Strength of Character

When I started blogging in January, it was with the thought that I would talk about my writing and occasionally do a crafty post. However, the writing aspect of the blog kind of got lost along the way and I’ve been talking about anything and everything EXCEPT writing. Rachel Harrie‘s Writing Challenge got me thinking and talking more about writing, but lately I’ve been shirking my responsibilities a little. For the Lucky Seven Meme, I posted a blurb from page 77 of one of my unpublished novels – seven lines starting with paragraph 7, but the sea captain was not really who the story was about, so I thought I’d show you the beginning of Strength of Character. This is just a working title, since I can’t really think of anything else, right now.

Before I reveal the beginning, though, I want to let you know that my first writer’s group had a problem with it, mainly because I added a different point of view in the last third of the story – a big NO-NO! I’m still trying to resolve that problem by intertwining the life-stories of the two main characters. If this turns out badly, I may end up just writing each character’s story separately. Anyway, here is the first Chapter, now revised:

Joel scarcely noticed the clatter of his shoes on the cobblestoned street. All he heard was the pounding of his heart echoing in his ears and each labored breath as he strained to outrun the bullies from the schoolyard.  Turning a corner, he stopped. He had lost his bearing during the chase and now found himself at a dead-end street.  Whirling around in an effort to flee, his exit was blocked by four boys, all taller than he.

Their leader, Michel, gave a wide grin that did not quite reach his cold black eyes. He rammed his fist into the palm of his left hand. He twisted it malevolently, indicating what he would do to Joel’s face, given half a chance. The other boys watched Michel, waiting for the signal to pummel their prey. When their leader gave a slight nod, they circled Joel like predatory birds moving in for the kill.

Joel’s eyes grew round with terror as they darted to each face, finding no compassion there, only malicious vengeance. Vengeance for what, Joel could only guess. He could think of nothing he’d done that would have incurred such viciousness, going out of his way to avoid confrontation with them, but these bullies would not be put off easily.

Joel had no idea why they had chosen him as their target. Perhaps it was his petite stature, smaller than most boys in his eighth grade class, that singled him out. Perhaps it was his face, beautiful, cherubic, almost feminine with its high cheek bones, slender nose, and large hazel eyes fringed with thick lashes.

Michel must have believed it was a face that begged for a beating – and that was precisely what he intended to do. A raised eyebrow to Marc on Joel’s right was the signal to lunge. Marc caught Joel with his shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Joel’s school books fell to the street. Loose papers fluttered away with the wind. Joel didn’t care. He was too concerned about protecting his face from the fists flying at him.

Jean and Albert each got in a good punch at Joel before Marc took another turn. During the pummeling, Michel leaned against a building, arms folded across his chest, watching with satisfaction. After ten excruciatingly long minutes of abuse, the three bullies stepped away, leaving Joel huddled on the ground.  Michel approached and grabbed Joel by the lapels of his jacket, dragging the poor boy to his feet. He pulled him close, noses almost touching. When Michel spoke, his French was crisp and clear so Joel could hear each word distinctly.

A lundi,” he snarled, “Come Monday, you will carry my books home from school.” When Joel did not respond, he added, “That was not a request. You will be there, is that clear, pretty boy? I don’t hear you!”

Michel shook the smaller boy for emphasis and Joel gave him a reluctant nod.

Bon!” Michel said, immensely pleased with himself and shoved Joel away from him like a sack of garbage.

Joel stumbled, falling to his backside. Michel turned and, without another look back, motioned for his cronies to follow. Joel, bruised and bleeding, heard their wicked laughter as they turned the corner, their guffaws echoing throughout the alley. He eased himself painfully to his knees and pounded the cobblestones with his fists. Why had he let them do this to him? But what more could he have done? There had been four of them against only him.

Tears of humiliation and frustration trickled from the corners of his eyes. Joel swiped at them angrily. Dragging his sleeve across his bloody nose, he began to gather up his books and what was left of his notes, then headed for home. He trudged down the ancient streets of his home town of Brussels, ignoring the stares of passers-by until he reached the cement steps of the run-down apartment block he called home. Wearily climbing to the landing, his chest heaved a great sigh before he pulled open the heavy outer door. Slowly, painfully, he ascended the triple flight of stairs to the three-bedroom flat, where he lived with his parents, grandmother and two older sisters.

