Does anyone remember the rhyme children used to sing, long long ago?
Wod & Pym, the choc ice men
Clattering towards the buffers
Their choc ices melt in the noonday sun
They’re such a pair of duffers!
That was the version I knew, which I sang lustily, with my tiny pals, as we skittered and scampered and made mischief in the bomb craters. I had absolutely no idea what we were singing about, and I had forgotten the song itself, until, the other day, I heard it on the radio. I was listening to a play. It was dull and foolish and badly acted, and beset by awful hissing and feedback, which may or may not have been deliberate. I would have switched the radio off had I had the chops to rise from my pallet of straw and cross the barn to do so, but I had a splint on my leg and a bandaged head and no sense of purpose. So I just lay there listening, in the small hours of the morning, before the crows began to caw, before the milkman started on his rounds.
There was a scene in the play, set, as far as I could gather, in the dystopian ruins of a bombed city, where the protagonists, a milkman and his floozie, were having a terrible row about crows. Exhausted by shouting, they both fell silent, and then, as from a distance, I heard the song, chanted by children somewhere in the rubble. It faded, there was hissing, and the pair started arguing again.
It would be nice to be able to say that hearing the song again after all these years brought memories of childhood flooding back, but it didn’t, not really. It did make me sit up on my pallet of straw, as best as I was able. Alert, I scribbled the words on the back of a cornflake packet. I might never sing again, if my childish caterwauling could have been called singing, but I felt a great sense of urgency to know more about Wod and Pym. Who were they? Why were they clattering towards buffers? Did their choc ices really melt in the noonday sun? Had they ever really existed? I suppose I thought that if I could find answers to those questions I could learn something, too, about my own life, about my past, about the trajectory that had taken me from the bomb craters of a ruined city to this barn, through the roof of which the rain came in, when it was raining, where my only visitor was the milkman on his morning rounds, where the only sounds were the cawing of crows and radio broadcasts, where time passed slowly, and there were no clocks.
When the milkman came that morning I pressed the torn scrap of cornflake packet into his hand, and pleaded with him to find out everything he could about the rhyme. He said he was a busy milkman, but that once a fortnight the mobile library parked on a patch of ground hard by the dairy, and he would try his best to help me. I told him he was a saint. He said he must be getting on, as he had much milk to deliver. I asked him to turn off the radio as he left. They were playing music now, Xavier Cugat or some such, and I could not bear it. Outside, the crows were cawing.
They say there was once a grisly murder in this barn. I have seen no ghosts. There is an ethereal albino hen that haunts my dreams, with its terrible eggs, but I do not think that counts.
The milkman was as good as his word. I do not know how many days passed before he came bearing a few pages torn out of a reference book, for I did not keep a tally. He gave me the pages, and a bottle of milk, and asked me if I wanted the radio turned on before he left. Again I compared him to a saint, and he blushed. One does not often see a milkman blush. I told him I was done with radio broadcasts, and that he could take the radio set away with him, and if he did not want it for himself then to drop it into a pond. He thanked me and unplugged it and left. He did not say what he would do with it. I listened out for a splash, but the rain was dripping through the roof, relentlessly, and the bandages around my ears would have muffled any other sound.
What I learned from the pages torn from the reference book by the milkman was that Wod and Pym were, indeed, true historical characters, from the previous century. They were a pair of chancers, continually thinking up money-making schemes, schemes invariably doomed to failure, sometimes leading to spells of imprisonment, sometimes leading to riot in small shabby townships. They made and sold decoy ducks, pin cushions, alarm bells. They planned but did not realise a crocus plantation. They hawked taffy. And with the coming of the railways, they devised their travelling choc ice shop. The idea was to be constantly mobile, aboard a locomotive, selling choc ices to hot and eager tinies at each railway station they stopped at. But neither Wod nor Pym gave a thought to refrigeration, and the train they commandeered crossed desert and prairie, not realms of ice and snow. This was the flaw that sunk their scheme, and for which they were ridiculed by the tinies gathered at hot sun-bashed stations along the line.
Hence the song I had sung in my very different childhood, when it was cold, when the wind howling through the ruins chilled my bones, when I sucked icicles and shivered in the porch of the ruined dancehall, wherein those adults who had not yet fled the city danced to the sounds of Xavier Cugat & His Orchestra, piped through a Tannoy, loud as bombs.