The North-East wind blew across the open playground, bringing in particles of newly cut crops; it was late October and cold.
The school was brick, small and sturdy, not much bigger than a large house; iron railings topped a low brick wall that surrounded the schoolyard. A gated entrance led to a small playground, at the rear of the classrooms another gate led to a sports field on which, football, cricket and netball were played, depending on the season. There were thirty pupils at the school and two teachers, one for the lower grades and one for the higher grades.
A small square red bus, its bonnet protruding like a pig’s nose, waited at the gate.
A bell rang announcing the end of school day, within minutes there was an outpouring of children, coats and scarves flapping in the cold wind, which they seemingly ignored. Some ran to the bus, several walked down the lane to where a warm safe house was waiting and if they were lucky a hot cake or scones.
A young teacher with short curly blonde hair ventured into the playground: children never seem to feel the cold; she thought pulling her long dark coat tightly around her.She looked to the sky, not for the coming presence of rain but for planes, both enemy and friendly.It was 1941 and the Second World War had been raging for two years.
The flat lands of Norfolk and Suffolk and its people were already feeling the wrath of war.
The driver of the bus, wearing a tweed jacket, baggy brown trousers and a peaked cap, stood smoking near the gate.He flicked the butt over to a rusty tin full of sand, it hit the target and bounced out, the man coughed then made his way to the bus.
As he had done for the last five years he shouted, “All aboard the bus.” Those that were riding the bus clambered aboard laughing and giggling, chanting mockingly; “All aboard the bus.”
Several children grabbed bicycles that had been thrown haphazardly onto the bitumen, while the remainder were met by their parents.
Betty Jones picked up her bike and together with her friend Vera, turned left at the gate then, straddling her cycle, gave a few skips and pushed down on the pedals.It was hard going against the wind for a small girl.The friends split up at the crossroads waving to each other as they went their separate ways. That would be the last time Vera would see her friend.
Betty was small for her age, thirteen; her dark hair was plaited and fringed.Bending over the handlebars she slowly pedalled her way home.She had another half a mile to the lane that led to her dad’s farmhouse. Can I beat the rain home, she thought.
Nearing the turning, she saw, to her surprise, a white van blocking the entrance, she slowed, had it broken down?Betty didn’t recognise it, nor could she see anyone tinkering with the cars’ engine, like her dad does when his tractor breaks down.It seemed strange so Betty stopped fifty feet from the motor, her legs astride the bike.Suddenly a man appeared from behind the van and waved her to come closer. A warning her mother had drilled into her about strangers echoed in her head and she started to turn the bicycle.
“Now come on gal, no one’s going to hurt you,” another man was walking towards her from behind.Betty’s small heart was now racing and there was a funny feeling in her tummy.Dropping her bike, she ran to a gap in the hedge that led to her father’s field.“Get her.” She heard, making her thin little legs run faster.“Go the other way,” a voice shouted.
She squeezed through the hedge. Before her lay a ploughed field, rutted and muddy.Looking left and right Betty knew by experience it would be hard going on the furrowed ground, this was where she played, in the fields surrounding her dad’s farm.
The man from the van was coming over a stile from the lane; the other man was struggling through the small gap in the hedge behind her.“Bloody hell,” he mumbled, as he tried to untangle himself from the brambles that snagged his tweed jacket.The girl’s scream angered him and he shouted to the other man to shut her up.“You’ll not be screaming after tonight you little bitch.”He wrenched himself free and began lumbering across the field.“I’ll give you scream you little bitch, make me run would you
Betty, sobbing in fright, began her escape bid across the dark rough ground.She screamed ‘MUMMY’ as the men neared her, she now knew she couldn’t out run her pursuers and so turned to face them.Her little face was screwed up in terror, tears ran down her cheeks and then, crying in shame, a warm coloured liquid ran down her thin legs and into her grey socks.The day that Betty went missing was October 31st – Halloween.
Dark shadows made their way up through narrow twisting tracks of the tree covered ancient hill, a Barrow.Some of the figures were looking forward to the evening’s ceremony, while others were filled with trepidation at the thought of what was about to happen.
