The Skiing Accident. A story about forgiveness

This story is suitable for children from 10 to teenage.

The Skiing Accident

The day I fell and broke my leg was one I will never forget. It is etched in my mind in the same way that the skis scored into the surface of that soft ice on the mountain pass. I was crossing the pass at a difficult time of year and contrary to my parent’s advice I had gone alone. ‘Never ski by yourself,’ they had drummed into me since I was a boy. ‘If you have an accident, you may be lost forever. No one will know about you and you may freeze to death.’

I had always followed their good advice on this matter. Always there were friends or my brother or father who would go with me. But this occasion was different. I had wanted to keep my journey secret. I was going to visit a girl in the next village, just over the mountain. My parents disapproved of her but I was madly in love. I felt I really needed to see her. I told my mother I was going to stay with my friend Tod over night. He lived only a quarter of a mile away. My mother would think it would not be a problem if I encountered trouble. Tod would come looking for me, whereas in fact I would be three miles away over the ridge, on a rendezvous with this girlfriend, a meeting I had arranged two weeks previously, before the snow had fallen.

I put on my skis and warm clothes, a hat, gloves and heavy boots. I would be all right. I set off early shortly after sunrise to make sure that I had plenty of daylight, just in case I encountered trouble. That was my only precaution, and thank heavens, it was the one that saved me, but only just.

I made tracks towards Tod’s home for a few hundred yards, and then I branched off into the forest, took my skis off and started to climb to the ridge. It was heavy going; the snow was quite deep. I began to think with irritation and puzzlement about why my mother didn’t approve of Sally. She was such a lovely girl, The problem didn’t seem to be about her, but was something to do with her family. I could never get my mother to explain it to me, she would just get cross and change the subject. A knot of annoyance grew in my stomach as I struggled around boulders three quarters buried in snow.

Finally I reached the summit of the ridge. I looked down at the settlement in the distance. Smoke was rising from several of the log cabins. The one my girlfriend lived in was the furthest away, beyond the settlement. I could only just see it in the distance. My heart began to beat faster as I caught sight of her fathers place, distinguished by it’s two chimneys, one at each end of the wooden house. I imagined her face at my arrival, how she would blush and tremble with the pleasure of seeing me. As I caught my breath again after the difficult climb I started to survey my probable route. It was quite straight forward, through the trees, around two rocky outcrops and on down to the village. The snow was about a foot deep and had a crisp layer of ice on the surface, as this side of the ridge faced the sun and the top layer of snow had melted. If I put my skis on I would just glide my way down there and be with her in ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I carefully strapped on my skis. I noticed the leather on one of the buckles was looking a little worn, but it seemed strong enough to me.

I pushed off down the hill guiding myself with my poles. Down I went, my heart starting to race again as I imagined Sally, her pretty face all aglow. I rounded the first outcrop of rocks moving faster than was advisable for the terrain, my excitement mounting. I saw a large boulder coming up rapidly towards me. Quickly I wrenched my foot around to change the angle of the skis. The leather strap holding my boot on snapped and my ski smashed onto the boulder. I twisted round and was flung in the air. There was a horrible crack just before I took flight and landed on my back in the snow. I felt no pain but was winded and shaken, angry at myself for having sped so fast with a strap which was obviously wearing thin. Regaining my breath I tried to stand up. As soon as I took my weight on my ski-less leg, it buckled beneath me at a strange angle. A sickening pain shot through my lower leg. I realised that I had broken it. The words that issued from my mouth are not fit to be written on paper. I was so angry with myself. I was livid. What to do now? It would be very unlikely indeed that anyone would come by, this being a forested slope some distance away from any track.

As I realised of the implications of my dishonesty and stupidity I began to feel a more continuous throbbing pain in my broken, useless leg. I could not crawl, the snow was too deep, and one of my poles had flown high up into a tree and hung hopelessly in the branches clearly in sight, but well out of reach. Then I remembered something. I should have a whistle with me to alert someone. Painfully I searched my pockets. No whistle. What an idiot I was! All I could find was a penknife and a skewer. I always kept it down the side of my ski boot to scrape out mud from the deep treads, as I used them for hiking in the spring and autumn.

