Copyright: Graham J Wright
Six pieces depicting elements of life
The Gun Captain
At the outbreak of war in 1939, a colonial governor and his wife decide to send their 8 year old son to family in England for safety. This story depicts the emotional parting before the ship leaves. The story has an unfortunate outcome.
A farmer’s son returns from the hall where he is indentured to the Squire who has joined the colours. The farmer appraises the horse he is riding and announces that it should fetch 50 guineas. The boy protests that the horse if a gift to him from the Squire and that on reaching the age of 17 he is to join the Squire as his batman.
A loving home and all encouragement, a 12 year old girl is withdrawn and friendless. School teachers, guide leaders and music teachers, all write her off. The family holidays in Provence where the mother inadvertently discovers that the girl has hidden talents.
A local man is affectionately regarded by his neighbours, but not quite tolerated.
A boy mourns the loss of his grandfather who left him his old, well-used briar pipe and a silver hunter pocket watch.
A man, an anonymous man dies suddenly. His neighbour realises that she doesn’t even know his name. Six weeks later, she is visited by a solicitor who delivers an astonishing message.
THE GUN CAPTAIN
Young Henry clung to his mother’s hand as the ancient Rolls negotiated the uneven timber surface of the wharf and drew to a stop at the ship’s gangway. Native policeman sprung to open the doors. His Excellency, Sir Henry Mason, stood and surveyed the chaotic scene. The sun beat down, stirring dust and odours, divesting the place of colour. The garrison band valiantly beat out a selection of show tunes.
Sir Henry ushered his wife and son to the gangway and paused at the brow to raise his hat to the shrill of a bo’sun’s salute. Captain McKay offered his hand to Lady Mason as she stepped onto the deck: “Welcome aboard Your Excellency, ma’am and master Henry.” After a lifetime at sea his voice carried still, the lilt of the Isles.
The Governor took the proffered hand; “Good to see you again Captain. When did we last meet, home leave ’36 I think.”
“Aye that’d be about it sir. May I lead the way, I think you’ll find my day cabin a might more comfortable than the deck.”
The party followed the captain up three decks, where he opened a polished mahogany door and stood aside to allow his guests to enter. Her ladyship paused and smiled; “Captain, this is heaven, it’s so cool!”
“Aye ma’am, it is, but old bones need a little comfort in these climes.”
“Air-conditioning,” ventured the Governor, doffing his panama, “I hear that even private homes are using it in America. Sheer decadence, wouldn’t you say?”
“You might,” responded McKay, “I’ll not argue with that, but it’s a blessing here. You’ll take some refreshment? Young Henry, my steward presses a fine limbu pani! What can I offer you ma’am? I recall that his Excellency would seldom reject a glass of malt.” Lady Mason asked for the limbu pani, the lime water.
The captain gestured; “Do make y’selves comfortable,” he said as he poured two generous measures of malt. “I’ve made certain arrangements for master Henry which I trust will meet with your approval.”
McKay pushed a bell and a Goanese steward appeared; “Ah Fernandes, my compliments to Mr Bennett, would he please to join us.” He turned, “Bennett, our newest cadet, will share his cabin and take Henry under his wing.” McKay lowered his ample bulk into a well-worn chair and regarded his glass; “You’re health sir.”
The Governor raised his glass; “Slainte“, he responded. “So, captain, what do you make of this mess, are we in for a long one?”
“Hard to say sir, the feeling at home is that there’ll be an accommodation and it’ll all be over by Christmas.”
“And your estimation…?” A knock interrupted the exchange and the captain said “Come.”
“Ah Bennett, my boy, I’d like you to meet Sir Henry and Lady Mason, and this is master Henry, your charge for the voyage.”
Bennett seemed remarkably self-assured for his age: “Sir, ma’am, I’m delighted to meet you.”
The captain waved Bennett to the day bed on the for’ard bulkhead. The boy turned to the Governor; “If may sir, my father asked me to convey his regards to you, should I have the chance…”
“Good lord, not Freddie Bennett?”
“Yes sir, I’m his eldest son.”
