‘This is to be your bed, Charlie.’ Nurse Gillane led him to the narrow bed with its iron frame. One of about ten in a long room. The room was painted a shiny green. It was very cold.
‘You can put your things into the locker,’ she said, ‘and leave your boots beneath the bed.’
Charlie’s things consisted of his pyjamas, some clothes and a photograph of his mother and a man who was his father. Well, Mama said he was his father. Charlie didn’t remember him. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform, and looked just like so many of the men in Charlie’s town. Mama said that he was killed in the war. He was a hero.
‘You can be a hero too Charlie! You be a brave boy now, and when the war is over we’ll be together. Just the two of us. There, how grown up you look in your new boots.’
She had just bought him new winter boots. Heavy black leather, laced beyond his ankles, and with studs on the soles, which he could make spark when he struck them off the pavement. They were too big for him, but she said he would grow into them.
‘By the time you come back home, they’ll be just right size for you. But mind you don’t scuff the toes now. You have to look after them, so that they’ll last until you come home.’
She had kissed him then, and he had got on to the train with the other children. They were the most important thing, his boots. While he kept his boots safe, he was linked with his mother and his home.
Charlie remembered little of his journey. Noise, confusion, darkness. The whistle of the train, the rocking motion which soon put him to sleep. The long boat journey during which he was sick. The panic as he tried to clean the vomit from the front of his boots. And then being brought to this long grey building, with lots of other children and lots of nurses with red crosses on their fronts.
Over the next few weeks, Charlie did as he was told, said as little as possible, and tried not to be homesick for his mother. He did all the jobs he was told to do, he paid attention in the classes which were set up in one of the rooms of the building, and he ate the food which was put in front of him. Each morning, as soon as the bell to wake the boys rang out, Charlie jumped out of bed to check if his boots were still there. As soon as he put on the boots, the cold, raw feeling which had been with him all night seeped away, and he felt a measure of security. While his boots were safe, he knew his mother would come for him.
The months went by, and gradually the number of children in the building grew less. ‘We’re finding foster homes for them,’ Nurse Gillane explained. Charlie hoped they would not find one for him. What if Mama came searching for him and found him gone? And then, one morning, Charlie was called to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent had a letter in front of him.
‘Well Charlie. How have you been getting on here?’
‘And you’ve been happy enough?’
‘Good, good.’ The man looked awkward and ill at ease. Charlie knew there was more to come.
‘You see this letter?’
Charlie glanced quickly at the letter. Black typing. Heavy paper. Official looking.
‘The thing is, Charlie. You have to be brave. Very brave ….’
Charlie knew then. He knew it from the flutter in his stomach. From the trembling that shook his knees.
‘You see, she knew, Charlie. She knew that she had only months to live. That’s why she wanted you to be here … in safe hands. She knew we’d take good care of you Charlie. And we will. We will.’
Charlie looked down at his boots. She had made him a promise. The boots were still shiny and barely scuffed. He took such care of them. He would not let anyone touch them. He never let them out of his sight. But now, she was not coming for him. He would never be going back. Who else was there to go back to? There had only been him and Mama. And she had promised. The shaking that had started in his knees now took over his body, his hands, his teeth. He couldn’t stop shaking. The superintendent rose, and coming around to his side of the desk, put his arm across Charlie’s shoulder.
‘There, there, boy. Don’t cry now. Be brave. We must all be brave at times like this. Nurse Gillane will look after you for the moment. You like Nurse Gillane, don’t you?’
‘Yes. Well, she’ll take care of you. Until we decide what’s to happen. I’ll call her now Charlie. You wait there. There’s a brave lad. She’ll know what to do.’
* * *
The train journey seemed to go on for ever, but Charlie didn’t want it to end. He sat on a lumpy seat by the window, a window so caked in dirt that it was like looking at everything through a fog. Across the carriage from him was a brightly coloured picture, beneath which it said ‘The Lakes of Killarney’. A man and a woman sat in the seat opposite him. The man smoked a pipe which sent out waves of strong smelling smoke. The woman was knitting, and every now and then she would put the knitting on her lap, lean over towards Charlie and ask ‘Are you alright son? You’re not feeling sick?’ Then, without waiting for an answer, she would continue her knitting. Charlie hunched into his seat and closed his eyes. He wondered where he was going to, but didn’t really care. Fostered. That was what happened to the other boys who had disappeared. Some were excited, most were crying. But none of them had ever returned to the grey building.
