The action of this story follows on almost immediately from my previous one. As usual, the basic events are true and related as accurately as I can after all these years. However, some small details are added just from general memory of my childhood or from memory of the time to sustain a picture of the period. Apart from perhaps two or three phrases that have stuck in my mind, dialogue is entirely made up, but I have done this as an efficient way to convey a sense of the character of the different family members involved.
We had a tradition that after Christmas we would go to stay with my mother's parents for a few days. It was a family affair: our Aunt Lizzie (my mother's sister), Uncle Alf (Aunt Lizzie's Canadian husband) and their daughter, our cousin Annie, would be there too.
The reason for the visit taking place after and not at Christmas each year was simply that, as a clergyman, our grandfather was far too busy with church activities during the run-up to Christmas to have the additional burden of visiting family to look after.
The day after Christmas (Boxing Day in Britain and many Commonwealth countries) was traditionally a relaxation day in our family: a day when we could play with the new toys that we had acquired and a day to allow our stomachs to recover from the excesses of the previous day.
On the Boxing Day when this story begins, Wednesday 26 December 1962, we went for a walk together in the afternoon. It was bitingly cold and I remember us speculating whether we might get snow soon. (My sister, brother and I certainly hoped it would snow.)
Our wish was fulfilled more spectacularly than we could have imagined. It was already snowing steadily in Scotland in the morning on Boxing Day and reached us in the south of England by late evening. By midnight, the whole of Britain was covered and still the snow kept falling. We didn't know it at the time, of course, but it would be March before the lying snow had finally all disappeared.
During the evening, we occasionally peered out between the lounge curtains in wonderment at the snow falling steadily outside. We kept ourselves warm by the fireside enjoying hot buttered toast and a cut-throat game of Monopoly (one of our Christmas presents that year). As the game developed, Mum and my younger brother Timothy were wiped out first, leaving just my older sister Karen and me battling it out with our Dad.
After a while, Timothy, who was getting a little bored asked a strange question: "Mum, could you kidnap us?"
There was a puzzled silence then she replied, "But you're here already; I don't have to kidnap you."
"No, I mean when we go to see Grandma and Granddad. Could you kidnap us and take us there?"
"You mean pretend we're kidnappers taking you away to our hideout?"
"Yes, that sort of thing," Timothy confirmed.
"I'd need to make sure you didn't get away, so I'd have to use ropes and gags and blindfolds."
"No blindfolds!" declared Timothy, who suffered from claustrophobia.
"But if you weren't blindfolded, you'd see the kidnappers and you'd be able to describe them to the police," Mum objected.
Timothy seemed at a loss to answer this point. Karen helped him by saying, "I expect careful kidnappers always wear masks or disguises just in case they get seen."
"Could we be kidnapped please?" Timothy asked, returning to his original question.
"What about you two?" Mum asked Karen and me.
"Sounds fun," I replied, always ready for crazy adventures. Karen thought for a moment, then nodded her agreement.
"I'll have to think about it," Mum said enigmatically. She was often rather non-committal about requests, but we all knew that it was because she was always reluctant to make a definite promise unless she was sure she could deliver.
The game of Monopoly wound down fairly shortly after that when I crashed out following a string of spectacularly bad luck and Karen cleaned up while Dad had a spell in jail, powerless to stop her.
It was still snowing when my brother and sister and I went up to bed. Our bedrooms were always cold in winter, but with the outside temperature so low, they were like Siberia that night. Karen and I switched on the electric fan heater in our bedroom for a few minutes while we got ready for bed. We changed as quickly as we could in the frigid air. We kept on the woollen tights we had been wearing during the day for extra warmth under our long Winceyette nightdresses and put heavy sweaters on top. I added thick socks and a pair of mittens. Karen, who always felt the cold much more than me, also added a big shawl around her shoulders and over her head. As soon as my sister was up into her top bunk, I switched off the heater then the light. I took a last peek between the curtains to see the snow still falling before I dived into my own lower bunk.
We woke to the strangely bright quality of light that a blanket of snow brings, with daylight reflected onto the ceiling. I don't think I had ever seen snow quite as deep before, there was well over two feet of it on the ground and drifts much deeper than that. (That would be a fairly insignificant snowfall by North American standards, but it was a lot for Britain.) Karen and I weren't sure whether to dress for the intended journey to our grandparents' house or if that would be postponed and we should just dress to play in the snow. We settled for going downstairs still in our night clothes with the addition of our dressing gowns. We knocked on our brother Timothy's bedroom door on the way and he accompanied us downstairs.
Our mother was in the kitchen, stirring a big pan of porridge. The kitchen, with the coke-fired boiler that heated our water and the gas cooker, was usually one of the warmest rooms in the house, but was no match for the outside temperature that day. Mum was wearing a tweed skirt with a heavy sweater and a cardigan on top. She also had a pair of warm socks on over her winter stockings, I noticed. Her sheepskin boots stood ready next to the back door.
"Are we going to Grandma and Granddad's today?" we demanded, not sure whether we were more anxious to see our grandparents or to play in the snow.
"We don't know yet," Mum replied, ladling out a bowl of porridge for each of us. "Dad's gone to see if the roads are clear enough to travel."
Just then, our father arrived at the back door, bundled up in a thick tweed overcoat with the collar turned up and an old trilby hat he usually only wore for gardening. He kicked the snow off his Wellington boots and then let himself into the kitchen.
Three expectant faces turned towards him.
"I'll need to shovel the driveway clear, but our street has been ploughed and the buses are running, so it looks as though all the main roads must be clear. I think we should take a chance and go before any more snow falls."
"Get ready as soon as you've finished then," Mum instructed us. "And you'd better pack lots of warm clothes; it will be cold at the rectory."
"And I expect you'll want to play in the snow too, so pack things for that and I'll put the sledges in the car," Dad added.
Karen and I lost no time getting dressed. I can't remember exactly what we wore, but it was almost certain to be our usual winter style of a warm skirt or dress worn over woollen tights and topped off with a sweater or cardigan. (We would add more layers when we were ready to leave the house.) Karen and I packed the last few items we would need in the large suitcase that we shared, not forgetting the extra warm clothes that Mum had advised. Our case was robustly built, probably unnecessarily so for a relatively short car journey. As well as the usual handle on top, it had handles on the ends, rather like a small steamer trunk, and we could just manage its weight between us by taking an end each. We staggered downstairs with the case and put it with the pile of luggage that was accumulating just inside the front door.
While we were downstairs, Dad announced that he had cleared the driveway and had shut off the water supply to the house. He was in the process of draining down the water system (a wise precaution in an unheated house in winter) and would we all get ready to go please.
Karen went back to our bedroom to get her outdoor clothes on while I went to Timothy's room to see if he was ready yet.
Timothy's case was still open. Mum had done his main packing but had left various optional items to him. I did a quick check through it and packed the remaining items he had left next to it. While I was doing this, he was zipping himself into the snowsuit he planned to wear for travelling. I remembered this garment well, it having been mine at one time before being passed to my sister (who was much shorter than me despite being a year older) and then to my brother. It was made from a dense blue woollen material like a thick blanket and felt quite rough to the touch (however, the inside was fully lined in a soft fleecy material). It was a one-piece snowsuit with a zip at the front from crotch to collar. There was a belt to give a little shape to an otherwise very baggy garment. The wrists were gathered into slightly elasticated buttoned cuffs and the ankles were shaped like old-fashioned spats covering the tops of the wearer's shoes, with three buttons to obtain a snug fit. Strangely there was no hood, just a turned-down collar like an overcoat.
I helped Timothy with his hat, showing him how to fold my old grey balaclava (which was now his), into a beanie. He then gathered up his scarf and mittens and led the way downstairs while I followed with his case.
On my way back upstairs, I met Karen coming down, now in her brown duffel coat and fully dressed to go out.
