The Spare Child
A short story by Barbara Godfrey
The Gregorys youngest child wandered along the seashore, aimlessly kicking the pebbles which speckled the beach and gleamed where the receding tide had left them wet and shiny. He saw the other lads in the distance, congregated in the cove which was set aside for their use.
His family had gone out for the day and left him behind as usual. He had nothing to do but abandon himself to the same old routine down to the cove, meet the others and talk about football or cricket or fishing. There was precious little else to talk about for their lives were so restricted, what with no schooling, no outside friends, no jobs and nothing to work for.
They were all in the same position but none of the others ever complained, at least not that young Gregory heard.
Today his feeling of boredom and frustration was so strong maybe it was the spring sunshine that did it that he whispered to his friend when he reached the cove: Come on, lets go and explore beyond the headland. Im not going to be stuck in this rotten little cove all my life.
His friend hesitated. You wouldnt dare? Im not coming. Therell be dreadful trouble if you are caught.
Gregory made up his mind to go on his own and he set off with a show of bravado that he did not really feel. This was the biggest adventure of his 15 uneventful years. He walked swiftly up to the grassy clifftop and found himself looking down on a new world a world where there were streets and shops teeming with carefree people. At least, they all looked carefree, and if there were any special places for people like him they were not in evidence.
Gregorys own life seemed duller than ever in contrast and from then on he came to the headland every day.
One afternoon as he sat gazing at the crowds far below he heard a faint sound behind him. He peered over the top of a rock and was astonished to see another face as startled as his own, a few yards away.
A young girl, about the same age as Gregory, came forward, obviously nervous but trying to appear self-confident.
Gracious, how you frightened me, she said. What are you doing here?
Well... he replied defensively. I might ask you the same.
She tossed her hair and said: I just like to come here, thats all. No reason why I shouldnt.
I didnt say there was, he countered.
They were silent a moment, and then the girl said: Do you live in the village, then?
Yes, he said. You too? I havent seen you around.
Now she was on the defensive. I havent seen you either, have I?
They instinctively dropped the subject. Gregory felt awkward with the girl. He had not been alone with any girls, except his sisters, since he was a small boy. She seemed just as ill at ease as he was and they did not talk much.
All the same, Gregory felt more contented than he could remember having felt for years, and when they got up to go he said impulsively: Lets meet here again tomorrow at the same time.
She hesitated, then said: All right, then see you tomorrow, and was gone over the hilltop before he could see which way she was going.
Gregory knew the risk he was taking, going out of bounds and, worse still, speaking to an outsider. He had grown up to accept without question the law passed, when he was a baby, relating to the youngest child in every family and laying down certain rules for their conduct.
But he felt now he was living for the first time, and oddly enough the girl seemed to feel the same way. They knew hardly anything about one another she would not even tell him her name but some strange bond of sympathy and fear drew them together.
One day as he was making his way to the clifftop Gregory was hailed by one of his male friends, despite his efforts to go by unseen.
Hey, Greg, where on earth have you been lately? Ive been worried sick thought your time had come, or something. How are you?
Gregory stopped reluctantly and waited for his friend to come up to him. His friend said: Come on, tell last time I saw you, you were going beyond the cove. What happened? What did you find out?
For Gods sake dont let on to anyone, or you know what will happen. Ill tell you all about it some time, but I cant stop now, replied Gregory. He refused to say any more and hurried off to his usual meeting with the girl.
She turned up an hour late. And she looked as though she had been crying.
Whats the matter? he asked her.
I dare not be late home, she said. I got into trouble yesterday for being out so long. They questioned me for hours and have been watching me today. I had to wait until they went shopping before I could get away.
He was surprised. Arent you allowed out on your own, then?
She seemed embarrassed by the question. Not so far from home as this. They like to know where I am, thats all.
She shivered in the chill air or was it a tremor of fear? Gregory felt a sudden rush of tenderness. Thoughtlessly, he took off his pullover and wrapped it round her, for her own coat was thin.
He was about to stand up when he heard her stifled cry. She was staring at the tiny S tattooed on his arm.
Too late he realised that she had discovered his secret. His confusion was pitiful, but for some reason she did not appear to be annoyed or shocked. Instead of shrinking from him, she came closer and raised the sleeve of her coat to reveal on her arm, in the same place as his, a small S.
They gazed at one another speechlessly. Finally he breathed: Why didnt I guess?
She said: Didnt you notice the scar on my leg? Ive others, too...
When they parted at the top of the cliff he said: Everything will work out, you see. Perhaps we could get away, escape...
