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Friends of St Francis by Alan D Harris

© Alan D Harris

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[Note: This is a 2,750 word short story; ‘Beano’, ‘British Film Star’ and ‘Lifebuoy’ should be in italics]




On our way home from church, showery squalls forced Mum to hold the umbrella at a steep angle. ‘Typical weekend weather,’ she muttered.

‘Don’t know why they call it Sun-day,’ I echoed, clinging on to her arm, ‘the sun’s only ever out on schooldays. It’s doing this to stop me playing outside.’

But by midday, the drizzle stopped, the wind dried our privet hedge and the pair of song thrushes nesting in our honeysuckle lived up to their name. Glimpses of the sun led Mum to agree I should also get out and enjoy it. ‘Just be home for tea, Betty!’

Sort of guiltily, I left her doing the washing and went looking for my friends. Most of them were helping with weekend chores, their mums stricter than mine. Just Hedley and I were free. Rather than watch convoys on the Portway, we decided to trawl the Avon towpath for treasures left by the ebbing tide.

***

The first thing we found of real value – the sort of thing Mum might say was ‘nice, dear, put it behind the shed’ – was a broken oar. I pulled it out of the mud in Sea Mills harbour. We also found a whole cluster of bananas amongst debris caught behind a pillar of the railway bridge, but they were so squashy black that even water rats wouldn’t want them. Not like on other occasions, when we’d scavenged barely ripe bunches.

Between the railway bridge and the semaphore station, Hedley salvaged a fairground hat from a drifting tangle of seaweed and ladies’ underclothes.

The hat wasn’t one of those with a propellor on top or Mickey Mouse ears at the side; this one supported a rubber seagull with outstretched wings that flapped when the wearer walked. We tried it on, but it was too loose for either of us. Then I thought of the safety pin and elastic which Mum insisted all girls ought to carry. With those, and a little care, it stayed on Hedley. He reckoned, properly cleaned, it might be worth a dozen Beanos. ‘Or a dozen British Film Star cigarette cards’, I suggested. I was about to insist we should share our finds until I realised that any sharing would include my oar.

Further along, at Druid Stoke Bend, Hedley found a sliver of a ship’s handrail. He claimed it rivalled my oar. It definitely didn’t, but while we were arguing over that, we paused at the overflow outlet from the farm, just as the tide was ebbing off it. Boys usually used its long concrete pipe to get closer to the surface of the water as they skimmed flat stones across to the far bank. When I was younger, I had stood on it throwing gravel at floating seagulls to set them flying, but I now knew that was not a ladylike thing to do. On this particularly boring day, Hedley proposed using the drainpipe for a boat race to decide which oar was best. We had trouble deciding who would be Oxford and who would be Cambridge. Hedley, probably cheating I thought, won a drawing of straws. He chose Oxford.

There hadn’t been a real boat-race for years, but Cambridge had won the last one, so I insisted that *that* entitled me to go in front on the drainpipe (It also meant I was bound to win, because we were both sitting on the same pipe, and it wasn’t going anywhere).

***

The race started with much splashing from the crews and shouting from the coxes. Our rules, – my rules anyway – allowed the same person to be both. It was going well, particularly for the Cambridge eight, who were able to maintain their lead. Then a loud splash from Oxford, whose cox started shouting even louder, prompted me to look over my shoulder.

That was something which a well-trained cox shouldn’t do – it can cause the crew to lose rhythm – I did it anyway.

The Oxford team had abandoned their shell – apparently unintentionally, as they were making quite a fuss about it and churning up mud and water with both arms. Furthermore, the Oxford cox’s hat, the dozen-Beano-value one with a rubber seagull, my safety-pin and Mum’s elastic, was making off on its own.

Getting our priorities right, Cambridge trapped the hat with their now obviously superior oar and guided it to safety before stretching the winning blade out again to chivalrously help the rival crew. Hedley (having lost his non-oar and therefore no longer qualifying as crew or cox) took some getting out: he was knee-deep in the jelly-like mud. An old lady appeared on the road bridge over the railway, asking whether we needed help. As I dragged Hedley and the valuable hat onto the bank, I assured the old girl, who I failed to recognise as our School Inspector – well, who expects to meet a school inspector on a Sunday? – that we were quite OK; she didn’t have to scramble over the Portway fence, through brambles, over another fence and through a cordon of bushes and trees to check for herself.

After she left, Hedley and I swapped gloomy stares. We both knew what sort of reception awaited if we arrived home in this state, but neither could think of any friend’s house where we might get cleaned up.

