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When I got home that evening, I discovered that we had guests staying, — a soldier friend of Dad, his wife and a couple of their kids. This was quite a normal thing for the army. If a soldier was en route to a new posting and had a friend in the town, he would often spend a day or two of his “travelling time [1] ” with him, visit the local mess and enjoy a sociable get-together.

The son was in the garden swinging a cricket bat about and trying to hit the ball along the ground. He had no idea how to handle the bat. I would not speak because of the soreness of my throat, but I indicated to him that we should get the chokra to bowl and I demonstrated how he should handle the bat. He had a couple of useless swings so, in a somewhat superior way, I took the bat off him and demonstrated a hook-shot and couple of cover-shots, generally showing him how it should be done.

I passed the bat to him. Unfortunately, I stood too close to him and when he swung again, he bashed me on the head with the bat. I passed out for the third time that day!

For the next couple of days I did not have to go to school, not because of the head bashing but, because I could not — or should I say, chose not — to speak. Mum said that I should have lots of custard and jelly and ice-cream. This was Heaven! But it did not last because, on the third day a bloody great wasp wanted to get at my dessert and in waving it away I shouted.

“Get off, wasp.”

I was back to school the next day.


Our final posting before Dad’s leave in England was to Quetta, Baluchistan. It was a really strange place, sandy, hilly and virtually surrounded by mountains, but beautiful. Most so-called Military Cantonments were built on the outskirts of a town. In Quetta it was no different. The cantonment was on the north of the town in the foothills of a range of mountains which separate Baluchistan from Afghanistan.

As kids we really felt it was a frontier kind of living especially since, in 1935, there had been a devastating earthquake in which thousands perished and, from that time, it was decided that all military housing would have a sleeping annexe, known as a “tumbu”, attached to the house. We loved it, sleeping under canvas with a mud-walled structure complete with windows and doors. During our holidays we could literally step out of the “tumbu” into the wild and play cowboys and Red Indians.

There were a lot of donkeys used as pack animals by builders who were still engaged in post-earthquake, re-construction work, and we would try to catch them, throw off the pack, and ride them. The older ones were very docile and tired and could easily be caught and ridden, but the young ones were really very alert and wild.

Most of the time it was down to catching the older ones and, in order to make them liven up, run and jump, we would try to tie a cloth bag with a hot potato in it under their tails. By the time the potato-bag had been brought from one of our kitchens and tied onto the unfortunate donkey, the potato had gone cold again. So it was more in our imagination than real that the “hot spud” worked. However, Denis Copsey, an older lad of about fourteen, insisted on carrying on with the idea, but then one day he got a nasty kick and so we decided that a broomstick between our legs and a simulated gallop or canter was safer.


Mum and Kathy outside our “tumbu” — Quetta, 1938

Mr and Mrs Hill, their daughter, Mary,

with Mum, Kathy, Phil and Mary — Quetta 1938

Since Miss D’Outre, I had had no time for “wimmin”. But here in Quetta it was fashionable to play “kissing kook”. It was a simple game, boys and girls chasing and trying to kiss each other.

To me the game was a lot of rot, but because all the others were into it and because I could run very fast and could avoid being caught and kissed, I played along. One day a girl (she was a “big” girl, fully 11 years old) decided that she was going to kiss me, but since I could run much faster than she could, she engaged the services of Denis Copsey to do the chasing and catching for her. He caught me and dragged me, struggling and kicking, back to her. She gave me a big, wet kiss on the mouth and… Oh, boy that was nice!

I was hooked and immediately fell in love for the second time in my life. Her name was Mary Hill and she was beautiful, a Scottish girl with really dark, almost black, hair and the most beautiful blue eyes and, freckles either side of her nose. She could play the piano very well and used to play, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, for me. Of course, she was just kidding me along but, I was head over heels in love with her and would try to sneak a kiss from her whenever I could. I should mention that in those days the sheet music of a popular tune used to appear on the bottom half of the back page of the “News of the World” and so we were kept up to date with the latest melodies.


Mary had a brother, Fella, who was one of the gang. He was a nice lad with short cropped gingery-blond hair and a sense of infectious hilarity about him. We were both highly amused when the cake-wallah [2] used to come around with his bike and a huge steel trunk filled with cakes tied to the back. As in England, all these street vendors used to have their cries. The cake wallah used to sing out about his sweet which he called “Jimmy Kelly”.

“ ‘Jimmy Kelly’. Good for belly.

Taste and try. After buy.”

There were other street vendors too. One was the ubiquitous “Chinaman”. They could be found in every town we were ever stationed in. They used to ride a bicycle with a huge bundle of about a cubic yard lashed to the carrier. Within the bundle they carried Chinese-manufactured silks and fine cloths all neatly pressed and folded. Their cry was “shirok, good shirok”. From time to time they would stop at the gate and ask if we wanted to buy their merchandise.

