Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
This prompt is part of Esther Newton’s Monday Motivations series: Title, as above; theme, surprise; story opening, ‘It’s all your dad’s fault. I warned you what would happen!’ she said’)
‘It’s all your dad’s fault. I warned you what would happen!’ she said.
Her father pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘I don’t have any choice, Kate. It’s important to him.’
‘He can’t travel. He’s ninety what? Five. He’s had a stroke.’
‘He flew to Scotland. The airline were happy with his health.’
‘Come off it. His heart and lungs must be shot after those cigarettes. He’s nearly losing it and…’
The door creaked open. Jimmy Pickwick shuffled in. ‘Don’t stop on my account. You both know what’s best, clearly.’
His granddaughter went to him. ‘I’m worried about you, gramps.’
Roger Pickwick looked at the two hugging. Like bloody children. Jimmy winked at his son who smiled weakly. Jimmy said, ‘Do you really think I’m senile?’
Kate Pickwick shook her head. ‘No Gramps, course not. When I said losing it I meant… you sometimes forget your age. And this is a lot tougher than Scotland…’
Jimmy pushed her away, a fierce expression crossing his face. He raised his fists. ‘Ha! That’s meant to be better? My age. Cheeky minx. I can still put you across my knee, young miss.’
Roger sighed. ‘You know that’s inappropriate, Dad, leaving aside you’ll probably need another hip operation if you tried. And your granddaughter is more than a match for you, frankly.’ He turned back to his computer. ‘That all having been said, she makes a fair point. It’s a long way and travel is awkward, even after the liberalisation.’
Roger felt a hand on his shoulder. His father leant over and gazed at the black and white picture on the screen. In a quiet voice he said, ‘You know I have to son. You know that, don’t you? You understand?’
Kate moved to stand on the other side. ‘Is that what you built, Gramps?’
‘Me and a million other poor sods. Yes, the Burma railway.’
‘But really do you want to see it? I mean after all that happened?’
Jimmy pursed his lips. ‘Do you love your friends, Kate?’
Two steely blue eyes met her soft brown pair. She said, ‘Of course, I do. But…’
The old man held up a hand. ‘Imagine watching each of them die, one by one. Ill. In pain. Beaten to death. You’re twenty now. I was twenty when I went up the line.’ He shook his head. ‘Sorry love, that’s come out wrong. You shouldn’t have to hear all this old man nonsense. Just believe it’s important.’
She wrapped her arms around him as Roger watched. Both were in tears. She said, ‘I can’t imagine it. It is beyond anyone’s imagining.’
Roger met his daughter’s gaze and nodded but he knew that was untrue. He remembered the nights his father would scream, still asleep, still in his nightmares, as he was held by Roger’s mother until his father woke exhausted and incapable of saying why. Back then, in the sixties, he thought his dad strange and looking back he was embarrassed. But now he understood. It was because his father could imagine those horrors, could still see them and experience them as vividly as if he was still there that he screamed and was often violent and moody. It had only been as his mother succumbed to cancer that she told him a little of his father’s experiences. And it was ten years later, after he told his father he was going to be a grandfather that Jimmy had first spoken of his ordeal. ‘I didn’t want children when I came home. Your mum did but after what I’d seen, the waste of life I couldn’t imagine why we’d want to bring more into the world for this to happen again.’ Jimmy had held Roger’s hand then. ‘But she were right, your mum, god rest her. She knew that we can’t let them win, them evil buggers. I lost all my mates and I asked myself for years, ‘why me’ Why’d I survived and not one of them. And the only answer that made sense was to go on, to remember them and keep going. And that means having you and you having whatever child you have.’
Roger had wanted to find out more, about where Jimmy had served, where he’d been but Jimmy wasn’t interested in looking back, only forward. He never went to a Remembrance Day service or wore a poppy, he never watched any sort of war movie. After that one confession, nothing.
Then this film came out in 2013, the Railway Man. Jimmy had been a railwayman all his life. Roger had never queried it but when he heard about the film, about the hunt for the hero’s captor he realised how odd it was – ironic in one sense – that his father had stayed with a profession that gave him a daily reminder of awful years of captivity.
