Audrey, my dear old mum hasn’t been too well of late. Today she looked pale and kept falling asleep in her chair.
These days her skin is almost translucent as it folds in sunrays from the corners of her eyes to the command of her smile; eyes that still glint and sparkle with a warm fireside light and a steely determination born of the war years. And her lips are still admired by the female half of my family for their fullness and definition.
Knowing that she had both V.I.P house guests and Sunday visitors caused her to wake with a start. “I’m sorry,” she said, with a smiling half-laugh, “did I fall asleep again? I hope my mouth wasn’t open.”
We politely assured her that her mouth was not open and it was fine. And if I was only half as gracious when overcome with tiredness, I would be glad.
The three of us sat in the room she calls, the snug’: Mum, her brother Dennis and me. There was a sense that future opportunity for such a gathering was severely limited, leaning towards the higher end of improbable.
“We’re all living too long,” protests mum. That’s the trouble.” “Speak for yourself,” says I, in what has now become our catchphrase— only Mum doesn’t remember she said it before.
Conversations about personal ailments and the woes of the outside world are never far from our lips, though never come to any satisfactory conclusion. Dennis is a farmer and sees the world in simple terms- Daily Mail headlines to be precise. Or perhaps Cage and Aviary Birds, a kind of innocent pornography for avian enthusiasts.
He complains that the badgers have eaten all the hedgehogs and that he no longer sees the flocks of sparrows rising from the fields. I agree and add to the mix the fact that I no longer need to wash the insects off my windscreen after a trip up the motorway, such is the scarcity of our wild bird food and pollinators.
And the price of farm machinery is beyond his comprehension. Although my cousin farmers have higher debts they have a better lifestyle to go with it. They work hard though, and have monthly overheads that would have turned me grey long ago. Not like all those families who have never worked, heralding new generations of idle minds and hands.
I’ve never known anyone to work harder than uncle Den and his family, so I suppose if anyone has a right to criticise, it’s him.
Then as elderly brothers and sisters are wont to do, conversation moved back to a different time, almost unrecognisable today.
Mum was 9 years old again and stood with her little brother Denny, two years her junior, on the platform at Paddington station. It was 1939 and the wartime evacuation. Operation Pied Piper had begun.
“We didn’t even know where we were going,” said Mum. The older sister and her younger brother stood together with their gas masks around their necks and their little cases and holdalls at their feet, just like all the other children.
I tried to imagine being separated from my parents at such a young age, or indeed my own children and began to see where all this fierce independence had come from. And dare I say, incredulity at the fragile state of new generations and the abandonment of old values that served so well.
About 50 children were waved off by parents onto buses outside their school at Woodford Green; the constituency of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Only teachers accompanied them to the station.
A hum of chatter and excitement took over the group as they waited for the train to an unknown destination.
“We were all excited. It was an adventure — silly young fools,” said Mum.
Leaving the danger of London they arrived at Williton church hall, deep in the Somerset countryside at the foot of the Quantock hills.
The excitement had begun to wear off by then and their names were called as the children were billeted to their new homes and families. One by one they filed out until only little Audrey and Denny stood in the echoing, empty hall.
One of the organisers of this unusual Church raffle came to their rescue. She was to take them to their allotted homes.
Audrey was to live with the Miss Hoopers— two tall, thin spinsters in the mould of Roald Dahl’s aunt Spiker.
It wasn’t their unloving attitude that made a lasting impression on little Audrey, but the scent of roses that surrounded the gate into the walled garden of their austere domain.
“Oh the smell of roses!” exclaimed mum as the memory came rushing back to her now ineffectual sense of smell. Who says time travel is impossible?
Dennis was billeted on the farm next door and was at once in his element.
“The first day they sent me out to get the cows in for milking on my own. They were so big! I had to jump up to throw the milking chain around their necks.” He can’t raise his arms that high anymore but I got the minimal mime as he lassoed a large bovid.
“They were surprised when I milked half a dozen by the time they came along.”
“Shush Dennis,” interrupted Mum. “You get very loud when you’re excited.”
Dennis shot a wary glance and carried on.
“And I remember the old steam lorries coming up those little lanes, like great dragons they were, bellowing over the hedges.” His voice lilting with Suffolk drawl, whilst conducting steam with a single hand.
Mum dropped off again at the snap of the hypnotist’s fingers and I encouraged him to go on as I was enjoying the flickering film reel and the imagined scent of those roses.
The farm was called Blake’s farm, Lower Weacombe. Dennis remembered the Virginia red creeper that climbed the farmhouse walls and the stags that patrolled the surrounding hills. And the whortleberries, valued by RAF pilots who swore they improved their night vision. The Gimbletts were farmers and their son Harold was a famous cricketer for Somerset and England.
He remembered how the local hunt shot a stag and the teachers thought it would be a good idea for the children to head out on a field trip and examine the great carcass. They got all the way there to be met by a man on horseback who said it wasn’t really the sort of thing to show young children. Disappointed, they all marched back to school.
