This story is, as the title implies, about handcuffs and how my sister Karen and I came to own them, how we restored them to working order and what we did with them after that. It's in the form of a series of linked episodes. The second and third of these are an exercise in almost pure nostalgia and I hope you will indulge me in that.
Our handcuffs featured in many games, but I have selected the ones which were memorable for one reason or another as the ones most suitable for inclusion in a story. As usual, some of the details are hazy after so many years, but I have sought to make the story true to its period and to the characters of my sister and I and our family as they were at that time.
I have always enjoyed finding a good bargain. I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by antique shops, jumble sales, charity (or thrift) shops or even a garage sale. The contents of my house testifies to this: I have a few good antique pieces of furniture, while the rest is just old, some inherited from family members, some from shops and sale rooms, but most of it both cheaper and better quality than modern counterparts would be.
As children, my sister Karen and I often liked to visit a particular shop adjacent to the car park that my parents most frequently used when they went shopping on a Saturday morning. My brother used to like to see what was in the shop too, but never developed the bargain-hunting bug that my sister and I had. The shop styled itself as being an antique shop, but was engagingly unpretentious. Much of the contents of the shop came from house clearances, often yielding interesting items that we could afford from our pocket money. The proprietors, an elderly couple, got to know us quite well, possibly because we spent an inordinate amount of time looking around the shop while spending hardly any money there. Nevertheless they were friendly towards us and seemed prepared to spend an unlimited length of time explaining items on display to us.
Karen and I learned to haggle in that shop. I remember one occasion when I saw a particularly pretty brooch. It was an enamelled metal cat, shown in a stylised profile and rather elegant. It was black with two tiny green glass gems as eyes. Today, I would unhesitatingly identify the style as Art Nouveau, but then, I just knew I liked it. Early twentieth century items like this are quite sought-after now, but in the late 1950s, they were merely old and unfashionable. The price was therefore very reasonable, only half a crown (two shillings and sixpence, probably equivalent in value to about two pounds or four dollars today). The trouble was that I was a few pennies short of that, even after borrowing some from my sister.
The shopkeeper (it was the husband that day) understood the reason for our frantic counting of change and whispered discussion. "You know," he said, "some of my customers regard a price ticket as a challenge."
Karen and I turned to face him, puzzled. What was the challenge in a price tag?
"Sometimes they offer me a bit less. And, do you know, sometimes I sell things for a bit less, especially if I like the customer."
Emboldened, I decided to make an offer. "Please sir, I've only got one-and-tenpence. Would you sell the cat brooch for that?"
"Well canny customers often don't let on how much they've got to spend," the shopkeeper told me. "Sometimes they make a really low offer just to see what I'll say."
I took this as a hint on how to proceed. I thought of offering one-and-six, a whole shilling below the asking price, but seeing the twinkle in the shopkeeper's eye, I decided to be outrageous. "Well, I'll offer you a shilling in that case."
Karen gasped at my audacity, but the shopkeeper beamed at me; clearly I was getting the idea.
"Oh dear me, no," he said. "I'd go out of business if I sold things at prices like that. My best price is two shillings."
I wasn't sure how to respond to this, but he was smiling and nodding encouragement at me, so I responded with another offer. "How about one-and-threepence?"
"One-and-ninepence," the shopkeeper countered.
"One-and-sixpence," I shot back, getting the idea of how this worked.
"I can't imagine how I will ever stay in business, but it's yours," he replied spreading his hands in mock despair but grinning broadly.
We solemnly shook hands and I handed over a shilling and two threepenny bits. The shopkeeper wrapped the cat in a scrap of tissue paper and handed it to me with a respectful bow of the head.
The part of the shop Karen and I frequented most was a series of shelves near the back where miscellaneous small items were displayed, although 'kept' would be more accurate than 'displayed' as a thorough investigation of this part of the shop involved rummaging through dusty cardboard boxes. Most of the items in this area were odds and ends from house clearances. Much of it was quite frankly junk, but it was all inexpensive and therefore affordable to Karen and me.
It was on one occasion after a Saturday morning shopping expedition with our parents, when my sister and I were seeing if there were any new items amongst the assortment at the back of the shop, that we found a small square cardboard box which was surprisingly heavy. We opened it and found that it contained several pairs of handcuffs wrapped in old newspaper. We put the box down on the floor and took everything out of it. All the handcuffs were of the old-fashioned pattern consisting of a D-shaped shackle rather than the modern near-circular ratchet design. In fact, they were the traditional 'darbies' beloved of the writers of detective thrillers from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle downwards.
The box seemed to have been stored somewhere damp at some point in its life. The lower part showed signs of water staining and was seriously misshapen. Also, while the first two pairs of handcuffs we took out of the box were old and rather dirty, the ones further down were increasingly rusty and the last pair was little more than a mass of handcuff-shaped corrosion. The top two pairs of handcuffs were noticeably smaller than the rest. Both shackles of one pair were locked shut but the other pair was open at one side. I tried it on my wrist and it seemed like a good fit.
"Don't!" Karen warned me as I swung the cuff closed.
I acknowledged her good sense and closed the shackle just enough to feel the fit but not lock it.
The other handcuffs were much bigger and locked shut. Karen, who was much smaller than me, despite being over a year older, was able to slide her hands right into the large cuffs without opening them. There was only one key, which seemed to be jammed in one of the large pairs of handcuffs; it was certainly too stiff for our small fingers to turn.
"I bet Dad could fix these," I said to Karen as we inspected our find.
Karen nodded in reply. I think most little girls regard their fathers as mechanical geniuses who can repair anything, but in our case it was very nearly true. Our Dad was the development manager for a local engineering company and he really could fix very nearly anything, making new parts from scratch if necessary.
We repacked the box and carried it, carefully supporting it under its sagging bottom, to the shop counter where the friendly proprietor was carefully cleaning some antique jewellery. As we approached, he looked up and raised one eyebrow to release the jeweller's eyeglass he was wearing, deftly catching it and tucking it into a waistcoat pocket.
Given the risk that the handcuffs might prove not to be repairable, Karen and I had decided between us that we were prepared to spend four shillings. We really only wanted the two small pairs of cuffs, but recognised that we also had to purchase the one with the key. We thought that we might as well bid for the lot in the first instance. Clearly the shopkeeper didn't think the handcuffs were worth much as he only asked six shillings as his first price. I countered with two shillings and we eventually settled on three shillings and sixpence.
We left the shop well pleased with ourselves carrying our purchases in an old canvas shopping bag that we had been given for nothing in place of the disintegrating cardboard box.
Our parents and brother were waiting for us in the car, ready to drive home. Far more often than not, Karen and I came away from our favourite shop empty-handed, so it was cause for interested questions when we appeared carrying an obviously heavy bag between us.
"We'll show you when we get home," Karen assured our family mysteriously.
While shopping was being unloaded from bags into kitchen cupboards, Karen and I unpacked our purchases and laid them out on the kitchen table, carefully spreading out the old newspaper to protect the wooden table top from dirt and rust.
"Can you fix these, Dad?" we asked excitedly.
Our Dad picked up the handcuffs and looked them over. "I'm not sure about these," he said, pointing to the rustiest pair, "but some penetrating oil should free the rest up nicely." He continued examining the handcuffs and pointed out that each pair was stamped with the letters MP, which he suggested was probably the Metropolitan Police.
Our mother's reaction was more surprising. She reacted in horror as soon as she had given the handcuffs a cursory look. Karen and I were disappointed. We had owned (and had broken) several pairs of toy handcuffs before, so we didn't expect that there would be any objection to our possessing the real thing. Mum explained that she didn't mind our owning the handcuffs, but that she had been shocked to discover that the Metropolitan Police owned (or had once owned) child-sized handcuffs. It was years later that it dawned on me that those handcuffs were not intended for children at all. It was while I was reading a magazine article on the social history of the East End of London that I learned how very small some of the women were who lived in the terrible slums of Victorian times. Poverty and poor healthcare meant that it was not uncommon for grown women never to reach five feet in height. Modern handcuffs adjust to fit any size of wrist, but traditional darbies just have a hinged shackle and no adjustment whatever. Smaller wrists demanded special smaller handcuffs and, rather than children, I realised, these handcuffs were very likely intended for restraining unruly ladies of the night.
