When Destiny Calls—Excerpt - first three Chapters
Victoria Australia, May 2020
I tapped gently on the half-open door of the old lady’s room before entering. Minnie lay, as usual, with a well-worn book open on her chest, her blue-veined hands gripping its cover. That book was seldom far away from her. Gentle snores emanated from her open mouth, no competition for the television that blared out the evening news, the announcer relating the day’s disasters and triumphs.
As if sensing that I stood there Minnie’s eyes shot open, and a smile worked its way across her time-wrinkled face. “Oh my, come in Chloe my dear,” she said as she tried unsuccessfully to push herself into a sitting position. “Must have nodded off. I was watching the news. Did you see our dear Queen doing her duty at the VE celebrations held yesterday? Seventy five years ago since victory in Europe—and it seems like yesterday.” With a small sigh, she waved a hand.
A staunch royalist, Minnie liked nothing better than talking to me about her early days in London, and how they all coped during World War Two—especially her adored Queen Elizabeth. By now, I could probably write a book about the war years and the hardships endured during what historians term The Blitz. “Off home dearie?”
“Soon. No hurry.” There was little for me to rush home to—my no-hoper of a boyfriend would likely be watching a football replay on the television or be on his laptop playing one of the noisy games that he and his mates relished. On the other hand, perhaps he would be looking at the porn he thought I didn’t know about. “Just wanted to ask if you would like me to fetch you in anything tomorrow.” I plumped her pillow and assisted her higher in her bed.
“You can get me a nice bar of chocolate if you wouldn’t mind dear, you know the one with caramel in the centre that I can suck and then chew with these dodgy old choppers of mine.” A cheeky wink accompanied that request, for we both knew that chocolate was out of bounds and not good for her health. Without answering I laughed and Minnie said, “Don’t suppose there’s a lot you can do with this dreaded virus thingummy bob still going its rounds.”
“That’s a fact.” I considered myself lucky as my job in the nursing home required I continue to work, unlike many unfortunate people who were marking time until the Covid-19 crisis ended. I had originally applied here for the vacancy of receptionist, but much preferred spending time with the old folk, so had taken the required path to becoming a fulltime carer. I waved the small device I held and asked, “Didn’t you have an appointment with your granddaughter, Jasmine—it is Sunday.”
“And so it is. I clean forget what day it is at times.” She laughed as if this was of no consequence—which it wasn’t when all was said and done. One day was much like another in this place, where many of the patients could not even remember their names, let alone what day of the week it was. Even though her hundredth birthday was just two years away, Minnie was one of the rare ones who could recall her early years as if they happened a day or two ago. “Are you sure you have time, dear? When I was your age I would have been off gallivanting, even though there was a war going on—not wasting time with an old duck like me.”
“Nonsense—I have plenty of time.” I switched on my tablet in readiness, and secured a connection to the home’s internet.
She closed the book that I knew was an album of photographs, and patted the coverlet at her side. “I guess Jasmine will not be going anywhere either. It’s just as bad over there in good old London town.” For a brief moment, she seemed pensive. “Mind you, I think she perhaps has a lot to contend with apart from the virus thingy, what with that useless bundle of tripe she has lumbered herself with.” That assessment was accompanied by a noise resembling a raspberry.
I made no comment, for hadn’t I lumbered myself with just such a useless bundle, as Minnie put it. Taking the album with its tattered cover, I placed it gently on the bedside table, close enough for her to reach, as it was never far from her side. “Move over then and I will connect you. It’s about the usual time, as she should be just getting out of bed.” I glanced at the clock on Minnie’s bedside table. It was one of those old-fashioned alarm clocks—she said it was a relic from her youth so it was likely older than her. “Ready?”
Minnie shuffled her bottom about and grinned. “Always ready—that’s me. Did I tell you they said that about me in my hey-day? And the same could be said for my best mate, Aggie Blackwater, your lovely old Gran. I miss the old devil so much.” Momentarily, her grin disappeared.
My Great Grandmother had been here in this home, her memories all gone well before she died last year. One of the reasons I chose this home was to be with my dear old Gran. Minnie gave me an insight into their years together before they immigrated to Australia with their respective husbands, scores of years ago.
“Yes you did, amongst other things.” Like most of the residents in the home who still possessed memories, Minnie spent a lot of time dwelling in the past. According to her, those hey-days as she put it were filled with fun and excitement, even while a war raged. I envied the fun and friendship they enjoyed at times in a period when social media was an unknown quantity and life so much simpler.
I handed her glasses to her and then sat beside her. It only took a moment or two before Jasmine appeared on the screen. Her beauty was the rare-seen kind. If you looked
closely, you could see that Minnie still possessed the same perfect bone structure beneath the wrinkles. Unfortunately, Jasmine did not make the most of that attribute and today looked world-weary and tired as she pushed her hair back and yawned. At twenty-six, she was just three years older than me, but looked more like a forty-year-old woman who had burnt the candle at both ends far too often. Of course, I kept these opinions to myself.
“Hello darling girl, how are you?” Minnie waved furiously at the screen where Jasmine sat on her bed, still wearing her nightgown covered by a cardigan that had seen better days. It astonished me that she never made the effort of getting up and combing her hair before coming online to speak to her Grandmother.
She gave another yawn before answering, and a man’s voice could be heard grumbling somewhere in the background. After her arrival in London last year, she no sooner landed than acquired a job in a bar, and unfortunately acquired this useless boyfriend along with it. How well I knew the story—why do us women get ourselves in such relationships where romance soon fizzles out like morning mist?
Sadly, Minnie’s daughter Betty had passed away two years ago. Apart from Jasmine, Betty had a son who would have been about thirty if he hadn’t wrapped his car around a tree after a drunken binge one wintry night. I surmised that was one of the reasons Minnie liked my company—she only had Jasmine now who was currently on the other side of the world.
After the customary hellos and queries on the weather had been dealt with, Jasmine suddenly said, “Hey guess what Nanna—I met a very old lady yesterday—probably slightly older than you. When it came up during our chat that I was Australian, and said that you live there, this woman suddenly said that she knew Australia well. However, that is not the funny part, Nan. The girl who was with her—a sister of someone I’d met at a friend’s house—she was the old lady’s great granddaughter—reckoned the old dear had always lived in London, and she wasn’t sure how her Nanna would know much about Australia.” As she let out a small laugh while wiggling a finger at her forehead Jasmine added, “I think the old girl has lost her marbles, Nan.”
Minnie ignored the rude gesture and remark. I noticed that her eyes were sparkling, as she asked, “What was her name Jas? Perhaps I met her in my youth. And where did she live, did this girl say?”
“Well I met them near your old stomping ground of Highbury that you were always talking about, but not sure if that’s where they live. The old lady’s name was Chloe.” Jasmine shrugged. “Seemed like an odd name for a really old woman. Most women around your age Nanna have tags like Elsie, Minnie, or Aggie like your old mate you were always talking about. Isn’t that the name of your friend there in the home?”
I poked my head into view beside Minnie’s and waved, saying, “That’s me.” Jasmine returned my wave.
“What was she doing out with this girl, did you ask?” Minnie now seemed deep in thought as if trying to retrieve a memory that had long faded.
“No, but I think they were shopping or something. The old lady was in a wheelchair.” The boyfriend called out something from the next room and Jasmine shrugged as she said, “Look, have to go Nanna, speak again next week—love you.” With that final word, she was gone.
Minnie flapped a hand and said on a huff, “Does it every time. What does she put up with it for?”
I had no answer for that, so asked, “Do you recall a woman named Chloe from your younger days, Minnie?”
“Pass my album, dear,” she said as she wriggled further up on her pillows. “I’ll see if anything in there reminds me. Mind you, the woman is probably losing her mind by the sound of it. Must admit it was strange, eh, to have the same name as you? As Jas said, it is an odd name for an old duck. ”
I switched off the tablet and placed it on the top of her television, and then passed the album to her. Its dog-eared cover testified to its many hours and years of use. I had noticed that a few pages were loose, so offered, “Let me take it home and see if I can fix it for you.”
