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“J.U.F.,” said Bunkle. Then as nobody took any notice he rose and went behind Jill’s chair. “J.U.F!” he shouted in her ear, and his sister jumped so that the stitches of the jersey she was knitting ran off the needle.
“You positive little pest!” she said angrily. “Look what you’ve done! What do you want to bellow down my ear for? I’m not deaf.”
“Well, if you aren’t, why didn’t you answer the first time? And, anyhow, I didn’t, you did.”
“Did what?” asked Jill, trying to pick up her stitches.
“Drop them,” said Bunkle, grinning, “You aren’t awfully good at knitting, are you? Mummy would have had all those stitches on again in the twinkling of an eye.”
He leaned his chin heavily on her shoulder and breathed down her neck.
“Oh, Bunkle, don’t,” said Jill, “Of course I’m not as good as Mummy, I know that, and I hate knitting, anyhow, only I must have something to do.”
“Eggzackerly,” said her young brother. “That’s just what I said, J.U.F.”
Jill picked up her last stitch, put down her knitting and firmly pushed Bunkle away from her. “If you don’t stop breathing down my neck and leave me alone I’ll put you in the passage and lock the door.”
“Sez you!” jeered Bunkle. “Jolly good show that would be, when there isn’t any key. J.U.F. for you!”
“I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about, with all this J.U.F.-ing,” said Jill, “but if you think I can’t keep you out of this room you’re jolly well wrong. There is such a thing as putting a chair back under the door-handle.”
“Not in this room, there isn’t,” Bunkle retorted. “The door opens outwards. J.U.F. four times!”
Jill rose, grabbed hold of Bunkle, dragged him to the sofa, held him down on it, squirming and wriggling, and appealed to Robin.
“Robin, come and help! We’ll never have a moment’s peace with Bunkle in this mood.”
Her fourteen-year-old brother looked up with a grin. “We never have a moment’s peace with Bunkle in any mood,” he said. Just wait till I’ve glued this piece of balsa wood and I’ll come.”
Bunkle got one hand free and poked his elder sister in the ribs, finding the exact spot where she was most ticklish. She squealed and then, as he poked her again, began to laugh and squirm, so that the two of them slid off the sofa on to the floor.
“Oh, do come, Robin,” she gasped. “It’s like trying to hold an octopus, his arms and legs wave about so. I need about six pairs of hands to hold on to him. I’m sure you weren’t as strong when you were ten.”
“I expect I was really,” said Robin. “But with only a year between us you weren’t always trying to keep me in order.”
“Jolly lucky, you were,” said Bunkle. “Jolly lucky, not to have a bossy elder sister trying to be grown-up all the time. J.U.F. for me, I call it.”
Jill gave up trying to hold him down and scrambled to her feet. “If you say J.U.F. again I shall scream,” she said. “What does it mean, anyhow?”
It was Robin who answered. “Jolly unfair,” he said. “At least it used to when I was at prep-school. I still brood over the J.U.F.-ness of old Cozens, confiscating my marbles and not giving them back to me at the end of term.”
“Oh, Cozens, he’s worse than J.U.F.” Bunkle exclaimed, sitting up and crossing his legs under him. “He’s a thief.”
Jill went back to her own chair by the window and up her knitting. “You shouldn’t say that about people,” she reproved.
“Why not, if it’s true? If taking things belonging to other people and not giving them back isn’t stealing, what is?”
“I don’t suppose he meant never to give them back,” said Jill. “Probably he just forgot, like you do when, you borrow my bike pump.”
“Don’t you believe it,” said Bunkle, scowling. “Old Cozens just revels in taking things away from people, and he revels even more in never giving them back. He’s got hundreds and hundreds of things of mine.”
“I bet he has,” said Robin with a grin. “Gosh, I’m glad I don’t have to try and teach you anything!”
“Now that’s just where you’re wrong,” said Bunkle smugly. “Actually I’m jolly easy to teach. Mr. Jones says I’ve got a brilliant brain when I choose to use it. The trouble is old Cozens won’t realise that my brain won’t work if I sit up straight. My legs get the fidgets in a desk seat. Now if I could sit like this on the floor I’d think and think for hours and hours, like Buddha. Interesting, that is! Perhaps I am a Buddha? Perhaps I’ve lived lots and lots of lives before. Perhaps once I was an earwig?”