‘A lovely couple in the West.’ Nurse Gillane had cleared out his locker, and helped him to pack his things back into his little brown suitcase.
‘They’ve no children of their own, and want a little boy to help them on the farm. You’re so lucky Charlie! Do you understand how lucky you are Charlie?’ She gave his boots a little wipe with his handkerchief, and slicked down his blond hair.
‘What I wouldn’t give to get out of the city and have all that fresh air!’
Charlie knew nothing of the country or fresh air. He and his mother. Up three flights of stairs to their home. One room that overlooked a city grey with industry. Tall chimneys belching smoke. Cars, buses, trams…noise that was comforting in its ever presence. People everywhere, hurrying, busy, purposeful.
He opened his eyes now. He didn’t want to think of his mother. Of their life before all this happened. It was raining over the countryside. Mountains loomed out of their misty shrouds. Sometimes a burst of sunshine filtered through, to light up the vivid greenness of the fields. A rainbow hung like a child’s drawing, touching down behind a cluster of tiny houses.
‘Are you being met son?’ The knitting woman and her husband got up, gathering together their many bags and boxes.
‘Yes, thank you. I’m going to the west. To be fostered.’ Charlie heard his voice, as if it came from someone else.
‘You poor mite.’ The woman shook her head, and mouthed something at her husband, who nodded, and said to Charlie, ‘Isn’t that fine for you. That’ll put a bit of brawn on you.’
The woman pressed a coin into Charlie hand.
‘That’s for luck son,’ she whispered. Then they got out at a one building station, and once more the train hissed on its journey.
There was nobody in the carriage now, and Charlie stretched out, putting his feet on the seat opposite. He closed his eyes.
* * *
‘Here you are lad! Out you get. There’ll be someone to meet you here.’ The guard shook Charlie by the shoulder. Guiltily, Charlie removed his feet from the seat.
‘Are we in the West?’
‘As west as you can go, boy…unless you want to jump in the Atlantic.’
The guard handed him down his case, and Charlie stood on what seemed to be a deserted platform, wondering what would happen next. A cold, grey, drizzle seeped from a leaden sky and found its way down the collar of his coat and into the top of his boots. This west was the emptiest looking place he had ever seen. Maybe nobody would meet him. Maybe he was just being abandoned here. But he had been told to wait, and Charlie had always done what he was told, so he waited.
* * *
‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’ Pat shook his head .
‘There’s no going back now.’ Nora turned away from him. It was what he had always wanted, wasn’t it? All those years. All that hoping and longing. But the years went on, and nothing had happened. And the hope had turned to sourness. He never said…Pat wasn’t like that. He was a quiet man. But she had failed him. How can a man work a farm without a son? And what was the point of it? Well, now he would have someone. It would take the burden off her. It would not take away the ache, but it would be someone for Pat.
Pat clicked on the reins, urging the pony to move on. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt tight. Weren’t they alright as they were? He had long ago come to terms with the fact that there would be no children. That was the way it was, and what was the use of wishing your life away? Of course it was different for women. He knew that. He knew how she had lived from month to month, in those early years. But hadn’t they been happy enough together? And now this! Fostering a strange, foreign boy. Was there ever such a daft notion in all the world? Pat let the pony slow down to his customary shuffling gait.
Charlie watched the man approach. As there was nobody else on the platform, this had to be the man who was to meet him, and Charlie looked at him in a detached way. He saw a small man, not much taller than himself, wearing a long grey overcoat, wellington boots, and a cap.
