Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, CS Pacat is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestseller, Dark Rise; the Captive Prince trilogy; and the GLAAD-nominated graphic novel series Fence. Born in Australia, CS Pacat has since lived in a number of cities, and currently resides and writes in Melbourne.
CS: I was talking to someone in my family about this event and they said, “Oh, you should tell the story about the tram conductor”. They said, “You know, you get your storytelling from the family” and I said, “Yeah, probably.”
My family tells stories, but they don’t write things down, it’s an oral tradition. The best storyteller in my family was my grandfather, who comes from that lost world of the old Italian village where you can’t read or write but you sit around at night telling stories.
I think subliminally, I learned that the person who is the best storyteller in any room is the one with the most power. We’d put in requests, “Nonno, racconta la storia delle crochette!” “Nonno,tell the one about the croquettes” “Tell the one about climbing the fig tree” We wanted to hear the same stories over and over again. Sometimes my mother would say, “We should tape these. It would be a shame to have these stories disappear after he’s gone.”
The stories did disappear. He died about ten years ago.
Here are the fragments I remember. The one about the croquettes was something about how my grandmother and grandfather were having a fight while my grandmother was making potato croquettes – that’s mashed potato made into rings then floured and fried – and she threw the pan. The croquettes arced up into the air and hit the ceiling, and stuck there like the olympic rings. As the fight entered its silent phase, they sat at dinner not talking to each other but every now and then a croquette would fall down from the ceiling onto the table.
The one about the fig tree I remember less well, but it was something about how he’d climbed the fig tree in the front garden and somehow lost the ladder and the rope that was holding his pants up, and was screaming for my grandmother, “Eva! Eva!” but she didn’t answer – because they were fighting – so he went off on a tirade, “Via a diavolo” “Va fanculo” until she finally emerged only to see the nuns from St Bridgits passing by making the sign of the cross and averting their eyes from man in the tree in his underwear swearing.
The story that my family used to tell about me was the story about the tram conductor. I was in year seven – so what’s that, eleven, twelve years old?- and I needed an alarm clock for a school project. Actually this first part of the story is a lie. I told everyone I needed the alarm clock for a school project but I actually needed it for a prank. I’d convinced a group of friends that we should all bring alarm clocks to school, hide them around the school hall, and set them to go off at five minute intervals, interrupting the school’s morning assembly. The idea was that as soon as one alarm clock would be found and shut off, another would go off elsewhere.
I was an only child. My father had died when I was five, and my mother raised me as a single parent. My school was about an hour and a quarter tram ride from my house, so I used to get up before my mother in the mornings. The morning of the prank I snuck into her bedroom, took her alarm clock while she was still asleep and slipped it into my school backpack.
I was halfway down the hallway, when I heard her say, “You give that back you little redacted” and I said, “I need it for a school project” and we wrestled for control of the backpack. I managed to grab it and run out of the house. She followed me out in her nightdress. With my twelve year old mind, I was thinking two moves ahead, like in chess. I’ve got a head start. She’s in her nightdress. If I can just get on to the tram, she’s not going to follow me. I’m home free.
She wore one of those long white nightdresses with small pastel flowers all over it, made out of some nightdressy fabric, cotton or flannel. And this was, like, 1989. It’s not like today where everyone works from home and all our wardrobes have come to resemble pyjamas. Women didn’t go outside in their nightdresses in 1989. I saw the tram coming, ran as fast as I could, and made it on just as the doors closed. I flung myself down onto the nearest seat feeling pretty proud of myself. I’m clear.
But then the light turned red. The tram didn’t pull away from the stop. It just sat there, as the seconds ticked by, twenty seconds, thirty seconds.
And then, in her nightdress, my mother got onto the tram after me.
I remember she grabbed me by the hair and dragged me down the centre aisle of the tram. “You redacted you give me back the alarm clock”. I was telling stories, “I need it for a school project” or, I probably started with “I don’t have it”, and then moved onto “school project”, She hit my head against the edge of one of the seats. I was clinging to my back pack, but I didn’t really have a plan. There was not really an obvious way out of this situation.
That was when the tram conductor stepped forward.
You remember tram conductors. They wore a uniform with a cap, and had those leather satchels slung over their shoulder, with money and change, and paper tickets that they used to click in exchange for your fare.
In a very dignified voice, the conductor said, “No violence on the tram please, ma’am.” As if he was indicating to a sign, although there wasn’t exactly a sign covering this sort of thing. My mother answered, “This is my daughter, I can do whatever I like,” you know that sort of line, “Don’t tell me what to do with my daughter”.
The conductor, perhaps realising he too had a fiefdom, he said to her, “Well, do you have a ticket?”
Silence. Then she turned to me and said, “You redacted. Give me money for a ticket.”
In an act that probably epitomises my personality in that era, I shook my head. No way.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid if you do not have a ticket, you cannot ride this tram.”
Now, the tram had been moving the whole time. At this point we were more than twenty or thirty blocks away from the house. My mother was barefoot and in her nightdress and she didn’t have her purse which meant she probably didn’t have a house key either.
That’s where my family used to end the story, and where I do too, usually.
I don’t talk about what happened to me when I got home.
People loved my grandfather. They used to say “Your grandfather was a real character” as if he had stepped out of one of his own stories. As I got older, I came to see the way that his stories completely obscured – even to his own family – the violence of the man. You could tell them a different way. The story about the fig tree could be retold just as a story of a husband screaming obscenities at his wife. The story about the croquette could be a story about was a family where it was normal to throw pans of boiling hot oil at one another. And the story about the conductor, it’s a story about how I was too scared of my mother to ask if I could borrow her alarm clock.
My grandfather had a kind of facility to rewrite reality by storifying it, often making it funny. The story became more real than the event. When he died it was as if a spell was broken, I was happy to let the stories fade, but I see why my mother needed them. When something is happening inside the house, you often end up performing a production of reality when you’re outside, so that the bad things are minimised or hidden – or made to seem engaging or funny. It’s a way to cope.
I grew up to be a fantasy novelist. And that’s why when I got told I think your ability to tell stories comes from your family, I said, “Yeah, it probably does.”
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