Posted by ricardo marcenaro | Posted in Short Stories: Charlie Taylor - Occupation - Links to more ShS | Posted on 9:36
It was late morning when the soldiers came knocking on the door. Such a polite knock. A bit like Mr Marsden from the Pru used when he came to collect his money every month. "I'm here again," he would say to Jimmy's mother, laughing. "Doesn't time fly!" And he would collect his half a crown which he would put into the small leather bag he carried around his waist before stooping to refit the bicycle clips around his skinny ankles, mount his sit-up-and-beg Raleigh and pedal off to knock on Mrs Hutcheson's at number 143. Two-and-sixpence here, five bob there, a tanner from old Granny Baxter at number 79 for her funeral insurance! She was determined to have a good send off was old Granny Baxter. She'd never hold her head up if there weren't ham sandwiches for all followed by fairy cakes and Jammy Dodgers.
The soldiers knocked again. A firm knock but not one designed to alarm. Knock, knock, knock, as if by a gloved hand, which was the case.
Jimmy knew it was the soldiers. He had seen them walking along the road, past the troop carriers, six of them in uniform, carrying guns.
"Dad," Jimmy had shouted up the stairs, "they're outside our gate. They've stopped. They're looking at our door. I think they're going to come here, to our house. Dad!"
He heard a frantic scuffling from the landing. He heard the trapdoor to the roof space being moved and he saw his father's feet on the top of the banister for a second before they were drawn up into the loft behind him and the trapdoor scraped back into place.
"Get away from the window, Jimmy," said his mother, all hard-voiced and urgent. "Get away from it. Now! Come into the kitchen with me. Jimmy, do as you're told. Now!"
There was a third knocking on the door, a more insistent knocking, an offended knocking, a you'd-better-be-opening-this-door-now sort of knocking, before-we-get-angry sort of knocking. Jimmy scuttled backwards towards his mother who clasped him to her pinafored bosom.
"It's alright, Jimmy," she said. "Everything's alright. Don't say anything to them, love. Just keep quiet and let me talk?"
Jimmy looked up at her face, her frightened face. He nodded.
The knocking became a slapping-banging, as if with the flat palm of a gloved hand, and then there began a firm kicking at the bottom of the door. Not enough to damage it but enough to suggest damage would be done if it wasn't opened. A voice shouted, superfluously: "Open the door!" One of the soldiers came to the window and peered into the room, trying to see through the net curtains. Jimmy's mother turned to the kitchen and saw more soldiers, three of them, standing in the back garden, hands on guns. Her trembling transmitted itself through to the boy. He felt her arms shaking, her body shaking, her legs shaking.
There was a moment's silence before the front door burst open, the remains of the Yale lock spinning down the hallway to fall with a ting, ting, ting on the hard red tiles. The soldiers walked into the house, guns cradled, faces set, hard. Two stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up towards the landing, two quickly searched the living room, dragging the sofa out of place to check behind it, two pushed past Jimmy and his mother and glanced around the kitchen pausing to acknowledge the soldiers in the garden.
They gathered at the bottom of the stairs. Two climbed to the landing and stood guard while the others pushed past them to search the bedrooms, the bathroom. Nothing. The soldier in charge looked up at the loft entrance. He nodded to one of his team who climbed up on to the banister and poked the trapdoor with the muzzle of his gun. It moved. He poked it harder and it shifted a foot to his left. He moved it aside with his hand, pulled a torch from his pocket, switched it on and eased his head into the opening as he shone the light into the roof space.
The single shot made Jimmy's mother sag at the knees. Her grip on her son tightened. He felt she was almost dragging him to the floor. All was confusion. He felt, rather than heard, the soldier's body fall from the banister and thump down the stairs before the gunfire overwhelmed his senses. He tore himself away from his mother's arms and ran to the hallway. The soldier lay on his back, legs up the stairs, head on the red tiles, blood pooling underneath him, eyes wide open in apparent astonishment at the hole on the centre of his forehead.
He looked up to see the five soldiers crowded onto the small landing, all firing their automatic weapons into the ceiling, the plasterboard being ripped apart as the bullets' path weaved left and right, around and around, spraying the whole area.
"DAD!" shouted Jimmy, starting up the stairs and as he did so one of the soldiers turned around, swinging his gun to bear on the ten year old, reacting, not thinking. His finger tightened on the trigger. Above him, the plasterboard disintegrated. A body fell through it onto the soldier, knocking him to one side as the first bullets slammed into the wall on Jimmy's left.
"DAD!" shouted Jimmy.
Both bodies were removed within the hour. Jimmy and his mother were taken in a black Humber Hawk to Maghull Police Station which had been commandeered by the soldiers as their headquarters for the West Lancashire area. Jimmy was made to sit in an office which was empty except for one desk and two chairs. A woman in uniform sat with him, behind the desk, but didn't speak to him at all, not even to ask if he was hungry. His mother was taken along a corridor by the soldiers and into a room at the end through a big, heavy steel door with bars across the small glass window. Jimmy sat in the chair for two hours. The uniformed woman read a book, occasionally crossing and uncrossing her legs. She smelled of talcum powder and Coal Tar Soap, Jimmy thought. Like his Aunty Freda.
"Never, ever speak to 'em, son," his dad had told him. "Not if they ask your name or where you live or whether you'd like a piece of chocolate. Tell 'em nothin'. Don't talk to 'em on the street, don't tell 'em you're my son, don't listen to anything they say 'cos it'll all be lies and it could get someone killed."
Jimmy had blinked at that.
"And that someone could be me or your mum. You hear me?"
Jimmy nodded and imagined his parents dead. Tears formed.