In despair I half sat and half lay in the snow. I was beginning to get cold. What to do? I had to do something, but what? Shouting would be a waste of energy. As I lay there becoming more and more anxious and despondent about my situation, there came a soft plop, the sound that a lump of snow makes when it falls from a tree. I looked up and noticed that the bare branches of some sort of tree were shedding their accumulated snow. The branches were rough and coarse looking, with pale raised areas. The words, which had been going through my mind, seemed to get more insistent.

‘I wish I had a whistle! I wish I had a whistle!’

I stared at the straight, fragile looking branches and twigs, then I remembered the toy whistles I learnt to make with my grandfather. They were made from elder branches, and this was an elder tree! If only I could reach up and break off a length of one of the branches. I had my knife, I could make a whistle. It was a long hard struggle to reach a branch, but finally with the help of my remaining ski pole, I managed to bend one down. I carefully selected a section that would be wide enough to create a suitably loud whistle.

The sun was moving across the sky, soon I would be in shadow. I had to move fast and accurately to make my whistle and then attract attention before I froze to death. I tried to remember exactly how it was done. It had been many years ago since I had made an elder whistle. Cutting fast I whittled a mouthpiece and a wedge shaped hole about an inch above it. The twig was full of soft pith, characteristic of elder. How could I clean it out to allow the air to flow through it? My knife was too broad. I looked up at the sun anxiously noting its progress behind the peaks. I had only about half an hour of warmth left. The shafts of light spiking behind the branches of the trees reminded me of the long pointed skewer I had in my boot. I dug out the pith frantically and blew. And blew and blew. At first I didn’t think about sending a message, just a noise. Then I remembered about the S.O.S. that my father had told me about. I turned the Morse code into blasts on my whistle, three short, three long and three short. Again and again I repeated it. I had started to shiver violently. It was all I could do to hold the whistle in my mouth. The sun had disappeared, I started to feel very tired.

‘Mustn’t go to sleep,’ I said to myself, ‘Must keep whistling.’ In my half dreaming state I thought I heard a dog barking. I blew my whistle just in case. Yes, there was a dog. I blew again, S.O.S, S.O.S. Then I remember nothing more.

I woke up in a hospital bed, my mother holding my hand, looking anxiously over me. My girlfriend and her mother were there too. Hazily I recalled what had happened.

‘I’m sorry Mum, ‘ I said sheepishly.

‘No, Peter, it’s I who am sorry, ‘ replied my tearful mother. ‘Sally’s mother and I quarrelled years ago over such a stupid thing and I have refused to speak to her ever since. I feel so ashamed of myself. I nearly lost you because of it. I am truly sorry. I know you are not a deceitful boy. If I had agreed to let you see Sally, this would never have happened. Thank goodness their neighbour heard you whistling. Your grandfather always said it is better to forgive and forget, but I’m afraid I didn’t listen to his good advice.’

‘Well, it was grandfathers whistle that saved my life, so let’s be thankful that I listened to him at least.’

Sally stepped forward to squeeze my hand.

‘I’m so glad you’re OK, and that we don’t have to be secretive any more.’

So was I!

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A yoga story about compassion and sympathy

Aunt Ushma Becomes Very Ill

Compassion and Sympathy

When I was a small child I had an aunt; she was my mother’s sister. She used to live with us and help my mother look after us children. She would wash us and rock us to sleep if we were unsettled. She was always available to help in any way and never asked for anything in return. She was one of the family, so she was treated as such and not as a servant. My mother used to say to us, “You must look after your Auntie Ushma as well as she looks after you!”

A time came when we did indeed have to carry out our mother’s wishes. Aunt Ushma became very ill. All she could do was to lie in bed and drink water and sometimes a little fruit juice. Every one was very worried about her. I used to like to go and visit her and stroke her hair as it lay on the pillow beside her. She would turn her head and smile a wan smile.

“Ah, Ramu,” she would say, “How nice it is to feel your cool hands on my forehead. No one has hands like yours. I am sure you will be a great healer one day.”

