Lauren Higgenbottom had always been Lauren Higgenbottom despite her efforts to change it. When she moved to Jumbly’s village she became Mrs. Lauren Higgenbottom, never thinking that anyone would notice, just hoping for a change in reputation.
Alas, as many learn the hard way, it doesn’t matter how often you change location, things would always turn out the same if you took yourself there. If you took yourself and did all the same things, you would have exactly the same result. When Lauren moved to Jumbly’s village that is just what she did. She was very disappointed to find that the addition of a title and new ears to hear her resulted in almost exactly the same scenario as in her last village and the one before that and the one before that and so on.
Lauren liked to talk. Lauren liked to talk a lot. Lauren liked to talk about other people, a lot. A lot of Lauren’s talk about other people was critical. Very little of Lauren’s talk about other people was kind. Lauren liked to hear herself talk and to see others listening to her. It made her feel important. If she felt their attention was flagging she would make the story more dramatic and her voice quite a lot louder. This habit got Lauren into trouble on more than one occasion. So difficult to remember all one’s embellishments.
Lauren grew up in a village very similar to Jumbly’s. It was over the mountain range, weeks by horse and cart. Lauren had been the youngest of eight children, which was a lot of mouths to feed. By the time she came along, her mother had lost interest and simply focussed on getting chores done, children fed, clothes wash, work taken in, pennies scraped, food found, garden tended and round again. Lauren’s father worked from before dawn until long after she was abed. In fact, Lauren didn’t know that there was a man who lived in their house until she was four years old. Early one Sunday morning, she went to the lavatory only to find a man asleep in there. She raised a hue and cry in her fright, causing all seven siblings and mother to stumble out of bed and gather around the outhouse. The man woke to find all of them staring in at him. He, in turn, got a fright and due to the endless strain of providing for his large brood, the lack of sleep and food, and being startled awake, had an heart attack on the spot and died. He was a big man and it took quite some effort to remove him from the outhouse, made all the more difficult as the frigid morning air made everything quite urgent.
Lauren’s mother was understandably angry at the loss of income and regretted the cost of a funeral, so the last sight of the father she didn’t even know she had was as the lid shut and the coffin lowered at the graveside. No-one seemed particularly perturbed. There were enough of them working now to make up the income and most of them hadn’t seen him for some time. Now she thought about it, Lauren remembered a ‘father’ being mentioned but really hadn’t put it together as an actual person. More like the fairy tales of gift giving at Christmas time. Never saw that neither.
When Lauren was five she was sent to the village school. A little nonplussed at being thrown in with all the other children, she followed her siblings and soon found out about books. Books, the stories in them and reading were like a shining beacon to Lauren. Whenever she couldn’t be found for any of her interminable chores, they all knew to hunt her at the bottom of the yard where she had draped her dad’s old army coat over a table and kept her library. Her library consisted of every book, flier, newspaper, cutting and postcard she could pilfer. She read every word over and over again. Lauren learnt so much from books. She learnt that people in books did not live like them. They had a bed to themselves (mostly), clean sheets (she wasn’t sure what that meant but suspected it had something to do with the lavatory. Anyway it sounded nice.), more than one set of clothing and food. They actually ate at least three meals a day. Lauren could only wonder what that might be like.
About this time she began to notice that not everyone in the village had as many children as their house. She suspected that some of her siblings may have fallen in with them by mistake. They certainly did not all look alike and especially not like the man in the outhouse. Then she wondered if she had been taken by mistake and if there was another family with all those clean things that were looking out the window every night wondering where on earth she had got to. When she asked her mother, she just laughed, loudly, until she choked. Then her mum pulled her over to the window which was mirror like with the dark night behind and pointed out that all of the children, including Lauren, looked exactly like her. Her mum gave her an affectionate cuff and sent her off to bed.
The idea took hold though and from then on, Lauren would sneak out most nights and she would creep from house to house, peering in at the families inside. Which of them could be hers? Maybe her mum was her mum but maybe the man in the outhouse had not been her father? Maybe if she looked at every face closely enough she would find some resemblance and she could knock on the door and dah! He would welcome her in as his long lost daughter. His family would flock around and exclaim over the state of her, whisk her off for a bath (which she wasn’t sure about), new clothes and food (which she was sure about). The story of the Prodigal Son had been told at Meeting for Worship and Lauren looked at the Elder askance for some time after, wondering.
