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Walnut Wisdom: Episode 5

...Molly had also said it would be his responsibility to lock the chickens in the henhouse every night to protect them from the foxes. He had no idea how he was going to catch all those fluttering birds, but perhaps he could ask Old Matey if he got a chance to speak to him...

Arthur Loosley continues the story of young Alan, a refugee from war-torn London, who is learning the ways of life on the farm. But Old Matey, once master of all he surveyed, finds it necessary to put the lad in his place.

Read also Arthur's varied and vivid weekly columns by clicking on And Another Thing... in the menu on this page.

Alan's introduction to the world of farm work had not gone smoothly, but he had only made one serious mistake, when he shooed a sitting hen off her eggs and Aunt Molly was cross with him. He had a lot to think about and remember if he was to do his job properly. The thought of rats bothered him and Molly had also said it would be his responsibility to lock the chickens in the henhouse every night to protect them from the foxes. He had no idea how he was going to catch all those fluttering birds, but perhaps he could ask Old Matey if he got a chance to speak to him.

Aunt Molly had gone indoors, taking the basket of eggs with her, leaving Alan to explore a bit more of the farm on his own. There were no pigs in the pig sties and no apples in the apple house, but there was a strong smell of urine in both places.

He timidly opened the gate and walked back through the little gap into the kitchen garden and sat on the rough wooden bench under a big apple tree outside the office. The view from that seat was really special, looking out over the fields, and he let his mind wander, thinking about all the different things he might see if allowed to explore, but for now he was more concerned with other items on his growing list of questions.

The tree above his head had some green apples, bigger than any he had seen before. One had fallen on the ground and split open. 'I don't suppose anyone will mind if I eat it,' he told himself, taking a bite into the juicy flesh, but it didn't stay in his mouth for very long. It was too sour, and he had to spit it out.

Aunt Molly was standing at the farmhouse door and came running out when she saw Alan. She looked angry - but of course she always did.

'Didn't I tell you never to sit on that seat?' she demanded, 'That's Uncle Gerald's private seat and nobody else sits there.'

Alan didn't remember being told, and couldn't really understand how anyone could object. It was a very solid seat and he was not very heavy, so surely it would not do any harm, but grown-ups are grown-ups and have to be obeyed, so he quickly slid off the seat and walked away, with Molly calling after him, 'If he ever catches you there, he'll send you straight back to London, just see if he don't.'

Back to London? Surely not, for such a minor offence, but adults were unpredictable so he couldn't take any chances. 'No, no. Not back to the bombs, please,' he begged.

'What's this I hear about bombs?' a familiar gruff voice demanded. Old Matey had arrived on the scene and overheard the altercation. 'What have you been saying to the boy?' he asked Molly.

'Just putting him in his place,' the old woman replied, 'He was doing something he was told not to.'

The old man bent down and took hold of Alan's hand. It was trembling.

'Now tell me, Young Matey,' he asked softly, 'What did you do? I want the truth, please.'

'I sat on your private seat,' Alan replied, 'I didn't know . . . Please don't send me away.'

Old Matey looked at Molly. 'Is that all?' he asked.

'Give them an inch and they'll take a yard, some kids will!' she replied.

Still holding Alan's hand, Old Matey led him to the bench and motioned him to sit down, 'Molly wants you put in your place,' he said, 'and this will be it from now on. Your place. Do you understand?'

Alan didn't really understand anything about grown-ups, but he smiled a rather smug smile when Old Matey turned to Molly and said, 'You'd better understand too, woman.'

'Why is she always so grumpy?' Alan asked.

The old man's brow furrowed. 'Now that was a cheeky remark,' he warned, 'Be fair. You did upset her this morning, remember, when you sent the pee pot flying all over the room.'

'But she shouldn't have got cross with you for helping me,' Alan protested.

'Enough now!' Old Matey warned, 'She works damned hard, I'll say that for her.'

The feeling of smugness suddenly drained from Alan. This man was not going to hear any criticism of Molly; he would save that privilege for himself.

They sat side by side on the bench in silence for a while, looking across the fields that had once been connected to the farm. Old Matey looked sad. In a half whisper he said, 'Master of all I surveyed, then, but now . . . '

He did not complete the sentence, but it was not necessary; Alan was sure he understood exactly what the old man was thinking.

'Those apples are awfully sour,' he remarked, wishing to change the subject.

'You didn't try eating one, did you?' Old Matey asked.

'Only a bit of one that fell on the ground,' Alan replied quickly, wondering if he was going to get into trouble again for doing something without permission.

'They're late cookers,' the old man told him. 'Not for eating raw or they'll give you a real belly-ache.'

Grown-up words again, Alan noted. 'Mummy doesn't like the word "belly" because it's rude', he commented.

'Your mother doesn't like a lot of things', Old Matey sighed, then stood up and said, 'Here, climb up on the bench and see if you can reach a few; Molly does a first class baked apple and we can have some tonight with custard.'

'But won't they give us a bel… sorry, I mean tummy ache?' Alan asked.

'Not the way she does them,' Old Matey said, 'with lots of sugar.'

Alan remembered his grandmother's words about seamen getting 'drownded' but decided not to ask whether they would be likely to approve of this use of sugar. He climbed up and selected five nice plump apples, one each for the three women and the two 'mates'.

'Now take them indoors and tell her what I said,' the old man instructed. 'Baked apples and custard for supper, can you remember that?'

'Yes,' Alan replied, 'that's easy, and when I come back, will you tell me how to put the chickens away at night?'

'No,' came the reply, 'Just go to the hen-yard this evening when it begins to get dark and the chickens will show you how it's done.'

Alan said nothing but wondered yet again why grown ups never give a sensible answer to a simple question.

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