Beautiful Game

I checked. Water, adaptor and pump and set off for the park. As I arrived there was that feeling of reassuring pleasure at the recognition of the others already here. John was missing but only momentarily. His appearance met with delight. We had a confirmed three a side.

The cool breeze took the edge off the warming morning sun. The grass dry and cushion like eased our saunter down to the far end of the park to set up. We discussed how long it had been with lockdown and shared the excitement of anticipation.

  It was a lazy day, no rush, gentle banter as we marked out the pitch with plastic cones Bruce had brought. It should have been jumpers for goalposts but Bart had managed to get a set of small plastic ones used for training. Bonus.

 After a gentle jog we picked teams and considering the increasing heat decided to begin with twenty minutes each way and three touches only and see where that took us. No ferocious tackling, a socially distanced softer approach. A pleasure of stroking the ball around the pitch. Just been lost in the companionship of sharing time with others after the weeks of isolation. The joy of just partaking in a game.

At half time we sat, in silence at first, enjoying our drinks and the pleasant light pungency of the grass. No pressure. In that silence I was back, a child behind the houses where I was brought up. Drawn to the memories of the joy in just playing through summer holidays that seemed to last for ever. Annoyed when called in for dinner. We had proper dinner in the middle of the day then. Gulped down to get back out. Where the games were not based on time but first to ten. Mainly I suppose because no one had a watch. Where we donned the persona of our idols. Usually Celtic versus Rangers. A tricky Jimmy Johnstone on the wing. A solid John Greig at the back.

One summer Steve Campbell’s father brought us a load of sleepers and we built a small stand where our younger brothers and sisters sat and even some mums came to watch.  We lived in a long street with little rivalries between middle and ends. It was strange but the top end always seemed better or maybe that was just because that’s where I lived and that those at the other probably felt the same about where they lived. Nevertheless, we had a street competition that joined us all together. Middles and ends. The following week we did the same thing at the other end of the street. Memories!

Refreshed we began the second half and played with the same joy as the first. The further twenty minutes fired us up and we’ve decided we’ll do the same next week. I never checked if anyone had or has had similar thoughts during or since our game. However on reflection between us we have spent probably over three hundred and sixty years on this earth and are still in love with the beautiful game.

Shore Street

A Hard Winter Day 16th December 1954

 The bottom half of Shore Street ran the length of Inverness harbour. It consisted of a pub, warehouses and dwellings. Number Thirty five was the last before the railway bridge over the Ness. A stone built house. The gable ran parallel to the rail line for the pug locomotives used for light shunting. They took goods unloaded from the boats in the harbour across to the railway station to be shipped by other means to their final destinations.

The property, probably once one house, now consisted of four two roomed apartments and one single attic room over three floors. Outside crumbled mortar slipped from between the stone blocks. An old tired building its wooden stairs creaked complaints as the tenants trod to and from their apartments. A cold, drafty place. It took the full blast from across the open harbour when the wind was coming from that direction. A noisy lively area filled with the busyness from the harbour side across the street.

 The pug puffing as it shunted back and forth to the station. It’s smoke caught by those who had opened their windows on the sunnier days.  The work controlled by the season. Summer was good for the men unloading, extra hours of light, extra work, extra pay. The ship captains were  keen to unload and be off again as quick as possible. A few harbour workers saved this extra to compensate for the shorter working winter hours. Most used it in the Citadel Bar at the bottom end of the street was always filled with locals and visiting crews.

The area often heard strange languages and saw different skins. Men laughing, joking, occasionally arguing as they made their way back to their place to lay their heads. Some enjoyed the company of certain women from the town. It was no secret, accepted by most that it would continue, despite the frowns and occasional outcry from the church.

On less inclement days Mrs McInnes would sit outside against the edge of the wide sun warmed stone windowsill watching this busy world. A mug of tea and a relaxed inhaling on one of her, self imposed limit of, five a day Park Drive enjoying the exhale drift slowly out. She felt she got more pleasure from less smoking and less coughing.

She enjoyed watching the harbour men at work. Their hands signalling from the quay guiding the crane drivers on board the boats to safely settle the cargoes on the pug wagons or lorries. Most of the people passing knew her and acknowledged or spent time in conversation about the things of the day. Mrs McInnes was the Queen of Shore Street. The oldest and longest sitting tenant. She probably knew more about the history and development of the harbour area over the last sixty years than anyone. This was her kingdom and her subjects loved her with good reason. 

Dan Forbes had owned four houses in the street and Mrs McInnes collected the weekly rent and liaised with him on behalf of the tenants on any issues. She was a fair negotiator. Experience had taught her when a matter was valid to be raised with the landlord or not. The other tenants trusted her experience and knew when it was a valid issue she would fight their corner. Dan usually agreed. He was grateful for her as it often saved him unnecessary times of contention. When Dan died Gordon, his son became the landlord. She remembered as a boy who sometimes, usually during school holidays, came with his father to pick up the rent, his eyes lighting up at the homemade pancakes she had made for his visit. He also recognised her negotiating skills and remembered the pancakes. When he became the landlord he informed her the apartment was rent free for the remainder of her life.

