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A Shout From The Attic: Erkie

Ronnie Bray tells of a fellow schoolboy who was cheerful in the face of great troubles.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's on-going autobiography please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

At seven years of age, I graduated from Infants to the big school. Miss Walker who was young, tall, and beautiful taught standard one. Apart from that, I remember only one thing that took place in the year I was in her class. We had been discussing the story of Moses in the bulrushes. Miss Walker asked why his mother had put the babe into the ark. The answer was supplied by a boy we knew as Erkie.

“Cos she was fed up,” he said.

Erkie was a boy with a sense of humour that helped him get through the years he spent with and without his mother, who was sometimes a patient at Storthes Hall Mental Hospital. He used to make light of it, but his deprivation must have been consciously and deeply felt in his private world of pain. I hope he found his happiness.

I suppose that Erkie started school the same day that I did, and probably left at the same time or a few months later. How he got the name Erkie I have no idea, but it just seemed to fit his cheerful smile and disposition.

Yet, Erkie’s pathological cheerfulness hid a dark pool of what must have been sadness for the boy. Sometimes he would talk about his mother who was incarcerated in Storthes Hall Hospital and laughingly tell about some of the things she had done, such as put cobs of coal in the front window to try to sell them.

In more enlightened societies this kind of harmless eccentricity, whatever its cause, would be smiled upon benignly, but Western society likes to isolate and keep from sight those with sufficient creativity to dare to be different, whether they could help it or not, and so his mother was taken away one day and put amongst gaunt and tense strangers in the big house up the hill to be hidden and forgotten.

It does credit to Erkie’s school fellows that they did not rag him about his dread secret, but rather held it carefully and only showed interest in it when he raised the subject, which he did with rather more cheerfulness than was comfortable for him. Of course, we were not able to feel the hurt and sense of abandonment he felt inside, and I do not recall that the idea that he might be hurt by it ever entered my mind, and no one else spoke of it.

Perhaps Erkie cried himself to sleep at night, alone in his room with his lonely father sitting downstairs thinking about life and its responsibilities and its twists of fate and, perhaps, what had happened to the girl he had taken as his bride in happier days before the obfuscatory haze came to settle inside her mind where the whole world changed violently into something unrecognisable and terrifying without warning and no one could understand it, least of all herself.

I have not seen Erkie since December 1949 when I left that school, nor have I had any news of him or how his life has been, or whether the haze that claimed his mother came to visit him to clothe him in its icy fogginess, robbing him of life as it did his mother, and if there happened to be another young Erkie who wept in his lonely bed for his seemingly absent, detached, and disengaged father.

And I do not understand why I could not have remembered before it was too late for me to do anything about it, even if it was only to hold the hand of a man I had known and liked as a boy or, if life had given him a bye on his mother’s disability, to have talked about old times and been a friend when our pathways crossed in our later years, which they never did.

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