Vest, petticoat, stockings, handkerchiefs, slip, blouse, cardigan, comb, wellington boots, towel, soap, facecloth, toothbrush, shoes, plimsolls. Mackintosh, yes of course. Gas masks, gas masks, we mustn’t forget gas masks. Something to eat – I’ll make up some sandwiches for them – my darlings, would you like an apple to eat? I’ll pack away some biscuits too, they said the train journey would only last an hour and a half but goodness knows if the train will even be on time, I’ve heard they’re evacuating thousands of children today, the trains will surely be congested. And we don’t even know where they’ll be… Should we pack something warm for them- oh my goodness, I nearly forgot, Maisie, she can’t sleep without Maisie! I can’t think if I’ve forgotten anything, I’ve added everything on the list but it’s all practical, everything, they don’t know our children- Frances, would you like to take a book or two? Your choice, darling, whatever you wish. It’ll most likely be a farmer’s house you’re living in and I imagine they won’t have much time for libraries… Should I pack a toy or two, Peter will be dreadfully bored if he’s left to himself- but then- but then he’ll be in the country, won’t he, and it’ll be the novelty of a new family and a new life-
She burst out into loud, ragged sobs; gasping with shuddering breath. Sentences that were broken and stilted came from behind her hands and rivulets of salty tears quivered on her neck. Her husband grasped her arm wearily, his face tired and his jaw unshaven; and her mother instinctually bustled the children into the kitchen, her scarlet lips pinched.
She cried for a minute or so, her eyes swollen and red, her sandy hair glued to her wet cheek. But then she wiped her eyes hastily on her sleeve, because she was aware that her time was limited. A noise that was almost a whimper came out: ‘It won’t be for long, will it? Surely it cannot be for long?’
‘I only wish I knew.’
‘I could bear it if only I knew it would be for a short time.’
There was a pause they could not articulate.
A whisper, a plea: ‘Can’t we just- not take them? Will they notice? We can’t be the only ones.’
‘If the government advises evacuation to be the safest procedure then we must trust them. They know the risks.’ It was a mechanical response, spoken grimly. She caught the flicker of distress as it passed across his face.
‘But in the last war-‘
‘It’s different now. We need only look at recent events to understand that.’
She nodded; gulped; suppressed her sense of impending desolation and smiled, a smile that was all teeth and no eyes and all pain. She turned to the mirror, meticulously efficient in removing the tell-tales stains of weeping – the blotchy smears, the puffed eyes. Her hair was, as always, impeccably coiffed, its yellow waves expertly moulded, hat placed adroitly on top; her lipstick a becoming smudge of red; her peacock blue suit newly made to adorn her slim, graceful figure; her gloves a supple ivory leather. Her husband, usually so polished, looked meagre next to his polished wife; somehow smaller, quieter. Julia Williams – smart, successful literary editor from a smart, successful literary family – was nothing if not assiduous.
There were three children: Frances, Peter, little Elly. In the kitchen, Frances helped her grandmother to smear thick, colourful jam on bread, to wash the shiny red apples and plump strawberries. She tried to ignore the wriggling thought that there would be plenty of strawberries in the place where they were going, plenty of glossy blackberries and hairy raspberries and tiny blueberries with their inky dark juice, ripe and willing to be plucked. She fed Elly an oozing slice of apple crumble when her grandmother wasn’t looking, although she didn’t think Grandmother would mind. Not now. Not in the circumstances.
Their mother called and, so docile in this new era of bewildering change, they dutifully filed after their grandmother into the sitting room – a beloved room in a beloved house. The armchairs were podgy and welcoming, the mantelpiece littered with photographs of family jaunts to Cornwall and Wales. A fringed lamp, decorated with chinoiserie, stood slightly askew, a testament to the boisterous nature of Peter. The bookcases were stuffed: long-winded poems and exhilarating adventure stories jostled with eloquent novels and brightly coloured travel guides, documenting lands far away from the bustle and smoke of London. Now their suitcases, battered and worn and impossibly small, were sitting on the tough old rug, and Frances felt a sudden heaviness at the notion that she might not see the pretty blue-and-white vase or the pale yellow wallpaper in ever such a long time.