The Governor appraised the boy; “Well, well—yes I can see the resemblance. Your father and I were good friends, in the same year at school, you know that?”
“Yes sir, he told me. He also told me that you were the best all-rounder the first eleven ever fielded.”
“Mmm, I don’t know about that. Is your father still with the company? But, how is your mother?”
“Mother is very well sir, taken the family down to the country. Father thought that for the best till we see how things go. He stays in town and visits at weekends. Yes, father is a senior director now.”
Captain McKay held his glass up to the steward who was hovering; “You’ll have just one more for the gangway Sir Henry?”
“Well, I ought not, but since it’s an occasion, just a chota peg perhaps. Thank you.”
The captain paused; “Bennett, why don’t you take young Henry and show him the cabin and get him settled in. His bags should be up by now.”
“Very good sir.” He tipped his head to the Governor,” Sir, ma’am, with your permission.”
The Governor turned to his wife; “What d‘you think Margaret?”
“What a nice young man, I’d say he’s a credit to Freddie and Lucy, and it’s splendid that he’ll be company for Henry on the voyager. How old is he captain?”
“15 ma’am. He was headed for the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, but with the hostilities, Mr Bennett decided that he would be safer in a merchantman. I didn’a like to disabuse him, but after what I saw in 1917, I doubt it.”
“And this trip?” queried the Governor.
“I don’t see a problem. It’ll take a bit for both sides to become effective and we can take advantage of that. A call at the Barren Rocks, quick passage to Suez, and we’ll join a fast convoy from Port Said. Should be in London town first week in December.”
“The Colonial Office assure me that everything points to an uneventful voyage. The phony war, they call it. But can it last?” The Governor eyed the captain over the rim of his glass, seeking reassurance for Margaret.
McKay responded; “Och aye, I think they’re right. Given good weather through the Med we’ll be steaming at 20 knots or more and from Gibraltar north, we’ll be under the eye of Coastal Command. Pray for a good gale in the Western Approaches to tame any U-Boats that are out. No, I think we can look forward to a safe and pleasant voyage home.” He downed his dram with relish. A sakuni, a quartermaster, reappeared and addressed the captain in Hindi.
The Governor clapped his hand to his forehead; “Damn, I’d forgotten about that.”
“Y’ ken the bolo then?” asked the captain.
“Enough to know that we’ve left poor old Ayah standing in the heat at the gangway. Perhaps we could collect Henry on the way down. I’m sure Margaret would like to see the boy’s cabin. M’dear?”
“Yes, that would be nice, but I don’t really want to leave Captain McKay’s—what do you call it—air-conditioning?”
“You’re welcome to join us for the voyage ma’am.” The captain suggested as he led the party down a companionway to the accommodation below, stopped and rapped on a door labelled “Gunroom”.
“Gunroom?” queried Lady Mason.
James Bennett opened the door; “Oh, please come in”, he stepped back to allow the party to enter. Henry was full length on one of the four bunks. He leapt to his feet, excitement in every gesture.
The Governor took in the scene; “Well Harry, will this suit you?”
“Oh mummy, James has let me have the bunk under the porthole and we’ve been to see the gun!”
His mother raised her eyebrows; “Gunroom, gun, what’s going on?”
“If I may,” said the captain, “We mount two twelve pounders, one for’ard and one aft, anti-submarine protection — or so My Lords at the Admiralty decree and believe. DEMS, Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships, and we entertain six gentlemen from the Royal Artillery, to man them.”
Hopping from one foot to the other and unable to conceal his excitement; “Captain McKay, how far can they shoot?”
“Weell laddie, I think you’d best talk to the bombardier about that. They exercise the gun often, so you’ll be able to see a shoot and ask all you please. We’ll give the Hun a broadside if they try anything! Bennett, do y’ think ye could find a tin hat for master Henry? By the way Bennett, why is your cabin called the gunroom?”
James Bennett did not pause; “I’m afraid I don’t know sir. I apologise.”
“Well, perhaps you could find out and when ye have the answer, drop a note to Lady Mason with an explanation.” decreed the captain with an evil grin.
