By Helen Christmas
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
East Sussex 1940
“You should think about it seriously, Connie. She isn’t safe here!”
Six-year-old Dottie stopped colouring, pencil suspended in mid-air, the moment her ears pricked up to the sound of a raised voice drifting beyond the kitchen.
“Shh!” her mother reprimanded. It was only their neighbour Clara, and by the time the conversation was resumed, the voices had dropped back down to a flurry of whispers.
Dottie wasn’t sure what it was about the sentence that unnerved her. She allowed her gaze to wander around the living room, drinking in the atmosphere: her dad’s high-backed chair smothered in dark green upholstery, the subtle fragrance of his Woodbines. She knew his health was frail. He seemed to spend a lot of time in bed when he wasn’t pottering around in the garden, tending to the vegetables and chickens only to stagger back indoors almost breathless.
She could still see the newspaper resting on the arm of his chair. She sighed, confused as to what was really happening. BRITAIN & FRANCE MOBILISE screamed the headline; it was something to do with the war.
Once again, she pictured the tidy rows of vegetables in their garden and the fruit bushes. Everyone grew their own food. They had a glasshouse too, where Daddy grew strawberries the size of apples; there was always a slightly musty aroma in the kitchen from whatever fruit happened to be fermenting in an old bucket to be turned into wine. Her face buckled into a frown as she listened to the low murmurs emanating from the kitchen. Just the tone of voice suggested something ominous. It reminded her of those radio broadcasts – dark and sepulchral, the ever-rising threat of danger, which always seemed to drain the smile from her mother’s face. Most of all Dottie dreaded hearing the siren – a prolonged and undulating wail, rising and falling, scattering the residents, the sound echoing in her head long after it had ended.
Connie pursed her lips, concentrating on her knitting. The rhythmic click of needles was soothing compared to Clara’s constant harping. Yes, of course she had thought about having Dottie evacuated. On the one hand, Clara was right; the child might be a lot safer. Coastal towns were frequently being bombed as the Germans dropped their load prior to returning home across the Channel. Even the cumbersome lump of steel in their bedroom that served as an air-raid shelter bore testimony to the ever-present threat of war looming over their heads.
“I think the Children’s Overseas Reception Board is a wonderful idea,” Clara gushed.
“I see,” Connie sighed, “and you say they’ll be sailing out on a steamship?”
“It’s one less thing for you to worry about, dear,” Clara added with a faint smile. “To a lot of these kids, it feels a little bit like a holiday. I saw some evacuees going off on a train yesterday – you only had to look at their faces.”
“But Canada…” Connie whispered to herself.
How could she bear it? Especially when William was so unwell? Doctors had said it was a ‘miracle’ he had even survived the onslaught of tuberculosis. He might not live long and Dottie was an only child.
By the time the sun sank behind the apple trees, she was still thinking about that conversation, watching as the light began to fade and the long shadows came stalking across the vegetable patch. The air had turned a little icy, the soft clucking of chickens indicating that they too were snuggling down for the night. It was nothing compared to the chill that fluttered over Connie’s shoulders – she stared up into the sky and shivered.
Dottie found herself being shepherded into school, where the usual lines of children snaked across the yard before separating and trailing into their respective classrooms.
Whatever Mummy and her neighbour had been talking about, she hadn’t said much. Her face had been a little pinched when she stepped into the lounge from the garden, wiping her hands on her apron. The light from a table lamp emitted a golden glow where it cloaked the walls. It threw soft shadows over Daddy’s face as he sat dozing in his chair, and for the rest of the evening, there had been an unsettling silence. She could still hear the click click of her knitting needles, all conversation suspended – she pictured the lemon yellow wool she had spotted, hoping it would be for a new cardigan.
Yet all thoughts of her gentle home life were shooed from her mind the moment the headmaster materialised. He strutted into the corridor, head high, eyes glittering as they feasted on the encroaching line of children as if they were some sort of insects. Dottie shivered, forcing her head down between her shoulders, trying to make herself as invisible as possible. Was it only last week he had clipped her round the ear for no good reason? She had been fidgeting in her chair, that was all. The flash of a hand came from nowhere and she saw stars. She felt the well of tears behind her eyes before she could stop them, her lip trembling.
“Dottie, do get a move on. You’re dithering, dear.” The voice of her classroom teacher oozed from behind her.
She flinched for a second time, squeezing out a smile. “Sorry, Miss Porter.”
The classroom fizzed with activity as her classmates clutched the wooden boxes they were issued with. Fingers poked at the clasps and straps – gas masks, they were told. Before she even knew what was happening, the teacher was speaking again, urging them to try them on – this is a drill, if the bombs come down and the Germans invade… Dottie stared at the little boy in front of her. The mask had a long tube jutting out at the front that made him look like an elephant! Some of them even looked like Mickey Mouse! Titters and giggles escaped from every corner but did nothing to lighten her mood. It wasn’t funny, it was scary.
