Times of War Collection
Times of War Collection
Private Peaceful An Elephant in the Garden Shadow Michael Morpurgo
For my dear godmother,
FIVE PAST TEN
TWENTY TO ELEVEN
NEARLY QUARTER PAST ELEVEN
TEN TO MIDNIGHT
TWENTY-FOUR MINUTES PAST TWELVE
NEARLY FIVE TO ONE
TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTES PAST ONE
FOURTEEN MINUTES PAST TWO
A MINUTE PAST THREE
TWENTY-FIVE PAST THREE
NEARLY FOUR O’CLOCK
FIVE TO FIVE
ONE MINUTE TO SIX
They’ve gone now, and I‘m alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won’t waste a single moment of it. I shan’t sleep it away. I won’t dream it away either. I mustn’t, because every moment of it will be far too precious.
I want to try to remember everything, just as it was, just as it happened. I’ve had nearly eighteen years of yesterdays and tomorrows, and tonight I must remember as many of them as I can. I want tonight to be long, as long as my life, not filled with fleeting dreams that rush me on towards dawn.
Tonight, more than any other night of my life, I want to feel alive.
Charlie is taking me by the hand, leading me because he knows I don’t want to go. I’ve never worn a collar before and it’s choking me. My boots are strange and heavy on my feet. My heart is heavy too, because I dread what I am going to. Charlie has told me often how terrible this school-place is: about Mr Munnings and his raging tempers and the long whipping cane he hangs on the wall above his desk.
Big Joe doesn’t have to go to school and I don’t think that’s fair at all. He’s much older than me. He’s even older than Charlie and he’s never been to school. He stays at home with Mother, and sits up in his tree singing Oranges and Lemons, and laughing. Big Joe is always happy, always laughing. I wish I could be happy like him. I wish I could be at home like him. I don’t want to go with Charlie. I don’t want to go to school.
I look back, over my shoulder, hoping for a reprieve, hoping that Mother will come running after me and take me home. But she doesn’t come and she doesn’t come, and school and Mr Munnings and his cane are getting closer with every step.
“Piggyback?” says Charlie. He sees my eyes full of tears and knows how it is. Charlie always knows how it is. He’s three years older than me, so he’s done everything and knows everything. He’s strong, too, and very good at piggybacks. So I hop up and cling on tight, crying behind my closed eyes, trying not to whimper out loud. But I cannot hold back my sobbing for long because I know that this morning is not the beginning of anything — not new and exciting as Mother says it is — but rather the end of my beginning. Clinging on round Charlie’s neck I know that I am living the last moments of my carefree time, that I will not be the same person when I come home this afternoon.
I open my eyes and see a dead crow hanging from the fence, his beak open. Was he shot, shot in mid-scream, as he began to sing, his raucous tune scarcely begun? He sways, his feathers still catching the wind even in death, his family and friends cawing in their grief and anger from the high elm trees above us. I am not sorry for him. It could be him that drove away my robin and emptied her nest of her eggs. My eggs. Five of them there had been, live and warm under my fingers. I remember I took them out one by one and laid them in the palm of my hand. I wanted them for my tin, to blow them like Charlie did and lay them in cotton wool with my blackbird’s eggs and my pigeon’s eggs. I would have taken them. But something made me draw back, made me hesitate. The robin was watching me from Father’s rose bush, her black and beady eyes unblinking, begging me.
Father was in that bird’s eyes. Under the rose bush, deep down, buried in the damp and wormy earth were all his precious things. Mother had put his pipe in first. Then Charlie laid his hobnail boots side by side, curled into each other, sleeping. Big Joe knelt down and covered the boots in Father’s old scarf.
“Your turn, Tommo,” Mother said. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was holding the gloves he’d worn the morning he died. I remembered picking one of them up. I knew what they did not know, what I could never tell them.
Mother helped me to do it in the end, so that Father’s gloves lay there on top of his scarf, palms uppermost, thumbs touching. I felt those hands willing me not to do it, willing me to think again, not to take the eggs, not to take what was not mine. So I didn’t do it. Instead I watched them grow, saw the first scrawny skeletal stirrings, the nest of gaping, begging beaks, the frenzied screeching at feeding time; witnessed too late from my bedroom window the last of the early-morning massacre, the parent robins watching like me, distraught and helpless, while the marauding crows made off skywards cackling, their murderous deed done. I don’t like crows. I’ve never liked crows. That crow hanging there on the fence got what he deserved. That’s what I think.
Charlie is finding the hill up into the village hard going. I can see the church tower and below it the roof of the school. My mouth is dry with fear. I cling on tighter.
“First day’s the worst, Tommo,” Charlie’s saying, breathing hard. “It’s not so bad. Honest.” Whenever Charlie says “honest", I know it’s not true. “Anyway I’ll look after you.”
That I do believe, because he always has. He does look after me too, setting me down, and walking me through all the boisterous banter of the school yard, his hand on my shoulder, comforting me, protecting me.
The school bell rings and we line up in two silent rows, about twenty children in each. I recognise some of them from Sunday school. I look around and realise that Charlie is no longer beside me. He’s in the other line, and he’s winking at me. I blink back and he laughs. I can’t wink with one eye, not yet. Charlie always thinks that’s very funny. Then I see Mr Munnings standing on the school steps cracking his knuckles in the suddenly silent school yard. He has tufty cheeks and a big belly under his waistcoat. He has a gold watch open in his hand. It’s his eyes that are frightening and I know they are searching me out.
“Aha!” he cries, pointing right at me. Everyone has turned to look. “A new boy, a new boy to add to my trials and tribulations. Was not one Peaceful enough? What have I done to deserve another one? First a Charlie Peaceful, and now a Thomas Peaceful. Is there no end to my woes? Understand this, Thomas Peaceful, that here I am your lord and master. You do what I say when I say it. You do not cheat, you do not lie, you do not blaspheme. You do not come to school in bare feet. And your hands will be clean. These are my commandments. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”
“Yes sir,” I whisper, surprised I can find my voice at all.
We file in past him, hands behind our backs. Charlie smiles across at me as the two lines part: “Tiddlers” into my classroom, “Bigguns” into his. I’m the littlest of the Tiddlers. Most of the Bigguns are even bigger than Charlie, fourteen years old some of them. I watch him until the door closes behind him and he’s gone. Until this moment I have never known what it is to feel truly alone.
