The Silver Cross

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Chapter Six

The next day dawned bright and clear, which was great considering we planned to spend most of it looking round a graveyard. As normal at the weekend, I stayed in bed until Mum left for work so that I didn’t get in her way, then I logged onto my computer and checked for any messages. There was some great news, Annabel was coming home on Tuesday, although she sounded a bit wistful about saying goodbye to André. I thought once more about the handsome stranger I’d met in the Library, and wondered if I’d ever see him again. Then I got washed and dressed and headed for the cemetery.

Karina showed up on time with a packed lunch and a bottle of water. I was really grateful because most people wouldn’t be too keen to look round a graveyard anyway, and she had seemed a bit spooked in the Library annex. She admitted it again:

“That basement was really creepy, didn’t you think?”

“I didn’t get any creepy vibes, but I did feel a sort of sadness down there.”

“So how are we going to find the ‘communal area’?” she asked.

“I don’t know but I’ll ask somebody.”

Surprisingly enough there were quite a few people around paying their respects and laying fresh flowers, as well as some Council gardeners making the place look tidy. I went over and spoke to one of them.

“Excuse me, do you know where people were buried here during the war?”

“No, sorry, I haven’t worked here long, I’ll ask Eric.” He called over an older man wearing overalls. “These young ladies would like to know where people were buried during the war.”

“Yes, the ‘communal area’,” I asked.

The older man looked like he understood.

“Ah, well it’s over in the far corner by that tree.” He indicated to the right-hand side. “But there’s nothing to see there, except that we always mow the grass in that spot.”

He gave me a kindly smile, as if thinking how awful for a young girl to be asking about a mass grave, so I thanked him and we headed off in that direction. I looked at some of the gravestones as we got closer to the area and the dates on them gradually went back in time until they reached the 1940s by the tree.

“Here it is,” I said to Karina, noting the cut grass. “Oh look, somebody has put a cross with a poppy on,” she replied, pointing to a small wooden cross in the ground.

We walked over and had a look at it, but there were no words. I also saw two small wreaths lying under the tree, one of which said, “To all the innocent victims of the War”, and another read, “To the unknown who lay in this spot”. I thought of my poor Great Grandmother laying there and all the other victims, especially poor little Joan Smith, buried under a false name. She was not just a victim of the war, but of Councillor Duncan. I wondered, for the first time, what became of him and whether he was still alive. Then I remembered my history project, and decided to take some photos of the wreaths.

“Lacy, I’ve been thinking about something,” Karina said. “Your Great Grandfather got awarded a Military Cross, so what happened to it?”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me.

“My god, do you think it was in the box, and Councillor Duncan took it?”

“No, I don’t.”

I looked at her in puzzlement.

“Well if you think about it, it said in the citation yesterday that he was awarded it for his actions at that place in France, Menton, in August?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Well, Lavender Road was already bombed and your Great Grandmother was dead, so she couldn’t have put it in the box.” I thought hard. “You’re right! Because the box was taken with Margaret to the hospital, and then to the Orphanage, so it couldn’t have been in there.”

“Maybe Barry would know?”

“Yes, that’s another question I can ask him.” I wrote it down in my notebook. “I want to go back to the Library again anyway, to read John’s Obituary.”

It was only 11 o’clock so I asked Karina if she would mind if I looked around a bit more at the other graves.

“We might be able to find some other victims of Lavender Road,” I said, “You know, like the Richards family.”

“That was terrible, a whole family killed like that.”

“It’s just so sad,” I agreed. “I think I’m going to go to France and visit John’s grave.”

“Oh!” Karina exclaimed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your cross, it just shone in my eyes.”

I laughed. “This is spooking you out more than me!”

I stopped in my tracks. Something on the gravestone we had just walked past rang a bell in my head. “God Keep Thee Well”. I went back to have another look.

“Look, Karina! ‘God Keep Thee Well, John Unwin’.”

“Aaaaaaghh!” Karina started screaming and running back to the cemetery gates. Then I started screaming and running too, although I wasn’t as scared as she was.

Outside the gates she was still a bit hysterical, although we started laughing as well.

“It shone in my eyes, it did! I swear to you! This is too weird for me, I can’t do this anymore.”

“Oh Karina,” I begged, “Please, I need you. You’ve helped me a lot already. You spotted the box in the photo, and now you’ve told me about the medal. I wouldn’t have even thought of that.”

Karina looked doubtful. “I don’t know, Lacy, I’ll have to think about it. But not today, no more today.”

We caught the bus back into town and Karina got off before me to go home, but I headed back to the Library. I knew it was open on a Saturday, and I wanted to look for more information. My mind was still buzzing from the fact that I’d found John’s grave. But it seemed like the more we found out, the more questions needed answering. And then I got to wondering about my cross, too, and how it was strange that Councillor Duncan hadn’t stolen it. I wracked my brains for an explanation, until I remembered that Mum said that the box had been handed into the Orphanage by a nurse. Maybe the nurse in the photo! I took out the picture of her and Margaret and looked at it again. She had a really kind face, and the little child seemed to like her, I thought. Then I wondered if the Nurse had perhaps had to cut off Margaret’s hair to put on the bandages, and it was she who had put the little ringlet in the box, tied in a red ribbon. And perhaps she hadn’t trusted Councillor Duncan and hidden the box, or maybe she had come into work one day and found Margaret gone, and then handed the box in to the Orphanage. We would never know for sure, but somehow it felt right.

It was strange going into the Library without Mum and asking to use the microfiche from somebody else on Reception, as Tom didn’t work on Saturdays. The new man was not as helpful or interested as Tom, either, so it took me a while to find what I was looking for.

