Mr H takes his tea with two sugars and soya milk, because he mistakes it for UHT. It takes me less than the two allotted hours to clean his neat, overly warm flat, and so for the last half hour I make the tea and we sit and talk about things.
‘That’s you done,’ he’ll say at half eleven, ‘get the kettle on.’ Which I do.
Mr H is a war hero, he was lost behind enemy lines in 1944 and joined the French resistance for a week or so, just because no one else would have him, as he puts it.
‘Silly, really,’ he says. ‘All I remember was us hiding in a ditch until they could get someone else to take us off their hands, wet socks and all. They want to give me the legion of honour now, goodness knows how they found me. Don’t think I’ll bother.’
Mr H worked for Brent county council.
‘They asked me if I wanted to do the training, thee years in Cambridge, social worker. I asked if I could come back to Brent after, like, but they said no chance, couldn’t be sure, might get sent anywhere. I said no thanks, I’ll stay as I am.’
He once drove a hundred miles to Bristol.
‘Sunday morning it was, I’d spoken to the mum,’ he says without back story – who needs back story anyway? ‘I’d spoken to the mum as it was Sunday morning and I knew she’d be upset. She was a bit tearful, like, so I said to my wife, she was alive then you understand, said I’d just go and get them. Two boys they were.’
They were in a children’s home in Bristol and their Mum was in Brent.
‘She’d had to give them up, like, couldn’t cope, couldn’t feed them, but she was at home, Sunday morning an’ I knew she’d be upset, so I rang and she was in tears. So I said to my wife, I’ll go an’ get them. Soft really I was, but we had fun there, you know?’ As he tells me this he laughs, but his eye are rimmed with tears at the thought of it – two boys given up, sent miles from home and their mother, doing what she thought was best by them even though it meant they were far away and she was left crying on a Sunday morning, until the phone rang.
‘Driving back with them, though, I thought they wouldn’t have no supper, seeing as it was a Sunday, so I stopped off at home, see what was in the fridge. My wife was out so I took a couple of pork chops with me, so as they’d have something. The mum give them a hug when I dropped them off, took the chops, said thank-you,’ though I imagine she’d said more, Mr H, driving all that way to fetch her boys. I don’t know if they stayed with their mum, if that was it, or whether someone, maybe even Mr H himself, had to drive them back again, I don’t ask and he doesn’t say. From they way he talks though, I have the feeling that he didn’t take them home, that he found a way for them to stay together.
‘Thing was though, when I got back home my wife says -was that you, taking those pork chops? I know, I said, but what you gonna do, poor little kiddies, their mum wouldn’t have had nothing in for them.’
‘It’s not that, you idot, my wife says, you took them pork chops. You do remember they’re Jewish?’
Bloody hell, I thought, what a bloody idiot!’
I smile, he laughs, blinking the tears away, going on to tell me again about the parking ticket he got because his blue badge had run out. I went home and I thought of the two little boys, the two little Jewish boys, and wondered how their world was such that their mum, who clearly loved them, had to let them go. I can’t imagine her pain, I can’t imagine the nights she spent trying not to make the decision, and the time she must have told Mr H what she felt had to do, and Mr H, part of the system and not wanting to be, driving them away, and Mr H driving them back again, still not part of the system.
‘Soft I was, bloody idiot.’
No you weren’t, Mr H, no you weren’t.