CHAPTER ONE – 2000
I can’t remember who, out of the three of us, it was that started the story. All I remember is that it was just there, at times loose and out of control, at others tight and heavily defined, like a perfect piece of music, everything in place and sounding flawless. It had a rhythm to it to which we all contributed. If I had to compare our roles in its creation as instruments in an orchestra, I would say that Isla was the piano, a major shaper of the events and a steady leader. Eddie was the trumpet, not always involved but coming in at times with gusto and some impassioned twists of the plot. And I was the drum, keeping it going, beating out its rhythm, giving it its sound. I was dependable.
But strangely enough I can’t remember how it started or who started it. You’d think I would have a memory of that. But I don’t. So much has happened since those days, I can hardly keep up with yesterday let alone sixty years ago.
Going away seemed at first to be daddy’s idea, at least that is what we thought.
‘I think it is best for you all and the Government does too.’ He didn’t really explain it very well as we sat there on the edge of Isla’s bed, our knees touching, not really understanding the enormity of what he was suggesting. ‘The bombs you see …’ He stopped for a second, looked down at his hands and glanced towards the door as if he knew that mummy would be just behind it, urging him on to do the job she was not quite up to. ‘I need to … send you… on holiday. Somewhere less … a good place.’
We stared at him waiting for the next few words that we hoped would give us more of a clue to what he was proposing.
We still didn’t quite understand, even when he let the word ‘evacuation’ slip into the fractured awkward sentences that seemed to say all and nothing. We had heard the word before but had never seen it as being relevant to our family. I realise now that Isla knew, even though she tried to look dumb. I think she knew right then what it meant, after all she was thirteen. But Eddie and I, we were much younger. We’d just got out of the bath and were sitting in our jammies and dressing gowns, our routine unshaken, even daddy’s somewhat solemn expression did not interfere with our sense of everyday ordinariness.
When daddy had left and Eddie had been packed off to his bedroom, Isla sat silent and listlessly on the stool and gazed into the mirror.
‘Daddy and mummy know best,’ she said as if she had been reading off a script.
‘But what does it mean?’ I asked.
‘It means we shall all have …,’ she hesitated, ‘… we’ll all have … fun.’ Then she picked up her brush and started her nightly ritual of brushing her hair a hundred times because she’d heard that it strengthened the roots.
Before we had turned out the lights, Eddie came back in.
‘I’ve looked it up in the dictionary,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about. Look’, he held up a piece of paper and read out, ‘evacuation is a removal of people from a dangerous place.’ He looked up for our response.
‘Yes, well done Eddie,’ Isla said.
‘But it could mean …’ and here he squinted at the piece of paper, ‘the e-lim-in-ation …’ he read the word out syllable by syllable, ‘ of f-a-e-c-e-s or urine from the body.’ He paused and looked worried. ‘If it is that one, do we have to do it Isla?’
Dawn had woken me. A clamour of birdsong, the sharp berating of a blackbird and incessant chatter of sparrows pecked at my sleep. Isla was restless in the other bed. She lay on her back, one arm thrown up above her head, fist clenched, as if she were a warrior queen about to take her army into battle. Then she wiggled, turned on her side and curled herself up like a hibernating hedgehog.
I savoured just a few more seconds of contentment before remembering what day it was. It was The Day. A wave of anxiety overtook me. This was the day when we would be packed off to Suffolk while mummy and daddy stayed in the house, which was deemed to be too dangerous for us. Surely, I thought, they should come too. But I’d voiced that idea a few days before and daddy had put on his most earnest expression and explained that mummy and him had very pressing and important things to do in London to support the war effort and they wouldn’t be able to do that work if they left the capital.
I wanted Isla to wake up. I wanted to tell her I was scared but I knew she could be grumpy in the mornings and I didn’t want the sharp end of her tongue on a fearful day like this one.
I remember that morning very well. At that point in our lives we knew who we were and what we meant to each other but we never returned to that house as the children who had left it. Isla changed so much in those few months in Suffolk. The child in her had almost completely evaporated, leaving a strange and distant adolescent who bathed obsessively and kept a secret diary. Eddie, for all his seven years and two months had become tight lipped, preferring to play on his own. And I? How had I changed? Aged ten and, as Isla said, already so full of drama. I lost my trust in all those around me, that’s what happened to me. And the story? The story had withered on our return. It was as if it could only ripen and flourish in the Suffolk fields and hedges. It could only thrive in the moist footprints in the sand out along a stretch of windy beach on a summer evening.
