Eleanor’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Not tears of sorrow,” she thought, “But tears of frustration. Why did I have to be born in such a boring family? There’s a world out there, beckoning. I want to be where the action is. I want to breathe the air of freedom and enjoy myself, instead of being stuck on this stinking old farm.”
She was gazing out of the window. For as far as the eye could see, the land belonged to her family. Her father, Jack, was hoeing and raking in one corner of the farm. Her brother, Stuart, was driving the tractor out, on his various farm errands.
Eleanor tossed her head from side to side, angrily. Her long blonde hair fell over her shoulders, like the mane of an unbroken filly. Her mother watched from the kitchen and sighed,
“She’s sixteen and she’s pretty. She ought to be out with her friends and having fun. Jack can be so unreasonable. I wonder whether he ever recalls his own yearnings, when he was her age.”
Eleanor came into the kitchen.
“I think he hates me. He never likes to see me happy,” she moaned.
“You’re wrong,” said Heather, “Your father loves you very much. That’s why he’s overprotective. Life is so different these days. There are temptations lurking in every corner, waiting to lure young people into bad ways.”
“So what? He’s not going to protect me forever. I must learn to manage my own life,” she argued. “Besides, Stuart is allowed to run free. Dad doesn’t even guess how much mischief he’s up to. But he’s clever at playing innocent. I can’t. I’m not a hypocrite.”
“Your father is not your enemy,” Heather insisted. “You should stop treating him as if he were. All I can say is, be like Polyanna, who searched for the best in everything.”
“You always stick up for him,” Eleanor said, as she walked out of the kitchen.
Jack Richards took pride in calling himself a man of God. Heather sometimes wondered if he wasn’t more rigid than the apostle Paul. He had become so ‘other worldly’ that everything around him seemed coarse, materialistic, selfish and sensuous. As head of the family, he thought it was his duty to protect his family against evil influences. They lived frugally, and a large part of his income was channeled into Church activities. Apart from school, the only other place the children were allowed to go unchaperoned, was Church.
“I gave up trying to change him, years ago,” thought Heather. “He’s good, dependable, and a tower of strength in any crisis. He’s well respected in the community. But he isn’t exciting or adventurous. Sometimes I think I’m happy and content. But when I’m in a black mood, I cry with the pessimist, ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed’.”
Heather could foresee rebellion in the family. Only last night, Eleanor had words with her father.
“Dad, I’m sixteen years old. You can’t keep me prisoner on this farm. I need friends and freedom. I want to experience the good things of life. You don’t expect me to socialize with your old farm cronies, or for that matter, all those plaster saints we meet in church.”
“I’m you father, and I know what’s good for you. You’re too young and impressionable. So you just forget all your ideas of liberty and freedom. There are certain values to be preserved.”
“Such as the old-time tyranny of parents?” she asked angrily. “You’re so narrow-minded and intolerant of others’ views. Do you call that healthy religion?”
“And you must learn to care about things that matter, Eleanor. I’m unashamedly religious, and I make no apologies for it.”
Heather did have a talk with him that night.
“Jack, as parents, we must enter into the world of our children. The home must be a jolly place of friendship and love. These are important years in their lives. We could hurt them with wrong attitudes and rigid rules.”
“I’m not going to compromise with the ways of the world. A stable home and a deep faith are the only hopes for our nation.”
Dinner was usually at 6.30 p.m. Jack had a good bath before coming to the table. He had been pottering in the pigsty and the porcine odour clung to him.
“Heather won’t tolerate that,” he thought, “She’ll lecture me on how cleanliness is next to godliness.”
After a good shower, he put on freshly laundered clothes, combed back his hair and wore his gold-rimmed glasses.
The table was covered with a pretty red gingham cloth on which dinner was laid out. There were boiled potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and roast beef with brown gravy. And there was rhubarb with custard to follow. Even the food was Spartan.
Jack looked at the vacant chair.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“Don’t know, Dad. I haven’t seen her since lunch,” said Stuart.
“She was here after lunch. She’s probably playing outside. She was so anxious to go on that school picnic. Perhaps we should have let her.”
They waited for a good fifteen minutes. The food on the table was growing cold and Stuart grew more restless and hungry by the minute.
Jack opened the Bible and read a few verses. “There will be terrible times in those last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God….. Have nothing to do with them. They are the kind that worm their way into your homes….”
They ate in silence. Jack was troubled. He always thought he was a good father, who put the welfare of his family above his own.
“Why is Eleanor so rebellious?” he wondered. “She is so innocent. She probably doesn’t even know the facts of life. She refuses to understand that I’m only trying to protect her from the big bad world.”
He was a sad man, who got into his car and drove around the farm in search of his daughter. But she was nowhere in sight.
“Where could she have gone? Perhaps to visit one of her classmates.”
