WRITTEN BY JANE CORRY (WRITING AS SOPHIE KING), OUR NEW “DIARY OF A MODERN GRAN” COLUMNIST
As we approach Remembrance Day on November 11, we bring you a poignant wartime serial that you can read daily…
Lily is sent out of Blitz-hit London into the mysterious countryside
Where were the houses? Or the people? Compared with London, this was all so empty! Was it possible that Mr Hitler had already got here and taken everyone away?
Lily Brookes pressed her little snub nose against the window of the train. All she could see were fields that went on for miles and miles, broken up by wooden fences every now and then with big brown animals and little white ones.
“Cows and sheep,” declared the boy opposite with a confidence that Lily envied. “George Pickle” he was called, according to the cardboard name tag that hung round his neck.
“How do you know?” she asked, impressed.
He sniffed, wiping his nose on his already-grubby shirt sleeve. Like her, George had a gas mask on the ground between his legs. Its empty eyes glared at her as he replied to her question.
A cow ran after us when we went for a walk. Nearly killed us, it did
“I’ve been to the country before. It smelled and there wasn’t any sweet shops. Then a cow ran after us when we went for a walk. Nearly killed us, it did. Mam and I couldn’t wait to get home.”
The cows did indeed sound really scary, thought Lily, wiping the window where her hot, excited breath had steamed it up. But “home” – proper home with Dad – hadn’t been part of her life for a long time. Not as it had for most of the other children around her on this busy train heading for “somewhere in the country where the Jerries couldn’t get them”.
That’s what her aunt Gladys had said when she’d walked her briskly to the station that morning, past sandbags and buses of soldiers with weary faces.
“You’ll be safe there and ’sides, I just can’t cope any more.” She had crossed herself. “I’ve done my best for your mother, God rest her soul, but I just can’t feed any more mouths. Not now we don’t have a house of our own.”
Poor Aunt Gladys! Lily had slipped her hand into the older woman’s big, sweaty one.
“I do understand. But at least they’ve found you somewhere temp’ry now. And we’re all still alive.”
Her aunt had nodded.
“That’s thanks to you, ducks. Like your mum, you are. A wise head on young shoulders. No-one would believe you was only nine years old.”
That was, thought Lily as she sank back into her carriage seat, the first time her aunt had properly thanked her. Was it really only two days ago that the siren had gone?
They almost hadn’t heard it. Lily had been trying to look after her little cousins while the older ones – there were six of them altogether – were scrapping over the last sausage: a real prize thanks to rationing. Aunt Gladys had been having a bit of a nap on the big old armchair with the grey-white antimacassar that was stained with Uncle Arthur’s hair cream. Like Dad, he was away at the Front so the stains were treated with great reverence by her aunt who often stroked them, wondering what “my Arthur” was doing right now.
“Quick, Aunty Gladys, wake up!” she had cried. But perhaps thanks to the large bottle of stout at her feet, her aunt had snored loudly on.
Then Lily’s eye fell on the whistle that Uncle Arthur had used when he’d been a policeman on the beat before the war. This was another memento which her aunt cherished and as such, had left it on prominent display on the mantelpiece.
Lily blew as hard as she could. Instantly, her aunt leapt out of the chair.
Holy Mary, it’s the sirens. Quick, everyone. Down to the shelter
“What’s happening, what’s going on?” she spluttered. “Holy Mary, it’s the sirens. Quick, everyone. Down to the shelter.”
Grabbing the fifteen-month-old “baby”, Lily shepherded everyone out of the house.
“I’m scared,” said one of the little cousins as the shelter rocked with the sound of the bombs overhead. So Lily had started singing to keep their spirits up. Her mother had “had a voice”, her father always said. It made Lily feel happy to think that she had inherited it too.
When the all-clear finally sounded, they staggered back up the steps. Appalled, they took in the burning houses; piles of bricks with sticks of furniture poking out; an acrid smell of smoke; and a stunned silence.
“Our house has gone,” Aunt Gladys had wailed. “Even the church. Look! We’ve lost everything. Everything!”
“But not our lives,” pointed out Lily quietly as the others began to blubber too. Gently, she reassured the little ones as someone led them to the local school where mattresses lined the stone floor and ladies handed out hot drinks.
“Gawd knows where we’re all going to live now,” wept Aunt Gladys.
Then someone in uniform came up and began talking quietly, although Lily caught the odd words like “limited numbers” and “train”.
“Lily, your aunt is in quite a state as you can see. We’ve managed to find temporary accommodation but there isn’t enough room for you all. So we feel it would be best if you were evacuated to the country. You’re a very lucky young lady! A last-minute space has come up and you can leave tomorrow morning.”
Evacuated? Hadn’t she already had one big move when Aunt Gladys had taken her in after Dad had gone to war?
Yet as the train hissed on through yet more fields, Lily couldn’t help feeling a sense of rising excitement. This was an adventure! Much as she loved her cousins, it was so noisy and different from the quiet life she’d been used to where Dad had looked after her, rather than her having to look after others.
