Born to Lose – (short story)

Walter? What sort of a name was that to give to a child born in 1995? Walter Andrew Nankeville. You don’t need much imagination to know what nickname he acquired in later life. To be fair his parents were decent sorts, hard working and honest, and they only wanted the best for their one, and as it turned out, only child. Walter was quite happy in the nursery and infants’ schools and for the first few days of the primary school. Then the naturally cruel older boys, as soon as they found out his full name, gave him the nickname that from then on moulded his character and his attitudes to life.

When he was just eight years old he decided that he hated his parents and never spoke to them willingly again. They, poor innocent souls, never understood why they had bred such an ungrateful surly child, even until the day they both died in a pointless car accident when Walter was a broody fifteen. His feeble parents, pathetic even in the method of their demise, skidded on a patch of spilt butterfat and ended up upside down, skulls shattered, on the concrete forecourt of a Lada garage.

By then he’d already become entrenched as a true loner. All around him his peers joined football teams, went to the cinema, and started on the painful adolescent discovery of sex. Walter kept his own company, and, to the other teenagers at his school, seemed to live up to his nickname. Walter developed passions of course; he collected things, coins, stamps, and the addresses of pen-friends he never wrote to.

In the summer after the death of his parents, the children’s home that had taken him in sponsored him on a holiday to Wales. Walter didn’t mind being sent to Wales, he wouldn’t have minded staying in his room at the home either. Unfortunately, one of the staff at the adventure centre, some sort of patron saint of lost causes, decided to take on the challenge of Walter’s lethargy and apparent disinterest, and made it her task to get him out of bed in the morning and push him into some sort of activity.

reservoir

Walter realised that he had to do something with his body while his inner self brooded its way through his earthly existence so he didn’t even mind that. He elected to go walking around the hills near the reservoir, on his own of course. Betty, his motivator, was not very happy at the prospect of Walter making the solo trek, but, she reasoned, it was better than him lying in bed all day and it might at last provide the trigger that would begin the process of him recovering from the tragedy of his parents’ deaths.

Walter needed a rest, he’d been walking for over two hours, so he sat down on the banks of the reservoir and idly consumed the salad sandwich Betty had insisted he take with him. He heard the sounds of banal immature voices coming closer to his position on the bank; he looked up as two boys of about his age came into view through the trees. He’d seen them hanging about in the centre, a pair of city troublemakers, ignorant and noisy. Walter tried to ignore them.

“Hello mate,” said the biggest, hair shaved almost to the bone, scarred face, cigarette between his fingers.

The two boys sat down, one each side of Walter. Walter grunted and continued to eat the sandwich self-consciously.

“Where’s your manners boy?” said the second, a small ugly boy, as he reached across Walter to take the stump of the cigarette offered by the other. “Oops, sorry,” he said, knocking the sandwich out of Walter’s hands, scattering slices of tomato and thin stalks of cress over the ground.

Walter shrugged, tossed the remains of the sandwich to the fishes and stood up.

The first boy grabbed Walter’s legs and pulled him back down.

“Going already? Stay here and have a fag with us.”

Walter stood up again, mumbling “Don’t smoke, got to go.”

“Oh no you don’t.”

The two boys grabbed Walter and pulled him down again. Walter slipped on the damp grass, fell down the bank and into the shallows of the reservoir. The boys laughed at Walter’s spluttering; they were still laughing as they went out of sight down the path. Walter struggled out of the water and sat heavily on the grass.

‘So what?’ he thought. ‘Now I can go back to the centre and get changed, perhaps Betty will leave me alone at last.’

“Are you all right?” a deep Welsh voice came at him from above.

Walter looked up. At the top of the bank stood an older boy, almost a man really, with a concerned expression on his ruddy face.

“Yes. Yes. I’m fine, thanks.”

“I saw you crawl out of the water; your two friends weren’t much help, they’ve legged it now mun. How far have you come?”

“I’m staying at the activity centre, on holiday.”

“I see. I know it, it’s quite a long way from here, you’ll catch your death walking back in that state.”

“It’s all right thanks,” Walter said.

“No, wouldn’t hear of it, you must come back to the farmhouse with me, it’s only up there mun.” The older boy pointed through a gap in the trees where the ground rose steeply.

Why not, Walter thought.

The farmyard and the stone-built house were a revelation to Walter. New sights, sounds, and smells bombarded his senses. A boisterous border collie bounded towards them, yapping excitedly. Agitated chickens scattered in its path, the flap of their wings throwing up the scents of decomposing vegetables and wet manure. The Welsh boy and Walter strode up to what must have been the front door of the house – a rectangle of blue flaking paint, the wood old yet solid. A narrow hall, barely carpeted, contained several pairs of wellington boots, a small table, and a middle-aged woman speaking into a phone.

