Chapter 6

My Village Friends

When Brenda had gone, I realised that most of my life to date had been spent in the company of females - young and old. As a result of this I had become quite proficient at girl-type pursuits such as skipping, bouncing a ball or housekeeping, but lacked many of the skills usually associated with boys. I decided, therefore, to meet more with my own sex, and was readily accepted by them, possibly because parents and schoolteachers had asked them to help me over what was seen by many as a tragic loss on the death of my sister. I soon found that it was much more fun mixing with boys and began joining in with them at school and in my spare time. For the first time, I started to make friends of my own. Brenda's old friends remained protective towards me for a long time after she died, understanding my loneliness and in a way almost trying to take her place. I found that sympathy and compassion came naturally from girls but was rarely seen in boys. That's the way it's meant to be I suppose.

I made only three "best" friends during my whole time as an evacuee on the Isle of Wight. All other friends were casual and temporary; of value only for so long as they provided rides on a bicycle, use of a football, or enhanced a new stamp, coin or conker collection. Such is the fickleness of small boys. My three friends were a strange mixture, but like all of my early memories are clearly remembered.

My first friend was called Hugh, who lived only two doors away from me in New Road.

He was younger than me by twenty-two months, a big difference when you yourself are only seven and a half. He had started school at three years of age, so he said, but as one soon realised - Hugh had a great capacity for under and over estimating the truth. If he wasn't actually telling lies, he was certainly bending the truth out of all recognition most of the time. I always think of him as being small; he probably wasn't for his age, but because he was thin and a lot shorter than me, he just seemed to be. He had straight black hair, swept back and neatly combed, which accentuated his high forehead and large eyes. His teeth were slightly protruding and looked too big for his mouth, giving him the appearance of smiling all the time.

My three best friends in the village of WoottonMy three best friends in the village of Wootton

His background was similar to mine - a missing father and an absent mother. Unlike me, however, he was not an evacuee. He lived with his grandparents, and an uncle and aunt who were not ten years older than himself. Hugh explained away his mother's absence by hinting she was a spy or undercover agent and his father's as being the Captain of a merchant ship sailing in the most hostile environment of the war. One "Rose Murphy", a notorious Isle of Wight wartime spy fired his imagination, (Hugh's surname was Murphy), and when it was rumoured that spying of shipping movements in the Solent was taking place, from a high point in the village, Hugh was in his element - giving him the perfect excuse to put one finger to his mouth and say, "My lips are sealed".

Nevertheless, Hugh was very clever at most things and always top of his class at school. He had a fantastic memory, which was probably why he could lie so easily. He would spend his spare time memorising things like all the states of America, the books of the Bible or even a complete pack of playing cards. He would hold us spellbound as he told us stories, such as the one about his Indian uncle who slept with a pet cobra (this was after we had visited a zoo), or of his other uncle in Wales with a sheep dog who saved a whole village after a landslide (this was after watching the film "Lassie Come Home"). Hugh was so convincing that I'm sure he almost believed his stories himself. At sport his imagination ran riot - seldom scoring less than four goals in a football match or fifty runs in a cricket match. All done during his fortnightly trips to Ryde, when he visited people we were not allowed, of course, to know about. His disappearance after the war, with no trace of his whereabouts, has always mystified me. Perhaps he was telling the truth and I will meet him again one day to hear of his exploits in espionage and counterintelligence work. After all, he's bound to have seen plenty of those James Bond films by now.

David was my second friend. There was an overlapping period when both David and Hugh were my friends, but generally we paired off together - three being a crowd as they say. David had a family tree so complicated that he seemed related to almost everybody in the village of Wootton. Our relationship was very different from my previous friendship, David being incapable of ever telling a lie. He would shuffle from one foot to the other as he explained his excuses for not being able to come out to play. He always felt sympathy for the other fellow and would avoid you rather than offend. He was a thick set, square jawed individual, with a constant frown and worried expression, as if he had the troubles of the whole world on his shoulders. His hair was light brown in colour, the wind deciding for him as to where the parting might be. I seldom saw him wearing anything other than a grey jerkin, short grey trousers and long grey socks. Only his black shoes prevented David from being grey all over. He was an obedient, well behaved boy, with impeccable manners in front of adults. He was not even into scrumping apples or plums, unless with the express permission of the owner, or from his own father's allotment - neither of which is in the true spirit of scrumping. One never got into much trouble in the company of David, possibly because the punishment given out by his father was too painful if he was ever found out.

