I had no idea who he was, to me he was just a man with a dent in his nose. He was on the other side of the market square. A crowd was gathering and he soon disappeared in it. Men wore trench coats or military uniforms, women had dug out floral hats and white gloves. Their shadows lay dark and sharp-edged. Above us all, a large cumulus floated in azure sky. A smaller cloud lay close by it, like a calf following its mother. For one moment I wondered how that man's nose had been broken, then I forgot him. Princess Elizabeth would soon be here and I'd have to take some photos of her. The trouble was, the possie of photographers from bigger magazines would monopolise her. How could I get a decent shot with them in my way?
We had gathered in a square in front of our Town Hall, and there were trees planted around it. I squeezed past onlookers and reached a mountain ash. I glimpsed Dented Nose and he was looking my way, waving frantically. Since I'd never met him, I assumed he was waving at someone else in the crush. There were so many people between us we'd have struggled to meet anyway. I glanced up and down the tree, then swung myself into its branches. I wedged myself into a fork, pushed feathery leaves and sticky berries aside, and aimed my camera.
It wasn't long before the royal motorcade arrived, I began snapping away. My first pictures were of Rolls Royces arriving in the square. They were black and shiny like giant beetles. Shots from above showed how big the crowd was, better than any taken on the ground. The Princess got out and I photographed her. Then I scrambled down to earth. It wasn't easy to get close, but then the scrum broke up. Our visitor was meeting and greeting the public so the other journalists had to follow her. I got some decent shots of the Princess when that happened. My favourite shows her receiving a posy from a little girl; it graced the cover of our next edition.
Hours later, Her Highness departed. She gave us all one last wave, then got into a Rolls and was driven away. Rows of children cheering and waving flags lined her route. I shinned up another tree and photographed the scene, then scrambled down to square flagstones.
The throng began to thin out. That's when I noticed a little boy, about four or five years old, wandering about outside a Georgian inn. He was crying and signing for his mother. A young woman bent to talk to him, but soon it was obvious she couldn't understand him. I strode over to them, camera hanging from my neck, then squatted by the child. I was born deaf so I've always relied on signing.
"What's your name?" I signed.
"Charlie," he replied in the finger alphabet.
"That's a nice name. I'm Chad. Have you lost your Mummy?"
Charlie nodded, still weeping.
"Where did you see her last?"
I said "Charlie, I'm going to put you on my shoulders and then Mummy can see where you are, can't she."
I hoisted him up and looked around, past an ironmongers and a butcher's shop. I don't know how long we waited, but eventually a woman raced up to us signing Charlie's name. I asked him "is this your Mum?" he nodded and smiled broadly. Of course I set him down, and they hugged each other tight.
Then I noticed Dented Nose. This time I felt sure he was looking at me. He strode past a woman with a pram and an old man with a stick. Next he realised someone was with me, turned and walked away. Charlie's Mum signed her thanks and so distracted me from Dented Nose. I was glad she did, as something about that man unsettled me.
I returned to the office and developed my photos. The editor congratulated me and selected the best for publication. Then I said goodnight and went home. Smells of bacon greeted me there.
As we ate I told Mum about my day. (Dad was away on business). I mentioned the man with a broken nose in passing, just as she raised a fork to her mouth. Mum's hand froze and her cheeks turned pale. I laid my fork on a chintz plate and signed "what's wrong?"
"Chad, tell me exactly what he looked like," she ordered. I did and then saw fear in her eyes. "Its Mr Griffin," she signed.
"Mum, I don't understand. Who is Mr Griffin? Why are you so frightened of him?"
"He tried to take you away when you were little," she replied.
I felt shocked, and bewildered too. An image formed in my mind, and it was a smelly old man with holes in his coat and a bottle of gin in one hand. Why couldn't I remember being chased by someone like that? Then I remembered Dented Nose and he didn't look much like the tramp I'd imagined. I reached across the white table cloth and squeezed Mum's hand. Then I signed "tell me what happened."
"When you were little, the council had a policy of locking up children who were deaf or disabled," Mum explained. "They did it so the disabled would never get married and have any children of their own. Mr Griffin worked for the council and it was his job to take children away. When your Dad and I found out, we made plans to move house. Where we live now, the council counted deafness as a purely physical disability, so they weren't as hard on the deaf as on some, but Griffin... oh, he thought deaf and retarded were the same thing.
