Held Back

dramatic portrait of a little homeless boy

My dreams, my plans, my future, my whole life smashed into a thousand pieces. The school’s decision to place me into a non-academic class had killed a twelve year old boy. My exam results were not good enough. Hanging around the local café with my pals every night hadn’t helped. All of us were facing vocational education. It didn’t bother any of them, but it bothered me.

I had tried to study, but it wasn’t easy. There was no lighting nor heating in the bedrooms, let alone a desk and chair. Whilst downstairs in the living room my siblings and parents were always arguing about something. The noise of them shouting and screaming at each other was even louder than the television. Often the quarrels would lead to violence. Either my brothers fighting with each other or my father exerting his authority, by using his large frame to beat my brothers or my mother. I sat under the stairs pretending to be invisible and doing my homework. But they could still see me.’Do you think that you’re better than us, you lazy shit?’ The question rotated between my brothers and my father but was always accompanied by a kick or a punch. No, I didn’t think I was better than them, but I was different.

I was the youngest of four brothers, slightly built and short for my age but I was fairly smart too. My teachers said that I was intelligent and should make the most of my potential but my father didn’t care. He wanted me to be the same as my brothers. They were not academic. Most of their schooling didn’t suit them, but they liked working with their hands and enjoyed their craft classes. Three wooden fish sat on our mantelpiece, testimony to their skills. I had no wish to add to the tally.

I wanted to make something though. A future, away from this hell which masqueraded as life. An education would be my escape tunnel. Now it had collapsed, trapping me underground in a dark and claustrophobic world.

I walked out of the school gates in a trance and wandered for hour after hour until nightfall. I don’t know where I went, or how far I walked. Exhausted I reached the bleak council house where I slept. I found no solace in the darkness of my bedroom. My brothers lay sleeping, oblivious to my pain. My bullying siblings, my tormentors and now my mentors to be.

Exhausted, I crept under the old coat, my pauper’s duvet. Sharp rusty springs protruded from the mattress, like the teeth of a great white shark waiting to bite. I pulled the coat over my head lay motionless and cried myself to sleep.

As usual, I raised at 4 a.m to a brand new day. Every dawn should give us a fresh start, new challenges and new hope, but this morning a dark cloud greeted me.

David Mackie, the dairyman who hired me for the local farm, gave me much more than a job milking 120 Ayrshire cows every day. He gave me confidence and self-respect too. He treated me as a colleague, a friend, a young man. David was even taller than my father and heavy set. Not once did I hear him raise his voice, nor see him raise his hand, in anger. He must have been ten years younger than my dad, but he was more of a father figure than the fifty year old alcoholic who beat me with a leather belt.

David picked up on my low mood. The red puffy rings which had formed around my tear-stained eyes told a story. The usual cheery Stuart Henshaw replaced by a troubled twin. David did not question me about my mournful mood but during the next three hours we chatted until he understood the reason for my sullenness. He wanted to see me do well at school and encouraged me to meet the Head Master direct and make my case.  ‘Stuart you are a smart lad with a bright future ahead of you, don’t throw it away. Tell him you want to study. Let him know how much education means to you. Beg for a second chance’.

A few hours later, I found myself in the corridor outside the Head’s Office. For nearly ninety minutes, I sat there before being summoned into his office. As I entered the room the enormity of the situation hit me. I stood there alone, vulnerable and shaking. For an age, my lips refused to move but then nervously I uttered my words. Although I had rehearsed them in my mind, they still sounded foreign when spoke out loud. I appealed to him to give me a chance to prove myself.

‘I’m sorry, I should have done better. I’m capable of more, ask my teachers. Education means everything to me, if you give me another chance I won’t let you down, I’ll study harder than anyone else. I’ll be the perfect pupil. Please, I’m begging you’.

Mr Marshal listened to my plea and then mulled things over. The room filled with the deafening sound of silence. And then slowly he began to speak ‘the decision cannot be reversed’.

A knife stabbed me in my heart, my head drooped forward, my legs gave way. I was sinking, drowning. But then I heard his voice continue. He was throwing me a lifeline. I resurfaced gasping for air, but still alive. He towered over me, his dark brown eyes, magnified by his thick spectacles, peered down at me. His manicured moustache moved up and down. ‘I will speak to your teachers and consider the options. Come back in two days’. His words were few, but they meant a lot. They gave me hope.

After the longest forty-eight hours of my short life, I was back standing in front of his gigantic oak table. At the other end sat Mr Marshal in a huge leather chair.

I listened in silence as his commanding voice announced my sentence. He wouldn’t allow me to transfer into the academic class, but I could repeat the second year. On one condition though, I would need to place in the top six of the class. I accepted, without hesitation. We had a deal.