On returning to our bedroom, I added my own extra layers. The first item was a pair of knitted woollen leggings. These were inelegant but wonderfully warm. Think of a pair of footless tights hand knitted and as thick as a sweater. The ones that Karen and I owned were chocolate brown (the colour of our school uniform and a colour I was just discovering suited me extremely well) and had been made in Canada by Uncle Alf's sister (which would make her a sort of aunt-in-law to us) who was a prolific knitter. The leggings had an elastic waist to hold them up and elastic to go under the soles of one's shoes. The ends were also shaped to cover the tops of the shoes. I put on an extra sweater and then my brown duffel coat. (Even in the early 60s, money was far from plentiful in Britain and most children had only one winter coat, which had to do duty for both school and everyday wear.) I put on a pair of thin wool gloves and picked up my mittens, scarf and balaclava. I took a quick look around the bedroom and, concluding that nothing had been forgotten, headed downstairs.
I had just reached the hallway and turned towards the front door, when I was grabbed from behind and a hand was clapped across my mouth. I squealed in terror as I was dragged backwards towards the lounge door.
"Keep quiet and don't struggle and yer won't get 'urt," a gruff voice commanded. My panic subsided as I recognised my mother putting on a bad imitation of a Cockney accent. I had completely forgotten about her promise to 'kidnap' us.
Now more relaxed, I allowed myself to be marched into the lounge. Karen and Timothy were already there, both securely tied up. I immediately recognised the arrangement that Mum had applied to Karen: her arms were behind her back, there were single strands of rope over her shoulders and crossing over on her chest, several turns around each upper arm and a pair of strands horizontally across her chest about the same level as her elbows. Timothy's upper body seemed to be tied the same way.
"Chinese tie-ups!" I commented.
"Mittens on and 'ands behind back," Mum ordered, her faux East End accent crumbling slightly.
I recoiled slightly in shocked surprise as I looked at my kidnapper for the first time. Mum was still wearing the clothes I had seen her in at breakfast time, but her face was now hidden by a black mask she had fashioned from a black woollen winter stocking. Her entire head was covered, with just holes for her eyes. She had taken the trouble to hem the edges of the eye holes properly and it looked as though she had cut the foot end off the socking and sewn the end so that it made a properly fitting hood. My reaction earned a satisfied chuckle from inside the mask.
I put down the scarf and balaclava that I was still carrying and pulled my mittens on over my gloves. I put my arms behind my back with the forearms positioned horizontally, so that my wrists were together but my hands would pass through the binding in opposite directions.
Mum put several turns of a long length of rope around my wrists and then cinched it snugly in place. She took the two ends of the rope around my chest and brought them together again at the back, hitching them around the wrist binding again. She then pulled the two ends apart, spiralling them around my upper arms. They went under my armpits, crossed on the upper part of my chest, were taken up over my shoulders and were knotted together just below the nape of my neck (Mum had to put the hood up on my coat to do this). Finally she brought the remaining rope down to my wrist binding and fastened it off there. The result was very snug and secure and completely inescapable without help. The single strands of rope used on the arms and shoulders could make the whole thing very uncomfortable if you struggled against it, but this was not a problem with all the layers of clothes we were wearing that day.
I should explain why this arrangement was known in our family as a 'Chinese tie-up'. Although my grandfather was a Church of England parish priest by the time I knew him, his first job after ordination was as a missionary working in northern China (this was in the early to mid 1920s, when China was relatively peaceful before the civil war and the Japanese invasion). While there, he married a Chinese woman who worked at the mission station as a teacher (not a new convert: her family had been Christian for several generations). My mother and her older sister, my Aunt Lizzie, had both been born in China. Neither of them inherited much of my grandmother's looks beyond the thick, dark, almost black, hair they both had. There was something faintly Asiatic about their eyes, but unless you knew they were both of mixed race, you probably wouldn't notice. When it came to my generation, I inherited the texture of my mother's hair and my brother inherited the hair colour as well, but that was about it. My father's classic redhead looks resulted in my freckled pale skin and reddish brown hair and my sister's faintly gingery light brown hair. You would never guess that we were a quarter Chinese to look at us.
My mother introduced us to the particular variation on a box-tie that we called a 'Chinese tie-up'. She told us that she had seen prisoners secured in that manner by the police when she was a child and that she and her sister had learned to replicate it. My grandmother also knew that tie-up, as we discovered one day when we called her bluff over an ultimatum, but curiously, she tied it in the opposite order, starting with a rope draped over the shoulders and ending with the wrist binding.
For years, I assumed that 'Chinese tie-up' was just a fanciful name we had given it within the family, probably with little or no justification. However, I when I started watching Chinese films as part of an exploration of my Chinese heritage (with English subtitles: I understand perhaps six words of Mandarin), I soon noticed that if a character was tied up, as often as not the pattern of ropework used bore a strong resemblance to our 'Chinese tie-up'.
As a term 'Chinese tie-up' was just what we called this style of binding the arms. It was usually combined with a perfectly conventional approach to tying the victim's legs. However, on this occasion, our mother had come up with something quite innovative. She took a long length of rope and folded it in half. She instructed me to stand with my feet together then undid the bottom two toggles on my duffel coat. Mum reached up inside my skirt, holding the folded end of the rope. She passed it around my waist and fed the free ends through the loop formed by the fold. She turned the free ends back on themselves so that the noose she had made tightened around my waist then wrapped it around my legs, spiralling her way down towards my knees. She put a cinching turn around the spiral when it got below my knees, where there was a natural gap between my legs above my calf muscles and then again a bit above my ankles. Mum helped me to sit down on the floor with my back supported by the front of the sofa then took the rope under the soles of my shoes. Lastly, she separated the two free ends of the rope and tied them off securely to the cinch between my ankles.
The act of sitting down tightened the rope quite considerably where it crossed my bottom. Mum seemed to be aware of this and spent a few minutes redistributing the tension in the rope so that there weren't any excessively tight spots. The result was the most restrictive leg tie I had ever experienced; it was as if my legs were welded together from crotch to toe, but it wasn't particularly uncomfortable.
I glanced at Karen. Her outer layers of clothing were exactly the same as mine, with brown woollen leggings showing under a brown duffel coat. Her legs were tied the same way as mine, with a spiral of rope emerging below the hem of her coat. Her facial expression was unreadable as I could only see her eyes. She was wearing a chocolate brown balaclava identical to mine (another product of Annie's Canadian aunt) but folded up into a beanie. The lower half of her face was covered by her brown and yellow striped school scarf, which was wrapped around twice and knotted behind her head. I assumed she was gagged, but I couldn't see the tell-tale bulge under the scarf that I would expect.
Timothy had been tied the same way as Karen and me, except that the rope wound around his legs had been started a bit higher up by hitching it to the chest rope which was part of the Chinese tie-up. His face was concealed in the same way as Karen's, with just his eyes visible between the old grey balaclava I had folded into a hat for him and his red and grey school scarf which was arranged like Karen's.
There was a ripping sound and my mother held up a length of white tape. I recognised it immediately as a piece of Elastoplast, an adhesive bandage used to dress minor wounds in Britain (which we call 'sticking plaster'). You can buy it in the form of pre-cut strips with small patches of surgical lint on the back, just like Band-Aids, or you can get it in a roll. There are several widths available; Mum was using the two-inch variety. The outer surface is coloured an improbable brownish pink shade, which is guaranteed not to match anyone's skin tone. The inner, adhesive, side is white and it was this side that was facing me.
"Purse your lips," my mother instructed.
I did so and Mum smoothed the strip of Elastoplast across my mouth. Being fabric based, it's stretchy enough to mould exactly to the contours of the face. It also ran almost from ear to ear, so I knew that it would stay firmly stuck to my face.
"Can you breathe all right?"
I took a few breaths through my nose to demonstrate that all was well.
I explored the novel sensation of this new style of gag. I could separate my teeth by perhaps a quarter of an inch, but with my lips sealed, I couldn't speak at all. I found that I could still hum though my nose, but that hardy constituted an intelligible form of communication.
"It works even better with a hanky stuffed in your mouth first," Mum told me, dropping her Cockney accent, "but I don't want to risk any of you choking."
Mum pulled my balaclava down over my head, knowing that I usually preferred to wear it that way, and tied my scarf around my neck. She had just finished when my father came into the room. He had entered the spirit of Mum's game by wearing a black eye mask with a flat cloth cap, like a cartoon burglar.
