Escape to the country, continued
We settled in happily, exploring the school and the paddock where the chickens lived. They were so much wilder than our docile suburban-London hens. It was our job to collect the eggs and feed the chickens – mostly on scraps and potato peelings boiled-up on a roaring, smelly and terrifying primus in the outhouse. It was always called that, though I remember it as a kind of conservatory, rather posh. I dropped one of the eggs that I was carrying in my skirt, and in my guilt at what I saw as a criminal waste of food, I tried to shoosh the glutinous yellow mess down the drain. Of course I was found out and in bother – they always knew how many eggs there should be, and in any case the yellow on my Startright shoes gave me away. Ever since then, I have never been cross when things are broken. My response is always that no-one breaks stuff on purpose.
The hens were always escaping and having to be chased all over Newmarket Heath. On one such hen hunt Sylvia failed to notice a camouflaged cess pit and fell in, to her and our horror. She was hosed down in the school yard! Rebecca – Tante’s bull terrier – liked the smell though. Why do dogs like to roll in stinky stuff? Uncle Bim trained Rebecca to respond to the word ‘cats’ which was a bit unkind of him. On hearing the dreaded word she would scrabble with all four paws on the polished lino and slide at full speed towards wherever the word came from. Once it was from the window – Uncle Bim’s mistake! He had to mend it.
The schoolhouse was quaint and pretty, with a very up-market bathroom. The loo could only be approached through Tante’s bedroom like an early en-suite? It was one of those double-bowl blue and white china jobs, with a Windsor Castle decoration inside and out and a real chain with a Windsor Castled knob on the end. A bit of a contrast with the obligatory torn-up newspaper toilet paper threaded on a string! It was raised on a dais with a two-hole wooden bench seat across, separated from the main part of the bathroom by dark panelled double doors. And then there was the huge roll top bath on lion feet, way behind the times or ahead of the times, depending on where you were coming from. From our art deco modern semi, Mum thought it was very old-fashioned, but from 2010, roll top baths are the ‘in’ thing – fashions in décor come round in cycles. It took an awful lot of hot water to reach even the regulation four inches. That may not seem a lot nowadays, but even King George VI had a line drawn at that level in the bathroom (was there only one?) at Buckingham Palace, so as not to waste fuel. Another problem was that the water got cold incredibly quickly in that unheated bathroom. The only heating in the house was from one of those temperamental squat grey-speckled Ideal boilers in the kitchen plus a fire in the sitting room at weekends. And it seemed to us like a mini ice-age when the winter came.
Promoted from the under-the-stairs cupboard or beneath the grand piano, my sister and I shared a high wooden double bed with about a ton of blankets over us. We still squabbled and kicked, of course and maternal retribution was frequent, specially when I somehow managed to dislocate Sylv’s wrist! I can’t think how I managed to do that, as I was tiny and she was a very solid and much bigger girl, known as Podge at school. Then she went down with Mumps. There was nowhere else for me to sleep, and the grownups thought it would be a good idea if I caught it too, and got it over with. They were probably confused about the male Mumpish infertility effect. Weedy little thing that I was, I managed to avoid the mumps, but later caught a mini dose of diphtheria instead. Not so funny, as I missed Christmas.
By this time the Americans had arrived in huge numbers in the Suffolk aerodromes and Sylvia and I used to hang on the post and rail fence between the paddock and Newmarket Heath, in the hope of saying ‘Got any gum, chum?’ Yes, we really did say that to any passing American. A more generous group of men you couldn’t wish for, and our cheek was usually rewarded.