For the next ten months, I spent every evening studying in the town library. My parents sat next door in the local pub, drinking their lives away. They didn’t know where I was and cared even less. I wasn’t bitter, I appreciated that life couldn’t have been easy for them, bringing up four children with little money. The horrors of World War II were never spoken but a curved Gurkhas’ knife adorned our living-room wall, acting as a silent reminder of their past. They had fought for a better future but did they get one?

I also fought for a better future. I sacrificed my childhood and lost my friends. My new class mates wondered what I was doing in their class. ‘Why is he being kept back, is he some sort of spastic?’ I overheard them whisper.

Life was tough. At times, I struggled, but I persevered. I worked hard and got the results. My exams went better than I could have hoped for. I kept my part of the deal and finished in the top six. I placed first in the class.

On the day of the prize giving ceremony, I’m sure Mr Marshal winked as he presented me with my diploma and a £25 book token. I should have been happy, but I didn’t belong here. I stood out like one of the many pimples on my adolescent face. The other prize winners looked so smart, in their pressed school uniforms and shiny shoes. Their family and loved ones surrounded them. Smiling and sharing in their success.

I stood beside the door, dressed in faded jeans, a red tartan shirt and scuffed trainers. There was no one there to congratulate me, or to wipe away my tears.

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Claire

jiltedjoe

Claire was standing looking out of her workshop window. In one hand she held a blow torch and in the other a mug of freshly brewed coffee. The sky was a lovely light blue tone, very reminiscent of the Blue Topaz gem stones that she was working with this week.  The sun, above the island, was shining and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. So why was it that she could only see dark clouds?  Those damn clouds had been with her since her husband’s gambling had wrecked her live.

All she wanted was a nice normal life.  She had never loved Mark, really loved him, but that didn’t matter. She wasn’t looking for a life full of romance. She was much more practical than that.

Mark had seemed nice enough. He had a good job in the finance sector, which had help them secure all the trappings of a successful life. The country house, the cars, the exotic holidays, a good education for their daughter. That’s all she ever wanted. If he had continued to provide that, then she would have been the best wife ever, but he was a fool.

He had destroyed her dream of a contented and secure life. His gambling habit had came rushing into their lives like a tornado, indiscriminately wrecking everything in its path. Their lives had fallen apart. Like a stack of cards, once one had fallen the others followed suit until the very last one had fallen flat on its face.

She took it badly, blaming herself for his failings. For a while she struggled to cope, staying in her bed for day after day.  Life was bleak but her daughter Elizabeth visited every day and did her best to help her.

Eventually she agreed to see her GP. Although she had known Dr Plumbley since she was a girl, she still found it difficult to talk to him about how she was feeling. But he had seen the symptoms before and knew that she was suffering from anxiety and depression. He prescribed anti depressants and sleeping tablets.

She didn’t like taking pills but there didn’t seem to be any alternatives. She couldn’t go on like this. The constant sadness, lack of sleep and frequent bouts of crying were taking their toll on her. After a few days the sleeping pills started to help. She was getting some sleep now, not a lot,but a couple of hours a night was much better than before. She wasn’t sure about the Prozac, she had hoped that it would make her happy but it didn’t. but it seemed to help her get through the day and slowly, very slowly, she started to feel a little bit better.

Dr Plumbley referred her to a counsellor and it was she, Dr Dyer who introduced her to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). It seemed all a bit strange to her at first, talking to a stranger about her life for an hour every Thursday morning. She thought that she would struggle to find things to say but the hour came and went before she knew it. The sessions became the highlight of her week. She had something to look forward to. Someone to share her thoughts with and to help guide her along the path to recovery. She learned new ways to cope, to shut off the external world and focus on herself. She was introduced to mindfulness and body scans, techniques which would help her to keep the demons at bay for years after the twelve week course had finished.

Fortunately  Elizabeth had left University  before his gambling came home to roost.  She was proud of her daughter, she had a good job in a bank and had last year had moved in with Peter, her partner. He was lecturer at Southampton University in Civil Engineering and seemed like a nice man . Although she had thought the same about Mark.

never  the family house had been repossessed, she had moved in with Lizzy and her partner. When she had improved enough, it was Lizzie that had suggested that she attend the Silversmithing and Jewellery Workshop being held by the Peter Symonds College in nearby Winchester.  She was surprised at how much she enjoyed the workshop and had then signed up for the evening classes.  It took a while for her to accept that she was actually quite good at something and enjoyed doing it too. Apart from that she also found it therapeutic.  When a classmate told her that she had noticed  a cottage with a jeweller’s workshop for sale, when on holiday on Skye, her mind had went into overdrive. She had been wise enough to have got into the habit of saving, when still at school, and had continued to pay money into her own Building Society account over the years.  She was amazed that she could afford the cottage in Skye and still have enough set aside for a rainy day.  A was a big step to make but she really did need a fresh start way from it all.  She put a bid in for the property and was amazed when her first bid was accepted. Others were interested in the cottage but Claire had been the only cash buyer and that had swung it in her favour.