My bootlaces are undone. I can’t tie laces. Charlie can, but he’s not here. I hear Mr Munnings’ thunderous voice next door calling the roll and I am so glad we have Miss McAllister. She may speak with a strange accent, but at least she smiles, and at least she’s not Mr Munnings.
“Thomas,” she tells me, “you will be sitting there, next to Molly. And your laces are undone.”
Everyone seems to be tittering at me as I take my place. All I want to do is to escape, to run, but I don’t dare do it. All I can do is cry. I hang my head so they can’t see my tears corning.
“Crying won’t do your laces up, you know,” Miss McAllister says.
“I can’t, Miss,” I tell her.
“Can’t is not a word we use in my class, Thomas Peaceful,” she says. “We shall just have to teach you to tie your bootlaces. That’s what we’re all here for, Thomas, to learn. That’s why we come to school, don’t we? You show him, Molly. Molly’s the oldest giri in my class, Thomas, and my best pupil. She’ll help you.”
So while she calls the roll Molly kneels down in front of me and does up my laces. She ties laces very differently from Charlie, delicately, more slowly, in a great loopy double knot. She doesn’t look up at me while she’s doing it, not once, and I wish she would. She has hair the same colour as Billyboy, Father’s old horse — chestnut brown and shining — and I want to reach out and touch it. Then she looks up at me at last and smiles. It’s all I need. Suddenly I no longer want to run home. I want to stay here with Molly. I know I have a friend.
In playtime, in the school yard, I want to go over and talk to her, but I can’t because she’s always surrounded by a gaggle of giggling girls. They keep looking at me over their shoulders and laughing. I look for Charlie, but Charlie’s splitting conkers open with his friends, all of them Bigguns. I go to sit on an old tree stump. I undo my bootlaces and try to do them up again remembering how Molly did it. I try again and again. After only a short while I find I can do it. It’s untidy, and it’s loose, but I can do it. Best of all, from across the school yard Molly sees I can do it, and smiles at me.
At home we don’t wear boots, except for church. Mother does of course, and Father always wore his great hobnail boots, the boots he died in. When the tree came down I was there in the wood with him, just the two of us. Before I ever went to school he’d often take me off to work with him, to keep me out of mischief, he said. I‘d ride up behind him on Billyboy and hang on round his waist, my face pressed into his back. Whenever Billyboy broke into a gallop I’d love it. We galloped all the way that morning, up the hill, up through Ford’s Cleave Wood. I was still giggling when he lifted me down.
“Off you go, you scallywag, you,” he said. “Enjoy yourself.”
I hardly needed to be told. There were badger holes and fox holes to peer into, deer prints to follow perhaps, flowers to pick, or butterflies to chase. But that morning I found a mouse, a dead mouse. I buried it under a pile of leaves. I was making a wooden cross for it. Father was chopping away rhythmically nearby, grunting and groaning at every stroke as he always did. It sounded at first as if Father was just groaning a bit louder. That’s what I thought it was. But then, strangely, the sound seemed to be coming not from where he was, but from somewhere high up in the branches.
I looked up to see the great tree above me swaying when all the other trees were standing still. It was creaking while all the other trees were silent. Only slowly did I realise it was coming down, and that when it fell it would fall right on top of me, that I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. I stood and stared, mesmerised at the gradual fall of it, my legs frozen under me, quite incapable of movement.
I hear Father shouting: “Tommo! Tommo! Run, Tommo!” But I can’t. I see Father running towards me through the trees, his shirt flailing. I feel him catch me up and toss me aside in one movement, like a wheat sheaf. There is a roaring thunder in my ears and then no more.
When I wake I see Father at once, see the soles of his boots with their worn nails. I crawl over to where he is lying, pinned to the ground under the leafy crown of the great tree. He is on his back, his face turned away from me as if he doesn’t want me to see. One arm is outstretched towards me, his glove fallen off, his finger pointing at me. There is blood coming from his nose, dropping on the leaves. His eyes are open, but I know at once they are not seeing me. He is not breathing. When I shout at him, when I shake him, he does not wake up. I pick up his glove.
In the church we’re sitting side by side in the front row, Mother, Big Joe, Charlie and me. We’ve never in our lives sat in the front row before. It’s where the Colonel and his family always sit. The coffin rests on trestles, my father inside in his Sunday suit. A swallow swoops over our heads all through the prayers, all through the hymns, flitting from window to window, from the belfry to the altar, looking for some way out. And I know for certain it is Father trying to escape. I know it because he told us more than once that in his next life he’d like to be a bird, so he could fly free wherever he wanted.
Big Joe keeps pointing up at the swallow. Then without any warning he gets up and walks to the back of the church where he opens the door. When he gets back he explains to Mother what he’s done in his loud voice, and Grandma Wolf, sitting beside us in her black bonnet, scowls at him, at all of us. I know then what I never understood before, that she is ashamed to be one of us. I didn’t really understand why until later, until I was older.
The swallow sits perched on a rafter high above the coffin. It lifts off and swoops up and down the aisle until at last it finds the open door and is gone. And I know that Father is happy now in his next life. Big Joe laughs out loud and Mother takes his hand in hers. Charlie catches my eye. At that moment all four of us are thinking the very same thing.
The Colonel gets up into the pulpit to speak, his hand clutching the lapel of his jacket. He declares that James Peaceful was a good man, one of the best workers he has ever known, the salt of the earth, always cheerful as he went about his work, that the Peaceful family had been employed in one capacity or another, by his family, for five generations. In all his thirty years as a forester on the estate James Peaceful had never once been late for work and was a credit to his family and his village. All the while as the Colonel drones on I’m thinking of the rude things Father used to say about him — “silly old fart", “mad old duffer” and much worse — and how Mother had always told us that he might well be a “silly old fart” or “mad old duffer", but how it was the Colonel who paid Father’s wages and owned the roof over our heads, how we children should show respect when we met him, smile and touch our forelocks, and we should look as if we meant it too, if we knew what was good for us.
Afterwards we all gather round the grave and Father’s lowered down, and the vicar won’t stop talking. I want Father to hear the birds for the last time before the earth closes in on top of him and he has nothing left but silence. Father loves larks, loves watching them rising, rising so high you can only see their song. I look up hoping for a lark, and there is a blackbird singing from the yew tree. A blackbird will have to do … I hear Mother whispering to Big Joe that Father is not really in his coffin any more, but in heaven up there — she’s pointing up into the sky beyond the church tower — and that he’s happy, happy as the birds.
