Who Needs Friends?

Sometimes, even though he was my older brother, I hated him.
Yet now, when I look at him, my heart bleeds. He is so pitiful, so alone, so broken.
For as long as I could remember Dave always seemed happy. He was full of life. Even our parents seemed to love him more than they did me. He made them laugh, made them proud, made them content in the knowledge that at least one of their children was bright and had a wonderful future ahead of him. I was the quiet one, below average at school, few friends, awful at sport and often coming home from school with ripped clothes or worse, where I had been bullied on the way. One time I entered the house reeking of piss, where three of the older boys had pinned me down in the outside toilets, while they took turns to soak me through.
In fact, this is probably the most revealing point for me to begin this story, the story of my transition from a sad childhood to a tranquil and contented adult life.
******
I was alone, leaving junior school, on a warm sunny afternoon in June. My head was in the clouds, dreaming of our yearly two week summer holiday in a caravan in Pakefield. As I grew older I would tire of these annual trips to the village where my father was born and grew up, until he was evacuated to the Midlands with my grandparents and their seven children. Dad always wanted to go back to Pakefield each year,showing us where he was born, having a drink in The Jolly Sailors, playing on the boats in Kensington Gardens and fishing nearby on the Norfolk Broads. Every year was the same and I grew to dread it.
However, at the age of just nine, I was still excited about our two week caravan holiday, our only holiday of the year. Minding my own business, just before I passed through the school gate, my satchel was yanked from my shoulder, spilling pencils and crayons all over the floor. I heard laughter and was promptly picked up by two older boys, dragged into the toilets. I started to cry, which only made them laugh all the more. There were three of them. They took turns, two holding me down while the other emptied their bladder all over me. Two of the boys I knew well. One of them was a friend of Dave, and had even been to our house.
I walked into the house, after a short walk home. One look at my mother and I burst out into tears again. As I began to explain what happened I saw Dave grinning behind Mum’s back.
“I don’t see what’s so Funny, Dave. One of them was a friend of yours. Remember Mum? That boy with the ginger hair who came round the other day?” I blurted out, shaking with anger.
“Yes, I do remember. David, I don’t want you having anything more to do with that horrible boy. Do you understand?” she demanded.
Dave just shrugged. “It’s no problem for me, Mum. I have lots of friends and can afford to drop one or two,” he replied, as he wandered of upstairs to his room.
“Well, I will be writing to the school about this. What are their names?”
At this, both Dave and I looked at the floor. We both knew better than to give their names. If we did, we would suffer far worse at the next opportunity.
******
This story was to be quite representative of my whole school life. I was regularly bullied, sometimes even by my own brother. He was two years older than me, much stronger and much cleverer. He sailed through his ‘O’ Levels, obtaining all ten, four of them with grade A.
We attended the same high school. I was always in awe of his popularity. By the time I was fourteen, I had begun to realise that he wasn’t such a nice person. He never looked out for me and I knew that he sometimes stole from Mum’s purse when she wasn’t around. I would often ask myself what it was that made him so popular. He had hundreds of friends, always going out with different girls, always the centre of attention.
I had only one person that I would call a ‘friend’. Her name was Emily. Well, she was more like a sister. I didn’t fancy her or anything, but she lived nearby and was also a bit of a loner, like me. We often walked to or from school together and more recently I had started to accompany her to take Senga, her Golden Retriever, for walks across the park. One day I asked her why the dog is called Senga, a strange name. She said that her mother had named her. Her mother’s name was Agnes, a name that she had always hated. She said that it was the ugliest name in existence, therefore if she spelt it backwards it must be the opposite of ugly. I immediately had the thought that if I ever had a dog, I would call it Evad, but kept that to myself.
We hadn’t had a dog since I was very small. The Jack Russel that we had, bit Dave when he tried to hit it with a stick and Dad got rid of it. He said, “I won’t have any nasty dogs in this house.” The real truth, of course, was that the dog was fine. It was my brother who was nasty, but Mum and Dad could see no wrong in him.
******
When I look back to my childhood, from the perspective of a mature 30 year old adult, I realise that it wasn’t so bad after all. My school time had been fairly lonely, and quite isolated from the main stream of other children, that my brother always seemed to be right in the middle of. Although, at the time, I often felt quite miserable, I now realise that it was mostly an illusion. I had permanently compared my quiet, sometimes boring existence, with my brother’s hectic life. He dashed from one party or football match to another. I was always the one left at home, with myself for company, except when Emily and I met up for a walk.
But the illusion was simply that I wanted to be more like my brother, more liked, more active, more interesting. Now, looking back, I realise that I was more comfortable leading my life than he was, leading his. He had an insatiable thirst for recognition. He could become depressed over the smallest critical comment. I realise now, that he was quite insecure. He needed all of those people. He needed their respect, their approval.
The first great change in our routine of school life came with an enormous row in the house. Dave had decided that he wanted to start earning money to finance his active lifestyle. He had also started to smoke and often came home with the smell of alcohol on his breath. My father, quite understandably, wanted Dave to stay on for his ‘A’ levels and go on to university. He was certainly intelligent enough. Dave wanted none of it. He said he wasn’t going to waste his best years studying to sit at a desk all his life. He wanted to start earning now. I thought that Dad was going to have a heart attack. I had never heard him so loud and angry. But Dave would not be turned. He left school immediately after completing his ‘O’ levels and started working on a building site as a labourer two weeks later.
“I’ll be the building site manager within three years,” he grinned, “just you wait and see.”
It was around this time that my school grades began to improve slightly. To this day, I am not sure if I was simply a late developer or whether my improvement was due to my quiet lifestyle and my one real friend. Emily and I were spending more and more time together, helping each other with homework and our long hours in the park. By now, we sat mostly on a bench and chatted, as poor old Senga was finding the long walks to be too tiring, and was happy to lie under the bench and snooze away the afternoon. Her days of chasing balls were over.
If it was possible, Dave’s life became ever busier. He worked ten hours a day, was out late every night with friends and often didn’t come home until the early hours, if at all. That suited me fine, as it meant I wouldn’t be woke up in the middle of the night.
One evening I called round to see Emily, to go for our usual walk. By this time Mrs. Roach, Emily’s mother, had become so used to my visits that she told me that I didn’t need to knock and wait for the door to be answered. I should just knock and enter, which on this occasion, I did.
“But I want her to be buried in the garden,” I heard Emily screeching loudly.
“Darling, I don’t think that is a good idea, and anyway, your father won’t be home until the weekend from his business trip. We can’t leave her here until then,” replied Mrs Roach.
Emily began to weep, just as I appeared on the scene. She took one look at me and ran upstairs to her room.
When Mrs. Roach turned towards me I said, “oh sorry, shall I come another time?”
“Senga passed away this morning. Emily wants her to be buried in the garden, but oh I don’t know, it just seems wrong and Jack is not here to take care of it for her.
“I could do it for her if she would like,” I said. “I mean, when I was little we buried our first dog in the garden. I would be happy to help Emily if she wanted.”
Mrs. Roach thought for a moment and said, “You know what Jimmy? I think she would like that very much. So would I. Why don’t you go up and talk with her?”
I had never been to Emily’s room. Somehow, we had never had that kind of close or intimate relationship. I felt quite nervous as I knocked gently on the door. She hadn’t expected me and opened the door with a start. “I want her buried in the…. Oh it’s you, Jimmy. What do you want?”
I went in and we sat on her bed. I explained to her that her Mom would happily let me help her to bury Senga in the garden.
“Oh, would you? Really?” she said, jumping up and hugging me hard. Nothing more was said. Nothing more was discussed, but that hug was the moment where I realised that Emily was more to me than a mere friend, and very different to a sister.
We spent the rest of the evening preparing the grave. We picked some wild flowers from the park, dug a deep hole between the two apple trees at the bottom of the garden and when we were ready we called Emily’s Mum to come down and join us for the burial.
Later, when it was done, I sat with Emily on the terrace while Mrs Roach did some house chores. We held hands for the first time and something passed between us, without any words, that would change our friendship forever.
******
“Come on, Jimmy. You can miss one day of revision. The break will do you good.” Dave was trying to convince me to go with him to Barmouth on his motorbike. He had bought a Triumph Bonneville and for some reason wanted to go to Barmouth the following Saturday. I had never been on his bike and felt a bit nervous travelling such a long way with him. In the end I agreed and we set off at 8am on a sunny June morning. My next GCE exam was on Tuesday, so Dave was probably right. A rest day would do me good.
By the time we reached Shrewsbury the weather had closed in. I felt cold and shivery. I wasn’t sure if that was due to the weather or the way Dave was handling the bike. He was a good driver, but took too many risks. Worst of all, he didn’t seem to anticipate potential dangers. He took the view that if he had right of way, the others must stop. Twice on the way to Barmouth he had to swerve dangerously when a car pulled out on us.
We spent a miserable few hours on the sea front. I never did learn why we went there. When I asked what was so special about Barmouth, all I could get from Dave was, “It’s just here.”
We were both happy to head back for home. I wanted to get back in time to see Emily before it was too late to call on her. The rain set in and the wind became very gusty.
The Triumph was a good machine. It handled well in such weather. However, a good bike wasn’t enough. It needed a careful driver in such weather. We dipped slightly to take a wide left-hand bend. I saw the Volkswagen Golf pull out from a side street. I saw it all, long before it happened. We would either have to tighten the bend and overtake the Golf or we would hit it. Dave banked the bike further to tighten the turn. The wheel slid, dropping the bike into a long skid into the side of the car. I watched in fear and braced for the impact, expecting a painful collision. There was no pain. There was no collision. There was only ….darkness.
******
“Do we have to go, Dad?” said Luke, my six year old boy.
“Yes, we do. It’s your uncle David’s birthday and I have never missed one since….., er well, since a long time.” I replied.
Emily helped little Louise to get her coat on and we all piled into the car. These three people are my whole life. After the accident it was a hard three years of rehab. Learning to walk again with the artificial leg was much harder than the doctors had implied. There were times when my frustration would get the better of me and I would curse, only to have my hand held and a soothing voice, gently urging me on, just as she had on that day when I regained consciousness in the hospital. She had been there almost every time I woke and had never left my side since. She had been my rock, my steadying force. Yes, she had been my best and only friend.
When I think back to the first time I was allowed to go and see Dave. He was whole, had lost no limbs as I had, but he was different. I realised immediately that something was wrong. Why hadn’t he come to see me? No-one had told me that he was paralysed from the waist down. As the Triumph hit the floor, my leg had been trapped under it and torn badly at the knee, requiring an amputation from the knee. Dave had not been trapped, but in the collision he had flown free from the bike and landed awkwardly on his back on the tarmac. He hadn’t been able to feel his legs afterwards.
The doctors were optimistic that he would walk again, but it would need further surgery and a lot of time and patience.
Except for our parents he’d had few visitors. Where were all of those great friends? The few that came had not stayed long, but only came to fulfil a duty.
As we pulled up onto his driveway, Dave came to the door. He smiled when he saw us. We gave each other a hug and Emily kissed him affectionately.
“Happy Birthday Uncle David”, shouted Louise and Luke in unison, and handed him two brightly wrapped presents.
We tried not to notice as he awkwardly limped into his small, one bedroomed maisonette.
We ate a lunch that he had prepared and then Emily took the children out to the playground at the end of the road, leaving Dave and I to chat about old times.
“You are walking better these day,” I said trying to put a positive slant on his situation. “You will soon be out and about again, living the high life, like you always used to.”
A wave of sadness drifted across his face.
“You know what Jimmy?” he replied. “For many years I thought that I was the bee’s knees. I had friends galore, girls on tap. I always wondered what was wrong with you. You were mostly alone, except for one little girl who lived a few streets away. She wasn’t even pretty. That’s how shallow I used to think. Then, in the hospital, I was aware that the little girl sat at your bedside every minute she could. She cried only when you were asleep. She perked up whenever you woke, with words of encouragement. I had no-one. Despite all my friends I didn’t have anyone to comfort me, except Mum and Dad. Initially I was angry, envious and yes, jealous. Then, over the weeks and months in that hospital I slowly became happy for you and realised that one true friend can bring more quality into your life than a thousand of the type of friends that I had, who just move on when the chips are down. I will get properly back on my feet. Every day my legs are improving, but I will never return to my old life. I want quality not quantity in my future relationships, the type of quality that I see in yours”
The End

