Before my father died I started to write down his tales about his life. The following story is based on one tale he told about when a friend of his shot a cow when they were on guard duty.
I was in bad with a bookie. We’d only been in Blackburn for a month and I was two pounds, fourteen shillings and eleven pence in and it was growing each day. The Captain had told me there was not a chance of any advance on my pay and the others lads were as skint as I was, so borrowing was out. In those days I kept the gambling well hid, they thought I’d lost it all as they had chasing skirts in one of the two dance halls.
The bookie was called Maurice Blake, though you had to call him Mr. Blake unless you wanted a bunch of fives from the gorilla that always accompanied him. Anyway this Blakey was well dressed in a flashy sort of way, like a Yank, big lapels, gold tie pin and a gold tooth too, still have you ever seen a poor bookie? I’d gone to see him as I’d got a cert, Walpole in the 2.15 at Weatherby.
“No more credit Billy” he told me, wagging his finger in that annoying way. I read I the paper the next day that the bloody thing romped home at thirteen to one. That would have nearly got me out of the hole.
I went to speak but he wagged his finger again. “I hear your lots being moved” he continued. Talk about loose lips sinking ships, he knew before the Captain did. I’d been half hoping that we’d move before Blakey got wind of it and that would solve the problem for me as long as I didn’t come back to Blackburn in the near future, and there was precious little chance I’d want to do that.
“Saturday is what I’m hearing Billy. Now you’ll want to settle up before you go, you being a gentleman and all.” He pointed at the gorilla and continued before I could comment: “Arthur, here will be around on Friday morning, early like, to collect. One way or the other Billy, you understand?”
I nodded thinking “Its Wednesday now, not much time and I’ve got guard duty the next two nights”, but I replied “Aye Mr. Blake I understand, till Friday then”. As I walked back to the house where we’d been billeted I ran through my options. It was a requisitioned detached house, next to the fuse factory we’d been sent there to guard. The factory had been turned over to munitions production at the start of the war.
Back then in the autumn of ’39, since “the balloon went up” as they used to say we’d been on guard duty somewhere or other. First it had been the Manchester Ship Canal, then the Vanguard Fuse Works on the outskirts of Blackburn. I’d been in the T.A.s as had all my unit and we’d been called up just before war was declared.
“How am going to swing this?” I thought, I couldn’t see any way forward, there was nothing I could sell or pawn, nothing I could half inch for that matter. I wasn’t above that in those days, times were tight, usually of my own making thanks to poor decisions on the horses. The house we were billeted in had been emptied out by the owners before we got there, otherwise I’d have been offering Blakey whatever I could to get him off my back. The army kept lists of everything, and it all had to be accounted for, there would be no salvation from that angle.
Added to this I was going to be spending the majority of my time until Friday morning standing with my back to the factory facing a field full of cows. As if Jerry paratroopers were going to drop from the heavens and over run Blackburn.
So before I know it its Thursday night and I’m on guard duty. The night was as black as the gates of hell. It was still early on in the war and I had not got used to the blackout, I always was a townie and liked the lights. So there I am facing this field full of cows, like I said the fuse works was at the edge of the town, isolated really and a damn good job it was for what I had in mind.
We had heard that the following Monday the factory would be running three shifts instead of the early and late shifts they had as a fuse factory. I had a plan but I’d decided to wait until it was past two o’clock and hopefully the place would be dead quiet. Waiting that’s what we did most of the time I was in the army, waited, it was better than the other times when we were not waiting but up to our necks in the noise and the chaos. So it gets past two in the morning and I’d already decided on which one it was to be, a big light coloured bugger, which happened to be the nearest to me. I’d always been a good shot, a natural, the sergeant had said. It was a talent that came in useful that night I can tell you.
I was unsure which I was the more conscious of the sound of the rifle or the muzzle flash which lit up the whole field. The cow did not know what had hit it, then there was the sound of several hundred weight of beef hitting the grass.
“Bloody hell Billy what’ve you done?” says Charlie as he comes running around the side of the factory wall.
“I heard a noise Charlie, so I challenged it and when I got no answer I shot it, just like it says in the regulations.” As I spoke I tried to be all shock and surprise.
We walked across the field towards the dead cow. Up to this point I’d only shot at targets and I was not really prepared for the mess a bullet could make of flesh. I’d hit the beast in the head, its skull was so thick the bullet stayed there. What no one ever tells you is that when you fire at a living thing there’s the blood that spurts from the creature, not like in the movies I can tell you. Thankfully for us the ground was all churned over by the cows hooves and it was soon lost in the mud.
“Christ you’ve hit one Billy! Too good a shot, that’s your trouble.” He paused before continuing “What are we going to do now? We’ll be for it.”
I was relieved that this had become our problem and not simply stayed mine.
“Did anyone else here the shot do you think Charlie?”
He shook his head “I don’t think so Billy there’s only us here and I think the sound will have travelled over the fields rather than towards the town. I nodded that was how I had figured it the previous night when we’d been on duty. As I said when you are waiting you have plenty of time to figure out the odds.
“Right Charlie” I said “this is what we are going to do.”
Charlie never knew the truth. He’d laugh about it at times when we were guarding the Orkneys the next spring and summer, as we flew big box kites to foil the Jerry’s airplanes or built huts to house convalescing soldiers. He never worked out what I had done, but then nobody did.
It had happened like this, I was despondent after meeting Blakey and I’d stopped off at a pub and there‘d got chatting with this bloke who turned out to be a butcher, Jenkins and Son. He was the son, only the business wasn’t doing as well as it could, I commiserated with him there, I wasn’t doing as well as I could either.
I told him I might be in a position to put something his way quiet like, unofficial like, just one man to another. He got the drift and we agreed a price that was mutually acceptable. I told him to get his van over to the factory around three in the morning and we could do business.
So after leaving Charlie with the dead cow I had met Jenkins as arranged and we had driven to the side of the factory and between the three of us we dragged the carcass across the ground and into the back of his van. It was hard work I can tell you, even after Charlie came up with the idea of using a flat bed trolley that was kept by the gates for loading deliveries. Still we were young and fit and we managed, especially as there would have been a charge waiting for both us the following morning if we had not got rid of the evidence.
Jenkins palmed me two five pound notes as we shook hands, they were the old sort in those days, the big ones that were the size of a pocket handkerchief. Those notes got me out of the hole and left me some cash to spare. I could not decide whether Arthur the ape man was sad or not when I produced the cash, I got the feeling he would have preferred to have taken it out of my hide.
I was relieved when he had gone and that night I treated the lads to a drink, a couple of bottles of whisky, you could still buy it relatively easily at that time, it was later in the war that it was scarce. The trouble was that our game of parlour cricket ended up with us breaking the gas fitting and we had to call out the police who in turn called out the gas board to fix it. The Captain was not well pleased with that, still we were leaving that morning and that made it easier.
It was not until after the war that I finally gave up the gambling, it was a mugs game after all, I’d always known that but found it difficult to stop. Given all that had happened over those six years I reckoned I’d used up my share of luck.