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Authors: Michael Morpurgo

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BOOK: Times of War Collection
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I remember Charlie and I had been haymaking with Farmer Cox, young buzzards wheeling above us all day, swallows skimming the mown grass all about us as the shadows lengthened and the evening darkened. We arrived home later than usual, dusty and exhausted, and hungry, too. Inside we found Mother sitting upright in her chair doing her sewing and opposite her Molly and, to our surprise, her mother. Everyone in the room looked as grim-faced as Molly's mother, even Big Joe, even Molly whose eyes I could see were red from crying. Bertha was howling ominously from outside in the woodshed.

“Charlie,” said Mother, setting her sewing aside. “Molly's mother has been waiting for you. She has something she wants to say to you.”

“Yours, I believe,” said Molly's mother, her voice as hard as stone. She handed Charlie a packet of letters tied up with a blue ribbon. “I found them. I've read them, every one of
them. So has Molly's father. So we know, we know everything. Don't bother to deny it, Charlie Peaceful. The evidence is here, in these letters. Molly has been punished already, her father has seen to that. I've never read anything so wicked in all my life. Never. All that love talk. Disgusting. But you've been meeting as well, haven't you?”

Charlie looked across at Molly. The look between them said it all, and I knew then that I had been betrayed.

“Yes,” said Charlie.

I couldn't believe what he was saying. They hadn't told me. They'd been meeting in secret and neither of them had told me.

“There. Didn't I tell you, Mrs Peaceful?” Molly's mother went on, her voice quivering with rage.

“I'm sorry,” said Mother. “But you'll still have to tell me why it is they shouldn't be meeting. Charlie's seventeen now, and Molly sixteen. Old enough, I'd say. I'm sure we both had our little rendezvous here and there when we were their age.”

“You speak for yourself, Mrs Peaceful,” Molly's mother replied with a supercilious sneer. “Molly's father and I made it quite plain to both of them. We forbade them to have anything to do with each other. It's wickedness, Mrs Peaceful, pure wickedness. The Colonel has warned us, you know, about your son's wicked thieving ways. Oh yes, we know all about him.”

“Really?” said Mother. “Tell me, do you always do what the Colonel says? Do you always think what the Colonel thinks? If he said the earth was flat, would you believe him? Or did he just threaten you? He's good at that.”

Molly's mother stood up, full of righteous indignation. “I haven't come here to argue the toss. I have come to tell of your son's misdemeanours, to say that I won't have him leading our Molly into the ways of wickedness and sin. He must never see her again, do you hear? If he does, then the Colonel will know about it. I'm telling you the Colonel will know about it. I have no more to say. Come along, Molly.” And taking Molly's hand firmly in hers she swept out, leaving us all looking at one another and listening to Bertha still howling.

“Well,” said Mother after a while. “I‘ll get your supper, boys, shall I?”

That night I lay there beside Charlie not speaking. I was so filled with anger and resentment towards him that I never wanted to speak to him again, nor to Molly come to that. Then out of our silence he said: “All right, I should've told you, Tommo. Molly said I should tell you. But I didn't want to. I couldn't, that's all.”

“Why not?” I asked. For several moments he did not reply.

“Because I know, and she does too. That's why she wouldn't tell you herself,” Charlie said.

“Know what?”

“When it was just letters, it didn't seem to matter so much. But later, after we began seeing each other … we didn't want to hide it from you, Tommo, honest. But we didn't want to hurt you either. You love her, don't you?” I didn't answer. There was no need. “Well, so do l, Tommo. So you'll understand why I'm going to go on seeing her. I‘ll find a way no matter what that old cow says.” He turned to me. “Still friends?” he said.

“Friends,” I mumbled, but I did not mean it.

After that no more was ever said between us about Molly. I never asked because I didn't want to know. I didn't want even to think about it, but I did. I thought about nothing else.

No one could understand why, but shortly after this Bertha began to go missing from time to time. She hadn't wandered off at all until now; she'd always stuck close to Big Joe. Wherever Big Joe was, that's where you'd be sure to find Bertha. Big Joe was frantic with worry every time she went off. She'd come back home in the end of course, when she felt like it, either that or Mother and Joe would find her somewhere all muddied and wet and lost, and they'd bring her home. But the great worry was that she'd start chasing after sheep or cows, that some farmer or landowner would shoot her, as they'd shoot any dog they found trespassing on their land that could be molesting their animals. Fortunately
Bertha didn't seem to go chasing sheep, and anyway up until now she had never been gone that long, nor strayed too far.

