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.

 


SEE OUR COLLEC


WILL'S WAR IN BRIGHTON  

ONLINE LOCKDOWN SERIAL

Chapters Twenty-three to        Twenty-seven

23. AT THE ROYAL SUSSEX COUNTY HOSPITAL

When Will came to he was surprised to find himself outside on the street because he couldn’t recall walking out. 


He was lying down on the pavement opposite the Odeon and admired its long rectangular white façade for a moment. The line of small square windows which ran along the entire length of the front of the building as well as the simple square gable always reminded him of a fort somewhere in south-western America. Will himself of course, would conduct the heroic defence of the fort; the windows made perfect gun embrasures and the attackers would be astonished to find Will had placed a proper cannon behind each of them.


It really did look like a siege now, he reflected with a strange sense of contentment. Men in helmets were running in and out of the front door, there was debris everywhere and foul smoke drifted from the roof. With disappointment he registered that he must have been fighting on the wrong side for the pavement around him was covered with bodies. Some screaming – he could hear them now – others shaking convulsively or crying; in loud wails or soft sobs. Some didn’t move at all. There were folk shuffling around on the street as well, with torn clothes and cuts and gashes. They looked completely dazed. Will’s cannon trick must have worked.


A nearby pub emptied, the customers running to the entrance of the cinema and then going in. Will frowned. The Wardens should have stopped them, you couldn’t just go running in and out of bombed buildings. He had come to the conclusion that this is what must have happened. He had been bombed. He wondered where Jamie was and tried to scramble up but his body was refusing to co-operate. Suddenly a whole gaggle of white uniformed nurses came charging down the street, they were joined by the landlady of the pub who rushed to them with her arms full of tea-towels. They were followed shortly after by ambulances. It was funny, Will thought, that the nurses had outraced the ambulances. Then again the hospital was real close. That was good, wasn’t it?


Some of the nurses rushed to the cinema entrance where Wardens and others –including a vicar- were emerging with bloody bundles in their arms. Other nurses –armed with tea-towels now- strode to the pavement where Will lay to start bandaging as many as they could. People came out of their houses, sometimes covered in glass and cuts themselves, with tea-towels and bed sheets which were cut into strips on the spot. A few children were being helped into private cars but then a number of buses drove up and the drivers evicted their passengers and helped the nurses load the wounded onto the bus. Will hoped they would take him as well; he had no money for the bus fare but his head was starting to smart badly now. He passed out again as they helped him into the bus.


§ § § § § § §


Royal Sussex County Hospital was on Eastern Road, very close to St George’s Road . The Outpatient Department on the other side of Eastern Road had been designated as the casualty clearing station and it was here that Will was brought like many other children and adults. He lay on a stretcher on the floor, far more comfortable than the pavement and considered himself lucky as those brought in later had to lie on the floor. He tried to shut his ears to the cries of pain and distress.


Medical staff walked about as fast as they could though there was little space for them to walk and yet more wounded were brought in.


A doctor came closer inspecting their injuries.


“This is no use, she’s gone,” he said to the ambulance men carrying the stretcher. “Straight to the mortuary please.”


“Shrapnel in the leg,” he peered at another. “He’ll have to wait his turn, set him down in that corner.”


“Immediate treatment, next door to the right if you please.” The doctor was rushing from one to the next trying to create some order in the mayhem. He walked to Will.


“This little chap is fair covered in blood, we need to see what caused it, next room please,” he motioned to two Wardens who had just brought in one of the walking wounded.


Will’s stretcher was lifted up and he was carried down a corridor. New tumult broke out by the entrance as distraught parents and grandparents were now pushing their way in, frantic with worry and most panting as if they had come running from the Odeon as fast as they could.


He was brought into a smaller room which was already fairly full, two doctors and three nurses were attending those on stretchers. Will was set down next to a girl whose eyes rolled in her skull as she mumbled incessantly and sometimes called out for her mum. He looked down and saw that that her knee was shattered; it wasn’t even recognizable as a knee, just a mass of meat with shards of bone sticking out.


Will looked to his other side. He felt sorry for the girl but she was making him feel queasy. His head hurt as he turned it but he smiled in relief when he saw the familiar face of Jamie next to him. Jamie seemed alright. His face was dirty and had some dried blood on it and his skin had a strange pallid waxy colour. His eyes were closed, he must have been asleep.


One of the nurses came to Will and started gently cleaning his head with a moist cloth. It felt nice and Will felt almost relaxed, he had found Jamie and the nurse was very beautiful and she was being ever so sweet. Although she was all serious now there was a cheeky quirkiness about her which reminded him of Googie Withers whom he had seen in several pictures at the Twitchy.


He winced.


“Does it hurt anywhere else lad?” The nurse asked.


Will nodded but the movement made him wince again.


“I think my arm…”


“There’s a gash in it alright. I’ll clean that with iodine in a minute, it’ll sting but it looks like we can just stitch it up. It’s your head I am worried about.”


“You need to fix Mr. Hall.”


She nodded and then called one of the doctors over. The doctor bent over for a look.


“Shrapnel in the skull, just behind his right ear. Add him to the list, that’ll need an operation. Any more wounds?”


“I should have worn my helmet,” Will told them.


“Just his arm. I think most of this blood isn’t his own doctor.”


The doctor left and the nurse tended to Will’s arm.


Another nurse – who looked vaguely familiar - came in with two stretcher men; she had a blanket over her arms and started to cover Jamie up with it. The nurse who was treating Will looked at her questioningly.