Ten months later and she had loved every one of them.  She knew that she had made the correct decision. She still struggled with depression but she was coping and had learn to laugh again.

She knew that she looked comical as she stood in her workshop in her working clothes. The leather apron, that she had bought off the internet, was way too long for her 5’4 frame, but it protected her favourite blue and white hooped t-shirt and faded jeans. Her magnifying visor had been pushed back over her head, revealing an attractive freckled face, blonde hair braided tight and blue eyes but if you looked just a little closer you could see that life was starting to take its toll.  The plaited hair had more than a few grey strands. Laughter lines and crows’ feet encircled her eyes and if you looked just a little bit closer you could see that within the blueness of her eyes were deep pools of sadness.

To keep the sadness at bay, Claire liked to keep herself busy. That’s one of the reasons that she had become self-employed. She now no longer had anyone to tell her to go home.  She could spend as many hours as she had making her hand made jewellery.  Of course she couldn’t spend 24 hours a day in her workshop but there were so other aspects which also helped her pass the time: research; design; sourcing materials; marketing; sales; packaging and keeping on top of the paperwork and book keeping all gave her something to focus on. She like to read or to listen to the radio with a glass of white wine or a G&T, as a way of relaxing at the close of day but as she did, her mind would wander back to her husband.

How he had conned her, kept his gambling hidden from her until it was too late. They had lost everything: their lovely Hampshire house; both their cars; his job; their close friends; and she had lost her self-respect. How could she have been so blind?  She didn’t want to think about it but she often did and worse still, she still blamed herself.

But overall she knew that things were getting better, she had more good days than bad ones. Recently she had noticed that she had begun to feel more confident about herself. So much so, that she had decided to attend the craft fair and workshops being held on the mainland. She thought it would be a good way to get to know some of her fellow jewellery makers, yes to sus out some of the competition but also to talk to them about common issues and see if there were anyways that they could help each other.  She had turned down commissions in the past, maybe if she could pass them on, then others would do likewise.

The fair and the workshops had proved worthwhile and she had learned some new techniques and exchanged business cards with a number of, potentially useful, contacts.  She had even met a fellow jeweller who could alter her wedding ring for her, to make it look, well less like a wedding ring.  To ensure that she wouldn’t miss any of the Fair she had booked a guest house in Marchtown for three nights, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She wasn’t sure how she would cope with being around so many people and had decided to give herself plenty of time to relax and recover on the Sunday before returning home on the Monday.

After the fair finished at 2pm on the Sunday, she packed away all her materials and had a bit of a nap before borrowing a couple of random books from the guest library and placing them in her favourite blue rucksack, together with some hand cream, paper tissues and a small bottle of drinking water.

The landlady had informed her that there was a new coffee shop ‘Jilted Joe’ near the exit of the local park and, after having explored the park and it’s beautiful and fascinating Poets’ Rose Garden, she gently strolled towards the exit. She turned right and after less than 200m she arrived at the town’s new coffee shop.

There was a picture of the famous American Baseball player, Joe DiMaggio and his wife for a total of 274 days, Marilyn Munroe in the window, which explained the shops, rather unusual name. She couldn’t help thinking, that things might have been better for her if she had also got divorced after nine months.

There were plenty of free tables when she arrived,  She ordered a skinny soya latte and tucked herself away in the corner at a small table with four chairs squeezed around it. She opened her rucksack and looked at the first book that she put her hands on. It had a bright pink cover and was, rather amusingly, entitled ‘How to Kill Your Husband’

Absentmindedly, she left her rucksack on the table.  Whilst the coffee was being prepared, the waitress wiped her table clean and placed the rucksack on one of the free chairs. Claire thought no more of it. Her coffee came with a little piece of shortbread on the side.

‘That’s nice’ she thought. It doesn’t cost much to add something to make an experience slightly better and she appreciated the effort.

Claire sat back enjoying the great tasting coffee and started to read the book.  She hadn’t really noticed the place filling but she soon noticed a stroppy looking guy walking towards her table. For a second she thought it was her ex and her pulse quickened.

‘Don’t be silly, it’s not him, it’s not him, relax’ she told herself as she started controlling her breathing.  A deep breath, in through the nose and then out of the mouth, nice and slowly. ‘Calm, calm, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, 10’.