Meanwhile, Heather had phoned around to several families, but no one had seen her. In desperation, she reported the matter to the Police. They asked her to wait for some more time instead of getting into a panic. As far as they knew, no accidents had been reported.
This was not a good time of the year weather-wise. The skies were overcast. A huge bolt of lightning rent the skies and the first drops of rain began to fall. Jack decided to go home and wait. Perhaps they were over reacting. She was probably sulking in some corner, and would come back when hungry.
From Brake Hill Farm to Rendham Hall was a good thirty miles. It was one place where she would be safe from her father. Grandma Richards lived here alone and hadn’t been on talking terms with Jack for years. He had objected to her smoking and tippling and she had fumed at his ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, and walked out of his house.
“Grandma will be supportive,” she thought, “I’m never going back. I’ll stay here, and live as I please.”
The bus brought her into the village by late afternoon. Grandma was quite surprised to see Eleanor.
“My, My, aren’t you a welcome sight! Did your father send you on an errand?”
“I ran away from home, Grandma, and I’m never going back.”
“Let’s have tea before we talk, shall we? You must be very hungry after the bus ride.”
Grandma’s delicious buttermilk scones were like no other. Eleanor ate a few and washed them down with a cup of tea. Afterwards, Grandma sat in her comfortable chair and took up her knitting. As her aluminum needles clacked away, Eleanor poured out her frustrations. The old lady listened and her loving heart hurt for her grandchild. But she wasn’t going to interfere. Her mind was busy thinking how she could tactfully send the girl home.
Then Eleanor got up and went towards the mantelpiece. Grandma looked at the young girl, her eyes examining her from head to toe.
“You look exactly like your father,” she said, “Your smile, your mannerisms, your blue eyes! Would you like to see one of my old albums which I’ve treasured all these years?”
Eleanor looked through the album with great interest. She couldn’t believe that her serious unbending father had once been a lively young boy. Grandma kept up a running commentary.
“I sent three sons and a husband off to war. Only one of them came back. Your Dad was in Italy when you were born.”
There was one picture of Jack in uniform, young and handsome, and holding six-week old Eleanor in his arms. His face showed so much love and concern. Suddenly she felt a lump in her throat. How could she have ever thought her father hated her? He was merely nurturing her in discipline and was certainly not motivated by anger. Now she just wanted to go home before he discovered her absence.
“Jack turned religious after all the hate and bloodshed he saw in the war. I’m glad that it has given him the peace that he longed for,” said Grandma.
Eleanor now realized why her father clung so dearly to his religion and his values.
The skies were overcast and Eleanor was afraid she would never reach home in time.She thumbed a lift from an old lady who was going towards Thetford. But it soon came pouring down in torrents. Suddenly it was very dark, and visibility very poor. They crept along mile after mile, until they didn’t know where they were going.
“We’re miles off the main road,” said the old lady, “I don’t know where we are. This path doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. We’re hopelessly lost.”
Had she not jammed her foot on the brakes in a fit of desperation, they might have been catapulted over a broken bridge into the swirling waters below. Their desperate cries for help were lost in the noise of the storm.
Jack was on his knees praying as he had never done before. Heather paced the floor, sobbing her heart out.
“You’re to blame,” she shouted at her husband, “You never tried to understand her. You never cared enough.”
“I’m sorry.” He was contrite. “I’m nothing but a pompous old fool. But that will change if Eleanor only comes back to me.”
Dawn was breaking when the phone rang. The call was from the Police station. The Night Patrol had brought in two unconscious women from about fifteen miles out of Thetford.
“Could you come down to the General Hospital and see if you know either of them, Mr.Richard?”
“It’s not Eleanor. She wouldn’t travel with a stranger,” he thought.
Both of them rushed to the hospital.
Jack wouldn’t dare look. “You go,” he told Heather, and he sobbed as if his heart was broken. His dear Eleanor gone! No, it just couldn’t be true. This was some ugly nightmare.
“Oh God! How can I live with myself? I’ve killed her. Me and my stupid self righteousness! I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Jack, that’s not Eleanor!”
Heather came rushing back and laid her arm on his shoulder. “The nurse says there are more casualties on the way.”
She looked so frail, lying in that large white bed, with needles in her arms. But she was alive. Jack held her cold hand in his.
“I’m sorry, darling,” he whispered, hoping she could hear and understand. His heart lifted, when her fingers squeezed his in response.
Grandma Richards who had rushed to be with her son, smiled down at them both.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, boy. Eleanor was with me, and she couldn’t wait to get back, and tell you that she understood why you were so protective, and that she loved you all the more. She needs to know that you value her as a person – a total person with physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs.”
Then he felt Eleanor squeeze his hand and whisper, “Daddy I knew you’d find me.”
Dr. Eva Bell is a Doctor of Medicine and also a freelance writer of articles, short stories and children’s stories that are published in Indian magazines and newspapers, anthologies and also on the web. She is the author of two novels, one work of non-fiction and two children’s books.