Monthly Archives: August 2015

The story of Juan Jaime Domenech

I would like to tell you a story, one I have told no one before. It is something that happened to me over 60 years ago, when I was just fifteen. Let me introduce myself firest. My name is Juan Jaime Domenech and my story concerns myself and my father, a surveyor like his father before him.  His father, my grandfather, had left Spain to live and work in Mexico, and my father had stayed on after he died. I was intending to follow the same profession.

My story starts when my father was hired to survey an area in Mexico from the Gulf of Campeche, south across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, toward the southern Sierra Madre mountains. He felt the trip would be quite straight forward so he took me along with him: ‘To get a feel of the real thing,’ he told me.

We took a steamer from Veracruz and travelled south perhaps 100 miles to a small coastal town. There we made our final preparations. Father fixed the route of our survey, due south from the town, and drew it on a large map. The area around the town had been mapped but the interior on the map was blank. It just showed the highlands of the Mexican Plateau and the southern Sierra Madre mountains. It was this blank area we were to survey.

He pinned the map on a board in our hotel – the only hotel in the town – and let it be known that we wanted a team of porters to come with us on the survey. Early the following morning there were more than twenty men outside the hotel, all wanting to be part of the survey. Father selected twelve and began the last stages of our preparations.

Two days later we set off, my father and I carrying the survey equipment, our porters carrying our stores for a ten week trek. At first we followed the clearly marked trail leading south from the town, travelling through country that was wild and varied. Sometimes it was green and lush; then it would become rocky and dry – the hot sun reflecting from the barren rocks.

Our porters worked well and we made good time. Sometimes father stopped and made readings and notes but this was just to check the map details that existed. It was not part of our survey; he was just ensuring that we kept going due south.

By the end of the second week the trail had vanished and we were into the unchartered territory. Our measurement stops were now after each hour of trecking. At each stop my father set up his equipment and took readings from the four points of the compass. Temperature was checked and altitude calculated. He made notes of the type of country through which we had passed, and the plant and animal life we could see. At night when we made camp he would write up all the notes in his big survey journal while the porters prepared the meal.

We were into our third week when one of the porters came to see my father. He asked a simple, direct, question: ‘Señor, where are you leading us?’

When my father indicated the way ahead, still due south toward the rising mountains, the questioner became quite agitated.

‘Señor’, he said, ‘we are employed to follow you and work for you. To do as you wish of us. But we would prefer it if you would turn aside from this route you show us. If you do not, I fear, many will leave you and return to their homes.’

Father was surprised at this. It was totally against the Mexican Indian’s nature to threaten mutiny. ‘Why is that?’ he asked.

‘Señor Domenech, this route we follow will take us to the sacred Valley of Quetzacoatl. To approach the valley is to invoke the wrath of the great white god.’

My father did not laugh. Quetzacoatl was a powerful god of the Aztecs who reigned during the Golden Age before Hernán Cortés and his Spanish warriors had conquered the country. Quetzacoatl had disappeared leaving a promise to return. Father new the fear and respect for the god was bred deep in the Mexican Indians and that they would do nothing to risk the deity’s anger.

‘I understand’, he said. ‘My son and I will continue this part of the survey alone. You will all wait here for our return. Shall return within 14 days and then survey the area to the west of here.’

The Indian was pleased at father’s decision. Next morning they prepared our rations and stood and watched as we headed south.

On the second day of this part of our treck we started to climb through the foothills of the Sierra Madre. Father continued taking his readings after every hour and I prepared our evening meal while he wrote up his notes.  It was the morning of our sixth day alone that we topped another scrub covered ridge and stopped in amazement.

Every other ridge we had topped had just presented us with another in the distance. This one presented us with a cultivated valley. Through a quirk of geology the valley had steeper sides than any others we had seen. Instead of being a dip between ridges it had a finite shape. The far side was a distinct wall of rock. To our left a small river rushed down a steep incline, almost as a waterfall, and then meandered gently across the flat valley floor to a lake that lay glistening in the sun away to our right. Along the banks of the river were neat fields. On each side of the river a white road wound through the fields, joining near a small bridge to become a single road leading into a village of white, flat topped Spanish style houses.

‘The Valley of Quetzacoatl’ I heard my father murmur.

It was then I noticed something else. Although the fields looked well-tended, there was no sign of movement anywhere in the valley. I mentioned it to my father. He shrugged his shoulders and looked up toward the sun. ‘The people will be taking siesta now. It will be warmer in the valley than it is here on the ridge. Come, let’s go down and see if we can meet the dwellers in Quetzacoatl’s valley’. With that he hitched his rucksack onto his shoulders and set off down the slope. After a few moments hesitation I followed him.

