Hugo and Bruno
Jo Hewlett

    Once, in a far off land, there lived two brothers called Hugo and Bruno. Hugo was fifteen years older than Bruno and, to be perfectly honest, he found his younger brother to be a bit of a nuisance. Just when he wanted to go out and amuse himself with his friends, his mother would call out:
    “Hugo, take Bruno with you, there’s a good boy! Then I can get on with the housework.”
    Hugo would groan and complain: “Oh, Mum, must I? He just hangs around and gets in the way, and all my friends laugh at me for having to take my kid brother everywhere!”
    But he knew it was no use complaining. His mother would already have started her jobs and wouldn’t really be listening.
    When Hugo went to his bedroom, he would often find that Bruno had borrowed his most precious possessions, and had either lost or broken them.
    “You should put your toys away, Hugo, where Bruno can’t get at them,” his mother would say. “He’s only a little chap, he doesn’t know any better.”
    “They are not toys!” Hugo would indignantly reply. “They are models! What’s the good of having models if you have to keep putting them away where no-one can see them?”
    One day, a dreadful thing happened.
It was Hugo’s last day at school, and all the children were being presented with prizes and certificates before they left to go out into the big, wide world. Hugo was feeling very pleased with himself for he had done very well: he had won a big, silver cup for being the most industrious student in the class. Just before it was time to go home a message came for Hugo – he was to go to the Headmaster’s office immediately. Quite naturally, he supposed that the Headmaster wanted to say goodbye to him and congratulate him on winning the silver cup, but, as soon as he opened the door, he realised that something was wrong.
    A neighbour of theirs was in the room with the Headmaster, and both men stood and stared at Hugo with sad, blank faces. The Head took him by the arm and told him to sit down.
    “We have some very bad news for you, Hugo,” he said. “I hardly know how to tell you this. I am afraid both your parents have been drowned in a terrible accident. The ferry from the mainland was over-loaded and got caught in a sudden squall. We believe about thirty people have drowned, including your parents. I am so very sorry, my dear boy.”
    Hugo was never able to remember quite how he got home. The kindly neighbour came with him and tried to talk to him.
    “What are you going to do, Hugo? There is still Bruno to be looked after.”
    Hugo stared miserably at him.
    “I don’t know!” he said. “I can’t seem to think straight. I’m going to university in September. I’m going to train to be a doctor; it has always been my dream.”
    “I don’t see how you can go now,” said his neighbour. “Unless your parents have left some money, you will have to work to support yourself and Bruno.”
    Hugo’s face fell as the realisation hit him. He was horrified. His whole carefully planned future seemed to have collapsed.
    “But I’m only just nineteen!” he protested. “I don’t see how I can look after a little kid; I have never had to look after myself!”
    Just at that point, another neighbour brought Bruno home and between them they comforted the little boy and put him to bed. The neighbours offered Hugo food, but he really wasn’t hungry. Then, after a while, not knowing what to say, they crept away, leaving Hugo to his grief and his thoughts of the future.
    Hugo sat in his room as the shadows lengthened and it gradually became dark. He felt very cold, but was not even sure how to get a fire going – that had always been his mother’s job. Gradually his sadness began to wane and anger took over.
    “Why should such a dreadful thing happen to me?” he thought. “I have always worked hard and done my best at school. My life is in ruins through no fault of my own. I have no money, and I am stuck with Bruno. I shan’t be able to go to university now, and I have no idea how to set about getting a job!”
    And Hugo finally broke down, crying tears of pain and rage as he sat in the dark, sobbing bitterly.
    Hugo never knew where the stranger came from. He supposed that his neighbours must have left the door open and he must have wandered in, as silently as a shadow. He only knew that he looked up and saw the strange person standing there.
    He was a tall, thin man in white, and he was staring sadly at him.
    “Who are you?” asked Hugo, through his tears.
    “Why are you weeping?” asked the stranger.
    “I am the unluckiest boy in all the world!” answered Hugo, his tears starting afresh. “My parents have died and I am all alone!”
    “You are not quite alone, Hugo,” said the stranger. “You have your brother for company.”
    “Company!” snorted Hugo. “He is no help to me. Because of him I can’t go to university. He has ruined my life! I’m sure I could get a job or sort something out, but how am I supposed to look after a four-year-old child? It just isn’t fair! I would give the little brat away if anyone would have him.”
    “Do you really mean that?” asked the stranger. “Many people would give all the treasure they possessed for such a dear little boy.”
    “Well, I wish I knew who they were!” stormed Hugo. “For I would be glad to be rid of him, and I could certainly do with some treasure – I don’t even know where my next meal is coming from!”
