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Mars Bars by Ken Abbott

Mars Bars by Ken Abbott

Chapter 1 - Leaving the House

I awoke to find myself looking at the ceiling. This was not what I wanted, so I tilted my head slightly and cast my gaze at the window. Once it reached the window it required only a small mental effort to force it through and observe conditions in the outside world.

Now in England, in the fifties, and especially on Saturdays it often rained. My parents and all adults I knew had a whole vocabulary for rain. Very heavy rain was "pelting down" or "it's really whipping down now." A normal rainfall was "it's not to bad" or "I think it will clear later." Light rain was "drizzle" or "it's just misting". And a beautiful sunny day was described as "it's not raining."

My window experiment told me it was not raining, so I got out of bed, gathered some clothes off the floor and dressed. I picked out sturdy shoes and carefully screwed on my roller skates, turning the key as tightly as possible so they would not come loose during the day. I slipped the key in my right pocket. My left pocket already contained a sixpence.

Having everything I needed for the day I kicked off, glided slowly across the bedroom and out onto the landing coming to rest at the top of the stairs in front of the toilet. I debated whether I should waste time going and decided it would be wise to pee since that would save time later. So I turned, stood in front of the bowl and lifted the lid. I peed accurately, controlling the stream carefully in order not to splash and make a mess. In fact, I was proud of my accuracy and I remembered once arguing the point with Nel.

He claimed he could consistently hit a sixpence placed on the floor and I told him that was impossible. He said I was wrong and that he could do it every time. Such accuracy annoyed me because I knew I could not perform at that level and we argued the point for over ten minutes. I suppose an actual experiment would have settled the discussion, but it was never done.

Nel was my best friend and his real name was Terry Nelson. I called him Nel because me and my friends called each other by the last name or a piece of the last name. I was Abbott or Abbo. The reason for this came from school where the teachers always used our last names. In school first names did not exist. Nel told me this helped the teachers keep control of their classes.

The next task was to go down stairs. At this I knew I was better than Nel because his mother had told me about his nasty accidents going down stairs in roller skates. I never had a problem because I went down backwards with my left foot at an angle. On each step, I used the front left wheel of the right skate to interlock between the front right and back right wheels of the left skate. This was a method I'd carefully perfected and never disclosed to Nel despite intense questioning and sometimes even outright hostility. He lectured me that descending stairs in roller skates could result in serious accidents and the right thing was to take off the skates before going down, then put them back on at the bottom. This I never did.

I glided down our hallway, through the kitchen, past my mother making breakfast and into our living room where I plonked down at the table and raised my spoon. In our house this was the universal signal for "bring in the porridge."

My father worked on Saturdays for the Post Office. My mother took care of my baby sister Jean and ran the house. On the weekend she excused me from my chores so I could play the whole day. I took play seriously and the day always began with a healthy breakfast.

While I waited for the porridge I decided to think about World War II. The War had ended only a few years before me and my friends were born. It was exciting and we were sad we missed it. The men went off to war and got shot at. The mothers stayed home and got bombed. Nel's dad had been in the RAF and flew Wellington Bombers. My dad had joined the Army years before the war and was a Vickers Machine Gun instructor with the Cheshire Regiment.

My dad loved to talk about the War, but Nel's would never speak of it. This caused Nel problems because he was interested in weapons and had to get his information from me. He once gave me a list of questions to ask my dad about the Vickers Machine Gun. He said he needed to know the "rifling" and "muzzle velocity." When I asked my dad he smiled and talked about the gun like an old friend. He said the Vickers had Enfield rifling which gave the bullets one turn every ten inches as they travelled down the barrel, so they came out spinning at high speed. Muzzle velocity was 2,400 feet per second, and it threw a cigar shaped bullet profile. I gave the information to Nel who wrote it down in a notebook and said it was interesting. I never asked why the bullets needed to spin. Nel seemed to know the answer.

When the porridge arrived I added salt and shoveled it into my mouth as fast as possible. I then stood, pushed the chair to one side and slowly rolled back to the fireplace. Kicking with my right foot I glided forward across the dining room, through the kitchen, out the back door, around the back of the house, down the alley that led to the front of the house, past our small garden and into the street. I crossed the street to Nel's house and went to his back door. It was a normal Saturday. But that was about to change.

