Once upon a time when I was small…

…there was a magical man.

I remember the day this picture was taken. (yes, I AM the one who looks like a boy and is determined to NOT stand where my sister is attempting to put me). Somewhere, probably in a battered suitcase of memories at my parents’ house, there are two more photos from this day in our garden in Damascus back in about 1978/9. One has me and my sister on either side of my dad, and the other is of me and my sister both hugging another man – an American man called Swayne Britt. I think in the picture I’m holding him so tightly round the neck I’m close to choking him. And smiling. We’re all smiling.

Because Swayne Britt was a magical man.

We loved Swayne Britt, me and my sister. He was one of those unique people. He was from Texas. He had a long grizzly grey beard. He was tall. His skin was just on the turn to leather from the sun and his hair was thinning. He wore soft cotton shirts with all those flowery patterns that were hip back then. His eyes always twinkled. He was always laughing.  Swayne Britt didn’t just HAVE stories, he WAS stories. Of course, I was six, my sister was nine. Maybe that’s just how he appeared to us. But then truth is only perception and my truth was that there was no one more fascinating on this planet when I was six or seven than Swayne Britt. Even his name sounded like it came from story.

Swayne Britt was a single man. He must have been in his early forties. I don’t know how he became friends with my family, but I guess, knowing my dad, it probably happened over a beer. He was my dad’s opposite number in the American Embassy and all the ex-pats mixed. Swayne Britt became a firm favourite in our house.

The magic of Swayne was that he loved kids. He understood kids. We spent a lot of halcyon days together, just me and my big sister and Swayne. I don’t know when he started taken us off the for day to give my mum some peace. It just kind of happened. He took us swimming. He took us to the Marine House where they had proper American lollipops. He’d take us to his house and play us all his Rolling Stones records and we’d dance like idiots. It was in Swayne Britt’s house that I first saw a KISS album cover and I remember being both fascinated and terrified by the make-up.  Swayne Britt told us fantastical stories of ridiculous things, and fantastical stories of real things. He made us Cowboy Beans for lunch.

Once, when my parents were having a party and Swayne was there, a little English boy asked him who he was. Swayne said, ‘I’m a cowboy, son.’ The little boy looked at Swayne’s shirt and trousers, shook his head and replied, ‘I don’t believe you, Mister.’

You know what Swayne did? He put down his beer, got into his car and drove back to his house on the other side of that dusty city. He came back about an hour later all dressed up in his chaps and stetson and neckerchief. He winked and smiled at that little boy and said ‘Now do you believe me, son?’ That little boy was completely lost in the magic. He was in AWE. I bet he remembers that to this day.

And that’s the magic. Some people just have it.

Yeah, me and Laura, we loved Swayne Britt. We loved him a lot.

I don’t know why I started thinking about Swayne Britt today. Maybe it’s because I’m writing (should be writing) a story about another city of my childhood. Or maybe it’s just that barely six months goes by when I don’t think of Swayne Britt and smile, which given that it’s been thirty-two years since I’ve seen him is quite a testament to the magic he made for us.

These days though, when I think of him, I always feel a little sad. Not because of the passing of time and wondering whether he’s ill or happy or sad or even still alive – I don’t think those things because in my memory he’s always exactly as he was the day those photographs were taken – but because of the way the world has changed.

A single man. In his forties. Playing with kids. On his own. All day.

I asked my mum a couple of years ago if those days were now, and we were small in this decade, would she let him take us off for the day like she used to? Or would she say no? Find it weird? Think he was weird? She thought about that for a moment before agreeing that she would probably say no. She wasn’t happy with herself for the decision, but it was an honest one.

I thought about it too. In this day and age, he probably wouldn’t have even mentioned it. Single man. In his forties. Offering to look after someone else’s small girls for the day? What would people think?

We know what they’d think. THAT word.

Best not offer.

That makes me sad. It makes me feel old. The world has made us all so cynical. The world is so in our face about every terrible crime that we forget that most people are essentially all right. Some forty year old men are just people who love kids but don’t have any of their own.

There are no more wicked people in the world than there were thirty years ago. There are just a lot more suspicious ones.

Probably with good cause.

There are no answers. The clock can never be turned back to more innocent times. That world is gone. Just memories.

But they’re my memories and I’m happy I got to have them.

And I’m  very, very glad my mum just saw the goodness in the magical man.

SP x









About sarah

Writer of supernatural and crime fiction for Gollancz in the UK. I've written six horror novels and my first thriller, A Matter of Blood, wa View all posts by sarah

10 responses to “Once upon a time when I was small…

  • Yolanda Arellano Brun

    Simply wonderful, I loved your story, you are so right about the change we have experienced. I think we were pretty lucky to have lived those more innocent times. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. 🙂

  • Kate

    All too true, but…
    “That world is gone. Just memories.”

    Why are we so resigned to this fate? We can’t bring that world back but we can certainly have a good stab at re-creating it, if enough people want it enough. And I believe we do. F*** cynicism!

  • JovialGnome

    Lovely story, I’m so glad to have grown up in such innocent times too, and with my 50+ year old man hat on I lament their passing.

  • helenphifer

    I agree with you, how sad the ways of the world. That is a fantastic story and how I wished I had known him when I was a kid. In fact every kid could do with their own magic man, sounds like a great guy 🙂

  • josephdlacey

    People forget that news is news BECAUSE it is unusual and exceptional. But there’s so much news now that we all suspect each other of being evil. And maybe that, Sarah, marks the true end of the world.

    I’m hoping not, though.

    In my personal, every day, experience, people are good to those around them and rarely set out to do harm to others. That should be our news.

    When I was a boy I often spent time with my two uncles – my real uncle and his life partner. They were storytellers, artists and dreamers and I still remember a similar magic that being around them created for me. Like Swayne Britt, they loved kids and they adored me. I only hope this generation of kids gets to experience the same magic.

    Thanks for posting!

  • Stephen Volk

    Lovely to read that, Sarah. Similar thoughts here. I’m enjoying having time with my grandson of late. It’s fun. It’s educational (for me!). I find kids just plain interesting (after all, I was one once!). But Pat and I were walking through town the other days when kids were drifting home from school. A bunch of boys (about 10-11 years old) were ambling along, one of them with his school project under his arm: an amazing model of a building made out of cardboard. I said, “Hey, that’s amazing.” (it was.) Pat tugged my arm, as if to say – you can’t just say things to kids you don’t know on the street. Ah well. Maybe she’s right. In which case, like you, I’m sad too. I think the kids lives, and most definitely ours, are the less rich because of it.

  • Pauline

    Found this piece mentioned on a favorite blog and came to read. What a wonderful memory to have. It sparked my own about a similar friendship when I was a child. You write with such clarity and feeling – it’s a pleasure to have found your site.

  • sarah

    I found this via Melissa Wiley. And I have to tell you, as I was reading through the post, I kept waiting for the Moment. You know, the one where you revealed something horrible. That Swayne Britt did something awful to a child. 😦

    I blame the years I spent working in the trauma counselling field. I’ve seen so much misery and horror, it’s hard to believe there is, or ever was, innocent goodness in the world. Another commenter said bad news gets told because it’s exceptional – sadly, that’s not true. There is much MORE evil the public never hears about, because it is unreported to the police, or unreported to the media (most personal assault cases have a “do not release to the media” stamp put on them).

    I don’t understand why society is deteriorating so badly. Of course there has always been violence between adults, and you could even say in some ways we are more peaceful – fewer wars – but the increase in personal crimes against children is bewildering and tragic.

    I’m glad you had such a man in your life. He sounds truly magical indeed. And I know men like him still must exist. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful memory.

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