“Thanks dear. Perhaps later.” She settled back and began to turn pages with extreme care. When she found what she was obviously looking for, she pointed to one photograph and said with a grin, “There’s me and Aggie your dear old Gran, Chloe. Oh the fun we had, Aggie and I. So sad she couldn’t remember our good old days in the years before she went up there.” A finger pointed to the ceiling. It seemed that she had forgotten about this other Chloe.
I sat on the bed and looked down at the faded sepia photo. “You were a good looking pair, Minnie, no wonder all the boys in Highbury were chasing you.” I pointed to a man who stood just behind my Gran, and asked, “Who’s the good-looking hunk there? Is he one of the boys who was after you?” The hunk in question must have been about six feet tall and as far as I could tell, had a good body on him and a thick mop of dark hair brushed back from a very handsome face.
Minnie rearranged her spectacles on her nose and peered closer. “Oh, that’s good old Bill—William McGrace—all the girls hoped he would choose them, but he always said Aggie and me were his best mates and more like sisters to him, so we had no chance. We were a bit younger than him anyway.” A huge sigh accompanied this statement. “I told you didn’t I that we all lived nearby in the same street—good old Merriweather Street. Bill’s family lived at number eighteen, and Aggie and her family at nineteen across the road from us. We were at number twelve. I guess Bill was right as we all went to the same primary school, although he was about six years older, so moved on to high school long before we left primary. He always had time for us girls and played tracking and cricket with us up against the big wall at the end of our street, and then later we all went to the local dances together. My brothers Tom and Maurie came along too, until the boys went off to war.”
For a moment she seemed pensive, before saying, “Bill had a nasty fall when he was about fifteen, but that didn’t stop him from dancing. The ambulance was called at the time and they carted him off to hospital. Lord knows what they did to him for he always had a bit of a limp after that.” Minnie thought about that for a while before adding, “Kept him out of the war later on, but didn’t stop the girls chasing him though.”
Pointing to a black dog that I had just noticed sitting in front of this Bill, I asked, “Who owned the dog, was it yours?”
Minnie laughed. “Old Tiger? Well at first he belonged to all of us. He turned up one day when he was little more than a pup, looking bedraggled and so skinny he probably had never been fed properly in his young life. We reckoned someone had dumped him overnight, as one foggy morning not long before this picture was taken, Bill found him just behind the low wall in front of their house. We all claimed we wanted him but Tiger, as we named him, followed Bill like a slave from then on.”
Minnie went off into one of her personal journeys into the past, so I stood. “I’ll be off now. See you tomorrow.” She waved and as I was about to turn she pulled at my hand.
“Chloe, dear,” she said low. “In case I am not around when you come back, I want to thank you for all your kindness.”
I sat on the bed again and pulled her into my arms. “Now you just stop that. You will be around to see your centenary at least—I have no doubt about it.” I brushed her silver hair back and noticed her eyes had moisture in the corners.
“Just saying—at my age who knows what tomorrow may bring.” She gave me a gentle nudge. “Go on home with you to that man of yours. I hope he deserves you.”
I had no answer for that so just picked up my tablet from the top of the television and went to the door. When I turned, her eyes were already closed, but I blew a kiss her way anyway—just in case.
I glanced at my watch to see it was nearly six thirty. Not that I was worried. I had long since stopped thinking about rushing home to Grant. Where other men were fretting over losing their jobs during the pandemic sweeping the world, I swear he was happy as a lark sitting there at home with his feet up on the coffee table. His lack of initiative was what set me to thinking seriously about ditching him.
The apartment that I had bought with my hard-earned money plus some my dear Gran left me was situated in a small complex of six units not far from the beach, and I loved it. When Grant moved in with me a year ago, he had a full time job. I should have
had my suspicions about his laziness when he began to talk about throwing the job in soon after that, after moaning continually about the long hours. I talked him out of it but he seemed to begrudge that. In hindsight, that was when I should have told him it would not work for us.
It was a short drive home, and when I parked my car in the carport beneath the building, I sat for a moment contemplating my life. I guess I had loved Grant when I met him—or why else would I have invited him to move in with me? Thinking back on that time, I now realise he had begun to give sly hints—and before I knew it, I blurted out the invitation. Of course, he jumped at it and before the week ended was ensconced in my home. I sighed—guess it served me right for being so gullible.
My parents both died in a car crash when I was just ten and I went to live with Gran, who did her best to give me a good life. I often wished I had a sister to confide in—but my closest relatives now were distant cousins from Dad’s side of the family. My memories of my father are rather blurred, for he didn’t seem to be around a lot when I was small—I was told he was a travelling salesman. Mum only had one brother, who moved to New Zealand years ago and we lost touch with him.
Sighing I climbed from my car, and used the lift to the second floor. My next-door neighbour, a kindly man in his fifties, shared the lift with me and asked after my day. As expected Grant was asleep in front of the television, his bare feet propped lopsidedly on the table in front of him as soft snores came from his mouth. What on this earth had he done all day to make him so weary? I was at a loss to fathom this.
After changing into casual pants and top for comfort I went into the small kitchenette. A box with two slices of cold pizza in it lay open on the bench. Three used cups sat on the draining board beside the sink and two plates with the remains of meals were in the sink. My temper rose. What sort of slovenly person does not wash their used dishes up after them? It wasn’t as if his day was so high-powered he couldn’t find the time. Worse, the flat had a dishwasher built into the kitchen cabinets. I preferred to wash up by hand, and he likely never even thought to pop his used dishes in the machine.
“Hi darl, you home?” he called from the other room before he came and stood behind me. When he put his arms around me, I shook him off.
“Can’t you just once clean up your mess from the day?” I snapped as I turned and pushed him away from me. “The last thing I need after working all day is to come home to a place that looks like it has been inhabited by a herd of rampant pigs.” I gestured to the dirty dishes in the sink. “Would it be too much to ask you to clean up after yourself?”
Rubbing his hand over his unkempt hair, he grinned lopsidedly. “Sorry my sweet,” he said, but there was no hint of apology in his words—they actually sounded sarcastic to my ears. “I left you some pizza,” he added, as if that was an apology in itself. “Just needs zapping to warm it up.”
Pushing past him, I went into the lounge room. When he followed me, I turned to face him, hands on my hips. “I can’t live like this Grant. I want you out. You can go find yourself another slob to live with. You have plenty of mates you love to spend time with—go get one of them to take you in. You can then live as you like—in your own mess.” I gestured towards the door.
With an exaggerated sigh he said, “For God’s sake, Chloe, you are always going on about the mess. It’s just a few plates and mugs, not some huge misdemeanour. I’ll wash them now if it bothers you so much.” Saying that he stomped into the kitchen and turned the tap on. As he began to clatter the dishes, I stood by the door.
“It does bother me, Grant, but what bothers me the most is that it does not seem to bother you. All I have ever asked is that you clean up your mess after you. After all, what else have you got to do all day while I am working?”
With a mug in his raised hand, he turned to face me, and for the first time ever I had a feeling that he would like to toss the mug my way. One thing in his favour—he was not the violent type—or hadn’t been to now. “I can’t move out while this virus is still going round anyway.” That he muttered much like a six year old would grumble after being reprimanded for not tidying his toys. Exasperated, it occurred to me that he had not even considered offering to make a small change to his daily routine to suit my small and reasonable request.
My phone rang then and I pulled it from my pocket. It showed the call was from one of the night nurses at the care home, so I walked back into the other room to answer it.
“Sorry to bother you Chloe, but I know how fond you are of Minnie. Poor old dear has had a bad turn. I called the doctor immediately and he thinks she will not survive the night. One of the last things she said before falling into unconsciousness was to tell you she loves you like her own granddaughter.”
“Oh my God, Rene, I’ll come over now.” I replaced the phone in my pocket and went back to the kitchen door. Grant was still slamming crockery into cupboards. “I have to go back to the home—one of the ladies is asking for me,” I said.
When he turned around, his face bore an expression such as I had never seen before. “Go on back to the old biddies, you spend more time with them than me, anyway,” he barked. “I’ll give one of my mates a call while you are gone and see if he will take me in tonight.” He tossed the cloth he was holding across the room and pushed past me.
