The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
Old Man and the Boy
Jack Marley wiped the small blobs of shaving cream from his face. The image that stared out of the foggy mirror was someone he didn’t want to know. He was ashamed that a soldier decorated for bravery, a man who placed his own life at risk to save others, could have sunk so low into a mire of self-pity.
He had everything he wanted, a wife he adored and a loving son. A knock at the door one February morning 12 years ago changed everything. His son was dead; killed in a plane crash in South America. At least Jack still had Emma, but the impact of Rory’s death on her had been devastating. Although he did everything possible to lift the cloud, time did not heal the wounds. The following spring, Emma’s heart stopped beating and Jack’s world fell apart.
His friends tired of his melancholy no longer called. The days were long and empty, filled only by his fondness for reading and the affection of a black and white cat named Minstrel. The scruffy little stray wandered in one bitterly cold winter’s day and Jack couldn’t bear to turn her away. Sensing her new master’s loneliness she clung to him like a shadow.
Jack had taken to watching the world outside his home and each afternoon would stand at the lounge room window. Hidden by the lace curtains he gazed at the passing parade of life. Lately he had noticed a young boy intently surveying the house and grounds as he ambled by. Jack wondered what mischief he was up to, but whatever it was he would catch the young rascal.
Alex thought he saw the lace curtains move. Keeping close to the fence, he pretended to kick a stone as he walked along. The gap in the hedge was a few metres away. His success relied on split second timing and speed; failure to get the goods meant rejection by the secret society. As he drew level with the timber gate an angry voice startled him.
“What do want?”
Alex looked up to see an old man, tall and thin with piercing blue eyes, standing behind the gate. He’d been sprung.
“Nothing, umm some peaches,” Alex stammered, trying to think of a plausible excuse. He remembered seeing a peach tree in the garden and hoped the fruit was ripe enough to pick. “I’m sorry, I err umm I didn’t think anyone lived in the house.”
“Well, so you’d like some peaches!” said the old man extending his long bony hand to Alex. “You’d better come in and take a seat on the balcony.”
The boy wanted to run, but that would prove he was up to no good. His trembling legs felt like jelly and his hands were moist with perspiration. Alex was so scared he thought he was going to wet himself. Unwillingly he followed Jack to the balcony and sat down at a small round table.
“Would you like a glass of lemonade and a biscuit?” the old man asked him. Alex nodded his acceptance and Jack disappeared into the house. He returned a few moments later carrying a tray on which stood a plate of chocolate biscuits and two glasses of lemonade.
Alex knew the old man didn’t believe his feeble excuse and wondered what reprimand was in store.
Jack could see the boy was terrified. He decided to use a different approach this time and say nothing about the incident, just leave the youngster wondering; it would be more effective than threatening to contact the Headmaster. He’d had trouble with the boys from the school a couple of years ago, but it had taken several phone calls before their thoughtless behaviour ceased.
“I’m Mr Marley,” said Jack. “What’s your name?” he asked his frightened visitor.
The boy said his name was Alex and he was 12 years old. He nervously munched his way through four biscuits and in between mouthfuls said he lived with his mother, Sandra, in Bergamont Street. His father had died before he was born.
“Mum talks about him sometimes, she says he was nice. I don’t think they were married,” and typical of a 12 year old added “he died in a plane crash, really horrible.”
“My son was killed in a plane crash too,” said Mr Marley. “I miss him very much.”
“Have you got a wife?” enquired Alex.
“No, she died a few months after my son,” the old man replied in a voice barely audible.
The boy said he was sorry; the old man seemed lost in thought and the conversation fell silent.
When Jack asked if he’d like more lemonade, Alex looked at his watch and said he better go. It was almost 5pm and his mother would be home in another hour. He thanked the old man for the drink and biscuits. As he reached the gate the boy hesitated, then retraced his steps to the balcony.
“Mr Marley, I notice your grass needs mowing. The summer holidays start next week and I can help you in the garden, if you’d like.”
Jack was touched by the boy’s unexpected kindness, and after a moment’s thought accepted the offer. He watched as Alex hurried down the street, wondering if he’d come back. As he returned to the house, Jack stared at the jungle he called a garden. Ashamed by what he saw, he recalled the beautiful gardens and manicured lawns that once encircled his Federation bungalow; and Emma’s collection of garden gnomes. The curious little statues, now almost hidden by the weeds and neglected plants, had become prized trophies by the boys from St Matthews School.
