Wolfie stopped, distracted by the stacks of sandbags and newly dug trenches. Above Rotten Row silver barrage balloons strained and sang on their cables. They were like sails in a high wind, he thought, or great prehistoric birds. Tolerant of her small and wilful brother, Dodo waited, sighing loudly as Wolfie turned to look at some cavalry, dropping his gas mask to the ground. A team of grey horses was trotting brightly up the South Carriage Drive. Wolfie watched, transfixed; Captain had been a grey too. After the war Pa had ridden Captain along the North Ride for the Victory Parade of 1918, the medal on his chest, the cheering crowds, all captured in Ma’s photograph on the mantel at home.
The horses drew closer and halted, luminous and magical as a troop of moons come down to earth. A frown creased Wolfie’s brow. He remembered Pa, here in the park, after war broke out, the day before he’d left to fight again in France. He remembered how he’d turned, white-faced, from the animals he so loved, and said, ‘I hate all of it and what it stands for . . .’ Wolfie had felt confused then, and shocked, and still felt confused now.
He gave a determined shrug, took Dodo’s hand and asked, for the hundredth time, his heart bright and staunch with pride, his face luminous with the spotless sweetness of the very young and very loved, ‘Pa did a great thing, didn’t he, Dodo? That’s why he got the medal. The bravest of the brave, isn’t he?’
Dodo was silent.
‘When the war finishes, Dodo, when Pa comes home, we’ll start riding here again, won’t we?’
‘Wolfie, march,’ Dodo ordered testily.
‘You look silly in a skirt, Dorothy.’
This was currently Wolfie’s favoured riposte to an unwelcome instruction, guaranteed to annoy. Dodo scowled at the hateful name, at the hateful pleated skirt.
‘And you have a silly name. Wolfgang is a German name.’
Wolfie took no notice.
‘He will be grey . . . with a dark mane . . . my horse will—’
‘Quick march,’ Dodo instructed her one-man troop. Wolfie’s world was filled with brigades and beating drums, banners and bugles. Only cavalry instructions would get the result that Dodo wanted.
Wolfie gathered a set of imaginary reins, extended an imaginary lance and galloped away, whispering to himself, ‘He will be brave and he will have a silver tip to his tail . . .’
Wolfie galloped all the way to the bus stop at Lancaster Gate. At the poster of the child and gas mask, his gallop faltered. Dodo waited, smiling.
‘Take care of your gas mask,’ she chanted, dangling it before him as he turned, ‘and your gas mask will take care of—’
Wolfie snatched it and galloped on.
Stacks of dark green stretchers stood between the new brick surface shelters at Lancaster Gate. A new sign read ‘Shelter this Way’. There was a shelter at school too, but it was like a damp brown igloo inside, with garish nasturtiums on the roof. London was in a state of perpetual preparation and precaution, something immense always on the brink of happening. Everywhere the endless warnings about gas masks, everywhere the constant instruction to leave London, to ‘Give children a chance of greater safety and health’, every day the announcement that the evacuation of children from the cities would continue. But how could you leave London when no one knew where your father was, when he might return at any minute, when you only had Spud to look after you, and she didn’t seem to know any more than you did?
‘We won’t leave London, never, not till Pa comes home,’ Dodo whispered fiercely.
‘Tens of Thousands Safely Home Already,’ the newspapers had said last week. Dodo shivered. There’d been so many photographs of the boats of Dunkirk, so many thousands of boats. Tens of thousands of returning men the newspapers had said, but Pa still hadn’t come. There’d been no letter, no telegram, nothing.
When they reached George’s corner shop, Wolfie, thinking of his sweet ration, abandoned his rein and lance, and began to excavate a pocket, groping for the coin that must be there somewhere. Dodo, giving him as always her own ration slip, hustled him inside, with her studied attitude of tolerant exasperation.
George came out, waved to Dodo, then bent to chalk a message on the stand of the Daily Mirror to the right of the door:
Dodo’s stomach lurched, her hands flew to her mouth and she was screaming inwardly, Where is he? Where is Pa? Was he on his way back? Would he be back tonight? Tomorrow?
Wolfie emerged with two ounces of lurid Torpedoes in a paper bag, a violet one in his mouth, staining his lips.
‘Have we won the war Dodo?’ he asked in a loud voice.
‘They’ve taken Paris,’ she said quietly.
Wolfie had to decode the progress of the war only from Spud the housekeeper’s grumblings and mumblings and his sister’s occasional pronouncements. He frowned, digested this new clue, then dismissed it as not fitting with his view of the way things should go.
‘Pa will get another medal, won’t he, Dodo?’ he said comfortably.
‘Home,’ ordered Dodo, her heart thumping a drumbeat. Where is he, where is he?
She remembered the tears down Pa’s face when a thin and trembly voice on the radio had announced that Britain was at war. When the National Anthem started Pa had snapped the wireless off. Spud, roused and teary, the plate of roast beef in her hands, had said, ‘Think of all our men going . . .’ And Pa had answered, ‘Spud, think of all the women in Germany saying the same thing.’
Only Pa could call Mrs Spence a name like Spud. Since Ma died, Spud had taken over the running of the house and the care of the children. She was so fond of Pa, so proud to work for him, that he could call her anything. But that evening she’d looked at Pa, shocked and perhaps a little wounded too.
Dodo marched Wolfie on. She remembered the OHMS letter recalling Pa to the Army, Pa’s grief and his reluctance to leave the work he’d been doing, his papers and speeches about the conditions of the coal miners. He’d wanted, really wanted to continue that work. Then the second OHMS letter had come, warning Pa to report. Dodo remembered Spud saying darkly that Pa must either report or be arrested. In the end Pa had gone. Dodo turned into Addison Avenue. But now Paris had fallen, Pa must be coming back from France.
‘Halt,’ she said as Wolfie reached the iron gate of Number 25, but her troop mutinied on the generous stone steps, was launching itself at the double door, erupting through it, scattering satchel and mask across the black-and-white chequer floor.
Spud was standing on a chair in the dining room, her sturdy figure loosely enveloped in swathes of black sateen. ‘Ha,’ she said, fitting the last hook, hands on her cumbersome hips. ‘Not a chink of light will escape now.’ Dodo hovered beside her, a question on her lips but Spud dismounted, turned from her, and said, ‘Wolfgang Revel, must you always be such an explosion?’ She gathered up his coat, cap, satchel and mask. Wolfie ran to the map pinned above the sideboard.
‘Where? Where?’ he asked, his small hand hovering over Luxembourg and Belgium. ‘Where do I move our men?’ Wolfie’s confidence in victory had survived, undaunted, the flood of black pinheads into Poland, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. ‘Better off on our own,’ Spud had sniffed at the fall of Belgium, happy at such concrete evidence of the feebleness of foreigners.
‘Where?’ Wolfie asked again.
Spud put her finger on the French coast. ‘Twentyone miles of water is all that separates us from the enemy. Just a bit of water and it’s not just our soldiers that are coming back across that water, it’s the war, coming here –’ she jabbed a plump forefinger on Dover – ‘right back here.’ Spud favoured a gaudy and sensational turn of phrase, was prone to speaking in headlines.
‘But have we won?’ Wolfie asked, bewildered.
Spud shook her head.
‘Then why’re the soldiers coming back?’
Dodo, still hovering close to Spud, waiting for the right minute, asked finally, ‘Is it true? Are they – is Pa – will he . . . ?’
Spud pursed her lips and busied herself at the tea table with the plate of boiled beef. Dodo waited as Spud lamented the dangers of London, the closeness of the war, the suitability of countryside in general for children, digressing into her perpetual lament about the difficulty of knowing how to go about things when she never heard anything, when for all she knew anything could have happened and was she expected to go on forever alone?
Spud liked the children to remain aware at all times of the trying circumstances in which she had to operate. These were all familiar themes to Wolfie so he took no notice, but Dodo watched her closely.
Spud removed the remains of beef and served pudding. Wolfie stared at his bowl.
‘Roly-poly with no jam is no fun.’
He moved aside his bowl and emptied an old Highland shortbread tin on to the table. Lead cavalry figures spilt on to the mahogany surface.
‘Will you play, Dodo?’
He picked up the horse he called Captain, after Pa’s horse, and placed him upright, glancing as he did so at the photograph on the mantel of Pa on Captain, Captain’s grey coat lustrous as a star against the dark crowds, the bronze cross on Pa’s chest. Pa’s medal for the Moreuil Wood, for the last great cavalry charge, was a flame to Wolfie, a flame to warm him, Pa’s honour a light to live by.
Dodo glanced at Wolfie before turning to Spud and whispering, ‘Wasn’t Pa on a boat—?’
Spud folded her arms. ‘I hear the Jameson twins have left town. And Posy Cayzer’s going to an aunt in Wiltshire . . . the country’s the sensible place for children.’ Spud looked emphatically at Ma’s oil painting above the dresser, her largest canvas, of the russet and umber hills where she’d holidayed as a child.
‘Are all our men coming home?’ Dodo persisted. ‘Haven’t you heard anything—?’
‘Bath time,’ said Spud.
‘It’s not bath time,’ said Wolfie, looking suspicious because it was always suddenly bath time at awkward moments.
‘How am I to know . . . ?’ muttered Spud, collecting a basket of fresh towels from the laundry.
There was no letter from Pa the following week either. Spud was in a new sort of mood, a harrumphing, high-headed kind of one, rejuvenated by the fall of France, by Britain’s ‘Great Aloneness’. Posy’s father had come back from Dunkirk on a boat. Posy lived next door and her father, Colonel Cayzer, served in the same regiment as Pa. When the Colonel came home, Posy had stopped visiting Dodo, then, shortly after, she and her sister went to the aunt in Wiltshire.
Wolfie lined his cavalry up along the tea table. ‘It’s like this in Pa’s barracks . . . one row on one side, and one on the other . . . Captain lives here, at the top . . . he has a special box with his name over it.’ Wolfie placed Captain so that he dominated the two files of bays. ‘I will be a cavalry officer with a fine grey charger. My charger will have hot bran mash and molasses like Captain and go on parades with brass bands and be clapped by crowds . . .’
‘Eat your tea,’ said Spud.
‘Wolfie eats derring and dash for starters,’ said Dodo. ‘Heroes and glory for pudding.’
‘You talk like a book,’ said Wolfie.
‘The both of you, eat your tea. It’s all peculiar words from the one of you, and horses-horses-horses from the other,’ said Spud, brushing aside the barracked figurines.
At dusk, when Spud began her elaborate blackout preparations, she began to mumble again about the proper place for children. Spud knew more than they did, Dodo was certain of that, or maybe just suspected something but wasn’t telling what. The Cayzer housekeeper, Dora, was the purveyor of all gossip on Addison Avenue. Dora had probably told Spud something.
Dodo crept up to her, turning her back on Wolfie and asked again, ‘Have you heard anything . . . ?’
Spud paused, then set to again, adding, for the first time, adhesive tape to her blackout precautions.
‘France has been invaded, Spud, so Pa—?’
‘Bath time,’ Spud said, ready to hustle them up early to the nursery. When they were halfway up there was a knock at the hall door. Wolfie raced back down. Spud and Dodo waited on the stairs.
‘Oh, Lord,’ said Spud, taking Dodo’s hand as they both glimpsed the young boy, blue-uniformed, the same height as Dodo, standing at the foot of the steps, holding on to a red bicycle with one hand, an envelope in the other, his eyes to the ground. Dodo stifled a scream and froze, suddenly detached from the world and dropping, the stomach taken out of her.
Wolfie grabbed the envelope. ‘From Pa. It’ll be from Pa.’
The telegram boy sped away, head down. Wolfie was tearing at the envelope but Spud stepped down and took it.
‘Shall I?’ she asked Dodo.
Dodo nodded. Everything was monochrome, remote and cold. Wolfie was reaching on tiptoe to the telegram, the front door still open. Spud folded it quickly and backed up to the stairs, sinking on to the lowest treads. Reaching out for Dodo’s hand, she pulled her to her chest.
‘Missing,’ croaked Spud. ‘Oh, Dodo, he’s – your pa’s missing . . .’
Dodo’s legs quaked. Spud’s words were distorted and swimming.
‘What is it, what is it?’ Wolfie was asking.
‘He’s missing, Wolfie, your pa’s missing.’
Wolfie looked from Spud to Dodo, the word ‘missing’ forming silently on his lips, growing confusion colouring his face. Now he moved his head slowly and emphatically from side to side. Spud pulled him to her, but he squirmed away, still shaking his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No. Pa wouldn’t go missing.’
‘Oh, Wolfie . . .’ began Spud.
Despite the adhesive tape, the glimmer of moonlight on slate roofs between Spud’s curtains was strangely bright. In bed, Dodo’s body was rigid and frozen. The words ‘missing, missing, missing’ drummed in her head. She heard Wolfie’s soft, regular breathing. Asleep, finally, she thought. A dam broke and an unstoppable flood of tears burst from her.
Later, all tears spent, empty and hollowed out, she slipped out of bed and crept to the window. Luminous white fingers searched the night sky. Dodo watched, transfixed as a sleepwalker.
Missing, missing, missing.
Wolfie stirred, saw her silhouetted against the window. Clutching Captain, he crept to her and looked out. With interest he observed the searchlights and the large lemon moon rising over tall Victorian roofs.
‘She hasn’t blacked out the moon,’ he said, setting the lead figure on the sill where it shone like marble. He began to advance Captain from one end to the other. ‘Spud has forgotten to black out the moon.’ He looked up and saw that Dodo’s cheeks were glistening and silvery, her eyes swollen. ‘“Missing” just means they don’t know where he is, doesn’t it? But Pa can see that moon, he can see it too where he is.’
Dodo saw Wolfie’s fierce, starry eyes and her face contorted with agony and grief.
There was a knock at the front door. It opened and closed. Voices. The wireless in the kitchen was turned on. Dodo put a finger to her lips and turned from the window, listening. Dora. Dodo hesitated. Had Colonel Cayzer told Dora anything? Dodo crept to the door and beckoned. Wolfie crept earnestly behind her, glad to be on a reconnaissance mission with Dodo, though he knew that tonight this wasn’t a game.
They huddled behind the kitchen door. Dodo, ear to the painted panel, frowned in concentration, heard whispering, then more distinctly, Dora’s voice: ‘What’re you going to do? The children can’t stay here . . .’
There was silence from Spud, then Dora again: ‘The Colonel said . . .’
Dora’s next words were an indecipherable, urgent hissing, then there was silence, then both of them were suddenly whispering at each other at the same time, their voices rising.
‘That can’t be true . . .’
‘. . . all back – that is, the ones that . . .’
‘The Captain’d never do . . .’
‘The Colonel says . . .’
‘Are you sure . . . ?’
‘You’ve got to face it . . . wouldn’t dare show his face even if . . .’
When Spud spoke again, her voice was unusually meek. ‘I’ll make the arrangements tomorrow . . .’
Dodo clenched Wolfie’s hand.
The wireless was turned up for the 9 p.m. bulletin and they heard the reassuring growl of the Prime Minister, heard him say that Britain would ‘fight on, if necessary for years, if necessary alone’.
Suddenly an air-raid siren sounded, abrupt and chilling. Dodo leaped up and pushed the door open. They burst in and threw themselves into Spud and Dora’s ungainly heap under the kitchen table.
There was a roaring, another roaring, then a menacing screech, a second screech and a third, all at the same time – the air was bursting with roaring and screeching until Wolfie’s teeth were rattling, his limbs shaking. He squeezed himself against Dodo. The shriek grew louder and louder like an approaching train. He felt Spud’s shivering, the bulk of her wobbling like a jelly, the fabric of her skirt shivering like a sail against his bare feet. He scrunched his eyes tight, clenched his legs to his chest but couldn’t stop the image of a train rushing directly at him, straight at his head, couldn’t stop the bomb that was coming straight at his stomach. One hand gripped a chair leg, the other a fistful of Dodo’s flannel nightdress.
After what seemed a long while, the bomb fell far away, in a distant plop.
The single continuous note of the All Clear sounded. Spud recovered herself and began to disentangle her lower quarters from the table legs.
‘Clapham,’ she said with satisfaction, then began to chide the children for not being in bed.
‘That was the sound of human beings trying to kill other human beings,’ whispered Dodo almost silently. She had a good memory for words and that was something Pa had once said.
Dora was buttoning her coat. From the doorway she gave Spud a significant look.
