Eight-minute Stories

Joe Tinsley’s dad finds his dog

It was my second Saturday morning job. Dad had bought a car from a dealer who also reared pigs just around the corner in Lodge Lane. I was about ten, and mad keen on farming; Joe Tinsley needed someone to help feed and clean out the pigs at the weekend. What could be better?

Five minutes on my bike and I was there, past the pre-war houses and the rows of pebble-dashed bungalows, and then the lane became a track, one with which I would become very familiar a few years later when there was a small herd of cows to milk at the end of the lane, every morning, before cycling to high school.

But for now, for three or four hours every Saturday morning there was the feeding of swill, waste food collected from schools, hospitals, factory canteens, boiled for an hour and relished by the pigs. As soon as they heard the rattle of the metal buckets they grunted and squealed gleefully before burying their snouts in the hideous brown mess. Then, all that could be heard was the slopping up of their long-awaited breakfast. This was re-cycling nineteen-fifties style; later there would be the mucking out.

Serving breakfast was smelly work and we wrapped ourselves in large aprons to cope with spillage. At junior school my class-mates teased me and pretended that the stink of the pig food was with me still on weekday mornings. I soon learnt to ignore them and anyway, I had the consolation of serious pocket money.

One Saturday I arrived at the yard to find Joe’s father already there. He was busy with something and, unusually, took no notice of me. There was something else that was not right, and then I realised that the Alsatian dog that was usually chained loosely in the yard as a guard dog was not barking noisily at me. Then I saw it, lying quite still, just beyond Joe’s dad, quivering and whimpering to itself. I had never seen it like this before and knew that something was wrong.

Joe’s dad meantime had found an empty swill bin, a wide, open circular container that stood about three feet tall. I remember standing very still, wondering what was going on. Normally if I was in the way someone would send me off to fetch something or get something done. Now Joe’s dad simply glanced at me, as if he could not be bothered with me for the moment.  He turned and walked round a corner, out of my sight. Although I was curious about the dog’s lying to one side and ignoring me, I did not move and waited, as if obliged to see out whatever was going on. There was a spell on me; if I followed Joe’s dad he would speak to sharply or in temper, yet I could not go back, up to the road and home. I had come here for my Saturday job and my work lay beyond the top end of the yard here, down the slope and among the pig sties and the huge tanks of bubbling swill.

Suddenly I could hear the sound of water spattering onto the ground. Joe’s dad appeared around the corner, dragging a hose which he thrust into the bin. The hose was stiff and unwieldy and Joe’s dad had to stand there holding it in place as the level of the water rose slowly. He glanced up at me, but still said nothing, as if wondering why I was standing there, unsure about what to say.

It was not until the water was about to lip over the edge of the bin that he let go. The hose rolled itself back and fell limp onto the ground while the water continued to flow. Joe’s dad took two steps away from me, away from the bin, turned and stooped over the dog. Still he did not look over to me, but concentrated on the dog, hesitant, unsure. With his hands he grasped the dog’s coat either side of its shoulders. Then he struggled to lift it clear of the ground for its hind legs dangled awkwardly and he had to drag it towards the bin. For a moment he paused with the effort then lowered the dog back to the ground. Briefly he looked up at me. I expected him to shout at me to clear off, as if I were disturbing him at some private moment.

Again he strained to lift the dog and took another unsteady step towards the bin, as if once he reached the bin his struggles would be over.

Two things dawned on me. Firstly, he was going to kill the dog. Something had happened to the dog to render it helpless; this familiar resident of the yard could no longer leap and bark at the end of its chain and had allowed the man to pick it up and manhandle it in a way that I would never have believed possible. It was not a dog that I had ever stroked or scratched behind the ears and something terrible was about to happen to it. As the man heaved the dog upwards, over the lip of the bin, he glanced my way, as if wondering what I was making of all this. Now I saw that it was not annoyance with my child’s horrid fascination that clouded his face, but the pain of what he was having to do.

He held the dog’s head under the water and the dog tried to kick with its back legs. Soon they were still and Joe’s dad lifted the dog to one side and set off again around the corner. Out of my eye I noticed the water stop flowing from the hose. He returned with a large sack, picked up the dog’s head with one hand and began inserting it into the sack. It was not easy for him and I stepped forward to help. He glared at me and I stopped where I was. When he had finished he picked up the sack and retreated again around the corner, freeing me to walk down the yard and rattle the first bucket.

Soon I heard Joe’s van pull into the yard. I could hear him talking to his dad and then it was my turn and he explained how his dad had found the dog, run over by a delivery lorry and abandoned. He didn’t need to explain that what his father had done was the best thing for the dog and we carried on with the morning’s tasks. Later I went home quieter but strangely untroubled by what I had learnt since arriving for work.

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My first journey abroad

A French grandmother and her broach

At Easter 1965, a matter of a few months before going to agricultural college, I set off by train to spend a fortnight with my Portuguese penfriend and her family in Lisbon. Once I had crossed the Channel by ferry I had to catch a train towards Paris. From Calais we travelled in an old-fashioned railway carriage – compartments with eight seats. The train was full and we had no option but to sit facing one another, four on each side of the compartment, with our knees almost touching.

