When Jerry first turned up at our doorstep, on Grosvenor Park Road, I did not immediately know what to make of him. That day, there had previously been some commotion outside. David, my hyperactive, over-inquisitive, six year old son had gone to look through the window and reported excitedly that there were police vans and an ambulance outside. But I didn’t consider it worthwhile to interrupt my enjoyment of the Brazilian Grand Prix in order to investigate further since our street was a regular confluence of frantic police activity.
Shortly afterwards, when there was a knock, I asked David to remain in the lounge while I answered the door. There'd been a spate of strange incidents in the neighborhood at the time, and there were unsettling rumours of a notorious but unidentified young person who had been terrorising the area in the past three days. So we were doing as much as we could to keep a tight rein on David's uncontrollable curiosity and his eagerness always to place himself in the front line.
At first I did not notice the man standing at the door. Even when he spoke, I was still frantically looking around for the ventriloquist prankster. I only looked down when I heard David from behind me, say 'Hi!'. Then, all I could see was an unwieldy mop of greying hair, a grown-up’s head, addressing a polite salute at the brass buckle of my favourite Journeyman plaited leather belt. I stood back, pushing little David further inside. That was when I got a full view of the small person who owned the surprisingly deep and somewhat theatrical, voice. A pair of vacant, lacklustre, brown eyes stared pleadingly from his hungry face, an overgrown, bushy, moustache and forlorn pair of wiry eyebrows placing him above the fifties. He had on a greasy, dark-brown oversized duffel coat with missing buttons, over a stained shirt and a pair of turned-up black trousers. I could not concentrate properly because David was pushing past my restraining legs, struggling to get between the stranger and me.
'You couldn't possibly spare me some drinking water, could you?' He repeated, performing a fascinating gesture of drinking from an invisible glass.
It didn't immediately register. And even after it did, I was still contemplating that it was unusual for someone to turn up at your doorstep asking for a drink of water in the middle of Bexley. It had simply never happened to me before, and I had no contingency plan for handling such an unlikely event. Salesmen, Jehovah's witnesses and, even, burglars, I could deal with quite proficiently, but this one was an entirely new territory. Why didn't he got to the newsagent down the road and get himself a bottle of perrier? He obviously couldn't afford to, perhaps.
'Here, come right in', David had taken over, 'What's your name?'
'I'm Jerry. You're, quite fat for your age.' he wriggled his moustache at David, who laughed at the man's disparaging joke.
That's how we let him in. Jerry sat on the settee closest to the door, and, once I'd fixed David with a cold reproachful stare, I dashed into the kitchen to get him a glass of water.
'Who was that?' Jane's voice called from upstairs in the bathroom.
I was still working out what to say when David shouted. 'Its a little man, mom. Can we keep him?'
'David!' I yelled after him as he sprinted up the stairs. And then l glanced sharply at our unexpected guest, who smiled to reassure me that he was not offended by the boy's irreverent statement. For his lack of height and condition of penury, he seemed remarkably at ease. If that had been me, I'd be a bitter, twisted soul.
Anyway, I hoped he would quickly drink up and go, since I did not want to have to explain to Jane that I'd let someone into the house without her checking that the place was spick and span. She had an enormous thing for ensuring that her living room was impeccable before letting anyone into her house, no matter who it was. In most cases, the place was okay anyway, but she still had to make a little fuss, dusting the pictures or fluffing the pillows of the settees. Where I'd gone wrong was letting him in without first calling out to my wife: 'Jane, there's someone at the door, please quickly come, and fluff the pillows so I can let him in!'
Footsteps were coming down the stairs. Jane's light, graceful, bound and David's rapid pit-pat. The little man had only drunk half of the water. He stretched out his miniature limbs in an exaggerated gesture of relaxation and relief.
'Thanks for that', he said, 'my throat was absolutely killing me. There was a fire in there that had to be put out before it did irreparable damage.'
I just stood there and watched helplessly while he embarked on another prolonged swig. Eyes tightly closed, brows slanted downward like the arms of cartoon arrowheads, and the thing that served as his moustache, the frivolous squirrel attached to his upper lip, wriggled in time to the oscillations of his wizened Adams apple. I resigned myself to my impending fate and braced myself for the outburst that was sure to come when Jane set her eyes on the little tram in her sitting room.
'Chris, what is this man doing in our house?' Her contempt was undisguised, her voice was hiked a touch above its normal volume, which was loud enough.
