The Retreat – a short story

Stephen looked at his mother with anger. He had no intention of tidying his room or making his bed. All he wanted to do, this glorious summer day, was to go outside to play. Although only eight, he had decided that tidying rooms, and making beds was women’s work. It was 1963 in the north of England and this belief was held by most of his friends, many of whom got away with it.

“Now Stephen, you have finished your breakfast. It is time for you to go upstairs and make your bed. You are eight years old and quite big enough to do your share. Now move, when it is tidy up there you can go out to play.”

He gave her a rebellious glance and stomped to the door. She followed him. For a moment he thought that there was no escape but then he saw the door to the downstairs powder room. He went in. She knocked on the door.

“It is no use Stephen, you cannot escape in there. I insist that you go upstairs.”

“But Mummy,” he responded “I have to go.” He reached up and quickly latched the door. His mother heard the latch slip into place.

“All right, I believe, you but thousands wouldn’t,” she said, “but when you are done it is upstairs to tidy up. Do you understand?”

He understood, but this didn’t make him like it. He sat on the green toilet seat and thought. The house was an old Victorian mansion with thick masonry walls, heavy solid wood doors, and tall ceilings. The toilet was an unattractive room and was small making the ceiling seem taller. It had a black and white tile floor and black tile wainscot. The rest of the walls were white plaster painted with shiny-gloss enamel. The toilet was on one end and a pedestal lavatory on the other. High on the north wall opposite the door was a small window. It was slightly ajar to ventilate the room. He wondered if he could climb from the toilet seat to the window sill. Climbing out of his bedroom window was easy; he did it every time that he was grounded, returning to sit on his bed when she came to release him. But this window was too small and too high for a small eight year old boy to negotiate.

He was still sitting evaluating his options when she came back to check on him. She knocked “Stephen, are you still in there, you had better come out now and go upstairs to your room.”

He felt a bit stupid as he said, “But, Mummy I’m still going.”

“Go all you want,” She replied, “but it doesn’t let you off. As soon as you are through it is upstairs to your room. Do you understand! It won’t take you long to tidy up and then you can go outside to play.”

She rattled the door even though she knew that it was latched from the inside. The commotion made him more determined. He sat on the floor, not because it was more comfortable than the toilet seat but because it seemed to assist him in asserting his independence.

There were no pictures in the room but on both walls adjacent to the toilet were neat charts prepared by his father. They had gone up after his father read “Cheaper by the Dozen” and decided that the toilet was a great place to reinforce rote memory. The chart on the left read: “The Kings and Queens of England.” He knew some of them already and had heard his sister recite them to their father getting monetary rewards when they gave correct answers. He read “William 1 1066; William II 1087; Henry I 1100; Stephen 1135”. He stopped, thinking that surely Stephen never had to make his bed and tidy his room. He didn’t read them all but he took the time to observe that all the longest reigns were women; Elizabeth I 1558-1603, Victoria 1837-1901, and now Elizabeth II 1952-. He couldn’t decide whether this held any relevance to his situation or not, although, he thought, perhaps it meant that women lasted longer than men.

On the right was a more complex chart. It gave an intricate time line for the great painters and musicians. He glanced at the jumble of names and dates noticing that they were all men. Surely this held some relevance. The great are all men. Women, like his mother and older sisters, are there to support them. He fished around in his pockets to see if he had a pencil so that he could decorate the chart, perhaps underline all those male names. He found nothing. His pencils were probably all strewn on the floor of his room waiting to be tidied up. He strained to listen to his mother vacuuming the hall and he heard muffled whispers as she told his sisters that he had locked himself in the toilet. He thought that he heard them giggling. He was bored. He may have even dozed off a little.

By noon he was getting cold. The room was unheated and the hard surfaces seemed to suck up what little warmth he gave off. His mother knocked on the door “Hello there Stephen it is lunch time. Now you come out of that toilet and have some food.” Although he was hungry he did not move. Somehow this rebellion had become larger than him and had taken on another dimension.

Later, his sisters came and knocked. “Stephen, Mummy says that it is all right now. You can come out and have some lunch. You are hungry aren’t you? Come on Stephen, enough is enough just come out and join us.”

He hardly moved thinking that they would deduce that he was not there. They did think that he might have climbed out or passed out, so they went to the garage and hauled a ladder into the yard outside the powder room. They took turns climbing up and peeping in through the high window. When they looked in each snickered at him as he sat resolutely on the cold floor. They climbed down and put the ladder away.