“His mum is out there, in the corridor. She’s a neighbour of mine. We don’t want her to see him just yet when he’s taken away, not in the midst of all that mayhem,” the new nurse explained.


“But she’ll want to see him, if it’s Jamie’s mum she’ll be worried,” Will protested.


The nurses exchanged a look.


The new nurse pulled the blanket over Jamie’s face and motioned the men who lifted up the stretcher.


“No, wait,” Will struggled but was held down firmly by the nurse who had been treating his arm as Jamie was carried away.


“You can’t do this!” Will shouted. “Where are you taking Jamie?”


He started sobbing. The nurse had seemed so nice and now she was holding him down and they wouldn’t even let Jamie and his mum see each other. What if Will’s mum showed up? Would they be kept apart as well?

Will was thoroughly bewildered and when the nurse spoke soft words of comfort to him he started crying as an inconsolable sadness overwhelmed him.


§ § § § § § §


The rest of the evening passed in a blur. Will remained in the same room as new wounded were brought in and others taken away. His mum was brought in; she was distraught and could only cry for the first five minutes after she came in. Later Gaffer and Gran came to visit too. The adults consulted with each other and with the hospital staff in low hushed voices. Late that night Will was rolled out of the room on a proper trolley. He saw that the corridors and waiting rooms had been cleared of the wounded, though there were many anxious relatives milling about, some being comforted by members of the clergy. Will had heard Mum say that the Bishop of Lewes had been there all afternoon and evening and he had even helped her to find Will.


The last thing Will saw before he was rolled into an operation theatre was a nurse and an ARP warden mopping up puddles of blood in the corridor. There were a lot of white-masked people in the operation theatre who all looked at him and that made him feel important as he was anaesthetised. He was mixing with Bishops and doctors now and tried to grin but was becoming strangely mellow and then swallowed up by oblivion.


§ § § § § § §

The shrapnel was removed and when Will came to in a clean bed in a ward he was presented with the chunk of metal by a doctor. The man congratulated Will for having a thick skull for it had stopped the shrapnel from puncturing his brain. He would have to stay for a few weeks because they needed to be absolutely sure there was no lasting damage. The doctor left Will turning the shrapnel in his hands round and round as he frowned. The wards were all full and he and another boy lay in the corner of a woman’s ward with about thirty women and girls in it. It was somehow unmanly but there wasn’t much he could do about it.


Mum came round with Gaffer, both of them heavily laden. As requested they had brought Will’s helmet, catapult, bag of Class-A ammunition (marbles), bag of Class-B ammunition (beach pebbles), three brass 20mm shells and a battered biscuit tin which held his best shrapnel pieces. He proudly showed them his latest addition which, having been stuck in his skull, was now obviously his favourite. They had also brought his pyjamas which was good for his shorts and shirts were torn badly. Better yet, they had bought, begged and borrowed from various neighbours and this had earned them a big paper bag filled with sweets and chocolates, more than Will had ever owned at any one time.


He peered into the bag and started happily listing the names of the sweets he saw, missing the glance Mum and Gaffer exchanged.


“There’s this too,” Gaffer grumbled.


Mum produced a wooden model of a Spitfire just like the one Jamie had. Will’s eyes grew large, there was only one person who made them like that, they must have fixed Mr. Hall up pretty quick.


“We spoke to Mrs. Hall. She’ll be moving to her sister’s house in Lewes. She wanted you to have this.”


Will tentatively took the Spitfire, it seemed wrong.


“Jamie will have the Hurricane to play with, I guess,” he said.


“Jamie is dead Will, you must understand,” Mum said.


“I know what,” Will cheered up. “I’ll just borrow it, till I get better. Jamie can have it back afterwards.”


Mum’s eyes teared up which made Will feel uncomfortable so he went back to naming his sweets.


“Pear drops! And look, at least three acid drops and a gobstopper!” 


24. DUCK NO MORE

Mum came home in a total state. Her nurses uniform was covered in blood stains and she threw herself into Dad’s arms and started sobbing inconsolably.


“Mum?” Brenda asked worriedly. She had heard that there had been a terrible bombing raid in Kemptown but only now realised that the RSCH would have received the wounded.


“Mummy?” Eddie’s eyes were large.


“Some of them,” Mum sobbed in Dad’s arms, “had metal springs from the cinema seats lodged in them.”


“Brenda, take Eddie upstairs,” Dad ordered curtly while he stroked his wife’s head.


“But…”


“Now, Brenda!” He growled and she took Eddie by the hand to lead him upstairs.


“I want mummy!” Eddie wailed.


“Mum needs to be with Dad,” Brenda said, her voice bereft of emotion. She really wanted to wail too but that would send Eddie into a state for sure. “We can read from the Jungle Book, would you like that?”


“Tigger,” Eddie decided and Brenda nodded.


Later she slipped downstairs into the kitchen. She made tea and some sandwiches. She brought a tray into the living room. Her parents were on the couch, Dad was sitting down on one side and Mum lay on his lap, her eyes staring blindly at the wall.


“Thank you, Brenda,” Dad said, and nodded reassurance at her.


She nodded back and then went to the kitchen to fetch the other tray because Eddie needed something resembling tea.


Dad came upstairs later, after she had put Eddie in bed. Brenda was on her bed trying to read the Jungle Book but she couldn’t focus on Mowgli’s adventures this time.


