Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A guest at my table - John

Meatballs are a fitting meal for my guest - something he will instantly recognise even if the pasta is a new-fangled thing which may prove difficult. I have put out the best silver for him and napkins because he will be expecting this, even just for supper. He is slow making his way to the table and his clenched hand trembles on my arm as I lead him there, exposing a polkadot arrangement of liver spots on thin papery skin that looks almost transparent these days.

I first met John at a time in my life when I had five small children to care for and thought nothing of fitting in a small evening job before starting my studies for a degree with the Open University at eleven o'clock at night - such is the boundless energy of youth. I wish I had a fifth of it these days.

John was one of my small band of old people I cared for, gave supper to or made ready for bed, read stories to or brought news on the bush telegraph wire from their relatives up the road - as most of them were related in some way. But John was slightly different. He lived in a different world behind the high prison walls of his own secret garden in the middle of the nearby town, in a utopia few were encouraged to intrude upon. It was an unusual house because it was old and rambling with several acres of ground bang in the middle of the town. The house was older, far older, than the town and although compulsory purchase orders had whittled the land down substantially, it was still a foreign land within.

For John it was his sanctuary from a life that had brought with it nightly screaming and dreams that could not be articulated. As I sat on the ancient counterpane, reading to him from his lifetime scrapbook (which, like the house itself, had stopped in time decades earlier like the Grandfather clock that refuses to tick anymore), I would look at his ancient wizened face with it's hollowed out cheekbones and sunken eye sockets and wonder about this life.

Like many young men of good families he had risen rapidly through the ranks to Major and gone off to serve his country in some foreign land. But John had found himself before long in a Japanese prisoner of war camp biding his time, dealing with daily mental and physical torture. As I care for his long, extended body which is unnaturally sinewy and willowy and had never recovered from the extend period of malnutrition he experienced in the camp, I note the unusual purple scars, like the healed up hands of Christ on the cross. I make no comment. We have this understanding, he and I, the things we will talk about and the things which are a bridge too far.

I am interested in this history because my degree is in History and he is happy to talk to me about the past that is still his present daily, and hauntingly every night. It is interesting that these meatballs I have made are pork because that is something he relishes. He tells me of the food rationing in the camp and how they grew vegetables and kept pigs for their Japanese captors' table. Every ten days of so they would be allowed a little pork with their rice.

The pigs were a useful distraction too as the Japanese refused to go near their excrement. This was used and dug into the vegetable patch to help the vegetables grow. But the Japanese' reluctance to go near it meant that it was a useful place to hide things in as well as they would never go near it. During the war artists in the camp made small portrait pictures of the soldiers there on pieces of toilet paper as so many men never returned from those camps. These were then wrapped and dug into the soil below the pig manure.

After the war they were dug up and returned to many of the families of the soldiers. John's portrait hung in a small frame at the bottom of the stairs; so small against the backdrop of many that if you didn't know its history you would pass it by carelessly. It is the likeness of a very young man, probably no older than my sons now, yet on whose shoulders I lifetime already weighs like lead.

His great passion was his old fashioned roses and often in an evening he would take to his electric scooter and we would wander round the little parterres and he would show me this or that one in full bloom with a scented nectar that hung in the still air. Old kitchen gardens were a passion of mine and this one, though turned mainly over to roses and other flowers, had still something of the magic within its walls.

Sometimes he would have a parcel of fresh figs for me to take back, for there were too many for him and his wife to consume, and I would take them home and bake them in the Aga and we would  eat them with homemade goats' yoghurt and honey from my own hives. Sorrel and Snowdrop my Anglo-nubian goats still milked well, providing a rich creamy milk that made a wonderfully thick Greek-style yoghurt.

In his later life John could be difficult and argumentative. He was often short with his long-suffering wife who had long ago moved herself to the other side of the house so that she could get some sleep. But to me he was always charming and kind. The life that he chose to lead was measured out in dreams of summers past. The prison walls also protect those within them. For John, they were his protection from the modern world which had grown up around him literally and metaphorically. We lived an inner life in which the cucumber sandwiches and the clink of teaspoons on bone china never ended and the dancing never stopped.

No comments:

Post a Comment