When the Ghost of your Past taps you on the shoulder, it can bless you with a warm and friendly breath; an invitation to take a trip down memory lane and revel, for a time, in the past – to trawl through memories conjured up by some obscure trigger and to live them anew, albeit through the prism of distance.

However, when this Ghost follows up with an unsolicited act of serendipity – well, then that can be unsettling, if not plain weird.

So it was for me. A couple of nights ago I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s newest book, The Lacuna. Beautifully written (to be expected) and not as harrowing as I feared, the first harrowing part I encountered was the school experience of the hero. He, for reasons of his own, and somewhat diminished in trauma by the fact that the reader knew he was going to overcome and go on to make his own mark, was mercilessly persecuted by  his peers at boarding school.

Basically, he was different, so he was bullied.

I put the book down to rest awhile from Kingsolver’s evocative portrayal of human cruelty – and in particular, kids’ cruelty. And as I reflected, quite unbidden a little boy called Noel came into my mind.

Noel was a kid at the Bowenville State School 50 years ago, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Although I had not seen him since then, suddenly I was awash with the memory of Noel, and of the mixed response Noel encountered at my childhood school – morbid wonder from some, angry impatience and intolerance from others, innocent patronising from still others. It took my breath away as I lay back and let the curtain of the past draw back on a playground scene, Noel struggling with his callipers and his bent legs to keep up with the game that was happening – indeed, to be acknowledged as part of the game that was happening. I saw his distinctive, peculiar gait as he loped around in his wide-brimmed grey felt school hat, smiling the innocent joy of a child playing – a smile with just a touch of anxiety at the edges – and eavesdropped in my mind’s eye as one child rushed to the teacher and said “Mr Collins – Noel has fallen over again.”

It didn’t take much. Just a small shove, often out of curiosity, and down he went in a tangle of wonky legs, arms flailing helplessly.

“Mr Collins, someone pushed Noel Callaghan over.”

Noel Callaghan! How long since I’d seen him, yet how clearly my mind pictured him still as he loped around, a brave little boy with crooked legs, valiantly struggling to keep up, always bouncing back from his many challenges and always smiling. Always smiling.

Eventually his parents put an end to that particular part of his life’s struggle, and Noel went to a Special School. ‘What became of him?’ I wondered. ‘What sort of life has Noel had?’

How many nights ago was it that this particular tableau came to me unbidden? Three? Four? So, how freaky was it today when a woman of the same surname phoned the motel to discuss a booking and, upon inquiry, turned out to be the sister-in-law of the same boy-now-man!

So, I was able to find out the answers to my questions about Noel. He is alive and well, though wheelchair-bound, all these years later. He has had a good life. He is a happy, productive man who, says his sister-in-law, would laugh now at the memory of kids pushing him over in the Bowenville State School playground – and kids rushing to pick him up, the yin and yang of human behaviour.

I wonder what sort of lives the kids who pushed him over have had?


© Jane Grieve –

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