LINK Lit is a new feature in the online LINK. After inviting writers to submit their works for
online publication in The LINK, I'm pleased to say that a suitable three part short story was received from a local author.
The three parts were published in May, June and July 2020.

The featured work has connections with the SW7 Benefice villages. The author lives in the Benefice. I also said that the author’s name would be revealed in July.

Well dear reader, I have to admit it was me! I did ask for submissions, but unfortunately receiving none from our readership, I was left with few options.

The first and second part of A Job for Life  was published in May and June. This month you can read all three parts of the story here. 
I have decided to self-publish the story on Amazon to raise money for Shipston Home Nursing so if you’d like a nicely bound version or a copy for your Kindle, please purchase at  https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B086Y3SD5X

Keith Murphy - The LINK Editor



 

A Job for Life


I

John Sheen had never been lucky in the lottery of life. He had been born into an age where people were beginning to look to the future, but into a family whose life was rooted in the past. His father, Major (Rtd.) Donald J. Sheen, was one of those old-fashioned types who had had what was called at the time, ‘a jolly good war.’  Donald had come by his wartime commission through a series of fortunate circumstances and despite his army records telling him in no uncertain terms that his commission was ‘for the duration of hostilities’ and just ‘temporary’, though dogged cussedness he had held onto his commission for the maximum length of time possible until he was forced to retire by the rules which then surrounded such things.
     As a result, John found himself born into a family ruled by a father used to wielding authority and unused to being challenged. His wife Rosemary, by some years younger than Donald, had recognised the problem with Donald’s one-dimensional approach to childrearing as soon as she saw it, but felt powerless to act.
     Donald and Rose lived in and ran, a small but comfortable pub in a Sussex village, just ten or so miles from Brighton. Donald had acquired the Red Lion from an old army comrade who after a torrid time with Donald fighting though Italy, had spent near on fifteen years or so slowly, but unmistakably dying from his wounds before finally giving his life for his then dead King. Rosemary knew an opportunity when she saw one. A single man, about to retire from the Army with a pension and a pub. The few years of age difference was not an obstruction in her mind, and time was not on her side.
     They made a surprisingly handsome pair, especially on those dreary and wet November mornings when they stood with the rest of the village blocking the High Street to remember the fallen. He in his uniform and medals officiating at the ceremony and her in smart modern clothes, provided by his pension and the profits from a modest but increasingly successful pub business.
     John’s arrival was much celebrated by not only his parents, but also by the regulars in the Red Lion. Though their cognitive powers were somewhat dulled by their regular daily intake of alcohol, even the regulars were able to work out that is wasn’t the full nine months since the wedding and yet John was there amongst them. Now this wasn’t a deliberate move on Rosemary’s part, although once it happened, she was, it has to be said, rather relieved. Donald, despite his obvious inexperience with the opposite sex was in his way, a ‘good catch’. He offered Rose security and on his own terms, love of sorts. The news of the pregnancy prompted Donald into action, and he did what used to be called ‘the decent thing.’
     John’s early life progressed well enough. A sound financial background was being established by both Donald and Rose through their hard work in the pub and little John wanted for little except perhaps, for some attention from his father, who found the experience of fatherhood somewhat of a strain. He much preferred to attend to business in the bar and socialise with his customers.
     Donald held out high hopes for his son. In discussing the future with Rose, he rather took her aback with his plans. After the early years in local establishments, he wished to send John away at the age of seven to attend a boarding school that was run by some of his old Army connections. He was able to get a discount on the fees and as the pub was doing well, it could be afforded. Donald was keen for his son to have all the advantages he hadn’t had. Going to the right school was, as he’d discovered in his Army career, absolutely critical. ‘And besides’, declared Donald, ‘it would be the making of him.’
     Against this onslaught Rose was defenceless. She had been disturbed by his hands-off approach to parenthood. Whilst the rest of the world was embracing a decade that would later become to be known as ‘swinging’, Donald was taking Rose and her little boy back to a pre-war world of privilege allied with pretence. Her feelings of difference widened over the time leading up to John’s seventh year and when the moment came for John’s departure, Rose was just grateful that they’d had no more children.