‘You’re Charlie? The man’s blue eyes slid away from Charlie shyly. He took Charlie’s case, and motioned him to follow him out to where the pony was tethered. Charlie climbed on to the wooden cart, and sat on a bundle of sacks behind the man. The sacks were wet, rain glistened on the pony’s rump, and the ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. The man spoke in bursts, shooting out long rambling monologues which made no sense to Charlie. He wondered was this Gaelic? Or some other foreign language? It certainly didn’t sound like the English he had listened to in the grey building outside Dublin, much less the English he had been taught in school. He listened hard at first, then switched off. He clung to the edge of the cart and stared straight ahead. Eventually the man stopped talking. Darkness was creeping across the grey landscape by the time the pony trotted into the yard in front of the farmhouse. The pony shook himself in relief, and Charlie got down , every bone in his body aching. A woman stood at the farmhouse door.
‘You found him alright?’ she said to her husband. She nodded at Charlie.
‘You can call me Nora, and himself Pat, and you’d better come inside, for you look half dead.’
Charlie felt half dead, what with cold and tiredness. At least he could understand this Nora better than the man, and he followed her into the kitchen, where the heat from the fire soon sent clouds of steam rising from his clothes. Nora took his case and his coat, but when she made to remove his boots, he shook his head.
‘You want to do them yourself? Suit yourself. Now sit up there by the fire and have a bite to eat, and then you can go way to bed. Things will look better in the morning.’
In spite of herself, Nora felt sorry for the lad. He was much smaller and younger looking than she had been expecting. And so white and scared. He wouldn’t be much help to Pat anyway. Scrawny little thing, sure he’d never be up to farm work. Still, a couple of weeks they were told, and then they could decide whether or not they wanted to keep him.
Later on, when the boy had eaten and gone up to the attic, where he was to sleep, Nora asked Pat what he thought.
‘He’s a strange class of a lad, to be sure. Never opened his mouth all the way home, and looked like he was going to cry every time I spoke to him.’ Pat shook his head. ‘I don’t know why we’re doing this at all, Nora. We’re too old for this business. And I’d say that boy was born and bred in a city. He knows nothing about farming.’
‘Can’t you be teaching him? He can surely take some of the load off you, can’t he?’
‘We’ll see, we’ll see. ‘
The months passed. Winter yielded to spring, and the greyness of the west peeled back to show its undercoat of greens and purples and blues. Charlie fell into the routine of the farm, rising early to help Pat with the work. Cleaning out stalls, shifting dung, milking cows, harnessing the pony to take the churns to the creamery. All the daylight hours were spent working, so that when darkness came he could go to his attic bedroom and sleep. The two weeks’ trial period had passed. Pat and Nora were happy with him, and he was to start attending the village school after Easter. Charlie fell in with whatever they wanted him to do, and obeyed without question.
‘I never saw the likes of him!’ Nora whispered to Pat as they drank tea by the fire one evening. ‘It’s not natural for a child to be so good.’
‘Maybe when he goes to school he’ll unwind a bit.’ Pat answered.
‘I don’t know … I don’t know. But then, hasn’t he been through the mill? Away from his own country, no family, no home, nothing. Isn’t that enough to touch any young fellow, when you think about it?’
‘Hasn’t he got us now?’
Nora warmed to the statement. She could see that Pat had really taken to Charlie. He didn’t think that she noticed, but she had seen how he watched the boy. How he protected him from the heavier work, how patient he was when Charlie made mistakes, how he encouraged him to eat and to rest more. And in turn, she herself now took more pleasure in cooking meals for her ‘men’. If Nora could win a rare smile from Charlie she felt that all the extra trouble was well worthwhile.
‘Have you seen how he’s filled out? He’s bursting through that jacket of his, and his coat will barely tie on him now.’
‘I know … it’s your grand food Nora. And all the fresh air. Sure what fresh air would they have in them foreign cities? By the end of the summer we won’t know him!’
‘If we still have him at the end of the summer.’ The thought of losing Charlie was suddenly a bleak one.
‘Have you noticed those black boots of his?’ Nora asked.
‘Why wouldn’t I. Isn’t he forever cleaning and scraping the mud off them?’
‘Well, I’m of a mind that they’re squeezing his toes – he’s grown that much. They’ll give him blisters if they’re too small for him. I thought maybe I’d bring him in to Connolly’s shoe shop on Saturday and buy him a new pair. What do you think?’
