The Old Man's Secret

The Old Man’s Secret

by David Hall

Clear off you dirty tramp!” The shout came from a youth walking through the park and was directed at an old man sitting on a park bench. The man looked away, refusing to answer. A woman, the young man’s companion, prodded the old man with her umbrella. “You are not wanted, you disgusting creature.” The old man flinched and, again turned away without responding. It was, after all, his daily lot. He slept in a shop doorway, moving out before the owners arrived to open up, and came to the park where he spread his dilapidated sleeping bag on the same bench and sat for the day. He had nowhere else to go. His ginger hair was dishevelled, long and lank, and his beard had spread to cover much of his face. Only his bright blue eyes sparkled, something that few noticed. He also fingered his coat pocket occasionally, as if to check that an item of value was still there.

“She is not in trouble – far from it – but we would like to interview her”

His face appeared on television eventually – the ginger locks flopping aimlessly – but it highlighted a face missing the sparkling eyes. The old man had died. He was discovered one morning still huddled in his sleeping bag in the shop doorway. The owner had found the lifeless body and called the police. Police Inspector Jackson was speaking. The body of Herbert Highcliffe was found this morning. In his pocket was a note, addressed to ‘the charming little girl in the blue dress and white cardigan, who has recently spoken to me on a few occasions.’ “We would like to find this young lady,” said the inspector looking straight into the camera. “She is not in trouble – far from it – but we would like to interview her. If her parents would like to contact me I will make arrangements to see her,” he added, giving a contact phone number.

“I suppose that must be me,” said Angela, who happened to be watching the early evening news with her parents. “I haven’t done anything, honestly, only talked to him.” “What? To the tramp in the park?” her father asked. “Yes,”” replied Angela. “He was just an old man who needed company. I stopped to talk to him a few times on the way home from school. I have to walk through the park and he was always there. Most people were very rude to him.”

“You always were a softy,” her mother said, putting an arm on Angela’s shoulder. “I suppose I’d better call that number.”

The call was made and an appointment agreed, with no hint as to why Angela was wanted. It was with trepidation that Mrs Johnson took her daughter to the police station later in the week. The pair were ushered into Chief Inspector Jackson’s office. He shook their hands and looked at Angela. “So you are the little girl in the blue dress and white cardigan?” “Yes, sir,” she replied politely. “What have I done wrong?” “Nothing, nothing at all,” said the police officer. “In fact I have a present for you.” He reached inside a drawer in his desk and withdrew a package.

“You spoke to old Mr Highcliffe on a few occasions as he sat in the park,” he began. “Yes, I felt sorry for him. He was old but people were very rude to him. He was very polite and very nice to talk to. We did nothing wrong.” “No, no, no. Certainly not,” said the officer. “But what you may not know is that you were one of the few people who were kind to Mr Highcliffe. He had a notepad and you are mentioned a few times as one of the few people who were kind to him. He left a note saying that if anything happened to him he wanted the little girl in the blue dress to have this. He has no relatives and it meant a lot to him.” Angela peeled back the
layer of grubby paper covering a red, almost velvet covered box. It was obviously old. She opened the lid.

“What is it?” she asked as she saw the silver coin-shaped object and its white ribbon with two dark blue stripes outside a white stripe. “It was an award Mr Highcliffe won in the Second World War,” the Inspector said kindly, leaning down to point to the head of King George VI. “Take it out and turn it over,” he added.

“He was part of a convoy which was attacked by German aircraft and submarines”

Angela did so and read out aloud the words on the other side: “For distinguished service,” she read, stumbling over the words. “What does it mean and why are you giving it to me?” Chief Inspector Jackson’s voice softened. “Mr Highcliffe was a very brave man in the Second World
War. He was one of many men who delivered vital supplies to people in Russia on what was called the Arctic Convoy. He was part of a convoy which was attacked by German aircraft and submarines. Many of the ships were sunk but Mr Highcliffe was a gunner on one of the Navy Destroyers and bravely kept shooting at the German planes even when it looked as if his ship was going to be destroyed. His action earned him this medal and he kept it. He wanted you to have it because he has no one else to give it to. When no one else would talk to him, when everyone seemed rude and thought he was just a useless old man, you showed him kindness.“That is a very special thing to do and I hope you never stop. This medal will perhaps remind you of a man whom you befriended when he had no one. Please take it and use it to remember a very brave man.”

Angela carefully folded the ribbon and replaced the medal in the box. She looked up at her mother, whose eyes were clouded with tears. “I think you’d better, my dear. You have always been kind to others and this is a wonderful example of how that kindness is needed. Yes, dear, I think you must take it home and we will find a special place for it.”