Chapter 2 - Disturbing News

I knocked on the door and while I waited for a response I decided to think about doors in more detail. The back door of any house on our block was only a few feet from the front door but it could have been a few miles. Front doors were only used for formal occasions such as births, wedding, funerals and Sunday visitors. Even most adults were nervous about using a front door, and it was unthinkable for a child to use one. A knock on the front door was regarded by the occupants as a serious signal and started talk about who should open it and why. Back doors were totally different. Lots of action occurred at the back door and they were friendly places. Almost always they were opened immediately, usually by mothers.

My door analysis was abruptly interrupted when the door opened. Mrs. Nelson appeared. She was wearing rubber gloves and was soaking wet. She seemed surprised to see me and before I could ask my question she supplied the answer.

"Oh, hello Ken. Terry's not in. He's out. He went out early this morning by himself. I thought he was going to your house. I'm sure you'll run into him. I'm doing a load of wash. Bye dear."

The door closed and I stood there while my mind processed the information. After a brief mental effort it classified the information as disturbing and told me to panic. But it was not a simple panic. It was a real panic, the type of panic when your mind decides you're totally alone in the universe and vulnerable to immediate attack, injury or death and your only chance of survival is not to panic. This was daft, so I told a higher level of my mind to tell the lower level to shut up, which it did.

The reason for the panic was simple. The fact that Nel was out alone meant that he was thinking. He was proud of his thinking sessions, but they were a problem for me because they led to ideas, which then led to plans. He introduced his plans by giving me long lectures, usually on subjects that seemed unrelated. Finally, I was allowed to execute the plans for him under his strict supervision. Something always seemed to go wrong during the execution of the plan and this would result in bodily injury to me, or a problem with parents, or a discussion with the local police. At this point Nel would disappear, sometimes for several days. When he reappeared he seemed to have no memory of the plan, and if I mentioned it he would explain how I messed it up by not executing it correctly. He would point out all the mistakes I made and how disappointed he was. I would then apologize.

I left Nel's house and skated slowly up the street. I was nervous because I knew Nel could appear at any time. As I went over the railway bridge I saw Brendan Ghan sitting on the tracks. He looked bored but I decided not to say hello because I was still upset about the clay stick incident from the Saturday before.

We had been wading in the willow swamp looking for wood to make a longbow. I saw some good branches for clay sticks and mentioned this to Ghan. He laughed and said I knew nothing about clay sticks. This annoyed me because it was known by the whole gang that I was the inventor of the clay stick. Even Nel agreed on this and once described my invention as the simplest weapon we had. He pointed out it was not the most dangerous, just the simplest. Nel rarely gave praise, so this made me proud.

The clay stick was a thin branch of willow six or seven feet long. You stuck a half pound lump of clay on the end, drew it back and then whipped it forward. It was similar to fly casting but with more power. The clay shot off at high speed. In the hands of an expert the clay stick could accurately hurl lumps of clay over a hundred yards. If they hit anyone they were painful. Ghan never got the hang of it and that's why we argued in the swamp. We never finished our argument because something crawled up my leg and I had to leave. But I was still annoyed.

I turned away as Ghan was idly tossing chunks of railway ballast. I rolled down the other side of the bridge to the main road. My parents did not allow me to cross the road but this was not a problem because I was going to the toffee shop on this side.

Chapter 3 - Nel Appears

I entered the small shop. As usual it was empty except for the shopkeeper. It was packed with toffee, sherberts, gob stoppers, chewing gum and much else. I looked at the shopkeeper. He looked at me and asked his usual question:

"Do you want a sherbert?"

I did not reply because we both knew I did not. I reached into my left pocket and slowly slid the sixpence into the center of the counter. He looked at me. I looked at him. He reached under the counter and got something. He slid it onto the counter parallel to the sixpence. The brown wrapper with the red and gold logo told me it was a real Mars Bar. I reached slowly, removed it and put it into my left pocket. He did not touch the sixpence. I then turned and glided to the door, and as I did I heard the ching of a cash register signify the close of our transaction.

There were two steps outside the door which I went down backwards as usual. There was no need to use my special technique because I held on to the door knob as I closed the door. As the door shut I looked into the glass panes and saw a reflection of the street. I noticed the traffic on the main road: cars, buses and lorries. I could also see the barber shop across the street. As I scanned the reflection a second time an image of Nel appeared. He was sitting on the wall right behind me.

Chapter 4 - A Lecture

Nel looked serious but relaxed. As I began to turn he made a worrying comment.

"I see you bought a Mars Bar."