Alex quickened his pace eager to be home before his mother. The afternoon’s strange events raced around his head and the old man’s attitude left him bewildered. He wondered if Mr Marley knew he was after one of the gnomes. Why hadn’t he said something? As Alex rounded the corner into Bergamont Street his thoughts froze: his mother’s car was in the driveway. He was in trouble! Before he had time to put the key in the lock, the door opened.
Sandra Goodwin, an attractive young woman with short cropped light brown hair stood in the doorway, her hazel eyes looked questioningly at her son; demanding an explanation. Alex knew it was useless to even attempt a fabrication. His mother would see through it and his punishment would be double. So he confessed, telling her about the secret society at St Matthews and the test he had to undertake in order to join.
The penalty for his misdemeanour was tough but could have been worse. Television, sport and the computer were off limits until Christmas. Alex didn’t like sport anyway and it was a good excuse for not attending those awful camps organised by the Council; but the computer, that was mean he thought, after all he hadn’t taken anything.
After reading the riot act, Sandra picked up her handbag from the bureau and said to Alex, “Come on, we’re going to see Mr Marley, I think it’s a good idea for you to apologise.”
“Oh Mum, I didn’t take anything.”
“I know you didn’t, but you were intending to!”
When Sandra brought the car to a stop outside Jack’s house, Alex told her of his offer to help Mr Marley tidy the garden, as it was a real mess.
Jack was surprised when the doorbell rang; he never had any visitors. He opened the door to find Alex standing there. The boy was very apologetic, but felt it was best to ‘come clean’ about his kidnap plans. Sandra had remained in the car waiting for Alex’s signal before she made her way to the house. Although the light was fading she could see the untidy and overgrown state of the garden, and had to agree with her son that it was a mess.
She introduced herself to Jack Marley and hoped they hadn’t interrupted his dinner, but it was important they call around. The old man said he understood her feelings and was grateful for Alex’s apology. When Sandra offered Alex’s help with the garden, Jack asked if the enormous task could commence the following Monday morning.
The waves of despair and loneliness, which had so often enveloped Jack, began to recede and rays of happiness edged their way into his life; he no longer dreaded each new day. He enjoyed Alex’s company and was surprised how hard the boy worked. Jack was struck by the resemblance to his son; the boy had the same facial features, and the mischievous glint that was always in Rory’s eyes was in the boy’s. The likeness was uncanny, but he shook it off with a shrug, it was just a coincidence.
Alex enjoyed clearing the jungle and seeing some sort of order emerge. As Christmas Day approached, he discovered Jack would be by himself. Not wanting to think of his friend alone, he asked his mother if they could invite him to dinner. Sandra said it was a good idea and would ask Mr Marley in the morning.
Jack had given Alex the day off and didn’t expect to see him until the following morning, Christmas Eve.
“Good morning, come in,” Jack said opening the door to Sandra and Alex. “I’ve just put the kettle on for coffee, would you like to join me?”
“We won’t stay long Mr Marley,” said Sandra. “We’d like to invite you to Christmas dinner with us.”
Jack no longer celebrated Christmas; it invoked memories of happier times he wanted to forget. He hesitated, unsure of how to frame his reply.
Hearing the uncertainty in the old man’s voice, Alex said, “please come to dinner Mr Marley, we can be your family.”
Jack accepted the invitation, knowing he couldn’t refuse. Afraid of his emotions, he excused himself and went to make the coffee. On his return he found Sandra looking intently at a photo of his son. Sandra waited until he placed the tray on the table before walking over to him, the photo held tightly in her hands.
“Mr Marley, there’s something I need to know. The young man, is that your son, is he Rory Campbell?” asked Sandra, her voice shaky, the words tumbling quickly from her lips.
“Yes, that’s Rory at his graduation. His mother and I were divorced when he was little. She remarried and changed his name to Campbell.”
Jack looked at Sandra questioningly, “did you know him?” he asked her.
“I loved him very much, Mr Marley,” she said. “You see, Rory is Alex’s father.”
Jack was stunned, uncertain he had heard correctly. Alex, who was browsing through a copy of The Phantom comic, looked up at the mention of his name.
Sandra told Jack about her affair with Rory; how they had met when she was a Law student and he was lecturing on International Law. Their relationship blossomed; Rory was so happy when she became pregnant. They made plans to marry following the South American trip, but he never came back.
© Margaret Clapham September 2011
“Gramps, what does free speech mean?”