They were a raggedly bunch of 10-year old lads, on the cusp of adolescence. The war made their families entrust them to the Pied Piper*. Thus, they got spirited to child care homes in the countryside whilst London flailed under the threat of German aerial attacks.
Billeted to St Patrick’s, already bursting at the seams, the adolescents got left to their own (mis)adventures. The home abutted Lord Buckley’s orchards.
The orchards, ah… they were lush with plump fruit on their boughs. Every afternoon the lads would sneak in. Scampering up the trees they would partake of ripe fruit, keeping a wary eye out for Gabe, the caretaker.
Gabe was a crotchety man of indeterminate age with a perpetual scowl and a limp. Childbirth had taken his wife and the war his only son, leaving him bitter. He guarded the orchard with assiduous gumption. It was that which led him to discover the fleeced boughs.
‘Ragtags, the ‘hole lot o them,’ he muttered, ‘stealin’ his Lordship’s fruit.’
Thievery was sacrilege to Gabe.
‘Mus’ be those scamps ‘oer at the ‘ome,’ he concluded, ‘Scoundrels is wha’ they be.’
Next day, per ritual, when the lads snuck in, Gabe lay in wait behind a stout tree. The miscreants had just bitten into some juicy peaches when he materialized.
‘Caugh’you red ‘anded,’ he hollered, brandishing a stick under Sean’s face.
Startled, Sean dropped the plump peach. Plop! It landed smack on Gabe’s face.
Seizing the chance, the lads clambered down and ran off. Although Gabe limped behind them at a furious clip, they escaped.
‘Crikey! Wasn’t ‘e suppose’ to be nappin’?’ huffed Sean, pulp dribbling down his chin.
‘Aye, ‘e was,’ panted Callum. ‘The ol’ codger’ll skin us if ‘e catches us.’
‘With his limp?’ laughed Malcum, ‘Nah!’
And, so it continued. Cognizant of the fact that Gabe lay in wait, the lads derived a perverse thrill in hoodwinking him. If Gabe chased one of them, the others pelted overripe fruit at him, splotching him in pulp, till he yelled in frustration, ‘I’ll skin the lot o ya.’
It became a naughty game. A few weeks passed.
Then, one afternoon Gabe did not come chasing.
‘Given up, ‘as he?’ chuckled John.
But, the next afternoon, Gabe did not appear again.
Curious, Sean quipped, ‘Lads should we…?’
The implication hung in the air. Should they or…
Finally, they did, marching off towards Gabe’s hut. They swung open the door. Gabe lay on a cot, shivering.
‘Blimey!’ exclaimed Callum feeling Gabe’s forehead, ‘Aye, ‘e’s got the chills.’
Gabe’s rheumy eyes spoke what he could not.
A silent understanding passed between the lads before they got down to caring for their old foe. Oh, it took a few days and nights. But, soon Gabe was on his feet again.
Gabe lay in wait, hidden. He knew the scamps would sneak in.
‘Boo,’ he yelled scaring them. The lads jumped and then laughed in merriment.
They all had a new game now, didn’t they?
Pied Piper – Operation Pied Piper began on 1 September 1939. It was set up by Britain to officially relocate 1.5 million people. Many of these were children (of all ages) who were relocated to the English countryside in an effort to shield them from both the bombing and also the psychological scarring due to the Second World War. Sadly, although most of the children survived the war, their families did not.
Image credit – Scrumping (an oil on canvas painting) by British artist Fredrick Barnyard
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