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Smallville: The Monkey On The Sideboard

...Grandad once came home drunk and fell asleep before he had his supper. Grandma gave his dinner to my cousin, who lived next door, but not before wiping some gravy on his lips. On waking he demanded his supper but was reminded he'd already had it. The proof was on his lips... Peter B Farrell recalls in vivid detail events from his childhood, and introduces us to Ginny the monkey.

The "all clear'' sounded. I left the air raid shelter and joined the throng to look at the devastation caused by a bombing raid on the next street, only fifty yards away. Like all other children at that time I searched for shrapnel to add to my collection.

The houses in our street were the usual two up and two down. The front room or parlour was used only for formal occasions, such as weddings, baptisms and laying out corpses. The local custom at weddings was for the bride and groom to appear at the bedroom window and shower pennies down on the crowd of expectant children. I saw my first corpse when a boy died of consumption. As neighbours, we were all invited in to see the body.

My grandparents' house was even smaller. Life must have been very hard bringing up seven children. Grandad had been at sea working on tugboats since he was fourteen and as an able seaman had fought in the battle of Jutland in the Great War.

The general pattern was for the girls to go into service as housemaids, the boys joining the Royal Navy when they were fifteen. My mother was a live-in maid to a titled family when she was only fourteen years old. She would bring her meagre wages home every week, also any food she could save. Later, being good at figures she worked in the local newspaper shop. Her Uncle Billy would regularly collect his papers and pay her with a button, which presumably she had to make up. At the time of her marriage she was an assistant to Ernie Hush the well-known local pawnbroker.

At the outbreak of the war my father was a salesman delivering crates of bottled lemonade from Garnett’s factory, with a horse and cart. I can remember him taking part in the annual Lord Mayor’s parade, especially the horse with its gleaming brasses and coloured ribbons. I once had an accident, pulling a building slab onto my foot and breaking my toes. I was driven in style by horse and cart to the Infirmary. Being in the Territorial Army reserve my father was soon called up and sent to France.

When Italy joined the war, gangs went on the rampage and smashed the windows of the ice cream parlours in the town, including our local shop. We were friendly with the family who owned the ice cream shop, Sandy and Rosie Villa and their children. Sandy was interned for the duration of the war. Rosie kept the business going, selling only jelly cornets, presumably because of the shortage of sugar. My mother remained friends of the family, last seeing Rosie in the 1970s.

“Thou shall not covet thy neighbours wife,” along with the rest of the Ten Commandments. were completely incomprehensible to my brother and I, but were part of the regulated indoctrination at primary school. Unimaginable horrors would befall us in Purgatory - believed to be an underground hell somewhere in the desert - if the obligatory weekly confession of sins was not complied with and we duly obliged.
Our “neighbour’s wife” at the time was Mrs Fletcher, a septuagenarian with no teeth. My brother, who was aged about seven, admitted to coveting Mrs Fletcher. His early anarchic tendencies were recognised and he had to kneel in front of a plaster cast of an angel as punishment. Kneeling on rough wooden floorboards in front of effigies was a regular occurrence, which seems to have left an indelible mark on him.

I admitted only to “…bearing false witness.” This fairly innocuous statement was also deemed unacceptable and I was selected for punishment. This entailed joining a column of fellow miscreants after school finished, then being led off to church for half an hour of further indoctrination.

Everything was in short supply. Without sweets or chocolate we would make do with liquorice root - a type of twig - and dried carob beans. (Recently, I was startled to read that the carob bean is cattle food). A ship with it’s cargo of Seville oranges was bombed and sunk in the estuary. Cases of oranges were being washed up and plundered. Unfortunately they were very bitter and we were told they were only for making marmalade. A supply of chocolate powder, courtesy of the Canadian people, did arrive safely and was distributed to the schools. Each child was given 2 lb - about a kilo - of the chocolate.

Grandad once came home drunk and fell asleep before he had his supper. Grandma gave his dinner to my cousin who lived next door, but not before wiping some gravy on Grandad's lips. On waking he demanded his supper but was reminded he’d already had it. The proof was on his lips.

Drunk again, he once brought a monkey home, which we called Ginny. Ginny was chained to the sideboard and attacked everyone who came into the house, which was understandable after living in the jungle among the bananas. Grandad’s favourite phrase was “You’re biting’ the hand that feeds yer.” Grandma kept a yard brush handy for fending the monkey off when on her way to the kitchen.

At the end of the war, when any serviceman in the street returned home on leave, grandma’s piano was pushed out onto the pavement for a street party. Each street also had a tea party for all the children. I still have the photograph of ours and we are all posed in front of the air raid shelter, which reminds me of the devastation I witnessed as a child.

Just recently, sixty years later, I was reading of similar devastation to be wreaked upon streets of Victorian terraces including our old school, this time by the bulldozers in the cause of progress.

My brother confesses to feeling queasy when witnessing religious processions abroad - usually in the form of plaster effigies being paraded - and my cousin informs me that the most recent addition to her family was almost called Virginia - “Ginny for short” - until she remembered the monkey on the sideboard.

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