The Dark Side

The Dark Side

A dull thud resonated through thin wooden walls; Then another, louder, closer. Emily squeezed her moist tired eyes tightly shut and concentrated hard to imagine a thunderstorm. The thunderstorm drifted closer, gaining in volume, until wham! Instantaneous with a flash of bright lightning her world was jolted by the awesome power of nature.

But this was no thunderstorm. The rumbling was different; and there were no lightning flashes, only darkness, utter frightening darkness in this sepulchral tomb-like box.

Adam huddled up closer to his older sister. He whispered, barely audibly, “Can we talk yet Emmy?”

“Sssshhhh, no of course we can’t. We’ve only been here an hour and we were told no noise and no talking before six o’clock or Mummy and Daddy will be really upset. Here, have another biscuit.”

Emily felt very strange. She was just eight years old, with her only experiences of life having always been protected by loving parents. Suddenly overnight she had been thrust into the role of carer. Her instincts told her that she must be the grownup for a while and take care of her younger brother. Emily placed her arm around Adam’s trembling shoulders. She could feel the rising fear in his small body. She kissed him on the forehead and gave a little reassuring shake with her arm. “Don’t be frightened,” she murmured. “It’ll soon be over and we will be home safe. For now we must be quiet, just as the man told us.”

The rumbling noises slowly receded and it became very quiet. Emily propped herself against a large threadbare cushion, of which there were two in the confined space. Adam’s head rested gently on her lap as they both began to drift off into another world. It was a world of simple pleasures. A world where children laughed and played games such as hide-and-seek or dares. Emily saw her mother washing her long hair and combing it before helping her into her pyjamas, sitting with her while she drank her bedtime mug of hot chocolate, finally tucking her in and kissing her goodnight. She slept and purred with Adam also fast asleep on her lap. They were momentarily in a soft cosy world of safety and love.

Emily could only dimly remember Adam being born and how she had giggled as she felt his movement inside her Mummy’s tummy. Now he was four years old and they both had to be extremely brave for their parent’s sake, otherwise the man said they would never see them again.

After some hours the warm silent slumber was abruptly destroyed by loud thunder again. This time it was much scarier. It was the sound of large machines, which shook the wooden surroundings as the volume grew. Before they were properly awake their temporary home was moving and gently rocking from side to side.

Emily looked at her watch. It was six o’clock.

*****

It seemed that their lounge was packed with strange faces. John Roberts and his wife Gill sat in numbed silence. Their two children had been missing for nearly twenty-four hours. Only one day. One day, which seemed to encompass their complete lives. Any events which had happened previously from their children being collected from school yesterday afternoon had been temporarily obliterated from their minds. The headmistress was distraught.

A letter explaining that the two children would be collected half an hour early, a letter which was given to the teacher personally by Emily, had seemed completely genuine. It had stated that Emily’s mother had been taken ill due to severe problems with her baby. The teacher knew very well that Mrs Roberts was in the later stages of pregnancy with her third child, therefore suspected nothing. Her husband, John, was naturally at her side in the hospital and had arranged for Uncle Raymond to collect them. The children went happily with him at the allotted time, even using his name as he arrived to collect them.

Now they were gone.

Sandra Wells, the teacher, was also present, sitting on one of the armchairs, looking anxious and persistently tapping her shoe against the coffee table. Inspector Dolmarsh curled his top lip in concentration as he perused his scruffy notes for the umpteenth time. “Please, I know it is difficult, but can we go through this one more time? Maybe there is a point that we have missed.”

Ms Wells began again. “As I said, Emily came in after the lunch break with a small envelope. She said that the note was from her mother and Uncle Raymond would be collecting them tonight.”

She shifted awkwardly on the wooden chair, glancing from John to Gill Roberts as she spoke.

“The letter was… Oh I am so sorry. I just thought…..,” she managed to blurt out those few words before breaking down into an uncontrollable fit of crying.

Dolmarsh handed her his handkerchief and looked across at John Roberts. “Tell me again exactly what they were wearing as they left for the afternoon at school.”

“Well, they were in school uniform. Just like hundreds of other kids. For Christ’s sake man; shouldn’t you be out there looking, rather than keep asking such bloody stupid questions? Our children, wherever they are, are frightened out of their minds. They have never been away, not even for one night.”

He hesitated and continued more calmly. “Please? I’m sorry; I know you need to go over it again. I have seen enough films.”

At that moment a young energetic man, with a remarkable rakish appearance came charging into the room and whispered something urgently into Dolmarsh’s ear.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I will be right back.”

*****

Adam began to whimper. After three days cooped up in the confined space he was slowly drifting into a catatonic state, with just the occasional, ever weakening pleas for his parents. Emily began her ordeal with a strong heart and will, managing to keep Adam occupied by using word games or recalling memories of party events such as birthdays or Christmas. They had almost used up the food and water, which had been left them by the man in a blue hat. Emily was gradually beginning to realise that Uncle Raymond was not such a good uncle. He had put them in this place without enough to eat and drink. Worst of all was the smell. The putrid reek of excrement emanating from the corner of their confined space caused them to gag and wretch during moments of lucidity. It became a blessing when such moments became less frequent as they slept most of the day.

Emily played the recent events over in her mind. She thought about the times that she had met Uncle Raymond. It was only a week or so ago that he first appeared during a P.E. lesson at school. The children were running round the track and he was on the far side. He offered Emily a drink, saying that he was glad to see her again after so much time, as she was only a baby when he last saw her.

He appeared again in the supermarket while her mother was at the fish counter. He spoke quietly and gave her a lollipop. He appeared two or three more times at different places until her confidence had grown and she believed that he really was her Uncle Raymond. She wanted to talk to her mother about him, but he had told her it should be their secret. She remembered the pleasure at having her very own secret, just like in one of her story books.

But now she began to doubt. She realised that Uncle Raymond was never present with either of her parents. What kind of Uncle does that? It began to dawn on her, sitting in the dank, smelly wooden box that Uncle Raymond was no Uncle at all. He was probably a wizard who was trying to make them disappear.

She held tightly to Adam and cried herself back to sleep.

*****

Inspector Dolmarsh stormed back into the Roberts’ lounge. He had a stern, flinty glare on his weather-beaten countenance. His manner was abrupt and he exuded the air of a man who had no time to waste.

“Mr and Mrs Roberts, I have been given some information by my deputy. A man has been picked up for questioning in relation to missing children. Apparently he was overheard talking in a pub about children and exportation. The landlord was made aware of it by the barmaid and he thankfully decided to contact the local police station. It is a thin lead at this stage, but I need Ms Wells down at the station for an identity parade.”

“God Almighty! Exportation? John, what’s going on? Please tell me someone. Where are my children?”

All John Roberts could do was to try console his wife. But he had no idea how.

*****

“Ms Wells, I would like you to concentrate. I want you to look at the six people in the line. Please do not speak to any of them. If you are sure that one of them is the person who called himself Uncle Raymond just touch him on the left shoulder and move on. We will be right behind you.”

Sandra Wells was sweating profusely as she began the long path in front of the six people. At that moment the few yards seemed to her as a long endless road. She had spotted the man instantly and needed great self-control in order to move slowly along the line. As she came face to face with the scarred unshaven face of ‘Uncle Raymond’ , wearing the same taupe overcoat as that day in the school, she held back a scream, which was bubbling inside and touched him softly but surely on the shoulder. She then held her breath until she was back out and into the interviewing room, before letting out a torrid mixture of sobs and expiration of air.

“Well done madam,” said Inspector Dolmarsh.

The interrogation lasted well into the following day. Dolmarsh became quite despondent after realising that ‘Uncle Raymond’, whose real name was Jeffery Hutchins, had little information which could help them find the children. The organisation for the abduction of children was extremely well established. Links in the chain were only fed the minimum of information, in order to protect the ring leaders.

