Friday, 30 January 2015

Fallen Hero

A small group of family members had gathered round his bed. Now and again one of them would whisper something but they were mainly silent, just watching the small form lying beneath the crisp, white sheets. The chiseled features were still evident. The self assurance remained. But although the spirit was willing, the flesh was exhausted. A life, lived to the full, was taking its toll.

There were those who argued that he had been presented with all the advantages life could offer. True, he had been born in 'the big house' and that had been an excellent start in life. The double barrelled surname opened many doors that might have remained firmly shut to others. But only the most mean spirited person would have argued that he had not made the most of every opportunity that had been presented to him.

Now everything ached: every healed bone, every torn muscle. If he'd had the energy, or the inclination he could have mapped his adventures injury by injury. But he didn't have the energy for such nostalgia.

The sound of children singing drifted into the room. Was he conscious? He had no idea. The song, always the same song, had seemed to follow him wherever he went since that awful day. It didn't matter whether he was awake or not, the song was always there. He half opened one eye. Faint, familiar figures leaned forwards expectantly. What were they expecting him to do? Hadn't he done enough already? He breathed out slowly and closed his eye. And still the words of the song ran through his mind.

The group gathered round the bed looked at one another. Moist eyes glistened as they gazed fondly at the broken hero.

"Do you remember..."began one of the well wishes, but of course they did. They all remembered. The whole country remembered. How could they forget?

His life may have begun in the big house. He may have been received countless lucrative offers but he didn't follow the easy path. His brothers and sisters had all followed the accepted route into government or the civil service. That was not the path for him. Sitting behind a desk? Not a chance!

He went straight into the military as soon as he was old enough. It was immediately obvious that he was destined for great things. His intelligence, bravery and steady paw quickly saw him working on the front line. Thousands must have owed him their lives thanks to the number of booby traps he had disarmed in his career. He'd seen them all in his time. But he was never complacent. He'd seen what they could do when you got lazy. His back legs told the story of what could happen.

It hadn't been his fault. A couple of youngsters had come across it and, despite all the warnings, their stomachs had got the better of them. He saw them heading straight for the small blob of peanut butter. He hadn't stopped to think how foolish they were to be taken in by such an obvious trap. Leaping forward he managed to push them both out of the way, but his paw flicked the trip device and the spring slammed the metal bar down hard onto his rear legs. There was a sickening crack as the bone shattered. Somehow he managed to wriggle free and drag himself back to the base. He refused a desk job and was back on the job as soon as the legs would allow him to move.

The small glass beside his bed had a further evidence of the impact of his years in the service of others. The set of dentures lay at the bottom of the glass, untouched for several days now, since his appetite had waned. He'd been so proud of them when he first got them. Almost as proud of them as he was of his old, broken tooth which lay on the plush, red cushion in the military museum. There it lay, a constant reminder of the trap he had bitten through to release the three hostages who had been lured inside by the smell of a small piece of Cadbury's chocolate button.

Yes - the traps had taken their toll, but it was the ambush that had finished his army career. The scars could still be seen through the balding patches on his belly. He'd been escorting family groups of refugees to safety. Large amounts of chemical weapons had been deployed in the attic and a mass exodus was taking place. He was guarding the passage into the garage. It should have been a routine operation. The route had been checked and the only booby trap had been disarmed easily. He'd let his guard drop. He hadn't heard the soft, padding footsteps approach from the rear. The large tabby had crossed the border and had managed to get within striking distance undetected. She pounced and took him completely unawares. With one flip of the paw he was smashed onto his back. Sharp claws raked across his belly and he squeaked in agony. That was the last thing he remembered.

He woke under a bush. Dried blood matted his fur and his tail throbbed but he was alive. He had no idea how but he was alive. The official report cleared him of any negligence. 'An ambush could happen to anyone,' they had said. He was lucky to be alive. He had been grabbed and dropped in the kitchen. A few hours later the house giant had swept him into a dustpan and dumped him under the bush behind the oil tank. The powers that be would have been happy for him to continue his duties, or push him upstairs to enjoy an easy retirement. It wasn't for him though. He'd lost focus and, for him, that signalled the end. He couldn't trust himself any more and he left.

A couple of weeks into civilian life and he was bored. He needed the adrenaline rush of living life on the edge.

Then he got a call from a relative in the States. A stunt double was needed for a new star. It was dangerous work, but well paid. The money didn't concern him, but he was intrigued by the element of danger. He left immediately and was soon installed on the film set.

