The other day, I was reminded of something that happened many, many years ago, when I was eight. Yes, that long ago. And yet, it's as clear, maybe clearer, than yesterday.
I'd been thinking about a couple of posts that John at Going Gently wrote this week. One post led to another on the subject of including people who are generally excluded . . . and how or when we first learnt to do this, if indeed we did learn.
It didn't take me long to rake out my first memory of including the outsider . . . although being an outsider myself, I was only including him into my own outsideness, but that was better than nothing. Anyhow, I left a brief comment at John's and refrained from telling the whole story in the comment box . . . But the memory was unleashed and snippets kept playing over in my mind, jumping into my thoughts out of nowhere, until I played it right through, sort of mentally re-lived it and settled it back into the archives again. I really hadn't remembered this in years. It was quite extraordinary . . .
It was Winter 1971 and I was almost nine. Half way through our school term a new boy had joined our class. His name was Lee-Roy and he was Black. West Indian. The only black kid in the class, possibly the school. He looked as different as I felt and I recognised a kindred spirit. I wondered if life would be easier if I was black; if my difference showed up physically, it might be justified somehow. I was fascinated. I'd never spoken to a black person, apart from the bus conductor. I felt a connection with this lad; not only did he look as different as I felt, he looked as worried as I felt . . . and as lonely. We must be feeling the same inside . . .
We were seated in Alphabetical order of our Surnames, mine began with V and his with W . . . he was given a seat next to me! Next to me!. . . I helped him out in class, gave him my spare pencil and when it came to playtime, he stayed with me. I expected him to go off and play with the other boys but he didn't. We just sat together on the steps, we didn't even talk much, we just sat and watched the other kids playing.
Our school was on the edge of a notoriously rough council estate where Lee-Roy's mother had been allocated a house. She was a single mother to five or six boys but I didn't know any of this at the time. One afternoon in class, as we put our chairs up on the tables and sang our "going home" song, which always made me feel so sad, Lee-Roy asked if he could come round to my house one day.
"Yeah, of course, come round for tea . . . now".
I learnt this from my Dad. My parents were in the Salvation Army and did a fair amount of work in the soup kitchen with homeless folk. Dad was also an outsider, always had been, even though he wore the SA uniform and looked like any other man there, he never felt as though he belonged. He questioned other people's integrity when they said "Oh you must come to Dinner one Sunday" He wanted to say "Why one Sunday . . . why not this Sunday . . . or next Sunday?"
So, most Sundays after "open air" meetings in the city centre Dad would find a homeless beggar to come and join us for Sunday lunch.
"Yes, come on, up you get now, of course you can bring your dog and shopping trolley. Yes, you can bring your bottle. No thanks, I don't drink but you're welcome to bring it with you" . . . And Christmas, well Christmas dinner was not complete without a vagabond at the table. If they so wished, they could take a bath and he'd give them some "new" clothes, maybe a haircut and a shave Sir?. . . They were as necessary as the turkey itself. Turkey, Tramp and Trimmings . . . I digress.
We left the school and waited for the lollipop lady to see us across the wide and busy road that, I now know, separated the council estate from the private houses. His eyes grew in disbelief. I was always amazed at how curled his lashes were. "You live on the other side of this road?" . . . I had no idea this was a dividing road. I wasn't aware of those houses being any different to these houses. They were houses, built of red brick, on paved streets. They were the same. To me.
Mum came in from work and warmed up a tin of Heinz vegetable soup. She shared it into two bowls and put a loaf of white sliced Mother's Pride bread on the table. I don't think Lee-Roy touched his spoon. He ate slice after slice of bread soaked in soup until the bowl was clean . . . and the loaf was gone. All gone. We sat on the floor in front of the gas fire and his eyes shone, he seemed to come alive, to glow in the warmth. He smiled more. I wanted to feel his hair but I didn't dare ask. He stared at the burning plates of the gas fire as if they were beautiful dancing flames. His eyes watered from the heat, I think.
It was freezing cold and getting dark and eventually, very reluctantly, he left. I felt his sadness and my sadness.
Our bedrooms were freezing cold, early nights were the most efficient way of keeping warm. At that time my Sister and I had the small front bedroom with twin single beds, separated only by a small bedside cabinet. We would pull the blankets over our heads to get warm, leaving just a whispering space open and in the dark we would whisper about everything and anything . . . Until one of us realised we were whispering alone.
The next thing I heard was Mum screaming to my Dad . . .
"Bob! Bob! get up here! Help!! there's an animal! . . ."
I heard her running downstairs, then some more shouting in the kitchen . . . Then, running back up the stairs, back into our room. My sister was still asleep and Mum growled at me through clenched teeth.
"Get up now and get down those stairs! . . . What on earth were you thinking?"
I had no idea what I was thinking, or what I was supposed to be thinking. I was very confused and scared, I was obviously in big trouble . . . I got up, I remember; I was wearing a mauve stretch-nylon, flared legged, flared sleeved, catsuit. I loved it . . . I crept down the stairs slowly, silently, trying to work out what I was meant to be thinking . . . I could hear raised voices in the front room now . . . Someone was pleading "She did not know Madam, I swear, she did not know" . . . It was Lee-Roy!!
Mum had heard the floorboards creaking in our room and had come up to make sure we were in bed. We were. She'd been horrified to see, shining through the darkness, the frosted head and two big eyes of what she thought was a dog, lying curled up on the floor between our two beds . . . As she'd stepped back and screamed, he had bolted on all fours, out of the room and down the stairs with all the speed and agility of a cat! He was heading for the back door where he had crept in, but Dad was in the kitchen locking up for the night. He was trapped and frightened. There was no way out now.
We all sat in the front room, Lee-Roy staring at the gas fire once again. And again, he pleaded with my parents; to believe that I had no part in this plan and not to call the police. He said his Mum already had too many worries with his Brothers. He was so sorry. So, so, sorry, he cried and cried. I cried. I was sent back to bed and Dad drove him home. Home, where there was no warm soup or soft white bread. Back to the other side of the divide. Dad insisted on going into the house to explain to Lee-Roy's Mum, she must be worried sick . . . She wasn't there, she was working nights at the city Hospital so she could be at home during the day time for the kids. As they stood in his kitchen, Dad hugged Lee-Roy and told him he understood. And he did understand; he knew the pain of hunger, the scrounging around for crusts of bread in the streets. His father would come home from sea, drunk and penniless, having spent a months wages in the boozer. He knew the yearning to be part of a family, part of something, anything; to sit at the table with another person and share some warm soup . . . To feel the warmth of the fire.
As he said Goodnight to Lee-Roy he noticed a note on their kitchen table, written by a child.
Mum . . . I go to live with Diane. I come back to see you soon. I love you.
Lee-Roy x x x
In his mind it was that simple. If only.