08/08/2015 by paulinebsc
September 1928 Paignton Beach, England
Doug pulled at the straps of his damp woollen bathing suit which were chafing his shoulders. He stomped behind his mother along the Paignton sea front, arms folded across his chest in childish defiance. They had missed the Punch and Judy show, he was tired, and it was a long way back to the hotel.
‘Come on Duggy, not far now.’ She looked back at his rebellious features and bit back a smile. Doug was so adorable when he pouted like that. Ahead was a small tent and she read the board outside.
‘Gypsy Telanka – Fortune teller.’
The man outside was a stereotypical gypsy: swarthy with a droopy moustache and short stocky build.
‘Come on in, love’ he urged. ‘Only a farthing to know your entire future.’ He looked down at Doug. ‘I’ll look after the little one while you’re in there.’
Ever the optimist, Doug’s mum walked into the tent. When she came out, she found Doug playing knucklebones with the gypsy.
‘Well, I’m going to have a happy life’ she reported ‘Do you want a go?’
Doug shook his head.
‘Go on’ said the man. ‘You only have to sit in the chair for a few minutes. It’ll be an excuse for a rest.’
‘All right then.’ Doug was convinced by that argument. He watched the man pocket the farthing that his mother gave him smugly.
The woman inside was old; Doug didn’t think he’d ever seen anybody that old. Her whole body jingled with jewellery as she moved, and her silky clothes shimmered where the light hit them.
‘Let’s have a look at your hand, boy.’
She smiled at him, and Doug forgot he was angry as he watched her wrinkles shiver with the smile. He put his hand on the table. The gypsy looked at it then looked at him with alarm in her eyes.
‘You are very important to the world. You must always be careful.’
Doug frowned up at her.
‘Will I be an engine driver?’
‘No, but you will live a happy life, and travel.’
She ushered Doug from the tent and watched as he and his mother walked away along the promenade.
Mihai watched in surprise as she removed the advertising sign outside the tent, her face deeply concerned.
‘That is the one we have been looking for. Guard him!’ She snapped before picking up her stick and tapping her way down the promenade.
Mihai wasn’t sure he believed the old bat, but she had always said she would meet ‘The Last Man’ with the capitals obvious in her voice,. The scrawny kid didn’t look much, but then he was young. Doubting himself, Mihai stepped into the tent and performed a protection spell.
August 1932 Greenbrough Cricket Ground.
Doug hitched up his school shorts and picked up his cricket bat. It was his first time playing for the school team, and he was nervous. Dusk was hovering in the sky, ready to put an end to the match. Mr. Dugdale was getting impatient. They were only ten runs behind and if they were to win the match before it got dark they would need to hurry.
There was a cheer from the opposing team’s supporters. Stevens was out. The only batsmen left were Doug and Jenkins. Doug started towards the door but was stopped as somebody knelt at his feet.
‘Your shoelace is undone’ the man muttered, bending to tie it. All Doug could see of the man was the top of his dark curly head.
‘We haven’t got time.’ Mr Dugdale fumed ‘Jenkins, you go on. Doug you’ll have to go last.’
Doug swallowed his disappointment wondering why he hadn’t noticed that the shoelace was undone before. He was looking down when there was a gasp of horror from outside. The bowler had tripped and the ball was out of control as it left his hand, hitting Jenkins on the head.
Three days later Jenkins died from the injury. Doug knew he owed his life to the man who had tied his shoelace, but apart from a glimpse of a moustache he never found out who he was.
May 1940 Arras, France.
‘Douglas, this way!’ Doug didn’t recognise the soldier who called to him.
‘I didn’t know we had any Gippos in our squad’ he thought, but obeyed instructions and turned to the right. He went down, hit by shrapnel as a bullet shot over his body. If he had been standing the bullet would have killed him. He looked round to thank his saviour, but he was nowhere in sight.
Recovering at the military hospital at Netley, Doug could hear the bombing of Southampton when the Germans started the Blitz. By then his wound was starting to heal, but he was never fit enough to return to the trenches, and spent the rest of the war in administration.
February 1967: Tasmania
‘Are you coming down for breakfast?’
‘What time is it?’ Doug asked groggily. Australian beer seemed to go down easier than the British stout he was used to. Consequently, Doug had drunk more and was paying the price.
Doug hastened to dress.
Bert and his wife had emigrated soon after the war, and although they kept in touch by phone this was the first time Doug had been able to afford to visit his friend. The house was huge by British standards and the scenery around Hobart was stunning.
‘Is it always this hot?’ Doug asked later, flapping his shirt.
‘Not always, this is exceptional even by Tasmanian summer standards.’ He winked. ‘Hotter than Blighty, eh?’
Doug ignored the comment, and settled by the pool with a bottle of cola.
‘We’ll go and get something stronger later. Daggo’s bar serves food, we can get lunch there.’
Doug nodded approval and sank back on the lounger.
By lunchtime walking in the heat was uncomfortable. It felt as if the sweat froze on their body as they stepped into the air-conditioned bar.
The barman was a swarthy man with a drooping moustache. Looking at him Doug was sure he had gypsy blood. On the bar was a radio.
‘Big fire in the forest. They reckon it’s coming close’ the barman reported.
‘Tasmanian firemen have lots of experience. They’ll stop it before it reaches town.’ Bert told Doug with confidence.
‘Shouldn’t be so sure, mate’ a voice called from across the room. This one sounds bad.
