SONGS OF WAR
….. songs which echo through the years, help to carry our cares. We sing maybe when we should weep and so, win the day!
HERTFORD MERCURY AND REFORMER, November 1939
Grace never could hold a tune.
Despite coming from a long line of singers and musicians, she sounded more like a lamb than a lark, more cat than canary. That didn’t matter to the two five-year olds who sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fireplace comparing pieces of shrapnel that were surely destined to become playground currency. They always joined their mother’s singing with gusto, oblivious to any deviation from the intended melody, and Grace liked nothing better than flopping breathless into an armchair under a pile of little boys’ arms and legs, all hot and giggling from their impromptu performance.
Blue began the refrain that morning. Grace held her apron bunched up like a can-can dancer’s dress and danced from the scullery, skipping from side to side, all concerns about air raids, rations and bombs forgotten for a moment. Twins, Bobby and Freddy, scrambled to their feet, abandoning their treasures, to kick their legs in time.
“But I dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied” came the bellowed chorus.
The sharp rap of the door knocker startled them all and merriment died as abruptly as a balloon popped by a pin.
“Who on earth -?” Grace put a palm to her neck and turned towards the front of the house. Then placing her free hand on a hip, she looked down on the two upturned faces. “Have you two been playing around the buses again?”
Bobby denied the charge and plugged his thumb into his mouth while Freddy shook his head.
“They’re good boys,” said Blue.
So it wouldn’t be that horrid chap from the bus station who had come around complaining about the twins playing there. He had been a thin, mean-mouthed man. Grace had studied the pearl of mucus at the end of his sharp nose, the way his tongue had flicked across his upper lip, the feather on his hat, the badge on his lapel, but not once did she meet his eyes. Grace knew he might try to plant thoughts in her head if she did, and she was too clever for him.
It was unlikely to be any of her neighbours calling. Grace kept her distance; she didn’t need their help or advice, busybodies most of them, and they’d soon got the message. Even Mrs Sugden from next door gave her a wide berth these days. Grace had caught the woman crouching behind the red brick wall that separated their small back gardens, eavesdropping on a conversation she’d been having with Blue, and given the Nosey Parker short shrift.
Another loud knock echoed through the hallway.
Grace clamped both hands to her ears and spun to face the window which overlooked a small yard and a patch of garden beyond. The black circle, where a bonfire had blazed two days before, was still visible under a fine powdering of snow. The neighbours had been vociferous in their objections, particularly on a Monday—that was washday. Their angry faces, harsh words, snide jibes tumbled back into focus and the gloom of the weather wrapped itself around Grace. The fire had been extinguished well before blackout, so whoever was at the door couldn’t be a constable bringing another summons. Grace shuddered at the memory of her appearance in court a few months before. Alfred Watson, the local air raid patrol warden, had used phrases like “endangering the neighbourhood” and “infringing blackout regulations” which made her sound careless and criminal. Grace knew he was out to get her, and it was his wife who was behind his vendetta. Mrs Watson had made wild allegations that George, Grace’s eldest son, had stolen apples from her garden and Grace’s furious response had made enemies of the couple.
The Chairman of the Petty Sessions couldn’t have been aware of this campaign of victimisation as he sat in his high-backed chair behind a great wooden desk on a raised platform. It made him look as if he were floating above her. He peered down over his spectacles to ask if she’d like to say anything. At the very moment he addressed her, a shaft of sunlight had streamed through a high window and the shadow of the brown tape which crisscrossed the glass made a large ’X’ on his cheek. Grace had barely controlled an urge to laugh out loud. When she’d regained her composure she’d seen Blue standing in the shadows, holding up a hand with first and second fingers firmly crossed. That had given her the courage to speak up, but her attempt to defend herself hadn’t gone well. There were no raids that night and the door was open less than a minute while she went to pour her rinse water onto the vegetables, but the Chairman had taken issue with her explanation.
“Do you often undertake your household duties in the dead of night?” he had asked. Grace squirmed, remembering the tittering from behind her as he cupped a hand to his ear, inviting her response.
“Sometimes I just need to keep busy. It isn’t against the law. Yet.” She hadn’t meant to sound so petulant.
“You need to find some other nocturnal occupation, Madam. Have you considered knitting socks? Or perhaps darning?” If the gentleman had heard the sniggering from others in the court, he made no effort to quiet them.
“Grace is blushing. Grace wants to cry.” Mabel had started chattering and that made it hard to concentrate.
Then came a loud whisper from the man at Grace’s right ear, “Speak up, speak up. Useless girl, stupid, pathetic girl.”
She fought to control the quiver in her voice, “We have plenty of socks already thank you, b-b-but I may have some darning to do.” Grace felt herself shrink as the Chairman’s eyes narrowed and held her before he announced a fine of fifteen shillings, seven and sixpence.