The only information of any help in the investigation was that the children were passed onto a middle-aged heavily built man wearing white t-shirt, jeans and a blue baseball cap. Hutchins had been easily convinced to be as helpful as possible. Facing a prison term for child abduction and possibly other more serious crimes if anything tragic happened to the children, he was ready to do anything which might ease his sentence. A breakthrough came when he was shown facial pictures of known criminals. He recognised the face of a man named Jack Barnaby, recently released from prison after serving eight years for extortion.

Jack Barnaby’s home was raided two hours later. He was found drunk and in possession of a significant wad of banknotes. In his drunken state he was of no direct help except for the fact that he was found with a mobile phone. Tracking the position of the mobile over the previous 72 hours revealed that he was in Southampton docks three days before. A rapid check of ships leaving Southampton on that day turned up only three possibilities, one passenger liner and two cargo ships, one of which gave Dolmarsh a well-known nauseous feeling in his gut. So many years as a policeman had given him an instinct which was to be trusted.

*****

Emily tried to hold Adam’s head up enough to get him to drink some of the remaining water. He spluttered as he tried to keep his lips shut and shook his head wildly. Emily persisted, Adam must drink something.

“Are we dying Emmy?” Adam asked suddenly wide awake.

Emily hesitated. “Of course not. Don’t be so silly,” she responded, although she had been thinking along similar lines.

They were into their fourth day in the dark room. The loud noise of the big diesel engines was throbbing continually through the ship.  Both children had been violently sick and were weakening rapidly.

They both closed their eyes for the last time, huddled as closely together as they could. They lay there, oblivious to their predicament, for many more hours until unfamiliar noises entered their world.

Emily was suddenly startled by a loud banging on the roof, wrenching of wooden panels and the cracking sound of breaking timbers.  This was quickly followed by a blinding light. After so long in the darkened place she was unable to open her eyes due to the bright light. She heard someone say “Here are two more. One looks to be alive.”

She was being lifted by strong hands. She instinctively tried to hold on to Adam, afraid that if she let him go she would never see him again.

A reassuring voice said gently, “It’s all right now. You are safe. We will have you with your parents in no time. Here, take this. Your Mummy asked me to give it to you.”

Inspector Dolmarsh handed Emily a scruffy old teddy bear with one eye. She took him by one ear and nestled it under her chin, taking comfort from the knowledge that she would be safe. Adam was trying to wake up but his exhaustion was far too advanced for him to respond. He slumped into the arms of a policewoman, unaware of being carried out to the waiting helicopter.

*****

Dolmarsh breathed heavily but with a tremendous feeling of relief as he called John Roberts and his wife to let them know that their children were safe. They would be taken to the hospital in New York, as this was now the closest route. The ship had crossed more than halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, before being searched after a joint FBI and Scotland Yard collaborative effort. Arrangements were being made to fly the parents out to be with their children.

The policewoman carrying Adam turned to Inspector Dolmarsh before she walked away. “Emily and Adam were just two of the lucky ones. There are so many who never get to see their family again.”

Dolmarsh nodded in thoughtful agreement. Tomorrow would be another day.

*****

In the US, poverty, deprivation and exploitation draw thousands of its own children down into a dark underworld that offers few ways out. It is a world few Americans are aware of. But tens of thousands of American children are thought to be sexually exploited every year.

It’s believed that every night hundreds are sold for sex.

The FBI says child sex abuse is almost at an epidemic level, despite the agency rescuing 600 children last year.

“Trafficking” often conjures images of people from other countries being smuggled over land and across the sea and then forced to work against their will in foreign lands. People are trafficked into America from Mexico, Central and South America. But the vast majority of children bought and sold for sex every night in the United States are American kids.

Source. BBC website – 30th July 2015

Just Like Clockwork

truckGeorge tensed in deep concentration as he tried to turn the key of his clockwork truck. His fingers were barely strong enough to make one full turn. He gritted his teeth and pressed until his little fingers were turning white but still could not wind it up fully. He took hold of a pair of nutcrackers, which he used to get the extra leverage. Smiling confidently, he turned the key until the truck was fully wound. “Just one more turn,” he said to himself when suddenly there was a loud click, which he instinctively knew had broken something inside.  He let go of the nutcrackers and placed the truck down on the carpet, but there was no movement. It was dead, stuck. A tear ran down his cheek. Dad would be furious.

He had been given the truck only now that he had reached his sixth birthday. His father had owned it since his own childhood shortly after the Great War. His father, George’s grandfather had returned home from “The Kaiserschlacht” , after being shot through the shoulder. He had lain many months on the Somme and other makeshift hospitals, before finally being returned to England after the war ended.

He had returned a broken man, never able to work again or live meaningfully during the rest of his short life. George’s father, Edward, had only one memory of the war veteran. That was the sparkling new clockwork truck which he had managed to bring back with him on his final homecoming. Shortly afterwards Edward’s father had taken his own life with a German Luger, in a disused barn outside of their village of Tootle.

“I knew I should have waited until you were older,” shouted Edward at his son, cuffing him lightly around the ear as he spoke. “You need to treat such things more carefully in future.”

Edward promised to have a look at the clockwork truck at the weekend, however events took over and he never did get around to fixing his favourite childhood toy. It was left in the back of the toy cupboard with a number of other old broken bits and bobs, never to see the light of day again during his lifetime.

*****

George was an only child. During childhood he was known to be sulky, bad-tempered and quite timid. He would often overhear other adults, such as his Aunt Dolly, say that he was a difficult or problematic child, which probably didn’t help to improve either his sulkiness or his timidity.

As he grew up, things didn’t change for the better. He lost his mother to cancer during his teens, and spent a large part of his working life on North Sea oil rigs. He was a loner and the life suited him. He would spend his working hours engrossed in the maintenance of drills, pumps and other heavy machinery, and his free time gambling on various share investments. He had no time for social life or people in general.  His sulkiness evolved into surliness in adulthood, and his colleagues generally stayed clear of him.

One day he received a telegram to say that his father was taken ill and had been brought into hospital. It was 1979 and together with the bad weather conditions and transport strikes during the Winter of Discontent, it took him nearly two days to finally arrive at his father’s bedside. Edward had a severe heart attack while working in his garden. A neighbour had called the emergency number and met George on his arrival. The diagnosis was not good. Edward would need a triple heart bypass operation, a new procedure with significant risks to survival.

Edward died the next day on the operating table.

George had no real interest to sort out his father’s home and personal effects and couldn’t be bothered with organising estate agents to sell the house.  So, as quickly as he could after the funeral was over, he gave a local solicitor Power Of Attorney which empowered her to clear the house and sell off the estate. George wanted to have no more to do with it except pass the proceeds to his bank account, which was already quite considerable after years working on the oil rig and no vices to drain his funds. He also arranged for the solicitor to put any personal effects into storage.

And so, he went back to his mundane life on the oil rigs. He continued until 1999 when he reached normal retirement age, without wife, children or anyone he could call his friend. He remained a miserable, lonely old soul throughout his life. Behind the grim outward appearance though, was a very insecure and rather gentle person. He often pondered over the reason for living. He was well aware that he had never asked anyone for help but equally he realised more and more, that he had never done anything for anyone either. “What a poor specimen of the human race,” he would sometimes mutter to himself.

Upon retirement, when he had more time to think, he remembered the personal effects of his father’s which were in storage. He arranged for them to be delivered to his home in the next village. Three large cartons arrived. One was full of pictures and paperwork. Most of the photographs meant nothing to him. From the first carton, only a small handful of photographs remained after sorting. The rest went into the incinerator.

The second carton was full of books, some handed down from his grandfather. Many of these found a home in his bookcase. The last carton was full of toys. He remembered hardly any of them and quickly repacked the carton and hoisted it up into his loft. Some of the toys were from the Victorian era and he couldn’t bring himself to simply throw them out, but equally had no motivation to sell them.