The earth thuds and thumps down on the coffin behind us as we drift away, leaving him. We walk home together along the deep lanes. Big Joe plucking at the foxgloves and the honeysuckle, filling Mother’s hands with flowers, and none of us has any tears to cry or words to say. Me least of all. For I have inside me a secret so horrible, a secret I can never tell anyone, not even Charlie. Father needn’t have died that morning in Ford’s Cleave Wood. He was trying to save me. If only I had tried to save myself, if I had run, he would not now be lying dead in his coffin. As Mother smooths my hair and Big Joe offers her yet another foxglove, all I can think is that I have caused this.
I have killed my own father.
I don’t want to eat. Stew, potatoes and biscuits. I usually like stew, but I’ve no appetite for it. I nibble at a biscuit, but I don’t want that either. Not now. It’s a good thing Grandma Wolf is not here. She always hated us leaving food on our plates. “Waste not, want not,” she’d say. I’m wasting this, Wolfwoman, whether you like it or not.
Big Joe ate more than all the rest of us put together. Everything was his favourite — bread and butter pudding with raisins, potato pie, cheese and pickle, stew and dumplings — whatever Mother cooked, he’d stuff it in and scoff it down. Anything Charlie and I didn’t like we’d shuffle on to his plate when Mother wasn’t looking. Big Joe always loved the conspiracy of that, and he loved the extra rood too. There was nothing he wouldn’t eat. When we were little, before we knew better, Charlie once bet me an owl’s skull I’d found that Big Joe would even eat rabbit droppings. I couldn’t believe he would, because I thought Big Joe must know what they were. So I took the bet. Charlie put a handful of them in a paper bag and told him they were sweets. Big Joe took them out of the bag and popped them into his mouth, savouring every one of them. And when we laughed, he laughed too and offered us one each. But Charlie said they were especially for him, a present. I thought Big Joe might get ill after that, but he never did.
Mother told us when we were older that Big Joe had nearly died just a few days after he was born. Meningitis, they told her at the hospital. The doctor said Joe had brain damage, that he’d be no use to anyone, even if he lived. But Big Joe did live, and he did get better, though never completely. As we were growing up, all we knew was that he was different. It didn’t matter to us that he couldn’t speak very well, that he couldn’t read or write at all, that he didn’t think like we did, like other people did. To us he was just Big Joe. He did frighten us sometimes. He seemed to drift off to live in a dream world of his own, often a world of nightmares I thought because he could become very agitated and upset. But sooner or later he always came back to us and would be himself again, the Big Joe we all knew, the Big Joe who loved everything and everyone, especially animals and birds and flowers, totally trusting, always forgiving — even when he found out that his sweets were rabbit droppings.
Charlie and I got into real trouble over that. Big Joe would never have found out, not by himself. But, always generous, he went and offered one of the rabbit droppings to Mother. She was so angry with us I thought she’d burst. She put a finger in Big Joe’s mouth, scooped out what was still in there and made him wash it out. Then she made Charlie and me eat one rabbit dropping each so that we’d know what it was like.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” she said. “Horrible food for horrible children. Don’t you treat Big Joe like that ever again.”
We felt very ashamed of ourselves — for a while anyway. Ever since then someone has only had to mention rabbits, for Charlie and me to smile at one another and remember. It’s making me smile again now, even just drinking of it. It shouldn’t, but it does.
In a way our lives at home always revolved around Big Joe. How we thought about people depended largely on how they behaved with our big brother. It was quite simple really: if people didn’t like him or were offhand or treated him as if he was stupid, then we didn’t like them. Most people around us were used to him, but some would look the other way, or worse still, just pretend he wasn’t there. We hated that more than anything. Big Joe never seemed to mind, but we did on his behalf — like the day we blew raspberries at the Colonel.
No one at home ever spoke well of the Colonel, except Grandma Wolf of course. Whenever she came for her visits she wouldn’t hear a word against him. She and Father would have dreadful rows about him. We grew up thinking of him mostly as just a “silly old fart". But the first time I saw for myself what the Colonel was really like, was because of Big Joe.
One evening Charlie and Big Joe and I were coming back home up the lane. We’d been fishing for brown trout in the brook. Big Joe had caught three, tickled them to sleep in the shallows and then scooped them out on to the bank before they knew what had happened. He was clever like that. It was almost as if he knew what the fish were thinking. He never liked killing them though, and nor did I. Charlie had to do that.
Big Joe always said hello, loudly, to everyone. It’s how he was. So when the Colonel rode by that evening, Big Joe called out hello, and proudly held up his trout to show him. The Colonel trotted by as if he hadn’t even seen us. When he’d passed Charlie blew a noisy raspberry after him, and Big Joe did the same because he liked rude noises. But the trouble was that Big Joe was enjoying himself so much blowing raspberries that he didn’t stop. The Colonel reined in his horse and gave us a very nasty look. For a moment I thought he was going to come after us. Luckily he didn’t, but he did crack his whip. “I’ll teach you, you young ruffians!” he roared. “I’ll teach you!”
I’ve always thought that was the moment the Colonel began to hate us, that from then on he was always determined one way or another to get his own back. We ran for it all the way home. Whenever anyone farts or blows raspberries I always think of that meeting in the lane, of how Big Joe always laughs at rude noises, laughs like he’ll never stop. I think too of the menacing look in the Colonel’s eye and the crack of his whip, and how Big Joe blowing raspberries at him that evening may well have changed our lives for ever.
It was Big Joe, too, who got me into my first fight. There was a lot of fighting at school, but I was never much good at it and always seemed to end up getting a swollen lip or a bleeding ear. I learned soon enough that if you don’t want to get hurt you keep your head down and you don’t answer back, particularly if the other fellow is bigger. But one day I discovered that sometimes you’ve got to stand up for yourself and fight for what’s right, even when you don’t want to.
It was at playtime. Big Joe came up to school to see Charlie and me. He just stood and watched us from outside the school gate. He did that often when Charlie and I first went off to school together — I think he was finding it lonely at home without us. I ran over to him. He was breathless, bright-eyed with excitement. He had something to show me. He opened his cupped hands just enough for me to be able to see. There was a slowworm curled up inside. I knew where he’d got it from — the churchyard, his favourite hunting ground. Whenever we went up to put flowers on Father’s grave, Big Joe would go off on his own, hunting for more creatures to add to his collection; that’s when he wasn’t just standing there gazing up at the tower and singing Oranges and Lemons at the top of his voice and watching the swifts screaming around the church tower. Nothing seemed to make him happier than that.
