Circles by Gumbie.
A Bicycle Ride To Victory.
“How was school today?” Thomas smiled hopefully at his son, who pretended not to hear. Thomas sighed; it was still like that then. He and Evie had picked him up from Fran’s house the day before, expecting him to greet them with enthusiasm, usually Martin launched himself on them like a rocket if he hadn’t seen them for a couple of hours, never mind a week, but they’d been met with polite distance. His answers to their questions were scant in the extreme, yes; he’d had a very nice birthday. Paul and Aunt Barbara had visited and they’d had a picnic with Uncle Stuart. Yes, he’d got their card, thank you. A light had momentarily come to his eyes when he had seen the shiny new Raleigh bicycle his parents had bought him for his birthday. It was standing in the hall when he arrived home. His voice full of excitement, he had asked, may I show it to my friends. Yes, Evie had said, he could invite Sam and Lucas sometime that week. The light in his eyes was immediately quenched. Not school friends, he’d said in disgust. I want to show it to my real friends, Laura...We’ve been through this Martin, Thomas had interrupted, gently, but firmly. The subject is closed. Martin had been uncommunicative ever since.
Thomas repeated his question, his tone making it clear he expected an answer. “How was your first day back at school?”
“Horrid,” Martin poked listlessly at his food. He’d promised his gran, no more hunger strikes, but his appetite was gone.
“It must have been nice to see your friends again?” Thomas gamely battled on.
Evie could have told him he was wasting his breath; she’d already played this game and lost. She stoically ate her dinner.
“I haven’t got any friends at school.”
“I thought Sam was your friend?”
“Well you thought wrong.”
Thomas was slightly taken aback by the tone, he felt irritation begin to stir, “don’t be impertinent young man, and stop toying with that food.”
Martin looked his father squarely in the face, “I’ve decided that Sam is not a suitable friend.”
Thomas smiled softly, but his voice, when he spoke had a flint like edge to it, “then I’m sure you’ll soon make new, more suitable friends.”
“I’m sure I won’t.” It was a statement of fact.
Thomas bit back the sharp retort he was about to make reminding himself that Martin was a small boy, a bitterly disappointed small boy.
“Did you get any homework?”
“Have you done it?”
“I’m sure you’ll soon get back into the swing of school.”
“What’s your new form master like?”
“Have you ridden your new bicycle today?”
“Mummy said I was only allowed to ride it along the drive and to the end of the road and back.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Boring, boring, boring!” Martin’s eyes brimmed with tears, he savagely squashed peas with his fork, “I want to show it to my friends, and I don’t want to play on my own.”
“Then invite Sam and Lucas, like your mother suggested.”
Martin erupted. “NO!” he shouted crossly. “I want to play when I want to play. I want to just run out and call for my friends. I don’t want to have to make stupid invitations, and I don’t want to...”
“That’s quite enough,” Thomas cut him short. “You’re obviously overwrought. It’s always tiring, going back to school after a long break. Perhaps an early night is in order, if you’re not interested in finishing what’s on your plate, you may go up now.”
“I already go to bed earlier than anyone else in the world.” Martin stamped upstairs, refusing to kiss his parents goodnight.
Thomas and Evie exchanged world-weary looks.
“Any better this evening?” Thomas raised his eyebrows enquiringly as he returned from work the following day.
“Dreadful,” Evie looked frazzled, “he’s done nothing but whine and complain since I collected him from school. He refused to do his homework, he complained about us not having a television. To make matters worse, Laura called for him. He just about flung a fit when I sent her away. Apparently, you and I are the wickedest parents ever to exist and the sooner we die the better.”
Thomas grinned broadly when he heard that he’d been likened to Hitler, only nastier. “He’s just trying to wear us down Evie.”
“He’s succeeding,” muttered Evie, “he’ll drive me to drink at this rate, in fact there’ll be no need to drive me, I’ll walk.” She went to serve dinner.
“Come and have a cuddle,” Thomas laid aside his crossword, and patted his knee. He was sitting in his favourite chair by the fire, dinner was over and Martin was washed and ready for bed, and while he’d eaten a good dinner, he had barely spoken a word all evening.
“Don’t want one.” Martin sat sulkily on the couch, arms folded, pet lip in prominence.
“Come on,” Thomas put on a persuasive tone, “I’ll read you a story.”
“Don’t want one.”
“Bed time Martin,” Evie bustled into the living room, “say goodnight to daddy.”
“Goodnight to daddy.”
