Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Last Of England - Chapter 1


The beginning - Aldeburgh Beach, April 1958.


The sky was blood red.

Stanley had been edgy all that day. Or at least, it had seemed that way to Alice ever since she had suggested a picnic on the beach. Now she, Stanley and their seven-year-old daughter, Claire were sitting shivering under a sky that would have delighted any photograph.

They had wanted some privacy, at least that was the way that Stanley had put it and so they had moved along the beach towards Thorpeness. It was all shingles and stones but they did love this part of the country and the sea was performing for them with all its heart.

Alice had laid a tea that her mother would have approved of, while Stanley and Claire searched under rocks for crabs. She called them a few times but the wind seemed to carry her voice off somewhere out to sea. The gulls, which cried overhead, had probably heard her voice more times that day than her family.

But she was happy, or at least content in a very British way. It had been thirteen years since the war and the country was now getting back on its feet. She had a small but important job helping organise the Aldeburgh Festival and Stanley had been teaching at various colleges in Suffolk and Norfolk. Claire, after a few health scares, was now growing into a beautiful young girl.

So why did Alice feel so empty in her stomach? Her mother had always been a victim of depression but had tended to keep out the way of the family during those particularly bad episodes. To Alice’s mother, depression hadn’t been a very British thing to suffer from in public. Sometimes, when Alice pressed her ear against her mother’s bedroom door, she could hear her mother praying or at least talking to God in her own West London style. Her mother did that when she was talking to someone she considered to be important, she would put on a very upper class voice. Alice remembered that it was something her mother had failed to do when she had first met Stanley.
 

Yet, despite everything that had happened, she still missed her mother. The mother she could talk to any time of the day. She missed that woman more than she could ever tell Stanley. He had woken Alice in the middle of the night, telling her that her mother had gone. He had then turned over and had gone back to sleep. Having just woken, Alice had wondered, at first, where her mother had gone to exactly. Morocco, perhaps? Istanbul? Those were some of her mother’s favourite haunts and ones, which were considered very daring for a widow in the 1950s. But then her mother had been all that and more; she had always been adventurous. Alice felt that her mother had been a little disappointed that Alice hadn’t been more like her.

When Alice had woken properly the night of the ‘phone call, she had realised what Stanley had meant - that her mother had gone for good. Afterwards she had heard Stanley snoring and she wasn’t going to wake him up again to talk about how she was feeling. He was down to teach a class in Ipswich in the morning and that would have meant an early start.
 

Alice’s father had died in the war.
He had been a scientist or something similar, yet he’d never really told the family what it was he had done. It was while her father was working at some camp in Berkshire that he had met Stanley and brought him home to meet the family. Alice was sure that her father had approved of Stanley and had probably intended him to ask his daughter out. This he had done, and soon they were married. If not in haste, at least in a very short space of time. Love had nothing to do with it, although she had grown accustomed to him and would always miss him when he was away. But this wasn’t really love, not the Wuthering Heights kind. This was a very British marriage where it was better to say nothing and suffocate than bring shame to the family. Alice had said ‘yes’ very quickly, too quickly, in case no one else would ask her.
 

She had held her breath for so long now that it seemed impossible to remember what fresh air tasted like.

Alice looked up and could see Stanley and Claire heading back. She waved, and her beautiful little daughter waved back with all her might. Claire was a fighter, she had had to fight to stay in the world and nothing was going to take her. Stanley had seen Alice waving but had dropped his head, something he had been doing more frequently.

By the time her family had made it back to the picnic, the wind was whipping up the white horses and causing them to crash onto the shore. The napkins were being blown about and two of them disappeared over the sandbank at the back.

They drank their tea in silence, a behaviour that Stanley had always insisted upon, while they ate the perfectly cut sandwiches filled with cucumber from their own garden.

It was then that Stanley lifted his head and looked out to sea. At least, that is what she remembers telling the police afterwards. There had been a large, red schooner on the horizon and it had seemed to be struggling with the strong winds.

Any normal person would have mentioned the ship’s distress but not Stanley. He had simply wiped the crumbs from his face, stood up and climbed over the sandbank for a better view. At least that is what Alice had assumed and it was another thing she had told the police.

The last time she saw Stanley, he had his hands sheltering his eyes from the harsh wind, eyes, which she assumed, were following the schooner. Claire helped her mother pack up and it was just as Alice was about to ask Stanley to help her with the basket, one that she always found difficult to open - that she noticed he had gone. So had the schooner. Alice asked Claire to run over to the sandbank and fetch her father but he wasn’t there.

From the sandbank, a person could see all the way to Thorpeness, back to Aldeburgh and even a mile or two inland but Stanley had simply vanished off the face of the Earth.

“You sure it was that sudden?” The policeman with the notebook had asked her later and she was absolutely certain that it had been.

The police had searched the beaches and land for several days, the locals had all taken their boats out to help but nothing was found of Stanley. He had simply gone.

What scared Alice was that she felt relieved, at least at first. Maybe he had wanted to disappear. The policeman, Inspector Whitstable, had asked her about their life together and by that, Alice had assumed he was meaning their love life. To her, that meant sex on a Saturday evening and sometimes during the week when they were on holiday. At first she couldn’t get what Whitstable was getting at, but it soon became apparent. Did he have something troubling him? And by that, the policeman had meant another woman. Or man. She hadn’t even considered that possibility that Stanley was a queer.