'He's only stopping for a drink of water.'
'Why doesn't he get his water somewhere else, our house is not supposed to be some sort of watering hole for stray vagrants?' She stomped off to the kitchen.
I knew what was coming next, and I braced myself.
'...and who left bread crumbs all over the worktop and filthy dishes in the sink?'
Jane's kitchen was a temple, and leaving plates in the sink was like defecating on the sacred altar of the most high.
'It's me' I apologised, going to join her in the kitchen to assure her that I would restore the place to the pristine state she'd left it.
'You've got to make him go!' Her whisper was a grating, harsh, rasp. 'I know his sort. He's going to want to stay.'
'No, he's not staying, he only asked for a drink of water.'
'You silly fool, you shouldn't have let him in. He should have remained outside, and you should have taken the water to him there.'
I shrugged. Guessed I should have thought of that at the time, but, unlike Jane, I normally didn't have such timely bright ideas - which,perhaps, was why she was a Head teacher at the local primary School, and I worked in the Post Office depot as a lowly porter.
'Don't worry; he'll go, once he's finished drinking the water.'
David had arrived at the scene. He filled the kitchen doorway and stared at us with pursed lips, his legs planted slightly apart, and his little clenched fists pressed against his hips, as if he was ready for a fight. I glowered back at him, and he quickly stepped aside to let me pass into the living room.
The man was still sitting there. His wonky smile had an immediate disarming effect. 'You wouldn't happen to have some biscuits, or any kind of munchies I could throw at the raging hyenas in my poor little stomach?' He had a pleading look in his eye that couldn't possibly be ignored.
'Okay’, I said, feeling rather hopeless, 'I'll get you some biscuits and then you must be on your way.’ And then I waited, but he just stared at me with those dull, pitiful eyes.
Jane watched as I opened the biscuit tin and shoved a handful into a small polythene carrier bag. She didn't speak but, the angry glint in her eyes said everything.
The man reached for the bag with shaking hands but, he remained seated despite my attempt to make him stand up and come for it. I reckoned that if I could get him off on his feet, it would at least be a start. But he just sat there with his hand stretched out, rather like a command from an elder person to a younger man. In the end, the seniority sentiment won the day. I’d been brought up always to obey my elders.
He opened the bag with trembling hands, and stuffed his mouth in a frenzy causing the crumbs to scatter all over Jane’s precious Turkmen Saryk rug. I winced and glanced nervously towards the kitchen door.
'God, I needed that.'
This was immediately followed by a fit of uncontrolled laughter from the dining area, which was unpartitioned from our lounge.
David calmed down and then looked at me with large pleading eyes. 'Please Dad, can’t we keep him?’
'Shh! don’t talk about him like that. He's not a dog.’
Once again, I glanced apologetically at the man. 'Anyway, he can't stay here. We have no spare room for a guest.'
The little man sobered up and put on the saddest possible expression.
'But, Dad’, begged David, 'he can stay in my room. He can share my bed.’
'Please, let me stay.' pleaded the vagrant. 'Just for tonight, and then I'll be on my way. It's pretty cold out there, especially at night. I could sleep in your bath; I'll be mighty comfy in there.'
I thought for a moment about the unkempt midget lying snugly in the bath. Jane’s £2000 Excelsior bath! That would be like pissing on the Golden Fleece. I coughed to stave off the laughter that was rising in my throat. 'If you do such a thing’ I thought, 'you won't be mighty comfy, you'll be mighty dead.’
I sighed. Of course, if it came to it, he could always sleep in Henrietta's room. She was in college, and she only came home at alternate weekends. Jane had Henrietta long before we met - A product of a heady, un-bashful and irresponsible past. Henrietta was every bit as fiery as her mom. She didn’t just have a bee, but she had a humongous Megachile pluto in her bonnet, and a chip on both shoulders. David and I normally kept out of her way, especially when she and Jane were having their stormy moments. Though, she’d been surprisingly agreeable in the previous couple of months. She seemed to have made a 'right-about turn' for the better in her college work, and - amazingly - was looking forward to her final year results.
It wasn’t easy persuading Jane to allow Jerry to stay for the night. She was waiting in the kitchen, her eyes blazing with contempt and rage. She had her back to the sink, and both her hands gripped the edge while she glared coldly at me.
'You must get rid of him at once!’