  Mrs McInnes’s, who was now in her eighties, apartment was on the left by front door. She and her husband Donald had come from Skye in the 1890’s with their two children. His brother had a job lined up for him with the Highland Railway. The couples’ plan was to raise enough money to pay for the voyage to America to start a new life there. Emigration was a common occurrence at that time. But they fell in love with the town and remained. Donald went to the Somme and never grew old.

The Cooper family had one of the two apartments on the first floor. The other apartments, one on the ground floor and one on the first were both rented by older retired couples who kept much to themselves.

Young  Peter and Sadie Fraser, had married in March and  had moved from his parents house  into the one attic room in October. Sadie had been over seven months pregnant and Mrs McInnes was concerned how the young couple would cope in such a small space with the baby. There was a gas stove but no running water. They had to use the communal bathroom on the first floor. They had not been the first couple who had started out in the attic room. Over the years Mrs McInnes had helped other couples to manage through early days. Each Christmas the number of cards arriving reflected how appreciated the help she’d given had been.  

She had stirred hearing the clink of bottles and the main door’s creaking. Still dark. It would be Davie Cooper or Peter. Early, probably Peter if the milk was involved. No rush, another snooze in her cosy bed heavy with blankets then rising and wrapped in her dressing gown and snug in her slippers she opened her front door to find the milk by the side of the doormat. It had been taken from the street and placed there. She was right. Peter,” Davie never did  the milk’, Peter was a thoughtful young man. She would pop up and see Sadie in a little. Once she got her legs going enough to tackle the stairs.

After Peter had gone out to work Sadie finished feeding and changing the baby taken him back in with her to share the warmth of the bed. Her breath misted in the cold room enhancing her pleasure of the warm blankets.

“I think we’ll stay here until your dad comes home” she whispered, brushing her lips across the baby’s forehead. The thought had barely settled when she remembered it was Thursday. The Fraser’s washing day. Too much. She felt catastrophised by the thought of washing and coping with the baby in this cold.

The wee communal laundry room was stuck out in the back yard. It was a pokey affair, a Belfast sink, the depth ideal for clothes washing and a hand cranked mangle. The water pipe bandaged a precaution against it bursting during the winter. Just the image. She pulled the blankets and herself tighter, fraught, tears rolled down warm on her cold cheeks. It was early days the boy was four weeks old.

  Mrs McInnes was a Protestant. Religion, or religious denomination could impact on housing and employment and the Catholic minority were often not so welcome by some employers or landlords in the town. She had noticed rosary beads in Sadie’s bag when she had come up to collect the first rent. Her view was that there was good and bad in all and that denominations were different routes to the same destination at the end of the day.

 A missionary from Africa had come to the kirk in Skye one Sunday service when she was a young girl. A rare occurrence raising excitement amongst the congregation.  He also Mrs McInnes left an indelible message. If in any doubt what to do in any situation. Stop and think what would Jesus do?

She found it hard to settle at church when she moved from Skye but persevered until the children had grown up. She read her bible daily and believed a Christian life was one lived in an attitude of love and compassion for others. You don’t have to go to church to do that, Jesus didn’t. She decided he would be okay with that. Something in her conscience told her he understood.

            Regaining her breath Mrs McInnes knocked on the door.

 “Who’s there?“

“It’s me, Mrs McInnes, just popped up to see how you were getting on?”

 Sadie responded slowly, trudging, opening the door and stepping back. The red eyes plain to see.

“Now, now what’s the matter? It’s frozen up here. Your man no put the fire on before he went off to work?” Her soft tone dismissed any recrimination within the question.  

“He’s on early. Six to two. The coal’s almost gone so we’re saving the little we have for the evening when it gets colder. We’ll be alright he gets paid tomorrow. “

“How’s the bairn?”

“He’s fine, she replied dropping the blanket back on the bed.  “Would you mind keeping an eye on him if I put him in his cot while I nip down to the toilet?”

“Here, I’ll have him.” Mrs McInnes’ children had both moved south for work in Glasgow. Although she was now a great grandmother she saw little of the family. She was always pleased when new young life arrived at Thirty Five. The stolen hugs in Sadie’s absence were priceless.  She felt the contentment in the small baby. Despite the cold room he was warm and smelt of talc.

Peter Fraser energised by his rage thrust the coal that bit harder into the firebox. Angry that he was sweating in the heat as he fuelled the steam engine whilst he envisioned Sadie and the baby probably still sitting as he left them wrapped in the blanket staring at an empty cold fireplace. He’d bumped into Davie Cooper this morning on the way out to work. They’d briefly discussed the coal situation and a plan. Something would be done.

Mrs McInnes pulled her cardigan and the baby closer. The rattling old attic window offered little protection from the icy blast coming across from the harbour. She’d have word with Gordon Forbes about the windows.

Sadie returned.

“Listen love it’s your washing day, Thursday. The laundry room will be like ice. I can take the baby into mine in the warmth while you get your washing done? “

Sadie was hesitant about leaving the baby initially, but the offer lifted the heaviness of the day from her shoulders.

“That would be fine, save me having him out in the cold in his pram.”

Mrs McInnes appeared just as Sadie pulled the last of the wash from the mangle and put it in the basket. It was not coincidence. She could see the laundry room from her back window so knew precisely what stage Sadie was with the washing.”