Eavesdropping

I was sitting in the lounge reading about the only current news item of any remote interest. Yes, you have guessed right! Brexit.
Well, I suppose reading is a slight exaggeration. I was dozing and occasionally jerking awake as my arm slid off the chair for the umpteenth time. On each occasion I made a self-conscious glance around to see if anyone noticed, before continuing to read the next instalment of Brexit nonsense, only for my eyes to gradually slide shut again within seconds.
I had been awake for most of the night, worrying about waking on time to go to the airport. It wouldn’t be the first time that I lay awake all night, worrying about attending an early appointment, only to drop off fast asleep an hour before the time I should have woken, with the end result that, yes you guessed it again, I missed my plane, train or dentist appointment.
However, today I was on time, actually too early, trying to kill two hours at the airport before my flight was due to board. I was much too afraid of missing the flight, which would take me to the UK, to my mother’s funeral. Fear of missing her funeral and letting my Dad down again one more time, had kept me fully awake throughout the long night.
Now, as I sat dozing, mostly due to tiredness but also due to the absolute soul destroying boredom of airport departure lounges, I allowed my thoughts to freely wander aimlessly through alleyways and cul de sacs as they wished.
All of a sudden, during one lucid moment, I was aware of two people right behind me. It was one of those seating arrangements where we sat back to back, leaving our heads very close to each other, but without direct visibility. I could hear very clearly every word they said. Their conversation brought me wide awake and I was fully alert for the rest of my waiting time.

******

“I’m so afraid that they will find him though”, whispered a female voice.
It was the sinister reply that captured my attention at first, a throaty male reply that portrayed evil, not only due to the harsh words, but also by its directness, without feeling or compassion.
“No worries, Jane. I buried the old bastard deep, in the last place where anyone would think of finding him. He’ll be pushing up carrots in his old allotment in a few years’ time.”
“Oh Rob! I’m so frightened. If we are caught, we’ll be in prison for……”. She tailed off, without finishing her sentence.
I realised that I was trembling. What could I do? If I went to the police, all I could tell them was a conversation that I overheard. I didn’t know their names and hadn’t even seen their faces. I was concentrating hard, trying to judge their age, accent, anything that I could pass on to the police, when the man reached over to put his arm around his partner, to reassure and console her. In doing so, his elbow caught me slightly in the back and I reactively turned around. So did he. We looked straight into each other’s eyes. He was unshaven, about thirty. His hair was as short as his three day stubble. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. I stared, trying to act naturally but also trying to take a photograph with my mind. I needed to capture him perfectly, the close set eyes, the small wart on the left of his neck, the damaged ear. This guy had seen a few fights in his time.
“Sorry Pal,” he said.
“No problem”, I replied.
The couple then got up and slowly walked away. I never saw her face. All I saw was her shapely calves running down into a pair of maroon stiletto heels, her pink cotton dress and her long blonde hair. He was in denims and creased red t-shirt. As they walked away I sat watching, my mind racing. What should I do? Should I go to the police? I was in turmoil, wavering between forgetting about the whole thing, and running immediately to the police with my story.
I decided for the former. It was none of my business.

******

The rest of the time, waiting until boarding began, was spent thinking about my Dad. How would he manage without Mum? They had been together over 50 years. A pang of guilt ran through me as I realised that I had little grief for my mother. She had been frail for years and her final months had been raked with pain, as the cancer slowly did its job. No, my grief was for Dad. He was the one who must carry on alone. At least I wouldn’t miss my plane and add one more disappointment to a lifelong string of let-downs, where I hadn’t lived up to his expectations. I would stay in the UK for as long as he needed me, or at least until I was sure that he could cope. Maybe I could persuade him to return to New Zealand with me, but my hopes were barren of any reality. He had never been able to accept Roger, let alone come to live with us. My sexuality was as alien to him as his lack of understanding was to me.
I concluded my thoughts as the announcement for club class boarding came. I would avoid any of those difficult conversations. I was there just to support Dad, and to say farewell to my dear old mother.

