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Walnut Wisdom: Episode 3

Alan had fallen asleep in an old cart while exploring the farm and had only woken when his mother came to find him.

In this episode: a picture, a sword , a broken gun and pot-luck!

Arthur Loosley continues his story of a city boy evacuated to the country during World War Two.

Back in the farmhouse there was the welcome aroma of freshly cooked food. Alan had just been brought in by his mother after falling asleep while exploring the orchard, Old Matey was in his armchair facing the range, where he always ate, and Grandma was sitting at the table in the window. Everyone was ready to eat and Aunt Molly was busy bringing the food on the table.

Old Matey looked across and noticed that Alan's plate had only vegetables and gravy on it. 'Why is there no meat on the lad's plate?' he asked.

'Because he doesn't like chicken,' Betty replied.

'Not like chicken?' the old man asked, 'Why don't you like chicken, Young Matey?'

Alan had a good reason, but didn't like talking about it so his mother answered for him, 'Just being awkward,' she said, 'You know what boys are like.'

That was not true. He didn't just 'not like' chicken; the very thought of eating it had revolted him since that day, some years ago, when the family enjoyed a particularly tasty Sunday dinner at the grandparents' house. They kept chickens in the back garden and one of them, a very fine cockerel, became almost a pet and they called him 'Doodle'. Neighbours had often complained about the loud crowing but Granddad ignored the complaints. 'Well, that's what cockerels do, isn't it?' he told them

On that fateful Sunday, after asking permission to leave the table, Alan went out into the garden to see his feathered friend, but it was not there.

'Where's Doodle?' he cried, running back into the house. Nobody replied, but Granddad rubbed his well-filled tummy and smiled.

Alan felt sick and vowed never to eat chicken again after that, but the grown-ups just didn't seem to understand how he felt about eating his friend. He hoped Old Matey would understand, but he couldn't tell him now, with his mother and grandmother in the room. Another time, perhaps, but for now he tried to put it out of his mind as he tucked into his vegetables.

Daylight was fading by the time they finished their meal, and Aunt Molly drew the curtains and switched on the electric light. Molly was very proud that she had 'the electric' in the house. 'So much cleaner and safer than oil or candles,' she remarked.

Alan wondered why there was only the one light socket, hanging from the parlour ceiling, not one in every room as they had at home, but again he remembered that they did things differently in the country.

While the women cleared the table and took the dishes out to the scullery, Old Matey settled deeper into his chair and called out to Molly, 'Don't forget to wake me in time for the nine o'clock news, woman. Mustn't miss it tonight.'

Alan had been having a good look around the room during the meal, and wanted to ask Old Matey a lot of questions. The list was growing, but he couldn't disturb the old man now.

There was the picture, of course, which he had already mentioned, of the handsome young soldier on a beautiful horse. He now saw that there was a sword in the man's hand, and was excited when he noticed a real sword hanging from a hook on the parlour wall, half hidden by Old Matey's chair. Could it be the same sword, he wondered. Had Old Matey killed anyone with it? It would be exciting if his new friend was a hero.

A shotgun stood against the wall in one corner of the room. A great split in its barrel reminded Alan of an opened sardine tin. That was something else he would have to ask about, and perhaps he might even discover the secret of the door at the far end of the room, blocked by a bookcase. Oh, and so many other things which he knew he would not get the chance to ask about tonight, because he knew that at any moment his mother would be asking, 'Do you know what time it is?' She always said that, when all she needed to say was 'It's time for bed.' It was just another one of those silly ways that grown-ups have of saying things.

His mother came back into the room now, followed by Grandma, having helped Molly with the washing-up. Molly herself came in, a few minutes later, carrying a white enamel jug. Her untidy white hair was now scraped back and hidden under a wide brimmed hat covered with flowers, and her mouth had a splash of bright red lipstick.

Without a word, she left the house. Neither of the other women said anything but Alan could not resist asking 'Where is Aunt Molly going?'

The only reply came from the depths of the big black leather chair. 'To The Greenwood Tree for my ale, I hope. One of you will have to wake me up for the news because she'll be gone for hours now she's got her war-paint on. The village lads will buy her a Guinness or two, you mark my words!'

'Really, Uncle Gerald,' Betty whined, 'Fancy telling the boy a thing like that.'

A thing like what? Alan asked himself. Grown-up talk again, he supposed.

'Do you know what time it is?' Betty asked, suddenly' He was expecting this and, as usual, knew that no reply was needed. Within seconds she was leading him up the narrow boxed-in staircase by the light of a hand-held candle, which threw monstrous shadows on the white-washed walls, adding to the eerie sound of the creaking wooden stairs.

The first thing he noticed when he reached the bedroom was the all-pervading smell of urine from the pot under the bed. He had a chamber pot at home but rarely used it because they had a proper flushing toilet built on the back of the house, which they always used unless the weather was particularly bad. Here, of course, it would be unthinkable to make their way through the hen-yard on a dark night.

'Now hurry up and get your pyjamas on and get into bed,' Betty told him. She lit a candle on the wash-stand. 'Blow this out as soon as you're in bed,' she ordered, 'It's too dangerous to leave it alight all night Don't forget. I'll be back in ten minutes to make sure you've done it.'

Left alone in that strange room, with the unfamiliar sound of the countryside - lowing cattle, the occasional whinny of a horse or hoot of an owl and various other sounds he couldn't even try to identify - Alan lost no time doing as he was told and burying his head under the covers. Then he remembered that Old Matey had promised to show him the animals but all he saw were chickens and geese. But there would be plenty more opportunities so he snuggled down and was asleep when his mother returned.

He did wake briefly a little later, when there was a lot of shouting coming from downstairs. He recognized Old Matey's voice saying something about spilt ale and began to think that perhaps there was good reason for the women to be fearful of him.

With that thought he sank into a deep slumber. Tomorrow would see the real beginning of his new life.

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