by Margaret Abruzzi

Excerpt from Winter Birds

Uncle Will bent down to attach the bicycle pump to the front wheel. His thick fingers made it difficult to screw on the tube between the spokes. He straightened up with a sigh, stretched his back and pumped up the tires. He loaded the front basket with burlap sacks adding a bag of rusty old dinner knives bent into an L shape. Auntie May brought out a small fork from the kitchen.

“Here cariad (little love),” she said, “this will fit your hand better.”

I was headed out for a day with Uncle Will. I had no idea where we were going or what we were to do except that Auntie said I was going to help bring back supper and that she needed some peace. Four-year-olds do love to chatter she often said. I added the fork to the pouch of knives, wondering how we would use them.

We walked through the early morning mist of a summer's day, down Priory Street and toward the coast. Uncle pushed the bicycle. The terrible sound of the squeaking wheel bounced off the walls of the narrow street. I could even reach up and touch Mrs. Evans' windowsill and see the lace curtains twitch. Auntie said Winny Evans knew everyone's business.

Mr Perrigo shouted “Bora da (good morning),” as he stepped out of his ice cream shop. I liked the sound of the jingling bell and wished we could stop for ice cream and blackberry syrup in a tall glass with a pretty long-handled spoon.

“Bora da,” I sang out in reply, meandering from one side of the pavement to the other, careful to avoid stepping on cracks. Mattie Evans had told me I'd get spots on my face if I stepped on the cracks.

“It's late for the tide we'll be if we don't hurry,” said Uncle.

I ran ahead breathlessly; so what if I got a spotty face? Auntie May would make a potion of burdock leaves probably. She had a cure for most everything. When I tired, Uncle Will took out a burlap sack and wrapped it around the crossbar so I could sit while he hopped on the seat. We wobbled down the street with me clutching tight to the handlebars. We turned into a lane bounded by tall hedgerows. Leaves brushed against my legs and my hair flew out as the sea breeze reached us with its sharp, salty smell. The last of the morning mist wafted away.

Uncle Will propped up the bicycle by a stile that led into a cow field. I hopped and skipped across the field and onto the railroad tracks that ran beside the coast, the rails glinting in the sun. We made a cushion of sacks and sat down on the sand among the gorse bushes, their bright brassy yellow flowers in full bloom. The gulls wheeled and screeched overhead in search of a meal. Sandpipers rushed about on their quick little legs into the receding waves and bobbed back before the next overwhelmed them.

The sea shushed restlessly like windblown leaves in a London park. The estuary tide was going out rapidly. My uncle took out a thermos of tea and lit a Woodbine, puffing with contentment while I ate potato crisps. I tossed some to the dive-bombing gulls swarming above, spying on us, orange legs hanging uselessly. A delicacy, a dead fish got their attention and they left us alone.

“What now?” I asked. “How far?”

“Not too far. It's cockles we're after.”

He shaded his eyes, looking out to sea like a captain of a pirate ship in my picture book, Treasure Island.  The swish of waves grew fainter as the waters disappeared, revealing mudflats patterned with silvery rivulets. A small strip of sea bound the horizon.

Somewhere behind us we heard a loud braying, and then clinking and clanking sounds. Out from a path in the cow fields emerged a woman pulling a donkey. She wore long skirts and a shawl tied Welsh-fashion, crisscrossed over her chest, the ends tied in the back. On her head was a man's flat cap like the one Uncle wore and she shuffled toward us in broken down scuffed boots, dragging a reluctant beast. The donkey decided to lean against a boulder warmed by the sun and go no further. The old woman shouted at it in a surprisingly deep voice. She and Uncle exchanged words. They spoke in Welsh so I had no idea what was happening and, as it turned out, neither did Uncle Will. I learned later that she was from North Wales and Uncle couldn't understand the dialect.

“Para saesnaeg? (Do you speak English?),” said Uncle Will. He strode over to the donkey and whispered in its ear. With a great clatter it rose to its feet and looked balefully out to sea, head hanging.

“Is it an idiot you think I am, Togo Jones?” she asked, using Uncle's nickname. “Of course I speak English. Pity it is you don't understand Welsh like my Da, your great uncle Evans who settled north in Conwy these fifty years.”

Uncle laughed. “Dora Morrison is it?  May told me she saw you in the village, but I could hardly believe it was you. My goodness me. Now if it's cockles you're after we'd better get this animal going. Now what do you think this donkey would be wanting?”  She shrugged. Uncle went on, “It's hungry she is and the cinch is too tight around her belly, otherwise it's a lovely time she's having this fine day.” Uncle adjusted the belt and led the donkey over to a patch of grass. Its owner sat down on a rock. She peered at me, slit-eyed.