‘You do that Nora. He’s earned it, God knows’.
Nora sat back pleased, and sighed in anticipation. She and her foster son, shopping in the town together. Charlie’s eyes lighting up. Tommy Connelly bringing out his best, his most expensive leather boots. That’s a fine young fellow you have there Mrs. Ryan. He’s a credit to the both of you!
* * *
‘No thank you.’ His voice was polite, but quite firm.
‘But they must be pinching you, Charlie.’
‘They’re not pinching me. They’re fine.’
‘Now, don’t be silly. You know you need a new pair. And don’t be worrying about the cost…we want to give you a present. Take those off, and we’ll see the size. Sure they must be falling to bits at this stage.’
Nora reached out towards Charlie’s feet. His reaction was instant.
‘No! No! Leave them alone. There’s nothing wrong with my boots! They’re fine. Just leave me alone!’ He sprang up and dashed out of the kitchen, taking the attic stairs two at a time, and banging his bedroom door. He didn’t come down for dinner that evening, and when Nora went to the top of the stairs to call him, she could hear his sobs. She quietly entered the room. He was lying face down on his bed. He continued to cry as she touched his face and stroked his head and murmured endearments to him. ‘Hush, hush. There, there. It’s alright , lad, it’s alright’. He continued to cry on and off throughout the night. Nora stayed with him until he cried himself out and fell into a deep sleep. She pulled the blankets up on him, and tucked them in beneath his blotched face. It was as she was closing his door on her way downstairs that she noticed the strange animal like shape of the boots beneath the covers. She did not remove them.
It was the week before Easter. In two weeks’ time he would be starting in the local school. Charlie sat by the river, his head full of plans. Nora had got him all the books he needed, and Pat had bought him a bicycle, so that he could get into town each morning. He loved cycling. The freedom of whizzing along empty roads, of feeling the wind whistle past his ears. At home he had rarely cycled. ‘It is much too dangerous,’ his mother had said. ‘Maybe when you are older…but the city is not a good place for children on bicycles.’ She had worried about him all the time. She would hold his hand tightly when they went out on the streets together. He remembered her white face, and the coldness of her hands on that day when she had brought him to join those other refugees on their way to Ireland. She knew then that she was going to die. Maybe she knew that he would never be coming back. Charlie closed his eyes, and let himself think about his mother. All those images which he had stifled for so long. He let them in, and examined them. Her long black hair, which she braided into a plait each morning. The way she chewed the end of her pencil as she worked out her budget – always trying to make her money stretch. The smell of her when she kissed him good night. Soap and lavender water. Mama would like it here. She would love the openness, and the colour of the mountains, and the softness of the boggy grass. She would laugh at the curious way the cows stared over the wall, and at the pony’s antics when he was let out of the harness. She would be like a child gathering armfuls of wild flowers from the small wood behind the farm, and pressing them to her face saying ‘Oh, Charlie, smell them! Feel their silkiness!’
Charlie sat up. The sun was hot now, much too hot for the week before Easter. He unlaced his boots, and released his feet, red and sore from their tightness. He spread his toes, and watched as slivers of grass sprang up between them. He felt the tickle of a small insect venturing up the mound of his arch, and down the other side. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear Nora calling to Pat that dinner was ready. He knew he should be getting back to the farm. Nora got cross when they did not eat her food while it was hot. Anyway, it was bacon and cabbage today. He loved bacon and cabbage.
Charlie jumped up. Grabbing his boots by the laces, he swung them over his head, round and round, and flung them into the fast flowing river. He listened for the splash as they hit the water and sank. Then he ran home, barefoot.
Phil Young is a native of Dunmanway in West Cork, and now lives in Dublin. She is the winner of the inauguarl Doolin Short Story Competition. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with an MPhil in Anglo-Irish literature, and has had a number of short stories and articles published in various magazines. She has also been featured several times on the RTÉ Radio programme Sunday Miscellany and is the author of the first ever biography of children’s writer, Patricia Lynch. This biography was launched in Cork as part of the Cork European City of Culture celebrations in 2005. Her first novel entitled IN A PLACE APART was published in September 2009, and she is currently working on her second novel.