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short story

His Own Man

Phil Carradice

Frank sat back on the rounded pebbles and pulled a battered pipe from his overcoat pocket. Always the best, that first pipe of the day—the briar always cooler, tobacco always sweeter first time after breakfast.

When the pipe was drawing well he glanced up at the turning, twisting sea. The crisp breeze of early summer was pulling the tops of wavelets, causing faint streaks of spray to pattern the pebbles above the tide line.

It wasn't much of a beach. Bounded on each side by high and overpowering walls—shipyards on the left, yachting basin on the right. At the end of the dockyard wall, some hundred yards from where Frank sat, a grey and strangely dignified martello tower stood like an island, blockaded by seaweed and flotsom from the yards, waiting for the French, the invader who never came.

Frank picked up a small stone and idly lobbed it at a bottle which bobbed around some fifteen yards beyond the tide line. The missile missed its target by a good three feet.

‘Back to the drawing board,* Frank sighed and reached for another stone.

He was in the act of throwing, arm poised like a javelin thrower's, high above the pipe smoke, when the bottle exploded, disintegrated into a million tiny slivers of glass.

'What the hell?'

He turned to see a slight and rather grimy young boy standing at the top of the boat ramp. His hands were pushed down into his trouser pockets, his whole manner aggressive, almost defying Frank to speak again. They stared at each other.

‘Where did you spring from?' said Frank, at last.

The boy did not answer but came slowly down the slipway and stood at the water's edge. Abstracted, idly, he kicked at the stones, splashing them into the water.

‘What's your name?'

‘Peter,' said the boy.

He was about five foot three or four with black hair hanging straight around his shoulders. His clothes were dirty—an old pair of denim jeans and a tartan jacket which looked as if it had been worn and slept in for some time. But it was the eyes which immediately caught Frank's attention—hard and unwavering, the eyes of a loner, a survivor.

‘I like the sea,' said the boy, suddenly. ‘It's free.'

Frank grinned at the sudden outburst.

‘Not really,' he said. ‘It's got to go out and come back in; every day the same old thing. No choice in the matter.'

The boy came slowly over to him and sat on the pebbles.

‘Do you always come here this early?'

Frank nodded.

‘Whenever I can. I like to get up early. Always did when I was working. Thirty years, every day of the week, up at 5.30, in work by 6.00. It's a habit you get used to. Now I've retired I can't seem to do anything else.'

‘Where d'you work?' asked Peter.

Frank motioned towards the dockyard wall. A huge crane dominated the view, towering over the wall and the martello tower. Even as they watched the crane's jib began to move, to turn a huge, descending arc towards the sea.

‘In there,' he said. ‘Charge hand shipwright. That's a carpenter, to you.'

‘Did you build ships?' asked the boy.

‘No. They stopped ship building in—oh, I don't know—about 1920, I think. I only went there after the last war. Long before your time. We used to repair the odd coaster or ferry boat but it was mostly small boat work, moving stores around; that type of thing.'

The boy made no comment. He sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the breeze whip shreds of pipe smoke out over the line of dirty seaweed.

‘Got a fag?' he asked, eventually.

Frank looked at him.

‘How old are you? Old enough to smoke?'

‘Sure. Been doing it for years. I've got a paper—you could let me have some of your tobacco.'

Frank passed over a few grains of the coarse tobacco and watched as the boy rolled and then lit his cigarette.

‘How old are you?' he finally asked.

‘Fourteen,' replied Peter. ‘And a half.'

He stood up and casually brushed the shingle from his jeans.

Can't stop,' he said. ‘Got to get to work.'

‘You should be in school,' sighed Frank, tapping out the ashes from his pipe.

‘No. I don't go to school any more. Bloody waste of time. I can read and write, they can't teach me anything else. Got a job filling shelves in the Supermarket. Ain't much of a job but at least it gives me money.

‘What do your parents say?' asked Frank, getting stiffly to his feet.

The boy started up the ramp, paused at the top and looked back over his shoulder.

