TALKING GIRL: A MEMOIR by Carys Evans-Corrales

In this extraordinary account, Carys Evans-Corrales takes the reader on a cultural rollercoaster ride. As a child growing up in the Singapore, Malaysia and Jamaica of the 1950s and 1960s, the author came into contact with a host of languages and cultural influences, ranging from the Hainanese she spoke as a toddler to the Welsh counting song and English nursery rhymes she was taught by her mother to the Mandarin songs of Chinese children. In Kuala Lumpur, she came into contact with Malay, whose idioms delighted her, and in Kingston, Jamaica, with Jamaican patois, where she was shocked by the racially charged atmosphere. In Jamaica, she was introduced to Spanish, which conditioned her next move – to study Linguistics at York University in the UK, specializing in Spanish. This, in turn, led to a year abroad in Seville, where the author played the role of Andalusian novia, and, after completing her undergraduate degree, to a year of research in Salamanca. During this year, she was offered a job at the university in Santiago de Compostela, where she went in 1974, just as the Franco years were coming to an end and Galicia was recovering its language and identity. But it was in a move to America, in 1985, that the author finally acquired her own identity and laid the ghosts of her past to rest. The account of these years is littered with anecdotes about local people, school friends, linguistic conundrums and political backdrops, and offers a sweeping view of the second half of the twentieth century lived out on three continents.

Island Girl?

Nothing happened for a year. Then one day as I was getting ready to go out, a bottle of hardened glue on the table in my bedroom jumped about six inches into the air, gave a little waggle and set itself down again. Horrified and dismayed, I said a little prayer to defend myself against any evil and checked to see if anything else in the room had moved. Nothing had. I went out to the living room to let my mother know what had happened.

‘Either I’m going mad or there’s a ghost in the house after all,’ I told her. Her answer did not include the reassurance about my sanity that I had assumed it would.

‘Well, darling, you have been a bit overwrought lately. What with the move to a new country, all the work you did for the O levels, being made a prefect at St Hugh’s, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if your nerves weren’t what they ought to be.’

Well, thanks a bunch! I put the glue bottle out of my mind, watching myself to see if I was in fact losing my marbles. But – and not quite to my relief – I seemed much the same as ever. A few weeks later, I was to experience something that struck me at the time as very unusual. I was sitting at my sewing machine one twilight, putting together a fashionable new tent dress I had cut from a beautiful piece of batik I’d found. The sewing machine had a sloping, roof-shaped cover with a suitcase-type handle and was on the floor, diagonally opposite the left-hand corner of my table. I could not see the cover from where I sat. Suddenly I heard a loud, repeated, rattle-like thumping from the general direction of the cover. Suspecting that one of the many house lizards that ran across the walls had somehow got in underneath it and was banging its tail in an attempt to get out – something that had occasionally happened when they crept under pictures on the wall – I skipped off to fetch my father to do the honors and shake the poor, trapped thing from the box. My father manfully shook the box, looked inside and pronounced that it must have got away. Relieved, I went back to the sewing machine and resumed my sewing.

After a minute or two, I heard the same thumping from the cover of the sewing machine. Cautiously I got up from my chair and crept around the table to a position from which I could observe the box. I was astonished to see the handle, apparently of its own accord, flinging itself from side to side of the box, creating the racket that had caught my attention before.

I have always considered what followed to be the culminating moment of my life. Never again will I be able to process so many thoughts so fast in succession, never again will I be able to remain so calm in such an emergency, nor make such a wise decision. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know whether ghosts exist. If they exist, it’s better not to antagonize them. On the other hand, it’s also best not to give in to them. One should be firm, but kind, as with dogs. If you run screaming from this room now, you will never be able to enter it again. Say something firm. Just in case they exist.’ Excruciatingly aware of how ludicrous I would have looked to a casual observer, I forced myself to address the box – just in case, of course.

‘Why don’t you help me for a change, instead of frightening me all the time,’ I said in a would-be humorous voice. Mano de santo, as the Spanish would say. It certainly did the trick. The banging stopped. I went back to get on with my sewing, but, just as my rear end was about to reach the seat of the chair, the electric sewing machine began to run by itself. I had not had time to touch the material, much less to steer it under the needle in a straight seam. Nevertheless, at top speed the machine sewed a straight line exactly where I had intended to sew – an impossibility if there is no guiding hand to keep the fabric straight. This went on for several inches before I completely lost my head. ‘Stop!’ I screamed, utterly out of my depth. ‘Stop!’ The sewing did not stop until I began to kick the table legs, and there ensued a silence the like of which I have never experienced again. It’s not often that a spirit calls one’s bluff. I had to believe now – no ‘just in case’ about it.

The following day, I had a powwow with my mother as to what to do about the poltergeist. I suggested bringing in a Catholic priest and having it sorted out. We weren’t Catholics, but we’d all read enough to understand they had powers of exorcism. My mother demurred.

‘What if we send it to a worse place than this?’ she asked. ‘We don’t want that.’

I agreed.

‘Has it done you any actual harm? I mean, has it been aggressive towards you in any way?’

It had not.

‘Tell you what,’ said my mother. ‘Let’s not mess with it, on the understanding that, the minute it starts throwing ink bottles at you or flings books through the air or anything, we’ll call in the priest. How’s that?’

So we agreed to let it stay as long as it behaved itself. And it did behave itself, more or less. It sometimes changed my toiletries around from one side of the dressing table to the other and was once actually seen by my mother moving a bottle of scent as she passed the door on her way up the long corridor. If anything was mislaid, we would laugh it off, saying ‘Oh, Josephine must have been playing with it. It’ll show up soon enough!’ Josephine was the name we had given the entity after an inquisitorial session with the Ouija board divulged it to be a fourteen-year-old girl of that name who had died, it was to be surmised, in the hospital on the ground where the house now stood. She had also done my mother a favor by transporting the book she was reading up the corridor from the living room to my parents’ bedroom while my mother took a shower. Josephine had left the book open at a different page, though, the careless thing.

When we began to mention Josephine to our friends people were very surprised at our phlegm. ‘Oh, you English are so brave!’ gushed one lady from Martinique, oblivious to the fact that we were not one of us English. ‘I would have moved out immediately!’ Our protestations that Josephine was nobody to be afraid of didn’t convince the woman one bit. ‘Well, do be careful!’ she warned. ‘You know what happened to the Manleys!’

Additional Info

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    TALKING GIRL: A MEMOIR by Carys Evans-Corrales, the third title in the series Small Stations Essay, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-025-0

    Publication Date: 26 May 2014

    Language: English

    Paperback: 184 pages

    Dimensions: 216 x 140 mm