I was beginning to tire at her uncompromising lack of charity.
'I'm sorry dear; I don’t see how we can just chuck him out like that. Why not let's have him in just for tonight? Tomorrow, I'll arrange for him to go to a hostel or something.’
'No, we can't have him here. We can't just have every Tom Dick and Jerry stroll off the street to stay the night. If you don't get rid of him at once, I'll call the police.’
'Calm down, Jane, but the guy hasn't committed any crime.’
Her delicate nostrils flared, her chest heaved from her heavy breathing. I stepped forward and put my hands round her shoulders. She tried to push me away but, I refused to budge.
'Just what will David think of us if we kick him out. David has taken to the old tramp.’
'O.K. So, where’s he going to sleep? There’s no way we can have him sleeping in Henrietta's room.’
'Why not? It's only going to be for tonight. We don’t have to tell Henrietta about it, do we?’
She sighed, and then broke loose from my stranglehold.
'I don't like this whole thing one bit. We don't even know him. What if he's a psycho? What if he gets up in the night, strangles one of us, and makes off with your CD collection? Or, what if he dies in his sleep? What would you do then?’
'Don't worry, Jane. Trust me; it’s going to be OK.’
In the next couple of hours, we politely queried Jerry about his life and background, hoping to extract some useful information to help us decide where to take him the next day. We had no success. The only thing that came out was that his name was Jerry Cann. Other than that, what we got was a long rambling fable that led us in and out of an intricate maze of what could only have been a work of pure imagination from a precariously unstable mind. David, though, was immensely entertained.
We sent Jerry off to the bathroom to clean himself up. He was in there for over an hour performing a raucous rendition of Cliff Richard’s 'Congratulations' to the accompaniment of the sound of splashing water.
By this time, Jane had mellowed down over having Jerry around. She tidied up Henrietta’s room, put a new sheet on the bed and turned up the radiator by a notch. But she was still unfriendly and suspicious towards the little man, and she kept a guarded distance from him.
'I told you, Chris. He's been making it difficult for us to know anything about him. I'm sure that's not his real name. He's taking you for a fool.’
Once again, I assured her that it’s okay. One night was all he was going to spend here. The next day he’d be gone. That was it.
But that wasn't it. One week later he was still with us. The following day was a Monday, and Jerry was still in bed by the time I left for work, and I didn’t want to wake him up. So I left some toast and egg on the dining table for his breakfast. Jane and David had left before me, with clear instructions from Jane that Jerry should be out of the house before they returned home by 4pm.
On Tuesday, I promised that I’d definitely book him into the YMCA on Abert Street, but it turned out they didn’t have any spare beds. By Wednesday, Jane was pretty much resigned to the idea of having him around. He’d become best pals with David, who couldn’t miss the bed-time reading which Jerry had turned into pure entertainment as he wove his own ideas into the stories in the books, and made the characters truly come alive. Moreover, in the space of just three days, David’s interest in Numeracy had gone right through the ceiling. With Jerry’s help, he was doing long multiplications and recursive divisions. David had become so fond of Jerry. He was always offering the little old man half his food because he thought his condition had come about as a result of not eating enough. But Jane was always there to warn David. 'If you don’t eat your vegetables you now know what could happen to you’ she would say, casting a sidelong glance in Jerry's direction. At which David would quickly shovel his veggies into his mouth, chomp without passion, and force himself to swallow.
But, we still didn't know enough about Jerry, and it was up to me to find out. So finally, on the fifth day, while David and Jane were safely out of the way I resolved to get some answers out of him. Gerry was slumped on the settee, looking very much at home, watching Jeremy Kyle on ITV. It felt like he'd always been with us in the house.
The seriousness of my tone immediately hit him. His face suddenly tensed up, and a sudden panic flashed in his beady eyes, but it was only for a brief moment.
'We hardly know anything about you. We need to know who you are, so we can get you settled. You can't live with is forever, you know.'
'Let me tell you about the time in Vietnam when I took on a vicious killer...'
'No, Jerry' I quickly cut in, determined not to be drawn into another one of his intriguing tales, 'Not this time’ I said firmly, 'What I want to know is who you really are. Where did you come from? How old are you? Where is your family? How did you find yourself on Grosvenor Park Road...?'
'Erm... If I told you that, then I'll have to kill you’ he chuckled nervously.