"Stop that!" his father had said. "Stop that now! And don't you let 'em make you cry, 'cos that's what they'll want to do. They'll want to frighten you 'cos you're only a kid. They'll want to frighten you so's you'll tell 'em things about me and your mum. Don't you say a word, you hear! You don't want us dead now do you! Tell nobody nothing, son."
Jimmy nodded, then changed his mind and shook it and tears trickled down his cheeks.
"Stop that, I said. Here!" And his dad gave him a handkerchief, all bundled up and dirty, to wipe his eyes.
So Jimmy sat in the chair for two hours, hardly moving except when pins and needles started in his legs where the chair cut in under his thighs. Then he would wriggle his legs slightly, one at a time, trying to ease the feeling back into them. He sat there and tried not to cry for two hours. He wouldn't let his dad down, no matter what they did to him. He wouldn't say anything. He would tell 'em nothing. Nothing. He tried to be brave. Like his dad.
He searched his memory. Had he ever talked to them? There was that young one he'd said thanks to who'd kicked his football back to him across Southport Road, away from the traffic. But that was all. Surely that wouldn't have got his dad killed? But what if…?
The door opened and a soldier, an older man with fancy badges on his uniform, came in and whispered something in the woman's ear. She looked at Jimmy. "Come!" she said and walked out of the office, out of the police station, with Jimmy at her side, her hand on his shoulder. They got into the black Humber Hawk again and drove back along Southport Road into Lydiate until they passed Jimmy's house on the left hand side, the front door still hanging open, a soldier on guard outside, others searching the gardens and wandering around inside the building. They turned right 250 yards further on, into Lambshear Lane and stopped outside the primary school. A woman was waiting for them, standing at the school gate.
"Hello Jimmy," she said, opening the car door. "Come with me. You're safe now. She nodded at the woman in uniform, a curt nod, a necessary nod but one devoid of any civility.
"My mum?" Jimmy said. "Miss MacIntyre! My mum? They've got her at the police station."
He threw himself into the waiting woman's arms and sobbed, hours of pent-up fear and frustration breaking through. Miss MacIntyre looked again at the uniformed woman through the open car door. "So, this is what it's come to. Waging war on ten year old boys? You're scum, the lot of you," she said, turning on her heels and leading Jimmy by the hand into the school playground. "Come on, Jimmy. You're safe now with me."
Miss MacIntyre's little bungalow in Dodds Lane was as neat and pleasant as the headmistress herself. Tall privet hedges, clipped to within an inch of their lives, fronted the driveway where her grey Morris Minor stood gently dripping oil onto the swept tarmac. The front garden was paved except for diamond-shaped patches of well-fed soil within which pruned, spiky rose bushes displayed their blooms. Jimmy's Gran loved roses and early summer. "That boy came with the June roses," she said every year to her daughter when buying something for Jimmy's birthday. The thought of his birthday made him cry. His present this year was to see his father murdered and his mother taken away from him. He rolled over on his bed in Miss MacIntyre's spare bedroom and cried and cried until he could cry no more. In the lounge, his new guardian cried too on his behalf, and patted the head of her ageing Springer spaniel. "What a cruel world, Shandy. What a cruel world," she murmured. "Who would do this to a child?"
She looked out of the French windows leading to a long, narrow lawn with a neat wooden fence at the end, separating her little world from the flat farmland beyond with Maghull and Aintree and Liverpool in the distance. It was quite some time since she had sat there at night-time watching the explosions light up the sky as bombs rained down on the docks. It was peaceful now, for the most part. Defeat had its advantages. But not for everybody. Not for Jimmy's father and others like him who refused to accept defeat, who fought on. Not for Bob Mitchell and Harry Scrivener and Ted Maughan who had all just disappeared. And that was from this small village alone. And not for those caught up in the aftermath. Not for Jimmy's mother, and Jimmy himself. Not for wives and mothers and the children of those who fought on. "It might be better if they just accepted the situation, Shandy? What do you think?"
And now she had acquired a boy. In loco parentis during the day at school for all her charges, and now in loco parentis at home for Jimmy. What else could she do? The poor boy had no relatives in the village, travel for those living elsewhere was restricted, so who else would look after him? Miss MacIntyre sighed. She had regretted not having children of her own but the death of Stephen on a Normandy beach twelve years before had committed to her to spinsterhood. A life lost, lives ruined, futures destroyed, children unborn. And for what?
She had heard Jimmy crying and thought it best to leave him to exhaust his emotions. But enough was enough. Boys, she knew, needed to be kept occupied. And so did dogs.
"Jimmy!" she called. "Jimmy, I'd like you to take Shandy out for a walk, please. She hasn't had any exercise today… and neither have you. Come on now, quick's the word, sharp's the action!" She lifted down the spaniel's lead from the coat hook in the hallway and knocked on Jimmy's bedroom door. "Jimmy, come on now. Shandy needs you to look after her. Dry those tears and try to be brave." Try to be brave, she thought as his tear-streaked face appeared at the door, eyes red, face pale, snotty-sleeved. A ten year old boy, trying to be brave. "Wait a second, Jimmy," she said, bustling into the bathroom and re-emerging with a wet face cloth in her hand. "Can't have you looking a mess, can we now." And she scrubbed at his face in such a fussy way that he almost laughed through his misery. "There, now," she said. You're fit to face the world. Off you go with Shandy for twenty minutes while I get you both some dinner ready. Try the fields past Ormerod's farm," she suggested. "Off you go and make your parents proud. You're almost a man and you'll need to behave like one."
And Miss MacIntyre, wondering whether her words were ill-advised or not, watched the little man in his short pants walk off down the driveway with a bouncy, pulling-at-the-lead, liver and white Springer spaniel, looking to all the world like a waif and stray. She was glad when they turned the corner onto Dodds Lane. She could cry, then, without embarrassment, without showing her own weakness to a ten year old boy.