I did not reply because I knew there was no time to waste. Nel enjoyed Mars Bars and I assumed he intended to enjoy mine. I took it out of my pocket, ripped of the wrapper and stuck the whole thing in my mouth. I needed to wedge it in on an angle and this caused both my cheeks to bulge. I then closed my mouth as best I could and began to chew.

I expected Nel to take some immediate action but he did not move. He seemed to have no interest in the Mars Bar. After studying me for a short while, during which time his eyes bulged, he broke the silence and confirmed my thoughts.

"I don't care about a Mars Bar." For some reason he stressed the "a".

I continued to chew. It was not easy because the large amount of chocolate in my mouth caused pressure to build. But then Nel suddenly changed the subject.

"Do you know about Rockefella?"

I shook my head.

"He's the richest man in the world. He's a millionaire. He's American. Do you know how he got rich?"

I shook my head.

"Oil. But he didn't drill it up and he didn't use it to run factories or make petrol. No, he just moved it from place to place, from the driller people to the people who needed to use it. Do you know what it's called when you just move something around?"

I shook my head.

"Distribution. There are big finances in distribution. I've been studying finances. I've been reading books about them. This morning I got up early and read the Financial Times before I left the house. It was an old copy that was used to wrap our fish and chips from last night. You want to know how finances work don't you?"

I nodded. A thick brown liquid leaked from the corner of my mouth and ran down my chin and neck and under my shirt. I wiped it up with my hand and wiped my hand on my pants. Nel continued his lecture.

"Rockefella was a genius. He bought a barrel of oil from the driller people for one pound. Except because he was American it was really American money, but we're English so I'll explain it to you in our money. Then he took the barrel to the people who needed it. That's the distribution part. He sold it to them for one pound and one penny. Do you see what he did here?"

I shook my head.

"He made a penny profit. That does not sound like much but if he moved six barrels he would get sixpence profit. That's a Mars Bar. If he moved twelve barrels he would make a shilling profit. But it can get much bigger. You want to know how?"

I nodded.

"You just repeat the whole thing I said twenty times and you make twenty shillings which is a pound. Then you do that a million times and you make a million pounds and you're a millionaire. This is called volume. It's the secret to getting rich. I read all about it. But forget it. It's a nice day. Let's to go for a walk."

Chapter 5 - The Wrong Decision

Nel was not in a rush to walk, so I decided to think about what he had said. I did not understand the content but the structure seemed interesting. One thing I liked about Nel was that he hated adjectives. In school the week before, our teacher Ms. Briggs had announced she would teach us "The structure of a proper English sentence", and that she would start with nouns and adjectives. I was excited. She explained that nouns were objects, like house, brick and window. All objects were nouns. Adjectives describe nouns.

Briggs was feared by every student. There were sixty in our class and we sat in six rows of ten. We were not allowed to speak unless spoken to and we were not allowed to look around even when Briggs went on one of her strolls. She had total control of the class, probably because she used our last names.

The situation with adjectives had occurred when Briggs asked me to give an example of a noun. I stood. I thought. Then I told the class that "red" was a noun because it was a word and words are objects and all objects are nouns. Briggs ignored me and continued the lesson. I sat down. She started to stroll around the classroom, talking as she went. After a few moments she appeared at the left side of my desk. She was now talking about adjectives.

She stopped and told me to hold out my left hand palm up one inch from the top of the desk. While I was adjusting the one inch distance, which was not easy without a ruler, one suddenly appeared at high speed and beat me hard on the palm. My hand recoiled from the impact, hit the surface of the desk, and hurt my knuckles. In this way Briggs was able to inflict pain on both sides of my hand with just one stroke. It was a brilliant invention which she had perfected over her forty years as a teacher.

She continued walking and talking and I put my hand in my pocket to ease the pain. Briggs knew I was right handed so this would not stop me from writing during the rest of class. The class showed no reaction. It was a routine day. Finally Briggs returned to the front of the class and commented that her ruler was brown, and that brown was an adjective. I admired her for the invention of the double hand slap which rivaled my invention of the clay stick. It was simple and effective. But the thing about adjectives annoyed me and I vowed never to use them, or to use as few as possible.

Nel jumped off the wall and announced he did not want to walk. He said he was going home and locking himself in his room for the rest of the day to read the Financial Times.

"It's greasy because of the chips. I'll see you tomorrow."

This was bad news. So I suggested a short walk on this side of the road down to the traffic light and back. Nel said he would prefer to walk back over the railway bridge, but I had just come from that direction and told him we should go somewhere different. He asked if I was sure I wanted to walk by the road and I said yes. It was a bad decision.

