Doodlebugs Eric scuffed his shoes impatiently along the kerb edge. His mother had stopped to talk to two other women, about nothing, or nothing of interest to him, anyway.
‘Who’s playing the part of the new Queen in your street?’ one of the women asked.
‘Sheila Naylor. Our Eric’s going to be her page, aren’t you?’
He nodded. He wasn’t looking forward to it. He didn’t like Sheila Naylor. Too bossy. And he certainly didn’t want to be her page boy.
His mum continued. ‘Before the street party Mrs Turner has invited us, and all the Taylors, round to her house. She’s bought a television – especially for the Coronation. She said we can all watch it there.’
‘Look! It’s that Jennings.’ The woman indicated a man cycling towards them. He wore a corduroy zipped jacket and a black beret; grey gabardine trousers were tucked inside his socks. He peered through a pair of glasses that magnified his eyes. A shopping bag dangled from the handle-bars and bumped against his leg as he clanked past them. ‘It’s his mother I feel sorry for.’
‘He’ll be shopping for her. Poor woman.’
Eric looked at the man. He thought he had seen him before in the local park, cycling around, or sitting near the children’s swings.
‘He got sent away last time.’
‘They should do something about it. I heard there’s an operation they can have now. Like the vet can do for your cat. Newting, is it?’
‘Little piggies have big ears, ladies.’ Eric’s mum cocked her head toward Eric. The women nodded and fell silent.
He knew this was something interesting. Eric resumed his journey home with his mum.
‘Sent away, where?’
‘You shouldn’t eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. It’s not polite.’
‘I couldn’t help it. I was standing right next to you. Sent where?’
‘Don’t be so cheeky! You’re getting too cocky, my lad!’
‘He’s been to prison, if you must know.’
Eric brightened. Prison! He must be a gangster then, like James Cagney. With guns.
Tommy-guns. ‘Did he hold up a bank?’
‘No! And I don’t want you to have anything to do with him.’
‘What’s he done?’
‘You don’t need to know. You just need to keep away from him. Do you hear?’
‘But why? Why?’
She ignored him. He continued to ‘why, why, why?’ like a Johnny Ray record stuck in a
groove. His mother shook her head in exasperation. ‘He’s interfered with children your age,
‘What d’you mean?’
She coloured. ‘Interfered … touching them where nobody should … down there. That’s why you need to keep away from him. D’you understand?’ He nodded, but didn’t understand. ‘He’s broken his mother’s heart. I hear she’s in a wheel-chair now.’
‘Where do they live?’
His mother hesitated. ‘Cornwallis Road. The other side of the park. Near where you take your dad’s bets to the bookies.’
‘Is that the woman who sits in the window?’
‘I heard she does. But you keep away from him and that house. You promise.’
‘Yes.’ He remembered the woman. She sat by the downstairs front window looking at passers-by. ‘Is that why she’s in a wheelchair, ’cos she’s got a broken heart?’
‘I dare say. Yes! It’s got a lot to do with it.’
‘Will it get mended again?’
‘It depends on him,’ she said vaguely.
After school, his dad gave him a bet to take to the bookies, and sixpence for doing it. The bookies stood furtively on the corner of Cornwallis Road looking out for the police. He slipped the envelope with the money quickly to one of the men and continued along the road. He saw the woman in the window, staring out. He looked curiously at her; she looked sad. On an impulse, he waved. She hesitated, but waved back.
He began to notice Jennings more, out and about on his bike. Why would he want to touch children ‘down there’?
On Saturday afternoon Eric went to the park with his best friend, Smithy. They wandered around kicking a tennis ball at each other until they reached the swings. The sun had brought people out for the afternoon. They climbed up the chute of the slide until the park-keeper shouted at them to get down and clear off. ‘You look like Hitler,’ they shouted back at the man, giving him a Nazi salute.
The boys wandered to the paddling pool, took off their shoes and socks and ran through the water, splashing at each other. Mothers with children at the pool ‘tut-tutted’ at them; one went to get the park-keeper, who advanced on them again, this time as fast as his limp would allow. They grabbed their socks and shoes and ran.
Smithy had to go back home, so Eric dribbled the ball across to the lake. He leaned on the railings throwing gravel from the path onto the grass. A few ducks and a swan came to him in anticipation of food, but soon padded away in disgust. He saw an ice cream man on his bike and went across. He searched his pockets, but only had four of the six pennies he needed. A queue of children and their parents had formed and Eric hovered on the edge, hoping someone would guess he needed two more pennies. Adults seemed to know these things just by looking at you.