     On the appointed day just after his seventh birthday, John and his sad little trunk of belongings was transported in his dad’s little car the fifty or so miles to the educational establishment on which Major (Rtd.) Sheen’s hopes so earnestly rested. Rose was not in a fit state to make the journey although Donald did not fully appreciate the fact. He was gratified that she had seen fit to look after the pub in his absence.
     And that was it, after a few cursory words from his father, John was left in the tender mercies of the Priorton Priory Preparatory School along with others of his age in the same position.
     Life proceeded pretty well at first. The food was actually quite good, although John had never been particularly fussy in that direction and the communal life and shared dormitories took some getting used to, but overall, it wasn’t as bad as John thought it was going to be. Some passing thoughts took him from time to time back to his mother in Sussex. He managed to hold off any tears, having seen what happened to the other boys when discovered ‘blubbering’ for their mothers. Unfortunately, his mother was unable to hold back her tears for her lost boy. These were however shed in private whilst Donald was otherwise engaged.
     It was in the classroom that things first started to go badly wrong for John. The local infants’ school had spoken to Donald and Rose about the difficulties that John was having, particularly with his letters. Donald glossed over this as a temporary problem. He himself had been stronger with numbers than with words and urged the somewhat flustered infant teacher to ‘just give him a spell in the slow readers group - that’ll sort him out.’ But at Priorton, the stakes had been upped considerably.
     In the company of privately tutored seven-year olds, John found himself way off the pace and unable to keep up with his classmates. The more he tried, the more he failed. Today his condition has a name - it’s called dyslexia. In John’s early school days, it was more likely to earn the wearing of a fiercely wielded slipper than the wearing of a diagnostic label. It was just before the half-term break that John first met that slipper guided by the hand of the headmaster. He discovered not only how painful it was, but also how much credibility it gave him with his classmates. This was small consolation for the pain of the experience.
     Back at home, John was pleased to see his mother but was less inclined to engage with his father. He shrugged off the questions and told them both that everything was ‘going fine.’ John couldn’t be sure if the school had reported anything to his parents, but if they had, the pair of them were very good at keeping it secret. 
     After the short break, John returned to Priorton to discover that his troubles continued from exactly the point that he had left them. Threats of beatings had seen a progress of sorts in John’s reading skills, but he was still substantially behind the others. He found some relief from persecution in the fact that his number skills were at least up with the best in his class and he was a ‘little favourite’ with the music teacher. This was on account of the interest he showed in the topics that that particular teacher was forcing down the throats of John and his classmates. Both his classmates and some of the more perceptive teachers, of which there were a few, noticed what a good memory John was blessed with.
     Good memory or not, this was not enough to stop the threats of beatings become reality. Before he went home for the Easter break, he’d suffered a number of such attacks on his person and his seven-year-old body and mind was beginning to develop some resistance. In the place of self-pity, there was a growing anger that the world was permitted to treat him so. John was able, somehow to keep a lid on all of this over the Easter holidays and again assure his parents that ‘all was well.’  
     Early in the summer term, the school had its annual day out to the seaside at Brighton. This was regarded by all as a bit of a treat, but for John, who had been a number of times before in his pre-Priorton days, it wasn’t much of a novelty. Still, it would be one less day when his inability to unravel the jumble of the printed page would provoke the teaching staff to whom his care was entrusted.
     The school chartered a coach, but as is the way with these things, there were more boys than seats. So John, along with another boy from his class, was earmarked to travel in the Headmaster’s car with the school nurse and the aforementioned music teacher.             Much to John’s discomfort, he was squashed up in the back of the car with him and his classmate either side of the teacher for the fifty or so mile trip to Brighton. He spent the journey in silence looking out of the window contemplating the world and his position in it.
     Now part of the day was given over to spending some time on the beach, and after the staff had hastily arrange rugs and blankets, they all settled down to the traditional ice cream treat that had been bought to them by one of the beachside shops. In this moment of distraction, John had placed himself at the extreme edge of the last of the rugs. He’d been keeping himself out of the little tight group on his rug keenly comparing their ice creams and when all attention was diverted, and the noise of the breaking waves and screeching seagulls was at its height, he quietly made his escape. Well, as quietly as is possible for a seven-year-old boy shod in ‘sensible’ shoes and running hell for leather over the shingle that is Brighton beach. He didn’t stop to look round until he reached The Esplanade.
