4th September 1939.
Auntie Win never says anything nice to me. It’s always “Joyce, take your elbows off the table.” “Joyce, don’t talk with your mouth full.” I don’t want to go and live with her in Brimley, but I suppose I must.
“You’re so lucky to have an aunt living in Essex,” my mother says, as we’re travelling up on the train. “You might’ve been evacuated.”
When she opens the door to us, Auntie Win’s wearing her bright blue district nurse’s uniform, ‘sensible’, black, lace-up shoes and wrinkled flesh-coloured stockings on her thick legs. “Expected you half an hour ago. I have to go out. One of my patients has had a fall. I’ve made you tea.” She waves her hand at a brown pot with minute white chips on its spout.
Moments later she’s swinging her leg over her bicycle and jingling her bell at a dog in the road, leaving us in the ill lit kitchen, me counting the faded black and white quarry tiles on the floor and trying to ignore the stale cabbage smell seeping up my nostrils. My mother smooths her silk dress and brushes the wicker seat of her chair before she sits down. I expect her to make her usual Auntie Win comments, about droopy skirts and outside lavatories, but, over the past few months, as war with Germany became more likely every hour, my parents have stopped saying this sort of thing.
We’re unpacking my suitcase in the little room where I am to sleep when we become aware of the hum of conversation and revving of engines in the street below. I step over to the window. “Buses,” I cry. “Red London buses.” I pull my mother, shaking her head, to the tiny casement. “Honestly. Look. It says ‘London Transport’ on them.” I want to add, “Aren’t they splendid? Aren’t they spiffing?” but then I think that would be a funny thing to say about buses.
My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs.
It takes me a moment realise that there’s something wrong about these ordinary red Route Masters, lined up behind each other as if in a queue. All the passengers are children. They’re tumbling off the landing platforms like ants, clutching gas masks in cardboard boxes and carrying brown paper parcels bundled up with string.
Turning away, my mother stoops down to examine her face in the looking-glass. “From the East End, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Proper evacuees, with brown luggage labels tied around their necks. Even though the sun has been shining down upon us all day, a reminder that summer is not yet over, and, earlier, my little bedroom seemed stiflingly hot, a shiver jolts down my spine. This war is really happening.
“Joyce, don’t stare.” My mother beckons me away from the window with a jerk of her head . “You be careful around those East Enders. Remember that you live in a nice house in Friern Barnet. And that your father’s the manager at the bank.”
“What’s the time?” My mother raises her wrist to her nose, and squints at her tiny silver-framed watch. She says that glasses don’t suit her. Picking up her handbag, she reaches over to kiss my cheek. “I’d better take the four thirty-two, darling. Daddy and I are going out to dinner tonight. You’ll be all right until Auntie Win comes home, won’t you?”
I gulp in a short breath. I want to scream, “Please don’t,” and “Please, please, please… take me home,” but I’m twelve. I force a smile. Wartime spirit and all that.
After she’s left, I continue to watch the buses. I wonder if I could stow away under one of the seats and I carry on thinking about this long after they’ve revved up and driven off, around the corner and out of sight. For a moment, I still hear their clattering engines… then nothing, only the shopkeeper over the road retracting his blind. If only I were fourteen. Fourteen year olds are allowed to stay in my wonderful London. If only we had relatives in America, like my friend, Eileen. She’s sailing on the Queen Mary tomorrow. Lucky thing.
Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.
* * * * *
6th September 1939
I’ve started at Brimley School for Girls. The buildings are old, with long corridors painted grass green and mustard yellow, hardly any playground, no tennis courts or hockey pitches, or anything like we had at my old school. There are so many of us in the form room that some pupils have to share a desk, or even kneel on the floor. The village girls have bagged all the places on one side of the room and the evacuees, all from Deptford, the other side. I sit at a single desk at the middle, in front of a pillar, beside me pipes which gurgle like someone being sick.
When Miss Clough asks us to introduce ourselves, I’m last. “Joyce Harper, Miss,” I say. “From Friern Barnet Ladies’ Academy.”
Someone behind me sniggers.
* * * * *
Everyone at school keeps calling me ‘Friern Barnet’. The Deptford girls started it. They say I talk posh and I’m stuck up. I don’t and I’m not.
