* 2nd Prize Winner in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition *
My boy Will come back last month.
I went up on the train to see him in the hospital, big new place in Birmingham. Six weeks before he gets home, they said. And then he'll have to take it quiet, not do too much. Not for a while.
I say my boy but that don't seem right no more. It's Will's name on the end of the bed, but it's not my lad lying there, like. Someone different, they got Will's name up by mistake.
I won't say it wasn't a shock, like, seeing him that first time.
All he said was: “Thanks for coming, Dad,” when I got there, and then he didn't say much else the rest of the time. I sat with him, just quiet. Once, he says: “Pass me the water, would you, Dad?” and I passed him the glass so he could reach it, I put his hand round it, watched him while he drank a bit. I had to go soon after that because of the doctor wanting to see him.
We called him Will, his mum and me, after Prince William. We reckoned he was better-looking though, growing up, everyone thought that, it wasn't just we was his mum and dad.
Derek, at the factory, does nights, he lost his brother, only been married three years. There's a good few of us at work got family affected, one way or another. A lot of the lads round here go in the Army, not much for the youngsters to do these days, things closing down all over.
They say next year the troops'll be coming home. I've not followed it all, what's gone on, why they went out there to start with, they was always saying something new. But there's plenty said different, our Leanne for one.
“How's our Leanne?” Will says that second time I'm up there. “How's she getting on with them clever types at college?” I was sitting quiet, like, in his room, neither of us talking much. Nice room.
He was a lovely boy – fair hair, blond almost, same as his mum, brown eyes. She spoilt him terrible. We called him Will after the Prince.
My girl Leanne, she's the one with the brains, just started at uni. Studying History, reading History she's pleased to call it. So there's Will out there fighting, part of the history, like, and our Leanne studying up about it all. They was always scrapping as kids, she was out to prove she could do what her older brother did and more, we couldn't ever stop them, but now Will's - now things is the way they are, Leanne's quite different with him, can't do enough, like she's making up for all the wars they had. She didn't go in the Army same as him though, not her style.
She visits him regular. Very upset she was, that first time.
* * *
I don't recall much history from school. Churchill and the War, we thought that was the best part, the Tudors and Stuarts didn't mean a lot to us lads back then. ”You ought to know more about it, Dad, fix up an evening class or something,” Leanne says, serious, like, the way she is, but I'd not fit in, all them ladies. Not my style.
I used to like a good book, anything with a bit of a mystery I could work out, who-dunnits and such. But I can't get into them these days, keep losing track, not sleeping too well neither. No good getting into bed and lying there staring at the ceiling. I picked up one of Leanne's she'd left lying about, she said it was on the radio. It’s a great thick one, but the chapters is quite short.
“I think you'd enjoy it, Dad,” she tells me, “it's about things people have made, the same as you did, ordinary people quite often.” There’s photographs and pictures, maps and such all through it. Like I said, she’s the brains of the family. Not much of a looker, skinny little thing, not like her brother, but always top of her class at school.
It was the pictures got me interested. When the kids was small I took to making toys for them, carving bits of wood I got from work, models for Will, helping him put them together, making 'em go. Bits and pieces for the train set and the dolls' house and such. Knocked up a rabbit hutch for the neighbours' lot. Always been good with my hands, making things, it was a hobby, like, and they went down a treat with all the kids. Don't know where they've finished up now, them bits of things I made.
My Tess was always telling me to get rid of the dust and mess, clear it all up. But she was pleased with them too, her face was a picture. “You've got hidden talents, George,” she says.
In this book, the pictures was of carvings, pots, all sorts, chessmen, things people made, just ordinary things sometimes, but they was important, at least that's what they think these days. A History of the World in 100 Objects it's called. I says to Leanne there must be more than a hundred objects in the history of the world, there's a good few lying around in your room, I says, sharp, like, but “it's about what they mean in terms of human progress, Dad,” she tells me. Made me think about Will, still up there in the hospital.
Looking through the pictures is a treat. Swimming Reindeer - lovely bit of carving, that - Jade Dragon Cup, Double-headed Serpent. Makes you want to read up about them all. So now I'm reading History too, like.
I picked out this chapter, Indus Seal, about some things they found up in India and Pakistan, near where Will was fighting, that's why it caught my eye, I looked it up on the map. Me and the wife was planning a holiday in India a few years back, palaces and forts, the Taj Mahal, elephants and such. Not my style, but Tess liked all that kind of thing.
That would've been our twentieth, Tess wanted something special, said she always fancied a trip to India. Like a kid herself, sometimes, she was. “'Peacocks and Palaces', George,” she reads out, looking through the booklet. “That's the one for us. We're going to see the world, George,” she tells me, her face was a picture.
Twenty-five it would've been, next month. Sweet girl she was, my Tess, when I fell for her, brown eyes same as Will, fair hair, just the same. Took to putting streaks in it later, different colour each week.
I won't say it wasn't a shock, like, when she passed away so sudden. Very sudden, it all was.
“You take care of the kids, George,” she says, last thing.
* * *
Now Will's back home, the nights is the worst. He wakes up sweating and screaming, shaking all over. Next day he's lying there staring at the ceiling. That first night I heard all the noise and I went in his room, saw what was happening. I tried to hold him quiet, calm him down, put my arms round him, they didn't go all round, he's a good bit bigger than me, been bigger since he was fourteen. I got him better after a bit, fumbling about, awkward, like, talking to him, anything I could think of, football results, next door's goings on, anything. Just holding him, in the dark, it was something deep, like, just a boy and his dad, might've been any time, any place in the world. I'd not done nothing like that since he was a lad and he fell off his bike, hurt his knees. Always left that side of things to the wife.