Chapter 6 - Traffic Lights

Nel walked slowly. I skated alongside, zig-zagging sideways now and again so my forward speed matched his pace. We didn't talk. After about two minutes we reached the traffic lights at the end of town and stood there for a while watching the traffic. I was thinking about what to do for the rest of the day, and Nel seemed to be thinking also. Finally he asked a question.

"Can you see what's on at the picture house? My eyes aren't working well today. It's reading the Financial Times. It makes them bulge."

I spun around a few times clockwise, then locked my right foot against my rotating left foot to bring myself to a stop with my back to the main road. The picture house was down the side street and I squinted to look at what was showing. The sign was nearly parallel to my line of sight, so it was difficult to read. We went to the pictures every Saturday afternoon, so I knew it would be Batman, The Lone Ranger, Charlie Chaplin or Robin Hood. I told Nel it was probably Robin Hood. He didn't seem interested.

"I'm getting tired of Robin Hood. We can't get yew for our bows, only willow. Everyone knows English longbows were yew."

Nel was right as usual, and this was one of his favorite subjects. He had discovered that the only Yew trees left in England grew in Churchyards, and were therefore not available. I was happy with Willow, but Nel was serious about weapons and always complained about the lack of Yew. I continued to squint at the sign and expected Nel to talk more about longbows, but I was wrong.

"I've been studying traffic lights. Do you know the sequence?"

I wasn't sure, so I shook my head.

"Suppose I told you they go red, green, amber and then back to red. You would believe that, right?"

I nodded.

"Well, it's wrong. That's the way they go in America. Except in America amber is called yellow. In England they go red, red and amber together, green, amber and then back to red. You know what that means?"

I shook my head.

"English lights have four steps in the sequence, but American lights have three. So us English waste more time stopped at traffic lights. That's time we could use to make money like Rockefella."

I was just about to have my mind think about this traffic light problem when it received the last word of Nel's sentence and stopped. Something was wrong. I turned my head slightly to the left to look at the traffic lights. They were on amber, so red would be next. I looked at Nel. He looked at me. I started to sweat and the traffic light changed to red.

Chapter 7 - The Pyramid

As the light turned red Nel stuck his hand down the back of my neck and grabbed a handful of my shirt and jacket. This was strange, so I started to turn to ask him what was happening. Before I could say anything a sweeping kick hit my ankles and caused my roller skates to shoot forward. Nel was a good football player and could kick with power and precision. I started to fall to the ground but was stopped halfway by Nel's grip. I was tilted at forty five degrees and looked like a human wheel barrow.

Nel dragged me across the street. My wheels hit as we went down the curb, then we glided across the main road, and my wheels hit again as we mounted the curb on the other side. Nel dragged me a few more feet until we were in front of Townsend's window. He yanked me upright, turned me around, stuck my nose to the window and issued one of his simple directives.

"Look. Look at this."

I looked. The reflection in the window showed a double decker bus stopped at the light. The driver was laughing. His right hand pounded the steering wheel and his left was pointing at me. The conductor, hanging off the rear platform of the Leyland Route Master, was also laughing. But the reflection got me thinking about television sets.

Just a few years earlier my Dad bought a television to watch the Coronation. We had the first television on the block and all our neighbors crowded into our tiny living room to see the event. Some sat on the floor. Some crouched just above them. Some stood above them, and some tiny kids sat on their parent's shoulder. It was an amphitheater of viewing.

The television came in a big box but had a tiny screen. The picture was not very clear, and the television engineers removed all the color, so the picture was black and white. But we got a day off school and a silver Coronation spoon. The silver spoon was no good with my porridge, so I lost it.

I thought that one day televisions would be like Townsend's window, big, thin, with great quality picture and in color. But as I pondered the future Nel's voice suddenly brought me back to the present.

"Don't look at the window. Look through the window."

I re-focused my gaze through the window.

Then I saw it. Everything in the window had been removed and replaced by a pyramid. It was big. It was as tall as me. But the real shock was the construction material. It was built from Mars Bars. I had never seen anything like it in my life. My mouth fell open and Nel smiled.