Grace had counted her steps all the way home. She walked head down, adjusting each stride to ensure her foot was neatly placed within the confines of a paving slab. In the places where bombs had ripped the streets apart she crossed to the opposite pavement to resume her journey. It helped.
More noise from the front door brought Grace back to the moment. There were two beats this time, spaced half a second apart. Whoever was there wanted her attention. They weren’t going away. She dropped her arms to her side and let them dangle for a moment before she felt Blue’s cool touch on her wrist.
Pulling off her headscarf, she checked her appearance in the mirror above the fireplace and ran her fingers through honeyed curls, satisfied when they bounced obediently into place.
Blue slipped a hand into hers and, together, they stepped onto the terracotta tiles of the hallway. The stained glass panels in the heavy door framed a dark silhouette.
Everyone knew stories of women left catatonic by a slip of paper brought by the Telegram Boy, announcing a change of status from wife to widow and Grace often rehearsed the scene.
Ships were lost in the Atlantic daily, stalked by U-boats hell bent on preventing supplies from reaching British shores and Grace made plans for when the news reached her that her husband, Albert, had been killed at sea.
She was determined to be ready and behave in the appropriate manner. Only last night she had revised her short explanation to her sons. She knew the words of sympathy she would write to Albert’s mother and the brave dignity with which she would take her children to visit their father’s memorial stone each Sunday.
Sometimes, she imagined herself weeping while her neighbours tiptoed in to console her. Other times she liked to think she’d receive their condolences in silence, only the pallor of her skin and the dark circles under her eyes betraying her grief. Her community would talk in hushed whispers about her bravery and stoicism. They’d realise they’d misjudged her.
This was not simply a macabre fascination, it was also a way to test how she felt. When she thought of herself as a widow she’d make plans: get rid of the old armchair he so loved, throw away his ridiculous collection of Toby Jugs and the battered tankard he insisted on drinking his beer from at Christmas. There were other days when she’d wail for her poor fatherless children: how could they bear it if he never came home?
Even Grace couldn’t be sure she was content to move on from her disappointments to a new chapter. So often she felt a prick of lingering love for Albert. Would it seize her too late?
One eye magnified by the dimpled glass panel in the door, peered at her. “She’s coming,” Grace heard a man’s voice address whoever was with him.
She let go of Blue, pulled her cardigan around her body and braced herself.
Any of the senses may be affected when the mind is partially or wholly unhinged. One person thinks she sees people and things that are not there. Another one feels sensations as though electricity were being passed through him, and he accuses his neighbours of setting wires for him. But these folk who seek to reach beyond the grave not infrequently become the victims of hallucinations of hearing.
BURY FREE PRESS, April 1940
“Mrs Carter?” A round-shouldered gentleman bobbed his head in a semblance of a bow but Grace saw how the muscle in his cheek twitched as he attempted to smile at her and she felt her own jaw tighten.
Grace recognised neither the man who stood before her nor any of the group who crowded the pavement behind him. Two middle aged, burly men wore identical serge trousers. Their sweaters, worn over blue shirts, had canvas epaulettes. Two ladies sported mackintoshes buckled at the waist, both wore lace-up shoes, the younger of the two had hair tightly wound under a nurse’s hat. The other clutched a buff-coloured file in the crook of one arm. She didn’t meet Grace’s glance. Grace noticed how her knuckles were white from clutching the file so tightly.
Parked in the street were an ambulance and a black motor car, facing in opposite directions; that alone was sufficient to have attracted an audience of neighbours and passers-by, who huddled in small groups feigning conversation.
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
No sooner had she spoken than the party stepped into the hallway without invitation. Grace felt herself pushed back against the bannisters and panic bubbled behind her breastbone.
The woman with the folder rested a hand on Grace’s shoulder and leaned close.
Her breath was rancid from tooth decay, small downy hairs on her chin poked through face powder. “Grace, where are Frederick and Robert? Are they here?”
A shadow fell as a policeman stepped into the front doorway; he turned to face the street, feet planted sentry-like. Grace’s mouth went dry. She stumbled away. She needed to hold her babies.
The room seemed darker as Grace stood against the parlour wall, clutching a small boy to each hip while the bespectacled doctor, flanked by heavy, uniformed men, loomed over her.
“Who are you? What do you want?” she demanded, despite her mounting confusion and alarm.
“I am Doctor Fitzpatrick. Please do not be afraid. I am here to help you.” He paused but his eyes remained fixed on Grace. She felt as if his stare might make her transparent or cause her to dissolve but she couldn’t look away. She watched his lips move again. “I need to talk to you. Do you understand?”
He reminded Grace of a hypnotist she had seen as a child, at The Gaiety in Grimsby, so she shook her head and tried not to listen, lest she fall under the spell.
