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Open Features: The Summer Of '43

...My aunt treated me like an adult, and co-opted me as her companion and helpmate in her daily chores. Almost as importantly, she made me laugh with her cartoon-like impersonations of neighbors and family members.

I quickly made friends with the son of a miner living next door, and with another boy who came from a wealthy family nearby; both boys being about my age. The three of us spent seemingly endless days wandering the fields, taking delight in simple pleasures like lying on our backs watching a Lark ascend, or rushing to the place where it eventually came to earth, hoping to find a nest with the tiny, speckled eggs...

John Merchant tells of blissful boyhood days spent in an ancient, mellowed village.

To read John's weekly columns, which appear in Open Writing every Wednesday, please click on American Pie in the menu on his page.

There are certain days when the sun is bright and hot, and the breeze is steady and strong, that I find myself transported back to the summer of í43. Wherever I am and whatever Iím doing, the feeling of being there is palpable. The memory of that time fills me with a sense of pleasure and peace that is also quite poignant.

I was ten years old then, and a troublesome child; always getting into scrapes. I had by that time run away from home twice, unsuccessfully both times as it turned out. I was a bed-wetter, and had also come to the notice of the police as one of a group of kids who had broken into a house and stolen some small items.

I wasnít caught in the act, but one of the group was, and named the rest of us. As in most such cases back then, the police gave us a stern lecture at the local police station and the incident ended there. But in order to hear the lecture, we had to be accompanied by our parents, and that meant my mother, as if she didnít have enough to cope with. Child care was not, in my fatherís view, a manís responsibility.

My mother was raising my five-year-old sister and myself, and taking care of my fatherís parents who lived with us. She was also dealing with the challenges of food and clothes rationing, and supporting her own aging parents who lived some 10 miles away at the other side of town.

My mother was the oldest of five children, one of whom had died in infancy, and she had literally been raising her siblings since she was a child herself, to help her mother. Her youngest sibling, my aunt Hilda, was somewhat the flapper when I was first aware of her, though she had neither the means nor the background. But she wore the clothes, and rode on the back of motorcycles and danced the dances of the time.

I loved her dearly, and always thought of her as my older sister, such was our relationship. She was the only woman I knew who could whistle, and she did it musically and melodiously. I donít know what transpired between her and my mother early that summer of í43; either my aunt offered to take me for a few weeks to give my mother a break, or my mother asked her to.

Aunt Hilda lived about 12 miles distant as the crow flies, in a small farming and coal mining community that seemed worlds away to me. Getting to her house from where I lived meant a tram and a bus ride, and a ten minute walk at either end; a trip that could take the best part of half a day allowing for the infrequency of public transportation.

Everything in Aston was as different from my own neighborhood as it could be. It had more of the feel of a small hamlet in France or Belgium. Its correct name, according to the Doomsday Book of the Norman occupation, was Aston-cum-Aughton.

My parentís neighborhood in comparison, was typical of any city suburb in South Yorkshire; small, brick built, slate roofed, semi-detached houses with a pocket-handkerchief garden on the street side, and a larger one at the rear.

Aston, on the other hand, was all pink sandstone walls and buildings, and russet pan-tile roofs. Small groups of houses were separated by big old oak and chestnut trees, and arable land where barley and wheat ripened in summer. The stone farm buildings were ancient, ivy covered mounds that had mellowed like good wine. They seemed as much a natural part of the landscape as the trees and rocks.

The village boasted an Anglican church, a butchersí, and a grocerís store. The post office was a good thirty minutes walk away. Just as small communities need to have a minimum of two lawyers to keep a balance, so the drinkers needed to have a choice of brew; accordingly there were two pubs.

Since petrol was only available to people operating essential services, and even to them it was rationed, there was almost no traffic. This imparted such peacefulness to the place that is hard to imagine today. If a bus or car approached the village it could be heard minutes before it was visible.

My aunt lived with her husband and baby son in a newer, brick built house; one of a small group that had been built just before the start of World War II. It was enough separated from the old village that its 1930ís look didnít jar, and it helped that the bricks and roof tiles toned with the older buildings.

Many of her neighbors were miners who received free coal for heating and cooking as part of their terms of employment. The coal was tipped at the entrance to their driveways and they were required to cart it into their coal sheds themselves, so there was always a scattering of fine coal in the street outside. Even as a child, this struck me as marring the otherwise bucolic scene.