******

Having been upgraded to Club class while checking in, at least it meant that my long flight would be more comfortable. I was soon in my seat, sipping a glass of champagne, waiting for the horde of economy class to settle into their seats.
All of a sudden a familiar voice quietly spoke to me from the next seat. I was in the aisle seat and had not been aware of anyone cutting across me to take their seat. As I turned my head to look at her, I knew that I must have fallen asleep. I must have been dreaming.
“It’s alright Tom. Don’t be frightened.”
She held my hand. It was warm and real. I stared at her face and gave a quiet sob as I realised that the frail old lady sitting next to me was my mother. I didn’t want to wake. I wanted to savour every second of the reunion. I didn’t want to let her go.
“But…but…it’s you. It can’t be. I mean….your …. “
“It’s me, Tom. It is the real me. Now you must listen to me. I don’t have very long.” My mother smiled reassuringly. I was so full of trust and love that I didn’t question it at all. She was here, next to me and that was all I cared.
She spoke quickly. “I met someone. His name is Gary Featherhead. It was his son and daughter-in-law that you sat listening to in the departure lounge. He died yesterday in his home, a few days after I gave up the fight. We met as we were in the same batch.”
“Batch?” I queried.
“Yes, deaths apparently come in batches. Gary and I were allocated to the same batch.”
I listened, riveted, as my mother told me the story of her passing and how she met a dear old man, saddened by the treachery of his son, a violent and aggressive brute. She explained how Gary had been murdered and his physical remains buried very deep in his own allotment, the same day. She told me that Gary had another, illegitimate son, a son conceived with the only person he had ever truly loved. His legal son, Robert, had found out about Gary’s other son and feared losing his inheritance, as he and his father hated each other. Robert suspected that his father may be planning to leave some of his money to the “bastard” son and had killed him, before he could make a will. I had been listening to Gary’s murderer, while waiting for my flight to board.

“But what can I do?” I asked.
“You must tell the police. Gary said that he has written a will. It is hidden under the floorboards in his bedroom. You must get off this plane and go to the police. Gary’s body is buried in his allotment, near the shed. His name is Gary Featherhead and he lived in Hamilton, Queen’s Close number 13. Have you got that?”
Now I wanted to wake up. This dream was no longer pleasant.
“I can’t get off the plane, Mum. I’ll miss your funeral.”
“Tom. Listen to me. Don’t worry about not being at my funeral. My funeral is not for me in any case. It’s for the others, so that they can feel better, feel that they paid their respects. I know that you loved me. You don’t need to be there. This is more important. You must help Gary get justice. He deserves that.”
An old man touched me on the shoulder, signalling with his finger that he needed to get by into the seat occupied by my mother. I was confused. How could I let him by, knowing that my mother was there? He was already easing past me and I sat flabbergasted as he sat down right on top of her. As he did so, her form faded until the last whisper of recognition showed her blowing a kiss to me, before she disappeared completely.
“Are you alright?” the old man asked, looking at me rather strangely.
“Er, yes thank you. Maybe I’ve had too many of these,” I said, looking at my wine glass.
She was gone.
I was sweating. Who would believe such a crazy story? If I did go to the police, how could I explain knowing the name and address of the murdered man? I imagined the ridicule when I said that I had been informed by my dead mother.
Boarding was almost complete. It was now or never. I thought about Dad and letting him down again. I thought about Mum. Was it just a dream? Mum, Dad, Mum, Dad. My mind was spinning. All of a sudden I rushed to my feet, grabbed my cabin bag and ran to the front of the plane, insisting that it was a life or death emergency and I must leave the plane to talk to the police.
The cabin crew were not happy. They even half-heartedly threatened me with legal action, to which I simply smiled. They could see that I wasn’t going back to my seat.
A security car was sent to the plane and five minutes later I stood watching a Boeing 747 taxiing down to the runway.
Sorry Dad.

******

“That is one hell of a tale,” said a burly police sergeant Dunk Richards.
I had told them everything about the murder except the meeting with my mother. I had left out the detailed address and said that I overheard the name Gary Featherhead and the town of Hamilton. I assumed that would be enough for them to trace him.
Sergeant Richards asked me if I could wait while they contacted the Hamilton police and checked out my story. Within the hour Mr. Featherhead’s home was cordoned off, as was his allotment. They had found evidence of a struggle immediately upon entering the premises.
There was a very strange piece of evidence. Today’s newspaper was open on the kitchen table in Mr Featherhead’s home, along with a half drunken cup of coffee, on which his fingerprints were found. The murderer, Robert Featherhead, had organised an accomplice to go to the house, leave the newspaper and coffee, which would give the impression that Gary Featherhead could not have been killed prior to today, if his body turned up sometime in the future. That provided Robert and Jane with an alibi, as they were already on the plane to the UK.
But their plan had failed completely, thanks to my Mum. Gary’s body was recovered immediately, time of death established at least two days ago. The testament was recovered and Robert and Jane would be going to prison for a very long time. Somewhere out there is a young man, the illegitimate son of Gary Featherhead, who would be very happy with his inheritance and the knowledge that his father had thought of him at the end.
I finished the day with mixed feelings of having brought some justice to the world, having let my father down once again, and having seen my mother for one last time. Was it real or was it only a dream?
When I left the airport, heading towards the bus terminal, I was thinking what I could tell my father. How could I explain? I decided that he has such a low opinion of me in any case, that I will just let him know that I missed my plane. I couldn’t afford another plane fare, even if there had been another plane to London in time to get to the funeral.
I could hear my father now, “Useless as always. You couldn’t even get to your own mother’s funeral.”
I couldn’t work up enough enthusiasm to call him that evening. Tomorrow morning would be soon enough. I went home, told Roger the whole story over a bottle of wine, and by late evening we were fast asleep in each other’s arms.

******

I woke in a blur. I had been dreaming about my mother. The telephone was ringing.
Slowly, I crawled out of bed, whispering to Roger that I would get the phone.
“Is that Tom?, said a familiar voice, “Sergeant Dunk Richards here.”
“Er, yes, Tom speaking. What’s up?”
“Listen, you ain’t gonna believe this. Our Prime Minister is flying to London in about three hours. A car is already on the way to you. It’ll be there in ten minutes. The PM has agreed, no, has requested that you be on that plane too. He said it’s the least we can do. According to my reckoning we can get you to your mother’s funeral on time.”

******

At 10am as people were gathering at my father’s house, ready for the funeral procession, which would take my mother down to St. Paul’s church, where she would be laid to rest, another black Jaguar limousine pulled up outside. Everyone looked as the chauffer stepped out, walked around to my side, and opened the door in full formal style. I stepped out to dozens of staring faces, but none looking more surprised than my father.
He hugged me warmly, this broken man, who had been cut in half by the loss of my mother. We stood, looking into each other’s eyes for a long moment, before he said, “I was hoping that you may have brought Roger with you.”

The end

Nightlife

Finally a few hours of freedom. Freedom to roam the streets at will, sneak down dark alleyways, watch the drug dealers, the pimps, and ogle the half-clad girls of the night.
Freedom to go where I want, do what I want and be who I want. This is my time.

I go out every night. One great advantage of being me is that I never sleep, never become tired. I am not like the rest of you, crawling into your beds at night, becoming virtually unconscious during the best time of the day, the time when all the excitement happens.

Just read and see what a typical night for me entails and be envious.

******
It is Saturday night, just before midnight. I have been freed from my tedious daily chores, going hither and thither, following Jason around like a little sheepdog. He doesn’t care about me one iota, barely even notices that I exist. Once he is in bed asleep, I am done for the day. I sneak out unseen in the darkness, anticipating the Saturday on the town.
I slide along unseen by passers-by, unnoticed by all, except the moths. The moths become unruly, nervous and flutter around me as I creep along.
I hear music, loud thumping beats that make me shudder with excitement. I make my way towards them. I cross the street. A car flies by, going right through me, without noticing. I feel the speed, the buzz of the night. Wow! I am moving to the roar of the 70s disco music and see the bright flashing lights. Still, no one notices me amid the red, blue, yellow and green flickers. I see the dancers moving in the strobe lighting, appearing like pictures in an old silent movie.
This is living. This is why I am here. I’m laughing, dancing with the others. I dance between the couples, duck between their legs, join the Funky Chicken moves, The Bus Stop, The Resurrection Shuffle and my favourite YMCA.
I dance the night long, never tiring, never hungry, never sweating. The time flies so fast.
I look outside and see that a faint hint of dawn is showing on the horizon. I must hurry back. Jason will be needing me.
Have I left it too late? I race through the streets, dodging lampposts, avoiding lit doorways. It is becoming lighter. The sun will be up soon. People are beginning to turn their heads as I whoosh by, not sure if they have seen me or not. I sense their nervousness. Have they just seen a ghost? Did they simply have one too many this night? No matter, I hurry home to Jason.
I race up the staircase. I can hear his stirring. Oh no, he is awake. I nip into his room, carefully avoiding the bedside lamp, which is already on. Ah! I am safe. He is not yet properly awake.
I crouch quietly next to him, ready to spring back into life the moment he climbs out of his bed.
I know that he needs me, even though he never shows it. I will be with him until tonight, when I go out on my next adventure. “Where shall I go tonight”? , I wonder.
You see, I am Jason’s shadow.