“Sunday Times, 16 September 1944

’W.O. Kenneth John Unwin, date of birth 16th May 1915 date of death 8th September 1944. Kenneth John Unwin (known as John) was born and brought up in Elham, South London. He was a postman by trade before the war but joined the Royal Corps Signals in 1939 as a volunteer.

’He was posted to France in 1914 as part of a forward party sent to plot the movements of enemy troops around the Franco-Italian border town of Menton. John had been living with the French Resistance for six months and had perfected the language so that he could give transmissions in both French and English to advise on enemy movements.

’On the morning of 4th August, John had climbed up a mountain in the region to get a good viewpoint and spied a large brigade of German troops moving eastwards towards where the Allied camp was based. Unable to use his radio transmitter, he resorted to using the sun’s rays reflecting off his magnifying glass to give Morse code danger signals to base camp colleagues, who were able to prepare for the attack and ambush the German soldiers. Unfortunately this revealed his position to the enemy, who fired many rounds in his direction until he was shot and unable to continue signalling.

’Despite being severely wounded in his right leg he managed to climb down the mountain until meeting up with members of the French Resistance, who took him to a goat herd’s retreat and gave him basic first aid. At considerable risk to themselves, the Resistance managed to transport John via a farm truck back to his regiment, where he was eventually repatriated on 15th August 1944. Unfortunately, during his absence his home had been bombed during enemy action and his wife, Catherine, and only child, Margaret, killed. He was awarded a Military Cross for valour in the face of the enemy on 5 September 1944.

’John spent his final weeks in a retreat for wounded servicemen in Putney, south London, but was overtaken by a blood infection caused by shrapnel in his right leg, and died two weeks later. One of his colleagues, Sgt. Peter Shaw, said that he had never known such bravery in one person but that on finding his wife and child dead and his home destroyed, the fight went out of him.

John Unwin is survived by his parents and brother, William, who all emigrated to Canada in 1938.”

I was stunned on so many levels by what I had just read. I sat down in a quiet corner of the Library, read it through again and checked my dates. That explained why we had found John’s grave in the cemetery, as he had been brought home wounded. He had been awarded the Military Cross while he was still alive. And finally, he had believed that his wife and child were dead, and had died broken-hearted. Maybe if he had known his daughter was still alive, he would have had something to live for. Meanwhile, poor little Margaret had grown up in an Orphanage and never seen her parents again. It was all so heart wrenching, and I was glad that Mum wasn’t with me to read about it too. I would tell her one day, when she was ready. One thing I could tell her was that John had a brother called William, so had solved one mystery of the cross. But there was yet another mystery: how had my cross got into the metal box, if John was wearing it during the war and Catherine had died before he came back?

It was a bit more complicated to get a screen print from a microfiche so I resorted to writing it all down in my notepad, before heading back home.

Mum got home at six-thirty in the evening, very tired as usual.

“Hello, Lacy, what have you been up to today?” she asked. “Did you see Karina?”

“Oh yes,” I replied, omitting the visit to the cemetery. “Then I went to the Library again to look for the article in The Times. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Thanks, love.” Mum kicked off her shoes and hung up her jacket, before flopping down into the settee.

“So what did it say in the Obituary? Any more information?”

“Hang on. I made her tea and brought it in to her, making sure she was seated. I showed her a strategic page in my notebook. It said he was survived by his parents and his brother, William, who had emigrated to Canada in 1938.”

“Wow, that’s amazing! Some good news at last.” Mum took a sip of tea. “So we found that address in Canada in John’s citation.” She paused and rummaged for her notebook in her handbag. “George and Trudy Unwin, 150 Station Street, Vancouver, B.C.”

“But Mum, that was in 1944.”

“I know, but I’m still going to write a letter addressed to the Unwin family, and then whoever lives there now may be able to pass it on to somebody.”

I had my doubts. “Is there anything I can do on the internet, Mum?”

“Hmm, I’m not sure. I do know that people trace their genealogy on ‘forums’, but I don’t know the names of any websites.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “I’ll have a look.” I went upstairs to my bedroom and typed in the words, “Unwin Genealogy Forum” into my search engine, and it brought one up straight away. “I’ve found it,” I said to her.

Mum came upstairs and looked at the screen. “See here,” she pointed out, “people are just typing in messages asking for relatives of so-and-so to get in touch with them, or asking for information about them.”

“Okay, I’ll do the same,” I replied. So I typed in: “Seeking relatives of George, Trudy and William Unwin, last known address 150 Station Street, Vancouver, B.C. in 1944,” and gave my name and email address, and also said that I was a relative of John Unwin.

“I’ll have a bet with you,” Mum said, “We’ll see who gets a reply first.”

“Deal!” I replied, shaking her hand.

After she went back downstairs I added John’s Obituary to my history project. Then I started thinking about my magnifying glass, and for a moment I wondered if it had been the one John had used to send Morse code, but realised it couldn’t have been as it had been found in the box. Maybe he had practised with it, though.

It was quite exciting thinking that we possibly had some relations in Canada, and I wondered once again about whether we would be travelling there one day. And maybe then I could go skiing!

Less exciting and more worrying, however, I remembered what Karina had said about my cross flashing in the cemetery. Then I remembered my dream again, where John had been flashing a torch. I wondered if it had really happened, that he had gone back to his house to search through the ruins. But he couldn’t have lost his medal in the bombing, so where that could be was a bit of a mystery.

“Hmm”, I pondered, “perhaps he really is sending me signals, and he does want me to find it.”

I tried to block this thought out of my mind before I closed my eyes because I didn’t want to have any more weird dreams.

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