Before Compensation

by Elisabeth Sheaffer

A few days ago I began to sort through the cupboard in the spare room. I was looking for things for the jumble sale when I found a shoe box full of old photographs. One in particular made me stop and think back to a time when life was black and white like the photograph.

While on holiday in the West Country many years ago, I took a picture with my Box-Brownie of a strange "Heath Robinson" construction. It stretched out from the river bank in a small village near the sea.

At first glance, it seemed just a tangle of barbed wire and a jumble of wood. A closer inspection showed that it was a small hut and a jetty . These had been carefully though hurriedly built using rough materials. Just after the war there had been masses of barbed wire and pieces of wood lying around for the taking.

The whole scene was angry and uninviting. Even the grass agreed by looking as sharp and spiky as the barbed wire.There were two rowing boats at the end of the jetty. One was safely moored but empty. The other was at anchor a few feet away and contained a small keg.

After taking the photo, I went to the village pub for a beer and a sandwich. The people in the pub were happy to satisfy my curiosity as far as they could. The tangle of wire and planks had been built by a local man who had been away during the war, somewhere in Europe, they thought. He owned the boats as well.

They remembered him best as a boy in his late teens. At that time he was always very pleasant and polite but with a distant look in his eyes. He seemed detached from everyday life but at the same time, sensitive to every aspect of it..

One man who remembered him in his last summer at school said, "He was always off in some world of his own. He wasn't too bad at most lessons but his favourite was English. The rest of us hated books and all that stuff but he lapped it up. He liked to write poetry as well, I think. We thought it was a bit strange but he was always looking for the beautiful things in life, even as a boy."

As a deeper picture of the man began to take shape, it emerged that he had volunteered at the outbreak of war and had soon been posted overseas. He wrote often in the early days and in spite of censorship, his letters were full of sharp descriptions and anecdotes. When the letters stopped suddenly, everyone feared the worst. A year later however, he came home.

His wounds had been very serious but his recovery was assured. No explanations were sought or given. Physically he improved but in other ways he was a stranger to them. The pleasant, polite boy with the sensitive nature had become a man with expressionless eyes.

He built the jetty, put up a "Keep Out" sign and spent most of his days fishing or simply staring across the water. People watched him as people will, and noticed that he never used the boat containing the keg. This soon became a matter of curiosity.

Rumours circulated about what was in the keg; rum, whisky, brandy perhaps? Some boys waded and then swam out to the boat for a closer look. They could see nothing but managed to knock on the side of the small barrel in the boat. Much to everyone's surprise, they came back saying that it sounded hollow and empty.

One evening several months later, the man appeared in the pub. This caused something of a stir but being British, everyone behaved quite normally and discussed the weather and local events. He joined in as if he did the same thing every evening but the villagers wanted an explanation. One person asked if he had caught much fish lately. At this, the man just smiled and without answering the question he began to talk.

"I'm sure what you really want to know is why I came back so changed. The details are unimportant. It's enough to say that the gentle way of life I'd learned here didn't mix well with the barbarity of war. I did my duty for my country and I was glad to do it. They even said I was a hero and gave me a little medal to prove it. But personally I was a loser, not a winner."

He paused and drank some of his beer while he collected his thoughts. No one said a word as they waited for him to continue. Eventually with a sigh, he spoke again.

"I felt as though my life and everything I was had been stolen from me. I came back here because I had nowhere else to go but I just wanted to be alone. I didn't want friends or family. I was so angry and bitter. I built the hut and the jetty as a place of escape, a refuge. You can see by the way that it's lashed together that it was never intended to be a thing of beauty.I just wanted somewhere where I could put up a notice in my life saying, "Keep Out". I'd had enough of people and noise and blood and death to last me a lifetime."

For several minutes there was silence while they considered what he had said. Then someone asked about the keg in the boat.Why was it there and what was in it?

"It was a symbol of my life. I needed something which illustrated what had happened to me. The barrel was something I could look at objectively. Originally it was full of spirit, just like I once was. Then as time went on, it was emptied and washed out just like me. Only the smallest traces of the original contents remained. I felt like that. What do you do when life takes everything away from you? Not just material things but those parts of your soul and spirit that make you the person you are?"

The man paused again very briefly. He stood up and looking round at all the people in the bar, he continued in a clear, positive tone. It sounded as though he were speaking to each person individually.

"I've seen too many people let themselves go. Their lives become empty and pointless. They don't care about anyone or anything and they give in to circumstances. They're waiting for someone to compensate them for events which are just a part of life. That's not for me! Things have been tough but I want my life back. That keg has been a daily reminder of the need to grow within myself, to be full of spirit again. It won't be easy but I'm determined now that I will do it. Determination is the first step to success, isn't it?"

With that, he thanked them for listening and went out into the night. They never saw him again.

The following morning a boy rushed into the village shop, shouting excitedly, "The hut and the jetty are gone! It's been burned to ashes and the boats as well. I can see the barrel though. It's almost out of sight, floating towards the sea. What shall we do?"

There was really nothing that they could do. The man had given a brief explanation on the previous evening. Now he had literally burned his boats and gone in search of things to revive and enrich his life.

There was a short pause while each person silently wished him well. Some of them wondered privately whether they too should be less complacent about their lives and quietly determined to give substance to their own dreams.

Only recently while on holiday again, I found out the postscript to the story. When I asked the villagers if the man had ever returned, this is what they told me.

About two years after his disappearance, the village school received a new publication through the post. It was a slim volume of poetry in which were combined reality, dreams and a wealth of beauty. The man had found his life again and the book was his compensation.

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