'No, Jerry. Don't give me any of that crap. I’m dead serious, I need some answers from you this time. If you don’t spit it out, I’ll have to leave Jane to conduct this interrogation.’
The saddest possible look came upon his wrinkled face. His squirrel moustache drooped limply, and his eyes welled up. He swallowed hard, and I could see the struggle in his eyes as he considered his next words.
'I'm afraid, Chris. The truth is that I have no answer to any of your questions. I try terribly hard but, I can't remember anything.'
I glared at him incredulously. At first I thought he was still trying to be evasive, but when I stopped to consider, it was beginning to make sense. It would at least explain the glazed, vacant look that often occupied his face. And I’d always wondered why he kept stumbling at recalling names, sometimes even David’s name. When Jane asked him what his shoe size was, we were amazed at the confusion that overwhelmed him, the way he scratched his head in puzzlement, before he finally admitted that he didn’t know his own shoe size. And his tales – none of them bore any sense of time, location or any form of reality.
'It’s so difficult’, he lamented with pained eyes, 'I can’t remember squat. The harder I try, the more confused I get. I have since given up trying to remember what happened yesterday. Now, I just take each day as it comes.’
I concluded that there was no point torturing the man any more than was necessary. But it raised some questions, and it was clear that we’d need to get some help with his selective amnesia which, somehow, hadn’t rendered him totally useless. Otherwise, how did he manage to read to David and help him out with his Maths? I’d myself been a fortunate beneficiary of some sound advice from the old chap, when I confided in him about the concerns I was having at the depot. I was being singled out for transfer and certain demotion, and he told me to ask my superintendent about my competency and attendance record. I did, and that was that. It transpired that I was the only one who had never call
I wasn’t a lazy worker, and it could be proved that the management was being unfair to me.
Amnesia or not, Jerry was still an intelligent old man. And he was now almost part of the family. I’d even heard Jane laugh at his crooked jokes once or twice.
'Nonsense!’ snorted Jane when I told her later that day, 'If you're not going to do it, then I'll make the call to the police, myself. Goodness knows what he's hiding from, and when it all comes out, you may find that we've been harbouring a hardened criminal. If he's not out of this house by the time we get back from the school tomorrow, I'm going straight to the police.
But he still wasn’t gone the following day when they got back home. David ran gleefully into Jerry's arms and gave him a massive hug, Jane’s resolve withered and she gave up on her threat. Later that evening, after David and Jerry had turned in for the night, Jane and I discussed the matter over a late lasagne.
'He does seem to be genuinely amnesic’, Jane conceded, 'That dead look in his eyes, it can't possibly be faked. Thing is, what can we do?'
Since he’d been with us, we'd already made done some discrete enquiries around the neighbourhood. The Indian shopkeeper at the local grocery stores had seen him around for some time, but had no idea where he'd come from. The Newsagent on Belvedere Road said Jerry had once popped in, but he had to move him on afterwards, when he was getting in the way of his costumers. Other than that, no one knew anything about him. So, in the end we decided to put out an Ad in The Bexley Advertiser; someone in the catchment area of the local paper was bound to know of him.
The following day, Jane put a call to Dr Sandra Frampton, a close mate from Uni, who was a Psychologist in North London.
'Bring him along on Thursday for a free session, I will place him in a hypnotic trance, and everything will come out.’ Jane wasn’t sure if she was serious or not, but we decided we would give it a go, if Jerry would not mind.
We did not get any response to our local ad until two days after placing it. At first, I was delighted when a frenzied female voice crackled over the phone in what appeared to be a long distance call. 'We're extremely relieved you’ve got him, and he's safe and well. I've been sick with worry....and so have his six brothers, too!'
When she told us that her name was Snow White, I was thoroughly disappointed, and I promptly slammed the phone.
The only person who saw the funny side was Jerry. 'Ah, Snow White, of course. You don't want to know the sort of things we got up to, us naughty little midgets and the lovely Snow White’, he chuckled.
'Knock it off, Jerry’, I scolded, aware of the perplexed frown on David's little face.
Jerry was with us for almost two weeks. Throughout that time, none of us had remembered to tell Henrietta about our strange guest, who had taken up residence in her bedroom. Anyway, we didn’t think he would be there that long. On the day Henrietta breezed in without warning, Jane was away on a late PTA meeting. David and I were downstairs watching Wallace and Grommet. No one heard her come in and go upstairs to her room to unpack. What told us that she had arrived was her piercing scream as she rushed back down the stairs.
'Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek! What’s a naked midget doing in my bed?'
I’d never seen her look so pale. Her eyes bulged to twice their normal size, and she shivered, even though she still had her purple fur coat on.
I went round and put my hand on her shoulder, to soothe her. 'Sorry, Etta, he's our guest. We thought he’d be gone by now...we should have called you...’
But that did not calm her down. If only Jane was there; she alone, could have handled the situation. David and I looked on helplessly as Henrietta broke down in an uncontrollable fit of hysteria, screaming down the whole place like a triggered high decibel burglar alarm.
But the ever-increasing look of panic that dominated her face as Jerry was coming down the stairs told me that there was more to it than the shock of finding a stranger in her bedroom.
'What - What is he doing here?’ She finally whimpered when Jerry came into full view.
David and I were shocked to see that he wasn’t quite the same Jerry that we knew. He’d taken off his beard and moustache, and he was wearing a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. When he spoke, we were doubly shocked to find that even his voice was different from his usual hoarse baritone. This was a far younger Jerry, only in his late twenties.
'Sorry, Etta’, he said. 'I didn't mean to freak you out.’ the only thing that hadn’t changed was the fleeting vacant lustre in his eye – and, of course, he was still a dwarf.
'I had no choice’, he continued, 'I couldn’t understand why you wouldn't return my calls.’
'Get away from me!’, Henrietta screeched.
'What the hell is going on here?’, I heard myself shouting.
'I helped her with her college project, and she promised that If she passed with top marks - ', he looked towards David’s direction and broke off.
'What was the promise?'
The little man shrugged and pulled a face.
I turned to Henrietta, 'This is utterly ridiculous, is he telling the truth? What promise did you make?’
She only whimpered, and clenched her fists as if she was in anguish.
'Look', I said. 'This is nothing to do with me. I'm leaving this for your Mom to deal with when she gets home.’
I turned to David who had gone to sit at the dining table, watching the unfolding scene with the dazed expression of a kid who had stumbled on something rated well above his age..
'Come on, buddy. It's bed time. I'll come upstairs in a moment and read you a story.’ And, for the first time, he went to his bedroom without any fuss.
'I want you to get out of here before my Mom comes in.’ Henrietta spat at Jerry. But he’d already sat down, and it was clear that he wouldn’t budge. 'If you don’t leave, I will call the police.’
I switched off the TV and sat down. Gerry turned and stared at the floor when I looked at him. I was still trying to deal with the mixed feelings that I had about him. I wasn’t sure whether he deserved an Oscar for his impersonation or a slap across the face for his deceit.
We were each jolted out of our thoughts when the knock finally came. Although Jane carried her keys, she often preferred to be let in, if there was someone at home. As I went to open the door, I could feel Henrietta's nervousness. It buzzed about in the air and was intense enough to microwave two servings of Indian omelette.
'He’s here, isn’t he?', it was the stern voice of a police officer. I immediately noticed the blue flashing lights of a couple of vans on the road, a few doors away from our house. At the same time, I heard the sound of a scuffle inside, and realized that Jerry was trying to make a dash for it through the backdoor. But it was only so far that his little legs would carry him. Before you could say 'sausages’ the PO was upon him like a rash, shackling him immediately with a fine pair of brass cuffs.
The policeman addressed him, 'You managed to escape two weeks ago, but this time you're coming with me to the nick. You were seen breaking into a maisonette, three doors away, and there have been reports of your activities in this area.'
Jerry wriggled helplessly as he was led away, but not before casting a final baleful glance in Henrietta’s direction.
Henrietta disappeared up the stairs while I was left in the lounge wondering whether to feel sorry for Jerry or wish him a rotten time in custody. I did not get enough time to settle the score in my mind before Jane arrived.
'Did I not tell you that he was making fools of us all along?’ she gloated.
I didn't say anything. No doubt, one day, she would get to hear the whole story. Besides I was more than convinced that what we’d seen of Jerry so far, would, by no means, be the last.
Due date: 20 Jan 2011
Working Title: Santa's Dirty Little Secret.
Little James Barnes gets up late in the night but as he is going down the stairs he hears Santa bringing his Christmas presents into he house.
So he hides, watches and listens. What he sees that night will shake his perceptions about Santa and probably cause him to become disillusioned for life - unless Santa can do something drastic to redeem himself.