‘Maybe I'll see you here tomorrow,' he said. ‘Thanks for the fag.'

Then he was gone.

*     *     *

The boy came to the beach quite often after that. He would sit and talk with Frank for half an hour or so before rushing off to his job in the Supermarket. Often Frank reasoned with him, tried to persuade him to go back to school.

‘No, it's too late now,' said Peter, one day. ‘I'll never go back.'

Despite all the old man's probings Peter proved totally unwilling to talk about himself—neither where he had come from, nor about his parents. After a while Frank gave up trying and began to accept the boy for what he was.

One afternoon he was fishing from the old jetty on the other side of the bay, half heartedly casting out into the murky depths, when Peter suddenly appeared behind him.

‘Caught anything?' he asked as he settled himself down beside the old man.

‘No,' said Frank, offering the boy his tobacco tin. ‘Just a cold. There's not much about. Sometimes you get a few mackerel—they come in for the warm water round the dockyard. No sign today, mind you.'

‘You need feathers or shiny paper for mackerel,' smiled the boy. ‘You'll never get them this way.'

‘Fisherman, are you?'

‘Not really. One of the teachers at school used to take us at weekends. I wasn't that interested, myself, but it made a change from football.'

‘That was nice of him,' said Frank. ‘To give up his spare time like that.'

Peter lay back and yawned, stretching himself in the brittle heat.

‘He got paid for it. They all did. Every time ...'

He broke off, suddenly. When Frank looked up to see what was wrong Peter was staring down the jetty towards land. Following the boy's gaze Frank saw the tall figure of a policeman slowly picking his way over the old sleepers and other pieces of rubbish which littered the disused jetty.

‘You haven't seen me,' said Peter urgently.

He dropped lightly over the side of the jetty and silently balanced on the wide ledge which skirted the old wall a few feet above the water.

A few moments later the policeman came up to where the old man sat.

‘Afternoon, Frank. Caught anything?' You're joking. No, I reckon they've all gone home for tea.'

‘On your own,' said the policeman. ‘Thought I saw someone with you?'

Frank shook his head.

‘Just me, Jim. And the fish. Wherever they are!'

‘Looking for a lad,' said Jim. ‘About fourteen, fifteen. Shortish, maybe five foot three or four. Black hair—a bit scruffy, I suppose. Heard he's been hanging round town these last few weeks.'

Frank shrugged.

‘Can't say I've seen him. What's he done?'

‘He's an absconder from a Community Home—Approved Schools we used to call them. Places to send naughty boys and girls. Anyway, if you see him I'd like to know.'

‘O.K.' Frank sighed and watched as the policeman made his way back down the jetty.

‘You can come up now', he called presently.

There was no reply and when he looked over the edge the boy was gone. For one split second he thought that perhaps Peter had fallen in and been drowned. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small shape moving rapidly over the rocks to the north end of the bay. He must have crawled along the ledge, around the jetty and onto the steep and slippery rocks which ran down to the old jetty on the seaward side.

‘Bloody little fool!' growled Frank and he began to pack away his fishing kit into a battered duffle bag.

Somehow the day had lost its magic.

*     *     *

For a fortnight Frank did not see the boy. He did not come to the beach, did not appear anywhere around the town. Frank went to the Supermarket on two occasions but was unable to spot him. For several days the old man scouted around all the likely haunts in town but there was no sign. It was as if the boy had vanished from the face of the earth.

Then, one morning, Peter was suddenly there, beside him on the beach.

‘Hello, Frank. Haven't seen you for a while.'

‘I think you and I had better have a chat,' Frank said.

Quickly he led the way to his house, a small terraced cottage just twenty yards from the beach.

‘Very nice,' smiled Peter. ‘Facing the sea—real cushy.'

Frank made tea and toast and they sat in the small, slightly stuffy front room.

‘Is it true?' asked Frank. ‘What the policeman told me?'

‘That I'm a runner? Yes, it's true. I couldn't stand it any more so I just got up and left.'

‘Was it all that bad?'

The boy shrugged.