As we walked through the fields we could see stone-lined irrigation channels leading water from the river to every field. ‘This is the work of skilled men,’ father said as we walked. ‘No Indians I have known would do this.

We turned a corner in the road and saw ahead of us a white cottage with Orange trees in the garden and a vine with bright yellow flowers growing all over the veranda. Almost as soon as we saw the cottage a man appeared in the doorway. As he looked around he saw us. For a long moment he stood still, then he went back into the cottage.

‘I have a feeling we shall soon find out what sort of people live in Quetzacoatl’s Valley Juan’, my father said unnecessarily. ‘Just stay calm. I have my rifle and pistol if we need them – just pray we don’t have to use them.’

We kept walking and were within twenty metres of the cottage when the man reappeared, closely followed by a second man. Father and I stopped in our tracks – both men were carrying guns.

‘Easy Juan’, my father warned.

But it wasn’t just the guns that caused us to stop – it was the men themselves. Both could have been stepping from the pages of a history book. They were short, stocky men with black, pointed beards. Each wore knee breeches and a white linen shirt open at the neck. One wore a broad red fabric belt; the other wore blue. On their feet were heavy leather shoes with large silver buckles. Neither wore a hat and their black hair was swept back and was just long enough to touch the collar.

As they walked toward us I saw their guns clearly, and each had a wisp of smoke coming from it. They were holding match-lock muskets. No one had used those since the middle of the seventeenth century!

They stopped and we faced each other – each pair unsure of the intentions of the other. My father was the first to act.

‘Buenos Dias, Señors’ he said, taking a step forward, his right hand held up, palm outward in the universal sign of peace.

Blue Belt started to lift his musket at father’s movement. Red Belt just eyed us both then returned the greeting. ‘Buenos Dias’.

‘You give us a strange welcome’, my father continued. ‘Are visitors always met in this way?’

The two men exchanged glances and muttered something to each other. Blue Belt nodded and stepped to one side, motioning with his match-lock that he wished us to walk through.

‘Better do as they wish Juan’ father said in a low voice. ‘I don’t know who is more surprised and nervous – them or us.’

I nodded. I was just too frightened to speak. The two men fell in behind us, guns still held ready for use. As we drew level with the cottage a voice from behind bade us stop. We stood in silence, then we both jumped as a single clear bugle note sounded from just behind us. The sound echoed and re-echoed around the valley. I turned to look and was just in time to see Blue Belt handing a silver bugle to an elderly woman dressed in clothes as dated as his.

He saw me looking and gestured with his musket. ‘Walk. Follow the road’. Their Spanish was unmistakable but very distinctive. It had a soft, lilting sound I had never heard before.

Father started to move. ‘Come on Juan. That was obviously a signal to the village. My guess is that there will be a reception committee waiting for us when we arrive.’

He was right. When we reached the village itself people lined the streets, watching as we walked ahead of the two men. The watchers all appeared to be men, and were dressed in the same dated style as our escorts. I also noticed that there were no children around. In any other village in Mexico a pavement gathering would bring children all around. But here, in this strange village of men with ancient muskets and old fashioned clothes, there were none to be seen.

As we entered the village our escorts from the cottage were replaced by two new men. Facing us when we reached the square in the middle of the village was a large, pitched roof, building with an impressive façade and a pair of huge carved doors. The doors were reached by a broad flight of snow white stone steps. On each side of each step stood a man wearing a shining metal breastplate and holding an ornate pike. They all stood to attention, facing forward, but I could sense their eyes were on us, watching our every step. At the top of the steps stood three men dressed in distinguished uniforms.

We reached the foot of the steps and the three men turned and went through the doors. Our new escorts motioned us up the steps, indicating we should follow the vanished dignitaries. As we entered the building both father and I stopped. After the bright sunlight the darkness inside seemed absolute. Our escorts obviously realised the difficulty and waited behind us. Slowly our eyes adjusted and we could see the three uniformed men sitting at a large table across the far end of the hall. From each end of their table extended longer, narrower tables. At each sat six men facing the centre of the three sided box. Our escort – Blue Belt – was among them. It was obviously a gathering of the village elders and councillors – and we were the cause.

