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 to read daily…
Lily isn’t the only stranger the war has brought to Glebe Farm…
The Germans! They had invaded! Lily shook from head to toe as she took in the dark stranger with black eyes as well as the man behind him in uniform. Then her eye fell on an umbrella by the door.
“Get away,” she yelled, brandishing it in their faces as Bracken barked furiously. “Do yer hear me?”
It was Marilyn, running towards them across the courtyard, clutching a bucket and followed by a crowd of squawking chickens. It looked as though Lily’s new friend knew this second man. Had she made some kind of mistake?
“Afternoon! I know you weren’t expecting us but the sergeant thought the new batch should get acquainted with their work before they start tomorrow. Got a mind of his own, this one. Told him to wait but he began walking up as though he owned the place.”
The black eyes seemed to grow even darker. Marilyn seemed worried, too.
“What’s your name?” she asked, her voice wobbling slightly.
“Guiseppe Rossi.” The stranger stood straight as he sang his name into the air. “My friends call me Peppe.” His lip curled. “But you English, you are not my friends.”
“Enough of your cheek,” snapped Colin. “You’re a prisoner of war now and you’ll behave like one.”
Lily’s hand began to sweat on the umbrella handle. Prisoner of war?
“Shoot the lot of ‘em,” Aunt Gladys used to say. “That’d pay them back for harming our lads.”
“Ain’t he one of those Huns?” Lily whimpered.
The stranger’s eyebrows drew together so they made one black line.
“You think I am German?” he spat. “Pah! I am Italian.”
“He’s here to help us on the farm,” whispered Marilyn quietly. “I’m not very comfortable with the idea either but we’ve got to have some extra hands now our own men are away. Colin belongs to the Home Guard and I’ve known him since I was a girl. He’ll keep an eye on us.”
Although she was scared, Lily had a lovely warm feeling. We, Marilyn had said. And us! She was speaking as if Lily was part of the farm already even though she’d only just arrived.
“Welcome to Glebe Farm, Guiseppe.”
Blimey! Marilyn was actually shaking this strange man’s hand. Colin was frowning as if he didn’t approve, either.
“Do you have any experience with crops – or cows or sheep?”
Another scowl. Now she had stopped shaking so much, Lily took in the newcomer’s face. There were little pock marks on his cheeks and a moustache that curled neatly over his top lip. Did he wax it, like Dad?
He was taller than her father, and his feet were huge. She could see his toes coming out through a hole in his shoe.
“I am no farmer,” he growled. “I am fisherman.”
He’s strong, and speaks good English, too
“But he’s strong.” Colin rolled up the man’s shirt sleeve without so much as a by-your-leave. “Show the lady your muscles. I personally made sure you didn’t get a puny one, Marilyn. Speaks good English too, for some reason.”
Even though Lily was scared of the man, it didn’t feel right that they were all looking at him, just as the people at the station had stared at her a few hours ago.
Maybe Marilyn was thinking the same.
“Let me show you where we keep the tools. Tomorrow, you can begin to thin out the new crops. We’ve got Violet to kill, too.”
Marilyn glanced at a large pink animal snorting through the fence. “The pig.” She sighed. “Last one left.”
“I’m afraid it’s part of farm life, dear. War or no war.” Marilyn shrugged.
“Have to get rid of your London ways now you’re down here, young lady,” chipped in Colin. “Thought you’d welcome a nice piece of juicy meat.”
But not if that was where it came from! Lily’s eyes began to fill with tears and not just because of poor Violet. There was all so much to take in…
As she turned away to hide her distress, Lily glanced at the stranger’s face. The eyes had softened, but Lily stiffened. This man was the enemy! He and others like him were trying to kill her dad.
Furiously, Lily stared back. They might both be far from home. But if it wasn’t for Italy and the Germans and all the other wicked people in the world, none of this would be happening. She’d be at home – real home – toasting crumpets in front of the fire while Dad told her lovely stories about Mum.
Still, at least she had Marilyn. Not for the first time, Lily thanked her lucky stars. She only hoped George, the boy she’d met on the train, would be all right. That man who had taken him hadn’t seemed very kind. And what about the little girl in the beret? Please may her new family be as nice as my own!
Later, after Marilyn had shown the dark stranger what was what around the farm, Lily helped to peel potatoes, putting them in a big pot which was hissing over the fire. The peelings went into a bucket for poor Violet’s last breakfast tomorrow morning.
Tonight I want you to rest so you’re fresh for school tomorrow
“It’s all right, thanks,” said Marilyn when Lily asked if she could do anything else. “Tonight I want you to rest so you’re fresh for school tomorrow.”
Really? Since Mr Hitler had started to drop his bombs, her lessons had fallen woefully behind. Lots of the men teachers had gone off to fight. In fact, for the last few weeks, they hadn’t been able to have lessons at all because the building had been commandeered for use as emergency sleeping quarters.
