The Silver Cross

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Chapter Four

The next day was Thursday; only a few more days of freedom before I would be back at school and Mum had to return to work. I forced myself to get out of bed extra early, got washed, dressed and ready for my next plan of action, which I had already worked out in my head. Firstly, I needed Mum to telephone Germany this morning to see if Annabel was okay. Then I would have to persuade her to finally open the envelope and read what was inside so that I could take it over to Karina’s house. Then somehow I’d have to encourage Mum to go back to the library to get the other information on the microfiche. I could meet her in there later because I wanted to have a look at it, too.

I took Mum up some breakfast at 8 o’clock just to wake her up, when she smiled and said that it was a lovely treat and she really appreciated it, which was a relief. I was just getting ready to eat some cereal when the telephone rang. I leapt up to answer it before she could get there.

“Hello?” came a shaky voice, sounding very far away. “Can I speak to Lacy please?”

I recognised her voice instantly.

“Annabel!” I shouted, probably deafening her on top of everything else.

“Yes, it’s me.”

I think I made her laugh a bit. “How are you?”

“Well, I’ve got two broken ribs and a sore head but apart from that I’m okay.”

Mum was hovering by me. “Ask about her parents,” she hissed.

“How’s your Mum and Dad, are they okay?”

“Yes, they’re fine now, but Dad’s got a broken arm and they are both a bit shaken up. They only got hit by a little bit of the avalanche but I got caught quite badly.”

“So do you remember what happened?”

“No, not really. We were skiing down one of the off-piste slopes with André and one of the skiing instructors when he shouted at us to look out. We all tried to ski to get out of the way but I wasn’t fast enough.”

“Do you remember falling down the mountain?”

“No, I don’t remember that bit because I must have been knocked out and I probably hit a few rocks on the way down. Then I was buried in the snow.”

“No way!”

“But André and the ski instructor were trying to watch where I was falling and when it all stopped they skied down to look for me.”

“So how did they find you, did you shout for help?”

“No, I couldn’t move because the snow was too heavy, and I could hardly breathe.”

“Oh no, thank goodness they found you then.”

I heard some people in the background telling her that she had been on the ’phone long enough now and she needed to get some rest, and Annabel insisting that she finish the story.

“You’ll never guess what happened.”

“What?”

“Do you remember those red earmuffs that you brought me back from your holiday last year – you know, the ones that flash if you turn them on?”

“Of course. You didn’t actually wear them, did you?”

“Well I wanted to take something of yours skiing with me, and somehow they got knocked off my head and started flashing, and that’s how they knew where I was buried.”

“Wow! That’s amazing!”

“I know. So thanks, Lacy, I think you saved my life!”

Then I heard some German voices telling her that she needed to rest and the doctor wanted to examine her, and she said, “I’ve got to go now,” and the line went dead.

I was left speechless for a minute, and Mum said, “Is anything wrong?”

I said “No” but then I had to excuse myself and run up to my bedroom for ten minutes to have a good cry. I would have been beyond upset if Annabel had died, and it sounded as if she nearly had. At the same time I was happy inside because my little jokey earmuffs from my £9.50 caravan holiday had just saved my best friend’s life. It was like receiving really bad news and really good news at the same time, which was a lot to take in first thing in the morning.

When I eventually came back downstairs, Mum made me my favourite hot chocolate drink in a mug with some chocolate biscuits to dunk, and she fetched the envelope over to the table and said, “I can’t put it off any longer, here goes,” and opened it up.

Inside were photocopies of two newspaper articles, one dated 1944 and the other in 1949. The first article we looked at was dated 21 June, 1949 and showed a photograph of a man with a white beard, wearing a Fedora hat.