Yet she was also scared. Hadn’t a boy at school been evacuated, only to return with bruises on his arm? His “family” had hit him for being too slow. Supposing she suffered the same fate?
Still, Mum would have expected her to be brave. Reverently, Lily took out the crumpled photograph from her pocket that she carried everywhere.
“Who’s that?” asked George opposite, his mouth full of cheese sandwich.
“Me mam,” answered Lily proudly, looking down at the beautiful woman with long, dark hair, just like her own.
“Has she given you a postcard like mine?” George leaned forward excitedly. “When I find out who’s looking after me, I’ve got to write down their name and address and post it home. Then Mum will know where I am. If I don’t like it, I’ve got to put one cross like a kiss. If I do like it, it’s got to be two.”
The train gave an almighty lurch, sending the remaining sarnies in their greased sheets of paper flying. Lily caught them just in time.
“Ta.” George grinned. “Here, you have a bit.”
He tore off a generous corner. Lily, whose aunt had no bread to give her – let alone cheese! – gratefully wolfed it down. But something was puzzling her.
“Find out who’s going to look after you?” she repeated. “Hasn’t that been arranged already?”
“Course not, silly. They choose us when we get to the station.”
Lily began to feel sick. What if they were all full, like her aunt’s? Where would she sleep?
“Look,” yelled a girl in a beret with a gap between her front teeth. “The sea!”
Lily craned her neck. “It’s just more sky,” she said disappointedly.
Me mam says I mustn’t go near or it’ll gobble me up
“That’s because we’re far away. But when you get close, it’s like a big monster.” George shuddered. “Me mam says I mustn’t go near or it’ll gobble me up.”
Lily felt another tremor pass through her. Aunt Gladys and the woman in uniform hadn’t said anything about the sea. Only the countryside. Was it possible to have both in one place? And what about the cows and the little white lambs? Could they swim?
Once Dad had tried to teach her at the local pool before the war.
“Kick your legs up and down, love,” he’d encouraged, but she couldn’t get the knack so they’d gone off and had a nice cup of tea instead.
A familiar big hole began to open up in her heart. How she missed Dad!
“We do all right, together, don’t we, love?” he used to say, but then he’d been called up and everything changed…
Suddenly the train, which had been slowing steadily, squealed to a halt. Everyone scrambled to their feet, almost knocking Lily over.
Outside, she could see a sign. WINDSEA. The crowd on the platform, instead of getting on, was staring through the window. What were they looking at?
Feeling very small, Lily was caught up in the wave of children as they poured out through the doors.
Goodness, the air smelled different! Her throat, which had been feeling sore since the bomb, suddenly felt a bit better. And look at that tree – growing on the station platform! – with lovely pink blossom. It had been ages since she’d seen flowers in London. Only weeds growing between bricks.
It was so bright here! As though someone had switched on a light after the grey of London in the Blitz.
But what was that noise? Help! Something large and white and squawky was swooping towards her.
“Never seen a seagull before?” laughed a short, red-faced man with string tied round his waist. “Fat lot of good you kids will be on my land.”
The girl in the beret burst into tears.
“I want to go home,” she wailed.
Lily knelt down. The child reminded her of one of her little cousins.
Take my hand and we’ll go inside the station together
“We all feel a bit scared inside,” she said gently. “But we have to be brave like our soldiers. Now take my hand and we’ll go inside the station together.”
They were lining up now, according to instructions. “Under tens, over here. Over tens, here.” It was like being in a beauty parade that she and Dad had seen once – but no one was whistling.
“Let’s look at your head,” said a woman in brown-checked trousers to the blue-beret child. “I don’t want any with crawlies.”
“I need a strong lad for my workshop,” said another voice. “This one will do.”
George! The boy who’d kindly given her some of his sandwich. Please may he be all right!
Then Lily felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, dear. Their bark is worse than their bite.”
Turning, she found herself looking into the eyes of an angel with blonde curls, like a film star on a magazine cover Lily had glimpsed once. She wore an elegant blue dress with a nipped-in waist but her feet were in tall, black, muddy boots.
“What’s your name, dear?”
“Lily.” She could only just get it out.
“How charming! Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No.” She blushed. “Me dad said there wasn’t time. The angels took my mam away when I was born and now my dad is fighting the Jerries.”
Something flickered in the beautiful woman’s eyes.
Would you like to come and live with me?
“Well, my name is Marilyn Fardew and my husband is away fighting too. I live all on my own and to be honest, I’m quite lonely. Would you like to come and live with me?”
How could she refuse to help? Besides, Lily felt drawn to this lovely woman with the sing-song voice and green eyes.
“Ta, Mrs Fardew.”
“Please, call me Marilyn. Then it’s settled! Let me help you with this.” She picked up the tatty brown case. “Goodness, it’s light.”
