Friday 1st September 1939
‘Can’t you come too, Mum?’
Joe clutched Mum’s hand, his palm hot and sticky against her cool fingers, skipping and tripping over his feet, trying to keep up with her, his gas mask knocking against his ribs.
‘Only children are being evacuated, Joe,’ Mum replied. ‘We want to keep you safe from bombs that might drop on London. That’s why you’re going to Wales. I have to stay here to look after the house for when Dad comes home.’
‘What if I don’t like Wales? What if there are giants or dragons that want to eat me? I want to stay here with you.’
He looked down at the paper name tag attached to his coat with a safety pin. Mum had made him put on extra clothes because they didn’t all fit in the small cardboard suitcase she carried in her other hand. He was so hot from the extra vests and sweater, trying to keep up made his face burn. Drips from his hair ran down the back of his neck, soaking his collar. He wriggled from the itchiness of it all and trembled at the thought of the long train journey all on his own. The platform was hidden behind a muddle of other people’s legs and luggage, but he knew it was there by the hiss of steam from a waiting train and the echo of announcements from an overhead speaker. Leaning back to peer at a pigeon circling the vaulted roof of the station, he felt like he was shrinking and gripped Mum’s hand even tighter. Her wedding ring felt smooth and hard.
‘There are lots of other children going on the train,’ Mum said. ‘Look! Some of them are even younger than you. You’re a big boy now. You’re seven years old.’
Joe looked around. There were hundreds of children, all being sent to the country, miles away from their families and homes. Even his best friend, Nelly, who lived next door, was there. Nelly’s eyes were wide as she looked up at her mum, who was sobbing quietly into a handkerchief. His mum wasn’t crying but her face was blotchy and her mouth was drawn into a tight line, what Granddad called ‘a stiff upper lip’.
‘Maybe you’ll be billeted with other children of your age and you’ll make new friends,’ Mum continued, as she helped him up the step into a carriage and guided him to an empty seat.
‘Why couldn’t I take the plane Dad made for me? I don’t have anything else to play with,’ Joe said.
‘It’s not on the list I got from your teacher,’ she replied, ‘and it won’t fit in the suitcase. You can’t carry it in your hand and it don’t half weigh a lot – it’s made of brass. Anyway, someone might take it. I promise I’ll keep it safe at home.’
Joe watched her through imaginary binoculars as she lifted the suitcase onto the overhead rack. He zoomed in on every detail to keep a clear picture of her in his head: the dusting of perfumed powder on her cheeks, her blue eyes and the curve of her lips.
‘I have to go now, Joe,’ she said and bent down to kiss him. ‘Remember to write every week, behave yourself and always mind your manners.’ And then she was gone.
Joe looked out of the dusty window, smeared with children’s fingerprints. A lady with a clipboard was trying to drag Nelly onto the train but she wouldn’t budge. Her face had gone bright red, causing the birthmark that spread over most of her right cheek to stand out, and she held tight to her mum’s skirt. The lady suddenly let go of her arm, turned and marched away. Her mum touched Nelly’s flushed cheeks, laid her hand on her forehead and then pulled her close into a hug.
As the doors slammed and the train pulled away from the station, Joe watched through a blur of tears as his mum took a position several feet away from them, her handbag clamped between her arm and her chest, dabbing her eyes with a hanky. How come Nelly was still on the platform and he was on the train? Was she ill? Some of the other children had been kept behind because of scarlet fever – and Nelly did look scarlet. Joe’s mum stood motionless, staring at him through the window. She didn’t really want him to go away, did she? Couldn’t they pretend he had scarlet fever too? It was much too late for that. He pressed his teeth into his bottom lip to stop himself from crying and forced his mouth into a sort of smile. Just at that moment, a bigger boy leaned across him to yell goodbye to his family. When the boy sat back down, Joe lifted his hand to wave to Mum and Nelly but the train had already reached the end of the platform. What if there were dragons waiting for him in Wales? Who would hug him and make them go away? And then he realised he hadn’t even said goodbye to Mum.