For Danny, it seemed that since his mother’s letter about being unable to visit for a while, the Flints’ attitude towards him had hardened. Albin Flint, in particular, became more involved, and not in a good way. Danny was sure that the man had declared his own personal war on him.
Threats were constant. Flint was frequently warning Danny about staying away from the woods. Tempting as the sheltering branches of the trees were and gratifying as it might be to do something against Albin Flint’s wishes, Danny would find himself having to deny, in all truth, that he had been anywhere near the woods.
“Be warned, boy. Disobey me and I’ll be taking my belt to you.” And with that statement, Flint would finger the broad leather at his waist. Actual severe physical punishment was totally new, in terms of the Flints, but also in Danny’s whole experience.
But all punishment developed gradually. Early to bed was the first and easiest one. That happened for things like a wildly running Sara bumping into him and falling down crying, or when collecting eggs from the hen-house, a task he enjoyed, he had left the door loose while inside. One hen had escaped but ran back quickly when chased. But, for Danny, it was early to bed.
“For being so careless,” Albin Flint had growled.
Danny didn’t mind being confined to his room. There was always a book he could read, and he loved reading.
But things got worse.
As Spring came on, Danny enjoyed lingering by the little stream that skirted the lane. Small fish darted in the crystal-clear water. One day though, he had slipped on the moist green bank, and, slightly wet he had entered the cottage to explain.
“Look at my clean floor,” Eliza Flint had screamed, and Danny looked back worriedly at the faint muddy footprint he had left on the grey slabs. “And I suppose you think I’m going to wash those filthy pants.”
Before Danny could respond Albin Flint had appeared, all black scowls, and twisted mouth. “You’re a menace, boy. A menace. Well. There’s only one place for you.”
One thick, hairy hand grabbed Danny’s shirt, and, shaking, he was dragged towards the corner of the kitchen. Albin Flint opened the cupboard where the brushes, mops and buckets were kept. For one terrifying moment, Danny thought he was going to be beaten with a broom shank. But Flint simply pushed him roughly into the cupboard and slammed the door.
“You’ll stay in there until I think you deserve to come out.”
Danny’s head bumped gently against the low ceiling. Blackness closed in on him, almost palpable. He had never been afraid of the dark but being in this enclosed space was frightening as he sensed the walls closing in on him.
That first time he crouched in one corner, hunched, lost and miserable, smelling the dank, musty sourness of mop and floor cloths. Something soapy made him sneeze. The blackness dragged at his spirits. Why were the Flints so keen to find fault? He hadn’t done anything deliberately naughty, had he?
As the cupboard became a regular punishment, he began to explore ways of passing the time. He counted in ones, twos, threes, fives and tens. No good. Then he tried testing himself to see how many song words he could remember, Songs like, ‘Run, rabbit, run,’ and ‘Bye, bye, blackbird.’
Songs he had heard on the radio, and some his mother sang as she dusted the furniture. In the darkness, he could bring up pictures his mother busily whisking brightly around the room, the duster a blur in rhythm with her song. Oh, how he missed her.
Danny soon got himself into a frame of mind where he tried to remember scenes from the book ‘Tom Sawyer’. Or he would recall scenes from films his mother had taken him to just before he was evacuated. Films like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, although in that dark hole he regretted recalling that witch.
But there was ‘Robin Hood’, yes, the best film ever, with Robin dumping a deer carcass onto the Sherriff of Nottingham’s table. It had been so long since he had seen any film. Another hole in his life.
But these self-imposed challenges made the punishments almost bearable, even though they were unfair. The darkness became a sort of blanket. Only the attitude, the harshness of the Flints’ unsettled him. His fight with Max Hindley had been his last imprisonment. He knew there would be more.
What bothered him as much as anything were his mother’s letters. All she seemed to do was exhort him to be brave. One letter did tell him that his uncle had found his father a job working on overhead power lines, but she said that because of the war, he was kept busy but did promise to get to see him when possible.
What hurt Danny more than anything was the fact that she made no reference to his letters to her in which he had poured out his despair at how callous the Flint’s had been. He just could not understand how she could ignore his pleas for help.
Then he found out.
In her last letter, which, he guessed, had escaped the censorship that the Flints applied, she wrote that she was so disappointed not to hear from him. But he had written to her every week. He had handed them to Eliza Flint for posting.
His thought had been instant. Had she been reading them? He knew they got some payment from the government for keeping him. But was it enough to have them hide his appeals to his mother? Well, they were the Flints.
Cautiously, he raised the matter one teatime.
“My mother says she’s hasn’t had any letters from me.”
