One thing I’ve learned as part of Read Regional is that the Google Maps directions I get from my laptop will always contain a small but devastating error, which will divert me for at least half an hour and which I’ll only be able to resolve by parking somewhere that annoys other people and begging my iPhone for help. Tonight, I end up taking a terrifying fog-bound journey across what is probably a moor, but based on what I can see, could contain pretty much anything from a gigantic housing estate to a clan of swamp-dragons laughing at my terrible driving. (For the record, the other drivers are not laughing. In fact I think they’re about half a minute away from running me off the road as a service to humanity. To everyone else who had to share road-space with me that night; I was horribly lost and I didn’t know the road, and I’m very, very sorry.)
When I finally find the library, I’m more than a little bit petrified. Fortunately, the library is full of lovely people who offer me drinks and posh crisps and indecently good biscuits, and listen sympathetically to my dramatic opening narrative of How I Was Nearly Eaten By A Swamp Dragon And Almost Didn’t Get Here At All. It’s International Women’s Day – also my birthday – and I’m part of a double bill to celebrate. The other speaker is an actor called Susanna Meese, who’ll be performing fairy-tales based on the four ages of womanhood (Child, Maiden, Mother and Crone) under the heading, Revealing Women. She has the most fantastic props with her – an axe, a chopping-block, a harp, a pair of gorgeous red stilettos, which I examine in silent awe as we wait for the audience to arrive.
I’m on first, and I start off by reading an extract from someone else’s work; The Juniper Tree, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I like to begin with this because it is, hands down, the most awful, disturbing story I’ve ever read. It’s a fantastic antidote to our usual interpretation of “fairy-tale”, i.e. big frock, pretty girl, identikit husband and a story that stops just as it’s getting interesting. There are no big frocks or identikit husbands in The Juniper Tree. It provokes a few gasps and some uneasy laughter.
After that, I read from my collection. I usually choose a couple of extracts from Raphael’s story, because he’s tough and funny and loveable. Also, he is, in his own words, “a dwarf who strips for a living”, which always gets a smile. For International Women’s Day, I choose Ruth – a Hollywood private detective who falls for an iconic screen siren.
I read for a few pages, then stop, because I don’t want to bore them. I ask them if they have any thoughts they’d like to share about fairy-tales. One of the women in the audience says she really wants to hear the rest of story. Everyone else nods. Their hopeful, expectant look is one of the best compliments I’ve ever been paid. At the end, I realise it’s the first time I’ve ever read one of my short stories out loud all the way through.
After the break, Susanna takes the stage and performs three fairy-tales for us. As it happens, she’s chosen a variation of The Juniper Tree too, and we follow the story all the way from murder to cannibalism to righteous retribution. She also performs a Bluebeard story, and a lovely fable about an old lady who finds a pot of gold on the way home, which eventually turns into a cow and runs away. Along the way, she also reveals that she was one of the Fourth Plinth performers in Trafalgar Square. Specifically, she was the lady who sat naked in a deck-chair, reading a book. She has a beautiful photograph of the occasion.
The whole event is a lovely celebration; of reading, of fairy-tales, of telling stories, of womanhood. By the time we get to the end, I’m more than ready to face the fog and the Google directions and the swamp-dragons. I am woman! I can achieve anything! I have no need of your feeble directions! I laugh in the face of your swamp-dragons! Hear me roar!
Filled with confidence, I get back into my car and charge joyfully off into the night, and discover the fog has lifted and the M62 is clearly signposted, and I’m going to get home in one piece after all.