I have written about this before here:
but this is a version that I wrote in 2012 for a course assignment and that I was also considering entering in a story contest. I hope you find it interesting?
The little boy had cried before he fell asleep.
There had been no beating but there had been words. Words that made him feel worthless and stupid, as if he did not merit the roof over his head.
It had been about his reading. After being told to go to bed and switch the light off he had used a torch – and been caught.
“You’re always reading! Why can’t you be like other boys your age? Why don’t you play sport”, these regular harangues caused the boy to become more withdrawn. Trying to speak up for himself he only attracted more scornful accusations.
Life was a series of precarious, unpredictable encounters with his stepfather who could be affable and good-natured at times. Patient and imaginative he would teach the boy things – little things that the grown man would later remember and struggle to reconcile with the more usual behaviour of scorn and impatience.
His mother once asked him, pleading and demanding that he avoid annoying the man. He should do his chores before the man came home and avoid the nastiness.
He never seemed to be able to water the garden enough, or clean the hen-houses or rabbit hutches properly. His mother understood and when she could she helped. But the man would know by the way the hutches had been cleaned by stronger arms and that led to more nastiness – both mother and son would suffer.
The boy loved playing with the few friends who lived up on the mountain but reading was his escape.
Huckleberry Finn’s adventures on the river after escaping his father (he could relate to that), the dangers on Treasure Island and the Famous Five.
Oh to have parents who allowed him camping adventures? Breaking crime rings and smuggling operations!
Lost in his books the boy would be startled out of this other world by the arrival of the car, by his name being shouted, ordering him to another confrontation. The man would raise his hand and the boy would cower against the expected blow. Sometimes it did not come and the man would declare scornfully, “Christ I haven’t even touched you. What are you afraid of? Be a man!” But he wasn’t a man; he was a little boy.
“He’s only a child,” his mother would say, “let him play”, and the scornful reply would be that the child couldn’t play sport but he always “just wants to ‘play’.”
“But you never let him stay in the village after school. How can he play sport if he has to come home and water the garden and work around here?”
Another argument would start about her taking her son’s side over supporting him and how the child was a waste of time. At times, and if drink had been involved, the abuse of his mother might become physical and he might get a severe beating himself.
One evening, at the dining room table, the boy was copying notes from another child’s notebook because he was unable to read the teacher’s notes on the blackboard.
The man accused the child in harsh terms of cheating and cribbing and being so useless that he had to copy other people’s work.
The boy protested. The man became even angrier when the child told him it was because he could not read the blackboard. The child’s mother tried to intervene, to suggest that the child be given a chance.
The evening did not end well.
Next day the boy was chastised by his teacher because his notes were not up to date. He had to explain that his stepfather had accused him of cheating, taken the notes away and only given them back that morning so that he could return the book.
The teacher, a stern spinster was a dedicated educationist, fiercely protective of the children in her care. She had experience of the type of conflict that was involving this child. Without overt fuss she wrote to the parents about the difficulties the child was experiencing and the effect on his work.
The little boy gave the note to his mother and then went to his room to hide in a book.
Soon raised voices announced that the note was under discussion and fragments of the altercation drifted up to him:
“He’s just lazy and making excuses….”
“Why do you think he would do that? The teacher says he battles to see the board!”
“He’s sly and he’s got her fooled, stupid old cow”, and so it went on.
Suddenly the door of the room flew open, “What’s this rubbish that you’ve asked your teacher to write to us? Just because she believes you, doesn’t mean I have to! You’d better start doing your work and don’t let me catch you copying again. Now turn off the light and go to sleep!”
“But I haven’t had supper yet…..”
“And you won’t get any tonight”, slam.
At school his teacher had him sit next to a girl who wrote clearly. When he could not see the boy was to copy from her as she wrote her own notes.
This solved the teacher’s dilemma but anyone who has suffered this type of childhood ignominy will understand how the child felt – and how he was teased.
Already rather introverted and shy this “humiliation” was hard to take at first. He was an intelligent child and although not able to engage in some of the rough and tumble ball sports and games – he couldn’t see the ball you understand – he was more well-liked than not. All the quieter children suffered at the hands of the bullies but in a fifties village teachers were more aware of the culture in the school. Bullies’ dominance was not what it was to become later under less dedicated educators. But that is not the subject of this story.
