The man who takes teddies to church

Argus title : I can’t bear to hear a child crying

The first time I saw Ron Bowman I was with my mother in St Peter’s Church. He arrived late and sat down across the aisle a few rows in front of us. I noticed that his legs seemed stiff and that he walked on crutches. He appeared to be in pain, but had one of the broadest smiles I’ve ever seen.

Over the weeks I’ve observed that Ron is a creature of habit and before each service begins, goes through the same routine. He hangs his hat on his crutch and then places a silver framed photograph on the narrow wooden shelf in front of him. Next to it, he positions seven or eight small soft toys, each of which is turned towards the altar, kneeling in apparent prayer.

Eventually, I became so intrigued that I asked him about the photograph and why he brought the toys to church. He replied: “It’s because of my wife”.

Ron’s wife Stella died 5 years ago, on 31st October 2001. He said “She was only 67. She collapsed one day and couldn’t walk, then went into a coma and died. I still love her so much. I want her with me always so I keep a lock of her hair and her photograph with me. I keep the teddies because she loved cuddly toys. They remind me of her.”

Ron and Stella were married in 1955, after a 4 year courtship. They met at a dance hall near the aquarium. She was working at Dubarry’s perfume factory in Hove and he was a postman. He remembers the day they became engaged as if it was yesterday. The engagement ring cost five pounds and ten shillings, 2 weeks’ wages. They were married for 46 years.

Ron was an atheist for all of their married life, but that changed after her death. He recalls a day during a visit to Brighton’s Woodvale Cemetery when he met a woman he had never seen before called Ruth. She was a Black woman from London, with a strong Caribbean accent. He said she smiled at him as if she recognised him.

The woman spoke to him about grief. He says he cannot remember what she said, but she hugged him as she left. He said “I’ve never seen her since, but she left me with such a sense of peace. I knew Stella was with me. I went down to St Peter’s Church because we were married there. I’ve been going ever since.”

He commented “There are angels everywhere, especially in this church.” Then he grinned “Maybe that’s why a lot of my teddies have wings.” Sure enough, when I looked at them, I saw that many of them did indeed have wings. They are unlikely talismans.

Ron is no soft eccentric or saint. As he spoke he smiled with sincerity and genuine sweetness and yet, as I listened to his soft voice, I could hear anger and bitterness resonate, not far beneath the surface. It became clear that the defining experiences of his life were during World War 2 and that he well remembers the impotent child’s rage he felt at that time.

He was 6 years old in 1939 when the War began and was bombed out twice. He told me about being in a bomb-shelter in the dark. “All night there was this sickly smell. The floor was wet. When we woke we found it was blood. We went out my brother and I. There were ruined buildings everywhere. My brother stepped on something and it was someone’s arm sticking out of the rubble. Occasionally, even after all these years, I still think I can smell blood”.

Ron said he hates the sound of fireworks at this time of the year, because it reminds him of the bombs. “It makes me think about the children in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Why do Bush and Blair have to make war against innocents? If they want war they should fight each other.”

“It’s horrible, the sound of bombs – and to see houses burning and children screaming. It stays with you. I’ve seen children looking for their toys, crying because everything’s gone. People were destitute. They had nothing. Now I can’t stand to hear a child cry. Sometimes in a shop I hear one and I’ll give them one of my teddies, just to make them smile again.”

As he spoke, his eyes filled with tears. He was feeling again the terror of being a child under bombardment. As he struggled to collect himself, I thought of another distressed and frightened child, a 7 year old Palestinian girl called Maryam. She is from Gaza, but with her mother Asha and father Mohammed came to visit Brighton.

Mohammed and Asha were born in Palestine, but lived as refugees in Egypt and Syria until the Oslo Accords of 1993 allowed them to return to Gaza. She was formerly a teacher of Arabic and he is a businessman.

Asha told me that she and her husband brought Maryam to visit her older brother Haitham who is studying here. However, while they were in England the Israeli Government closed the borders and they became stranded.

Mohammed is desperate to go home. He runs a furniture business, but can sell nothing as a result of the economic blockade imposed by the USA, Israel and the European Union. He told me “They are supposed to believe in democracy, but are punishing us all because Hamas was elected. I have 40 employees, but I can’t pay their wages. I can sell nothing. I can’t even buy stock because there’s nothing in the warehouses. People have no food and they are destitute. And all the time they are being killed. The world has forgotten us”.

Despite the dangers he will return. Many of his own and his wife’s family are in refugee camps, and his office block has been bombed, but he refuses to give in. He says “The strategy has always been to make us leave. We will not go. It is our home. But it is very hard for the children.”

Maryam does not want to go back. She has been welcomed into a local school and feels safe.
Her school in Gaza was recently bombed by the Israelis. She wasn’t physically hurt, but she was terrified because she knew all too well what might have happened. She doesn’t want her father to go back.

Her mother said “She is scared of the bombs. She jumps when she hears fireworks. After the bombing her skin became covered in white marks, due to stress. She began to wet her bed. She is anxious and nervous.”

Haitham added “Often the children can’t go to school because the army imposes curfews. They can be trapped inside 170 days out of 365 and miss half the year’s schooling. They’re scared they’ll be bombed inside and that they’ll be shot by army snipers outside. Many children have been killed in this way.”

So far this year 92 children have been killed in Gaza, according to UNICEF statistics. Overall 819 children have been killed since 2000.

Anne Grandjean, of UNICEF warned that youngsters are suffering increasing levels of stress from violence and fear. “They are confronted with regular military operations, shelling, house demolitions and checkpoints on their way to schools” she said.

The World Health Organisation in 2004 reported that due to “Israeli violence practised against Palestinian civilians, large numbers of children suffer from psychological trauma.”

Well before the current disastrous state of siege, the WHO reported a 20.3% increase in patients’ visits to mental health clinics, with reported cases including “epilepsy, schizophrenia, mental retardation, nocturnal enuresis and affective disorders.”

Mohammed told me “You need to understand about the helicopters and F16s (fighterplanes) that fly over all the time, the drones (air-born spying devices), the sonic boom. The noise is terrible. You can get no sleep. The children are in a constant state of terror, worried all the time that a bomb will come down on them. This is what Maryam remembers.”

So, when I met with Ron Bowman, I told him about little Maryam who doesn’t sleep well and who is scared of loud noises. I commented that the sound of fireworks around this season is likely to upset her.

He said nothing, then reached into his holdall and picked out one of his cuddly toys – a little teddy with a white gown and angels wings carrying what may have been a Christmas gift in its hands. “Give her that” he said.

Uncertain for a moment, I said “She’s a little Muslim girl.” He smiled at me and said gently “I’m sure they have angels too”.

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