PART FOUR - A SOAP TIN OF SWEETS
] THE CAMP ]
The first Saturday that Anna had visited Ben’s dad with him was bright and sunny. She did as she had been asked to and turned up at his mum’s house in an old pair of jeans with a patch on the knee along with an old shirt. Ben thought she looked like a cow girl.
He wanted to dress up as a cowboy to match, but all the clothes his mum bought for him were too expensive and smart to wear. She didn’t buy him play clothes because she liked him to wear smart clothes with fancy labels. Labels that Ben couldn’t read or understand but knew were important to her from the way she would react if he returned home in a mess.
Ben’s dad picked them up in his car. It was a bit tidier than usual, but it still smelt of Buster. Ben sat in the passenger seat and watched his dad as he drove. His blue eyes were soft with love and his smile calm and content. The atmosphere was very different compared to a Tuesday.
Anna sat in the back, smiling broadly and making shapes with her fingers. A friend of her mum’s had been teaching her some basic sign language to help aid her communication, which she was trying to remember.
“How about we get some ice-cream?” Steve grinned, pulling up alongside an ice cream van on the seafront. Anna showed Ben how to sign the words ice-cream and please, before clambering out of the car.
The three of them walked along the promenade and licked their ice creams. It was too cold to swim, but they decided to step onto the sandy beach and paddle in the ice cold water. Ben and Anna screamed and laughed as the waves swished over their toes and Steve took photos.
Steve always tried to take pictures when he was out with Ben. He had filled two albums with their weekend memories and he looked at these whenever he felt down. It always amazed him that his son was growing so quickly: Ben seemed taller each time he saw him.
Once Ben and Anna had spent too long in the sea and were all cold and shaky, they went back to Ben’s dad’s flat to warm up beside his heater.
Steve’s flat was situated above a Chinese restaurant called ‘The Jade Dragon,’ and the scent of takeaway food drifted up through the floorboards every day and always made Ben feel hungry when he visited. The rooms were draughty and the sound of traffic whizzing past outside could be heard continuously until very late at night.
There were cracks in the ceiling where bits of plaster or paint had chipped off.
Unlike other people, Ben loved his dad’s flat. He loved the bright movie posters that added colour to the walls and he loved the carved giraffe ornaments that lived on the mantel piece. There were five of them and when his parents were together, they had always been arranged in size order like the children in The Sound of Music, but now they stood in a scattered, disorderly pattern, as if they were in the wild. This was how Ben preferred them because they looked more relaxed, which was how he felt at his dad’s place too.
He didn’t get told off for walking mud into the carpet or climbing over the back of the sofa. It was okay to eat using his fingers, and it was fine to splatter paint indoors.
Steve turned on the heater, so they could warm up and switched on the TV. He served them beans on burnt toast and they watched the rest of ET, which was showing at the time.
He suggested a trip to the nearby forest for the afternoon.
The forest had recently received a grant and as a result, a local sculptor had worked on creating a ‘magic trail’ for walkers.
There were wooden stepping stones across a large pond, and archways made with oak. Carved owls perched in trees with wise expressions engraved in their faces, and there were tubes for children to crawl through, which went through a grass bank like a rabbit warren. After scurrying about for a while in the tubes, Steve took them to a clearing, where some branches had been cut and helped them to build a camp.
They used long branches of wood to form a large tepee and Ben’s dad positioned a log across a large murky puddle to make a bridge.
This camp became their secret place, and Ben and Anna returned there many times. They painted a rock with their names on it to mark the spot and let passersby know who it belonged to. They would go there for a picnic when the weather got warmer.
They often pretended to be Chippewa Indians and even made their own feather head dresses to wear for their games.
In the autumn, Ben and Anna would gather acorn cups to put in the shop display at Anna’s house, which filled the old drawer on the wall. They would also collect conkers to thread on strings so that they could have tournaments; and when summer came, they would gather dandelion clocks and blow them to make wishes.
Each time Anna would wish for her lisp to go away and Ben would wish for his parents to get back together.
One evening Ben’s dad took a torch and a telescope to the camp and together they watched the stars. It felt magical as the Milky Way sparkled above them and they even saw two shooting stars. Steve explained to Ben and Anna that all the stars they could see were in fact other planets. He told them that they were so far away, that with the speed that light travels at, they were actually seeing how some of those planets looked about eight years ago.
“Before we were even born?” asked Ben.