“What a poor specimen of the human race”, he often heard himself saying and vowed to do something useful with his life before it was over. Time, however, was running out.

*****

On 28th January 2006 George Partridge died of a heart attack. He was 72 years old. He left no known family or friends; therefore a public welfare funeral was arranged by the local council. It was a lonely miserable funeral, reflecting George’s lonely miserable life.

The house was sold at auction. His estate became the property of the state as there was no last will and testament to be found. Despite his high earning career and inheritance of his own father’s estate some years before, there was hardly anything left after his death, apart from the house.

*****

Jim Rigby was a young twenty-something failed architecture student. He was almost the exact opposite personality to George. He was outgoing, always good natured and lived life with a permanent optimistic smile on his countenance. He was well liked and never short of friends, of both sexes.

His only real fault was his gullible generosity. He had been taken in more than once by a sob story. Once, while at university, he lent half of his university grant to a friend in trouble, only to find that he had disappeared the following day. He spent the rest of that semester working nights in a bar to make ends meet.

Now, finally at the age of twenty-eight, after dropping out of university and spending a couple of years odd-jobbing, he had landed a semi-skilled machinists job for a company making small components for aerospace. The pay was modest, but he could begin to think about a family and settling down.

He saw an advertisement for a small house which was to be sold by auction in the village of Tootle. He almost passed it by as he believed that such sales only went to organised developers, but something made him re-read that notice. He sat dreaming what it would be like to own his own house and raise a family. He thought about a simple and quiet life with two lovely children and beautiful loving wife.

After a long thoughtful sigh he decided to go to the auction, just to see if such a dream could be possible to come true. The house was in a terrible state. The plaster was hanging off many of the walls, a large crack showed some potential structural damage. The wiring needed replacing, as did much of the plumbing. The only good thing that could be said about the house was the price. It was inside Jim’s range. He made notes, estimating the work necessary to make the house liveable, and the cost and time involved. He decided that he could and should have a go. Such an opportunity may never repeat itself. He bid and got the house for a snip at forty-two thousand pounds.

 

*****

The next three years of Jim’s life consisted of work, work and more work. He lived with a motivation that he had not known before. This was his home, and a chance to fulfil his life’s dream.

He also met Jody, a beautiful ballet dancer. They were an instant match and were married at the same time that Jim finished the main work on his small house. There followed the traditional family events. After two years Jody became pregnant. She gave birth to two beautiful identical twin girls. They could not have had a happier time of their lives. By the time the girls were on their feet, Jody was again giving birth to a blue-eyed son.

Jim sat out in his small garden, sipping a glass of Rioja, marvelling at his luck and the fact that his life’s dream was finally coming true. “If only time could stand still for a while so that he could soak it up more,” he muttered to himself.

Jody began teaching ballet at their local dance school as soon as the children started school. Financially, life was hard, but that never detracted from their contentment and happiness.

That was until the crisis hit the country. As money became scarce, air travel declined and some of the major airlines began to cancel orders for new aircraft, the airframe suppliers found it hard to keep going. Jim’s company were soon laying off staff on a three-day week. Soon, redundancies were made. Jim survived the first round, but was less lucky in the second. He soon found himself out of work with three small children and very little to live on.

Jody didn’t fare any better. As hard times hit, families began to cut back on non-essentials, of which children’s dancing lessons were first in line. Jody was let go soon after Jim’s redundancy.

In between looking for a new job and queuing at the local job centre, Jim decided to work on his home to occupy his time, and also because he found it quite therapeutic as an abstraction to his money worries. He planned to replace the rain guttering at the rear of the house, as it was rusted through.

Working at a height of over six metres and using two ladders to step between, the inevitable happened. Jim landed on the concrete terrace with a thump. His back gave out a large CRACK and his legs buckled under him.

*****

Six months after the accident Jim could walk albeit only with the help of crutches. Mortgage payments had run into arrears and Jody knew that the inevitable must happen. They would need to sell the house.

Jim’s depression only made things worse. His dreams were being shattered, but in the hardest way possible. What had he done to deserve such a run of bad luck, he would often ask himself. Jody tried hard to console him and give him her strength but she was fighting a losing battle.

She had heard Jim mention an old carton of rubbish that was still in the attic, leftover from the previous owner. A quick perusal when they had bought the house showed just a load of old toys. Jody thought that there may be something for the children to occupy themselves during the long hot summer holidays, especially as they could not afford any other treats.

With great difficulty she managed to manoeuvre the carton down into the hallway and then through into the back garden. “Here children”, she said. “Have a look if you can find anything interesting in here to play with, but be very careful as some of them look a little rusty.”

Luke was first to the box, wrenched open the lid and drew out an old steam engine. Emma found a golliwog and asked her mother what it was. “Oh it is just a ..er….doll darling.”

Louise’s eyes lit up when she saw a dusty old truck that looked as though it was even older than Granma.

“Look Mummy. Look what I have found. It is a lorry.”

Luke wasn’t to be outdone and made a quick grab for it. “I opened the box therefore I get first choice Louise. Give it to me.”

Louise and Luke tugged and pulled, each straining with all of their might to get the better of the other, until Jody saw them. “STOP THAT AT ONCE,” she yelled.

They were each so shocked by their mother’s sudden and unusual outburst that they both let go at the same time.

The little clockwork truck fell to the floor with a thud. The jolt must have released something inside its clockwork engine, because it immediately began to roll along the floor towards the far wall.

All three children were so excited to see the hundred year old clockwork truck trundling along proudly. Eventually it stopped when it came head on with the wall. Jody had no idea about vintage toys but was shrewd enough to think that it may be worth a bob or two, something of which they were sorely in need at that moment.

She walked over and picked up the truck. It was still in excellent condition and she could vouch that it still worked perfectly. She inspected toy and found that the driver’s door opened on little pinned hinges. She pulled open the door and saw a tiny folded piece of paper inside.

Jody sat on the floor in front of her three completely engrossed children and slowly unfolded the paper. There was a message written in a very shaky handwriting as if written by a very old person.

Dear finder of this letter,

My name is George Partridge. I was born in 1934 and given this little truck by my father when I was six years old. I have lived a miserable life of meanness and selfishness, but wish to die knowing that I did something good, something that I can be proud of when going to my grave. I pray that you, the finder of this letter, are worthy of what you are about to receive. Please use it to help your family and others around you, to make their lives better and rich in generosity to their fellow man. I entrust you with my legacy to make this happen, where I failed.

In the front room at the north corner you will find a small black ‘X’ burned into the floor. There you will find everything.

George Partridge

*****

Jim and Jody sat in the corner on the front room. The children were all eyes and ears.

Jim slowly levered the carpet away from the corner of the floor. The ‘X’, less that the size of a penny, revealed itself immediately. There was no sign of a loose board or screws to indicate an opening. Jim sat for a second or two, thinking hard.

Jody suddenly noticed something. “Jim, look,” she blurted out. “Right in the centre of the ‘X’ is a tiny little hole.” It is barely visible.”

Jim took a small pointed screwdriver and pushed it into the hole. A coiled spring began whirring and cracking. They all jumped up in alarm. The floorboard began to shake and then move downwards before sliding across and in under its neighbour, leaving a gaping hole in the floor.

Jody raced for a torch, which she handed to Jim. They all peered down into the hole to see piles upon piles of bank notes. George Pritchard had placed his whole life’s savings and that of his father under the floor.

Jim gasped, took one glance at his radiant wife and said, “Jody, you know what this means?”

Jody smiled and thought for a few seconds before replying,” Yes Jim. It means that we are going to fulfil the dying wishes of a stranger called George Partridge.

My Dad

My Dad

Given what many would consider an unfortunate Christian name of Basil on 15th April 1925, my father was born into a large, poor family only 50 yards from the cliff tops in Lowestoft.  He was one of seven children, a family smitten by tragedy during his childhood.