We did our very best to keep her from wandering. Mother tried shutting her in the woodshed, but Big Joe couldn't stand her howling and would let her out. She tried tying her up, but Bertha would chew at the rope and whine incessantly so that in the end Big Joe would always take pity and go and untie her.

Then, one afternoon. Bertha went missing again. This time she did not come back. This time we could not find her. Charlie wasn't about. Mother and Big Joe went one way looking for her, down towards the river, and I went up into the woods, whistling for her, calling for her. There were deer to be found up in Ford's Cleave Wood, and badgers and foxes. It would be just the sort of place she'd go. I'd been an hour or more searching in the woods with not a sign of her. I was about to give up and go back — perhaps she'd gone home anyway by now, I thought — when I heard a shot ringing out across the valley. It came from somewhere higher in the woods. I ran up the track, ducking the low slung branches, leaping the badger holes, dreading, but already knowing what I would find.

As I came up the rise I could see ahead of me the chimney of Father's old shack, and then the shack itself at the side of the clearing. Outside lay Bertha, her tongue lolling, the grass beside her soaked with blood. The Colonel stood
looking down at her, his shotgun in his hands. The door of the shack opened and Charlie and Molly were standing there frozen in disbelief and horror. Then Molly ran over to where Bertha lay and fell to her knees.

“Why?” she cried, looking up at the Colonel. “Why?”

NEARLY FIVE TO ONE

There's a sliver of a moon out there, a new moon. I wonder if they're looking at it back home. Bertha used to howl at the moon, I remember. If I had a coin in my pocket, I'd turn it over and make a wish. When I was young I really believed in all those old tales. I wish I still could believe in them.

But I mustn't think like that. It's no good wishing for the moon, no good wishing for the impossible. Don't wish, Tommo. Remember. Remembrances are real.

We buried Bertha the same day, where Big Joe always buried his creatures, where the mouse had been buried, at the bottom of the orchard. But this time we said no prayers. We laid no flowers. We sang no hymns. Somehow none of us had the heart for it. Perhaps we were all too angry to grieve. Walking back through the trees afterwards, Big Joe was pointing upwards and asking Mother if Bertha was up in Heaven now with Father. Mother said that she was. Then Big Joe asked if we all go up to Heaven after we die.

“Not the Colonel,” Charlie muttered. “He'll go
downstairs where he belongs, where he'll burn.” Mother darted a reproving glance at him for that.

“Yes, Joe,” she went on, her arm around him. “Bertha's up in Heaven. She's happy now.”

That evening Big Joe went missing. None of us was that worried, not at first, not while it was still light. Big Joe would often go wandering off on his own from time to time — he'd always done that — but never at night, because Big Joe was frightened of the dark. Our first thought was to look down in the orchard by Bertha's grave, but he wasn't there. We called, but he didn't come. So, as darkness fell and he still had not come home, we knew there was something wrong. Mother sent Charlie and me out in different directions. I went down the lane calling for him all the way. I went as far as the brook where I stood and listened for him, for his heavy stomping tread, for his singing. He sang differently when he was frightened, no tunes or songs, but instead a continuous wailing drone. But there was no drone to be heard, only the running of the brook, which always sounded louder at night. I knew Big Joe must be very frightened for it was by now quite dark. I made my way home, hoping against hope that either Charlie or Mother might have found him.

As I came into the house I could see neither of them had. They looked up hopefully at me as I came in. I shook my head. Out of the silence that followed Mother made up
her mind what had to be done. We didn't have any choice, she said. All that mattered was finding Big Joe, and for that we needed more people. She would go up to the Big House right away to ask for the Colonel's help. She sent Charlie and me up to the village to raise the alarm. We knew the best place to go was the pub, that half the village would be in The Duke in the evening. They were singing when we got there, Farmer Cox in full voice. The hubbub and the singing took a while to die down as Charlie told them. By the time he had finished they were al! listening in absolute silence. Afterwards, not one of them hesitated. They were putting on hats, shrugging on coats and heading homewards to search their farms, gardens and sheds. The vicar said he'd gather everyone he could in the village hall to organise a search around the village itself, and it was agreed the sounding of the church bell would be the signal that Big Joe had been found.

