~ September, 1939
I really don’t know the first thing about children. That I do admit. All I have to go on is vague recollections of having once been one, and how wonderful it was on those rare occasions when someone actually approved of me. Though mostly it was just the opposite with a never-ending campaign to improve me: being told to stay out of trees, sit with my knees together, keep my shoulders back, elbows in. That sort of thing. And all that silly business about having to eat all the food on my plate, and pudding only for good little girls who did so, which in my father’s household meant having to eat the gristle in stew. I ask you? Who on earth can eat gristle? It isn’t edible.
But I digress. The point is, suddenly here I was, with three poor little mites from London. What did it matter if they were boys or girls? They were children, with barely a toothbrush in a bag between them. My God, what a responsibility! To keep them alive, and make them happy. I’d already told myself, before I ever set eyes on them, Well Vivvie, the least you can do is be thrilled to bits to have them, exactly the way they are. And don’t ever make them feel differently, or make them eat gristle, or runny egg yolks, or brussels sprouts, or anything else that turns their stomachs. Sweets and puddings, yes, absolutely, in reasonable amounts. But mostly, turn them loose, up on the moors. Let them run, poor dears, and climb to the very top of Hound Tor if they wish, and not make a fuss should they tear their clothing.
My brother, George, was terribly good about the whole business. After all, it is his cottage, strictly speaking, and he’d already taken me in, the penniless Bohemian, all the way from Berlin... and barely in the nick of time...
“Well, Vivvie. I reckon we can billet one or two,” he says, when I broached the subject. And then I come home with three!
The call for billets had actually gone out months before, the children of the cities relying on the generosity of those in the countryside etceteras, etceteras. Though at the time, Prime Minister Chamberlain was so preoccupied with shaking hands with Hitler at every opportunity it seemed there was to be no war. Then, overnight yes there was. We were on the very brink in fact. The next thing you know, Germany marches into Poland, and here the children came, with an entire coach load delivered to our little village.
Oh, you should have seen the look on the billeting officer’s face when I arrived at the village hall. Relieved, yes, but also confused. It’s the short hair and trousers, I suppose. It always is. I was horribly late of course, having been detained by the vicar, and by then there were only three children left. The rejects. The unchosen. Those passed over by each and every one of the good upstanding ladies of these parts, with the billeting officer at her wit’s end as to what to do with them. I told her not to worry, I’d take them all. A little boy with tufty hair and a grubby face, sound asleep with his head in his sister’s lap. Adorable. And his sister, poor dear, no more than ten, and as pale as the moon with her eyes swimming around behind her glasses like two panic-stricken fish. The other little girl, about the same age as the first, as dark as the other was pale and very pretty. Though in the sort of way that rarely gets noticed in this country, simply because she is dark. On that score I can’t say England’s much better than Germany, though George would beg to differ. In George’s eyes England and the English can do no wrong.
“Are you Jewish, darling?” I enquired, on the drive home. Because that was a possibility. But no, she wasn’t.
“I’m from Islington,” she said, as if that explained everything.
“Oh, Islington, how splendid! And what about you, darling? What part of London are you from?” This to the other little girl in back seat with her brother, who was still sound asleep.
“How lovely! The two of you are practically neighbors. I simply love London. I’m originally a Londoner myself. Though from the northwest rather than the northeast. Hampstead. Near the heath. Do you know it?”
And I chattered on like that, doing my best to jolly them along about the wonderful time that awaited them. The black faced sheep and wild ponies and hawks up on the moor. How, when one climbed up to the high land, one could see the curve of the earth, and how simply marvelous it was. But the truth of the matter was, the closer we got to home, the more anxious I became, driving the long way round, through the back lanes to delay the moment. Heavens no, it wasn’t George and his reactions to child number three I was in such a tizzy about. Though where on earth to put the third child I had no idea. There are only the two little beds in the attic room, and other than that barely enough room to turn around. George and I had spent the better part of a day excavating those beds from piles of books and dust.
“George darling,” I said then. “How long have these little beds been here?”
It turned out he’d set them up for his daughters, years and years ago, soon after his divorce, when he rather hoped Helen would allow the girls come down to see him on occasion. But of course that never came to pass.
