Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships
Often, seemingly trivial childhood incidents can have inspirational or disastrous consequences in later life.
The first story of 691 words, “Wild Blueberries” shows the ways in which preferential treatment of a disabled child, if carried too far, can create wounds which might never entirely heal.
The second story of 1569 words titled “Education in Hatred" describes the consequences of the browbeating of a once exuberant child, subjected to brutish humiliation by a once cherished teacher.
The third story of 443 words titled “Coal-Dust And Gravity” centers upon a late night conversation between a father, slowly dying as a result of black lung disease, caused by the coal dust from mining.
Story One: Wild Blueberries
Late summer sunshine warmed us as we gathered blueberries from a hedge a few miles from our grandparents’ home. Grandma had promised my brother Dave and me, she would use whatever berries we could find, in pies and muffins, or even pancakes, as a breakfast treat.
Somehow, such promises had lost their glow, or mostly anyway. Grandma and Grandpa seemed to sense this change, aware our growing up, however slowly, meant growing away from them towards heightened freedom.
Meanwhile, their lives would stay the same, the only changes brought by growing older. I think Dave and I felt an echo of their fear. Leisure and freedom, lingering too long, can lead to tedium far more suffocating than almost any work, however irksome. Much as we groused about its regulations, school brought us purpose.
Frustrated Siblings Striving to Unite
From my wheelchair, I could pluck those berries from all but the lowest branches. Watching me stretching further than my reach, Dave sometimes strolled by, quickly pick them for me, then almost let them fall into the jar, as if to say, “Hey, Sis, don’t fret; they’re only blueberries” Also, in its own way, the coming school term had brought us closer.
Although unspoken, we both understood the favoritism lavished on me, due to my disability, was not my choice. If he had felt left out when I got gifts, while he got nothing but a sense of shame at showing disappointment, I too felt tainted, knowing I was viewed as an outsider, endlessly thought by many as “Poor Kim”.
As I had overheard one giver say, “She’ll have to spend her life in that half coffin. If that were me, I’d rather have a grave.”
A Bond Continuing
Given our growing trust and understanding, though Dave had viewed books as big-time uncool, during these recent months, he had begun to ask me for ideas of books I thought he might like to read. When he had sampled some, then finished others, he and I would chat about them.
This offered us an avenue from rage, towards fledgling friendship. Thus, on that late August afternoon, we felt contented, anticipating Grandma’s pies, muffins and pancakes, knowing school would be re-starting soon-a path towards progress.
Consequences of One Thoughtless Comment
And then it happened: everything we had begun to build ruined by one offhand remark by Grandma,
“All these blueberries will be for Kim, but I feel sure she’ll share them with us all; she is so generous.”
There was a silence. Then, I cried out, “No! I don’t want all those berries; that’s not right. Dave and I picked them, so they’re for us all.”
Still, by then, Dave, frenzied, had begun to howl out sounds I had never heard from any human throat, nor had imagined. “Right, Dave shouted, “So all these blueberries will be for Kim, our wheelchair wonder, like every other good thing, all the time. I’m sick as hell of feeling it’s my fault I can walk, and she is stuck inside that chair; I know it’s lousy and unfair to her, but I can’t change that."
Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you'll ever regret.
— Laurence J. Peter
A long-fomenting rage had burst within him, impelling him to grab the jar we had both nearly filled, and empty each berry out, onto the ground and stomping his boots on them, until he had created sludge which could be called, in grimmest terms, blueberry mud pie.
Echoes of Childhood Anguish
I wish Dave’s rage and hurt had ended there. Largely, I think it has. Still, no words can place a bandage on a haemorrhage, unless it can be somehow healed inside.
The sense of being cheated as a child can prove unending. Now, as adults, civilities restored, even three decades later, contented in our separate families, after a dispute so trivial as not to be remembered otherwise, Dave might say, “Hey, Kim, go eat those blueberries.”
Story Two: Education in Hatred
Kindergarten seemed a wonderland, given its cornucopia of potential new pals, scooters, clay, crayons, and at its apex, our teacher, Mrs. Brentwood. Encouraging while brisk, whenever our class grew a bit too rumbustious, the pucker of an eyebrow or lift of a hand spurred us straight back to order.
