John Donaldson photo Paddy Summerfield

John was a brave and remarkable man...there is real vision in his poems

      - Kathleen Raine


Forever Endeavour - Extracts

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Hard times

The light from the gas lamps made crazy diamond patterns through the tears that were squeezing out of Jons eyes as he peered down the darkening street for his mother. The small red-headed three year old sat on the front step of the terraced house which he knew and loved. The lights from the upstairs rooms of the rows of houses lining the steep hill flickered out one by one. Thin cats prowled looking for scraps. Jon and his half-witted elder sister Amy should have been in charge of Grandma, but Grandma sat in the dark kitchen in her rocking chair. Grandma, kindly but deaf, was lost in her own world of old age and memories. In spite of the deafness, young Jon loved Grandma, better than five-year old Amy, better than Mam, his mother Maisie. The shawl covered Grandma was a symbol of safety and security, Jon never saw her move out of her chair for she never went to bed, just slept where she was. A wrinkled hand would ease itself out of the black clothing to grasp a cup of tea or find a tiny handkerchief which she kept in a small purse. Maisie was out of the house so much and Amy was only a girl, a scraggy girl who whined and cried.

The Newcastle long summer evening had faded away. The tired smoke from the miners cottages drifted unenthusiastically as the fires were dampened for the night. Cold and hungry Jon drew patterns in the dust with his bare toes. He lifted his head brushing away the tears for he heard laughter and familiar voices. He saw figures at the bottom of the hill, Maisie, her friend Gertie who was dragging Amy by the hand, and a man.

Jon and Amy scuttled quick up the stairs and flung themselves at the far side of the very large double bed, which filled most of the room. There was only one bedroom in the house, and in this room there was only space for the bed, a chest of drawers and two straight backed chairs. Behind the door was the bucket, for communal use at night times. The toilet was outside and at the bottom of the garden. On a hook by the window was Maisies fur coat, a legacy of previous years, a symbol of her other life. This fur coat was her passport to further customers who were after her sexual offerings.

Amy and Jon, head to toe, lay rigid as near to the edge of the bed as possible. Both pretended to sleep when they heard giggles and stumping up the stairs. Then the two bodies came bounding on the bed, there were heaves, grunts and bumps, and when Jon peeped through his eyelids all he could see was the man's flushed and dribbling face just inches from his own. Maisie seemed to have disappeared beneath him. Hungry and cold Jon fell into an uneasy sleep, Amy snored gently. The sound of jets of fluid cascading into the tin bucket woke him up. It was Daddo using the bucket. He peeped through his lids only to glimpse his mothers blackness between her legs as she took her turn. Immediately there was more heaving, grunting and bumping and a huge sigh. Unconcerned Jon slipped into dreamland once more.

. . . . . . . .

To the Orphanage

Maisie still stared out of the window, as Jon was led kicking and screaming out of the house. Grandma let out a wail. Amy whimpered. Holding the parcel that Grandma had been resting on her knee the man pulled Jon into the back of the car, and told the driver to move off. Jon looked at his home through smudged eyes for the last time. He beat his bare feet on the floor boards and sobbed and sobbed till the car stopped. Jon had known hardship and poverty in his home but that he was attuned to. He loved his independence, his Mrs Gummer, and in a strange accepting way all of his family. That he had been hungry and cold never mattered. He was familiar with every nook and cranny in the house, and with every street and shop in the neighbourhood.

When the car swept up a large gravelled drive, interest in his situation stopped the flow of tears. They had driven through Whitby and climbed the steep hill behind the little port. The car stopped before the front door of a grey stoned building with two stories. The roof was castellated, and a strong green vine wound its way passed the windows to disappear near the chimneys. The house had a lovely view across the valley, which lay beyond great lawns cut smooth with posts and nets stuck here and there. Jon was to discover it was the sports field.

The man in the back of the car with him took him firmly by the arm.

"Now, this is the orphanage, 'ere you do what you're told to do. You call every man sir and all the women sister. If you're disobedient then God help you. Your behind will be sore."

The large wooden door swung open slowly, the brass knocker glinting in the sun as it moved. A woman, one of the sisters, appeared, and in a kindly way she said, "Youre the new boy? You're Inglis? Well now, thats nice. Come with me and meet our Superintendent." Her long blue dress reached the ground and rustled softly as she walked, and a cross, like the one Jon had seen in the old stone church, waved across the ample bosom. She too, like the people Jon had seen but dressed in black, had a white coal scuttle on her head, but it was a smaller one and held into place with heavy pins. Her rosy cheeks and bright blue friendly eyes belied the abrupt manner.

"Please, Miss,..." Jon began.

"Please, Sister. Not Miss." He was corrected.

. . . . . . . .

The boxing booth

It was soon seven oclock. Jon wished he had never come, his arms were leaden and his stomach rumbled. "And now," Mr White boomed. "OIm goin te introduce the Flamer. New to Whites Wonders. Thinks e can take on the world. oose cumin for the Flamer. Wot you, Puggy?" To Jons dismay he saw a hairy man, as square as he was tall, stand up to receive the gloves which Mr White handed over the ropes. "Not got nothing beer to do? You've bin with champs? Why dyou wan te try this bugger?"