     On turning to observe the assembled school group in the distance, he could just see his discarded melting ice cream on the edge of the rug with everyone else in the party oblivious to his disappearance. The next step in his plan was to find the bus station. He’d done the walk several times on trips he and his mother had made in the past and he was sure that he could remember which way to go. His memory of the streets of Brighton served him well and sure enough, he arrived at the right place. In fact, there was the very bus that he knew he needed to get him home sitting there waiting to go. Over a few words with the driver and the conductor, John explained that he needed to get back to the Red Lion some ten miles distant and that when they arrived, his mum would pay his bus fare for him. The pair of them were surprisingly sympathetic, whether they thought he might cadge a drink as well as the fare, we can never be sure, but John boarded the bus as confident as he’d ever been and within forty minutes, he was home. 
     The bus was running a little early, so John had time to drag his startled mother out and get her to the bus to pay his fare. 
     On their return, before going back inside, John told Rose of his unhappiness at what was going on at the school at that he wasn’t going back, whatever anyone said. It was matter of fact, not to be argued with and a statement of such clarity, that you’d never had credited that a seven-year-old could have said it. When Donald was confronted with the situation, he could see that all protestations to the contrary were hopeless and he made what in military terms, is known as a tactical withdrawal.
     An hour or two later, John looked out of his bedroom window to see the headmaster’s car draw to a halt outside the pub. He heard the raised voices in the downstairs rooms and whilst he couldn’t hear what was actually being said, it was clear that the headteacher was coming off second best. Leading the charge was Rose. ‘Thank goodness for mum’ thought John. The following day his father went ‘AWOL’ and later that day, his trunk and all his possessions from Priorton were back in his Sussex bedroom. His father’s plan for an exclusive education for the boy had come to nothing.


2

More quickly than John had imagined, he found himself sitting at a desk in the local primary school. Some attempt had been made to introduce the ‘new boy’ into the class, but most of them were known to John through his days in the local infant classes. John found the teachers a little less harsh than those at Priorton and soon found his place in his new world. Struggling with reading was not an unknown problem in the class, and John didn’t find himself singled out on this count. He was however labelled by his classmates as ‘Posh John’ on account of his ‘sensible shoes’, smartly cut short trousers and socks that appeared to be able to keep up all by themselves. It wasn’t long before John made the necessary adjustments in his clothing, but the label ‘Posh’ stuck.
     As his time in school ticked by, John became picked upon not for his ‘posh’ clothes, but because loose talk in some of the village families had let slip to some of the boys that John had arrived ‘before his time’ to his parents. The epithet ‘Posh’ was quickly dropped by some of the more advanced boys in John’s class and the playground taunt became ‘John the B_____ ‘. Now John knew very well the meaning of this new label. You didn’t lie alone in your room listening to the evening bar room talk filtering up through the open windows without learning a thing or two. In fact, had there have been an examination in the use of swearwords in the English language, John would have been top of the class by a long way.
     He put up with the taunts for quite some time, chasing the name callers but never quite managing to catch them. In truth, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do with them if he did catch them. Finally, one day just before his tenth birthday he’d had enough. He decided in his own mind how the chase would end. During one of the playground breaks, David Ryan, as usual, started the casual abuse that John had become so used to. John turned quickly on his heels and grabbed David by his lapels and floored him with one mighty blow of his right fist. John turned calmly around and sauntered off as if nothing had happened, leaving David Ryan a blubbering bloody mess on the rough potholed tarmac of the playground.
     Before the event, John had realised that there would probably be consequences to his planned course of action. After the event he was not wrong. An immediate trip to the headmaster’s study was the result shortly after break was over. The head was a somewhat kindlier man than the head at Priorton. As a consequence, John was not afraid as he faced the headmaster alone. David was being patched up in the medical room and his mother was already on her way to collect him. Despite repeated questions on the matter, John refused to say why he’d struck David Ryan, just repeatedly telling the head that ‘he’d have to ask David that.’ After a number of pointless circular conversations, the head gave up. He was more than aware from the tittle-tattle around the school what the provocation was, but there was no way that he could extract it from John.