“ Listen, you’ll  have a job getting this lot dry with no heat up there. I’ve got a good fire on we can put them on the clothes horse by it and get them dried off. Look at you. Your hands are blue. Let’s get you in and have a tea. The baby’s fine, fast asleep.”

Mrs McInnes living room was also her bedroom and the small figure lay safely in the middle of the bed.

Sadie felt soothed by the tea. “Have you put…?”

“Just a drop to warm you,” as they both glanced over at the bottle on the sideboard.

Sadie warmed to Mrs McInnes, she felt safe and relaxed with her. She had settled back in the armchair, head up, no longer heavy and the dull eyes brightened.

Mrs McInnes observed the outcome of her work with contentment.

“What time’s your man due home?”

“The back of two.”

“Listen, it’s just turned twelve. I’m not going anywhere your welcome to stay awhile. I put on a pan of mince and some tatties when you were busy at the washing. Too much for me to eat maybe you could help me out.” Mrs McInnes turned the offer into a request knowing it would make it easier to accept.

Sarah accepted, smiling at how many times the old lady started her conversations with, listen.

 There are those who listen and those who wait to talk. Mrs McInnes was amongst the former. She engaged mostly in silence with Sadie’s conversation, her eyes, the slight nodding of the head, the accompanying soft smiles her means of communication.

By the time Sadie was due to go back upstairs for Peter coming home she’d shared a lot about herself with Mrs McInnes, but she was left feeling unjudged glad she’d risked it. How she felt about baby, the changes the he could make to her relationship with Peter. The hopes and dreams of this only been a short- term home for them as a family.  

Mrs McInnes went first carrying the baby and Sadie came up the behind her with the washing and a bowl of mince and tatties for Peter.

“Listen my love I’m always here if you need me. Just give the door a knock. Better that way. Those stairs seem to get steeper by the day.”

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

 “I’m not sure about that Mrs McInnes, you got to be careful with people like that. Nosey, wanting to know your business.”

“The baby’s been warm all day, the clothes are washed and dried. It would have been so much harder without her help. She even sent up a meal for you. She’s not what you think at all anyway she me told how grateful she is that you take her milk in for her when you’re on early Peter. You’re not that hard a man.”

“The mince and tatties were almost as good as yours. She’s alright that Mrs McInnes,” he smiled and winked at her. All was well.

Peter sat admiring the baby in his arms. “I’ve got to go out later for a wee while.”  

“Not to the Waterloo, we’ve no money for you to go drinking.”

“No, listen I promised you no more drinking. I’ve changed now we’ve got the boy to think about. He’s growing already. So beautiful. I want to do the best for him and you. Trust me!”

The gardens behind the houses that included Thirty five backed onto Lairds the coal merchants. Coal in December was a precious commodity. Mr Laird was aware of this fact and recognised the benefit of a night-watchman.

  Wullie Gordon, viewed by many as stronger in the body than in the head. The tedium of sitting out by the warmth of a burning brazier through the night bothered him little. For a single man married to the drink it was ideal job. He’d spend a couple of hours each evening in the Waterloo before coming to the yard. Apart from Thursdays.

Sometimes as he passed the landing window going down to use the toilet before bed  Peter saw  Wullie’s  figure silhouetted by fire in the yard. The glow casting a light across to the large piles of coal ready to be sacked and distributed.

             He had no qualms about relieving Mr Laird of a small amount of his vast stock. The difficulty being how manage it without involving Wullie. He was a tricky character. Not a nasty soul by any means, but unpredictable especially if he was on the drink. He knew the watchman would gratefully accept a token bribe but likely whilst in the throws of alcohol to tell someone in the Waterloo what he’d done in confidence. Peter knew confidences were hard to keep in small places. He had no wish to be caught out stealing coal and he didn’t want Wullie to lose his livelihood either.

Davie Cooper was slighty older than Peter but life or at least financial life was similar although Davie’s love of the bookies meant his life was a mix of feast or famine. Davie was kind of family, he was Peter’s cousin’s brother in law whatever that made him. He was safe to talk to about the coal. Davie was in a time of feast, so they agreed to try and get Wullie to the Waterloo for a while. Davie promised to avoid the bookie’s and use his current flourish  to buy Wullie drink if he could get him  to the Waterloo. That would leave Peter the chance to get to the coal.

 If there was any night it would be Thursday, Wullie would be skint and he’d long lost the option of credit. He’d be a bit craving of a swallow

In winter the men finished in the coal yard around five o’clock, but Mr Laird worked on until seven o’clock in the shed, he called his office, when Wullie arrived. The entrance to the yard like the gable of Thirty five ran parallel to the pug line. It was an imposing heavy wooden gate which was only opened to receive or send out deliveries. A small door was inlaid on the gate allowing access at other times. Usually Wullie sat with it open early evening.  

Peter left the attic around eight promising Sadie there was no drinking involved and that he would be back within the hour. He knew if he told her the reason for going she’d be more worried than if he was going to the Waterloo. He remained just inside the front door and Davie walked past the gable end down to the yard.

“You down there yet Wullie?”

 Aye, who’s there?” he barked, whilst blinding Davie with the beam of his flashlight.

“Aye it’s only me, Davie. Looking for the cat before I go out. It’s dead quiet down here. Is it always like this.“

“Aye, only sound usually hear around is the rats scurrying in the yard. They’re always busier at night. Not that keen in being around folk you know.”