Henry was hopping from one foot to the other; “Oh mummy this is so exciting!”
“Henry dear, Ayah is waiting at the gangway to make her farewells. May we captain…”
“Certainly ma’am,” he replied, consulting his silver hunter, “thirty minutes to sailing. Perhaps you would allow me to have Ayah brought up to my day cabin for the farewells. More comfortable up there, ye’ll recall.”
The party again ascended to the captain’s accommodation and had barely settled when there was a commotion in the alleyway. Fernandes the steward entered and was clearly agitated. “Captain sahib, one Indian fellow is wanting to talk to Governor sahib, I told him…”
The Governor recognised a beaming Patel waving his camera. “If I may captain — what is it Patel?”
“Sahib, I am official Government House photographer by appointment and I am tinking this official occasion must be photographed, isn’t it?”
Sir Henry couldn’t conceal a grin, Patel had an eye to business; “You’re absolutely right Patel, we should have some photographs — but we don’t have much time — captain?”
“Twenty minutes Sir Henry. You’d want to take them here?”
Patel held up his ancient press camera; “Sahib, sahib better promenade deck, has more room and shade….”
“With your permission captain — and will you join us for a group?”
At that moment young Henry, Bennett and Ayah appeared, the latter looking somewhat flustered by all the attention.
“Right then,” said Sir Henry, “Everyone to the promenade deck for photographs, perhaps you’ll lead the way James.”
There was a brief interruption as a European in well-worn and stained overalls blocked the alleyway; “Aye captain, busy I see, permission to start main engines?” he asked in an unmistakable brogue.
“Aye, if you please, we’ll be away on time. Er Tom, afore ye go, I’d like you to meet Sir Henry and Lady Mason. He turned to the Governor; “Your Excellency, may I introduce Tom McFarlane, chief engineer.” McFarlane self-consciously wiped his hands on the trade-mark rag that draped his shoulder, before taking the Governors proffered hand; “You’ll excuse me sir, I’m delighted. Ma’am.” He said, inclining his head to Lady Mason.
Meanwhile, Patel was ready on the promenade deck and the next ten minutes were occupied with photography; several family groups, shots of the whole party and, at Henry’s insistence, a picture of Ayah and himself. Ayah caused some mirth when she picked up Henry as she had done when he was a toddler, and settled him on her capacious hip. She kissed him and said; “Heneree, you always my baba, come home soon.” Patel missed the shot, being busy changing his film slides, but at Lady Margaret’s request he took a picture of Ayah and Henry with their heads together, beaming at the camera.
The ship’s siren boomed and the party broke up. Captain McKay took his leave and accepted an invitation to dine at Government House on his next trip. He instructed James Bennett to see the party to the gangway.
Henry remembered to ask for copies of the photographs to be sent to him in England. His father assured him that a packet would be sent to his grandmother as soon as possible.
The Governor shook hands with James Bennett and asked him to convey his regards and good wishes to his mother and father; “You must join us for dinner James, next voyage.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll look forward to it.” said James replacing his uniform cap and stepping back, saluted. The Governor smiled and raised his hat.
There were a few tears among the final hugs, then the Governor, Lady Mason and Ayah descended the gangway as the seamen waited to hoist it aboard.
James Bennett fossicked in the pocket of his uniform whites and handed Henry a paper package which, to his delight, contained some coloured paper streamers. He proceeded to aim them at people on the wharf and saw Ayah catch one with a broad smile. He waved and shouted to his parents and finally his mother relented and moved forward to catch another.
At last, the ship began to move, sideways, hauled by fussy little tugs, and an expectant hush fell over the wharf. The band struck up a rendition of “Will ye no come back again” and, as the streamers stretched and broke, swung into “Auld lang syne”.
Gubernatorial dignity thrown to the winds, Henry Mason moved forward to join Lady Margaret and Ayah as the ship edged away. Margaret turned, emotion showing; “God Henry, are we doing the right thing, he’s only eight years old…” Ayah sobbed quietly as her streamer snapped and fell into the tide.