The eldest, Horace, was killed in 1939 soon after the beginning of World War 2. Dad’s oldest sister, Edith died also when he was 14, from tuberculosis. She was his very close and favourite sister. Her death had a dramatic effect on his behaviour during that time.

Also, at the age of fourteen, his family was moved from his much-loved sea, inland to Nuneaton, where he still lives to this day.

It was hardly surprising that with a brother killed by the Germans and a sister dying of an illness, he became desperate as soon as he was of age, without the acceptance of his father, to return to the sea and seek retribution on those who had hurt his family. He joined the Royal Navy immediately after his seventeenth birthday in 1942.

Like me, my father always wore his heart on his sleeve. When he was angry you knew it, when he was emotional he cried. When he was happy he was the best company. He had a devilish, cheeky twinkle in his eye, which still remains to this day. Only two topics were never discussed, religion and the war. I never knew what my father did during the war, what action he saw, how he felt. All I ever got from him as a boy, when I asked such things, was a moment of quiet and “it’s best not to talk about the war son. It was all too horrible.” On the religion front, he never went to church, but I do remember catching him sometimes by his bed praying. He didn’t believe in the Church. He hated the hypocrisy but did have his own private God to talk to.

He grew up hard and tough in Lowestoft. Street gangs, fights, dirty backstreets. His early life left no room for weakness. However, even at a young age his affection towards birds and animals became apparent. He would often be taking lost kittens or birds with damaged wings home to nurse. When his father found out they would quickly go into a sack, which was then forced into a bucket of water. This was the world he grew up in.

The street urchin became a Chief Petty Officer by the time the war was over. A tall, upstanding and extremely handsome man on the lookout for a young wife as soon as he was demobbed in 1947 gave my mother no chance. They were married on 26th October 1948 in a double wedding with my Aunt, Mum’s elder sister. At that time double weddings were more common due to the shortage of funds and rations for such an event. All four are still alive today.

Dad found the next few years very hard. He was angry with the world. His educational years had been stolen from him. The conchies, as he called them, had all of the key jobs. All he wanted was to have a regular job, decent wage and bring up a family in a secure world, the land fit for heroes, as he was promised.

His first serious employment was with Courtaulds in Coventry. His boss was a ‘conchie’ and, in my father’s eyes, one of the worst kind. The little man enjoyed ordering the new employees around. Before the first week was through my father was out of work again. His boss had a broken nose. This kind of thing was happening all over Britain at this time. Dad’s hot temper had really landed him in trouble at last. No-one was going to employ a ‘fighter’ or troublemaker.

He applied for numerous other jobs, being rejected as soon as they asked the reason for leaving Courtaulds.  This was probably the lowest moment of his life. At this time his youngest sister was also taken with tuberculosis and fighting for her life. Her diagnosis did not hold much hope.

One day Dad went for an interview at the Morris car factory in Coventry. He had worked on gunner maintenance in the Navy and possessed some skills in mechanical working. The interviewer was an ex infantry sergeant and didn’t mince his words. As soon as my father explained his reason for leaving his last job the sergeant laughed. He told him that he could start next Monday, but if he laid a finger on him or any of the other staff he would get the biggest hiding of his life. They got on well together and became lifelong friends.

His sister June survived her illness after more than a year in convalescence. She is still alive today at the age of 88.

So, after the marriage my parents bought a semi-detached house in Nuneaton, a house they are still living in today. The number of times I heard “I will only leave this house feet first” during my life has probably influenced me more than I am conscious of. I place little such value on bricks and mortar and more on the people around me, who can move around.

Along came three sons over the following eight years. I am the youngest and the one most similar to our Dad. Because of this there was always a ‘connection’ between us. I spent most of my childhood in the garden with him, cleaning out the chickens, rabbits, goats, and ducks. You name it and I am sure that we kept some at one time or another.  Once, when I was around eight years old, I asked Dad if I could have one of the rabbits to keep as a pet.

“Yes you can,” he said. “But if you don’t look after it properly and feed him and regularly clean out the hutch, he will go in the pot.” This was how I acquired my pet rabbit, Tumbleweed, named after a western I saw one afternoon. Some weeks later we were sitting for our Sunday lunch eating when I asked Dad which rabbit this was. I knew them all even though we had around 40 or 50.

“I did warn you boy, if you didn’t take proper care we would have him for dinner. This is your Tumbleweed you are eating.”

Now, I can imagine that a modern day boy would be horribly traumatised by such an event, however I don’t remember even taking a break from my chewing. It was our world and I was used to it.

Dad brought up his three sons with a rod of iron. He didn’t know any other way. Boys (and wives) had to be kept in hand. That was the way of his world. He had an almost obsession for schoolwork and education. I later began to realise that this obsession came from his lack of education. He was an intelligent man and easily capable of a university education, but life had handed some bitter blows which meant his time had passed. He therefore wasn’t going to let that happen to his boys.

The eldest of us took the brunt of the strict discipline. He achieved his degree and went on to study for his PhD in chemistry. Son number two was not so academically minded and left school at 16 to begin an apprenticeship as a metallurgist. I saw the stark difference between an older brother at university with no money and years of study ahead of him, and a brother with money in his pocket, a Triumph Bonneville, and regular job. I chose for the latter, although never did get that ‘Bonny’

Leaving school caused big fights between my father and me. Academically I was strong enough to go to university, but I was a little wild, just as he was 30 years before. The house soon became too small for both of us. I left at the age of 19.

*******

I will now jump forty years to the present day.

Mum and Dad are still in the little semi-detached that they bought in 1948 for one thousand two hundred pounds. It seems that Dad’s ‘feet first’ promise will be fulfilled, hopefully not for a good while yet.

His memory has all but disappeared. It began two years ago, when I first noticed that he could not find his bank, even though we were only a hundred yards away from it. I had given him a lift into town as he needed money from the bank. We went in and he could no longer remember why we were there. This is one of those strange quirks of human nature. If someone middle-aged forgets or makes a silly error we all laugh. If a person over 75 or 80 does the same, we automatically begin to think that they are losing it. Consequently, regarding this day, I just pushed it out of my mind, although I was a little concerned.

My next visit was three months later. Father needed to go to the bank to collect some money for their general housekeeping. I persuaded him to let me look in the place where he always kept his war medals, a few sovereigns etc. He wasn’t keen, as this was his private place, where even my mother didn’t go. I assured him that I just thought that he may not need to go to the bank and may have forgotten that he put some money away. Very reluctantly we went to his toolbox, which was made by him as a schoolboy. Inside was over ten thousand pounds in twenty pound notes.

I lifted it out to show him. He had the padlock in his hand and switched his glances from me to the padlock, slowly realising that he was the only person with the key and it was he who had stashed the money away. I didn’t know what to say. It was there, clearly demonstrated in front of us both, that he was severely losing his memory.

He said, “You know what lad, I put this money here didn’t I?”

I nodded. “I’m Sorry”, I replied. It was a solemn moment.

His face suddenly lit up and for a second I thought that it was some kind of April Fool joke. He burst out laughing and said, “You know what else? I am really in the shit aren’t I?” He found the whole thing quite amusing. We both laughed together like two little boys. What else is there to do in a situation like that?

An hour later he asked me if I would take him to the bank to get some money for the housekeeping. Since then I take care of their financial affairs.

This was two years ago. Dad is still at home but his memory has deteriorated much worse. It is tragic, but at the same time not so. When I visit him, he is very happy. I can visit every day for a week and each day is a new surprise as he has forgotten that I was there the day before. His strict and slightly aggressive manner has been replaced by a loving, caring gentle man, who only wants the best for everyone.

My eldest brother now is in an advanced state of Parkinson’s disease. He can no longer drive. Therefore in December I collected him to visit our mother for her 90th birthday. When my father saw the condition of his eldest son he asked what was wrong with him. My brother explained that he is very ill with this disease and can no longer do many things that he used to.

