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Coming of Age Contemporary

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. The night before Christmas was quiet on the beach but at least there were no more explosions. I never got used to sleeping in our cellar with the noise of collapsing masonry above our heads. My mother feared for our lives every day for two years. She never slept a wink. It was hard on my father, too. He was always on his guard and watchful throughout the night. My sister and I were too young to know what was happening and father never showed his fear, but I could tell. His comforting smile wasn’t real when he assured us it would be over soon. Mother would stroke my forehead and sang lullabies to us when the explosions rocked the foundations. She’d hold us in her arms as the crumbling mortar dust cascaded into our hair. When the electricity failed and left us in darkness, we knew we’d be safe beside her in our underground shelter. We were never in darkness for long because my father had candles and matches to hand. He’d soon strike a match so we could all see and light a candle, placing it in an empty bottle. Looking back, it was never comfortable going to sleep, but the flickering candlelight helped us nod off. Our eyelids would droop like wilting petals and our lolling heads bobbed like wooden rocking horses at the end of a mighty gallop. If anything, we all drifted away through exhaustion, huddling close for warmth like hibernating mice; dreaming about a change of season and an end to the dreadful evenings cowering in our murky basement. 

My mother tried hard to make it a homely place. She draped old curtains over the damp bricks and hung up half a dozen pictures to brighten up the place. My favourite one had yellow sunflowers in a blue vase. When the siren wailed, we’d run downstairs, and she told us stories about her childhood. My favourite tales were about her family holidays. They used to travel to the countryside and slept under the stars in waxed cotton tents. We asked her what it was like and she said our basement was a bit like a tent with its canvas wall coverings. 

When the morning came and the planes stopped flying overhead, mother always swept away the flaky mortar dust and father removed any large chunks of plaster fallen from the ceiling. One day, he returned home with four long pieces of heavy timber and jammed them under the rafters in our cellar. I asked what father was doing and mother said he had also been on camping holidays. Father said that when he was a youngster, tents had wooden ridge poles that kept the structure upright and he was trying to make our pretend tent more like a proper one.

The night before our basement collapsed, father came back with good news. He’d spoken to a man in the fishing port who’d promised to help us. My mother was so excited she hugged him and started sorting all our things, but father said we shouldn’t do too much packing because it would be difficult. What did he mean by difficult, my sister asked him? Well, he said, it’s just that there wouldn’t be much room. My mother frowned and asked why she couldn’t take pictures and books and everything. It’s just that it’s going to be difficult, my father replied. How difficult, I asked, uncertain what he meant. I mean, we haven’t got many things, but we’ve been careful, I said. We’d preserved all our cherished items for safety in the cellar. My father revealed more details and said the boat wasn’t big enough for much luggage. But what do you mean? she asked, sitting down. How much room is there on the boat? He said lots more people had asked to accompany us on the boat and now there wasn’t much space for bags. How many cases can we take, asked my mother? Father stuck his hands into his trouser pockets and shrugged his shoulders. I swallowed and looked at my sister, who placed her arm around my shoulder. We hadn’t any choice, my father said. There must be another way, my mother said, holding her head in her hands as if she was about to vomit into an imaginary bucket. My sister squeezed me close, and I bit my lip. There is no alternative, father said, at last. My mother raised her head to face him and snorted air through her nostrils as if she were about to dive off a cliff into the cold ocean below. You’ve used all our savings, she said. Yes, he said. We don’t have a choice now.

The night before we walked to the water’s edge, the sky above was quiet. The mighty siren was silent as well. The only disturbance was when our cellar roof fell in. We all woke with a start as if our world had ended, which it had, of course. We neither had a secure place to go at night nor any savings to spend on food. Our futures lay at the end of a boat journey in a land we’d only ever seen on television and read about in books and magazines. A world of plenty where people gave each other gorgeous gifts wrapped in glittering paper and everyone looked content with big smiles on their shiny faces. It looked like a land of plenty and a safe world away from the nightly explosions. Perhaps we’d get to go on camping holidays in our beautiful new country and have a home with hot running water again. Maybe we could choose what to eat and where to eat it. All we had to do was make a short voyage across the water. My father promised us it would all work out, and we’d feel safe once more. The man in the fishing port had made lots of promises, too. He sounded like a nice man because he’d been so helpful.