A maelstrom erupted under the stern and the bows swung toward the stream. Soon, both screws turned ahead and as the helmsman caught the swing, the big ship made deliberate way. In deference to Ayah, they stood until the ship cleared the outer breakwater and picked up speed. Henry Mason recalled his wife’s question; “He’s in good hands dear. Mother will spoil him rotten and Beccy will be pleased to have her little brother at home. They’ll be fine.”
As the party left the car at Government House, the driver intercepted Henry Mason and handed over a brown paper parcel with an envelope attached. The note was brief; “A little cheer on a sad day. With all good wishes…Angus McKay.” Damn you Angus McKay, thought Mason as his throat tightened with emotion. Thank you…
Three weeks later, the Governor sat in his office and found it hard to concentrate. The jalousie shutters did little to moderate the overpowering heat and the ceiling fans would not bring relief till the generators tripped in at sunset.
Charles Willoughby entered with the mail; “Any news of your relief Charles?”
“No sir, father writes that the regiment has accepted me, but there’s yet no recall. It’s beastly waiting when I know most of the fellows are already with the colours…”
“Well cheer up, my boy, I can always give you a local commission with the Border Gendarmerie.”
“That’s very kind of you sir, but it’s the regiment you know, a family thing. My great grandfather was colonel at Lucknow during the siege, won a VC.”
“Yes, I know. Look, if it would help, I’ll cable the Colonial Secretary. See what he can do. In the words of the song; ‘Don’t want to lose you…”
“That would be very decent of you sir.”
And there it was, a neatly addressed envelope, postmarked Port Said. It took precedence over official mail and as Henry extracted the single sheet of paper a garishly hand tinted photograph fell out. He studied the picture which showed a serious Henry Arthur John Mason holding the halter of a camel in front of the Great Pyramid at Ghiza. A smiling James Bennett and a slightly older man looked on.
Dear mumy and daddy
This is a smashing adventure. We fired the gun in the Red Sea and I was allowed to signal the bombardier to engage. I was on the bridge. The gun fires for more than two miles! The bombardier gave me an empty shell. Wish I could have a live one. I’ll keep it to show you. The Serang painted “Gun Capt” on my steel helmet. Captain McKay says I should wear it if we are attacked.
Mr. Thompson the Chief Officer, James and I took a taxi to Cairo and we visited the pirimids. We saw a native run all the way to the top and down again. He wasn’t even puffed. I gave him 10 piastre. He was funny, he said long live king George and king Farouk. Then a man, just like old Patel, took our picture and said that it would be on the ship at Port Said. It was, so I’m sending it to you and mummy. We had lunch at Shepherds Hotel. An air force man ask me to say hello to you, but sorry I can’t remember his name. Well, I can’t write more now as James says I have to hurry to catch the post.
With much love to you both and to amina, Henry
Henry Mason hurried to find his wife who was quietly reading in the shade of the massive old banyan; “Here it is. He sounds in great form.”
Margaret Mason scanned the letter; “I’m so relieved to hear from him. The officers seem to have adopted him. He’ll never forget this trip. I think you’re right dear, I’m glad we decided to send him home.”
The Governor paused; “Who’s Amina?”
Margaret smiled; “Why Ayah of course”
“Oh dear, she’s been with us since before Henry was born and I didn’t even know her name. I wonder if we can somehow get her a copy of the picture. I’ll ask Patel if he can do anything.”
Sir Henry, as good as his word, had Patel copy the pyramid photograph and produce several black and white prints. One copy was neatly framed for Amina, together with one of her and Henry taken on the ship. The original, also framed, had pride of place among other family memories on the piano in Margaret’s sitting room.
Lady Mason had by now allowed herself to be convinced that they had done the right thing in sending Henry home, but found it hard to reconcile the fact that it might be years before she saw the children again. In private she shed the odd tear, but in public maintained a stiff upper lip.
A few days later, Sir Henry found the Jamidar waiting at his office door; ”Cable effendi” he said, saluting.
