Best-selling author of 'Money Power Love', 'The Little Voice' and 'Occupied'.

JOSS SHELDON

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1902

 

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With his Mother's bony-hands on his bony-shoulders, Alfred is being taken to learn the knowledge of his elders; here at this primary-school. He is wearing a flat-cap which is way too tight, long-socks which are way too bright; and grey-shorts which are way too small.

The year is 1902.

A Matron from New Zealand is becoming the first ever registered nurse as medical standards advance, a French Journalist is formulating his plans for the inaugural Tour De France; and an American Engineer is inventing electronic air-conditioning. In Egypt some workers are building a dam which makes their masters feel groovy, in France they are filming the first ever science-fiction movie; and in Cuba they are declaring independence after years of petitioning. Whilst the British are in Nigeria fighting a war, with a death-toll which is starting to soar; after weeks of military-positioning.

But Alfred's gaze is fixed solely on this rocky-wall, which surrounds this primary-school; which is housed in this rambling-building. This building which sits amidst this concrete-space, with jumbled-windows on its freckled-face; and a surfeit of grey-gilding.

He walks past these flowers which are in bloom, and this large-classroom; which doubles up as this school's main hall. He passes this dirty-broom, and arrives in this other classroom; which is tired-torpid-and-tall.

This room tastes of stale-ink, smells of eggy-drink; and sounds of stony-silence. It contains these slimy-slates, wobbly-crates; and items used for science.

Alfred finds this musty-classroom, which has so little light and so much gloom; so nauseating-nightmarish-and-new. Such that just being here makes Alfred feel dismayed, afraid; bleak-broody-and-blue.

He sits on the lowest-tier of seating in front of that stage, amongst the other boys his age; who are separated from the females. He sits at this desk which is full of creaky-hinges, splintered-fringes; and rusty-nails.

He shivers somewhat discreetly, and smiles somewhat sweetly; because he is unused to this school's strange-ways. He is unused to the Authoritative Teacher's cane, which he swishes with disdain; and he is unused to his own Teacher's gaze.

His own Teacher tells Alfred that he is a 'Big boy', 'Don't play with that pencil as if it's a toy'; and 'You're expected to behave maturely'. So Alfred folds his arms when he is pressed, locks his hands at his Teacher's request; and sits here rather demurely. He feels shaky-scared-and-shy, so he is too timid to question 'why'; or challenge his Teacher prematurely.

But as Alfred gets older-and-older, he also gets bolder-and-bolder; and his timidity fades away. He talks to this Snotty Nosed Scamp who has a hairy-ear, and the Tallest Boy in his year; with whom he likes to play. And he talks to Bernie, his companion for childhood's journey; who he meets almost every day.

Bernie has been nicknamed 'Sun Head', because his hair is bright-red; and a real beacon of fire-fuel-and-flame. His shoulders are too wide for his chest, his waist is too wide for his vest; and too wide for his gangly-frame.

Having been put together somewhat loosely, Bernie sweats profusely; and stumbles around with wobbly danger. He sways from right-to-left, with all his heft; as he searches for steady-behaviour.

Yet Bernie is not one of those awkward-boys, who cannot play with toys; and cannot play Hopscotch. He plays Marbles with aplomb, plays Conkers all night long; and excels at Spinning Tops.

He likes to play Cricket, using a lamppost for a wicket; as he bats with real ease. He likes to swim after school, in the public-pool; and he also likes to climb trees.

So Alfred and Bernie play Noughts-And-Crosses, exchanging wins-for-losses; almost every single break. They play Hoops in the dark, Tag in the park; and Splash in their local lake.

They run along pebbled-beaches and sandy-shores, through seas which are full of sponges-seaweed-and-spores; and through washed-up shipwrecks. They collect bible-cards, cigarette-cards, any old cards; and any old objects. They even enjoy the same academic-subjects. They enjoy swimming-lessons dressed in their school's bathing-clothes, classes on 'How to blow one's nose'; and other vocational-projects.

But it is military-drill which fills Alfred with a real sense of pride, and makes him feel great inside; as if he is almighty. As if he is marching into action, indifferent to danger-distress-and-distraction; all in the name of Blighty.

Drill lessons were introduced to the school-curriculum because half the Boer War volunteers were considered to be too feeble to fight, whilst the other half could not impose Britain's might; which had made the government nervous. The government had feared that the population was undergoing a process of 'degeneration', so they listened to one of the National Service League's orations; which also demanded compulsory military-service.

