‘Jacques the Giant Killer’ by Christine Buckland

Ernest, the eldest son lived for the farm, working alongside their father, absorbing everything agricultural by instinct. The youngest, Hedley, was his mother’s pet; academic, bookish with a tendency towards bronchitis and excused farm chores. Jacques, the one right in the middle, was a nuisance; bound to come to no good like Uncle Eddie who’d emigrated to Canada in something of a hurry.

By the time he was thirteen, no one noticed if Jacques went missing for hours on end, or bothered if he chose to sleep in the barn with the new calves, or regularly missed school. But when his grandfather died, the year before the Germans came, it was Jacques who stored his Poppa’s old cigarette packets and keepsakes in the back shed, saving them from the conflagration which his mother stoked angrily in the yard. “Oh, if only I’d kept that barathea jacket of ‘is” she’d pine later, “Would’ve kept the chill out and no mistake. And to think I threw his hats and gloves on the pile, too and that old coat he kept behind the kitchen door. The Lord’s been teaching me a lesson. Honour thy Father and thy Mother,” she sniffed loudly, blotting her eyes with an old kitchen towel. “The drink was the demon, not father. It was the drink.” She wrapped her darned shawl around her and rubbed her chilblains with the last of the Zam-Buk, bitterly regretting her wastefulness.

Jacques, cleft by his first experience of death, mourned his Poppa’s memory. He sifted through the items he had saved, carefully transferring every one of the empty Du Maurier packets to his bedroom where he’d explore their contents under the blankets with the aid of the thin light of a candle stub.

Uncle Eddie had brought the cigarettes over from Canada for his dad on his one and only return visit. The strange orange-red colour of the packets and the association with Uncle Eddie gave those cigarette boxes a glamour and distinction which Jacques associated with his grandfather, too; an outrageous old man whom he’d adored, the bane of his mother’s life. The boxes were real treasures to Jacques.  Some contained waistcoat buttons, in others there were collar studs. There was even a block of moustache wax, tooth picks (not used) and odd shoelaces. And right at the bottom, in a couple of rather squashed packets, were seeds. They had been preserved in old brown envelopes carefully labelled in beautiful copperplate handwriting and then slipped into the Du Maurier packets, snug and dry. Jacques read the labels enjoying the sounds of the words: antirrhinums, delphiniums, lupins and then, wrapped in two separate brown envelopes as if to give extra protection, there was nicotiana. Mmm, Jacques wondered, sniffing the packets, suddenly remembering the mischief in his grandfather’s eyes as he smiled down at him, puffing away on his old pipe and jingling the loose change in his pocket.

The other packets were far less impressive and labelled in crabby block capitals: carrots, radish, beetroot, cabbage and kale. He squinted at them curiously, wishing they contained other wonderful-sounding seeds but, despite that disappointment, he was wise enough to know their value.

******

An hour after he accidentally ran into the washing on his bicycle and brought it down in a puddle of watery manure, Jacques presented his mother with a few of the packets of flower seeds as a peace offering.  She was not impressed and threw them out into the yard, before inflicting on him the second box round the ears he had had that morning. Elbow deep in the last of the washing soda, she prayed loudly for forgiveness whilst Jacques sped off on his old bike, angry and confused. Parallel tear tracks left bright, white, clownish lines along his freckly cheeks whilst his thin, short legs pedalled furiously round and round, to put as much distance as possible between him and the farm. Hunger brought him back at tea time.

The following day he decided to ‘show them all’ and taking his Poppa’s old tools, he began to rake over a patch of land down near the old meadow, hoeing it carefully. Nobody went there anymore; it was too near the German sentry who was stationed at the cross roads. It didn’t do to be too visible; even Jacques understood that, so he tended his patch early morning and at dusk. He planted the seeds as his grandfather had shown him, reserving the best ground for the nicotiana. He didn’t know why, it just seemed right.

The first to appear were the radish, then the carrots, then the beetroot and finally the brassicas. He weeded them, thinned them out and stood back, just looking at the shootsfor hours. The nicotianas did not show and he almost forgot about them.

Sometimes, when he was lying down in the grass watching his seedlings, he’d hear the Germans changing guard or watch as one motorcycle or another sped past on the road below. He thought about throwing huge stones at their helmets, knocking them off their bikes but he didn’t quite dare.

He knew things were getting very difficult. Mother made thin soup for dinner. Sometimes they had hunks of grey oat bread to go with it or just potatoes or potato peelings. Then the Germans took the cow and things began to get even worse.

When they marched into the yard that morning he felt guilty straightaway. They must have come to get him because he’d been playing truant again or because he’d been watching them from his vantage point, noting down their movements. He’d hid in the barn shivering with fright, waiting for them to march him off to the town prison. But it was the cow they wanted and father stood helpless in the yard, pale with anger, his eyes dark pinholes of disgust, his large hands clenching as the officer waved a bit of paper in his face and made off with the prize Jersey, the only one left.

******

Summer began to bake the earth and Jacques’ crops flourished. He had a struggle to keep them watered and was having to sneak out at night, sidling along the field boundaries, ducking nervously as the motorbike lights strafed the field from the road below.

The sun parched the ground. The nicotiana grew tall, shooting high above the other plants, sprawling lazily across the furrows and flowering so sweetly that in the moonlight Jacques sometimes felt heady and intoxicated by their perfume. But the leaves tasted bad and left him wondering.

He presented his mother with his first bunch of carrots. She was suspicious and backed him into a corner of the kitchen. They’d not grown carrots that year; they couldn’t get the seed. He stuttered out an explanation.

“The seeds were in those old cigarette boxes of Poppa’s,” he wailed as she threatened him with the slipper. “Let me show you!”