It was Christmas Eve when we met our fellow travellers on the stony shoreline. The evening sky was clear and I could see my breath by the time it went dark. There were at least fifty other people waiting for the boat to arrive. They’d also given the boat man all their savings because he’d promised them a way out. He’d promised them room for cases too, however I couldn’t see a single bag between all of us. We had the clothes we were standing in and that was all. In the end, the boat man said there was no room for our possessions. He told my father we were the lucky ones. We should thank him for helping us and if we didn’t want to leave, well, that was up to us. My father said we had no choice.

It was three o’clock in the morning when I heard a murmur of voices. I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes because of the cold. Somebody down by the water’s edge stood up and shouted, Look! Look! It’s here! Somewhere out there was the high whine of a straining diesel engine. It sounded as if it was about to take off and fly away or explode. Either way, it was bearing a heavy load.

Yes! I can see it! Someone shouted, and we all stumbled to our feet. It was difficult to see in the darkness. There was an excited hum of voices. Who would go first? Could we all fit on board? How long would it take?

Out of the gloom approached a wooden vessel that sat low in the water. The engine noise changed to a low chugga-chugga and we could hear its hull grinding on the rocks and pebbles as it slowed down. It was then that we could see the passengers on board. Their faces were pale and ghostly white in the moon’s merciless glow. There were people I recognised from earlier in the day. The babble of voices surrounding me diminished as the lifeless phantoms disembarked and waded towards us from their beached craft. None of them said a word as they wandered past us. Their frozen expressions spoke volumes. Instead of the warm welcome our saviour had promised, our fellow travellers had received a firm refusal. 

And what had happened to our hero? 

Where was the boat man now? 

He was nowhere to be seen.


The End



March 18, 2023 00:59

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39 comments

Carol Quinn
05:18 Apr 03, 2023

I really enjoyed your story. An intriguing story. Unfortunately so true of the struggles a family has to endure to keep going. I was caught up in it from beginning to end. You have great imagery in this story.

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Howard Halsall
17:38 Apr 03, 2023

Hey Carol, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Humanity’s struggle to keep going in the face of the worst possible conditions is a sign of true courage and a caring parent’s ability to divert their children’s concerns from impending doom is not to be underestimated. In writing this story I can only guess at the horrors that go unreported and try to speak for those wretched and vulnerable souls who live through far worse conditions and seek help wherever they can find it; God he...

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Martin Ross
18:02 Mar 30, 2023

I loved your take on the prompt! To me, two of the toughest narrative gambits are writing completely in dialogue or completely free of it. The latter can be quite powerful — Conrad Aiken’s Silent Snow, Secret Snow comes to mind. I admire your willingness as Aiken had to acknowledge there’s not always a happy ending to struggle and pain. It bringsca genuine note to the story! Well-done. You have a great variety of theme and tone, BTW.

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Howard Halsall
11:37 Mar 31, 2023

Hey Martin, Thank you reading and commenting on this story. I appreciate your positive remarks and I’m glad it had such a powerful impact. Concerning your reference to the ending; the “unhappy” ending is tricky to achieve because we’re so programmed to expect a positive outcome. In this instance, the rejection and return of the day’s first voyagers can be read in various ways and asks questions such as, will the family take the trip or have they been spared a similar fate? I acknowledge the story is open ended, however the phrase “out of the...

