Saturday, March 01, 2014

New Friends

At the Writer's Circle (who sit on two sides of a rectangular table in a pub that is not round) someone had written a piece that someone else thought would be good for a magazine. By the end of the meeting, we somehow found that we'd agreed whole group writing something for that magazine. I did, presented it to the group, took on board their suggestions and then sent it off to the magazine.

Today I got a rejection slip. Woohoo! As it came in my SAE I had that weird feeling when a letter comes addressed to me in my own handwriting! It's like something out the Twilight Zone.

The piece I submitted to them is below.


Mr Bug Makes New Friends

“Mr Bug! Come back here sir!”

Tom leaned on his stick and looked across the field of rhubarb leaves. They moved slightly in the brisk breeze coming off the sea. He couldn’t make out which movement was the weather and which that of the escaped bull terrier.

“Mr Bug!”

Suddenly he heard panting by his feet and the dog looked up at him, piggy eyes fixing him over the long nose. “Well there you are sir. Looking like you hadn’t run off. Don’t stare at me as though butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.”

He picked up the lead and Mr Bug, satisfied by his run under the vegetation, meekly trotted along as Tom stumped back towards his cottage. The cool autumn day had given him an appetite. Perhaps he would eat early, cook the nice bit of cod he had bought from the lady in the fish van that morning.

As he turned the corner to home he could see a young woman standing at his front door. She was smartly dressed in a navy blue pencil skirt and a bright scarlet jacket. Her dark hair spilled down her back. She reached over and pushed his doorbell. He could see from her stance that she was feeling exasperated.

“Can I help you Miss?”

She turned to see him standing at the gate at the top of the path. He looked her full in the face, and tried to place her features. She seemed very familiar, although he was fairly sure he hadn’t seen her before. Mr Bug decided at that moment to try and greet her himself, tangling his lead about Tom’s stick. By the time he had sorted it out, she had stepped over to him.

“I’m looking for... are you Thomas Jackson?”

“Yes I am, Miss. What can I do for you?” He hoped she wasn’t going to try and sell him something.
She held out her hand and he shook it. “I’m Angela Mundy.” Before he could work out where he’d heard the name before she explained. “I’m your daughter.”

****

Tom and Mary had married young. Too young probably, that’s what Tom’s father had said. Despite their arguments, he had turned up at the registry office with the rest of the family that November morning. Both bride and groom had looked older than their nineteen years, Mary in a sea-green suit with the big shoulder pads that were the fashion and Tom in his uniform. They had spent a blissful six months in Portsmouth, before Tom was assigned to a ship.

At first everything had seemed to go well. Tom worked hard and received good reports from his superiors. He got on well with the other sailors. Even the threat of conflict in the Persian Gulf seemed exciting rather than worrying. The letters from Mary were still the highlight of his week. Somehow she convinced the communication centre to call him by radio when she discovered she had fallen pregnant. He felt as though he was floating on air, and took all the joshing from his shipmates with good humour.

Then things went bad. She felt alone, isolated even. If she wasn’t sick, she was tired. Tom, busier than ever on board ship, became curter and shorter in his letters. When she overspent the credit card on things for the baby, he berated her, telling her how foolish she was. It was sorted out with a loan from the welfare office, but Tom was unhappy that it was coming out of his pay. Even if he had nothing to spend it on at sea.

Mary moved back in with her parents to prepare for the baby’s arrival. Tom applied for leave to go home for the birth, but it was denied after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. His speciality was in short supply in the Navy. It was the last straw. Quite how it happened, he could never sort out in his mind, but they agreed to separate. Two years later they divorced fairly amicably, neither of them attending the court.

****

Tom shook himself out of his reverie. It had been a huge surprise, a shock even. Somehow he had invited her in, then stood dithering in the hallway. She had spotted the kitchen and told him to sit down and let her make them some tea. He ended up in his brown leather armchair in the lounge, as always facing the television.

He looked up and saw Angela in the doorway talking on her phone. “No, it’s fine. It was a bit of a shock for him. We’re having a cup of tea. See you soon. Love you. Bye!”

She put the mug down next to him, then went to sit down on the sofa. He took a sip and could taste the gin he’d requested she put in it. G and Tea he thought. He didn’t usually drink, but after something like this, it was practically medicinal.

Mr Bug jumped up beside her, stumpy tail wagging.

“I’m sorry. Mr Bug! Get down!”

“No, it’s fine. He seems pleased to meet me.”

Tom frowned at him but the dog was far too pleased with this visitor. Tom ordered him off the furniture again and this time he reluctantly leapt down, sitting at Angela’s feet, staring up at her. She smiled at the dog, and at that moment Tom could see her mother’s expression in the stranger’s face.

“Sorry I wasn’t in. I didn’t expect anyone to call by.”

“No. I didn’t ring ahead. It didn’t seem the kind of thing to talk about on
the phone.”

Tom nodded. “Was there something you wanted to say to me? A message?”

Angela looked down. “Well, I was curious. And it seemed the right time. After all, you paid the child support for me all those years. It seemed right to see you. To thank you.”

Tom waved his hand dismissively. “It’s just what I ought to have done. Take responsibility. What happened with your mother and me, that wasn’t your fault. What does Mary have to say about it?”

