Snake!

snake

Whenever I hear anyone speaking of a fondness for chocolate I think of my mentor, Miss Smith.

In today’s world, she would be called obese, but to me she has always been a large lady with a rather high pitched voice and much given to laughter

She came into my life just after the beginning of the Second World War, when rationing was introduced. My mother promptly went into overdrive. Cleanliness was next to godliness in her world and every available coupon was to be put aside to meet that need.

“No more sweets and chocolate,” Mam announced with her usual venom. “You are going to have to manage without.”

Dad and I hardly noticed the difference, anyway. It might have helped if he had spoken up, or even argued for once, but as usual he kept quiet, slipping out of the house at the first opportunity, collecting his helmet and gas mask on the way. Home Guard Duty. That was the one thing she couldn’t interfere with, try as she might.

She sat at the kitchen table and worked out how many coupons she could exchange, then spreading the word around the neighbourhood. Within a few hours women were knocking on the door, all offering to exchange, but that didn’t suit her plans. She was looking for just one person to take the lot in exchange for soap coupons. They walked away, muttering, wondering why they had bothered.

A couple of weeks later, I arrived home from school just as someone knocked at the front door.

“Go on, stupid,” Mam shouted. “Answer it.”

I was small for my age and could only just manage to reach the latch. As I pulled the door open I nearly fell over with the weight of it. The largest woman I had ever seen was standing in the doorway, filling the opening, blocking out the light.

“I’ve come to see your mother, my dear,” she said. “It’s about the coupons.”

I had lost my tongue, but Mam was straight behind me, inspecting the woman’s shoes before inviting her in.

The woman introduced herself as Eleanor Smith and they immediately came to an agreement. Every Friday afternoon, at five o’clock, Miss Smith would bring her soap coupons and exchange them for Mam’s chocolate and sugar allowance.

“I often wonder what I would do if I couldn’t have my chocolate,” she laughed. “It’s becoming an addiction, it really is. I just can’t manage without it.”

She ruffled my hair on the way out. I felt she was trying to apologise.

“No wonder she’s so fat,” Mam snorted in disgust after she had gone. “Greedy madam, that’s what she is.”

Laughter was seldom heard in our house.

It became a routine. Every Friday Mam cut the coupons out of the books and left them on a plate in the hall, ready for Miss Smith. I didn’t mind at first, but later on, when Mam started a cleaning job and I had to take sandwiches instead of coming home for dinner, I began to realise what I was missing. My friends all had a proper sandwich box, including some fruit and sometimes, a bar of chocolate. I had a slice of bread and dripping in a brown paper bag. Sometimes she forgot.

At first, my friends would share, but then they became resentful, especially over the chocolate. It wasn’t their fault. Everything was so scarce.

After a while I began to dislike Miss Smith’s Friday visits. I half hoped she would bring me some of her chocolate, but she never did. I reasoned that some of the coupons had to be mine. After all, one of the books did have my name on it. She just seemed to get fatter and gigglier every week, until my dislike turned to resentment and I loathed the very sight of her.

I didn’t dare say anything to Mam. Even hinting at my thoughts would have brought her out in one of her rages. She would bring out the cane and I would get a beating and sent up to my room without my dinner, sometimes not even knowing why.

Then there was Snake! Snake was a four-inch wide leather belt which had once belonged to my grandfather. It lived, curled up in the living-room cupboard. It had a brass buckle with two hooks that shone like beady eyes whenever the door was opened.

He was my worst nightmare.

Whenever she threatened me with Snake I would run up to my room and hide under the quilt, shaking with fear. I would wake up screaming in the night.

I was sitting at the top of the stairs in the dark, listening.

A couple of weeks before Christmas Miss Smith came as usual, to exchange her coupons.

“Do you know, Mrs. Dawkins, I’ve actually managed to save two bars of chocolate for my nephew and niece, to go into their Christmas stockings. I’m so pleased with myself.”