The woman looked at them and nodded into the mouthpiece. “Yes, of course, look sorry bach, I’ve got to go, Dafydd’s just come in, looks like he needs a bit of maldod, talk to you later, so-long te.”

She hung up and turned to the boys: “You gone and fished another one out of the Llyn then Dafydd, what’s the story this time? Who’s your friend?”

“Dunno yet Mam, can we get him dried out?”

“Righto, you put the kettle on, I’ll dig up some of your old clothes. Come here boyo, into the kitchen where it’s warm. What’s your name?”

Walter hesitated; his name wasn’t something he shared willingly. He felt an un-experienced warmth in the house, an instant feeling of belonging – why not, new experiences, new people, new name. “It’s Andrew,” he said, “Andrew De Ville.”

“Andrew, that’s a good name, De Ville? Sounds foreign.”

“Yes, my grandmo…, er grandfather came from France, Brittany.”

“You’re a fellow Celt then, we’ll have to look after you now. Sit down, I’ll fetch those dry clothes.”

Walter liked the sound of his new name, it had a sophisticated sound; he repeated it silently to himself. Andrew De Ville, Andrew De Ville. . . How was it spelled? It would be two words, that surname. De followed by a space then Ville like the French for town. He’d learned that much at least in the years of French lessons he’d endured. School hadn’t been a complete waste of time after all.

“Can you speak French then Andrew?” asked Dafydd as he poured the boiling water over the tea bags and set the aluminium teapot near the hotplate of the Aga to brew.

“Er, no, my father did, before, before he died, but I was too young to remember much.”

“Did you say your father died?” It was Dafydd’s mother coming back into the room. “You poor boy. How did your mother cope?”

“I’m afraid that they both died. I was very young; they were both journalists, in some place in Africa. They got attacked by rebels. I was lucky, apparently I slept through it all, they found me the next day and I was brought back to Britain to live with my grandmother.”

Dafydd and his mother opened their mouths in shock and shook their heads in sympathy. Walter paused, God they were lapping it up, eager for more.

“My Gran, she’s a retired musician, used to be a ballet dancer, looked after me for years. She’s not very well now, can’t cope like she used to, so I came on this holiday to give her a break more than me. One of her nephews, a sort of uncle to me suggested it; he’s got some shares in the centre I think. He said it would help me to see a bit of life before I concentrate on my A levels next year.”

“Duw, Duw,” said Dafydd’s mother. “You have found a live one this time Dafydd. Look at me, so rude. I’m Mrs Grufydd, pleased to meet you Andrew. Now then, take these clothes, you can go and change in the parlour, show him where it is Dafydd.”

Walter was ushered in to the parlour, a pristine room with polished dust-free sideboard and floral patterned three-piece suite. Crocheted circles perched precariously on the back of the chairs so that Walter was afraid to sit down on them. Dafydd closed the door on Walter and after a few minutes alone Andrew emerged dressed in Dafydd’s best old clothes.

Andrew De Ville was born, he felt the joy of living, he was confident, intelligent and capable. He returned to the kitchen. Soon the two Gruffydd’s were laughing and marvelling at Andrew’s memories of life with his Gran in her Chelsea apartments and the rich characters she socialised with.

“Well I never knew that, all those Lords and Ladies could behave like that, just goes to show. Now, Andrew will you stay to tea?”

Andrew wanted to agree but Walter mumbled something about having to get back and perhaps he could call again if it was all right. Mrs Grufydd had a very efficient tumble drier and she even gave the dried clothes a bit of a going over with her steam iron before returning them to Walter.

Dafydd walked with Andrew back to the path around the reservoir. Before they parted Dafydd sighed. “How I envy you Andrew, living in London with all that culture and those interesting artistic people. Me? It looks like I’ll be stuck here in the sticks, rescuing sheep from barbed wire for the rest of my life.”

Walter couldn’t stop him, Andrew said. “Why don’t you come and visit some day? I’ll show you the sights.”

Dafydd’s face beamed. “Oh yes, that would be fantastic.”

Walter hesitated, Andrew said: “Tell you what, I’ll call around tomorrow or the next day and we’ll swap addresses and things, OK?”

Dafydd nodded happily. “Da bo, see you.” He sprang up the hill with the energy of a mountain goat.

Walter trudged slowly back through the outer gates of the adventure complex just in time for a late tea. As usual he sat alone and picked at the uninspiring food without relish. Betty came in, filled her plate, paying special attention to the mashed potatoes, and sat down opposite him. “You don’t mind?” she asked as the first laden forkful found its way to her mouth.

