It was February half-term and I was totally fed up. My best friend, Annabel, had gone skiing with her parents to Germany and Carey, the boy I had a major crush on, had been seen holding hands with some random girl in a burger bar, or so Sarah had told me – she works there so I guess she would know.
The weather did not lighten my mood. The sky had been the colour of molten lead since school broke up, throwing down rain, hailstones, sleet and snow in varying mixtures.
‘Why can’t we go skiing?’ I shouted at my mother in a selfish moment as she stood washing up at the sink.
I felt immediately guilty as I saw her shoulders droop. She turned round.
“Sorry, Lacy,′ she said, sounding sad, “you know we can’t keep up with your friends. I’m just about keeping it together paying the bills and feeding us both.”
“Oh, why are we so poor!” I couldn’t help myself, the words just came out, before I ran up to my room and slammed the door.
Then I couldn’t stop the tears running down my cheeks as I felt sorry for myself and sorry for hurting Mum. I felt so alone. That was another thing I hated, being an only child. Sometimes I got so lonely that I would talk to myself, looking in the mirror. I’m told some only children like their own space, but I was completely the opposite. I loved my friends and saw them as my family. That’s why I was so upset now that Annabel had left me for a week to go on holiday. I thought her parents were a bit mean, not paying for me to go as well. I knew they could afford it. The only holidays we ever had were cheap £9.50 specials at caravan sites in the U.K. Sometimes I felt like they didn’t think I was good enough to be Annabel’s friend, and that was totally unfair.
Mum and Dad had never married but I still thought of him a lot. Nobody knew where my father had run off to. He was last heard of working on an oil rig abroad, but that was five years ago. Mum couldn’t even chase him for child support as he lived overseas. Some hero to look up to.
Sometimes in my dreams he was there, talking to me. Mum never spoke about him, and whenever I asked her questions. I could still see the hurt in her eyes. She hadn’t had a proper boyfriend since he left us. And sometimes, when she looked at me, I knew that I was growing more and more like him by the day. I was tall, fair haired with freckles and big boned while my Mum was short and slim, very pale and with long, dark hair that was beginning to turn grey. I had blue eyes whereas my Mum had one eye blue and one eye green, which was really cool.
In a few weeks’ time I was going to be 16, a young adult, but I wasn’t really looking forward to it. Mum had offered to pay for a few friends to go to Pizza House and then to the cinema with me, but I hadn’t even invited anyone yet. Most of my friends had been having big parties to celebrate, not to mention skiing holidays. And now, of course, I couldn’t invite Carey. I threw myself onto my bed and began to sob quietly.
After about half an hour my mother knocked gently on my door.
“Lacy, can I come in?”
I didn’t answer so she knocked again and then opened my door. I looked at her silently, knowing my mascara had bled down my face and I must have looked a real sight.
To my surprise I saw Mum was holding a small metal box as she walked towards me.
“Can I sit down?” she asked gently.
I nodded silently and she sat on the bed next to me.
“I don’t think I’ve ever shown you these,” she continued. “You asked, why are we so poor, and I got to thinking, ‘that’s a very good question’. I don’t know much about my family tree, it’s a bit of a mystery. And we’ve both got this week free.” She went on, “Why don’t we do a bit of investigating?”
I said a non-committal ‘okay’, but was secretly intrigued by the dull green metal box, which had a white cross and the words, ‘First Aid’ on the top. Mum laid it on the bed and carefully opened the lid.
Inside was an old magnifying glass, which she took out and placed on my duvet. I watched in fascination as she lifted out several small black and white photos which she carefully put down. Next came a lock of blonde curly hair, tied with a red ribbon. Finally, she pulled out a silver cross on a long chain.
“Wow!” I exclaimed as she took my hand and then carefully laid the cross on my palm. I never knew my Mum had any jewellery, so this was a real surprise.
“Whose was this, Mum?” I asked curiously.
“I think it was your Great Grandfather’s,” she explained, “Given to him by his wife before he went to war.”
