relates one of life's embarrassing moments as a teenager on the Isle of Man
Manx is the nationality of that sixty-odd thousand of us who were born on the Isle of Man. Add “n” to America to get the national adjective “American,” add “x” to Man and you get “Manx.” Thirty miles long by ten miles across, the Isle
of Man is in the Irish Sea, surrounded by some better-known countries. Ireland is on the left, Scotland above us, Wales is to the right and down a bit. We Manx refer to England as the adjacent island.
The Isle of Man was an ideal place to grow up during World War II. The Luftwaffe generally left us alone, other than accidentally dropping a couple of bombs in a field. I don’t think the pilots consciously meant us any harm, even though we had declared war on the Kaiser’s armies but didn’t sign the treaty in Versailles after World War I. This meant that alone amongst the allies we had been in a state of war with Germany since 1914, over thirty years. Just to be sure that Hitler knew what he was up against, the Manx government renewed the threat in 1939.
My primary concern as a teenager was finding food. Food was rationed. We weren’t exactly starving because the Isle of Man was geared to feed many thousands of tourists who of course weren’t there in wartime, but a sixteen year-old boy in any time or place simply can’t get enough food.
I had a girl friend, Averil. Averil had a friend, Spud, so called because her last name was Tate1. Spud had relatives who were farmers at Crosby, just out of town. That summer Averil and Spud spent a week or two on the farm, as a sort of vacation. They invited me out to afternoon tea. I accepted with alacrity and was there at the appointed time.
A typically formal British afternoon tea is a social event where everything is wheeled in on a trolley. You carefully balance a saucer on one knee and a plate of razor thin mustard and cress sandwiches on the other knee. You juggle a teacup in one hand, a sandwich in the other, and a napkin wherever there’s room. The only similar ritual I can think of is Japanese. Host and guests have carefully delineated roles. I’ve seen a curate ruin a promising career with a misguided wave of the hand. It’s tricky, and we British are brought up on it. It’s rather like the ability to eat chicken with a knife and fork: you have to start young.
This wasn’t like that. The occasion was informal, so the conventions were largely waived. To begin with, there were no adults, just the three of us. There was so much food that it was all laid out on a large dining room table. There were scones, jams, cakes, jellies, thick farmhouse cream, ham sandwiches, fresh butter, tarts, currant buns, cucumber sandwiches, boiled eggs-you name it, they had it. Food rationing simply did not exist on Manx farms in wartime.
My immediate concern was how to consume everything in sight without disgracing myself in front of these two attractive young ladies, one of whom I was rather fond of. The atmosphere was quite formal. We asked each other for plates to be passed. The passee scrupulously carefully thanked the passer. Conversation was scrupulously polite.
There came a moment when, just as I crammed the last of the hot buttered scones into my mouth, Averil asked me some momentous question or other which I was not easily able to answer. However, protocol required complete and anticipatory silence until I did. The sweat broke out on my forehead as I manfully tried to clear a space in which my tongue could manœuvre. The girls looked at me expectantly. I finally swallowed the last of it, but under the circumstances an apology was required.
“Terribly sorry, Averil,” I said politely, “I was masturbating my food.”
Both girls collapsed in gales of laughter, and before I left they extended another invitation, this time to a midnight feast.
The girls were sleeping in a hayloft for some reason. I suppose it was quite exciting for two properly brought up young ladies. Anyway, they pointed the building out to me and promised more food. The sly minxes sure knew the quickest way to my heart. [Manx minxes? Ed.]
At midnight I crept downstairs and went off in search of the fleshpots of Crosby.
Now, I lived in Douglas in a four-story house with my mother and elder sister. My father was in the army in North Africa. The farm at Crosby was five miles away and my only transport was my bicycle. There was no way I could even consider asking my mother’s permission for this caper. She would have at once concluded what midnight in a hayloft meant with two young girls and I couldn’t see any way to convince her of my honorable intentions.
So a night or two later I stealthily crept downstairs, exited via a rear door, and went. The fair damsels welcomed me to their tower, where we had a candlelit feast set out on a blanket on the floor.
