Topic: The Watch: a Memoir by Alan McCabe

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

As a six year old, I thought a matchbox housed a lot of power.

I’ll always remember my love of fire; the trouble it caused me. Dad said I was born a pyromaniac and a kleptomaniac, and I’ve continued to enjoy those illegal rubbish burnings and the collection of bits and pieces. I knew when a blaze got out of control it intimidated the strongest of men. The constant reminders of its dangers only heightened my curiosity.

“Think,” lectured my father after I’d been caught playing with our open fire, “a match has a head but no brains.”

This snippet of information was not then fully understood.

My older brother Peter often made sly excursions into the orchard to smoke a stolen cigarette. He was surprised when I followed him one Sunday and caught him trying to blow smoke rings.

“Here, nosy parker,” he said as he offered me the matchbox. “You can have this if you can keep your mouth shut.”

We lived out of Christchurch in an area called Heathcote, which was three miles away from St Anne’s School in Woolston, and consequently there was a need for us to keep moving to arrive on time.

“Come on. Alan,” Peter yelled at me as I dawdled to school along Ferry Road on a Monday in a family group. “We’re going to be late again.”

“Just leave him behind,” suggested my sister Pauline. “He’ll soon learn to keep up or he’ll get run over.”

That was unlikely because there were few cars on the road in 1942. The war and the petrol rationing saw to that, but there were hundreds of cyclists.

I pretended not to hear her as I picked up a Vesta matchbox, which rattled noisily when I shook it. There must be lots of those red-headed treasures inside I thought. They’re the best ones to light, as they don’t blow out in the first puff of wind.

As Pauline approached, she urged me to get a move on while looking at me accusingly.

“What have you picked up now?” she demanded. “More dirty rubbish I suppose?”

“No, nothing,” I protested. “Nothing. I’m trying to tie up my shoelaces.”

“I’ll do them,” she volunteered as she bent down. “For heaven’s sake, keep still, will you?”

We were late and it was straight into the classroom where Miss White, my teacher, growled at me.

“You’ll have run out of excuses by now,” she mocked. “I suppose the whole tribe were late, too.”

I didn’t answer. I had my matches, my new companions in my pocket. They felt as though they were ready to explode. I raised my hand for a toilet visit.

“Goodness, boy,” complained Miss White. “You’ve only been here five minutes and now you want more time out. If you must go, go! Be quick about it and don’t forget to wash your hands.”

Once in the toilets, away from prying eyes, I pulled the matchbox from my pocket, as I was eager to discover how many wax soldiers I’d found. I slid the cover open to find not a solitary match, but a small, gleaming gold watch and its broken strap. I’d only seen one before, which was owned by the wife of the publican of the Heathcote Arms Hotel.

I was excited and thought I must be dreaming. As I held it to my ear, I thought I could hear it ticking. I caressed the smooth surface with some toilet paper to make it shine even more. As I attempted to fix the strap, I heard the deliberate footsteps of a cross teacher. I managed to replace the ‘find’ in my pocket before Miss White burst into the room demanding to know why I found the boys’ toilet more appealing than her classroom.

For the remainder of the day, I was much distracted by my treasure. Priceless it must be, I thought. I kept patting my pocket making sure the box was still there.

“Are we away with the fairies again?” Miss White asked me when she knew I wasn’t listening. I could think of nothing else, and there and then I resolved to keep my treasure a lifelong secret.

At three o’clock I was waiting at the school gates, as I was not allowed to walk home by myself. My sisters were pleased with my homeward progress.

“He’s sickening for something,” one suggested.

There was no time for any deviations tonight to check interesting items on the roadside. In fact, I was the first to burst into the kitchen of our large home, Teremoana on the hills above the Heathcote Bridge. When I refused Mum’s buttered scone she stared hard at me, puzzled.

“What’s the matter Alan? Are you sick?”

“No, I’m just tired,” I answered leaving the room and going to the garage where I could spend more time playing with the watch. Despite the half-light it glowed as I repolished its surface. Excited with my new toy, I didn’t hear Mum approach me from behind. She had followed me, evidently suspicious of my unusual behaviour; probably my lack of appetite.

“Where did you get that watch?” she demanded. “No lies now. I want the truth.”

When I had completed my unlikely story Mum believed me.

“Exactly where did you pick it up?” she asked while closely examining the timepiece. After I had satisfied her as to the details, a family conference was held.

Some older sisters suggested that Mum kept the watch, but her answer was instant and decisive.

“There has to be a lawful owner,” she said. “I shall advertise in Saturday’s Press. Should we have no claimant, the watch will have to be left at the police station to provide the owner time to repossess.”

“But, Mum, if it is still unclaimed then it should be yours,” elder brother Peter protested.

Not one family member mentioned the finder’s rights. Now that my treasure was out of my hands or my pockets, I moved on to other things. It was no use crying over a lost watch.

It was late on the Saturday morning when a large and expensive motorcar rolled up our drive and stopped in front of the house. A neatly dressed gentleman stepped out of the driver’s seat and addressed one of my sisters.

“Would this be the McCabe residence?”

I don’t think Eileen understood the question because she stared at the man and said, “I dunno about that, but it’s where we live.”

As Mum arrived at the door, a large lady wrapped in a heavy fur coat climbed out of the car and joined her husband. They were definitely not relations.

“We’re here in response to your newspaper advertisement regarding the finding of a gold watch,” explained the lady in a posh voice. “I’ve been ever so depressed since I lost mine. Cyril had it imported from Switzerland for my fiftieth birthday. Your description matches perfectly. I placed it in a matchbox as the strap was faulty.”

“Well, this is what Alan found,” Mum said handing over the watch.

“Yes,” said Cyril, examining it closely. “That’s it. What a stroke of jolly good luck.”

“I’m Mrs Harvey-Deans,” cooed the lady looking at me. “Is this the little boy who found my watch?”

“Yes, this is Alan,” said Mum pushing me forward.

I don’t think Mrs Deans wanted to shake my now grubby hand because she wrinkled her nose and looked into the car. She produced a large box of chocolates, which she presented to our Mother. Only the Lord knows how she came by them in wartime, but she said, “I hope you’ll all enjoy this little treat.”

Her husband was busily wiping my brothers’ paw-marks off the car’s shiny door.

“I would really like to reward Alan.”

She handed Mum a ten shilling note and said, “Please open a bank account for this little boy. He’ll always remember honesty pays and it might encourage thrifty ways.”

Mum’s hospitality offer was not uplifted.

“No, no, thank you, Mrs McCabe. We won’t stop for morning tea. Cyril’s due at the Shirley Golf Club at one and I have a late lunch engagement.”

Behind the veneer of joviality, she hadn’t easily disguised her distaste of our old, rambling house (even though it was clean) and the masses of roaming children, all fourteen of us.

“She didn’t understand our free range poultry or our rustic surroundings,” Mum said later.

With a parting, “Thank you,” Mrs Harvey Deans and her husband returned to their Daimler and swept grandly down our rutted drive, almost certainly back to Fendalton.

While some of us cheered as our visitors departed, my younger sisters were already imitating the lady’s voice. Others were talking about honesty and the lady’s clothes and her rings.

A gurgling in my stomach and the good smells coming from the kitchen sent me racing to the table. I didn’t need a watch to tell me it was lunchtime.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/8CJS-6DJX

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