Nils Nisse Visser 

Scribbler on a quest to retell old Sussex Folklore (and some Dutch Sealore) within the genres of historical or contemporary fantasy (including Steampunk). Hopes to become a pirate if/when he grows up.





Chapters One to Six


It was like being woken from a pleasant dream. Rudely so.

“Well young Maskall? Are you going to answer my question?” Mr. Hutchinson frowned at Will Maskall who just stared at him, feeling mute and helpless.

Only a moment before Will had been leaning over his desk; engrossed in the Spitfire fighter plane he had been drawing in his notebook and regretting that his twelve years made him far too young to join the RAF there and then. It looked like he would sit out the war in Brighton whilst others got to fight the Jerries. The Spitfire and associated thoughts had become his sole focal point so he had no idea what Mr. Hutchinson had been going on about in his monotonous nasal tone.

It wasn’t that Will was an unwilling student but attending school meant listening to lectures all day long. There was nothing to do. Will liked to get his hands on things. Usually he managed to listen -for a while anyway- but Hutchinson never got to the point and traced ponderous side paths in his monologues which were hard to make sense of. The performance of a Spitfire’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was far more interesting and of much greater relevance.

“Erm, Birmingham?” Will suggested rather lamely.

He vaguely recalled that Hutchinson had droned on about canals in the industrial Midlands last week and to say nothing would be worse as he knew from painful experience.

He made his eyes as wide as he could. Some adults were susceptible to this, claiming the clarity of his bright blue eyes and golden hair reminded them of an innocent angel. Will was anything but an angel and he knew his play-acting was in vain with Mr. Hutchinson.

“Birmingham.” Mr. Hutchinson repeated, frowning. He was doing a little performance of his own now for the benefit of the other pupils in the classroom. “So you, William Maskall, claim that Captain James Cook was the first man to ever circumnavigate and map Birmingham in 1769?”

The other children laughed dutifully and Will grinned foolishly.

Then he took a deep breath, he knew Mr. Hutchinson well enough to know he would receive punishment anyway and it would be better to go down fighting like a proper hero.

“Indeed sir,” he spoke loudly. “He sailed on them industrial canals you’ve been telling us about sir, on account of nobody else ever wanting to go to Birmingham but him.”

A lot of boys sniggered and a few girls giggled but many of the children threw a cautious glance at their teacher as they did so. Mr. Hutchinson looked angry.

“To my desk if you please Maskall,” the teacher said curtly and procured a wooden ruler from his top drawer.

Will stood up immediately; he dreaded the coming punishment but didn’t want show this to the rest of the class. He wasn’t some timid lass after all, he was almost a man. He’d be thirteen soon and then it would just be a year till he could quit this schooling and find himself a job, maybe even an apprenticeship so he could really learn something useful and master a trade. He sauntered to the front of the classroom as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Both hands,” Hutchinson glared. “Palms down.”

Will laid both hands on the teacher’s desk and gave an advance apology to his knuckles. He took a deep breath as Mr. Hutchinson raised his ruler but looked at the teacher defiantly. It had been a good jest, he reckoned.

Just then a distant sound wafted in through the open windows; a sound which Will had both come to dread and anticipate: The ominous wail of the air raid siren. Rising and then falling before repeating its eerie call again and again.

“Right boys and girls, you know what to do,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “To the bomb-trenches this instant, don’t forget your gas masks.”

The children jumped up and all semblance of order was gone in an instant as some had to go back to their desks where they had left their gasmasks despite the instructions not to do so. Will made to return to his desk to retrieve the metal tubular container which contained his gasmask.

“Wait just one moment, Maskall,” Hutchinson snapped at Will. “Hands.”

Will reluctantly laid his hands on the desk again and the teacher snapped his ruler against them once, then twice.

Will clenched his teeth as pain shot through his knuckles. Mr. Hutchinson was breaking the rules; there wasn’t supposed to be a second’s delay when the sirens sounded. Will was pretty sure Hutchinson would be in trouble if a Heinkel bomber made mincemeat out of Will just because he didn’t get to the trenches in time.

