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Authors: Carol Rivers

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BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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‘We’ve nothing on as it happens,’ Len answered stiffly. ‘Let’s all have something to eat, shall we? I’m sure we can rustle up some cold cuts and potatoes.
None of us can do very well on empty stomachs, including the lad here.’ He stood beside Doris and ruffled Alfie’s hair.

‘That’d be really welcome,’ Alan agreed, glancing at Kay, relieved to see the light come back into her eyes. Curbing his desire to take both his wife and son in his arms and
run with them while he had the chance, he looked at Doris and ventured, ‘That is, if it’s all right with you, Doris?’

Alan raised his eyebrows hopefully and Doris tucked in her chin and silently nodded. Alan was relieved when he saw her hand the child over to Kay and, with a glance at Len, make her way out to
the kitchen.

Chapter Nine

‘I never, ever want a day like this again,’ Kay sighed as they sat on the coach returning to Poplar. She looked down at Alfie who had finally fallen asleep in her
arms. Her fingers couldn’t resist threading lightly through his hair. But even this action reminded her of Doris’s affection and the heartbreak her sister-in-law must be experiencing.
‘I felt as if I was stealing Alfie away from her.’

Alan put a comforting hand on her knee. ‘Doris must have known he’d have to come back to us in the end. Strikes me, the situation could’ve been far worse if we’d left
Alfie there any longer.’

Kay nodded her agreement. She had never wanted Alfie to go in the first place. But the Blitz had started and there seemed no other choice at the time.

‘At least the jellies made a good impression.’ Alan smiled. ‘Although sweets are rationed we keep a few at the post for the kids. Didn’t think a couple would be missed
for Alfie.’

‘My clever husband.’ Kay had never been more relieved than when Alan took a small packet from his pocket after they had taken their seats on the coach. He had pretended to chew a
jelly and made silly faces, as though his teeth were stuck together. Alfie had begun to laugh. And as he enjoyed the sweets himself, they were able to distract his attention from the miserable
parting in Hertfordshire. ‘If only Doris had replied to my first letter. If she’d said how she felt, we could have stayed in Little Gadelsby for a few days. At the pub perhaps. Or they
could have come down to us and we’d have put them up. But we had no idea just how attached they’d become to Alfie, or he to them.’

‘How could any of us have known that the Blitz would last eight months?’ Alan questioned, shaking his head. ‘None of us anticipated the length of the bombing. It’s been
rough on everyone.’

‘Poor Doris,’ Kay whispered again, bending to kiss the top of Alfie’s head. ‘It’s clear she’s desperate to have a baby.’

‘Never say never, love,’ Alan replied quietly. ‘They’re still young and active. As a matter of fact, I had a word with Len about that today. First time we’ve ever
really talked man to man.’

‘You did?’ Kay asked in surprise.

Alan nodded. ‘We were both getting pretty heated, so I just tried to make him aware of how you – we – felt without our boy with us. Not easy when me dander was up, I’ll
admit. However, the ice was broke a bit and I chanced asking if they’d considered adopting a kid. Len admitted they had, or at least, he had.’

‘But Doris don’t like the idea?’

‘Still hoping for one of their own, I think.’

‘And Alfie must have fitted the bill,’ Kay murmured. ‘Being her nephew, it was almost like her having her own boy.’

‘That’s about it, I should think.’

Kay looked down at Alfie’s pale, sleeping face. ‘Ah well, at least we managed to eat a meal with them before leaving, but if I’m honest I felt so uncomfortable, every mouthful
tasted like rubber. And that’s no slight on Doris. She fed us good wholesome food and eventually made a little conversation but I kept looking at her and seeing the sadness in her
eyes.’

‘Tell you what, when I get back to work, I’ll telephone Len from the post. They’ve got a telephone at the cottage, and I’ve also got Len’s works number. Took it
when Alfie first went to stay with them – in case of emergencies. I’ll ask him and Doris to come and visit as soon as possible.’

‘Do you think they will?’

‘Dunno. But I’ll make the offer anyway.’

Kay had had this very same idea as she and Doris had sat upstairs in Alfie’s bedroom. But bearing in mind Doris’s affection for her nephew, Kay guessed it would be as difficult for
Doris to visit Alfie and part from him again as it was for Kay on the day that Alfie had been taken away from her.

Late that evening, Vi opened the front door to welcome them. ‘Oh, Alfie, just look at you, son. How you’ve grown!’ she exclaimed. ‘Give old Vi a kiss
like you used to.’ She bent forward but Alfie once again turned away, pressing his face into Alan’s shoulder.