As everyone dispersed into the darkness outside The Duke, Molly came running up. She had just heard the news about Big Joe. It was her idea that he could be somewhere in the churchyard. I don't know why we hadn't thought of it before — it was always one of his favourite places. So the three of us made for the churchyard. We called for him. We looked behind every gravestone, up every tree. He was nowhere. All we heard was the wind sighing in the yew trees. All we saw were lights dancing through the village,
down along the valley. Beyond, and as far as the dark horizon, the countryside was filled with pinpricks of moving lights. We knew then that Mother must have persuaded the Colonel to mobilise everyone on the estate to join in the search.

By dawn there was still no word of Big Joe, still no sign of him. The Colonel had called in the police, and as time passed everything was pointing towards the same dreadful conclusion. We saw the police searching the ponds and river banks with long poles — everyone knew Big Joe could not swim. That was when I first began to believe that the worst could really have happened. No one dared to voice this fear, but all of us were beginning to feel it, and we felt it in each other too. We were searching over ground we had already searched several times. All other explanations for Big Joe's disappearance were being discounted one by one. If he had fallen asleep somewhere, surely he must have woken up by now. If he'd gone and got himself lost, surely, with all the hundreds of people out looking, someone would have found him by now. Everyone I met was grey and grim-faced. All tried their best to raise a smile, but no one could look me in the eye. I could see it wasn't just fear any more. It was worse. There was desperation in those faces, a feeling of complete hopelessness that they could not disguise however hard they tried.

Round about noon, thinking it was just possible Big Joe might somehow have found his way home on his own, we
went back to check. We found Mother sitting there alone, clutching the arms of her chair and staring ahead of her. Charlie and I tried to raise her spirits, tried to reassure her as best we could. I don't think we were at all convincing. Charlie made her a cup of tea but Mother would not touch it. Molly sat at her feet and laid her head in her lap. A ghost of a smile came to Mother's face then. Molly could give comfort where we could give none.

Charlie and I left them there together and went outside into the garden. Clinging to what little hope we had left we tried to go back in time, to work out what might have been in Big Joe's mind to make him go off like that. Perhaps it could help us to discover where he had gone if we understood why he had gone. Was he looking for something perhaps, something he'd lost? But what? Had he gone off to see someone? If so, who? There was little doubt in our minds that his sudden disappearance was in some way connected to Bertha's death. The day before, both Charlie and I had felt like going up to the Big House and killing the Colonel for what he had done. Maybe, we thought, maybe Big Joe was feeling the same. Perhaps he had gone out to avenge Bertha's death. Perhaps he was skulking up at the Big House, in the attics, in the cellars, just waiting for his opportunity to strike. But we realised, even as we voiced them, that all such ideas were nothing but ridiculous nonsense. Big Joe didn't have it in him even to think of
doing such a thing. He had never in his life been angry at anyone, not even the Wolfwoman — and after all, she'd given him reason enough and plenty. He could be hurt very easily, but he was never angry, and certainly never violent. Time and again Charlie and I would come up with a new scenario, and a different reason for Big Joe's disappearance. But in the end we had to dismiss every one of them as fanciful.

Then we saw Molly come down the garden towards us. “I was just wondering,” she said, “I was wondering where Big Joe would most want to be.”

“What d'you mean?” Charlie asked.

“Well, I think he'd want to be wherever Bertha is. So he'd want to be in Heaven, wouldn't he? I mean, he thinks Bertha's up in Heaven, doesn't he? I heard your mother telling him. So if he wanted to be with Bertha, then he'd have to go up to Heaven, wouldn't he?”

I thought for one terrible moment that Molly was suggesting that Big Joe had killed himself so that he could go up to Heaven and be with Bertha. I didn't want to believe it, but it made a kind of dreadful sense. Then she explained.

“He told me once,” Molly went on, “that your father was up in Heaven and could still see us easily from where he was. He was pointing upwards, I remember, and I didn't understand exactly what he was trying to tell me, not at first. I thought he was just pointing up at the sky in a general sort
of a way, or at the birds maybe. But then he took my hand and made me point with him, to show me. We were pointing up at the church, at the top of the church tower. It sounds silly, but I think Big Joe believes that Heaven is at the top of the church tower. Has anyone looked up there?”

Even as she was speaking I remembered how Big Joe had pointed up the church tower the day we had buried Father, how he'd looked back up at it over his shoulder as he walked away.

