I Spy With...

Entry by: Mac

24th March 2017
Derek proposed in 1962; I had just finished my nurse training and was approaching my twenty-second birthday. Of course, I said yes. There wasn’t any reason not to. We’d been courting – an odd word that, so old fashioned now, courting - since I was sixteen and every time I thought of doing something, anything at all, Derek came naturally into the picture without thinking. He was there. Quite simply … there.

My cousin, rather cruelly, referred to him as a habit and, I suppose, our relationship as habit too. “No mention of love,” she’d said. But there was never any need to. We weren’t a passionate couple; devoted would be a more apt term. Not like my cousin, whose passions had led her into a quite unfortunate situation: two illegitimate children and no sign of the father. That sounds judgemental, doesn’t it? I’m not judgemental. I mention it as a signal of the misfortunes that passion can lead you into. In truth, I felt sorry for her, being abandoned. There, I’m judging again. I never discussed that side of things with her so, in all honesty, I don’t know if she was abandoned … and she never said. Perhaps it was a mutual decision, I don’t know. But it was surely a brave one back then. Things change, don’t they? Attitudes. And I think that’s good; so many girls suffered when they found themselves in that situation. So, Derek and I chose to support rather than condemn, though there were others who took a different course of action. Towards the children too, unforgivably.

Anyway, Derek and me. We didn’t have any children. It just didn’t happen though, God knows, we wanted them but when it didn’t we didn’t want to investigate, have medical tests and so on. It wasn’t something we wanted to go through. We decided to accept nature’s chosen path and let the decision be out of our hands. No point dwelling on it. No endless talking and fretting. For three successive Christmases, we sat on our own and talked … talked about how a family would be nice. It always began with idle chat about hanging Christmas stockings – or not, in our case. We imagined a boy and a girl. But we curtailed the conversation with a wistful smile, a “maybe next year” and then we got on with life.

Gradually, we found ourselves focusing on my sister’s twins and my cousin’s two children. We busied ourselves with work and our days out and Derek’s volunteering at the British Legion and suddenly we were middle aged. The time had passed. The twins and the other two needed us - in small ways. But it was nice to feel involved.

My cousin had both of her kids – a boy and a girl – beautifully dressed and perfectly behaved, as if in compensation for their poor start in life. It was only much later that it began to dawn on me how much she bullied them into flawed perfection. The boy always stood out as different from other kids, partly because of his poor health and partly because he was just … well … different. Different from other boys. I thought that made him special – and interesting. He was certainly cleverer than the other kids in the family, more sensitive. Derek found him easier once he gave up trying to influence the boy to like football. Derek never questioned the reasons for that difference and I never dug deeper. Since my sister lived 50 miles away, I saw her once a month; the train journey was horrendous and her girls were models of domesticity from the age of six! They were young mothers in waiting. It gave me joy just watching them – and just a tinge of sadness.

Ronnie, my cousin’s boy, loved playing I Spy when he was little but he particularly loved being quite obtuse. He’d look around for the most obscure thing he could find, which is why he loved playing it outside. I enjoyed playing with him because it was intriguing to watch how his mind worked. By the time, he was twelve, it had given way to avid reading … of everything he could get hold of.

“Why don’t you and uncle Derek have children?” he asked. His mother instantly got mad with him and slapped him hard. I stopped her, saying “it’s ok” and then explained that it just hadn’t happened.
“Is that why you enjoy watching me?” he said. In truth, I loved watching all of them whenever I could - I always thought that watching should far exceed playing time. When adults play, they take over, so it’s better to watch. I smiled and said nothing but my cousin, his mother, was fuming. I wondered how I might protect him from her wrath when she got him home. But he didn’t seem so scared of her now, not like when he was a small boy and would tremble if she raised her voice. In truth, I was intrigued by him. I thought he was unique amongst the children in the family. Sensitive but inquisitive; fearless and uncertain at the same time. I secretly harboured the thought that he might fare better with us but I never mentioned it to Derek. And my cousin would have resented any suggestion of that nature.

When Ronnie was fifteen I saw him, some distance off, coming out of a house that was unknown to me. When I idly mentioned the address to Derek, he said he didn’t know anyone there either. I’d been dropping off some medication at the house of an old lady down the street – I was working as a District Nurse by then – when I saw Ronnie emerge. He looked up and down quickly, didn’t notice me and hurried off. When he was half way down the street I saw a man emerge and glance around in the same furtive way that Ronnie had done. Then he went back inside.

From that day on, I began to think of Ronnie as vulnerable, in danger and needing protection. I don’t know. Or rather, I didn’t want to think about it. I dropped little hints into the conversation whenever I bumped into him. By now, I would see him in town on his own – he was old enough – and it was easier to talk without his mother. I never got far with those conversations and all I could do was let him know that I had seen him.

“Were you spying on me, Auntie Jess?” he once said. I responded with shock and mild indignation before I realised that I was spying – not intentionally, but I kept an eye out when I was in the vicinity of that house, though I never saw him there again. And I realised that I began to watch for Ronnie on all my rounds. It’s the problem with spying, isn’t it? You don’t know what you’re looking for. You don’t know what you’ve seen. But you can’t ignore that you now know something – or maybe even nothing – and it was difficult to know what to do about it. If I’d told his mother her anger would have exploded, Ronnie would have been beaten, humiliated … God knows what else. Certainly, it wouldn’t have helped him. So, I said nothing. Except to Derek.

“Do you want me to talk to him, Jess?” asked Derek. Now as much as it was easy for me to talk to Derek and for Derek to listen and understand, it would have been an ordeal for Derek to say something. Derek became tongue-tied in difficult situations. It’s one of the things that made him so kind. He never argued. Not even with me.

“You know, maybe I should have suggested him coming to live with us all those years ago, I think we could have managed a sensitive boy like Ronnie …”
“Better than your cousin?” Derek looked directly at me and waited. To answer would be to judge her and I always felt she had been through enough. But you had to think of the children too. Ronnie’s sister had always been close to her mother and seemed to be the model child for her – never answering back, always looking like a perfect little doll. And Ronnie had been terrified, I noticed, until the day that suddenly he met all his mother’s challenges with silence and I knew he had changed, grown up. But he had also become tough, hard even – as though nothing could touch him.
“Well?” said Derek.
“Well what?”
“Would we have been better than your cousin?” His gaze was unflinching.

I nodded, afraid to say it out loud. I had noticed too much, spied on him to use his words, and had said nothing, done nothing. And so, nobody had helped him to grow into whoever he was. Derek and I, such nice people, had been observers of his young life and given smiles, a cuddle now and then, sweets … nothing real, nothing that mattered.

There was a knock at the door; it was my cousin. She was stony-faced.
“It’s Ronnie,” she said. “They’ve found him near the lock.”