“It’s really pretty,” I said, examining it more closely. I looked on the back and saw the silver hallmark, along with some tiny initials. “G-K-T-W,” I read out the letters inscribed on the long part of the cross, “And J-U, or maybe J-K-U, if you read it across-ways. Were they the initials of your Grandfather?”
“Well no, and that’s why I can’t be sure it was his,” Mum continued. “My Grandfather was called John Irwin, and his wife was called Catherine.”
“Well, there is a J and a K on it,” I remarked. “Maybe it was Katherine, with a ‘K’?”
“Yes, I suppose there is,” Mum agreed. “That’s something we can look for.”
“So why do you think his wife gave it to him before the war? Was this the first or second world war?” I had been studying history at school and found wars very boring, but this was holding my interest.
“The second.” She paused. “It’s a long story, do you want to hear it?”
“Even though it’s a bit sad?”
“Yes, go on, I’d like to know a bit more about our family. You’ve never really said anything before, except that your mother was deaf and that she died before I was born.”
“Mm, well sometimes you have to keep sad things from your children to protect them. But I think now you are nearly 16, you may be ready to hear it.”
I grabbed a tissue and wiped my eyes so that I looked all grown up and not like a cry-baby so that she would tell me. In reality my heart was thumping loudly and my eyes were like saucers.
“Yes, Mum.” I nodded my encouragement.
“Okay then, if you’re sure, I’ll tell you. In the second world war, my Grandparents and your Great-Grandparents, lived in a house in Elham.”
Elham was the posh part of Wadham, south London, the other side of town from our rented place.
“My Grandad was a volunteer in the Second World War and he was sent to France. But sadly, in 1944, he was killed.”
“Oh, that’s sad.” I felt a strange loss for my Great Grandfather, although I’d never heard him mentioned before today.
“Yes, it was,” Mum said. “Are you sure you want me to continue?”
“Yes, go on,” I replied, mentally preparing myself.
“Well his wife, Catherine, had a little girl called Margaret, who was my mother. They were both hiding under the stairs of their house in Elham when it was hit by a V2 rocket.”
“Oh, I know what they are,” I replied, thinking back to my history lessons. “They were unmanned rockets that Hitler sent over to blow us up.”
“That’s right,” replied my mother. “They thought it would destroy our resolve if our civilians and our cities were bombed.”
“So what happened?” I asked anxiously.
“Sorry to say that my grandmother, Catherine, was killed.”
“Oh!” I felt even sadder knowing that both my Grandparents had been killed. “But not Margaret, because she was your mother,” I said, sounding relieved.
“Yes, that’s right. They pulled her from the wreckage, along with this metal box. But my poor mother was completely deaf, as the bomb had gone off right over her head. She was very lucky to survive.”
“Poor little girl. And we wouldn’t be here today if she hadn’t.”
“Of course, so lucky for us, too.” Mum went quiet for a few moments.
“Well, go on,” I said impatiently, “tell me what happened next.”
“Okay.” Mum paused to gather her strength. “Since nobody, apparently, could be found to look after her, she was put into an Orphanage.”
“Oh no, poor Margaret.” Now this was beginning to sound like a terrible story like Oliver Twist, which I had read at school.
“And there she stayed until her sixteenth birthday, when they found her an apprentice machinist job in a factory. They gave her this metal box and told her it was brought into the hospital by one of her rescuers. She had never seen it before that. And then they told her the story about her parents having been killed in the war.”
“That’s terrible.” I turned my attention to the three black and white photographs on the bed. “So are these her parents?”
“Yes, or so she believed.”
Mum picked up the first photo and handed it to me. It was of a young woman smiling, standing outside the front door of a house.
“Yes, she does look like you!” I exclaimed, noting her dark hair and slim build.
Mum handed me the second photo. In it stood a young man in an army uniform.
“He’s very handsome,” I noted, and Mum smiled. “Yes, a good looking couple, even if I say so myself.”
We both laughed. The third photo was of the man and woman together. The woman was holding a little girl of around four years old.