The outer trees that faced east, were bent by the strong wind that blew over the North Sea. Leaves, already changing colour, fell to the ground and blew around the legs of the dark forms as they made their way to the appointed place, the ‘Altar of Supreme Sacrifice’.
Twelve black robed figures, some grotesquely masked, others, their faces Blackened with soot, came together at the top of the small windy hill.Two of the largest carried between them a struggling thirteen-year-old girl, a virgin, undefiled, pure and free of any of the sins known to man - the ideal sacrifice.
Not all victims were pure and chaste, attractive virgins were sometimes defiled and raped before being brought to the altar.Such was the lust of the ’chosen few.
At the stone altar, wearing the mask of a bull and with arms folded, stood a white clad figure.The other’s, ten in all, searched for wood for the bonfire, or as the ancients called it the ’bone-fire,’To the Celts it represented the sun and to the Druids a way of keeping evil spirits at bay.Animals old and sick that were unlikely to last the winter, and sometimes humans were sacrificed, hence the name, ’Bone-Fire.
As the young victim lay trembling on the cold slab, naked, pale and gagged, the flames created giant shadows and cast an eerie dancing glow on the surrounding trees.A narrow ornate box, held high by the white robed priest, signalled the gathering of the pseudo Celts. They gathered in a circle around the stone altar as the priest lowered the wooden box. Before handing it to the nearest black robed figure, the priest withdrew a long dagger and held it aloft for all to see; Halloween, the witching hour approached.Opposite the white robed figure, a black form pulled back a sleeve and checked the time. The fire behind them licked skywards, casting flickering lights over the assembled cast, creating macabre silhouettes of the ghostly spectacle.The figure with the watch nodded to the circle, then putting one hand on the struggling form, began to chant; The festivities of ‘Samhain’ marking the end of summer were about to begin.The raised dagger, held high, suddenly plunged into the pubescent heart.
Wrenching out the dagger, the small chest for a brief second resisted the withdrawal and arched as it was lifted off the cold stone slab.Finally it slumped still and lifeless.The priest passed the knife over the body and then held it aloft, chanting in an ancient tongue.The incantation was the signal for all to lift the tiny body and place it on the fire.
There was very little blood; the heart had stopped beating almost immediately, this, as in the past, was a carefully planned ritual.Walking in an anti-clockwise circle, the thirteen bowed their heads and quietly intoned and chanted.
Halloween, the start of the festival of Samhain, had been successful, the Sun will rise next summer.
The train from London to Kings Lynn was crowded, puffing out clouds of steam and soot as it chugged, rattled, and swayed to the monotonous click-clack of wheels on rail.The passing fields lay bare, their precious crops, harvested. Every spare piece of land that was able to produce food had been used. It was September 1942 and England had been at war for almost three years.
The carriages were filled, mostly with civilians fleeing the enemy’s bombs.They sat alongside men in foreign uniforms. Blues, greys and khaki, some with small plumed hats and French sailors wearing red bobbled black berets.In the crowded corridors, the foreign tongues of soldiers and sailors sounded garbled to the fleeing civilians.As well as English in its various forms came the lazy drawl of an American, or a Canadian and the guttural sounds of Britain’s allies in the east; all echoed along the corridors. Polish, Hungarian and Soldiers of the free French army, Australians and New Zealanders too, all were there thrown together for the cause, to defeat a common enemy.As someone had once said; it’s simply a case of the good versus the bad, we shall overcome.
Occasionally a wounded man with head bandaged, or an arm in a sling could be heard sharing his experiences.
A Wren squeezed by in a crowded corridor and the voices of young men expressed their appreciation of a pretty face, it was universal, no language barriers there.
