Cherry cannot be Pear: Becoming my normal

‘You were a most peculiar child,’ was a phrase Aunt H borrowed from somewhere and would throw in my direction as if  by ‘peculiar’ she meant ‘unhygienic’.

Aged seven. I was sure the Virgin Mary gave me the dress, or perhaps it was a fairy godmother; the two got tangled in the weave of my stories. I wore the dress, not school uniform, for our class presentation in assembly. The dress was shiny and bought from a shop, not homemade, and in this shiny, shop-bought dress I rose, knees a-tremble, to deliver my single, over-rehearsed line: something about Tutankhamen, but the words stuck in my throat like desert sand, tumbling out, rough and breathless. ‘She just isn’t normal,’ I later heard Aunt H whisper. ‘What was all that about her dress?’

That same summer, Ratty and Mole met under the canal bridge. I thought I saw them climbing into a boat. ‘No, it wasn’t just a supermarket trolley,’ I promised Aunt H. The trolley, when I saw it, was terrifying and tragic, like a sinking corpse, and sent me into a fit of weeping, deep and gut-churning, until the smell of plastic car seats made me puke. 

I stored my treasures in a box, in a chest, in a room at the end of a landing at the top of the sleeping palace of my imagination. When I had words enough to form a net and catch them, and prevent them flying wildly around the chandeliers and out at the latticed windows, only then would I release these little airborne jewels. It was a long wait, there was sadness and loss, as well as joy, love, celebration, and the occasional, startling realisation. Eventually, it was safe for me to free my normal.

My particular normal limits my ability to join in, in situations that are perfectly comfortable for others. I have a seat at the edge of Life’s waters, from where I dangle my feet, often tempted to try a swim but knowing from experience that I’d soon start to drown, choking on chlorine fumes or salt water, or river weed as I sank. I can dip my toes into company but not bathe in it daily, as one has to on committees, in offices, classrooms, shops. 

There was a point when I changed the angle of my mind; this altered how the light entered, allowing the bounce of brightness, sharpening some perceptions and banishing others to the shade, where they do less harm. Normality is a trick of the light we allow in. With practice, we can control it, even when Aunt H drops by and goes to pull the curtains together, obscuring all natural sources.

Cherry cannot be pear. If it tries it fails at being either, and shrivels. I am cherry; from bud to blossom to fat, ripe fruit, to stone, to soil, to sprouting sapling, round and round, I am fully cherry and rejoice in my cherriness. 

My normal isn’t squirming or chafing under lockdown; withdrawal is peace and relaxation. I miss only a few special arms around me, the warm smell of my son’s dog, and the particular isolation of writing in motorway cafés. In lockdown I can leave the lid of the box flung open and catch floating, rising treasures in my word net. 

For now, everyone has stepped back and joined in with my normal, but they are pears, oranges and apples, and it may not suit them.

Claire O'Brien is a prize-winning author of funny stories and fairy tales for children. She has been published by OUP, Orchard and Franklin Watts. Claire also writes about Buddhism and mid-life (Mudpiebooks). Currently, she is working on audio fairy tales and a fantasy novel for 7-12 years inspired by the fairy tales of Madame d'Aulnoy. She Tweets at @ClaireOBriennow.