“I didn’t mean to be cross with you, sweetheart,” Dad apologized. “Thank you for making tea, Mum really couldn’t manage.”


Dad sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Brenda’s hair. She sighed. It had been a long time since he had last done that.


“It was bad?” Brenda asked carefully.


Dad nodded grimly. “It was pure hell.”


“Will she be all right?” Brenda asked worriedly.


“She’s asleep now, she’ll feel better in the morning,” Dad nodded. “Brenda, there is something I need to tell you.”


Brenda nodded.


“I am afraid some neighbours were involved,” Dad said.


“The Clarkes?” Brenda asked curiously. The old couple next door rarely ventured out of their house anymore.


“No, the Halls.”


Brenda felt her chest go tight. 


Not Jamie, please, not Jamie.


“I am afraid that Mr. Hall and their lad were in the cinema. They both died, it was instant.”


Brenda shook her head.


“Your mum saw the boy herself.”


“Jamie, his name i…was Jamie,” Brenda felt her eyes well up.


Jamie. Gone.


She began to cry and didn’t even notice when Dad lifted her up and pressed her shaking body to him as he uttered meaningless sounds of comfort.


All she wanted to hear was a cheeky voice calling her ‘Duck’.


25. DOROTHY’S LEFT LEG

That first night in the ward was uncomfortable. Will had heard the occasional suspicious noise from Mum or Gran, especially in the cellar where all of them slept close together, but he had never realised that women farted just as much as men till he spend a night in a ward with thirty of them. A couple were there for bowel problems and they were the worst. Farts were fun when you were mucking about with a bunch of mates in Queen’s Park, but not coming from girls and women in a hospital ward. It somehow didn’t seem right. Even worse, a couple of them really snored; the kind of deep sawing sound that made your spine tremble every time you heard it.


Will lay on his back staring unhappily at the ceiling, or at least he assumed it was the ceiling for it was entirely dark and here too thick black-out curtains had been drawn shut. The biggest problem, he slowly came to realise as he felt the pressure on his bladder, was that he had to pee. There was a chamber pot beneath his bed but he felt very nervous about getting his willy out in a room full of strange women – girls even – whether it was pitch black or not.


He held it as long as he could but in the end he had to scramble onto the floor because it would be far more embarrassing to wet his bed. He picked up the chamber pot and wormed his way behind the black-out curtain and sighed a breath of relief as he aimed his willy into the pot and peed for what seemed like ages.


When he emerged from behind the curtain – careful so as not to spill the contents of the pot- he was relieved because nobody could have possibly seen him though he was slightly worried that somebody might have heard. He listened carefully but all he heard was the continuous snoring of the snore champion on the other side of the ward and a monumental fart in the far corner which lasted for at least half a minute. That woman would have been elevated to a deity in Queen’s Park, Will decided.


He decided to reward himself with a sweet and then felt guilty for not sharing his sugary treasure with Jamie. He recalled seeing Jamie in the hospital and decided to go find him. He put on his helmet in case there was a bombing raid and clutched the bag of sweets under his arm. He’d leave the Spitfire for now and ask Jamie if it was alright for him to borrow it till they got out of hospital.


One of the nurses found him drifting along a corridor peering into dark wards and gently steered him back to his bed.


§ § § § § § §


Will learned to know some of the other patients in his ward. The other boy was a lad called Ken whose forearm had been mauled by shrapnel and whose face had been scratched badly too. There was a woman who had also had a piece of shrapnel embedded in her head and Will felt a special kinship with her on account of that. There was a girl his age called Dorothy who had a part of a cinema seat spring removed from the calf on her left leg and another partial spring from her thigh on the same leg. She insisted on showing him her leg and at first Will felt uncomfortable but soon they made it into a game where Will came to inspect it twice a day and assured her she was healing well, mesmerised by the light curvature of her lower thigh which became visible each time she pulled up her nightie. It somehow made sleeping in a woman’s ward easier, knowing Dorothy’s left leg was only two beds over at night.


§ § § § § § §


St Peter’s Church on London Road was filled for the memorial service for over 50 people who died in the bombing raid on September 14. Those wounded who had been allowed to leave the hospital for the service were given a place of honour at the front but Will barely registered what was said at the service, nor did he derive any pleasure from having front row seats in the magnificent gothic building which had often played a part in his imagination when he played Ivanhoe.


He had seen Mrs. Hall before the service but barely recognised her. She was dressed in black and supported by her sister, looking haggard, pale and withdrawn. Gaffer had come to the hospital two days before and taken Will for a stroll in the hospital grounds for a man-to-man talk about Mr. Hall and Jamie. Will had still had trouble accepting that the other two members of the Terrible Trio had died in the bombing of the Odeon. He was still eagerly waiting for Mr. Hall to march into the ward and announce that he had a proposal as his eyes glinted with mischief. Though he had shared the chocolate in his special treats bag with Ken and Dorothy Will only allowed himself one sweet a night, just before lights-out. He felt obliged to save the rest so he could share it with Jamie who had so often shared with him.


Mum gently guided Will to Mrs. Hall after the service was over and people stood outside shaking their heads and talking in sober tones.


“My condolences Mrs. Hall.”


Will squeaked the words his Gaffer had taught him to say but he looked away in guilt, maybe she would be angry at him because Jamie and Mr. Hall were gone and he wasn’t. The unfairness of that troubled Will himself as well.