"They're awl ready ter go," Mum told him, resuming her character.
They had clearly planned out what would happen next as, without a further word, they both bent down and lifted me off the floor. Dad took the heavy end, supporting me under the elbows. Mum took my feet, walking backwards and reaching behind her to open the front door when we reached it.
As I was carried along the path that ran across the front of the house, I saw that the snow had started again, a haze of fine particles filling the air. Dad had positioned the car so that the rear doors were lined up with the path.
At that time, the car my parents owned was a Morris Minor Traveller. This model, now something of a classic, was the estate car (station wagon if you're American) version of the Morris Minor saloon car. The front part was perfectly normal pressed-steel construction, but rearwards from the doors, it had a wooden frame (ash if I remember rightly). Instead of the top-hinged tailgate that most modern estate cars have, it had a pair of doors hinged at the sides, more like a van. It had conventional front seats which tipped forwards to allow access to the rear bench seat. For most journeys, we three children occupied the back seat while our parents sat in front. The back seat could be folded down and, in combination with the slightly raised floor at the back, provided a completely flat luggage space stretching from the back doors to the front seats. For journeys with a lot of luggage, this was the usual set-up and my brother and sister and I would share the space with the bags and cases, usually with a nest of blankets to keep us comfortable. (The safety implications are fairly scary in retrospect, but back in those days, before cars even had seatbelts, it never bothered us.)
The luggage space in the car was surfaced with Formica, so it was quite easy for my parents to slide me forward until I was sitting with my legs stretched out across the width of the car and with my back against the pillar behind the driver's door. I sat waiting for a few minutes while Mum and Dad went back into the house. They returned with Timothy, whom they positioned leaning against the opposite side of the car so he was facing me with his legs alongside mine. Lastly, Karen was put in alongside me, so we were sitting shoulder to shoulder.
The rest of the luggage had been stacked just inside the front door, so it took only a few minutes to load that in the space between Karen and the rear doors of the car.
"I'll phone to say we're on our way," Mum announced and disappeared back into the house.
Dad dusted off the snow that had accumulated on the wing mirrors, settled himself in the driving seat and started the engine. Mum emerged from the house and followed the car down the driveway as Dad pulled cautiously out onto the street. She closed the gates behind the car and got into her seat.
"Are you three all right?" Mum asked turning to face us, all trace of her East End moll's accent gone. She had put on her overcoat, a scarf and a knitted beret, but I was intrigued to see that she was still wearing her black stocking mask as part of her outfit.
We nodded to assure Mum that we were fine. 'Comfortable' would probably have been an overstatement, but we were all enjoying our adventure.
The journey was uneventful but much slower than usual because of the road conditions, taking over an hour rather then the usual 25 minutes or so. The only problem we had was remaining upright when Dad accelerated or applied the brakes. Karen and I leaned on each other but Timothy toppled over a couple of times and had to be pushed up again by Mum.
At last we left the public road and drove up the long curved gravel driveway to the solid, square Georgian rectory that was my grandparents' home. The house had been built in the time when clergymen were important and wealthy members of the local community and was designed to accommodate a large family in comfort together with a small army of servants. Those days were long past and my grandparents were now the only residents. A Church of England stipend is not an enormous salary by any standards, but wages were still fairly low in the early 60s so my grandfather could afford to employ a housekeeper. There would probably once have been at least two gardeners employed at the rectory, but that role was now filled on a part-time basis by the parish sexton as part of his duties. A largely-empty house was a superb indoor playground for three lively and imaginative children.
As we pulled up outside the front door, we could see the familiar sight of Uncle Alf's car, his beloved 1949 MG tourer, now covered with a dusting of snow. The MG had its tonneau cover over the seats, rather than having the soft roof up, which suggested that my cousin's family had endured the rigours of the weather to drive with the top down. Someone must have seen us arrive as the front door was opened almost immediately. Dad opened the rear doors of the car and the luggage was quite quickly unloaded, with several pairs of willing hands to assist.
As soon as the last of the bags and cases were safely inside the house, it was our turn to be unloaded. I was delighted to see that the spirit of our kidnapping had been taken up wholeheartedly by the rest of the family. Karen was taken out and carried into the house by Uncle Alf wearing a red and white spotted headscarf over his mouth and nose like a bank robber from a cowboy film and by Aunt Lizzie who was completely unrecognisable with a nylon stocking over her head. Timothy was carried by our Dad with his black mask on again and by Grandma with a black shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders, leaving only her eyes showing. I had to wait a few minutes until Uncle Alf reappeared. He took my upper body while Mum took my feet.
I was expecting just to be carried inside the house, probably to the kitchen, which was the heart of the household, and untied there, but instead I found myself being carried upstairs. I was taken to the old nursery, which was the bedroom we usually shared on visits to our grandparents. Karen and Timothy were already there, sitting side-by-side on the floor with their backs against the wall. They were both still tied up. I was set down beside them then Uncle Alf and Mum left the room, closing the door as they went.
Sitting a short distance away, leaning against another wall, was our cousin Annie. I was startled to see that she was tied up too. She was warmly dressed in a thick grey sweater with a pair of cosy-looking stretch pants (the kind with stirrups under the feet) in a slightly darker grey. A pair of bright red socks contrasted with the sombre greys. I could see about half a dozen turns of rope around her ankles. Her hands were out of sight behind her back, but I assumed her wrists must be tied too. She was gagged with a white cloth of some kind between her teeth and knotted behind her head.
My stomach lurched as I saw Annie. I suddenly didn't understand what was going on. Was Annie being punished for something? Why were we still tied up? Were we being punished for something, and, if so, what?
As soon as we were alone, Annie squirmed her way across the floor to us. With just her wrists and ankles tied, she was able to move fairly easily. She leaned over sideways to get her face close to one of Karen's hands. It took a moment for my sister to work out what she was supposed to do then she hooked her thumb under Annie's gag. With a little tugging and twisting, our cousin managed to work her gag down over her chin then spat out the handkerchief that had been in her mouth.
"Let's see if I can do the same for you," she said.
Annie used her teeth to pull Karen's scarf down until it was around her neck, revealing the strip of Elastoplast across her mouth. Annie looked at it in dismay. "Are you all gagged like that?"
We nodded in reply.
"I don't think I can do anything about that just with my teeth," Annie told us. "I'll just have to see to your ropes first.
Tied up as we were, Karen, Timothy and I were unable to move so much as an inch. By sheer determined brute force and with a lot of grunting, Annie managed to slide Karen a few inches away from the wall. (The carpet only covered the middle of the floor and the polished wooden floor outside that helped Annie's efforts a lot.)
Annie set to work on the knots binding Karen. It was a long slow process, first picking the knots undone with her teeth and then patiently pulling the rope clear. As our upper bodies were each tied with a single rope, there was progressively more rope to be untangled as each knot was untied. Persistence was eventually rewarded by Karen being able to pull her hands free of the remaining loops of rope.
My sister took off her mittens and then her gloves and picked with her fingernails at the surgical tape across her mouth. She ripped it off her face with a loud "Ow!" as it pulled away from her skin. Her next priority was to untie Annie's wrists.
With her hands free, Annie untied her own ankles then set to work to free the upper half of my body after first peeling my gag off.
While this was going on, Karen turned to Timothy, took his gag off and then set to work to untie him, without bothering to attend to her own legs first.
As soon as I tried to free my own legs, I discovered that I couldn't bend my legs enough to bring the knots within reach, so I waited patiently while Annie set me free. As soon as she had finished, Annie transferred her attention to untying Timothy's legs and then Karen's.
After all the exertion, Karen and I were quite hot still dressed in our outdoor clothes. We lost no time jettisoning our outerwear then our leggings. The rectory was never warm, so I'm sure we kept our extra layer of sweater on.
