Jimmy pulled a stupid face and stuck a bony elbow into his brother’s ribs. He wriggled and shifted, making himself comfy on the back seat of the bus. Patrick elbowed him back with a mud-splattered grin.
‘Oi, nippers!’ a man shouted at them from down the aisle. ‘You been scrumping?’
Jimmy looked down at his bulky shirt. The man must have thought they were a couple of scallywags who’d been stealing apples. Of course, they’d nicked apples before, but not this time.
‘If you have,’ the man continued, ‘you can give us one. I'm starving!’
The other passengers laughed, their daydreams and chatter interrupted for the moment.
‘No we ain't been scrumping, mister,’ Jimmy shouted back. ‘We got frogs, but if you like you can have one for the bargain price of tuppence.’
‘Don’t talk daft. You bin scrumping apples, you cheeky blighter.’
‘No we ain’t. Look.’ Jimmy stood up and swayed down the aisle towards the man, all eyes on him. He opened his top two buttons and pointed down into his shirt. ‘Frogs, see.’
The bus was almost full and everyone leaned in closer. Jimmy saw them staring at his shirt, at the slight movements rippling behind the thin material.
The man frowned and peered down. Jimmy looked up to see Patrick had joined him. He couldn’t help a smile escaping at the thought they were about to be proved right.
‘I don’t believe it!’ The man jerked his head back and then let out a raucous chuckle. He stood up, looked around and proclaimed loudly to everyone on board.
‘Have a look at this one here.’ He pointed down at Jimmy’s head with a stubby finger. ‘He’s only got a shirtful of bloomin’ frogs!’
The passengers craned their necks to see, as Jimmy proudly opened his shirt a bit more to reveal the slimy-looking frogs that writhed and kicked against his bare skin.
A couple of older lads swaggered down the narrow aisle to get a closer look at the greeny brown mass of slippery creatures tangled up in pondweed. A young boy reached across from his seat and tried to grab one before his mother batted his hand away and told him to sit back down. Young girls squealed in horror. And women, who had previously cooed and laughed over the sweet-faced young brothers, now tut-tutted their disapproval.
‘Well I never!’ huffed a pinched-face woman in a patterned headscarf. ‘Would you look at that? It’s disgraceful. It oughtn’t be allowed. Them two should be arrested for bringing them disgusting creatures on board public transportation.’
Just then, the bus lurched to a stop with a hiss of brakes and as it did so, Jimmy stumbled slightly. One of the frogs seized its chance, leapt out of the shirt and landed on the thighs of a large lady who was wedged in between two others. All three women screamed.
Jimmy and Patrick shot forward and made a grab for the frog, but instead of catching it, they both ended up in the large lady’s lap. She screamed again, shoving them off and bashing at them with her handbag. Jimmy scrambled off her lap and ducked his head to avoid being battered.
Meantime, the frog hopped away down the aisle, completely unaware of the chaos. It was closely followed by two of its pond-mates who had also decided to make a break for it.
‘Get the nets, Pat!’ Jimmy hollered. Patrick scrabbled his way back to where they had been sitting and grabbed the thin wooden fishing nets.
After its brief stop, the bus started up again along the busy high street. By now, Jimmy had rebuttoned his shirt and he and Patrick were diving towards the front of the vehicle. They lunged forward with their nets, desperately trying to recapture their frogs, amid the hysteria.
‘Right, you two.’ A no-nonsense voice cut through the pandemonium. Jimmy suddenly felt a stinging pain as the stern-faced bus conductor grabbed his ear and pulled him and Patrick back down the aisle. They slid and stumbled to keep up as the conductor strode towards the rear of the bus, ignoring frogs and passengers alike.
Reaching the open exit, the conductor shouted to the driver to slow down. The brakes whined and the bus lurched as the conductor slung the boys out onto the pavement.
Jimmy jumped clear of the bus, cradling the front of his shirt and clutching his precious fishing net. Patrick leapt alongside him and they managed to land nimbly on their feet.
The red double-decker swung away, creaking and grumbling in a cloud of black smoke as it continued on its journey down the high street. Screams and shouts could still be heard on account of its three unwelcome slimy little passengers.
Jimmy looked at his brother, who stood on the pavement staring glumly after the disappearing bus.
‘We’ve only gone and lost ourselves sixpence,’ Patrick said, touching his ear which throbbed red from the conductor’s rough treatment.