’CROOKED COUNCILLOR JAILED FOR 10 YEARS

’Former Councillor George Duncan was found guilty today of fraud, deception and impersonating a Council official at Woolwich Crown Court and has been jailed for ten years. In summing up, Justice Michael DeVere said:

‘You have abused your position of authority and trust throughout the war to take advantage of people at their most vulnerable, whether being homeless, bereaved, badly injured and in some cases all three, and, in so doing, have made their position all the more difficult and untenable. I have never heard such a litany of heinous acts which have resulted in compounding the misery suffered by your victims manyfold. You have not shown a shred of remorse, and you have refused to give full details of all the people you have so abused, the extent of which may never be fully known. I hereby sentence you to ten years’ detention.′

’An investigation commenced into the former highly respected Councillor after a certain Mr Roy Bishop returned to his home in Wadham Green after being released from a prisoner of war camp in Poland to find another family living in his property. The family claimed to have been living there since being made homeless in 1945 and had been allocated the property by the Council, paying rent every week to a Mr Dunstan, for which he duly signed receipt into a Council rent book.

’A trap was set the following Friday when Councillor (as was) Duncan arrived to collect the rent money from said property, and was promptly arrested and taken into custody. Since that date, nine more persons have contacted the Council to state that they also paid rent to a Mr Dunstan and, on being shown a photograph, recognised the said rent collector as being Councillor Duncan.

’One of his victims, a Mr Leadbetter of Lavender Road, said that he would rather make himself homeless than remain living in a property where the owner could still be alive or in a hospital bed somewhere, having been taken advantage of by Mr Duncan.

‘Mayor Johnston apologised on behalf of the Council and said that if any further victims came to light they would be duly compensated, but added that such events were very rare, which made the facts of this case even more distressing.’

“Wow! Mr Leadbetter of Lavender Road,” I said.

Mum and I both looked at each other in disbelief. “How are you doing?” I asked her, feeling concerned. Mum took another gulp from her cup of tea.

“All right so far, let’s plough on with the next one. You can read it for me though, love.”

"’South-East London Gazette, 5 June 1944

Many Dead and Injured in Two Day Bombardment

The War Office confirmed today that 18 people had been killed and 49 seriously injured, with many other casualties, as the result of a terrifying 48 hour bombing campaign in south London last weekend.

The area around Elham Munitions Factory was particularly badly hit, with the surrounding area subjected to a sustained attack. Eleven people were killed in Lavender Road alone and twelve houses destroyed by a series of bombs, with Elham Park bearing the brunt. Mayflower Avenue and Rosemary Road were also badly affected.

The list of the deceased were given as follows:

Lavender Road: seven women, three men and one child;

Mayflower Avenue: three women and one child;

Rosemary Road: one woman and two men.

Viewings and enquiries from relatives and other concerned persons before Friday 9th June at Wadham Library where a temporary morgue has been set up. Casualty victims have been taken to Wadham Town Hall hospital annex. An appeal for blood has been issued.’”

Mum and I both just looked at each other, as the shock of what we had just read sank in. Mum’s Grandmother, Catherine, had been killed in that bomb attack and her body taken to Wadham Library, probably very close to where we had been wandering around for the past few days. And Nan Margaret had been taken to Wadham Town Hall as a casualty, where that nasty Councillor Duncan had taken her away to St Theresa’s Orphanage and given her a false name and address, and probably a false date of birth.

“Poor Mr Leadbetter,” said Mum, which considering what we had just read about happening to her own family, was very generous, “finding out that he had been given a dead person’s house to live in without their permission, and then being kind enough to speak out about it. He must have known he was making his own family homeless.”

“He might have been living in your house, Mum, in Lavender Road.”

She sighed. “Lacy, I know we both think we have uncovered the mystery, but believing it and proving it are two different things. We could be completely mistaken.”

“That’s why you need to go back to the Library, to see what else Tom has got to show you. We need to find out your mother’s real name,” I replied.

I had realised this without Karina telling me. Without your real name and date of birth you couldn’t get a birth certificate, and without one of them you were stuck, with no rights at all.

Mum seemed to accept my argument and she smiled, saying, “Well, Lacy, I suppose your history project is not going to be very big if we don’t get any more information. I’ll go down there later this morning. Are you coming with me?”

“I did promise Karina that I’d go round her house first and show her your stuff. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, of course not, she’s been nearly as much involved in this as we are. I’ll meet you down there this afternoon.”

So on that note I went to Karina’s to update her on Annabel and her amazing lucky escape. Then I showed her the two newspaper cuttings.

“Ugh!” was her reaction when she read about the morgue in the Library. She showed the article to her Mum. “Why would people want to go to viewings of dead people?”