“Why an earwig?” asked Jill. “Horrible things, their forky tails give me the shivers!”
“Earwigs,” said Bunkle loftily “are extremely interesting creatures and make the most devoted mothers.”
“How on earth do you know that?” asked Robin, laughing.
“It was one of the only interesting bits in the Nature book Aunt Elizabeth gave me for Christmas,” said Bunkle. “I’ve felt quite differently about earwigs ever since I read that earwig babies are soft and white and that the mother earwig looks after them as devotedly as a hen with chickens.” He sat for a moment staring into space and then added gloomily, “Bother, now I’ve got that J.U.F. feeling again, just when fighting with Jill had made me forget it for a moment or two.”
Robin picked up a tiny bit of wood with a pair of tweezers and added it to the model he was making. He wasn’t particularly good at brain work but at making things of all sorts he was clever, particularly things that required neat fingers and patience to put together.
“Who’s being J.U.F. now?” he enquired.
“God,” replied his young brother. “J.U.F., God is.”
“Bunkle!” exclaimed Jill, scandalised.
“Well, He is! I think He arranges things very badly and if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t put up with it, that I wouldn’t!”
“Such as?” queried Robin, grinning.
“Aunts,” said Bunkle. “Fancy making the sort of aunts that go and fall downstairs and break their legs in the holidays. Fancy giving Mummy the sort of sisters who are always doing things to themselves or getting things wrong with them, so that she has to go rushing off to the rescue and looking after them instead of fun with us. I don’t know how she sticks those sisters of hers, honestly I don’t.”
“I think all our aunts are nice, and Aunt Susan’s a darling,” said Jill. “After all, no-one falls down stairs on purpose, and actually I think Mummy’s quite enjoying being here. She’s awfully fond of Aunt Susan and hardly sees anything of her when we’re at home.”
“Queer,” murmured Bunkle, shaking his head. “Families are pretty queer things really, aren’t they? I mean I’m quite fond of you sometimes, though I can’t think why. But, Jill, surely you can’t like all the aunts? Not Aunt Evelyn, she’s awful!”
Jill was busy counting the stitches of her pattern and did not answer, so Robin said, “I don’t like her much, I must say. But then she’s not a proper aunt, she’s only by marriage, and, anyhow, why bother about her? She’s out in Kenya most of the time and we hardly ever see her.”
“I’m always feeling she might come back and live near us,” replied Bunkle darkly. “Uncle Robert will have to retire some day, and they both like Mummy. That’s the worst of it, everyone does like Mummy, even horrors like Aunt E. I pray like anything that the natives or a lion will get rid of her before Uncle Robert is due to retire.”
“You really mustn’t pray that sort of prayer, Billy,” said Jill, using his proper name instead of his nickname, to show her disapproval.
“Why not? When there’s a war on people always pray they’ll win it, and you can’t win a war without killing off a few enemies, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t ask God to kill off some of mine, whether there’s a war on or not,” said Bunkle in a reasonable tone of voice.
“Wars are quite different,” said Jill firmly and started counting again.
“Why are wars different?”
“Oh, Bunkle, do stop talking just for the sake of talking,” said his sister. “I can’t concentrate on this pattern and argue with you at the same time. Look, I don’t think it’s raining so hard now. Why don’t you get your bike and take that bill down to the butcher’s for Mummy? She meant to take it herself, I know, but she rushed off in a hurry and forgot it, and it’s early-closing today.”
Bunkle went over to the window and stared out. “I can’t think why anyone ever lives in this sort of place,” he said. “Think of all the things we can do when we’re at home, and here there’s nothing decent we can do, absolutely nothing.”
“I expect there’d be plenty to do if one was grown up,” said Robin. “Not to-day when it’s raining, there’s not all that much we can do at home when it’s soggy wet, except that we’ve got our own muck-room where we can make more mess and we haven’t got a living-in maid like Aunt Susan has, so we can cook and make toffee and things in the kitchen, but if Daddy was here and it was fine we could sail, and if Mummy wasn’t so busy doing all Aunt Susan’s jobs for her we’d have the car more and could go for picnics and things, and in summer the bathing would be super.”
Bunkle looked unconvinced. “No decent garden, only a horrid lawn and flower-beds, no fields or farm. It’s all “if only” and it’s J.U.F. of God to make Daddy’s job take him away from home just when he’d be useful. Oh, well, I suppose I might as well swoosh down to the butcher’s. It’s better than doing nothing.”
