Novels with a surprise ending

Joe Lanzon
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Ganni Comes Home

After thirty years in the land of the maple leaf, John was returning back to his roots, the isle of Calypso. It was a cold January evening as the ‘Malita’ ferry boat cut through the waves across the channel between the two little islands. The sea was relatively calm, the sun was hiding behind the clouds and some seagulls were hovering overhead.

Thirty years! His first visit since he had emigrated at the age of 25. His name was then Ganni. He had worked hard, did not indulge in any luxuries and took great care of his money. As a result he was now a relatively wealthy man. He was still a bachelor. He had dated several girls, had short relations with some others, but he never married. Maybe he was looking for the perfect woman. Maybe he did not thrust these sophisticated and independent Canadian girls. But there was a nice and gentle lady he wanted so much to see in Gozo and for whom he still carried a flame in his heart. She was, in truth, the only one he never forgot throughout his years away from his beloved island. He recalled seeing her the day he left for Canada. He remembered the loving smile on her face. His separation from her was the only thing that made his departure from the island difficult to bear. But it had to be done. There was no other choice. He could see no prospects on the little island and, on the other hand, there were new opportunities of work in the new land.

For thirty whole years he had carried a small photo of her in his wallet. How often had he looked at it with admiration, and how many times had he showed it to his friends with pride? The photo had now become tattered and yellowish with the years but he could still see her lovely smiling face on it. Now, after all those years, John was looking with anticipation to see her once again. The boat was full up with passengers, mostly Gozitans returning home from work. John bought a coffee and two ‘pastizzi’ from the cafeteria on board and sat down on a chair looking through the glass windows eager to get the first glimpse of Gozo. He intended to buy a house in his home town of Nadur and pass his retirement years in peace and quiet. His friends had told him that many returning migrants had proudly named their house for their country of adoption – Uncle Sam, Stars and Stripes, USA, Maple Leaf, Canada, Niagara, Down Under, Waltzing Matilda and so forth. But he had other ideas for the name of his house.
His roving mind took him back to the place he had just left – Canada. The little bungalow not far from the Dundas area where Maltese still met regularly, eating ‘pastizzi’ and ‘qassatat’ bought from the Maltese Bakery Shop. When they met in the afternoons, they still talked about Malta and Gozo, about the patron saints of their towns and villages, about the relatives and neighbours they had left behind.

“May I use this chair?” asked a young man. “Of course, no problem” replied John as he looked at the youth holding a cup of coffee in his hands. “Is the boat always full at this time?” asked John. “Yes. Most Gozitans working in Malta are now returning back home for the weekend” replied the young man. They struck a conversation and John learned much about new developments taking place in Gozo. “Where are you from?” asked the young man. “I was born in Gozo but have lived in Canada these last thirty years. In fact this is my first visit since,” replied John. “Canada?” exclaimed the young man. “It is so far away I would never dream of going there. You see, I am afraid of flying, afraid that the plane would crash!”
“Nonsense,” replied John. “God won’t let you die in a plane crash if He means you to die of some other thing.” The youth looked at the older man in a pensive way and said – “But that’s the rub friend. I won’t know what God has in mind for me!”

As the ferry approached Mgarr harbour both men prepared to go below. They shook hands, wished each other ‘good luck’ and separated. John could see, even from a distance, how his little island had changed. Then as it berthed in port, he took his bags, went through the new terminal, hailed a taxi and went straight to his rented accommodation in Nadur. All the time he noted the widened and smooth tarmaced roads, the roundabouts with multi-coloured flowers and landscaping all around.
He woke up on Saturday morning feeling fine and brisk. He’ll be meeting her today, the lady who was always on his mind during his long absence from Gozo. He went to ‘Piazza San Pietru u San Pawl’, the centre of activity in the town. He phoned a taxi and gave the driver directions. When he arrived at the destination, he paid the taxi-driver and looked around him.

He walked over to the majestic and imposing baroque church, went inside, kept to the left of the colonnades and headed straight towards the area behind the main altar. Even though it was January, he was sweating with anticipation and excitement. And then he saw her – Il-Madonna ta Pinu! The gentle Lady was wrapped in a blue cloak and a silver crown above her head. He went down on his knees and prayed as he had never prayed before – thanking her for keeping him safe all those years he had been away from his beloved island of Gozo.
 

The Good Samaritan

It was to be 21 year old Jenny Stevens first day at work. She had graduated as a Secretary following a two year course at the Secretarial College a few months ago. Her dream had finally been fulfilled, well, partly at least. She still had to find a job. She had filed several applications for secretarial job vacancies appearing in the papers. But she received no feed-back. As the days passed into weeks and the weeks into months, she began to lose heart. Her dream would not be fulfilled after all. In her depressive mood Jenny lamented with her Mum – “Don’t you think that life is strange Mum? I had studied so hard, obtained my certificate, yet I am being turned down everywhere!”

Her Mum sympathized with her daughter, especially knowing the sacrifices she had endured to qualify. “Life is full of surprises my dear. One can never be sure of anything in this world. It is wise to take each day as it comes. But your day will come.”
It was some days later that she noticed an advert for a secretary with Johnson’s Import & Export Company Ltd. She put her application immediately but with not many expectations. She was however surprised and jubilant when they requested her to call at their offices for an interview.

On her way for her first day at work at Johnson’s she recalled when she had sat for the interview. She had faced the three partners of the Company who asked her many questions and observed her closely to assess her suitability for the post. The older man, the Chairman of the Company, appeared not to favour her very much.