“Very well, lad, fetch your gasmask.”

Will rushed to his desk, his hands smarting. He was the last to depart the classroom where he joined the flow of pupils in the corridor. The air raid sirens had stopped at last but that meant nothing till the all-clear sounded. 


When they poured out of the school the children cast anxious looks at the blue sky, afraid of seeing the dreaded silhouettes of German bombers descending upon Brighton with their deadly payloads.

Brenda had been scared the first time the air raid sirens had sounded their ominous wailing just after war had been declared in September. Back then she had been convinced that the entire Luftwaffe was about to demolish every last inch of Brighton. Nothing untoward had appeared in the sky over the town that time though. Dad had jokingly called the war the Bore War because nothing much happened at all for a long time apart from the rationing. 

Acquaintance with war had been informative. Even Brenda now knew the difference between Stuka, Dornier, Junkers or Heinkel bombers. There were pictures and silhouettes on posters, leaflets and cigarette cards. The latter had become a much wanted collector’s item at school and as such a valuable trading commodity. All the boys – and even some of the girls – badgered their fathers and other male relatives for the cards. Brenda didn’t have any herself; at home her little brother Eddie got Dad’s cards but she knew them because Eddie badgered her to read the words on the cards to him. She always did. Eddie was only five years old and being his senior by four years meant that she had to help him out any way she could.

Deep zigzag trenches had been cut into the playground behind the school and the children piled in quite casually after noting the sky was devoid of the sight or sound of aircraft. The boys put on their gas masks immediately, half filling the trenches with otherworldly creatures that had strange snouts and large eyes which bulged sideways. The girls were slower, they hated the gas masks because most had shoulder length hair and found the gas masks a nightmare to get off. It was the only time that Brenda was pleased that her family couldn’t afford to take her to a hairdresser’s. Her mousy hair was much shorter on account of her basin hairstyle, so-called because a pudding basin was upturned and placed on her head every now and then after which Mum would snip off any hair that protruded below the rim. Brenda retrieved her gasmask from the rectangular carton box she carried it in and slipped it over her head.

During the first air raid warning at school it had taken the boys less than a minute to discover that their voices sounded oddly hollow in their new gasmasks and that great fun could be had making funny noises in the masks. The teaching staff were oddly tolerant to the malarkey in the trenches, even when fart sounds had joined the repertoire. Brenda presumed that this was because they could all be torn into a thousand pieces for King and Country if and when the Luftwaffe did make an appearance one day. The trenches would be a death trap in the case of a direct hit she had overheard some teachers tell each other.

“We’ll be buggered proper if Jerry knows what he is doing,” one of the boys near Brenda said.

She frowned; she had ended up in a part of the trench where her form bordered that of older children. Brenda didn’t quite know what ‘buggered’ meant but she was sure it wasn’t polite language. The boy had dark hair but his face was already hidden by his gas mask. He was talking to another lad who had a basin hairstyle just like Brenda, though his hair was almost golden.

Brenda recognized them then. The dark haired one was Jamie, his family lived just a few doors away from her own. The other one was his mate Will, the two were usually inseparable. She shouldn’t have really liked them for they were always finding ways of getting in trouble but they sometimes let Eddie play in their games and that was nice.

“That fancy Roedean School for girls has proper ones, I heard.” Will answered. “Deep ones girdled with steel like the inside of the rocket ships in the pictures. We ought to sneak in one day and have a peek, Jamie.”

Brenda crossed her eyes; one advantage of the gasmasks was that nobody could see your facial expression very well and it seemed the only suitable response for the idiocy of boys. They weren’t going to take Eddie along on that expedition, she would see to it.

“What if there’s an air raid?” Jamie asked. “We’d be stuck in them tunnels with a bunch of girls, Will. Hours on end. We’ll both go bloody daft.”

