The Book of Gran. The Hedgewitch

The Hedgewitch

the_hedgewitch Not long after the bombing began, we captured a German pilot. When I say we, I mean the LDV, (local defence volunteers), with the aid of an allotment holder and his garden fork. We were there as a backup in case things got nasty. Fritz had his empty pistol and the rest of us had pen knives or bits of wood that we had nailed together in more or less the shape of machine guns. Our weapons were almost as useful as the ones the volunteers carried as it turned out.

Our prisoner was the pilot of a Messyshit, ( I can’t say Messerschmitt to this day,)  who’d got lost in the heavy cloud, come in too low and crash landed on the playing fields at the back of our school. I suppose we should have thanked him really because if he hadn’t been such a good pilot he could quite easily have taken out a row of houses. We didn’t thank him of course, he was a German.

We saw him come down from our perch on top of the fire station. We kids raced for the playing fields while Mr Blinks, the ARP warden, raced for the air raid shelter. We could see the crash site as we crossed the playground. I fell into the ditch at the edge of the playing field and came up looking like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz film. I picked myself up and pulled twigs and dead leaves from my hair as I chased after Fritz and the gang.

The plane had gauged a trench three feet wide across the cricket pitch. Mr Ball, our games master, wouldn’t be too pleased about that when he got back from wherever it was he’d been evacuated to. He was so proud of that wicket, I’ve seen him on his hands and knees the night before a school game, snipping individual blades of grass with a pair of kitchen scissors. As it turned out it didn’t matter that the pitch had been damaged because the local council dug it up to grow veg on a few months later.

The plane had come to a halt about thirty feet short of what Fat Ernie called, the short leg boundary. I’ve never understood cricket, what sort of game revolves around a silly point and why would they want someone with short legs to stand on the boundary? You’d think they’d need someone tall wouldn’t you?

People seemed to be running from everywhere to be the first to get to the wreck. I even saw old Tin Legs Harrison doing his duck-waddle-walk from the changing rooms at the far end of the playing fields. Tin Legs lost both legs in the last lot and had been fitted with a metal ones. You could hear them clanging together as he shuffled along waving his walking stick in the air. Mr Snodgrass, who owned a book shop, limped along at the side of him shouting something about getting revenge for his trench foot.

Everyone called the First World War, the last lot for some reason. No one called this war the next lot though. I’ve often wondered what a lot was. Was it a lot of men, a lot of shooting, a lot of blood, or just a lot of nonsense that ended up costing millions of people their lives? Dad, (when he was still here,) used to say it was a lot of politicians waving their willies at each other to try to prove whose was the most impressive.) At that time I’d only ever seen one willy, Fritz’s and I have to say I wasn’t too impressed with that.

The plane had started to burn by the time we reached it. We got a lot closer than we probably should have but we were kids, inquisitive and fearless. Fritz held his gun out in front of him in case the pilot tried an ambush while the rest of us readied our pen knives. Mine was a broken old thing that I’d found on the rubbish dump, but it did have a rusty blade that I was sure could do some damage. Fritz, our leader, was about to climb onto the wing when a dozen or so LDV members came puffing across the cricket pitch. Fritz slipped his gun into his waistband and we stepped aside to allow our elders and betters free access to the site. The LDV was the forerunner of the Home Guard or, Dad’s Army as they came to be known. The government hadn’t got round to issuing them with weapons yet so they carried anything they thought might cause injury in a fight. One had a thick, wooden cudgel, another had an ancient-looking, rusty bayonet while the fishmonger, Mr Harris, had brought his fish gutting knife. The local butcher carried a cleaver that was still dripping blood. One or two of the old duffers did have a rifle but they were single shot affairs, survivors from the last lot, not the Tommy guns that proper soldiers had. When the fire got a bit fiercer they moved further away and we were ushered back with them. Every so often they’d take a nervous look over their shoulders to see if the plane was going to go up. The pilot meanwhile, was trying to get the cockpit hood open, but it seemed to be stuck.

‘He can’t get out,’ shouted Fritz. ‘He’ll burn to death.’

This news was greeted with a lot of cheering by the crowd of onlookers.

‘Serves him bloody right too,’ said one old woman with a dirty pinny wrapped around her waist. ‘I bet this swine was the one that bombed the biscuit factory. Cost our Doreen her job that did.’

‘I bet the bastard bombed the chip shop too,’ said her friend, a huge woman with three chins and a better moustache than Adolph. ‘We have to go three streets away to get our two penn’oth now.’

‘Let him fry,’ screamed Mrs Morris, the woman who used to live next door to me until her house was flattened. ‘He killed our Mavis.’ Mavis was a goldfish that hadn’t survived the devastation.

