A CONVERSATION WITH A SMALL CHILD
“I’ve got an itch!” said Tommy.
“Well, scratch it then!” said his mother.
“Is it gone now?” asked his mother.
“Yes, it’s under my fingernail.” said Tommy.
His mother smiled.
Tommy looked at her quizzically.
“Well, it is!” he said indignantly.
“Oh I’m sure it is!” said his mother, “And how long will it stay there Tommy?” she asked.
“Forever, of course.” said Tommy in a tone which suggested that his mother ought to know such things.
Tommy looked at his finger.
The nail was well manicured. The cuticle was a perfect half-moon. The finger was chubby and short.
“If I scratch with two fingers I wonder which nail it goes under.” he said.
“Tommy, an itch doesn’t disappear under your nails when you scratch it.” said his mother.
“Oh no?” said Tommy, “Then why is my finger also called a ditch?”
His mother laughed.
“No Tommy, it’s called a digit, not a ditch!” and she bent down and gave him a big hug and a kiss.
He thought for a moment, looked at his finger, and said,
“Well, that’s where all my itches live after I’ve scratched them!”, he said haughtily, and then releasing himself from his mother’s grip he ran out through the patio doors, towards his football, knowing all along that he was right.
After all, where else could an itch go?
Copyright R F (BOB) READER July 2012
NO CHOICE IN THE MATTER
She took her children to London on the train and sat them down on a station bench and then bought them an ice cream, because the day was hot, and then she told them to wait there for her.
Then she got on another train and left them there.
Why did she do it? How could any mother do this to her own children? Where did she go? What happened to her?
Well, I was one of those children and I’ve often asked myself those same questions. We waited and played games to pass the time. My two brothers, my sister and I. I was the oldest, just 9 years old. My brother, Frank, was 7, my sister, Ella, was 5 and my baby brother, Dean, was 3. A perfect spread people would tell her. I didn’t know what they meant. The only spreads I knew would be put onto bread and eaten!
Well, we played ‘I spy’, then ‘paper, scissors and stone’. Then we became tired of sitting and played around the bench upon which we had been sat. We played tag, musical chairs, with me humming tunes, and laughed and had fun before we got fed up.
We were starting to get agitated, and were wondering how long mum would be, when a policeman came up to us and asked us where our mother was. I shrugged my shoulders, being slightly afraid of a policeman, even though I knew he was a goodie. My dad had explained that before he died. I never knew what died meant. Mum said he’d gone to heaven. Well, why didn’t he come back then? People who go somewhere come back, don’t they? Mum would be back soon wouldn’t she?
The policeman asked some more questions which I couldn’t answer properly, like how long we’d been there and where we lived – I knew that last one off by heart, and I duly recited my address! He said we were a long way from home. When I asked where we were, he said that we were in London. I looked puzzled. The station sign said ‘Euston’, not London. I’d seen pictures of London and I couldn’t see any Big Ben or queen’s palace. I looked up at him and asked if he meant London England. He laughed. Of course London England he said, and asked if I knew where there was another London. Here I could outsmart him! I told him that there was a London in America. So there is he said, but did you cross the sea when you came here? I thought for a moment and shook my head. So you must be in England he said and I had to agree with his logic.
Manchester, he muttered to himself. Then he asked again where our mother was and I explained again that she had told us to wait here. I finished my explanation with a ‘huh’ as if to say didn’t you understand me the first time.
I think you’d better come with me he said. I was not keen on the idea. Mum had said to wait here and now this man was saying that we should leave this place. What if mum came back and we weren’t here? She’d be worried and I’d be in trouble, so I told the policeman, firmly, but politely, that I didn’t think that was a good idea. Well you’ve been here a long time he said. How long I asked. Two hours he said. I didn’t really know how long two hours was. All I knew was that I was told to wait here. Dean was now looking up at the policeman and crossing his legs trying not to wee. Ella and Frank just stood there holding hands listening to me and the policeman. Mummy said wait Ella told the policemen and he smiled. He had a nice smile, all warm and friendly. OK he said I think you should do as your mum says and wait here, said the policeman. Mister, I want to wee, said Dean and the policeman pointed to the toilet which was just along the platform. I took Dean there while Ella and Frank sat down on the bench again. When I got back the policeman was still there. Now just stay here, won’t you, he said. I nodded. Good lad, he said, and walked off.