Anticipating the response he would get when he entered, he took another deep breath to brace himself, then quietly turned the knob, peeking inside. His grandmother rocked in her chair, as usual, her thin crochet hook darting back and forth to complete another beautiful lace tablecloth. She did not hear his entrance, being slightly deaf at eighty-two. His mother hustled around the kitchen preparing the evening meal, her back to him. He eased the door closed with an almost imperceptible click and tip-toed to his room.

C’est toi, Joel?” his mother called. “Is that you?”

His back stiffened as he turned to reply, “Oui, maman.”

She turned to greet him, concentrating on wiping the flour from her hands onto her apron. When she finally looked up and noticed the many cuts, scrapes and bruises marring his face, she gasped, “Mon dieu, chéri! What happened?”

She took his face in her hands and twisted it back and forth to take in every mark. Clicking her tongue in sympathy, she took him by the shoulders and guided him to the bathroom to cleanse his wounds.

“Tell me about it,” she insisted.

“Michel and his friends – they’ve picked on me ever since the school year began three weeks ago. It was no different today,” he began. “After school, I saw them waiting for me, so I crept out the back. One of their spies must have spotted me. They caught up to me in a dead-end alley. I tried to stop them, but they just kept hitting and kicking me!”

His mother held her tongue. As he spoke, she carefully applied antiseptic to the gash on his cheek, then pressed on a bandage. When she finished, she gave him a comforting hug.

“I’m sorry this happened, chou. I wish I knew what to do about it.”

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” he muttered, miserably. He squirmed out of her arms, saying,  “I’ve got homework to do.”

Once in the room he shared with his Grandmère, he flung open a textbook, but found he could not focus on the page. The events of the afternoon interrupted his concentration. Joel flopped onto his cot and buried his face in his pillow. Salty tears stung his open sores, but he was beyond caring. He didn’t hear his grandmother slip into the room until she settled her bulk on the cot beside him. She leaned over and stroked his hair, murmuring soothing words in a combination of French and Flemish. A few minutes later, his mother called to announce that supper was ready.

Entering the dining room, Joel noticed that his father had arrived home. Still wearing his coveralls stained with sweat and dust from the steel factory, his father sat at the head of the large oak table. One look at the patriarch and Joel knew his mother had already informed him of his afternoon activities. His father flashed him a sad sort of smile and shrugged as if to apologize for what had happened. That was all the acknowledgment Joel got from his father, which was a relief. Joel did not want to rehash the day’s events and his father seemed to sense that. Giving him an appreciative smile, Joel sat down beside him.

Unfortunately, his sisters had to know every detail.

“That’s outrageous!” Jocelyn declared, after dragging the story out of him.

“Terrible!” Denise concurred around a mouthful of potatoes.

“We should call the police!” As she spoke, Jocelyn jammed her fork into a cube of ham and shook it for emphasis. “Or Michel’s parents, at the very least!”

None of this helped when all Joel wanted to do was forget the whole thing had happened. Another sigh escaped his lips, a sigh of resignation that, because he was so much younger than his sisters who were already in university, he would have to put up with their mothering. Their incessant chatter soon exhausted him, so he quickly finished eating and retreated to the calmer atmosphere of his room, closing the door behind him.

As he entered the room, his nose detected the faint scent of lavender from the potpourris his grandmother used in her dresser drawers. Joel smiled, thinking about the silent comfort she’d offered him before supper. Once widowed, the silver-haired woman had become a part of his extended family in the tradition of their ancestors. She had never been a bother, acting as another parent when both of his were busy. She participated in the care of the apartment and sold her tablecloths and doilies down at the marketplace whenever they needed extra money. Keeping any complaints she may have to herself, she was always ready to give a smile or a hug when he was down and her tales of ‘the old days’ never bored him.

The setting sun cast long shadows across the room, leaching the colors from the homemade afghan on his grandmother’s bed. Joel closed his book, setting it on the small desk wedged between the beds. Wandering over to the tall mahogany bureau at the foot of his cot, he pulled out a pair of pyjamas.  When he heard voices drift through the thin door, he paused to listen for a moment.  His mother discussed Joel’s predicament with his father, while each of his sisters added their two cents worth.

“What can they possibly do to help?” he muttered to himself.