It was quite true that there did not seem much for children to do in Sandalford during the Easter holidays. In the summer the town would be gay with holiday makers and the streets full of people in sailing clothes, but it was not a good centre for winter sailing, for the coast needed knowing and the currents could be dangerous, so that at the moment most of the boats were still laid up and their owners either elsewhere or occupied with overhauling sails and ropes or busy painting and caulking.
Robin might have been quite interested in helping with that sort of a job but Bunkle always wanted to be on the go, and there did not seem to be much to explore in an area largely built up with small houses in small gardens, nor was the shore interesting for the tide just rose and fell and never seemed to go out more than a yard or two.
On this wet April morning the High Street was almost deserted. By twelve o’clock most people had already done their shopping for provisions and gone home to cook the lunch or the mid-day dinner as the case might be, and Bunkle having delivered the bill and the cheque at the butcher’s stood irresolute not knowing quite what to do next. He thought of leaving his bike by the shops and walking down to the sea, but rejected that idea when he remembered that from the windows of the two attic bedrooms which he and Robin and Jill were occupying they had seen when they woke a grey leaden sea merging into a grey, leaden sky and they had already discovered that the beach held little of interest in the way of shells to be picked up and unless there was a good storm with big waves there was never much worth finding in the way of flotsam and jetsam.
Where else could he go? Where hadn’t he been? Nowhere really except up the narrow road behind the baker’s shop which he had not thought worth exploring because it appeared to be lined with small bungalows on either side. However, for want of any better idea he set off along it and was surprised to find that he soon had to pedal quite hard and the road became so steep that he had to get off and push his bike. It curved round as well as rising so sharply and soon the bungalows ceased and the road narrowed and the tarred surface changed to gravel studded with potholes full of water. He started to ride again, weaving his way in and out between the potholes, and then saw that ahead of him, practically blocking the lane, was a large furniture removal van, into which as he came up to it two hot and red-faced men were trying to lift a large and unwieldy piece of furniture.
The van appeared to be almost full already and he wondered where all the stuff in it could have come from. Then he noticed that behind the shrubby bushes and grass verge on his right there was a high brick wall thickly topped with broken glass and he realised that the back end of the van was alongside a pair of rusty iron gates, beyond which he could see a very narrow moss-grown drive curving away down hill to some house which was completely hidden among trees.
“I say, can I help?” he asked, dismounting and propping his bike against the wall.
One of the men rested his end of the tall-boy on the of the van and glanced round.
“You, son? Yes, you can. Hop up beside that desk, see and hold that piece of sacking over it so’s it won’t slip down, then me and my mate can give this piece a proper shove. We’re a man short to-day and it’s awkward, there’s a lot of good stuff in this van we don’t want to risk chipping.”
Bunkle climbed up into the van and scrambling on to the top of a couple of wooden cases managed to lean over the desk from the back and hold the large square of hessian covering the front of it firmly in place as directed.
With a lot of puffing and blowing and ejaculations of “To me a bit, Bert. . . . No, to you now. . . . That’s right, together now. . . . Over a bit more. . . . Easy does it . . . .” the heavy piece of furniture was fitted in and it was not until it was in place that Bunkle realised that he could not now possibly get out of the van again!
“I say,” he said, peering past the tall-boy, “where are you going? I can’t get out. I’m stuck, I can’t possibly get through either in front or behind.”
The younger of the two removal men shoved his cap to the back of his head and wiped his forehead. “Strike me pink!” he exclaimed, “No more you can’t! We ain’t been so clever after all. What are we going to do now, Bill?”
Bill, the grey-haired one, looked harassed, “Where do you live, sonny?” he asked. “Far from here?”
“Miles and miles,” said Bunkle cheerfully. Then as he saw the dismayed expressions on both men’s faces he relented and added, “But I’m staying just in Cliff End Road. The thing is, though, that I must be back in time for lunch. My aunt’s maid, Florence, creates if we aren’t.”
“Coo,” said the younger man. “You a relation of Mrs. Radburn’s? That Florence of hers is a proper Tartar. Small wonder as she’s never married. Ticked me off proper one day, she did, when I took a mattress in from the shop as ’ad ’ad to be remade. Said I ’adn’t wiped me feet proper before going into the ’ouse. She can cook, though. I’ll say that. Made a smashing cake for the Church sale the other day. My missus won it in the raffle and we enjoyed it a treat.”
