Jacob and his Ladder – Jenny Bridge

 

People in the village thought Jacob was a bit simple. I didn’t agree. Certainly he was different but there was nothing wrong with his intelligence.

Jacob and I were in the same class at the village primary school for a while. I couldn’t say we were friends. Jacob didn’t really have friends. He was a loner. He always sat at the back of the class and showed no signs of joining in or even knowing what was happening.

I think the teachers were happy that he didn’t cause any problems – unlike some of the rowdy pupils – so they just left him alone.

One day I happened to sit next to him. We were learning our multiplication tables. The teacher was shouting out questions and we were vying for the chance to answer first.

Hands reaching for the ceiling, bottoms leaving our seats and voices urging, ” Sir! Sir!”   Three correct answers would earn us a credit and we were a competitive lot. Except for Jacob. He sat, expressionless as usual, doodling on a scrap of paper. When the teacher called ” Seven sixes” there was a momentary shocked silence, before hands shot up and random answers were offered.

“Not fair, ” I thought. ” Who would know that one?”

Just as sir was launching into his daily tirade about our lack of mathematical skill, I glanced down at Jacob’ s paper. He had written a large number 42. “The answer” sir was saying wearily, “as I have told you every day for the last week, is 42”

“What a lucky fluke,” I thought, “there’s no way Jacob could’ve known that”.

Sir was clearly feeling vindictive that day.

“Six nines” he shouted.

Again a pause and then a flurry of inaccuracies. I glanced towards Jacob. 54 declared his paper.

“Tonight at home you will all write out one hundred times – six nines are fifty four” shouted the enraged teacher.

From then on I often sat next to Jacob when we did tables or mental arithmetic. In a little over two years never once did I see him fail to get the correct answer. Nor did I see him raise his hand or communicate in any way that he knew the answers.

That is how I knew that Jacob was not simple.

We rarely saw Jacob out of school. He lived on the edge of the village with his father. His mother had died when Jacob was a baby and since then there had just been the two of

them. No one ever visited their cottage or knew much about them. It must have been a lonely existence for a little boy growing up but we never really thought about it. It was just the way things were.

After primary school we all went our separate ways. Jacob started helping the local window cleaner and I would sometimes catch sight of him trailing along carrying a bucket and a leather. Mum used to mutter about how he should be in school and someone should do something about it but no one ever did.

At about this time a new family moved into the biggest house in the village. The Manor House had been empty for a couple of years and it was a cause of some excitement when builders and decorators were seen coming and going and then two removal vans arrived.

There were all sorts of rumours about the new owners but our next door neighbour was taken on as a cleaner so I was able to get first hand information. Apparently they were business people who had moved up from London – a couple with one daughter of about my own age.

A few weeks after their arrival we were all invited to a children’s party at the Manor House.

We were beside ourselves with excitement. On the great day we all trooped in wearing our best clothes and gaping at the grandeur of the house. Mr and Mrs Smythe greeted us and said they would show us round while we waited for Isabella. It was quite unlike the cottages that most of us lived in. I wondered why they needed so many rooms for just three people – a morning room, a breakfast room, a dining hall, a sitting room – however did they manage to use them all?

We ended in the entrance hall where we had started and were just in time to see Isabella coming down the stairs. She paused and looked down at us all. Remembering it now it occurs to me how incredibly poised she was. There was not a sign of nervousness at greeting this crowd of unknown children.

We, on the other hand, were struck dumb at the sight of her. She really was the most beautiful girl. Tall and slender with smooth pale skin, dark blue eyes and that blonde hair that is almost silver, falling in graceful curls to her shoulders. She wore a long floaty dress of the same midnight blue as her eyes.

As she looked down on the rest of us her face lit up in a wonderful smile.

“Welcome to you all,” she said.

At that moment I believe every girl in the room wanted to be Isabella’s best friend and every boy fell deeply in love with her.

The party was not a success. After a stunned moment of silence at the sight of Isabella, something seemed to possess us all. Manners were forgotten. Drinks were spilt, cakes were dropped onto precious carpets, furniture was jumped on. Cushions were thrown.

The noise was horrendous. Normally well behaved children had become savages. Finally, one of the boys was sick all over a delicate rug.

Mr and Mrs Smythe had tried to remain calm throughout but at this point they sent us all packing and vowed that never again would Isabella have any contact with village children.

And so it was that Isabella was sent off to a private school. Her father drove her there every day and sometimes we would catch a glimpse of her, silver hair gleaming, smart in her uniform of midnight blue. I wondered if they’d chosen the school because of the colour. We never saw her in the village. She became a legend. Boys still dreamt of her and now and again we would see a love sick boy sitting at the gates of the Manor House gazing soulfully at the windows hoping in vain for a glimpse of the enchanting Isabella.

Of course, Jacob had nothing to do with all this. He hadn’t been at the party and as far as I knew he wasn’t aware that Isabella existed. We were all busy growing up and I more or less forgot about Jacob. Sometimes mum would still mention him and say what a scandal it was that he didn’t attend school.

” He’ll never come to anything” she’d say. “No brain and no schooling that one.”

He still helped the window cleaner and eventually, when we were all busy going off to university and starting careers, the window cleaner retired and Jacob took over his work.

One weekend I came home to find mum bursting with scandal. It seemed that Isabella had disappeared. Her distraught parents told the police that she hadn’t come down to dinner at the usual time of seven o’clock. Apparently she had been a bit distracted lately, fretting about her forthcoming Oxford entrance exams they thought, so they had left her for a while.

When she still hadn’t appeared at 10pm Mrs Smythe had gone up to her room. It was empty. The window was wide open, the curtains billowing in the breeze, and leaning against the wall outside was a ladder. The police arrived, inspected the ladder and found a small brass plaque bearing a name and contact details. It was Jacob’s ladder.

No one saw Isabella or Jacob again. After some months the police pretty much gave up.

After all, Isabella was over eighteen and appeared to have left willingly. She’d taken clothes and some jewellery. Mr and Mrs Smythe moved away and the Manor House remained empty. For some years I would see one village lad or another gazing dreamily at the empty house and I knew they were thinking of the prize they had lost and wondering how Jacob, the simpleton, had won.

I’ve moved away myself now and rarely think about my childhood days. But yesterday, in a town I’d never visited before, I drove past an impressive house adjoining smart office premises and a large yard. In the yard, surrounded by neatly stacked window cleaning equipment, was a fleet of immaculate vans. They had shining midnight blue livery and in curling silver letters, bore the legend ” Jacob’s Ladder”.

 

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