The Roman and the Runaway, p.1A. J. Braithwaite
The Roman and the Runaway
A. J. Braithwaite
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©A. J. Braithwaite, 2009
PART I: The Roman
"And what the bloody hell d'you call this?"
Luke Brownlow shut the front door behind him as he entered the house. He could feel his start-of-the-summer-holidays happiness seeping away as he turned to see what his father was shouting about this time. He was waving some sheets of paper around which Luke recognised as his end-of-year school report. His happiness was replaced by a rising feeling of gloom as he prepared himself for yet another argument.
In the living room, the shouted greeting had triggered frightened wails from Luke's toddler sisters. He watched his mother rush out from the kitchen to soothe the girls. There was a stressed and reproachful expression on her face; she often seemed to look like that, lately. Luke decided that avoidance was the best response to his father's question and headed towards the stairs. But his dad could move remarkably quickly for a big man and he caught up with Luke at the foot of the staircase and grabbed his arm.
"Oh no, you don't. In there." He pointed at the kitchen and towed Luke inside. Luke shook off his father's grip with an irritable jerk of his arm.
"Well?" Dad asked, holding up the papers to Luke's face.
Luke rolled his eyes and sighed, as though he was dealing with a simpleton. "It's my school report," he said, choosing to answer the original question literally. His father wasn't impressed.
"It's appalling," he snarled. "I don't believe you've done a single day's work at the high school in the two years you've been there."
As this was almost true, Luke did not bother to reply. His mother, having calmed down the twins, came back into the room, still looking worried and upset.
"Hi, Mum," Luke ventured, trying to introduce a bit of friendliness into the conversation.
But Dad turned out to have Luke's mother playing on his team.
"Your mother and I are very concerned about your lack of progress," he said.
Mum nodded and added, "I can't understand it, Luke, when you used to do so well at the village school."
Luke knew he wasn't going to be able to explain the differences between the two schools to them. He might have tried if it was just his mother but he wasn't going to attempt it with Dad there. His father seemed to be constantly on his back about something or other.
"Is the work so much harder, Luke?" his mother asked, her forehead creased with concern.
"Of course it isn't," Dad snorted. "He's just bone idle, that's all. Uncool to work hard is it?"
This was uncomfortably close to the truth but Luke wasn't going to give his father the satisfaction of knowing that. He stared at the floor in silence.
"Dumb insolence, as usual," his dad decided. "Well, I warned you that there would be consequences if you didn't get your act together. For starters you're not going to be spending any time this summer with your so-called friends."
"What?" said Luke, startled into speech. "You can't stop me seeing them!"
"I'm also looking into finding you a different school to go to in September," added Dad. "It seems to us that a clean break is the only thing that's going to work, now."
Luke was horrified at this prospect. "You're fucking joking!"
He hadn't meant to swear and instantly regretted it as his father lost his temper and dealt him a heavy, open-handed blow to the side of his face. Luke cried out in pain and staggered sideways, pressing his hand to his cheek. The three of them stared at one other, all equally shocked by what had just happened. Luke had never sworn at his parents like that and his father had never struck him before.
Dad spoke first, breathing hard and looking annoyed with himself. "I apologise for that, Luke but I think you've just made up my mind for me. Get out of my sight."
Luke dashed upstairs to his bedroom, only too willing to get as far away from his father as possible. He slammed the door shut and threw himself heavily onto the bed, trying to hold back angry tears. The side of his face was throbbing.
After a couple of hours of confinement in his small, hot bedroom, Luke couldn't bear being in the house any longer. He could hear the girls across the landing in the bathroom, splashing and chattering away as Mum got them ready for bed. The cover of their noise provided him with a good opportunity to try to escape. He quietly opened the door and crept down the stairs, keeping to the edges to avoid making the ancient treads creak. On reaching the half-landing where the stairs turned down to the hall he spotted his dad's legs protruding from underneath a newspaper. He was sitting on the bench by the front door and was clearly waiting for Luke to come down, probably to demand an apology.
Luke silently reversed his course and slunk back to his bedroom. Desperate now to get out of the oppressively warm and stuffy little room, Luke leaned out of the open window and looked at the drop below him. Although it was upstairs, the ceilings of the old cottage were so low that the room was not a long way above the ground. A pile of sand due to be used to build a patio was heaped directly beneath the window, conveniently placed to break his fall. The room immediately below his was Dad's study and would not be occupied since he knew his father was stationed on guard duty in the hall. Without thinking any more about it, Luke climbed on to the window sill, lowered himself backwards through the window and dropped onto the pile of sand.
