When we first explored the field beyond the stream, years before Soo and Tigger, it was a hay meadow thick with buttercups. The grass in June carne up to our waists full of summer sap, making a sweet-smelling grass forest through which we tramped out hot paths. I cannot remember that anyone objected. No angry farmer appeared to chase us away. Presumably the Borough Council had already bought the land so that year it became a glorious playfield. We could crawl through high grass with no thought that we were damaging a valuable crop. So far as I know nobody cut the hay: no cattle browsed there: nobody cut it to make a playing field. For one glorious year it returned to nature and to us, before law and order took over again. That summer we owned all the grasses of a mixed pasture, with their varied seed heads and long, succulent stems. There were pimpernel, poppies and vetch, but the main impression was of buttercups and more buttercups, rich on those wet slopes.

In the midst of this idyll reality struck. Mr Spender was a bus conductor wearing a heavy blue serge uniform in winter. On May the First he put a white cotton cover on his cap and wore a light summer jacket so that London buses all became brighter and more cheerful that day, but one May there was a quiet disaster. Nobody spoke of it. Nobody took sides or ventured an opinion to another, though Mr Speller spoke of it to everyone he met.

" I never did it," he said. "They claimed I sold a dead ticket. They said I took a fare and gave the man a ticket which had already been punched. Sacked out of hand! Two men on the bus, in ordinary clothes, not in uniform as they should have been, said the ticket was not a good one. I had taken a penny, they said, and then sold the ticket again to another man. I told them I had not. Said it came off the pad of tickets in the proper order. Every day for a week I went down to the terminus to try to see the passenger. Try to pick him out. Make him come forward to say I had given him a good ticket, but I was confused. I couldn't remember his face. You don't look at their faces. You sell tickets to hands. One hand after another, time and again in the rush. You don't see their faces."

"There was a long enquiry. I had to go down to the Head Office. I sat there all day. Didn't even have a drink. I was so nervous I didn't even think of it. I didn't have a drink all day. The Union did what it could. Went through my good record. Nothing like this ever in fifteen years and a safe, good job gone for nothing. I never sold a bad ticket. I never did." He was almost crying.

This story was rehearsed with everyone he met, young and old. Poor Mr Spender told everyone. I was sure he had not done it. Busmen were known for earning wages well above the London average, and here was a man going to lose all his security.

"What reference will they give him?" asked my mother. "It will be a terrible blow."

"But to sack him for a penny!"

"It's not the penny. It's all the other pennies. If he did it, he's lost his job. If he didn't, he's lost it for nothing, but which it is nobody knows, and talking won't change that. It's his wife I'm sorry for. She hasn't spoken to anyone for weeks poor soul. Not like him, he's justifying himself to everyone he meets, but what can she say? She doesn't know the truth any more than we do, but she's the one who has to put the food on the table."

A few months later I became aware that the family was no longer there. I had not noticed their moving and I was vaguely sad when new people moved in.

 

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