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World War 2 Two II WW2 WWII

212500

Robert Bennathan

Evacuee

It was the eve of my seventh birthday when the Second World War (to end all wars, they told us) broke out on a warm September day in 1939. And in its wake, I, among thousands of my peers, were dispatched, with identity labels attached to our lapels and gasmask containers slung round our shoulders, to seek refuge from our threatened British cities; an exodus that would leave its indelible mark on the rest of our lives.

I hooked my little finger into a loop of Mickey’s raincoat and huddled closer to him for comfort as we stood among thirty-eight other tired and anxious children in the communal hall of a Wiltshire village named Holt where the coach had deposited us at the end of a long day. Nervous and missing our families, we hugged mugs of hot cocoa handed to us on arrival, and stared across at the mass of strangers who had come to foster us.

Mickey alone appeared undaunted. He was my first cousin and my hero, and, typically, had assumed natural leadership of our group. The constant buzz from the facing villagers as they scrutinized our forlorn ranks ceased abruptly as a tall man stepped forward and came over to where Mickey and I stood. He was not yet middle-aged though his freckled pate was visible through wispy, reddish hair, and his remarkably blue eyes twinkled kindly but with a hint of mischief that contradicted the drabness of his grey apparel. He placed a hand on Mickey’s arm. ‘I’ll take this lad if I may,’ he said genially.Our teacher in charge was Miss Hanna. She nodded courteously and made a note on the clip-board she carried. Almost simultaneously, other villagers surged forward as if the tall man had triggered the proceedings. Amid the ensuing tangle and bustle and plaintive sobbing of younger children, the locals selected and gently ushered out their new wards who glanced back helplessly at the ever dwindling group of children that remained their last link with home.

The grey-suited gentleman stooped to read the label on my cousin’s lapel: ‘Nissim, is it?’ He had to speak above the tumult. My cousin nodded tensely. ‘But everyone calls me Mickey,’ he replied, equally loudly, and then edged me forward. ‘And this is my cousin. His name’s Bobby.’ ,p>‘Then obviously you’re together.’

Mickey’s emphatic nod confirmed it. ‘He has to stay with me. Our mothers said.’

The din was abating as Miss Hanna returned to us. ‘You’re taking them both, then?’ she asked the man.

He smiled his submission and said: ‘It seems I have no choice.’

I have often since wondered how oddly matched we must have appeared to him: Mickey, a handsome ten-year-old with curly, black hair and intelligent, deep-set eyes that had already melted young hearts in the classroom; and I, a pint-sized runt of seven years, with no front teeth, and peering piggy-eyed from beneath a pudding-basin haircut. The man offered Mickey his hand. ‘My name is Reverend Peter Hewitt.’ His clerical collar had been the focus of our attention for some moments. Mickey’s face reddened. Solemnly and tight-lipped he shook the hand. The cleric looked concerned. ‘Have you some objection to coming with me, Mickey?’

‘We’re Jewish, sir.’ Mickey said it flatly as if his statement would terminate any further liaison.

The man’s smile understood. ‘Well? Aren’t you all? It’s the same school, isn’t it?’

‘But you’re…’

‘That’s perfectly correct, yes. I’m a vicar; Church of England. Does that bother you? It certainly doesn’t worry me.’

Miss Hanna interjected: ‘You’re very lucky boys. You’ll be living in a lovely house.’

Never had I seen Mickey at such a loss, head bowed and frowning at the floor as the man asked, ‘How’s your Hebrew?’ The question jolted us. Mickey looked up defiantly as the vicar persisted: ‘I’m absolutely serious.’ Miss Hanna shuffled uneasily as I self-consciously spoke up for the first time:

‘We go to haida lessons every Sunday morning.’ My timid observation appeared to surprise the man, almost as if he had forgotten that I was there. He gave me a friendly nod and said, ‘All right, then.’ He raised his right hand. ‘What is this called in Hebrew?’ Our blank expressions were our only answer. His hand still raised, he said, ‘It’s called yad. And with this…yad, I would like to invite you both to come and join my family.’ He politely checked Miss Hanna, who was about to make her diplomatic contribution, and looked again at my cousin. ‘How say you, Mickey?’ My cousin’s eyes met those of the friendly stranger. ‘Thank you very much, sir,’ he replied softly.