“Thank you, Mohamed,”
He took the cable marked: “Priority Personal,” slit the envelope and shook out the flimsy, it read: “RMS Kalastan lost to enemy action Cape Trafalgar 0400 25th instant. STOP Regret no survivors REPEAT no survivors. STOP Details follow. STOP Bennett STOP”
With a sense of foreboding, Luke Reilly returned to his father’s house in August 1914, a few days before his sixteenth birthday. Living at the Hall, he had been able to distance himself from the poverty and insularity of his parents’ existence. But the war had altered everything.
As he approached, for the first time in a year, he noted that the small house seemed to be even more dilapidated. The cheap paint had deteriorated and flaked, in places the weatherboards had shrunk and buckled to leave uneven gaps. Several windows lacked glass and had been crudely repaired. Even the trees looked sad.
His father emerged from the barn when he dismounted and tethered the pony to the old hay rake. “Whose nag is that?” he demanded, by way of greeting.
“It’s mine father, Sir Charles gave her to me.”
“Mmm,” the old man said appraising the mare, “Well it’ll have to go, we’ve not enough fodder for ourselves. It’ll likely fetch fifty guineas, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I am obligated to Sir Charles father, I can’t sell the pony.”
“Obligated, obligated! Since when has a free born Reilly been obligated to the likes of Charles Hay?”
“Sir Charles has joined the colours…”
“I know, I know, his war, not ours, more fool him. I came to this benighted country to get away from the English and their airs. So, what’s he want from you?”
“When I turn seventeen I’m to report to the regimental depot in Christchurch and present a letter of introduction. I’m to become Sir Charles’s batman, his servant.”
Luke thought that his father would have a seizure, and so secure had he become in the benign and kindly ambience of the Hall, that he was unprepared for the blow to the side of the head that sent him sprawling in the mud. “Over my dead body boy. I’ll hear no more of this, now to the house and when you’re changed into something serviceable get back here and be ready to earn your keep!”
Luke’s head was ringing, but he hauled himself to his feet, avoiding his father’s gaze, took the reins and walked unsteadily to the house. He was barely able to suppress his tears. He knew that his mother had been watching and sure enough she emerged and gathered him into her arms, and led him to the door. “Luke I’m so sorry, so sorry…” she said resignedly, “But you’d better do what he says or God knows what’ll happen.”
Luke composed himself, “May I please have some water mother?”
“Of course,” she said, hurrying to the churn, “Have some fresh milk and I’ll heat some water so that you can wash before you change.”
Luke took the proffered mug and sat in his father’s chair at the end of the table. “Thank you, mother, I’d like to wash, but I’ll not bother to change.”
“Not change, what do you mean? You can’t work in those clothes; they must have cost a fortune.” She eyed the costly tweed suit, the waistcoat, the tie and the burnished brown boots. How could the boy have come by those, she wondered, not on his pay?
“Mother, I came home in good faith. I had intended to help here until I’m old enough to enlist, but I’ll not consent to such treatment. So, unless father is prepared to receive me as a son and a valued member of the family, rather than as a punch bag, then I must leave.”
Mary Reilly noted the turn of phrase and decided that her son had become quite the little gentleman. She could not decide whether this was good or bad, although she feared that it would only incite Patrick Reilly. Maybe that was the problem she decided.
At age 12 Lizzy was a dreamer, she’d always been a dreamer and refused to be distracted by the attempts of her parents to, as they put it, “bring her out”. Her mother felt that there might be a problem, but her father dismissed her worries; “That’s just our old Lizzy, away with the fairies.”
It was not that Lizzy completely switched off, just that she was content to observe rather than to take part in what was going on around her. She was happy to wait until the door opened, the door she saw in her dreams, that beautiful door that held so much promise. She mentally dubbed it her “Ginger bread door”.
Donna was not so much a close friend, rather a self-appointed guardian who enjoyed mothering Lizzy. They had been together since pre-school and she intuitively recognised that Lizzy was not of this world. She encouraged her as best she could, and when necessary she covered for her, but accepted that Lizzy was most often elsewhere.
Miss Baggley, the Guide leader, had been frank, she regarded Lizzy as an unacceptable liability. She told Lizzy’s mother that she and her assistant simply did not have the time—and she might have added, the inclination—to devote to a girl who would not keep up on outings. She also questioned Lizzy’s interest in Guiding activities. Lizzy was secretly pleased when it was decided that her Guide career was over.
