Set in the First World War, A pennyworth of peppermints is a spy story. While collecting driftwood on their local beach, Ben and Sidney find a message in a bottle washed up on the shore. This message is written in rhyme – is it just a poem? Through a series of adventures, the boys, along with Sidney’s sister, Vera, discover that there is much more to the message than meets the eye …..
A pennyworth of peppermints is a delightful story which captures a little of what life was like for families living through the Great War in the south of England, and how faith in God can make a difference, whatever the circumstances.
Age guideline: 8 – 11 years
Read Chapter One of A pennyworth of peppermints
“Hello, Ben. Now let me guess. Would you be wanting a pennyworth of peppermints this morning, by any chance?” asked the shopkeeper, Mr. Savage. Mr. Savage’s name was all wrong, Ben thought to himself. He’s kind and friendly and always gentle! But then, my name’s a funny one, too. Fancy being called “Goodenough”!
“Yes please, Mr. Savage,” answered Ben, as he handed over four farthings*. He watched the shopkeeper weigh out the peppermints in his large shiny, brass scale and then put them into a twist of paper.
“Thank you,” said Ben, as he put the sweets in his pocket. Every Saturday he took his pocket money to the shop and bought his peppermints. They were his favourite type of sweets and he chose them every week. Sometimes Mr. Savage popped in an extra sweet or two for his regular ten-year-old customer.
“So what’s the news in your house?” Mr. Savage asked. “Have you heard from Fred this week?” Fred was Ben’s big brother and was a soldier in the Dorsetshire Regiment*, fighting in France.
“No news from Fred, but today is Albert’s birthday. Now he is seventeen he’s going to enlist* in the army, too. Our mum’s really upset about it; she wanted him to finish his apprenticeship with the blacksmith. He says he’s not going to let anyone give him a white feather* for being a coward. He wants to join the army. Mum doesn’t know how she’s going to manage without his wages, though. His wages are more than the allowance the army gives to soldiers. She is thinking she’ll ask for a job in the munitions factory, but Dad is dead against it. He says it’ll turn her yellow!”
“Yes, some of my customers who work there making ammunition for the guns certainly have problems with their skin and hair turning a funny colour – but not everyone. It’s hard times we live in son! This war* has been on for two years already and there seems no hope of it ending soon. I’ll tell you what, though, since it’s Albert’s birthday, I’ll give you a packet of Marie biscuits. Bit of a treat for you all!”
“Cor, thanks Mr. Savage,” said Ben, his face lighting up. He said goodbye and ran all the way home through the village of Chickerell to the tiny old cottage in the nearby small village of Charlestown, where he lived.
The cottage was down a lane, near the lagoon called The Fleet, which nestled behind the huge Chesil beach. The locals called the lagoon “Littlesea”, and Ben’s dad was a fisherman who worked both in Littlesea and around Portland. The lane was just a muddy cart track, and Ben’s cottage was the only house in it. It was a very old building, with a thatched roof where lots of spiders lived, and which leaked when it rained heavily.
There was a small front garden where Ben’s mother liked to grow flowers, and a narrow path that led to the front door. Downstairs there were two main rooms. First there was the kitchen, where everyone spent most of their time. This had a small scullery* and a larder* leading off it, and then there was a nice sitting room, which the family used on Sundays and special occasions.
Upstairs there were two bedrooms; one where Ben’s parents slept and the other that he shared with Albert. It was a simple home, but the family had always been happy there. Upstairs there were wooden floorboards, but no carpets. Ben’s mum had made rag rugs from old sacks with pieces of cloth pushed through them, to make it a little warmer when they got out of bed. Downstairs there were tiles on the floor, laid over packed-down mud. When it was very wet worms sometimes came up through the cracks! Behind the door into the sitting room was a heavy curtain on a brass pole to help keep out the draught. In the kitchen, the stove helped to keep them warm in the winter.
“Guess what Mum?” Ben asked as he burst into the little cottage. “Mr. Savage has given us a packet of biscuits to celebrate Albert’s birthday!”
“My goodness, what a kind man he is – and what a treat!” said his mum, her face lighting up with a smile. “I was wondering what to do to make it a special day. Molly’s having her half day today, too, instead of tomorrow.”
Molly was Ben’s sister, who was in service* at the manor house in the nearby village of Radipole. She was eighteen, and hated being a servant, even though her employer, Lady Worthington, was a very kind person. Molly had dreams of doing something exciting with her life, rather than just cleaning, preparing vegetables and clearing up after meals! She lived in the “Big House”, as Radipole Manor was fondly called by the local people, sharing a bedroom in the attic with the cook, and only coming home on her half day each week.
“Do you need me now, Mum?” Ben asked. “I said to Sidney that I’d go with him and look for driftwood for the stove*.”
“I’ll make you a sandwich,” said his mum, cutting two thick slices of bread and spreading them with margarine and sprinkling them with a tiny bit of sugar for a treat. “Take a sack and see what you can find, but be back by four.”
With his sandwich in one hand and the sack in the other, Ben whistled as he walked up the lane and along the road to the neighbouring village of Wyke Regis. His school friend, Sidney, lived there. He came from a big family and had ten brothers and sisters. Ben got most of their names muddled up except for Vera, who was Sid’s twin sister, and who looked very much like him.
Sid was waiting for him and when he saw Ben he quickly fetched his sack and the two of them set off for Chesil beach. “Race you to the sea!” shouted Sid, as soon as they reached the beach. They scrambled down the steep bank of pebbles and arrived at the seashore, breathless and laughing.
Ben loved it here: the smell of the salty seaweed, the gentle rhythm of the waves and the vast expanse of sea. He pulled his bag of peppermints from his pocket and offered one to his friend. The boys sucked them noisily as they started to look for pieces of wood that had been washed up on the shore. It was a rare treat for Sidney to have a sweet. With so many children in his family he didn’t get any pocket money, even though he had to work very hard helping out at home.
The previous week had been stormy, which was unusual for May. This meant that a lot of wood had been washed up on the shore. Once their sacks were full, the boys sat on the pebbles and Ben shared his sandwich with Sid. It was warm and sunny, so they decided to have a paddle. They knew there were only a few safe places to swim along this part of the coastline, so they contented themselves with staying near the shore and kicking the water at each other.
Sometimes when they were on the beach they would watch the fishermen taking their boats out or mending their nets on the shore. Ben saw his dad and grandad from time to time, working with their mates in the lerrets*, but they were nowhere to be seen that afternoon.
“Hey!” cried Sidney, suddenly. He bent down in the water and at first Ben thought that a crab must have pinched him. Instead, his friend pulled up a glass bottle. “Wow! There’s something inside it – a piece of paper!” Sidney exclaimed. “I wonder what it says!”
At the end of A pennyworth of peppermints, there is a Glossary to explain all the words marked *.