“Thanks Dad,” he says, a bit later. Just that. “Thanks, Dad. OK now.”
This chapter in the book was about the ruins they found up there, towns, big ones, no-one knew about them for thousands of years till Victorian times and there's a lot they still don't know, they've not found much written down. But they never discovered no fortifications, nothing military, like, and the houses was all the same, not great villas for the rich and hovels for the poor. It was planned out, proper plumbing and such. The seals was used in trade with the other countries around, so they knew how to do all right without the fighting. Working things out, democratic, like, not going to war.
Another night I go in his room, the light's on, he's still sitting in his chair, two in the morning. “I don't want to go to sleep, Dad,” he says, “I don't want them bad dreams again.”
Twenty-one last year, he was. They patched him up in the hospital, but there's not a lot of assistance with the rest of it now he's back home. He'll not see the doctor. “I've seen enough of them doctors,” he tells me. “Dish out a lot of pills.” So it's down to me to see him through, there isn't anyone else going to. It's what my Tess would have wanted.
No-one knows how it was there back in them days - there’s not much written down. It's mostly just the seals they’ve found, for trading, quite small, with the strange animals carved on. There's one like a unicorn, and there's an elephant, and the marks, different shapes, no-one knows what they are, letters or signs, if they're a real language or not. They've been trying to work it out for years, the experts, they're still working at it.
If they could find out what them signs mean, they could find out how they managed it, how they could live together without the fighting, peaceful, like. It might change a lot of things if they could find that out.
Looking round here, I can't see any objects which might change the world. That donkey on the mantelpiece, Greetings From The Canaries it says on it, neighbours brought it back last year, people might puzzle over that one day. I got rid of most of the bits and pieces when Tess passed away, they was only a reminder, never felt much like replacing them, clutter the place up. Maybe that's not the right way to think. Maybe things - objects - is important after all.
Him and Josie, his girlfriend, they was planning on getting engaged, but that's not happening now, though she's not said as much. “It's not... it's not the physical things, George, it's... ” She started calling me Dad one time but it's George again now. Lovely girl, been sweethearts for years.
“I think I'd like to go out to Canada, Dad,” he says one night, as if he's made a decision. “Farming. Or New Zealand. Somewhere quiet, and cold, lots of space. Mountains.” But he never does anything about it.
I might go up one day to see them things in the Museum. All the objects in the book is in the British Museum in London. Take a day trip.
Derek says, “What're you planning to see then? Phantom of the Opera? Not your style I'd have thought. New lady friend?”
I says to him, “I'm going to the British Museum, look at some seals,” and his face is a picture. “Don’t you mean the Zoo,” he says after a bit. “You want the Aquarium.”
These big ideas which change the world - how did they get started, how would you know when there's one just getting started?
I read a different chapter of the book, there was another George Smith - he was an ordinary chap, not much education, but he took an interest in the old languages and such and managed to work out a piece of writing about the Flood, like the Bible story, which showed it was written a lot earlier than they thought, earlier than the Bible, which upset all the experts.
I'd not be able to do anything like that. But I'd like to have a look, just see them, so I could get an idea. That George Smith, he changed what people thought.
“You should take up the carving again, Dad,” Leanne says. “They were lovely, those little things you made for us when we were kids. You never know, it might be one of your things they're arguing about in a thousand years' time.”
“Objects,” I says.
I might show Will how it's done, be a bit of an interest for him, like.
* * *
There's wars and fighting going on all over - Afghanistan, Africa, out in Egypt. Terrible business in Syria. There was a lad in the news, big dark eyes, lost both his legs, and his dad holding him with his face all screwed up crying.
When it’s your own lad it’s different, it’s not just a picture in the news.
The fighting and the killing goes round and round like a virus, there's nothing to stop it. Maybe Leanne's right, always going off on protests and marches and such. “There's war crimes going on, Dad,” she says, “it's only people like us can change it all. There isn't anyone else going to.”
Maybe we're going backwards these days, there’s no progress to write about any more. Maybe we're destroying all the objects we could learn from, the history, like, with the fighting and the bombing.
If we could figure out them signs we could figure out how they did it, them people back then, no soldiers, no wars, thousands of miles quiet and peaceful. I reckon figuring it out'd be better than the meetings and the marching. Maybe she’s got it wrong this time, our Leanne. Just this once.
The other night Will come back blind drunk, been out with his mates. I heard him swearing and shouting, crashing about, neighbours banging on the wall, and I went in his room, helped him calm down, got his boots off. Got him into bed.
After a bit he’s crying, he’s curled up on the bed, all six foot of him, snuffling and wheezing like he’s an old man and there isn’t nothing left, end of the road.
“I’m finished, Dad,” he’s saying after a bit, much quieter. “All washed up.”
I'm sitting there in the dark for a long time listening to him, whining and moaning, my boy Will, and it's like it’s all connected, what's happened with him, and the other lads which didn't make it, the mums and dads and sweethearts, and them old pictures and carvings, it's a mystery, and it’s connected, there's one big solution to it all.
“You take care of the kids, George,” she says, my Tess, last thing.
But there's more to it, being a dad, it's knowing things, history and such, finding things out. I've fixed to go up in the train to London next week, take the day off, have a look at them seals in the Museum. I'll be clearer, seeing them letters and signs, I'll be able to get things straight in my mind, like. Sort out what it all means.