“You do that, Grant.” I quickly went to the hall cupboard and slipped into my favourite running shoes, then dragged on my waterproof parka, for when I came home earlier it had just started to rain. At the front door, I turned and called over my shoulder. “Let me know where you will be and I’ll send your stuff over.”
His answer to that was a grunted obscene word that he knew I hated. By the time I parked outside the nursing home, the rain was slanting down in torrents. I slammed the car door and ran inside and straight to Minnie’s room. She lay almost the same as when I had called in earlier, with her beloved album clutched to her chest. Rene sat at her bedside and as I walked across to the bed, she stood. “She’s gone, Chloe. I hoped she could hold on until you got here as she seemed intent on seeing you.”
I sat on the chair at the opposite side of the bed and stroked Minnie’s hands. “She looks peaceful. Did the doctor say that she didn’t suffer?” As well used as I was to people breathing their last while here in the home, losing my dearest friend was heart wrenching, equal to the pain I suffered when my Gran passed away. I wiped at my damp cheeks where tears mingled with the rain that dripped from my hair.
“Yes, a lovely end for a dear old lady, Chloe. Oh, she did whisper that you must have her precious book—in fact was quite adamant. She would not let me take it and insisted it stayed with her until you arrived to take it.”
“Her memories—that book was worth more than riches to her, Rene.” Gently I prised it from Minnie’s hands. “Has someone called or emailed her granddaughter in England?” I asked, as I turned the first page and looked at the picture of Minnie and her best friend Aggie—my Nanna.
After Rene left the room to ensure Jasmine was notified, I sat for a while quietly talking to Minnie. When she returned with another nurse she said, “I doubt if she had much more of any consequence Chloe, and I am pretty sure that her granddaughter will not want any of her possessions, except perhaps photographs.” She glanced about the room. “Do you know if she had anything of importance?”
I held the book up, saying, “This is all she worried about. I’ll leave you to it now.” I rose and bent to kiss Minnie’s cold cheek before walking to the door where I turned and said, “I would like to keep her old alarm clock too if that is all right.”
Rene handed the relic to me and patted me on the shoulder. “I’m sure she would love you to have it. Go home and have a rest, Chloe.”
The rain had eased and I felt little desire to go home, so instead of climbing into the car, walked across the road to the small park. Before she became bedridden, I often took Minnie there when the weather was fine. How she loved to sit and watch the birds and sometimes we spotted a possum in a tree. “Never even saw a squirrel back home in London,” she would say, delighting in such a trifle.
My phone announced a text from Grant wondering when I would be home. I deleted it—wasn’t that just like him, to completely forget that I told him to clear out. It showed that it was nearly ten o clock. Ignoring the drizzle, I sat on a bench and pondered my next move. I doubted my flat would be empty when I got back there. It was likely Grant would think my threats were a joke and he wouldn’t even bother calling his mates—thinking I would get over my angry outburst and simply carry on as normal. Well this time he was
in for a shock. Or perhaps the so-called friends he contacted didn’t want him at their place either.
I poked the album beneath my parka to keep it dry and looked down at the old alarm clock. What an end to a well-lived life when all you had was a book full of memories and a clock whose alarm hadn’t worked for years. Better the good memories than all the wealth in the world. So many people only held memories of a sad life. My dearest memory of Minnie would always be her warm smile and ability to take whatever life threw her way.
Hearing voices behind me, I glanced over a shoulder. Two men stood together whispering—one wearing a beanie the other a hood. I could not make out their words but it sounded very much like an argument. It was hard to tell if they were young or old as the dark rain clouds obscured the moon. Considering that it was probably time I headed home, I stood. As I did so, they moved towards me and I could just make out that the one wearing the beanie held something that looked very much like a knife. My sense of self-preservation kicked in and I began to walk as fast as I could in the direction of my parked car.
They followed me and the hooded one grabbed me by the arm. Nodding towards the car park, he asked, “That your car, missus?” The lights blinked on, and I cursed my stupidity for pressing the unlock key. I had hoped to reach my car before they caught up with me. I shook him off but he did not loosen his grip so I lifted the hand holding the clock and made a swipe at his head. The clock grazed across his temple and his laugh echoed through the trees as he snarled, “That all you got?”
My first thought was to scream, but common sense told me that nobody would hear me, for the streets were deserted. Even the lights outside the nursing home were now dimmed. The night staff would not be leaving until morning. My legs began to shake so much I feared I would topple, when his mate who had been standing back suddenly lunged at me, grabbing the hood of my parka. I knew then I was in real trouble, as I had no way of fending off the two of them so I went limp, praying they just had robbery in mind. “Give us your car keys and your phone missus and you can go,” the one behind me said.
Fumbling about in my pocket, I pulled out my keys and tossed them a few feet away, praying that they would release me to go after them, but the one who had approached me first suddenly gave me a hearty push so that I toppled sideways. Something wet and hard hit my head, and then everything went black. I had the sensation of falling, falling into a bottomless void.
The grass beneath me was very wet, and I lay staring up through the branches of a nearby tree, as the thought crossed my mind that it was very dark. I could have sworn there were a few lights on in the park, and I recalled that I was on the way to the car park when I fell—or was pushed. In fact, my car was in sight just across the road, and hadn’t I pressed the unlock button?
I heard what sounded like the drone of a far off plane—or perhaps it was the police helicopter doing its usual sweep over the city. I rubbed my hand over my forehead, shocked when I realised it was sticky with blood. Wanting to see what was wrong, I scrabbled about in my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t there. Panic set in then. My attackers must have stolen it along with my car.
Confused and sore, I pushed myself into a sitting position when a dog appeared in front of me. His wet nose touched my chin and then he swiped his tongue over my face. “Hello boy,” I said, sounding croaky, “Where did you spring from?” I had not seen many dogs in this park before, and certainly none without an owner at the end of their leash. I looked around and frowned. Surely, I had been sitting on a bench—it couldn’t have disappeared while I fainted, or whatever I did before landing on the grass. Then I recalled that I was heading for my car when I saw that one of the thugs held a knife and was about to hit me—or had he pushed me? Perhaps the dog had been with them and I hadn’t noticed. I stared into the darkness, which was beginning to give me the shivers.
“Hey, Tiger come away boy. What have you found there?” The man’s voice did not sound menacing in any way. I could not see his face for he pointed a torch at mine. I put my hand up to shield my eyes but all I could see was his shape, and he looked very large from where I sat. “Sorry, miss, he is always too friendly. Are you all right? What the hell
are you doing sitting there, you must be soaked through, and why aren’t you down the shelter, didn’t you hear the siren?”
What in heavens’ name was he talking about? Stupidly the first words that came to mind were, “You’re not an Aussie.” That much was clear by his accent that I recognised as probably English—maybe from London.
His laugh was pleasant as he asked, “What on this earth is ossie? I come from these parts. Where are you from? And I repeat, why aren’t you down a shelter?”
“Just what is this shelter you keep rambling on about?” I struggled to rise and he offered me a helping hand. Oddly, I did not feel intimidated by him, even though he certainly was well built. Once on my feet, I moved away from him, and remembering I had tossed my car keys down, I began to search around with a foot.
“What are you looking for?” he asked as he moved the torch around in a circle. When the shaft of light picked up the alarm clock lying a few inches away, he stooped and retrieved it asking, “This what you’re after?”
I shook my head, which still hurt as a pain sliced through it. “No, I was looking for my car keys. My car is parked just over there in the car park in front of the nursing home.” I pointed in what I thought was the buildings’ general direction, and took Minnie’s old clock from him.
Then I felt the album beneath my parka and sighed with relief. At least the thugs hadn’t taken that. “I was attacked you see by these two young thieves and I tossed my keys down in the hope they would just run off. Looks like they have probably stolen my car.” Tears began to stream down my cheeks, whether from delayed shock or losing my precious little car I had no idea. “And my phone’s gone,” I added with a soft hiccup.
“Look miss.” He sighed as he looked over a shoulder. “I think you had best come home with me. Seems you’ve had a bit of a shock. There are no buildings over there. This is the park and there are just trees at this side. Yonder is the kids’ playground. The houses are on the other side of the road, and you can’t see them in this bit of a fog. And you certainly won’t see any cars parked there—nobody in these parts can afford one of them.
