My mother had warned us to be on our best behaviour. The Shallows were coming to visit us as they did each Christmas Eve.
The parents were lovely people; it was their son Eustace who was the problem.
Eustace was different. Very different. He suffered throughout his life the taunts and ridicule of every kid he came in contact with. We were no different.
In previous times Eustace would have been in a freak show, carted around the country as a curiosity to be made money from.
It was going to take a real effort on our behalf to make this years visit incident-free.
To top it off Eustace had a strange odour about him. He stank, and I’d heard his mum telling my mum it was a real concern for them as they had used every product available to counter his body odour but to no avail.
But it was his head that drew the most attention. From out of his skull there grew long thin protrusions, some might have called them tentacles. Attached to each one was an eye.
It meant that when you were standing behind him you’d become aware of a tentacle looking at you and I have to admit is was the spookiest feeling knowing he was watching you.
“He’s a normal boy, just like you,” my mum would say, “ only a tad different.” My mother had a way of understating most things though you always sensed she said that about Eustace knowing she was doing just that.
“But mum,” we would say, “ it’s like being watched all the time, you can’t get away from him.”
“Be nice,” mum would say, “ after all, it is Christmas.”
So we would suck it all up, invite Eustace to play and as we got older it did become easier for us as we grew used to him and his oddness.
The last time he came was not long before Christmas the year we’d turned thirteen, and we played our version of cutthroat snakes and ladders. Eustace played along, laughed with us and generally had a good time. At the end of the game, he thanked us for the game, said he enjoyed playing and was grateful we were not the bullies he encountered every day.
My older brother, Peter, said to him,” You are just a kid wanting to play, and we needed you to make up the game. Thanks for playing along.”
It wasn’t long after that mum told us Eustace was ill and wasn’t expected to live. She said we’d done well in playing with him when he visited and that his mum was thankful he found boys who would play with him and not exclude him.
He died soon after, and at his funeral, his mum made the comment he was her child and loved like no other.