Both Thomas and Evie decided to let the facetiousness go on this occasion.
“Don’t I get a kiss?”
“No, I don’t love you.”
“Oh dear, that’s very sad,” Thomas picked up his crossword again. “Never mind, I still love you, sleep well Martin.”
Martin got to the foot of the stairs, he suddenly felt bad. Running back into the room, he flung his arms round his father’s neck and hugged him. “don’t be sad daddy, I do love you sometimes.”
Thomas lifted Martin onto his knee, “I think we’ve still got time for that story,” he glanced at Evie who nodded.
Settling down on his father’s knee Martin wasn’t exactly happy, but he felt he’d made his point. He might as well be miserable with cuddles, as even more miserable without them.
On Saturday morning, Martin cycled up and down the street, the metalwork on his bike shining in the sun. He sighed, shiny or not, there was no joy in a bike unshared. He wanted to show it off, he wanted to let his friends have a turn. He couldn’t explain to his parents that showing off his new bike to Sam and Lucas was pointless. They had bikes just as shiny and modern as his; there was no glory to be had, no envy, and no admiration to bask in. He wanted to show it where it meant something, where it gave him status, and where his friends could have a slice of his pleasure. Riding to the corner of the tree lined road, he glanced quickly over his shoulder towards his house, then turned his sights forward and kept on pedalling, making for the border and freedom.
Laura was given first honours on the much admired bike, but after a valiant number of attempts to ride it, had to give up, she just couldn’t balance and her much battered knees had taken another pounding. Colin saved the day, and her tears by offering to croggy her. Martin watched as he wavered off down the road, with Laura perched precariously on the handlebars, both of them laughing. He felt a stab of jealousy, he wasn’t strong enough to balance both himself and Laura on the bike, it upset him that Colin was bigger than he was. In fact Amy was bigger than he was, perhaps that was another reason he liked Laura so much, she was just as small as he was.
“It’s a great bike Mart, really smart,” Amy beamed at him, slipping an arm through his, “ta for letting us play with it.”
Basking in the glory of superior possessions, and the pleasure of sharing them, Martin abandoned negative feelings. Lunchtime came, and went, he didn’t bother going home, his mother would only collar him and send him to his room for leaving the confines of his own road without permission. Instead, he experienced for the first time, the heady pleasure of sharing threepence worth of chips from a twist of newspaper, while standing with his mates on a street corner. He made no mention to those same mates that he had in fact been banned from seeing them, because they were considered unsuitable by his parents. Martin had an intuition far beyond his years, he knew to do so would be to offend them, particularly Colin, who was apt to be touchy about such things. He told them he wasn’t allowed out during the week, because he had to do lots of homework and then it was time for bed, which they sympathised over, but accepted.
Martin the free headed back towards enemy territory at teatime, tired, hungry, dirty, but very happy. Retribution, he knew was bound to follow his disobedience, but he didn’t much care, not yet anyway. When interrogated, he gave only his name, rank and number, refusing point plank to divulge details of his secret mission, saying evasively, “I just went for a long ride.”
Thomas quietly told Martin to put his bike in the garage. “Your bicycle is confiscated Martin, do you understand? It is totally out of bounds until further notice. You will apologise to your mother and, after tea, you will go straight up to bed. You are not allowed any treats this weekend, no sweets, cakes or ice cream. You’re a very naughty boy.”
Martin would almost have preferred a firing squad, he looked forward to the weekend and the treats he was rarely allowed at any other time.
“Do I have to go to Sunday school?” Next day, Martin still hadn’t forgiven his father for confiscating his bike, and stopping all his treats, he was out for vengeance via parent baiting, “it’s so boring.”
Thomas frowned warningly at him. “I’m not putting up with any nonsense from you today young man, you’re going to Sunday school and that’s all there is to it.” He put his newspaper firmly in front of his face to indicate that the subject was closed.
“When can I stay with grandma again?” Martin pouted in the direction of the broadsheet. “I had a lovely time with gran, she’s fun and she lets me do just what I like.”
“Does she indeed?” Thomas sounded disapproving, but the paper remained in place.
“Behave yourself Martin,” Evie paused in her dusting of the mantelpiece to give him a warning look, which he ignored, addressing the newspaper yet again.
“Granny says you and mummy are just a pair of big snobs. She says you go around as if you’ve got a bad smell under your nose.”
Thomas lowered the paper and eyed his son sternly, “that’s quite enough. I don’t want to hear another word.”