While we were doing that, Annie helped Timothy get out of his snowsuit. He was wearing a sweater and a pair of black woollen tights. Understandably, he never liked being seen in a girly garment like the tights, but Annie gently persuaded him that they were very sensible in a chilly house. and, besides, that if he put a pair of shorts on top, there wouldn't much of them visible above the tops of his socks. (Short trousers were still standard wear for boys of Timothy's age and I don't think he actually owned any long trousers at that time.) Somewhat mollified, he did as Annie suggested and accompanied the rest of us downstairs.
All six adults (our parents, Annie's parents and our grandparents) were in the huge rectory kitchen, which was also a comfortable family room, chatting and drinking tea. We were treated to a round of applause as soon as we appeared. Subsequent discussions revealed that it had been Aunt Lizzie and Annie who had thought of the escape challenge as a fitting end to our kidnap adventure (this wasn't untypical of the sort of scheme they would come up with). However, they hadn't allowed for the slowness of our journey from home and in consequence Annie had been tied up for something like forty minutes before we arrived. She graciously told us all it was worth it to have fun like that with her cousins.
Thursday morning was bitterly cold. None of the four of us (Karen, Timothy, Annie and I) who were sharing the old nursery much relished the idea of emerging from our warm beds into the frigid morning air. Annie, as the oldest (I think she was 21 then) finally worked up the courage to go to the bathroom and run a hot bath that we would all share.
While she was gone, I wriggled out of the bed I was sharing with my sister, trying not to let any cold air in under the blankets. Shivering with the cold, I padded across to the window and stuck my head between the curtains. There was a layer of frost on the inside of the window but I was able to clear a patch to look through by rubbing with the cuff of the sweater I had worn over my nightdress. The usually lush rectory garden and the churchyard beyond were a white wilderness. Snow was still falling but it was fine powdery stuff rather than big flakes and looked more like mist as the wind blew it across my view in waves.
"We absolutely must get the sledges out today," I announced.
While Timothy stayed in the warmth of his bed, Karen came and joined me at the window. "It might be too cold for sledging," she commented after studying the snow for a couple of minutes.
"I'm sure we'll be all right if we wrap up warm," I answered optimistically.
Annie returned from the bathroom. "Becca and Karen go next, seeing as you're both up," she instructed us. "I'll finish getting dressed then help Tim."
I noticed that Annie was wearing her long underwear, which looked like a sensible starting point whether or not we decided to go out in the snow. Karen and I rummaged in our case, each grabbed an armful of clothes and headed for the steamy warmth of the bathroom.
When we went down for breakfast, the kitchen was blissfully warm compared with upstairs, but that was because of the combined output of the coke-fired range (which provided hot water and was also the cooking stove) and the blast-furnace-like log fire burning in the fireplace.
There was never any shortage of food when we visited the rectory. We eagerly tucked into plates of porridge followed by sausages, bacon and eggs, all washed down with mugs of tea. As we ate, we heard the slamming of a door followed by a loud stamping of boots. After a minute or so, our mother emerged into the kitchen. The route in from the yard was via the scullery and there was a porch outside the back door, so the house wasn't noticeably chilled by her arrival. She was wearing an old coat and had a scarf wound around her head and face, hiding everything except a pair of brown eyes. There was a dusting of snow still clinging to her. She just had thick socks on her feet; a pair of boots had presumably been abandoned in the porch.
"That's the hens fed, Mum," she announced to Grandma, shedding her outer layers and gratefully accepting a steaming mug of tea. "I looked at the outside thermometer;" she added, "it's only 5 degrees out there." (We used Fahrenheit in Britain back then, so it would have been about -15°C: not fantastically cold by North American standards, but the coldest daytime temperature I have ever personally experienced in the UK.)
"Can we get the sledges out after breakfast?" I asked.
"It's really cold outside, but if you wrap up warm and keep moving, you should be all right," Mum advised. She generally took a fairly robust attitude to our safety, but I had feared that the weather that day might actually be so severe that she wouldn't let us out.
"And if you're getting the sledges out, Sheila and I might get our skis out," Aunt Lizzie suggested as she came into the kitchen.
"Me too!" Grandma added.
As soon as we had finished eating and helped our grandmother with the dishes, we three children and Annie, who seemed just as excited about the snow, headed upstairs to change. Karen volunteered to help Timothy get into his snowsuit, which was always a bit of a struggle for him to do on his own.
I was already wearing two layers all over: my long combinations (a union suit in American terminology, made of cream wool and covering me from neck to ankle and down to my wrists) with a pair of wool tights and a roll-necked sweater on top of that, and I felt chilly already coming up from the warm kitchen. I took my skirt off and put on the heavy knit leggings I had worn the previous day plus a thick cardigan buttoned up to my neck on top of the sweater. I added a pair of heavy socks and then tackled my olive-green one-piece snowsuit. This was another item that had been passed on to me by Annie when she had outgrown it and was also another product of her aunt, the prolific knitter. It was hand knitted and then felted to make the wool thicker and more windproof. The result was wonderfully soft and warm but massively heavy and a major struggle to get into. The bottom half was shaped like a pair of rather baggy trousers with buttoned cuffs at the ankles. The waist was ribbed to give a more snug fit and above that it was shaped like a duffel coat: double-breasted and fastening with wooden toggles. Both layers of the double-breasted front were stitched to the waistband, so there wasn't very much opening to get in through. Once I had the bottom half on, Annie helped me get myself into the top half while I gripped the ends of my cardigan sleeves to stop them riding up. I did up the toggles then the buttons on the cuffs and gathered up the other items I planned to put on immediately before going out.
My heavy leather lace-up walking boots were in the heated drying room next to the scullery and were deliciously warm for my toes when I put them on. Annie was already waiting outside. I decided to join her, pausing in the porch to pull my brown balaclava down over my head and raise the hood of my snowsuit. I wound a scarf twice around my neck on top of the hood to keep it up and knotted it at the back. With my gloves and mittens on my hands, I opened the back door and stepped out into the snow. I blinked as the cold air brought tears to my eyes, but grew accustomed to it after a few moments.
Annie was dressed as I had seen her dressed for severe weather before. She was wearing warm brown woollen trousers tucked into bottle green socks folded down over heavy boots like mine. Above that she had on a hooded jacket in thick red tartan fabric with a fake fur trim to the hood. The scarf tied around her neck over the hood and her mittens matched the green socks. As she turned to face me when I came out into the yard, I saw she was also wearing a knitted mask, something I had never seen before. This one was hand knitted unlike the mass-produced ones available today, but much the same idea: it covered her entire head with holes for her eyes and mouth. The holes were circular, giving her a rather surprised expression. It was also bottle green, but with narrow red horizontal stripes, complementing the red and green of her tartan jacket.
Karen and Timothy joined us a couple of minutes later. Timothy was dressed in his snowsuit, as he had been the previous day for travelling, but with Wellington boots to keep his feet dry. He had a blue corduroy cap on his head, which had a small peak at the front like a British-style school cap but which covered the sides and back of his head too and was fastened with a popper (snap fastener if you prefer) under his chin. He was wearing a scarf tucked into the top of the snow suit and arranged to cover his mouth and nose as well as his neck. Karen was also wearing a snowsuit, another hand-me-down that had once been mine. It was similar to Timothy's but was made in two parts rather than one, with a high-fitting pair of trousers supported by shoulder straps and a separate jacket.
When we had been waiting for a minute or two, our parents and grandmother emerged from the old stable building that was then used as garage space, a workshop and general storage.
"Come and help us with the sledges," Uncle Alf said. His only concessions to the cold were a knitted cap and a heavy sweater. Possibly Canadians simply aren't bothered by temperatures like that. (By contrast, my father had a thick jacket on and a scarf up over his chin to supplement his hat and sweater.)
It turned out that there were no less than five sledges available. There were two traditional small wooden ones that belonged to my family. There was also a much bigger wooden one built by my Dad, which was long enough for all three of us to ride on and which had steerable runners. Uncle Alf had brought a large sled which I (rightly or wrongly) thought of as typically Canadian: a big flat wooden board made of narrow planks fastened together with the front edge curled right back. He had also brought a circular aluminium sledge that we always called 'the flying saucer'.
