“Upon my bed there lies each day
A woolly sheep.”
The first lines on the last page of a delightfully entertaining book called Telling Tales introduce us to author Sheila J. McMillan’s ‘favourite thing’.
It’s a woolly teddy bear, once greatly cherished by her youngest son “Who sadly left these troubled shores,
In search of peace,
Many moons ago.”
Sheila’s concluding poem comes after almost 20 similarly vivid short stories about being “a clergy wife” and mother of four children in a country town in Northern Ireland.
Each telling tale endorses the various connotations in the book’s title and could only be told by someone with ‘inside information’.
Minister’s wife Sheila is the daughter, granddaughter and great niece of clergymen!
The former social worker and English and history graduate tells ripping yarns, packed with humour and insight.
They’re all true “although in some cases the names have been changed to protect the guilty”, a glowing review discloses.
Dark apprehension looms over the first chapter with Sheila on her way to preside over her first meeting of the Women’s League.
Husband William is the minister of the church where her late father ministered for 30 years while her mother ran the Women’s League, and much else besides!
Most of the ladies in the League know Sheila from her childhood.
“I was terrified,” she admits, “I felt the pressure of disapproving comparisons raining down on my head already as I walked over from the Manse to the church hall.”
Her knees wobble and her hands sweat as she enters the fray.
“Being heavily pregnant did not enhance my outward image either.”
With “every pair of eyes boring into my soul” she recognises her primary school teacher, the local doctor and about 20 other aged but familiar faces from her childhood. “A strange falsetto voice came out of my throat to an expectant silence.”
A call comes from her first-night audience.
“Oh, wee Sheila! Isn’t it just great to see you back here.”
It’s the mother of a childhood chum who’d help Sheila raid an orchard “and when you were jumping the hedge the apples fell down your school knickers”.
The League roared with laughter.
“Suddenly everything was all right.”
Nothing was all right when her teenage son disappeared for 24 hours in Belfast at the height of the troubles.
The chapter entitled ‘A Nightmare in the Northern Ireland Eighties’ recounts her son going to the city to visit a girlfriend who lived with her granny.
He doesn’t come home.
Sheila phones her son’s friends, alerts the police, and checks several hospitals.
She even rings the city morgue.
There are no positive sightings.
“I am destroyed by the dead end. I flee round to the empty church and fall on my knees screaming at God to bring him home to me.”
The prodigal returns.
“I fly down the driveway and hug him so hard that we both fall to the ground.”
Her son’s story emerges amidst sobs and hugs.
The lad and his girlfriend went for a meal, and then back to her granny’s house.
Granny was out and they were “doing what they shouldn’t” when granny returned unexpectedly.
The girlfriend beat a hasty retreat and Sheila’s son dived under granny’s bed.
“The plan was to escape once granny fell asleep. Only she was a heavy woman and her bed sagged to the floor.”
He was pinned underneath, scared stiff, until granny went out to the shops next morning.
When the cloud lifted Sheila grasped the silver lining.
“After witnessing that nightmare,” she writes “not one of our children dared to dream of being late home again.”
Homecomings feature in various guises.
After a church visit to Japan where she’s nurtured relentlessly on “raw fish” and “bland, sticky rice” she returns to Northern Ireland.
“Ah! Home” and immediately “a big plate of greasy chips with a crispy, cooked and very dead fish.”
Sheila weaves wit and wisdom into her ‘cure’ for an elderly hospital patient’s neurological disorder.
Her short encounter with Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews (who preferred to be known as Elba) is memorable.
The tragically orphaned daughter of Titanic designer Thomas Andrews cycled halfway round the world ‘almost attending’ the Shah of Persia’s birthday party!
Telling Tales tells how and why the author woke up one morning in Paris and discovered “the sheets were purple, the floors were purple and my feet were deep, deep purple, right up to my knees.”
Readers are introduced to the stern, six-foot-three, pencil-slim spinster theologian who carried “a heavy black handbag large enough to hold several naughty children”!
Sheila’s biography of the common dandelion is a botanical beatitude.
You’ll gasp, and laugh, and wonder and smile.
And maybe weep too - particularly at the poem about the woolly sheep on the last page.
It was her baby boy’s favourite teddy bear.
Her grown-up son now lives in Australia.
“His cheerful smile warmed all he met,
His friends adored him here, and yet
He could not bear to listen more,
To sounds of strife
In the land he loved.
The day he left this place I found,
There on my bed,
He’d laid his best-loved sheep.”
And it’s still there - after ‘twelve long years’.
All proceeds from Telling Tales by Sheila J McMillan go to the N.I branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
l The book is in most main bookshops and websites, or at www.ahstockwell.co.uk.