A Minstrel in Spain

Chapter Three

Life at the Rectory

We quickly agreed and raised the money at once. But after she’d raised her blouse we found her tits disappointing. She was desperately skinny, and they were, in fact, somewhat smaller than my own. She then agreed to let us look up her skirt for another penny each.

Now this was something else. I’d already had a terrific shock at my Auntie Nora’s when I saw my cousin Sylvia, who was one year old at the time, running around without her pants on. I thought, My God! What have they done to her? Not one of my circle of friends had ever been enlightened on this. The fact that girls were different had been divulged to me later on by an older boy, in an intimate confession shortly before he was sent to a Borstal establishment for housebreaking. None of us had ever actually seen the evidence, although speculation was rife. Now we were getting the chance to find out, and for a bargain price.

After we’d all paid she asked if we were ready and then, with a quick swoop, raised and lowered her skirt so fast that we didn’t see anything. This raised a chorus of objections, and an argument ensued in which Pete, rather than his sister, looked in danger of getting thumped.

Doreen watched all this, and finally relented. A closer inspection would cost us sixpence each. This was grossly unfair, but she was adamant.

We went into a huddle and came up with five pence between us, or sixpence if Pete chipped in. But she would have none of that. She wasn’t going to let her own brother in on the deal.

In the end we offered her the five pence and tossed up for who was going to be the lucky man. My friend Ken won. They went over to the other end of the loft, followed by earnest advice from all present upon how he should proceed.

There was no quick flurry of skirts this time. She sat down on a box, with her back to us, and told Ken to put his head underneath her dress. This was to prevent non-subscribers from copping a peek. Ken got down on his knees and stuck his head underneath her skirt.

We heard a lot of muffled grumbling, until his eyes got used to the dim light. Of course, we were shouting, ‘Want a candle, Ken?’ and other idiotic remarks. But he had gone absolutely rigid there on the floor. We heard them whispering together secretly, then we all saw his hand move up slowly and disappear underneath her skirt. You could have cut the silence.

For several breathless seconds nothing happened. Then the girl stood up suddenly, smoothed down her dress, walked over to the ladder, climbed down and went away.

We gathered around Ken, who was still on his knees, holding out his clenched fist, and staring at it as if it had suddenly become gold-plated.

‘What’s it like?’ we demanded, but he was speechless. After he recovered from the initial shock he flatly refused to talk about it.

From that day on Ken was a changed man. He wore a look of almost sickening condescension when we discussed girls after that, and after a while we avoided the subject when he was around. We never saw Doreen again, as she went back home shortly after.

A couple of months after the incident in the stables Ken had a ruptured appendix, which led to peritonitis. He was rushed off to hospital, and we all thought that he would die. The night he had the operation I went through several kinds of hell, living the whole thing vicariously with him. It was as if we were identical twins. I twisted about in the bed, sweating and panicking until morning.

After he’d had the operation the teacher and I went to visit him in the hospital. He looked terrible, and I think that everyone, including himself, was convinced that he was dying. As we were leaving I made some excuse to go back alone to his bedside.

‘Hey, Ken,’ I said. ‘About Doreen. You know.’

He grinned weakly. ‘Yeah. It was a trick.’

‘You what?’

‘It was too dark to see anything in there. She slipped me two pence to fake it.’ Confessions of a dying man.

He came though all right, after all, but I never managed to shake off the conviction that he was getting punished for that little incident in the stable. This put me right off girls for quite a while. It was my first intimation of just how tricky they can be.

Our teacher in the village was a Welshman named David Nason, who had come down with us from Coventry with his wife. He seemed to have enormous amounts of information on all subjects, was kind and considerate, and managed to bring out the best in all of us.

As my father was hardly ever there throughout my formative years, David Nason was the only man with whom I was in regular contact during that period. When he wasn’t teaching he was coaching us at cricket or football. There was hardly a moment in that couple of years of evacuation where we were not involved in something or other with him.

