Memoir Monday -The Great Potato Heist




When a boy is only nine years old, he can do strange things. This was a time when a field of potatoes caused me loads of trouble…

My friend Robert and I decided to take our billy-cart with us as we set off to explore the local neighbourhood. We were hoping to find a half decent hill to descend. The billy cart had been the product of the previous weekend’s efforts. A construction strung together using a mixture of scrounged odds and ends. A lettuce box atop a
wooden frame, a set of disused pram wheels and a piece of rope nailed to the front for steering purposes, made up this rickety downhill racer. The only modification to the lettuce box was to knock the front panel out so that the driver could extend their legs forward to help steer the cart on its wild descent. No brakes, and the lettuce box carriage was so rough it guaranteed to give you splinters almost every time some part of body made contact.

We pushed past went Les Blake's house, but he wasn't home so we pressed on towards Boundary Road. We then pushed our way past Mr. Porter's horse paddock towards the great expanse of market gardens. A forlorn looking brown and white Clydesdale hung its enormous head over the fence and snorted a greeting. We jumped at the sudden appearance of the huge snorting head. Snot dripped from its nostrils and huge hairs sprouted in different directions from the tip of its long nose. Horse snorts continued to sniff the air, as we settled ourselves in the presence of the giant horse.

Clydesdales were rarely seen working the paddocks anymore. This accounted for their sad appearance. They weren't needed and somehow they knew it. They remained a curiosity though. We rarely rode past without stopping to pat the gentle giants.

A huge crop of potatoes planted on the land beside the horse paddock grabbed our attention. They made quite an impressive sight with their mass of yellow and white potato flowers contrasting the plain green potato plant leaves. Away in the distance stood a paling fence, that formed the border of the constantly advancing houses.

Market gardens like Mr. Porter's were being crowded out as the neighborhood took on a new appearance. The market gardens found themselves surrounded by homes, as new streets were drawn in and new houses constructed. These new houses seemed to appear almost overnight and the market gardens looked more and more like an endangered species.

Some of the rows near the road had been unearthed and the potatoes lay exposed on the soil. The rising sun had crusted the sandy soil on their skin. There were potatoes of varying sizes. Fresh, new potatoes, with thin skins. Tiny chats, no bigger than marbles. It was love at first sight for both of us. I could barely contain myself. I saw images of potato heaven. My mind was filled with visions of potatoes chipped, boiled, baked, mashed, with lashings of melted butter. "Looks like someone forgot to pick up those potatoes," said Robert interrupting my potato dreams.

Without another spoken word we both took snuck a glimpse. A full turn of the head revealed not one living soul, save the two of us. It was just two boys, a billy-cart and a patch of apparently deserted potatoes. It was at this precise moment good judgment and all the parent tapes that normally looped around in our heads, telling us to do the right thing, left us stranded in the dark zone.

"Let's just take a few" I said." We could cook chips for lunch!"
Robert maintained his silence. He immediately stepped closer to the potato bounty. Picking up a handful and clutching them to his chest, he walked back to the billy cart and tipped them into the cart where the driver normally sat. I followed like the sorcerer's apprentice, step for step.

We were actually potato-knapping, but at that precise moment both of us had our consciences switched off. The billy cart filled quickly and away we scampered, neither quite sure what we were going to do with the loot. That would come later.
"Let's go to your place, " said Robert eventually.
"Why?"
"Oh well, we could cook chips"
"We've got enough potatoes to cook a mountain of chips"
"Maybe we'll think of a good idea while we're cutting up the chips"
"So, we're re going to your place then?"
"S'pose so" I added reluctantly.
When we arrived at my place we pushed the billy-cart down the driveway that ran beside the house and entered the backyard. While Robert began cleaning the stolen bounty, I slipped inside to get a knife to chop the potatoes into chips.

My Mother was ironing and singing when I entered the house. The air was thick with starch, the hiss of steam and Mum’s enthusiastic singing. She often sang when she did the ironing. In fact she was the only person I knew who actually seemed to enjoy ironing. As she sprinkled the clothes with a mixture of starch and water to make them extra stiff, the hissing of the iron provided an accompaniment to her singing. She sang joyfully like the birds of the morning.

"Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy
A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn't you ?