     There was a meeting the next day between the head with Donald and Rose to which John was not invited and John thought he saw David’s mother coming into the school at the same time. David Ryan was off school for three days and when he came back, looking a little the worse for wear, he and John never exchanged a word. There were no more playground taunts relating to John’s parentage.
     The struggle with the printed word continued. By the time the dreaded 11+ arrived, he was firmly in the bottom of the class position for English on the weekly updated chart posted helpfully on the back wall of the classroom. His position in Maths was better, showing an average ability. It had been recognised by his teachers that he possessed some exceptional skills manipulating numbers but when it came to applying mathematical concepts, as was required in the forthcoming exam, he fell down every time. The teachers tried their best, Rose his mother tried her best and even John put in the effort but despite all this, the words on the page refused to resolve themselves into any sensible order in John’s mind and anything beyond writing his own name proved pretty nigh impossible.
     The big exam came and went. John took little notice. He knew where he was heading. The aspirations of his classmates were all pretty much met, but John was not really bothered where they went or what they did. He had become pretty much a loner since the incident with David Ryan. His fate was sealed, the secondary modern in the nearest town some seven miles distant, would be where he was headed. A few of his old classmates accompanied him on the bus the first day to school, but they all found themselves allotted to different classes to John Sheen by the end of the day. John was quite happy with this state of affairs, he wasn’t particularly keen on any of them and in a way pleased to be rid of his old classmates. His new class was composed mainly of boys from the town where the school was located, and John was perfectly happy to rub along with them. They never gave him a hard time about his reading.
     As time progressed, a few subjects at school grabbed John’s attention. By his efforts, the school garden eventually became little short of immaculate. Gardening instruction was given to a number of classes and when John realised that there was little ‘paperwork’ in the syllabus, he took to it straight away. It was clear that any craftwork with his hands was going to be successful. He had excellent retention of instructions and quickly learnt the skills of woodwork and metalwork and was able to provide instruction to his fellow pupils. The instructions would always be on his terms and he had little patience with the unfortunate boy who deviated from his ‘tuition.’ A few choice words from the public bar would be directed toward the offender and no one put up any objections. John had sprouted a good few inches since junior school.
     Occasionally cries of ‘John the B_____’ were raised by those who had just discovered this open secret. Truth was, that there were lots more in his position, but through one means or another, their particular secret had not been exposed to view. Once or twice, John had silenced the perpetrators by waiting for them at a secluded spot on their particular route home. Before he dealt out the necessary punishment for this offence, he told them that yes, he was what they had called him and what’s more, he was a ‘right one’. His return home on the later bus was easy to explain away and increasingly, no one was prepared to mess with John Sheen. 
     When John reached a certain age, it became cool to experiment with the acquisition and the consumption of alcohol. It was of great interest to his fellows that he actually lived in a pub. It was the equivalent to the somewhat younger boyhood dream of having parents who owned a sweet shop. Many of John’s acquaintances, (he had few who could claim the title ‘friend’), were really surprised at his attitude. John made it clear that it was his intention never to touch the stuff; he had seen the damage both to the body and the wallet caused by drink to some of the regulars of the Red Lion. 
     John was subject to state education until the age of 16. He was forced to stay at school a term extra until he became of age. By this time, his father had long given up any aspirations of grandeur that had seen John abandoned on the steps of Priorton Park Preparatory School. Even his mother had recognised that once John had set a course for himself, it was pretty hopeless to try to change his mind. There was no point in trying to make him take the exams later in the year, all advice from the school was urging getting John out into the world of work or the Services as quickly as possible. There was an unfortunate incident when the hapless careers teacher at John’s school suggested he might like to look to The Army for a future. John calmly told him to shut up and got up and left the room. He was for certain, not following his father’s path.
