Read Home Boys Online

Authors: Bernard Beckett

Home Boys

 

IMAGINE

you live in London immediately following the Second World War. Imagine you’ve been told to pack your bag, but not told where you’re going. Or for how long. Imagine you are sent halfway across the world because someone thinks it will be better for you.

 

This is what happened to Colin. This is his story. And Dougal’s.

 

Bernard Beckett’s powerful novel
Home Boys
captures the world of two boys on the run. Two boys who need each other. Two boys in search of a place to belong.

 

An exceptional story; tender as it is brutal, spirited as it is heartbreaking.

Bernard Beckett

Home Boys
 
 

HISTORICAL NOTE:

 

In the period immediately following the Second World War the British Government, aided by various welfare agencies, pursued a policy of relocating ‘needy’ children to the colonies. Some of the children subsequently packed off to start new lives in Canada, Australia and New Zealand were orphans. Many were not. History has shown the move to be as brutal as it was optimistic. The children involved have come to be known as ‘The Lost Generation’.

C
OLIN knew there was something wrong. Dad looked away, stared back at the range, stacked with wood since morning, waiting to be lit. The other man, the stranger,
acknowledged
Colin with only the smallest nod of his head. Colin stayed at the doorway. It was cold outside; the London fog had scraped his lungs raw on the walk back from school and turned his ears bright red. Inside was a different sort of cold; the cold in the wool of the black jacket the stranger hadn’t taken off, in the water of the unheated kettle, for the cup of tea that hadn’t been offered, in the silence that now descended.

Colin removed his cap and stared down at his shoes. He thought of all the reasons a man like this, dressed in the way of men who walked the streets of a different part of town, might be standing so uncomfortably in their small sitting room. What did undertakers wear? Maybe Jeffrey, his older brother who was in the army, and had lived through three years of war, had been killed crossing the road, in the first year of peace time. That wouldn’t be so unusual, for their family. Colin didn’t speak. He waited to be spoken to. It wasn’t politeness, he had learnt
to be cautious. He could smell the trouble coming. He had nothing to say.

The man looked at Colin, and then to Dad, as if he hoped someone else might start the conversation. Dad wouldn’t help. He sank deeper into his chair, and although his thick lips were set halfway between open and closed, and a dimple formed on his stubbled chin, there would be no sound.

‘Ahem, ah, Colin.’ The stranger tried to smile, but it was more like a spasm, as if his neck tie had suddenly tightened and choked it out of him. ‘My name is Mr Hedges.’

‘Say hello,’ Dad mumbled.

‘Hello.’ Without looking up, Colin’s left foot swinging,
scuffing
the top of his other shoe. Biting his lip. But not scared of crying. He didn’t cry.

‘Yes. Well, I am from the Union of Churches Relocation Committee, and I have been speaking about you, with your father.’

He said it slowly, as if he thought Colin was simple, same as Dad.

‘Have you ever been on a boat Colin?’

Once. Colin and Gwynn had sneaked on board a ship that was unloading food down at the docks. The man who found them had given both a good hiding. A short man, Colin
remembered
, and wide, with great hairy arms and a foul smelling mouth that spoke words Colin had never heard before. The exact opposite to the man who was now waiting for an answer. Colin didn’t mention it.

‘Well then, tomorrow we have a treat for you. Tomorrow you will be going aboard a ship.’ The man bent down as he said the last bit, as if sharing an exciting secret. Now he straightened
and turned to Dad, who the whole time hadn’t moved.

‘He is to be at the docks at seven thirty sharp Mr Winter. Good day.’

The stranger took his hat from the back of the chair he had chosen not to sit in, placed it carefully on his head and smiled, as if quietly proud of a job well done.

‘I can show myself out.’

Colin watched him go, stooping at the low doorway,
pausing
before closing the door to pull his coat tighter around him, leaving all this new trouble behind.

‘Who was that Dad?’ Colin demanded. Dad didn’t answer. But Colin wasn’t some embarrassed stranger. He and Dad had danced this dance every day he could remember. Colin rounded the chair and stood before him, leaning down so their faces were only inches apart.

‘Dad. I said who was that?’

‘Eh?’

‘That man. What did he want Dad? What did he tell you?’

Other people got Dad wrong. You just had to be patient, but that was the hard part. Especially times like this, with trouble looming and knowing twice as important, when having a dad like this just didn’t seem fair.

‘Just talking.’

‘Why am I going on a boat Dad?’

‘Get us some chips will ya?’

‘I’ll get them when you tell me why I’m to go on a boat.’