My father’s eyes filled with tears and the old Dad came out strong and clear. “Why don’t you come back home to me, where I can look after you, my boy?” He meant it too.

When I am there I try to explain to him that his memory hasn’t actually gone. I tell him that all that is gone is his ability to find it easily. The analogy I used was that each little piece of memory is in a drawer. It is all still there, but he no longer knows which drawer to open to get at it.

To demonstrate this we play a sort of game. I tell him that I will open a drawer just a little and see if he can peek inside. I must stress that it is only his memory that is failing, not his intellect. Proper conversation is still very much possible. I mention World War 2, or his late sister Edith, or his three sons. This triggers some memories and further probing helps him to remember some of the smallest details of his life. The pleasure that this provides him, to reconnect these memories, is immense.

It is at times like these that I regret living in a foreign country. I could give up this life for a few years to take care of my parents. Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t.  I have a wife who also deserves by devoted attention. This is not an easy call, and one which continually causes loss of sleep.

Why am I writing this personal account? I wish I knew. Is it some kind of personal selfish indulgence of mine? Is it morally correct to write such a piece without the knowledge of the people described? Is it conceited to do it anyway? I would like to think and sincerely hope, that it is simply to share my Dad with you all, a person that will not be here much longer and someone that I love and am extremely proud of.

When we look at old people we should never judge them. Often they appear to have out-of-date values and can sound racist or cynical. They may not trust anyone, even their close family. We must never judge them. Who are we to know what they have lived through? Who are we to have the slightest idea of what it must have been like to be torn from your roots as a child, thrust into a killing zone as a teenager, returning to a country ‘fit for heroes’, where the ex-squaddie was not really welcome.

As I look into the still-sparkling eyes of my Dad, eyes that have seen so much sadness and happiness, eyes that have laughed and cried so many times, I now see tiredness and a willingness to say goodnight and God bless to us all.

If you have a family member in a similar situation to my Dad, give them a big hug from me.

Snow White

Snow White

By gazoopi

It is said that no-one owns a cat. It is the cat that does the owning. They quietly choose where to make their home. We humans are gullibly led into believing that our cats love us when they snuggle up, rub their cheeks against us, and purr softly. They really make fools of us. Not only do they not give a damn about us but they actually would walk away tomorrow if a better deal was on offer elsewhere, by a neighbour or other better food source.

So it was with Marie. Marie was a long furred black female cat. She was a beautiful specimen, with a coat that shone under any light and a beautiful Sphinx-like form, when sitting watching the world go by in the garden, before she went into a crouch at the sight of some good sporting prey. The eventual waggle of her rear end and then the pounce would usually signify the demise of some creature or another, usually a mouse or bird. Although in the past Marie has been found trying to drag a full grown rabbit through the cat flap. She did so with a considerable amount of success, until I caught her at it, scolding her severely, and burying the dead rabbit in our back garden.

Marie came to us one Sunday morning in May. She was clearly badly undernourished and looked like a skeleton. As we lived in a built-up area I was not keen on feeding her, in case she belonged to one of the neighbours. I knew very well how interfering neighbours, feeding other people’s cats could cause confusion for the cat and irritation for their owners. However, after giving the matter a few seconds thought I decided to go ahead and give her some food. Her state demonstrated that if there was an owner, they didn’t really deserve that kind of respect. The cat was in a bad way.

So, after a few days, she was at our door every morning. We fed her well, and within weeks she had blossomed into her original beautiful  condition. During this time my wife had been talking to a neighbour and mentioned our new addition to the family. She was told that another neighbour further down the street had mentioned that her black cat had disappeared. We knew the person faintly but had no idea that she had a cat. That evening we went to call on her to explain the situation and offered, if Marie was theirs, to bring her home. We did explain though, that it could be a problem as she would probably keep coming back to us due to the short distance. Mrs Milovac was very understanding and agreed that we were right to feed the cat. She had not seen her for many weeks, long before we began feeding her, and was simply happy to hear that Marie was alive and well. Constantine, her nine year-old daughter, was also very mature about the whole thing, and agreed that we should keep her. She did ask if she could visit occasionally to see Marie, which of course we accepted.

At that time Mr. Milovac was away on business and was not party to the agreement. He returned a week later, only to hit the roof when he realised that a neighbour had taken over his cat. He was one of these aggressive win-at-all-costs type of machos and clearly couldn’t reconcile the fact that someone else may have taken something of his. Within minutes of arriving back from his trip he was pounding at our front door.

“What the hell,” I spluttered, as I opened the door and saw only a clenched fist as he intended to continue pounding the door.

“Where is our cat? What do you think you are doing stealing our cat? You thieving bastard.” He looked rather silly in his black business suit and slippers. In his temper he had rushed out of the house without changing out of some fluffy slippers. I tried in vain to hide the smile.

“And what’s so bloody funny?” , he went on.

“Er, sorry,” I said. “Did your wife not tell you that we discussed the situation of your cat and she and Constantine both agreed that she would be better off here as she has become used to us?”

“It’s no use trying your smarmy arguments on me. I deal in negotiations worth millions every day you know. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes like you did them. Give me back my cat.”

My smile was becoming a fixed feature of my unshaven countenance, but I tried hard not to show it. I went indoors, picked Marie up from my computer stool, where she loves to sleep, and went back to the front door. “Here she is. Please take her.” I offered with as friendly a manner as I could muster.

He snatched Marie out of my hands and stormed off down the street.

I went indoors and quite calmly explained to my wife what had happened, even down to the detail of the fluffy slippers.

“But it is only 300 yards down the road. She will be back here in minutes I should expect”

“I know,” I smugly replied.

****************************

As expected Marie was at our door exactly 23 minutes after she was carried away. Within the hour Ivan Milovac was there too. He didn’t speak, neither did I; I just handed him the cat and he walked off in a huff.

Three times he called that evening, each time saying nothing. I did the same. At least he didn’t come up in those ridiculous slippers. The last time he came that evening I just hadn’t got the heart to let him know that his flies were undone, another dignity-reducing sight. We assume that he kept the cat locked in that night, as we didn’t see her until the following morning.

This went on for some weeks. He would come to our door. I would hand over the cat. He would storm off. I had genuine concern that he may give himself a heart attack if he carried on like this, but he never showed any sign of giving up. Losing was not in his blood.

One day we were in the supermarket buying our weeks groceries, including cat food, when Mrs. Milovac came along the aisle pushing her trolley in the opposite direction to which we were going.

We each smiled a greeting but apart from a “Good morning”, no-one spoke. As we went along the next aisle she came again. We met by the mushy peas.

“Mr. Peterson…”

“Please, call me Roger.”

“Roger, I really don’t know what to say. You see…”

“It is fine Mrs….”

“Rose.”

“It is fine Rose. We do understand that you are stuck in the middle in this. We have no issue with you.”

“It is just that he cannot be seen to lose. Every mealtime is spent with him talking about how he will make the cat come back to us. He doesn’t seem to realise that HE is part of the problem. He locks her in, smacks her when she climbs on the furniture, shouts when she meows to go out. Of course the cat is not happy at home. Neither am I come to think of it. Oh! Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Please excuse me.”

Off she went with her trolley. Mavis and I just looked at each other knowingly and said nothing. We both felt very sorry for poor Rose Milovac.

It was worse after a business trip of course. Milovac would go off for three or four days, during which time life would become quite normal for us and Marie. Then he would return and the whole farce would get going again.

Knock, knock, knock. Open door. Hand over cat. Close door. Wait for cat to return. Knock knock knock…….and so on until one day I couldn’t be nice any more.

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous this is making you appear Mr Milovac?” I blurted out one day. “Every evening when you come home from work you come here for your cat, a cat that clearly hates you and hates living with you. Why don’t you let it go and get yourself another cat if it means so much? I would even be very happy to pay for it for you.”