I’ve just spoken to Mummy from the telephone box down the road. I asked her about coming home, just for a weekend, but she won’t let me. It’s not fair. The Germans haven’t dropped any bombs in London. I didn’t tell her anything about school, of course. She’s doing war work, knitting for the WRVS, and Daddy’s an air raid warden.
Auntie Win’s listening to ‘The News’ on the wireless when I get back, but then the announcer’s voice fades out and that horrid Lord Haw-Haw comes on. It’s disgusting the way he talks. Nobody knows who he is, or even if he’s one person or several. His accent’s British, though.
Afterwards, I feel cold inside, as if icy water is running through my veins. Auntie Win makes more cocoa. She makes very good cocoa. We don’t talk about Lord Haw-Haw. We don’t talk much at all. She reads the newspaper and I do my homework.
* * * * *
They’re calling me names again. They stopped for a few days and now they’ve started again. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I mentioned my old school again during algebra. I’m not a tell-tale, but I did speak to Miss Clough this morning and she was jolly decent. This afternoon, she’s sent me out of class with a message for the headmistress’s secretary, and, when I go back in, she’s saying, “We must just call her ‘Joyce’. That’s her name.”
* * * * *
Nothing goes right for me.
It’s all over the papers that Lord Haw-Haw’s name is ‘William Joyce’. The girls in my class are following me around, chanting, “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”. I hate them all. The rotten thing is that, when Marjorie and Tilly come over at break this morning, I think they want to be friends and I smile at them, but immediately they start. “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”. I hate them. I hate them all so much.
I go back to Auntie Win’s and she’s moaning about clothes left on my bedroom floor. “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
I’ve had enough. I’ll tidy my bedroom, all right. I’ll tidy it so she won’t know I’ve ever been here.
* * * * *
31 October, later.
Auntie Win’s using the outside lavatory when I’m lugging my suitcase downstairs, bumping it over each step, one by one. So much noise and I can’t help it. I’m afraid of damaging the case, or the catch bursting open. I slip out the front door, but don’t slam it shut. I’ve 5s 2d in my purse. That’s going to be enough, surely. I trundle down the street, dragging my heavy suitcase. I never realised how uneven the Brimley pavement is, and the handles on my case are really hurting my hands. I have to keep swapping from left to right, but, like the poster says, I carry on. Into the station booking office at last. “Single to Liverpool Street, please.” Ah, the music of those words.
“Six shillings,” mutters the booking clerk, as I empty the contents of my purse on to the counter.
I push my coins towards him, shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits, pennies, halfpennies and farthings. I look up at him, studying the lines on his face and his sprouting eyebrows. He’s smiling. I’m sure he’s a nice man. He’s got to be a nice man. No, he’s not. He’s shaking his head. “But…” I plead.
“Six shillings, Miss.”
“Six shillings to you. Same as everybody else.” Calling “Yes?” over my head, to the soldier in uniform, he shoves my coins back across the wooden counter.
The Deptford girls – the real evacuees – would have argued the toss with a C’monnn Misterrrr.
I’m Joyce, from Friern Barnet. And still in Brimley.
I trudge back through the village, past the Co-op, the church, my school, and all the other horrible, dreary buildings. It’s autumn now. Dusk is falling and, with the blackout, it goes dark fast. Only the fish and chip shop gives out a faint glow. Mummy says, you can never get the smell of chip fat out of your clothes.
Ten minutes later, I’m staring at the leaded fanlight over Auntie Win’s porch, papered over in accordance with wartime regulations. I lift my hand to knock. I’ll do it. In a minute.
A piercing sound like splitting wood has me staggering backwards. The front door, swollen with October damp, rips open. My aunt, a yellow cardigan over her blue nurse’s dress, hovers in the doorway, her hand on the lintel. Her complexion, never beautiful like my mother’s, is drained of any colour, except for suddenly prominent freckles and pink broken veins.
“Joyce. Thank God.” Then she reaches out for my arm and pulls me inside, as if removing me from imminent danger.
“Your mother… What could I have said?” Her eyes light on my suitcase. She cannot tear them away.
“I’ll… I’ll take it upstairs.” I’m speaking so low I can hardly hear myself.
“I’ll make some cocoa.”