Dad was as good as his word and that afternoon, he took the handcuffs into his well-equipped workshop. Karen and I put on our 'messy-jobs' overalls, actually two of our father's old shirts which our mother had modified by shortening the sleeves and putting elastic on the ends of them and by removing the collar. We wore them reversed with the buttons at the back to give the maximum protection at the front.
After inspecting the handcuffs again, Dad decided to concentrate on the pair with the key stuck in them as we would need the key to see what state the other pairs were in. Today one would reach for a tin of WD-40 as the best thing to free a stuck key, but then it had yet to make its appearance on our side of the Atlantic. 3-in-1 lubricating oil had already found its place as an indispensable part of any toolkit, so Dad squirted some of that into a small glass jar. He added some heating paraffin (kerosene essentially) and mixed the two up. Karen and I commented on the pretty green colour that the blue marker dye in the heating oil made with the yellow citronella oil in the 3-in-1. He applied the mixture liberally with a small paintbrush. Finally Dad lit the paraffin heater in the workshop and set the handcuffs on top of its metal casing, which would soon warm up.
"A bit of heat makes the oil thinner so it soaks in better," he explained.
While we were waiting for the penetrating oil to work, Dad examined the small pair of handcuffs that I had tried on in the shop. After a few minutes of intense concentration, his face lit up with understanding.
"I see how this works! It's not really a lock at all!"
Dad beckoned us to come closer while he explained the handcuff mechanism to Karen and me. I was always fascinated by all things mechanical (and later became a mechanical engineer myself, but that's a different story) while my sister never shared quite the same delight, although she had no difficulty understanding what was told to her.
The mechanism of these old-fashioned handcuffs is simple but ingenious. As I mentioned, the cuff is a D-shaped shackle. The curved part of the D is the fixed part, while the vertical bar is hinged at one end. As the hinged bar swings shut, the tip of the curved part engages in a hole in the cylindrical bar. This tip has a small hole in it and inside the cylindrical swinging bar of the shackle is a sprung latch which engages in the hole. With the cuff locked shut, there is no way to force that latch back.
At the hinged end of the bar, there is a circular keyhole and visible inside that is a steel rod which has a screw thread on it. This rod is in fact the end of the latch. The key is a steel forging with a hole drilled in what would be the shank of a conventional key. This hole has a screw thread inside it to match the thread on the end of the latch. To unlock the handcuffs, it is simply a matter of screwing the key onto the threaded rod visible in the keyhole in the cuffs. When the key bottoms out against the body of the cuffs, it pulls on the rod and therefore also pulls back the latch, allowing the cuffs to open.
Once Dad had deduced the way that the handcuffs worked, he rummaged through an old coffee tin containing hundreds of odd screws, nuts and bolts in search of a nut which would engage on the threaded rod. Eventually he found one. He then took a piece of stiff wire and formed a small loop in one end of it with a pair of fine-nosed pliers. He bent the loop back so it was at right angles to the wire then slid it down over the threaded rod on the locked half of the pair of cuffs I had tried earlier. He screwed the nut down onto it next, pushing it round with the tip of a small screwdriver as the keyhole was too small to allow a spanner to be used. Dad pulled back on the wire and we heard a creak as an internal spring was compressed. With a gentle shake to encourage it, the cuff swung open.
Karen and I applauded our Dad, his standing as resident mechanical genius confirmed.
"Who wants to try them," Dad asked.
"Me!" Karen and I shouted in chorus.
"Well wait until I've got the other pair open."
We waited patiently and, a few moments later, both pairs of cuffs were ready for use. We both held our hands out in front of us and Dad snapped a pair of handcuffs onto each of us.
Although I was well aware of how heavy the handcuffs were, having handled them several times and felt the weight of the bag containing all the pairs we had bought, I was still surprised at how heavy they felt on my wrists. My only previous experience with being handcuffed was with toy cuffs, which were either moulded from plastic or die-cast from zinc alloy. Solid steel was a very different proposition.
Despite the weight, the handcuffs were surprisingly comfortable. Unlike most modern handcuffs, which are stamped from steel sheet, these were produced by a combination of casting and forging so that all the parts in contact with the wearer's wrists were smoothly rounded and there were no sharp edges to dig into flesh.
Once he had us restrained, Dad went back to the pair with the jammed key, which were still on top of the heater. They were now too hot to touch, so he carefully held them with a rag as he picked them up. Protecting his hand with another piece of cotton waste, he tried turning the key. We were pleased to see that it yielded to very little pressure and unscrewed smoothly.
After a few moments while the key cooled, Dad turned to us and said, "Now, let's get these off you so we can lubricate them properly."
I held my hands out and Dad offered the key up to the keyhole, only to discover that it wouldn't fit; the keyholes on the two smaller pairs of handcuffs were fractionally smaller than on the others and the shank of the key was just slightly too fat to fit.
Karen and I had a momentary panic until Dad assured us that he could open the handcuffs using the same improvised method that he had before. We waited patiently while he used the same bent wire and nut as before to free us.
The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon lubricating and cleaning the handcuffs. When we finished, we had the two small pairs with no key, one large pair which worked perfectly with its key, two more pairs which would unlock at one end only and the rusted mess that we didn't even attempt to clean up.
My sister and I were intensely disappointed that we had no keys for the only handcuffs out of our haul that actually fitted us. Having one fully working pair of the larger cuffs was nice, but they were far too big for us; I could wriggle my hands out of them with very little difficulty and they just fell off Karen's wrists without any effort at all.
"You've got a half term holiday next weekend haven't you?" Dad asked.
Karen and I confirmed that we had the mid-term break in our autumn term coming up. (This would have been in the last week of October or the first week in November.) It would just be a long weekend, with Friday and Monday off school.
"Well, why don't you come to work with me on Friday and we'll make brand new keys for the handcuffs."
Karen and I were delighted with that suggestion and, after a little prompting, agreed not to play with the handcuffs until then.
Breakfast in our household was generally done in relays. My parents would be up in time for my Dad to have a cooked breakfast and to leave just before 8 am to get a bus to the town centre. Mum would already have woken Timothy, Karen and me so we could bid our father farewell before getting out of our night things and into our day clothes. (Hot water was not plentiful, so baths were something that happened in the evening to remove the day's dirt.)
On the Friday morning of our half-term break, we had to be up early enough to join Dad at breakfast. We were slightly delayed by Mum fussing over us about what we should wear. She normally liked us to be smartly turned-out if we were going somewhere where she felt we would be 'on show' and going to our father's workplace, where he was a senior manager, definitely fell into that category for her. On the other hand, she knew that we were going to a dirty factory (which she knew well, having worked there as a machine tool operator during the war). She settled for allowing us to wear our second-best sweaters, skirts and tights (all well-worn and darned) but with our smartest coats on top, a blue hooded one in my case and a dark pink one with a matching hat in Karen's. Mum examined us critically and then insisted that we both had to wear scarves to hide the rather shabby collars of our sweaters. The smartness was slightly compromised by our wearing black Wellington boots instead of smart polished shoes. Dad was rather amused by this fuss; he wore what was then virtually a uniform for office-based engineers: beige cavalry twill trousers, an old tweed jacket with leather elbows, a white shirt and a tie. As he worked in a factory, the brown brogue shoes he wore concealed steel toecaps inside them.
As we left the house, Karen and I picked up the canvas bag containing the handcuffs we were going to work on. Our mother thrust a bulky paper bag into the top of it.
"You'll probably need these."
At the bus stop, I probed the the contents of the paper bag. It seemed to contain a bundle of our mother's cotton headscarves.
"Mum says we'll need these," I said to Dad, questioningly.
"You probably will," he confirmed, somewhat mysteriously.
At the factory, we understood why Mum thought we would be 'on show'. Dad was greeted by everyone he met and most also stopped to admire his two little girls, somewhat to our embarrassment.
At last, we reached the design office, a light airy room at the top of the factory, with large windows on two sides, giving a panoramic view of the town and tilted north-facing skylights in the roof giving bright light onto the tables and drawing boards in the room while not allowing direct sunlight to dazzle.
