At times like these it is more often than not Betty Unsworth, the final member of Harold’s gang, who is the voice of reason. First, though, she had to get rid of a fit of the giggles which had set in upon seeing her rumbustious friend lying deep in snow with his head through the school railings. Betty soon rallied, fought down the laughter and walked up to Harold, or at least the side of his head.
‘You’d best get yourself out of there, Harold, you’ll freeze to death if you stay in there much longer.’
‘Do you think—!’ went to retort Harold, his body almost obscured by snow, but two things stopped him from going on a rant: first it was Betty, and he never shouts at Betty, and secondly, although not much time had passed since he had found his head in between the railings, nor had he tried to get his head out again.
‘Yeah, yer right. ‘Ang on . . . OUCH! Oh, ‘eck!’ exclaimed Harold, ‘I’m stuck!’
Unfortunately for Harold, he was soon to find that in some instances at least, moving one’s head forward into a restricted space does not automatically mean one can easily perform the motion in reverse. It was his ears: they’d flattened easily enough on the way in but were a problem when trying to get out. Not only were they a little on the large side, they also stuck out more than ears do on average, not a great deal really, but just enough for them to simply jam up against the bars of the railings as he tried to force his head back out.
‘Come on, ‘Arold, you can still get out – force ‘em through. Use yer ‘ands to flatten ‘yer ears – they’ll be squeezed up for a second but that’s all. A bit o’ pain and then ye’ll be free.’
‘Yeah, free,’ added Larry Tucker who didn’t want to be left out.
Unfortunately for Harold, he believed his good friend Tim Tucker. But. . .
‘OUCH! OW! OW! OW! That’s no good at all! You and yer stupid ideas, Tucker! Can’ you see I’m stuck!’
‘Sorry, Harold,’ said the much chastened Tim.
‘Well don’ just stand there, get help! Get someone! Anyone!’
‘Like ‘oo?’ said the clueless Tim.
‘Ole Pickle-pot! He can cut me out!’
However, a middle aged man with a bald head and a gimpy leg who had arrived unnoticed at the scene seconds earlier, begged to differ.
‘Ole Pickle-pot can do no such thing, you cheeky little monkey! Ole Pickle-pot does not have such a thing as a pair of cutters which can get through these bars, and ole Pickle-pot has nowt to bend them with! You stupid, stupid boy! You! (turning to Betty) Run to me ‘ouse and get some blankets off the Mrs!’
‘Y-Ye-Yes-Mr Peckle-pit!’ stammered Betty, ‘Ooer,’ she added but then did as she was told and dashed off to the caretaker’s house at the far side of the school.
Frank Pickle, or old Pickle-pot to all of the village children and even some of the adults too, had been school caretaker for twenty-three years. It seemed to all who knew him that for approximately twenty-three of those years he had hated his job, had hated the staff, and rather oddly for a school caretaker had hated the children, and seemingly, still did.
His nick-name, which he of course also hated, had come about because of his hobby – making all sorts of different jams, pickles and preserves. The rather apt surname of Pickle had been rudely corrupted to Pickle-pot by none other than – no, not Harold, but his father, Mr Bernard Spencer. This was after a gardening and allotment club meeting which had seen Mr Spencer and his ‘allies’ outvoted by Frank Pickle and his friends. The result of this particular ballot had determined that the allotment rose garden would be dug up and a pickling and preserving shed put up in its place. As Harold and his friends had been spying on the meeting, they had heard every word, including his father’s somewhat angry reaction.
‘You’re – you’re – you’re nothing but a – a – a Pickle-pot!’
As Mr Spencer rarely used bad language it was the best he could do, but Harold and his partners in hiding were to see to it that the name stuck.
Although Harold never usually felt lucky or relieved in Pickle-pot’s presence, it was nevertheless a good thing that the caretaker had come across to clear the school of pupils wanting to make nasty little dangerous slides and chuck snow all over the place. He had just been about to shout his usual salutation of ‘Clear off out of it, the lot of yer!’, when he had noticed some sort of kerfuffle over by the school fence.
‘ . . . BECAUSE OF YOU!’ continued old Frank, ‘I’ll have to call the flippin’ fire-brigade; and you know what they’ll do, sonny?’
‘Get me out?’ hopefully offered Harold.
