CHAPTER THREE MIND THE MINE!
There’s a tree in the meadow, with a landmine lurking nearby.
It shouldn’t have been there. It was the year of our Lord 1944, and Germany was still dropping assorted bombs on Britain, and parachuting mines into our rivers with the idea of causing vast inconvenience to any ship that happened to come into contact with one.
This particular object was intended to land in the river Medway just outside Chatham dockyard. A fluke of the wind had wafted it a mile or so inland and it came to rest in the school recreation ground.
It lay there, shrouded in a green parachute, daring anyone to get near it on pain of being shredded into little pieces.
The village of Upper Upnor, where we lived, sat on a hill about two miles from the intruder, so we felt safe enough. There was much rejoicing in the street when we discovered that school was out of bounds until the beastly bomb had been deactivated. I remember squatting with a group of my peers in our favourite oak tree, and young Philip said,
“I home the bomb explodes and blows the school to bits.”
We all looked hopefully in the direction of the school.
“No. Nothing,” I said. “It’s still there.”
It did not occur to us that the adjacent houses and shops would be reduced to seven different kinds of brickdust lying in a huge crater, and nowhere for the postman to deliver the mail.
The monster was very quickly made safe and carted away with very little fuss, but at least it gave the children a long week end off school.
We did a lot of praying during the war years. We prayed that the air raid siren would sound before eight thirty in the morning. That meant we would sit in our air raid shelters at home for the morning, and only traipse off to school after dinner.
We prayed that there would be lots of shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells to collect after a raid, and perhaps a valuable scrap from a damaged enemy aircraft for some lucky kid to hoard as a trophy.
On one of the last days of the war, we had our one and only taste of what it is like to have bombs falling around us. An enemy plane had been damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and was heading in a dead straight line for the hills a mile or so distant. The pilot decided to try to gain control by lightening his load. He dropped about a dozen bombs in a line across the fields. It didn’t do him any good because the plane smashed into a hill and produced the kind of bonfire we had not seen since Guy Fawke’s nights in the peaceful days before the war.
None of the bombs hit our house, but came near enough for the blast to remove most of the tiles from the roof, and shatter the glass in every window.
I remember my mother emerging from the shelter and shaking her fists at the column of smoke from the burning aircraft and yelling,
“I washed all those curtains yesterday, and now look what you’ve done to them. I’ll never get them clean again.”
Another bomb had landed in the garden of a nearby house. My Dad, who was home on leave at the time, dashed up the road to the cottage to see what he could do. He returned a half hour later with an amazing story.
“You’ll never guess what happened,” he said.
“Is Mrs Cork all right?” asked Mum.
“Fit as a fiddle,” grinned Dad. “She’s shaken, but not injured at all. That bomb landed a few feet from her shelter and blew all the earth off it.”
Mum, who had, in the true British tradition, made a pot of tea, handed him a cup and said, “Well, get on with it.”
“That Anderson shelter certainly did its bit this time.” Dad grinned. “It is standing on the edge of the bomb crater, and as clean as a new pin. Not a scratch on in. And do you know?” he stopped to drink his tea, which drove Mum into a frenzy. “That old lady, being as deaf as a post, actually had no idea what had happened. She knew something was up because the clock fell off the shelf, and there was a lot of dust about. That’s what upset her.”
Mum and Dad kept chickens and rabbits. Not for pets. They were mobile rabbit pies and chicken dinners. The blast from the string of bombs so upset the chickens that they all died of shock and a couple of rabbits also gave up the ghost. We couldn’t eat them all, and there were no freezers in those days, so we distributed them amongst our neighbours, including the butcher who swapped our birds for his sausages and pork chops.
I became very adept at plucking chickens. I gained the reputation for being the fastest plucker in the village. I could have plucked for England in the 1948 Olympics had I been asked. Skinning a rabbit was a task that turned out to be beyond me. My strength always ran out half way through the operation. I was usually left with half a skinless rabbit in my left hand and half a rabbitless skin in my right hand. Not a pretty sight.
We scoolchildren armed ourselves with home-made bows and arrows to terrorise any enemy pilot should he have to parachute in our vicinity. We never had the chance to prove ourselves against the Hun, but we did cause a bit of damage amongst the girls who wanted to share our secret hide-out in the woods.
