A brilliant, evocative book for baby boomers and senior primary schoolers. Journey back to the golden years of teenage innocence. Set the senses, memory and emotions ablaze. It’s England 1958. For adults, life is tough, making ends meet an endless battle.
For children, life is simple. When school and household chores are done it’s back to their mates and on with the business of … just being kids. Their sweet-smelling playgrounds of open fields, haystacks and hedgerows echo with laughter. They frolick in their worldy wealth of towering oaks and elms, of sparrows and robins, their beloved pets, gobstoppers and sherbert dabs. But above all, they treasure friendship and loyalty.It’s another blissful, carefree year for the colourful characters of Crabtree Lane in the sleepy Essex hamlet of Wyatts Green. Simply having fun with ‘The Gang’ is life itself. But then … Johnny goes missing.
In the dawn of a bitter winter and a new cruel world, teenage trust and innocence are lost forever; life and laughter frozen like the village pond. The young voices of Crabtree Lane cry out in shock and grief, with determination to find their missing friend,but is anyone listening? Johnny’s loyal mates launch their own investigation, each alotted a village grotesque upon whom to spy.
‘A wonderfully observed tale of a teenage boy’s Essex adventures, full of pace and mystery with lovely humourous touches. The writing is rich with descriptions, some of which are visceral. In particular, descriptions of the countryside brim with life, allowing the reader to experience the sights and the smell' - UK Literary Consultant Joan Byrne
Kindle copy (click on) http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00880EQRC
Printed copy (click on) http://www.northstaffordshirepress.com/Pages/Publications.aspx
A taste of 'The Voices of Crabtree Lane'.....
1 ~ Weeping Beneath the Willows
Iron-hard blackberry thorns snagged his hair while brown, mud and gravel washed down into the graves. It was terrible weather for a funeral, but it was far too late to postpone things.
Michael felt horribly alone with his guilty soul. No-one else had turned up for the ceremony, leaving him with three stiff and stinky corpses waiting for interment. It had taken him two days to even find the bodies, then he’d had to hide them from his mum and his dog and smuggle them to the graveyard.
“Dear God. I’m really sorry ….please please forgive me,” he mumbled as he scooped out the rainwater from the bottom of the shallow graves. “I promise…I’ll never do it again.”
Sunday School Prayer Book in one hand and his mum’s trowel in the other, skinny Mike Richards administered the last rites, with no other soul to share the moment.
After all the promises from his friends, he was on his own in the deep, soggy ditch, hidden beneath the dense thicket, burying one chaffinch, one sparrow and one blue tit.
The idea for the special Bird Cemetery of Crabtree Lane had been born two weeks earlier after Mike had taken the life of a harmless sparrow, which, with its relatives and friends, had been peacefully chirping away from the perceived safety of a telegraph wire.
Throwing stones at the birds of Wyatts Green was not just a village sport, it marked you as a man among boys if you could actually hit one. Such accuracy had rocketed the young Richards boy to instant stardom, but how tenuous and brief his fame had proven to be.
Within days, Michael’s soft little heart had succumbed to an all pervading guilt. Jane, the oh so pretty daughter of the village rector, had admonished him and advised him to review his whole attitude. Penance was the only solution.
Much deliberation had led to the possibility of absolution by virtue of tending lovingly for deceased members of God’s glorious aviary. Dead birds were often found rotting beside the narrow, leafy lanes and byways of Wyatts Green and its neighbouring villages of Doddinghurst, Hook End and Mountnessing.
After consulting with her father, Jane had agreed that a bird cemetery would almost certainly appease the wrath of the Lord, yet even she hadn’t bothered to attend the well advertised funeral ceremony.
In the softest of whispers, he read the Lord’s Prayer and the service was concluded. A mere two seconds later, the bells of All Saints Church seemed to understand. From their tower two miles and 20 fields away, they peeled their gentle, muffled melody, urging the God-fearing village folk to their pews.
Michael pictured Jane’s father tugging on the ropes and smiled to himself. That’s Jane’s way of saying sorry she couldn’t come, he thought.