A Teacher’s Nightmare

John Grosvenor felt sick, ready to throw up at any second. Despite the desperation he was feeling, he was momentarily distracted by the thought of the headmaster and his desk being covered in a spray of fine, half-digested rice crispies, which brought a sickly grin to his sweating red countenance.
“I’m so sorry John,” he said. “We should be able to get this thing cleared up rather quickly. I can assure you that you have my full support.”
“You can’t suspend me Trevor. I am totally innocent. I never touched her. Emma Graham is simply trying to take revenge for the poor results that she has been given. For Christ’s sake man, suspending me will make the whole thing public. I will be eaten alive out there. You know how the papers love something like this.” He was almost raging. His actions were not helping at all to convince Trevor of his innocence.
Trevor McDonald thought quietly for a few minutes, watching him closely. He was wondering if he really was the paedophile that he had been accused of, or not. This is how it would be from now on. If in doubt “hang the bastard”. He had heard it often enough from other similar cases.
Trevor eventually spoke. “I believe you, John. I always assume innocence until proven guilty in such cases, but protocol is protocol. I have to suspend you until this is cleared up, one way or the other.”
“You see,” John blurted out. “One way or the other.” That’s already half an accusation. I don’t have a bloody hope in hell.”
“One thing I can promise you, John, is that we will try to keep the lid on this as much as possible, until the facts are all assessed.”
The naivety of Trevor almost made John burst out with hysterical laughter. He has no idea. The whole school will have known even before he entered this office.
He stood up, took a few deep breaths, tried to calm himself and left his office. The effort to keep his head up, walk to his car, which seemed like an eternity, was as much as he could take. He sat in the front driver’s seat, head spinning with thoughts about how he was to face his family and friends. Surely they would believe him. Deep down, he knew that many wouldn’t.
******
An hour earlier Trevor McDonald’s office had been full. Mr and Mrs Graham, Emma, Elaine Daws from the Social Services and PC Manda Jones.
Elaine began by asking Emma to take her time, and explain exactly what had happened between her and Mr. John Grosvenor, in the storeroom during the morning break.
Emma spent the next five minutes explaining how she had been asked if she would help sort some of the English text books into order, during the PE lesson, as she couldn’t take part, due to a sprained wrist. She said that she was keen to help and it would occupy her, instead of just sitting outside, watching the netball practice. She described how her English teacher, Mr Grosvenor, came to check on her, just as the morning break was beginning.
Mr. Grosvenor offered to help her finish the job quickly, so that she would still have some of her break time left, if she was willing. Emma said that she agreed.
Then Emma described in a very believable way how her teacher had told her that she had lovely breasts and that she must be very proud of her figure. Before she could respond he reached out and took them in the palms of his hands and began caressing them. Emma told how shocked she had been and it had taken a few seconds before she could react at all, by which time John Grosvenor was beginning to lift her blouse. She said that she ran from the storeroom and came straight to the headmaster’s office, where she told Janice Fairhead, his secretary, what had happened.
She hadn’t left the office since.
The small group of adults all looked at each other. Mrs Graham was trembling with anger.
“What are you going to do about this? “ She asked no one in particular, scanning the faces from social services to the police and finally to Trevor.
“Well first of all we need to hear Mr Grosvenor’s side of the story. We will arrange this for tomorrow morning. It can’t be done today, as our specialist for handling these cases is away until tomorrow,” explained Elaine.
“But surely you are not going to let this pervert continue teaching vulnerable children until then?” screamed Mrs Graham
“No, of course not, “countered Trevor, “he will be sent home on paid leave until this can be sorted out.”
Mr Graham had not said a word, or shown the emotional anger that his wife had demonstrated. In fact, he had been inert throughout the whole meeting. He just sat quietly, listening to his daughter explain how she had been molested by her teacher, a man of roughly his age, without a murmur. He looked almost nervous, rather than angry.
This type of situation was rare in the school, but there had been the odd case of misconduct or sexual harassment, mainly between pupils, over the years, but they all had one thing in common, an extremely irate father. It unsettled Trevor McDonald somewhat, that Mr Graham hadn’t displayed any such feelings.
******
The Graham family pulled up on their driveway. Emma had sat sulkily in the back of the car, without saying a word, for the whole journey. In fact, nobody had spoken. Each were in their private thoughts, working out what to do for the best.
“Richard, I need to nip to the supermarket to buy a few things for our dinner, “said Diane Graham. “It’s best that you two stay at home. I won’t be long.”
They went into the house, waving goodbye to Mrs Graham and Emma went immediately to her room. A few minutes later, Richard tapped on her bedroom door and entered. Emma was sitting at her desk, still sulking and looking extremely forlorn.
“Emma, why don’t you tell me what really happened in that store room.”
“What do you mean?” she responded. “I told you everything. “He did exactly what you always….”
She stopped and dropped her head towards the floor.
“I’m not angry with you, Emma. I just want you to show me what happened.”
Emma began trembling. She knew what was coming. She had experienced it a thousand times, and worse.
She undid her blouse, removed her bra and looked directly into her father’s eyes. “This is what he was trying to do”, she stammered.
Richard took both of her breasts in his hands and began to caress them softly. “Just like this,” he whispered.
******
Mrs Graham arrived at the supermarket, reached into her bag to take a coin for the shopping trolley and realised instantly that she didn’t have her purse with her. In her rush to go to the school, she had left it on the table. With a curse, she got back into the car and drove home.
On entering the house, she was aware of an unusual quietness. She looked downstairs, found her purse and then went to the lounge, expecting to find her husband or Emma there. It may be a mother’s instinct or some other form of sixth sense, but she instinctively began to walk quietly. She climbed the stairs and could hear the murmur of Richard’s voice coming from Emma’s room. She pushed the door open and shrieked loudly at the sight of her daughter. She was wearing nothing on her upper half and Richard was sitting opposite her with one hand on her breast and the other between her legs. Emma was trembling heavily and tears were drying on her red cheeks.
Mrs Graham went berserk. She picked up a ruler from Emma’s desk and began hitting Richard repeatedly on the head, screaming obscenities, damning him to hell.
“I was just….just, “he tried to say, but there was nothing to say. He ran out of the house.
Diane Graham wrapped Emma in a blanket and took her down in front of the fire. She knew well enough that now was not the time to ask questions, Emma needed time to collect herself and her Mum had time to wait. She sat quietly with her daughter, waiting for her to speak, after first making a phone call to the local police station.
During the rest of the evening Emma explained to her mother that this had been going on for many months. He father had always told her that she was so beautiful and her mother would be very jealous if he knew how much he loved Emma. “If you tell her what we do, you will break her heart”, he told her. Emma explained how it all started with her father telling her what lovely breasts she had, and how he liked to caress them. It went on from there.
