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.