So much did we girls wish to please Mrs. Brentwood that during playground time, instead of enacting puppet shows, or jumping rope, we sought out daisies, dandelions, clovers, and when lucky, found a lilac to bring back to her, overjoyed when it seemed to brighten not only her eyes, but her face, and even herself over-all.
An Angel of Innovation
At times, as a holiday treat, or maybe just as a “happy surprise”, she would use the school kitchen to supervise our making of bayberry candles, fudge, or lollipops. Subtly, she introduced basic maths, by instilling an absorption with amounts of ingredients, balanced by degrees of oven heat.
When our efforts became fiascoes, she laughed along with us, and then might add, “As my mum used to say, “When you burn, you learn, and when you under-cook, you under-eat, or anyway are forced to give up what you were hoping for.”
“Your mum must have been lots of fun,” someone said.
At that, Mrs. Brentwood stood still for a moment, but after a few seconds, re-assumed her role as happy, friendly teacher and guide, beside us during successes and mishaps. Her teaching methods, at that time, were so unique as for our school to have been granted an award.
Hence, during our next assembly, the principal conferred an award upon her consisting of two rose shaped brooches, a poppy-seed cake and her own certificate referring to her as “Our Angel of Innovation Mrs. Sophia Brentwood.”
Her First Show of Sorrow
One afternoon, on a walk by a brook, Mrs. Brentwood told our class it once had been a duck pond, where she and her friends, when they were around our age, had liked to play and romp about with ducks, watching their eggs, as they hatched into ducklings, then tossing bits of bread into that pond, hoping they might be helping them to grow.
One of us asked, “So where did all those ducks go, Mrs. Brentwood?"
Voicing The Sadness of Childhood Loss
Then, as our class stood waiting, she replied, “One day, when we woke up, those ducks were gone. None of us were given any reason, or one which made much sense to us back then.”
“All we knew was, a few days before, two men from a big company had come, to look at our pond and ask a lot of questions. So, that was how our pond became a brook, with lots of shining stones in lovely patterns, but not even one duck egg anywhere.”
A Child’s Sense of Adventure
Ignoring any warnings not to wander, I rushed towards what once had been a pond. Surely, I thought, one or more ducks must be there, hatched from some duck eggs, hidden by a stone, eager to come out to swim with me. Still, as water inched up towards my ankles, and there were only splashes, but no ducks, I felt ashamed when Mrs. Brentwood called, “Tulip, come back!”
Her voice, half-choked by laughter, quickly morphed into a cough which sounded as if she could be drowned or suffocated, if I did not rush straight back to where she stood. I said, near tears, how sorry I was to have caused her worry. Still, rather than scolding me, she dried my hair and blouse with a soft towel.
Smiling, she said, “What a wild zest for excitement you have, Tulip. Your name suits you so well; you always are so open and alive to everything.”
Then, in a murmur, more to herself than me, “I wish, at your age, or at any age, I’d had your spark, but now I know there is no time for me; no chance whatever.”
A Day of Horror
One morning, as the second term began, I raised my hand, to tell Mrs. Brentwood I felt sick. Oddly, although she clearly saw my hand, she seemed to stare, first through the window, and then back to a stack of papers, spread across her desk, as if to indicate the need not to be interrupted.
Reluctant and afraid to aggravate her, my mounting nausea left me no choice but to walk up to her desk to say, “I think I’m going to be sick, Mrs. Brentwood.”
Glancing up grudgingly, she snarled, “What can you know of sickness, at your age? Go sit back down; stop putting on an act, disrupting my class”
“But, what? You’ve got a scummy tummy. What should I do about that, phone your mummy, so she can come and take you home to a warm, comfy bed.
Aware I had less than a second left, I cried out, “I’m going to throw up now!”
“Then go ahead,” she scoffed “
Consequences of a Need Denied
Whatever threats she hoped to demonstrate were halted by my surge of vomit.
Then, a second upsurge came, which, if less intense, proved every bit as foul and sour as the first had been. When it seemed I could have nothing left inside, a further outflow, this time mostly liquid, continued seemingly without an end, until I slumped almost to the floor, worn-out and emptied.
Still, Mrs. Brentwood sat, as if immobilised. I tottered back to my desk with no assistance.