"Would you two like a tour of the factory before we start?" Dad asked us.
We confirmed that we would.
Dad beckoned to a woman with a stack of cardboard folders tucked under her arm. "Mrs Baxter, do you think you could get these two kitted out for a tour please?"
Mrs Baxter was a motherly-looking woman in her forties or fifties, whom we knew to be the administrative powerhouse that kept Dad's department running smoothly.
"No problem at all, Mr Bailey," Mrs Baxter replied with a smile. "Come with me, girls."
We followed Mrs Baxter to a smaller room off the main design office. There were two desks in there and at one of them a young woman of perhaps eighteen or nineteen was sitting at a typewriter. She smiled as we entered, but kept on typing.
Mrs Baxter closed the door behind us and said, "I've already looked out overalls for you. I think yours will fit, Rebecca, but Karen's might be a bit big."
She pointed to two brown boiler suits hanging from a coat-stand. During the war, there had been a large female workforce in the factory, she explained. They still kept a small stock of suitable clothing, mainly for occasional use by female administrative staff visiting the factory floor.
Karen and I took our coats off and hung them up. At Mrs Baxter's prompting, we took our skirts off rather than trying to wear them under a boiler suit. Mrs Baxter was right that my coveralls nearly fitted me. I had to fold the ends of the legs up a bit and tucked them into the thick socks I had on under my Wellingtons. Karen required a considerable amount of turning back of both legs and sleeves, but was eventually comfortable.
"Did your mother give you anything to cover your hair?" Mrs Baxter asked.
It dawned on me that was the reason for the headscarves we had been sent out with . I went and fetched the paper bag from the shopping bag which I had left by my Dad's desk. Mrs Baxter opened one out flat and folded it into a triangle. She put an extra fold along the long edge to reduce the size a bit then centred it at the nape of my neck. The point of the triangle was draped over my head and touching my nose. Mrs Baxter brought the tails of the scarf together at the top of my forehead and knotted them, tucking the ends into the folds of the material. Lastly, she lifted the point of the triangle off my face, wrapped it back over the knot and tucked it in. I watched her repeat the process on Karen and learned that was how to tie a headscarf in the traditional 'turban' style that was once standard for female factory workers, busy housewives and cleaning women but has now vanished in the mists of time. There were two more headscarves, which Mrs Baxter also folded into triangles then tied over our mouths and noses so that we looked as if we were going to rob a stagecoach. Once she had them tied on, she pulled them down off our faces.
"You'll need those to protect your skin where there are lots of sparks or bits of metal flying around," Mrs Baxter explained.
There were also two old and much darned pairs of woollen gloves in the bag, which we put on to protect our hands.
Finally, we were equipped with a pair of goggles each. They were moulded in soft black rubber with circular eye-pieces. The lenses were clear, but had green-tinted filters which were hinged at the top so that they could be folded up when not required. Mrs Baxter adjusted the goggles to fit then showed us how to pull them down and swing them around to the backs of our necks when we didn't need them.
Now suitably equipped, we returned to Dad's desk. He had changed into his own brown boiler suit, but with his collar and tie visible at the neck, indicating his status as a manager.
I won't digress too much on our tour of the factory. Suffice it to say that it was suitably exciting for two young girls, with a satisfactory edge of scariness. We admired the skill of the men who made the wooden patterns for items to be cast and the nerve of their colleagues who directed streams of glowing molten brass into the sand moulds amid a firework display of flying sparks. We struggled to hear each other speak over the thumping and crashing of the trip hammer in the forging shop and then again over the screech of the huge lathes and milling machines in the machine shop. Karen and I both kept our faces covered and our goggles in place during our tour and felt much safer that way, but we noticed that, other than the leather aprons and gauntlets worn by the men handling hot metal in the foundry, hardly any of the workers had any protective clothing beyond their brown boiler suits and the flat cloth caps they almost all wore. Health and safety at work had a long way to go in those days.
Eventually, we reached a smaller workshop, which I later worked out was directly below the design office. There was a selection of much smaller machine tools here and Dad explained that they were used by the design engineers to test out prototypes of the smaller items they made. On our way through the factory, Dad had helped himself to a length of metal bar about an inch in diameter. He told us that it was a hard machine brass which would be ideal for making keys. He took a pad of paper out of his pocket and sketched the design he intended to make: a stepped cylindrical shaft with a flat circular disk forming the part that you hold. He used a micrometer to take the vital measurements off the key we had for the large handcuffs and off both sizes of cuffs themselves. He quickly jotted down a series of numbers on his sketch, explaining that they were the required dimensions in thousandths of an inch. I thought hard but couldn't imagine such a tiny unit of measurement.
Dad mounted the brass bar in the chuck of a lathe and started the motor. Karen and I watched spellbound as he turned up the cut end of the bar then quickly machined the bar down to the diameter for the shank of the key, with the required step in it. We were both fascinated and a little scared at the rapidity with which the unwanted brass was converted into a long snaking coil of waste metal. Dad warned us not to touch it even after it had dropped off the lathe as the edge would be evilly sharp. He put a drill into the tailstock of the lathe and used it to drill into the end of the shank. He then measured about another inch along the bar and parted it off, handing the embryonic key to Karen for safekeeping. Dad repeated the operation another three times, then used a parting tool to cut a thin slice off the bar. He handed it to me to hold, still warm from being cut.
Dad unmounted the brass bar from the lathe and put in its place one of the partly formed keys. At this stage, they each had a fully-formed shank sticking out of a fat cylinder of metal. He fastened the shank of the first key into the lathe chuck then used the slice of bar as a pattern to guide the lathe so that he converted the cylinder of brass into a spherical knob. Again, he repeated the process on the other three keys.
We moved to another piece of equipment next, which Dad explained was a milling machine. Again, he mounted one of the keys by its shank. The lathe was somewhat intimidating to watch, but the milling machine was absolutely terrifying, with tiny fragments of brass flying everywhere as Dad used a fly-cutter to reduce the spherical knob of brass to a flat disc. Karen and I were very glad to have every square inch of our skin covered as we cowered behind Dad in fascinated terror. With all four keys processed like this, our Dad used the milling machine as a drill-press to put a hole about a quarter of an inch in diameter through each key, in the same way that ordinary keys have holes to thread them onto a key-ring.
The next operation was almost silent, in contrast to what had gone before. Dad mounted each of the keys in turn in a vice and used a series of taps to cut the internal screw thread into the hole in the end of the key. He quickly checked that the keys would screw smoothly into both sizes of handcuffs.
Dad used a grinding wheel to take the sharp angle off the edge of the circular head of each key. He then told Karen and me that the final finishing would be our job. Next to the grinding wheel, and mounted on the same workbench, was a buffing machine, basically a motor in a metal housing with a shaft sticking out of each end and supporting a pair of odd-looking wheels. In stark contrast to all the sharp metal cutting tools we had seen, these seemed to be made out of coiled strips of blanket. Dad confirmed that that was more-or-less what they were. He showed us how to apply a little metal polishing paste to the wheels before starting them and then to hold the keys against the spinning fabric. We were delighted at how quickly the brass took on the appearance of burnished gold.
While my sister and I were busy polishing brass, Dad used a gas welding torch to cut the chains of the two partly-working pairs of the larger handcuffs and then to re-weld the chain to produce one good pair.
Once the keys were done, Karen and I polished up the handcuffs themselves. Being forged steel, they didn't take a high polish, but acquired a very satisfactory dull sheen.
With our work done, Dad pointed out that it was almost lunchtime. Karen and I both suddenly realised that we were starving and eagerly agreed to his suggestion that we make the factory canteen our next stop. There was no women's washroom on the factory floor, so Dad stood guard while we used the men's facilities. Dad had said that we should wash our hands but not to worry too much about anything else until we changed back into our own clothes. We were astonished at how dirty our faces were, despite the goggles and the headscarves we had been wearing as masks most of the morning, but we took him at his word.
The canteen was divided into 'clean' and 'dirty' areas, depending on the clothing worn. We took our food, a huge plate of sausages and mashed potatoes each to the dirty area, which was actually quite clean, with bare wooden tables and benches.