By the time she was twelve, her mother said she’d had enough schooling and it was time to earn some money for the family. There wasn’t so many of the family left at home and there was a little more of everything because of it. Lauren found work at a bakery. This suited her very well. She was up well before the sun, off to assist the baker. The bakery was warm and filled with delicious smells and the baker gave her breakfast. By the time her tasks were finished and the bakery cleaned, Lauren would have pastries that were misshapen for her lunch and be ready for an afternoon siesta in her hideaway. A rolling library cart came through once a week with books to exchange for a penny and again the following week. Lauren made good use of the library and felt her life just couldn’t get any better.
Then her mum passed away. One night, in her rocker, just worn out with work and children. Lauren decided then and there to never have children. Another graveside burial with her siblings and niblings and Lauren wondered where she would live. Her older brother negotiated with the baker to take her in, in exchange for her services cleaning the shop in the evening. Lauren didn’t mind. She moved her few things and her many books into the little storeroom of the bakery and settled in. She fashioned herself a bed with many covers (that she got horribly tangled in and was mystified by but persisted with), shelves for her books and the floor for her clothes (that’s where they had always lived after all. The books mentioned wardrobes and she had an image of large wooden boxes, so kept her eye out for one.). Lauren was happy.
Lauren stayed happy until about eighteen (she’d lost track somewhere) when she finally blossomed and noticed boys. As she was a well fed girl who had a warm place to sleep and knew about cleanliness (thank goodness one of the books had more explanation of that, although it was a little embarrassing), the boys noticed her too. Lauren hadn’t really bothered with friends, she had her books after all and really didn’t know how to deal with the sudden looks, comments and innuendo. To counter it she would tell the stories of her favourite characters as if they were her own. As time went on she became quite enamoured of these fabrications and would embellish them. To the young men she seemed extraordinarily silly and when she had no idea of what they wanted, they lost interest.
Lauren felt bereft. For the first time in her life people had paid her attention and she wanted it back. She developed the habit of whenever anyone made eye contact with her she would bustle over to share her latest adventure. This resulted in considerable shunning and Lauren retired hurt and confused. She thought she might fare better with girls so began chatting away as she had seen other girls did, sharing her inner most thoughts whenever anyone asked how she was. Girls are more direct than boys and instead of shunning her they began to make fun of her. When they queried her outlandish tales, their prodding resulted in more embellishments and exaggerations. For a couple of years Lauren thought she had quite a few friends who would egg her on in her stories until one particularly racy tale brought it all crashing down around her ears.
The Elders visited the bakery. They spoke with the baker and flicked glances her way from the corners of their eyes. Lauren’s heart thudded. She knew they spoke about her and could not think what she had done. The baker nodded. He liked Lauren and thought her a funny little thing, always in a world of make believe. He’d wondered what would become of her but he never thought she would do this. The Elders and the baker approached her. Lauren, in the middle of sweeping, clutched at her broom. Cornered she dropped her head and apologised for whatever it was she had done wrong. What might that be? they enquired. She had no idea so they enlightened her. Lauren was horrified to discover that the stories she had shared to entertain her friends had been spread as true doings. She was considered to be a young woman of immoral stand and quite likely in the family way. Lauren blushed violently. She had never, never, never, they were just stories. Stories!
Still the damage to her reputation was done and the Elders took her away to minister to her. After several hours of every tale about herself she had ever told been produced as evidence of her misdeeds, Lauren was beyond mortification and could no longer answer. She sat mute while tears flooded down her face. Satisfied of her repentance, the Elders informed her that she would be sent to another village and apprenticed to the Herb woman for five years. Lauren, who had absolutely no interest in plants and gardening, was horrified. She begged to ask her siblings to take her in only to be told they had been consulted and made the suggestion. They wanted the source of their shame as far away as possible.
Lauren was bundled off and did her apprenticeship. She found exactly the same intolerance to her stories there. As soon as someone asked her about herself or how she was, the tales would come tumbling out. In exasperation, the Herbal woman suggested she think about teaching or writing her stories.