Evie was shocked and upset to think that her mother had said such things to her grandson. “I’ll be having words with your grandmother, saying things like that to you.”
Martin flushed; he had actually been repeating a conversation he’d overheard between his gran and his aunt, but his confession that the words had not been said directly to him, made matters even worse.
Evie was even more upset to think that her own mother had discussed her and Thomas with her sister in law. She went crossly into the kitchen to begin lunch preparations, leaving Martin to the mercy of his father.
Thomas looked coldly at his son. “There’ll be no visit to the park for you today, after lunch you can stay in your room for the rest of the day.”
“Good,” Martin was un-repentant, “at least I won’t have to go to boring Sunday school, or boring Church.”
“On the contrary, a little Christian learning is just what you need, it might help you recover your respect for your parents. You can go straight to your room when you get back.”
Martin scowled, his temper getting the better of his common sense; “granny says you’re not a real Christian, not if you think you’re better than Laura. Gran really liked Laura...” He stopped, horribly aware that he’d said too much.
“And how would gran know whether or not she likes Laura, your grandmother has never met Laura? It’s naughty to repeat conversations that you’ve overheard, not just naughty, but ill mannered. It’s even more ill mannered to put words into people’s mouths, it’s tantamount to lying, and you know how I feel about lying.”
“I’m not lying,” Martin jutted out his chin belligerently, “granny has met Laura. She stayed with us at granny’s house and everyone liked her lots, Paul and Aunt Barbara too. It’s just you who doesn’t, and that’s because you’re...” Martin’s triumph vanished and he gave a gasp of panic as a pair of strong hands plucked him up from the sofa and carried him upstairs. He yelled for his mother.
“What on earth’s the matter,” Evie dashed into the hall, “Tom, what are you doing?”
“Putting this ill mannered child in his room, then I’ll be having a word, more than a word with your mother!” Placing Martin firmly in a corner of his bedroom, Thomas bent towards him, his eyes glittering dangerously, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this, stand there until I get back.”
Martin sobbed as he realised that he’d truly set the cat amongst the pigeons, and gotten his gran into trouble too.
Frances picked up the phone, her heart sinking as she listened to the sharp, precise voice of her son in law. “Yes Thomas,” she moistened her lips, “it’s true, she did stay here. I wanted to make Martin happy...I’m sorry you feel that way...I didn’t intend to undermine your authority...I think underhand is rather strong a term.” Fran fought tears; “I don’t think you should say anymore Thomas. Please let me speak to Evie.”
Putting the phone down, Fran found that her hands were trembling, her daughter had refused to speak to her and Thomas had informed her that Martin would no longer be allowed to visit. Sitting at her kitchen table, she wept, wishing that her husband were alive to console her, to offer advice and support. He would tell her she was silly for interfering in the first place, and then he’d do his diplomatic best to smooth it all over.
Wiping her eyes, she went to the kitchen cupboard and got out the familiar green bottle, pouring a generous measure into a glass. What did it matter about the time of day, loneliness paid no heed to the clock. Now she wouldn’t even have her grandson’s visits to look forward to.
“I hate you, I hate you both for being nasty to my grandma.” Martin flung himself on his bed as soon as he was given permission to leave the corner.
“Don’t say another word,” snapped Thomas, “not one word! You will never, never deceive your mother and I like that again. You are not playing with Laura, or those other children, and that’s all there is to be said. I’ll come for you when it’s time for Sunday school.” He marched out closing the door with a decisive click.
Martin lay crying for a little while, then sat up. He was going to run away, that’s what he was going to do. It would serve them jolly well right. He emptied his schoolbooks out of his satchel, spitefully tearing his hated Latin verbs exercise book into tiny pieces. He then packed the bag with a few things he might need; pyjamas, toothbrush, comb, clean t-shirt and underpants, his mother was very particular about him having clean underpants.
Creeping quietly across the landing, he peered over the banister to make sure the hall was empty then he sneaked downstairs on tiptoe. He heard his father’s voice, still angry, “how could she go against our wishes like that, I know she doesn’t care much for me, but really you’d think she’d respect you Evie. It’s a betrayal of trust that I find difficult to understand.”
Martin quietly closed the door behind him. Once he reached the bottom of the drive, he took to his heels and ran.
Laura’s dark brown eyes shone with hurt tears, but her voice, when she spoke, sounded angry, “why don’t they like me, I’m nice I am, my mam and dad told me?”
Martin shrugged, not able to explain something he didn’t understand himself.
