These Beans Taste Funny
‘These beans taste funny.’ My sister poked them with her fork.
‘Look, I just put them in the pan and heated them, same way Mum does.’
‘Yes, but they taste soapy.’
I groaned, I hadn’t rinsed the pan properly. We stared down at our plates. Nothing for it, it would have to be the peanut butter, the only food left in the cupboard.
Four (was it only four?) days earlier Mum and Dad had waved to us from Dad’s estate car as they drove away up the small road that ran between the regimented rows of caravans. They had left me, my sister, our bikes and a ten shilling note plus two half-crowns, at our caravan site high on the South Downs at the top of beautiful Box Hill. They had also left a couple of tins of beans, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.
As the car turned the corner we dashed back into the caravan, jumping up and down on our parent’s unmade bed in the lounge area. Ours were rickety bunk beds off a small cubby in the kitchen. We shrieked and laughed, falling into a heap on the blankets and sheets that always held the warm, earthy scent of our mother and the sharp, oily lemon smell of dad’s hair. Grabbing our swim things, towels, hats and pool passes and slamming the door shut (did we lock it, did we care?) we hurtled up the same road on which they had disappeared and round to the pool entrance. I remember we spent the whole day there until closing time, the sun starting to go down behind the outdoor changing rooms. I can still feel the prickle of sunburn across my shoulders and the warmth of the rough towel that I slung around them. Eventually we wandered back to the caravan.
Looking back, the money was obviously to buy more food with. But this small fortune was blitzed away on an orgy of sweets, soft drinks and comics. The day after the parents had vanished, we cycled half a mile or so to spend our windfall at Greenacres Mini Supermarket at the other caravan site, called ‘The Top of The World Caravan Park’, as the sign proudly proclaimed .But we knew this was a sham. Our caravan park was right near the ‘View’ on the top of the hill and everyone knew that it was the highest point, not just here, but in the whole of the south of England. We were at the top of our world and loving it.
So day four, and there wasn’t anything left to eat except the jar of peanut butter.
‘I’m hungry’ Ellie wailed, ‘and I want Mum.’
This adventure was becoming decidedly thin. I was responsible, at just turned eleven years old for my not quite ten year old sister. We were hungry and penniless.
I had to find a way of feeding Ellie. There was only so much peanut butter you could stomach from a spoon. Then I had a wonderful idea.
We cycled through the woods that surrounded the caravan site. The entrance was a small gateway along the northern perimeter fence. Through it there were three paths, one a bridle way always full of horse dung, the other circled round and came back to the main road opposite the ‘View’. The third was the favourite, it twisted and turned and we had built many dens from off this path, forming enchanted spaces out of willowy branches, bending them to our will. This was the path we were taking today.
An hour later, we lay on the short springy turf gazing up at the cloudless blue sky. The hill we called ‘Strawberry Hill’ was no more than a small hillock, surrounded by trees. In my imagination this was the place where Tolkien’s Ents had drawn up the plans to invade Isengard, hooming and humming while Merry and Pippin looked on. Today, we lay flat out, our mouths stained red from the wild strawberries we had picked and stuffed ourselves on.
‘I’m still hungry, Mare, when’s Mum coming?’
I remember feeling a big sob rise up inside me. How could they do this to us? Had we done something wrong? And more worryingly, when were they going to come back? I wished we hadn’t blown all the money; I decided that we would go to one of the neighbours and borrow a couple of pennies for the phone, ring them and tell them we were hungry.
There was an irony to our hunger. We were quite probably the best fed children in school. My dad wasn’t just a butcher; he was a master butcher, cooking big fat juicy hams and making all his own sausages. Our family home in a maisonette overlooked the shop window which was always full of either massive sides of beef or chubby chickens, heads hanging down, ankles neatly tied. Exquisite parsley-edged rows of succulent joints and chops sat side by side with the hand- minced beef. Next door was a greengrocer who delivered a crate of fresh fruit and vegetables to home every week. The week’s groceries order was given over the phone on a Friday, a treat I was sometimes given to do, and I can still see the long thin handwriting of the Grocer’s invoice perched on the box always delivered by van on Saturday morning. Hunger was a stranger in our home.
Wheeling our bikes slowly back down the path I felt despondent and defeated. Not normally a shy child I felt hesitant about asking anyone for money but there was nothing for it.
Looking back I am fairly certain what day they dropped us off, a Wednesday, and when they picked us up. All things were dictated by two things, the opening hours of my dad’s butcher shop and horse racing at Epsom, just a few handy miles up the road from Box Hill. Mum, Ellie, me and our toddler sister Sally, would all be there from the end of July until the beginning of the autumn school term, even occasionally missing the beginning. Dad would visit at the weekends. During the shorter breaks ( and during school time quite probably) Dad would close the shop on Wednesday, half day closing in our town, and drive us the eighteen miles from home to the caravan. If the racing was on he would just drop us all off, then return briefly later in the evening, say goodbye and head back home ready to open the shop up on Thursday morning. Saturday was also a half day and he would again return either early or late depending on race schedules and then he would stay over until Sunday when we would all pile back into the car and head home.
I imagine by now we both looked pretty scruffy, scuffed knees and filthy hands possibly. The strawberries dried red and tight on our faces. Swimming in the pool must have kept us relatively clean but Ellie’s hair, a mass of tight curls always unruly, probably hadn’t seen a comb all week. Hot, hungry and thirsty we pushed our bikes back through the gap in the fence.
Can words describe the sight of our parent’s car, parked on the verge? We both saw it at the same time and raced across the path, our wheels sending up a stinging spray of gravel. Mum was standing on the caravan steps, her dark hair tied back in a chiffon scarf, her hand shielding her eyes, gazing around the site, looking for us? Of course she was looking for us. We hurled our bikes down onto the grass and, thrusting ourselves against her, she encircled us in her arms.
I never knew why or where they had been. I’d like to say I learned a lot over those four days, like resilience, independence, how to take care of myself. All those wonderful life skills. But the truth is I don’t think I learned anything, except how much I adored my parents and recalling the sheer bliss of being in my mother’s embrace.