So began a memorable year for me and, as I imagined at the time, for Mickey also. The vicarage, with its broad, ivy-covered elevation, was set in almost an acre of garden that backed on to a large orchard. To our hitherto urban lives, it was a new-found paradise for us. Not until we saw the humble dwellings that billeted our school colleagues down in the village, did we fully appreciate the luxury that we would be enjoying as adopted members of the community’s leading family. Reverend Hewitt, who we were soon to discover, was something of a prankster, lived with his two, unmarried sisters: Margaret, his twin, a wholesome and charming titian-haired woman whose ready smile would transform her rather ordinary features to sudden prettiness - and for whom I was later to harbour a secret boyhood passion. She was always fun to be with. She would take us for long walks and picnics together with Bill, her sand-coloured Labrador. Never having owned a pet, I grew to love that animal as much as any friend before or since.

The vicar’s other sister, whom we only ever addressed as ‘Miss Hewitt,’ was considerably older than her siblings. Dressed always in sombre shawls and black, high-buttoned dresses of ankle length, her sagging features framed by iron-grey hair scraped into a severe bun, reminded me of photographs I had seen at school of Queen Victoria; the same stern expression; brusque and alert. She was meticulous about domestic routine and imposed stringent rules to which we adhered to the letter: ‘Keep your bedroom tidy at all times; be punctual for meals, clean your teeth and shoes regularly – and never visit the drawing room without permission.’

The house itself was typically Victorian, though its content held little initial appeal for us. The wide, oak-panelled hall at the foot of a curving staircase lacked only a sinister suit of armour to remind me of creepy films I had watched through half-closed eyes in the cinema. For Mickey, it was the portraits of previous incumbents that adorned the walls that gave him goose-pimples. He would swear, and I certainly agreed, that their eyes followed us everywhere. Reverend Hewitt was not slow to interpret our initial uneasiness, and wasted no time in revealing the mischief that lurked behind his collar of respectability.

It was warm, early evening in the wake of a sticky day, and Miss Hewitt allowed us to have our bed-time snack on the terrace. ‘Well, well! Hello, lads.’ The vicar had spotted us in our dressing gowns and came grinning to join us. ‘Enjoying the last of our Indian summer, are we?’ We nodded and wondered as we ate what had prompted this rare attention. ‘Strange thing happened while you were at school today,’ he said. ‘Just after lunch, as a matter of fact. A lady came to see me. Said she was just passing through. Quite beautiful she was, and dressed all in white.’ His voice still echoed around the peaceful garden as his theatrical pause ensured that he held our undivided attention – and that he certainly did. ‘Said she had a personal problem and needed my spiritual guidance. I could see she was upset so I invited her out here where I thought she’d feel more relaxed.’ An odd glint lit his eyes as we waited eagerly for more. He pointed to where we were seated. ‘She sat right there, in fact.’ He paused for another maddening moment. ‘Well,’ he went on, ‘we talked for a while, and then she suddenly got to her feet. She looked pale and strange and said she had to leave.’ We had stopped chewing on our egg and cress sandwiches by then; rapt in his narrative. ‘And then,’ said the vicar, in a tone more sinister, ‘she was gone.’ He clicked his fingers. ‘Just like that.’ I held my breath as he rubbed his lower lip ruminatively then peered hard at us. ‘Curious thing was, though, that instead of leaving this way,’ he pointed to the open French windows, ‘she went out that way.’ This time he pointed towards a high brick wall that enclosed the garden from the orchard some sixty feet distant. ‘Quite remarkable, don’t you think?’ Then he shrugged and gave a wave as he turned on his heel. ‘Must be off, lads. Sleep tight, and God bless.’ Both Mickey and I blurted out after him, though my mouth was too full for coherence. Mickey’s retort did, however, stop the cleric in his tracks: ‘But…but you can’t get out that way!’ The vicar turned, nodding his agreement. ‘D’you know,’ he said, ‘that’s exactly what I thought at the time. Well, goodnight again.’ And off he strode as our appetites went with him.

Our bedroom was a long, narrow, rather sombre looking place that looked even less prepossessing when we retired that night. The only light switch was located by the door, and, from previous haunting experience, we knew that it took four giant paces and a flying header in total darkness to get from the light switch to the bed that we shared. As a result of serious debate, we had agreed that this harrowing duty would be performed on an alternating rota. ‘Not that I’m scared or anything,’ Mickey had assured me. ‘It’s just fairer that way.’ To my horror, I realised that it was my turn for the light, following our scary suppertime encounter with the vicar. But, merciful fellow that he could sometimes be, my cousin sensed my foreboding. That night we agreed to do the run together.

