The War – Week 8 of the 52 week short story challenge

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The warm weather was turning Jenny’s small square patio into an idyllic sun trap. She had everything she needed within arms’ reach; the small picnic table held a choice of reading material, a bottle of water, cool from the fridge, sunglasses and her trusty Walkman. She leaned back in the deckchair, put her earphones in and began to re-read a favourite Dickens novel to the dulcet sounds of Neil Young. A strange mix perhaps, but one that suited her mood.

She’d been out on the patio for less than an hour when it started. A loud and very unpleasant rendering of ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog‘. It was coming from a garden to the rear of hers and what the singer lost in tone and accuracy, they made up for in ear-splitting noise.

Turning off the Walkman and putting down her book, she got up and risked a look up the garden to the source of the noise. The most brief of glances was sufficient to confirm that the music was not about to stop.

They had been warned about potentially troublesome neighbours by the rather snobbish estate agent when they bought the house back in November.  Their end-of-terrace house was ex-council stock and extremely solid. Most of their neighbours had lived in the area since the houses were built after World War II, and had taken up the option to buy their homes when it was offered. Jenny had been born on a council estate however, and based on her own experiences, didn’t foresee any issues with this.

It had been cold when they moved into their new house.

Quiet and cold.

They had apologised to their close neighbours for the noise made when the central heating was put in but the occupants of the house joined to theirs were out at work all day, and the neighbour on the other side had the width of two garden paths between him and the noise of the drilling, added to which he was out on his scooter visiting family for most of the day as well.

Christmas was warm and cosy once the heating was in. Their first proper home together.

When Spring came Jenny and her husband-to-be spent some time in the garden trying to shift the pile of builders’ rubble left outside the back door so that they would actually have a paved area to sit on. They dug out a pathway up the steeply sloping garden and laid paving stones in order to have a stable surface on which to walk when hanging out the washing.

The garden wasn’t large but it was enclosed by larch lap fence panels and once the rubble was removed, grass began to emerge and a couple of patches of daffodils planted by a previous owner. Jenny bought a batch of twigs that were supposed to grow into roses eventually. She planted them with optimism.

House and garden were put on hold at the end of April as they made preparations for their May wedding. Nearly everything went to plan, and the things that didn’t quite work out were manageable. Who knew that their honeymoon room in a New Forest hotel would have a radiator that wouldn’t turn off, or that the wedding taking place in the grounds would be so noisy that they couldn’t have the windows open? They were moved out of the romantic room with the four-poster bed and relocated to a quiet and more substantial suite at the back of the hotel.

It was quiet and cold.

It was good to be away  and exploring new territories on their honeymoon, but equally  wonderful to come home to their little house and the growing garden. Good to return as a married couple with life ahead of them. Jenny was looking forward to the warmer weather and being able to sit out in their garden.

Reluctantly she brought her relaxing-in-the-garden equipment indoors as the Elvis impersonators at the top of the garden completely drowned out her own music and made it impossible to read. Jenny’s husband was at work and the only way to escape from the noise was to shut herself in the front room with the kitchen door and windows shut, and the TV on loud.

She dug out her husband’s binoculars and, hiding behind the new curtains in the back bedroom, she identified the source of the noise. The occupants of the house that backed onto a house three doors down from theirs were having a karaoke party.  The hideous racket was being created by a group of only four people; three males and a female.  From the number of empty – and full – beer cans observed, the party was set to go on all day. The karaoke machine was set up on a huge TV plugged into an extension lead hanging out of a downstairs window. The garden was reminiscent of a rag and bone yard; piles of rusting metal objects, a shopping trolley with only three wheels, damp cardboard boxes sagging in heaps,  and three ancient kitchen chairs around the kitchen door step.

The lone female was perched precariously on a stool that looked as if it had  been pilfered from a pub; she was wearing a very small pair of shorts made from cut-off jeans, and a white boob tube that had lost its elasticity, neither of which did much to cover her extremely pale and substantial body. Two of the males appeared to be of a similar age to her, whilst the other seemed to be of a younger generation. They all sported tattoos but Jenny’s husband’s binoculars were not strong enough to see whether the spelling was correct or not.

