John Wayne & Me – Tom Kelly

The suitcase is the first step on the road back to mam and dad. I can see us sitting side-by-side. The radio crackling with, Two-Way Family Favourites as I wait for dad to open his suitcase while they sing along to Dean Martin: I am so pleased none of my friends can hear them singing, “The sweet, sweet, the memories you gave a-me, you can’t beat the memories you gave a-me…”

Dad said to me, “We’re lovely singers, aren’t we?”

Mam was aware of my face-ache. “He doesn’t like us singing. He’s more interested in your suitcase.”

Mam knew what I wanted. “Howay dad let’s have aa look. Will ye give me ya medals dad? When aa’m old, dead old, like seventeen. What’s in that wooden box?”

Mam showed her anxiety. “I wish you would get rid of it! It’ll end in tears.”

Dad said, “Don’t talk daft.”

I can see Dad holding his Green Howard’s cap badge. I have a photograph of me wearing it. I can step back to the moment it was taken. I am standing against a wall, the school photographer lining us up, the quick click and away, there were forty-odd in my class so there wouldn’t be a lot of time.

We didn’t have a camera at home, so it’s difficult, sometimes, to put yourself in time and place but this photograph allows me do that. I had cut my hair and made an inverted V at the front. And there is my dad’s Green Howards cap badge on my jacket’s lapel. I wanted to be a soldier. I would march up and down in the kitchen with dad shouting out instructions, “Stand tall. Swing your arms. Not both together. Where’s your rifle? You’ll be on a charge boy. Stand to attention.”

I would stand tall and proud as any soldier. I marched with a poker but it was a real gun to me and I’d kill the enemy. My heart was bursting with pride. I had to be brave, just like dad. I pressed dad about his war. “Will aa fight in aa war like you?”

Dad turned serious. “I hope to God you don’t have to. Aa saw enough for the both of us.”

Mam went to the shops and with her out of the house, dad would go on with his story and I would fill in the details: that was our routine. I had heard the stories dozens of times but I wouldn’t let him miss anything out. Dad battled on, “We were parachuted into Norway in April 1940 and ended-up in a village called…”

I dived in, “Voss!”

“That’s right son, near Stavanger…”

I jumped in again, “Aa bet it was great.”

Dad turned away from me and seemed to be looking for something in the backyard before he spoke, “War’s not glorious son. Ask your uncle Tommy, he’ll tell you it was no picnic in Burma and your uncle John ended-up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.”

It was glorious to me. You didn’t die. You would wake up next day, go to school, play football. Death wasn’t forever. I didn’t know that as I put my dad’s medals in a line across my chest and pinned the cap badge onto my balaclava, praying mam wouldn’t come back before dad opened that wooden box.

Dad went on as I sat at his feet, “So, we were parachuted into Norway but the Germans outnumbered us, it was a hell of a battle and we had to retreat… we lost a lot of lads…”

Dad was talking slowly as I said, “What’s in your eye dad? Use me hankie, it’s nearly clean.”

Dad seemed angry as I watched his face turn stern. “It’s not like in the comics, you don’t play with bits of wood, they’re real guns and bullets and when you fall down dead you don’t get up.”

In the History of The Green Howards it says, “The Green Howards conducted an adventurous withdrawal through the mountains by train, truck and foot and on April 30th, 1940, the navy took off the ravenously hungry survivors by the light of the bombed and burning Norwegian villages. The Brigade had performed a classic withdrawal operation.”

“Classic withdrawal!” Dad was captured by the Germans. “The first words of German aa heard were Achtung. We’d been led into a trap, by a quisling. He said he’d take us to Sweden which was a neutral country. We were in a mountain hut and the Germans surrounded us and then took us ti’ Poland and had us working on farms all the way there. Me mam and dad thought aa was dead and…”

I had the newspaper cutting in my hand. “I know what happened next dad, your name was in the paper and they read out your name on the wireless…”

Dad read from the newspaper cutting: “Among the list of British prisoners broadcast from Hamburg last night….”