Jimmy was hardly conscious of Shandy's excited pulling. His head was full of sadness, confusion and homesickness. But the dog's insistent ignorance of all things connected with human stupidity gradually drew his attention. He stopped and pulled Shandy up short. "Sit!" he said in his most authoritative voice. "Sit!"
Shandy stopped, looked at him as though he was mad and then, grudgingly, sat, mouth open, panting, eyes wide with excitement. Jimmy knelt down and put his arms around the dog's head, burying his face in her neck, nuzzling her floppy ears, wallowing in the unmistakeable scent of a scruffy spaniel which, when he mentioned it to Miss MacIntyre later, drew from her the comment: "Not so different from the smell of a ten year old boy, then! Time for your bath, I think."
The spaniel licked his ears and his face and his arms and anything else she could reach, shifting her weight from leg to leg, impatient to be running. She nibbled his arm and, in spite of himself, Jimmy smiled. Miss MacIntyre had been right to prescribe a spoonful or two of spaniel medicine to the boy.
The row of neat little bungalows stretched ahead of him on his right for a half a mile, and then it was fields. Across the road was Ormerod's farm and then, again, it was fields. Dodds Lane stretched away into the countryside towards Millbank Lane and the village of Aughton. The roads were quiet. Even without the occupation's stifling effect, cars were few and far between. His mother had said it reminded her of wartime rationing. "Which war?" his dad had asked with a sour laugh.
"This isn't a war," she'd said, "it's just a military takeover. We never fought this time."
"How could we?" his dad had said. "We had nothing left after '45. Twelve years on and we'd nothing left. No wonder they simply marched in after a few well-placed bombs. Like taking candy from a baby, as those Yanks used to say. And where are they when we need them? Sitting at home, chewing gum, like in '39."
"C'm on, Shandy," Jimmy said, standing up and squaring his shoulders. "let's go find some rabbits."
The sound of gunfire rattled across the fields from the direction of Aughton. Jimmy crouched low in the field of barley. He could see where Shandy was running by the path she was making through the crop, chasing imaginary rabbits. "Shandy, here girl!" he hissed. She came running, scenting him out, and he grabbed her by the collar, pulling her down to lie on the ground with him. The gunfire continued, sporadically, but heading Jimmy's way. He raised his head. He couldn't see who was firing but started scrambling away, dragging Shandy by the collar as he went, the barley stalks whipping him in the face, the spiky ears catching him and sticking into his jumper. He reached the edge of the field where Millbank Lane met Dodds Lane and Park Lane. He inched forward and slid down into the drainage ditch, peering over the edge. There was a man on a bike, pedalling furiously down Millbank Lane from the direction of Butchers Lane and Aughton. His head was down as he crouched over the handlebars, barely looking in front of him, weaving all over the road. Jimmy recognised him. He'd seen him talking with his dad in the street in Maghull but didn't know his name. Jimmy raised his head and, as he did so, Shandy lunged forward, breaking free from his grasp. She dashed out into the road, almost under the wheels of the bike, barking and yelping in excitement. A good game for a spaniel. The man crashed off the bike in a flurry of gravel and scraped skin, cursing and swearing at the 'bloody dog', before he saw Jimmy.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Don't run. I know you. I know your dad." He looked around, looked over his shoulder back towards Butchers Lane. "Here," he said, fishing inside his jacket. "Do us a favour. Hide this." And he flung a heavy object wrapped in sacking at Jimmy's feet. "Hide it and don't tell anyone," he shouted, mounting his bike again and pedalling off towards the little housing estate on Kenyons Lane. "Hide it! In memory of your dad!" he shouted. He skidded across the road and onto the pavement before turning down a ginnell between two houses. Shandy chased after him
"Shandy! Shandy!!!!" Jimmy screamed at the dog. "Come here!" And then he heard the vehicles approaching down Millbank Lane, from where the cyclist had come. He kicked the sack bundle into the ditch and dashed across the road to where Shandy was standing, sniffing at a fence post and wagging her tail. He slipped the lead onto her collar as the first car full of soldiers drew up alongside him.
"Which way did he go? The man on the bike! Which way did he go?" The soldier levelled his gun at Jimmy. "Answer me! Which way did he go?"
Trembling, Jimmy pointed along Park Lane and the vehicles roared off in a haze of exhaust fumes. As soon as they were out of sight, he slid back into the ditch, dragging Shandy with him, picked up the sack bundle, stuffed it under his jumper and set off down Dodds Lane again, towards Miss MacIntyre's, looking over his shoulder every few seconds, hurrying but not running.
When he got to Ormerod's farm he stopped. "I can't take this back to Miss MacIntyre's," he announced to the spaniel, "not without knowing what it is." He looked around, trying not to give the impression he was doing anything out of the ordinary. "Come on, Shandy, let's go and investigate."
The pair crossed the road and sidled along the outside of the barn which edged Dodds Lane. Pausing at the farmyard entrance to check there was nobody about, Jimmy slipped around the corner and into the barn, pulling Shandy with him. "Shhhhhhh," he whispered as a low growl rumbled in her throat at the sight of a couple of chickens strutting about on the bales of hay. "Shhhhhhhhhhhhh or I'll leave you here!"
He clambered to the top of the stacked hay bales, urging Shandy to follow him, and then he pushed several bales apart to create an enclosed space, a den for himself and his new pal, out of sight of any passer-by. The pair of them sat for a while, the dog sprawled across Jimmy's legs, panting and giving the unwarranted appearance of intelligence by cocking her head at him every time he murmured to her. "We're best friends, you and me," he said. He smiled and ruffled her floppy ears.