“True,” Will answered. “Girls are silly.”

Brenda glared at them both. She was standing quite close to them but they hadn’t noticed it was her.

“Bbbrrrpppfffttt.” Jamie blew a raspberry in his mask and within seconds their trench sounded like all the boys suffered from a collective attack of dysentery. Brenda joined the other girls in shaking her head in exasperation. She suspected that one or two girls happily joined in as it was difficult to tell who was making what specific noise when so many were at it. Classes had grown somewhat with the induction of evacuee children from London and some of those could be quite rude, or so Brenda thought. The teacher in charge of this section of the trench, Mr. Burchell, shook his head too but made no attempt to stop the fun.

Brenda smiled beneath her mask; the trench games were more fun than lessons and in a way the rude noises were funny. Her smile faded though when she registered the distant drone of plane engines and the pupils became quiet as eyes turned skywards. Some of the more timid children hugged the trench walls. The seagulls wheeling above the school screamed collectively in response to the strange sound of aeroplane engines coming closer at low altitude.

Perhaps a few of the gulls were also startled by the trench which presented an odd sight as hundreds of gas-masked faces were turned upwards. The strange robotic faces looked left and right. They sought to spot the incoming aircraft but it was as if they were shaking a desperate ‘no’ to whatever danger might be preying on them in the clouds overhead.

When the drone developed into a roar that drowned out the seagulls the nay-saying stopped. Everybody crouched down and made themselves as small as possible. Brenda pressed her side against the trench wall and pulled her knees up to the ventilator of her mask. She hoped Eddie would be alright. 

Artwork by Kayleih de Ruiter-Kempers


The source of the roaring plane engines came into sight as four Lysander Mk2s passed overhead just as the single tone all-clear signal sounded.

“Coastal patrol,” Will told Jamie happily, “They’re our lads!”

The boys ripped off their masks and cheered collectively for their heroes high up in the sky while most of the girls started the dreadful struggle to disentangle their hair from the masks’ clutches. The pupils clambered out of the trenches to line up in their forms and enter the school again whilst the teachers huddled around the Headmaster who was talking to them urgently.

Will and Jamie found their seats and fidgeted impatiently. Then Mr. Burchell stepped into the classroom with a wide smile on his face. This hitherto never observed deviation hushed the class in an instant; all the pupils stared at him in great expectation, even forgetting to rise to their feet as a sign of respect for the teacher’s entry. This flagrant violation was noted by Mr. Burchell who gave a brief frown but then decided his news was far more important and his smile came back.

“Listen carefully boys and girls,” he announced. “There has been an event of tremendous importance.”

There was a collective intake of breath, even though Mr. Burchell’s smile indicated the news was good.

“It’s the British Expeditionary Force. The last troops have been evacuated from Dunkirk and are now back on English soil!”

The class stood, rising to their feet in an instant and cheering loudly, a collective whoop of relief and pride that was echoed from surrounding classrooms.

“Rule Britannia!” Jamie shouted.

“Now, now!” Mr. Burchell laughed. He waved the children down into their seats again. “It’s not a victory. We escaped the jaws of defeat though. Apparently a great number of private vessels sailed to Dunkirk too, to help with the evacuation. You will be proud to know, I trust, that there were many brave Sussex skippers involved.”

The class cheered again.

“Sussex wun’t be druv!” Will hollered happily.

“Indeed it won’t young Maskall,” Mr. Burchell acknowledged. “Sussex wun’t be druv, not even by that despicable dictator in Berlin. This is a moment to rejoice, albeit briefly, the war is far from over. I suggest that that we all stand and sing a heartfelt Sussex by the Sea.”

The class rose as one and Will had never heard a more heartfelt rendition of the song, even though most of the boys –himself included- aimed for quantity rather than quality of sound as they sang the rousing marching song.

For we're the men from Sussex,

Sussex by the Sea.