Shortly before Jimmy had moved in with Roger and his wife Isobel after he had had a stroke, first to recuperate but soon enough full time. Their children had either moved away (Jane) or were at University (Kate) so it made a degree of sense. One evening Roger said, ‘You fancy going to the cinema, Dad?’
Jimmy shook his Express, not looking up. ‘Not if it’s all about feelings and fannies.’
‘No, dad. It’s…’ He should have said more, explained, but all he did say was, ‘It’s about the railway.’
‘Bout bloody time. I hope it’s accurate. And they’ll be bugger all on the box.’
The three of them went. Isobel sat between them. After, she said he’d cried nearly the whole way through but Jimmy’d said nothing and Roger knew better than to ask.
On the face of it he was no different but within a week he’d got hold of the book and then three or four more. ‘Is this because of the film, dad?’ Roger had asked one day.
Jimmy pulled off his reading glasses. ‘Sit down, son.’ He’d always had vividly iridescent eyes and at moments of intense feeling they shone. ‘I didn’t realise a lot of people had written about their memories. That film… thank you. I know you probably didn’t realise it but it’s like taking out a cork.’ He scratched his forehead thoughtfully, the skin snagging under his fingers. ‘First time I can remember crying, you know. For… for… I don’t know. We all weep far too much these days. Ever since that Diana business. But it made me think what have I done for the boys? They died and god knows where half their remains ended up. Did I ever tell you there were 20 of us in my squad and I’m the only one who got out alive? After the war they tried to get us to meet up with the families, sort of tell ‘em that their loved one died bravely I suppose. Give some comfort.’ He wiped his eyes and pinched his nose. ‘The only one who died bravely was the biggest coward of the lot. Chap called Jenkins. Stole from us, sneaked to the guards. No one trusted him, except a young kid, seventeen and looked about twelve. What was his name? Oh god…’ Tears rolled down his cheeks, catching in the folds and being channelled over his chin. ‘I promised them one thing. I’d not forget their names. That’s all they had at the end. Their names. Fuck all else.’ He smiled. ‘Simpson. Batty Simpson. Brilliant at cards and making things out of wood. Dysentery got him. Anyway Jenkins took one for Simpson when Simpson was found with a small model of a soldier he’d carved with a sharp stone. They thought it was taking the piss out of the Japs. They knew it was Simpson but Jenkins said it was his. Simpson was already ill. Put Jenkins in the box – like he was buried alive and he died in there. When they pulled him out he stank like cooked meat. Several boys lost their guts at that. Stupid sod. Simpson died two days later. We burnt them together, those two. Seemed proper.’
Now Jimmy had started he didn’t seem to want – or maybe be able – to stop. He told of the guard with an interest in Schubert and how Jimmy, who could play the mouth organ and a ‘bad bugle’ as he called it, had tried to capture some from memory. He recounted the terror of falling ill and falling down in the mud on the line and how easy it was to drown. And he told of the men’s deaths – two of the twenty drowned. After two hours Roger knew he going to tell of each death, and in telling of the end he told of the man, his foibles and character. It was as if the 70 years of silence had been spent pulling together these vignettes, these tales of laughter and friendship.
Finally the old man stopped. Roger waited for him to go on but he sat staring at his hands. ‘That’s 18, Dad. Who was the last to go?’
It was like watching an earthquake as it built from the inside; small vibrations, shudders really before Jimmy shook, until Roger grabbed and held him. Finally the shaking stilled and Jimmy, his eyes red rimmed looked at Roger, put a hand on his face and stroked it in a way he’d never done before. ‘Roger. Roger Peterman. We could have been twins they said. He was… he was…’ Once again he looked at his hands. ‘I killed him. Had to. The pain.’ He looked up, eyes seeking what, Roger wondered. Absolution? Understanding? Release? ‘They pretty much broke every bone. Brutal they were. We knew he’d get gangrene, if he didn’t go from internal bleeding.’ He swallowed. ‘I want to go back, Roger. Take me back please.’
‘Dad, aren’t you a bit old to go touring?’
‘Just take me there, son, somewhere near where we worked. You’ll find it on that Net thingy of yours. It’s where I want to die. With Rog.’