     John was not fussed particularly what future role he took in life and when one of the more trustworthy regulars at the pub hinted that he could fix John up with a job in the local haulage firm, with a view to getting some training as a driver, John grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The job started a few days before it should have done, and John skipped the last days at school that should have seen him say his farewells. He wasn’t however that bothered and spent his first weeks teamed up with one of the old boys on the firm who gave John a pretty good grounding in what was required, both legitimately and not so legitimately, from a truck driver. The 6.00 am starts and the thirty-minute cycle ride proved no obstacle to John arriving on time and it has to said, that John’s no-nonsense approach found quite a lot of favour with the owner of the business.       At the particular moment that John joined the haulage company, business was good and contracts plentiful. As a result, the company were prepared to pay for John to progress through all the driving test requirements and, like most things of a practical nature, John had no need to be told twice and quickly picked up the necessary skills to be able to handle even the largest HGV in the fleet with confidence and ease. This was quite unusual and may have an explanation rooted in the rather larger number of regulars who were now frequenting the Red Lion who had some connection with the running of the haulage firm for which John was driving. Donald and Rose felt sure that the free and discounted drinks that were now coming the way of these new regulars would be worth it in the long run.
     John enjoyed his driving. It required little in the way of writing and most of it was numbers anyway. It allowed him the time to play his opera aria tapes in private. He found it easy to memorise routes and being of a punctual turn of mind, could be relied on to get the goods to store on time. Most of the contracts John got involved with were for goods deliveries from central supermarket depots to the growing number of out of town superstores. Most of the time it went pretty smoothly, but truckers can be an argumentative bunch and on more than one occasion, John had to stand his ground against some older more established practitioners of the art. Standing his ground was something that John had gained first class honours in earlier in life and he was indeed suitably equipped for the task.
     In his spare time, John had taken up with the boxing gym in nearby Brighton. After a few introductory sparring rounds and a number of weeks of suitable preparation, the gym put him up against a test opponent. To be honest, John walked it, but it gave him no satisfaction. As he was leaving the gym, he had an approach from Harry Walker. Now Harry was well known in Brighton and well known by reputation to John through the bush telegraph that had an office below his bedroom in the public bar of the Red Lion. Harry was offering John work in a number of the bars and nightclubs in which he had an interest. His place of work would at least initially be on the door. Later Harry promised more lucrative employment for ‘this and that’, but nothing was made entirely clear about this future potential. John knew that it would be silly to mess with Harry, so most uncharacteristically, he very politely and graciously declined Harry’s offer and never stepped foot again in the Brighton gym.
     He had however acquired the taste for training with weights. The attraction of an ever-increasing number of pounds lifted and the availability of resources locally and away for the Brighton ‘influence’, all helped grow John into an imposing figure by the time he turned twenty.
     John’s socialising was somewhat limited by his lack of drinking credentials, but he’d found a number of like-minded individuals away from his home village and there was enough social activity for him to meet others of his age. He even managed to form a few relationships with girls who were certainly attracted to his physique but didn’t seem to be able to deal with his uncompromising approach to life. In typical John fashion, he just wrote them off and said to himself - ‘that’s their loss.’ Eventually, he and Valerie joined forces. I say forces, as Valerie came with a pretty uncompromising pedigree herself.
     Quite early on in their relationship, they discovered that they would fight like cat and dog when one stood up to the other. However, as was the way with both of them, they wouldn’t hold a grudge, seem to arrive at an agreement and move on as if nothing had happened. It was certainly a cause of great amazement to all their friends that the untameable Valerie and the unmovable John had paired up. It was an even greater shock when they announced that they were going to get married.
     In a rather drunken state, one of John’s friends not too discreetly enquired of John if Valerie was pregnant. John more or less bought the assembled partying throng to a stop with a verbal assault on his friend, telling him he would not want to put any child through that experience. It was the last time that John’s friend ever spoke a word to him. 
     John and Valerie got married in the village church with the reception in the Red Lion. The local authority, as it was in those days, provided them with a home close to Valerie’s widowed mother and they both settled down to married life as much as their volatile natures would allow.

