Flitting in the Moonlight
It seemed they were always on the move. They moved from town to town, across state lines … school to school. No explanation was ever offered to the children. Theirs was just ‘to do or die’. Such things were ‘for us to know and you to find out’!
They were an exceptionally large family. Indeed, there were at the time ten children living at home. Living poor was for them the only thing they knew as the household head was more often than not ‘between jobs’. The truth is he changed jobs perhaps more often than residences. That, however, was ‘secret men’s business ‘ and most certainly not to be discussed with children!
It had not been too great a shock to them then, that he had come home from work just past a year ago in an agitated state of mind and angrily announced ‘That’s it! We’re moving … NOW!’
It was familiar territory.
The woman … the wife and mother would, each time this happened, fly into a flurry of panic. She would rush to finish feeding her young ones and race around the house trying to decide the best, most pressing items to take. It was rather like the panic which takes hold in extreme bush-fire emergency when one is totally unprepared.
As they grew, the children realised that there was a name for what they were doing. It was called ‘doing a moonlight’ or ‘a moonlight flit’!
Cars were ‘upgraded’ as often as addresses, and at that time the father … the head … was driving a big old Dodge. I think perhaps it was a 1936 model. It was a dull black colour as the duco had long since worn away, but it was apparently in very good shape mechanically. It had long bench seats too high for many of the children to reach the floor when they sat back in it; also a cover on the boot lid for the spare tyre and long running boards which made it easier for the children to climb aboard.
It was indeed a big car but still the children had to be piled in on top of one another. With no seat belts they were squashed and squeezed to sit four bigger children across the back seat with four smaller sitting on their laps. Both parents and a middle-sized child sat across the front and the mother nursed the baby on her knee.
Before they could get to that stage though, the children were commanded to take up their positions and wait. This was a necessity in order that the parents could stuff belongings under their feet and on their laps as well as stuffing the boot and piling bundles high upon the roof racks.
Finally the car could hold not one thing more!
They drove away! They seemed to drive forever along rough and narrow country roads with no particular destination in mind.
Tired and cramped, the children dare not ask where or why. They tried so hard not to complain. It would only make things worse.
Finally the father pulled off onto the verge of a dark and pot-holed road. He had a few quiet words with their mother and then got out of the car and walked off into the darkness.
Inside the car no-one spoke! There was nothing much to see out there but, deep in the shadows, a rather sinister looking building which created the most amazing, haunting shadows.
In their weary state, those still wakeful young souls ached to move outside the car. However they were packed so tightly with their belongings that it would all have tumbled to the road-side. They did not dare!
After what seemed like long hours, though it may well have been a much shorter time, the father returned. Again he spoke only to the mother, but this time audibly enough for the children to hear, ‘It took some persuasion, but he says we can have it for a few weeks for only five quid a week!’
He climbed back into the old Dodge and swung it around, down a long over-grown driveway to the dingy old building which turned out to be the house they were to move into.
The first morning light was just beginning to show and one can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of the mother and the children as the first dawning realisation hit them … the ghostly building they had been looking at was to be their new home!
A more sad and derelict house would be hard to imagine. There was no skerrick of paint left on the aged weather boards of its shell and there were quite a few boards missing. Spiders and other creepy-crawlies had long since taken over the decorating. Bowed and seemingly spindly stilts had, in another life-time held it proudly aloft … but they had long since wearied. The house had not seen any water or electric power in many a year. By far the most notable feature however was the fact that there were no stairs by which to enter it … front or back!
This last fact the father did not see as a problem! He set about to cut some infant trees and strip them of all twigs and leaves in order that he might fashion a ladder by which his rather rotund wife and brood might enter the house.
Having taken care of this small problem he bravely sent his wife up first. There is nothing quite like leading from the rear.
One can only surmise as to the feelings of this poor woman as she climbed that rickety, almost vertical ladder into the unknown. We might suppose that the feelings of the children would have ranged from anxiety to excitement in the more adventurous ones, to utter rage in those old enough to be fed up with the lifestyle which was foisted upon them.
The first thing to strike home once inside was the awful, thick, choking, powdery dust! Then there were the cobwebs and the small droppings of mice and birds.
The mother surveyed her new situation whilst the remaining family made their way up the make-shift ladder. Everything inside was ancient, yet surprisingly intact. It would have to do!! She had no choice!
As the family arrived ‘upstairs’, one issue hit home quickly … the whole house swayed with every human movement. It swayed as well with every breeze!
Belongings dragged and winched up from the car, the mother did her best to feed her weary family out of cans. She laid some blankets on the dusty floor and coaxed the smaller children to try to have a sleep. The smell of the dust was irritating her nostrils and so she could not imagine how they must be coping with it.