David lived on the corner of Red Road, opposite his uncle's bakery. He had a delivery round for cakes and bread to a few people in the village, using one of those bicycles with a small front wheel and a large carrier. This gave him the use of the bicycle (after deliveries) and on this unusual contraption many of us boys learned to ride. David waived the usual fee of a tennis ball or a toffee - the going rate for twenty circuits of the school playground on his bike - from me and his other friends. Consequently he had a lot of short-lived friends at about that time of his life.

Our friendship lasted for several years and so far as I can remember only fell into decline due to our differing interests. David was selected to be coached for swimming, at which he showed great aptitude; this took up a great deal of his time and he became proficient at both swimming and diving. He was eventually able to swim the Solent, from Portsmouth to Ryde, which he did on several occasions; a standard which left me splashing in the shallow end, so to speak. Also he never took to one of my favourite hobbies - collecting birds' eggs. This was a passion of many boys in the village and was not frowned upon as it is today. David will be remembered as one of my closest friends and companions throughout most of my evacuation years. We made memories together - happy childhood memories - which we still recall when we see each other, to this day.

My third and final friend of the war years was a boy called Cyril. I was ten years of age by the time this friendship developed and he was older than me by a good six months. My other two friends had been considerably younger -David being over one year and Hugh nearly two years younger than myself. We knew each other at school of course, but did not become friends until we both joined the village "Percussion Band". Hugh and David were excluded from joining this band because they were below the minimum age for membership; a clever ruse by the organiser, the Hon. Mrs Mitchison, ensuring that all boys would be caught between the ages of ten and twelve years of age and given their chance to perform if they wanted to or not. The competition for joining this band was, however, always oversubscribed, allowing a discipline I have seldom seen imposed since. Instant dismissal was threatened to anybody who dared be late for rehearsal, talked, fooled around, or consistently played badly. A few words should be said concerning these last words, "playing badly".

I saw this band perform at the village hall, the year after we had left the group, and quite frankly I was embarrassed to think that I had ever been associated with them. The noise was deafening, the ensemble, now including Hugh and David, played their instruments at maximum volume, drowning the accompanying pianist's efforts to give any of the pieces played a recognisable title. Thus, "The Campbells are coming", sounded exactly the same as, "Men of Harlech", which sounded exactly like, "Hearts of Oak". Audience applause at the end of the performance was, I'm sure, more politeness and relief the ordeal was over, than appreciation.

Cyril was a natural born leader. He said things with such conviction that everybody believed him, even if they were not true. He wore spectacles of the circular lens, wire framed type (were there any other sort in those days?), which were so moulded to the contours of his face that if he ever took them off he was almost unrecognisable. They were always slipping down his polished nose and he was constantly pushing them up, giving him the air of an intellect - which he certainly was not. He was always in the bottom quarter of the school term examinations, his stay in any particular class being extended due to his poor attendance record. Sometimes he missed half the term, due to some undefined illness, which he convinced the doctor was real. But his popularity waned not one bit, everybody hung on to his every word, boys and girls alike, the only difference being that the girls went weak at the knees as well.

I suppose that Cyril's knowledge of the countryside and my thirst for this knowledge made us perfect companions. As a natural born town-dweller, not brought up in country ways, I would have walked past many of those tell-tale signs of the presence of animal, bird and insect activity, if he had not pointed them out to me. Apart from the successful rearing of their young, the animal world - and nature generally - does not go in for happy endings. Sleeping woods and quiet dew ponds conceal bloodthirsty murderers, lying in wait or brazenly hunting for tasty morsels which just happen to be some other species' offspring. Only trees, bushes and flowers seem to show any civilised behaviour - each with its own habits and predictable behaviour. I loved the variety of leaves and berries and I specially loved the wild flowers, all with their individual scent and perfect form.