Five minutes later he was back with a lady policeman. She said Hullo and asked our names. I raised my eyes to the sky. Hadn’t I already told the policeman? She was nice though. She bent down and asked what my mum’s name was. I said it was mum. She smiled again and said that she meant her real name. I looked at my siblings. They looked at me. She’s just mum I said.
The police lady stood up and talked to the policeman. I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, but I heard the word ‘care’.
We were taken to an office in the station from where we were collected by a lady in a nurse’s type uniform. I kept protesting that we were supposed to wait for mum, but we were assertively told not to worry and that they would soon find our mother and let her know, and then everything would be alright. We accepted this explanation and as we were now hungry, and food had been mentioned, I stopped protesting and we went along with this lady. I still had doubts, but my siblings seemed to need some warmth and comfort so I just went with what had been suggested.
Come on, were going for a ride in a car, said the nurse. Fred’s eyes lit up. He loved cars. But mummy said we mustn’t go with strangers I said and the other children looked at me in silent approval. The nurse bent down and spoke to me at my level. She was very persuasive and re-assuring and convinced me that we would all be safe. So we got into an Austin A40 Cambridge and had a lovely ride through London until we pulled up at a big house with high red brick walls and huge cast iron gates. The sign said ‘National Children’s Home’. This I didn’t understand.
We were taken inside and Ella was immediately whisked away. I can still see her looking around at me and my brothers as she was led quietly away by the hand. She didn’t protest and neither did we. This place was intimidating. It was authoritative. We all knew that in a place like this we were to be seen and not heard. The nurse told us she’d be safe. I never saw her again.
Fred and I slept in a dormitory with other older boys who pinned us down and took all our stuff from us and said that if we cried or told anyone then there would be trouble for us. The boys were all so much bigger than Fred and me and we succumbed. We lost a penknife, toffees, a rubber band, my smooth blue stone, Fred’s toy matchbox car and sixpence in change. We never told anyone.
The next day, after breakfast, at which the older boys stole some of our food, we were marched into a Superintendent’s office and a man in a grey pin striped suit talked to us. We didn’t really understand what he was saying, and when he finished the nurse took Fred by the hand. I followed but was promptly stopped by another nurse, a big fat lady with a round red face. You come with me she said. Fred’ll be alright. I resisted and pulled away. Now don’t give us any trouble son said the Superintendent eyeing a cane in the corner of the room. I eyed it too. No I did not want a thrashing so off I went dutifully following my new nurse. I never saw Fred again.
I never knew what happened to Dean. He didn’t spend the night with us. The last Fred and I saw of him was when we were led away to the dormitory while he remained behind with another nurse.
I’ve never seen my mum, or my brothers, or my sister since. Never. I think of them all though.
I’ve worked hard on this farm in Australia for ten years now and am a fit and healthy teenager who’ll soon be twenty. I was put on a ship with loads of other kids and I had to toughen up and learn to look after myself. I did. That stood me in good stead when I got here because I wasn’t scared of no-one. I took some beatings, but my opponent always knew they’d been in a fight and I gained a lot of respect from the other boys. I was never a bully, but stood up for myself and my mates, and soon there weren’t many who’d mess with me, except for the odd newcomer who thought he could take me.
The only people I couldn’t get the better of, got the better of me, and they were the adult farm hands and the men of God. Their actions scarred me.
I’ve often wonder what happened to Fred, Dean, Ella, and mum. I still ask myself the same questions nearly every day. Why did she do it? How could any mother do this to her own children? Where did she go? What happened to her? And where are Fred, Ella and Dean? What happened to them?
I wish I Knew.
“What is an asteroid?” the teacher asked the class.
Jimmy put his hand up and eagerly attracted the teacher’s attention.
“Yes Jimmy?” she said.
“It’s a planet that has blown up because of the microbes that have been eating it for billions of years. They eat so much of the planet that it disintegrates and the bits go flying off into space zooming around until they bash into another planet and then the microbes have another planet to eat. This happens all the time!”
“Very interesting,” said the teacher, “does anybody else have any other ideas?”
Well that was many years ago when I was in junior school. Jimmy went on to be a bus driver, but I chose a career in science, astronomy, in fact.
And today I have been containing my excitement, because I have been examining an asteroid captured in space by an unmanned spacecraft.
The technique of capture was simple in principal, but extremely difficult in practice.
The spacecraft worked in the Near Earth asteroid belt and its technique was a kind of fishing.