“Grace is afraid,” said Mabel.
“What do who, what are do, who are you?” Grace’s lips stuck to her teeth and, as she fought to put air into her words, hysteria pulsed through her.
“I am a doctor, Mrs Carter. There have been several reports; it seems perhaps things aren’t what they should be. I want to find out how you are. How are you feeling?”
The world slowed. Grace looked to Blue, who stood by the fireplace with her head tilted to one side, studying the people with undisguised curiosity. Grace felt her mind begin to spiral away and closed her eyes against the scene for a moment.
It was Freddy who broke the silence. “Mummy?”
“We need to talk. Can we discuss this…” the doctor glanced down, “…without upsetting the children”
Wrenched back to reality by an insistent tug on her arm, Grace led her sons to the cloth-covered table in the corner of the room, seated herself on an upright chair and pulled each of them onto her lap, holding them against her body. She was aware of Blue standing close beside her.
The doctor seated himself in front of Grace while the remainder of the party gathered themselves into a small huddle next to the sideboard, all eyes on the tableau before them.
“What is it you want to talk to me about, Doctor?” Her words might have been rational but she couldn’t control the tremulous tone.
“I am from Hellingly Hospital. There have been reports from various quarters that you have not been yourself so I have come to talk to you.”
“Quarters? What quarters?” A shiver ran, ice-cold, up her spine and ricocheted across her shoulders.
“Oh, various sources,” The doctor flicked a hand as if a fly had come too close. “School teachers, the ARP warden, different folk. You must understand, we need to check you are all right.”
Grace was giddy. She hugged her children closer as if to absorb them, to put them back into the safety of the place from which they had been pulled bloodied and squealing with rage. She drew a deep breath through her nostrils and shuddered as she forced the air out.
“Grace, please stay calm, let’s not make a scene. Think of the children, let’s not do anything to distress them.”
Doctor Fitzpatrick’s voice was mesmerising. “It might be easier if we let Mrs Roberts take care of the boys while we sort this out.” The woman with halitosis and the buff folder stepped forward as if into a spotlight. “Just for a short while until we can decide what’s to be done.”
“Now which one of you is Robert and which is Frederick?” asked Mrs Roberts.
The boys seemed to shrink farther into her, but Blue’s cool hand rested on her shoulder and despite the quiver of her lips she managed to comfort them. “It’s fine, Bobby boy, it’s all right, Freddy.”
“Grace is a liar, Grace is a liar,” sang Mabel.
“Leave her alone,” Blue stamped a foot.
Mrs Roberts continued. “My, what big boys you are! How old are you? Let me guess. I think perhaps you are six!”
Freddy nodded. “Nearly.”
“Well you are certainly big enough to be six! You look like strong boys to me. Now listen, I have a motor car outside. Have you ever been in a motor car?”
Twin heads shook. “I’ve been on a bus,” offered Bobby.
“Yes, twice.” Freddy held up both forefingers, side by side. “There and back. And we’ve seen a tractor.”
“Well, today I am going to take you for a ride in my motor car. Does that sound good?”
Freddy wriggled, twisted his neck to peer up at his mother, “Can we?” and when she didn’t answer he clasped his hands as if in prayer, “Please?”
The doctor patted Grace’s arm, “Just for a little while,” he suggested. “It will be easier to sort this out once we’re alone.”
“It will be all right, Grace, I’ll stay with you,” whispered Blue.
Grace saw the excitement on the upturned face and forced herself to smile. “Yes boys, off you go and have fun. I won’t be long. I just have to sort something out with…” Bobby pushed his face into Grace’s body but Freddy took command, leaping to his feet and dancing with excitement.
“Come on, Bobby.” Freddy tugged his brother from their mother’s embrace. I’ll let you hold my big marble, it’s only for a little while. We’ll be back for dinnertime won’t we, Mum?”
Without the warmth of the children against her, Grace shivered again. She wanted to speak but found herself mute with fear.
Mrs Roberts seized the moment, “Good. Well come along then. This is jolly exciting isn’t it? Let’s go outside and get you into the car while the doctor talks to your mother.” Freddy grabbed her outstretched hand.
“Where are we going?” Bobby clung to his brother’s arm.
“Come along boys,” cajoled the lady.
“We’re going for a ride in a real motor car, silly,” said Freddy as he skipped, dragging Bobby behind him.
“Mummy,” whispered Bobby just as he was pulled out of view.
Then came a child’s voice from the hallway, this time louder, more urgent. “I don’t think I want to go, thank you. I want my mummy.”
“I am afraid your Mother is unwell but the doctor can help her. Come along, button up, dear. Chin up,” Mrs Roberts’ reply echoed from the hallway. “Big boys don’t cry.”
