‘My family – Mum and Dad, Rita and Ed and I – we all lived in a small house together in Barlow Street, near the Elephant and Castle, and the day after war broke out we were rounded up at school, marched over to the railway station and put into train carriages. I’ll never forget it, all of us with our tags on and our masks and our packs, and the mothers, who’d had second thoughts because they came running down the road towards the station, shouting at the guard to let their kids off; then shouting at older siblings to look after the little ones, not to let them out of their sight.’

She sat for a moment, biting her bottom lip as the scene played out in her memory.

‘You must’ve been frightened,’ I said quietly. We’re not really hand-holders in our family or else I’d have reached out and taken hers.

‘I was, at first.’ She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. Her face had a vulnerable, unfinished look without her frames, like a small nocturnal animal confused by the daylight. I was glad when she put them on again and continued. ‘I’d never been away from home before, never spent a night apart from my mother. But I had my older brother and sister with me, and as the trip went on and one of the teachers handed round bars of chocolate, everybody started to cheer up and look upon the experience almost like an adventure. Can you imagine? War had been declared but we were all singing songs and eating tinned pears and looking out of the window playing I-spy. Children are very resilient, you know; callous in some cases.

‘We arrived eventually in a town called Cranbrook, only to be split into groups and loaded onto various coaches. The one I was on with Ed and Rita took us to the village of Milderhurst, where we were walked in lines to a hall. A group of local women were waiting for us there, smiles fixed on their faces, lists in hand, and we were made to stand in rows as people milled about, making their selection.

‘The little ones went fast, especially the pretty ones. People supposed they’d be less work, I expect, that they’d have less of the whiff of London about them.’

She smiled crookedly. ‘They soon learned. My brother was picked early. He was a strong boy, tall for his age, and the farmers were desperate for help. Rita went a short while after with her friend from school.’

Well, that was it. I reached out and laid my hand on hers. ‘Oh, Mum.’

‘Never mind.’ She pulled free and gave my fingers a tap. ‘I wasn’t the last to go. There were a few others, a little boy with a terrible skin condition. I don’t know what happened to him, but he was still standing there in that hall when I left.

‘You know, for a long time afterwards, years and years, I forced myself to buy bruised fruit if that’s what I picked up first at the greengrocer’s. None of this checking it over and putting it back on the shelf if it didn’t measure up.’

‘But you were chosen eventually.’

‘Yes, I was chosen eventually.’ She lowered her voice, fiddling with something in her lap, and I had to lean close. ‘She came in late. The room was almost clear, most of the children had gone and the ladies from the Women’s Voluntary Service were putting away the tea things. I’d started to cry a little, though I did so very discreetly. Then all of a sudden, she swept in and the room, the very air, seemed to alter.’

‘Alter?’ I wrinkled my nose, thinking of that scene in Carrie when the light explodes.

‘It’s hard to explain. Have you ever met a person who seems to bring their own atmosphere with them when they arrive somewhere?’

Maybe. I lifted my shoulders, uncertain. My friend Sarah has a habit of turning heads wherever she goes; not exactly an atmospheric phenomenon, but still…

‘No, of course you haven’t. It sounds so silly to say it like that. What I mean is that she was different from other people, more… Oh, I don’t know. Just more. Beautiful in an odd way, long hair, big eyes, rather wild looking, but it wasn’t that alone which set her apart. She was only seventeen at the time, in September 1939, but the other women all seemed to fold into themselves when she arrived.’

‘They were deferential?’

‘Yes, that’s the word, deferential. Surprised to see her and uncertain how to behave. Finally, one of them spoke up, asking whether she could help, but the girl merely waved her long fingers and announced that she’d come for her evacuee. That’s what she said; not an evacuee, her evacuee. And then she came straight over to where I was sitting on the floor. “What’s your name?” she said, and when I told her she smiled and said that I must be tired, having travelled such a long way. “Would you like to come and stay with me?” I nodded, I must have, for she turned then to the bossiest woman, the one with the list, and said that she would take me home with her.’

‘What was her name?’

‘Blythe,’ said my mother, suppressing the faintest of shivers. ‘Juniper Blythe.’

‘And was it she who sent you the letter?’

Mum nodded. ‘She led me to the fanciest car I’d ever seen and drove me back to the place where she and her older twin sisters lived, through a set of iron gates, along a winding driveway, until we reached an enormous stone edifice surrounded by thick woods. Milderhurst Castle.’

The name was straight out of a gothic novel and I tingled a little, remembering Mum’s sob when she’d read the woman’s name and address on the back of the envelope. I’d heard stories about the evacuees, about some of the things that went on, and I said on a breath, ‘Was it ghastly?’

‘Oh no, nothing like that. Not ghastly at all. Quite the opposite.’

‘But the letter… It made you-’

‘The letter was a surprise, that’s all. A memory from a long time ago.’

She fell silent then and I thought about the enormity of evacuation, how frightening, how odd it must have been for her as a child to be sent to a strange place where everyone and everything was vastly different. I could still touch my own childhood experiences, the horror of being thrust into new, unnerving situations, the furious bonds that were forged of necessity – to buildings, to sympathetic adults, to special friends – in order to survive. Remembering those urgent friendships, something struck me: ‘Did you ever go back, Mum, after the war? To Milderhurst?’

She looked up sharply. ‘Of course not. Why would I?’

‘I don’t know. To catch up, to say hello. To see your friend.’

‘No.’ She said it firmly. ‘I had my own family in London, my mother couldn’t spare me, and besides, there was work to be done, cleaning up after the war. Real life went on.’ And with that, the familiar veil came down between us and I knew the conversation was over.

We didn’t have the roast in the end. Mum said she didn’t feel like it and asked whether I minded terribly giving it a miss this weekend. It seemed unkind to remind her that I don’t eat meat anyway and that my attendance was more in the order of daughterly service, so I told her it was fine and suggested that she have a lie-down. She agreed, and as I gathered my things into my bag she was already swallowing two paracetamol in preparation, reminding me to keep my ears covered in the wind.

My dad, as it turns out, slept through the whole thing. He’s older than Mum and had retired from his work a few months before. Retirement hasn’t been good for him: he roams the house during the week, looking for things to fix and tidy, driving Mum mad, then on Sunday he rests in his armchair. The God-given right of the man of the house, he says to anyone who’ll listen.

I gave him a kiss on the cheek and left the house, braving the chill air as I made my way to the tube, tired and unsettled and somewhat subdued to be heading back alone to the fiendishly expensive flat I’d shared until recently with Jamie. It wasn’t until somewhere between High Street Kensington and Notting Hill Gate that I realized Mum hadn’t told me what the letter said.

A Memory Clarifies

Writing it down now, I’m a little disappointed in myself. But everyone’s an expert with the virtue of hindsight and it’s easy to wonder why I didn’t go looking, now that I know what there was to find. And I’m not a complete dolt. Mum and I met for tea a few days later and, although I failed again to mention my changed circumstances, I did ask her about the contents of the letter. She waved the question away and said it wasn’t important, little more than a greeting; that her reaction had been brought on by surprise and nothing more. I didn’t know then that my

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