After we had eaten, Dad took us back up to his office and turned us over to Mrs Baxter to do her best to make us presentable again. She feigned shock at the terrible state we were in (she must really have known exactly how dirty we would get). She gathered up our skirts and a few other items then escorted us to the washroom used by the female administrative staff. She helped us as we unwound the headscarves from around our hair and peeled off the boiler suits then, using a facecloth and lots of soap, scrubbed our faces and hands clean. Having been wrapped up all morning, our hair was naturally a mess, mine especially so as it's much coarser and wirier than my sister's. Mrs Baxter was well-equipped for dealing with this problem; she had a large hairbrush which she wielded vigorously once I had disentangled my hair from the ruins of the plaits I had braided it into that morning. Karen's hair was similarly brushed out while I re-plaited mine. After that, with stray dust brushed off our sweaters and tights and with our skirts back on, we were back to much the state of cleanliness we had been in when we left home.
With our coats and scarves back on (and Karen wearing her hat again), we were ready to return home. As it was Friday and a school holiday for us, Dad took the rest of the afternoon off and chummed us back home on the bus.
As soon as Karen and I were home, we showed our now-shiny handcuffs and the gleaming new keys to our mother. I think she was pleased that we were happy with our day's work and genuinely very impressed with the quality of the engineering work in the keys. We handed two keys over to Mum, explaining that Dad had stipulated that spare keys must be kept somewhere safe in case of emergencies. We also handed back the headscarves and gloves she had lent us, now all very grubby.
There was still quite a long time left before tea, so Karen and I decided to go up to our bedroom and try out the handcuffs now we had keys for them. The smaller handcuffs were just as good a fit as we remembered from trying them on in our Dad's workshop the previous weekend. They were small enough that it was impossible even for Karen's tiny hands to slip out of them, but they were also big enough not to be too tight on my rather larger wrists.
We already knew that the larger handcuffs were far too big for our wrists, but we decided to try them on our ankles and were delighted to discover that they were large enough to hang loose on our ankles but still too small for either of us to get our feet out of them. It was possible to walk wearing these cuffs on our ankles but only by shuffling along with tiny steps as the chains were the usual three links of handcuffs rather than the longer chains that proper leg-irons would have.
Having handcuffed ourselves in front, we freed each other and tried the handcuffs behind our backs. Karen was small and flexible enough that if her wrists were tied behind her back with rope, she could get them in front by working her hands down over her bottom and then under her feet. With handcuffs, which held her hands somewhat further apart than rope, she discovered that she could do it almost instantaneously in one smooth movement. I was delighted to discover that I could also do this trick, albeit more slowly and with a lot more struggling. I was (and still am) significantly taller than my sister and quite a lot of the height difference is because I have a proportionately longer back than she does and my arms were simply too short to get wrists tied with rope under my bottom.
My sister and I had initially assumed that as handcuffs were looser than ropes and, in the case of the ones we owned, had a smooth surface with no sharp corners or edges, that there wouldn't be the same need for wrist protection. However, after we had been experimenting with the handcuffs for a while, we realised that unyielding steel against bare flesh was an unequal contest, particularly the bits with not much coverage over the bone, such as wrists and shins. It was clear that we would rapidly be quite badly bruised.
I experimented with first one, then two pairs of socks over my tights and decided that gave about the right amount of padding under the cuffs around my ankles. Karen tried the same and agreed with me. I tried a pair of gloves, but found that the gap that naturally opened between the gloves and the sleeves of my sweater exactly corresponded to the place that received most battering from the handcuffs. My mittens were better, as they had much longer knitted cuffs that would pull up over my sleeves, but still didn't provide quite enough padding. I tried a pair of thick socks on top of my mittens and, when Karen had snapped the handcuffs onto me, I decided that was enough padding. It wouldn't protect against a really vigorous struggle but it would be sufficient against the random knocks that came about simply from wearing the handcuffs.
Karen released one of my cuffs then put on her own mittens and a pair of socks on top. She offered me her hands behind her back and I applied her handcuffs. I put my own hands behind my back and positioned myself back-to-back with my sister, who reached behind her to re-close the cuff that she had previously released.
We sat together for quite a long time just enjoying the experience of being shackled hand and foot. I liked the fact that without the keys, our bonds were completely inescapable, but I found the feeling of being bound this way less satisfactory than being tied with ropes. I preferred the sense of my movements being more closely constrained by ropes and liked the sensation of being hugged by my bonds.
We were still sitting side-by-side on the edge of my bed when our mother called upstairs to tell us it was tea-time.
"Turn around and I'll get you loose," Karen told me.
My sister swivelled sideways to retrieve one of our keys from my bedside table while I sat turned slightly away from her, waiting for her to unlock my handcuffs.
After fumbling first with one hand and then the other, my sister said, "I can't pick the key up with my hands like this."
I offered to try and she stood up while I shuffled along the edge of the bed and twisted round to reach the key. I had the same problem. The highly polished key was difficult to grip and with both a mitten and a sock covering each hand, I couldn't separate my thumb far enough from my fingers to get a firm grasp of it.
"I can't either," I told Karen, with mounting panic.
My sister was already sitting on the floor manoeuvring her hands to the front of her body. I realised that this was a good move and got myself down on the floor to do the same.
Even with our hands in front of us, so we could see what we were doing, we still fared no better with the slippery key. I could grip it using the finger tips of both hands or with the fingers of one hand curled around it, but neither of these arrangements allowed me to offer the key up accurately to either of the keyholes on Karen's handcuffs and to engage the screw thread. I though that if I could get it started, I could use both hands to turn it, but that vital first stage eluded me and Karen fared no better.
"It's getting cold!" our Mum's voice announced from downstairs.
"We'll just have to go like this," Karen decided.
With our hands in front of us, it wasn't difficult to stand up without overbalancing. We made slow progress shuffling across the landing to the top of the stairs but there was no way in which we could walk downstairs with our ankles chained together. Instead, we had to sit on the top step and bounce down on our bottoms, pushing back with our heels until we slid over the edge of each step and bracing ourselves for the bone-jarring thump that followed.
Some minute later, we shuffled into the dining room, where our parents and brother were already sitting.
"Sorry, but we got stuck," Karen announced as be both showed our manacled wrists.
Our mother's expression changed several times as she tried to think of a suitable riposte and keep a straight face. In the end, she said nothing but burst out laughing, closely followed by our father and brother.
Still shaking her head and chortling, Mum left the room, returning a moment later with one of the spare keys. "I suppose I'd better get the hang of using this thing," she said.
Once the principle of the locks had been pointed out, it took Mum only a couple of minutes to free our hands. We declined her offer of unlocking the cuffs on our ankles and elected to eat our meal with them still on.
We expected some remonstration from Mum, but all she said was, "Make sure there's someone to rescue you if you do that again." And she was still laughing at us as she said it.
Some time after acquiring our handcuffs, an occasion arose when I was in the house on my own. I'm fairly sure it was a Saturday morning, but the precise circumstances now elude me. Saturday morning shopping expeditions usually involved all five of us going out together. I have no idea why I stayed home that day.
Since obtaining the handcuffs, I had been wondering how effectively I could tie myself up using a combination of ropes and handcuffs. As I mentioned earlier in this story, I really preferred the feel of ropes, but I knew it was impossible to tie myself up effectively with just rope (I had tried and failed). Handcuffs had the great advantage that they were easy to put on oneself but (to me at least) had the disadvantage of not giving a truly 'tied-up' feeling.
The experiment I had planned was to tie myself up with rope all except for my wrists and to use the handcuffs on those. I think I planned just to tie myself up, see what it felt like and then untie myself again.
Through bitter experience, Karen and I had learned that, even through a layer of clothing, it's possible to sustain quite a bad rope burn. A curiosity that I still don't really understand is that, generally, when that happens, there is no visible damage to the fabric of the clothes, even when the skin underneath is grazed and bleeding. The only solution we found was to make sure there was plenty of padding in critical places. It was a coolish November day, so I was already dressed in the sweater, skirt and woolly tights that were more-or-less my uniform in the winter months. I also owned one pair of super-heavy tights, in soft grey wool almost as thick as a sweater, which I put on over the tights I was wearing. I supplemented the sweater I was wearing with a heavy cardigan and judged that I was now sufficiently protected.
