The Survivor

I awoke sweating, shivering. A silver bearded old man in flowing blue robes crouched over my bed, the golden yellow flame of a flickering candle glinting in his eyes. As my heart slowly settled he whispered gently.

'Come child. You are safe: the Order is caring for you now. No more nightmares. Sleep now. Sleep.'

It was difficult to sleep in those early days. My family had sailed north with dreams of a new life, a fresh start away its old troubles. Instead the chilling, frost tipped northern seas sundered those hopes, alongside the hopes of a hundred other souls. The memories were always so clear, so vivid. Every time I closed my eyes they were there. Waiting.

The creak of the Lady Kynarra’s aching hull as our passage raced through furious seas towards the safe haven of St. Verlox; clinging desperately to my mother, trembling in her warm embrace; my father reassuring us as he left to seek out the Captain.

As a distant glimmer of land cheered the weary passengers there came a thunderous crash. Thrown from my mother's arms, I scrambled groggily to my feet. For the briefest of moments it seemed to become calm - there then came a second, more devastating crash. Splintered wood, darkness, screams, foaming water, terrified faces - they all flashed before me. Even as a child I knew what death looked like; I waited for it to take me.

Only three people were washed ashore with the shattered tinder that was once the Lady Kynarra. My mother and father weren't amongst them. I was suddenly alone. My entire world now confined within the thick, foreboding walls of the St. Verlox orphanage.

~2~

As the days turned to weeks I spent most of my time curled up in dark, damp corners crying for my parents. The other children just ignored me – I quickly learned I wasn’t the only one with painful memories. It was then that I first saw him. He looked sick, pale. Lank, greasy hair almost hid his eyes; none of the other boys at the orphanage talked to him. We were both outsiders. At first he seemed helpful, encouraging. Told me never to forget my parents, but that life has to go on. I thought I'd found a protector. For a while we were almost friends. I wasn’t alone anymore; for a time even the nightmares stopped.

It then changed. I can remember the exact day. A small, plain memorial stone had been placed within the cloisters of St Verlox Abbey. It wasn't much, but it was at least something to acknowledge those who perished on the Lady Kynarra. No names were listed: just a date. As I stood there I could hear again that crushing second wave, see the faces, the fear. I couldn't see my mother or father. They were gone. I knew I would never see them again; that scared me more than ever. When I returned to the orphanage that evening things were suddenly different. The other boy still took an interest in me, but kindness wasn't his motivation any more. Something had happened to him - our relationship had soured - and I was the one who felt all of this new found anger and bitterness.

It started with small things - holding me back when the dinner bell sounded. We all knew that it was first come first served at the orphanage. Those at the back of the queue were left with the tasteless scrapings of the soup pot; only the mouldiest of the weevil ridden, stale bread would remain uneaten. He knew I was going hungry, but didn't care. There was nothing I could do about it. In the dorm I was forced to take the bed closest to the uncovered window. Biting wind, icy rain and rancid smells from the nearby fish market would billow in. My single blanket was always damp and cold. As the other children huddled round the dorm fire he ordered me to remain by my bed.

It carried on this way for months. He didn’t think I deserved to be treated like the other boys. I just seemed unable to fight back. He was everywhere; he controlled me. From time to time he'd relent, briefly. Signs of his former self would come to the fore, but just for a moment. I’d be allowed to ask for a new blanket, an extra bowl of soup - even a piece of fruit. However, before long it would be back to normal. Me feeling his wrath and ire. It was as if the small glimpses of kindness were in themselves part of this cruelty.

I had to get out. Get away from him. I hoped that chance would come soon.

~3~

Throughout the orphanage there was always nervous excitement on ‘wash’ days: the twice a year occasions when the town’s most affluent merchants and traders paid for the privilege of hand picking the best boys – some to become apprentices, others adopted children for rich, childless families. The orphanage’s rusting iron baths were always overrun with business on wash day morning's; the unfamiliar acrid aroma of carbolic abound in the steamy, tense air. The boys knew that a clean neck allied to that all important innocent, toothy grin, could be the difference between six more months behind these walls or the chance to start a new life – nobody was leaving anything to fate. Faces were scrubbed as never before; clothes brushed free of grime and soot. Around the fire, boys hurried to get ready. As the bell sounded we all raced towards the door and the chance of escape.

As the other children disappeared from view the door thudded shut. Blocking the way stood my tormentor, shaking his head; a long, white finger pointed me towards the window. From on high we watched in silence as down below the gates opened. Into the courtyard came men and women dressed in bright colours, wearing smiles and offering hope. Boys who moments before had filled this dorm now rushed forward to introduce themselves to our guests.

'Not time for you yet!' his cold, soulless eyes hissed.

That night the dorm was quiet: half of the boys had left. Those who remained had the dream of next wash day. I wondered whether I would ever share their hopes.

~4~

In my fourteenth year I finally left the orphanage. I never did get presented at a wash day. Not once did he let me experience the possibility of another life - a better life. However, I was now old enough to leave, and for once there really was nothing he could do. As I walked out of the main gates for the last time he was there to see me off. He attempted an unconvincing smile, but no words were exchanged. I paused briefly to button up my coat before quickly heading out into the crowded streets of St. Verlox.

****

Today I once again visit the memorial to the Lady Kynarra. With my wife and daughter by my side a candle is lit. The flickering, slither of light soon brings a warming glow to this quiet corner of the Abbey. In the shadows he is still there, lurking: the other boy, only now he's a man. As I left the orphanage he was but a few silent steps behind. At my wedding, the birth of my baby girl, every day at work - he's there. There is no escaping. How could there be? He is me.

At times he still makes me sad; others he lifts me when I'm feeling low. The guilt of not dying with my beloved parents, the pain of separation, of being alone - these emotions will never leave me. However, I have to live with my demons. People now look to me, love me. I need to be strong for them. It's what my parents would have wanted; it's what they would have expected. I can't let them down.

 

Paul Clement