Grace rose, tears blurring her eyes, wanting only to comfort her distressed child but her way was blocked by one of the men in blue uniform, who stepped into the doorway before she could reach it. He stretched his arm towards her, his hand palm out, like a policeman on point duty.
“Let me through,” she demanded, but the man just raised his eyebrows and shrugged with a vague smile of amusement.
The doctor stood and indicated the empty chair. “Grace, you must keep calm and sit down.” He was firm, almost stern now, gone the syrupy reassurances. This was not a request. Grace swung around to face him, defiant.
She swallowed the huge eruption of fear that rose from the pit of her stomach, clenched both fists and glared at the doctor.
“Grace is angry, Grace is rude, Grace is frightened.”
“Be quiet, Mabel,” snapped Grace, flicking her eyes to the ceiling.
“Grace, calm down,” he spoke deliberately, not taking his eyes from hers. “We believe you are unwell and I want to admit you to hospital for a few days to observe you.”
Grace tried to object but the words wouldn’t line up in her mouth.
The doctor continued in a measured tone. “A constable has been despatched to collect George from school. We will write and let your husband know where you are. The boys will be well looked after. Mrs Roberts is taking them to St Wilfrid’s. The important thing is to get you well again.”
A sudden surge of anger gave Grace a voice, “St Wilfrid’s! They’re not bloody orphans. How dare you. Who put you up to this? It’s that warden, Watson. And his wife. They’ve been at me for months, damn them. Well, you can all bugger off. I didn’t ask you in and I’d like you to leave now, go on with you. Doctor or not, you can all go. I will have none of it, do you hear me?”
The doctor stood, unmoved. “We have permission from the court to take you by force if necessary but it will be better if you come of your own volition.”
There must have been a mistake, a mix-up. They’d got the wrong person. Grace was sure that must be so. She stared at the doctor.
“That means voluntarily.”
Grace wanted to tell him she knew but there was no breath left in her body.
The man to her right whispered in her ear, spiteful and mocking. “Speak up, speak up. Useless girl, stupid woman, silly cow, pathetic specimen.”
Grace clenched her fists over her ears and cried out. “I am not listening! Please, Blue make him stop.”
Dr Fitzpatrick was scrutinising her, his eyebrows dipped together above his nose. “What is it, Grace? What’s happening?”
“Damn it.” Her eyes scoured the room. She rushed to the mantelpiece and began lifting and replacing objects: a cup commemorating King George’s coronation, two dark buttons the size of a ha’penny, coloured sand in a glass tube A Gift from Alum Bay, a bundle of cigarette cards tied with red wool, a forgotten teaspoon which she wiped on her apron and stuffed into the pocket. From behind the heavy wooden clock, a wedding gift from Albert’s parents, she took a sheaf of letters and postcards and, cradling them to her chest. She flicked through them, muttering in her concentration.
“What are you looking for, Grace?” asked the doctor
“If you don’t pester, I’ll come to you sooner. Maybe September for words of praise, it’s a long way to glory, anyway tributes for the kitten, Christmas wasn’t far, for your delectation, I think the box shouldn’t be so close to the sea…” She wanted to stop but the words tumbled out of her.
Doctor Fitzpatrick rubbed his forehead and turned to the window which gave a view of Grace’s Victory garden. She watched his shoulders flex under his jacket and was momentarily relieved not to be under his scrutiny, but after a few seconds, with a weary sigh, he faced her again. “Take her,” he told the people behind her
Postcards and letters spattered across the floor as hands forced Grace’s upper arms flat to her side and bent her forearms behind her back. A meaty paw clasped both of her wrists together. Grace’s objections, though they felt formed in her mouth, disintegrated to froth as she spoke and threads of spittle stretched between her lips. A blanket was wrapped around her shoulders but it offered no warmth and she could barely hear the nurse’s words of reassurance above the clamouring of the vile, insulting voice which boomed from the right.
“Do something, stupid girl. Worthless cretin. Wretched woman. Hopeless. Slut. Whore.”
She was propelled along the passageway, into the brightness of the day. The black car had gone. The back of the ambulance gaped like a hungry mouth ready to devour her.
Some onlookers stared, unashamed, gawping. Others peeped from behind curtains or over their shoulders as they pretended to be washing windows or sweeping steps. Grace called to them for help.
She remembered later the shock and disgust on their faces as their eyes slid way.
Reeling from the realisation that she was overpowered and alone, Grace let herself be pushed up the steps and laid on a hard gurney while her bones turned to ash inside her. As the two attendants begin to bring thick canvas straps across her body to buckle her to the bed, her distress reached its zenith. Grace writhed against the bonds and cried out.
The doctor climbed the steps. With another sigh, he opened his black bag. The slam of ambulance doors resonated like the toll of a bell.