The hall itself was cool and quiet. The high roof was supported by massive wooden beams. Narrow windows set high up the walls, at the very eves of the roof, let in light but not direct sunlight. The walls themselves were decorated with flags, standards and pennants, interspersed with polished breastplates and decorated armour.  All were of sixteenth century design – guns from the time of Cortés.

I felt a nudge in my back and was pushed forward to stand with my father, facing the three men at the top table. They stood as we reached our appointed place. The men seated at the side tables followed their example and gave a stiff bow in our direction. All except the middle of the three at the top table then sat down. He remained standing and spoke to us.

‘Welcome Señors. We welcome you to our valley. I am told you are of our country. Is this true?’

‘We are Spanish,’ my father replied. ‘We have travelled here from Veracruz.’

‘Ah, the city of Cortés. We have stories of the city handed down from our forefathers.’ The man fell silent for a moment, then … ‘What is your name?’

‘Domenech. I am Jaime Domenech and this is my son, Juan.’

As my father announced our names a gasp came from all the men seated at the tables.

‘That is a true Spanish name señors. Have you and your family lived in the New World long?

‘My parents left Spain just after I was born. I have lived here in the country we call Mexico all my life,’ my father answered.

‘And what about your father’s ancestors?’ the man asked. ‘Where did they live?’

‘Many lived here in the Americas. Our family have always had close links with these lands. Two came to the New World with  Cortés in 1517. One died in battle in 1521. The other also died, but later and we know not how. He commanded a troop of experienced soldiers into an unknown part of the Aztec empire. Nothing was ever heard of them again and they were presumed to have perished at the hands of the Indian warriors.’

The man’s face lit up. ‘You know your ancestors well señor.’

‘Our family have a long history. I am proud of that history,’ my father replied.

‘You should be Señor. You should be.’ The man stood there at the head of this strange gathering and nodded. ‘Yes, you should be proud,’ he repeated, almost to himself.

He fell silent. For a moment there was no sound in the hall. Then he turned and walked to the wall behind him. He stopped and stood against a large, light coloured panel in the centre of the wall. ‘Come Señor. Come here and learn the true story of your missing ancestor.’ He motioned for us to join him at the panel.

All the assembled village councillors stood as we walked round the tables to join the man.

‘Look,’ he said as we reached him. ‘Read and be proud of your ancestor.’ On it was carved, in sixteenth century Spanish, the story of the missing soldiers.

The stone panel told how the soldiers had been surprised and cut off by the Indians. They had spent many days defending themselves, always being forced toward the mountains. By sheer good fortune they had entered this valley and found, to their relief, that the Indians did not follow them. The valley was sacred to the Indian’s god Quetzacoatl.

The soldiers had decided to stay, recover from their long battle and wait for the Indians to go away. While they waited they built a chapel and carved their story on the stone we were now reading.

Father and I stood in silence. At the bottom of the panel was carved the name of the leader, Jaime Domenech, and the date – 1523.

It was the chief councillor who broke into our thoughts at last.

‘Now you know what happened to your ancestor. He did not die. He lived, and he and his men gave life to this valley, this village. The Indians did not go away. They camped outside the valley, making it impossible for Jaime Domenech and his soldiers to escape.’

Very soon they found that they did not want to escape. They liked the tranquillity of the valley. There were many Indian villages in the hills and mountains around. In time the Indian maidens came to the valley. The attraction of the strange fair skinned men overcame their fear of Quetzacoatl. In fact, they believed the newcomers were the children of Quetzacoatl, and they were pleased to come and live with them. They married the soldiers. More and more the Spanish and Indian bloods mixed. The children of these marriages were brought up in the traditions of old Spain. In time the population increased to over 600 souls.

‘Then the maidens stopped coming. The Indian tribes moved away. Slowly the numbers in the valley started to fall. We are now less than one hundred with few young men and no young women to continue our village. In a few more years our village will be empty; a home for ghosts and memories. It will be returned to Quetzacoatl. We had hoped that we would go without anyone ever knowing we had been here.

‘We are the first white men to visit this valley in all those years?’ My father’s voice was hushed.

The old man nodded. ‘Yes Señor. No man from Cortés’ force found the soldiers. The maidens that came never returned to their villages, so building on the fear of Quetzacoatl that kept the Indian warriors out. Everyone here can trace their ancestry to one of that first brave band; the band led by your ancestor Jaime Domenech.’

My father and I stood there silently, thinking about the life these people had led over the previous 400 years. At last my father spoke.