And they made Alfred's school hold these drill-sessions, after Latin lessons; on this field which is bathed in sun. Where this Drill Sergeant who has hair which glimmers with gel, and a moustache which glimmers as well; holds a loaded-gun.

He calls for 'Attentions' whilst brushing his khaki-suit, he calls for 'Left Turns' whilst stamping his boot; and he calls for 'Forwards' whilst slapping his thigh. Alfred obeys for king-community-and-country, looks up at that gantry; and marches on by.

"My da-da-da-Daddy was a soldier," he says once this session has finished, with energy which is undiminished; and dust in his blinking-eye. "Did you know him? Pa-pa-pa-please tell me about him? Please-please-please."

This is a question which he often asks his Mother, who always avoids it in one way or another; which makes Alfred feel overlooked. It makes Alfred feel neglected, rejected; and crooked.

"Wa-wa-was my Daddy a real hero?" Alfred once tried.

"You really do love apples, my little-soldier," his Mother had replied.

"Di-di-di-did my Daddy have a big gun?"

"I've made your favourite, my wonderful-warrior; fish-and-chips."

"Pa-pa-pa-please tell me! Did my Daddy beat up lots of baddies?"

"Fish-chips-and-apples! The White Cliffs Of Dover! My fearless-fighter!"

"Pa-pa-pa-please tell me! Did my Daddy protect the weak? Pa-pa-pa-pretty please. Pretty please with a cherry on top."

"You'll be just like him, Alfred Freeman. Somewhere-somewhen-somehow, you-shall-you-shall-you-shall!"

But this Drill Sergeant is not nearly so evasive, abrasive; cagey-cunning-or-coy. He responds well, which puts Alfred under a spell; and fills him with gleeful-joy.

"Your Father led a raid on the Boers six years ago," he tells this boy. "He was on a mission bold, to capture an armoury, and make inroads into the gold-laden territory which lay beyond.

"But he was forced hard to retreat, to return to a nearby British province. Wasn't he! The sun had baked dry the land, water had forgotten to fall, and the natives were all athirst. Swarms of locusts had descended like a dark-cloud, eaten the natives' food, and starved them a bit. They were hungry, thirsty, and bursting out angry.

"Whereupon, needing someone to blame, they'd blamed the British. Those noble settlers who'd been civilizing the pagan natives, and making their country great.

"The natives had rebelled, killing dead over a hundred British citizens. Their Leader had told them they'd all be safe, that the bullets of the British settlers would turn into water, and our cannonballs would turn into eggs.

"Truth-be-told, the British settlers had barely any bullets or cannonballs to speak of. There was all but no standing-army, because it had gone to attack the Boer arsenal. And so the natives had run riot, without any resistance strong.

"Whereupon your Father was called to set the British settlers free, and return order to a land which had lost its way.

"So his troops marched smart across the veld, left-right-left, day-after-day. Didn't they! And before long every man in your Father's navvy-battalions, imperial-yeomanry and support-brigades, was all ate-up.

"It was no duff. The drought which had engulfed the British province had engulfed them too. The sun had baked them dry, and with no water left, they were soon athirst. They were beginning to fall-and-feint, desperate much for rain. It was real pear-shaped stuff; they hadn't a drop of water to drink. Sweet Fanny Adams!

"Whereupon, discipline in the ranks began to crumble horribly. It was a real scratch-force as it was, full of fresh-fish who were dog-tired and untrained. A real sorry-mix of old-army, new-army and territorials, all of whom did question your Father.

"'Why', they asked him. 'Did you bring us up out of Boer country, just to kill us and our animals with thirst?'

"It was real tits-up stuff. A real soup-sandwich.

"Whereupon they came across a cliff, great-and-dry, with a boulder of rock at its base. From his travels, your Father knew that place well, and he knew what lay behind that boulder. Didn't he!

"So he called over some of the top-brass, who helped him to position a cannon.

"Whereupon your Father's war-brothers began murmuring with hostility. Hussars, skinny-berserkers and brawny-gunners, all talked vicious behind your Father's back; questioning his sanity a bit, and peppering the air with the sound of insults most horrible. Didn't they! But your Father paid no attention to their insubordination. He be not agreed with them at all.

"Together with the other ruperts, your Father loaded a sack of gunpowder into the cannon's mouth, rolled an iron-ball down its throat, and stuffed a chemical-charge up its nostril.

"He lit a match slow-burning.

"And BOOM!!!