We plough and sow and reap and mow,

and useful men are we;

and when you go to Sussex,

whoever you may be,

you may tell them all

that we stand or fall for Sussex by the Sea!

“Now,” Mr. Burchell beamed when they were done. “A number of you will be awaiting news from relatives in the BEF. The Headmaster has decreed you may all have the rest of the day off.”

This announcement raised the loudest cheer yet even though there were only two hours to go till the end of the day. All decorum was blatantly ignored as most pupils shouted, laughed and pushed each other in their haste to exit the school before anybody could change their mind about the unexpected freedom. A few looked concerned. Had any men remained behind? Did the expected battle take place?

Will and Jamie had no immediate relatives serving in the army and they relished in the moment.

It was Tuesday, June 4, 1940 and in Will’s world, all was as well as could be.


Mum didn’t look very happy when Brenda and Eddie came home from school early. She looked tired and haggard and greeted them with a curt: “I still need to go to the shops.”

“Shops!” Eddie nodded enthusiastically.

Mum sighed and Brenda knew why; it would take her twice as long to go shopping with Eddie in tow but Eddie looked really eager.

“I’ll come and mind Eddie, Mum,” Brenda offered. She would do her homework later, usually it was the first thing she did when she came back from school.

Mum shot Brenda a grateful look. “Are you sure you don’t mind, dear?”

Brenda was pleased that Mum asked. It was at these moments that she felt Mum was aware that her daughter was in charge of Eddie an awful lot and that made everything alright. “Not at all. We can play the reading game, can’t we, Eddie?”

“Shops!” Eddie repeated happily.

The reading game was very simple. Eddie pointed at things with letters and Brenda would read them out. Eddie had recently become fascinated with letters, which was probably because Brenda read a lot of stories to him. Eddie’s favourite reading book was The House at Pooh Corner which he liked just a bit more than Winnie-the-Pooh because Tigger was in it and Tigger was Eddie’s favourite character. Brenda liked Kanga best because she had an inkling what it was like to keep an eye out for Baby Roo jumping around all the time.

Eddie clutched Brenda’s hand while they followed their mum down towards the direction of Kemptown to go to Edward Street. There were a lot of shops there. Before the war Brenda used to go alone. Whenever her mum needed just one or two items from the shops she would have sent Brenda. All on her own, proudly clutching sixpence or a shilling as she relished the grown-up task her mum trusted her with. She also liked the freedom of roaming the streets free of supervision and the way some of the shop owners, who had come to recognize her, treated her with the deference they used for all of their customers. That made her feel grown-up too. The increasing air raid warnings had curtailed her independence, Mum was worried about safety on the streets now and Brenda secretly felt a little piqued that her sole task on these shopping errands was minding Eddie. The Luftwaffe never showed anyway.

It wasn’t that she minded Eddie’s company. Every time she looked down to see her little brother scurrying to keep up she would give him a warm smile. Mum had made him a cowboy suit for his birthday using a potato sack she had obtained from their grocer and on which she had sewn strips of an old blanket. Brenda had supplied an old hat she had bargained for at the Harper & Sharpe second hand shop as well as two gull feathers she had found on the beach near the Palace Pier. Dad had completed the gift with a revolver he had carved out from a piece of wood. It took a great deal more coaxing to get Eddie out of his cowboy suit and into his pyjamas since he had received these gifts, so taken was he by the gifts.

Brenda kept a sharp eye out on him when he would go outside to play because Eddie was now the envy of Sussex Street and Brenda was afraid some of the older boys might try to trick her brother out of his hat or even steal his toy gun. Not Jamie and Will, they were nice to Eddie, but some of the others might. She was quite sure Eddie would be inconsolable and much as she loved her little brother with his inquisitive blue eyes and fair curly hair she would be the one who would have to deal with that.

Brenda sighed.

“Whatsmatter?” Eddie asked looking up at her. “Do the letters hurt?”

“Letters? Hurt?” Brenda was confused.