My Dad had been in the 1st Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment and before the war they were in the Sudan, India and Egypt. When he was in Egypt he got a day off and decided to climb the great Pyramid at Giza. It was not easy. The stone blocks were over 2 feet high, so he could not just walk up them like steps. He had to scramble up each block. He could not reach the very top because that still had the original casing stones in place. These made the pyramid perfectly smooth. He said that in the old days the pyramid was painted gold with giant red lettering and was the highest man-made thing for 3,000 years. The colors, red on gold, were the same as the Mars Bar.

My pyramid thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Nel.

"Look at the top. Do you see it?"

My gaze climbed the pyramid, one chocolate layer at a time, until it reached the top and saw a small sign.

"Mars Bars. 5p Each."

This violated reality as I knew it. If you had 6p you had a Mars Bar, and if you had a Mars Bar you had 6p. I looked at Nel in shock. He had a simple question.

"So do you know what this means?"

I told him it meant we could go into Townsend's with 6p, buy a Mars Bar, stuff it in our mouth and still have 1p change in our pocket.

Nel looked at me in disgust and started one of his lectures.

"Do you ever learn anything? I work hard to teach you but you never learn. Did you hear what I said about finances and Rockefella? It's distribution. We buy a lot of Mars bars at 5p each then sell then at 6p and make 1p profit on every one we sell. We do volume."

This made sense. I thought for a while and then pointed out a problem with Nel's plan. To buy a lot of Mars Bars we needed a lot of money, and all we had was 6p each. I was pleased with my clever analysis.

Surprisingly this seemed to make Nel happy.

"Exactly. Now you are getting it. We do need money. In financing this is called capital. That's why, after months of study, I have designed a financial transaction that will solve the problem and make us rich."

I asked Nel what a financial transaction was.

"It's a series of money steps you follow exactly, and at the end you become rich. I think I'm going to let you do my transaction. Do you want to hear it?"

I nodded.

Chapter 8 - Briggs

We stood by the side of the road waiting for a red light. Nel walked across and I pushed off from the curb and glided across. There was no need for any antics this time since I was returning to the allowed side of the road. We went down the side street to the picture house and sat on the wall opposite. A ticket line was forming for Robin Hood. Nel looked at the line and said it would soon be time for my job.

This was one of Nel's most popular projects and he allowed me to do it every Saturday. I would skate down the line, find members of the gang and collect a sixpence from each. That was the price of a ticket. I would then go into the picture house, buy all the tickets and give them to the gang. This allowed them to skip the line. They loved it. I could only go to the front of the line because Nel's Mom worked in the ticket office on Saturdays to earn a bit of extra money to buy bottles for her Rhubarb Wine production. She would see me coming, spin the tickets off the roll and take my collection of sixpences.

Nel turned to me and fixed me with his bulging eyes. He looked serious.

"There's something I need to tell you about my Mom and the picture house. It's very important. Are you paying attention?"

I nodded.

"Last night Mrs Gough came over to our house to have a drink with my Mom. You know, the Rhubarb wine. I was in the next room and I could hear them talking. Want to know what they said?"

I nodded.

"My Mom said it was a shame that many kids did not have a sixpence to go to the picture house. She said she's going to change that. She said she will accept Mars Bars as payment for a ticket."

I pondered this for a moment. It sounded like a good idea and I told Nel so.

"It's more than a good idea, it's the thing that allowed me to complete my financial transaction after months of careful planning and reading the Financial Times."

Nel then asked me how many sixpences I collect from the gang each Saturday and I told him 12. He started to slip into a state he called it his "deep thinking state". It happened every time just before he revealed a plan to me. He was now muttering to himself.

"Perfect. It's a sign. 12 is a most wonderful number."

And with that Nel passed into a trance. The number 12 was indeed a wonderful number. I had an interesting discussion with Ms. Briggs about it only a few days earlier.

It was the end of class and I was waiting as usual at Brigg's desk for punishment. I forget what for. Small punishments like the double hand slap were done immediately in class, but bigger punishments were done after class. She was rummaging through her ruler drawer trying to find the right one. I was standing watching. I decided to see if I could distract her from the punishment and I asked my mind for ideas. It produced one pretty fast and I told Briggs all her rulers ended in 12.

She immediately stopped and slowly turned to look at me.

"Yes they do, but why do you say that Abbott? Is there something about 12 you want to tell me?"

I was surprised. Brigg's took my comment seriously. I needed a response. I said 12 was unusual because it was everywhere, there were 12 pennies in a shilling, 12 inches in a foot, five times 12 seconds in a minute and minutes in an hour, 12 hours in a day, 12 months in a year and 12 of anything in a dozen.