The package was heavy and was making Jimmy's jumper sag. He pulled it out and laid it on the straw. Shandy sniffed at it. "What do you think it is, Shandy?" He stared at it a while then started to unravel the bundle until the mouth of the sack was open. He stared into it and his eyes widened. There were two guns. One of them was covered in a sticky goo. He pulled them out of the sack and put them side by side on the bale. He looked at his hand. Blood! "Heck, Shandy, we're in trouble now, you and me."
"I was worried to death about you two," said Miss MacIntyre as she and Jimmy sat at her dining table, scrambled eggs on toast before them. "Did you not hear the guns?"
"They were over at Aughton," said Jimmy, slipping a piece of toast crust to Shandy who sat under the table shifting her weight from paw to paw in anticipation of treats.
"I wonder which poor soul's being hunted now?" she mused. "Another slice of toast, Jimmy?"
"No thanks, Miss MacIntyre, I'm not too hungry."
"Yes, I know, but young boys must eat. It's one of the things they do best."
"Yes, Jimmy? And you don't need to put your hand up to speak to me when you're here… just in class like all the other children."
"Well, Miss MacIntyre… do you know when I can go home? Do you know where my mum is, what's happened to her?"
Miss MacIntyre put down her knife and fork and looked at the ragamuffin sitting across the table. Five feet nothing of an unruly mop of dark hair, skinny legs, skinny shoulders, cheeky face. Her heart almost broke for him.
"Strange as it may sound, Jimmy, you'll have to accept that even teachers, even headmistresses, don't know everything. And the answer to both your questions is, I don't know."
Jimmy stared at her, eyes wide, waiting. What else could a ten year old boy do?
"But," she said, "you're safe here for the moment… you're safe here as long as needs be… and tomorrow, after you've had a good night's sleep, I'll see what I can find out. The least I can do is call at your house and pick up some things so that if you have to stay here with me a few days, you'll have some clothes and some of your own possessions. And I'll try to find out about your mum too."
Jimmy stared at her.
"And as a special treat for both of us, no school tomorrow for you or for me. I'll ask Mr Downing to take assembly and look after the school while I'm away… while we're both away. There are more important things to do at the moment than go to school, don't you think, Jimmy?"
"Yes, Miss MacIntyre." He almost smiled at the thought of no school. He reached under the table and patted Shandy on her head and the dog nuzzled his hand, looking for more toast. "Miss MacIntyre?" he said again, half-raising his hand until she frowned at him.
"Yes Jimmy?" she said, sensing a coming request by the wheedling tone of his voice.
"Miss MacIntyre, if I'm going to spend the night here… in that bedroom," he said pointing at the spare room… can, erm, can Shandy stay with me in the night? Please, Miss MacIntyre? I'll look after her and take her out in the morning and feed her and brush her and…"
"Well, Jimmy, I wouldn't have it any other way. The very idea, a dog and boy sleeping in separate rooms. It's never been known. Of course she can stay with you. But you must promise to look after her and take her out in the morning and feed her and brush her and…" She smiled as Jimmy threw himself onto the floor, wrapping his arms around Shandy's neck.
"Did you hear that, Shandy? You can stay the night with me! Isn't that great!"
And Shandy certainly did think that was great.
Miss MacIntyre returned after lunch the following day carrying bags full of Jimmy's clothes. "I couldn't manage any more than this," she said, "and the soldiers are still searching the place. They're digging in the garden now. The one in charge said they'd board up the house once they'd finished and that one of his superior officers would be in touch about your mother. He said he didn't know where she was. That's no surprise."
"They won't find anything," said Jimmy. "Dad was always careful."
Miss MacIntyre looked at the boy. "It's better you don't tell me anything, Jimmy. It's better you don't tell anybody anything. You can trust me, you know that, but a secret's a secret if only one person knows it."
"Dad told me never to talk to them, and I don't."
"Yes, he was right, but it's not just them. You shouldn't talk about this sort of thing to anybody, anybody at all, even to your friends at school. It's important, Jimmy, that you understand how dangerous it is."
"Yes, Miss MacIntyre. I know that. They killed my dad, didn't they, and others in the village. And yesterday they were shooting at…"
"That's enough, Jimmy. I don't want to know. If you need to tell anybody, tell Shandy. She'll understand and she'll not give you away. Here now, you and Shandy go to your room and put all your clothes away. We'll assume you're staying for a couple of weeks at the moment and hope we get some news of your mother in the meantime. Off you go, the pair of you. And then I'd like you to take her for a walk. When you get back I have a little schoolwork I'd like you to do given that you've missed today's lessons.
"Yes, Miss MacIntyre," said Jimmy, pulling his face as he dragged the bags away to his room.
The dog-walking took Jimmy directly to Ormerod's farm and into the barn. He climbed the bales and ducked into his den with Shandy, safe in the knowledge he couldn't be seen from the ground. "Shhhhhhhh, girl" he said to the spaniel, patting the straw by his side and, obediently, she lay down quietly. He dug down between two of the bales and pulled out the sacking, checking that the guns were still there. "What do we do with them now?" he murmured. "They can't stay here for ever. These bales will have to be moved some time. What do you think, Shandy?" She sniffed the sacking, drawn by the scent of the blood. "Leave it!" he hissed. He pushed her away and forced the bundle down between the bales again, then lay back, pulling the dog into his arms for warmth and comfort, and listened to the sounds of the barn. The wind gently eased through the slatted side with a swishhhhhhhhhhh and the wooden structure creaked gently. Now and again he would hear the scratchy scraping of a mouse or rat as it scampered about the bales, no doubt looking for food, wary of boys and dogs. He lay there for almost an hour, day-dreaming, whispering to his doggy friend, stroking her, calming her whenever he heard a noise from the farmyard. Everything was at one and the same time strange and yet ordinary, fantasy and yet strikingly real, unlikely and yet guaranteed certainty. One day his life was that, the next it was this. For a ten year old boy with a spaniel friend, everything was true, everything was here, everything was now. He and Shandy weren't very different. Not really.
