My great-grandmother is a remarkable woman. Everyone says so: her daughter (who is my grandmother), Gramps (who is my grandfather and her son-in-law), Dad (who is her grandson), Mom and all her friends and everyone else who knows her. So it must be true.
Of course, I think she’s remarkable too. She is almost ninety, and still lives on her own, with just a helper popping in to do the things she can’t do any more, like scrubbing the bathtub and changing bed linen and hoovering. She still cooks and dusts and tends to her plants, of which she has a lot, indoors and out, on her porch and in her yard. In fact, she has so many that her yard is a bit jungly, but that’s the way she likes it, and so do I. A Mexican father and son, Luis and Mateo, come in on Tuesdays to cut the grass and tidy the shrubs, but she does everything else herself, even the watering, which of course is strictly rationed.
Great-grandmother’s name is June, so I call her Nana June, or mostly just Nana. I am named after her, kind of. My name is Juniper, which Nana says is something she’s never heard of as a name, and is a plant really, and trust the Americans to think of something like that! She is sometimes a teeny bit scathing of Americans, which we don’t mind despite us being American, because we know she loves us all and has ‘embraced the American way of life’, as Gran says. Up to a point, that is. Nana must be the only woman in the USA to hang out her laundry on a line. The only one in our neighbourhood, anyway.
‘Such a waste!’ she tut-tutted to me one day as I held the peg bag for her and passed the pegs. Hanging out her laundry takes a long time, because Nana’s fingers are a little arthritic and not as nimble as they used to be. But she insists on doing it herself. ‘Clothes should be hung by the hems or waistbands,’ she insists, ‘otherwise there’ll be lumps and bumps to iron out. I can do it. Just pass the pegs.’
I once ventured to say, ‘But Nana, why don’t you just use the drier like everyone else?’
She’d glared at me then. ‘That makes me so cross! Here we are, beautiful hot sunshine and often a little breeze, by the time you hang out a line of washing the first ones are dry already, and yet everyone uses driers! What a waste! And all those KFCs going into the atmosphere!’
‘I think it’s CFCs, Nana.’
‘Well, whatever! Wasteful, with all this ours for free, and we don’t make use of it but instead do our best to spoil it…’ She gestured at the blue sky, the burning sun, the hummingbirds in the magnolia bush, the blue jay swooping down on the cropped grass to see what it could find.
My mom and dad both work long hours and I knew they’d never have time or patience for hanging out laundry or ironing. They just take things from the drier, fold them and put them away. But I held my tongue.
Nana glanced at me and seemed sorry she’d been cross. ‘You’re a good girl, Juni. But it’s not the way I was brought up.’
Nana becomes very British, and sometimes very border Welsh, when she thinks of her younger days. We would never say ‘brought up’, we’d say ‘raised’. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. She finished pegging out the last towel and made for the patio, sinking into the cushions of the comfy cane chair with relief. She looked at the line of laundry with satisfaction.
‘We did the washing on a Monday, always. It took almost all day, so no time for cooking, always cold meat for dinner and bubble-and-squeak from Sunday’s vegetables. The boiler would be lit to heat the water, and the wash house would be full of steam. We had to scrub the dirty bits, like collars and cuffs, extra hard. Then they’d go through the wringer.’
I thought of our gleaming Maytag washer and drier where you just threw everything in and pushed buttons. But I love hearing Nana’s stories of what she has done in her life, which amounts to a lot of things, including doing a sky-dive for charity in her fifties, paddling down the Colorado river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a canoe, camping out in a forest cabin where you had to hang your food high and away from camp because of bears. She’s crossed and recrossed the Atlantic several times, visiting family and people she knew back in the UK. I’ve never got to fly anywhere, except a hop to San Francisco that only took an hour and didn’t really count. Mom and Dad always mean to take me to the UK one of these times, but they haven’t yet, mainly because they don’t get much holiday time and it’s hard to get time off together.
