What Mrs Molloy Taught Me by Ronald Mackay
When I was 14, I started delivering medicine for a pharmacy. During the day, customers would drop their prescriptions off at ‘Duncan the chemist’s’. Mr Duncan the ‘chemist’ would make up the prescription and the labelled white packages would be waiting for me when I arrived at the pharmacy on my bike at ten minutes past four every weekday.
It pleased Mr Duncan that I was responsible. “If you’re going to do something, do it well!” was a maxim we took seriously.
I particularly enjoyed making a delivery to a client who lived with his family on a beautiful country estate six miles outside the city. Farms and the countryside intrigued me. The ancient Balmuir House that belonged to Captain Bentley was surrounded by enormous horse-chestnut trees, lawns and gardens. Beyond those lay the home farm and two tenant farms as well as wooded acres of rough land where birds, animals and wild flowers abounded.
One May evening I rang the bell at Balmuir House and Captain Bentley himself took the package from me.
“How long have you worked for Mr Duncan?” He looked at me as would a commander assessing a naval rating.
“Nearly a year, Captain Bentley.”
“How old are you?”
“What are your plans after you leave school?”
“I want to be farmer,” I told him earnestly.
He nodded approvingly. “Come and work on one of my farms this summer. Practical experience will afford you a better chance of being accepted into university.”
And so, that summer, I was employed as a farm-labourer at Balmuir Estate and immediately took to the varied work.
One day, as the raspberries were ripening, Captain Bentley addressed me as I was leaving to cycle home.
“I’m giving you charge of the berry-fields. By 7.30 each morning, you must have fuelled the tractor, hitch up the trailer and loaded the scales and barrels. Then drive here and wait for my instructions.
I felt privileged. To take charge of the berry-fields was a grown-up responsibility, and accepting responsibility, we’d been told from the earliest age, was what life was all about.
That first morning, Captain Bentley checked to see that I’d fuelled the little ‘Fergie’, secured the trailer with the hitch-pin and loaded the weigh-scale with its full set of counter-weights.
“Today you’re picking the 10-acre Emmics field. The berries will go to the jam factory. We’re paying a penny ha’penny a pound to the pickers. They won’t complain because they can pick for bulk much faster than they can for table berries. Select a good crew. Give each family about 10 rows. They must agree to work all day because you will pay out once only -- between four and five o’clock. You’ll need ten families harvest that field. The rows are long but the crop isn’t heavy.”
Captain Bentley’s instructions were clear but there were surprises to come.
At least 20 families – wife, husband and two or three children -- were waiting to be hired-on. Most were chronically underemployed families from a housing estate built to clear inner-city slums. To a serious 15-year-old who aspired to become a university student, they were a coarse lot. I tried to hide the intimidation I felt.
On the trailer alongside the weigh scales, I set up the blackboard and in capital letters wrote the date and the word: ‘BULK’. A cheer went up. Then I added: ‘RATE: a penny-ha’penny a pound’. A raucous groan went up from the women who undeniably commanded their families.
“How’re you peyen nae mair’n a penny-ha’penny?”
“Thuther fairmer’s peyin’ mair!”
Dissatisfied, some pickers moved off to look for a better rate at a neighbouring farm. Others stayed.
I turned away pretending to align the weigh scales, hoping that, when I turned back to face them, there would be only ten families left. Then I wouldn’t have to make the unnerving choice of who to hire and who to send away disappointed.
Luck was with me and I wrote, in turn, the surname of each of the nine families who jostled for the privilege of picking bulk berries for a penny ha’penny a pound. As I chalked up the surname, I handed out a ‘luggie’ (a pail) and a length of baling twine to each member of that family. With the twine they secured the luggie at their waist. They knew they needed both hands free to make money picking berries.
Parents and children alike set to work cursing like drunken sailors.
As ne bucket was filled with berries, the woman – for women in these families ruled the roost -- would order a family member to bring it to me to be weighed. I recorded the weight under the appropriate surname on the blackboard.
I quickly learned that, before I weighed a bucket, I had to scoop my hands through the berries to locate the stones that miscreants had secreted into the fruit to increase the weight and so the family earnings. Stones were easily located and removed but when my scooping hands discovered the fruit floating in an unusually large quantity of ‘juice’, I had no way to tell if the source was overripe berries or some less hygienic liquid that I preferred not to think too closely about.
I made regular field inspections to urge the crews to pick the canes clean and to avoid adding leaves. Not infrequently, I came across a woman sitting shamelessly astride her bucket. I could think of no way to deal with that except to retreat and hope that the ascorbic acid used to preserve the fruit in the barrels would serve as a disinfectant as well as an anti-oxidant.
Mrs Molloy was a toothless, gravel-voiced, gimlet-eyed ‘wifie’ whose savagery and wantonness stuck out even among that disorderly crew. Her blasphemous threats were most creative when her brood’s attention faltered. She ruled her ‘man’ and her three delinquent off-spring with a ready fist. More than once, I had hurriedly backtracked out of a drill when I found her and her daughter astride their buckets. Only I felt embarrassment.