Walter nodded.

“Well, how did your day go? Did you enjoy your solitary walk?”

“Yes thank you,” said Walter. “Excuse me, I’m not very hungry, I think I’ll go to my room.”

Betty rolled her eyes, but let him go without protest and then got down to the really important business of cramming her mouth with the mash.

Alone in the austerity of the bedroom, Walter’s mind filled the emptiness with torrents of thoughts and emotions. Walter or Andrew, who was he? Those people in the Welsh farmhouse had treated him like a real person, showed him respect. It had made him feel more alive, important, as if he had a purpose in life. He doodled on a writing pad over and over again, Andrew De Ville, he tried his signature, should it be A Deville? No that looked like something Satanic. What about Andy? too pally somehow. Andrew De Ville was fine, it suited him, his new personality. Why not? he thought, why shouldn’t I be an interesting human being with a colourful background. He fell asleep early after the stresses of the first day of his new life.

 

Andrew intended to keep his promise and go back to the farm but the pressure of being Walter halted his feet and sent him around in circles in the grounds of the centre. The following day was no better; he spent most of the time in a trance watching daytime television in the lounge. In the afternoon he sat under a tree just outside the dormitory building and idly picked the heads off daisies and dandelions. The centre was approached from the main road by a drive with a wide tree-flanked entrance. He noticed a familiar figure hovering near the entrance and realised that it was the boy from the farm, Dafydd. Walter panicked, how could he keep up the pretence here so near to his real life? He prayed that Dafydd would keep his distance and pretended not to look in the direction of the entrance to avoid having to adopt the persona of Andrew.

Just then the two boys who had helped Walter into the reservoir came out of the main building. When they spotted Walter they began laughing and pointing like they’d done a few days earlier. They came close to him.

“Well hello, Wally, fancy a dip?” asked the smaller boy smiling maliciously.

The other doubled up with laughter. “No,” he said, “he’s enough of a drip already.”

Walter would have dropped his head and waited for the crude tirade to pass but Andrew was on his feet, a fierce anger in his eyes that seemed to make him grow bigger, stronger, and more threatening. He felt invincible. Out of the corner of his eye he was aware of the now stationary figure, watching him from the bottom of the drive. That seemed to give him even more courage.

“You stupid worms,” bellowed Andrew as he towered over them. “Now get out of here before I lose my temper.”

The boys startled, looked questioningly at one another, then the larger one said: “Come on, let’s go, he’s not worth it, the girls will be waiting.”

As the boys made their hasty exit with fake nonchalance, Andrew turned to face the entrance to the drive. Dafydd had gone. Andrew ran down to the road but there was no sign of him. Hold it, thought Walter, that’s enough excitement before tea. Walter took all evening to recover. What was happening to him? This new world was exciting and frightening.

Friday, the last full day of the holiday, even Betty noticed how self-assured Walter had become.

“I think that you have benefited a great deal from this stay,” she said, through mouthfuls of cornflakes.

Andrew smiled at her, she seemed so funny to him now, almost loveable, and the world was a different, brighter place. He was looking forward to this day. Today he would go back to the farm, confess all, and thank Dafydd and his mother for helping him come alive at last. He’d tell them of his hollow, empty life before their simple kindness and honesty set fire to his real self. After breakfast Andrew made his way happily to the reservoir and then to the farmhouse. The place was burned deep into his memory after the brief visit of the other day; the noises and smells of the farmyard greeted him like old friends. The day was bright and sunny, just right. Mrs Grufydd was scattering grain for the dozen or so noisy chickens that ran wild around the yard. He approached her from behind; her movements seemed slow, almost laboured.

“Bore da Mrs Grufydd,” the new Welsh words came out stilted with all the wrong sounds but at least he’d tried.

The woman seemed startled; she turned to face him. “Oh, it’s you is it.” Her face was drawn, her eyes red with tears.

“Are you all right?” Andrew didn’t like seeing this strong capable woman in a moment of weakness.

“It’s Dafydd,” she said, “he’s, he’s gone . . .”

“Gone? Gone? What do you mean gone?”

“Come inside, I’ll put the kettle on. I don’t blame you really; it’s his father you see.”

Andrew followed meekly, what did she mean?

Mrs Grufydd took a few minutes to compose herself. She was silent as the tea brewed on the hotplate; after she poured it, she stared into the cup and spoke. “After you left that day, Dafydd couldn’t stop talking about you; you and your posh life in London. I suppose it was bound to happen some day. He waited all the next day and the day after; even went to the centre to look for you, but he’s shy you see, so I don’t suppose he went in. When you didn’t show up he became very sad, agitated. I’ve seen it all before, that look; he’s got the wanderlust, just like his father before him. That man, he finally walked out on us nearly fifteen years ago, Dafydd can hardly remember him.”