Mrs. Hall broke down and swept him up in a tearful embrace. He could feel her body shaking violently and felt embarrassed but tentatively wrapped his arms around her shaking back.


“They’ll have plenty of beano pies to eat now,” he tried to comfort her. “And Mr. Hall will have all the time he wants to build toys.”


Mrs. Hall broke down completely at that and was led away by her sister and Will felt bad for making her feel worse.

He was vaguely aware that Brenda and Eddie came towards him. Brenda to stumble through an awkward condolence. She looked pale and upset. Eddie proudly showed Will a toy farm animal he had been playing with and Will nodded dumbly.


He let Gaffer lead him to the special bus that would take him back to the Royal Sussex County Hospital. That night, after lights out, he cried himself to sleep. Quietly of course, for he didn’t want Dorothy to hear.


§ § § § § § §


It was past three on a Sunday and Will was looking forward to his second daily inspection of Dorothy’s leg. The day before she had encouraged him to trace the skin around the scar tissue of the lower wound with his index finger and this morning had extended that invitation to include the scar tissue of the wound above her knee as well. Will was looking forward to a repetition of that treatment of her leg. Dorothy’s skin had felt soft, warm and smooth under his finger and he felt sure it would be conducive to her quick recovery.


“Conducive,” he repeated again. He had heard a doctor use the word and was very impressed with it. Then his face contorted as the air raid warning sounded from several quarters of town. This was soon followed by the ominous rumbling of low flying aircraft and the chorus of ack-ack and Bofors guns by the seafront. Nurses rushed in and helped those who could get out of bed to crawl underneath the beds. There was no time to evacuate the ward.

Dorothy made the most of the confusion and crawled behind the beds until she reached Will who sat crouched, pushing his helmet tightly down on his head with both hands as he trembled. Dorothy pressed herself against his side and he could feel her trembling too. Somewhere deep inside him Will wanted to man up, be brave and protective towards the girl but the cacophony of sirens, plane engines and anti-aircraft fire outside made him feel nauseous and he started shaking more violently. Ken joined them now, taking place on Dorothy’s other side, and the three children huddled together, trying to make themselves as small as possible and trying to make the shivering stop by wrapping their arms tightly around each other.


One of the ward nurses looked under the bed, looking comically surprised at first at the sight of the three of them and then tried to give them a reassuring smile even though she was nervous too. Then she was distracted by the woman who had also had a shrapnel head wound and was now trying to make for the door of the ward; shouting that she didn’t want to be trapped in a building again, that she needed to be outside in the open. She was restrained by several nurses who urged her to remain calm. Will understood what the woman meant though. He felt trapped too, constrained by the bed and other hospital floors over his head. Even now a bomb could be hurling itself downwards in their direction and he would have joined the woman’s escape attempt except Dorothy had her arms wrapped tightly around his neck and the sense of her warm body pressed into him was something that was nice and interesting, despite his fears. It prevented him from breaking into panic altogether at any rate.


They heard the familiar whistles, far away enough but Will suddenly had a parched feeling in his throat and he could feel his heart thump manically in his chest. A whole series of crumps and subsequent explosions followed, one after the other and that was followed by the now familiar rattling of the windows and shaking of the ground.


The all-clear brought relief till about half-an-hour later when the first victims were brought into the hospital and the rumour started spreading in the wards that Albion Hill had copped it.


“I live there,” Will whispered fearfully.


“So do I,” Dorothy nodded.


The children refused to get out from under the bed which suddenly seemed the only thing which could protect them from the Nazi campaign of aerial terror. Though their shaking had stopped they now clutched each other for moral support as they struggled and then fought with dark fears concerning flashes of fire and billowing clouds of smoke and dust on Albion Hill.


They only let go of each other when parents at long last showed up and they scrambled from underneath the bed to hurl themselves into familiar grown-up arms.


The news was bad; bombs had landed all over Albion Hill; including Cambridge Street, Ashton Street and Sussex Street. Mum told Will that Gaffer’s house was still standing but that it had not a single glass window left. Parts of the street had become rubble. Mr. Chubb the butcher had died when his butcher’s shop was struck and the newsagent at number 13 had been completely obliterated.


Before Mum left one of the nurses had an urgent hushed conversation with her and as the two kept on looking in Will’s direction he assumed it concerned him.


Mum came back the next day with Gaffer in tow and they sat down next to the hospital bed and told Will that they had decided he was to be evacuated.


“Evacuated?” Will whispered. Away from Brighton? He threw a glance at Dorothy. Who would take care of her left leg if Will wasn’t around?


“Yes, Fred, your father’s uncle, in the Weald. He’ll take you in until the war is over. It’s got too dangerous lad.” Gaffer said.


“But you and Gran…and Mum…” Will protested feebly.


“Have livelihoods here,” Gaffer answered. “You’re a brave lad Will, but you’ve been through enough as it is. The decision is final.”


Will looked at Mum for support. She swallowed visibly and then looked away. He lowered his head miserably and then nodded a meek acceptance.


26. BRENDA

 The train engine started chuffing faster as the train departed from the station. Brenda’s compartment was filled with children, all wearing a label around their neck and carrying not only a suitcase or bag and their gasmask, but also a packed lunch. Brenda waved at Mum and encouraged Eddie to do the same. When the platform was out of sight she sat down and looked around her inquisitively.