He had told her that they would prefer an older girl with experience rather than a young one who was after her first job. He could not be blunter than that! But Jenny got the job nevertheless. As Secretary to Mr. Johnson himself, the Chairman of the Company! Apparently, on the insistence of the other directors, it was agreed that she be given a chance to prove herself. She was determined to prove Mr. Johnson wrong and the other partners right. On this, her first day at the office therefore, she wanted to give a very good impression of herself, especially to Mr. Johnson – dress her best, hair in place, arrive early. She took out her car from the garage and, to avoid the early morning traffic, headed for the ring road from where she would take the one leading directly to the company offices. It was normally a three-quarter of an hour trip. 

But half way down the motorway she saw what appeared at first glance to be an accident of sort – a stationery car on the wayside and a woman with her head slumped on the steering wheel. She stopped immediately and went to her aid. She opened the car door, looked at the woman, an elderly one, and saw that she was unconscious. She felt her pulse. It was not beating. Her heart must have stopped. Without losing any time, she phoned emergency to the ambulance services and the Police. Then she laid the well-dressed woman on the ground and commenced to give her mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration. She had a life-saving certificate from her girl guides days and knew what to do in such circumstances.
Jenny repeated the process at intervals, trying with all her will power to breathe life into the lungs of the unfortunate woman. It was a trying process but she continued without losing heart. Time was of utmost importance. It was a question of life and death.
Then, when she was about to stop, she felt the woman’s chest heave. She was coming to. Her heart started beating again, slowly at first and then more rapidly.

Some cars had by now stopped, their drivers looking at the scene and offered their help. But Jenny was now in control of the situation. Then the Ambulance and the Police cars screeched to a halt beside her. Out came the paramedics with the stretcher. She explained to both Police and paramedics what had happened. The paramedics told her that her immediate response in giving her artificial respiration had definitely saved the woman’s life. Then they transferred the woman to the ambulance and sped to the nearest hospital. The Police then took Jenny’s personal details for their report. Still in a state of shock, she went back to her car, rested for a few minutes, arranged her hair in the car mirror, dusted down her clothes, started the car and continued her journey to the office.
Her first day. And what a day!! She looked at her watch. It was now 10 am. She would be more than an hour late at least. What would Mr. Johnson say? She expected to be given a dressing- down at least or be fired on the spot. She worried what fate awaited her.

She arrived at the office breathless, saw the receptionist busy on the telephone, murmured “Good Morning” and sat down on a chair waiting for her to finish the call. When the receptionist hang down the phone, Jenny informed her that she was the new Secretary to the Chairman, apologized for being late as she had met a car accident on the way and enquired whether Mr. Johnson had asked for her. The receptionist welcomed her to the office but told her that Mr. Johnson had not arrived yet. Jenny felt relief. Thank the Lord! Mr. Johnson would find her at her desk when he arrives and he would be none the wiser that she came late. The receptionist looked at her, saw her somewhat disheveled and informed her that she could use the bathroom if she wished. Jenny grasped the opportunity with both hands. She definitely needed to put on some make-up and do her hair properly. When she came out of the bathroom, the receptionist accompanied her to her office and made her a cup of tea. Jenny looked at the office, it seemed nice and comfortable. But would she be here tomorrow?

An hour later she heard Mr. Johnson come in and head straight to his office. He buzzed her immediately and Jenny entered his office. With a smile on her face she murmured – “Good morning Mr. Johnson” The Chairman looked somewhat agitated. He told her that he was delayed because his wife had been admitted to hospital earlier this morning but is now well and should be discharged later this morning.

“Miss Stevens”, he continued, “Contact the Police and get the details of the young woman who apparently gave my wife artificial respiration while she was unconscious in her car on the ring road. We are both indebted to her and wish to meet her and thank her personally for saving my wife’s life!”

The Voyage

Jack and Jill were preparing for their first long voyage to the United States. They were ticking the list of necessities to put in their luggage – dresses and suits, shirts and scarves, coats, underwear, presents and other items required for their month long stay with their daughter Marge and her American husband Chuck.

Don’t forget the raspberry cake,” he reminded his jittery wife. “Our Marge liked them so much when she was here.” “OK Jack, and the mince pies and the apple pie too!” she added. Their only daughter, now five years living in the States, was their treasure and they were so excited to see her and their granddaughter Cindy, now six months old.

Marge, a typical English rose, had met Chuck when she was working as a stenographer with the London legal firm of ‘Saunders and Anderson’. Chuck, a lawyer by profession with an American firm in New York, had been assigned a six month period of practice with the London firm in order to learn the intricacies of the British legal system.

They fell in love as soon as they clapped eyes on each other and were married after a six month courtship. They immediately set sail for the United States where they set up home in Albany near Chuck’s parents. Jack and Jill missed her terribly. When their granddaughter Cindy was born, they decided to visit them in New York.

This would be Jack’s and Jill’s first experience of a sea voyage and, indeed, of visiting any other country. They had never left the shores of England before. Therefore they made essential arrangements for their long sea voyage as well as preparations to ensure that everything goes according to plan.

After preparing their suitcases and travel documents, they went to sleep intending to catch an early train to Southampton on the morrow. When they woke up however they found that they had overslept. They panicked, hurried downstairs, dressed in a flash, grabbed their suitcases, went to the station and took the first train to Southampton. All throughout the journey, they prayed that they would be in time.

As soon as the train arrived at the station, they took a taxi to the port from where they would board the ship for their long voyage. They insisted with the taxi driver to drive faster. Everything was done in a hurry as time was running out.

As soon as they arrived, they saw that the ship was just sailing out. They were too late! The passengers on board, all in a happy mood, were lining the ship’s deck and waving to relatives and friends on the quay. A band was playing a marching tune. It was a joyous departure. They had just missed it! With tears in their eyes, they both stared sadly at the big passenger ship “Titanic” as it sailed away to her fateful destiny in history.
 

