Saturday, 7 November 2009

A War Story - 2

II


The man woke up at noon. There was stillness in the house. He had been out on the job until the early hours of the morning but nothing much had happened, no drunken soldiers, no desperate girls craving for the company of their army boyfriends who were confined to barracks.

The man lay still for a moment and checked for sounds in the house. There was total stillness. Just the occasional rumbling of an engine when a car drove past. He called out for his wife in the dark tone of command that usually brought her into the room. It was her custom to give him his morning coffee in bed, but there was no reply, she must have gone out on some errand.

Suddenly the door opened and his grandson came in. The boy just stood there staring at him as if he had come across a stranger in his grandfather’s bed. “Yes,” the man said at last.”So what do you want?” The boy had a way of looking at him that sometimes made him shudder.

"Grandmother said you should take me downtown to school,” the boy said.

“She said what?” the man exclaimed. He had never before in his life entered that establishment.

“To see the exhibition,” the boy replied.

"What are you trying to tell me?" the man asked. He assumed at once that there must be some serious misunderstanding.

“Grandmother had to go away,” the boy said. “Her friend was taken ill all of a sudden. You have to take me downtown, for the exhibition. It’s today.”

The man felt himself getting irritated. “What exhibition are you talking about? What’s happening? Where is your mother?”

“The exhibition of the best drawings and paintings by the pupils this year opens today. My drawing is the very best of them all,” the boy said with no obvious pride, as though he took his superiority for granted. Then he looked at his watch. “It opens at one o’clock, he said. “And we mustn’t be late.

His grandfather felt uneasy. He was not used to dealing with things like this. He drove a taxi, and by doing so provided for the family, but all this business of teachers, authority and too much education made him unsure of himself. He only felt at home in his taxi: there he was in total control of his surroundings.

The boy looked at him with a flat expression.

“And where is your mother?” the man asked again.

“She went out last night with her friend and hasn’t come home yet,” the boy said.

The man got out of bed. He felt that he shouldn’t inquire into these matters any further, at least for the present. He got into his trousers and put on the suspenders. He found his slippers with his feet and made his way to the kitchen. He would have to do without coffee this morning. He had no clue as how to go about making himself a cup.

The clock on the wall showed twenty minutes to one and the boy was looking downcast and nervous.

“And did your grandmother say when she’d be back?” the man asked. The boy shook his head and his grandfather gave up all hope of escape. “Well, get dressed then,” he said. “We’d best get this over with.”

He found his shirt, jacket and a tie and put on his shoes. The boy was waiting for him out on the veranda. He looked unusually pale and distracted. “So what are you so uptight about?” his grandfather asked.

“It’s my drawing. I’ve never taken part in an exhibition before, so naturally I'm nervous about showing my work in public for the first time.”

His grandfather suddenly felt an urge to laugh. How strange his grandson was. He was almost like a grownup locked into the body of a child. “Well don’t you worry about it,” he said. “I'm sure the other kids are not as handy with the crayons as you”.

“Oh, they aren't,” the boy said looking at him. His face broke into an enormous smile. “I know I'm by far the best.”

“Now how do you know that?” his grandfather asked, feeling his mood change from amusement to sudden irritation.

“I just do,” the boy said.

When the school came into view the man saw that flags were snapping in the wind high on top of the pools to both sides of the entrance. The stairs to the doorway were broad and wide and reminded him of the entrance to some official building in Germany he had recently seen in a picture in a newspaper. He felt his old sense of discomfort become more intense. Pupils were streaming through the gate with their parents or other relatives, brothers or sisters. The boy and his grandfather walked up the steps.

Slowly they walked along the corridor and then made a tour of all the rooms. The walls were covered with the kind of drawings that children do. There were houses and people and animals, horses and dogs and cats and chickens in drawing after drawing with an eternal sun shining over most of the scenery and the people and the animals and the occasional flower. When they had made the rounds the grandfather said: “Well?”

“Mine isn’t here. They haven’t hung it up.”

“So much for your lady in the sky,” his grandfather remarked. “Never pay any attention to dreams, for the most part they’re nonsense.”

He knew the words were harsh, but he was hoping the whole thing would teach the boy a lesson.

Suddenly the boy looked over to a handsome young man with jet-black hair and square jaws. “That’s my teacher,” he said in a low voice. He tugged at his grandfather's sleeve. “Let’s go and talk to him.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea? If they didn’t see fit to exhibit your picture, and they sure didn’t, you had better accept it,” the old man said.

But the boy was insistent. He tore himself free from his grandfather and went up to his teacher. Suddenly he seemed even more firm and more independent than usual. The teacher was talking to an elderly couple, apparently trying to hide the fact that he was a little annoyed at the intrusion, but the boy kept on talking. The grandfather felt it his duty to go closer in case his grandson needed any help.

The teacher looked in his direction and said, “We only hung the pictures we thought were good enough to exhibit.”

“Come on,” the grandfather said. “I’ll treat you to a soda pop on the way home.”

He glanced down at the child. The boy had a stunned expression, as though for the first time in his life he had had a glimpse of reality.

It was a good lesson, his grandfather thought. But he felt annoyed that the child’s drawing had not been considered good enough to be included in the exhibition.

(to be continued)

A War Story - I

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