Other than the attic room, there’s only the one bedroom, which upon my arrival George insisted I make mine, and kindly moved him self into his study. There is no where else, not in that little cottage…other than the kitchen. But I couldn’t see having a child sleep in the kitchen. Where? On that lumpy settee all covered with dog hair? No, no, that wouldn’t do. The only reason the settee was in the kitchen at all was because it was so terribly lumpy. George simply couldn’t sleep on it. So we moved it from the study into the kitchen to make room for a cot. Thank goodness the kitchen is large enough to accommodate a settee, because one has to have somewhere to sit, lumps or not. As it is, George’s old dog, Pickles has rather taken it over. So yes, I was concerned about where we were to put child number three, and which child was to be the odd one out.
But that wasn’t the main thing troubling me. The main thing was the vicar. If not for the vicar I shouldn’t have thought twice about making up some kind of arrangement with blankets and a pillow on the floor of my room, probably for the little boy... unless he was completely set on being close by his sister, in which case, for the other little girl. Either way around it would have been a perfectly sensible thing to do. Though heaven knows there’s enough room in the bed for another person. I feel myself to be quite the spoiled princess in that bed. As it was, there was now the worry of what the vicar might say or do next. I mean, it’s all very well to say one doesn’t give a damn, and the vicar’s problems are the vicar’s problems. But it doesn’t work that way. Not in a village.
Oh, it bothered me no end that the vicar saw fit so show up for a cup of tea on very afternoon the children were expected. Suddenly there he was. Of course, I thought nothing of it at first. Because he’s like that, perpetually cheerful, riding around the village on his bicycle, ringing his bell and waving to one and all, with his surplus flapping about and sometimes getting caught in the pedals. Then showing up unannounced on one’s doorstep. Not that I’ve got anything against any of that, good gracious no. But unsolicited sermons are another matter entirely.
However, his having bicycled all the way to our place, which is hardly in the village, made it that much harder to just turn him away. So I told him, “Come in, Vicar, and I’ll put the kettle on for a quick cup of tea.” I explained it had to quick due to the evacuees arrival. Well, once he was in, I thought I’d never get rid of him. There he was, perched on the settee, next to poor Pickles, blithely dipping his shortbread biscuit into his tea, and chatting away about the splendid weather and how long it would hold. Really, poor Pickles must have lost his sense of smell because he never so much as sniffed in the direction of the biscuit. Then, suddenly, the weather’s a done topic.
“Do you think it’s wise, Vivvie?” he said, “for you and George to take a child in. Have you stopped to consider what people will think?”
“What on earth are you on about, vicar?” said I. “It’s our patriotic duty.”
“Not in your case Vivvie, not in your case,” said the wolf in the surplus, with what can only be described as a supercilious smile.“It’s not only unwise; given your...tendencies..it’s not morally sound.”
Stupid, ignorant man!
I told him to put down his teacup and get out. If that was his idea of Christian behavior, well, I had no time at all for it. And I was not, repeat not one of his flock, so don’t play shepherd with me. He left, spluttering something about Berlin, and unnatural lifestyles, and that if I was dead set on “this foolishness,” if nothing would change my mind, then at least have to the good sense to take in a boy.
“Don’t throw petrol on the fire Vivvie, by making it a girl.”
“What fire?” I shouted after him. “There is no fire unless you set it.”
At which point George emerged from his study, looking bleary eyed and ruffled the way he always does when he’s deep into work. “Everything alright, Viv?”
I told him, “No George, it’s not. I just threw your good friend the vicar out of the house.”
“Oh, was he here?” he says.
Dear George, dear, dear George. Who of course did not blink so much as an eye when I came home with two girls, as well as the little boy, still sound asleep. Taking him from my arms to lay him gently on the settee next to Pickles, because where else was there? But then turning his attention immediately to the girls.
“Hello, hello, hello,” he said, puffing on his pipe, and beaming.“Come in, come in, come in. What have we got here? What are your names my dears? Maggie did you say? And Susie? Lovely, lovely…Come in.”
George, who immediately enabled me to see things in perspective again, because he was so obviously delighted about the girls…as if after all this time his daughters had finally come for a visit. So, I thought to myself, Well, sod the vicar. We’ll work things out.
Anna Bálint, is the author of Horse Thief, a collection of short fiction, as well as two earlier books of poetry: Out of the Box and spread them crimson sleeves like wings. Her poems and stories have been published in numerous journals and magazines including Calyx, Briar Cliff Review, Clackamas Literary Review, and Minerva Rising. Twice a writer in residence with Jack Straw Productions, Seattle (2005 & 2009) she is an alumna of Hedgebrook; she has received awards from 4Culture and the Seattle Arts Commission.