The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘Little boys who don’t work, don’t eat.’
The words were usually recited at teatime as other families might have said grace. They were a statement of faith and an explanation for the lack of food, before ‘Auntie’ doled out the boiled potatoes to whichever of us deserved any.
‘Us’ were myself and Robert, both of us four years old. We had never met before they put us on a bus with thirty other children for a secret destination. In the old newsreels that they show nowadays on television and in the pictures in the history books the wartime ‘evacuees’ are always shown being loaded onto trains in great stations filled with steam. We were put on a bus at our local school and we did not have the legendary luggage labels around our necks because we were old enough to answer to our own names. But we too had the weeping mothers and the lunchboxes with marmite sandwiches and our destination was just as secret.
They took us to a small town in the south Midlands. It was not very far, but it was further than any of us had been in our lives. In our part of London nobody travelled much and nobody had cars. It was several years before I heard a car door close from the inside.
There was no ‘cattle market’ at the parish hall when we arrived, with foster families picking out the children with the most angelic blue eyes. It had all been arranged and we were collected by a young couple who took us back to their council house, which they shared with the husband’s mother.
Not long afterwards the young couple moved away and we were left alone with their mother, or Auntie as she liked to be called. We did not know why the young couple had left, but later my mother said they had been ‘relocated’ to Northern Ireland for war work. Auntie had free range to lick her two spoiled townies into shape.
I try to think of the situation dispassionately. The departure of the young couple must have reduced her income and she doubtless looked to the billeting allowance for the two evacuees to eke out her pension. It would have been difficult to wring a profit from it. The food denied us for our laziness probably never existed. Four year olds, however, do not make allowances for the grown-ups who control them. We would gladly have killed her.
Our work was to pick grass for the rabbits which crouched in rows of small hutches in the garden. They were prisoners, like ourselves, but they ate well and did no work. Their only duty was to grow fat enough to be killed and eaten. We were promised a share of the feast.
Auntie gave each of us a sack and taught us to tear off the grass rather than pull it up, and to pack it down tight. Then we were sent out with orders not to come back until the sacks were full.
I found that the best place for grass was the local golf course. Nobody objected to my wandering alone on the course for hours and golfers sometimes asked me to search for lost balls. Since they never offered a reward I was unenthusiastic. I had work to do.
Nobody told me it was prohibited to pick grass here yet I feared it was. I hid my sack in the long grass and collected the shorter grass in my arms, so that if surprised I could drop it without attracting suspicion. I was never caught but often grew tired and bored. One day I deliberately didn’t pack down the grass in my bag so that I could go ‘home’ early.
Auntie praised me in front of Robert but retribution came at teatime, when only Robert had potatoes.
‘These could have been yours’, said Auntie. ‘Little deceitful boys who don’t work don’t eat.’
I was always being under punishment, for laziness, speaking at meals, bed wetting and nail biting. I hated the grass stains under my nails and tried to bite them away each night. Auntie painted my nails with a brown paste she called bitter aloes. I kept biting.
‘Do you like the taste of that? ‘she asked.
‘Yes, Auntie’, I lied.
And so I won my only victory. She stopped painting my nails.
Just after my fifth birthday a green delivery van drew up outside the gate. We had very little traffic in our street and Robert and I and Auntie and several neighbours gathered to greet it. The delivery was a big shiny red pedal car.
It was the car Dad had bought me before he went to the War. Our garden at home had a slope and I used to freewheel down the path and halt by crashing into the outside toilet. I was ecstatic and only regretted that there was no slope in Auntie’s garden.
I need not have worried. It was to be months before I saw the car again.
Liberation was already at hand and it was Adolf Hitler who arranged it. Just before my birthday he invaded Russia. For this he need all his fighter planes, so had none to spare to escort his bombers over England. Without fighter escorts it was too costly to bomb England in daylight and the summer nights in England were too short for the raiders to be home before dawn. London became relatively safe and my mother was bored and lonely.
She came to collect me and she and Auntie chatted in the front garden.
Had my pedal car been delivered? ‘Pedal car? What pedal car?’ replied Auntie. ‘ Nothing was delivered here.’
‘Yes it was Mummy! A man in a green van came with it and we played with it right here.’
Auntie smiled. ‘He’s only just five. They make up such stories at this age.’
It was after we were back in London that the police recovered the pedal car from Auntie’s neighbours. Now it was our turn to greet the green delivery van.
Mum and I came to the door to meet the man carrying the car. I was devastated. The car was no longer shiny and red. Somebody had repainted it dull green. It was a clumsy job, using ordinary household paint and leaving large brushmarks.
Auntie’s neighbours had said that they had bought the car in good faith, as Auntie had told them that ‘the little evacuee boy didn’t want it any more’. They didn’t explain why they had repainted it.
‘Five shillings carriage charge’, said the man.
‘Five shillings!’ exclaimed Mum. ‘That car was stolen from us and we’re not going to pay to have it back. You can take it back and sort it out with the police.’
‘That’s nothing to do with me, Missus. I’m not taking it back. Do what you like with it and sort out the five shillings for yourselves.’
He dumped the car in the side alley and left.
‘Don’t touch that car’, warned Mum. ‘They’ll be coming back about the five shillings and if you’ve touched it we’ll have to pay.’
The car stood there for weeks that lengthened into months. The world tore itself to pieces, millions died and nobody came about the five shillings. The label with the five shillings charge peeled away and the car turned red again, this time with rust. One day it disappeared. The dustbin men had taken it. Perhaps they had a new man who did not understand that it was waiting for the Day of Judgement.
I did not mourn it. It was ugly and contaminated. The half remembered days when it was red and shiny, when love and food had been abundant and unconditional, had long gone.
That is the end of the story. No, you protest. That is not a story! What was changed? Did Auntie get her cumuppance? Were you altered by the experience?
Well, this is not the tale of Hansel and Gretl. So far as I know – and I have taken care never to revisit the scene of my imprisonment – the oven door never clanged on the wicked witch. Mum told me that she had been struck off the billeting register, so Robert was freed as well. With nobody to feed the rabbits I imagine they too were freed, in the only way possible for edible creatures in wartime England. So one of the war’s smaller prison camps came to a quiet end.
I remember too little about myself before I went away, to judge if I was changed. As you see I have never forgotten my time with Auntie, but I have never lived up to her precepts. After several jobs I gleefully accepted Redundancy and now I do no work, I loot Tescos for anything I want and I load it all into my shiny red car – so damn you Auntie!