It was Aunt Janet’s idea. A year or two earlier, at a rare family get-together -- either a wake or a wedding -- she’d insisted that my older brother David and I go to boarding school, and since she’d offered to pay the bills, nobody had argued with her. As she’d pointed out, our father, her brother Harold, could never afford to educate us privately on his bank clerk’s salary. My brother was eleven and I was eight, so wasn’t it high time? And shouldn’t we be jolly grateful to be sent to The Grange, a boarding school 70 miles away from home and 30 miles from London?
It was the second week of September 1939, ten days or so after the outbreak of the Second World War. On the first chilly autumn mornings a few days before we left home, David grew morose and silent. His eyes were red each day at breakfast, and he spent most of the time in his room and, when he came down for meals, lowered his eyes and picked at his food. Sometimes I could hear him crying through the locked bathroom door.
“This is the next-to-last lunch before school,” David told me. And in the same way he’d mark ‘the last go on the swing,’ and ‘the last walk in the garden,’ and, finally, ‘the last day at home.’
I was already a bit of a show-off, and viewed the situation differently. It seems I couldn’t stop talking about it to everyone; not only to Tom Gamble, the gardener, and Doris, the maid, but also Father Fitzgerald and the milkman, the postman, the neighbors and any passing stranger who’d listen.
“We’re going away to boarding school,” I told them. “Won’t it be fun?”
When the last day came, we drove off after lunch with Mother in the new family car, a little black Flying Standard 8 that still smelt of leather inside. Dad was at work, as usual. He’d said goodbye after breakfast, not stooping to kiss us, but shaking hands gravely before riding away to the bank on his bicycle, neither waving nor looking back.
With our luggage in the cramped trunk, we drove through Kent, past miles of sunny apple orchards and hop fields. It was market day in Maidstone, the county town, where the pungent odor of horse and cow manure wafted through the car’s open windows, mingled with the smell of gasoline. We dawdled in line with trucks carrying squealing pigs in ash-wood baskets piled four or five high, and pony traps and horse-carts loaded with flimsy crates of day-old chicks and goslings. In this bucolic setting there was nothing to show, yet, that Britain was already ten days into another world war.
Outside Maidstone the roads were clear, and we parked for tea in Westerham. Mother -- presiding over the bone china cups and dainty cucumber and cress sandwiches – tried to cheer us up and delay the pain of parting.
“Winston Churchill lives near here, boys!” she said brightly.
But we didn’t know who Churchill was. There wasn’t much reason why we should. He’d been in limbo for ten years. He wasn’t even in the cabinet, and wouldn’t become Prime Minister for another nine months. Whoever he was, we didn’t care about him. Our thoughts were elsewhere.
At around five that afternoon, seventy or eighty miles from home, we drove through the gates of the school, and stopped outside the front door of a big, red brick house. A short, paunchy, smiling man stood at the top of the steps, and trotted down to meet us, holding out a chubby hand.
“Why, it’s Mrs. Birch!” the man said. “Brodie Walker, remember?”
“I do indeed.” Mother and Walker shook hands. They’d met a few months before, when she and Aunt Janet had come to look over the school.
“And these, as anyone can see, are your two lads.” Mr. Walker said, with a self-satisfied smirk.
Mother turned to us. “Boys, this is the headmaster, Mr. Walker. Mr. Walker, this is David, and here is John.”
Beaming, Mr. Walker patted us on the head, touseling our hair. “Capital!” he said. “Come along in, and I’ll get the porter to bring in their things.”
There weren’t many things for the porter to bring in, only a suitcase each, our tuck-boxes – the little wooden chests in which we kept our private possessions -- and our new gas masks in brown cardboard boxes. The rest of the luggage, cabin trunks that wouldn’t have fitted into the car, had been sent ahead by train.
At this first encounter with Mr. Walker, David was almost frozen with apprehension. With his eyes cast down, he shuffled up the school steps while I, less aware of the wrench that parting with Mother would soon bring, raced happily behind the headmaster two steps at a time.
In front of the empty fireplace in the big drawing room, with an aspidistra in each window, and big overstuffed chairs draped with lace anti-macassars, we met Mrs. Walker, a jolly, tubby woman.
Mother exchanged social nothings with the Walkers for a few minutes, but soon it was time for her to leave. She was reluctant to make the long drive home in the darkness of the newly-imposed wartime blackout, on roads no longer lit by street lights, in a car whose headlamps were now masked to permit only the narrowest slits of light. Instead she planned to stay the night with Aunt Janet, who lived not far from the school.
Standing in the dusk by the car, my brother and I gave Mother a final hug. Suddenly it dawned on me that I wouldn’t see or speak to her again until Christmas, and I found it hard to unlock my arms and let her go.
“I want you to be very brave,” she said. “Daddy and I will write every week, and Mr. Walker says he’ll see to it that you do, too.”
She seemed so cheerful as she drove out through the gate, honking her horn in final farewell. Didn’t she have that same hot feeling around her eyes, that little involuntary quiver of the lips? Or was she just bravely hiding her feelings?
David and I were alone together. I took his hand as we walked up the steps and back into the school.
Back in the house, we followed Mr. Walker into the common room to meet the school’s dozen or so other boarders, a number of whom were the sons of Colonial Office officials, police officers and district commissioners serving in far away, exotic-sounding British territories in Africa and Asia. Everyone was friendly enough, but there was more than one scared, red-eyed boy doing his best to come to terms with the strangeness of the first few hours at boarding school.