After a wholesome breakfast on our second Sunday at the vicarage, we were playing at the front of the house, skidding around the gravelled drive on a couple of rusting bicycles that we discovered in the garage. Reverend Hewitt emerged, resplendent in his white surplice that reflected in the sun’s early rays. My balance wobbled as I tried to wave to him, and Mickey greeted him happily:‘Jolly good bikes, vicar!’ The cleric snorted. ‘It’s all right for you two young sprogs. I have to go and work.’ Mickey braked sharply and rested a foot on the ground. ‘Work?’ His nose wrinkled. ‘On a Sunday? Where?’ The vicar pointed to the church just across the way. ‘But that’s not work,’ Mickey argued.

‘You think not, Mickey? Then leave your bikes and come along. I’ll show you something.’ We dismounted and fell in behind him, curious but cautious since we had come to know his ways.

Neither Mickey nor I had ever been into a church. The temperature cooled noticeably as, with some apprehension, we followed in. Still blinded from the bright sun, I was conscious only of cool, echoing space at first. Then as my eyes accustomed, I saw carved figures, some winged and staring upwards as if in prayer from dim-lit recesses, The cold eeriness made me shudder as I moved closer to Mickey who followed the vicar towards the altar where a figure of Christ loomed, his body bloodied, arms spread-eagled and hands impaled to a cross; a picture I had seen many times. And we were suddenly aware of many villagers quietly assembled along the pews that flanked our progress. We filed to the left of the altar into a vestry at its rear. There the vicar pushed aside heavy, velvet curtains to reveal a panelled partition from which protruded a wooden pole about two feet above the floor. ‘This,’ he announced, ‘is the pump.’ He worked the handle up and down a few times in demonstration. ‘It pumps air into the organ which you might have noticed on the other side of this screen, and generates the pressure needed to make sound. I usually get a couple of my choirboys to work it. Thought perhaps you’d like to try.’ ‘How long for, vicar?’ Mickey looked doubtful. ‘Whenever you hear the organ starting up, just pump a few times – ten or fifteen. As you can see, it’s not difficult. Mickey raised an eyebrow in my direction and I gave a quick, non-committal shrug. ‘OK,’ he said. The cleric smiled his delight. ‘Good for you, lads. I’ll be on the other side doing my bit, so there’s nothing to worry about.’ He slipped away and left us standing in nervous readiness each side of the pump handle. I thought of my father and couldn’t resist an impish giggle as I whispered, ‘We’re in church, Mickey!’

Later, we sat exhausted at the lunch table. The pressure of our responsibility in church had taken its toll despite the vicar’s attempts to boost our flagging spirits with genuine praise for our efforts. ‘Do sit up Bobby!’ It was Miss Hewitt; she was always at me for something or other. I envied my cousin who, although never impudent, would always speak up for himself, leaving shy little me as an easier target for the old lady. In fact, this early lack of confidence had caused me embarrassment on more that one occasion, not least of all during another meal when salad was served and I discovered a dead spider beneath a lettuce leaf. It took some moments for me to summon the courage to report my find. As if amazed by my announcement, the vicar frowned up from his plate ‘Is that all, Bobby? Well, just gobble it up. It’s protein. Do you no harm, lad.’ And so saying, he returned to the general conversation leaving me with an awful dilemma. Never certain if he was being serious or not (and certainly never daring to enquire), I opted for the former and gulped the dead insect down in a moment of nauseating agony. When Margaret got up to clear the dishes, she searched my plate and asked where the insect was. As, in almost a whisper, I explained my action, my words were drowned by disbelieving laughter coming from both Mickey and the vicar, whereas Miss Hewitt just fixed me with a disdainful stare. It was Margaret who was my saviour: ‘How could you be so cruel?’ she raged at her brother, ‘He’s only a child. He doesn’t understand your stupid sense of humour.’ She came over to console me with a kiss on my cheek. Her warm breath and the subtle scent that she wore, stirred my young loins strangely – a lingering sensation that made the spider incident almost worth while. My devotion to Margaret was forever sealed.

It began to rain after lunch, so Margaret postponed Bill’s afternoon walk until later in the day. We went up to our room where Mickey stretched out and read his comic while I laboured over my weekly letter to mother. Reverend Hewitt’s call from downstairs interrupted the tranquillity; ‘Come on down lads! I’m in the library.’ It was not so much an order as an invitation. What now, we thought. As we entered, the vicar bade us to sit in two chairs placed close together at a low table. The library was my favourite room in the house, cosy, secure with its welcoming smell of polished leather and books. He stood before us, hands clasped as if he were about to deliver a sermon: ‘Boys, it is my intention to repay your kindness in church this morning.’ He pointed at the two books he had placed before us. ‘Please open them.’ The last thing we expected see was a page of Hebrew text. Our exchange of puzzled glances appeared to please him. ‘I’m going to make a deal with you both.’ His tone implied that there would be little option. ‘You pump the organ on Sunday mornings, and I, in return, will give you an hour of Hebrew instruction in the afternoons.’ It soon became evident that our remarkable reverend was also a scholar of Hebrew. Indeed, we were to learn more about our ethnic history and language in the first month of our ‘arrangement,’ than we had in six months of religious instruction at school.