Briggs was now serious. She scanned me slowly from head to toe. Her reply was interesting.

"Jesus had 12 Disciples, not 10."

Her mention of the number 10 was perfect because it gave me another response. I said we have 10 fingers, so you would expect 10 to be the main number. But it's not, 12 is. Then for dramatic effect I added that this was one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics.

Briggs smiled. But not just any smile. It was a knowing smile. It was the first time I had seen Briggs smile, knowing or otherwise.

Now I realized I could do more than delay the punishment. I could achieve the Holy Grail of punishment, which is to totally avoid it. All depended on my next response. I thought hard. I decided to use psychology. I did not know what psychology was, but I decided to use it anyway. The secret was the knowing smile. A knowing smile means the smiler knows something the other doesn't. But it also means they would like to tell what they know, otherwise they would just do a regular smile and not a knowing smile. So I asked Briggs if she had solved the problem of the number 12. Her response was direct.

"I've been teaching arithmetic for 40 years, and in every class I thought about the number 12. Then just a few weeks ago I solved the problem. Solved finally, after all these years, just before my retirement."

This was perfect. I simply asked if she would tell me the solution so I could learn. Her response was classic Briggs.

"Abbott, you're not the complete wastrel I took you for. The sawdust in your head seems capable of thought at some level."

Then she told all. The total solution. It had to do with sharing. The trick about sharing is that the stuff being shared must be cut into equal size pieces otherwise fights break out between those who got small pieces and those who got big pieces. Equal size pieces is the secret of sharing. 10 can be broken into 2 equal size pieces and also into 5 equal size pieces. So you have 2 ways to share 10 things. But 12 is different. It can be broken into 2 equal size pieces, or 3 equal size pieces, or 4 equal size pieces, or 6 equal size pieces. So you have 4 ways to share 12 things. That's double what you can do with 10. That's why in ancient times 12 became more popular than 10.

Briggs looked across the classroom at nothing. Then she told me to go home. I walked out, but at the door I paused and looked back. Briggs was packing papers into a leather satchel. It looked old. It looked like it had been with her through her 40 years of teaching. She never married. I wondered if she was happy. I wondered what she had achieved in her life. She helped many learn, but had she created anything? There was the double hand slap and her insight into the number 12. It was not much, but it was something. I wondered if I would do more.

My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Nel. He was out of his trance and said he was ready to explain the transaction. I told him to go ahead.

Chapter 9 - The Transaction

The way Nel explained it the transaction was simple. I was to collect the sixpences as usual and go into the picture house. But I would not go to the ticket counter. Nel would be waiting and I would give him the sixpences. He would sneak out the emergency exit, go to Townsend's, buy 12 Mars Bars, return and give them to me. I would then go to Nel's Mom at the ticket counter, buy 12 tickets with the Mars Bars and give the tickets to the gang as usual. Then Nel explained what he called the "bottom line."

"We make 12p profit. That's 2 sixpences. One for each of us."

He asked if I understood.

I thought through the plan step by step and found a problem. When he left by the emergency exit how would he get back in? Emergency exits cannot be opened from the outside. Nel had the solution.

"As I leave I will plug the mechanism with Bubble Gum, so the door will close but not lock."

This seemed fine, so I told Nel the plan was great. He asked if I was ready to do it. I thought it through one more time. I could not find any flaws, so I told Nel I was ready. He got up and said he was going into the lobby of the picture house to wait for me. I stood up, kicked off the curb, glided across the street, jumped the curb on the other side and started going down the line collecting sixpences. Everything was normal. I went into the lobby of the picture house, said hello to Mrs Nelson at the ticket counter, then gave Nel the sixpences. He took a huge piece of Bubble Gum from his mouth and disappeared through the emergency exit.

I waited. The lobby was covered in blue plush carpet which was not good for skating. So I walked around in my skates to ease my anxiety. It was not long before I heard a murmur from outside.

"Where's Abbo? Where's our tickets?"

The gang was getting restless. I had my back to the ticket counter and I was watching the emergency exit.

I decided to think about Nel's Dad. Although he never spoke about the War and flying Wellington Bombers he hung his flight suit in the hallway. It was complete with oxygen mask and tubes. He never touched it and nobody else would dream of touching it. It just hung there with the coats. Nel's Dad was making a quiet statement.

"I wore this coat so you could live and wear your coat."

