We Must Be Brave

The woman lay rigid, her eyes flicking like a metronome from side to side. ‘Daphne,’ she declared.

I kneeled down beside her, cradling the child on my lap to let the woman see her face. ‘Madam, is this Daphne? Is this your daughter?’

Her eyes flicked to and fro. They seemed to glance at the girl. ‘Daphne.’

‘That ain’t Daphne,’ said a voice behind me. ‘Daphne’s her Siamese cat. This lady’s Mrs Irene Cartledge and she was right as rain when we got off the bus. We’re waiting for your doctor to come and have a look at her.’

I turned to the speaker. She was sitting on the floor like me, her huge, pallid, bare knees pressed together, one of her eyes half-closed under a swelling purple bruise. ‘I’m Mrs Berrow, Phyl Berrow.’

‘My name’s Ellen Parr. Do you need a compress for that poor eye, Mrs Berrow? I’m sure we can rustle something up.’

‘No, dear. Shock or what, it don’t hurt. Parr,’ she repeated. ‘Your dad’s got a hell of a job to billet us all.’

I managed to smile. ‘Mr Parr’s my husband.’ I thought of my pearl brooch, and felt a little swell of pride. ‘It’s our first wedding anniversary today.’

‘Oh, lor. What a way to spend it.’ She looked me up and down. ‘Ain’t he the lucky one.’

‘Actually, Mrs Berrow, I count myself extremely lucky.’

A friendly glint came to her eye. ‘Right you are, dear.’ She shuffled closer. ‘Let’s have a look at the kiddy.’

Once again I smoothed back the light hair from the child’s face. She was rosy, disdainful in sleep, eyebrows raised and lips turned down. The piped seam of the bus seat had made a darker-pink crease in the pink of her cheek.

‘Wake her up, dear.’

‘She won’t wake. And she went very jerky earlier. I’m frightened she might have damage to her brain.’

‘Bless you.’ Mrs Berrow revealed five sound teeth in a slot of black. ‘They all do that. Sleep through the Second Coming at this age. Give her here.’

She stood the child on her feet, blew into her face, and let go. My own arms leaped out but Mrs Berrow got there first and held her fast, blew again, let go once more. The blowing ruffled the child’s eyelashes and she squeezed her eyelids shut. Then she wobbled, righted herself, and sniffed in a sharp breath.

‘Here, lovey.’ Mrs Berrow grasped the small, chubby arms. ‘Come, open those peepers.’

The little girl did so, suddenly, wide open and startled. Her eyes were clear hazel, almost the same colour as her hair.

‘What’s your name, dear?’

‘Daphne,’ said the woman on the camp bed.

‘Pack it in, Irene.’ Mrs Berrow fixed the child with her one good eye. ‘Let me see. Might you be called Mavis Davis?’

The child gave a slow blink. Still waking.

‘Or Sally O’Malley?’

She shook her head.

‘Or Nancy Fancy? Help me, dearie, I’m running out of names,’ said Mrs Berrow, and the little girl spoke.

‘I’m not Nancy Fancy! I’m Pamela! Where’s Mummy?’

Her voice was clear, piping, like a twig peeled of its bark. She was well-spoken.

‘Pamela.’ Mrs Berrow patted her cheek. ‘Ain’t that a pretty name.’

‘Where’s my mummy?’ Pamela spun around. ‘Mummy? Where’s Mummy?’ Her voice wavered. She pulled away from Mrs Berrow. ‘I can’t see Mummy.’

Ten seconds had passed, a small time but enough for her mouth to quiver and large tears to spill down her cheeks. ‘Pamela.’ I clasped her hand. ‘We think Mummy got off the bus and left you there by mistake, so we need to find her. What does Mummy look like?’

‘Beautiful.’ She scrubbed at her face. ‘But she wasn’t on my bus, she was on the one before.’

‘Her ma got on a different bus?’ Mrs Berrow started to heave herself to her feet. ‘How the hell did she manage that?’

‘The ladies said!’ Pamela stood on tiptoes to peer into the crowd – so futile, in a person barely a yard high. ‘They said I should get on the bus with them and then I’d find her.’