Our parents would visit as often as they were able, but not collectively. Mickey’s father, Haim, was sadly invalid, and my own parents would visit separately as they had divorced when I was four years old. It was on a Saturday, which was the usual day for visiting, when Mickey’s mother, (who was my Aunt Elena) and my mother, Sara, arrived together by coach. With them, for the first time, came a man who was later to become my step-father. His name was Jack; a plump, jolly man, unlike my father, Simon, who was fastidious about his appearance and, despite his devotion to me, a man of more sober demeanour. Judging by the copious amount of ice-cream and sweets that Jack plied us with, I assumed that he was extremely rich. Our visitors were surprised and impressed by Reverend Hewitt’s profound knowledge of Jewish culture and his encouragement of its teaching. My somewhat genteel mama, however, who was something of a sectarian, suffered a moment of extreme discomfort when the vicar eagerly addressed her in fluent Hebrew. We all struggled to suppress our smiles at her embarrassed expression of total ignorance. It was a moment as unforgettable as it was amusing. Neither was she exactly enchanted with the West Country twang that Mickey and I were happily acquiring, despite the fact the Aunt Elena and Jack found it highly entertaining.

When the coach arrived for their return journey (the time would always pass too quickly for us) it filled with other visiting parents as we begged permission from the driver to travel the first mile with them, our intention being to return on foot via a short cut across the fields. But autumn darkness had descended earlier than usual and we lost our direction homeward. A distance that should have taken no more than half an hour to cover suddenly became a two-hour nightmare. I sobbed steadily as we stumbled through scrub and mud without even moonlight to guide us. Mickey tightly held my hand and hauled me over the hostile terrain as he muttered continuously, albeit unconvincingly: ‘It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.’ We finally spotted a torchlight moving from side to side through the murk and knew that it could only be Will at that time of night. Our tiredness evaporated as we rushed towards him with tears in our voices. The big farmer handed his flashlight to Mickey and hoisted me up onto his great shoulders. I wrapped my arms around his neck and blessed his earthy smell as he loped on like a countryman does: unhurried, steady and totally at one with his surroundings. ‘Right panic you two started.’ His drawl warmed our souls. ‘Where you been, then?’ We explained as best we could, both talking at once in high-pitched hysteria that follows relief.

They were waiting for us outside the vicarage. Reverend Hewitt wore muddied boots and carried a torch. His expression changed to profound relief when he saw us. ‘Well done, Will. Are they all right?’ The farmer nodded and lifted me down next to Mickey who stood, head drooped in shame. In her Wellington boots and anorak, and holding tightly onto Bill who was straining against his leash at sight of us, Margaret’s voice trembled as she spoke: ‘Bless you, Will.’

‘Couple of little blighters, they be,’ said Will with stoic good humour. He held Margaret’s gaze for a long moment before addressing the vicar: ‘I’ll be saying goodnight to you then, father.’ He touched his cap and strode off, leaving us to the mercy of Miss Hewitt who had suddenly appeared, wrapped tightly in her shawl.

‘Just look at you,’ she said in a tone less stern than usual. ‘Straight into the tub, the two of you – and I’ll do the scrubbing. And Miss Hewitt did just that.

The highlight of our week was the Saturday afternoon children’s show at our nearest cinema that was fifteen miles away in Trowbridge. My throat had felt sensitive for some days and by Saturday I was beginning to sneeze. To my astonishment, Miss Hewitt did not, as I fully expected, banish me to my bed, but insisted that I wrapped up warmly for our weekly trip and gave me some pastilles to suck on the way. I naturally raised no objection, despite a nagging curiosity to know what had motivated such an extraordinary change of policy. She had even arranged for us to have tea on our return at Mrs Grindley’s, a widow who cleaned at the church twice a week. We left the cinema at just after four that afternoon, having enjoyed an enthralling two hours of Cowboys and Indians, and made our way to the bus stop where the four- thirty to Holt would be due. At that point, a sound, the like of which we had never before heard, rent the air; penetrating, undulating, wailing. Men women and children spilled out of shops and houses, filling the streets that moments earlier had been relatively quiet. ‘Air-raid!’ I heard being shouted above the general din. ‘It’s a bloody air-raid!’ I looked in panic at Mickey who was shouting something at me when a constable, wearing a tin helmet like a soldier’s, grabbed us in a tackle from behind and half-carried us along. He shouted, ‘Quickly, you kids! Down there!’ He nodded ahead. ‘See it? Air-raid shelter. Go on, quickly!’ He pushed us and released his grip as if the momentum would carry us to the place that he had indicated, and then dashed off in another direction. My breath wheezed faster through blocked sinuses as Mickey tugged me along in the growing throng that stampeded towards the safety of shelter. We reached cover in seconds and stood squashed between thirty or so others in the depressing, ill-lit dug out, rank with the stench of damp sandbags that lined the walls.

