A tale of village rivalry on the wartime van-run

WHETHER or not foster aunt in Berkshire, where I spent the war, had a driving licence I never knew. My big brother and me were told she could drive the Vauxhall taxi, but not the Bedford lorry that did the thrice-weekly carrier run to Reading, nine miles

WHETHER or not foster aunt in Berkshire, where I spent the war, had a driving licence I never knew.

My big brother and me were told she could drive the Vauxhall taxi, but not the Bedford lorry that did the thrice-weekly carrier run to Reading, nine miles away.

It was on freezing midwinter dawns, when the Bedford wouldn't start, that her ability behind the Vauxhall's wheel proved crucial.

The Bedford was pushed out on to the road, while the Vauxhall warmed up.

With the vehicles lined up, uncle attached the tow rope and foster aunt got in the Vauxhall to drive it the short distance needed to fire the Bedford, the day's work delayed less than a half-hour.

There is, I believe, a certain skill in towing.

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And Foster aunt definitely had it.

Not bad for the former Big House lady's maid who had married the coachman/chauffeur.

By 1939, when they took us two evacuees in, their business was well-established, and the carrying side of it became an even more appreciated service for a village increasingly cut off by wartime restrictions.

The taxi then was a venerable Austin Six.

It was the first car I ever went in, apart from the one that briefly ferried us to our foster folks.

The sliding roof, running-boards, and turn-indicator arms that flicked up and down fascinated me.

But the severe petrol rationing limited its use, even for business.

It was some time before we got any inkling of what a hard slog it had been for them to get going.

They referred at times to "the old place", which we learned was the last of a line of small bungalows on the outskirts of the village.

They had started there in the early 1920s, choosing that one so they could rent a patch of the adjacent meadow for their horse.

Dolly was her name, and twice a week she hauled first a two-wheel, then later a four-wheel wagon around the village.

She would allow them to collect items to be taken into Reading and take orders for things to be brought back that evening.

The carrier round had flourished to Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays in our time. Saturday was the only day we could go on it, apart from school holidays.

They would distributed large white cards, with a black S for stop on them, to save people hanging about at their gates. It was fun for a seven-year-old, sat in a lorry cab to spot the stop cards in people's windows.

Business varied from boxes of noisily cheeping chicks for Reading cattle market, to requests for dress-making material - clothing coupons provided - to be brought back, usually on approval.

Young as we were, I like to think our extra hands and legs, although smaller and less efficient, were a help at times.

I remember how I wept when the cheap wartime brown paper around the groceries parcel I was carrying split, and a jar of jam shattered on the cobbles. Fortunately, foster aunt was a great jam-maker and her replacement, enjoyed by all the recipients, was miles better than shop stuff.

At first, we had aggro doing delivery errands up the other end of the village.

Local rivalry meant hostile reaction to children venturing beyond their area, and my brother had stones slung at him by offspring of the house he was trying to deliver to.

Foster uncle called off the delivery and sent a note that it could be collected from ours, no charge. An aggrieved Ernie Sellwood duly appeared, all plaintive.

"What's going on, Arthur?"

Foster uncle told him, and said he'd do no more business with Ernie or his neighbours, till the stones stopped.

He was responsible for our well-being, while our parents faced the Blitz in London, understood?

We had one further problem at the Sellwoods.

Their eldest sneered at us: "Ah, the other end's ambassadors!"

Hearing it, his mum yelled: "Raymond, get in here!"

She took the parcel with thanks and exact money.

As we walked away we could hear Raymond getting walloped all round her kitchen.

After that, he scarpered at first sight of our Bedford.

Anything happened, it wasn't him.

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