He’d forgotten it was Sunday morning, but that didn’t excuse all other members of the Crabtree Lane Gang; Peter, Keith, George, Liz, Sally and Johnny. Where were they all?
It had been raining off and on for three days. The brow of every hedgerow dipped limply under the weight while the pores in their soggy feet lapped and licked up the puddles.
With the last bell tinkling across the tree-tops, a slither of sunshine forced its welcome way onto the hungry earth, instantly producing that glorious, all pervading smell of wet grass and bushes. Towering, proud old oaks and elms sniffed the air and stretched their limbs. Ash and Birch saplings seemed to dance with delight as wild blackcurrants bulged with juicy pleasure.
The Essex countryside smiled; and so did Michael. He felt he’d been forgiven. Now all he had to do was forgive his absent friends.
Mike Richards was a sensible and sensitive young lad who dreamed of either playing soccer for England or sailing around the world, or both.
His world of just fourteen tender years comprised one very attractive mum who was ever busy, a big brother who constantly told him to’bugger off’, and his long-haired golden retriever, Sandy, who never obeyed instructions and made his life hell, albeit a cuddly one.
While he’d have been quite happy having no brother, he craved for a sister all his own and for a dog that knew the words ‘sit’ and ‘stay’. He’d have loved a dad too, but his mum had explained that simply wasn’t possible. Letters were exchanged once a month, but that all seemed weird and pointless for a person he hadn’t seen for eight years, except in photographs.
One of Mike’s best friends was his football. His love for soccer saw him regularly booting his ball about in the fields and lanes and scanning the Sunday paper to see how his beloved club, Manchester United, had fared.
Everything about Mike was small, except for his ears and his mind. Those ears - along with his skinny legs and knobbly knees - produced a regular flow of jibes and jokes from his mates. He didn’t really think his ears were big, but he was the only person in the district who didn’t, including his mum after a couple of sherries.
A disarming smile and wonderful sense of humour endeared the young mousey-haired boy to all who met him. Adults adored him for his innocent eyes and impeccable manners, and unlike Sandy, Mike was generally obedient.
Kids liked him because he always seemed to laugh and be happy and because they could make a little fun of him. They too exploited his obedience and good nature.
From his battered desk at Doddinghurst School, the lessons of maths and history were hard to absorb. Not so the street syllabus of emotional survival and self-defence.
A sudden gush of rainwater startled Mike, courtesy of a curious, appreciative blackbird that had been silently following proceedings. As it departed to search for a midday worm for its own children, its perch of a large water-filled leaf sprung upwards sending the rain splashing down the back of Mike’s neck.
Time to head home I suppose, he thought out aloud. I told Mum I’d take the dog for a walk before lunch. Homewas ‘Treeside’, less than 100 yards away, just around the corner past the musty, dusty shop of Mr and Mrs Finn.
When it wasn’t raining he’d often tramp across the lush green fields of farmer Ted Marriage, past the rusty steel watermill tower, emerging directly opposite his semi-detached bungalow. Today it was far too wet, so he’d have to haul himself out of the water-logged ditch and into the quagmire of Crabtree Lane, which it seemed was perpetually muddy.
Rubber boots weren’t the best for climbing, but after a few slips and slides he appeared from beneath the bushes with scratches and thin trickles of blood on his face and arms, inflicted by angry blackberry thorns.
For Mike, Crabtree Lane was the pathway to the world. It was home to most of the people he knew and certainly to most he cared for.
Right on the corner in Number 1, where the tarred road and the rest of the world began and a stone’s throw from the only phone box for miles, lived his third best mate Keith Diamond.
Keith had a lovely mum, an attractive sister and a dad and elder brother who were both always angry and whinging about something. Keith’s mum loved cooking and eating cakes while his dad was besotted with anything to do with crime and punishment, either in books, on film and especially on the telly.
Keith was a good bloke; tall, not handsome but not ugly. His ears didn’t stick out but his teeth did and he was prone to making up stories and to considerable exaggeration.