    The stranger came over and stood right in front of Hugo; his white garment seemed to glow in the half-light. He took from his pocket a little leather bag, and tipped a stream of sparkling fire onto the table beside Hugo ….. DIAMONDS!
    Hugo stared at them in amazement!
    “I will give you these,” said the stranger, “if you will give me your brother. I promise I will be kind to him and look after him.”
    Hugo stared at him in amazement with his mouth open!
    “You want to give me these diamonds in exchange for Bruno?” he gasped. “But why? What on earth do you want him for?”
    “If you give him to me, it is no longer your concern what I want him for,” the stranger replied. “I have told you that he will be kindly treated.”
    “I suppose it would be better really,” said Hugo, thoughtfully, his eyes fixed on the pile of flashing diamonds so close to his hand. “I am in no position to bring the boy up; we would probably starve together. If you have pockets full of diamonds I suppose you can afford to look after him – it would be kinder in the long run.”
    And with these words, Hugo, having convinced himself it was the best thing to do, turned and scooped up the diamonds off the table.
    “They must be worth hundreds and thousands of pounds!” he thought in amazement.
    And when he looked back, the strange man had gone.
    Extremely puzzled, Hugo went to Bruno’s bedroom. The bedclothes were pulled back and there was no sign of the boy.
    “I think I must be going mad!” thought Hugo to himself and suddenly, feeling extremely tired, he lay down on Bruno’s bed and slept.
    When he awoke in the morning, his first thought was that he must have had a strange dream brought on by grief, but when he came downstairs he saw the diamonds flashing in the morning sunlight, and Bruno was nowhere to be found. Hugo felt rather guilty about the way that he had behaved. He tried to recapture the certainty he had felt the night before, and tried to convince himself that Bruno would have a better chance in life with the rich stranger.
    “Anyway,” he told himself, “there is nothing I can do about it now.”
    And he put it firmly from his mind.
    During the next few months, Hugo’s life changed entirely. He took the diamonds to an old friend of his father’s who was a jeweller; he told him he had found them at the back of his father’s sock drawer. The jeweller could scarcely believe his eyes, and told Hugo they were, indeed, worth a king’s ransom! He helped Hugo to put the money in the bank and offered him advice on how to invest it.
    The only problem in Hugo’s life was that people kept asking where Bruno was! He didn’t know how to answer and so, now that he was rich, he resolved to move far away from home and from his kind neighbours with all their awkward questions.
    He bought himself a very large and beautiful house in a seaside area frequented by all the rich and famous. He bought a car and a yacht, and took to gambling wildly at the local casino. When he felt lonely he gave lavish parties, and soon ‘friends’, that he never knew he had, appeared from all over the place to stay in his grand house, eat his food and enjoy themselves.
    For many months Hugo continued to live in this extravagant manner, so different from anything he had known in his life before. He employed servants to look after the house, and gardeners to look after the grounds. He built a heated swimming pool, and installed illuminated fountains that played all day and all night.
    Hugo should have been completely happy. He had everything he could possibly want and yet, in some strange way, he felt that something was missing. It was as though he had a hollow place in his heart; and more and more often he found himself thinking about Bruno, and wondering what had become of him. He employed detectives to try and track down the tall man in the white robe but to no avail; strangely enough, no-one in the village had seen or heard of him. It appeared he had arrived from nowhere and vanished again, and Bruno had vanished with him, leaving only the diamonds to prove that he had really been there.
    The months stretched out into years and Hugo tried to imagine what Bruno would look like now. He must have grown into a young man; perhaps if they did meet they would not recognise each other.
    Hugo started to get bored with all his foolish and idle friends. He stopped giving parties and buying rich food and drink; his beautiful car broke down and he couldn’t be bothered to have it fixed. Gradually, his so-called ‘friends’ began to leave him and he found himself alone again.
    With a heavy heart, Hugo made his way down to the bank to check on the state of his affairs and was horrified to discover that all the money was gone! The bank manager was still polite but he had a slightly worried look about him.
    “I hope you have other investments, Sir,” he enquired, “apart from your account here, for you are very over-drawn and owe a lot of money.”
    Hugo could not believe it. He knew he had been living extravagantly, but surely he could not have got through all that money? But it seemed that he had. The only way he could straighten up his affairs was to sell his house, his car, his yacht and all his worldly possessions. He dismissed his servants and his gardeners, and ended up sitting on the sea-wall without a penny in his pocket.
    “What an utter fool I have been!” thought Hugo to himself.
    He held his head in his hands and tears of self-pity trickled through his fingers.
