CASTLES IN THE AIR by meico ()
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... a little bit of a longish life ... these are autobiographical episodes as accurate as my memory can make them, even down to the dialogue. Nothing has been added or changed for dramatic effect.
This episode is set in the sandpit of a park in Abercynon, South Wales. The park was partially financed by the American army in appreciation of the hospitality shown to them by the local people.
CASTLES IN THE AIR
The little toy spade clanked on the base of the upended bucket. The small boy, crouched by the bucket, eased his stubby fingers to the lip on one side and then on the other.
“Now!” he said. His mother, a startlingly attractive brunette in her early twenties, stopped knitting and watched from the cast-iron bench beside the sandpit. The boy grinned excitedly at her. He slowly drew the bucket upright, taking extreme care to keep it perpendicular. He held his breath as the tower of sand beneath appeared.
It would hold! He was sure this time he would make the keep, and then the castle. The bucket was clear of the lovely, lovely rounded tower which slowly, slowly, then quickly, disintegrated to a shapeless heap.
“Oh, duw,” said the boy, flinging his bucket aside, “yr hen cythraul!”
“Now then, temper, temper!” said his mother, “no swearing, now just, even in Welsh”
“If a thing's worth doing it's worth doing well,” she continued, “if at first you don't succeed....”
“ ... try, try, again” they said in unison.
The boy sighed, flashed a resigned smile at his mother and began to refill the bucket. He concentrated deeply, tongue working from a corner of his mouth, pushing the sand hard into every corner.
'You got a problem?' A rich bass voice over his left shoulder made him jump. He turned, and his eyes already round with surprise, widened further. It was a soldier. A Yankee Doodle, thought the boy, and a yankee doodle with dark skin. He'd seen men with dark skin marching with the yankee doodles down the High Street on the way to the Camp, but never close. The boy was silent and didn't reply, but the soldier just smiled slightly, stepped over the low sandpit wall and sank to his knees in front of the boy, their faces now level and near. The soldier smiled and the boy was instantly at ease, he'd never seen a bigger smile. The soldier seemed about to say something to the boy, hesitated, then turned to the young woman, her knitting discarded once more.
“This OK, Ma'am?” he asked,
“Why shouldn't it be OK?” she replied, genuinely puzzled, “Captain” she added, noticing the insignia on his sleeve.
“I can tell you're not an Alabama lady, that's for sure!” he laughed, “I'd appreciate it fine. You see, Ma'am, I need the practice, I'll be home in a month and I haven't seen my son in two years.”
“Oh help yourself, I'm not much of a one for castles, see”
The soldier lifted off his peaked cap, strode over to the bench and placed it beside the young woman. She covered it with her knitting bag. “Keep the sun off,” she said.
He walked back to the small boy who was still sitting, fascinated, on the edge of the pit, cocked his head slightly, shook it slowly from side to side.
“Hmm ... collapsing towers the problem, huh?” The boy nodded.
“Then I have the solution” He strung the word out “sol... oo ... shon”
“Now, which sand did you use?” The boy, not fully comprehending, pointed to the pit.
“Ah, but which part of the pit?” The boy still did not understand, so did not reply.
The soldier smiled, picked up the bucket and spade - both ridiculously small in his huge hands - and motioned towards the shady area at the far edge of the pit.
“First thing about castles, son, is you must use damp sand. Dry sand just don't bind. You get my meaning?” The boy nodded again, this time with a little more certainty. “Now, get some in that bucket, and push it in real tight, you hear?”
The boy grinned at the 'real tight' and obeyed, instantly. “Will it stay up this time?” he asked apprehensively, “Are you sure?”
“Sure, I'm sure, sure as shootin' sure!” The boy chuckled at these lovely American words. In his head he repeated 'sure as shootin'. He'd remember that for Auntie Wen, tonight when she tucked him in after the Story: are you asleep she'd ask, “sure as shootin” he'd reply.
“If it's going to work, we'd better make the platform first, then the keep can go in the middle and the parapets can go round the side,” explained the boy.
The soldier settled himself more comfortably in the sand. “You sure know an awful lot about castles, and you're awful young for book-learning” the soldier said.
The boy ceased shaping the sand and gazed at the man, horrified. “Haven't you seen our castles?” he said, “Castell Coch and Cardiff Castle are just a few stations away, and they all have old keeps and things!” The soldier laughed, “I've only been here a day, and I'll be gone soon ... no time for sight-seeing, son.”
Together they built the castle: the platform, oval, was formed and smoothed flat. The all-important keep was installed - and it held - and the parapets began to be raised.
“I think I can leave the rest to you, mister castle-builder,” the man said, “it'll be a fine castle!”
“The best in Wales,” the boy replied, “to keep the old English out!” Remembering his manners the boy added “diolch, I mean thank you!” and reached out his small hand towards his new friend, hesitated, and withdrew it quickly.
The man frowned, dipped his head and said in a low pained voice, “Don't worry, son, the colour don't come off. It's OK to touch!”
The boy was astonished, “Do you think I'm tup, I know that! Mam has said you must wait for your guest to offer a hand before you shake it, didn't you, mam?” he called over his shoulder. His mother smiled at the soldier and nodded. Tension gone, the soldier stood, brushed the soft sand off his knees, and strolled over to the young woman on the bench. The boy glanced at them, happy to see his mam and his friend chatting in the warm summer sunshine.