There is a phone box at the other end of our street, near the corner shop. Perhaps you were heading there, eh? What do you say, come along with me, and Mum will get you a nice cup of tea. I have to go and I can’t just leave you here.” He bent to stroke the dog saying, “Good boy Tiger.”
A memory came back and I recalled hearing of a dog called by that name, but for the life of me couldn’t think who had owned him. “Is that your dog?” I asked, now beginning to wonder if he thought I was a maniac. I was having a few thoughts of my own about my sanity because this all seemed very weird, as if I had stepped over some invisible threshold. I was certain I should be able to see my car from here or at least the front of the nursing home—I hadn’t walked very far before sitting on the bench. And just where had that gone? Could I have wandered in a kind of coma? All I could remember was something hitting my head.
“Certainly is. He found you, thank goodness, or I might have passed you by in the dark.” He ruffled the dog’s shaggy black head. “The last thing I expect to find in the Fields at this time of night is a lone young woman. I don’t usually come this far over on my rounds—so it was pure luck Tige found you. Just why were you in this spot so late at night anyway? And as I said before, when you should be down the shelter.”
I shook my painful head. I was beginning to think that I was not the only one who was a bit concussed. At least I could blame the thugs for my behaviour. I wondered what his excuse was. The drone above grew louder and sounded very much like more than one plane. “What time is it anyway?” I asked, squinting down at my wrist, only then realising my watch was gone. “Those ratbags took my watch too,” I spluttered.
He ignored that, and flashing his torchlight onto his own wrist, said, “Just about midnight. Coming?” He began to walk away. I then worried that he would leave me here alone and the thugs might return, so I followed him. The dog Tiger walked at my side, looking up at me as if he had appointed himself my guardian.
Just what was happening here? What he said about no nursing home or cars had not been a lie. When I entered the park earlier it took me just a moment to reach the bench where the thugs approached me, and from memory the park was only tiny with just a few
flowerbeds, one or two trees, and a dozen or so shrubs. I had been here so many times with Minnie I almost knew how many paces it took to walk across it.
When he said field and not paddock it proved him to be English and not an Aussie. That answered one question—the thugs must have dumped me in a paddock—but where? The closest farms to the nursing home were a few miles inland. And if that were so, then why was Minnie’s old clock still lying beside me? I could’t imagine the thugs bothering to take that along too—but they must have done. Or perhaps I had been holding it—I did make a swipe at one of them, I recalled that much.
I shivered. The cold seemed to seep into my bones. How long had I lain there in the rain? I clutched Minnie’s album to my breast. Right now, it seemed the only normal thing in this crazy scenario. Feeling as if I should say something to break the silence, I blurted, “I just had a thought. Perhaps they put me in my car and then decided to dump me here near a farm before they took off. Is it your property?”
All I heard from him was a soft noise that sounded like a cough or could have been a huff of disbelief. I stumbled and he caught my arm to stop me falling. It was still too dark to see his features well, and his peaked cap was pulled down low on his forehead. I had a fleeting feeling that I might be dreaming and he was a figment of my imagination. “My name is Chloe, by the way,” I said. “What’s your tag?”
Turning around, I caught a grin and wondered if he was laughing at me. “You don’t talk like anyone around here, miss. Where do you hail from, and I am Bill, by the way. You already know Tiger there.” He carried on walking.
We seemed to be getting no nearer to a homestead, so I asked, “As a matter of curiosity, where are you leading me? Oh, I’m Australian—obviously,” I tacked on as if it needed explanation. He was the outsider here, not me.
“Australia eh? I’ve heard a thing or two about that place. Lots of sunshine and beaches, so they say, and they grow stuff like sugarcane and bananas. Knew a bloke who went there a while back, said he heard you could go for miles out in the bush without meeting a soul.”
I stopped dead. No doubt about it, he was a loony. “Look mate, I’ll be off now,” I said, about to turn and run. Then it hit me, I had no idea where I could run to. Obviously, he did not intend to attack me, or he would have done so when he first found me on the ground.
“Sorry, can’t let you do that. It’s my duty to ensure you get to a safe place.” He pulled the cap off, rubbed at his mop of hair and replaced it. “Don’t you know any of the rules, miss?”
I had a thought then and spluttered, “Oh you are one of the coronavirus police, but surely I haven’t broken any laws. I wasn’t cavorting with a group, and anyway, I thought we were allowed to go out in small groups.”
With a shake of the head, he turned, saying over a shoulder, “Come on, let’s get you out of this rain as soon as possible.” I had just noticed it was getting quite heavy again, so pulled my hood up—a tad late as my hair was already sopping wet and sticking to my cheeks. What else could I do but follow him? When he halted, Tiger stopped and looked up at me as if to let me know I should do the same. We were at a road—a deserted road. “Not far now,” this man called Bill said.
“This isn’t a farm,” I spluttered, and the words were barely out before an explosion, so loud it almost deafened me, lit up the night sky. It didn’t seem to be that far away and I tried to think if a power station or similar was nearby.
As flames leapt into the sky, he said, “Come on, we need to run.” Catching me by the elbow, he dragged me across a wide street. The fire was so bright I caught sight of a road sign on the wall of the first house, and it read, Merriweather Street N5. I tripped and would have fallen flat on my face if his arms hadn’t gone around me. Then everything went black again.
There was an awful smell and I recognised it as kerosene. My Nanna had one of those ancient lamps that she insisted on keeping, and as a child, I recall grumbling about the horrible pong it gave out when she lit it one day to amuse me. “This is all we had in the old days,” she explained. “Good old kero was one of the best forms of light.”
I could also smell what reeked of damp earth mingled with cigarette smoke. Opening my eyes warily, I feared what I would see. Perhaps I was back in my Nanna’s old shed where she kept a lot of memorabilia. That thought fled as fast as it came, for I remember clearing everything out of that shed before she moved to the nursing home.
As I struggled to sit up, a woman’s voice said, “She was just lying on the grass, you say, Bill?” Her accent was similar to that of my rescuer.
My rescuer said, “That’s right, Mum, and she keeps on about Australia, and her car and said she was attacked by two young blokes. She was looking for a phone box I think, and going on about being on a farm—she thought the Fields was a farm. She certainly isn’t from around here, in fact doesn’t appear to know the area at all.”
Another woman said, “I learned a bit about Australia once from some bloke I met in the pub. Most of it is desert except for around the coast where they grow most of their crops. He said they produce lots of tropical fruit like mangoes and there are places were sugar cane fields stretch for miles.” This one came to lean over me and I could see she was about my age. Smiling, she touched my arm, saying soothingly, “You’re all right, love, you are with friends. Good job our Bill and Tiger found you or you might have got pneumonia lying around in the wet. I’m Bill’s sister, Queenie.”
“Where am I?” I asked shakily. “I guess I passed out again. This is all a bit of a shock you see. I can’t quite work out what has happened to me.” I put my feet to the floor. It was a small space and I was on a rough bench along one side. There was barely room for this Queenie to stand without hitting her head. The smelly kerosene lamp stood on a small shelf built into one wall. It seemed I was in some kind of shed. Minnie’s alarm clock sat beside the lamp.
“Didn’t you hear the bomb drop? It was only a couple of streets away,” the older woman that he called Mum said. She sat on a bench along the other side of this shed we were in. A thick overcoat covered what appeared to be a flannelette nightgown. Bomb! I gaped at her as I shook my head. Right, it was fact—a group of insane people now surrounded me.
“Look Mum I have to go,” my rescuer said, and my insides did a turn over. “I suppose Dad has already gone to help with the fires. Look after her will you and I’ll be back when I can.” I wanted to drag him back when he climbed up the step to what must be the door, with Tiger close on his heels.
As the curtain that acted as a cover dropped back after them his mother called out, “Take care, son.” She looked across at me and offered, “Like a cuppa, love? Then we can sort out where you live and where your family are.”
I nodded—my mouth had gone as dry as the Sandy Desert. I bit on my bottom lip, feeling like Alice must have done when she fell down the rabbit hole. The sting of my lip assured me that I was still alive.
