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Walnut Wisdom: Episode 7

There is mistrust and suspicion at the farm. Alan's father pays a visit and instructs him not to "wander off'' with Old Matey. Alan becomes a pupil at the one-class village school.

Arthur Loosley continues his story of a wartime evacuee, a city boy set down in he country.

Life at the farm was quite erratic for the next two weeks. The constant mistrust and bickering between the women and Old Matey just went on and on, and Alan felt trapped in the middle of something he didn't understand. He had learnt one thing though: Old Matey had a guilty secret of which he was ashamed, and Aunt Molly was not going to allow him to forget. Perhaps the other women also knew; perhaps that was why they found it difficult to live at peace with him.

It was all so sad. Old Matey might seem harsh at times but Alan could see nothing but kindness in him, except his rudeness to Molly, but that was how some grown ups behaved all the time, wasn't it?

There was a pleasant surprise on the Thursday of the third week, when Dad arrived from London on his motorbike. It was his first visit since Alan had come to the farm. He had been expected next weekend, and had come three days earlier than promised, but Alan did not have an early opportunity to speak to him because as soon as he arrived he was locked in a conversation with the women, from which Alan was excluded.

The only thing Alan was able to get out of him was that he had decided to come on a weekday because there was something he needed to do in the village, which could not be done at weekends. Thursday was half-day closing at the shop where he worked as a counter assistant, and the boss had kindly allowed him to take the morning off as well.

Betty sent Alan upstairs to change into his best clothes while the family discussed their business. That was ominous: he was just getting used to wearing his comfortable 'play clothes' around the farm. Best clothes meant a visit somewhere or a meeting with somebody who needed to be impressed.

He did not have to wait too long to find out what it was all about. The adults concluded their conversation and Betty joined Alan upstairs to check that he was properly dressed before sending him back down to the parlour with strict instructions to sit down and behave himself until told to move.

Dad was the only other person in the room, and he called Alan over to him.

'What's all this I hear about you being cheeky to Uncle Gerald?' he asked.

'Cheeky?', Alan repeated. 'I haven't been cheeky to him. Old Matey's my best friend!'

'That's what I'm worried about,' his father told him, 'It's not right , and it's got to stop.'

'Not right?' Alan repeated, 'but he is the only one here who ever takes any notice of me.'

'That's enough now,' his father scolded. 'Just remember that you are a guest in his house and speak to him with respect. "Old Matey" indeed. I've never heard of anything so rude in my whole life!'

'But that's what he wants me to call him,' Alan protested.. 'and he calls me "Young Matey" because he likes me'.

'Exactly,' his father said. 'Now just remember what I've told you. In future you will call him "Uncle Gerald" - and don't go wandering off with him without your mother's permission. Children can come to all kinds of harm with strangers, you know.'

Alan had heard about not going off with strangers before. It was something his teacher had often reminded the children about at school, but Old Matey was no stranger.

'That's not fair!' he told his father, and ran out into the farm yard where he knew Old Matey would be working.

The old man was not surprised when Alan blurted out his story.

'Then you will have to obey your Dad,' he said quietly, then turned and walked away.

The whole gaggle of women then appeared, with cries of 'disgusting!' Betty was in her best frock, the shiny black one with coloured flowers all over it, and was also wearing her beads and a brooch and her best hat with a feather in it. The high heels of her shiny black shoes sank into the mud as she walked into the yard.

'Now look what you've made me do, you horrible little child!', she screeched.

Alan did not think it was his fault that she had chosen to wear her best shoes in a muddy farmyard, but he knew he must not answer back.

After cleaning her shoes with a handkerchief dampened with spit, Betty called out to her husband, 'Come on Ted,' let's get on with it. We don't want to be late.'

It was an odd trio who walked across the playground of Tamwell village school and entered the building: an over-dressed young woman, head held high, holding on to the arm of a man in stained oilskins and dragging a crying boy dressed like a Little Lord Fauntleroy. Alan knew now why his father had chosen to come on a weekday as he found himself in a large room with a high vaulted ceiling and two rows of desks at which were seated about a dozen children of all ages, both younger and older than himself.

There was a slight ripple of excitement as heads turned to see who had entered their realm, but they quickly returned to facing forward on the sharp command of a woman at the front of the room, who put down her blackboard chalk and came to greet the newcomers. Warning the children to keep quiet and get on with their reading, she ushered Alan and his parents into a small side room with windows from which she could keep an eye on things.

This was Alan's introduction to the single-class village school. It was nothing like the one he attended at Adley Green, and he was not at all sure he was going to like it.

He did not deliberately listen to the conversation between his parents and the teacher, except to make a note that her name was Mrs Cooper, but he could not help overhearing hushed comments about Captain Pacey, who was apparently well respected by some of the villagers and always addressed by his military title, but loathed by others following dispute many years ago, accounts of which still circulated in several different versions.

'It has something to do with the secret room, I'll be bound,' Ted said, having had the previous evening's conversation graphically reported to him by the women

'Oh no,' Mrs Cooper told him. 'No, that's something else entirely. It's very sad, from what I know about it from my grandmother. She was a friend of Gerald and Susan at the time but I don't think anybody really knows the complete truth and it's not something I intend to discuss.'

She added that should she ever be blessed with children she would be very confident to trust them to the protection of that sweet old man.

'Sweet?', Betty repeated. 'That's not what I'd call him, but if you say so . . . If you know something that I don't . . . '

'So can I still be friends with Old Matey?' Alan asked.

'We'll see,' said his father, 'We'll just have to wait and see.'

Now there was something else that Alan wanted to know. 'Who is Susan?' he asked.

The question startled Mrs Cooper. 'I'm sorry', she replied, 'I should not have mentioned the name. Please forget I said it.'

She looked closely at Alan. 'Yes,' she said, with a smile, 'I really do believe that you will be perfectly safe with - what did you say you call him?'

'Old Matey,' Alan replied, 'and I'm Young Matey.'

Mrs Cooper squeezed his hand. 'We'll see you in school on Monday then,' she said, 'Please don't be late.'

Alan knew he was going to like Mrs Cooper. What she had said only deepened the mystery still further, but he felt a sense of relief knowing that somebody as important and knowledgeable as a teacher believed that Old Matey could be trusted.

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