WAR-TIME, A SCHOOLBOY AND HIS BIKE

The force of his feet drove the cycle forward, his mind alternatively tranquil and tumultuous; the countryside in full summer was as an intoxicant and the effort fulfilled an urgent need. Westward, westwards. He never questioned why, when he left home on one of his cycle rides, his route was always to the west. His mother’s talk of Cheddar and her mother’s girlhood there where his grandfather, another youthful itinerant, came on a walking tour from his City work and married the country girl. Perhaps it was that; it must have made an impression on him.
When two people met and had children they created generations of other people, some of whom vaguely thought about these things. He certainly did. It all went with this urge for freedom made possible by the bicycle his parents had bought him. Since then he had indulged his adolescent need to escape from the home and prison into the unknown.
Before, it had been as a passenger with his brother and two sisters in the family car. His mother presiding up front in the passenger seat with the occasional word of caution to their father driving the small saloon car, sometimes with an exhuberant inattention to the other traffic or else uttering a thunderous outburst against the reckless attempt by another driver to pass on the narrow roads of those times. Then she would attempt to act as peacemaker when the inactivity and long drive would contribute to make the children fractious, proposing ‘I spy’ games or distributing sweets before their conduct brought out the ire of the driver.
He had accepted it all until his bicycle had enabled him to try another way. because he had to travel; it was in his blood. The bike and the cinema were his two escape routes from a world that confined his imaginative, enquiring mind into a suburban strait-jacket. The Hollywood films of the time fed his imagination and the bicycle let him fantasise as he pedalled along the roads and lanes to an unknown horizon. Before the bike and the films the only outlet was his voracious reading.
A bright, promising school career had gone no-where. He was rebellious, curious and adventurous and this combination was not checked or guided elsewhere so he had finished up going his own way and, more or less, being allowed to go his own way.
One of his first sorties, two months earlier passing a nearby railway station was a halted train with soldiers at every window, leaning out taking cups of tea that people were passing up to them. Relays of women were leaving their houses with trays, crossing the road, bringing more tea, biscuits, sandwiches. ‘A blockage up the line,’ said one. ‘They’re from Dunkirk,’ another. ‘Poor lads.’
He looked more closely at the train. Some soldiers were stepping out on to the platform lighting up cigarettes. They looked subdued, some with dirt-smeared faces; mostly no forage caps or helmets; a rifle or two. There was no jollity as one usually saw amongst soldiers on the move. He found out later that the railway line from the coast that passed through this station was filled with trains trying to get the survivors into London for dispersal.
Using his bike gave him access to events like this happening all around. Bombed houses, troop convoys, barrage balloon sites, anti-aircraft gun emplacements with batteries of search-lights; the country was becoming an armed camp with people working everywhere in view to create an elaborate defence.
By degrees he widened his area of travel until confident to do longer journies several days away from home. He could have spent forever doing what he was doing now, travelling. But money limited the time he could be away although he spent very little and found it possible in small ways to live off the land. Perhaps this was because it was war-time. There was the farm work too he had volunteered to do and had to be back for that. he wondered what it would be like if he never went back and made a life of constant travel. Some inherant strand of caution told him to wait, not to precipitate matters. he would just go on absorbing this strange, beautiful countryside he travelled through; its hills and valleys, fields and meadows, streams and ponds; the farms he called at, the villages he stopped at; the peace that filled his whole being at the day’s end. There would be many, many days like this but never enough to fill his hungry expectations. There would be the return journey, the cycling back into the suburban tentacles and the familiar.
He stopped at an open air swimming pool and spent half an hour cooling off. The pool was crowded with shouting and splashing and clashed with his mood for solitude and peace. From the pool he carried on to his destination; a farm near Sittingbourne where he was given bedding and told to choose a mattress on the floor in a barn. Some of his school friends had been here the week before and gone home. He knew none of the boys around.
As he knelt preparing his bed his feet were pulled from behind and, as he sprawled on the ground, a number of boys held him down. A big boy with ginger hair who seemed to be the leader told them to lift up their pinioned prisoner. A form of mock trial was conducted resulting in his being sentenced to a number of humiliating ordeals. Before any of these could be carried out he taunted the ginger-headed boy as a miserable coward, safe in numbers but too afraid to fight one to one.
His instinct was true and there was an acceptance. A ring was formed and a perfunctory match constructed with referee and time-keeper. The red-headed boy was bigger and stronger but not as sure so that the battle was bloody but not of too long duration. They both professed to have had enough at the same time and shook hands, He had earned his credentials and was left alone after the fight.
The next morning the boys were taken to an orchard and climbed ladders holding buckets with ropes attached. They filled the buckets with apples or pears and lowered these to be emptied. This work went on all day. Overhead, German planes appeared and RAF planes took off from the nearby airfields. There were interceptions and evasive action. defender planes engaged with the attacking planes; vapour and smoke dotted the cloudless sky. The anti-aircraft guns began firing and the distant aerial battles were made more real with the intrusive burst of noise from the ground-based guns. From time to time a plane would head for the ground trailing a plume of smoke. There was always the wish to get down from the ladder, on to the bike and race to where the plane would crash in the hope of obtaining some precious souvenir.
The intensity of the ack-ack guns firing increased and spent shrapnel began falling to the ground; jagged, hot pieces of metal would slash down through the trees’ foliage. There was no feeling of danger even though these could inflict serious wounds and later in the war metal helmets had to be worn.
The battle moved away and picking went on. The following days were similar to the first day and aerial battles were fought out overhead in azure blue skies. Planes fell, parachutes opened, AA guns kept up a continuous barrage. Eventually they stopped taking an interest and just carried on with the fruit picking.
This was the attack – as surely as night follows day -that followed those defeated troops he had seen on the train that June day, and it was only many years later that he understood that it was from the top of a ladder, picking fruit in an orchard, at a farm near Sittingbourne, he had witnessed the Battle of Britain. (BLOG – The London Blitz)

28 FEBRUARY 2012