He’d tease Mike every now and then, but usually when others had first. Big brother Matt was sort of friends with Mike’s big brother Gary, who fruitlessly fancied Keith’s big sister Diana.
Keith was a soccer fanatic too, favouring Bolton Wanderers who’d walked off with that year’s FA Cup after beating Mike and Peter’s Man United.
As nice as mum Daisy Diamond was, she’d declined all appeals to let their kids have a dog. Instead they were forced to share and care for two pure white unbelievably fluffy cats, by the names of Astra and Khan.
Every one of the homes in the lane was on the western side, opposite the fields with the deep ditch and its overhanging blackberry thicket.
Numbers 2 and 3 didn’t exist anymore; just abandoned plots of land patiently awaiting homes of their own. Tangled hawthorn clung tightly to a tumbledown red-brick chimney breast of a once-upon-a-time house at Number 2.
Mike often felt sad at the emptiness, picturing a cheerful family clustered around a roaring fire, drinking tea, laughing and chatting about the weather and the world. There were times he could swear he heard voices.
Chubby George Harris and his even chubbier younger sister Elizabeth lived in Number 4. No-one could understand why their mum and dad were as skinny as skeletons, invariably in Wellington boots.
Elizabeth had been named after a certain Princess, now Queen. Her Royal Highness would have been horrified that a twelve year old girl in her realm could be such a size, particularly one bearing her name.
Protruding from beneath Liz’s bulges was an extremely pretty girl with piercing dark green eyes and one of those most unfortunate penetrating voices that could perforate eardrums. Mike could look at her, but listening proved painful. Liz loathed soccer, albeit she was frequently forced by the boys to play a motionless goalie in the paddocks and park.
Brother George didn’t walk much unless he had to, but he laughed a great deal; not at anything in particular, just at everything and anything. George had been named in honour of the Queen’s father, the late king. He was shy and self-conscious and believed giggling would prove a passport to acceptance.
At Buckingham Palace, the ghost of his namesake would have shared his daughter’s shock at the sheer bloated size of such a young subject.
It was hard to persuade George to come out to play, simply because he couldn’t keep up. His eyes would light up at any invitation, but he rarely accepted because he knew that within half an hour he’d be huffing and puffing, stuck halfway up a chestnut tree or lagging half a mile behind during a ramble over the fields and along the public footpaths.
George hated all sports including soccer because running was to him a ridiculous notion. Nonetheless he pretended to like the round ball and professed to also support Bolton because ‘they won’ ….and because he wanted to be liked by his neighbour Keith.
Villagers had privately dubbed the Harris family ‘The Windsors of Wyatts Green’. George didn’t really get it, but he sniggered anyway. Fellow Gang members had also branded George ‘Porky’ in honour of his amazing resemblance to a pig, including some remarkably similar habits.
Right next door in the quaint wooden cottage at Number 5 lived and loved the Hartfield family, directly opposite the Bird Cemetery with the watermill tower standing guard in the field behind.
Bigger blonde daughter Susan was sixteen and displaying abundant signs of womanhood. As a result, she attracted the nervous, intrigued stares of the older boys but frightened all the thirteen and fourteen year olds, especially George Harris whose window overlooked hers.
In the bedroom opposite Susan’s, deep inside the dark weatherboard cottage, dwelt and played the apple of Michael Richard’s eye. To him - and to most other village boys - Sally Hartfield was the prettiest, most adorable young woman on Earth. She was a few months older than Mike who’d been besotted since they first met almost eight years earlier.
Sallydidn’t really walk; she bounced along with her glorious springy thick brunette hair cascading down her shoulders. When she drew it aside like a curtain, she opened a wonderful window for the world. Vivid blue eyes spoke of love and kindness; her smile of innocence, compassion and a heaven-sent joie de vivre.
Sister Susan was also pretty but a trifle jealous, though she too would melt in the glow of her sibling’s natural charm.
Sally could mix it with any boy and always enjoyed kicking the round ball. She gave her heart to the Fulham Football Club in South West London, near where her parents had grown up.