With the littlies bedded momentarily and the father having left them there to do his own thing, she and her older offspring sat about on the floor and tried to ease the tension with a game of ‘imagine’. They told each other stories of the possible history of this house. They wondered how long it had stood empty and concocted dramatic reasons for its abandonment. ‘If the walls could talk,’ one of them suggested ‘what stories would they tell?’
It did not take long for the father to find work. He possessed an amazing gift of the gab and could talk his way into, or out of, any situation. It was the holding of a job which was the problem.
In a matter of weeks he had managed to make steps out of rough store-bought timber. He bolted the new timber supports to the osteoporotic skeleton of the house.
Somehow he had also to manage to talk the landlord into ‘Just a little more time.’ He persuaded the poor man also to reconnect the power and the water temporarily … though what feats of persuasion he had to use on the ‘powers that be’ can only be guessed at.
‘A few more weeks’ turned into twelve months!
Daily the mother and her children went through the motions. The mother stayed at home and tried to make sense of their lives. She did her best with what he brought her to make them comfortable and keep them fed.
The older children went to the nearby one-teacher school. They did their best to learn. They did their utmost to blend in.
As to the community, however, they did their best not to notice any of the family. ‘Fly-by-nights’! ‘Urchins’! This is the way they were seen! This is the way they felt! They did what they felt was expected of them anyway. What choice did they have?
At home, the mother struggled with the dust, the babies and the lack of all things nice … all things safe … all things nurturing. At times as she accidentally noticed again the life which held her captive, her heart broke anew. She would choke it back again … choke on it until she felt her chest would burst.
Mustn’t let the children see. Mustn’t let the father see. Must not let the children run too wild … mustn’t, mustn’t, mustn’t!
She was certain that the house was swaying more than ever. The fear at times almost paralysed her. Only her fierce maternal need to protect her children prevented this.
These issues were never discussed. The father had made his choices. They were his to make. He was the head!
So, twelve long months had passed!
The unwilling landlord was becoming more restless. The community was talking … questioning … pointing. The mother and her children had, as one, slipped into a quiet solemnity so thick that it was palpable; and the father’s discomfort tightened like an iron girdle day by day.
He spoke to no-one with regard to his anxiety, but stayed out later night after night and disappeared at weekends. Week by week the silent gulf between them grew along side the fear and hopelessness.
Still, no word did the father share of his dark fears, or of his plans. Till, on a wet and windy Friday when the mother was past panic, he came home early. His demeanour was markedly changed though she was too overwrought to see it.
‘Start packing!’ he demanded. ‘I have found a better house. It’s smaller but much nicer; closer to town. The kids will change to the big school in town.’
That familiar panic now consumed his wife as she moved about the house to pick and pack. He’d move the stuff in car loads this time then come back for her and the kids. They would be out by sundown on the Saturday.
All that night and late into the Saturday she struggled and toiled between packing and sorting … and children!
All that night and into Saturday the rain and wind assaulted the stilted house, and the house recoiled against them, pulling this way and that. It groaned and cried as though in agony.
The packing finished and the last load gone, the mother and her children sat on the floor and waited. They sang songs to mask their feelings, and they made their faces brave.
Finally he came for them. Tired now and angry, they bit their lips and filed out at his command. They made their way gingerly down the new store-bought-timber steps and felt them heave as the frail old house retched its protest against the elements. It screamed its protests too, like a too-ancient man living in arthritic agony.
As the family walked toward the car, they could none of them resist the urge to turn and look one last time at the wreck which had at one and the same time provided them with shelter, and filled their lives with terror.
As they seemed to turn almost in unison, an angry wind gust cut the air and slammed into the side of the house. The old timbers could no longer hold on to the new. They wrenched themselves away. The steps seemed to pause in mid air in shock for a few seconds before crashing down and then the spindly stilts, like a weak and chalky skeleton, gave way. The house teetered, seemed momentarily to right itself, then toppled to one side.
As melodramatic as it may sound, all this happened seemingly in slow motion, and was to the ear like a sound track slowed right down; it made a most unusual noise as it landed! It was a sound like a tortured and cornered animal too weary to battle anymore; yet too strong of mind and too angry at the hunter to simply lie down and die.
That sound struck the mother, like a victory trumpet after a protracted and bloody battle or rather, perhaps, a call to battle. In her heart and mind she memorised the sound, and willed her members to play it over and again. She savoured it! Indeed, she tried to recall every note of it.
Suddenly she ‘knew’ that the house had fought to stand this past twelve months, not to panic her but to rest, protect and teach her. It seemed as though the house itself had recognised and identified with her weariness. As the house roared its dying agony, it breathed new strength into the mother. That battle cry would remain imprinted on her memory to recall each time she needed to draw on it for strength … for independence … for hope.
That house would be remembered with affection after all.
Bio: Robyn says that she took up the challenge to write this story because it gave her the opportunity to write something a little longer than she normally does. The trigger reminded her of an old house she knew of many years ago.