I pulled a pile of rope out of the cardboard box in the bottom of Karen's and my wardrobe where we kept our supplies and sat down on the floor to make a start on my legs. Cinched bindings are more secure, but I always preferred the snugger feeling that came from lashing the legs directly together. We had discovered that if legs were tied in this way at the ankles and both above and below the knees, it was impossible to kick off any of the bindings as there wasn't enough independent movement of the legs available.
Once I had my legs satisfactorily immobilised, I gagged myself while I still had full freedom to move my arms. I debated using some packing, but decided just to use one of our stock of muslin nappy (diaper) liners pulled between my teeth and knotted behind my head.
The next stage was the one I expected to be trickiest and one I hadn't tried on myself before. I selected one of our longer pieces of rope and wound it around my upper arms and chest, knotting it at the front. I didn't pull it particularly tightly as I would attend to that shortly. I had two fairly short ropes already to hand to cinch the coils I had just wrapped around myself between my arms and body. This was a refinement that Karen and I had only recently discovered. We had found out quite early on in our experiments with rope that it was often fairly easy to jettison body ropes by working them up over the shoulders. Our initial countermeasures involved pulling chest ropes ever tighter, but simply cinching the ropes ensured complete security with no undue discomfort for the wearer.
The question was whether I could apply these cinches to myself. Whichever arm I started with, I would have to cinch the other one with the first one's movement severely restricted. I am right handed, so, after a moment's, thought I decided that I should cinch my right arm first. I had to use my left hand to thread the rope under my armpit and then to catch it as it hung below the coils of rope around me. I couldn't actually reach the location of the intended cinch with my right hand, but I could still use it to form knots and then hold the end of the rope while I pulled them tight by reaching across my body with my left hand.
As I anticipated, it was much harder to cinch my left arm. I congratulated myself on my decision to cinch the right first as my partly-immobilised right arm was of far more use to me than my left would have been in similar circumstances. Feeding the rope under my armpit and then catching it below the chest ropes was frustratingly difficult as my ability to reach across my body was severely compromised, but eventually I managed it. Tying the knot, a simple reef (square) knot was relatively easy. The piece of rope was long enough that I could form the half-knot that would be the start of the reef knot where I could bring both hands together and simply pulling on the ends made the half-knot slide up against the coil of rope around me. Repeating this process would complete the knot and secure the cinch.
The only remaining item in my plan was to handcuff myself. I put my knitted woollen mittens on to protect my wrists (I had already checked that I could manipulate the key with them on) and snapped one end of the handcuffs onto my right wrist. I made sure that they key was on the floor within easy reach for when I wanted to free myself.
When I had been tied up with a cinched chest rope before, it had been at the hands of my sister, mother or aunt and at that point I would already have had my wrists tied behind my back. The cinches would therefore naturally hold my upper arms in the position they were in when they were tied: slightly behind my chest. Having applied this part of the tie-up myself, my arms were held much further forward than was ideal. I struggled to work my arms further back but with limited success as I was working against the friction of the chest coils with the cinching ropes and also the friction of the ropes against my woollen cardigan. Eventually, I was able to reach across my back to my left wrist with the fingers of my right hand. I slid the open cuff into place and snapped it shut.
I was very pleased with my efforts. I was almost as snugly tied up as if someone else had done it to me. My legs were as firmly clamped together as if they had been welded. My arms were held firmly in place. Even the handcuffs were more satisfactory than usual as my arms were not as far behind my back as they might have been and that pulled the chain fairly tight, so denying me most of the freedom of movement I usually found so disappointing with cuffs.
After twenty minutes or so, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I had actually tied the gag too tight and the sides of my mouth were starting to hurt. My wrists were also suffering from pressure from the handcuffs. Unless I made an effort to keep my hands behind my back, pulling against the chest ropes to do so, the position of my arms tended to pull the handcuff chain tight, with the bar of the shackle on each cuff pressing against the back of my wrist.
I decided it was time to free myself. I shuffled myself across to where the key was lying and picked it up with my mitten-covered right hand. I had no problem picking it up; it was as I tried to use it that I realised I had made a horrible mistake.
A couple of years before I was born, Major Edward Aloysius Murphy of the US Air Force stated that, "If there's more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way." This is Murphy's Law in its original form. Now, when it comes to putting on handcuffs, there is indeed more than one way to do the job. With modern circular steel ratchet cuffs, it's well known that it's very awkward to release yourself if the keyholes are on the side away from your hands. (With hinged or rigid cuffs, of course, it's completely impossible.) The situation is slightly different with old-fashioned darbies. Imagine for a moment the process of putting on a pair of these handcuffs with your hands in front of you. The cuffs are D-shaped shackles with the straight part of the D hinged at one end. Your thumbs are uppermost, so the easiest way to get the cuffs on is with the hinge at the bottom and the opening at the top; you just reach across and squeeze the shackle shut with the opposite hand. However, the keyholes are at the hinge end of the straight part of each cuff. To get out, you need to twist one hand awkwardly under the other to fit the key into the hole. Doing all this behind your back, of course, is even harder.
After a few minutes fumbling with the key, the full horror of my situation was clear to me. My hands were handcuffed behind me, with my thumbs nearest my back and the keyholes on the cuffs pointing away from me. Worse still, it was only with considerable effort that I could get the fingers of either hand in contact with the opposite cuff. After a lot of straining and stretching, I was able to bring the hollow end of the key into contact with the screw thread inside a keyhole, but, try as I might, I was completely unable to get it at the right angle to screw it in.
Finally, in a mixture of panic and despair, I allowed the key to drop to the floor; it was now painfully clear to me that I was trapped and that I had no hope whatever of releasing myself. My wrists and mouth hurt more than ever and my upper arms were now feeling bruised from struggling against my chest ropes. I rolled face down on my bedroom floor to take the weight off my arms and sobbed tears of misery and frustration into the carpet.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity until I heard the front door open and the rest of the family returning. (I worked out later that it was in reality only a little over an hour.) Another panicky thought struck me: if Mum found me like this, she would have a fit. I could foresee her banning all our tying-up games and confiscating our ropes and handcuffs.
Karen came upstairs as soon as she was in the house and it was she who found me. I turned my tear-stained face towards her as she came into the bedroom.
"Crumbs! You look a mess," she exclaimed. (We really said things like 'Crumbs!' back then and it was about the strongest language we ever used.)
Karen knelt down beside me and untied my gag. She gasped when she saw the state of my face, confirming my worry that I had bruised myself.
"Thanks," I croaked hoarsely then went on to explain my fear about our mother's reaction.
Karen nodded, then paused for a moment in thought. My sister was always a very quick and decisive thinker and I hoped she could think of a way out of this mess I had got myself into. She quickly outlined an idea and unlocked my handcuffs as she spoke. It took only another minute or so to untie my arms, then Karen hoisted me to my feet, even though my legs were still tied together. She supported me as I hopped unsteadily out onto the landing.
I leaned over the bannister rail, still supported by my sister, and called out, "Hello, Mum!" in as bright and cheery a voice as I could manage.
I was already hopping back to the bedroom when our mother replied. Karen helped me sit down on my desk chair, a small wooden Windsor chair. She put my gag back on first, not pulling it quite as brutally tightly as I had done myself. Next, she took one of the short lengths of rope I had used for cinching and used it to bind my wrists behind my back. I squeaked in pain as the rope tightened on my bruised wrists. Finally, she used the long length that had been my chest rope to lash me to the chair.
Karen stood back and surveyed me critically for a moment then fetched one of the old winter scarves from our box of tying-up supplies and used it to blindfold me, arranging it to cover most of my face.
I tried to question the need for the blindfold, but Karen shushed me into silence. "Mum's coming," she hissed.
I heard our mother's footsteps then her voice as she entered the room. "That was fast work, Karen."
"We wanted to see how quickly I could tie Becca up," my sister extemporised. "A real burglar wouldn't spend ages getting everything just right; he would just try to get the job done as fast as possible."
