by Sue Spindler
Last summer, whilst sharing a bottle of Muscadet with a friend, I learned that her uncle would have been one of the infamous Mail Train Robbers had he not been detained at her Majesty’s pleasure for a previous assignment involving a Sub-Post Office. The job had not gone according to plan due to a miscalculation in the location of the alarm system. Commiserating with her at her uncle’s missed career opportunity took me back to 1963.
It was a beautiful day and Mum suggested we go for a picnic. This seemed a splendid idea, but I pointed out that it was Friday and perhaps more sensible that I went to school, bearing in mind I was thirteen, six weeks into the school term, and already trailing behind my classmates in five subjects. I remembered, however, that it was double geography that morning which was my least favourite subject and so I snuggled back under the bedclothes whilst Mum telephoned the school, giving an Academy Award performance about me having an upset stomach and diarrhoea. An added bonus was that I would miss swimming and would therefore not have to make the usual excuse to exempt myself from getting wet. These excuses had become so frequent that my teacher had suggested I see a doctor, as she was convinced I was mistaking menstruation for severe haemorrhaging.
Some may say encouraging a schoolgirl to play truant is disgracefully irresponsible, but in 1963 it was mistakenly assumed that a middle class teenage girl with a private school education was destined to marry a “Something in the City” and would settle down with a house, car, children, daily, gardener and access to her husband’s bank account, and as long as she could make a dry martini cocktail and organise a dinner party, her education was complete. Divorce in the 1960’s only happened to famous people and film-stars so why bother learning about logarithms and coal seams in Yorkshire.
I sauntered downstairs, wearing jeans and my “Procrastinate Now” t-shirt. As soon as Mum had finished packing the hamper she’d prepared and was heaving it into the boot of the car, I offered to help. We coaxed the dogs on to the back seat and set off for Burnham Beeches, taking the back streets so as to avoid going passed the school.
Burnham Beeches conjured pleasant memories of walks with Daddy and we found the clearing where we’d practiced Hula Hooping on one of the many outings we’d enjoyed before he died. It was a perfect place for our picnic, so Mum parked up and we settled down and unpacked the hamper. I ate two pieces of chicken and shared a third with Lady, our drooling Boxer, whilst Mum prepared a piece of salami for Liza, a mongrel we’d rescued from Battersea Dog’s Home. After I’d finished the salad and Lady had eaten the last piece of camembert, we packed up and went for a walk to tire the dogs before returning home. Two hours later the dogs bounded back to the car, while Mum and I flopped into the front seats absolutely exhausted.
On the way home, we passed the road where a man had exposed himself to me about a month before. I was cycling home from the tennis courts with a friend, after a straight sets win and having cheated only twice. Her bike had gears enabling her to climb hills easily. I was trailing behind and pedaling frantically when I saw something horrible. “Flasher” I screamed, pointing at a man in the undergrowth. This was six o’clock news stuff – the attention we’d get telling everyone at school – it was better than anything Celia Hutchins could boast about, even if her boyfriend did have a Mini Cooper S. We were going to phone the police, but we couldn’t find a phone box that was working so we gave up and went home.
I dined off my “Flasher in the undergrowth” story for years and wondered if there was a man somewhere who told a similar story about terrifying a schoolgirl on the day he was caught short and had come out of the bushes before zipping up, and how embarrassed he’d been, and how bad he’d felt as it could have been one of his own daughters.
As we drove on Mum started mumbling to herself. Something about it being an ideal place to hide the money. I wasn’t taking much notice. I was far more interested in reading my favourite magazine. “Jackie to the Rescue.” Would Jackie be able to prove her innocence? Would they believe she’d never been near the tuck box petty cash? How could she carry on her investigations having been reduced to crutches by Toady Crowthorn’s unfair tackle on the hockey field? This was more riveting than Mum babbling on about “unmarked fivers” and “stashing the lolly.” My concentration was broken by Mum slamming on the brakes and exclaiming “I don’t believe it!”
She threw the car into reverse and slammed her foot down hard on the accelerator. That man in that new film about Russia, who liked his cocktails shaken, not stirred, would have been proud of her. She stopped beside a brown paper parcel heavily bound with cello-tape and tied with copious amounts of string. Mum stared at the parcel and whispered, “Mail Train Robbery”.
I remembered seeing it in the papers. The most enormous amount of money had been stolen – in Buckinghamshire – millions of pounds – so much money that it had broken all records. Mum was right – why else would there be a brown paper parcel in the hedgerow. It had to be the stolen money.
Mum looked in her rear view mirror, which was unusual as she normally only did this when putting on her lipstick. She instructed me to wait, having detected a sports car speeding round the bend behind us. “Don’t look suspicious” she said, taking on the appearance of someone who has just committed genocide, but the couple in the sports car sped passed us, not noticing the guilt ridden faces of a middle aged woman and a child parked by the roadside.
Mum gave the “all clear.” I jumped out – grabbed the parcel – jumped back in. The mission complete, Mum put her accelerator foot hard on the floor and “Bat out of Hell” is the most suitable expression to describe our departure from Burnham Beeches.
Mum drove with the dogs misbehaving on the back seat and me grappling in the front with the tightly wrapped parcel. I had to bite and scratch at the wrapping for a considerable amount of time but eventually managed to tear the tape and loosen the string just as Mum came off the A40 on to the slip-road. This was fortunate as she went into shock as the contents of the parcel fell on to my lap. Not five pound notes, but hundreds of pornographic photographs and a wad of rude magazines.