He looked at me with trembling lips. At first I thought that he was going to cry, but then realised it was pure anger. He looked me in the eye and said, “You will never win.”

During the first week of December we had a freak snowfall. One Saturday night we went to bed with clear skies and relatively mild temperatures. It was a beautiful evening with many houses already decorated with Christmas lights of various colours and brightness. It was one of those evenings where one is very happy to be alive.

During the night the wind got up and temperatures plummeted. The snow came down in sheets all night. As it was a Sunday we lay in quite late, snuggled up together. Around 9 o’clock I came down, expecting to see Marie in the kitchen waiting for her food. We had built a cat flap a few weeks earlier, despite the issue of Mr. Milovac and his persistent behaviour. I noticed immediately that it had snowed heavily overnight. The snow had drifted with swirling winds so that all sides of the house had drifts up to the window sills. Opening the door was impossible at the back of the house.

I promptly thought of Marie, being outside in the snow, and hoped for the first time that she had been locked in down the road at the Milovac’s.  I proceeded to make a cup of tea to take back to bed when the familiar knock knock knock came at the front door.

I carefully opened the door, trying not to let too much snow fall into the house, only to see a duffle-coated, snow-covered, horrible little man standing there demanding that I hand over his cat. My instant thought was for Marie. If she wasn’t with him, where was she?

“She isn’t here,” I said. “I thought that she was with you.”

“What have you done with her? I want her now before I call the police.”

“Now calm down and don’t be so impatient. First we must find out where she is. It must be minus 10 degrees out there. I hope she is safe. You better come in.”

Mr. Milovac stepped inside, removed his long wellingtons and we went through to the kitchen. I opened the kitchen window and gave a whistle that I hoped she might recognise. I was still in my pyjamas, bare footed. It appears that Marie had been crouching under the next-door-neighbours shed as shelter from the snow. Her cat flap was out of use, nearly two feet below the snow line.

At my whistle she managed to scramble onto the wooden fence between me and my neighbour and gingerly walked along the top, knocking off little clouds of snow as she progressed. At the end of the fence, where it joined the house, there were approximately three feet between her and the open window. She sprang towards the window but her feet slipped on the icy fence and she didn’t make the distance, sliding off the kitchen window sill into the deep snowdrift.

I stuck my head out of the window and could see nothing, not even a hole where she had disappeared into. The snow had covered her leaving no trace.

I turned to Milovac as he was dressed in thick winter clothes and told him to get out the window quickly. He refused, mumbling something about not having his wellies on. Our eyes met as I gave him the most contemptuous scowl. “Fuck you,” was all I could muster.

I leapt out of the window into the snowdrift. The ice instantly chilled my whole body but I only had thoughts for poor Marie, so cold and terrified down under the snow. I scrambled around like a madman trying to find her, when my hand touched something. I grabbed it in both hands and sure, enough, surfaced with Marie. She was bewildered and frightened. The cold was quickly getting to me. Luckily Mavis had come down due to the commotion and helped me crawl back in through the kitchen window.

We sat on the carpet, frozen, totally wet, but happy. Marie leapt into her basket and began licking herself warm again. I began laughing, feeling rather silly in my soggy pyjamas, until my eyes fixed on the third person in the room, Ivan Milovac.

“Get out,” was all I said.

He turned in shame, slowly put his boots on at the door and left. Mavis quietly closed the door behind him.

“Roger, I suspect we may have seen the last of him,” she said with a loving smile.

 

****************************

 

That Christmas was rather special. John and Maria, our two children came home from university for the holidays. We celebrated our Christmas together as a family just as we do every year, except this year we had one small addition to enjoy it with.

Nature or Nurture

Nature or Nurture

The entanglement of the various influences of genes and the environment, particularly in the formative years of a person’s life, has been the subject of much debate over the last century. In the following story I leave it to the readers to establish their own opinion, if not a general one, at least one relating to the life of Jack Weston, whom I met during a low point in my life. I was having family difficulties of my own at the time and his personal account gave me much food for thought.

How much of Jack’s personality has been permanently altered when compared to his natural genetic makeup, we can never know, but to come through such an early life unscathed by the traumas and confusions that he experienced is improbable and must surely have had a significant effect on his final make-up.

This is his story.

*****************************

It was the last day of school before the summer holidays. Jack, already at the age of seven, had learned to dread such times. He failed to understand why most of his friends had been so excited to be going home for six weeks, whereas he knew that for him it would be a time of great difficulty and sadness. He also was old enough to anticipate on return to school, the familiar stories of far off places, of sun and sand and long evenings with parents, being allowed to stay up until the sun had gone down. He would have no such stories to tell, but would try to make something up just to appear normal, which only added to his terrible feelings of discomfiture.

Jack was a sullen boy, small for his age, with almost no friends. He wasn’t allowed to have real friends, ones that could come to his home to visit as others is his class did. The only one he could call a ‘part’ friend was Emily. They often walked home from school together as they were the only two children who weren’t collected daily by their parents.

On this last day they walked the short distance to their homes, hardly speaking, both in deep thought about the coming holiday. Jack finally broke the silence.

“Where will you be going for your holiday this summer, Emily?” he asked.

“Only to my Gran as always”, she replied, “That’s where Mum and Dad send me every year.”

“Is it in another country like Spain or Portugal? Robert Wilkins says he is off to Spain again for four whole weeks, and Josh is going to Portugal. He said it’s only possible to get there in an aeroplane.”

Emily looked at the floor sadly. “No, I don’t think it’s in another country but there are some woods to play in.” Then even more melancholy, she added “But there are no other children, only Gran. What about you? Where do you go?”

“Oh we’re going to Africa to hunt tigers and watch elephants drinking in the rivers.” Jack had seen this in a book and it was the first thing that came to him. Emily looked so depressed and he saw a small tear form in her eye. “What’s wrong Emmy? You’re crying.”

“I just hate the holidays. I always get sent to Gran’s and it’s so boring. Mum and Dad don’t want me at home. They say it is because they have to work, but I know they just don’t want me.” She then burst into tears. Jack didn’t know what to do.

In a sudden rush of guilt he blurted “I lied. I’m not going anywhere. I never do. I only said that to try to be like the others. Please don’t tell them when we get back to school. Please don’t. I promise I’ll be your friend forever if you keep it a secret.”

Emily stopped crying and suddenly felt very sorry for Jack. “I bet Robert and Josh were lying too. They are probably just like us and have a horrible time.”

“Yes, probably.” However even as Jack spoke he somehow knew that was not the case.

As they reached Emily’s house, they stopped walking. “You are my only and best friend Jack.” With that she kissed him quickly on his cheek and trotted up her garden path, taking one last turn to wave as she went through the front door.

Jack skipped home as happy as he ever was, still feeling the kiss on his face.

*****

Jack’s Dad was always at home. He wasn’t like the other Dads as far as Jack could tell. They all seemed to go out every morning and come home in the evening. His Dad was always sitting watching TV and growling.

In truth Pete Weston was the most disputatious of men. Normally unshaven and in foul mood, Jack tried to keep away from him most of the time. His mother also seemed to be afraid and kept clear whenever possible. Jack assumed she was afraid because he saw how her hands often trembled when she held a glass, which was most of the time.

As Jack crept through the front door, trying not to let them know he was home, he heard his mother crying. This was not unusual, so he didn’t go to her for fear of coming face to face with his father. That would surely bring a reign of blows down on him. Instead he crept up the stairs to his room and stayed quiet with his book of African safaris.

Jack stayed in his room until quite late. Despite his hunger and the fact that his parents would insist that he went to the fridge to get his own supper, he contumaciously refused to follow such orders, more through stubbornness than through wilful disobedience. He fell asleep but woke again after it was dark. His tummy was rumbling and he knew that he would have to descend the stairs for food. Slowly, one step at a time he crept down, listening for any murmur.

