Chapter 2

Beginnings

Accounting for one’s own life is a leery matter. Of course, I can tell you a little or a lot. What though did I tell my dear Biddy? You can imagine it. I wished her to think well of me but mine is an unpleasant story. She was persistent. This is what I told her.

‘Biddy, love’, I said. ‘I’m no good with words and I find it difficult to tell you much about beginnings. My childhood was not so strange, or so remarkable, that it needs much of an explanation. I was born into an ordinary sort of family in Devon. My dad was a seaman and mum worked in the fields and looked after we children, six of us in the fullness of time, four girls and two boys. I had a brother who was dear to me but, alas, he departed this life one hard winter with hardly a whimper.

My dad was usually at sea and then when we all thought he had abandoned us he would roll up our lane to the cottage, rucksack on back, and whistling some shanty or other
– you could hear him before you saw him. He stayed long enough to get my mum in
the family way and then off he went again. It wasn’t much of a life for the rest of us. When I got a little older and bolder I would follow him back up the lane. He cuffed me around the head, laughing, and walked faster until in the end I ran out of puff and he out of sight.

I thought of our family as poor but respectable. My mother worked in the fields in the summer months and we children helped out when the fruits were being picked and the
harvest gathered in. We had our own pickings and if the harvest was good we lived pretty well and stored fruit and veg for the winter months but winters could be hard. Dad left cash on his trips home and we made it last as best we could but when it ran out – which it did too often and too quickly – we were hard pressed. My mother cleaned up at the Hall and that had its pickings from the kitchen but very little cash.

To be fair to our mother she kept us clean and in decent clothes for much of the time. She was honest and religious and wished us all to have a better life. As soon as I could make it on my own, I was sent up to the church hall to be taught how to read and write and to know the scriptures and that is when and where it all went wrong for me.’

At this point began to cry. Yes, me, a bad man and a pirate to-boot, crying! Not out of a grievous injury or sudden pain but at a childhood memory. ‘Hush dearest,’ said my Biddy,
hush dear. Stop for a moment.’ She busied herself. And we ate and I said nothing more until the ale had its way.

‘People, think ill of me, Biddy.  I admit it. But then what do you think I thought of them?’ ‘Who do you mean, dearest? said my Biddy as she caressed my face slowly and gently.

‘Well take the Church.’ Each Sunday we children went with my Mum to a service at the parish church. There we all were. The gentry in their pews with the most important of
them at the front with their names in gold letters at aisle gates. We hoi-polloi stood at the back. We paid tithes like them but for our pains we stood and they had their cushions and displays. This priest – odious man – told us all that we must accept the station in life it had pleased the Lord to give us: a Sheppard to his sheep, the farmer to his crops, and the rich man to the responsibilities of position. Were we to resist the position God had provided
us then surely we would be punished both in this life and the next. What hypocrisy was that? We were to live but as ticks on a sheep’s back. I resolved there and then that I would not live such a life that had been pre-ordained for me.’

Biddy sighed deeply and prophetically. I paused and thought a little.

‘What’s more this priest when he had a boy on his own set out to bugger him.’ Biddy sat back in her chair. ‘I’m sorry, dear. It’s horrible, of course it is. I kicked him as hard as I could on his leg and ran. I didn’t go back for some days to this school but then mum found out and took me back. When he tried again I kicked his still harder. I was a strong boy so it hurt. I told my mum what had happened. This time she did not take me back and helped me with reading and writing herself.

And so the die was set. I had resolved to help myself and as soon as I judged myself able and sufficient to run away to sea and to make my fortune there. ‘And there it is Biddy’ I says, I shall leave it there for the moment. I have things to do with a Friend of mine.’ So she snuffed out the candle and as sweet as a nut led me to bed.