***

The copse between the railway and the towpath offered a makeshift screen. We decided if one of us stood guard at the top of the embankment, the other could remove their dirty clothes and wash them in the farm irrigation outlet (a good bit cleaner than the Avon). We could then dry our things on the brambles while we hid in the long grass further back. The end-of-May sun was making brief appearances, and there was a strongish wind blowing, so we were optimistic about the clothes drying in a reasonable time.

Hedley was pretty well coated in slimy mud, much worse than me, so I did lookout duty first. His socks and shorts took quite a lot of scrubbing and his Sunday shoes still looked like weekday ones when he had finished with them, but his shirt and vest fared a little better. He insisted his underpants didn’t need cleaning because they wouldn’t show – even though I told him I knew what boys looked like because I’d once changed nappies on the neighbour’s baby.

He washed his face, arms and legs in the outflow and dried them, as best he could, in damp swamp grass. That left green streaks: not a big improvement. He fussed over himself far too long, and once had to crouch under the bank when a train puffed unexpectedly out of the tunnel. I thought he’d ducked too late: he made an uncalled-for remark about useless lookouts.

When it came to my turn, Hedley flatly refused to stand guard on the bridge parapet in his underpants while jeeps and supply trucks drove past. He pointed out – quite irrelevantly – that I had only crept up far enough to peep under the bottom rung of the fence when looking out for him.

I was annoyed at his cowardice but, luckily, my starting state was better than his. My long grey school socks looked as if they’d never be quite that colour again, and I’d also managed to sit in oil sludge while pulling Hedley ashore, so my skirt really needed more than the good scrub I gave it, but my blouse had only mud splashes to scrape off and my sandals were open ones which rinsed easily. Like Hedley, I decided my underclothes wouldn’t show – Mum had been very definite about boys not needing to know what girls look like – so I only stripped down to vest and school knickers and got on with the scrubbing as fast as possible.

As I was finishing, a truck convoy obliged me to crouch in cover a long time. When I got back to my washing, one sock had sailed off. I could just see it, halfway to the Suspension Bridge.

***

The breeze did most of the drying; the sun just wasn’t helping. Behind the bushes, in uncut grass by the railway fence, we hugged the ground, teeth chattering and elbows shaking. We were out of the full force of the wind and didn’t turn completely blue, but Dorothy Lamour must have had a different sun to ours for her suntan; all we were getting were goose-pimples.

For two hours we watched washing drying and shivered, fighting boredom by counting passing tanks, which we could hear but not see. Once an aircraft from Filton flew low overhead, breaking the monotony. Lying belly down, head buried in damp grass, Hedley mumbled, ‘Beaufighter.’

Looking up to check first, I grudgingly admitted he was right, ‘That’s easy, any idiot could tell that; their engines sound special.’

‘I can tell the difference between Junkers and Heinkels too.’ he boasted.

‘That’s easy to say. We haven’t had any in daytime for ages, so no-one can make you prove it.’ It wasn’t my fault he was cold and tetchy. We went back to counting tanks.

In mid-afternoon, a white-ensigned frigate rode in on the flooding tide. ‘On its way to Hill’s,’ said Hedley, Another fatuous know-all assertion; where else could it be going?

We would have stood up and waved to it if we’d been dressed and not shivering. A week earlier our gang had waved a makeshift flag at an American frigate on its way downstream with the ebb. A marine in full dress had run aft and dipped their ensign to us. Hedley, self-appointed authority on all things military, had said that was a sign of respect and they normally only ever did that at sea. We were still telling everyone we met that the US Navy had saluted us.

There were a couple of awkward moments as the afternoon wore on. One, when a vicar – I’m fairly certain, the Stoke Bishop one – glared at us from an arriving train. He had no right to look so disapproving; his sort ought to be in church on a Sunday and not gallivanting about the countryside. Another, when an inquisitive Westie almost exposed us to its owner. The wet sock I threw missed him. In revenge, the nasty little beast raised its hind leg to it before scampering off three-legged, the other leg still shaking. Well, I wasn’t going back to the river again to wash a lone sock, and one sock was no easier to explain than no socks, so we left it there when we headed home.

***

We trudged along the Portway past a line of partially assembled planes on trailers with their wings and propellors stowed alongside them. On the way down I had triumphantly outbid Hedley’s ‘Thunderbolts’ claim with ‘P47D Thunderbolts,’ learned from Wilbur, our American lodger. On the way home I was too depressed for banter.