“It was you dad!”

Dad smiled. “Aye me mam and dad thought aa was dead until Lord Haw Haw gave out me name out on the radio.”

I wanted more of the story. “Tell us about Poland and the camps.”

Dad picked-up his war medals and spoke with heart-stopping emotion. “The Polish people treated us well, aa remember finding a loaf of bread left for me, by the farm workers, they had nowt but they still gave us. And aa remember queuing up in the camp for soup and me and me mate could see there wasn’t going to be enough, so we got a bowl of hot water and threw it in the faces of people and grabbed our share. If ye didn’t ye’d die, it was dog-eat-dog. Ah’m not proud of that but aa wouldn’t be here if aa hadn’t done it.”

Five years in a prison-of-war camp. The scars stayed with him all his life.

Mam came back from shopping and caught us by surprise. “Come on you two! Move yourselves. Aa’ve told you, get rid of that box!”

And that was the end of dad telling his war stories. I sat reading my comic but all I wanted to do was open the box in me dad’s suitcase: more than anything in the entire world. There was a time-bomb under my parents’ bed. In the coal black night under the hissing gas mantle something was burning through me but it was our night at the ‘Regal’, for our weekly ritual of worshipping the celluloid Gods on the magic screen. We walked to the pictures, our voices converging, “What’s on, mam?”

“Operation Pacific.” Was mam’s quick reply. Dad added, “How John Wayne won the war.” I said, “Dad, dad, did you know John Wayne?” Mam laughed, “After a few pints your dads met them all.”

In the pictures, war was glorious. Nobody died, they lived forever, safe and secure with their mams and dads. Just like me but then I heard me mam’s angry tight-lipped whisper, like enemy gun fire spitting out of the dark, “If you don’t get rid of it, it’ll go in the Tyne!” I wondered what was going to be thrown in the river? Next doors cat? Mam hated it. I knew it had made a mess in our house but that seemed drastic. I wondered if it was the rabbits?

We used to breed them and I would bump into one or two dancing a dead dance on the backyard clothes’ line, generally after dad had met somebody in a pub who fancied a rabbit pie. Maybe mam wanted rid of them, she had more than enough of their smell and those little brown marbles piling up in the straw.

Walking home from the pictures it hit me! The wooden box. I would never discover what was in it. The Holy Grail was so near. It was in our bedroom, under mam and dad’s bed. I felt like a proper soldier, when somebody needs saving from the jaws of death, like John Wayne winning the war, but now I had my own battle: I was at a loss as to what to do.

The only thing on my mind was the wooden box. I sat with my Eagle comic glued to my face but I wasn’t reading it. I was thinking and planning.

The next night mam pulled a funny face and said, “Can you hear squeaking?”

Dad was reading The Herald but eventually did answer, “That’ll be the mice.”

Mam screamed, “Mice!”

Dad was still reading and answered from behind the paper, “Aa see them first thing in the morning, just before aa go to work. Aa gave them aa bit breakfast. They play lovely in the hearth; they’re living in the couch.”

Mam’s voice went up several octaves, “Why didn’t ye say!?”

Dad reluctantly put down the paper. “You’re always asleep in the morning.”

Mam was red in the face. I nearly said something about her looking like a clown but didn’t as she let out a yell, “They’re underneath us!”

Dad was taking notice now, “Take it easy, the neighbour’s think aa’m murdering you.”

I thought she was really going to kill dad as she screamed, “Aa’ll kill you!”

I decided to join in. “Aa can hear them mam, squeak! squeak!”

Mam was near the door and pointed at dad, as if she was going to spear him.

She said slowly, “Get them out now!”

Dad was still sitting in his chair when he said, “Wait till after me tea.”

Mam had the door wide-open; a cold draught ran into the house. “There’ll be no tea ‘til you get rid of those mice. Aa mean it! The bairn’ll give you aa hand to take the couch into the back yard.”

