Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Rover’s Return - an excerpt from 'Wild Strawberries'

Wild Strawberries by Derek Smith

It was the month of June. James was nine and would not be ten until the first week in July. He was now settled into the country ways, had accepted that the lack of a bathroom and civilised toilet facilities were a fact of life, and that going to bed by candlelight was normal. It was summertime now and the clocks had been altered. Candles were no longer needed and the dawn chorus started shortly after five o’clock, when it became light.
One morning during a chat with Geoff Blore, with whom he often shared the last part of the walk to school, it was mentioned that Jack, the chap who collected the milk from Geoff’s farm, drove his lorry into the Midland Counties Dairy in Birmingham every morning. James then realised for the first time that the village he regarded as isolated and remote, did in fact have a direct link with Birmingham. This came as quite a revelation. He suddenly saw that here was a way to get home for a weekend and to see his mother and his two younger siblings who, after four seemingly long months, he could hardly remember. It would also give him the chance to bring back some of the toys that he had had last Christmas - and what a bonus that would be! He had no toys at Woodhouses, his only distraction being the coveted egg collection.
The drawback was that James had no idea where the Midland Counties Dairy was, or once there, of how he would be able to get home. During the morning playtime the subject was brought up again and a boy called Peter Sharratt mentioned that the lorry that collected their milk went to the Co-operative Dairy in Birmingham. This was an amazing coincidence because James did know where the Co-op Dairy was.
His mother’s best friend was Mrs Goode. Her husband had been the assistant caretaker at Yardley Wood School. Just after the outbreak of the war, he had been given his own school in the inner city and James’ mother often went over to see her friend and always took her children with her. While they were there, James and Bryan, together with Mrs Goode’s children, John and Barry, used to go out and play in the surrounding streets. James distinctly remembered seeing the Co-op Dairy in nearby Viaduct Street. He therefore figured that if he could get to the dairy, he could then make his way to the school. Once at the school he knew how to get home because he had done the journey many times with his mother.
By this time Mr Goode had been called up into the RAF and Mrs Goode had taken over his role as caretaker of the school. James knew that she would give him a cup of tea and a piece of toast with lard on it, to help him on his way. Lard he absolutely loathed and would have to politely refuse, using the excuse that he had already had breakfast. Bread and lard was a Birmingham staple, as was sterilised milk, but James disliked the taste of both since his mother, who was from the north, would never have given her children either of these things. Beef dripping was one thing, but lard – yuk!
Now confident that he knew how to complete the journey he asked Peter if he would contact the driver who delivered the milk to the Co-op Dairy and ask him if he would take James to Birmingham in the morning a week on Saturday. Peter said that when he next saw the driver he would mention it to him. Not anticipating any problems with the lift, when James wrote his next Saturday letter to his mother he said that he may be coming home for a short visit the next weekend. James also mentioned this impending visit to Mrs Mewis, because she would in any case have read about it in his letter home.
The message came back to James that the driver would give him a lift on that Saturday morning. Morning milking started at five o’clock and took about an hour. The lorry had to go on the normal round of farms picking up the churns full of milk and eventually came through the village at seven o’clock in the morning. James was to be there promptly, because the driver could not wait, the milk had to get to the dairy as quickly as possible. James promised that he would be there on time and so it was all arranged for the following weekend.
To get to the village by seven o’clock meant that James had to get up very early. He had to allow a good hour for the walk to the village to make sure that he would be there on time. This meant that he would have to get up at five thirty at the latest. Dorothy said that she would lend him an alarm clock. People would be getting up for work that morning, but not at that time.
At bedtime on Friday night, Dorothy set the alarm for James and showed him how to turn it off. The built in clock that some people have, woke him just before the alarm was due to go off. He let it ring once and hit the button to turn it off, although not before it had roused a rather disgruntled Roy. Roy could have gone with him as they both would have had to catch the same bus for Yardley Wood, but for some reason he did not want to. It was an enormous expedition for a nine year old boy to undertake. Roy realised this but James, in his determination to get home, was oblivious to any problems.
James dressed, and holding his empty haversack, crept quietly down the stairs so as not to disturb anyone else who was soundly asleep. In the scullery he helped himself to a drink of milk and ate a piece of cold toast that Dorothy had left out for him between two plates. Noiselessly, he let himself out through the back door and set off for Yoxall.
Although he had walked this way many times before on his way to school, he had always had company. This time he was quite alone and it seemed strange. The longest day was not far off and in spite of the fact that it was only six o’clock in the morning, the sun was already rising rapidly into the sky. All was very quiet and still. Mist hung over the meadows and dew glinted in the hedgerows. He had no time to waste and strode out at a pace that a school-day observer would not recognise.
James did not have a watch and during wartime the church clocks did not toll the hours because the ringing of church bells signalled the start of an invasion. James was confident that he would not be late because he had started out in plenty of time. The road from Woodhouses came out almost at the end of the village and he had been told to wait there. Sure enough, after a short wait, a lorry laden with milk churns pulled up. A small boy loitering on a street corner at the crack of dawn was not a common sight, and the driver, who had never seen James before, had no difficulty recognising who he was. He leaned over in the cab and opened the door.
‘Hop in young man’ he called cheerfully.
James climbed aboard, slammed the door shut and remembered to say thank you to the driver. He sat there, very high up, able to see right over the hedges and have a good view all round. He had had his first ride in a car and now he was to have his first ride in a lorry. Life did not get racier than this. James had a very ‘matter of fact’ attitude towards life and took it all in his stride. As soon as the lorry left the village James noticed that they were crossing a bridge over a wide river that stretched away on either side. He could see that the river flowed away to his left and he worked out that it must flow somewhere near to the bottom of Meadow Lane. He knew that this was the Trent and resolved that one day he would mount an expedition to find it.
The road they were travelling on led to Litchfield. It did not take them through the city (a city because it had a cathedral) but took them around it and onto a main road that headed towards Birmingham. They passed through more countryside until James started to see more and more houses as they came to the northern suburbs of Birmingham. In turn, the suburban front gardens began to fall away and they were replaced by the mean streets of the Victorian inner city. Terraces of houses stood right on the pavements and there were more shops, factories and warehouses. As they came nearer to the city centre James started to see bomb damage but it did not seem to be recent as there were weeds growing on the sites. He had almost forgotten the bombing while he had been in the peace and tranquillity of Woodhouses. Seeing these bomb sites brought it all back to him, but it was not as bad as he had expected.
People were now out and about on the streets making their way to work. There was a strong air of normality about the place. The city stood stoic and solid, still going about its business of fuelling the war effort. It was as if the city was saying ‘this is Brummagem and we are Brummies. You can bomb us to bits but we won’t be beaten. Whatever you start, we are quite capable of finishing.’
The lorry turned into the entrance of a large yard, above which was a sign declaring that it was the Co-operative Dairy. They had arrived! The driver swung round and backed into a bay, the sides of which were the same height as the back of the lorry to enable the heavy churns to be unloaded.
‘There you are young man, we’re here. I’ve got to wait now for the churns to be emptied, and the lorry to be re-loaded with sterilised ones. I’ll be leaving here again tomorrow at about ten o’clock in the morning, so be here on time. OK?’
They had made the journey mostly in silence, partly because the driver had little to say to a young boy but mainly due to the noisy conditions in the cab and the din from the churns and the chains on the back.