Complete 2500 word article. Winner of 2006 Silver National Mature Media Award.


By Pam Hobbs

It was September l939. England was at war and I wanted my mother to go to the school with me, but she said it would be too hard. So now on this Sunday morning she kissed us goodbye at the garden gate and our father walked with us. I was 9, my sister Iris ll, and we were off on a journey that would change our lives for ever...........

At the beginning of World War ll approximately three million school-age children were sent away from England's so-called danger-zones to safer areas throughout Britain. Most were from London and other cities where heavy bombing was expected. For us, living on England's south east coast, the threat was of an enemy invasion.

The evacuation was carried out with all the precision of a military operation. We were told to assemble at school in our regular classrooms, with one bag apiece and our gas masks. . In the absence of more suitable luggage my Dad - who had been shoring up sea-front buildings all week - brought home some empty sandbags for us and our neighbours. My concern was that I didn't have a class to go to, since complications following diptheria had kept me out of school for almost a year. My father told me to stick with Iris and her mates, and to duck low if there was a head count. It was almost four years before I saw him again.

The story is well documented: busses took us to the railway station, from where we boarded trains bound for various locations in central and northern England. Ours took us further into the countryside than most of us had ever been. Along the way, men and women waved from their back gardens and gathered at railway crossings, and I wondered why so many were crying. In late afternoon we stopped in Derbyshire where more busses transferred us to surrounding villages.

My home for the next l8 months was Mapperley, little more than a clutch of houses, a tiny school, a convenience store, two or three farms and landscapes worthy of any artist. In its one-room school locals came forward to make their selection, and I have to say I felt like a bruised apple being picked over at the greengrocers. Strong boys and pretty little girls were chosen first, but Iris and I were neither. At one point we had left the train, probably for a snack, and several of us passed the time sliding down an embankment. Aside from getting very dirty I acquired long scratches on my leg, causing an over-zealous first-aid worker to bandage it from thigh to ankle. During the rest of our journey Iris had happily experimented with forbidden make-up, while blood had seeped through my bandage. In consequence we were not particularly attractive as prospective long-term house guests. Just as I was feeling optimistic about being sent home, Joe and Cissy Simkins came looking for two girls. "Ee lass, ye look as if ye've been down t'pit" she said kindly of my grime.

All these years later I remember inconsequential things, like waking next morning to country smells and animal noises totally foreign to me. Should I get dressed to run to the toilet at the end of the garden ? Our foster parents, probably in their fifties, seemed really ancient. What's more they talked funny. Younger than the rest of our group, I attended the village school ruled over by a bad-tempered master called Gaffer Johnson. So far as we can remember, my sister was bussed with the rest of her class and their teacher to a nearby a senior school.

The Simkins were kind enough considering they probably didn't want children in their home. They were people of few words. Joe worked in a coal mine, returning home each day black all over but for red-rimmed eyes and glistening teeth. By the time he arrived Cissy had filled a tin bath for him in front of the living room fire, and we emptied it with enamel jugs afterward. Her hands were never idle. She scrubbed and baked and bottled preserves, and on Mondays had the whitest wash billowing from her clothesline. On winter evenings she made rugs out of fabric scraps I cut from discarded clothes, using scissors so blunt my fingers were permanently blistered. She taught Iris to bake bread and pies, and before bed Cissy read us excerpts from her bible.

They were very religious people. We attended church twice on Sundays, three times on Christmas day, and were not permitted to play with toys or read our comics on these and other holy days. At times I longed to be with my own large, noisy, family, but knew that couldn't be. Dad and my other five sisters were in the forces or away on war work.. Highlight of each week was a letter from our mother, telling us what they were all up to.

And then the sky fell in. A chore I had always enjoyed was to collect milk from the neighbouring farm. On this Saturday morning in May the farmer's son met my usual chatter with silence as he filled my can. Even more disturbing was the row coming from the Simkins house when I got back. Cissy had gone raving mad, tossing our precious comics out of the window and clothes out of drawers, all the while screaming obscenities at Iris. Joe sat in silence with tears streaking his face. Without a word he handed me a notice telling us that all evacuees must be ready to leave the village within two hours. Mapperley residents were to have no further communication with us until after the war.

Reason for our untimely departure was that the day before in a Derby court a local man had been found guilty of sexually assaulting his sister's 12 years old evacuee. Villagers were so angry with the conviction, authorities decided we should get out of there immediately. Now, according to Aunty Cissy, we were all dirty sluts and heathens, and deserved to go back to the bombs.

In shock, we stuffed what we could into our sandbags. Uncle Joe walked us over to the waiting bus where hostile villagers stood muttering among themselves. Nobody smiled or wished us luck. Nobody attempted to stop the children who threw stones at our departing bus.

Once again we stood in a school hall waiting to be chosen, this time in a sparsely populated community known as Kirk Langley. Most good billets had been taken at the outset of war, and today residents were suddenly being asked to open their doors a little wider.

Lady Luck was with us here. Fred and Minnie Dean were passed over as foster-parents the first time around because Min's crippling arthritis confined her to a wheelchair. Now a very grubby Fred, perspiring profusely, burst into the hall and strode up to Iris who was closest to the door. She told him we had to stick together. "Loovely" he grinned, "Will ye be fine with us d'you think ?" We nodded apprehensively. Ignoring protests that our teacher had been chosen for Ivy House, he signed a paper as one might for a registered letter, and led us out to his car. "Never could stand school, or bossy teachers" he said aimiably. " Our Min'll be thrilled I got us two instead of one."