The pair of them edged their way along the hedgerow to the old meadow. Out in the sunlight he saw his mother’s pinched grey face and his heart twisted with an emotion he did not understand. He took her hand and encouraged her to bend low. Surprisingly, she did as she was told as he led her down, beyond the neat fields to his patch.

She was speechless at the sight of the vegetables poking through the earth; ferny carrots, glossy leaves, stubby red and purple beets, young brassicas promising even more to come and then she saw the nicotiana.

“What the ‘ell you planted that tobacco for Jacques! Your Father will tan your hide! You know he cannot stand drinking or smoking. And you need permission from the Authorities to plant that stuff! Oh, trust you, my lad, to get up to devilment, even in the middle of a veg patch!” and then, despite the German motorcycles roaring up and down the road below them, she burst into such a belly laugh that her ribs ached and her face creased into a tiny thousand lines that certainly hadn’t been there before the war broke out.

******

Over the next few days father rigged up a pipe to Jacques’ patch so he didn’t need to sneak out to water his vegetables. He never mentioned the tobacco plants, other than to say,

“They’d come in nicely.”

Jacques pondered all this and hit upon a plan.  He wasn’t quite ready to ‘smoke himself to death’, which was what he’d heard his mother saying over and over to Poppa, in that strange time of plenty before the Germans came. He was sure a little bit of tobacco would go a very long way; the devil, sitting on his shoulder, urged him on but he waited.

He became a model pupil at school, spending time reading large, old-fashioned tomes from the meagre library, writing pages of notes and carefully picking up any stray piece of litter that decorated the hedgerows. People began to look at him curiously, wondering how such a wild and wilful boy could be turning into a promising, serious-minded young man. His mother found a bottle of cascara and insisted on giving him huge spoonfuls after dinner which he was obliged to swallow in full view of all the family. They were not so easily duped.

One morning he went down to his patch to discover that the tobacco plants had been harvested. He smiled broadly, foolishly imagining his mother’s seed cake after dinner or perhaps a piece of bacon bought with the proceeds of the sale. His dad tapped the side of his nose and winked. Mother actually hummed a tune when she washed up that evening.

******

His fourteenth birthday came and went without much fuss but Jacques was determined to mark the occasion in a special way. He had rolled the first of the leaves of his own private stash (harvested in advance and dried in secret) into fine-looking cigarettes, using a rusty old Rizla machine which had once belonged to Grandpa, sliding them into one of the smartest-looking Du Maurier packets that had housed his grandfather’s collar studs.

Tending his patch throughout the late spring and summer had given Jacques knowledge. He knew when the sentry was changed at the cross roads, he knew when the despatch riders parked their motorbikes and shared a smoke, he knew that on Saturday nights they met in the hut and had a bottle or two together; he’d heard the singing and the rowing afterwards.

He’d timed it all carefully. It was still early, just after seven but dark and wet and very cold. He pulled on a balaclava, an old coat and a pair of Hedley’s glasses, the lens cracked right across. He didn’t look like the same boy. His mother wouldn’t have recognised him had she seen him sneaking off down to the old meadow, taking the path to the crossroads. But this night, stooping low, he had gone further. His heart pounding in his ears, his breathing seeming loud, rapid and strained, he’d crossed over to the shed where the Germans were carousing, their bikes stacked like old drunks outside a pub. Then, very slowly, he’d let the air out of the tyres, every single one of them. The hissing sound seemed shrill in the silence but he’d carried on methodically until the job was done.

He staggered back up the hill. His face was now wet with sweat, his palms slimy. He just had to wait a little longer. He was thinking that he might have to dodge back across the meadow when the light from a single motorbike caught him full in the face. He stopped and bent his head low. The German was late for his beer and didn’t want the bother of this child, an idiot by the look of him but it was dark, there was a curfew and he had to follow orders.

‘Halt!’ he barked shining a torch in his face.

“Hände hoch!” Jacques immediately put his hands in the air whilst the soldier emptied his pockets.

“Was machen Sie hier?”

There was old string, a couple of marbles and a full packet of Du Maurier! The German dropped everything else and opened the packet, staring at the rows of neatly rolled cigarettes, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

Jacques dashed the torch out of his hands and scarpered, running for his life up the cotil and into what remained of the wood; his legs feeling like overstretched elastic bands. He heard the German’s bike start up again and watched as, a few moments later, the door of the shed opened to let in the latecomer.

That night he slept in the barn, in case they came looking for him but he needn’t have worried.

Those Germans were great smokers. Fritz had handed round the contraband and each one of them had had several drags of the fags which Jacques had so lovingly prepared for their consumption. In each slim, white package had been a judicious dose of rat poison, finely ground with a hint of cow dung and chicken excrement. The next morning they’d been far too ill to come looking for him, had they been able to; they were all on a charge for being drunk on duty, the incriminating bottles of beer lying on the floor where the soldiers had collapsed.

******

Jacques was safe. He lay on a meagre pile of straw in the barn wondering about the big wide world and what life might be like when the war came to an end. He dreamed of cake and platefuls of hot roast lamb and rich gravy and of all the endless summers when he could roam the beaches of his island, freely, once more.

He searched his pockets for the last of his ordinary hand-rolled cigarettes, found a stub, lit it and puffed away blissfully, unaware that the discarded match had ignited the straw behind him. In an instant the flames were beginning to dart around the walls of the barn, dancing and twisting on the dirt dry floor. Horrified Jacques lunged at the flames stifling them with his jacket; his breath, mixed with lungfuls of smoke, was frantic, his hair and eyebrows were charred.

He held up his jacket to examine it closely. There was a huge hole burnt right in the centre of the back.

“Oh bugger, Mother’s not going to like that!” he wailed.