How I miss my old friends, thought Lily as she tossed and turned in the big wide bed where she could actually stretch out her legs. Such luxury! But now she’d have to start all over again. Supposing they scoffed at her “London ways” like that man Colin?
Despite her worries, she must have fallen asleep because it didn’t seem any time at all before the light was streaming in through the windows. Someone must have come in to open the blackout curtains! There was also a delicious smell wafting up the stairs.
“Freshly laid eggs,” beamed Marilyn.
Lily’s eyes widened. Not egg powder?
“And bread, warm from the oven!”
There was even butter! Unable to stop herself, Lily licked her plate clean – a habit she’d fallen into at her aunt’s where every little morsel counted. But Marilyn seemed pleased rather than cross.
“Another slice? There’s just time before I give you a lift to school.”
It was almost as if someone had waved a magic wand and there wasn’t a war at all! Lily had never been on holiday, but Dad had once talked about a place he and Mum had once gone to, called Frinton-on-Sea before the war. Paradise, he’d called it, his eyes all soft with the memory.
As Lily jumped up behind Marilyn on the cart, dressed in the warm blue coat, red tartan skirt and bright yellow jumper that had been hanging in the wardrobe, she knew exactly what he’d meant.
Hanging on tight, she looked around as they took a sharp left and followed a different lane alongside a river.
Strike a light! What was that? Lily stared at a group of soldiers rolling out wires and taking big glass things out of wooden crates.
“Searchlights,” said Marilyn quietly. “They’re setting up a new battery unit so we can spot the bombers if they come over. But you mustn’t tell anyone. Careless talk costs lives, even in a small community like this.”
My aunt said there wouldn’t be no bombs in the country
“Thought we was safe here,” said Lily in a small voice. “My aunt said there wouldn’t be no bombs in the country.”
The cart ground to a halt outside a small honey-coloured building with a brick wall around it.
“We hope there won’t be any,” said Marilyn. Her voice was bright. “But we can’t be certain. Now, off you go. Tell them you’re from Glebe Farm. I’ve got to get back for Guiseppe. Colin’s dropping him off.”
Lily’s heart dropped at the thought of the big man with those terrifying eyes.
“How long is he going to live here?”
“The Italian’s only here during the day. At night he goes back to the prisoner-of-war camp. Now run along – you’re a bit late. Miss Sharp won’t like that. Have fun!”
Fun? Lily’s heart began to beat wildly as she opened the little green wooden gate. Then her eyes widened. There were hopscotch squares chalked on the paving slabs; just like there had been in her own school before a stray bomb had crushed the playground, luckily sparing the building itself.
To her delight, Lily could see George at the back of the classroom – and the little girl in the beret, although she wasn’t wearing the beret now. In fact, there were so many from the train that several were sitting cross-legged on the ground.
“Come on in,” said the teacher, who wore her hair in a grey bun and spoke with a burr at the end of every word. “We’re doing history. Alfred the Great. Do you know what he was famous for?”
“Burning a cake,” piped up George.
Trust him to be thinking about food!
But to her surprise, he was right.
“Well done.” Miss Sharp nodded. “Now I’d like you to pretend that Alfred the Great was sitting next to you now. What kind of man do you think he was?”
Lily couldn’t wait to get writing. Didn’t Aunt Gladys always say she had a wild imagination? It certainly helped her to make up stories.
At lunchtime, they all ate their sandwiches on a wooden trestle table overlooking fields that seemed to go on for ever. It was as though London with all its broken buildings didn’t exist.
Part of Lily felt guilty when she thought of her poor cousins, in danger of all those awful bombs. But the other part couldn’t help marvelling at the beauty of this magical new world.
“Blooming heck!” whistled George as she unwrapped the greaseproof paper parcel that Marilyn had handed to her that morning. “Ham and cheese. Mine’s just jam.”
“Want a bit?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Lily remembered what he’d told her on the train about the postcard home and the secret code.
“Did you send your address to your mother?”
“And how many crosses did you put?”
“Two. I should have put one ‘cos I don’t really like my family. The old man shouts a lot and his wife keeps saying she doesn’t need another mouth to feed. But I don’t want to worry my mum.”
Lily glanced up at the brilliant blue sky and patted her pocket with her precious photograph inside. Mum would be looking down with the angels, happy that she’d found such a nice place to live.
Tonight, she was going to write a letter to Dad and Marilyn was going to post it to Aunty Gladys.
“Maybe she’ll know how to get it to your father’s regiment, dear.”
When school ended, the teacher put them into groups so that the new ones had local children to walk home with. Lily found herself with an older girl whose mother had taken in the little girl in the beret.
The cliffs aren’t safe here
“Watch out,” she said as Lily peered over a sharp drop to admire the sea below. “The cliffs aren’t safe here.”