Dreading the idea of saying goodnight to his family and having the whole subject brought up again, Joel slipped between the cool sheets and pulled the thick down comforter over his ears, so he did not hear his father promise to take care of the matter in the morning.

*

That night at the local military base, a huge transport taxied down the runway towards the terminal. Among those who disembarked was a family of five, who loaded their luggage into a jeep that was waiting for them. On the front of the jeep waved an American flag.

It had been a long tiring flight. Thirteen-year-old Laura yawned and looked out the jeep window as the military chauffeur escorted them from the transport to their temporary residence on the American base in Belgium. Funny how every base looks the same, she thought, with the bland colors and plain boxes they called houses. Laura hoped the landscape beyond the confines of this base would reflect the character of this newest country.

Unable to see beyond the base perimeter at that late hour, Laura turned her attention to her family. Stevie was nestled against her mother’s shoulder while Doug, sitting stiffly upright, was wedged between her father and the driver. Laura thought he looked like a miniature version of her dad – except Doug had more hair!  Her father’s hairline was already beginning to recede even though he was just reaching forty. Her mother, on the other hand, still maintained a youthful appearance. Her skin was flawless, her figure that of a twenty year-old, and her hair was still jet black with no hint of grey.

Laura had inherited her mother’s olive complexion, as well as her thick dark hair. As a result, she blended in easily with the residents of their previous location. For the past two years, her family had lived in Spain, a simple yet flamboyant country where Laura and her brothers had chased chickens, milked goats and taken part in the local festivals in-between tutoring sessions with their mother. Before marrying their father, Maria had been a qualified linguistics professor, fluent in most European languages. It was this strength that had prepared the Henderson children for each new country to which their military father was assigned.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Laura had not stayed long enough to collect any meaningful memories about the place. She and her brothers had been shuffled around from one American post to another until Stevie was three, toddling about after his older siblings like the many geese that waddled around the Spanish countryside. Before Spain, they had lived in England, with its pea-soup fogs that gave an eerie feel to London town and the surrounding moors.

General Edward Henderson had also been given a year-long stint in Germany. Before that, they had lived in Italy but Laura had been too young to really appreciate the history and culture of a fallen Roman empire.  Maria and the children were grateful Edward’s skills lay in law and diplomacy rather than warfare, so that the general had not been conscripted to participate in the so-called ‘police action’ that was finally coming to an end in Vietnam.

Doug was three years older than Laura and generally took on the role of protector of his siblings, always present when strangers threatened either Laura or Steve, which was fairly often. Local kids tended to pick on the American military ‘brats’ as they were called in a variety of tongues, so the Henderson children tended to stick close to each other, relying on Doug to take care of them.

Now that she had officially become a teenager, though, Laura was more determined than ever to assert her independence. Before they reached their destination, Laura leaned forward and whispered to her Dad.

“Daddy, would you please take me into town tomorrow? I want to by some dresses like the other girls before starting school next week.”

“Of course, Pumpkin. I need to enroll you children at the local Catholic school, too, although I was told school actually began three weeks ago.”

“That’s all right. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great year.”

Her father sighed. “You are growing up so fast!”

“Not fast enough for my liking, Daddy!” she giggled.

*

Joel awoke early, even though it was Saturday and he could have slept in. He hoped to leave the apartment before anyone else had awakened, but his father was already up, waiting for him in the over-stuffed armchair in the corner of the sitting room. Rising slowly, his father walked towards him and patted his shoulder.

“Come, my son,” he said quietly. “Let’s see if we can help you, eh?”

Without another word, they left the building, Joel slinking along behind his father hoping there would not be a confrontation with Michel’s parents. He was surprised when his father headed in the opposite direction, towards a part of town even older than their own aging neighborhood. Joel glanced up at his father, who was only a few inches taller than him. His father kept his eyes straight ahead as though unaware of his son’s stare. Joel did not ask where they were going, knowing his father would not tell him until he was ready to do so.

Finally, the elder Vanderburg spoke – slowly, as though every word had been carefully chosen, “Joel, I understand what you’re going through. I, myself, have suffered at the hands of those who were larger, more powerful. I’m sorry you’ve inherited my faults. Perhaps, though, we can find a way to compensate.”