She was too. Standing on crutches in the doorway of the l8th century Ivy House, surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens, and fluffy little ducks (in my ignorance I thought they were chickens) dodging about on the front lawn, she welcomed us with hugs and told us she was our new Aunty Min. Uncle Fred wasn't always this dirty, she explained, but there he was cleaning out the pigs when they got the call, and she told him to rush right over before we were all taken. Florrie, the cook/housekeeper had homemade lemonade and freshly baked cakes waiting for us in the parlour. Tipsy, a three-legged terrier, slid excitedly about our feet.

The Deans were pure gold. I loved their sense of joy and zest for life, and their jovial friends who joined us for lunches and picnics. Our days with them were simply too short. Using his hoarded petrol coupons Uncle Fred took us and his ll yrs old niece, Sylvie, on picnics to surrounding beauty spots. If Aunty Min was well enough to come too, he would be especially happy and made up silly songs while driving. "Give over, Freddie" she would chide, loving every minute of it.

There was no shortage of food which, in Florrie's expert hands, tasted better than I ever thought possible. I quickly came to love the country life, and the attendant animals. When one of the pigs had babies we named the smallest one "Mardi" (a local word meaning soft or silly) because she rolled on her back to be tickled whenever she saw me. Saturday mornings were my favourite. That's when Fred took me hunting. We always returned with two or three rabbits and a game bird, and I collected mushrooms as big as his cap. Then, while the rest of the house slept, he would cook us mushroom omelets with eggs fresh from the nests. I was happier and healthier than I'd been in years. Unfortunately it was not to last.

Our idyllic summer ended abruptly with arrival of a letter from home telling me I had received a scholarship for an exclusive girls' school. Long forgotten now, Gaffer Johnson had coached me for the all-day exams which had taken place in early Spring. Now I learned I must move to northern England to where my new school was evacuated. Uncle Fred tried his hardest to change the rules, even promising authorities that on week days he would take me to a similar school in Derby for the war's duration. To no avail. I was to start over again with strangers, or forfeit the scholarship.

And so once more I was put on a train. Without Iris this time and wearing an uncomfortable new uniform, I carried a smart leather suitcase as well as a postcard telling me where to disembark. Chapel-en-le-Frith is not an easy name for a child to recognize on a faded sign, or to see at all when soldiers and kitbags crowd the windows. Not that it mattered. I was sound asleep when a soldier nudged me awake, pointed out the station's name and helped me down to the deserted platform. Some minutes later Miss White came into my life.

I smile now, remembering the woman who bounced into view. She was short and round, wearing a gym tunic above her knees, navy blue bloomers over the tops of black wool stockings. A headband kept her grey hair from straying. A whistle dangled from an orange ribbon around her neck. She had the merriest blue eyes. "You are Pamela ? She asked. I nodded a quiet "yes miss" while slipping the postcard into my pocket. "Well old thing" she said brightly, pulling my panama over my ears. "We don't wear our hats at an angle. I am Miss White, not Miss. And we certainly don't put our hands in our pockets."

She was the school's gym mistress who remained my friend long after I left school, and even visited me in Canada. Adroitly manoevering her pony and trap through the town's Saturday afternoon traffic, and along deeply rutted country lanes, she stopped at a rather grand house called Whitestones. My spirits soared. I was going to live in a mansion, and have a pony too! Then Miss White gently explained that she wouldn't be living here with me. This was where new pupils stayed until a permanent billet could be found. They were full right now, so I would be sleeping in the hall.

It was every young girl's fantasy of an English boarding school. Most of us were first formers. We walked in a crocodile to and from classes in another huge house, swapped comics and Girls Crystal magazines sent from home, and were never lonely. Every time a teacher came to say I had a billet, I claimed a life-threatening stomach ache. When eventually I was relocated, it was to a cramped terrace house rented by a lively young couple with a two years old son. Monica, a friend from Kirk Langley, was already living there. Now they generously invited me to keep her company, and in doing so had to re-arrange their sleeping arrangements. As I recall, the young man was exempt from the army due to a damaged lung. He worked nights in a factory and slept in our bed by day. Within weeks Monica's mother decided this was unsuitable for young girls.

In our next billet I discovered what it meant to be unwanted. Often we were told "it was you or Irish labourers." and I'm pretty sure our foster mother regretted her choice. We were a nuisance, a disruption of their quiet lives. I don't think I ever knew their first names. To us, and to each other in our presence, they were Mr and Mrs Hockley.

I remember hour upon hour spent outdoors in miserable weather, and the cold disapproval of almost everything we did. Seldom allowed in the lounge, we spent most evenings confined to the unheated scullery where we cleaned the shoes and boots, did the washing up and then our homework before going to bed. Our biggest worry was a group of area children who taunted and threatened us during our long walks to and from school.

We were always hungry. Meals were far smaller than our ration books allowed, and the Hockley's locked pantry afforded no opportunity to steal. At school we would volunteer to wash the teachers' lunch dishes. Sometimes there was a generous apple core or parts of a sandwich left, and by adding hot water to marmite residue in their cups we had a hot drink. Our uniforms hung loosely on us; Monica began losing her hair.

Conditions for many of the older girls became so intolerable that parents began taking them home. In 1943 the entire school packed up and left. Nobody came to the station to see us off. Monica and I kicked our bags and books along the streets, embarrassed that some foster parents were actually tearful when it came to saying goodbye.

I doubt whether any of us were the same following our wartime experiences, but there was a positive side to being evacuated. Like many other foster parents the Deans acquired an extended family. They got to know my parents and other sisters when they came south to Iris's wedding, and we visited them often. For my part, the war caused me to grow strong and independent beyond my years. I developed a deep appreciation of nature and the English countryside. Writing became a passion which began with my long descriptive letters home. I realized an inherent restlessness that couldn't be stilled, and itchy feet that caused me to travel far.