The Cup Final

The Lucas family lived in Cleethorpes, a suburb of Blackpool in the Fifties. Grandfather Peter and his grandson John were both fanatic supporters of Blackpool FC and, rain or shine, never missed a home game.

The grandfather, then in his sixties, used to recount to his grandson, then in his late teens, how often times he and his best pal Billy Watts, used to travel to matches together and attend to classic games in which football greats of yesteryear took part. The grandson was thrilled to hear about the famous British football legends whose names were known not only in England but all over the world.

As the Lucases were season ticket holders of the ‘Seasiders’ matches, they qualified for Wembley tickets when Blackpool reached the FA Cup Final in May 1953. Both were looking forward to travel together to London and give vociferous support to their team on the big day.

But a fortnight before the Cup Final the grandfather passed away. The boy cried as he had lost not only a dear grandfather but also a friend and a good story teller too. The marvelous football stories that his grandfather had recounted to him over the years passed through his mind.

As his own father had no interest in football, the grandson decided to trace his grandfather’s old friend and ask him whether he would like to see the Cup Final with him. He discovered that he had moved to nearby Fleetwood. If his grandfather could not go to Wembley, who better to take his place than his old pal, with whom he had attended so many great games in the past?

The grandson managed to track down his grandfather’s old friend and phoned him. He was despondent to hear the news that his great friend had died. But he agreed to take his place on the trip to Wembley with the grandson. John was delighted that he had made his grandfather’s friend so happy. When the big day came, John went to Fleetwood to meet his grandfather’s old friend so that together they would travel to London and see Blackpool play Bolton Wanderers in the Cup Final. But shock awaited him. His grandfather’s friend was blind and had been so all his life. His grandfather, he learned, had accompanied his blind friend to all those games of yesteryear and had given him a running commentary of the action taking place on the field.

After overcoming his initial surprise, the grandson felt great pride that he should now be taking his grandfather’s place and take his pal to Wembley where he would, like his grandfather did before him, give him a commentary of the entire proceedings of the game. And so it went. John commented on the electric atmosphere before the start of the game. It was a thrilling Cup Final. Blackpool had some famous names in their team that day – Stanley Matthews, then 38 years old, on the right wing; Stanley Mortensen at centre forward; Harry Johnston at centre half and George Farm in goal.

But a few minutes after half time Blackpool were 3 – 1 down and the outcome looked pretty grim. Young John Lucas and old Bill Watts sat huddled together with other disappointed ‘Pool’ supporters. “It’s impossible now Bill” John lamented with tears in his eyes. “Blackpool cannot come back from 3 goals down”, he continued. But old Bill had more spirit. “Have faith lad, have faith! More impossible things have happened in the past. Blackpool have some great ball players. They have courage and fighting spirit. Have faith!”

It is at this point that Blackpool captain Harry Johnston rallied his team mates; he was shouting, encouraging and directing them as if the fate of the world depended on them.

John was commenting in Billy’s ear. “It’s Matthews now with the ball, dribbling past one player, past another, past another. What a player! He centres to Mortensen who is waiting in the penalty area. A high ball; Morty gets it and shoots. A goal! A goal!” Both got up instantly with all other ‘Pool’ fans and cheered, sang and made enormous noise with their rattles. The score was now 3 – 2 and Bolton still in the lead. It was a titanic battle now. Only two minutes of normal time remains. John took up the commentary again – “Mortensen is taking a free kick some 20 yards from the Bolton goal. Can he do it? All the Bolton players form a tight wall.” But Morty sees a gap between the Bolton players. He walks five paces back. A hush descends on both set of fans as they waited to see what Morty could do. Morty gives it everything he has. It’s a thunderbolt of a shot. It got through the wall. A goal! A goal! The score is now 3 – 3. There was no need for John to tell Bill what was happening on the field. Blackpool have come from the dead. The normal 90 minutes have passed. A minute of injury time remains to be played. John grasps Billy’s hand and continues his commentary in gasps – “Matthews has the ball now; starts a dribbling run down the right flank; beating one player, two players, three players!! He is near the corner flag now; there’s Morty and Perry galloping towards the penalty area; Matthews centres the ball; Morty lets it roll past him but it reaches Perry on the left; he shoots straight at the Bolton post. A goal! A goal!”
There is pandemonium all over the ground. Blackpool have won the Cup by 4 goals to 3. The impossible became the possible! Unbelievable!

John and Bill hug each other. What a wonderful moment. There is singing and cheering, an incredible noise. Young John leans towards old Bill – “Harry Johnston is now going up the Royal Box; the Queen is presenting him with the FA Cup; all the other Blackpool players are behind Harry; they advance one by one; shake hands with the Queen; she gives them a medal which they hang over their necks; it’s Matthews now; the crowd is enthusiastic; the Queen is talking to him. What a sight!!” Bill listens attentively to John‘s words. He is so happy!
The great Wembley spectacle is over. As young John takes old Bill’s hand and escorts him out of the Stadium amid the mad celebrations of the Blackpool supporters, the old man stops, turns towards his friend’s grandson and says – “I’ve been blind all my life, but I’ll tell you this my lad, after this game I’ve seen it all now!!”
 

The Painting

I lived with my grandparents since when I was ten years old when mum and dad had divorced, which makes it more than twelve years now. I loved both grandma and grandpa immensely. They were everything to me throughout my childhood, youth and adult years. But I was especially very close to grandpa in so many ways. We spent so much time chatting and laughing together in the small garden at the back of our house.

“What’s up with you?” grandma used to shout at us, from the kitchen window when she saw us in one of our jolly moods. “It’s grandpa telling me a funny story grandma” I used to reply, without losing concentration to what he was saying. But both of them were good honest-to-God characters who instilled in me the importance of love, of honesty and of religion.