While we were organising the sledges by stacking the three smaller ones on the two largest, Mum, Aunt Lizzie and Grandma were getting their skis on. All three had been keen skiers in the late 1930s and still used equipment dating from that period on the odd occasions they still skied. The skis were made of laminated hickory and birch and the ski-poles were bamboo. Bindings were rather crude by modern standards: just a hinged plate for an ordinary boot to rest on, with a strap across the toe and a sprung steel cable around the back. Just as with modern Nordic skis, the wearer's heels were free to lift, so that it was quite easy to jog up gentle hills on them and graceful Telemark turns could be executed.
Mum's and Aunt Lizzie's skiing outfits were almost equally as dated. Both wore rather baggy trousers made of a dense woollen fabric tucked into socks folded down over their boots. Mum wore a white skiing sweater with a blue reindeer motif as her top layer on the upper half with matching mittens. She had a white beret on her head, but, as on the previous day, wore it on top of the black stocking mask she had made to stage our abduction, this time for warmth rather than effect. Aunt Lizzie's skiing sweater was in the form of a hooded knit jacket. She wore it with the hood up and a scarf around her neck to keep it in place but left her face unprotected. Possibly several years of Canadian winters earlier in her married life had made her more immune to cold than the rest of us.
Ever slightly eccentric, Grandma was dressed more or less as she would for horse riding. Her heavy tweed Norfolk jacket was possibly a little bulky for skiing, but no-one could fault her knee-length breeches tucked into Argyle checked socks for practicality. Headscarves were always our grandmother's trademark headwear. Unless she was going somewhere that required a degree of formality, she nearly always wore a headscarf peasant-style rather than a hat. That day she had wrapped her head in a style once common from the Balkans and right across Asia to her native northern China: her scarf was arranged so that it came right down to her eyebrows and was wrapped across her face and knotted at the back, leaving just her almond-shaped brown eyes showing.
Our grandfather waved to us from the porch and went back inside the house. He was in his seventies by that time and very much a pipe-and-slippers man in his leisure hours rather than one taken to cavorting in the snow like his wife. Besides that, he enjoyed his vocation and would as gladly spend time on pastoral work or on preparing services as in relaxing.
Our preferred sledging area was a field just beyond the church. It sloped away very steeply from the wall around the churchyard but was in the form of a bowl in the chalky hillside, so that there was a choice of sledging runs. The fastest was simply to go straight down the slope and to rely on the gentle up-slope beyond to coast to a halt. Taking the slope obliquely was slower but gave a much longer run, either following a curve or, with a bit of nifty steering, an S-bend that crossed the bottom of the bowl at approximately right angles to the direct run. These different approaches were well known to the local children, from whom we had learned about them in previous winters.
There were a number of other children already out on the slope by the time we got these, but fewer than I might have expected. The weather may just have been too severe for some. With people taking different lines down the sledging hill, collision was always something of a hazard, but that day it was compounded by the limited visibility due to the snow that was still falling. The air was so cold that at any kind of speed it cut into exposed skin like a knife and I found I was relying on squinting through half-closed tear-filled eyes to see where I was going, further increasing the likelihood of collision or falling off.
We enjoyed good runs with all of the sledges, but given the powder snow conditions, the flat-bottomed Canadian sledge and the flying saucer were easily the fastest, gliding over the surface of the snow rather than digging in, but their complete lack of steering also made them the most hazardous to ride. My father and uncle did sterling service helping to pull the sledges back up the slope (and enjoying the occasional ride themselves). The three skiers put in an occasional appearance, but had found safer places to go where they were less likely to be mown down by screaming children on sledges.
After we had been out for about two hours we started to feel too tired and hungry to carry on. The snow had stopped by then, the wind had dropped and the temperature risen by a few degrees. Once we stopped sledging, I started to feel a bit too warm, so I took my scarf off and tied it around my waist, put my hood down and wore my balaclava folded up into a beanie. Annie took her scarf off too, also tying it around her waist, and pushed her hood back but kept her amazing mask on.
We gathered up the sledges and made our way back to the rectory, entering the garden via a stile set into the churchyard wall. The path back to the house went straight across the lawn that formed the lower part of the garden. After that there was a fairly steep flight of stone steps leading up to the terrace which ran the full width of the rear of the rectory. When we reached the steps, my mother, aunt and grandmother veered off to follow a much longer route that would take them up to the level of the terrace without having to remove their skis.
"Leave the sledges here and follow me," Annie urged, trotting up the steps.
When my brother and sister and I caught up, Annie was already on the terrace and was dragging a wooden garden seat away from the wall of the house. It was the traditional park bench type of seat, a sort of wooden sofa, so was quite heavy to move. It was thickly coated with snow which stayed in place even when we moved it. Annie kicked some more snow underneath it to fill in the space between its legs and set us to work to make lots of snowballs, explaining as we did so that we were setting up an ambush to catch the skiing party when they reached the terrace.
As soon as the three skiers rounded the corner of the house, they were faced by a snow-covered bench with the heads of the four children just visible over it. They must have realised immediately what we were up to as they stopped before we had thrown the first snowball.
We pressed home our advantage as the three ambushed women struggled to remove their skis. They returned fire as soon as they could, but were at a considerable disadvantage being in the open while we had the numerical advantage and a good defensive position. Our objective was to force them to retreat around the corner of the rectory, whereupon we would declare our victory. We might have done it too, were it not for my father and uncle joining the fray. I think it was Aunt Lizzie who yelled to the menfolk for some support. As soon as she did so, we were doomed. Dad and Uncle Alf had followed us up the steps and were behind us, so we were totally unprotected from them by our makeshift fortification. Also, as keen cricketers (Uncle Alf played for the RAF cricket team at one time), they could throw fast and accurately. We immediately turned to throw snowballs back at the men, but we were completely outclassed. We could barely get our snowballs to fly that far while they could pick us off at will with snowballs following an almost flat trajectory and landing painfully hard.
Being attacked from both sides like that, it wasn't long before we raised our hands, acknowledging defeat. The snowballs stopped flying and the grown-ups walked across to where we were standing.
"Ambush successfully outflanked, I'd say," Uncle Alf commented.
Annie, however, had not entirely abandoned our failed attack and decided to strike one final blow. She had a snowball hidden behind her back and delivered it at almost point blank range, hitting her mother full in the face.
"I think we'd better secure our prisoners," Grandma said, grabbing Annie by the shoulders.
Aunt Lizzie was still spluttering snow but my mother moved like lightning, quickly whipping the scarf off Annie's waist and using it to tie her wrists behind her back. A moment or two later Karen, Timothy and I were similarly restrained, our wrists tied behind our backs with our own scarves.
We were marched to the back door and into the scullery, where our boots were removed.
"I suppose we'll have to untie them so they can get their snowsuits off," my mother remarked with a hint of disappointment in her voice.
"We don't have to untie them for long," Aunt Lizzie pointed out.
Our hands were released and the rather snowy scarves draped over the warm pipes in the drying room along with our hats and mittens. We took our boots off and lined them up along one wall so that the leather would dry out, but not too quickly. Grandma disappeared in the direction of the kitchen as soon as she had taken her boots and jacket off. Aunt Lizzie and Mum quickly shed their skiing sweaters and trousers, hung them up then followed their mother to the kitchen. Our snowsuits took a little longer to struggle out of. Karen and I helped Timothy with his then Annie helped me to get out of mine. Karen's two-piece suit was easier to manage and she was able to do it on her own.
At last the four of us, all now down to tights and sweaters on top of our long underwear were able to make our way to the kitchen. We were somewhat taken aback to find a reception committee waiting for us. Grandma looked remarkably respectable compared with the rest of us with a smart sweater over her riding breeches which were still tucked into her jaunty Argyle socks. Aunt Lizzie was dressed more or less as we were in a sweater over thick tights while Mum was in her long-johns and a sweater. They had set four chairs out in the middle of the floor and were sorting out a pile of rope on the kitchen table.
"Why the ropes?" Annie asked ingenuously.
"You're our prisoners of war," her mother replied. "You mounted an unprovoked attack on us and you lost."
Annie thought for a moment. "But you're not supposed to treat prisoners like that. What about the Geneva Conventions?"