"Do you want to be tied up too?" Mum asked.
I heard Karen hesitate for a fraction of a second as she reflected on how that might fit into her plan, then she replied, "Yes, please."
"Bathroom first, then," our mother advised.
I heard Karen leave the room and then the bathroom door shut. Various shuffling noises ensued when she returned as Mum tied her to the other desk chair.
"Are you all right, Becca?" Mum asked.
I was far from all right, but I nodded enthusiastically.
Karen and I had agreed that I should be tied up for about another fifteen minutes. The original plan had been that Karen would go downstairs and then after a while, suddenly 'remember' that I was still tied up upstairs and then 'discover' that she had tied me too tightly, causing my bruising. As it was, we had to rely on my being able to attract attention. I wasn't sure how to estimate the passing time with any certainty and was still wondering whether to start making a noise when I heard Karen grunting at me through her gag. The words were unintelligible, but the sense was clear: "Get on with it!"
I tried to make as much noise through my gag as I could. My emotional state was still fairly ragged, so it didn't take much to work myself up to the point where I was sobbing uncontrollably. It wasn't long before our mother realised there was something wrong and came upstairs to investigate.
Mum took my blindfold off first, revealing my red puffy eyes and tear-streaked face. She gasped, as Karen had done, when she took my gag off.
"Anything else hurting?" my mother asked.
"Wrists," I replied between sobs.
Mum quickly unwound the rope securing me to my chair and then carefully freed my wrists. Rather stiffly, I moved my arms around so that I could rest my hands on my lap. My mother gently eased my mittens off and I examined the state of my wrists while she untied my legs. They were both slightly swollen and had the beginnings of what promised to be quite nasty bruises.
"You must be careful not to tie Becca up too tight," Mum admonished Karen.
A mumble that might have been "Sorry" emerged from behind her gag.
Mum removed Karen's blindfold so she could see how my wrists looked.
"It's not really her fault, Mum," I said. "I asked her to tie me really tight."
"Well, she really ought to have known better," Mum retorted.
"Sorry, Becca," Karen mumbled.
"Come on, Becca, let's get those bruises seen to," our mother instructed firmly. "I'll turn you loose when I've done first aid on Becca," she added to Karen as she shepherded me out of the room.
Down in the kitchen, Mum inspected my bruises then applied a wrapping of surgical lint soaked in witch hazel around each wrist, secured with a gauze bandage.
"I can't do much about the bruises on your face," she commented.
"I'm sure they'll be all right," I assured her, speaking carefully as opening my mouth too wide hurt more than I was prepared to admit.
I accompanied Mum back upstairs and watched as she freed my sister.
"Thank you," I whispered in Karen's ear as we exchanged a sisterly hug.
The bruising on my wrists had gone quite deep and it was at least a couple of weeks before I felt like being tied up again. (Karen and I investigated methods of restraining each other that didn't involve anything around our wrists, but that's an entirely different story.)
The damage my gag had done was much less serious and it had more-or-less stopped hurting by Sunday morning. However, as I looked in the bathroom mirror while I was getting ready to go out to church, I was dismayed to see how apparent the bruises still were. I could foresee some very awkward questions being asked about them and I was reluctant to be seen outside looking like that.
Mum and Karen (who had seen the state of my face at breakfast time) had already anticipated my problem. When I came downstairs, I was surprised to see that Karen had wrapped her face up in a scarf, with just her eyes showing between it and her hat.
"Need to bundle up," Karen told me. "It's really cold outside."
It was true that my sister often felt cold before I did and it was also true that it was November, but I didn't think the weather looked unusually cold outside. I was about to say that I would probably be fine, when Mum joined in. She also had a big scarf on, but only up over her chin, not covering her mouth.
"That's right, and you've got a sore mouth, so you really ought to keep it covered up and warm."
The penny finally dropped and I tied a scarf over my face to hide the bruises before we went out. I kept it on during the early part of the church service and when I went out to Sunday School with the other children I was able to say, completely truthfully, "I've got a sore mouth and my Mum says I ought to keep it covered up and warm."
Playing with rope, Karen and I had initially had the problem that if we both wanted to be tied up, we needed to ask someone to do it. Our Mum would usually oblige, but she was sometimes too busy. We eventually learned how to tie each other up. This brought the added complication that escaping afterwards was either trivially easy, which made the whole exercise rather disappointing, or completely impossible, which meant that we had to wait for someone else to rescue us.
Our handcuffs solved the problem of being able to secure ourselves any time we liked, but further polarised the escape problem. If the key was to hand, the escape was a simple matter of unlocking the cuffs. If the key was somewhere inaccessible, then the cuffs were utterly escape-proof and we just had to wait it out.
We played a few games where we put the key in a different room of the house, so that we had to get ourselves there, cuffed hand and foot or (much more challenging) roped and cuffed. We even tried a variation where we put the key in one of several identical small boxes, mixed the boxes up and distributed them around the house. However, the find-the-key game changed the emphasis from simply enjoying our predicament to the problem of getting around the house. It also dictated that we were cuffed (and possibly also tied) in such a way that we could still move from room to room.
It eventually occurred to us that we needed some means of of delivering the key to ourselves after some time had elapsed. That way, provided we could still manipulate the key, there would be no restriction on how we tied ourselves up. The problem was how to devise a mechanism to do this.
We actually possessed a toy with a delayed action built into it. It was sold as a toy time-bomb. This wasn't the spherical one used in pass-the-hot-potato games, but one intended to be used in make-believe war games. It was oval and made of diecast metal, painted a suitably militaristic khaki green. The body was styled after a hand grenade (a rather two-dimensional one) and clearly marked 'Delayed Action Time Bomb'. The clever part consisted of a sprung arm pivoted in the centre of the bomb. To use it, you folded back the arm against the tension of the spring. A rubber sucker on the end of the arm would hold it in place. After a while (anything from five minutes to almost an hour, depending on how wet the sucker was to begin with and on the prevailing air temperature and humidity) the sucker would let go and the spring would snap the arm back into position. The arm had a sort of hammer on the end of it and that would land on a bundle of the paper caps you use in toy guns, giving a satisfactory bang.
Our first thought was to see if we could use the time-bomb to release a key somehow. We tried simply trapping a thread under the sucker, but that stopped the sucker sticking. Next we tried using a thread that would be snapped when the sucker let go, but any thread strong enough to support a heavy brass key was also strong enough to resist being snapped by the arm.
We turned our attention to the other end of the bomb, the hammer that made it go bang. The 'hammer' was just a cylindrical protuberance about an eighth of an inch in diameter that pointed down from the tip of the arm. It engaged in a socket which was where the caps were placed. We tried stretching a thread across the socket but failed to break it with the hammer. Next we tried a Heath-Robinson (Rube Goldberg if you're American) device made of strips of card, blobs of modelling clay and stick tape which was supposed to support a pair of scissors in such a way that they would be closed by the bomb's arm swinging across. It worked once out of our dozen or so attempts.
We even tried making the caps burn through a thread when they detonated. That singed the thread slightly and inspired us to augment the caps with the red head cut from a friction match. It flared up very satisfactorily, but still only burned through a cotton thread with a fifty percent success rate.
Burning through a thread led us to investigate that staple of cheap thriller movies, the candle burning through a rope. We were aiming for a release time of half an hour or more and discovered that even the thickest rope we used in our games would not last that long if it was held in the hottest part of the flame. A further problem was that in half an hour, the candle would burn down about half an inch, so that the rope would no longer be in the flame.
Karen and I had a 'lightbulb' moment when we realised that, far from being a problem, the fact that a candle burns down could in itself be precisely the mechanism we were looking for. We initially tried to find ways of passing a thread through a candle, so that it would eventually burn through when the candle burned down to that level. As we were experimenting with methods of drilling through a candle with a darning needle, we realised that all we needed to do was to embed the needle in the candle. When the candle burned down that far, the wax holding the needle in place would melt, so releasing it together with any thread attached to it.
