Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tea Mining

    by Victor Sullivan   © 2013
A tale of thrift and theft during World War 2

In a dull, gloomy, Irish town in the late 1930s. one of the general grocery shops was run by a clever, business-like widow with the help of her three children, two girls in their late teens and their fourteen-year-old brother, Danny. The family lived above the shop. With the war-clouds looming ever darker over late 1930s Europe, stories of impending hardship proliferated and those with appropriate wisdom took equally appropriate steps to mitigate whatever disasters might lie ahead. Some commodities would become scarce, she reasoned, difficult to source, better still if they became unobtainable, especially if she had the only source of such a commodity hidden securely....... It would have to have a long shelf-life, value would increase over time. Patience would be rewarded ten-fold or more!  Danny watched his mother's precautionary measures develop with interest and wondered of the anticipated profits might lead to an increase in the pitifully small weekly allowance he and his sisters received from the family business.
Planning, procuring, purchasing and preparation followed until one day Danny was sworn to secrecy and dispatched quietly to the railway station with a borrowed pony-cart. He returned with a large plywood chest of tea hidden beneath a tarpaulin.

The first unexpected difficulty arose when the trap-door to the attic over the widow's bed proved to be far too small for the large tea-chest. Desperate needs demanded desperate solutions and sawing through some of the ceiling's sheeting boards and a couple of ceiling-support timbers solved the difficulty and the tea-chest was hauled up and finally set down at the farthest end of the attic, above Danny's bedroom. The woodwork around the trap-door was restored to what almost appeared normal to the casual eye and the borrowed stepladder and saw were returned to the unquestioning neighbour, a carpenter. 
The Second World War raged, cities were bombed, ships were torpedoed in the Atlantic, sweets were rationed, oranges were never seen and bananas were something children saw only as illustrations in old books. Soon clothing was rationed, sugar was rationed, and, horror of horrors, tea was strictly rationed to a miniscule amount. Black market prices began to edge higher. The widow smirked contentedly as she mentally calculated the asset appreciation going on day by day in the attic. She would reap her monetary reward for her thrifty investment eventually.

It was a typical rural Irish village where everyone knew everyone else and tried, with occasional success, to hide whatever dubious deeds were being covertly implemented to circumvent the many new restrictions and regulations being imposed by the State as the War dragged murderously on across Europe. Although Southern Ireland remained neutral, people still suffered shortages and rationing of the mundane necessities of life, afflicting rich and poor alike. An unspoken communication system of winks, glances, nods and meaningful silences evolved rapidly and had become part of daily life. Those with 'good contacts' exploited such advantages and were enviously admired for their good fortune. Barter and various shades of black market activities proliferated. The creative, the cunning and the desperate resorted to all manner of income augmentation. Those with ready cash were sought out by those with marketable commodities and invisible commerce prevailed in parallel with the more normal transactions in shops. 

At last the War in Europe came to an end but the widow continued to monitor reports of the war continuing in the Far East. Tea was almost unobtainable. Then, following the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, came the message "Japan has Capitulated" and the widow decided that the optimum time had arrived to convert the family secret in the attic into hard cash. They discussed strategy. An advance notice in the window announcing the imminent arrival of a consignment of tea would get the word around the locality. TEA DAY was to be exactly one week later. On the evening before Tea Day Danny was sent to the carpenter's house to borrow the step-ladder. He took it upstairs to his mother's bedroom, moved the bed and erected the ladder. Then, making some excuse, Danny went quietly out into the street as his sisters prepared to open the trap-door, watched by their excited mother. They were armed with a few tools to open the sealed plywood tea-chest, and a scoop and bucket for transferring the tea down to the ground-floor shop. One girl held the lighted candle while the other began to open the firmly sealed chest. As she struggled to pull the lid open the chest unexpectedly moved. She shook it. It was far too light. They remembered the effort it required to hoist it into place. Now it could be moved with just one hand. They pulled the lid off and lowered the candle into the almost empty chest. The precious tea had gone!
"Mother it's GONE! The tea's gone." They called down from the attic.
"Don't be ridiculous! This is no time for one of your pranks. Pass down the bucket of tea."
But it wasn't one of their pranks. There really was no tea in the chest apart from a little in each corner at the bottom.
Forgetting her arthritis, their mother climbed the stepladder and picked her way across the rafters of the attic to where the tea-chest stood. As she lowered the candle into the tea-chest its light was vividly reflected from the bright tin foil that lined the container adding emphasis to its utter emptiness. A small pocket of tea was retained in each corner, proof, if needed, that there once had been a great deal more of the stuff present. Then she noticed what looked like a piece of broom-handle sticking up a couple of inches from the centre of the chest bottom. 
She tapped the mystery dowel and it vanished, leaving her peering through a hole into the bedroom below. She immediately recognised the colourful patchwork quilt she had made for Danny's bed.

Some said that Danny had found employment on a remote farm many miles away. Those who knew his mother speculated that he may have emigrated to America or to Australia – or to some other place even farther off.  His close friends at last had the explanation for Danny's occasional conspicuous affluent life-style during the War years. The owner of the carpenter's brace with which the hole had been drilled through the ceiling above the bed and through the base of the tea-chest, firmly denied having knowingly lent the tools to Danny. The step-ladder yes, on a number of occasions, but the hand-brace with its large diameter drilling bit, definitely not!

Those of us who admire successful opportunists and innovators quietly think: "Good on ya, Danny!" 

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