- Contributed by
- Stan Hedges
- People in story:
- Rosetta Hedges, Kenneth Hedges, Sidney Hedges, Sxtanley Hedges
- Location of story:
- Wedmore, Somerset
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 February 2005
WITH just one classroom, it was impossible for the village school to absorb all the Londoners. Even when the older children were hived off to the village hall, the room still had to be divided by a curtain to separate beginners from minors.
We minors continued learning our abc. I remember rushing home after a week or so, desperate to tell Mrs P I'd mastered it; I could recite it all the way through without stopping. She was delighted. Her only son Philip was then sixteen, and away at boarding school. His old playroom was normally kept locked, but as a special treat I was taken to retrieve some suitable books, in order to encourage me to put my new learning to good purpose. Philip's room was an 'Aladdin's Cave', possessing every toy a boy could possibly desire. I remember seeing a Hornby train set, masses of Meccano, dozens of Dinky cars, hundreds of tin soldiers, an air-rifle, a real leather football, cricket bats, roller skates and even a four-foot rocking horse with a flowing white mane. I was left to ride the horse for half an hour before being called downstairs again. It must have been a very special privilege, for I don't recall going to that room again.
Not surprisingly, there was little fraternising between the Londoners and the local lads; the two sides keeping to themselves for the most part. They must have felt much as we Londoners did when thousands of American G.Is. descended like a storm on London in 1943, thinking us overbearing and arrogant. How could it be otherwise? With our cockney accents and our brash ways, and for ever making fun of the locals with their 'Zider-apple' accents, it was inevitable. Ken and Sid were often involved in 'ethnic' fights. In fact, I believe the odd organised pitched battle took place up in the woods from time to time, though I was too young to be involved. I still had a score of my own to settle, however. And the reckoning was not far off..
A day or two after settling in at the Manor the three of us were out kicking and scuffing our way across a cow pasture, keeping an eye open for cowpats, as well as any bull that might be sneakily hiding behind a cow. Soon we came across another group of kids coming towards us. Ken and Sid immediately prepared for action, but it was soon discovered they were a party of Londoners like ourselves, the smallest of which happened to be a good-looking kid with black hair and big brown eyes, about my own age.
'That's the boy who lost Mum's handkerchief,' I said, giving Ken a nudge.
'So? Whaddya want me to do about it? Now's your chance. Go on. Give 'im one.'
'You lost my Mum's handkerchief,' I said to the boy, tentatively.
'Yeah? What you gonna do about it?'
The audacity of it! He hadn't the slightest intention of negotiating, or even saying he was sorry! It really was too much. How dare he insult not only me, but Mum! With all the pent-up anger of that moment of distress in the carriage, I flew at him like a wild beast. In seconds we were on the ground wrestling and biffing each other with every twig of our being. At some point I managed to get on top, knees astride his chest. Taking him by the ears I commenced banging his head up and down on the very spot where a young heifer had recently left its latest dollop of manure. As the smelly brown droplets flew about his ears, flying in all directions, he screamed, 'Get off! Get off!' at which point Ken stepped in and told us that was enough, and to get up and shake hands. So we did. Danny Sinclair and I then remained best friends throughout the war and long into our teens
As the weeks went by I began to forget about Mum. At some point I found I couldn't even remember her face. And anyway, I sort of had a new Mum now, even though I called her Mrs. P She was kind, and clever, and sometimes she could be lots of fun. She could whistle using her fingers, as well as play the bugle with a leaf held between her palms; she could also cup her hands and hoot like an owl and play 'God Save the King' through the gap between her thumbs. Try as I might, I could never get passed the owl noise.
One Saturday morning, she packed Philip's cricket bag with an assortment of things and took us all up to the beech plantation. Not to play cricket, you understand, but to learn the art of survival. She was going to show us all how to live wild and be self-sufficient should the emergency arise.
First we learned how to make a shelter from branches, twigs, leaves, and an old army groundsheet. She then built a bonfire, using moss and dry leaves as kindling, gradually building up the layers with larger and larger twigs until it could sustain a few logs. Once there was a fine bed of glowing ash we roasted potatoes and chestnuts in the embers. And 'dampers'! Gosh! I nearly forgot the dampers. They were easy to make, she said, and she'd brought all the ingredients.
'With just water and dampers you can stay alive for days. All you need is flour and water, margarine, sultanas and raisins, all mixed fairly dry in a basin and rolled out into pancakes.' She proceeded to demonstrate. 'Now we roll the pancakes onto a stick, like this, and after roasting them over the fire until they're crisp and brown, they're absolutely and entirely delicious.'