‘I don't suppose so. They called the place an Assessment Centre. They were trying to find out—what do they say?—my needs. Best thing they could've done would be leave me alone.'

‘How did you get there, this Assessment Centre?' Frank asked.

‘My mother died about ten years ago, left me and my kid sister and the old man. Dad was no bloody use—oh, tried his best, I suppose, but he had no idea how to run a home. Mum had always done everything, I guess. So really, I've been on my own for the last ten years—making my own meals, going out when I liked. I didn't get into trouble with the police—well, no more than any other kid round our way. The social workers were always hanging around but dad wouldn't have anything to do with them. He was still our old man, even if he was a waste of time. I suppose he loved us, really. Then, last year, he died. We were taken into care—my sister went to a Children’s Home, I ended up at the Assessment Centre.'

‘But ran away,' said Frank.

‘Yeah. It was O.K., I suppose. The people there were kind enough. You got four meals a day, clean clothes and a roof over your head. But Christ Frank, I don't live that way, don't ever want to. They wouldn't let me do what I wanted, wouldn't let me go out or anything. They've got no right to treat me like that, have they?'

Frank sighed. The boy had a point. That was the trouble with social workers and the like, always trying to impose their values onto other people. Why the hell couldn't they just accept human beings at their face value? Peter was apparently at his happiest doing his own thing, eating and sleeping when he liked. He seemed to have done pretty well on it. They had no right to make him like them, none at all.

‘The trouble is,' Frank said, now. ‘You are an absconder, a runner, as you call it. I'm breaking the law just by having you in here.'

‘I'll bloody well go, then,' stormed Peter, jumping to his feet. His eyes blazed with anger and with hurt.

Frank laid his hand on the boy's shoulder.

‘Calm down! I wouldn't have asked you here if I hadn't wanted to help.'

Peter was placated.

‘Sorry, Frank. I'm just jumpy. I've been sleeping rough for the last few days. Then, yesterday, when I went to the Supermarket, the police were there, waiting for me. I gave them the slip but I can't go back there again. I wouldn't mind but they owe me a week's wages.'

‘What are you going to do, then?' asked Frank.

‘I've got another job, at a farm five or six miles inland. The farmer says I can sleep in the barn. At least I'll be warm for a while.'

He crossed slowly to the front door and looked back at Frank.

‘You won't turn me in, will you?'

Frank shook his head.

‘No, Peter, I won't do that. You've got a right to live your own life, I suppose. I still think you'd be better off going back to school—to that Assessment Centre place. You're still only fourteen years old, you know. You still need someone to look after you.'

Frank paused; for some strange, inexplicable reason the image of his dead wife flashed swiftly across his mind.

‘Everybody,' he murmured, ‘everybody needs someone.'

‘I've got you, haven't I?' said Peter.

For some time after the boy had left Frank pondered on Peter's remark. He hadn't thought of it before—at least, not coldly or dispassionately—but he did care about the boy. Somehow, Peter seemed to fill a gap in his life. Almost without knowing it he had been looking forward to their daily meetings on the beach, needing them as much, if not more, than the boy himself. Peter should be reported to the police, should be sent back to the Assessment Centre. But he knew he did not have the slightest intention of turning him in.

Since his wife had died Frank had led a lonely, isolated existence. They had had no children and their friends and acquaintances in the town were no use at the times when loneliness hit hardest—that early morning hour, for instance, when there was nothing to do except sit and smoke.

‘Yes, laddie,' Frank mumbled to himself. ‘You have got me.'

*      *      *

For four weeks all went well. Each Tuesday, his day off, Peter came over to see the old man. Sometimes they sat quietly on the beach, talking and throwing stones into the ever encroaching tide. At other times they went on long, exhausting walks around the coast. One day, sitting on a cliff, high over the rolling Atlantic, Peter lay back and smiled.

‘This is good,' he sighed. ‘This is what life is all about.'

‘You should be in school', said Frank.

‘Why? They can't teach me anything I can't teach myself. And then, you help me.'