If wasn’t sex that was troubling Stanley, then maybe they was money worries. But as she had told the police, her mother had left them comfortable for the rest of their lives. No, he wasn’t suicidal either. If anything, he disapproved of such nonsense. Stanley was conservative through and through and knew one day in his heart that he would have to account to God for his behaviour.

When the Inspector asked about Stanley’s work, Alice had to put admit it was beyond her. She neither knew, nor cared what he did as long as he was a good father to Claire and a good husband to her. Alice, the devoted and loving wife, had even been a suspect and her fingerprints taken, but the suggestion was preposterous. She had a witness in the shape of her beautiful – their beautiful daughter. How quickly Alice seemed to want him dead and buried. He didn’t deserve those thoughts, and Alice quickly brightened up.

She would do all it took to find him. If he had run away, there must have been a reason. Perhaps she was the reason. Perhaps she hadn’t been a good enough wife. Yet hadn’t there always been a meal on the table when he had come home? Hadn’t she always listened to his problems? Hadn’t she always allowed him to lie on top of her when he wanted? What more could a wife do?

bobby stevenson 2014

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Today & Tomorrow

Today
 
Give me the strength to just get through today
To deal with this day’s concerns and nothing more
Give me the courage to see it through to the end
And don’t let me be blinded by my struggles
Let me see the goodness in people and in those who care
Give me the strength to deal with today’s fears
And let tomorrow take care of itself
Give me the heart to lend a helping hand to others
As I pull myself up.
Please just give me the strength to get through today
And nothing more, is all I ask.




Tomorrow 

I know tomorrow is going to be better,
Because it hasn’t started yet,
Tomorrow the sun will shine a little brighter,
And last a little longer,
I know tomorrow is going to be more magnificent
Than today,
Because no one has had a chance to dull it down or
Poison my hopes of a better way,
I know tomorrow is going to be a better day –
It just has to be.
Please.



bobby stevenson 2014










Monday, 25 August 2014

A Shipwrecked Heart



“But in the world where there is no stay but the hope of a better (world), and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through these two harbours of a shipwrecked heart....”
Charles Dickens, letter, October 1865.


I want you to sit comfortably and find comfort in this strangest of tales. Some swear it is true, although there are just as many who would disagree. Perhaps in the passing of the years and in the re-telling, the shadowy remembrance of the truth has been lost. I am hoping, however, that you will be my judge and jury.


Our story concerns one warm day in June 1865 in the most beautiful Kent village of Shoreham, a day like many others where the occupants of this little haven are wrapped up in their day to day chores; all of them unaware of a train crash which has taken place several miles away. 


The centre of our tale is the Crown public house occupied by the hard working Mistress Squib and her family.

Eliza Squib has not seen her husband for many a year but we will not speak unkindly of that soul, rather we meet with Eliza as she takes the first opportunity of the day to sit and mend the clothes of her two children.
Her son, who stands beside her, is Obadiah Squib, the man of the house and full of all the life that God can give a heart. His wish is to sail the oceans and by this method find his father – but we shall leave that tale for another time. 

The boy who sits reading in the corner is the other apple of Eliza’s eye, young Benedict, who has been on this earth the merest of summers, yet he is assuming all the finer qualities that could be wished for in a son.

Finally we meet Charlotte Squib and let no harsh construct be heard against her. Charlotte is a good soul of infinite compassion and has sacrificed her life to work from morn’ through late evenings to compensate for her brother’s mysterious disappearance, Eliza’s errant husband. Ever since her brother’s parting Charlotte has been compelled to repeat the same incantation...
“He will return, I swear it.”
Eliza smiles as she has done a thousand times before and for all their worries and concerns they are a happy band and one that providence has decreed should assist our Mister Charles Dickens in his most troubled of times.

And so our story begins with an innocent knock at the door of the public house.
“Sweet bird of youth and such a times as this; tut, tut” 

At the door stands Mister Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan (known as Nelly) and her mother Frances. They have recently alighted from a train at Shoreham Station as Charles, having been overcome by the shakes, has been unable to continue his rail journey.

Never one to use his real name in such awkward and complex circumstances he introduces himself as a Mister Tringham esquire accompanied by his god-daughter Nelly and supported by her mother. 

“Let me rest awhile in order to dispense of this constant shaking” says Charles as he sits without being asked.
Eliza observing his distress dispatches Obadiah with all haste to prepare a set of rooms above. 
“I cannot have you abroad with such pallor as this gentleman displays, I feel you may all find a benefit in resting awhile. You are welcome, you are all most welcome” 

Although the day is splendid in heat and the windows thrown open to the skies, when Charles finally sits he asks the boy to be kind enough to build a fire and take the chill from his ancient bones. 

“May I trouble you once more, young...?”
“Obadiah, sir”
“Young Obadiah would you be so kind as to fetch me my overcoat, I believe I have abandoned it below”
As Obadiah retrieves the coat a manuscript falls from the pocket, it is several unpublished chapters of an excellent story by Mister Charles Dickens called ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Obadiah has read the early published chapters but has no recognition of these. He replaces the manuscript in the pocket and returns to the rooms above knowing that the man can only be one person. 

Entering the room Obadiah notices that the man sits unusually close to the fire.
“Is there something of consequence regarding my appearance?” asks Charles.
“None sir, it’s just that you have the look of a haunted man”
“T’is due to a change in my circumstances Obadiah, I have just this afternoon escaped from the throats of death. Not far from here was an accident of the most horrific sort, the train in which I travelled left the rails. Pour me a brandy Obadiah, there’s a good man.”

