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Child’s Play: John Mathewson (‘Gyppo’)

Across the road, I could see Bob Jones tying his gate shut again with a piece of string. He was that kind of man – for ever moaning about the danger of his brood of children running out into the road, but too damned idle to fix the latch properly.

I guess every street has its Joneses, and I don’t mean the ones that everybody tries to keep up with, either. The only good thing that can be said about this type is they make other people realise just how lucky they are.

So what if Bob Jones was on the dole, or income support, or whatever they call it nowadays? Most of them seem to do very well out of it. A few bob for a decent lock on his front gate wouldn’t hurt him, I’m sure.

But to listen to him talk you’d think he was the most unfortunate man alive. A snivelling ‘little man’, despite his six-foot frame and bombastic ways.

He was never short of someone else to blame for his problems, though from my viewpoint it seemed they were all of his own making.

When I joined my wife in our kitchen, which looks out to the front of the house, she was watching him, too.
“It’s criminal!” Jill said. “That toddler of theirs is running around like a mad thing now. If Bob ever forgets to tie the gate up, she’ll be out on the road in a flash. But what can you do? If you try to warn him about it, he just laughs.”

“He’s a born loser.” I did my bit to help prepare tea, setting the timer on the microwave. “I’ve tried to understand him, and God knows I’ve tried to help. But seven kids, with one just walking and another on the way? We couldn’t keep them on our joint wages, so how does he do it? And why?”

Jill shrugged, then eagerly passed on the latest gossip. “She’s thinking of leaving him, says she’s sick of his lazy ways. The other day she was screaming for all the street to hear, saying she
couldn’t cope with any more children.”

“Then they should do something about it.” I’ve never had any sympathy for people who can’t plan their family properly. Jill had planned a break in her otherwise very full career to allow for our one child, and now we were both back in full-time employment, leaving Jones and his ilk behind us in our dust.

He was the only unemployed person in our street. He and his family had been here when we moved m. Most of the houses belonged to enthusiastic `workaholics’ like us.

I know the newspapers scoff and call us Yuppies, but you have to admit the street looks much better with its stripped pine doors and Austrian blinds. And now the last of the skips have gone there’s plenty of room for the cars.

Bob Jones just has a broken down pram in his garden.

“Mummy, can I go and play with Tracey, please?” Charlotte’s six-year-old voice piped from the doorway.

“Yes, love, but be careful crossing the road, and be back for tea.”

I’ve always had mixed feelings about our Charlotte playing with Tracey Jones. But although I don’t like it,
I’m sure that mixing with the have-nots in life will help her to grow up appreciating our better standard of living.

Charlotte crossed the road carefully and safely. She was that kind of child, very methodical and logical. She clambered over the lashed up gate, not bothering to fiddle with the string. Children born of `fast track’ parents know how to take the easy option, the direct route.

The two girls played in the front garden with the toddler. It was a pleasant sight, because children are just children, no matter what their parents do or say. They have such a simple and uncomplicated outlook on life, unburdened by the grim realities adults have to deal with every day.

Though, having said that, I must admit that our Charlotte is a disconcertingly practical little thing, with an uncanny knack of going straight to the root of any problem which she chooses to solve. And she usually gets it right.

She was in a thoughtful mood when she came back for tea. “Tracey’s not very happy today.”

“Why’s that?” Jill asked.

“Her mum says they’ll all have to leave here and go into some dreadful home. She says they can’t even afford to eat properly. Tracey says it’s because there’s too many of them. Is that right?”

Jill didn’t know what to say to her.

It could be true, darling,” I answered carefully. “Mr Jones doesn’t have a lot of money, but he does have an awful lot of children.”

“I see.” Then, apparently dismissing it from her mind, she shrugged and settled down to eat her tea.

***

That night I found Charlotte kneeling by the side of her bed, her hands clasped together, looking like a little angel.

Although I’ve never been one for prayer myself – I believe in self help at all times – I wouldn’t knock it in front of Charlotte. I waited until she was back in bed before I spoke.

“Were you praying?”

“Yes, praying that everything would work out all right for Tracey and the rest of them. But especially for Tracey ‘cos she’s my friend.”

She paused a second then rushed on. “Teacher said if we pray hard enough, and long enough, things turn out all right.”

There was more hope in her eyes than even a hardened atheist would care to shatter.

“That’s nearly right.” I weighed my words carefully in view, of her age, not wanting to mock her sincere
if somewhat misplaced trust. “But people have to help themselves as well, Pet. You can’t expect God to do everything for you. It doesn’t work like that.”

Charlotte considered this thoughtfully for a few moments. I could almost see her young brain working, grasping this difficult concept, coming to terms with the leavening of reality.

“I think I know what you mean, Daddy,” she said seriously, then rolled over and went straight to sleep, untroubled by adult concerns or worries.

The next morning she went over to play with Tracey again. Unusually, she was back dead on time for Sunday dinner. Normally we have to give her a call, often several. Once again she was rather quiet, and obviously deep in thought.

The quiet and appreciative silence, for Jill’s meals are
far too good to be ruined by talking, was suddenly destroyed

The squeal of too-hastily applied brakes outside was closely followed by an unpleasant thud. I heard a door opening, then a horrified wailing.

Jumping up, both Jill and I looked through the window and saw Mrs Jones kneeling in the road, clutching a battered bundle. Jill was out of the door, running to help, before I even realised it was the toddler.

I shouted at Charlotte to stay put and phoned for an ambulance. They arrived in minutes – not that they could do any good. The only person they could help was the shocked car driver.

After things quietened down, we went back indoors leaving Bob Jones,. who had suddenly become very gentle and considerate, to comfort his wife. There was still a lot of activity, mostly from the police, but nothing more we could do.

***

Charlotte was finishing off her dinner and completely ignoring the activity outside.

“Was that Baby Jones who got run over?” She put down her knife and fork.

“Yes,” I answered shortly. “But don’t let’s talk about it at the moment.”

“Is she dead?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” she said, flatly.

“Is there any ice Mummy?”

For a moment I was angered by my daughter’s callousness, then I thought perhaps she didn’t understand the full impact of what had happened
.
Later that afternoon I was reading The Financial Times. Charlotte wriggled up inside the paper and sat on my lap, blocking my view until I gave up.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

She was silent for a while then looked up into my face. “Do you think Mr and Mrs Jones will manage to feed their children now there’s one less?”

Surprised by the question I was stuck for a suitable answer. “I don’t know, Pet.” In my mind I could still see the scene from just hours earlier.

She sat up straight and smiled sweetly. She was quiet for a long time before she spoke again.

“I do hope so, because that’s why I untied the gate this morning.”

***

Copyright J Craggs/John Mathewson 1989

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