One summer an old man came to live near us. He had rented the little French house which sat on the lip of a small hill.
Being young and selfish, I was disappointed that the house was no longer empty, for I had found a way to enter the place by climbing under the wooden floor and coming up in the kitchen.
I told no one of the fact that I spent most free time in there, reading, writing and playing games. It was my secret, my little piece of heaven. At home I had to share a room with two other brothers and there seemed to be no part of that bedroom which was ‘me’.
I hadn’t realised that the old man was due to take the place, or I would have attempted to tidy away the stuff I had left; there were books open, toys, and papers spread all over the floor. I liked my freedom up there. I liked my little French house.
One Saturday afternoon when my brothers had gone to watch the local football game, I walked up to the French house to see if I could spy on the man who had stolen my sanctuary.
I waited an hour before he came out to collect some water from the well. He looked as if he was over a hundred years old, but thinking back on it from where I am today, I guess he was in his late forties.
He was turning to pick up his pail of water and head back to the house, when he must have spotted me and called me over.
“Hello there, you, young boy, come here,” he shouted.
I stupidly looked around to see if he was talking to me, but of course he was, who else would trudge all the way up here? For it certainly was a climb, as it would take me almost the best part of an hour to the reach the French house.
The man was called ‘Bertie’ and he invited me in for a cold drink. I was curious to find out what kind of person he was and why he had taken my other home.
He had been a spaceman, he said, and spoke with an American accent. I asked had he been to the moon, and he said that he had. I wanted to know what had caused the scar on the right side of his face, and he had said that a moon monster had chased him. I found out years later that he had been in a war acting as a hero and that the scar was the price he had paid.
He asked me if anyone had been into the house as it lay empty, and I dropped my head and said I didn’t know. He said that it was fine, but that the person who had been in had been reading the best books that were available and that they must be very intelligent.
I drank the cold cola, greedily, and it was just what I needed after the hot, long, climb up to the house.
I have to say that me and Bertie became the best of friends, and each weekend I would take off early and head for the French house. We would read books, discuss the universe and laugh at all the old jokes we knew. I told no one of the house or the spaceman.
Bertie told stories of his trip to the moon and all the training he had gone through. I would sit there in awe of my friend and wondering at all the things those eyes had seen.
That was the one thing that troubled me about him – his eyes. They looked sad, very sad, and probably the reason I thought he was a hundred years old.
“What are you looking at?” He asked me, one day. ”Tell me you don’t still get rattled by that scar of mine?” He asked. I said that I wasn’t but that I thought that his eyes were strange. Kind of sad-looking, kind of old.
He told me to sit and said that he would make us both a cup of hot chocolate. He handed me the chocolate and said he was going to tell me a story.
“Now listen son, there are only really two types of people in this world, those who haven’t seen the thing that changes them and those who have. You have those wide, happy eyes that are still untainted by the world. Now I ain’t meaning to bring you down or anything, I’m just telling you like it is. One day you will see the thing and your eyes will dull a little and your heart will harden a little, and folks will look at you and know that you’ve seen the thing that changes you.”
I asked him what it was, this thing that changes people and he said that it was different for everyone, and when I saw it, I’d know it, and that was as much as he could tell me.
“As for my own eyes,” he continued, “well there is one other type. They are called ‘gallows’ eyes’ and there are only a few folks in the world that wear those ones. My eyes, my sad eyes, are that type. When you’ve looked death in the face, it burns a picture on your retina that you can never hide and your eyes show the way your soul has changed for the rest of your life”.
He told me to finish my chocolate as it was getting late, and that I should be heading home.
As I left, he said that he hoped I didn’t see the thing that changes a person for a very long time, a very long time indeed. Then he ruffled my hair and said he’d see me next week.
It was several years before I saw the thing that changes folks, and the old man was right, it dulled my eyes just like he said.
bobby stevenson 2017