Of course there were times of happiness but always a walk on the careful side ready for trouble. We went on picnics. Those glorious picnics when we were free. My mother was at heart a country woman and the picnics always meant collecting something. Wild raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and crab apples. We collected hazel nuts, whortleberries, herbs and a berry for cough medicine, elderberry. Then there were the flower times. Starting with primroses followed by violets, celandine, cowslips, bluebells and wild daffodils. We even found wild pansies, honeysuckle, roses and even an old estate gone wild which gave us beautiful many coloured rhododendrons. I found bliss in the growing things.
My mother not only made jams and preserves but wines too. So we collected dandelions, coltsfoot and clover. Her best wine was parsnip wine. I was told after keeping it was as good as whisky.
I remembered a trick the boys in Devon had taught me. How to catch a rabbit. Creep up behind a rabbit hide, they make them from grass while sitting in the sun, and with both hands cupped grab it as it darts out. It works and I caught a lovely soft one. My mother said how clever I was but as I could feel its little heart racing I let it go. I still felt great because my mother had praised me.
Christmas was a happy time too. The presents from Aunties and such delicious food. My mother was a first class cook. We always had turkey and half a young sucking pig. Makes my mouth water even thinking about it. But there was always the monster.
The other thing I remember was on my visits to Devon I always joined a group of three boys. On my arrival I would be welcomed by these boys as a visitor from the wide world of town and I became one with them. We did some silly things. Dared by the boys I climbed down nearly 40ft of a cliff about a 120 or more feet high and filched three Gull’s eggs from a nest. Mother gull objected and kept diving on me but I scrambled back up to the boys. I still have the eggs and shudder when I think how close I came to death on that chalky cliff.
In the garden a plum tree was growing and I delighted in sitting up in the tree and pinging passersby with the hard young fruit. Nobody caught me until I shot the postman. He called me a young Varmint and threatened to tell the police. I stopped that little game.
One other thing stands out. It was when the Dolphins came into the bay. We knew when because they drove fish before them and the fishermen went out with the nets. Even the local pub was called “The Dolphin” after these benefactors.
The boys and I would take a row boat out to deep water and with a few squeaky whistles would call the Dolphins to us. They played like puppies, diving under the boat and popping up the other side. We called them “Sea puppies”. We patted their heads and backs which they seemed to enjoy as part of the game. The danger didn’t occur to us. Not one of us could swim and those fish were big enough and strong enough to turn our little boat over. We were used to rowing out to the smugglers’ caves and just didn’t think of danger. Our Guardian Angel must have been watching over us.
Then of course there were my odd play things. I had inherited from my grandfather an interest in wild things. He had a young fox that he had rescued from hunters and it was like a dog, walking out on a lead. I always looked for nature happening. The day I found a Dormouse I was so thrilled. A little body curled up in a ball of hay and sound asleep. I rushed home with it, so proud of my find. I rushed up to my mother crying “Look what I’ve found.” She took the ball of hay and at my telling her to look inside she parted the hay and let out a scream like a siren. The hay flew everywhere, the mouse flew to the ceiling and she grabbed my hair. I had such a whacking for playing tricks on her. The mouse ran away so I gathered up its hay and put it outside hoping it would find its old home.
The other plaything I was in trouble over was the big snakes we used to find. They were grass snakes and big and fat. As country kids do, we knew the Adder and Viper were dangerous and only sought out the big ones. They were four to five feet long and had beautiful markings. We found them in the heather and tufty grass. Harmless as long as they didn’t wind themselves around you.
Then there were the times out with the fishermen. They allowed me to go out on the boats with them. At nightfall we set off for a spot out at sea. I was shown how they found it. Looking landwards we could see the village. When the main street appeared, an angle allowed the church steeple to stand out. That was where the nets were dropped. At dawn those nets were dragged inboard with the catch. Some odd things came up and were thrown back into the sea. Those men were very kind to me and even in winter when the nets were in use they would take me out. Cold but interesting.
The biggest change in my life was soon to come. The rows between my mother and father were almost daily and my sister and I cowed in our beds when we heard the fighting. My mother was only five foot two and my father six foot four so she always had black eyes and bruising. She had no defence. I can’t understand how she stood it.
I was ten years old and sitting for a scholarship. My teacher considered me clever and I sat for this although I was a little young. Into all this came an uproar. My father brought home another woman. My uncle’s ex- housekeeper. Her name was Louis and being German taught me not only German but the script as well. I was shocked that this woman could wreck our lives.