Some of the children around her were chattering happily, quite excited by the whole adventure. Others were teary-eyed and frightened. Then she saw Will sitting in the far corner of the carriage. He was wearing his Tommy helmet and clutched a big toy airplane in his hands. He was staring morosely out of the window and it took a few seconds for Brenda to actually recognise him for his face looked drawn and haggard, older somehow.


He looked miserable now, not good company at all. She didn’t know if that kind of misery might be contagious. In truth she felt horrible about leaving her parents in a war-torn town and was only being cheerful for the sake of Eddie who was more likely to cry than not if he sensed his big sister was having doubts.


Will had been quite rude to her twice now. The first time after they had sat with Mrs Parsons and he had just run away afterwards, without saying a word. The second time had been at the memorial. Brenda had gone to offer her condolences. She had been very upset still with Jamie’s death and couldn’t really talk to Mum and Dad about it. She knew it was different for Will, because he and Jamie were best mates, but she had been hoping to share her grief. Instead it seemed Will had not even noticed her, giving only the slightest acknowledgement of her presence.

Then again, he had been nice a lot of the time too. Brenda looked at Margaret Elizabeth’s damaged face and supposed all their faces would change one way or another because of the war. She came to a decision.


“Come on Edward,” she said as cheerfully as she could.


“Where are we going? Are we there yet?” Eddie asked.


“No silly, we’ve only just left the station, we’re still in Brighton. I just want to sit somewhere else.”


“I don’t want to,” Eddie said stubbornly.


“Well, then you can sit here, while I sit somewhere else,” Brenda decided. She started picking up her various pieces of luggage and then carefully lifted up Margaret Elizabeth.


“I think I want to sit somewhere else too,” Eddie said quickly and gathered his things, trailing behind her as she walked through to the end of the carriage. He was clutching his blue and white stuffed rabbit which he called Buntings and avoided eye contact with the other children who looked at them as they passed.


“Hullo Will,” Brenda said brightly and then, without asking, started depositing her things and sat down. Eddie followed suit, staring at Will with big eyes.


“Oh, hello,” Will said dully.


“So where are they sending you?” Brenda tried to peer at his label, but words had been pencilled in hastily and she couldn’t decipher them.


“I have to get off at a place called Nickleby,” Will said glumly and looked outside again at the last rooftops of Brighton which were passing by.


“Oh,” Brenda said. “Eddie and I are to get out at a place called Odesby. I think that’s one station further along. Exciting isn’t it?”


Will looked at her as if she had gone mad and for a moment Brenda regretted that she had traversed the carriage.


“Spitfire?” Eddie asked longingly.


Will hesitated for a moment.


“Just be real careful with it, alright? It was Jamie’s.” He said and Eddie nodded eagerly, very gingerly taking hold of the toy as Will handed it over with some reluctance.


“If you break it I shall toss Buntings out of the train window and the foxes will eat him,” Brenda said, knowing Eddie well enough to realise he needed an extra incentive. If he broke the toy Will would probably only become even more miserable, especially because it had belonged to Jamie and she didn’t know if she could stand that.

Eddie nodded, impressed by the threat and happy to be holding the beautiful toy Spitfire.


“I do hope we will be sent to nice people,” Brenda said fervently, expressing her deepest fear in the happiest tone she could muster.


“You mean you don’t know?” Will asked with surprise in his voice. It seemed to have brought him out of his shell for a moment and Brenda was pleased.


“Of course not, we will be told at Odesby,” Brenda mirrored his surprise. “Do you?”


“My great-uncle. He lives on a farm somewhere north of Nickleby,” Will became surly again.


“A farm! How nice,” Brenda said.


“I have never met him, nor been at a farm,” Will looked out the window again and then briefly flared into frustration. “I am a Brighton boy Brenda; I have no idea what to do on a farm.”


“Dig for Victory!” Brenda exclaimed.


“Straight from the plot to the pot!” Will smiled, though a brief shadow flitted over his face.


“I am sure a farm will be terribly exciting,” Brenda said wistfully. “Better than a town house. At a farm there is…space.”


She meant to say that if the complete strangers she was about to meet were horrible people there might be a place to hide on a farm. A safe place.


Will looked at her thoughtfully and Brenda’s fears were mixed with some cheer. She had managed to get him to leave that unhappy isolation he had seemed wrapped in and that gave her some satisfaction. He must be missing Jamie terribly. She already missed Mum and Dad. At least she and Eddie would stay together. Mum had been given the guarantee that they wouldn’t be split up and Mum had made Brenda swear, hand on the bible even, that she would take care of Eddie.


Brenda felt pretty grown-up for a nine-year-old when she placed her hand on the Bible and that had made her feel proud.


“Some of those evacuee children from London…” Will said slowly.


Brenda laughed.


“Do you know the Millersons? On West Drive, by Queen’s Park?” She asked.


“No,” Will answered curiously.


“They had two East End urchins,” Brenda giggled. “They came back one afternoon and found that the boys had plucked the parrot and were cooking it in the kitchen.”


Will had to laugh at that.


“We had a fancy one in our class,” Will grinned. “Wanted to know why we didn’t play cricket at school. He used Latin words to try and sound important.”


“I remember him,” Brenda said. “He wasn’t at school long was he?”


“After a week he blew his lid off, because the family he was staying with on Windmill Street showed him how to use the tin bath. The outhouse had already shocked him. He had been…”


Will imitated a mock falsetto posh accent.


“…simply appalled, a totally appalling situation.”


Brenda laughed.


“Jamie was better at doing impressions,” Will said.