“Stuff ‘em!” Laura grabbed his hand, “let’s go to the rec.”
Thomas heard them, or at least heard Laura, long before he set eyes on them, her raucous voice ringing through the afternoon air, over and above the sound of other childish voices. They were playing tag, running, shouting and laughing as they dodged each other, he took a concerned intake of breath as she suddenly tripped, as she often did, falling headlong on the path. She was a remarkably clumsy child for all her dainty appearance.
Martin turned at her cry, running back towards her, his face a mask of tender concern, he helped her sit up, then he took out his handkerchief, dabbing at a small graze on her knee. She smiled at him, holding onto his hands as she got to her feet, then suddenly she broke free, thumping his shoulder and yelling, “tag, you’re it,” before darting off, shrieking with laughter in that strident way of hers.
Thomas almost laughed at the expression on his son’s face, astonishment and indignation vying for supremacy then he grinned, and with a whoop of pleasure took off after her. Thomas turned his footsteps homeward, thinking long and hard about what best to do.
David Archer collared Martin as he and Laura tried to sneak up to her bedroom without being noticed. “Oh no you don’t, you little monkey,” he gave Martin a very hard look, “your dad was looking for you earlier, you were supposed to be going to Sunday school. What did I tell you about coming round here without permission?”
Martin blushed, but kept quiet.
“Please dada, let him stay with us, he’s run away from home.” Laura looked at her father appealingly.
He looked at her sternly, “We’re harbouring no runaways here he’s going home.”
“I’ve told Martin, on more than one occasion, that he is not welcome at my house without permission from his parents.” David looked challengingly at the tall, aristocratic figure of Thomas Mitchell as he delivered one errant son to his door. “With that in mind, I’m issuing an invitation, on behalf of my wife, for Martin to have tea with us on Wednesday evening. What shall I tell Catherine?”
His speech was blunt, almost aggressive. He had put the ball firmly into Thomas’s court. Thomas didn’t answer immediately, weighing up the odds. If he refused he would look churlish, if he accepted Martin had won. Turning to his son, he pointed to the dining room, saying coldly, but quietly, “go in there, find a corner and wait for me.” Then he turned to Laura’s father, holding out his hand. “Thank you for bringing Martin home. Tell your wife that he will be more than happy to accept the invitation to tea,” he smiled faintly.
David Archer grinned and shook the outstretched hand. Martin and Laura had won this particular set, but he suspected that the match wasn’t quite over, certainly not for one of the players anyway.
Thomas closed the dining room door, turning around to find all corners empty. He knocked sharply on top of the dining room table, “come out from under there at once Martin, you win, I concede defeat on this issue. However, before you start celebrating, let me explain what the term Pyrrhic victory means.”
Martin closed his eyes tightly as he was put over his father’s knee, reminding himself that it would soon be over, and he had got what he wanted, albeit with a price. He yelled as a firm hand began briskly applying itself to the seat of his shorts.
“This spanking is for disobedience, it’s for leaving your room after being told to stay in it and it’s for destroying property, you’ve been told before about that, it seems the lesson was not learned well enough.
Evie helped Martin into the bath, silently soaping his body, rubbing at the ingrained dirt on his knees and elbows. Wrapping a large soft towel around him she lifted him out of the filthy water, sitting on the bathroom stool with him on her lap. He gazed up at her from tear-swollen eyes; his shoulders still giving little heaves as his sobs died away, then he gave a watery smile.
“ I’m going to Laura’s for tea on Wednesday mummy.”
Evie cuddled him, drying his eyes with a corner of the towel, “that’s something to look forward to darling.”
Thomas sat in Church that evening, his mind far from the service. After returning from the park, he had faced the fact that part of his reluctance to allow the friendship with Laura Archer to continue, stemmed from fear of losing something precious from his own relationship with his son, some kind of exclusiveness. Until he met Laura, Martin had not seemed to need or want anyone outside the family unit, his affections were reserved for his parents. It was, Thomas realised, futile and unreasonable, to expect his son to confine his emotions to such a closed and narrow world, moreover, it would be unhealthy. The family, particularly parents, should act as ballast, not become a means of bondage. Martin was loved, and he loved them in return, that was all that mattered. Parenthood was a learning process, just like childhood, only it brought other challenges, and other kinds of self-discovery. Closing his eyes, Thomas prayed for forgiveness for the mistakes he’d made, and would make in the future, and for strength to be there for the son he loved, in whatever capacity was required to help him make it into the adult world. When the service was over, he went for a short walk, going to the cemetery, sitting with Jane a while, wondering what mistakes he would have made with her if she’d lived, and what joys they would have shared along with the conflicts.
