The advantage of my very young parents was having large playmates, who could easily reach to the top shelf, and a childhood full of hysterical laughter. My parents were very, very young. Looking back I can’t really imagine how they would have managed without having me to tell them what to do. And I did a lot of that – a wild grown-up child who knew everything.
To save money, and there was not very much of it, Dad got a little motorbike to get to work. Not a bit like the big glamorous motorbike he had when I was tiny, but a boring thing like a bicycle that we called ‘the futt futt’. We had this theory that Dad was in IRA because he had a black beret and a donkey jacket to go with the leather gloves and strange bicycle clips for his trousers. He showed no revolutionary tendencies, my Mum said. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was disappointed.
In was about this time that the money saving ideas got out of control. Money was spent to launch these projects and I have to say the chickens were fascinating until they went mad in their cages and tried to kill each other. I liked the feel of the warm, smelly eggs that rolled in the channel below. The obvious cruelty of this type of farming and my Mum’s tears, when she realised what was happening, put an end to that.
The next project was breeding pet rabbits to sell. Cute black and white baby rabbits, I gave them all names and even named one after my little brother to make him really angry. The entire neighbourhood was also in need of extra funds so no one was keen to buy our lovely pets. I put ribbons around their necks, placed them in little baskets lined with straw and filled my eyes with sad tears as a marketing ploy. I did sell a couple to an old man along the drift, but he just shooed me away when I called to ask how they were growing and if he had given them new names. I feared for their little lives. We soon gave up our grand scheme, but the rabbits did not and soon we had more babies than cages or names to go round. Action had to be taken and Dad decided only one rabbit would remain. I thought this was especially unkind and demanded in my shrill cross voice that we should keep the two original rabbits, because I loved them both. Tears followed and I can only imagine my parent’s conversation late that night as they worked out how to explain to me why I could not keep those particular rabbits. I knew they would breed and make lots more babies, but I had no idea how and clearly no one was about to explain that to a cross six year old. Both rabbits were suddenly sold to a lovely family, although they must have come round to collect them while I was at school.
A short period of sulking followed and then the Pumpkin Wine Project was born. A News of the World article provided the recipe. It said, ‘Wine made from vegetables and fruit would be ideal family presents’. Our job was to scoop out the pumpkins and put the flesh in various saucepans. I missed the next stage because we had to be bathed, twice, once to get the orange stains off and a second time because my brother was sick, as I had made him eat a lot of raw pumpkin.
Brother John was put to bed as a health hazard and I was allowed back to watch the magical mixture put back into the pumpkin shells, then sealed with candle wax and tied up with string. Then they were put in the wood shed and I had to promise not to pick the wax off and look inside. A deal was done involving a trip to see the neighbour’s cat and I went to bed happy. I forgot about the pumpkins until the explosion a few weeks later.
We only heated one room – I thought this was normal until I realised that we could only afford to heat one room. The good bit was we spent a lot of time together as a family, which made us a very noisy, happy foursome who sang together, played games and drank a lot of chicory coffee. Mum had this thing about the IRA, which was pretty stupid, as they never attacked in rural Norfolk. They would not know where it was and I only had a vague idea. I think she had seen a movie or heard it on the radio; TV was for the rich people in Gaywood Road.
During breakfast one day there was a loud bang followed by a second louder bang. Mum screamed, ‘it’s the IRA’ and we all looked at her disdainfully. My brother opened his mouth to howl as usual and was silenced by my hand across his lips, just in case we were under attack and needed to be silent and hide.
Then Dad led the four of us, all holding hands, into the yard. He slowly opened the woodshed door and we went inside. Then we all stood around staring at the ceiling trying not to laugh. Walls, ceiling and all the wood was coated with bright orange pumpkin flesh and lovely smell of fermenting vegetables filled the air. Mum said ‘Oh what a mess’ and we all looked at her as if cleaning this up was even remotely something we were planning to consider.
I don’t recall any of this being my fault, but we were put to bed just in case. Later the sound of a hosepipe came from the yard and I watched from the upstairs windows while Mum and Dad chased each other with the water as they hosed our wine down the drain in the yard. They stood wet through in each others arms and kissed like movie stars. It was clear my parents had no plans to grow up any time soon.