The coal mine was located about five miles away, so its mine-head gear and spoil heaps didnít trouble the Aston landscape. Kiveton mine was opened in the 1800ís and the main shaft descended over 2,000 feet. Most of the miners lived in colliery housing near to the shaft.

That summer at my auntís house was undoubtedly a turning point in my life, and provided a much needed respite for my mother, and for me. For the first time I was away from the claustrophobic confines of a home that housed four adults and two children in a space that would have been restrictive even for just four of us.

I was no longer under the cool, disapproving gaze of my father, nor was I the pawn between my semi-demented grandmother and my parents. My aunt treated me like an adult, and co-opted me as her companion and helpmate in her daily chores. Almost as importantly, she made me laugh with her cartoon-like impersonations of neighbors and family members.

I quickly made friends with the son of a miner living next door, and with another boy who came from a wealthy family nearby; both boys being about my age. The three of us spent seemingly endless days wandering the fields, taking delight in simple pleasures like lying on our backs watching a Lark ascend, or rushing to the place where it eventually came to earth, hoping to find a nest with the tiny, speckled eggs.

All the days seemed filled with bright, hot sunlight and the constant breeze that hissed through the ripe barley spikes. It may have rained, but if it did I have no recollection of it. I remember miniature dust storms that formed and spiraled upwards then quickly died away. I also remember the many butterflies that we encountered in our meanderings through the meadows and grain fields.

In the heat of the afternoons we often sought shade in a disused chicken house on the wealthy boyís property. Sunbeams slanted through the small ventilation louvers, illuminating the dust mites in the air, and the breeze made a soft cooing noise through the cracks, like the call of mourning doves. Barn swallows nested there and would come and go rapidly with a startling flurry when they had chicks to feed.

In our refuge, beyond the earshot of the adults, we traded what little we knew of girls, suitably embellished by our imagination and the early, faint stirrings of desire. It was on these afternoons that I learned to swear and spit, and heard the few, childishly smutty jokes my friends knew.

World War II seemed far away. Even the bombing raids that were by now an accepted part of my life had dwindled, and in any case would not have targeted my auntís village. The Normandy invasion was still a year away, and if we thought about it at all, we probably imagined the war would go on for ever.

Despite the Conflictís remoteness, there was a reminder close by. Deep in a hollow in one of the meadows was a dump for military vehicles: small tanks, Brengun carriers and trucks. They rested there, almost obscured by hawthorn bushes and the tall grass and wild flowers, and provided the props for our own enactment of the war. But unlike the real soldiers, the only injuries we sustained were cuts and grazes, and we went home every night.

My aunt had a chiming clock that played the Westminster chimes on the hour, and shorter versions on the half and quarter hours. It rested on the sideboard in the living room that was just below my bedroom. As I lay in bed, reliving the day and drifting into a peaceful sleep, the muffled, melodious chimes filled me with feelings of well-being. I wanted life with my aunt to go on for ever.

When my friends and I tired of roaming the lanes and fields, there was always the farm to ďworkĒ on. At least, we thought we were working, though the farmer might have told a different story. But we helped to load the hay in our fashion, and filled the drinking troughs for the animals. The farmer and his helpers never seemed to mind our amateurish efforts.

It was harvest time as my sojourn was approaching its end, and one of my favorite pastimes in those last days was riding the harvester. The tractor driver started reaping at the outer perimeter of each field, moving in a spiral towards the center. As the area of standing barley or wheat grew smaller, I waited in eager anticipation for the rabbits to bolt, which they always did at the last possible minute.

I remember very little of the eventual return to my parentís house, but I donít believe that leaving my aunt was as wrenching as Iíd feared. At some time during the summer a new phase of my life had begun, in which I could draw on the stored pleasures of my stay.

My gregarious, fun-loving aunt, who had played such an important role in my early development, and had shaped my life in ways she could never have imagined, became agoraphobic in later years and rarely left her home. She was also crippled with rheumatoid arthritis to the point where she was confined to a wheelchair.

My uncle patiently cared for her needs like he would an infant, and when she died we all wondered how he would survive the loss. I was living in America by then, and in a letter to him I tried to express my recollections, my love for my aunt, and my sorrow at her death. My uncle died just two weeks after her; one could only say of a broken heart. When family members cleared out the house they found my letter on the kitchen table, unopened.

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