Chertsey Tales Part Eight.
A young friend of mine read some of my stories and had this to say, I think maybe she was right!
“One will never understand the eyes of a storyteller. They have seen it all and knows, the veil between reality and fantasy has been crossed many times and will continue to be as long as he can put a pen in his hand and to paper. Stories are better when shared and it’s the duty of this storyteller to share his stories. It’s up to you, the reader to decide what you want to believe is true or not.”
Ok, I will admit to a bit of fantasy, but most of it is true!
The first months of the war were so busy, and now that it is November, everything seems to have stopped, it’s all been done. The ladies who always seem to gather up the top of Cowley Avenue or even in our kitchen, are saying the same thing.
How quickly the government had everything ready, the air raid shelters built, and all the road signs taken down, but now nothing is happening!
You wouldn’t think there was a war on, so we children just carried on as before. Our priority was bonfire night, armies of kids were scavenging anything that would burn for our bonfires. St Annes Hill was picked clean of any fallen branches, we had to go deep into the other end of the woods to Bluebell Dell to find anything.
A bonfire was a needed for every house, it had to be bigger than your neighbours, then there was the Guy and collecting money for fireworks. The guy had to look real, and some kids cheated last year by dressing one of their mates up as the guy…he wasn’t put on the bonfire though.
It was a terrible shock when we were told we couldn’t burn our fires in case it helped the enemy. Someone said we can only have indoor fireworks! No bangers, jumping jacks, Catherine wheels and we had to forget rockets all together.
The same someone said we would have to save all this for the end of the war, possibly in a few months.
Another thing we are not allowed to do is go into the almost derelict Lasswade House, which was just across the road from us. it was taken over by the army. There was a small squad of soldiers manning a bren-gun carrier and a searchlight, I think they were French Canadians. This only lasted a little while, then evacuees were billeted in the house.
We were allowed in the lovely orchard though, just right for scrumping the apples, pears, and any other fruit. The orchard is my favourite place, it is where I would go if I wanted to be on my own. It once had a lovely garden with Dummies stream running through it, and the remains of a little bridge. There were even quite big fish hiding in the overgrown rushes, but we were never able to catch one.
Another empty house was in Thorpe Road, we called it ‘The Haunted House’. This was also taken over for storage of boxes of blankets and stuff needed in case of an invasion. Hardly any of the windows were still there, and many of the slates were missing from the roof. There were even some big birds nesting in the roof.
Bonfire night was a damp squib, it really was. We had some indoor fireworks which were just like a candle burning. We did take the guy out though and collected a few shillings which we spent in Mrs Hughes fish shop. There were more search lights swinging around in the sky, it was as if to make up for no fireworks, but nothing for them to see.
The bonfires were soon pulled down as winter started so it wasn’t a waste of time. It was suddenly very cold, so cold that parts of the Thames froze as we got nearer to Christmas. Ruxbury hill was like a sheet of ice. It was time for our sledges to be made out of the front gate. All the council houses had a wooden gate, they were perfect for making a sledge. The two side pieces with curved ends were the runners and the rest made the top. They were a bit heavy but just the job. When the snow had gone the gates were easy to put back together.
Two girls had the best sledges though, which really made the boys fed up. Ann Stanford who lived in a bungalow in Vincent Lane, had a yellow wooden one with a red leather seat, but the fastest one was made of metal tubing like a bike is made of. I think her father worked at the tank factory in Chobham and could make anything like this. I think her name was Jeanette Lessware and lived in another bungalow on the corner of Vincent Lane.
The council kept trying to grit Ruxbury Hill, but the lorry kept sliding all over the place, it did make us laugh, I don’t think the lorry driver was really trying though. There were so many kids there shouting at him.
The playground was at school were also very slippery and made lovely slides, Pound Pond was frozen solid apart from the Abbey Road end, it was very thin there and Billy Pretty who lived next door to Siki Balchin fell in. I saw him running home soaking wet as I was going to the pond. He was really crying but I couldn’t give anything dry to wear as I only had a shirt and a jersey on myself. I did feel sorry for him though, he must have been frozen.
The bonfire wood was soon used up and we had to go wooding again. The gasworks heaps of coal and coke were frozen solid and you had to use a pickaxe to break it up. They would only let you a have half a pram full at a time.
Alvar Liddell, the man on the wireless said the bad weather prevented the German bombers taking off in France to bomb us, so it was some good news.
The last week of 1939. The secret lives of children.
‘Christmas is coming the geese are getting fat please put a penny in the old man’s hat.’
The words echo back and forth around the hill, since this side of the hill had been cleared of any big trees it was very good for echoes. I don’t know all the words, so I just shout the ones I know as loud as I can. Kingy Edwards and my brother Donald shouted 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 as if it wants 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 just in front of us. I don’t know why I am cheering, I’m sad to see any tree being chopped down, especially chestnut trees. This part of the hill has always been called chestnut wood. I wonder what it will be called now.
A few weeks ago, we were chestnutting here. I like the smell when I scrape away the dry leaves with a stick looking for those shiny brown nuts. The squirrels have kindly opened the spiky 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, the hill is almost bare.
Lots of kids are wooding, ready for Christmas. The chips from the big axes of the lumber jacks 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 all the way 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 now.
A man is sitting on his bike leaning on the railings, he’s been watching the trees being chopped down, he gives us 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 heavy with these lovely white chips 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 hide in the big hedge of Lasswade House till he goes away. I don’t know why we’re hiding its only firewood.
Kingy’s takes his share 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 pats her arm.
‘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’ll stop the game that is going round, 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 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.
I look at the teachers, they all look like nice people just like the man up the hill, how would I know if one was nasty like the one Chrissie saw. There’s Mr Izzi in his shop, he sometimes gives me a broken cornet with a little bit of ice cream, and what about Mr Denyer? I just don’t know what to think.
Mum likes to shop in Denyer’s because everything is freshly prepared, but it takes so long to do the little bit of shopping on the list.
As soon as I step down onto the sawdust covered floor, 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 that 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 peels away into 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 I know he is not one of the nasty men, so I gobble up the ham quickly.
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 straight away, 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. We could buy it already wrapped from Mr. Izzi’s shop, but that’s Denyer’s for you, everything is freshly prepared.
It’s worth doing the shopping in Denyer’s, just for the show. Seeing a man who looks like a penguin, slapping a lump of butter about between two bats is something well worth waiting in the queue 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 holds a matchbox up.
‘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 terrible sin for children. My childhood best friend kept a secret for more than 80 years. Last year, for the first time, he told me about the abuse from his two brothers. It only stopped when they had to join the army—In the last weeks of 1939.
The secret lives of children indeed!?