“What is wrong with these damned filthy men?” Diane protested, “Are they all the same. First your teacher and now even your own father.”
Emma winced at this last remark. She looked up pleadingly into her mother’s eyes.
Diane Graham could see the truth in her daughter’s face. “He didn’t do it, did he? Your teacher didn’t touch you at all, did he?”
Emma broke into tears. “I was just so angry with him. It just came out and the lie grew from there. I feel so ashamed. I’m all mixed up now.”
Diane hugged her daughter as tightly to her as she could. “You have nothing to be ashamed of,” she reassured her.
******
John Grosvenor entered his home shortly before 6pm. He had been wandering about most of the afternoon, weighing up his options. His overriding thoughts were that this was not the first time that he had been accused of a sexual crime. Back in his university days, after a one night stand with another student, he had been accused of rape. The accusation was made and although it was subsequently withdrawn after some investigation, it lingered over him like a dark cloud, ready to burst into a storm at some future point. That point was today.
In reality, he and a fellow student had been out drinking, far too much and had ended up sleeping together. It was six of one and half a dozen of the other. John’s wife, however, knew of it.
Eventually he had plucked up the courage to come home and try to convince them of his innocence. He had considered his position carefully. If this accusation found its way into a court, he was done for. If he was found guilty, his career and family life was over. If he was found innocent, he still had the belief that his career and family life was over. Who would believe in him afterwards? How vulnerable would he be to such future lying accusations? He had come to the conclusion that there were only two possibilities to clear his name completely. The first was for the accuser to come to her senses and apologise for lying. This seemed extremely unlikely for his position. The second was for him to take his own life, leaving a declaration of his total innocence. As his dying testament, it was more likely to convince the people who mattered to him, that he was falsely accused.
But what a price? Could he take his own life? These were the questions that had occupied most of his afternoon. He had decided that it would be the only way.
He made a plan. He must attend an interview tomorrow at the police station, where he will be questioned and asked to give his version of the story. Based on this, the police will probably decide whether or not to formally charge him. He decided that he will attend the interview and if it goes badly he would take the final measure. He wrote a short letter to his wife as follows –
My dearest Susan, if you are reading this letter I am no more. I have been falsely accused of physically abusing a fifteen year old girl at the school. I promise you that I have been faithful to you and Gemma, our wonderful daughter, ever since we have been together. It is for the love of you both, that I must say goodbye, in the hope that you can see this as a declaration of my total innocence and believe in me for always. I cannot stand the thought of seeing doubts or distrust in your eyes and forever wondering if I was really guilty or not. I love you so much. Your John.
As he entered the kitchen, where Gemma and Susan were already sitting around the table, he took one look at them and knew that his decision had been correct.
******
The following morning John looked awful. He hadn’t slept all night, neither had Susan. Although awake next to each other, they had hardly spoken a word. Neither knew what to say except “It’ll be alright” or “I am innocent”. So they both quietly lay, going through their ‘what ifs’ until the alarm announced the start of a new day, maybe John’s last.
He entered the police station at five minutes before 9am. To his surprise, Trevor was there. He had expected social services and police only. Trevor greeted him calmly and said that the police had suggested that he attend, as it is only an information gathering interview at this stage and he would have more information regarding the situation at the school.
John was surprised to feel pleased to have him there. He needed some support from wherever it came.
They entered the meeting room together. The others were already in place. John assumed that they had been there for some time, preparing their line of questioning.
After initial introductions, PC Amanda Jones asked John to explain what, if anything, had happened between him and Emma, yesterday in the storeroom.
“Well, where to start?” he said. “Emma has recently been performing well below her usual standard over recent months. This is not unusual with girls of that age, and I had tried to discuss the situation with her, to no avail. She had become quite withdrawn too. Therefore I had no choice but to grade her results well below average for the recent exams. I know that she took that hard. Yesterday I felt quite sorry for her. She had sprained her wrist and couldn’t join the netball practice, so I asked if she could help me in the storeroom, sorting some books. She offered to remain during the morning break, in order to finish the job, during which I stayed to help her. That’s it. I have nothing else to add.”
“Are you saying that you, at no time, touched her or made sexual remarks, in any way?”
“That is correct.”
“Mr McDonald, do you have anything to say or add in regard to Emma or Mr Grosvenor’s actions recently?” asked Ms Jones.
“I can only say that I have known Emma for a number of years. In fact I have known her mother and father for much longer. We were students together at university. As far as I know the whole family has always handled themselves correctly, no…impeccably. I can’t imagine that Emma would invent such a story. It is just not like her.” He looked directly at his colleague and said,” Sorry John, but it is the case.”
The sick feeling started to return. They had all decided that he was guilty. He could already see the headlines, the shame, the disgust. He put his hand to his breast pocket and could feel the letter by his beating heart. The final action was coming quickly now. Suddenly he relaxed at the thought of knowing that he had an escape that none of them knew about. He would control his destiny, not this group of misguided do gooders. He was just about to blurt out how much he hated the lot of them and their conniving, accusing tone. How he was innocent but didn’t give a shit any longer, as they had already decided what the outcome was going to be.
At that moment, a knock came at the door.
“Please excuse me a moment, “said PC Jones.
Two minutes later she returned, with a half-smile, half frown on her face.
“Mr Grosvenor, I have someone here to see you.”
Mrs Graham and Emma nervously walked into the room.
“Emma has something to say,” said Mrs Graham.
“Sir, I never meant to…I mean I was just angry. I am so sorry.”
Then she turned to the other people in the room and said loud and clear, “Mr Grosvenor never touched me. I made it all up because I was angry with him. Mr Grosvenor has always been a caring and helpful teacher, and I only hope he can forgive me one day.”
John Grosvenor stood, tears in his eyes, and Emma ran into his arms and gave him a cuddle. He sensed that there was more to this although had no idea what. “You are already forgiven,” he replied.
******
John went home feeling completely wrecked. Within the last 24 hours he has been through the wringer.
He pondered over the people who had let him down. The working relationship, let alone the social relationship, with Trevor McDonald would never be the same again. The man was not his friend, as he had thought.
His wife, well who is to say how that will go. She had doubted him at a crucial time. Would things ever be quite the same again.
After he heard of the arrest of Emma’s father, and the subsequent charges, the only person who he had a better relationship with, ironically, was Emma.