Jimmy left the barn carefully, crossed the road and turned back into Miss MacIntyre's driveway. "Ah, there you are, you two," she said from the front door. "I was beginning to wonder where you'd got to. Long walk?"
"Yes, Miss MacIntyre. I think Shandy's tired now. Is it alright if I walk down to the school to play out with Robert till teatime, please?"
"Are you sure you'll be fine on your own? It's not far and you know the way. I can't see any harm coming to you. Off you go then. Back by six at the latest! Oh, and what about that school work you were supposed to ...?"
"Thank you, Miss MacIntyre," Jimmy shouted over his shoulder, already running down Dodds Lane. "I won't be late."
Robert Weldon was red-haired, freckly, snub-nosed and built like a mini-weight lifter. He was Jimmy's best friend and the two were inseparable, in or out of school. They were possessed of a fierce brand of mutual loyalty that only innocence can support, and they made a formidable team. Kick one and the other limped too, and then there was trouble. So nobody kicked either of them.
Half past three, the school bell rang and Jimmy sat on the low wall, facing the playground, feet dangling, heels kicking against the brickwork, rhythmically scuffing his shoes to within an inch of their lives. The doors were flung open and the new, flat-roofed buildings disgorged their juvenile contents into the arms of waiting mothers, aunties or neighbours, or to make their way home in dribs and drabs if they lived not too far from school. Robert lived in Haigh Crescent, just around the corner. His house backed onto the playing fields which Robert regarded as part of his back garden.
"Hey, Jimmy!" shouted Robert, charging across the narrow strip of grass between playground and Lambshear Lane and leaping at his friend on the wall, both of them falling backwards in a tumbled heap. "Sorry, Jimmy. Didn't mean to do that," Robert said, picking himself up and sitting on the wall again, rubbing his elbow where he'd scraped it. "Ouch!"
"Where'd you get to today. Why weren't you in school?"
"My dad got shot yesterday," Jimmy announced with a child's matter-of-factness. "He's dead. And my mum got taken away by the soldiers so I'm staying at Miss MacIntyre's. She said I didn't need to come in to school today. She's got a great dog. It's a spaniel called Shandy."
"Yeah, heard about your dad. I'm sorry, Jimmy. Sorry about your mum too." He fixed his face in a suitably sorrowful expression. "But that's good about the dog. And staying with old Miss MacIntyre! Hey, what's that like? I bet it's scary."
"No, she's really nice and kind, but I miss my things. My bike and my games and my football. I need my fishing tackle too."
"Hey, how're you going to manage without your fishing tackle? Can't you go and get it from your house?"
"Miss MacIntyre said the soldiers were still searching it…"
"What're they searching it for?"
"Never mind… I can't tell you… but they're still searching it and then they're going to board it up, Miss MacIntyre said."
"Bet they're searching for guns and ammo. Bet that's what they're after!"
"Can't tell you. Miss MacIntyre says I mustn't talk to anybody about things like that."
"You can tell me, Jimmy. I'm your best friend. Anyway, everyone knows your dad was a fighter. My dad used to say he'd get himself shot one day, and he was right. I'm sorry, though. I liked your dad. My dad says the fighters are brave fools. That's what he calls them."
"My dad wasn't no fool," said Jimmy, standing up and rounding on his friend. "You just take that back!"
Robert looked at his friend who, according to his mother, was 'about as far through as a piece of lettuce', looked at the fierceness in his eyes and, for a ten year old, felt something approaching sympathy for another human being. "I'm sorry, Jimmy," he said. "I don't think he meant it in a bad way. He just thought the fighters didn't know that they were beaten. I liked your dad. I thought he was great."
Jimmy sat down again, tears forming in his eyes.
Robert put his arm around Jimmy's shoulders. "Tell you what, Jimmy, let's me and you go round to your house, sneak down the canal bank and see what they're doing there. If we can, we'll get your bike and fishing tackle. What do you think? I don't need to be home before mum gets back from work. What do you think? And if we see any soldiers, we can ask 'em what's going on? What do you think? Come on, let's do it."
"Alright," said Jimmy, "but I've got to be back at Miss MacIntyre's before six. Have you got a watch on? Right, come on, let's go."
And they walked down Lambshear Lane, past the school main gates where mothers and aunties and neighbours were gathering their young about them, and some of the adults stopped as the boys made their way along the crowded pavement, nodding at Jimmy, faces set in socially acceptable expressions of concern and sympathy and fear for their own.
"Come on, Jimmy," said Robert as they zigzagged through the shifting mass, "you can tell me, you know. What're they searching for?
167 Southport Road, Lydiate, was a small semi with a postage stamp-sized front garden, a narrow driveway along the side and a long, thin back garden running down to a very large sycamore tree, behind which was a raggedy wooden fence. Beyond the fence the Leeds-Liverpool Canal drifted its way at right angles to the garden, left to Liverpool where it emptied into the Stanley Dock, and right a meandering route via the famous Wigan Pier, eventually to Leeds. The canal at Lydiate, its banks, its fish, its bridges, the houses backing onto it, the allotments nearby, the farmers' fields in the background, the copses, the ponds, the towpaths, the derelict buildings with smashable windows – all these were known by Jimmy and Robert. They knew things about the area that only ten year old boys could possibly know. They knew the best hiding places, the secret pathways, the hollows where tramps sat and drank, the undergrowth where teenage girls allowed teenage boys to do things that they didn't want their mothers to see, they knew where rubbish was dumped and what could be scavenged from it to make huts, they knew where the rabbits burrowed and where foxes hunted them, they knew where the water rats lived and why fishermen couldn't catch roach near to Bells Lane Bridge. They knew all these things and yet hated classes in school, as is the way with boys who learn things best by playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers… or war games.