Those parents were particularly nice, always offering warm waves with accompanying smiles. Mike wanted to marry Sally one day… when he was bigger.
No-one knew too much about Number 6, except it was occupied by a scary hermit with the auspicious name of Kenneth Gregg Esquire. He definitely didn’t have any kids with whom to play.
Dense scraggy bushes begging to be trimmed, concealed most of the rickety, dark wooden home from nosey eyes.
It was one of several village houses that compelled Mike to race or pedal by very quickly in case something horrible happened. Casual walking felt far too risky. Don’t talk to strangers, said Mum. Safer to run by, thought Mike.
Mike had glimpsed the occupant several times, but it was rare to secure a good look. If you timed it perfectly and made sure you were in the lane at precisely ten o’clock on a Friday morning, without fail you’d see a black Ford Prefect splash its way through the potholes and turn carefully into the driveway.
A middle-aged woman with her head almost completely covered by a light green scarf, would emerge from the car carrying a heavy wicker basket laden with tins and boxes, all buried beneath a chequered blue tea towel.
Patiently, the woman would wait on the porch as a pale white hand full of painful arthritic fingers could be spotted feebly holding back a tatty lace curtain in a front room window. A few seconds later the door would creak open and the woman vanish into a black, depressing hallway.
At exactly eleven o’clock the process was reversed, but with an empty basket and a sad even more pained hand that remained on the lace for several minutes after the car had gone, panting breath misting the glass. Finally, when all hope was lost, the curtain would drop back into place for another terribly lonely week.
In total contrast, Number 7 next door was the hectic whirlwind of the Peacock household.
Eldest boy Peterwas Mike’s equal first best friend; joint football fanatic and another fervent follower of Manchester United.
A mere eleven months behind, offering a modicum of respite to his mother’s womb, came Timothy, followed a slightly more sensible thirteen months later by Jeremy.
Mum and Dad Peacock had then employed contraception or rare self-restraint awhile before creating a second clutch of sons, Anthony, David and toddler Donald. The craved-for girl was forever denied.
Old man Peacock hardly ever spoke. He’d returned from a terrible war, silent and solemn, one leg and sense of humour missing but military moustache intact. His name was also Peter, which would have caused immense confusion except for the fact that Mum hardly ever spoke to Dad, not with her mouth anyway.
While she didn’t often converse with him, she never stopped talking to everyone else, in between giving birth, ironing, cooking, cleaning, yelling at kids, chasing dogs and hens from the living room and baking bread and cakes.
Mike’s and Peter’s mums got on quite well. They both kept chickens and grew flowers, so when their bicycles crossed paths around the village, they would stop to chat about eggs, blooms, the weather, rationing and the cost of living. Every now and then ‘the kids’ and ‘their behaviour’ got a mention.
The Peacock’ domain was truly a madhouse, yet Mike loved it and so did half the village. Everyone was welcome at any time and every boy and girl felt free to flop on the tatty old sofa or rucked-up woven carpet and watch the street’s only television, until they knew they’d better go home… or face punishment.
Some week-ends it was like the Odeon without the ice cream as a dozen boys and girls sprawled out, sandwiched between or beneath one of the six jabbering Peacock children, to watch Muffin the Mule or a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
In good weather, all offspring and visitors would be booted out to the back garden to squeal and scream, play cricket and climb the giant oak to the wobbly tree-house from where you could peek into next door’s secret world.
On rare occasions they might even spot the stooping silhouette of shuffling old Mr Gregg, weighed down by a much-too-big grubby knitted jumper.
Hiding in his long grass were at least half a dozen rubber balls, lost by over-zealous batting in games of ‘Six and Out’ cricket and awaiting recovery by a nervous young lad prepared to jump the rotting wooden fence and win ‘Gang Points’ for courage.
While the Peacock’s sprawling tumble-down cottage was the last house in the dead-end lane, it wasn’t the last abode. A few paces further on, where the cornfields and pastures began, a tired, barely legible signpost pointed its oddly-shaped finger to a public footpath.