I knew Big Joe would put his slowworm in with all his other creatures. He kept them in boxes at the back of the woodshed at home — lizards, hedgehogs, all sorts. I stroked his slowworm with my finger, and said it was lovely, which it was. Then he wandered off, walking down the lane humming his Oranges and Lemons as he went, gazing down in wonder at his beloved slowworm.
I am watching him go when someone taps me hard on my shoulder, hard enough to hurt. It is big Jimmy Parsons. Charlie has often warned me about him, told me to keep out of his way. “Who’s got a loony for a brother?” says Jimmy Parsons, sneering at me.
I cannot believe what he’s said, not at first. “What did you say?”
“Your brother’s a loony, off his head, off his rocker, nuts, barmy.”
I go for him then, fists flailing, screaming at him, but I don’t manage to land a single punch. He hits me full in the face and sends me sprawling. I find myself suddenly sitting on the ground, wiping my bleeding nose and looking at the blood on the back of my hand. Then he puts the boot in, hard. I curl up in a ball like a hedgehog to protect myself, but it doesn’t seem to do me much good. He just goes on kicking me on my back, on my legs, anywhere he can. When he finally stops I wonder why.
I look up to see Charlie grabbing him round the neck and pulling him to the ground. They’re rolling over and over, punching each other and swearing. The whole school has gathered round to watch now, egging them on. That’s when Mr Munnings comes running out of the school, roaring like a raging bull. He pulls them apart, takes them by their collars and drags them off inside the school. Luckily for me Mr Munnings never even notices me sitting there, bleeding. Charlie gets the cane, and so does Jimmy Parsons — six strokes each. So Charlie saves me twice that day. The rest of us stand there in the school yard in silence, listening to the strokes and counting them. Big Jimmy Parsons gets it first, and he keeps crying out: “Ow, sir! Ow, sir! Ow, sir!” But when it’s Charlie’s turn, all we hear are the whacks, and then the silences in between. I am so proud of him for that. I have the bravest brother in the world.
Molly comes over and, taking me by the hand, leads me towards the pump. She soaks her handkerchief under it and dabs my nose and my hands and my knee — the blood seems to be everywhere. The water is wonderfully cold and soothing, and her hands are soft. She doesn’t say anything for a while. She’s dabbing me very gently, very carefully so as not to hurt me. Then all of a sudden she says: “I like Big Joe. He’s kind. I like people who are kind.”
Molly likes Big Joe. Now I know for sure that I will love her till the day I die.
After a while Charlie came out into the school yard hitching up his trousers and grinning in the sunshine. Everyone was crowding around him.
“Did it hurt, Charlie?”
“Was it on the back of the knees, Charlie, or on your bum?”
Charlie never said a word to them. He just walked right through everyone, and came straight over to me and Molly. “He won’t do it again, Tommo,” he said. “I hit him where it hurts, in the goolies.” He lifted my chin and peered at my nose. “Are you all right, Tommo?”
“Hurts a bit,” I told him.
“So does my bum,” said Charlie.
Molly laughed then, and so did I. So did Charlie, and so did the whole school.
From that moment on Molly became one of us. It was as if she had suddenly joined our family and become our sister. When Molly came home with us that afternoon Big Joe gave her some flowers he’d picked, and Mother treated her like the daughter she’d never had. After that, Molly came home with us almost every afternoon. She seemed to want to be with us all the time. We didn’t discover the reason for this until a lot later. I remember Mother used to brush Molly’s hair. She loved doing it and we loved watching.
Mother. I think of her so often. And when I think of her I think of high hedges and deep lanes and our walks down to the river together in the evenings. I think of meadowsweet and honeysuckle and vetch and foxgloves and red campion and dog roses. There wasn’t a wild flower or a butterfly she couldn’t name. I loved the sound of their names when she spoke them: red admiral, peacock, cabbage white, adonis blue. It’s her voice I’m hearing in my head now. I don’t know why, but I can hear her better than I can picture her. I suppose it was because of Big Joe that she was always talking, always explaining the world about us. She was his guide, his interpreter, his teacher.
They wouldn’t have Big Joe at school. Mr Munnings said he was backward. He wasn’t backward at all. He was different, “special” Mother used to call him, but he was not backward. He needed help, that’s all, and Mother was his help. It was as if Big Joe was blind in some way. He could see perfectly well, but very often he didn’t seem to understand what he was seeing. And he wanted to understand so badly. So Mother would be forever telling him how and why things were as they were. And she would sing to him often, too, because it always made him happy and soothed him whenever he had one of his turns and became anxious or troubled. She’d sing to Charlie and me as well, more out of habit, I think. But we loved it, loved the sound of her voice. Her voice was the music of our childhood.
After Father died the music stopped. There was a stillness and a quietness in Mother now, and a sadness about the house. I had my terrible secret, a secret I could scarcely ever put out of my mind. So in my guilt I kept more and more to myself. Even Big Joe hardly ever laughed. At meals the kitchen seemed especially empty without Father, without his bulk and his voice filling the room. His dirty work coat didn’t hang in the porch any more, and the smell of his pipe lingered only faintly now. He was gone and we were all quietly mourning him in our way.
Mother still talked to Big Joe, but not as much as before. She had to talk to him, because she was the only one who truly understood the meaning of all the grunts and squawks Big Joe used for language. Charlie and I understood some of it, some of the time, but she seemed to understand all he wanted to say, sometimes even before he said it. There was a shadow hanging over her, Charlie and I could see that, and not only the shadow of Father’s death. We were sure there was something else she wouldn’t talk about, something she was hiding from us. We found out what it was only too soon.
We were back home after school having our tea — Molly was there too — when there was a knock on the door. Mother seemed at once to know who it was. She took time to gather herself, smoothing down her apron and arranging her hair before she opened the door. It was the Colonel. “I wanted a word, Mrs Peaceful,” he said. “I think you know what I’ve come for.”
Mother told us to finish our tea, closed the door and went out into the garden with him. Charlie and I left Molly and Big Joe at the table and dashed out of the back door. We hurdled the vegetables, ran along the hedge, crouched down behind the woodshed and listened. We were close enough to hear every word that was said.
“It may seem a little indelicate to broach the subject so soon after your late husband’s sad and untimely death,” the Colonel was saying. He wasn’t looking at Mother as he spoke, but down at his top hat which he was smoothing with his sleeve. “But it’s a question of the cottage. Strictly speaking, of course, Mrs Peaceful, you have no right to live here any more. You know well enough I think that this is a tied cottage, tied to your late husband’s job on the estate. Now of course with him gone …”
“I know what you’re saying. Colonel,” Mother said. “You want us out.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. It’s not that I want you out, Mrs Peaceful, not if we can come to some other arrangement.”