After several tests had confirmed the soundness of our mechanism, Karen and I put it to a live test after school one afternoon. We embedded a darning needle in a candle by heating it with a match then pushing it into the wax about an inch from the top of the candle, which we estimated would give us something a bit less than an hour. We put the candle on an old china saucer, supporting it with a blob of modelling clay, and then put the saucer on top of a tall chest of drawers in our bedroom. Next, we hung a handcuff key on a long length of string from one of the handles on the top drawer. We gauged the length so that it would hang at hand height for either of us sitting on a chair. We attached a length of buttonhole thread (generally the thickest in any sewing box) to the darning needle, threading through the eye and knotting it. We had borrowed a large metal jug from the kitchen and half-filled it with water to weight it. We stood this next to the saucer, with the handle sticking out over the edge of the chest of drawers. We passed the thread through the jug handle, so it would act as a sort of pulley. Finally, we lifted the key up and tied the thread to it.
With everything ready, we set our timer going by lighting the candle. As we were using handcuffs, we were able to see to our own bonds. We started by using the large handcuffs on our ankles. We used rope to secure ourselves to our desk chairs. By starting with long lengths of rope threaded through the tops of our chair-backs, we were able to tie ourselves quite securely, with ropes over our shoulders, around our waists and over our laps. We deliberately didn't tie our legs to the chair as we wanted to be able to scoot our chairs into a position where we could use the handcuff key when it dropped. We gagged ourselves with handkerchiefs stuffed in our mouths and held in place with the usual muslin nappy liners between our teeth. Lastly, we handcuffed ourselves behind the chair-backs with our small handcuffs, wearing woollen mittens to protect our wrists as usual.
My sister and I generally enjoyed the experience of just sitting around tied up and gagged, but watching the candle slowly burning down and anticipating our release mechanism operating added an extra thrill.
I am certain that our key-delivery system would have worked exactly as we planned, well before it was due to operate, our mother came into the room with a bundle of freshly-laundered clothes destined for our wardrobe and drawers. It wasn't particularly unusual for her to find her two daughters bound and gagged, but never before with a precariously-placed burning candle for company. Mum stopped in her tracks when she saw the candle. There was a long pause, during which it was obvious from her eye movements that she was working out what our contraption did.
She put the clean clothes down on my bed, the lower of our two bunks, then blew out the candle, moved the jug back from the edge of the chest of drawers and laid the handcuff key beside it.
A lengthy tongue-lashing followed in which our Mum made it quite clear that it was completely unacceptable to have an unguarded candle in the room with us like that. To make the point crystally clear, she painted a vivid and terrifying word picture of what it would be like do die in a blazing bedroom, helplessly bound to chairs and gagged. We were both close to tears by the time she had finished.
Having said her piece, Mum put the clean clothes away and left the room, pulling the door shut behind her. We were still tied to our chairs and handcuffed, but now without any means of escape.
Some considerable time later, our father came into our room, still in the clothes he wore for work, having just returned home. He proceeded to give us his version of the lecture we had already received from our mother. When he finished, he studied the parts of our release mechanism for a moment (I assume that Mum had briefed him on what she had found) then, using the scissors that were still on top of the chest of drawers, he snipped through the thread connecting the needle to the handcuff key, then disentangled the string and left the key dangling from one the drawer handles as we had planned.
"I expect you've worked out how to get out from there," Dad commented, then left the room.
Karen scooted her chair across the room so that her back was to the chest of drawers. I hear a small metallic noise as she engaged the key in one of the keyholes on her handcuffs. A moment later, she brought her hands around to the front of her body, the handcuff key still screwed into the open cuff and the string still trailing from it. It took my sister just another minute or so to unscrew the key from the first keyhole and to use it to release her other wrist. She quickly removed her gag and untied the ropes securing her body to her chair then stood up.
My sister unfastened the handcuff key from the string that it was still tied to then brought it across the room to me, shuffling along with her ankles still cuffed. She released my wrists and let me see to my own gag and ropes while she freed her own ankles.
Somewhat shamefaced, Karen and I went downstairs to face whatever music there was left to face. We were slightly surprised to discover that our parents had already said all that they wanted to on the matter. All that was left was for us to offer our apologies, which were accepted, and to promise never to do anything stupid with matches and burning candles ever again.
Our assurances were accepted with grave nods by our parents, followed by hugs to assure us that it was all over and we were all friends again.
Later on that in the evening of the candle incident, our Dad had one more thing to say on the subject. He had been out in his workshop for a while and came back holding something behind his back.
"If you want to make a timer, it's probably best to start with a clock," he advised us.
The mysterious something behind Dad's back turned out to be an old alarm clock, which he handed to my sister and me. It was a traditional old-fashioned brass alarm clock with a circular face surmounted by two dome-shaped bells with a little hammer between them. It was somewhat tarnished and the glass protecting the face was cracked.
"It works, but it probably doesn't keep very good time," Dad told us.
Karen and I knew that the traditional cartoon image of a time-bomb was of an alarm clock connected to a bundle of sticks of dynamite, but of course a cartoon gives no idea of how you might actually use an alarm clock as a timer. It was too late to do anything practical that evening, but we discussed the problem and decided to experiment the following afternoon.
Our first thought was to make use of the striking mechanism. The hammer that sounded the bells on our clock was a small spherical brass knob on the end of a rod. Except when it was actually ringing, the hammer usually rested against one of the bells. We discovered that it was sprung firmly enough that we could trap a small loop tied in the end of a length of string between the hammer and the bell and that it was secure enough to carry the weight of a brass handcuff key. Our first test was encouraging; the alarm clock rang and the string dropped free. As budding engineers, we knew that no mechanism was ever a hundred percent reliable and that one test was never enough. The results of repeated tests were disappointing. There seemed to be about a fifty percent chance that the loop in the string would actually drop over the hammer rather than falling away. We tried to work out what was going wrong, but of course everything moved too quickly for us to see what was happening.
We tried to enlist some help from our father, but he said we should persevere and see if we could come up with a solution ourselves.
"How?" we demanded.
"Observation," Dad replied. "See what an alarm clock does and find a way to exploit it."
Karen and I went back to our bedroom. We wound the alarm clock and set it to go off in about five minutes then watched it as it rang. We repeated this about four or five times until I spotted something we could use. The clock had two winding keys on the back; one wound the clock itself and the other was for the alarm. When the alarm rang, the winding key turned round and round until the ringing stopped.
We allowed the alarm to ring and to run down completely, then, after a little experimentation put a loop tied in the end of a piece of string over one 'wing' of the key. Karen wound the alarm while I carefully guided the string. We ended up with a slightly untidy coil of string around the winding key. We hung a handcuff key on the end of the string and set the alarm to go off in a few minutes. We were delighted to see the key slowly descend as the string unwound when the alarm went off. Another nine tests gave us a perfect score of ten successes out of ten tries.
Encouraged by our success, Karen and I decided it was time to risk a proper test. One afternoon after school, we set up the alarm clock on top of our chest of drawers and set it to go off at six o'clock, which would be just before our tea-time. We set about securing ourselves in much the way that we had for the abortive test with the candle. We started by fastening our large handcuffs around our ankles. We sat down on our desk chairs to apply our body ropes nest. A coil of four or five turns of rope over each our laps and under the chair seats was first, then a similar coil around each of our waists and the backs of our chairs. We had already fastened the middle of a long length of rope to the top of each chair-back, tying it around the topmost portion of the wooden arch that formed the frame of the backrest. We each pulled the free ends of the rope forwards over our shoulders and crossed them on our chests. We fed them between our bodies and the sides of the chair-back then brought them forward to cross just below our ribs then took them out to the sides of the chair and back again, finally knotting them in the middle of our tummies. Our gags were the usual muslin nappy liners with handkerchiefs as packing. We each completed our helplessness by handcuffing ourselves behind the back of the chair, wearing mittens to protect our wrists as usual.
We had the same thrill of anticipation waiting for our timing device to work as we had experienced with the candle. Our mother looked into our bedroom once while we were waiting, presumably because we were suspiciously quiet. She smiled indulgently and left us to our contemplation.
About two minutes to six, the alarm sounded and our patience was rewarded by the sight of the handcuff key being lowered on its string until it was within reach. Karen shuffled her chair across the room until she could reach behind her and grasp the key. She was just fitting it into her handcuffs when our Dad came into the room, knocking politely on the door before letting himself in.