Miss Holloway, the music teacher, was kinder in her assessment of Lizzy’s potential, predicting that she could become an accomplished pianist, if only she would extend herself. She seemed content to play for amusement rather than to strive for improvement, she said, but she always played with feeling and comprehension. Had Mrs Taylor thought of Ballet lessons for Lizzy, she wondered.
Lizzy had been ritually enrolled for weekend tennis and hockey, but the coaches were unequivocal, thumbs down, one went so far as to suggest that Lizzy might be happier as a spectator!
Reports from school were more circumspect; “Elizabeth is a quiet and polite student, but inattentive in class. She needs to assert herself more if she is to achieve her full potential”, was the anodyne appraisal. It also suggested a need for more one on one attention and encouragement at home. “A bob each way,” was Bob Taylor’s comment as he signed off the report and promptly forgot about it.
But Lucy Taylor was worried and resolved to talk with Lizzy’s teacher. What more could she do she wondered, to encourage? Lizzy had as much one on one time as she appeared to need and anyway, she clearly preferred to be left alone. Perhaps that was the problem. Lucy smiled, recalling that all Lizzy had asked for her birthday, was a large magnifying glass. She now spent hours outside, in the garden and in the park, peering at leaves, insects and anything that caught her fancy.
Anyway, term ended in a couple of weeks and then they were off to Provence, to their favourite beachside campground, for the sixth year in succession. They customarily stayed for four weeks, allowing a full week for excursions to places of interest along the coast and inland. Naturalement, the magnifying glass was packed for the trip.
On arrival they soon caught up with families with whom they had made friends on previous holidays, indeed they had exchanged cards at Christmas and Lucy had acted as a sort of group co-ordinator to ensure that they all booked adjacent sites and synchronised their stay. For the adults, the holiday was about wine, food, sea and sun, with a modicum of easy-going flirting.
All the families, one English, two French and a German, had children around the same age and Lucy sensed that Lizzy tended to become more involved and opened up to the other children during these holidays.
One day during the first week, Lizzy and Laurens, a boy a year or so older then she, had returned early from the beach, settled into the shaded communal patio area between the vans and opened a large bottle of coke. It was soon evident that they did not know that Lucy was resting inside. She was then astounded to hear Lizzy conversing in fluent, apparently faultless French, especially as, to her certain knowledge Lizzy had never had a language lesson in her life! She listened, a little guilty at eavesdropping, but excused herself on the grounds that she could not really follow the fast-paced conversation. She was fascinated. As far as she could tell, the conversation consisted of easy teen banter, comparing tastes in music, lifestyles, and the idiosyncrasies of parents. After a while they were joined by Isolde, a blond and tanned German beauty of 15 whom Laurens had set his cap at within hours of arrival. Forgetting the interpersonal politics, and to Lucy’s further astonishment, the conversation then switched to German, with Lizzy giving as good as she got. Lucy could not begin to assess her daughter’s fluency in the second language, but it sounded impressive, and at one point she was interpreting to French for Lauren. Just as she had resolved to stay put and listen, there was a scrapping of chairs on concrete, a tinkle of laughter, and the sounds of conversation faded as the three moved away. Lucy was at the window just in time to see them strolling arm in arm as the disappeared on the path through the dunes.
She could hardly wait to break the news of this phenomenon to Bob who had gone into Perpignan to stock up on wine and food. Would he know something that she did not? No, it was impossible; Lizzy had never ever had a language lesson, although next year she would have to take a European language at school. She smiled; on present showing she would be able to teach the school a thing or two. Perhaps that was the key, a facility with languages. Exchange visits for the children had been mooted, maybe that would help Lizzy open up.
There goes old Merv” say the locals with a knowing smile as he heads for his daily refreshment. You could set your clock by his passing, morning and evening. No fashion plate old Merv, his duds are country, practical and who needs an iron anyway? “Been alone too long” they’d say, “But he manages.”