“Arrangement? What arrangement?” Mother asked.
“Well,” the Colonel went on, “as it happens there’s a position up at the house that might suit you. My wife’s lady’s maid has just given notice. As you know my wife is not a well woman. These days she spends most of her life in a wheelchair. She needs constant care and attention seven days a week.”
“But I have my children,” Mother protested. “Who would look after my children?”
It was a while before the Colonel spoke. “The two boys are old enough now to fend for themselves, I should have thought. And as for the other one, there is the lunatic asylum in Exeter. I‘m sure I could see to it that a place be found for—”
Mother interrupted, her fury only barely suppressed, her voice cold but still calm. “I could never do that, Colonel. Never. But if I want to keep a roof over our heads, then I have to find some way I can come to work for you as your wife’s maid. That is what you’re telling me, isn’t it.”
“I‘d say you understand the position perfectly, Mrs Peaceful. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I shall need your agreement within the week. Good day Mrs Peaceful. And once again my condolences.”
We watched him go, leaving Mother standing there. I had never in my life seen her cry before, but she cried now. She fell on her knees in the long grass holding her face in her hands. That was when Big Joe and Molly came out of the cottage. When Big Joe saw Mother he ran and knelt down beside her, hugging and rocking her gently in his arms, singing Oranges and Lemons until she began to smile through her tears and join in. Then we were all singing together, and loudly in our defiance so that the Colonel could not help but hear us.
Later, after Molly had gone home, Charlie and I sat in silence in the orchard. I almost told him my secret then. I wanted to so badly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought he might never speak to me again if I did. The moment passed. “I hate that man,” said Charlie under his breath. “I’ll do him, Tommo. One day I’ll really do him.”
Of course Mother had no choice. She had to take the job, and we only had one relative to turn to for help, Grandma Wolf. She moved in the next week to look after us. She wasn’t our grandmother at all, not really — both our grandmothers were dead. She was Mother’s aunt, but always insisted we called her “Grandma” because she thought Great Aunt made her sound old and crotchety, which she always was. We hadn’t liked her before she moved in — as much on account of her moustache as anything else — and we liked her even less now that she had. We all knew her story; how she’d worked up at the Big House for the Colonel for years as housekeeper, and how, for some reason, the Colonel’s wife couldn’t stand her. They’d had a big falling out, and in the end she’d had to leave and go to live in the village. That was why she was free to come and look after us.
But between ourselves Charlie and I had never called her either Great Aunt or Grandma. We had our own name for her. When we were younger Mother had often read us Little Red Riding Hood. There was a picture in it Charlie and I knew well, of the wolf in bed pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma. She had a black bonnet on her head, like our “Grandma” always used to wear, and she had big teeth with gaps in between, just like our “Grandma” too. So ever since I could remember we had called her “Grandma Wolf”— never to her face, of course. Mother said it wasn’t respectful, but secretly I think she always quite liked it.
Soon it wasn’t only because of the book that we thought of her as Grandma Wolf. She very quickly showed us who was in charge now that Mother was not there. Everything had to be just so: hands washed, hair done, no talking with your mouth full, no leaving anything on your plate. Waste not, want not, she’d say. That wasn’t so bad. We got used to it. But what we could not forgive was that she was nasty to Big Joe. She talked to him, and about him, as if he were stupid or mad. She’d treat him as if he were a baby. She was forever wiping his mouth for him, or telling him not to sing at the table. When Molly protested once, she smacked her and sent her home. She smacked Big Joe too, whenever he didn’t do what she said, which was often. He would start to rock then and talk to himself, which is what he always did whenever he was upset. But new Mother wasn’t there to sing to him, to calm him. Molly talked to him, and we tried too, but it was not the same.
From the day Grandma Wolf moved in, our whole world changed. Mother would go to work up at the Big House at dawn, before we went off to school, and she still wouldn’t be back when we got home for our tea. Instead Grandma Wolf would be there, at the door of what seemed to us now to be her lair. And Big Joe, who she wouldn’t allow to go off on his wanders as he’d always loved to do, would come rushing up to us as if he hadn’t seen us in weeks. He’d do the same to Mother when she came home, but she was often so exhausted she could hardly talk to him. She could see what was going on but was powerless to do anything about it. It seemed to all of us as if we were losing her, as if she was being replaced and pushed aside.
It was Grandma Wolf who did all the talking now, even telling Mother what to do in her own house. She was forever saying how Mother hadn’t brought us up properly, that our manners were terrible, that we didn’t know right from wrong — and that Mother had married beneath her. “I told her then and I’ve told her since,” she ranted on, “she could have done far better for herself. But did she listen? Oh no. She had to marry the first man to turn her head, and him nothing but a forester. She was meant for better things, a better class of person. We were shopkeepers — we ran a proper shop, I can tell you — made a tidy profit, too. In a big way of business, I’ll have you know. But oh no, she wouldn’t have it. Broke your grandfather’s heart, she did. And now look what she’s come to: a lady’s maid, at her age. Trouble. Your mother’s always been nothing but trouble from the day she was born.”
We longed for Mother to stand up to her, but each time she just gave in meekly, too worn out to do anything else. To Charlie and me she seemed almost to have become a different person. There was no laughter in her voice, no light in her eyes. And all along I knew full well whose fault it was that this had all happened, that Father was dead, that Mother had to go to work up at the Big House, and that Grandma Wolf had moved in and taken her place.
At night we could sometimes hear Grandma Wolf snoring in bed, and Charlie and I would make up this story about the Colonel and Grandma Wolf; how one day we’d go up to the Big House and push the Colonel’s wife into the lake and drown her, and then Mother could come home and be with us and Big Joe and Molly, and everything could be like it had been before. Then the Colonel and Grandma Wolf could marry one another and live unhappily ever after, and because they were so old they could have lots of little monster children born already old and wrinkly with gappy teeth: the girls with moustaches like Grandma Wolf, the boys with whiskers like the Colonel.
I remember I used to have nightmares filled with those monster children, but whatever my nightmare it would always end the same way. I would be out in the woods with Father and the tree would be falling, and I’d wake up screaming. Then Charlie would be there beside me, and everything would be all right again. Charlie always made things all right again.
