Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bond, Abigail Bond

I've just finished a project at Pinkie Primary School, Musselburgh, with children's writer Lari Don, funded by the Scottish Book Trust. We had a great time with a P5 class, writing imaginative stories. The class invented a character who would appear in all their stories, one Abigail Bond, story-investigator (see photo). She had some handy character features such as a photographic memory and made herself distinctive with her black fedora hat and a banana always in her pocket. Using the three elements of stories - character, setting and 'plot' - we worked with the children to explore places where some mysterious stories might lie, and then set Abigail onto them, plotting her activities first on storyboards. As practice in close observation from a real location, we spent one lesson at a beautiful 17th century doocot more or less in the school grounds. We gave each pupil a lovely hard-backed notebook, as writers deserve, and led them through a series of activities involving the senses (hands on stone, blindfolded) and imagination. the notebooks started to fill. Pigeons clattered in and out of the high loft windows, the air smelt of cut grass and pigeon poo, and the children told us about a Green Lady said to hang around the doocot at night with a small child. I found out later she was believed to be the first wife of the Earl of Dunfermline who died in slightly mysterious circumstances having borne him four daughters and no sons.

The children chose their own locations to write about and examined them in the same way. Then each wrote up their story which they read to an audience of P3s on their final day. The project inspired smiley faces and many interesting comments in the final evaluation, perhaps the best being 'I felt like a writer'. Which was our point.
I found myself intrigued by the doocot and its ancient function in providing protein for the Earl and his family. It was old and mysterious with its locked doors, and still half inhabited by descendants of the originals. The children had been studying Mary Queen of Scots, and a timeline hung across the classroom telling of her adventures and misadventures through the years. My imagination started to grow a story out of these collisions, and here it is:

The locked doocot of Pinkie

As Abigail Bond approached the doocot, something started clapping above her head. She pulled the black fedora hat low over her eyes and hurried on. Her long shadow stretched ahead of her towards the square-shaped building that sat alone in the school field. The windows of the loft stared back at her like two dark eyes.
When she reached the doocot, her hands grazed the rough wall and she could feel the great age of the building. It was as if the stories were vibrating in its pink stone. The sudden clapping of wings above her head made her heart jump into her mouth.
‘I’m not afraid of you!’ she shouted up at the pigeons. They were whirring their wings as loudly as helicopter blades, as they flew in and out of the loft windows. They should be going to bed, she thought.
‘Coo, coo’, they answered.
‘It’s because of you that the Council are going to knock this doocot down’, she accused them.
People had been complaining that it smelt of poo. They said it was dirty and unhealthy. But she’d been to the museum, and the P5 children at the school had told her some amazing things about the doocot. She knew there were stories in it. She was a story-investigator, she had to find them out before it was too late!
She dragged an old gate out of the woods and leant it against the wall. She was an athletic girl, and climbed it like a ladder, higher and higher towards the window. The clattering pigeons came closer now, flapped cold air onto her face while their wings batted at her hat. Like fighter jets they dive-bombed her and pushed her off balance.
Now it seemed that instead of their annoying, ‘coo, coo’, they were saying, ‘boo, boo!’ and then, ‘shoo, shoo!’
‘They’re guarding something,’ she told herself.
But what could it be?
At the museum, they told her that pigeons were kept here to be killed for the Earl of Dumfermline’s supper. But she felt sure there was more to it than this.
When she reached the window, a wall of pecking beaks stopped her from looking in. She cried out as she felt a claw scratch her cheek. The hurricane that their wings were beating up blew a terrible stink into her face, up her nose. It even seemed to wriggle into her ears. She put an arm up to protect herself.
‘Shoo, shoo!’ hooted loud in one ear, and then in the other what sounded like, ‘Our fathers flew for you!’
She looked down. The ground was a long way below, frost-hard and dark. The gate wobbled underneath her. Her legs trembled and her hands sweated, slipping on the gate. Then the gate lurched under her and she dived forward, through a curtain of feather and stink, into the dark. Bump.
She sat up in the loft, spread her hands beside her and felt twigs, moss, something sticky.
‘Nests,’ she thought.
The pigeons flapped and pecked and scratched around her in the dark, and she had to swim breast-stroke in the air to keep them away. She spluttered on all the feathers she was breathing in.
‘Our grampas flew for you,’ she heard again. And then, another muttered, ‘You ate our grampas and our grandmas too,’ and then, ‘You used our poo so your gardens grew!’ She knew that all these things were true, but not any more. That was the Earl of Dunfermline hundreds of years ago, she thought, the man who’d built this Doocot.
‘Stop!’ she shouted. ‘There’s no point in being angry with me.’ But they carried on their attack.
She searched in her pockets for something she could calm them with, and that was when she felt the banana – the food she never travelled without. She scattered pieces of it around her, and gradually the flapping settled.
‘Phew’, she breathed. ‘Phew, phew.’
‘Coo, coo,’ the very hungry pigeons replied.
Now her arms were free, she reached for the torch in her story-investigator’s belt. The first thing she saw was a beautifully woven nest around which stood a sentry of three puff-chested pigeons. The torchlight glinted on something in the nest. It was red and silky, tied with a bow of ancient-looking ribbon.
‘Is that human hair?’ she asked.
‘Coo, coo,’ one of the sentries replied. ‘Our grandmas flew for you. To Borthwick and back, they flew and flew.’
‘How many years ago?’ she asked.
‘Four hundred and forty two.’
She calculated quickly. ‘1567, Borthwick.’ Her photographic memory whipped through the papers she’d seen at the museum. ‘Got it! Mary Queen of Scots. In 1567 she escaped from Borthwhick Castle disguised as a pageboy, didn’t she? She shaved her hair off, and you and your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents have guarded a lock of it ever since.’
The pigeons jostled, nodded, puffed up their chests with pride.
‘Don’t worry,’ she told them. ‘I won’t let you lose your home. It’s not that smelly, once you get used to it.’

At nine o’clock the next morning, she burst into the East Lothian Council office, and marched up to the man on the desk who was reading a newspaper.
He looked up, a little surprised to see a girl with a hat covered in grey feathers, a long scratch down one cheek, and some green slime smeared on her coat sleeve.
‘Now young lady, you can’t just march in here and expect…’
‘Bond,’ she said. ‘Abigail Bond. Story-investigator.’
He was silent. She spread her hands onto the desk and stared into the man’s eyes. ‘Pinkie Doocot,’ she said. ‘There’s a very important story there.’
After she told him, the man straightened his tie, and said, ‘Well, young lady, it seems you have made quite a discovery.’
‘So you won’t knock it down?’
He shuffled his feet. Something moved behind the man’s head, and Abigail heard a distant clapping. She looked through the office window and saw a squadron of pigeons fly past.
The man turned to look too. ‘Good Lord,’ he said, and turned back to her, almost smiling. ‘Certainly not!’ he said. ‘We’ll not be knocking it down’.
And they both watched through the window as the pigeons looped the loop.

The End

Written by Linda Cracknell for Primary 5 at Pinkie Primary School. With thanks to the children for their help with character, setting and the title.

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