Obadiah likes being called a man and juggles the word in his head as Charles imbibes the first glass. Empty now, Charles holds the glass out for Obadiah to immediately refill.

In the adjoining room, Nelly is being attended by Eliza and Charlotte. She too is explaining their current circumstances as Eliza dresses Nelly’s wound to her upper left arm. 

“So you are Mister Tringham’s god-daughter?” asks Eliza as a distraction to subdue Nelly’s pain.
Nelly sadly replies, “He describes it as such but it is not the truth”
“I did not mean to breach a threshold with my inquisitiveness”
“You did not Eliza, if anything you are kindness itself. Mister Tringham is a writer, together with my mother we have spent a French summer in the company of the gentleman. He is my companion, not my god father”.
“It is of no consequence to me whatsoever” says an apologetic Eliza who watches as Charlotte excuse herself from the room.

“May I speak freely?” asks Nelly.
So Nelly explains that she met Charles when still only eighteen years of age and he was, even then, an elderly gentleman. She knows that Mister Tringham has a family and that she will be held to account one day but that day has not yet arrived and whether t'is the pain or the closeness of death she has tasted this day, Ellen Ternan speaks one sentence that will never pass her lips again.

“Our son lies buried in France”.

Next door, Obadiah has finished building up the fire to a roar which is almost impotent against the shaking. Obadiah knows this is not the best of times but he feels compelled to ask:
“I wondered sir, if it did not burden you too much, that perhaps you could describe the accident?”
“Why should you not be interested, after all you are a boy.”
“I am a man, Mister Tringham”.
Charles feels bad and apologies to Obadiah then implores him to make himself comfortable.

“I, and my two companions, had boarded the 2.38 tidal-train at Folkestone. All was well abroad and the world was an excellent container until I felt the carriage shaking, first this way then the other. My little Nell cried out, ‘let us all hold hands and die as friends’. A silence followed, Obadiah, one that hushed the very birds on the trees. I crawled to the window to observe that our carriage was hanging twenty feet, at least, above a ravine held by the slightest of graces. The others had been less fortunate, each having crashed to the river below. I called out to the train guards asking did they recognise me......”

He has said too much.

“You mean did they recognise you Mister Dickens?”
Charles smiles at the boy. “It is our secret Mister Dickens”
“Once my two companions were safely at the top of the hill I returned to the ravine, it would have been less of a chore to have walked into the jaws of hell. 

“The valley was awash with the dead and dying, I climbed the side of our train and re-entered our carriage retrieving my top hat and a brandy flask. 

“I filled my hat with water and took it to a young man who lay a short distance from me. What I could see, but he could not, was the fatal damage to his upper head. He asked that I slake his thirst, asked me not to leave him then closed his eyes for the last time.

“Slightly to the north was a lady of similar age to myself who lay on the ground. I lifted her and sat her against a little pollard tree and wetted her lips with brandy. She smiled at me with one half of her mouth and I instructed her to wait as I fetched for help. The next time I passed the tree she had expired. It was then I remembered I had left my manuscript in my pocket of my overcoat and that that was in the carriage we had vacated. I climbed as the carriage threatened to crash along with all the others. Yet I did not relish rewriting those chapters. I recovered the document which I am assuming you must have identified.”

Charles did not instruct Obadiah on all the facts regarding the three hours that he had spent tending to the dead and dying. In all ten people perished and forty nine were injured. He could not talk of it to others for fear of the scandal in his choice of companions. 

When he asked Obadiah what would ensure his silence regarding his true identity, Obadiah asked for only one thing, a new story written by the greatest of all writers. 
The source of the crash was a deadly simple one: the foreman at the site in Staplehurst had read the wrong timetable. His times were for the following day, the Saturday, when the next train was due shortly after five o’ clock but on that day, the 9th of June, Dickens’ train was due to pass the bridge at several minutes after three. Thinking that the workmen had two clear hours of maintenance, the foreman instructed the gang to lift the rails.


Shortly after Dickens finished his recounting of the tale, Charles, Frances and Nelly were on a train to Charing Cross. They were met at the station by Willis, Dickens confidant, who saw the ladies on to their London home at Mornington Crescent.

Charles had intended to return to his family that evening, a family watched over by his sister-in-law Georgina at Gad’s Hill in Higham, but the shakes overtook him once again and he spent the night at his London office.
Charles’ panic attacks increased over the following years and once it was noted by his daughter that he seemed to sink into a trance and relive the day of the crash. His concentration suffered too and he found it difficult to complete ‘Our Mutual Friend’. He brought it to such an abrupt halt that his publisher asked him to think again and extend it. This he did reluctantly but it was to be the last novel he ever completed.

It was love that kept Charles silent about that day and it was love that nurtured him in the final years of his life. He died five years to the day of the train crash while writing ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. 

As for Charles attendance at the crash, there is a postscript by him at the end of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and as for the presence of Nelly, there is a letter sent by Dickens to the Station Master at Charing Cross instructing him of Mistress Ternan’s lost jewellery at the crash site. 

Regarding our Shoreham friends, Eliza’s husband Richard came home several months after Dickens’ visit and they settled into running the Crown Public House together; both are buried in Shoreham churchyard.