“Jamie was…,” Brenda hesitated. “I miss him.”


“So do I,” Will nodded with a sad smile.


They looked at each other for a moment in mutual understanding, then the conversation moved on to other people they both knew; familiar streets, sweet shops, parks and of course the seafront.


“You know,” Will said pensively. “I just hope there are…adventures. I had adventures all the time in Brighton. I don’t know if you can have real adventures in the countryside.”


“I am sure you can,” Brenda answered although she had some doubts. She had a vague notion that Brighton was the centre of civilisation in Sussex. Perhaps the other coastal towns as outposts of that civilisation; she knew them all by name and had even visited some after all, but she wasn’t familiar with any towns there might be further inland. She knew Nickleby and Odesby only because she had studied the train’s timetable. She had even heard the people in the country spoke funny; slow and laborious. Somehow that fitted her view of countryside life: slow and laborious. “I just hope…”


“The people,” Will answered showing that he had been paying attention to her. He became straightforward. “Are you worried?”


“Yes,” Brenda admitted.


Will grinned reassuringly.


“If this Odesby of yours is not far from my Nickleby, we should try to meet,” he suggested. “We’re both Brightonians. We’re standing up to the bleedin’ Nazis aren’t we? We should manage with the country people.”

Brenda smiled though she thought he meant it jokingly. The idea of marching through the hinterlands where she didn’t know the way was far-fetched of course. She rather doubted there would be an adult who would condone or supervise something like that.


“I don’t even know where I am going,” she pointed out.


“True,” Will nodded. “Try to get word to the Maskall Farm. That’s all I know, but maybe somebody will know the name?”


“Maskall Farm,” Eddie chirped.


“Yes, send word where you are. I’ll come find you two, it’ll be my first adventure,” Will promised. “Do you want a sweet? I’ve got lots.”


He dug around in his battered suitcase and produced an unbelievably big bag filled with sweets of all sorts.

There followed a learned debate about the best sorts of sweets and all manner of them were tried as the train moved north-east. There was comfort in having someone to talk about to about familiar places and things that were being left behind and a sense that circumstances had cast them in the same boat. For a while, at least, it felt like they were friends.


The train was delayed once as it sheltered in a tunnel after a station master of a small county station had warned them raiders had been spotted in the sky. After that the journey became uneventful; the locomotive chugged industriously, spouting smoke as it pulled the carriages away from Brighton and deeper and deeper into Sussex. 

27. WILL

The train rolled to a stop at a station that was little more than a single platform. There was a station master’s post the size of a large garden shed which rose above the bare empty grey decking like the superstructure of a submarine. Will tumbled out of the train with all his belongings. He was the only one to get off at the Nickleby train station and began to set his luggage down on the platform. Struck by a thought he rummaged in his bag till he found his pouch of Class-B ammunition and he opened it.


Will turned to see that Brenda had opened the window and both she and Eddie were looking at him with forlorn uncertainty. Will felt the same; the Brighton connection had kept the town alive for just that little bit longer. It was time to say goodbye in many ways now.


“We’ll find each other,” he promised again.


“We’ll try,” Brenda said correctively and Will reckoned she didn’t really believe in it.


“Maskall Farm,” Eddie nodded with full conviction.


“Here,” Will pushed the bag which was still half full of sweets in Eddie’s hands. “It’s for you, don’t eat them at all once and share them with your sister.”


Eddie nodded solemnly and then broke into a delighted grin as he peered in the bag.


The train driver let his whistle sound and the engine spat out clouds of steam around its great steel wheels further on up the platform.


“This is for you,” Will held out his hand to Brenda who tentatively took three round pebbles from it and looked puzzled.


Then her face lit up and she clutched the pebbles tightly. She looked up at Will questioningly as the steam engine hissed into further life and they could hear its pistons start to chug. He nodded, and spoke loud to overcome the engine’s hullabaloo. “In between the Halfway Station and Banjo Groyne. I got a bag full.”


“A piece of Brighton,” Brenda said happily.


“Yes, a bit of Brighton. Take good care of it.”


The carriage shook into motion and Will waved goodbye and kept on waving as the train chugga-chood into the distance. When it was gone he looked up to see…


…absolutely nothing.


As far as he could see fields rolled along with the contour of the land. They were interspersed with copses of trees and hedges. He saw no buildings and no roads, just emptiness. It made him feel slightly dizzy and he took a deep breath and turned around fearing the same view. Instead of fields there were trees. A seemingly impenetrable wall of trees which stretched endlessly to his right. When he turned left he saw a similar green wall but one that ended half-a-mile away in a patchwork of fields centred by a small church around which were huddled a score of cottages.


The station master came walking out of his post and came towards Will slowly for he was at least two hundred years old with a bent back and spindly legs. He used a stout walking stick to aid his movement. When he finally reached Will he peered at the boy through the little rectangular glasses that were perched on his beak-like nose.


“How do, chavee?” the station master said in a friendly tone. “Be ye a Sheere-folk ‘vacuee from middlin’ Lunnon or praper Suth Seaxna from coast?”


“I think so,” Will said carefully. He hadn’t understood a word the man said except for the word ‘coast’.


The station master’s fingers reached for Will’s evacuee label and lifted it close to his eyes.


“Ah, Mus Maskall, surelye” he nodded. “He aint yetner here now be he chipper? ‘T be unaccountable, howsumdever, he’ll be anigh I rackon.”