"I don't remember signing those," Aunt Lizzie told her with a perfectly straight face.
"Nor me," Mum confirmed.
"We could be democratic and have a vote on it," Grandma suggested. "Who wants to be tied up?"
We were always ready for a tie-up game, so Karen, Timothy and I all raised our hands; Annie didn't.
"I think the motion was carried," Mum concluded.
"Oh, all right," Annie conceded with a grin. "I don't want to be a bad loser."
The chairs were identical to ones that we had at home and that Uncle Alf and Aunt Lizzie had as well. They were simple ladder-backed wooden-framed chairs with wooden seats. The small wooden shelf under the seat of each chair betrayed their origin. The shelves were for hymn books, as the chairs had once been part of the furnishing of a church. Our grandfather had obtained about two hundred of these when the church they had belonged to closed. Most went to furnish the parish hall associated with his own church; the rest had gone to family members and to anyone else who wanted them.
Timothy was too small to fit one of these chairs properly, or at least to be tied to one comfortably, but that was a problem we were all aware of and for which we already had a solution. Mum tied him back into the chair with ropes around his waist and chest and then arranged his legs so that he was sitting cross-legged on the chair seat. She tied his shins together where they crossed and put some rope across his lap and under the chair seat to hold him down and prevent him uncrossing his legs. She pulled a pair of socks over his hands, ostensibly to prevent chafing, but in practice to make it that much harder to escape. Timothy's wrists were then crossed and then tied together in front of him then fastened down to his leg binding.
Meanwhile, Aunt Lizzie and Grandma worked together as a team to tie the rest of us to our chairs. We were given socks to pull on over our hands, which we duly did, then our wrists were crossed and tied behind the chair backs. We each had a coil of rope around our waists holding us securely back into the chair. The loose ends of our wrist bindings were tied to this band of rope so that we couldn't reach out sideways with our bound hands. Another coil of rope was tied around each of us just above elbow level so it held our arms close to our bodies and further anchored us to our chairs. The loose ends from those bindings were also brought down and tied off to the waist rope so there was no possibility of shrugging the chest ropes up over our shoulders.
I was expecting to have my ankles tied to the chair legs, and already had them in position, so I was surprised when Aunt Lizzie gently pushed them together and bound them with a simple lashing. She also tied my legs together just above the knee then took the ends of that binding and tied them to the tops of the front legs of the chair. This was a new variation for me and I was surprised to find that it was even more effective than the conventional ropes over the lap in immobilising the upper part of my legs.
Just then, Uncle Alf appeared at the kitchen door. "Drinks ready when you are," he announced.
"What about me?" Annie protested, suddenly realising that she was about to miss out on a pre-lunch glass of Madeira. (Although she still enjoyed playing with her young cousins, at 21, Annie was also able to enjoy the adult pleasure of the occasional drink.)
"Should have thought about that before you ambushed us," her mother replied with a grin.
"Hey, I didn't know it would get me tied up!"
Our grandmother laughed at that. "I'd have thought it was a pretty good bet when your mother was involved."
"I was looking forward to that drink," Annie complained.
"No whining," Aunt Lizzie told her as she eased a rolled-up dish towel between her daughter's teeth and knotted it behind her head.
"And we'll have a bit less noise from you three," Mum added, addressing Karen, Timothy and me, all laughing uproariously at Annie's show of the sulks. We were quickly gagged in the same way as our cousin.
The final stage in our imprisonment was an entirely new innovation. Our chairs were pushed together so they were all facing each other and the adjacent chair legs roped together. Any thought of shuffling our chairs back-to-back to effect an escape had been stymied. This also explained why our ankles had not been tied to the chair legs. Timothy was sitting cross-legged, of course, but my sister and cousin and I had to compete for room for our feet in the small space between the chairs.
My mother and aunt departed from the kitchen as soon as they were satisfied that the four of us were securely trussed up. Grandma paused long enough to tip some potatoes into a pan that was simmering on the stove.
Karen, Timothy and I sat quietly on our chairs. I always liked being tied up and was just enjoying the experience; I assumed that much the same was also true for my brother and sister. Annie, on the other hand, struggled and strained furiously at her ropes, with some alarming creaks and groans from the woodwork of her chair. She was clearly not at all happy about being tied up, despite having brought the whole thing on herself. I was hugely entertained watching her efforts and wasn't sure if I wanted her to escape or not.
Annie eventually gave up the effort and slumped dejectedly in her bonds.
While we were tied up, our grandmother came into the kitchen and checked the contents of the oven and the pans on the stove. She paid us no attention whatever as she did so, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have her four grandchildren tied to chairs in the kitchen.
The adults eventually returned from the drawing room where they had been enjoying their drinks. Grandma was still dressed in her rather dashing breeches, but my mother and aunt were a little more conventionally attired than when we last saw them. Mum had put on a tweed skirt and a pair of stockings in place of her long-johns but Aunt Lizzie had settled for tying a shawl around her hips to fashion a rather Bohemian skirt over her woollen tights.
Aunt Lizzie was carrying a small glass which she set down on the dining table before commencing to untie her daughter.
"There's a glass of Madeira there for you, Annie, so you won't miss out after all."
As soon as she could speak again, Annie thanked her mother with only the faintest hint of grumpiness.
By the time we were all untied, our grandmother had served a bowl of soup for each of us and we tucked in enthusiastically when our grandfather had given thanks for the food.
3: Return Match
A good covering of snow is often a somewhat transient phenomenon in England (more so now than in the early 1960s), so we were keen to make the most of the snow, not knowing how long it would last. I'm sure we were out in the snow every day, but I'm not certain whether the events I'm about to relate took place on the day following those I have just recounted, which would make it 29 December, the Saturday after Christmas, or the day after that, the Sunday. The fact that we went out sledging in the afternoon, makes me think it was probably the Sunday, as we would all have been in church in the morning, but I'm not really sure.
It was not snowing when we went out and there was watery sunshine through a thin layer of high cloud, so it was not quite so spectacularly cold as it had been on our previous sledging expedition, although the temperature was still well below freezing. We were all dressed in much the same way as we had been for that previous session, although I possibly had one less layer on under my snowsuit. Sledging is a cold and snowy pastime, so we still wore our balaclavas (and in Annie's case, her wonderful mask), but I don't remember being bundled up in my hood and scarf to quite the same extent.
As on the previous occasion, Grandma and her two daughters took the opportunity to get in some skiing while we children sledged. The menfolk obligingly offered to act as sledge haulers for us again.
The sledging slope was now hard packed snow after several days of use by the children of the village, so the runs were satisfyingly faster than they had been previously. As the afternoon wore on and the temperature dropped, the surface of the snow froze into a hard crust of ice and the sledges fairly flew down the slope, juddering uncontrollably over the icy ridges. The cold air bit painfully into our skin, even through the thickness of our balaclavas, and tears streamed from our eyes, but we all thrilled at the excitement of it all.
Eventually, it became too dark to sledge safely (and really too cold for comfort, although none of us would admit that). The grown-ups declared that it was time to stop and go back to the rectory. Grandma, Mum and Aunt Lizzie raced off ahead on their skis. My father expressed his hope that they would have some hot chocolate ready for us by the time we got back.
When we reached the bottom of the flight of steps up to the terrace at the back of the rectory, we found out the women's reason for going ahead. They had moved a snow-covered bench so that it was across the top of the steps and were using it as a defensive rampart, just as we had done. As soon as we were within range, they began pelting us with snowballs.
As they were throwing downhill, the ladies had a considerable advantage over us. We soon realised that of the four of us, only Annie was strong enough to throw snowballs to the top of the steps with any force. Karen and I could both get snowballs up there, but only with a slow high lob; Timothy couldn't reach the top at all.
We were comprehensively outgunned, so we fell back out of range to discuss what to do. Dad and Uncle Alf joined us and agreed to help as we were clearly the victims rather than the aggressors. Dad and Timothy advanced closer to the foot of the slope, but slightly off to one side where Timothy started making snowballs and Dad delivered them with impressive force and accuracy. With the bombardment of snowballs from above significantly reduced, Uncle Alf and Annie led a full frontal assault on the steps while Karen and I formed a second wave just behind them. As we all reached the top and began a short-range mêlée, Dad and Timothy came up the steps behind us and joined in.
