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Authors: Richard Ballard

A Childs War

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A Child's War

by

Richard Ballard

MY Books

©
Copyright 2005 Richard Ballard

AN MY PUBLICATIONS

©
Copyright 2005

Richard Ballard

The right of Richard Ballard to be identified as Author of
this work has been asserted in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All Rights Reserved

No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication
may be made without written permission.
No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced,
copied or transmitted save with the written permission or in
accordance
with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1956 (as amended).
Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to
this publication may be liable to criminal
prosecution and civil claims for damage.

First published in 2005

A CIP catalogue record for this title is
available from the British Library

ISBN 9781906986476

Published by
M-Y Books
Hertford
England

For Alexander, Lydia and Serena,
in case they want to know

1

“Did you see it last night, Edna? The plane coming down in Richmond Avenue?”

“George and I certainly heard it. We were on our way to the shelter with Alex when it happened.”

“They say it got two houses. In one the family were in their beds and killed outright, and the others were down the shelter. It was a Jerry bomber and the pilot and crew couldn't get out.”

“Poor devils. I don't suppose most of them want all this any more than we do. They can't all be fanatical Nazis, can they?”

“In the Luftwaffe they can. Apparently old Goering likes them to be.”

This exchange took place in the street outside Edna's house in Raynes Park, London SW20 on a sunny morning towards the end of September 1940. The houses there had all been built at the beginning of the twentieth century. They had bay windows upstairs and down ornamented with mouldings, and were fronted by little gardens edged with decorative iron railings. The pavements on either side of the road were lined with trees whose leaves were getting tired now. It had been a quiet road until Hitler decided to bomb London instead of the southern English airfields, and remained so during the day. There was not much traffic beyond the horse-drawn milk cart each morning, the butcher's boy making deliveries on a bicycle with a large basket over its small front wheel soon after the housewives had had their breakfast on a Saturday, the dustcart at mid-day on a Wednesday and the occasional deliveries from department stores such as the ones made in a green and gold motor van to George and Edna Ryland at number 74. Very few of the residents in Chestnut Road had cars of their own, either at that time or before war broke out, so there was virtually no kerbside parking.

Four-year-old Alex Ryland became excited when he heard his mother go to the front gate to greet her best friend. He saw that she had left the front door wide open, and in his eagerness to run outside he caught his foot on the door frame and fell on the corner of the stone step as the two women watched.

“Good Lord, he's split his chin!” cried Edna.

The child yelled with pain and rage. His blood was all over the front of his clean jersey, provoking annoyance from his mother and concern from her friend. He was soon gathered up and, still screaming, was carried off to the kitchen where a sticking plaster was found and ineffectively administered. When Edna realized that the plaster was of little use, she rushed to the mirror by the front door and pushed her thick but short black hair into place. She turned round, dragged her brown coat off the hallstand and quickly put it on. After another look in the glass, pouting because she did not like her appearance in her newly acquired horn-rimmed glasses, she reached into the cupboard under the stairs - which at that time contained a mattress to sleep on during an air-raid as an alternative to the Anderson shelter in the garden - to find Alex's redundant pushchair. It had been carefully kept in fear lest there might be any more accidental births. She dumped him none too gently into it and took him to the casualty department at the hospital a few streets away.

She sat fretfully with her child in the waiting room for half an hour, doing her best to ignore the demands he expressed in between the little sobs he kept making that he should sit on her lap. In the end, the woman nursing her swollen thumb on a chair facing Edna across the room made sympathetic smiles towards Alex and shamed her into lifting him up and holding him close. He sniffed and whimpered by turns for five more minutes until the receptionist called her name.

II

“A split chin like that will need several stitches,” said the young doctor who pulled a long face as she saw it. “I think it would be best, Mrs Ryland, if he stayed here with us.”

“No child of mine is staying here with these bombs falling night after night,” was the reply. “Would you let me use a telephone, please?”

“Of course,” said the doctor, “Sister will show you where there is one.”

After the call had been passed round the underground regions of the big department store where her husband worked as Chief Maintenance Engineer, George was finally found. He wiped his hands on a cloth, on his greasy overalls, on the cloth again, and then through his thinning hair which had fallen over his face while he was working. He did not like being called to the telephone while he was involved in some tricky operation that involved skill and swearing. However, being told that it was his wife and knowing that she would only ring him at work if there were a real emergency at home, his greeting was almost kind as he took off his glasses to scratch his head,

“What's up, girl?”

“I'm at Merton Hospital. Alex has split his chin badly and they want to keep him in overnight. I don't want to leave him. It's dangerous enough in the shelter at home during the air raids, let alone in the children's ward on the top floor here.”

“What do you want to do, then?”

“I'd like to take him to stay with the Pattersons in Oxford, where he'd be safe. The only thing is that the journey with him in this state will be difficult on the train or the coach.”

“The only other way's a taxi. Do you want to do that?”

“Cost the earth, though.”

George realized that he had smeared one of the lenses of his glasses with his dirty thumb as he put them on again, and that there was nothing in the pockets of his overalls that resembled a clean handkerchief with which to clean it. He did his best to suppress his irritation as he replied,

“If it's an emergency we shall have to find the money. Ring Graham Patterson at the dairy from where you are and if it's all right with them get a car and go. I'll come up on the coach on Friday night and stay the weekend.”