I left just before three to return. In this quiet backwater of wartime Britain there was very little vehicular traffic in daylight, and none whatsoever at nighttime. The route from Crosby back to Douglas lay down the Ballahutchin Hill, about a quarter of a mile long, past the hamlet of Union Mills, and through the village of Braddan.
There was no moon, the sky was heavily overcast, and you couldn’t see a hand in front of you. I had no lights on my bicycle but it didn’t matter, I knew every inch of the road. Unfortunately for me there was a police patrol car parked without lights at the bottom of the Ballahutchin Hill and two policemen in black uniforms were standing in the middle of the road smoking. I didn’t know they were there. As I approached, the glowing tips of their cigarettes resembled fireflies, which puzzled me. I passed between the two men at some thirty miles an hour. At least I didn’t hit either of them.
By the time they realized what had happened, turned the car round and came after me, I had sailed through silent Union Mills and sleeping Braddan, and was walking into Douglas, pushing my bike so as not to get caught by one of the town patrols, when the patrol car drew up behind me. They nailed me for riding a bike without lights.
There was no such convenience as traffic tickets in those days. I went down to the police station to inquire what the procedure was. I learned that a summons to appear in court had been drawn up and passed to Mr. Green, the town bailiff, for delivery to me at my home.
That would never do. It was most important to me that my mother not hear about this, so I went up to Mr. Green’s house and asked him for the summons. He was both surprised and pleased. His “clients” didn’t usually come and collect their own paperwork.
On the appointed day I appeared before the magistrate and was shown into the dock. I was charged with riding a bicycle after dark with neither a white light shining to the front nor a red light shining to the rear. A policemen in the witness box gave evidence against me. I pleaded guilty and was fined 10/- (ten shillings) which was something like ten percent of a working man’s weekly wage in those days.
Both Averil and Spud were in court to lend moral and financial support. Spud opened her handbag in the courtroom and produced ten shillings. I certainly didn’t have it. I paid the fine, heaved a sigh of relief, and life returned to normal.
Not quite. I had forgotten about the press. There was virtually no crime in the Isle of Man and unbeknownst to me I was a hot item.
The next afternoon I came home and headed for the kitchen as usual, looking for food. My mother was sitting there reading the Isle of Man Times. She looked up at me incredulously.
“What on earth were you doing out on the Ballahutchin Hill at three in the morning last Wednesday,” she demanded.
I executed a creditable imitation of a startled W. C. Fields, stared at her with innocent eyes, and said “What Ballahutchin?”
“It’s all in here,” she said, thrusting the newspaper at me. “I want to know what you were doing out there in the middle of the night and not in your own bed.”
My mind racing, I took the paper. There I was on the front page under sensational headlines: “Douglas Boy Riding a Bicycle Without Lights.” No such thing as hiding the names to protect the guilty; there were six or eight column inches reporting this outrage in all its gory detail, including my full name and address.
“Well,” said my mother, “Exactly what was going on?”I thought quickly. “Ah yes!” I replied. “I see what’s happened,” and showed her the place on the page with my finger.
“It’s a misprint;” I explained. “They’ve put ‘a.m.’ instead of ‘p.m.’”
“Oh!” she said, narrowed her eyes, and suspiciously took the paper back to reread the article. I turned and sauntered toward the front door feeling I was wearing lead boots. I was just closing it when a scream came echoing down the long corridor: “Hey, it’s broad daylight at 3:00 p.m.” I carefully closed the door behind me.
Wise woman, she never brought the subject up again.
1 Now married to a knight and living in England. Possible now Lady Spud. To my great surprise I learned in recent years that her father and my father were friends.
Regular readers here will know that Paul Gregson was born on the Isle of Man, which is in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Besides intersting storytellers like Paul, Man is known for its own breed of cat, the Manx, which has several unique aspects: either no tail at all or a short stump of a tail, a very soft meow, and it's hind legs are a bit longer that its front legs, which makes for an interesting sight watching it lope along. They make very good pets and are exceptionally good with children.
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