Queenie handed me a small blanket as she said, “You better take that wet old jacket off love. Here, put this around your shoulders or you might catch a chill.” Then she rummaged around on a small shelf at the end of the shed and gave me a towel, saying, “And your hair is dripping, best dry it.” Glancing down at my runners, she added, “Good job you put sensible shoes on, I’ve not seen the like before. They look sturdy, where d’you buy them?”
What could I say to that? I bought them in the local shopping centre when they had a sale on. Despite the reduction, they were still pricey. It was a wonder the thugs did not steal them along with my phone and car. Taking the towel, I said, “Thank you. I could really do with a shower right now.”
They both laughed as the older woman said, “Is that why you were lying around in the rain, love? I would say you have had enough of showers for one night. Like the rain do you?”
“Not particularly,” I said as I eyed her. Shrugging out of my wet anorak, I placed Minnie’s album on the bench beside me as I pulled my arms from the sleeves. As I wrapped the blanket around me and began to rub at my hair, I heard a gasp from Queenie. She had leant across and turned the page of the album to the first sheet where I knew there was a photo of young Minnie and Aggie my Nanna, and also the man Minnie had
called Bill, as well as his dog named Tiger. Dropping the towel, I felt so faint I thought I would collapse again.
On seeing Bill’s face, the truth I had tried to deny, began to sink in. This cannot be real—people only travel back in time in books or movies. Could be, I had spent far too much time reminiscing with Minnie, and the bash on my head must have caused some sort of breakdown. If that were the case, why did these people all seem so real—even Tiger the dog was solid and hairy.
“You know Minnie and Aggie, and our Bill?” Queenie asked as she sat and stared at me. “Is that what this is all about? How did you come by Minnie’s photos?” Even in the dim light, there was no mistaking the confusion on her face.
She handed the album to her mother who then began to flick through the pages. “No Queenie, this isn’t Min’s,” she said. “I saw the photos she took on her new Brownie camera only the other day—and anyway who are all these people on the other pages? They certainly don’t look like anyone we know. Just these few at the front are what she took, but those toward the back are all in pretty colours. I’ve not seen the like before.” They both stared at me now.
I reached across and took the album from her hands. How could I explain this to them? I had trouble explaining it to myself. “I…I found it,” I stammered. “I guess someone dropped it. That’s why I put it beneath my jacket—to stop it getting any wetter. Perhaps you can tell me where this Minnie lives.” It was a feeble explanation, and it was clear they thought so too. They exchanged a look that said I was a nut case or untrustworthy. Even I was beginning to consider it too odd to contemplate that I was right now close to a Minnie who was still a young girl.
“Let’s get you that cuppa,” the older one said, ignoring my question as she picked up a thermos flask and a small mug. “Milk or sugar?” she asked. I could tell they were now perhaps a bit scared of me rather than inquisitive, and who could blame them. It would certainly have been better if I’d kept the album hidden.
“Just one sugar please and a dash of milk if you can spare it.” I pulled the blanket tighter as I was beginning to shiver. It was not so cold in this odd structure, which I had
come to recognise as the shelter Bill went on about, so I guessed it must be shock making me tremble. The leisure pants I donned in my flat what seemed like eons ago were wet and clammy.
I noticed that Queenie had been eyeing them when she passed me the blanket and now she asked, “Were you on your way to the shelter when the two blokes attacked you? Is that why you have your pyjamas on?”
I nibbled my lip again. Time to start lying, as the truth would have them sending for the ambulance to cart me away to the nearest asylum. I glanced down at my legs, and said, “I suppose that’s what happened. To tell you the truth I have no recollection of where I was or what I was doing there when your brother found me. I do recall I had a nasty whack on the head.”
“That would account for it dear. Everyone calls me Elsie by the way.” She handed the mug to me, adding, “Drink it while it’s warm.”
As I sipped on the tepid weak tea, I glanced about, recognising this odd shed as one of the Anderson shelters Minnie told me about. And the explosion earlier was no doubt a bomb dropping. “What date is it?” I blurted without thinking. They would suspect me again of being mad as a hatter.
“It’s the twenty-first of September.” Queenie rubbed at her eyes. “I think we are all going to be blasted to hell before this bloody war is over. I’m so sick of it—bombs dropping night after night. Our Herbie is over there somewhere.” With a jerk of the hand, she indicated towards nothing in particular. “He was one of the first to line up to go and fight—silly bugger. He’s been over there since last year when this all started.”
I guessed she meant her brother and I wondered why Bill was not away fighting. I had noticed a limp in his step as I followed him across the park. “Is your other brother not in the forces?” I asked, praying he was not. He had become like an anchor to me—connecting me to sanity of sorts.
“Bill had an accident when he was a kid,” Elsie said as she shook her head. “He was a little bugger, always larking about. Jock his dad, and me, well we always told him he
would come a ‘cropper one day, and then he did. Was one of the worst days of our life. Almost fifteen, he was on the way home from school, about to start his first job, when he went off with his mates and fell off a high wall. I heard later the boys were daring each other to climb it—as boys do.” She heaved a huge sigh. “Never mind, he became a good mechanic—he fixes up the buses and does a lot of work on army vehicles and boats, so that’s his contribution to the war. I’m glad he can’t go away to serve. Always wanted to be in the navy, he did, and look how many of our boys have died at sea. Bad enough we have one son away fighting.”
I was afraid to ask. I had worked out that it must be nineteen forty for I remember Minnie saying that the large-scale attacks started in July that year. What brought me to this period was not something I could fathom. Would I ever return to my life in twenty-twenty? What did Grant do after I walked out of the flat and his life—was it just last evening? Perhaps I would return just as swiftly as I arrived. Would it take another bump on the head to send me back there? Or could I disappear in a puff of smoke as if I never existed.
A sudden memory popped into my head—Jasmine mentioned an elderly woman named Chloe who said she knew all about Australia. No! It couldn’t be. Pressing my fingers to my throbbing head, I closed my eyes and tried to collect my thoughts together—an impossible task.
While we were talking, the drone of planes continued, but I realised that in the last few minutes it had gone quiet. We sat staring at nothing as I finished my drink and passed the empty mug to Elsie with a thank you.
“We might as well try to get some rest,” Queenie said as she looked around. Passing me a pillow, she pulled a face. “Sorry, Chloe, but we don’t have a lot of room in here. Dad said he wished he had made it bigger. But how were we to know this bloody war would go on this long?” With a shrug, she pointed to a slightly wider bench beneath where the shelter sloped down at the back. “Perhaps you would be more comfortable back there. Mum and me will try and doss down here.”
“Isn’t it safe to go back to the house?” I asked and then wished I hadn’t, for they passed a look back and forth, wondering about me again.
“Best to stay till morning. You never know when they will start up again,” Queenie said.
“Oh yes, sorry,” I mumbled. The mattress across the back that she indicated was indeed wider than the benches but as I settled down on it I realised it was no more comfortable, in fact felt so lumpy I thought it might possibly be filled with old rags or newspaper. How did these people cope with this night after night?
As soon as I set my head on the pillow, the drone of planes started again. “Bloody Jerrys,” Queenie muttered as she wrapped a blanket around herself and lay down on the narrow bench, a cushion beneath her head. I recalled Minnie explaining to me one day how the British soldiers had nicknamed their enemy Jerry after the helmet they wore. It was called a jeroboam, which resembled—or so they thought—a chamber pot.
“Let’s hope it’s our boys chasing them off,” her mother agreed, as she did the same and lay on the other side bench.
Not long after that, the drone of planes heralded another explosion, louder than the earlier one we heard. “Christ, that sounded too close for comfort,” Queenie said. “I hope Dad and Bill are all right.” The anxiety in that soft plea made me shiver.
“Do they go out every night?” I asked.
“Since this bombing started, they have,” Elsie said. “You do know about the air raid wardens’ job don’t you?”
I didn’t answer that. Minnie once told me that her Dad was a warden and one of his jobs was to check that every house showed no lights, but she never went as far as telling me they helped in far more dangerous activities.