 

3

Valerie was just finishing her training as a nurse at the time of her marriage. Her new home was close to the hospital in which she trained, and she had no trouble in obtaining a position as soon as she had finished her probationary period. She was after all, less inclined than John to provoke reaction from those in authority. Valerie came to understand that although John managed to make any discussion look like a confrontation, and give the feeling to those on the other end of the conversation that those big fists were about to fly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The pair of them, whilst their disagreements were violent, whatever the provocation, John never hit her. That’s more than can be said for a number of Val’s friends, whose new husbands had lashed out. Valerie had also seen the disturbing results of domestic violence in her work at the hospital.
     John’s driving work was beginning to be affected by a gradual tightening of the economy and the subsequent loss of contracts operated by his firm. Driver layoffs started and he was one of the first to go. If this was caused by the universal law of ‘last in, first out’, John’s ability to rub customers and fellow drivers up the wrong way or the falling numbers of haulage management drinking at The Red Lion it’s hard to say. The resulting loss of work was ill-timed. Valerie was pregnant with their first child.
     Valerie and John had been good managers of their income up to this point. The only gripe that John had was the amount of money that went on Valerie’s cigarettes. It was a little luxury that Valerie enjoyed and was the cause of many a blow up between them. Now with a break in income due to the baby and the loss of John’s driving income, matters needed to be addressed. 
     John had a few days’ work left, and on his visits to the various supermarkets, he managed to extract the promise of a job from a warehouse manager that he hadn’t upset too much in the past. The job was nothing special, unloading deliveries and transferring stock onto the retail floor - otherwise known as shelf stacking. There weren’t a large number of shifts and they were at pretty anti-social times, but luckily there was a friend of Valerie’s who worked on the checkouts who could give him a lift there and back for most of the shifts. The rest of the time, he’d have to get on his bike for the eight-mile round trip.
John’s work in the supermarket came with some unexpected pleasures. He found that tidily stacking and ordering the shelves, brought a satisfaction all of its own. Products of differing size, flavours and slight variations all had an ordered place in the shelved world of the supermarket and John was going to make sure everything was in its right place. He couldn’t walk by a misplaced item carelessly discarded by a customer without rectifying the situation. In fact, customers were pretty annoying with their habit of denuding John’s perfectly laid out shelves.
     The supermarket shifts were never going to be enough. John was on nodding terms with the old chap who kept up the rather extensive churchyard just around the corner. It was clear to both of them that his gardening days were coming to an end and after a few sessions with old Toby, John was duly appointed by the PCC as church gardener. Fitting in the gardening around the supermarket shifts was no problem. The problem lay in the income from these activities being just a little less than his relatively well-paid driving work. When they factored in Valerie’s impending loss of nursing income, things didn’t look great. In his mind John turned over the offer he’d had from Harry Walker down in Brighton. He could see where this would lead and despite the temptation, John resisted. He’d have to work something out. 
     Baby Jack arrived with no complications, save the obvious financial hit and this was helped by a somewhat unexpected financial contribution from Rose and Donald. The pair of them were looking towards getting out of the pub business, now that the emphasis was less on ‘boozing’ and more on ‘eating.’ This change of business focus didn’t suit Donald and he was looking for a way out.
     John’s churchyard gardening was showing results similar those he had achieved with the school garden. It was noticed by the good church-going community of the town, that the churchyard had picked up in the few months John had been in sole charge. He always made sure that by Saturday night, everything was as tidy as it could be ready for Sunday. Occasionally on their walks on Sunday morning, John and Valerie with Jack in the pram, would see the good townspeople coming out of the church and admiring the neatly clipped yews over which John had taken so much trouble. A number of the congregation were known by sight to John and Valerie through their school experiences, but the little Sheen family passed by unnoticed and unremarked upon. 