Not far down the squishy water-logged track, old Tom Baker lived in a dilapidated railwaycarriage that intrigued everyone. No-one, not even Tom, knew how it got there, seven miles from the nearest railway station.
Tom might have been well into his late seventies but he was a fit specimen often to be seen on the carriage roof plugging up a leak after a storm. He was a stocky man with powerful biceps and triceps. His straggly silver hair and beard cried out in harmony with the hedges at Number 6 for a damn good trim.
His colourful yarns were legendary for miles around. Children would urge him to ‘Tell us another one Tom’ about how he could talk with ponds and dogs and fish and trees and how vegetables had feelings and could laugh, cry and feel pain. He set imaginations ablaze.
Opposite his second class carriage was a fifth class caravan, the humble home of a not so humble woman, old Aggie, who most definitely topped the list of ‘Strange Inhabitants’ of Crabtree Lane.
To all children and to all intents and purposes, Aggie was a witch. She had no second name and no broomstick, but she was a witch nonetheless. Even Tom said so.
For Mike and the Gang, it was Aggie’s feet, chin and top lip that drew the most fascination. When she struggled through the muck and mush, her toes curled upwards to such a degree they virtually pointed back towards her face.
Beneath a powerful, ruddy Roman nose, her strong witch’s chin jutted determinedly forwards - and like the hedge at Number 6 and old Tom’s beard - desperately required a shave. Above her top lip grew more bristles, sufficient, thought Mike and Peter, for a nail brush.
Aggie’s bulbous cheeks were always coated with crazy out-of-control dollops of rouge, making them resemble bruised red apples. Essentially, she was an awful mess.
When the kids passed her in the lane, she’d snarl and hiss like a cat protecting its territory. She’d mumble something too, but she never looked anyone in the face. Mike and Peter’s mums were quite delighted at that for they feared being turned to stone or into an asp.
Mike was running both late and scared. It was either going to be a whack or a fine on his meagre pocket money, again. A whack would be better because physical pain would soon ease but the loss of thruppence or even the whole sixpence was a lingering wound that cut deep.
No sherbert dabs or sweet cigarettes or gobstoppers…. nothing for a whole week. Then there’d be the extra jobs and possibly the worst penalty of all…. no Scouts on Tuesday night.
Running wasn’t that easy either. His rubber boots were hand-me-downs and were two sizes too big. They jarred the toes and slapped at the knobbly knees, slowing him down and costing him money and therefore sweets.
“Where’ve you been Michael… I told you to be home by lunchtime and you were supposed to have taken your dog for a walk …. you’re a really naughty boy,” barked Mum, swiping a tea towel across the back of her son’s bare legs.
Rachel Richards wielded a sharp hand. Although Mike knew it was coming, he’d received a direct hit sending him spiralling onto the kitchen floor clutching the red welt.
With both hands pushing a tomato sandwich into his mouth, brother Gary still managed to look smug. He, of course, was never late, primarily because he had hardly any friends and consequently seldom went anywhere to get back late from.
At fourteen years of age Mike had still not worked out if crying was an asset or a liability. He was of the considered opinion that a few tears and wails could engender a dash of sympathy and perhaps halt any further penalty, though sometimes that ploy seemed to feed the frenzy. There again, while the absence of tears and audible pain showed character and toughness and had often earned a reprieve from further belts, every now and then it appeared not to have drawn the desired measure of satisfaction.
“You can go without lunch and there’ll be no playing down the lane for the rest of the day …do you understand?” added Mum, using the same tea towel to wipe up, “and …. you can take the dog out right now…for a decent walk, ok?”
Mum was all of 34, extremely pretty with it and very much sought after. At 18 she produced a son with a high IQ, an irritating good-behaviour gene and a low energy level. At 20 she produced another son with lower IQ, a vibrant devil-may-care gene, sticky-out ears, energy to burn and patellas that cut through trousers like a knife. By 26, in the year of our Lord 1950, she found herself with a broken marriage and similar heart.