She could sense him towering above her looking down his nose at her ‘May I?’ he snorted.

‘Why not sweetie’ she answered, trying to be friendly.

Claire placed her book down and moved her rucksack to the seat across from her. He almost sat on her rucksack!

‘God what is his rush?  Chill out, it’s meant to be a lazy Sunday afternoon, calm, keep calm’.

She was trying her best but he was sitting there staring at her. She buried her head back into the book but she could still sense him sitting there judging her.

‘Just who the hell does he think he is?  Leave me alone, leave me alone!’

Chance encounter

Chance encounter

I ordered my cappuccino and looked around for a free seat. Jilted Joe had only been open for five weeks but the combination of great tasting coffee, using organic beans grown on the mountains of Nicaragua, together with its location near the entrance to the town’s largest park, were already proving to be a major success. So much so that there weren’t any free tables. I spotted a corner table for four with only person, a young woman, sitting at it and quickly walked towards it. She sensed my presence and lifted her braided blonde hair, from the paperback she was reading, revealing a freckled face with blues eyes and pearl white teeth. She wore a short sleeved top with narrow blue and white horizontal stripes. Her slim arms led to the charm bracelets tied around her wrists and slender hands where arts and craft rings adorned most of her fingers .I placed my hand on the back of one of the two walnut stained wooden chairs and asked ‘May I ?’

‘Sure, why not sweetie’ she replied, with a soft voice and an accent which wasn’t local.

Although I’m sure that I had heard her correctly, I could still sense a degree of reluctance as she slowly moved her bright blue, rucksack from the chair diagonally across from her and placed it on the one opposite her. Obviously her Aztec Inca rucksack was more worthy of a seat than an actual paying customer, but did she really think that the both of them required four seats?

I took the, now, vacant seat and stole another glimpse of her. I reckoned that she must have been around 5’4 in height, slim and attractive but I could now see that she was older than I had first thought. Her weathered face, the wrinkled neck, the crow’s feet around her eyes, all indicated the passage of time. I guessed she was perhaps in her late forties, or even in her early fifties. She looked as if she enjoyed the great outdoors, well the sun at least.

I looked across the table at her, as if to start a conversation but her head turned down again, focusing on the book and avoiding any eye contact. I followed her gaze down to the bright pink cover of the book, which was obviously more interesting than me. The garish cover had led me to presume that she was reading a romantic novel, probably from the Mills and Boon stable. However I now read the title: ‘How to Kill your Husband’. ‘Very pleasant’ I thought.

My eyes began to scan her left hand, observing a pale circle of skin around her fourth finger. Had a wedding ring been worn there until recently and if so, why had it been removed?

Bangkok’s Harmonious Night Market

He weaved his way through the narrow lanes of the Tarad Rot Fai Night Market, swimming against a stream of a thousand, chest high, faces, smiling up at him. Each one making him feeling welcome, although he was 6,000 miles from home.

Intermingled with the, attractive, wide cheek bones of the native Thais were the modest colours of the hijabs adorned by the Muslim women, who had chosen to make Bangkok’s Prawet district their adopted home.

THAILAND 2016
Photo by Ian Goudie

His senses overpowered by the ever changing kaleidoscope of warm aromas emulating from the endless rows of tiny open aired kitchen stalls. Each one offering freshly cooked delicacies, mostly of an Asian origin but some from Africa too. Brightly coloured fragrant spices from both continents combining to produce a splendid rhapsody that rang out loudly in the darkness of the night.

The assignment was somehow to capture the essence of this magical nocturnal bazaar. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, but most of all the people. For this was a place where Bhudists and Muslims harmoniously coexisted, in stark contrast to the south of Thailand where conflict between the two religions had led to over 6,000 deaths and countless wounded, in the last twelve years alone.

His weapon of choice was a Canon 7d DSLR camera, with a 70-200mm zoom lens attached. He usually shot in ‘manual’ mode but, in the evening darkness, he had switched to ‘aperture priority’ and cranked the lens to its maximum setting of F2.8. With the image stabiliser set to on, he could afford to let light in for up to 1/60th of a second, without the need for a tripod. Sure, he had to increase the ISO to 2000, which would introduce some ‘noise’ to the photographs, but he could live with that if he managed to create the images he sought.

Neverland No More?

Have all our childhood memories

of smells and sounds

of butterflies and daffodils

been replaced forever

with tell tale frowns

from unseen skies and unclimbed hills

or is there still a grain of hope

for all the world’s little folk

to be allowed to play and laugh

to sing out loud and dream and dance

or will the Neverland of days of yore

be supressed for evermore?

neverland