‘I’ll tell you what they’ll flippin’ well do, me young bucko: they’ll call Mr Kenilworth, who’ll have to come straight back ‘ere, and he’ll keep me out on a night like this until you are all snug and toasty in your kip after a nice supper an’ ‘avin’ a good laugh about it all! That’s what’s gonna ‘appen! Now, you (turning to Tim and Larry), make sure he’s covered properly when that useless girl gets back ‘ere! I’m gonna phone the fire-station!’
Frank Pickle was not a nice man in the usual sense, but he knew, whether he hated them or not, he had to do right by the children if they got themselves into serious scrapes.
Mr Bernard Spencer had been so engrossed in his newspaper, tutting to himself upon reading that rationing was to remain for some time yet, that he hadn’t even noticed the children burst through the main doors and into the playground. He had not witnessed Harold’s magnificent yet doomed attempt at ice-sliding at speed and had not seen the catastrophic result. If he had looked across at that moment he would have witnessed a somewhat comical yet very tender moment in the form of Betty Unsworth covering his son in large rough grey ex-army blankets, leaving just his mouth and his nose showing. Little Betty then ran out of the gates and along to where Harold’s head was jutting out, and proceeded to feed her friend little slabs of chocolate through the bars. To Harold it was almost worth the discomfort, although, ever the one to opt for more drama over less, he didn’t let Betty know he could easily use his hands.
When Mr Spencer did look across, but unfortunately not to the right of the school gates, he noticed that the school itself, the main building, the annexe and the bike sheds, its roofs and its walls – and of course the entire surface of the playground, were all covered entirely in snow. The children, purely through the caretaker’s attention being elsewhere, although of course Mr Spencer was not to know this – yet – had made and were continuing to use an ice-slide. A number of the more ambitious children had taken further advantage of Pickle-pot having a minor crisis on his hands by stamping down the rest of the snow right across the playground and had made themselves a skating rink. It was so cold and getting colder that the compacted snow had quickly become icy and slippy. Just like the slide, it had very quickly become sheet ice.
While the daredevils remained defiantly loyal to the slide, many of the other pupils gracefully glided across the impromptu rink. Some of the girls, like Betty had done earlier, did ice-skating style movements with a leg sticking out as they traversed smoothly from one side of the rink to the other. Just like the slide, though, the children only travelled a few feet before stopping, those that didn’t come to a graceful stop tended to fall over.
To Mr Spencer it was a delightful scene: the snow reflecting the moonlight and keeping the pitch dark at bay, gently illuminating the children all in their winter woollies – some putting on a mesmerising display while their friends on the side-lines cheered, clapped and laughed. To complete this delightful picture-postcard of a village school in yuletide, the lights came on. Not only the usual municipal street lights, but Christmas lights. The whole village, as had been the case for many years during the yuletode period, was decorated and illuminated from end to end in Christmas lights. These were stretched across the most central streets and some of the nearby lanes; they were wrapped around trees, fences, lamp-posts and fences, in fact anywhere where they could be safely placed to help bring a special Christmassy atmosphere to the small Wiltshire village of Plumley.
Several adults added to the scene too. As with the children they were all rigged out in their heaviest winter apparel, and as they walked along the lane in opposite directions they enjoyed momentary pleasantries with each other in passing. As they reached the school some stopped to enjoy the impromptu winter sports on view; some were laughing and pointing, maybe at a child they knew, maybe even their own child. Others didn’t stop, but nevertheless the scenes they witnessed as they passed filled them with a warm, glowing feeling; the very feelings that all should have at this time of the year.
Finally, Mr Spencer’s attention was now taken from the far left-side of the school playground to the right-side of the main gate. He noticed that some of the adults had stopped to talk to a small group of children by the school railings. Rather oddly some of them had bent down to talk; or maybe it was to see something belonging to one of the children. Perhaps, thought Mr Spencer, one of the girls had their pet dog with them; maybe a Scottie dog with one of those extra-warm tartan coats that their owners love to mollycoddle them with in winter. One of the ladies was so delighted, or seemed to be, that she exclaimed, very loudly indeed, ‘Oh my, oh my, oh my! Is that Harold Spencer? – It IS Harold Spencer! What on earth has happened here, my lad?!’
Mr Spencer had seen and heard enough. No longer taking in scenes of a rural idyll at Christmastime, he shot out of his car and dashed across the lane.
