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U3A Writing: 'Number 22'

Laurel Davis tells a story which is sad, satisfying and completely believable.

I close the door quietly and go back into the room. I'm not sure what to do next. I watch some people and follow them as they go through another door. It leads outside. I can feel the warm sun on my head as I walk along the paths, until I'm onto the street. I don't know which way to go but turn left and start looking for No. 22. I need to go home for my hat. The sun's hot.

22 Sycamore Street is where I live with my mother and father and my two brothers, Brian and Jack. There's a small park over the road and we play there most of the time. A large mulberry tree spreads its shade on a hot day and it's or favourite place. We decided once to become blood brothers with the twins from next door. After nicking our fingers with Jack's pocketknife that our Uncle Les had given him, we stood in a circle and held hands, swearing to be friends forever. We sucked the blood from the cuts and carved our initials and the date, into the trunk.

We climb the tree to our secret place in the darkness of the branches. There's just us against the rest of the world. At other times when the fruit is ripe we sit there and gorge ourselves until our faces and hands are covered with the purple juice.

**

'Has any one seen Ted?' said the sister in charge of the ward.
'He was here an hour ago, walking up and down opening and closing some of the doors.'

'Well he's gone and isn't outside.'

'He must be, but he won't get far. It's a hot day.'

'I'll have to report him missing.' She picked up the phone.

There's the butcher's shop. That's where Mrs. Gent, from next door, sends me every Saturday morning. She tears a bit of paper from an old exercise book, trims the ragged edges with scissors and writes a note. 'A piece of rolled brisket nicely mixed and some bones with plenty of meat on them for the dog.' I asked my mother once what 'nicely mixed' meant. She said that Mrs Gent liked her meat with the fat evenly mixed through the roll.

After the butcher I have to go to the Herbert Adams cake shop and wait my turn at the counter. Sometimes they just don't see kids and I'd be there a long time. They sell cake in blocks. There's a choice of orange, rainbow, chocolate or fruitcake. Mrs. Gent gives me a second note for 1 1/2 pounds of orange cake, with the icing intact, please.'

The girl behind the counter tells me not to carry the cake upside down. 'The icing will stick to the bag,' she says.

I take the meat and cake home in Mrs. Gent's basket. It's heavy and I change arms but my shoulders still ache. It's worth it when she gives me threepence, although one awful day she only gave me an apple. Sometimes I spend the threepence but mostly I put it in the old tobacco tin under my bed.

**

'That old fellow seems lost. He keeps peering at the numbers on the houses as he passes. Every now and again he looks around bewildered. It's a hot day for an old bloke like that to be out. Look, his face is like a strawberry.'

'Hey, Mister! You look a bit lost.'

'I have to go home and get my hat. I'm looking for 22.'

'This is the three hundred block. Just keep going but take it easy. That sun has a kick in it.'

**

My mother doesn't like me talking to strangers, and she'll be angry that I've forgotten my hat. I'm thirsty but when I get home she'll give me some lemon syrup. Mum makes it herself. She always says she won't make any more because we kids drink it all too quickly and in no time there isn't any left. But she does make it again. She makes ginger beer and hop beer too. I like the ginger beer. The little bubbles burst and tickle my tongue and the beer goes down my throat leaving a nice taste in my mouth.

Mum puts the hop beer on the top shelf for Dad, although I think he prefers the stuff he gets from the Provincial Hotel. We kids have to collect a few bottles for Mum's beer, so when we go looking for them to sell to the bottle-o's for a bit of pocket money, we keep the best for her. She ties the corks on but the yeast goes on working and they often burst out. The beer pours out and spills over the shelf. If it reaches the floor the dog licks it up, wagging his tail.

It's scary if the corks pop out during the night. They sound like my Uncle Les's gun, which he uses to kill rabbits. He took me with him once. We drove in his old car out into the country. He had three ferrets, which bite if you're not careful. He sent them down the burrows and they chased the rabbits out and while I looked away, my uncle killed them. We went home with twenty four rabbits hanging from a rack at the back of the car.

Because they were dead their heads and ears and white tails flopped and danced all the way. My uncle asked if I'd like to help skin and clean the rabbits, but I said 'No.' When he bought the gun Mum wouldn't let me go again. She said it was too dangerous.

**

'They've searched the grounds. There's no sign of him. They've looked all over the hospital as well.'