My thoughts were interrupted when the emergency exit burst open. Nel entered clutching a brown paper bag and walked towards me. When he was about 10 feet away he suddenly stopped. His face showed panic and his eyes bulged even more than usual. He tossed the brown paper bag into the air. By the time I caught it he was gone through the emergency exit.

I thought this was strange and I did not remember it being in the plan. I turned and started to trudge toward the ticket counter. My head was down because I was checking the content of the paper bag. Sure enough, it was full of Mars Bars. This was wonderful. When I got to the counter I looked up, ready to place my order for 12 tickets. I took a second look at the person behind the counter. I was not looking at Mrs Nelson, I was looking at Mr Nelson. He looked at me. Then he looked at the bag and issued a statement with military precision.

"Son, if you don't take that bag and get out of here I'll stuff you in the Bomb Bay and drop you over Dresden."

I clutched the bag tightly to my chest and stepped back a few feet. Then I turned, trudged a few more feet and stopped to consider my options. To my right was the entrance and the noise outside had grown to a steady chant.

"Where's Abbo, where's Abbo, where's Abbo."

To my left was the emergency exit. I took it, then skated like heck down the alley to the main road, swerved left and skated down the pavement to the railway bridge. I paused for a few seconds to catch my breath then skated to the top of the bridge. Going down the other side of the bridge I crouched into the "little lady" position to get maximum speed. At the base of the bridge I swerved right and shot onto our block.

My heart was pounding, but my brain was still working, so I asked it for advice. It told me the gang would soon be on the move and would almost certainly go to my house. So I decided to go to Nel's house. I stopped at Nel's gate then skated up the path and around to the back door. Things were getting dangerous. Nel would help me out of the mess. I knocked on the door.

Chapter 10 - The Siege of Malta

As usual the door was opened by Mrs. Nelson.

"Oh hello Ken, I'm on my lunch break from the picture house, Mr Nelson is covering for me, I'm having bacon butties, do you want one?" I declined. I had more on my mind than bacon butties. I asked for Nel.

"Oh dear, I'm afraid you just missed him. He's taken the bus to Stockport with his Uncle Bert. From there they're going to catch the train to Rhyl and spend a new days by the seaside."

She spotted the pain on my face.

"Are you in trouble with the Gang again?"

I nodded. Mrs Nelson was familiar with the situation and supplied a solution.

"Don't worry dear, here's the key to the coal shed, just lock yourself in."

Coal was the fuel that provided heat and hot water and all the houses had a small shed to hold the supply of coal. I opened the door, climbed onto the pile, then locked the door from the inside and stuffed the key into my pocket next to my skate key. It was dark except for a tiny beam of light coming through the keyhole. There wasn't much to do so I decided to think about the Island of Malta.

My Dad was on the island for 2 years during the war while it was under siege by the Italians and Germans. In 2 years they made 3,000 bombing runs over the island. My Dad and his buddies slept in caves which made perfect bomb shelters. But my Dad had trouble. He could sleep in the caves during the day, but at night he found it claustrophobic. So he came up with a simple solution. He volunteered for the night shift on the Ack Ack guns and then slept during the day.

The overnight shift was action packed. The gun was the Bofors 40mm anti aircraft gun. This was much bigger than the Vickers Machine gun, but still smaller than the heavy anti aircraft guns. It usually had a 7 man crew, 2 of which sat in small seats on the gun itself as it swiveled all over the place trying to hit the target. It fired shells that weighed just over 2 lbs each and it shot 2 shells per second. They were loaded in clips of 4, so once the gun was firing the loaders went frantic loading a clip every 2 seconds. Each shell produced a flash of light and smoke as it left the barrel. The barrel then recoiled and its recoil energy was used to eject the spent shell casing and load a new round. The casings bounced all over the place and had to be collected. To make it even more exciting firing was started with a foot pedal.

The gun was designed to fire in automatic mode. This was when a special box calculated range and direction and automatically swiveled the gun into position. But experienced Bofors gunners would take the gun out of automatic mode and fire it in manual mode using the sights. The reason was simple, it was more fun. Much of the fun came from the special shells the gun used. These were tracer shells. They had a small chamber at the back containing flare powder. Once the shell was in the air this power burned and showed the gunner exactly where his shells were going. It was like firing a stream of light bulbs. In manual mode the gunner could then swivel this stream anywhere he wanted. My Dad did this for 2 years. Some of his buddies were killed by the constant bombing, but he survived.