Once a method had been found to enable the boy to keep up with the class he was always at, or near, the top of the class. This earned him some respect because it was known that this was achieved on his own easy ability and that he received no favouritism.
There was still trouble at home. If the boy had stayed in the village to play or take part in activities and arrived home too late to carry out his chores the man would always find fault, even when the chores had been done.
“You didn’t water the garden properly!”
“I did, I watered all of it.”
“Not properly, look here,” digging his index finger deep into the soil, “it’s only damp on top! You only sprinkled some water over it so it would look like you had done it. Do you think I am stupid?”
“No, dad, but I did water ….”
“Rubbish! You think I’m an idiot? Did you think I wouldn’t check?”
“You can stay out here and water the whole garden properly and before you come indoors I’ll come and check. Now get started”
“But I can’t see.”
“Just water the bloody garden and don’t make excuses.” and off he went. The boy could see him through the window, sitting at the dining room table pouring a drink.
He watched his mother enter the room with the food and her questioning posture. The abrupt, angry gestures and the sound of the raised voices drifted across the plot to him. He couldn’t hear the words but he knew they were arguing about him.
A while later his mother came out with a sandwich and some tea. She did not say anything. Then he called her inside – angrily. She went.
It was very late when she came out again.
“He’s fallen asleep” she said “let’s just turn off the hose and you can come inside and have some food and then you’d better go to bed.”
“What if he wakes up, mom?”
“He won’t, don’t worry.”
One day the government doctors made a visit to the school in the village. Reports would be sent to the parents of children deemed to be in need of medical attention.
This medical included an eye test.
Only a few children got letters for their parents. The boy was the only one called for a second test and it was explained to him that he must tell his parents that he is very short-sighted.
The boy was jubilant and fearful. Jubilant at having a reason for his difficulties; fearful of the reaction the letter would receive at home.
He gave the letter to his mother and after she had read it and asked a couple of questions the boy disappeared.
It was not long before the raised voices indicated that this latest communiqué was not being well-received.
“He’s lying again, just lazy and looking for sympathy. You spoil the child.”
“But he’s my child and he is not lying. The teachers and doctors say he needs to see an eye specialist.”
“Waste of money. I won’t waste money on him.”
For once though, his mother prevailed. An appointment was made with one of the leading opticians in the region who had his offices in the city where his parents worked.
The day came. Not going to school, he would accompany his parents to the city, thirty six miles away at the foot of the mountain.
The grumblings that had gone on for several days continued on the trip into town. Dire predictions of what would happen when the specialist proved what a liar the child was. That it had been a waste of time and money.
The optician was a kindly man with rooms upstairs in a tall building. The boy was fascinated and intimidated by the procedures that he underwent. He was enthralled by the way the letters on the chart went from indistinguishable blur to pin-sharp clarity.
The optician said his spectacles should be collected a week hence. For a few days he should only wear them at home until he was used to them.
The man was furious at being proven wrong but curiously, at the same time seemed pleased that a very real problem was being solved.
The great day arrived when his new glasses would be brought home.
It must have been summertime because the day was still bright with sunshine as he put the spectacles on and looked around. They were brown horn-rims (the ‘Buddy Holly’ look of the day), but they were magic devices!
Their house, the very first one on that estate, had a wonderful view. It was a spectacular vista across one of the most beautiful bays in the world. The child had had no true appreciation of the locale. The bay stretched some thirty miles across and its arms stretched away some thirty miles to each side.
White beaches fifteen miles away, surf breaking on them. Swells on the blue ocean could be seen. Fields and vineyards in the valley were no longer smudgy greens and browns. Roads with cars on them. Far away the white letters GB, on either side of an anchor, on the mountainside above the old naval school were now clearly readable…eight miles away!
He looked and looked and looked. He looked everywhere and anywhere and over and over again he looked at things.
Next morning he gave assurance that he had put his new glasses in the drawer, hoping to be believed.
At school there was teasing, oddly good-natured though and that was OK. With his glasses on he did not have to sit next to a girl any more. He was still not particularly good at ball sports!
A few years later the boy went on to an all-boys high school as a boarder. The school was way out in the bush, an old training aerodrome from the war years.
Within days he was nicknamed “Goggles”, Gogs for short. He did not resent it – besides his mom had said only well-liked people got nicknames.
Sixty years later, the man still occasionally bumps into people who remember “Gogs”, and that is also OK.