Bert poo-hooed him and he and Doug started in on some serious drinking.
Some hours, and a lot of beer, later the barman called for quiet.
He turned the radio up, and they heard the reporter reporting flames on the outskirts of the city.
‘Oh my God’ Bert’s wife cried. We had better go home. What if it reaches here?’
‘No ma’am’ the barman called. ‘You’ll be safer here, this building is mainly concrete. I’m guessing yours is wood?’
It wasn’t a particularly difficult guess – all the houses in the area were predominantly wood.
‘Yeah’ she conceded.
‘Stay here where it’s cool and out of any fireman’s way if the fire comes close.’ He raised his voice. ‘That goes for all of you. Food’s free from now on.’
Nobody left. Gloomily they listened as sirens came closer. Abruptly they were plunged into darkness. The barman was prepared, he had a torch to hand and within minutes the tables were lit with candles.
‘Sorry folks, it’ll have to be salad, tonight. But given the temperature, I’m sure you won’t mind.’
As the evening passed a sense of camaraderie sprung up between the trapped group, and a few packs of cards and an ancient set of dominoes in a battered box appeared from a back room. They all hushed when two exhausted looking firemen came into the bar and ordered all of them to stay in the bar.
By morning little was left of the suburb, all Doug could do was hug the devastated couple, whose home was now a ruin. Luckily he had his passport and his wallet with him when they visited the bar so he joined a large queue of people at the airport and headed for home.
March 1987 Zeebrugge
Doug was enjoying retirement; it allowed him to take his holidays outside the school holidays, when travel was cheaper, and more congenial to a bachelor past his prime. He had spent February touring around France. The weather wasn’t always good but it didn’t matter to him, he just enjoyed travelling. He felt his luck was in for some reason. A hotel he was staying in had been damaged by an uncontrolled lorry ten minutes after he left. He had intended to visit a small town on the Italian border, but slept in and decided to give it a miss, only to find it had been hit by an avalanche the same afternoon.
He was nearly home now. The ferry pulled away from the quay and he decided to brave the cold on deck for a while to wake himself up after the long drive. He felt the ship tilt, and he heard screams as he was catapulted into the water seconds later. He never knew how long he was in the water before he felt somebody grab his coat from behind and hold him up, allowing him to breathe. The whole scene was chaos. People were bobbing on the water shouting. Minutes later the ship quickly sank so that it was lying on its side on bottom of the harbour.
‘S’okay. I’ve got you’ his rescuer called out. Doug was pulled towards the shore, and helped into a lifeboat.
Doug got a brief look at the man as he climbed the ladder to safety. He was a young man with a Romany look about him. His face looked familiar to Doug, but he couldn’t think where he had seen him before.
‘Come on. There are others behind you waiting to get on.’ The voice was gruff, and he was pulled up onto the boat by a shocked looking sailor.
September 2001: Washington.
‘Sorry sir, that man bought the last ticket.’
Doug was annoyed. He had planned to go to New York by train for a bit more sightseeing, instead he was going to have to stay another day in Washington. He debated running after the swarthy looking man and asking if they could swap tickets, but that wasn’t the English way.
During the week he had spent in Washington DC Doug had looked round the White House, the Capitol building, Arlington cemetery and a host of monuments, including the delightfully informal Albert Einstein monument.
Doug went back to the hotel and booked a room for another night. On his way up to the room he picked up a sheaf of tourism leaflets.
By the morning he had narrowed it down to the zoo or the Pentagon. Over a pancake breakfast he concluded that zoos were much the same wherever you went so the Pentagon it was.
It was too late to book a tour, so Doug decided to just walk around the outside of the building, taking an early taxi to beat the rush hour. He paused at nine o’clock, realising that the streets were, surprisingly, close to empty. He hadn’t been aware of how vast the building was; by half past nine he was feeling his age and stopped for a cup of coffee. He would have preferred a tea, but had already discovered that what Americans called tea wasn’t what Doug called tea.
He was not a fan of the new fad of having large televisions in bars and cafés, but gasps from other patrons made him look up. Like them he started to watch in horror as the events of 7/11 unfolded. A few looked up when there was a loud bang and crunching noise in the distance, but then turned back to view events on the screen. It was some time later they discovered the Pentagon had been hit too.
December 2020, Bournemouth, England
‘How’re you doing, grandpa?’
‘I am NOT your grandpa.’ Doug pouted, knowing it would not help. Care worker Mihai would call him ‘grandpa’ until he died however much Doug protested.
‘I’m dying and you know it. Now leave me in peace.’
Doug would be one hundred tomorrow, if he survived the night. He had been in the care home for just over a year, and knew that he needed their medical help, but Doug was used to his independence and felt that he was now old enough to allow himself to become grumpy. He resented needing help to do something as simple as breathing.
Mihai reached to put a breathing mask back on Doug’s face, as he saw the old man struggling to breathe again.
Doug looked at him with a recognition that hadn’t been there before.
‘I know you. Why haven’t you got old like me?’ He wheezed. ‘Every time I was in danger you were there. Are you my guardian angel?’
His voice faded as he spoke. Mihai waited a few minutes.
‘No, Douglas’ Mihai said to himself, closing the dead man’s eyes. ‘I’m just trying to save the world.’
The Earth started to shake.
Mihai had done his best, knowing that the world ended when Doug did, but even his magic could not defeat old age.
‘You were right, Ma’ he conceded taking his last breath before the world exploded