Rachel Richards was a strong young woman who’d had enough of her husband’s philandering and had the courage to raise her boys on her own. For her new world she picked the remote very rural Essex hamlet of Wyatts Green, two miles from Doddinghurst, five miles from Brentwood and about 30 miles from London.
With her few pounds and pence, she took a mortgage on a semi-detached bungalow, 25 yards from the junction of Crabtree and Peachtree Lanes, then set about the arduous task of paying for it and keeping her sons fed, clothed, educated and of equal importance, disciplined.
She was always stressed and always working. If she wasn’t serving at a nearby pub, she was toiling in the kitchen, digging in the garden, wringing or hanging out the washing, sewing and knitting, collecting eggs or chasing after chickens and children.
Soft clear skin covered a beautifully crafted face; dark green eyes offering a cautious warmth that on stressful children days was not always matched by her tongue.
Rachel was immensely attractive. Since she’d arrived in the district with her bicycle, her boys and no husband, she’d been watched and pursued by many a Casanova, married or otherwise. Her lithe figure - in particular her swaying, pedalling posterior - drew enormous village attention and desire. Her single status and apparent cooking prowess were also of considerable interest.
Rachel’s boys Mike and Gary, were chalk and cheese. They didn’t talk to each other a great deal. Argue yes, but talk, no. The most commonly used words were bugger off, shut up, leave me alone, I hate you and I’m telling Mum. However, Mum rarely got told because it inevitably led to a good hiding for both of them.
It wasn’t uncommon to see various items like toy cars, balls or pencil cases, flying angrily around the bedroom they shared. On really serious occasions, a punch or two could even be thrown, almost always into the belly or shoulder of the much smaller Mike.
Long before the chain rattled, Sandy always sensed when a walk was pending. Mike was convinced his jumpy, powerful shaggy golden pet not only understood the word walk, but also dog and now andeven decent. Shame he didn’t grasp sit and stay… or did he?.
Mike stared hungrily at the dining room table and at the sandwich he wasn’t going to get, at least not for now anyway. Generally speaking he adored his dog, but there were many times when he didn’t. He didn’t trust him, partly because he was certain Sandy understood English and reported back to Mum on what type of walk he’d had and if he’d been fed on time. Also because he was so damn strong.
In human years Sandy was 21. In doggie years, Mike was 98. That itself seemed to make the entire exercise cruel for a young boy. How the hell at his age could he be expected to handle and control such a boisterous energised beast? It was all so unfair, illogical and in fact downright dangerous.
At some point on almost every walk, Sandy took it upon himself to try and shake off his owner. Mike had two favourite walking trails. One was straight down the road towards the Baines house. It was his ‘indecent route’ and was employed whenever mum failed to order a ‘decent’ walk.
That adventure would take about ten minutes of jerking and tugging each way and involve some fifteen squirts, five trees and a dozen good sniffs, leaving Mike’s wrists and fingers aching for hours.
The longer ‘decent’ route was out through the front gate, right turn into the field next door and all the way down to the stagnant pond at the bottom of Peachtree Lane, with its horrible grey-black stinking water, framed by glorious thirsty willows that Mike always wanted to hear weep.
The moment Sandy heard the word decent, he took off as if he wasn’t on Mike’s leash. He cared not one bit for the welfare of his young master. His mission was to escape, no matter at what cost to Mike’s skin and buttons and pride and blood.
By the time Mike had been dragged like a farm implement to the pond, his chin and knees had ploughed half the field next door, leaving his brow equally well furrowed. Once or twice he’d opted to simply let the dog go, but it then befell him to hunt and gather the animal before daring to return home. No dog - no dinner.
The willows may not have wept, but sitting beneath them nursing his lacerations, Michael Richards sometimes did.
On this particular Sunday, with nothing to eat since cornflakes at dawn; with stinging legs and still sad from the absence of so-called friends at the funeral, Mike didn’t have the stomach for a bust-up with his canine, but he got it nonetheless.
