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…
Concluding our wartime story, what was the truth behind the barn going up in flames?
“Fire! Fire!” The cry went round the farmhouse as the flames shot into the sky, lighting up the darkness.
“The night bombers will spot us,” yelled Marilyn as she flew down the stairs, tucking her nightdress into jodphurs.
Oh no! Even though the town hadn’t been hit so far, they all knew the dangers of German bombers “dropping spare shells” before going back for home.
“Stay there, both of you,” continued Marilyn firmly. “I’ll ride to the village and get help.”
“If she had a phone like my parents, she could have just rung someone,” said Angela sharply as they stood, noses pressed against the window.
She was still in her dance dress, Lily noticed. So she couldn’t have been back long before hammering on her door.
“Surely we ought to do something?”
“You heard my aunt. Stay here.”
But they’d all worked so hard to stack the hay in the barn. If it went, the animals would have nothing to eat in the winter! Ignoring Angela’s shouts, Lily ran across the farmyard just as Colin arrived with a group of dark-skinned men.
“We saw the flames,” he panted. “Where are the buckets?”
It was Giuseppe! Running after him to the outhouse, Lily grabbed a bucket too.
“Not you.” He put a hand on her arm. “It is too dangerous.”
The heat was overpowering and the smoke hurt her throat as she watched the men scoop bucket after bucket of water from the pond, then run in to the barn and out again.
Wait. What was that? Lily bent down and picked up a dance glove from the mud. Next to it was a squashed cigarette packet. An American one.
It had been Angela who had raised the alarm. She must have been outside with her soldier.
Just at that moment, there was a roar of another truck.
“More help, thank the Lord,” spluttered Giovanni, wiping sweat off his forehead. “You are still here, piccolina? Do not you listen? Go inside where it is safe.”
They couldn’t stop her watching from the back door. Eventually, the flames died down into plumes of grey smoke.
“It’s out,” someone cried. And in the distance, she saw everyone hugging each other. Even Marilyn and Giuseppe.
If it hadn’t been for the quick actions of Colin and the prisoners of war, the barn would have burned to the ground.
“Half our hay has gone but it’s a miracle we didn’t lose everything,” Lily heard Marilyn tell everyone when they went into town later that week.
Angela remained silent. In fact, she’d been very quiet since the night of the fire. But she had lent a hand in cleaning up the mess without any of her usual grumbling.
Now as they followed Marilyn out of the Post Office – still no letter from Dad – she addressed Lily in a low voice.
“I suppose you think you’re clever.”
“Pretty smart, I must say, to keep the other one. Blackmail, I suppose. I don’t have any money, you know.”
Lily’s thoughts went back to the morning after the fire when she had quietly placed the muddy lace glove in Angela’s room while she was in the lav.
“I don’t know what you mean. I only found one,” she whispered back. “Oh…” Suddenly Lily realised what Angela was hinting at. Was it possible that Angela and the soldier had started the blaze?
“Did you start that fire? You should tell Marilyn.”
It was an accident. I told him to scarper or else we’d both get it
“Truth is, Earl and I got a bit carried away. He dropped his fag when he was… well, kissing me.” She went bright red. “It was an accident. I told him to scarper or else we’d both get it.”
Lily’s voice rose. “But that’s wrong!”
“Girls?” They both froze as Marilyn turned round. “Not arguing, are you? There’s enough trouble in the world.”
“Course we’re not arguing, aunt.” Then to Lily’s surprise, Angela slipped her arm into hers. “We’re the best of friends. Aren’t we, Lily? ”
Later that night, she found a slip of paper slid under the door. Thanks.
The note made Lily feel both deceitful and also flattered at the same time. Her skin prickled with shame when Marilyn declared they’d probably “never know” how the fire started. Yet it was almost worth it not to have Angela sniping at her all the time.
Besides, something else had happened.
“How can I reward you?” Marilyn had asked Giuseppe when he arrived for work the day after the fire.
His reply came so fast that it was almost as if he’d been thinking about it.
“I wish to go to the sea when we stop for lunch.” His eyes flashed. “Every day.”
Marilyn looked alarmed.
“But you’re not meant to leave the farm when you’re here. I could get into trouble.”
He shrugged. “You might not have farm if it is not for me. I can teach the child to swim. Come with us, to help. You watch me at the same time.”
Lily could see Marilyn wasn’t very happy about this. Just as well no one else was around to hear! But she couldn’t help telling George in the school playground.
“Told you,” said George, excitedly. “He’s a spy and he wants to send signals from the beach. Let’s catch him at it, Lily. Then they’d reward us too.”
“Actually, I think we should trust him,” said Lily shyly.
“Pah! It’s his lot that have done for your dad, remember.”
“Don’t say that.” Lily fought back the tears. “My dad’s all right. I know he is. Not all the Italians are bad.”
“You’ll be saying that about the Huns next. That’s what comes of being out of London. Makes you soft. Play hopscotch by yourself if you’re going to act daft.”
George might have sent her to Coventry but Lily still felt she’d done the right thing in sticking up for Giuseppe. Besides, her first swimming lesson was coming up. She was both terrified and curious. Was the sea really magic? What if she sank and never came up again?