He started a club for us in the village, and encouraged us to become Boy Scouts. I joined at once, but was disappointed to discover that my Scoutmaster was a woman. She was jolly and energetic enough, like Joyce Grenfell, but she made me wonder whether I’d have perhaps been better off joining the Girl Guides. I was taught how to light a fire, using only one box of matches, and how to boil stolen eggs.

It was Mr. Nason who encouraged me to write. He would ask me to do an autobiography. ‘Write an autobiography of a postage stamp,’ he said one day.

Off I went. The stamp was bought, stuck on a letter to a soldier on active duty in France and posted. It met other stamps in the mailbag. The mail plane was then shot down, the letter rescued by a French boy. His father was arrested for having the letter in his possession and the letter landed on the desk of the local Gestapo officer. He took the stamp for his own son, who, after his father had been suitably hanged by the Allies, traded it after the war with one of the children of the British Army of occupation. This boy turned out to be the one who wrote the letter in the first place, and so on, and so on for fifty-seven pages. Whatever the subject, I wove a story around it.

Mr. Nason used to go over the stories with me and make suggestions. He never said anything negative. He also encouraged me to write poetry, which came in handy when I got into song-writing later on.

At cricket I became a demon bowler, greatly feared by all, including the local louts. One day one of them managed to get the edge of his bat to one of my yorkers and deflected it right on to the side of Pete Williams’s head, and he went out like a light.

We gathered around him. I tried his pulse, but could feel nothing. Someone else put his head on Pete’s chest and reported no heart beat. Four of us picked him up and carried him, pallbearer fashion, into the nearest house, which happened to be the Rectory. There we laid him out on the kitchen table.

The rector’s wife had hysterics at once. ‘Why bring him here?’ she screamed, completely beside herself. I replied that, if he was indeed dead, there could surely be no better place to deliver him than the house of a priest.

One of the boys was dispatched to tell the local policeman, who then set out on his bicycle to fetch the doctor from the next village. Such was the communications network in that neck of the woods. They hadn’t even advanced as far as smoke signals.

By the time the doctor finally arrived it was getting dark. He was a big, jolly, bearded man who looked exactly like James Robertson Justice. The rector didn’t like him because he never came to church, and it was common knowledge that the doctor didn't have an awful lot of time for the rector, either.

We were shushed out of the kitchen. Only Hilda the maid remained to give any assistance required. Up to then Pete had given no signs of life.

According to Hilda later on, the doctor had taken one look at Pete lying there and had immediately begun slapping his face. After a few hefty swipes Pete woke up suddenly.

It had to be a weird trip coming to like that in the dark, with the bearded face looming over him, lit only from below by the dim oil lamp. He must have really thought that he was dead, because his first words were, ‘Are you God?’

By the time the doctor came out, clicking his bag shut, the rector had joined our little group in the passage.

‘He’s all right,’ said the doctor, brusquely. ‘Put him to bed somewhere for the night.’

He turned to the rector, who was looking at him with distaste. ‘Funny thing, when he woke up he thought I was God.’

The rector stood with his mouth open in shock for a long time after the doctor had gone.

In the village was a boy we used to play with a lot called Bill Travers. His sister was the film star Linden Travers, and he eventually made a film career, too. Whenever she turned up in the village it was like having a visit from the Queen. Everyone turned out to watch. Accompanying her were always one or two highly polished expensive-looking cars, and several equally highly polished expensive-looking men. She was always made up to kill, wearing all the latest, and you could smell her perfume a mile off.

Next door to Miss Travers lived our elderly village policeman. The village was situated right near a crossroads of the old Roman Fosse Way, and he used to hide in the bushes there and jump out to book anyone who didn’t stop dead at the Halt sign. There was hardly any traffic at all, petrol being rationed, so he didn’t have too much success with that, but I am convinced that this was all that he did, all day, every day. There was no crime in the village, and I suppose he had to occupy his time with something. He frightened me out of my wits once by springing out at me, notebook at the ready, when I went past the sign on my bike. The shock of this has remained with me all my life, and I always stop at halt signs, even if the road is clear in all directions

The one time I didn’t do this was in Toul, in France, when my wife and I were off to Spain on holiday. The way was clear, so I only paused for a second. At once an enormous gendarme sprang out from behind a tree and stopped the car. We got into an argument, with me insisting in my broken French that a pause of one second constituted stopping, and with him maintaining that it did not. He would have won if I hadn’t flashed my British passport and lied to him that we had just been married. With a sudden burst of Gallic charm all was forgiven, and we were allowed to proceed.