“Yes, that’s right” His dad nodded, “If there was an alien stood on one of those planets now, looking through a telescope at Planet Earth, he would be seeing it without you on it and I would be thinner with fewer wrinkles.”
He showed them Jupiter through his telescope and talked about the Solar System. Jupiter was a big star in comparison to the others, and Ben asked if there were many smaller planets in the Solar System. He wondered if any existed that hadn't yet been named.
Steve nodded and explained that those were called asteroids and were usually given numbers instead of names. He said that there were probably a few in our Solar System that no one had discovered yet and plenty in the universe.
Anna loved learning new things and chatted away happily to both Ben and his dad, more than she chatted to anybody. She always felt at the height of her confidence whenever she was with Ben.
] SCHOOL ]
The building was red brick with a flat roof and looked very unwelcoming at first. Anna clung onto Ben as they walked along the gravel pathway.
They could hear children screaming and shouting and wondered what they were about to face.
Their eyes lit up when they reached the playground, for there in front of them was stood a large pirate ship sculpture, fully equipped with rope ladders and poles to slide down; and there were children, loads of children. This was where the screaming and shouting had been coming from.
Ben was excited by the pirate ship and wanted Anna to come with him. She stood beside her mum, looking a bit uncertain. The playground was very crowded and most of the other children looked a lot bigger. She watched as they ran around chasing each other and jumping from the equipment.
“Go on sweetie, Ben will look after you,” her mum said, kissing her goodbye.
“Yes, I’ll look after you,” Ben reassured Anna and together they walked away from their mothers.
Anna’s mum wasn’t the emotional type. She had seen Samuel off to the same school before and saw it as a positive place. But Ben’s mum’s eyes welled up with tears.
She was scared by how quickly her son had grown; he wasn’t a toddler anymore and she would never have those years back. She began to wonder if she had done a good job as a stressed single mother, but she managed to smile as she heard her son’s laugh echoing from the far corner of the playground.
After a little time of play, a teacher on the playground with permed hair and a floral dress blew a whistle and everyone formed neat lines. Ben and Anna didn’t know where they were meant to be, so they joined a random queue and followed it into a drab looking classroom, where they were greeted by a tall man with a moustache and glasses.
“I don’t think you two belong in my class,” he said, “I teach the older children.”
Anna turned red with embarrassment as it had been she who had suggested following the wrong line.
“We’ll be okay,” whispered Ben, as the man with the moustache spoke to a smiling classroom assistant who came strolling over.
She led them to a much nicer classroom with colourful alphabet displays, a sandpit, a Wendy house, and a reading corner. There were a few other children as little as them sat on the carpet, having a story read to them.
Mrs Morgan, who was reading the story, had short grey hair and glasses. She was wearing a dotty red dress and spoke with a strong Irish accent.
She held her place in the book and walked over to greet Ben and Anna and marked their names down in her register.
She gave them each a peg to hang up their coats and lunch boxes. Ben’s peg had a robin picture beside it and Anna’s a butterfly.
Once their belongings were hung up, they joined the other children on the carpet. The story was about going on a bear hunt and Mrs Morgan did lots of actions as she read, which Anna willingly copied. Mrs Morgan noticed this and gave her a knowing smile.
She had heard all about Anna and how she only spoke to certain people. She was determined to be one of these ‘certain people’ but she didn't want Anna to feel forced to speak to her, she wanted her to do it willingly.
] LOLLIPOPS ]
It was Anna’s fifth birthday.
When children in the reception class had a birthday, Mrs Morgan would get the class to sing to them and then as a treat they would get a smiley-face sticker to stick on their uniform and a traffic light lollipop. When Anna picked her lollipop out, it was stuck tightly to another one.
“We don’t normally give children two,” Mrs Morgan said, looking into Anna’s hopeful eyes.
“You want two so Ben can have one as well do you?” she asked, as she was about to break them apart.
“Yes please,” replied Anna.
“Well as you asked so nicely,” Mrs Morgan smiled in response as she handed them over.
“Thank you,” said Anna, “Ben loves sweets. I always share mine with him.”
Mrs Morgan felt warm and happy as Anna skipped along the corridor and showed Ben the lollipops. For both Ben and Anna, sweets were a luxury.
Anna’s parents let her eat sweets on a Sunday, and if she had kept her bedroom tidy for the whole week, she was allowed to choose a bag of pick and mix from the mini market. The rest of the time she was given dried apricots and raisins for her snacks.