“Dad and Bill usually help out when there has been a hit,” Queenie said. “I just had a thought, you are wearing your identity bracelet, aren’t you Chloe?”
What to say to that? I really had no idea what it meant, so said, “I guess I lost it in the scuffle with those thugs.”
“We’ll have to see about getting you another,” Elsie said before she yawned.
They went quiet and soon Elsie’s soft snores and snuffles said she was sleeping. With no thought of sleep, I stared up at the ceiling, wondering how much protection this would give if a bomb hit right beside it—or worse—on top of it. The ceiling appeared to be made of packed earth, which to me didn’t make it much of a shelter against bombs when compared to the bomb shelters some people built in the twentieth century.
Perhaps I was sent to this time simply to die—or perhaps I was dead and this was a half way house to where I would end up. That thought brought me to the man who rescued me. Was he out there fighting the fires wrought by the bombs? What would I do if he didn’t return? Already I felt as if I was in limbo. My world had tipped upside down, not only had I landed in another time, but on the opposite side of the world. Wasn’t that why Australia had earned the title of being the land ‘down under’? At this moment in time, my homeland seemed like an unreachable haven.
“Heavens, Chloe, I don’t know what we will do,” Elsie said on a sigh as we sat at the kitchen table. Well, I guess the room we sat in was their kitchen, but the space was so small you could probably not swing a cat in it without hitting its head on the walls. There was barely room for five chairs around the table. A butler sink in the corner near the window had a contraption above it that I found, when I went to wash my hands, spouted hot water. I wondered where the cabinets containing the usual kitchen requirements could be, for they certainly couldn’t fit into this small space.
On leaving the shelter around daybreak, we trudged sleepily across a patch of grass to the back door of what I saw in the dimness was a double storied terrace house. A neighbour called out to them, cursing volubly about the past night raid. The toilet, which they called the lav, was outside this back door. I learnt then that Minnie’s mention of the lack of toilet tissue during this period was no lie, as with utter disgust I made use of a square of newspaper. About that moment, my wishes of getting a shower at any time soon, dissipated.
Elsie’s dilemma, which was in fact mine, was that I did not possess a ration book. I had no idea how to explain this, but Queenie came to the rescue when she surmised that the thugs who bashed me probably made off with it and my identity bracelet, saying, “They can probably make a few bob out of selling them. This sort of thing is going on all over according to the latest news broadcast. I guess some people are desperate and will go to any lengths.”
“We’ll have to see about getting a replacement.” Elsie rubbed at her forehead. I was obviously becoming a huge headache for them. No identity bracelet and no ration book! I was an unsolvable disaster. “And you still have no memory of where you live?”
As she asked this, a door opened and after a minute or two closed. Elsie jumped up and hurried out to what I presumed was the front of the house facing the street that Bill carried me along last night. “You all right, Jock?” I heard her ask. I did not catch his mumbled response.
Tiger came into the room followed by Bill, and the room seemed to shrink even more. As Tiger gave my hand a lick, Bill asked, as he looked at me, “How you faring? Any memories come back?” He looked weary, with black smears of what I guessed was soot on his face. Even with that, he was certainly a handsome man. His cap had been discarded and hair as dark as night flopped across his brow. He placed two bottles of milk on the draining board beside the sink and sat across from me.
Before I could answer, Elsie came back, followed by a man I presumed was her husband. “She needs a new identity bracelet Bill, and we have to get her a replacement ration book,” Elsie claimed. “This is Jock, my old man.” She gestured to him. His dishevelled hair and sooty face mirrored his son’s. It was obvious where his son’s big build and good looks came from.
When he said, “Hello lass, rough night eh?” I caught a Scottish lilt. A cook at the nursing home had a similar accent.
“I’m sorry to be such a nuisance,” I said. “Perhaps I should just head off and see if I can find my way home.”
“Nonsense,” Bill said with a shake of the head. “If you can’t remember where you live, then how can we let you just wander off?” His knees touched mine beneath the table as he took a mug from his mother. “Do you remember your surname? We can go to the authorities and they’ll have your information.”
My insides turned over. I had no desire to lie to these people who were so kind, but how could I possibly tell them the truth? “It’s Simpson—I think.” I shrugged as I rubbed at my aching head. “Afraid other than that I can’t remember a blessed thing.”
Jock stood by the door. “I need to get some kip. We will sort out your problems, lass. You are welcome to stay here as long as you like—I’m off for a few hours lie down. Wake me when the food’s on board, Elsie love.” With a small laugh, he left us.
“I’m off to have a wash and get dressed,” Queenie said and thoughts of a bathroom went through my head, until she bent to get a tin jug from out of the cupboard beneath the sink and filled it with water from the heater.
“I’ll do the same.” Elsie also filled a jug. Before she followed her daughter out, she patted my hand and said, “Queenie will find you some clothes to wear, Chloe. You’re about the same size as her. You can have a wash here in the scullery.” She nodded towards the sink. “I’ve put a couple of bob in the meter so we should have enough hot water to last for a bit. There’s a clean towel up there.” She nodded to a rail high on one wall, then turning to her son asked, “Do you have to go to work later, Bill, or do you have time for a lie down?”
“Wally will pick me up about twoish, Mum. We have a couple of jobs at Chatham Dockyards, working on the dog boats. I’ll have time for a bit of shut-eye.”
“There’s some porridge left there in the saucepan, just warm a bit of milk. Perhaps Chloe would like some too.” She gave his shoulder a pat before going out.
He looked down at the mug she had filled for him, and then said, “Now we are alone, Chloe, perhaps you can tell me what really happened last night. I’m presuming that’s your real name, is it?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, and shook my head. “Yes, that’s about the only thing I can remember.”
Reaching across, he ran a finger over what I now knew was a bump on my forehead, and said, “That’s a bit of a bruise you have there, but it’s my belief that it isn’t severe enough to have caused such a lapse in memory.” Staring hard at me from eyes of chocolate brown he added, “I was crossing the Fields for some time before Tiger here came across you, and I never saw hide nor hair of anyone fitting the description of the
two men you said attacked you. In fact all we passed was one drunken old tramp who spends his life wandering around the area talking to the moon.”
“It’s true,” I stammered. “It’s the gospel truth—they took my phone and my car keys.”
“So why were you carrying a phone about in the middle of the night? You aren’t confusing that with your alarm clock are you?” He glanced over at the clock sitting on a small shelf beside the tea caddy and another couple of jars. “And, the only folk around here who have cars are either cops or gangsters.” Peering at me intently, he demanded, “Are you a government spy?”
That was so preposterous I almost burst out laughing, but quickly decided that would not help matters. Perhaps that was what I could say I was, a spy passing information over to the other side. What did they call it in the TV shows—a mole? Then common sense took over, that would mean more lies. I had not one whit of knowledge of how spies operated, except what I picked up from the James Bond movies and I felt certain they were miles away from the truth.
I stared down at the pattern of apple blossoms on the oilcloth covering the table, while he took a few sips from his mug. He leaned over and touched the album that I had kept close since coming into the house. “And Mum and Queenie told me you have photos of Aggie and Minnie—and I am even in there somewhere, along with old Tiger here.” As he glanced at the album beneath one of my hands, he patted his dog, whose snout rested on his knee. “Can I take a look?”
I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. Everything was getting out of hand. I considered two options. Wait until I was alone and flee—or, and I doubted this would work, tell him the absolute truth. But where would I go? I had no idea just where we were, only a memory of Minnie saying they lived in Highbury North London. And without a map that would be not be much use to me. Reluctantly I pushed the album across the table saying low, “I found it.”
As he turned to the first page of photographs, a deep frown marred his features. He flipped through a few more pages and then closed it, before passing it back to me. “We had those pictures taken on August Bank Holiday last year, before this bombing all
started,” he said, leaning closer. “As for the rest, I recognise the girls in a few of them but as far as the others go, who the hell are they, and just where did you happen to find the book? As far as I know Minnie kept all the photos in her bag—said she wanted to show them off to the girls in the factory where she works. She thought they were too precious to leave at home in case a bomb dropped on the house. Said she wanted to make sure she had them for posterity.”
