Under Two Shires Oak – Episode 36

SUZANNE felt a bit like a shepherd in a nursery rhyme as she rounded her little flock up and out of the way of the huge earth-moving vehicle trundling in their direction. Except the flock was of children, not sheep. And the parched and wounded African earth formed a landscape very different from that in any nursery story she’d been told.

Ingrid, a Norwegian woman, was at the wheel of the vehicle. She gave Suzanne a wave – rather a curt one, Suzanne thought. She was aware that some of her colleagues in the aid organisation doubted the usefulness of her work.

Essentially, she was providing art therapy to the children of the traumatised civilians who were slowly returning to their little town, which had been left in near ruin following recent territorial clashes.

In a way, she could see her colleagues’ point of view. Why they, like Ingrid, who were involved in feeding the returning families and repairing their damaged homes and infrastructure, deemed their contribution more important than hers.

Suzanne sighed. Not that the homes they were repairing had been much to start with. Continually threatened by drought, the people had always found life a struggle. So why make matters worse with what, at its height, was effectively a local civil war? She didn’t understand the politics.

Tom said that poverty was part of the problem. He was the tall, long-haired, almost hippyish yet desperately efficient chap who ran things. So it probably was. He’d been here longer than any of them and was respected by all.

Returning Ingrid’s wave, Suzanne ushered the children into the tent she used for her “lessons”.

When they had arrived at the camp, she started off by drawing little pictures for the children to copy. Then she left them to do their own thing. At first, their own drawings and paintings had tended to be bleak and sombre. But as their fear receded and they felt more secure, bright, optimistic colours and images started appearing. Today, there was a lot of yellow and orange in the work that was proudly shown to her, and seeing that made it all worthwhile for Suzanne.

That night, though, she couldn’t sleep. Between the human noise of a lot of people in a small space, and then the animals in the surrounding scrubland, it was never easy. Eventually she gave up trying and went outside.

She was gazing up at a quite beautiful moon when she heard someone coming up behind. It was Tom.

“I saw you from my room.” He handed her an envelope. “There’s a letter for you.”

Their post came spasmodically via a central office. She saw immediately it was from France and was in her mother’s handwriting. She read it twice by the light from the moon.

“You miss them,” Tom said when she finally put it carefully into her jeans pocket.

“I do. But I wanted to do this. Though, sometimes, I wonder if what I’m doing is making any real difference. I’m not feeding anyone, or repairing homes!”

He was adamant. Her work was every bit as important as anyone else’s.

“Some of the kids can’t talk about what’s happened to them. It’s too upsetting, or they just don’t have the words and understanding. But they need to express it. Drawing gives them a way to tell their story.”

Suzanne nodded thoughtfully. That was it exactly.

“Thanks.” She smiled. “I’ve just sometimes wondered if I fitted in here.”

“Of course you do.” Reaching out, he touched her red-brown hair, same as her mother’s. “Look at you. All earth colours.”

Then he kissed her.

She had a memory of Yves, back in France, also telling her how she was “earth colours”. Yves had been going to kiss her, but she’d pushed him away.

She didn’t push Tom away. It was he who pulled away.

“Sorry,” he told her. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s OK.”

“It isn’t, Suzanne.” His blue eyes, usually so kind, were suddenly fierce. “Out here, doing what we’re doing, is not the place for romance!”

He turned and, as he walked off, she thought she heard him say, “Just blame it on the moonlight.”

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.