We Must Be Brave
For Betty, Brendan, Bill and Joan
… and Juliet
Unlike the village of Upton in Hampshire, the Upton of We Must Be Brave is an imaginary place, as is the town of Waltham – and, for that matter, the hamlet of Barrow End. Southampton, of course, is real, as are its well-documented sufferings during the Second World War. While the global events described in the book are factual, the people described in the novel, and their joys and tribulations, are works of fiction.
SHE WAS FAST ASLEEP on the back seat of the bus. Curled up, thumb in mouth. Four, maybe five years old.
I turned round. The last few passengers were shuffling away from me down the aisle to the doors. ‘Whose is this child?’ I called.
Nobody looked back. Perhaps the bombing had deafened them. Or maybe they simply didn’t want to hear.
‘Please. Someone’s left a child!’
But they were gone, making their way down the steps and joining the line of people straggling towards the village hall.
It was lucky I was there, checking every bus. Otherwise this small girl might have gone all the way back to Southampton. Everybody knew the city was still on fire. We’d seen the smoke from Beacon Hill.
She hadn’t stirred, in spite of my calling. She lay senseless, a gossamer net of light-brown hair clinging to her forehead. Her puff-sleeved dress was a dusty mid-blue, the colour of the endpapers in the board books of my childhood. No coat or cardigan, despite it being the first day of December. Just a grimy white blanket tangled round her legs, the kind mothers wrapped their babies in, a special knit honeycombed with little holes.
I shook her small round shoulder. ‘Wake up, little one. Wake up.’
Her thumb fell out of her mouth, but she didn’t open her eyes. I stroked back her hair. Her skin was warm and slightly damp. Her tongue was ticking against the roof of her mouth. Thumb or no thumb, she was still sucking.
Suppose she started crying when I woke her? I had no great experience of tearful children. Perhaps I should simply carry her into the village hall, and never mind if she was asleep. I took off my new brooch, a silver bar with a pearl, and put it in my pocket. I didn’t want it to scrape the child’s face.
I slid my hands against her hot sides, into her hotter armpits, and pulled her towards me. She was amazingly solid, made of denser stuff than the rest of the world. I got one arm round her back and the other under her bottom, and hoisted her up. Her head rocked back as far as it could go, forward again to bump against my collarbone. Then her whole body gave a series of jerks, as if a faulty electrical current was running through her. Perhaps she’d been hit on the head during the air raid. I should get her to the doctor.
The dirty blanket fell down over my feet and I kicked it away and walked with a strange swinging tread down the aisle of the bus. You had to walk this way, I realised, with a child in your arms. There was a powerful odour of Jeyes Fluid in the bus but she smelled warm, salty, of new-baked bread.
Deirdre Harper came out of the village hall, forearms red to the elbow and dripping suds.
‘Deirdre, is anyone missing a girl?’
She wiped her hands on her apron and delved in the pocket to produce a single wrinkled cigarette. ‘You’re having me on, Mrs Parr. Now I’ve seen it all. They can’t even remember their own kiddies.’
‘I’m sure it’s not like that. Everyone’s in shock …’
Deirdre lit up and exhaled smoke with a wide, down-curving smile of contempt. ‘In a funk, more like. Funk is all this is, you know. Look at them, scarpering on the buses instead of staying put in their shelters.’
I didn’t point out that not everyone in Southampton had shelters. Deirdre had lost her son at the beginning of the war, in the sea off the coast of Norway; she no longer cared what she said, and nobody took her to task.
‘They’ve got tea, anyway,’ I said.
‘Yes, the stockpile we were saving for the Christmas carols.’ She regarded the child sourly. ‘Your Mr Parr will find that mother of hers. Trained for this, isn’t he. Billeting officer and all.’
‘Yes. I should go in, Deirdre.’
Just then she sighed, and suddenly her eyes filled. ‘Christ, poor bloody Southampton. Fifteen mile away, and such a glow off the clouds last night, it damn near lit me home.’
I made my way into the village hall, carrying the child through the crowd of bedraggled, bewildered, noisy people, edging round overturned chairs, youngsters sliding through puddles of spilt tea. ‘Whose is this little girl?’ I called out. ‘Has anyone seen her mother?’ Nobody replied. I pushed onward past a squirming terrier, a camp of sleeping babies wedged among baskets and coats, a gang of dishevelled old men making free with a hip flask. ‘Is anyone looking for this child?’ I called, louder this time.
‘Where are we, doll?’ said one of the old men.
‘Upton,’ I told him. ‘The village of Upton. Do you know this little girl?’
He shook his head. An odd smell was coming off his coat, a reek of something burnt. I moved away but the smell remained in my nostrils. I glanced up at the high windows of the hall and saw that the light was fading fast. We didn’t have long until blackout.
Halfway down the hall I found Mrs Daventry and Miss Legg. Two pillars of our little community, they were standing by a table and picking hopelessly at the knot on a bale of blankets. I hitched my burden higher with one hand – astonishingly, she had not stirred – and with the other I grasped one loop of the knotted rope and prised it loose.
‘Ellen has such strong fingers,’ Mrs Daventry said to Miss Legg.
‘She’s so practical,’ Miss Legg said to Mrs Daventry.
‘I simply know where to pull,’ I told them.
They looked at me silently.
‘Have you seen a woman—’ I began, but just then the wind rattled the tin roof. A small boy in the corner screamed, cowering like a hen when the hawk goes over. Other children joined him, and then everyone broke out into wordless wails and cries of fright. ‘I must find Mr Parr,’ I told the ladies, and made my way towards the back of the hall. I could hear Selwyn speaking, his true tenor that carried through the hubbub. Such a good singer my husband was, a merry singer. I followed his voice until the crowd parted at last to reveal him bending over a middle-aged couple huddled on their chairs. ‘Are you hurt?’ he was asking them.
‘Selwyn!’ I felt breathless, as if I had run a long way.
‘Ellen, darling.’ He straightened up with a smile. ‘Where are you taking this young person?’
I twisted my neck away from the child’s hot face. ‘She was asleep in the back of the bus, all alone. I can’t find her mother.’
His eyes widened. ‘She was left on the bus?’
‘Yes.’ I stared around the room. ‘Selwyn, what are we going to do with all these people? Another busload and we’ll run out of tea, and then it’ll be pandemonium. And what about the blackout?’
‘It will not be pandemonium.’ He chuckled. ‘The Scouts are coming to put up the blackout curtains. And we’ve got blankets for the men. The women and children we’ll take into the village. Colonel Daventry’s bringing his cart.’ He scratched his head, disordering his fine, sandy hair. ‘They’ll be on the floors, but it’s the best we can do. I can’t find an empty bed in Upton.’
‘I smelt something awful,’ I said. ‘Something charred. I don’t know what it was.’ To my dismay, tears started to sting my eyes.
‘Come now, sweetheart.’ Selwyn squeezed my arm. ‘Chin up. Try that lady over there on the camp bed. She’s completely collapsed.’ He pointed with his pen. ‘I heard her saying, “Daphne, Daphne”.’
I stared up at him.
‘This child may be she.’ His voice was patient. ‘Daphne.’
We Must Be Brave