"What have you been doing my darling boy?" my mother enquired in a matter of fact voice, as the iron continued to hiss in her hand. Even as she spoke, her eyes never lifted from her ironing board task.
"Not much,” I said, trying my best to sound offhand.

I was now relying on a voice I used when I had no wish for people to ask questions. My Mother knew this voice well. Superior wisdom that only comes from living alerted her to the fact that she needed to do something immediately - like ask more questions.

The sound of someone knocking on the front door distracted her before she could activate further enquiries. It seemed that someone was looking out for me. I dived my hand into the kitchen drawer, snatched a knife and a vegetable peeler, then lingered momentarily at the back door. I was curious to know whom it was who had saved me from his mother’s potentially embarrassing questions. Questions that usually made me blush and squirm and feel intolerably hot.

To my absolute horror the voice at the front door introduced itself to my mother as Mr. Porter. I didn't need to hear the rest. Instantly my mind raced to the panic zone. I bolted from the house, and squealed at the unsuspecting Robert something like. "Mr. Potato is here about the..... Porter must have seen us....He's talking to my Mum. Hide the spuds quick!"
"What?"
"Come on, hide the damn potatoes"
"Sure. Where? -Up my jumper?"
"Very funny. Come on, use your brain"
Robert stood before me his head turning left and right like a carnival clown. His mouth remained agape. He uttered not a single sound.
I suddenly had what I thought was a great idea and without hesitating shared it
"Chuck the lot !" I spluttered.
"Where?" said my uninspired accomplice. He then resumed his clown pose. Robert obviously needed more information.
"Anywhere" I said.
“What does that mean? Anywhere!”
“Anywhere, anywhere. Just get rid of them. Chuck them anywhere"
So we began throwing the potatoes over the fence. Throwing them as far as we possibly could. We were attempting to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the hot potatoes.

About half the loot had been successfully launched over the nearest fence, when my Mother appeared at the back door.
"Come in here at once, both of you, there's someone at the door who is very keen to have a word with you"
We looked at each other, looked down at the billy-cart and immediately dropped the potatoes they were holding. We had been caught in the act of disposing of the evidence. It was obviously time to face the not so sweet music.

Mr. Porter, a tall, thin, man with a ruddy weather beaten face stood in the doorway blocking out the sunlight. The air around us was heavy with impending doom.

As it turned out, Mr. Porter was quite forgiving. His manner was gruff, but not unreasonable given the situation. He had been able to track the potato pinchers because of the trail of tiny potatoes we had left as they journeyed home. We had succeeded where Hansel and Gretel had failed.

Mr. Porter asked for an assurance that we would never steal his potatoes again and we stood before him, shaking our heads in all the right places. He also asked for his potatoes back and it was at this point we wished they could immediately make themselves invisible, or at the very least turn back time. We exchanged knowing glances and my Mum assured Mr. Porter that his wishes would be met.

We dragged our tails from the scene and retired to the back yard to think of a solution. At this point both of us managed to recover the ability to draw breath. We sat at the base of the washing line, surrounded by the family washing, pondering our collective gloom.

Pondering on this problem didn't last long. Our fate was sealed by the untimely arrival of Mrs. Dodd at the front door. Mrs Dodd lived two doors up from our house. She appeared most anxious. It was turning out to be a bad day for visitors.

A tiny, energetic woman with the harsh, raspy voice of a smoker she appeared quite agitated when Mum opened the door. She had arrived with a strong sense of urgency about a minute after the disgruntled Mr. Porter. She spluttered and coughed as she told a story about potatoes raining down on her back yard. Her voice became more shrill as she told my mother "I thought I was going to get bopped on the noggin.-and my poor cat - well she fled under the house like she’d been shot from a cannon ! "

-And so we copped it for a second time in the same day. Robert was sent home in disgrace. I got the "Wait till your father hears about this, he'll be mortified " routine and spent some more time in my room.

Both households imposed lifetime bans on either of us playing anywhere near one another. This was later shortened to one week, which still seemed like a lifetime. I survived his father's wrath by agreeing with everything that was said.
"You've behaved like an idiot Alan. What are you?"
"I'm a idiot" I replied.
"You're a foolish boy !"
"I'm a fool as well Dad"

Well, despite this unfortunate event, an event which has burned itself into my conscience memory, I still love potatoes, and to this day I have never ever gone potato-knapping again. It's good when we learn from our mistakes.

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