by Peter Coomber


Yet another one from: It Never Happened.

At the age of seventy-three, I finally found myself free from bullying. Or so I thought. My wife was dead; my children had stopped visiting me; work was a long time in the past. Oh, the staff at the nursing home tried to bully me, but that was mild compared to what had gone on before. And, while I could still make the doctor laugh at my jokes - rather than at me - he'd listen to any complaints I might make, so the staff kept on their best behaviour - at least, those that were frightened about losing their job did.

But I knew that couldn't last: at some point in the future my mind would slip off into a world of its own making, and the bullying would start again. I didn't worry about that, though - I figured I'd be too ga-ga by then to care.

I just felt lucky, that - for the moment - I was free.

When I look back - and seventy-three years is a long way to look back - I remember only the first five years of my life as being bully-free. I was an only child - always sickly and weak, and small for my age. My parents treated me in the most loving, kindest way that a child could experience. Perhaps if they had been less caring I might have had more fight in me: able to stand up for myself. But at five, when I started school, the bullying began.

It started from the other five-year olds in my class. At first, my pencils went missing. While my back was turned, they disappeared from my desk. Then pages of my work started to disappear. Next, pieces of soggy paper would be fired at my head. Then the pinching and slapping started.

Why do children decide to pick on any one child? The most aggressive child picks on those around him; they in turn pick on others less aggressive than themselves; the less aggressive pick on the least aggressive child in the class - who is consequently picked on by everyone. In my year at school, that was me.

However, it was just small acts of meanness: I didn't like it, but I could cope with it. But then that changed when I moved into year three.

Albert Marshall was his name. He was a bigger, older child, who had been held back a couple of years of schooling because he had failed the basic tests, which each child had to pass in order to move up to the next year. He was a stupid child, but what he lacked in brains he made up for in brawn: he could out-run and out-thump any boy in the school (even those in the older years). At all sports he excelled: football, rugby, holding someone's head down the toilet...

He could out-run me. At football or rugby he would sometimes forget which was the ball and which was me. In the toilet block, I learned how to hold my breath while my head was underwater, and the precise moment when it was safe to feign unconsciousness. To be fair to him, he didn't want to kill me: he wanted me to live so he could put me through it again.

On the plus side, he became 'my friend'. This meant that the bullying from all the other kids stopped. There were a few occasions, when some boy or girl forgot, and my pencils lay scattered and broken on the playground. Albert would be there, twisting the boy or girl's arm behind their back, making them howl - really hurting them - and the next morning I'd find a new set of pencils on my desk. But by the afternoon my pencils would be broken and scattered by Albert, and my head would be going down that toilet bowl a second or third time.

Then luckily, I came down with whooping cough and I very nearly died. By the time I had recovered, and was back at school, Albert Marshall had gone: he'd punched a teacher, and had been 'sent away'. I whooped - and breathed easier in the toilet block - but my pencils started to go astray again.

When I finally left school, I got work in a shoe factory. The bullying I received there - whilst less violent than that I had received at the hands of Albert Marshall - was vicious. And that was just by women. Fortunately, National Service intervened. We all know about the bullying that goes on in the army. But compared to the shoe factory, it was nothing.

Then I found myself going out with Mary. It wasn't my choice: it was her decision. She walked up to me one night at a church dance and said: "You'll do." I didn't decide to go out with her and I didn't decide to marry her, but we went out together, and we married, and after we'd married every decision I'd make - because 'I was a man' and 'the man should always decide' - was the wrong one, and I would end up deciding what Mary wanted.

So I decided to buy a house. And I decided to have two children. And I decided to work double shifts to pay for the house and the children. And I decided to buy a car. And, when I was driving the car, I decided to 'slow down because I was going too fast'. And I decided that 'I was going the wrong way' - 'I should have turned right at the last junction'.

And I decided I was 'a stupid man' who 'had no thought for his wife and children' and 'didn't get promotion' because I 'didn't have the gumption'.

Forty years of marriage happily ended when a bus driver swerved, to avoid a rabid pit bull terrier chasing a small child across the road. He mounted the curb and ran over Mary instead. The bus driver cried at the inquest. I wanted to shake his hand, but restricted myself to giving him some kind words about it 'not being his fault'. The choice had been difficult for him: pit bull terrier or Mary? After the inquest, I decided I would treat myself to a dog.

It was then that I started to get bullied by my children. "You can't have a dog," they said. "Mother wouldn't have liked it." There were many things 'Mother wouldn't have liked', and my children came round or phoned me every day to make sure I wasn't doing any of them.

At the age of sixty-five, I thought I'd found love, when I bumped my trolley into Doreen's trolley in the dairy produce aisle of the local supermarket. We found a common interest in natural yoghurt, and novels by William Makepeace Thackeray, and made each other laugh over tea and cream cakes in the supermarket café. Doreen liked dogs.

I started to meet her in the park in the mornings, to walk her Irish Wolfhounds, Lyndon and Barry. But then my children found out:

'Mother wouldn't like it'; 'This woman is after your money'; 'She's after your house.'

They found out where Doreen lived and 'warned her off'.

Of the things I had suffered over the years - lost pencils; thumpings; flushings; having my trousers taken off on the shoe factory floor; a broken arm in the army; ridicule at work and in the home - of all these things, losing Doreen hurt me the most.

Losing Doreen hurt me more than the broken hip I suffered two weeks later in a fall in the kitchen.

While I was in hospital my children decided that 'Mother wouldn't like my living alone; unable to look after myself' , so when I came out of hospital, they moved me into a nursing home. To pay for this, they sold my house, and divided up the remainder of the money from the sale between themselves.

To be fair to them, they visited me twice a week every week for the first year. But after that, they visited less. And then they stopped visiting.

At least the bullying had stopped.

They send an occasional post card. In fact, this morning I got one from my son - he's in the Maldives. It was while I was collecting it, a most incredible coincidence occurred.

I was by the front door when it opened and Gina (one of the staff) wheeled in a fragile old man.

"Cyril," she said, "meet our new resident, Albert."

I looked at the man sat in the wheelchair. He was in no state to push anybody's head down a toilet, but - yes - it was Albert Marshall, my old 'friend' from school.

"Albert," I said "it's me: Cyril Southam. Don't you remember me, from Langley's school?"

He didn't look at me. I don't think he could move his head. Whether he recognised me, I don't know.

"You know him, Cyril?" asked Gina.

"We were at school together," I said, "almost seventy years ago."

"That's amazing!" she said.

"Which room is he in?" I asked. "I'll wheel him there, if you like."

"You're a dear," said Gina. "He's in room thirteen on the first floor. I'll get his suitcase from the taxi. I'll see you up in his room in a bit."

I pushed Albert along the passage toward the lift. He was so thin and wasted: the wheelchair was easy to push, even for an old codger like me. As we rode up in the lift, my mind went back to the old school days and the treatment I'd received from Albert. And here he was - he couldn't hurt a fly now. I remembered the treatment I'd received at work and from my family, and I thought about Doreen - how kind and gentle she had been, and remembered how she had been 'warned off' eight years ago.

The lift doors opened and I wheeled Albert along the corridor: room ten, room eleven, twelve, room thirteen, fourteen, fifteen... I wheeled him to the top of the stairs. Right to the edge. I gripped the handles of his wheelchair tightly. Albert moaned. There was fear in that moan. Perhaps he could see the stairs? Perhaps he could see all twelve hard, painful steps - right down to the ground floor?

"Albert," I said "let me show you where the toilets are." And I turned him back along the landing.

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