Over the next few months he was swallowed by cats, whacked with brooms and had all manner of objects dropped on him. His small face was flattened into the shape of an iron, or anvil more times than he could remember (possibly as a result of all the concussions). The money was good, the Hollywood lifestyle was a little extravagant for his tastes, but the thrill was there every day and he was enjoying the variety of death defying moments. Then the call came from home. He was needed.

Things in the old house were desperate. New owners had taken over and they were less sloppy than the previous inhabitants. Biscuits were packed in plastic boxes. Cereal was sorted in airtight containers. And a large, ferocious pet had been installed. The population were slowing starving to death and they were too scared to explore to find alternative food sources for fear of the cat. The call had gone out for help and two willing heroes had returned to the house.

He had first met Juan during his early training. The Spaniard had found his way to the big house in a shipment of cattle for the estate. He'd been welcomed into the community and had proved himself to be an excellent scavenger, scaling the highest cupboards to find the tastiest rewards for the families. After a few months in the house, he had become restless and set off in search of new challenges. He too had been attracted by the film makers. A cameo appearance, popping out of a biscuit tin in a popular sitcom, had been his highlight and he'd drifted into obscurity. He'd also had the call for help and, like Hickory, he'd responded immediately.

Ah, Juan. Hickory flexed his paw, painfully. His brow furrowed and his whispers twitched as the events of that day came into sharper focus. They never really left him. How could they? No matter where he went, it was all folks wanted to talk to him about. It was all that was ever written about him. And then, of course, there was the song.

He realised it was meant as a tribute. Just as the accolades and the medal had been seen as recognition for an act of incredible courage, an example of selfless, heroic endeavour. At least those had been the headlines. How could they say that? To him it had been a simple act. An attempt to save a friend. A failed attempt. How could that be celebrated?

He remembered the day vividly. Juan had kissed his wife on the nose. She had given him a tiny, red and white polka dot handkerchief, which he had tied round his neck. With that, the two had set off to find food. There had been rumours that the master of the house often left half eaten bars of chocolate in his jacket pocket. The jacket was hung on the pegs in the grand hallway. Above the pegs was a single shelf. The only way to get to the jacket would be to scale the large grandfather clock, swing across to the shelf, abseil down to the pegs and swing into the pocket. As if that wasn't dangerous enough, at the end of the hall was the door with the cat flap.

The two heroes set off at midnight. The house was in darkness and the giants had long since retired to bed. The cat should be prowling outside, ensuring that the local village cats didn't stray onto her property. They made their way to the base of the grandfather clock. Watching the massive pendulum swing back and forth, they gazed towards the summit. It seemed an extraordinary task. The highly polished, wooden casing reflected the light from the dying embers of the fire in the front room. They slipped on their climbing shoes and attached the first rope. Tiny vibrations ran through the wooden wall with each mighty tick, but slowly they made their way up the outside of the clock.

Hickory checked his watch. 12:29. They were making good progress.

"Hold on tight," he whispered to Juan. Juan checked his own timepiece and nodded.

A low rumble began to build within the casing. Metal wheels whirled and chains rattled. The large metal finger on the clock face clicked round and the hall was filled with a mighty clang of a bell. The entire clock shook, but the climbers hung on tightly. The shuddering passed and they continued, sweat dripping from each whisker.

As they passed the jackets, hanging tantalisingly close, they both breathed in deeply, sniffing the sweet chocolate aroma. The rumours were true. There was food to be had, if only they could make it to the shelf.

After climbing the sheer face of the casing the next part was simpler. A small ledge ran below the clock face and this provided an opportunity to rest before scampering up to the summit, the clock hands and intricate holes carved in the clock face giving excellent paw holds. They were soon on top of clock, but there was no time to admire the dizzying view.

Juan expertly swung a crawling hook over the gap and onto the top,shelf. It snagged in the colourful feathers of a fly attached to the master's tweed hat. The other end of the rope was quickly attached to the clock and they made their way across the divide.

The abseil from the shelf was fairly straightforward and they both managed it without difficulty. Scuttling down the jacket they were met by a bewildering mixture of scents. They both winced at the smell of cat that lingered near the lapels. A faint whiff of soup lingered near the breast pocket, the remains of a quickly eaten meal dribbled on the jacket during a particularly frantic period of shooting. But it was the smell from the side pockets that had both their noses twitching eagerly. They dived into the darkness and were met with a wall of sweetness. The long climb had left them both ravenous and they nibbled hungrily at the solid block.

After satisfying themselves they quickly got to work, chipping off lumps of chocolate and stuffing them in the bags they had brought. Hickory checked the watch. Time to go. He motioned to Juan, but he shook his head. They couldn't leave all this when there were folks starving at home. He refused to leave. Hickory tried to argue with him. They both knew the plan. They both knew they had to get moving, but Juan remained steadfast.