Without soapflakes, our laundering had spread the grime, not removed it. Furthermore, to the pungent Avon mud we’d added the stench of manure. The farm outflow hadn’t been as clean as it looked. I had also learned, like Hedley had, that drying yourself with grass leaves green streaks. My spirits sank further as I realised Mum probably had no clothing coupons left to buy me new socks. I thought of going back for the one on the bush, but that would make me even later than I already was, and I couldn’t pretend to be tough if I turned back now, so we plodded dejectedly on.

As we squeezed between the trailers to cross the road, gum-chewing mechanics working on the planes grinned and complimented us on our camouflage. We had to wait for a dozen rubber-tracked tanks to roll past. Their crews stared at us. If they had just come off the ship they must have thought Britons still went to war in woad.

We split at my front gate. Hedley feared his mum might confiscate his precious seagull hat – just like a boy to concentrate on a trifle like that when I might be heading into real trouble – so I stuffed it into my gas mask pack. Around the back of our house, I slipped my oar behind the Anderson shelter, then opened the back door as noiselessly as possible.

Damp washing was draped over the mangle, more hung on clothes-horses around the unlit fireplace in the living room, where it was unlikely to dry quickly. It could have dried in the wind, like our clothes had, if Mum had only dared put it out, but if they’d known she was washing on a Sunday, nosy neighbours would have tut-tutted about ‘that Mrs Maguire’ breaching the Sabbath.

The good news for me was that the house was silent: Mum was out and our American lodger was never home this early. I had time to give myself – the visible bits at least – a savage scrubbing in the bathroom, change into clean clothes, cram the dirty ones under my bed and rush downstairs, three at a time and hoping I didn’t smell too much of Lifebuoy, as Mum latched the front gate shut.

I was going to get away with it!

***

‘What time do you call this to come home? Where’s the skirt you went out in? It’ll need washing, no doubt. I don’t need to ask what you’ve been doing, because I’ve just been to Hedley’s and heard all about it. Promise me you’ll never try such stunts again.’

Mum went upstairs to uncram the dirty clothes. I tried to make sense of the mildness of the reception. I hadn’t been stopped a week’s sweet ration. I hadn’t been told, as I usually was, never to play with Hedley again. I wasn’t even being sent to bed without supper. I was only being asked to not repeat some stunt. What that stunt might be, I had no idea. I knew Hedley could produce fantastic excuses when pressed; perhaps one of those had got me off the hook. I could only pretend I knew what Mum was talking about and hope Hedley could explain at school tomorrow.

***

Going into morning assembly, Hedley whispered: ‘That old biddy from the bridge was at my place when I got home. I was welcomed like the prodded son in that soppy Bible story. She’s off her rocker. I’ll tell you in break.’

Lanky Miss Trelawney, the biology teacher closed assembly. The last time she did that, she raised a great hue and cry about the school tomcat being lost and was rather embarrassed when it turned up later with five kittens. This time she said she had a special announcement. So important apparently that it required her to clear her throat several times before starting.

‘Mrs Robertson, our School Inspector, witnessed a wonderful display of selfless kindness by two pupils yesterday. We think you should all know about it.’

Another throat clearing.

‘Seeing one of God’s creatures in difficulty, these children did not hesitate. They did not flinch at the risk of personal injury, they did not recoil from the danger posed by nature’s elements and they did not leave the perilous task to others.

‘No, they did none of these things.

‘Displaying a concern for fellow creatures which is exemplary, outstanding, beyond mere humanitarianism, in a world scarred with the darkest evil which man is capable of visiting on fellow man, these paragons of human kindness extended their love to one of the least of God’s creatures and leapt to it’s rescue.

‘This selfless act deserves due recognition.’

Another throat clearing.

Like everyone else, I took this particular throat clearing as a signal to clap.

She deserved it. The speech had been pretty inspiring. Real Lawrence Olivier at Agincourt stuff. I looked around to see whether I could guess by their faces which teachers’ pets she was talking about. I noticed Hedley had his head buried in his hands, presumably daydreaming again, but nobody wore the goody-two-shoes expression I had expected to find.

Flushing at the success of her speech, Miss Trelawney continued.

‘Inspired by these young heroes, the board has agreed to have an engraved honours list mounted for acts of kindness to animals. The first on the ‘Friends of St Francis’ list will be those who yesterday braved the dangerous River Avon to rescue an injured seagull. Betty Maguire and Hedley Norman: please come forward to accept your certificates.’

Hedley turned to me with a skyward flick of eyes and eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. His glazed expression matched my petrified one. What rescue, what seagull? Miss Trelawney had lost me. Then, wishing the earth would open up and hide me, I realised …

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