Nana took off her sunhat and fanned her face with it. The porch fan whirred but the air seemed just as warm when it was moving. Across the yard a squirrel sprawled on a branch of the orange tree, all four limbs dangling down, just too hot to move. I’m not usually visiting on a Saturday afternoon but my riding lesson had been cancelled.
‘Shall I get you a cool drink, Nana?’ I offered. She smiled. ‘That would be lovely. Get one for yourself too.’
I poured two glasses of pineapple juice from the fridge and put ice in. Nana was dozing when I got back but opened her eyes when she heard the ice clink. Her hearing is remarkable. She smiled and took a long drink. ‘Aah, that’s good! One thing I do appreciate is a long cold drink on a hot day.’
The porch thermometer registered ninety and rising and the clock said 3.15. Dad was working overtime and Mom had gone to the gym. I was to be home by five. Nana had finished her drink and closed her eyes again. Her tabby cat, Megan, came and rubbed round my legs. I picked her up and tried to cuddle her but she didn’t want to stay.
‘You have to let cats come to you,’ I remembered being told. Megan didn’t want to come, she wandered off and lay across the yard under the oleander. I closed my eyes and dozed a little myself. Nothing else to do really. I felt warm and sticky under my shorts and T-shirt and half-wished I’d gone swimming with one of my friends instead of deciding to visit Nana. But she seemed to like having me. I’d take in the laundry for Nana before I left …
I opened my eyes with a start to find Nana looking at me from under the brim of her hat. ‘I – I wasn’t asleep, not really,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘Neither was I. It’s nice to give your eyes a rest now and then, isn’t it?’
I saw it was still only 4 o’clock. It would not begin to cool off for a while yet. And then the mozzies would be out and the cicadas would be chirping their evening song. I liked the cicadas but not the mozzies.
Nana sighed. ‘I do miss home sometimes. Especially the spring and summer. There was never heat like this. You’d get sunny days, cloudy days, breezy ones, rainy, drizzly, foggy ones. Hardly ever two the same.’
I couldn’t imagine that. Summer here, every day is the same. Blue skies, sun shining down, heat, air con, mosquitoes, cicadas.
Nana looked wistful. ‘Did you like it like that, Nana?’ I asked.
She nodded. ‘I did. I’m sure my arthritis would be much worse there in the damp and the chill. And my tendency to bronchitis. I’d probably need a walking frame by now, not just a stick, or even…’ She paused. ‘But most of all, I miss the green.’
California is called the Golden State. When I was a lot smaller, I once asked my dad if that was because every which way you looked outside of the towns, you saw gold-coloured landscape – gold hills, gold fields dotted with small black cattle grazing gold grass, gold paddocks and meadows and valleys. Dad said no, it was called that because of the Gold Rush, when people discovered there were gold nuggets to be found in the rivers, and many thousands sold up their businesses and left their homes and jobs and families to go west and make their fortunes. Not many did make fortunes, but towns and places were named after the prospectors when they left, which later became famous. And that’s why it’s the Golden State. He said the gold-coloured landscape is because we don’t get enough rain and everything dries up and scorches to a crisp and becomes yellow, especially in summer. That is why we have water rationing, and why there are big fires in the worst droughts, like last year’s horrific one, in summer and sometimes all year round. With the bad ones there’s a pall of smoke, and ash comes drifting down from the fires many miles away; when we took a trip to Yosemite one time, I saw the burned trees the fires had left behind, mile upon mile of blackened dead stumps, sticking up in ugly jagged spikes against a backdrop of mountains with snow still on them.
Still, I am a California girl born and bred, and I felt I should stick up for my state.
‘There’s green here too, Nana,’ I said, thinking of the smooth green lawns with their sprinklers, the oleanders with pink and white and red flowers lining the freeway for mile after mile, the palm trees, the camellias and bougainvilleas and their glossy green leaves. Even our small town has plenty of green, with shady trees and grassy parks, and in the state capital Sacramento, one hour’s drive away, there’s even more. My mom and dad take me into Sacramento sometimes, mostly educational visits, to Sutter’s Fort or Crocker Art Museum or to Old Sacramento with its boardwalks and saloons and big paddle steamers on the river. There are trees everywhere there. I heard somewhere that Sac has more trees than any other state capital.