Dependable Sandy faithfully hauled his owner at break-neck speed through the fields, and as fate would have it, right into the stagnant murky pond, in pursuit of an unsuspecting plover.
It was disgusting. Rotting weeds and bird-pecked crabapples clung to his ears and arms; bluey-black decomposing bits of rats and leaves draped over his hair and around his nostrils. Bendy, squishy fallen branches and twigs clawed at his legs and waist.
Sandy splashed, rolled and whelped with delight deliberately getting as filthy as possible and not giving a damn about the trouble he was getting himself and Michael into.
Man’s best friend my foot, thought the lad, finally on dry land thanks to a helping hand from the bending limb of a friendly willow. Angry boy and ecstatic dog shook off the slimey pungent water while a very relieved trembling plover looked on.
From the safety of the base of a mature chestnut tree, Sandy peeked out to measure his predicament. He held most of the cards, but he still couldn’t open the tins of dog food. Cautiously, a twinkle in his eyes, he grovelled on his belly towards his young master.
Sorry Michael. I’m only a dog. It’s natural, heard the boy, watching his pet’s darting dark brown eyes. If you do that again I’ll kill you, heard Sandy. Just as well it’s bath night or Mum would kill me, thought Michael.
On the way home the roles were reversed. Michael dragged Sandy along the winding Peachtree Lane, practising his swear words all the way.
Mother and child were furious but Sandy got over it within minutes of retrieving an old bone, buried for just such stressful moments near where his predecessor was interred. Mike was convinced he’d one day see the bones of his old and far more convivial mongrel Sooty flying through the air.
“Get in here and we’ll clean you up for now. You’ll have to wait for a bath until tonight,” snarled Mum, “and you can give that dog a damn good scrub, ok?”
Thick coatings of mud and slime were washed away from Mike’s face and ears, his hair now dry and matted like that of a primitive warrior. It would have to wait until the evening when the copper had boiled.
It was Sandy’s turn. He loathed being clean and needed to be tethered to a tree during the operation that Mike hated performing. Soap suds dribbled down his jowels, his big brown eyes pleading for help he wasn’t going to get. His drenched, dripping hair made his body look half its normal size and his head twice as large as usual. Mike was delighted that Sandy looked so ridiculous.
“Hey Mike, can you come out to play?” was the call from the gate. Boy and dog looked up simultaneously, Sandy sensing a glimmer of rescue and Mike with a stare of anger.
“Where the hell were you and the others this morning?” demanded Mike as he continued watering down his pet. “Nobody turned up. I had to do it all on my own.”
“I’m sorry,” said Peter Peacock staring at his own feet and kicking his football backwards and forwards. “I had to help my mum with the chickens. Can you come out now though … and what on earth do you stink of?”
“I stink of the rotten pond and I’m in trouble with Mum…. and anyway, I’m not happy with you so I don’t want to. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”
Peter Peacock was a little taller than Mike. He had a pleasant face which always wore an impish smile that either irritated or endeared people. A mildly curling top lip gave the impression of a perpetual sneer, which often got him unfairly into trouble with his teachers and even with his parents who’d bequeathed the lip to him.
He turned - his dark blue eyes in sympathy with Sandy’s - then walked slowly away calling out, “Sorry Mike. I couldn’t help it. I’ll take a look at the graves on my way home. See you in the morning then.”
Bath time for humans at Treeside was an experience that scarred young Mike for life. Gary wasn’t so happy either, but for Mike it was far worse.
Propped up against an outside wall - where a bathroom might one day be built - was an old tub. It looked a little like a galvanised iron coffin but with rounded corners. On alternate Sundays it was Mike’s job to carry it inside.
The only way he could manage that was to prop it up on end and actually get inside so it was on his back with one end over his head like a hood. Then he’d walk like a Chinaman until he reached the tiny kitchen.
One end was positioned by the window while the other was directly beneath the spout of the tap on the old copper, which seemed to take hours to heat up but which finally bubbled and gurgled ready for use. Like most houses in Wyatts Green, there was no hot running water.