By this time, the pair had arrived at a shabby brick building. Shouts and grunts drifted through the open doorway. The entrance was narrow and barely illuminated by the single exposed bulb that swung overhead. A few steps further brought them into a large room where sunbeams wove their way through greasy windows atop the far wall, bouncing off dust motes that lingered in the air.

In the middle of the room on a raised square platform cordoned off by ropes, two men faced each other wearing head protectors and boxing gloves. Their coaches bellowed instructions from the corners. Along the walls, mouth-guarded men in sweat-soaked undershirts pummeled sand-filled leather bags that hung from the ceiling. Others struck large padded boards that a partner held for them. Off in one corner, several more men were lifting weights. Joel glanced up at his father expectantly.

A stout man stepped up to them wearing a green plaid jacket, worn thin at the elbows. An unmatched cap sat precariously on his head. The black stubble on his chin was sprinkled with gray. He peered at them with one eye almost squeezed shut. A cloud of smoke from the cigar he held clamped between his yellowing teeth hung around his weathered face like a wreath.

“What do you want?” the man asked, none too politely.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Joel’s father replied, “but I wish to speak with you about arranging lessons for my son.”

“In that case,” the man said, brightening, “while the boy looks around, we can discuss matters of fees and such.”

Joel watched helplessly as the man slipped an arm around his father’s shoulders, guiding him to a tiny office. When the door closed behind them, Joel decided he had little choice but to take the man’s advice. He wandered over to watch the men lifting weights, admiring their huge muscles, wishing he could look like that. Men passed by him, either ignoring him or gazing at him curiously.

A tall, dark-haired man caught his eye. Pressing weights from a leather bench, the man expelled short puffs of air with each upward movement of the large barbell. He had a thin, rugged face, nose slightly askew from numerous breaks, shining brown eyes, and a jagged scar along one cheek. His muscles were well-developed and defined but not as grotesque as body-builders who trained only for competition. The tattoo of a naked lady on his biceps gyrated with every contraction and extension of the muscle.

Feeling Joel’s stare, the man stopped in the middle of his routine. Setting down his weights, he motioned the boy closer. Joel obliged, hesitantly. Gripping Joel’s chin between thick fingers and thumb, the man moved Joel’s head to examine the bruises left by his attackers the day before.

“Must have been some fight,” the weightlifter commented with a smirk.  “What do the other guys look like?”

Joel blushed and pulled his chin away, unwilling to tell this stranger about his humiliating defeat. The man smiled, knowingly.

“Ah, so that’s how it is,” he said. “Tell you what, how would you like me to teach you a few things that will make those guys think twice about tangling with you again, eh?”

“I’m too small,” Joel said pitifully.  “I could never take on all four of them.”

“Four against one, eh? Not the best odds, but manageable, if you know what you’re doing.”

“How could I do that?” Joel asked, doubtfully.

“Come, I’ll show you.”

He led Joel into the next room. On the mat-covered floor, two men sparred, mostly using their feet, kicking and swinging at their opponent. Joel watched in fascination, carefully studying their moves, the way they defended themselves.

“What do you think, son?” his father asked, slipping up quietly behind him.

With eyes glistening with excitement, Joel turned to give an enthusiastic reply, but his father just smiled.  Joel’s expression was enough of an answer.

“You know I don’t approve of violence as a means of solving your problems,” he reminded Joel, “but you should know how to defend yourself, in case trouble comes looking for you.”

Merci, papa,” Joel whispered, watching the kick-boxers with awe. “When can I start?”

The dark-haired man touched his shoulder. “There is a lot you need to know before you can learn the moves those men are using. Savate is a form of kickboxing and requires a certain state of mind, as well as strength and skill. First and foremost, you must develop a mental discipline.”

“Everything has been arranged,” his father told him. “I will wait outside.”

With that, the dark-haired man led Joel to the weights.

“By the way, my name is François,” he said, holding out his hand.  “And who do I have the pleasure of teaching?”

“Joel,” the boy replied with a grin, grasping the older man’s hand as tightly as he could.

François laughed at his attempt. “Well, I see that’s the first thing we should work on.”

He sat Joel down on the bench and handed him some five-pound barbells. For the rest of the morning, François had him exercising with the weights, stretching his muscles and finally, meditating. He sat cross-legged on a mat, instructing Joel to do the same.