It’s funny our our senses and emotions evoke the most powerful memories. I suppose it is because they are true. Just like the reality of that fallen and bloodied stag.
Dennis told me that he remembers amusing himself by playing at being a plough horse. He harnessed himself, trailing a harrow of ropes and sticks, ploughing the morning dew on the long grass. I imagined him stopping to snort in admiration of his work and the neat, dark stripe in the silvery expanse as he turned to begin again.
Audrey woke up and joined in as if she had never been absent.
“Dennis and I saw one another every day. We walked to the top of the lane and were collected by Mrs Cresswell with her son. She lived in a grand house and had the tiniest little car. But we all squeezed in.”
The Miss Hoopers treated her as if she were some sort of skivvy. The only gift from them a feather duster. They found a letter home once in which she had complained about them and they grew even colder after that.
They walked to church every Sunday and made her recite the Collect (a short Anglican prayer) on the way: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…”
I’m sure she meant every word of it.
She remembers the vicar in an altogether kinder light. He was friendly and always called her ‘bright eyes.’
“Hello bright eyes,” he would say with a wink. The sisters of steel were unmoved.
Her bedroom was quite large with a high ceiling, in keeping with the rest of the house. It must have been a large house because Bishop Temple, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury, took his holidays there. And Audrey remembers it as she was sent to wait upon him with his breakfast tray.
She remembers once waking in the middle of the night, the wind making a terrific din on the corrugated tin roof of the barn next door.
She didn’t know the cause then and screamed in uncontrollable terror.
“And nobody came. It seemed like ages before anybody came. I was so frightened.”
After two school terms aunt Hilda came to the rescue. A knight in shining armour to slay those fearsome dragons and lighten the darkness.
She took little Audrey and Dennis away for a lovely holiday to Port Isaac, in Cornwall. “We had a wonderful holiday,” said Mum.
And when Hilda returned Audrey home to the Miss Hoopers, she was horrified at the cold and frosty reception given to their little charge.
She acted immediately and had Mum removed to more suitable lodgings.
“Mrs Sully was a dear little soul. A homely body. She and her husband lived in a tiny little cottage in Sampford-Brett . We had a tin bath once a week in front of the fire. Their son Arthur was in the Royal Navy and was missing in action. I suppose I must have had his bed; there weren’t any others.”
All my images of the Darling Buds of May disappeared in an instant at this stark reminder of a country at war. Of the very real and human cost of faulty, man-made ideologies and the created, destructive gods in the minds of men.
Such is the tale of the last century that if we forget its lessons now, more monstrous creations and new false gods will take their place.
They stayed in their temporary homes for two years before they realised it was nearly as dangerous in the country.
“They were after Bristol you see,” said Dennis.
“Why did you move back then- in the middle of the war?’ I asked.
“There was a lull. I suppose it gave everyone a false sense of security and after we moved back home it really started.”
They moved to Chingford and moved several times in the locality during the war.
Dennis laughed, “Dad built that Andersen shelter next to the pond. If we’d been hit we would have drowned as well.”
Their older sisters Evelyn and Vera had stayed behind. Evelyn was the eldest and had left home and married by then.
Cliff was her first husband- one of the first to fly being a regular in the RAF. He flew Wellington bombers and was also one of the first to be killed.
They had a son Martin, my cousin. I hadn’t really thought about it all before.
It seemed so remote; so distant.
Evelyn married again quickly. Her second husband Nick was also in the RAF- an observer in a Lancaster bomber. Martin was still a babe in arms when Evelyn, pregnant with her second son Michael, received another telegram. Audrey was with her at the time and played with baby Martin as Evelyn went upstairs to digest the news.
“She didn’t come down for some time.” Said Mum. We sat in silence for a bit.
Then in one, final memorable anecdote, Dennis mustered his piece de resistance. Whilst playing near the Aerodrome at RAF North Weald, he was squeezed to the side of the lane by an approaching cortège of three black limousines.
The middle one was forced to stop next to Dennis and he pressed his face to the window.
A round and serious face moved towards the other side of the glass and gave the victory V; it was Winston Churchill himself.
Why had I never heard the story before? Why had I never asked? How many more stories like it are waiting to be heard and retold?
I like the fact that old Winston Churchill, in the midst of war and no doubt on an important mission, took the time and opportunity to give hope to a small boy.
Hope that light might prevail over darkness, as in the words of that collect little Audrey used to say.
And hope is an interesting word in the biblical sense. In the original Greek it doesn’t mean what we mean today – ‘we wish’; the strength of a person’s desire.
It means the confident expectation of what God has promised.
I’m glad it turned out well in the end. And as long as we keep our memories and our history alive and do not rely on our own versions of morality, I believe our hope is well placed.
“Oh the smell of those roses,” said Mum again with a heavenly smile
I looked up Archbishop Temple and found a great quote of his- ‘The longest journey in life is between the head and the heart.’ Very true. His Wikipedia page tells us that he did indeed spend his holidays in Bicknoller, Somerset during the war years. It fails to mention who served his morning tea and toast.