He continued his careful construction, pieces of conversation taking his attention from time to time. Contentedly and very precisely he worked with sure, deft fingers, adding pebbles and twigs from the path surrounding the sandpit to create the finer details. Finally, the castle was complete, save the main gate. The boy could not see how this could be made. How could you make an arch, even with wet sand? He called over to the bench “Excuse me, Captain Elleray” [he'd overheard the name] “could you help with this bit please, the gate?” “Sure can, sure as shootin” The boy laughed delightedly.
They both squatted before one of the short sides of the parapet wall and discussed the best place to make the gate. They decided they would have to tunnel through one of the walls to make the gate, slowly and painstakingly so as not to disturb the sand above. The boy used his hands because they were more nimble, and the man directed patiently.
“Hey, boy!” A shout from the end of the path next to the bench where the young woman sat, knitting resumed. At the shout, she laid the ball of wool and one of the needles down, the other still clasped in her hand. The shouter was another soldier, with a red face touched by the sun and one of those silly haircuts looking like a ginger lawn, short and flat on top. The soldier said something else which the boy did not quite hear, but he heard his mother gasp and say “How dare you, how dare you use filth like that about a friend and in front of my son.” The boy rose slowly, sand still gripped in his tighly curled fists and looked towards his mother. The soldier in the sandpit, his back towards the newcomer, did not move except for a grim humourless smile. The boy saw that his mother had stood up, all five feet of her, and was glaring at the man.
“Ma'am,” said this man, “just butt out, this is not your business. Hey, boy,” he shouted once more, “didn't you hear what I told you, get your ass away from that child!”
The young woman, incandescent with rage now, jabbed her needle time and again into the soldier's arm to underline her words “He is my son and I decide who he does and does not talk to, and not a rude, foul-mouthed disgusting bully like you!” She emphasised the last word with a very well aimed kick. The soldier grimaced, yelled, rubbed his shin and drew himself upright again. He pointed his finger menacingly towards the young woman, who was by this time as frightened as she was angry. At this, the boy in the sandpit stiffened, took a tentative but determined step forward and slowly raised his sand-filled fist. He drew his arm back ready to throw when it was firmly but gently halted by a large hand. He looked down, and to his amazement, his friend winked at him, and indicated with a nod the insignia on his sleeve. The boy understood and let his arm settle to his side. His friend stood and walked calmly to the bench, retrieved his cap from beneath the knitting bag, placed it squarely and with some relish on his head, then turned and faced his would-be tormentor.
“You have something to say, soldier?” he said expressionlessly. “I must have missed "permission to speak".”
The soldier stared at the cap and the insignia and the colour of his cheeks changed from a livid lobster red to palest white. He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and dropped his head.
Captain Elleray continued, “We'll discuss this later, soldier, at say, 0800 hours sharp at the C.O.'s office. Dismiss.” The soldier began to walk slowly away. “Oh, and by the way,” the soldier stopped and listened without turning, “I think you'd better thank whatever God you worship that you weren't fighting Welsh women and children last year. You might just have lost!”
Captain Elleray, the boy and his mother watched the private march quickly back down the path from whence he came. Captain Elleray ruffled the boy's hair. “I'll bet his dad's proud of him, so smart and plenty of real guts, too?” The boy looked down, shuffled his feet and shot a quick look at his mother's eyes. They were wet and ready to spill, but she just looked straight at the Captain and slowly shook her head.
“Oh, God, Megan, I really didn't know. I'm real sorry ... where? in France? Africa?” “No,” she said “off Trinidad, a torpedo, direct hit ....” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.” Well, it was good to meet you, Edward, but, it's tea at my mother's tonight and it's more than my life's worth if I'm a minute late ...”
“Couldn't you come for tea?” interrupted the boy “it's sausages and stwmp for tea, and cage bach afterwards!”
“Well sausages I know,” laughed the Captain, “but what in creation is 'stoomp' and 'caggy back'?”
His mother giggled, “Stwmp is potato, swede and carrots all mashed together, and cage bach are welshcakes cooked on a griddle - a bit like scones”
“Sounds like a proper man's vittles, son, but I'm sorry, I'm posted away tomorrow, and I have some unfinished business tonight. And …” he added, “look after your mommy, you hear?”
“Sure as shootin” the boy grinned.
Mother and son, and the Captain went their own ways. The pair turned and waved and travelled on up the steep rutted path beside the tiny remnants of the old canal and the derelict rotting lock gates. Towards them a family of ducks in a comic parody of military precision waddled noisily. “We won the War, We won the War” chanted the boy in time to the march of the ducks.
He stopped to let them pass, saluting. His mother was unusually silent, and the boy, concerned, asked, “We did, didn’t we, mam? Win the war, I mean?”
The young woman replied sombrely, “Some of us did, yes. But most of us lost. Somebody always loses”
The boy, noticing the deepening glaze in his mother’s eyes, took her hand, looked up and said wistfully, “He's somebody else's Da isn't he? I heard him say that ... I wish he could be my Da ... I think he liked me... he said I'm smart - does that mean clever, mam? .. and brave and,” this with relish, “a world expert on castles. I'm good at castles aren't I?” he finished.
“Yes,” said his mother, “you're very good indeed at building castles ... and castles in the air”
Image Comments (22)
Hope you realize I'm doin' a coupla hundred cartwheels here now that you're back ! (well, OK, just one) LOL Wonderful little tale, and I do remember this one, dearest Mike...thanks for sharing, once again, and psssst, I do so love it when you talk Welsh wink Lotsa huggies n smoochies :o) moi