“Is that an evacuee you've got there, Togo Jones?” she shouted across to Uncle. “I hope she's no trouble like the one Dyllis Owen has. A little girl from London, nits in her hair, filthy, screamed, 'You're trying to kill me!' when they gave her a bath. We all heard her. A nice clean bed Dyllis had for her, but no, she had to sleep under it. Not enough beds for the whole family in London, you see, and anyway she was used to hiding under the bed what with the bombs every night. A terrible time the Owens had. A poor pale little bit of a girl she was too. You should see her now, rosy cheeks and all, a bit of fat on her bones.”

I pinched my arm to see if I had enough fat. She talked about the girl like she was a chicken.

Uncle led the donkey back, talking in its ear and patting its neck.

“Tide's right Miss Morrison. You'll have no trouble from here on. Donkey's like us, willing to work with a little bit in the stomach. If I were you I wouldn't go out too far beyond the point. Evan Price ran into a bit of quicksand last week.”  Uncle said this while taking off his boots and rolling up his trouser legs. “Come cariad, take off your sandals and socks and put them by mine.”

Barefoot, we walked across the wet firm sand, corrugated in places in a herringbone pattern. Barnacle-clad rocks poked out of pools with minnows darting between seashells. I saw a hermit crab scuttling across the sand looking for a home. We walked steadily toward the horizon.

A seething sound, like singing under our toes brought us to a stop. Hundreds, no, thousands of pinholes punctured the sand. We had found the cockles. He picked out a knife for himself and after scraping around for a bit, he looked satisfied and settled to work, harvesting cockles.

“Here's our supper,” he said. He handed me my fork and I copied what he was doing. I scraped against white and orange fan-shaped shells barely beneath the surface, tightly packed together. Water spurted out in tiny fountains when the shells tried to close quickly. We gathered cockles in heaps, and I helped put them in burlap sacks then raced around the sands, jumping over rock pools. Uncle shouted for me to pay attention to where I wandered.

I knew I'd gone too far when I looked back and saw how small he looked and how faint his voice. A flock of gulls on a sand bar distracted me. I crossed a gully and waved my arms and screamed as I ran up the bank and when they scattered I waited for them to settle and ran at them again. The sun disappeared behind grey clouds gathering over the horizon. I was alone. The gully I had crossed had turned into a wide stream with the turn of the tide. It was only then that I remembered Auntie's warnings about eels and quicksand. I was not only alone I was lost. Which direction should I go?  I called “Mum, Dad, where are you?”  I would wait until Uncle found me. I heard the donkey bray and raced into the stream which now came up to my waist. The current pulled against me. Uncle was on the other side and crashed into the water to pull me to the bank.

We passed Miss Morrison and her donkey. She washed off her sacks of cockles and hoisted them onto her donkey's back. She gave me a long look as if to fix me in her memory.

“You be a good girl now,” she said. “Remind me to May, Will Jones. It's a lucky man you are.”

I wished I could ride on the donkey although he looked tired enough weighed down with cockle sacks.

Auntie May had arranged shallow buckets and chipped white blue-bordered enamel pans on the concrete in the backyard. She washed the sacks under the spigot and tipped the cockles into the water-filled pans.

My uncle took off his shirt and splashed water over his white chest. Indoors, in the kitchen, I washed in the zinc tub. I took off my wet dress, shivering, glad to take off my clothes covered in sandy grit. I wondered how the cockles would become supper. The biggest cooking pot was set to simmer over the coal fire.

Outside, in the pans, the cockles began to open one by one in the shimmering fresh water. They sent out a tentative orange lip here and there as the shells slowly opened. Auntie tipped out the water, rinsed them one more time and brought them inside. The pot hissed and seethed like a witch's brew. The cockles were singing for the last time. She tossed them into a sieve and we helped ourselves. We ate them right away. We were very hungry. Auntie was more patient and accumulated a heap on a platter and patted them with butter, which melted on the steaming pile.

“Well, what do you think?” Uncle asked me.

“I don't know, I haven't made my mind up,” I mumbled as I chewed the rubbery morsels. Butter was the most delicious part.

I shone, gleamed with the afternoon of sunshine, sea, and wind. The little creatures tasted of the salt sea, much better than the winkles Mum had collected from the rocks at Whitstable, but then how could she know of such things?  I wished she could see me. She hadn't visited for a long time. Maybe Auntie May would want to be my new mother?

Margaret Abruzzi has been published in Western North Carolina Woman, The Urban News and the Asheville Citizen-Times. Excerpts from her memoir of WW II have appeared in two anthologies, Birthed from Scorched Hearts, ed. Marijo Moore, and Clothes Lines, compiled by Celia H. Miles and Nancy Dillingham. She was born in England and worked for British Millinery, a trade magazine, and Vanity Fair, U.K. edition.

About Cockles—I was evacuated from London to Wales at the age of three, and I have vivid, almost total recall of that period. I am forever grateful for the chance to have experienced living in the Welsh countryside at a time when people virtually lived off the land. Told from a child's perspective, the first part of my memoir deals with my wartime experience in London.