The spacecraft was guided to a pre-selected suitable small asteroid within this belt by signals from earth, and then it was manoeuvred alongside it, and, when the relative speeds of the spacecraft and the asteroid were compatible, the craft caught the rock in a net, finally pulling the captured piece into a cargo bay before returning to earth.
This technique became known as space angling or ‘spangling’.
This operation was extremely tricky for a number of reasons.
The rock had to be of a certain size and weight for the spacecraft to be able to capture it safely and then to transport it back to earth. It had to be selected, then located amongst its many companions, and then the ship had to be guided to it, avoiding all other objects, capture the rock and then be guided away from the asteroid mass.
The whole operation needed both skill and luck!
Well, today I was privileged to be one of the scientists who had been chosen to work on a small piece of this rock, a rock, which, a few weeks ago, had been circling many miles above the Earth, but which was now here in front of me on my laboratory bench.
I had a preference to work alone and although I was part of a larger team I was privileged to be granted permission to study this rock in my own laboratory.
I couldn’t work with other people disturbing my thoughts and my theories, and contaminating my views and telling me what I should be looking for. I had worked this way for many years and had made a number of minor, yet significant and important discoveries, and because of my past record the powers that be allowed me to continue working in this unconventional way.
Now, as all astronomers know, there are basically three types of asteroid.
There is a ‘C’ type, made mostly of carbon; an ‘S’ type, made mainly of rock; and an ‘M’ type, composed of metallic elements.
Which type did we have here?
Well, this specimen did not seem to align with any of the above types.
Its makeup seemed to be much more complex.
In my experiments I could detect carbon and metallic elements, and what made it even more exciting was that I found traces of hydrogen and oxygen, the two components of water, trapped in the rock.
Then I found microscopic droplets of water trapped in tiny fissures, deep inside my sample.
It was a few weeks later that I made my most exciting and amazing discovery.
I couldn’t believe what I’d found, and so checked my findings again and again.
This was sensational.
Yet I had to be doubly sure.
There must be no way that my findings could be challenged!
I didn’t want to look a fool!
Yet whatever I did, whatever cross checks I made, my findings were always confirmed.
I approached my findings from opposite directions, using different techniques, starting from the beginning each time, but the results were always the same.
It was there.
It was definitely there!
There was life in this rock!
I had found microbic life, and it seemed to be feeding on the rock itself!
No, it couldn’t be.
I became confused.
I remembered that day in junior school all those years ago when a pupil – who had turned out to be a bus driver – had made all this up!
I questioned my sanity.
My mind was irrational.
I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or making this up.
I hesitated to publish my findings.
I’d be a laughing stock.
Somehow I had to reconcile this fiction of a young boy’s imagination with the reality of what I thought I’d just found.
Then there was the other dilemma!
If I weren’t hallucinating, I’d be famous!
I’d go down in the annals of scientific history!
But if I were hallucinating I’d be a laughing stock!
I hesitated again.
I needed time to sort my mind out.
But if I delayed would someone else might make the same discovery and steal my glory, leaving me as a footnote in history, as the second scientist to publish and simply substantiating the findings of the first?
What to do?
I decided to have a short holiday.
I went to the mountains in Bavaria.
There I calmed down and re read my notes.
Yes, I was right.
Yes, I could publish.
At last I was sure!
My confidence was back!
I immediately booked the next available flight back to London, paid my hotel bill and travelled to the airport.
I checked in and went to the departure lounge.
There I sat idly waiting, as one has to, when a television caught my eye.
It was a news bulletin, in German.
My German was good, but there was too much technical language for me to understand what was being said.
What caught my eye was that the bulletin showed pictures of an asteroid.
I became agitated.
I was afraid.
Was this my asteroid they were talking about?
I got out my phone and sourced an English speaking news channel.
They were talking about politics.
I became irritated.
I checked other channels.
Then I went to the BBC News’ website.
There was the headline.
I was devastated!
There was no doubt anymore; it clearly said,
‘Microbic life found on captured asteroid by German scientist.’
I sank into my seat and put my head in my hands.
I was not going down in the annals of history after all.
I would simply be the scientist who had independently substantiated the German scientist’s findings.
I was destined to be a footnote in history, not a headline.
THE GREAT TITS
I watched the newly painted birds darting to and fro from bush to fence; fence to rock; and back to bush.
Two Great Tits, dancing and weaving, swirling and teasing,
Plumage illumed by Earth’s star, piercing the grey light of this waning winter.
And these birds rejoiced.
© R F (Bob) Reader