“Anyway, I’ll be off. Just heading down to the Waterloo for a couple of pints. Had a wee win on the horses so a bit flush for a Thursday. Shame your working, I could have stood you a couple. See you!”

 Davie had barely turned before the bait was taken.

“ Davie, I thought I might take you up on the offer. No life here apart from the rats. I’ll just padlock the gate. No harm nipping away for a wee while. I’ll  I just padlock the gate.”

As the pair headed off Peter scurried to the back door collected the ladder he left earlier against the back wall placed it on the fence and quickly clambered over into the yard. The sky was frosty star bright enough for him to see without the need for the torch he’d had in his pocket. He quickly, filled three sack’s he’d picked up from the pile of coal nearest the fence. 

His strong stoker’s arms and shoulders made lifting the sacks easy. He carefully climbed the ladder he placed on the yard side when he came over. He carefully dropped them into the garden. Came over himself and emptied a sack into each of three coal sheds before going back over and putting the empty sacks on the pile. Hard sweaty work. He could feel the cold on his back as the two men approached him as he stood back at the front door.

“Hi boys. How’s the crack? Where you been?“

“Me and Wullie’s just been for a quick couple of pints and drams in the Waterloo. Ah had a wee win on the gee gees so I treated him. “

“Nice work if you can get it Wullie boy.”

“I needed it, warmed me up. It’s alright for you boys your cosy beds and your women me off to my fire. Anyway, I’ll away back. Thanks Davie.”

“How did you get on ?”

“All sorted, I put a sackful in your coal-shed and one in Mrs McInnes as well as mine.

“Warm rooms all round tonight then Peter?”

“Just going to get some and head upstairs, see you Davie.”

“Where did you get that Peter, I think I can guess and it’s all over your face.”

“What if you got caught?”

“Don’t worry I’m just going to burn the evidence.” He smiled placing the full coal bucket down by the hearth, stoked what was left of the old fire before adding fresh coal.

The small attic room soon warmed, the cold outside forgotten.

“It’s an early night for me!  I’m on at six again tomorrow.”

“ Clean sheets today, you need to go have a wash down in the landing bathroom before getting under them. I’ll warm the bed for you coming back. Don’t get any ideas boy, too early for anything more than a cuddle yet.

The glowing embers cast a soft light around the room. The baby fed and asleep. In this peace they lay tight her back against his front.

“He whispered, “It’s payday tomorrow.”

She tensed.

Don’t worry, it’s not the Waterloo on payday now. I was going to say I’ll nip into the bakers on the way home get a couple of our favourite snowball cakes to have.”

 At this moment she was in love with her world.  It had been a good day.

Wullie Gordon pulled his greatcoat collar to his neck as his legs toasted by the brazier.

They think I didn’t know what was going on. That Davie is usually too parsimonious to put his hand in his pocket. I smelt a rat then. The daft boy standing by the door coal dust streaked on his face. Well worth it for a couple pints and drams he reflected as he got back to his crossword.

Ma McInnes had watched it all, she could see the garden from her back window, was grateful for the coal, felt in her conscience God understood and remembered her Donald carrying out the same operation many times in years gone by.

Naya

  As the only survivor, fear drove me to make the long journey to safety.

 Settled in the new place I had lost that fear of attack. It was peaceful here. The cubs wrestled safely in the small clearing by the den. August had returned with breakfast. He’d left early. His space outside was empty when I’d checked before the dawn. They licked around his mouth encouraging regurgitation. There was a furore of feeding as they attempted to conquer too large lumps of fur and fresh meat. My heart warmed at the determined but not savage swing of his snout to separate them when it was becoming more ferocious than necessary.  

            Shards of the morning sunlight struck between the trees warming the cool earth of the late spring. I wandered down to the pool. The soft warm soil was a comfort to my front paw. The injury from the long trek here was slow to heal. Refreshed I sauntered back enjoying the space and sounds of the woods.  

I had barely returned to the den when they, having finished their food, scrambled back in after me, pestering to suckle. Habit, but suckling days were over. I was dry now. They bunched and bumped behind and around me as I returned to the pool with them. Fed and watered they rolled and tumbled back bursting with energy before flaking into a sleepy bundle in the back of den.

August lay resting in his usual position, out of the shadow of the trees, gaining the optimum benefit from the sun. Disturbing him, I nuzzled him, tasted him, licking the remnants of breakfast that his tongue had been unable to reach. I stretched and his head moved under me his nose snuffling my belly. He settled back down and closed his eyes again. I left him to his sleep.

            A spear of heat pierced my neck as I reached the entrance to the den.  A taste of iron flooded my mouth as my throat burned.  My head was swimming. I crumpled gaining stability from being on the ground. The cubs flustered around me. The warmth was draining from my body.  I could feel the innocents taking advantage of my weakness tugging at my withered teats.

Drawn up, a bloodied image lay below, a wreath of red around my neck, seeping further down my body staining my grey fur. The cubs oblivious continued to shuffle around. The desire to care pulled me back down. In those moments I looked across the clearing.

