‘it’s a poor mut that conner find a way to feed its sen’ was one of my dad’s sayings.
Kenny Willot was poor but true to form was pretty good at finding ways to feed himself.
At a time when there was a great deal of poverty about Kenny’s family was the poorest in our street. His father had long since abdicated his paternal duties. He had returned from the Great War shell-shocked and now spent most of his time and all his meager army pension on the libations on offer at the Jug and Glass.
Yet true to my dad’s pearl of wisdom, the Willot family survived. Mrs Willot took in washing, the younger children recovered beer and ‘pop’ bottles, ran errands and picked coal. Kenny, the eldest, worked Thursday and Friday evenings after school and all day ‘till four on Saturday in the small hand-bottling plant behind Philpott’s Dynamic brewery. We were pals and sometimes I would go down there and help him to bottle beer. Afterwards we would share a crafty bottle of stout ‘to improve our health’.
On Christmas Eve Kenny had been charged with finishing off the cleaning of the bottling plant and locking up the premises. Although this was quite a responsibility for a thirteen year old it was never questioned. The rest of the staff had left him to it and gone to celebrate the start of Christmas in the bar of the Spinners.
I’d agreed to go down to the brewery and give Kenny a hand so that he could get finished by four o’clock. Once finished our plan was to get up to Claythorne covered market and grab what we could of the sell off food bargains before the stalls closed for the holiday.
Things went smoothly and we were sitting down and supping our rieviving bottle of stout by ten to four. The fly in the ointment was ‘Owd’ Percy Chinley. He had not collected his Christmas order in spite of an agreed collection time of three thirty.
Percy Chinley was noted for his parsimony; not only was he mean with money he was mean with everything. He never gave away a thing – time, money, smiles – what ever belonged to him belonged to him and was never shared.
The clock moved on – four fifteen, four thirty. We shared a second bottle of stout. By four forty five Kenny was beginning to despair. He knew that there was a good chance that he wouldn’t be in time for the market.
The chances of buying food for the family's Christmas dinner were beginning to slip away with each tick of the clock. Each swing of the pendulum made the festive meal less likely.
At ten to five ‘Owd’ Percy arrived grumping and moaning at the world yet addressing nobody. We loaded his ancient flatbed T Ford with two small barrels of bitter and three dozen crates of mixed beers. At ten past five Percy trundled out of the yard without a thank you or a hint of Christmas cheer for either of us.
We locked the gates, shoved the key through the letter box and scurried up the hill to Claythorne market to try and beat its five thirty closing time.
Percy’s wagon was parked outside the main doors. He’ed left it ticking over. Kenny and I looked at each other. For a moment we pondered over pinching the little wagon, just to get our own back. In spite of the headiness of the stout we decided against it. Kenny’s first shopping enquiries were along the butchers’ aisle. He was disconsolate when he found that there were no bargain cuts of meat left. Percy Chinley had bought them all. Carrying a box full of meat ‘Owd’ Percy came down the main aisle. Percy let it be known that he was going to park outside Eckington Big Pit and sell the meat and the beer on to the miners of the back shift as they left for their Yuletide break.
He brushed pas Kenny and me chuckling to himself.
Kenny was annoyed. He made to storm after Percy. I blocked his path. Percy stuck the box of meat onto the back of his motor.
Kenny dodged around me, picked up an old potato from the gutter and then ran towards Percy. I ran after him and grabbed his shoulder just as he prepared to launch the missile.
Kenny stopped, stood for a moment, freed himself from my grasp then stuffed the spud up the exhaust of the Ford. The motor began to die. In response Percy reved the engine hard. There was an almighty bang and the potato shot out of the exhaust and splattered on the door of the market hall. The Ford shot forward and the box of meat fell off the back.
Unaware of his dislodged load Percy roared off down the road, the narrow wheels skidding on the fresh fallen snow.
Kenny and I looked at each other. “Flotsam or jetsam?” I asked Kenny.
“Jetsam,” yelled Kenny,
We rushed to pick up the meat.
Kenny waived a piece of pork leg triumphantly in the air.
“It just needs a bit of a wash then it’ll be fit to eat,” he said.
A green grocer who had seen the event let out a huge belly laugh.
“Serves him right,” he stuttered between guffaws. “Merry Christmas,” he said giving Kenny a half sack of dinged fruit and vegetables.