The Silver Cross

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Chapter Five

The next morning Mum eyed me anxiously.

“Is everything all right, Lacy, I heard you moving around last night?”

“Yeah, fine, I just couldn’t get to sleep, that’s all.”

“I hope all this grisly stuff we keep finding out isn’t giving you nightmares?”

“No, Mum,” I lied to reassure her. “In fact, I was thinking about my project and working out what I could put into it.”

“That’s all right then,” Mum replied, “because we can always stop if you think it’s getting too much.”

I didn’t like this at all. “Guess what, I’ve worked out that your Grandad was in the Royal Corps Signals,” I said to divert her.

“Have you? Well done! I expect the people tonight can give us a bit more information about that.”

“If we can get his date of birth, we can look up his war records,” I said hopefully.

“Well, after breakfast how about we try to find my Mum’s birth certificate first, and maybe her parents’ marriage certificate? On the marriage certificate it should say how old they both were when they got married.”

“Okay Mum, that sounds like a good plan.”

After some porridge we both went up to my bedroom and I pulled up another chair and let Mum sign into the Government website for births, deaths and marriages. She put in a date range of January 1939 to December 1940, with the name ‘Margaret Unwin’, and about thirty names came up.

“We’re lucky she wasn’t called Smith,” she laughed. Then she did a more advanced search putting in Catherine and John as parents and only three names came up from London.

“Oh dear, none of these were born on 6 September 1940,” Mum noted.

I studied them carefully.

“No, but this one was born on 9 June 1940, the other way round! Instead of 6.9 it’s 9.6.”

Mum immediately ordered the birth certificate, which would take about a week to arrive.

The marriage certificate was a lot harder to find as we didn’t know the name of any of their parents and were not sure of a date. We narrowed it down to two possibilities in the end, both being in 1939, and Mum ordered them both.

“Well this is working out to be quite expensive,” she groaned.

“It’ll be worth it,” I said to her.

“Oh yes, we’re doing so well now that I don’t want to stop. I would have wanted to get my mother’s birth certificate, at least. Shall we try now to find out Grandad’s army records?”

“Err, okay,” I replied, but felt a little chill run down my spine as I remembered my dream.

Mum entered the website that Tom had given her for war records, and then tried the name ‘John Unwin’. Two hundred records could be found, but she was able to narrow it down to between 1939 to 1944, of which there were eight. Only one of these was enlisted in the Royal Corps Signals, so she clicked on it.

It read:

“Kenneth John Unwin (known as John), date of birth 16.5.1915, date of death 8.9.1944. Parents: George and Trudy Unwin, 150 Station Street, Vancouver, B.C.”

“Oh wow! That’s in Canada, isn’t it?” I asked.

“That’s right. Maybe that’s why nobody came to look after Mum after the bombing.”

I realised that she had been troubled by that. We continued to study the webpage. On the right hand side was a list of medals that John Unwin had been awarded, with the one on top reading ‘MC 1944’. Then Mum clicked on the hyperlink and it took us to another page which explained about the medal, which was for extreme gallantry in the face of the enemy, and there was a small picture of an MC medal which she clicked on to make it larger.

I looked at the picture and gasped. There on the screen was a large silver cross, with the words “Military Cross” underneath.

“Lacy! Is everything okay?”

“I’m not sure, Mum,” I replied anxiously, moving away from the screen and sitting down on my bed. And then I told her about my weird dream the night before and John saying, ”Have you found my cross?”

I confessed that I was now too scared to wear his cross and chain and had put everything back in the tin. Mum gave me a hug and was very quiet for a while.

“I’m pretty sure that Grandad would be thrilled to have you wear his cross, in fact I know he would. Let’s just imagine that he was sending you a message, he would have known that you had found his chain already so he must have meant his medal, the Military Cross.”

I felt a little bit better after she said that. Thinking about it, he had said, ”Have you found my cross?” but the silver cross necklace wasn’t actually lost.

“So can we order John’s birth certificate now that we know the names of his parents?” I asked.

“Might as well, while I’m at it.”

Mum looked again on the government website and typed up the name of John Unwin with parents’ names of George and Trudy. His name came up straight away, saying he was born in Elham on 16.5.1915, and she once again paid for a copy. Then Mum searched for some details on the Military Cross medal and said:

“We should print this page off and take it to the History Society tonight, because it looks pretty important,” and copied some more notes from the screen into her notebook. “We’ll take the newspaper cuttings and the tin with us, as well. Talking of which,” she continued, “let’s have another look at the cross I gave you.”