A few weeks after the crash a letter was delivered to Obadiah containing a story, true to his word Mister Charles Dickens, the most famous man in all Christendom, had penned a ghost story called ‘The Signalman’. 
Aunt Charlotte was committed to Bedlam where she died in 1877. Benedict, the youngest son took over the running of the Crown and Obadiah, after many years in the Royal Navy, settled in Australia.

And so dear friends we are almost done with this remembrance and whether or not you believe my story, I hope it has amused you. I wish each and every one of you a wonderful life.


bobby stevenson 2014

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The End Of Lonely Street





Photo: Elvis at Prestwick Airport, Scotland.
On March 3rd 1960, Elvis Presley landed for a few hours at Prestwick Airport, Scotland on his way home from Germany. It was the only time he ever visited the UK.


He is still playing with his hair and listening to the radio when his mother kicks the door open.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said Jimmy. Get to work - those animals won’t cut themselves up.”                     

And just like every other day, she follows the kicking of the door with rushing down the stairs and then leaving the house, and just like every other day in a now empty home, Jimmy turns up the radio volume to maximum. 
 
“There is a large crowd here to watch Elvis wave goodbye to his 16 year old girlfriend, Priscilla Beaulieu” says an excited radio announcer.

Elvis, the man, the god, the father, son and holy ghost is leaving Germany and flying back to the States. His time in the army is over and he’s going home to make more records, to make more movies and continue dating the daughter of a soldier he’s met in a club. Elvis and Priscilla have only been seeing each other for six weeks but Jimmy and Susan have been going strong now for a full three months.  

Across the street from Jimmy’s place, in one of the newer bungalows, Mister Andrews stares out of the window. Neither happy nor sad, he watches as Jimmy’s mother passes by and in a friendly manner he slowly raises a hand to wave but she looks straight ahead and disappears around the corner.
“There goes Mrs Baker, always in a hurry. I tell you what Brenda love, it’s such a beautiful day I think I’ll wash the car.”

Mister Andrew smiles to himself because he’s made a decision about something and that pleases him. Across the street he can see that nice young girl hurrying to Jimmy’s front door. 

Susan is agitated as she pushes her spectacles up her nose and rapidly knocks on the door. She can hear the music from Jimmy’s room above, so she steps back and enthusiastically waves to him but Jimmy just smiles and continues with sorting his hair. Susan tries another method by banging and kicking the front door, this time it brings Jimmy downstairs. As he opens his door, he’s caught between saying ‘where’s the fire’ and leaning forward to kiss her but Susan just rushes straight past him and into the small kitchen. 

Most of the time Jimmy’s mother has to work double shifts, so Susan has gotten to know where everything is located.
“Mum’s already made up my lunch.”
“You’re not going to work, not today” says Susan without raising her head.
“I’m not? So what am I doing then, eloping?”   
“That’s not funny”. She’s already wrapped up the first sandwiches in a brown bag and hands them to Jimmy. 

Jimmy knows what will happen if he doesn’t turn up for work today; he’s already been late three days running. 
“Well, I’ll just go and see him myself then, shall I?” and Susan kisses Jimmy on the cheek and leaves the room. Jimmy, forever the lost boy, follows her out, “Who, for crying out loud, are you going to see?”
Across the street Mister Andrews is already washing his car in the March sunshine and even he stops when he hears Jimmy shout out ‘Elvis Presley’ quickly followed by a hooting noise. Dogs bark, birds scatter – it seems the whole of the town has just heard.  

A few minutes later and Mister Andrews stands back and admires his handy work as he lets the car dry in the sun. Just up the street a touch, Jimmy and Susan are hiding behind a wall. Jimmy wants to know where Susan got the information about Elvis and she tells him from her father who is a baggage handler at Prestwick airport. He’s heard that Elvis’ plane is to land in the west of Scotland to refuel.
“But you better get here quick” was her father’s parting words.
Jimmy asks "if she's sure her father is telling the truth?" and she says that he has sworn on her Mum’s life and that is good enough for her and it should be good enough for him too. Then she tells him about her plan, the one where they borrow Mister Andrews’ car.
“It’s not stealing if we’re going to bring it back”.

Mister Andrews is at that stage where he’s proudly polishing  his pride and joy.He takes a step back, sees another blemish and continues rubbing. Susan rushes up and asks him if she can "please, please, please use his toilet". He’s not happy about this turn of events, but she seems so desperate and Jimmy and his family have already gone to work. Mister Andrews says it’s okay but she has to take her shoes off before entering the house. He follows her in, dusting any part of the wall or furniture she may have accidentally rubbed against; he doesn’t want to seem fussy but he knows he probably is. He stands outside the toilet door but feels it may look a little weird and so he moves down the hall a few steps.

Mister Andrews doesn’t hear the sound of the car horn the first time around but Susan does. She’s been waiting on it. She rockets out of the toilet handing back Mister Andrews one of his towels then shooting out through the front door. Shocked at first, it takes the second car horn for Mister Andrew to realise what’s going on. He, too, rushes out his house but just in time to see his car, the girl and Jimmy from across the street driving it away. Well maybe driving is an exaggeration; they are more pointing the car and making it hiccup along the road. 

“Oh dear - oh dear, oh dear, oh dear” says Mister Andrews as he wanders back into his home.  
 
“I’ve just stolen a car”, declares Jimmy.
“Borrowed” Susan adds “and I’ve just left my shoes back there”.