‘There’s plenty of green,’ I repeated, as Nana wasn’t saying anything. She had a faraway look in her eyes and seemed to give herself a little shake to bring her back into the present. She sighed. ‘It’s not the same. Back home on the farm, in May and June especially, there’s green upon green upon green, piled high and filling every hedgerow, every field, every wood and spinney and verge and meadow with bright fresh green, every twig and branch and stem bursting with new life and seeming to jostle for space. And then there’s white as well, cow parsley and stitchwort and creamy may blossom…’ She sighed again. ‘It was very green that spring,’ she said dreamily.
I wanted to know which spring she was talking about, and was opening my mouth to ask when my cell phone buzzed in my backpack, dropped on the patio floor beside my chair. I fumbled for it. Most of my friends keep their cells in their hands all the time, or in a handy pocket, and they’re always talking on them, or texting or messaging or playing some game. Me, I think what a waste of time that is, when you could be doing something in the real world, like swimming or horse riding or cycling or reading a book. I wouldn’t bother with a cell at all, but Mom makes me promise I’ll keep it with me, charged up and switched on at all times, just in case. It was Mom now. ‘Juniper? If you’ve not already left, it’s time you were on your way.’
I sighed. It’s not like I’m 100 miles away; I only live just round the corner and a few yards down the next street. I can get there in five, or three if I run. But a glance at the clock showed me it was past five already. The afternoon had flown by.
‘I have to go,’ I said with real regret, and went to give Nana a hug. She hugged me back with arms that were thin but still strong.
‘Come again soon. Luciana will be here before long to make sure I’m OK and that I eat dinner.’ She pulled a face, as though she wished she wasn’t in the position of needing someone to check up on her.
‘I will,’ I promised, and really meant it, though I didn’t know how I was to get time with every waking moment filled – swimming, athletics, horse riding, music, ballet class… although I’m getting too tall for that now, but Mom says it will give me poise. I’d much rather hear about Nana’s young days and do without poise. I shouldered my backpack, put on my cap and went out into the baking sun.
On the way home I tried to think what I could give up to be able to see Nana more often. Not swimming, because you just have to swim when it’s June and heading for 100 degrees. Mostly I go to one of my friends with a pool, but sometimes to the public pool in town. Not athletics because I’m tall and skinny and good at it. Horse riding, uh-uh. I ride Pimbo, who’s a chestnut gelding, and he and I love each other to bits. I could give up cinema visits, maybe, although I do love a good movie, especially an old one with my favourite movie star, Diana (DeeDee) Devine. She has connections with my family in some way I’ve never been able to figure out. I wouldn’t really mind giving up music lessons. I’m tone deaf, and my violin playing sounds like a cat being tortured, my dad says. But Mom makes me stick at it. She wants me to be a well-rounded person, she says. Huh! And I heard her say to one of her friends, ‘The way to get them through the adolescent years is to keep them so busy they rush through them without noticing.’ Huh again.
Our house is a nice one, single-storey like Nana’s but much bigger, set back from our quiet street among shrubs and a live oak, not as jungly as Nana’s but nice and shady. It was a relief to get out of the heat into the cool of the air con. Dad was not home yet but Mom was standing by the kitchen island frowning at her phone. She had showered and changed out of her gym kit into shorts and a T-shirt, her week-endy look. Makes her look younger, with her hair pulled out of its chignon and tied back casually. She said, ‘Oh, there you are. Just got a text from school.’
I frowned. ‘School? On a Saturday?’
She nodded. ‘Wouldn’t you know it? One week until school’s out for summer, and they’ve gone and got an outbreak of some gastric bug. They’re closing early for the summer vacation. Like, now.’