We did see one or two airmen parachute from their planes, but they landed miles away from us and so were safe from our arrows. The sight of them floating down from on high gave us an idea for a new game. We confiscated all our sister’s dolls, then with any piece of material we could find, handkerchiefs, towels, large dusters and so forth, we constructed parachutes for the dolls before launching them from the highest branch of our favourite oak tree. Very few dolls came through the ordeal intact. Our sisters took exception to our treatment of their beloved dolls, and retaliated. For a very brief period civil war raged in Upnor. Boys with bikes would find that nails had mysteriously penetrated their precious tyres, or somehow the saddles had disappeared. I was not the proud owner of a bike at that time, but my model spitfire suddenly lost its propeller and a wing. Eventually peace was restored, but only at the cost of allowing girls into the sacred precincts of our dug-out in the woods. That was a disappointment to them. They had imagined all sorts of forbidden books and dark secrets being stored there, but all they found was a hole in the ground with a roof of small branches. They were unaware of our main secret, really secret, hideaway deeper in the slopes of Tower hill.
We all prayed for our Dads to come home loaded with foreign coins and stamps, and thrill us with stories of valiant soldiers fighting the foe. Most prized were German stamps bearing the profile of Adolph Hitler. My uncle Alf presented me with several sheets of these stamps. He assured me that he had paid for them and that they were not stolen. He was well aware that mother was fiercely against anything gained by dishonest means, but a white lie was sometimes acceptable. I kept half-dozen of each value for my collection, and the rest were the subject of fierce bartering amongst my schoolmates.
Dad’s leave was over, and he sailed away again. He impressed upon me that I was now the man of the house, and that meant that I must be a tower of strength for my Mother.
“That doesn’t mean to say that you’re my boss,” protested Pat, who was listening at the door.
“Of course not,” said Dad, taking her side. “You’re his second in command.”
He looked at me, and I shut up.
Mother was quite unpredictable at times and frequently confronted us with decisions that she had made and acted upon without telling us about it. Her excuse was that it saved a lot of time arguing, and she would have had her way in the end anyway.
And so it came to pass that one day in the autumn of 1944 I awoke to find the sun shining in through the bedroom window. That caused a panic. The sun had no right to shine upon me in bed. It meant that I had overslept. I’d be late for school. I leaped out of bed and ran into Mother’s bedroom. She wasn’t there. “She’s left us,” was my first thought. “She’s gone away to find Dad.”
I thumped my sister awake, and then stumbled down stairs. I found Mum in the kitchen calmly frying eggs for breakfast.
“You forgot to wake us,” I yelled. “We’ll be late for school.”
“No you won’t,” she said. And then dropped her own bombshell, which caused more chaos than the ones the Germans had dropped upon us.
“You’re not going to that school any more. We’re moving house.”
I received the news with mixed emotions. My first thought was that I would be leaving my friends. They would climb trees and swing on lengths of rope without me. I would have to miss the annual rite of trawling the stream at the bottom of Celandine Meadow for sticklebacks and tadpoles.
On the other hand I would no longer have to endure the misery of attending the school across the fields. I had not been happy there from day one, and it didn’t improve with the passing of time.
“It’s your Gran,” Mum explained, waving a letter in front of our eyes. “She’s living all alone, and there is nobody to keep an eye on her.”
Mum was the eldest of eleven children, and it seems that over the years the only one to remain within reach of her bedridden mother in her time of need is our own Mother.
She had already packed most of our belongings, ready for the move, but Pat and I had not noticed. After some intense negotiations, the butcher and Mother came to an agreement. He transported our beds and other few bits of furniture to our new location. His was the only vehicle in the village at the time capable of the task. We still had six rabbits in the garden hutches, and they weren’t coming with us.
“Don’t worry,” the kindly old gentleman assured my anxious sister, “I will take them home and look after them. They’ll be safe with me.”
Sister Pat believed him, and bid them a fond farewell, secure in the knowledge that they would live to a ripe old age. I could see that he was mentally covering Flopsy-Bun and company with pie crust as she waved them goodbye.
We settled in a house in Weston Road, in the town of Strood, in Kent.
Grandma was pleased to see us, and died a week later.
I acquired a tortoise in exchange for three of my Hitler stamps. He or she became a victim of an air raid, and remained a walking wounded for the rest of the time he lived with us. A piece of shrapnel struck him fair and square on his shell and cracked it in halves. In a combined co-operation with neighbours, we tied him up as securely as a first class envelope, to keep the pieces together, and covered the join with red sealing wax. For a couple of years he wandered around the garden like a perambulating parcel that had been wrongly addressed, Then he got fed up and ran away.
Pat and I attended Gordon road school. I was still wearing short trousers, but after a few days mum decided that I was grown up enough to exchange my short trousers for young men’s long trousers.
I was so pleased that I deliberately turned up late for school on that day. I was duly hauled out to the front of the class and given a short lecture on punctuality. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to be sure that the whole class could see me in my brand new long trousers, and take note that I was no longer an infant but a fully grown schoolboy.
A few weeks later my cousin, Kenneth, introduced me to a youth club run by the local Methodist church.
There I met two young women who caused me a great deal of emotional mayhem.