Excerpt of Terrible Times by Philip Ardagh
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In which America is mentioned,
but the author gets somewhat sidetracked
"America?" said Eddie Dickens in amazement. "You want me to go to America?" His mother nodded. This was difficult because she was wearing an enormous neck brace, which looked rather like one of those huge plastic collars vets sometimes put around dogs' heads to prevent them from licking wounds; only hers was made of whalebone and starched linen.
Before you start crying, "Poor whale!" and writing off letters of complaint, I wish to point out two things: firstly, these events took place in the nineteenth century, when things were very different from the twenty-first; secondly, the whale whose bones were used to make the frame for Mrs. Dickens's neck brace had died of natural causes after a long and fulfilling life at sea, with plenty of singing, which is, apparently, what whales like doing most.
Okay, it hadn't said, "When I die, I hope my bones are used to make surgical appliances," but it's better than being harpooned and killed in its prime in order to make surgical appliances. (I say "it" simply because I don't know whether this particular whale was a he or a she. Sorry.)
Not that Eddie or his mother was thinking of such matters as they walked up the drive of Awful End that cold winter's afternoon. She'd just dropped the bombshell about wanting Eddie to go to America. I don't mean she'd actually dropped a bombshell, of course. Not a real one. That's simply an expression for a surprising piece of news. She did drop a real bombshell once, funnily enough -- actually it was a mortar shell, but it was packed with explosives like a bomb and did go off, which explains why she was now wearing the neck brace and, oh yes, walked with the aid of crutches.
She was lucky not to have been more seriously injured. Fortunately for her, when she'd tripped and stumbled with the shell -- it was like a big brass tube or a giant bullet, not something a hermit crab lives in on the beach -- she'd tossed it over a small wall dividing the rose garden from the sunken garden. It was the sunken garden that took much of the blast, but it wasn't badly damaged either. A lot of earth flew all over the place and an ornamental pear tree was destroyed, but little else. Less fortunately, one of Mad Uncle Jack's ex-soldier colleagues (who'd been sleeping under the rhubarb, which afforded great shade under its huge leaves) was blown to smithereens (which isn't a small seaside town near Bridlington but means "to bits"). Eddie's mother was horrified. She felt guilty for days and never ate rhubarb again for the rest of her life, except in crumbles or with custard . . . or a light sprinkling of brown sugar. Or white, if there was no brown.
Mad Uncle Jack tried to reassure her by saying that if the chap had been a half-decent soldier, he would have been heroically blown up in some battle long ago. And anyway, he strongly suspected that the fool had been chewing the rhubarb leaves, which are highly poisonous, so he'd probably have been dead by now whether she'd tripped and tossed the shell over the wall or not.
Before we get back to Eddie and Mrs. Dickens crunching up the drive to Awful End and her telling her son about the plans for America, there may be those amongst you who are interested to know why Mrs. Dickens was carrying the shell in the first place. Quite simply, it was because she'd found it in her sewing box. It was summertime (you might have guessed that from the size of the rhubarb leaves), and she was fed up with the early morning light coming through the crack between the curtains, so she'd decided to sew them together. Instead of finding her usual spools of thread, little pot of pins, her packet of needles, and dried broad beans (graded by size), she found the brass mortar shell and nothing else.
Copyright © 2003 Philip Ardagh