Eddie pointed his toy gun at the shop signs which started to predominate the street.

“Letters everywhere,” he clarified. “Does it hurt?”

“To read? No you silly Moppet.”

Eddie pointed at the next store. “What’s that sign say?”

“Stop. Here. For. Brighton. Rock,” Brenda spoke slowly as she read the signs.

“Mummy,” Eddie cried out and Mum turned around with a surprised look.

“What is it Edward?”

“Stop here for rocks!” Eddie answered.

“We haven’t got time to stop now Edward, Mum is in a hurry,” Mum answered.

Eddie pouted, “But Brenda said we should stop.”

Mum glanced at the sweets on display in the window of the confectionary and frowned at Brenda. “Stop filling his head with nonsense, Brenda. We’re not buying sweets.”

“But…” Brenda started to object but Mum had turned around again.

Brenda rolled her eyes. Eeyore was right when he said that some people had no brain at all, instead they had grey fluff that blew in there by mistake. Mum wasn’t always like that but sometimes she did behave like it. Eddie pointed at another sign.

“Morris Sausage and Steak House,” Brenda read out.


“Twyner Fishmongers.”

“There are no fish,” Eddie noted. “Is the sea empty?”

“No Moppet, it’s because of the war, there is less fishing. You have to come early now if you want to buy fish.”

The early bird catches the fish. Brenda smiled, she liked that.

She duly read out the names of the Madeira Fruit Stores (Pick of the Market!), a Marks and Spencer Bazaar and countless other names indicating butchers, bakers, chemists and greengrocers till they reached the general store where Mum liked to do her shopping. Brenda let Eddie pull her along the shelves so Mum could be free to focus on the shopping she wanted. This had become considerably more complicated since the war started and Brenda could see Mum mumble, frown and run her index finger along the squares printed in the ration books. She felt sorry for Mum.

Eddie discovered letters on the labels of tins, jars, bottles and boxes of the products on offer. A new game was invented on the spot. Brenda read out the names of products which had letters which drew his attention: Scott’s Porage Oats, Coleman’s Vitacup, Bird’s Puddena, Richereme Blancmange Powder, Hartley’s Table Jelly, My Lady Bartlett Tinned Pears, Chivers Peas, Saxa Salt, Fray Bentos Corned Beef, Bisc-o’-Rye, Beefex Cubes and Huntley and Palmers Empire Assorted Biscuits. It all sounded awfully important when the names were read solemnly and out loud and Brenda liked this game.

“Do you know what it means?” Eddie asked, he pointed along the shelves. “All of it?”

“Yes, I do,” Brenda nodded.

“Clever, clever Brenda!”

Brenda nodded her agreement. She certainly wasn’t a dullard, she liked to know things and find out more about them. She didn’t mind going to school like some of the children, sometimes she even liked it because a few of the teachers knew how to hold a class spellbound and they told lots of interesting things.

“Are there shops that sell letters?” Eddie asked pensively, running his finger along a complicated label with a lot of letters on it.

“A lot of them! Bookshops, sign-painters and offices full of people who do nothing but type letters all day.”

Eddie nodded but then lost interest and pulled Brenda towards the counter. Mum was next in line to be helped by the assistant and Eddie was enthralled by the mechanics of this. When Mum handed over her money the assistant put it and the bill she wrote out in a small cylindrical wood pot which she attached to a trolley above her head. The assistant then pulled a cord and a spring sent the money pot whizzing on overhead wires to the cashier’s office. She then crossed out some squares in Mum’s ration book and by the time she was done the pot came sailing back with Mum’s change in it.

Eddie aimed his toy gun at the pot as it came closer. “BANG!”

Mum was embarrassed and shot Brenda a look.

Brenda quickly took Eddie’s hand and coaxed him out of the shop. They stepped into the sunshine outside. A cool breeze was blowing in from the sea, it held a light hint of brine and Brenda breathed in deeply. She liked the sea. It was always there, just like the seagulls always sailing over the rooftops.