I gasped. ‘What ladies?’

‘The ladies,’ she said impatiently, as if it were obvious. ‘They saw me. The bus came.’ Her face crumpled. ‘They said if I got on, we’d find Mummy.’ Her lungs began to pump out sobs and her arms went up and down, striking her sides. I gathered her to me once again and lifted her up. She wept and thrashed in my arms as I took her over to one side of the hall, set her down on a huge unlit radiator. ‘What’s your other name, Pamela?’

‘Jane,’ she sobbed.

‘No, your family name.’ But she was crying too hard. I stood up straight. ‘Does anyone know this little girl?’ I called out. ‘Her name’s Pamela. Pamela Jane.’ Heads turned and shook, and I saw women gathering their children together, and a bustle in the doorway – people from the village, arriving to take them away. The tide was running out. ‘Pamela Jane! Did anyone travel with this child?’

At last. A woman was emerging from the throng, incongruously elegant in a fur coat and maroon toque, making her way to us. ‘I was with this little one,’ she said when she arrived at my side. ‘I helped her on board the bus.’

‘Didn’t you hear me call earlier?’ I spoke flatly, out of exasperation. If she thought I was rude, she made no sign.

‘I might have been in the lavs, dear.’ She pointed to another, large woman. ‘That lady said the little girl’s mother was on the bus before ours. So we took her on the next one, with us.’ The large woman was already approaching, buttoning her cardigan over her bust. ‘Isn’t that right?’ asked the lady wearing the toque. ‘You saw her ma on the first bus?’

‘That’s what the little one said.’ The second woman’s voice was a creaky whisper. ‘Pardon me. Smoke’s got my throat.’

Pamela gasped. ‘You said Mummy was on the other bus. But she wasn’t!’

‘No, you was saying it, sweetheart,’ the woman croaked, her eyes full of alarm.

‘No!’ Pamela was frantic. ‘I just thought she was!’

‘So I said, we’ll catch up with Mummy, sweetie, and I took her on board.’ The large woman put her hands to her cheeks. ‘Now I think about it, how could any woman get on a blooming bus without her little daughter? But the little one was insistent!’

‘I wasn’t ’sistent!’ Pamela continued her choleric weeping. ‘I saw her head but I didn’t know it was her head! You said!’

The elegant woman put her hand to her toque. ‘And we just got off the bus, leaving her there.’ She turned to me. ‘I’m so sorry. We was bombed, dear. I can’t find any other excuse.’

Now they were both crying. I heard Selwyn calling. ‘Ladies – ladies, please come and join this group.’

‘You both need to leave,’ I said. ‘I’ll find you if I have to.’

Just then Pamela vomited onto the floor. The height of the radiator she was standing on increased the radius greatly, and we sprang back. Pamela clutched at her head. ‘My forehead hurts, I banged it against the bus stop.’ She burst into a wail.

I lifted her down. ‘Where is the doctor?’ I called. ‘Dr Bell? You’re needed here!’ The women, I noticed, were obeying Selwyn and making for the door. Through the ebbing crowd, the doctor hastened towards us. His fur-collared overcoat gave him an oddly cosseted air. Neither Selwyn nor I had taken the time to dress warmly before hurrying out to the village hall.

‘Doctor, please could you look at this little girl? I must get a bucket.’

When I got back from the kitchen Pamela was lying on the floor while the doctor shone a small, narrow light into each of her eyes. ‘A mild concussion,’ he announced, as I started cleaning the mess. ‘There’s a bump under her hairline. She may be very sleepy. But I’m not uneasy.’

I took the bucket outside. Selwyn was seeing off a group bound for the village houses. ‘We’ll be sheltering seven souls,’ he told me. ‘And I’ve washed up the cups.’

I couldn’t help smiling at the expectation of praise latent in this last statement. ‘Well done.’ I emptied the bucket into the drain. ‘But it’s eight, not seven. The little girl. Her mother wasn’t on the bus.’

‘How on earth—?’

Frances Liardet's books