‘It is a strange story you tell, Señor. My son and I have many questions we would like to ask but that would be prying into your private history. You said you wished to leave this valley as you came, with no one knowing you have been here. We will respect that wish.’

He reached into the shoulder bag that lay at his feet. ‘All the notes I have made in coming to this valley of yours are in this book. I give it to you to do with as you wish. Your secret will remain safe with us. No one will ever find your valley because of us.’

With that, father handed his journal to the elder who took it with a smile.

‘Thank you’, was all he said.

We then left the valley, escorted by the same two men we first met. They took us past their cottage to the edge of the valley near where we had entered.

As we stood on the ridge looking back to the edge of the valley and the village my father turned to the two men.

‘One question, if I may, my friends. What is the name of your chief councillor; the man we have been talking with in the large hall?’

It was councillor Blue Belt who replied in that strange lilting tongue so like, and yet so unlike, our own.

‘His name, Señor, is Jaime Domenech. A direct descendent of the leader of the band of soldiers who first came to this valley. You and he are of the same family Señor.’

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My friend Jack

When they come for me, tell them that I want to be buried with Jack; right beside him; wrapped around him just as close as I can be. I will need the comfort that only he could give me.

Jack was always around but I never gave him a second glance. I wasn’t in to that sort of thing. Besides, I had my hands full.

Two teenagers, a dog and a busy husband never really left me with much time of my own. Before I knew it the kids were gone and I was looking forward to time for myself. But Life doesn’t always work like that; she had other plans for me.

I was the last to know that Bert, my busy Bert, had been otherwise engaged with Donna, his coach at the tennis club. He had been busy for the last four years but I had been too busy to see it.

It wasn’t messy; it wasn’t noisy; it wasn’t tear-filled – he just didn’t come home one evening.

Now I had time – and space – and a void. That’s when I thought of Jack. The first time I sought refuge in Jack was on a dark but cloudless evening.

The moon was my witness.

The fingers of shadows were starting to lengthen and I reached out to Jack. Isn’t it funny how you always remember your first time – even if you don’t want that recollection?

It wasn’t easy at first, getting to know Jack – but the soothing feeling he gave me felt so familiar, like being wrapped in my mother’s arms and rocked to sleep.

So he did – every evening at sunset – just like clockwork.

An hour, sometimes two, of mellowed quiet, cocooned in amber.

Jack didn’t let me think, he didn’t let me feel. There was no pain; no ecstasy; no anguish – just a peace that overtook me; overwhelmed me, as we melted into one.

And slowly I needed Jack more – to begin my day, to rest at noon, to end my day.

To go down the street, there to eat and drink – and to gaze out of the window.

We went far; we stayed near; he never left my side.

Jack gave me so much and asked nought in return.

Jack Daniels – I love you- xxxxxxx    

Scheduling change

Just a quick note of a change of postings – all other things being equal of course.
My weekly story will now be published on Wednesdays on beejaytellingstories
My history pieces will post on Fridays on talkinghistory2013.

This week’s story should hit your screen in the next hour or so! I hope you like it – it’s a bit different to others.

Brian

The Tudor House

I had been unimpressed by the rambling Victorian pile of bricks Susie had taken me to see. I had no idea what had fired her enthusiasm about it but sometimes her ‘feeling’ about things had been right, and we were looking for something different, so I went along with her. The house was being auctioned on behalf of an estate with one heir who had no interest in it – and I think I could see why. The bidding started low and stayed slow, the bid price climbing in small increments. I followed the trend and was surprised when it was knocked down me at quite a few thousand pounds below our limit. Susie was jumping around in glee when the hammer fell.

As we completed the after-sale paperwork, two men, standing nearby, looked at us.  ‘You’re not from around here are you?’ the one said.

‘No’ I said, ‘we’re not.’

‘That would explain it then’ added the other as they walked away.

With the paperwork completed we drove out for a last look at our acquisition before heading home. Tudor House stood back from a narrow by-road threading its way across the countryside. Susie just stood and gazed at the house.  ‘All ours’ she breathed. ‘All ours and it feels so …….’ she paused ‘……. so special.’  That done we dropped into the nearby pub for a bite to eat. We were its only customers.

‘Don’t get too many here this early’, the barman said in answer to my silent query.

‘What’s the village like?’

‘It’s OK. You passing through?’

‘’Sort of – but we’ll be back. We’ve just bought Tudor House down the way there,’

Oh‘, he paused, ‘what made you do that?’

‘We liked it’ Susie chipped in. ‘It looks and feels different to other places we’ve looked at.’