My interest grew as his knowledge passed to me. Each season saw a different excitement, springtime was perhaps the most glorious, when the whole countryside awoke from its winter slumbers, to buzz with urgency. Animals and birds busied themselves, from their first frantic courtship, through raising their young to independence and adulthood -all which must be done in the space of a few short months. Something wonderful was taking place around us all the time and Cyril's whispered commentary opened wide my eyes to the secrets of nature. The summer found us exploring the sea-shore, swimming, fishing, collecting shellfish, or just beach-combing. The days were never long enough to do all the things we wanted to do, but the school holidays, a rich bonus of six weeks, allowed us the time to wander further inland, to the woods and copses of our springtime adventures. We found them to be strangely trespassed by hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers. Huts with sentries outside, with ammunition from floor to ceiling and camouflaged tanks, tracked vehicles and lorries hidden amongst trees. We spoke with soldiers, collecting badges and foreign stamps from the Americans and Canadians, together with "candy, gum and cookies" and learned that if you had a big sister, the world was your oyster. The long secret build up for the D-day landings had begun. Autumn was the season for collecting conkers and a wealth of free fruits the countryside has to offer. Cyril knew where the trees and bushes were for this feast of fruitfulness. He also knew where fruit was to be found which was not strictly speaking quite so free, but we took some of that as well, scrumping from the overloaded branches of apple, pear and plum trees, until our shirts bulged with booty, the stolen fruit tasting all the sweeter, as they say.

Once, on an autumn day we decided to follow the hunt, rising very early in the morning. We watched the red-coated huntsmen on their horses, and their followers, chasing a fox which we were convinced nobody saw -certainly the hounds didn't. After three or four hours, with baying hounds seemingly going around in circles, the hunt-master spoke with one of his followers, then called in the hounds, blowing his hunting horn with that wavering two note sound the smallest child could manage. There was an uneasy embarrassment surrounding today's hunt; after all, this was supposed to be an easier chase than normal. New hounds were running with the pack to experience their first kill. It was called "cubbing", they said, where fox cubs would be easily caught and killed by the inexperienced hounds. The young foxes would have been watched leaving their lair with their parents, long before the break of dawn, to do their own hunting, which is in the way of nature. The watchers would then have blocked off their fox-hole (called an "earth") and any other known hideaway, making the cubs return to safety impossible. With such odds against them, these young cubs should easily be caught and killed. But something had gone wrong in the carefully laid plans of the huntsmen. It must be assumed that the cubs, or more likely their wily fox-parents, had outwitted them; perhaps doubling back to reopen sealed up holes, or even returning quickly if danger was sensed. We had heard of foxes that swim rivers or dig into a dungheap to hide their scent, it had even been known for them to run with the hounds. The true huntsman respects the fox who outwits him -so we had been led to believe.

But not so our huntsmen. Together with a dwindling band of followers they went to a small copse, just opposite Blanket copse on the Whippingham road. We thought that only we knew of the whereabouts of this hidden foxes' earth in this private copse. It was close to a clump of bamboo canes which we frequently raided for the manufacture of fishing rods. We had watched silently, not three months since, the vixen with her three cubs; tumbling, stalking and mock fighting, with she at all times keeping an ever watchful eye and twitching ear for danger, skills needed for survival and hunting being taught in the playful world of children, in preparation for life in the wild where only the fittest and most cunning survive.

The helpers dug with spades around the hole, then deeper, to expose the tunnel of the earth. A small dog was put down the opening at intervals, and when it eventually came out backwards with part of a fox's tail in its mouth, there was a murmur of excitement. More digging, then some shouts to keep back, as the huntsman with the horn and two other men carried a small fox - its jaw clamped by a spade - over to the waiting hounds. In one movement they all together threw the petrified cub to the hounds. There was a frenzy of barking, and blood- spattered bits, then it was all over except for the murmers of approval from the followers.

"Not so exciting as the full chase," said the hunt-master.
"They still registers it as a kill," said somebody.
"Aye, an' it keeps the 'ounds on edge," said somebody else.

And we walked home in silence, not speaking of the terrible injustice we had just witnessed, not daring to criticise the ways of the hunt, kicking the carpet of coloured autumn leaves on the ground to stem our anger. Even Cyril had no answer to the carnage we had just witnessed. But we vowed never to follow the hunt again.


When winter came we saw another world. Frozen lakes and ponds, seeing how far we could slide. Snowball fights with gloveless hands that glowed. Christmas carols - tuneless but very profitable. Holly and mistletoe, all free, but keep secret where you find it. Then nothing much to do, as nature slept and rested, until the seeds, deep beneath the rotting leaves - stirred, shifted and yawned, to start the whole cycle again. And first the snowdrop, then primrose, daffodil and bluebell unfolded into glorious colour, and the unbelievable birdsong chorus of springtime heralded the start of another year.

I suppose of all my three friends, Cyril is remembered as the one who showed me the ways of the countryside and all it holds. I shall always remember him and what he did for me, but I will always remember, with great affection, my other two friends, Hugh and David, who did so much to make my childhood at Wootton an experience never to be forgotten.