It’s true, the cooks gone, the kids have gone, and now the old Mark II’s gone. “Good old bus that,” Merv will tell you, “But the boys in blue had me licence.” The scooter? “Well I never had a licence for that anyway.
Now the pub’s gone too. The landlord and patrons, endlessly tolerant, reckon the toll in glasses and spilt liquid was just too much. “Wouldn’t hurt a fly, old Merv,” they’ll tell you, “But, you know, his equilibrium suffers!”
Merv has found an alternative where, for the time being, he seems welcome. In the local rag he extols its virtues in doggerel of excruciating meter.
Feeling no pain, on calm summer nights, late, Merv likes to entertain his neighbours. Drums, accordion, or dustbin lid, he’ll render the ballads or the show songs of his youth, honed in the cheer of many a shearing shed.
Apart from “The old watering hole”, as he was wont to describe it, Merv’s principal recreation was splitting wood, but he was always ready for a chat over the fence. A pause for a ‘roll your own’. Nothing too deep; will the frost get the spuds, the chances of a hot summer, the rising cost of beer, or the latest sins of the local rugby team.
But it got him in the end, and a plaque in the village graveyard reads; “And quardle ooodle ardle wardle ooodle, the magpie says”
The great oak seemed to understand, to embrace him as he settled among the roots. It had been weeks since he’d been here with the family—on that day. Gramps had said he would be part of the tree—he’d always be here. Alfred smiled and scanned the dry earth, but there was no sign of the grey powder that had drifted across the roots.
He closed his eyes and painted a picture—in his mind’s eye. How many times had he sat with Gramps, hugging his knees and listening, whilst the old man pared a fill from a tight block of baccy. “Ticklers”, he called the rum soaked plug.The great oak seemed to understand, to embrace him as he settled among the roots. It had been weeks since he’d been here with the family—on that day. Gramps had said he would be part of the tree—he’d always be here. Alfred smiled and scanned the dry earth, but there was no sign of the grey powder that had drifted across the roots.
He recalled that familiar voice, the pauses as Gramps palmed the fill and rubbed it. The time it took to fill and tamp of the bowl. The leisurely striking of a Swann Vesta, then the fragrance of the first few puffs. “Alf” he had said, “I want you to have this pipe when I’m gone. It’s a good briar and it’ll last forever.”
Alfred held the pipe and wondered, would it work, would it bring Gramps back if he rubbed it like Aladdin. He set it against his nose and rubbed gently as the old man used to, to oil the bowl he said. Somehow the sheen didn’t seem so deep, so rich. Maybe the pipe had died when Gramps did.
In his mouth the pipe tasted dead, it was cold and smelled sooty and sour. Alfred tried waving the stem as the old man had, to make a point. “This is our land lad,” he would say as he pointed to the meadows in the bend of the river, “we’ve been here a thousand years. That’s where your name comes from, always one Alf in the family. A good Saxon name,” he said. Alfred put the pipe back into his mouth, to get it drawing again. Maybe one day dad would let him have Gramp’s plug.
Funny, he thought, Gramps never seemed to change at all, he’d always been the same. The same baggy suit, a jacket and a “weskit” in a rough, grey sort of cloth. A silver chain draped across his belly. His watch ticking away in a pocket. The shirt, greyish with a feint blue stripe was always buttoned to the neck. He seldom wore a tie. He’d bought the suit, he said, for the old Queen’s Jubilee. When he took his cap off, his head was pale white under a few wispy hairs. His face was brown and red, a bit like the bowl of the pipe.
Alfred settled back and thought about the stories Gramps had told him. Yarns he called them. Did that aeroplane really take the top off the steeple? He sat up and studied the steeple through the trees. It’s true, the top was a lighter colour than the rest. It was in the Great War, Gramps said, the pilot was lost in a fog. Mmm, maybe. Maybe one day he’d find out. Was there really a pet cemetery out near Kettering?
When Alfred woke the sun had gone and a mist was rolling off the river. He felt for the chain looped through his lapel and lifted the old silver watch from the top pocket and held it to his ear as gramps used to. Time to go home.