It was a warm day when our parents took us to Paddington station. The sun had broken through a hazy sky around mid-morning and had burnt away whatever clouds had blanketed the night.
During breakfast daddy had been cheerful, cracking jokes and pulling Isla’s pigtails but mummy had been distracted, her eyes red and her anxiety visible, as she buttered toast, poured tea and left the room repeatedly as if there were a parallel family in another room that she had to attend to.
Eddie had cried in the night and I had been woken by daddy’s low voice comforting him. I lay very still. In the shadows of the room two little suitcases stood, crammed and fastened. Inside mine mummy had packed two vests, two pairs of knickers, two pairs of pyjamas, one skirt, one dress, two handkerchiefs, all folded, ironed and layered. Down the sides of my case I had forced several things I had no intention of leaving behind. The rag doll, Alice, from my sixth birthday. She had a stitched face and clothes you could remove. A book about the ballet, with pictures of dancers in mid pirouette or being lifted, slender arms and legs stretched. This was a book of dreams and it had to come with me. Finally I added a necklace of pretend pearls interspersed with pale blue glass beads and a mouth organ granddad Stevens had given me last Christmas.
Isla told me that it was best to take the things I really really cared about in case the house was bombed to the ground. The image disturbed me over several nights. ‘To the ground’ suggested the whole building would collapse like a pack of cards and everything in it would be reduced, transformed from 3D to 2D. Once Isla walked me around in a ridiculous detour to school in order to avoid taking me down a road where a house had been sliced in two. I saw it later, one part still standing, exposed rooms, a lamp stand and bedsides table in tact but the bed and wardrobe crushed in the debris, sheets and blankets lying shredded. We had heard the explosion as we ran for the shelter. It had boomed so loud I had felt it imprint itself in my body. Mummy had dragged and pushed me so severely I had bruises all up my arm and on my shoulder. Later, as we huddled in the shelter she hugged and cuddled me and kissed my ear. She was crying again.
Daddy said to mummy, the day before we left, that he wished we had relatives in the country but they were all Londoners and there was only Sid in Birmingham, and that was no better a place. He said he had great faith in the scheme and he’d picked up Eddie and put him on his lap. Then he turned to us all and said ‘You know the wonderful thing is you will all be together.’
I loved him so much at that moment. That wonderful optimism. The way he found a bright side to everything unlike mummy who wrung her hands, paced and periodically clutched one or other of us as if death was already stalking our little bodies.
We were not the only children at the station. Little groups of all ages and sizes stood alongside their parents. Daddy held my hand. Mummy had her arm around Isla. I saw her eyes were watery again and her teeth were biting into her lip as if she was holding back all the things she wanted to say. It was daddy who talked the most. He talked about going to ‘a lovely place of safety’. He said we would see each other again ‘sooner than we could imagine’. Several times he said that the war was as good as won but I didn’t believe him. At times his voice was drowned out by the station noises, the crowds and the hiss and rush of steam. I thought later that he was talking more for his own benefit than for us for he hardly looked down as he spoke. After we queued and had labels attached to our luggage and pinned to our coats were herded by women with clipboards and nervous smiles down onto the platform to board the train to Ipswich.
Daddy lifted me up into the air and called me ‘his girl’ and Eddie started crying and wanted to get brown rabbit out of his case but mummy wouldn’t let him, she said there wasn’t time and anyway he had to stay strong and grown up for us girls. Then Isla started sobbing and daddy pulled her close, while mummy bent to wipe Eddie’s nose. It was like a strange slow motion dance, in which we all linked and separated, hugged then stood apart and all around the same little scenes were being played out on the platform as other groups kissed and crouched and pulled away.
There was an eerie silence as we boarded the carriage, as if everyone had suddenly decided to refrain from emotion in those last few minutes before departure. As the train screamed and puffed and made its way down the platform I looked from the window at the gaggle of grown ups waving and shouting and blowing kisses. Then we were out of the station under a blue summer sky, travelling through the higgledy-piggledy world of train tracks and factories, grim railway sidings and the industrial hinterland of London’s outskirts.
Isla had our papers and a letter from mummy and daddy. She sat morosely clutching them on her lap. We hardly spoke for the first ten minutes or so. In fact the other children sitting around us in the carriage were also silent and reflective. Looking back on it now, the whole train seemed to be full of automatons who had once been children before they had had the stuffing knocked out of them. But things changed. By the time we had broken through the sprawl of London and were whipping through fields of sheep and cattle and hillocks edged with woods and hedges the ice between us all seemed to melt away. Conversations were struck up, games of I-spy and categories were played and sandwiches were shared.