‘Oh.’ I got a cold cola from the fridge and thought about that. So school was out already. No finishing up of loose ends, no last-minute outings, no goodbyes and plans to meet, no nothing. That was it. School was always mega-careful about those kinds of bugs and, now I thought about it, three kids had thrown up yesterday. It had been put down to the heat.
‘If anyone needs to bring stuff from school, it can be arranged,’ said Mom. ‘But that’s it.’ She paused. ‘Makes big problems for us.’
I knew she meant me. Mom and Dad make careful plans around my vacations. But they’d both be working next week. Gran and Gramps were already off on a cruise; my other grandparents live far away in New England.
An idea sprang into my mind. ‘I could go to Nana’s.’
Mom frowned. ‘I don’t think Nana is up to child-minding at her age! Short visits yes, but not all day every day for a week.’
‘I’m not a child. I’m almost twelve. I can be helpful to her, run errands, fetch things. And Luciana comes in all the time. Please, Mom. I’d like to.’
She looked at me, wavering. ‘We-ell – I could ask her. But won’t it be dull for you, cooped up with an old lady…’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I like to be with Nana. Really. She’s been telling me about when she was young. And I really, really, want to know more about her life.’
There was some kind of argument going on when Dad came home from work. He had done some accounts at the office, and I was in bed by then. I’d been reading a book on careers, and when I put it down and switched off the light I lay there thinking for a while. I just could not make up my mind what I wanted to do with my life. Mom and Dad always tell me I should fly high and go for anything I want, that I could aim to be president of the United States if I want to. Uh-uh! Who would want all that responsibility and constantly having to shake people’s hands and pretend to be nice? I like people but I like my own space as well. The trouble was, I couldn’t decide what I did want to do, or even what college courses to aim for. Professional sport? I like sport but only as relaxation. Something with animals? Maybe. Teaching? Another maybe, especially if it was teaching English. I love books. But I wasn’t sure about that either.
Mom and Dad don’t usually argue; they make the most of the time they have together. Their voices were not raised, but there was definitely a tone of disagreement to their conversation now. When I heard my name mentioned I got out of bed, creeping down the passage to the corner of the wing leading to the living space, where I could listen.
‘It doesn’t seem right for a child of her age to be in that situation,’ said Mom. I could imagine how her mouth would be set in a stubborn line. ‘What if something happened? It’s not fair on Juniper.’
Dad laughed and I knew his eyes would be crinkling up at the corners. ‘Juni’s a sensible girl. Nothing will happen. Luciana is in and out. And it’s in the very early stages yet.’
‘But it will get worse. We don’t know how soon. Anything could happen.’
‘Unlikely in just a week. Let her go. She’s fond of Nana.’
My heart had begun to thump hard. Nana was ill, that’s what they meant. It must be something very serious – she must be dying…
I sprang round the corner and confronted them. They were standing by the kitchen island and both jumped. Mom said, ‘Juni! I thought you were asleep!’
‘Well, I wasn’t. What’s wrong with Nana? Is she going to die?’
I realised as I spoke what a silly question that was. Nana was almost ninety, after all. But I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, and felt tears spring to my eyes. Dad reached out a long arm and drew me in. He had showered at the office and smelled of soap and aftershave. ‘Calm down, Juni. No, she isn’t – well, hopefully not for a while.’
I pulled away. ‘Then what? There’s something. I heard you. Tell me!’
They looked at each other. Mom sighed, and said, ‘I guess we’d better come clean, Pete. Sit down, Juniper.’
I perched on the arm of the big chair. Mom and Dad sat down too.
‘Look, Juni, it’s like this. Nana isn’t physically ill exactly, but she has something called dementia.’
‘It’s – well, it’s a kind of degeneration of the brain. Mostly it’s elderly people that get it, but sometimes younger ones too. People start to lose their memory and get muddled with faces and names and places, then they start to forget things like how to use appliances, which can be very dangerous. They get confused if they’re in different places, and forget how to get home, and even in time forget their own family members.’
I started to protest. It couldn’t be true. Nana had a wonderful memory; why, only this afternoon she’d been remembering things from way back in her childhood, the farm she’d lived on and even the weather there – but then I remembered a couple of weeks ago she’d woken from one of her little naps and called me Margaret. Margaret is her daughter, my gran. Gran is nothing like me either; her hair is dyed blonde at present but it had been light brown once, whereas mine is dark like Mom’s. I’m tall and skinny, while I’d seen pictures of Gran as a plump, stocky little girl. Nana had called me Margaret for a while before she seemed to remember.
It must be true. I burst into tears.
I don’t cry often and they were concerned. ‘You don’t have to go there next week, honey,’ said Mom. ‘We can make other arrangements.’
I pulled myself together. ‘I want to go! Don’t try and stop me! I’m going!’
I felt a lump of sadness in my chest when I got to Nana’s on Monday morning. Luciana was there, putting the vacuum away. The house was neat, Nana sitting out on the back porch with Megan on her lap. She looked the same as usual, long cotton skirt, shady pink hat, all serene. Surely there had been a mistake. I had a quick word with Luciana before going out to her. ‘Luciana, is it true? About the – the dementia?’
Luciana’s kind, plump face got serious. ‘It’s true, honey. I’m glad they told you. She’s much as usual, your nana, just a little lapse now and then. Just love on her the same as usual. Lunch is all ready in the ice box. And don’t forget to call if you need me. I can be here in a blink.’
I felt comforted, and gave Luciana a hug. Nana was pleased to see me. I hugged her too, and felt how frail her shoulder blades seemed under her cotton shirt. Megan jumped down and gave me a look. I think she liked having Nana all to herself. She went off huffily to the shade of the oleander.
I sat down in the opposite chair. Nana pushed up her shades and looked at me with her blue-grey eyes. She said quietly, ‘You don’t have to whisper in corners with Luciana. I know.’
My heart gave a painful jolt. I knew immediately what she meant. She knew about the cruel thing that was happening to her mind, and what would happen later. And she knew I knew. I felt tears spring to my eyes and blinked them away. ‘I’m sorry, Nana.’
She smiled, her eyes disappearing in wrinkles as they always did. ‘Don’t be sorry. I’ve had a long life, a good life, oh, I’ve been so blessed! And I may beat this thing yet. I may just pop off before it gets a real grip. Now wouldn’t that be a laugh?’
She actually did laugh. Then she said, ‘But even if that doesn’t happen, even if I get confused and forget you all and my mind goes, remember one thing, Juni. I’m not just body and mind, none of us is. We have a spirit too, and our spirit is the real person, the real us, the part that makes us who we are, the part that goes back to God when this life ends. And remember this too, even if my mind has gone, and this old body wears out and lets me down, my spirit goes on straight and will go on forever.’
I felt tingles go up and down my spine. I knew Nana believed in God and that she read her battered old Bible with big print, but hearing her say those things brought a real sense of comfort. And a kind of awe. My friends and me say ‘awesome’ all the time, but this was the real deal. I felt myself relax and a burden lift.
‘Now then,’ said Nana, leaning forward and putting her shades back on. ‘We have a whole week! What shall we do?’
I knew what I wanted. ‘Nana, you started telling me about when you were my age the other day. Could you tell me some more?’
Then I could have bitten my tongue, and I thought, how awful if she can’t remember and gets confused and upset. But then I saw she had a big smile on her face. ‘I was hoping you’d say that! You know, Juni, if I tell you about those times, maybe some day you could write it all down so it won’t be forgotten.’
And then I knew, all in the blink of an eye, that I would. And more than that, that I needn’t puzzle any more about what I wanted to do with my life, and that what I wanted most in the whole world was to be a writer. And I would start with Nana’s memories. ‘Yes!’ I said.
‘Right then, let’s go. We have drinks there on the table. It’s not too hot yet. Where shall we start?’
‘You said, last time, about one spring when it was very green. You said about how green it always was, every spring, on the farm where you were born, but there was one time especially…’
‘Oh yes. But that’s not quite how it was. I wasn’t born on the farm at all, or even in the country. I was born in London.’
The house we lived in was a two-up, two-down mid-terrace in Greenwich, south-east London. We had a little backyard, where Mum tried to grow marigolds and petunias, until the war came and we dug it all up to plant potatoes. ‘Dig for Victory’ was one of the slogans we saw everywhere, along with ‘Be like Dad, keep Mum’ and ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ which were meant to be warnings to watch what we said in case an enemy spy might be listening. ‘Walls Have Ears’ was another one. I didn’t understand what any of them meant; I was nine when the war started and a lot of the talk went over my head… the Second World War, you know, against Hitler and the Nazis. Dad worked at the docks before the war, and Mum worked in a bakery, which was good, because she was allowed to bring home some of the unsold bread and buns and cakes at the end of the day. It was always a nice surprise to see what she brought, and a disappointment if they’d sold out. My favourites were cream buns.
We had a WC that we had to share with several other families, and a wash house at the back which housed the washtubs and mangle, and the tin bath hanging on a nail which Mum took down on Saturday nights for my weekly bath by the kitchen fire. After school, I went to Mrs Wilkins’ next door for an hour until Mum came home, or played in the street with the other kids.
I was an only child. Most families in the street had a lot of kids, and I longed for brothers and sisters, or even just one sibling, but when I was old enough to understand, Mum told me that something had gone wrong at my birth and she could not have more children. Some of the other kids at school envied me, especially girls my age who often had to look after smaller brothers and sisters. I envied them; I’d have loved a little one to take care of, and I sometimes ‘borrowed’ a toddler to carry about or push around in a little cart. We couldn’t have a dog either, because both my parents were at work all day and it wouldn’t have been fair on it. We did have a cat, because cats are independent creatures and come and go as they please. He was black with a white tip to his tail and four white feet that looked like little boots, so ‘Boots’ he became.
Things changed when the war came. Dad and Mum and everyone else looked serious all the time, and one day Dad came home looking like a stranger in a khaki uniform. Mum tried to be brave when he went off to the army but I knew she cried every night. Sometimes I crept into her room and got into bed with her, and then we ended up sleeping together in the big bed all the time, except when Dad came home on leave.
He came a few times, and what excitement there was when we knew he was coming. Mum would save our rations of sugar and butter and dried fruit and would make a yummy fruit cake, and she’d do her best to find a nice piece of beef or a chicken for roasting. She’d dig out one of her pretty dresses from before the war, and get our neighbour to set her hair for her, and she’d put on lipstick and perfume. I think she’d have liked to go to the pictures or dancing, war or no war, but Dad seemed tired, and just wanted to sit listening to the wireless or pottering in the garden or doing ordinary things. But it was lovely to have him home, just to have him reading a bedtime story to me and tucking me in as he always had, and the time always flew by too quickly. Mum would be sad and quiet for a few days after he’d gone.
When the bombing started it was a shock to everyone. We heard the crump of bombs down at the docks and saw the orange flare of fires. The docks were not all that far away, and the next bombs might be even closer. Some people had bomb shelters, ugly concrete boxes roofed with thick concrete slabs, or steel Anderson shelters, but we did not, so every time the sirens wailed Mum and I joined the rest of the population of the nearby streets hurrying to the railway arch at the end of our road, clutching what pillows, blankets and other goods we’d had time to grab. There we made ourselves as comfortable as we could until the all-clear sounded. We didn’t sleep much, most nights. People swapped stories with one another, strangers quickly became friends. Sometimes there was an enterprising person who would organise a sing-song, belting out the old favourites like ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. Not that there was any room for a knees-up and dancing, but the cheery tunes kept up our spirits as we huddled in our eiderdowns.
There had already been a first wave of children being sent away from London to the safety of the countryside, even before the bombing started in earnest. Mum had tentatively considered putting my name down to go with my school, but the thought terrified me. Whatever happened, I wanted to stay with Mum. I begged and pleaded, and she relented. Some of the children had even returned when nothing much seemed to be happening. But now there was bombing almost every night, with the crump and boom and flash of the bombs sometimes at a distance, sometimes much nearer, and the fires turning the night sky pink and orange. I could see she was more and more anxious. Then the terrible morning came when, blinking eyes that smarted with tiredness, we emerged from the shelter to find that our street had taken a direct hit and the houses at the other end had been reduced to rubble. We did not know what had happened to the people inside, whether they’d got to the shelter or not. We knew that a middle-aged couple lived in one, and an elderly man with his sister in another. But, clinging together and picking our way through scattered rubble towards home, I saw something that made me turn cold with horror. I screamed. The body of a black cat lay half-buried under a pile of stone and cement and plaster. Its front half could not be seen, but I recognised the white hind feet and the white tip to the tail. I clutched Mum. ‘It’s Boots!’
I darted forward to try to pull him out, but Mum held me back. ‘He’s dead, sweetie. We can’t do anything. Let’s get home and see if there’s gas for a cup of tea.’
An air raid warden in uniform and tin hat was coming towards us. ‘Sorry, missus, houses in this street may not be safe. You’ll have to go along to the church hall and wait while they’re checked.’
It was soon afterwards that Mum told me I would be leaving with the next wave of evacuees.
There was a crowd of kids that day, milling about on the station platform, all ages, from teens down to tiny tots. These little ones mostly had their mums with them and were probably the most secure of us all, bewildered by all that was going on, but safe in the knowledge of Mum close by. Most of the others were apprehensive, unsure, some tearful, some (mostly boys) excited at the idea of a new adventure and the novelty of a long train journey. A few harassed teachers and helpers worked hard trying to keep everyone together, and safe.
It was a chilly autumn day, grey and foggy, and all of us were wearing our winter coats and a hat of some kind. All of us also had our gas masks in their cardboard cases round our necks, our names on labels pinned to our coats, and were clutching suitcases. I had my own small suitcase, packed lovingly by Mum, with a few tears when she thought I wasn’t noticing. She had put in my woollen jerseys, warm underclothing, knitted socks, washing things and a hot-water bottle. ‘It’s sure to be a bit chilly out there in the country,’ she said briskly. ‘But think what fun it will be if it snows. Snowmen and sledging, all kinds of fun…’
I wasn’t convinced. ‘I don’t want to go,’ I said stubbornly. ‘I want to stay with you. I don’t mind the bombs, honest. It’s fun down in the shelter…’
My voice tailed off. It wasn’t fun. I was scared nearly all the time of that wailing siren and the rush down the street in the darkness. I was terrified of the crump of bombs, the fires that turned the sky pink and showed up as far away as Dover, I’d been told. There hadn’t been another hit in our area. That one had been a stray event, everyone said so, they were targeting the munitions factories, the government places where important things were decided, the docks. I didn’t believe that it wouldn’t happen again. I hardly knew what to believe. Everything was topsy-turvy and I lived in fear every day.
But the greatest fear of all was the fear of being separated from my mum. ‘Can’t you come too?’ I pleaded, but she shook her head. ‘Only the under-fives go with their mothers. I’ll stay here as long as the bakery stays open. And I want to be here when your dad comes home again. He’ll be so happy to know you’re in a safe place. I’ll write and I’ll come and visit, promise.’
The station name was painted over, but there were posters up on the walls. ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ and ‘Leave Hitler to me sonny, YOU ought to be out of London’. I saw two of our teachers from school, Miss Grey and Miss Adams, going around trying to keep the children together, take them to the toilet along the platform, comfort the weeping ones and generally maintain some kind of order. There was a stirring of excitement when the train came hissing and steaming down the track and drew to a halt at the platform. The doors opened and children were beginning to be ushered inside, one of the ladies with an armband ticking off names on a list.
It was then that I lost control. I looked at my mum’s white face, lips set in a line as she tried bravely to smile, and burst into tears, flinging myself at her and clutching at her coat. ‘I won’t go, I won’t!’
Poor Mum, she must have been at her wits’ end as she tried desperately to dislodge my clinging fingers. ‘Sweetie, you have to. Look there’s Miss Grey – and Marjorie from your class – come on, you’re a big girl now…’
I didn’t care. I wasn’t going. It was Miss Adams who saved the day. She came pushing through the crowd towards us, holding a small child by the hand. ‘Now, June, what’s all this? Come along now, I have a special job for you. This is Freddie from the infants’ class, and he’s on his own. His mum…’ she gave Mum a look and murmured something I couldn’t hear, which told me something very bad must have happened to his mum. ‘Anyway, he’s not quite five and needs someone to take care of him. I think you’re just what he needs.’
Miss Adams knew me well. Her request was the one thing that would calm my hysterics and give me purpose. I looked at Freddie, a sad waif who obviously came from one of the poorer neighbourhoods. His clothes looked too big for him, he had on boots but no socks and he was skinny; his thin little legs had a look of rickets. He held a small battered suitcase. Sad blue eyes looked up at me from a grimy face under a thatch of blond hair. His lower lip wobbled. Miss Adams took my hand and wrapped it around Freddie’s. ‘There. June will take good care of you, Freddie.’
That grubby little hand clung to mine as though his life depended on it. Miss Adams gave a sigh of relief and patted my shoulder. She patted Mum’s too, and went off to see to someone else. Children were still clambering onto the train. I was suddenly calm, the tears drying on my cheeks, although I saw fresh ones in Mum’s eyes. She gave me a last hug, said she would write as soon as she had an address, and reminded me there was paper and pencil in my case to write to her. Then Freddie and I were climbing on the train, almost the last to board. A marshal hurried us along as the doors began to close. I had one last look at Mum, a lone figure waving a handkerchief among a sea of fluttering white hankies, as there came a hissing of steam and we were off.
The journey seemed long, endless. Buildings flashed by the windows for mile after mile, stations with names painted over and then, even more endless, we travelled through countryside, green and brown fields, trees in autumn colours, villages, more fields. The train seemed full of restless children, fidgeting, sniffing, poking each other, getting up and sitting down again, endlessly asking the weary helpers, ‘Miss, are we nearly there yet?’
The compartments were packed, some faces blackened with smuts from leaning out of the windows, although they were strictly warned not to do so. Some were tearful, some nervous and quiet, others inclined to quarrel. Some sobbed quietly, some wet themselves, at least half a dozen were sick. There was a smell of sweaty feet and unwashed bodies and damp clothing. The one toilet down the corridor was smelly too, but I heard Miss Grey remark to Miss Adams that thank heaven there was a toilet; not all trains had them. We were given corned beef sandwiches and lemonade to drink until it ran out, and then we had water. The helpers escorted endless infants to the toilet, comforted the sad ones, tried to calm the overexuberant, reprimanded the naughty ones. All the time, Freddie sat close beside me, his sticky hand clutching mine until I needed it to eat my sandwiches, and then he held onto my coat pocket. From time to time his big blue eyes looked up at me, and I managed to smile at him. He didn’t smile back, but I could tell I was now his refuge, his safe place. I wiped his nose, held his drink for him, took him to the toilet. A helper that I didn’t know looked in on our compartment and said, ‘He’s a good little chap, isn’t he, your brother? Not like some, I’m afraid.’
I didn’t enlighten her. I’d always wanted a little brother. Freddie didn’t seem to have family, so I would be his family, his big sister. We could be billeted together; they did try to keep families together, I’d heard. I’d take care of him. My spirits rose.
The train travelled on, rattling over the rails, tickety-tack, tickety-tack. Most of us dozed. Freddie slept, lying across my lap, his little body hot and sticky. Some whimpered in their sleep; now and then there’d be a confused voice calling for Mum.
Then I awoke from a doze with the sudden realisation that something had changed. The rhythm had slowed, the whistle blew, steam hissed as brakes were applied; we were pulling into a station. I looked out to see people there waiting. Waiting for us, for we children were the only people on the train. We had arrived.