The Italians bombed Malta from high altitude and were almost impossible to see. The German bombers came much lower and often their fighter escorts would go down to street level and strafe while flying just a few feet off the ground. When the plane ran out of ammunition the pilots would lean out of their cockpits and shoot at people with their pistols. They were pretty serious about killing.

Another time my Dad was gunning with his buddy in the second seat. A bomb dropped very close and blasted the gun with shrapnel. When the dust cleared my Dad looked at his buddy. He was still sitting, but had lost his head. I was just a few years old when my Dad told me the story and I remember asking if the man ever found his head.

My thinking was interrupted by a knock on Nel's door. I looked through the keyhole. It was Ghan and the gang. Mrs. Nelson answered the door and gave them the information about Nel. Then they asked about me. She said she had not seen me but I was probably around somewhere. She closed the door. They left mumbling.

"Traitor. We'll find him. He's a dirty rotten traitor."

I waited a few minutes and quietly let myself out of the coal shed. I was coughing coal dust. I pushed off the wall of Nel's house, flew round the corner of the coal shed and slammed into Ghan. He and the gang had not left, they had been waiting quietly just around the corner. They grabbed me.

"We got him. We got the dirty rotten traitor."

Ghan spotted the brown paper bag and grabbed it. He handed the Mars bars out to the gang and asked who gave me the bag. I could not lie so I said Nel did. Ghan addressed the gang. "See men, Nel always takes care of us. He gave us Mars bars. Now what should we do with traitor Abbo?" The gang went quiet. They were not good at coming up with ideas. Someone suggested I should be dragged backwards through the hedge, but this didn't get much interest. Then someone suggested they punch me and Ghan looked at him in disgust. Then a clear crystalline voice sang out.

"Let's bury him in my Mom's compost heap."

It was Gough, Nel's neighbor. Her full name was Denise Gough and she was the only girl in the gang. She was no good with weapons but had a talent for instantly solving problems.

The gang looked at each other and smiled. Gough had done it again. They dragged me through Nel's garden and into Gough's. There was no barrier between the gardens because that would hinder free trade between the two neighbors. The trade consisted mainly of rhubarb that Mrs Nelson imported from Mrs Gough for her rhubarb wine. Everyone on the block grew rhubarb, but all agreed Mrs Gough grew the best.

I was dropped onto the compost heap and held down. Gough produced a spade from her mother's garden shed and gave it to Ghan.

Chapter 11 - The Compost Heap

Ghan started to shovel and had just covered my legs when Gough interrupted.

"Use that section over there. That's not regular compost, it's manure."

Ghan paused for a second and thought aloud.

"Manure? How do you get manure in a compost heap?"

Gough spoke up clear and crystalline as usual.

"My Mom gets it to fertilize her rhubarb. She says it's the secret of world class rhubarb. It has to be warm and steaming when she puts it on. If there is any left over she dumps it in the compost heap."

Ghan asked Gough how her Mom could possibly get warm and steaming manure. Gough did not know. She said nobody knew. But I did.

Every Friday after I got home from school the Rag and Bone man came around on a cart pulled by an old horse. The cry "Rag and Bone" caused my Dad to snap into action. He would find me and give me my wellington boots, a bucket and a small hand shovel. I would slip on my wellies, grab the bucket and shovel and go out to follow the horse. The animal seemed to eat constantly from a nose bag and it was not long before it dropped a load. My job was to scoop the load into the bucket and get it back to my Dad quickly. It was embarrassing for me because my friends would lean out of their windows laughing. Then somehow my Dad would sneak the bucket over to Mrs Gough who would dump it on her rhubarb while still hot and steaming. It was a trade secret. The only people that knew were me and my Dad. I wore my wellies because there was splatter when the horse dropped a load.

Ghan was now shoveling manure and most of my upper body was covered. He was just about to shovel a load onto my face when he suddenly stopped and looked up at the sky. It was starting to drizzle. He hesitated. Someone said it's not so bad and would clear soon. But within seconds it was pelting down. Ghan had enough.

"Let's go inside and eat our Mars Bars."

The gang vanished. I lay looking at the sky. The rain wet the manure and brought out the bouquet. It was fermented oats with a hint of hay and delicate overtones of sulphur dioxide. Compost heaps are exothermic, so I was warm. Tomorrow was Sunday and there would be no skates and no gang. It was Church and Sunday dinner. I felt positive. I was confident it would not rain on Sunday.

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Copyright Ken Abbott, 2024. Content written and posted by Ken Abbott
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