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Walnut Wisdom: Episode 1

Today we begin the serialisation of a novel by Arthur Loosley which relates the adventures of a shy young boy from London who finds himself transplanted into the countryside at the beginning of World War 2. He meets an amazing old man, who becomes his mentor.

Further episodes of the story will appear Tuesday by Tuesday.

To read Arthur's engaging weekly column please click on And Another Thing... in the menu on this page.

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First day at Walnut Tree Farm, The Prime Minister's sombre message on the wireless and the death of a chicken.

The fair-haired boy leaning on the farm gate was incongruously dressed for country life or any kind of life for a male child just two weeks short of his eighth birthday. Alan hated his crisp white blouse and black shorts, lovingly hand-made by his mother, but clothes were not on his mind as he pondered what had brought him here to Walnut Tree Farm, and he didn't notice the greenish brown moss stains spreading ever wider over his mother's pristine handiwork.

He had arrived at Walnut Tree Farm earlier that morning with his mother and grandmother, because people had been talking about dark clouds gathering over Europe and the Prime Minister was going to be on the wireless at eleven o'clock with an important message.

Alan was not afraid of dark clouds. In fact, he rather enjoyed the rain, but the grown-ups all insisted it would be safer here than in their London home near the docks, because that's where the first bombs would fall if war started. Grandma's sister, Molly, who lived the farm, had suggested that the family should come and live here 'for the duration', whatever that meant. Now they were waiting for the eleven o'clock announcement, and it was nearly that time already.

Father had said that if it came it would be all over by Christmas, but Granddad thought it might take as long as four years, like the last one.

The men were staying in London because of their work, but as Granddad said, 'if a bomb or a bullet has your name on it, it will find you, no matter where you are'. This didn't make much sense to Alan but he felt sure it must be right. After all, Granddad was a postman and it was his job to see that the letters and parcels reached the people whose names were on them, but why would anyone send a bomb or a bullet?

Granddad probably knew the answer, but he wasn't saying. After all, he had seen his mates blown to smithereens in the last war. That was a place in France, apparently.

Granddad was now too old for military service but would continue to do his important work delivering the mail, and Alan's father, Ted Brandwell, was unfit and expected to be directed into work more important to the war effort than his present job behind the counter of a jewellery store.

Alan was jolted out of his reverie by his mother's voice calling from the farmhouse door, 'If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times,' she began. She always said that. He had lost count of how many times she had said that and he knew better than to ask what or why.

'Just look at what you've done to your nice new clothes and come in here right now' she ordered.

Looking down at the moss stained garments, Alan knew he was in trouble.

The atmosphere in the farm parlour was tense. Everybody sat in silence as Great Uncle Gerald tried to tune the battery powered wireless to the BBC for the important broadcast. Alan had heard crackles and whistles at home on his father's home-built wireless, but this one seemed even worse.

'Did you get the accumulator charged, woman?' the old man asked Molly.

'Didn't need it, she replied.'

Alan knew about accumulators. One of his jobs at home was to take the acid-filled square glass jar to the local garage to get it recharged. It was not a job he enjoyed, especially since one of his friends had tripped up a kerb while carrying one, smashing the glass and splashing acid all over his legs. He needed hospital treatment for the burns and was off school for weeks..

At last, here in the farm parlour, the voice of the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, could be heard. Only faintly, but Alan was able to make out the last few words, ' this country is now at war with Germany.'

'Well, that's it then!' old Gerald said, with a sigh. He rose from his deep leather chair, which also sighed, and stood staring into space with his one good eye. Alan wondered what had happened to the other eye. It was not the kind of question he could ask, so soon after meeting the man, but perhaps he might find out later, when he got to know him better.

He now looked closely into that gnarled face for the first time. It was topped with black hair, speckled with grey, looking like . . . well, like a bramble thicket, he supposed. He was not sure what a bramble thicket actually looked like but had heard the expression and thought it sounded interesting, so had remembered it in case it should ever come in useful, but more important right now was the sadness he could see in that old face.

Great Aunt Molly was the next to speak. 'We'll all wake up dead in our beds tomorrow, just see if we don't', she announced.

Grandma sat peeling an orange. 'Last one of these we'll see for a while' she predicted, then added, after a thoughtful pause, 'and no more sugar in our tea, either. We don't want all them sailors getting drownded bringing it over.'

Alan laughed at the way she said 'drownded', like that man on the gramophone record reciting the poem, 'The Lion And Albert' about a fateful day at the seaside. He had heard it many times on the big wind-up gramophone at Grandma's house.

Alan's mother, Betty, for once said nothing, and after another pause Grandma continued, 'We'll save our sugar ration and make jam with it instead; there's always plenty of fruit and we can't have it going to waste.'

Alan knew nothing about rationing but could see the sense if it could save sailors' lives, but he couldn't quite understand why they would be happier going to their watery graves for the sake of jam butties instead of sweet tea. Adults often said things that didn't make sense!

Aunt Molly suddenly ran outside. The chickens were in the kitchen garden, scratching and pecking at the vegetables. She chased them off, except for the one she brought back to the house, holding it upside down by its feet. It was squawking and its wings were fluttering wildly.

'Is it hurt?' Alan asked, anxiously. Aunt Molly did not reply, but he got his answer when, after a final flutter, the bird fell limp and silent.

'Come on,' Aunt Molly said, handing it to Grandma, 'Pluck this and at least we'll have a good meal tonight before we all die'.

That was Alan's introduction to Walnut Tree Farm, on the third of September 1939. He was not sure if he was going to like it here, but his father had promised to visit next weekend, and perhaps they would all be able to go home soon.

After a midday snack, the old man walked across the room and put his had no Alan's shoulder. 'Come on Young Matey', he said to Alan, 'I'll take you to see the animals.'

Alan looked nervously at his mother. She had warned him to keep clear of Great-Uncle Gerald. He had never met him before and had heard the womenfolk talking about his rough ways, but he seemed friendly enough.

'Come on, Young Matey', the farmer repeated, 'I don't suppose you see many cows or pigs in London, do you?'

As Alan allowed himself to be guided out of the house he asked the old man, nervously, 'Why did you call me Young Matey?' He knew that children shouldn't question grown-ups, but he thought that this one was a bit different, and as 'Great-Uncle Gerald' was a bit of a mouthful to say, he went on to ask, 'And what should I call you, sir?'

The old man laughed and replied, 'Well, not "sir", that's for sure. Had enough of that in the army.' He thought about it for a moment and then suggested, 'As we are going to be shipmates for a while, why don't you call me Old Matey? Is that all right with you?'

Alan grinned. Yes, he thought. That would be more than all right, but why shipmates? He knew that this old man was called Captain Gerald Pacey, but he was a soldier, not a ship's captain. This man was beginning to sound just like all the other adults after all. They all talked in riddles.

'Old Matey', he repeated, somewhat hesitantly, but with a broad grin. He had never spoken to an adult in such familiar terms before, and had a feeling that his mother would not like it.

Life in the country was going to be interesting, but exploring the farm e would have to wait a little longer because his mother had followed them out of the house and was calling him back.

'Get back in here and out of those clothes before you ruin them completely,' she ordered, 'and put your old play clothes on. How many times do I have to tell you?'

That was the best thing Alan had heard today and he didn't need to be told twice - or a thousand times!

'Excuse me, Old Matey,' he said to his new-found friend, 'Can you wait while I get changed?'

'Take your time, Young Matey,' the old man replied, 'We don't want to upset your mother, do we?'

Alan looked up again at that gnarled face. It was smiling, and he was sure he detected a wink in that one good eye.


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