It was obvious that Bert was a talker, but his talk was not helping to solve Bunkle’s problem as to how to get out of the van and it was the grey-haired man who asked, “Supposing we was to lay your bike alongside of these cases, I reckon that it’d just about go, could you come along of us as far as Colyton? We’re only taking this load to the repository there and so soon as the tall-boy is out you’ll be clear.”
“Where’s Colyton?” asked Bunkle.
“About three miles inland,” the man replied, “but it would be all down hill for you to ride back. I reckon you’d be home by one o’clock if you didn’t stop off anywhere.”
“I should think that’d be all right,” said Bunkle. “It would be something to do. But shan’t I suffocate when you shut the back up?”
“Not you,” said Bert, lifting the bicycle in and fastening up the tail board and starting to close the doors above it. “There’s a little window up front, opening into the driving cabin, what we use when we sleep in the van on long trips. I’ll open it in a minute. Just you climb forward over those other cases. You can’t do no harm to them, they’re solid as you make ’em. You’ll find a big settee up front and a couple of armchairs. The chairs are on top of the settee but I reckon you’ll sit comfortable enough.”
For a moment Bunkle was in darkness, then a small square shutter in the front wall of the van was pushed back and Bert’s grinning face appeared in it. “There you are, all fine and dandy,” he said. “You’d best get settled up front before I starts driving. Something shocking this road is for potholes. Won’t never be no better till it’s tarred, and that won’t be till old Sir Harry dies and they sell the Manor Mill land for building.”
A moment later the van started to lurch and bump along the narrow road, and Bill, the older man, said quietly, “I’ll be sorry when that day comes. When the Manor land goes there won’t be no proper country for three miles round Sandalford.”
“I didn’t think there was any now,” said Bunkle. “All the roads I’ve biked on so far seem to have houses along them. I didn’t know there was a bit with proper fields and things so near the town.”
“Reckon there must be a hundred acres or more goes with the Manor Mill, and it must be worth a packet as building land, but the old gentleman won’t sell. Says it’s a sacred trust to keep it for his grandson who’s not been seen or heard of for years. Went on a walking tour somewhere abroad he did, and didn’t come back, but the old man won’t believe he’s dead, nor the old lady wouldn’t neither, when she was alive. Kept his room dusted and the bed made up week in week out so that it’d be all ready for him to come back to.”
“Hadn’t he any mother or father?” asked Bunkle curiously.
“Went west in a car smash they did, without never knowing the boy was missing. Lucky they was, I reckon, but it fair broke the old couple up. Now there’s only the Colonel left, and he hasn’t lived in the Manor Mill these five years past. Not since after his wife died. He went a bit funny with losing her on top of the other three, wouldn’t do nothing to the place nor ’ave anyone in to look after ’im. Then he moved himself into a private hotel and just locked the old place up.”
“Yes,” said Bill, “a crying shame it was, really, for it was a right pretty place one time. Fond of her garden the old lady was and the roses were a show. But Sir Harry didn’t care for nothing but fishing and now he’s grown too shaky on his pins to go after the salmon he just sits there wanting to die.”
“Which he don’t look likely to do, neither,” commented Bert. “Mr. Bell, that’s the senior partner of the solicitors what ’andle the property for ’im, said to the ’ouse-agents the other day that ’e wouldn’t be surprised if the old gent lived to be a ’undred.”
“Where used he to fish?” asked Bunkle. “I haven’t seen any water here except the sea. And how did the mill work, was it a windmill one?”
“Lor’, bless you, no, it was a water-mill. There’s three or four of them in the river valley between here and Colyton,” said Bert.
“Perhaps you’d not rightly call it a river,” put in Bill, “just a fairish sized stream the Sandal is, but it’s spring fed and never runs dry. Them mills used to grind all the flour for the bakeries round about, when my dad was a boy, but there’s none of them working now.”
“But where does the stream go into the sea?” asked Bunkle. “I’ve walked from end to end of the beach and I’ve not seen a stream running out anywhere.”