I was of the same mind to be honest, but Fritz was having none of it.

‘He’s not a bomber pilot, so it wasn’t him who blew up the factory, and, he could have taken out some houses if he’d wanted to,’ he yelled. ‘He deliberately landed on the cricket pitch to save lives. You could all be dead by now.’

Fritz ran towards the plane, and not one to miss out on anything, I ran with him. The guards, waved their weapons at us and tried to look fierce.

‘Don’t be bloody stupid,’ one of them snarled. He pointed towards the churned up wicket. ‘Get over there before I bloody well arrest you.’

‘He’s going to die,’ screamed Fritz. ‘You can’t just stand there and watch.’

‘Why should you care?’ asked a gangly man with a wart on the end of his nose.

‘It might be his uncle,’ hissed Mrs Morris, who had never liked Fritz.

Just then, a uniformed Major arrived and took control of the situation. He snatched the dirty pinny from the woman in the crowd, wrapped it around his face and ran for the aircraft. He pulled himself up onto one of the wings and began to hit the plane’s hood with the butt end of his revolver. There was a small bang from the underside of the plane and a thick black smoke filled the cockpit. The officer looked around helplessly but just then, Mr Cohen, the chairman of the allotment association arrived with a garden fork that he’d armed himself with in case of trouble. He clambered up onto the wing and used the prongs of the fork to prise open the latch of the cockpit.  The catch broke with a snap that we could hear above the noise of the fire and he and the Major pushed the hood back far enough for the coughing, spluttering pilot to drag himself through. Mr Cohen reached into the plane to try to get the navigator out but the pilot shook his head.

‘Er ist tot. Er ist tot,’ he shouted.

‘He is dead,’ Fritz translated for us. It was handy having a friend who could speak German.

The Pilot and the Major jumped down to the grass and hurried away from the now blazing aircraft. Mr Cohen casually clambered down behind them, picked up his fork and tootled off back to his allotment as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

The plane exploded bang on cue. Everyone threw themselves to the ground except the pilot who stood waiting patiently until his captors got gingerly to their feet and picked up their weapons from the floor. When he reached into his pocket two LDV men dropped their rifles and threw their hands into the air thinking he was reaching for a pistol. I’m sure that if he’d asked them they’d have surrendered en masse. Luckily, for Britain’s finest, he was just getting his cigarette case out. He selected one, put it into his mouth and offered the case to the young Major who smiled, took a cigarette himself and accepted a light.

‘Players Navy Cut?’ He seemed surprised.

‘We get them on the black market,’ said the pilot in perfect English. ‘German cigarettes taste like shit.’

By now the LDV men had regained a bit of composure. They presented arms, stamped their boots and formed a line either side of the pilot. On the orders of a loud, fat Sergeant, they began to march him across the playing field.

‘Hitler, has only got one ball,’ I screeched as they passed.

The pilot came to an abrupt halt and turned his steel-grey eyes towards me. I pulled a couple of leaves from my hair and stared back belligerently. Our eyes locked for a moment, then he smiled. ‘That might be true, young hedgewitch, but it means he still has one ball more than you.’ He smiled again and tossed his cigarette lighter to me.

‘A souvenir,’ he said.

I caught it one handed and stuffed it straight into my knickers, daring the boys to take it from me. None of them dared of course, they weren’t that brave. Firstly it might have cost them a couple of teeth and secondly, much more importantly, the contents of a girl’s pants was a complete mystery to them. It was like Pandora’s Box, a place of myths and legend, my knickers were as safe as the Bank of England.

We hung around late into the night. When the fire had burned down we went to the air raid shelter to let Mr Blinks know that it was safe to come out. I showed him my lighter and he offered me ten shillings for it. Ten shillings was a fortune back then, but I wasn’t interested. The lighter was engraved with the flyer’s name, Klaus Rettich. I was really impressed with that until Fritz translated it for me. Rettich was German for radish. That was a bit creepy, as within a year there were radishes growing all over the field. I never liked them myself. They gave me indigestion.

I gained two more nicknames to go alongside Pansy Potter that day. Hedgewitch, because that’s what the pilot had called me, and Nonads, because I had one ball less than Hitler. A few weeks later, on a school library visit, I discovered that a hedgewitch was a spirit that could fly around the countryside unseen and travel between this world and the next. The librarian said it was an old Germanic and Anglo Saxon term. I was really pleased when I found out. I thought he’d used the word as an insult. Fritz reckoned that a hedgewitch might be really useful to the government. He said I should write to Mr Churchill and offer my services as a spy.

I’ve still got that lighter. It still works too. That’s German engineering for you.



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