Garrison Fields

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Chapter 35 - The best day of my life

That morning Jane was first in line to visit her boys at the orphanage. As soon as the door opened, she went into the office and signed the visiting book. She was known by the staff now and many of the boys who were expecting visits were waiting. This was the only day when they might have a chance to leave the orphanage for a day, the duty officer had a list of boys who might be given a day pass and the name of the person who was supervised to accept them into their custody. She was fortunate that the duty officer was Mr Wigg, she knew him by sight and by reputation the boys had spoken very highly of him, but she had never had occasion to talk to him previously.

‘Mr Wigg, I’m Jane Burns, Matt and Luke’s mother, I wonder if I might ask you something.’

He looked up at her. ‘Certainly, Mrs Burns please ask.’

Her look changed to one of apprehension, she felt her throat constrict. ‘My Matt’s being sent to the Army soon and next weekend will be his last here. I was hoping that him and Luke might come home that weekend and spend it with his family? you see we don’t know when we’ll see him again...’

‘Mrs Burns, please don’t worry, you just need to tell me the address he will be staying next weekend and I shall sign both of the boys out to it. Do you have the details?’

She looked sheepish as she said it ‘Yes, it’s the General Wolf public house will that be alright?’

‘I take it that the boys will be upstairs and not downstairs, so to speak?’

‘Indeed Mr Gregson, they’ll be in the flat.’

He smiled he had only meant it as a little anecdote, but he could see that the point had been missed.

‘There will be no problem Mrs Burns, I shall sign the weekend pass for them for next weekend. If you come between five thirty and six on Friday to the office the boys will be waiting and you should have them back on Monday before nine, will that be convenient?’

It would be more than suitable, she thanked him for his help, he replied with, ‘Will you be taking the boys out today?’ She was astounded most times when she visited there was always an excuse why the boys could not leave the orphanage, the classic was the church service that they were required for. This was usually down to whoever was on duty. The younger members of staff did not want the hardship of waiting around for the boys to be returned and of course the extra paperwork, which was involved, especially if one did not come back.

‘If I could Mr Wigg, it’s a beautiful day and we could have a picnic on the beach, their younger brother Ted is there at the moment with my employer and his wife.’

‘Do you know Mrs Burns that sounds exactly like the sort of day we should all have, I’ll just sign them out in the book, they’ll be along in a second, if you could have them back for about half past five.’

‘I shall, the coast starts to get a bit chilly late in the afternoon with the breeze from the North Sea blowing in, I will have them back in good time, don’t you worry about that Mr Wigg.’

All was agreed, the boys came in and went to see their mother, she told them that Mr Wigg was letting them out for the day, plus next weekend, they would be able to go home for the whole weekend. They were quite shocked by the news, but eminently happy as the smiles on the faces testified to, as they left the office heading for the beach. She was positively beaming all over, looking at them each in turn. They had both grown and she was immensely proud of them both.

‘Let’s take a tram down to the beach’ she stated ‘Ted will be so pleased to see you.’

They waited at the corner and within a few minutes the tram arrived. Mounting it, they discovered that there were no seats available. A man offered Jane his seat, she thanked him. her sons stood in the aisle by her and she looked at them continually in their Sailor suits. She saw people looking at them from time-to-time, it was unusual to see boys from the orphanage out. It did not bother her, she wanted the world to know these are my sons and I am proud of every hair on their heads.

The tram bumped along its tracks and the iron wheels squealed as they went round the sharp corners. As they went over the intersections, where one set of tracks crossed another, the whole carriage seemed to bounce up and down. They did not have to change trams, after ten minutes the conductor was shouting out that they had arrived at Roker Beach. Alighting the tram, they made their way along the promenade standing at the railings looking up and down the beach to see if they could spot The Dunbar’s and Ted.