There’s a mouse in here with me. He’s sitting there in the light of the lamp, looking up at me. He seems as surprised to see me as I am to see him. There he goes. I can hear him still, scurrying about somewhere under the hayrack. I think he’s gone now. I hope he comes back. I miss him already.
Grandma Wolf hated mice. She had a deep fear of them that she could not hide. So Charlie and I had lots to smile about in the autumn when the rain and the cold came and the mice decided it was warmer inside and came to live with us in the cottage. Big Joe loved the mice — he’d even put out food for them. Grandma Wolf would shout at him for that and smack him. But Big Joe could never understand why he was being smacked, so he went on feeding the mice just as he had before. Grandma Wolf put traps down, but Charlie and I would find them and spring them. All that autumn she only ever managed to catch one.
That mouse had the best funeral any mouse ever had. Big Joe was chief mourner and he cried enough for all of us. Molly, Charlie and I dug the grave, and when we’d laid him to rest Molly piled the grave high with flowers and sang What a friend we have in Jesus. We did all this at the bottom of the orchard hidden behind the apple trees where Grandma Wolf could not see or hear us. Afterwards we sat in a circle round the grave and had a funeral feast of blackberries. Big Joe stopped crying to eat the blackberries, and then with blackened mouths we all sang Oranges and Lemons over the mouse’s grave.
Grandma Wolf tried everything to get rid of the mice. She put poison down under the sink in the larder. We swept it up. She asked Bob James, the wart charmer from the village with the crooked nose, to come and charm the mice away. He tried, but it didn’t work. So in the end, in desperation, she had to resort to chasing them out of the house with a broom. But they just kept coming back in again. All this made her nastier than ever towards us. But for Charlie and me, just to see her frightened silly and screeching like a witch was worth every smack she gave us.
In bed at night our Grandma Wolf story was changing every time we told it. Now the Colonel and Grandma Wolf didn’t have human children at all. Instead she gave birth to giant mice-children, all of them with great long tails and twitchy whiskers. But after what she did next, we decided that even that horrible fate was too good for her.
Although Grandma Wolf did smack Molly from time to time, it soon became obvious that she liked her a great deal better than the rest of us. There were good reasons for this. Girls were nice, Grandma Wolf would often tell us, not coarse and vulgar like boys. Besides she was good friends with Molly’s mother and father. They lived as we did in a cottage on the Colonel’s estate — Molly’s father was groom up at the Big House. They were proper people. Grandma Wolf told us; good, God-fearing people who had brought their child up well — which meant strictly. And from what Molly told us, they were strict too. She was forever being sent to her room, or strapped by her father for the least little thing. She was an only child of older parents and, as Molly often said, they wanted her to be perfect. Anyway, it was a good thing for us that Grandma approved of her family, otherwise I’m sure she would have forbidden Molly to come and see us. As it was, Grandma Wolf said Molly was a good influence, that she could teach us some manners, and make us a little less coarse and vulgar. So, thank goodness, Molly kept coming home with us for tea every day after school.
Not long after the mouse’s funeral, it was Big Joe’s birthday. Charlie and I had got him some humbugs from Mrs Bright’s shop in the village — which he always loved — and Molly brought him a present in a little brown box with air holes in it and elastic bands round it. While we were in school she kept it hidden in the shrubs at the bottom of the school yard. It was only because we pestered her that she showed us what it was as we were walking home. It was a harvest mouse, the sweetest little mouse I ever saw, with oversized ears and bewildered eyes. She stroked him with the back of her finger and he sat up for her in the box and twitched his whiskers at us. She gave him to Big Joe after tea, down in the orchard out of sight of the cottage, well hidden from Grandma Wolf’s ever watchful gaze. Big Joe hugged Molly as if he’d never let her go. He kept the birthday mouse in his own box and hid him away in a drawer in his bedroom cupboard — he said it would be too cold for him outside in the woodshed with all his other creatures. The mouse became his instant favourite. All of us tried to make Big Joe understand that he mustn’t ever tell Grandma Wolf, that if she ever knew, she’d take his mouse away and kill it.
I don’t know how she found out, but when we came home from school a few days later Big Joe was sitting on the floor of his room, sobbing his heart out, his drawer empty beside him. Grandma Wolf came storming in saying she wasn’t going to have any nasty dirty animals in her house. Worse still, so that he’d never bring any of his other animals into the house, she’d got rid of them all: the slowworm, the two lizards, the hedgehog. Big Joe’s family of animals were gone, and he was heartbroken. Molly screamed at her that she was a cruel, cruel woman and that she’d go to Hell when she was dead, and then ran off home in tears.
That night Charlie and I made up a story about how we’d put rat poison in Grandma Wolfs tea the next day and kill her. We did get rid of her in the end too, but thankfully without the use of rat poison. Instead, a miracle happened, a wonderful miracle.
First, the Colonels wife died in her wheelchair, so we didn’t have to push her into the lake after all. She choked on a scone at teatime, and despite everything Mother did to try to save her, she just stopped breathing. There was a big funeral which we all had to go to. She had a shining coffin with silver handles, piled high with flowers. The vicar said how loved she was in the parish, and how she’d devoted her life to caring for everyone on the estate — all of which was news to us.
Afterwards they opened up the church floor and lowered her into the family vault while we all sang Abide with me. And I was thinking that I’d rather be in Father’s simple coffin and buried outside where the sun shines and the wind blows, not down in some gloomy hole with a crowd of dead relatives. Mother had to take Big Joe out in the middle of the hymn because he started singing Oranges and Lemons again very loudly and would not stop. Grandma Wolf bared her teeth at us — as wolves do — and furrowed her brow in disapproval. We didn’t know it then, but very soon she would disappear almost totally from our lives, taking all her anger, all her threats and disapproval with her.
So suddenly, joy of joys, Mother was back home with us again, and we hoped it was only a question of time before Grandma Wolf moved back up to the village. There was no job for Mother any more up at the Big House, no lady to be a maid to. She was home, and day by day she was becoming her old self again. There were wonderful blazing arguments between her and Grandma Wolf, mostly about how Grandma Wolf treated Big Joe. Mother said that now she was home she wouldn’t stand for it any more. We listened to every word, and loved every moment of it. But there was one big shadow over all this new joy. We could see that with Mother out of work and no money coming in, things were becoming desperate. There was no money in the mug on the mantelpiece, and every day there was less food on the table. For a while we had little to eat but potatoes, and we all knew perfectly well that sooner or later the Colonel would put us out of the cottage. We were just waiting for the knock on the door. Meanwhile we were becoming very hungry.
