Chapter 2 - On awakening next morning.
On awakening next morning, I studied once more the bedroom that had become so familiar to me in the past six months. The faded pattern of pink roses on the wall paper, and the picture, (taken from a Pear’s Christmas Number,) of a lady wearing her dark hair piled high on the top of her head, and a pained expression on her face. She was obviously suffering from too tight corseting.
Small children take pleasure in the familiar. It gives them a feeling of permanence, in a world that is often confusing, and sometimes downright frightening.
I lie in my cot, content to listen to the noises of the farmyard, till my mother found time to fetch me down to breakfast. I heard the clanking of pails, the squealing of many pigs and the heavy clop, clop, of Beauty the carthorse, as he made his way across the yard to another day’s work.
They would be horse hoeing that morning, my brother Harold and Beauty. Up and down the field they would walk, never varying their pace, the hoes cutting the weeds up between the rows of beet. Harold’s strong young hands on the reins, keeping the horse’s great feet on a straight path.
Jack and Harold, my two elder brothers, were fourteen and seventeen respectively. In my youthful eyes, they were men, but I saw very little of them both, for they worked long hours, and I was often in bed when they came home.
I heard Mother’s welcome footstep on the stair as she came to help me dress in my Saturday clothes. Comfortable garments; a saxe blue jersey, and a brown tweed skirt, the kind of clothes no one would have to worry about, least of all me. No one would call, “Don’t play with the dog and get dirty,” or “Don’t climb the apple tree and tear your dress.”
My younger brother and I breakfasted on home made bread and butter, with lashings of plum jam, dark red and tangy, tasting and smelling of the autumn orchard harvest.
The farm cats were fed outside the back door, and I squatted down on my haunches to watch their pink tongues scoop up their milk with astonishing speed.
Father called to me across the yard, “Come and see what Patchwork Millie has got.” So I trotted off to where he stood with a pail in each hand. He put down his pails and lifted me up so I could see over the half door of the pig sty. And there lie a huge Wessex Saddleback sow in the clean straw, and by her side were ten tiny piglets, each one clad in a pink satin sleeping suit. Only they were not sleeping, but sucking contentedly at their mother’s warm milk. As we watched, one pink satin piglet felt he wasn’t getting his fair share at the milk bar, so he rooted around in the hope of finding a bigger and better teat.
Father must have got an enormous amount of satisfaction out of the knowledge that he was now; feeding his own pigs, milking his own cows, and tilling his own soil. At long last, he was his “Own Master.”
‘Tis said, “In every fat man, there is a thin man longing to get out,” Surely in every man of independent spirit, who is working for a boss, there is a man straining for an opportunity which will enable him to work for himself. It’s not a question of money, but of personality and principle. But these opportunities have to be made, they are rarely a matter of chance.
The Michaelmas before, my father had rented this little farm of fifty six acres. Grove Farm it was officially named, but more often than not called Canada Farm, for it was very isolated.
As the farmhouse was situated some distance from the road, in bad weather we were virtually wrecked on an island, and had to be self supporting.
Previous to this, Father had worked as yardman at Park Farm, Griston, and it was remarkable how he and Mother had managed to save enough to take a farm on the tiny wage a farm worker was paid. Together they had amassed the sum of £15O.
Mother was what is known as an excellent manager, and heaven knows she had little enough to manage on. She reared poultry, made her own butter and bread, brewed beer, and made most of my clothes. But best of all, she had a fund of stories and poems in her head, and was never too tired, or too busy to regale us children with one or the other.
Father always seemed to be in top gear, for he never walked when he could run. Although he never learned to play, he got all the enjoyment he required out of work. I’ve never met a happier man, or a kinder one.
The kitchen door opened. Mother put her head out and called, “George, George, have you forgotten the rabbits.” George had, so, setting me gently on my feet again, he made his way briskly towards the kitchen. His right hand went to his pocket, to finger the shutknife he always carried. It was razor sharp, and used for a hundred and one jobs, from the sharpening of pencils, to the castration of pigs. I followed in his wake.
On the table, stiff and dull eyed, lie two rabbits, and a bowl of salted water stood near by. With a few deft turns and slashes of his keen knife, Father skinned the rabbits, turning the skin inside out. It looked rather like a glove being peeled off. The denuded little bodies were then jointed, and placed in water to draw out the blood.
The skins were hung outside under the eaves; awaiting the arrival of the rabbit skin buyer. As these rabbits had been shot, their skins would probably fetch threepence each. The skin of a trapped rabbit had been known to make the large sum of sixpence, which was wealth indeed.
Just then there was the sound of running feet, and Sidney rushed round the corner of the house. His hair was ruffled, and his face pink with excitement and pleasure.
“I’ve just heard it, I’ve heard the cuckoo,” he shouted, “You listen.”
We all stopped in our tracks and listened. All we could hear was the sympathetic, “Coo, coo,” of a pigeon in the greengage tree behind the house, and a Rhode Island Red cockerel loudly calling his wives to share a tasty morsel he had found in the long grass.
A striped cat wound herself insinuatingly round my legs, I stroked her absently. She was certainly full of the promise of spring.
It was then we heard, “Cuckoo, cuckoo,”’ loudly and clearly. We watched the bird as he flew in a direct line towards an old oak that stood in the Long Meadow. His pointed wings and long tail were silhouetted against the grey-blue sky.
The heralds of spring are many. There is the first primrose, the first blackbird’s nest, and the first swallow, but the first cuckoo’s call in April surely tops them all.
Sidney and I laughed happily, for now we could say we had heard the cuckoo. No country child worth his salt, would ever dare admit to not having heard that migrant after the third week in April.