“This must be Margaret. How sweet,” I noted.
We both studied the little girl with curly hair, and Mum picked up the small ringlet and kissed it.
“Was your mother blonde?” I asked, sounding surprised. “Yes, she was, actually,” Mum nodded.
I had only seen photos of Nan when she was older so it was hard to tell. I picked up the magnifying glass and studied the photo closely.
“Look!” I exclaimed excitedly, “Your grandfather is wearing the cross.” I passed the glass to her.
“Oh yes, I do believe you’re right!” Mum sounded surprised. “Well, I think we’re finding out more than my poor mother ever did, bless her. Although she always claimed that she could remember playing with her father’s chain when he was holding her, and that was her last memory of him.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” I replied. “So I would probably guess that the writing on the back of this cross was a message from Catherine to John, to let him know she was thinking of him.”
“I’ve always thought so,” Mum agreed. “This box was handed into the Orphanage by a nurse when the Council put Margaret into care.”
Then she reached into the bottom of the box and took out a brown envelope and pulled out a faded piece of paper.
“3 July 1944. By the powers invested in me by His Majesty’s Government under the Displaced Persons Act, I hereby commit Margaret Irwin, Orphan, into the care of St Theresa’s Orphanage, Reigate Avenue, Wadham, whereupon she is to be looked after in accordance with the said Act until she reaches the age of majority or, at the earliest, 16 years of age with due support and assistance, unless a relative should come forward at any time to claim her.”
And then it gives her date of birth as 6/9/1940 and address as ‘late of 125 Lavender Road, Elham’.”
“Poor Margaret.” I gave a shudder to think of my grandmother as a helpless little child.
“But the strange thing was, she was never able to track down her birth certificate.”
“No way! That’s really weird, why not?”
“Well, she tried looking everywhere for a birth certificate dated 6.9.1940 and with parents named John and Catherine Irwin, but she never found it.”
I tried to digest this information. It all sounded very odd.
“And the address of 125 Lavender Road was false.”
“What?” Now I was really shocked.
“I’ve been down there myself with her on several occasions. The houses stop at number 90.”
“Wow, so it’s as if poor little Margaret never really existed?”
“Except that we know that she did, and that she had two loving parents, and they had a house or lived somewhere in Wadham, or else the Council would never have put her into the care of the local Orphanage.”
I nodded, thinking that my Mum was actually quite clever to work this out.
“So what do you think, shall we spend this week doing a bit of family history research?”
“Oh yes!” I exclaimed. “This is much more interesting than watching it rain all week.”
“And seeing as you will be 16 in a few weeks, I’d like to give you this cross and chain as a present.”
“Oh thank you! Are you sure, Mum? It’s probably the only thing you’ve got from your family.”
“Well, it’s a family heirloom, I guess,” she replied, “so who better to give it to?”
I laughed and gave her a hug.
“Thanks, Mum. And sorry for being such a brat.” Mum hugged me back.
“Okay, well you might as well go to bed now as it’s getting late, and we’ll head to the library first thing tomorrow morning, deal?”
“Deal!” I exclaimed, before she went back downstairs and left me to my thoughts.
This had completely taken my mind off my own worries. I lay on my pillow and swung the necklace to and fro, puzzling over the initials on the reverse again. ‘John and Katherine United’ was the best that I could come up with. Hmm, that sounded good, I thought to myself, before I carefully put the cross under my pillow and lay my head on top of it as I drifted off to sleep.
Every night this week I had thought of nothing else but Annabel on the snow and Carey with a new girlfriend. I dismissed Carey from my mind and concentrated on Annabel. In my mind’s eye I was laughing with her, skiing down the slopes together and having fun. But when I did get to sleep, my dream would not let me join in with Annabel. Instead I saw a vivid picture of her sitting in a café, talking to a good looking young man. I kept trying to attract her attention, but it was as if she couldn’t see me or hear me. Then I noticed that he was holding her hands across the table. After that I don’t remember any more.