Feckless Jack

‘Get up off that sofa, you useless idiot. There’s dirty dishes still in the sink, the lawn needs cutting and you look a right slob lying there in your shorts and torn singlet.’
Jack’s mum’s feet hurt. She had been doing her shift at the supermarket since early morning and the shoes she’d bought because they’d been cheap and seemed comfortable enough at the time were too tight, so her ankles had swollen. She felt like an old woman and she was not yet forty.
‘Don’t nag, Mum. It’s only a mug and plate and I said I’d mow the lawn, and I will. In a minute.’
‘And you’ve been smoking. Again.’ It was too much for Lily. She sank into her chair and allowed the tears to fall that had gathered in her eyes when she arrived home and saw her son slouched in front of the TV. ‘Oh, why did your stupid father have to crash the car and die!’
‘Mum!’ Jack was shocked rigid and sprang to his feet, accidentally knocking over his coffee mug and spilling the dregs on the carpet. ‘Don’t talk like that.’
‘Now look what you’ve done. I can’t bear any more of this.’
The carpet was pale. The coffee stain stood out starkly. Lily heeled off her shoes and got to her feet, pushing aside Jack who was hovering helplessly in the centre of the room. She fetched a cloth, a bowl of water, got on her knees and dabbed furiously at the mark until only a watery circle was left. Lily picked up the bowl. Her feet weren’t throbbing quite as much as before now that she’d taken off her shoes but she was bone tired and dying for a cup of tea – which Jack could have thought to make for her, she thought resentfully.
‘Get dressed and get on with what I asked you to do this morning,’ she said wearily.
‘Mum. I’m a bit short,’ Jack was still hovering. ‘Any chance I could borrow a bit of cash?’
Borrow? Since when had her feckless son ever paid any borrowed money back? Ever. ‘Get out, Jack. I don’t get paid until the end of next week and there’s only two £10.00 notes left in my housekeeping wallet.’ She took a deep breath as she caught a fleeting sight of the guilty expression on Jack’s face. ‘You haven’t…’
‘Sorry, Mum. I borrowed one of them two days ago. I was going to pay it back. Honestly.’
‘What with?’
‘I dunno. There was this job I thought I’d ask about. At the pub. But when I got there it had already gone. It could have been a nice little earner, too, serving at the bar then playing my guitar on Fridays and Saturdays.’
Lily shook her head. ‘You haven’t a clue, have you, stupid boy? How could you expect to play your guitar on the nights when the pub is busiest?’
‘I dunno. I didn’t think about that.’
‘You never do. Jack, do the dishes and cut the lawn. Then perhaps you should think about selling your guitar so that we have enough money to buy food at the weekend.’
Sell his guitar? Never. Jack was cold with anguish at the thought. No. Never. He couldn’t. But Jack loved his mother and he missed his father dreadfully. He wanted to do what was right. Yet…
As he put the lawnmower away a thought came to him. He couldn’t sell his guitar but he might pawn it.
How would he redeem it? He’d get a job. No sweat. He’d make enough money to redeem the guitar in no time.
The next morning Jack had a shower, put on clean jeans (well, cleanish, he’d forgotten to put them in the laundry basket, hadn’t he?) found a clean (really) sweatshirt, picked up his guitar with a sigh and set off for the pawnbroker’s shop in the town.
On the bus an old man came and sat next to him. ‘Doing a gig?’ the man asked.
Jack shook his head. ‘I have to raise money on this,’ he choked. ‘I need to support my mother.’
‘Sick is she?’ the man asked sympathetically.
Only of me, Jack thought, crossing his fingers. ‘That’s right.’
‘Bad luck, lad. Look, do you expect to get much for that instrument?’
‘It depends how the man in the pawnbroker’s is feeling.’
‘Then you might be interested in a proposition. How would you feel about exchanging the guitar for five magic beans?’
Jack was about to laugh and ask if he looked like a fool, but there was something in the man’s eyes that convinced him he was speaking the truth about magic. ‘Well…’
‘I don’t think your guitar is worth very much. My five beans are worth a fortune.’
‘So why do you want to do this swap?’
‘Good question, lad. You see, I’m an old man with no family. I’ve lived my life and would like to pass on some of my good luck. You’d be surprised what these beans can do for you. What do you say?’
Jack thought. He couldn’t play the beans, and they wouldn’t make much of a meal but if they were lucky… ‘Done,’ he said, and held out his hand.
The bus drew into the bus station. The old man got off – pretty quickly considering his age – for when Jack got off the bus himself he was nowhere to be seen.
Never mind, thought Jack. He’d catch the next bus home and tell his mother the good news about the magic beans.
Lily was not impressed. Her knees were swollen this time and her feet hurt even worse. She bit into one of the beans and found that – hey – it wasn’t made of gold. She opened the back door and flung all five outside.
‘And if you think there’s any supper for you tonight, think again. Go to bed and don’t let me see you tomorrow unless you are coming home with real money.’
Jack had tossed and turned so much in the night that he overslept and his mother had already gone to work when he woke up and went into the kitchen to get some breakfast. He took down the cereal box and poured the flakes into a bowl which he filled too full because it was so dark.
Dark, at twelve o’clock in the morning?
He glanced out of the window to find large leaves brushing against the glass. He blinked, but it made no difference. Going out of the back door into the garden, Jack was astonished to discover that the five beans his mother had thrown out so carelessly had sprouted in the night. They were not just little sprouts. Each stem was as thick as a man’s torso. Each branch was as solid as a man’s thigh. Each leaf was as huge as his mother’s best dinner plates.
Well, thought Jack. At least there would be beans for dinner. That reminded him that he hadn’t eaten his cereal. He went back into the kitchen and after he’d finished, he went and switched on the TV.
To say that Lily was amazed by the growth of the beans, which seemed to reach the sky, was an understatement. ‘But what are we going to do with five huge beanstalks in our garden?’
Jack hadn’t thought of that. ‘I dunno. And I’m not all that fond of baked beans,’ he said.
‘Perhaps you’d better chop them down,’ said Lily. ‘No, wait. (As if Jack had moved.) Maybe we could charge people to come and see them. We might even allow them to climb up a little way, for an extra charge.’
‘I wonder what is at the top?’ mused Jack.
‘The sky,’ said his mother sarcastically.
‘I’ve a good mind to go and find out.’
‘Now don’t go doing anything stupid,’ warned Lily.
‘Don’t worry, Mother. I’ll be down shortly.’
So saying, Jack sprang into the branches of the sturdiest beanstalk (it was the one Lily had bitten and so its growth had had a start on the others) and began to climb.
It seemed to take forever and it wasn’t long before first the garden, then the cottage, receded into the distance but gradually the beanstalk thinned and Jack saw solid ground beside him.
Well, he thought. What have I found?
The answer was a castle. A little way off there rose a turreted castle built of a pale yellow stone surrounded by a formal garden and a well-laid path leading to it.
Jack hurried along the path towards the huge wooden door that opened without a creak as he pushed at it. There was no bell. He walked inside. ‘Hello,’ he called. ‘Is anyone at home?’
He was not sure what he expected but it was not an elderly woman. He knew she was elderly because she had white hair but she was tall and statuesque with a commanding presence.
‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he began. ‘You see, I swapped my guitar for five beans which my mother threw into the garden and overnight they sprouted. So I climbed the beanstalks…’
‘Are you Jack?’ she demanded harshly.
‘I am Jack.’
‘Then you must go. Immediately. My son has just had his supper with two flagons of wine and has fallen asleep, but if he awakens and finds you, he’ll kill you.’ At that very moment, there was a roar and a rumble. ‘Come into the kitchen and hide,’ the woman said, pushing Jack in front of her towards a huge wine cask.
He crept behind it as a very large man stumped into the kitchen.

Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dear. There’s no one here but us. Here’s another flagon of wine. Take it and rest until you’ve digested your supper.’
There was a bit of grumbling but the giant (for that was what he was) took the flagon and went back to his chair.
‘You must go. Here, take this.’ The giant’s mother thrust a small leather bag into Jack’s hand and pushed him back through the hall to the front door which she banged shut behind him.
Well, thought Jack, putting the leather bag into a pocket, but he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and he hurried back to the beanstalk and climbed down quicker than he had climbed up.
Lily was waiting at the bottom, wringing her hands. ‘Jack. Are you all right? Come inside and tell me what is at the top of the beanstalk. You were away for so long. I was really worried.’
So Jack went into the cottage and they both had a cup of tea and he began to tell her about his adventure until he reached the point where the giant’s mother had given him the bag. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out, upended it and emptied the contents onto the kitchen table. A heap of gold coins fell on to the table.
‘Well,’ said Lily.
They were both astounded but there was no more talk of cutting down the beanstalks. Yet.
Lily restocked the fridge. Then she engaged a firm to redecorate the cottage inside and out. If the workmen were intrigued by the ‘trees’ growing in the garden they were too polite to mention it – being well-paid.
Jack bought a new Cedar Top Dreadnought Acoustic guitar, fondling it with pleasure as he took it home. Then he replenished his wardrobe, thought about a career, and thought better of it.
In time, of course, the money ran out.
‘I said you needed a job. Stupid boy. What are we going to do now? I suppose I’d better try to get my old job back,’ said Lily bitterly.
‘Not yet, Mother. I shall climb the beanstalk again,’ declared Jack. No matter how she pleaded with him, Jack remained adamant that this was what he had to do.
Again he climbed the beanstalk. Once again he arrived when the giant was sleeping off his two flagons of wine. Once again the giant woke up.

Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

Once again the giant’s mother gave him a third flagon of wine and told him to go back to sleep. Then she turned to Jack and hastily thrust a live goose into his arms. ‘Take this and leave at once. I cannot guarantee your safety if he finds you here.’
So with a little bit of difficulty Jack slithered back down the beanstalk.
Lily sighed deeply when she saw the goose. ‘I suppose it will feed us for a couple of meals. Take it into the garden and kill it.’
The goose gave an indignant squawk, sat down and promptly laid an egg.
To Lily and Jack’s astonishment, the egg was pure gold.
“Well,’ they said together. ‘We can’t kill the goose that lays a golden egg.’
But after some months the goose stopped laying. After a few more months the nest of eggs that Lily had put aside was empty and once again she was resigned to asking for her old job back. This time Jack had attempted various schemes but they had all failed so he had nothing to contribute to the household expenses.
‘This time we shall have to eat the goose for dinner,’ sighed Lily, who had become very fond of the large bird.
‘Not yet,’ Jack declared. ‘I shall climb the beanstalk once again.’
The giant’s mother was most displeased to see him. ‘This is the very last time I shall help you,’ she said as she gave him a golden harp.
At the sight of it Jack’s heart gave a great leap. It was as though he had been waiting for the instrument all his life and he quite forgot that at home was his beloved guitar.
‘I am helping you because the bag of money, the goose and the harp once belonged to your grandfather. You see, he found the way to our castle, met my son and won them from him in a game of cards. My son never forgave him and vowed vengeance on you and your family. One night he stole them back. Now go, and never return because if you do I warn you I shall not save you again.’
It would have been too much to hope that the giant did not wake up. But he did.

Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

Jack fled, the harp under his arm, but the harp was having none of it and began to play a raucous melody that brought the giant thundering towards the top of the beanstalk.
Jack slithered even more quickly than before down the thick stem. ‘An axe, Mother. Fetch an axe quickly.’
Seeing the panic on her son’s face, Lily did as she was bid. Jack put down the harp and began to hack at the trunk of the beanstalk. One crashed to the ground, then another. Finally all five lay felled. Then, to their surprise all five stalks slowly shrivelled as they watched until there was nothing left. Except the harp, that is. As they stood there it began to play again of its own accord, a melancholy tune that brought the tears to Lily’s eyes.
Lily’s eagle eye had spotted something on the ground. It was a bean. Without Jack noticing she picked it up and put it in her pocket.
‘No more visiting the giant’s castle,’ she said, with great relief, but thinking that she might put the bean in a box at the back of her underwear drawer where Jack would never think to look. It would be a souvenir, a warning to another generation not to expect too much from life. ‘I’ll ask for my old job back tomorrow.’
‘Wait a while,’ said Jack. ‘I have an idea.’
The goose had laid another egg. ‘A part time job, then,’ said Lily firmly. She was determined that they would never face hunger again and if it meant working, so be it.
The very next day Jack found work in the local pub. With his first pay packet he bought wood and began to build a soundproof shed in the garden. Once it was finished he made a record of jolly tunes played on his guitar with harp music as a background. The record was an instant hit. So he made another and then a video in which it appeared as though the harp was being played by a human, though it was illusion for Jack’s hands were nowhere near the strings.
The music did well and gave them a modest living for Jack was unable to play on stage because he could never explain the magic of his harp. That meant he was spared the trauma of coping with groupies. Except… Well, there were times when Jack was lonely.
‘We’ll find you a wife,’ said his mother, who had her eye on a girl from the neighbouring village. She was called Sophie and she was pretty and very sensible and she had a lovely singing voice. Of course, Jack fell in love with her immediately.
But that is another story.

*****