    “I realise now that there was only one thing in the world that really mattered to me, and that was Bruno! The one precious possession I had, and I have lost him for ever! Why couldn’t I see that money isn’t everything!”
    Looking up, he was amazed to see the tall stranger standing beside him.
    “Is it you?” cried Hugo, leaping to his feet and grabbing hold of the stranger for fear he might disappear again. “Is it really you? How is Bruno? Can I see him?”
    “How did you like being rich?” asked the stranger.
    Hugo hung his head. “It’s not so special really,” he said.
    “What about all your friends?” the man asked. “Don’t they keep you cheerful?”
    “They were not really friends at all,” said Hugo. “They were only after my money, and when that was gone so, too, were they. No friend in the world could be like a brother.” 
    Hugo sniffed miserably.
    “You foolish young man!” said the tall stranger, sternly. “Do you at last realise what you have lost?”
    Hugo sat down again and burst into tears.
    “Oh, please, please, sir, give me back my brother!”
    “Very well,” said the stranger, “if you will give me back my diamonds.”
    “You know they have all gone!” shouted Hugo. “I have no money!”
    “Then you will have to work,” said the stranger. “If you really work we may meet again.” And with that he was gone.
    Hugo looked round but there was no-one there but a large sea-gull preening itself. It turned its head to one side and looked at him with a beady, black eye.
    “Dear God!” thought Hugo. “I think I am going mad again.”
    And then he decided to pull himself together at last, for really there was nothing else for him to do. He walked down into the town, where no-one recognised him as the wealthy young playboy from the big house.
Hugo wandered the streets looking for work and at last he found his way to the harbour. There it seemed he had a stroke of luck; a large ship was preparing to go to sea and was in need of a stoker. Hugo signed up and went on board.
    Never in his whole life had he worked so hard, stoking the boilers in the bowels of the ship. Before he had finished the first shift, every muscle in his body was aching; there were blisters on his hands and tears in his eyes, and the other sailors laughed at him for he seemed a very soft young man.
    The next few weeks were like a nightmare to Hugo. Every day was the same: shovelling coal in the terrible heat of the boiler room, running messages and waiting on the older men, until at last he fell into his bunk, almost too weary to sleep. And then, when he did drop off, it was almost immediately time to get up again. The only thing that kept him going was the thought of the tall stranger and his promise that they would meet again if he really worked … and surely this was really work, if anything was!
    Very gradually, Hugo started to toughen up. His muscles stopped screaming with agony when he moved; the blisters disappeared from his hands to be replaced by calluses made hard by labouring. As time went by, the other men ceased to mock him and call him ‘Softie’, and he made one or two real friends for the first time in his life.
    Hugo sailed for seven voyages as a stoker on the ship, and gradually he started to save his money. The other men would laugh at him for he never drank, or bought anything except the barest essentials. He saved every coin he earned and they thought he was a miser. When he came ashore, Hugo would go to a jeweller’s and buy a diamond to put in the little leather bag that he had always kept in his pocket. Very, very slowly the bag started to fill up.
    One Spring morning, when the ship was in port, Hugo was walking along the beach when he saw a large white sea-gull staring at him in a familiar manner. It reminded him of the tall stranger, and of Bruno.  Suddenly overwhelmed by memories, tears sprang to his eyes and he sat down on a rock and held his head in his hands. He suddenly realised that, even if he worked until he was one hundred and ten, he would never be able to buy enough diamonds to fill the little leather bag.
    Looking up, he saw, with hardly any surprise, standing in front of him was the stranger in the white robe.
    “I cannot repay you!” he said, with a gulp of misery. “I can never make enough money to buy the diamonds.”
    “Let’s see how well you have done,” asked the stranger, holding out his hand. 
    Hugo handed him the little leather bag. The stranger opened it and tipped out six large diamonds into the palm of his hand. They sparkled and glinted wickedly in the sun.
    “It is the best I can do,” said Hugo wretchedly. “I have worked as hard as I can.”
    “In that case,” said the stranger, with a rare smile, “I suppose it will have to do.”
    He turned and beckoned to a small figure in the distance, and a young boy with curly, black hair came running up to them.
    “Oh, Bruno, Bruno!” gasped Hugo, through his tears. “I have missed you so dreadfully!”
    “Me, too!” said Bruno.
    The two brothers threw their arms around each other, and hugged as though they would never let go.
    When at last Hugo looked round, the tall stranger had gone again, and a fat, white sea-gull regarded him solemnly from the sea wall. As he watched it, it gave a loud squawk, spread its wings and flew away, leaving the brothers alone on the beach, contemplating a long and happy future together.