‘Well you’re not wrong there’ he said, moving away to serve a couple who had just come in.

Autumn was well advanced when we finally moved in. We soon made it a routine to visit the pub a couple of evenings each week, avoiding weekends when ‘the townies’ invaded. Everyone was friendly and welcoming – to a point. Whenever the fact that we had bought Tudor House came up the conversation seemed to die and there would be a change of subject.  Eventually I reacted to this. There was just me, Josh the barman and Charlie, who claimed his family had lived in the village for a couple of centuries or more, in the bar.

‘So what is it about our house that causes people to clam up and change the subject?’

Josh and Charlie exchanged glances. It was Josh who began ‘Well,’ he paused, searching for the right words, ‘that place has a reputation; stories; strange things.’ He went quiet and Charlie took up the story. ‘Things happen around that house. People don’t stay there long. They leave without giving a reason – or telling the next folk why they are leaving.’

‘So?’

Before either could respond the door was flung open and the quietness vanished as half a dozen lads burst in, heading for the bar and calling their orders as they did so. Josh became busy and Charlie drifted away and soon was gone.  I drained my glass and left as well. As I walked back to Tudor House my mind was struggling with the implied meanings of their comments.

It was dark when I got back to the house. Its bulk in the darkness looked foreboding. A freshening east wind blew up from nowhere and made me shiver. The cobbled stable yard was a collecting place for fallen leaves and the wind caught them, swirling them upward creating a rustling sound that seemed to linger in the disused buildings around. I jumped as some leaves swirled past my face.

‘Bloody fool’, I muttered as I let myself into the house.

Susie was already in bed. As I went up I looked out of the window; the clouds were scudding across the sky, sometimes covering the moon, at others leaving it to light up the whole landscape. It clearly showed the road with a track-way, something like a coach path, turning away from the road and heading toward the house. I hadn’t noticed that before.

‘Quite Gothic’ I thought to myself.

Susie was spark out but I laid thinking about the conversation in the pub.  Outside the wind had freshened further and I could hear the leaves dancing with it in the yard. A couple of times I heard other, indistinct but different, noises before finally falling asleep.

I woke up with a start. There was a distinct smell of smoke. My bedside clock showed 2.30. I nudged Susie awake. She sniffed.

‘Smoke?’ she stated in a querying tone as we climbed out of bed.

A thorough search revealed nothing except that the smell seemed to be all over the house – not strong in any one place but noticeable everywhere. After half-an-hour or so we had either become used to the smell or it had gone. As we went back to bed, something caused me to look out of the window. The moon was spreading its light across the fields. Was there something moving on the track-way cutting across the field? Whatever it was, it vanished in the copse by the road.

The following night the smell of smoke again woke me. Susie remained fast asleep. The waning moon sent a subdued cold light into the room. I sniffed the air. It was smoke – but the smoke alarms we had fitted and tested that morning had given no warning. The clock showed 2.30. I climbed out of bed. All was silent. The smoke smell lingered. From somewhere I heard a sound – faint but distinct. It sounded like shod horse’s hooves on cobbles.  Susie, stirred, muttered ‘He’s here’, and slept on.

Then there was no sound, inside or out, except Susie’s even breathing. The smoke smell had gone. I gazed out of the window for a while. Nothing moved. I got back into bed but it seemed like ages before I fell asleep.  At breakfast Susie was her normal morning bright self, and I said nothing about my nocturnal experience.

A month passed with nothing upsetting the equilibrium of our life. Tudor House was now definitely home. The visits to the pub dropped off to once a week. Susie rarely came and the subject of the house and its history never entered conversation.

The moon was again on the wane when I was awoken by the sound of horse’s hooves on cobbles and the jingle and rattle of a harness. ‘Who the hell is that’, I thought as I turned and looked at the clock. It showed 2.30.  I nudged Susie; she grunted, muttered ‘He’s here,’ and slept on. I nudged her harder.

‘What?’

‘Can you hear anything?’

‘No, but there’s that smoky smell again.’

‘You said ‘he’s here’. Who’s he? Who’s here?’

‘Did I? I don’t remember’ she said as she climbed out of bed and went to the window. I joined her. Something moving along the track-way caught my eye. I looked closely. Was it there? Was it someone on horseback riding away into the darkness? At this time of the morning? I shook my head. I suddenly felt hot – as if I was standing in front of a blazing fire. Susie moved close to me.