Yes, a movement in the nearest trees, a silent signal, just enough to let me know he was still there. I saw his head, his pained eyes glistened gazing into mine. Turning away, he stretched his head back a silhouette against the sun. The piercing sound of his howling pain at this injustice brought an unendurable tearing in my heart. I fought to stay awake as  I watched August’s final backward glance before he disappeared forever into the deeper wood.

Motivated by the story of Naja the first wolf to be sighted in Belguim for over one hundred years.            

What lies behind the fireplace

It was the summer of 1976. The dust and soot were slowly clouding the room and clogging up my nostrils. Putting down the hammer and chisel I opened the living room window to try and clear the air. The old fireplace was being stubborn, refusing to leave the wall. Another attempt and it gave a little, the thin gap widened to finger thick, light crept in. I noticed a piece of paper that was in the space.

            I unfolded it. It was a betting slip. Five pounds on Manchester City to beat Birmingham City in the 1956 F.A. Cup Final. I put it in my back pocket ready to begin again but was stopped before I started.

“How you getting on Tom “?

“Hi  Harry.”

“Joyce is just making a cuppa if you fancy a break?”

“Aw, this fireplace has a mind of its own, I’m having a hell of a job getting it off the wall. A cuppa sounds good to me” My future in laws lived a few doors further along the street.

            Small Heath. Industrial remnants. Old red bricked back to back houses. The narrow rear garden a suntrap. Runner beans and tomatoes flourished against the outer kitchen wall. Joyce’s pride and joy. We three sat out at the garden table, in the warmth, but in the shadow of the corner by the back door. The tea refreshed washing the dust from my mouth. I was renovating the house before my wedding.

“I’ll come down and give you a hand with that fire for while after the this if you like?” Harry offered.

 I remembered the betting slip.

“I found this behind the fireplace,” I said pulling the paper from my pocket and handing it to Harry. “It’s a betting slip from the 1956 F.A. Cup Final.”   

“Manchester City, they beat us. I was at the match,” he replied, taking the slip from me. He looked at it and passed it to Joyce. The atmosphere changed our cosy chat was interrupted by a lengthy silence that followed their knowing glances.

“I think you need to tell him,” Joyce said.

I was intrigued.

Harry took a drink then leaning forward he began.

“I think you may have found a vital piece of information about the tragedy that happened the day after that Cup Final in 1956.  The Dawson family lived at 28 Maxsted Street, your house.  Three of them. Maude Dawson, she worked down the Hotpoint with Joyce. She lost her husband John in the war, Dunkirk I…….

“Get on with it Harry, Tom doesn’t need to know this all this stuff,” urged Joyce

  He continued, his thunder slightly stolen, the opportunity to embellish confiscated by Joyce’s reprimand.

              “Okay Joyce. Terry and Derek, the twins, were my class in…”

               “Harry! “

               “Okay Joyce, but I need to give Tom a bit of background info. They were both twentysix.”

               Joyce shook her head in dismay, I smiled.

               “Terry supported the Villa and Derek the Blues. They went to Wembley for the cup final together. They had a heavy night of drinking after the match. Terry got up first the next morning looking for his betting slip which he was determined he’d left on the mantelpiece before going up to bed. Still semi – drunk he stormed back up the stairs and began shouting at Derek accusing him of taking the slip. Then the tragedy happened.

In court the evidence was that Mrs Dawson had appeared from her bedroom to see what all the noise was about, by which time Terry was pulling Derek out of bed. She told them to grow up.  They used to fight like cat and….”

                    “Harry! “Joyce interjected

                       Harry continued, “Still raging, Terry attempted to push past his mother to go back downstairs but only managed to make her over balance and tumble down in front of him. Derek was behind him by this time. The betting slip forgotten they rushed down to their mother. She was dead, broken neck.”

                      “The police came” he quickly added, “I remember Sandy Pritchard, a policeman who went to school with me, guarding the front door. “He glanced over to Joyce, no response, embellishment allowed.

                      “It got sadder, Terry  somehow managed to give Sandy the slip and just disappeared. They found his body in the canal basin by The Watering Hole three days later. You know Bill’s the grocer’s shop on the corner that used to be Frankie Bernardi’s the bookie. The police checked with him and Terry had made a five pound bet on the Saturday of the match for Manchester City to win. But it had not been claimed. There would not have been a chance to until the Monday anyway. Derek had no offence to answer, but he was a broken man and left Birmingham after the funerals.”

                    “There was only a small gap behind the fireplace,” I said “I can’t see how that betting slip could have got down there unless it was pushed down. Do you think.?

                      “Don’t go there Tom “Harry replied, softly. “I’m not a betting man.” 

Go Your Own Way

It was his room, not theirs’! Mum slept in with my sister. Except when he needed her, but she didn’t stay all night. Sometimes you heard the muffled conversations in there. A there that was now empty of him, it had become a dingy, depressing room, stale, an ill place, the curtains seldom open. A dangerous silence, a creepy sense, a feeling of not knowing what you may find. The certainty that there would be the one visit that you’ve been dreading but also wishing for closure. We never knew if he was ready.

That visit had been and gone.

I picked at the paint on the door frame that was chipped when the coffin caught it as they carried him out. I stood on the threshold tense about crossing. Done, it was physically painless.  

Death seems to be all around, September 5th ,1972, the Munich Olympics, the massacre. I am twelve. The bedding lies ugly, untidy, unmade, the blankets latterly too heavy for his emaciated torso and fragile twigged limbs are now bundled at the base.