I got it out of the box and handed it to her.

“Hmm, across the middle are the initials ‘JKU’ if I remember rightly?”

“Of course!” I replied, “John Kenneth Unwin. At last we’ve found out what it means.”

“Nearly,” Mum agreed. “All we need to know now are what the initials ‘G-K-T-W’ mean and that’s the mystery solved.”

“I think it must be their initials, Mum,” I said excitedly. “Look, George, Kenneth, Trudy and a ‘W’, we don’t know who that is yet.”

She wrote the names down.

“Why are you writing everything down in your notebook now?” I asked.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet, but I just want to find out all the facts at the minute.”

“Don’t forget to hand in your job application, Mum.”

“No, I mustn’t. I think we should go to the Library this afternoon and hand it in just to make sure it gets there in time. Then we can spend the rest of the afternoon researching, and go straight on to the History Society in the evening. Does that sound okay with you?”

“Definitely! I’m sure there’s a lot more information inside the Library that we can find out.”

I could see that Mum was pretty anxious to get back there, so I pulled some rubber bands round the metal box and put it lengthways inside my sports bag so that I could carry it. Then I also put in an A4 notepad that I was using for my project, and Mum’s camera. It was getting on for 11 o’clock now anyway. It started pouring with rain as we left the house, but a little thing like that wasn’t going to stop us from catching the number 414 bus, destination Library. Then who knows, maybe a trip to Canada? These thoughts, and many more, were spinning in my head, not least the hope that Mum would get the Signing job and I could pop in after school to see her at work, and maybe bump into that good-looking boy again.

When we arrived Mum headed straight for the reception desk, where both Tom and the lady, Susan, were at work. She handed in her job application form to Susan and waited for Tom to become available. Then she took out the printout from the army medal website and showed it to him. Tom read it and whistled through his teeth.

“An MC!” he exclaimed. “John Unwin, MC. Well, I’m truly delighted for you.”

He looked too surprised to say anything else. Mum smiled at him.

“We’re still going to keep researching,” she said, “Remember what you advised yesterday? I’d be grateful if you could set me up on one of the computers and tell me which websites I need to look at.”

I was intrigued as I followed her to an empty computer desk.

“Pull up a chair, Lacy,” she told me.

I did as she said, wondering what she was up to now. Tom wrote down a couple of website addresses on Mum’s notepad, and she typed the first one in. This belonged to the Post Office, where she checked the postcode for 25 Lavender Road, Elham. Next she typed in the website for the Land Registry, and copied the postcode and address into there. She then had to use her debit card to pay some more money, before the answer came up, “Wadham Council” as the current owners.

“That’s it!” Mum exclaimed, before writing furiously into her notebook.

I still wasn’t sure what she was up to, but then she looked at all the records for 25 Lavender Road from when it was built and sure enough, in 1939 it was purchased by a Mr John Unwin from a Mr George Unwin. Then, in 1949, it was compulsorily purchased by Wadham Council. Mum jumped off her seat and more or less dragged Tom over to look at her screen.

“You were right!” she said to him. “Look! The Council must have taken over the property when they discovered that Councillor Duncan had been renting it out.”

Then I realised why my Mum had started writing everything down in her notebook. She was going to see whether we could get Nan’s house back! Now I really was as excited as her and had to go for a walk outside and ring Karina, because there was no way I could keep this all to myself. Then Karina actually started yelling down the ’phone, and I didn’t know how to think or feel any more.

“What’s going to happen next?” she asked eventually, when she had calmed down.

“I don’t know,” I said, my voice shaking, “she’s still in there talking to Tom.”

“Do you want me to come to the Library to be with you?”

“Oh, yes please,” I begged. “I’ve got so much to tell you; lots of other things have happened as well and I had the creepiest dream last night.”

“Right, I’ll get Mum to drop me off, see you soon.”

I waited outside for fifteen minutes until she got out of her Mum’s car and came running towards me, where she gave me a big bear hug. That was when I started to cry, but my tears were happy, excited ones. We went back inside to find my Mum talking with Tom and an older man. She stopped when she saw us heading towards her.

“Hello Karina, thanks for coming over again,” said Mum. “Lacy, this is Barry from the History Society, he’s offered to help us do some more research.”

“Yes, I’ve got a couple of hours free before the meeting starts, so I’ll take you to the Annex basement where we keep a lot of our records.” Barry pointed in the direction of the Fire Exit and we started to follow him.

Karina seemed a bit reluctant. “Isn’t that where they used to put the bodies?” she whispered to me.