Grandma, Mum and Aunt Lizzie were outnumbered by six to three and it was more like shooting fish in a barrel than any kind of an equal contest. They kept going for a surprisingly long time in the face of those overwhelming odds, mainly because Grandma was shouting encouragement to her two daughters not to give up. Eventually, Mum and Aunt Lizzie conceded defeat, raising their hands in surrender, much to their mother's disgust. All three of them were covered in snow from head to foot by this time.
"They don't seem to be in complete agreement about surrendering," Uncle Alf observed.
"I think we'd better tie them up, just to be on the safe side," Annie suggested with savage glee.
Annie was clearly out to settle a personal score about which I had no strong feelings, but I was all for the idea of tying up our mother and aunt. Three scarves were quickly commandeered and used to tie the women's wrists behind their backs. We gathered up the skis and ski-poles and marched our prisoners towards the back door. (The sledges could be retrieved later.)
As on the previous occasion, we all crowded into the drying room to shed our boots and outer layers of clothing. (We untied our prisoners' hands so they could do this.) Annie wasted no time stripping down to her sweater and long underwear. "Follow me to the kitchen," she instructed, leaving Karen and me to sort Timothy and ourselves out.
When we reached the kitchen, Annie had set out two of the upright wooden chairs and was sorting out a pile of pieces of rope.
A few minutes later, our aunt and mother appeared, both wearing the woollen tights and thin sweaters that had been underneath their skiing gear. Mum eyed up the chairs and ropes. "I'm going to get cold if I have to sit there dressed like this: think I want an extra sweater on."
"Me too," Aunt Lizzie agreed, following her sister out of the kitchen.
Karen and I helped Annie to disentangle the rope, which had just been scooped up in a big bundle after it had been used the last time. While we were doing so, our grandmother came into the kitchen, looking rather bedraggled. "I think I need to go and change," she told us.
Grandma must have passed her daughters just outside the kitchen door as they arrived almost as soon as she left. I had half expected to see them back in conventional clothes, but they were both still wearing their wool tights but now each with a heavy sweater on top. They had also prepared themselves for the expected rigours of what was to come by each adding thick socks over both their feet and hands. Not only that, but they had also already gagged themselves using more of the Elastoplast that our mother had used on us when we were 'kidnapped' a few days previously.
Mum and Aunt Lizzie sat down on the chairs that were obviously intended for them and put their arms behind their backs ready for us to do our worst. Annie, Karen and I had already discussed how we would tie our mothers up and had a plan all worked out. We lifted Mum's and Aunt Lizzie's arms out of the way so that we could put a band of rope around each of their waists and another at chest level with ropes going over their shoulders. We brought their arms round in front of them and positioned them palm to palm where we lashed their wrists together and cinched the bindings to make them really secure. We took great care to make sure the knots were out of reach of probing fingers.
We concentrated on Mum's and Aunt Lizzie's legs next. We had a number of short lengths of rope in our collection and these were ideal for binding ankles to chair legs. We also tied their legs to the chair legs just below the knee and then put a coil of rope over each lap, making sure the knot ended up under the chair seat. Timothy helped find the lengths of rope we needed and acted as general assistant to Annie, Karen and me, but it was noticeable that he didn't participate in any of the actual tying. I'm not sure if he just felt shy about what we were doing or if he was trying to distance himself from it.
We had left quite long tails of rope on the wrist bindings which we were able to attach to both the waist and lap ropes, again being very careful about the disposition of the knots. With their wrists tied like this, they were unable to reach their gags and even if they were to shuffle their chairs together, they would still be unable to reach each other's bonds.
We secured Aunt Lizzie's wrist binding first and while we were repeating the process on my mother, I noticed my aunt surreptitiously tugging at her bonds. I realised that she would be able to exert less leverage if we put another length of rope around her upper arms and chest to keep her elbows tucked in. We applied this countermeasure to both women and decided that they were probably not able to effect an escape, which was our objective. Annie, who had been the driving force behind this whole episode declared herself satisfied.
"What about me?" our grandmother asked.
Grandma had returned to the kitchen some minutes earlier and was sitting quietly on a chair watching us immobilise her two daughters. We had acknowledged her return but hadn't paid much attention since.
We looked at her but didn't reply. In the absence of any response, she expanded the question. "You captured all three of us, but you've only tied up your mothers. What's to stop me freeing them as soon as you're out of the room?"
"Do you think we should tie you up too, Grandma?" Annie asked, a little uncertainly.
"It would certainly solve the problem," she pointed out.
"May we?" Karen asked, just to be sure.
"I've already got gloves on, so you might as well go ahead."
To be honest, I actually thought she was wearing gloves because her hands were cold, but it was true that we generally wore gloves to protect wrists against chafing from ropes. Grandma had done a complete change of clothes and was now wearing a mid-calf-length tweed skirt (old-fashioned but rather elegant on her slender figure), a roll-neck sweater and a knitted waistcoat on top. She also had on the gloves that she had drawn attention to and visible beneath the hem of her skirt were stoutly-knitted socks rather than stockings. Rather incongruously, another sock was draped around her neck as if it was a scarf. Grandma emphasised her invitation by using the sock as a gag, gripping it between her teeth and deftly knotting it behind her head.
We still felt a little diffident about tying up our 68 year old grandmother, but given such a clear invitation we felt we should comply with her wishes. As usual, Annie took the lead and coordinated the task. We kept the binding fairly simple, tying our grandmother's wrists behind her back and lashing her legs together at the ankles and just below the knees. We secured her to her chair with a band of rope over her lap and another around her arms and body and the back of the chair.
While we were tying Grandma to her chair, Aunt Lizzie started to test the security of her bonds in earnest. What started as a systematic exploration of the limits of her freedom slowly escalated into a titanic struggle against the ropes that held her. The chair creaked and groaned with the strain, but it was robustly built and amply strong enough to withstand the punishment.
Just as we were finishing, my father and Uncle Alf entered the kitchen.
"Well, I was going to tell you that we've put the sledges in the stable," Dad said, "but it looks as if you've moved on to a different game."
Uncle Alf studied the state of our prisoners with apparent interest. "You know, Jim," he commented, "I think we'll have to do the cooking tonight."
My father nodded. "Your Lizzie doesn't seem to be making much progress there; we'll starve if we have to wait for her to escape from all those ropes."
"I'll do us cheese on toast, but only after that whisky that Bill promised us," Uncle Alf replied. (Bill was my grandfather and Uncle Alf's cheese on toast was in reality the most mouthwateringly yummy Welsh rarebit.)
The two men departed in the direction of my grandfather's study and as soon as we had done a final check on our ropework, the rest of us headed upstairs to change into clothes to wear around the house.
Having shed our outer layers all three of us children and Annie were all dressed in much the same way with sweaters and tights over our one-piece long underwear. The rectory was not a warm house at the best of times, but in the freezing weather we were experiencing, the few open fires in the house and the kitchen range simply couldn't compete with the steady loss of heat through the windows and up the chimneys. We were therefore desperate to pile on as many clothes as we reasonably could.
Timothy was adamant that he wasn't going to be seen by anyone, even close family, in anything as girly as woolly tights. After some debate, Karen helped him to take the tights off (a knack that small boys are not generally taught) and he put on a pair of his usual short trousers and knee-length socks, with his long underwear just showing at the knees, then added a heavy sweater on top of the thin one he was wearing. Annie took her tights off and put on one of her pairs of stretchy stirrup pants (these seemed to be wonderfully warm and cosy and I coveted them fervently). A pair of warm socks and a thick sweater completed her indoor outfit. Neither Karen nor I wanted to take off any of the clothes we were already wearing, just to add more. The layers we already had on made us a little too fat to fit dresses and skirts comfortably. I lent Karen a sweater dress of mine: essentially, just a knee-length sweater, but a mid-calf one on her diminutive figure. She added a cardigan and a pair of thick socks and declared herself warm enough. Annie came to my rescue in much the same way by lending me a hip-length cardigan which became a rather abbreviated dress on me. I added another cardigan of my own and, like my sister, put some extra socks on. My hands were still cold, so I also put on a pair of thin woollen gloves. Karen and Timothy decided that was a good idea and copied me. That done, we declared ourselves ready and headed downstairs.