I was sitting at the top of the stairs in the dark, listening. That was my chocolate she’d saved. Mine! I hated her with every inch of my being. It all seemed so unfair.

As she picked up the coupons, I thought I saw something flutter down and settle under the hall table. When she’d gone I’d creep downstairs, stretch my arm as far as it would go and come up with a piece of magic. It was one of Mam’s coupons!

I was trembling with excitement and fear in equal portions. I didn’t know what to do. Should I give it to Mam? She wouldn’t even thank me for it. I didn’t see why I should give it to Miss Smith. She’d had enough already.

I argued with myself all weekend, the coupon practically burning a hole in my pocket. I had a few pennies in my moneybox. If I could get them without Mam seeing me, I could share with my best friend Martin. After all, he had shared his often enough. But it was Mam I was really afraid of. I knew I’d get such a pasting if she found out. By Monday I had made up my mind. I was determined. It would be my chocolate, no matter what.

On Sunday night Mam was so busy having a go at Dad that she didn’t hear me take my pennies out of the tin. After school on Monday Martin and I called at the newsagents and bought a chocolate cream bar, which we shared behind Martin’s dad’s shed. I had never tasted anything quite so wonderful.

By Friday I was planning to sit on the stairs again just in the hope and could think of nothing else.   Consequently, I was totally unprepared for what happened next.

As I arrived home from school a hard hand clamped down on my neck and I was dragged into the hall. Snake was out on the hall table.

Mam had found out from the newsagent and stood there, white with anger. She screamed at me.

“I know what you’ve done. You’re a thief and no thief lives in this house. You will be punished for this.   PUNISHED!!

I was terrified, shaking like a leaf at the sight of Snake.

“Please God,” I whispered. “Please, please – don’t let her hit me with Snake!”

I think He must have been listening, because as Mam picked up the belt, Miss Smith arrived. The tension was electric. Miss Smith immediately realised what was about to happen.

She looked horrified. “For heaven’s sake, what are you doing?”

“We have a thief in this house,” Mam hissed. “A chocolate thief would you believe.   The punishment will fit the crime and you will be a witness to it.”

Miss Smith snatched Snake from Mam’s hands.  ”Are you completely mad? You cannot punish a little girl with this! It will cause enormous pain and damage.”

Mam tried to snatch Snake back, but Miss Smith would have none of it. She was very angry.

“I shall take this belt with me so that you cannot use it. I have a mind to report you to the authorities and shall not hesitate to do so if I find you have lifted even a finger to this child.”

For the first time in my life I saw fear in Mam’s face. She stalked into the kitchen and slammed the door. What I didn’t know then, was that Miss Smith was Head at the High School and knew the authorities well.

Miss Smith smiled. “What is your name and how old are you?”

“Alice,” I whispered, still trembling. “I’m eight and a quarter.”

“Well, Alice,” she said, pulling a bar of chocolate from her pocket. “Take this and enjoy it. I’m sure I can manage without for one day.”

I whispered my thanks and ran upstairs to my room. All I could think of was that Snake was gone forever! I lay on my bed and sobbed until I finally fell asleep with exhaustion.

It took a long time for me to realise that although I had been so frightened of Snake, without him my future would have been very different.

Miss Smith continued to come every Friday throughout the duration of the war.   The episode of Snake was never mentioned again.  She always asked for me, to give me a small bar of chocolate and to make sure I was all right. Mam just managed to be civil.

Later, when I passed my exam for Grammar School, Mam refused to send me, saying she wasn’t paying for any school uniform.

Miss Smith tested me and said I was clever enough for the High School and gave me a place, then at eighteen helped me through medical school, which I really wanted to do.

Mam was furious and said she had no right, but for once Dad stood up for me, saying she should be proud of me.

It took a long time for me to realise that although I had been so frightened of Snake, without him my future would have been very different.

Now, many years later, although still full of laughter, Miss Smith is very frail. I visit her regularly – with a box of her favourite chocolates, of course.