Sandra had once worked as a dental receptionist, and believed that children shouldn’t have sweets at all. She had been shocked by the number of young children that came into the surgery for fillings and it was important to her that her son had nice teeth. Usually, she only allowed Ben to have cereal bars and a horrible tasting chocolate substitute called carob.
Ben’s dad felt very differently and believed that sweets were part of being a child. In fact, he had a whole carrier bag in his kitchen filled with cookies, chocolates, pop tarts and boxes of lucky charms. Ben’s favourite sweets were boiled rhubarb and custards and Anna loved white chocolate mice.
The two best friends used an old soap tin to stash goodies in when they got their hands on them. Anna would save half of her Sunday sweets in it each week for Ben, and when Ben saw his dad, he would always fill his pockets up with treats to share with Anna, which were stashed in there too.
One weekend Ben went to visit his dad, wearing trousers without pockets. It had been raining outside and his mum had left him an umbrella, in case he and his dad ventured out during the day. Ben looked out of the window and when he saw that the rain had stopped, he came up with the idea to fill the closed umbrella with the cookies and chocolate bars from his dad’s kitchen. He intended to sneak these home unnoticed. The soap tin was at Anna’s house, but Ben had a biscuit tin full of toy soldiers in his bedroom. He planned to tip these out when he got home so he could fill the tin with the treats, ready to sneak to school in his bag.
When his mum turned up to collect him that day, she was in a particularly bad mood. A new manager had just started at the hospital she worked at, and the two of them hadn’t seen eye to eye. She drove Ben home in the Rover; her teeth clenched as she spoke about her rotten day. They got into the house and hung their coats up, and Ben was just on his way upstairs with the umbrella, when his mum grabbed it from him.
“That was wet earlier. It needs to lie opened out in the bath tub to dry off,” she said, opening the umbrella out.
“Don’t open it, that’s bad luck!” Ben panicked as the chocolates and cookies flew all over the stairs and corridor.
A mixture of horror and disbelief filled Ben’s mother’s face as she took him upstairs and lectured him on dental hygiene.
She showed him a book that she had bought when she worked for the dentist. It was filled with pictures of rotten teeth and mouth infections. These pictures disturbed Ben greatly; and even put him off sweets for a couple of weeks.
His dad noticed that he wasn’t touching his treats and Ben told him about the awful pictures in the book.
“Honestly,” his dad replied, rolling his eyes, “I’ve seen that book millions of times and I can assure you that those people had other things wrong with them and that the book wasn’t anything to do with eating sweets, it’s about oral hygiene. You just need to make sure you brush your teeth properly and you’ll be fine.”
Ben’s parents were very different to each other, and as he grew older, Ben began to wonder how two such different people had ever found common grounds to form a relationship together.
] THE MUSEUM OF CHILDHOOD ]
When Ben was five, something very sad happened: his grandma died suddenly from a stroke. It was the first and only time that Ben lost somebody, and it was strange for him.
He missed her a lot, especially when he went to visit his granddad and realised that she was no longer there to make scones and tell him stories about the things she got up to as a child. The worst thing for Ben was that his granddad was left all by himself, alone in their little bungalow with only the gold fish for company.
Ben’s mum wanted him to wear something smart for the funeral, so she dipped into her savings and arranged a trip up to London to select him an outfit from Harrods.
Even though he and his mum travelled to London by train, and then took the bustling underground to Knightsbridge, when they stepped up onto the street and looked at the impressive building with its dazzling window displays and guards in green uniforms with polished buttons, Ben felt as though he and his mum were0 classy to be going inside such a place.
Sandra enjoyed pretending to be rich and spent ages in the clothes section admiring the things she couldn’t afford. There was one dress that cost ten thousand pounds, which she insisted on trying on because it was identical to one she had seen on Madonna.
Ben waited ages for her, as she went into the cubicle to see how it looked. The woman in charge of the area watched Ben as he wandered up and down bored. She smiled at him; and looked as though she too was wondering what his mum was up to in there. After a while, she looked at her watch and decided to knock on the door to ask if everything was okay.
“Yes thank you, I’m fine,” Sandra replied, but she didn’t sound fine and about five minutes later she emerged with a face the colour of cherry skin.
“It doesn’t fit too well,” she mumbled handing it back to the sales assistant before grabbing Ben’s hand and marching him towards the lifts.
Once inside the elevator, she breathed a deep sigh of relief and Ben asked her what on earth had happened.
She told him that the dress had been too small. She had managed to get it on okay but it had taken ages to get it off. She thought she’d heard a part of it tear as she pulled it over her head and had panicked. She concluded that she wouldn’t be buying a dress from there after all and took Ben to the children’s section to concentrate on finding him a suit.