He was always his own man. Did things his own way. Selfish? If he were different could we have had more time? A better time? Alcohol, self- medication he called it. That was his wish. It worked for him.

     He is gone now yet he remains. The Richmond tipped, used twenty packs. A Gideons bible. Help or hinderance? A bottle of Old Spice aftershave and a half empty Johnny Walker Red label sit mirrored on the dressing table. Once again, I remember the instinct, the yearning to tidy, to make it nice for him, and that experience has taught not to. To accept that was not what he wished. Respecting was hard.

            A copy of the Racing Post, an unexpected catalyst, lies on the nightclub sticky carpet by his bedside. I have been robbed. The morning ritual right up until yesterday. It only took five minutes. Five precious minutes. I would read the form, the odds. Write his bet. Drop it off at his bookies at lunchtime, call back hopefully to collect at the end of school. It was ours, just ours. He always soothed us both quoting from Kipling’s If –

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss

A frivolity he attached to all his world.

She disturbs me, my mother as she pulls the curtains wide, sunlight invades the room, warming. The dust speckles amongst it rays. Opening, the window creaks, breeze brushing the curtains and a robin’s chirping echoes outside. She is tight, stiff , mechanically she clears the sheets, blankets, pillowcases, a pile in the small hallway at the stair top.

            She returns. Standing by the bed, with empty cradled arms, she swings them gently  towards the window. The sun catches the damp of her eyes. My older sister joins us and I smell her shampoo. He loved her golden long hair.  She comes closer to me, grasps my hand it feels comfortable. It feels right.

My mother drops her arms her shoulders relax, she turns to us, we hug she whispers.

“ His spirit has flown.”

Don Russell                                01/04/2019

Reconciliation

“They were great, Blues were, weren’t they Dad? Specially the second goal.”

“It’s the best I’ve seen them play all season.”

“Do you think they’ll get us some more in the second half.”

“If they don’t hurry up with the pies we wouldn’t get to see any of the second half.”

“Here, give me your hand until we get through this crowd. It’s frozen boy we need to get you some gloves for next time. “

“That was great Dad. They were even better in the second half. You were right you said at half time they would be. Best game of the season Dad.“

“Sounds like you enjoyed it son. Fancy the next home game?”

“That would be great!”

“We’ll arrange it with your mother when I drop you back.”

“Oh! I can’t come, I just remembered it’s Brian’s daughter’s birthday and Mum and I have been invited to her party. Ah, do you think I could ask Mum if I could come with you instead?”

“Don’t worry son, they’ll be other matches. I’ll wait here in the car until you’re in the house.”

“See you Dad. Thanks.”

“I enjoyed it Billy. See you soon.”

————————-

“John, what is it.?”

“There’s no problem Jane everything’s fine. I’d just reached the corner and I noticed Billy had left his programme in the car.”

“Come in John, come in. I’m glad you came to the door, I was going to ring you later. It’s okay Brian’s out but it doesn’t matter to me if he’s in or out anymore we need to move on.”

“Are you sure?”

            “Yeh, yeh. I’ve been thinking. I watched Billy tearing up the path. He came in full of it. The match, how you nearly missed the second half waiting for your pies. The great goals, how you both thought it was the best game of the season. He loves going with you. He said you asked him to the next home game. “

“Sorry should have checked with you first.”

            “Nah. Eleven trying to be eighteen, he told me he’d explained to you he has a busy social life and wouldn’t be able to make it because of the party. I could see by his face what he would have preferred.  I think he was worried about putting me out. I felt bad. I told him he could have gone to the match if wanted. That seemed to confuse him more and he trudged off up the stairs. I think we need to …”

“I know. Listen, I’m happy to take him to every home match but ….”

“I’ve been awkward at times.”

“So have I Jane. He’s more important than us.”

“I’ll give him a shout.”

“Billy son, your Dad’s here. Can you come down a minute?”

“You’d left your programme in the car I was bringing it in.”

“Billy, I was just saying to your Dad, they’ll probably be mostly girls at Molly’s birthday party. You’d be as well going to the footie with your Dad if you prefer. “

“If you didn’t mind Mum?”

“Billy you’re important to your Dad and me and we still both want what’s best for you even although we’re not together anymore. So, are we sorted then? I’ll go to the party and you and your Dad go to the match.”

“Ye!!!!”

“Oh Billy, I nearly forgot. Your programme that’s why I came back.”

Dad winked. Billy blushed.

“See you in two weeks son.”

Don Russell         18/03/2019

The Cycle

Tuesdays I saw him. He picked me up from school, his baggy blue dungarees wash faded and work stained from the garage and worn powdered blue at the knees.  The scent of diesel from them as I hugged his thigh. On sunny Tuesdays we sauntered neglectful of time along the canal path. When there was no else about he’d throw stones across the width of the canal. Once he hit a woman on a bike at the other side. We never told anyone.

The bibbed pocket at the front of his dungarees held his cigarettes and a silver Colibri lighter. When he smoked, half the tip seemed to slide through his lips, the smoke would be lost then it would float back out around the bottom of his nostrils. He also kept his spectacles, one of the arms was stuck with Elastoplast and there on Tuesdays Blackjacks.