The boys turned right into Bells Lane before reaching Jimmy's house, down to the hand-operated, wooden swing bridge over the canal, past the shop where they had bought many a lolly-ice. They crossed the bridge and turned left along the towpath, wandering idly along as though they were just boys doing boyish things, until they were opposite the back of Jimmy's house. They slid down the banking at the side of the towpath into familiar games territory, hidden behind bushes and brambles.
"Can't see nobody in the garden," Robert whispered as he separated the twigs in the bushes that hid them to peer across the canal. He was in Commando mode.
Jimmy's head rested on his friend's shoulder as he took a look too. "They must have gone. They didn't find nothing."
"How do you know that?" Robert asked.
"Can't tell you," said Jimmy. "I just know."
"Are you going to tell me what they were searching for or not? I'm your best friend, remember!"
"I keep telling you, I can't, Robert. I just can't." He paused, looked again across the canal. "Maybe tomorrow I'll tell you. Alright?"
"Alright," said Robert, boy-loyalty and pester power rewarded at last.
"But you've gotta promise you'll not tell anybody else. Not your mum or your dad or your sister, God strike you down dead if you do."
"I promise," said Robert, spitting on his hand and holding it out to his friend. Jimmy spat on his own hand and they shook on it. The promise was sealed and binding, even under threat of torture or death. For little boys, with the certainty born of ignorance, are convinced that such threats are bearable.
"Do you think they've gone?" Jimmy asked, peering through the twigs again.
"Looks like it," said Robert.
"Let's go round the front and check."
"Just a sec," said Robert. He turned and stood up close to a chestnut tree, unzipping his shorts. "Bet you can't piss this high," he laughed, squirting his jet of urine up the trunk to almost chest height.
"Bet I can," said Jimmy, joining him, both trying hard not to splash themselves when standing on tip-toe, giggling as drops spayed sideways onto their legs.
"Beat you, beat you, you dirty little bugger!" shouted Robert, laughing and running out onto the towpath, zipping his shorts as he went. "Race you to the bridge!"
They turned right out of Bells Lane onto Southport Road, idling their way along the footpath that was separated from the roadway by a grass verge about six feet wide. Every few yards, Robert would find something interesting in the grass – a stone, a piece of wire and, sometimes, a decent-sized cigarette butt which he'd slip into his pocket. They wandered past number 167. The driveway was empty, the rusting wrought-iron gates left open and the house was deserted. Three crudely cut lengths of wood crossed the front doorway at random angles, their ends nailed into the door surround, their middles nailed into the green-painted door itself through blocks of wood underneath.
"You'll never get in there," said Robert. "Not without taking all that wood off… and then how would you close it again after?"
"Don't need to get in," said Jimmy. "Don't want to get in the house. Come on, quick!" and he scampered down the driveway, followed by his burlier friend.
They kept low as they rounded the corner of the house where the wooden shed stood, door ripped off and left swinging, and Jimmy crouched even lower, almost on hand and knees as he made his way down the garden to the tree and the rickety old fence. Robert followed, even more in Commando mode than before. Jimmy slipped through the fence where a couple of palings were broken. Robert squeezed through, ripping a hole in his jumper with the end of a rusty bit of wire sticking out across the gap.
"Down!" said Jimmy, and both boys flattened themselves in the long grass behind the fence. Stinging nettles brushed their legs making them both flinch, but stinging nettles were easily dealt with once you could find a dock leaf. Neither boy made a sound as old Mr Watkinson in number 165 put some rubbish in his dustbin. They watched him rattle the lid back on the bin then hawk and spit, and bend over to blow his nose through his fingers onto the ground, long strings of snot hanging from his nose for a moment before gravity got the better of them and they fell to join his gobbet on the crazy paving. He wiped his fingers on his trousers before going indoors.
"Ewwwwww," said Robert. "Wonder if he does that in the house?" They both giggled at the thought and the giggles grew wilder under the strain of the situation, threatening to become hysteria as they tried hard not to look at each other, red in the face, choking for breath with the effort of laughing quietly.
Jimmy eventually rolled over onto his back, staring at the blue sky through the branches of the sycamore tree where he had spent many hours clambering like a little monkey among its branches. He knew every crook and hollow and foothold in the tree. He had been Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan only the day before yesterday, rescuing Barbara Sharp's imitation of Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane from the cannibal natives of Darkest Africa. They had taken refuge in the sycamore and, as reward, Jimmy had got to see Barbara's navy blue knickers as she climbed above him.
"I'm done," said Robert. "Can't laugh any more."
"Me neither," said Jimmy. "I can't move yet though. My sides are aching."
Robert lay on his side, head supported by his left arm. "Come on, Jimmy, tell me. What were they searching for?"
"Watch," said Jimmy, and he crawled through the grass toward the edge of the canal, paused, checked that nobody was on the towpath and lay in his stomach, arms reaching down into the murky water. He grunted with the effort of stretching, then inched his way back holding the end of a rope. "Here, Robert, give me a hand with this, will you. Pull!" Robert gripped the slimy rope and the two boys pulled. "Slowly," said Jimmy.
The rope refused to move more than six feet or so. Whatever was on the end of it was stuck at the lip of the canal edge. "Keep hold of it," said Jimmy. "don't let it slip back into the water." He inched forward on his stomach, leaned over the lip and with a grunt pulled a small metal drum over the edge onto the grass. Whole bricks were attached to it by ropes wrapped around the drum. No wonder it was hard to pull up. He wriggled backwards with it to where his friend had relaxed his hold on the rope. "Quick, said Jimmy," let's get it over here, under the tree, out of sight."