It was Charlie’s idea to go poaching: salmon, sea trout, rabbits, even deer if we were lucky, he said. Father had done a bit of poaching, so Charlie knew what to do. Molly and I would be on lookout. He could do the trapping or the fishing. So, at dusk, or dawn, whenever we could get away together, we went off poaching on the Colonel’s land: in the Colonel’s forests or in the Colonel’s river where there were plenty of sea trout and plenty of salmon. We couldn’t take Big Joe because he could start his singing at any time and give us away. Besides he’d tell Mother. He told Mother everything.
We did well. We brought back lots of rabbits, a few trout and, once, a fourteen-pound salmon. So now we had something to eat with our potatoes. We didn’t tell Mother we’d been on the Colonel’s land. She wouldn’t have approved of that sort of thing at all, and we definitely didn’t want Grandma Wolf knowing because she’d certainly have gone and reported us to the Colonel at once. “My friend, the Colonel,” she called him. She was always full of his praises, so we knew we had to be careful. We said we’d caught our rabbits in the orchard and the fish from the village brook. The trout you could catch there were only small, but they didn’t know that. Charlie told them that the salmon must have come up the brook to spawn, which they did do of course. Charlie always lied well, and they believed him. Thank God.
Molly and I would keep watch while Charlie set the traps or put out his nets. Lambert, the Colonel’s bailiff, may have been old, but he was clever, and we knew he’d let his dog loose on us if he ever caught us at it. Late one evening, sitting by the bridge with Charlie busy at his nets downstream, Molly took my hand in hers and held it tight. “I don’t like the dark,” she whispered. I had never been so happy.
When the Colonel turned up at the house the next day, we thought it must be either because we’d been found out somehow or because he was going to evict us. It was neither. Grandma Wolf seemed to be expecting him, and that was strange. She went to the door and invited him in. He nodded at Mother and then frowned at us. Grandma Wolf waved us outside as she asked the Colonel to sit down. We tried eavesdropping but Big Joe was no good at keeping quiet, so we had to wait until later to hear the worst. As it turned out, the worst was not the worst at all, but the best.
After the Colonel had gone, Grandma Wolf called us in. I could see she was puffed up with self-importance, aglow with it. “Your mother will explain,” she declared grandly, putting on her bonnet. “I have to get up to the Big House right away I’ve work to do.”
Mother waited until she’d gone and could not help smiling as she told us, “Well,” she began, “you know some time ago your great aunt used to work as housekeeper up at the Big House?”
“And then she got kicked out by the Colonel’s wife,” said Charlie.
“She lost her job, yes,” Mother went on. “Well, now the Colonel’s wife has passed away it seems the Colonel wants her back as live-in housekeeper. She’ll be moving up to the Big House as soon as possible.”
I didn’t cheer, but I certainly felt like it.
“What about the cottage?” Charlie asked. “Is the old duffer putting us out then?”
“No, dear. We’re staying put,” Mother replied. “He said his wife had liked me and made him promise to look after me if ever anything happened to her. So he’s keeping that promise. Say what you like about the Colonel, he’s a man of his word. I’ve agreed I’ll do all his linen for him and his sewing work. Most of it I can bring home. So we’ll have some money coming in. We’ll manage. Well, are you happy? We’re staying put!”
Then we did cheer and Big Joe cheered too, louder than any of us. So we stayed on in our cottage and Grandma Wolf moved out. We were liberated, and all was right with the world again. For a while at least.
Both of them being older than me, Molly by two years, Charlie by three, they always ran faster than I did. I seem to have spent much of my life watching them racing ahead of me, leaping the high meadow grass, Molly’s plaits whirling about her head, their laughter mingling. When they got too far ahead I sometimes felt they wanted to be without me. I would whine at them then to let them know I was feeling all miserable and abandoned, and they’d wait for me to catch up. Best of all Molly would sometimes come running back and take my hand.
When we weren’t poaching the Colonel’s fish or scrumping his apples — more than anything we all loved the danger of it, I think — we would be roaming wild in the countryside. Molly could shin up a tree like a cat, faster than either of us. Sometimes we’d go down to the river bank and watch the kingfishers flash by, or we’d go swimming in Okement Pool hung all around by willows, where the water was dark and deep and mysterious, and where no one ever came.
I remember the day Molly dared Charlie to take off all his clothes, and to my amazement he did. Then she did, and they ran shrieking and bare-bottomed into the water. When they called me in after them, I wouldn’t do it, not in front of Molly. So I sat and sulked on the bank and watched them splashing and giggling, and all the while I was wishing I had the courage to do what Charlie had done, wishing I was with them. Molly got dressed afterwards behind a bush and told us not to watch. But we did. That was the first time I ever saw a girl with no clothes on. She was very thin and white, and she wrung her plaits out like a wet cloth.
It was several days before they managed to entice me in. Molly stood waist-deep in the river and put her hands over her eyes. “Come on, Tommo,” she cried. “I won’t watch. Promise.” And not wanting to be left out yet again, I stripped off and made a dash for the river, covering myself as I went just in case Molly was watching through her fingers. After I’d done it that first time, it never seemed to bother me again.
Sometimes when we tired of all the frolicking we’d lie and talk in the shallows, letting the river ripple over us. How we talked. Molly told us once that she wanted to die right there and then, that she never wanted tomorrow to come because no tomorrow could ever be as good as today. “I know,” she said, and she sat up in the river then and collected a handful of small pebbles. “I’m going to tell our future. I’ve seen the gypsies do it.” She shook the pebbles around in her cupped hands, closed her eyes and then scattered them out on to the muddy shore. Kneeling over them she spoke very seriously and slowly as if she were reading them. “They say we’ll always be together, the three of us, for ever and ever. They say that as long as we stick together we’ll be lucky and happy.” Then she smiled at us. “And the stones never lie,” she said. “So you’re stuck with me.”
For a year or two Molly’s stones proved right. But then Molly got ill. She wasn’t at school one day. It was the scarlet fever, Mr Munnings told us, and very serious. Charlie and I went up to her cottage that evening after tea with some sweetpeas Mother had picked for her — because they smell sweeter than any flower she knew, she said. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed in to see her because scarlet fever was very catching, but Molly’s mother did not look at all pleased to see us. She always looked grey and grim, but that day she was angry as well. She took the flowers with scarcely a glance at them, and told us it would be better if we didn’t come again. Then Molly’s father appeared from behind her, looking gruff and unkempt, and told us to be off, that we were disturbing Molly’s sleep. As I walked away, all I could think of was how unhappy Molly must be living in that dingy little cottage with a mother and father like that, and how trees fall on the wrong fathers. We stopped at the end of the path and looked up at Molly’s window, hoping she would come and wave at us. When she didn’t we knew she must be really ill.