It was a ritual, Tuesday. We never went into his house first we went into the back garden. My school bag and his lunch box were left on the door step.

We stopped at the pear tree, the muscles on his arms, his fore-arms steeled, as he lifted me high to grab those ready for picking before we headed to the greenhouse.

The standpipe in the greenhouse was too tight for me, he’d lean to help. The smell of his cigarettes and beer mixed with the aroma of tomatoes hung in here. Watering cans sat in the corner. The large galvanised one dwarfed the shiny brass one which had my name painted in white upon it.

After the plants in and out of the greenhouse had been watered we’d walk in silence round the vegetable plot. Sometimes he’d hold my hand , the veins on the back of his raised, or we’d  pull a bit of dead growth or newly sprouted weeds from here or there.  When the garden tasks were finished we’d get our things from the doorstep and go into the kitchen.

I usually had eight blackjacks, four for a penny, old money. He’d remove them  with everything else  from the pocket of his dungaree bib before slipping the shoulder straps allowing him to  take of his shirt.  He left his white singlet vest on and a had wash in the kitchen sink. On the top of his right shoulder there was a tattoo. Not a cross, but a crucifix, Christ was upon it. He was a noisy washer. Each handful of water hitting his face was accompanied by shooshing from his mouth, a sound like one may make coming in from the wind and rain. Finished,dried ,he’d go and change. He mostly wore a maroon woollen waistcoat fawn at the edges that my mother had knitted. I would eat my Blackjacks while he was doing all this.

My thoughts were interrupted by a small voice and a tug on my sleeve.

“ Grandad its empty“

I took the little old  brass watering can he offered me and replenished and returned it to him.

“Thank you Grandad. Grandad why do the veins on the back of your hands stick out ?

Don Russell                             30/01/2019

This is a true one. I hope it helps somebody.

 

After listening to actor David Harewood on the BBC this morning I remember how:

In the mid 1990’s I found myself in such a place. Overwhelmed by all around, unable to concentrate on work, full of irrational worries, physically and mentally exhausted but unable to sleep, short tempered unpredictable behaviours towards my family and finally morbid thoughts about ending it all. I stood looking at rafters where I could hang myself, realised what I was thinking was perhaps not so horrid then as quickly that it was hideous.

The thing that prevented it all ending was taking that first step of telling someone. In this case my wife. I was fortunate to have a loving family around who cared about me and good professionals who understood my situation. I needed it because an acceptance of mental illness, in my case clinical depression added another pressure for me at that time internally as viewing myself as a failure. Weak, unable to cope.

I could reflect on all the things that happened since then, but I just want to say.

Don’t be afraid to tell someone you are afraid, they can see if your leg is broken …………………but not your brain.

 

Don Russell   14/05/2018

Crofton Court

 

The move to the agency last year from the security of a permanent job had been a success. No more sleepless nights worrying about things over which he had no control. The mortgage was paid, Ann was gone. An amicable divorce emotionally and financially.  At 55, single again, comfortably solvent he decided his health came first. Work with the agency was steady and optional. His stress levels had dropped. Gordon was enjoying life again.

His phone pinged!  Text from the agency.

Sleepover, Crofton Court residential drug rehab, this evening at eight. Double time. Sort out the paperwork in the week. Interested?

Sunday evening, he imagined coming home early Monday settling for a lazy day whilst the world was careering into a new week. It appealed yes, he was interested. The money would also be handy.

The building appeared generally uncared for. In the soft evening breeze, the last of sun on the lofty perimeter wall highlighted areas where mortar had long disappeared. Heavily rusted hinges held thick wooden gates, their bottom quarters covered in grass and weeds suggesting they’d long been unable to serve their purpose. Above the front door of the substantial building the faded wooden sign, that creaked as it swung, confirmed this was Crofton Court.

The doorbell button felt loose and broken, he was therefore surprised by the sudden response. The  appearance of the woman that contradicted his opinion about the bell. A tight jeaned figure in a baggy jumper, possibly mid-thirties, strong black hair pulled back in a pony tail and friendly blue eyes.

“Can I help you?” A hint of an Irish lilt.

“Hi, I’m Gordon, I’m from the agency, for the sleepover.”

“Oh yes come in. I’m Mary, by the way,” she replied, proffering her hand.

 

Over a coffee Mary explained that the unit had been open for ten years. Built in the 1890’s originally as a large family home it was bequeathed to an order of nuns for use as a convent in the 1920’s. When TB was rife many of the nuns trained to be nurses and it was turned into Crofton Hospital for children smitten with the illness. The nuns also provided spiritual and emotional support to the families as well as the medical support to their patients. There were lots of concerns about how contagious TB was at the time, so diagnosis sadily often meant little or no further contact with families for the children. The nuns became like surrogate parents to the poor souls as they spent their final days otherwise isolated. The place closed in the 1950’s.

“That’s the past, it was empty for many years before we bought it and we’ve done up the top two floors. We still have work to do on the ground floor where the staff quarters are. There were ten individual rooms, five on each of the two floors. We turned them into 8 en-suites. We only finished the final one a couple of months ago and we’re due to start work on the ground floor soon.”

“Usually this is when I’d introduce you to the residents but they’re on the way back from a weekend in Cornwall and I’ve just had word to say the van has broken down. Gordon you’ve struck lucky, a quiet night I would imagine,” she smiled teasing.

