Going to Heaven by Sandra Horn
Have I ever told you about the day I went to Heaven for the first time? Via St Pancras? I arrived, not by a straight and narrow way, but via a broad and inviting set of steps.
Of course, as St Petra explained to me, you can’t just walk in; there’s a ticket system. I was crestfallen at that, thinking I had come on this long and difficult journey only to be denied. What saved me and gained me admission was a dirty, crumpled-up letter in the bottom of my bag.
It bore the logo of Barefoot Books. ‘Oh, you’re a WRITER,’ said St Petra, touching her forelock as a mark of respect, ‘Come and take your rightful place, O Best Beloved.’ Or something like that. So in I went and found my beautiful, my own, space at a shining desk with a lamp and a screen on which I could order any book I wanted from the catalogue – that is, effectively, ANY book.
I searched the catalogue, I inputted my requests (can this be real?) for Russian folk tales, I had coffee and cake in the café while waiting for the signal to tell me the books were ready. One was in a restricted collection, and the angel at the desk explained that it might be because it was pornographic. We looked at the list and agreed that it was unlikely, so it was duly delivered. It turned out to be a special because it was so fragile – in a box to keep the loosened pages together. It was Plays for the Village Hall and dated 1923 or thereabouts – memory fails. The other books on the list included Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales and Favourite Russian Fairy Tales. The angel also told me that the East European Specialist was in the building and would be delighted to help if needed. I spent the day in bliss. For free. I am a Joyful Tax Payer!
What was I up to with all this Russian stuff? Researching what I believed to be the legend of Babushka because I wanted to write it as a picture book and needed to be sure of its origins.
I knew there were already versions of it out there and I didn’t want to violate anybody else’s copyright. It turned out that there is no such legend in the canon of Russian folk tales and legends. ‘Babushka’ (Grandmother) hardly features except as an old lady, sometimes benevolent and sometimes not, but she has absolutely nothing to do with Christ’s nativity. The earliest version I could find was in the book of plays, which falsely claimed to be based on an old Russian legend – a convoluted story in which Babushka declines to go with the Magi to visit the Christchild and is therefore doomed. Thirty-odd years later she comes across the crucifixion and dies at the foot of the cross, goes to heaven and is sent back to Earth to hand out presents to children, presumably for ever. Rotten story. No redemption. I was even more determined to write another version – which also owes something to another story, The Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke (1895) and I think it is where the author of the play got it from. The fourth wise man, Artaban, sets off to follow the star with jewels for the Christchild but stops along the way to help a dying man, misses the caravan with the other three and never gets to Bethlehem but finally meets Jesus at the foot of the cross, expires there and then and is welcomed into heaven because of his good deed. Phew.
In my version, Babushka is houseproud, that’s her only sin, and doesn’t go with the wise men because she’s busy dusting. However, she has a dream about the baby born in a stable and she sets off, ever practical, with a toy, a warm shawl and some ginger cordial for the grown-ups. She gives them all away on her journey as she keeps meeting deserving cases, and is about to turn beck when Mary invites her in to the stable where she sees all the gifts she has given away. Like so many stories, it draws on different sources and gives them a new - what? Angle? Voice? Twist? Lease of life, at least for a while. It was published by Barefoot Books in 2002 and later made into a children’s musical by Starshine. It’s now out of print. It’s not my favourite work, but it got me into heaven and I’m grateful for that.