Alan raised his eyebrows as he stepped past the door. ‘Don’t take it personal, Vi. He’s been away a long time and didn’t recognize us, either.’

Vi flipped her hand. ‘The poor lamb, course it’ll take him a few days to get his bearings. Now come along and I’ll make you all a bite to eat.’

‘I ain’t got much of an appetite,’ Alan admitted as they trooped into the front room and sat down.

‘Me neither,’ agreed Kay with a tired smile. ‘But a cuppa would be nice.’

‘What about the boy? We can try him with a little broth I made specially this morning.’

But Alfie refused to eat and willingly curled up in his cot after Kay had given him a quick top and tail. Doris said he was dry at night and needed no nappy. Kay loved washing his smooth plump
skin and talking to him as if he understood all she was saying. After wrapping his teddy in his blanket and placing it beside him, she kissed him goodnight, though his eyes were already closed and
his thumb tucked in his mouth.

But during the night he woke with a cry and Alan sprang out of bed, leaving Kay to turn on the light and hurry round to the cot.

‘What’s the matter, old soldier?’ Alan cradled Alfie in his arms.

‘Want Nanty,’ Alfie sniffed as he rubbed his red cheeks.

‘Nanty is his name for Doris,’ Kay said with a sinking heart as she stroked Alfie’s damp hair.

‘You’ve been on holiday with your Aunty Doris and Uncle Len in Hertfordshire,’ Alan explained gently. ‘And now you’re back home in London with Mummy and Daddy.
Tomorrow we’re going to have a lot of fun together.’

But Alfie only asked for Doris again. Kay had to turn away to hide her disappointment. She was upset for her son, for Doris and Len, and for herself and Alan.

Alan pressed her shoulder. ‘Come on, love, this is the worst part, getting him used to how things were. It won’t be long before he starts remembering us. Go back to bed and
I’ll see he settles.’

Reluctantly Kay did as Alan suggested. In bed, she listened to her husband’s soft voice as he paced the room with Alfie in his arms. ‘We’ll go down to the river
tomorrow,’ he whispered, rocking Alfie as if he was a baby again. ‘It was your favourite place before you went to your aunt and uncle’s. Remember?’

Kay finally drifted into sleep and with Alan’s arms around her she managed to sleep lightly, putting the cares of the day behind her.

The following morning Alfie woke with very red and swollen cheeks. He had a runny nose and refused to eat his porridge. ‘He’s still not hungry,’ Kay fretted
as Alfie pursed his lips. ‘He’s missing Doris. He keeps asking for Nanty.’

‘More like he’s teething,’ Vi decided. ‘We should get him one of them teething dummies.’

‘Doris told me she didn’t approve of those.’

‘Well, you’re his mum, Kay, it’s up to you to decide what’s best.’ Vi pointed to the enamel mug that had contained Alfie’s orange juice. ‘Just look how
he’s chewing on that rim.’

Kay nodded distractedly. ‘He hasn’t said Mummy or Daddy yet. But he’s asked for Nanty a dozen times.’

‘I’m sure he asked for you when he was with Doris.’

Kay remembered what Doris had told her. ‘Doris said he forgot us in a very short time.’

‘Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Your sister-in-law wasn’t going to let you off the hook for spoiling her day.’

Kay sighed and craned her neck to look through the kitchen window. ‘What’s Alan doing out there?’

‘He’s been clearing the rubble to make a space for Alfie to play in. Why don’t you take the boy out there with him?’

‘I hope there’s no nails or sharp broken bits.’

Vi gave her a gentle push. ‘This is the East End, Kay. Not Hertfordshire. The sooner the lad gets used to his home the better.’

But Kay refused to lower Alfie to the ground as she joined Alan. ‘He’s wearing his sandals,’ she said, pushing a broken tile with the tip of her shoe. ‘He might cut his
toes.’

Alan swept it away quickly. ‘Does he need that frilly thing on his head?’ he asked as he stroked his forearm across his sweating forehead.

Kay had dressed Alfie as Doris had done, in his dungarees and blue floppy hat that Doris had packed in his case along with other clothes she had bought him. ‘The hat stops him from being
sunburned.’

‘Not much chance of burning sun round here,’ Alan answered shortly. ‘Not until this evening when the sun comes round the back of the houses.’

Kay frowned at the long shadows cast from the lines of terraced houses, dock walls, factories and warehouses that were all huddled together on the island. It wasn’t like Len and
Doris’s big green garden where the sun seemed to fill every space, even floating down between the branches of the apple tree and dappling the grass beneath.