Well, I didn’t know what she was talking about. I just knew I wanted her to get well again quickly, so that we could enjoy our usual pursuits, our walks along the riverbank and playing hide-and-seek in the woods. She was ill for a long time it seemed to me. She grew so thin that her skin looked like paper drawn across the bones of her face. No one could help her. The priest visited her and so did the wise woman who sold the herbs in the market. The Guru who lived in the nearby mountain was summoned, but he refused to come. Instead he promised to pray for her each day until he had news of a change for the better. Aunt Ushma finally died after several months of illness. On her last day she asked to see the family all together. She addressed them saying:

“I am going home soon, do not weep for me. I will return as indeed we all do. I hope my next life will shine with a few more jewels than this one. However, in this life I have been blessed with a good number of jewels until recently. I would like to thank you, all of you, for your kindness to me during this tiresome illness. You could not have looked after me with more care or consideration than if I had been the goddess Shakti herself.” And with that she closed her eyes and fell asleep. She never uttered another word. She died during the night.

I always remembered what she said about my hands and if members of the family were ill, I made sure I was there to stroke their brows and hold their hands. They always appreciated it and in later years I indeed found that my healing gift was called upon by many.


Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What kind of effect does an understanding smile have on you?
  • Think of a time when you felt compassionate towards someone. How did you show it?
  • When someone is unsympathetic towards you, how do you feel about him?
  • A friend is looking for sympathy, but you think she is just being pathetic. How can you deal with it and show you are still a good friend?

Pranayama, a story to explain Breath Control to children and young people

A story from Guptananda. In my book which is on line as from April 18th 2008 you will find both guidance and stories about the subjects of 42 aspects of yoga. The 8 Limbs, the Chakras and the Gunas etc. Yogi’s will know!

The story is set many years ago. It is told by an old man, about when he was a boy, the son of a senior scribe in a temple in India.

Father explains the importance of deep breathing

My family was always kept busy doing all sorts of things to keep the household going. There would be all the cooking, the preparing and even the growing of food. There was the cleaning both inside and outside the house, the laundering of all our clothes and the repairing and building of the house and outhouses. The horses needed to be cared for and the other animals needed to be fed, cleaned and watered. We children had our studies to do and our mother was the main supervisor of all this work.
Father worked at the temple and we would only see him early in the morning and in the evening. Sometimes he had a day off and every so often he would decide that it was time the family went on a picnic. We would always choose to walk down by the river and we would find one of many pretty spots to stop at. We children would run off and play at the water’s edge while Mother and Father looked on. Then my father would take off his robe and sit in his loincloth in the shade and start doing his breathing exercises. Sometimes we would ask him what he was doing and he would motion us to go away and leave him in peace.
When we asked Mother why he was breathing like that she just said, “Your father is drawing in good things from the air. He always feels better after he has done his breathing practice. He does it every day, you know, but here by the river he likes to spend longer at his breathing exercises. Off you go and play now, we will call you when it’s time to eat.”

On one occasion my curiosity could not be restrained. We had all gathered round to eat our picnic. Mother was handing out large leaves filled with a delicious mix of peas, beans and tasty herbs. I asked father
“What is it in the air you like so much, Father? Can we get some too? Do we need it, or are you different from us?”

“Ah, my son,” said father. “You are right to want not to be deprived of the benefits of breathing air deeply. Yes, you certainly can do it too, but not while you are eating, my child!” he added as I began to hold my breath with a mouthful of beans half chewed, sitting on my tongue.

“There is a wonderful thing called prana or life force energy, which is in the air. The slower and deeper we breathe the more prana we get into our bodies. This prana keeps us calm, it keeps us healthy. Children get lots of prana into them when they run around and play, when they laugh and when they shout and cry. Children do all these things much more than adults do. When you get older you need to practice breathing exercises to make sure you get enough prana. If you do not you may become weak and ill.”

“But Mother doesn’t do breathing exercises, does she?” I asked.

“Many people chose not to and say that if they do, they do not feel any benefit. That is up to them. I have always felt the benefit, so I will always practise pranayama until I become too old and weak to sit up in the sunshine”

“You’ll never be that old, Father,” said my sister, laughing.
“Mother says that you’ll live ’til you’re a hundred and fifty, and then you’ll fly to heaven. You’ll probably puff yourself there with your prana thing, I know!”