“You coming, Tommo?” said Charlie. “Moll, will you stay with Mother? We'll ring the bell if it's good news.” We ran down through the orchard, scrambled through a hole in the hedge and set off across the fields towards the brook — it would be the quickest way up to the village. We splashed through the brook and raced across the water meadows and up the hill towards the church. Trying to keep up with Charlie was difficult. I kept looking up at the church tower as I ran, all the while urging my legs to keep going, to take me faster, all the while praying that Big Joe would be up there in his heaven.

Charlie reached the village before I did and was haring up the church path ahead of me when he slipped on the cobbles and fell heavily. He sat there cursing and clutching his leg until I caught up with him. Then he called, and I called, “Joe! Joe! Are you up there?” There was no reply.

“You go, Tommo,” said Charlie, grimacing in agony. “I
think I've done my ankle in.” I opened the church door and walked into the silent dark of the church. I brushed past the bell ropes, and eased open the little belfry door. I could hear Charlie shouting, “Is he up there? Is he there?” I didn't answer. I began to climb the winding stairs. I'd been up into the belfry before, a while ago, when I was in Sunday school. I'd even sung up there in the choir one Ascension Day dawn, when I was little.

I dreaded those steps then and I hated them again now. The slit windows let in only occasional light. The walls were slimy about me, and the stairs uneven and slippery. The cold and the damp and the dark closed in on me and chilled me as I felt my way onwards and upwards. As I passed the silent hanging bells I hoped with all my heart that one of them would be ringing soon. Ninety-five steps I knew there were. With every step I was longing to reach the top, to breathe the bright air again, longing to find Big Joe.

The door to the tower was stiff and would not open. I pushed it hard, too hard, and it flew open, the wind catching it suddenly. I stepped out into the welcome warmth of day, dazzled by the light. At first glance I could see nothing. But then there he was. Big Joe was lying curled up under the shade of the parapet. He seemed fast asleep, his thumb in his mouth as usual. I didn't want to wake him too suddenly. When I touched his hand he did not wake. When I shook him gently by the shoulder he did not move. He was cold to
my touch, and pale, deathly pale. I couldn't tell if he was breathing or not, and Charlie was calling up at me from below. I shook him again, hard this time, and screamed at him in my fear and panic. “Wake up, Joe. For God's sake, wake up!” I knew then that he wouldn't, that he'd come up here to die. He knew you had to die to go to Heaven, and Heaven was where he wanted to be, to be with Bertha again, with Father too.

When he stirred a moment later, I could hardly believe it. He opened his eyes. He smiled. “Ha, Tommo,” he said. “Ungwee. Ungwee.” They were the most beautiful words I'd ever heard. I sprang to my feet and leaned out over the parapet. Charlie was down there on the church path looking up at me.

“We've found him, Charlie,” I called down. “We've got him. He's up here. He's all right.”

Charlie punched the air and yahooed again and again. He yahooed even louder when he saw Big Joe standing beside me and waving. “Charie!” he cried. “Charie!”

Charlie hopped and limped into the church, and only moments later the great tenor bell rang out over the village, scattering the roosting pigeons from the tower, and sending them wheeling out over the houses, over the fields. Like the pigeons, Big Joe and I were shocked at the violence of the sound. It blasted our ears, sent a tremor through the tower that we felt through the soles of our feet. Alarmed at all this
thunderous clanging, Big Joe looked suddenly anxious, his hands clapped over his ears. But when he saw me laughing, he did the same. Then he hugged me, hugged me so right I thought he was squeezing me half to death. And when he began singing his
Oranges and Lemons,
I joined in, crying and singing at the same time.

I wanted him to come down with me, but Big Joe wanted to stay. He wanted to wave at everyone from the parapet. People were coming from all over: Mr Munnings, Miss McAllister and all the children were streaming out through the school yard and up towards the church. We saw the Colonel, coming down the road in his car, and could just make out the Wolfwoman's bonnet beside him. Best of all we saw Mother and Molly on bicycles racing up the hill, waving at us. Still Charlie rang the bell and I could hear him yahooing down below between each dong, and imagined him hanging on to the rope and riding with it up in the air. Still Big Joe sang his song. And the swifts soared and swooped and screamed all around us, in the sheer joy of being alive, and celebrating, it seemed to me, that Big Joe was alive too.

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