“They would go to claim their loved ones and bury them,” she replied.

“So what happened to those bodies if nobody claimed them?” Karina asked.

I hadn’t thought about that and it made me feel squeamish.

“Well, unfortunately, if nobody came forward and offered to pay for the burial then – well I don’t know for sure, but I believe – that if there were a lot of victims they would all be buried together in a mass grave.”

That thought really disturbed me and I didn’t really want to know the details, but Karina asked, “So where were the mass graves?”

“Pieces of open ground, probably, or the corner of a cemetery somewhere.”

“Gross. So nobody would know who these people were or anything?”

“Well, somebody may have made a note of them in the morgue: if someone was found in a house they may know the address, for example; but if they were just killed walking in the street then they could be anybody.”

I remembered something I had learnt at school.

“Didn’t everyone have to carry an identity card in the War?”

“That’s true, Lacy, I’d forgotten about that. So yes, maybe they did have an idea who most people were, but just didn’t have the money to give everybody a decent burial.”

This was one question I was definitely going to ask Mr Davies; where could my Great Grandparents be buried? I was quite anxious by now to get back to the Library and check my Mum was okay, for one thing, but also to see if we could find out anything else. So, after eating a couple of sandwiches and some cake, Karina and I got in the car and Sheila dropped me off at the Library.

“Give my regards to your Mum and do let me know how you get on,” she called out, as I said my goodbyes.

I was beginning to feel like we were living in a soap opera, with everybody tuning in to find out what happened next. But good job they didn’t come into the Library with me because once again the place was in uproar. I hurried in as I could see that Mum was surrounded by a group of people, and I could hear someone making distressed noises. This time it wasn’t down to my Mum but a young boy of maybe six or seven, gesticulating wildly. To my surprise, Mum knelt down beside him and starting moving her hands and arms around in front of him, until I finally realised that she was speaking to him in sign language!

“Of course!” I thought to myself, “She must know sign language if that’s the only way she could talk to Nan.” I wondered why I had never realised it before.

It seemed to calm the young boy down and then, a few minutes later, in walked one of the most gorgeous looking boys I’d ever seen. Honestly, he had beautiful curly dark hair and lightly tanned skin, with big brown eyes. He was nice and tall and fashionably dressed, in fact pretty near perfect. Then he started thanking my mother, and the little boy gave the other one a hug before both of them walked past me to go outside.

After that I saw the female librarian, Susan, that we saw the other day go over to my Mum and talk to her for what seemed like ages, and as I got nearer I could hear her thanking my mother very much and explaining that the little boy had lost his brother and no one knew how to ask him what his name was or where he lived, and she had really been most helpful. Then I heard her offer my Mum a job! They had a children’s storytelling class twice a week and they wanted somebody to tell the story using sign language for some of the deaf children who came along. I could see that Mum looked very pleased that she had been able to help, and I could have kissed the lady librarian because I could tell that it was just what Mum needed, as she had such a low opinion of herself. Then Susan gave Mum an application form and said to get it back to her by Friday.

“Oh hello, Lacy,” Mum said, with the biggest smile on her face.

The crowds gradually dispersed and I led her to some seats in the corner, where we both sat down.

“That was pretty amazing, I never knew you could do that!” I said to her.

Mum raised her eyebrows as if she was pleased to have surprised me.

“How did you get on this morning, did you find anything else out?”

“No, not really, Lacy. Tom, you know the Librarian—”

“Ooh, on first name terms now, then?”

“Well, we have got to know the staff here pretty well this week, and he’s been really helpful.”

I nearly said something, but kept quiet.

“Tom and I had a look at the 1911 Census records on microfiche, which is the latest date we’re allowed to look at, and we couldn’t find the Unwin’s living at number 25 then. But it was a bit of a longshot anyway, because that’s a long time before 1940, and my Grandparents may not even have been born then.”

“So who was living at number 25 then?”

“A Mr and Mrs Cannon and their five children, actually. And they were just renting it.”

I was a bit disappointed, but then 1911 was more than 100 years ago.

“Does Tom have any other ideas on how we can find out who was living there during the War?” I asked.

“Yes, he does. When he gets back from lunch he is going to show us the electoral registers.”

“Good stuff. And what was that lady saying to you about a job?”