'He must've gone through the gate. He's never done that before.'

'Well, it would be pretty easy. I'd better notify his family.'

'Look, he'll soon be found. He won't get far. He never goes anywhere without his hat. Give us a little more time to find him.'

**

I've just gone by the school. I like the old brick building. I've been attending since third grade. I can remember the day I started. We'd just moved from the country because Dad got a new job. The school year had started. Mum had a new baby so she asked the kids next door, (not the Gents, who lived on the other side), to take me. I didn't know them so I trailed behind with my school bag slung over my shoulder.

'Put it on properly, over both shoulders,' my mother would say, 'or you'll end up with a crooked spine.'

We got to school and one of the kids said. 'Wait here, we've got sixpence to spend at the shop. We'll give you a lolly when we get back.' I stayed there, not moving an inch, and waited. But the bell went before they got back. If you're late you get the cuts, so I wasn't a priority. I stood there and bawled. A teacher came to my rescue. At playtime I tried to go home. I went to the gate and looked along the street but didn't know the way. A bigger kid said I'd get into trouble if I went outside the schoolyard so I thought better of it.

**

'Someone should have seen him by now. We've reported him missing and I've phoned his family.'

'What did they say?'

'His son said he was always wandering off. That's why they couldn't manage him. He's on his way in and should be here in half an hour.'

**

I still can't find 22, but when I get home and have a drink and get my hat, Mrs. Gent might let me take her dog for a walk. She hasn't got any kids so she asks me. We had a dog once. Well actually he was my dog and I called him Bobby. We'd run in the park until we fell in a heap on the
ground; Bobby on his back, legs in the air, with his pink and brown belly flopping to one side. He was just a little dog with a coat the colour of ripened wheat.

As Bobby grew old and almost deaf, he liked to sleep in the summer-dried grass and dream, ears twitching at imaginary flies. My father drove his van onto the nature strip under the old elm tree. He didn't see the dog. He and Mum buried him in the soft dirt of the wood shed and told us he died of old age.

The sun is burning my head. I must be nearly there. I'm looking for Mr. Gilpin's house. It's over the road from where we live. I always cross over rather than go past his place. He's a teacher at school. The kids hate him and call him Gangster Gilpin and I'm a bit scared of him. He hits his own kids and Mum says 'You never know what goes on in that house.'

I've found it! Number 22. It's on the gate in big black letters. I'll go round the back. Mum will be in the kitchen. The door is open so I walk in. There are two ladies sitting at the table. One is cutting bread and the other is holding a teacup up to her mouth.

'Where's Mum?' I say.

The fat one puts the bread knife down and the one with the teacup turns around quickly. The tea spills and leaves brown spots over the pink tablecloth. The stains look like Bobby's belly.

'Where did you come from?' she says.

'I live here at 22 Sycamore Street and I'm looking for Mum so I can get my hat and have some lemon syrup.'

The younger one, who had the teacup, looks at the fat one and then at me. 'This is 22 but its not Sycamore Street.'

The fat one takes my arm and leads me to the table. She nudges the other one and says 'You sit down here. We haven't any lemon syrup but there's lemonade and I'll make you a cup of tea. Have a rest and we'll see if we can find your home for you. Is it alright if I look in your pockets?'

I nod and watch as she takes out a couple of pieces of screwed up paper from one pocket and a handkerchief from another. In my shirt pocket she finds a card. 'Your name is Ted,' she says. She hands me a cup of tea and a sandwich with some meat in it and said I wasn't to worry. They would look after me until someone came to pick me up. The younger one is talking on the phone.

**

'We've just had a call. An old man has just walked into the kitchen of a house in Anderson Street. A woman and her sister who lives there were having their lunch and he just appeared. The sister used to work here and guessed he belonged to us. It would have to be Ted. He's hot, thirsty and asking for his hat'

**

I finish my tea and sandwich and drink two glasses of lemonade. It isn't long before a man who says he's my son, comes to collect me. 'Where's Mum?' I say. He puts his arm round me and says, 'Come on. Let's get you home.'

They take me by the hand and walk with me to a bed. I can't believe my eyes. I really am home. There's a little cupboard beside the bed and on top of it beside the water jug, is a photo of me with my Mum. Right next to it is my hat. But what really makes me happy is the number above my bed. In big red letters it says '22'.

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