“It’s after nine now so if you fancy another coffee to keep me company a while that would be helpful.  As you’re on a sleeping nightshift the night’s your own unless there is any crisis which is unlikely. So you’ll be undisturbed. The sleeping room is number two, bottom of the corridor on the right. Oh! And you need to be up for seven to help me set up breakfast assuming the residents get home.

Feeling obliged, Gordon participated in a drink before going to bed.

Just after ten he closed the door, the room was hushed, an oasis of peace after the bombardment of information from a friendly but very chatty Mary. The room had a monastic feel, intricate bulky cornice surrounded the high brown stained and white ceiling. What he imagined to be the original dark wooden panels from the floor upwards encased the room and tweaked his mild tendency to claustrophobia. In the far corner there was a chunky old-fashioned sink with grotesque taps. However, the water warmed quickly, and he felt refreshed as he washed his face. The towel smelt stale, returning it to the rail by the sink he used his own from the bag on the bed.

He slipped of his shoes, experience had taught him, that no matter how unexpected, situations did arise, so he remained dressed in his joggers and sweater. Pillows tucked behind him he to settled into his book. He was distracted from it becoming aware of the large white, possibly marble, crucifix looming high on the wall facing his bed end. A stark feature against the dark unrenovated panelling. He found himself drawn by it, staring up trying to ascertain how specific the facial features of the Christ upon were.

Immersed by an atmosphere of lethargy emanating from his surroundings, a gentle intoxication encouraging a slow, silent undressing from the world, a yearning to be never again disturbed. The quilt took on a luxurious comforting aura of physical softness, withdrawing any inclination to pull it back even if he had strength to remove it, he drifted to sleep.

Something gently brushed his brow. He raised his hand only to have it grasped by a child’s. A voice breathed across his face.

“I love you George I’m going to miss you so much, don’t be afraid because I am taking you to good place son, God is waiting to take you in his arms.”

Initially confused by the intensity of his dream he found himself intoxicated again by the same earlier atmosphere and settled to sleep.

A warm breath caressed his cheek, it felt like a small child’s head nestled between his throat and shoulder. It whispered a weak message.

“I don’t want to go, it’s not my time yet, save me, save me,” a boy’s voice pleaded, fading with each repetition.

Startled by the vividness, his hand searched. Nothing. All was peaceful apart from occasional distant aged creaks from old floors. Sleep returned.

This time his hand was being pulled urgently, “hold me, hold me don’t let her take me “a child’s soft sob, wet lips spread saliva on his neck, the pleading voice now but a faint utterance. All went quiet and his hand was released, he put on the light he, the action ensuring to him he was awake. But then the light went out.

In the darkness there was weight on his chest pinning him to the bed. A piercing light beamed from the crucifix, the figure of a nun astride him forcing her hand over his mouth. It smelt of incense. He twisted and pushed frantically as his breath began to drain.  His heart was thumping as he fought for his life and then.

His phone alarm woke him. It was six thirty. It was Monday and the birds were warming their throats for the dawn chorus. He felt like someone had taken his brain out slapped it around and put in back in whilst it was still shaking. He struggled to get his bearings.

Mary was already up, he could smell coffee.

“Gordon, you look terrible.” she continued as she poured him a coffee. “I’m going to take a guess that something unsavoury happened during the night.”

Gordon began to explain. Mary stopped him.

“Listen, room two was the death room when this was the TB hospital. It meant patients didn’t have to be carried downstairs when dead in sight of others. Most of the staff sleep in there and are completely unaffected. A couple myself being one have experienced what I think you may be going to tell me.

“Grab your coffee, we’ve a little time before breakfast, come along to the office with me. When we were refurbishing we found a small hidden closet in each of the rooms. All but one was empty and in that one we found a chest with the belongings for a Sister Vincent. John the other member who had the experience have named her perhaps a little cruelly the Sister of Death.”

Mary lifted the small chest from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, opened it and removed a black leather diary. Then read the following entry for 13th October 1933.

George Patience aged seven was moved to room two late in the afternoon. George is deteriorating rapidly. Father God there was so much pain in that room, the child was clinging to what? There was no future here, time for him to give up his space to end his struggle to come to you. I softly smothered him with his pillow, so little fight. A glorious rest for him. I will tell the parents in the morning it was a peaceful death and that he passed in his sleep. Father forgive me, I know he like many has gone before their time, rebuke me not for him for arriving early.

“That is the last entry in the diary, we found it with earlier diaries also containing numerous entries recording similar acts. Other personal things, a ring, a crucifix, rosary beads, birth certificate and a death certificate dated 14th Oct 1933. Age at death 72, the cause of death was given as exhaustion. It seems unlikely that anyone ever read the entries or if they did decide to slip them away in the closet. Cover up in today’s terminology

“We think the room hold’s unsettled spirits gone before God planned that they will never be at peace and a repentant Sister Vincent still wrestles to comfort them as a justification of her sins.  George would appear to have been the last of the line and perhaps comes back to speak for all the lost souls.

“Does that kind of explain what was happening to you in the night?”

Gordon nodded his head whilst re-assuring himself this was the first and last sleepover at Crofton Court.

 

Don Russell     1/5/2018