Every one laughed and when we had finished eating, father showed us how to make a reed pipe and blow a long string of bubbles into the water. “This is how I learnt to breath slowly,” he said, as he showed us his bubbles rising one after another quite slowly in a fine stream, unlike ours which came out all of a rush, bursting the water’s surface all in one go.

Ferret boy – a story about respect for one another

I wrote today’s story for the first years at my College (Special Needs Dept.) Lack of respect is a common problem. The story is also suitable for 10-11 year olds.

Ferret Boy

Thomas was sixteen. Everyone thought his name was Tom, and that is what he preferred to be called. ‘Thomas’ seemed a bit serious, ‘Thomas’ meant there was trouble ahead. Tom’s gran looked after him. His mum had left when he was very young and his gran had taken on the role of being ‘mum’. Grandad was there too. Tom thought he was great.  He showed Tom how to use a saw, how to hammer nails and to make things out of wood.

Tom kept ferrets. He had no brothers or sisters but he had a whole family of ferrets instead. He had started off with a female, Jess, he called her. She was not much bigger than a rat when she arrived. Grandad brought her home. A friend at work had given him the young ferret for Tom. They put her in a cat’s carrying box and went out to the shed to see what they could use to make a cage for her.  Tom had helped his grandad to make things out of wood, but he had never actually made anything by himself.

“You can make the cage Tom,” said his Grandad.

“How will I do that? I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll help you; look I found this ferret cage design in the library.”

That was the great thing about grandad – he always planned ahead. He always took the trouble to work things out beforehand.

Tom sort of knew that somewhere in the shed would be all the bits and pieces they needed. Grandad would have seen to that already. He must have known about the ferret having babies for several weeks. He liked to give other people nice surprises, but not problems. The nice surprise was for Tom. The careful planning was for him.

“Let’s have a look then, Grandad, you tell me what we need and I’ll see if I can find it.”

“Right lad, here we go. Two metres of four by two…” and so the list started.

Tom picked up all the bits as his grandad listed them. He could see he would have to do some sawing and measuring, but he knew he could do it with his grandad’s help.

That had been three years ago, now Tom had a row of cages in the garage. He had made them all. Each cage was home to one or two ferrets and each cage was better than the last. Grandad had brought him a ‘jack’ ferret on his fourteenth birthday and over time Jess and Joss, as the male was called, had produced several young.

Ferret boy

Tom loved his ferrets more than anything. He would take them to country fairs in the summer. Grandad would drive and Grandma always sent them off with a good picnic. That was Tom’s favourite time of year – summer holidays – ferret racing.

Tom started college just after he was 16. He had never been very interested in reading or writing. He was a bit worried about how he would get on. He had decided to study farming as that seemed to be the best subject for him.

The students were a mixed bunch. Some of them were very keen on their subject, but a lot of them didn’t seem to care what they did. They were often noisy and rude to each other. They jostled and pushed and generally tried to see if they could make someone else feel small so that they could feel big. Tom thought it was a very strange way to behave. It was not how he had been brought up. He had been brought up to listen to what other people had to say, to pay attention, not to interrupt and to show respect for other people.

During a farming lesson, the second one of the term, Tom and his group were in the calf sheds. They were stroking the calves and getting to know them. One of the calves was standing in a corner by himself. The others were skipping around and jostling each other rather like the students at break time. Tom walked quietly over to the lonely calf. Its ears were hanging down and its eyes were half closed. It had a dirty wet backside. Tom stroked its head gently.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked it quietly.

The calf lifted its head and looked at Tom as if to say, ‘I’m not feeling very well.’

Tom went back to the group and the teacher. He said he thought there was a poorly calf in the pen and that it should be separated from the others.

“Yeah, what do you know about it, you a farmer or summat?” said a large loutish boy.

“Let’s all go over and have a look at the calf,” said the teacher.

poorly calf drawing

The calf cowered in a corner. The teacher asked the large boy what he could see.

“Looks like a sheep to me, ha ha ha!” he shouted.

Some of the others laughed. The teacher turned to another boy.

“OK David, what do you think?”

“Looks alright to me – maybe it’s a bit shy, like Tom.”

More laughter.

“Mike, your dad’s a farmer, what do you think?” asked the teacher.

