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The Nutcombe Tales


Fair Shares for All

The weather man on Mrs Banbury's wireless had said that there was an anticyclone stationary over the Azores, and that she might therefore expect a continuous spell of fine weather. Acting upon his assurance, she decided to retrieve her garden swing seat from its winter quarters in the garage and set it up in the garden. Ordinarily she would have instructed her niece to see to it, but Prudence had been seconded for four weeks to another aunt, who had broken her leg. Mrs Banbury had reluctantly released the girl, with many an admonition to be truly grateful for the holiday. Faced with the task of erecting the garden seat herself, she decided that it would be most easily accomplished if there were four people available to do it, two to hold the end supports upright, and one at each end of the cross beam to lift it into place and bolt it to the supports. With this in mind, she was waiting by her front gate hoping to recruit three youngsters, knowing that on a Saturday morning the youth of the village were often looking for the chance to earn a copper or two running errands or doing chores.

On this Saturday, Billy Enright and his acolyte, Tommy Simpson, were doing just that, so far without success. They eagerly accepted the offer of a halfpenny each to help with the job.

I really need three of you, though. Have you got another friend who could help?

Billy suggested that for an extra halfpenny he could do the work of two. Mrs Banbury was declining his offer when Peggy Parkin came into view. She too was looking to earn some pocket money, with rather more success than Billy. She had already run two errands, and the two halfpennies so earned were reposing in the secret pocket inside one leg of her bloomers. She willingly agreed to help for a halfpenny.

Mrs Banbury's assessment of the manpower required for the job proved to be accurate. With four pairs of hands the task was quickly and efficiently completed. When she came to pay her helpers, however, Mrs Banbury found to her embarrassment that she had no halfpennies in her purse, only pennies. Peggy could have offered to give change, but she shrewdly judged that a shortage of small coin might accrue to their advantage, so she refrained from doing so. Mrs Banbury tentatively tried to establish a credit arrangement. I don't suppose that if I promised to pay you tomorrow . . .? Three basilisk stares confirmed that such a supposition was indeed unfounded. Oh well, then, I shall just have to give you twopence between you. Here, share this amongst you, and she handed two pennies to Billy.

Outside the front gate, the three children looked at the two coins in Billy's hand. With little hope of success, but feeling that his reputation required him at least to try, Billy said, As the one who got the job in the first place, I should take a penny, and you two could share the other one between you.

Peggy was scornful. Come off it, Billy Enright. If anyone is going to get a whole penny, it should be me, 'cause I'm the eldest.

Tommy held his peace, knowing that whatever order of precedence was used, he would always rank lowest.

There was a moment of deadlocked silence, and then Peggy said, There is a way. If I lent a penny, so that there was threepence, we could each take a penny, and then you two between you could pay me back the penny I had lent.

Billy then made a serious tactical error, an error which, let it be said in his defence, is one often made by politicians and public commentators. Instead of questioning the logic, he chose to challenge the premise. You lend a penny? Where would you get a penny from, I'd like to know?

Peggy turned her back, fumbled beneath her skirt for a moment, then turned round with two halfpennies in her hand. Adding them to the two pennies held by Billy, There, she said, that makes threepence. Now we can each take a penny.

Confused by the swift turn of events, Billy instinctively said, I'll have the two halfpennies, anticipating the pleasure of jingling them in his pocket. Tommy and Peggy each took a penny.

Now you two have to pay me back the penny I lent, Peggy said. That's a halfpenny each, and she held out her hand to Billy. Reluctantly he gave her one of his halfpennies. A seed of suspicion was germinating in his mind, but it had yet to see the light of day. Now you, Tommy, Peggy demanded.

I haven't got a halfpenny, Tommy objected.

That's all right. I can give you change. Peggy took Tommy's penny, and gave him a halfpenny change. There, she said, now we are all straight. She again turned her back, deposited her coins in the safety of her secret pocket, and skipped off down the road, calling Toodle-oo as she went.

Billy and Tommy watched her go. They had not detected anything amiss with the process, but it was plain to them that the outcome was unsatisfactory. Of the twopence which Mrs Banbury had given them, they now had a halfpenny apiece, while Peggy had a penny. After a while, Billy delivered his verdict. Girls! You can't trust any of them. Always trying to cheat you, they are.

Tommy added a wider view. My dad says all women are the same. He's always saying you can't trust any of them. It's best not to have anything to do with them, my dad says.

He's right, said Billy. I'm not gonna have anything to do with women when I grow up. I'm not gonna get married, and I'm not gonna let my sons get married either.

You might have to get married, Tommy suggested darkly.

Have to? How d'you mean?

I asked my dad why he married mum, and he said he had to.

Who made him do it then?

I dunno, a judge or the police, I suppose.

Crikey! Fancy being made to get married! That's slavery, that is, and slavery's supposed to be abolished. It seemed to Billy that a male emancipation movement was called for.

Tommy was more realistic. Perhaps it's like conscription. In the war, men was conscripted into the army. Perhaps in peacetime they're conscripted into marriage.