Despite the enormity of the suggestion his words awakened a faint glimmer of hope in their hearts. It became more than ever important to each of them to have the other to talk to, for together they felt they had some future to plan for alone they had nothing.
As they sat one day in their clifftop hideout, Gregory asked: Did you hear about the Jordans youngest child?
No, she said. Is it bad?
Bad enough. Kidney.
Poor boy, she murmured. Will he be all right? You can live with one kidney, cant you?
Yes. Kidney trouble seems to run in the family, though. It wouldnt surprise me if his sister fell ill with the same complaint...
They fell silent, then Gregory sighed: I suppose were lucky. Lets be grateful we come from healthy stock.
This was small consolation, though, and they realised their only chance of a normal life lay in escaping to another part of the country where they were not known.
They decided to wait until Gregorys family had gone out for the day the following Saturday, when the girls parents were also going to be away on a visit.
Saturday came, the sun was shining and everything went according to plan. The rest of the Gregory family set off in their shiny red car, waving to their youngest member who, for once, did not look wistful as he returned their wave.
Greg looks happy today, his mother remarked to his father. He certainly seems to have found some way of passing the time lately.
His father grunted absent-mindedly. He barely thought of his youngest child at all they had not even bothered to give him a Christian name let alone worried about whether he was happy or not.
As soon as the car had flashed out of sight, Gregory set off on the meeting which he hoped would change his life. The girl was waiting for him in the usual place, tense and excited. Together they climbed down the steep cliff face to the new village below.
No one took any notice of the boy and girl who walked jauntily across the seashore, though they felt sick with apprehension. By the time they reached the village, thronged with shoppers, they felt more at ease, less conspicuous, and were bold enough to venture into a café to spend the small sum of money Gregory had managed to steal from his home.
We must get used to behaving like normal people, said Greg. Heaven knows how well earn any money, but I expect well manage somehow.
As they sat over their coffee they were lost in a dream.
Gregory said: Ill call you Cathy as you havent a name. You think of a name for me soon.
The future seemed almost secure as they sat there. Their own village seemed far, far away; it was only mid-morning and they had hours ahead of them before their absence would be discovered.
The peace was suddenly shattered by screeching brakes and a dreadful crash which sent everyone running to the window. Outside there were screams and a mass of people converged on part of the road outside the café.
What is it? Whats happened? Gregory asked someone.
A road accident, reported the waitress. Car crashed into a wall. Someone must be hurt, theres a lot of blood.
Gregory and the girl heard voices shouting. The police were ordering bystanders to move away. An ambulance had arrived and the men were trying to free someone from the car.
A voice called out: This man is in a bad way. Hell certainly need a blood transfusion when he gets to hospital and probably an operation.
Then the same voice rose again above the murmur of the crowd: Someone had better send for this familys Spare Child quickly. It looks as though it will be needed urgently. Get the Spare Child taken straight to hospital to save time.
Cathy and Gregory were rooted to the spot with fear and fascination. They could not see much of the accident because of the crowd, but their hearts went out to the unknown Spare Child whose time had come.
Gregory edged into the café doorway and through the crowd he caught a glimpse of a shiny red car. He froze to the spot in terror as a gap opened in the crowd and he caught sight of his mother standing beside the ambulance. Before he could move she saw him.
She pointed a shaking hand in his direction and screamed: There he is, our Spare Child. Get him, get him, his father needs him.
The policeman looked across in surprise and said: The lad with the girl? Thats a bit of luck, him being here just at the right moment.
Gregory grabbed Cathys hand and they ran. They had no idea where they were going and they could hear footsteps following them.
An angry voice shouted: Disgraceful! What is he thinking of, running away when hes needed?
The young couple were cornered in a side street. Gregory cringed like a hunted animal as the policeman bent down to take his arm.
Come on, lad, said the policeman in a kindly voice. No need to panic. You knew this would happen sooner or later. Its rotten luck it has come so soon for you how old are you, sixteen? Sorry, boy, I wont raise your hopes. It wouldnt surprise me if your dad didnt need a new heart, the way hes breathing.
He led Gregory to the waiting ambulance where his father lay. Side by side they set off on their route to the hospital, the father and the child whose first spare-part donation was destined to be his last.
© 1997 Copyright by Barbara Godfrey
The story The Spare Child is an original work protected under copyright law, and may not be reproduced or adapted without the written permission of the author.
More short stories by Barbara Godfrey
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While Others Sleep a collection of poems by Barbara Godfrey