My grandfather was an artist, a painter to be more exact. He was considered to be a fine oil painter by many in our community. He frequented the artistic circle of friends and had known and mingled with some of the famous painters of his day.

Our house, small as it was, was full of his paintings. They covered an entire wall and visitors often mistook our home for an art gallery.

Painting was not only my grandpa’s hobby; it was his love and obsession. It helped him express his feelings, his love of nature and his different moods. How I loved to stay by his side while he used the brushes after dipping them in the paints on his slate.
What are you going to do when you grow up?” he asked me one day. “I’d like to take medicine, become a medical practitioner but …………?” I stopped in mid-sentence, while conjuring all the difficulties that might lie ahead. “There is always a ‘but’ dear. Life is full of buts. But you must have the determination to surmount them” said my grandpa, obviously speaking with the experience of his years.

But our house was too small for the three of us and for his many paintings. He was always saying that now, that he was getting on in years, we have to move to some other larger place where he could enjoy life more and he could indulge in his favourite art.
I was fifteen years old when my grandparents finally decided to move to the little town of San Giminiano, in the beautiful Tuscan hills of Italy. Apparently grandad had an old friend living in that area, another painter no doubt, who encouraged him to move there where several foreign painters were located.

Both my grandparents had always wished to retire in the sun and my grandfather enthusiastically anticipated painting the lovely hilly countryside so famous in Italy and all over the world. “It would inspire my creativity and imagination!” he told me.
All the arrangements for our transfer and of the furniture and belongings were completed in a short time. As our furniture was being packed, we watched grandpa’s paintings being taken down and carefully placed into crates, which were then nailed down and stored in the basement, ready for the shipping.

As one particular painting, which my grandfather was still working on, was being put into the crate, grandpa said to me – “I know that you like this painting very much Carol. I will therefore dedicate it especially to you. It will be yours!
It’s true. I liked this unfinished painting. It showed the portrait of a craggy old man, weather-beaten and wrinkled but a charming face all the same. Although still unfinished, it looked to be a beautiful painting. I loved it and anxiously awaited grandpa to complete it and hang it in my room.

The first thing I will do when we get to Italy is finish this painting. Before I start another one” my grandfather told me, as we looked at it being patiently crated by the removal men.

But a week before our departure, tragedy struck. He was involved in a horrific road accident and lay in a coma at the local hospital. Grandma and I were at his bedside every day and as often as we could. He was all we had.

I did not believe, as the doctors assured us, that he was unconscious, not knowing what’s happening around him. I strongly thought that although he could not move a muscle, or murmur a sound, he was still conscious of us and what we were saying. I was firm in my belief and I spoke to him as I used to do in the garden at our home. I also mentioned his paintings, as I knew that he would love that.

I prayed fervently to God that he would live. My faith was strong that the good Lord would hear my prayers. However he died six months after the accident and I was bitterly disappointed that my faith had let me down.

It was some months after his death that grandma made the decision that, in the circumstances, we should not relocate to Italy but should remain in England where we were born and bred. After this decision was taken, the cases of all our belongings were brought back from the basement. They were unpacked and silently restored to their old places in our house, where they had been before grandpa had decided to transfer our family to the Tuscan hills.

It was after some time that grandma engaged some experienced workmen to open gently the crates where grandpa’s paintings were packed. We both stood by them supervising the unpacking to ensure that no damage whatsoever was done to any of the paintings.
What are you going to do with them?” I asked grandma as we stood watching the men remove the nails, open the tops of the crates and gently uplift the paintings one by one. “We’ll hang some in the house certainly, they will then always remind us of grandpa” she said “but I am afraid that there is no room for the others. We’ll have to donate them to the art gallery where the curators will look after them.

Then grandpa’s unfinished painting was removed from the crate and the workmen asked grandma – “Where shall we put this painting Madame?” We both looked at it at the same time and were utterly astounded and stunned speechless.
The painting, which grandpa was to finish in Italy, was now completed and, what’s more, at the bottom right hand side of the canvas, was grandpa’s distinctive signature and, in small words – ‘To my lovely Carol’.

How was that possible?” was the only thought that passed through our minds at that surprising moment.
 

Dennis the Menace

Betty Parker, now in her forties, had been living in this street for a good number of years. A distinctive character of a woman, she carried her buxom figure majestically. She had left school at a very early age and, as result, she could neither read nor write.

Her family consisted of Bill, her small-framed husband and a brood of five small children whose ages ranged from six months to twelve years. She could outshout any market trader or anybody else for that matter. This notwithstanding, Betty had a heart of gold, always at the front to help anybody in need of any assistance whatsoever.
Mary Simmons was a different woman altogether. For one thing, she was older, past her sixtieth year, and a dedicated spinster. She was an ex-school teacher having dedicated her life to teach the children of the community at the town’s primary and later secondary schools.
As all dedicated teachers everywhere, she had remained a teacher at heart, even after her retirement. Everybody loved Mary, not only because she was often sought by her neighbours to fill in their various forms and read and write their letters, but also because she was a genuine woman through and through.
Although Betty Parker and Mary Simmons appeared to be so different from each other, their willingness to help others and their cordial nature were similar. They had become firm friends since Mary came to live here some ten years ago.

