Saturday mornings with Mr Zeeman
I suspect that Mum was quite pleased that I would often take myself off after breakfast on Saturday mornings. When I was about seven I found Mr and Mrs Zeeman who lived round the corner in a bungalow in Walton Road. Somehow Mr Zeeman discovered that I enjoyed helping him feed his pigeons and so my visits became part of our Saturday morning routines.
It was usually Mrs Zeeman who ushered me into the wood-lined hall and through the kitchen with its large plain white tiles and out into the garden. At the bottom of the garden was the shed, and the pigeon loft and Mr Zeeman. I remember him as a short, round sort of a man, kindly, business-like and patient. Once we had released the pigeons with a rush and a flapping of wings we would watch them circle, dipping past us before swooping up towards the sky, over the roofs of neighbouring houses and then setting out on yet another circuit.
When he considered that his pigeons had exercised enough Mr Zeeman would remove the lid of the dustbin where he kept dried peas and hand me a small metal cup into which I would scoop a modest handful. This was the moment that mattered on Saturdays. As soon as I shook the tin Mr Zeeman’s pigeons would falter in their flight and one or two of the birds, flying slightly apart from the flock would peel off then check themselves before re-joining the others. I was captivated by this simple trick, played on creatures that flew at will, out of reach, yet allowed themselves to be shut in again, away from the air and the light, at the sound of the tin which rattled in my hand.
I must have asked about the revolver and bayonet which I saw displayed up on a narrow shelf above the panelling in the hall, souvenirs from the First World War about which I had heard my grandfather speak. What had happened to Mr Zeeman during that war? He spoke about living in the trenches, rather than about the fighting, and the slightly more comfortable sleeping arrangements when he and his comrades were pulled out of the line to rest and sleep in tiers of bunks in a barn, some distance away in the rear.
The trouble with this arrangement was that the bunks were sometimes used to accommodate dead comrades until they could be buried, and the presence of these bodies attracted visitors. Men who were trying to get some sleep, sleep that was badly needed, were kept from sleep by tiny feet that pattered across their hands and faces looking for the men who now lay there motionless. They were a minor horror in a sea of carnage, but a horror for all that, for what they sought were the sweetest tissues that they could find, the knuckle joints and the eyes.
Two years later I was reminded of Mr Zeeman’s tale when I got a Saturday job on a pig farm. From time to time a careless sow would roll on top of one of her children, not feel its tiny presence under her bulk and suffocate it. Next morning we would find the poor creature; inevitably, the rats would have found it first and there would be the pale circles where the flesh had been eaten away round the knees and blank sockets where once there had been eyes.
Rats do not trouble me now: I shoot or trap them, or lay poison. However, I will always understand people for whom they are the nastiest and most revolting of vermin.
What things attract the boy’s attention in the Zeemans’ home and garden?
What does he learn about Mr Zeeman’s experiences in the First World War?
Why do you think this old man and this young boy seem to get along so well?