Opposite me was a woman about the same age as my grandmother, a woman in her mid-seventies, dressed as my grandmother would have dressed for a journey, with a hat and a light coat and equipped with a large handbag which she preferred to keep tucked by her side rather than placed up in the luggage rack above our heads. Like the passengers on either side of us we acknowledged one another in the way that strangers do, rather like passengers in a crowded lift, and then looked to one side, out of the window. That way we did not have to stare directly at one another.

There was a jerk and the world outside the window jerked and then slowly allowed itself to move away to one side. As the train made its way past the docks we accelerated and settled into the gentle rhythm of a train journey. Through the window we watched the French countryside hurry by, much of it like the English countryside where I had been working on farms ready to study agriculture the following September. However, one difference puzzled me; instead of tyre marks in between the rows of maize and sugar beet there were huge foot-prints. A moment’s thought and the penny dropped – horses were still in use on French farms.

For a moment I turned away from the window and looked again at the old lady opposite.
This time something else caught my eye. On the left-hand lapel of her coat she had a broach, made of thin wires wound round a large coin. There was something familiar about the coin but it was difficult to work out just what is was without seeming to stare at the woman so I found myself looking hard out of the window and then taking hasty glances at the broach. Each time I renewed my inspection of the broach the French grandmother seemed to catch my eye, as if to say, what do you think you’re staring at young man?

The side of the coin which I had been studying was the obverse, the rear side of the coin, a coat of arms of the sort seen on many coins, but there was something about it that reminded me of my favourite coin, the half-crown, the largest British coin when I was a child. [The half-crown, value two shillings and sixpence – equivalent to 12 ½ pence and a little larger and heavier than a fifty pence piece.] There were eight to the pound and one of these coins would entitle you to two and a half pints of beer in those days. Once again the woman caught my eye and this time I felt that she really was expecting some sort of explanation for my interest in her broach.

At school, my French teacher had been thorough and had passed on sufficient confidence for us to get by with the language. So it was that I could embark upon my first real conversation in French. I apologised for my excessive interest in her broach and explained that it seemed like a British half-crown. Would she mind my asking how she came to have such a coin? She relaxed and smiled, just as my grandmother smiled when approached with politeness and a little formality. Without a word she unpinned the broach and handed it to me.

It was a half-crown; around the edge were the familiar words, the design in the centre based on the royal coat-of-arms and the date, in the late nineteen-thirties. I turned over the broach and there was the profile of George VI, father of the present queen. I looked up and smiled, then asked if she would tell me how it had come into her possession and why it had been made into a broach.

Grandma had relaxed, visibly, no longer troubled by a puzzling young Englishman with some foolish enquiry. Now there was something that brought us together, something to be explained, straightforwardly, matter of fact, something that might be found in a public record that anyone would understand and appreciate. It was as if what she was about to tell me was commonplace, the sort of thing I might have read in a local paper at the time, but that, of course, would not have been possible.

During the Second World War, while France was occupied by Nazi Germany, there had been a knock at the door of the home that she shared with her husband and their children.

It was late in the evening, after dark. In front of her were two British soldiers, obviously on the run from the Germans, two men who had escaped from captivity and were trying to make their way back across occupied France to the Channel coast in the hope of getting home. Grandma stood to one side, to let them in, then closed the door.

They stayed for a few days, fed from the family’s meagre supplies, keeping away from the windows, speaking with lowered voices and moving around quietly so as not to attract the attention of neighbours. As soon as it was considered safe for them to continue their journey they left. Had they been discovered they would have been returned to a prisoner of war camp; their hosts would have been shot.

Moments before they left they turned to the lady of the house, their hostess, and thanked her and her family for helping them. They had already made it clear that their names and service numbers could not be revealed; such information would be useful to the Germans should the French family be arrested. All they could leave as a token of their gratitude was a half-crown that one of the two men had found in his trouser pocket.

As a child in the nineteen-fifties, ten years after the war, I had learnt about the enormous landmarks of that conflict: Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister’s declaration of war, broadcast by the BBC, Dunkirk when thousands of British servicemen were rescued from the advancing German army, D-Day when Allied troops returned to Europe, and VE Day and VJ Day when the end of the war against Germany and Japan was celebrated. All this I had learnt from books and magazines and from films and television programmes, and from listening to grown ups.

Now I had heard first-hand, from someone who had been there, her country occupied – something that my country has not experienced for a thousand years – and she and her family helping allies despite appalling risks. It was a small-scale story but personal and direct, and it carried an authority denied books and broadcasts.

I looked again at the broach, turning it over in my hand before returning it, a souvenir of my country that would have to remain in France. “Grandma” lifted the broach to her lapel and re-pinned it there. She smiled at me, then relaxed against the back of the seat and slowly closed her eyes. Now I could continue to look at her and I found myself wondering what it was that she could see amongst all the memories that she had re-kindled.

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Sir – there’s something we need to tell you

Kentish girls teach me about fatherlessness

It was a mixed class, in a school in Kent to which I had been invited. I was there to talk to a class of fifteen year-olds about dunno, my first novel. It concerns a fourteen year-old who has never known his father and finds the business of growing up very difficult indeed.