The long day wore on. He couldn’t sleep any more. He strained his neck and watched clouds racing across the sky. He tried to associate images with each fluffy shape as it passed by but the images bored him without stories attached. It looked like a beautiful day much too good to be wasted on this room. He listened to the sounds of the house outside his door trying to imagine what each noise meant. He stood on the toilet seat and made faces at himself in the mirror on the opposite wall. He unrolled and then rerolled the toilet paper. He wrapped the hand towel around his cold hands. He waited. He thought that perhaps he could come out during the night when they were all in bed. He even hoped that they might decide to break the door down. He was beginning to think that making his bed and tidying his room was preferable to sitting in this cold spot. But somehow he couldn’t move, couldn’t unlatch the door.

At tea time his mother seemed more desperate, in fact she seemed to be begging. “Now, Stephen, please come out and have some food. Enough is enough. The girls and I are having tea in the conservatory and the sun is shining. It is a glorious day. I can make you some of your favorite hot chocolate. Afterwards you can go out and play. It won’t be dark for several hours.”

He had won, hadn’t he? She didn’t mention the room or his bed. He put his hand on the latch but something evil held him back. He silently sat back down on the floor. He drew his legs up close to his body and hugged them with his arms. He silently cried; a tearless lament. He could almost savor the tempting taste of sweet chocolate on his dry tongue. Time dragged on.

When he heard his father came home he had been in the toilet for eight hours. He strained and thought that he heard his mother talking to him. Then, he heard his father walking resolutely down the hall towards him. His father stopped outside and spoke calmly. He did not even raise his voice. “Stephen, I order you come out immediately”

At this moment immediate, blind obedience to his father’s authority was easy. Relieved, Stephen unlatched the door and shot out of the toilet.

Copyright © Jane Stansfeld, December 2013

10 thoughts on “The Retreat – a short story

  1. That was a treat to read. I was very happy at home during childhood. It was a fun place to be and my parents were so supporting. I even made my bed! Chalk up one for Ian. However my teenage years are when all the rebellion broke out and I didn’t straighten out until my early twenties. Hopefully Stephen had a better record than I did.

    • Hi Ian, thank you for your comments. I agree, lets hope that Stephen learns as he matures. I suspect that he could and probably would. I also put forth that most teens go thorough a period of rebellion which I think is necessary and good as long as it is not too exaggerated.. Indeed, with my second daughter I worried because I didn’t think that she was ‘spunky’ (i.e. rebellious) enough. She has plenty of the good kind now so, fortunately, my concerns were unfounded. Cheerio, Jane

    • Hi Nightlake, are you Call2Read? If so I enjoy your pithy stories and vignettes, especially Mary’s Gift. In the Retreat I agree that a little boy of eight in today’s western society would not be so chauvinistic. I am sure that he will have grown up into an empathetic adult.

      • Yes, I am call2read. Thank you so much for the compliment, Jane. Yes, the current western world is mostly about equal rights..but in some countries, it is still the same as this story

  2. At age 8 his friends already exert more influence on him than his parents and siblings. Now, why is that, I wonder. Because I’ve witnessed similar behaviour not only in children but even in pampered pet dogs!

    If any kid thinks a particular chore is ‘women’s work’ – better he feel the back of his father’s hand. But that’s me.

    I’ve never resorted to physical punishment – not even ‘grounding’ my children – but one look from me was enough. Don’t know whether that was for the best – but my 3 adult children remain very close to Lisa and I.


    • You must have had the same authority as the father in the story who didn’t raise his voice to exert full obedience. Raising children is a complex balance especially as each child is so different. I think that boundaries when they are very young is important and that parents who never punish in anger are streaks ahead. We were so blessed with our two daughters that when they reached their teens we didn’t give them ‘hard fast’ boundaries (such as a curfew) as we trusted them implicitly and they knew that if they broke that trust things might be different. Neither of them did, and we,. like you, are close to this day and enjoy watching them bring up their children to the same standards.
      What a blessing,

  3. Hi Cynthia, I love your turn on the word ‘retreat’ – very nice and the sort of thing that a good poetess would observe.
    Happy New Year and may it be complete with good blogging,

  4. This is brilliant, Jane. In one short story we have “the woman question” and its arising in the mind of a small boy, the monarchs of England, that wonderful description of the toilet (I’ve lived with one just like that), and the psychology of stubbornness/perseverance. Stephen did indeed have a full day’s retreat, until he finally–and gladly–had to retreat.

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