They checked the suitcases again and again, fretting over their paltry items. Elly clutched her threadbare doll, its hair newly brushed. Peter looked bored, dragging his feet impatiently. He complained loudly; Frances noticed her father’s face growing increasingly crumpled. She tried to be pleasant, chattering away as they were bundled into the car, her mother swivelling round in the front seat to smile at them brightly. Julia reached forward to tuck a loose chestnut strand of Elly’s hair behind her ear; Elly grinned in response, a lopsided smile that showed off her missing teeth.
They drove to the school, trundling along past endless rows of houses just like theirs, the gardens trimmed and manicured, the façades neat and orderly.
‘You wouldn’t even think there was a war on, to look at the streets!’ Julia tried to be blasé. Frances noted dense bags of sand dumped next to lampposts and a gaggle of small boys, shouting gleefully as they kicked a gas-mask box along the street. She decided not to mention such details.
The school was full, its red-brick exterior bulging with mothers and children, suitcases and bags, people trying to be brave. The gleaming black gates were crowded with incomers, the playground engulfed with queues and confusion, everything chaotic and disorderly. The headmistress distractedly shoved her glasses further up her nose, barking out names and numbers. There was a flurry, everywhere you looked. Mothers, anxious lines etching their faces, shepherded their children across the grounds; boys and girls of all descriptions, glum and wailing and beaming, pigtails and scrubbed faces and pinched noses. The noise was tumultuous, Frances thought, savouring the unfamiliar word. She saw her favourite teacher, gentle Miss Johns, nearly trip over a lost suitcase
They were directed to a queue; the children saw their friends, and the parents tried not to talk. Elly was oblivious, hugging her doll. The older children milled around, wary; wondering aloud where they would stay and what the people would be like. A continuous rumble of conversation, and the feeling, whether explicitly expressed or tacitly experienced, that surely, just surely, this could not last very long. Julia fussed over her children, smoothing down their coats, kissing them on their pale foreheads. There were a few husbands, in stylish suits, nodding to each other in their taciturn way. One boy waddled, swathed in all his clothes, dragging his case behind him.
Elly cried when they had to leave. She didn’t understand why – Julia grew frantic as she tried to explain, as she choked on her own inadequacy. ‘It’s dangerous here, darling- but we’ll come to visit as soon as we know where you are and remember, we will think about you every day- I will miss you all so much…’
‘I’ll write straight away, Mother,’ Frances promised solemnly. The sound of hysterical sobs pierced the muffled noise, a girl repeatedly protesting that she had not been naughty, she had not done anything wrong and so why were they sending her away? Peter scuffed his shoes against the ground, for once yielding to his mother’s bustling. One more kiss, and they were gone.
Snippets of a heated argument could be heard as they walked away – a mother loudly shrieking, refusing to part with her children. ‘Let’s keep them home, please, please, please-‘ Her husband was pleading desperately, his voice cracking. One child dragged her feet petulantly, refusing to move further. Whispers everywhere of where they would end up and what would happen. Turbulent emotion and continual strain and raised voices and sheer commotion, perpetual and palpable. They walked fast, gulping tears and striding onwards.
They sat in the car for a few minutes, Julia and Arthur holding each other.
It was a station that they had traversed many times before – there had been second-class train journeys across the country, transporting them to frolics in the frothy blue waves, and languid picnics in the country; sweets purchased at the newsagents round the corner and cheap paperbacks from the station. The vertiginous roof dwarfed the endless trains, painted a dull brown with grubby smudged windows and doors that jammed. Vague wisps of smoke hung in the air as the platforms below were crowded with people, Frances clutching the hands of her brother and sister as they navigated the mass, continuously craning for the familiar sight of Miss Johns’ distinctive hat. They reached the train, struggling. They were told to wait. She saw a woman, her belly big and round, and porters that ambled and a man, sleek in his official military uniform, and children aimlessly swinging pillowcases, their belongings clattering inside. ‘East End,’ a schoolfriend hissed disdainfully, and proceeded to loudly point out the lice apparently hopping about on their heads. A sea of people, jostling and sobbing and wondering. Peter began to fiddle with his name tag, worrying away at the rope. She scolded him unnecessarily.
‘I hope I get billeted in a manor house, Mother doesn’t want me to end up in some provincial village because she says it’ll taint my manners.’
‘I don’t mind, as long as they’re kind and don’t shout…’
‘I’ll be happy enough if they don’t get on at me to study arithmetic all day long!’