When Mrs. Walker, who acted as the school’s matron, announced that she was taking us to see the dormitory, I expected this to be somewhere in the yet-to-be-seen upper floor of the headmaster’s house, but was surprised when, instead of leading us upstairs, she took us to the cellar where, lit by bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, three rows of four or five two-tier bunks stretched into the darkness. Mrs. Walker explained that, at least for the first few months of the war, we’d sleep in this hastily prepared place until her husband and his staff had a better idea of whether there would be bombing raids on the city.
There was something unfamiliar and stark about the freshly whitewashed walls of the slightly damp and moldy-smelling underground room, with its bunks built from unfinished pine, each with a mesh of chicken wire to support a straw mattress. But a brave attempt had been made to give this dark, windowless place a homier look. An inexpensive Persian-style carpet had been laid on the brick floor, and unframed posters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been stuck on the walls. Later that evening Mrs. Walker gave us each a navy blue corduroy bag about the size of a pillow, on which our initials had been embroidered, in which to carry our pajamas, slippers, dressing gowns and a few treasured possessions such as a small teddy bear, downstairs each day.
That night, after the lights were out and someone lit a candle as a night-light in a corner of the room, I lay in my bunk painfully aware that something was missing. Every night of my life until then there had always been a bedtime ritual at home. My mother would come into the bedroom, open the window and turn out the light. Then she would draw deeply on her cigarette in its tortoise-shell holder to cause enough of a glow to light up my face for her to kiss me good night. This had never struck me as an odd procedure. I had always taken it for granted, and now I craved it. But for the first time there was no cigarette, no glow, no kiss, no Mother.
Lying there, in the lower bunk with David restless in the tier above me, I wondered whether the bombers would come that night. I knew that the city of Guildford, and The Grange, were far closer to London than we had been at home. For years my grandmother and aunts had told fireside tales of how the Kaiser’s zeppelins had droned low over their house during what they called The Great War, and how the German aviators had leaned out of their gondolas and dropped their bombs by hand, smashing Grandmother’s greenhouse. But it had been a long, tiring day, and very soon I was fast asleep.
Over the next few weeks, David and I grew used to this new life away from home. Mr. Walker, the headmaster, turned out to be a warm, paternal man who, having no children of his own, treated the dozen or so boarders at the school as his own family. No bombs fell on that first night nor, oddly, on any night during our next two years at The Grange, and after a few weeks we slept upstairs in airy, well-lit dormitories.
However, all the reality of war came to us during our vacations back in rural Kent. The Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF often thwarted the Germans, like their fathers twenty years earlier in World War I, in their attempts to reach London, this time. They turned tail and fled home, dropping their bombs on the farms and villages that lay in their path to London along the estuary of the river Thames. The Battle of Britain was fought literally over our heads at home in July and August, 1940, when almost every day for those two months, the sky was filled with dense formations of German bombers and their fighter escorts. In one raid alone, on August 24, 1940, thirty-eight German planes were lost, and twenty-two British fighters, some of them spinning in flames into the fields and woods around us.
But there were other signs in Guildford that a war was going on. Rationing of food became so difficult that, by the time David and I moved to a bigger boarding school in 1941, every person was allowed only one ounce of cheese, four ounces of butter, one packet of dehydrated egg, and three pints of milk each week. At nighttime, volunteer air-raid wardens patrolled the streets to detect any chink of light left showing through the thick black curtains that veiled every window in the country. Signposts on roads and highways were soon taken down to confuse the enemy in the likely event of a Nazi invasion
And then there was the threat of poison gas. One morning early in October, Mr. Walker led us in a chattering, gray-uniformed crocodile along streets strewn with yellow and rust horse chestnut leaves to a public park near the center of Guildford. He’d explained at breakfast, his voice deliberately calm, that the reason for this outing was to test our gas masks in a public air raid shelter. In the concrete blockhouse under the trees in the park, a uniformed civil defense volunteer, who introduced himself as Mr. Ferritt, showed us, with the same matter-of-fact tone that Mr. Walker had used earlier that morning, how to put on and adjust our gas-masks. These were primitive black rubber affairs, each with an oval window made of some clear material. The ‘chin’ of the mask was fitted with a shiny black, perforated metal cylinder filled with some sort of filter that, he assured us, could cope with any known poison gas.
We huddled on wooden benches arranged in a square in the dimly-lit concrete chamber, wearing our gas-masks while, in the middle, Mr. Ferritt donned his own mask, struck a match and lit a canister of tear gas. A quickly growing plume of white smoke curled out of the canister.
“By now, boys” he said a minute or two later, his voice raised, yet not too distinct through the rubber mask, “this room is full of tear gas. But there’s no need to be afraid. It’ll make your eyes run a bit, and you may be a little uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely safe and won’t do you any harm. You can’t tell it’s here in the room because I’m sure all of your masks are working properly.
“Now,” Mr. Ferritt went on, “Trust me. I want you to do something. Poke two fingers between your mask and your cheek to let in some of the tear gas to prove that the masks are working properly.”
He moved around the seated square of boys to see whether everyone was following his instructions. I found the strange smell of the gas, its irritation in the back of my throat and the burning in my eyes unpleasant but tolerable. But soon there were muffled cries of fear around the room, and more than a few boys had become unnerved by the experiment. Perhaps the formulation was too strong but, whatever the reason, a number had started crying hysterically. Others were dashing around the poorly lit room, tripping over the benches and bumping into each other in a frantic search for the door.
Mr. Ferritt seemed completely paralyzed by the scene, and was unable to cope with the situation. But Mr. Walker, who had been present as an observer, wearing his own gas mask, immediately jumped up and threw open the doors at each end of the gas-filled room, shooing his charges out into the fresh air.
We gathered under a tree and watched and listened while Mr. Walker confronted Mr. Ferritt, grasping him by both shoulders, and shouting into his face. On that one occasion, he used words most of us had never heard before, and we never heard him use them again.