 Betty frequently called at Mary’s place for a fresh cup of tea and to recount news and views as well as the gossip going round the neighbourhood on this, that and the other. But during these visits she also brought two or three of her children along with her. Mary, childless and family-starved, loved these children especially Dennis who, though a bit of ragamuffin who everybody called Dennis the Menace because of his many exploits, had a genial and endearing nature.
One fine day, while Mary was reading the latest Daniele Steel novel, she heard a knock on her front door. It was a hard impatient knock, so she laid down her book and hurried up to open the door. It was Betty with a face as gloomy as an English dark night in winter, holding the youngest of her brood in her arms. “I have been summoned to go to Court Mary! To court!!
Mary ushered her inside, made her sit down on the chair and tried to calm her nerves as much as possible. “Let’s make a cup of tea, then we’ll see about the problem and what to do about it, shall we Bett?” Bett would never say no to a cup of freshly-made tea, though today there was a more urgent matter to see to.
It’s my son Dennis, the eldest one; he’s got me into trouble once again; I’ll have to tell my Bill to give him a hiding when he returns from work this evening; he needs to learn his lesson you know,” said Betty obviously agitated and in a state of shock.
Mary did not want to show Betty much sympathy as that would only serve to embarrass her. “But what’s it all about Bett? You haven’t told me why you are going to Court yet,” interjected Mary as she served tea.
The inspector came to warn me last week that next time I’ll have to be brought to court. Like some criminal! What a cheek!” said Betty as furious as a Spanish bull in front of a matador.
Mary still did not know what the demented soul was going on about. She could not fathom it out at all. So she insisted. “Bett, you’ve mentioned ‘Dennis’, ‘Inspector’ and ‘Court’; what in heaven’s name is it all about? Tell me clearly.
Bett looked at Mary with a surprised expression. “My Dennis must have missed school again, the rascal. The inspector had warned me that if he does it again, I’ll be dragged to court. That is it Mary. As clear as crystal is it not?
But who asked you to go to court Bett? Did the inspector call again to give you the summons for a court hearing?” asked Mary.
Here, here, see the letter. The postman gave it to me just now. He seemed to sympathize with me, bless him. The school inspector had told me that my boy had missed school. He must have done it again. Now it’s court you see. Court Mary! Like a criminal! What shall I do? I have never been to court in all my life. What shall I say?” answered Betty.
Mary knew how serious the matter was. Her thoughts went back to parents who were slack in seeing their children to school. The authorities took an exceptionally tough line when it comes to children missing their lessons.
But Mary also knew that Betty’s son Dennis was not a bad boy. And he was very intelligent too. He always impressed her whenever he came to her house to assist him with his homework. Maybe he was laid astray by some of his school friends.
Betty sat quiet for a while searching Mary’s thoughtful face. “He’ll not listen to a word I say. Now he’s brought me to this trouble. My Bill will punish him. I’ll make sure of that. I will! Here, read the letter Mary, read it and tell me what to do. Will you come with me to the court? I’ve never been there you know, what shall I say, tell me?
Mary took the letter from her hands. It had the school mark on the envelope. She opened it and withdrew the official-looking document. She cast a speedy eye along the wording and with each line her heart turned somersaults.
Mary what is it? Tell me when I have to go?” said Betty now very anxious. Mary gathered her composure and smiled at Bett, a wide grin on her face.
It’s from the school all right Bett; it says that young Dennis has passed his exams with flying colours and that he has been awarded a scholarship to attend the secondary level at St. Martin’s next term. It says that he’s a very intelligent boy and that the school authorities have congratulated you on Dennis’s success.
Betty was stunned, could not believe what Mary was saying. She got up swiftly from her chair, embraced her in her arms and said “My Oh my! Thank you Mary! Thank you Dennis! Thank you Lord!”
 

The Night Vigil

It’s the last day of March and the cold is still biting as Matron Peters closed the door of her house behind her. Tired and exhausted from a hard day at the hospital, she fell into the armchair immediately. She was not young anymore. Now close to forty-five years, thirteen of which she spent working at St Mary’s Hospital in the London suburb of Wimbledon.

She was so exhausted that she did not even reach for the local evening paper that lay spread out on the coffee table in front of her. Matron Peters raised her heavy eyes but before she had time to read the headlines, they dropped again. With apparent effort she lifted them once more and, as her eyes followed the words in the heavy type, a faint gleam of recollection spread over her. Thirteen years ago ……

————————————–

She recalled clearly that day. She was barely out of her teens, shortly after she had started as a substitute nurse at the emergency ward of the local hospital. It was evening. She had just come in for her night shift. There was a commotion in the hall. The ambulance had brought a seven-year old boy who had serious head and limb injuries following a fall from the window of his home.

He was rushed to the emergency section and given immediate attention. After a thorough examination of the boy’s injuries, Dr Williams grimaced. He turned to Nurse Peters by his side. “It’s not a simple concussion. His spine is injured. The fall had impaired his brain …… I’m afraid there is little we can do! But keep vigil over him, just in case he becomes conscious.”

The boy’s name was Walter Adams and he was still in his Chelsea football strip. Nurse Peters unwound the soiled bandages off the little boy’s head. He was obviously in pain. A tear escaped her as she caught a glimpse of his limpid blue eyes that, for a moment, lighted his features.

She put an ice-bag on his head and hot water around his limbs. Then she sat down beside his bed and every now and then bent over him looking for any sign of consciousness.

After a while, Nurse Peters heard steps and stood up. Dr. Williams was calling again. He bent over the little patient, took his pulse in one hand and pressed the stethoscope on his chest with the other.

Nurse Peters wished that she could read his mind. She felt an empathy with the boy and prayed that his position would improve. Impatiently she asked. “How is he doctor? Is there any hope?”

Dr. Williams shook his head and moved away from the bed. “I don’t think that he’ll survive till dawn!” She felt so sorry for little Walter. He’s such a fine boy. What a pity.