Martin was sitting at the bottom of the stairs when he returned home. Lifting him into his arms Thomas hugged him tight, feeling the small arms tighten around his neck in response. All was back in balance.
When Martin had gone to sleep, Thomas phoned his mother in law for the second time that day. “I apologise unreservedly Frances. I admit to being rather stubborn and stiff necked over Martin’s friendship with this girl. He seems genuinely smitten with her, I don’t understand the attraction, but there you are.”
Frances gladly accepted his apology and offered one in return, admitting that she should not have gone behind their backs in the way she had, but trying still to justify her reasons. “Martin was so unhappy, I just wanted to see his little face light up again,” she explained. “I wasn’t trying to spite you or Evie. The child is actually rather sweet when you get to know her, she grows on you.”
“So does fungus,” said Thomas dryly, “it doesn’t make it good or healthy...yes, Martin would love to visit next weekend, you can invite madam Laura if you wish, rather you than me. Here’s Evie, she wants to have a few words. Goodnight Frances.”
Evie took the receiver, glad to have the opportunity to make up with her mother.
The following weekend:
Laura sat excitedly in the back of Mr Mitchell’s comfortable Rover, Martin beside her. She was looking forward to the weekend.
Thomas glanced through the rear view mirror. When he had collected Laura, her hair had been neatly plaited and tied with ribbon. As soon as the car was out of sight of her house, she had pulled out the hair ribbons, shaking loose her heavy red hair. She noticed him looking at her disapprovingly, cheekily poking out the tip of her pink tongue.
“Would you like to sit in front with me Laura?” He asked sharply, cutting through their giggles.
“No ta, Mr Mitchell.”
“Then behave yourself, you too Martin. I can very easily turn this car round and go home.”
“Sorry daddy.” Martin quickly sobered; he knew his father wouldn’t hesitate to carry out his threat.
There was a surprise waiting for them when they arrived at Fran’s house.
“Paul!” yelled Martin and Laura, joyfully tumbling out of the car and rushing to greet the smiling, blonde haired boy who had been sitting on the doorstep waiting for them for the past hour.
Edward greeted his brother, “where’s Evie?”
“Migraine.” Thomas introduced Edward to Laura, seeing as they were staring at each other with interest.
“So,” Edward smiled at the little girl, “this is the famous Laura is it?”
“I didn’t know I was famous,” said Laura, looking pleased. “You look just like ‘im,” she jerked her thumb towards Thomas, “only not as miserable,” she dashed quickly upstairs to join her friends.
“Impudent little thing, isn’t she?” Edward grinned at his brother, who looked as if he’d just swallowed poison.
“She’s a menace,” growled Thomas. He turned to Frances, “don’t stand any nonsense from them.”
“I don’t intend to.”
“Thanks for inviting Paul,” Edward kissed her cheek, “things have been difficult for him lately, with his mother being so poorly. He can be a bit of a handful. I suspect that he and that little red head might well turn out to be partners in crime.”
“Don’t you worry about me, I can manage those three, no problem. Martin will help me keep Laura and Paul in line.”
Later that evening, Fran watched the three of them sitting happily on the couch together. Laura was in the middle, she was reading them a story from a book she had brought. Considering her age, she was a remarkably good reader, her rough little voice full of expression. Her choice of book had also surprised Fran. She was reading a children’s version of tales from Shakespeare, in this case, the story of Hamlet. She found herself listening with as much interest as the two boys.
Laura looked up, catching her eye, smiling one of her beautiful beaming smiles. She then typically shattered the moment, by saying, “Polonius is a right bugger isn’t he?”
“Laura, don’t swear, it’s not nice,” said Martin, looking at her severely.
Laura gazed at him for a second, “sod off,” she said sweetly, “you can’t boss me about.”
Paul chortled with delight, “Yeah sod off Martin,” he repeated the phrase with relish.
Fran pointed a warning finger from one to the other of them. “Martin may not be able to boss you about, but I can. The next one of you pair to use a naughty word gets their mouth washed out with soap and sent straight to bed then home in the morning. Is that clear?”
“Yes.” Laura and Paul nodded, neither wanted to be sent home, or have a mouthful of soap.
Martin grinned at his grandma; she gave him a broad wink, as if they were co-conspirators.