Mary Fissleborough and her sister Daisy are evacuated from London during World War II to escape the Blitz bombing. This is the story of their exploits and the people they are billeted with.
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The train screeched. It jolted and banged, and finally began to move. Everyone in the compartment was crying, except Mary Fissleborough. It would take more than that to make Mary Fissleborough cry. She was fourteen. Mary glanced through the dirty window at her mother who was walking beside the carriage. She was peering in through the mucky window and waving daft little waves with the tips of her fingers.
Daisy cried too, not because she felt like crying but because everyone else was, especially the three la-di-da sisters opposite, it seemed the done thing. Skinny girls they were, the la-di-da's, pasty, in green skirts, and what their mother would have called, sensible shoes. Then there was the boy, the only one there, opposite by the window. He was bawling his eyes out, but he had an excuse, for he was only eight, and by himself.
The train picked up speed and cleared the end of the platform at Paddington station. The sun blasted through dirty glass, brightening the day, warming hearts, and the crying soon stopped, except for Robert, though even he was reduced to a snivel.
'Right,' said Mary in her cockney accent, 'who are we all then?'
Everyone paid close attention because Mary was the eldest, that much was obvious, almost a grown woman, you could tell. The eldest of the la-di-da's took it upon herself to introduce their side, though she would immediately regret it.
'We're the Knott twisters,' she said; as she adjusted her thin framed brown spectacles. The youngest Knott twister giggled.
'Sorry,' said the eldest one and she tried again. 'We're the Knott ss-ss-sisters, ss-sisters.'
'Yeah, I getcha,' butted in Mary, 'but what's ya names?'
This time the middle sister answered. 'I'm Norah, she's Edna,' that was the eldest one, 'and she's Benny, the tiddler, that's short for Benedicta.'
Mary looked at Benny, and Benny peered back from between her Teddy Bear's ears. The titch smiled a hint of a smile, a smile that melted Mary's cold heart, though she would not let on. Instead she smiled back the tightest flicker of a smile that only titch could have seen. Now they were friends, friends for life.
'How old are you?' demanded Mary, determined to establish everyone's rank and numbers before the train stopped.
The middle twister spoke again. 'Edna's thirteen, I'm eleven and Benny's eight.'
As before, Mary's eyes crossed with Benny's, and as before they flickered.
'I'm Mary Fissleborough, and this is me sis Daisy, I'm four'een and she's twelve.'
The twisters nodded as one as if they were taking in a new multiplication table, and before they could add anything else, Mary turned to her left and said, 'So who are you lot?'
These two looked like sisters as well, dark hair and dark eyes, well dressed and scrubbed clean for the day by the look of them. The nearest one spoke, not exactly public school, but certainly not cockney either.
'I'm Sarah Abraham,' she said confidently, 'I'm twelve and this is my sister Ruth, she's eleven.'
The second sister sitting by the window leant forward so that Mary could take a good butchers at her. The girl nodded, and Mary nodded back. Finally, she turned her attention to the little boy by the window, beside Benny.
'So that leaves you mush. What's your name?'
The boy looked back without saying a word. He seemed terrified.
'Come on, I aint gonna eatcha.'
'I'm Robert,' he whispered, 'I'm eight.'
'God blimey, it shouldn't be allowed, eight year olds on the train by themselves.'
'I aint by meself,' he said courageously, 'I'm with you!'
'That's right,' said Daisy, 'he's with us.'
Benny turned to Robert. 'Do you want to see my bear?'
Robert nodded. 'I'm eight too,' said Benny.
'He's a nice bear. What's his name?'
'Now the introductions are out the way,' said Mary 'let's get down to more serious business. Anyone got any fags?'
They all looked at Mary as if she was from a different planet. Of course they didn't have fags.
'I had some,' continued Mary, 'but me muvver took them off me, the old bag.'
The Knott sisters looked at one another aghast. Fancy talking about your own mother like that. It was a look mirrored on the Abraham faces. Mary didn't care what they thought. She knew what was what.
'Sod it! No fags. What about food then?'
That was different. The faces all smiled together for they all had food, loads of it, sandwiches, apples, homemade jam tarts, and Robert possessed, tucked away beneath his clean underpants in his tiny case, a lemon curd turnover. Treasure indeed.
'Shall we have a picnic?' suggested Norah Knott.
'Yeah, let's,' agreed Mary, and in the next instant they were all unwrapping their food to show and share, though for the moment the lemon curd treasure would remain locked away.
'Here, have one of these,' said Mary, offering one of her best sandwiches to the Abraham girls.
'What's in them?' asked Sarah.
'Boiled ham, off the bone, beautiful it is, I made them meself.'
Sarah's hand retreated. 'No, if you don't mind, I'll have one of my own.'
'What's in yours?'
The train rattled and banged as it crossed a complicated points system. The kids swayed back and forth, and laughed and yelled, before settling back to the picnic. This was good, better than being at school anyhow, better than being at home even. When all the food had gone and the lemonade bottles were empty, Mary burped. Edna had been dying to burp too, but hadn't dared. Now she would, and everyone followed suit, and for a few moments the compartment sounded like a pig farm.
When they had all finished, the two little ones fell asleep, leaning against one another's shoulders, Teddy somehow astride both of their laps. Mary glanced at them and smiled. Leave 'em be, let 'em sleep. She glanced around the compartment again. There was a door on either side that opened out on to the track; and no corridor because they were in third class. And right at that moment as if serving a warning to them, the train increased speed, and the tracks and telegraph poles hurtled by. No one would get out of there alive, if they were ever foolish enough to try.
