The old man.

The old man crossed the road to the post office at a leisurely pace, his painfully stooped torso turned defiantly against the oncoming traffic. The commuters' exasperation was of no concern to him. If he heard the cacophony of angry car horns, he didn’t show it. All Willie Schuster showed was the arrogance of age. When he wanted to cross a road he did, the formality of waiting for a light change or the convenience of a zebra crossing was for others. Willie lived life with his own set of rules. The familiar lengthy line that greeted him as he entered the post office was not a problem; Willie simply did not queue. Shuffling slowly, lemming like in an orderly fashion was just a little too English for this proud Bavarian.

Willie Schuster cut a dashing figure, even at his advanced age, always immaculately turned out. Dark blue suit, sharply pressed trousers, matching chalky white shirt complemented by an unusually extravagant cravat.His belt buckle and cufflinks glistened in the hazy morning sunlight, a reminder of army days gone by, completed the ensemble. Willie was always the epitome of sartorial elegance. For him even a task like collecting his pension from the post office required making an effort. He despaired at the array of shabby old housecoats and ill-fitting tracksuit bottoms complete with obligatory beer stained ‘Ingerland’ t-shirt shuffling down his road every Thursday.  That would never do for Willie.  Public interaction required him to be immaculately groomed at all times that was one of his rules. ‘If you have no pride in your appearance you have no pride as a man.’ his oft quoted mantra.

Willie Schuster was of German extraction, his mother was a proud Bavarian woman, who doted on her only child,a habit he chose not to follow with his own son. Willie's father was a stranger to him, a somewhat shadowy figure he only vaguely remembered. Despite broaching the subject on numerous occasions the young Willie’s curiosity concerning his father was never satisfied. Occasional snippets of information were gleaned over the years. His mother though, rarely had an unguarded moment. There was an exception, one Neujahrstag, new years day, when Willie was six. His mother’s sisters were visiting, a rare event in itself. The women had been drinking heavily all day, even his mother. It was late, Willie should have been in bed but the furor downstairs had awoken him from the sleep of the innocent. The alcohol driven ranting of the siblings was to stay with the young Schuster for many years to come. It was hard for the boy to comprehend what was being said. He did, however get the distinct impression that his father was foreign, probably English;shame had apparently been heaped upon the family name as a result, Willie wasn’t sure why. Those almost forgotten memories raised more questions than they answered. Willie never forgot the sound of his mother crying however, he had never seen or heard that before. He decided then and there that alcohol would never pass his lips.

Time passed, his mother long dead,the smell of war abound. The young Schuster carried away by patriot fervor, like so many others, found himself in uniform. Captured during the allies push towards Berlin in the winter of `44, he saw out the war courtesy of his Majesty’s pleasure.  A little known fact was that many German prisoners settled in Britain after the armistice; surprisingly Schuster, with his renowned Anglophobia, was one of them.

It was not easy being foreign, especially German,in England during those early years. Rationing was in full flow, shortages and deprivation abounded. The English had a natural distrust and contempt of most foreigners.There was nothing in Willie’s demeanor that was going to soften that attitude.Yet still, against all odds, he survived and occasionally thrived.Even finding a bride, a young war widow called Vera Stallings,who was immediately ostracised by friends and family; circumstances which Willie could easily relate to.They had a son, Frederick. As the years went by, father and son gradually became more and more estranged. With Willie the disciplinarian and Frederick the post war baby with too much of his mother in him it was never going to be a happy household. The ever-affable Vera, acted as peacemaker as best she could. She had long since come to terms with the mistake she had made in marrying again;realising what her friends and family had always known; she had married out of grief not out of love. She died suddenly one harsh winter, taken prematurely by a particularly virulent flu strain. She had neither the strength nor inclination to fight it,and she was acutely mourned by her now grown son. Willie barely seemed to notice her absence.

The old man entered the post office in some pain. His neck was stiffer than usual. Evidence of the torture inflicted upon him by the Physiotherapist was apparent in his gait. Willie had gone to the medical centre en route to the post office, and a long overdue meeting with his son. His mood was already dark, indignant that his doctor had not arranged a home visit. They had kept him waiting in the centre, apparently unaware of the fact that Willie Schuster did not wait. The masseuse had been exceptionally forceful with him. Willie thought she had been punitive intentionally. Questioning her credentials and her country of origin before the session began may have affected her professionalism. Meeting Willie was an experience most people were reluctant to repeat.

Frederick could hear the Germanic strains of his father’s raised voice from the street. Despite living sixty years in his adopted homeland, Willie Schuster had never fully lost his accent. The two men had rarely met in the intervening years since Vera passed, an arrangement that suited them both. Frederick was to be married; he certainly wasn’t looking for his father’s approval, far from it. He was merely testing the water to a view of one day introducing the two families. His father, somewhat surprisingly had been amenable to the idea. They had arranged to meet in the local hostelry,next to the post office, a somewhat mischievous choice of venue chosen by the younger Schuster. On entering the post office, Frederick, at once realised that his momentary act of wishful thinking was simply that.

The scene he witnessed was not an unfamiliar one; nevertheless he found himself shuddering in a somewhat embarrassingly involuntary manner. His father, at the far end of the room was in full confrontational mode; some young upstart had dared question his right to queue jump!

“I fought through the worst war mankind has ever experienced for the likes of you.” The old man was in full throttle; his younger adversary didn’t have a prayer. “You dare to deny me my right to be served first, as a mark of respect for winning your freedom for you. Who do you think you are?” Willie continued, there was no stopping him now.

‘There was also no denying the veracity of the old man’s argument’ thought Frederick. He just stood back and admired his father’s chutzpah. A ripple of applause broke out in the room. Frederick began to smile admiringly, everything suddenly became very clear to him. His father certainly was no saint, far from it. In fact, truth be told, he was an obnoxious antisocial geriatric hooligan and a terrible husband and father to boot. But in that instance Frederick realised that Willie did not spend his life being rude just for the sake of it. His father firmly believed that with great age came great entitlement; he was just following his own set of rules. It was also true, Frederick thought, that with great age comes great arrogance, certainly in his father’s case.

“Hello Pops, up to your usual tricks I see.” The younger Schuster greeted his father, proffering a slightly hesitant hand.

“Why don’t you buy me that drink and tell me all about the mistake I am about to make with my life,” said Frederick, with a broad smile on his face.
His father just looked at him quizzically.

 

Steve Lambert

 

 

 



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