Mum looked excited again.

“It sounds really interesting. They need somebody to start as soon as possible, two afternoons a week, to sign to children in the Library. The deadline for applications is tomorrow, and as yet nobody has applied for it.”

“Mum, can you teach me sign language?”

She laughed and there was a twinkle in her eye.

“He was rather cute,” she smiled, and I blushed because either I was being way too obvious or she could read my mind.

“So would you give up your job at the supermarket?”

Mum worked there five days a week, usually at weekends and three days during the week.

“No, I wouldn’t need to,” she continued, sounding very pleased, “It would fit in quite well with my shifts. And the money is very good, more than twice what the shop pay me per hour.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic, well done, Mum!” I was so pleased for her, and hoped this would help us out a bit. There was also another reason I was pleased. I had been thinking secretly about becoming a police detective after I left school, but for that I needed some more qualifications. But I also thought I should leave at 16 and get a job to help Mum with the bills. Maybe now I could stay on until I was 18.

A few minutes later Tom came downstairs carrying five large ledgers and handed them over to us.

“These are the originals so please be careful,” he said.

“We will,” Mum confirmed.

“It’s sometimes easier to read the original documents, and quicker too. You don’t want to spend all afternoon on the microfiche viewer.” He gave Mum a smile.

Mum thanked him and said, “And that way Lacy can look at a different book at the same time as me.”

The registers were quite heavy, so we found a spare couple of tables and laid them down. They were dated from 1939 to 1943, and were not completely in alphabetical order but laid out in ‘Wards’ or different electoral areas, which meant we had to look on each page just in case we missed something.

Mum found Lavender Road first in the 1939 book. “Here it is. Lacy, you need to find ‘Elham South Ward’.”

She looked down all the names and said, “No Irwin’s listed here, unfortunately.”

I read it myself just to make sure.

“Oh no, you’ll have to check all the addresses instead,” I said, and there were about twenty pages to look through.

Meanwhile, I also found Elham South Ward in the 1940 ledger and started looking for any address in Lavender Road.

“I think I’ve got something here,” she murmured, and I went over to have a look. “25 Lavender Road: Head of Household, Mr John Unwin, Wife, Catherine Unwin.”

“That’s them!” I shouted. I saw people looking over disapprovingly.

We checked back in the 1939 book and found the Unwin’s in there, too. Mum put a leaflet inside the right page and closed the ledger book, then started searching in the 1941 records, while I continued with 1940.

“I’ve got it!” I exclaimed, trying not to shout. “Head of Household, Mr J Unwin (enlisted), Wife Catherine Unwin. What do you think that means, Mum?”

“Enlisted means he was fighting in the war, but I’ll check that with Tom.”

“It doesn’t mention Margaret at all,” I queried.

“No, it’s only those people entitled to vote.”

“Oh, I see.” I did the same as Mum as put a leaflet in the right page, then started on 1942 while she looked at 1943. We found the same details in all the later books, with John Unwin being shown as ‘Enlisted’.

“At least we know he was still alive in 1943,” Mum noted, and wrote it down in a little notebook I hadn’t seen before.

We carried them back upstairs to the reference library, where Tom was still working behind the desk.

“Did you find anything?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” Mum replied, “We think now that they may have been called ‘Unwin’ instead of ‘Irwin’.” She paused. “I’m not really sure what to do next, though.”

“Well, now that you have the name ‘Unwin’, you can search on-line on the government website for a Margaret Unwin, and a marriage certificate for her parents. And you think that she was around four years old in 1944, so you can focus on the years 1939 to 1941, for example, for both the marriage and the birth certificates.”

“What does ‘Enlisted’ mean?” I asked.

“It means he was on active service, so not actually living at the address at the time. He was still eligible to vote, though.”

“Thank you so much,” Mum replied, “You’ve been very kind.”

Tom smiled at her and his face did look less stern and more interesting, I thought. “You know the other thing you asked me, about the library morgue?”

I looked at him, suddenly very interested.

“A lot of our paperwork was handed over to the Wadham Local History Society, and that would include details of the Library and the Town Hall during the war years. As you know, the Town Hall was used as a makeshift hospital ward for some of the time.”