Eliza Flint’s eyes had widened as she glanced at Albin Flint before she glared back at Danny. “Must be the wartime post,” she muttered, her eyes seeming to challenge him to respond.
“But I’ve written. It must be more than ten letters,” Danny said, trying to keep his voice calm.
“So what are you saying, boy?” Albin Flint’s rough tone made him jump. “You think we can’t post a letter? The lady’s told you, it’s the war.”
Danny’s mind was wrestling with the response that letters could come to him, but not get out from here. He knew exactly what their reaction to that would be. Yes, it was the war, as they said, but not the real war. It was their personal war against him. All he could do was drop the subject and hope.
But hope needed to spring eternal. One late afternoon as he came from school, he stopped at the cottage gate, dreading entry into the gloom and chill atmosphere of the cottage. It was how he might feel entering a haunted house, only that would be more exciting.
Beyond the grey cottage walls, the woods seemed to hold out branches like welcoming arms. Oh, that was so tempting. But no, the woods would only mean trouble. Anyway, being home late from school annoyed Eliza Flint. Best play safe.
With a sigh, he moved to the cottage and decided to go in via the front door which was always unlatched during daylight. This way he might get to his bedroom and have a peaceful read before the grey chill of the evening meal.
The sound of crockery came from the kitchen and Danny intended to slip quietly along the passage, but he had just taken those first steps when little Sara toddled through from the front room. In pink gingham with blond curls shining, she was out of place in this grim interior.
“Beena ‘chool, Danny?” She cooed, asking every time he came back.
“Yes, school,’ he said, hoping they hadn’t been heard,
No chance. Cutting like a blade from the kitchen, came the sharp voice of Eliza Flint, “Danny, I want you down to Ainsley’s farm. I’m short of milk. And wash your hands first.”
Washed, he returned to the kitchen, where Eliza Flint was standing at the table with her hands deep in a baking bowl, flour up to her bony elbows. Sun poured in through the kitchen window. A kitchen that was brighter than any other room in the cottage.
She treated him to her usual glare and indicated the can and cash at the end of the table. “Baking for the village fair. Need extra milk. Be quick.”
Danny winced as he grabbed the four pints can by the wire handle which, he knew would be cutting into his hands when the can was filled. Still, going to Ainsley’s was getting out and away. A half-mile down the lane and the pleasantly cheery farmer’s wife was always a form of escape.
Out onto the lane, he sprinted down towards the farmhouse, his arm held out behind him, trailing the billy can. He loved running. Enjoyed the freedom of it, and that sense of shaking away all the troubles that pressed in on him. Breathless, he arrived at the farm.
Mrs Ainsley was a very wide lady, wrapped in a full flowered pinafore, but always smiling and bright. A total contrast to the Flints. Why couldn’t he have been sent to somewhere like this?
“There you are, my love,” she said, as she handed the full can back to Danny. “Four pints of our cows’ finest. Manage that?” Her eyes sparkled, “Would you like to see our newest calf?”
Would he? All thoughts of Eliza Flint’s demands vanished as he nodded eagerly, and followed her across a straw littered yard. The pungent aroma of the farm was familiar to him now. Oh=n his first visit, he had gagged at the stench. Now he was almost looking forward to it.
The calf was in the large byre, enclosed in a small pen with his brown and white mother. Standing nervously in deep straw, the brown spindly creature cast large nervous eyes at Danny, before tottering towards him on uncertain legs. Danny held out a hand and giggled as the moist soft lips nuzzled eagerly at his fingers. Danny’s first laugh of the day. And his last.
Worry began to dig at him as he hurried up the green fringed lane, the wire grip of the can digging into his fingers. Breathless and aching, he reached the cottage where he saw Albin Flint’s clanking old blue van parked outside. Fearfully, he entered the kitchen.
“So you’ve decided to come back,” Albin Flint’s rough voice jolted Danny. “Didn’t Mrs Flint tell you to be quick.” He grabbed the can from Danny’s already aching hand and passed it to frosty-faced Eliza Flint.
“He’s been twenty-five minutes this time, Albin.”
The gross figure loomed over him and Danny cringed, “Twenty five minutes? To Ainsley’s? Be quick, that’s what you were told.”
As ever, those monstrous hands grabbed his shirt and he was dragged towards the cupboard. “Why were you so late?”
Telling this man about the joys of a new-born calf would be like telling Hitler to stop dropping bombs. In Danny’s mind, Albin Flint and Hitler were blood brothers. And, as he was thrust, accompanied by an angry growl into the darkness, Hitler seemed to be his preferred option.