‘It’s nothing. Let’s get back into bed. I’m freezing standing here like this.’  Then a smell of burning permeated the room. It was no longer smoky – it was strong – something, somewhere was on fire.  ‘Those damn smoke sensors are useless’ I snapped as we headed to the stairs and looked down. Nothing.

Down stairs the smell was as strong as it had been upstairs. We checked every room. All felt warmer than usual but there was no fire – just that damned smell of smoke. I looked through the kitchen window toward the old stables. Did something move there? The leaves swirled as a breeze caught them. I went outside. There was nothing – just the swirling leave but – the smoke smell seemed even stronger there. Somewhere in the distance I heard a horse whinny. The rest of the world slept.

Bemused and confused I went back in and locked the door. Sleep was now out of the question; and the smoke smell had all but gone – now overpowered by Susie’s brewing coffee.

Daylight showed everything as it should be.

That lunchtime we decided visit to the pub.  Charlie was there. We sat down beside him and told him of our strange night. I added the tale of my earlier disruptive night. I also added Susie’s ‘He’s here’ comments.

Charlie said nothing.

‘So?’ I said. ‘What do you know about this?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘Nothing; nothing really.’

‘Come on – spill it’, I could sense Charlie was backing away from something. ‘Tell us what you know.’

He sighed – ‘there is a story about that house. No-one seems to stay there long. Three or four of them have upped and left – usually about this time of the year. None have ever said anything – they’ve just left.’

He looked at us, and then came to a decision.  ‘It’s like this. There has been a house there for about 600 years. The first stood there until Victoria became Queen. That burned down. The one you’ve got was built about 1850. They named it ‘Tudor House.’

Charlie went quiet.

‘So?’ Susie challenged after what seemed like an age of silence.

‘They say the burning was done by a stable hand who had been sacked. It’s reckoned he rode down the old Coach Path in the middle of the night and set fire to the stables. The wind was in the east and the whole darned lot went up in flames. It was about this time of year when it happened, so they say.’

‘They said nothing about this on the prospectus.’ I sounded aggrieved.

Charlie looked at me closely.

‘Will you tell anyone when you come to sell?’

An invitation to …..

Just one envelope lay inside the door when Ian got up on the Monday morning. At least it was addressed to him by name – Mr Ian Brockett. Ian hated those that just said ‘To the occupier’. The downside was that it was on what looked like a mass produced mailing label with no stamp or franking on the envelope. It was obviously local and had been delivered by hand.
He wandered into the kitchen with it, picked up a knife from the draining board and slit the envelope open. Inside was a single white card. As he started to pull it out he saw the words ‘You are invited to attend…’
He let the card slide back into the envelope and left it on the worktop with the other bits and pieces of paper that had accumulated there over the weekend. People could have no idea how much that phrase ‘You are…’ turned him off, whatever the subject might be.

He was happy with his life as a carer for a group of lovely people in the area. He could not think of anything that suited him better. He loved the one to one relationship that developed. He became a part of that person’s family – very often the only part of the ‘family’ that connected with them.
He got himself ready and set out for another day. He had two clients to see before calling into base for the regular Monday morning briefing.
First stop was Mrs Jeavons, a nice lady in her early 80s and still fiercely independent. She had been suffering from a cold for the past few days and he just wanted to check that she was getting better. It had taken him six months to get her to allow him to do anything for her except sit on the sofa for a chat while she made them both a cup of tea.
Second stop was Will Rowlands – an independent old soldier who loved to talk about today’s ‘soldier boys’ and the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’ he had been watching on television over the past few weeks.

When Ian arrived for the morning briefing most of the team were there. They were hanging around, waiting for team leader Freda to arrive to start the meeting. Julie said something to him about an invitation she had received. Had he had one? He couldn’t remember what he said, but it wasn’t important, anyway, and Freda had arrived and the meeting got underway.
As the meeting was breaking up Freda asked him if he had received his invitation for Friday. “Why are people so fixated about invitations?” Ian thought to himself as he mumbled “It’s on the table or somewhere” in reply before heading out to see Mr & Mrs Scott. Helping them cope with Charlie’s increasing immobility was a lot more important than some invitation to something or other.