“I see. Where can I find details out about the History Society?” she asked.

“They meet here every Friday night,” he continued. “The next meeting is tomorrow night at 6.00pm right here, in the basement.”

I looked at Mum. “Can we go, please?”

“I think we have to,” she replied. “We need to get as much information as we can.”

I noted that she wrote the time down in her new notebook.

“Would they have any details of where our family might be buried?” I asked.

He looked a bit startled by the question, but he answered, “It’s possible. They should definitely have details of those patients in the Town Hall. You need to ask to see the Library and Town Hall Archive Collection.”

I took out the photos from my school bag, where they had been all week.

“These are photos of Mum’s Grandparents. Shall I take these with us?”

He studied the picture of John carefully.

“Oh yes, that’s all useful information. They might be able to tell you what Corps he was enlisted in, by looking at his uniform. I’m no expert; I can tell he was in the Army, but they’ll be able to tell you even more by looking at his cap badge.”

I hadn’t even thought to investigate my Great Grandfather’s war records, but now we had a name for him, anything seemed possible. I was suddenly much more optimistic about uncovering the message on my cross. We thanked Tom, said goodbye and made our way back home on the bus. We were both really excited by what we had found out.

“So your Mum was really Margaret Unwin?” I asked her.

“I’m not saying that for sure, not until we find her birth certificate.”

“But you think it’s her, don’t you?”

“I do. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for Mum to explain what she was looking for, and how frustrated she was when she couldn’t find it?”

I thought back to the little boy earlier, and nodded. “I know. We can’t give up until we find it, for her sake.”

“I get paid tomorrow,” said Mum. “We can start looking on websites for birth certificates and army records then. I’m sure it all costs money.”

I was excited but it was also frustrating that we couldn’t look on there tonight, like we wanted to. It was no fun having no money all of the time. Maybe things were looking up though, with Mum getting a new job.

When we arrived back home, Mum spent most of the evening filling in her job application form, first in pencil and then in pen. I really, really wanted her to get the job, so I left her to concentrate downstairs and went on the computer in my bedroom.

Annabel had put a message up on her website to say that she was okay but wouldn’t be coming back to school next Monday as she was not well enough to travel home yet. I sent a message back wishing her well and telling her about the boy in the Library, hoping that I would see him again one day. Then I sent Karina a message to say that I thought we had found my Grandmother’s real name, and she replied that she and her Mum were very pleased for us. I decided that I should start writing things up in my history project folder before I forgot anything. I also wanted to do a bit more research. First, I looked up about different coloured eyes to see what it said about them. One site said that it was called ‘heterochromia iridis’ which was a medical condition where an individual had different-coloured eyes. This could also be genetic.

The second website said that it used to be thought of as a sign of a person with special powers who was magical in some way. Traditionally, people with different coloured eyes were literally assumed to be a witch or an evil spirit. Good thing people didn’t think that today, considering my family tree. I might even have children with different coloured eyes one day, I thought to myself.

Then I got out the photograph of my Great Grandfather and studied his uniform really carefully, using the magnifying glass. The cap badge looked like a man running and I thought I could read the words ‘certa cito’. When I looked this up on the internet it brought up a lot of information about the Royal Corps of Signals, and the translation meant ‘swift and sure’. They were often the first into battle and set up the communications and radio equipment to give out details about enemy movements, or sometimes to mislead the enemy with false information. That bit of it sounded very exciting, so I wrote it down in my project, and drew a picture of the cap badge. I was looking forward to visiting the local history society to see what else they could tell us.

That night, however, I had a really scary dream. I was back in Lavender Road but it was during the war, and all the houses had been bombed. I went inside number 25 and I was looking through the rubble, when I saw a light flashing. It got closer and closer and suddenly I saw my Great Grandfather, holding a torch! I knew it was him because he looked me straight in the face, and I noticed his different coloured eyes. Then he said to me,

“Have you found my cross?”

I was so scared that I woke myself up and spent the rest of the night with the light on. Then I got to thinking that maybe John Unwin didn’t like me wearing his cross and was looking for it, so I took it straight off and put it back inside the tin, along with the three photos, the lock of hair and the magnifying glass. That done, I managed to get a tiny bit of sleep before the morning.

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