Just as she spoke, the very earth below Lily’s feet began to crumble. She stepped back just in time before the patch where she’d been standing fell into the sea.
“Told you,” said her guide. “Make sure you stick to the paths.”
But Lily was still looking down at the beach. A dark figure was squatting, hands shading his forehead as if staring towards France. It looked like Guiseppe.
The waves were higher than a house as they smashed against the rocks. Shivering, Lily turned and ran on.
When she got home, the kettle was singing on the fire.
“Look what Guiseppe has found for our supper!” said Marilyn cheerfully.
“Not Violet…” Lily’s lip trembled.
“No. Can you believe it! It turns out that one of the farms across the valley has one pig left too, a boy, and they want them to mate. Have a litter.” Marilyn laughed at Lily’s blank face. “Make baby piglets. If it wasn’t for Guiseppe, I wouldn’t have found out but he’s sharing a cell with an Italian who works for this farmer.”
“So Violet doesn’t have to die?”
They both turned at the gruff voice. The Italian was at the door. In his hands were a pair of rabbits with staring eyes. Instinctively, she knew they were dead.
“You can’t be squeamish,” said Marilyn, seeing Lily’s face. “Remember what I told you about life on a farm?”
“Did you find them in the sea?” Lily asked Guiseppe.
“Rabbits can’t swim, dear.”
“But I saw him.” Lily pointed. “On the beach only half an hour ago.”
The black eyes seemed amused.
“You are sure of that?”
Oh dear. Maybe that had been her imagination again…
“He is not allowed to leave the farm,” Marilyn said quickly. “Not during the day. Or he would be sent to a different prison.”
There was a twitch in Guiseppe’s cheek as the twinkle in his eye was replaced by fear.
“I have been in one of those already and I do not care to go back.”
But as he turned to go, Lily noticed his right trouser leg was damp. Just as if he had been in the water.
The following week passed faster than Lily had known it since her father had gone away. Soon, she knew exactly what to do before Marilyn needed to ask her. Before breakfast, she would feed the hens and take Violet her bowl of potato peelings. The pig would grunt happily as if she knew Lily had pleaded for her life – although it was Guiseppe who had really saved her.
One day, after school, Marilyn asked her to work side by side with the Italian in the field, pulling up weeds by hand. Blimey, it made her sweat.
“Look at that,” said Guiseppe as they took a short breather. “Isn’t that the most beautiful view you can ever see?”
He was pointing to the sea.
“It scares me. My friend George says it will gobble me up if I’m not careful.”
“You do not really believe that?” The Italian threw his hands into the air. “The sea is like a woman. She can be quiet one moment and angry the next. But always she is exciting.”
That was you on the beach the other day, wasn’t it?
“That was you on the beach the other day, wasn’t it?” Lily said quietly.
There was silence. Then he gently touched her under the chin, as Dad did when he was about to tell her something.
“I have lived by the sea all my life. For me, it is hell not to feel it trickling through my fingers and toes. To smell the salt. To taste its life. If I could not swim, I would be a broken man.”
“You can swim?” interrupted Lily.
“But of course. Can not you?”
He shook his head. “That is sad.” Then he gave her a wink. “So if I happen to go down to the sea again when I should be somewhere else, it will be our little secret. Yes?”
He might be the enemy but she could not help feeling that he was nicer than he’d seemed.
“Yes.” She hoped she was right to agree.
Lily also had fun exploring. In the garage was a black motor car, covered with cobwebs. Marilyn and her husband must be very rich! But why didn’t anyone drive it?
Another time, Lily tried to go into the room next to hers. But it was locked.
Meanwhile, at school, Miss Sharp had given her a gold star for her story about the king who burned the cake. She’d also invited her to join the choir after hearing Lily sing to herself in the playground.
Life was settling down to a routine. Every day, she would feed the chickens and Violet as well as helping to “thin out” cabbages, carrots and leeks in the vegetable garden. It was hard work but she loved it.
“You’re really getting the knack,” said Marilyn approvingly, taking in her pink face and tight waistband. “On Saturday, we’ll go into the town and see if we can get you some material for a dress. We’ll also pick up our post. The boy doesn’t deliver here. We’re too far off the track.”
Windsea was much prettier than Lily had realised from the station. There was a long path along the sea that Marilyn called the promenade, but Lily took care to keep her distance.
Finally they reached the post office.
“Nothing for me, it seems,” said Marilyn, a shadow crossing a face. “But…”
Yes! There was a letter for her in Aunt Gladys’ uneven writing. Tearing open the envelope, Lily began to read. Spelling was one of her best subjects but there were some words she hadn’t seen before.
“M…i…s.…s…i…n…g”, she read out slowly.
The rest of the queue suddenly stopped talking. Marilyn’s face went very still and she bent down.
“May I look, dear?” Then she drew Lily to her. “I’m very sorry, but it’s bad news about your father…”