‘Do you want an ice cream?’ Eric jumped in shock. Jennings had come from behind; he was pushing his bike. Despite the heat, the man was dressed in the same thick clothes. There was a whiff of stale socks about him. Eric hesitated. ‘Or you can have a lolly. That’s what I’m having. I can get us both one. What colour do you want? I’m getting a yellow one. Lemon. Same for you?’
Jennings got them both a lolly. ‘It’s hot, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you before. What’s your name? Let’s sit down and watch the ducks.’
They both sat at a bench overlooking the lake. Eric sucked on his lolly. Jennings pointed out the different wildfowl. ‘That’s a Mallard. And there’s a pair of Teals.’ He seems alright, thought Eric, maybe a bit doolally – like that kid at school who wandered around picking his nose.
Jennings asked him, ’How old are you?’
‘Nine, nearly ten.’
‘Nine! You’re a big boy now. Do you have any pets?’
‘We had a dog, Butch. But we had to put him to sleep.’
‘That’s a shame. I like dogs. What school do you go to?’
‘The Holy Family.’
‘Do you like it there?’
Eric shrugged. ‘I’ve got to go home now.’
‘What time’s your tea?’
‘It depends. About six tonight, as it’s Saturday.’
‘That’s a long time off. Would you like some chips? They’ll keep you going until teatime.’
‘Go on! Look, you stay here. I’ll be right back with some chips. I won’t be long.’
Jennings mounted his bicycle and rode away. Eric was torn. His mum had told him to keep away from him. But he would just eat some chips; there was no harm in that. And Jennings was just talking a lot of stuff about ducks, that’s all.
Eric waited for a while, but when Jennings did not return, he wandered off. He walked toward the rough ground of the ‘Squatters’ at the edge of the park, where the pre-fab houses had been demolished. He liked it there. It was like a scene from a war film, with rubble everywhere and thick undergrowth growing from the foundations.
He heard the clanking of the bike from behind. Jennings was pedalling fast toward him. ‘There was a queue. I’ve got the chips, and some Dandelion and Burdock. Let’s sit over there.’ He indicated a low mound of earth near a tree.
They sat down. Jennings passed the bottle to Eric, who took a long draught. The pop fizzed and teased his nose. Jennings passed him some chips on a sheet of newspaper. They were hot, fat, salty, dripping with vinegar, the way he liked them.
‘Do you know about this place?’ Jennings asked.
‘In the war, weren’t it?’
‘Yes, people got bombed out around the docks, so they built this place,
temporary, like, for them. There were over a hundred houses here. The
council knocked them all down when they built the new estate.’
‘Didn’t it get bombed round here?’
‘Yes, we had our share. But not like at the docks. A doodlebug fell right
‘I’d liked to have seen a bomb go off.’
‘You wouldn’t have liked it, I can tell you.’ Jennings began to talk about
the war. He had worked at the munitions factory, so hadn’t been called up,
and cycled around on his days off looking for shrapnel after the bombing
raids. ‘I’ve still got a pile of it in my shed.’
Eric listened, fascinated. But he became aware that Jennings had put
his hand lightly on his bare knee. Jennings continued to talk: about the
whistle of the doodlebugs before they exploded. ‘Phweeeee.’ He imitated
the fall of the bomb, stroking the boy’s knee as the bomb fell. ‘Bang!’
He had shifted his hand to the boy’s thigh, above the edge of his short
Eric felt his heart thumping. He half turned to look at Jennings. The
man’s glasses had misted and there was a film of sweat on his face. The
man’s hand continued to creep up the boy’s leg, stroking it. ‘Phweeeee.’
‘Is your mum’s heart better now?’ Eric asked.
Jennings jumped. His hand slid back down the boy’s trousers.‘What d’you mean?’
‘How did you break her heart? Is it mending again?’
The man stared at the boy. Tears welled in his eyes. ‘Do you know my mother?’
‘I wave to her.’
‘You know where I live?’
‘Yes. But how did you break her heart? If it mends, will she be able to walk again?’
Jennings’s face crumpled; tears flowed in silver streaks from the edges of his glasses. He got up and wheeled his bike away, weeping loudly.
Eric watched him go, his feelings a mix of relief, bewilderment and scorn. He had never seen a man cry before. He finished the chips and drank what was left of the Dandelion and Burdock.