Then, abruptly as it had begun, the siren’s mournful wailing stopped, leaving us in momentary silence before our hearing re-attuned to the noise of humans in a confined space. Two uniformed men at the shelter’s entrance scanned the sky with some derision. One of them shook his head. ‘False alarm,’ he kept repeating. ‘False alarm.’ An old man with a bulbous, blue-veined nose mumbled something in Mickey’s ear. Mickey asked, ‘Pardon?’

‘I said they’ll never get this far anyway. Our boys’ll get ‘em first.’ His encouragement was short-lived as a second, ear-splitting wail, but this time in monotone, blotted out all other sound. Even in my terror, I couldn’t help wondering how I’d explain about my soiled underpants to Miss Hewitt. One of the lookouts turned and shouted, ‘All clear! It’s all over!’ He stood aside as we filed out, and he ruffled my hair as I passed him. ‘Wasn’t so bad, was it son?’ He was the man who had ushered us earlier. The four-thirty bus was still waiting. We travelled back in thoughtful silence, and I was tempted to ask Mickey why we had left London if that was all an air-raid entailed. And then I decided not to. Music seeped through the closed library doors when we got back to the vicarage later in the evening, Margaret having collected us from Mrs Grindley’s cottage. Reverend Hewitt was enjoying an evening with ‘J.S.Bach’ as he liked to phrase it. As it appeared that Miss Hewitt had retired earlier than usual, Mickey made a bee-line for the kitchen and straight to the fridge. His appetite was legend in the household. Still feeling hazy, I went upstairs. On my bedside table I found three used postage stamps from Madagascar, the remains of an envelope still adhered to them. Mickey came in still munching on something and merely shrugged when I asked if he knew anything about the stamps. Exhausted after our tiring day, and with my cold thickening, I’d had enough by then. Grateful that it was Mickey’s turn for the light, I undressed quickly, wedged another pastille under my tongue and fell into bed, allowing sleep to wash away all thoughts of air-raids, stamps and cleaning my teeth.

I awoke to a bright October morning, feeling much better after a good sleep. Our room overlooked the main garden that was lovingly tended by Will whom we suspected had volunteered to maintain it as an excuse to see Margaret more frequently (a theory, I confess, that caused me more than a few heartbreaking twinges). Well-tended shrubs bordered the generous oval lawn that gave way to a trellised walk leading to flower beds in final bloom. Through the window I spotted Will already at work, stacking piles of garden chairs and carrying them to a large, wooden shed just out of my view. My curiosity was tempered with the pleasure of seeing him again, for, instead of religious instruction that afternoon, Reverend Hewitt was allowing us to go ‘rabbiting’ with Will after lunch. We had been once before and enjoyed it immensely. It was true adventure trailing across the Wiltshire hills that overlooked the village until we came to the great White Horse etched into the chalk slope centuries ago. We would slither down the treacherous incline until we reached its grass ‘eye’ which measured the size of a small garden, and from there we would hurl stones at the multitude of rabbits that inhabited the vast area, while Bill scrambled around barking wildly in his contribution to reducing the menace that constantly threatened Will’s crops.

Miss Hewitt was in the morning room by the time I came down for breakfast. I mumbled my good morning and took my place next to Mickey, who was tucking into his kipper with some zeal. I purposely avoided Miss Hewitt’s critical glance and adopted the ‘seen and not heard’ mode that she decreed at meal times. However, on this occasion, I was certain that my curiosity concerning the postage stamps could only be satisfied by asking Miss Hewitt about it; a daunting prospect at the best of times. After much mental preparation while eating my porridge, and with a quickening pulse, I opted for the safest gambit: ‘Will looks busy this morning, Miss Hewitt.’ My courageous effort was rewarded with an admiring, if amazed, glance from my cousin.