As the doctor went to see to other patients, she stayed with Walter through the night, praying that he would survive his ordeal. It was so unfair for one to die so young. She kept looking at him for any sign of consciousness, a sign however small, that he was coming back.

Then, while her eyes were resting on his face, she saw his eyelids flicker, just a little but they did move. She jumped from her chair beside his bed and called Dr. Williams on the buzzer. “He’s gaining consciousness doctor, I just saw his eyelids flicker, please come quickly and see.”

He was in Walter’s room in seconds. He looked at the patient but saw nothing. He felt his pulse and stared at him again for a few minutes. There was no movement whatsoever. He turned to Nurse Peters and in a vexed tone muttered. “You’re imagining things nurse. He’ll not make it, I’m afraid. Even if he does, he would go through life as an idiot. He would be better off dead, in my opinion.” He patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, very sorry”, he said. “But we cannot do anything for the poor boy!”

As Dr Williams left the room, she was again alone with Walter. There was nothing for her to do, except wait and pray. The night was long. She was thinking. ‘Will he live or will he die?’ Suddenly she felt cold all over and glanced around the room.

The rain-drops were tricking on the window panes. She rose from her chair, strode towards the window and brought down the blinds. The soft pattering of the rain could still be heard but the room now felt more secure. At that moment her imagination ran loose.
‘An idiot! He would depend for his living on charity! He would be teased by other children, scorned by society or, worse still, confined to an asylum – living in perpetual hell!’

She looked at Walter. She could not accept what the doctor had said – that if he survives, he would be better off dead. She wished him so much to live and to lead a normal life like any other child. She moved slowly towards the window, lifted the blind, gazed at the street below, dawn was breaking, soon another nurse would come to relieve her.

The soft patting of the rain had ceased. She went back to stay by Walter’s bed and looked at him with pity in her eyes. Then, all of a sudden, it happened! She saw his body quiver and a pair of heavenly blue eyes looked, for a moment, into hers. Was she seeing right? Has he gained consciousness at last? She panicked, buzzed Dr. Williams again and shouted for assistance.

————————————–

The sharp ringing tones of the telephone brought Matron Peters from the past back to the immediate present. She had been reliving an episode that happened during her first days at St. Mary’s Hospital.

As she lifted the receiver to her ear, the large black headlines of the newspaper spread in front of her, caught her eyes.

Adams scores winning goal for Chelsea
In FA Cup Final at Wembley

A wide smile spread across her face. It was nearly thirteen years since little Walter Adams, in a Chelsea football strip, had been given up for dead, except that she did not give up. He had come a long way, becoming a football hero for his boyhood football team.
 

Coming Home

The train rocked rhythmically. Going home …….. going home …….. going home. I stared out of the window as the countryside flashed past on fast-forward. I was going home. I felt a sense of anticipation. Thoughts of memories made my heart flutter.

I had been two years away from the little town where I was born and raised, where I went to school and college, where I used to have friends and boyfriends, where I grew up and had my first love affairs, where my father still lived. Two years!

I still remember the day I left. It was the second Wednesday in March, just after eight in the morning. Outside, the morning was crisp and slightly frosty. Inside, however, the fire was burning and warmth engulfed the whole room.

I was enjoying my last cup of tea with my father during which I sat listening to his continuous advice on what to do and not to do in the big city. My mother had died a year earlier and we had become closer to each other.

Then I hurried to my room upstairs, packed my bag and made my last preparations. I went down, hugged and kissed my father, both of us making promises to keep in touch and then I left, not wanting him to see me crying.

Two years! Even though I had not seen my father these last two years, he was a constant companion to me. He phoned, he wrote, he sent things from home, he asked about me. He was a pillar of strength to me especially when I was feeling down.

I had been working in the city as a Research Assistant at the large University there. I immersed myself in my work and never looked back. This work gave me satisfaction and a sense of responsibility. Thoughts of home and of how my father was coping were however often on my mind.

The train sped on, the landscape changing only slightly. Why did the journey seem to take so long? Recollections of my father passed through my mind – taking me window-shopping in the High Street on Saturday mornings when I was still a child; fretting over me when I had a cold or a sore throat; making endless cups of tea; baking my favourite jam tarts; cooking my dinners when I returned from work in the evenings; and so many other memories that flashed across my mind as I looked pensively from the window.

The train had now slowed down. It was approaching the station. It had been a long journey. I was home ……. I was home! I was anxious to be with my father, to see how he was, to look after him, now that he had retired from work.

He often used to tell me to settle down with a man, get married and start a family like all girls do eventually. “Don’t become an old spinster!” he used to admonish me. “You’ll feel safer in a family surrounded by a loving husband and boisterous children!
I alighted hurriedly from the train, passed the station and noted the old stationery shop on the left and the cafeteria on the right. The same old man was behind the stationery counter. Things don’t change much, I thought.

I hailed a taxi. “No. 55, Baxter Street, please.” I told the driver. I was back to my roots. I intended to settle down here again, get work, look after my father, face the future together and see what destiny had in store for me.

My heart began to beat faster and my pulse quicker. “Here you are Miss, this is your place,” said the driver. I alighted from the taxi, paid and thanked the driver, grabbed my case and walked down the pathway to the front door.

The place looked lovely, I thought. The gate was replaced with a new one, the grass in the front was cut and crisp, the door had a new coat of paint and shone. Dad is using his retirement time to good use. I was glad for him.

He opened the door wide. He must have seen me from the window. I dropped my case and ran as fast as I could towards him, almost knocking him over as I threw my arms around his neck and hugged and kissed him. We were back together again after two years.

As I raised my head, a slight movement inside the room caught my eye. A fair-haired woman, in her fifties, looked slightly embarrassed. She held her hands tightly together in front of her and was smiling almost apologetically. Surprised, I released my father from our embrace and stepped back slowly.

Who …?” I began. He coughed and cut me short. “Pauline dearest, do you remember Peter Collins, the one who owned the local pharmacy who died a few years back? Well, Mary here is his widow and we’ve got to know each other well over the last couple of years. Well, actually we’re getting married!”

I backed away from him. I grasped at the door frame, feeling sick and about to faint. My mouth opened and closed. I could think of nothing to say. I just stared at him blankly. “How could you do this to me? How could you? Daddy, how could you?
 

The Woman in the Blue Coat

I met her by chance on platform 5 at Victoria Station. It was Saturday 22 July 1969, a typical rainy London day. I remember well that day because the newspaper posters and headlines were sensational and unforgettable –“Man lands on the moon!

I was waiting to catch the 10.05 train to Brighton. I wanted to see Julie and make up with her after our quarrel the day before. The large white clock on the station wall marked 9.45. The station was, as usual, awfully busy with commuters’ hurrying to catch their train or to reach their place in the capital.

She came from behind, put her hands around me and whispered in my ear – “Oh George, I thought that you would not come”. Then, as I turned round and she saw my face, she exclaimed – “Oh my God! I’m so sorry; I thought you were my husband!

She was, perhaps, 35 years old; a charming face, long auburn hair, navy blue coat, red scarf. She apologized for her mistake, saying how much I looked like her husband from behind. “These things happen” I said, “Don’t worry about it”. We shook hands and she hurried out of the station.

I saw her again a year later. She was on trial for allegedly shooting and murdering her husband in his own flat in Putney. I looked at her face but I was unable to place it anywhere. I racked my brain but it transmitted no reply. Then her coat jogged my memory. The woman in the navy blue coat I had met at Victoria Station. What a coincidence!

She stood silently in the dock with her eyes looking down. She was alone, facing the Judge, the Jury and the Court audience. As I looked at her, she seemed somewhat different from the woman I had met barely a year ago. The twelve month gap seemed to be showing on her. Her assurance and self esteem appeared to have deserted her. In truth, I felt sorry for her.

The trial drew a lot of interest from the general public, so much so that the Court was full up when Peter Russell-Lodge, appearing for the Crown as Prosecutor, rose from the bench to make his opening address. He gestured widely with his hands showing a determination to make an impact with his audience.

In skilled and broad sentences, the prosecuting lawyer outlined the Crown’s case against the defendant. “Before this trial comes to an end, I will prove that this woman, intently and cold-bloodedly, murdered her husband because she was in love with another man!

He explained, in graphic details, the sequence of events leading to the couple’s meeting in the Putney apartment, the argument, the quarrel, the confrontation and the shooting. He based his main thrust on the intent of murder and on the evidence of witnesses that it was the defendant who had actually killed the unfortunate victim-her husband George.

He called his witnesses. The neighbours who heard the couple quarrelling and shouting; the taxi driver who drove the accused from outside the Putney apartment to her place in Earl’s Court; the Police who confirmed her fingerprints on the gun used in the shooting; the doctor who described the victim’s cause of death.

The facts presented and the witnesses who have given evidence before this Court today make it justifiable clear that the accused had committed the crime” stressed Russell-Lodge. “Your Honour, gentlemen of the Jury, these are factual and not circumstantial evidence. The accused is guilty of murder and should be punished according to law for her crime. I rest my case.

The people in the Court room sighed and murmured among themselves. It looked like the case against the woman in the dock was irrefutable and that, whatever the line of her defense, she was doomed.

The Court adjourned for the afternoon when Peter Paul Smith Q.C. started his defense. His appearance brought smiles and light laughter from the spectators in Court. He was fat, wore a three-piece suit that must have been out of date when his father owned it. His tie, obviously stained, was knotted the wrong way.

But behind this facade, he was one of the best criminal lawyers in England. It was said that he had never lost a case in his career. Today, however, the audience was thinking that it would be his Waterloo.

Your Honour, gentlemen of the Jury”, he began. “Despite the evidence brought up by my learned friend the Prosecutor, my client is innocent.” he continued. He looked straight into the eyes of the jurists, as obviously it was them he wanted to impress and convince. “She has not committed the crime she is being accused of doing.” He was turning from left to right and then left again, so as not to miss the attention of the Judges, the Jurymen and the whole audience. “She did not commit the crime because she was not with her husband, the victim, when the crime was actually committed!

Peter Paul Smith, astute and dramatic as ever, then began casting doubts on the defense witnesses – the neighbours, the taxi driver and the Police. He attacked their character, exposed their health failings and highlighted their dubious moral behavior.

He also, slowly and skillfully, played on the emotions of the jurors like a master musician – making them laugh, bringing tears to their eyes and always holding their rapt attention.

My client has an ‘alibi’ which would show that, at the time when her husband was being killed in Putney, she was with another man at Victoria Station!” The audience was stunned. How could this be possible? If this man would confirm this statement, the woman in the dock would stand a chance.

But your Honour, I have a problem. We sought this man everywhere but we cannot find him. I have absolutely no doubt, however, that my client is saying the truth. She saw him from behind, thought he was her husband and embraced him. But she was mistaken. He was not her husband!

I was perspiring. My mind was running amok. It was true that she met me at Victoria Station, but how could she, at the same time, have been at the Putney apartment as confirmed by the Prosecutor’s witness. Something was definitely wrong here.
In the circumstances, gentlemen of the Jury, I would like you to ask your conscience that, just because this man seems to have disappeared and cannot be found, it does not necessarily mean that my client’s sworn testimony is not true. I ask that my client, this innocent woman before you, be found not guilty. I rest my case.