Will’s head was spinning. Did everyone here speak as incomprehensibly as this station master?


Hesitantly Will pointed at the village to his left, the only visible sign of human habitation in this green expanse that seemed so overwhelmingly devoid of familiarity.


“That be Nickleby,” the station master nodded. “Disyer be Nickleby station. Mus Maskall’s farm be atween Nickleby and Wolfden, he have ta stride ‘cross the Wyrde Woods.”


The station master pointed northwards at the mass of woods.


The Wyrde Woods? The name was as odd as the seeming vacuum of life around Will and he sat down on the single platform bench next to the station master’s post feeling miserable and utterly alone. 


If Great-uncle Maskall spoke the same ubble-gubble the station master did then he felt sure his current sense of being deserted might last a long time. He was glad he hadn’t just given the whole pouch of pebbles to Brenda; he would need to hold on to something from Brighton. He clutched his Spitfire tightly…something to hold on to from Jamie as well. He missed his mate terribly and tried not to think how much easier it would have all been if they had been evacuated together.


Will felt as if his war was over now. He had let himself be removed from the place where he had sworn to make a stance on the beaches when the Germans attempted to land. Side by side with Jamie and Mr. Hall as they all coolly catapulted pieces of the beach at the Nazis.


“You want our beach? Here it is! Come and get it!” Mr. Hall would have shouted and aimed another pebble at an unfortunate Jerry.


“All clever stuff, no rubbish you Jerry Duckies,” Jamie would have imitated Max Miller’s brisk cheekiness to perfection.


All three would laugh confidently when the Wehrmacht soldiers ran out of ammo because they themselves had enough ammo to last them a year. You can’t beat Brighton. It just wasn’t possible. Instead; Will seemed to be nowhere at all, far away from where he belonged at any rate. He might as well have landed on the planet Mongo.

He spotted movement on the road from the village and looked up curiously. It wasn’t Great-uncle Maskall yet but a group of young women who looked like a picture of milk maids he had once seen on a luxurious biscuit tin in Parsons Confectionary. He had believed the picture to be historical but those milk maids seemed to have stepped off the biscuit tin lid straight onto the Nickleby road.


Will grinned, he knew exactly what the Halls would do now and since Jamie and his dad weren’t around to do it someone ought to. Just to keep the tradition alive. He began to softly sing Max Miller’s signature song and as he did so his smile returned. He would find a way to discover an adventure somewhere here in this wilderness. Jamie and Mr. Hall would never be truly gone that far away, he realised and felt less alone because of that thought.


I fell in love with Mary from the Dairy,

But Mary wouldn’t fall in love with me;

Down by an old mill stream

We both sat down to dream:

That was when I offered her my strawberries and cream.

We walked and talked together in the moonlight,

She asked me what I knew of farmery,

I said, ‘Mary, I’m no fool

You can’t milk Barney’s Bull.

That’s when Mary from the dairy fell for me.


Fate is inexorable. The hands that weave the strands of our possible destinies spin a wide web of connections which can bring together folk who are initially miles if not whole worlds apart. That latter was certainly the case for William Maskall who had arrived right where he was meant to be; on the edge of the Wyrde Woods in which he was to experience many an adventure and in which the war too, would catch up with him again. That story though, will be told in the novella Will’s War in Exile.


THE END


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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Many of Will and Brenda’s adventures in Brighton during the summer of 1940 are based on recollections by Brightonians I encountered on the most excellent My Brighton and Hove living history website, the BBC’s People’s War, and stories related to me by members of the FB pages Sussex in History, Brighton Past,  and 1940s World. This also means I have borrowed people’s emotions. If it’s real funny or touching: That really happened. The same applies to the more dreadful events where the experiences were far from pleasant. I didn’t hold back because I hope the reader who didn’t experience wartime Brighton will get an impression in what conditions the town’s inhabitants gritted their teeth and bravely faced the storm.


For narrative purposes I have taken some liberties with the actual historical sequence of events. Namely bringing the arrival of the Canadians forward by a few months and inventing a fictitious bombing raid before the terrible events on 14 September 1940 (albeit based closely on later ones) as well as using the St Nicholas Church incident much earlier in the war (with a different plane). Other events, such as the strafing incidents, borrow from a wide range of eyewitness reports of such occasions. Alas, I could not discover just when National Margarine was introduced for the cream tea scene. I sincerely hope that no margarine fans will be left disappointed by any inaccuracies.


Any mistakes are mine and I very sincerely hope that I will not cause any offence to anybody, I meant to do Brighton proud for I have come to admire the town’s stubborn determination during the summer of 1940 and without Brightonian help this story could not have been written.


For investing their time in one way or another to contribute to Will’ War in Brighton many thanks to: Bren Hall, Nick Bulters, Kayleih Kempers, the Klomp family, Janna Gürke, Gerrit Orgers, Marcel Vankan, Richard Hornsby, Corin Spinks, Jack Bryer, Liesel Lehrhaupt, Frank Bruggemans, Leon van Assem, Arjen van Assem, Jax Atkins, Lisa Mari Jackson, Carol Whaley, Jeff Beaufoy, Mat Keller, Richard Tree, Lee Sinatra, Joanna Beck, Alan Ogilvie, Mary Funnell, Jacqueline Thomas, Lynda Finnis, James Hewland, Renia Simmonds, Roland Mason, Marie Pullen, Roz Palmer, Peter Beatle, Irene Marriott, Susan Ann Beckett, Mark Oakley, Ashley Leaney, Dan Kimberley, Gill Wales, Philip Knowlton, Barry Somerville, Lis Telcs, Justina Badger Braddock, Sara van Loock, Dave Whatman, Dan Wilson, Carol Homewood, Richard Wright, Mary Taylor, Saskia Gemmell, John Raymond, Kevin Gordon, Graham King, Marion Goodwin, Camilla Markowiak, Louise Yates, Paul Bland and Roland Thomas.