Miss Hewitt slowly removed her reading glasses as she peered over The Times City page (which she liked to study before her brother came down to breakfast) and looked at me as if I had just announced that the German’s had invaded. I immediately choked on my cereal, giving Mickey the opportunity to thump my back – rather gratuitously, I thought. Meanwhile, Miss Hewitt returned to her city text without comment, which I imagined was a demonstration of her contempt for the interruption. Mickey, incredibly, must have somehow read my mind, and boldly said, ‘What shall we do before church, Bobby?’ He winked as if to say that the ball was again in my court. Rallied somewhat by his support, I steeled myself to utter: ‘Well, Mickey, I thought perhaps we’d look through my stamp collection for some swaps to take to school.’ I saw her eyes looming over her newspaper again as I looked quickly away. Mickey and I sat like statues as she cleared her throat, put the paper aside and reached for the tea pot to replenish her cup. ‘I take it,’ she declared in a manner quite humane by her standards, ‘that you wish to know about the postage stamps left at your bedside last night.’

It took a moment for me to find my voice again. ‘Well…yes. Yes I would rather, please Miss Hewitt.’ I could sense Mickey grinning at me as I felt my face glow.

‘Then why on earth don’t you ask me properly instead of this ridiculous charade?’ I had no answer to give her as she continued regardless: ‘You will treasure those stamps for the rest of your life, my boy. And one day you will be able to tell your children that they were a gift to you from Queen Mary herself.’

Mickey straightened as if an electric charge had passed through him. ‘Queen Mary? She sent them here?’ Looking more than ever like Queen Victoria at that moment, Miss Hewitt directed her gaze onto Mickey. ‘Did I say that she’d sent them here?’ It was fortuitous that Margaret joined us at that point with a breezy ‘good morning’ and a secret wink in my direction. ‘You must be thrilled with your gift, Bobby,’ she smiled. My hesitation seemed to puzzle her. She shot an accusing look at her older sister. ‘You did tell him, I hope.’ Her sister’s sigh implied that breakfast was not the place for all this. ‘I was actually in the process of doing so when you came in, Margaret.’ Margaret relaxed and smiled again as if in recall. ‘She was so sweet and natural. We told her all about you both, and that Bobby collected stamps. And, would you believe, without another word she opened her handbag and took out the stamps. “He might like these,” she said.’ Mickey was still sat saucer-eyed. ‘You mean she was actually here? The Queen Mother?’ Margaret’s expression suddenly hardened. ‘Yes, Mickey, she was. And I’m so very sorry that you both missed meeting her at the garden party.’ Her tone was heavy with accusation.

It was all too much for Miss Hewitt, although I did notice that her cheeks had coloured suddenly. ‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘It was certainly no place for children. They would have been under our feet all afternoon.’

‘Well, gosh, I would certainly like to have seen her,’ Mickey pouted, still affected by the magnitude of what had passed him by.

‘And so you should have,’ Margaret muttered as she tackled her grapefruit with uncommon aggression.

‘Jolly good stamps though,’ I said. ‘I liked them a lot.’ My meek attempt to diffuse the situation failed miserably, leaving the meal to reach its conclusion in moody silence. We learned later from Will that the Queen Mother’s visit was a local annual event connected with a charity over which Reverend Hewitt presided.

Jack came to visit one Saturday but without mother who was detained by something called ‘fire-watching rota.’ Nor, sadly for poor Mickey, was his mother able to come. So we had Jack all to ourselves. He was, as always, very entertaining, and actually nearly made Miss Hewitt smile once or twice. We spent a merry day in Trowbridge with him and returned rather late to the vicarage. To our delight, Jack accepted the vicar’s kind invitation to stay overnight, so we had the pleasure of his company all evening as well.

Early next morning, I elected to accompany Jack to the station as there was no road transport available to take him back to London that day. The platform was busy with mostly servicemen returning to their units. I stood next to Jack who was holding two empty suitcases that the previous day had been brimful of extra clothing and goodies for us from home. The train steamed in half an hour late and the crowd moved as one towards the carriages. In my haste to be first to a door, I stumbled heavily, and instinctively grabbed at the first thing to hand to stop my fall. This happened to be Jack’s left trouser leg. My desperate tug brought his trousers down about his ankles! The platform was emptying fast as scores of eyes stared out from carriage windows at a small boy, helpless with laughter, picking himself up from the platform next to a rather portly gentleman still holding two suitcases, and displaying for all the world to see, plump white legs beneath baggy, knee-length underpants and short black socks supported by suspenders. Seemingly unembarrassed by the surrounding hysteria that his appearance had created, Jack coolly tucked one case beneath the arm that held the other, hauled his trousers upward with his free hand, and sort of hobbled towards the carriage door that a grinning soldier held open for him. Once inside, and with a gap-toothed smile, he waved me goodbye as the train moved off. To this day the nostalgia of that memory brings tears of laughter to my eyes.