As soon as dinner was done, the bath was run with mum at the head of the pecking order. Age was the rule, so Gary went next and then younger brother plopped in last. By the time Mike stepped in to what was now luke warm water, a film of grey scum was clinging to the edge, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. There were still the damn feathers.
The whole ritual began on Saturday mornings when ever-methodical Mum prepared the roast dinner for Sunday night - the most sought after and hastily consumed meal of the week.
As she strode purposefully down the garden towards the chicken pen, every bird scurried to a dark corner. They knew one of them was on death row but who would it be this week?
The unfortunate, unsuspecting fowl would have its feet whipped out from beneath it and be carted off, swinging upside down, squawking and begging pointlessly for a reprieve. A collective sigh of relief rushed from the survivors who jabbered furiously among themselves, all agreeing what a great girl their doomed colleague had been.
When it came to the execution, Rachel Richards showed no mercy. Neither could she as there were two growing boys and herself to feed.
Death came in one of two ways, viewed in horror by Gary and Mike as they stood in what they called the ‘SlaughterYard’ in front of a tumbledown, disused garden shed. From there they watched their otherwise demure, pretty mother transform into a cold, heartless killer.
Method One entailed both hands gripped tightly around a gurgling neck, followed by a vigorous ringing action, as if squeezing water out of a towel.
Method Two was equally dramatic. An old broom handle was placed on the ground with one end pinned down by a foot. After sliding the bird’s neck beneath the pole, mum would clamp the other end with her other foot. A sudden violent tug on the bird’s feet brought a sickening snap of the neck bone.
Both methods were said to bring an instant death but the boys didn’t believe it, mainly because the poor chicken - its head flopping limply down and blood dripping from its beak - continued to run around the garden for up to two or three minutes.
Invariably and perhaps instinctively, it headed back towards its petrified mates whose wincing eyes had witnessed the whole thing from behind the wire mesh.
Mike was convinced that the entire weekly exercise in fear and trepidation was the reason all chickens he’d ever seen - as well as Mrs Peacock - lived in a perpetual state of hypertension and head-twitching.
The dead chicken was then placed into the cauldron of the bubbling copper and boiled until its feathers could be readily torn out and the bird gutted and stuffed.
On the Sunday, the hapless, headless, footless fowl would slowly cook in its own juice surrounded by carefully carved potatoes which, Mike thought, always looked like a protective guard, albeit having arrived far too late to help.
All of two feet away, the family was cleansing itself with water from the same copper, their mouths drooling at the all-powerful roast aroma which filled every room in the bungalow and was almost visible.
Every week without fail, by the time Mike got to bathe and even scrub himself with the all-purpose sunlight soap, an elusive feather had worked its way through the spout, into the tub and usually into one of his ears or nostrils. Coupled with soaking in everyone else’s dirty scummy water, when he stepped out, he always felt dirtier than when he’d stepped in. Thanks to Sandy, not this Sunday.
Despite little money and even less time, Mum was a terrific cook who could even make rabbit or liver taste reasonable. Her scrumptious roast chicken was smelled and talked about for miles around.
With the squeals and neck-snaps lingering in their ears, Mike and Gary were too scared to relate the pre-dinner trauma to their friends, however they publicly applauded their mother’s culinary brilliance.
Village kids might well pour into the Peacock home to watch telly, but they’d buzz around Treeside for a golden opportunity of a mouthful of golden syrup pudding or sponge cake or flapjacks, from the recipe books and creative hands of Mrs Richards.
That night after a hearty dinner, Michael felt like murdering Sandy and pretended to feed him, but deliberately didn’t to teach him a lesson. Sandy pretended to be sorry, but he wasn’t. He’d do it again tomorrow given half a chance.
It hadn’t been the best week-end for Mike Richards. He’d buried three birds, watched another one be throttled, been let down by his so-called mates, been dragged into a disgustingly filthy pond, told twice by his brother to bugger off and been whipped across the legs with a tea towel. Things could only improve.
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