And they were. Afterwards, on fine weekends, we were often packed off to the beech plantation on Saturday mornings, taking along our bows and arrows, catapults and slingshots, together with blankets, a sack full of flour and potatoes, plus all the ingredients for dampers, and told not to return before tea-time on Sunday. Perhaps the dear lady had a secret admirer; perhaps she was an ardent football fan, a secret drinker; perhaps she just needed to be free of us for a few hours; who knows? I only know she had a charming way of doing it, and a way to which no boy could possibly object, and I will always be grateful. It is sad to think that if a foster mother in the 'PC' world of today were to allow her charges that amount of freedom she would doubtless face a charge of negligence.
Within high brick walls lay a fully stocked vegetable and fruit garden, the house being self-sufficient in both. Mrs P also kept half a dozen bee hives. From the vegetable garden a gateway led into to the orchard. It seemed enormous to my young eyes, but was probably no more than an acre or so. In springtime the hives were moved into here to encourage the bees to wake from their slumbers and refresh themselves with sips of delicious apple blossom.
She loved her vegetable garden. Dressed in her white smock and floppy old gardening hat, she liked to take me with her sometimes. Soon I knew the names of everything within its walls. I especially remember the mulberry tree. It was fruiting that September, and until then I never tasted anything so delicious. Only her fresh strawberries could compare, as they came into season the following June. Not being allowed near the hives, I could only stare in admiration as she stood amid a cloud of angry bees puffing smoke into their eyes (as I thought), before lifting out the trays of nectar and honey, clad in hundreds of bees. My next never-to-be-forgotten flavour-sensation was my first honeycomb straight from the hive, while another was grapes from an enormous vine that lived in a greenhouse all by itself.
Looking back, I suppose one of the reasons I spent so much time with Mrs P was because Ken and Sid went to great lengths to avoid my company. Whenever they were going off on one of their adventures she'd ask them to take me along with them but, understandably, they'd moan, 'Oh no! Not him again. Do we have to?' If she insisted, they'd allow me tag along for a while. But sooner or later, and as often as not, they'd shake me off somehow, either by hiding from me or running off so fast I couldn't catch up with them. Their mission, it seemed, was to make my life a misery. At breakfast one morning I discovered a large covered dish awaiting me. Upon lifting the lid I froze, then shrieked as I realized what lay on the plate, and dropped the lid with a clatter. They'd raided the cellars before I came down and collected a dozen dead mice, the total product of the cats' night labours.
However, this story had its upside when Mrs P gave them a really good ticking off.
Another time, the local scouts were having their weekly session in our barn. It had a hoist for lifting bales of hay up to the loft and, that week, the scouts were to learn the skill of ascending and descending a rope. Everyone gathered in the loft. One by one, these boys, all between ten and twelve, descended to the ground, hand over hand to the resounding applause of the whole company. Soon I was alone in the loft, and prepared to descend by the same means I'd reached it, by ladder, for they surely couldn't expect me (still less than five years old), to emulate their achievements. But Ken and Sid insisted I could do it. 'Go on, sissy, all you have to do is grab it, hold on, and climb down. Don't be such a baby.' I went to the edge and looked down. They were mad. Utterly mad. It couldn't have been more than ten feet or so, but I knew it wasn't for me. I just knew it. Then everyone started egging me on. In a moment of madness I grabbed the rope and slid down in a flash, having no idea that if one slid down it would strip the flesh from both hands. It was agony, and I spent the next two weeks swathed in bandages. Again, to my delight, they got a good ticking off. But life for a grizzler can still be very hard, you know.
As you can imagine, I spent a great deal of time alone; though I was never lonely. There was just too much to see and do. I could spend hours just watching the cockerels strutting with the hens, or feeding the ducks and geese, or making a nuisance of myself in the farmyard if the man who looked after the farm happened to be about. Or I might go up to the beech woods and practise bringing down a pigeon with my catapult (which the farmer had indicated would be a very good thing to do), though I can't recall ever hitting one. Other times I'd simply lie in the grass alone, gazing over the great plain of the Levels, stripping a hazel branch to feel the smooth, wet, sticky sap; or watching the clouds float by and listening to the birds while chewing on a blade of grass, smelling the earth, and just wondering at it all.
