Nanthology – The Final Journey

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.

MY NANTHOLOGY

Day Five

Final Journey

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.’

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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36 Responses to Nanthology – The Final Journey

  1. Ali Isaac says:

    Oh god! Yowling my head off here, Geoff! Beautifully told.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ritu says:

    This is beautifully written Geoffles!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. trifflepudling says:

    Geoffle, I am speechless.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. esthernewton says:

    You took all the prompts and ran with it. Simply brilliant – as always. A gripping, emotional read.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Stirring – real – heart breaking. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I’m glad you liked it. I’ve read a couple of books on the far east war experiences of both sides recently and the human cost after seems as bad in its way as at the time.

      Like

      • I more than liked it! I think you are a really good writer. You are right in what you say, I think that it is probably applicable to all war experiences. I remember reading ‘Birdsong’ when it first came out and being horrified and in tears for most of it. As a young child I knew these stoic old men who never spoke of their experiences yet raced off to spend the day together on ANZAC day – a day spent apart from their families and with their ‘mates’. They would get completely plastered and be withdrawn for the next few days after – I never understood why until I read that book. The Railway Man holds the most astounding picture of letting go and forgiveness – I can well imagine your hero responding exactly as he did.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. trifflepudling says:

    I visited Singapore recently and one of the places I went to on a walk along the ridge was Reflections at Bukit Chandu which is on the site of the WWII Battle of the same name and is a peaceful landscaped area with fountains and bronze sculptures and also, in a white bungalow, a small museum covering the history of that War in Malaya, including a few recorded interviews on loops with the veterans. When I got home I noticed that out of the hundreds of photos I had taken, there were none of this place. I guess I was just too taken up with the whole idea of what went on to even consider taking any, or perhaps I felt they couldn’t do it justice. Whatever, your piece evoked the same feelings I had on being there, very strong. Defo a Poppy for all those people! Really, really well written: not that I’m an expert, of course(! 🙂 ), but it spoke to me, as they say.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Compelling read, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Charli Mills says:

    Knocked my socks off! I like how you “uncorked” this character and the tensions in the family out-shadowed by his revelations and desire to die with Rog. Oh, man, this is an amazing story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It has been probably the most enjoyable to write because I knew it worked if you understand that? The last line just sat there waiting for me to meet it as I wrote. It was alike running down the platform to a rarely seen friend and hugging them.

      Like

  9. What a wonderful and heartfelt short story, Geoff. It’s a real tear jerker, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Thanks Hugh. It’s a dreadful period in history especially for those of us who knew, or knew of people who went through it. There are so many similar events but having a connection and bringing t through makes it deeper I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Monday Motivations | esthernewtonblog

  11. Helen says:

    I enjoyed your story Geoff, but it did make me feel a bit funny. My grandfather was a POW in Fukuoke. Working on the railway destroyed him in a lot of ways. Good luck with your challenge. I thought about doing something similar myself in terms of the Novel challenge, as I’m working on a short story collection. But I chickened out. So good on you – and good luck! (By the way I left this comment on Esther’s blog initially, then realised it would be best left on your own site.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Thank you so much for your comment Helen. I am always concerned not to write to upset but having recently read the compelling and rather harrowing The Narrow Road to the Far North this seemed to come to me fully formed. And thanks for the good wishes. Feel free to browse and see if anything else appeals

      Like

  12. Helen says:

    Thanks for your reply Geoff. Will take up the invitation to browse. If you need an extra story prompt for later in the month, how about the ex-POW who keeps escaping from a nursing home? True story re my grandfather. He never could stand feeling at all constrained after his war-time experience, even when he wasn’t really!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Helen says:

    I really look forward to seeing what you write. I always enjoy your stories. Hope you have fun… Is a marathon month fun? Perhaps you could write a piece for Esther’s Friday guest blogspot about your experience of having to meet your target word counts each day? I’d really enjoy reading something like that and imagine others would also. Up to you and Esther obviously. Again just a suggestion because I’d really enjoy reading something like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. jjspina says:

    Beautifully written and heart-wrenching! Thank you for stopping by my blog and the like. I enjoyed reading yours too! Blessings of the day!

    Like

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