“A lady in uniform at the London station gave it me,” said Lily, blushing even more. “She said it had something called hand-downs in it but there’s just a brown skirt that looks much too big. You see, we lost everything in the bomb.”
“Well, we’ll have to sort that out, won’t we? This way, dear.”
Leading the way past other adults still haggling over children (“I specifically said I wanted a boy!’), Lily’s new friend steered her outside towards a large black beast, snorting and pawing on the cobbles. Lily’s heart nearly stopped.
“Is that one of those cows?”
Marilyn giggled as if she was a girl rather than a grown lady.
“This is Dora. She’s a shire horse and a very good one. Don’t be scared. Just jump into the trap behind.”
Trap? Wasn’t that something you caught mice in? But this was a sort of open carriage that was attached to Dora the horse who was now harrumphing with her flared nostrils.
Hanging on for dear life, Lily gripped the sides as Marilyn – to her horror – leaped onto the seat in front and proceeded to steer them past cottages with roofs made of straw and shops with windows that were still in one piece.
A man stood outside, waving cheerily.
“The butcher,” she explained. “He gave me a nice piece of black-market shank to welcome you.”
“But how did he know I was coming?” asked Lily, confused.
“We’ve all been waiting for you and the others,” said Marilyn, her voice almost lost in the fresh spring wind. “We want to help, dear, after your horrid time.”
But Lily was looking ahead at the sky which had suddenly become a glassy lake.
“Blooming heck! Is that the sea?”
“It is indeed!”
George’s words came back to her.
“Won’t it eat me up like a monster?”
“Only if you don’t respect it. See that line that divides the sea from the land? Beyond that is France.’
France? Lily’s heart leaped.
“That’s where me Dad is!” Her eyes blurred. “He used to write to me at Aunt Gladys’s. He won’t know where I am.”
We’ll find a way to let him know
“Fear not! We’ll find a way to let him know. Hang on. The road is rocky here.”
Her teeth bumped into each other! Surely she would be thrown over the side.
Blimey! This was the kind of house you saw in picture books. It had a stone wall with a sign saying Glebe Farm and a proper roof – not straw – with an arrow on the top that swung in the breeze.
The windows were shaped like diamonds although it was difficult to see with all the green stuff around them.
“Must do something about that ivy,” said Marilyn, leaping out. “You don’t mind dogs, do you? Bracken is very friendly. Clever too, like most collies.”
Lily let out a little scream as a black and white dog began licking her all over.
“He’s just getting to know you. Can you wait there a second while I put Dora in the stables? I’m afraid I don’t have help any more.”
Everything was so fresh! So alive! Barely had Lily time to admire the bush (cut into the shape of a bird), the golden clock on the roof of the stables (fifteen minutes past four) and the milk churns by the door, than her new friend returned.
“Let’s show you your room, shall we?”
The house could have housed hundreds of cousins. But it was also warm, with a great fire burning in the hall, noticed Lily, as made their way up the massive old staircase.
“Glebe Farm’s been in the family for centuries,” explained Marilyn. “My parents had hoped for a boy to inherit so they were very pleased when I married.” Then her face fell. “I’m trying to keep it going while my husband is away.”
“I’ll help,” piped up Lily. “I don’t know nothing ‘bout farms but I’ll give it a bash.”
“How sweet of you. It would be useful if you could learn to milk a cow.’
“Aren’t they dangerous?”
“Only if you don’t take the time to get to know them – rather like the sea. Now, I thought this would suit. It was mine when I was a child.”
Throwing open a door, she revealed an enormous room with pale blue walls. The bed was larger than the one she’d had to share with the little ones back in London. In the corner was a little table with a silver-backed hairbrush and a mirror. There was even a bathroom next door! No outdoor toilet to be shared with seven others! And in the wardrobe Marilyn was opening were more dresses than she’d seen in her life.
“Hand-downs again, I’m afraid. But it’s a start until we can go shopping.”
“But what about coupons?”
Marilyn laughed. “There’s always something that can be done here. Do you like the view?”
Stunned, Lily looked down on the red cliffs with houses studded like white dots, and circles of wire at the foot.
“You mustn’t go near that bit,” said Marilyn, pointing. “It’s where they’ve planted bombs in case Hitler lands. Mind you, I don’t think he’d dare. Not with our defences. Will you be all right on your own while I feed the chickens? Then I’ll get tea on. You must be hungry.”
Lily had almost forgotten her empty tummy. All right on her own? It was wonderful to have peace – so different from her aunt’s house. Lily spun round, arms outstretched in this amazing room that was all hers.
The front door! She must be meant to open it surely?
Running downstairs, accompanied by Bracken, she tugged on the stiff catch.
On the doorstep stood a tall man with dark skin and a black moustache. His hair was jet black, his face angry.
“I am here,” he snarled, stepping back from Bracken, who was growling.
Lily froze with fear. That accent sounded foreign. Was it possible that he was a German? Had she come all the way down from London only to be murdered by the Hun?
“Help,” she screamed. “Marilyn. Help!”