Frank laughed.

‘What the devil have I taught you?' he asked.

‘Lots. You've taught me all about the sea and country. How to light fires, how to cook rabbits—all sorts of things. And that book you loaned me—I've read it.'

Frank grinned and lit his pipe.

"‘That book" was the "Collected Poems" of Dylan Thomas. What did you think of it?'

‘I don't know,' said Peter. ‘Some of it was very beautiful. But there were parts of it I couldn't understand.'

‘There are parts of it no-one can understand,' said Frank. ‘Don't let that worry you. I've always liked poetry—all my life. Now I've retired I don't seem to read much else. And that's something worth remembering, lad. Whatever they say to you, whatever you have to do to keep body and soul together, you can still be your own man. At the end of the day you're the one who makes the decisions. Nobody else.' Peter looked puzzled.

‘Think about it', said Frank. ‘And we'll go through the Dylan Thomas next time you come.'

But the following week the boy did not turn up. All day long Frank paced the street and beach, waiting and willing Peter to arrive. He felt strangely disquieted, a premonition of disaster nagging away like a sick headache at the back of his skull. Only as the day drew out, as summer's blue turned red, then grey, then black, did he finally shuffle into the house. Quietly he closed the door behind him.

Peter did not re-appear. Slowly the days lengthened into weeks but still there was no sign of the boy. Frank was torn a dozen different ways — part of him saying the boy had been picked up by the police, part of him dreading a fatal accident. And then, perhaps worst of all, there was the terrible thought that Peter had finally grown tired of his company, had moved on to pastures new.

One evening, three weeks after the boy had gone missing, Frank called in to the pub at the end of his road. It was raining heavily and a cold, icy wind blew in from the sea. The pub was empty apart from the barman and, in the corner, the policeman Frank had spoken to on the jetty some weeks before.

‘Hello, Frank,' the policeman greeted him. ‘How are you feeling?'

‘Oh, not so good of late, Jim,' the old man replied. ‘But then, you can't expect much else at my age. Old bones, old body.'

‘Likely bloody story—you're strong as an ox. It's that lad, isn't it?'

Jim smiled as Frank looked up, startled.

‘He sends his regards.'

‘You've seen him?' exclaimed Frank, clutching at the policeman's arm in his excitement.

‘Yes, I've seen him. We took him back to his Community Home last week—picked him up just outside town. He'd been on the run again, ever since our lads visited that farm he'd been staying at.'

‘Is he all right?'

‘Seemed O.K. Mad as hell we'd finally got him, mind you. Fought like the devil at first but he calmed down after a while. By the time we got him back he seemed fairly relaxed—resigned, I suppose. Quite talkative, really. I don't suppose those people at that place have got any magic wands but, if he gives it a chance, I reckon he'll make out. He's certainly smart enough.'

‘I'm glad,' said Frank, sitting at his usual place next to the fire. ‘He's a nice kid.'

‘By the way, he gave me a message for you—sounded like gibberish to me. He said he's got your Dylan Thomas and can he keep it? Then there was something about being his own man. And he'd like you to keep in touch.'

Frank smiled and nodded his head, slowly.

"Do you know what he meant?' asked Jim, finishing his drink and moving to the door.

Frank said nothing but nodded his head once again. He gazed intently into the bright, enveloping flames of the fire.

‘I've got his address at the station,' Jim grinned. ‘Call round tomorrow and I'll give it to you.'

‘I will,' Frank mumbled. ‘I will.'

Suddenly the evening seemed considerably brighter. It was as if a weight, huge and crippling, had been lifted from his shoulders. Peter would be all right. He would go through the system, find people to relate to, taking all the benefits they could give. Because he was Peter he would give something back in return, but at the end of the day he would still control his own destiny.

‘Give me a whisky, Fred,' he called, suddenly, to the barman.

‘Celebrating, Frank?'

‘You could say so. Tell me, Fred, have you ever read any Dylan Thomas?'

And in his mind he was already composing the first few lines of his letter to Peter.