Edna used the telephone twice more to do what George had suggested and then, after the doctor had sewn Alex's chin together and covered her work with a huge and effective plaster, he suffered the indignity of the pushchair again to go back home. His mother spent a furious half hour packing what both of them would need for a short stay away and nearly split her own chin while getting a suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe.

There was a knock on the front door, and Alex saw to his delight that a huge black taxi had arrived. While he sat once more in the push-chair waiting to get into the taxi and Edna made sure that the house was properly locked up, the thing that registered most in his mind was the shiny metal hubcap with a decorous copperplate capital A for Austin on it that graced its wheel. His mother picked Alex up and set him down in the back of the car while the driver registered her anxiety and responded to it with his own. He packed the suitcase and then the pushchair in the boot.

“If we go now,” he said, “I can get back before the raids start tonight, or my wife will do me the honour of going up the wall with worry.”

“How far is Oxford?” asked Edna.

“A good four hours each way. At least, that's what my boss says.”

With that he started the engine, and Alex sank into the brown leather upholstery of the back seat alongside his mother who was irritably looking through the hand luggage she had about her, making sure she had what she had convinced herself that she had left behind. She was dressed in her Sunday best black coat now and was wearing her newest black hat festooned with spotted veiling. When at last she was still, she took off her glasses to wipe them with her little lace handkerchief, sighing and biting her bottom lip.

The two greatest impressions upon Alex's memory, since he was not tall enough to see out of the window, were the overpowering smell of the treated leather and the smooth motion of this great big car. These soothed him after the distress of the morning. He did not understand why his mother would not let him rub the plaster over the stitches in his chin when it started to hurt severely but, once she had set him on her lap and they were being driven along the Great West Road, he fell into an uneasy sleep, only to be woken as they crossed the bridge at Henley because he was giving his mother excruciating cramp and she was telling him so as she moved him to one side.

For the rest of the journey, the little boy drifted between sleeping and being woken up by the throbbing pain in his chin, hoping that it would not hurt forever. His mother tried to make a joke out of the great bruise that covered his lower jaw around the plaster but he was in no mood for such ill-judged pleasantries, especially when she showed it to him to him in the small mirror from her handbag. He knew on the basis of past experience that he was irritating his mother, but he could not help crying for a while until he fell asleep again.

When he woke up next, it was because his mother was talking to the driver.

“Go through the city centre,” she was saying, “and make for the station. When we've gone under the station bridge we are nearly there.”

“That's all very well,” the driver replied, “but I've never been here before and don't know how to get to the station.”

By this time they were going across a bridge that had a large tower on the right hand side before joining a main street.

“Keep straight on here and, when we get to Carfax, I'll tell you where to go from there.”

“You're in charge, ma'am,” was all the man could think of to say and he followed his nose and her directions, sensing that she was not a frequent traveller in cars and was very likely as confused as he was. He was not far wrong in this: she had only been to the city twice to see her friends since they had moved to Oxford at the start of the war for the sake of their twelve-year-old son. On both those occasions she had come on a coach with George showing her the way after they had arrived at Gloucester Green, not far from the railway station.

Alex was annoyed by not being able to see out, and knelt up on the seat to see what went by. There were at first gardens with impressive gates set back from the road, then large stone houses, a row of shops, then more stone buildings. He noticed that these had small windows, interspersed with one or two arched doorways that appeared vast to him. A great many people were walking to and fro on the pavement, including little groups of young men wearing strange-looking gowns over their tweed jackets, who all seemed to be laughing together. When he turned round to see out of the window on his mother's side, he saw two buses, one in front of a green lorry and the other behind it, which were not quite red and not quite brown with the word OXFORD painted on their sides in large gold letters

The fact that Alex started whimpering again because his face hurt as he turned his head did not sweeten the temper either of Edna or the taxi driver. A hostile silence was maintained until at last his mother recognized the crossroads at Carfax and shouted out,

“Straight on here!” while the driver very nearly went though a red light in his eagerness to comply. Alex's whimpering turned into loud crying until she muttered under her breath at her son, “For God's sake, shut up. If it wasn't for you we wouldn't have to be doing all this.”

None of the three in the car was gladder than the driver to see the road descend under the railway bridge with a Great Western engine puffing over it, pulling a long line of carriages. He could now deposit his charges and get home to Wimbledon and his wife and daughter and grandchildren before the night's anxiety at Hitler's hands should begin. His son-in-law had been called up for military service whereas the father of the child now in his taxi had not. That added to his resentment of his passengers, as well as the mother's haughty attitude during his attempts to start a conversation while the child had slept.

They were going over the canal bridge when Edna said, “You see that church on the left? Then the road goes over another bridge, and where we are going is on the right hand side of the road opposite a shop, number fifty-six.” That was the final direction and having complied with it the driver moved smoothly across the road and braked at the kerb, facing the oncoming traffic. He got out and discourteously opened the offside passenger door first so that Alex could scramble out, leaving his mother to gather up all her miscellaneous hand luggage herself. Then he fetched the big suitcase and the pushchair from the boot.

BOOK: A Childs War
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