Bert laughed. “It don’t,” he said. “Leastways, not directly. It turns away behind Sandalford and runs parallel with the main road for quite a way, only there’s several fields between the main road and it so you’d likely not have noticed it. After Lower Mill Farm it runs into the Durrington river and that runs into the sea five miles from here where the sand cliffs end and the stone ones begin. Durrington’s where Sir Harry had his fishing,” said Bill. “Used to drive over in a wagonette with a spanking pair of grey horses before the First World War, so my dad used to tell me.”
“Sandalford,” said Bunkle. “I suppose I ought to have guessed that with the name ending in “ford” there was a river somewhere, but I don’t remember crossing any bridge in the car as you come into the town?”
“There’s no road bridge in Sandalford,” said Bill, “only a wooden foot-bridge. This road we’re on now used to be the main road once and it went down right past the Manor Mill house and through the fields at the bottom into the town. But there wasn’t never any bridge there, seemingly, just a ford where the stream has a hard bottom. The foot-bridge was put there later.”
“That’s right,” agreed Bert. “The drive down to the house is the old road, and it used to be a right-of-way even though it runs past the house. I reckon they’d no legal right to keep them gates shut, really, but no-one ain’t bothered to use the old road for years past, for it don’t lead to nowhere except the house. Beyond it you’d need an axe to chop your way through.”
“Need an axe? Why?” asked Bunkle.
“Growed up it has like a jungle, and all in five years. There was cows grazing the water meadows and corn growing in the top field the year the old lady died, but now you can’t hardly get up to the front door.”
Bunkle settled himself more comfortably in his armchair.
“I’m all moithered,” he said. “First you talk about the road going down to the Manor Mill, then you talk about not being able to get up to the front-door, and when I came across you you were loading the van without there being a sign of a house anywhere. I’ve never known anything so muddling!”
“It isn’t all that muddling really, son,” he said. “The bit of the old road which is the drive is steep for a short way and has a nasty corner at the bottom. Then there’s a flat bit of land where the mill stands, but the trees have grown up so thickly now that you can’t see the buildings. We loaded this last van pretty near full at the house but the drive surface is that slippery, what with being all overgrown with moss and grass, that the wheels kept spinning when we tried to put more weight in her and we had to carry the last three or four pieces of furniture up to the gate by hand. The auctioneers’s clerk gave us a hand, otherwise we should never have managed.”
“Has everything been sold, then?” asked Bunkle. “I thought you said it couldn’t be until Sir Harry dies.”
“The old gentleman let the furniture go but he won’t sell the building nor the land. He’ll let it unfurnished if anyone wants it but the house-agent says no-one he’s took round so far ’as felt like tackling it. ’T isn’t so much the house, it’s the jungle round it as puts everyone off. It would cost a mint o’ money to get everything put to rights and no-one ain’t going to spend thousands on a place as isn’t their own unless they can rent it for a long term of years. Old Sir Harry won’t agree to more ’n a seven year lease, seemingly.”
“I’ll go and look at it,” said Bunkle. “All wild and jungly, it sounds super!”
“You’ve missed yer chance,” said Bert. “You did ought to ’ave ’appened along earlier. I doubt you’ll not get in now. Them gates is kept locked and padlocked and only the ’ouse-agent and the solicitor ’as keys. This is the last of the stuff to come out of it and the auctioneer’s clerk’ll ’ave locked up and gone before you get back. Two days ago you should have been there, when the furniture was on view. You’d ’ave been able to go all round everywhere then and nobody would’ve asked any questions.”
“But surely there isn’t a wall all round that place?” asked Bunkle. “What about the stream? That must run into it somewhere.”
“So it do, under an arch through the wall above the house and out under another lower down. When the old gentleman bought the place and made the garden they built the wall to give shelter from the sea winds. The trees ’adn’t grown up then like they ’as now and the water ran through the rose garden, seemingly, and statues and all sorts there was in the garden, too.”
“Bother,” said Bunkle. “J.U.F. that I didn’t know about it in time. I’d ’ve liked to poke round there.”
“I bet you would, and so would plenty of others!” said Bill. “I reckon it’s a good thing that there has been those walls all round the place, or there’d have been people breaking into the house for more than curiosity all these past five years.”
“And now the house is absolutely empty?” said Bunkle.
“Yes, everything’s gone, barring some junk in the attics; old tin trunks and such like that nobody wants and no-one will bother to clear.”
“A tin trunk would be jolly useful,” said Bunkle thoughtfully.
To order your copy of Bunkle Brings It Off see our online shop, or order from one of our Stockists.