Standing once more at his window, Mister Andrews is worried about to what to do next. This wasn’t meant to happen, you make a decision and things shouldn’t deviate, but deviate, they have.
“They’ve taken the car Brenda love, do you think I should telephone the police?”
Mister Andrews whispers, “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear” then adds, “You’re probably right Brenda love, you always are.” 

Jimmy knows the only way to get to the airport in time to see The King is to use the village High Street but just as he turns in to the road, Susan spots Jimmy’s mother and Jimmy’s boss talking to each other outside the butcher’s shop. That is why Jimmy’s mother sees an empty car driving past her along the High Street, Susan and Jimmy are well hidden.
“Isn’t that Mister Andrew’s car?”
She soon dismisses what she thinks she’s seen and continues with her conversation.

At the other end of the High Street where it turns into Observatory Road, old Webster and Hamish are in the village garage. It’s tea break time and this involves looking out the window while dunking their biscuits in their cracked cups. Old Webster checks with Hamish that he’s also just seen Mister Andrew’s car passing driver-less and sure enough he has.
“Mighty me” says old Webster as he picks up the telephone, intending to call the police. 
Five minutes later, ten at the most, a policeman appears in front of Jimmy’s car with his hand raised in the 'stop' position. I suppose if there are people reading this in later years and are wondering why a policeman would do such a thing, well in March 1960 in the United Kingdom, people still obeyed the law.
Except Jimmy and Susan drive straight on, causing the constable to have to jump out of the way in order to save his life. 

It is only as the car crawls to the top of the hill and disappears over the other side, that the screaming starts. Mister Andrews may have had a clean car but the brakes aren’t of any use for stopping. Twice Jimmy bashes his head on the roof as these are the days before seat belts and such like. 

Luckily as they shoot across the main road and into the airport they fail to hit anything and come to rest in a ploughed field at the side of the runway. Jimmy and Susan sit for a second to catch their breaths and then undeterred by the lack of Susan’s shoes, they run towards the airport reception.
“Ow, ow, ow” as Susan steps on every rock possible, Jimmy suggests she takes his shoes and although they are a whole lot larger, she finds it really does stop the pain. 

It will be worth it in a minute when they get to the reception, she thinks to herself, except when they get there, the hall is empty, that is except for the rubbish scattered everywhere. An old man slides back a dirty glass partition.
“If you’re here to see that Mister Elvis fellow, then you’re too late. He’s been and he’s gone and it’s me who’s going to have to clean this mess up. Do you know what he said?”
Apparently Elvis had asked where he was, which caused the old man much laughter and mirth, so the old man felt he had to put Elvis right and tell him he was in Scotland.
“Where am I? What kind of question is that for a grown man?” 

So that’s that. Who knows when Elvis will pass this way again? And with shoulders slumped, Jimmy and Susan leave the building only for the old man to call after them that he’s heard that Elvis was going up to that local cafe. There is a god.

To call the Brigadoon Tearooms anything but an old hut would be a kindness, except Susan is sure she can hear Elvis singing inside. Her heart begins to palpitate but Jimmy is only worried about avoiding sharp things on the ground since he’s walking in bare feet. He doesn’t notice Susan run ahead, storm the Brigadoon Tearooms and shout “Marry me Elvis”. He hears her the second time ‘though.
“What do you mean he’s gone?” Susan is almost crying as the jukebox plays on.
“Oh he was dreamy, wouldn’t take his cap off ‘though – ‘no Mam, I can’t do that’” says a giggling girl who had also wanted to marry Elvis .
Susan is talking to a girl who has talked to Elvis and it hurts.  

As it grows dark, Jimmy and Susan haven’t spoken to each other for a few hours now. The only communication they have had is when Jimmy takes his shoes back.
“You would have run off with him to America - and married him”
Susan has no defence and simply says “I would have invited you to the wedding”

Jimmy is just about to take his turn at crying when a car turns up beside them. It’s Mister Andrews in his borrowed car and he rolls down the window.
“I brought you these, they’re Susan’s shoes. Hop in and I’ll drive you both home. You can tell me all about it on the way”

Susan puts on her shoes then asks Jimmy if he’s coming. 

The next day is a glorious one as Mister Andrews stands by the fireplace.
“You’re looking a little grubby today, Brenda love” and Mister Andrews polishes the urn that keeps Brenda's ashes safe. Once she’s gleaming, he turns satisfied to look out the window again.
“Now you’re ready to face the world” 

Jimmy’s mother comes out of her door and crosses the street towards Mister Andrews’ house. For the first time ever she waves to him and he waves back. 

Mister Andrews smiles.



bobby stevenson 2014

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Ice Ghosts ( and post script)



based on a true story 

She could taste the sea on her lips as she drove her Hudson Super Six towards Summertown, Nova Scotia on a day that only God could have made. Amy and Ben, her grandchildren, whooped and hollered as they stood on the automobile’s back seat, arms flapping wildly in the wind. “We’re eagles, Grandma, look we’re flying” 

“No, we ain’t” claimed Ben “We’re areo-ma-planes”. 

“You children can be whatever or whoever you damn well want to be, always remember that” said Sadie talking out one side of her mouth, the other side being the occupied territory of a Turkish cigarette; Murad being her current favourite. 

“Don’t say ‘damn’ Grandma, it ain’t right”. 

“She can if she’s a wanting”, gasped Ben through the rushing air, “I can too, Amy, you see if I can’t – Damn! Damn! Damn!” 

