The old man sat on a low wall at the edge of a pine forest, staring into the trees, apparently searching.
“Don’t worry about me, my young friend. Tell your story, I’m listening.”
The younger man didn’t look so sure. Such was the look of concentration on his old friends’ face. Still, he joined him on the wall and told his story.
“Pre-teens, I thought my childhood was no different to my peers. But it was, and I didn’t realize until my teenage years; why would I? Yes, a few things showed during our childhood but nothing of great note, at least nothing I understood. All that changed as I matured. My parents were not so careful with their words and I saw things myself. It’s a pity that the version of events around me originated on supposition, hearsay and even the church people followed. My inherited world view was not right, and I set about fixing it with limited tools.
My best childhood friend and his siblings lived in the dark, to thrive or not. Mum gave them no attention I ever saw, only orders to leave the house, “go out and play.” Dad was never there, he worked at British Aerospace. a respectable and well-paid place of employment. They split up and mum moved away with the children. My best friend disappeared from my life. It hurt.
I saw him again ten years later. Stood at a bar drinking alone. I didn’t recognize him at first. When I did, he had little to say except, “I’m a bin man, I collect the garbage.” I think that was true in more ways than his employment situation. He had an older sister by exactly one year. They shared the same birthday on the last day of October. Estranged from his younger brother who I remembered as the kid who always yearned for kindness. He put his arm in a wasp nest to get our attention one day. A few years later he took his life.
Where was my friend? He was the one with joy and hope in his heart. Not there at that bar with a beer in his hand. That was somebody else.
A few years earlier and a rare occasion, he invited me to dinner. We had sausages and chips. I think I was seven or eight. That meal was the best, and I was excited to tell my family all about it when I got home. Mum and nana were not impressed. I was a catholic and had eaten meat on a Friday. I sinned and would have to go to confession the next day. I didn’t understand why my friend, a protestant could eat meat and I couldn’t. That’s just the way it was.
Filled with dread at attending confession, and petrified of priests and nuns. They could sentence me to hell if they chose. “Thou shalt not, thou shalt not,” still echoes through my mind when I think about them.
Christmas day was a time of great joy. Home was like a toy store. At least until we turned thirteen when toys became new clothes. The time for play stopped, and the focus turned to the future. “What will you be when you grow up? British Aerospace pays well, and it’s a great place to work. You should aim for that. It won’t be difficult to get a mortgage on the wages they pay.”
I didn’t much like the sound of that, but I did what they said and got the dream job. I didn’t like it and after five years, I quit to go travelling. I planned to leave on the first of September and found myself homeless and living in a spare room at a friend of a friend’s house two months before the planned start of my new life. Nobody at home would speak; they said I had let them down. That was a tough pill to swallow.
A few short years before I bought the plane ticket to my freedom, late in my final year at school, I watched as a man, dead from a heart attack was carried off the train I waited to board. I can’t explain why I experienced such a wonderful explosion of light and joy as I watched. Then there was a switch. Listening to other people gossiping about how sad the situation was, I heard somebody say the mans’ name was Stephen. He was fifty years old and had worked at British Aerospace.
Following that, I insisted people called me Steve and vowed that my fate would not follow Stephen’s. No disrespect intended.
I became a volunteer youth worker. OK, I was only sixteen so, I worked with pre-teens. I loved that work and knew it would play a huge part in my future. Excited about this, I took the idea I should go to college to my parents. To prepare for a university degree. They said, “no.” I had a job at Aerospace and I would take it.
The trade union rescued me a year after I started when I became the youngest ever representative. Responsible for looking after protecting the rights of my colleagues. That didn’t go so well with the management. I was ‘advised’ to quit voluntary youth work and the union if I wanted to realise a bright future with the company.
I left to travel after my twenty-first birthday and couldn’t believe the well wishes, gifts and tears given openly by my colleagues. It still brings a lump to my throat when I think about it. What happened during my travels is another story and you know my friend that I went to university. I became a qualified community and youth worker and the first in my family to get a university degree. Even though it was not supposed to be for the likes of us.”
The old man pulled his attention away from the forest and a beautiful bright smile beamed.
“You challenged many familial models of reality that had passed through the generations and paved the way for others to follow similar paths. Look at you now, you did what people thought impossible. You have grown beyond recognition and all because you had the courage and conviction to follow your heart.
Don’t be complacent though. You never know when one of those outdated models of reality will come back into your life. Be vigilant my young friend and always follow your intuition. It knows where you need to go.