One morning, before we'd finished arranging to move, I was hanging out washing and I saw Mr Griffin coming down our street! You could tell who it was from his broken nose. I'd never been so frightened. You were at a friend's house but he'd have waited for you, sure as eggs is eggs. I ran inside, tried to think, and then had an idea. I reached into the cupboard under the sink, took some bleach out and dabbed it on my arms. It hurt but I didn't care. Then I left the house and met Mr Griffin at our garden gate. He asked 'where are you going Mrs Parry?' I said 'to see the doctor.' When he saw red marks on my arms he pulled back."
"He thought you had measles or some other illness," I signed.
"Thankfully yes," Mum replied. "It put him off coming back until we were out of his jurisdiction."
I rose from my dark brown chair, threw my arms around Mum and held her tight, feeling her spine and shoulder blades under my palms. She kissed me on a cheek and her lips felt dry. A floor lamp stood behind us like a sentry on guard.
I let go and signed "thank you so much for tricking him. Er, how did his nose get broken?"
"I've heard that a father punched him when he tried to take another child. It didn't do any good, the father went to prison for assault and Griffin took the little man anyway."
I thought of Charlie's Mum and how worried she was, after only a brief separation. What must it be like to lose your child for good? I could hardly begin to imagine it. If Mr Griffin dared to approach me again... no, I musn't hit him or it could be me going to jail. When it comes to fighting I'm not a complete novice, I got into a few punch ups at school, but then again I'm out of practice.
I assumed that Griffin had found me by seeing my name in The Deaf Standard, but another question was in my mind. I asked Mum "why has he come back now?"
"I don't know," she replied, signs reflecting in the fruit bowl, "but if you see him again, don't let him anywhere near you."
"I won't." We hugged each other again and her hair ticked my neck. Both of us wished that Dad was at home.
That night I lay awake in bed. Aromas of lavender drifted in from Mum's room. People are talking about building this brave new world; you read and sign 'modern' over and over again. Yet we can still do terrible things - even in Britain. I was little in the 1920s, when people were turning their backs on the Victorian age. People then thought how modern they were, yet they hand't changed human nature, hadn't got rid of all the old prejudices. I held my pillow and imagined it was Dad's shoulder.
Next day I set off for work as usual. Just as I was leaving, Mum warned me to stay alert. There have been times when I've been lost in thought, usually about my next assignment, and so missed something important. I promised her I'd stay awake, then set off. Semis with small front gardens lined my route. Then came red brick terraces and shops. Three boys walked by, heading for school. I was watching out for Griffin but I can't see through walls.
I turned a corner and he was right in front of me, leaning on a lamp post. He looked haggard. I stopped in my tracks, stiff as a victim of Medusa, then turned to run. A group of women blocked my path, they were walking to work in a nearby factory. Mr Griffin stepped in front of me and held up a sheet of paper. I read the words on it with growing disbelief; I never expected him to say that.
Griffin had written"'can you forgive me?"
I carry a notepad so I can communicate with none-signers, and to take notes on at work. I took it from a pocket, then scrawled "why should I?" on white paper.
As I handed it over we were reflected in a wool shop's window
Griffin began writing on the reverse of his paper. I glanced around anxiously, tempted to run before he could finish. Was this some kind of trap? I'm twenty-six, surely he wouldn't try to grab me now. Or would he? Did he have an accomplice lurking nearby? I clenched both fists and prepared to bolt.
Mr Griffin handed over his paper. This is what he'd written.
"The Nazis made eugenics one of their policies and my eldest son is dead because of them. He was killed in Normandy in 1944. Don't stone your heart against me. How can I go on believing what I did before the war?"
I finished reading and looked Mr Griffin in the eye. He seemed almost as fragile as little Charlie without his mother. I started to feel sorry for Griffin, then remembered those families that he succeeded in breaking up. As its owner opened up the wool shop, I wrote this in reply.
"If it was only me and my family I might forgive you, Mr Griffin, but it isn't is it. You took other children away and I don't know when - or even if - they were reunited with their parents. Even if they were, they wouldn't have hindsight when you seized them. Its not for me to forgive on behalf of all of us."
As he read that statement Griffin shook his head and his fingers trembled. I lipread him saying "no, no!" Should I relent? What do I know about loosing a son? I've got no children. Sweat moistened my forehead and I clenched my teeth. Then Charlie's mother ran into my memory, I imagined Griffin's victims feeling as she had, and my resolve hardened.
I put the notepad back in my pocket. I waved goodbye and hurried away from Mr Griffin, past a chemists and a familiar letterbox. Two pigeons took flight to avoid me, like feathered opals. Feeling one last surge of doubt I looked back, too late. Griffin was nowhere in sight and there was no telling where he had gone.