'You know what's going to happen next don't ya?' said Mary.
'What?' Edna managed to say without a stutter.
'Nowhere to go for a Jimmy riddle is there.'
'Oh hell,' said Daisy. 'If I'd have known that I wouldn?t have drunk all that lemonade.'
'Daft cow, it's your own fault.'
Daisy pulled a face. She was not happy.
'Does anyone know this place we're heading for?'
Mary's question was greeted with five blank looks and two sleepy heads.
'Might as well ask the blasted bear,' she muttered to herself, ' 'Oniton, or whatever it's called.'
'Honiton,' corrected Sarah. 'It's called Honiton.'
'That's what I said, ' 'Oniton.'
'It's in Devon,' said Sarah. 'It's famous for lace making.'
'Oh is it?' said Mary sarcastically. 'You're a little swot aintcha. Ruddy miles away that's what it is.'
'Two hundred miles,' added Sarah, 'so papa says.'
'So papa says,' repeated Mary under her breath. Papa indeed. What the heck was a papa when you're at home? Oh she knew it meant father right enough, it was the word papa that grated so. What type of people called their dad papa? It sounded daft, bleeding stupid in fact, but it didn't matter to Mary, she didn't have no papa, she didn't have no father either, not one she'd ever seen, but that was her business, and she'd keep that to herself. The only thing she knew for certain was that her father was a different geezer to Daisy's old man. That was one thing her mother did get right. 'You keep your ears open, and your gob shut', and 'Our business is our business, and keep it that way'. Mary knew how the world worked well enough. Learn everything about others, but keep your own counsel, or was it council, she wasn't sure of that, but that was the phrase she used, you keep your own counsel. And she would do precisely that.
'Mary?' Young Robert was awake. 'I need to go.'
She clicked her tongue and glanced at the dusty light on the ceiling. Several of the other girls copied her. Click, glance, click, glance.
'What is it about boys? They can never stop peeing!'
'I need to go Mary.'
'Men are pathetic, not like gels, gels can keep it in. Boys are mucking useless.'
'He's hardly a man,' said Daisy.
'S'pose. Well you aint going in here. Don't you dare wet your pants, or wet the floor. If you have to go, do it in the empty lemonade bottle.'
'I can't do that!'
'Why ever not?'
'I can't go, not in front of seven gels.'
'Suit your self, but don't you dare wet the floor!'
There was a moment's silence and then Daisy said, 'He could go out the winda Mary.'
'I'd never reach,' moped Robert.
'He could go out the window if you lifted him up,' said Sarah.
Edna nodded at that idea. What fun. Daisy did too.
'Will you go out the winda if I lift ya up?'
Robert nodded enthusiastically; he would go anywhere, just so long as he could go.
'Get ready then. Undo your buttons.'
He gingerly adjusted his clothing as Mary stepped to the door and pulled the window all the way down. A fearsome rush of balmy air filled the compartment and blew the Knott sisters' long hair every which way.
'Ready?' said Mary.
Robert nodded again. Everyone watched entranced.
'Don't go until I say. Understand?'
'And make sure it goes out the winda. I'll belt ya if you go over me best jacket.'
She picked him up under the shoulders as if he was a baby. She was fit and strong and had no trouble lifting him. He managed to place his feet on the opened window and prepared himself.
'Is it going to go out?'
Robert nodded again.
'Go on then.'
'Aaahhh!' Robert let go, and it did go out, but not far. The force of the wind blew it backwards, and inwards, through the open window of the following compartment.
Mary heard a boy shout in a cockney accent, 'Bloody hell shut that winda, it's raining!'
Another said, 'It can't be raining! There aint a cloud in the sky. That aint rain, that's piss that's what that is, some dirty oik's pissing out the winda!'
'Have you finished?' said Mary, struggling not to laugh.
For the final time Robert nodded.
She pulled him in and shut the window with a bang.
'Do up your pants,' but he didn't need to be told that, for his tiny fingers were already fiddling with the unmatched repaired buttons that lined his flies.
Ten minutes after that the brakes went on with a judder and the train slowed.
'We there already?' asked Mary.
'Can't be,' said the Abraham girls as one, 'not so soon.'
They were pulling into a station, and it was a large station too. The platform was crammed with milk churns, and soldiers smoking hastily made roll-ups, and basketed racing pigeons cooing in anticipation, and stuffed dogs in glass cases, mutts that used to collect money for the blind, working the platforms from one end to the other, the collecting box strapped to their backs as they waddled along between duly impressed waiting passengers.
Mary leapt up and opened the window again and as she leant out, she almost knocked the peaked hat off a fat old guard who was walking alongside the train. He was shouting: 'Salisbury! Salisbury! Toilet stop! Toilet stop! Last stop before Honiton. This train will be waiting for ten minutes. You have ten minutes!'
'He could have waited until here,' said Daisy.
'I don't think so,' mumbled Robert.
'Come on Benny,' said Mary. 'Wanna come with me to the loo?'
Benny looked at Robert. 'Are you getting off too?'
'Nope,' he said looking down at his comic cuts.
'Will you look after Teddy then?'
As was his habit, Robert nodded.
'Be a good Teddy bear,' said Benny earnestly. 'We won't be too long,' and with that all the girls clambered down to the platform and disappeared into the bustling crowd, leaving the stuffed bear to look after little Robert.
Chapter 2, and the rest of the book, is available by puirchasing a download at www.thefishcatcher.co.uk