The next thing she knew, she could hear that haunting sound – the air-raid warning. The teacher told them it was a recording, but it made no difference. Dottie felt the shroud of goose pimples crawling all over her arms and down her back, never able to forget the effect it had on people. Her hands shook. She clutched the edge of her single wooden desk.
“Now get under your desks, all of you!” Miss Porter’s voice fired across the classroom. “Try to imagine this as a real air-raid warning!”
Dottie did as she was told and scuttled under her desk, her arms wrapped around her head as if to fend off some invisible attacker. But what if it ever was real? Would her little wooden desk be enough to protect her?
“It could save your life one day,” Miss Porter added. Her voice had a hollow ring to it that, even to a child of six, didn’t sound that sure.
“Mummy, are the Germans really coming here to attack us?” Dottie lisped.
Her mother’s face froze into an expression of shock. She lowered her knitting needles very slowly, then rose to her feet and clutched the top of Dottie’s arms. She moved her head a little closer so they were level and gazed deep into her eyes.
“My poor child, I have something to tell you,” she mumbled. “You must know how much Dad and I love you, so we’ve been thinking – did you know some kids have been sent away to live in the countryside?”
Dottie’s eyes grew wider. She nodded her head.
“It’s not safe living by the sea any more,” Connie added, her voice cracking slightly. “It’s the coastal areas that are being bombed, and yes – England is under attack. Some people are saying it would be safer if our children went abroad.”
“Abroad?” Dottie gasped. “You mean to another country?”
“Yes,” her mother sighed. “Another country – a big country called Canada. I’ve heard it’s very beautiful. It will be fun, Dottie, and far enough away to afford you a safe home.”
“Will it be forever?”
“Not forever,” Connie shot back at her, “only until the war’s over…”
“Is this what you and Mrs Hawthorne were talking about yesterday?” Dottie whispered.
Her mother’s eyes seemed to darken. They held her stare, two widely spaced pools of uncertainty and fear. A slight sheen of tears made them appear glassy, and for that moment, Dottie thought she was going to start crying.
“It was her idea. She too worries about your safety, Dottie, as do we all…”
Dottie found it hard to sleep, even though the exhaustion of the day dragged down heavily on her limbs, her mind and, most of all, her heart. Deep down, she knew what Mummy said was probably very sensible. She had barely stopped thinking about the drills at school, the air-raid sirens and the gas masks. They loomed in her mind like dreams, as if to remind her of the constant fear being bounced around the classroom.
She didn’t want to die.
At the same time, she didn’t want to be parted from her home.
Dottie clutched the bedclothes in terror and peered over the top of the counterpane. All she could think about was their lovely garden – of sitting under the blackcurrant bushes when the sun was hot – of Daddy scratching around with his hoe, humming to himself, occasionally interrupted by his chesty cough. She thought about the chickens, how much fun it was when she and Mummy had crept into their pen to collect the eggs. She clung to the memories of walks in the South Downs. Sometimes her uncle gave her a piggyback. There were cow pats as big as dustbin lids. She would grip his shoulders even tighter for fear he might drop her. Cowslips flourished in the grassy banks, the same pale yellow as her mother’s wool – Daddy picked great bunches of them to make wine.
The thought of sailing away on a great steamship known as the SS City of Benares surged darkly in her mind; about to tear her away from everything she loved. And it was in the silent darkness of her room, she eventually cried herself to sleep.
Connie admired her daughter next morning. She was dressed in a pleated skirt, socks pulled right up to her knees. She helped her button up her blouse and brushed her hair – it was blonde and very fine, cropped in a neat bob just above her jaw. Connie swept it back from her forehead and fastened it with ribbon, looping the ends into a big bow, where it fell to one side.
Her eyes were an unusual grey-blue. Yet it took one glance to see she had been crying.
“What’s the matter, dear?” she murmured.
“Please don’t send me away,” the little girl begged.
Connie swallowed, pained to look at her. “This is a wonderful opportunity for you, Dottie. Dad and I discussed this. The truth is, there is a war on, and neither of us want you to die.”
“So what about you?” Dottie whined. “Don’t make me go away, please! I want to be here with you, even if they do drop the bombs! I couldn’t stand it if you were killed… I’ll be all on my own.”
She started sobbing. Connie backed away, but it was as if she couldn’t let go – her small hands stretching out in front of her, clawing at her coat.
“It won’t be forever,” Connie said again. “We only want what’s best for you, sweetheart.”
“No!” Dottie squealed at her. “I don’t want to go! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t…”
Connie closed her eyes. Her palm fell upon her daughter’s silky head as her sobs became almost hysterical. The child was right – they were such a small family, and if she was true to her heart, she couldn’t bear to be parted from her either.
It was in that splinter of a second, she made her decision.
It was some three months later, they were alerted to the radio broadcast.
The date was September 17th, a day when the SS City of Benares had been torpedoed and sunk, carrying ninety child evacuees bound for Canada. Seventy-seven of them had perished.
It was the voyage her daughter had been destined for.
Connie wept, but not out of relief. She wept for the other mothers – those who had made the wrong decision, unable to imagine their agony, their children lost forever.
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