     One evening, whilst tidying up some bits in the churchyard, John heard the bellringers hard at work. The noise in the churchyard was close to deafening but even so, John was able to identify that the tower had eight bells. With his practised ear, used to opera arias and a growing variety of music, he was able to hear when the bells changed and realised that there were two different sorts of ‘rings’. One was where the order changed and stayed put for a period and then changed again and stayed; the other type was where the bell order changed at every ring of the bells. In the case of the latter, John could hear that the deepest sounding bell was always at the end of the eight bell order. This led him to listen hard for the highest sounding bell which started off as the first bell to sound and once the changing started, John thought he could track its progress up the seventh in order and then back down again to become the first. He wasn’t entirely sure, and this aroused his curiosity. He was just on the point of making the trip up to the ringers when he suddenly remembered that his old primary school adversary, David Ryan would be in up in the bell tower. David had recently returned from university after completing goodness knows what. John was vaguely aware that David had been away around five years and acquired himself some well-paid job in Brighton. He also knew that David Ryan was making the short trip to ring the bells in the tower every Wednesday evening and, that meeting him in the small confines of the church ringing room was not a good idea. 
Events at the supermarket coalface took a predictable turn after a few years. John lost his rag with one of the youngsters assigned to his care when he wouldn’t do it the way John had told him. Unfortunately, the youngster had family connections within the store and John suddenly found that due to ‘unpredictable trading conditions’, his number of shifts were cut in half. Whilst his shifts were cut in half, the size of his family had just doubled with the arrival of Gail earlier in the year.
     Both Valerie and John had taken to parenthood but decided to do their best not to have any more children whilst John’s job security was doubtful. Valerie gave John a really hard time over his inability to keep his mouth shut when things didn’t go his way. It had lost him work and with a family, this was unforgivable. Valerie saw the argument flow over him and just drain like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. Things were frosty for a few days, but both calmed down and life went forward.
    Valerie tapped up a friend at the hospital and an opening for porter and cleaner suddenly appeared. John was on strict instructions not to upset Maureen who had done this for the sake of Valerie’s friendship and also in the hope that she would come back on the nursing staff, sooner, rather than later.
     The role of porter and cleaner took some getting used to. The shifts were long, although the breaks did give him some free days in the week to carry on with his church gardening and the few shifts he had left at the supermarket. It was during this time in John’s life that he began to see the effects of ageing and what it could do to a person. He was still continuing with his weight training and winning a few competitions, but began to realise that he wouldn’t be young for ever. Contemplating the finite nature of life whilst cleaning a toilet pan was not for everyone, but John was learning a lot from his little job working for the ever-pleasant Maureen. In his usual methodical way, John’s deep cleaning techniques were much appreciated by her, but went unremarked upon by most others who had bigger things on their mind as they busied themselves around the hospital site.
     With the improved money coming in from all of John’s jobs and with some help from Rose and Donald and Valerie’s mum, the Sheen family were finally able to buy a car. Second-hand and in need of some tinkering that John was more than up to, the car became a dependable member of the family. Modest holidays on a Bognor caravan site for a week bought delight to the young Jack and Gail, able to spend most of their waking hours in the open-air pool provided for their entertainment. John had perfected the art of making a bottle of orange juice last all night whilst he and Valerie enjoyed the camp club nights out. Babysitting was helpfully provided by the young teenage girls from the family in the next-door caravan with whom they invariably shared the same slot in the summer.
As Gail reached school age, Valerie was able to make Maureen’s dreams come true and return to work, albeit initially on a part-time contract. John was aware of this possibility and had told Valerie that as soon as she started back, he was going to do something else. Both of them realised that the two of them bumping into each other and possibly sparking off each other was not going to lead to anything good. John actually had dark misgivings about being ordered about by his wife, even though he’d been pretty good about taking it from others.
     On the summer break in Bognor, John had been chatting up Geoff from the next-door caravan. Geoff had a minor position in a nearby council in the waste management office. John enquired what it took to get a position on the bin lorries and before Geoff realised it, he was promising a job to John, initially on the collection crew but possibly leading to a post later as driver. These jobs were not easy to get and were often ‘dead man’s shoes’ but Geoff’s girls were much taken with the young Jack and Gail, and if John was honest with himself, he suspected that Geoff had developed a bit of soft spot for Valerie.