‘Get us some chips.’

Colin pulled up the other chair so they were sitting face to face.

‘Its comfortable here isn’t it Dad? I think I might wait in a
while. Tell me when you’re getting hungry.’

* * *

Getting chips meant getting money, or getting Gwynn. Colin knocked at the door and looked up as it opened. He had
already
retreated back down the steps, in case Gwynn’s mother was in one of her moods.

‘Hello Mrs Morgan. Is Gwynn there please?’

Gwynn’s mother wiped her thick hands on her apron and stared him down.

‘What have I told you about coming around here when it’s so near tea time?’

‘Sorry Mrs Morgan, really I am. It’s just there’s a school thing I need to check. I wasn’t listening in class today, when we were given our homework for History you see….’ Colin caught sight of Gwynn in the background but didn’t dare return the grin. ‘Um, I can see you’re very busy, of course you are. I won’t keep you any longer. It’s not so important really. Goodbye then. Sorry.’

Colin backed slowly down the path. Mrs Morgan remained in the doorway, her face painted with distrust, her wide frame seemingly unworried by the cold.

Colin walked four houses to the end of the row, turned left up the side street and scaled the brick fence which blocked the back of the alleyway. A rubbish bin that hadn’t been there last time caught his foot and a curtain twitched with the clang of it, but he was already gone. Gwynn was waiting for him, perched on the gate at the other end, his legs swinging in time to his tuneless whistle.

‘Watcha.’ He swung his body round and disappeared down
the other side. Colin followed him over.

Gwynn was shorter than Colin and almost as skinny. He was stronger than he looked though, and quick. Quicker than any other fourteen-year-old boy Colin knew.

‘I need to get some chips, for Dad.’

‘Righto.’

‘Shall we try Smiths?’

‘He said he’ll call my mum if he even sees me near the shop again, and I think he will.’

‘Not scared of a thrashing from your mum are ya?’

‘Course I am. So are you. Anyways, he won’t fall for it twice.’

‘So where haven’t we done for a while?’ Colin asked, though he knew the answer.

‘There’s across the park.’

‘Suppose we could.’ Colin tried to make it sound like the thought of it didn’t worry him.

‘All right then,’ Gwynn agreed, not mentioning the
problems
either. Like Mr Charlton, who ran the shop, and would enjoy hurting them if he could. You could tell it just by looking at him. Or his son, who was old enough to have gone to the war but never did, and was fast enough to catch them, if they were unlucky enough to find him working there. But problems are only problems if you mention them. That was their rule.

‘Who’s turn is it to go in the back then?’ Gwynn asked, when they reached the gateway at the other end of the park. As if he didn’t know.

‘Yours.’

‘All right. But don’t you let him see you looking in.’

‘I never do.’

‘That’s a lie.’

‘It was an accident.’

‘Where shall we meet up?’

‘Back at the alley?’

‘Good plan. He won’t follow us that far.’

Colin watched his friend cross the road. The chippie was third in a block of four. The post office held the corner, next to it was a green grocer, and the off-licence was on the other side. Behind them ran another narrow alley, where Gwynn would soon be. Colin knew how that felt, crouching beneath the wooden fence at the back of the yard, listening for any sounds of danger, plucking up the courage to haul himself up. He was glad it was Gwynn’s turn.

Colin walked further down the road before crossing and took up his postion next to the bus stop, with a narrow view of the shop. Luckily there were no customers. Sometimes you’d get one who liked to be a hero. Mr Charlton was behind the
counter
, sitting down with his newspaper. Colin waited for the noise. Smashing glass usually worked, if you could find any, or maybe Gwynn’d push over a bin.

The sound was loud enough to rip holes in the evening air. A dog, or maybe two, barking and snarling, with Gwynn backed up terrified in a corner, or maybe still smiling, taunting them from atop a fence. Mr Charlton moved straight away. Colin was certain he saw a smile on his fat face as he left. Colin raced through the front door of the shop, trying to ignore the savage sounds of man and animal.

The counter was low enough to hurdle and the chip tray was half-full. Colin ripped off two sheets of newspaper and scooped the chips out with his hands, a hot greasy mound, plenty
enough for the three of them. He was almost done when the bell on the front door sounded. A lady he didn’t recognise walked in and smiled across the counter.

‘Good evening. I’d like…’

‘Sorry Missus, it’s help yourself tonight.’ Colin cleared the counter and bounded past before her expression had time to change. The sound of barking was still in his ears as he sped across the street and on to the damp grass of the common. What if they had Gwynn caught? It’d never been discussed. There weren’t any rules for it. So he kept running, the way his legs wanted him to.