Well, she succeeded with that wish. A shiver of apprehension ran through me. I nibbled on my thumbnail, afraid to meet his eyes. Why hadn’t I just ditched the blasted album? “If I told you the truth you would think me completely mad.” Another thought was creeping in to muddle things even more. Now that I was in this time, had I completely vanished from the future—and if so, how did I end up with the album? I rubbed by head where the bump now throbbed with pain.
“Try me,” he said. When I said nothing he stood and stretched his arms above his head. “Look. I have to get some shut-eye before I fall over. What if we leave it for now and you can work out what you would like to tell me. I just need to say this—my family mean the world to me, Chloe, and I do not want them hurt in any way. If your intention is to harm them, then I suggest you go find somewhere else to settle or another family to swindle.”
I felt unaccountably hurt at that, but who could blame him for being suspicious? Queenie came in then saving me from an answer. “I hope this frock fits you Chloe. And there’s a bra and panties of mine and an underslip. I don’t suppose you had your undies on under your pyjamas, did you?” She set the dress down on the back of one of the chairs. “Come on Billy boy, let’s leave Chloe to wash and dress in peace.” She gave him a small shove and after giving me a look I couldn’t decipher, he let her push him out through the door.
Alone, I sat with my head in my hands. What phenomenon had sent me here? And how was I ever going to account for myself? Penniless and without any way to prove my identity I now knew what refugees must feel like. Going over to the sink, I filled a small bowl with hot water. After washing myself haphazardly, I donned the undies and frock of Queenie’s and rinsed my bra and panties through.
Another problem—how did I explain them? My panties were lace trimmed and the bra had underwire, both a pretty shade of lilac. I like nice lingerie, and always went back to the same shop and was certain the like could not be purchased in nineteen forty. The undies Queenie gave me were the type worn by elderly women back in twenty-twenty. Plain and comfortable was the only thing they had going for them. Oh God. Once wearing the simple cotton dress with its Peter Pan collar and short puff sleeves, I sat again, staring out of the window. As the sun began to peep through the clouds, I prayed for another bump on the head to send me back home.
* * *
“This here is our good neighbour, Minnie, who lives three doors up at number twelve, and the other beauty is Aggie who lives just over the road.” I stood as Elsie introduced them. They were indeed lovely. I felt disoriented as I said hello to them—rather as if I had entered a film set.
The girls had come into the front room of the house, heralding their arrival with a call of “Anyone home?”
Queenie and I had been sitting on the sofa talking idly about how I was not to worry, as Bill would see about getting me the appropriate identification and ration books. She touched her nose as she made this claim, leaving me to presume he knew someone who knew someone. Not a lot different to modern times when almost anything could be arranged satisfactorily if you knew the right people to ask. As today was Sunday, she didn’t have to go to work at the munitions factory which she said was just a walk away.
“I’ll pop the kettle on for a cup of tea,” Elsie said before going out of the room. Apart from the sofa, there were two matching easy chairs, all looking well worn but comfortable, and a couple of small side tables. A fire was set in the grate, and on each side of the fireplace, floor to ceiling cupboards were where I presumed they kept the crockery and other essentials, as there was little room for it in the scullery. As we came in here earlier, Queenie explained that her parents slept in the room at the back of the house behind this
living room, and she had a room at the front upstairs while Bill slept in the back room overlooking the garden. It seemed I would be sharing with her tonight.
A passageway ran along from the front door to the scullery at the back and stairs ran up to the second floor. No mention was made of a bathroom to my dismay, and it seemed that the outside toilet was the only one.
Minnie was eyeing me with a quizzical look in her eyes as she sat on one of the easy chairs and crossed her legs. I noticed she paid special attention to my runners. She herself wore plain black court shoes with a small heel. Another girl, slightly younger than them sat on the arm of the chair, and Minnie said, “This here is Peg, my sister. So where do you live, Chloe?”
“Chloe’s lost her memory,” Queenie said, saving me from finding another excuse. “Bill found her lying on the grass over the Fields in the middle of the night—just about the time the big blast flattened the factory on the corner near the Arsenal Stadium.” I had since learnt that the Fields they meant was Highbury Fields, across the road from Merriweather Street.
“Oh dear, can’t you remember a thing?” Aggie asked with a frown. “How awful for you.” I was still trying to get my head around the fact that here sat my mothers’ mother. Thick blonde hair reached her shoulders where it curved under into a pageboy.
I shook my head and looked at my hands as they twisted on my lap. “No, I’m afraid I seem to have lost all memory.”
“That’s a strange accent you have there,” said Minnie. “Don’t suppose you can remember where you hail from, can you? I don’t think I have heard anyone talk like you before.” Minnie’s hair had a wave and was dark as night. Both girls were slim and about my height.
“Bill said she was going on about Australia when he found her, so looks like she comes from over there.” Queenie gestured over a shoulder. I felt like a shy school kid, having the questions answered for me. At least Queenie saved me from making up more
stories. My brain had been working overtime in an effort to come up with excuses for when next Bill questioned me. I was sure he would.
“And you should see her undies—I’ve never seen anything like them—all lacy and so pretty.” I had asked where to hang them earlier and she took me out to the garden where a washing line stretched from one end to the other. My tiny smalls looked ridiculous hanging there alongside some male long johns, which I presumed were Jock’s but could have belonged to Bill. Who knew what they wore in this time?
“Perhaps you are one of those wealthy types we see on the news at the cinema, eh?” Minnie’s eyes gleamed at that suggestion. “Or a film star.”
Elsie came back with a tray of tea things, sidetracking them from my lacy underwear and background. “I’ve only got a bit of plain old cake, girls,” she said as she set the tray down on one of the tables.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have done that, Mrs. Mac,” Aggie said as she stood by while Elsie poured tea from a teapot into the cups. “It’s hard enough to make the sugar and tea last, without you making a cake too.”
“I love your cake,” Peg said as she swung a leg back and forth.
When we all held a cup and saucer, and bit into the cake that was indeed tasty, with a few sparse currents in it, Tiger pushed the door open with his nose and came to sit by my legs, gazing up at me. “Old Tige’s found a new friend,” Elsie said. “Come on boy, go outside and stretch your legs.” He followed her from the room and I heard the back door open.
“I’ll take him out for a walk later,” Queenie said. “Perhaps you might come with me, Chloe. A walk around the neighbourhood might jog some memories back to you.” I nodded at that and sipped my tea. “Bill and Dad were out all night helping the firemen, so they are both having a kip. That was a big blast, that one. Don’t know how much more we can take of this.”
Everyone offered a word or two. What would they say if I told them that the night bombing would last until next May? I was also thinking that last night’s blast had shocked
me to the core—and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to endure it night after night. I guess their ignorance was a good thing, as they all seemed to believe the war would be over soon.
“So, do you think your memory will return?” Minnie asked with a smile, probably trying to bring the conversation back to me—the interesting one.
“I am as wise as you,” I said. “Something like this has never happened to me before, as far as I can recall.” Feeling the need to tack that on the end, I doubted if such had happened to anyone outside of books and movies. Placing my cup and saucer back on the tray, I sat again. “I’m grateful that Bill found me and not some other ruffian. Well, it was Tiger who really found me.” The dog had returned, and came to sit by me again. I stroked his head. “And I’m so grateful to you all for accepting me like this.”
“Go on with you,” Elsie said as she sat on the arm of my chair. “What else could we do—we couldn’t let you wander about the streets with no idea of where you were going.”
“Is that one of Queenie’s frocks you have on?” Peg suddenly asked, and I was grateful for the change of subject.
I smoothed the fabric over my knees and smiled Queenie’s way. “Yes, it is pretty isn’t it?” The dress was not really all that different to some on offer in 2020, except I would never have dreamt of wearing one with a Peter pan collar—or puff sleeves.
“Minnie made all our frocks. She’s a clever one isn’t she? Mum is so proud of her.” Peg jumped up and did a twirl. “I’m lucky she gets all the material from the factory where she works. And just wait till you see our baby sister. Rene’s just three and looks like a doll in her little frocks.”