“I’ll ask him in a minute,” I said.

Barry heard her and said, “Yes, that’s right. Actually we do have lists of the bodies that were brought here, that’s one of the things that I’ve got ready to show you.”

Mum frowned at me.

“I’m more interested in the Town Hall records,” she said to him, “and whether you have any details of the patients who were taken there?”

“Oh yes, I can get those for you as well. We’ve also got some old photographs.”

“I’d love some photos for my history project,” I said excitedly, “can I make some copies?”

“I don’t see why not.”

We walked down some stairs and through a rather creepy tunnel until we reached an old doorway, which Barry opened with a long metal key. The door creaked open to reveal a large, dark room lined with bookshelves, boxes and files of papers covered in dust. Dotted around were a few glass cabinets containing exhibits. I sneezed almost immediately.

Barry chuckled. “It doesn’t get cleaned very often, as you can see,” he told us.

“Upstairs is so modern,” I said, “I don’t understand.”

“The new annex was built over the top of this room,” he explained. “This was very well built so made good foundations. But you can only get to it from the main Library, not through the annex.”

Karina shivered. “It’s cold in here.”

“Yes, there’s always a bit of a chill down here, even with the heating on. That’s why it was chosen to be the Morgue.”

He indicated at us to sit round an old wooden table, then placed a cardboard archive box on it.

“Now, what dates exactly are we looking for?”

“Around 5 June, 1944,” Mum replied, “for Lavender Road.”

Barry looked through a foolscap notebook with very neat handwriting inside.

“Yes, here we are.”

He laid it on the table and pointed to the date of 3 June. There were two columns, one for men and the other for women. We all leaned over to try to read the names.

Mum read out, ’Lavender Road: Men; Frederick Brent, Peter Richards, Stanley Smith. Women….,’ she paused, ’Catherine Brent, Lucy Richards, Sally Richards, Victoria Sadler, Maureen Smith, Catherine Unwin, Margaret Unwin.’ Oh!” Mum put her head in her hands.

I put my arms round Mum’s shoulders. “It’s all right, Mum, we’ve found out for sure now what happened. They’ve put the wrong name down.”

“I think a cup of tea is in order,” said Barry, discreetly going over to a tiny kitchen area.

We all had cups of tea as it was either that or coffee, and while Mum sat and drank hers quietly, Barry showed us around the large room and some of the stuff that they kept down there, which was really quite interesting.

“Barry, can you tell me where the bodies were buried when they left here?” I asked, out of Mum’s earshot.

“I’ve actually got a list for that as well.” He paused. “Are you sure your Mum wants to know?”

“Probably not,” I said quietly, “but I do. I’d like to visit and put some flowers on the grave.”

“It’s all in that box,” he said, indicating to the one on the table.

I realised that we couldn’t look in there without Mum seeing everything.

“Your Mum wants to see the Town Hall list as well, doesn’t she? I’ll take her over that side of the room,” he said, conspiratorially.

He found another archive box and put it down on a bench in the far corner of the room, and called Mum over. Meanwhile, Karina and I delved into the box on the table. We found another book called, ”Release Authorisation“. Inside were lists of all the dead bodies taken to the Morgue and the date that they were either claimed or released for burial. In the final column it gave the details of the person who claimed the body, or else it said, ′released for burial, 9 June 1944, Elham Cemetery communal area’. I studied it carefully. The Richards family and Victoria Sadler had been claimed. But the list of people ‘released for burial’ read, ′Frederick Brent, Catherine Brent, Stanley Smith, Maureen Smith, Catherine Unwin, Margaret Unwin’. Karina and I looked at each other in horror. I saw that Mum was busy looking through some old photographs, so I casually called over,

“Barry, can I just ask you about something?”

He walked over slowly so as not to arouse suspicion and I showed him the two lists. Then he said, “I recognise that signature.”

We all looked at it.

“Councillor George Duncan?” I whispered.

He nodded.

“Have you found something?” Mum asked.

“I’m not sure,” I called back, “we’re just checking.”

Barry studied the first list again and then the second.

“It appears that he has substituted ‘Joan Smith’ for ‘Margaret Unwin’,” he said thoughtfully. “If it was anybody else I’d say they’d made a mistake.”

I nodded back. “Can I have a copy of these, please?”

“Yes, most definitely.” He took me over to a small photocopier, and I put the copies into my project folder.

Then it was Mum’s turn to call us all over.

“I might have found something here.” She was holding a large black and white photograph showing a nurse with her arm around a small child sitting up in bed, her head completely bandaged. “Do you think this could be Mum?”

I studied it carefully. It definitely looked like the same girl in our little photograph, but it was hard to tell without her curly hair. Then Karina spotted it.

“The box!” she said, pointing underneath the girl’s bed.

Sure enough, there lay a box with a first aid sign on the top of it.

“It must be her!” I yelled, and got the metal tin out of my rucksack to compare.

“Can I have a look please?” asked Barry, taking the photo and turning it over to study the back. ”Elham Gazette, 20 June 1944.”

He gave me pointed look, and I understood. Margaret Unwin was still alive on 20 June, so it couldn’t be her who had been sent for burial on 9 June.

“These are old photographs and they very rarely get looked at,” he said. “How about I give you the original?” and he handed it back to Mum.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed.

“While we’re down here,” he continued, “would you like to investigate your Grandfather’s war records?”

“Yes please,” said Mum.

I opened the metal tin, took out the photo of John Unwin and put in the one of Margaret.

He examined it closely.

“Oh yes, that’s definitely a ‘Jimmy’“. “Pardon?” Mum asked.

“The Royal Corps Signals, their cap badge is of Mercury, winged messenger of the gods. It’s based on a statue known as a ‘Jimmy’. He doesn’t appear to be wearing any medals in this photo, shall we have a look at his citation?”

“Yes please,” I replied, not really sure what a ‘citation’ was.

Barry headed towards the corner and I noticed for the first time a small computer that looked like it belonged in a museum.

“You can tell we prefer to receive our information in written form, but sometimes there’s no avoiding it.”

He switched it on and connected to a website we hadn’t seen before, clicking on a couple of links.

“Aha. I knew an MC would have a citation.” He printed it off onto a sheet of paper and handed it to Mum, who gave it to me to read.

"Kenneth John Unwin, enlisted 1 December 1939.

’On 4 August 1944, Warrant Officer John Unwin was on a scouting mission on the Franco-Italian border near Menton when he spotted a regiment of German soldiers heading towards an Allied base camp who had grouped in the mountains in readiness for invasion. His radio equipment being out of action he proceeded to give Morse code signals to his base camp using only his magnifying glass, which alerted them of the danger and allowed them to ambush the enemy, saving many Allied casualties. This was an act of extreme courage which drew attention to his position, for which he was shot and wounded in the leg. Some members of the French Resistance who he had been in hiding with rescued him, but he later died of his injuries."

I paused as I let this information sink in.

“Your Great Grandfather was a very brave man,” Barry said. “In fact, I think he was a volunteer because general conscription did not begin until the 1940s.”

I was silent for a moment, thinking. “One question I have, Barry, is that John’s wife was killed on 3 June, yet he didn’t come back to England then?”

“Well, it sounds from this citation that he had gone underground, living with the French Resistance. He most likely didn’t know about it.”

“If he died in France, where would he be buried?” asked Mum.

“You should contact the War Office, they may be able to tell you. There are quite a few battlefield tours to France every year; I’ve been on several.” He thought for a moment. “It might say more in his Obituary.”

“Where would we find that?”

“He won an MC, it would be in The Times,” he replied. “You’ll get a lot more information in there. Unfortunately that is all kept on microfiche so you’ll have to look in the Library, which I think is shut now.”

“What are in these glass cabinets?” I asked him.

“Some of us are amateur metal detectorists. All the valuable stuff goes to the Museum but we have a few things of historical interest that people have dug up or found, like old ration books, etc. that the Museum doesn’t want.”

I headed over to one of the cases and looked inside at some of the exhibits. A few other people started arriving for the History Society meeting, and Barry excused himself.

“I think we’ve had, yet again, too much excitement for one day,” said Mum, “and I think I need to go home now, I’ve got work in the morning.”

We thanked Barry for all his help and he gave me a wink, and said, “If there’s anything else you need to know, I’ll try to help.” Then he gave me a card saying, “Barry Green, President of Wadham Local History Society”, with his telephone number on it.

We then waited for Karina’s Mum, Sheila, who kindly took us home.

“Did you find anything else out today, Debra?” she asked.

“I’ve found a photo of my mother,” Mum replied.

Karina and I looked at each other. We’d found out a little bit more than that, but for now we would have to keep it to ourselves. Later that evening I sent Karina a message asking her what she was doing on Saturday, and when she replied, ‘nothing’, I asked her to meet me at Elham Cemetery gates at 10 o’clock, and luckily she agreed.

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