We briefly visited the kitchen to make sure that all was well with our prisoners. They were all much as we had left them. Aunt Lizzie's mammoth fight against her ropes had subsided into an occasional rather half-hearted wriggle, apparently more as a matter of principle rather than with any real hope of escape.
Annie inspected her mother's bonds critically. "We'll let you tie us up again if you manage to get out of that," she offered with an evil grin in the certainty that Aunt Lizzie was completely helpless.
Aunt Lizzie growled menacingly from behind her gag in reply.
Satisfied that our captives were secure, we headed for the drawing room. It was not exactly warm, but as there was a fire already lit, it was distinctly less Arctic than our bedroom. Annie added some more coal and poked the fire into life while Karen turned on the television. There were only two channels to choose from in the UK in those days, the precursors of BBC1 and ITV1, so selecting one didn't take long. The programme we chose was a film which seemed to be shown over the Christmas period most years: 'Captain Blood', a swashbuckling tale of pirate derring-do starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with wonderful music by Erich Korngold. It had already started, but we settled down to enjoy it anyway. Annie curled up on a sofa while Karen, Timothy and I appropriated the loose cushions from the chairs in the room, made a heap and sprawled on them on our tummies.
We hadn't been watching for very long, certainly less than half an hour when our grandmother appeared in the drawing room.
"Did someone untie you, Grandma?" Annie asked.
"Certainly not! I untied myself, I'll have you know," Grandma informed her haughtily.
"However did you do that?" Karen asked in genuine astonishment.
"Well, you're not the first people in the world to learn how to get out of ropes, you know. Besides, you could have tied my wrists just a little bit tighter."
"You're going to tie us up again, aren't you?" I asked, eyeing the bundle of rope she was carrying.
"Well, Annie said that if we escaped, we could tie you up again, so it's only fair if I do, isn't it?"
We couldn't really dispute the justice of that, so we gave our consent, albeit a little reluctantly in Annie's case.
Our grandmother started with Timothy, tying his wrists behind his back and his ankles together but leaving him where he was, lying on his tummy watching the television.
"I think I need to be a little more careful with you two," Grandma commented as she turned her attention to Karen and me.
I rolled onto my side and looked up at her, trying to gauge from her expression just how serious 'more careful' might turn out to be.
"You don't need to move," Grandma told me, so I rolled back onto my tummy. I was still looking at the television screen, but all my attention was focussed on just what was about to happen to me.
I felt my grandmother's fingers on my wrists, apparently making sure that my gloves were neatly tucked up inside the sleeves of my cardigan. That done, she gently crossed my wrists behind my back and deftly bound them together. She pushed a finger under the ropes to check that they weren't too tight then fed the long tails of rope she had left under my tummy and around my waist, knotting them again at the back and securing the final knot to my wrist binding.
Grandma lifted my feet off the floor and guided them towards my bottom. It was obvious where this was leading, but I didn't resist. She positioned my legs so that my knees were spread quite widely apart and my ankles crossed at approximately right angles. She lashed them securely together then fastened the free ends of the rope to my wrist binding. As hog-ties go, it was not particularly uncomfortable: my wrists and ankles were not all that close together (and I was quite flexible in any case as a result of several years of ballet lessons) and the waist rope was taking all the strain with no tension on my arms at all. It was, however, very effective in making me completely helpless; even if I had been right next to my sister, with my knees spread apart like that, I would have been quite unable to roll over so that we could reach each other's ropes with our fingers. As we had discovered on previous occasions, our grandmother knew exactly what she was doing when it came to handling rope.
A long sock between my teeth and knotted behind my head completed my restraint. As a gag, it would make speech a little less intelligible rather than completely impossible, but it effectively stymied any plans I might have had to use my teeth on the knots securing my siblings.
Karen suffered exactly the same fate as me while Timothy and I watched the proceedings with interest. (We had seen 'Captain Blood' before, so we weren't missing anything crucial.)
"Don't I get a gag too?" Timothy asked, somewhat plaintively.
Presumably Grandma hadn't bothered with a gag, as she didn't consider our brother to be as great a security risk as Karen and me. Nevertheless, she remedied the situation before turning her attention to Annie.
Annie was behind us, so it was difficult to watch what our grandmother was doing to her. Instead, we just carried on watching the television in companionable (and enforced) silence.
"That should do," Grandma announced some minutes later. We craned our heads round to see just what she had done to Annie. It seemed that she was taking even fewer chances with her than she had with my sister and me. Annie was lying on her tummy on the sofa. Her arms were secured with a 'Chinese tie-up', her legs were bound at the ankles and knees and a length of rope linked her ankle binding to her wrist binding. She was gagged with a sock, just as the rest of us were.
"Now you four just wait there and I'll be back in a minute," Grandma said as she left the room, chuckling at her own joke.
We didn't have to wait long before Grandma returned. She was accompanied by my father and Uncle Alf who between them were carrying Aunt Lizzie, still securely tied to her chair. They set the chair down beside the sofa. Aunt Lizzie growled her displeasure at being manhandled like that.
The men left the drawing room and returned a few minutes later carrying my mother, also still tied to her chair. I had wondered why we hadn't seen Mum or Aunt Lizzie. I had assumed that when she escaped, Grandma would also have freed them, but it seemed she had a different agenda.
Our mother was trying to say something through her gag. She tried several times, but even speaking really slowly and enunciating every word carefully, it was still impossible to make out what she was saying. Our grandmother untied Mum's gag and let her try again. It took a minute or two for Mum to get her voice working again, but once she did, it turned out that all she had to say was: "How much longer are you going to keep us tied up?"
"Well," her mother replied, "it was the children who tied you up, not me, so it's up to them." She turned to face Annie. "Is it time to untie Lizzie and Sheila yet?"
Annie shook her head in reply.
"How long should we leave them then?" Grandma asked.
Annie's gag was like ours, so she was able to speak, albeit with some difficulty. She suggested that it should be at least another half hour.
Grandma thought about this before replying. "Well, you four are tied up in place of me, because I escaped, so however long Sheila and Lizzie are tied up for, you should get the same."
It sounded as though we had got off lightly and we would be untied soon, but Grandma had more to say on the subject: "You four are tied up for making such a sloppy job of tying up your grandmother. I'm sure you deserve more than half an hour for that."
"But we didn't tie you up!" Mum protested. "It was the children and they tied Lizzie and me up too, so you ought to let us go first."
"Ah, but none of this would have happened if you two hadn't surrendered in the first place," Grandma countered, "so you deserve to be tied up for giving in instead of defending us."
That was grossly unfair: Mum and Aunt Lizzie had surrendered in the face of overwhelming odds and fighting on wasn't really much of an option. I'm sure Mum would have pointed that out, but Grandma ended the debate by re-gagging her. Her grin and the twinkle in her eye made it clear that this was all still a game and none of it was meant in earnest.
"How about everyone gets untied when we have food ready?" Uncle Alf suggested, keen to break the deadlock. That met with general agreement, so he appointed my father as assistant cook and the two of them headed back to the kitchen.
It must have been close to Annie's original suggestion of half an hour when my father returned to the drawing room to tell us that food would be ready in less than five minutes. Grandma set to work to untie Aunt Lizzie first, then the two of them set to work to untie two more people. I can't remember what order all that happened in, but poor Annie was left until last.
Almost as soon as we had all been freed, Dad arrived carrying a tray of cups, saucers and plates. Mum and Aunt Lizzie took the opportunity to use the bathroom while the rest of us organised a place to put the tray. By the time they returned, a huge pot of tea and generous quantities of Uncle Alf's excellent Welsh rarebit had also arrived (properly made with grated cheese, mustard and a touch of beer to help it all blend). Our grandfather joined us, sitting in his favourite armchair and we all settled down to enjoy the food and to tell him about the day's adventures.