Our parents exchanged glances, there was no need for words, each knew what the other was thinking. It wasn’t an ordinary cuckoo they’d just heard, but a page had turned in their lives, and the chapter of their first spring in farming had begun. A spring that would spell success or failure.
After six months of losses and disappointments, they both felt a lightness of heart. With the help of God, and several pairs of strong arms, they would win through, to a land where high hopes are fulfilled, and a just reward received for their labours.
“Well,” Father said heartily, “This won’t buy the baby a new frock,” as he hurried off with my brother to move a sow that was expecting a litter in the near future.
Mother went back into the kitchen to prepare dinner. I followed, and while she peeled vegetables in the shallow sink, she entertained me with stories of what she had done as a little girl.
On entering the kitchen, the eye always rested on the heater stove, where dinners were cooked, and water heated. It was just a grate built onto two rows of bricks, with bars in front, from which hung two trivets, or bobs as they were called.
A large black kettle rested in the fender, for a rabbit stew with onions and dumplings, as well as a saucepan of water waiting for a quantity of potatoes, was simmering on the hobs. There was to be a creamy rice pudding with a thick golden skin to follow, but this had been cooked in the oven the previous day.
That heater stove had to be cossetted like a spoilt child. Many’s the time I had been sent into the stackyard for a few sticks, or the coal shed for a few bright lumps, to pet up a fire that was getting dangerously low, for the saucepans must on no account be allowed to go off the boil. Dinner was at 12.30 sharp, when the men came in, and it was a matter of life and death that all should be ready. And miraculously, a good balanced meal for six people, was always waiting to be eaten.
The kitchen walls were washed with yellow distemper, and a large table stood in the centre of the room. We all had our own places at the table, and kept religiously to these, like regular church goers keep to their pews on Sunday mornings. About four feet from the floor was a little black door with a shiny knob. This was the wall oven, which was used on Tuesdays and Fridays. These were known as baking days, when bread, cakes and pastries, as well as dinners were cooked. A copper stood in one corner of the kitchen. This was filled with water, and a fire kindled under it on washday and bathnight.
After dinner my two elder brothers went back to the fields, for Saturday wasn’t a half day for them.
Sidney said to me, “Come and help me gather hogweed for my rabbits.” So, leaving Mother washing up, we made our way to the ditch behind the orchard, where we knew hogweed grew in abundance.
Every cottage in the village had its row of rabbit hutches down the garden. In the evenings, women and children could be seen with sacks, searching the hedgerows for rabbit food. But we lived too far afield to have our supply poached.
We gathered an armful of those large, rough textured leaves, and carried them to the little brick shed where the animals were housed. Sitting our bottoms on the brick steps, we watched their noses twitching with satisfaction as they ate a lush meal.
I wonder how many hours we spent that spring, watching animals fill their bellies. I suppose, as a pastime, it was nearly as satisfying as filling our own.
Sidney looked up and asked me if I would like a sweet, I answered in the affirmative. “Open your mouth, shut your eyes, and see what God will send you,” he said dramatically. Now, Mother always bought us sweets on Wednesdays, when she went to market, but for one to still be lingering in my brother’s pocket Saturday afternoon, was highly improbable, if not down right impossible. I opened my mouth, shut my eyes, and felt something round and hard popped between my lips. I cautiously took it out, and saw that the so called sweet was a rabbit dropping. I was furious, and stamped off in a rage, I’d never speak to him again, or not for sometime.
I found Mother just leaving the house, with a stick in one hand and an egg basket in the other. When I told
her of the indignity I had suffered, she laughed, and said, “Come and help me gather up the eggs.”
The hens made nests and laid their eggs where they pleased, and it pleased them to lay in the most inaccessible places they could find; in nettles, behind implements, and one even laid her egg in Beauty’s manger. As the big black horse considered this one of his perks, it had to be gathered up before he came into the stable.
I loved to learn the breeds of poultry that roamed the farmyard. Buff Orpington was a pale golden colour, the Rhode Island Red a glossy reddish brown, the Light Sussex, white, with a sprinkling of black feathers round the neck, as if hung with jet beads, while the Plymouth Rock was barred black and white.
These variety of hens, laid a variety of coloured eggs, shading from white to brown, some had the bloom of a peach, which made me almost afraid to pick them up, for fear my fingers should mar their perfection.
The egg must be one of nature’s miracles, the shape is pleasing to the eye, beautifully smooth to the touch, and tasty to the palate, all hygienically wrapped in its own carton. Not forgetting the greatest miracle of all, life, which could emerge from the shell, if allowed to be used for the purpose it was originally designed.
We found an egg about the size of a walnut, no doubt it had been laid by a pullet that hadn’t yet realised what was expected of it. As this was not a marketable size, I put it in my skirt pocket.
Mother carefully carried the basket, half full, into the dairy, ready to be washed and counted later.
These eggs should fetch a shilling a score in Watton market on Wednesday, and a little ready money was very useful.
Sometime later that day, I felt a sticky dampness penetrating through my knickers, putting my hand in my pocket, I realised I had forgotten the tiny egg.
I’d learned, as children do, that it was expedient in time of trouble to yell good and hard, and Mother, fearing I was near death, would only be mildly reproachful when she found out what had really happened. This ruse paid off quite well; it was nearing bedtime and I was quickly undressed and popped into a tin bath of warm water that was set before the kitchen fire.
It was a very tired child who was put into a clean nightie smelling of Sunlight Soap that night, and I made no protests about going to bed before my young brother. When I was finally tucked up and kissed goodnight, I could only just murmer my prayers. “Please God, bless mummy and daddy, and make Chrissie a good girl.”
I was fast asleep.
Chapter 1 / Chapter 3