“I think Tom’s right. Its eyes are dull, it’s hanging its head, it’s scouring, that means it’s got upset insides – like us havin’ diarrhoea. Yeah, it’s poorly. We should take it away from the others.”

“Yeah, yeah, clever clogs!” said the large lad.

“ Alright, Damian,” said the teacher. It’s OK to get things wrong. That’s why you’re here – to learn. It’s also OK to get things right! Well done Tom and Mike. Very good.”

Mike walked beside Tom as they made their way back to College.

“You keep animals then?” Mike asked.

“Only little ones; ferrets. But they’re all the same, aren’t they?”

“That’s right,” said Mike, “You gotta look after them careful like, or they start dyin’ on you.”

Damian over heard the conversation.

“We lost a puppy last week. One day it was runnin’ around, two days later, dead! My mum was some upset,” he said.

“Didn’t it look sick or anything?” asked Tom.

“Well Mum said we should take it to the vet the day before. She said it looked poorly, but my dad said ‘don’t be so daft.’ So did I. Vets’ll con you out of thirty quid soon as look at you.”

“But now you’ve got no dog,” said Tom.

Damian looked sad. “No. I had it for my birthday. £350 it cost. It was a great little dog.” He shuffled away.

Mike and Tom looked at each other. Neither of them was surprised that Damian’s family had lost a puppy. People who don’t respect people are unlikely to respect animals. Mike shrugged his shoulders and the two boys walked back quietly, lost in their own thoughts.

Questions:

In the first part of the story who do you think Tom had great respect for? Why?

  1. How did Tom’s grandad show that he respected people?
  2. Did Tom respect his own animals? How do you know?
  3. What do you think about making others feel bad so that you feel good? What is another word for that kind of behaviour?
  4. Do you think the teacher showed respect for all of his students?
  5. Does Damian’s behaviour make you want to respect him?
  6. Do you think he is looking for respect in any way?
  7. Did he and his dad respect the life of their puppy or did they just think about saving £30, although they had already spent £350.

8. Does the story remind you of anything in your life?

 

The Flood (A story about respect for others’ property)

This story is set in Bangladesh.  It is for 9-13 year olds .  I wrote it for  Sathya Sai Education in Human Values lessons SSEHV (an excellent scheme for primary and secondary children, find it on the web)

The Flood

In my village in Bangladesh we live very close to the sea. We live in fear of tidal waves, hurricanes, tornadoes and even extra high tides. If the people in my village could have found somewhere else to live, they would have. But most people are too poor to move away, so they stay and pray that the sea will not take them before their time.

When I was about ten years old, we had a terrible flood. I remember it so clearly. The weather had been bad for several days, raining heavily, turning everything into mud. Then we heard there were storms at sea. The tide was very high the night before it happened. My father said we could not risk staying at home for even one more day. He made us pack our belongings and put them into our handcart. My Mother readily agreed to go. She was afraid for our lives, the lives of her children, especially the new baby, only three months old. She felt he would be her last child and so he was especially precious to her. There were six of us children, four girls and two boys. Two of my sisters were older than I was and the others had come much later, they were twins and were about three years old.

For me it was quite exciting to pack up all our important things. We did not have very much, but my mother made sure we took our little cooking stove and a large bag of rice along with clothing and bedding and tools for working in the fields. We also took our oil lamp trying very hard not to break the glass. I wrapped my blanket carefully around it to make sure it was safe.

Many other people had the same idea as us; some had already had water in their homes from the previous night’s high tide.

The wind blew and the rain fell and we trudged along the road as soon as it was light enough to see. My father said we must walk at least eight miles to get onto higher ground before the next high tide. This was going to be difficult but father thought that even if we didn’t manage the eight miles at least we would be further inland. Maybe the land would soak up the sea behind us, so that it would not reach us, even if we were still on the low lying ground.

My elder sisters and I took it in turns to carry the twins. They were very small and could not keep up the pace. Mother carried the baby on her back and helped father to push the cart when he became tired.

After we had been walking about three hours a terrible thing happened. The wheel fell off our cart. People were streaming past us with their children, animals and all their worldly goods. Everybody’s cart was full up to the brim. There was no space for our stuff. Mother began to cry as she looked at her little cooker that she loved so much. Would she have to leave it behind?