It was Sue’s favourite time of the day, kids gone, coffee brewing and the sun shining. But, no sooner had she sat down and picked up the paper than the doorbell rang, repeatedly. At the door she found a woman, distraught and barely coherent’ “Its Alex,” she said, “I think he’s dead! Please ring for an ambulance.” Sue turned, reached for the phone and checked; “Who’s Alex?” she queried. “Next door,” she replied, “he’s your neighbour!”
“OK, OK, I’ll ring. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Mrs Hancock, Mary Hancock, I clean and cook for Alex three days a week. But I hadn’t seen him for two days.”
Sue gave the details and address to the ambulance people. The ambulance arrived ten minutes later and Mary Hancock met them at the door. Sue didn’t go into the house and the ambulance men soon re-emerged. “Nothing we can do, he’s been dead a couple of days. “The police are on their way.” He climbed into the ambulance and called in on the RT.
Sue went back to her coffee, trying to shut out the activity next door. Funny, she thought, didn’t even know his name. But really it was none of my business. Better not to mention it to the kids, she decided.
The next morning the police arrived. “I’m detective sergeant Morris and this is WPC Newman. We’d just like to ask you a few questions.”
“If it’s about the man next door, I can’t really tell you anything. I seldom saw him and never spoke with him. I realised yesterday that I didn’t even know his name.”
“Ah,” said the sergeant, “Well it was worth a try. Open and shut case anyway, a heart attack, been dead a couple of days. I just wondered if you knew of any family, callers, anyone who might be able to fill in a few details.”
“No, like I say, I really didn’t know him. Oh, there’s Mrs Hancock his char, she might be able to tell you something.”
“Mmm, we’ve spoken to her, but she couldn’t tell us much either. Ah well, we won’t trouble you more — if you think of anything, well, you know where to find me.”
Sue took an interest in the empty house next door, wondering what the new neighbours would be like. Funny chap old…? She recalled that she still did not know his name. Ah well, life goes on…
It would have been six weeks later, she’d just returned from shopping when the door bell sounded. Sue took a quick peak through the lounge curtains — one man, soberly smart, brief case, middle aged. She noticed his highly polished shoes. Salesman maybe. No, too smart. She opened the door.
“Mrs Chambers?” he asked, “I wonder if you could spare me a moment. I’m Reginald Dobbs, solicitor, with Mason Mason and Dobbs in Maybridge””
“Solicitor?” said Sue ruminatively, “Something wrong?” Sue had never had any dealings with a solicitor and naturally associated them with trouble, the police, courts…
“No, nothing at all, I have some news which will certainly be of interest to you and I also need a few details about your son Jason.”
““Jason, what’s he done? You’d better come in,” she said at last with a resignation in her voice, fearing the worst. But Jason is only 12, what could he have done.
She led Dobbs into the lounge and invited him to sit. She took a dining chair opposite. Dobbs balance his case on his knee, flipped it open and pulled out a large manila file. “Mrs Chambers, your son is Jason Malcolm Chambers, aged 12 years, of 14 Jellicoe Street, Ridgetown?”
“I’m not sure that I want to tell you anything until I know what this is about.” She folded here arms determinedly.
“If you would just be so kind as to confirm the details I have just mentioned, then I can reveal everything,” He continued.
“Well you seem to know anyway, of course Jason is my son and he lives here with me — oh, and he’ll be 13 in a couple of months. Now what’s this about.”
“Mrs Chambers, your former neighbour Alexander James Nelson left the residue of his estate in its entirety to your son Jason.”
“What! Why would he do that, we didn’t even know him. I didn’t even know his name till you just said it. Jason certainly didn’t know him. I warned the children not to have anything to do with him.”
“Mmm, it’s not relevant, but why did you warn the children off?”
“You want to know? Well I spotted him one day at a window watching the children through a pair of — you know, those…”
“Yes, that’s right, binoculars.”
“Mmm, well Alexander was nothing if not consistent,” he added with a smile, “But no matter, Jason benefits from Mr Nelson’s generosity, that’s really all that matters.”
“How much?” queried Sue, dismissing the binoculars and suddenly realising that something might yet come out of this.