Sub for 26th.
The last week of 1939. The secret life of children.
‘Christmas is coming the geese are getting fat please put a penny in the old man’s hat.’
My name is Alan, I don’t know all the words, so I just shout the ones I know. The Hill is very good for echoes. Kingy Edwards and my brother Donald sang some rude words, it’s so funny to hear them come back so clearly.
Now there’s a man’s voice, it’s very gruff, like he’s got a sore throat.
We all run down the hill and then watch as a big tree leans over. It doesn’t seem to want to fall; it just groans as if it’s crying in pain. We cheer as it comes crashing down and bounces in a cloud of dust and leaves. I don’t know why I am cheering, I’m sad to see trees being chopped down.
This part of the hill is called Chestnut wood, A few weeks ago, we were chestnutting here. I like the smell when you scrape away the dry leaves with a stick looking for those shiny brown nuts. The squirrels have kindly opened the chestnuts for us, saving our hands from the prickles. Now the man says the country needs lots of wood for the war effort. The big trees are first to go, all that’s left are a few little ones and the big bushes.
Today, I am with my brother; we are wooding, ready for Christmas. The big chips from the fallen trees are everywhere but just like the big trees they will soon be gone. Now I can see the railings of The Old Coach Road up the top of the hill and the steps that go up from the main road. Don says the steps are tree trunks and were laid by the monks who used to live here years ago, they’re almost worn away.
A man is sitting on his bike leaning on the rails, he’s been watching the tree coming down, he gives a little wave. I hear Kingy say something to my brother, and they start shouting at the man, telling him to bugger off. Their voices echo all around the hill, the man goes away, the boys are laughing, I think they’re being nasty to the poor man, he’s only being friendly.
Our old pram is full of firewood, but it’s downhill to our house and we are nearly there, when Kingy stops us, a policeman is coming out of our house, we wait till he goes away.
Kingy’s takes his share of the wood home, and we go indoors. Mum is sitting at the table with my sister Chrissy, she’s been crying.
‘Put the kettle on Alan love, let’s have a nice cup of tea, I need to tell you something.’
A cup of tea seems to be the answer to everything to my mum. Chrissy starts crying again. Mum carries on.
‘A man was being very rude to your sister and her friends, and we had to tell the policeman what had happened. So, if a man that you don’t know offers you a sweet or something, you mustn’t take it, but not all men are nasty like the one Chrissy saw up the hill.’
Don looks over to me shaking his head and putting his finger to his lips.
I’m only little, I don’t know what’s going on. Later, Don tells me everything, he whispers behind his hand.
‘If you tell anyone about that man up the hill, we won’t be allowed to go up there again. You have to be careful what you say, otherwise you’ll spoil everything.’
There are so many things I have to be careful of now, at school I am told of all the things I mustn’t do. Next, I bet they will stop the game that is going round at school, saying it is too rude. It is a bit rude, but it is funny. The game is seeing a grown-up as an animal, we all do it.
With our teachers lined up in front of us in the morning, it’s like Noah’s Ark. Miss James with her nice round face and big eyes looks just like one of Mr. Stanford’s lovely cows. Mr Jackson with his long neck and long eye lashes has to be a Giraffe. The teachers must wonder what is so funny when we get a fit of the giggles.
Although I’m only seven, one of my jobs is shopping. Mum is very friendly with Mr Denyer, we shop there because everything is freshly prepared, but it takes so long to do the little bit of shopping on the list that I give him.
As soon as I step down into the shop the smell of the horrible looking cheeses makes me hold my nose. I wonder who thought it was a good idea to eat such a smelly thing, just suppose if it tasted horrible. The funny looking sausages hanging up are another thing I would never eat; I have only just got used to that stuff called Spam
Mr Denyer takes down a big piece of ham that is hanging from a beam, he sees me and says.
‘Hello young smiler, how’s your mummy?’
He always calls me smiler and sometimes tickles my ear. I join the queue of ladies; they don’t sound very happy. We watch him cutting the ham on a big red and silver thing, he turns the handle and there’s a swishing sound and a thin slice of ham falls in a little pile. He gives me some little scraps on a piece of white paper, they smell lovely, a bit like smoke.
I remember what mum said, but he is not one of the nasty men, so I eat the ham, it’s lovely.
Mr Denyer is a short tubby man, he is wearing a black overall that is all dusty, it nearly touches the floor, on top of this is a white apron, it’s got some dirty marks on it where he wipes his hands. He waddles around the counter, and I see the animal he reminds me of. Poor Mr. Denyer, he really does look just like a penguin.
He starts to do some of his freshly prepared stuff. He takes some butter from a wooden urn. Then he knocks it about between two wooden bats until it looks like a pack of butter. It can be bought ready wrapped in Mr. Izzi’s shop. That’s Denyer’s for you, everything is freshly prepared.
Doing the shopping in Denyer’s, and seeing a man who looks like a penguin, slapping a lump of butter about between two bats is something well worth waiting for. He proudly holds the pack of butter up for all to see.
‘Now then ladies this is the last time I’ll be able to do this for you, after Christmas, butter will be on the ration.’
He takes a matchbox from his pocket.
‘This is the size of two ounces of butter—your ration for a whole week.’
The ladies start moaning again but I don’t care, I never liked butter.
When I get home the policeman is talking to mum again, I stay in the scullery in case I give the game away.
Giving the game away was a mortal sin for children. My childhood best friend kept a secret for more than 80 years. I met him again in 2020. For the first time, he told me about the abuse he suffered, It only stopped when the man had to join the army—in the last weeks of 1939.
The secret lives of children indeed!?