Time was pressing on. The day was becoming hot and humid and there was still a long way to go. Mother noticed a signpost at the edge of the road. It indicated the way to the next village.

“This is a good marker,” she said, and she walked over to a rough brick house. It was open and there were signs that the inhabitants had left hurriedly, leaving little of importance behind them. Mother and Father dragged the cart into the house and draped an old sari she found lying in a corner over it to hide the contents.

“With any luck when we return we may find this house again and reclaim what is ours.” She said.

We continued our journey with no food and no water but with our lives intact. We reached the higher ground two hours before the next high tide and storm. The land was devastated. Thousands of houses were washed away and hundreds of lives were lost. Those too old or too ill to make the journey were drowned. Our family was still together, wet, homeless but together. After five days the local people who had fed us with bowls of rice said we must return to our homelands. There was no room for us in their villages. The water had subsided, so return we did. It was difficult to recognise the route we had taken. Dead animals lay strewn everywhere and every so often there was a human corpse. I noticed that several of the dead were people who had a leg or a foot missing, they had not been able to walk fast or far enough.

Father found an old wheel abandoned in the road and was hoping to be able to fix it on to the cart, should we ever find our cart again. My mother suddenly became excited as she saw in the distance the sign near the brick house where our belongings had been left.

.

Mother and I ran towards the house. There were some people standing round the door looking tired and dirty. Mother approached them cautiously. She spoke to a man leaning in the doorway. She explained how the cart had broken and she had left it in the hut. She wondered if it was still there.

“Ah, Madam, “ replied the tired looking man, “When we returned home all we found was mud, mud, mud. We have not started to clear it away yet. It seems to have half filled our house. Please look for yourself.”

Mother looked inside the hut. To her joy she found the leg of the cooking stove poking out through a piece of filthy slime.

“Yes, yes, “ she exclaimed, “It’s there! May we take it?”

“Indeed, Madam, since it is yours. Please feel free to release it from its tomb.”

“But what about you? You seem to have nothing left in your house. Are you sure you don’t want to keep it? That was the risk we took in leaving it here.”

“Madam, I have very little, and neither, I perceive, do you; but what is yours, is yours. Please take it. The Lord will provide for us, unless it is his will that we also should die.”

With that the man began to scrape away at the mud. Beneath our cart lay a pile of beautiful cooking pots.

There lay some beautiful pots in the mud.

There lay some beautiful pots in the mud.

“And these, madam, are these yours too?”

“No,” said Mother, “I have never seen these, you must keep them and use them for yourself.”

“I will indeed, until their rightful owner returns, I will consider them to be my own.”

He smiled a big smile and his wife looked in wonder at the pots.

On returning to our village we cleared away the mud and resumed our lives. That was ten years ago. I have always remembered that man’s understanding of what is mine is mine, what is yours is yours. It is a good way to look at property, and then one will never be tempted to steal it.

QUESTIONS: Support answers to questions 2 to 7 with evidence from the text.
1. What name would you give this story?
2. Why was the village unsafe?
3. Why did the people remain living there?
4. What were the family’s most important possessions?
5. How do you know the narrator had a positive attitude to life?
6. What help did they receive from the villagers on the higher ground?
7. What was the old man’s attitude who owned the house?
8. How did you feel when you heard the story?
9. Did it remind you of anything in your own life?

A story about life in Siberia and lack of freedom.

Siberia, an open prison

Northern Russia is known as Siberia. You wouldn’t think many people would choose to live there. I did not choose; I was born in Siberia. I grew up there. I learnt to appreciate the ice and snow, the long dark winters and the warm wet summers when the day stretched into night, so that people did not know when to go to bed or when to rise.

I lived with my parents in a concrete block building we called our home. My father used to track and record the movement of animals up in the Arctic Circle for the government. He loved to see the reindeer herds moving across the plains with the seasons. Mother looked after us three children and worked in the library in our town. It was not much of a place really. There was a central meeting hall, several general stores and a few specialist shops. Many of the people had been sent as a punishment for their free thinking to live and work in our town. They were carefully watched by the police who would imprison them if they transgressed the rules. There were not many rules, only two in fact. No anti- communist talk and no leaving the town. It would have been difficult to leave other than on the train as our town was completely isolated. We were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of freezing wastes or the sea. The train arrived once or twice a week bringing supplies and a small number of visitors. The departing trains were always very carefully searched for stowaways before they were allowed to leave.