Walter was distraught, these were the only two people he’d ever cared for. What had he done with his stories and lies? Their lives had changed unalterably.

He said unconvincingly: “Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll come back, do you know where he went?”

“Said he was going to London, to see the world, he said, he’d write, he said . . .”

“It’s OK, he’ll be back, London’s just like anywhere else, the streets are not paved with gold.”

“Perhaps Andrew, perhaps he will, I don’t know how I’ll manage on my own.”

“I’m sorry, it’s my . . . “

“No, no, don’t go saying that, you weren’t to know, you can’t help being what you are, but it all sounded so sophisticated to Dafydd, him stuck here out in the sticks as he called it.”

If only she knew, thought Walter, Dafydd would soon discover the truth, he’d be back, Walter was certain.

Andrew had an idea. “Listen, the holiday finishes today but I’ve still got a few weeks left before I have to go back to school.” This was untrue, as Walter had already decided to leave school, he had no intention of going back to do his A levels, not that he had the ability anyway. “If you like I can stay on and help around the place for a few days just until Dafydd comes back, Gran won’t mind.”

“I don’t know, it’s so soon.”

Walter cringed at the commitment he was making but Andrew insisted. “Yes, I must, it will do me good to do some physical work for a change, you don’t know how stifling it can be in the city. You wouldn’t have to pay me, I’d do it for the experience and for food and a bed.”

The days on the farm turned into weeks, Andrew kept the children’s home happy by going to see Betty every week. She was glad to see him looking so healthy and happy and being of a lazy disposition never bothered to make the trek to the farmhouse to check it out. The boy was sixteen years old after all, as long as he could sustain himself he could be left to live his own life; anyway there were fresh batches of screwed up adolescents coming for her to practice her craft on. She counted Walter as one of her great successes and used his example often to prove her value in the Social Services department. Later in her career, his case notes helped her to climb the promotion ladder more than once.

Towards the end of the third week a letter arrived from Dafydd. Mrs Grufydd was overjoyed and she and Andrew celebrated with a market day visit to Carmarthen where she bought Andrew a new pair of denim jeans tailored to fit his leaner body. Dafydd reported that he was fit and well and had a job processing transparencies in a photographic studio off Baker Street. He was sorry but he’d decided to change his name to David Griffith because it had become too tedious to spell it out every time he met a new acquaintance. He promised to visit just as soon as he had the time, they were so busy at work and he’d met all sorts of interesting and famous photographers and models, they were really nice people, very down to earth.

The weeks turned into months, the months into years. Dafydd still hadn’t revisited two years later but Mrs Grufydd made the long trip to London twice a year and came back to tell Andrew that Dafydd really was doing well. He’d been trained to take the actual photographs and he was good at it, building up quite a reputation for himself.

Andrew worked hard and enjoyed it; his years as a loner had prepared him well for the long days out in the fields or searching for lost sheep on the hills and in the woods.

It was early afternoon one summer day. Andrew broke through the undergrowth at the bottom of the hill near the reservoir and breathed deeply, a satisfied smile on his face. Walter was still there inside him but he was sort of sleeping contentedly, retired from active service at last. It had been raining heavily and the path around the Llyn was muddy and slippery.

A younger boy sat at the edge of the path; he looked downcast, withdrawn, he was wet and very muddy, just like one of Andrew’s lost sheep. “Prynhawn da mate,” said Andrew. “You all right?”

The boy grunted and turned away.

“Slipped in the mud have you?” Andrew said with a strong hint of a Welsh accent.

The boy mumbled shyly.

“From the Centre are you?”

The boy nodded.

“Come on then. Come with me, I don’t bite. Mam will find you something to wear while you dry out. I might have some clothes in my wardrobe that will just about fit you.”

2 thoughts on “Born to Lose – (short story)”

  1. Really enjoyed that Derec. Liked especially the way you brought the narrative back to where we started, at the lakeside, sort of making the story a trip around the lake…that’s the way it felt anyway…and the farm-house door – ‘a rectangle of blue, flaking paint.’ Enjoyed the images and the story, better’n watching tellyany day. Keep writing Butt, see you soon maybe, next time I’m up Kairdiff way. All the Beast for now, Alan 🙂

  2. Thanks Alan 🙂 – it means a lot when someone appreciates what you do, especially when it’s from a writer like you. Seez ya soon, Derec

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