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Richard E. Gower
17:00 Mar 23, 2023

A realistic and well-written story. Lots of great word-imagery. -:) And, wow, what a downer at the end, disillusioning. But, sadly, things like this happen every day. You've captured the flavour of that perfectly. RG

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Howard Halsall
18:36 Mar 23, 2023

Hey RG, Thanks for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. I’m glad it all made sense and relieved that the ending worked. I wasn’t sure if it was a step too far, given the bleak series of events outlined up until that point. Take care HH

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Carina Caccia
07:57 Mar 23, 2023

Thanks for the read, Howard! I expecially liked the imagery of the glittering wrapping paper in a foreign land and the following line: "Our eyelids would droop like wilting petals and our lolling heads bobbed like wooden rocking horses..." I can visualise them slowly dozing off, rhythmically even.

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Howard Halsall
08:06 Mar 23, 2023

Hey Carina, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your comments; they’re much appreciated. I’m glad you picked up on the imagery and I’m relieved it all made sense too. It’s always tricky to gauge how such things work, especially given the bleak subject matter. Take care HH

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Irene Duchess
03:00 Mar 23, 2023

awww. this broke my heart. later on in the story, I kinda started thinking the boatman had scammed (if that's the right word to use) them... sad that he did. enjoyable story, though. :)

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Howard Halsall
08:08 Mar 23, 2023

Hey Lilah, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece despite the grim topic and bleak outcome. Take care HH

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Irene Duchess
21:51 Mar 23, 2023

You too :)

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Simone J Fry
22:21 Mar 22, 2023

Howard, I love the way you write. Beautiful, evoking, compassionate. And, not paying any attention to the genre, initially I thought it was creative non-fiction. I loved the way you write in their shoes... very sad, very thought provoking. Thank you :)

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Howard Halsall
23:15 Mar 22, 2023

Hey Simone, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it, despite the bleak content, and I appreciate your feedback. Take care HH

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Simone J Fry
23:36 Mar 22, 2023

Yes, the content was bleak, but for me you didn't over do it. A heavy topic was addressed with subtlety and respect...

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Howard Halsall
23:44 Mar 22, 2023

Thank you Simone :)

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Simone J Fry
23:46 Mar 22, 2023

You're welcome Howard :)

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Elijah Cooley
12:59 Mar 22, 2023

that was so good! I hope to write a story like this in the future. very dark and interesting. I hope to see more on the end though? I, at least, felt there was more to be said.

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Howard Halsall
16:00 Mar 22, 2023

Hey Elijah, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. I think the point about the ending is to create a talking point. If you cared enough about what happened next, then I guess it worked…. Take care HH

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Elijah Cooley
12:27 Mar 24, 2023

yeah, I'll say. your a really talented writer. nothing I have is as good as yours... yet.

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Howard Halsall
18:49 Mar 24, 2023

Aw shucks, you’re being a bit hard on yourself :)

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D Gorman
22:28 Mar 20, 2023

Hi Howard. Great, consistent tone throughout, I was curious about your decision to not separate the dialogue into separate lines. Was that a creative choice for this story or a style you use frequently? During the section where the father is trying to explain to the family that there will be no room for their things, I did get a little confused about who was speaking, and I thought some of the urgency was lost. But that of course is just my read. One other question: are we to interpret the returning figures on the boat to be dead? There ar...

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Howard Halsall
00:14 Mar 21, 2023

Hey D, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. You have a couple of interesting questions which I’ll attempt to answer, however if you have further interest, I’ll be more than happy to continue our dialogue. To answer your first question; yes, it was a deliberate choice to interweave the dialogue and the narrative. My aim was to create both a sense of urgency and a distinct voice for the child who relates the events. It’s not an approach I employ frequently, however I was happy with the way it worked. The second question i...

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Laurel Hanson
12:23 Mar 20, 2023

Man, that is depressing. Appropriately, I suppose, for a story that starts with the cold. This one is just real. True life. A well executed memoir of disappointment and despair that is playing out all over the world.

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Howard Halsall
18:43 Mar 20, 2023

Hey Laurel, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I admit there is a tone of despair throughout my tale, however it’s not as bleak as Hans Christian Anderson’s story about a barefoot waif who dreads going home to an emotionally abusive father and died penniless on the street on the coldest night of the year while their wealthy neighbours enjoy a jolly old time with all the festive trimmings…. At least the positive side of my story manifests in the brief moments of kindness and the obvious care and love of the parents who ...

