travelling, even with children. This is our first real attempt: taking the train from London to Marrakech. ‘The Marrakech Express’ we call it, and it’s been exhilarating, maddening, exhausting, hot. But here in Morocco’s understated, hassle-free capital, we walk through the Medina and grin at one another: our mothers were wrong. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. Unquestionably.
I wedge my long, teenage limbs into the space at the top of the climbing frame and angrily wipe away a tear. It was inevitable, really, that they’d get divorced after so long living apart. But now the day has come, I’m not prepared for it.
From up here, I can see the rope swing crossing the brook at the bottom of the garden; the fields stretching out that I’ve spent so many hours in with my siblings; the old wooden shed where we have parties and where I shared my first spin-the-bottle kiss. And I can see our house, usually so comforting. But now it feels as though it’s swallowed my childhood.
I’m bouncing on the trampoline and I think that if I keep jumping this high, I’ll be able to reach the top of the snow-capped Dents Du Midi that soar to great heights across the valley. I lie back and splay myself out like a starfish. I can hear the cow bells and smell their raw, earthy pungency. Soon, it’ll be time to go and collect the milk in an urn from the farmer’s wife up the mountain. I don’t like Mummy and Daddy living in different countries, but the mountains are my favourite place in the world. I love being six.
I stand nervously on the wooden boardwalk that juts out over the jade-coloured sea. I’ve always wanted to do this, but will I feel claustrophobic once down there? But then I think of the man I met on the bus last month who told me about his own experiences here in Honduras. Lowering myself down, tank on my back, the instructor makes the ‘ok’ sign underwater and I return it. It’s happening – I am diving. Gliding through the silent reef waters, I see its shadow first: a huge stingray soaring past like an underwater bird of prey. Never in my life have I witnessed anything so graceful.
The five of us are trundling around Normandy in our temperamental old motorhome. We’ve parked up in a wild camping spot in a forest and as my husband hauls our fold-up table and chairs out into the glade and prepares a simple baguette lunch, I walk into the trees. Only there can I let my tears fall freely. This time away with my family should be so perfect. And yet. I’m not well, and I don’t know how to get better; to once more inhabit a space of presence and joyfulness. I lean back into a towering beech tree and place my hand against the trunk. The grain of wood against skin, like magic, soothes me.
A tiny dot in the Indian Ocean, off the Kenyan coast. We have fallen in love with this off-grid island hidden in the mangroves, where the sun powers the light for our bandas and our fridge is a stone, water-filled urn. We eat fresh crab and vegetables in coconut milk as we listen to the muezzin’s call to prayer, a Christmas with a difference. High tide fills a natural pool hugging the cliff side and low tide offers up secrets from the sea and my children spend hours discovering starfish and brightly coloured seashells. We hang them from a festive branch and they glimmer like baubles in the sunlight.
Volcán Santa María rises in the distance and it feels inconceivable that, in twelve hours time, I will have hiked to its summit and back down again. I’ve wanted to do this full moon walk ever since arriving in Guatemala, but not alone. So the previous week I’d sat in an internet café, chewed my bottom lip and decided that yes, it was time to email the boy from the bus.
So here we are, standing at the bottom of the densely forested volcano. The moon lights our path and if we make it up in time, we’ll catch sunrise. I turn to my companion; we’d shared our first kiss earlier and I know that his presence has changed my life irrevocably.
Autumn equinox. I’m swimming with my children in the river that curves around the valley, south of Norwich, the city we’ve made our home. The weather’s due to change tomorrow and we’ve come here straight after school, eking out the day with a thermos of tea, biscuits and books to read on the banks. I catch a brief glimpse of dazzling blue as a kingfisher swoops to the water’s surface. A heron takes flight from the reed bed and as I swim along the narrow stretch of river, this thought comes to me: Norfolk. I am ready to put down roots in your land.
I’m boarding a flight to return home after nearly a month in a village overlooking the Appenzell Alps. Everything’s normally covered in snow by now, but this year people stare up into the sky, puzzled, expecting to feel the first flutter of snowflakes. They shrug; mutter climate change; continue walking. And me? For a month, I left my husband and children so I could try to heal, try to re-calibrate the broken pieces of my soul. I feel lighter now. And the significance isn’t lost on me that this has happened in Switzerland where my father lived; where my six-year old self once believed she could bounce to the mountain tops.
I cast one final look at the city’s glittering winter lights before boarding the plane. It’s time to fly.