Earlier that morning, at seven thirty, a limping Captain Andrew Harper struggled to keep up as the elderly porter pushed his trolley loaded with the wounded soldier’s bags. He scythed his way through the busy station platform.They passed groups of poorly dressed children, most of them unwashed with hair lice and wearing cheap shoes, many had cardboard inserts to cover the holes in the soles.Each carried a small paper bag with a little food for the journey, most of the bags were empty before they even boarded the train, such was their hunger.Some were crying as they watched their mothers hurry away back down the platform sniffing and wiping their tear stained faces.There was the odd one or two that were pleased their children were being evacuated.This gave them the chance to pursue their new interests, as the Yanks were in town, bringing nylons, soap, perfume and something the Londoners were taking to their hearts – coffee.
It was noisy and smelt of smoke and soot.The trains chuffed, standing at the end of platforms against large round buffers.They hissed as coal and water were replenished. Here and there, high up on the station roof, evidence of the bombing could be seen.“Mind your backs please,” the porter called in a broad cockney voice.They passed a troop of soldiers in a ragged line, kit bags at their feet, rifles held close and uniforms still with that fuzzy newness about them.The Sergeant in charge saw the approaching officer.“Platoon hup.” He barked; the men sprang to attention.“Sergeant.” The captain acknowledged, throwing up a loose salute.Other soldiers, when seeing an officer, would pretend not to notice and turn their backs thus avoiding the salute.
The porter put Harper’s bags in the Guards van then, opening the carriage door the porter said, “Here you are sir, I’ve put your bags in the guards van. The train don’t go further than Kings Lynn today, the guard there will get them off for you.”
“Thank you porter,’ Harper said closing the door and lowering the window on its leather sash.
“My pleasure sir, have a safe journey.”
The carriage was almost full, with a mixture of servicemen and civilians.One of the soldiers, a Sergeant in the Green Jackets, a rifle brigade, rose to help him.“Let me help you with that sir.” He said taking the Captains small bag and gasmask box. “Thank you Sergeant and these please.”He handed him his walking stick and cap.The passengers moved to allow Harper the window seat. It was courtesy and respect for the wounded men.The soldiers were now somewhat subdued and restricted in their behaviour; the last thing they wanted was an officer in the carriage.
Harper watched the crowd through a grimy soot stained window, they moved ant like in their behaviour; stopping, starting, picking things up, moving a short distant then putting them down, looking about, unsure where to go or what to do.Some looked back down the platform as if hoping to get a look at a late loved one or get some sort of sign of what to do. It was like that now in London, it was as if someone had poked a stick in an ants nest, they were running everywhere, some confused, some wanting to escape, others wanting to attack.
After about ten minutes, a whistle blew and a voice shouted, “Close the doors and stand back please.”The whole train jerked then slowly began to move, more doors slammed as the train gathered speed, ‘late comers,’ Harper presumed.Jeers and hollering could be heard from friends of the latecomers who raced to catch the train.
Three soldiers were whispering, the Sergeant touched his lapels and nodded in the Captains direction. The two privates frowned; they had never seen badges and flashes of the kind the officer was wearing.Andrew, too tired to care about the attention, gazed out of the window lost in thought. It was hard not to notice the devastation, vast blocks of terraced houses lay flattened; smoke from distant fires blew across the tracks.Here and there, people were picking amongst the smouldering rubble for a treasured possession or a keepsake. Those who were in a shelter at the time of the bombing now stood where their homes had once been.Hidden beneath the pile of bricks and burning wood was everything they owned. For others there was the problem of finding their home. Standing on the edge of a huge hole, minds numb, they huddled together where they thought their house had been, trying to find comfort in the fact that they were alive.There were those who could not find house or street.They wandered the burning piles, searching for a sign, a part of a house, a fence, a lamp pole, a child’s toy, the incendiary bombs however had done their job and, as the fires continued to burn, rescue workers, firemen, policemen and volunteers searched the rubble for any sign of life.There were some miracles, babies found alive in their dead mothers arms, a man or a woman dug out from beneath a collapsed house. Sadly more commonly it was body parts and the dead that were found.
In all of the devastation and grief there were those who profited – the looters, although when caught they were sent to the front, the worst place the army could send you.