Gwynn had managed not only to escape but also to beat him back, and if the dogs had frightened him he looked well over it.

‘Took your time.’

‘I was picking out the crisp ones. I know you like them best.’

‘Did you hear the dog?’

‘No.’

‘Oh, you must have you bugger. It was huge.’

‘Tied up though I bet.’

‘Tied up me arse. I had to jump up on top of two crates. I was sure they were going to topple. Mr Charlton caught a good look of me too. He’s a mean one. I won’t be going back there.’

‘Fair enough. Here, save some for me Dad.’

‘Don’t see him here helping.’

‘I’m helping on his behalf.’

‘And I’m helping on me own behalf. Here, give us another handful. I’d best be getting back for my tea.’

‘See ya tomorrow then.’

‘You going to school?’

‘Afternoon probably. Dad’s taking me to see some ship in the morning.’

‘How come?’

‘Dunno. He wouldn’t say.’

* * *

They caught a bus down to the docks, but it wasn’t the bus’ fault they were late. That was Dad, remembering at the last minute how Colin was meant to take clothes with him, and then trying to pack the bag himself, when Colin refused to do it.

‘Don’t be daft. It’s only a morning on a boat. What sort of gear could I need?’

‘You need another shirt. Where do you keep the shirts?’

‘I’m going without you then. Put that bag down.’

‘Where’s your shirts?’

Dad shouted it, the way he always did when the world slipped out of reach. But he could never find the breath for the volume he wanted and his voice would break up into wheezing before the idea was complete. Then his old eyes filled with tears. Sometimes they came to nothing more, just set across his eyeballs; small, perfectly expressed puddles of sadness. Other times they cut loose, streamed down his face, and he wouldn’t wipe them away, or act like he understood where they came from. And either way, Colin would look at his Dad, with his mouth half open like he was waiting for the world to fill him with words, and Colin’s heart would ache at the sight of it. Times like that he knew he would do anything for him.
Almost
. Maybe not this though. Maybe not the only thing going on board a ship with a bag full of clothes could mean.

‘Dad, why do I need clothes?’

‘Where’s your shirts?’

‘Who’ll look after you Dad, if you send me away?’

Dad wouldn’t look at him, and Colin didn’t trust himself to get any closer, or say anything more. So he picked up the bag from the floor and stuffed in anything that came to hand, while Dad stayed in the background, mumbling half-remembered items from a list that made no sense.

So they were late to the docks. The other children were already organised into a group, each with their own bag of goodbye quiet at their feet. The man from the day before stood in front of them, a clipboard in his hand, consulting in urgent whispers with a large woman who nodded her approval as every point was made. Behind them the boat leant its dark weight against the wharf. A wooden gangway led up to the deck and other, adult passengers were already boarding. The man
noticed
Colin and Dad and immediately strode towards them, his chin jutting out, as frail as it was self-important.

‘Mr Winter, you’re very late.’

He spoke to Dad as if he was a child, and Dad responded in kind, mumbling his apology into the ground.

‘It wasn’t his fault,’ Colin told the man. ‘It was me. I forgot something.’

‘Speak when you are spoken to, aah,’ he checked his
clipboard
, ‘Colin. Now, you are to join the others, over there, take your bag with you.’

He stared down at Colin and Colin stared back. Yesterday he disliked this man. Today it had grown to hating.

‘Away you go then.’

‘I think I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to see on the boat after all.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ The mans eyes bulged. ‘Do you have any idea what sort of an opportunity is being offered to you here?’

No, I don’t, Colin wanted to say. Nobody tells me anything. But Mr Hedges had turned on them and was hurrying back to the others where the big woman was struggling to hold on to the wrist of a girl with tight curls and a savage scowl.

‘I think we should just go home now Dad,’ Colin pressed. ‘Come on.’

‘No, you’re going on that boat.’ Dad spoke to his shoes, the way he did whenever he was out in public. It made it hard to argue with him.

‘Come on Dad, I don’t want to.’

‘You’re going.’ Dad shook his head, still not looking up.

‘How long will I be gone for? I told Gwynn I’d be seeing him this afternoon.’

Colin knew the answer. He could feel it in the weight of his bag, he could see it in the eyes of the other children, huddled in a group as if for protection, and in the way Dad wasn’t the only adult there looking to the ground. He knew how much the question was hurting Dad, but he asked it again, because he was hurting too.

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