"Teach youngsters lesson. Pull em down a peg," growled the ugly man. The two cauliflour ears he sported, and his spreadeagled nose indicated he was a seasoned fighter. His thick black hair curled all over his body and arms. Jon felt like running away. He wondered if this bout was rigged to test his courage.

With the watching crowd eager to see the downfall of a newcomer, the preliminaries were quickly over and the fight started. Jon soon found out the viciousness of his opponent. Before the first round was finished he had a bloody nose, so Jon decided to back pedal and not be so foolhardy to get in close. His opponent seemed like an unrelenting savage whose sole intent was to put Jon on the canvas. The bell for the end of the first round went just after Jon had felt his ribs had been hammered to bits. In his corner Duncan was waiting with the sponge.

"Keep the fight at a distance," hissed Duncan. "Back pedal. Get 'im angry. Play on the cauliflour ears. Its yer only chance."

"Thanks, mate," Jon puffed. "Ill try. Pretty desperate though."

Armed with this advice Jon had a little success. When he could he thumped his still ferocious opponent right on the blue cauliflour ears. This made man even more furious. Soon both boxers were smeared with blood. When the bell at the end of the third round came Jons opponent was given the verdict. But the cap on the floor filled with coins showing the appreciation of the watching crowd.

"Well done, young un," said Mr White smiling. "Go and 'ave a clean up and my Missus'll give you grub. Cum again Saturday. Maybe find summat fer yer."

Sore and bruised, but very pleased with himself Jon went to the Whites caravan, washed in a basin of cold water and waited for Mrs White. She came in shortly, carrying a plate of steaming hot food, steak, onions and potatoes.

"Give all my boys a good feed," she said, still beaming away. "You be not a reg'lar. Not yet, maybe, maybe," she added cryptically.

. . . . . . . .

Prisoner of War - and a first Escape...

The harshness of the first winter was starting to decline, the sun shone weakly but it could not dispel the bitter winds which still swept through the camp. Jon felt stronger, but was still to have a final swab taken from his throat to see if he was clear of the diptheria. He managed to get through the day working on the tracks, by going through the motions but putting no effort into the work. The guards did not check the amount of work that was done, their only interest was that the prisoners were kept moving. Every evening Jon, with a mate to accompany him to ease the suspicion of his intent, walk round the whole perimeter of the camp trying to find some loophole through which he could disappear. Nothing came to mind, and he fought the onset of hopelessness. Until one day things were different.

For some unspecified reason, Jons shift were recalled early, so Jon with his mate, this time another airman called Flighty, went on their beat around the perimeters. Flighty too had been in the isolation of the hospital struggling with diptheria. He had been a well built man, but now, though still tall he was skin and bone. He too was due for his final throat swab before he was declared clear of infection. Flighty had been handsome, the twinkle in his eye sparkled when they talked of girls. But he also had a wife and family, so his adventurous spirit was slightly curtailed.

On the third time round the perimeter Jon saw his chance. As they were approaching one of the corner machine gun towers he glanced across the 400 yards to the main gate. Beyond the gate lay the German barracks which housed the guards engaged on prison surveillance. But Jon had seen even beyond the barracks. There he saw a sub-section of about fifty prisoners working on a project. They were building a small extention to some toilet facilities.

Jon did not mention his mad-brained scheme to Flighty as they walked at their usual steady pace till they were only 200 yards from the main gate.

"Quick march." Jon shouted and straightened himself up and the surprised Flighty did the same. In military step they marched towards the main gate.

"Eyes right," shouted Jon as they approached the guard room. Then he shouted to the guard on duty with as much confidence as he could muster, "We are going to join our working party," and after a few more paces, he shouted again, "Eyes left." The bewildered Flighty did what he was told automatically, he was too surprised to question Jons authority and too used to accepting orders. On marched the determined escapees. They passed the guards barracks. With his red hair and bad prison record Jon feared that he might be recognised. They reached the working party safely, and fortunately unnoticed by the guard on duty.

"Watyer doin, cock?" whispered a grubby worker. "Where in 'ell 'ave yer sprung from?"

"We're on the run. Cover for us, for God's sake."

Word was whispered round that the two extra men had to be covered.

"We'll keep on the move. Then they can't count us." An older man, covered in dirt, with a running nose, seemed to take charge. "We'll prop a dummy wall on the back of this goddarned hut. You creep in there when you can. Good luck." With a masterly art this information was seeped through to the other workers, the guards were watching but did not suspect anything untoward. Flighty by now was excited and watched eagerly for an appropriate moment to nip behind the hut. As evening approached tension rose, for all knew that the shift would soon end. Fate again was kind. A truck drove up and the driver had words with the German guard. Quick as a wink, with the guard distracted, Flighty pulled Jon into the crevasse made by the false wall, and they flattened themselves on the ground. No one had noticed them.

With hearts pumping they heard the working party being marched back to camp.

"Hope no one splits," whispered Flighty. "Dont know that crew."

"Shh,"Jon put his fingers to his lips. Though they were free the Germans were too near for comfort. The quietness was broken by the guards coming to use the latrines which were only a wooden walls thickness away.

"For Gods sake don't cough or sneeze," Jon whispered as the latrine door slammed and the sound of boots disappeared. "We've got to make a break for it as soon as it's dark."

. . . . . . . .

Betty Donaldson 2006-11