Coming and Going

They told me to just pop the stick in midstream, so I did. They instructed me to lay it flatly in the stream, so I did. They told me to wait a couple of minutes, so I did.
I could have waited for my period, due in two or three days, but just as with Robert last week on our first date, I couldn’t wait. I had to know. Robert was a nice enough bloke, friendly, thoughtful, gentle, but also lacking in excitement. I really don’t know why I agreed to go to his place for a nightcap, but once there and with the cognac working inside of me, I couldn’t resist the temptation to find out what other assets Robert might have.
We made love well into the night. He really was friendly, thoughtful, gentle, but at the end of it all, still lacking in excitement. I left the following morning, leaving a very hopeful Robert Dunwoody with a peck on the forehead, knowing that I would probably never see him again. He was not the man of my ever more frequent dreams, and I left chastising myself for the lack of prudence. We hadn’t used any form of protection. How could I have been so irresponsible?
While pondering this for the umpteenth time since last week, I was suddenly brought back to the here and now by the realisation that I was staring at a plus sign. A positive. A little ‘add’ symbol. It was telling me that I would be ‘adding’ to the population. Why the hell do they call it positive? It wasn’t positive. Positive, for me, would be a big fat negative. A minus.
I wanted a bloody electron, not a sodding proton.
*****
My first reaction was to terminate. I wanted to get rid of Plus quickly and quietly. That was until I had lunch with Rose.
We met two days after Plus came into my life. She had called me in tears. No explanation, but she needed to talk with her closest friend. I was looking forward to telling her about Plus, and asking if she would help me with the arrangements for erasing him.
We met in a quiet corner of the Nag’s Head. I was there first, sipping my favourite Campari and ice, when Rose entered, spotted me straightaway and headed directly to the table. Her eyes were puffed, swollen from her tears, which still looked as they were about to burst into full flow at any moment.
“Whatever’s the matter, Rose?”
I could hardly understand the response as it came intermittently through sobs and tissues. The gist of it was that she had been trying with Rod for millennia, to become pregnant. Finally it had happened only a month ago. She had miscarried yesterday morning.
“I just sat on the loo and it happened. No pain, just a lot of blood.”
Apparently she had gone to the hospital but after a few routine checks she was discharged with some medication to help “clear the rest”.
All I could think of was Plus. How could I break Plus to her? She needed me right now. As these thoughts raced through my mind, I was suddenly overcome with guilt. I was thinking only of myself, when my dearest friend needed me more than ever. This sudden realisation caused a surge of emotion in me and the tears began to flow. There we sat, two young women, one dying to become pregnant but losing it, the other hating the thought of becoming a mother with Plus rapidly dividing and multiplying his cells deep inside. Obviously I didn’t say a word. How could I?
*****
Over the following weeks two things happened, or should I say, they didn’t happen.
Firstly, I didn’t tell a soul. I couldn’t. Dad was not well, with his dicky heart. Since his second heart attack it was repeated daily that we must not let him become stressed. He must rest. Of course I couldn’t bring Plus into his life.
Secondly, I didn’t have the termination. Not being able to tell anyone except Rose, who I couldn’t put through the discussion of a termination right now, I didn’t do anything. Each day, I intended to call the clinic, make an appointment and de-Plus myself as soon as possible. But I didn’t. Something in me, that I can’t explain, held me back. I had no strong religious beliefs, no views against abortion, and certainly no ‘mother’ needs. So why did I keep referring to Plus as ‘he’? Every time I thought about Plus, I imagined a baby, a real person. A boy!
The weeks passed. Plus grew. I began puking.
Mum knew almost immediately. She heard me in the bathroom. She knocked the door. I opened it. She nodded and threw her arms around me, heaving a big long sigh. “My Kate, what are we going to do with you?” she whispered. “How far gone are you?”
“Just over three months,” I replied.
“And the father?”
I looked up until our eyes met. They said it all.
*****
Rose called again. “Can you meet me in the Nag’s for lunch?”
I was dreading another crying session. By now, at four month’s Rose would notice. What would I tell her? At least it wouldn’t be to ask her to help me get rid of Plus. Why they hell can’t I stop calling him Plus?
“Kate! Kate!” She came rushing up to me as soon as I entered the door of the lounge. “Guess what? Go on, I bet you can’t.”
One look at her smile and I relaxed. “You are pregnant.”
“How did you know? Well never mind. Yes, isn’t it wonderful? I am so happy.” She blurted it all out in one long stream of thoughts.
Now it was my turn. “Guess what”, I asked after we had ordered our drinks.
Rose looked at my face, then down at my dress and smiled until it widened into full blown laughter. “Oh my God, Kate,” she screamed, “you too?”
“Yep, as pregnant as it gets. Me and Plus have been together now for four months.”
The Plus part went over Kate’s head but the four months didn’t. “Four months? But that means you must have been pregnant when we…”
“Yes, that’s right”
“But why didn’t you tell me? I am your best friend.”
“How could I, Rose? You had just miscarried. It would have been heartless of me, especially as I intended to …” I stopped and dropped my eyes.
“Oh, Kate. You were going to have a termination. Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t really know. Time moved on. You were upset, so I felt alone. Dad is ill. And anyway, me and Plus are becoming quite used to each other,” I said, patting my small bump.
“Plus?”
“Never mind.”
*****
The weeks passed. Dad had to be told, which was a bit of a nightmare. At first he went through the roof. Then came the hurtful recriminations and finally the acceptance, after a couple of stiff drinks.
I stopped working at seven months. All discussions had been had a thousand times. Mum and Dad wanted me to stay with them and bring the baby home. They would help me, while I continued to work. I wanted to move out and not subject them to the hardships of a new-born baby, especially in Dad’s condition. He was only up for a few hours per day, and even then he spent it mostly dozing in the chair. He looked worn out.
I met Rose every week for lunch and we compared notes. She was over the first few months and according to the doctor, everything was looking fine. We talked more and more of our lives after the birth. How we would spend more time together and our children would be like siblings to each other. On the odd occasions when Rod was free for lunch, he joined us. It was transparent from his manner that he was not so happy with the situation, and who could blame him? We liked each other well enough, but I could see that when his baby came along he wanted to spend far more time at home with his family, and not have to share Rose with me.
The following weeks flew by. Plus was now making me waddle. I desperately wanted to meet him in person and it wasn’t to be very long before my wishes were met.
*****
I woke up during the night in need of a drink. I tiptoed down the stairs to the kitchen and opened the door of the fridge. As I bent down and lifted a 2 litre bottle of mineral water it happened. My waters broke all over the kitchen floor.
“Oh no,” I yelped.
Mum appeared at the doorway, just as she always had when I was young. She had a sixth sense when I had a nightmare or felt ill. She would always hear me and come to my bedside.
“I’ll drive you to the hospital,” she said, “but first I must tell your Dad so that he knows where we have gone.” She touched my cheek with the palm of her hand and said very lovingly, “don’t worry my dear. Everything will be fine.”
Two minutes later I heard the thumping steps of my father coming down the stairs.
“There’s no need to get up, Dad. Mum will take me to the hospital. You can go back to bed.”
“I will Kate. I just wanted to give you a hug before you leave and tell you that we are always here for you.”
He came to me with widespread arms and gave me the sweetest hug. After some seconds, I said that we must hurry. “Dad, you need to let go,” I whispered. “I love you too.”
Dad didn’t move. He gripped me as though he was in a trance. I tugged myself free and looked into his eyes. He wasn’t there. I am not sure if I screamed or just whimpered but Mum came running across the room. She took one look at him and gently lay him on the floor.
“Stay there, Kate. We need an ambulance.”
I sat with Dad’s head in my lap, resting against my bump. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. One moment he opened his eyes and looked at my tummy. He moved his hand gently onto my baby and at that moment he gave a big kick. Dad felt it and smiled as a small tear oozed out of his eye. He knew.
*****
When the ambulance arrived I was still sitting on the floor. My nightie was soaked and the pain of regular contractions was immense. “Just bloody wait there, Plus, and don’t be so damned impatient,” I screamed.
The paramedic gave me a strange look, took one look at Dad and went to work. Mum was bouncing between me and him, not knowing really what to do.
The paramedic said, “My name is Bob. Don’t worry. Mr. Richardson is now in good hands, but we need to get him to the hospital quickly. He is having a heart attack. Will you be alright on your own here? “, he asked looking at me and then at Mum.
Mum explained that my water had broken half an hour ago and that she was shaking so much, she wasn’t sure that she could drive me to the hospital.
So, I travelled in the ambulance with Dad, Bob and Mum in the front seat.
Despite the grave situation and regular painful contractions, I couldn’t help thinking how attractive Bob was. He was clearly very concerned about Dad’s condition, but still found time, every few minutes, to squeeze my hand and check that I was ok. I noticed that he had no wedding ring on.
Whether Bob read my thoughts or not, he smiled at me and gave me a knowing wink. I smiled back.
As soon as we arrived at the hospital things moved fast. Mum went with Dad and they were wheeled away in a hurry. I was checked in and taken to the maternity block. Before I knew it, as it all happened so quickly, I was lying in a four person ward holding my new baby boy. It was eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.
I asked the nurse if she would check what the situation with my father was. She went to find out. Some minutes later Mum came into the ward. She took one look at Plus and burst into tears. “He is so beautiful,” she murmured. The she looked at me and I could see it all.
“It’s Dad. He’s he’s .” I couldn’t say it.
Mum nodded, “yes Kate, your Dad passed two hours ago.”
The next two days dissappeared in a dream. I was switching between so many conflicting emotions. It was a mixture of immense sadness and immense happiness at the same time. My father had died as my baby was being born. It was as if I was being given a message of some kind. I promised myself that I would be as good a mother as Dad was a father. This would be the right way to honour such a wonderful man.
Later that day, two faces popped their heads around the door. Rose was like a schoolgirl, full with excitement. “Oh, sorry I couldn’t come before. We were away at Rod’s parents. How tedious. Anyway I am here now and look at who I have brought in with me.”
I instantly burst out laughing. It was so transparent that Rose assumed that the man she came in with was the father of my baby. She didn’t even doubt that the handsome guy with a bunch of red roses, asking at the reception desk for Kate Richardson, was not only the father but my secret lover.
Bob looked nervous and confused. “Should I leave,” he stuttered. “I just wanted to see how you were after seeing you the other night. I..I…am very sorry to hear about your father. There was nothing that could be done. Plus is a very beautiful baby.”
“Plus?” queried Rose.
“Never mind,” I replied.
My laughter disappeared. Rose hadn’t yet heard. I asked them to sit down on my bed, one each side, and slowly explained everything.
Bob looked uncomfortable and said that he must go, but before he left he asked me if he could call on me at home. I said that I would be very happy for him to call. We gave each other that same knowing smile that we exchanged in the ambulance. Rose spotted it too and giggled.
As soon as Bob was gone, Rose couldn’t contain herself. There were so many mixed feelings that we didn’t know where to start. Dad had passed, but we had known deep down that he would not be long in the world, due to his bad heart. I looked at Plus and couldn’t find it in myself to be terribly upset at the same time.
*****
As the coffin was lowered into the grave it was one of those typical grey November days. I held Luke closely to me. I don’t know why, but it felt the right thing to do to bring my new baby to the graveside so that Dad could have one last look at his first grandson. Bob squeezed my hand and I looked up at his strong serious face. I had known him only ten days, but already I knew that if he would have me, I would be his forever. I looked at Mum, standing on the other side of me. She smiled and nodded approvingly. I think that I never loved her more than at that moment.