"What's in it, Jimmy? Open it. Let's have a look. Go on, open it," said Robert.
"I can't get into it," Jimmy said. "Dad sealed it and tied these bricks on it for weights so it wouldn't float. I don't know how to get in it without a hammer or an axe or one of dad's saws, and I don't want to spoil it. Come on, we've seen it's there. The soldiers didn't find it so let's put it back."
"Wait! What's in it?"
"I promised I'd tell you tomorrow, not today."
"That's not fair."
"We shook on tomorrow not today so it's fair. Come on, Robert, help me get it back in the water."
Robert pouted and sat looking at the drum. "I bet it's guns. Or knives. Or secret maps."
"I'm not telling you today. Help me get it back in the water and I promise I'll tell you tomorrow. I promise!"
"You better had," said Robert. "A promise is a promise."
"Did you have a good time with Robert?" said Miss MacIntyre as she served Jimmy a plateful of sausage and mash.
"Yes, thanks, Miss MacIntyre. We played football on the school field."
"Ah, I wondered how your clothes had got so grubby. Did you win?"
"Wasn't a proper game. We did swapsies with Dringo and Sharkey and Stuart Pearson."
"Did you see any soldiers about the place? Mrs Evans was telling me there was a bunch of them searching the fields up alongside Millbank Lane. You know, where it runs though on that footpath to Butchers Lane. She thought it had something to do with the shooting yesterday but who knows? Whatever it is, some poor soul's in trouble. Where will it end, where will it all end?"
Jimmy coughed and choked on a piece of sausage.
"Drink some water, Jimmy, and try not to choke yourself in my house. Shandy would miss you and you'd look terribly untidy on the floor here."
"You know you said yesterday that perhaps it would be better if everybody stopped fighting and accepted the occupation?"
"I was just thinking out loud, Jimmy, that's all."
"But did you really mean that, Miss? Should we let them steal our country? My dad said they were murdering bastards…"
"Sorry, Miss, but he did. He said they'd turn us into their slaves, they'd steal all our things. He said this was our country and we had a right to defend it. He said it was our duty to defend it even though they'd beaten our army. He said that any man who didn't defend it was a coward and deserved to be a slave."
Miss MacIntyre looked at Jimmy, still red in the face after struggling with the sausage, made worse by this burst of passion. She reached over and touched his arm. "I don't know, Jimmy, I just don't know. I think about it every night. I think about the waste of lives in the First and Second wars with Germany. I think of all the brave young men slaughtered in France and Belgium. I think about all the wars there have been throughout history as greedy men got their young folk to fight and die for them… and I wonder what good it has ever done."
"But my dad says that you've go to fight for what you believe in, that if you don't you're not a real man."
Miss MacIntyre sighed. "It all depends, Jimmy, what you mean by 'real man'. Sometimes it takes more courage not to fight than to fight. I just wonder how much worse it would be if we accepted the situation we had now, stopped fighting them, and just got on with our lives. Would it really make any difference to the ordinary man and woman in the street? Politicians might say it would, and so might those who would stand to lose lots of money but would it really matter to you and to me? I have this horrible feeling that we'd soon get used to it and, who knows, we might even prefer it to what we have now."
Jimmy glared at her. "My dad says," he began, putting his knife and fork down onto the plateful of unfinished food with a clatter, "that anyone talking like that is a traitor and…"
The telephone rang. Miss MacIntyre went into the hallway and answered it, grateful to calm the moment with a pause.
"Hello, yes," Jimmy heard her say. "Oh no, surely not. Say it's not true. When did this happen? Oh, the poor boy... oh, what a tragedy. I hardly know what to say, Gwyneth. The poor parents. How on earth can I tell Jimmy… oh, Gwyneth, what are we coming to when… is there anything I can do or is it..? Alright, Gwyneth, thanks for letting me know. I'll see you in school tomorrow. I'm heartbroken."
He heard her put the phone down and then sob. "I'll be with you shortly, Jimmy," she called from the hallway, and the door of her room opened and closed.
For half an hour Jimmy and Shandy played in the garden, rolling around the grass, play-fighting. Shandy always won, signalling her victory with a series of licks to Jimmy's face as she lay on top of him, panting.
He heard the phone ringing again from inside the house.
"Jimmy!" said Miss MacIntyre a few minutes later from the French window. "Can you come here a minute, please. I have something I need to tell you." Her face was tear-stained, her eyes were red and puffy. Jimmy walked over to her. "Sit down here next to me on the bench if you would, please, Jimmy. I have some terrible, terrible news to tell you. I'd rather not have to be the one to break it to you but…"
"Is it mum? Have they done something to her?" Jimmy's eyes pleaded with her.
"It's not your mother, Jimmy. It's Robert."
"They just recovered his body from the canal at the back of your house…"
"Who did? At the back of my house? What happened. I only left him a couple of hours ago? What was..?" he gabbled.
"Shhhhh, Jimmy, shhhhhhh, take it easy. It seems a soldier went back to your house and caught Robert in the back garden doing something he shouldn't have been doing. Nobody knows exactly what it was but the soldier grabbed hold of him and he wriggled free then jumped into the canal…"
"Robert can't swim!"
"… and he just disappeared. They found him under the Bells Lane Bridge. Oh, Jimmy, I am sorry."
Jimmy sat on the bench, stunned.
"And I just had another call from Mrs Evans, the school secretary. She says the soldiers have found some gelignite in the canal at the end of your back garden. Gwyneth is thinking that Robert was caught with the explosive and that's why the soldier grabbed hold of him. That's why Robert was desperate to get away."