On Tuesday morning Ian bumped into Julie at Cyma Tower – the 22 story relict of 1970s modernity that was hell to live in – just as she was leaving. “Are you coming Friday evening?” she asked in her bright and cheerful ‘Julie’ manner. She was probably the longest serving member of what had become a great team to work with. Her enthusiasm and compassion appeared to be boundless – and was most definitely contagious.
“What’s happening on Friday?”
“It’s on the invitation. It’s a reception at ‘The Bull’s Head’ and most of us are going. You’ve got to come along.”
“You know I don’t like things like that. I’ve got better things to do with my time than stand around exchanging pointless conversation with people as they become more and more childish under the influence of whatever they are drinking”. There was an edge to his voice that made Julie mentally back off.
“Fine”, she said as she shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, by the way, the lift won’t go above the 19th floor. An engineer has been called the notice says. Take care.”

With that she went on her way while Ian mentally fumed about the lift. Mrs Peterson had enough difficulty with her claustrophobia in the lift without the added problem of two flights of stairs. With that he mentally straightened his back and got on with his life.
‘I’ll make her a cup of tea when I get up there,’ he thought, ‘then we’ll look out of the window across the town where she has lived all her life. That’s a big plus for her living up here. She can see for miles and loves talking about her childhood beyond the town centre in the Wellworth area. From this height it appears to have hardly changed but down at ground level it is a real problem area – but there is no reason to upset her memories with modern-day truths.

Wednesday morning was wet, cold and cheerless. The sort of day that was easy to feel depressed about. For Ian it was his ‘very nice’ day because it took him out of the town into the surrounding villages. There were six visits to make and all were to nice, lovely, welcoming people. All had challenges in their life that could have made them bitter, grumpy, rude or abusive. But everyone had a smile that lit up the room when he arrived. Tea would be offered at every visit and woe-betide him if he refused or said he would make it. They all insisted on doing it while he ‘got on with his work’. He had long since given up any challenge.

His work was indeterminate but vital to each. He helped Caroline make sense of any ‘official’ letters she had received and usually had an entertaining conversation about EastEnders and Coronation Street. ‘Things were never like that in my day’ was a guaranteed comment about something or other.
Wilf made a strong cuppa and talked proudly about his window box. As a younger man he had always been out in the garden but now a man came to do it – under Wilf’s strict guidance – while he created miracles in the boxes. Ian often brought him seed or plants – many of them from Mrs Williams down the street. Ian was sure she had a soft spot for Wilf because she was always talking about him. Ian often thought that they would make a lovely couple and at times mentioned the thought to Wilf. It always provoked a snort of indignation but today, Wilf smiled a little and said ‘You never know young man.’

As Ian finished the visits and headed back to town he felt at peace with the world. Everyone today had told him how much they looked forward to his visits, and wouldn’t it be nice if he could come twice a week. It would be nice, he thought, but there were too many people in need of visits and care, and too little time. That jolted him back to reality. Instead of increasing the number of visits it was quite probable that they would be decreased, or at least shortened. He knew it would be hard to tell them this but time, people resources and funding pressures were already biting into the work they did.
‘I bet that’s what that invitation’s about’ suddenly came into his mind. ‘A softening up before the crunch, or maybe both would arrive at the same time. Damn the world.’

As he pulled into the parking spaces at the office he noticed Julie’s car there. Everyone else seemed to have gone home. He looked at his watch. It was just after six. ‘That answers that then’, he thought.
Julie was in her car but got out as Ian walked across the tarmac.
‘I was hoping you’d be dropping in,’ she said. ‘I have a problem and wondered if you would help me please.’
‘I will if I can’ he replied. ‘How?’
‘I was going to this Friday’s reception with Dave,’ she said, ‘but something has come up where he works and he can’t make it. I know you don’t like these things but would you be a dear and come with me? I just don’t like going to these things alone but I feel I must go to this one. With this review going on it seems sensible to be visible at all times.’
She looked so woebegone as she stood there that Ian found himself agreeing before he had really thought about it.
‘You’re an angel’ she said. ‘Thanks. It’s smart casual clothes. I’ll pick you up, if you like. About half seven at your place?’ Her relief was obvious and Ian just nodded.
‘OK’ he said as Julie got back into her car with a quick ‘Must rush’ as her farewell.