With my hurting hands, striped red and white, I drag my belongings back to my room. She calls up to me three times, even though I remain in my room only to remove my outdoor shoes – not allowed in her house. I sit at the kitchen table, once more counting the black and white quarry tiles, aware of her moving about and making cocoa, but not daring to look at her. “I’m afraid you do have to stay here, Joyce,” says Auntie Win, as she hands my cup to me.
I take a gulp of steaming chocolate froth. It scalds my throat. “I know.”
She sips her own, swallowing loudly. Usually, she’s a tea person. “Your bedroom… it wasn’t too untidy. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”
What did she just say? I shuffle in my seat.
“I’m a nurse. I’m afraid I expect everything to look like a hospital.”
“I’ll make all tidy when I put it everything back.” Grown-ups don’t apologise to children. It’s not the proper thing.
“Thank you.” She sits back in her chair, sliding forwards as if she’s lying on it. “Now, tell me. How are things at school?”
“Really? Unless things have changed a lot since my day, girls can be absolutely horrible.”
Her kind tone almost makes me cry, but I hold back, rushing upstairs again, then wishing I hadn’t because I want my cocoa. She follows me to my room, carrying my cup. When I do talk, she doesn’t put her arm around me and stroke my hair like Mummy would, just sits beside me on my bed. She already knew, of course. People talk in villages.
“Pity you mentioned the ‘Ladies Academy’ bit,” she says.
“It’s what my school’s called.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“I’m not stuck up.”
“I know, but think about how it sounds to other people.” She grabs her handbag. “With all this going on, I haven’t put tea on. Let’s buy fish and chips. We’ll sort out those girls. You see.”
* * * * *
31 October, still.
We’ve been waiting outside the chip shop for some time when Marjorie (from Brimley) and Tilly (from Deptford) join the queue. “Those two’re in my form,” I whisper to Auntie Win.
“Say hello then.”
“They’re waving to you.”
I shake my head.
“Come on, Joyce. Be friendly. Wave back.”
I don’t want to, but I do, because Auntie Win’s raising her eyebrows and looking at me.
I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.
An icy wind, straight off the North Sea, whips through my Friern Barnet coat. Tilly says it’s cold because it blows from Germany. Tilly can be nice sometimes. When I get my meal, wrapped up in the Daily Sketch, I clasp it to my chest like a hot water bottle. “Mummy doesn’t let me eat in the street, but would it be all right if we had a few chips?”
Auntie Win is already unravelling her bundle of newsprint. “Mum,” she says. “Mum.”
I frown. “Mummy wouldn’t like being called Mum.”
“Call her what you like… in Friern Barnet… and don’t eat in the streets… of Friern Barnet. But this is Brimley and I’m Auntie Win.”
“You and she don’t get along, do you?”
“Of course we do,” my aunt says almost before I’ve got my words out. She bites off a large piece of fish and chews it slowly. She nudges me as we’re about to pass Marjorie and Tilly. “Offer them some chips.”
My arm locks by my side.
I thrust my bag in front of them. “Er… would you like a chip.”
Tilly looks at Marjorie, at Auntie Win, at me, at Auntie Win again. “Watcha,” she giggles, grabbing two.
“Watcha” says Marjorie, taking one. Marjorie copies everything Tilly says.
“Well done,” mouths Auntie Win as we cross the road. “Don’t let them see they upset you.”
We’re just finishing our meal when two figures come hurtling up the street, shouting, “Joyce, Joyce!”
“Have a chip,” pants Tilly, holding out her portion.
“Would you care for a chip, Nurse Carter,” asks Marjorie. She stares up at her. “You looked after my grandma last year, when she had her stroke.”
Auntie Win nods. “Yes, of course. How’s Grandma now?”
“Very well, thank you,” says Marjorie. “Actually, not really.”
“I’ll drop by tomorrow, Marjorie.”
“You can come around with us at break tomorrow, if you want, Joyce.” Tilly’s voice comes through chewed potato. She swings on her heel to face Marjorie. “Can’t she, Marge?”
“Do you think she means it?” I ask my aunt, my face furrowing into a frown as we walk home.
“Only one way to find out.”
Rosemary is returning to short story writing after spending time writing a historical novel. She was inspired to write this short story after seeing photographs of red London buses bringing evacuees to a town near to where she lives in Essex, England. She has articles published in Christian Writer and Together. In real life, Rosemary lives with her husband and cat and teaches IT and maths. She blogs about writing and everyday life at Write On.