“You’ll go to hell Ben, I swear you will” Amy worried far too much about other people going to hell.

The large red automobile whisked through the outskirts of town throwing up large masses of dust. White laundry didn’t remain clean as Sadie’s machine did its worst along the potted roads but there was no one to object – the streets were deserted. 

She moved the cigarette to the other side of her mouth just as her big automobile screeched around the corner into Main Street. 

“Shit”, the word escaped from Sadie’s mouth.
“Shit” repeated Ben.
“Ben” said Amy, worrying about his soul again.

In front of them stood a wall of people, all facing the other way and the big red Hudson was just about to mow them down. 

Sadie braked just as hard as she had been cussing, throwing Amy on to the floor and Ben straight over the seat with the boy laughing all the way. Now with a little luck and providence those at the back of the crowd stepped aside, letting the automobile slide through to the front. It came to rest in the middle of Lincoln Street just as the soldier boys were marching past. They had to work their way around the car and pass Ben who was standing on the hood saluting, one or two of them returned the salute; this was Summertown, 1918 and the men had finally come home from overseas.

“In no time at all your father will be home too, he can’t stay in Paree forever, although lord knows he’s tried” added Sadie quietly. One of the older soldiers at the back of the parade waved her through the crowd and on a whim she leaned out of the car and kissed him; if she couldn’t kiss her son John then this boy would have to do. 

It must have been all of fifty years since Sadie first came here and today was to be the final trip to this peculiar little town at the edge of the world; this time she had brought John’s kids. In the old days she would bring her husband but now he was way too sick to travel and so she normally came up this way alone.
Sadie had promised herself that this was to be her last time and that she would say farewell to The Ice Ghosts forever, someone else would have to remember.

It was a long hot drive from New York City to the little town that clung on to a continent. Summertown’s one hotel, The Prince of Wales, looked proudly over the bay and surprisingly little had changed in it over the years. The hotel had opened its doors in 1860 to celebrate His Royal Highnesses’ visit to Nova Scotia but the external wood was now in need of a fresh lick of paint but just like an old friend, it always wore a warm smile on its face.

As the Hudson parked up alongside several other automobiles there was a noticeable swell blowing in from the Banks; a big storm was coming and forcing Sadie to consider waiting until the following morning to visit the stones. 

Like all the other fixtures and fittings in the hotel, Umbrosia was still here, still laughing, and still known as Old Umbrosia even although she was younger than Sadie.

“Well I declare it warms my heart to see you missus and you’ve brought the little chill’ins this time. They sure look like ya, they surely do missus” then she laughed all the way up the stairs like an angel had whispered the funniest joke in the world into her ear.

“Here we are missus, your usual room nice and clean as always” Umbrosia managed to hold the luggage, retrieve the keys from her pocket and open the door all at the same time. She needed to give the door a slight nudge with her shoulder which had her laughing wildly all over again.

“Just been newly painted, we couldn’t get the paint during the war but the boss lady insisted it be ready for missus Sadie and here we are”

Umbrosia dumped the bags on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. “Just needs to catch my breath missus ‘cause Old Umbrosia just keeps getting older. Now what’s your name young un’?”
“Amy”
“Well Amy, you sure is unusually pretty, you sure is, and is this your brother? What you called boy?”
“Ben....Mam” 
“That little urchin called Old Umbrosia ‘Mam’, did you hear him missus? I do declare” And with that Old Umbrosia laughed her way out the door and slammed it behind her.

The bedroom was just as Sadie remembered it, the one room that never changed and the thought of it always kept her warm. Each night as she nursed her husband Alex through the bad times, she closed her eyes and dreamt of this room.

“It’s getting dark, Grandma”
Amy watched from the window as the frothy sea horses were being chased on to the shore by the gathering storm.

Crack!

The first lightning bolt startled the little girl who began to let tears flow down her cheeks. 

“Come away from the window Darling, come to Grandma”
Her granddaughter rushed to the safety of her Grandma’s arms.
“How ‘bout you Ben, you want a hug?”
“I ain’t scared Grandma”
“You ain’t scared, huh? Then maybe you can fetch Old Umbrosia and tell her to bring up some lamps”
Ben, like the man his father would expect him to be, walked along the corridor slowly until the next crash drowned the hallway in white light and as no one was watching, Ben found a place to hide.

By supper time the storm had continued to grow in strength and ferocity so Umbrosia had delivered cheese, milk and wine to tide them over. Sadie and Amy were sitting together on the big bed eating the last of the Monterey Jack while Ben sat grownup like, by the door. 

“Don’t you want to join us Ben? I think we’ll be safe, I honestly do”
“No thank you kindly, Grandma”

But just as she finished talking, the biggest flash and crash in the history of storms found Ben sitting next to Amy and Grandma.
"Well then, ain’t this cosy, ain’t this real cosy? What shall we do then children? Amy?” 

“A story Grandma, please” 

“What about you Ben, do you want a story?”
“A boy’s one, not a girl’s one”.

“Well let me see, I could tell you how I came to this country and why I come to Summertown every year”.

“You came from far, far, away didn’t you Grandma?” Amy was proud that she knew this fact.

“I did indeed” said Sadie, kissing her beautiful little granddaughter on the forehead.”Tell you what, let’s close the curtains and hunker down”. 

When they’d made themselves comfortable and Sadie had built up the roaring log fire, they all sat close on the bed and readied themselves for their Grandmother’s story. 