Don’t be such a coward, Lily, she told herself sternly. If Dad could be brave, then so must she.
“Eeemagine you are frog! Yes. That’s right. Like the ones in the pond. You must kick your legs round in sickles.”
“I believe you mean ‘circles’,” interrupted Marilyn as she bobbed up and down beside Lily, holding her waist.
“This is what I say.”
Giuseppe flicked his wet hair out of his eyes. Although they’d often seen him without a shirt when he was working on the farm, it seemed a bit strange close up. But Marilyn wasn’t staring, so she mustn’t either.
“That’s right. Now bring your arms round in sickles too.”
“Don’t let go,” Lily squealed.
Hang on, there’s a wave coming
“I won’t, dear. Now hang on. There’s a wave coming.”
“Help!” Lily started to say but suddenly her mouth was full of water and she felt herself being pulled under. She was going to be gobbled up and it served her right. It was her punishment for not telling Marilyn the truth about the fire.
Then, just as suddenly as she’d gone under, Lily rose up again, gulping in air.
“I’m still alive,” she spluttered.
“But of course! The sea, she takes you into her arms and then she lets you go. Do I not tell you she is magic?”
I can swim three strokes all on my own, Lily wrote in her Sunday night letter. Please come back soon so you can see me, Dad.
Meanwhile, it was harvest – which meant “all hands to the deck”. Everyone was roped in to work late into the night – including the evacuee children and the prisoners of war too.
“My back aches,” complained Angela. So did Lily’s as she stacked the sheaves of corn. But it seemed only right to repay Marilyn’s kindness.
Besides, it was fun! When one farmer had finished, he would help a neighbour.
“I thought bread grew in packets,” remarked George, his eyes widening as he watched the roaring threshing machine. Then his eyes narrowed at Giuseppe. “I’m still watching that one. You should, too.”
To celebrate the end of harvest, there was a big supper at Marilyn’s farm. Angela had invited her soldier friend and kept going outside for “a little walk”. Suddenly, Lily saw Giuseppe – she still couldn’t get used to “Pepe” – slipping out through the back door.
George noticed too.
“I’m going after him.”
“In the dark?” Lily glanced across at Marilyn, who was chatting to the blacksmith. “Wait for me.”
She had to get Giuseppe to come back before he got into trouble. But as they headed down to the beach – surely that’s where he’d have gone – it was hard to see much.
“Reckon he’s gone down to the bit that’s wired off,” whispered George. “Wait there.”
But that was the dangerous part where their own brave boys had put down mines to kill the Germans if they invaded.
“Don’t,” she called. Too late.
At the same time, she could see something in the water. Lily froze. Was it a submarine? Or a large fish?
No! It was Giuseppe.
“Help,” she called out from the beach. “Help.”
It was no good. He couldn’t hear. But if she didn’t attract his attention, George might tread on a mine and get blown up.
Shaking, Lily made her way into the water, trying to remember everything she’d been taught. Arms out wide in circles. Legs up and down. She’d only managed three strokes up to now. It would take many more to reach Giuseppe.
Four, five, six, seven… Keep going, Lily told herself as she battled through the cold waves. For George’s sake.
“You swim!” Giuseppe’s eyes were wide with wonder as he finally spotted her in the water. “You swim a long way!”
George… he’s looking for you on the beach where there are mines
“George.” Lily could hardly speak for her chattering teeth. “He’s looking for you on the beach where there are mines.”
“Holy Mother of God. Quick. Climb on my back.”
Lily found herself riding through the waves towards the beach.
“Stay,” he shouted as she fell onto the sand while he ran up to the wire. Trembling, Lily watched him crawl through – crying out in pain – and then race up the other side.
Lily’s ears rang as bits of metal rained down. It was like the Blitz all over again – but this time on the beach.
Lily began to cry, rooted to the wet sand. George and Giuseppe would both be dead – and it was all her fault for sneaking out without telling Marilyn.
But something was crawling through the wire towards her. Giuseppe! And he was carrying George.
At the same time, there was the roar of an engine.
“What’s going on here, buddy?”
It was the soldiers from the American camp. Oh, no. One of them had a rifle at Giuseppe’s throat!
Say something! Are you alive?
“It wasn’t his fault,” Lily spluttered. “He went to save my friend. George – say something! Are you alive?”
His voice was weak but clear.
“I lost me humbugs on the other side of the wire. Can you get ’em for us?”
Lily wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
“Let’s see that leg, kid,” said another soldier. “Looks like you’re cut bad.”
“What’s going on?”
It was the butcher from the Home Guard. Quickly, Lily explained.
“I am no spy,” said Giuseppe indignantly. “I am fisherman. If I do not live in water, I die. This boy, he die too if I do not save him.”
“It’s true.” Gosh! Angela was here too. “Earl and I were… well, we were on the beach. We saw everything. The Italian was very brave.”
“Sounds like there have been quite a lot of people who’ve been where they shouldn’t,” said the butcher. “Time to go back before anything else happens.”
Giuseppe was let off with a reprimand, Marilyn told Lily.