He considered his next move. The cottage was one of a row of several flint-faced homes joined together in a short terrace. The garden was fenced and surrounded by other people's properties. From where Luke was standing now, there was no way out of the garden apart from through the house. The cottage next door was the end one of the terrace, so if he had to escape over a fence, it made sense to do so in that direction and leave through that garden's side gate. The house was sometimes let out as a holiday cottage, with Luke's mum acting as housekeeper for the absent landlord but Luke was fairly sure his mum had said something about there not being any tenants this week. This meant he should be able to sneak out of its side gate without running into anyone. Getting as far away from his parents' cottage as possible was the only thing on his mind.
The twins' plastic push-along car was resting against the fence on that side, making it easy enough to clamber up onto it, grab the fence and pull himself over. As he dropped down on the other side Luke realised he was heading towards a newly-planted flower bed. Trying to avoid treading on too many of the young plants, he lost his balance and ended up squashing several more as he regained control of his legs. It seemed that someone had recently watered the bed. Luke looked down at the destruction he'd caused and let out a further string of swear-words.
"As I've just spent all afternoon weeding and planting that bed, I can approve the sentiment, if not the vocabulary."
Luke looked up. The evening sun was dazzling him, so he shielded his eyes with his hands in order to see who had spoken. There was a man sitting at a wooden patio table in the shade of the fence on the opposite side of the narrow garden. He had fair, close-cropped hair and a stocky, muscular build. Luke's first thought was that this was not someone you wanted to get on the wrong side of. His second thought was that it was probably too late in his case.
"Perhaps you'd like to get off the flower bed, before you destroy any more of my plants," suggested the man. "It's Luke, isn't it?"
Just my luck, thought Luke. This guy must be the owner of the cottage. He's bound to tell Mum and Dad about this. Then there would be
Luke wished that some of his friends lived in the village so that he could meet up with them and see if their reports had been as disastrous as his but they all lived in the town where his school was; several miles away. He either had to catch a bus or get his parents to drive him there. The bus service was infrequent and now it looked as though the chances of getting a lift from Mum and Dad would be non-existent. Luke kicked an old Coke can along the road in frustration, feeling just as imprisoned by village life as he had been in his bedroom earlier. There was just nothing to do.
An angry growl from his stomach reminded Luke that he hadn't eaten anything since lunchtime. He wandered into the newsagent's. There was a bored-looking young woman behind the counter but no other customers, so Luke picked up a newspaper and pretended to read the front page. When a middle-aged man entered the shop and asked the woman for cigarettes, Luke took advantage of the distraction by slipping a Mars Bar into the pocket of his baggy jeans. He then made a show of re-folding the newspaper and placing it back on the shelf. He flashed a smile at the woman as he left, wishing her a cheery "Good night".
After an hour or two of aimless wandering, Luke had to face the prospect of going home. The sun was setting and his parents' general rule was that he should be home before nightfall. It hardly mattered tonight, since he was already going to be in big trouble for leaving the house in the first place but Luke turned back towards home anyway.
His sense of depression grew as he walked down the row of cottages until he reached the one which housed his family. It looked idyllic from the outside, with its grey flint walls and brick-edged doors and windows yet he knew that as soon as he walked through the door, the inside of the cottage would be anything but peaceful.
He opened the door, bracing himself for another onslaught from his father. But the first sound he heard on opening the front door was not an angry bellow but something much more unexpected.
Laughter. Luke was so surprised that he stopped half-way into the house, almost thinking he must have entered the wrong building. He quietly shut the door behind him, wondering what was going on. He slipped into the kitchen and took advantage of the unexpected break in hostilities to raid the fridge for some more food. The stolen Mars Bar had not been enough. He had almost finished a Cornish pasty when his mother entered the room.
"I thought you must be getting hungry by now," she said. "Come through to the living room, I want you to meet Ned."
Luke stared back at her, disorientated by the friendliness of her manner.
"You know, Ned who owns the holiday cottage next door!" his mother said, misinterpreting Luke's puzzled expression. "He's going to be staying in it himself this summer. I did tell you."
Luke followed his mother to the other room, still bemused that he wasn't being shouted at. His father was sitting with the man whose flower bed Luke had destroyed earlier. Luke looked at them both warily. Dad wasn't looking thrilled to see him but he didn't seem furious, either. The other man, Ned, had a look of relief on his face. It occurred to Luke that Ned was the only one who knew that he'd run away.
"This is our son, Luke," Mum was saying. "He's grown up a bit since the last time you saw him."
Not really, thought Luke. The smile on their neighbour's face suggested that he was sharing the joke. He rose from his chair and came towards Luke, holding out his hand.
"Graham Kelly," he introduced himself. "But usually known as Ned."
Curiosity overrode Luke's other emotions. "Why?" he asked, as he shook the man's hand.
"Ah," said Mr Kelly. "Well that's mostly down to your mother." He looked across at Luke's mum, who laughed.
"She thought I was too dull when we were at school together," explained Mr Kelly, "so she named me after Ned Kelly in the hope that it would liven me up a bit."