Railway stations were a target for the bombing; stop the trains and you stop supply of goods. The Londoners kept their humour throughout all of this. ‘Blast’, appeared on some damaged shop fronts, other signs read; ‘more open than usual’.People sported badges announcing, ‘I’ve got a bomb story too’.It wasn’t unusual for radio announcers, giving out the war news, to hesitate, interrupted by the blast of a bomb hitting BBC house, then to carry on as if nothing had happened. The cry from Londoners was, ‘We shall not break’, although it came close sometimes.
It wasn’t only the soldiers who had the nightmares, finding the broken corpses of young children and others caused the searchers many a bad dream.Aboard the train there were mutterings of dismay at the sight, some stood silent in the train corridors, tears brimming, lumps in their throats, others watched the passing horror, muttering oaths of revenge on the Germans at the sight of it all.
The train ran on, click clack, across tracks guided by some hidden signalman, Captain Harper pulled up the window as smoke and smut from the engine drifted past, he asked himself,’ ‘why am I really going to Shortbridge,’ he closed his eyes.Sleep was a godsend – until the nightmares kicked in. then he would toss and turn, sweating, and fighting the horrors of the past.He had lost count of the near death situations he had encountered, the brushes with death he had, each one taking its toll, fracturing his psyche, splaying his nerve ends like a frayed rope.
Unnamed stations came and went and the carriage slowly emptied.Andrew had noticed on his return to England that all street names, stations and anything signed giving a location or direction had been taken down to confuse the enemy within.It also confused fleeing travellers, who would be viewed with suspicion, when asking the whereabouts of a certain place.
Outside the countryside grew flatter, unlike the land Andrew had left behind in the Mediterranean, Greece had a rugged beauty. He would go back after the war and meet up with old friends, laze about drinking small cups of thick coffee and the local brew, ouzo.
“It’s a trap,” someone yelled as machine gun bullets raked the olive grove. Pieces of branches and ripped leaves jumped into the air. The enemy had opened fire too soon, if they had waited until the band of men emerged from the trees, there would have been carnage. It wasn’t like the Germans to be so careless.Fifteen Greeks and three British lay trapped in the grove as dirt was kicked in their faces from the relentless barrage of bullets.It was winter and although the weak sun was shining, it was cold. At night, it would go below freezing, so all of the men were wearing armless sheepskin jackets over jumpers and other odd bits of clothing.
Lying flat on the ground the men looked for shelter to escape the gunfire. The Germans were now finding their range and rounds of nine millimetre bullets were getting closer kicking up earth and showering them with debris.To the left of Harper a Greek voice cursed and groaned.The only cover was a small stone wall bordering the olive grove.“The wall, try for the wall,” a British voice called above the noise of the shooting. “Half stay and give covering fire, go, go.” Some rolled, others crouched and ran zig - zag between the trees. Others lay dying from their wounds. The British liaison officers, a name given to those who help fight with the free Greek Army against the Nazis and their allies the Italians.Captain Andrew Harper made it to the wall and flung himself over. He lay gathering his breath before returning fire. He heard the snick of a rifle bolt, then another, then another, he swung his weapon round and fired at the three grinning Germans; click, his gun was empty, the Nazis slowly raised their guns...
Someone was shaking him, “wake up, wake up,” the jolt of being woken up caused him pain.
“You were dreaming young man,’ said the elderly woman, her grey hair tied back in a bun that poked out from a small black straw hat.She was wearing a thick grey tweed jacket and skirt her white lace blouse was pinned at the throat with a cameo brooch.The Captain was in a cold sweat and breathing heavily.
“It’s all right,” she patted his hand, “you’re quite safe now.”
Andrew Harper looked confused and it was several seconds before he was aware of his surroundings. Raising himself from his slumped position, Andrew looked with embarrassment at the other five occupants of the carriage
Opposite sat a short man of about fifty-five or more, wearing an old blue-striped serge suit and a red tie, his thin greying hair was sleeked back and he wore wire-rimmed glasses.“You all right old son?” He asked kindly.
“Had a bad time of it ’eh mate?” He asked.
Beside the grey haired woman sat two soldiers, both corporals, who were getting off at Kings Lynn and going to a special training camp, the same one in which Harper had trained.