“We can go to a letter-shop now!” Eddie told her.

“We have to go home, Moppet, so I can help Mum cook tea. You want to eat, don’t you?”

Eddie rubbed his tummy and nodded. “Tigger after?”

Brenda smiled and nodded. She would take Eddie on another journey to the Hundred-Acre-Wood quite happily. She wondered if honey was rationed there. Poor Pooh-Bear wouldn’t like that at all.


Will and Jamie wandered to the seafront and lingered on the promenade throwing wistful looks at the West and Palace Piers.

Will had rather enjoyed most of the war so far. There were bad things of course such as the food situation. Like most healthy twelve-year-old Brighton lads he held the Führer personally responsible for forcing Britain to introduce rationing. Will’s family was poor and had never been accustomed to a well-filled larder but the current limitations caused by ‘Nazi Nastiness’ had sufficed to give him a perpetual feeling of hunger. Even worse, though sweets hadn’t been rationed yet the sweet shops had noticeably diminishing supplies and much less on offer. He was also supposed to carry his gasmask everywhere and was forever losing it. That meant he often had to go to the Town Hall to apply for a replacement and that would earn him a good scolding on account of his failure to support the war effort.

Then there were the sleepless nights. Air raid warnings had started to pick up from March onwards again. Sometimes there would be welcome breaks from lessons at school but at nights it was worse. Gaffer refused to go to the nearest bomb shelter where many of their neighbours sheltered collectively. He said he would prefer to die at home and there was no telling where the bombs would fall at any rate. On those nights Will’s family would move into the cellar of the small terraced house on Ashton Street and it would be hard to sleep soundly.

As far as Will was concerned the damned Nazis had a lot to answer for.

However, the war had offered a fair number of advantages as well. One of them was that a lot of men had left for the war, making it far easier for young lads to find the odd job here and there. Will and Jamie would roam the town in their spare time and usually managed to earn a penny here and a ha’penny there helping to unload goods from lorries for shop owners and running errands left, right and centre. In that process they had also expanded their stomping grounds; crossing the Boundary Passage to add Hove to their home ground of central Brighton and Kemptown.

On good days they even had enough coins to jingle them in the pockets of their shorts. They had used this day’s extended free afternoon to go door-to-door to collect old newspapers and they had sold these to a fish and chip shop on the seafront for the usual penny a pound. They had got a bag of scraps to boot and walked along King’s Road, on the sea side of course, happily nibbling at the bits of fried batter which had crumbled off in the fryers but still tasted of fish somewhat. It was almost like the real thing.

“Such a bleeding shame,” Will indicated the West Pier.

Jamie nodded morosely. He knew exactly what Will meant.

Bereft of their more abled-bodied staff the arcade machines on West Pier had been practically unattended, meaning that Will and Jamie had been able to spend some of their newly earned gains on the What the Butler Saw mutoscopes. A penny allowed you to turn the hand-crank of these mechanical contraptions and hundreds of photographs would flick by so fast it was like watching a film at the pictures. These particular mutoscopes gave the impression that you were peeping through a keyhole as you pressed your eyes to the viewer. Beyond that keyhole you’d see a voluptuous young lady undress; revealing a buttock before dressing again, or a bare back with the tantalizing side swell of an actual boob. Will and Jamie had agreed that one of the mutoscopes must contain the Holy Grail of mutoscopic voyeurism, namely the combination of buttock and boob swell in one shot, and they had embarked on an ambitious quest to locate it by checking out all the What the Butler Saw machines when finances permitted.

A couple of the lads at school had boasted that some of the evacuee girls from London were quite willing to reveal bits and pieces in exchange for a penny or sweets. However, Will and Jamie had reckoned the mutoscopes were far more educational. Besides, the London girls they knew at school were bold and audacious; in other words, kind of frightening. The mutoscope girls just smiled enticingly or looked suitably mysterious. Nor did they complain if the lads turned the hand-cranks deliberately slow to prolong their penny’s worth of fascination.

