Hounslow Boys’ Home 1931
‘I ain’t sure, Jim.’
‘You comin’ or ain’t you?’
‘I suppose. I just never done nuffin’ like this.’
‘S’easy. Just grab the top of the wall.’
‘Oi! What are you boys doing?’
‘Oh cripes, it’s Wacko. Jim? Jim?’
He’d escaped. Like so many times. Over the wall, onto the path, dodging any obstacle. He laughed, the moon catching his smile. He’d pay. Of course, he’d pay, but the price was worth it for the feeling of being free.
47 Gracefield Terrace 1940
‘I’m not sure, Jim. Really. If my dad—’
‘Gie’s a kiss then.’
‘What if you don’t get back?’
‘I’m comin’ back, girl. Don’t you think otherwise.’
‘But if you didn’t and we hadn’t—’
‘Up to you. I don’t mind.’
‘We’ll be quick. Marje says you can’t get up the duff if you’re quick.’
‘Alright. Hold still.’
‘Ethel? What’s going on? Why are you talking?’
‘My dad. Oh God. Go!’
‘Hey! Is that Jim Patterson? Wait till I get my hands on the little bleeder.’
‘No chance, grandpa. See you, Ethel. Be careful.’
Jim fiddled with his fly as he ran. The old boy’s face’s a picture. Hope she doesn’t get too much a larruping for that. I’ll see her right when I get back.
Stalag XII 1944
‘Sure. It’s a twenty-seven second sweep. Two guards at eleven o’clock. Trees four hundred yards. No moon. Good luck everyone.’
‘Privates Patterson and Gilbert?’
‘Stick with me. I can speak some German. Easier that way.’
‘In ten, nine… GO!’
Jim ran in a semi-crouch, half an eye on the spotlight and half on the lieutenant. The lieutenant wasn’t helped by his gammy leg and began to fall behind when a shot rang out. The lieutenant crumpled with a groan.
Jim turned back.
‘Leave him, Jim. He’d want you to go on.’
Jim shook his head. ‘You go, Steve. Don’t worry, I’ll escape next time.’
‘How are you doing, sir?’
‘Patterson, what are you doing, you bloody fool. Get away.’
‘Let’s look at you, sir, before Jerry get here. Now try not to move.’
‘No good, Patterson.’
‘You’ll be as right a rain in a day, sir. Now let’s try and stop the bleedin’.’
Cries in German filled the air followed by a burst of machine gun fire and several shouts and cries. Then silence. He closed his eyes and squeezed the lieutenant’s hand.
Hounslow High Street 1946
‘Jim? Jim Patterson? Blimey. I heard you’d copped it.’
‘Ethel? Bloody hell, what happened to you?’
‘Ha! Always was the cheeky one. Four kids that’s what happened. Twins last year.’
‘Four! I didn’t know you wanted ‘em so much.’
Ethel squeezed his arm. ‘If Dad hadn’t interrupted us, I might’ve got lucky with you, eh? You might be their dad.’
Jim nodded slowly. ‘So, who’s the lucky fella?’
‘Archie Peasmore. He’s a teacher. Reserved occupation and short sighted. He wanted to fight, you know.’
‘Yeah, course. Is he about? I want to congratulate him on a fine catch.’
‘ARCHIE PEASMORE, put that fag out and come over ‘ere.’
Jim watched the skinny bespectacled man shuffle across, his head bowed almost as if he expected to be slapped.
‘This ‘ere is Jim wot I told you about. He—’
‘That I told you about, not wot I told.’
Jim watched as Ethel’s face coloured. ‘Are you trying to embarrass me, Archie Peasmore? Because if you are—?’
‘No, dear, not at all. I’m just trying to point out—’
‘Why don’t you go and find Mam, so we can have a nice cuppa while you take the brats to the park? Do you want a cuppa, Jim?’
But Jim had gone, smiling his gleaming smile.
A22 Blindley Heath 1954
‘What happened? It looks a right mess.’
‘No idea. One minute I’m waiting to pull out, the next this motorbike comes out of nowhere, no lights and just misses me but swerves in front of him. JESUS. It’s gone up in flames. Quick, I hope to God no one is still in that car.’
Jim lay still, vaguely aware of the flames engulfing his Morris Oxford, his pride and joy. He wondered about the motorbike rider who he’d narrowly missed and asked himself if he had been going too fast. His neck hurt, and he wasn’t sure if he could feel his right leg. He tried a smile that turned into a grimace. Typical if he survived Jerry and died in sodding Surrey.
‘He’s here. Don’t move, mister. Someone’s gone for help. If you hadn’t been thrown clear you’d have roasted.’
‘The motorcyclist? How’s he?’
‘Not good. When he was thrown he hit a tree. Poor sod.’
Jim closed his eyes. One day his luck would run out.