Curiosity made her careless and as the curtain dropped back, the female in the garden caught sight of Jenny and let fly a stream of obscenities that completely drowned out the karaoke machine. Jenny left the bedroom quickly, her heart beating double-time, and retreated to the safety of the front room after making sure that all the doors were locked and the kitchen blinds were down.

This was how her husband found her some hours later when he came home; curled up on the sofa under a blanket, curtains drawn and TV tuned to a loud and particularly appalling cable channel.

Jenny cried when she told him about the nasty neighbours and they both hoped that the incident was a one-off.

It wasn’t.

As soon as Jenny settled to read and relax on the patio, the noise would start. Weekends or weekdays, it made no difference. Other neighbours asked the family to turn the noise down and were met with the customary obscene gestures and insults. The female would get very excited and pull down her boob tube, exposing a pair of pallid and pendulous breasts to anyone unfortunate  enough to be looking.

In order to regain some privacy if not peace, Jenny’s husband and a couple of friends laid some paving stones at top end of the garden and erected a garden shed which effectively blocked the view of the patio from the noisy neighbours, who screamed abuse  throughout but were unable to prevent progress.

That was when the warfare started in earnest.

First of all their car boot was broken into in the night. The offenders didn’t steal much and the insurance covered the damage and what was taken but it was another blot on the landscape of their first home together.

Then someone set fire to the front garden gate – in the middle of the night again. The fire was soon put out but the attendance of the fire brigade and the police escalated the incident to a new level. Jenny had no proof of who was behind the fire but the fact that the noisy neighbours were spotted grinning and jeering in the crowd watching the fire engine, was a possible clue.

The son of the family tried to set the garden shed alight but was caught in the act and went off for a spell of juvenile detention.

The loss of her only son inflamed the female even further; their house was next door to the local convenience store and she took to watching from her front room window and pouncing like some malevolent trapdoor spider on anyone that she felt might have reported her son to the police.

Jenny and her husband stuck to the safety of supermarket shopping.

The end of summer was welcomed as a respite from the karaoke parties and nocturnal nastiness, but the return of the prodigal son caused an unwitting end to the hostilities anyway. The police kept him under surveillance once he came home and within a very short time the house was successfully raided for drugs and stolen goods.

The neighbourhood had been under the impression that the horrendous family had bought the house years before and that was why they behaved in such a proprietorial way. Not so. They were  council tenants and the housing department were gleeful at having finally found a solid reason to evict them.

Some of the neighbours came out to watch on the day of the eviction; arms folded and grim smiles as the bailiffs changed the locks and two of the older males were arrested for assaulting a female police officer. This was before the age of ASBOs but the evicted tenants were left under no illusions about what might happen – legally or illegally – if they returned to the property.

When the summer came round again, being able to sit out in the garden was something Jenny had looked forward to but the damage had been done and she never felt that she could relax there again.

It was a relief when they had to move North for her husband’s work.

The little house was rented to a young couple with a child who treated it with a complete lack of care and respect. When their tenancy came to an end, the house was put on the market and managed by the most inept bunch of estate agents going.

Miles away, in a rented house herself, Jenny received a phone call to say that the house had been broken into. The estate agent had left the back door keys in the kitchen drawer and as a consequence the burglars had been able remove the fridge freezer and the washing machine – both of which had been wedding presents just a few years before. They tried to remove the boiler too but failed and the estate agent had to foot the repair bill.

Jenny and her husband sold the house eventually and after a few trips South to visit family, they stopped feeling the need to drive past their old home.

 

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‘Bacon and Egg’

This story takes place in the days before mobile phones and smoking bans.  Local authorities had a policy of placing children in small group homes staffed by male and female houseparents.  Sometimes the staff and the children had a good time, sometimes it was hellish. There were some very dedicated staff who genuinely wanted to make a difference but there were also those who saw the job as a good skyve, or worse still, the opportunity to work out their own issues on children and young people who deserved far better.

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Management usually appointed houseparents based on experience and how the candidate dealt with the interview but on this occasion the manager had invited one of the junior members of staff to attend the interviews and have a say in who got the job.

He was torn between two candidates; both men were experienced in the field of children’s residential care, both interviewed well but  one had considerably more charisma than the other.

The other staff members that had been on duty whilst the interviews were being held had made their own assessments when  showing the candidates in and offering refreshments. One of the men had been charming and pleasant, the other looked nervous and uncomfortable.

In the end the manager and the staff came to a stalemate over who should be appointed.  One of the male staff joked that at this rate it would have to come down to star signs.  Some of the staff scoffed at this but a quick list was drawn up nevertheless to establish the astrological make up of the team.  The quieter candidate was a Sagittarius, the other was a Taurus and in the end the dearth of earth signs was the clincher.   ‘J’ –  the happy guy in the cowboy boots was appointed and the balance of the heavens was restored – allegedly.

J worked out very well to start off with.  The kids seemed to get on with him although it was noted that some of the older boys were a bit hostile, even wary but this was put down to the alpha male effect.  The teenage girls were all over him like a swarm of bees and certain members of the female staff weren’t far behind, but he dealt with it sensibly and made it quite clear that he was very happily married.

There was something about him that made her feel uneasy when she met him but she did her best to ignore the feelings and concentrate on the job and the course that she was studying for. She was still one of the younger members of staff and didn’t want to make waves this early in her career.

Holidays with a group of ‘maladjusted adolescents‘ were not easy and the inevitable behaviour issues and subsequent damage often prevented a second visit. J suggested a week at Butlins because he had taken kids from his previous home there,  and a succession of coffee mornings, bring-and-buy sales and a sponsored silence (not very successful) raised enough money to subsidise the paltry holiday fund that the local authority provided.

Not all the staff wanted to go on the trip so it was easy enough for the manager to choose enough people who actually wanted to go.  J was amongst them. A couple of the kids couldn’t or wouldn’t go on the holiday but they had staff who were happy to take them on day trips and rent videos to keep them busy during the holiday week.

She had to admit that she enjoyed that week and the opportunity to get to know the children who stayed at home better.  The cook took the week off whilst the home was half-empty, and both staff and children had a chance to take over the cooking, introducing a healthy change from the usual fish and chips, Sunday roast and spaghetti bolognaise.  The high ratio of staff to kids, and the relaxed attitude of both groups during that week strengthened relationships as well as cooking skills.

The holidaymakers returned; high on a diet of cheap takeaway food, fizzy drinks, late nights in the ballroom and long days on the fun fair or watching the wrestling and knobbly knees competition. No one died or even got into a trouble as far as they knew, they weren’t thrown out and staff had even been offered a discount if they booked for the next year.

J was undoubtedly the hero of the moment and riding high on a wave of popularity.

That was when his guard dropped.

Prior to the holiday she hadn’t worked with J much, but when one of the male staff got promoted to deputy manager in another home, she found that her shift pattern had been changed to his.

Sleep-in shifts in a children’s home were often a flash point for staff to embark on short-lived flings or long-term relationships that usually led to one party having to work elsewhere.  She usually had a boyfriend in tow and hadn’t worked with anyone she even remotely fancied – J included.

He had seemed to be unusually friendly and talkative throughout the shift.  They parted ways around nine o’clock in order to get the kids through their baths and settled for the night. Around ten-thirty, she came back downstairs to write up the logs in the office, J joined her and instead of making himself a coffee as usual, he pulled two cans of lager out of his rucksack and offered her one.  She declined politely and carried on writing.

J finished the can, chucked it into the bin and opened a second, then a third and finally a fourth.  She knew that drinking on duty was frowned upon but she also knew that it was the unwritten rule not to tell anyone – there wasn’t anyone else on duty to tell anyway.  She finished up the logs and went into the kitchen to make sure everything was washed up and for Friday morning.

J followed her and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle as he leaned on the work top next to her. She could smell his breath; lager and cigarette-tainted.

He was far too close.

She moved away from him and busied herself with sorting out the cereal packets.

He put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her towards him.

She shrugged him off and told him that she wasn’t interested, that she was tired and wanted to go to bed.

He told her that she was obviously frigid then and stomped off into the front room to roll himself a cigarette.