Hitler had put an end to these springtime delights. In May both piers had been closed as a precaution and the skies over London had been free of a Luftwaffe presence for so long that most of the evacuees had been returned home. Robbed of his chance to see both buttock and boob in one go Will had spent a few days cursing the Nazis and regretted once again that he was too young to join up so that he could teach them a lesson or two.

Accepting that the mutoscopes were well out of their reach the boys drifted through the maze of narrow streets in the Lanes and ended up in Norman’s Milk Bar on Duke Street where Jamie treated Will to a milkshake. 

Jamie’s dad was a furniture maker with a small shop on Sussex Street, between Carlton Hill and Albion Hill, close to where Will lived on Ashton Street. Jamie’s parents weren’t very well to do but Jamie was never short of anything and he wasn’t at all concerned about sharing with his best mate. Will liked Norman’s Milk Bar but felt out of place, he was the only one there with a basin haircut. The style, if it could be called that, was considered indicative of poverty and sometimes joked about by the children who were better off. Not really in a way that was intended to be particularly nasty, adults were far quicker to discriminate him because of his background but the taunts made Will feel ashamed none-the-less.

Life would have been easier for him and Mum if his father had still been around.

The boys stopped by a sweet shop on the way home and laid down a penny for mint humbugs which they chomped during their walk along North Street, St James Street, and then George Street. Will knew they could walk the streets of Brighton blind-folded for the boys had conducted a smashing experiment on a recent Sunday. Will had worn a blindfold all the way from Albion Hill to Kemptown and then on to Hove. He had led the way and not along the Marine Parade and King’s Road by the seafront, that would have been too simple. He had used the back roads and as many twittens as he could. These were the narrow alleys which criss-crossed the town. The best were the cat’s creeps, the steep stairway alleys that connected streets at different height levels, so-called because they were the sneaky routes preferred by cats, small boys and folk who might not necessarily want to be seen whilst they went about their business.

Parts of Brighton were a veritable maze and the boys liked to go twittening through the alleyways. Jamie let Will give the directions and was there to prevent major mishaps, especially when they had to cross or traverse a length of street with traffic on it. Jamie had led the way back along an alternative route and the boys had considered the experiment a great success. In their minds it was important to know these sort of things.

The striped humbugs were finished by the time they crossed Edward Street to enter John’s Street and the warren of streets around Carlton Hill and Albion Hill. They said goodbye at the end of Nelson Street, Jamie walking onto Sussex Street where he lived and Will having to traverse another two streets before he reached his home. 


Will walked around the back. His dad had died from an illness when Will had been very young and Mum had moved back into her parents’ house. Will’s grandfather owned a tailor workshop which occupied the ground floor of the small terraced house. Gaffer was the only employee and earned just about enough to get by. Everybody in the house – Will, Mum, Gaffer and Gran – used the back entrance to get in and out of the house. The front door was for customers.

The small back yard contained an outhouse and there was also a tin bath there which was brought in on Saturdays so everybody could have a bath. There was something resembling a kitchen in the cellar and a living room and bedroom on the first floor. Gaffer and Gran slept in the bedroom. At night two thin mattresses were brought in to the living room from the bedroom where they were stored in daytime and Will and Mum would sleep on those.

On the nights that they spent in the cellar, not knowing if Jerry was coming and even less certain about whether Jerry would bring bombs or parachutists if he did come, Gaffer would sit on the cellar stairs in his long johns, his Brody helmet on his head and a shotgun in his hand. Gaffer had been a soldier. As a young man he had served in the Boer War in faraway South Africa. He volunteered again as soon as the Great War broke out but was initially considered too old. When lack of manpower became acute he was accepted into a labour battalion and had worked on the narrow-gauge railways which served as a vital supply channel for the front line troops.