He could see Angela frown. “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t think... She passed away over the summer.”

Tom was still for a moment. He had thought he had done all the mourning for his short marriage a long time ago, but now he realised that wasn’t true.

“I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”

“Thank you,” said Angela. “But, we knew it was coming. When she got the diagnosis, she gave me this and talked me through it.”

This was an old-fashioned box file. She opened it up and passed it over.

Tom looked at the very first items. They were photos of the wedding. They all looked so young, everyone smiling, even Tom’s grumpy old dad. The reception, in the room upstairs at the pub. Bill, one of Tom’s Navy pals, dancing with Jenny, his little sister. Tom and Mary being toasted with lager, champagne being too expensive for them.

Underneath were all the letters he had sent, the old paper rustling in his hand. He had jokingly put his address as HMS Whitstable, Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but had been told that even that was not allowed for security reasons. He glanced at them, and then skipped the later ones, curious to see what was underneath.

The first thing he came to was a clipping from the paper about the Gulf War.

“That was your ship, wasn’t it?” Angela said. “First ship into Kuwait Harbour.”

“Yes it was,” said Tom, the article wiping away the years in his memories.

“You must have been very proud.”

Tom thought back. The moment of anxiety when a missile was fired at them, the elation when the Gloucester shot it down. The, yes, pride, on leading the fleet into the harbour, followed by the humiliation when they broke down and had to be towed out of the channel.

“Well, she’s a minehunter. Someone had to go in first and clear the way. It turned out it was us.”

Tom continued to look through. Mary had obviously kept a closer watch over his career than he had thought. Every ship he had served on had at least one clipping. Later there were printouts of Navy Press Releases from the website, the bland statements that made the chaos of hurricane relief sound like a well organised day trip, or turn the tense standoff of a peacekeeping mission into a tea party.

****

Tom had thrown himself into his work and done well. There was always a need for radar technicians and his efficient maintenance was appreciated by his superiors. He had been promoted to Chief Petty Officer and travelled all around the world.

Then one day he had fallen down a ladder – a staircase to civilians – while rushing to the mess. If the broken leg hadn’t been so painful, it would have been embarrassing, as the swell on the sea had been nothing to an experienced sailor. He was flown home, and had surgery to put several pins in. However even after months of physiotherapy it seemed his limp would not go away.

There had been some talk of giving him a training role onshore, but Tom decided that there was no point putting up with the nonsense of the Navy if he wasn’t going to be on board ship. He took advantage of the cutbacks and got a redundancy package. Asking about, he set up an electrical shop with a keen apprentice, the younger brother of one of his shipmates. With his disability pension and the income from his business he and Mr Bug lived quite comfortably in the seaside cottage.

****

He came to the last few pieces, which were all letters from his lawyer about his change of circumstances, and the ending of support when Angela turned eighteen. It seemed Mary hadn’t learnt the details of the accident. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

“How long... what did you know about me?”

Angela fixed him with dark eyes, so familiar to him. “Things got tough shortly after I started at the comprehensive and Robert left us. I asked Mum about him, and where our money came from, and figured out that he wasn’t my father. She told me about you, and that the two of you’d split up, and asked if I wanted to meet you. I said no.”

Tom nodded. “I see.”

“Well, no. I wanted to, but at the time it was just me and Mum and Poppy. I didn’t want her to think I was deserting her. But she always told me, you weren’t a bad man, just the wrong man. And to be grateful that the money always came on time.”

He snorted. “Glad to be of help, but most of that was the pay clerk’s office.”

Tom decided this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about to his long lost daughter. He felt suddenly enlivened, recovered from the day’s surprises. He pulled out his phone. “Do you mind if I take a picture? My Mum and Dad would love to see you. So would Jenny, my sister.”

Angela looked blank for a moment then smiled. “Of course! I hadn’t thought it through. I came here to meet my father, and forgot that I had other family! They’re in the wedding photos, aren’t they. How are they?”
Tom grinned back. “My Mum’s pretty well. Dad was in hospital earlier in the year for heart problems, but he’s back to his miserable old self now.”

“You shouldn’t say that!”

“That’s what Mary said, until she met him.” Tom winked at her.

There was a knock at the door. Angela bounced upright. “That’ll be for me.” By the time Tom had struggled to his feet and got hold of his stick, she had got down the hallway and opened it.

Tom saw a white streak and yelled out “Mr Bug! Will you stop sir!” The eager dog ignored him.

There was a confused scrum at the door. Behind Angela, a young man with a shock of thick dark hair and a prominent nose was trying to catch the terrier. Tom didn’t see much of him, as his attention had been caught by the modern, big-wheeled pushchair on his garden path. Mr Bug was looking up into it with his tongue hanging out and his tail waving in ecstasy. A small face stared out of a bundle of clothes, the eyes so like those of the woman he had met today as well as the one he had married twenty five years before.

“This is my husband John and that’s Felicity,” said Angela. She added, unnecessarily, “Your granddaughter.”

****
Afterthoughts: Because I was writing to their guidelines and style it was an interesting project. Every time when I might usually rely on anger, shouting, or shock tactics, instead I pulled back to instead go for some quiet drama. Definitely something to keep in mind.

There is, of course, no HMS Whitstable, but the events described are based on a story told me by an officer on a minehunter I visited in the 90s.

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