Redhill Hospital 1958
‘Mr Patterson? Your wife asked me to have a word with you. About her morning sickness.’
‘It’s awful, ain’t it, doctor?’ Jim flexed his leg, the ache telling him it would rain soon.
‘Yes, Mr Patterson, it is. It’s very extreme and we do worry about the baby in these cases. However, there is a new treatment that is garnering a lot of good reports that might help.’
‘I’m not sure, doc. Me old mum didn’t agree with fancy new potions. I sort of feel the same.’
‘Oh, Mr Patterson, this is the second half of the twentieth century. I think we’ve moved beyond old wives’ superstitions, haven’t we?’
Jim lowered his head. He really didn’t want to punch a doctor. It wouldn’t do his application to join the police force much good. But the arrogant know-all, calling his mum an old wife – who’d struggled to bring him and his two brothers up after his dad left – that wasn’t right. Even if she did have to stick them in that home from time to time.
‘So, what’s this treatment?’
‘It’s called Thalidomide*. A miracle really…’
The doctor looked up from his desk and his gaze met Jim’s. Jim held it, not sure what to do. Then the doctor looked away.
‘We’ll manage, doc. The old way.’
Basement flat, 54 Corporation Street, Hounslow 1970
‘I’ve had it, Jim. Your drinking is too much.’
‘I’m not drunk, Sheila. Honest. Jober as a sudge, s’me.’
‘Yes, you are. Lost your job, and you’re losing us.’
‘Is temporary, Sheila. Juss—’
‘You need to grow up. We’re going back to Mother.’
Jim Patterson put the whiskey bottle to his lips, a final defiant gesture. His hand fell back as he heard the front door slam; he let the tears flow. He wasn’t drunk, not by his standards, but he knew he would be later and the chances were he’d hit Sheila or the kid and then hate himself. He hated how he was, how he couldn’t hold down a job, and because he couldn’t walk properly, he could barely collect his benefit. It was easy to say why: his mum dying, losing his job with the Force, but he was a better man than that. Was being the operative word, he thought. He was just a burden and they were well off without him.
The same notion as he’d had on and off for a year came back to him in a rush. He pulled himself to his feet and stumbled, stupidly incoherent in his movements, to the kitchen. Hurrying so as not to lose motivation, he pulled the wire shelves and metal trays from the oven and cleared the floor. He remembered someone saying it took only a few minutes to become unconscious and then there was no coming back. He reached for the gas-tap and stopped. He needed to block the gaps in the door. Having finished that he crawled back to the oven, turned it on and lay down with his head inside.
‘Jim? Jim? Wake up? What are you thinking?’
Jim looked at his wife’s frightened face. ‘Are we both dead?’
‘No, you goon. You can’t gas yourself these days with natural gas; not now they’ve changed from town gas. A year ago, and you’d have been a goner. Here, come to me.’
As Sheila cradled his head, Jim wept, ‘I will change. I’ll start at AA tomorrow. You see if I don’t.’
Sunshine nursing home, Hounslow 1999
‘And if you come this way, Mr Johnson, I’ll introduce you to Jim Patterson and his bride-to-be.’
‘Do inmates wed, Mr Thomas?’
‘We prefer the term ‘guests’. Inmates sounds a trifle custodial. Yes, they do indeed though I’m not entirely sure this is a match made in heaven.’
‘Well, apparently before the war Jim and Ethel Peasmore were sweethearts and would have wed but for Mr Patterson spending three and a bit years as a POW. He was quite the character, escaping a dozen or so times but never quite making it back home. Meanwhile Ethel married a teacher, thinking he was dead. They’d not seen each other for years until Ethel joined our little community in March after her husband passed. They’re inseparable.’
‘That’s so lovely. They can catch up on all those missing years.’
‘Well, yes, in a way but, see, Jim can’t walk anymore and, well, come and see.’
The two men stood by the part-opened door. Ethel maintained a constant stream of chatter, barely taking a breath.
‘He doesn’t say much, does he?’
‘Could you? She’s uninterruptable that one. We all feel a bit sorry for Jim, but he confirmed he is happy with the wedding plans and the doctors are sure he knows his own mind.’
‘So, when’s the big day?’
‘Tomorrow. We have a licence for civil ceremonies. Shall we say hello?’
Pushing through the door they approached Ethel and Jim. It only took a few moments to realise Jim was not asleep but dead. As they waited for the ambulance and a female staff member comforted Ethel, Mr Johnson said, ‘Perhaps he had a lucky escape after all?’
*Thalidomide is an infamous drug that was prescribed to help pregnant women who had debilitating morning sickness. It soon became associated with appalling birth defects in the new born.
This short story first appeared on this blog in 2016 as part of Nanowrimo. If you enjoyed it, it and its 29 fellows can be found in the anthology Life In A Grain Of Sand that is current on offer as a giveaway if you click the title. The offer stays open until Sunday