Billy was sceptical. Nah, 'cause they're still conscripted into the army in peacetime, ain't they? It's called National Service.

Yeah, and what do they call it when you get married? It's called the Marriage Service, isn't it? That shows it's the same sort of thing.

Defeated by Tommy's superior powers of reasoning, Billy fell silent for a while, then he said, Well, I'll just emigrate, that's all. They're not gonna make me marry no girl. I'll just go to a foreign land, that's all, Africa or Timbuctoo.

You'd have to be careful where you went, Tommy said pessimistically. In some of those foreign places, men have more than one wife, dozens sometimes.

Crikey! The thought of being chained to a dozen Peggy Parkins blighted the rest of Billy's day.

*****

Mrs Banbury's faith in the BBC weather man was not betrayed. The weather did indeed continue fine, giving her ample opportunity to enjoy the garden swing. She found, however, that she had not located it to best advantage, and decided to have it moved to the other side of the lawn. To this end, the following Saturday she waited at her front gate to find some young helpers, having first made sure that there was a sufficient supply of halfpennies in her purse. Peggy Parkin and Tommy's sister Tillie were the first to show up. Peggy had so far run only one errand, and that for the miserly baker Bob Wetherby, who had paid her only a farthing. They were keen therefore to find some more remunerative task. A little later Billy Enright turned up alone, Tommy having been taken into town by his mother to buy a suit. Right, children, Mrs Banbury said brightly. A halfpenny each if you help me move the garden swing.

You paid us twopence last time, Peggy reminded her.

Yes, dear, but that was only because . . .

Twopence, Peggy said firmly.

Oh, all right, Mrs Banbury agreed wearily, wondering when children had become so mercenary. Why, in her young days . . .

The moving of the swing was quickly accomplished, and Mrs Banbury handed four halfpennies to Billy. Outside the front gate, the three of them looked at the coins. With memories of the previous week still fresh in their minds, neither Billy nor Peggy made any attempt to claim the lion's share.

We could do the same as last time, Peggy suggested. If I put a penny in . . .

Oh no you don't, Peggy Parkin, Billy swiftly interjected. If anyone's putting a penny in, it's gonna be me!

All right, Billy, Peggy agreed sweetly, you put a penny in.

As Peggy had correctly surmised, Billy was unable to do so. Well, I would, but it just so happens I left my money in my other trousers, he lied.

Never mind, said Peggy. It works just as well if I take a halfpenny out, borrowing it like, then we each take a halfpenny, then I pay you back the halfpenny I borrowed. I'll just borrow a halfpenny then, and she reached towards their earnings.

Oh no you don't, Billy objected instinctively, I'll take the halfpenny out. He transferred one of the coins to his pocket, and they each then took one of the three that remained.

Right, said Peggy, now you've got to pay back the halfpenny that you borrowed, Billy. You owe us a farthing each.

I haven't got a farthing, Billy said.

No matter, I can give you change. Peggy reached under her skirt and retrieved her farthing. Give me a halfpenny, and here's your farthing change. Billy was thinking furiously as he exchanged one of his halfpennies for a farthing. You still owe Tillie a farthing, so give it to her, Peggy ordered, and Billy handed the coin over.

Good, now we're straight then. Toodle-oo, Billy, it's nice doing business with you, and Peggy and Tillie skipped off down the road.

Out of earshot of Billy, Peggy turned to Tillie. Boys! They never learn. No more sense than they were born with.

That's what my mum says about my dad. Good for nothing, she says he is.

My mum says my dad is good for only one thing.

What's that then? a curious Tillie asked.

Dunno. I asked her and she said 'Never you mind'.

That's mums for you. When I asked mine why she married dad if he was good for nothing, she just looked at me and started to cry.

I'm never going to get married, Peggy declared. I just don't see the use of it. They're always rowing, anyway, married folks. I'm not going to have anything to do with men, and I'm going to tell my daughters not to either.

Still, we need boys around, don't we? Tillie suggested.

Do we? What for?

Well, if there weren't any boys, who would we diddle out of their pocket money?

Shrieking with laughter, the girls ran up the road.

Billy stared at the coin in his hand morosely. They used to burn girls as witches, he thought, and he was beginning to see why. Mrs Banbury had given them four such coins to share between the three of them. He now had one, which meant that Peggy and Tillie had the other three between them, though how that had come about he could not fathom. Although he would have fiercely denied it to anyone else, he had to admit to himself that Peggy had outwitted him, not once, but twice. He could see that it had something to do with the way that the division of spoils had been calculated. Hitherto he had associated the word 'calculate' with sums set by teachers for the purpose of torturing schoolboys. He was now struck by the revolutionary idea that arithmetical skills could be put to practical, even profitable, purposes.

The thought was still with him a few weeks later when the summer holidays came to an end and he went back to junior school to start his final year there. When he left school at the end of that academic year, his final junior school report contained the following entry against the subject 'Arithmetic':

Billy has pulled his socks up this year, and has made up all the ground lost and more. I expect him to do well in the scholarship exam and he should cope well with mathematics at grammar school.

*****


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