Yet another of my favourite pastimes was to climb onto the Manor's boundary wall which was about six feet high and ran around the whole estate. I'd walk along the top, arms spread, all the way round to the smithy that stood on the corner of the lane outside. The smithy was a magic place; a great dark cavern where the smith was allowed to play with fire to his heart's content all day long. I'd sit opposite, up on my wall, kicking my heels, listening and watching as he took white-hot strips of metal from the fire to hammer the sparks out of it, beating it into shape on the anvil, then wait for the angry sizzle as he dipped it into the cold trough. I watched as he turned raw metal into objects of all kinds: horse-shoes, rivets, hinge-plates, wrought-iron railings, farm tools, tractor parts, spare parts for mowing and thrashing machines; seeing pyrotechnic displays that knocked Granny Treloar's leaky kettle into a cocked hat.
On good days a farmer might be there holding the halter of a great shire horse while the smith replaced a set of shoes. Time and again I'd watch goggle-eyed, marvelling at the bravery of both smith and horse. So far as I could see, the smith was simply asking for trouble, bent double with his back to the towering beast, a giant hoof resting in his leather apron, taking up white-hot shoes with a pair of pincers and sploshing them on, sizzling hot, sending great clouds of white smoke flaring up with a sickening smell. It was fantasmagorical! Incredibly, the horses never moved! One by one, he'd take each hoof and repeat his barbaric ritual, filling the air with the smell of burnt flesh, while the horses stood patiently accepting it. It was nothing less than miraculous. I couldn't even slide down a rope without screaming for the pain. How on earth could they bear such agony without so much as a flinch, let alone not kicking the man to death? I could only assume they'd been very well brought up. Or perhaps they were more afraid of the farmers than the smith? I think both parties must have enjoyed keeping me in the dark, for it was to be some years before I discovered how and why it was all possible. Sometimes, once the horses were shod and standing firm on all four sizzling feet, and if I asked nicely, the decent farmers would lift me up and let me ride up the hill for a hundred yards or so. That, to me, was the greatest thrill imaginable.
As the months went lazily by, Mrs P and I became closer and closer. One of her great concerns was that I should be rid of my cockney accent. It must have jarred dreadfully. She spent time coaching me. So much so that Ken and Sid began to notice, which became another cause for sarcasm and ribaldry. She was also keen that I should learn to ride. Though she didn't ride herself any longer, she still kept a mare as a pet. It had a small paddock next to the orchard. In the Spring, she began giving me riding lessons. It was far too big for me, but from time to time I'd sit smartly to attention while she led me round and round in circles at the end of a lunging rein.
By that time Mum was no more than a distant memory. Unless someone mentioned her, I never gave her a thought. Even when Mrs P let it be known that she was planning to come down for a visit soon, it meant very little to me. The Manor House was my home now, and I knew I never wanted to leave.
When the visit came I failed even to recognise her. She was for ever changing her hair colour, perhaps it had changed in the nine months we'd been away. I do remember her laughing and saying I was '…a proper little Lord Fauntleroy, talking all la-di-da.' It must have taken every penny she had to be there, including the train fare and a present for each of us. I remember Sid getting a toy yacht, while I had a tin aeroplane with a clockwork motor, so that the propeller spun when it was wound up. But I remember no more than that.
Autumn came, and after the village lads had braved Philip's air rifle and had their fill of scrumping the Cox's and Laxtons, the cider apples were gathered in. Mrs P had her own press, and we watched greedily as the great screw squeezed the press down harder and harder, sending gallons of glowing yellow liquid gurgling into oaken casks, and had our first taste of pure apple juice.
In November, Mum returned, but this time it was to take us home. I remember standing by Mrs Pitcairn's knee as they sat opposite each other on the sofas while she pleaded with Mum not to be so foolish. Why now, when London was taking such a pounding from nightly bombing?
'We're not going to London. We're going to Dunstable. Their ol' man's working there on munitions.'
'Then at least leave Stanley with me. I can do something with him.'
But Mum was adamant; if she was going to die, we'd all die together. It was the only way she could be sure of knowing we would never become waifs and strays or unwanted orphans.
I looked up at Mrs P, still clutching her knee. 'I don't want to go!' I cried. 'I don't want to go!' She gave me a squeeze, saying nor did she want me to, but she had no choice in the matter; she must do as Mummy says. Again she tried to persuade Mum to leave me behind, '…just for a few more months; just until you see how things go.'
But it was no use; I was approaching my sixth birthday, and the dream was over.
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