“Truly, it was all so, so long ago but I always try my best to remember everything and everyone, just as it should be.
“The year we are talking about, 1868 was so long ago that your Mom and Dad weren’t even born. I had just turned fourteen years of age and I lived in the town of my birth, Greenock on the west coast of Scotland. I was without any word of a lie a wild child but I had a bunch of friends, The Nelson Street Gang as we called ourselves. Apart from me, there was Will, he was sixteen and the leader, there was Alex and Rory, the twins, they were thirteen years old and although they lived in Glasgow they would travel the twenty miles to come to the town for the day. James was much older, I think he said he was about twenty years old and it was he who came up with the idea that changed our lives. James had a pal John Paul or Pauley, as we called him, who would also have been about sixteen and it was he who gave us the name of a ship.  

“It was a game that many of us were involved in, a game of stowing away aboard a ship and then revealing ourselves at the last minute as the vessel was about to leave the Firth of Clyde; that, my darling children, was the river I grew up beside. 

“My mother, Isabel, was not an unkind woman but she did have to love and care for seven other children, so each of us was overlooked from time to time and if I disappeared for a few days it would not cause her a great upset. Will’s idea was to see how far we could travel without being discovered but it was the older boy, James, that sealed our fate, he wanted to work on the railroads of North America and knew of a ship that would get him there. The vessel was known as the Arran and its first mate was a friend of Pauley’s father, so even if we were found quickly Pauley felt we’d be well looked after.

“We made our move when old Dreamer, the harbour master, had fallen asleep from his daily rum potion and the crew were out in the streets of the old town. We weren’t the only ones that night looking for a ship to board. I reckon this happened most evenings at the harbour. The crews weren’t too concerned as they knew they would catch most of the stowaways in time and those they didn’t, well they would be set to work.

“Our ship was headed for Quebec, although we were unsure where that was, it sounded far away and that was good enough for us.

“I, James, Pauley, Alex and the twins managed to find our way into a cargo hold and lower ourselves behind the rope store. We’d bumped into five others, three boys and two girls also boarding the Arran that night but they had made their way to the stern of the ship. Little did we realise at the time that they would be the lucky ones.

“Between the movements of the vessel and the rancid smell of the ropes I felt I was going to be sick and found sleep hard to come by. I heard the crew return just before dawn and the Arran set sail soon afterwards. The sun was shining through the spaces in the deck and so the hold warmed up fast. Within an hour they were calling for the hatches to be battened down, this is when the crew do their final search before heading out to the high seas. I could see the boys holding their breaths as our area was searched but no one thought to look behind the ropes. ‘I’ve found some’ I heard one of the crew call out but it turned out it was the five from the stern. They were transferred on to the pilot cutter and that was that, we, on the other hand, were bound for some foreign land called Quebec. 

“I heard someone call that we had passed ‘Paddy’s milestone’ and that we were heading out into the Irish Sea. Will felt it was time to make a move and since the first mate knew Pauley, Will suggested he should go up with him. What was the worst that could happen to us? We would be made to work to the next port, a life on the open seas then a trip home. 

“Things,however, didn’t work out like that, the boys had been gone only a few minutes when we were all being hauled up to the deck. I knew almost immediately that something was very wrong. Standing next to Pauley was a man I will remember for the rest of my life, his name was James Kerr and he was the first mate of the Arran and probably a drinking pal of Beelzebub himself. He came from Lochranza and was thirty one years of age at the time. The skipper was Andrew Watt, twenty eight and married to Kerr’s sister. By all accounts, Andrew Watt was known as a kind and fair man but whatever hold Kerr had over him had poisoned his good nature. 

“I don’t want to scare you kids, suffice to say that life aboard the Arran was far from heaven. We were beaten regularly and given only water for days. When the ship’s cook threw the potato peelings over the side, James and Will jumped over to catch those pieces that were stuck on the side of the ship. Some days we had one piece of peeling each. As the eldest those two were whipped ever day, only Pauley escaped the cruelty. Some of the crew tried to smuggle dried meats to us but paid for it by being whipped in front of us. On other days Captain Watt tried to dampen Kerr’s anger but one look from the first mate and Watt would fold. I will always wonder what he had over him. 

“Days passed and the air grew colder, much colder. Sometimes Will was tied to the mainsail without a shirt and left there for hours as ice formed on the sails. Then that day came – the ship stopped. All around the Arran was an ice pack which had stuck the vessel solidly. On that day Kerr ordered Will, James, Alex, Rory and I off the ship on to the ice floe but Watt countered this decision and told us to return to the Arran; perhaps his conscience or God made him reconsider but the next day he was back on the devil's side.

“Pauley watched as we were marched back down the gangplank on to the ice floe again. Watt told us that the provisions on the Arran would not support all six of us as well as the crew. He went on to say that another ship, The Dark Shadow, was stuck about a mile to the north of the Arran and would accept us with all haste. How or why he knew this did not strike me at the time. Pauley had tears on his face and the smirking Kerr had his arm around the boy as we stood on the ice. ’God bless’ was Watt’s final words. I will always remember those words.