Just as Mr Spencer crossed the road, a large, heavy vehicle came speeding up to the school. It was a fire-engine. With two loud blasts of the horn (it did not have a siren), it groaned to a slow-skidding halt and a large, somewhat angry looking man jumped out of the cab and dashed over to the railings. He was carrying a large tool or implement of some sort. This was an especially large pair of cutters the fire-brigade is known to use when needing to cut metal.
‘You stupid idiotic boy! Don’t you know we’ve got better things to do than —’ roared Ted Bovis, leading fireman from Plumley fire station. But Ted had been stopped in mid-rant.
‘Excuse me, my good man. Can I be of assistance in this matter?’
Upon seeing his son in distress as well as seeing him getting shouted at by a man he (Mr Spencer) had taken an instant dislike to, Mr Spencer had decided to quickly intervene.
‘Eh?’ said a distracted Ted, turning to Mr Spencer. ‘’Oo are you?!’
‘As a matter of fact, I am this boy’s father,’ said Mr Spencer. Upon seeing Harold’s dilemma he had decided he did not want to get side-tracked in an argument. ‘Well now, I see you have your cutters with—’
It was Ted Bovis’s turn to interject.
‘Let’s ‘ave a little chat, me and you. Let me edjercate yer. We may not be as big and flashy as the Andover main station, we may not ‘ave a nice shiny new tender with radios like they ‘ave, or proper comfy beds or decent grub – or even a pole to slide down, but we still get called out several times a week, week in – week out, all year round, ‘olidays included!’
‘And that’s very commendable I’m sure, but—’ But Ted wasn’t finished.
‘An’ yer know wha’, Mr
‘An’ yer know wha’, Mr Spencer,’ Ted annoyingly repeated, ‘you know wha’? Around a fifth of the calls are non-urgent: cats in trees, overweight grannies stuck in the bath; an’ most of all — flippin’ kids with their flamin’ ‘eads stuck in railin’s!’
‘I am very sorry if my son has—’
But it was to no avail. Ted still hadn’t finished.
As for Harold, he was enjoying every second of the exchange. Although a tad uncomfortable still, he was actually now nice and warm, with Betty feeding him a bowl of lovely hot onion soup through the railings; this was courtesy of Mrs Pickle. And by this time a large crowd had gathered around, fascinated by the scene they had stumbled upon during their bracing constitutional. This now also included a much torn and ragged Ripper and his pals who had come back to chuck the other kids off the rink and have it to themselves, but on reflection, this was better fun.
Ted roared on.
‘ . . . An’ yer know wha! YER KNOW WHA’, MR SPENCER! Most of the time they could ‘a’ just go’ their ‘eads straight back out again! Some of the little – imps (Ted corrected his choice of words on the hoof due to present company) even pretend they’re stuck, just fer a lark!’
‘’Ere!’ shouted Harold, almost choking on his soup. ‘I’ve tried that! Can’ yer see I’m really flippin’ well stuck!’
‘Don’ you go givin’ me any lip, you young rascal. When I’ve got you out of there, I’ll flamin’ well—’
Mr Spencer had heard enough.
‘You jolly well won’t, Mr—’
‘—Hovis,’ said Mr Spencer, whose ears were actually in perfect working order. ‘Now – if you please – please do whatever is needed to be done to free my son from these railings and quick about it! We don’t pay our rates just so we can be insulted by the likes of you!’
Ted Bovis was going to react angrily, but a huge cheer went up from the now even larger crowd gathered around the railings.
To shouts of encouragement (or perhaps just plain egging on) from the crowd, such as ‘You tell him, Bernie!’ and ‘That’s done for you, Bovis, yer ole windbag!’ a latently wise Ted just humphed and walked up to inspect the railings and work out which bars needed to be cut to free this insufferable little whippersnapper. Before he could set to at his task he was disturbed by someone riding a bicycle and shouting to him from a little way down the lane.
‘Ted! Ted, you’ll have to hurry!’
‘Eh? What’s this?’ said Ted, turning round to see young Terry Burton, junior fireman, cycling as fast as he could to reach his supervisor.
‘It’s Lewis’s farm, Ted, it’s gone up good an’ proper! You’ll have to ‘urry if we’re to save the livestock!’