She picked out about six for him to try on; they all looked the same to Ben and they all seemed very expensive. He reminded his mum that he had been getting growing pains recently and that a suit might not fit him for long, but she didn’t seem to mind. She kept telling Ben how cute he looked in the little tuxedos and eventually opted for a black one with cobalt blue stitching and a matching tie.
Happy with her purchase and the green carrier bag with its distinctive gold writing, she suggested a trip to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green for the rest of the afternoon.
When she told Ben that she wanted to go and look at the dolls houses and show him the toys she played with as a little girl, Ben groaned. He had seen pictures of her as a child and the only toy she seemed to play with was a particularly scary looking doll with a cross face and an old-fashioned dress. He didn’t want to have nightmares, but when he arrived at the museum he was pleasantly surprised.
There was an interesting cabinet displaying creatures that had been made by different artists. One person had made the arms, the next had made the body; someone else had made the head and another person had made the legs and an accessory. Ben pressed his nose up against the glass excited by a monkey-headed, pig bodied, dinosaur armed, chicken legged doll with its very own watering can and equally unusual selection of friends.
There was a table with felt tips so that children could draw pictures, which he sat at to sketch these creatures. He wanted to remember what they looked like so that he could tell Anna all about them and as he drew, he thought up personalities for each of them and created stories in his head, which he planned to turn to comic strips, on the journey home.
Ben’s mum wasn’t impressed by the creatures; she said that they were very silly and it’s amazing what some people call art. She took Ben around the museum, reading about the different toys and educating him on when they were made.
There was a very grand puppet theatre, which he could imagine royal children playing with a long time ago. Beside it the puppets were displayed; along with plenty of dolls, similar to the one his mum had owned. She gazed at them and said how beautiful they were. She told Ben that when she was a little girl she had wished hers had a safari suit and wedding dress in its wardrobe, like one of the ones on display did.
The doll’s houses were a bit more interesting because Ben knew that Anna would be impressed by them. He liked all the plates of realistic looking food – the jellies and fruit cake looked especially edible; but to him no professionally made doll’s house was anywhere near as creative as the shop drawer on Anna’s wall.
There were some interesting boy’s toys and Ben quite liked the display of bricks, which started with old wooden ones, and worked up to Lego and Duplo. He also enjoyed looking at the large selection of optical illusion toys and metal cars but nothing excited him as much as the set of odd creatures that occupied the cabinet. He took one last look at them before leaving and tried to tell his mum some of the stories he had thought up, but she rolled her eyes and asked why he couldn’t make up stories about some of the nicer toys.
When they left the museum, it was already starting to get dark and Ben and his mum decided to spend a night at a B&B; instead of trying to make it back to Devon.
They found one with vacancies that was run by a jolly couple named Fred and Vera, who owned an excitable Dalmatian puppy. Vera was a keen artist and the whole place was painted cream so that her canvases stood out. She painted busy images with a lot going on in them, mainly set around famous sights in London.
There was one of Buckingham palace with a red double-decker bus in front of it with tourists on the top deck taking photographs of the guards changing. There were children climbing the statues, an elderly couple telling a boy off for splashing in a puddle and getting them wet, and a family feeding the birds. Ben laughed and told Vera that he liked it at breakfast, whilst enjoying his egg and soldiers. His mum sat opposite him, nibbling on a bacon sandwich and looking at the train times. They were the last guests to eat and Fred and Vera chatted to them as they cleared the other tables.
Vera was delighted to be complimented on her paintings and gave Ben a free postcard depicting the image he liked. Ben thanked her and put it safely with the drawing he had done at the museum.
At school, he did a talk for ‘Show and Tell’ on his trip. Mrs Morgan never expected Anna to partake in ‘Show and Tell,’ but for the rest of the class it was mandatory. A lot of the time, the children forgot about it and would end up doing a talk about their pencil case or reading book but Ben’s talks were always interesting.
He spoke about his mum getting stuck in the dress and the strange toys in the museum, drawing pictures on the blackboard in coloured chalk and making everyone laugh.
When he sat back at his table, he gave Anna an envelope containing the postcard along with the pictures he had drawn at the museum. She looked at them thoroughly, laughing and pointing out the details. Ben always liked Anna to have his drawings. Everyone else would just make comments like ‘Ooh, those are nice,’ but Anna really appreciated them; she noticed everything.