“To add to the pain both the twins had travelled in their bare feet and that was all they had to stand on in the ice. Will had been given a knife from one of the kinder crew members and had succeeded in hiding it in his turned-up trouser bottoms. As you may have guessed no such ship as The Dark Shadow existed or at least we never saw it. By the time we realised this fact we had lost sight of the Arran and had no idea if we were five, fifty or five hundred miles from landfall and perhaps Kerr had expected us all to expire.
“As darkness fell James made each of us tie a piece of clothing to one another, so that if the ice broke in the night we could at least keep together. We huddled closely and with God's grace made it through to the morning. 

“Of the twins, Rory was not faring well and the frost bite was starting to blacken his toes. As we continued to walk into the white wilderness, the ice began to break up. Sometimes there were small gaps filled with water that had to be jumped. All of us made the other side except for Rory who fell in and it took all our energy to pull him out again. Alex tried to carry him but it was almost impossible and Rory began to fall behind. When Rory fell in once more we pulled him out but we all felt we had no energy reserves left. He asked to remain to catch his breath and we moved silently on, even Alex didn’t look back but I heard ,as I’m sure we all did, Rory slip back off the ice and into the water for the last time; a small part of me died that day. 

“As it grew dark towards the end of the second day we saw a bonfire neither from a ship nor a lighthouse but from a building on a distant shore, the problem was that the ice stopped about a mile from the safety of a landfall. We called, shouted and screamed but no one called back so Will decided we needed to make our own way across the water, it was now almost dark and if the ice broke we would not survive. Will used his knife to cut blocks of ice for each of us, we could sit astride them and paddle our way across. Being the heaviest, Alex and James tried first and it worked, the blocks floated and supported their weight. After another two blocks had been cut Alex and I took to the open seas. Will felt the three of us should start out and send for help when we got to safety, he would cut one final block of ice and follow us over.

“James drifted off to the left and I could only hear his voice grow fainter. Three times I fell off the ice and it was only with Alex’s strength and help that I survived. Somehow James made landfall first and attracted the attention of the farmer who was tending the bonfire. He and his sons cast a rowing boat out  to sea and collected me and Alex but no matter how hard they looked, and believe me they did, all through the night and the next day and the following night, no trace of Will was ever found. 

“When the farmer’s wife found out about Rory and Will she told us not to worry, she said the Ice Ghosts would take care of them, they take care of everyone lost out there and in turn our lost boys would look after the others. I didn't  know what others she meant. 

“A couple of days later James announced he was moving on and would head to the nearest town for a train. That turned out to be Summertown; we had been washed ashore at Nova Scotia. He was going on to Philadelphia to meet with an uncle who worked on the Pennsylvania railroad, we never heard from James again.

“When the farmer told the locals about the Arran, the council contacted Quebec and the good folks of Greenock. When we recovered most of our health Alex and I returned home to Scotland by means of a schooner skippered by one of Summertown’s great and good, he had heard of our plight and wanted to help. 

“News had already hit my hometown before we arrived and there were many at the quayside to welcome us, including the mother of Alex and Rory who was unaware of her son’s demise.

“When the Arran finally returned to Greenock both Kerr and Watt were arrested, initially for their own safety as the crowd were ready to lynch them. They both stood trial at Glasgow High Court and were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. On their release, Kerr went back to sea but I hear tell that Captain Watt died soon after in Pensacola, Florida. 

“I married Alex, your Granddad, and we moved to New York City in the summer of 1873.The following year I promised I would return to Summertown to remember absent friends and to thank the farmer and his family. I collected two stones on the beach, one for Rory and one for Will, and I laid them on a rock. Each year, your Granddad and I would return and lay more stones in remembrance and so my lovely grandchildren that is what I hope you shall help me do tomorrow”. 

By now Ben and Amy were fast asleep and Sadie wasn’t sure how much of the story they’d heard but it didn’t matter, it felt right telling it even if it was only to the lamps. Sadie put the kids to bed and took a look out of the window. The storm had passed and all was right with the world again. 

In the morning Sadie, Amy and Ben went to the beach early. The sun was shining and the shore was chock full of souvenirs from the storm. Sadie went to pick a stone from the beach when she suddenly changed her mind.
“Ben, Amy why don’t you kids bring me a stone each”. The children loved the game and Amy returned with what she thought was the most beautiful and Ben with the biggest stone.

“Now come with me” as Sadie guided them to a pile of stones on the ridge.
“What are these?” asked Amy.
“These are for the Ice Ghosts, ain’t they Grandma?” smiled Ben.
“You heard?”
“I heard Grandma, I’ll tell you about it later Amy” said her brother then both of them ran off. 

Sadie laid the two stones on top of the others and was about to say a short prayer when she was interrupted by a scream. 

“Grandma, come quickly, Amy’s stepped on a jellyfish”, Sadie, whispered ‘goodbye’ to the stones and knew her life now rested with her family and the future and that the past was the past.

The Nova Scotia summers came and went and the stones lay undisturbed for many years, then one sunny morning a man and his son walked towards the pile of stones and each placed a rock upon it.

The man smiled at his son, “That’s it, Rory my boy, that’s it” then Ben took his son’s hand and led him back to the car.


POSTSCRIPT:
A few weeks after I put the story on the blog - I got this response:

This is the story of my GreatGreat Grandfather. The true story was originally written by John Donald. Though you changed the name of some of the stowaways, most part, its the same story as his. The Greenock stowaways were seven boys, interesting concept having one be a female. I have researched this story for several years and just came across your version of it today.


bobby stevenson 2014

The true story : 
http://www.abroadintheyard.com/tragic-arran-stowaways-1868/