On the Friday Julie arrived dead on 7.30 outside Ian’s flat and tooted her car’s horn. Ian appeared, reluctantly it seemed, and walked across to her. “Have you got your ticket?” she asked.
“No.”
“You’ll need it.”
With a sigh Ian went back indoors and returned with the envelope, un-read invitation inside. “What’s this all about”, he asked. “Telling us money is tight and we have to be more careful, or not spend so much time with our people.”
“’S’pose we’ll find out soon enough” was her non-committal reply.
There appeared to be a heck of a lot of cars in the ‘Bull’s’ car park. There were quite a lot of ‘posh’ ones there. ‘The big-wigs I suppose’ thought Ian. ‘They get these and the people I care for have to make do without so many things. After tonight’s get-together I suspect they’ll get even less. It just isn’t fair.’
He almost turned round and left there and then – but he had promised Julie so he followed her through the door and into ‘The Bull’s Head’s’ big hall. ‘Yep’, Ian thought, ‘lots of people here for a free-be and plenty of big-wigs as well’.
Ian started to get edgy. ‘Why the heck had he allowed Julie to bring him here?’ he asked himself. It was then that he realised that she had gone off to ‘mingle’. He was now alone in the gathering.

Suddenly there was a loud banging. What looked like a formal Master of Ceremonies was standing by a rostrum on the other side of the hall.
“My lord’s, ladies and gentlemen” he began.
Ian’s heart sank. He stood all alone, in a place he didn’t want to be – and now there were going to be speeches! He cursed himself and began to head for the door. He couldn’t go home because of Julie and her car, but at least he could get a beer.
“Hello Ian”. It was Freda, and she was blocking his exit. “Isn’t this great?”
“That depends on your viewpoint.”
“Oh, Ian,’ sighed Freda. “Look, Sir William is just going to speak. Let’s get a bit closer and hear what he’s got to say.”
Ian was trapped.

“Ladies and gentlemen: thank you all for coming here tonight. As you know, we are going through tough and challenging times. It is at times like these that we must all work as a team, providing care, compassion and understanding for those that we support: those ladies and gentlemen that benefit so much from the care and consideration we can provide for them. Over the past few weeks we have been in contact with as many of our ‘customers’ as possible, seeking their advice, and their feelings, toward the service we provide.
He paused – then continued..
“I am pleased, though not surprised, that the feedback was extremely positive throughout.
He paused again..

“Now, during this whole exercise, we also asked our ‘customers’ if they had a favourite carer – one who made them feel wanted and also went that ‘extra mile’, or maybe more, for them. They were asked to rate them on a scale of one to ten – with ten being the top notch. We asked that they kept this all quiet for a while.
“Without letting on about this enquiry, we also asked our staff to, anonymously, rank their colleagues. I suspect you all remember this”
Ian could hear some groans and mutterings from the listeners. He had thrown his form in the bin as a waste of time and an infringement of privacy, and it sounded as if others had too.
Sir William went on: “These were all passed to an independent firm many miles from here. They were asked to analyse the information and report back to me. They were, like me, impressed by the responses overall. There were a few elements that would benefit from attention and we shall be addressing these in the coming days. Overall, though, the view of our customers was that we – you – do an excellent job. I, and the board, thank you all most sincerely.”

He and the board members behind him stood and applauded – and the audience joined in. Alongside Freda, Ian gave a huge sigh of boredom and turned to leave. Freda was still standing in his way.
As the applause died away Sir William continued: “We also asked the company to analyse the feedback from our staff. This data they then merged with our customer feedback. With this they were able to tell us who was voted the best carer in our area by our customers and by our staff – your colleagues. We also asked them for a consolidated analysis. We received all three.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Ian murmured. “I’ve had enough of this.” Again he found Freda in his way and he was tempted to push her to one side.
In the background he heard Sir William announce that…
“The winner on all three counts is” …. as he paused Ian again tried to get past Freda but this time she was positive in stopping him as Sir William continued…
“Mr Ian Brockett’
The hall exploded into cheers, clapping and whistles of delight. Ian froze and then headed for the door. Freda made sure she was in his way.

“Ian, wait.” She put her hand on his shoulder, then wrapped her arms around him. “This is for you – and the way you bring life and happiness into the world of so many people. Let’s go and say thank you for all those that recognise the tremendous job you do to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”
With her arm round his shoulder she led him through the cheering and clapping colleagues to the dais where Sir William waited to meet him.

A decision has been made …..

‘BeeJay’ has not been telling stories here for far too long. He has been writing them though.
I’m not going to bore you with the past too much – suffice to say that sometimes non-writing things take priority. My factual TALKINGHISTORYBLOG is back, up and running – currently telling the stories of the medieval monasteries of England’s Fenlands.  This will be followed by the story of a Fenland river and its communities from source to the sea.

‘beejaytellingstories’ starts today on beejaywritingfiction.com

The first story is ‘An invitation to….’ I invite you to read it – and the stories that will follow at least once a week. Please feel free to post comments here or on talkinghistory@msn.com

BJ