Mum lost control of the steering. A loud burst of a horn from a Cortina directly behind us brought her attention back to the wheel and she pulled into the side of the road. I giggled, embarrassed by the photos and by the man in the Cortina driving passed with two fingers in the air and shouting something about a stupid bitch. Liza and Lady growled.
We arrived home. Mum caught me looking at one of the magazines and told me off in no uncertain terms. Truancy was one thing, pornography was entirely another. There were too many photos to burn in the fireplace and Mum had a thing about bonfires having once nearly set the hedge alight, so she decided to re-wrap them and put them in the dustbin – the refuse was collected on Saturday’s so they would be gone first thing in the morning.
We’d run out of cello-tape and could only ever find string when we didn’t need it. A large dustbin bag would have to do. She tipped the entire package into the plastic bag containing the left-overs from the picnic and put it outside by the bins.
That night we slept soundly and were unaware of the nocturnal activity going on outside. Mum has always blamed the dogs for the events that followed, but I was convinced it was the neighbours’ cats that bit their way through the bag to get to the remains of the chicken drumsticks.
Next morning, the drone of the council refuse lorry woke me and I strolled downstairs. Next door I could hear the dustmen complaining about the ply-wood left by the DIY fanatic, refusing to take it as it was “not domestic.” Mum was standing at the window watching the dustman as he removed the offensive bag from our premises, but when he heaved it over his shoulder, the cat (or possibly dog) bitten bag ripped and one of the most salubrious roads in the heart of the Stockbroker Belt was strewn with hundreds of pornographic photographs. Mum froze with a “this can’t be happening” look on her face. She ran out of the front door, clad in fluffy slippers and a flamboyant purple dressing gown and chased away two boys who were making no delay in rescuing as many of the photos as they could, no doubt intending to enhance their pocket-money by charging their classmates for a quick look. The refuse collectors too, managed to put several magazines under their coats before a gust of wind forced hundreds of photos into the air.
Mrs Wilberforce at No. 62, who was President of the Buckinghamshire Branch of Women Against Sexual Promiscuity, or W.A.S.P, was in her front garden picking up bits of paper that had landed on her rose-bed. She looked first at the photographs, then at Mum, who was running around hopelessly chasing bits of paper, then went back into her house and picked up the telephone.
The Detective Inspector was a polite man, but firm. He’d been promoted to the Vice Squad only recently, but had already acquired a “no nonsense” style when questioning suspects.
Two policewomen looked at Mum with disgust as I walked from the sitting room where I’d been “helping police with their enquiries.” One must have been French because she referred to Mum as “Madame” Perhaps they were doing one of those French/English swaps like schools sometimes do in the holidays.
The Detective Inspector insisted we go through it again. He recapped.
“Your daughter was sick and did not go to school so you went for a picnic. You found the parcel in the hedgerow and when you opened it found obscene publications therein.” Mum nodded.
The Inspector then asked why we had taken the parcel in the first place, so Mum explained that we thought it was the unmarked fivers from the Mail Train Robbery.
At first there was only one helicopter, then two more were heard overhead and I’ve never seen so many police surrounding such a condensed area before. Also, and this was unusual for 1963, they were armed.
I wasn’t allowed to go with Mum to the police station, so I waved her goodbye reassuring her they would believe us eventually. She was led to the police car in tears while instructing me not to forget to feed the dogs, not to leave the gas on and ………………………, her stream of instructions disappeared as the police car pulled away taking her into custody.
I looked over the road to Chez Wilberforce and saw the curtains move.
A week after Mum’s arrest, they found the man who was to prove her innocence. He’d been arrested after being hospitalised due to a knee injury – well both knees actually – something about not dropping off something properly. It must have been a nasty fall because his kneecaps were completely smashed. He was cautioned under the obscene Publications Act and Mum was allowed home.
Aunty had come to look after me during Mum’s absence and kindly stayed with us for a month as Mum was too traumatised to cope after her ordeal. Mum was just starting to feel better when a relapse occurred. She’d answered the door to the postman and he’d handed her a brown paper parcel. She started to scream hysterically backing away from the package as though it was a live hand grenade. The postman moved towards her, the parcel still in his hand, and made an attempt to calm her down. This only made her worse and she cowered into a corner by the umbrella stand. He must have believed by now that he’d “drawn the short straw” when being allocated our road on his delivery rota. Aunty came to the rescue taking the parcel from the bewildered postman, thanked him and assured him that Mum would be alright after a nice cup of tea.
Mrs Wilberforce was having a W.A.S.P coffee morning and she and several WASPS, having been disturbed by Mum’s hysteria, had ventured into the driveway opposite, no doubt making mental notes for their next agenda. Aunty stared at them defiantly and slammed the front door shut.
Mum admitted, whilst dunking a ginger-nut into her tea, that she’d felt silly making such a fuss, but she’d forgotten she’d sent away for the catalogue that had arrived that morning. She was sure that if it hadn’t been wrapped in brown paper, she wouldn’t have reacted so badly.
The rest of the weekend was uneventful. In fact, by Monday, Mum was feeling so much better that she suggested I take another day off and “wouldn’t a day-trip to the seaside be a good idea.”
Double maths loomed that morning and there was to be a swimming gala practice that afternoon, but the one thing that I’ll never forget, was the shocked look of astonishment on my form mistress’s face when I arrived at the school gate one hour before classes began, begging to be let in.