Hickory pushed past him. There was no pint collecting food if they were unable to get it back to the others. He left, slinging the bags onto his back. He made his way up the rope, harder now with all the extra weight. He clambered across the rope from the shelf and back onto the clock. He checked his watch again. 12:57. He looked anxiously at the cat flap.

There was a scuffling from the jacket and a huge mound of chocolate appeared over the edge of the pocket. There was a grunt from inside and the chocolate toppled over the edge and crashed to the floor. The minute hand gave a loud click and swung forwards.

"Come on," hissed Hickory.

Juan grinned and scrambled up the rope to the shelf. The plan was to unhitched the crippling rope and swing back to the clock. He pulled at the tiny hooks. They were caught firmly in the feathers.

"Leave it. There isn't time," Hickory called, glancing at the cat flap.


The hooks came free with a jerk and Juan rocked back, dangerously close to the edge of the shelf. He regained his balance and breathed deeply. That had been close. He swung back across to the clock and began to climb the last few in chest to the summit to join Hickory.

There was a low rumble.

"Hang on!" yelled Hickory.

The wheels whirred once more and the giant clapper smashed against the bell. The vibrations at the summit, so much closer to the mechanism were tremendous. Juan was jolted from the side of the clock. One paw lost its grip on the rope. He dangled, desperately trying to catch the rope with his other paw. Hickory leant over as far as he dared as the aftershocks shuddered through the polished wood. Juan's grip slipped. Hickory thrust out a paw and briefly their paws met before Juan's grip failed completely and he plunged down, landing in a heap beside the smashed chocolate bar far below.

Hickory stared in horror. Quickly he flung a rope over the side of the clock and he slide to the next level. Another rope thrown and another slide. He could see his friend, moving slightly, his fall broken a little by the toe of a dis guarded slipper. He threw the rope down again.


His heart leapt into his mouth and his head snapped round. The cat flap swung shut and the large, black and white frame padded up the hall. It stopped and the fur on its neck rose. Juan struggled to his feet.

"Lie still," implored Hickory from above, but it was too late. The slight movement had proved too much and the cat sprang forward, clattering into the slippers and sending Juan spinning across the floor. Hickory raved down the final few feet and dashed over to save his friend. He sank his false teeth firmly into the cat's tail. It hissed and spat loudly as it span round, sending Juan into the skirting board and Hickory diving for cover behind the umbrella stand. The cat pounced, knocking the stand and umbrellas all over the floor.

Lights flashed on upstairs and angry voices called. Heavy footsteps thundered down the stairs. The cat was quickly grabbed by the scruff of the neck and unceremoniously dumped outside, accompanied by muttered curses. The umbrella stand was straightened.

"Bloomin' thing was after me chocolate!" thundered the master, picking up the smashed bar. He took one look at the tiny teeth marks and tossed it into the wicker waste basket.

Hickory dashed over to the the skirting board where Juan lay, motionless. He cradled his head in his tiny paws.

"You've saved them all you know. There's enough chocolate there to keep them going for months," he whispered.

Juan's eyes flickered and a tear rolled down onto the handkerchief. "Tell her I love her, " he breathed and with that his eyes closed. Hickory gently untied the knot, laid the polka dotted material over his friend's face, sat down and sobbed.

He'd felt numb for weeks afterwards. At the funeral, at the medal ceremony, the first time he'd heard the song; it was all a blur to him. He was still half way down a clock, staring at a crumpled body on the floor.

He lay, with these thoughts running through his head, as the visitors looked on. The song outside seemed to be growing louder, as if more voices were joining in. Did they know the pain it caused him? He couldn't be proud of his actions that night. He should have been firmer with Juan when he knew time was running out. He should have held on tighter when Juan needed him to. He should have got down the clock quicker and bitten the cat harder.

It should have been him.

He had no wife and children to leave behind.

His thoughts turned to Cecilia, Juan's widow. He hadn't spoken to her since the funeral, when he had passed on Juan's final words and left quickly, feeling nothing. He couldn't face her and was sure that she would have no wish to see him again after all he had been responsible for. Why should she?

He breathed slowly, painfully, his whole body aching with the effort of drawing in breath. His time was near. No longer would he have to listen to the song. No more would he have to wonder what might have happened if he'd handled that night better. A single tear slipped down the greying fur on his cheek and he was still.

There was a hush among those gathered at the bedside. Then one stepped forward and gently wiped the tear from his fur, with a tiny red and white polka dot handkerchief. The group bowed their heads, alone with their own memories of the hero, as the words of the sung drifted around the room as a constant reminder of an extraordinary life lived to the full.

RIP Major Hickory Dickory-Dock.

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