She ran up the stairs and pulled the chest of drawers in front of her door, her heart beating wildly.  She heard the distinctive sound of his cowboy boots clumping up the stairs and turned out the bedroom light.  The footsteps approached down the girls wing corridor and she held her breath as he tapped quietly on the door. The sound of her heart was deafening and she was sure he could hear it.

He tapped again but receiving no reply, cursed and stomped off down the corridor.

She lay on the bed fully dressed and dozing but woke at every sound, so she gave up around six o’clock and got up.

One of the boys was sitting on the landing.  He looked very pale.  He told her that J had come into his room and pushed him around a bit, then stormed off to the sleeping in room in the boys wing.

The boy told her that they were all scared because J had been crashing around in his room and shouting.  He managed to get onto the landing when the noise stopped and had been there curled up behind the bathroom door ever since.

She took him downstairs and decided that she should call the manager.

The phone  line was dead.

She could have gone out to the phone box to call for help but that would have meant leaving the children alone and unprotected.

They drank coffee and talked, the boy and herself, until the cleaners arrived at seven am.  They both lived nearby and one of them ran home to phone the manager.

There was still no sign of J, but when the manager arrived he went up to check with both the cleaners creeping behind him; they said they were there for his protection but they were just being nosey.

The room was wrecked: littered with more lager cans, the phone wires ripped out of the  socket and  heel marks all over the wall where J’s cowboy boots had kicked out again and again.  J was lying in a drunken stupor on the floor.

Other staff were called in; she was sent home and J’s wife came to collect him.

The official line was that he’d had a nervous breakdown due to stress.  She was disciplined for not contacting the manager when J started drinking, and her protestations that she had been too afraid to report her colleague fell on deaf ears.

J was suspended for six months but for most of that he was ‘off sick‘.  He was given a phased return with no sleep in duties and no working alone with female staff.  She did her best to be empathic toward him but the very sight of him made her skin crawl.

The local authority had instituted a policy of closing down most of their children’s homes, and over the next couple of months there were no replacements when children and staff left that particular establishment.

J kept his nose clean  for a while and his working restrictions were lifted.  The manager was replaced by a middle-aged woman who was not prey to J’s charms and had very strong feelings about staff drinking – or even smoking on duty. Addicted to his roll ups, J would find any excuse to take the one remaining girl out for a walk so he could satisfy his habit. She was a quiet bookish girl who prefered to stay in, watch videos and make things.

He became very solitary and those who would still do sleep in duties with him reported that he would sit downstairs for most of the night and cook meals that were found in the bin next morning, barely touched.

She was working with the last resident during the day; they had been painting glasses with stain to sell at a craft market.  The table was covered with newspaper and they’d had a lovely messy time of it.  Tidying up rapidly before getting ready for the evening meal, she had dumped the newspaper in the kitchen bin intending to empty it in the morning. She went home after the meal, leaving J, another female member of staff and the girl watching the TV.

She got a call at three in the morning.

The house was on fire. they all got out safely but J was ill because he ran back in to grab a fire extinguisher.

The female member of staff was hysterical after having had to get herself and the girl out of the house via the fire escape.  Desperate to do anything to help she was given special permission  for the girl to come and stay with her for the rest of the weekend.

They were allowed back in to look at the house on the Monday.  She walked through the smoked damaged rooms with the manager.  It transpired that J had decided to cook himself bacon and eggs after the others had gone to bed.  He also had a roll up which he threw  in the kitchen bin.  A bin very obviously full of newspaper.

The fire service couldn’t say for certain whether it was arson or an accident.  The contents of J’s stomach – barely digested bacon and eggs – were deposited outside the front door when he threw up after inhaling smoke.  He survived. The home was closed because it would have cost too much to repair the damage.

The girl and the staff were sent off to other homes, with the exception of J who was advised to resign quietly whilst off sick. His wife laid the blame for his decline at the door of the staff member who had rejected his drunken advances, but she walked out on his herself a couple of months later.

The young houseparent didn’t know what happened to him after that.  She didn’t want to.

It took a long time before she could stomach the smell of bacon and eggs.