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Walnut Wisdom: Episode 6

Baked apples, free vegetables and a terrible secret....

Alan Loosley continues his story about young boy who is coming to terms with life on a farm after being evacuated from the city during the war years.

To read earlier chapters of this novel please visit Walnut Wisdom in the menu on this page.

The first full day at Walnut Tree farm had left Alan feeling bemused. He had learned a lot already about the kind of life that lay ahead of him for the next few weeks, months or perhaps years, but the future was uncertain.

The conversation between the three women as they sat around the table that evening was a little more relaxed now that they had started to sort out their individual roles in this unfamiliar mixed household. They had each run separate homes until yesterday morning and now they had to learn to share the responsibility of looking after themselves and each other in somewhat cramped conditions. There had been arguments already and Alan hoped there would be no more.

He was beginning to feel more comfortable with his own role now, after a turbulent start to the day, and was looking forward to the baked apples Aunt Molly had prepared as Old Matey instructed. There would be one apple each, which Alan himself had picked. He felt that he would now be seen as a useful member of the extended family, not just as an annoying child who should be seen and not heard. Old Matey would see to that. He was going to earn his keep, too, looking after the chickens.

Now he suddenly remembered with horror that he had forgotten to lock them up for the night. The fox would get them and he would be in real trouble.

Thinking quickly, remembering that the chicken house was close to the privy, he slid off his chair, brushing aside protests from the adults who always demanded that he ask permission to leave the table. 'Terrible tummy ache,' he shouted, 'I must go to the toilet.'

He ran as fast as his legs would carry him to the hen-house, hoping that no real damage had been done and that no-one would see through his subterfuge, but he need not have worried. The hens were safely locked away. Somebody else had done it for him.

Returning to the house he was asked, 'Did you wash your hands?' but replied that he hadn't because he found he didn't need to 'go' after all.

The main meal passed peacefully enough. It was meat of some sort, - Alan didn't know which, and didn't care as long as it wasn't chicken, which would have reminded him of his late lamented friend, Doodle - served with potatoes and cabbage and rich gravy. He didn't like cabbage but had to eat it because the adults said it was good for him. He also knew that if he didn't clear his plate, anything left on it would be put before him at the next meal. 'Waste not, want not' was the family motto.

He closed his eyes as the ate the despised green stuff. Somehow, it seemed to take the taste away, and he thought about the regular Saturday shopping trip at home, when his mother would take him into town, walking the three miles to save the bus fare, to pick up the vegetables for the Sunday dinner.

'We may be poor', Betty always told her friends, but I wouldn't let my family go without a full Sunday roast. Arriving at the market place just as the stallholders were packing up, she would hand Alan a brown paper carrier bag with string handles. He knew what he had to do, and set to work filling it with any damaged fruit and vegetables that had fallen on the ground. Some of the stallholders deliberately dropped a bruised apple or a ragged cabbage, pretending not to notice as Alan eagerly retrieved the trophy.

'It's for his pet rabbit,' his mother would say, if she saw the traders watching, but there was no pet rabbit at home and every bit found its way to the family table. There would not be the same problem here in the country where Aunt Molly ran a productive vegetable garden.

At last the plates were cleared and Molly brought the baked apple and a jug of custard to the table for Betty, Grandma and herself. Old Matey was in his old arm chair facing the range, where he always ate, keeping a watchful eye on what was going on at the table.

'Where's the lad's apple?' he asked.

'He's not having any,' Betty replied. 'Not when he's got a tummy ache already.'

The old man did not respond, but got up from his chair and beckoned to Alan.

'Here, Young Matey,' he said, 'Come and sit here and we'll share mine. A little taste won't do you any harm.' The women did not hear what he whispered next into Alan's ear: 'I locked them up for you, but don't let it happen again.'

It was the third time today that Old Matey had saved him: first the spilt chamber pot, then the forbidden bench seat, and now his neglect of duty in the hen yard. Alan hugged the old man, but quickly pulled away in embarrassment when the others tut-tutted and said they didn't know what the world was coming to.

That was the end of any hope of harmony in the crowded parlour for the rest of the evening. The women retired to the scullery to wash the dishes, leaving the old man and young boy to their own counsel.

There were so many things Alan wanted to ask Old Matey about, and now that the others were out of the room and couldn't interrupt, he decided that it was safe to ask one question that had been preying on his mind.

A tall book case stood in front of a closed door at the back of the room, preventing it from being opened.

'What's in that room, Old Matey?' he asked.

'None of your business,' snapped a voice behind him, 'Be respectful when you speak to your elders and betters, and don't pry into things that don't concern you!'

Aunt Molly had returned unexpectedly and overheard the question.

Old Matey's face clouded over, but instead of anger this time it expressed sorrow. 'I may be older,' he said quietly, 'but who's to say that I'm better than an innocent child?'

Molly looked the old man straight in his one good eye. 'Oh no, not the old guilt complex again', she intoned. 'Play the violins, somebody, for gawd's sake!'.

Alan shuddered. He had caused another argument by asking a simple question. What could this dear old man possibly have to feel guilty about, he asked himself. Had he hidden a dead body in there? Perhaps he was a master crook, and this was where he hid his loot. It was beginning to sound like one of those adventure mysteries in the older boys' comics that he wasn't allowed to read, but his friend Malcolm had a pile of them hidden in his dad's garden shed, and the two of them had spent many an exciting afternoon reading some of the bloodthirsty episodes and re-enacting them.

Old Matey put an arm around Alan's shoulders. 'Please, Young Matey, don't ever ask that question again,' he said sadly, then repeated the word, 'Please.' There was no anger or condemnation in his voice, but overwhelming sorrow.

Alan did not feel that any response was necessary. Nor could he think of anything to say except, 'I'd better get ready for bed now before Mummy starts complaining. Shall I switch the wireless on for you so you can listen to the nine o'clock news?'

The old man did not answer, so Alan quietly climbed the dark stairs and got into bed before he could cause any more trouble.

He felt sure that Old Matey wanted to share the secret of the room, and would probably do so in his own time, but he wasn't going to ask.


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