The presiding Judge adjourned the case for tomorrow morning when the Jury’s verdict and the Judge’s sentence would be given. The audience, now evidently agitated by the turn of events, left the Court talking among themselves.

The following morning the Court resumed its work. The audience sat down anticipating the outcome of this case. The jury had been left isolated from the public in order that it would not be influenced in its decision in any way whatosever. It had discussed the case throughout the previous night, going through all the evidence and submissions brought before the court.

The nine-man jury represented men and women from practically all walks of life. As they entered the Hall to give their verdict, the presiding judge solemnly asked, “Gentlemen of the jury, having considered all the evidence presented and having heard the arguments of the Prosecution and the Defence, do you find the accused guilty or not guilty?” The silence in the court room could be cut with a knife.

All eyes were fixed on me. I looked at the woman in the navy blue coat standing in the dock, awaiting anxiously her fate. For a fraction of a second her eyes met mine. I rose up from my chair and, as head of the jury, spoke on behalf of my colleagues – “NOT GUILTY
 

A Medal for a Hero

How are you this morning Mr. Preston?” asked the cheery young nurse as she pushed his wheelchair towards the open terrace of St. Francis Retirement Home in Fleetwood. He smiled back but did not reply.

Jack Preston, now in his mid sixties, had been living in the Home for the last two years, since his beloved Sharon had died. He was born in the East End of Glasgow but had settled in Lancashire after marriage.

He was loved by the nurses because he gave them no trouble, kept mostly to himself and spoke very little. Occasionally, he also suffered from loss of memory.

There is some sunshine and you will like sitting here for some time before lunch” said the nurse. “Thank you” replied Jack, obviously delighted to be left alone with himself for some time.

He had no family and very few friends in Fleetwood. Some did visit him occasionally and spoke of events of many years ago. They mentioned war and guns and death in a far away place he did not know. He hardly remembered any of what they described.
Jack’s friends, who visited him when they happened to be in the area, were Robert and Paul, two of his Scottish colleagues from the ‘Highland Regiment’ which served in the Vietnam war years ago.

Robert and Paul knew Jack very well indeed. He was, in their eyes, a hero of that useless war in the Far East, fought in the deadly marshes of the rice fields, continuous rainstorms and, on many occasions, hand to hand fighting with the Viet Cong.
During one of the fiercest battles of this war, when the Highlanders were surrounded by hundreds of their enemy, it was Jack who, without fear for his own life, had pushed his way forward. He stood there like a super human firing left, right and centre until he was able to pave a path for his friends to escape probable annihilation.

But not only that. Although Jack was wounded after carrying out his sole mission, he went back and carried wounded colleagues to safety while the Viet Cong kept up their incessant fire. With blood oozing from wounds in his head and arms, he led his comrades to safety.

Robert and Paul, as well as other veteran Highlanders, including Col. McDougall, their Commanding Officer, had been for years recommending to the authorities that Jack’s exploit in the Vietnam War deserved a medal of recognition.

Also, the community of Fleetwood, including the town’s publication “Fleetwood News” had backed the Highlanders Veteran Association and had officially petitioned the Government and the Forces Authorities to give due and early consideration in giving Jack a medal of honour for his extraordinary feat, in face of heavy odds against him.

The community, including the staff and inmates at St.Francis Retirement Home, considered Jack as their hero whose bravery was unjustifiably being ignored by the authorities.

For the last two years there were numerous exchanges of correspondence, petitions, meetings and discussions between the Authorities and Jack’s backers – the Fleetwood community, the Town Council, the Veteran Highland Association and the Fleetwood News.

But the Authorities procrastinated. They listened, they discussed, they promised, they considered the backer’s arguments; they accepted that Jack deserved recognition for his bravery. But because of Government bureaucracy, the decision was delayed repeatedly and Jack was never given the medal he so deserved.

Jack did not, of course, know what was happening. He did not know that so many people were pushing for his recognition. He did not even remember the episode. Sometimes he did not recognize his colleagues Paul and Robert. Sometimes he did not remember who he was. Jack, often lived in a world of his own.

It took well over three years to enable the Authorities to process the petition and approve that Sgt. Jack Preston of the Highland Regiment be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) for bravery and heroism during the battle for Da Nang Hill in Vietnam twenty years ago.

A Committee was set up to organize the ceremony for the presentation of the award. It consisted of high Government and Military officials who were entrusted to organize the presentation. Col. Ralph McDougall, the Commanding Officer of the Highland Regiment, Sir Godfrey Spencer, a respectable resident of Fleetwood and Robert Johnston, Jack’s war time friend were consulted.

H.R.H. the Duke of York had agreed to present Jack with the medal. The Regiment’s Band – with its pipes, drums and bugles – was to perform “Scotland the Brave” and “Blue Bonnets over the Border”.

It took some more months before everything was finalized and detailed preparations were made for the ceremony. Finally the Secretary of the Committee was directed to personally inform Jack Preston that the ceremony award of the DSO was to be carried out at ten on Sunday morning.

The Secretary, armed with all the details relating to the ceremony, went to St. Francis Retirement Home and sought out the nurse who, with dedication, looked after old Jack. He hoped that she would help him communicate the details to Jack and also help Jack prepare for the coming ceremony.

What can I do for you?” asked the young pretty nurse when the Secretary demanded to see her. “I’m the Secretary of the ‘Military Award Committee’, he informed her. “I have come to inform Jack Preston that he has been awarded the DSO and that the ceremony is to take place next Sunday morning.” The nurse gasped, held her breath and said “Jack Preston passed away last night of a sudden heart failure!” She closed the door in the Secretary’s face with deliberate utter contempt and went inside, where she sat on a chair and broke down in tears.

 

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