For over half an hour they listened to me, politely, quietly, asking questions from time to time, mainly about the troubled boys I had encountered and tried to help during my teaching career. What happened to the boy who could not help lying, the twelve year-old bully who used to sit on his mother’s lap and cry when his dad rang up to say that he could not come to see him for yet another two weeks?

For a moment they were puzzled by what one boy had meant when he was questioned by his teacher in an international boarding school. When he was asked whether his parents were coming to spend half-term weekend with him, something that most parents did, Paul did not so much as pause:

“My dad spends all his spare time making brothers and sisters for me.”

Then the penny had dropped; Paul’s father had been an international football star, a sports celebrity, supposedly somebody wonderful, but not wonderful enough to take an interest in his son. Then I remembered his reputation as a womaniser. What must it must be like to see through a negligent or spiteful parent, to acknowledge and understand their weakness and their lack of interest in you; who else is there to take an interest in you and help you along the way if it is not a parent? Before long Paul had become a very angry fourteen year-old and was having trouble with his temper. Suddenly he had gone; there had been an assault on his room-mate.

Then I told them about Mike. He was the youngest of four brothers and a sister whose parents had been killed in a car accident some twenty years ago. When a couple offered to adopt them and provide them with a home, Mark was not included. He was the awkward one and had an ugly scar above his mouth, the result of a repair to a cleft-palate. He was sent to live in a children’s home, next door to the school where I got to know him. Every day he would see his brothers and sister at school, but at four o’clock they went home to a mum and a dad while he returned to the large building which housed children with troubled lives.

When Mike got into serious trouble at school – an uncontrollable temper and attacks on other students – I had to take him back to the home one Friday afternoon to explain that he would be facing exclusion on the Monday morning. Thirteen year-olds do not usually need to be escorted home from school but this one was now finding it extremely difficult to cope with the new threat and someone was needed to explain to the staff of the home. We walked over the railway bridge between the two buildings and into the office.

I explained to the man at the desk why I had come: I needed to see the house parent or whoever it was who would be looking after Mike for the weekend as Monday and exclusion loomed nearer, not just exclusion from school, but exclusion from his only contact with his brothers and sister.

The man opened a drawer in his desk and took out a list of some sort.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Mr “X” is on leave this weekend.” He turned to the boy.

“Mike isn’t it?” Mike nodded. The man turned again to me. “Well, you’d better tell me what’s up and I’ll see that it gets passed on.”

That is when it dawned on me that no one, except a parent, can be obliged to take an interest in a child: no one. Others, staff in children’s homes, social workers, probation officers and teachers can take holidays, go on courses, change jobs or enjoy a weekend off. They can escape. Parents cannot, and Mike had no parents.

There was a lesson awaiting me now in Kent as I sat in front of these fifteen year-old strangers. As the bell rang for break they got to their feet and most of them made for the door. They had been an excellent group to work with. On their way past some of them thanked me and then there were just five of them left behind, five girls. One of them spoke.

“We just wanted to say something, if that’s all right sir.” I nodded and smiled.

“We can sort of understand why you have been so worried about boys whose dads have walked out, but it happens to girls too. We thought you ought to know what it’s like for a girl with no dad at home.” Again she looked at the others. “None of us have a dad at home.”

Break was passing but they were obviously in no hurry to go; the very least I could do was listen to them. I’m glad I did.

One of them had never slept under the same roof as a man. Her father had gone before she was born and her mother was terrified of men. Apart from boys and teachers at school she had no contact with males and as she was growing up her mother’s fear and attempts to keep her away from men and boys was beginning to trouble her for she had no reason herself to worry about men and boys. The result seemed to be that she found it difficult to cope with males away from school where so much was organised and routine.

Another girl’s mother hated men, thinking that they were the cause of all that is wrong with the world. If groups of friends called at the house with a boy among them her mother would send them away. On the occasions when the girl went out to friends in the evening there were unreasonable demands about the time she should get home and about keeping in touch and this caused rows.

One girl said that forming relationships with boys was difficult now – not like childhood friendships in junior school. She wondered what it would be like to have a brother or a dad at home so that she could cope with males without making a fuss about them, in the way that her friends with brothers and dads at home were able to. In her dealings with boys and men she found that she had no easy rules of thumb as to what is reasonable behaviour and I recalled rows over the bathroom between my son and daughter as they grew up and found sensible ways of organising these matters.

One had seen the effect on her mother of her father leaving them and the crushing effect it had on her. She had been very frightened by the power her father seemed to exert over her mother and found herself powerless as she tried to comfort and care for her mum.

The last of the girls said that she envied some friends whose homes she visited. She would watch them row with their brothers and play-up with their dads and yet have an easier friendship with their mothers. The she described how she envied these same friends at school where they could launch themselves at boys one minute then see them off the next without losing their cool.

Twelve years on and these delightful girls will be in their late twenties, partners perhaps, maybe mothers, colleagues at work, friends, fully part of the adult world, beyond the trials of growing up. They taught me a lot and I am very grateful.

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