Lauren froze in the middle of pounding herbs. Teach and write? Of course! To do that she would have to move far away from all those who knew her so she packed up once again and headed for the coast. She was able to find a post as a governess, teaching to the children of ten families. By this time Lauren knew how to make herself presentable and had altered her speech to an original blend of pronunciations she had gleaned from books. She tried, oh she did try to observe people and act more like they did. The years rolled on with differing levels of success and a trail of governess positions and villages. Through all this travel Lauren kept telling and writing her stories. Her stories she sent off time and time again, hoping for publication.
Finally one of her stories was accepted by a popular magazine and they requested more for their serialised tales. Then they asked her to be their agony aunt correspondent. My goodness, now she could tell her stories and tell people what to do. Lauren put all her observations, her reading, her imagination to work and gained quite a following. Between her teaching pay and her writing earnings, lack of a family and frugal living, Lauren amassed a nice little nest egg and thought about buying her own home.
She was not a young woman anymore and needed to retire from teaching. Her brusque style was still in vogue as agony aunt, so she could still keep writing. Her stories were published in a range of magazines and she had been approached with putting some together into a book. Really Lauren felt quite pleased. She had left her humble beginnings far behind. Only one thing remained the same.
Lauren still did not have any friends. While she had made acute observations of the interactions between her fellow humans and could give appropriate advice to her correspondents, Lauren had simply not mastered personal relationships. She determined that when she found her retirement home she would do everything differently, not drive everyone away with her excessive embellishments but find herself as the village wise woman to whom everyone would come. Lauren was so wrapped up in this fantasy that she began telling it in the village she was about to leave. They had all had enough and pointedly told her so. Lauren was astonished. Once again she had let her imagination run away with her. This time she would focus on others. She was determined.
Lauren moved to Jumbly’s village. She called herself Mrs Higgenbottom, hoping it would give her more importance. She bought the house of Jumbly’s old friend, whose passing he was heartbroken by. She determined that she would not be the old spinster who was this old jumbled up man’s friend. By all reports he couldn’t even talk properly although people spoke with such fondness of his doings and what he had shared with them. It was most odd. She would not be the odd old woman who was his friend.
Lauren moved into the little house that had been Jumbly’s friend, and found it stuffed to the rafters with a lifetime’s collection of living. She bundled it carefully, if not a little forcefully, into a large rear garden facing room and arranged it as a rather squashed but cozy sitting room. Not that she would ever use it. She preferred a more spartan approach and the house was scoured and bare with little warmth or coziness.
Lauren kept her word to herself and made it her business to find out about everyone else’s business. The desire to share the tales hadn’t left her. The compulsion to add embellishments meant that soon Lauren was ensnared in her web of exaggerations and decorations. She saw that people began crossing the street to avoid talking to her. She knew that the Elders would not be far behind. Lauren was in despair. How could so many decades have gone past and the same thing still be happening?
That was when she began to notice Jumbly watching her. Actually it was more that he would watch the house and if she ventured into the front yard, he would smile shyly. She didn’t want to encourage him, so she would turn her head away. Never quite fast enough to miss seeing the sadness on his face, however. Lauren’s distress grew. How would everyone accept her if she was friendly to him? Although she noticed that everyone who went to great pains to avoid her, always, always, stopped and spoke to Jumbly.
Jumbly. She knew all about him. His life, his tragedy and his stories. His stories! What about hers? The tales she could tell these people if only they would listen. If only they knew who she was and that she would know the answers to all her problems. Why, why did they speak with him and not her? There he was again! Standing forlornly across the road. Why she had a good mind to, to.
Lauren’s eyes met Jumbly’s. To her surprise he was a young man. Tall, broad-shouldered, well built, his smile curled into his beard. Neatly dressed and clean as a working man could be, Lauren was finally caught by his eyes. Dark, dark brown. Brimming over with sadness, loss and grief. Something in Lauren recognised a kindred bewilderment with the world. A loss, a sadness and then Jumbly smiled. Lauren caught her breath and smiled in return.
Before she knew what she was doing, she beckoned him over and opened her gate. He rumbled across and jumbled something at her in his deep voice. Lauren nodded, of course, of course, I have kept all her things for you. Come in, come in, I’ll make a cup of tea.
And so began the friendship between the Jumbly Man and old Lauren Higgenbottom.
(c) CLHHarper March 2014