I’ve lived here for fifty years, brought my dear wife back here after we wed, watched children grow up and leave, saw them come back with their own little ones to visit the grandparents. Our kids played in the streets. The worst things that happened to them was being chased away or yelled at if their ball should smash a window. All I could hear every afternoon when I walked home from work was the sound of children shouting, laughing, and the chanting songs of girls as they skipped with ropes or bounced their tennis balls against the walls.
But that was all so long ago. I’m alone now and like to keep to myself. I look out of the window, trying to keep out of sight. I see tired-looking mothers dragging their kids past my house on the way to find the car they’d parked streets away the night before. You can see the stress clouds hanging over their heads. I flinch as I watch the one who yanks her child’s arm almost out of his socket, try to block out the swear words that come out of her mouth. She turns and is red-faced as she sees me watching. I look away, embarrassed. Where do the children play now? I ask myself.
This morning a leaflet came through my door. RECLAIM THE STREETS, it shouted at me in red and green letters – capital letters. ‘More junk,’ I thought as I flung it onto the kitchen table. I put the kettle on and sat down.
My thoughts, as always, drift to my own son and daughter, my family that had cut me off so cruelly. It wasn’t my fault, I tell myself, still bitter about the way I’d been treated. Once the alcohol takes a hold there’s not much you can do. It takes over your life, the reason to live, and your children, your loved ones, have to take second place. It wasn’t me that hit Mary, my dear wife – it was the whiskey in my bloodstream, in my brain and in my heart, making me hate all those I loved. It wasn’t me that stopped seeing my kids when they were at the age when they most needed their Dad. I needed a slug of cheap wine inside me to stop the shakes before I got on the bus and by the time I got to their house I was three sheets to the wind and she’d slammed the door in my face.
I reach for the kettle, pour myself a coffee, shaking away from the past, content at least that I’ve been free of the devil drink for more than a year now. Be thankful for small mercies, I tell myself, knowing inside that although I’ve reclaimed my life, my family is still lost to me. I don’t even know where they live now – the last contact I’ve had was five years ago. My children are grown, probably with children of their own and I will never ever know them.
There’s a knock at the door. I try to ignore it, blowing at my too-hot coffee. Another knock brings me to the window again. I try not to twitch the curtains as I peer out from the gloom of my house. It’s a young boy and he’s smiling at me. I turn away, annoyed that I’ve been seen and determined not to be disturbed but he keeps knocking and knocking. I sigh, swear under my breath and go to open the door.
‘Please Mister,’ he grins up at me. ‘Are you coming to the party on Saturday?’
‘Party? I know nothing about a party. Who are you? Where is your mother? What do you want?’ I glare down at him, hoping that he will run away back down the street.
‘There was a leaflet about it. We’re reclaiming the streets, stopping all the cars so we can play and all get together. We need raffle prizes and I’m asking every one in the street to give something. Please,’ he added as an afterthought.
‘I’m not interested in that,’ I snapped. ‘Just leave me alone.’
I tried to close the door but he’d spotted something behind me and was pointing at it. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked, as he slipped past me into the hall.
I turned and he was at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at an old photograph that had been on the wall since, well since forever, it seemed.
‘Why have you got a photo of my gran on your wall?’ He was still staring at the picture. ‘She’s young in that one, but I’ve seen the same photo in one of my Mum’s albums.’
Looking back on that day, the day I met my grandson for the first time, I still feel shivers down my spine and thank God that I answered the door.
I did go to the Reclaim your Streets street party. I gave a raffle prize, ate cake, watched the children playing in the road, chatted to neighbours, and I met my daughter-in-law who had moved into a house down the far end of the road. Turns out that she had split up with my son a year back and had no idea that she was moving near to her son’s granddad. Now, a few months on, I still haven’t found the courage to invite my son and daughter back into my life, but every day I feel a little closer to them. My grandson often drops in after school with his friends and I once again hear the sound of children playing in my back garden and once a month we close the street so they can play in the road as well.
Life gets better and better
Christine’s Inspiration: ‘After hearing about the reclaim our streets project, it reminded me of when I was small and we moved into our first proper home in a new council estate. There were hardly any cars, we all had big gardens but most of the time all the kids played in the streets, learnt to ride bikes, played hopscotch and ball games in the middle of the road. Everyone knew you and you knew everyone in the street. I thought it would be wonderful for today’s young families to have that sort of experience. I wondered what it would be like for an older lonely person living in the city, cut off from his neighbours, if a street party was organised and he was brought out of his shell by a younger person. The story flowed from there.’
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.
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