“He was told off for going to the sea without telling us.” She bit her lip. “I’ve told him I can’t risk that again.”
George – who had to do extra work on his farm as punishment for going through the wire – stuck up for Giuseppe. “I’d be dead meat if he hadn’t yanked me away from those mines.”
Yet just as the barn had pulled them together, the mine caused trouble.
“I’m so glad you’re such good friends,” said Marilyn fondly as she watched Angela and Lily splashing around in the bay.
After a few weeks, Lily gathered enough courage to swim right across – once she even beat Angela. Often she glimpsed Giuseppe waving from the farm on the cliff above, encouraging her.
Marilyn might not let Giuseppe come swimming too, but she often asked him to eat lunch with them at the farmhouse table. Once Lily came back from feeding the hens and saw Giuseppe lifting a strand of Marilyn’s hair away from her face. He did it really carefully, just like she’d seen him take a stone out of the horse’s hoof the other morning.
“I had something in my eye,” said Marilyn, blushing. “Thanks, Giuseppe. I think it’s out now.”
It would be hard to manage without him, Marilyn often said. But often when she and Marilyn went into the Post Office, they were met with stony glances and whispers.
“If I were her,” said one, “I wouldn’t have an Italian in my house. What was he doing in the sea anyway? As for the barn, I wouldn’t be surprised if those prisoners of war started it themselves and took the credit for putting it out.”
Lily burned with indignation.
Then, just as the weather began to turn – everyone said it had been an unseasonably hot autumn – Lily received two letters in the post. The first was from the mayor inviting her to receive a bravery award. The second was from Aunt Gladys who had moved into a large house in a place called “the suburbs”.
Time you came back to us now. Your father would have wanted that.
“She sounds as if she thinks Dad is dead,” said Lily showing Marilyn. “But he can’t be, can he?”
“No news is good news. Remember?”
“But I don’t want to leave you!”
You’ve been like a daughter
Marilyn’s eyes were wet. “And we don’t want you to go. You’ve been like a daughter.” She blew her nose. “You’ll just have time to go to the award ceremony. It can be your goodbye to the town.”
“But it’s Giuseppe who should get the award. Not me.”
Marilyn bit her lip. “He should certainly share it. But unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way.” She looked down at her own letter, eyes shining.
“Tom has written. He’s been wounded – not too seriously, thank goodness. But he’s coming home!”
Wow! Lily flung her arms around her. Her friend’s happiness made up for her own heavy heart. If only Dad could be so lucky…
There were so many people at the town hall that Lily felt small and shy.
“I’m sure everyone agrees Lily did a very brave thing,” said the mayor. “Now she’s going back to her own family but we will miss her.”
Everyone clapped. As they all crowded out of the hall, Marilyn carrying her suitcase, Lily suddenly saw Giuseppe on the back of a truck with Colin.
George, next to her, put his fingers to his lips and whistled. The truck stopped and Lily ran up, breathless.
“You have this,” she said to Giuseppe, pressing the medal into his hand. “You deserve it for saving George. Not me.”
Giuseppe’s hands clasped hers.
Be brave for your papa, the magic of the sea will bring him back to you
“Thank you, piccolina. We are going to another camp but there is talk that the war will soon be over. Be brave for your papa.” From in his pocket he brought out a shiny shell. “Hold this safe. The magic of the sea will bring him back to you.”
Lily cried all the way back to London.
“Thought you’d be glad to be back,” said her aunt, who met her off the train.
“I am,” said Lily, crossing her fingers. “Do you think Dad will be home soon?”
Aunt Gladys shook her head.
“Sorry, love. Your dad’s been gone for too long now. He’s got to be dead.”
Lily cried even more then. Her heart ached for the countryside too.
But over the months, Marilyn’s letters helped. She even received a pair of stockings from Angela at Christmas!
Then, one afternoon in late spring, after Lily brought her little cousins back from school, she found another letter with Angela’s posh handwriting on the hall table.
Aunt Marilyn has had twins! Two girls! They came earlier than the doctor thought. She and Uncle are really happy.
Now they could use all those little baby jackets! How lovely it was that Marilyn and Tom, and Giuseppe and his wife, had both had twins…
Even though Lily was happy for Marilyn, she couldn’t help feeling sad. Everyone was excited because the war would soon be over. But it wouldn’t be the same without Dad.
“Lily,” called her aunt from the kitchen in a strange voice.
Another job? Still, it would take her mind off things…
Then Lily stopped. There was the face she saw in her dreams night after night.
Dad! He wasn’t dead after all! But he was terribly thin and leaning on a stick.
“My little girl! I’m so sorry I couldn’t write. But I was in a camp and…” His voice faltered as he wept in her arms.
I knew you’d come back to me
“Oh, Dad,” she said, holding him tight. “I knew you’d come back to me.”
Yet he was still shaking. She had to make him feel better. But how?
As she reached in her pocket for a hanky, she felt Giuseppe’s shell next to her mother’s photograph. Of course!
“Please stop crying, Dad. I’ve got some good news. I’ve learned to swim!”
“You clever girl!”
As they hugged, laughing and crying, Lily knew everything would be all right, thanks to the magic of the sea…
Read another wartime story…