The only other brush I have had with foreign police was in the middle of Belgium once at a very lonely crossroads on a Sunday morning. The signposts in Belgium at the time were placed low on the ground on the opposite corner of a crossroads in such a way that one only saw them once you had gone past. I noticed that I should turn left for the coast, where I was heading, and started the turn. At once a policeman appeared from nowhere and stopped me. He indicated that here there was no left turn allowed. I asked him if he spoke English. ‘Here we speak Flemish’ he said (in English).

I indicated that I wished to go to the coast. He shrugged. When I drove off he danced sideways beside the car with outspread arms to prevent me from turning left. I drove up the road a little, then made a U-turn. When I came back he nodded in satisfaction. It was OK to turn right. All the time this had been going on not one single vehicle had come our way.

Apart from the stables there was an enormous orchard behind the Rectory which sloped right down to the river Stour. Here there was an old watermill, and the basin was great for swimming and catching tiny fish. In the winter we used to toboggan dangerously down the orchard slopes on a four-seater we discovered in an outhouse.

Of course, the rector’s wife forbade us everything once she saw that we were getting pleasure from it. She was particularly upset when she caught us on her beautifully kept croquet lawn, using the mallets like golf clubs and whacking the balls high over the sycamore trees. But she couldn’t be everywhere at once, so avoiding her became a part of the game.

There was an old harmonium in the kitchen where we lived with Hilda, the maid, a pretty, local girl of about eighteen.. As far as we were concerned she was a bit of hot stuff. The rector’s wife, being an out and out snob, made her wear a proper French Maid’s uniform at all times to impress her circle of acquaintances—black silk dress, frilly white apron, and a tiny lace cap perched on top of her head, which we kept snatching off in order to get chased by her.

At first we had spent much of our time ogling Hilda, brushing against her suggestively and things like that, but she finally put paid to it all by threatening us with her boyfriend, who was in an army camp nearby. I then turned my attentions to the harmonium.

It was very old and wheezy, and the pedals broke almost at once, but not before I’d managed to produce a very passable version of Drink to me Only, with all the correct harmonies and all.

The harmonium was quickly removed after that, and I was sentenced to do a couple of thousand extra pumps at the well for breaking it.

In the winter evenings we’d sit around the big kitchen table playing games, or trying to read by the light of the oil lamp. Most evenings, around eight-thirty, a huge rat came through the kitchen. Counting his tail the rat was about two feet long. One of his front paws was injured and he walked with a limp, so we nicknamed him Jo, after Josef Goebels, the other famous rat.

Jo always came in from the scullery, where the water pump was, and made his way through into the larder, where he disappeared. He came limping through slowly and gravely, like a VIP, looking neither left nor right. Definitely a King Rat. Anyone could have clobbered Jo, but no one did. I reckoned that he was blind. He certainly took no notice of us.

Hilda used to scream and panic when Jo came through, but when Mr. Aicheson from the village was called in he could find no holes anywhere big enough for Jo to enter or leave the house. We were accused of exaggeration. We put some food in his path and he walked right past it. This convinced us that Jo was a ghost, so we laid a crucifix down there and he walked right past that as well.

He was discovered one Easter Sunday stretched out stiff as a plank on the larder floor, grinning fiendishly. Sure as hell no ghost. The women went into fits of hysterics, of course, until we put Jo on a spade and took him out and buried him in the strawberry patch, which led to a bumper crop that year.

The rector’s family consisted of about fourteen children, the youngest being a delightfully plump broad of about fifteen named Christine. The whole family could almost have emerged from between the covers of a P.G.Wodehouse book. They seemed to follow all of the rules governing the upper middle class of the period, one child in each of the noble professions, with the youngest son becoming a priest himself.