So our town was like an open prison for many of the population. Amongst the so called criminals who had been banished were many intellectuals. The communist party could not tolerate their questioning presence in Moscow or Leningrad so they were arrested on fake charges and transported up north.

My mother as a librarian got to know many of the prisoners, for such they were. Many of them had wives and families at home. Some had to leave nice houses and good jobs in colleges and universities; in fact many of those who visited the library were professors, doctors and lawyers.

Of course the library books were carefully scrutinised for anti communist ideology before they were accepted for general use. Any suspect material was either used to fuel the central boiler or placed under lock and key, and lent only to a select few who were considered to be incorruptible.

When I was about fourteen years of age my parents decided they would like to take a journey to the south to visit some of my mother’s relatives. Mother said she needed a change from the dampness and the midges which plagued us in the summer months. My parents had to plan this holiday a long time in advance. They had to save as much money as possible, and my brother and I took jobs after school to help to raise the money. I had spoken about different parts of the USSR with some of the prisoners. I was very excited. I loved the sound of the mountains and the lakes. I wanted to taste the fresh fruit and vegetables which they told me were incomparable to the salted pickled, bottled and jammed products that we ate every day. My brother was fascinated by television – We had never seen one, only films in the meeting hall about once a month. Usually they were very boring political films about how well things were going in our ‘wonderful country’, but occasionally we would be shown adventure stories, cowboy films, or even romance. These films had subtitles as they were inevitably foreign. My brother adored them. He loved to act and he saw himself on a stage, his name in lights, or better still on the television, a great Russian actor of the new generation.

My job after school involved sweeping the meeting hall and putting all the chairs back in position for the next day’s events. It took me one and a half hours to do or two if I did not concentrate on my work. Sometimes I would stand on the dais, a good meter above the level of the floor, and I would make political speeches, waving my arms around. I would talk at length about what I thought Russia could be like if everyone was free to say and think what they pleased. I would make sure everyone had left before I started on these little personal expressions of my ideological views. The old janitor didn’t care what I said; in fact I think he was a sympathiser. He used to sit at the back waiting to lock up, as it was warmer in the hall than in either of our houses, neither of us would be in a hurry to get home and my oratory would amuse him. He told me one day that I had great potential as a political leader, but that I must be extremely careful to whom I expressed my views. He was convinced that communism such as it was in the USSR could not last and that young people with new ideas had to supersede the old guard. He warned me that if I was not careful I could become a prisoner in my own town too, but since I was only fourteen I had several years of comparative freedom before my opinions mattered to any one.

My brother would earn his money by cleaning the bar at the other end of the same street as the meeting hall. There would be chairs to move and cigarette ends to sweep, spilled vodka and usually a broken glass or two to clear. He said that his clientele were more artistic than mine and his conversations with the barmen were never about politics, but about the latest film or magazine he had seen. So both my brother and I had great ambitions to succeed in our different fields of interest, and this trip was going to give us a taste of the world that we wished to enter, many miles away from the cold dark influence of Siberia.

Neither of our parents had any useful connections or power. I did wonder how I was going to make my breakthrough into the world of politics. My brother and I spent many a long hour discussing how we thought we could meet the right people who would help us achieve our goals. One day my mother invited one of the dissident professors home to share a meal with us. This was an infrequent occurrence in our house, but when it did happen my brother and I made sure we did not miss a moment of it. Some of these people were well worth listening to.

When he arrived the professor looked around at us and said,

“Ah, I have two sons just about your age, how I miss them. I keep thinking of things they need to know to succeed in life, and I can only write to them. I can’t be sure that my letters are not censored.

May I give you the benefit of my experiences? You may think that since I am here I have not succeeded very well in my life, but I can tell you that in my heart I am at peace. I have chosen to be honest and open about my views. I have taught many of the younger generation who will shortly change Russia forever.’

Looking back, I see that what the old man told us turned out to be prophetic; much has changed in the intervening years, much for the better, but some for the worse. I can only hope that my grand children have a more comfortable and secure life than my family had in the ‘50s.