"I see you found a use for the alarm clock then," he commented after watching Karen free herself from the handcuffs.
"Yes, thank you," Karen replied, as soon as she could speak. "It works really well."
Dad gave us a mysterious smile, probably at the sheer eccentricity of his daughters, then left the room.
My sister and I were completely free a few minutes later and presented ourselves in the kitchen in time to make ourselves useful getting the meal on the table.
Now that we had a reliable timer, Karen and I could indulge in tie-up games whenever the fancy took us. I still preferred ropes to handcuffs, but this way we could make ourselves completely helpless but guarantee to be able to get ourselves free afterwards. With experience, we became progressively more adventurous in how thoroughly we tied ourselves in these games. If we enlisted our mother's help, we could be tied up so that we could hardly move at all and still get out as long as one of us could get her handcuffs unlocked successfully. The process of extricating ourselves from the ropes became an interesting challenge in itself on those occasions.
Every few weeks, Karen's and my parents went out for a meal and an evening of ballroom dancing with our Aunt Lizzie (our mother's sister) and her husband, our Uncle Alf. On those occasions, our cousin Annie (about eight years older than me) would look after our brother and us. Our brother Timothy, three years younger than me, generally went to bed shortly after we had eaten and the time after that would be the opportunity for some girl talk between my sister, my cousin and me. It was also the time when we sometimes engaged in silly games together.
One Friday evening when Annie was looking after us, Karen and I told her all about the alarm clock escape timer we had been using in tie-up games. (Annie knew all about our predilection for being tied up.) Annie was astonished at the lengths we had gone to in researching our timer and asked us to give us a demonstration. We fetched the alarm clock from our bedroom and set it up on the edge of a bookshelf. We attached a handcuff key to it in the usual way and then set it to go off in about two minutes. The mechanism performed flawlessly as usual, with the key being lowered smoothly as the alarm sounded.
Annie was impressed at the simplicity and ingenuity of our solution and asked to see us use it for an actual escape. We hesitated at this point. Karen and I both knew from experience that Annie was something of a practical joker and that she was entirely capable of doing something like confiscating the key as soon as we were tied up.
"Only if you get tied up too," Karen offered, knowing that Annie also quite enjoyed tie-up games, but mainly to ensure that she didn't take advantage of our predicament.
"Might be safer," Annie conceded with a grin, reading Karen's mind, "but make sure you don't ladder my stockings, they're new on today."
Unlike the robust (and probably much-darned) woollen tights that my sister and I were wearing, Annie had on a pair of proper 'grown up' nylon stockings. Nylons are almost disposably cheap today at a little over a pound a pair for everyday wear. However back then, stockings (no tights or pantyhose then) were twelve shillings or more a pair, something approaching ten pounds or twenty dollars in today's money, hence Annie's warning.
Annie had come straight from the business college she attended and so was still dressed for studying. Student attire then was smart and distinctly 'preppy' by today's standards. I don't remember exactly what she wore that day, but a knee-length pleated skirt with a white blouse and one of those snug-fitting sweaters with a high round neckline and buttons at the nape of the neck would be typical.
Annie fetched a wooden ladder-backed chair from the dining room while Karen and I brought our box of tying-up supplies and our two desk chairs down from our bedroom.
We tried one of the large pairs of handcuffs on Annie. However, even with her woollen gloves on, I was suspicious that she might be able to slip her hands free. Substituting a pair of knitted mittens (belonging to Mum) improved the situation, but I could see that there was a risk of her working the mittens off then slipping her hands out of the cuffs. After a whispered discussion with Karen, we came up with a solution. A pair of Karen's or my hockey socks (don't forget that when a Brit says 'hockey' she means field hockey) pulled on over the mittens would make them impossible to shed, especially as the socks came well up over Annie's elbows.
Happy with our countermeasures, we snapped the handcuffs onto our cousin's wrists behind the backrest of her chair. We fastened the middle of a length of rope around the chain linking Annie's cuffs and one of the horizontal bars of the chair-back then wound the rest of it around her waist and the chair, finishing off with a knot at the front. We hitched the centre of another long length to the top rail of the chair then brought the ends forward over Annie's shoulders, crossed them rather intimately in the middle of her chest, took them behind the vertical side members of the chair back, crossed them in the middle again, out to the sides again, crossed in the middle one last time and finally fastened the ends off to the tops of the back legs of the chair just below the seat. We used another long length to form a band of rope around Annie's chest and the chair-back just below her bust and two shorter lengths to lash her upper arms to the side verticals.
Another pair of hockey socks served to protect Annie's stockings. (With the tops not turned down, they went well up over her knees.) We tied her legs to the front legs of the chair at the ankles and just below her knees. Lastly, we wound a coil of rope over Annie's lap and under the chair seat.
"I can see you've been practising," our cousin commented drily.
Karen selected a clean muslin nappy liner and a handkerchief to use as a gag.
"No gag!" Annie protested.
"But it's part of being tied up," I pointed out.
"Well, not between my teeth, then; it always hurts the sides of my mouth that way."
After a brief conference, Karen and I settled for putting a handkerchief in Annie's mouth and holding it in place with one of the old winter scarves from our tying-up box covering her mouth and nose. We made sure that it went well up over her nose and below her chin and that it was securely knotted so that she couldn't work it down and spit out the handkerchief.
"All right like that?" Karen asked.
The mumbled reply sounded as though it might be resigned assent, so we took that as an affirmative.
We set the alarm clock to go off in about thirty-five minutes (allowing for five minutes tie-up time then half an hour until release) and arranged the string and suspended handcuff key, measuring carefully to make sure it would end up at hand height for Karen and me.
My sister and I set about tying ourselves up next. We put all the rope we would need on a coffee table between our chairs so that we would be able to reach it even when partly tied up. As usual, we started at the floor and worked upwards, beginning with roping our ankles to the front legs of the chair then our knees both back to the tops of the chair legs and down to the front corners of the seat. We wrapped coils of rope over our laps and under the chair seats and around our waists and behind the chair-backs. We already had lengths of rope hitched to the tops of our chairs that would form shoulder ropes and we secured them in the usual way, crossing the ends on our chests and taking them behind the side members of the chair before knotting them off about belly button level. If we had someone else tying us up, we would have asked for our elbows to be tied to the chair frame also, but we hadn't worked out a way to do that to ourselves.
We gagged ourselves with the usual combination of a handkerchief each held in place with muslin nappy liners. Finally we each put on a pair of mittens and snapped our handcuffs shut behind our backs.
Karen and I both enjoyed being tied up, so it was really no hardship sitting watching the alarm clock tick away the time until our release. I noticed that Annie seemed less comfortable with her situation. I was fairly sure that she wouldn't be unduly uncomfortable tied the way she was (and I knew that she had plenty of experience of being tied up) but she kept fidgeting as if she was bored with the game and impatient to get free.
Now, having read this far and seen what sort of incidents tend to stick in my memory, I'm sure that you're expecting something to go horribly wrong. That's exactly what happened. When the time came for the alarm clock to go off, there was a single 'ting' from the bell. A few seconds later, there was another 'ting' then silence. After waiting for a minute or so, it was quite clear to each of us that something was wrong and that our escape mechanism had failed completely.
It was well after eleven o'clock when our parents returned from their evening out. They were chattering together as they came in through the front door, then there was a stunned silence as they found Annie, Karen and me in the lounge, sitting dejectedly still bound to our chairs, handcuffed and gagged. It took only a few seconds for Mum and Dad to spot the alarm clock with the handcuff key dangling from it and to realise that our ingenious timing mechanism had let us down. They both roared with laughter and then had to explain to Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Alf why they were laughing.
It didn't take long for Aunt Lizzie and Mum to get the ropes off us. Dad went to retrieve the key to unlock our handcuffs. As soon as he touched it, the alarm went off. It seems that the way we had wound the string onto the alarm winder key had jammed it just enough to prevent it turning when the alarm was due to sound, completely subverting our escape plan.
As soon as we were free, we apologised profusely to Annie. She hugged us both but told us to expect severe reprisals. She grinned as she said that, so we knew that the reprisals would be fun when they came.