I Know Who You Are CWG Entry December 2017

It was one of those dark foggy evenings, just above the temperature necessary to turn the shallow puddles to ice, but cold enough to send a shiver down the spine and force the pale white hands deep into warm, cosy trouser pockets.
It was the 23rd of December. I had taken a bus to the end of the lane and was walking along the unlit verge between the lane and the drainage ditches, that followed wintry hawthorn hedges as far as the eyes could see, which wasn’t very far at all, due to the dense fog. I pulled my woolly hat down around my ears, covering my face from the biting cold as much as possible.
I will never fail to be irritated by those oncoming drivers, who obviously have seen me in their headlights, allowing little space as they whoosh past, still maintaining their lights on full beam, and blinding me momentarily.
I was tired, cold and in dire need of our log fire and a nice cup of tea. I had been doing the last of the Christmas shopping and was loaded with a heavy rucksack which contained some meat from my favourite butcher and two bottles of Artadi, Viña El Pisón, Rioja 2012, and a bottle of Tomatin 18 year, sherry cask, single malt whisky, along with a few last minute presents. I had ordered the wine especially for this occasion.
Forcing my hands deeper into my pockets, but enjoying the satisfying decision to take the rucksack with me, thereby allowing my hands to be free, I cursed the next set of full headlights as they approached.
It all happened so fast. One second the lights were ahead of me. I was squinting to avoid losing my night vision as much as possible. I was vaguely aware of the lights slowing down and stopping just ahead. The next second I was on the floor. I felt the tug of the straps as someone was trying to pull my rucksack away, as if in a dream, which I later learned was caused by being dazed after a sharp blow to my head. Then as my guts gave the most violent wretch, I just opened my eyes in time to see the flicker of a toe cap. That was the last I saw.
But, not realising at that moment, I had seen more than a steel toe cap of a boot. I had seen the face of its owner.
*****
The cold tore into me like a ravenous animal, gnawing first at the extremities, then raging into the limbs and body. I had no awareness of time, and as consciousness slowly returned I coughed and spluttered, as the pain in my temples and stomach slowly came to the fore. I was drenched, lying in the soggy ditch, soaked in dirty stinking water and bloody from a gash on the side of my head. It seemed an age, crawling and scrambling to get back onto the hard tarmac. For some minutes I sat bewildered until I gradually realised my predicament. I became aware of the cold and the mile and a half distance between me and home. With an effort, which almost caused me to lose consciousness again, I slowly came back onto my feet. Nothing was broken. Thank goodness. I could walk.
My hands had been far too numb to use a key. I came to the window and remember the ironic contrast between the beautiful scene of warmth, the Christmas tree, the log fire, the wrapping paper and my own momentary world of pain and agony. All I had been able to muster was a weak tap on the lounge window. Luckily she had heard it above the sound of Jingle Bells, which was echoing from the television.
Bettina shrieked as she opened the door. I slid over the threshold, buckling down onto my knees.
*****
I was still lying on the lounge carpet when the doctor arrived, but feeling a little better. No stiches were needed, and after a rest by the fire and some ibuprofen and antibiotics, I was able to talk to the police. They had been at our house for an hour, talking and eating mince pies with my wife, waiting for me to wake.
It was a simple interview. They asked me to explain what had happened, paying extra detail to anything I could remember of the make of the car, or identifying features of my attackers.
I truthfully told them that I had not seen the car. The glare of the headlights had temporarily blinded me, making it impossible to give any useful information. Regarding my attackers, I explained that there were two men, but even that I was not certain, as it all happened so fast. I gave them a description of my rucksack and contents and that was all. They left with a promise to look into the mugging, but had to admit there was very little to go on. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and they left.
Christmas Eve was spent making the last finishing festive preparations. Bettina was busy most of the day, purchasing again the lost items. She even managed to find a bottle of single malt, but not the favourite brand I had acquired. I kept the name of that to myself. I spent most of the day, lying on the couch, trying not to feel sorry for myself, or concentrating on the pain, that was still aching in my groin and head. The hardest pain of all though, was the knowledge of the identity of my attacker.
*****
Every year Christmas day is spend at home. Robert and Josie, our two children, arrive during the morning with their families. They each have two of their own, and now that they have all reached early adulthood, we don’t get to see them as often as when they were small. The family gathering is so much part of our tradition at Christmas, it would be unimaginable to change it. Luckily, our son-in-law and daughter-in-law both seem to enjoy coming.
Bettina and I had agreed to play down my terrible experience of two days before. In truth, I was feeling much better and we both wanted to ensure that Christmas was not spoiled by long discussions about muggers and what should be done to them.
So, as Robert, Sarah and the two girls arrived, we put on a pleasant face and made a small joke about the cut on my brow. The swelling had subsided somewhat and a plaster covered the cut.
“I would love to see how the other fella came out,” said Robert, with a big grin on his face.
I nearly choked at those words, and found it difficult to muster a smile. If only he knew.
One great thing about being a grandfather of girls, especially when having been in the wars, is that they fuss over you even more. Emma and Louise hardly left my side, apart from placing the presents under the tree. This is another one of our family traditions. When we have finished eating, we all open our presents together, just as we did when they were small children.
Josie arrived with her husband, Bob and lovely Emily, who was home from University for the holidays, while we were already tucking into the first of the mince pies. “Hey, I hope there will be enough for us”, Josie quipped and we all greeted each other. A few jokes about being plastered and having a head as “hard as nails” later, Josh arrived. We were now complete.
Bettina was busy running around serving drinks, pastries and nibbles, while at the same time holding the fort in the kitchen.
“The mountain of presents is becoming shameful,” I joked, pointing to the huge pile of carefully wrapped and decorated parcels around the tree. “Whatever will we do when great grandchildren begin to arrive,” I said, at which point everyone looked towards Louise and Emma as the most likely sources of such offspring.
“Don’t look at me”, Emma remarked, with a happy smile.
Dinner was a strange affair, for me. For the rest of the family it was simply a normal festive get together, where everyone was happy, laughing and enjoying the togetherness of a big family gathering. But in my case, there were moments where I forgot about the robbery and got lost in the banter, and other moments where I drifted into a world of my own, becoming angry, wanting to tip the table upside down and scream. On a number of occasions Bettina squeezed my knee, to gently bring me back to the here and now. Luckily, everyone was so engrossed in pulling crackers, placing paper hats and reading the jokes to each other, that no-one else noticed my troubles.
*****
The presents opening is always the part of Christmas that I like best. We share our presents and I am always filled with pride to see my family receiving more pleasure from what they have given, than from what they receive. It sends little, “We did a good job of bringing them up”, bells ringing in my head.
Only this year was different. The event of two days ago was eating into me. I was switching between sadness and anger. My emotions were all over the place.
We took turns in opening the presents, thanking and kissing the giver, showing our appreciation or, at least, making fun with silly banter over the more unusual ones.
Next was my turn. Josh picked up his gift for me from under the tree and handed it over with a big smile. “Merry Christmas, Grandad”.
My hands were trembling as I unwrapped the gift. I first read the small card, which read “Lots of love from Josh”. Peeling back the wrapping paper, I gradually uncovered the label on the bottle.
Viña El Pisón, Rioja 2012

My First Day At Grammar School

Presentation1I wasn’t at all nervous about my first day at Grammar school, as I had two older brothers already attending. John was in the upper sixth and a school prefect. Tom was in the fifth form. I knew that no-one would mess with me even though I would be a little sprog. I had heard from my brothers how the sprogs would be bullied and teased, especially in the opening weeks of the Autumn term.

As we entered the school main gate, walked up the long driveway, which led into the main front playground, I had never seen so many children in one place. Most were in small groups, probably sharing experiences of their summer holidays. Some of the boys were playing football and others playing a rough looking game, which I later found out to be called ‘sag’.  In future years I was to pick up many bruises from this crazy game.

John went off immediately to join the prefects and arrange the first assembly. Tom stayed with me until he spotted some friends. I stood there alone until I recognised Sue McCarthy. She had been at my junior school.  All together nine of us had passed our eleven plus and chosen Manor Park as our 1st choice grammar school.

“Hi Sue. I am glad to see you. You are the first person that I have seen that I know since I arrived. I hope the others turn up soon. “

Sue looked nervous. “Hello Jim. Do you know what we are supposed to do? I don’t know where we should go.”

“I guess they just call out names or something. Don’t worry. I will stay with you until they call us.”

And so we waited what seemed ages until the bell went and an old man in a black gown stood in the middle of the playground and called all first formers to gather round. I soon spotted the rest from Hartshill Junior School and we huddled together in our group.

The names were called and we were ordered into four lines, one for each class. I was in class 1a and luckily was with three others from my old school. Sue was one of them.

A form teacher led each line off to their classroom. Ours was a middle-aged woman with a huge backside that waddled as she walked along. She spoke in a high pitched voice as people do when they talk to babies.

“Now children. My name is Mrs White. I am your form teacher for this year. Follow me. Stay in line and don’t dawdle.”

We all marched in, chose a desk and sat down. I sat next to Sue. I had a strong feeling of needing to take care of her, a feeling that was completely new to me. Maybe this was how the knights of King Arthur felt when saving the maids in danger. I was Sue’s loyal knight.