Even with three sets of eyes, they were not to be seen. All of a sudden, an unannounced Ted ploughed into them all completely out of breath. The Dunbar’s had left slightly later than they thought, having made the picnic and gathering some bath towels to lay their picnic on the beach. The time had moved faster than them but is was still only turning ten in the morning. The morning was beautiful and clear with the sun not yet at its full heat for the day, so that as you walked through the shade you were glad you were wearing a jacket. Everything was fresh and the scents of the grass and flowers in the park gardens were beautiful and made you glad to know the summer was approaching. They had walked through Roker Park and through the man made cut in the chalk cliff near the bandstand which led down to the promenade and beach. It was as they had come out of the cut and crossed the road that he caught sight of them some two hundred yards away standing at the railing looking of course in completely the wrong direction. He had shrieked when he saw them.

‘Look its Matt... Luke and Mummy,’ he had begun to pull so hard on Mrs Dunbar’s hand pulling her along the promenade, that as it was safe, she released and said

‘Well... you go on and let them know we’re here.’ He required no further encouragement and dashed along the promenade towards them. He tried to run faster than his body could move, there were nearly one or two stumbles, the Dunbars’ laughed watching.

‘I think we are going to have one or two grazed knees before the day is out.’ The boys and Jane all now walked to meet the Dunbars. Matt and Luke relieving them of the bags of beach items. It was a very friendly scene as they made their way down the granite steps onto the beach. They soon found an area on the beach, which was in the sun and slightly sheltered. The bags were placed down and the towels laid, Matt and Luke were given a couple of pennies by Jane and dispatched accompanied by their shadow Ted to the beach attendant to get a wind breaker and a couple of those wooden framed brightly covered canvas covered deck chairs, which require dexterity and ingenuity, so as not to trap ones fingers in them and the same mental agility for solving a Chinese puzzle for its erection. As the boys returned Jane and Mrs Dunbar had finished laying the towels which they would use to sit on, and also placed some of the heavier items on the corners to weight them down against the occasional wind which would scatter items as soon as you became complacent or unwary.

Mr Dunbar took the chairs off the boys, one at a time and placed them behind their picnic square they had laid facing the sea, he then checked the breeze, which was slight at the moment, it was coming along the beach from the north.

‘It’s coming all the way from Russia,’ he stated to the boys.

‘When we lose the sun today, you’ll feel the ice in it.’ They all agreed and helped to push in the poles of the wind breaker as hard as they could into the sand, the canvas between the poles gently pulsating with the mild breeze. The warmth which the day would bring was just about at its zenith as the time ticked round to midday, the boys had dispensed with their boots and socks and sailor smocks and were sat on the towels running their toes through the sand; they causally talked about nothing in particular. It could be seen that Matt was apprehensive about joining the army but would make the best of it.

As Mrs Dunbar remarked. “You’re not going to be the first and most certainly not the last”. It was true and although an observer could consider the remark to be harsh, it was true, and would be something that he would have to bear up to the truthfulness of the remark. It had the right effect, in that it took away the prospect of him as an individual, it would be a trial for him but one so many had gone through before. And for many it had been the defining moment in their life!

They continued to chat, Mr Dunbar asking the boys from time to time about the sports they did, they were both keen footballers. Mr Dunbar remarked on how good he was as a youth and how if he had not fell into his current profession, he indeed might have followed a sporting path joining the local football team. He had had a trial as a youth, but his family had said no, there was no money or prospects in it, but he still did enjoy going when he could with a number of his fellow landlords, on a Saturday down to Roker Park to watch the match. He now remarked casually on some of those great names, whose deeds years after their playing days end live on and in some cases are enhanced by the passing of time. Mrs Dunbar who had been talking to Jane and rummaging through the picnic bags, now broke into her husband’s conversation.

‘Fellow landlords...Well there’s a name for them, you mean your old drinking cronies!’ She looked at them all, it was now turn for her fun.

‘Do you know on match days; they all meet at midday at the Prince of Wales to discuss how the team should play the match. Afterwards they go to the Royal Oak to discuss how the team should have played the match. The amount of talk they spend on that team it should be the best in the land, if only they listened to Mr Dunbar!’

