Scully Ashes by Susan Price
A couple of weeks ago, I finally published Scully Ashes and the Highwayman and Other Stories.
The book began, before lockdown, with a publisher's brief. They wanted a book, so many words long, for children aged roughly 8-10. But, specifically, they did not want the entire story spelled out in the text.
To test and develope children's comprehension of a piece of writing, some aspects of the story were to be unmentioned, so the readers had to work out for themselves what exactly had happened. Usual in writing for adults, but not so much for 8-10.
Not the easiest of briefs, I thought.
Aynock and Ayli
|The Black Country|
up there, was often told 'Aynock and Ayli' stories. This is the Black Country pronunciation of 'Enoch and Eli' which were once typical Black Country 'chapel' names. The stories were of a kind which were -- probably still are -- told all over the country, though the characters will have different, local names. In the tale I remembered Aynock and Ayli bought a horse each (in this story they were being rag and bone men.)
They were to keep the horses in the same field and fall into a long wrangle about how to tell which horse belongs to who. Neither of them wants to feed the other's horse by mistake or find that their horse has been tired out by working for the other man.
Paint their initials on them? -- But they have the same initial. Paint a dot on one and a cross on the other? -- But the horses will quickly rub the paint off, or the rain will wash it off.
Tie different coloured ribbons in their manes? -- But the ribbons will be tugged off in hedges. Crop the mane and tail of one? -- But they'll grow again.
The argument goes on and on. Then, one day, as they lean on the field gate, a revelation strikes Aynoch. "We be a right pair of noggin-yeds," he says. "It's easy to tell 'em apart!" Ayli is still puzzled. "Use your eyes!" says Aynoch. "One's much bigger than the other!"
"Which one?" says Ayli.
"Which one, which one? Look at 'em!" says Aynoch. "Anybody can see the white un's a lot bigger than the black un!"
I thought this story fitted the bill because I distinctly remember that, when I was first told the story, I struggled to understand the joke. But I was about nine at the time. I was a little taken aback when one of the reasons the publisher turned it down was 'we don't quite understand why they couldn't tell the horses apart.'
I told the publisher that I'd always understood the story as a comment on the human ability to utterly miss the point, to complicate things, and to be blind to the obvious right under their nose.
At nine, when I finally understood the joke, I remember being pleased because it exposed adults as very stupid. Always a plus point for a child.
In Scully, I don't tell it as a Black Country story. Instead, it's about a brother and sister who farm together but are always quarrelling.
The illustrations are by Andrew Price.
The Old Woman
There are three stories in the book. 'The Old Woman and the Thieves' is another old story, retold as seemed good to me.
"That's my house at the edge of the village. The old stone place with the thatched roof and the little vegetable garden. Nanny lives with me.
I like the garden. There are rats in the compost heap. Catching them keeps me busy. I like the cottage doorstep too. It's warm in the sun. I like to sleep there after I've done with the rats..."
The unspoken element in this story lies in what the thieves overhear the old woman saying. Thinking she's gone to bed, they climb on her roof, meaning to slip down the wide chimney into her kitchen and steal the fortune they believe she has hidden about the place.
But the old woman hasn't gone to bed. She's frying the kippers she intends to share with her cat and, since she talks to everything -- her cat, doors, the fire, trees, etc -- she also talks to her frying pan and the fish. "Oh, I see you there!" she says to the first kipper. "You're a fine one! I'm going to roast you and toast you and eat you all up!"
|Tom, Dick and Harry, the villains of the piece|| |
The cat observes all and even applies a little pressure to the villains at the end, persuading them that they'd be happier living elsewhere. But he assures us that Nanny is not a witch and he is not a witch's cat.
After all, he would know.
I didn't use an Amazon template for this book. I made the size 8x8 and made each page in Photoshop, which enabled me to put the pictures and text where I liked without having to grapple with Word thinking it knows better. For instance, this double page with the cat anticipating his kipper.
The final and longest story is the one I've called 'Scully Ashes and the Highwayman.' I discovered it in K. M. Briggs' invaluable 'Dictionary of Folklore in the English Language.' The story as she gives it was collected in Australia but seemed to me to carry echoes of a tale that began in Scotland -- the Scottish diaspora, after all, carried Scottish stories all over the world.
So I set it in Scotland. Well, in my mind, it's Scotland. I don't think I actually name the setting anywhere. I changed a lot of other things about the story too but, in essence, it's a David and Goliath story: a small, weak but clever person outwits someone much more powerful.
|Scully cleans a cauldron|
The Old Man's remote home is a small town in itself, with stables, kennels, a dairy, a brewery, cattle-sheds, hen-houses... There are a great many servants and, once or twice a year, messengers are sent to town, via long, lonely roads, to collect a great deal of money from the bank, to pay the servants' wages.
But a highwayman begins to rob travellers on the road and none of the servants are willing to risk meeting him. Until Scully -- 'the lowest servant...the kitchen skivvy who does all the hardest, dirtiest jobs...' volunteers to go. She convinces the Old Man to allow it by telling him how she plans to outwit the highwayman. But the reader isn't let in on the plan.
Is it giving away too much of the story to say that Scully meets the highwayman and is robbed at pistol-point of her bulging, jingling saddle-bags -- and yet manages to deliver all the wages money for her fellow servants? How does she do it? -- The reader is given the clues to the trick but the 'how' isn't explained until near the end of the story.
I finish with a story-teller's rhyme, which I liked...
This tale here told, how it's sped by,
And every word of it made up and a lie.
But like all honest tales (there's no shortage of proof)
By telling you lies, it told you the truth.
Tales of the Underworld, Super Scientists and Saving the Ice Bear are all in print at the moment with 'conventional' publishers. The others all have been published mainstream, originally, but are now self-published. All except Scully, which went straight to KDP.