“Now, close your eyes and take deep breaths, like this,” he demonstrated.  “This will help to cleanse your soul and mind.”

At first, it was difficult for Joel to block out all thought, all the sounds of the men around him, to concentrate on releasing the tension in his strained muscles. He focused on François’ tranquil voice until that was all he heard. Joel’s body soon responded to the words, releasing his pent-up energy one limb at a time. When Joel finally left the gym with his father, he was physically exhausted, but mentally refreshed.

As they arrived home, Joel found he was also ravenous. He quickly gobbled down his lunch, replacing the calories he had burned up a few hours earlier. As he pushed away from the table, his stomach crammed with corned-beef sandwiches, Joel began feeling the strain of his morning exercise. His mother rubbed liniment into his aching muscles, then his father suggested they go for a run.

“But papa,” Joel protested,  “I’m too tired!”

“If you just lie around all afternoon, you’ll be so stiff you’ll be unable to move tomorrow and you must return to the gym for more practice.”

“It would be better just to let those boys pound on me for half an hour!” Joel moaned.

“Come on, son. Once you get used to the activity, you’ll feel much better.”

Joel dragged himself from the couch, laced up his sneakers, and reluctantly followed his father back into the street. They ran for almost two miles until Joel’s lungs were burning. He looked back at his father who had leaned over, panting as he placed his hands on his knees. Sweat poured from his brow. Damp patches soaked through his T-shirt under his arms, on his chest, and down the center of his back. Joel worried about the strain the run had been on his father, but the man just glanced up at his son and smiled bravely.

“This . . . has done me . . . almost as much . . . good as you,” he wheezed.

Returning home at a considerably slower pace, the two joggers stopped at the market place to pick up vegetables and meat for supper. As Joel waited for his father to pay the vender, he noticed a military vehicle amble through the throngs of shoppers, an American flag waving from its hood. It wasn’t unusual to see such vehicles in Brussels, especially since NATO had moved there from Paris a few years ago. What was unusual to see was the face of a girl about his age with chestnut braids and a turned-up nose peering at him from the back-seat window. Her fawn-like eyes held his for a second or two, before her hand raised in greeting and she flashed him a sympathetic smile, obviously moved by the marks of abuse on his face.

For some unknown reason, Joel could not tear his eyes away from that angelic face. When the crowd finally blocked her from view, he shook his head as though emerging from a trance.  What was wrong with him?  He certainly wasn’t interested in girls, yet.  What was it about that particular one that caused his heart to beat a fraction faster?  Joel had no answer to that question, so he returned his attention to his father.

By the time they arrived at the apartment, there was barely enough time for each to take a brief shower before supper. The warm spray felt wonderful on Joel’s sore muscles. He folded his arms against the shower wall and rested his head on them, letting the water massage his neck and back. His eye lids sagged, but only for a moment before his mother banged on the bathroom door.

Vite! Viens souper!

Un moment, maman! ” Joel called back. “I’ll be right there!”

He shut off the water, dried hurriedly, and slipped into clean clothes before sitting down at the table.  He bowed his head as his father gave the blessing, adding a silent prayer, himself,  “Please give me the strength to complete my training!”

*

As the military vehicle meandered through the narrow aisles of the marketplace, Laura caught sight of a boy about her age, peering at her from a fruit stand.  He had the saddest eyes she had ever seen and she immediately wondered what could have made him so unhappy.  Then she noticed the green bruise beneath his left eye.  She raised her hand to the window and smiled shyly at him.  The boy attempted to smile back but grimaced instead, his hand flinging to his jaw as though the movement had caused him great pain.

Before she could give his predicament another thought, the boy was hidden by the crowd. As she settled back against the seat, Laura considered the poor lad who appeared to have taken quite a beating. Her sympathy for him grew with every inch they traveled and she wondered if she would ever see him again.

 

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed reading it. :)

4 comments on “Strength of Character

  1. I love that we are getting the inside look at the work in progress! Well done Sue. I am also starting to read Withershins and enjoying the beginning, thanks again for that my friend.

    • Glad you like the start. I was just out at St. Andrews & Lower Fort Garry today, taking pictures for my school visits. I was thinking I might post a few, too. For those who might not get the chance to visit our historic places, it might be their only peek at them. :)

  2. Pingback: Getting critiqued | mywithershins

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