‘Come along, son. Down on your feet. Daddy will see you come to no harm.’ Alan held out his hand. ‘Let’s have a bit of fun in the Anderson, shall we?’

‘You can’t take him in there,’ Kay objected. ‘It’s cold and damp.’

‘He spent the two first weeks of the Blitz in the dugout, before he was carted off to Hertfordshire,’ Alan reminded her as she reluctantly lowered Alfie to the ground. ‘This
was his home, Kay. And besides, he might remember something.’

Kay felt very anxious. She didn’t feel as confident with Alfie as Alan did. In fact Doris’s voice still rang in her ears. Kay felt she might do something wrong at any moment.
‘I hope he don’t remember the noise of the bombs,’ she mumbled as she watched Alan take Alfie’s hand and lead him towards the shelter. ‘He might be frightened
again.’

But as soon as they had disappeared into the Anderson, Kay heard Alan’s low laugh and when he called to her to follow them inside, Kay was surprised at what she saw.

‘He remembers the bunk beds,’ Alan told her.

Alfie was, for once, grinning. He sat on the top bunk, dribble running down his chin.

‘I fixed the ladder up again,’ said Alan, looking pleased with himself.

‘Is it safe?’ Kay asked worriedly.

‘As houses,’ Alan assured her, as he swung Alfie to the floor again. ‘Anyway, it’s just a bit of fun.’

Kay smiled, but soon she went outside. It was clear that she was out of practice at being a mother. She saw danger lurking everywhere. Alfie seemed so precious and so vulnerable now. Was it the
bombing that had changed her?

‘Did you have a good time, Alfie?’ Kay asked when Alan and Alfie appeared some time later. She drew him into her arms and wiped his chin with her hanky. ‘Shall we get your pram
out from under the stairs. You used to love our walks to the park.’ She looked up at Alan. ‘He might remember the places we took him.’

‘Good idea.’

That afternoon, Kay pushed the pram into the yard. ‘Do you remember this, Alfie?’ She was disappointed when he gave her one of his long, frowning looks.

Alan poked her in the ribs. ‘Let’s sit him in it.’

Kay watched Alfie wriggle reluctantly into what had once seemed a large space. ‘He’s outgrown it,’ she complained.

‘It’ll do for now,’ said Alan, looking a little alarmed himself as he pushed the big hood as far back as it would go.

Vi came out to see them off. ‘Let the lad have a good look round his old haunts,’ she called. ‘He’s bound to remember us taking him under the arches and the railway line.
Then there’s the park and the swings. He used to love the sand pit, don’t forget.’

Kay hadn’t forgotten anything. All her memories of Alfie were carefully preserved in her head; her own invisible scrapbook that she’d turned the pages of a dozen times a day in
Alfie’s absence.

They set off through the gate and into the Cut, following the lane into Crane Street. When they got to the park, Alan lifted him out of the pram and set him on his feet. For a while Alfie was
happy to play in the small patch of sand and help Alan and Kay build castles. Then Alan pushed the pram all the way back to the top of East Ferry Road at a snail’s pace as Alfie insisted on
walking beside him.

‘Do you want to sit on Daddy’s shoulders?’ Kay asked as she bent to brush a few grains of sand from his chin.

But Alfie just shook his head.

‘It’s easy to say “Mummy”,’ Kay said, undefeated, as Alan waited for them. ‘Or “Daddy”.’ She mouthed the two words, hoping Alfie would copy
her, but all to no avail as her son remained stubbornly silent.

By the time they arrived home, the smell of mutton-and-onion stew was wafting from the back door. ‘Well?’ asked Vi expectantly, wiping her hands on her apron.

Alan raised his hands in the air. ‘Not a word out of him.’

Kay merely shook her head. It was as if the ten months of living in Hertfordshire with Doris and Len had wiped the island clear from his mind.

The day before Alan was to return to work, he and Alfie brought home a punctured football they found at the park. ‘One of these days you’ll be scolding your lad,
telling him to mind the window and play in the street,’ Vi chuckled as she and Kay prepared the dinner, every now and then glancing through the window to see how the game was going.

‘No, I won’t do that,’ Kay insisted as she ran a cloth around a wet dish. ‘Alfie can bring all his friends round to play. Although . . .’ Kay paused, her thoughts
racing back to the lovely garden in Little Gadelsby. ‘Our yard isn’t up to much at the moment. There’s still bricks and timbers piled up over there by the gate. And the soot and
dust – well, we ain’t ever going to get rid of that. But eventually the war’s got to end and we can live decently . . .’ Once again her voice trailed off along with her
thoughts.

BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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