Charlie and I never said our prayers at all any more, not since Sunday school, but we did now. Kneeling side by side with Big Joe we prayed each night that Molly would not die. Joe sang Oranges and Lemons and we said Amen afterwards. We had our fingers crossed too, just for good measure.
I‘m not sure I ever really believed in God, even in Sunday school. In church I’d gaze up at Jesus hanging on the cross in the stained-glass window, and feel sorry for him because I could see how cruel it was and how much it must be hurting him. I knew he was a good and kind man. But I never really understood why God, who was supposed to be his father, and almighty and powerful, would let them do that to him, would let him suffer so much. I believed then, as I believe now, that crossed fingers and Molly’s stones are every bit as reliable or unreliable as praying to God. I shouldn’t think like that because if there’s no God, then there can be no heaven. Tonight I want very much to believe there’s a heaven, that, as Father said, there is a new life after death, that death is not a full stop, and that we will all see one another again.
It was while Molly was ill in bed with the scarlet fever that Charlie and I discovered that although in one way Molly’s stones had let us down, in another way they had indeed spoken the truth: with her, with the three of us together, we were lucky, and without her we weren’t. Up until now, whenever the three of us had gone out together poaching the Colonel’s fish, we had never been caught. We’d had a few close shaves with old Lambert and his dog, but our lookout system had always worked. Somehow we’d always heard them coming and managed to make ourselves scarce. But the very first time Charlie and I went out poaching without Molly, things went wrong, badly wrong, and it was my fault.
We had chosen a perfect poaching night, not a breath of wind so we could hear anyone coming. With Molly beside me on lookout I’d never felt sleepy, and we’d always heard old Lambert and his dog in plenty of time for Charlie to get out of the river, for us all to make good our escape. But on this particular night my concentration failed me. I’d made myself comfortable, probably too comfortable, in our usual place by the bridge with Charlie netting downstream. But after sitting there for a while I just fell asleep. I don’t drop off all that easily, but when I do sleep I sleep deeply.
The first I knew of anything was a dog snuffling at my neck. Then he was barking in my face, and old Lambert was dragging me to my feet. And there was Charlie way out in the middle of the moonlit river hauling at the nets.
“Peaceful boys! You young rascals,” Lambert growled. “Caught you red-handed. You’re for it now, make no mistake.”
Charlie could have left me there. He could have made a run for it and got clean away, but Charlie’s not like that. He never has been.
At the point of a shotgun Lambert marched us back along the river and up to the Big House, his dog snarling at our heels from time to time just to remind us he was still there, and that he’d eat us alive if we made a run for it. Lambert locked us in the stables and left us. We waited in the darkness, the horses shifting and munching and snorting around us. All too soon we saw the approaching light of a lamp, and heard footsteps and voices. Then the Colonel was there in his slippers and his dressing gown, and he had Grandma Wolf with him in her nightcap looking every bit as fierce as Lamberts dog.
The Colonel looked from one to the other of us, shaking his head in disgust. But Grandma Wolf had the first word. “I’ve never in all my life been so ashamed,” she said. “My own family. You’re nothing but a downright disgrace. And after all the Colonel’s done for us. Common thieves, that’s what you are. Nothing but common thieves.”
When she’d finished it was the Colonel’s turn. “Only one way to deal with young ruffians like you,” he said. “I could have you up before the magistrate, but since I’m the magistrate anyway there’s no need to go to all that trouble, is there? I’ll sentence you right now. You will come up here tomorrow morning at ten o’clock sharp, and I’ll give each of you the hiding you so richly deserve. Then you can stay and clean out the hunt kennels till I say you can go. That should teach you not to come poaching on my land.”
When we got home we had to tell Mother everything we’d done, everything the Colonel had said. Charlie did most of the talking. Mother sat listening in silence, her face stony. When she spoke, she spoke in little more than a whisper. “I can tell you one thing,” she said. “There’ll be no hiding. Over my dead body.” Then she looked up at us, her eyes full of tears. “Why? You said you’d been fishing in the brook. You told me. Oh Charlie, Tommo.” Big Joe stroked her hair. He was anxious and bewildered. She patted his arm. “It’s all right, Joe. I’ll go up there with them tomorrow. Cleaning out the kennels I don’t mind — you deserve that. But it stops there. I won’t let that man lay a finger on you, not one finger, no matter what.”
Mother was as good as her word. How she did it and what was said we never knew, but the next day after Mother and the Colonel had had a meeting in his study, she made us stand in front of him and apologise. Then after a long lecture about trespassing on private property, the Colonel said that he’d changed his mind, that instead of the hiding we would be set to cleaning out the Colonel’s kennels every Saturday and Sunday until Christmas.
As it turned out we didn’t mind at all because, although the smell could be disgusting, the hounds were all around us as we worked, their tails high and waving and happy. So we often stopped work to pet them, after we’d made quite sure no one was looking. We had a particular favourite called Bertha. She was almost pure white with one brown foot and had the most beautiful eyes. She would always stand near us as we scraped and swept, gazing up at us in open adoration. Every time I looked into her eyes I thought of Molly. Like Bertha, she too had eyes the colour of heather honey.
We had to be careful, because Grandma Wolf, now more full of herself than ever, would frequently come out into the stable yard to make sure we were doing our work properly. She’d always have something nasty to say: “Serves you right,” or “That’ll teach you,” or “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” always delivered with a tut and a pained sigh. To finish there’d be some nasty quip about Mother. “Still, with a mother like that, I suppose you’re not entirely to blame, are you?”
Then Christmas Eve came and our punishment was over at last. We said fond farewells to Bertha and ran off home down the Colonel’s drive for the last time, blowing very loud raspberries as we went. Back in the cottage we found waiting for us the best Christmas present we could ever have hoped for. Molly was sitting there smiling at us as we came in through the door. She was pale, but she was back with us. We were together again. Her hair was cut shorter. The plaits were gone, and somehow that changed the whole look of her. She wasn’t a girl any more. She had a different beauty now, a beauty that at once stirred in me a new and deeper love.