Friday 1st September, 1939
We were all rushing around the cottage, trying hurriedly to pack our belongings into suitcases and load them into the car. All of us except Frank, that is. My younger brother was sitting on his bed, scowling at whichever of us he could make eye contact with.
“Why do we have to go home?” he demanded, “We weren’t supposed to go home for another week.”
Mother barely looked at him as she carried a pile of bed linen past the door to the boys’ room, and I was in the room across the corridor, busy trying to cram the contents of an entire chest of drawers into my holdall, but I heard William’s voice over the sound of the wireless he had been listening to so intently.
“Because there’s going to be a war,” he said, in that very matter of fact way that only an eldest sibling can have.
“Why does that mean we have to leave our holiday? Father said I could help milk a cow, and I wanted to go fishing!” Frank retorted
“There are more important things than holidays Frank. Get used to it. Lots of things are going to change.”
“But it’s not fair.” I heard the sound of Frank’s feet banging against his wooden bedframe, and shut the now full suitcase sitting on my bed. “Father fought in the last war. Anyway, he’s so old now that they’ll never make him be a soldier again. I don’t see why we can’t stay a few more days.”
This was straying into dangerous territory, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Before William lost his temper. “That’s enough,” I said, striding across the hallway to stand in the doorway to the boys’ bedroom. “Frank, why don’t you take William’s suitcase down to the car? Father should be starting to load it up.”
He glared at me sullenly, and didn’t move off the bed. “Now, Frank.” I said firmly, folding my arms and he jumped off the bed and picked up the suitcase, dragging it out of the bedroom.
“You’re going to make a good teacher,” William said as he turned the dial that shut off the sound of the wireless. “He always listens to you.”
“I actually think he’s more scared that I might tell Mother than he is of me,” I said with a smile. “Thank you anyway.”
He smiled back, and looked around the room. “Is there much else to pack?”
“Only what our darling baby brother has ignored.” I waved a hand at the floor, to the mess that Frank had left scattered around. “Really William, you could have at least tried to get him to tidy up.”
William shrugged as he knelt down on the floor and began to pick up a pile of discarded socks Frank had left at the foot of his bed. “I hope Father remembers to put the heaviest ones in the car. It’s all right for them driving all the way home, but I don’t fancy hauling two tonnes of luggage five miles to the station.” William said.
“Really,” I said over my shoulder as I went through to pick up my own suitcase. “It’s only two miles at most.”
Saturday 2nd September, 1939
Back home, William was already up and making breakfast when I awoke the following morning. The tinny sound of the wireless was audible over the noise of him clattering around in cupboards as I came down stairs. “Have they announced anything yet?” I asked as I walked into the kitchen.
“Not yet,” he said, not looking up from the pan of porridge he was stirring. “But it should be any time now.”
“You’ve been saying that for days.”
“You know I’m right though.”
I didn’t answer, but walked across to the window, and inspected our handiwork from the night before. “They’ve held up well, considering we put them up in the dark,” I said, running my hands along one of the old curtains we had pinned to the window frames as impromptu blackout blinds, and tugging experimentally. “Fairly well,” I amended as the curtain fell away in my hands, revealing that the thunderstorm which had followed us home last night was still persisting, though somewhat less malevolently.
I folded the curtain and left it on the counter as William placed two bowls of porridge on the table. “Mother and Father should be back soon.” He said as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “It’s not that far from Aunt Elizabeth’s, and they said they’d try and make an early start this morning.”
I nodded as I savoured the warmth of the first spoonful of porridge. The downside of going on holiday is that when you come home the house is always bitterly cold. We ate in silence, both of us listening intently for any news on the wireless.
I hadjust started to boil the kettle for washing up water when I was interrupted by the sound of someone hammering on the front door. I walked over and opened it to find an incredibly wet Frank standing panting on the step. “You have to come and help carry the plums!” he said excitedly, before turning tail and running off down the road again, going out of his way to jump in a puddle
I shot William a brief look of confusion, but in lieu of an adequate explanation, we set about finding our overcoats and wellingtons. By the time we made it out into the road, Frank was running back to find us. “Mother said you have to come quickly, I’ll show you the way!”