Mrs White gave each of us an exercise book and told us to write our name, school and form on the front.

I quickly wrote James Bothwell, Manor Park Grammer School, Form 1a in my best writing.

Mrs White, as I later found out, was not only our form teacher, but also the Head Of Department for English. She walked around to check that we had all finished correctly, took one look at my book and told me to stand up.

“James. Please tell the class how one spells grammar as in Manor Park Grammar School. “

I felt my face reddening. In front of so many unknown faces my shyness took over. I glanced down at Sue. Her lips were trembling in sympathy for me. I thought that she would cry. I also glanced at her note book and realised that she had spelt grammar with an ‘a’ , whereas I had spelt it with an ‘e’.

I knew instinctively that hers was right. That was the reason that I had been singled out.  A cheeky confidence suddenly came over me. “ G R A M M A R,” I said loud and clear.

Mrs White breathed a small sigh of relief. “Thank you. Maybe next time that you write it down you will use the correct spelling.”

“Yes, Miss,” I mumbled and quickly took my seat again.

We spent the complete morning in our form rooms apart from the first assembly, which took place one hour later than normal as it was our first day.

The whole school filed into the school hall every Monday morning for prayers and special announcements. The prefects sat on the stage in their striped jackets. I remember feeling proud to see my brother on the front row and decided there and then that I wanted to be a prefect also when I reached the sixth form.

Back in the classroom we each drew up our timetables. Immediately after lunch we would go to our lessons. I was pleased to see that we had two double lessons of PE each week. I had loved football and was looking forward to begin playing rugby. English would be with Mrs White and would be taken in the form room. Other lessons required the class to split up depending on what disciplines had been chosen. German, for instance, was with Miss Scarlett. I looked forward to my German lessons. I had often helped my brothers with their German homework by testing their memory with new word lists, and had picked up quite a lot. This was one subject where I knew that I could do well.

History was with Colonel Mustard. We all chuckled at the mention of Colonel Mustard and Jack Watkins raised his hand and asked if he was a real Colonel. Mrs White said that he had fought in World War Two and was injured in the Normandy Landings in 1944. She added that the staff was very proud to have such a decorated war hero teaching at our school.

Mr Green or Reverend Green would be taking us for Religious Instruction. My brother Tom had already informed me that Reverend Green was often absent due to illness. He had picked up some strange virus or something when acting as a missionary in Africa in the 1950s. He still has recurring illness where he is bedridden for days on end.

Our music teacher would be Mrs Peacock. I had no idea what we would do in a music lesson. My family were not musical and I could play no instruments. I remember thinking “Do they just play music for the whole lesson?”

Mathematics and Physics would be with Mr Plum. Although he was not a real professor, people called him Professor Plum. When I was to meet him a couple of days later it became very clear why. He looked just like an extremely old professor and taught in his university black gown. In fact many of the older teachers taught in black gowns. Mrs White also did.

We had just over an hour for lunch. It was a beautiful September day with light white clouds scudding over a deep blue sky. Our little group of nine quickly gathered together to share the events of the morning. We had only been talking and eating our sandwiches a few minutes when along came two second year  bullies.

“What have we here? A group of little sprogs waiting for someone to share their food with.  Wow, that looks tasty,” the fatter one said, as he reached out to snatch Sue’s tuna and cucumber sandwich.

“Leave her alone,” I blurted out.

They both turned on me. I thought that I was in for a thrashing.

“Go away or I will call his brother. He’s a prefect,” Sue yelled.

Fatboy looked at me and asked if that was true.

“Yes, John Bothwell , upper sixth. And my other brother is in the fifth.”

I watched as they tried not to lose face but left as quickly as they could. We all chuckled and I made my biggest mistake of the day. As they were walking away I shouted after them, “You are just cowards. All bullies are cowards.” I would pay dearly for those remarks.

After lunch we went directly to our first proper lesson. Mine was German Language in room 32d. We had been given a room map of the school and I found it quickly. It was right next to the swimming pool in the quadrangle. I remember that it was hard to concentrate on learning when children were outside swimming.

Miss Scarlett came in and my jaw dropped open. I sat on the front row, right in front of her desk. I had never seen such a beautiful woman. She was completely different to the other older teachers. She wore a knee length dress and was slim, tall and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She asked us all to introduce ourselves and tell her any German words that we might know.

Lots of the boys knew a few such as ‘achtung’ or ‘Donner und Blitzen’ that they had read in the war comics.

When it came to my turn I blurted out far too much. I wanted to impress her and show her that I had learned a lot from my brothers. It all just came pouring out in a mad, confused rush.

“Die Decker ist Gelb, ein, zwei drei, vier, funf. Guten Tag, Guten Morgen, Ich habe Hunger….”

“Ok James, that will do. Where did you learn that from?” she asked smiling.

“My brothers,” I said. “I can count up to 100 if you like.”

“Erm..that won’t be necessary today”

I spent the rest of the lesson half listening to her and half looking at her legs. When she sat down at her desk, I was right in front of her and could see right up to her knickers. I will remember those scarlet pants for my whole life. I felt some strange feeling in my groin but had no idea what it was at that time. Now that I realise, I suppose I am lucky to know exactly the time when I first began to leave childhood behind. It was my first day at Grammar School. Miss Scarlett and her scarlet…..er where was I? Ah, yes German lessons.

Next was a double lesson of history with Colonel Mustard.

He did a similar this to Miss Scarlett, by asking each of us to introduce ourselves and give him one date from history that we knew. I gave 1066 the Battle of Hastings. I knew this because my brother, John, who was a really keen stamp collector, had told me that next month a new set of commemorative stamps comes out for 900 years since the Battle Of Hastings. He had ordered a first day cover.

Colonel Mustard was a frightening man. He was enormous and always wore his black gown. His face was lop-sided as he was shot in the cheek during the war and some of the nerves had been damaged. When he smiled, which was extremely seldom, it looked more like a vicious sneer.  We were all afraid of him.

During the very first lesson he introduced us to dictation. He would read some text, which we were to copy down in our notebooks, new ones in which, this time,  I had spelt ‘grammar’ correctly.

He began,” Early imports from the New England Colonies were dried meat, fish, lumber, furs and Heinz baked beans.”

He stopped talking and looked at us all, one by one. We were all silent. A pin drop could be heard in the room. “Who has written Heinz Baked Beans?” he thundered at us. Every child put their hands up.  “And who believes that the early colonies of America actually exported Heinz Baked Beans to England?” No-one raised a hand.

“Aha,” he said, “So you all have written something that you believe to be false. Let this be a lesson to all of you. Dictation is not only for writing, it is also for listening. If you hear something that you find unbelievable or wrong, you raise a hand and ask. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sir,” we all replied. It was a lesson that I will never forget. Never believe everything that you read or hear.

The last lesson with Reverend Green was gentle and fitting to end the first day. He told us the story of the Good Samaritan and we then discussed it. Afterwards he told us about his time in Africa. He had travelled a lot and I remember thinking how much I was looking forward to his future lessons. Beforehand I had been dreading the subject of RI as I had imagined a repeat of my years attending Sunday school.

When the bell went at 3.30pm I walked out to the small rear gate. Tom had arranged to meet me there after school so that we could walk home together. It was nearly two miles and much better that we go together.

When I arrived at the gate Fatboy and his friend were waiting for me. They had obviously decided that they weren’t so afraid of my big brothers after all, and that they could get me on my own.

First they knocked off my cap into the mud. While I was picking it up one of them kicked me in the backside. I nearly fell over and felt the first wetness of tears welling up into my eyes. They were tears of anger though rather than fear. As I picked up my school cap I gathered also a pile of mud into it and threw it as hard as I could at the fat one. It splattered all over his white shirt and tie. He took one look at the mess I had made and then came at me. I knew that I was in for it.

As he came towards me I turned to run but a hand came out of nowhere and slapped him across the face. “If I catch you after my little brother again I’ll bloody kill you,” Tom growled. He would have scared even me.

We laughed about it on the way home. In hindsight I have never had a close relationship with Tom, but this was one of those rare moments where we were true brothers.

This was my first day at Grammar School. I survived further bullying, had some epic scraps in the playground and was sent to the headmaster on numerous occasions for the cane. I also had a fantastic time learning, playing rugby, and making some lifelong friends.  I dearly wish that some of these elements of schooling, both the good and the bad, were still present in today’s schools. There were hardships, but overall they prepared young people for a world in which one needs to survive.