‘Oh, Pat, it don’t matter, we still got loads.’ Jimmy smiled and rubbed his own ear. ‘Did you see them women’s faces? They weren’t half funny. I thought they was gonna have a heart attack.’
‘Yeah I know,’ Patrick replied, still frowning. ‘And that fat one had a face like a frog anyway.’
‘You wouldn’t get tuppence for her though,’ Jimmy added, grinning at his brother and trying to lighten the mood.
It worked and they both cracked up laughing. Then, making sure they had the rest of their profits securely buttoned up, they headed for home together, this time on foot.
A couple of hours later, the six-year-old twins trudged past Chapel Street Market and finally turned into the road where they lived. It was lined with square blocks of grubby brick-built flats, in front of which a game of street cricket was in progress. As usual, the lamppost outside number 52 was being used as the stumps and Bill Collins was arguing the fact he’d just been caught out.
Down the side alley, two of Jimmy’s sisters were chanting and skipping with a group of local girls:
‘All in, a bottle of gin
All out, a bottle of stout
By the time we count to twenty
This rope, must be empty
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty’
And with that, they pulled the rope tight. Everyone jumped out in time except for Nellie Cochran who wasn’t so fortunate and got knocked flying by the rope snapping taut too early. She stood up angrily, brushed her dress down and stomped off.
While Jimmy surveyed the familiar scene, Sally Anne Croft wandered over to where they stood. Her clothes and face were filthy with snot and grime, but in her hair she wore a shiny yellow ribbon.
‘Wot you got in there then?’ she asked, pointing at their shirts.
‘Alright?’ Jimmy greeted her. ‘We got frogs. You want one?’
‘Tuppence for a little one, thrupence for a big’un,’ added Patrick.
‘Here you go, have one of these. This one's on the house.’ Jimmy unbuttoned his shirt, reached in and pulled out a feisty green frog that frenziedly kicked its legs out. Jimmy smiled down at Sally Anne.
‘Jimmy!’ Patrick exclaimed. ‘Whatchoo doing?’
Jimmy ignored his brother and carried on talking. ‘Don't forget to let him have a little swim every now and then. He’ll die if you let him dry out.’
She took the creature into both hands, looked up and pulled a face at Patrick before darting off into a nearby alleyway.
‘Cheeky cow,’ Patrick muttered. ‘Jimmy, you’re giving away all our profits.’
‘Yeah, but it’s only Sally Anne and she ain't got tuppence for a frog.’
‘Well don't give any more away.’ Then he cleared his throat and looked down the street.
Tiredness forgotten, Jimmy and his brother stood like gladiators - legs slightly apart, shoulders back, preparing for their customers. Doing business with the neighbourhood kids was never straightforward and always involved a bit of a battle.
‘Frogs! We got frogs!’ shouted Jimmy.
‘Tuppence for a little’un and thrupence for a big’un,’ Patrick added.
A few of the kids looked over. Some of the older boys nudged each other and pointed in their direction. Three of them abandoned their game of cricket and sauntered over to where the twins stood.
‘Frogs? Let’s see ‘em then,’ the tallest of the three demanded.
Jimmy leaned forwards slightly so the boy could get a look at the merchandise.
‘Where d'you get 'em from?’ another boy asked, hands wedged into his pockets.
‘Never you mind where we got 'em from,’ said Jimmy. Their little enterprise would be ruined if they told anyone about the pond. ‘Never you mind,’ he repeated. ‘You want one or not?’
‘Yeah, go on I'll have a small one.’ The boy sighed. ‘Tuppence right?’ He took some coins out of his pocket and handed over two tarnished pennies in return for a tiny brown frog. As the boy walked away, several children crowded around him to look at his new pet. The other two boys eagerly paid up.
The street scene rapidly changed as word travelled the Sweeney twins had frogs for sale. Some kids shouted up to their mothers to please, please let them have some money while others decided their only choice was to club together and share one. Those who had no money at all pretended they didn’t want a stupid frog anyway.
Jimmy felt a bit sorry for the kids who couldn’t afford one. He would have given them one for free, like with Sally Anne, but Pat would’ve gone mad. He glanced sideways at his brother, who stared down the lane at the approaching kids. More joined them all the time and Jimmy knew Pat was worried they hadn’t caught nearly enough.
Before long, a rowdy queue formed in front of the brothers and everyone wanted to know how on earth they’d managed to get hold of the frogs. But the twins weren’t telling.