Dad and me fought with the couch down the wooden stairs into the backyard, the mice were screaming but my mother was screaming even louder.

The whole street must have heard mam. “Get them out. It’s a nightmare! Mice living under us. Mice! I hate mice! Keep them out of the toilet and shut the coal house door!”

Dad, in a matter-fact way said to me, “Hand me that knife.”

I thought he was going to slice their heads off. I was preparing myself for a lot of blood. Mam screamed. Dad slit the underside of the couch; it was like killing an animal, spilling its intestines and white pink-eyed mice ran into the backyard, dozens and dozens of them squealed and squinted into the light. Mam screamed again. We attacked them, me with a shovel, dad with a hammer. They ran for the drain as we chased and battered and battered them: it was exciting.

I was killing the enemy: the mice. We gathered the mice together, scraping their dead bodies along the backyard, leaving a film of blood, half bits of legs and heads in a terrible trail. I didn’t think, I just did it. My mother watched from upstairs, standing behind the net curtain that seemed to be like a failure, a flag of truce but not for us, we had won. We had defeated them; it was John Wayne and me. I was glorious in battle. Dad shouted up to mam, standing upstairs, away from the carnage, “They’re dead, well and truly dead.”

I can see the white and pink carpet of dead mice dumped in the bottom of the dustbin. Dad put his arm around me as if we had done something great together. I felt like a hero and wanted more, much more than that cushion of white mice with blood speckled over them, like monkeys’ blood you get on ice- cream, except this was real. This blood was dead real.

I looked up to dad who was wiping the blood from his hands on the wall.

I said, “Dad, was aa good help?” He looked down at me and smiled, “You wor aa proper little soldier.”

As I washed my hands in the water bucket and started getting ready for church, after the killings, I knew I had to open the box and felt strange but excited.

The priest was on the altar with a golden cross embroidered on the back of his vestments, I was at Mass but I was in a different world. The priest would never kill mice because he was God’s messenger on Earth and he could send me to Hell. My knees were dead as I kneeled but I couldn’t pray, instead I went over the battle with the mice. No Last Post for them, no six-gun salute, no being saved by Flash Gordon, just the realness of death. I felt a shiver which had me scared and I got my handkerchief back from my dad. God was not blessing our killing. I was worried. There was a tight knot in my stomach that would not go away. As we walked home from church to the scene of our crime, the fight, battle, killings, my eight-year self was struggling to come to terms with life and death. Walking home from church I felt nervous and said, “Aa want to go to the toilet!” I began to run home.

And as I ran, I told myself, “Aa’ve got to open the box.”

I fumbled with the door key. Mam and dad were at the top of the street, I dragged the suitcase from underneath the bed and threw it open!

“Aa gun!”

My heart was drumming and beating like a terrified bird. I began to sweat and could hardly breathe. I dashed out of my room and put the gun under my pillow.

Now I knew what was in the wooden box. I needed time to compose myself and dwell on the power of the gun that would lie under my head tonight. I had killed mice and now I had a gun. I could be John Wayne. I could not stop shivering with excitement. All the time I was thinking about the weight of the gun and my stomach turned to jelly. I felt sick as I tried to think of a plan.

In the bedroom I embraced my pillow as the gun nestled and burned against my cheek and it was so heavy, I felt it in the dark. My mam came into the room.

My finger was stroking the trigger. She left the room and shut the door. I got a shock and squeezed the trigger. It was pointed at the door. Everything stood perfectly still, like a photograph, as if it wasn’t real and the loudest bang in the world rang round the bedroom. I could hear my dad scream.

Dad had kept the gun from the army and mam was always telling him to get rid of it. The ambulance and police came. All of the street stared at our house. And later there was an inquest but they could not charge a child of eight with killing his mother. A tragic accident, they said.

Tom Kelly’s ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.

Image via Pixabay

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