Aftermath of a Classroom Crisis
My classmates sat benumbed, confused and scared. How had this happened? Why? What had I done, beyond telling our teacher I felt nauseated? Since that had happened, it meant any of them could be browbeaten in that same way, if they dared to voice a sense of illness.
A Teacher Facing Shame
Once I was seated, Mrs. Brentwood stood, behind her desk to say, “Class, I am speechless. I’ve never been so speechless in my life. All I can repeat is that I’m speechless; I can’t think of one more word to say.”
Then, as the class had begun to guffaw, she said, with what authority she could retain, “This class will be suspended until Monday. “Today, Tulip and I misunderstood each other, but each of us will take it as it was, will we not, Tulip”
I sat, mute, not certain what to say, but glad to force her to experience the snub and hurt of angry silence.
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
— Henry Adams
A Vague Attempt at Reconciliation
On the Monday of my return to school, my mum zipped up my coat, and then secured my mittens, puzzling over what she had to say, as I stood, mutinous.”
Finally, as we heard the bus approaching, she said, “Tulip, I know how horrible last Week was for you. You’re probably still upset with Mrs. Brentwood. I can’t blame you if you are. Just try to understand that grownups get sick too, but they get scared they won’t get any better. They feel afraid they might get even worse.”
“But Mrs. Brentwood can’t be sick, I said. “If she was, she couldn’t be our teacher.”
Mum fluffed my hair as we watched, through the window, the driver slowing the school bus as it approached our house.
“I feel sure things will go nicely today” Mum said.
I vowed I would not say anything which might sadden or disappoint Mum. Still, the warrior in me had been evoked; my docility ended. Slowly, I began to walk towards our front-door. Mum must have sensed something deeply amiss. Holding the edge of my sleeve for a moment , she said, “Tulip, there are a few months left in this term. I hope you have learned or will stay open to learning useful things from Mrs. Brentwood.”
“I think so, Mum,” I said, though feeling guilty. What I had learned was the power of hate. Although only five years old, I knew I would always hate Mrs. Brentwood.
Story Three: Coal-Dust And Gravity
It was Easter morning; his mother looked cross. Frowning up from the tablecloth she had been ironing, she asked, “Nigel Garnett, What sparked you to search in our coal-shed for Easter eggs? Did we not hide enough in this house? There you stand, every inch of you cloaked in black, dripping dirt all over the carpet I have just finished hoovering.”
"That is not dirt, Mum, it's coal-dust."
“Whatever it’s called, scrub it off straight-away, and whilst you're about it, toss that egg into the dustbin.”
“Why, since it’s covered in gold?”
“Gold be-damned.” Then, turning towards his dad, “and as for you, don't try to hide that smile. I've got no doubt it was you who suggested that coal-shed.”
That night, when Nigel was nearly asleep, he heard the floorboards squeak beneath the stomp of his dad’s shoes. Then came the cough from the depths of his chest, and the gasping in recent months, more and more often.
His dad switched on the night-light. It glowed softly, in the shape of a star. “Are you awake, son?” he half-whispered.
Nigel opened his eyes wider. His dad sat down on the edge of his bed, his large, lean frame indenting its mattress.
Nigel said, “Dad, I ate that Easter egg from the coal shed.”
"Did you know; I thought you might. As you told your mum, it was wrapped in gold foil. Besides, to swallow the odd bit of dust does no harm. No, it’s the lung rot that finishes men. Still, this need not go on, son.”
“What do you mean, Dad?” Nigel asked.
Wheezing hard in an effort to choke back his cough, he said, “Lad, you are a quick one at school. What was that sentence you wrote -the idea-which won you the ribbon?”
Nigel thought a moment, then said, “It was, “Let’s run so fast that gravity cannot pull us down.”
“That was a good one son. You must do more than write it though. Make it your creed.”
He leaned a bit towards his son, then went on, “I felt chuffed when you told mum coal-dust isn't dirt. Coal has proved a grand boon for our lot, giving us work when we might have starved otherwise. That same coal, though, through the way it is mined, is our executioner”
“How?” Nigel asked.
“By wearing a man through, making both lungs one cesspit, until he coughs his life out, as I’m bound to do one day. My son, put your marrow, blood, into your studies. Delve with your mind; it will mean your release. What I'm telling you is, run, race, fly far beyond the power of gravity.”
© 2017 Colleen Swan