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Laurel Hanson
20:59 Mar 20, 2023

Sorry if I gave the impression of missing the positive aspects of the story. I didn't. I think it was just so real, of good people trying so hard (I'm thinking Ukraine here, boat people coming in from wherever, etc) that I was brought right to the place of reality. I believe that is a tribute to the story.

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Howard Halsall
22:14 Mar 20, 2023

Hey Laurel, No misunderstanding and no problem; you made a good point :) Admittedly, it is a fairly grim story and the ending is unrelenting. HH

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Mary Bendickson
03:31 Mar 20, 2023

The story line had me thinking of a war long ago yet it is still contemporary. Sad.

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Howard Halsall
06:05 Mar 20, 2023

Hey Mary, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. Alas, war is ongoing, eternal and it’s sad that we never learn from the past. The real tragedy is that, throughout history whenever conflict occurs, the weapon of warfare has a worker at both ends. Take care HH

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Chris Campbell
02:04 Mar 20, 2023

Howard, A moving tale played out so often in the real world. What a sad state of affairs when one is dependent on another for passage to safety. There are too many unscrupulous people in this world willing to take advantage of the needy, and this scenario is playing out far too wide on our planet. Down with the dictators, despots, and oligarchs of this world that cause such suffering. A nice read. Well done!

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Howard Halsall
06:47 Mar 20, 2023

Hey Chris, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. BTW - I agree with your observation about world leaders and oligarchs. The irony is that they wouldn’t exist without supporters and enablers, and a general apathy amongst the populace. Indeed, adults are very trusting and often lose an intuitive sense when something is wrong, unlike many children. I find it strange that often so called grownups act recklessly despite adverse predictions and, of course, desperate people believe what they want to bel...

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RJ Holmquist
02:02 Mar 20, 2023

I liked the way you captured how a child can feel completely confident in their parents, but at the same time understand that something isn't quite right. Great tension through every paragraph, I was smoothly drawn through from beginning to end.

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Howard Halsall
06:36 Mar 20, 2023

Hey RJ, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your feedback; it’s much appreciated. I agree with your observation about children. Indeed, they are very trusting and yet often have a sense when something is wrong, unlike many grownups. I find it strange that often adults lose that sixth sense and act recklessly despite adverse predictions. It would seem, under certain circumstances, desperate people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts. As we’ve witnessed recently, whole nations have gambled their futures on a whim,...

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Roger Scypion
05:54 Mar 19, 2023

A well written and powerful story. Sad when the innocent seek refuge and are taken advantage of. -RS

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Howard Halsall
09:19 Mar 19, 2023

Hey Roger, Thank you for reading my story and leaving for feedback. BTW - yes, I agree with you. The people who exploit the desperate migrants of the world are, in many ways, as bad as the perpetrators of the terror they’re escaping. Take care HH

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Lily Finch
20:01 Mar 18, 2023

Howard, the mood of this piece changed from the beginning of the piece until the end. The tone was consistent throughout, as there was a sense of urgency to both scenarios described. Getting away to safety to be free. LF6.

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Howard Halsall
20:16 Mar 18, 2023

Hey Lily, Thanks for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Take care HH

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Lily Finch
20:20 Mar 18, 2023

NP. LF6.

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Wendy Kaminski
17:28 Mar 18, 2023

What a tragedy, Howard - an excellent telling of one, certainly. My heart dropped at their ultimate betrayal by the scammer. I enjoy reading dystopian/disaster/war accounts, and this was just so well-done and engrossing - it will stay with me for a long time.

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Howard Halsall
18:08 Mar 18, 2023

Hey Wendy, Thanks for reading my latest submission. I’m glad you enjoyed it and pleased it made such a powerful impression. The matter of “small boats” is a current point of contention here in the UK and there have been various attempts to block illegal vessels off-loading people on their arrival. Who knows how it will progress; it’s caused a lot of trouble and the authorities aren’t handling it well. Take care HH

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