We turned the corner next to the church to find Mother and Father standing next to the car, which was full to the bursting with boxes upon boxes of plums. Without even a ‘Good morning’, or an explanation for the fruit, Father thrust a crate into William’s arms, saying: “Take this to the house, and come back with for the next one.” Frowning, William opened his mouth as if to protest, but then, thinking better of it turned and jogged back down the road. “And be careful!” Father shouted after him, though his voice was almost drowned out by the sound of the rain.
Realising what was expected of me; I bent down and tried to pick up a crate. “Don’t be absurd darling,” I heard mother say as she leant into the car and pulled out a roll of material. “I’ve got some old curtains Aunt Elizabeth gave me for blinds. You take these.” Dutifully I took the curtains, which were almost as heavy as the plums I had tried to lift. “Try not to get them wet, and when you get back to the house, put the kettle on.” I nodded, screwing up my face as the water dislodged from my hair by the movement flowed into my eyes. “Really, don’t be so childish. We all have to do our part. Put the kettle on, and set the sewing machine up. You and I have got a long day ahead of us making blinds.”
“William and I…” I began, but was interrupted again. “And see if you can find Grandma’s big copper pan. We have to stew all the plums today or they’ll start to go mouldy.” I nodded again, ignoring the water this time, and turned to go back to the house.
“Oh, and make sure Frank stays in the house,” Mother’s voice was barely audible as I hurried past William, who was already on his way back, “I don’t want him to catch a cold!”
Sunday 3rd September, 1939
It was always noisy when we arrived at church on Sunday; with the men discussing the cricket scores, and the ladies catching up on the week’s gossip. Every few weeks there was a scream of panic when a foolish girl caught sight of white a mouse, escaped from a boy’s pocket (often Frank’s), or a spider that had found its way out of its matchbox prison.
Today was different. It was still far from silent, but the noise had a panicked edge to it, almost of hysteria. Whenever a new family arrived, everyone asked what the latest news was, in case the extra few minutes had made the difference. People kept shooting furtive glances at the young men, afraid to enter into conversation with them, though I did find it comforting to notice that William was not the only man his age to look anxious.
As I followed my brothers into our pew, I made eye contact with Frank, trying to tell him to behave today, but he just smiled back, far too angelically. It was a guarantee that at least once a week I would hear the sound of whispers from the end of our pew as William tried to chastise Frank for being a pest. It had been strange not to hear it while William was at Cambridge. It was not two minutes after we sat down that I caught sight of something moving at the edge of my vision. It was Frank, of course. He had taken a toy soldier out of his pocket, who was, as far as I could tell, attempting to valiantly assault the castle walls, a role here played by William’s leg, though our older brother barely seemed to notice.
The sound of voices stopped as the organ groaned into life and we all stood up expectantly, waiting for the usual Sunday morning procession of Vicar, Rector, and Choir. Even Frank was standing quietly, though it seemed likely that this was because William wasn’t rising to his bait. No more than half a minute after the music had started, the tune suddenly tailed off into silence.
There was a moment’s silence, before the church erupted with the sound of voices again. What was going on? Where was the vicar? Nobody could ever remember the Sunday service starting late before, what could possibly have happened?
It seemed fairly obvious to me what had happened, though I hoped I was wrong. I could tell by the faint tinge of grey on William’s face that he was thinking the same, and when I saw my father silently clasp my mother’s hand, it was clear they did too. I had never seen them hold hands in public before and certainly never in church.
I overheard two particularly highly strung old dears claim in a shrill voice that the vicar must have broken his leg to have missed church. No, he had, caught scarlet fever. No, the roof of the vicarage had collapsed during the storm and crushed Father Thomas in his bed. I found myself wondering, rather cruelly I think, if everyone else had realised the truth as well, and they were just being too blind, or scared, to put voice to the idea.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the organ once more, and by the time I’d got to my feet I was relieved to see the Vicar leading the way into the chancel.
“I’m afraid I have to apologise for my lateness,” he said, his voice sounding strained, and oddly quiet. “I was listening to Mr Chamberlain on the wireless. I’m sorry to say that we are at war.”