I recalled Minnie telling me that she was a seamstress in the early days. “Yes, she certainly is. I can’t sew a straight line.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realised I had made a blunder, for they were all now looking at me intently.
“You’ve remembered something,” Queenie said, clapping her hands. “So, seamstress is one job we can wipe from your list of things you might be good at. Perhaps you worked in the government offices and were a typist or a secretary to some big nob.”
I thought of the computer at work in the nursing home and of my laptop at home. What would they say if I told them about social media and electronic books that could be read on a gadget? “Perhaps.” I made a pretence of thinking what Queenie surmised could be likely, then hoped they wouldn’t ask me to type something for I had never used an old fashioned typewriter—the kind seen in movies of this period.
“The sun’s out.” Elsie stood and began to place the crockery on the tray. “Why don’t you all go for a walk while it’s so nice? Don’t forget your gas masks.” Looking at me she added, “Oh dear. That’s another thing Bill will have to sort out for you. You had best take mine just in case you need it if the wardens are about. I won’t be leaving the house today.”
“Good idea.” Minnie and Aggie stood. Peggy decided she didn’t want to go with us and after waving to us went out. “She has a boy friend,” Minnie said with a wink. “He’s finished his training, and has a couple of days leave before going off over there so they don’t want to waste time. Kid is barely old enough to enlist—but you know what it’s like, the boys think it is going to be a huge adventure. Mum is worried she’ll do something silly.” She sighed. “Too many girls are getting in the family way—what’ll they do if their fellers don’t come back?”
“Poor little bugger.” Elsie also heaved a heavy sigh.
Not a car was in sight as we left the house, and it seemed strange to see a street so deserted. We all had our gas mask boxes containing the awful looking contraptions over our shoulder. One look at it made me dread I might have to wear it at some time. A man with a tired looking pony pulling his cart turned the corner and Aggie said on a laugh, “Old Nobby hasn’t got much chance of getting any rags these days—no one has anything to chuck out.”
“That’s where I live—number twelve,” Minnie pointed to the house as we passed. I had already been told where Aggie lived, opposite Queenie at number nineteen. All the houses seemed identical to me, except for a small shrub here and there in the miniscule space at the front of the houses, where some had a round tin dustbin sitting.
Queenie commented that her mother was dead set on not having the bin at the front like that, and it was kept out back where it was out of sight. “Dad or Bill have to carry it to
the front when the dustmen are due.” She chuckled, adding, “Poor old Dad complains—but not to Mum of course.”
“By the way, Chloe has no clothes,” Queenie said as we headed towards the park. “Can you two sort out a few things for her? I have a couple of frocks and another set of undies. Perhaps a cardigan or a jacket would come in handy. If we are still going up the flicks later it might turn chilly after dark.”
Both Aggie and Minnie agreed they would bring what they could over later. They went on to discuss the movie they were seeing this evening at the Odeon cinema, His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. All agreed that Cary Grant was dishy and they would be his girl any day of the week if he asked. It surprised me that films were still being shown, but Queenie said that life had to go on, and it was safe as long as they got home before too late. Most of the bombing happened well after dark.
When we reached the park, Tiger took off, scampering about and cocking his leg up here and there. I tried to pinpoint where I landed when the dog found me the night before, but no landmarks stood out. I wondered quietly if I would be whisked back to the future if I found the exact spot and someone or something whacked me on the head.
“Can’t you remember what you were doing over here in the middle of the night?” Minnie asked, seemingly eager to get back to my mysterious arrival.
“I know I was looking for something” I lied. “But why I was wandering I have no idea. Perhaps I was with someone and they went off and I got lost.” The lies were becoming ridiculous and I was running out of answers to their questions. Thank goodness, Queenie had made no more mention of the album. When she took me up to her bedroom and said I could have one of the empty drawers I placed the album there in the hope she might forget about it, which seemingly she had—if only for now.
“But Queenie said you were in your pyjamas.” Minnie was determined to solve my dilemma.
I nibbled my lip. Queenie came to my rescue, saying, “It will come back in time. Bill said we should let things run their course.” I said a silent thank you to my rescuer and both girls seemed to be happy with that.
When Queenie and I got back to the house, Elsie called from the scullery, “Come and eat, we have some stew from yesterday.”
Bill and his father were seated at the table. The clock said it was coming up to one and I recalled Bill saying he was being picked up at two. His thick hair flopped over his brow as he bent over his bowl. Tiger wagged his tail as Bill patted him on the head, then the dog ambled over to the bowl of scraps Elsie set down for him. “Anything come of your walk over the park?” he asked, looking directly at me. I shook my head. “I will see someone this afternoon who knows a bloke who can arrange some identity papers for you, Chloe. Just let me know your full name and date of birth and that should be enough for now. Also, Mum realised that you would need a gas mask.” Scratching at his chin, he added, “Now that might prove a bit more difficult.”
It was clear that I was becoming a real problem for the family. Would knowing my date of birth be anywhere near enough? How could I get papers if there was no record of me anywhere? Perhaps the bloke who did the arranging might strike it lucky and find someone of the same name, but I had my doubts. “I’m so sorry for causing all this hassle.” They all mumbled a denial of that. “I think my birthday is the first of June, but not sure about the year. How old do you think I am?” They all looked at me searchingly, as I wondered what they would say if I told them I was born in nineteen ninety-seven.
“Well, I’m twenty six and you are certainly younger than me, but probably about the same age as Queenie.” Standing, Bill took his empty soup dish over to the sink. He then leant back against the draining board. “So we’ll say first of June nineteen eighteen, all right?”
That sounded so not all right I wanted to blurt out the truth then and there. When he came back to the table and sat beside me, his eyes searched my face, as I said in a whisper, “I need to tell you something.” Glancing about at the others who were not paying me any attention now, I added, “Could we go somewhere else?”
With a small nod, he stood and said, “Let’s go outside, shall we?” He looked up at the clock and added, “My lift will be here shortly. Give me a shout when he arrives, will you Mum? He will give a toot.” Elsie flapped a hand his way. Jock was intently looking at the newspaper, and Queenie was filing her nails. Neither paid us any attention as we left the scullery with Tiger at our heels.
My panties and bra were blowing about in a breeze, and self-consciously I pulled them off the line and stuffed them behind my back. Bill gave me an odd look before saying, “Do you reckon they might have been a gift? Perhaps they will give us a clue to where you come from. They are very fancy for the likes of us—I would say Queenie and the other girls have never seen anything so nice.” He gestured to the wooden bench and we sat. I pushed the flimsy bits of underwear beneath me.
Now it had come to it, my throat had gone very dry. Perhaps it would be wiser not to disclose the truth. Once he started making enquiries and set the ball rolling to acquire copies of my papers surely all would come out then and he would think me an imbecile. With a jolt I realised I did not wish to deceive this man any longer.
“I…” I twiddled the rings on my right hand. One Grant gave me when I first met him, and thought him a good catch, and the other, my mother’s wedding band. I coughed before going on, “You will probably find this hard to take in, and I won’t blame you, but I want you to know the truth. You have all been so good to me and so trusting that I feel I should tell you.”
His searching look was full of concern as he caught my fidgeting hands and said, “Come on, it surely can’t be that bad.”
“You have no idea,” I stuttered, hoping a hole would open up right in front of me. “I don’t come from this time—in fact I don’t even come from this country.”
“Well, that’s no secret—we all knew you must be Australian, but I don’t understand what you mean about not coming from this time.”
“Exactly that,” I said. “I was hit on the head by thugs who attacked me—that was no lie. But—that was in the year twenty-twenty.”
Staring at me as if I had just admitted to sheer insanity he dropped my hands, got up and strode away a few paces, rubbing his nape. Tiger looked up at him and then me and placed his snout on my knee.
“You’re talking nonsense.” Turning to face me, he waved a hand dismissively. “This is some ruse to cover what you are really up to and what you are doing here. I’ve never heard such a tall story in my life.”
“I don’t blame you, Bill, but it is the truth, believe me. I could not make up such a story if I tried. I have travelled through time and for some reason landed here. I knew Minnie when she was an old lady and Agnes Blackwater is my Great Grandmother.”
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Lovely excerpt. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete