- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Arthur Allwright
- Location of story:
- Motspur Park, Surrey
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 March 2005
A twinkle in her eye gave me the assurance that this lovely lady was looking for an evacuee. I was already willing her to choose me. She reminded me of my grandmother, always smiling and able to cook lovely bread pudding. She had obviously come out in a hurry. Her hair was dishevelled and she had forgotten to take off her floral apron.
“Hello Mrs. Foulkes,” replied our Mrs. Webster, relieved at meeting a positive person at last. “Yes you could say that you are just in time to take these last two lovely boys off my hands. I was beginning to think that they would have to go to the Council estate if nobody wanted them up here. They look good ones,” she lied and smoothed my hair to improve the sight. I couldn’t help it if I hadn’t had a wash all day. I never washed twice at home and the train engine was really smoky.
“I don’t know about that, Joe only mentioned having one. Ivor suddenly found his tongue.
“We could sleep together and we promise that we wouldn’t talk in bed.” Both the ladies laughed but a frown returned to Mrs. Foulkes.
“Alright, I’ll take a chance, but I may have to return one of them if Joe says “No”. Come on home. What’s your names?”
It was at this point that I realised that people round here spoke a different language and I could hardly understand what they were saying. Mrs. Foulkes talked non stop for the whole ten minutes of the journey to 17a Watkinson Street, her home. We learnt that Joe was a miner and would be back from the pit in half an hour. He would need a bath and when we had cleared that away, we could have tea, most likely dripping toast and a cake that she had made that morning. Heanor was the name of the town and the place where the train had stopped before, was another part of Heanor, called Langley Mill. She had heard that a lot of evacuees would be billeted between the two places.
Number 17a was a terraced house with four steps leading to the front door that was already open. Although it was still daylight, the inside hall was dark and uninviting.
“Leave your things in the passage and come and sit in the dining room. I’ll make tea because Joe will want some as soon as he gets in. Take your coat off Ivor and you can help me with the cups. I hope that Joe is in a good mood. I don’t know what he’ll say.”
We didn’t have long to wait. The front door had been left ajar and the wafting smell of pipe tobacco announced the arrival of Joe, his heavy boots making a frightening impression on the lino in the hall. The short, black-faced man with a beaming smile edged into the room and looked around.
“Well, what a t’do. What have we here? Art ‘em vacees? I didn’t expect the whole trainload! Is there a war on, or something?”
Mrs. Foulkes laughed to humour him, but we remained silent because we could only just understand what he was saying.
“They were the only two left at the church and I couldn’t leave one on his own, could I?”
“Nay, lass, you’m done the right thing. Now while I drink a nice cuppa, you tell me your names, then you can wash my back”
Being even more confused, Ivor and I sheepishly gave our names and answered his interrogation as conservatively as possible. Then came the shock. Mrs. Foulkes entered the room with a large tin bath and placed it on the rug in front of the smouldering fire that I hadn’t even noticed. On her return she brought a hosepipe just like my dad’s at home and gave it to me.
“Hold that Arthur and I’ll turn on the kitchen tap. Make sure you aim straight. The floor will get wet enough when Joe gets in.”
Sure enough, to our amazement, Joe undressed completely in front of us and stood waiting for his bath to be ready. As I sprayed luke warm water into the noisy galvanised tub, Mrs. Foulkes brought in several saucepans full of boiling water to get the right temperature. It was only when Joe eventually lowered himself into the tub, that I noticed the series of gashes and scars all over his body. Ivor was first to comment on them, asking Joe whether he had been fighting.
“Nay, lad,” he mused, “it’s just what to expect when you work in the pit. Bits of rock fall on you to keep you company.”
Mrs.Foulkes then explained that the “pit” was the coal mine where Joe worked and that the coal seams sometimes were only a few feet high and the miners had to crawl to pickaxe the coal from the rock. As they moved forward, they had to shore up the roof to try and prevent the roof from falling on them. He always came home damaged like this.
“I bet you swore when that big gash happened,” said Ivor as he dabbed a particularly large blood-soaked swelling with the tattered flannel.
“Nay, I never swear, what’s the use? It still hurts if you swear, so why swear?”
The logic went over my head. I was still getting over the fact that I was watching a man have a bath in the dining room. As the dabbing of the wounds continued, Joe reached for his pipe that he had secreted by the tub and lit it, sending whirls of smoke to mingle with the steam from the water. My contribution was minimal in all this activity but I was already hoping that we could stay here. This must be a happy home.
“Can they stay, Joe?”
“Aye, lass, give ’em a go. We can do with a bit of brass. They look good to me, but they’ll have to sleep together and they’ll have to muck in with the sharing of the housework.”
Mrs. Foulkes was true to her word and as soon as Joe had dressed and helped her to carry the tub into the garden, we wiped the floor lino and laid the table for tea. Joe was interested why we had come away when the war was so nearly over. I told him about the doodle bugs and my close shave earlier in the week and he just laughed and said that nothing ever happens in Heanor. Recounting the story sent a shiver down my spine and I lost my tongue for the rest of the evening. Mrs. Foulkes cheered us up a bit when she recalled that their next door neighbour was expecting to have two evacuees, but they hadn’t arrived yet.
Sleep came easily and early, but the distance from the war activities meant that Joe didn’t bother with blackout curtains and although I had slept soundly, I woke early, realising that for the first time in years, the bright daylight had woken me. I lay for ages, reliving my ordeal that wouldn’t let go. But I was safe here and so far, I was happy. My ploy to avoid my sisters gave me great satisfaction and I relished the thought that I would have several months of peace. I awoke to find that my mother had been enquiring about me and Mrs. Foulkes had promised her that she would make sure I wrote home regularly.
Ivor was a laugh and I felt that together, we could enjoy living here. School might be a problem, but nobody would bully me whilst Ivor was around. Yes, things were looking good !
But the school problem was greater than expected and the local Grammar School was full and unable to take us. The only alternative was to hop over the wall at the bottom of Joe’s garden and attend the Primary School. After two days I was befriended by one of the teachers and became her assistant, helping her to mark the exercise books of the younger pupils. That was the extent of schooling I received for my seven months stay in Heanor.
After four weeks, Ivor returned home after upsetting Mrs. Foulkes. We were playing cricket in the small garden, when the floor mop that we were using as a bat, broke, and the head described a gentle arc and smashed through the kitchen window. I remained alone for the next six months idling my time away, going to the billiard hall in the High Street most afternoons.
Suddenly, on May 8 th at 3pm , Mrs Foulkes called me into the living room where the wireless was blaring out louder than I had ever heard it.
“Listen to this, luv.” It was Winston Churchill broadcasting from 10 Downing Street, announcing the end of the War in Europe but reminding us that the war against Japan had not yet been achieved. Everything became a blur. We were both crying, probably for different reasons, but I remember the strange feeling of really wanting to go home as fast as possible; back to the home that I had been pleased to leave seven months earlier.
The all-clear sirens sounded and we found ourselves rushing into the street and linking arms with neighbours and strangers, all singing and crying together.
“Well, I don’t suppose we shall be seeing much of you, now.” They were the final words of Joe as I left Heanor. Sadly, they proved to be correct.
Copyright Arthur Allwright 2005
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