‘I told you, safer out of London . . .’
Dodo turned to Spud, mouth half open, but Spud intercepted her.
‘Bed,’ she said abruptly.
Next morning, Spud steamed to and fro and up and downstairs with clothes and coats. When she paused for tea, she picked up two leaflets that had slipped through the letter box on to the mat.
If the Invader comes, Spud read, the order is Stay Put. Do not believe rumours. Keep watch. Do not give the Germans anything. She put it down in disgust. Dodo sat silently at the window looking out. Spud picked up the second pamphlet and read: Parents warned:
Bomb Risk Near. Keep off the streets as much as possible.
This gave Spud greater satisfaction, which she denoted with a large harrumph. Loaded with fresh ballast, she picked up a basket and steered towards the laundry room.
‘I’ve no choice,’ she said, her back turned. ‘Even your school’s been closed.’
She emerged, tank-like, with a basket of freshly ironed laundry. Wolfie pursued her into the nursery, where she was berthing, with the basket.
‘But we can’t’, he said furiously, ‘not till Pa comes home.’
‘You’ll be needing sensible clothes.’
‘We’re not going.’
‘I’ll take you on a special outing this afternoon.’
‘I don’t want to go on a special outing,’ replied Wolfie.
Spud heaved a suitcase down from the top of a cupboard, and said, puffing, ‘We’ll go to the Army and Navy stores.’
‘I don’t want—’
‘We’ll go to Harrods.’
Spud went back into the dining room. ‘Dorothy, it’s all arranged. You and Wolfie are to leave tomorrow.’
Dodo, still at the window, bent her head.
‘But will I be with Dodo?’ said Wolfie.
‘You’ll be together, they’ve said you won’t be split up . . . it’s ever so nice in the countryside.’
Wolfie was struck by a sudden thought. ‘Will there be horses?’
‘There are any number of horses, Wolfgang, in the countryside. You’ll be going somewhere in the South West, you might even be somewhere close to where your ma used to holiday – those landscapes she painted.’ Spud gestured to the picture on the wall but Wolfie wasn’t listening.
‘There’ll be horses,’ he told Dodo.
Dodo rose and drew close to Spud. ‘Will there be another letter? . . . Will they . . . ?’
‘I don’t know anything – nothing more than you do.’
‘But what does that mean? . . . Where is he?’ whispered Dodo, her cheeks streaming.
‘I can’t tell you any more than what you know already,’ Spud snapped.
It was a joyless excursion, Spud brusque and impatient, the toys in Harrods a dismal sight, the toy department empty of children. They surveyed a model trench scene of troops lined up for action in front of the Maginot Line.
‘Why do we have to be on an outing?’ asked Wolfie.
‘Even the German soldiers sell well,’ an unconvincing sales assistant was saying. Dodo turned away, but the assistant pursued her, holding out a uniformed doll.
Much later, holding hands, they groped along the pavement between shadowy figures. Motors with masked sidelights and blackened reflectors moved slowly along Knightsbridge. The headlamps of buses were cowled crescents of dim blue. Someone somewhere was intoning through a loud speaker, ‘Thou shalt not kill. Join the Pacifists.’
A paper was thrust into Spud’s hand.
‘“Thou shalt not kill” is a commandment,’ said Wolfie.
‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you . . .’
‘Disgusting, you Methodists and pacifists and what have you,’ said Spud, jabbing her umbrella emphatically into the darkness. She never cared whether anyone listened to her and she was prone to underlining her opinions with an umbrella. Loudly berating pacifists and Methodists, Spud commandeered a taxicab, requesting ‘Holland Park’ in a tone so emphatic as to imply disgust with Knightsbridge.
‘Is God a passy-fist?’ asked Wolfie, climbing in.
The cab glided over the bridge, the Serpentine beneath glittering like a stage.
‘Twenty miles per hour regulation speed,’ said the jovial driver, ‘but what good’s that if the dashboard lights are off and you can’t see the speedometer?’
‘How do you black out the river?’ asked Wolfie, more thrilled by the glamour of a city lit by moonlight than the toy department at Harrods. Beside him, Dodo, looking out over the shining water, cried silently.
Excerpted from Hero by Sam Angus. Copyright © 2013 by Sam Angus.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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