SHORT STORIES: The Boy With the Flag
On the 11th April, 2011, at precisely 10:47 in the morning, Nick Winstanley’s life ended. He was at work, busy sorting out some unfinished orders from the week before, when his boss came up to him accompanied by a policewoman. The policewoman took him into the mess room where he normally ate his sandwiches where she sat him down and made him a cup of tea. “I’ve got some bad news,” she eventually said, “concerning Jake.”
What happened had been quite straightforward, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. Jake had been playing in the back garden with his push-along car whilst Kate had been hanging out the washing. Then the phone had rang and Kate had gone indoors to answer it. It was her mother who lived on her own and liked a chat. When she’d gone out again, Jake had disappeared. It was impossible for him to disappear of course, for the garden gate had been locked and there was no other way out. He must have sneaked into the house, so she went to have a look. “Jake! Jakey!” she shouted, but there was no reply. That’s when she began to get a little worried. She’d ran back out into the garden still shouting, more concerned as every second passed. Still there was no answer and then, then she saw it: a hole in the hedge, a hole big enough for a two-year old to crawl through. That’s when she’d turned frantic, running out onto the street, screaming his name at the top of her voice. She knew when she saw the crowd gathered in front of the car at the end of the street that it was too late, yet still she screamed his name as she ran towards it. And she continued screaming that name even as she cradled the broken body of her only child in her arms.
It wasn’t Kate’s fault of course, Nick knew that, everybody told them that. No, it wasn’t her fault at all, nor even the fault of her stupid mother who was always phoning up for no particular reason just to talk shit because she was old and bored. It was no one’s fault, Kate was grieving too. Yet why was it that he couldn’t stand the sight of her face, that he shuddered when she tried to put her arms around him, that he’d taken to sleeping in a separate bed?
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Nick couldn’t remember the funeral, nor his return to work after. Like I said, he’d died that day he lost his little boy, the little boy who he’d planned to take with him to the football one day; the little boy who liked to sing ‘Nick-Nack Paddywack’ and the Balamory theme tune with him; the little boy who liked to pick off the cheese and then leave the burger and dip his chips in ketchup which he’d suck off but not eat the chips; the little boy who ran the house around making steam train noises and who could name all the characters in Thomas the Tank Engine; the little boy with the cutest grin in the whole wide world; the little boy who… who… who was his little boy.
His, no one else’s, his. And now, because his wife was more interested in gossiping and talking about bloody soaps with her fucking mother… his little boy was gone.
Like I said, it wasn’t only Jake, Nick too had died that day. He was now operating on automaton, a shell, a robot, empty.
That particular day he couldn’t cope with it. He couldn’t cope with it any day, but that day was especially bad. Friends tried to help but they could hardly bring Jake back now, could they? No, that day was bad because it was the weekend and the weather was warm and sunny. On warm and sunny weekend days he’d say to Kate and Jake, “Come on, let’s go somewhere!” Then he’d ask Jake where he’d like to go and the toddler would stop, crease his brow, think for a second and then blurt out, “Go to a nice place!” “Ok then,” Nick would reply, “but which nice place would you like to go to?” At this the little boy’s expression would turn serious again, he’d think for a second before a broad smile would break out across his face and he’d declare, “Toot-toot train nice place!” At this Kate would smile at her husband, he’d smile back, and they’d all get in the car and drive the eight miles or so to the steam railway where “the toot-toot trains live.”
That was then, but now it was different. Now there was no one to ask where he wanted to go and instead of smiling at her husband, Kate was crying. When she cried it made him feel sick; crying won’t help matters, you’d have been better keeping a proper eye on him at the time rather than crying about it afterwards! The sun was shining yet he had no place to go. But he couldn’t stay either, not in this hell-hole. He grabbed the car keys and walked out.
Nick never made a definite choice to go there that day. Like I said, Nick Winstanley was dead, killed on the same day as his only son, his body now merely operated on automaton. Nonetheless, when he got into that car, it guided him along the Sunday route that it knew so well. He parked up outside the little railway station with its hanging baskets and olde worlde signs and bought a ticket for the next train.
Nick liked the trains on the steam railway. They were the proper old ones that smelt real and alive and didn’t go too fast. He sat alone in the compartment and watched the green fields roll past. If Jake had been there, he’d have pointed out the cows and horses in the fields with an enthusiasm that only a young child can muster for such everyday sights. Then he would have asked to look outside and Nick would have opened the little window at the top and stood his son on the table, holding Jake’s legs to keep him safe from falling, and the little boy would have stuck his head and hands outside into the warm summer air, waving his Thomas the Tank Engine flag excitedly at the animals in the fields.
Nick smiled at the memory and instinctively got up, opened the little window, stuck his own head and arms out and breathed in the warm summer air. Then he looked forwards, hoping to catch a glimpse of the hissing, clanking, smoky engine at the head of the train when, to his surprise, he saw a little head hanging out of the window of the next compartment, waving a Thomas the Tank Engine flag at the animals in the fields.
The head turned. “Hello daddy!”
“Jakey, what are you doing?”
“Me going on toot-toot train!”
“But Jakey, are you alright?”
“Yes daddy, me happy! Look! Me got flag!”
“Jakey! Daddy’s coming! Daddy’s coming to get you!”
But as soon as he’d said those words, he realised that it was impossible. It was one of those old trains with compartments but no corridor. To move to the next compartment you had to wait until the train stopped at the station where you could get out.
“Wait! Wait Jakey! Be careful; daddy’ll come and look after you soon!”
“No daddy, daddy can’t do it. Train moving now.”
“But you need daddy to look after you, to hold your legs so that you don’t fall!”
“No daddy, me don’t need it. Me safe now. Other daddy hold Jakey’s legs now!”
Nick craned his neck out of the window. A pair of hands was holding his son safe. “But I’m your daddy,” he cried, “that’s my job!”
“He’s my daddy too. He say he hold me until toot-toot train stops. Then, next time moving, daddy hold Jakey.”
“But daddy wants to hold Jakey now!”
“No daddy, daddy hold mummy now, not Jakey!”
“Jakey give daddy flag, come get it daddy!”
Nick leaned out of the window as far as he could. He longed to touch his son but he was just that little bit too far away. The flag fluttered in the breeze and Nick grasped it. Jake laughed and said, “Me going now, waiting daddy when toot-toot train stop. Jakey love daddy! Bye bye!”
The train entered a tunnel and all went black. Nick was alone in his compartment on the journey we call life. But he now knew that the only thing that separated him from his Jake was the thin dividing wall. Next station they would be together. In the meantime his son was in safe hands.
Nick Winstanley parked his car in the drive and opened the front door of the house. Kate was in the kitchen cooking the tea. He went up to his wife and held her. “Daddy hold mummy now,” he whispered. They slumped to the floor and the flag fell with them. Together they stayed, clasped together, silently weeping for hours as the train rolled onwards into the night.