     So, jobs took off from that September. John on the bins and Valerie back as a nurse. The churchyard gardening continued. In fact, the church had received the best kept churchyard in West Sussex award two years running and as a result, John received a small bonus and an increase in his hourly fee. Despite this vote of confidence from the church, John had still to properly cross the threshold of the establishment for a service or the like. They’d decided that being non-believers, they wouldn’t get Jack or Gail christened. John was still hankering to find out more about bellringing, but unfortunately David Ryan was still in residence and had now risen to the position of Tower Captain and steeple keeper. This being the case, Valerie had forbidden John to go anywhere near the bells.
     The bins provided John with employment for a good many years. He started with the loading crews but by skill, physical presence and some work by Valerie on Geoff, he soon became a driver. Uncompromising approaches were not unexpected in this environment and several times John did had conversations where his fists were ready for use. There was something left of John’s reputation from his weightlifting days and from his time in the boxing gym that held some currency with the bin crews. Nobody felt confident to take John Sheen beyond the point where they could manage him. None of these encounters made it back to the office and John derived a good income from both legitimate sources and from the many valuable ‘useless items’ that were disposed of by unknowledgeable householders.
     Time marched on, John’s father became terribly afflicted by dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s; it was difficult to tell the difference. John thought it probably had a lot to do with the liking for hard spirits that had developed just as they sold out the pub business. Unfortunately, his father had been somewhat imprudent in his dealings with one of the breweries and as a consequence, his ‘sale’ of the business was in reality, more of an invitation to leave quietly. Donald passed away shortly before the dawn of the new millennium and was sent to earth in a coffin draped in the Union Flag. Rose followed him just after the millennium and this almost bought a tear from John; throwing his mind back to the days in Priorton Priory Preparatory School when he last had almost shed a tear for his mother. After Donald’s death, Rose had made her peace with John about the errors they had made in his early life. John had no need of an apology, he was settled on his assessment of his own life and had no need of any maternal comforting.
     After his mother’s death, John decided that it was time to chuck the bins in. He’d had his eye on going ‘on the Post.’ It was all close at hand, gave him exercise and steady income. If nothing else, they’d save on the copious amounts of hot water that was needed to keep a binman fragrant. 
     The Sheens still kept in touch with Geoff and Jean, their holiday friends from Bognor. John and Jack spent a number of early summer breaks on Geoff’s brother’s farm picking the crop of strawberries that was packed off to Wimbledon. Jack missed a few days off school through this activity, but it wasn’t noticed. Jack was on study leave prior to his summer exams. John and Valerie were forever grateful that the condition that had blighted John’s school days had not been passed on to Jack or Gail. John was somewhat less than grateful that Jack had managed to outstrip him in the ‘weight of strawberries picked’ race. 
     After what seemed a twinkling of an eye, John reached the age of sixty, still working as a postie and occasional fruit picker, he was beginning to feel the weight of time on his shoulders. He was still sparking off Valerie but had won a considerable victory a few years back by getting her to give up smoking. Life is full of little victories, interrupted by a series of defeats. One just has to hope that the victories outweigh the defeats.
One house move had occurred since Valerie and John had come together some forty years previous. The purchase stretched them, but the portfolio of jobs put forward by John was accepted by a kindly mortgage broker at the time and the four-bed semi with sizable garden was theirs. During the ups and downs of their income affected by short time, adverse weather, economic decline and disciplinary issues, they had always managed to keep the payments going on their property.
     As was customary on their birthdays, Valerie and John walked down to the newsagents to buy their lottery scratch card tickets. Why they did it, they didn’t know. They’d never won anything. John began the process to reveal what he suspected would be a number of fat round zeros. Without showing a flicker of emotion, John informed Valerie that they’d just won £100. The newsagent pricked up his ears, “your luck’s in John, well done!”
     “It’s the first time I’ve won the lottery, maybe my luck’s changing!” replied John. 
     “Let’s hope so” said the newsagent. “Have you seen those unlucky beggars in Wuhan out in China? All dying in numbers from this cornea bug thing.”
     “Well if it comes over here, it’s a good job I’ve got…’ – John’s comment was interrupted by a sudden unexpected cough – “…a few quid now to tide me over.” And with that, and the pocketed £100 in cash, Valerie and John walked home. 
 

© Keith Murphy