Nils ‘Nisse’ Visser


May 2015, Amsterdam

I HOPE YOU  ENJOYED THE STORY. 


Previously released chapters (1-6) can be found here:

https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/will's-war-in-brighton-(serial)


Previously released chapters (7-12) can be found here:

https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/will's-war-in-brighton-chapters-seven-to-twelve


Previously released chapters (13-18) can be found here: 

https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/will's-war-in-brighton-chapters-thirteen-to-eighteen


Previous released chapters (19-22) can be found here:

https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/will's-war-in-brighton-chapters-nineteen-to-twenty-two


Reviews of Will's War in Brighton and Will's War: Exile from Brighton here:  https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/wills-war-reviews


EXTRACT FROM WILL'S WAR IN EXILE

“And here we are…” Gruncle Maskall smiled and swung open one of the side doors. Will stepped in, uncertain as to what to expect. The room seemed small at first. The blackout curtains had been drawn back and two latticed windows let light through which fell on the single bed which stood there, the frame a sturdy wood construction topped by a thick mattress. Next to the bed was a crate with small two shelves built into it. There was a closet at the foot of the bed. Will could see that it was empty for the doors stood open.


“That used to be your father’s bed,” Gruncle Maskall said.


“Really?” Will liked that idea, he quite liked all the space too, it seemed very homely. He recalled that he was supposed to be sharing the room with his cousin just as his eyes noted that the room was actually much larger, but somebody had run lengths of rope along the ceiling from which hung a wall of blankets. The makeshift wall ended on the floor and started about twenty inches below the ceiling. To judge by the light-fall in there, the two windows he could see on his side of the room had twins on the other side of the woollen barrier.


“Are you still barricaded in, Maisy-mine?” Gruncle Maskall called out.


There was a snort and then a muffled grunt from the other side of the blankets.


“Your cousin Will has arrived. Don’t you want to say ‘hullo’?” Gruncle Maskall continued. “Tis polite, you know?”


“Erm, hullo,” Will addressed the blankets. “I’m Will.”


“WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER!” The blanket fort hollered defiantly.


Gruncle Maskall looked at Will and shrugged. “Maisy needs some time to adjust, that’s all.”


The invisible cousin behind the blankets snorted again and then fell silent as Gruncle Maskall helped Will unpack his suitcase and bags and place Will’s few possessions in the closet and improvised bed side table.


“Well, that’s done,” Gruncle Maskall said when they were finished. “Your gammer will have tea ready soon. She’ll ring the bell outside the door, to let all know it’s done. Saves her tramping around the farmyard looking for me.”

He turned to the curtain. “You may want to consider your surrender at teatime, lass.”


“No surrender! I’d rather be eaten by boggerts, ain’t it?” The blanket fort answered with stubborn conviction.


Will’s grand uncle shrugged again and then winked at Will. “Have it your way, I admire your resolution, Captain Robbins.”


The blanket fort stayed silent and Gruncle Maskall left the room to go back downstairs. Will decided to ignore his new-found cousin behind her curtain. Instead, he settled on the bed and smiled when he understood just how soft and comfortable the mattress was. He lay down to test the big pillows and his smile grew when his head sank into fluffy softness. At least he would sleep just fine in this strange new world; he had never had such a luxurious bed to sleep in. Maybe he would just sleep until the war was over and he could go back to Brighton.


Will was wondering just how long it would be possible to sleep and how best to test this when he noted a small movement from the corner of his eye. The curtains had shifted a little bit, as if someone had created a narrow gap to peek through. Will hoped it was a first crack in his cousin’s armour as he was getting most curious about Maisy. So far, at least, she wasn’t like any of the girls he had studiously ignored at school when he still believed all girls were silly. Dorothy and Brenda, the two Brighton girls he knew a little, had already taught him some were only moderately silly and maybe this cousin would be like them. She could build good blanket forts at any rate and that was a plus.


Will sat up on the bed and thought he saw another tiny shiver in the folds where two blanket ends met.


“If you think,” the invisible cousin spoke in a low dramatic tone, “to come anywhere near my side of the room, or even blooming look at it, I will cut your skull open with a rusty hacksaw, cross me heart and hope to die.”


Will rubbed the bandage over the part of his scalp which had been rent open by shrapnel.


“The Jerries already tried that,” Will joked, as he solemnly vowed to stay well away from his cousin’s side of the room.


“Did they?” There was melodious curiosity in the voice but then it fell back into the ominous threatening one which reminded him of the voiceovers at the pictures. “And I will scoop your brains out with a blunt teaspoon, ain’t it? Feed them to the pigs, so I will.”


“I’ll stay away from your side of the room,” Will grimaced. “A BLUNT teaspoon? Seriously?”


The bell rang outside. It was teatime and Will realised he was famished after the day’s long journey even after just having eaten Granny’s sandwiches. He jumped up.


“Are you coming down for tea?” He asked but there was no answer, so he went downstairs by himself. 

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