Jimmy was silent.
"Look at me, Jimmy. Look at me now, and answer me truthfully. How did Robert know about the gelignite? Did you tell him? Did you know about it?"
"I never told him there was no gelignite there, Miss. Honest, I never." And so literally honest was his reply that Jimmy was able to look his headmistress squarely in the face and appear innocent. "Honest, Miss. On my mum's life, I never told him about no gelignite."
The loss of a best friend can penetrate even a ten year old boy's immediacy in the world. It is true, innocent heartbreak without closure if death is involved, without the satisfaction of childish anger where the parting words are: "I'm not your best friend now." The news was too numbing for Jimmy to cry. He shouldn't have shown Robert the barrel. What did he expect him to do? Wait until tomorrow? Wait as Jimmy demonstrated the power of knowing something Robert didn't? But Robert had betrayed him, had betrayed Jimmy, his head argued. And, as with his response to Miss MacIntyre, he knew he was being literally honest with himself. He went to his room without saying a word and lay on the bed, holding Shandy.
"He let me down," Jimmy murmured into the dog's floppy ear. "I promised. He promised. We shook hands on it. He got himself killed, not me. Not me. That's right, Shandy, isn't it?"
Shandy lay on her side, one eye looking at him. She didn't seem convinced.
"Miss MacIntyre was right. I can't trust anyone except you. You wouldn't let me down, would you? You'd keep a promise and not tell?"
"I don't want you to go to school again today," Miss MacIntyre had told him the following morning. "I think you should only go back next week." Jimmy nodded, his breakfast toast uneaten. "I'd like you to stay here and look after Shandy again while I go in to see what I can do to help. And please stay in the house or the garden. Don't go wandering, do you hear?" Jimmy nodded again. "Yes, Miss MacIntyre," he had said.
The big black Bakelite phone rang at half past ten. "It's Miss MacIntyre, Jimmy," the voice said. "The soldiers are on their way to pick you up. They just called to ask if you were in school. They want to speak to you about Robert and about Michael Davey. They caught him last night. They say he killed one of their soldiers in Butchers Lane the other day. That's what all the shooting was about. He killed the soldier and stole his gun and he says he gave it to a young boy on Millbank Lane. They must have tortured him, Jimmy…"
Jimmy said nothing.
"Are you still there, Jimmy?"
"Yes, Miss MacIntyre."
"Jimmy, was it you he gave the gun to?"
Jimmy said nothing.
"Jimmy, it must have been you. The boy had a spaniel with him. That's how they know it was you. They've been asking questions around there. Are you still there, Jimmy?"
"Yes, Miss MacIntyre."
"Was it you, Jimmy?"
"You told me not to tell you anything, Miss MacIntyre."
"But Jimmy, they are driving round to the house now as we speak. Quick, Jimmy, I want you to run round to Mr Waterly's on Northway. Tell him I sent you. He'll know what to do!"
He said nothing. He remembered what his dad had said: "Tell nobody nothing, son." He put the phone down, grabbed his coat from the back of the chair and ran out through the open French windows, Shandy, barking in excitement, running along with him. He climbed the fence at the end of the garden, leaving Shandy behind with a quick stroke and a kiss to her spaniel face – "Be a good girl for Miss MacIntyre." - and made his way along the backs of the other houses until he came out higher up on Dodds Lane. A quick look left and right and he dashed across the road into Ormerod's hay field, then along the inside of the hedgerow where thrush, sparrow and blackbird eggs had provided fair game for young boys in the past, and into the barn. Leaping up the stacked bales he dived into his hiding place and lay panting, heart thumping in his chest. He'd hide there till dark, then make his way down to his house, force his way in, get some food, his knife and some spare clothes, and he'd use the towpath to walk down into Liverpool. He was sure he'd find someone in Liverpool to hide him. His Uncle Ralph lived there. He'd know what to do.
He sat and waited, hearing the occasional vehicle driving along Dodds Lane, watching spiders on the wooden slats of the barn, listening to the rustling of the hay as small creatures moved about, hiding in their turn.
The guns! He thrust his hand down into the space between the bales. He pulled the bundle out and unwrapped it. Both guns were there, one with dried brown blood on it, the other clean and old-fashioned, looking for all the world like a gun that Hopalong Cassidy might have drawn in a gunfight at the Albany Cinema on a Saturday morning. It was heavy. He gripped it, like old Hoppy might have done. He put his finger on the trigger and pretended to shoot a soldier on top of the hay bale. "Pachaowwwww," he murmured, imagining the bullet sending his enemy spinning down to the farmyard. "Pachaowwwwww," and another one!
He lowered the gun as he heard a familiar bark from the road. Then another from the farmyard. A bark followed by shouts in a foreign language, then running footsteps. He heard yelps of doggy excitement and Shandy appeared on top of the bales in front of his hiding place, panting, wagging her tail. More footsteps clattered into the farmyard and stopped in front of the barn
"Come out from there! We know you're there, Jimmy. Come out before we come and get you!"
Shandy jumped down onto Jimmy's lap and licked his face.
"You told them, Shandy, you told them were I was! Tears poured down his face. I trusted you and you told them!" He pushed the spaniel away, roughly, with the gun in his hand, catching her on the ear with the muzzle. She cried in pain.
"Come out, Jimmy. We won't tell you again."
He pushed the spaniel out of his den. He stood up, gun in hand and saw the soldiers. Two of them were carrying rifles. He lifted his gun, put his finger on the trigger and pretended to send one of the soldiers spinning to his death as the shots rang out from below.
Short Stories: Charlie Taylor - Occupation - Links to more ShS
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