Berry-picking ended around 4 p.m. when the field had been picked clean.
At the cart, Mrs Malloy stood up front and demanded she be paid first so her family could begin the long walk home. The glint in her eye persuaded me not to deny her the privilege. I stood on the trailer -- my outdoor office -- in full view of the entire crew. I summed the weight of each of the buckets that I’d tipped into the barrels and chalked up on the blackboard under her family name. Her colourless lips worked silently within sunken jaws keeping pace with my chalky calculation. Fortunately, we reached the same figure.
“Two hundred and twenty pounds of bulk berries, Mrs Malloy.” She nodded, unhappy at not being able to prove me wrong. “That makes a total of twenty-seven shillings and sixpence.” Mrs Malloy had made the rapid calculation in her head and nodded again.
“Aye, son, ye micht be a runt but ye ken yer numbers!” She flashed her eyes and showed empty gums in a smile to show how little she cared about offending me. I held my tongue.
From the steel cash-box, I carefully counted out into her juice-stained hand, a single Scottish pound note, two half-crowns, two single shillings and a sixpenny piece (called a ‘tanner’). She moved to the edge of the crowd of tired pickers, holding the cash out of reach of her man and her hoodlums. With one hand, she stuffed the money into a pocket of the man’s suit-jacket she was wearing and beat off her grasping family with the other. “Awa tae hell ye greedy buggers! A’ll buy ye yer fags when we get tae the shoppie. Mind we hiv yet te pey the effin Cooncil a month’s effin rent! Ur dae ye want they effin bailiffs roond again?”
I went through the same procedure with the others, calling out the weight of berries they’d picked and paying them publicly in carefully-counted notes and coins.
With only two families left to pay, a blood-curdling shriek arose from Mrs Molloy’s scrawny throat.
“Hey mister, see you? Ye’ve gien me a tanner short ye effin’ bastirt!” She was playing to the crowd to engage their sympathy and giving me the evil eye.
Her accusation jolted my mind into overdrive. I’d carefully counted the single pound note and each of the coins she was due into her hand. She had checked it as had all the surrounding pairs of eyes. But I had no way of proving it and she knew that. She was trying to intimidate by undermining my position. I had to react fast and decisively.
“I gave you the exact amount Mrs Malloy.”
She unleashed at me a torrent of fulminating curses and graphic threats that included exactly which of my tender body parts she was going to cut off, one by one, and stuff down my effing throat if I didn’t give her the effing ‘tanner’ I had cheated her out of.
I wasn’t merely intimidated; I was truly petrified. There was only one road back to the city. I would be all alone on my bike. The pickers would make up a homogeneously hostile group. Violence in Scotland in the ’50s was a sport, an amusing way of resolving differences. Sometimes permanently.
If I gave in to Mrs Malloy, every other picker would accuse me of short-changing them. I’d lose control and forfeit all credibility.
I know not from where, but I summoned up courage enough to announce:
“There’s something you need to know, Mrs Malloy! All eyes were directed at me.
“I never make mistakes with money, Mrs Malloy. Never!” I paused. “I counted right into your hand, the exact amount you were due.”
Having managed these words, I turned away and finished paying the remaining pickers. All the while, Mrs Malloy kept up her curses. My heart was pounding. As I handed over the final payment, I saw that not a single family had left. They were hoping for bloodshed.
I turned to padlock the steel cash box, mentally reciting the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through death's dark vale, yet will I fear no ill, for thou art with me...” At the same time I was wracking my memory for any route that might get me off the farm without my coming into contact with the Malloys or any of the others.
Then the sky erupted. Mrs Malloy’s voice rang out like a cracked bell.
“Hey Mister! Look at me when a’m talking tae ye!”
I turned around, bracing myself for a stone. Mrs Malloy was glaring up at me, her eyes triumphant in a face looked like old crumpled newspaper.
I nodded again.
“See the tanner?”
Where is this going? I wondered.
“Ah fund it!”
She held up the sixpence between forefinger and thumb. “See? Ah fund it! In ma man’s breeks aa the time, the bugger, but!” She pointed to the hemmed turn-ups of the trousers she was wearing, then waved the coin above her head for all to see and offered a triumphant, toothless, dried-apple grin.
“I’m glad you found it, Mrs Malloy.” She wouldn’t castrate me after all! “Mrs Molloy! You, your man—and your wains—are the best pickers on the field! We’ll see you back here tomorrow!”
She’d ceded to me; now I must offer compensation. I knew it had to work like this but what I really hoped for was a double-decker bus to knock her down on her way home, then reverse up and run over her again with all four wheels.
From Mrs Molloy I learned a double lesson: the importance of sticking to your guns when you know you’re right and the unexpected truth that you can turn your enemy into a sort of friend.