“The Huns were most impatient,” he had once told Will. “They would never wait for us to repair damaged tracks before blowing them into smithereens again. They knew the routes see, at least segments of it and there was almost continuous artillery fire. And that was where us older and more infirmed blokes were sent to with a shovel, wrench, bag of bolts and spare rails. Not tucked away safely in some comfy trench like the younger lads.”

It had been a rare moment. Gaffer stayed silent on the subject of his wartime experiences most of the time and Will remembered every word of the few references Gaffer sometimes made. It was enough for Will to reckon Gaffer was a war hero at any rate; something he wouldn’t mind becoming himself. He’d return and there would be a victory parade for him. Will would walk next to the Major and people would throw flowers; Brighton would be at his feet and offer him a lifetime of free sweets.

Everybody was in the living room when Will walked in. The heavy blackout curtains were still open because it was still light outside. Mum was grateful when Will gave her a penny; he always gave half his earnings to her, knowing she had to work hard to make ends meet.

For tea Mum and Gran had performed their usual miracle with the meagre resources at their disposal because of the rationing. They had made what they called ‘Mock Duck’ with potatoes, sausage meat and a little sage. Will had never eaten duck before so he couldn’t compare it but he enjoyed every bite of the meal and wished there was more.

Talk of the rescue at Dunkirk dominated the meal. Of late the news from France had caused an increasing sense of morose gloom in Brighton and Will had not been immune to this. He had been quite bewildered by the notion that Britain might be losing the war, in his universe the Empire bested all comers and it was simply unaccountable that Englishmen could be defeated by foreigners. However, many of the adults had taken to shaking their heads in resignation when the war was mentioned.

Will and Jamie had started to read the old newspapers they collected before bringing them to the fish and chip shops. Perusing these for articles on the war had made their grasp of the geography of Northern France sufficient enough to have been shocked when they read that Abbeville had fallen prey to the Nazis. Though the papers had focused on the brave efforts the Tommies were putting up - giving the Jerries a bloody nose for every inch of French soil that was fought over - the place names mentioned in the reports had suggested that the British Expeditionary Force was being encircled and their French allies driven back along the entire Western front.

Things had got worse when it became clear that the BEF had indeed been surrounded at a place called Dunkirk where the poor Tommies were pounded by Jerry artillery and Stuka bombers. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before the dreaded Jerry tanks started ripping their way through the final defences. If that had happened Britain would have been left without an army and Churchill -for all his tenacious belligerence which Will admired so much- would be forced to seek peace. Will had been outraged by the many adults who shrugged this away. He understood that it would perhaps be better to leave the strange foreigners of the Continent to their own devices. However, to accept defeat at the hands of the Jerries was more than his young patriotic heart could stand.

Gaffer suggested they listen to the radio after tea. Generally he distrusted London sources and preferred to hear the latest news at the pub. Or so he said. Gran teased Gaffer endlessly by reminding him that the news he heard at the Lion & Unicorn most probably came from London anyways. Gaffer would just shrug and head to the Blue House –as the locals called the pub- to have his pint of Cloudy and Black. On a good night he’d listen to George Harding and his brothers play music there and the festive mood would entice him to have a glass of Merrydown as well. Jamie’s dad would sometimes go with him, but neither man spent all their free time there like many in the neighbourhood did.

§ § § § § § §

The BBC radio presenter gave his listeners more details about Operation Dynamo, including descriptions of the hellish conditions at Dunkirk. Then he mentioned Prime Minister Churchill’s speech. Winnie had been defiant to say the least, it was clear he intended Britain to fight on just as he had promised in an earlier speech. Only this time he indicated that this fight might well take place on English soil.

The presenter read out a part of the speech:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

“Bloody hell!” Will exclaimed with admiration. None of the adults admonished him for his language use, they just nodded and straightened their backs somewhat.

“The beaches,” Gaffer said pensively. “That will include our Sussex beaches. Never thought I’d find myself in the front line again.”

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