‘Or make me eat cabbage…’
‘Will we have school there?’
‘Of course we will, that’s why the teachers are coming with us too.’
‘Oh blast it, I rather thought we would get to run about fields all day!’
Frances asked quietly: ‘They will let brothers and sisters stay together, won’t they?’
Miss Johns smiled thinly, placing her hand carefully on Frances’ shoulder. ‘I think so, my dear, but in any case I won’t let you get separated. Mothers have enough worrying to do without their children staying in different houses.’
‘Do you know where we’re going?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t. There were rumours about Somerset…’
The train left at about one o’clock. Frances stared hard out of the windows, attempting to absorb every atom of the city she was leaving. She saw only a generic city landscape, but she pictured to herself the smart houses, the glamorous theatres with her glitzy, gaudy lights, the palatial museums teeming with priceless artefacts, an entire city steeped in history. She was wedged between Peter and Elly, oddly comforted by their warmth. The rows of dismal houses and coal-black factories, shrouded in smoke, gave way to fresh countryside, glowing with an autumnal burnish. Plumes of leaden smoke emanated from the train, streaming across the skyline, dissipating into the verdant fields and gurgling streams of southern England. Frances glimpsed cottages, crowned with bluebells and violets, and grazing cows meandering in the pale sunlight. One girl, who had never escaped the confines of the city, was visibly open-mouthed at the sheer expanse of green and yellow, a patchwork pattern hemmed in by leafy hedges.
The train grew uncomfortable after a time; the children grew hungry. The teachers were alternately soothing and irritable as two hours stretched into three. Elly fell asleep, her snuffled breathing rhythmic and hushed. Frances continued to read, flicking the pages absently as she heard Miss Campbell explain softly about her fiancé who had just signed up. She sounded fearful; she mentioned that her uncle had died in the last war, stabbed to death by a German.
They were glad to leave the train, when the time came. The journey had been cramped, everyone packed in such close quarters. The station was small, and the locals startled by the profusion of children that spilled out. They swarmed like bees, filling every inch of the landscape until all you could see was the wan sky and the pale sliver of moon hat had emerged before its time. Rustic, Frances would have called it. A brick chimney perched on top of a slanted roof, pearly smoke billowing and two gentlemen sat in the waiting-room beneath a complex map of the country, knobbly canes in their aged hands. The evacuees (for such as they now were) were greeted by a bespectacled woman, owlish and snappy, armed with an exhaustive list.
Elly yawned, tight little fists rubbing her eyes.
‘I can’t understand her accent,’ Peter said stoutly.
‘I know, it’s difficult to pick out the words.’
The village hall was draughty and spacious, decorated with lawn furniture and an outdated banner that announced the village flower show in pastel lettering. They stood, unobtrusively, in the corner, watching as the Thomson twins, ruddy and strong, were chosen first. Little Sarah Edgware, her tufty blonde hair an angelic halo, was selected by a discerning couple with a cherub-faced daughter; and Hannah Walton, the oldest at thirteen, was led away with a triumphant air to the house of a gentleman-farmer. They watched as the youngest, adorable and pliant, were preferred, and the poorer, with their shabby clothing, were shunned.
‘Will we ever get chosen?’ Frances asked, panicked.
A matronly woman, enveloped in a hesitant air, approached. She eyed them judiciously, taking in their fastidiously ironed clothes and delicately brushed hair.
‘My mother is a literary editor, and my father is a lawyer,’ Frances offered.
The woman was surprisingly polite. ‘My father was a lawyer too. I did always want three children…’ she said wistfully, glancing briefly at her husband.
‘We’ll be very clean, and we’ll help with whatever we can.’ Frances said.
The woman laughed, a merry, warming laugh. ‘I’m sure you will. My name is Mrs Nicholson. Would you like to come home with us?’
Elly nodded keenly, and they followed the woman across the hall, their heels clicking loudly. The path outside was cluttered with violently coloured flowers and haphazard weeds, startlingly vivid. As she glanced back, Frances saw the forlorn faces of those left, frightened and timid. Some were shy, darting back from the gaze of strangers, and others suggested themselves as investments, eager children who would assist the household with anything possible. The prospective foster parents circled the children, assessing them shrewdly. What would happen to those who were left? Frances didn’t know, and remembered to ask for her new address. She would write home as soon as she could.