She continued her rummaging while Mr Dunbar with a big smile on his face looked at the boys. ‘Do you know I think Mrs Dunbar is right, if the other managers and I spend a little more time planning on a Saturday, we might just get a cup final out of it!’

The boys smiled and looked towards Mrs Dunbar for her reaction, she of course was not even listening any more to the conversation, she had said her piece and was now concerned with lunch.

‘Oh dear, we’ve only enough for a little snack here, we don’t have enough for three growing boys.’ She looked towards Matt and Luke, you don’t mind going up to the prom and getting some fish and chips there is a nice place along the end next to the ice cream parlour.’ They knew it and within a moment the order was taken, it was to be haddock all round and sixpence worth of chips, would be enough for all, a bottle of cream soda and one of Dandelion and Burdock was also placed on the list as it was a special occasion.

Mrs Dunbar would not here any protests from Jane and handed the money to Matt. They pulled on their boots and left, within a second a call went up to them from Jane to wait for Ted, who had been pleading to go, they turned as he sprinted to them.

‘Now you remember to keep an eye on your brother,’ went up the cry from Jane, they walked on with Ted in the middle each of them holding a hand, with him jumping and the boys swinging him, he was having a fantastic time with his two heroes.

They returned laden with the meal wrapped in yesterday’s news and the bottles of pop. The meal was soon consumed and the afternoon drifted lazily on as they sat behind the wind break. There was no wind and it acted as a sun trap the Dunbars enjoyed a snooze while Jane and the boys talked. Ted built sandcastles next to them, each agreed what a wonderful job he was doing, which in turn moved him to attempt greater feats of sand engineering.

After he tired of sandcastle building the boys took him over to the donkey ride and escorted him up and down the beach as the owner led the donkey. Jane waved to him as he went past, he waved back with a smile bigger than his face. The Dunbar’s at last refreshed from their afternoon nap stirred Mr Dunbar looking in the bag for something to quench his thirst, as the bottle was produced, he heard his wife’s very stern voice.

‘Not in front of the boys,’ he immediately returned the bottle to its hiding place, his wife looked at him.

‘No wonder that bag was heavy, where on earth did you find the time to get that?’ He just looked back with his usual amiable look.

‘I thought you saw me put it in love?’ A frown came over her face, ‘as if...’ was her answer.

Everything was now consumed Jane packed the plates and cutlery away. ‘I’m still thirsty’ came Mr Dunbar’s voice, Mrs Dunbar looking at them all.

‘Goodness me, he’s worse that Ted.’ Ted who had no returned liked this and smiled, after all he had really tried today to be good.

‘Well, we promised Ted an ice cream and as you haven’t been too bad you can go and have one too!’ Mr Dunbar thanked his wife, he was most certainly not going to have ice cream. It was just what he didn’t require, it was far too sweet. The boys this time accompanied by Mr Dunbar, Jane as well as Ted walked up to the promenade with him; Jane wouldn’t mind if he slipped off for a couple of minutes, there was a pub a couple of doors down from the Ice Cream parlour.

They went to an Italian ice cream parlour that reputedly made the best ice cream in the town. If they did not make the best ice cream at least it was fun to be greeted by the Italian proprietor. Who always had an amusing comment for each customer he served and with his foreign accent; every comment was acceptable and seen as fun, it was nearly theatre.

As they walked into the ice cream parlour in their uniforms Mr Novelli, who was always parading behind the counter issuing orders in what to all was a theatrical manner, or to his family, just normal Italian banter. Seeing the boys, he shouted in his thick rich Italian accent.

‘Watch out the navy is in town,’ he leant forward across the counter and pointed at Ted.

‘Hava you come to steel my daughters, sailor man?’ Ted looked very sheepish, he wasn’t sure what to say, he shook his head at Mr Novelli.

