Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne
Lazing on a bench by the river Nidd in the old market town of Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, I was staring at people climbing in and out of hired rowing boats. A couple had just settled down on a boat’s seating. He took up the oars and made a few tentative strokes through the water, while she, wearing a broad-brimmed white sunhat, chattered away to him. The boat moved out into the stream, and by a whisker avoided colliding with an incoming boat.
The last time I’d been here, I’d struggled all that week to come up with a fresh way of linking two scenes of a story, and reckoned the day out might help knock my imagination into gear (Click here for post). Fortunately, it had. But this afternoon, I had no such target or ambition. I was simply idling away a few hours.
I squeezed my eyelids shut against the sun’s glare, feeling the heat soaking into my face. My thoughts up to now were bobbing about like flotsam, with no particular place to go, indifferent to any specific sight or sound.
Yet soon, a set of similar sounds in short but recurring intervals caught my attention, on my right and slightly behind me. I turned my head. Two women and a man were standing around a low circular stone wall, with a roof-like structure over it supported by wooden beams.
“Did you make your wish?”
“I’m about to.”
A laugh. “You have to do it as you toss the money in.”
These people had keen gestures with animated faces, eyes big and bright.
“Do it again!”
“Spin the money! Look! Mine’s going in quicker than yours.”
I could hear coins rolling round on metal.
After this group had gone, another arrived, enthusiastically repeating the same ritual. What struck me was their lack of hesitation in approaching this structure and throwing money into it.
I stepped across. A metal sheet acted as a cover inside this low circular wall. It sloped inward with a hole in its centre. A sign read, Wishing Well.
I shook my head slowly, dropping back down on the bench and staring over again at the rowing boats. I’d pay money to do that, to float on the river for half an hour, but this other thing… absurd!
More adults arrived at the so called ‘wishing well’, exhibiting the same unquestioning and reflexive movements as the others.
“Mine went done before yours!”
“What did you wish for?”
“Don’t tell! You won’t get your wish if you do.”
Not wanting to suffer any more of this insane nonsense, I strolled off in the direction of the famous stone viaduct. But with my mind and body in its slow idling gear, thoughts of this ‘wishing well’ kept dogging me.
Why do grown people behave like this? Some had even been skipping around the ‘well’. The wall and roof bit had been recently built and I wondered if the well itself was any deeper than ground level. Not a well at all, probably. Hadn’t anyone else noticed? Anyway, don’t wishing wells belong to fairy tale territory? Sure, as a child I chucked money into them, believing wishes might come true, but by ten or eleven such beliefs were fast giving way to a healthy and mature scepticism.
I sat on another bench and listened to a train rumbling over the viaduct. Is it the persistence of childhood beliefs and superstitions that make grown people throw money into a hole? Would they throw money into any old hole to make a wish? Do the words Wishing Well act like a magnet? Or is it the structure itself? Or both? Do words and structure together equal a sort of irresistible charm for them?
I burst out laughing. One or two people flashed me a funny look. People were indeed strange.
Okay, to be fair! They’re on holiday, at an attractive riverside location, wanting fun, new experiences, and with a bit of money to throw away (literally). They’re much more susceptible to this sort of thing than they would be on a grey Monday morning rushing to the office. Like me, in fact, they’re in a state of idleness, or even frivolousness. Their usual sceptical state has given way to something softer, less defensive. Otherwise, they may not have even noticed the ‘well’.
I bought myself a strawberry ice cream, continued rambling and stuck with the topic.
What if I offered passers-by the chance of throwing money into my outstretched pocket and making a wish? I’d explain it’s a wishing pocket. Would they go for it? What if I dressed up as Puss in Boots or Santa Claus first? Unlikely that would work. Even in their idling state, people’s scepticism would dismiss this idea out of hand. Worse, they’d probably look at me in that odd way people reserve for lunatics and drunks. Boy, the difficulty in reaching beyond traditional boundaries!
Yet, throwing money into a hole will never make a wish come true. And every adult knows that. Otherwise, we’d all be lottery winners many times over and all our enemies would be dead many times over. We’d be a world full of rich dead people.
Earlier, it had rained. I stopped now and gazed down at a puddle. A tiny black-and-white terrier rubbed up against me and took his turn to stare into the puddle, his nose only a few inches from it. But seeing nothing interesting there he moved on.
But I saw something interesting there. Like the swell on a wave, I saw the idea of a story beginning to emerge.
How about a wishing puddle? People could throw money in and make a splash as well as a wish. The higher the splash the more likely the wish will come true. I could hang a sign over the puddle, made out in a fancy font, giving the sense of being Olde Worlde. Even dangle a few lucky charms from the sign.
Or what about a portable wishing well? One that looked real, of course. Like a portable toilet, you could carry it around the country to tourist spots or raves or concerts and so on. Could anyone make a living out of it? Was it a good way of raising charity money? Could whoever owned this portable but real-looking wishing well set up a franchise? Obviously, this story would have humour but say something poignant about people, especially about their fickleness over superstitions and beliefs.
Hold on! What about a story about a street beggar who opts for a makeover? He’d wear a colourful and eccentric hat, scarf or shoes, but sombre colours for the rest of his dress. He’d have an air that associates him with the mysterious and charm-filled world of the fairy tale. Maybe he could sport a patch over one eye; except he had to avoid looking like a pantomime act. His makeover would excite the punter’s sense of childhood memories so they couldn’t resist throwing money at him.
A sign hanging around the neck of his old, tired-looking dog (would he need a makeover, too?) could explain to every pair of passing and curious eyes:
Here sits the wishing beggar.
Throw a pound coin into his hat and make a wish.
100% success guaranteed.
He might feign blindness or deafness or dumbness to add to his sense of mystery mixed with pity.
And the plot? The conflict? Aah! A woman had thrown money into his hat and made her wish, but it hadn’t come true. A fussy, complaining customer, she demands a refund. He explains: a mind with any trace of cynicism makes the wish null and void. She crinkles her brow and bites her bottom lip.
And the story kicks into gear.
While I’m out strolling in a state of idleness, I’m always secretly wishing for some new story idea or character to come along. And today one had done.
So you can guess what I had to do next.
I fished out a pound coin and rolled it round the sloping metal cover, watching it drop into the hole with a smile of satisfaction.
Beside me were the couple from the boat earlier. She threw a pound coin onto the metal sheet.
“I made a wish,” she cried, holding onto her broad-brimmed white sunhat. “But will it really come true?”
I thought she was asking him, until I saw her looking at me.
“Your money went into the hole,” I told her. “So, of course, it will come true.”
She gave me a big smile.
What I didn’t tell her, and what no one else knew, was that you could make your wish and see it come true before throwing money into the well.
Where would a writer be without people’s flaws and especially an acknowledgment of his own? What would writers have left of interest to write about? Sometimes, when under the grace of idleness, those flaws come into focus very clearly indeed.
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