Most of them would come visiting on a Saturday morning and escape the same evening so as to avoid the truly deadly church service on the following day.

All except Christine, the youngest. She often stayed the whole weekend.

By this time we had a third evacuee with us, a red-haired boy named Derek. He was very tall and was left-handed. He often remarked upon the problems inherent with both of those attributes. Doorways, chairs and desks were too small; finding clothes the right size a problem. He mentioned to me once that he was keen on becoming a concert pianist when he grew up, but that he would need a piano that had been constructed in reverse, with the treble keys on the left. I remarked at the time that, in that case, if he were indeed successful, he would need to lug his own concert grand around everywhere he went. This did not dampen his plans in any way.

Derek seemed to have been blessed with an excess of hormones. They clearly appeared to be governing his whole life because from day one all he ever talked about was girls. They dominated his conversation, so much so that, after a while, we became heartily sick of him.

Derek was insanely jealous of the fact that Ken had a girl named Audrey, the prettiest girl in the village, as his girlfriend. No one else in the entire school had any kind of girl-friend at all, but Ken, who was by no means the strongest, or best looking of us all, had won the girl’s heart. Derek, who fancied himself immensely, just couldn’t understand that.

His mind was diverted to other things when some of the rector’s family turned up for a long weekend. Christine was amongst them.

As soon as he clapped eyes on her for the first time, in her flimsy little short, white, pleated, silk tennis dress, with her large juicy unrestrained youthful bosoms wobbling around all over the place inside her blouse, flushed and sweaty from the game, Derek was on her tail. She looked keen enough, what little we saw of her, because she started making excuses to come into the kitchen, and the two of them were rolling their eyes at one another fit to burst.

He made his move on the Sunday night. There was an air raid going on somewhere further off and we could see the fires and hear the explosions. Suddenly Derek, who was at the window, called us to say that a German plane had been caught in the searchlights overhead.

I rushed over to the window to take a look, with Ken on my heels holding the candle in one hand and his shirt in the other. At once a voice from the garden down below screamed, ‘Put that flamin’ light out!’

I grabbed the shirt and held it up in front of the candle to shield it. Uppermost in our minds was the fear of the German plane unloading all of its bomb-load on to our pitiful glimmer of light.

We watched the plane twisting and turning, trying to avoid the searchlight, when suddenly I noticed that the shirt I was holding had caught fire. At once the voice from below started up shouting again. With great presence of mind, Derek then seized the chamber pot, which was brim full as usual, and threw the contents over the flaming shirt, which I was, by then, holding well out of the window.

It put the shirt out, and, as an added bonus, drenched the owner of the loud voice, who turned out to be Hilda’s soldier friend, who’d been having a snog with her underneath our window.

The resulting barrage of threats and insults should never have been allowed in the vicinity of a rectory, housing one of God’s chosen, but it went on and on until I noticed that Derek had dropped the chamber pot on the floor and was now nowhere to be seen.

We watched eagerly to see whether he emerged below, because he was big enough, and bad enough, to have taken the soldier on. But we didn’t see him at all, the German escaped, and we finally went back to bed.

A few moments later the silence was shattered by terrified screams. Immediately afterwards Derek nipped into the room as if his clothes were on fire, and dived into bed. Seconds later the rector’s wife charged into the room holding an oil lamp.

We were all asleep, of course, and Derek was snoring peacefully. I suppose that if we’d have had electricity she would have put all the lights on to confront us more dramatically. As it was, with the whole thing taking place by the light of a dim oil lamp it was a bit of an anticlimax. Still she had a good old scream at us.

The text of her message was that she knew that one of us had been in her daughter’s room and frightened the poor girl half out of her wits. By this time Derek had pretended to wake up, and we all swore that none of us had left the room. Finally she stomped off, uttering threats, and we heard a scene going on in her daughter’s room nearby.

She must have convinced her mother that she’d had a nightmare or something, because nothing more came of it.