Global war raged on as the months passed quickly for us, and suddenly the countryside was in full bloom again.

‘Oh, we go to the coast every summer for two weeks.’ Margaret’s casual comment left us open-mouthed. How could she have known that an occasional day excursion to Brighton by charabanc was the extent of our seaside experiences? With the exception of Miss Hewitt, of course, we all spent that Saturday giving the vicar’s old Austin roadster a thorough going over for our trip. We made it glow from its patched, canvas top to its chrome hub-caps. And at precisely nine-thirty next morning, we chugged off en famille for Weston-Super-Mare. With a boot-full of provisions, Margaret, with Bill sitting upright on her lap, sat in front with her brother, and I, sat at the back wedged between Mickey and Miss Hewitt in her cream bonnet and holding a lace kerchief to her nose as the pungent odour of petrol wafted through the open windows; it’s a picture that I remember as if it were only yesterday. We stopped at about half-way point to eat a packed lunch and, by early afternoon, reached the coast road. Great rolls of barbed wire, several feet high, extended into the distance obscuring our view of the shoreline and preventing access to the deserted beach. We followed the road for about three more miles before I heard the vicar’s satisfied grunt as he turned sharply and found the only gap we had seen in the wire. Leaving the barricade of wire behind us, we bumped slowly along the sand as the car dipped suddenly, and I thought it would stall. ‘Go on, girl,’ the vicar gritted. He pumped hard on the throttle and the faithful Austin rallied sufficiently to stay mobile.

Brighton was never like this! Beyond the shimmering sea, the horizon opened up for us, and we two wanted nothing more than to frolic in the surf that lapped white and gently just yards away. The vicar drew our attention to a caravan-like construction, resting on a brickwork base instead of wheels, which stood alone on a grassy rise some way ahead behind the sea wall. ‘There it is,’ he said, and smiled as if he had seen an old friend. ‘It’s good to be here again.’ He cut the ignition and opened his door to fill his lungs with the good air. And in the next breath he said, ‘Well, lads. We’ve lots to do before supper.’ True to his word, there followed two industrious hours of unpacking, sweeping, scrubbing and dusting. There was sleeping facility for Margaret and her sister to share, and an extra berth behind the tiny kitchen for her brother, while Mickey and me, to our eternal joy, were given two sleeping bags and a cosy tent in which to spend our idyllic summer nights.

In all the excitement and preparation, I could not help noticing the transformation in our midst. The years fell away from Margaret and Reverend Hewitt. Like us, they were delighted children again on a special treat, indulging in horse-play and all manner of tomfoolery. Even Miss Hewitt was smiling! And what was more, she continued to wear that beneficent smile throughout the entire fortnight. Of course the greatest miracle was the sway that Reverend Hewitt must have held in high places to be granted the distinction of a beach holiday in time of war. But then, how would such a thought have ever occurred to two small boys on their first real holiday at the sea-side?

On our fourth morning at the coast, Mickey decided, with my help of course, to dig the deepest hole that there had ever been; Australia was foremost in our thoughts. We gave it all we had and, by eleven o’clock, only Mickey’s head was visible to the others. But the going was getting tougher. If I stood on tip-toe, I was just able to see over the edge. There was Miss Hewitt fully dressed in her customary, sombre garb but wearing an incongruous wide-brimmed, orange-coloured, straw hat, and seated in a deck-chair with a parasol attached. A book lay open on her lap as her head lolled in peaceful slumber. Further along, I saw Margaret sitting on the sand and vigorously towelling her sea-wet hair. Reverend Hewitt lay alongside her on a rainbow-coloured beach towel, his body oddly pink where the sun had brought him out in a mass of freckles. Propped on one elbow, he was staring above the horizon through a pair of large binoculars. By now our energy had waned as much as our enthusiasm to reach another continent, and I suggested a break to which Mickey instantly agreed. We clambered out and joined the others. ‘Take a look at this, Bobby.’ The vicar handed me the powerful glasses and pointed up into the distance at what appeared to the naked eye as nothing more than a few exhaust trails left in the wake of high-flying aircraft. But as they came into focus, I was gripped by the thrill of witnessing fighter aircraft weaving and soaring, locked in mortal combat. Out of earshot it was like watching a silent film, but I soon realised that it was all too horribly real as one aircraft after another performed its deadly aerobatics until its prey would burst into a sudden ball of flame and spin off crazily with its tail or wing shot away as the pilot plummeted to certain death. Stunned, I handed the glasses to Mickey who watched just as silently for long moments before handing them back to the vicar. His expression reflected the vicar’s sober words: ‘They’ve been at it for over half an hour, poor devils.’ Reverend Hewitt turned to me, his smile sad. ‘It’s not like the films, is it Bobby?’ He was right. Death held no thrill for us. From that time on, our games became less war-like.