"That cannonball flew quick along the cannon's chamber, whizzed through the air, and hit that boulder hard.

"That boulder crumbled asunder. Didn't it! Thousands of smaller rocks, none bigger than a melon, scattered this way and that.

"Whereupon your Father slapped his hands together, up-and-down, in recognition of a job well done. He threw the rubble aside, and created a gap of some size.

"'Aah', he said. And he motioned for his men to follow him into a hidden-cave. There was a lake magnificent inside. Wasn't there! The walls were covered in cave-water, and light glistened in every colour bright; in blurry shades of red-yellow-and-orange, and a hazy mix of greens-indigos-and-blues.

"There was enough water fresh for every footslogger and parlour-soldier there. It was clean, tasty, and real top-drawer stuff.

"So your Father's troops, thirsty, filled their bellies-bottles-and-beakers. And, fighting-fit once more, they returned to the British province.

"Stepping forth into the breach, they filled every kraal there with good old-fashioned British law-and-order, banished the wog insurgents to the hills, and left everything as you were.

"And a jolly good show it was too. Top notch!"

The Drill Sergeant strokes his khaki-suit, stamps his left-boot; and begins to exhale. He leaves Alfred wide-eyed with amazement, in awe of his statement; which he told like a fairytale.

Alfred feels glorious-gratified-and-glad, and proud of his long-lost Dad; who saved his men from the desert's heat. So he says 'thank-you' for the story, and feels hunky-dory; as he hops down this cobblestone-street.

As he skips down this grubby-lane, and jumps through this water-truck's spraying-rain; which dampens this dusty-road. As he runs past this flat-capped Road Sweeper, this honey-selling Beekeeper; and this donkey with a heavy-load.

He runs past this wild-dog and this wild-mouse, before he arrives back here at his house; and sits down by his Father's belt. For whilst no words have been said, or documents read; his Father's presence is still being felt.

Alfred's Mother still polishes Alfred's Father's army-boots, dusts his army-suits; and darns his army-costume. She still displays his medals on this fireplace, near that portrait of his face; and all around this living-room. And all around this man, who is chewing some spam; peach-pepper-and-prune.

This man has sideburns which reach his chin, scars which cover his skin; and boots which are covered in scrapes. He eats these chicken-legs, boiled-eggs; and sticky-grapes.

"Say 'hello' to this man, Alfred Freeman," his Mother says as she wipes these sticky-drapes. "Look at me. He's your new Stepfather. He-is-he-is-he-is. He's a carpenter. He's ever so respectable."

But Alfred believes that his Mother and himself, form a complete-family who do not need anyone else; and that he is the man of this house. Alfred cooks-cleans-and-clears, without tempers-tantrums-or-tears; and without his Mother's new spouse.

A new pension for war-widows was introduced last year, and his Mother has a new career; crocheting buttonholes into clothes. So they have food to eat, shoes to cover their feet; and socks to cover their toes.

Which means that this man's presence makes Alfred feel rejected, and dejected; as he starts to fall apart. As he starts to worry about their pension, with nervous-tension; and a broken-heart.

So Alfred ignores his Stepfather whenever he speaks, pinches his cheeks; or pats his hairy-head. He just stares at his Mother, whose clothes clash with each other; and are full of garish-thread.

"He isn't replacing your Father in heaven, you know?" She says with dread. "Look at me. Oh, I really don't know what to do with you and all your mischity, Alfred Freeman. You have two fathers now; one up in heaven, and one down here on earth. Oh, my terrific-trooper, you-do-you-do-you-do. It is respectable. There. That is all."

His Mother does not give in, because she is determined to win; and so she starts to whine. Whilst Alfred's Stepfather eats some evening-meals, jellied-eels; lamb-liver-and-lime.

His Mother's spine bends her back on each occasion, her lips produce gentle-words of kind-persuasion; and she keeps her posture humble. Whilst Alfred's Stepfather talks honestly, sits modestly; and blushes when his stomach starts to rumble.

"You're not my Fu-Fu-Fu-Father! No thanky-you!" Alfred shouts as his feet begin to stumble.

"No, I ain't," his Stepfather replies as he eats some apple-crumble.

Torrents of words break through this open-gate, and leave his Stepfather in a dizzy-state; before he gives Alfred these homemade-toys. Before he marries Alfred's Mother, under this church's cover; and amidst this background-noise. Before they move in here together, despite this stormy-weather; and despite those meddlesome Boys. Whilst Alfred beams with pride, with nothing to hide; and this peaceful sort of poise.