Of course, we couldn’t sleep any more, and after laying there for a bit to make sure that the heat was off I lit the candle again.

Derek was still panting to get his breath. After a while the story came out, bit by bit.

He’d crept into the daughter’s bedroom thinking everything was going to be all right. As soon as she saw him suddenly looming over her bed she began shrieking fit to bust. It was enough. Thunderous footsteps approaching did the rest.

We had to go to school next day, and by the time we came home Christine had already left.

All day Derek had been prowling around like a randy tiger. When he found out, from Hilda, that the girl had gone, he was beside himself. I don’t know what he’d expected.

No sooner had we gone to bed that night than he went out of the bedroom in a hurry. He came back several minutes later holding something stuffed up inside his pyjama jacket.

‘Wotchergot then?’ we breathed.

He held it up. It was an almost transparent frilly pink nightdress. ‘It’s hers,’ he said. ‘Here, have a sniff.’

We each took a sniff. I couldn’t find anything special about it. A vague smell of perfume was all.

He buried his face in the material, taking huge draughts of air and moaning like a Mafia gangster facing his first plate of fettucini a la Veronese after having spent 20 years in Alcatraz.

‘What are you going to do with it, then?’ I said.

He raised his head from the exotic frills and looked over at Ken, who was sitting on the side of the bed.

‘Here! You put it on.’

Ken was off the bed in a flash and into the furthest corner of the room he could find, with his back pressed against the wall.

‘You keep away from me,’ he squeaked.

Derek stared at me. I stared him right back, grimly.

‘All right,’ he said.

I blew the candle out and let the distant air raid lull me to sleep.

After a while there was very little bombing going on back home, so we were able to return to Coventry. I’m sure the village was going to be glad to see the back of us. Still, they threw a going-away party for all the evacuees, just the same. It was held at Captain Guthrie's farmhouse a few days later.

There were two classrooms of evacuees in the village school, wisely well separated. The boys of the other class were from the Coventry Grammar School, while those in our class came from a very famous old school called Barkers’ Butts.

The grammar school boys used to look down upon us, and so we normally avoided them, apart from the odd exchange of blows when the teachers weren’t looking. We used to split up more or less automatically into groups when we played football and cricket, and as we were rougher and coarser than the grammar school kids, we generally thrashed them soundly at games. This didn’t make them love us any the more.

By the time we got to the party, most of the grammar school boys had deliberately arrived early, and were already treating us as gatecrashers. The unwritten protocol at such parties was that one would first eat all of the fish paste sandwiches, and only then start on the cakes.

As soon as we sat down the grammar school boys gleefully informed us that they had already spat on all of the cakes. Not to be outdone we picked the cakes up and spat on them as well. Next moment there was a free-for-all. This only stopped when Captain Guthrie rapped a few heads with his stick and called for order, rather like the Speaker in the House of Commons. But, by then the damage was done.

During the ruckus several of the grammar school boys had held me down, (they needed several), while one of them casually pushed a cream tart into my face, and screwed it around a bit, like in a Chaplin film, and the rest of them were chortling about that when the Captain arrived and prevented me from retaliating.

I noted the boy’s name and face carefully, and stored them away in my memory. I was in no hurry. Even at that early age I already knew that everything comes to those who wait.

A few days later we all went back to Coventry.

I feel that I should apologise, at this point, for the often highly irreverent nature of this report. I am really deeply grateful to the Rector, and his good wife, for suffering my presence for so long, thereby sparing me the horrors of the Coventry air-raids. I was twelve at the time, and was, like many boys of that age, full of myself, inconsiderate to others and highly critical of anyone my senior.

When the air raids later ceased completely I often cycled all the way from Coventry to Tredington at weekends, just to visit all the friends I had made there. On such occasions I was always warmly greeted, fed royally, and made welcome to stay the night at the Rectory. Once, when the Rectory was full of family visitors, and there was no room for me, I slept the night at the house of the local policeman, otherwise known as the village bobby. Such kindness must not go unmentioned here.

Part Four >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved