“Monday?” Jimmy Vine said uncertainly, pointing at the pink bead.
“That’s right Jimmy. Well done!” Melissa Powers exclaimed. She patted the large lad on the back by way of encouragement.
“Now, Jimmy. Which one is Thursday?” she asked.
Jimmy’s usually open grinning face screwed itself into a fierce expression of concentration. It was almost painful to watch at times.
In front of Jimmy was a simple wooden frame constructed by Bernard Penney at Louisa’s request. On the single thin metal bar were seven different coloured beads, to represent the seven days of the week. Louisa had theorised that if Jimmy could learn to associate a particular colour with a particular day of the week it would represent a large step forward in his learning. So far, in more than two weeks of practice Jimmy had fixed only one day in his mind. The black bead represented Sunday and that meant going to church.
“I sing in church, I do!” he’d told Louisa when he had shown her that he knew what the black bead represented.
“That’s wonderful, Jimmy. How did you learn the words to all those songs?” she asked, curious.
“I don’t know no words, but I sing anyway, like this!” he said and immediately began to belt out an approximation of the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Louisa had to shout quite loudly to get him to stop.
“I’m a good singer, Miss Louise.” he said with a big grin. He had called Louisa ‘Miss Louise’ from the day they had met. No matter how many times he was corrected he still called her it.
Pondering the frame in front of him, eyes unblinking, Jimmy pointed to the red bead.
“Thursday!” he said confidently.
“Sorry, Jimmy, red is for Friday. Thursday is the green bead, right next to it.” Melissa said kindly.
“Oh…,POOH!” Jimmy yelped, his face a mask of utter misery. Louisa and Melissa looked at one another. Before they could stop themselves both women burst out laughing.
Jimmy Vine looked at the two giggling women then joined his loud braying laughter to theirs.
“James Vine, you’ll be the death of me, you really will!” Melissa Powers giggled as her hysteria abated.
“Oh, no, Miss Melissa. I won’t never hurt you!” Jimmy said urgently, his demeanour suddenly agitated and panicky. “No Miss, Jimmy Vine won’t never hurt you. Promise.”
“Oh, Jimmy, I know that, sweetie. It’s just a silly old saying. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m sorry for upsetting you.” Melissa said in a gentle and even tone.
Louisa watched with interest as Melissa Powers continued to talk to the overgrown boy in the same level, even tone. She saw the tension leave the boy’s shoulders and the stiffness of his posture relax.
“Jimmy read!” Jimmy announced happily.
“Yes, Jimmy. We’ll read.” Melissa agreed after a quick glance at Louisa to let her know that all was well.
James ‘Jimmy’ Vine’s parentage was never going to lend itself to an easy future. Mother and father were both too fond of cheap alcohol than was good for them or the health of the unplanned unborn child Beryl Vine was carrying. Neither was in the top echelon of the I.Q. grades. Indeed, Jimmy’s father barely registered above ‘imbecile’. The complications at his birth that led to his feeble-mindedness had been too much for his father to cope with on top of becoming a parent in the first place. He had departed the family home within days of his child’s birth, never to be seen again.
Beryl Vine loved her son, in her own way, but loved her frequent nips of gin that much more than her maternal responsibilities. Consequently the poor helpless child was more often than not left to fend for himself when his mother’s trips to the gin bottle were frequent enough to render her semi or fully unconscious for large parts of the day. Regrettably for the child, many of Beryl Vine’s neighbours were similarly enamoured of the gin bottle and were more often than not in any fit state to intercede on behalf of the crying, hungry and attention-starved child.
Pure chance led to Jimmy being assessed as educationally subnormal when a visiting District Nurse heard him crying one day and knocked on Beryl Vine’s door and asked to see him. Barely conscious, let alone able to comprehend what was being said to her, Beryl Vine listened to the District Nurse tell her that her son needed to be sent to a ‘special school’ for children like him, news that shocked the drunk woman into comprehension for the first time in weeks.
“My kid ain’t goin’ no-where!”” she told the Nurse, belligerently.
“It will be for the best, Mrs. Vine” the Nurse had said. “He will get very special care and attention.”
“NO! You ain’t takin’ my boy ‘way from me!” Beryl Vine had screamed and physically ushered the District Nurse out of her shabby home.
Although the Nurse reported her findings to her superiors no follow-up visits or enquiries were made and Jimmy Vine started ‘normal’ school at the age of five along with many of the other neighbourhood kids. Unlike most of them, though, Jimmy suffered ten years of constant teasing, bullying and abuse at the hands of certain teachers and peers alike. He left the education system barely any further along educationally than the day he joined it.
Unemployable and illiterate Jimmy spent his days lounging around the depressing, unclean house listening to the wireless. His mother, Beryl, at her wits end as to what to do with her son, took refuge in the gin bottle most days.
Louisa’s nose wrinkled in disgust at the vile smell of rotten food that wafted through the open door of Beryl Vine’s home.
“This is where that poor boy was brought up?” she asked her companion, the same District Nurse who had tried to help the infant Jimmy Vine.
“I am very much afraid so.” the Nurse replied.
“Dear God!” Louisa exclaimed.
The late and little-lamented Beryl Vine had died in her sleep three days previously, leaving her son homeless and helpless. Too old to be taken care of by the welfare state and at the mercy of a heartless landlord Jimmy Vine had been given just twenty-four hours to clean then vacate the only home he had ever known.. It was only when he arrived at the Late Learners group did his plight become known outside of his home. Efforts to intercede on his behalf by Melissa Powers and others had been completely ignored by the unscrupulous and uncaring landlord.
“I ain’t runnin’ no bleedin’ charity for no morons, am I?” he sneered derisively at Melissa Powers, his eyes leering openly at the attractive mother of three. “’Sides, I got a couple o’ young ‘uns what wanna be movin’ in on account of ‘er bein’ in the family way, like.” he added with a wink and a stained-teeth grin at Melissa.
“Thank you for your time, and your heart-warming display of compassion. I’ll bid you good day” Melissa said archly, the sarcasm of her words completely lost on the obnoxious landlord whose name she did not catch. Not that it mattered; she shuddered, feeling slightly unclean from the manner in which he had stared at her. Melissa had no intention of ever even thinking of the vile creature again, let alone engaging him in conversation.
None of which was of any help to Jimmy Vine, of course.
It was a conversation with Louisa Calleray that had offered a solution.
“I know he has learning problems,” Louisa had said, “but he can understand simple basic instruction, can he not?”
“Oh, yes. If you ask him to, say, take an object from A and place it at B, he will do that all day long, over and over, until you tell him to stop” Melissa told Louisa. “He has an overwhelming desire to help and to please.”
“I see.” Louis said absently, her face a mask of concentration.
“My problem is,” she said slowly after a few moments of thought, “that I have assured every woman that comes into the Connolly House project that no man would ever be allowed on the premises”.
“If I may be permitted to speak freely, Louisa?” Melissa asked.
“Of course, my dear…, although I think I know what you are about to say.” Louisa said with a smile.
“Well, yes. I mean, yes, physically Jimmy is undoubtedly a man. There is no arguing against that.” Melissa said carefully.
“No, there is not.” Louisa agreed.
“But his mind… Really, he is about as much harm as an infant child. I cannot for the life of me imagine any of the women who use the Project having a single objection to having Jimmy around to help.”
“My thoughts exactly, although I have to be sensitive to the needs of our most vulnerable ladies, Melissa.”
“Undoubtedly. I know that Jimmy would be absolutely horrified if he thought he was the cause of any distress to anybody, let alone a frightened woman.”
“My heart is saying ‘we’ll manage’ but my head is saying ‘stick to the principles you laid down when you set-up the Connolly House Project’. I am genuinely conflicted, Melissa, I truly am.”
“I understand. Honestly I do. Without wishing to burden you any further, Louisa, I will only add that we cannot in all good conscience leave the poor boy to fend for himself. Frankly, apart from it being an entirely unchristian way to behave, Jimmy would not survive more than a day or two on London’s streets by himself!”
The look Louisa gave Melissa was not one of approbation, but more of resignation.
“I have those thoughts in my head, too, and they concern me greatly. The sad fact is, whether we like it or not, we – you and I – have become unwittingly responsible for this manchild. It is an onerous responsibility that does not sit easily with me if I am to be completely honest with you.”
“As a mother my heart goes out to Jimmy, it really does.” Melissa said with feeling. “All of my maternal instincts call out to me to protect him. They are as strong as they are towards my own children, perhaps a little more so in some respects because Jimmy Vine is so utterly helpless.”
“And it is that single fact that is giving me such cause for concern.” admitted Louisa. “If I refuse him space at any one of the Connolly House properties could I live with myself: would my conscience give me peace and how on Earth would I cope if something untoward or dreadful should happen to the boy?”
There was no reply Melissa could make to assuage Louisa’s anguish.
“Of course, there is only one thing I can do. We both know it, don’t we?” Louisa said brightly, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “It was never in doubt really.”
Melissa Powers grinned.
“Well, no, I guess not. Congratulations, you have just become a mother!” she joked.
“Oh, hey, let’s not go that far!” Louisa laughed. “Come on, let’s go tell my new house guest he has a new home.”
To be continued...