This explanation made things no clearer for Luke.
"You'll have to look him up one day," added Mr Kelly, detecting that Luke had no idea who Ned Kelly was.
Fat chance of that, thought Luke.
"Well, I'd better be going," said Mr Kelly. Luke's father heaved himself out of his seat and the two men shook hands. "It was good to see you again, Andrew," said Mr Kelly. He nodded at Luke as he walked towards the door of the room. When he reached it, however, he stopped and looked back.
"Luke, If you're interested in earning some extra cash this summer, I could do with some help in the garden," he said.
Luke thought of the plants he had crushed in his escape from the house that evening and had to resist a sudden desire to laugh out loud. He really had no option other than to agree. "OK," he said.
"Shall we say tomorrow at 9am then?" asked Mr Kelly.
Conflicting voices filled Luke's head for a few seconds. His internal argument went something like this:
Voice 1: He's expecting me to get up before nine on a day when there's no school?
Voice 2: He hasn't told your parents about you escaping from the house.
Voice 1: He's expecting me to get up before nine on a day when there's no school?
Voice 2: He hasn't told your parents about you destroying his garden.
Voice 1: He's expecting me to get up before nine on a day when there's no school?
Voice 2: He's kept your parents entertained all evening so they wouldn't notice you weren't in the house.
Voice 2 seemed, on the whole, to have the more persuasive arguments. Luke gave in.
"OK," he said, again. Great, he thought. Not only am I not allowed to see my friends, now I'm going to be spending my summer doing hard labour for a guy who looks like a Sergeant-Major.
At nine o'clock the next morning, Luke reported for duty at Mr Kelly's door. The man led him through the cottage to the back garden and showed him the stump of an old tree.
"I'd like to dig this out," he said, "but it's going to be a two-man job, I think."
It was hard work. They had to dig the soil away from the stump first, then took it in turns to chop through the thick roots underneath with an axe. Luke had never swung an axe before and thoroughly enjoyed this part. After an hour, they took a break and Mr Kelly brought two cans of Coke out to the patio table.
Luke sank down gratefully into one of the chairs. It offered a good view of the flower bed he had landed in the night before. Reliving the events of that evening, Luke's eyes travelled to the fence he'd scaled and on, up to the window he'd climbed out of.
He realised that Mr Kelly had probably had a very good view of all of Luke's actions last night, as he had been sitting in this very spot.
As though reading his mind, his neighbour asked: "Do you often climb out of your window and over the fence?"
Luke wasn't sure if this question was going to be the start of a lecture about his behaviour but Mr Kelly's demeanour remained relaxed and his tone was pleasant enough.
"Er, no," replied Luke, "I'd never done that before." He felt more explanation was needed. "There was a bit of a row."
Mr Kelly was looking at him closely and Luke became more conscious of the red mark on the left side of his face, where his father's hand had connected with his cheek. He put his hand up to touch it. "Mostly my own fault," he admitted. Then he went on to add: "Thanks for not telling them about it."
Mr Kelly acknowledged Luke's thanks with a nod and took a sip from his can. "We all make stupid decisions sometimes," he said. "The important thing is not to repeat them."
His neighbour frowned. "And how are you getting on at the school you're at now?"
A thought that had been lurking on the sidelines of Luke's mind suddenly stepped onto the field and he remembered his mother telling him that Mr Kelly was a teacher. Knowing that the man had a professional interest in the answer to this question generated a wave of embarrassment which turned Luke's face bright red. He had no intention of answering anyway and remained silent. But Mr Kelly appeared to be impervious to the dumb insolence which so enraged Luke's dad. He seemed to think Luke was blushing because he was ashamed of his performance at school.
"Perhaps it's not such a bad idea then, to make a fresh start somewhere new."
Luke said nothing. He downed the rest of his drink and went back to the tree stump. It seemed preferable to having to listen to yet another adult who wanted to send him away to school. Mr Kelly clearly had no idea what he was talking about.
The arguments between Luke and his parents continued over subsequent evenings. His father flatly refused to allow Luke to take the bus into town to see his friends and was exerting all his efforts into finding a private school which would be able to take Luke in September.
By the end of the first week of the summer break, he announced that a last-minute place had become free at the school he himself had attended when he was a teenager. It was some distance from home and Luke would have to stay there during term-time. The idea of spending weeks at a time at school seemed horrific to Luke.
"We're trying to do the best thing for you," his mother assured him.
But Luke didn't believe her. "No, you're not," he shouted back. "You're just trying to get me out of the way!"
One way and another, Luke seemed to be spending the first week of the summer either yelling at his parents or shut up in his bedroom. The only escape he had to look forward to was working next door in Mr Kelly's garden.
The Roman and the Runaway by A. J. Braithwaite / History & Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on30 votes