On peeping his head round the living room door he saw his mother lying face down with a horrible stink all around her. He knew the smell as he had experienced it many times. Dad was nowhere to be seen.

“Mum, wake up,” he cried. “Mum!” He shook her but there was no response. Jack ran outside and began banging on the window of the house next door. He banged for ages until eventually Mrs. Parsons came out.

“What on earth! What’s wrong Jack?” She asked, without waiting for an answer as it was clear that she must go into his house to see for herself.

Five minutes later police cars, ambulances, flashing lights were in the street and before Jack knew what was going on he was sitting in a police car with a very calm and pretty young policewoman. She was holding him close and speaking to him gently.

“Don’t worry little chap. Your Mom will be all right. She is just not very well today and will be taken to hospital. We will have to look after you for a few days, won’t we?”

“But, what about Dad? Where is he? Why isn’t he here to look after Mum?” Even as he asked the question, he knew that his father never looked after her. More likely give her a slap or demand another beer.

“Your Dad has gone away for a while, Jack. He has done some naughty things. Didn’t your Mum tell you?”

“No, I went straight to my room after school.” Jack suddenly felt a heavy surge of guilt that he hadn’t gone to his mother when he heard her crying earlier. Maybe he could have helped.

“Never mind. Everything will be all right. You will see.” The police officer gave him another hug to assure him that he would be safe.

*****

Jack was taken to a children’s home. He was given a bed for the night in a room with another small boy. They didn’t speak all night but Jack couldn’t sleep. He wanted his Mum and promised himself that he would never leave her alone again when she was crying. Next time would be different. He felt so wretched that he believed it was somehow his fault. He sagaciously concluded that it was no fault of his mother, but was definitely linked to the behaviour of his awful father.

The next morning he was taken to the home of a family. The Morrisons had two children, one boy of the same age as Jack and a little baby girl. Their Mum and Dad seemed very nice and Jack was told that he would be staying with them for a while until his mother was well again.

He remained there for the complete summer holidays. Mrs Morrison, who was a dumpy woman and spent most of her time baking in the kitchen, gave him a room of his own and fed him as he had never been fed before. Mr Morrison, a swarthy man but also gentle and kind, took him to the park at weekends with their son Peter and they played football, had picnics and swam in the lake on hot sunny days.  Jack was confused. He was happy, apart from missing his Mum terribly, but was finally beginning to understand what a holiday is. He imagined that this was what his classmates had meant when they were excited about the school holidays. He believed that they all went to other Mums and Dads where they would be treated kindly and looked after.

One day Mrs. Morrison said to him, “Jack, next week we will be going on holiday for ten days. Would you like that?”

“But I am on holiday, aren’t I? I thought that this is holiday.”

Mr. and Mrs. Morrison both laughed. “Well, I guess it does seem like a holiday for you, but this is just normal life for us. A holiday is where we do something different. We are going camping in a tent by the seaside. There will be lots of new things to do.”

Jack lay in bed that night trying to make some sense of it all. It seems that there are different meanings to holiday. There was holiday from school, holiday away from Mum and Dad and now holiday in a tent. He pondered about which type of holiday the other children in his class talked about when they returned to school. That night he reposed sweetly in his new home, feeling safe but missing his mother constantly.

The following morning he asked Mrs. Morrison if they could go to see his Mum before they went camping. She looked slightly worried but after making a phone call, came back with a smile and said that they can go that afternoon.

They pulled up outside a great mansion, as Jack imagined it. “Is this a hospital, where Mum is?” he asked.

“Well, sort of,” replied Mrs Morrison. “It is called a rehabilitation clinic where people like your Mum can get well again.”

“Will she get well soon?”

“We all hope so, Jack. There are experts here who know how to look after your Mum really well.”

As they went in and found Mrs. Weston’s room Jack ran to the bed. His mother looked very pale and weak but hugged him as though it was for the first time.

“Are you being looked after nicely Jack?” asked his mother.

“Oh yes. We play football in the park and have some scrumptious cakes and puddings that Mrs. Morrison makes every single day.” At this he realised that his felicitous description might make his Mum think that he didn’t love her anymore, so he added, “But I still want to come home to you Mum. When will you be well again?”

Mrs. Weston dropped her gaze and said that it would take a little while longer. She told Jack to enjoy the camping holiday and they could see each other again after he came back, and not to worry, things would be fine soon.

*****

The camping holiday was the best time of Jack’s life. He became very close friends with Peter. They even decided one day down by the river, to become blood brothers. They bravely nicked their thumbs with a small penknife and promised everlasting friendship with their thumbs pressed hard together.

The time flew by. Jack almost forgot about his mother for a while, which gave him pangs of guilt on the occasions that he did think about her.

Just as they were entering the last week of the summer break Jack was returned to his home, where his Mum was waiting for him with open arms. She looked different, more beautiful than he had ever seen her. He reluctantly said goodbye to the Morrisons and went into the house, the automatic reaction suddenly kicking in with anticipation that his father may be inside. Mrs. Weston noticed the look of apprehension and quickly said, “No need to be afraid. We are all alone Jack. Just us.”

That night Jack lay in bed remembering his first real holiday. He missed Peter and Mrs. Morrison the most but deep down was glad to be back home with his Mum. After a while he sneaked out of the bedroom and peered around his Mum’s bedroom door. She was still awake, smiled and opened her arms for him to join her. They slept the night huddled together as though nothing could ever separate them again.

 

*****

Back at school Jack was eagerly ready when the teacher asked some of the children to tell about their summer break. When it was his turn he stood up and told about his new friend Peter, their camping holiday, fishing, swimming and all of the great new things that he had experienced. He left out the part about his Mum’s illness and his Dad’s disappearance.

His teacher smiled at him knowingly and gave him words of encouragement for his wonderful account. Jack sat down proudly, but not before noticing the deep sadness in his friend Emily’s face. She had no story to tell.

*****************************

I met Jack Weston in a bar somewhere in Birmingham two years ago. He was on business, something to do with diesel pumps. When we came across each other I was pretty well the worse for drink. After a short cheap affair with my secretary I had been thrown out of my home three days before. Jack told me his personal life story over a few more beers and I told him mine. I was so taken in by the misery that we adults can inflict on our children for the purpose of our own selfish indulgences that, during our exchange, I descended into a deep and dark place. My heart turned black when thinking of my own two children. Johnathan was eight and Louise five.  Jack’s story made me realise that I must save my marriage and fight with all my might to get the family back together. If not for myself, at least I must fight for the wellbeing of my wife and children, as I didn’t want them to follow in Jack’s footsteps.

I did manage to reconcile with my wife, and the wounds are slowly healing.  He has saved our lives.

In the years following Jack’s first holiday he had a few more, some of them with the Morrisons, but also with other foster parents. Mrs. Weston eventually kicked her addiction for alcohol and is now a loving grandmother of two. Jack and Emily (yes, it is the original childhood sweetheart) live a quiet but happy life in a cottage down by a river, where he plays football, swims and goes fishing with his children.

Peter Weston was released from prison but never returned to their home. Jack had no knowledge of his whereabouts and also no intention of pursuing any.

Today Jack believes that his difficult childhood and the relationship with his parents and various foster parents have altered his nature and personality completely.

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Down and Out

 

tramp

I lie cold and tired. The questions in my mind slowly drifting in and out like a butterfly flitting between cabbage leaves. The moment a new thought settles, it is quickly floating away again, to be replaced by a new random one.

Is every life so fragile, or is it just me? Perhaps I am simply reaping the consequences of my actions. Ah well, this question is no longer of any real importance. It is too late for me to worry now.

Although it is merely a few months, it feels more like years, since my world began to fall apart. Maybe the financial crisis was to blame, or those leeches at the banks, or perhaps it really is all down to me, not being strong enough to live in this cut throat world. In any case, it doesn’t matter anymore. I am now the fool, the beggar, the scumbag. I am the one some call a ‘stinking humanoid’.

