In 1943 I was five years old, and in my first year at state school 'Upwey'. I gave no thought at all to the war and really knew nothing about it. Most young families were sole parent families and the moms a lot tougher with the responsibilities. The Oliver's were no different. Three boys, Reg the eldest at nine years old, Tony eight years old. Then me, last but not least.
Mum had a part time night job and mornings were not a time to loiter around our house, at least until mum had her cup of tea and a cigarette. So we boys got our own breakfast and disappeared quickly. Reg and Tony played together often because they were closer in age, but I was not into many of the things they did so I played a lot by myself. This was still a time of home deliveries, milk, bread, green groceries, Rawleigh's products, ice, etc. Most deliveries were with horse and cart. My favourite early morning play area was directly across the road from our house where I had a series of roads cut into the bank above the gutter, and a couple of toy cars.
It was the start of the May holidays, a Saturday. An early bird as usual I was playing by myself, when from next door, Hanna's place, Mrs Hanna came out, dolled up to the hilt, wearing a long coat with a fur collar and a fox fur strung around her neck. The poor fox had a ring in his nose and back leg connected with a silver chain. This was the height of fashion in the forties. She stopped by her letter, milk, breadbox and lifting the lid and dropped in what looked like a letter. Then with hubby staggering behind with two big suitcases, she tottered off down to the bus stop on high heels. It did not worry me where they were going, but it was intriguing that she would post a letter in her own box.
Soon after, Reg and Tony turned up with two of the Manton boys about their age. The Manton's were a big family, around a bakers dozen I think. A rough tough, the Manton's with a mum big enough to rip the arms off anyone who dared to criticize any of her brood. I knew that mum did not like us playing with the Manton's; but I also knew that Reg and Tony were buttering up to the Manton's who had access to cast iron wheels that were wonderful for billy carts. Reg ran into our back yard to get his billy cart while the others loitered at the front. I told Tony about Mrs. Hanna posting a letter in her own box. The three boys looked at me as though I had lost my marbles; but Tony had a look and pulled out the note, which he read out to the Manton's. Then turning to me, he said, they have gone on holidays; and this is a note for the baker. The older Manton boy, laughing, snatched the note from Tony, tore it to pieces and threw it over his head. Reg came out with his billy cart and the three still laughing derisively at me walked off down the road with Reg. I went back to playing cars. Half an hour later the baker arrived at the top of our street so I dropped every thing and ran up to meet him.
'Good morning Mr Farley.' I said.
Old Mr Farley said nothing and did not even look in my direction. But this did not deter me, because I was hoping one day he would either drop a loaf in the dirt and give it to me, or find he had one too many, or have a few crusts he would give to me. Unfortunately, this never happened. I walked beside the bread cart to our place then went back to playing cars. Mr Farley stopped at Hanna's place and put their usual half-high tin loaf in the box then continued to the end of the street and around the corner. That was silly I thought, because everybody knows they are on holidays. A couple of minutes went by and I stopped to wonder what was going to happen to that loaf. Seeing I was the only one here to look after it I thought I might just have a quick look at it to see that it was alright. The smell of that still warm loaf when I lifted the lid made me weak in the knees. By the end of the week, it would be too hard to eat, wouldn't it? Someone had to eat it while it was still fresh. Between our place and Hanna's was a huge pile of blackberries about eight feet tall, through which I had made a series of tunnels. Grabbing the loaf, I dived into the blackberries and had a wonderful twenty minutes or so devouring every crumb of that warm crusty bread. Even today, when l smell fresh bread I remember back to then.
Mom called me in at lunchtime and was worried that I was not hungry. Even now when I don't eat l am sick. She felt my fore head - not hot, pulse - ok, eyes clear. I could see I had her worried but I didn't mind the extra attention. By dinnertime, I could have eaten the leg off a chair, and polished off a big meal, much to mom's relief.
The next day, Sunday, no bread deliveries so all was back to normal. But Monday the bread came again and I reckoned that someone had to look after everything while the Hanna's were away. Then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. By Friday mom was really worried. It was daily check ups, pulse, fore head, eyes, even under my tongue and behind my ears. All this attention was really good but unfortunately all good things come to an end and on Friday, much to my great disappointment the Hanna's came home.
The bread came Saturday morning and Saturday also brought the bills. I was in my usual spot when Mrs Hanna opened the lid. This was followed by muttering to herself, then running down the path with my, err, her loaf in one hand and waving the bill in the other yelling ' Henry, Henry.' This worried me so I put my head down. Next with a furious look on her face, she stormed out of her place and into ours. She was not happy. I was a fair way away but I caught snippets like 'who else around here would do this, and 'undisciplined trio' and 'calling police'. Jeez, I thought I am for it now. Shortly after that lot, mom was calling
'Reg, come here, Tony here. Robert here.'
By the tone of moms voice I could usually sort of gauge how deep I was in the mire. She had a waver in her voice. I thought I was dead. In the lounge, she lined us up and starting with Reg. She put the eye on him first, a glare that would go right through a feller.
'What do you know about next doors bread?' She snapped.
'Nothing' replied Reg shrugging.
Mom looked at him closely for about ten seconds but she knew like I did that Reg did not tell too many fibs. Suddenly she swung her gaze to Tony who was shifting his feet and was obviously uncomfortable. Unlike Reg, Tony did not mind telling a few fibs. He would tamper with the truth whenever he thought it would sound better or to get himself out of trouble. But often he would get himself in more trouble.
'What do you know about this, Tony?'
'Nothing, nothing.' stammered Tony. Blind Freddy could see he was lying.
you know?' she said in a louder voice.
'Nothing, but what about him.' He waved a hand at me.
Crickey, what am I going to say I thought. I wasn't beyond telling a few fibs, but I was no way in the same class as Tony. And try as I might I could never trick my mom. She could read my mind. Mom swung to me. I was in deep trouble. But all of a sudden, I could see indecision in her eyes. She was back to Tony.
'It could not be Robert, he has been sick all the week.' She said.
Wow, I thought. Tony, desperate now to put the spotlight on anyone but himself, said
'Well what about the Manton's.'
Mom was glaring at Tony now and was not going to let up.
'What about the Manton's.' She snapped.
'They were here last Saturday.' And then with a stroke of genius he continued.
'And Jim Manton ripped up the note from Hanna's box.'
'The Manton's, the Manton's.' she said half to herself.
'That's it. OK.' she said.
'I'm going next door for a minute.'
Reg and Tony went out the back and I sat on the front veranda. My head was in a whirl, not really believing I had got out of a very, very sticky situation without trying. It was wonderful. I could hear mom next door telling Mrs Hanna it was the Manton's that did it and in future 'get your facts right next time.'
Mom wandered back from next door with an expression on her face like the cat that had just had all the cream. That night I got a little more pampering and why not. I had been sick all the week, hadn't I? To make it all still better, we all knew that Mrs Hanna wouldn't be tackling Mrs Manton. No one in their right mind would do that, would they?