Mum would sometimes invite them in and allow them to display their table-cloths, sheets and pillowcases, kimonos and pyjamas and all sorts of other stuff. It seemed to me she hardly ever bought anything, though I guess she must have done so from time to time because we had lots of “shirok” items in the house. Finally the poor chap would re-fold the goods and pack them into his bundle again. It never ceased to amaze me how neatly they could keep their bundles.

Then there were book-sellers — loads of them. Their merchandise was carried in a steel trunk, again on the back of a bicycle. Mostly they were Indian blokes who could speak passable English and really seemed quite well-educated. There was one occasion when one was complimented by Dad on his general knowledge and his understanding of the merchandise he was promoting.

“You see, sir,” the salesman had responded to Dad, his chest unmistakably swelling with pride, “ I am no ordinary book-salesman. I am a Bachelor of Arts, Calcutta University…”, and then spoiled it all by adding the unforgettable word, “…failed”.


Being the eldest among us “army brats”, Denis Copsy was regarded as the leader of the gang and we would follow him almost slavishly and get involved in more or less anything he did. One day he said he was hungry and would like some chappatis and dhal. I don’t think anyone else was hungry, but we thought it would be fun.

“Where are we going to get them from?”, asked Fella who, along with the rest of us didn’t normally eat the stuff.

“Come with me”, said Denis “I know where we can get hold of some.”

So, off we trudged and came to an isolated, small block of servants-quarters in which some half-a-dozen Indian troops were housed. Even at our age, Fella and I were surprised and somewhat embarassed that we might be going to ask for food from the troops. After all, they were relatively poor and would have had to give us something out of their own rations. I didn’t like the idea at all, but I went along with it when Denis assured us that he had made similar requests from soldiers before and the troops had taken pleasure in feeding him.

“Give us some dhal and chappatis.”, said Denis, boldly. “We are hungry.”

The troops were in the course of making their bread and already had a bowl of dhal and some vegetable curry set out.

“Eat with us with pleasure”, said one of the soldiers after a hasty chat with his companions. They spoke in a Baluchi dialect (Pushtu) to each other and I did not understand what they were saying but the sinister, laughing expressions on their faces and their tones suggested that they were up to no good. They laughed and exchanged several sentences in discussion with each other. Finally, speaking in Urdu,

“But this afternoon we are going to eat inside.” One of them added.

We were invited into the godown-like premises and invited to sit on a charpoy. I was beginning to get more than a little scared of this business. The soldier went outside, to bring in the food, he claimed. Then suddenly the door of the quarter was slammed shut and the bolt, we could hear, was pushed into the locking position.

By now I was scared out of my mind because outside they had started to speak loudly in Urdu, quite clearly so that we could hear them. They were talking about how long they should keep us before eating us!! Somehow, though, I thought to myself, “they are soldiers and would not really kill the sons of the British soldiers and eat them… Would they?”. Doubt still lingered in my mind.

I looked over at Copsey and Fella who could also understand what the troops were saying. Fella was sweating profusely, maybe with the heat of the godown, but more likely with fear. But Copsey, our leader chief, was by now a whimpering wreck. Damn having a cowardly chief like that, I thought to myself. We’re going to have to put up a fight and, if one of us could escape and raise the alarm, maybe we could all be saved. We settled down, each one of us no doubt wondering what we could do.

After what seemed like hours, though perhaps only ten or fifteen minutes, the bolt was drawn and the door opened. I tried to push past the soldier to make a run for it, but he caught me and blocked the door to the rest of the gang. Another soldier approached with a silver coloured tray on which were set a couple of small bowls with a portion of the dhal and vegetable curry and a stack of chapattis.

“Khow. Khuub khow, sahib.” (Eat. Eat well, gentlemen), he invited.

Copsey must have been a bit thick in the head, because he immediately took the bread and accompaniments and began to eat. The rest of us, with dry mouths and our hearts still racing, refused.

“Eat!”, commanded the soldier, this time with a stern look on his face.

Each of us took a small piece of chapatti and having dipped it into the dhal, began to chew meekly on it. Copsey polished off the rest. He really must have been bloody hungry.

When he had finished, the soldiers, laughing at the fear they had jokingly struck in us, let us go. We all ran away back to our lines. Although I would like to have seen the soldiers given a rollocking for their prank, I never told anyone about the experience. I knew that Dad would first have punished me for “begging” from the troops.

After that experience, Denis Copsey was certainly persona non grata with us, and we decided that we would think long and hard about his leadership qualities before blindly following him again.


Nurses — Mum standing left — circa 1923

When we came back to Quetta after our year in England we met up with Mary and Fella Hill again and enjoyed some more good times together. However, soon after we left Quetta on this second occasion, I heard that Fella was laid low with typhoid and had died of the disease in the same fashion as did my two brothers, Barry and Michael.

If you look around the old grave yards in India, you will almost certainly be quite amazed to see how many young people, often children and troops of 18 or 19, died with diseases like cholera, typhoid, small-pox and so on. Today, with the advent of antibiotics, virtually all are non-fatal.

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[1] Extra time added to the normal journey- or holiday-period for travel.

[2] Person. In this case a cake vendor.


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