Originally I had it good. With a first class honours from Birmingham, management team position at Price Waterhouse and my first six figure salary at thirty, I was set up for the good life. For a decade I lived like a king, never imagining that it could end.

But it did.

It started with redundancy, loss of job and company car. Even my laptop disappeared with my work. I consoled myself in the close relationship I had with Jenny, until she followed soon after. Our relationship had been strong while the paycheque constantly arrived. How naïve I was to think love has no boundaries. She was off like a shot, leaving the words ‘failure’ and ‘loser’ hanging in the air, like an invisible fog, ever ready to wound my little remaining dignity.

I tried to search for another job. They were scarce, with hundreds of applicants for each position. I had no chance. My heart was not in it, maybe it was broken.

The next to go was my apartment.  I was out on the street before I could blink.

I couldn’t face going to family or friends. They have their own lives, and in any case the shame is far too great to share it with them.

No. It’s better to be here where no one knows and probably no one cares.

It’s better to be here, helped by a bottle of gin and a few scrounged fags from the passers-by. I am almost invisible here, free of my shame, free of my dignity. Those that do notice, mostly look at me with pity or sadness, but some of them with disgust. It is these that seem to believe that I chose this life, that I am lazy or trying to cheat their society. I feel sorry for these poor people, without any compassion to understand or feel my pain. These are truly the sad people of our country.

It is becoming colder now. I welcome the numbness.

I welcome the end.

 

Walkabout

 

A San Bushman boy with a spear.

Nhuju Kassie lay still in the long dry grass. He paid no heed to the searing heat of the sun. An intense urge to scratch at his left buttock came over him, where a fly was playing with his delicate senses. Even at the age of nine, he knew that such a slight move might give him away. He gritted his teeth against the irresistible urge to scratch, and watched with a fearful curiosity as the strange looking people crossed the desert ahead of him.

His instinct was sharp. He could sense the fear and could smell the people. They appeared and smelt as nothing he had ever experienced before. His sudden deep longing to be back in the cosy hut with his parents and siblings was pulling knots in his stomach. He sensed danger.

Nhuju Kassie was from the #Khomani community of Natal province. He was out alone for the first time in his life on a three day walkabout, his first step towards manhood. He was sent out by his parents, without food or water. He had no clothes to protect him from the sun, or tools to help him kill for food. The San people believe that they are at one with the nature. At an early age they learn to survive in the most uninhabitable conditions. This was Nhuju’s first test.

His taught muscles remained still as he stared at the line of small wagons. He counted eighteen people. Twelve of them were like him, brown skins, but with different faces. He knew that they were not San, and remembered overhearing the words of his parents as he lay in his cot at night. He had heard them talking about the new dangers coming from far away; From people who spoke and acted differently; From people who were cruel and wanted to harm them. His instinct told him that these were such people. Six of them were pale skinned, carrying long strange sticks. He could see that they were sweating, probably the cause of the stench he had become aware of almost an hour before he saw them.

Suddenly one of the pale men pulled his stick to his face and pointed it in front of him. He watched in amazement as the man swirled round, pointing the stick at a baby antelope, which had somehow become separated from its mother. The sound was deafening. A loud clap vibrated in his eardrums as he saw smoke appear from the stick. At the same time the antelope calf fell, first onto its front legs and then as if in slow motion it tumbled down onto its side.

calf

As the man began laughing Nhuju forgot all he had learned. The shock of the rifle shot and the evil power he sensed caused him to break out into a run. He tried to keep low, but was spotted by one of the black men. As he ran, he heard the dull muttering from the group and sensed that they were running after him. He ran as fast as his little legs would carry him, but it wasn’t long before he heard their steps behind. Knowing that they would soon catch him, he stopped dead, lay down, and froze. As if in death he stilled every muscle, every nerve, and every breath. He heard them stop and converse in their strange language. Then they spread out. He concentrated on becoming part of the desert, blending in as an invisible part of the nature, just as his father had taught him when out hunting.

He felt the shadow wash over him as a giant approached. Still, he lay motionless, aware that he would soon be dead, just like the baby antelope.

Nhuju then opened his eyes to the sound of loud laughing. The giant towered above him, rocking with laughter before he said, “Well what do we have here? Is it a boy or a little desert rodent?”

Two other giants came around and joined in the laughter, before grabbing Nhuju like a wild animal and carrying him back to the group.

“Look what we have here Buana”, said one of the giants.

“This is a desert boy; A Bushman. Their village must be near here. Where is your village?” The voice came from one of the pale men, the same one who shot the antelope.

Nhuju stared at the man’s stick. His curiosity was more intense than his fear as he studied it, realising that it was no ordinary stick, but something far more complex. He could never make one of those without help.

As he looked up at the man, the words of his parents kept ringing in his ears. He had never seen one before, but knew that these must be the evil strangers his parents were talking about. They smelt so bad. Nhuju, trying to control his shaking to avoid showing any fear, spoke to the man, “what do you want with me? Let me go.”

The white man grinned. He heard only the clicking consonants of the San tongue. He watched with some interest as he realised that this little boy was trying to speak to him. He seemed to be using his throat, nose and pallet all at the same time, which fascinated the white hunter. Then his grin became more serious. “We will learn nothing from him. Move on,” he commanded.

As the native who was holding him relaxed his grip, Nhuju broke free and ran for his life. He glanced round to see if they were following him and saw the deadly firestick pointing at him. He prepared himself for the pain and his quick return back to the earth and the reunion when he also would become dust.

John Duggan raised his rifle and had the little bobbing head of Nhuju is his sights. He knew that he could not miss. He squeezed the trigger slowly and the shot rang out across the desert floor, causing snakes to stiffen, rats to dive and ears to prick for miles around.

Nhuju heard the shot but kept running. John Duggan had raised the rifle at the last minute and fired into the air. With a thoughtful sigh, “Come,” he said. “We have wasted enough time.”

Nhuju realised that he was still alive. Eventually he stopped, turned and saw the train of carts and men marching off into the distance, leaving only their smell to hover on the sand, like an invisible cloud of human terror and destruction.

He was tempted to return immediately to the village, but knew that this would be considered failure in his father’s eyes. How he longed for the comfort of his family, but knew that a man must learn to fend for himself. He must continue for two more days before he can return to that bosom.

Nhuju wandered in the desert as was his destiny. Survival was automatic for him. He found water where there was none, he ate beetles and insects. He slept under the hot sun and was excited to be on this mission. In keeping with the long San traditions he merged to the desert and they coalesced in a peaceful serenity. The two days passed quickly.

While entering the village he tried hard to keep a glowing smile from his face. He was a man now, and must be serious like his father. Laughing was for children. He imagined how proud his parents would be when they saw him. How his mother would prepare the welcome feast for his return. Although this was the first of many walkabouts and he would have to kill his first antelope before he would be fully embedded as a man of the tribe, for him this was the most important one. It was the first step towards manhood.

He entered the external boundary of the village and stopped short as he realised that something was wrong. A feeling of sheer terror came over him as all of his faculties raced into overdrive. He could hear no children playing, no sound of women as they pounded the food or sat chattering around the cooking fire. It was quiet, and worst of all, the evil smell of white men was in the village.

Nhuju let out a frightening howl which shook the very ground when he saw what must have happened. The village had been decimated. Most of the huts were destroyed. The ground was dotted with red patches and gleaming white bones, where the bodies of his family and other families had been cleaned by the nature of the desert.

Nhuju sat for two days under the hot sun. His little body shook with the sobs and memories of his family. He concentrated to remember all he could from the stories he had heard. These stories would be the only record of the village, the only memories to carry forward. He swore to himself that he would keep the images of his family with him forever.

As daylight emerged on the third day Nhuju slowly came to his feet and walked out of the village. He will never celebrate with his family the final step of his journey into manhood, the killing of his first antelope.

This would become his final walkabout.

san family