‘Oh blimey!’ exclaimed Ted. ‘OK, well, I’ll just quickly get this lad ou—’
‘You can’t, Ted, there ain’t no time! We only got the message just now – the blaze ‘as really took hold! An’ the snow ain’t ‘elpin – the fire’s that bad it’s just turnin’ to water and evaporatin’! We’ll have to leave right now!’
The now business-like Ted Bovis quickly weighed up the situation. It only took him a second to realise the boy would have to wait.
‘I’m sorry, lad, I’m sorry, Mr Spencer. He’ll be OK though – he’s young, tough, and he certainly looks nice and toasty there. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
‘Nice and toasty?! NICE AND TOASTY?! Can’t you at least leave the cutters?!’
‘Daresn’t. This is a real emergency, may need ‘em,’ came the staccato reply. ‘We did have another pair, but they’ve recently been stolen.’
‘For Pete’s sake, man! It’s still snowing heavily and the temperature is expected to drop to minus seven before the night’s out!’
A sweating, perplexed Ted Bovis looked across to the junior fire officer whose face was radiating a silent plea to move, then back to Harold, who was rather oddly smiling, and back to Mr Spencer.
‘Burton! Fire up the engine and turn ‘er round! You, my lad, have precisely the amount of time it takes for that engine to be facing back down the lane. Now, quiet and still!’
Young Terry dashed off.
Ted Bovis applied the cutters to a bar to the left of Harold’s head, just below the joint with the cross-railing. With as much strength as he could muster he cut the iron bar in far less time than he would usually take in situations like these. He closed and withdrew the cutters in one single action. He then applied the blade to a bar on Harold’s right. Again, with a huge grunt, the blade was through in double-quick time.
‘There you go, lad, an’ don’ ever do such a stupid thing again, d’ya hear?!
‘TED! COME ON!’
To shouts of relief all round, loudest of all from Mr Bernard Spencer, Ted Bovis dashed off, jumped in the cab, shoved young Burton over to the passenger seat and roared off.
‘Well, Harold, that’s enough excitement for the day; let’s go home for— oh, no! The damned fool!’ roared Mr Spencer, rather uncharacteristically in the presence of children and the fairer members of the community.
It soon became clear to all what the residual problem was. Ted Bovis, most probably through panic and not thinking things through properly, had simply made one cut to the bars either side of Harold’s head before dashing off to the real emergency. He had not stayed to either cut lower down on each bar and nor had he tried to bend them. Harold’s head was still stuck in the railings.
‘Oh, Harold! The things you put me and your poor mother through,’ said Mr Spencer with an outwardly friendly sigh. However, inside he was angry, but then visions of flying potatoes came into his mind. ‘Don’t worry, son, we’ll call them again, or if we have to, the main station in Andover. Someone will have to come and sort this mess out.’
‘It’ll be all right, Dad, I’m only a bit wet around me bu-legs, and these blankets are nice and warm. I’ll be all right until they come back. Still a bit hungry though. . . ’ Harold finished this sentence in a louder voice than was really necessary.
‘Sorry, Harold,’ said the loyal Betty, who was still by the side of her rumbustious pal, as were his trusty lieutenants Tim and Larry Tucker. ‘It’s all gone and the Pickles have gone out for the night.’
As the crowd dispersed, certain that they’d seen the best of the drama on offer and knowing that no real harm would come to Harold, Tim spoke with great affection to Mr Spencer.
‘We’re stayin’ too, Mr Spencer.’
‘An-nnn-nd m-me,’ said Betty, although now chattering badly with the cold.
‘Thank you, children, that shows great loyalty to a friend and I thank you for that, but get on home now, your parents will be wondering where you’ve got to.’
‘If – if you’re sure, Mr Spencer?’ said Larry, torn between going home for his tea and a warm by the fire, and of course – ‘never leaving a man behind’.
Mr Spencer could have cried. Instead, he smiled and patted Larry’s head and then gently insisted they all three get themselves off home.
‘Bye, Harold!’ shouted the twins in unison, while all Betty could do was sob, unable to speak as she left her pal – ‘all cold an’ ‘ungry an’ dyin’ in the snow’, (as she would tell friends later on).
‘Well, just me and you now, son, but I am sure it won’t be long,’ said Mr Spencer, in the most reassuring voice he could muster as he leaned forward and placed his hands on the railings, almost as a gesture of defeat.
END OF SECTION 4