‘You sailors hava come to get wild and a smasha the place up, have you. Just like in Naples?’ All the ice cream parlour were now looking and laughing; however, poor Ted was oblivious to all this. With questions being fired at him, again Ted shook his head, he was getting more worried. Mr Novelli now issued his last broadside to the sailors

‘So you hava not come for my daughters, and not to smasha the place up, so is it Ice cream you are wanting from papa Novelli?’ Ted nodded meekly, Mr Novelli saw that the theatre he liked had been performed. All in the parlour would talk about the mad Italian and moreover come back another day for perhaps more theatre. He finished his act by leaning forward and offering his hand.

‘You’re my good friend sailor and any friend of Papa Novelli always gets the free ice cream! You choosa any ice cream you want, here’s my hand on it.’ Ted was still apprehensive he was quite shocked, Matt leaned down.

‘Shake Mr Novelli’s hand Ted.’ Ted looked at him and being so shy of the situation he continued looking at Matt for security as he held his hand out in the general direction of Mr Novelli, who grabbed it and shook it vigorously. Everyone erupted into laughter and cheers in the ice cream parlour. Mr Novelli now went to the end of the counter and came round, he took Ted by the hand again and explained each of the ice creams and sorbets in the cabinet. In the end Ted, ended up with several small scoops and the boys each took a vanilla wafer. On paying Mr Novelli instructed one of his daughters to not to charge for any of the boys’ ice creams. Mr Novelli knew, as most did, that they were from the orphanage and would not be in that institution out of choice. He could see his customers appreciated the gesture as well, not too bad for trade in the long run, as everyone in the parlour would tell of his generosity and moreover, he had enjoyed doing it.

Jane thanked him it was kind of him to do so. They now hurried back to the beach as the ice creams were melting fast, Ted’s for some unknown reason seemed to be melting faster than anyone else’s, or maybe it was just his hands being smaller more of it appeared to be running over his fingers. The tale of Mr Novelli was recited several times to Mrs Dunbar, and there were several “and then” as the tale grew in proportion. Mr Dunbar at one point nearly chocked with laughter and Mrs Dunbar had to bang him on the back several times, eventually opening the concealed bottle of beer in her bag and gave it to him to stop his cough, his face being nearly scarlet with the convulsions of mirth.

At length Ted went down to the water’s edge and popped some sea water in the small bucket pale he was making his sandcastles out of, they all washed the remaining sticky mess off of their fingers. It really had been a fun afternoon for all. Mr Dunbar could not recall when he had laughed so much without an alcoholic beverage, well perhaps one or two he had sneaked in on the promenade. But now they could begin to feel the day losing its heat as the breeze from the north made itself felt. Mr Dunbar pulled his watch from his waistcoat and pressed the catch, the watch opened up as he read the time.

‘Just as usual 4pm and we’re losing the heat.’ They agreed it was time to pack up, it had been a fun day. The ladies packed the picnic things away and the boys were dispatched to return the deck chairs and the wind break. They carried the items to the tram stop on the promenade. The Dunbar’s would take them back, they were a lot lighter now anyway, as everything had been either eaten or drunk Mrs Dunbar looked at Ted.

‘Are you coming home with us Ted?’ she enquired, Ted who was still holding Matt’s had tightened his grip and looked sombre, Jane looked at him and the Mrs Dunbar.

‘He’ll be fine, I’ll carry him if he gets tired, I’m sure he’ll be ready for his bed when he gets back.’ They all agreed and shortly afterwards the tram turned up and they thanked and waved goodbye to the Dunbars, in contrast to the morning, they didn’t want to hasten their arrival back at the orphanage, so they walked through Roker Park and back to the orphanage with Ted inseparable from the boys, holding either Matt or Luke’s hand in turn or both together, they swung him and as happened for most of the day generally spoiled him. Chatting about how things would be when they came of age and could return home and be a family again. At length they reached the orphanage just before the appointed time. They parted and went inside and once they had disappeared inside the office Ted ran to the railings.

He would now wait for them to emerge from the office and cross the square back to their dormitory. He would wave at them and they back at him, until they went in the dormitory. As they went in, he turned round to his mother

‘That was the best day of my life.’

She smiled, ‘Let’s be getting off home then.’

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