Bill’s fate may in some way have been the catalyst that brought our time at the vicarage to a close. But of this I have never been certain. The bank along the River Avon was a favourite walk of ours. Bill would revel in its mild current, retrieving sticks we threw for him. That day we walked farther than usual. Mickey ran well ahead of Margaret and me, always teasing the animal but never quite able to catch him. Dark clouds gathered and we were not dressed for rain. Margaret said: ‘We’d better get back.’ By then, Mickey and Bill were out of sight around the next curve of the bank - just before where tall trees edge the water. We whistled and shouted but drew no response from boy or dog. A sudden thought alarmed Margaret. ‘Oh, God…I pray they haven’t…’ Without finishing her sentence, she started running towards the curve. I’d never been beyond that point and sensed foreboding as I caught up with her. We felt the first drops of rain, but our only concern was for the white-shirted figure that we could see now near the tall trees, still some distance away. I whistled again through my fingers, and the figure waved back several times but made no attempt to approach us. Margaret kept muttering to herself: ‘Something’s wrong,’ as if she already knew what it was. We reached him and saw Mickey’s tear-stained face as he pointed frantically at the short tract of land between us and the trees. Bill stood at its centre; stock-still and paw-deep in what looked like an area of damp sand.

‘Oh, my God!’ Margaret cried again as if her worst fears had been realised.

‘It’s quick-sand, isn’t it?’ Mickey yelled at her, his eyes accusing in his grief.

‘Oh, Bill. My poor Bill.’ Margaret was weeping openly now as I stood at her side too shocked to cry.

‘I didn’t know!’ Mickey cried out. ‘I didn’t realise. I just threw a stick, that’s all.’ I knew that his heart was breaking. In his frenzy he was searching around him and finally spotted a long, broken bough lying nearby. He dashed to pick it up, but misjudged its weight. ‘Help me!’ he strained. ‘We can make a bridge and I can get across and…’

‘No!’ Margaret pleaded. ‘It’s too dangerous, Mickey.’ She fought for breath to speak. ‘There’s nothing we can do now.’ Mickey dropped the branch as if all energy was sapped from him. Powerless and weeping, we watched our beloved pet sinking slowly. It whimpered as the deadly bog reached its underbelly, and it struggled for the last few horrific moments before finally disappearing from our sight. That awful nightmare haunted my childhood, and still does.

In the wake of that tragedy, a small door seemed to close between Mickey and me; a subtle change but nonetheless significant. Even at the tender age of eight, I feared that we would never again quite share the closeness that we had known. My presentiments were endorsed a week later as we were finishing lunch. Mickey always sat on my right at the table. He was something of noisy eater, which earned him not a little criticism from Miss Hewitt on occasion. But this day he was giving out an unfamiliar sound; he was sobbing softly but loud enough to be heard. ‘Mickey?’ Reverend Hewitt calmly left his place and came over to take Mickey gently by the arm. ‘Come along, old chap,’ he said kindly and nodded to the rest of us. ‘Excuse us for a moment.’ He helped Mickey carefully out of the room and closed the door behind them. None of us spoke. I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent tears that threatened. We had lost interest in the food on our plates. Miss Hewitt helped Margaret clear the dishes and left me alone at the table. I could hear them conversing quietly in the kitchen until they returned with ice cream for me and resumed their places without speaking. The cool dessert soothed the rawness in my mouth and settled me a little. Reverend Hewitt joined us in a while. He sat in my cousin’s chair and placed his arm around my shoulders. ‘Mickey has gone to lie down for a while.’ His tone was gentle. ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be all right after a good sleep. Why don’t you go into the library when you’ve finished here? You can sit at my desk and write your mother a nice letter.’

My sleep was intermittent that night, and I suspect that Mickey never slept at all. I was too embarrassed, as much for him as myself, to mention much about what had had happened, and all that Mickey would tell me was that he would be returning to London by the end of the week. It was unanimously decided that we should return together. In his own way, I’m certain that Mickey shared in my sadness to leave the Hewitt family and the life that we had enjoyed with those good people. I have certainly never forgotten it. It was much later when I learned that, two weeks before poor Bill’s tragic end, Mickey had written to his mother expressing his unhappiness and his desire to come home. The reason that lay behind that statement was to remain undisclosed to me for many years to come.










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